IT’S RAINING

The weather forecast was right–it predicted rain for today and when I got up, it was raining, something that is putting a bit of a down spin on my day.  Now, I really don’t have any plans for being outside today.  I mowed the lawn earlier in the week based on the long range forecast that predicted rain for today.  I have a bunch of things to do that require me to be inside various buildings or the car for most of the day.

About the only ways the rain today affects me are I probably won’t go for a walk if it is raining hard but since the majority of my exercise is accomplished on the exercise bike, that isn’t a big issue.  But nonetheless, the dark and drippy day is making me feel a bit down–not depressed and nothing serious but just a bit down, a different feeling than I have when the sun is shining.

I am probably not alone in my reaction to the weather today and by itself, that really isn’t all that much to blog about.  But when I had been up for a bit and realized my emotional response to the rain, I realized that there have been times in my life when the same kind of day produced a very different emotional response.

During the times when we have lived in Kenya, rain produced a very different reaction.  Most of Kenya is dependent on rain for its water supply.  There isn’t a lot on the way of water infrastructure and what there is depends on rain.  At times, our water supply was two 1000 gallon water tanks filled by the rainwater off the roof of our house.  During the long six month dry season when those tanks were empty, our water supply consisted of two five gallon jerry cans that went everywhere the car went that there was a chance of getting some water.

The last time, we lived in a town that had a municipal water system.  A couple of times a week, the town turned our water on and the 500 liter tank in the attic filled with enough water to keep us going until the next time the water was turned on.  This depended on how many breaks there were in the water line, how careful we were with our water, and how full the rain-filled town reservoir was.  During the long dry season the twice a week water supply dwindled and stopped and our water supply consisted of the two buckets I carried up three flights of stairs from the backup reservoir in the parking lot.

So, when we are in Kenya, waking up to a rainy day produced a feeling of pleasure and a sense that this was going to be a good day.  Rain in Kenya produced the kind of emotional uplift for everyone that a bright, warm sunny day does here in rural Nova Scotia.

This suggests many things to me, among which is the deep reality that we human beings are much more adaptable and flexible that we often give ourselves credit for.  And if we are more flexible and adaptable that we think, that means that we probably don’t need to get as bent out of shape about things as we sometimes do.  The problem isn’t really the external events or circumstances but the way I am choosing to react to them.  Am I looking at the rain as a Nova Scotian or a Kenyan?

And because I am a Christian, that suggests to me that I need to work at making sure that my Christian faith plays a big part in how I look at life and its realities and in how I respond to life.  Rather than seeing my faith as an add on that only kicks in when I am in worship or somewhere where being a Christian is required, I need to work at placing my faith in the centre of my response to life.

Do I view the stranger in town from a basically mono-cultural Nova Scotian, a multi-cultural Kenyan or a supra-cultural Christian viewpoint?  My response to the stranger varies depending on which set of cultural norms I bring to the front.  I would like to say that my Christian norms trump all the others but I try to be honest here.  Like my response to the rain today, I need to work more on what I respond with.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE TROUBLE WITH DIVERSITY

I am sitting in a Bible Study group–well, I am actually leading the Bible Study, although leading might be too strong a word for the open style I have adopted with Bible Studies.  In this particular (fictional, of course) group, we have a variety of individuals with different experiences, different levels of faith development, different understandings of God’s love, different native languages.  We are united by our common faith and our experience together, drinking tea and coffee, talking together and being stuck in the same space for an hour or two each week for several months.  We are a diverse group but we like each other and because we like each other, we tend to ignore our diversity, choosing to celebrate our common desire to grow together in faith.

And that is great–some days, it feels like a piece of heaven as this diverse group shares and cares and supports and enables and laughs together.  We can forget our diversity and enjoy our similarities, our common faith and all the rest.  But diversity doesn’t disappear just because we are feeling good and comfortable.  And so, in the feel good time of the Bible study, it makes an appearance.

Some one begins talking about their faith experience.  They had a really bad experience in Denomination A, an experience which has affected their whole life and which they are just now beginning to deal with.  Denomination A is filled with demons–there are no believers in the denomination, there are only fakers and frauds and liars and abusers.  As the speaker is talking, we are all aware of the pain, the fear, the hurt that drives the words.  We are aware as well of the beginnings of a sense of liberation from the past that the speaker is experiencing and we feel some sense of joy because part of the liberation is coming through our group.

But we, or at least some of us, are aware that at least two members of our group are members of Denomination A, active members whose faith and Christian experience have been shaped and enhanced by their membership–they are with us because their local Denomination A congregation doesn’t currently have a Bible Study.

Fortunately for our group, the members of Denomination A are caring and loving and are more concerned with the speaker’s pain than with the actual comments about the denomination they love and appreciate.  Eventually, we help the speaker understand that the pain is real but the generalization can be a problem.

The potential danger is diffused but the unfortunate reality is that because we are diverse as believers, there is always going to be the potential for someone to say or do something offensive to another.  We are diverse–even our basic and important Christian unity doesn’t remove the diversity that God gave us and which is as much a basic part of our being as our human and faith-based similarities.  And if not understood properly, that diversity can undermine and destroy the carefully build unity of the group.

That is not hard to see.  We live in an increasingly divided culture, with everyone demanding that their particular slice of human diversity be given priority over every other slice of human diversity–and with more than a few slices calling for the punishment or banning of competing slices of diversity.

I really don’t have much impact on the increasingly fragmenting nature of western culture.  But I am a pastor and I do work with groups of people whose unity in faith is exercised in the reality of their diversity.  And so I work with that.  I try to understand our diversity, both its good and bad.  I try to model acceptance of the individual in the face of disagreement with some aspect of that individual’s thinking or practise.  I teach and preach the need for real communication and real openness and real understanding.  And when the reality of diversity threatens our unity, I work hard at helping the diversity of our group become an opportunity for growth and love.

Our Christian faith calls for unity within the reality of our diversity.  Loving one another isn’t dependent on our being the same.  Loving one another is based on our understanding that just as God loves us in our diversity, so we are to love each other in the diversity that we were created with.  We are not called to be the same–we are called to love each other as we are.

May the peace of God be with you.

A DIFFICULT BALANCING ACT

When I am bored or finishing up my time on the exercise bike, I spend a few minutes watching Youtube.  One of the story lines these days shows a guy walking on a webbing strap stretched between two anchor points several feet above the ground.  Since this is Youtube, the likelihood when the video starts is that things will go wrong.  Inevitably, the walker loses his balance and falls with one foot on either side of the strap, which snaps back into place now that the weight is off it.  The painful results have convinced me that this is something I never want to try.

However, I realize that I have been struggling with an equally difficult balancing act for  most of my life.  For as long as I can remember, I have been struggling with the balance between individual freedom and community responsibility.  I belong to a denomination (Baptist) which developed out of a desire for a greater role of personal freedom before God in organized faith–and have remained in that denominational family because of that foundational principle.

Yet at the same time, I have struggled with freedom that tramples on others, which often happens when people begin to think that their personal freedom (or needs or desires or wants or wishes) are absolute and take priority over everything else, including the freedom of others.   Having been on the receiving end of that sort of treatment a few times, I may be a bit more sensitive to it than some.

At the risk of over-simplifying the problem, let me try an illustration.  I am colour blind–the red-green version of this problem. (I know I should probably be saying “colour-deficient” but I have been using colour blind for so long that I am going to exercise my freedom to use the term I am familiar with.)  I struggle with anything beyond a very clear green and very clear red–once people start mixing colours, I am lost.  And so I live with and around that.  I only wear colours that I can easily identify.  I ask for directions using civic addresses not house colours.  I paint walls with whatever paint someone else picks out and will never notice if the tint is slightly off.  I use words like “light” or “dark” rather than colour names.

I choose to live in as colour-neutral a world as possible–not a world where colour doesn’t exist but where it has as little an effect on my life as possible.  That is my choice and in some ways, my need.  And when it comes to my shirts and my directions and my painting, it works well for me.  I avoid looking like a clown wearing mismatched clothing, I generally find the right location and I get the walls painted.  I have the freedom to choose my own course as a colour-blind individual in a coloured world.

But the coloured world keeps getting in my way.  I subscribe to a science magazine which has all sorts of great articles–some of which come with informative graphics like pie charts and graphs and other neat ways of presenting blocks of interesting information.  Most of them use colours to present the information, a simple and easy way of portraying information clearly–except for me, it becomes a meaningless blob of frustration because I normally can’t tell the differences in the colours.

Obviously, the whole publishing industry needs to change because of me–well, because of me and all the other colour challenged people in the world who get equally frustrated with those graphics.  They will have to present the information in other ways so I can understand it–shading and cross-hatching of various kinds would work.  And, while we are at it, maybe we need to change the fashion world so that colours are banned as well.  And maybe we should get legislation passed that limits the number of crayons in a package and makes sure that each is clearly labeled–and colouring books are marked with which crayon is appropriate for each space.  We could also require cars to be white or black, although natural metal colour might also work.

I think I just fell off the webbing strap.

May the peace of God be with you.

BEING DIFFERENT

            If balkanization is a problem, the seemingly obvious solution is for us to focus on being as much alike as we can be.  I remember reading a science fiction story years ago about a cult that decided this was the case.  They developed a strong doctrine based on everyone being the same–and then, in the logical consequence of the doctrine, every member was surgically altered so that everyone looked the same.

The story was based on the idea that no matter how much they wanted to be the same, there were still differences that could not be erased.  In that fictional group, someone was murdering members of the group.  I don’t remember the story all that well but it seems to me that the reason for the murders was that one member of the group felt that those being killed were not quite the same as all the others.

And so while making everyone the same might seem to be the antidote to balkanization, it really isn’t.  We are different and no matter how much we try to be the same, we will never make it.  Our differences are basic to our humanness–it begins in our genetic makeup and is reinforced by our experiences in life.  We have significant similarities and significant differences and both are a part of who and what we are.  We can no more ignore our differences than we can  ignore our similarities.

We need to learn to celebrate our differences without making them a basis of division.  I am left-handed.  Being left-handed makes me part of a minority–about 10% of the population is left-handed.  Since the majority of the population is predominantly right-handed, most things are designed and build by and for right-handed people.  Technically, that is a form of discrimination which puts me at a disadvantage and occasionally in danger–some tools designed for right handed-people put us lefties in danger by causing us to reach over or around spinning blades and other parts in order to use our dominant hand.

I didn’t have a choice about being left-handed–it is ultimately a result of factors beyond my control.  I have spend my life living left-handed and learning how to adapt myself to living in a right-handed world.  But I have never spent much time trying to differentiate myself from the right-handed majority nor have I spent time blaming or shaming the right-handed (except in fun when everyone knows we are having fun).  I don’t worry about being minority, majority or whatever–I just do what I do to function.  And when I can’t function as left-handed in a right-handed world, I either adapt or find a right-handed person to do the job.

I really don’t need to create a militant left-handed group.  I am left-handed and like being left-handed but that is likely because I don’t know anything else.  But I don’t need to put down right-handed people to enjoy my left-handedness.  I can celebrate and enjoy what I am without going the balkanization route.  Being left-handed isn’t one of the major flash points when it comes to human difference, although it has been at times and continues to be in a few cultures.

There are many differences that are flash points in  life–but they are flash points because of cultural, ethnic, political, theological issues.  Someone or some group decides that being from one ethnic group is not as acceptable as being from another group.  But the truth is that these differences are part of human reality.  We can be different and still be human.  We can barbeque hamburgers or goat or egg plant and still be human.  We can read the Bible in KJV or NIV or the original Greek and Hebrew and still be Christian.  We can celebrate Communion with wine or grape juice and still be faithful to God.

And if we pay attention, the differences we see and experience can help us experience more of the fullness of life and faith.  As we discover how others have faced and dealt with life and faith, we gain a deeper and broader understanding of the possibilities.  We discover that different is not wrong or better or strange or sinful–it is just different.  Some difference we can embrace–I like my Kenyan friends’ food.  Some, we can’t embrace as easily–I always have to figure out how to use right-handed tools safely.  But we can celebrate the differences–just as God does.

May the peace of God be with you.

SMALLER AND SMALLER

Somewhere in my education career, I learned a neat word that describes a somewhat nasty human process.  I think I first ran into it during high school history classes when we were looking at the political roots of the first world war.  As near as I can remember, many of the smaller middle and central European regions began seeking independence.  They wanted to form countries based on specific ethnic groupings.  This process was given a name by historians, a name that reflected the geographic location of many of these groups.  Since most were located in the Balkan region, the process was called “balkanization”.

The difficulty was that many of these groups defined themselves partly in terms of who they were and partly in terms of who they weren’t–they often wanted it to be clear that they were not part of other groups.  In fact, one of the keys to understanding the balkanization process is that the various groups not only wanted freedom for their group but also wanted dominance over the other groups.  According to historians, the regional tensions and squabbles among these groups was an underlying cause of the ensuing war.

The word isn’t all that common these days–unfortunately, the process is all too common.  We can see the process at work in the classical sense in parts of the world:  sections of Africa and even eastern Europe are engaged in movements to become independent of groups they consider less valuable than they are.  But we also see the process working itself out in less traditional ways–various political parties are finding ways to appeal to smaller and smaller groups in their attempts to build support.  Often, the rhetoric used by these groups includes a great deal of anti-other talk.

Even the church isn’t immune from the balkanization process.  In the past, it wasn’t uncommon for various denominations to make sure that its members knew who they weren’t.  I know people within my denominational family who know more about the “heresies” of other denominations than they actually know about the doctrine and polity of our particular group.

These days, balkanization is also taking another form.  Groups within denominations are claiming to have the real truth about the denominational distinctives–and making it clear that their grasp of the truth makes them better than those who see it somewhat different.  Those within my denominational family who use the KJV of the Bible like to make sure that those of us who use more modern translations know we are on the wrong track and might have endangered our place in heaven by losing sight of the “truth”.

The logical extension of this process is the one congregation denomination made up of those who have seen the truth and know that it can only be expressed outside the bounds of denominations.  True believers would not be caught dead in a denomination.

Balkanization is a serious danger in many areas–but since I am part of the church and have spent most of my life working in, with and for the church, I have seen and experienced the dangers of balkanization there from a very personal perspective.  From my earliest experiences in ministry, I have experienced the problems that come from this process.

During my first year of university, we were required to read the Bible from a relatively new translation, the New English Bible.  That requirement caused serious problems for some students, who felt that this was somehow a compromise of the faith–after all, if the KJV was good enough for Paul, it is good enough for us.  I later discovered that because I wasn’t pre-(or post- or a-) mil in my theology, I was missing the point and wandering into heretical territory.  If I read a prayer during a worship service, I was slipping away from the true faith which was based on free, spontaneous prayer, not the stifling, stilted rote prayers in a book.

Even today, I see and experience the balkanization process as work.  I happen to like to old hymns of the faith–but true believers these days need to follow the Spirit through the use of modern choruses, preferably projected on a screen.

It seems that one of the trends of the faith is more and more restricted views of truth, views that focus as much or more on what they aren’t than on what they are.  Unfortunately, history has taught us that balkanization never has a positive outcome–and no amount of noise will make it a valuable process.

May the peace of God be with you.

FIRST PERSON PLURAL

I confess that I have never been a big fan of grammar.  In school, grammar classes were painful for me–having to learn about nouns and pronouns and adverbs and conjunctions and infinitives and all the rest was just no fun.  Given that I have developed a deep love for writing and make my living as one who regularly speaks in public, my dislike of grammar might seem strange but that is the way it is.  Language is a tool to facilitate communication and as long as I can communicate, I can’t get too excited about the rules.

However, there is one area involving grammar that I have been thinking a lot about in the past few years.  And that is the area hinted at by the title of this post–the grammar of how we refer to people.  Actually, I am more concerned about the theology and psychology behind the grammar of how we refer to people.

I see this working itself out in  practical terms in the church.  I often find myself in meetings with other pastors.  I have learned that the grammar pastors use to talk about their current church situation tells a lot about the future of that particular church-pastor combination.

Almost invariably, the pastors who talk about the church as “they” are either having problems or will be having problems.  Those who talk about “we” generally don’t have as many problems.  Another difference also emerges.  Those who refer to the church in the third person plural (they) haven’t been with that church for long–and won’t be there much longer.  Those who use the first person plural (we) have been there for  awhile and will likely be there for a while longer.

This grammatical distinction occurs everywhere, not just among pastors.  But the problem isn’t because of the grammar–the grammar points to the problem.  When we use the third person in the context of people, we are emphasising the differences, drawing distinctions and making sure that people know they aren’t included in our group.  “They” are different from us and we want to emphasise the difference.

When we use the third person grammar to describe individuial or groups, we open the door to all sorts of problems, like prejudice, discrimination, injustice, exploitation and on and on.  Beyond certain legitimate grammatical usage, the way we tend to use the third person becomes a way of excluding people and making differences clear, often with the unspoken understanding that “they” aren’t good or wise or smart or rich or capable or whatever as us.

So whether it is pastors discussing church members, citizens discussing immigrants, conservative theologians or politicians discussing liberal theologians or politicians, purple people discussing fuchsia people, cat people discussing dog people, the “they” tends to the negative and includes a put down.

And while it is true that we are incredibly diverse as humans, our diversity isn’t the most important thing about us.  Underneath the differences that make us “they” is a deeper reality that makes us a “we”.  We are all humans, created in God’s image, in need of a deep relationship with God and each other and we are all somewhere between what we shouldn’t be and what God meant us to be.  And to get from where we are to where we were meant to be involves not just our relationship with God but also our relationship with each other.  It was and is God’s plan that we best become what we were meant to be by recognizing the “we” rather than the “they”.  We all need God and his help; we all mess up; we all need help–and we all need to work with each other and God to become what he meant us to be.

Our differences are real–no matter how well I speak Kiswahili and no matter how much ugali I eat, no one is ever going to seriously believe that I am a Kikamba–the differences that make me a Msungu and not a Kamba are obvious.  But I am still in relationship with my Kamba friends–before God, we are “we”, all of us in need of his grace and love and help, grace and love and help which we will find best when we come together around our similarities rather than try to magnify our  differences.  We are all in this together.

May the peace of God be with you.

“THEY” ARE PEOPLE TOO

One of the (dis?)advantages of being a pastor is that I accumulate a great deal of information about people.  In the normal course of pastoral activity, I see, hear and deduce a great many things about the people I work with.  Some of the things I know, they know I know.  Some, well, they don’t know I know.  And because I am a pastor, a lot of what I know needs to be kept confidential.

So, imagine this scenario which happens with great regularity.  We are in a meeting–Bible study, coffee party, potluck, business or whatever.  The talk turns to something topic, say whether tea or coffee is the better beverage.  A convert to coffee begins to testify–they drank tea for years and only after starting coffee did they realize that tea was so bad and evil.  Then, they begin to discuss tea drinkers–“they” are all deluded and have possibly been seriously harmed by tea.  “They” are also trying to trap people, especially good coffee drinkers, and get them mired in the tea trap.

So, I am sitting there, listening to this.  I know the convert’s story and can understand their antipathy towards tea.  But I also know that two of the people at the meeting need to drink tea regularly because of serious medical problems that only regular doses of tea can prevent from becoming terminal.  As the coffee convert becomes more agitated, I know that the tea drinkers are becoming more and more uncomfortable.  Generally, if I have any means to do so, I gently guide the discussion into a different direction, trying to avoid breaking confidence or creating a confrontational situation.

It seems to me that often when we talk about “they”, we are forgetting that “they” are actually real people.  We all have an all too human tendency to see anyone outside our comfort zone as suspicious, dangerous or just plain wrong–and even more, we somehow manage to let ourselves see them as not human.

When I studied anthropology a long time ago, I remember reading about groups of people who had very strong rules against killing people.  In their language, their group name was “people”, making everyone outside the group not people, who could therefore be killed with no penalty.  I think our modern use of “they” accomplishes the same thing.

We dehumanize people when we “they” them.  We make them less than people–they don’t need respect, they don’t need justice, they don’t need understanding, they may not even need God’s love because, well, “they” are like that.

So, go back to the fictional tea/coffee dichotomy at the fictional meeting we started with.  I know the tea drinker story and I know the coffee convert story.  I know that the coffee convert and the tea drinker are really good friends.  I also know that the tea drinker has never told the coffee convert about the tea–and so I know that as the coffee convert is talking, the tea drinker is shrinking inside and their friendship is dying a little bit.  Fortunately, this is a fictional story so I don’t have to figure out how their pastor is going to help them deal with this issue.

I have been as guilty of the “they” process as anyone.  And I have also learned the best and maybe only way to deal with the “they” process.  The more I get to know “them”, the less I am willing to dehumanize them.  As I spend time with “them”, getting to know who they are and why they do what they do and where the differences come from, it is harder and harder to lump them into a group called “they”.  The more I get to know people, the more “they” become “we”–and given the realities of life, “we” is much better for all of us than “they”.

And in the end, God wants us to be “we” not “they”.  The Bible is based on God’s love for us, a love he wants us to take to the whole world.  We all need the same thing–the love and grace of God.  God’s love doesn’t exclude or ignore or dehumanize “them” because it sees no “they” or “them”.  God’s love makes us “we”–and our call and privilege is to be used by God to make that love available for all of us.

May the peace of God be with you.