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.

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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.

A SCIENTIST?

I was watching a TV show recently where a couple of characters were having an argument.   One, a pastor, was telling the other, a budding scientist, that the scientists needed to believe in God.  The budding scientist said he didn’t need God because he had science.  That interchange pretty much summed up a dichotomy I see a lot of these days.  It seems that a lot of people believe that you can have faith or you can have science but you can’t have both.  Those who believe in faith and God built their fortress of faith and those who believe in science build their fortress of faith and they sit in their forts and take shots at each other.

I personally don’t really want to be in either fort.  I prefer being on the outside of both forts–not because I am against both faith and science.  No, I don’t want to be in either fort because I want to be free to make use of both or criticize both, depending on the realities of life that I deal with outside of the sacred walls of the competing fortresses.  In short, I want to be a person of deep faith and a scientist.

Well, maybe not a full-fledged scientist–that boat sailed without me mostly because of my somewhat less that spectacular math skills.  Maybe I should call myself a science wannabe or science groupie or closet nerd.  But I am also a person of faith–even more, a person whose calling and profession and desire is to help other people both discover and develop their faith.  I want it all.

I especially want both sides to stop the war. Just because I am a believer doesn’t mean  I refuse to accept global warming.  It doesn’t mean that I think the world is 6000 years old.  It doesn’t mean that I will accept any claim any faith charlatan  makes to try and part me from some of my money.  It doesn’t mean that I am vaguely afraid of technology because I see hints of Revelation style demonic conspiracy in chip technology.

Just because I am a believer, I don’t think that scientists are agents of satan.  I don’t see attempts to understand the wonder of creation at attempts to get rid of God.  I don’t see men and women in lab coats as my rivals for the hearts and minds of people. I don’t think scientists want to prove that my faith is dumb, pointless and the result of genetic anomalies in my brain.

We of faith and the scientific community have a lot we need to say to each other.  We probably need to apologize to each other for all the stupidity and pettiness and prejudice we have used against each other in the last few years.  We probably need to drink a lot more coffee and tea together to get to really know each other. (Sorry, science people–many conservative believers won’t be comfortable having a beer or glass of wine with you).  We probably need to spend a lot of time actually reading what the other is using to base their ideas on instead of basing our relationships on hearsay and innuendo and what someone thinks someone else said.

We need to accept that both people of faith and people of science are people first and actually need each other.  When I get sick, I want the best of science to treat my illness.  And when a scientist gets sick, I am pretty sure I have some faith stuff that will help that scientist deal with the realities of that illness.

As is always the case when we set up opposing sides and start fighting, we miss the point.  The war between science and faith exists in our minds, not in reality.  God is not diminished when a scientists discovers the earth is several billion years old and science is not diminished when a believer says that God created the earth.  We could both help each other a lot to sit down and really look at what we are saying and discover that we have a lot more in common that we sometimes want to admit.

I am a person of faith–but as much as my poor math skills allow, I am a person of science.  I not only like both, I need both to make my life complete.

May the peace of God be with you.

I DO BELIEVE

I love to ask questions and that love of asking questions extends deeply into my faith life.  Because I am a pastor and occasional teacher of pastors in training, my desire to ask deep and troubling questions about my faith and accepted faith traditions ends up being a blessing and a curse.  And the blessing and curse are so close that sometimes the same question can produce both at the same time.  Someone will find the question liberating and opens up new avenues for their faith development, which is always a blessing.

But others in the same context will react in a totally different way.  They will see the question and the subsequent discussion as a problem at best and a sign of heresy at the worst–and some can and will go on to question the reality of my faith.  I have to confess that even after having been at this process for over 40 years, when my commitment to God through Christ is questioned in this way, I am both hurt and angry.  I have learned a few things about dealing with this sort of thing over the years, which has been helpful.

In the early stages of my ministry (and faith), my temptation was to both defend my faith and attack the person who questioned my faith.  They were obviously wrong, both on the topic we were discussing and about my faith.  My two-pronged response provoked lots of heat and anger and tension and little else.  I went away seething and filled with lots of not nice thoughts while the person who questioned my faith generally left with even more evidence that my faith was at least lacking and likely non-existent.

But while the simultaneous defend and attack strategy sounds good, it really isn’t an effective one–and for a pastor seeking to help people grow in faith, it is an absolute disaster.  When the pastor attacks church people, it is a betrayal of everything we are supposed to stand for.  Instead of being the shepherd to the flock, we are now the predator attacking them.  The rest of the church tends to respond:  some align with the pastor, some with the other person involved and many others settle in to wait for the next pastor, who they know will be coming within the foreseeable future because of the mess stirred up.

I never seriously looked at the option of not asking questions.  That would be such a denial of who I am that it was never a viable solution.  But I did learn to ask the questions differently.  I present them as questions that I and others struggle with.  I sometimes skip a question when I know or suspect that it will be too much for some people.  I might present a milder version of the question.  I try to help people see that asking the question isn’t a direct threat to them and their faith–and as their pastor, I am going to help them deal with the question and its consequences in as caring a way as I can.

But in the end, I am probably going to ask the question.  And even with all the safeguards in place and all the preparation and all the attempts to make it as unthreatening as possible, someone at some point is going to get really upset and question the reality of my faith.  They may do it hesitantly; they may be afraid to do it; they may be very angry and confrontational.  But someone will do it at some point.

It will hurt, I will be angry.  But I know that it will come and I have learned that I can survive the accusation.  I no longer feel the need to defend my faith.  I believe.  Sure, my faith isn’t perfect, it has weak spots, it may verge on heresy at times–but I believe.  I have given myself to God through Jesus.  That is a reality, a basic foundational fact of my life.

Others can question the reality of that commitment–but I know that it is real and I can and do see the evidence of my commitment in the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life.  And so, when my faith is questioned, I am aware of the hurt and anger–but I can also deal with the real issue, which is helping the person deal with their reaction to the question that started things in the first place.  I can roll up my pastoral sleeves and shepherd the flock I have been called to.

May the peace of God be with you.

IT DOESN’T SAY THAT

I am teaching in a Kenyan classroom.  It is a class in  pastoral ministry and we are looking at how we as pastors try to help the people God has called us to shepherd.  The discussion turns to working with alcoholics.  This isn’t an  accident or coincidence. Based on my experience in Kenya and my knowledge of the church, I specifically direct the discussion to this topic–I have a pretty good idea what will be coming and have decided that this is the day we will deal with an important issue.

Before too long, the issue starts to surface.  One of the students tells me that part of helping alcoholics involves preaching about it.  I agree–and then push a bit harder by asking about the content of such sermons.  To the students, the answer is obvious–a good anti-alcohol sermon begins with the Biblical teaching that tells us God forbids people to drink alcohol.  Then, the sermon tells them they will suffer in hell because of their alcohol use.  And then, the sermon tells them to stop drinking.

There is enough in that sermon to keep us going for years–but this particular day, I only want to focus on one facet of this discussion–the Biblical text they propose on using to tell people that God prohibits the use of alcohol.  Very quickly, I am given Proverbs 20.1 as the text–in the KJV because this is a conservative culture:  “Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise.”

Now comes the fun part.  I tell the students that this actually doesn’t tell people not to drink alcohol.  It shows some of the possible consequences of over-use but it doesn’t prohibit the use of alcohol.  Various other verses are tossed in to the mix–none of which prohibit the use of alcohol.  To stir things up a bit, I give them I Timothy 5.23, ” Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.” (NIV).

With that, the whole class is convinced that I am officially a heretic.  I have challenged one of their most basic understandings of the Bible.  Now comes the hard work–I have to become the teacher and help them understand what is really going on here.  I am not trying to get them all to go have a drink.  Rather, I am helping them see that Scripture doesn’t always say what we want it to say or assume it says or think it should say.

To discover that the Bible doesn’t say what they want it to say is traumatic and painful and difficult–but also essential.  And it is not just that class of Kenyan theology students who need to learn this lesson.  All of us who use the Bible are guilty at some point of trying to make the Bible say something that we want it to say rather than really dealing with what it does say.

When it comes to Biblical interpretation, I confess to being a serious skeptic.  I really don’t want to accept something as true just because it sounds good or reinforces some idea I have or has been passed down for generations.  I am going to try as hard as possible to find out what it actually says.  So I study the Bible–not looking for verses that confirm what I already want to be true but for what it really says.  I have discovered that it the Bible isn’t making me uncomfortable, I am probably not giving it the freedom it needs to speak its truth.

Scripture needs to speak with its own voice, not the voice we would like it to have.  Scripture must be free to give us God’s word, not reinforce our word. I am sometimes accused of not believing the Bible–I am pretty sure that several groups of Kenyan students believed that, as well as a few people in churches here in Canada.

But my problem isn’t that I don’t believe the Bible.  The real problem I deal with is that I do believe the Bible but I want to make sure that I am not trying to constrain the Bible and the Spirit by making it say what I want.  As painful and as difficult as it may be at times, I want to Bible to speak with God’s voice, not my voice.

May the peace of God be with you.