TIME

            Both my Bible study groups recently had a discussion of time–that may have something to do with the fact that our average age clearly indicates that we have all accumulated a lot of time here on earth, an accumulation that adds an interesting experiential flavour to our discussions.  One benefit of the discussions was that I got to pass on one of the few bits of Biblical Greek that I have managed to retain in the long period of time since I studied Greek for two years as a student.

In the Greek New Testament, there are two words translated as “time”.  One of them refers to time in the way we commonly use it–time measured by the clock and calendar.   The Greek word is chronos, and supplies the base for our word chronometer.  Much of our lives are controlled by time.  We wake up when an alarm tells us it is time to wake up.  We eat when a clock tells us it is time to eat.  We work when the clock tells us it is work time.  We watch TV when the schedule tells us the show is on, although with streaming that isn’t as true anymore.  We relax when  the calendar tells us it is the day to relax.

The other Greek word for time describes a different kind of time.  It is used to describe a context where everything is ready, such as the time for Jesus to be born.  The Greek word is kairos and it is a very different kind of time.  When all the right conditions are met, when all the pieces come together, when all the actors are ready, when all the obstacles are gone or moveable, then it is kairos time.  This time has a connection to clock and calendar time but only a tenuous one–kairos can’t be predicted or scheduled with chronos.

So, what is the point, beyond the fact that I actually remembered something from a university class 40+ years ago?  Well, part of the point is that I am fairly chronological in my approach to life.  I have a schedule and like to keep it as much as possible.  Looking at my watch not only tells me what time it is but also what I am supposed to be doing. If it is 4:30 on Tuesday, I should be preparing supper.  At 7:30am on Friday, I should be posting something on this blog site.  If it is 7:00am on Saturday, I should be sleeping because that is my sleep-in day.

If you are reading this and aren’t overly scheduled and structured, it may sound like I am an overly rigid and even uptight individual.  But I am not.  I can and do relax–my schedule requires me to do so regularly.  Actually, I find having a schedule allows me the freedom to relax that I might not have otherwise.  I know when I will get to whatever I need to get to and so can allow myself time to take it easy.

The real point of this post, however, is that although I am basically a chronos individual, I am called by God to work in a kairos context.  A big part of my calling is anticipating, understanding and responding to the kairos moments in the lives of the people I serve and the churches I pastor.  I need to be aware of what is going on, looking for the convergence of circumstances and issues and people and stresses and read it all well enough to respond properly when the kairos arrives.  A sermon preached before or after its kairos doesn’t do the church much good.  A pastoral visit before or after the kairos might as well not happen.

So how does a pastor who prefers clock time deal with the flexibility and unpredictability of kairos?  Well, the short, quick and only answer is that I depend a lot on God.  I try to work at being open to where and what God wants, whether it is the next sermon series or who to visit.  Fortunately, I have learned that God speaks to me in a variety of ways, often using the people I work with the give me clues to the kairos realities that I need to know about.

A minor point of this post is that the kairos and chronos for our vacation has arrived so I will be taking a break from work and blogging for a couple of weeks.

May the peace of God be with you.

DO UNTO OTHERS…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

A NOT BORING SERMON

Most of the church buildings I have worked in over my many years of pastoral ministry have had only one door and the few that had more than one often had only one “official” door–there had to be a really good reason to use the other door, as well as someone handy with the key to open it.  While there are lots of security and safety issues associated with such a building, there is one good thing about it from my perspective.

It means that by parking myself near the door, I get the chance to see everyone who comes in or out.  Before a worship service, there is a lot to do and I sometimes miss people coming in but after the worship, I am a committed devotee of the old rural custom of the pastor standing at the back greeting people as they leave.  That means that no matter what happens, I at least get a brief opportunity to touch base with people.

So, one Sunday a week or two before Christmas, one of the congregation meets me at the door.  Since everyone else was busy catching up and talking, we were alone at that point with no one waiting to get out.  As we talk, he said something like, “I came this morning expecting another boring Christmas sermon–but you made it really interesting and worthwhile–thank you.”

I appreciated his words partly because he says what he thinks and partly because I had worked hard to avoid preaching “another boring Christmas sermon”.  But when I was working on the sermon, I was actually only conscious of not boring myself.  I have been preaching for over 40 years and in that time, have been responsible for leading and preaching Christmas worship for most of those years.  Trying to find some way to do Christmas sermons that doesn’t bore me gets harder and harder.

But I hadn’t really thought about the fact that most people in my congregations have heard those 40+ years of sermons–not all from me, of course.  There are certainly congregations where that isn’t true–but for my area and the congregations I serve, this is very true.  And after I thought about it a bit, the whole thing made me a bit sad.

Christmas, stripped of the commercial and cultural tinsel that it has accumulated over the years, is an exciting story.  It is the story of a loving and graceful God shaking up the way things are to step into the lives of a rebellious humanity.  It is a love story of epic and even eternal proportions, a story that has touched lives all around the world since that night when the angels announced the birth.  It is a story of hope, a story as real as today’s headlines, a story that should be anything but boring.

Maybe it doesn’t stack up well when compared to the hype surrounding the latest must have kids’ toy.  Maybe it doesn’t have the drama of the latest political production.  Maybe it doesn’t have the attraction of the most recent sexual scandal.   Maybe it doesn’t produce as much hope as the on and off ceasefire talks in the latest conflict.

But then again, maybe it is a story that outclasses all these stories and the real problem is with the presentation and the presenter, with some of the blame going to the presentees. (I know that isn’t a real word but the symmetry appeals to my preacher side).

There is an old saying, “Familiarity breeds contempt.”    While I don’t think our familiarity with Christmas breeds contempt, I do think that it has produced a bit of boredom, especially when we don’t make the effort to really hear and enter into the story.  We who are preaching and teaching the story probably need to work at opening ourselves to God’s Spirit to find new ways to approach the story.  We who are listening probably need to open ourselves more to the Spirit who is trying to show us new facets of the story that we hadn’t seen or haven’t seen in a long time.

Maybe all of us need to chop thorough the tinsel and gift wrapping and culture and turkey and find the story at the heart of it all–the story of how God loves us so much that he comes to us on our terms and on our level so that he can bring us to his level.  I’m glad I didn’t bore my friend with that sermon because the story is too great and too important to be made boring.

May the peace of God be with you.

HOW DO I WORSHIP?

In some circles, I might be called a professional worshipper.  Most Sundays, I lead at least one worship service and generally do more than one.  I am also called upon to lead worship in a variety of other contexts:  nursing homes, public events, family functions, life transitions and the list goes on.  I take my task of leading worship seriously.  I spend time preparing worship so that it flows and the elements mesh well.  As much as possible, I try to have the emotional content and the cognitive content complement each other.  When other people are involved in the process, I work to help them be prepared and able to do their part well.  I even periodically use sermons and Bible Studies to teach people what worship is and how we worship.

During the worship service, I am mostly conscious of my role as leader of the worship.  While we are singing a hymn, I am looking up and marking the next one.  When the choir is singing, I am using the time to look over the order of service and make sure I am prepared.  I have all my prayers written out, except for the benediction which I memorized a long time ago.  I even have the Lord’s Prayer written out in front of me so that I can make sure I get it right.

So, when we are worshipping God, I am sometimes not sure that I am really worshipping.  Well, to be honest, I know there are times when I am not really worshipping.  I am too focused on the worship to be able to worship.  I could say that is an occupational hazard and someone has to do it and let it go.  But I too need to worship and I, like everyone else, need to worship not just privately but as part of a community.  The few times a year I get to attend worship and not lead it just don’t do it from that perspective.

So, how do I worship?  Well,  I think it means that I offer to God my leadership.  He has called me to this ministry and so I believe he wants me doing what I am doing–so part of my worship is making him an offering of my leading worship.

When I remember that, I can worship.  I try to begin that before worship.  I greet all the worshippers as they come in–we are small congregations and our buildings have no office or vestry for me to hide in.  Mind you, even when I had an office to hide in, I tended to spend time before worship greeting people.

Then, as worship is beginning, I take a few seconds to open myself to God–I suppose it could be called prayer but often, it is physically not much more than a brief closing of my eyes and a re-focusing on the worship to come.  Sometimes, I use actual words but often, the words actually get in the way.

Then, as worship proceeds, I try to be conscious of doing what I do as an offering to God.  I don’t always succeed.  When I miss something in the order of service, I go into panic mode as I work out how to fix it.  When my eyes fall on the wrong prayer and I begin to repeat the invocation instead of doing the offertory prayer, I get busy revising the prayer on the fly.  When the sanctuary is too hot or too cold, I am wondering how that is affecting various individuals and how I can take care of the problem.

But in spite of my failures, I keep trying.  I know that I can both lead worship and worship myself at the same time–but I need to make sure that I am prepared to open myself to the presence and wonder of God.  In the end, my situation isn’t any different from any other worshipper.  When I put in garbage, I get garbage.  When I approach as an opportunity to acknowledge and praise God, I can worship, even if in the course of the worship I forget the offering or hit the wrong button on the tablet or am worried that the Advent wreath might catch on fire.

I lead the congregation in worship–but when I open myself to God, I can and so worship at the same time.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHO LEADS PUBLIC WORSHIP?

             My very early public worship experiences occurred when I was attending Sunday School.  I didn’t realize at the time that what the Sunday School superintendant was doing at the beginning was worship.  I probably thought that we were singing a few songs while we waited for the rest of the kids (and maybe a few teachers) to arrive.  I have never been much of a singer so that time was more useful to me for talking to the other kids, as long as we didn’t catch the attention of the teacher.

Later, our family switched churches and we all began to attend worship as well as Sunday School.  I can’t say that I was overly impressed.  I did like the new church and grew to be really good friends with the pastor who became an important mentor as I grappled with my call to ministry.  Worship was somewhat formal, lead by the pastor with the choir and organist doing a special during the service.  As worshippers, we listened, stood for the hymns, bowed our heads for the prayers and put our offerings in the plate.

Recently, I attended a worship service with one of our sons and his family.  There were half a dozen people on the stage with guitars, keyboards and drums.  We sang lots of songs, one or two of which I recognized.  Not being much of a singer even now, I found the music a great time to watch our two grandchildren. Eventually, the pastor walked on stage and lead in the dedication of our newest grandson and introduced some people who talked about their experience leading up to the baptism that had just taken place.

As a pastor, I lead two worship services a week.  Neither has the luxury of a worship band–we are actually lucky to have two organists for one and a part-time guitarist at the other.  We sing and even occasionally do some worship choruses.  I preach, unless I am on vacation.  In one, we have lots of congregational participation and sometimes the sermon gets hijacked as we discuss some point from the Scripture readings or sermon that captures the attention of the congregation.

But whether it is Sunday School opening, a traditional worship service, a modern worship service or my own small church reality oriented worship services, there is generally someone in charge, designing and leading the worship.  And that has both good and bad points.

A poor worship leader manages to draw attention away from God.  This can happen for a variety of reasons:  lack of preparation, lack of understanding of the people and situation, a desire to entertain rather than worship, a poor understanding of what worship really is and so on.

A good worship leader tries to design and lead worship so that people are conscious of being in the acknowledged presence of God, something that in the end probably comes more from intuition and art that technique and structure.  And, to be honest, the real leader needs to be the Holy Spirit, whose leading is mediated by the human worship leader.

While it would be nice to be able to suggest that we don’t need any other leader but the Holy Spirit, that would be a naive and even dangerous suggestion.  I have tried doing worship that way a few times and while it does work, it needs a lot of preparation.  Participants have to be prepared before hand; they need to be willing to put themselves in the background, they need to show respect and concern for each participant’s contribution and they need to share.  It can work in the right place at the right time with the right participants.

But mostly, we are going to depend on other people to lead us in worship.  That isn’t particularly wrong or bad but it does put serious pressure on the leader to work closely with the congregation and the Holy Spirit to design and lead worship that enables all to open themselves to the presence of God.  It also requires that the congregation open themselves in trust to the leader and the Holy Spirit, seeking to enter into the worship so that they can become part of offering to God the worship and praise that he deserves.

This seems to put a lot of pressure on the person who designs and leads worship–and it does.  But we who are worshippers also have serious responsibility, which we will look at in another post.

May the peace of God be with you.

UP AND DOWN

A few weeks ago, we had a great worship service at one of the churches I serve.  We were commemorating the founders of the original congregation that produced the two present congregations that I serve.  The original building is still standing and we had planned on holding the service in the building until we found out that for safety reasons, the old wood stove and stove pipe had been removed.  Since this was October in Nova Scotia, we decided to hold the service in a local community hall.

We had a great service–the attendance was good, the hall was warm, the music was great, the sermon was short and the potluck lunch was great as always.  We had time to talk and laugh and share together.  There were some visitors and everything worked well.  The hall committee refunded our rental fee and offered to work with us if we wanted to hold worship there at other times, which gives us some options during the winter shut down of our regular buildings.  The sixteen of us at the worship service went home having experienced a real spiritual lift.

Skip ahead a week.  At 10:30, when worship was supposed to start, there were three people and me–but one had to leave because the building was too cold and she is particularly sensitive to cold.  As she left, another person came.  And just as I was wondering what we would do, a couple of others came, relatively new people.  So, the six of us worshipped.  As worship with six people goes, it wasn’t bad.  Two of the ladies carried us in singing the hymns a capella, there was some good discussion during the sermon with an insightful and important question coming from one of the new people, showing that he understood and liked our somewhat non-traditional format.

But after the high of the week before, it was a bit of a let-down.  But for me, it was only a bit of a let-down and only because the week before had set a high standard.  Fortunately, I had to foresight to plan for the let down.  Well, it is probably more honest and accurate to say that the Spirit was inspiring me to plan for the let down.  I went to the second worship expecting less than the week before.

First, I knew that the attendance would be way down.  Two regulars would be away, the people from the city were not visiting that weekend, another was away for medical reasons.  I knew we would be way down in  attendance–when 15 is a high number, it doesn’t take too many to drastically reduce the attendance.  In a congregation of 100, having 10 not attend is barely noticeable–but when 15 is a season high, missing 10 is extremely noticeable.

The low attendance, the lack of music to accompany our singing, the cold building–all of this combined to make the second worship much less exciting and sparkling than the one the week before.  But the truth is that this second worship is much closer to our norm–and wasn’t even our lowest attendance this year.

Being prepared for the contrast helped me a great deal.  I didn’t go home after the worship with the same spiritual high of the week before but I also didn’t go home in a dark down of depression.  I went home, had lunch and a short nap and headerd out for worship at the other churches I serve.

I think I am learning something.  It isn’t totally clear in my mind yet and I probably have more to learn but I think it involves accepting what is for what it is, not getting upset for what it isn’t.  That was easy to do with the first worship service because everything was so great.  But it was a bit harder for the second because it was such a contrast to the first one.

But God was present at both services; we opened ourselves in worship at both services and we were aware of the presence of God in our midst.  We missed our regulars who weren’t with us at both services and we welcomed our visitors at both services and they seemed to feel at home.  While I would have liked a bit more of the numbers and feelings of the earlier service at the second service, both did what they were supposed to do–and what more can we really ask?

May the peace of God be with you.

YOU WILL RECEIVE POWER

I think one of the most overlooked aspects of witnessing is the reality of who is actually doing the witnessing.  Most of my background in witnessing has been dominated by seminars, sermons and books telling me how to be witness.  The advice has ranged from the openly confrontational to the subtle and covert.  I have been told that I need to get in people’s faces and confront them about heaven and hell and I have been told to feed the hungry and visit the sick so that I can get an opening to tell people why I am doing what I am doing.

I have also been provided with lots of witnessing aids–tracts that range from the polished and slick to the smudged and confusing; witnessing schemes guaranteed to bring people to faith;  books to recommend; videos to show.  Supposedly, if I can memorize the latest techniques, spout them off perfectly and confidently and provide the latest book or YouTube resource,  then I can be assured of the opportunity to lead someone through the Sinners’ Prayer.

The emphasis is on me and what I need to do to be an effective witness.  But lately, I have been thinking a lot about Acts 1.  Although the ultimate goal is for the early believers to give witness to the risen and living Jesus, they are told to wait (Acts 1.4).  They are charged up because of the resurrection and the presence of Jesus and the wonder of the newness and would have made great witnesses–but they are told to wait.

The waiting, I think, is because they need something before they can be effective witnesses–they need the Holy Spirit.  Jesus himself makes this connection when he says in Acts 1.8, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (NIV)  Before they can be witnesses, they need the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.  I think we need to think a lot more about what that means.

If the witnessing cannot begin until after the Spirit comes, it means that the Spirit is a vital and basic component in the witnessing process.  I am a witness because of the presence of the Spirit–and maybe I can only be a good witness if I am letting the Holy Spirit lead me in the process.  Maybe the sermons, seminars and books got it all wrong–maybe witnessing is the role of the Spirit, who uses my openness to the Spirit to accomplish the process of helping people discover God’s love.

If that is the case–and I think it is, then witnessing becomes something very different.  Rather than being dependent on me, witnessing becomes a process of me opening myself to the Spirit’s power and leading.  After all, the Spirit knows the whole context much better than I do and can be trusted to show me the best approach and process for any given person.  The Spirit was at work in the life of the person I think I should witness to before I got there and will be at work after I leave the picture.

So, to be an effective witness, I need to open myself to the Spirit’s leading in the situation so that I can add to the Spirit’s witness, not confuse or block the Spirit’s process.  My efforts, growing out of my knowledge and desire, may be just the thing the Spirit needs–or they may be just the thing that the Spirit doesn’t need.  I may actually make the process more difficult when I step in, unless I begin and end with a commitment to discovering where the Spirit is going and what the Spirit wants me to do in the process.

Maybe effective witnessing isn’t about techniques, memorized programs or someone else’s approach.  Maybe effective witnessing begins with learning how to better open myself to the Holy Spirit, a process that I know from personal experience can be slow and difficult.  Maybe, like the disciples in Acts 1, waiting is an essential part of the witnessing process.  We wait for the leading of the Spirit, who is at work and knows just how to proceed and who will reveal our role in the process when the time is right.

Maybe the real power behind effective witnessing is waiting for the Spirit and working with the Spirit rather than trying to do it on my own.

May the peace of God be with you.

LIVING WITH THE UNREASONABLE

            While it is technically true that everything has a reason, knowing that really doesn’t help most people deal with what feels like the unreasonable realities of life. I am a fan of the TV show Bones, in which the chief character, Dr. Temperance Brennan, can always describe the reasonable chain of events that caused the victim to die.  She regularly offers this chain to the victim’s family in an attempt to help them deal with their loss.  Her partner and husband, Booth, then has the difficult task of getting Brennan to stop talking, sooth the family’s ruffled feathers and get the required information from the family.

People in a crisis rarely want to know reasons and generally don’t believe that knowing the reasons will make it all better.  Nor are they likely going to refocus their emotional response to the crisis to joy at hearing that things happen for a reason.  A discussion of causation and consequences probably is very valuable in a scientific experiment, a philosophy seminar or a theology book but does very little good when real people are facing real life situations with real feelings.

But it seems that we who stand on the side lines and look in on the struggles of those in the middle of things need something to say.  We want to make the people feel better–or, as is often the unstated but deeper reason, we want them to stop struggling and suffering so that we aren’t reminded of our own struggles and suffering.  And so we try to come up with some words that will cover over the suffering and make everything better.

The painful and difficult truth is that when people suffer, there are no words that will take away the suffering.  We can’t say something that will magically make it all better so that they no longer suffer and we don’t have to be reminded of our suffering. The endless platitudes and clichés and worn out phrases that we use are empty words, doing nothing but filling space and giving us some distance from the suffering.  They generally bring no comfort to the people struggling but might make us feel a bit better, giving us a false sense of accomplishment that we helped.

When people are in the midst of a crisis, they likely need and want help, although there are a few who claim to neither need nor want anything.  But the help that makes a difference comes when we are willing to acknowledge the reality of their suffering and open ourselves to discovering the best way to provide the help they need in the situation.

Because I am a Christian, I believe that the Holy Spirit will guide me in the situation, if I will listen.  As a pastor, I am called in to many difficult situations and I have learned over the years that I need to listen carefully to the people involved and to the Holy Spirit.  My listening to those two sources is greatly enhanced if I keep my mouth shut.  I used to joke with counselling students that when the mouth opens, the ears and mind are automatically shut off.  I am aware that that isn’t really true, but for many of us, that is practically true.

Rather than spend my time trying to remove the suffering with magic words, I have discovered that I need to let the suffering exist and listen to it and step into it, letting the people I am with off-load a bit of their burden on me for the time I am with them.  My presence is the biggest help I can give them–or rather, my actively listening presence is the biggest help I can give them.  As they talk and cry and rage and sputter and wonder and all the rest, I am trying to be there–not looking for some magic words to turn off the tap of their suffering but letting the suffering come out, encouraging it with my listening and my acceptance.

They may ask for reasons–but I have none.  They may ask for time to turn back–I can’t do that.  They may get really angry–I can’t stop that.  They may cry–I might not feel comfortable with that.  But as they get to freely let it all out, I am actually helping.  I think it is much better to listen and help than speak empty words and not help.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE GOD FACTOR

Our personalities are the result of a combination of factors, some of which we can control and some of which we can’t control.  But our personality is also always evolving, changing a as result of these same factors.  It is probably much more accurate to talk about what we are becoming than what we are when it comes to personality.  This is an important reality that has some significant implications.

If my personality isn’t static but is always changing and evolving, that opens the possibility of managing and directing the change.  And while that sounds good, it brings up several questions:  Who is managing the change?  In what direction is the change moving?  What is the purpose of the change?

Answering these questions is important–letting the changes in our personality happen and assuming that it will produce good results isn’t a wise option.  There are lots of people around who would like to manage the changes in our personality.  There are lots of groups and organizations that want to help us become what they think we should become.  And there are lots of reasons for the changes that really don’t help anyone in the long run.

Because I am a follower of Christ, I have to look at this whole process of personality development from a Christian perspective.  And for me, that means beginning with a couple of theological realities.  First, anything I am or am becoming here is affected by human sin–both mine own and that of everyone else in the world.  Secondly, only God, the Creator, really knows what I can be and was actually meant to be.

And so for me, personality development becomes a part of spiritual growth and development.  Who I am becoming can best be determined by God, which makes my personality development a process in which I seek God’s leading and then work at submitting to God’s infinitely superior wisdom and sense of direction.

But in order to get there, I need to learn how to deal with a great many issues and problems that I don’t always want to deal with.  There are, for example, genetic issues that have an effect on who I am becoming.  I struggle with mild depression on a regular basis.  While a certain amount of that depression is the result of what is going on around me, I am pretty sure that my brain is genetically wired in such a way that makes depression the go to response in certain situations.

There are also environmental issues that affect who I am and who I am becoming.  I grew up poor and even now, I find myself reacting to certain circumstances in ways that come from this–I am uncomfortable spending money for things that break until after I have exhausted every possible way of repairing whatever it is–sometimes even spending more on the repair attempts than I would have spent on the new whatever.

So, given that my personality is being determined by so many factors that seem to be beyond my control, where does God’s knowledge and plan enter into the process?  God knows who and what I am meant to be–he is my creator and he had a plan and idea in mind for me, my life and who I can become.    And because God is a God of grace and love, he doesn’t force me to make any changes or to change in any particular direction–but God does seek to help by offering me direction and help and strength through the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life.  If I am willing to open myself to this divine intervention, I have the potential to become more and more what God wants me to become.  I won’t ever get there–there are too many factors at work making it too tempting to follow other paths to personality development that get in the way, leading me down different paths.

But in the end, a personality development process that seeks to discover and find God’s plan for who I am and am becoming seeks to me to be the only really viable process–at least I think this on good days.  Rather than let my personality develop in random, uncontrolled ways, opening myself to God’s direction provides a much better possibility for my becoming.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE SPIRIT PRAYS FOR US

When it comes to prayer, I am a very experienced and maybe even competent public, priestly pray-er.   Privately, I am not sure just how much I pray and definitely don’t follow many of the traditional devotional practises associated with prayer, meaning that I may or may not be an experienced and competent private pray-er.  Like many believers, I have at times struggled a great deal with the prayer issue, wanting to be better at it, to do more of it, to be more effective at it.  Like many believers, I have felt guilty about not being better at prayer, for falling asleep when I should be praying, for not spending enough time in prayer.

But I eventually realized that worrying about praying was a colossal waste of time.  Whether I am praying or not, whether I am doing it enough or now, whether I am following the right process or not–absolutely none of this matters.  Whether I know what I am doing or not, my prayer happens.

That is because as Christians, we have a God whose grace knows no end–and this endless grace deals with our prayer issues.  In Romans 8.26-27 we read, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.  And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.” (NIV).

The Holy Spirit prays for us.  What we can’t express or don’t know how to express or struggle to express, God himself through the Spirit expresses.  If I don’t know how to pray, it doesn’t really matter–the prayers I need to pray are being prayed by the Spirit.

Now, that doesn’t take away my responsibility to work at understanding prayer better.  It doesn’t mean that I can ignore prayer.  It doesn’t allow me to throw everything on God and sit back putting no effort into prayer.  I do need to pay attention  to prayer, I do need to learn more about prayer, I do need to put more effort into my prayer life.

But in the end, God is making sure that my prayers are prayed.  All ma prayers–the ones I know and should be praying, the ones I don’t know and therefore am not praying, the ones I can’t express and so don’t pray–God has already prayed, heard and answered.  There is a freedom and release in accepting this manifestation of God’s grace.

Once again, the grace of God comes in and helps us in an area of life and faith where we just can’t seem to get it right.  Whether I spend three hours on my knees or fall asleep during a prayer time or pray deeply and powerfully for hours, God’s grace is making sure that all the real prayers are being prayed.  And the Spirit that prays the prayer on my behalf  is God who answers the prayer.  God himself personally involves himself completely and intimately in my prayer life.

That old saying, “You don’t have a prayer” can never be true for a believer because we always have a prayer, a prayer that is prayed by God himself through the Holy Spirit.  Our confusion, our reluctance, our lack of discipline, our whatever–none of this can stop our real and true prayers for being prayed and answered.

In the long term, it is probably much better for our spiritual health if we work at developing our ability to pray.  As we develop our prayer ability, we will have a stronger sense of the presence of God, we will see wonderful answers to our prayers, we will help both ourselves and others when we become more comfortable in our prayers.

But whatever we do, we can trust that God is at work, gracefully and lovingly helping us.  Prayer is important, so important that God himself is involved in our prayers from start to finish.  I might have some confusion and struggle with prayer but God doesn’t and in the end, that is alll that matters.  My prayers are made and heard and answered.

May the peace of God be with you.