DURING THE HYMN

A couple of Sundays ago, I was standing behind the pulpit conducting my second worship service for the day. The first service had gone well with a larger than expected attendance. This service was also better attended than I expected. I might be the pastor of small churches and thus used to low numbers but it is still nice when there are more people than expected present.

Anyway, the congregation was singing one of the hymns, I was thinking—I have to confess that music isn’t a huge part of my life and doesn’t have the same effect on me that it has for some people. I like music but since I don’t sing well and am not really into music, my mind wanders during the singing. Sometimes, the wandering thoughts are about what comes next in the service or why so and so isn’t present or something equally pastoral.

But at that service, I found myself thinking about my ministry in general. I realized that I was leading that worship service and the dominant feeling I had was fatigue. I wasn’t excited about the higher attendance; I wasn’t caught up in the worship; I wasn’t enthused about the chance to minister to God’s people. I was just tired and my knees were hurting.

By the time we got to the second verse, I was wondering what was wrong with me—was I slipping into depression? Or was I bordering on burnout? No—a quick self-examination revealed that I was just tired—but not sleepy tired and not didn’t sleep well tired. It was not even the results of a too busy week tired. It was a fatigue that comes from being involved in some form of ministry for around 40 years. It is the tired that comes from doing something that requires me to give a lot of myself to a lot of people for a lot of years.

I don’t have the emotional energy that I had 20 or thirty or forty years ago. Early in ministry, everything was new and exciting and I could and did experiment and play and have fun. I didn’t know a whole lot about what I was doing but what I lacked in knowledge, I tried to make up for with enthusiasm and commitment.

By about the third verse, I was doing some deeper reflection. Was I cheating the church or maybe even slipping in my commitment to God? Before the guilt kicked in, I realized that wasn’t the case. I was and am working hard for both pastorates. We are involved in self-examination; we are trying new ideas; we are enabling each other to grow in faith; we are discovering and developing new ministries to ourselves and our communities. As pastor, I am involved and engaged and working hard to help us as churches discover and carry out God’s will for us.

I realized that these days, I minister much more from knowledge and wisdom that from emotion. I still experiment and play with things. I still examine, research, hypothesize and work to help implement new ideas and ministries. I may not get overly excited but I am still completely committed to what I am doing. I am still giving the best that I am capable of giving.

Early in my ministry, the best I could give was a little knowledge and lots of energy and enthusiasm. These days, I have much more knowledge and wisdom (maybe) but less energy and enthusiasm. I am pretty sure the ultimate sum is the same: lots of energy and enthusiasm plus little knowledge probably produces the same results as flagging energy combined with significant knowledge and wisdom. I may be more tired these days, but I still know what I am doing and am still committed to doing it as well as I am able. I might need more naps and breaks in the process but I am aware enough to know when and how to take the nap and the break without harming the overall ministry.

Finally, we arrive at the last verse of the hymn and I move on to the next part of the worship service, feeling better about myself and my ministry. I am tired and it is a fatigue that probably won’t go away after a nap or a vacation. But it is also a fatigue that isn’t taking away from my ability to do what I have been called to do.

May the peace of God be with you.

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TWO LOSSES

Earlier this year, I was saddened by two deaths that happened around the same time. Billy Graham died and his death was followed by that of Stephen Hawking. Given the fact that these two men had what appeared to be vastly different spheres of influence, very few reports that I saw made any connection between the two. But I admired both of them and both were influential in my life and the two death coming so close together had an effect on me.

I really don’t know if there was any real connection between the two—my speculation is that each at least knew of the other but probably didn’t spend a lot of time reading each other stuff or pondering each other’s teachings. In fact, given the misguided assumption on the part of many in the modern western world that science and religion don’t mix, there are more than a few who might suggest that Hawking and Graham would likely have been enemies, since they were widely recognized as leaders in their respective spheres.

But for me, well, I didn’t see a conflict. I am a science nerd and a theology nerd. And in truth, there have been lots of times when I have found myself working hard to wrap my head around both men’s ideas—and more than a few when their ideas have come together in that confusing mix in my mind and created a theological-scientific thought process that resulted in a headache and more confusion.

Unlike some, I don’t approach theology and science with the expectation of conflict and tension. When I struggle to read Hawking on time and the origin of all things or when I read Graham on faith and salvation, I don’t weigh one against the other to see who is right. Thinking about heaven and the afterlife seems to naturally lead into thinking about time and what it is—Graham leading to Hawking. Thinking about the Big Bang naturally leads to thinking about who and why—Hawking leading to Graham.

Both have had an effect on my thinking and my theology. Both have troubled and inspired me. Both have confused and irritated me. Both inspired agreement and disagreement . Both have helped me understand more about myself, my place in creation and my faith. And as a result, the deaths of both left me saddened and feeling like my world has shrunk a bit.

I didn’t spend a lot of time reading and studying the writings of either. I own and have read books by both and enjoyed them. Mostly, I was content to know that they were both there, both doing their thing and both accessible through their writings and so on should I ever decide to really follow up on their work. Honestly, I sometimes felt the Graham’s stuff was a bit too easy to understand and Hawking’s was a bit too hard to understand—but that didn’t stop me from buying and reading some of their work.

I am never going to be an evangelist like Graham nor a theoretical scientist like Hawking but I do appreciate their work—and have never felt a need to decide which body of material was more valuable to me or to the world. Each did their thing and each did it well and both taught me important stuff about God, creation and even myself.

I am not interested here is moralizing about their lives, choices or spiritual fates. That isn’t my job. God in his grace makes those kinds of decisions. Me—well, I admired both, I read both and I learned from both. Their lives and their work and their personality were and are important to me. I can and will continue to appreciate the contribution both have made to me personally and the world in general. And most of all, I will not fall into the trap of seeing these people as representations of sides in some mythical and mystical eternal battle.

These were two people who gave themselves completely to their callings and in the process of chasing their dreams and visions, showed the rest of glimpses of deeper and higher truths that we can all benefit from. So, to Stephen Hawking and Billy Graham, I say, “Thank you—I will miss you.”

May the peace of God be with you.

TIME

We have been studying the afterlife in one of the Bible Study groups, which has been a fascinating study. It has provided us with lots of great starting points for extended discussions and significant questions and even some confusion. The discussion also re-opened a train of thought that I come back to now and then. We touched on the idea in our study and it was great to know that other people have similar ideas and struggles with the topic as I have been having over the years.

When we look at the whole concept of the afterlife, we open a door to a bigger discussion of time—not time in the sense of the clock and calendar and not even time in the Biblical sense of the coming together of a bunch of factors but time itself. I have not seen too many theological discussions that deal with the theory of time. I own and have waded through Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time but I am still trying to wrap my head around the whole issue of time.

And while that may sound like I am some sort of science or science fiction nerd (which I am), thinking about time does have some significant theological implications. The difficulty with the process is that our human existence is bounded and determined by time. We measure it, we spend it, we waste it, we schedule our days and our lives by time. If it is 6:00am, it is time to get up. At 12:00, we can have lunch. At age 5, we go to school. At age 18 or so, we have to make serious decisions about our future. At age 65, we can retire.

So we live within time and therefore have difficulty seeing outside that temporal box. Yet there is very good theological evidence that God exists outside of time—time is likely one of the things God created. The temporal realm that we live in may only be a limited form of existence which God created for his reasons but which may eventually end and be replaced by something different. Eternity, for example, may not be measured by the clock, which will likely be a good thing—even the best of experiences begins to drag when we spend a certain amount of time at it.

If God exists outside of time, then a lot of theology is more understandable. For example, it is easier for me to see how God can know everything past, present and future. If he exists outside of time, all time is visible to him. God doesn’t have to wait for time to pass to see how things will work out. He sees all time from his vantage point and so can see the beginning, the middle and the ending of everything simultaneously. Thinking about stuff like that can get me started on a theological headache fairly easily.

I don’t actually expect to ever get a full understanding of things like time. I enjoy the process of thinking about it and playing with the implications and trying to fit pieces together. But my thinking about the theory of time also has another valuable aspect. It helps me to remember that in the end, I am not God—I am not even a god. There are limits to what I or any other human can know, do and understand. At some point, I always come back to the reality that there is something beyond me. And for me, that something is God.

The creator and sustainer of all, the all knowing, the ever present, the be all and end of everything knows and does stuff that I can never understand because he is God and I am not and never will be God. I can and should do and learn and figure out everything I can. I can and should struggle with the stuff I may never understand, like the theory of time. But in the end, I keep coming back to the reality that there is something beyond me and my abilities, a God who not only understands the theory of time but who actually created time.

And what makes this even more important is that the God of all creation and beyond loves me and all humanity and shows that love and grace in concrete and clear ways. I may never understand the theory of time, I may never understand why God would love me, but I believe it and believe him when he says he loves me.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT HAVE I ACCOMPLISHED?

At the beginning of the year, I began working on a project in my shop. We needed some more storage space and decided that the need would be met if I built a cabinet and shelf unit similar to the china cabinet and hutch I built a few years ago. The new unit needed to be slightly smaller and a bit different in design but they would match in terms of basic design, wood selection and finish. We got really lucky when the knotty pine I planned on using was on sale at a nearby building supply store.

The project has been moving along. It hasn’t been as fast as I would like. I still have to work and that limits my time for woodworking. I can’t do sawing or sanding in the house, which means those particular jobs can only be done with it is nice enough outside. The requirements for free time and relatively comfortable outside weather in Nova Scotia in the winter happening at the same time mean that I don’t get at the project as often as I would like and the finishing date keeps getting shifted forward.

But the project is moving along. The basic structures are formed, a lot of the sanding is done and there are just a few more assembly steps necessary before I can finish the whole thing. Even though I don’t care much for the final sanding and varnishing process, I can see that I will get the work done. I can also see just how much progress I have made along the way—I have moved from a pile of boards on the basement floor to a pretty much finished project that will soon become a finished and functional part of our household.

There are times when I wish the success of my ministry was as easy to evaluate. But the reality I live with is that much of what I do for ministry isn’t all that easy to evaluate, especially if I am looking at and for long term results. Sure, I can relatively easily gage how well a sermon went over—I just have to count the number of people awake when I finish. Evaluating a Bible study session is relatively simple—I look at how far I got or didn’t get in my lesson plan.

But figuring out how that sermon fits into the long term health of the individuals and the church or seeing how that Bible study session affects the church three years from now—that is much more difficult. In fact, it actually might be pretty much impossible. When I cut a board in the workshop, I can pretty much tell immediately if it will work or not. But when I finish a sermon, who really knows what the effects will be?

Even the traditional measures of evaluating ministry really don’t give a lot of insight into the effectiveness of ministry. Traditionally, churches and leadership have used the numerical growth of the congregation and the increase in giving as measuring sticks—what some call the “nickels and noses” evaluation. But all that says in the end is that we have more or less people and money that when we started.

I believe in evaluation processes and have lots of measuring tools that I use in my ministry but I have realized that in the end, most of what I do will ultimately be evaluated by God, not me or the church or the denomination. Without sounding too whatever, I think that the real value of the ministry I do here and now will be evaluated by God himself. I base that partly on Paul’s comments in I Corinthians 2.10-15, where he suggests that only when God calls “time” will the final word on anyone’s ministry by spoken.

That doesn’t really bother me, all that much. While I can and do use all sorts of evaluation processes and tools to help make my ministry as effective as I can make it, I recognize that God has the final say and I am responsible for doing the best I can with the tools I have and the time I have—and am also responsible for making sure that I keep open to his leading because he knows where it all needs to go much better than I do.

It’s probably good that I like woodworking because that means there is at least some place where I can see clearly what I am accomplishing.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE SERMON

A few weeks ago, I was preaching a series of sermons on the parables of Jesus. One of the first sermons in the series seems to have made a significant impression on the congregation. For a while after that sermon, people kept referring to the sermon and especially to a visual representation I used during the sermon. The Bible study group discussed the sermon. Individuals mentioned it at meetings and at other times. I even overheard people describing the sermon to members who hadn’t been there. Overall, it seems like this was a pretty successful sermon.

But that was several weeks ago. We have since moved on. We finished the series on the parables and moved into Easter. I haven’t heard anything about the parable sermon in weeks. I have heard a few comments about other sermons suggesting that people are still listening to what I have to say at least some of the time but the parable sermon seems to have disappeared into wherever sermons go in people’s minds after a period of time.

I very much doubt that old sermons go into a special mental file for most people. I doubt that people spend time thinking about the best sermons of the year or the decade. In fact, the painful truth that many preachers don’t want to deal with is that most sermons barely survive the handshake at the door on the way out of the sanctuary. A few, of course, manage to survive a little longer. A sermon with a good story or joke, a sermon that touches a special place for the worshipper or a really bad one—any of them can last into the next week and maybe even beyond.

But eventually, every sermon ends up as a part of a shapeless mass of forgotten prose, decomposed and decontextualized, sitting somewhere in the memory banks of church goers. No matter how hard I work at the sermon, no matter how deeply I research, no matter how powerful the illustrations are, the sermon ultimately loses shape and form and exists, if at all, as a blob among other blobs in people’s minds.

That could be depressing and discouraging, especially if I had some insecurities or felt that my words were so important that they had to be remembered exactly. And while there may have been times in the past when I struggled with such things, there days, I tend not to get too bent out of shape by the fact that no one really remembers my sermons for all that long. Honestly, I can’t remember them either—in order to be certain I know what I preached the Sunday before when we discuss the worship at Bible study, I keep a copy of the sermon on my phone so I can refer to it if necessary.

I don’t expect people to remember the sermon. It was flattering to have people remember and talk about the parable sermon for so long—but is doesn’t depress me that I haven’t heard anyone mention that sermon in weeks. I don’t actually preach to have people remember the sermon. I preach because I want to help people grow in faith—and any one individual sermon is about as valuable to spiritual growth as any one individual meal is valuable to physical growth.

If a person were to get just one meal in their life, they would have a very short life. No matter how great the meal was, just one meal can’t sustain life. Life is build and sustained by the accumulation of meals over the course of a lifetime—and the health and vitality of the lifetime depends on the nutritional balance of all those meals. Anyone meal is unimportant—but all of them together make the person.

Well, any one sermon by itself is pretty much worthless—even if people remember it and refer to it for days and even weeks, it still won’t be enough by itself to sustain and develop spiritual life. But when that one sermon gets folded in with all the other sermons, it can develop into a sort of spiritual compost that provides a base for solid and healthy spiritual growth.

While it was nice that people remembered an individual sermon for so long, even the best of my sermons isn’t all that memorable. But over time, my hope is that accumulation of sermons composting in the believer’s mind will make a difference, enabling them to grow strong in the faith.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE SNOWSTORM

As I mentioned in the last post, I had a crazy, overly full week that required me to work more than I wanted to, including on my day off. But there was more to that week than that. The week began not only with my awareness that I would be too busy but also with the awareness that there was a snowstorm in the wings that just might develop into something major. It is late in the year for major storms but they are not unheard of and can sometimes be worse than a storm at the appropriate time.

My first worry was that the storm would come before the predicted time—creating problems for the funeral that was coming. Funerals are difficult enough for families and to have to wonder about postponing it or attempting it during a storm would add another level of difficulty. Fortunately, the storm didn’t arrive early and we held the funeral.

But that put the storm on track to disrupt plans for the next day, when I have a class scheduled for some church people interested in seeing if they could preach. This was to be our second meeting but if the storm came on schedule, we would have to cancel and plan another time. I am Canadian and have spend most of my life dealing with Canadian winters and so I had a backup plan which I emailed to the class members. We would make our final decision an hour before the start time.

I have to confess that I was a bit conflicted. It was a crazy week and I had a lot to do—as well as the class preparation, there was the sermon and worship that needed to be done sometime. I was looking forward to getting together with the class members—we were having fun with the process. On the other hand, if we had to cancel the class, well, that would give me some time to work on the sermon.

Well, the predicted storm began. By the time we were to make our decision about the class, it was pretty clear we would be rescheduling. After a brief flurry of phone calls, the class was postponed and I suddenly had most of the morning free—or at least unscheduled. Suddenly, the day—and week—got less constricted. I switched gears and worked on the sermon and worship service. It was one of those sermons that pretty much flowed onto the screen. The worship planning was just as easy.

Suddenly, it was about 11:30 and I was done everything I needed to do for the day and everything I could do for work that week. There was more work that needed to be done but that was scheduled and involved other people and I had to wait until the next day. So, there I was—I was finished all that I could do and while there were tons of things that I could be working on, there was nothing critical or time sensitive. Thanks to the snow storm, I had some options, several of which didn’t involve work in any form.

And I opted to take the non-work options. There was a book I have been struggling to find time to read—I spend some time there. I spend some time idly doing unconstructive stuff that didn’t require thinking or creating or much of anything. I napped—a real nap, unconstrained with having to sandwich it in between things that needed to be done. I played a few games on the computer. I watched the storm grow and develop and pile up snow. Basically, I relaxed and took things easy.

Thanks to the snowstorm, I had some free time, which I put to good use by being non-productive. I gave myself a vacation—a short one, measured in hours, but a vacation nonetheless. I didn’t feel guilty about not working; I didn’t tell myself I should do something constructive; I didn’t fret over what the storm was causing me to not get done. I accepted the gift of time that the storm gave me and I enjoyed it.

I am pretty sure that God didn’t send a snowstorm just to allow me the opportunity to have some free time during a too busy week—but it did come and I can thank him, if for nothing else than the fact that he designed the world so as to produce snow storms that sometimes give me some free time.

May the peace of God be with you.

WORSHIP

For a variety of reasons, we took a week’s vacation recently. We didn’t have any great plans but were going away for a few days. However, the weather wiped out the plans—the road to the get away spot was under too much snow to actually get there without a long hike carrying food and all the rest for our few days. We compensated and made other arrangements based on several day trips.

But the vacation did mean that we had a free Sunday—neither of us had to preach or lead worship or do announcements or anything at all. The first decision we had to make was whether we would actually attend worship. I confess that I sometimes appreciate a Sunday without attending worship. But we decided that we would go somewhere.

That created a second, more difficult question—where would we go? There was no shortage of possibilities but one of the other of us managed to have a reason for not attending there. Some were rejected because one or the other of us had been pastor there. Some were rejected because one or the other of us had taught or mentored the pastor. Some were rejected for less than positive reasons—we thought we knew what to expect from the sermon.

Anyway, we finally made a decision and left for worship. We knew the pastor, knew some of the people in the congregation and I had even preached there a couple of times. The worship was something of a blend of contemporary and traditional. I had absolutely nothing to do with the design or conduct of the service. I was there to worship—something that is a rarity for me. In fact, there have been times when I have wondered if I actually know how to worship, given that most of my faith life I have been the leader of worship.

So, did I worship? I think so. I sang some of the songs during the opening music time. I followed along and read the appropriate places in the responsive reading. I followed the Scripture reading comparing my translation to the one being projected on the screen. I followed the sermon and didn’t do too much projecting of what my friend was going to say next and didn’t do any of the sermon evaluation that I have often had to do when listening to sermons.

I also lost focus a few times—the sanctuary clock was an old pendulum clock that probably came from their old building and I love clocks. One of the hymns started an interesting theological speculation that I followed for a bit. I may have missed a bit of the sermon here and there as I thought about something else. I squirmed a bit seeking to get my knees to stop telling me they weren’t happy. But overall, I worshipped. I was conscious of the presence of the other worshippers and of the Spirit of God. And, more importantly, I didn’t want to take over the service or spend a lot of time figuring out how to make the worship better. I was a participant and was quite happy to be a participant.

That may not sound like a very significant thing—but it actually is, at least for me. I have been leading worship and preaching for most of my life. Since I began as a pastor well over 40 years ago, there haven’t been many times when worship or some part of it weren’t my responsibility. I am also very analytical—I like looking at how things work and how they could work better. And that has been a significant part of my life as well as a teacher and mentor of ministry students. A part of me has always been somewhat concerned about how I would do in a context where I am no longer the one to design and lead worship and preach the sermon.

Based on this experience plus a few other such opportunities in the last few years, I think I just might be able to make the transition from leader to participant when it comes to worship. That is important because with my 65th birthday in the past, I will be retiring one of these days. It is nice to know that there is worship after ministry.

May the peace of God be with you.

MUTUAL SUBMISSION

One of the overlooked themes in the New Testament teaching on the Christian faith is the idea of submission. The idea of submission is clear and not subtle, as we see in Ephesians 5.21, for example: Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (NIV). The problem, though, is that we western Christians have serious issues with the concept of submission.

That is partly based on our perception that submission is the same as surrender. We tend to see submission as giving up, letting our lives be taken over by someone or something else—and real, independent, self-respecting western believers don’t want to surrender anything to anyone. They will have to pry our independence out of our cold dead hands. Of course, if people want to submit to us, well that is great—it might even be an act of wisdom on their part since we likely know better than them anyway.

But I am pretty sure that the New Testament idea of submission is based on something very different from surrender and giving up. To start with, remember that the context of the teaching on submission in relationships begins with the need to love each other as Christ lives us (John 13.34-35). This gives us a very different context for submission. Submission in the Christian sense isn’t about winning and losing or gaining or giving up power. It isn’t about making people do what we want or giving in and doing what they want. And even more, it isn’t about losing ourselves and becoming mindless automatons controlled by the need to submit to everything.

Mutual submission in the Christian faith begins with a commitment to love each other with the same kind of sincere, powerful love that Christ showed us. He was willing to die for us—and even more, willing to live for us and make it possible for us to be with him always. Along the way, he offers help in whatever we need, while at the same time always respecting our freedom, even our freedom to be stupid and/or sinful.

To love as Jesus loved doesn’t take away from who we are—it actually requires that we know who we are and offer ourselves to other believers, just as they know who they are and offer themselves to us. We seek to be of service to each other, a service that may at times require self-sacrifice but which more likely requires a giving of our real self. We seek to love the other person as they are while being there for them as appropriate. We seek to let others love us this way as well. Christian love isn’t about dominance or control or manipulation. It is about a commitment to each other before God that enables each person to become the fullness of what they were meant to be as we grow towards God.

Within the context of Christian love, we learn to submit to each other. This submission is a willingness to recognize that we need each other and at times, one or the other is going to have a better sense of God and his desire in any given situation. Mutual submission recognizes both the weakness and the strength of individuals and makes choice that are appropriate in each context.

When the gathering of believers meets to discuss the colour scheme of the sanctuary, I submit to the leading of fellow believers who can actually see colours. The reality of my colour-blindness makes any comments about colour I make worthless. On the other hand, when the discussion of which colours to use gets heated and threatens to get out of hand, the group might be wise to submit to my attempts to help us move to a more loving process—one of the things I do know how to do is help groups have positive discussions about difficult topics. As we recognize each other’s gifts, strengths and weaknesses in the context of loving each other in the way Jesus love us, we learn how to submit to each other.

Far from being a surrender, mutual submission is a powerful expression of the reality of our faith. We can and do love and respect each other enough to let the Spirit work through each as appropriate in the situation. Mutual submission among believers isn’t about some winning and some losing but about all winning as we together seek to help each other grow closer to each other and to God.

May the peace of God be with you.

I CAN DO IT BY MYSELF!

The man just wants to be left alone. We don’t know about his past but hints and clues suggest that his life hasn’t been easy. There may be something terrible back somewhere but all we see now is a strong, independent individual who just wants to farm his farm, herd his cattle, fish his fish, research his research, raise his family—that part varies depending on the movie. What doesn’t vary is the need for independence and the lack of a need for much in the way of relationships with other people.

This movie, book, TV show, coffee shop tale is something of a theme for our western culture: the strong, capable independent hero who just wants to be left alone. He (sometimes, she) needs nothing beyond what he produces himself. We in the west like to think of ourselves in terms of this cultural archetype—we are all like this, or wish we were like this.

And this cultural desire for independence is part of the reason why Christian worship attendance in Canada is so low when claims of being a Christian are still relatively high. Just as we celebrate the hero taking care of business by himself, we have developed a faith culture that sees faith as not needing anything beyond an individual and God—and if we are really honest, the God part of the equation is open to a great deal of interpretation. We are not all that comfortable with God unless we have the independence to tinker and edit so that the God who is the focus of our faith looks and feels like we want him (her, it) to look and feel.

We are, in reality, a culture that celebrates independence. We don’t really like obligations that are imposed by relationships. We don’t want to owe people. In fact, we have created a culture that tries to reduce every interpersonal transaction to the lowest common denominator—and that tends to be money.

If I pay for something, I am still independent and in control. I made the money, I chose to spend it. The relationship is bounded by the financial transaction. There is no need for gratitude, returning favours, mutual support—all that kind of ucky and troubling stuff that relationships and commitments bring.

I am aware that I am overstating the reality. But our western independence is a reality and it does, I think, have an effect on how we western believers relate to each other and the church. To be a part of a church might suggest that we need something or someone. At the very least, it suggests that someone might be able to ask us for something and we might not be in a position to say no. And so it is easier and safer in the long run to conceptualize our faith as a part of our independence.

My very western faith is focused on God—we have a good thing going here. I don’t really need God and he doesn’t really need me but we can get together now and then and within the rules of my independence, I can do whatever—maybe complain about the difficulties of life, maybe blame God for some trouble, maybe tell God how to do her job. I don’t actually need God but it is nice to have him or her around, as long as God doesn’t make any unreasonable demands, like suggesting that I join a church.

So, we have become a culture of independent Christians, people whose faith is expressed in solitude and not in community. And while there is certainly a need and encouragement in the Christian faith for solitude, it isn’t the defining characteristic of the Christian faith. And the deeper, darker, ignored reality is that it really isn’t a defining characteristic of our western culture.

Remember the independent hero standing on his own two feet, dealing with life on his terms? Well, doesn’t that movie always end up with the hero discovering the wonder of a relationship as he battles for the woman or the child or the older couple or even the dog or horse? Doesn’t the movie end with the independent hero happily trading his independence for the relationship?

Our culture may love the theory of independence but the practise tends to be lonely and boring. Our culture and our faith in the end need us to be in real relationships with real people.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT ABOUT THE CHURCH?

I have been quoting an interesting statistic for several years ago, every since I discovered it in a book written by a friend. In discussing the state of the Christian faith in Canada, he mentioned that about 16% of Canadians attend Christian worship these days. I have seen other statistics that put the number slightly higher but none of the other statistical pictures of the church in Canada put attendance all that much higher.

A quick and very unscientific (on my part, anyway) web search reveals that a majority of Canadians still claim to be believers. The sites all make the usual disclaimers about statistical validity and so on and some lament that the numbers claiming faith have dropped over the years but the reality is that most people in Canada still claim to be followers of Christ.

For me, that raises a very important and troubling question. If people claim to be followers of Christ, why aren’t they in worship? You might suggest that that is a very biased and self-focused question, given that I am a pastor and have a vested interest in people attending worship. But I am choosing to overlook that part of the question for now—over the years, I have become comfortable with being the pastor of small congregations. I am excited when someone new discovers the church and/or the faith but I don’t define myself or my ministry by the numbers.

I approach the question as one who would like to know why the discrepancy exists. Surely, if we are part of something, we would be interested in being with people who are also part of that something. People seem to love to connect with those who share their thinking and interests. If I put out an invitation for left-handed, colour-blind people who like photography and cross country skiing but who are limited by seriously arthritic knees, I am pretty sure that before too long, I would have enough responses to form a club—by the way, I don’t want to be president, secretary or treasurer.

So why do such a significant number of people who claim to follow Christ not associate with other believers? Like any significant question, I am sure that there are many interlinked answers to that question, answers that I have been hearing and thinking about for many years. This isn’t an easy question nor it is one that can be answered with a simple or simplistic response.

One of the factors in the answer is certainly a lack of understanding of the nature of the church. Many people in Canada—well probably the whole Western world, but I am really only qualified to talk about Canada—many people here have either forgotten or never really understood the strong community base of the Christian faith. Christianity was conceived as a faith that brings about reconciliation. People are reconciled to God, to themselves and to others.

There is a lot of emphasis on the community in the Christian faith, including the very blunt and powerful message we find in I John 4.20-21: “If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.” (NIV)

This was written to believers to help them understand one of the essentials of their faith—our love of God is shown for what it really is in our relationship with other people, especially other believers. If we can’t actually use our faith in God to enhance our relationships with people who share our faith, then our claimed faith isn’t as significant as we think or hope it is.

In the New Testament, to be a believer is to be a part of a group of believers because it is within and through that group that we have our best opportunity to grow in faith. As we interact with each other in the presence of the Holy Spirit, we are enabled and enabling in the faith. That is the point of the church—it was planned as the safe place where faith can be cultivated and grown and expressed. But for a variety of reasons, believers have forgotten or ignored that important reality—to the detriment of both church and individual believers.

May the peace of God be with you.