WHERE IS FORGIVENESS?

The Bible study that closes down for the summer was starting up again for the fall. People began arriving and the talking and sharing begins. I sit at the table, enjoying the presence of the group—I miss these sessions. My attention hops from group to group, sampling their conversations until there are so any streams going that I really can’t follow them. One of the sub-groups asks me a question that draws me into their conversation.

They are talking about the latest revelation about someone prominent who has done something that he shouldn’t have done. The conversation doesn’t take the predictable course, with speculation on whether he did or didn’t and whether he will get away with it. Interestingly enough, the incident opened a larger discussion of ethics and morality. Our western culture is in the midst of an ethical upheaval where established and accepted moral standards are being challenged.

While it is too early to tell exactly which direction the process will settle on, there was one question that this little group wanted to talk about. There is much about the new ethic that is commendable: any approach that protects anyone from being exploited and takes away the exploiter impunity is an improvement. When people can expect special treatment because of their age, gender, economic status, race or political persuasion or any other standard, that ethical and moral code needs to be challenged.

This challenge to the status quo is relatively new—but it has fairly deep roots. One could make a case that its roots go all the way back to Jesus and his teachings. But if we are not prepared to go back that far, we can at least suggest that the roots go back to the turbulent 60s. I am pretty sure that the movement will result in a significant alteration on the ethical practises of many in leadership, which is a very good thing. Exploitation and abuse are sin, no matter how accepted and normalized we want to pretend it is.

I have high hopes for this whole cultural process—but I also have a worry. There is an area of the process that probably needs to be given some serious thought. Opening doors on the underlying abuse and exploitation that has been a hidden and accepted part of our western culture is good. But at some point, we need to decide what we are going to do about, with and for the exploiters and abusers. Currently, there doesn’t seem to be much going on in that direction. Revelation and exposure are the key themes right now, with punishment of some form as a minor theme.

But the question that needs to be addressed is this: Is this developing ethical and moral movement going to include a process for forgiveness? Will there be a way for the exploiter and the abuser to put the past behind them and develop a new life? This question is incredibly important because if we say no to forgiveness, we simple invert the present process and turn the victims into the abusers.

Abuse of any sort destroys significant parts of the victim’s life. Exploitation of any sort destroys significant parts of the exploited’s life. But to simple turn the tables and make the abused the abuser and the exploited the exploiter doesn’t make things better because abuse and exploitation also destroy significant parts of the abuser’s and exploiter’s lives.

Forgiveness, on the other hand, allows both sides an opportunity to change direction. It provides a new start. Certainly, there will be effects and consequences for both sides that will have long term effects. Abusers should suffer consequences like imprisonment and loss of status. The abused will suffer consequences like long term emotional struggles. But without a process of forgiveness, both abuser and abused are locked into their respective roles and consequences with no hope of anything better.

Forgiveness unlocks the chains binding both the abuser and the abused, allowing them to see, accept and move beyond the evil. Forgiveness opens new roads that replace the roads blocked by the abuse. Forgiveness also provides a much needed alternative to the dangerous and empty road of revenge and counter-revenge which some find so tempting.

Abuse and exploitation in any form are wrong—and the current movement to stop the institutionalized abuse and exploitation that has been so deeply a part of our culture is a good thing. It will become a great social movement when it begins to include the reality of forgiveness in the process.

May the peace of God be with you.

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BACK TO WORK

After a two week vacation, I am back at work—well, I have actually been back at work for a few days now. After two weeks of sleeping in, playing with grandchildren, visiting and all that fun stuff, getting back into the process of writing sermons and all the other stuff that I was supposed to do was hard work. For a variety of reasons, my first week back didn’t include much time with church people, beyond some phone calls and emails, although I did do one Bible study. It was mostly preparation, dealing with stuff that I put off until after vacation, planning for the fall church season and resting my knees from too much time spent with busy and active grandchildren. (In the interest if clarity, the too much time was just on the part of my knees, not the rest of me.)

So, the first real contact I had with church people was Sunday worship. They had had a substitute preacher for two weeks and I has two weeks off, including one Sunday where I didn’t actually attend worship at all. Driving to both worship services, I did my usual contemplation about who would be there and who wouldn’t—in small congregations like ours, it is fairly easy to remember who is going to be where when. I actually don’t know why I do this to myself because my anticipated numbers are always smaller than the actual attendance.

But when I arrived and as people started arriving, we got to the real point. We had missed each other. I was happy to see them and they were happy to see me. We talked about my time off (the family retreat was great, the grandchildren were even better, I needed to get back to work to get a rest from my vacation); their time while I was away (We really appreciated hearing the supply preacher, we miss Bible study, did you know she is having surgery tomorrow, isn’t is great that it isn’t as hot, we need to have a business meeting to discuss this); and anything else we could think of.

It was good to be back. I have to confess that during my vacation, I spent some time wondering why I am still doing what I am doing. I have passed the accepted retirement age, I have sufficient funds available to retire, I have lots of things I would like to do that I don’t have time to do because of work, writing sermons is getting to be harder work that it used to be—I thought of all sorts of things in an attempt to figure out why I am still doing what I am doing.

And while I don’t yet have a complete answer, I do think I found part of the answer at those two worship services the first Sunday back. I am a pastor, called by God to be in a special relationship with a specific group of people. We are in a God ordained relationship where we work together to help each other in our common journey through life and towards God. I am the pastor, called to give whatever it is that God has called me to give. As the church, they are called to receive whatever it is that God has ordained that they receive.

But it is more than that because the roles are flexible and changeable—often, the church is the pastor and I am the recipient of the pastoral input. I teach and preach—but often, the church teaches me and preaches to me. Our relationship is deep, complex and multifaceted. We are joined together by our common faith and by God’s calling. Working in and through all of us, God has something to accomplish in the church, the individuals who make up the church and me.

And so part of the answer to the question of why I am still doing what I am doing is that God isn’t finished with this particular pairing of pastor and church. He still has things to accomplish through us. Church and pastor are still united by God because we both still have stuff to give and receive from each other. This relationship is a powerful and profound one and while I know that someday it will end, that day isn’t right now. We all have more to do.

May the peace of God be with you.

CATCHING UP

As I was writing the last post about the never ending nature of ministry, I realized that there is another aspect of ministry that is probably even more of a problem than the fact that nothing is ever done. And that is the fact that in the end, I am always behind. There is always something sitting there that should have been done yesterday or last week or even last month. On some levels, ministry sometimes feels like mad dash to try and get last week’s work done before the end of this week.

I have a meeting report that should have been presented to the church about three weeks ago. I have an unfinished annual report that would be better if I actually got it done before heading out for the annual meeting. I have been promising certain people that I am going to drop in for a visit for long enough that it is embarrassing to see them now. Some stuff, of course, I can’t get behind on—the sermon always has to be ready for Sunday, a reality that often means the work on the sermon pushes something else into the background.

My problem is compounded by the fact that I am a part-time pastor who believes in being part time. I try to be careful with my work hours and try as much as possible to keep within viewing distance of the agreed upon hours. And so, within the context of my work agreement, two things happen:

• Stuff keeps getting put off to as later date, when there will be more time to get it done.
• I work more hours than I should, knowing that when things slow down, I will take some time off.

Basically, I keep telling myself that someday, I will get caught up because things will slow down and there will be time to get everything done and take some time off. It is a good message to give to myself, even though I know that it really isn’t true. It is one of those messages we give ourselves so that we can cope with the uncopable. There will never be enough time to get everything done; I am not actually ever going to catch up; a delayed task that I finish is probably going to be at the expense of some other task or my time.

Ministry has a way of filling up time and space. Some people deal with this reality by running as hard as they can, hoping that they will get it all done on time and perfectly. And while that might sound commendable, it is a process that actually has another name—it is better called burnout.

I decided a long time ago, probably around my first bout of near burnout that a much better approach was learning how to set and keep priorities. In a world when I am always going to be behind, I decided to learn what could slip, how long it could slip and how to measure the consequences of the slip.

So, a sermon has very limited slip time—and not having the sermon done has serious consequences. A pastoral visit, though important, often has more slip time and occasionally, there are no real long term consequences if I don’t get to it this month. A funeral—no slippage and serious consequences if I skip it. Writing a report about the meeting last month, well, so far the slippage hasn’t been noticed by anyone but me and there are limited consequences if I let it slip some more.

In the end, I know that I am never going to get caught up. Even when I tie up some of the delayed stuff, more gets added to the list. I am probably never going to work off all the extra hours of work time. Someday is actually like tomorrow—I keep looking for it but it never comes. But within that context, I set priorities, I get stuff done, I let things slip, I even manage to take some time off. It is never enough, I will never get caught up but then again being caught up isn’t the goal of what I do anyway.

I do what I do because I have been called by God to do it and in the end, I depend on his leading to help me see what needs to be done now, what can be done later and what just might never need to be done.

May the peace of God be with you.

SOMETHING IS FINALLY DONE

There is an empty space in the corner of the basement that I use for a workshop. The cabinet and shelf unit that I have been working on for several months is finally done. It took several weeks longer that I had planned but it did come in under budget, thanks in part to sales and discount scratch off coupons. This was a winter project designed to fill in some of the “free” time I was anticipating during the three months one of the pastorates I serve was shutdown.

As I have posted here before, the time wasn’t as free as I had anticipated and when it was, the weather wasn’t always cooperative, which wouldn’t have been a big problem except for the fact that I have to do major cutting and sanding outside. But eventually, the job got done and I moved the cabinet and shelf into the dining room where it is now filling up with all the stuff that needed a place so that we could get at other stuff.

Each time I walk through the dining room, I look at the finished project and have a sense of accomplishment. I do notice the imperfections and “not quite right” stuff that are incorporated in the piece because of my less than perfect woodworking skills. But even seeing all those doesn’t take away from the fact that the job is done, the project is finished and it is now doing what it was built for and the next time I have to do anything with it will be the day I take it apart so that we can move, a day which isn’t happening anytime soon.

That might seem like a small thing but for me, it is significant. I have spend most of my life involved in ministry: pastor, chaplain, teacher, missionary, counsellor and one of the most clear and unchanging realities about ministry is that completed projects are few and far between. I can spend a week on a sermon, researching and planning and writing and rewriting to get it just right. I stand in the pulpit and preach the sermon, doing an almost perfect job of presenting the message. (Or I could waste time, skimp on the research, present poorly—it happens.) But the job isn’t done—because I have to do the same thing all over again—and again and again.

Or suppose I am teaching a class. I research the topic, read extensively, write out the syllabus and the individual lectures. I plan the assignments. The class begins, I teach and discuss and mark and do all the work. And then, we finish—but it isn’t over because likely as not, I will need to do the same course again for another group or prepare a different course for a different group. So, I work hard and then I start all over again with the same thing.

Ministry keeps going and the stuff I do in ministry just keeps going as well. Even when I finish one chapter in ministry, another opens up. When I realize that I have finished the particular work God has called me to do on one place, I discover that God’s call and leading are taking me to another place where there is work to be done—it might not be exactly the same kind of work but there are enough similarities that the same processes work.

And that probably goes a long way towards explaining why I like woodworking. No matter how long it takes, no matter how complicated the process, no matter how much delay, there will come a point where the work is actually done and I don’t need to do anything more. The project is done—it sits in place, doing the work it was designed to do and I only need to appreciate the enjoyment I got out of doing the work and that I get out of it doing what it was designed to do.

I am comfortable with the reality that ministry doesn’t have clear and easy to notice completions. In many ways, I appreciate the process nature of ministry. I work well in the context of always being in process. But it is also good to have a part of my life where I can point to clear completions, to things that I have finished and which don’t need my input anymore.

May the peace of God be with you.