A GOOD PASTOR

I have never been called to serve as the pastor of a perfect church. But that is okay since none of the congregations I have been called to serve were calling a perfect pastor. I wasn’t perfect before they called me, I didn’t become perfect when I served the church and I didn’t become perfect when I left the congregation. There are some pastors who manage to achieve perfection—but only a few years after they have left the congregation and when succeeding pastors have more glaring weaknesses than they had. But while hindsight might make a pastor look perfect, that is more a case of selective remembering than actual reality.

Like congregations, pastors are not perfect. We are called, we are forgiven, we are gifted—but we are not perfect. We pick up our calling and carry it out with a confusing blend of good and bad that can be wildly infuriating to both pastor and congregation. We provide the absolutely perfect ministry that changes a life one minute and the next, we drive three other people to question not just our call but our basic faith.

When congregations forget that pastors aren’t perfect, all sorts of problems develop. Congregations forget to test the spirits, as I John 4.1 tells us. This allows us as pastors to operate without accountability—and the worst thing we can give to an imperfect individual is a freedom from accountability. With no accountability, we have no reason to see or acknowledge or deal with our imperfections. Generally, lack of accountability results in increased imperfection, not less imperfection.

When congregations forget that pastors aren’t perfect, it become very traumatic when the real imperfections manifest themselves. While some congregation members can and will ignore any and all imperfections, most people will eventually discover the pastor whom they thought was perfect isn’t perfect and that will create all sorts of responses, from mild irritation to rejection of the church to rejection of the faith.

When pastors forget that pastors aren’t perfect, the consequences are even worse. When we pastors forget that we don’t have it all together, we then begin to minister from our imperfection, not from our commitment to God. Our desire for power gets wrapped in “doing God’s will”; our need for approval overshadows the need to speak the truth of God; our desire for affection rewrites the moral standards of the faith. We end up hurting not just ourselves but the wider church. Our imperfections can often become the institutionalized dysfunction of the congregation or denomination.

So, let me be clear. Pastors are not perfect—nor will we be perfect this side of eternity. And since that someday perfection simply isn’t the reality here and now, we pastors need to learn to minister as imperfect people and congregations need to accept the reality that their pastor isn’t perfect and won’t be perfect—and wasn’t actually perfect in the case of former pastors.

How do we imperfect pastors minister to imperfect congregations? I think we start with honesty. It isn’t quite the blind leading the blind—but is the imperfect pastoring the imperfect. If we all start there, then we can become mutually accountable and responsible. As an imperfect pastor of an imperfect congregation, I need to make sure that both I and the congregation are willing to commit proper time and resources to seeking the leading from the Perfect that we need. My latest and greatest idea that will revitalize our church and change the face of Christianity needs the careful and prayerful consideration of the congregation to make sure it isn’t actually an expression of my imperfection wrapped in a few decontextualized Scriptures. While I am called to be their pastor, I am not called to be their boss or dictator. Rather, both pastor and congregation are called to mutual responsibility and accountability as we together seek to offer our imperfection to God so that he can bring us all closer to what we are meant to be.

The churches I have been called to serve as pastor didn’t get a perfect pastor when they called me. But then again, they didn’t have one before I arrived (no matter what the older members say) and they won’t have one after I leave. As long as I and the congregation remember that, we are better able to seek God’s perfection to deal with our imperfection.

May the peace of God be with you.

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WAITING

Both the Bible study groups I pretend to lead keep coming back to Paul’s list of the fruit of the Spirit found in Galatians 5.22-23, where we are told, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (NIV) By now, some of the members of the group have the entire list memorized—although to be fair, I do have to say that some of them had the list memorized before we started using the verse so much in our study.

Those who have memorized the verse don’t need to look it up every time we refer to it. I have to look up the verse. Mentally, I tell myself I am looking it up to ensure that I get the right words in the right order—with the wealth translations available these days, that just makes sense. And while that is a very practical and prudent reason for looking up a verse of Scripture, there is another reason I look up the verse: I can’t actually remember the list beyond the first four. This isn’t a secret—I have confessed this to both Bible study groups and anyone else who has occasion to discuss the verse with me.

I am not sure why I have trouble remembering the list but I suspect that it has something to do with the fourth fruit of the Spirit, patience. I like to think that I am patient but in truth, I am not the most patient person in the world. I really don’t like waiting. I can remember long sleepless nights as a child while I waited for Christmas Eve to turn into Christmas morning. Waiting for anything important is difficult.

Right now, I am waiting to go into the hospital for surgery. While all surgery is serious and brings a certain amount of risk, all of which has been carefully explained to me a couple of times, I am not overly anxious about the surgery. I have confidence in the surgeon and know the hospital’s reputation and have lots of people praying for me in the process.

But I have been struggling with significant impatience in this process. I have known since early in the year that this was coming. My surgery date wasn’t as early as the surgeon had first suggested because of circumstances beyond his control and so the waiting has been even longer than we anticipated.

The first part of the wait was okay—I was busy and could ignore the whole thing. But once I had a specific date and began to make arrangements, the impatience kicked in—I just wanted to get the thing done. The closer the day comes, the more impatient I become. It hasn’t affected my work—if anything, I am doing more work as I prepare for the surgery and resulting time off. Making arrangements for the various responsibilities I have, helping groups decide what to do during my absence, getting stuff done before I am off—all these and more have taken up my time.

But I just want to get the thing done. Waiting is a pain. And the closer and closer it gets, the slower time passes and the more I want it to hurry up. Last week was slow and frustrating. This week is worse because I have the surgery in two days. I am pretty sure that I won’t be sleeping all that much or well the next two nights as my impatience kicks into high gear. Time will perform a psychological miracle and slow to a crawl, with seconds taking hours and two days becoming an eternity as I wait.

However, what I lack in patience, I make up for in trust. I might be seriously impatient about getting there but I have a strong sense of peace about the whole thing. Peace, those of you who have memorized the verse in question will remember, is the third fruit of the Spirit. Being third means it is in my remembered list of the fruit. I may not be a very patient person at this point, but I am at peace. No matter what happens, I know that God is with me. Now, if he would just give the time wheel a bit of a nudge, that would be great.

May the peace of God be with you.

WRONG TIME, WRONG PLACE

I am feeling a bit down on myself right now. For some reason, I have ended up in a couple of situations saying things that probably would have been better left unsaid. What I actually said wasn’t false, it wasn’t malicious and it didn’t cause any harm—but all the same, it was probably the wrong things to say in the context where I said it. Nobody was upset by what I said and there were no serious consequences. But I recognized that somehow, I had crossed a line I don’t normally cross.

The fact that I did it once would be unusual but I actually went too far twice—in different contexts and about different things but both times, I realized that I said too much to the wrong people. That by itself is somewhat surprising. I am an introvert with a very strong listening gift, which means that most times in a group setting, I am the one in the group who is helping everyone else talk and share. I am also often the one people look at when they are sharing something difficult or painful.

But here I was in the group talking—and talking too much, taking the group in a very different direction than our stated purpose and in the process giving people too much information that they really didn’t need and which wasn’t all that helpful in the context. I am feeling kind of something which although I can’t exactly describe is somewhat negative.

My first response was to do what I always do when something isn’t right: I analyse. I needed to know what prompted the over sharing. Interestingly enough, each infraction had a different reason. In the first case, our group was given a discussion question that I couldn’t answer for a variety of reasons. Instead of letting the group carry on, I blurted out my inability and essentially stopped the group process. I am pretty sure that that was result of being tired and therefore less able to discipline myself—my normally efficient self-censor was off taking a nap.

The second time was different. Someone asked me a question and in the process of answering, I went a bit too far. I knew a lot about the question they asked and once started on the answer, the teacher inside kicked into gear and I kept going after I had given the questioner everything they wanted to know—and then I proceeded to give them lots that they didn’t want or need to know. Sometimes, my teacher likes showing off.

So, different reasons for the same behaviour. Given that there were no negative consequences that amounted to anything, it might seem like I am making a mountain out of a mole-hill. But I like to understand what I am doing and why I am doing it. It is part of my continual growth emotionally and spiritually. Knowing why I do what I do, or knowing as much as I can about why I do what I do is important to my continued growth.

I don’t want to go with the flow and not understand myself. I want to know what rough edges still need sanding, what holes need patching, what weak spots need shoring up. I think that is all part of personal and spiritual growth. Yes, I am what I am—but my faith teaches me that I am not what I could be. God loves me as I am—but he also loves me enough to encourage and help me to become what I can be.

And it is important to me to be involved personally in the development process that God has going on in my life. I believe I went too far both times. I see something that I need to work on. I don’t think I am a failure or a hopeless case. I goofed. I messed up. What now?

Well, I figured out what went wrong. God has already forgiven me. I can and will forgive me. And together, God and I will move on, continuing to work at the project of helping me become what God knows I can become. I hope I won’t make those same mistakes again—but if I do, well, God’s grace is big enough to deal with it.

May the peace of God be with you.

SINNER OR STUPID?

Another public figure has recently been outed. A picture has show up; a blog post has surfaced; an informant has come forward. The past has been revealed and the public figure is now in the process: denial, grudging admission, pleading for understanding, all followed by the inevitable crash and burn. For political figures, that means resignation and finding a real job; for media celebrities, it means no more screaming fans; for church leaders, it means loss of pulpit and reputation.

Since we live in an age where everything is likely documented somewhere and someone has the ability to discover the past, it is pretty much inevitable that nothing can ever be hidden forever. I fully expect that this trend will reach the point where the startling revelation will be that so and so messed their diapers at age 3 months, which shows that they are totally unfit for whatever prominent position they are currently occupied.

Leaving aside the basic problem that our western culture, after having dethroned the Judeo-Christian ethical tradition that was used for so long, is now in the process of developing a new ethical system on the fly, a system that seems to be based on highly subjective feelings tinged with a strong desire for revenge and which changes with the volume of outrage that can be stirred up, there is a problem with all the revelations and reactions.

The problem is that people aren’t being allowed to be real people. Real people are sometimes sinners and sometimes just plain stupid—it is hard to tell the difference but there is a real difference, especially in the way they need to be dealt with. Sin is a deliberate choice to break the rules. Stupidity may also break the rules but tends to be the result of poor thinking choices sometimes encouraged by peer groups, substance abuse or bravado.

Sin, that deliberate choice to break rules that can cause harm to society, others and self is only really dealt with when people confront their inner motivations and desires and accept whatever help they need to make changes. In a culture increasingly divorced from religion and faith of any kind, it is harder and harder to deal constructively with sin and sinners, which may be why condemnation, denunciation and punishment are the go to approaches in our culture.

Stupidity, however, is sometimes a bit easier to deal with. What I am labelling as stupidity is more likely ignorance—people don’t actually know that what they are doing is wrong or offensive or unacceptable. Ignorance can be dealt with by providing information. We can teach people out of stupidity and ignorance. Most of us have successfully grown past a lot of our ignorance and stupidity. But if, after being taught and understanding the teaching, they persist in whatever was wrong, then they are likely following the path of sin.

So, some public figure gets caught about a decades old problem. Again, leaving aside the shifting moral sands that our western culture pretends isn’t a problem, the response to the revelation probably needs to be more nuanced. Was it sin or stupidity? If it was stupidity, has the individual in question learned and grown out of the stupidity? Are they as ignorant today as they were back then? If the action in question was the result of stupidity and the individual has grown out of that particular stupidity and both knows and lives better today, maybe we need to let it go, just like we let the dirty diapers of infants go.

If, however, it is actually sin, a conscious choice to do wrong (again, ignoring the fact that our western culture doesn’t have clear standards of right and wrong) and the individual hasn’t shown any desire to be different and only stops because they got caught, we need to deal with that differently. There is a way to deal with it, a way that involved confession, remorse and asking for forgiveness, a process that can still be found through God, even if our confused culture isn’t sure what to do with real sin beyond seek revenge.

People are going to do sinful and stupid stuff. The more prominent a person becomes, the higher the likelihood that their past will end up as headlines somewhere. Before we start piling on, maybe we should try and discover if the person who was sinful and stupid back then is the same person before us today. That would be the graceful thing to do.

May the peace of God be with you.

FIRST SNOW

In the last few weeks, I have run onto several recent immigrants to our area, several of whom haven’t had the pleasure of driving in snow. They were talking a bit about the process of discovering snow tires, low speed trips, watching the weather, allowing more time than normal and all that sort of stuff that I grew up knowing. While some of the people I have been talking to have several years of winter driving under their seatbelts at this point, they confess to still being nervous.

Generally, winter driving doesn’t make me nervous—except for the very first storm that puts real snow on the road, especially if that storm begins during the day time and the snow accumulates before dark. Then, I get really nervous. A minor part of the nervousness comes from the inherent danger of driving in snow—that is a good nervousness because it causes me to remember all the winter driving techniques that I have learned over the years: slow down, don’t make sudden starts or stops, slow down. allow lots more space between cars, slow down, pay more attention to oncoming traffic, slow down, never pass the snow plow and finally, slow down. Remembering and following these rules has saved me from lots of accidents. The accidents that I and others had to prove the value of these rules did have a positive side.

But remembering the rules accounts for only a minor part of the nervousness. Most of my anxiety and stress with winter driving comes from having to share the road with other drivers. Most drivers in Canada quickly remember and adapt to winter driving techniques—but there are a few who seem to think that driving in snow and slush is exactly the same as driving on clear dry roads. Those drivers really bother me. They may think they have control as they pass several prudent drivers, slipping and sliding as they (probably) curse and fume at all us slower drivers. But they don’t have as much control as they think and their next accident is only a slip away—and my nervousness comes from the fact that I really don’t want to be in their way when they lose their tenuous traction and spin out. Slippery roads mean I have very little chance of avoiding their out of control vehicle.

When I meet or am passed by such a driver, I almost always get around to asking myself why people do stuff like that—generally, that comes after I question their sanity in less than ministerial terms. (I freely admit to not being perfect and there is nothing like a poor driver to bring out my imperfection). I don’t actually know why I ask about their motives because ultimately, the answer is basic theology.

We are sinful beings, a traditional theological way of saying that we are all selfish and think that we are the centre of the world. We tend to think that if the world doesn’t revolve around us, it should and we have a tendency to act in ways that confirm our selfishness. So, if I don’t want to slow down on snowy roads, the world needs to accommodate me. I may justify it by saying that I am an experienced driver or that I have a car that is good in snow or that I have four wheel drive or that I can handle the snow better than others but the reality is that my sinfulness is showing.

And that means that I need to do some work on myself. While I tend to focus on their sinful and selfish poor driving, I probably need to focus more on my sinful and selfish judgemental attitude. I might be driving slower than they are but I am being as sinful as they are—and since I can’t really reform them, I need to focus on what I can really control: my driving and my attitude. I probably need to drop the stone that I want to throw at the poor driver and deal with my own sin.

It is much easier and more gratifying to judge the other driver—but as a follower of Christ, I need to allow the Holy Spirit (and maybe the police) to deal with that driver while I ask for the Spirit’s help to deal with my own sin.

May the peace of God be with you.

FORGIVE ME

One of my Bible study groups is studying the Lord’s Prayer. We are slowly moving through the content of the prayer, with many journeys here, there and everywhere as we examine the implications of the prayer for our lives. Eventually, we arrived at the place where we ask God, “Forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. That verse kept our study going for several weeks.

This isn’t a passage telling us that God will only forgive us as much as we forgive others. That would be at odds with the rest of the New Testament, which makes it clear that God’s forgiveness in Christ is unrestricted and unfettered, a limitless offer of love and grace that most of us will never fully understand.

As I and various people, including the Bible study, have grappled with this passage over the years, it seems to me that the real message the passage is trying to get to has to do more with our ability to forgive than with God’s ability to forgive. The bottlenecks and roadblocks and impediments to forgiveness all come from us, not from God.

And the biggest problem, I think, is our inability to actually forgive ourselves. Most people, especially faithful people, are terrible at forgiving themselves. We often have a sense of what “good” people should be like and an even better sense of why we are not like that. We know that God forgives—but we are uncomfortable believing that he could actually forgive us for that terrible sin of having an extra piece of pie (or maybe even the first piece, depending on the circumstances).

Often, we who are people of faith have our insides cluttered with sins and perceived sins that we are pretty sure are the worst sins in the history of faith, stuff that makes us feel guilty and unworthy and sinful and which we are sure that God couldn’t ever forgive. And if God can’t forgive us, who are we to let ourselves off the hook?

But the Gospel truth is that God can and does and even did forgive everything—that is the point of the cross and the resurrection. God can forgive us. And if God can and has forgiven us, who are we to argue? We can’t claim to know more than God; we can’t suggest that he doesn’t have the full story; we can’t argue that he has missed something—although in truth, we do all that stuff. But God is God, he does know the full story, he didn’t miss anything and when he offers to forgive, he can and will deliver.

So, many of us in the faith walk around as forgiven children of God who are still carrying heavy imaginary burdens of unforgiveness simply because we won’t in the end forgive ourselves. We make God into a liar and a weakling because we refuse to believe that he is stronger than us and our sins.

And then it gets worse because we are pretty sure that if we don’t really deserve forgiveness, that no one else actually deserves it either. If I can’t forgive myself for that second slice of pie, how can I forgive you who joined me in the raid on the fridge? Or even worse, if I don’t eat the pie and can’t forgive myself for even thinking about it, how can I ever forgive you for actually eating the pie?

Our theology of forgiveness needs to be improved. Actually, it needs to be real theology, not our thoughts and feelings. God has made it clear that forgiveness is a consequence of his love and grace. He makes it clear that there are no limits (I know about the sin of blasphemy of the Holy Spirit in Matthew 12.31 but essentially worrying about this sin is a pretty good sign you haven’t committed it). He goes to inhuman lengths to let us know that he is prepared to forgive us no matter what.

So, if the God of all creation, who know everything there is to know about me and everything else is willing to die to forgive me, I should probably learn how to forgive myself—and at the same time, that will help me forgive others. When we let God’s rules about forgiveness guide the process, we will all do better.

May the peace of God be with you.

FEELING GUILTY

The other day, I was at the fall fundraising event for several of the churches in our area. Rather than set up competing events, the churches get together, rent a large hall and do the event together. So, in one big space, there are bake sales, jam sales, quasi-yard sales, silent auctions and a really good brunch. Since we browse the tables at different speeds, my wife and I quickly got separated but since we both knew we would end up at the brunch tables, that wasn’t a problem.

As I looked at the tables and talked to people I knew from all the various churches, I came to the table run by a neighbour who is on one of the same committees I serve on. She had volunteered to take the minutes of our last meeting, which I would then scan and send on to the rest of the committee. As soon as she saw me, she joked about feeling guilty because she didn’t have the minutes done. My joking response was that my job as a pastor was done because I had made her feel guilty. We both knew we were joking and went on to talk about other things—and in the process made a tentative plan to get the minutes done.

I have been thinking on the topic of guilt since then—well, to be honest, it is a topic that I have been thinking about on and off for a while. It seems like guilt is almost synonymous with being a person of faith. I have heard pastors (and comedians) talk about various religious groups as being the inventors of guilt. I remember one person whose faith I admired telling a visiting speaker that she really appreciated his message because it made her feel so guilty—she was giving him what was her supreme compliment.

There is a connection between faith and guilt but not the one that is popularly assumed to be there. It seems like many people both inside and outside the faith want guilt to be the supreme quality of a religious person. Such thinking almost has a valid point. Most religions begin with the idea that we human beings are imperfect and that there is a better, holier and perfect something beyond us. Our continued imperfection is a problem—and guilt seems to be the appropriate response for most people.

Interestingly enough, most people want to maintain a perfect level of guilt. They want to have enough to feel religious but not enough to change behaviour. This is a hard balance to maintain, though, and often people get caught in the swamp of uncontrolled guilt that causes them to slip into low self-esteem, despair, even hopelessness. The process isn’t helped by the vast amount of guilt producing preaching, teaching and advice given by religious leaders.

But what if guilt isn’t the purpose of faith? What if, instead of guilt being the goal and focus of faith, it is only a tool to get us to something greater, a tool that has a important but limited use? What is God uses guilt to motivate us to confess and accept his forgiveness so that we can be free of guilt? What is guilt that can’t be dealt with by God’s offer of forgiveness is false guilt and isn’t something that we need to or should deal with?

I think that this what if is actually the case. I think our Christian faith is based on the reality that God doesn’t want us to feel guilty. In actual fact, he wants us to feel forgiven—and forgiveness by definition ends the hold of guilt on our lives. God wants us to live in the freedom that comes from knowing that we are forgiven and that there is no need to hold on to the guilt that led us to accept God’s forgiveness. Sometimes, that left over guilt is really a sign of our inability to really accept and appreciate the forgiveness that God has given us in Jesus. We hold on to our guilt probably because we feel better feeling guilty that we do feeling free.

But as believers, we are free, we are forgiven and for us, guilt should only be a temporary reminder that we have more to take to God and when we take it to him, he takes care of us, relieving us of the need to feel guilty. Real faith is marked by a sense of freedom from guilt, a freedom that comes from opening ourselves to the grace of God.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE CANE

For the past few weeks, my very old knees have been complaining about still being engaged in the work of carrying me around. They have been complaining for years but for some reason, this last couple of weeks has seen the complaining develop into a sort of strike. One knee became so weak and painful that walking became seriously difficult—and since the other knee is weaker to start with, the extra strain on it meant that I began to sit lot and waited until there were several reasons to get up.

And, because I can’t sit all the time, I dug out my cane and started using it when I had to go further than a few feet. This was a major event for me. I am somewhat stubborn, somewhat independent, somewhat dedicated to accomplishing what I want to do free of help. I resisted glasses as a teenager for several months; I resisted hearing aids at a 60+ year old for several years and I resisted the pain in my knee for longer than anyone knows. But I realized that if I was going to make it from the car to the church hall for Bible study, I would need the cane—rolling along wouldn’t be all that successful while carrying my briefcase and water.

It wouldn’t be all that big a problem, though, because I always arrive first and would be inside and settled before anyone else arrived. And, if I followed my usual practise of being the last one to leave, most wouldn’t even notice my limp or the cane. Although I joke sometimes about using the cane to garner sympathy, I really don’t like the limits the cane illustrates or the multiple questions and so on that accompany the cane.

Shortly after I began the drive to the study, I realized I was in trouble. The long awaited resurfacing of our road was underway—and I managed to arrive at the work site just as the traffic going my way was stopped. There was still time but as the wait stretched on into minutes, I began to fidget and wonder how much longer and all the rest. There are no other practical routes from my house to the Bible study so my only choice was to wait. Finally, we were allowed through, although we had to drive slowly behind the guide truck for what seemed like hours. I couldn’t even make up a lot of time after we were free of the work area because several of the cars in front of me were obviously being driven by people seeking to save the planet by poking along well under the speed limit.

But I could still arrive before most people, I thought, at least until I came up to the second set of road works and flagperson, who also timed their work perfectly to stop me for another several minutes, followed by another slow trip behind the follow me truck and another forced speed reduction by the drivers in front.

I finally arrived—and most of the members of the study were there, either standing by the locked door (the person who normally opens the door and turns on the heat was away that day) or sitting in their cars waiting. So, I park, open the door and crawl out of the car and stand unsteadily as I juggle my briefcase, water and cane. By the time I was standing with everything sort of in control, most of the study group was right there, asking what was wrong, if they could help, did I need anything, was I okay.

Eventually, I got inside. One person took the key to open the door, another ended up with my water, a third had the briefcase. No one offered to carry me but that was probably just because of the fact that all of us are actually too old to make such foolish gestures. I did actually appreciate the help—it is much easier to use a cane when I don’t have anything else to carry at the same time. Getting out was the reverse—all my duties and burdens were taken on by others. All I had to do was limp to the car and fall inside.

I hate being dependent on anyone or anything. But honestly, it was really great to have people so willing to help out and the cane made the trip from the car to the hall much easier. My pride can be a real problem at times.

May the peace of God be with you.

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.

LET US PRAY

For a while now, I have been pondering a reality of my spiritual life. As a pastor, I pray a lot—every worship service has several prayers included, as well as the prayer I have with the choir before we begin. It is not unusual for me to pray with parishioners before or after worship if the situation warrants it. When there is a meal or fellowship time, I pray for the food. When I make a pastoral visit in a home or hospital, I generally pray with the people I visit. I have also prayed during phone calls and occasionally on the street with someone who obviously needs the divine support that prayer helps us to remember. Overall, I pray a lot.

Except, I actually don’t, at least outside of professional prayers. My personal prayer life has gone through a lot of phases but for the last few years, I don’t actually have a specific prayer time. I used to have long and ever growing prayer lists: one for the ministry I was involved in, one for family and friends, one for things in the news that caught my eye. I would read my Bible and then pray through the lists. Sometimes the lists were so long that I would do some lists some days and other lists on other days—organizing is one of my gifts.

But one day, I realized that the prayer list driven prayers were just not doing it for me. I realized that I was just running over the names and topics as if I was reading the grocery list. I wasn’t really involved in the list—I wasn’t actually sure that what I was doing could actually be classified as prayer. Now, before I go further, let me assure anyone who used and finds value in prayer lists that I am not going to bash the process or people who do it. I am dealing with my personal prayers, not someone else’s. I know that prayer lists are an important spiritual aid for many people and that is great—I support and encourage anything that helps people grow in faith.

But for me, the process wasn’t working and so one day during my morning devotional time, I simply decided to stop doing the lists. I threw out the papers and didn’t do it anymore. I still have a devotional time but it involves reading the Bible, which has been and is important to my spiritual development. I could perhaps suggest that I have developed some alternate devotional technique that involves me praying the Scripture that I am reading but that really isn’t the case. When I read the Bible, I am thinking and focused on what I am reading.

Sometimes, when I am sitting on my office (the Ikea chair by the living room window), I close my eyes and engage in prayer about some issue in ministry or my life that concerns me. I thought this might be a good prayer technique and it is a great technique, for the 30 seconds it takes me to fall asleep. It is probably valuable but then again that might just be the result of the nap.

As I have pondered this over the last few years, I realized that my prayer life kind of reflects the rest of my life. In most of my relationships, I don’t actually talk a lot. Outside of preaching and some parts of Bible Study, I generally do a whole lot more listening than I do talking. I am quite at home listening to people and generally feel most comfortable in a conversation when I get to listen and others get to talk.

I am not an entirely passive individual though. I can and do talk—and can be quite forceful when I need to be. But even then, I am likely going to say what I need to say with as few words as possible—why use 10 words when 2 will are perfectly capable of expressing everything I want to say?

So, with that insight in place, I looked at my personal prayers again. I don’t actually talk to God a lot—but when I do, it is times that are important to me and I say what I need to say with the same economy of words I use in any conversation. I try to listen to and for God. So, maybe I do pray—in a way that fits my personality. For now, it seems to work for me—but that just might be due more to the limitless grace of God than any great spiritual wisdom on my part.

May the peace of God be with you.