THE PICNIC

One of the collections of churches I serve has to meet once a year and plan our worship services for the coming year.  We have four buildings and only one worship service a week so we have to decide which building we meet it on which Sunday.  That sounds simple–we can just have a simple rotation where each building has worship every fourth Sunday.  Unfortunately, things are not that simple.

To start with, some buildings are better for some events–only two of them can host meals or receptions.  Each building needs to have worship on some of the special event days like Easter and Christmas.  Parking in the winter can be a problem at some of the locations.  So, every year, we have to have a meeting to take into consideration all these factors plus some others and design a schedule to be approved by the church.

(By the way, the answer to the question “Why not just have one building?” is long, complicated and while some have been asking it for years, we are not likely going to get to that point for a long time.)

Anyway, during the last planning session, we tried to add some different events to add some variety.  One of the additions was an outdoor worship service with a picnic to follow.  As we talked, we even decided to invite the members of my other pastorate to join with us.  When we were planning this late last year, this looked and sounded like a great idea.

But, as things got closer and closer, well, the idea needed to be structured and organized and put together better.  The key issue was the weather, something which is notoriously hard to predict in Nova Scotia.  We needed sunny and warm but would settle for cloudy and warm–cloud and rain would be a killer.

While I have great leaders in the congregations, as pastor there were some things that only I could take care of.  My first act was to discuss rainy day backup plans–if it was raining, the deacons and church moderator would make a final go/no go decision since I would be leading worship somewhere else when the final decision had to be made.

I also decided that I needed to be prepared for any eventuality.  After some thought, I decided that I would use the same sermon no matter where we were but the other elements of worship needed some attention.  We would need different music, different orders of service and even different announcement, which necessitated different bulletins.

I like to be prepared so I eventually prepared two complete worship services and two different bulletins.  I would choose the appropriate service when the time came and I would copy the bulletin just before I left for worship (remember, we are talking small congregations here–copying the bulletin doesn’t take that long) and hope that the weather didn’t change while I was on my way.

Some might suggest that my extra work to prepare two services and two bulletins was a sign of weak faith.  They might be right–I have never claimed to have great faith.  Since we actually did have the outdoor service and the picnic along with a sprinkle of rain, I didn’t need the backup service and so wasted my time.

But for me, it wasn’t wasted time.  If I hadn’t done the extra work to have a backup ready, I would have been more anxious and would have spent even more time worrying and fussing and wondering if I should have created a backup.  Knowing myself meant that I could circumvent the anxiety stage and do the back up.  The extra time spent on that saved me a lot of strain and stress during the week and even  more on Sunday.  No matter what happened, I was ready.

I can’t anticipate every twist and turn in ministry–but I have learned that I function better when I am ready for the ones that I can anticipate. It is means that I do a bit of extra work that ends up being unused, that isn’t a real problem since I have avoided a major amount of stress.  And while stress does have some good points, finding ways to reduce unnecessary stress is always a good thing.

May the peace of God be with you.

WOUNDED HEALERS

I am a pastor and have been a teacher of pastors.  I have worked with pastors in at least four countries, taught pastors from half a dozen countries and done pastoral work myself for over 40 years.  At the beginning of my pastoral career, I came to an important realization that has been strengthened and deepened by all my experience in pastoral work.  That realization is that we pastors are not perfect.

Now, that may seem like a glaringly obvious reality to many non-pastors but it can be hard for we who are pastors to really understand and believe this reality.  Our calling puts us in a privileged and important position.  We get involved in people’s lives when things are painful, hectic, exciting or confusing.  We deal with issues and thoughts and ideas that many people shy away from.  We get asked for advice and answers on many things from the trivial (Why do Baptists use grape juice for Communion?) to the profound (How can God love someone like me?).  We are seen as being the representative of God–when we are present, people can feel like God is present.

The always present temptation is the temptation to believe that we really are what some people think we are and to forget who we really are.  When I am the person to deliver the understanding of the presence of God and his grace, it is all too tempting to believe that something divine has rubbed off on me and that I have somehow been elevated to another level–certainly, in all modesty, I keep the halo hidden but, well, we all know that it is there.

Except that it really isn’t there.  I might be God’s representative, I might presume to speak for God twice each Sunday, I might mediate between the hurting world and the graceful God–but none of the holiness of God has rubbed off on me.  Or better, no more of it has rubbed off on me that has rubbed off on others–and there may be some who have managed to attract even more.

Very early in my ministry, I ran across Henri Nouwen’s book  The Wounded Healer.  Without even reading the book, I was and continue to be struck by the insight and profound truth expressed by the title.  Reading the book just amplifies and solidifies the bedrock reality that no matter what I think I am; no matter that I wrestle with the things of God as a matter of course; no matter that I can and do bring the awareness of God to the darkness of life, I am still human and approach my calling as an imperfect person who must deal with my own imperfections while I help others deal with theirs.  All of us need the grace of God, not just the people I work with.

God calls us in our wounded state and works to heal us.  But we will remain wounded and imperfect for the whole of our existence here.  We never reach perfection because as soon as we finally deal with one wound, God shows us another one.  When we take the bandage off one healed spot, we probably manage to cut ourselves with the scissors God gave us to cut the bandage and so need healing for that new wound.

As a pastor, I long ago realized I can’t really hide my wounds from anyone but myself.  And if I can’t hide them, I needed to learn how to do my calling with them.  Sometimes, I try to do it in spite of my wounds.  But mostly, I have realized that my best work at carrying out my calling comes when I let God work through both my strengths and my weaknesses.  Sometimes, the fact that I can get beyond my bouts of depression help people and sometimes the fact that I can still minister even during a bout of depression helps even more people.  Sometimes, my wounds need healing from the people I pastor, which is also part of God’s plan for me and them.

I am a pastor, which means that in the end, I am a wounded healer.  I need help even as I offer help.  Fortunately, the presence and grace of God means that he is willing to both heal me and work through me, just as he heals and works through those I am called to shepherd.

May the grace of God be with you.

WHO IS MY PASTOR?

A couple of times in my career as pastor, I have had people ask me an interesting question.  Essentially, they want to know who is my pastor.  One person who asked the question didn’t actually have much to do with the church but knew me and knew that I was involved in some pretty difficult situations with people he knew.  Another was a church member whom I had helped through some difficulties as part of my pastoral activity.

The question is one that I have actually given a lot of thought to over the years.  Very early, I was exposed to the myth of pastoral invulnerability–the idea that since I am a pastor, I have such a strong connection with God that I don’t need a pastor.  My strong, deeply rooted faith and my powerful connection with God keep protect me and shelter me and take away the need for the kind of pastoral support I provide for others.  Mostly, pastors who believe in this myth don’t talk about it–or much of anything personal for that matter.  They just continue along, doing God’s work until they crash and burn, something that is always painful for them and the church.

I actually believed the myth–for something like 3.5 minutes.  My own growing awareness of my weaknesses and witnessing the depressingly regular crash of “strong” pastors very quickly showed me the folly of that particular myth.  And so even though I tend to be a fairly self-contained individual who has learned to handle a lot of things on my own, I am aware of my own need to outside help and welcome it.

All through my ministry, I have has people who were willing to be my pastor–of course, since I have pretty much always been a pastor myself, none of them were officially my pastor and in true church fashion, most of them never got paid for being my pastor.  But they were and are there.

Early in my ministry preparation and career, I didn’t actually recognize these pastoral presences for what they really were.  I knew there were people there who were willing to talk with me, listen to me and support me whose presence I deeply appreciated and would occasionally seek out but it never really clicked with me that they were being my pastor.  At other times, there were people whose pastoral role I recognized–our denomination actually had staff people who were to be pastors to the pastors for a time.

I also had the tremendous blessing of marrying a pastor and we have provided mutual pastoral support for each other as part of our life together.  Our relationship is about much more than being a pastor to each other but that is a factor in our relationship.

These days, our denomination no longer has a pastor to pastors because of financial realities.  And many times, my advanced age puts me in the position of being a pastor to younger pastors in the same way other more senior pastors cared for me.  But my advanced age and extended career in ministry haven’t brought me to the place where I am the living embodiment of the strong and unshakable pastor who needs nothing but the Bible and a “season of prayer” to deal with anything and everything.

I still need a pastor, just like the people I am called to shepherd.  And so I find pastors.  Often, my first choice is my wife.  But I find others as well.  I let the congregations provide pastoral care–I have told congregations for years that I struggle with depression and many within the congregation will check on me and offer care and prayer when I need it.  Contrary to many pastoral theorists, being open to the pastoral care from the congregation makes my ministry with them stronger and more effective.

I also have people I meet with at irregular intervals and over coffee or lunch, we pastor each other.  Sometimes, we both know this is a mutual pastoral care event, sometimes one or the other recognizes it for what it is and occasionally, neither of us knows that pastoral care is happening as we drink our coffee.

God has provided pastors because we all need something sometime–and we pastors are no different from anyone else.  We may not have a pastor in the same way the people we shepherd have a pastor but God does provide us with pastors and those of us who are wise enough to see our needs take advantage of God’s provision.

May the peace of God be with you.

HOW BIG IS THE CHURCH?

I have been the pastor of a lot of small congregations in my 40+ years of ministry.  I have never broken the 100 mark in regular attendance.  These days, the combined attendance at the two pastorates I serve part time rarely reaches 40, unless it is for a funeral. (I don’t know about weddings–we haven’t had any yet.)  I did once pastor a church that had over 250 members on paper but because of problems and issues, there were only about 25 in worship when I started as pastor.

Given that I am within visual range of retirement, I am pretty sure that my chances of being pastor to a large church are pretty small.  That’s okay with me–I don’t dream of being the next world-famous mega-church pastor any more (well, not much anyway).

But as I have been reading about church growth and how to deal with large increases in attendance and how to prepare for it and all sorts of stuff like that for years.  I know that there is more than just a difference in numbers when it comes to church size.  Beyond a certain point, the quality and nature of the congregation changes.  One blog I read recently suggested that once a church reaches a certain size, the pastor can’t know everyone–and everyone else can’t know everyone either.  His suggestion of nametags was an appropriate way of dealing with that problem.

But one of the nagging questions that has always bothered me when I think about this qualitative difference focuses on exactly this issue.  If I can’t know at least the names of everyone joined together with me in a congregation, are we really a church?  We can be a gathering of believers, we can have a strong theoretical commitment to God and each other but if I can’t know all of the others, are we really a church?

Christianity is a social faith, which requires that our commitment to God through Christ express itself in our relationships with other believers.  And I don’t think that is meant to be a theoretical, generalized expression.  We are called to love each other in very practical and personal ways–but if there are so many of us that I can’t even remember names, how personal can my expression of faith be in that context?

If I am to love other believers as Jesus loved us (John 13.34-35), don’t I need to know the names of my fellow believers (John 10.1-17, especially verse 3)? If I have to look at a name tag to know who I am talking to, how can I be expected to really love people as Christ loved us–without a real sense of who the person is, isn’t my love more generic than personal?

This isn’t an anti-big church rant.  I have friends who pastor large congregations and others who attend large congregations and whose faith I respect and appreciate.  But as I look at some of these larger congregations, it seems to me that they really aren’t united and unified.  Rather than being one big happy church family, they seem to be several different but slightly overlapping church families–several congregations meeting together.

And there are lots of good reasons for such groupings of churches in one congregation.  It allows for more and better programs and facilities and makes delivery of ministry more efficient and allows them to afford things that my small congregations can’t even afford to dream about.  But in the end, I wonder if it might not be better and more correct to call these large groups a gathering of churches rather than a church.

Maybe, once we lose the ability to know names and therefore the ability to really know people, we have lost something vital to the nature of the church.  Knowing someone’s name opens the door to knowing a lot more about the person and that allows us to specifically and personally show people how our common faith in God is expressed in our relationship.

And so while I really hope and pray that our small congregations will grow in numbers, I also am not really interested in the kind of growth that means I can’t know the names of the people I lead in worship.  If we ever get that big, we can start another church so that people can live their faith with people whose names they know and who know their names.

May the peace of God be with you.

POLITICAL CORRECTNESS

At a recent meeting, a friend was receiving a certificate recognizing his status.  During a break after the certificate was presented, one of the committee responsible for the presentations came over to apologize to my friend.  The certificates had been changed recently by the parent organization and instead of having a “he/she” where one could be scratched out, the certificate now said “they”.  The presenter was a bit upset at this obvious grammatical error.

Except it wasn’t a grammatical error.  Using “they” or “their” is now an acceptable way of referring to an individual.  It is a politically correct way of avoiding the issues that can lie in wait whenever gender is an issue.  Personally, the switch didn’t particularly bother me for a couple of reasons.  First, I remember when those particular certificates were printed with only “he”–and continued to be that way for several years after “she” was needed.  And, pragmatically, those of us with less interest in proper grammar have been using “they” to refer to individuals for years.

But this little incident did add more fuel to a flickering thought I have been beating around for a few years.  In general, I am comfortable with political correctness in writing and speaking.  At its root, it is simply a desire to be fair and polite and respectful, all things that fit in well with my Christian faith.  I believe that as part of my faith, I am to be accepting and respectful and fair and polite and it using political correct terms accomplishes that, I have no real problem–plus, it is much easier to write or say “they” than  it is to figure out the proper gender-based terminology.

On the other hand, where does it end?  It seems that political correctness has become as dominant a force in some circles as political incorrectness has been and is in some places.  If I prefer a gender based pronoun, that makes me the focus of some serious criticism in some circles–and some of that criticism can be driven by anger and scorn and disrespect, the very things that political correctness is supposed to prevent.

Parts of our culture have become intolerant of intolerance–and are quite willing to make their intolerance known.  From my perspective as an concerned (and sometimes confused observer) the intolerance of political correctness against intolerance looks and acts pretty much like the intolerance of political non-correctness.  So, in a space where free speech is prized, it appears that only certain forms of free speech are allowed.  That looks and sounds a lot like censorship, which is supposed to be non-correct politically.

I end up confused, not knowing who to support.  And in the end, if both sides are using the same tactics, is there really a difference?  If tolerance can’t tolerate intolerance, how tolerant can it really be?

As in most major issues, we need to realize that we don’t generally accomplish much when we try to prohibit people from doing something.  Telling people “no” seems to produce some reluctant obedience and a great deal of backlash.  It rarely changes much and often produces more problems.

We probably need to pay a lot more attention to Jesus, whose approach to the politically non-correct world he came to was to love people and meet felt needs of real people.  He used “he” and “she”; he called “sin” sin; he scolded religious leaders who prized rules over people; he waded into the dark, foul mess we call life and shone a light of love and acceptance and forgiveness and hope, a light that people wanted and needed.

Jesus wasn’t politically correct.  Rather, he was being theologically correct, which seems to me to be a much more demanding standard.  He saw the value of each and every individual and treated them as a loved and respected individual, whether they were a rich intellectual sneaking in after dark to see him or a known prostitute crashing a party to wash his feet with her tears.  Both these people and anyone else who encountered Jesus went away knowing that they had been in the presence of the Divine and had been seen and recognized for who they were.

Some used the support of the love and acceptance to become more of what they were meant to be and some fled the love and acceptance because they were unwilling to see themselves as they really were.  Political correctness seeks to make rules that might help some people at some times and have some benefits–but Jesus’ theological correctness seeks to show all that they are loved and what is possible within the context of that love.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE TROUBLE WITH DIVERSITY

I am sitting in a Bible Study group–well, I am actually leading the Bible Study, although leading might be too strong a word for the open style I have adopted with Bible Studies.  In this particular (fictional, of course) group, we have a variety of individuals with different experiences, different levels of faith development, different understandings of God’s love, different native languages.  We are united by our common faith and our experience together, drinking tea and coffee, talking together and being stuck in the same space for an hour or two each week for several months.  We are a diverse group but we like each other and because we like each other, we tend to ignore our diversity, choosing to celebrate our common desire to grow together in faith.

And that is great–some days, it feels like a piece of heaven as this diverse group shares and cares and supports and enables and laughs together.  We can forget our diversity and enjoy our similarities, our common faith and all the rest.  But diversity doesn’t disappear just because we are feeling good and comfortable.  And so, in the feel good time of the Bible study, it makes an appearance.

Some one begins talking about their faith experience.  They had a really bad experience in Denomination A, an experience which has affected their whole life and which they are just now beginning to deal with.  Denomination A is filled with demons–there are no believers in the denomination, there are only fakers and frauds and liars and abusers.  As the speaker is talking, we are all aware of the pain, the fear, the hurt that drives the words.  We are aware as well of the beginnings of a sense of liberation from the past that the speaker is experiencing and we feel some sense of joy because part of the liberation is coming through our group.

But we, or at least some of us, are aware that at least two members of our group are members of Denomination A, active members whose faith and Christian experience have been shaped and enhanced by their membership–they are with us because their local Denomination A congregation doesn’t currently have a Bible Study.

Fortunately for our group, the members of Denomination A are caring and loving and are more concerned with the speaker’s pain than with the actual comments about the denomination they love and appreciate.  Eventually, we help the speaker understand that the pain is real but the generalization can be a problem.

The potential danger is diffused but the unfortunate reality is that because we are diverse as believers, there is always going to be the potential for someone to say or do something offensive to another.  We are diverse–even our basic and important Christian unity doesn’t remove the diversity that God gave us and which is as much a basic part of our being as our human and faith-based similarities.  And if not understood properly, that diversity can undermine and destroy the carefully build unity of the group.

That is not hard to see.  We live in an increasingly divided culture, with everyone demanding that their particular slice of human diversity be given priority over every other slice of human diversity–and with more than a few slices calling for the punishment or banning of competing slices of diversity.

I really don’t have much impact on the increasingly fragmenting nature of western culture.  But I am a pastor and I do work with groups of people whose unity in faith is exercised in the reality of their diversity.  And so I work with that.  I try to understand our diversity, both its good and bad.  I try to model acceptance of the individual in the face of disagreement with some aspect of that individual’s thinking or practise.  I teach and preach the need for real communication and real openness and real understanding.  And when the reality of diversity threatens our unity, I work hard at helping the diversity of our group become an opportunity for growth and love.

Our Christian faith calls for unity within the reality of our diversity.  Loving one another isn’t dependent on our being the same.  Loving one another is based on our understanding that just as God loves us in our diversity, so we are to love each other in the diversity that we were created with.  We are not called to be the same–we are called to love each other as we are.

May the peace of God be with you.

DO UNTO OTHERS…

Every now and then, I run into a “modern” version of the Golden Rule, the words of Jesus found in Matthew 7.12: ” So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”  This modern version is often presented in semi-humorous contexts and goes something like this “Do unto others before they do unto you.”

Unfortunately, it seems that our culture has decided that the humorous “before” is more applicable than the original “to”–since my rights and the privileges and desires that I feel belong to me by virtue of my existence are more important than anyone else’s rights, privileges and desires, I need to protect them.  And as we are often told, “The best defence is a strong offence.”

Others, especially others who are or might be different, are a threat to me and what I deserve.  Their choices and desires and practises threaten me and my freedom to be what I want to be.  I need to ban them, restrict them, overcome them, segregate them, control them–and in extreme cases, maybe even find a way to get rid of them.  And if that sounds harsh and hate filled, these are just the headlines that we humans have been reading, experiencing and creating over the years.

Jesus’ words about doing to others fly in the face of socially acceptable norms–norms that are as common and dangerous today as they were in his day–and which go back to the beginning of human awareness.  But Jesus knows that our self-focused, insane drive to put ourselves at the centre of the universe only results in pain, suffering, and continual conflict.  He calls for a different way.

We do to others what we would like done to us. In one compact sentence, Jesus manages to open the door to a new understanding of self and others.  His route doesn’t demand that I ignore myself to benefit others but it also doesn’t demand that I ignore others for the benefit of myself.  Jesus calls for me to engage in a conscious dialogue involving me, the other and the situation.  There is a fourth aspect to the dialogue but I going to hold off on that for a bit.

I need to know what I want/need in the situation.  I need to be aware of myself and my needs and wants.  To really carry out Jesus’ call here, I also need to be willing to examine the validity and necessity of my needs/wants–maybe some of what I need/want isn’t all that important and can be sacrificed or at least downsized.

I need to be aware of the reality of the other–what are their real need/wants.  That will probably mean I need to engage the other and develop some form of relationship–I can’t really get to know the other from a theoretical point of view.  I need to know the other as well as I can.

And I need to know the situation well.  If I am lost, hungry and bleeding, what would I need/want?  I probably wouldn’t want a Gospel tract, unless it was made of cloth and I could use it as a bandage.  I would appreciate directions, first aid and maybe a sandwich although if I am hungry enough, even a pocket-lint covered cough drop might help.

Realistically, that is a major amount of work–and doing it effectively demands that I open myself to the legitimacy of the other as I figure out how to do to them what I want done to myself.  In small, clearly defined situations, I can probably do it and might do it.  But the bigger the situation, the more complex the needs/wants, the more “other” the other is, the harder the whole process and the more unlikely I am to do it.

And this is where I need to remember the fourth part of the dialogue I am engaged in.  I need to involve God.  I need to open myself to the Holy Spirit, whose task in my life is to both guide me in my thinking process and strengthen me in the actual doing.  To really do as Jesus said, I need the power and help of God.  Fortunately, God is both willing and able to give me all the help I need to do to others what I would have them do to me.

May the peace of God be with you.