A GOOD COMBINATION

There are some things in life that are just made to go together. Hamburgers obviously need fries to be complete. Abbot needs Costello to make the comedy work. The Old Testament needs the New Testament for the Christian revelation to be fully understood. A blank page (or computer screen these days) needs meaningful words to become something valuable and inspiring. A good stew needs uglai to be perfect. (If you haven’t tried stew and ugali, trust me—or better yet visit East Africa and try it out).

Another combination that makes sense but which works out less often that a burger and fries is the combination of a pastor and a congregation. When the combination works, it is a beautiful thing. When it doesn’t work, it is a disaster not only for the church and the pastor but also for the wider Christian community because it shows our inability to actually follow the faith that we claim.

There are a variety of reasons why the combination doesn’t work. Sometimes, both congregations and pastors enter the relationship without God’s clear leading. That combination is going to fail simply because it results from people presuming to know as much or more than God. They either ignore the need to consult God on the potential combination or assume that what they want it what God wants.

While that is unfortunately a more common reality than most churches and pastors want to admit, I am going to ignore it in this post—I may deal with it sometime. Today, I want to look at why a combination put together by God goes wrong. Presumably, if God in his infinite wisdom brings together a pastor and a combination, it is literally a match made in heaven—so why would it fail?

Most of the time, the match fails because one side or the other or both forget something vital and important. They forget that God himself has selected this congregation and this pastor to be linked together for this point in time. God created the combination because at the point in time the pastor and congregation come together, it is the very best for both in the ever unfolding divine plan for the redemption of creation.

That may sound like a pretty big understanding of what is a very common reality—afterall, there are probably millions of churches around the world and therefore millions of pastor/congregation combinations. Do all of them have that same divine seal of approval making that particular combination a significant and vital part of God’s overall plan of redemption? Well, if both congregation and pastor ( and denominational leadership where applicable) have faithfully engaged in the process and have been fully open to the leading of the Spirit, then yes, their combination is a divinely planned connection that has a part to play in the overall process of moving a sin-scarred world towards its eventual rebirth.

And if that is true, then congregation and pastor need to work together to discover what God envisions them as being a good combination. The gifts, talents, needs and potentials of both pastor and congregation have been carefully and divinely considered and the combination brought together so that the congregation can continue to develop in faith, so that the pastor can continue to develop in faith and so that the overall momentum leading to the full redemption of creation can be maintained. When either the pastor or congregation—or both—forget the divine reality behind their being together, the whole thing gets out of whack.

Instead of seeing their combination as being for the betterment of both and the advancement of the kingdom, each side sees only what they want and seek to achieve it at the expense of the other—and also at the expense of putting yet another kink in the overall plan of redemption which God then has to work around.

Much better for both pastor and congregation to recognize the divine nature of their calling, to accept the need for mutual submission, to humbly seek the Spirit’s guidance as they seek to discover and express the reason for their coming together. When pastor and congregation mutually submit to each other and all submit to God, they are truly a good combination that will work even better than stew and ugali because stew and uglai will have a temporary effect while a good combination of pastor and congregation will have eternal effects.

May the peace of God be with you.

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A GOOD CHURCH

I have never been called to serve as the pastor of a perfect church. In fact, sometimes, I have found myself called to churches which were struggling with some serious dysfunction. I have also had contact with a lot of other churches over the years and have yet to find a perfect church. Because of the nature of the connections I have had with many congregations, I have often ended up discovering the hidden dysfunction in even the best of churches.

Now, I want to be clear at this point—I don’t go looking for the problems in various congregations. I am actually not overly interested in the internal dynamics of other congregations—most of the time, it takes most of my energy and ambition to cope with the realities of the congregations that I have been called to serve. But because I have taught pastors, written about the struggles of small churches and been the pastor of churches with open problems, I have learned much more about many congregations than I want to know.

The end result of all this experience with churches is the depressing insight that there are no perfect churches. That might seem like a totally unnecessary statement of the obvious to some people. But I think many people pay lip service to the imperfection of churches while at the same time assuming that the congregation they are part of or want to be part of is somehow an exception to the rule. Whatever the reason, there are plenty of believers out there looking for the perfect congregation.

To those of you still looking, let me be clear: there are no perfect churches. They don’t exist. Every Christian congregation in the world is going to be a confusing blend of good and bad; right and wrong; inspiring and depressing; perfection and imperfection. The congregation that produces the deeply spiritual Good Friday worship will also discriminate against some people groups. The congregation that condemns any deviation from their norms loudly and publically will also love and care for their disabled members in ways that put others to shame.

No matter what the congregation looks like from the outside, once you become a part of it, you will see both the good and the bad. Well, actually, you might see both, although there is a more than even chance that you will only see one or the other. We human beings are prone to selective vision so we can and do block out the parts we don’t want to see. But if we are honest with ourselves, we will soon discover that the great congregation has some serious problems and the dysfunctional congregation has some seriously good expressions of the faith.

There are no perfect Christian congregations. There are just gatherings of believers who are trying to work at and work out their faith in the context of a Christian community. Running through the whole of the New Testament is the assumption that believers will form communities and that these communities, which we call churches, will be imperfect expressions of the ideal that the New Testament writers keep pointing is towards. Many of the letters in the New Testament were actually written in response to the lack of perfection in various congregations.

Very early in ministry, I realized some implications of the lack of perfect congregations. If there are no perfect congregations, I will never be called to one—and even more importantly, I will never create one. My ministry goal isn’t to create a perfect congregation but to work with the imperfect congregation I have been called to so that together, we can overcome some of the imperfection and dysfunction and become a better congregation—not a perfect one but a better one. And the goal of every member of every congregation should be the same. We become part of a congregation and seek to use our gifts to make an imperfect gathering a better gathering, all the while recognizing that we are never going to be perfect.

Rather than look for a different congregation when we see the problems in the one we are at—or give up on the church completely, as some have done, our response to the reality of imperfection in the church probably needs to be confession of our part in the imperfection, acceptance of the reality of the imperfection and commitment to doing what we can to make things better. We might never become a perfect church but we can become a good church.

May the peace of God be with you.

MORE LIFE

I am going to be a preacher in this post. When we preachers tell stories in our sermons, we have to be careful. We want people to be able to identify with the story but we don’t want anyone to identify the actual persons or events in the story so we engage in a lot of conflation, obfuscation and editing of the story. I don’t want to say that we lie or make up stories because that would be unpreacherly. We do, however, take more than a few liberties to protect the innocent and the not so innocent.

So, with that in mind, let me tell you about my friend—a person whom I have never really met but who borrows bits and pieces from lots of people I have met, read about or listened to gossip about. My friend suffers from some learning disabilities, which made school a difficult process. She (or he) was also abused in a variety of ways by a variety of people: neglected by parents, beaten by siblings, sexually abused by family and strangers. They ended up in the child welfare system, where sometimes they had good homes and sometimes had the homes all TV shows love to show.

Along the way, it was discovered that they had some major chronic and incurable health problems which were sort of controlled by medication but which created some major limits physically and emotionally and financially.

I could go on but why bother—the point of the story is that my imaginary friend has the deck seriously stacked against them. Actually, let’s add the fact that they were born in a poor rural community in a country where poverty is endemic and the government so corrupt that the poverty is institutionalized.

When faced with a life with as many difficulties and drawbacks and roadblocks as this, most people choose to live. Suicide is always an option and while suicide rates are high, they are not as high as they might be. No matter how difficult the life situation, most people choose to live for as long and as well as they can. They will fight to live. They may steal to get food, seek counselling to deal with their demons, beg to get medicine, illegally cross borders to get safety, start a charity to benefit themselves and others, find a tutor to explain the realities of math, fall prey to a scam artist or cult leader promising something, join a church, get community support for a power wheelchair—but they will keep going, seeking to live as best as they can given the realities of life.

And the truth is that most of us do that. We are somehow designed to choose life, no matter what. Certainly, there are some for whom the prospect of continued life is too much and they choose not life—but given number of people and the number of issues, limits and problems all of us face, the deep and powerful reality is that the majority of people choose to live. We almost always manage to find some hope that keeps us going.

Right now, I sit here writing this suffering with serious arthritic pain resulting from mowing the lawn and the dampness from the coming rain. But I am writing, not sitting moaning and groaning, although I do some of that at times. But like most of the rest of the world, I am going to keep going: writing, working, watching TV, walking (or limping), preaching sermons and helping others as they also keep going.

We are designed to live, to thrive and grow. We find hope in the most hopeless of situations. While we might not thrive in someone else’s life, we all work at coping with our own life. That seems to be a part of our God-given nature—we are hard wired to live and seek the best life we can, which means that we will life with, around and through almost anything. Those who find it too much are few and far between and we need to view them with compassion rather than judgement. But for most of us, we are going to keep going, no matter what.

This drive to live is, I think, one of God’s blessings. Our human sin makes life hard and difficult—but our divinely given drive to live keeps us going.

May the peace of God be with you.

WRONG TIME, WRONG PLACE

I am feeling a bit down on myself right now. For some reason, I have ended up in a couple of situations saying things that probably would have been better left unsaid. What I actually said wasn’t false, it wasn’t malicious and it didn’t cause any harm—but all the same, it was probably the wrong things to say in the context where I said it. Nobody was upset by what I said and there were no serious consequences. But I recognized that somehow, I had crossed a line I don’t normally cross.

The fact that I did it once would be unusual but I actually went too far twice—in different contexts and about different things but both times, I realized that I said too much to the wrong people. That by itself is somewhat surprising. I am an introvert with a very strong listening gift, which means that most times in a group setting, I am the one in the group who is helping everyone else talk and share. I am also often the one people look at when they are sharing something difficult or painful.

But here I was in the group talking—and talking too much, taking the group in a very different direction than our stated purpose and in the process giving people too much information that they really didn’t need and which wasn’t all that helpful in the context. I am feeling kind of something which although I can’t exactly describe is somewhat negative.

My first response was to do what I always do when something isn’t right: I analyse. I needed to know what prompted the over sharing. Interestingly enough, each infraction had a different reason. In the first case, our group was given a discussion question that I couldn’t answer for a variety of reasons. Instead of letting the group carry on, I blurted out my inability and essentially stopped the group process. I am pretty sure that that was result of being tired and therefore less able to discipline myself—my normally efficient self-censor was off taking a nap.

The second time was different. Someone asked me a question and in the process of answering, I went a bit too far. I knew a lot about the question they asked and once started on the answer, the teacher inside kicked into gear and I kept going after I had given the questioner everything they wanted to know—and then I proceeded to give them lots that they didn’t want or need to know. Sometimes, my teacher likes showing off.

So, different reasons for the same behaviour. Given that there were no negative consequences that amounted to anything, it might seem like I am making a mountain out of a mole-hill. But I like to understand what I am doing and why I am doing it. It is part of my continual growth emotionally and spiritually. Knowing why I do what I do, or knowing as much as I can about why I do what I do is important to my continued growth.

I don’t want to go with the flow and not understand myself. I want to know what rough edges still need sanding, what holes need patching, what weak spots need shoring up. I think that is all part of personal and spiritual growth. Yes, I am what I am—but my faith teaches me that I am not what I could be. God loves me as I am—but he also loves me enough to encourage and help me to become what I can be.

And it is important to me to be involved personally in the development process that God has going on in my life. I believe I went too far both times. I see something that I need to work on. I don’t think I am a failure or a hopeless case. I goofed. I messed up. What now?

Well, I figured out what went wrong. God has already forgiven me. I can and will forgive me. And together, God and I will move on, continuing to work at the project of helping me become what God knows I can become. I hope I won’t make those same mistakes again—but if I do, well, God’s grace is big enough to deal with it.

May the peace of God be with you.

JESUS’ CHOICES

For my Easter sermons this year, I decided to spend some serious time looking at Jesus and the Easter story. Because of my theological predispositions, I don’t see the Easter story as a predetermined process that made all those involved act and respond in a certain way. I have long espoused a theological view that allows freedom—we have real choices and what we chose has real consequences.

When I bring that theological slant to the study of the Easter story, I realize that the freedom that God has given to us is also given to Jesus. He was, after all, fully human and like all of us, he had choices before him. I will quickly add here that Jesus was also fully God. Both must be a part of our thinking about Jesus.

But for this Easter season, I have been thinking about and preaching about the process from the perspective of the human Jesus. And from that perspective, the story seems to be to be very clear that at each step along the way to the Cross, Jesus had to decide to go to the cross. He had other options. Certainly, the perfect option was to go to the cross. But along the way, there were other options presented that might not have been perfect but which would have been okay.

For example, on Palm Sunday, Jesus is acclaimed by the crowds entering the city for the Passover. This huge crowd was stirred up by their religious passion for the Passover. They were excited by the stories they had heard about Jesus. They were also angry and frustrated with the continued Roman occupation of their country. It wouldn’t have taken much to turn that crowd into an army of liberation.

Jesus could have used them to liberate the nation and the temple. Sure, a lot of them might die—but there were enough that the vastly outnumbered Roman legions would simple get worn out trying to kill them all. Add to that the fact that Jesus isn’t just limited to human means—he could heal and even resurrect people.

While we might want to dismiss this as the fantasy of a preacher tired of the traditional approach to Easter, we do, I think, need to realize that this was an option open to Jesus. He could have done it, just as he could have given in to the temptations of satan early in his ministry or walked away from the whole thing in the garden before the arrest. He keeps choosing the painful and difficult.

For me, understanding that Jesus had choices makes the whole story different and more powerful and significant. The cross was necessary—but not inevitable. Jesus chose the cross—not just once but repeatedly. Knowing the pain and suffering that would come from the whole process, he still chose to follow that path.

And for me, this reality sheds all sorts of exciting light on the story. When Jesus says he loves us, we can take that to the bank because his love gets shown every time he makes a difficult choice that brings the cross closer. His is an active, powerful, dynamic love that looks at the benefit to us in the fact of the suffering he will face and somehow always manages to find the courage and determination to make the choice that benefits us the most.

I could perhaps write that I don’t know how he could do that but that wouldn’t actually be true. I know how he found the strength to make those painful choices. The human/divine being who was Jesus makes the difficult human choices in the presence and power of the divine. He has powerful help.

And the story gets even better because the risen living Christ offers to us the same help. When we accept the love of Christ shown in the cross and resurrection, we receive not only reconciliation with God but the active and real presence of God in our lives through the Holy Spirit. We have access to the same divine help that enabled Jesus to make the difficult choices.

Now, obviously, the divine isn’t integrated into our lives like it was with Jesus. But we as believers have access to the divine power and guidance and help that enabled Jesus to make the hard choices.

May the peace of God be with you.

BEING DIFFERENT

The other day at one of the Bible studies I pretend to lead, we touched on the topic of DNA. I happened to mention that DNA is one of the signs of God’s love and grace. He loves us enough to create us with a foolproof way to ensure that we will each one be different. Because of the seemingly infinite number of possible combinations of DNA, the chances of two people being born exactly the same are for all intents and purposes impossible, except of course for identical twins.

But a variety of studies have also shown that identical twins, who are born with the same DNA, eventually end up showing some differences. They might have the same DNA but the actual process of living causes them to diverge. One might catch an illness that the other manages to avoid; one might have an accident that changes them; one might have some trauma that the other doesn’t. Whatever the reason, although their DNA might produce nearly identical individuals, the effects of their environment are going to individualize them.

So why, given that God can and does do what he wants by definition, does he create living things including humans, based on a pretty much foolproof mechanism for ensuring diversity? That seems counter-intuitive, especially for people living in the machine/tech age that we live in. We pretty much assume things will be the same.

If I see someone with the same make and model of computer as I have, I can be pretty sure that unless they have more tech knowledge or money than I have, the computer they are working on is exactly the same as mine: same tech inside, same specs on paper; same colour; same performance. Some differences might develop—their computer may not get dropped as much as mine and I don’t spill as much wine on mine as they do on theirs. But ignoring outside influences like that, we have the same computer.

Large segments of humanity seem to prefer things be the same. Many organizations from the military to coffee shop chains require their members to dress identically. Some require the same hairstyle, the same way of talking, the same beliefs. Even the church isn’t immune from this drive to sameness. Many church groups require its members to believe the same doctrines with the same fervor, based on the same interpretation of the same translation of the Scriptures by the same gurus. Divergence, whether in military uniforms, coffee preparation processes or doctrinal stances are suspect and dangerous.

And yet, God has created us in a way that requires is to be different. In the Bible study that sparked this post, two of us are left handed. One of us is colour blind. Two prefer the KJV. One loves to bake cookies for the group. All of us love eating the cookies. Some are quite conservative in their theology. Others are willing to look at less conservative understandings. We have no real uniformity except for the fact that we all show up at the same place week after week to share and discuss and discover what God is trying to say to us.

And the most significant reason for our ability to do this is that we have learned to celebrate our diversity and use that God given diversity as one of the vital foundation stones of our study process. As we talk and share and discuss and question, we give each other glimpses of what God is showing us. The more we talk and share and discuss and question, the closer we come to understanding what God wants us to see. And we have discovered that one of the prime messages that God gives to us is that diversity is one of his gifts to humanity, a gift that we need to accept and celebrate.

We don’t all need to be left handed. We don’t all need to be colour blind. Some of us can prefer the KJV. Some of us can be Baptist and some Catholic. Some of us can have grey hair and some can have blue hair. Our diversity is important and valuable and points us to a basic theological truth: God loves our diversity. He must, since it was and is part of his plan that it is pretty much impossible for us to be the same.

May the peace of God be with you.

TWO FUNERALS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

BEING A PASTOR

I am a pastor—to be honest, it is the only job I have ever had. I have done a few other things but they have all been related to being a pastor. One of the things that means is that I know really well the traditional joke about pastors that everyone loves to make. I tell someone I am a pastor and the immediate response is something along to lines of “That means you work for an hour a week!”

Over the years, I have developed several responses to that tired joke:

• I have two worship services a week so I actually work two hours a week
• Actually, since everyone sleeps during worship, I sleep then as well
• Its even better than that—since nobody listens, I have been using the same sermon for 40 years.
• I had a wedding and a funeral this week as well so I had to work three hours—I am worn out.

Once the joke is out of the way, we can get on with whatever it was that we were supposed to doing in the first place. While I am a bit tired of the joke, I can understand where it comes from. I think there are two sources that lead to the joke and the assumption that pastors really don’t work.

The first reason is that most of my work isn’t seen by many people. People see me leading worship or conducting funerals or some other public activity but they don’t see the hours of preparation or the time spend with a grieving family or the counselling sessions or the even the amount of time spent driving from one pastoral activity to another. One person might know that I conducted a funeral and a worship service and counselled them and their family during the week but others simply don’t know everything I do—and given the realities of life, they probably don’t actually give much thought into how I fill in the unseen hours.

The other reason people think we pastors don’t do much is not as pleasant to think about. There are pastors who don’t actually do all that much. There aren’t many of them but they do exist and their lack of activity is real and tends to affect the rest of us. Much of ministry is self-directed and a very few take advantage of that, a process that has become even easier these days when you can easily down load a sermon from somewhere on the internet.

I can’t do much about the small minority whose lack of actual work gives the rest of us a black eye. Even when I have been teaching pastors, I have been aware that there would be a few who would turn their lackadaisical, as little as possible student careers into a very lazy ministry career. Such pastors have made one contribution to the overall ministry we engage in—they provided the grounds for the very old joke I mentioned at the beginning of this post.

The rest of us, well we work. Generally, we work too much, stress too much, bite off more than we can comfortably chew in one week. We are generally on the knife edge of burnout, secretly praying for a snow day (even in July), juggling a schedule that is always too full and wondering how we can get everything done with only seven days a week.

While there are those few who would benefit from doing some actual work, most of us in ministry need to learn how not to work—as a whole, we clergy are pretty terrible at setting and keeping limits. No matter how well the limits are set out, there is always that call that we need to respond to immediately—that is, after all, what we do.

I am a pastor. I actually work much more than an hour a week. Since I am part time, I actually am supposed to work 32 hours a week—and some weeks, I actually reach that number of hours. Unfortunately, most weeks, I reach it and pass it and still have a pile of stuff that needs to be done.

However, God is gracious and loving and through the Holy Spirit, he continues to work with me, helping me know and even occasionally keep the limits that allow me to minister well to the church and myself.

May the peace of God be with you.

SEVENTY TIMES SEVEN

There are some parts of the Christian faith that bother me—well, actually, I have to be honest and say that sometimes, I positively hate some aspects of the faith that has guided my life for so long. I wish those parts weren’t there—and I have discovered that I am not alone in disliking parts of the faith. I have also discovered that I have a tendency to handle my dislike differently than some people.

Some I have heard and read deal with their dislike by ignoring the parts that they want removed. For all practical purposes, they remove the offending ideas from their thinking and their version of the faith. I can’t actually do that because as much as I dislike or even hate some of what the faith teaches, I have to take it seriously and figure out how I deal with it.

And that means that I have to regularly spend time looking at what is probably one of the most offensive parts of the faith for me at times—the whole issue of forgiveness. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am all for forgiveness. I encourage people to forgive; I try to practise forgiveness; I have done extensive theological, Biblical and psychological studies of forgiveness. I deeply value the forgiveness that I was given when I accepted Christ. I get excited when someone discovers the reality of forgiveness in their lives.

None of that bothers me. What bothers me is that as far as God is concerned, forgiveness is so easy and so complete and so freely given. Jesus, in fact, suggests that if someone sins against me, I need to forgive him seventy seven times (or seventy times seven times, depending on the translation) for the same offense. When I am the offender and the offense is raiding the chocolate stash too much, I am okay with that, although some of that may be from the psychological effects of the chocolate.

But when the offender is a child sexual abuser whose habit causes deep, long term trauma for his victims, I am much less willing to forgive. I don’t actually want to forgive once, let alone seventy seven or seventy times seven times. I much prefer the vision of such an individual suffering in the fires of hell for all eternity. As a pastoral counsellor, I have spend a lot of time helping victims of such abuse try to repair lives shattered by such people.

What I like even less, though, is that any limits on forgiveness that I want don’t just apply to the sins and sinners I choose. If we humans were allowed to set enforceable limits on forgiveness, ultimately no one would have to forgive and no one would be forgiven because somewhere, somehow, someone is going to be deeply offended by any given offense—someone is sure to be deeply upset by my relatively minor infraction of sneaking the chocolate too often.

God has taken a much different approach to forgiveness. He forgives-in fact, he is in the forgiveness business. “Are you a sinner?” he asks? “Do I have a deal for you on forgiveness!” Then, he proceeds to offer all humanity full, complete and no strings attached forgiveness. I do appreciate this, right up until it includes the child abuser who has caused so much trauma for so many people—and then I want to draw a line.

Fortunately, I am not in charge of forgiveness. God is in charge and he has seen fit to create a limitless forgiveness that covers my chocolate raids and the child sexual abuser. I do appreciate the forgiveness for my small and unspectacular sins—but accepting it means that I also have to accept the fact that God offers the same forgiveness to the habitual child sex offender.

In the end, I think I am glad that God is in charge and not me. I might have some serious trouble with the limitlessness of God’s love and forgiveness at times but because I want his love and forgiveness to apply to me, I have to accept that it applies equally to everyone. I may not like that reality at times but it is part of my faith, a vital part that allows me to be reunited with God—and if I take that part away from others, it may not apply to me either.

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.