THE OTHER SIDE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

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FAMILIES

I have been in ministry for over 40 years. I have the sermon pile, the pastoral weight gain and the grey hair to prove all that. But there are a great many people who don’t seem to understand the full implications of 40+ years of ministry. Either they think that clergy are the most sheltered people in the world or we are the most unobservant and unintelligent people around.

I say this because there are a great many people both inside and outside the church who feel it necessary to clue me in on things that they think will surprise me, upset me or shock me. It is not uncommon, for example, for someone to drag me aside to give me vital information about the family I am working with during funeral planning. In the corner, speaking quietly, they inform me that there are tensions within the family that might make the whole funeral difficult. Or the wedding planning process that someone feels they need to talk to me about because someone won’t like it if someone else is involved.

Then there are the shocking moral issues that people feel they need to bring to me, perhaps thinking that I need to be warned so that I don’t pass out when I discover that the couple I am going to marry are already living together and have a child or that the older gentleman I am conducting the funeral for was an alcoholic. Or perhaps they feel I need to know that the child of one of the church members is actually gay and that is causing some problems in the family.

I listen to all these insights and revelations and nod pastorally. But inside, I have to confess that I am thinking something like, “Do you actually think I am that stupid/naive/out of touch?” I am a pastor, which means that I know almost as much about people and their families as the village gossip—and I gained my knowledge legitimately and know what is true and what is made up. I am also because of my training, my experience and my nature, as capable social observer. I am rarely surprised and even when I am, can actually see the reality of the new revelation pretty quickly.

It is actually a major part of my calling to understand and know people. I think it is also a major part of my calling to know and understand and accept the realities that I am working with. People are people and families are families. We all have good and bad, positive and negative, inspiring and sordid mixed together in a tangled and confusing mess that makes us what we are. To find a family where some members are at odds with each other isn’t a surprise to a pastor—actually, the surprise is finding a family where that isn’t true.

As I have thought about this, I think that part of the problem lies with clergy. Some clergy have been and perhaps are guilty of pretending that the darker side of life is beyond them. As a body, we have perhaps been too eager to condemn the failings in individuals and families. Rather than accept and work with the realities, we have condemned, which has caused people to try to hide things and cover them over. But that isn’t a very effective way of dealing with the negatives of life.

As a pastor, my job isn’t to encourage people to hide stuff from themselves, others and me. I see my job as helping people accept their reality as a first step towards dealing with it. If I can accept their reality, it helps them accept their reality—and if I can accept their reality and them, maybe they can find the courage and insight to deal with the painful darker stuff that they, like everyone has. My model for this, of course, is Jesus who saw the darkest and deepest and most hidden realities in every life and still loved and accepted and offered the fullness of his love and grace. He did get somewhat testy with all those trying to put on a false front but for the rest, he knew, accepted and loved.

So, I listen to all the revelations that a delicate pastoral personality could never expect, thank the revealer and keep on doing what I always do—helping people discover God’s love and grace no matter what their reality is.

May the peace of God be with you.

RUSH HOUR

The other day, I was heading out in the car to go see someone in the church. I came to the stop sign at the end of our side street and had to wait before I could turn. That isn’t uncommon—about half the time, there is a car coming and I have to wait. But this time, well, there must have been at least half a dozen cars coming from both directions. It felt like I waited hours and hours to get a clear stretch so I could pull out. I mentally joked about it being rush hour in town.

But then I visited our daughter in the big city. We took a train into the city for a day trip. Part of the route parallels some of the major roads into the city. We went into the city after the morning rush but left just as the rush home was building. The train car we took going home was packed and the roadways were also packed. This was the real rush hour—when the train car has more people than our village, it is crowded. I know that there are more people in our town than there were in the train car but allow me my country mouse exaggeration.

I enjoyed our time on the city. There are so many things to do and see and experience. I could eat samosas, eat lunch in a revolving restaurant hundreds of feet in the air, visit a waterfall and an huge shopping mall within minutes of each other. I could listen to English, French, Hindi, Spanish and who knows how many languages. The options are endless and when I visit, I like to enjoy them—our town hasn’t seen samosas in ages and our restaurants are fantastic but they don’t revolve.

But after I visit, I am going to come back home to our small town, settle back in and still complain about having to wait for six cars before I can pull out of our side street. For better or worse, I am a country mouse. I like where I live. I am not tied totally to any one location but I just prefer places where rush hour involves a whole lot less people than what I see when I visit the city.

It isn’t that I dislike cities. I have spend time in a lot of cities, significant time occasionally. I like exploring cities, especially in the days when my knees allowed me to walk. I love the possibilities in the city and whenever I am in a city, I quickly discover places where I can indulge in treats. I can tell you where to find great coffee in Nairobi; a great curry buffet in Toronto, fantastic street food in Ottawa, some tremendous beaches in Mombasa, a entertaining open top bus tour of Vancouver, a middle of the road evangelical church in Louisville—I have discovered and enjoyed all this in my travels.

I look forward to time in a city and try to experience it to the full and bring home the pictures to prove it. But in the end, I am going to come home and look at the pictures and remember the coffee and all the rest as I sit in my living room in our small rural community. I might sit there planning my next trip but I know I am going to always end up here or somewhere like here.

And that is because in the end, I know who I am and what works for me. I prefer the slower and less crowded spaces when it comes to a place to call home. That is part of my nature and part of the reality of who I am. I like rural spaces, I like small churches, I am most at home with fewer people. I might want samosas and revolving restaurants now and then but in the end, I am going to come back to a smaller, slower place where rush hour involves six cars probably driven by people I know and have spent time with or who I have at least seen at the store or market or post office.

This isn’t everyone’s reality but it is mine and I learned a long time ago that I can live my choices without knocking someone else’s choices. This isn’t an anti-city rant—it is a statement of who I am and nothing more.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE PHONE CALL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

PEER PRESSURE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

NATIVITY SCENES

We tried something new this year as part of our Advent process. One of the church members really likes Nativity scenes and has a considerable collection. She was also aware that others also have such scenes so she suggested that we have a display of them before and after worship. We announced it for a couple of weeks to get people ready. A couple of people had of the display ready when I arrived and added my two Kenyan versions to the mix.

It was really interesting to see all the variations on the theme. There were a variety of materials, a variety of styles, a variety of approaches. Some were elaborate and some were simple. Some would be classed as folk art and some were pretty close to professional artistic standards. I kind of thought one of my contributions would be the most unique one there—it was hand carved in Kenya from a single short branch and opened to reveal mother, child and Joseph along with a star. I was somewhat surprised to discover an almost identical one already on the table—someone had a friend who had been in Kenya who gave them the scene as a gift.

I am rather ambivalent about Nativity scenes. I appreciate the devotional thought that is behind them—the various characters and animals arrayed around the new born Christ, worshipping him who is destined to bring salvation to the world. But at the same time, I know that the traditional scene never happened. There was never a point when the holy family, the shepherds and three wise men were all together in the stable with a star beaming overhead.

There definitely was a stable or barn; there was definitely a new family; shepherds did show up; there was a star and there were even wise men. But the actual story took a lot longer. Mary and Joseph weren’t in the stable all that long, perhaps a few days. They would have been visited by the shepherds—but shepherds working the night shift were not high on the social scale in those days and most likely, their story about the night would have been written off as coming from the empty wine skins.

Eventually, the crowd of people in Bethlehem moves along and places open up. They move to a house, which is where they are visited by the wise men. We actually don’t know how many there were—the number three probably developed because that was the number of gifts. But as anyone who has ever attended a baby shower knows, there is a lot of duplication of gifts and so a simple recounting of how many types of gifts can’t really be used to tell how many people attended.

We aren’t even sure how long after the birth this visit actually was. Herod, in his attempt to discourage a potential rival, kills all the male babies under two years old, which suggests a long stay in the town after the birth. Travelling was difficult in those days and I expect that Joseph found work rather than try travelling with a new born.

None of that takes away from the story but it does make the traditional Nativity scene inaccurate. The traditional gathering of all the characters is a powerful symbol of the events that are so important but it is only a symbol, making use of compression and artistic licence to capture a significant event in an inaccurate but effective way.

I like the idea of everyone being there at the same time even while I know it didn’t happen that way. Symbolically, the traditional scene expressed the universality of Christ. He brings together the socially outcaste shepherds, the cultural outsider astrologers, the new parents and their child. And that bringing together of the diverse and the outcasts is a powerful part of the Christian message—there is room for everyone. We all have a place.

I suspect that we could create a manger scene with another character or two—unknown visitors who represent each of us. We weren’t actually there but since the birth affects us and we are involved in the ongoing worship of the risen Christ, we have as much right there as the wise men.

May the peace of God be with you.

SHARING THE LOAD

In common with many congregations these days, the worship in both the pastorates I serve has a prayer time, where members of the congregation have the opportunity to share prayer requests. Some Sundays, there are no requests, not because nothing needs prayer but likely because no one wants to share their concerns that particular day. Other Sundays, the list of requests is long—which means I have to take good notes so I can include them in the subsequent pastoral prayer time. The longer the list, the more likely it is that I will not be able to read my handwriting by the time I arrive at that point in the prayer time.

Anyway, I have noticed something interesting about the nature of the prayer requests that people bring. As expected, there are often requests for members of our worshipping community: things like return to health, safety in travel, successful operations and so on. There are also requests for people we know in the wider community who are dealing with illness or grief or some other issue that someone in our group feels should be prayer about.

And then there is another set of requests. Many of our members tend to be aware of what is going on in the world and because many of them are also caring and compassionate people, the things they read and see on the media trouble them. And so many of our prayer requests during the sharing time focus on people and events in places where we have no real connection and are not likely to have any connection.

But some want a connection of some kind. In some cases, they could and probably do make a connection by donating money—there is always someone or some organization willing to take money to assist in whatever the media is covering. But some of our people want a different connection. We have concerns, we want to do something and money doesn’t seem to be enough. And so we pray. I am pretty sure that those making the requests pray about them personally and privately, we pray about them during worship and some, I believe, are inspired to pray about them later on their own.

There are lots of possible comments to make at this point. We could question the value of such prayers; we could wonder if the suggestion is a way of avoiding actual involvement; we could even look at the whole issue of the value of prayer. But to me in my context, none of those seem to have much validity. I am the pastor and I have some insights into the motivations of those making the requests—and I believe that they bring the request because they are concerned and want to make a difference.

And because they are people of faith, they see prayer—and more specifically our public prayer time—as a valid and significant and important way of becoming involved and making a difference. We join together as a Christian community and open ourselves to God around those areas and situations that concern us. We might not have a personal involvement with any of the people but we make it personal when we take it to God in our prayers. We might not have any ability to personally intervene but we are enabled to personally intervene through our faith in God, whom we believe is all powerful and present everywhere. Our prayers to him are received and answered.

And we are involved. We are doing something—not doing the only thing we can do and not doing something simple to avoid doing something more serious. We are doing the best we can do, which is to share our concerns with each other before God and then in faith, trust that the God of all creation will continue to be at work in whatever has concerned us. We are not drawing God’s attention to whatever—we are, I think, reminding ourselves that the God we trust is already there and already at work and because of that, we can share the burden of those more directly involved.

We pray—not because it is the only thing we can do but because it is the best thing that we can do. We pray because we need to, because we want to, because God invites us to. We pray—and through our prayers, we share the load.

May the peace of God be with you.

A SQUIRREL IN A TREE

I woke up this morning to a light snowfall. The ground is covered and the trees are wearing white veils. The old oak tree beside the house still has more than half its leaves (oaks are notoriously slow losing their leaves in the fall), which are now covered with snow. Most of the acorns have fallen off, littering the neighbour’s lawn and our driveway. Leaving or entering the driveway is always accompanied by the pop-pop-pop of the tires crushing the acorns.

Needless to say, looking out at the gently falling snow is much more inviting than stating at a blank laptop screen. One such glance provided a bonus. Sitting on a branch was a big squirrel having his breakfast. The oak tree obviously hasn’t shed all its acorns yet because he found some. I doubt is he collected the food from the ground and then ran up the tree—our collection of houses has no free-ranging dogs and the one cat that wanders the neighbourhood is so well fed that it presents no real danger to a squirrel. Mostly, they sit and eat where they find their food, although they sometimes stop to stare at me if I happen to move to the window for a closer look.

This squirrel is quite content. The remaining leaves provide some shelter from the falling snow. The thick tree trunk protects his from the gentle breeze. The tree provides an seemingly endless supply of food. There may even be a hidden hole or two in the tree that provides him and his family with shelter. What more could a squirrel want: high protein food, shelter, minimal threat from predators—it sounds like a made in heaven setting.

And actually, it is. I doubt if the squirrel realizes or cares but he is enjoying the grace of God but he is. The acorns, the oak tree, the gently falling snow, the whole neighbourhood depends on the eternal grace of God. He brought it into being, he sustains it and he is also redeeming it. If we would spend a lot more time just looking at the world around us, rather than trying to figure out how to use it to make more money for us, we would all be better off, I think.

To be honest, I am not really interested in the tedious creation/evolution debate that some inside and outside the faith think is so important. However it came to be, we have this world because of the grace of God. He caused it to be and set it up so that that oak trees can grow and produce acorns to feed squirrels (and people when properly prepared); so that humans can use the oak wood for sturdy and beautiful stuff; so that the snow which some hate can protect the dirt-based life during the cold and provide moisture for next year’s growth. Everything is connected and interlinked and comes from the hand of a loving and graceful God.

If we spent more time looking for the evidence of the grace of God in creation, we would all be better off. That squirrel peacefully eating his breakfast in the oak tree really doesn’t care if it took 14 billion years or 6000 years to produce the tree that provides his breakfast—he is just enjoying breakfast. The squirrel probably doesn’t do much theological reflection on the grace of God but in the end, his breakfast and his breakfast nook are still powerful signs of the grace of God.

We could probably learn a lot from the squirrel. Some things are pretty obvious, like enjoy breakfast on a snowy day. Other things are a bit deeper but probably even more important, things like remembering that we are not God and are as dependant on the grace of God as that squirrel. We might have a broader understanding of oak trees and natural history and theology than the squirrel but we are still not God. We can plant acorns, we can grow oak trees, we can produce acorn flour, we can make oak boards—but we didn’t bring the oak tree into being and we didn’t design its place in the overall scheme of things. And more importantly, we probably won’t understand the full picture until we are fully reunited with God in eternity.

Until then, enjoy the snow, have a good breakfast and hold firmly to the eternal grace of God.

May the peace of God be with you.

I AM NOT A PSYCHOPATH

Since much of my work in the “office” involves writing using the computer, it isn’t surprising that a lot of my mini-breaks also involve the computer. Sometimes, the break involves a game of solitaire while my brain finalizes the second point of the sermon to the point where I can type it out. Now and then, when I need a longer break, the home page on my browser contains a never-ending buffer of stories, articles and pictures.

During a break the other day, I clicked on an article suggesting that people who do a certain thing might be a psychopath. The article suggested that people who drink their coffee black and who make a point of letting people they drink it black just might be psychopaths. From the day I began seriously drinking coffee, I have drunk it black with no sugar. I have also been known to proclaim that if God meant us to have milk and sugar in coffee, he would have created milk and sugar trees linked to the coffee trees. So, obviously I am a psychopath.

I wasn’t actually ready to accept that diagnosis, especially since I have some background in psychology and have done almost every psychological test invented at some point and never had even a small indication of psychopathology show up. But rather than simply click out of the article, I kept going. Way down near the end of the article, the author indicated that the black coffee thing was only one out of many many other things that were found to be correlated with the issue and the correlation with black coffee was actually fairly small.

So, instead of saying if you drink black coffee, you might be a psychopath, the article would have been much more honest to suggest that a very small percentage of people who drink black coffee have a chance of being a psychopath, which is pretty much the same as saying that a small percentage of any identified group of people might be psychopaths. But such truthful but vague statements don’t entice people to click and therefore don’t increase the views of the page, which I suppose puts up advertising rates.

The article does illustrate perfectly a dangerous and all too common human reality. We have a tendency to categorize and define people on the basis of one or two obvious characteristics or qualities, which may or may not actually have anything to do with the reality of that person.

So, for example, it isn’t hard to find someone telling us that all Muslims are terrorists and all evangelicals are republican. All illegal immigrants are criminals. All politicians are liars. All car salespeople are crooked and dishonest. The list goes on and on—and is as misleading and wrong as calling black coffee drinkers psychopaths. But we all do this.

There is an antidote to this kind of thinking. Rather than define people by one or two almost incidental traits, we get to know people. We move beyond the identified marker and we discover the real person. Occasionally, we are going to have our initial assessment proven right—but in general, we are going to find that behind the biased and ignorant assumption, there is a real person, a person with whom we can have a great relationship and even deep friendship.

But that takes both effort and courage. It takes courage to break out of our carefully defined boxes and embrace what is different or unknown or too quickly defined. And then, because the person we have categorized has likely been the victim of fast and mindless categorization before, it takes effort to develop the kind of relationship that allows each of us to get to know the other. It is much easier and simpler in the end to watch for the one or two defined markers and place the person in the appropriate box.

But most of the time, the markers don’t tell us what we think they tell us and the boxes we use don’t really work for us or the other. I drink black coffee—but I am actually not a psychopath. I am an evangelical Christian but I am not a republican—actually, I am not even American. Maybe, if we sit down and have a coffee, we can actually see beyond the preconceptions and get to really know each other. By the way, I take my coffee black, the way God meant it to be drunk.

May the peace of God be with you.

I AM A CHRISTIAN

Both the Bible studies I lead have been looking seriously at how we live our faith on a daily basis. That isn’t the official topic of either study but all of us involved in the studies are really interested in how what we are studying affects daily life so almost everything we look at ends up being walked down mainstreet.

We also look at how others deal with the connection between faith and daily life. It is sometimes much easier and safer to look at other people and learn from their processes before we look too closely at our own. We sometimes work on the principle I have voiced often: We learn from our mistakes—but we learn less painfully from the mistakes of others.

One of the things that has been a frequent focus of our discussions in this area is the fact that often, our faith gets connected with other things—to be seen as a Christian is to be seen as something else as well. One of the most common because it is mentioned in the media a lot is that in some places, to be a Christian is to almost automatically be identified with a certain spot on the political spectrum. In many cases, to be identified as a Christian pretty much identifies how you will vote. There are variations and subtleties, of course, depending on the theological flavour of the believer, the geographic and cultural factors involved and maybe even the unspoken biases of the observers but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that some believers at least assume that a Christian will automatically be ________ (fill in the blank) because that is what Christ was.

Christianity is also sometimes overly associated with culture and colour. White westerners have been known to self-identify as Christian on the basis of culture and colour alone. For some, at least as far as I have observed, those factors alone make someone Christian. There is no need for things like church attendance, Bible reading or Bible following. I have often wondered if such people realize that Jesus was neither white nor western.

When I worked in Kenya, Christianity was often identified with tribes—to know a person’s tribe was to know their faith. Some tribes were Christian and some were Muslim. It was even possible to narrow down the brand of Christianity if you knew the tribe. Given that many tribes make use of traditional names, just hearing a person’s name was often enough to nail down their faith.

But the question I and both Bible studies struggle with is the validity of such identifications. Am I Christian because I am a white westerner? Because I am a Christian, can a certain political party know that I will automatically support them? When you hear my name, should you be able to slot me into a certain faith stream?

The more I learn about Jesus, who he was and what he did, I am pretty sure that being a Christian needs to be seen as something that sets us apart from many of the human classifications that we hold so dear. I am not suggesting that Christians need to somehow separate themselves from the world—that has been tried often in the history of the church and benefits neither the faith nor the world.

I am suggesting that we need to see Christian as an overarching description that exists independently of all other labels. The Christian faith is dependent on seeing and accepting God’s grace shown in Jesus Christ without the addition of any other qualifiers. And that means that those qualifiers that we love so much don’t have any effect on our faith. Certainly, we claim that our faith has the right to affect the qualifiers but it really should be a one way street. My faith needs to affect my political decisions—but my political stance must not affect my faith. My allegiance to a tribe is affected by my faith—but my faith must not be affected by my allegiance to a tribe.

That is the theory—the practise is much more difficult. But I think authentic Christianity needs to make the effort to get rid of the add ons and accretions that we have allowed to hijack our faith. To claim to be a Christian should make a statement about the nature of our relationship with God, not about our politics or colour or culture or tribe.

May the peace of God be with you.