BEING DIFFERENT

The other day at one of the Bible studies I pretend to lead, we touched on the topic of DNA. I happened to mention that DNA is one of the signs of God’s love and grace. He loves us enough to create us with a foolproof way to ensure that we will each one be different. Because of the seemingly infinite number of possible combinations of DNA, the chances of two people being born exactly the same are for all intents and purposes impossible, except of course for identical twins.

But a variety of studies have also shown that identical twins, who are born with the same DNA, eventually end up showing some differences. They might have the same DNA but the actual process of living causes them to diverge. One might catch an illness that the other manages to avoid; one might have an accident that changes them; one might have some trauma that the other doesn’t. Whatever the reason, although their DNA might produce nearly identical individuals, the effects of their environment are going to individualize them.

So why, given that God can and does do what he wants by definition, does he create living things including humans, based on a pretty much foolproof mechanism for ensuring diversity? That seems counter-intuitive, especially for people living in the machine/tech age that we live in. We pretty much assume things will be the same.

If I see someone with the same make and model of computer as I have, I can be pretty sure that unless they have more tech knowledge or money than I have, the computer they are working on is exactly the same as mine: same tech inside, same specs on paper; same colour; same performance. Some differences might develop—their computer may not get dropped as much as mine and I don’t spill as much wine on mine as they do on theirs. But ignoring outside influences like that, we have the same computer.

Large segments of humanity seem to prefer things be the same. Many organizations from the military to coffee shop chains require their members to dress identically. Some require the same hairstyle, the same way of talking, the same beliefs. Even the church isn’t immune from this drive to sameness. Many church groups require its members to believe the same doctrines with the same fervor, based on the same interpretation of the same translation of the Scriptures by the same gurus. Divergence, whether in military uniforms, coffee preparation processes or doctrinal stances are suspect and dangerous.

And yet, God has created us in a way that requires is to be different. In the Bible study that sparked this post, two of us are left handed. One of us is colour blind. Two prefer the KJV. One loves to bake cookies for the group. All of us love eating the cookies. Some are quite conservative in their theology. Others are willing to look at less conservative understandings. We have no real uniformity except for the fact that we all show up at the same place week after week to share and discuss and discover what God is trying to say to us.

And the most significant reason for our ability to do this is that we have learned to celebrate our diversity and use that God given diversity as one of the vital foundation stones of our study process. As we talk and share and discuss and question, we give each other glimpses of what God is showing us. The more we talk and share and discuss and question, the closer we come to understanding what God wants us to see. And we have discovered that one of the prime messages that God gives to us is that diversity is one of his gifts to humanity, a gift that we need to accept and celebrate.

We don’t all need to be left handed. We don’t all need to be colour blind. Some of us can prefer the KJV. Some of us can be Baptist and some Catholic. Some of us can have grey hair and some can have blue hair. Our diversity is important and valuable and points us to a basic theological truth: God loves our diversity. He must, since it was and is part of his plan that it is pretty much impossible for us to be the same.

May the peace of God be with you.

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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.

BEING ORDINARY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

THE VISIT

A recently retired friend invited me for a visit because another friend we both know was visiting them. I was happy to spend some time with all of them—the retired friend is living part-time in the area I serve as pastor and attends worship so I could multi-task. With that one visit, I was both improving my pastoral visit statistics and spending time with friends. That sounds like win-win to me.

All of us are or have been involved in ministry, either as pastors, missionaries or spouses of pastors. Inevitably, then, the conversation turned to ministry and we began telling stories. The friend of the friend was the most extroverted so managed to tell the most stories but we all go a chance to tell stories. Because I can’t do much in life without analysing and studying, I was keeping a sort of mental record of the stories—who told which story, which themes kept coming up, who responded to which story in which way.

The results were interesting. We were all telling stories about things, events and incidents that affected our ministry and that enhanced both our faith and our ministry. One of the people kept referring to times when God called him spend money he didn’t have—his faith commitment was always to help out someone who needed serious help. All of his stories ended with his amazement at how God had honoured his faith be ensuring that the money he spent and didn’t have was returned to him.

One of the other people present had obviously heard some of the stories before and really wanted to hear them again, to the point of asking someone to retell a particular story. It seemed that the retelling of the stories was an important part of their faith. This person also had their own stories, stories that focused on how God provided the support and help needed when they were facing scary times in ministry, like when God showed them that their step of faith in attending seminary wouldn’t result in their family starving.

I tended to tell stories of how God worked to make up some deficit in my life so that I could do the ministry I was called to or stories of how people I had taught or mentored went on to do what I considered significant ministry. Another told stories that indicated how God had provided the faith to enable them to follow in the scary footsteps of a partner whose faith was often several steps ahead of them.

At first, my analytical side was tempted to rank the stories. The temptation was to see the stories about money as less significant than my stories about real ministry or to see stories where the teller was the hero as less important than the ones where the teller didn’t look good. But I realized that this wasn’t actually a very productive avenue of thought (NOTE—I do actually process at several levels during conversations and can still maintain focus on what is being said).

This wasn’t a contest. This was a group of friends who had all spent serious time in ministry talking about the wonder of being a part of God’s work. We all approached ministry from our personal perspective; we all had different needs in our faith and ministry; we all had different skill and gift sets—but we were all still amazed that God had chosen us, equipped us and was willing to work through us. The stories were our expressions of amazement and gratitude.

And because we were all different, it is no surprise that the themes of our stories were different. God celebrates diversity. He encourages diversity. He created humanity to thrive on diversity. I don’t need other people to tell the same kind of stories I tell—I need to listen to their stories and hear how God is working in their lives so that I can grow in faith and my understanding of God, just as they can grow and develop in hearing my stories. If we all told the same story, what would be the point?

I enjoyed my visit so much that I felt a tiny bit guilty including it in my visitation statistics—not guilty enough to leave it out of the list, though. It was good to share time and stories with people I have known for years and whose lives have followed similar paths as mine. In our diversity, we enabled and encouraged each other.

May the peace of God be with you.

BEYOND SELFISHNESS

I am colour blind and by now, most people I spend any amount of time with know that. Most of them have asked me what it is like and I have given the explanation, including how I deal with traffic lights. But even with all that, people who know me well regularly give me directions that include turning at the orange and purple sign and following that road to the green house, directions that are incredibly useful to most people but which are totally useless to me and many others.

I also get really upset when I am reading a magazine that gives me a really interesting survey results in the form of a graphic in which each variable is represented by a different colour, all of which look pretty much the same to me, making the chart useless to me.

My response is simple: I am starting a movement to outlaw colour or at least colour where it matters. You can have your colours in the privacy of your own home, as long as you aren’t exposing children to them. But outside, there needs to be a complete absence of colour where it matters. Traffic lights, directions, magazine charts—anything that relies on colour will need to be re-formulated and re-visioned so that we who can’t see colour are not longer the victims of discrimination and prejudice and danger.

The unfortunate reality of our modern age is that it I actually started such a movement, there would be followers, some of whom would commit completely, filing the quest for a colour neutral world with anger and partisanship and bickering and maybe even anti-colour terrorism. We all want our agenda to be the agenda for everyone and struggle to deal with the fact that our wants and wishes are not the most important things in the world.

This is also an approach that is bound to create more problems than it solves because once I begin pushing my stuff, others feel the need to push back in defence of their stuff. If I see colour, why should I have my freedom limited because of those who can’t?

This is the problem of seeing ourselves as the centre of the universe—there is no room for anyone else. And this is the essential problem that God was faced with at our creation. We were created with self-awareness and self-understanding and the ability to love and appreciate ourselves. I think that is part of the meaning of being made in the image of God.

But we need to remember another part of the meaning of the image of God to balance this self awareness. Being made in God’s image also means that we were created to be in relationship with God. In fact, we can only realize the fullness of who we are and what we are meant to be when we are in relationship with God. This relationship with God gives us the proper perspective on creation. We are important and significant bur we are to be in relationship with God, a relationship which helps us understand the real order of creation.

We are not the centre of creation. Our thoughts and desires and wishes are not the be all and end all of everything. Getting my way isn’t the goal of life. Making people do things my way isn’t the purpose. Trying to make everyone into me isn’t why I am here.

The antidote to human selfishness is an openness to God. As we develop the relationship with God that is inherent to being made in his image, we learn how to deal with our selves without becoming self-centered. When we are God-centered, we fit in the universe. We discover that in God’s vision, we have a place that fits and works. We are not at the centre but we are in the universe, we are important and we do have a place.

Our faith is rooted our being willing to open ourselves to God and accept his vision and version. We are required to surrender our desire to be God and be willing to be in relationship with the real God, who by definition is a God of love and compassion. Surrendering our selfishness to His love and compassion allows us to become who we really are in a way that no selfish plans and schemes can ever do.

May the peace of God be with you.

AN INTERESTING MEETING

I was working on a sermon recently and remembered a meeting that I attended years ago that seemed to be a perfect illustration of a point I was trying to make. Since the story involved our time in Africa, I kept thinking about it after finishing the sermon—and even after preaching the sermon, the story of that meeting stayed with me. The more I think about the story, the more I discover exciting realities about God and the Christian faith and the difference it can make to individuals and the world.

The meeting happened in a classroom of a pastoral training school in Rwanda. The school was somewhat hard to get to—either a four hour drive over roads that included a rickety bridge that we walked over after the car successfully made it across or a 30-40 minute boat trip. We were meeting with the school faculty and officials of the denomination that ran the school.

The meeting included both Hutus and Tutsis—and although this was about 10 years after the genocide, the scars and trauma were still obvious and real. Several of those at the meeting has lost family members, others had suffered personally, all carried emotional issues relating to that time. There were some others there from the Congo, who were dealing with their own issues from the genocide and the civil war happening then in the Congo. There was one Kenyan, separated from his family and somewhat concerned about what was going on back home. And there was also two Canadians. While we didn’t carry the emotional load that some of the others did, we were part of the wider international community which had effectively ignored the genocide and was pretty much ignoring the civil war in the Congo.

The first order of business was language. With so many languages represented, we had to discover one that we could all work with. At the end of a brief discussion, we discovered that all of us at the meeting were fluent in Kiswahli, a language that none of us were born speaking. All of us had learned to speak it as at least our second language.

That to me provided an essential key to understanding the significance of this meeting. None of us felt the need to insist on our native or national language. It would have been possible for some group or another to insist that we meet in their language and rely on translators for those of us who couldn’t speak the chosen language. The Rwandans didn’t insist on Kinyarwanda. We Canadians didn’t insist on English. We happily went with a language that all of us spoke with some degree of fluency so that we could all be a direct part of the meeting.

For me, this has always been a Kingdom moment. We met there in that classroom as fellow believers. We were discussing ways that we could work together to carry out the work God was setting before us. And we were able to do that in spite of all the barriers that could have disrupted the meeting, things like ethnic tensions, national rivalries, language issues, cultural issues, national and international politics and on and on.

The Kingdom brings people together. Our shared faith bridges divisions. Our faith in God through Christ changes our perspective. We learn how to work together. We learn how to care for each other. We learn how to give up what some consider important for the sake of a bigger cause, the Kingdom of God.

We met together and the spirit and flavour of the meeting was set by our common willingness to give up our language for the sake of the others. We all gave up our fluency and familiarity with our birth language to work in a second or third language that none of us spoke well but which we all spoke well enough to understand each other. That is the Kingdom at work, one of the many manifestations of the Kingdom here and now that give us a glimpse of what the fullness of the Kingdom will be like.

The Kingdom call us out of our selfish and sinful ruts and allows us to open ourselves to the wonder of being united with the rest of God’s Kingdom people so that we can all reach well beyond our human limits.

May the peace of God be with you.

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.

THE HALO EFFECT

            I was at a meeting a while ago where someone was talking about the situation that prompted the meeting and made a comment concerning her understanding of how the problem developed.  Essentially, she was pretty sure that older pastors had caused the problem.  I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to the comment because I was trying to focus on the problem at hand which was and is more complex than any of us realized–and besides, I have been working on this particular problem for a long time and had no sense that I had actually caused it.

However, a friend was sitting nearby and was quite upset by the comment.  He has been in ministry almost as long as me and I heard his mutter something like, “I am tired of being blamed for everything that happened in the past.”  He had heard the words and took them personally–and when I looked at it from his perspective, I understood his hurt.

We tend to make sweeping statements that inaccurately and unfairly include a wider group of people that we realize.  Part of that comes from falling into a psychological trap that I learned about early in my university days.  Some psychology book or professor referred to something called the “Halo Effect”.  This effect has nothing to do with the contemporary computer game and had no theological base.  It refers what happens when we assume person with one characteristic has several other characteristics.

So, the speaker at the meeting recognized that the problem we were dealing with was often associated with older pastors–and was suggesting that anyone possessing the characteristic of being an older pastor was therefore also responsible for creating the problem.  Since my friend has been involved in trying to fix this particular problem almost as long as I have, he felt upset at being “haloed” into the other group.

There are a great many people who do bad, evil, stupid and wrong things.  Some of them fall into neatly defined categories.  Older white males have managed to create some serious problems over the years.  But to assume that all older white males are equally guilty of all the offenses that have been committed by some older white males is really no different than assuming that all people of a certain colour or ethnic background or age or gender or sexual orientation are guilty of whatever current evil some members of the defined group are accused of committing.

But it is easier to make use of the halo effect than it is to be honest and discerning.  It is easier to make blanket statements than it is to sort out the real causes and perpetrators and issues.  It is simpler to tar a whole group than it is to deal with the reality that people are different and unique and that one polka-dotted individual who secretly pulls the tags off mattresses isn’t a sign that the whole group does the same thing.

It seems to me that our western culture is moving in two directions, neither of which is overly helpful.  While we are becoming increasingly individualistic and demanding,  we are also becoming increasing unwilling to see others as individuals.  While we want our personal rights and freedoms to be given sacred status, we are increasingly willing as a culture to say and act as if “their” rights should be limited because “they” all do that.

Fortunately for all of us, God doesn’t lump us into groups and treat the group the same based on some characteristic of one or some of the group.  He is aware that although my friend (and I) are older pastors, we didn’t actually create the problem and have actually been working hard to change the problem.  God sees us as individuals; God loves us as individuals; God responds to us as individuals; God rescues us as individuals.

God, in fact, created us with individuality in mind–the fact that I am left-handed doesn’t make me exactly the same as all left-handed people. The fact that I am an older pastor doesn’t make me the same as all older pastors.  The fact that I am colour blind might make me wear strange combinations now and then but it still doesn’t make me the same as all colour-blind people.

God celebrates our diversity and doesn’t use the halo effect–thank God for that.

May the peace of God be with you.

CHAOS OR GROWTH?

I realized that to anyone who is a regular reader of this blog (thank you–I really appreciate your support) the situations I describe from the congregations I serve could sound somewhat chaotic.  We have people talking during worship, people making comments and asking questions during the sermon, Bible studies that might get on topic once a month, business meetings that have little structure, a very fluid and changing concept of membership among other things.

While it might all seem a bit chaotic, the deeper reality is that it is very chaotic at times.  As pastor, I am often playing catch up and am more likely to be surprised by the latest suggestion than I am to have originated the suggestion. I do prep work on Bible Study and sermons and make plans for a variety of things and sometimes–many times–the actual on the ground activity takes off in a very different direction.  To say that I am the leader of the congregations that give me a pay cheque every month would probably be technically correct, at least as far as the modern understanding of pastoral ministry is concerned.  But the practical reality is that I most often feel like a leaf floating down a stream, twisting and turning and bumping into things as I am carried along by the current.

And I love it.  I have never felt that it was my job as pastor to be the leader.  I don’t have the need to determine every aspect of the life of the church.  I don’t see the church as an  institution that needs my great wisdom and knowledge to keep it on the right track and prevent it from going astray.  Mostly, that is because the church isn’t an institution or an organization or a business or anything like that.

Essentially, the church is a group of people linked by their common allegiance to God through Jesus Christ, each one filled with the Holy Spirit.  We come into the faith as different people and we grow in the faith in different ways and in different directions.  But because we all have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit, each one of us has something valuable and important to offer to the church.  Because of that, most of my ministry has been focused on discovering the leading of the Holy Spirit for the particular group of church people I have been called to work with.

And so much of my ministry is spend listening and responding.  I do work hard at trying to bring together all the disparate voices and views of the Spirit’s leading,  because I believe one of the gifts the Spirit has given me is the ability to create an overview of the confusing and complex package that is a local expression of the church.  I am not called to impose my overview on the church–rather, I am gifted and called to help the church discover the overview that the Holy Spirit is seeking to bring to a particular gathering of believers.

One of my early ministry discoveries was that in order for my gift to be effective, there has to be stuff happening.  My particular ministry gifts thrive best in what often seems a chaotic situation.  I seem to work best when there are lots of expressions of the Spirit coupled with the ever-present reality that some of what the church and I think are expressions of the Spirit are really not coming from God.

So, the Bible Study, the worship, the meetings, the encounters with people–all these things that come together to make a church that seems chaotic and confused are in actual fact part of the working of the Holy Spirit in our midst.  As I participate in the chaos, reacting often and initiating occasionally, part of my Spirit given giftedness is to help the church make sense of the chaos and discover just what God is saying to us and where he is leading us.

I struggle with this at times because I am not naturally inclined to chaos.  I like structure and organization and predictability.   I use my gifts to help the congregation go from chaos to growth–but then the growth produces another type of chaos and so I keep going, responding to the chaos that is the church.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE BIBLE STUDY

After being on vacation for a couple of weeks, it was time to get back to work.  The first official task was leading Bible Study.  Well, actually, the first official task was preparing the material for the Bible study that would begin at 10:00am the first day back at work.  This particular study had been shut down for the summer and my plan was that over the summer, I would use the more relaxed work time to get the new Bible study ready.

Of course, as with all plans, this one fell apart very quickly.  Early in the summer, I did some initial research and created a file on the computer with some notes, planning on getting back to it soon.  But, well, there was a week of vacation early in the summer and I needed to take some time off to compensate for the ballooning overtime hours and there was the wedding that had to be done and some meetings and some pastoral visits.  And somehow, I arrived at the first day back at work with some notes in a file on the computer.

Fortunately, I had enough time to beat the notes into some sort of shape before I left.  I arrived early, as usual–and someone was there before me, which was bit of a surprise.  Even more surprising was the fact that I didn’t know the people–they were coming to check out the Bible study from a community a few kilometers away.

Before I could get to the door, another car arrived and as I was greeting them, another car arrived–this one with a couple who were going away for a while and wanted to let me know that they were going to be away.  As I was praying with them, others arrived and before I could get the door unlocked, we had a crowd standing around.

I finally unlocked the door and we got seated, the kettle boiling and we settled down to catching up on the summer, meeting the visitors, discussing my vacation and greeting everyone as they came in, including another visitor.  Even with several of our regulars being away, we had a full house by the time we got started.

We got down to work–and even with three new people, the Bible study worked like it always has.  We talked, got off topic, looked at interesting and significant questions and comments, did some of the material I had prepared, followed side trails, raised issues, had disagreements, got confused and occasionally had no idea how we got to where we ended up.  The new people–well, instead of sitting there bewildered by our chaotic process, the three new people jumped right in acting as if they had been there from the beginning.  Their questions and comments were as thought provoking, as pertinent and as prone to taking us off course as those of any veteran of the study.

In the end, the material I had rushed together provided lots of stuff to work with.  It started discussion, answered and raised questions and covered the topic that the group has wanted to look at.  I began the study wondering if I had enough material to fill in the time–and then part way through, began to worry that I had too much material.  In the end, we finished the topic, which was meant to be a one week study to deal with a specific issue before we went on to another topic.

As I left after the study, I realized something.  I missed the Bible study–or rather, I missed the interaction with the group of people.  While I am officially the leader of the study, practically, we have evolved an approach to Bible study that allows all of us to teach and learn, question and answer, confuse and enlighten–and do it all in an atmosphere where everyone has respect and appreciation for each other.  We don’t agree on everything–and we are comfortable leaving the disagreement on the table without trying to win the point.

I am pretty sure that if I had showed up at the study and confessed that I hadn’t been able to get anything done on the study topic, we would have still had a good Bible study because the group would have taken over.  I may have to do that next week–I still have to put together the material for the next topic.

May the peace of God be with you.