WHY BOTHER?

I don’t get to attend worship as an ordinary participant very often. Generally, I get to do that while I am on vacation, unless we decide not to attend that Sunday which happens. But when I do, I notice just how far from the prevailing cultural norms I actually am. Most preachers these days were jeans and polo shirts or some other casual attire. I have noticed that most clean up and wear a suit and tie for funerals and maybe some weddings but mostly, the causal, comfortable look dominated the pulpit these days.

I happen to think that is great. It sets a tone for worship and enables both preacher and congregation to relax and enjoy the reality of God and his love and grace. Being comfortable in the presence of God is one of the prime messages of the Christian faith and the trend to casual, comfortable clothing is a visual and powerful statement of the relationship we have with God because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

But when I am leading the worship and preaching, I will be wearing one of my two dark suits and one of my small selection of ties. There are two exceptions:

• When it is really warm, I lose the suit jacket.
• When we are having a potluck, I wear the sporty pants than came with the new suit

Isn’t that just a bit hypocritical on my part, especially since I love to point out the pointlessness of wearing ties and encourage people to dress as comfortable as possible? In fact, when asked about our church’s dress code, I tell people that we have a very strict code—you have to wear clothes. But week after week, there I am, wearing my suit and tie while everyone else has jeans, shorts (in summer), sneakers and definitely, no tie.

It probably is hypocritical on some levels but on other levels, what I am wearing is perfectly congruent with what I am telling people. I encourage people to be comfortable with what they are wearing for worship. And for me, that means a suit and tie. My experience and cultural influences go way back and are deeply rooted. I grew up in the era when worship attire was the best jacket and tie you had. I spent serious time working with an independent Kenyan denomination which has a fairly formal dress code—the only leaders who don’t have to wear ties are the ones entitled to wear clerical collars.

I actually upset the leadership of the church in Kenya early in my first time there. I wasn’t wearing a tie to teach—after all, ties are anachronistic cultural hold overs that have no real purpose or meaning. When the church leaders finally got up enough courage to suggest that I wear a tie, I realized my mistake, apologized and put on a tie. Given the heat in Kenya much of the school year, they didn’t mind if I skipped the suit jacket now and then.

I just don’t feel comfortable leading worship and preaching unless I am wearing a tie and at least part of my suit—the jacket doesn’t count on warm days. It isn’t a requirement placed on me by anyone else. In fact, I might fight against any regulation that said I had to wear a tie, at least in North America. I don’t make it a requirement for anyone else—not even the occasionally student I mentor for the nearby seminary. If someone wants to come to worship in ripped jeans and well worn t-shirt, I welcome them and am not the least concerned about their costume. If they are comfortable, they can probably better enter into the reality of worship and have a better experience of the awareness of the presence of God.

And me—well, wearing my suit and tie allows me to be comfortable in the presence of God. He doesn’t require it but my personal culture and background does. I could put in the effort to align my personal preference with the freedom that I teach and preach and encourage for others—but truthfully, I am comfortable doing what I do and there is enough really serious stuff that I need to deal with in my personal life that it isn’t worth the effort to change my approach to worship wear. I am comfortable, God loves me and the people understand me. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

May the peace of God be with you.

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CATCHING UP

As I was writing the last post about the never ending nature of ministry, I realized that there is another aspect of ministry that is probably even more of a problem than the fact that nothing is ever done. And that is the fact that in the end, I am always behind. There is always something sitting there that should have been done yesterday or last week or even last month. On some levels, ministry sometimes feels like mad dash to try and get last week’s work done before the end of this week.

I have a meeting report that should have been presented to the church about three weeks ago. I have an unfinished annual report that would be better if I actually got it done before heading out for the annual meeting. I have been promising certain people that I am going to drop in for a visit for long enough that it is embarrassing to see them now. Some stuff, of course, I can’t get behind on—the sermon always has to be ready for Sunday, a reality that often means the work on the sermon pushes something else into the background.

My problem is compounded by the fact that I am a part-time pastor who believes in being part time. I try to be careful with my work hours and try as much as possible to keep within viewing distance of the agreed upon hours. And so, within the context of my work agreement, two things happen:

• Stuff keeps getting put off to as later date, when there will be more time to get it done.
• I work more hours than I should, knowing that when things slow down, I will take some time off.

Basically, I keep telling myself that someday, I will get caught up because things will slow down and there will be time to get everything done and take some time off. It is a good message to give to myself, even though I know that it really isn’t true. It is one of those messages we give ourselves so that we can cope with the uncopable. There will never be enough time to get everything done; I am not actually ever going to catch up; a delayed task that I finish is probably going to be at the expense of some other task or my time.

Ministry has a way of filling up time and space. Some people deal with this reality by running as hard as they can, hoping that they will get it all done on time and perfectly. And while that might sound commendable, it is a process that actually has another name—it is better called burnout.

I decided a long time ago, probably around my first bout of near burnout that a much better approach was learning how to set and keep priorities. In a world when I am always going to be behind, I decided to learn what could slip, how long it could slip and how to measure the consequences of the slip.

So, a sermon has very limited slip time—and not having the sermon done has serious consequences. A pastoral visit, though important, often has more slip time and occasionally, there are no real long term consequences if I don’t get to it this month. A funeral—no slippage and serious consequences if I skip it. Writing a report about the meeting last month, well, so far the slippage hasn’t been noticed by anyone but me and there are limited consequences if I let it slip some more.

In the end, I know that I am never going to get caught up. Even when I tie up some of the delayed stuff, more gets added to the list. I am probably never going to work off all the extra hours of work time. Someday is actually like tomorrow—I keep looking for it but it never comes. But within that context, I set priorities, I get stuff done, I let things slip, I even manage to take some time off. It is never enough, I will never get caught up but then again being caught up isn’t the goal of what I do anyway.

I do what I do because I have been called by God to do it and in the end, I depend on his leading to help me see what needs to be done now, what can be done later and what just might never need to be done.

May the peace of God be with you.

BEING FAITHFUL

This week’s posts have been more on the introspective side and could be interpreted to suggest that I am slipping into the chasm of depression—introspection, especially introspection focused on the realities of my current pastoral settings, can easily go that way. Small and decreasing numbers combined with my age and stage of life could make it easy to feel that not only am I wasting my time now but since I have spent my whole life in ministry with small churches, maybe I have wasted my whole ministry.

And I will openly confess that I am no stranger to that line of thought. When I hear of a colleague or former student who has been called to a larger congregation, I have a tinge (or more) of jealousy. When I realize that my name doesn’t come up much anymore when people are looking for someone to be a part of an important committee, I am simultaneously relieved that I don’t have to make a decision about the extra work and annoyed that I wasn’t even considered.

That being said, the times of jealousy and annoyance are not a major part of my life—they are there but on the scale of how they affect me, they are more like the bald spot I can’t see on the back of my head than the continual pain from my very old knees. I know the bald spot is there but while a full head of hair would be nice, it isn’t something I spend much energy on, except to remember a hat on sunny days—a sunburned bald spot isn’t pleasant.

A year or two after I had begun my first pastoral charge, I got a letter from a large congregation—you know this was a long time ago because it was an actual letter, not an email or text. People did that sort of thing way back then. Anyway, this church, one of the largest in the area at the time, wanted me to submit a resume for consideration as their next pastor. I was home by myself when I got the letter and it was exciting and gratifying and I was sure that this had to be God’s leading. I began packing—at least in my mind, I began packing.

But there was still a sermon to write for the church I was serving and a Bible study to get ready and a call or two to make. I also went for a walk—this was back in the days when my knees didn’t control my activity as much. The day passed and the letter sat on my desk—I was sure that when my wife got home from work, we would both be planning our move.

Except that by the time she got home, I realized that although it was really flattering to be considered for that position, it wasn’t for me. At the time, I realized it wasn’t for me at that point in time but looking back, I now realize that the call to a big congregation wasn’t ever one for me. God had a place and a purpose for me, one that kept me serving and working with small struggling congregations that needed someone to really care for them.

Since that first letter, there have been other letters, emails and phone calls from larger churches. Each one brought much the same reaction—excitement at being considered followed eventually by a clear sense that this wasn’t for me. And it wasn’t because I was avoiding the big churches—it was just that each time, there was the clear sense that I was where I was for a reason and when that reason was taken care of God would clearly show me what was next.

Being faithful has always been important to me, more important than moving up the ladder. I am not suggesting that anyone accepting a call to a larger church isn’t being faithful—I am saying that for me to have accepted any of those calls would have been unfaithful. Most of the people I know serving large congregations are good at what they do and are faithfully serving where they are clearly called.

The facts that I am sometimes jealous of them and often these days don’t really know what I am doing are realities that I am aware of. But the deeper reality is that I have tried to be faithful and that is more important to me than anything.

May the peace of God be with you.

DRIVING BY OTHER CHURCHES

I spend a lot of time on the road when I am working. The nearest of the churches I serve is an 18 kilometer round trip and the most distant is a 78 kilometer round trip. No matter which building I am going to, I have to pass other churches—some Baptist and some representing other denominations. And because I have lived in this area for a long time, I know quite a bit about those other churches.

And the one fact that stares me in face every time I drive by is that they all have more people in worship that I have. It doesn’t matter which denomination or where they are on the theological spectrum, they have more people in worship than I have. There are a couple of congregations in the area that have fewer but they aren’t on my regular routes so the bottom line is that every congregation I drive by has more people in worship than I have.

Now, being the spiritually mature, balanced and understanding pastor that I am, this doesn’t bother me at all. I can drive by and say a prayer of thanksgiving that they are doing so well and go to my small worship spiritually secure in the knowledge that all is well and that numbers don’t matter and that as long as God is being praised, all is well.

And if you are willing to believe that last paragraph, can I interest you in some land I have for sale? It is a great piece of land, although we need to wait for a six month dry spell so the ground is firm enough to stand on without sinking in too much.

Being the pastor of some of the smallest congregations in our area does bother me, especially since I have been working there for over two years and have managed to slightly decrease our average attendance in that time. Driving by other congregations can be painful.

I drive by the very conservative ones that have clear answers for everything, along with lots and lots of cars in the parking lot and wonder if maybe I need to start giving people clear answers like those groups do. But then, as I think about the people in the pews that I work with week after week, I realize that they neither need nor want clear and rigid answers—their faith needs the freedom to ask questions and seek answers that is such a strong part of our ministry.

I drive by the buildings of more liberal denominations which sometimes question what I consider the basics of the faith—and who also have lots of cars in the parking lot. I wonder of maybe I should copy their approach—but then I remember that most of the people I work with have built their lives and their faith on these foundational realities.

I drive by charismatic congregations, whose music and worship are obviously attracting people, at least according to the number of cars in the lot and I wonder if maybe we need to ditch the organ and piano and traditional hymns for a worship team and choruses projected on the wall—but then I remember that we are lucky to have any musician at all and we do like the older hymns but when possible, we try some new stuff.

So, I drive by. I look at the cars in the lot with some envy and maybe more jealousy that I am comfortable with. I wonder if I am doing something wrong that keeps us small and struggling. I wonder if maybe we should close up shop and go somewhere else. And then I realize that we gather each week for worship and for Bible study because we have found something that works for us. It probably won’t work for others—well, obviously, it doesn’t work for a lot of others because they aren’t there. But what happens in other places might not work for us either—I know that because some have tied hard to fit in there and it just doesn’t work.

So, I drive by and look at the cars and continue to my congregations where we gather as a small group seeking to understand God’s presence and calling and purpose for us. I don’t really know why we are who and what we are—but I do know that we are who and what we are because God has called us together and works in and through us—and for now, that counteracts the parking lot envy enough to keep me going.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHICH DIRECTION?

These days, I find myself spending a lot of time wondering where I am going, at least in terms of the churches I have been called to pastor. Both the pastorates I work with have great people and lots of potential. While neither of them is actually rolling in money, they both have enough to ensure they have a future, especially since they have made the difficult decision to move to part-time ministry. Both are located in geographical settings where they are basically the only organized expression of the Christian faith. And although both settings don’t have as many people as they used to have, there are still a significant number of people living in the communities served by the congregations and a significant number of them have no real connection with our faith.

I am entering my third year of service with this somewhat unique ministry—and to be totally honest, I have much less idea of what I am supposed to be doing than I did when I began this work. When I began, the process was clear: lead worship and preach on Sunday, prepare and lead Bible study and get to know the people, as well as deal with things like weddings and funerals and so on. In the process of doing that basic stuff, I would work at developing a sense of the churches and communities and help develop an approach to ministry that would help the churches become more healthy.

I have been doing this for a lot of years and used to think that I was pretty good at this process. I listen, observe, ask questions, research and eventually, begin to get a sense not just of what is but of what can be. I work with the church and together, we do what we feel God is calling us to do in the way God is calling us to do it. Generally, by the two year mark, I am starting to develop a fairly well focused sense of the church and its needs.

But instead of having this developing focus, I find myself these days spending a lot of time wondering what I am doing, what I need to be doing, what is needed for the church and what directions we need to be moving in. Since my ministry involves a lot of time in the car, I find myself wondering what I am supposed to be doing a lot during the drives between home and church building. But I also catch myself worrying the question when I am sanding a piece of my woodworking project or preparing a preaching plan or waiting in the line up at the grocery store.

I spend a lot of time on the question because I don’t have an answer. We have a great spirit in both settings—but our numbers are not improving and our average age isn’t decreasing. We are doing some interesting and innovative things but so far, no matter how much we enjoy it, noting much has changed our overall reality. We hear through the grapevine that people in the communities are noticing us and are pleased at what they see, something that hasn’t always been the case in our communities but that hasn’t translated more people coming to worship or special programs.

As individuals, we are learning more and more about our faith and what it means to us and we are learning how to express that faith to each other in better ways. We have been experimenting with a lot of stuff and we are finding stuff that we enjoy and stuff that we don’t really need. Our worship tends to be a bit more worshipful, our Bible study tends to be a bit more significant, our churches seem a bit more churchy—but for all that, we are still small, rural churches caught in a long-term decline. I like to think that the rate of decline has slowed down since we began looking at ourselves but the truth is that the causes of our decline haven’t really changed—we are still basically the same people we were two years ago but we are all two years older.

So, I wonder. What are we supposed to do and where are we supposed to be going and most especially, what am I supposed to be doing as the pastor of these churches?

May the peace of God be with you.

A SUNNY DAY

Sunday morning—a bright, sunny day. While the overnight temperature was below zero, the day promised to warm up. In fact, by the time I was ready to leave for the first of two worship services, it was warm enough that I didn’t feel the need for a topcoat—my suit jacket would be enough for the short distances that I would be walking outside. It was a really nice day, after a longish spell of cloudy, drippy gray days and I was enjoying it to the fullest.

Well, actually, I wasn’t enjoying it to the fullest. Enjoying it to the fullest would probably involve a walk ( or hobble, in my case), a bike ride, a trip to a park or other wilderness area or something like that. Enjoying it to the fullest doesn’t involve having two worship services that keep me inside older, slightly moldy buildings. But that is the reality of most Sundays for me—it’s why I get the big bucks.

Well, actually, it is what I have been called to. And mostly, I am okay with my calling. But I do have to confess that now and then, I kind of wish that I had the option that most church people have—the option of taking the day off and enjoying the sun. I know worship is supposed to be an important part of the week and it is an expression of my gratitude to God and the call to lead God’s people in worship is scared and all that, but honestly, some days, I would like to have a bit more choice.

There are two types of Sundays that make me feel that way. One is the bright, sunny day after a period of drippy days, like the one I described at the beginning of this post. The other kind of day that inspires these feelings is a snowy, windy, blizzard day. I love snow storms—they inspire me. There is nothing better than being out in a snow storm, clearing the driveway or cross country skiing—and the only thing that even comes close to that feeling is sitting inside the warm house, drinking a coffee-hot chocolate blend while watching the snow swirl and twist and pile up, which I seem to be doing more and more of on such days as I get older.

Generally, I get my wish for a day off on the snow storm days. Since I am a braver (dumber?) driver than most church people, I have removed myself from that decision making process and leave it completely to the church. I have served churches long enough to pretty much know what their decision will be just by looking out the window and can actually start enjoying the day before the official phone call.

But bright, sunny days—well, there is no protocol for those days. The roads are clear and dry, the parking lot is open, the building is warm, everything is a go. The members choose whether they will come to worship or visit a friend, take a walk, go for a bike ride, go out for lunch. Bright, sunny days in the spring tend to have about the same attendance as the Sundays when there are flurries but not enough to invoke the cancelation process. People stay away for different reasons and different people stay away on different days but the weather makes a significant difference on attendance—and really great days have about the same effect as borderline days.

Except for me. I do get the occasional snow day, which I enjoy. But the bright, sunny days after several gray days, well, no matter how much I suggest to the deacons and the whole church, we don’t have a policy about them. We aren’t going to cancel when the weather is so nice that being inside a stuffy, somewhat moldy building seems wrong. That strikes me as a bit of a double standard and maybe even discriminatory against people whose constitution requires an adequate amount of sun but that is the way it is I guess.

And in the end, I probably don’t actually want the day off. I know that when we have a snow day, I am disappointed that we aren’t having worship and so I would probably feel the same way about a worship service cancelled because the day is too nice. But I like to play with the idea anyway.

May the peace of God be with you.

PICKING MY BATTLES

Meetings are an occupational hazard for people in ministry. Sometimes it seems to me that no ministry can actually happen unless there is a meeting involved—and the more meetings, the more important the ministry. The problem with meetings though, is that they involve people and even more, they involve people who don’t necessarily agree with everything that I think.

At times in the past, that reality has resulted in my becoming involved in long, complicated and occasionally less than pleasant debates and even arguments. Disagreement needed to be dealt with. Everyone needed to have the benefit of my wisdom and understanding so that they could see the light and truth of the position I was holding and they were missing. Meetings took a lot of energy as I and the other participants worked hard to make sure that everyone came around to our personal view.

But I noticed something while at a meeting a little while ago. Someone said something I disagreed with. It wasn’t a small issue either—it was something fairly significant, something that affected some essential realities of the faith. But I noticed that I didn’t immediately jump into a defence of the faith. I didn’t actually say much. I think I may have said something that indicated I disagreed with what was said and let it go at that.

What kept me from springing into action, something that has been a characteristic of my ministry, at least as far as meetings go? Well, I wasn’t intimidated by the others at the meeting—I knew and was comfortable with everyone there. It wasn’t that I was unsure of my stance—the issue was somewhat foundational for me. It wasn’t even that I was too tired to argue.

No, the reality was that although the issue was a problem for me, raising it and really going after it in that particular setting would have done more harm than good. The person making the comment was deeply committed to what they said. A lot of people at the meeting were not overly interested in the issue. And even more, the meeting was supposed to be focusing on something else entirely.

To open a debate on the issue at the meeting would have derailed the meeting. It would also have created a potentially adversarial setting where two people argued back and forth about a topic both were seriously concerned about but which most people weren’t interested in. Since this was a meeting of Christians involved in a specifically Christian process, the escalation of the disagreement could do some serious damage to our fellowship.

I decided that the damage to the Christian fellowship from getting into a heated debate was potentially worse than the possible damage from the comment itself. I have discovered myself doing that more and more these days. I think I am discovering that as believers, the way we do things is at least as important as what we do. If I engage in an debate that degenerates into a non-Christlike process, I have harmed the faith.

Jesus tells us that a major part of our responsibility it to love each other as he loved us (John 13.34-35)—and doesn’t say anything about having to win every debate over the truth of every issue. I think I am making some wise choices when I choose not to engage in what may become a less than loving debate. Even when I know that I am right, I need to deal with the issue in a way that shows Christlike love for everyone involved. The win doesn’t come from scoring debating points—the win comes from responding like Christ would respond.

There is a time and a place for theological debate. There is a need to have a good discussion on points of contention. There are some things that are wrong and need to be dealt with. But in every case, how we do this is at least as important as the debate and its results. Unless we can do what we do in a way that shows Christian love and respect, we are going to lose—and even worse, the faith itself will lose because we will show something other than the love of Christ.

May the peace of God be with you.

ON THE OTHER HAND…

Both the part-time pastoral positions I hold consist of small congregations meeting in old buildings that have been a part of their communities for well over 100 years in the case of newest of the congregations and well over 200 years in the case of the oldest congregation. All of them are currently struggling. We deal with a variety of issues—aging membership, declining abilities, financial shortfalls and so on.

We sometimes feel that we are pretty much alone in whatever we are doing. But the truth is that we have a wider support base than we realize. That wider support base may not consist of people who attend our worship or support us financially but that base it present. The communities around us pay attention to us and tend to know what is going on within our fellowship.

When we are being faithful and doing what we are called to do, the community knows—and whether we know it or not, they appreciate us. We are salt and light and in a variety of ways, the wider community appreciates our salt and light.

But when we are not being faithful and not doing what we are called to do, the wider community also sees that—and they don’t appreciate that at all. Instead of being salt and light in our community, enabling people to discover something about the love and grace of God, we become anti-salt and anti-light, giving the community a message about faith that upsets and antagonizes them.

They see what we are doing, they talk about what we are doing—and they are offended that we would act in such a non-faithful way. This is a reality that we in the church often forget, especially, it seems to me, when our church is small and struggling. We become so wrapped up in our perpetual and demanding attempt to keep the doors open that we forget we are being watched by a great many people whose understanding of God’s love and grace come from what they see and hear concerning our congregation.

But the wider community sees and talks and makes decisions based on what they see. When we get ourselves into a mess and end up fighting and not talking to each as we try to ensure our side wins the war over what colour hymn books to buy, the wider community sees us as flawed salt and light. We bring harm to the wider community, not just our community. Our internal mess creates a crisis in the wider community. We disappoint and hurt them. They want us to be a positive example of what faith can do and when we fail to do that, both we and the wider community hurt.

Our church hurts because we are failing to follow the path we have committed ourselves to. And the wider community hurts because the salt and light they want and need has been taken from them. They don’t have a clear connection with God, a connection that they want to have in place even if they don’t seem to pay much attention to us and what we do. The anger and disillusionment and frustration we see in the wider community when the church messes up is a sign of several things. It shows that the community is watching us. It says that the community wants us to be what we claim to be. It proclaims that we hurt them when we aren’t being adequate salt and light. We have failed our community as well as ourselves and God when we aren’t the gathered community that we have committed ourselves to being.

I am not sure that we in the church pay enough attention to this reality—and I am equally sure that a lot of what we see as resistance to the faith in local communities is a result of the fact that we have not been the salt and light we could or should be in our community. Our failure to love each other as Jesus loves us becomes a failure to our community, a failure that they feel more deeply than we or they can fully understand.

We exist in a wider community—and that community sees us and wants us to be salt and light. When we are anti-salt and anti-light, the wider community sees and reacts strongly. We have failed ourselves, we have failed God and we have failed the community.

May the peace of God be with you.

COERCION OR CONVICTION?

I often find myself walking on a theological tight rope. I believe that God in Christ loves us with a perfect, unending and unconditional love. He loves us as we are—and the proof of that love and grace are seen clearly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. There is nothing I could, can or might do that will ever make God love me less or more; nothing that will limit or increase the grace that he offers to me through Jesus Christ. This is a basic and foundational reality of my faith.

If I just had this reality, I would be fine. Unfortunately, there is another equally valid reality that I need to deal with. I am not what I was meant to be. My being has been affected by sin—mine and others. Some of the effect isn’t my fault—it comes from living in a world deeply affected by human sin. But some of the effect of sin is my fault. I have made choices and followed paths that have taken me further and further away from the ideal that God had in mind when he began the creation process.

The tightrope I walk is the struggle to find the balance between these two realities. If I begin to believe that God’s love and grace are so powerful that my current imperfect state doesn’t matter, I will never grow in faith. But if I spend too much time on my imperfection, I run the risk of beginning to let my imperfection block my ability to appreciate the love and grace of God.

In both my ministry and my personal spiritual life, I have had to deal with the consequences of ignoring one of these realities and focusing too much on the other. Because I belong to the conservative part of the Christian faith, I am very familiar with the traditional conservative approach to this dichotomy. We have tended to see our imperfection more than we have seen the love of God.

We end up believing, but pretty sure that we are not good enough for God. We tend to be insecure about our faith—there is always the fear that some Biblical scholar is going to suddenly realize that the Bible actually says that God only loves us when we become perfect. We on the conservative side of the faith tend to do our faith thing from a sense of fear—we understand really well that we aren’t good enough but we really struggle to find the balance that a proper awareness of the love and grace of God will bring.

There are other believers whose sense of the love and grace of God allow them to completely ignore their imperfection—because God loves them, they can and do follow any path they want. Content and comfortable in the powerful love of God, they have no need to look at who they are and who they were meant to be.

For me, though, I need to be at the balance point. I know my imperfections, the places where I need to grow, the things I need to change. But I also need to remember that God in Christ loves me the way I am. He doesn’t want to change the negative parts of my being so that he can love me more. Part of the expression of his eternal love and grace is the willingness to help me discover more of what I was really meant to be, not so that God can love me more but simply so that I can be more me.

When I keep this balance, I am comfortable. I can grow and develop—or fail and not develop in the safe and protected limitlessness of God’s love. I don’t seek to grow because God coerces me. I seek to grow because the God who loves me also wants me to experience the good and wonderful that I have been keeping myself from experiencing because of the reality of sin.

Whether I grow on not, God’s love and grace continue to be there. But if I am willing to grow, I become more and more of what I was meant to be. God will not love me more either way—but I am more comfortable and more at home with myself, others and God when I open myself to grow as God leads me.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHO AM I?

The classroom was hot, stuffy and basic. We didn’t even have a blackboard—just a square of black paint on the white wall. But we were working hard. Some of the students were sure that Jesus’ main message was one of judgement and demand. I was asking them where love and grace fit into the picture. The discussion kept going around and around, with each of us making claims and counter-claims.

As the teacher, I realized I was losing control and had better do something to get things back on track. So, I suggested that all of us were making a mistake—we were trying to define Jesus based on our desires, our cultural perceptions and the theology we had absorbed over the years. I suggested that had better stop and take to time to read the Gospel accounts of Jesus because unless we made use of that basic and most primary of resources, we were all arguing from ignorance and personal preference.

Since issuing that challenge, I have spend a lot of time looking at what God has told us about Jesus. I began with the Gospels, which gave me a firm and solid base. It also moved me into the rest of the Scripture as I discovered the need to know how the rest of the Bible tied in with the Gospels. My abilities in reading Greek and Hebrew were sufficient to pass both courses in university but truthfully, not all that good in practise. I compensated by reading a variety of translations to see how others had understood the texts. I very quickly realized that I could read the Bible through in about a year if I could discipline myself to followed a basic and simple reading plan—three chapters of the OT and 2 of the NT every day. I supplemented this basic reading with more focused reading and in depth study at various times along the way.

The results have been important and significant and crucial to my faith. Often, the most important things I learned was what Jesus wasn’t. Jesus wasn’t a white westerner, for example. Jesus wasn’t a capitalist—or a socialist for that matter. He actually wasn’t even a Baptist, although some suggest that his cousin was and that gives him a family tie with us Baptists. I discovered that Jesus wasn’t particularly conservative or liberal when it came to politics.

I also discovered that Jesus was deeply and powerfully concerned with the reality of the human condition—and he mostly dealt with the human condition one person at a time. I also learned something that has made me increasingly uncomfortable over the years. I learned that Jesus tended to have hard and pointed words of disapproval for religious people and leaders who refused to distinguish between their wants and desires and what God was saying in and through Jesus. Trying to appropriate Jesus for personal means gets some serious negative comments both from Jesus himself and others in the Bible.

The more I have tried to discover Jesus, the more I discover how hard to is to discover Jesus. This isn’t because Jesus is hard to discover. It is true that there is lots of stuff about Jesus that is hard to understand mostly because Jesus is both the fullness of God and the fullness of humanity. But most of the problem with understanding who Jesus really is comes from my inability to fully differentiate Jesus and me. I want Jesus not only to love me but also to approve of me and validate me completely.

But Jesus keeps frustrating me. He loves me with an undying and eternal love—but he keeps calling me to become something I am not. He accepts me with a basic acceptance that assures me that I am with him always—but he also keeps pointing at beloved parts of me and suggesting that with his help, I can do better. He gave of himself completely so that I could be with him—but he also keeps suggesting that that great idea I have might not be completely valid or acceptable.

There are some days when I might rather have the Jesus I used to follow, the Jesus who followed me more than I actually followed him—but in the end, most of the time, I prefer to follow the Jesus I have been discovering, Jesus revealed to us by God.

May the peace of God be with you.