WHO ARE YOU?

Every now and then, I get caught by my assumptions. I learn a thing or two about someone or something and on the basis of that, I assume a whole bunch of things. One of these situations involved someone who showed up as a worship service where I as preaching. I knew a bit about the person—he was a member of a fairly conservative church group that I knew something about. I didn’t agree with some of the group’s ideas and practises—I am somewhat less conservative than that group.

That particular Sunday, the sermon was on a topic that could have created some real issues between this person and me. I was in the middle of a sermon series and was dealing with a topic where that group he represented had some seriously different ideas from mine. I was pretty sure that my sermon would offend him. My assumption was that it he didn’t walk out during the sermon, I would either be ignored at the end or get told how wrong I was.

All through the sermon, I was conscious of that person and their response. I didn’t preach to him alone. I didn’t ignore him or spend all my time watching his reaction but I was aware of his presence and basically assumed that he was going to be upset by what I was saying. He didn’t give out much in the way of body language but I was pretty sure that he didn’t like it—my assumptions are based on lots of experience with his group.

He didn’t actually leave, nor did he go to sleep or stare out the window during the sermon. He didn’t get visibly agitated or angry—I assumed that he had been taught to control himself in preparation for setting me straight at the end of the worship. The sermon ended, we sang the hymn—I sort of hoped that he would sneak out during the singing but he didn’t. We finished the hymn, I pronounced the benediction and limped towards door to greet everyone as they left.

The rest of the church spent some time talking with this guy, welcoming him and all that and so it was a while before he got to the back. I stuck out my hand to shake his. He grabbed my hand, shook it firmly and told me that my sermon was the best and clearest treatment of the topic that he had ever heard. Over the noise of the rest of the members chatting and laughing, I heard the sound of my assumptions shattering.

I will confess right now that this is a preacher story—there is a core of truth in it but I have embellished it a bit and jammed several incidents together . We preachers simply have an inborn inability to release a story without some polishing and editing. But the story does capture a common reality for me. I tend to make judgments based on my assumptions that turn out to be seriously and completely wrong.

Fortunately, God has been at work through the Holy Spirit to help me grow through such incidents. It has happened enough that you would think I would have learned a long time ago not to make such assumptions but I am not all that bright, I guess, because I keep doing the same thing time after time.

This does help me understand the reality and power of God’s grace, though. God uses an incident to teach me something that I need to know. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, I learn the lesson. And then, through the power of my humanness, I forget the lesson and make the same mistake based on the same assumptions. God, in his infinite grace, forgives me and uses another incident when I make the mistake to teach me again. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, I learn the lesson, only to forget it again and need a refresher.

God reveals his infinite love and grace and patience because as many times as I need the same lesson, God will happily provide it. And if and when I finally learn the lesson, he will move on to something else that I need to learn. I am a slow learner but God is a loving and patient teacher, which is great for me and everyone else.

May the peace of God be with you.

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DISAPPOINTMENT

I was having a discussion with a friend a while ago—so long ago that I can’t remember most of the details. I think it was with someone involved in ministry and we may have been having coffee together I do remember that the conversation turned to the issue of disappointment, specifically disappointment with people who do something that goes against our hopes, expectations and desires for and about them.

While I know that this is a real issue in all aspects of life, for those of us involved in ministry, it can be an all too common and deeply painful reality. The dedicated church member whose faith is growing and developing and who is set to make a significant impact on the whole church and even beyond decides that his love of gambling is more important than anything in his life. The individual who is being groomed and prepared to take over from the retiring deacons decides that really, the job isn’t for her. The member of the youth group who shows such promise and is actually entertaining a call to ministry decides that a career in IT will be more fun and pay better. The pastor friend who decides that having a sexual relationship with the church organist is worth more than the call of God. In ministry, we face the reality of disappointment on a regular basis as people make choices that are clearly going against God’s best will for them, at least according to our understanding. We also, if we are honest, are aware that disappointment with people often leads to anger and a withdrawal from the relationship.

I am pretty sure that one of the underlying causes of pastoral burnout and disillusionment is provided by such disappointments. Sure, the long hours, the lack of actual completion, the ever increasing demands, the inability to set hard limits all have an impact on pastoral burnout but the accumulation of what we often see as betrayals is certainly a part of the package. Since most of our work is built on and around people, their actions and activities are bound to have a significant effect on us and our wellbeing.

I am hoping that as you read the beginning of this blog that you were struck by how self-focused those paragraphs are. As I was writing the words, I was becoming more and more aware of that—my pastoral disappointment with people is actually coming from a very selfish place—as a pastor, I want and maybe even need people to act and respond and do what I am convinced is best for them, the church and the faith. Helping people grow and develop spiritually and emotionally is part of my job—I have been called and trained and prepared to help people live their faith.

The problem is that the more I expect people to do what I think they should do, the more I make them into less than free human beings. My disappointment with them is a not so subtle symptom of my thinking that I know best and that anyone who disagrees with me, even over their own life choices, is making a serious mistake. In effect, I am taking away the freedom that God has given all of us.

And that realization prompts me to take a closer look at the whole process. While I have been called by God to be intricately involved in the lives of the people I work with, I have also been called to be involved in a way that shows the character of the God who called me—and while the Bible does suggest that God is often disappointed with us humans, his most characteristic response to us is love and grace. No matter how much we disappoint him, he still loves us and even more, he still seeks to bring us back to him. God’s love, his grace and his willingness to forgive are the reason for the cross and the resurrection.

In that light, my reaction to the realities of people is disappointing to me—I am not actually being a particularly good servant of God when my disappointment with people creates anger and withdrawal and judgement. Fortunately for me, even when God is disappointed with me, he responds with an offer of more love, more grace and more forgiveness, coupled with an offer to help me respond to others in the same way.

May the peace of God be with you.

PICKING MY BATTLES

Meetings are an occupational hazard for people in ministry. Sometimes it seems to me that no ministry can actually happen unless there is a meeting involved—and the more meetings, the more important the ministry. The problem with meetings though, is that they involve people and even more, they involve people who don’t necessarily agree with everything that I think.

At times in the past, that reality has resulted in my becoming involved in long, complicated and occasionally less than pleasant debates and even arguments. Disagreement needed to be dealt with. Everyone needed to have the benefit of my wisdom and understanding so that they could see the light and truth of the position I was holding and they were missing. Meetings took a lot of energy as I and the other participants worked hard to make sure that everyone came around to our personal view.

But I noticed something while at a meeting a little while ago. Someone said something I disagreed with. It wasn’t a small issue either—it was something fairly significant, something that affected some essential realities of the faith. But I noticed that I didn’t immediately jump into a defence of the faith. I didn’t actually say much. I think I may have said something that indicated I disagreed with what was said and let it go at that.

What kept me from springing into action, something that has been a characteristic of my ministry, at least as far as meetings go? Well, I wasn’t intimidated by the others at the meeting—I knew and was comfortable with everyone there. It wasn’t that I was unsure of my stance—the issue was somewhat foundational for me. It wasn’t even that I was too tired to argue.

No, the reality was that although the issue was a problem for me, raising it and really going after it in that particular setting would have done more harm than good. The person making the comment was deeply committed to what they said. A lot of people at the meeting were not overly interested in the issue. And even more, the meeting was supposed to be focusing on something else entirely.

To open a debate on the issue at the meeting would have derailed the meeting. It would also have created a potentially adversarial setting where two people argued back and forth about a topic both were seriously concerned about but which most people weren’t interested in. Since this was a meeting of Christians involved in a specifically Christian process, the escalation of the disagreement could do some serious damage to our fellowship.

I decided that the damage to the Christian fellowship from getting into a heated debate was potentially worse than the possible damage from the comment itself. I have discovered myself doing that more and more these days. I think I am discovering that as believers, the way we do things is at least as important as what we do. If I engage in an debate that degenerates into a non-Christlike process, I have harmed the faith.

Jesus tells us that a major part of our responsibility it to love each other as he loved us (John 13.34-35)—and doesn’t say anything about having to win every debate over the truth of every issue. I think I am making some wise choices when I choose not to engage in what may become a less than loving debate. Even when I know that I am right, I need to deal with the issue in a way that shows Christlike love for everyone involved. The win doesn’t come from scoring debating points—the win comes from responding like Christ would respond.

There is a time and a place for theological debate. There is a need to have a good discussion on points of contention. There are some things that are wrong and need to be dealt with. But in every case, how we do this is at least as important as the debate and its results. Unless we can do what we do in a way that shows Christian love and respect, we are going to lose—and even worse, the faith itself will lose because we will show something other than the love of Christ.

May the peace of God be with you.

COERCION OR CONVICTION?

I often find myself walking on a theological tight rope. I believe that God in Christ loves us with a perfect, unending and unconditional love. He loves us as we are—and the proof of that love and grace are seen clearly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. There is nothing I could, can or might do that will ever make God love me less or more; nothing that will limit or increase the grace that he offers to me through Jesus Christ. This is a basic and foundational reality of my faith.

If I just had this reality, I would be fine. Unfortunately, there is another equally valid reality that I need to deal with. I am not what I was meant to be. My being has been affected by sin—mine and others. Some of the effect isn’t my fault—it comes from living in a world deeply affected by human sin. But some of the effect of sin is my fault. I have made choices and followed paths that have taken me further and further away from the ideal that God had in mind when he began the creation process.

The tightrope I walk is the struggle to find the balance between these two realities. If I begin to believe that God’s love and grace are so powerful that my current imperfect state doesn’t matter, I will never grow in faith. But if I spend too much time on my imperfection, I run the risk of beginning to let my imperfection block my ability to appreciate the love and grace of God.

In both my ministry and my personal spiritual life, I have had to deal with the consequences of ignoring one of these realities and focusing too much on the other. Because I belong to the conservative part of the Christian faith, I am very familiar with the traditional conservative approach to this dichotomy. We have tended to see our imperfection more than we have seen the love of God.

We end up believing, but pretty sure that we are not good enough for God. We tend to be insecure about our faith—there is always the fear that some Biblical scholar is going to suddenly realize that the Bible actually says that God only loves us when we become perfect. We on the conservative side of the faith tend to do our faith thing from a sense of fear—we understand really well that we aren’t good enough but we really struggle to find the balance that a proper awareness of the love and grace of God will bring.

There are other believers whose sense of the love and grace of God allow them to completely ignore their imperfection—because God loves them, they can and do follow any path they want. Content and comfortable in the powerful love of God, they have no need to look at who they are and who they were meant to be.

For me, though, I need to be at the balance point. I know my imperfections, the places where I need to grow, the things I need to change. But I also need to remember that God in Christ loves me the way I am. He doesn’t want to change the negative parts of my being so that he can love me more. Part of the expression of his eternal love and grace is the willingness to help me discover more of what I was really meant to be, not so that God can love me more but simply so that I can be more me.

When I keep this balance, I am comfortable. I can grow and develop—or fail and not develop in the safe and protected limitlessness of God’s love. I don’t seek to grow because God coerces me. I seek to grow because the God who loves me also wants me to experience the good and wonderful that I have been keeping myself from experiencing because of the reality of sin.

Whether I grow on not, God’s love and grace continue to be there. But if I am willing to grow, I become more and more of what I was meant to be. God will not love me more either way—but I am more comfortable and more at home with myself, others and God when I open myself to grow as God leads me.

May the peace of God be with you.

DO OR NOT DO…

For a variety of reasons, I find myself thinking about things I have done over the years, some in my ministry and some on my non-ministry life. Some things I am quite happy about and continue to celebrate them. Some things, well, they are just there and are part of the reality of my life. And then there are the things that I regret. I would like to say that there are a very few things that I regret but that simply wouldn’t be true. There are a lot of regrets, mostly clumped around the mistakes and failures I have managed to accomplish in my life.

However, this reflection isn’t part of the depression I sometimes deal with, nor is it contributing to the continuance of a state of depression. The reflection comes from a whole different place and is going a whole different direction. I think it started when I was thinking about one of the comments from that great philosopher, Yoda. At one point during Luke’s training, Yoda tells a discouraged Luke “Do or not do—there is no try”. Succeed or fail—those are the choices, at least according to Yoda.

As much as I like the whole Star Wars universe, I have to seriously disagree with Yoda on this, even knowing that this disagreement means that I will probably never be invited to become a Jedi. But the reality is that the separation between success and failure isn’t a clear, black and white boundary. The separation between success and failure generally involves a long and winding trip along the highway called “Try”.

When I am building something in the workshop, I don’t go immediately from nothing to a finished, perfect product. No—I measure and cut and discard and measure and cut again and probably discard again. I keep trying until I have a good sized pile of wood to recycle and have reached the point where I either succeed or figure that what I want to do is beyond my ability to achieve at this point—wood is somewhat expensive and there are limits to how big the recyclable wood pile can become.

Fortunately for me, I am a Christian not a Jedi. In spite of some of the off-track preaching and teaching that has always been a problem on the Christian faith, one of the basic and most important realities is that God forgives abundantly, completely and eternally. And he is willing to forgive the same person for the same thing as many times as it takes for them to get things right—or, given the human reality, until that person makes the transition between this life and the next one when we become perfect because of God’s love and grace shown in Jesus.

And what that essential truth means is that in the end, I can try all I want. Whether I succeed or fail isn’t the issue. The grace of God provides the ultimate success and isn’t dependant on my track record in life. I am free to try. If I succeed, great. If I fail, God is there to pick me up, forgive me, dust me off and enable me to try again. With his help, I can try the same thing again or I can try something else. If I succeed, great. If I fail, God is still there, he will pick me up again, he will gracefully forgive me again, he will lovingly dust me off again and cheerfully enable me to try again.

And so, as much as I admire Yoda, as much as I love Star Wars, I don’t actually want to be a Jedi (although a real working light saber would be a lot cooler than a Swiss Army knife). I prefer living my life with the reality of success and failure and trying. I want to succeed but frequently fail—and I want the assurance that each failure is seen as an attempt and will be forgiven and recycled into something worthwhile in God’s scheme of things.

I am not perfect and know that I can’t be perfect. I am really good at trying though—I have been doing that my whole life. And because of the grace of God, I will continue trying until the day when God gives me the ultimate success and I can stop trying because he has made everything perfect.

May the peace of God be with you.

THAT’S FUNNY

 

One of the interesting tasks I had one time was to be a reader for a doctoral thesis that was looking at the topic of humour in the Bible. Since I like humour, I was looking forward to the process—I was hoping to get a good laugh out of the thesis. Unfortunately, the thesis, although well written, well researched and well presented was no funnier than any other thesis I have read, which is to say it wasn’t very funny at all.

There seems to be within the faith a strong tendency to minimize the place of humour. I think that some feel that since our faith deals with big, important themes like eternal destiny, there isn’t much room for humour. We are engaged in serious stuff and laughter is frivolous and maybe even sacrilegious.

And yet, the Bible is a book shot through with humour. Of course, it seems that commentators and preachers and others have worked hard over the years to minimize and hide the humour that is present, almost as if there is a conspiracy to prevent faithful people from having a good laugh.

Take the comment Jesus makes in Matthew 19.24 for example: “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (NIV). Most commentaries spend lots of time discussing the possible references Jesus in making here, drawing on possible nautical and cultural themes supposedly from that day and age. But very few highlight the absolute humour of this passage. The absurdity of a camel trying to get through the eye of a needle conjurors up hilarious images that would not be out of place in a Saturday morning cartoon.

Or take one of my personal favorites, found in Matthew 7.3, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (NIV) The essential humour in this passage is lost as we deal with heavy issues like hypocrisy and human sin and confession and all those other important themes that we can draw out of the passage.

But this is funny. The idea of a man with a 2×4 stuck in his eye trying to help another with a piece of sawdust in his eye is the premise for a skit worthy of the Three Stooges or some other great slapstick comedy team. Picture the chaos that accompanies a person with a 2×4 trying to help someone: there will be smashing and bashing and crashing and breaking glass and head bangs and gloriously funny mayhem.

And I am pretty sure that this humour isn’t some unintentional coincidence that crept in while the super serious God of all creation was distracted by the seriousness of human sin. I think the humour we find scattered through the Bible is intentional and deliberate and there because God also has a sense of humor. After all, he created us with the ability—and need—to laugh. When he relates to us, he shows flashes of marvelous humour. Having a donkey speak to a somewhat stubborn prophet (Numbers 22.28) is funny on a lot of levels, including the part where the prophet argues with the donkey oblivious to the weirdness of the situation.

Life is serious and heavy and often painful. In the faith, we deal with some pretty serious and heavy duty topics, like the point of life and eternal destiny. But we also need to balance this heaviness with the lightness provided by humour and laughter, a reality that God seeks to teach us in the Scripture. God created us with the need and ability to laugh—and then, he writes some pretty good material for us to laugh at.

Certainly, there is a serious side to God’s humour and there are deeper lessons in all the jokes and pratfalls—but they are also funny and the humour deserves to be given the laugh it deserves and that we also deserve. I think it adds to our ability to understand and relate to God when we realize that God, like most humans, appreciates a good joke now and then and he isn’t above sneaking a good one into the most serious of material.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHERE IS GRACE?

I have been cleaning up my reading backlog recently. I find that Igo through spells where serious reading is hard work—well, actually, it is more truthful to say that at times, serious reading becomes a prelude to a nap. Anyway, I have been able to get a lot of reading done recently, probably because I won’t let myself use the Christmas book gift certificates until I clean up the reading list.

A couple of the books that I have recently finished have caused me some problems. One dealt with the nature of the relationship between believers and God and carried on from there to look at how this relationship needs to affect our relationship with other believers. The second book dealt with God’s call to believers to go into the world with the message of the Gospel. I picked up both books through an email service that offers discounted and even free Christian books. These two were free and dealt with topics that I am deeply interested in. But in both cases, I was disappointed.

Both approached their topics from a very legalistic and duty oriented perspective. The one on relationships dealt both our relationship with God and our relationships with each other by turning it into a contract—he tried to set out a set of rules and requirements that we needed to obey for the relationship to be valid. As I understood the book, the author seemed to be saying that if we obeyed the terms of the contract, all was well and if we didn’t, well, there really wasn’t a relationship.

The other book looked at the Great Commission and strongly suggested that unless we approached the great commission in exactly the way he set out, using his formulas and checklists, we were not actually doing what we were supposed to be doing. His rules made the commission real and anything else was a fake and a falsification of the Gospel and the commission.

Both writers had some valid points—but overall, I was troubled by both books because in the end, it seemed that they were trying to deal with important aspects of the faith without including God. They were certainly concerned about the faith; they wanted people to know the truth about the faith; they had tremendous potential with their themes but in the end, neither really did all that much to advance the faith. They simply offered a few rigid and demanding rules that must be followed.

I was upset because in the end, we really can’t reduce God and the requirements of faith to a few rules. That has been tried endlessly since humanity first began to seek God. The essence of the New Testament is that God recognizes that we are unable to keep rules and so in grace, he acts through Jesus Christ to provide us a way to be in relationship with him in spite of our inability to keep the rules.

To discuss any aspect of the Christian faith without an adequate foundation of grace is to miss the point of our faith entirely. Certainly, grace doesn’t preclude the need to deal with our wrongs, sins and evils. Grace doesn’t remove the need to work at living up to the holiness that God has given us in Christ. Grace definitely doesn’t give us the freedom to do whatever we want because grace covers it.

But grace does deal realistically and powerfully with the deep underlying reality of human life: we are terrible at keeping rules. Every one of is going to break some rule at some point. And so any discussion of any aspect of the Christian faith that results is a rigid set of must follow rules is a failure. For believers, grace comes first—everything else is built on this foundation of the grace shown to us through Jesus Christ.

Any book, sermon, lecture, discussion or blog about the faith that isn’t grounded in the reality of grace probably misses the whole point of the Gospel, which at its base seeks to assure us that there is a better way than the futile and vain pursuit of legalistic attempts to bootstrap ourselves into the presence of God.

I appreciated what the writers were trying to say in their books—but because they somehow missed the role of grace, their books really didn’t accomplish what they thought they were doing, which is unfortunate because they were addressing important themes.

May the peace of God be with you.

I’M TIRED

One of the two pastorates I currently serve is the same one where I started my career as a pastor back on 1981 after a couple of years working in Kenya.  The other pastorate I serve was my wife’s first pastorate and we lived in their parsonage for a couple of years while we finished our Master’s degrees and before we went to Kenya.  That means I have a long history with both places.

That history has some significant benefits in my ministry.  But there is also another side to having that history.  I remember other stuff that creates some interesting thoughts for me.  For example, in one of our church buildings, the platform for the pulpit and the choir is about 16 inches above the floor.  There is a step but when I first began there over 35 years ago, I ignored the step–when worship began and I was following the choir up in our somewhat informal processional, I simple hopped up onto the platform–that step was an annoyance more than a help.

But when  I started ministry there again, I discovered that the platform was much higher than it used to be–either that or my bad knees are much worse that I want to admit.  My attempt to hop onto the platform never got beyond the preliminary thought stage before I realized that I needed that step–and a hand railing would be deeply appreciated as well.

In the other pastorate, I regularly drive by hay fields where I used to help my friend during haying season.  Tossing bales of hay on to the wagon was hard work and I knew I had done a day’s work when I was done but I did enjoy it.  I also got to drive the tractor now and then, which was a bonus.  But as I drive by those fields now, I realize that while I can probably still pick up a bale of hay, giving it the toss onto the wagon would probably cause my arthritic shoulders to loudly protest and my knees would begin to tell me that walking around the field after the tractor wasn’t their job.

But even more, I recognize that I am simply tired.  Not just physically tired but somehow spiritually tired.  I am not in danger of losing my faith–that is probably firmer and more rooted that it was way back then.  But I am finding it harder and harder to carry on the work I have been called to do.  I do things–but I don’t do them with the same energy level I used to have.  I have discovered that I need to space things out more–meetings need to be less frequent.  I need to remember that I have to have time and space to rest–a good Bible study with lots of discussion leaves me drained and wanting a nap.  When I finish two worship services on Sunday, I mostly want to collapse in front of the TV–and sometimes, it doesn’t matter what it on or even if it is on.

But for all that, I also realize that I bring something else to this stage of ministry.  It may be because I don’t have the energy I used to have or because I have managed to gain some wisdom over the years or because God has gracefully helped me but I look at my ministry differently.  I have different priorities.  I know that I can’t do everything I used to do, let alone everything that could be done so I have learned to think about what I do or should do or could do more strategically.  I need to invest my time and limited energy and creatively in ways that will do the most good for the church, which means that I think and pray more about stuff than I used to do–and I feel less guilty about what doesn’t get done.

I could retire and I know that I will retire at some point.  But even with the fatigue, I am not ready for that yet.  I believe that God has called me to these churches for a reason and I experience evidence of his Spirit working in and through and around me.  I may be tired but I am not done yet.

May the peace of God be with you.

MERRY CHRISTMAS

Christmas Day–even for people like us whose kids are grown and far away, this can be a busy day.  I was up early to put the turkeys in the ovens–the church my wife pastors is having a free Christmas dinner and I volunteered to look after the turkeys.  For me, cooking a turkey is part of the Christmas process.

Between the Christmas dinner preparations and all that go with hosting 30-40 people for dinner, this is a busy day.  There is a lot that we have to squeeze in:  our traditional bacon and egg breakfast; checking the stockings that Santa filled sometime during the night; finding time to open our presents; watching the grandchildren open some of their presents via Skype.  We also need to find time for the obligatory nap after we finally finish at the church as well as at least open the new Christmas books–that does combine well with the nap sometimes.

We will also probably eat some stuff that we shouldn’t; watch a movie or at least sit in front of the TV while a movie plays; try to clean up the wrapping paper and maybe even do some exercise–my wife’s dog will begin to insist on that at some point.  I will take a lot of pictures, find some time to check the news on the Internet and TV–although that also might get combined with the nap.

Today is a busy day–and we are not alone in being busy.  There is so much to do and so many things that we want to do that it is hard to fit it all in.  Christmas is busy and active and filled with fun and traditions and customs and indulgences.   It is a busy day, a good day, a stressful day, a tiring day, a wonderful day.

And we, like most of the people celebrating the day will probably end up forgetting why we have this day in the first place.  That statement isn’t meant to be the introduction to a rant about losing sight of God or letting culture replace faith or losing Christ from Christmas.  There have been times in the past when I would have probably followed that route–and in reality, there may be times in the future when I am tempted to go that way.

But right now, I am seeing one of the real implications of Christmas.  The Christmas story tells us that Jesus will be called “Immanuel”, a name which means “God with us”.  The story of Christmas is part of the bigger story of the Gospel, which assures us that because of Jesus Christ, God is with us.  His presence is dependent on his grace and love–and isn’t dependant on our recognition of his presence.

Certainly, it is probably better for our faith development if we work at being conscious of the presence of God in our lives but the deep and powerful reality of the Gospel is that God is with us and will be with us and nothing can change that.  When I remember that, I can seek and realize the evidence of the presence.

But in truth, on Christmas afternoon, after I have helped provide a meal for 30-40 and helped with the clean up, come home and spent time on Skype and the phone with the rest of the family and am sitting in  a comfortable chair pretending to be reading the new Christmas book a as a cover for an unofficial nap, God is still with me whether I am thinking about him or not.  If I manage to read the book or if I more likely fall asleep, God is with me.  If I rouse out of the post meal stupor and consciously open myself to his presence, he is with me.  If I spend the day busily accomplishing all the things that “need” to be done and don’t ever consciously think of God’s presence, he is still with me.

That is the important thing:  God is with me because of Jesus.  He is here, he stays with me, he isn’t dependant on what I am doing or not doing, what I am thinking or not thinking.  Immanuel–God with us.  Merry Christmas.

May the peace of God be with you.

A CHRISTMAS GIFT

Christmas is almost here.  The outside decorations are in place, the tree is up, the presents are (sort of) wrapped.  And like any good pastor–and even the not-so-good ones, I am busy trying to keep my head above water as I deal with all the stuff that churches and our culture have built into this season of the year.  There are extra worship services, extra social events, extra shopping, extra cooking–it seems like there is extra everything except time.

I realized a few days ago that I am waiting impatiently, which seems to be a culturally  acceptable response to Christmas.  We expect it mostly in children but it is still acceptable for adults, even senior-discount qualified adults.  However, I am waiting impatiently for something different.  I am eagerly awaiting the lasagna and movie that are our Christmas Eve ritual.  It will be nice to open the presents on Christmas day.  I am looking forward to cooking the turkeys and making the gravy for the church sponsored Christmas dinner.  I am even happily planning on turkey leftovers.

But as nice as these things are, they are not what I am impatiently waiting for.  They will come in due time and I will enjoy them.  But what I am impatient for begins on the day after Christmas.  No, it isn’t Boxing Day sales.  What I am really waiting for is the free time that comes between the week between Christmas and New Years.

That is a great and wonderful time.  All the special stuff in the church is over.  Even the regular programs like Bible study take a break.  The cultural bash takes a break as we digest Christmas dinner and wear out batteries.  New Years is coming  but we don’t need to do much about that.  People tend to hunker down and rest up from the strain and stress of the holiday.

And all that means that aside from working on a sermon for the next Sunday, I don’t have a long list of things to do.  As long as the sermon and worship service are put together, my week is pretty much free.  We have some plans but mostly the week will be about unwinding, relaxing and taking it easy.  We will likely take a day to see a movie that we want to see, which will include a meal of course.

We will sleep in.  We will watch movies.  We might go cross country skiing, although the weather predictions make that look less likely.  We will eat at strange times.  We will spend some time reading the books we got for Christmas and eating the goodies that showed up in the Christmas stockings.

I am looking forward to that relaxing and relatively unscheduled time.  The Advent/Christmas season is busy and hectic and demanding.  I do what I do voluntarily and willingly but it is tiring and gets more tiring each year.  But I learned long ago that that week between Christmas and New Years is another gift, a gift of time.

Somehow, our church culture and our actual culture have come together to produce a week of dead time, a few days where nobody expects much of anyone–and that includes pastors.  I could call it a happy coincidence.  I could spend a lot of time exploring how the church and the culture end up with a space at the same time.  I could research the development of this time in history.

But truthfully, I am not likely going to do any of that.  I am going to enjoy it to the fullest.  I will write a sermon and plan a worship service.  But for the rest of the time, I am going to treat that precious time for what it really is–a gift from God to all of us who are tired from the Advent/Christmas activity and who need some space and time before we step into the New Year and all its activities.

However it came about, these few days are too valuable and important not to see them as a another sign of God’s grace.  And so, I wait in eager anticipation of the time to relax and rest and sleep and do whatever.  I like Christmas–and I really like the break following Christmas.

May the peace of God be with you.