PLAYING WITH FIRE

During the second Wednesday of the ecumenical Bible Study, I took a cup of de-caf coffee rather than water with me—the various churches supply muffins for the study and water really doesn’t seem to go well with chocolate chip/banana muffins. The next day, the church Bible study was meeting in a home since it is too cold for the community hall to be open. Since the host makes great shortbread cookies, I chose another cup of coffee ( caffeinated). The next Monday, I had coffee with a friend. The following Wednesday, more Ecumenical coffee and muffins. Finally, the Thursday study in another house, this host providing great ginger cookies, which obviously required another coffee.

That is actually more coffee than I normally drink in a month and even though most of it was de-caf, by the end of the second Thursday in the sequence, I was noticing the effects: upset stomach, heartburn, the coffee cough that has plagued me for years. None of this was a surprise to me. Although I love coffee, I have been suffering the effects of drinking it for years.

My coffee addiction goes way back. Although I grew up in a tea drinking house, my father drank coffee at breakfast and one of the perks of getting up first when he was working day shift was getting to eat the piece of bacon and quarter cup of sugary, milky coffee he left for which ever kid was up first. I moved on to develop my own coffee habit—black, no sugar and relatively strong. At times, I would be up to 4-5 cups a day. But I liked it, it kept me going and it wasn’t harming anyone.

Eventually, though, I began to suffer the effects of too much caffeine and in the mid 1990s, I decided to quit coffee and all forms of caffeine. For well over a year, I didn’t drink anything with caffeine and even avoided de-caf coffee. I knew that even drinking de-caf was going to be a problem, given that I really like coffee and was seriously missing it. But after I got over the withdrawal effects (headache, grouchiness, inability to get moving), I was able to avoid it.

After more than a year, I began allowing myself a cup of de-caf now and then. I could even treat myself to a cup of real coffee occasionally. Because it was an occasional treat, I made sure that it was really good coffee—no instant or bargain perk coffee for me. If I was going to have coffee, it would be good coffee—an African blend, strong, hot, black and no sugar, something to be savoured and enjoyed.

But with each cup of de-caf and each treat, I was reminded again just how much I liked coffee—and more seriously, how easily I can become re-addicted to caffeine. Mostly, I remember the problems and am pretty good about setting and keeping limits. Coffee was reserved for long drives and occasional breakfast treats. Unfortunately, my will power breaks down when I haven’t had any coffee for awhile and the presence of cinnamon buns, muffins, shortbread and ginger cookies make the temptation too much to resist. Then I begin to pay the price and swear off coffee, at least for awhile.

I am aware that my addiction and struggle with coffee isn’t a serious problem and really doesn’t compare to the struggles people have with other more dangerous and serious addictions. But it is a struggle and it is an addiction and I do have to deal with it. I think it helps me on a very practical level understand the reality of the human condition. We like the stuff that isn’t really good for us—and no matter what our level of will power and commitment, we can’t guarantee that we are free from the stuff that we shouldn’t have.

Whether it is me and my coffee; the workaholic and her dangerous work ethic; the alcoholic and his single-minded commitment to alcohol; the approval addict doing everything possible to be liked, we all struggle with something controlling our lives. And as a Christian, I think that allowing anything to control my life is a problem. My need to be in control of caffeine in my life grows out of my understanding that I was made to be free to become what God wants to help me become—and anything that gets in the way of that is a problem.

So, I am off coffee again, at least until the next Bible study, when there will again be those great shortbread cookies.

May the peace of God be with you.

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THE HEARING AID

Every year at the beginning of Advent, I put up the outside Christmas lights. That is an occupation that involves ladders, staple guns, frustration and some irritation. This year, I realized that there had to be some changes because of the deteriorating state of my knees. I simply wouldn’t be able to put up as many lights—my knees would shut down after a certain number of ladder steps. So, we worked out a compromise solution that provided a good balance between my physical limits and our desire to decorate the house. The compromise was fewer lights than we wanted and a bit more knee strain than I wanted.

After the job was done, I was slowly putting the ladders and tools away—slowly because the limited job was still causing my knees to protest. I happened to touch my ear to adjust one of my hearing aids when I realized it wasn’t there. I quickly checked the other ear—maybe I hadn’t put them in that morning. That aid was in place and working so it was official—I had managed to lost one of my hearing aids.

I was pretty sure that I knew sort of where I lost it. Part of the house has lots of small trees and tall shrubs that required me to maneuver the ladder and myself around and my best guess was that a branch snagged the hearing aid and sent it flying. As I searched through the leaves and grass and all the rest, I was conscious of lots of feelings.

I was angry at myself for losing such an expensive piece of equipment—I should have been a lot more careful. I was frustrated with myself for putting the aids in that morning—I didn’t need good hearing to staple wires to the house. I was upset with the landscaping committee that put in the shrubs and trees—why couldn’t they have just paved the place with a suitable contrasting colour that would let the lost hearing aid be visible? I was angry at the hearing aid manufacturers—why didn’t they make them with beepers and flashing lights so they could be easily spotted in leaf litter.

And then, after spending some time searching the grass and leaves and realizing that the chances of finding the lost hearing aid were essentially zero, I had a sinking feeling of loss, bordering on depression—I was realizing that not only was I now half-deaf but also remedying the problem would require a lot of money.

I searched some more, even while realizing it was worthless. And then I remembered something. I was having a conversation with a friend from one of the churches a few months ago and he told me that he had lost both his hearing aids but wasn’t upset about it—not because he is independently wealthy but because he discovered that his household insurance covered the hearing aids. When I remembered that, I relaxed a bit. I did search some more but with a different attitude. I wanted to find the hearing aid—but the reality of the loss was easier to deal with.

I made a call to the insurance company and was excited and pleased with their response. Aside from the process and time, this loss will soon be taken care of. In a few days, I will have my replacement aid and will be hearing better again.

From my perspective, the emotional journey was the most significant part of the process and still is. I am still upset with myself for losing my hearing aid. I understand that it was an accident and that these things happen—but I still feel a bit stupid and incompetent. I think I need to forgive myself—and I probably will, after I punish myself enough. I know that it isn’t they right attitude and shows an unwillingness to practise what I preach but I tend to be harder on myself than I am on others—I was much more pastoral with my friend when he lost his hearing aids than I was when I lost mine.

I am still in process, I guess—still in process when it comes to learning to forgive myself. Fortunately, God is much more forgiving and graceful than I am and he has already put the hearing aid thing behind him. I will get there eventually.

May the peace of God be with you.

BEING ORDINARY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

LIFE IS GREAT!

I ran into a friend recently whom I haven’t really connected with since his retirement over a year ago. We were both involved in the same event so didn’t have a lot of time to talk but we did exchange the basic information pertinent to our relationship: my knees are worse, he is now serving a church quarter time, I am not retired, he is loving retirement. He sort of wondered why I wasn’t retired because he is finding retirement to be really great.

I could, I suppose, have questioned how great retirement is if he is back at work after such a short time—I think he had been retired only a few months before he started at his new position. He was also involved in the same inter-church program I was in that evening as well, which suggests that maybe his retirement isn’t as retiring as he wanted me to believe. I have no doubt that his life is great right now and that he is enjoying himself—but maybe retirement isn’t the whole reason why he is doing well.

Life needs purpose and direction and meaning, I think. For most people, that is found in the process of work and family and the normal stuff that we do along the way. I am aware that that is a significant over-generalization but I think it does contain a lot of truth as well. I do know that there are many people whose work and family and living situations don’t provide sufficient purpose and direction and meaning. But the truth is that most of us find enough in the realities of living and working to keep going, even if we have times when we want more.

And that is why for many people, retirement creates some serious problems. Suddenly, everything that provided meaning and purpose and hope is gone—and for some people, it is really hard to replace that. In one fishing village that I used to be the pastor for, the men used to have a way of expressing it: a fisher who retired and didn’t go back to the wharf regularly died within a year of retirement. I think they recognized the reality that losing work and not having anything to replace it produced a hopelessness that made life hard to continue.

While this has traditionally been a problem with men, it is becoming more and more a problem for all people. In a more traditional times in the past, men worked outside the home and women worked inside the home, meaning there was still a purpose and meaning for the woman since their job of cooking and cleaning and care giving as still needed. But with everyone needing to work, everyone faces the life dilemma of what gives meaning after retirement.

Some of my older friends in ministry approach this problem by having several retirements. They retire, accept a call to “interim” ministry, retire again, accept another call and so on. I like to joke that they just do this because they really like retirement parties. More likely, they don’t like the feelings that come from not doing what was so important and central to their lives.

So, why write about retirement aside from the fact that it was on my mind after talking with my happily “retired” friend? I suppose part of it is because I plan on retiring someday. I am not sure when—the ministry I am doing now isn’t done yet and I want to see where God is taking me and the churches I have been called to. But I am past retirement age, my pensions will provide a comfortable income, my aging process is producing more and more aches and pains and limits and I am beginning to think that it will be nice at some point to wake up on the morning and not have to get moving because the sermon isn’t done or there is that meeting or I need to lead worship.

So, I am planning on retiring someday—but I am also planning my retirement already. I have a list of things I would like to do and explore. Nothing is written down but I keep seeing and thinking of things I want to try when I have some time. I want to learn how to make chocolate croissants and built scale model Cape Island boats for example. Will that be enough? I don’t know—but if it isn’t, I guess I can try my friend’s part time retirement approach.

May the peace of God be with you.

SHARING THE LOAD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

A SQUIRREL IN A TREE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

DEPRESSION ALERT

This has been a very busy weekend. One of the pastorates I serve had a major fund raising event on Saturday—it was a great event, from what I saw and heard, although my sight and vision were limited since my skill set pretty much confines me to the kitchen, well, really the sink washing dishes. I am pretty good at that task and it does keep me from spilling coffee and tea on guests at the tables. Sunday, of course, it always busy with two worship services and lots of people to talk to. We even had some visitors at the early service, which was nice.

But I work up this morning a bit before time to get up. As I enjoyed the warmth of the bed while thinking over the day’s activities, I had something of a shock. I caught a glimpse of my depression peeking around the corners of my thoughts. It wasn’t strong but it was there. I began to recognize the symptoms—feeling tired after a good night’s sleep; a lack of real interest in what I had planned for the day; an inability to go back to sleep combined with the fatigue feelings; a desire to crawl in a hole and disappear.

The depression hasn’t really arrived. This event was more of a preliminary message, a sort of an “I’m coming” promise. The conditions are right: lots of work activity; some personal stuff that is taxing; some frustrating circumstances preventing some important decisions. There are lots of reasons why the depression shouldn’t be there. Things are going well in the churches; my knees are not as painful, the cold didn’t develop into anything serious and it is actually snowing. But the potential is there—and it is close enough that the depression feels confident enough to show itself.

Now, I have to make some decisions. I need to decide what I am going to do about it. I recognize that not everyone fighting depression has the same options I have. My particular brand of depression tends to be closely related to my decisions and my willingness to take care of myself physically, emotionally and spiritually. I know all that and even do a pretty good job of paying attention to all the relevant factors most of the time. But when life gets hectic and things pile up, I take less and less care of myself, opening the door for the depression to worm its way in.

The problem is compounded by the fact that I am committed to what I do. My faith and my work are intimately connected—God has called me to ministry and whatever form it takes wherever it is, I am going to do my best, which involves more time that I probably should give it, more thought than I should give it, more energy that I should give it. I appreciate the opportunity God has given me to make a difference in the lives of the people he has called me to serve. I thrive on the opportunity to match Biblical teaching with the specific needs of the congregations. I love connecting churches, individuals and other groups with God through sermons, worship, Bible studies, counselling sessions and so on.

But it is too easy to lose myself in the process. And I know that the call to faith and service comes in the context of sacrifice and commitment and self-denial. Answering a call to ministry is demanding. But what I forget is that there is still a need to care for myself in the process. And once I forget that call to care for myself, everything else is built on a sandy foundation.

The threatening depression is a warning of that reality. I really can’t do what I have been called to do and want to do when I am depressed. I can go through the motions, letting momentum carry me but it isn’t really what I have been called to do. And while God can and does gracefully promise to work around my weaknesses, it is much better for me when I look after myself so that I can give him, the church and myself the best I am capable of at any given time.

So, thanks for the warning, depression. But because I have seen you peeking around the edges of my life, I am watching for you—and even more, I am pretty sure that God is looking after me.

May the peace of God be with you.

KEEP MOVING

I was talking with a friend on ministry the other day about our mutual occupation. We were both in the midst of the fall rush. Basically, from mid-September to mid-December, pastors and church workers don’t have much time for anything beyond work. And as the fall transitions to Advent, things get even worse. The time period is filled with special events, new programs, pastoral emergencies, church and denominational meetings—the list goes on and on. I find myself taking a deep breath in the middle of September and basically beginning to run the marathon.

Except that this marathon has a nasty surprise near the end. Fall church programming leads into Advent and Christmas programming. To use the marathon analogy, this marathon ends with a steep uphill climb. I don’t actually run marathons but have children and friends who do—and from their stories of marathons, I am pretty sure that a marathon with a steep hill at the end would be the very last thing they would want to do.

So, with Advent beginning soon, I find myself in the middle of the hill. Because of my preparation process, I hit the hill a bit before some of my colleagues in ministry. I try to stay a week ahead in all my preparation which does give me some psychological and practical wiggle room but also means I hit the crunch earlier. So, this next two weeks are probably the busiest I am going to have. Two sermons, the Bible study for the area churches that seemed like such a great idea last April, the church fund raiser that helps ensure I get paid, the Advent programs that need to be prepared, the Christmas newsletter, the meeting to prepare our next year’s worship schedule, along with all the other stuff that must be done means that I need to take another deep breath to make sure I keep going—I am definitely feeling the steepness of the hill right now.

Based on previous years of ministry (and I have a lot of those), I will get everything done and I will survive the climb. Eventually, the middle of December will come and things will slow down a bit and then, well, there is always the post-Christmas slump which also brings with it the possibility of a Sunday snow storm with produces a cancellation.

The issue for me is always doing the best I can. I used to be concerned with doing my best, which sounds noble and heroic and faithful but which in practise leads to stress, fatigue, anxiety and burnout. I know that I am capable of doing some pretty good stuff—but the unfortunate reality is that I can’t always work to my limits. Or maybe it is better to say that my limits are moved by my circumstances. The fantastic sermon I could produce with unlimited time becomes a somewhat less fantastic sermon because I also have to write the ecumenical study, the Advent candle program and our regular Bible study.

None of them will be my best work—none of them will be as good as what I could produce if I had only that one thing to do. So, each one of them gets the best that I can do given the time and opportunity I have. I can’t do my best work—but I can and will do the best I can in the circumstances.

And I will do what I always do—I will give God and the church my best and then depend on God to take care of the rest. Ultimately, I do what I do because God has called me to be his agent to carry out his will. All that I do passes through him and any effects and results are due more to his divine work than my efforts.

For me, this isn’t a cop out or an excuse of sub-standard work or an extra nap. For me, this is a basic reality that enables me to cope with the impossible task that I have been called to. Even if I could produce me best all the time, it still isn’t good enough. But if I consciously work at giving God and the church the very best I can in any circumstance, then I can take comfort in the reality that God is going to use what I do to accomplish his will.

May the peace of God be with you.

FORGIVE ME

One of my Bible study groups is studying the Lord’s Prayer. We are slowly moving through the content of the prayer, with many journeys here, there and everywhere as we examine the implications of the prayer for our lives. Eventually, we arrived at the place where we ask God, “Forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. That verse kept our study going for several weeks.

This isn’t a passage telling us that God will only forgive us as much as we forgive others. That would be at odds with the rest of the New Testament, which makes it clear that God’s forgiveness in Christ is unrestricted and unfettered, a limitless offer of love and grace that most of us will never fully understand.

As I and various people, including the Bible study, have grappled with this passage over the years, it seems to me that the real message the passage is trying to get to has to do more with our ability to forgive than with God’s ability to forgive. The bottlenecks and roadblocks and impediments to forgiveness all come from us, not from God.

And the biggest problem, I think, is our inability to actually forgive ourselves. Most people, especially faithful people, are terrible at forgiving themselves. We often have a sense of what “good” people should be like and an even better sense of why we are not like that. We know that God forgives—but we are uncomfortable believing that he could actually forgive us for that terrible sin of having an extra piece of pie (or maybe even the first piece, depending on the circumstances).

Often, we who are people of faith have our insides cluttered with sins and perceived sins that we are pretty sure are the worst sins in the history of faith, stuff that makes us feel guilty and unworthy and sinful and which we are sure that God couldn’t ever forgive. And if God can’t forgive us, who are we to let ourselves off the hook?

But the Gospel truth is that God can and does and even did forgive everything—that is the point of the cross and the resurrection. God can forgive us. And if God can and has forgiven us, who are we to argue? We can’t claim to know more than God; we can’t suggest that he doesn’t have the full story; we can’t argue that he has missed something—although in truth, we do all that stuff. But God is God, he does know the full story, he didn’t miss anything and when he offers to forgive, he can and will deliver.

So, many of us in the faith walk around as forgiven children of God who are still carrying heavy imaginary burdens of unforgiveness simply because we won’t in the end forgive ourselves. We make God into a liar and a weakling because we refuse to believe that he is stronger than us and our sins.

And then it gets worse because we are pretty sure that if we don’t really deserve forgiveness, that no one else actually deserves it either. If I can’t forgive myself for that second slice of pie, how can I forgive you who joined me in the raid on the fridge? Or even worse, if I don’t eat the pie and can’t forgive myself for even thinking about it, how can I ever forgive you for actually eating the pie?

Our theology of forgiveness needs to be improved. Actually, it needs to be real theology, not our thoughts and feelings. God has made it clear that forgiveness is a consequence of his love and grace. He makes it clear that there are no limits (I know about the sin of blasphemy of the Holy Spirit in Matthew 12.31 but essentially worrying about this sin is a pretty good sign you haven’t committed it). He goes to inhuman lengths to let us know that he is prepared to forgive us no matter what.

So, if the God of all creation, who know everything there is to know about me and everything else is willing to die to forgive me, I should probably learn how to forgive myself—and at the same time, that will help me forgive others. When we let God’s rules about forgiveness guide the process, we will all do better.

May the peace of God be with you.

FEELING GUILTY

The other day, I was at the fall fundraising event for several of the churches in our area. Rather than set up competing events, the churches get together, rent a large hall and do the event together. So, in one big space, there are bake sales, jam sales, quasi-yard sales, silent auctions and a really good brunch. Since we browse the tables at different speeds, my wife and I quickly got separated but since we both knew we would end up at the brunch tables, that wasn’t a problem.

As I looked at the tables and talked to people I knew from all the various churches, I came to the table run by a neighbour who is on one of the same committees I serve on. She had volunteered to take the minutes of our last meeting, which I would then scan and send on to the rest of the committee. As soon as she saw me, she joked about feeling guilty because she didn’t have the minutes done. My joking response was that my job as a pastor was done because I had made her feel guilty. We both knew we were joking and went on to talk about other things—and in the process made a tentative plan to get the minutes done.

I have been thinking on the topic of guilt since then—well, to be honest, it is a topic that I have been thinking about on and off for a while. It seems like guilt is almost synonymous with being a person of faith. I have heard pastors (and comedians) talk about various religious groups as being the inventors of guilt. I remember one person whose faith I admired telling a visiting speaker that she really appreciated his message because it made her feel so guilty—she was giving him what was her supreme compliment.

There is a connection between faith and guilt but not the one that is popularly assumed to be there. It seems like many people both inside and outside the faith want guilt to be the supreme quality of a religious person. Such thinking almost has a valid point. Most religions begin with the idea that we human beings are imperfect and that there is a better, holier and perfect something beyond us. Our continued imperfection is a problem—and guilt seems to be the appropriate response for most people.

Interestingly enough, most people want to maintain a perfect level of guilt. They want to have enough to feel religious but not enough to change behaviour. This is a hard balance to maintain, though, and often people get caught in the swamp of uncontrolled guilt that causes them to slip into low self-esteem, despair, even hopelessness. The process isn’t helped by the vast amount of guilt producing preaching, teaching and advice given by religious leaders.

But what if guilt isn’t the purpose of faith? What if, instead of guilt being the goal and focus of faith, it is only a tool to get us to something greater, a tool that has a important but limited use? What is God uses guilt to motivate us to confess and accept his forgiveness so that we can be free of guilt? What is guilt that can’t be dealt with by God’s offer of forgiveness is false guilt and isn’t something that we need to or should deal with?

I think that this what if is actually the case. I think our Christian faith is based on the reality that God doesn’t want us to feel guilty. In actual fact, he wants us to feel forgiven—and forgiveness by definition ends the hold of guilt on our lives. God wants us to live in the freedom that comes from knowing that we are forgiven and that there is no need to hold on to the guilt that led us to accept God’s forgiveness. Sometimes, that left over guilt is really a sign of our inability to really accept and appreciate the forgiveness that God has given us in Jesus. We hold on to our guilt probably because we feel better feeling guilty that we do feeling free.

But as believers, we are free, we are forgiven and for us, guilt should only be a temporary reminder that we have more to take to God and when we take it to him, he takes care of us, relieving us of the need to feel guilty. Real faith is marked by a sense of freedom from guilt, a freedom that comes from opening ourselves to the grace of God.

May the peace of God be with you.