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.

A GOOD PASTOR

I have never been called to serve as the pastor of a perfect church. But that is okay since none of the congregations I have been called to serve were calling a perfect pastor. I wasn’t perfect before they called me, I didn’t become perfect when I served the church and I didn’t become perfect when I left the congregation. There are some pastors who manage to achieve perfection—but only a few years after they have left the congregation and when succeeding pastors have more glaring weaknesses than they had. But while hindsight might make a pastor look perfect, that is more a case of selective remembering than actual reality.

Like congregations, pastors are not perfect. We are called, we are forgiven, we are gifted—but we are not perfect. We pick up our calling and carry it out with a confusing blend of good and bad that can be wildly infuriating to both pastor and congregation. We provide the absolutely perfect ministry that changes a life one minute and the next, we drive three other people to question not just our call but our basic faith.

When congregations forget that pastors aren’t perfect, all sorts of problems develop. Congregations forget to test the spirits, as I John 4.1 tells us. This allows us as pastors to operate without accountability—and the worst thing we can give to an imperfect individual is a freedom from accountability. With no accountability, we have no reason to see or acknowledge or deal with our imperfections. Generally, lack of accountability results in increased imperfection, not less imperfection.

When congregations forget that pastors aren’t perfect, it become very traumatic when the real imperfections manifest themselves. While some congregation members can and will ignore any and all imperfections, most people will eventually discover the pastor whom they thought was perfect isn’t perfect and that will create all sorts of responses, from mild irritation to rejection of the church to rejection of the faith.

When pastors forget that pastors aren’t perfect, the consequences are even worse. When we pastors forget that we don’t have it all together, we then begin to minister from our imperfection, not from our commitment to God. Our desire for power gets wrapped in “doing God’s will”; our need for approval overshadows the need to speak the truth of God; our desire for affection rewrites the moral standards of the faith. We end up hurting not just ourselves but the wider church. Our imperfections can often become the institutionalized dysfunction of the congregation or denomination.

So, let me be clear. Pastors are not perfect—nor will we be perfect this side of eternity. And since that someday perfection simply isn’t the reality here and now, we pastors need to learn to minister as imperfect people and congregations need to accept the reality that their pastor isn’t perfect and won’t be perfect—and wasn’t actually perfect in the case of former pastors.

How do we imperfect pastors minister to imperfect congregations? I think we start with honesty. It isn’t quite the blind leading the blind—but is the imperfect pastoring the imperfect. If we all start there, then we can become mutually accountable and responsible. As an imperfect pastor of an imperfect congregation, I need to make sure that both I and the congregation are willing to commit proper time and resources to seeking the leading from the Perfect that we need. My latest and greatest idea that will revitalize our church and change the face of Christianity needs the careful and prayerful consideration of the congregation to make sure it isn’t actually an expression of my imperfection wrapped in a few decontextualized Scriptures. While I am called to be their pastor, I am not called to be their boss or dictator. Rather, both pastor and congregation are called to mutual responsibility and accountability as we together seek to offer our imperfection to God so that he can bring us all closer to what we are meant to be.

The churches I have been called to serve as pastor didn’t get a perfect pastor when they called me. But then again, they didn’t have one before I arrived (no matter what the older members say) and they won’t have one after I leave. As long as I and the congregation remember that, we are better able to seek God’s perfection to deal with our imperfection.

May the peace of God be with you.

CHOICES

As a pastor and someone involved in the task of helping others, I get contacted about a lot of things. Everyone seems to think that a pastor has nothing more to do than become involved with their particular concern. Most of the things people want me to become involved in or to help them with are worthwhile. Whether it is helping develop counselling resources in our region or helping provide food for hungry kids in school or housing for people who need it or defending the environment or preserving the built history of our area or—well, the list goes on and on.

And if I were rich, didn’t need to earn a living and didn’t have a bunch of things I am required to do, I might be interested in some of these things. But one of the realities of my life is that I already have a long list of required activity. Every week, I need to prepare and preach two sermons, develop and lead (or pretend to lead) two Bible studies, and keep a spiritual eye on the people I have been called to serve as pastor. I also have to be ready to drop everything to work with serious illness or funerals or other life crises. I am responsible for primary spiritual and emotional care for the people in the congregation. Along with all that, I have to find some time to cook and eat meals, exercise and sleep.

I am also finding that as I age, the energy I have available isn’t as plentiful as it was 20 or 30 or 40 years ago. Burning the candle at both ends might be possible at 36 but at 66, the candle doesn’t actually allow for that. I keep being told by medical people that I am healthy—but then they add for a 66 year old, subtly reminding me that I am not 36.

So, I have to make choices. And these choices aren’t like choosing between drinking a cup of good coffee or a cup of stagnant puddle water. These are choices between things that are equally appealing, equally valid and equally important. Do I choose providing counselling for the adult victim of childhood sexual abuse or helping a shattered family process the death of their loved one or finding ways to discretely provide food and clothing to the kids in school whose families can’t afford it or take part in the long process to correct an environmental mess?

I learned early in my life that I can’t do everything—and learned almost as soon that I would have to say no to some very good things. I would like to say that I have developed a simple, easy to use two step process for making such decisions but since I am still a pastor, a profession that requires honesty (except in the case of sermon illustrations), I won’t say that.

I have found that the process of choosing isn’t easy, at least for me. I do have friends who semi-boastfully tell me that God spoke to them and made it clear what they were supposed to do. I believe God speaks but it always seems to take me a lot longer to get the message. And so I often find myself juggling choices, trying to figure out which ones I can do and which therefore have to be not chosen.

I do work hard when I have a choice like this to make and the work does include serious prayer. I don’t actually get down on my knees—the days of getting on my knees are long gone. But I do pray. Sometimes the prayer involves weighing consequences in the awareness of God’s presence. Sometimes, it involves a groaning plea something like, “What do I do?” And sometimes, it involves mowing the lawn or shovelling snow or staring out the window allowing God to move around in my thought process.

Eventually, I make a decision. Sometimes, I second guess the decision; occasionally, I feel guilty about the decision; now and then I even change the decision. But I work at making faith decisions about the various demands, claims and possibilities that I have to deal with. I really can’t do everything but doing one thing often involves not doing something else, which means I have to think carefully and pray hard about the choices I make.

May the peace of God be with you.

DURING THE HYMN…

As our church’s regular worship leader, I am normally quite busy during the singing of the hymns. I am checking to make sure that I have the next hymn marked, looking over the congregation to see if I missed anyone’s absence, making sure I have the right spot in the order of service set up on the tablet and, more and more these days with my aging tablet, making sure that I have enough battery power left to finish the service. Needless to say, I am not generally paying a lot of attention to the hymn.

But during a recent service, one line caught my attention. The organist had picked “Onward Christian Soldiers” as the opening hymn—and did her usual excellent job of playing the hymn—I almost felt I needed to march around the sanctuary during the chorus. What caught my attention, though, was the first line of the third verse, where we sang, “Like a mighty army moves the church of God”.

As we sang those words, I was struck by a sense of something—irony, delusion, confusion—something. Here we were, the seventeen of us who made up the congregation that day singing words that compared us to a mighty army. Now, it is true that our numbers were down that day for a variety of reasons: some were travelling, some were at another community function, some were sick and some were just AWOL. But even at our best, we are not a mighty army—mostly, the best our congregations can come with is a seriously under strength platoon and that depends heavily on visitors and summer people.

And our under strength platoon disresembles an army in many other ways. The two deacons who take up the offering are both in their 80s—they are doing really well for their age but they are still in their 80s. The pastor (me) isn’t capable of marching too far—I limp to the door to greet people after being on my feet for the worship service.

And so, our under strength, aging platoon creakily gets to our feet and songs words that proclaim us to be a mighty army. Maybe I should have checked the tablet battery one more time instead of paying attention to the words of the hymn. But then again, maybe the Spirit meant me to focus on those words.

Our church isn’t an army by any stretch of preacherly exaggeration. We were probably closer to that years ago when worship attendance could reach company strength but even at our best, we were never a mighty army. These days, we mostly wonder if we will have enough people to sing the hymns let alone do mighty army acts, whatever they are.

But we are a church—and we are part of the Church Universal, that body of believers stretching through time and space to encompass all people who have discovered the grace of God through Jesus Christ. We might be a small part of that Church Universal but we are still a part of it. And because we are a part of the whole church, the success, triumphs and victories of the church belong to us as well, just as our triumphs past, present and future belong to the whole church.

Our under strength platoon might not be triumphing like the booming church army in Kenya, for example. We might be losing members rather than gain members faster than we can count. We might not be standing up to persecution and government corruption and discrimination. We might not know how long we will keep our doors open, especially if we don’t figure out how to fix the sagging floor in the sanctuary.

But we are touching lives. We helped several families through the pain of death. We are growing in our personal faith through our Bible study group. We are helping the local school provide care for disadvantaged students. We can and do provide prayer support for anyone and everyone who asks for it and for many who don’t ask for it. We support church efforts here, there and everywhere through our offerings and prayers.

So maybe our under strength, seriously aged platoon isn’t a mighty army. But we are still part of a mighty army; we still belong to the victorious side; we have a place and a mission and we are doing it as best we can, with the Holy Spirit’s empowering.

May the peace of God be with you.

SOMETIMES I WONDER…

I am a pastor of small congregations. That has been the basic description of what I do pretty much for the whole of my ministry career. I like to jazz it up a bit by including the fact that I have also taught at our denominational seminary, spent some time as a chaplain at a younger offenders facility and even been a missionary in Kenya. But the truth is that all these have been a minor part of my career—most of the time, I have been the pastor of small, often struggling congregations.

I was once pastor of a congregation that had a membership of 200+, which sounds really great but before I arrived, the actual attendance had shrunk to perhaps 25. A sanctuary that will seat 250 or more people looks pretty depressing with 25 in attendance, to say nothing about the heavy financial burden it places on the congregation.

The decision to be a pastor of small congregations isn’t one that I consciously made at some point but it is one that I had a part in. There were times along the way when some larger congregations were interested in calling me as pastor but each time, my sense was that God wasn’t leading me in that direction—there was more I was supposed to accomplish where I was at the time.

It would be nice to report that every small congregation that I served as a pastor eventually grew into a large, thriving congregation. There was growth in all of them—we generally had baptismal services each year and people transferred their membership in and new people started attending. But most times, at the end of my ministry, the attendance numbers weren’t all that different from the numbers at the beginning of my ministry. The actual people were often different but the numbers were pretty much the same. People died, moved away, got sick—all of which meant that the congregations grew at pretty much the same rate they shrank.

Given that I am already over the “official” retirement age, I don’t actually foresee much chance that I will ever be the pastor of a large congregation, which is okay with me because my limited experience with them suggests that I don’t feel all that comfortable in large congregations as a worshipper, let alone as a pastor.

So recently, one of my personal questions has focused on the overall value of what I have been doing for the past 40+ years. I wonder if being the pastor of a handful of small congregations has been a worthwhile way to invest my energy and time and professional effort. I think I have two answers.

The first is theological and sounds somewhat sanctimonious. It has obviously been worthwhile because I was doing what God wanted me to do where he wanted me to do it. I know that sounds a bit too pietistic but I do believe that and there are days when that I find that a very significant part of my understanding of myself and my career.

The second is more practical. What I have done has been worthwhile because of the people I have worked with over the years, the relationships that have developed, the faiths that have been strengthened. Working with small congregations gives me the luxury of time to actually work with people in some very significant ways.

I have had time to help people discover and develop their spiritual gifts. I have had time to help people work through their deep spiritual fears and questions. I have had time to counsel the hurting; encourage the searching; enable the struggling. I have been able to help people find answers to hard questions. And along the way, I have been able to laugh a lot with them, cry almost as much, drink a lot of coffee, eat a lot of great food.

And in the process, we have all grown. We have grown in our understanding of the Gospel and we have especially grown in our understanding and practice of Christian community. As we worship, study, eat, share, pray, work and do whatever we do in our small congregations, we experience the wonder of God at work in our midst.

And so while I sometimes wonder if I have followed the best course, most of the time, I don’t—I more often give God thanks for the opportunity to serve small congregations.

May the peace of God be with you

WHAT IF WE GOT BIGGER?

Our small congregation was worshipping. We were a bit smaller than normal but it wasn’t a problem—we knew where everyone was and they were all healthy and safe. Our worship proceeded at its normal pace: some scheduled stuff and lots of unscheduled interruptions and questions. Our worship resembles a worship service wrapped in a Bible study packaged in a theological seminary, trimmed with laughter and sprinkled with lots of questions and insights.

We share, we sing, we read and discuss Scripture, we pray, we have a sort of a sermon—we worship and it is a worship that we all find satisfying and uplifting. And since we have been shut down for three months, we are just getting back into the process, everyone enjoying the opportunity to get back to something we deeply enjoy.

As we were winding up, one of the participants raised another question. She wondered what would happen if we got bigger. Would we be able to do the same sort of worship? Her speculation was that we might be able to be the same up to a certain point but after that, there would just be too many people to do what we do. We joked a bit about that but for her, it was a real concern, not a major concern and certainly not one that will drive her to refuse entry to new people but a concern nonetheless.

I don’t expect our doors will be broken down by hoards of people wanting to be a part of our worship in the near future but since then I have been thinking some about the church in general and in specific. We have something unique and special in this congregation, something that works in part because of our small numbers. It is also possible because we are a group of people who share faith, a concern for understanding our faith, an appreciation for each other and a variety of other things.

For us, the church becomes a place where people can worship in the context of a free-flowing, unstructured structure that allows everyone freedom to participate. It works for us. But if we change the mix of people, it might not work as well, although our experience with visitors over the years is that they tend to find what we offer interesting. It will also change if we get a lot more people—the time factor will come into play. When half our group of 8-10 have a question or comment, we have time for that. But if we had 50 people and half of them had equally interesting questions or insights, there simply wouldn’t be time for what we do now.

I personally am not going to lie awake at night wondering what we are going to do about this. The church—both our little church and the church as a whole—isn’t static, or at least is shouldn’t be static. The Holy Spirit enables the church to be what it needs to be at any given time and place. Or rather, it is better to say the Holy Spirit seeks to enable the church to be what it needs to be at any given time and place.

But time and place and people change and the church needs to change as well. What we do now works well for us. Our church is stronger and more grounded because of our unique approach to worship (and Bible study as well). It has given us an opportunity to explore our faith and develop new understandings and ideas. All of us are stronger in our faith because of the way the Spirit has been working in our midst.

But neither the church nor the Spirit is static. The question we need to deal with isn’t “What if we change?” but “Where is the Spirit leading us?”. Change is inevitable. Our response as believers is not to try and convince ourselves and the Spirit that what happened yesterday is the only way the Spirit can lead but rather to use the Spirit’s presence to find the courage to embrace the change the Spirit is bringing to us so that we can continue to serve God and do his will.

Fortunately, I think that all of us in our small worshipping group have the willingness to recognize that things change—and hopefully, because of the way the Spirit has been working in our midst, we will have the faith and courage to accept His change.

May the peace of God be with you.

PROFESSIONAL ANXIETY

I realized recently that there is a serious source of anxiety in my job. I am a pastor working with churches in an area where I have lived for around 40 years. Many of the people who form the congregations I serve are more than just parishioners—they are friends. The relationships go back many years and involve many shared experiences that have tied us together over the years. And because of the fact that I have been here so long, I know many in the communities who don’t attend our church—or any church—equally as well.

I had some inkling of the anxiety but tended to ignore it until this week. I had a call about a death—not an unusual call for a pastor in an area with one of the highest rates of over 65s in Canada. The call involved someone I knew, not a church member but with strong family connections in the church, someone I knew because of the family connections. Shortly after that call, I got another about another death. Again, this was a person I knew well, who had at one point been heavily involved in churches I pastored but who had moved and while still in the immediate area, wasn’t as much a part of any churches I pastor.

The anxiety developed as I realized that both these people were about my age, I knew them fairly well and in the end, while they were not parishioners, they were friends. My thinking process, always a bit overactive, very quickly began making lists of people in the same category: people I know who are like me getting on in years. Unlike me, some of them have developed some fairly significant health problems and we are all at the stage in life where the unexpected can pop up at any time.

For me, the anxiety develops because I realize that professionally and personally, when bad things happen, I am the person who is going to get called. Professionally, I am the pastor to a significant number of people, some of whom attend worship and some of whom don’t. Personally, I am the only pastor many people know—they don’t actually know me as their pastor but they know I am a pastor and that means they will call when life gets tough.

So, I do a lot of funerals for friends and family of friends. Doing funerals is a basic part of my job—it is so basic a part of the job that early in my ministry, I spent a lot of time looking at the death and funeral process so that I could do the best job possible. I like to think that when it comes to the grief and funeral process, I know what I am doing.

But there is a major difference doing what I do for someone I have known and liked and spent time with in a variety of ways over the years. I am grieving myself—maybe not as much as the family but I have still lost someone whose death is creating a dark hole in my life. My work and my life come together creating a difficult task—I need to use all my training and professional ability to help people process a death that I am also processing at the same time.

My anxiety isn’t about that, or at least, it isn’t primarily about that. I can do that—there is a certain amount of this cross over in every funeral. I have learned how to help people as a pastor and process my own grief at the same time in a way that enables both to happen. It hasn’t been and isn’t always easy but I can do it.

The anxiety comes from the fact that I realize I am facing a lot more of this cross over. People I have known for 40 years or more are not well. Some will get better. Some will remain chronic. And some will die. And I will get called in on many of these life realities. I don’t want to have to deal with this stuff. I especially don’t want to deal with it when it involves people I have known for so long and whose lives have been intertwined with mine in so many ways.

But that is my job and my calling and so I will deal with it—but I will depend on the presence and power of God in the process.

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.

I DID IT AGAIN

For just the second time in my 45+ years of ministry, I walked out of a worship service. Given that I was conducting the worship service both times, these mark two very significant events. Let me say that I didn’t walk our because I disagreed with the leader/preacher—I was the leader preacher.

Not did I leave because I was upset with the music or the singers. We have a small church but our musicians are dedicated and do a good job every week. I wasn’t fighting with anyone in the congregation and they weren’t fighting with me. No, the reason I walked out of worship was simple—both times, I was sick and realized that if I stayed in the pulpit, I would pass out. The first time, I realized this after the invocation prayer. This last time, it occurred three minutes into the sermon.

Both times, the congregations were deeply concerned and understanding. I had lots of offers for a drive home. No one was upset in least. But both times, I left the worship and headed for home, I felt guilty. But this last event reminded me of something I know but need have reinforced now and then.

Worship is an important part of my faith and the faith of the people I serve. I work hard to prepare for worship—not just the sermon but everything. I spend time on prayers, make sure the worship theme is clear and understandable, pay attention to transitions. Leading this group of people in worship is an awesome responsibility, one that I work hard at—and which always takes a lot of energy.

Both times I left worship, I knew I was feeling sort of miserable but not all that bad. I was able to function and didn’t have any serious symptoms. But when I was standing in the pulpit, I became aware of just how much energy this activity required—much more than I had available at the time. I think I could have easily managed a lot of other activities: reading, watching TV, cooking a meal and so on. But leading worship and preaching—the energy demand was well beyond what I had available at that point in time.

I know that worship is a corporate activity and I know that the Holy Spirit ultimately directs our worship. But I am the designated worship leader and preacher and because I take that set of responsibilities seriously, it demands a lot of energy. I have to be willing to focus on the worshippers; seek to be open to the Spirit, make sure that everyone hears what I am saying, keep my tablet on the right place in the order of service and critique my process on the fly.

It might be possible to lead worship and preach without such involvement. My guess is that there are people out there for whom the process isn’t demanding and taxing. I have heard hints and stories that suggest to me that this is the case. But I am not able to do that. If I am going to follow the sacred calling to lead worship and preach, I am going to give it my best, which is demanding and requires a great deal of energy. My commitment to the people whom I serve, my calling and God himself demand that I treat what I am doing with respect and reverence.

And so, when I can’t carry out the duties I have been called to, I feel a bit guilty. I feel I cheated the people I serve both times. They came expecting to worship God and perhaps to hear a message from God for their lives. They have a right to expect that. I couldn’t do what I was called to do or what they were expecting. I failed those times.

Fortunately, we serve a God of love and grace and forgiveness, who doesn’t hold grudges and doesn’t require detentions. I failed to do what I was called to do—but God has already forgiven me. The people I serve are more concerned with my health than with my failure. And me—well, the bug was short lived and after an evening of vegging in front of the TV and a good night’s sleep, I am doing much better, which is a good thing since I have to conduct a funeral today.

May the peace of God be with you.

BEING THE CHURCH

For the second time in two days, I am sitting with a group of believers. We come from different congregations, different denominations, different faith experiences. Some of are “professional” believers—pastors and retired pastors. We all live in the same geographical area, shop at the same stores, complain about the same inconveniences of living in a small community.

And we all share a common allegiance to God through Christ. True, we don’t express that allegiance in the same way. Some of us are part of the older liturgical denominations. Others are part of less liturgical denominations that broke from the others years ago. Some of us have a fairly conservative understanding of the faith while others push the theological boundaries. We sometimes bump up against those differences as we meet together.

But we do meet together. We recognize something that goes beyond our differences, a unifying commitment that makes the differences less important than the reality of our shared faith. True, we probably couldn’t develop a statement of faith that we could all agree to—but we can and do worship together happily and reverently.

We might not be too concerned with doctrines that are vitally important to others—but we can and do work together to discover ways to effectively give witness to the faith that we share. We recently began a process that will hopefully give us a better ministry to the poverty in our area.

We all have different approaches and emphasis in our ministries. Some are deeply involved in social issues; some are stressing environmental issues; some are developing ways of reaching the community more effectively. We share and discuss and celebrate our diverse ministries and as much as possible for over-committed people living in rural areas, we support each other’s efforts.

I like these times when the wider church comes together. As well as enabling us as believers and congregations to support each other, we are also making a powerful statement to the rest of the community. Rather than appearing to the community as a bunch of competing organizations trying to outdo each other, we are showing that even though we attend different worship on Sunday, we have a lot in common and we express that commonality as we work and share and fellowship and study and worship together.

And that is as it should be. I grew up in the era when denominations and even congregations within the same denomination were pretty sure that no one else knew the truth. We were often treated to discussions of why everyone else was wrong and we were right. Even though I was immersed in that culture, I never felt comfortable with it—something didn’t seem right.

And I eventually discovered what was wrong. No matter which form of worship; which denominational path; which theological line, we are all trying to develop and express our faith in God through Jesus Christ. The fact that my most comfortable expression of that is in the tradition I follow doesn’t negate the validity of another person’s tradition. It actually says more about the diversity of humanity.

And when the diverse expressions of the faith actually get along with each other, it makes a powerful statement about God’s love and our commitment. We are called to love one another as Christ loved us (John 13.34-35) and if we can do that in the face of historical, theological, doctrinal and denominational differences, we effectively show the world that Christ is bigger than any of us and can actually change us. When our group of believers gets together for an ecumenical council meeting or when we meet for our two annual ecumenical Bible studies or when we clergy share a retreat day, we are making the love of God real and concrete and visible both to ourselves and to the world.

And when the world outside the faith sees us actually doing what we are supposed to be doing, it opens doors. Our ecumenical gatherings may not bring anyone into the faith but they will definitely create an atmosphere that says to people that we have something worthwhile—and whether they check it out at the brick building by the traffic lights or the wooden one by the hospital or the historic one “downtown”, they are going to discover something that will help them like it helps us.

May the peace of God be with you.