EASY ANSWERS

There is an old joke among some clergy that the right answer to any question asked in Bible study or Sunday School is Jesus or God—and if the person answering has a bit of theological insight and a slightly argumentative attitude, the case can be made that either answer is the right one. I ran into a version of this the other day.

Through a somewhat convoluted route, I discovered that the answer to my recent feelings of fatigue was to take more time to pray and come closer to God. Now, on some levels, that particular answer makes some sense. I am a pastor and things get busy and it is easy to let my devotional life slip—prayer gets done only when I have to for ministry purposes; Bible reading gets done just for preparation of something for the church; quiet time becomes a prelude to a nap. All of us and perhaps especially pastors could probably use some more personal devotional time, which makes the answer sort of right.

But in this case, the sort of answer really isn’t the right answer. I was not fatigued because my relationship with God was suffering. If anything, my relationship with God was suffering because I was fatigued. I was feeling fatigue because the churches that close for the winter had started up for the year and during the first two weeks of that, I had three funerals, all of people I had known and liked for many years. The combination of start up and funerals and extra Easter worship services made me tired.

For me, the danger of quick, easy and automatic answers is that they generally contain enough truth to sound good, especially if we mentally squint while delivering the answer. But such answers generally reveal a lack of understanding of the reality of the question or context or specifics. In my various forays into the field of training pastors, I have discovered that we pastors have a terrible tendency to trot out the simple and quick answer rather than put on the time to really discover what is going on and what is really needed.

I understand that pastors (and other spiritual leaders) are busy. I have been a pastor for more years than I want to count and can only remember a few times in all those years when I didn’t have a dozen things demanding attention—and those times were during the intervals of unemployment between churches. The rest of the time, well, the rest of the time, finishing a sermon means needing to start another one; ending a Bible study topic means beginning research on the next one; leaving the funeral means wondering if there is time to visit at the hospital before the coming meeting; going on vacation means working extra before and after so as not to get too far behind.

But being busy isn’t an excuse for finding and passing out all the simplistic and easy answers that we in ministry are sometimes tempted to do. Real ministry requires that we focus on real people with real needs and help them work towards real solutions. The model for this process comes, interestingly enough, from the traditional Sunday School answer: Jesus (or God, if you want to be argumentative).

As I read through the Gospels, I discover that Jesus didn’t have general, simple, easy answers. He provided people with answers and solutions that reflected the realities of their particular situation. Take the stories of two rich men, for example. The rich young ruler and Zacchaeus (Luke 19.1-9) and the rich young ruler (Luke 18.18-22) have a lot in common: they both have money, both are obviously searching for something; both are interested in Jesus. Yet Jesus has different solutions for them. One gets a visit and the other gets a clear and difficult choice. Jesus responds to the specific people and their specific needs.

We pastors are not Jesus and so don’t generally have the ability to instantly understand the fullness of a person like Jesus did. But we are pastors and our calling does generally include the gifts necessary to enable us to listen to people and discover the reality of their complex situation and the wisdom to allow the Spirit to work through us as we are used to help them discover their unique answer to their unique issues.

Anyway, I am going to take a nap—that will deal with my fatigue better than anything right now.

May the peace of God be with you.

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NEW PROPHETS

I have always been fascinated by the Biblical prophets, particularly the ones who lived and ministered during the middle section of the Old Testament times. Most of the named prophets at that time were men, although there are hints of women being involved at times as well. They tended to be somewhat on the edge of the cultural norms of their day, which is an important point to remember.

We in the faith, and perhaps especially those of us in ministry, have a tendency to see the prophets are important and respected and visionary individuals who words are important and timeless. But the truth is that most of the prophets in the Old Testament, especially those around the time of the collapse of the north and south kingdoms were not at the centre of things. They were not given much attention—and what attention they were given tended to be negative.

Their messages were important and essential but didn’t really register with their contemporaries. We look back at their words and messages and we discover the deep and powerful truths they were speaking and we respect and appreciate and honour them and their words—but in their day, they were ridiculed, arrested, exiled. Being a prophet was not exactly a sought after occupation during many periods in Old Testament history.

Before I continue, it occurs to me that I need to define prophecy just to make sure we are all thinking the same way. In the Bible, prophecy is used to describe the activity of people delivering specific messages from God to individuals, groups or nations. While prophecy sometimes involves some predictions and comments about the future, the key essential of prophecy is that it is a specific message from God to a specific target audience.

All of that makes me wonder. I wonder if there are prophets at work today. Well, actually, I am pretty sure there are prophets at work today. My wondering is more about where we find them. I am aware that there have been and are lots of Christian leaders who have been hailed as prophets by some group or another. And some of them may actually have been prophets. But what bothers me is that often, the decision to name someone a prophet is based on the fact that they speak a message that we like to hear.

We acclaim them prophets because their words and messages reinforce our ideas. We like what we hear and since we like it, we accept the words as coming directly from God, which makes the speaker a prophet. And while there is nothing wrong with liking what someone has to say, I do wonder if it is really prophecy.

Where is the tension, the rebuke, the correction that was such a part of Biblical prophecy? Why does God feel a need to send people to reinforce what we are already comfortable with? Where, for that matter, is the testing that is supposed to be in place to see if the message is really from God?

Maybe, instead of looking for modern prophets in the best seller section, we need to look at the edges of the faith, seeking out the people whose messages are ignored and whose words go against our flow. I am not suggesting that being on the edge makes something true—but based on the Biblical examples, being on the edge doesn’t necessarily make it false either. Popularity is not a necessary part of the definition of prophecy. In fact, in the Bible, God tends to send prophets to give corrective messages. He uses them to deliver words that go against the popular and accepted and pleasing—that is why so many of the Old Testament prophets has such a hard time.

So, where are the prophets of today? Maybe some of them are on the best seller lists, pastoring the mega churches, leading the newest church growth fad. But maybe some of them are on the edges, ignored and disrespected. Maybe the popular is prophecy—but then again, maybe the message God is trying to get across is unpopular and uncomfortable and we don’t actually want to hear it.

How do we decide? Well, a good start might be to listen more to both the popular and the unpopular and ask God to help is decide which is the real prophecy.

May the peace of God be with you.

I’M RIGHT—YOU’RE WRONG

I have been a news junkie most of my life, something I am pretty sure I inherited from my father. I can sort of remember as a relatively new reader waiting somewhat impatiently for my father to finish reading the newspaper so I could have a chance at it, not just for the funny pages but for the front page and the opinion page and all the other stuff contained within the pages. I probably spend at least a couple of hours a day reading and watching news from a variety of sources.

This can be a depressing occupation—I have many friends who simply refuse to pay any attention to news in any form. All of those friends think I am a bit strange but I can live with that. What I can’t live with is not knowing what is going on in the world.

I am pretty sure that a major part of my desire to know what is going on in the world comes from the fact that I am by nature an accumulator and analyser of information, which I then use to develop theories, understand trends, project possibilities and illustrate sermons and Bible studies. I like to know and understand what is going on so that I can make projections about what is coming.

These days, my thinking as a result of the news reports I imbibe are making me nervous. There is a powerful force towards disunity, division and dissension being exhibited all over the world these days. Everyone wants their own way—and anyone or anything that stands in the way of that is wrong. And when someone or something is wrong, they can be ridiculed, put down, sidelined, disrespected, attacked physically, legislated against, demonized—I can’t think of any more words but the picture should be clear.

Our world is following a dangerous road because the less respect and appreciation we have for others and their ideas, the more we increase the potential for conflict. The less I see someone and their ideas as valid, the more likely I am to treat them as less than human. The more I see difference as a threat, the more likely I am to attack. The bigger the threat, the more serious the attack. The progression from words to civil action to legislative action to physical action is well documented and strongly in evidence all over the world.

Whether it is one politician calling into question the intelligence or nationalism of another; a person of one sexual orientation calling someone of another a pervert; a person of one race abusing a person of another race; a zealot bombing the home of an opposing zealot the pattern is clear—we are developing a new ethic that allows us to hate and disrespect and abuse those whose views and ideas are different from ours.

Except that this isn’t a new ethic. It is almost the oldest ethical approach in the book. One early version of the process has one man killing his brother because the brother got praised for his sacrifice to God. This approach to life and others has repeated itself throughout history—it seems we human beings can’t get enough of hatred, prejudice and self-centeredness. I, my, me always seeks to come out on top—we all want them to be at least subservient to us—and it would be even better if they simply didn’t exist. And history is filled with stories of people who tried to get rid of all the “thems” in their world.

There is, of course, a different way, a way also contained in the book that has the story of the brother killing his brother. That way involves embracing the other, respecting the different, seeking the common ground between we and them. Of course, there is a catch to this other way.

Before we can really follow the other way, we have to acknowledge that neither we nor they are at the centre of creation. Creation isn’t human-centric. It is God-centric. And when we begin to see that God is at the centre, we can begin to see things differently, if we are willing to submit to the God who is really at the centre of all creation. As we submit and begin to see things through God’s eyes, the differences we magnify become less and less important.

May the peace of God be with you.

YES OR NO?

I like simple answers, answers that make it clear that something is one thing or another. But life has a way of making those simple answers much more complicated than I—or many others, for that matter—are comfortable with. Take a simple situation that occurs frequently in my life. I want to know the colour of something. My wife will tell me that what I am looking at is purple. Simple answer to a simple question.

Except that the answer isn’t that simple. Because I have red-green colour blindness, I have never actually seen the colour purple. Intellectually, I will grant that it exists. The red and blue light frequencies combine to create another colour that some people find pleasing. But for someone who has difficulty seeing red, purple isn’t actually purple—it is generally some shade of blue, although as the colour balance in that particular purple includes more and more red, it becomes some weird frankencolour that I prefer not to look at or think about.

For my wife and most other people in the world, something is either purple or not. For me and a few others, purple exists in theory but in practise, we see a variety of shades of blue or some mashup that we actually can’t identify. The simple answer to the simple question, “What colour is that?” becomes more complex and very subjective.

And it also becomes controversial. My wife and I have this habitual debate on the reality of purple. I claim it doesn’t exist and she claims it does. This is one of those familiar and comfortable jokes that married couples develop over their time together, something to smile about and enjoy. But I am sure that somewhere, some militant colourist is willing to bluntly tell me how wrong I am and that purple exists and my unwillingness to see it or admit its existence is illegal, immoral, sinful, stupid or part of a vast conspiracy threatening the whole of western civilization.

Well, maybe it isn’t quite that bad. But we do live in a culture where people who want simple yes or no answers are more and more upset with the discovery that answers aren’t as simple anymore. Now, most people really don’t get all that upset over the discovery that for some of us, the existence of purple is less black and white than they would like. But there are whole areas of life where people are being confronted by complex answers to seemingly simple questions.

Questions dealing with gender or sexual orientation for example, are producing much more complicated answers in some circles. At one point, you were either blue or pink—now, there is a whole rainbow and people are quite happy choosing a place on that rainbow for themselves and insisting that it is who they are. The blue and pink answer proponents are deeply upset with the rainbow and the rainbow proponents are deeply upset with the blue and pink proponents.

Questions dealing with faith are much more complicated as well. I grew up in a time and place where you were either a Christian or you weren’t. Sure, there were a few, generally in other denominations, who might claim faith but we true believers knew that they were only fooling themselves. True believers looked and thought like us. But now, well, it seems like anything goes. People who follow the traditional path, literally walking the aisle, find themselves confronted by people who wonder about the divinity of Christ, whether he actually existed let alone rose from the dead, who are still comfortable calling themselves Christian. The simple yes or no has become a theological debate that angers and enrages everyone.

It seems like we are generally predisposed to simple binary answers but are discovering more and more that the simple binary answers are much more complicated than we want them to be. I really don’t know what the solution is. But maybe the way I deal with purple is some help.

In spite of my running joke with my wife, I know that purple exists. My inability to see it doesn’t change the reality of purple. I have to live with the fact that for most people, purple exists but for me, it doesn’t. Ultimately, life is complicated and I need to accept the reality that there is more going on than I see or understand and maybe I have to trust that in the end, God knows what is going on, even if I don’t.

May the peace of God be with you.

DON’T GET CAUGHT!

I grew up physically and spiritually in a rural, conservative environment. The church I was part of for most of my childhood wasn’t hyper-rigid like some but it was conservative in its views and teaching. I absorbed that mindset along with the cookies and juice served at snack time during Vacation Bible School.

I don’t think I ever heard a sermon explicitly giving the rules but I pretty much knew by the time I as a teen that “good Christians” obeyed the big three: “Don’t drink, Don’t smoke, Don’t dance.” There were of course, other evils, like anything sexual but Christians didn’t even think about stuff like that so we didn’t need rules in those areas. There were, of course, Christians who did that stuff—but they were always from other churches, not ours. We obeyed the rules.

But even then, I sort of noticed something that I liked to pretend wasn’t there. Some of the “good Christians” from our church actually did some of the big three—occasionally at the same time. How did I know? Well, we were teens in a small town who didn’t have a whole lot to do so we talked and eventually the “good Christian” would get around to telling some of us what they did—or those of us who didn’t break the rules but stood as close to the boundary as possible would see them break the rule.

As long as it was only us who knew about the infraction, they pretty much got away with it—and actually became something of underground heros in the group. The peer group rules wouldn’t allow anyone to tell about the infraction so we would all attend Sunday School and worship pretty much knowing that Mike wasn’t actually suffering from a cold coming on–he was a bit hung-over.

This secrecy would continue until the good Christian was caught breaking the rules by someone important, like another church member or a deacon or the church gossip or, heaven forbid, the minister. Then, well, the phrase “all hell broke loose” was coined just for times like that. The newly discovered sinner would be the talk of the church and town. Their infraction, as well as suggested and real punishments would be the topic of conversation everywhere, including the local barber shop, where the barber was a member of our church.

And the rest of us good Christians, who knew about the infraction before it was discovered, including those in the peer group who were equally guilty but undiscovered? Well, we picked up stones and heaved them as accurately and as powerfully as anyone else. As we stoned the offender, we also prayed. We joined the rest of the church in praying for the soul of the offender and we also prayed with even more fervor that the offender would remember the rules of silence that controlled the peer group.

As I have reflected on all that, I realize that our group, like all groups, actually had another rule, one that nobody ever actually articulated but which was nonetheless as powerful as all the other rules. This unspoken rule was simple: “Don’t get caught!”. In many ways, getting caught was a more serious infraction than breaking all the others at the same time. Getting caught was not just a sign that you were a sinner but even more significantly, you weren’t all that bright a sinner. Getting caught jeopardized the whole elaborate hypocritical structure that allowed the rest of us to indulge in rule breaking while still getting to keep our saintliness intact. Someone getting caught exposed the reality we didn’t want to have exposed and so we needed to attack mercilessly just to protect ourselves—how could someone who threw so many stones so hard and so accurately be guilty of such a sin?

In our current cultural environment, I see a lot of my past. Wrongs are being exposed—and that is a good thing. Much evil has been done and much hurt has resulted and it all needs to be dealt with in an open, therapeutic and cleansing manner. But at the same time, those of us who haven’t been caught need to be wise. We might not have done what is currently being revealed but since none of us is perfect, maybe we should use fewer stones and more mercy when someone is caught.

May the peace of God be with you.

SINNER OR STUPID?

Another public figure has recently been outed. A picture has show up; a blog post has surfaced; an informant has come forward. The past has been revealed and the public figure is now in the process: denial, grudging admission, pleading for understanding, all followed by the inevitable crash and burn. For political figures, that means resignation and finding a real job; for media celebrities, it means no more screaming fans; for church leaders, it means loss of pulpit and reputation.

Since we live in an age where everything is likely documented somewhere and someone has the ability to discover the past, it is pretty much inevitable that nothing can ever be hidden forever. I fully expect that this trend will reach the point where the startling revelation will be that so and so messed their diapers at age 3 months, which shows that they are totally unfit for whatever prominent position they are currently occupied.

Leaving aside the basic problem that our western culture, after having dethroned the Judeo-Christian ethical tradition that was used for so long, is now in the process of developing a new ethical system on the fly, a system that seems to be based on highly subjective feelings tinged with a strong desire for revenge and which changes with the volume of outrage that can be stirred up, there is a problem with all the revelations and reactions.

The problem is that people aren’t being allowed to be real people. Real people are sometimes sinners and sometimes just plain stupid—it is hard to tell the difference but there is a real difference, especially in the way they need to be dealt with. Sin is a deliberate choice to break the rules. Stupidity may also break the rules but tends to be the result of poor thinking choices sometimes encouraged by peer groups, substance abuse or bravado.

Sin, that deliberate choice to break rules that can cause harm to society, others and self is only really dealt with when people confront their inner motivations and desires and accept whatever help they need to make changes. In a culture increasingly divorced from religion and faith of any kind, it is harder and harder to deal constructively with sin and sinners, which may be why condemnation, denunciation and punishment are the go to approaches in our culture.

Stupidity, however, is sometimes a bit easier to deal with. What I am labelling as stupidity is more likely ignorance—people don’t actually know that what they are doing is wrong or offensive or unacceptable. Ignorance can be dealt with by providing information. We can teach people out of stupidity and ignorance. Most of us have successfully grown past a lot of our ignorance and stupidity. But if, after being taught and understanding the teaching, they persist in whatever was wrong, then they are likely following the path of sin.

So, some public figure gets caught about a decades old problem. Again, leaving aside the shifting moral sands that our western culture pretends isn’t a problem, the response to the revelation probably needs to be more nuanced. Was it sin or stupidity? If it was stupidity, has the individual in question learned and grown out of the stupidity? Are they as ignorant today as they were back then? If the action in question was the result of stupidity and the individual has grown out of that particular stupidity and both knows and lives better today, maybe we need to let it go, just like we let the dirty diapers of infants go.

If, however, it is actually sin, a conscious choice to do wrong (again, ignoring the fact that our western culture doesn’t have clear standards of right and wrong) and the individual hasn’t shown any desire to be different and only stops because they got caught, we need to deal with that differently. There is a way to deal with it, a way that involved confession, remorse and asking for forgiveness, a process that can still be found through God, even if our confused culture isn’t sure what to do with real sin beyond seek revenge.

People are going to do sinful and stupid stuff. The more prominent a person becomes, the higher the likelihood that their past will end up as headlines somewhere. Before we start piling on, maybe we should try and discover if the person who was sinful and stupid back then is the same person before us today. That would be the graceful thing to do.

May the peace of God be with you.

SEVENTY TIMES SEVEN

There are some parts of the Christian faith that bother me—well, actually, I have to be honest and say that sometimes, I positively hate some aspects of the faith that has guided my life for so long. I wish those parts weren’t there—and I have discovered that I am not alone in disliking parts of the faith. I have also discovered that I have a tendency to handle my dislike differently than some people.

Some I have heard and read deal with their dislike by ignoring the parts that they want removed. For all practical purposes, they remove the offending ideas from their thinking and their version of the faith. I can’t actually do that because as much as I dislike or even hate some of what the faith teaches, I have to take it seriously and figure out how I deal with it.

And that means that I have to regularly spend time looking at what is probably one of the most offensive parts of the faith for me at times—the whole issue of forgiveness. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am all for forgiveness. I encourage people to forgive; I try to practise forgiveness; I have done extensive theological, Biblical and psychological studies of forgiveness. I deeply value the forgiveness that I was given when I accepted Christ. I get excited when someone discovers the reality of forgiveness in their lives.

None of that bothers me. What bothers me is that as far as God is concerned, forgiveness is so easy and so complete and so freely given. Jesus, in fact, suggests that if someone sins against me, I need to forgive him seventy seven times (or seventy times seven times, depending on the translation) for the same offense. When I am the offender and the offense is raiding the chocolate stash too much, I am okay with that, although some of that may be from the psychological effects of the chocolate.

But when the offender is a child sexual abuser whose habit causes deep, long term trauma for his victims, I am much less willing to forgive. I don’t actually want to forgive once, let alone seventy seven or seventy times seven times. I much prefer the vision of such an individual suffering in the fires of hell for all eternity. As a pastoral counsellor, I have spend a lot of time helping victims of such abuse try to repair lives shattered by such people.

What I like even less, though, is that any limits on forgiveness that I want don’t just apply to the sins and sinners I choose. If we humans were allowed to set enforceable limits on forgiveness, ultimately no one would have to forgive and no one would be forgiven because somewhere, somehow, someone is going to be deeply offended by any given offense—someone is sure to be deeply upset by my relatively minor infraction of sneaking the chocolate too often.

God has taken a much different approach to forgiveness. He forgives-in fact, he is in the forgiveness business. “Are you a sinner?” he asks? “Do I have a deal for you on forgiveness!” Then, he proceeds to offer all humanity full, complete and no strings attached forgiveness. I do appreciate this, right up until it includes the child abuser who has caused so much trauma for so many people—and then I want to draw a line.

Fortunately, I am not in charge of forgiveness. God is in charge and he has seen fit to create a limitless forgiveness that covers my chocolate raids and the child sexual abuser. I do appreciate the forgiveness for my small and unspectacular sins—but accepting it means that I also have to accept the fact that God offers the same forgiveness to the habitual child sex offender.

In the end, I think I am glad that God is in charge and not me. I might have some serious trouble with the limitlessness of God’s love and forgiveness at times but because I want his love and forgiveness to apply to me, I have to accept that it applies equally to everyone. I may not like that reality at times but it is part of my faith, a vital part that allows me to be reunited with God—and if I take that part away from others, it may not apply to me either.

May the peace of God be with you.

FAMILIES

I have been in ministry for over 40 years. I have the sermon pile, the pastoral weight gain and the grey hair to prove all that. But there are a great many people who don’t seem to understand the full implications of 40+ years of ministry. Either they think that clergy are the most sheltered people in the world or we are the most unobservant and unintelligent people around.

I say this because there are a great many people both inside and outside the church who feel it necessary to clue me in on things that they think will surprise me, upset me or shock me. It is not uncommon, for example, for someone to drag me aside to give me vital information about the family I am working with during funeral planning. In the corner, speaking quietly, they inform me that there are tensions within the family that might make the whole funeral difficult. Or the wedding planning process that someone feels they need to talk to me about because someone won’t like it if someone else is involved.

Then there are the shocking moral issues that people feel they need to bring to me, perhaps thinking that I need to be warned so that I don’t pass out when I discover that the couple I am going to marry are already living together and have a child or that the older gentleman I am conducting the funeral for was an alcoholic. Or perhaps they feel I need to know that the child of one of the church members is actually gay and that is causing some problems in the family.

I listen to all these insights and revelations and nod pastorally. But inside, I have to confess that I am thinking something like, “Do you actually think I am that stupid/naive/out of touch?” I am a pastor, which means that I know almost as much about people and their families as the village gossip—and I gained my knowledge legitimately and know what is true and what is made up. I am also because of my training, my experience and my nature, as capable social observer. I am rarely surprised and even when I am, can actually see the reality of the new revelation pretty quickly.

It is actually a major part of my calling to understand and know people. I think it is also a major part of my calling to know and understand and accept the realities that I am working with. People are people and families are families. We all have good and bad, positive and negative, inspiring and sordid mixed together in a tangled and confusing mess that makes us what we are. To find a family where some members are at odds with each other isn’t a surprise to a pastor—actually, the surprise is finding a family where that isn’t true.

As I have thought about this, I think that part of the problem lies with clergy. Some clergy have been and perhaps are guilty of pretending that the darker side of life is beyond them. As a body, we have perhaps been too eager to condemn the failings in individuals and families. Rather than accept and work with the realities, we have condemned, which has caused people to try to hide things and cover them over. But that isn’t a very effective way of dealing with the negatives of life.

As a pastor, my job isn’t to encourage people to hide stuff from themselves, others and me. I see my job as helping people accept their reality as a first step towards dealing with it. If I can accept their reality, it helps them accept their reality—and if I can accept their reality and them, maybe they can find the courage and insight to deal with the painful darker stuff that they, like everyone has. My model for this, of course, is Jesus who saw the darkest and deepest and most hidden realities in every life and still loved and accepted and offered the fullness of his love and grace. He did get somewhat testy with all those trying to put on a false front but for the rest, he knew, accepted and loved.

So, I listen to all the revelations that a delicate pastoral personality could never expect, thank the revealer and keep on doing what I always do—helping people discover God’s love and grace no matter what their reality is.

May the peace of God be with you.

FIRST SNOW

In the last few weeks, I have run onto several recent immigrants to our area, several of whom haven’t had the pleasure of driving in snow. They were talking a bit about the process of discovering snow tires, low speed trips, watching the weather, allowing more time than normal and all that sort of stuff that I grew up knowing. While some of the people I have been talking to have several years of winter driving under their seatbelts at this point, they confess to still being nervous.

Generally, winter driving doesn’t make me nervous—except for the very first storm that puts real snow on the road, especially if that storm begins during the day time and the snow accumulates before dark. Then, I get really nervous. A minor part of the nervousness comes from the inherent danger of driving in snow—that is a good nervousness because it causes me to remember all the winter driving techniques that I have learned over the years: slow down, don’t make sudden starts or stops, slow down. allow lots more space between cars, slow down, pay more attention to oncoming traffic, slow down, never pass the snow plow and finally, slow down. Remembering and following these rules has saved me from lots of accidents. The accidents that I and others had to prove the value of these rules did have a positive side.

But remembering the rules accounts for only a minor part of the nervousness. Most of my anxiety and stress with winter driving comes from having to share the road with other drivers. Most drivers in Canada quickly remember and adapt to winter driving techniques—but there are a few who seem to think that driving in snow and slush is exactly the same as driving on clear dry roads. Those drivers really bother me. They may think they have control as they pass several prudent drivers, slipping and sliding as they (probably) curse and fume at all us slower drivers. But they don’t have as much control as they think and their next accident is only a slip away—and my nervousness comes from the fact that I really don’t want to be in their way when they lose their tenuous traction and spin out. Slippery roads mean I have very little chance of avoiding their out of control vehicle.

When I meet or am passed by such a driver, I almost always get around to asking myself why people do stuff like that—generally, that comes after I question their sanity in less than ministerial terms. (I freely admit to not being perfect and there is nothing like a poor driver to bring out my imperfection). I don’t actually know why I ask about their motives because ultimately, the answer is basic theology.

We are sinful beings, a traditional theological way of saying that we are all selfish and think that we are the centre of the world. We tend to think that if the world doesn’t revolve around us, it should and we have a tendency to act in ways that confirm our selfishness. So, if I don’t want to slow down on snowy roads, the world needs to accommodate me. I may justify it by saying that I am an experienced driver or that I have a car that is good in snow or that I have four wheel drive or that I can handle the snow better than others but the reality is that my sinfulness is showing.

And that means that I need to do some work on myself. While I tend to focus on their sinful and selfish poor driving, I probably need to focus more on my sinful and selfish judgemental attitude. I might be driving slower than they are but I am being as sinful as they are—and since I can’t really reform them, I need to focus on what I can really control: my driving and my attitude. I probably need to drop the stone that I want to throw at the poor driver and deal with my own sin.

It is much easier and more gratifying to judge the other driver—but as a follower of Christ, I need to allow the Holy Spirit (and maybe the police) to deal with that driver while I ask for the Spirit’s help to deal with my own sin.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHERE IS FORGIVENESS?

The Bible study that closes down for the summer was starting up again for the fall. People began arriving and the talking and sharing begins. I sit at the table, enjoying the presence of the group—I miss these sessions. My attention hops from group to group, sampling their conversations until there are so any streams going that I really can’t follow them. One of the sub-groups asks me a question that draws me into their conversation.

They are talking about the latest revelation about someone prominent who has done something that he shouldn’t have done. The conversation doesn’t take the predictable course, with speculation on whether he did or didn’t and whether he will get away with it. Interestingly enough, the incident opened a larger discussion of ethics and morality. Our western culture is in the midst of an ethical upheaval where established and accepted moral standards are being challenged.

While it is too early to tell exactly which direction the process will settle on, there was one question that this little group wanted to talk about. There is much about the new ethic that is commendable: any approach that protects anyone from being exploited and takes away the exploiter impunity is an improvement. When people can expect special treatment because of their age, gender, economic status, race or political persuasion or any other standard, that ethical and moral code needs to be challenged.

This challenge to the status quo is relatively new—but it has fairly deep roots. One could make a case that its roots go all the way back to Jesus and his teachings. But if we are not prepared to go back that far, we can at least suggest that the roots go back to the turbulent 60s. I am pretty sure that the movement will result in a significant alteration on the ethical practises of many in leadership, which is a very good thing. Exploitation and abuse are sin, no matter how accepted and normalized we want to pretend it is.

I have high hopes for this whole cultural process—but I also have a worry. There is an area of the process that probably needs to be given some serious thought. Opening doors on the underlying abuse and exploitation that has been a hidden and accepted part of our western culture is good. But at some point, we need to decide what we are going to do about, with and for the exploiters and abusers. Currently, there doesn’t seem to be much going on in that direction. Revelation and exposure are the key themes right now, with punishment of some form as a minor theme.

But the question that needs to be addressed is this: Is this developing ethical and moral movement going to include a process for forgiveness? Will there be a way for the exploiter and the abuser to put the past behind them and develop a new life? This question is incredibly important because if we say no to forgiveness, we simple invert the present process and turn the victims into the abusers.

Abuse of any sort destroys significant parts of the victim’s life. Exploitation of any sort destroys significant parts of the exploited’s life. But to simple turn the tables and make the abused the abuser and the exploited the exploiter doesn’t make things better because abuse and exploitation also destroy significant parts of the abuser’s and exploiter’s lives.

Forgiveness, on the other hand, allows both sides an opportunity to change direction. It provides a new start. Certainly, there will be effects and consequences for both sides that will have long term effects. Abusers should suffer consequences like imprisonment and loss of status. The abused will suffer consequences like long term emotional struggles. But without a process of forgiveness, both abuser and abused are locked into their respective roles and consequences with no hope of anything better.

Forgiveness unlocks the chains binding both the abuser and the abused, allowing them to see, accept and move beyond the evil. Forgiveness opens new roads that replace the roads blocked by the abuse. Forgiveness also provides a much needed alternative to the dangerous and empty road of revenge and counter-revenge which some find so tempting.

Abuse and exploitation in any form are wrong—and the current movement to stop the institutionalized abuse and exploitation that has been so deeply a part of our culture is a good thing. It will become a great social movement when it begins to include the reality of forgiveness in the process.

May the peace of God be with you.