GROWING PAINS

One of our church fund raising activities is a yard sale. This provides a time for people to get rid of stuff too good to trash but not good enough to keep, as well as replace it with a lot of other stuff that they probably don’t need and will probably donate to next year’s sale. Anyway, one of the items at the sale was an 8-track player and some 8-track tapes. Most of us there remembered 8-tracks, which had an active and flourishing life of 2.5 weeks.

Well, they actually lasted a bit longer than that but not much. Because I am a techie, I got thinking about the changes I have experienced just in that area: I began buying vinyl LPs and 45s, moved on to cassettes (I skipped 8-tracks completely), then switched to CDs and now, I have downloaded music on my phone which I can play through Bluetooth in the car. I like technology and so I kind of like the changes and new inventions and like to keep up—but it means that I have spent a lot of money over the years just to have music to listen to. Mind you, most of the time, I am more interested in the technology than the music.

The last 100 years or so have involved almost incredible technological change. Before the beginning of the 20th century, technology was basically static, with few significant changes. Gunpowder did introduce some changes but essentially, people lived, worked, made war and died pretty much the same for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. But then, the 20th century changed everything. Life changed in dramatic and drastic ways because of the advances in technology. For me, the iconic picture of the change is an East African herder walking behind his sheep as has been done for hundreds of years but talking on his cell phone.

Not only are we inventing new technology but we are having to invent new rules of conduct to take technology into account. What is the polite thing to do when I am having coffee with a friend and my phone rings? Do I ignore it completely; check to see how important the incoming call is; apologize and answer at the table; apologize and leave the table to answer or simply answer and ignore my friend? Is it polite to carry on a private conversation on the phone while in a public place?

Can I take videos and pictures where ever and whenever I want and do whatever I want with them? When film camera technology was introduced, the general rule of thumb became that you could take pictures of people in public places and publish them because they were taken in a public setting. But the technology of film and publishing were relatively expensive and so most people never got their picture taken for generic publication. Today, however, technology assures us that we will all be able to get our 15 minutes of fame, whether we want it or not and whether we know it or now.

And while our culture is struggling with all this and more, I also struggle with technology and its implications from the perspective of my faith. Some questions are easy—I am not going to answer my phone during a worship service. In fact, I even try to remember to turn the sound off. I am not going to turn the phone off because the backup copy of my sermon is on it and my tablet has been showing signs of age lately.

But what happens when the person I am visiting gets upset with the fact that the Bible I am reading from happens to be on my phone? That has actually happened—not everyone shares my love of technology. Some find it scary and intimidating and reading the Bible from a phone is a bit much for them. Since I no longer carry a printed Bible, I generally ask if they have one I can read from, which seems to be an acceptable solution.

Technology is a real blessing—but the blessing hasn’t been totally integrated into either our culture or faith yet. It might seem like it has been completely integrated but the truth is that for all the technological advances and toys, we are still in the process of figuring out how everything fits together. I love the tech toys and what it allows me to do, but I think we need to spend some more time figuring out how it all fits into life.

May the peace of God be with you.

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ASSUMPTIONS

Our area has just come through an early and serious heat wave, which produced my normal reaction to extreme heat—I began to complain. I don’t do well in heat. I am very much a winter person and like things cool and even cold. Cold is much easier to deal with than heat—I can always put on more clothes when I am cold but there is a limit to how much I can take off when I am hot, especially when I am preaching.

My complaining produced expected results. The people I know who thrive on heat look at me like I am strange and tell me that they are enjoying it. Some suggest that I shouldn’t complain about the heat because in a few months, I will be complaining about the cold. I remind those people that I rarely if ever complain about the cold.

And then there are the ones who haven’t known me for a long time but who do know that I have spent a lot of time in East Africa. Their response to my complaints about the heat generally revolve around the irony of someone who has spent so much time in Africa complaining about the heat, because as we all know, all of Africa is hot. This is an assumption that everyone knows is true—to say that Africa is hot is like saying that the sun rises in the east.

But like many assumptions, this one isn’t exactly true. I kind of like pointing put to people that the part of East Africa where I have lived and worked so much might be pretty much on the equator but it is also at an elevation of over 5000 feet, which means that the temperature there isn’t that hot. While it gets warm, the highest temperatures experienced there are lower than the highest temperatures in the summer where I live right now. I am pretty sure that most people simply don’t believe me.

After all, everyone knows that Africa is hot and so I must be mistaken, joking or don’t know what I am talking about. My comments about African heat oppose the assumptions being made by the other person. And one of the realities of life is that most people prefer to have their assumptions unchallenged and pristine.

And actually some assumptions are safe to leave unchallenged. When I assume that other drivers on the road are going to do something stupid or dangerous, that assumption keeps me alert and safer. It probably isn’t a totally valid assumption but I and my passengers are safer because I make that assumption.

However, when I assume that someone who belongs to a certain church will have what I consider a distorted theology or someone who speaks a different language will be a danger to me or someone who doesn’t have much money will want to take my money or someone of a different colour isn’t as important as I am or someone whose sexual orientation is different than mine is somehow less human than I am, my assumptions are a serious problem and need to be challenged.

Unfortunately, it seems that we live in a world where instead of being encouraged to challenge our assumptions, we are encouraged to harden and tighten our assumptions. Politics has degenerated into a process of encouraging assumptions rather than enabling development. Religion seems to strive to baptise and sanctify assumptions rather than produce personal growth. Leadership seems to have become the process of harnessing as many assumptions as possible and using them to build a power base.

The end result is that our world is becoming more and more dysfunctional because more and more of us are treating our assumptions as truths that need to be defended with walls, legislation, guns and organizations. In the process, we are losing our ability to really relate to each other as real people. I see others through the lens of my assumptions and so miss the real person.

But all of Africa isn’t hot—and most of the rest of our assumptions are equally flawed. But we can only discover the flaws when we are willing to challenge even our most cherished assumptions so that we can discover the truth and reality that our assumptions hide and distort.

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.

DON’T MESS WITH THE BIBLE

When I was about seven or eight, my mother began a short-lived practise of reading the Bible with all of us kids at bedtime. We would sit together and read the KJV—those of us who could read would get a turn and the rest would squirm and listen. The custom didn’t last long—there were too many of us kids and not enough time in the day and a million other things that got in the way. But I have actually been reading the Bible pretty much continually since that point. Sometimes, my reading has been hit or miss; sometimes it has been forced; occasionally, it has been in aid of learning a new language—but there have been very few stretches of my life when I haven’t been reading the Bible.

I also have a deep desire to understand what I am reading so I do a lot of study, discovering the meaning, contextualizing, looking at the original languages (sort of), reading commentaries. My appreciation for the Bible and its wisdom is an essential part of my spiritual development. I read it, I study it, I teach it and most of all, I try to understand and practise it.

And so I find myself getting angry and upset with people who trivialize the Bible and its value. I don’t get really upset with people who want to deny the Bible or turn it into a collection of fairy tales—I tend to be more concerned with the underlying reasons for their ideas, the emotional, cultural and experiential things that lead them to deny the truth and value of the Bible.

No, what really ticks me off are the people who claim faith and who seek to use the Bible as a club or weapon to defend their particular view points. My latest frustration was a politician who attempted to use an out of context Bible verse to defend his very controversial political stand. The fact that I think his stand is wrong and unbiblical itself doesn’t bother me as much as his casual and opportunistic treatment of the Bible.

We who are part of the Christian faith have a tendency to approach the Bible from a very wrong perspective. We are often guilty of looking to the Bible for some sort of divine backing and support for what we want to do or believe or advocate. We begin with who and what we are and want and then comb the pages of the Bible to find God’s words of support for our position. Armed with this divine backing, we can club our opponents into submission because God is one our side. Unfortunately, the other side probably had another verse that they have discovered that they use as a shield against our club.

Along the way, we seriously mistreat and disrespect the Bible. We take passages out of context; we interpret the truth out of them; we bend and break applications; we massage and tweak words; we ignore the inconvenient places that disagree with us; we even lie about what it says. It seems that as long as we can find some words somewhere that can somehow be forced to say what we want it to say to support what we want, we are fine.

I am pretty sure that isn’t what God had in mind when he gave us the Bible. The Bible’s beginning position is that we are separated from God because we are imperfect and sinful. The words and ideas and themes and teachings of the Bible are there to help us overcome this sinfulness and its consequent separation from God. The Bible exists as a mirror to show us our failure to be what God planned us to be and at the same time, to provide us with a way to get to where we are what God planned is to be. (Hint—we get there by trusting God, not ourselves).

Reading the Bible as anything but God’s revelation to us to help us become what God knows we can be and actually wants us to be is to risk distorting and even destroying the value and purpose of the Bible. God didn’t give us the Bible to defend our narrow, bigoted, partisan, selfish and sinful ideas—he gave it to get us out of that rut and into his love and grace.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHO CARES?

When I started this blog back in 2015, I had a sort of a vague goal—or maybe a couple of them. I was unemployed at the time and needed something to do that would relieve the boredom and depression of unemployment. And I wanted to be able to think and organize and share some of my thoughts and ideas relating to faith, the church and spiritual growth. Very early in the process, I decided that I wasn’t comfortable dealing with some topics and since it is my blog, I can and do pretty much ignore anything I don’t want to write about.

One area I have avoided is commenting on current political and cultural events. I am a news junkie and so I am aware of what is going on but have never really wanted to wade into the cultural and political debates that are so prevalent and so divisive in our culture and churches these days. I have been troubled by a lot of what I see; I have been enraged by some of what I see; I have been saddened and depressed by what I see—but up until today, I haven’t been inspired by what I see.

And even today isn’t going to be a rant for or against some particular political move or figure—there are enough comedians and bloggers who make a living doing that way. We really don’t need another.

But maybe what we do need is someone who is willing to step back, forget the partisan politics and ask some difficult questions that come from the heart of our faith. Given that most major questions these days get addressed from the perspective of nationalism or partisan political stances or narrow perspectives, maybe we need someone to open the questions up and give them a bigger, divine context.

For example, some statistics suggest that over 65 million people are classed as refugees or internally displaced people—that is a good sized nation. Mostly the response to this crisis is that someone should do something, preferably far away from us and at no cost to us. Politicians debate and people are dying where they try to live and dying trying to get to safety. And while that might be a popular political response, what is the divine response? What does God think? Does God care? And if God cares, how should his people act?

Recent statistics in Canada suggest that around 20% of Canadian children live in poverty. There are all kinds of political suggestions about how to deal with the problem but since most of them require people who have helping people who don’t have, there tends to be a lot of talk but little action beyond band aids like food banks. So politicians debate and plans get drafted but since little money gets spent, the poor remain poor, get poorer and go to school and bed hungry and cold. But what is the divine response? What does God think? Does God care? And if God cares, how should his people act?

Our political and cultural responses tend to be narrow, self-serving, protectionist, biased and prejudicial—we like ourselves and ours. Being different is grounds for exclusion, mistreatment, name-calling and persecution. Unfortunately, politicians of all types love to build a base on these self-centered realities. We are all afraid of the other—and politicians know how to work that fear. But what is the divine response? What does God think? Does God care? And if God cares, how should his people act?

Too often, we have tried to fit God and the Christian faith into the cultural and political armour that we wear ourselves. But even a quick reading of the message that God has given us shows something far different. God has a deep and powerful concern for the alien, the poor, the different. God cares—and even more, he requires that his people care. He wants us to step out of the narrow and constrained ruts we dig for ourselves and begin to really care. He calls us to follow his example—he cared enough for selfish and self-centered people that he went to the cross for us. God cares. He made his care real, at great personal cost.

And us—well, we are called to care as well. And maybe that care demands that we step outside the cultural and political and show some real care, care based not in cultural and political fears and prejudices but in the love and grace of God.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHY DO I HAVE TO BE THE LEADER?

One of the best paying jobs I ever had while a university student was as a reserve army officer. For a couple of summers, I was an active duty officer, working as a cadet instructor. The pay was great and as an added benefit, I got to play with some neat toys and even run around in the dark firing off blank rounds and throwing flash-bangs.

But those summers weren’t all fun and games. I discovered a few things about myself in the process. I was an officer, someone who was given a great deal of authority. True, I was pretty much the lowest level of officer but most of the time, I was actually with people who were lower in rank than I was, meaning that what I wanted tended to be what happened. I discovered that I liked having that power—and at the same time, I realized that that kind of power can be seductive and extremely dangerous.

I also discovered that in the end, I don’t need that kind of power in my life. I liked it and probably would still like it—but the truth is that having power over other people is as addictive and destructive as any drug. There are people who seem to be able to deal with the dangers of this power but I realized that I am not one of them. I have also seen that many others probably aren’t the ones who can deal with it either.

I think that experience was important for me as I prepared for a career in ministry. I got into ministry just as the ministerial culture was shifting from a pastoral orientation to a leadership orientation. I began ministry understanding that I was to provide spiritual care and guidance and teaching to the people God had called me to shepherd. But more and more, I was being encouraged to lead these people: to tell them what God wanted them to do and then use my leadership to make sure that they got the job done. The books and seminars used words like “vision” and “visionary” and so on, but the whole idea was that I was responsible for leading the church to where it needed to go—and even more, I was responsible for deciding where it needed to go.

Being an introspective introvert, I couldn’t just buy into the books and trends. I needed to know why—and so began my study of leadership as it applies to the faith. I quickly discovered the real question, at least for me. The church, like any organization, needs leaders—but why did I automatically have to be the leader? Why does being given the title “Rev” also confer the supreme leadership of the church on me?

I have yet to find a good answer to that question. I have not yet found any convincing theological or Biblical reason that allows me to automatically equate pastor with leader. In fact, I have discovered a lot of reasons why too much leadership takes away from the ability of an individual to be a pastor. If I am the leader pushing (and even fighting) to get my vision accomplished by the church, I can seriously damage my ability to actually provide pastoral care to someone who might disagree with my vision. Or what of the people who have been slighted by my push to move the reluctant church in the way I see them needing to go? Are they going to be as open to my teaching at Bible Study or my preaching?

The church needs leaders—but why do I automatically have to be the leader just because I am the pastor? There are certainly times and situations when I provide pastorally oriented leadership but I am first of all a pastor and secondarily a teacher. I needed to learn to work from my strengths—and that means that I don’t need to be the leader. The God who called me and gifted me with the pastoral gifts I need also calls and gifts the leaders the church needs. I have discovered that I am at me best when I work my real gifts and calling and encourage others to work their real gifts and calling. I need to be a pastor and teacher—I don’t need to be a leader.

May the peace of God be with you.

ITS TOO HARD TO UNDERSTAND

Because I am continually beating the drum about reading the Bible, I occasionally have people tell me that they are going to start reading the Bible. I get excited and based on past experience, give them some advice that I hope will help them. Generally, I tell people not to start with Genesis 1.1 and plan on reading through to Revelation 22.21. That method is pretty much doomed to fail. The reader often gets lost in the swamps of Leviticus or founders in the depths of Numbers. If they somehow heroically make it out of the first five books, they tend to lose interest in the repetitious history books.

There are other ways to approach reading—but that is a post for another day. Today, I am going to deal with another issue that often comes up when people make a commitment to growing their faith by reading the Bible. The initial stages go well—but then, things slow down because of a serious problem. The would be reader often comes back to me with a serious complaint—they are reading but they really can’t understand what they are reading. The Bible is just too hard to understand. It may be okay for people like me, who have been to university and have specialized in Bible stuff, but they are lost. It is too hard to understand.

That stops a lot of people. And they have a valid complaint. The Bible is hard to understand, or at least some part of it are hard to understand. We need to remember that the Bible was written and compiled by people from a very different time and culture—or rather times and cultures—from ours. There are references and allusions and details that make absolutely no sense to us when we read them because they come from the realities of people living at least 2000 years ago in places from away, speaking languages that most of us will never encounter, dealing with things that we only read about in the Bible. Of course parts of the Bible are going to be hard to understand.

As part of my spiritual journey, I have come to realize that not only are there parts of the Bible that I struggle to understand but also I don’t actually need to understand. If I don’t understand the ins and outs of the Levitical law code, my personal spiritual growth doesn’t suffer. If I can’t break the poetic message of some of the Psalms, it isn’t going to keep me from coming closer to God. If the symbolism of Daniel and Revelation confuses and irritates me, I am still going to have a spot in heaven.

The bottom line for me is that I don’t think I need to understand the whole Bible. God has given the Bible as his message to all people of all time and that means that the revelation that was so vitally important for the wandering ex-slaves who would form the nation of Israel probably isn’t all that vital for me. I confess to finding Leviticus interesting but if it disappeared from the Bible, my faith wouldn’t really suffer. Some of the parts of the Bible that I don’t understand are perfectly clear to my Kenyan friends. Some parts that neither of us understand will like be very clear to the Martian colonists sitting in their domed shelters 200 years from now.

I don’t need to understand the whole Bible. The whole thing isn’t written for me. What I need to deal with are the parts that were written for me—and to find those, I need to read the whole thing. There isn’t a specific part with my name on it—my parents didn’t give me a Biblical name so I can’t claim one of the books as mine and mine alone. But I have discovered that as I read through the Bible, I keep running into stuff that I do understand because it speaks directly. If I hadn’t systematically read the Bible, I would never have run into Psalm 13, which has and still does provide me with tremendous help during my depressions.

I read a comment one time but can’t remember who it come from. Essentially, the writer said he wasn’t worried about the parts of the Bible he couldn’t understand. He was worried about the parts that he could understand. That works for me.

May the peace of God be with you.

AN ANSWER TO PRAYER

I am a part-time pastor—and a part-time pastor who likes to research and study and stuff like that. So, I have spent some time looking at part-time ministry—I even wrote a short book about it a few years ago for our denomination. Anyway, one of the bits of data I have dug up indicated that there are two broad categories of congregations that seek part-time pastors.

New church plants often begin with some form of part-time ministry. If the plant is successful, the group eventually become large enough that they can afford a full-time pastor or two. While I have been connected with a few such situations through my denomination, I have spent my time as a part-time pastor working in the other major category.

This category includes all those congregations which once used to be bigger and financially more solid and which used to have a full-time pastor. But as membership shrinks and the costs of full-time ministry escalate, the congregation eventually has to make the difficult and demoralizing to shift from a full-time pastor to a part-time pastor. This is without question one of the most traumatic decisions a congregation has to make because to most, it signifies that they are on the way out—it might take years but their decline will eventually result in the church closing.

I begin work in part-time settings very much aware of this mindset—and feel that a big part of my responsibility as the pastor is helping the congregation deal with their realities. But I don’t generally include closing as one of the realities I am concerned about. Certainly, it is always a reality. But there are other possible realities: stabilization, for example, is a possibility—a small congregation that is healthy and doing ministry is a valid reality. Reversing the downward trend is also a valid reality—sometimes, given the cultural context not as possible as stabilization but still a possibility.

So, with that in mind, I think a large part of my ministry is helping the part-time congregation look at itself and discover the reality of God’s love and grace working in and through it. But I have to confess that recently, the direction of my thoughts concerning the smaller of the two pastorates I work with has been a bit on the gloomy side. I hadn’t been able to really get a sense of direction or potential. I have been praying, thinking, listening and all the rest but mostly kept seeing our small numbers and the relative lack of what I would consider positive signs.

I am aware that we have an uphill climb—but I wasn’t seeing much to suggest that we had what it takes to make the climb. That is, I didn’t until a recent church meeting. This wasn’t an official meeting but more the general discussion we do before, during and after worship. We discussed and made a significant decision on helping out in a community need. But underneath, there were all sorts of revelations that I saw—the members there might not have seen them all but I did.

I saw a group of people who were not only deeply concerned with their community but who were also very active in the community. Everyone knew who was needing what and was working to meet those needs in a variety of ways: some visit and provide food and conversation; some provide a listening ear; some pound nails to repair houses; some provide prayer; some fill out complex application forms—and everyone is known and respected and appreciated in the community.

And in this, I found an answer to my prayers and my worries. We are small and struggling in some ways—but we are deeply involved in the life of the community. We are taking the light of God’s grace and love directly to our community. Many of the people touched by our small group haven’t been in our building for years, if ever—but they are experiencing God at work through our group.

I still don’t know where we are going as a group—but I have an answer to my prayers. As a church, we keep doing the ministry we are doing and as a pastor, I keep encouraging and enabling this gathering of believers to be God’s light and salt in our community.

May the peace of God be with you.

A DONATED SUIT

I am sitting in a deacons’ meeting where we have been looking at a lot of different issues affecting our church. Since we were slowly climbing out of a serious mess that occurred just before I was called to the church, there was a lot to talk about. We rejoiced at the signs of life we were seeing and pondered the best ways to deal with the continuing issues from the previous mess. Near the end of the meeting, we opened the agenda to anyone who might have concerns.

Our senior deacon wanted to raise a concern. Since he was a retired pastor with many years of experience who tended to be on the ball and quite helpful, we all listened to him. He raised the issue of the young people who were attending our worship—about six of them, week after week, faithfully attending, participating and seeming to really appreciate what we were doing. I had wanted to raise the issue myself—we had a lot to rejoice about: the kids were coming, our student intern was doing great things with them, they made up 10-20 percent of our small but growing attendance.

But the senior deacon had a whole different idea. He was concerned about how the kids dressed. Their clothing wasn’t respectful. Some of them were showing up in jeans and t-shirts, covered with various jackets. They were wearing sneakers and some of the guys wore baseball hats—although somewhere along the line, they had learned to take the hats off during worship. But the bottom line was that these young people were not showing sufficient respect for God because they weren’t well dressed.

He had a solution, one that had helped him as a young person. He came from a poor family and didn’t feel comfortable attending worship until someone in the congregation graciously donated a used suit that he could wear. As a church, we needed to find people to donate good used suits for the guys and appropriate dresses for the girls. Then they would feel much more at home and be more reverent and respectful.

The only thing I found more difficult than preventing my student intern from climbing over the table to do physical harm to the senior deacon was preventing myself from climbing over the table to do serious harm to the senior deacon. Somehow, the grace of God broke through and neither I nor the student intern did what we were thinking.

Instead, we had a serious and significant discussion about cultural relatively. The senior deacon was concerned about these kids but was working from a whole different culture. It made a major difference to him when I pointed out that the jeans the kids wore on Sunday morning likely cost more than the suit he wore—these weren’t poor street kids. The student intern pointed out that some of those kids got more allowance than the senior deacon got in pension, which was probably an exaggeration on both sides but helped the discussion along.

While the senior deacon would still liked to have seen the kids coming in attire appropriate to the culture from 40 years ago, he began to get some insights into the changes that had occurred over the past years and decided that maybe jeans that cost more than his suit were more appropriate for those kids than a donated suit. With the crisis averted, we adjourned the meeting, secure in the knowledge that we could continue the ministry we were involved in and could rejoice in the fact that these kids found our worship valuable enough to get up early on Sunday morning, put on their best jeans and t-shirts and join us.

Is there a point here? Well, maybe we in the church need to pay attention to our culture and realize that much of the time, we want to donate suits to people who neither want nor need our used suits. They need and want something different and sometimes actually find it—but because we get caught up in the need to supply a suit to the suitless, we damage their ability to get what they actually need and want. Isn’t is much better to amplify what we are doing that they need and want than spend all the effort it would take to donate a used suit?

May the peace of God be with you.

WHY BOTHER?

I don’t get to attend worship as an ordinary participant very often. Generally, I get to do that while I am on vacation, unless we decide not to attend that Sunday which happens. But when I do, I notice just how far from the prevailing cultural norms I actually am. Most preachers these days were jeans and polo shirts or some other casual attire. I have noticed that most clean up and wear a suit and tie for funerals and maybe some weddings but mostly, the causal, comfortable look dominated the pulpit these days.

I happen to think that is great. It sets a tone for worship and enables both preacher and congregation to relax and enjoy the reality of God and his love and grace. Being comfortable in the presence of God is one of the prime messages of the Christian faith and the trend to casual, comfortable clothing is a visual and powerful statement of the relationship we have with God because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

But when I am leading the worship and preaching, I will be wearing one of my two dark suits and one of my small selection of ties. There are two exceptions:

• When it is really warm, I lose the suit jacket.
• When we are having a potluck, I wear the sporty pants than came with the new suit

Isn’t that just a bit hypocritical on my part, especially since I love to point out the pointlessness of wearing ties and encourage people to dress as comfortable as possible? In fact, when asked about our church’s dress code, I tell people that we have a very strict code—you have to wear clothes. But week after week, there I am, wearing my suit and tie while everyone else has jeans, shorts (in summer), sneakers and definitely, no tie.

It probably is hypocritical on some levels but on other levels, what I am wearing is perfectly congruent with what I am telling people. I encourage people to be comfortable with what they are wearing for worship. And for me, that means a suit and tie. My experience and cultural influences go way back and are deeply rooted. I grew up in the era when worship attire was the best jacket and tie you had. I spent serious time working with an independent Kenyan denomination which has a fairly formal dress code—the only leaders who don’t have to wear ties are the ones entitled to wear clerical collars.

I actually upset the leadership of the church in Kenya early in my first time there. I wasn’t wearing a tie to teach—after all, ties are anachronistic cultural hold overs that have no real purpose or meaning. When the church leaders finally got up enough courage to suggest that I wear a tie, I realized my mistake, apologized and put on a tie. Given the heat in Kenya much of the school year, they didn’t mind if I skipped the suit jacket now and then.

I just don’t feel comfortable leading worship and preaching unless I am wearing a tie and at least part of my suit—the jacket doesn’t count on warm days. It isn’t a requirement placed on me by anyone else. In fact, I might fight against any regulation that said I had to wear a tie, at least in North America. I don’t make it a requirement for anyone else—not even the occasionally student I mentor for the nearby seminary. If someone wants to come to worship in ripped jeans and well worn t-shirt, I welcome them and am not the least concerned about their costume. If they are comfortable, they can probably better enter into the reality of worship and have a better experience of the awareness of the presence of God.

And me—well, wearing my suit and tie allows me to be comfortable in the presence of God. He doesn’t require it but my personal culture and background does. I could put in the effort to align my personal preference with the freedom that I teach and preach and encourage for others—but truthfully, I am comfortable doing what I do and there is enough really serious stuff that I need to deal with in my personal life that it isn’t worth the effort to change my approach to worship wear. I am comfortable, God loves me and the people understand me. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

May the peace of God be with you.