THE TROUBLE WITH DIVERSITY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

A 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.

GETTING TO THE PULPIT

I will begin this post with a disclaimer:  the story I am about to tell is a pastoral story.  That means that I have used my pastoral privilege to alter details to protect the identity of anyone who might be involved and of course, to make the story fit my point better.  We pastors like nothing better than a story that perfectly fits our point and it is often easier to tweak the story than the point.

Anyway, the story.  I am almost always one of the first to arrive for worship.  I like the time it gives me to set up my stuff on the pulpit and refocus on the coming worship.  My nervousness level generally requires that I re-visit the pulpit several times to make sure that things are still set up properly–who knows when some evil gremlin will turn the hymnbook to the wrong page.

So, I start for the pulpit to check the hymnbook and tablet yet again.  But now, there are people present so I stop and talk.  I hear about the frustration of getting a driveway cleared (we had heavy snow before the worship;  I hear about the sick grandchild in another province; I hear about the depression someone is struggling with; I hear about the anniversary trip coming up soon.  Eventually, I make it to the pulpit and discover that the hymnbook and tablet are just as I left them.  I check my watch and discover that we have 2 minutes before we are supposed to start, just enough time to get to the back and pray with the choir before worship begins.

But the trip to the back of the sanctuary, which should take 15 seconds (20 on bad knee days) gets interrupted as I hear about the upcoming surgery and how comfortable someone feels in our worship and how someone else has to be away and will miss Bible study next week.  Eventually, I make it to the back for prayer–it has  be rushed because it is already past time to start–but one of the choir members has to finish telling his story and another has to remind us that she won’t be with us next week.

Now, as I mentioned, this has never happened–but it happens almost every week.  People have stuff they need to share–and they want to share it with me.  They want to share it with me not because I am such a great person or because they recognize that I am too polite to ignore them.  They want to share this stuff with me because I am the pastor.  Sharing it with me helps them be aware that God is concerned with their concerns.  When I listen to them, they feel that God has been listening to them.

Many of us in ministry struggle with this reality.  We forget, I think, just how important it is to many people to receive this pastoral care.  It is easy for me to focus on the coming worship and try to make sure that everything is ready so I can lead worship without the anxiety that comes from not checking the pulpit 42.5 times.  It is sometimes tempting to think that my task of helping the church develop a newer and bigger vision is more important than listening to someone talk about some fear or triumph or detail of life.  I am tempted to think that my study of the derivation of the key words in the text for Sunday’s sermon is a more important focus for my energy than listening (for the 10th time) to the story of how a grandchild who had problems at birth is now walking and talking.

But the truth I have learned is that I am a pastor–and people in the congregation need their pastor to hear them and listen to them and care for them.  Feeding the sheep is not an option for when I have some extra time–feeding the sheep is the essential priority of my calling.  When I don’t give this pastoral care the priority it deserves, I get reminders of how important it is.  One reminder is how long it takes to get to the pulpit.

If I ignore the reminders and continue to neglect the feeding of the flock I have been called to, the whole congregation will suffer–and anything else that I think is important will fall apart.

Trips to the pulpit such as I described here are a reminder to me of what is really important.

May the peace of God be with you.

ONE DAY DURING WORSHIP

            One Sunday we were at worship.  We were between snow storms–most had just finished the clean up from the most recent one and we were waiting for the one was due in a few hours.  That probably cut our attendance by about 10 percent (which in our case means a couple of people didn’t make it).  Worship was going smoothly–I hadn’t made any major mistakes and think I even avoided the minor ones.  I had lots of time before worship to get ready and no one had provided any unexpected confusion.

We went through the announcements, began worship and reached the point for the choir to sing.  As they were singing, I looked at my watch and realized that I was pretty much through the order of service except for the Scriptures and sermon and we had used up only about 10 minutes.

I remember thinking, “What have we done?”  But I wasn’t asking the question in the same way some melodramatic TV or movie character would ask it. I was really asking myself if during the previous 10 minutes we had really worshipped God.  I had lead the congregation through the order of service, making appropriate comments about the music and doing the prayers at the right time–even using the right prayer at the right time.  We had sung and read together and prayed and offered our offering and listened to the choir–but had we really worshipped God.

That isn’t an easy question for me to answer.  I am aware that simply following the order of service and getting it right (something I don’t always do) doesn’t ensure that we worship.  Worship involves an opening of ourselves to the presence of God.  God is always present in our lives but we don’t always make the effort to be aware of his presence.  Public and private worship provide us with times to actually remind ourselves of the wonder of the presence of God.

But to be honest, I am not always aware of the presence of God during worship.  I am busy leading, guiding the flow of the service, making sure that I follow the order of service, reading people’s reactions to the service, coping with my nervousness, anticipating the next several steps of worship, making sure that I move the text on the tablet at the right time.  Am I aware of the presence God in our midst?  Intellectually and theologically, I am deeply and profoundly aware of the powerful truth that God is with us no matter what.  Practically, when I am leading worship, I am often more aware of leading the worship that the presence of God.

What are the worshippers aware of?  That I can’t say with any great degree of certainty, but from past experience, I can say that some are aware of the physical limitations of the sanctuary, the pain they experience from their arthritic joints meeting hard pews, the worry about life issues they bring with them to worship, the smell of the coffee we will share after the worship, and maybe trying to figure out the joke the worship leader (me) told poorly.

And yet, in spite of all of this, week after week, we come and somehow, by the grace of God, we manage to connect with God.  Somehow, I see beyond the anxiety of leading the worship and experience the presence of God.  Somehow, the congregation reaches beyond the hard pews, aches and pains, life baggage and poor preaching and encounters the reality of the presence of God in their midst.  Somehow, we do it–we see God, we experience God, we thank God, we praise God.

How do I know that?  Well, sometimes, people tell me how they encountered God.  Sometimes, I have my own personal encounter.  But more often than now, I realize that we have encountered God simply because we leave worship with more than we brought to worship.  We worship and because we somehow experience the reality of the presence of God in our lives, we are touched with the grace of God, a touch that changes our lives.  It may not be a spectacular change, although those do happen now and then.  It may not be a touch that lasts a long time, although those too happen from time to time.

But we are touched by the presence of God and we do take the experience of that touch with us and it does make a difference–and so in some way, somehow, we have worshipped.

May the peace of God be with you.

AT THE POTLUCK

We had a potluck supper after one of our worship services recently, something we do regularly.  Since I was one of the last people in the food line, I was still eating and talking to the people at the table when another person who had been near the beginning moved to our table and joined in our conversation while he waited for the desert line to begin–we don’t have enough space to put main course and desert out at the same time.

One of the guys told us that he had been a fisherman for all his life and faced some really rough times on the water and that didn’t bother him at all but when he thought about having to stand in front of a group of people, he was terrified.  The guy who joined us agreed that getting up in front of people was a major source of fear and he really didn’t like it.  Both looked at me and indicated that they figured that I obviously didn’t have a problem with being in front of people.

Both were a bit surprised when I told them that I have preaching and being in front of people for almost 50 years and am still nervous before and during times of being in front of people.  And then, I told them at as a teacher of people who preach and lead worship, I would fail anyone who didn’t get nervous when leading worship or preaching.

The interesting thing is that I had actually been thinking about my nervousness as the worship service before the potluck began.  Generally, I arrive early and try to have everything set up and ready before worship begins:  tablet on and with the order of service and sermon called up, hymn book opened to the first hymn and a marker in place for the responsive reading, scraps of paper with last minute announcements prominently placed where I can see them, water glass positioned in easy reach–because I know from experience that if anything isn’t ready when I start, I will fumble and stumble until it is.  That is one expression of my nervousness.

Another is the reality that when I begin, it is a dangerous time–that is when I am going to miss something or say the wrong thing or get my words mixed up or read some number wrong or get someone’s name wrong.  This is all made worse on those occasional Sundays when the majority of people show up tired or down because of the weather and don’t give as lot of feedback as the worship begins.

When I tell people things like this, as I did at the potluck, they tend to look at me with skepticism and tell me that I don’t show it.  My response is that over the years, the one thing I have learned is how to hide my nervousness, which I do pretty well, unless of course the breeze blows the hymnbook to the wrong page or I lost track of the last minute announcements or I make a mistake.

Should I be better at not being nervous?  I don’t think so.  The day I stop being nervous about leading worship and preaching and teaching is the day I will officially retire.  My nervousness comes from the deep seated awareness of the importance of what I am doing.  I am leading God’s people in worship; I am speaking God’s message to his people; I am seeking to let God work through me to touch the lives of his people–and that scares me.

I am afraid that I might get in the way and somehow block God’s approach to his people be letting my stuff get in the way.  I am afraid that I might not block the message but somehow weaken it.  I am equally afraid when the message actually gets through–who am I that God would be willing to work through me?  I stand in the pulpit during worship or sit in the leader’s seat at Bible study very much aware of the wonder and importance of what is going on and really can’t help but be nervous and concerned.

I kind of doubt that the guys at the potluck fully understand these dynamics–but they don’t have to.  I, however, need to understand the dynamics and use the nervousness to help me do a better job of doing what God has called me to do.

May the peace of God be with you.

DO UNTO OTHERS

I have been writing about Christian community for the last few posts.  This is an important topic for me because I believe that re-discovering authentic Christian community is one of the foundations for reviving the church in North America.  As we begin to develop the kind of community that God had in mind for the church, we strengthen the church internally and make our witness to the world what it should be.

But as much as I believe in the importance of Christian community, I am not some naive first year theology student who thinks that proper community should just pop into existence just because it is supposed to be.  I know from my own experience and the experience of others that Christian community isn’t always what it is meant to be–and at times, it become a dangerous and damaging witness to the power of human sin.

But I have also learned that for the community to develop in the right direction, it requires risk–someone has to be willing to start the process.  The difficulty with that is deciding who takes the first risk.  When we need someone to do something, it often means that everyone waits for someone else to be the first someone.

Since I am the one who studies and researches and digs out these things, my part in the process is obvious.  I need to explain to people how Jesus envisioned community.  I need to define and describe and explain and teach and preach the concepts.  I need to help people see the benefits and blessings of Christian community.  I need to show them the negative consequences of a lack of community.  I need to carefully show how God through the Holy Spirit provides the courage and wisdom to build community.  All that is my job–after all, I  am the pastor, the person called by God to shepherd and care for the community

I teach and preach and because of my brilliant teaching and preaching, people are inspired to develop powerful and breath-taking Christian communities.  And at this point, we end the fairy tale with “They all lived happily ever after.”  If preaching and teaching were enough to make the church and people what God wants us to be, we probably wouldn’t need churches because everything would have been fixed a long time ago.

I realized that if community is important, I need to be willing to be one of the someones who takes a risk.  It is not enough to preach and teach about community–I need to practise community.  I need to offer my gifts and my weaknesses and treat the gathering of believers as the community they are called to be.  I need to follow the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 7.12,  “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (NIV)

I am not necessarily saying that I need to do this because I am the pastor, although that is a factor. Mostly, I become responsible for doing it because I have done the research and know the importance of community and therefore become responsibly before God who has led me to these insights.  I need to take the risk because I see the need.

I would like to say that this has always worked out perfectly and I have always been able to develop powerful and exciting Christian communities–but I believe in honesty.  While acting as if the community existed as it is called to be does help develop community, it has not been an always positive thing for me.  I haven’t always been willing to do what I know I should and sometimes when I have done what I consider to be right, it has been wrong and occasionally my attempts to treat the community of believers as believers has been used against me by parts of the community.

But someone has to start–and since I am often the one who has the insight and does the study, I have a responsibility.  We build community by being in community and living community.  It can be painful and frustrating and slow and disappointing–but if we really believe in the idea of community, we need to work at it.  Someone has to start the process–why not me (or you)?

May the peace of God be with you.

WHO’S TALKING TO WHO?

We had a serious technical glitch develop before worship the other day.  Our choir often sings with accompaniment supplied by a CD played over a portable CD player, a process that works for us and our context.  But yesterday, the choir director brought everything needed for the music except the actual CD, which put our special music at risk.

Because I am something of a techie, I got involved.  Since we had copied the CD to have a working copy while the original remained safe, I just happened to have a copy of the CD on my phone.  I began working to find a way to connect the phone to the CD player but the phone is too new and the CD player too old for them to be able to talk to each other.  Eventually, we decided to put the mic from the PA system next to the phone speaker and work that way, a process that worked.  We had our special music.

However, getting that going took 15 minutes or so and that meant that when I finally had things connected and knew how to make them work, it was within a few minutes of time to start.  I looked around the sanctuary and realized that most people were already present and I hadn’t had a chance to talk to many of them.  They were all engaged in their conversations with each other, some settled in their seats and others having conversations before they headed to their seats.

In the few minutes I had before it was time to start, I managed to get around and at least greet each person there–but I felt rushed and unsettled and extra stressed as I began the worship.  I think the extra stress was partly because of the technical glitch that turned me into the choir accompanist for that service.  But I also think more of the extra stress was the result of not having sufficient contact with the people gathering for worship before we began.  I didn’t really have a sense of the gathering, who was experiencing what and what space they were in–it felt like I was blind and deaf, stepping into an unknown situation.

Well, that is something of an overstatement–but I was very much aware of the lack of a real sense of the congregation when I began worship. Fortunately, we are informal and flexible in worship and by time we reached the offering, I was getting into the worship process and once the choir had sung and I was off the hook for providing the music, I was pretty much back on track–and once the worship finished, I had a chance to talk and connect with the congregation.

People never rush out of our sanctuary after worship.  We talk to each other, a lot.  We don’t need to institute the process of greeting each other during the worship because it is already a part of our worship process–we talk to each other before and after the worship (and more than  occasionally during the worship).

This is part of being the church.  We worship as a community of people who are in relationship with each other, not as a group of unrelated individuals who come together because it is the most efficient way for the preacher to get the message across.  We are a community and before we can effectively worship, we have to be aware of the community.  After we worship, we need to take our leave of the community.  And even during the worship, we need to recognize the community.

From my perspective, the level of conversation before and after worship is directly proportional to the health of the congregation.  The more people who talk and the more people they talk to, the healthier the congregation and the more we are together helping each other worship and grow in faith.  And the reality includes me as the pastor and preacher.  I can’t be as effective leading worship and preaching if I don’t establish my connection with the congregation before and after we worship.

The technical glitch yesterday reminded me of that reality. And while I love solving technical glitches, I prefer them to happen at times when they don’t interfere with my time  to connect with the people I am worshipping with.  The church worships best when it worships as a community which has taken the time to be a community.

May the peace of God be with you.