WHAT DO I KNOW?

I am leading worship, something I do twice a Sunday almost every Sunday of the year–I do take vacations.  I have finished the announcements, begun the worship and we are singing the first hymn.  After making sure that I have the bookmarks in place for the responsive reading and the next hymn (I am organized, not obsessive), I take some time to look around at the congregation.  I have greeted everyone as they come in and had a brief conversation with most of them but this is my first time to really see the whole congregation.

I know who is there but at this point in the service, I get to take a quick count (a relatively quick and easy job in small congregations) and at the same time, discover who isn’t there.  Some, I already know won’t be present–they have mentioned to me that they will be away because of this or that commitment.  I am pretty sure that I know the reason for the absence of one or two others.  But there are a couple whose absence concerns me.

I am not concerned because it makes the numbers look bad–having been the pastor of small congregations for many years, I don’t get too concerned about numbers until there is a major, sustained deviation from the average.  But I am concerned because I don’t know why they are missing from the worship that day.

You might think this shows that I am a controlling, nosey, busybody who needs to know every detail of everyone’s life.  I prefer to think that I am a pastor, a person called by God to provide spiritual and other input as God leads me–and being a pastor means that I am concerned with what goes on in the lives of the people that God has called me to shepherd.  Most Sundays, my big concern isn’t whether we have 17 or 20 people in worship–my real concern is whether those who aren’t there are okay.

I have the same concern for those who are there as well–but I can do something about that.  As I greet them and talk with them, I can and do get a sense of how they are doing and whether I need to plan some pastoral input during the coming week.  But when someone expected isn’t there, I have to confess that I have alarm bells going off in my mind–not level one, all out panic alarm bells but alarm bells nonetheless.

If I am really lucky, someone will mention to me that one of the absentees had company drop in or caught a cold or something equally minor.  If not, I might ask one of their friends.  And if no one knows, the person  goes on my pastoral list.  Because I am a pastor in small, rural communities, I can be pretty sure that if the person missing from worship is suffering from a major, catastrophic event, everyone will know about it and someone will tell me eventually.  But there are lots of things between minor and catastrophic that I can and do respond to as their pastor.

One of the things I know is that I am called by God to provide pastoral care to the churches that I worship with each week.  Pastoral care is a vague and hard to define concept that is often much easier to see in its absence that in its presence.  It is a calling that I sometimes get tired of–but can’t seem to ever get away from.  Even when I am not a pastor, I find myself reacting to people like a pastor–listening and watching and paying attention, looking for the clues that God helps me see so that I know how best to respond to the individual and their needs in God’s name.

Being a pastor tires me–but it also completes me.  It irritates me at times–but it also gives me a sense of purpose and direction.  Being a pastor clashes with my introverted nature sometimes–but it also fulfills an even deeper part of my nature.

I know that I am called to be a pastor.  Some days, I am not sure of much and other days, I discover that what I think I know is wrong–but every day, I know that I am a pastor and need to care for those people whom God has called me to shepherd.

May the peace of God be with you.

POLITICAL CORRECTNESS

At a recent meeting, a friend was receiving a certificate recognizing his status.  During a break after the certificate was presented, one of the committee responsible for the presentations came over to apologize to my friend.  The certificates had been changed recently by the parent organization and instead of having a “he/she” where one could be scratched out, the certificate now said “they”.  The presenter was a bit upset at this obvious grammatical error.

Except it wasn’t a grammatical error.  Using “they” or “their” is now an acceptable way of referring to an individual.  It is a politically correct way of avoiding the issues that can lie in wait whenever gender is an issue.  Personally, the switch didn’t particularly bother me for a couple of reasons.  First, I remember when those particular certificates were printed with only “he”–and continued to be that way for several years after “she” was needed.  And, pragmatically, those of us with less interest in proper grammar have been using “they” to refer to individuals for years.

But this little incident did add more fuel to a flickering thought I have been beating around for a few years.  In general, I am comfortable with political correctness in writing and speaking.  At its root, it is simply a desire to be fair and polite and respectful, all things that fit in well with my Christian faith.  I believe that as part of my faith, I am to be accepting and respectful and fair and polite and it using political correct terms accomplishes that, I have no real problem–plus, it is much easier to write or say “they” than  it is to figure out the proper gender-based terminology.

On the other hand, where does it end?  It seems that political correctness has become as dominant a force in some circles as political incorrectness has been and is in some places.  If I prefer a gender based pronoun, that makes me the focus of some serious criticism in some circles–and some of that criticism can be driven by anger and scorn and disrespect, the very things that political correctness is supposed to prevent.

Parts of our culture have become intolerant of intolerance–and are quite willing to make their intolerance known.  From my perspective as an concerned (and sometimes confused observer) the intolerance of political correctness against intolerance looks and acts pretty much like the intolerance of political non-correctness.  So, in a space where free speech is prized, it appears that only certain forms of free speech are allowed.  That looks and sounds a lot like censorship, which is supposed to be non-correct politically.

I end up confused, not knowing who to support.  And in the end, if both sides are using the same tactics, is there really a difference?  If tolerance can’t tolerate intolerance, how tolerant can it really be?

As in most major issues, we need to realize that we don’t generally accomplish much when we try to prohibit people from doing something.  Telling people “no” seems to produce some reluctant obedience and a great deal of backlash.  It rarely changes much and often produces more problems.

We probably need to pay a lot more attention to Jesus, whose approach to the politically non-correct world he came to was to love people and meet felt needs of real people.  He used “he” and “she”; he called “sin” sin; he scolded religious leaders who prized rules over people; he waded into the dark, foul mess we call life and shone a light of love and acceptance and forgiveness and hope, a light that people wanted and needed.

Jesus wasn’t politically correct.  Rather, he was being theologically correct, which seems to me to be a much more demanding standard.  He saw the value of each and every individual and treated them as a loved and respected individual, whether they were a rich intellectual sneaking in after dark to see him or a known prostitute crashing a party to wash his feet with her tears.  Both these people and anyone else who encountered Jesus went away knowing that they had been in the presence of the Divine and had been seen and recognized for who they were.

Some used the support of the love and acceptance to become more of what they were meant to be and some fled the love and acceptance because they were unwilling to see themselves as they really were.  Political correctness seeks to make rules that might help some people at some times and have some benefits–but Jesus’ theological correctness seeks to show all that they are loved and what is possible within the context of that love.

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.

GOD LOVES DIVERSITY

            During my later teen years, I was involved in lots of military stuff:  I was an army cadet and after that, a Reserve Force officer involved in training cadets.  I enjoyed my time in both–I got to do interesting things, travel to interesting places and pay for a couple of years of university.  I discovered an interesting paradox about me during that time:  I enjoyed the military experience and the military toys but I really wasn’t at home with a culture that required so much conformity.

The uniform I could deal with–clothes are not something that I get all concerned over.  But I did get tired of having to do the same thing as everyone else at the same time as everyone else in the same way as everyone else.  My boots needed the same shine as everyone else’s; my shirts needed the same pressing as everyone else’s; my pants needed the same crease as everyone else’s; my sleep pattern had to be the same as everyone else’s–well, you get the picture.

On some levels, I thought that I would have a better future in the church–after all, I belong to a part of the church that began because of a commitment on the part of our founders to allow for personal freedom and the ability of the individual to think and approach God on their own.  And while that hasn’t always worked out quite the way I thought it might, overall, I have found that my faith has room to grow and develop as I feel God is leading me.  That is not to say that I haven’t been confronted by people who feel I  need to conform to their understanding of what God wants but whenever that has been an issue, I think God has graciously shown me ways to deal with such pressure.

My faith experience has taught me that God understands, accepts celebrates and even encourages our human diversity.  As Creator, God had the option of making us all the same.  He chose to create us with a highly variable genetic structure and insures that every human being is going to end up different from every other human being–even identical twins who share the same genetic makeup end up becoming different.

And God carries that diversity even further.  As a Christian, I believe that the only way to God is through acceptance of Jesus Christ–but the ways people discover Christ (or are brought to Christ to be theologically correct) are as varied as the number of people in the world.  Even those whose experience seems to be the same have significant differences when we take a closer look.

I grew up during the last days of successful evangelistic campaigns.  Many of my friends and I “walked the aisle” during the yearly crusade, as was the expected custom in our day.  But even though the outward appearance was the same, the experience of God through Christ was very different.  I walked the aisle because it was expected–but I realize now that I had been a believer for months before that.  One friend walked the aisle because of family pressure but somewhere in the process, he genuinely encountered God.  Another, well, maybe he walked the aisle physically but spiritually, he was still sitting in his seat.

In my spiritual growth after that time, I have followed a different path from others–not a strange or weird path–unless you consider frequent sojourns in Kenya strange.  I followed a ministry path–but even there, my path wasn’t the same as everyone else.  Some in the class focused on working with youth.  Some wanted to be great preachers.  Some actually liked and understood Patristic Theology.  We weren’t the same then and we aren’t the same now–after 40 years of ordained ministry, I am pastoring the same churches I started pastoral ministry in while my peer group from school are pastoring other congregations, leading para-church organizations, being denominational staff–and a few have actually engaged in “secular” work as their ministry.

God celebrates and encourages our diversity.  He designed us to be different.  One of our greatest strengths as a species is our diversity. And one of our greatest strengths as people of faith is our diversity. As we explore and understand our diversity before God, I think we develop a better picture of who we are and who God is–and that is always a good thing.

May the peace of God be with you.

AFTER THE BIBLE STUDY

Doing Bible Study groups in the churches I pastor is an intense experience for me–and from what I hear from the participants, it can be quite intense for some of them  Since I am the named teacher of the study, I carry a lot of responsibility during the study time.  I try to keep things on some track, enough so that everyone feels they are involved and that any side tracks we take aren’t simply the desires of any one person.

I spend a lot of energy listening to and observing the members.  Because I am their pastor, I am not only trying to pick up on how well they are following and understanding the study, but also, I am listening and watching for indications of stuff outside the study:  the normally verbal individual who is silent may be wrestling with the point under discussion or they may be getting the flu or they may be dealing with the cancer diagnosis they received yesterday that they haven’t told anyone about yet.

While all this is going on at some level, I am also processing the study:  reviewing old material, asking and answering questions, seeking and receiving comments and ideas from the group, directing traffic a bit to keep everyone from talking at once, remembering the order of who speaks after the current speaker, laughing at the jokes, gently encouraging the silent to speak more and the verbal to speak less.  And occasionally, during lulls in the questions and comments, I get to insert some new material for the group to chew on.

Bible study is a busy, interactive and often fast paced process on both my pastoral settings, one in which we all learn and all teach.  But I am the teacher, facilitator, leader or whatever you want to call the person who gets paid to be there and participate.  I am also, as I have mentioned here a few times, an introvert.

And that means that I love Bible Study, I seek and encourage the high level of participation, I enjoy the time.  But when Bible study is over and I have finished with the last of the private conversations that follow Bible study, I am wiped out.

A few years ago, our two sons and I spend a week on a wilderness hike that involved me carrying a 25+ kilo pack 12-20 kilometers a day.  I was tired at the end of each hiking day–but I don’t recall being as tired after those days as I am after one Bible study session.  When possible, Bible study is followed by a short nap–and when it isn’t, it is followed by incessant yawning and wishing I had time for a nap.

One of the things I have learned about myself is that I have two conflicting realities within me.  I am a pastor/teacher, which drives me to interact with people on a deep level.  I want to help, to instruct, to enable, to encourage people as they grow in faith.  I am both driven and attracted to opportunities to teach and pastor.  But I am also an introvert.  I prefer my computer or a book or a solitary walk.  I don’t actually mind being by myself–when I talk about getting away from it all, I am normally thinking of getting away from people or at least people I need to pastor/teach.

I am probably not alone in this–many pastors and professional helpers I know are introverts so there are a great many of us living with these conflicting drives.  I don’t think that I have any earth-shaking insights about how to deal with them.  But I have learned that I need to accept both of them as real and deal with them in a practical, pragmatic way that keeps them in a proper balance.

I am a pastor/teacher so I am going to have to interact with people on a deep basis–they don’t pay me to sit at home and be alone.  I am an introvert who gets tired as a result of the interaction.  So, I care for both sides.  When I am with people, they are getting the very best I can give during that time–and when I finish interacting with people, I take the time I need to rest and restore myself.  All through the process, I am looking to God for strength, leading and acceptance, which he graciously gives to me.

May the peace of God be with you.

A HUMBLE CONFESSION

As I was writing the last post, I realized that it could suggest that I have a very high opinion of my pastoral abilities.  And I do think that I am pretty good at what I do–I have been a pastor for a lot of years and have helped congregations through some difficult times.  And while I have never been called to a large congregation, I think I have been good for the churches that I have pastored.  As well, I have been called to teach pastors both in Canada and Kenya.

But at the same time,  I have to confess that most of the time in ministry, I really don’t know what I am doing.  Sure, there are some basics:  I need to preach, teach Bible study, visit people, attend (and sometimes chair) meetings, do some counselling, and be there for life transitions like funerals and weddings.  But beyond the basics, I don’t always have great plans and inspiring visions.  I don’t dream (much) of seeing the congregation become a mega-church; I am never sure where we will be next month let alone 5 or 10 years from now.  In truth, sometimes, I can’t even tell you what I will be preaching next Sunday, although that only happens when I forget that the current sermon plan actually ends next week.

None of my congregations have ever given me a coffee mug with the message “World’s Greatest Pastor” printed on it–nor have I even felt that I deserve one.  Even more, there are times when I am convinced that I made a serious mistake when I decided that God wanted me to be a pastor–and more than a few times when I have been convinced that God made a serious mistake by calling me to be a pastor.

I get tired of what I am doing; I get depressed when the stress of ministry leads to overwork; I waste time when I could be studying or seeing people; I wonder why God didn’t call me to some other work; I get angry at things that happen in the church; I fantasize about winning the lottery and retiring; I sometimes hope for snow days for more than just the opportunity to go cross-country skiing.

I am a pastor–but even after all these years of pastoring, teaching pastors, reflecting and writing on pastoring, I am still trying to figure out what it really means to be a pastor.  Maybe after I retire sometime in the not too distant future, I will have some time to figure out what it is that I am really supposed to be doing.

I have actually made some progress at figuring it out.  I have learned some things that pastors shouldn’t do.  Some of these I have learned from my own painful experience.  Others I have learned from watching the experience of others–those lessons have been less painful for me but no less painful for congregations and pastors.  Knowing what not to do is actually a helpful start on the road to knowing what to do.

If it is a mistake to scold the congregation with every sermon, as it is, then not only do I know to avoid that but also, I have an opportunity to discover what might be a better use of the sermon.  Teaching during the sermon, encouraging with the message, inspiring congregations through the preaching–all these are much better for everyone than a ranting scold every week.

And even more importantly, I have learned one of the most basic realities of my profession.  Ministry is really about developing relationships with people that can help them and me develop our relationship with God.  In the course of developing those relationships, we may discover God’s leading and empowering to do interesting, exciting and inspiring things but the development of the relationships is the key issue.  We have to really know each other before we can trust each other.  We have to trust each other before we can really open to each other about faith.  We have to open to each other about faith before we can experience the fullness of the presence of God in our midst.

So, day after day, I take my introverted self and go be a pastor–I joke with people, drink coffee with people, cry with people, pray with people, teach people, get taught by people.  I do my job, a job that I don’t always understand and which I sometimes struggle to explain and am not sure how good at it I really am but which God has called me to do.

May the peace of God be with you.

BRIGHTEN THE CORNER WHERE YOU ARE

It is becoming really common these days for believers to take part in mission trips.  After raising a serious amount of  money, a group of believers will take off for some faraway place where they will fellowship with local believers (often through an interpreter), test out the national food (with the assurance that a real meal awaits at the hotel), and build something.  They come home with a nice tan, great stories and a deeper awareness of the realities of life.

Interestingly, I have had serious discussions with Kenyan Christians who wanted to explore the possibility of making a mission trip to Canada so that they could help Canadians engage in ministry.  From their perspective, such a mission trip would be a great thing–based on what they see in the media, we need a lot of help in North America carrying out the mission of the church.  Of course, the North American church would have to pay for their trip since Kenya is poor and Canada is rich.

There is a major debate about the value of such trips which I will not engage at this point.  I do want to use this trend to point out a significant irony concerning the mission of the church:  the further away the mission focus is geographically and culturally, the easier it is to get people to support it financially and physically.  I think the key problem is that real ministry, where ever it happens, is messy and difficult and filled with frustration and confusion and potential for real pain.  Real ministry also generally requires serious long term commitment of money and time–and there is no guarantee that it will succeed.  I can think of many ministry situations over the years where I have given a lot of my money, time and effort and got very little in terms of tangible results:  the alcoholic returns to alcohol; the couple breaks up; the near-convert decides to become Buddhist; the potential pastor becomes a professional dirt-biker.

On the other hand, doing ministry for a week or two far away is much less messy and demanding.  We get to see and participate in what is clearly a messy, needy situation.  We get to involve ourselves deeply and intimately in the mess and solution–and then, after a week or two, we get to shower and head for home (although occasionally, we have to reverse those two events).  Our involvement in the messy situation far away after that is somewhat voluntary and involves prayer, some fund raising and maybe some publicity.

I am aware that this sounds cynical–and probably is.  But cynicism or not, it is difficult to get churches and believers to commit to sustained ministry in the messes that exist close to us.  We are often more concerned with the starving in Africa than we are with the kids who go to school hungry at our local schools.  And that makes sense:  feeding the starving far away involves giving money while dealing with the hungry school kids may involve us in the lives of real people with real problems that need much more than just our financial contributions.

Kids going to school hungry is the result of a complex and difficult set of realities that will involve us with poverty, poor choices, politics, addictions, and on and on.  It will take sustained energy of many people over long periods of time and bring us into contact with people that we might prefer to avoid.  It may open us to manipulation and to being exploited.  It may result in us being ripped off, either as churches or individuals or both.  And, after putting in all the effort and time and whatever, nothing may change.

But that is the reality of ministry–and it is the reality that we need to be involved in.  I heartily endorse feeding the starving in Africa.  I am somewhat in favour of mission trips.  And I am deeply concerned with the ministry we do just outside our church building.  For most of us, this will be our real mission and our real ministry.  And if we let our fears and frustrations get in the way, we will miss the opportunity to be used by the Holy Spirit to make a real difference.  The mess is real, the pitfalls are ever present, the results aren’t predictable or assured–but it is part of what we are called to do.

May the peace of God be with you.