ASSUMPTIONS

Our area has just come through an early and serious heat wave, which produced my normal reaction to extreme heat—I began to complain. I don’t do well in heat. I am very much a winter person and like things cool and even cold. Cold is much easier to deal with than heat—I can always put on more clothes when I am cold but there is a limit to how much I can take off when I am hot, especially when I am preaching.

My complaining produced expected results. The people I know who thrive on heat look at me like I am strange and tell me that they are enjoying it. Some suggest that I shouldn’t complain about the heat because in a few months, I will be complaining about the cold. I remind those people that I rarely if ever complain about the cold.

And then there are the ones who haven’t known me for a long time but who do know that I have spent a lot of time in East Africa. Their response to my complaints about the heat generally revolve around the irony of someone who has spent so much time in Africa complaining about the heat, because as we all know, all of Africa is hot. This is an assumption that everyone knows is true—to say that Africa is hot is like saying that the sun rises in the east.

But like many assumptions, this one isn’t exactly true. I kind of like pointing put to people that the part of East Africa where I have lived and worked so much might be pretty much on the equator but it is also at an elevation of over 5000 feet, which means that the temperature there isn’t that hot. While it gets warm, the highest temperatures experienced there are lower than the highest temperatures in the summer where I live right now. I am pretty sure that most people simply don’t believe me.

After all, everyone knows that Africa is hot and so I must be mistaken, joking or don’t know what I am talking about. My comments about African heat oppose the assumptions being made by the other person. And one of the realities of life is that most people prefer to have their assumptions unchallenged and pristine.

And actually some assumptions are safe to leave unchallenged. When I assume that other drivers on the road are going to do something stupid or dangerous, that assumption keeps me alert and safer. It probably isn’t a totally valid assumption but I and my passengers are safer because I make that assumption.

However, when I assume that someone who belongs to a certain church will have what I consider a distorted theology or someone who speaks a different language will be a danger to me or someone who doesn’t have much money will want to take my money or someone of a different colour isn’t as important as I am or someone whose sexual orientation is different than mine is somehow less human than I am, my assumptions are a serious problem and need to be challenged.

Unfortunately, it seems that we live in a world where instead of being encouraged to challenge our assumptions, we are encouraged to harden and tighten our assumptions. Politics has degenerated into a process of encouraging assumptions rather than enabling development. Religion seems to strive to baptise and sanctify assumptions rather than produce personal growth. Leadership seems to have become the process of harnessing as many assumptions as possible and using them to build a power base.

The end result is that our world is becoming more and more dysfunctional because more and more of us are treating our assumptions as truths that need to be defended with walls, legislation, guns and organizations. In the process, we are losing our ability to really relate to each other as real people. I see others through the lens of my assumptions and so miss the real person.

But all of Africa isn’t hot—and most of the rest of our assumptions are equally flawed. But we can only discover the flaws when we are willing to challenge even our most cherished assumptions so that we can discover the truth and reality that our assumptions hide and distort.

May the peace of God be with you.

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WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE?

I am not the leader in the churches I serve, no matter what some of the people who make up the churches think. I don’t want to be the leader and actively resist pressures and temptations to become the leader. And even more, I actively encourage, seek out and develop leaders within the congregation. I am aware that this means I am seriously out of step with a lot of the books and theories of ministry these days, which tend to emphasize that as pastor, I should be and even need to be the pastor.

I have taught and written and mentored theology students over the years of my ministry and have always worked in that context from my bias—they don’t have to be the leader. It feels a bit like trying to hold back the tide at times—being on the wrong side of a cultural trend is exhausting and somewhat isolating. As I approach the end of my time of active pastoral ministry (no date set but it is coming), I have been doing some introspection and asking myself a lot of questions as I think over the various things I have done in ministry.

And one question I keep looking at is the one that provides the title for this post: What difference does it make? So, what difference does it make that I am not the leader? Is this important enough to justify the energy and time I spend over the years practising it, teaching it and resisting the other views? Or was this just some distraction that I could have and should have ignored so that I would have time and energy for other things?

So far, my thinking is that the issue does make a difference, in my context. I work in small churches—that has been where God has called me and what he has gifted me for. And in this context, how the pastor approaches the issue of leadership does make a real difference. Many of the current ideas about ministry come from big churches and, from what I can see and understand from my study, are based on good theory and practise.

But small churches such as I and at least 80% of the rest of North American pastors work with are not big churches. Most of them are not even potential big churches. And most pastors will never pastor a big church—we will spend our ministry doing God’s leading in small and occasionally medium sized churches. And if we try to use the theory and practise necessary for a big church in a small church, both we and the church are in for a rough, painful but relatively short ride.

Small churches generally already have leaders. They generally aren’t trained, qualified, ordained leaders. While many are recognized with official church titles (deacon, elder, trustee, treasures, moderator), more than a few have no official office or title but are nonetheless the leader of the congregation. Often, even a small congregation has more than one of these leaders who generally develop working relationships that range from seriously dysfunctional to seriously functional.

The small church likely doesn’t need another leader. It likely needs a pastor to care for the hurting. It probably needs a teacher to help it grow in its understanding of and practise the faith. It may occasionally need a loving prophet to help it find its ways. It most certainly will need a shepherd to show it the way to the pastures and waters that will nurture it. But another leader—well, to be honest most small congregations need another leader about as much as they need another bill.

The pastor and the leadership in the small church have complimentary and important roles in the church, roles that God can and will use to enable the congregation to become what he knows it can become. But the moment I as the pastor in a small church begin to feel I need to be the leader, I am probably starting down a road that can only lead to problems. The problems come because not only am I not doing my God given job in the congregation but I am then also interfering with others trying to carry out their God given jobs.

It works much better when we all know and seek to fulfill our particular calling, so in the end it does make a difference whether I am the pastor or the leader.

May the peace of God be with you.

EFFECTIVE PRAYER

As I write this, I am sitting looking out the window, wondering of the light rain is going to get worse or simply stop. This is more than just curiosity—what I do for the rest of the day depends on what the rain does. If it stops, I get to mow the lawn and if it doesn’t stop, well, then I might be forced to stay in my chair and do some reading. I suppose I could pray about it—but given that I am not really sure which outcome I want, my prayers would be somewhat confused and pointless. In the end, I will wait for a while and see what it looks like when I want to start the mower.

I know some people who would spend time in prayer about that decision. I know some who could turn it in to a significant prayer session, as they wrestle with their ambivalence over mowing and make the ultimate decision part of some spiritual struggle involving their desires, God’s sovereignty over creation and the sinful influences that get involved in the process. It might sound like I am making light of such people but I am not. For some people, the decision about mowing is probably part of a much bigger issue that they are working through. It could also be a somewhat inflated struggle to avoid dealing with other, more painful issues.

But for me, the whole thing is just part of my day without much in the way of spiritual significance and without much need for a prayerful consideration. I will pretty much wait and see what the weather is like when I am ready to mow and decide then. I am not going to pray about it and I am definitely not going to make it part of some spiritual battle.

I have enough of that without creating issues. I struggle with helping the churches I pastor discover the leading of God for their situations. I wonder about my future—retirement is becoming more and more an option for me. I worry about my children—parents always worry about children. I actually pray about those things. Now, I rarely sit down or kneel down and engage in what some writers call “a season of prayer”.

More often than now, the prayer is a semi-conscious, “What do I do about that, Lord” as I am driving to one church function or another or mowing the lawn or changing the channel on the TV. Sometimes, I carry on a significant conversation with God while I am driving—I love long drives by myself just for that reason. Sometimes, when I am cooking supper, I am chopping vegetables and at another level, pondering the preaching plan for the next three months for one pastorate or the other—a pondering that includes connecting with God who ultimately knows what I should be preaching on.

In essence, I am saying that I have a chaotic, sporadic, disorganized prayer life. I don’t have a specific prayer time or prayer list or prayer corner or prayer language. There are two very important things that I need to say about that. This chaotic and disorganized approach works for me now. I find it helps me connect with God when and as I need to. I discover anew the reality of God’s presence and get the direction I need in a way that works for me. I have not always used this approach and I may change sometime in the future—but for now, this works and allows me to pray effectively.

The second thing I need to say is that my approach doesn’t have to work for anyone else and I am not recommending it. Don’t do what I do just because I do it. An effective prayer life grows out of the needs, experiences and spirituality of the individual. It involves discovering what helps an individual be open to the presence of God and be honest in the presence of God. And because we are all different, we might be able to get ideas and suggestions from others but we can probably never pray the way they pray—we need to pray our own prayers in our way so that we can connect with the God who loves us in our individuality.

And the rain looks like it is stopping so I probably have to mow soon.

May the peace of God be with you.

TWO LOSSES

Earlier this year, I was saddened by two deaths that happened around the same time. Billy Graham died and his death was followed by that of Stephen Hawking. Given the fact that these two men had what appeared to be vastly different spheres of influence, very few reports that I saw made any connection between the two. But I admired both of them and both were influential in my life and the two death coming so close together had an effect on me.

I really don’t know if there was any real connection between the two—my speculation is that each at least knew of the other but probably didn’t spend a lot of time reading each other stuff or pondering each other’s teachings. In fact, given the misguided assumption on the part of many in the modern western world that science and religion don’t mix, there are more than a few who might suggest that Hawking and Graham would likely have been enemies, since they were widely recognized as leaders in their respective spheres.

But for me, well, I didn’t see a conflict. I am a science nerd and a theology nerd. And in truth, there have been lots of times when I have found myself working hard to wrap my head around both men’s ideas—and more than a few when their ideas have come together in that confusing mix in my mind and created a theological-scientific thought process that resulted in a headache and more confusion.

Unlike some, I don’t approach theology and science with the expectation of conflict and tension. When I struggle to read Hawking on time and the origin of all things or when I read Graham on faith and salvation, I don’t weigh one against the other to see who is right. Thinking about heaven and the afterlife seems to naturally lead into thinking about time and what it is—Graham leading to Hawking. Thinking about the Big Bang naturally leads to thinking about who and why—Hawking leading to Graham.

Both have had an effect on my thinking and my theology. Both have troubled and inspired me. Both have confused and irritated me. Both inspired agreement and disagreement . Both have helped me understand more about myself, my place in creation and my faith. And as a result, the deaths of both left me saddened and feeling like my world has shrunk a bit.

I didn’t spend a lot of time reading and studying the writings of either. I own and have read books by both and enjoyed them. Mostly, I was content to know that they were both there, both doing their thing and both accessible through their writings and so on should I ever decide to really follow up on their work. Honestly, I sometimes felt the Graham’s stuff was a bit too easy to understand and Hawking’s was a bit too hard to understand—but that didn’t stop me from buying and reading some of their work.

I am never going to be an evangelist like Graham nor a theoretical scientist like Hawking but I do appreciate their work—and have never felt a need to decide which body of material was more valuable to me or to the world. Each did their thing and each did it well and both taught me important stuff about God, creation and even myself.

I am not interested here is moralizing about their lives, choices or spiritual fates. That isn’t my job. God in his grace makes those kinds of decisions. Me—well, I admired both, I read both and I learned from both. Their lives and their work and their personality were and are important to me. I can and will continue to appreciate the contribution both have made to me personally and the world in general. And most of all, I will not fall into the trap of seeing these people as representations of sides in some mythical and mystical eternal battle.

These were two people who gave themselves completely to their callings and in the process of chasing their dreams and visions, showed the rest of glimpses of deeper and higher truths that we can all benefit from. So, to Stephen Hawking and Billy Graham, I say, “Thank you—I will miss you.”

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.

PRAYER

In both of the collections of congregations that I serve, our worship service includes a prayer time. We do the traditional pastoral prayer followed by the Lord’s prayer. But in both, we have introduced some variations. First, I don’t do a long pastoral prayer—it is short and focused on something growing out of the sermon. We also include a time of silence for people to make their own prayers. Normally, this comes at the beginning of the prayer time but now and then, we have it in the middle of the pastoral prayer.

We also encourage people to share prayer requests with the congregation which I then incorporate into the pastoral prayer. Occasionally, we have a Sunday when we get no such requests. Those are unusual because we generally have a few requests for prayer. Some come from within the congregation and others come from people outside, requests passed on to us because even people outside the church want prayer.

As a pastor, I am obviously in the prayer business. I pray a lot both publically and privately. I do Bible studies and other courses on prayer. I write about prayer. I encourage people to pray. But for all of that, I have to confess that I am still working on understanding what prayer really is.

You see, most times when people talk to me about prayer, they seem to want something. They want God to know that they have this need that they want God to take care of, generally is a specified way. There is an unspoken assumption that it we can get enough people to pray for us about the request, God is more likely to answer with the answer that we want.

And so while we are divinely encouraged to bring all our needs to God, it does seem to me that a lot of people view prayer as some sort of spiritual version of 911, something that it great to have but which we only use when there is an emergency. We pray when we are in trouble and need God’s help.

I don’t want to take away from the right and ability to approach God in prayer when I or others am in need but the more I think about it, the more I wonder is maybe we have allowed ourselves to take prayer down a side road and in the process of following the side road, have missed the main road of prayer. I wonder if we have settled for a stripped down version of prayer when we could just as easily have the full-featured version.

The full-featured version may be hinted at in Genesis 3. There, in the midst of the tragic story of sin entering the creation, we find the story of God walking in the garden in the evening (Genesis 1.8). Now, I managed, with great effort, to pull off a shaky “D” in Hebrew so what I am going to say about the passage comes from others, whose ability to understand Biblical Hebrew obviously far surpasses mine. But many commentators suggest that the underlying grammar suggests that this walk was an habitual thing, something that God did every evening.

My conjecture would be that God walked in the garden with the man and the woman and they talked and shared. The man and the woman were praying. I suspect there wasn’t a lot of “Give me, grant this, fix this, do this, heal that, remove this”—there was likely some of that during these evening walks but mostly, I think, God and the humans enjoyed each other’s company and shared or walked together quietly as people who know and love each other do so comfortably and well.

That has always been my vision and goal of prayer, to be able to be comfortable in the awareness of the presence of God. I can ask for things if I want. I can make comments about this and that. I can ask questions. I can tell a joke. I can enjoy a comfortable silence.

I am definitely not there in my prayers. I would like to be and I work at being there but I have a ways to go—my introversion means that I don’t do this well with people and it is much harder with God. But I want to walk in the garden so I keep working at it.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHY BOTHER?

I realized recently that I might be sitting on the edge of depression. While I am normally aware when I start getting to that point, it sort of crept up on me for a variety of reasons. I have been tired since Christmas, a tiredness that wasn’t really helped by our vacation trip—the trip was great but the travel process is always tiring. Also, I am sitting more these days—my arthritic knees are bothering me more and more and being off them feels better than being on them. And, because one of the churches I serve has shut down for three months, I have less to do.

So, it was easy to rationalize not doing stuff—I am still tired from Christmas and the trip, my knees are hurting or will hurt and there is nothing I really have to do. Sitting in the chair and watching Youtube seems justified. And so I wasn’t keeping all that close an eye out for the things that indicate I am slipping into a depression.

I have things to do: the latest woodworking project is underway, the newest issue of National Geographic arrived this week, there is always a need to write blog entries, there are several people I could meet for coffee, I could even hobble my way through a short walk. But with all the possibilities, I found myself sitting in the chair, glued to the screen mindlessly. I would find myself thinking about some of the options and asking, “Why bother?”.

Everything would take a lot of effort. Working on the cabinet would require dragging the saw and sander and other tools outside and it is cold out there. I could read my magazine but that would require using the keyboard to navigate the pages (I get the digital version). I could call or text a friend but that would require getting dressed for the weather and driving to a coffee shop. I could go for a walk but that would require dressing for the weather and finding my walking stick and maybe being in pain afterwards. Why bother?

So, now I have a choice. I can let the depression develop or I can do something about it that might prevent it from developing. The reality for me is that the depression I sometimes slip into is totally dependent on my response to my situation—there is no medical basis for it. There might be a genetic disposition to dealing with life by getting depressed but essentially, the depression I deal with is a result of the way I deal with things and is most effectively dealt with by recognizing it and deciding to things differently.

And while that is incredibly easy to write, the actual practise is much harder. Depression can be self-sustaining and self-perpetuating, at least for me. When I start getting depressed, I begin making choices that sustain and enable the depression. Given a choice between moving the saw outside to create some sawdust from otherwise good boards or staring mindlessly at a Youtube video, it becomes easier to stare at the laptop screen.

The earlier I spot the symptoms of the coming depression, the easier it is to change the behaviours that encourage the depression. Based on my reluctance to change behaviours right now, I am probably further along than I would like to be and therefore facing a somewhat more difficult process that I would have if I had been paying more attention.

I have to confess, though, that even though I can see where I am, it is still difficult to motivate myself to deal with it. Depression is somehow comfortable in its familiarity—I have been here enough that I have developed a tolerance for a certain level of depression, maybe even some sort of psychological habituation to it. It might not feel good but it feels familiar. The temptation is to let the familiarity have more say in the process than is healthy.

Based on past experience, I know that I will eventually come out of this developing depression. I don’t actually like being depressed, not even if it feels familiar and comfortable like an old, well worn pair of jeans. I could start dealing with it right now—I just have to convince myself that it is worth the bother.

May the peace of God be with you.

YEAR END REVIEWS

One of my Christmas gifts every year for the past few years is a subscription to a science magazine.  I think it was a desperation gift when our son first gave it but it was and is a deeply appreciated part of my Christmas and the rest of the year.  And, because of the way magazines get published, I had the January issue in early December.

I look forward to that issue because it summarizes the top scientific stories and issues for the past year.  When I read through the issue, I am reminded of some things I knew of, I discover some things that I didn’t hear about and I end up feeling like I know something more than before I read the magazine.

And the magazine publishers are not alone–almost everyone does a year end review.  News programs review the top stories; various musical styles do their top 100 for the year; movies get rated  from best to worst–everyone seems to want to review the year.

So, I sometimes think I should review my year–but what should I include in the review?  What parts of my life do I want to look over and rate?  I suppose I could do a top ten sermons list–but truthfully, when I finish a sermon, I am pretty much done with it, except for the occasional discussion that it sparks at the following week’s Bible study.  Going back and re-reading them to rate them isn’t all that appealing to me.

I do have to do something of a work review for the churchs’ annual meetings but that tends to be a statistical report with some ideas and suggestions and is sometimes hard to do because a lot of what I do in the church is in process and can’t really be measured or evaluated on a chronological basis.

I could do some personal review but that sometimes takes on a negative slant:  the weight I didn’t lose, the bike rides I didn’t  take; the people I didn’t get to spend time with; the books that are still waiting to be read.  The things I accomplished, well, sometimes they don’t seem all that significant–the naps I really needed to take or the coffee I really wanted to drink or the hour of YouTube that I couldn’t pass up.

I decided a while ago that my life and my work don’t actually lend themselves to an annual evaluation.   I believe in and practice self and professional evaluation but have realized that the process works a lot better if I allow the evaluation to fit into the natural and intrinsic patterns and cycles of whatever I am evaluating.

My personal life doesn’t cycle around the January date.  My professional life doesn’t fit the New Year evaluation pattern.  Trying to do a year end review or a best of the year process ends up being frustrating and somewhat pointless.   My professional cycle, for example, actually runs from September to May, with a short and needed break at the end of December.  It makes much more sense to do work evaluations in June or July than it does in December.

Likewise, my personal life follows a cycle that is intertwined with my professional life, the seasons and when the next Star Wars or Star Trek movie will come out.  Most of those cycles don’t lend themselves well to a December 31 evaluation process.  They can be evaluated and some of them need to be evaluated but evaluating them based on the cycles they follow is better and more effective.

So, I am going to anticipate and enjoy the science magazine’s year in review.  I might listen to some of the top 100 music of the past year.  I will summarize the past year for the church annual report.  I will try to avoid looking too closely at the bathroom scales report on my after Christmas personal expansion.  But I won’t do a year end review and best of report.  I won’t make resolutions to do things better next year.

I will evaluate and plan and make changes as they are appropriate and necessary and fit in the patterns and cycles of my life because that works better for me than using an artificial and arbitrary date as a reason for evaluation and review.

May the peace of God be with you.

COMPARATIVE SUFFERING

I was having a conversation with someone recently about a problem they were dealing with.  It was a physical problem that was somewhat painful, somewhat annoying and somewhat limiting.  The problem wasn’t going to be fatal and it was treatable but right then and there, it was causing the individual to suffer.  I did my pastoral thing, listening and encouraging them to talk and doing all the stuff that has become second nature to me over many years of ministry.

But my comfortable professional approach was interrupted by a comment the person made. After telling me about the problem,  the person abruptly said something like, “I shouldn’t be complaining about this–there are lots of people worse off than me.”  Although I have heard the comment a lot, something about it set me off that day.

It isn’t all that uncommon a idea–we are often encouraged to compare our problems and difficulties with those of others, generally with the idea that if theirs are worse, we should stop complaining.  I seem to remember a song from years ago that said something like, “I used to complain about having no shoes until I met a man with no feet.”  If someone is suffering more than we are, then we need to stop whining, count our blessings and get on with life.

Sounds good–there is some semi-religious moralizing, some thinly veiled guilt, some covert attempts to foster denial and some social pressure to smile and carry on.  What more could be asked of an approach to suffering?

Well, maybe we could ask for a more honest approach to suffering.  Comparative suffering is really a terrible approach to suffering.  On some levels, my lack of shoes is certainly less serious than someone else’s lack of feet–but my lack of shoes is my problem and my issue and the other person’s lack of feet, tragic as that is, really doesn’t do much to help me deal with my issue.  In fact, the comparative suffering approach probably adds to my suffering because not only do I have to deal with my lack of shoes but I also have to deal with my guilt over having feet and therefore not suffering as much as the other guy.

Suffering isn’t really comparative.  My stuff is my stuff and while it may or may not be as bad as someone else’s stuff, it is my stuff and I have to deal with it using my resources and my abilities and my support systems.  And in the end, I can only really do that by being honest with myself about what I am dealing with and its effects on me.

So, when the person I was talking to suggested that they shouldn’t be complaining about their suffering when so many were worse off, I interrupted the flow of the conversation by suggesting that suffering wasn’t comparative and that what they were dealing was what they were dealing with.  There was a pause in the conversation as the person thought about this–and then a very visible and audible change in the their demeanor.  It was like they relaxed–they could be open and free about what they were dealing with because they didn’t have to compare it to someone else.  They didn’t have to put it on the global suffering scale and forget about it because it didn’t rate enough.

We continued talking and the person talked more about how the problem was affecting them and their family.  We also talked about how not having to compare it with others was a relief.  They could recognize and accept their suffering for what it was–it was something that was causing them pain and trouble and it was inconvenient and miserable and they had a right to  be upset.

The guy with no feet has a tough deal in life and I can appreciate his suffering–but his suffering is his suffering, just as my suffering is my suffering.  We each have to deal with what we have–or don’t have.  And we deal with it best by dealing with it ourselves, not by trying to place it on some cosmic scale of suffering.  I might have feet–but my lack of shoes is still a real problem in my life, one that I need to deal with honestly and freely.

May the peace of God be with you.

HAVING IT ALL

Unlike many people I know in  the more conservative part of the Christian faith that I affiliate with, I am not at all interested in an annual ritual.  This time of the year, it is not unusual for people to point out some cultural trend and use it as a symbol of the continual secular conspiracy to take Christ out of Christmas.  The obvious antidote it to work hard to put Christ back in Christmas.  There will be sermons, Christmas newsletters, social media rants and on and one telling us that we need to do this.

Early in my ministry, I was one of the people trying to put Christ back in Christmas.  As time passed and I learned more about Christmas traditions, Christian  history and theology and the reality of North American demographics, I became less and less vocal about the need to put Christ back into Christmas.  I began to realize that there are some people for whom the whole Christmas scene is depressing.  There are others who don’t celebrate Christmas for a variety of reasons.  And increasingly, there are many whose cultural background doesn’t have a Christian component.  As I learned things like this and realized some of the implications of these realities, I spoke less and less about putting Christ back into Christmas.

And eventually, I began to think that maybe we as believers just might be better off if we actively worked at taking Christ out of Christmas.  What we call Christmas is really nothing more than a huge cultural event sponsored primarily by commercial enterprises.  The glossy veneer of Christianity that gets plastered over the whole mess is actually demeaning to our faith.  Do we actually want the name of Christ associated with the riots that happen in shopping malls on Black Friday, which somehow marks the official beginning of Christmas shipping?

It is probably time for us to realize that there are two events going one here:  the cultural festival that sort of grew out of a Christian celebration and the Christian remembrance of the birth of Jesus.  The events were once related but in truth, the only real connection these days is the fact that both happen at the same time.  They may have once been closely related but today, the connection is slim and tenuous and is an actual problem for those trying to really focus on the love and grace of God shown in the Incarnation.

Since we can’t put Christ back in Christmas–our culture has gone far beyond that–we might well be better off to take Christ completely out of Christmas.  Let culture have the holiday.  As Christians, we can live with “Season’s Greetings” and “Happy Holidays”.  The faith can survive when schools have “Winter Concerts”.  Holiday shopping can happen without Joy to the World in the background.

I suggest that we as believers accept the inevitable–this season has been effectively severed from  its tenuous Christian roots.  Great–that means we can actually focus on the remembrance of the birth in our terms in our worship and private devotions.  We don’t need to force our culture to celebrate the birth of Christ.  We do need to give witness to the love and grace of God shown in the risen and living Christ, something that gets harder and harder to do when we are fighting our culture for a season that we are never going to get back.

I would suggest that we treat the cultural celebrations as we treat all the rest of our culture.  We can take part as responsible believers who are attempting to live and show the reality of our faith in all situations. As believers, we can and should use our faith as a guide to our celebrations, seeking the Spirit’s leading on things like how much to spend on what for who.  We probably avoid rioting at the shopping mall when  the must-have toy is no longer in stock–and maybe in the spirit of turn the other cheek, we give the one we manage to snag to someone else.

We can’t put Christ back in Christmas, at least not like we thought we could.  But we can put Christianity in the seasonal celebration.  It takes some thought and some work and some changes, all of which the Holy Spirit will help us with but we can have the celebration of Christ and the cultural festival without one having to win over the other.

May the peace of God be with you.