I AM A…

I grew up in a small town that had at least five different denominational congregations with at least one independent congregation.  I also grew up in the era when basically, everyone when to worship on Sunday–as far as I know, we didn’t have any Seventh Day groups in the community.  That meant that everyone in the town “belonged” to some group or another.  It also meant that we generally knew why we didn’t belong to one of the other groups.

Of course, the reasons we didn’t belong to one of the other groups were always because of something our group did much better.  We Baptists, for example, were proud of the fact that when we worshipped, it was under the leading of God, not some canned worship program written long ago by people who obviously weren’t Baptist.  We were also convinced that those groups that actually used wine for Communion were just opening the door to alcoholism.  And of course, we allowed ourselves to be lead by God, not the Holy Spirit because the group that talked a lot about the Holy Spirit was definitely off base.  And we certainly were holding to the true Gospel, unlike that group that was moving off the theological base into liberalism.

So there we were–at least six separate groups, meeting at about the same time on Sunday morning, listening to each other’s church bells peel around the same time, singing many of the same hymns, reading from the same Bible (although some were using the RSV not the KJV), worshipping the same God of love and grace and working really hard to make sure we all knew how different we were.

Except, we really weren’t that different.  Our Baptist insistence on extemporaneous prayers rather than a prayer book tended to fall apart when you actually listened to the prayers we made–the prayers tended to sound pretty much the same from week to week.  We didn’t have written prayers but we did a lot of repetition and saying the same thing week after week.

And more seriously, we all had our theological strengths and our practical weaknesses.  The “liberal” denomination was trying to actually show God’s love in concrete ways.  The “Holy Spirit” group was trying to open themselves to the movement of God in daily life.  The liturgical worship approaches were trying to tie is together with the deep historical roots of the church.  Our Baptist group, well, we were trying to make sure that there was room for individuality in faith.

Together, we has a deeper, fuller and more complete understanding of what God was trying to show us and teach us and ask of us.  Together, the churches in our community came close to understanding the fullness of the Gospel.  Unfortunately, we were too much interested in our own small insights and understandings to really benefit from the things that we could learn from each other.  We had to be right and they had to be wrong.

I am deeply appreciative of the fact that I live and work in a very different church climate.  I am aware that there are still many places where the church or parts of it are more concerned with division and difference than unity and similarity but I don’t work there and don’t want to be there.

I think the process of moving to a new place began when I started to understand that it was alright to question my own group, to be open about the things that we did and didn’t do that caused problem for the faith.  I moved from there to realizing that others had similar realities–there was some good and some bad.  And I realized that I was free to challenge the bad in my group and import some of the good from other groups.  I didn’t stop being Baptist–but I did begin to realize that before I was Baptist, I was a follower of Jesus Christ.

And as a follower of Jesus Christ, I am united with all other followers and can look at what others do in their journey in a different light.  When their journey helps someone else’s journey, it is great.  So I can borrow printed prayers, new translations, emphasis on the Holy Spirit and couple it with extemporaneous prayers, traditional hymns and grape juice–the goal is God, not Baptist.

May the peace of God be with you.

ANOTHER MEETING

A few years ago, I got is a bit of trouble over a joke.  It seems to me that ministry sometimes consists of going to meetings and at one meeting, I asked the participants how they could know for sure if they were in heaven or hell in the afterlife.  I thought the answer was simple:  if you were at a meeting in the afterlife, you were obviously in hell, not heaven.  I thought it was funny but others at the meeting didn’t see it the same way, but that is a story for another time.

Meetings are a fact of life in ministry.  And because I serve two separate collections of churches, I end up at more meetings.  As a result of these two different ministry settings, for example, I am currently part of two different ecumenical gatherings.  One is an actual council of churches and the other is a gathering of clergy.  Interestingly enough, they both do pretty much the same type of things.  Both meet monthly and both spend time getting to know each other better and working together on a variety of things that help the church as a whole.  And while I don’t much like meetings, the idea of churches and their leaders working together makes up for the necessity of attending meetings, most of the time anyway.

When I attend such meetings, I appreciate the opportunity to meet with other believers from other traditions.  I sometimes get frustrated when I recognize the limitations we face as different denominations but more often, I am more often trying to deal with the differences in personality that always complicate meetings.

Our gatherings do not represent the full Christian presence in our communities.  There are some Christian groups that choose not to take part and depending on the leadership at any particular time, some of the member groups may not have a very active participation.  But in the end, we meet together, we talk together, we plan together, we laugh together, and we support each other in difficult times.  We get to know each other’s individual and ecclesiastical differences.  We learn who does what well and who doesn’t do what well.  We discover who can offer which resources to the work we can do.

And in the process of meeting together, we are doing far more than we sometimes realize. As well as the planning and sharing and organizing that we do, we are also presenting our communities with a vision of the church as it is meant to be.  We aren’t planning to merge all our churches and become one.  But we are practising and showing an essential and basic unity of the faith that cuts across our denominational differences.  We are showing our communities that we might worship in different ways in different buildings at different times but we are all actually worshipping the same God because of the same Christ in the power of the same Holy Spirit.

We are telling our communities that no matter which building we worship in and no matter which style we worship in, we are in agreement and we are all heading in the same direction and we aren’t competing with each other.  And so when I have prayer with the Anglican lady who I see in the hospital during my visit with my Baptist people, she and her pastor know that I am not trying to steal anyone–and the community knows that we are all working for the same God.

And this is important because the more fragmented and fighting the church is, the weaker our witness.  If we who follow Christ in our different ways cannot get along, how can the world expect much of the faith we proclaim?  Our bickering and competition serve to give outsiders a reason for not considering faith–we undercut our mission and make to task of the Holy Spirit much harder when we aren’t willing to work together.

And so, I will attend the meetings–not because I love meetings.  I am still convinced that one of the joys of heaven will be the absence of meetings.  But I will continue to meet with fellow believers because that which we share is much deeper and much more significant than that which separates us.  We are joined together by our faith  now and forever.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHO ARE WE?

One of my Bible study groups just started a new topic.  Last year, we had planned to do a study of basic Christian doctrine and follow that up with a study of our specific denomination.  We got a bit sidetracked and spent several months on a study of the Holy Spirit but in both the Bible study groups I work with, getting sidetracked is one of the most exciting parts of the study process.

But this particular diversion meant that instead of going right from a study of Christian theology into a more specific denominational approach, we had a gap.  I had a concern that the gap would mean that we would lose sight of the connection between the two studies.  My original plan was to move right from one to the other, which would help us see ourselves as believers in a specific context within the wider church.

I think our study group will be able to make the connection–but just to make sure, I dug out and passed around a 2 page summary of Christian history that I developed years ago with help from a variety of sources.  But on a wider scale, one of my concerns throughout ministry has been that we believers have a terrible tendency to forget the big picture.

Because I belong to the Baptist segment of the church, I have a tendency to think that the rest of the church is somehow off course.  There are also people within this tradition who are absolutely convinced that anyone who isn’t a Baptist really isn’t part of the Church.  If such thinking were confined only to the Baptist segment, that would be a serious but somewhat manageable problem–the rest of the Church could ignore our thinking and get on with its business.

Unfortunately, the inability to contextualize denominational stances within the wider church seems to be one of the defining characteristics of  the church as a whole, at least in North America.  You would think that at a time when the whole Christian faith is experiencing a decline in the West, we would be more willing to pull together–but instead of pulling together, we are often doing our best to put each other down.

We even spend more time than any of us want to admit trying to convince believers from other segments of the Church to join our segment.  While some might call this evangelism, it really isn’t.  We are just rearranging the seating plan, not reaching into the darkness to rescue people as we are called to do.

But the reality is that we believers need to deal more effectively with all the other branches of the faith that we do at this point.  It is simply wrong to assume that everyone outside our particular brand is either wrong or needs to switch.  Christianity isn’t a competition to see who can capture the most from the “other side”.  The Church is a wide and diverse gathering of believers whose actual expression of the faith takes many forms and many styles, none of which is perfectly right or perfectly wrong.

Jesus died and rose to life for the sake of all humanity and instituted the Church as a place where those who follow him can grow and develop and fellowship and enable each other.  And he died and rose to life and instituted the church for Baptists and Catholics and the Africa Brotherhood Church and Brother Joe’s Independent Chapel and all the rest.  I may not feel particularly comfortable in Brother Joe’s Independent Chapel and I am much too happy being a married pastor to consider being a Catholic priest but I am joined to Brother Joe and the Roman Catholic church is deep, powerful and eternal ways that I need to recognize and strengthen.

The things that tie me to the rest of the church are important and basic.  The things that differentiate me from the rest of the church are also important–but nowhere near as important as the love and grace of God shown to all through the crucified, risen, living and someday to return Jesus Christ.  When I look at the Church through the lens of Jesus Christ, many of the things that separate me from other believers really aren’t that important.  So what if Anglicans use wine and Baptists use grape juice and the Africa Brotherhood Church uses some local dried powder reconstituted with questionable water?  We all see it as the blood of Christ, which ties us together with an unbreakable bond.

May the peace of God be with you.

HOW BIG IS THE CHURCH?

I have been the pastor of a lot of small congregations in my 40+ years of ministry.  I have never broken the 100 mark in regular attendance.  These days, the combined attendance at the two pastorates I serve part time rarely reaches 40, unless it is for a funeral. (I don’t know about weddings–we haven’t had any yet.)  I did once pastor a church that had over 250 members on paper but because of problems and issues, there were only about 25 in worship when I started as pastor.

Given that I am within visual range of retirement, I am pretty sure that my chances of being pastor to a large church are pretty small.  That’s okay with me–I don’t dream of being the next world-famous mega-church pastor any more (well, not much anyway).

But as I have been reading about church growth and how to deal with large increases in attendance and how to prepare for it and all sorts of stuff like that for years.  I know that there is more than just a difference in numbers when it comes to church size.  Beyond a certain point, the quality and nature of the congregation changes.  One blog I read recently suggested that once a church reaches a certain size, the pastor can’t know everyone–and everyone else can’t know everyone either.  His suggestion of nametags was an appropriate way of dealing with that problem.

But one of the nagging questions that has always bothered me when I think about this qualitative difference focuses on exactly this issue.  If I can’t know at least the names of everyone joined together with me in a congregation, are we really a church?  We can be a gathering of believers, we can have a strong theoretical commitment to God and each other but if I can’t know all of the others, are we really a church?

Christianity is a social faith, which requires that our commitment to God through Christ express itself in our relationships with other believers.  And I don’t think that is meant to be a theoretical, generalized expression.  We are called to love each other in very practical and personal ways–but if there are so many of us that I can’t even remember names, how personal can my expression of faith be in that context?

If I am to love other believers as Jesus loved us (John 13.34-35), don’t I need to know the names of my fellow believers (John 10.1-17, especially verse 3)? If I have to look at a name tag to know who I am talking to, how can I be expected to really love people as Christ loved us–without a real sense of who the person is, isn’t my love more generic than personal?

This isn’t an anti-big church rant.  I have friends who pastor large congregations and others who attend large congregations and whose faith I respect and appreciate.  But as I look at some of these larger congregations, it seems to me that they really aren’t united and unified.  Rather than being one big happy church family, they seem to be several different but slightly overlapping church families–several congregations meeting together.

And there are lots of good reasons for such groupings of churches in one congregation.  It allows for more and better programs and facilities and makes delivery of ministry more efficient and allows them to afford things that my small congregations can’t even afford to dream about.  But in the end, I wonder if it might not be better and more correct to call these large groups a gathering of churches rather than a church.

Maybe, once we lose the ability to know names and therefore the ability to really know people, we have lost something vital to the nature of the church.  Knowing someone’s name opens the door to knowing a lot more about the person and that allows us to specifically and personally show people how our common faith in God is expressed in our relationship.

And so while I really hope and pray that our small congregations will grow in numbers, I also am not really interested in the kind of growth that means I can’t know the names of the people I lead in worship.  If we ever get that big, we can start another church so that people can live their faith with people whose names they know and who know their names.

May the peace of God be with you.

POLITICAL CORRECTNESS

At a recent meeting, a friend was receiving a certificate recognizing his status.  During a break after the certificate was presented, one of the committee responsible for the presentations came over to apologize to my friend.  The certificates had been changed recently by the parent organization and instead of having a “he/she” where one could be scratched out, the certificate now said “they”.  The presenter was a bit upset at this obvious grammatical error.

Except it wasn’t a grammatical error.  Using “they” or “their” is now an acceptable way of referring to an individual.  It is a politically correct way of avoiding the issues that can lie in wait whenever gender is an issue.  Personally, the switch didn’t particularly bother me for a couple of reasons.  First, I remember when those particular certificates were printed with only “he”–and continued to be that way for several years after “she” was needed.  And, pragmatically, those of us with less interest in proper grammar have been using “they” to refer to individuals for years.

But this little incident did add more fuel to a flickering thought I have been beating around for a few years.  In general, I am comfortable with political correctness in writing and speaking.  At its root, it is simply a desire to be fair and polite and respectful, all things that fit in well with my Christian faith.  I believe that as part of my faith, I am to be accepting and respectful and fair and polite and it using political correct terms accomplishes that, I have no real problem–plus, it is much easier to write or say “they” than  it is to figure out the proper gender-based terminology.

On the other hand, where does it end?  It seems that political correctness has become as dominant a force in some circles as political incorrectness has been and is in some places.  If I prefer a gender based pronoun, that makes me the focus of some serious criticism in some circles–and some of that criticism can be driven by anger and scorn and disrespect, the very things that political correctness is supposed to prevent.

Parts of our culture have become intolerant of intolerance–and are quite willing to make their intolerance known.  From my perspective as an concerned (and sometimes confused observer) the intolerance of political correctness against intolerance looks and acts pretty much like the intolerance of political non-correctness.  So, in a space where free speech is prized, it appears that only certain forms of free speech are allowed.  That looks and sounds a lot like censorship, which is supposed to be non-correct politically.

I end up confused, not knowing who to support.  And in the end, if both sides are using the same tactics, is there really a difference?  If tolerance can’t tolerate intolerance, how tolerant can it really be?

As in most major issues, we need to realize that we don’t generally accomplish much when we try to prohibit people from doing something.  Telling people “no” seems to produce some reluctant obedience and a great deal of backlash.  It rarely changes much and often produces more problems.

We probably need to pay a lot more attention to Jesus, whose approach to the politically non-correct world he came to was to love people and meet felt needs of real people.  He used “he” and “she”; he called “sin” sin; he scolded religious leaders who prized rules over people; he waded into the dark, foul mess we call life and shone a light of love and acceptance and forgiveness and hope, a light that people wanted and needed.

Jesus wasn’t politically correct.  Rather, he was being theologically correct, which seems to me to be a much more demanding standard.  He saw the value of each and every individual and treated them as a loved and respected individual, whether they were a rich intellectual sneaking in after dark to see him or a known prostitute crashing a party to wash his feet with her tears.  Both these people and anyone else who encountered Jesus went away knowing that they had been in the presence of the Divine and had been seen and recognized for who they were.

Some used the support of the love and acceptance to become more of what they were meant to be and some fled the love and acceptance because they were unwilling to see themselves as they really were.  Political correctness seeks to make rules that might help some people at some times and have some benefits–but Jesus’ theological correctness seeks to show all that they are loved and what is possible within the context of that love.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE TROUBLE WITH DIVERSITY

I am sitting in a Bible Study group–well, I am actually leading the Bible Study, although leading might be too strong a word for the open style I have adopted with Bible Studies.  In this particular (fictional, of course) group, we have a variety of individuals with different experiences, different levels of faith development, different understandings of God’s love, different native languages.  We are united by our common faith and our experience together, drinking tea and coffee, talking together and being stuck in the same space for an hour or two each week for several months.  We are a diverse group but we like each other and because we like each other, we tend to ignore our diversity, choosing to celebrate our common desire to grow together in faith.

And that is great–some days, it feels like a piece of heaven as this diverse group shares and cares and supports and enables and laughs together.  We can forget our diversity and enjoy our similarities, our common faith and all the rest.  But diversity doesn’t disappear just because we are feeling good and comfortable.  And so, in the feel good time of the Bible study, it makes an appearance.

Some one begins talking about their faith experience.  They had a really bad experience in Denomination A, an experience which has affected their whole life and which they are just now beginning to deal with.  Denomination A is filled with demons–there are no believers in the denomination, there are only fakers and frauds and liars and abusers.  As the speaker is talking, we are all aware of the pain, the fear, the hurt that drives the words.  We are aware as well of the beginnings of a sense of liberation from the past that the speaker is experiencing and we feel some sense of joy because part of the liberation is coming through our group.

But we, or at least some of us, are aware that at least two members of our group are members of Denomination A, active members whose faith and Christian experience have been shaped and enhanced by their membership–they are with us because their local Denomination A congregation doesn’t currently have a Bible Study.

Fortunately for our group, the members of Denomination A are caring and loving and are more concerned with the speaker’s pain than with the actual comments about the denomination they love and appreciate.  Eventually, we help the speaker understand that the pain is real but the generalization can be a problem.

The potential danger is diffused but the unfortunate reality is that because we are diverse as believers, there is always going to be the potential for someone to say or do something offensive to another.  We are diverse–even our basic and important Christian unity doesn’t remove the diversity that God gave us and which is as much a basic part of our being as our human and faith-based similarities.  And if not understood properly, that diversity can undermine and destroy the carefully build unity of the group.

That is not hard to see.  We live in an increasingly divided culture, with everyone demanding that their particular slice of human diversity be given priority over every other slice of human diversity–and with more than a few slices calling for the punishment or banning of competing slices of diversity.

I really don’t have much impact on the increasingly fragmenting nature of western culture.  But I am a pastor and I do work with groups of people whose unity in faith is exercised in the reality of their diversity.  And so I work with that.  I try to understand our diversity, both its good and bad.  I try to model acceptance of the individual in the face of disagreement with some aspect of that individual’s thinking or practise.  I teach and preach the need for real communication and real openness and real understanding.  And when the reality of diversity threatens our unity, I work hard at helping the diversity of our group become an opportunity for growth and love.

Our Christian faith calls for unity within the reality of our diversity.  Loving one another isn’t dependent on our being the same.  Loving one another is based on our understanding that just as God loves us in our diversity, so we are to love each other in the diversity that we were created with.  We are not called to be the same–we are called to love each other as we are.

May the peace of God be with you.

DO UNTO OTHERS…

Every now and then, I run into a “modern” version of the Golden Rule, the words of Jesus found in Matthew 7.12: ” So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”  This modern version is often presented in semi-humorous contexts and goes something like this “Do unto others before they do unto you.”

Unfortunately, it seems that our culture has decided that the humorous “before” is more applicable than the original “to”–since my rights and the privileges and desires that I feel belong to me by virtue of my existence are more important than anyone else’s rights, privileges and desires, I need to protect them.  And as we are often told, “The best defence is a strong offence.”

Others, especially others who are or might be different, are a threat to me and what I deserve.  Their choices and desires and practises threaten me and my freedom to be what I want to be.  I need to ban them, restrict them, overcome them, segregate them, control them–and in extreme cases, maybe even find a way to get rid of them.  And if that sounds harsh and hate filled, these are just the headlines that we humans have been reading, experiencing and creating over the years.

Jesus’ words about doing to others fly in the face of socially acceptable norms–norms that are as common and dangerous today as they were in his day–and which go back to the beginning of human awareness.  But Jesus knows that our self-focused, insane drive to put ourselves at the centre of the universe only results in pain, suffering, and continual conflict.  He calls for a different way.

We do to others what we would like done to us. In one compact sentence, Jesus manages to open the door to a new understanding of self and others.  His route doesn’t demand that I ignore myself to benefit others but it also doesn’t demand that I ignore others for the benefit of myself.  Jesus calls for me to engage in a conscious dialogue involving me, the other and the situation.  There is a fourth aspect to the dialogue but I going to hold off on that for a bit.

I need to know what I want/need in the situation.  I need to be aware of myself and my needs and wants.  To really carry out Jesus’ call here, I also need to be willing to examine the validity and necessity of my needs/wants–maybe some of what I need/want isn’t all that important and can be sacrificed or at least downsized.

I need to be aware of the reality of the other–what are their real need/wants.  That will probably mean I need to engage the other and develop some form of relationship–I can’t really get to know the other from a theoretical point of view.  I need to know the other as well as I can.

And I need to know the situation well.  If I am lost, hungry and bleeding, what would I need/want?  I probably wouldn’t want a Gospel tract, unless it was made of cloth and I could use it as a bandage.  I would appreciate directions, first aid and maybe a sandwich although if I am hungry enough, even a pocket-lint covered cough drop might help.

Realistically, that is a major amount of work–and doing it effectively demands that I open myself to the legitimacy of the other as I figure out how to do to them what I want done to myself.  In small, clearly defined situations, I can probably do it and might do it.  But the bigger the situation, the more complex the needs/wants, the more “other” the other is, the harder the whole process and the more unlikely I am to do it.

And this is where I need to remember the fourth part of the dialogue I am engaged in.  I need to involve God.  I need to open myself to the Holy Spirit, whose task in my life is to both guide me in my thinking process and strengthen me in the actual doing.  To really do as Jesus said, I need the power and help of God.  Fortunately, God is both willing and able to give me all the help I need to do to others what I would have them do to me.

May the peace of God be with you.

BEING DIFFERENT

            If balkanization is a problem, the seemingly obvious solution is for us to focus on being as much alike as we can be.  I remember reading a science fiction story years ago about a cult that decided this was the case.  They developed a strong doctrine based on everyone being the same–and then, in the logical consequence of the doctrine, every member was surgically altered so that everyone looked the same.

The story was based on the idea that no matter how much they wanted to be the same, there were still differences that could not be erased.  In that fictional group, someone was murdering members of the group.  I don’t remember the story all that well but it seems to me that the reason for the murders was that one member of the group felt that those being killed were not quite the same as all the others.

And so while making everyone the same might seem to be the antidote to balkanization, it really isn’t.  We are different and no matter how much we try to be the same, we will never make it.  Our differences are basic to our humanness–it begins in our genetic makeup and is reinforced by our experiences in life.  We have significant similarities and significant differences and both are a part of who and what we are.  We can no more ignore our differences than we can  ignore our similarities.

We need to learn to celebrate our differences without making them a basis of division.  I am left-handed.  Being left-handed makes me part of a minority–about 10% of the population is left-handed.  Since the majority of the population is predominantly right-handed, most things are designed and build by and for right-handed people.  Technically, that is a form of discrimination which puts me at a disadvantage and occasionally in danger–some tools designed for right handed-people put us lefties in danger by causing us to reach over or around spinning blades and other parts in order to use our dominant hand.

I didn’t have a choice about being left-handed–it is ultimately a result of factors beyond my control.  I have spend my life living left-handed and learning how to adapt myself to living in a right-handed world.  But I have never spent much time trying to differentiate myself from the right-handed majority nor have I spent time blaming or shaming the right-handed (except in fun when everyone knows we are having fun).  I don’t worry about being minority, majority or whatever–I just do what I do to function.  And when I can’t function as left-handed in a right-handed world, I either adapt or find a right-handed person to do the job.

I really don’t need to create a militant left-handed group.  I am left-handed and like being left-handed but that is likely because I don’t know anything else.  But I don’t need to put down right-handed people to enjoy my left-handedness.  I can celebrate and enjoy what I am without going the balkanization route.  Being left-handed isn’t one of the major flash points when it comes to human difference, although it has been at times and continues to be in a few cultures.

There are many differences that are flash points in  life–but they are flash points because of cultural, ethnic, political, theological issues.  Someone or some group decides that being from one ethnic group is not as acceptable as being from another group.  But the truth is that these differences are part of human reality.  We can be different and still be human.  We can barbeque hamburgers or goat or egg plant and still be human.  We can read the Bible in KJV or NIV or the original Greek and Hebrew and still be Christian.  We can celebrate Communion with wine or grape juice and still be faithful to God.

And if we pay attention, the differences we see and experience can help us experience more of the fullness of life and faith.  As we discover how others have faced and dealt with life and faith, we gain a deeper and broader understanding of the possibilities.  We discover that different is not wrong or better or strange or sinful–it is just different.  Some difference we can embrace–I like my Kenyan friends’ food.  Some, we can’t embrace as easily–I always have to figure out how to use right-handed tools safely.  But we can celebrate the differences–just as God does.

May the peace of God be with you.

SMALLER AND SMALLER

Somewhere in my education career, I learned a neat word that describes a somewhat nasty human process.  I think I first ran into it during high school history classes when we were looking at the political roots of the first world war.  As near as I can remember, many of the smaller middle and central European regions began seeking independence.  They wanted to form countries based on specific ethnic groupings.  This process was given a name by historians, a name that reflected the geographic location of many of these groups.  Since most were located in the Balkan region, the process was called “balkanization”.

The difficulty was that many of these groups defined themselves partly in terms of who they were and partly in terms of who they weren’t–they often wanted it to be clear that they were not part of other groups.  In fact, one of the keys to understanding the balkanization process is that the various groups not only wanted freedom for their group but also wanted dominance over the other groups.  According to historians, the regional tensions and squabbles among these groups was an underlying cause of the ensuing war.

The word isn’t all that common these days–unfortunately, the process is all too common.  We can see the process at work in the classical sense in parts of the world:  sections of Africa and even eastern Europe are engaged in movements to become independent of groups they consider less valuable than they are.  But we also see the process working itself out in less traditional ways–various political parties are finding ways to appeal to smaller and smaller groups in their attempts to build support.  Often, the rhetoric used by these groups includes a great deal of anti-other talk.

Even the church isn’t immune from the balkanization process.  In the past, it wasn’t uncommon for various denominations to make sure that its members knew who they weren’t.  I know people within my denominational family who know more about the “heresies” of other denominations than they actually know about the doctrine and polity of our particular group.

These days, balkanization is also taking another form.  Groups within denominations are claiming to have the real truth about the denominational distinctives–and making it clear that their grasp of the truth makes them better than those who see it somewhat different.  Those within my denominational family who use the KJV of the Bible like to make sure that those of us who use more modern translations know we are on the wrong track and might have endangered our place in heaven by losing sight of the “truth”.

The logical extension of this process is the one congregation denomination made up of those who have seen the truth and know that it can only be expressed outside the bounds of denominations.  True believers would not be caught dead in a denomination.

Balkanization is a serious danger in many areas–but since I am part of the church and have spent most of my life working in, with and for the church, I have seen and experienced the dangers of balkanization there from a very personal perspective.  From my earliest experiences in ministry, I have experienced the problems that come from this process.

During my first year of university, we were required to read the Bible from a relatively new translation, the New English Bible.  That requirement caused serious problems for some students, who felt that this was somehow a compromise of the faith–after all, if the KJV was good enough for Paul, it is good enough for us.  I later discovered that because I wasn’t pre-(or post- or a-) mil in my theology, I was missing the point and wandering into heretical territory.  If I read a prayer during a worship service, I was slipping away from the true faith which was based on free, spontaneous prayer, not the stifling, stilted rote prayers in a book.

Even today, I see and experience the balkanization process as work.  I happen to like to old hymns of the faith–but true believers these days need to follow the Spirit through the use of modern choruses, preferably projected on a screen.

It seems that one of the trends of the faith is more and more restricted views of truth, views that focus as much or more on what they aren’t than on what they are.  Unfortunately, history has taught us that balkanization never has a positive outcome–and no amount of noise will make it a valuable process.

May the peace of God be with you.

FIRST PERSON PLURAL

I confess that I have never been a big fan of grammar.  In school, grammar classes were painful for me–having to learn about nouns and pronouns and adverbs and conjunctions and infinitives and all the rest was just no fun.  Given that I have developed a deep love for writing and make my living as one who regularly speaks in public, my dislike of grammar might seem strange but that is the way it is.  Language is a tool to facilitate communication and as long as I can communicate, I can’t get too excited about the rules.

However, there is one area involving grammar that I have been thinking a lot about in the past few years.  And that is the area hinted at by the title of this post–the grammar of how we refer to people.  Actually, I am more concerned about the theology and psychology behind the grammar of how we refer to people.

I see this working itself out in  practical terms in the church.  I often find myself in meetings with other pastors.  I have learned that the grammar pastors use to talk about their current church situation tells a lot about the future of that particular church-pastor combination.

Almost invariably, the pastors who talk about the church as “they” are either having problems or will be having problems.  Those who talk about “we” generally don’t have as many problems.  Another difference also emerges.  Those who refer to the church in the third person plural (they) haven’t been with that church for long–and won’t be there much longer.  Those who use the first person plural (we) have been there for  awhile and will likely be there for a while longer.

This grammatical distinction occurs everywhere, not just among pastors.  But the problem isn’t because of the grammar–the grammar points to the problem.  When we use the third person in the context of people, we are emphasising the differences, drawing distinctions and making sure that people know they aren’t included in our group.  “They” are different from us and we want to emphasise the difference.

When we use the third person grammar to describe individuial or groups, we open the door to all sorts of problems, like prejudice, discrimination, injustice, exploitation and on and on.  Beyond certain legitimate grammatical usage, the way we tend to use the third person becomes a way of excluding people and making differences clear, often with the unspoken understanding that “they” aren’t good or wise or smart or rich or capable or whatever as us.

So whether it is pastors discussing church members, citizens discussing immigrants, conservative theologians or politicians discussing liberal theologians or politicians, purple people discussing fuchsia people, cat people discussing dog people, the “they” tends to the negative and includes a put down.

And while it is true that we are incredibly diverse as humans, our diversity isn’t the most important thing about us.  Underneath the differences that make us “they” is a deeper reality that makes us a “we”.  We are all humans, created in God’s image, in need of a deep relationship with God and each other and we are all somewhere between what we shouldn’t be and what God meant us to be.  And to get from where we are to where we were meant to be involves not just our relationship with God but also our relationship with each other.  It was and is God’s plan that we best become what we were meant to be by recognizing the “we” rather than the “they”.  We all need God and his help; we all mess up; we all need help–and we all need to work with each other and God to become what he meant us to be.

Our differences are real–no matter how well I speak Kiswahili and no matter how much ugali I eat, no one is ever going to seriously believe that I am a Kikamba–the differences that make me a Msungu and not a Kamba are obvious.  But I am still in relationship with my Kamba friends–before God, we are “we”, all of us in need of his grace and love and help, grace and love and help which we will find best when we come together around our similarities rather than try to magnify our  differences.  We are all in this together.

May the peace of God be with you.