SPIRITUAL DEVELOPMENT OR YOUTUBE?

I don’t read many real books these days.  That isn’t because I have stopped reading.  I read almost as much as I ever did–but these days, I have made a conscious decision to use ebooks as much as possible.  I would like to say that I made the decision based on sound environmental and economic reasons:  ebooks don’t use paper thereby saving trees and they generally cost less.  But the truth is that I made the decision to switch to ebooks because after giving my large theological library away for what seemed like a good reason at the time ( maybe a story for another blog someday), I decided that having a library I could carry in a pocket was a great idea.

But work related paper books are still plentiful and I end up with a good number of them in the course of the year, many of which look interesting.  They end up in the new book section of the book shelf in the study, until their turn to be read at which point the book gets transferred to top of the cardboard box that serves as a shelf beside my exercise bike.  My plan is that during my hour on the bike in the morning, I will do my daily Bible reading which takes about 20 minutes, check email and the day’s headlines on the tablet, which takes about 5 minutes  and then finish out the hour reading the latest book on the box.

And I actually do that–at least until I hit one of those stretches of ministry expansion when I have too much to do and not enough time to do it and the fatigue gets the better of me.  I know that is coming when I finish the Bible reading, do the email and headlines and pick up the book.  I feel a sense of dread–well, probably not dread but at least a sense of “Do I have to?”.  Early in the fatigue process, I sternly tell myself that I have to–I committed myself to this and it is as much a part of my spiritual development as reading the Bible and praying and so I have to do it.

On those stern days, I might actually get a couple of pages read before I realize I am not taking anything in and in fact, am getting quite bored with the whole thing.  My ability to spend an hour on the exercise bike is dependant entirely on my ability to distract myself from the boredom of exercising so being bored reading threatens my ability to stay on the bike.

The debate begins: “I’m tired–maybe I should quit biking early.  All this biking probably isn’t good for me knee.  This book is really boring.  Read it! But I am not processing it! I’m tired.  My knee might start to hurt.”

The only viable and workable solution ultimately seems to be watching Youtube videos on the tablet.  They distract me enough so that I can continue the exercise session–and as for that boring book, well maybe the dog will eat it the next time he is in the basement by himself.  So, for the sake of my physical health, Youtube it is.

Do I feel guilty about not reading?  A bit–but it’s the kind of guilt I am used to as a religious person.  There is enough guilt to take to take the fun edge off of what I am doing but not enough to stop me from doing it.  Besides, watching other people’s failures and foibles gives me some comfort on my fatigue.

Should I force myself to read?  Well, having tried that, I can say for sure that it doesn’t work.  But from experience, I also know that I will get tired of Youtube and the ministry expansion will slow down and eventually, that book will become more interesting.  So, I watch Youtube.  Rather than see it as a failure, I see it as another form of Sabbath.  It gives me the ability to continue the physical exercise, allows me to rest the emotionally and spiritually overworked parts of my being.  It also allows me to laugh, which is physically, emotionally and spiritually healthy.

So, I read the book most of the time–but when I can’t, I allow myself the Sabbath I need because that way, I know I will eventually get back to the book.

May the peace of God be with you.

CHOCOLATE BUNNIES OR EXECUTIONS?

            As secularized religious holidays go, Easter really doesn’t measure up to the standard set by Christmas.  Christmas gets our whole western culture looking at religious themes.  If we aren’t seeing manger scenes everywhere, we are hearing about court battles to prevent or allow them.  We even get treated to religiously themes songs in various media outlets.

But Easter, well, Easter is a different kind of holiday.  Then whole season deals with stuff that most of our culture–well, most of most cultures–find unpleasant.  Easter puts the focus on things like political and religious corruption.  It deals with false arrest and torture.  It tells the story of a good man being legally, physically and emotionally brutalized for political reasons.  And then to make matters  worse, the man dies.  We could probably deal with the story as a culture if Jesus suddenly turns on his captors and using some swift and skillful Ninja moves, puts his captors in their place.

But Jesus isn’t some movie hero.  He feels the weight of authority and that authority wins–Jesus dies after a painful and sadistic process designed to not only kill the victim but also demoralize anyone nearby.  Crucifixion was Rome’s way of telling everyone that they had better watch their step or else–and the “or else” was regularly exercised along the public highways.

Compared to a baby being born in a stable with angels and cuddly lambs, this story really doesn’t cut it for our society.  That is probably why our culture has tended to ignore the basic Easter story in  favour of bunnies, chicks and a ton of candy.  Those sell better.  Eating a chocolate Easter bunny is a whole lot more fun that contemplating a cruel and vicious execution and the death of a popular but defeated hero.

Maybe we need to change the story to make it more acceptable to our culture.  We could, for example, talk about Jesus as a great teacher, a humanitarian whose words and deeds serve to inspire us even though he is dead.  If we emphasise that side, we don’t have to deal with the sordid and messy details like death and all that.  Jesus could join the ranks of people such as Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela.  We could use Easter to celebrate the words of Jesus and pledge to make the world a better place by trying to follow some of his teachings–and still enjoy all the candy.

The words of Jesus are important.  The things he did are important.  But in the end, without the cross and the tomb which becomes empty, his story is somewhat pointless and meaningless.  And that is because underneath the whole story is a much deeper, much more unpleasant truth that our culture simply doesn’t want to see or deal with.

This deep and unpleasant truth concerns us as human beings.  Easter is built on the fact that we are not what we think we are and we are not what we were meant to be.  Easter reminds us that we are all flawed and imperfect beings who got ourselves into a mess that we can’t get ourselves out of and need serious help.

Easter tells us that we are as much a part of the corrupt, self-serving political-religious machine that executed Jesus as Pilate and the chief priest and the fickle crowed who praised on Palm Sunday and jeered on Good Friday.  We are those people and they are us–we are all tainted and damaged–we are all both the perpetrators and victims of sin, both ours and everyone else’s’.  This inconvenient truth poses problems for most people.  We generally recognize the reality of sin but want sin to be something we see on TV from some distant place were really evil people do terrible things.  We don’t want sin  to be something we do and we definitely don’t want it to be something serious enough that Jesus needs to go through all that cruelty and pain and injustice because of us.

But that is the story.  That is the reality.  And if most people prefer a chocolate bunny to this real story, that is understandable–not right but understandable.  We all tend to run away from what we don’t like–a good diversion beats reality hands down in our culture.

As for me–well, I like a chocolate bunny now and then–but don’t really need it.  I hate the idea of a crucifixion and unjust death–but boy do I need the resurrection and the forgiveness and acceptance that the risen, living Christ provides.

May the peace of God be with you.

A CUP OF COFFEE

            When I am on the road by myself on a long trip, I am wise enough to stop regularly for a break, which generally involves a bathroom and a cup of coffee.  But because I don’t want to stop long, the coffee is takeout and I want to be in and out as quickly as possible so I can get on the road again to get to wherever I am going to do whatever I am going to do.  Generally, that involves some kind of ministry–visiting someone in the regional hospital, for example.

So, I stop for coffee and a bathroom.  I stand in the line for the coffee, getting a bit frustrated when the people in front of me haven’t looked at the signs showing what is available to make their choices.  Instead, they get to the counter as ask a million questions, ordering the most obscure and time consuming items on the menu.  The frustration grows as the counter person struggles with the process, quickly showing that this is likely the very first time this particular individual has worked here.

Finally, I get to the counter and place my order–only two things:  a coffee and a snack (you can’t drink coffee on the road without a snack, right?).  The counter person gets the order wrong and I have to correct it.  As it is being filled the counter person makes another mistake and another when punching in the prices.  And to top it all off, the card reader won’t read the gift card I want to use, the card I know has enough money on it to cover everything.  All the while, I am getting more and more frustrated, watching the time pass and the mistakes multiply.  I want to bolt out of the line and get back on the road–don’t these people realize that I have important ministry to do and that they are wasting my time with this “fast” process?

I would go somewhere else but I like the coffee here and anyway, somewhere else is probably going to be the same and then I would waste even more time.  I just want a cup of coffee (and snack) so I can get back on the road and get on with both my life and my ministry.

Hold that scene in your mind–I have confess that this has never actually happened to me this way.  All these things have happened but not all together.  This is the coffee stop from hell, the time when all that could possible go wrong goes wrong.  But it does provide a sense of what I sometimes feel and think when in a situation like that.

My question is, “What do I say to the counter person?”  I am always tempted to slam them with some comment about the service, their lack of skill or intelligence, or my decision never to return.  I would like to make their day as miserable as mine has become because of a simple coffee stop.  I want to grumble and complain and make them at least feel bad that they have inconvenienced me.

But I generally don’t do any of that.  I know that I will be back–I like the coffee and they have a convenient location.  Getting even won’t do anything much because most likely, anything I say will have been said before and with a lot more choice words than I generally use.  Making a scene of any kind just slows me down even more.

And besides all that, I am a Christian and my faith needs to be an active part of my life, even when I am suffering through the coffee stop from hell.  Even if the counter person doesn’t know or care that I am a Christian, I know I am a Christian and I know that part of my commitment to God is buying my coffee as a Christian.  I can’t leave my faith in the car while I run in to the coffee shop.  Mind you, giving a condensed version of the Christian faith probably isn’t a good idea in the coffee shop lineup either–that will only encourage others to act like I want to act.

So, I take my coffee and thank the counter person with a smile.  If they apologize for the confusion, I offer them a kind of forgiveness by telling them it’s okay.  Then, I head for the car, hoping they actually got the order right.  It might not be a big thing, but I feel that I did at least function in as Christian a way as possible, maybe shining some light in the darkness.

May the peace of God be with you.

OPPS!–AGAIN

If you have been reading this blog with any regularity, you have probably guessed that I like writing.  I actually do a lot of writing in my work–two sermons a week, two Bible studies each week and uncounted bits and pieces ranging from church bulletin announcements to emails dealing with everything from the final hymn for Sunday to theological and Biblical discussions with various people.  So, it is a good thing that I like writing.  Whether I am any good or  not, I have to leave to readers to actually determine but I like writing.

What I don’t always like and know I don’t always do well is the detail and administration that goes with writing.  The process of getting thoughts out and organized is satisfying and even addictive to me but once they are on the screen or saved on the hard drive, I sometimes lose track of what is supposed to happen next.  Recently, for example, I posted a blog on July 1 that was actually supposed to be posted the next week because I didn’t pay enough attention to the dates on the files I was calling up.  I don’t think the mistake was a terrible one and it didn’t destroy my whole blogging process (I don’t think it did, anyway) but it probably would have been better in the long run if I had posted the blogs in the order I had originally planned.

I could have deleted the mistake and posted the right one but really, the mistake isn’t that big or significant–and more importantly, I don’t need to get everything right all the time.  I  have been and am continuing to learn how to be graceful with myself.  Part of that gracefulness involves extending myself more grace than I might have in the past.  This grace begins with a remembrance of who and what I am and letting me be a bit more accepting of both my mistakes and my getting it right.

I don’t mean to suggest that I let myself lapse into a “laisser-faire” mindset that allows me to drink coffee, eat chocolate and watch TV all day when I am supposed to be working.  I am aware that I am not perfect and that part of my commitment to God through Jesus is to work at becoming more of what he knows I can be and wants me to be–and which I actually want to be , at least on good days.

I do know and want to improve the basic me, to become more and more what God meant me to be.  But at the same time, I am learning to balance the desire and even need to grow and develop with a graceful understanding that God accepted me as I was then, accepts me as I am now, and will accept me as I will be.  In my emotional theology, I imagine that God rejoices with me when I do something that enables me to grow; laughs with me when I do something less than spectacular; is sad with me when I do something I know is wrong but do anyway; and most significantly, empowers me when I am ready to take another step in the growth process.

In all of it, at every point, God loves me with the same undying and unending love and accepts me as I am.  And if the God of all creation loves and accepts me, who am I to argue with him?  Of course, I and many others do argue with him about that.  I (and we?) dump on my (our) mistakes.  I (we) get upset when I (we) don’t measure up to my (our) expectations.  I (we) don’t give myself (ourselves) enough credit when I (we) get things right.

But I am learning.  Most of my posts get written when they should be written.  Most of them get posted when they should be posted.  I could do better–and am working on it.  But being graceful with myself when I mess up is better for me than  dumping all over myself.  I am not letting myself off the hook so to speak but I am accepting the reality that although I want to grow and do better, I don’t always get it right.  God forgives me and gives me another chance–and if I follow his lead, I end up doing better for myself and for my spiritual growth.

May the peace of God be with you.

HOW TO JUDGE

As humans, we seem to have an innate desire and ability to judge others.  We might feel a bit guilty about doing it; we might be very quiet about it; we might even restrict our judgements to a very few carefully defined areas of life–but in the end, we are all going to make judgements about people and their actions.   Not even Jesus’ words from Matthew 7.1, “Do not judge…” actually stop us from judging.  These words might slow us down a little and drive our judgemental opinions underground but they really don’t stop us.

And that may be why Jesus doesn’t stop there.  He goes on to tell us about people with planks and sawdust in their eyes.  This is one of those Biblical passages that reveal Jesus’ sense of humour–it we forget for a moment that these are supposed to be “holy” words, we are treated to a scene worthy of a Three Stooges movie.

A man with a huge plank in his eye walks around, pretending he is fine.  He encounters another man struggling with a small piece of sawdust in his eye and immediately sets about scolding the man for getting the sawdust in his eye while at the same time moving in the remove the offending sawdust.  Then the fun really begins.  The plank bumps the sawdust man, knocking his down.  As plank man reaches down to help him up (plank man is obviously a Type A fixer), the plank bangs against the ground, jolting plank man and causing severe pain.  Sawdust man gets up, only to be knocked down again as plank man shifts position to relieve the pain in his eyes so he can remove the speck of sawdust from sawdust man’s eye.

Anyway, Jesus has a solution to the avoid the whole slapstick scene.  He says to plank man the words we read in Matthew 7.5, “You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (NIV)  The whole comedy falls apart when plank man no longer has a plank in his eye.

It seems to me that Jesus is telling us that judgement begins at home.  We look to ourselves first.  One of the pop psychology notions that people like to repeat actually has some truth behind it–we often get most upset by what we see of ourselves in others.  It becomes much easier to judge and condemn someone else for doing what we are doing than it is to judge and deal with ourselves.

Following Jesus’ words about first removing our plank, maybe we need to be willing to turn our judgements around before we act on them.  When I see something in others that upsets me and just begs to be judged, maybe I need to spend some time in front of a spiritual/psychological/emotional/behavioural mirror looking for the same or a similar thing in my life.  That often requires some painful and difficulty self-honesty, which is why we prefer to find it in others.

We find the issues in ourselves and we judge ourselves as being in need of help.  Removing the plank will involve getting the help we need to remove the plank and since it is in our eye, the removal will sometimes be as difficult and painful as keeping the plank in our eye.  It will likely take serious time–the plank may be painful but it is our plank and we are attached to it on some deep level of our being.  It will definitely require that we ask for and accept the help that God so freely offers to all of us, as well as the help of others, regardless of the size of the plank we carry in our eye.

While we are in the process of dealing with our plank, we are disqualified from judging others, at least in our plank area–if we judge others while we have the plank, both we and the other person are going to be hurt and neither the plank nor the sawdust will be removed.  But once our plank is gone, we have a whole different way of relating to people.  We can share the story of dealing with our plank and offer to use our experience to help people deal with their sawdust–or even their plank.

We are still making a judgement that the sawdust they have is a problem–but since we began with ourselves by judging our plank, we are going to be more graceful and loving as we offer to help with the sawdust.  We will be God’s agents in the process, able to really help someone because we have found a way.

May the peace of God be with you.

DO WHAT YOU CAN DO

Being unable to forgive is a serious burden for the person who struggles to forgive.  It can and often does have serious emotional, physical and spiritual implications.  It can become a burden that dominates a life, getting in the way of everything else.  Even when it doesn’t reach those levels, the burden of being unable to forgive is heavy.

But even with all of that, even knowing the cost, even knowing how heavy the burden is, many of us will still choose to hold on to our forgiveness.  We might feel guilty, we know we should forgive and on some levels, we might even want to forgive but we just can’t do it.  We can’t bring ourselves to forgive and let the burden go.  So, what are we to do?

Well, for some of us, maybe forgiveness isn’t like an on-off switch but a process.  Maybe our forgiveness is given a bit at a time, as we are able and when we are able.  Maybe we have to approach it as a process where we spend time looking at our feelings and thoughts and desires to discover just how much we have been hurt and are continuing to hurt.  We look at the pain we feel, the reasons we feel the pain, the reasons we feel we can’t forgive.  We look at our faith and how it is being affected by our inability to forgive.  We discover the weight of the burden that we are carrying and how much it is affecting us.

We seek to be honest with ourselves, asking ourselves what we gain by not forgiving; what we hope our not forgiving will accomplish; what effect our not forgiving will have on the overall situation; how much not forgiving is hurting us.  And in the process, we ask ourselves if we would like to be able to forgive and get out from under the burden we are carrying.

If we are content to carry our burden, knowing all that it means and all the effects it is having on us, we can keep going.  It is our burden, we have chosen it and are choosing to keep it.  We have looked and we understand and we are choosing to keep it.  It may not be a wise or rational but it is our decision and as long as we understand what we are doing, we can do it.

However, if and when we begin to see the less than desirable side of carrying such a heavy and potentially debilitating burden, we can begin a process of unloading it by allowing ourselves to do as much forgiveness as we can at any given time.  Even allowing ourselves to be open to the possibility of maybe sometime being able to forgive is a start.  Maybe we can find some small part of the thing to forgive.  Maybe we can spend a bit of time and energy trying to look at things from a different perspective.  Maybe we can begin to think a bit about what it would be like not to have to carry the burden of unforgiveness around.

Maybe we can even experiment with forgiveness, sort of like some people experiment with stopping a habit like smoking.  They stop, they start again, they stop again in a cycle that often ends with them not smoking anymore.

So, we on strong days, we forgive–knowing that we might rescind it tomorrow–but for today we forgive.  If we take it back, we try again at some point.  Eventually,  we will decide to either let it go or discover we can’t let it go and need to carry it around for the rest of our lives.

In short, for some things, we might need to see forgiveness as a process, an important process that is going to benefit us a lot more than it will benefit anyone else, including the person whom we are struggling to forgive.  In the end, the lack of forgiveness is the burden we are carrying around and we are the ones most affected.  And if the slow process helps us get to where we want to be, then we need to follow it, forgiving as much as we can as often as we can.  What some seem to be able to do all at once, we may need to take a while to do–but the end result will be the same.  We will either know that we have to carry the burden all the time or we will get rid of it.

May the peace of God be with you.

FORGIVE ME, LORD

Normally, when I am saying the Lord’s Prayer, I am leading worship and am somewhat distracted by remembering what comes next in the order of service so I don’t always give it my full attention.  But when I do pay attention, I am always struck by the line that says, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6.12, NIV).  When I read the passage, I can’t help but notice Matthew 6.14-15, where Jesus follows up the prayer with the words, ” For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (NIV)

When I think of situations where I am unwilling or unable to forgive, I would prefer to have these words disappear–but since they are in the Bible and I can’t find a good way to discount them, I need to deal with them in the context of my inability to forgive.

It would be easy to say that the words force me to forgive:  “If I want to be forgiven, I need first to forgive others.”  This is a quick, easy and simply formula–all that is left is singing the final hymn and pronouncing the benediction.  Of course, the ultimate result probably isn’t an immediate act of forgiveness on my part but rather a strong sense of guilt and an increase in my emotional and spiritual burden associated with the inability to forgive.

And so, in my wondering and searching, I have begun to think that maybe this isn’t a ritualistic formula but a deeper insight into God, humanity and forgiveness.  God forgives–that seems to be a clear and strong theological reality in the Bible.  His forgiveness is available to all who will accept it–and maybe the issue Jesus is dealing with in the Lord’s Prayer and the follow up verse has more to do with our ability to accept what God is offering.

Maybe my ability to comprehend and accept God’s forgiveness is tied in with my ability to offer forgiveness to others.  Being human, I have a tendency to think other people think and act a lot like I do–and so if I have difficulty offering forgiveness, I think others have that same difficulty.  And if I and others have that difficulty, maybe it limits my ability to accept forgiveness from others and from God–what they offer may not be real or may have strings attached or there might be some catch in the fine print.

Whatever the mechanism and reasoning, it seems that when I can’t or won’t forgive, it limits my ability to accept forgiveness, even from God.  Maybe Jesus is pointing that out in the prayer–that only as we extend forgiveness to others can we really experience the forgiveness  that God offers to us.  That would mean that God doesn’t make his forgiveness conditional on our forgiving others.  It makes our ability to accept his forgiveness conditional on our ability to offer forgiveness to others.

This then is another part of the burden that I carry when I find myself unable to forgive–I can’t really appreciate the offer of forgiveness that God offers me.  My inability to forgive will cloud and distort my view of God and at some levels at least, cause me to think that God thinks a lot like I think.  No matter that I know God offers forgiveness; no matter that I know he has shown that forgiveness in and through Jesus Christ; no matter that I have at some point accepted that forgiveness–on some levels, my inability to offer forgiveness to someone else is probably going to damage my ability to see and appreciate the forgiveness that God offers to me.  I will feel that God can’t forgive me.

Fortunately, God isn’t bound by my feelings and has already forgiven me.  But when I can’t forgive someone else, I likely can’t get the most out of that profound theological reality.  I am forgiven because of my faith in Christ but I am unable to completely enjoy the forgiveness because I can’t offer the same forgiveness to others.

The burden of being unable to forgive is heavy and as I said before, it is good to know exactly what we are letting ourselves in for when we can’t–or won’t–forgive.

May the peace of God be with you.