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.

Advertisements

AN ANNOYING PRACTISE

In my never ending struggle to keep my head above water in the demands of part-time ministry, I began a practise a few years ago that I find extremely helpful and valuable but which most people find so annoying that I rarely mention it. And when I do mention it, I mention it very carefully and with a confessional tone, as if I am somehow guilty of some great sin that I keep doing because I can’t help myself.

I began writing my sermons a week and a half to two weeks before I need them. So, the sermon I wrote this week will actually be preached a week from Sunday. If and when I mention that habit, there are several reactions, often following one after the other. The person who discovers my custom suddenly realizes that I have two sermons prepared—and since my schedule requires that I prepare sermons early in the week, they also realize I have two sermons done when they haven’t even started this week’s yet.

That almost invariably leads to joking requests to share the wealth and give them one of the sermons. Some of the people making the joke are genuinely joking—but more than a few are being serious and hoping I won’t notice that they are being serious.

The next response is that they begin talking about how they wish they could do that but just don’t have the time to do it. As we continue to talk, I sometimes discover that the unstated, hidden message in their comment is that they are so busy because their ministry is so much more demanding, successful, significant or whatever than mine. I obviously have more time on my hands so that I am able to engage in sneaky and perhaps degenerative habits like having a sermon ready well before I need it.

I don’t bother paying much attention to stuff like that these days. Those who know my secret continue on, convinced that I am underworked, obsessive, somewhat unbalance mentally or just plain weird. Those who don’t know my secret—well, what they don’t know doesn’t make any difference, although some of them probably think I am underworked, obsessive, somewhat unbalance mentally or just plain weird anyway.

I have had a tendency over the years to be somewhat out of step with most people—my sermon writing practise is only one manifestation of my individuality. I try to find ways and practises and customs and things that work for me in my situation—and even if others find them unusual or strange, I have become comfortable being different. Writing sermons a week ahead really means that when the inevitable week from hell comes, when I have 14 funerals, 29 weddings, 87 pastoral emergencies plus a bunch of meetings, I can breathe a bit because the sermon is already taken care of. True, I am then back in the same situation as everyone else but inevitably, I find the time to get back ahead within 2-4 weeks.

The reactions I get to this practise have always interested me. I think part of the interest comes from the fact that we tend to allow ourselves to get trapped in the conventional. We do what we do because “everyone” is doing it. Pastors have to preach almost every week and so we prepare a sermon every week—and the conventional approach is to do it the week it is needed.

But being conventional isn’t a law—it’s just conventional. All of us would probably be better off if we took some time to see if we can help ourselves a bit with some unconventional thinking and approaches. What everyone else does might be the best way—or it might not be the best way for us. God made us as individuals who sometimes have unique and unconventional ways that work much better for our specific situations than the conventional and accepted.

My unconventional approach to sermon preparation works for me. Given what I hear from many others, I am pretty sure that it would work for some of my friends in ministry as well but that is their choice. I keep working ahead, not making a lot of noise about it and basically ignoring the fact that it annoys some people to no end. It works for me and doesn’t break any really important rules.

May the peace of God be with you.

DRIVING BY OTHER CHURCHES

I spend a lot of time on the road when I am working. The nearest of the churches I serve is an 18 kilometer round trip and the most distant is a 78 kilometer round trip. No matter which building I am going to, I have to pass other churches—some Baptist and some representing other denominations. And because I have lived in this area for a long time, I know quite a bit about those other churches.

And the one fact that stares me in face every time I drive by is that they all have more people in worship that I have. It doesn’t matter which denomination or where they are on the theological spectrum, they have more people in worship than I have. There are a couple of congregations in the area that have fewer but they aren’t on my regular routes so the bottom line is that every congregation I drive by has more people in worship than I have.

Now, being the spiritually mature, balanced and understanding pastor that I am, this doesn’t bother me at all. I can drive by and say a prayer of thanksgiving that they are doing so well and go to my small worship spiritually secure in the knowledge that all is well and that numbers don’t matter and that as long as God is being praised, all is well.

And if you are willing to believe that last paragraph, can I interest you in some land I have for sale? It is a great piece of land, although we need to wait for a six month dry spell so the ground is firm enough to stand on without sinking in too much.

Being the pastor of some of the smallest congregations in our area does bother me, especially since I have been working there for over two years and have managed to slightly decrease our average attendance in that time. Driving by other congregations can be painful.

I drive by the very conservative ones that have clear answers for everything, along with lots and lots of cars in the parking lot and wonder if maybe I need to start giving people clear answers like those groups do. But then, as I think about the people in the pews that I work with week after week, I realize that they neither need nor want clear and rigid answers—their faith needs the freedom to ask questions and seek answers that is such a strong part of our ministry.

I drive by the buildings of more liberal denominations which sometimes question what I consider the basics of the faith—and who also have lots of cars in the parking lot. I wonder of maybe I should copy their approach—but then I remember that most of the people I work with have built their lives and their faith on these foundational realities.

I drive by charismatic congregations, whose music and worship are obviously attracting people, at least according to the number of cars in the lot and I wonder if maybe we need to ditch the organ and piano and traditional hymns for a worship team and choruses projected on the wall—but then I remember that we are lucky to have any musician at all and we do like the older hymns but when possible, we try some new stuff.

So, I drive by. I look at the cars in the lot with some envy and maybe more jealousy that I am comfortable with. I wonder if I am doing something wrong that keeps us small and struggling. I wonder if maybe we should close up shop and go somewhere else. And then I realize that we gather each week for worship and for Bible study because we have found something that works for us. It probably won’t work for others—well, obviously, it doesn’t work for a lot of others because they aren’t there. But what happens in other places might not work for us either—I know that because some have tied hard to fit in there and it just doesn’t work.

So, I drive by and look at the cars and continue to my congregations where we gather as a small group seeking to understand God’s presence and calling and purpose for us. I don’t really know why we are who and what we are—but I do know that we are who and what we are because God has called us together and works in and through us—and for now, that counteracts the parking lot envy enough to keep me going.

May the peace of God be with you.

A SUNNY DAY

Sunday morning—a bright, sunny day. While the overnight temperature was below zero, the day promised to warm up. In fact, by the time I was ready to leave for the first of two worship services, it was warm enough that I didn’t feel the need for a topcoat—my suit jacket would be enough for the short distances that I would be walking outside. It was a really nice day, after a longish spell of cloudy, drippy gray days and I was enjoying it to the fullest.

Well, actually, I wasn’t enjoying it to the fullest. Enjoying it to the fullest would probably involve a walk ( or hobble, in my case), a bike ride, a trip to a park or other wilderness area or something like that. Enjoying it to the fullest doesn’t involve having two worship services that keep me inside older, slightly moldy buildings. But that is the reality of most Sundays for me—it’s why I get the big bucks.

Well, actually, it is what I have been called to. And mostly, I am okay with my calling. But I do have to confess that now and then, I kind of wish that I had the option that most church people have—the option of taking the day off and enjoying the sun. I know worship is supposed to be an important part of the week and it is an expression of my gratitude to God and the call to lead God’s people in worship is scared and all that, but honestly, some days, I would like to have a bit more choice.

There are two types of Sundays that make me feel that way. One is the bright, sunny day after a period of drippy days, like the one I described at the beginning of this post. The other kind of day that inspires these feelings is a snowy, windy, blizzard day. I love snow storms—they inspire me. There is nothing better than being out in a snow storm, clearing the driveway or cross country skiing—and the only thing that even comes close to that feeling is sitting inside the warm house, drinking a coffee-hot chocolate blend while watching the snow swirl and twist and pile up, which I seem to be doing more and more of on such days as I get older.

Generally, I get my wish for a day off on the snow storm days. Since I am a braver (dumber?) driver than most church people, I have removed myself from that decision making process and leave it completely to the church. I have served churches long enough to pretty much know what their decision will be just by looking out the window and can actually start enjoying the day before the official phone call.

But bright, sunny days—well, there is no protocol for those days. The roads are clear and dry, the parking lot is open, the building is warm, everything is a go. The members choose whether they will come to worship or visit a friend, take a walk, go for a bike ride, go out for lunch. Bright, sunny days in the spring tend to have about the same attendance as the Sundays when there are flurries but not enough to invoke the cancelation process. People stay away for different reasons and different people stay away on different days but the weather makes a significant difference on attendance—and really great days have about the same effect as borderline days.

Except for me. I do get the occasional snow day, which I enjoy. But the bright, sunny days after several gray days, well, no matter how much I suggest to the deacons and the whole church, we don’t have a policy about them. We aren’t going to cancel when the weather is so nice that being inside a stuffy, somewhat moldy building seems wrong. That strikes me as a bit of a double standard and maybe even discriminatory against people whose constitution requires an adequate amount of sun but that is the way it is I guess.

And in the end, I probably don’t actually want the day off. I know that when we have a snow day, I am disappointed that we aren’t having worship and so I would probably feel the same way about a worship service cancelled because the day is too nice. But I like to play with the idea anyway.

May the peace of God be with you.

BEING SALT AND LIGHT

I knew a guy one time who was looking for the perfect church, one where he would be free to develop his understanding of God and the Kingdom. He was convinced that when he found that perfect church, everything would be great. He was a pastor and had some connections with the people who helped churches find pastors so he used the connections and discovered a church that looked good. Unfortunately, after he had been there a short time, he began to see some problems—and if the truth be told, he himself began to create some problems. Eventually, the imperfection in the church became so serious that he resigned to go to another church that looked perfect.

I am pretty sure that he is still looking for that perfect church. Personally, I entered ministry with the understanding that neither churches nor pastors are perfect and that we both need to try and help each other become a bit better at following the faith that we claim. So, whenever I am called to a church as their pastor, I know without question that I am not going to a perfect church. That is alright, though, because I also know without question that when they call me, they are not getting a perfect pastor.

Neither the church nor the pastor is perfect—and given the theological realities of sin and its persistence even after we become believers, there is no chance of a perfect church or perfect pastor this side of eternity. For me, that raised all sorts of questions, issues and concerns. One of those many questions, issues and concerns grows out of the fact that we are supposed to be sale and light in the world, a visible and concrete reminder to the community of the love and grace of God.

When we show our imperfection to the community, which we do with depressing regularity, what does that do to our saltiness and lightness? It can and all too often does turn into anti-salt and anti-light, discouraging people outside the faith from seeing our faith as a viable option for their lives. Mind you, if we try to cover up our imperfections, the community is also very aware that we are not perfect and our cover up attempts also discourage people when it comes to the faith.

We are called to be salt and light—and we are imperfect. And any approach to being the church or an individual believer that doesn’t keep those two basic truths in mind is doomed to failure. We can’t be perfect—and we can’t help but give witness to our faith. And so it seems to me that the only real choice we have is to be upfront about who and what we really are.

We need to be willing to admit to any and all that we are imperfect. What makes us people of faith and churches is not our perfection but rather the fact that we have admitted to God that we can’t deal with our imperfection by ourselves. We surrender ourselves to God who then has our permission to work in our lives: smoothing the rough spots; teaching our ignorance; forgiving the sins; guiding our footsteps and all the rest. God knows we are not perfect—but he loves and graces us anyway.

We are salt and light when we freely admit our sins and imperfections not just to God, each other and the church but also to the community and the rest of the world. We don’t always get it right—in fact, we get it wrong as much as anyone else and maybe even more than some people. What sets us apart is that we have discovered that God can deal with us in our imperfect state and wants us to be in a deep relationship with him even in our imperfect state. When we live our faith and run our churches conscious of our imperfection and our dependence of the love and grace of God, then our sin and imperfection become part of our divine saltiness and lightness because our confession and forgiveness and trying again point beyond our imperfection to the perfect God who can and does provide a way for us even in our imperfection.

We show salt and light when we remember and then let the community know that we are not perfect—but we believe in a God who is and whose love and grace can deal with our imperfection.

May the peace of God be with you.

MY DAY OFF

One day recently, I was so tired at night that I barely made it through the 10:00 news—I think I was awake during most of it but I am also pretty sure that I didn’t focus fully on what was being said. My reading time before going to sleep was rather brief—the words on the ereader didn’t seem to make sense, either because of a software problem with the ereader or a different problem with the actual reader.

I know why I was tired. The day had been very full and part of a very full week. It began with study time. I had a worship service to prepare for the local nursing home. I got that done and then turned to the funeral service that I had prepared the day before. I read it over, tinkered a bit with it and transferred it to my tablet. By then, it was time to leave for the funeral service. I arrived early, spent some time talking with people and at the appropriate time, lead the funeral service.

When that was done, I went home for lunch ( and a brief nap), followed by some work on a session for the lay preaching class that would be happening the next day. I also gave some though to a sermon because Sundays inevitably show up each week and the congregation expects me to have something to say. And so until the lay preaching class members are ready, that means I need to have a sermon prepared. I didn’t write the sermon that afternoon—I reached a point where I couldn’t do any more creative stuff and so too a bit of time to do very little.

But the day wasn’t actually done. After supper, I had a counselling session with a couple I have been working with for a while. We had been doing well but there had been some external trauma that we needed to work through. But after that session, I was done for the day. At that point, I think I began counting the minutes until I could actually go to bed.

As you probably guessed from the title, this all happened on my day off. I was not supposed to be doing any work that day, let alone everything I did. And this is where I have something of a problem. I grew up in the era of ministry being a 24-7 occupation. Clergy worked all the time—it was part of their commitment to God. There was stuff to be done—important stuff and no one called by God could expect to slow down.

I never bought into that particular myth. I have always believed that even clergy need a healthy work/rest balance and I have worked hard over the years to have such a balance. As a teacher and mentor of clergy, I have encouraged ministry students to take care of themselves and even scolded a few for not working on a healthy balance in their lives. Over the course of my ministry, I have worked hard not to work too hard.

But that week on my day off, I spent most of the day working. And it isn’t like I will get that day back during the week—that week was just beyond belief and there was no time, except for the few hours freed up because of a cancellation because of a snowstorm. I broke all my own personal rules about work/life balance that week.

And while I know many clergy who like to brag about how much they work, I don’t feel proud about my week—I feel equal amounts of fatigue and guilt. Fatigue because I worked too much with too little rest and guilt because I didn’t get the balance right.

Fortunately, not every week is like this and most weeks, I do get my day off. Equally fortunately, I have learned how to forgive myself for breaking my rules of work/life balance. Some days and some weeks inevitably demand more that I am supposed to give. But as long as I can forgive myself and make sure that I eventually get the break and rest I need, things will be okay. I am doing what God has called me to do—and part of that calling involves self care, which means I might have worked one day off but I won’t work every day off.

May the peace of God be with you.

COERCION OR CONVICTION?

I often find myself walking on a theological tight rope. I believe that God in Christ loves us with a perfect, unending and unconditional love. He loves us as we are—and the proof of that love and grace are seen clearly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. There is nothing I could, can or might do that will ever make God love me less or more; nothing that will limit or increase the grace that he offers to me through Jesus Christ. This is a basic and foundational reality of my faith.

If I just had this reality, I would be fine. Unfortunately, there is another equally valid reality that I need to deal with. I am not what I was meant to be. My being has been affected by sin—mine and others. Some of the effect isn’t my fault—it comes from living in a world deeply affected by human sin. But some of the effect of sin is my fault. I have made choices and followed paths that have taken me further and further away from the ideal that God had in mind when he began the creation process.

The tightrope I walk is the struggle to find the balance between these two realities. If I begin to believe that God’s love and grace are so powerful that my current imperfect state doesn’t matter, I will never grow in faith. But if I spend too much time on my imperfection, I run the risk of beginning to let my imperfection block my ability to appreciate the love and grace of God.

In both my ministry and my personal spiritual life, I have had to deal with the consequences of ignoring one of these realities and focusing too much on the other. Because I belong to the conservative part of the Christian faith, I am very familiar with the traditional conservative approach to this dichotomy. We have tended to see our imperfection more than we have seen the love of God.

We end up believing, but pretty sure that we are not good enough for God. We tend to be insecure about our faith—there is always the fear that some Biblical scholar is going to suddenly realize that the Bible actually says that God only loves us when we become perfect. We on the conservative side of the faith tend to do our faith thing from a sense of fear—we understand really well that we aren’t good enough but we really struggle to find the balance that a proper awareness of the love and grace of God will bring.

There are other believers whose sense of the love and grace of God allow them to completely ignore their imperfection—because God loves them, they can and do follow any path they want. Content and comfortable in the powerful love of God, they have no need to look at who they are and who they were meant to be.

For me, though, I need to be at the balance point. I know my imperfections, the places where I need to grow, the things I need to change. But I also need to remember that God in Christ loves me the way I am. He doesn’t want to change the negative parts of my being so that he can love me more. Part of the expression of his eternal love and grace is the willingness to help me discover more of what I was really meant to be, not so that God can love me more but simply so that I can be more me.

When I keep this balance, I am comfortable. I can grow and develop—or fail and not develop in the safe and protected limitlessness of God’s love. I don’t seek to grow because God coerces me. I seek to grow because the God who loves me also wants me to experience the good and wonderful that I have been keeping myself from experiencing because of the reality of sin.

Whether I grow on not, God’s love and grace continue to be there. But if I am willing to grow, I become more and more of what I was meant to be. God will not love me more either way—but I am more comfortable and more at home with myself, others and God when I open myself to grow as God leads me.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHY BOTHER?

I realized recently that I might be sitting on the edge of depression. While I am normally aware when I start getting to that point, it sort of crept up on me for a variety of reasons. I have been tired since Christmas, a tiredness that wasn’t really helped by our vacation trip—the trip was great but the travel process is always tiring. Also, I am sitting more these days—my arthritic knees are bothering me more and more and being off them feels better than being on them. And, because one of the churches I serve has shut down for three months, I have less to do.

So, it was easy to rationalize not doing stuff—I am still tired from Christmas and the trip, my knees are hurting or will hurt and there is nothing I really have to do. Sitting in the chair and watching Youtube seems justified. And so I wasn’t keeping all that close an eye out for the things that indicate I am slipping into a depression.

I have things to do: the latest woodworking project is underway, the newest issue of National Geographic arrived this week, there is always a need to write blog entries, there are several people I could meet for coffee, I could even hobble my way through a short walk. But with all the possibilities, I found myself sitting in the chair, glued to the screen mindlessly. I would find myself thinking about some of the options and asking, “Why bother?”.

Everything would take a lot of effort. Working on the cabinet would require dragging the saw and sander and other tools outside and it is cold out there. I could read my magazine but that would require using the keyboard to navigate the pages (I get the digital version). I could call or text a friend but that would require getting dressed for the weather and driving to a coffee shop. I could go for a walk but that would require dressing for the weather and finding my walking stick and maybe being in pain afterwards. Why bother?

So, now I have a choice. I can let the depression develop or I can do something about it that might prevent it from developing. The reality for me is that the depression I sometimes slip into is totally dependent on my response to my situation—there is no medical basis for it. There might be a genetic disposition to dealing with life by getting depressed but essentially, the depression I deal with is a result of the way I deal with things and is most effectively dealt with by recognizing it and deciding to things differently.

And while that is incredibly easy to write, the actual practise is much harder. Depression can be self-sustaining and self-perpetuating, at least for me. When I start getting depressed, I begin making choices that sustain and enable the depression. Given a choice between moving the saw outside to create some sawdust from otherwise good boards or staring mindlessly at a Youtube video, it becomes easier to stare at the laptop screen.

The earlier I spot the symptoms of the coming depression, the easier it is to change the behaviours that encourage the depression. Based on my reluctance to change behaviours right now, I am probably further along than I would like to be and therefore facing a somewhat more difficult process that I would have if I had been paying more attention.

I have to confess, though, that even though I can see where I am, it is still difficult to motivate myself to deal with it. Depression is somehow comfortable in its familiarity—I have been here enough that I have developed a tolerance for a certain level of depression, maybe even some sort of psychological habituation to it. It might not feel good but it feels familiar. The temptation is to let the familiarity have more say in the process than is healthy.

Based on past experience, I know that I will eventually come out of this developing depression. I don’t actually like being depressed, not even if it feels familiar and comfortable like an old, well worn pair of jeans. I could start dealing with it right now—I just have to convince myself that it is worth the bother.

May the peace of God be with you.

WORSHIP INTERRUPTIONS

Given that my spot during worship is at the front facing the congregation, I get a great view of everything that is going on in the sanctuary, except for the choir area behind me.  While that area can be a source of interruptions, it is more normal for the interruptions to happen in front of me.

So, when the visiting grandchild starts acting out their boredom, I get to watch the grandparents struggle to cope.  When the busy farmer drops off to sleep because worship is the longest time he has sat still in weeks, I see and empathize.  I am used to interruptions and so was prepared for what happened at a recent worship service.

We were about 30 minutes into the service and I was just getting into the introduction to the sermon when I heard a noise at the front door.  Since all our regulars were either present or accounted for (one of the benefits of a small congregation), I thought that we were having visitors.  Visitors are always nice, even when they come during the sermon when the service is half over.

I was on the wrong side of the pulpit to actually see the door so in the course of preaching, I casually moved enough to see the door.  As it opened, someone peeked around the side of the door, saw me and quickly closed the door and left.  I actually wasn’t surprised that the visitor left–in that brief time his face was visible, I recognized who it was.

He wasn’t an actual late coming visitor coming to check out our worship.  He was a local resident well known for showing up at worship services and asking for money to help out his family.  The latest request tends to be for gas so his wife can get to work.  How do I know that?

Well, I have been pastor in this area for years and have worked with three generations of this family and with him directly.  He had actually called me a few weeks previously asking for money.  But since I knew that he had been making the rounds of local churches (one of the benefits of good relationships between churches) and that one pastor was offering to help the family with budgeting, I told him that I couldn’t help.

I know that he has been visiting local churches for a while looking for money.  I had worked with him and his family a lot over the years and have seen this pattern and process first hand.  I expect that his visit to our worship service was made in ignorance of the fact that I am the pastor–the church hasn’t got around to replacing the name of the previous pastor yet.  When he saw me, I think he realized that he was unlikely to get help that day.

The irony of the situation is that my sermon theme was that healthy churches seek to serve God by serving their community.  I am not at all sure what I think of this interruption during this particular sermon.  I think I handled the initial request wisely and graciously.  I am aware that I reached my limit with this particular family quite a while ago.  I am also aware that others have stepped in and tried.

But as my sermon progressed, part of my mind was processing the interruption and my response.  What is my responsibility to this individual and his family?  How do I serve God in my relationship with him?  I didn’t get too far in the process because the sermon does take most of my focus.  But I did decide that the family isn’t starving at this point–I know that they both have jobs.  I re-affirmed my decision not to give money.  And I decided that if he was sitting in his car waiting for us to be done to ask for money, I would offer budgeting help again hoping that this time, it would take.

Well, worship finished and by the time I actually got out the door, the parking lot was empty so I didn’t have to deal with any requests for money.  I can’t say I was upset with that, just as I can’t say I am upset with my response to the situation.  I decided that the issue for me isn’t that I don’t want to help, it is that I don’t want to help in a way which reinforces the present situation.  I want to offer something that will help change things which to me seems a much better option.

May the peace of God be with you.

FIXER-UPPER

I confess–I can’t help it.  In the last post, I was content to share my fix-it rules and leave it at that.  Writing the post helped pass the time while the glue on the Fitbit repair dried (it is still holding).  But I am a teacher and a preacher as well as a fixer–and most of my ministry has been spend working for an organization that always needs fixing.  Given that no church has ever been perfect and there will never be a perfect church until we all come together as perfected beings in heaven, there is always something that needs to be fixed in the church.  So, I am going to take a simple post written while fixing a Fitbit and turn it into a pastoral illustration about fixing churches.

But there, however,  are some important differences between what I do with lawn mowers, broken furniture and Fitbits.  One of the first and most significant differences is that in the church, I am not just the fixer–I am also part of the problem.  I am generally involved with churches as pastor–but that doesn’t change the fact that I bring my own flaws and difficulties to the church.

When I approach the church, I need to make sure that the thing I think I am called to fix isn’t more my problem than the church’s problem.  I also need to make sure that the fix I think I am called to apply isn’t coming from my needs and flaws and not the church needs and flaws.  Basically, the first rule of fixing in the church is that we are all in need of some fixing at some point.  If I forget that rule, I just might fix the church into a worse mess than it was before.  Unfortunately, the history of the church shows that too many of us who have tried to fix the church have forgotten our own need to be fixed.

The second rule of church fixing comes from the fact that sometimes the things that actually need to be fixed aren’t that easy to see, or some relatively minor need covers a much deeper and much more serious need.   In the kind of small churches that I work with, there are always some obvious things that new pastors think should be fixed.  Most people prefer to sit near the back, making it hard for them to hear.  A lot of pastors spend a lot of energy trying to fix that by getting people to move up to the front.

But where people sit is something of a distraction for deeper, more serious problems that have a more serious effect on the long-term health of the church.  I have learned to ignore the distraction and focus on the seating pattern, which sometimes reveals the underlying problem of tensions and factions in the church, something that is very serious and which actually needs to be addressed–carefully and sensitively and patiently–but still needs to be addressed much more than whether people sit at the back or not.

But for me, the biggest difference between fixing a broken chair leg and fixing a church has to do with the fact that when I fix a chair leg or a Fitbit or a lamp cord, I am on my own.  Sure, I can talk to friends, check my home repair books, look things up on the internet–I can even sidestep the whole process and hire someone to do the work.  But even with all that, I am in charge of the repairs.  I decide what to do, what not to do, what rules to follow and which ones to ignore.

In the church, though, I am not alone.  I work with the church in the process.  The Fitbit doesn’t know or care that I am trying to fix it–it has no input on what I do.  But the church does–I need their permission and cooperation in the process.  It is not me, the expert, fixing them, the problem.  It is us, a collection of flawed individuals seeking to use our collective gifts and abilities to address our collective issues.  In the church, we are all fixer and fixee.

And as well, we aren’t on our own–all our fixes and repairs need to be done with the leading and empowering of the Holy Spirit.  I don’t see the need on my own; I don’t develop the fix process on my own; I don’t implement it on my own.  We, the church, open ourselves to each other and the Holy Spirit who shows us where we need fixing, guides us to the proper fix and helps us in the process.

May the peace of God be with you.