CHOICES

As a pastor and someone involved in the task of helping others, I get contacted about a lot of things. Everyone seems to think that a pastor has nothing more to do than become involved with their particular concern. Most of the things people want me to become involved in or to help them with are worthwhile. Whether it is helping develop counselling resources in our region or helping provide food for hungry kids in school or housing for people who need it or defending the environment or preserving the built history of our area or—well, the list goes on and on.

And if I were rich, didn’t need to earn a living and didn’t have a bunch of things I am required to do, I might be interested in some of these things. But one of the realities of my life is that I already have a long list of required activity. Every week, I need to prepare and preach two sermons, develop and lead (or pretend to lead) two Bible studies, and keep a spiritual eye on the people I have been called to serve as pastor. I also have to be ready to drop everything to work with serious illness or funerals or other life crises. I am responsible for primary spiritual and emotional care for the people in the congregation. Along with all that, I have to find some time to cook and eat meals, exercise and sleep.

I am also finding that as I age, the energy I have available isn’t as plentiful as it was 20 or 30 or 40 years ago. Burning the candle at both ends might be possible at 36 but at 66, the candle doesn’t actually allow for that. I keep being told by medical people that I am healthy—but then they add for a 66 year old, subtly reminding me that I am not 36.

So, I have to make choices. And these choices aren’t like choosing between drinking a cup of good coffee or a cup of stagnant puddle water. These are choices between things that are equally appealing, equally valid and equally important. Do I choose providing counselling for the adult victim of childhood sexual abuse or helping a shattered family process the death of their loved one or finding ways to discretely provide food and clothing to the kids in school whose families can’t afford it or take part in the long process to correct an environmental mess?

I learned early in my life that I can’t do everything—and learned almost as soon that I would have to say no to some very good things. I would like to say that I have developed a simple, easy to use two step process for making such decisions but since I am still a pastor, a profession that requires honesty (except in the case of sermon illustrations), I won’t say that.

I have found that the process of choosing isn’t easy, at least for me. I do have friends who semi-boastfully tell me that God spoke to them and made it clear what they were supposed to do. I believe God speaks but it always seems to take me a lot longer to get the message. And so I often find myself juggling choices, trying to figure out which ones I can do and which therefore have to be not chosen.

I do work hard when I have a choice like this to make and the work does include serious prayer. I don’t actually get down on my knees—the days of getting on my knees are long gone. But I do pray. Sometimes the prayer involves weighing consequences in the awareness of God’s presence. Sometimes, it involves a groaning plea something like, “What do I do?” And sometimes, it involves mowing the lawn or shovelling snow or staring out the window allowing God to move around in my thought process.

Eventually, I make a decision. Sometimes, I second guess the decision; occasionally, I feel guilty about the decision; now and then I even change the decision. But I work at making faith decisions about the various demands, claims and possibilities that I have to deal with. I really can’t do everything but doing one thing often involves not doing something else, which means I have to think carefully and pray hard about the choices I make.

May the peace of God be with you.

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CHURCH GROWTH

I was reading an article recently dealing with church growth. Now, I am not normally a fan of church growth articles but this was from someone whose stuff I read regularly and who almost always has good stuff to say. I liked what he had to say in the article but I was actually more interested in a chain of thought that developed for me as I was reading and afterwards.

I pastor small churches, churches which have a stable and involved attendance. We know each other; we appreciate each other; we are aware of each other’s gifts and abilities; we generally know why someone isn’t present. Our small numbers present some problems at times because we lack bodies to do specific jobs—or, as is sometimes the case, the bodies we have are no longer capable of the jobs that need to be done.

It would be nice to have more people, which I suppose puts me in the category of church growth supporter. But I realized that I simply don’t see church growth in the same way as some people do. Often, church growth is presented in terms of statistical analysis, with suggestions that a certain growth rate is healthy; that a certain percentage of the community is open to evangelism; that various approaches to outreach have specified success rates. The discussions and planning focus on numbers.

But my thinking goes in a totally different direction, something I realized as I was reading that article after a week in which I had two funerals in one of the pastorates I serve. Both were men who were well known in the community and had many connections, which meant that many of the same people attended both funerals. Before and after the service, I had a chance to connect with many of those attending. Both church and non-church people were there and since I have lived in this area for almost than 40 years, I knew most of the people attending.

So, at one point, a couple coming in to the second funeral was held up in the line to sign the condolence book. The husband looked at me and said that this was the third death he had to deal with this week. His voice was shaky and his eyes were watery—and this from a strong, no nonsense, salt of the earth man who normally appeared unflappable. But he was obviously affected by these losses.

He and his wife have been on the fringes of the church for as long as a I can remember: their kids were part of our kids programs, they attended concerts and special events, they probably gave money when the church was hurting financially a while ago, they show up at all fund raisers, they both have shown an openness to the things of faith. But they don’t attend worship.

I realized that when I think church growth, I think of people like this. I am not actually thinking about statistical increases and rate of growth possibilities. In the end, I am concerned with how I can help people like this couple make their faith more a part of their lives. Or I think of some of the family members who attended funerals, wondering how we as a church can somehow become more responsive to their needs. Or I wonder how we can atone for the stupidities of our church past that prevents some people from becoming more involved.

I don’t actually want a bigger church—I want a church that these people a part of it. Sure, that likely means that our churches will grow. But it isn’t the growth that I want. I probably won’t even know the percentage increase—and wouldn’t care if someone told me. I am concerned about specific people, some of whom I know and many of whom I don’t yet know. And so I don’t think much about church growth.

I do think a lot about ministry, how I look after the people I have been called to shepherd and how we as a church minister to the people we see every day. We already have a significant relationship with these people and many of them look to us for spiritual support. I want to provide them with more of the love and grace that God has for them. That is my version of church growth.

May the peace of God be with you.

NEW PROPHETS

I have always been fascinated by the Biblical prophets, particularly the ones who lived and ministered during the middle section of the Old Testament times. Most of the named prophets at that time were men, although there are hints of women being involved at times as well. They tended to be somewhat on the edge of the cultural norms of their day, which is an important point to remember.

We in the faith, and perhaps especially those of us in ministry, have a tendency to see the prophets are important and respected and visionary individuals who words are important and timeless. But the truth is that most of the prophets in the Old Testament, especially those around the time of the collapse of the north and south kingdoms were not at the centre of things. They were not given much attention—and what attention they were given tended to be negative.

Their messages were important and essential but didn’t really register with their contemporaries. We look back at their words and messages and we discover the deep and powerful truths they were speaking and we respect and appreciate and honour them and their words—but in their day, they were ridiculed, arrested, exiled. Being a prophet was not exactly a sought after occupation during many periods in Old Testament history.

Before I continue, it occurs to me that I need to define prophecy just to make sure we are all thinking the same way. In the Bible, prophecy is used to describe the activity of people delivering specific messages from God to individuals, groups or nations. While prophecy sometimes involves some predictions and comments about the future, the key essential of prophecy is that it is a specific message from God to a specific target audience.

All of that makes me wonder. I wonder if there are prophets at work today. Well, actually, I am pretty sure there are prophets at work today. My wondering is more about where we find them. I am aware that there have been and are lots of Christian leaders who have been hailed as prophets by some group or another. And some of them may actually have been prophets. But what bothers me is that often, the decision to name someone a prophet is based on the fact that they speak a message that we like to hear.

We acclaim them prophets because their words and messages reinforce our ideas. We like what we hear and since we like it, we accept the words as coming directly from God, which makes the speaker a prophet. And while there is nothing wrong with liking what someone has to say, I do wonder if it is really prophecy.

Where is the tension, the rebuke, the correction that was such a part of Biblical prophecy? Why does God feel a need to send people to reinforce what we are already comfortable with? Where, for that matter, is the testing that is supposed to be in place to see if the message is really from God?

Maybe, instead of looking for modern prophets in the best seller section, we need to look at the edges of the faith, seeking out the people whose messages are ignored and whose words go against our flow. I am not suggesting that being on the edge makes something true—but based on the Biblical examples, being on the edge doesn’t necessarily make it false either. Popularity is not a necessary part of the definition of prophecy. In fact, in the Bible, God tends to send prophets to give corrective messages. He uses them to deliver words that go against the popular and accepted and pleasing—that is why so many of the Old Testament prophets has such a hard time.

So, where are the prophets of today? Maybe some of them are on the best seller lists, pastoring the mega churches, leading the newest church growth fad. But maybe some of them are on the edges, ignored and disrespected. Maybe the popular is prophecy—but then again, maybe the message God is trying to get across is unpopular and uncomfortable and we don’t actually want to hear it.

How do we decide? Well, a good start might be to listen more to both the popular and the unpopular and ask God to help is decide which is the real prophecy.

May the peace of God be with you.

NOT ANONYMOUS!

Many of my Kenyan friends were pleased to discover that my given names come from my grandfathers—they felt that somehow my parents had known their tribal naming customs and followed them. The fact that many of them couldn’t easily pronounce any of my names didn’t take away from the fact that my names fit their customs. To solve the pronunciation problem, they gave me another name, one from their culture which fit my circumstance. Later, some of the students I taught gave me at least one nickname—I say at least one because this one they revealed to me. There may have been other names that they didn’t reveal—these were students, after all.

So, I have a name. Actually, I have several names, all of which I acknowledge and to be honest, am proud of. I appreciate the family connection coming from my given names. I also deeply appreciate the names given to me by my Kenyan friends. My names are a basic part of who I am; they mark my place in the world; they connect me with others and cultures. I would likely still be the same person with a different name but still, the names I have been given are important to me. I am careful to introduce myself with the appropriate name in the appropriate circumstance.

When I am in Kenya, for example, there isn’t all that much value in giving people my Canadian given and family names. I tend to use my Kenyan name, which, in the right circles is recognized. Most of the people in the church we work with there know me or know someone who knows me, at least as long as I use the Kenyan name. In Canada, I use some version of my given names—mind you, that doesn’t always go over well because many people find “Legassie” hard to pronounce.

I am who I am and my names are a part of who I am—and despite the increasingly anonymous culture we live in, I choose to be known by name. To be honest, I hate hiding behind anonymity. When faced with an anonymous survey, I often choose not to fill it out—and if I do fill it out, I often sign it.

When I read something that interests me, I try to discover who wrote it—I want a name to put with the thoughts—not a made up net identity but a real name. It doesn’t really matter what culture the name comes from expect that it can’t come from the internet culture. I tend to ignore stuff identified by strange letter and number combinations or timely slogans or some other way of hiding identity. If I have something to say, I am going to own it—and for me, part of owning it is to tell people who I really am. Not telling them who I really am suggests that I am not really committed to what I am saying or that what I am saying isn’t that important or, perhaps, I am a coward.

I am aware that this puts me at odds with a significant part of our culture, the part which prefers not to be known as they slash and trash and troll and generally spew vitriol and anger and disrespect all over the internet. It puts me at odds with the moral cowards who send anonymous letters to people they don’t like telling them to move or change or even die. My desire for names puts me on the opposite side of a culture that wants increasingly to be able to say and do whatever it wants without taking personal responsibility, which suggests to me that we are fast developing a culture that doesn’t want to deal with consequences.

I am probably a dinosaur because I want real names from real people. If I disagree with someone enough to speak or write it, I am going to let them know who I am. If people disagree with me enough to speak or write it, I want to know who they are. And if people don’t give me their name with their comments, I am going to ignore their comments. This, I think, it part of the personal honesty that my faith teaches. I am who I am and my name is part of who I am. If I am going to be honest, you need to know my name.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE DISHWASHER

To be involved in ministry and be serious about it brings an intimate understanding of stress. I have spend my whole life in ministry of some sort so I am not really qualified to say how that stress level compares to other occupations. I have read a perhaps made up story of a second career pastor who found the stress too much and went back to his previous occupation—air-traffic controller. I do have a friend who is a second career pastor and who found the stress level in ministry much higher than the stress level in his previous job—he was a police special operations officer.

Anyway, no matter how it compares to other occupations, ministry has its stresses and recognizing and managing that stress is an important part of successful ministry. We are all taught that, often by professors whose recognition and handling of their own ministry stress is inspiring in its ability to show us a bad example. The key struggle for many of us in ministry is learning how to recognize our stress levels. The difficulty is that the signs of stress keep changing—as soon as we recognize one sign and make (hopefully) effective changes in our habits, the inherent stress expresses itself in another sign.

I have been aided in my stress battle by a variety of signs: recurring dreams, insomnia, depression, unfocused anger and so on—all relatively common and normal signs and symptoms of stress that many others is all occupations would experience. But recently, I discovered a new sign of my stress levels, one that I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere else.

This sign of stress involves our dishwasher. We live in a church supplied house, which came equipped with a dishwasher, which I personally appreciate. I cook most of the meals we eat together and we have a rule that he who cooks also cleans up. I have occasionally sought to change that rule but so far, it has been consistently applied in our context. So, I am also in charge of the dishwasher. Since there are only the two of us most of the time, it takes a couple of days to get a full load of dishes—and we try to be as energy conscious as possible so I wait until the dishwasher is full or we run out of vital dishware before I run the dishwasher.

So, how does this pretty normal activity show my stress level? It has nothing to do with repressed anger coming out at the dishwasher or how hard I shut the door or how much noise I make putting the dishes in the machine. No—the new indicator of how high my stress level is comes when I see the dishwasher getting full and think there must be something wrong because I just emptied the thing yesterday. When life is hectic and ministry is gobbling up my time and energy, I lose track of how long it has been since I actually ran and emptied the dishwasher.

I don’t know how long this will remain an effective sign of high stress levels—I suspect that now that I have identified it, it will probably go back on the shelf in my mind which holds the inactive indicators like the recurring dreams and so on. Right now, it works and helps me in the never-ending task of keeping my stress levels in the acceptable range.

And that is important because stress is a integral part of ministry—and learning to both recognize and deal with stress is an integral part of developing a long and effective ministry. Those of us who are called to serve God through his people are accepting a high-stress occupation. But we are not called to accept high stress as a fact of life. The God who calls us also empowers and enables us and provides the help we need to cope with the stress of ministry. He provides the signs that we are stressed, even using dishwashers to point out the problem. He also graciously provides the help we need to deal with the stress and carry out our calling, provided of course, we let him minister to us.

Right now, God used the dishwasher to remind me that I don’t need to save the world—he has already done that. I just need to use his help to deal with the little bit of the universe that he has called me serve.

May the peace of God be with you.

TWO FUNERALS

One of the pastorates I serve is in the midst of their winter shutdown. An aging congregation combine with old energy inefficient buildings and possible winter driving conditions is such a way as to suggest that I should have some extra time to myself in the winter. We have modified the winter plan just a bit and have one service a month but basically, we are closed for business for the first three months of the year.

Except that when it comes to anything involving people, it is pretty much impossible to be closed for business. The people who form the churches and the people who live in the communities served by the churches still require ministry. They get sick, have operations, get down, need a coffee, want to get married. They also die. And many of them want a representative of God available to help them deal with the realities of life.

So, I minister. One week recently, that ministry during the shutdown involved two funerals. Fortunately, they were on separate days. One funeral is a lot of work but two pretty much wipes out the week—nothing else gets done. So, when I got the notice about the first one, I was a bit frustrated, since I had plans for the week and wasn’t actually supposed to be working for that church anyway. But I am the pastor and so I went to see the family. In the process of the visit to plan the funeral, I discovered that here had been a another death—this in the family of the partner of the person I was meeting with.

That death had just occurred and so no one knew anything about arrangements or plans—but I, as the all knowing pastor of rural congregations, I knew that I would likely end up getting a call about that funeral as well. There are not a lot of options open to families in small communities when it comes to someone to conduct a funeral. We finished the planning session and I had prayer with the family, including a prayer for the family of the second person and headed home, pretty sure that before the end of the day, I would get another call.

When it came, I made my plans to visit the family, which was a bit complicated because the visit had to be arranged around my other worship services and between two winter storms. Having accomplished the visit, we made plans and I prayed and left, feeling sorry for myself for all the extra work this week would have because of the two funerals. I was also doing some major recalculating of my week so that I could get everything done that needed to be done. That recalculating involved cancelling my attendance at a meeting later in the week—given my dislike of meetings, that wasn’t a major inconvenience.

While I was somewhat upset with the extra work, I didn’t focus on that too much once I got a plan for the week developed. After that, I began to think more about the connections between the two funerals and all the people who would be affected by both. Families, friends, community members were all involved because of the tangled relationships that are a basic part of rural life. I anticipated seeing many of the same people at both services, which meant that I had to make sure that the services were different but offered the same level of hope and comfort that I try to bring to a funeral service.

Normally, funerals are separated by enough time that if I use the same Scriptures or the same reference, it isn’t a problem. But with the services following each other so closely and so many attending both, I had to work a bit harder to make sure I wasn’t repeating myself—I wanted people to have a sense that the service was designed for them and their needs and wasn’t just something I cut and pasted together.

Part of the reason I like rural living is the dense web of connections linking people. Sometimes, I don’t discover the connections until I get involved in ministry with the people. That network is a powerful part of rural living—and if it means that planning two funerals back to back is a bit more difficult, I will accept the difficulty because of the blessings that network provides.

May the peace of God be with you.

A PLACE TO STAND

When I was young, both chronologically and spiritually, I lived in a time and place where the physical and theological grounding of life were clear and firm and solid and comforting. Life was easy because there were clear answers and everything was simple. School, home, church, culture all gave the same answers for the same issues and we all agreed on them.

Of course, there was that somewhat confusing set of events when I was 9 or 10 when we switched from one denominational church to another but there was a simple answer for that helped ease my confusion. My father, who hadn’t attended worship decided that it was time to attend but he would only go to the church that was his, or at least where my grandparents attended. That was an acceptable answer because family was always important in our world.

But as I grew chronologically and theologically, I began to run into more and more troubling realities, places where my firm footing was suddenly shaken. The ground under my feet turned from bedrock to sand, gravel or even mud. I discovered, for example, that my treasured KJV Bible wasn’t acceptable for the introductory Biblical studies course—I had to buy and read a different translation. Things got even worse when I realized that I actually liked that translation.

It kept getting shaky. I discovered that some people didn’t actually walk the aisle to become believers. Some weren’t baptized like I was. Some found comfort and encouragement in other denominations. Even worse, there were some people who believed—and practised—the scary idea that a Christian could drink alcohol. And then, somewhere along the line, I discovered that some Christians actually engaged in pre-marital sex. And then, I discovered that some people called themselves believers and were willing to accept the idea that Jesus was more of a mythical figure than a real person. A few suggested that maybe Christians could be found in all political parties and all denominations. And then, the biggest blow of all—some were suggesting that there wasn’t actually any rock in the first place, that everything was relative and flexible and sort of muddy anyway.

Slowly and painfully, the ground I stood on was becoming shakier and muddier and was often more of a trap than a solid support. I sometimes felt that I was wallowing in a mud pit rather than standing on the solid rock—and then I heard a lecture about plate tectonics that told me that even solid bedrock of the earth was in motion. While I didn’t have a crisis of some sort, I did need something, a place to stand that I could be sure of.

One temptation was to decide that the mud I was standing in was actually solid rock. If I called the mud rock long enough and was loud enough and sure enough and strong enough, I could petrify the mud and move everything back to the past when my place to stand was big and solid and comforting. That was a real temptation, one that many people I know have tried to use.

But for me, mud is mud—calling it rock and pretending it was solid really didn’t make it any less muddy. I decided that I needed a different answer. Instead of trying to turn mud into rock, I would find the solid rock, the places where I could stand that were going to support me and enable me to keep going.
I discovered some solid ground—or perhaps it is better to say that God through the Holy Spirit led me to some solid ground. I don’t have a lot of solid ground but what I have is real and strong and unchanging—and most of all, it is sufficient. Standing on that bedrock allows me to engage the mud all around me—and I discovered that I actually enjoy the mud to some extent when I am not in danger of drowning in it or getting stuck.

I don’t have as many answers as I had when I lived in that long ago time of endless solid rock. But I do have some answers, answers that give me a place to stand as I interact with the mud and relativity that marks most of life. And the solidest and most important part of the bedrock is the grace that God extends to me and everyone else.

May the peace of God be with you.

YES OR NO?

I like simple answers, answers that make it clear that something is one thing or another. But life has a way of making those simple answers much more complicated than I—or many others, for that matter—are comfortable with. Take a simple situation that occurs frequently in my life. I want to know the colour of something. My wife will tell me that what I am looking at is purple. Simple answer to a simple question.

Except that the answer isn’t that simple. Because I have red-green colour blindness, I have never actually seen the colour purple. Intellectually, I will grant that it exists. The red and blue light frequencies combine to create another colour that some people find pleasing. But for someone who has difficulty seeing red, purple isn’t actually purple—it is generally some shade of blue, although as the colour balance in that particular purple includes more and more red, it becomes some weird frankencolour that I prefer not to look at or think about.

For my wife and most other people in the world, something is either purple or not. For me and a few others, purple exists in theory but in practise, we see a variety of shades of blue or some mashup that we actually can’t identify. The simple answer to the simple question, “What colour is that?” becomes more complex and very subjective.

And it also becomes controversial. My wife and I have this habitual debate on the reality of purple. I claim it doesn’t exist and she claims it does. This is one of those familiar and comfortable jokes that married couples develop over their time together, something to smile about and enjoy. But I am sure that somewhere, some militant colourist is willing to bluntly tell me how wrong I am and that purple exists and my unwillingness to see it or admit its existence is illegal, immoral, sinful, stupid or part of a vast conspiracy threatening the whole of western civilization.

Well, maybe it isn’t quite that bad. But we do live in a culture where people who want simple yes or no answers are more and more upset with the discovery that answers aren’t as simple anymore. Now, most people really don’t get all that upset over the discovery that for some of us, the existence of purple is less black and white than they would like. But there are whole areas of life where people are being confronted by complex answers to seemingly simple questions.

Questions dealing with gender or sexual orientation for example, are producing much more complicated answers in some circles. At one point, you were either blue or pink—now, there is a whole rainbow and people are quite happy choosing a place on that rainbow for themselves and insisting that it is who they are. The blue and pink answer proponents are deeply upset with the rainbow and the rainbow proponents are deeply upset with the blue and pink proponents.

Questions dealing with faith are much more complicated as well. I grew up in a time and place where you were either a Christian or you weren’t. Sure, there were a few, generally in other denominations, who might claim faith but we true believers knew that they were only fooling themselves. True believers looked and thought like us. But now, well, it seems like anything goes. People who follow the traditional path, literally walking the aisle, find themselves confronted by people who wonder about the divinity of Christ, whether he actually existed let alone rose from the dead, who are still comfortable calling themselves Christian. The simple yes or no has become a theological debate that angers and enrages everyone.

It seems like we are generally predisposed to simple binary answers but are discovering more and more that the simple binary answers are much more complicated than we want them to be. I really don’t know what the solution is. But maybe the way I deal with purple is some help.

In spite of my running joke with my wife, I know that purple exists. My inability to see it doesn’t change the reality of purple. I have to live with the fact that for most people, purple exists but for me, it doesn’t. Ultimately, life is complicated and I need to accept the reality that there is more going on than I see or understand and maybe I have to trust that in the end, God knows what is going on, even if I don’t.

May the peace of God be with you.

DON’T GET CAUGHT!

I grew up physically and spiritually in a rural, conservative environment. The church I was part of for most of my childhood wasn’t hyper-rigid like some but it was conservative in its views and teaching. I absorbed that mindset along with the cookies and juice served at snack time during Vacation Bible School.

I don’t think I ever heard a sermon explicitly giving the rules but I pretty much knew by the time I as a teen that “good Christians” obeyed the big three: “Don’t drink, Don’t smoke, Don’t dance.” There were of course, other evils, like anything sexual but Christians didn’t even think about stuff like that so we didn’t need rules in those areas. There were, of course, Christians who did that stuff—but they were always from other churches, not ours. We obeyed the rules.

But even then, I sort of noticed something that I liked to pretend wasn’t there. Some of the “good Christians” from our church actually did some of the big three—occasionally at the same time. How did I know? Well, we were teens in a small town who didn’t have a whole lot to do so we talked and eventually the “good Christian” would get around to telling some of us what they did—or those of us who didn’t break the rules but stood as close to the boundary as possible would see them break the rule.

As long as it was only us who knew about the infraction, they pretty much got away with it—and actually became something of underground heros in the group. The peer group rules wouldn’t allow anyone to tell about the infraction so we would all attend Sunday School and worship pretty much knowing that Mike wasn’t actually suffering from a cold coming on–he was a bit hung-over.

This secrecy would continue until the good Christian was caught breaking the rules by someone important, like another church member or a deacon or the church gossip or, heaven forbid, the minister. Then, well, the phrase “all hell broke loose” was coined just for times like that. The newly discovered sinner would be the talk of the church and town. Their infraction, as well as suggested and real punishments would be the topic of conversation everywhere, including the local barber shop, where the barber was a member of our church.

And the rest of us good Christians, who knew about the infraction before it was discovered, including those in the peer group who were equally guilty but undiscovered? Well, we picked up stones and heaved them as accurately and as powerfully as anyone else. As we stoned the offender, we also prayed. We joined the rest of the church in praying for the soul of the offender and we also prayed with even more fervor that the offender would remember the rules of silence that controlled the peer group.

As I have reflected on all that, I realize that our group, like all groups, actually had another rule, one that nobody ever actually articulated but which was nonetheless as powerful as all the other rules. This unspoken rule was simple: “Don’t get caught!”. In many ways, getting caught was a more serious infraction than breaking all the others at the same time. Getting caught was not just a sign that you were a sinner but even more significantly, you weren’t all that bright a sinner. Getting caught jeopardized the whole elaborate hypocritical structure that allowed the rest of us to indulge in rule breaking while still getting to keep our saintliness intact. Someone getting caught exposed the reality we didn’t want to have exposed and so we needed to attack mercilessly just to protect ourselves—how could someone who threw so many stones so hard and so accurately be guilty of such a sin?

In our current cultural environment, I see a lot of my past. Wrongs are being exposed—and that is a good thing. Much evil has been done and much hurt has resulted and it all needs to be dealt with in an open, therapeutic and cleansing manner. But at the same time, those of us who haven’t been caught need to be wise. We might not have done what is currently being revealed but since none of us is perfect, maybe we should use fewer stones and more mercy when someone is caught.

May the peace of God be with you.

SINNER OR STUPID?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.