THE OTHER SIDE

I need some surgery sometime in the near future. While it is fairly serious surgery, it is important because it will prevent even more serious stuff down the road. After thought and prayer and some consultation, it just makes sense to me to go ahead with the process.

However, committing to that process also commits me to another process, one that I am normally involved with on the other side. I need to inform and involve my church people. Normally, I am the one church people inform and involve—they want my prayers, my pastoral concern, my connection with God. I am happy to be involved in their process. My giftedness, my calling and my temperament enables me to support them and do what I can to help them through the process. Most of the people I have provided pastoral care for through their process have seemed to be appreciative.

But approaching the whole thing from the other side—well, that is and has been and will be a huge shift for me. I haven’t actually had to deal with medical issues in my ministry. The only time I have been hospitalized was for kidney stones and that occurred between public ministry activities and so I didn’t miss anything. For this surgery, I will be out for at least a month, which means that I have to tell people so they can make arrangements.

My introverted inclination was to simply forget about telling people and have my wife call the deacons the day of surgery and tell them I won’t be there for a while. Aside from the fact that my wife simply wouldn’t assist my fantasy, that really wouldn’t be a very good way to deal with things.

I teach, preach and encourage Christian community and sharing. I seek to have people involved with each other as an expression of their faith. I want people to know that faith needs to involve us with other people so that we can both give and receive the love and grace of God through each other. For me to follow my introverted fantasy process would be hypocritical at best and ministry destroying at worst.

So, pushing the all too tempting fantasy out of my mind, I set about informing people. I had a meeting scheduled with the church leadership before I knew about the surgery so that became the first place to announce what was coming. I didn’t swear them to secrecy and released them to tell others in the church what was coming. I think I was secretly hoping that the message would quickly travel through the church the way most things do.

That didn’t happen, or it didn’t happen the way I wanted or as fast as I wanted. I faced a congregation on Sunday made up of people who knew and people who didn’t. Since the surgery is coming soon but not that soon, I chose not to make an announcement from the pulpit—that will come when I know dates and so on. But I did find myself telling individuals as the opportunity arose during the potluck that followed the worship.

I have spent most of my life on the other side of this part of ministry and now I have to learn how to receive what I have been giving. I could continue the role of pastor and say that it is good for the church to learn how to minister to the pastor—and that is a good thing. But the deeper reality is that I need to learn more about how to be ministered to. I haven’t done that well over the years. Being an introvert means that I tend to keep to myself and be somewhat self-sufficient. I have had times when others have ministered to me and they have been very important and valuable—but overall, I am much more comfortable providing the ministry.

So, the coming surgery will not only take care of a medical problem but will be another step in the more significant learning process that is helping an introvert who encourages community to experience the fullness of Christian community. I really do want and value the prayers and concerns and support of my Christian community—I just don’t like telling people that I need their prayers and concerns and support. Like all of us, I have a lot to learn about the fullness of my faith.

May the peace of God be with you.

Advertisements

DON’T GET CAUGHT!

I grew up physically and spiritually in a rural, conservative environment. The church I was part of for most of my childhood wasn’t hyper-rigid like some but it was conservative in its views and teaching. I absorbed that mindset along with the cookies and juice served at snack time during Vacation Bible School.

I don’t think I ever heard a sermon explicitly giving the rules but I pretty much knew by the time I as a teen that “good Christians” obeyed the big three: “Don’t drink, Don’t smoke, Don’t dance.” There were of course, other evils, like anything sexual but Christians didn’t even think about stuff like that so we didn’t need rules in those areas. There were, of course, Christians who did that stuff—but they were always from other churches, not ours. We obeyed the rules.

But even then, I sort of noticed something that I liked to pretend wasn’t there. Some of the “good Christians” from our church actually did some of the big three—occasionally at the same time. How did I know? Well, we were teens in a small town who didn’t have a whole lot to do so we talked and eventually the “good Christian” would get around to telling some of us what they did—or those of us who didn’t break the rules but stood as close to the boundary as possible would see them break the rule.

As long as it was only us who knew about the infraction, they pretty much got away with it—and actually became something of underground heros in the group. The peer group rules wouldn’t allow anyone to tell about the infraction so we would all attend Sunday School and worship pretty much knowing that Mike wasn’t actually suffering from a cold coming on–he was a bit hung-over.

This secrecy would continue until the good Christian was caught breaking the rules by someone important, like another church member or a deacon or the church gossip or, heaven forbid, the minister. Then, well, the phrase “all hell broke loose” was coined just for times like that. The newly discovered sinner would be the talk of the church and town. Their infraction, as well as suggested and real punishments would be the topic of conversation everywhere, including the local barber shop, where the barber was a member of our church.

And the rest of us good Christians, who knew about the infraction before it was discovered, including those in the peer group who were equally guilty but undiscovered? Well, we picked up stones and heaved them as accurately and as powerfully as anyone else. As we stoned the offender, we also prayed. We joined the rest of the church in praying for the soul of the offender and we also prayed with even more fervor that the offender would remember the rules of silence that controlled the peer group.

As I have reflected on all that, I realize that our group, like all groups, actually had another rule, one that nobody ever actually articulated but which was nonetheless as powerful as all the other rules. This unspoken rule was simple: “Don’t get caught!”. In many ways, getting caught was a more serious infraction than breaking all the others at the same time. Getting caught was not just a sign that you were a sinner but even more significantly, you weren’t all that bright a sinner. Getting caught jeopardized the whole elaborate hypocritical structure that allowed the rest of us to indulge in rule breaking while still getting to keep our saintliness intact. Someone getting caught exposed the reality we didn’t want to have exposed and so we needed to attack mercilessly just to protect ourselves—how could someone who threw so many stones so hard and so accurately be guilty of such a sin?

In our current cultural environment, I see a lot of my past. Wrongs are being exposed—and that is a good thing. Much evil has been done and much hurt has resulted and it all needs to be dealt with in an open, therapeutic and cleansing manner. But at the same time, those of us who haven’t been caught need to be wise. We might not have done what is currently being revealed but since none of us is perfect, maybe we should use fewer stones and more mercy when someone is caught.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHOSE CHURCH IS IT, ANYWAY?

Because I am a pastor, I spend most of my people time with church people. I work for and with church people; I go to seminars with and about church people; I spend some of my free time teaching people from other churches; I read and study about church people. Some of the reason I spend so much time with church people is that I am an introvert and after spending so much time with church people, I really don’t look for opportunities to spend time with other people.

But mostly I spend my time with church people because that seems to be the nature of my calling. God has called and gifted me for the task of working with church people. And because I have been doing this for so long, I have a lot of ideas and comments and even a few complaints about the church. I am committed to the church, both the local churches I work with and the universal church that all believers are a part of. I have a great respect and appreciation and even love for the church.

But that doesn’t blind me to the difficulties and problems that are an intrinsic part of the church. Because the church, any church, is made up of imperfect people who are learning how to be followers, the church is never going to be perfect in reality, at least in this life. A major part of my calling is helping the church see, understand and change the things that are less than perfect.

And one of the major areas of imperfection that I have noted over the years concerns the ownership of the church. It has been my experience that most people who are a part of the church have the wrong idea of who the church belongs to. There isn’t any real agreement among those who have the wrong idea—the number of wrong answers to the question of who the church belongs to is staggering.

Just as an example, there are those who believe the church belongs to the pastor. Some would suggest that it belongs to those who pay the most. Another group suggests that the church belongs to the denominational structures. Another possibility is that the church belongs to whatever group within it that can come up with the most votes. The oldest members sometimes want to lay claim to the church, especially if some of the newest members want to dispute that claim with a claim of their own.

This debate over the ownership of the church is more than just an intellectual discussion. It affects the very nature and work of the church. If the church belongs to any individual or group or organization, the policy, direction and activity of the church is set by the ownership. The owners decide what the church does, when, how and where. If the owners decide that the mission of the church is comforting the afflicted or afflicting the comfortable, that is what the church does.

But the debate misses the point. The church doesn’t belong to the pastor, the moneyed, the connected, the right age group, the organization. The church belongs to God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is his church. Christ is the head of the church and the owner of the church. Certainly, he works through his human agents—but it is his church. Forgetting that important reality opens the church to incredible pain and suffering.

Our task as the church is to discover and do what the owner wants—and if the Bible is any indicator, the owner generally wants us to act in ways that go against our generally self-centered desires. In other words, what I want for and from the church are likely not what Jesus wants for and from the church. The church doesn’t exist to make me feel good—it exists to serve Christ. And one thing that pleases Christ is seeing me challenge and change the selfish and sinful aspects of my being that get in the way of really knowing him.

And when I gather with other believers to form a church or the church, the purpose of the church isn’t to make us all feel good—it is to help us all become better at serving the owner personally and as a body. It is Christ’s church, not ours.

May the peace of God be with you.

FAITH AND CULTURE

Whether we realize it or not, much of Western culture is being affected by a non-western religion. While many people in Western countries aren’t aware of how deeply this non-western religion has affected us. Mind you, many participants in this faith aren’t aware of how much the western culture as affected this approach to religion either. Both have been modified and re-arranged by the other.

Unfortunately, the culture has tended to gain the upper hand in this modification process. Some of the ways this old, non-western religion has been changed have had beneficial effects on it. For many years, for example, some branches of this faith explicitly required that it be practised in a language that many followers didn’t really understand. Eventually, the cultural pressures allowed the religion to discover the value of using the language of the people. Another change in this ancient religion came about in the way the worship was conducted-over time, cultural pressure brought about more culturally appropriate styles and approaches to worship. Mind you, parts of this religion have successfully resisted all such changes.

But for all the good changes, the religion has tended to be on the losing side of the culture war. It’s essential teachings have been tampered with; it’s codes of conduct have been weakened or selectively ignored; it’s followers have been encouraged to follow cultural norms rather than original teachings; it’s greatest insights have been blunted or ignored. In many geographic areas of the west, the legacy of this ancient religion is all but forgotten while a culturally modified façade seeks to use bits and pieces of it to bolster cultural norm and patterns.

The irony is that this ancient religion has at it’s core a call to change culture. The basic teachings and tenants of this faith call for a different approach to life, an approach that stands in sharp contrast to the individualistic and self-centered western approach to life. This religion began claiming to be a divinely given alternate to the destructive and selfish realities of human life. And at times, it did a fantastic job of changing culture.

It was and is especially effective on the individual level. People discovered the core of this religion and made changes in their lives, changes that made them stand out. Sometimes, they were seen and noticed and gave others courage to follow the faith. Other times, they were seen and noticed and the difference was so dramatic and so counter-cultural that they were shunned, scorned, persecuted and even killed. But often, the religion reached enough people and for a time, the culture it found itself in changed for the better.

But human selfishness is a powerful force—and faced with a force that tries to set limits on selfishness, it reacts in self-defence. Culture comes roaring back and begins chipping away at the core of this religion. Eventually, this religion stopped being a cultural change agent and becomes an agent of the culture, one more way of channeling the essential human selfishness into self-serving ways.

Our western culture has been deeply affected by this ancient religion, Christianity. We see the continuing effects of this change in the continuing calls for equality and fairness in our culture. But at some point in the last century, it seems like a line was crossed and the changes western culture made in Christianity became more significant than the changes Christianity made on western culture. The faith no longer stands outside the culture, seeking to make the culture better—now, unfortunately, it has too often become the weaker partner in the relationship and has become nothing more than a tool to force people into being better players in the cultural games.

But culture rarely has the final answer because the Christian faith is a living and dynamic faith empowered by the presence of the Holy Spirit. No matter how strong the call and temptation of selfishness, the Spirit will eventually act, bringing about a reformation, a reformation that will break some of the tangled bonds it has with culture. Human culture is always based in our human selfishness—Christianity is based in and on God’s eternal love and grace and no matter what it looks like at any given point in time, God will always win.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE PHONE CALL

I am part of the cell phone revolution—we don’t have a landline in our home. That has several implications, one of which is that my name no longer appears in a phone book. As a pastor, that means in order for people to contact me, I have to be very liberal passing our my business cards, as well as making sure that my number is published every week in the church bulletin. I am not hard to get a hold of, at least within my ministry circle.

Recently, though, I discovered that my ministry circle is much bigger than I thought. I got a call from an acquaintance, someone we used to live near. We had a good relationship, comfortable enough to pass some time when we met but nothing deep or significant. The neighbours knew I was a pastor—they may even have showed up at a funeral or two I conducted. I knew that like many people they didn’t have any real church connection. When we moved to another house, we didn’t see each other all that much but when we did, we would pass some time and move on.

The phone call, though, was an overt request for pastoral care. A death is imminent and the caller wanted me to be involved in the process. He explained how he got my number, mentioning a third person whose name I didn’t actually recognize at first gave him the number. When I finally remembered who the other person was, I realized that my connection was through another funeral for a family member—and I may have given him a card. Like the caller, this person has no real church connection other than a familial connection. But even after a year or more, he had retained my card and number and was quite happy to pass it along to his friend who needed some help.

It isn’t that there are no other clergy around. The person who passed on the phone number has a tentative connection with a church that has a pastor. The caller likely knows another clergy person personally since they are close to the same age and grew up in the same area. All the church in our town have landlines and therefore are listed in the phone book.

But the caller wanted to connect with me. It suggests to me that on some deep level, I am his pastor. I doubt if he would define the relationship that way but essentially, that is the reality. He needs a pastor—he finds my number so that he can talk to his pastor. The fact that he has never been in a worship service in any church I have pastored aside from a funeral isn’t an issue. He needs a pastor and I am his pastor.

My pastoral ministry extends well beyond the churches I serve. And it is based on a whole lot more than the activities I get paid to engage in. I am his pastor likely because of the nature of the relationship we had when we were neighbours and because of some ministry I provided to another neighbour, who also didn’t and doesn’t have any other church connection.

I realized again that believers really are never off duty. My faith is part of my being and its reality is always visible. And because of that, I am always a witness. Sometimes, as in the case of this called, my witness is positive, setting the stage for a deeper ministry when it is needed. But there is the very real possibility that some of the phone calls I don’t get are a result of a negative witness that I have shown some person along the way, a negative witness that speaks not only about how my ministry has been perceived but also about how the God I claim to follow has been perceived. I might be a part-time pastor for small congregations but I am a full time witness to a very large circle of people, a circle whose boundaries I will probably never know.

Fortunately, God is aware of the boundaries of that circle and through the power of the Holy Spirit, can and does enable one person to give another person a phone number so that they can contact me—and the same Spirit will guide my ministry with the called, as long as I am willing to listen to the Spirit.

May the peace of God be with you.

A TRIP TO THE ER

The other day my wife was feeling some medical symptoms that had been bothering her for a while. Our doctor told her that the next time she felt them, she should immediately head for the ER to have them checked out. So, we rushed to the local health centre and joined the group waiting to see a doctor. The symptoms she was feeling bumped my wife to near the front of the line and she was called to an examining room almost immediately. The nature of the symptoms required a lot of tests, some of which had to be repeated at various intervals so we were going to be there for most of the day.

Initially, I sat and waited in the waiting room. Now, both my wife and I are pastors working with churches located in small rural communities. Sitting in a hospital ER waiting room isn’t an anonymous experience for us. We know most of the staff and many of the visitors to the ER know us and some are participants in the churches we pastor. My first response whenever I go to the health centre or ER is to take a quick look around to see who is there. When I arrived this day, I was a bit agitated because of the nature of our visit so I was glad most of the people there were nodding acquaintances, although a few were at the “hi, how are you doing” level.

As I settled in to wait with my book, I was joined by a church member. We checked each other’s reason for being there and then went on to have an extended conversation about Christmas and some difficult choices he was facing. Shortly after he left, one of the staff who attends my wife’s church came over and we talked a bit about her Christmas plans and how the weather was affecting them.

After that, a friend came in, obviously dealing with some serious stuff on his phone. I waved and when he was done on the phone, we had a talk about his reason for being there, my reason for being there and several things that he was involved in that were causing stress and how he was dealing with it.

Meanwhile, between visits from the various medical personal providing tests and treatments, my wife had time to talk to several of her church members and some of the staff about a variety of things, including church/faith issues. I had to leave for a bit but eventually got back and we continued waiting for the various test results. Eventually, the tests all came back negative and the best conclusion is that the symptoms were likely a result of lifting some heavy stuff the day before.

We compared notes and discovered that even though we were at the ER as a patient and a concerned spouse, we were both also there as pastors. I suppose either one of us could have cited our reason for being there and ignored the people also sharing our time at the ER but the truth is that neither of us can do that easily—nor do we actually want to do that. We are both called to ministry and responding to the needs we perceive is second nature to us, even when we are sitting in an ER waiting or treatment room.

We do balance that with the awareness of a need for breaks and both have ways of ensuring that we get those breaks. And I am almost positive that had the reason for the visit to the ER been more serious and acute, neither of us would have been as pastoral—I remember the time I went to the ER with severe kidney stone pain, a time when I was definitely not concerned with anyone else.

But we are pastors in a rural area where we know and are known—and for most people, seeing their pastor in the ER becomes something of a blessing. There is someone there to help them as they deal with the reason for being in the ER in the first place. The fact that we were there for stuff of our own isn’t unimportant or insignificant but we have both realized that in the end, the nature of our calling is that we are going to respond as pastors, right up to the point where we are incapable of making that level of response.

May the peace of God be with you.

LET US PRAY

I have been involved in some form of ministry for more than 45 years. That reality has a lot of implications and connections and complications and even some confusions. One of the implications is that fact that I have a very long history of being a professional prayer maker. Because I have been involved in ministry for so long and rarely ever spend time in places and situations where people don’t know that, I am the go to person when prayer is needed. I pray a lot: during worship, before meals, in hospitals, in homes, before funerals, during weddings—if something seems to need a prayer and I am around, I pray.

I can and do rise to the occasion—but I find that praying is much harder for me than it was 45 years ago. Way back then, it was easy to rattle off the prayer and fulfill my role. I had lots of words and had no trouble pulling a prayer together for any occasion. But as the years have piled up and my understanding of people, situations and prayers have all grown, I find it more and more difficult to throw words together and snap off a prayer.

This isn’t because I have had a crisis of faith somewhere along the line and have trouble praying because I don’t believe or struggle to believe or anything like that. I know this happens and have known people in ministry who have had such crises and who have not only stopped praying but also have stopped ministry. I can’t actually say they have stopped believing but they have stopped believing in their faith.

No, my struggle with prayer is more basic. I see prayer as an opportunity to specifically address God about a specific focus. Prayer is more than just a time to toss some words into the air and hope that somehow they catch God’s attention. When I am praying for and with people, I am acting as their priest, the one who carries their needs to God and carries God’s reply to them. For me, this is a scary and demanding task. As a Baptist, I know that anyone can and should go to God on their own at any time about anything.

But as a pastor and counsellor and theologian, I know that there are times when we all need someone else to pray for us. We all need a priest—and I have discovered over the years that when I or someone else needs a priest to talk to God, it needs to be more than just throwing words into the sky. This priestly prayer needs to find the words I cannot find myself and carry them to the God I need to connect with but need help with in the process.

When I am the priest in the process, I am deeply concerned with understanding the cause of the need for prayer and shaping the prayer to express the needs of the person I am interceding for. I know that I can ultimately rely on the all knowing God to understand the need and the situation before any of us involved is even aware of it—but while that theological reality is important, it needs to be balanced with the reality that I as priest and the other(s) as supplicant(s) are better served emotionally and spiritually when we have a handle on what we are praying.

And so I work hard at prayer for others. I listen carefully to both the verbal and non-verbal messages. I make use of my ability to collate information and see themes and trends and underlying issues. I ensure that people have as clear an idea of what they are needing as possible. And before I pray for and with people, I will often share with them the intended content of the prayer to see if that is really what they want me to say to God on their behalf. Only then do I pray. My prayers are short, focused and sincere. Rather than trust that if I throw enough words upward, the message will get through, I seek to understand the request or need well enough that I can clearly and succinctly fulfill my role as priest.

I pray a lot—and when I pray for others, I work hard at being an effective and caring priest.

May the peace of God be with you.

PEER PRESSURE

For most of my working life, I have been a pastor serving small, rural churches. I have basically lived and worked in the same geographic area for over 35 years so I have deep connections in many of the area churches and communities. Because I am a pastor and because this is a somewhat traditional area, I am still one of the first people contacted when life gets difficult for the people in the church and often for the community as well.

When I was a new pastor, this was difficult. I often found myself sitting with families as they struggled with the death of a loved one, a devastating medical diagnosis, a crushing family break up. My training provided suggestions and hints on how to help people in these situations but my very limited experience kept getting in the way. I hope I didn’t do any lasting damage in those first years—and since I still live in the area, I would likely know if there were serious messes as a result of my early pastoral work.

Having been out of pastoral ministry for a bit while I worked in Kenya, I came back to a somewhat different pastoral experience. I was called to a pastorate I had served before. It is rural, somewhat traditional and I know everyone—and some of them, I have known since the day I preached my first sermon in those churches over 35 years ago. I am still one of the first calls made when there is a disruption in life.

But these days, I am not the young pastor sitting with the children of older people. I am often sitting with the children of those now departed older people—but they are my friends. More and more often, I am sitting with the families of one of my friends, someone who is near my age and whom I have known forever, or at least it feels that way at the time. My training still helps—I have kept up and upgraded and am not working from a 40 year old data base. My experience level has grown—I like to think that I have used my time in ministry to develop my skills and abilities and enhance my overall ministry.

But these days, I am still sitting with friends while we deal with the death of someone who was also my friend. I get called because I am the pastor—but also because I am a friend. And more and more often, it is the friendship that leads to the call, not so much the pastoral side of the relationship. I am a friend who happens to be the pastor.

All of us involved recognize that I come into the situation wearing two very different hats. I am the pastor, tasked with helping others deal with the effects and feelings of whatever we are dealing with—but I am also a friend who has my own relationship and my own stuff to deal with. As I said to one person recently, this job was a whole lot easier back when I didn’t know people so well.

On the whole, I think my long term relationships with people have made my ministry stronger and more effective. I can use that knowledge to help the church look at specific ideas and processes and so on that are more closely tied to their needs, possibilities and abilities. But it also means that I have a lot more of my own feelings to deal with. Not only do I have to design a funeral service to help the family, but also I have to find ways to work through my own grief and feelings, without taking away my effectiveness in helping others deal with the issues.

I need to be honest with myself and my congregations about my experience, while at the same time recognizing that I have been called to help them. My relationship with people is important and valuable and deep—but that means I have to make sure that deal with my stuff appropriately so that I can carry out my ministry. I am working with my peer group these days and we are all seeking to find out how our common faith and relationship expresses itself when life gets messy.

May the peace of God be with you.

TRAFFIC CHECK

Sunday morning at about five minutes before worship time and most of our regulars aren’t there. I wasn’t expecting all that many to start with because the travel season has arrived and a lot of our people seek out warmer climates. But there were still some regulars not present and I was wondering what was going on.

The door opens and one couple come in with a story about being stopped at a traffic check, something that rarely happens on our very rural road. In their talk with the officers, the couple had told them they were on their way to worship. As we were talking and joking, a second regular comes in, also with a story of being stopped at the traffic check. He also told the officers he was on his way to worship and if they wanted to get warm, they could join us.

The door opens again and in come his visiting adult children, who also joke about being stopped by the police. They told the officers that their father was just ahead and was going to get to worship before them. Everyone is by now involved, joking about the stops and telling the latecomers how lucky they were not to get arrested.

Since it is now well past starting time, I begin to head for the pulpit when the door opens again—and we are joined by the two police officers, who want to know if they can come to our worship. We welcome them and I scramble to find copies of the papers I have passed out since they put our numbers well over my expectations.

We begin our worship: our small band of regulars, the visiting adult children and two police officers with all their equipment. As I always do when we have visitors, I make sure that I explain the various parts of the service so they know what it going on. The officers pay attention, participate in the singing and other aspects of the worship and generally appear to be there for more than just getting warm.

Just as I am getting to the conclusion of my sermon, the officers begin staring straight ahead and one of them whispers into her radio. As they get up and slip out, I thank them for coming and they wave, with one still talking on the radio.

I really don’t know why they showed up that day. It might be because it was a very cold day and about the only traffic to stop on our road at that time of day would have been the people on their way to our worship. But whatever it was, somehow our people provided a witness of some positive sort to these two officers. Each one stopped made it clear where they were going and one even invited them to join us.

I don’t know if they will ever show up again and I really don’t have much way to contact them. This was very much a serendipitous moment in our lives and, I hope, their lives. And sometimes, that is all we get. Sometimes, our witness is like that. It is nice when we see the whole process of witnessing in a person’s life and how the Spirit works but sometimes, maybe most times, we are a part of some bigger process where our involvement is decontextualized and we never see where it is going or how it is being used.

I do believe that God is at work, though and that through the Holy Spirit, he is using our brief contact with those two officers. God will use that contact in conjunction with many other contacts and events and witnesses to speak to them. But he isn’t just at work there—he is also at work in our churches. Bringing them to us was also a part of his process for us. We are a small group and we sometimes think we aren’t doing much. To see that God is working in and through and around us is a great thing—it reminds us that small or not, we are not forgotten, that God still has a place and a purpose for us in his plan for the redemption of the world.

I think it is exciting that even a routine traffic stop can be used by the Spirit to make a difference in the world.

May the peace of God be with you.

BEING ORDINARY

I was at a meeting the other day and on my way back from the snack table, I stopped to have a short chat with one of the people who attends one of the churches I pastor. We were joking a bit and talking a bit about the meeting and our Bible study and generally enjoying seeing each other. I made what I thought was a somewhat innocent comment that wasn’t phrased in “ministerial” language. Her response was interesting. She said, “I love it that you are so ordinary!”

We both laughed because I pretended not to know what she meant—and she knew I was pretending. I then thanked her for the compliment. Being ordinary is part of my self-identity. I really don’t want to be seen as “THE MINISTER” or ‘THE PASTOR” or any other “THE”. I am a pastor and I take pride in doing my pastoral and ministerial work well. I have spent a lot of time and effort over the years to ensure that I am good at what I have been called to do. I also appreciate it when people recognize that I am good at what I do. But I really don’t want to be perceived as being something special because of that.

That attitude does sometimes make me feel a bit strange, both in clergy circles and lay circles. Laity have often been taught and encouraged to treat pastors as if our calling turns us into spiritual and moral and general experts, who are somehow out of touch with the rest of humanity because we are so close to God. Other clergy sometimes want to maintain a distance between clergy and laity—one of the ongoing debates in clergy circles, for example, it whether clergy can actually have friends in the church they serve.

My denominational tradition supports my thinking, at least theoretically. Baptists began partly in protest to the elevated position of clergy. We espoused the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, which means that all believers have the freedom and responsibility and ability to approach God directly, without the need for an intermediary. When I begin with that theological position and add to it the Biblical teaching on gifts and calling, I very quickly come to a position that has a equal place for all people of faith.

We are most definitely not equal when it comes to our abilities and gifts—we are very unequal in that area. I am much better at preaching that some of the members of the church, a few of whom can’t even manage to croak out a word when they are in front of people. On the other hand, I am much worse at singing that some of them—my croaking tends to encourage people to call for silent singing or loud organ playing. Some of our church members who can’t preach or sing bring to the congregation the ability to count and care for our church money—they can actually add and subtract numbers and get them right.

Our inequality in terms of gifts and abilities is part of our overall equality. Each gift and ability and individual has a part of play in our church and ministry—and that makes us equal. My gifts are important at times and at other times, they really aren’t important. When the church puts on their annual tea and sale, my gift of preaching and teaching isn’t overly important, which is why I get assigned to the dishpan in the kitchen, where my lack of tea and sale specific gifts isn’t a problem. But the member of the church whose gift of organizing and administering becomes the most important person that day.

I appreciate my gifts and my calling. I work hard at keeping myself current and capable. I want to be the best I can be at understanding and using my gifts. But I don’t want my gifts and calling to stand out simply because they exist. I much prefer the situation where people recognize my gifts, their gifts and other’s gifts and feel comfortable calling on the gifted person for the exercise of their gifts in the appropriate ways—and when the gifts aren’t needed, everyone is equal and ordinary. When we see each other as both gifted and ordinary, I think we have a solid and strong foundation for our church, one that God can and will build on.

May the peace of God be with you.