THE WEATHER

According to the calendar and the trees outside, the grass that has already been mowed once, the dandelions that somehow escaped the mover, the geese and other migratory birds that are back, it is spring in Nova Scotia. But no matter what the signs suggest, it has been a cold, wet, miserable spring. We are Canadian so we generally endure. We have lots of ways of making ourselves feel “better” about the slow coming of warm sunny weather.

All the rain is good for the farmers. Of course, we have to ignore the reality that although they might be grateful for the rain, it makes it pretty much impossible to get fields ready for planting—tractors churn the soil into mud and then get stuck. The rain also makes the grass grow—as if that is a good thing to someone like me whose dislike of mowing lawns verges on the pathological. And there is always the old saying, “April showers bring May flowers”, which might be somewhat helpful if May had some actual sunshine that encouraged us to get out and find the may flowers.

In the end, the weather is the weather. We live with whatever comes. Whether the weather is good or bad, it does have a vital function in human relationships—it gives us something to talk about. That is more than just a cynical attempt at humour. Talking about the weather may well be one of the most common conversational themes among people and as such, it serves a vital role in human relationships.

Talking about the weather is more than small talk. It actually serves as a powerful tool that helps us determine whether we can and should engage in further communication. It allows us to gauge the status of the person we are meeting without asking outright if they are in a good mood and if it is safe to talk to them. Talking about the weather tells us a lot about the individual, their current state and the relative value and safety of carrying on with the conversation.

Most human are totally unaware that this is what we are doing when we talk about the weather. Some, in fact, downplay and even claim to hate talking about the weather. They believe such small talk gets in the way of real conversation. My experience has been that if we aren’t going to talk about the weather with someone, we probably aren’t going to have a pleasant, good or constructive conversation with the person. We might talk but without the lubricant and evaluation provided by the weather discussion, we have no sense of the other’s context or state and rather than enter the serious side of the conversation prepared, we go in cold and have to discover the context and status while at the same time dealing with whatever heavy stuff the conversation brings.

So, over the years, I have learned to deeply appreciate small talk, discussions about the weather, TV shows, new cars (and old cars), kids and grandkids and so on. Sometimes, the small talk has been interesting all by itself—one friend years ago had a seemingly inexhaustible store of old sayings related to the weather that I found fascinating and more than a bit true. Sometimes, the small talk has been the whole conversation—we complain about the wet, the dry, the cold, the heat and then move on. But somehow, something has been put in place that allows a deeper conversation somewhere down the road.

And occasionally, the weather talk leads directly to a significant and serious conversation that likely wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been willing to give the right signals during the discussion of the wet or dry or snowy weather.

Mostly, I don’t care about what the weather is. I do appreciate rain on the days I am supposed to mow the lawn because it gives me an excuse to sit inside and read or write. But I do deeply appreciate the weather because of its profound effect in human interaction. If we can talk comfortably about the weather, we set the stage for being able to comfortably talk about almost anything. So, we have had a wet, cold, miserable spring—think about how many conversations have been able to grow and flourish from that wonderful beginning.

May the peace of God be with you.

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SPIRITUAL GUIDANCE

Recently, some of my electronics have been giving me indications that they are thinking about retirement. Since some of them are getting really old for electronics, I have been observing their symptoms with some mixed feelings. I appreciate my electronics and use them heavily—while I am not totally dependent on them, I would be very reluctant to go back to pre-electronic days. But at the same time, new electronics are new—better specs, new tricks, updated everything.

So, given the realities of my aging electronics, I began researching the possibilities for replacements. I began with my tablet, which I use heavily in my ministry—I don’t do paper anymore, carrying everything on the tablet. The research thrilled my tech loving heart. Eventually, I discovered two real possibilities: one looked good and was much cheaper than the second choice. However, before I bought, I checked reviews and discovered that it didn’t perform as well as the more expensive one, which went to the head of the list.

I was ready. I was in the store, looking at samples and lifting and touching—I wasn’t actually salivating, at least not physically. I was almost ready to pull out the charge card and make the purchase when something told me not to buy right then. Since we had other stuff to do, I moved on, figuring I would be back soon to get my new tablet.

What I didn’t know then was that the something telling me not to buy was actually a spiritual message. God was speaking. Now, before you stop reading, let me explain. I think that faith needs to touch every area of life, which means that God should be a part of every decision, including what electronics I buy. I know that, I tell people that, I preach that. But at some point, my love of electronics sort of shoved that insight into the background. After all, what does faith have to do with tablets? The only tablets mentioned in the Bible are made of stone and had zero battery life.

But as I thought about buying a new, expensive tablet that would do everything I wanted and more, I believe that God was also at work, seeking to convince me that there were other options that just might be more pleasing to him. I am still not sure whether God is deeply concerned about which tablet I buy or if he is more concerned with my being willing to involve him in the process, although based on my past experience, I am pretty sure that his first concern is that I involve him in the process and then he can help me make a better decision.

Is buying a new tablet a faith decision? Well, according to many sermons I have preached, everything has a faith connection so my decision about a tablet should involve a faith component. I think that was the message God was sending in the electronics store when I just couldn’t quite buy the tablet my research—and desire—told me was the best choice for me.

Since then, I have gone back to the research process—but I have also specifically involved God in the process. I am not expecting God to become a celebrity spokesperson (spokesbeing?) for any particular brand of tablet. Nor am I expecting him to give me a list of divinely approved tablets. But I am expecting that if I open the process to God, he will do what he always does when we bring him into the process. He will help us evaluate and examine and think through things in a different way.

In this particular case, it seems that buying a new, expensive tablet probably isn’t the best decision. My desires for new tech got in the way of some realities that involving God helped me see. The new, expensive tablet would look really great—but in truth, it is more than I really need. As I thought and allowed God some part in the process, I began to see other options, other ways that would work even better and be more realistic. I will eventually end up with some new tech, some repaired tech and more of what I need.

This has been an interesting process—who knew that buying tech could be a spiritual exercise? Well, actually I did—but forgot to remind myself of what I keep telling others.

May the peace of God be with you.

EASY ANSWERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

BEING A PARENT

One of my granddaughters got a bit upset with me during our recent visit. We were reading a book snuggled together on the couch or engaged in some equally grandparently activity when I called her my baby girl. She indignantly told me that she was five and wasn’t a baby—she was a big girl. That sparked a short discussion of parenting (and grandparenting) that sort of satisfied her and allowed me to continue sitting with her.

I told her that her aunt, whom she likes but is older than her father is still my baby girl because children—and grandchildren—will always be baby girls (and baby boys) to their parents and grandparents. I wasn’t joking or trying to cover a mistake. Parents and grandparents have a hard time letting children grown up.

On the whole, I think I have done a pretty good job of letting my kids grow up. I have always encouraged them to think for themselves; to make their own decisions; to take responsibility for themselves. I have rejoiced at their successes; grieved with them over their failures; supported even their questionable decisions. I enjoy having an adult coffee time with my kids much more than I enjoyed reading Dr. Seuss to them.

But they are still my kids—and grandkids. I will always have a part of me that feels that I have to look after them and be concerned with their welfare and future and wellbeing. I don’t express that parental reality by trying to run their lives. I am not an overzealous parent who thinks my kids and grandkids need my advice and guidance and control in every aspect of their lives. If asked, I might give an opinion but I am much more comfortable listening to them as they talk out some decision or another without my specific input. I work hard at respecting their independence and freedom and seeing them as mature adults and maturing grandchildren. I work hard at giving them the respect and relationship their situation requires: reading books with the pre-schoolers; pushing the swing for the toddlers; enduring the emotional swings of the second grader; listening to the child turned parent as they deal with some issue or another.

But in the end, they are still my children and grandchildren. I have relationships and responsibilities with them that I have with no others. I am a pastor and counsellor and have a great many relationships where I am involved in helping people. But as significant as those relationships are, they can never be the same as the one I have with my children and by extension with their children. My wife and I have been involved in their lives from the moment of their conception and the relationship is a basic part of our whole being.

Our sons and daughter are fully grown, mature adults all of whom have become responsible and capable human beings. They are caring and helpful and are all making a positive contribution to society. They are in stable, healthy relationships and live good lives. But they are still and will still be my babies as long as I am alive.

The fact that my baby boys tower over me and my baby girl is highly respected in her profession doesn’t change the fact that they are still my babies. The fact that I am proud of the adults they have become and marvel at their abilities and sensibilities doesn’t alter the reality that they are still my little ones. The fact that all of them are providing significant care and support for others doesn’t alter the fact that I am and always will be their (very proud) father.

So, when I sit snuggled on the couch reading a book with a five year old or in a coffee shop talking life with a 30 something or follow a 40 something around her work, I am honoured and happy to be the parent and grandparent of my baby girls and baby boys. Some are definitely well past the official baby stage—but as any parent or grandparent knows, that is only a chronological thing. Baby boys and girls are still baby boys and girls no matter what their age or stage.

May the peace of God be with you.

LISTEN!

I have been studying the communicating process for a long time and have read—and written—a lot of stuff trying to understand the whole complicated process. Over that time, I have learned a couple of things. The first is that with all the possible problems and impediments, it sometimes amazes me that we can communicate at all.

The second thing I have learned is that most of the time, the major disruption in the communication process comes about because of a significant lack of one vital part of the process. Stripped of all the verbiage and explanations and descriptions, communication involves three elements: a message, a sender and a receiver. Two of those elements are abundant and one is scarce.

There are tons of senders—everyone and everything had a message to send. Our world is filled with senders. We use sound and sight and touch and smell and who knows what ways to send our message. According to relatively new scientific discoveries, even plants are sending messages to other plants. Senders are not in short supply. And that means that messages are also not in short supply, which makes sense. If there are an infinite number of senders, there must be an even larger number of messages, unless each sender limits itself to one message, which is unlikely.

So we have no shortage of senders and consequently no shortage of message, which suggests that the breakdown comes with the third required element, the receivers. My experience as a pastor and counsellor and my research supports this—message receivers are in short supply.

Here is a very common pastoral counselling scenario. I am listening to someone tell me about their problems. The problems can be trivial or moderate or severe. They talk about their problem and their frustrations and their struggles. And, in a great many cases, somewhere in their message, they will make the comment that one of the problems is that nobody will listen to them. Leaving aside the reality that I am actually listening to them, I can understand their message.

People don’t like to receive messages—we don’t actually like listening. We might listen to a bit but mostly, we want people to stop sending messages so that we can continue sending our messages. We especially don’t want to hear messages that are going to inconvenience us, bother us, ask something of us, upset our comfortable world view or harm our ability to get our message out. So, we live in a culture which has a surfeit of senders, an overdose of messages and very few receivers, which probably explains why our culture also has sky high rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and other forms of social and emotional dysfunction.

When nobody listens, nobody is heard. When nobody receives, the communication process is broken. We have senders sending to emptiness and messages going nowhere. But if the sender’s message isn’t received, everyone involved suffers and the message is lost.

I wish I could say that there is a simple solution to this problem. But there really isn’t. Listening is hard work. We seem to be predisposed to sending and reluctant to receive. As a theologian, I would suggest that that is a result of our essential self-centeredness, what the Bible calls sin. We all want to be the most important being in all creation, the being whose messages are received by everyone else without our having to be bothered by receiving messages from beings who aren’t us.

Communication breaks down because we are selfish, often too selfish to stop broadcasting our message long enough to receive someone else’s message. I once read a description of conversation that suggested that a conversation consists of me thinking of what I am going to say once you stop talking.

It is possible to learn how to receive messages from others—it takes hard work, as many former students of mine will attest. But the hardest part of learning to listen is the willingness to stop being so selfish. In order to really receive a message from someone else, we need to actually focus on them, not on ourselves. Once we make that commitment, the rest is easy. But as long as we focus on ourselves, we will ignore the message, distort the message, misunderstand the message—we will not receive it.

May the peace of God be with you.

DIDN’T EXPECT THAT

The clergy in our area have started getting together one a year just to spent time talking about stuff that we all deal with. Our first session last year dealt with the poverty we all deal with and how we can deal with it better. This year’s meeting was a follow up. We were hoping to be able to develop some actual plans of action. We began with worship.

As might be expected with a group of pastors whose profession involves us in designing and planning worship regularly, nobody had actually taken the initiative to plan the actual worship. But we each had something that we offered to the process and we threw together a pretty powerful worshipful time. One of the participants chose to read an article written by a poor person living in our area.

And for me, that article produced a totally unexpected response. I came to the meeting expecting to discuss and share and plan and look at how we as a group could deal with the endemic poverty we see every day. I had some ideas and was looking for a sharing of ideas from a group of people who are good at what they do. I was prepared to deal with the issue of poverty from a pastoral perspective.

But somewhere during the story, something happened. My detached pastoral response to poverty got lost. I began to remember—not repressed memories but real memories that I knew and know are there. I grew up poor. We didn’t have a lot—my joke is that I didn’t know that clothes came new until I was in my teens. Listening to the story, which wasn’t all that much connected with my story, somehow triggered deep feelings associated with growing up poor.

I shared with the group a couple of stories about the poverty we lived when I was growing up. My stories were received with compassion, understanding and acceptance. My story prompted another of the members to be open about her story, which also involved childhood poverty. The others hadn’t experienced that but I felt that they were concerned and appreciative of the sharing—and in the end, I think the stories the two of us shared set a very different tone for our group discussion and what our ministry to poverty would and could look like.

I wasn’t expecting to be touched like that. I was prepared for a good, open discussion of the ministry realities and possibilities associated with being a pastor in a rural area with a high poverty rate. I wasn’t expecting to discover some long lost feelings and have them ministered to by a group of people who were caring and supportative. But that is what happened. I was ministered to. I like to think that I ministered to the rest of the group as well but I was definitely ministered to as I shared my stories and opened my feelings and looked at a part of my life that I am generally okay with but which obviously needs something now and then.

This was for me a God moment, a time when God through the power of the Holy Spirit allowed me the time and freedom to safely look at something that was painful at the time and which obviously still has some residual emotional hold on at least some part of my being. In general, I think it is safe to say that I have effectively dealt with the realities of growing up poor but obviously, there are a few things that are still sitting there that have more effect that I realize—or want to realize.

We went on to have a very good session and developed some workable plans to minister together. But for me, the most important part of the whole process was being able to discover and be open about a part of my experience that was obviously more of an issue that I realized. I felt heard and validated and as we moved on, there was no sense of pity or being seen differently. I was heard, what I said was appreciated, my experience and sharing became part of the matrix of our discussion. I didn’t expect any of that but God does move in mysterious ways.

May the peace of God be with you.

LET’S TALK

I got a phone call from a friend a while ago. We don’t know each other all that well but we were neighbours for years and had a comfortable relationship. He was calling because he was going to need a pastor in the near future—his wife has an incurable illness and he wanted to be somewhat prepared for what was coming. He didn’t have any real church connections but he did know me and knew that I was a pastor—in fact, the last time I was talking to him was at a funeral I was conducting.

I don’t actually like this sort of thing. The dying and grief process are always painful and difficult and when I am called in because of friendship, it is more difficult. But he is a friend and I am a pastor so I arranged a time to meet with him and talk. Because we are friends, the conversation dealt with more than just then essentials of pre-planning a funeral service. We did that but then went on to talk about lots of other friend stuff: how things were going for each of us, where we were each working, why I didn’t walk anymore and so on.

In the course of the conversation, I discovered that he did have a church connection. Like many kids our age, he had attended Sunday School—and had attended at one of the churches I now pastor. That was quickly followed by the almost obligatory apology for not actually being involved in church anymore. We actually had an interesting conversation around that revelation and half-hearted apology.

I suggested to him that maybe the reason he wasn’t involved in church was more the church’s fault than his. Since we had already been talking about his involvement in a local club, I suggested that if church actually met some of his needs, he would be there—just like he was part of this club because it met some of his needs. Somehow, we in the church hadn’t been able to provide what he needed to maintain a connection.

I think my friend represents a great many people today. The problem isn’t that he is anti-faith. He has a spiritual side: he wanted a pastor to help him through the process of his wife’s decline and death; he enthusiastically welcomed my offer of prayer; he remembered hymns and even some Scriptures that he wanted as part of the coming funeral. He might not be on a first name basis with God but he isn’t rejecting God.

But somehow, somewhere, the church missed him and his real needs. We couldn’t or wouldn’t supply what he needed to help feed that faith spark that is still fairly evident in his life. We had nothing on offer that he wanted and so he stopped looking in our shop, finding substitutes elsewhere. But even he knows that we have more available. It seems, though, that we aren’t really making it easy for people to discover what we really have.

We claim that Christ is the answer—and I believe that he is. But when we don’t really know the questions that people are looking to have answered, we probably don’t have the required answers on display—and even more, we might not even know that the answers are available. We have sometimes even questioned the legitimacy of the question, preferring that people ask the easy questions that we can quickly answer with tried and true formulas.

Meanwhile, people like my friend wander around, looking for stuff, settling for substitutes while all the while knowing something about the faith that we seem not to know. They know that the answers they are looking for are found within the faith that we follow. They might not know the answer; they might not see the answer; they might get tired waiting for us to hear the actual question they are answering but they believe that there is an answer and that somehow, the church and its agents can provide it. And so when people like my friend really need an answer, they pick up the phone and ask the question again, hoping that maybe we have dug around in the storeroom and found that we actually have an answer to that question in stock.

I am hoping that with the power of the Holy Spirit, I can help my friend find the answer he is looking for.

May the peace of God be with you.

LET US PRAY

I have been involved in some form of ministry for more than 45 years. That reality has a lot of implications and connections and complications and even some confusions. One of the implications is that fact that I have a very long history of being a professional prayer maker. Because I have been involved in ministry for so long and rarely ever spend time in places and situations where people don’t know that, I am the go to person when prayer is needed. I pray a lot: during worship, before meals, in hospitals, in homes, before funerals, during weddings—if something seems to need a prayer and I am around, I pray.

I can and do rise to the occasion—but I find that praying is much harder for me than it was 45 years ago. Way back then, it was easy to rattle off the prayer and fulfill my role. I had lots of words and had no trouble pulling a prayer together for any occasion. But as the years have piled up and my understanding of people, situations and prayers have all grown, I find it more and more difficult to throw words together and snap off a prayer.

This isn’t because I have had a crisis of faith somewhere along the line and have trouble praying because I don’t believe or struggle to believe or anything like that. I know this happens and have known people in ministry who have had such crises and who have not only stopped praying but also have stopped ministry. I can’t actually say they have stopped believing but they have stopped believing in their faith.

No, my struggle with prayer is more basic. I see prayer as an opportunity to specifically address God about a specific focus. Prayer is more than just a time to toss some words into the air and hope that somehow they catch God’s attention. When I am praying for and with people, I am acting as their priest, the one who carries their needs to God and carries God’s reply to them. For me, this is a scary and demanding task. As a Baptist, I know that anyone can and should go to God on their own at any time about anything.

But as a pastor and counsellor and theologian, I know that there are times when we all need someone else to pray for us. We all need a priest—and I have discovered over the years that when I or someone else needs a priest to talk to God, it needs to be more than just throwing words into the sky. This priestly prayer needs to find the words I cannot find myself and carry them to the God I need to connect with but need help with in the process.

When I am the priest in the process, I am deeply concerned with understanding the cause of the need for prayer and shaping the prayer to express the needs of the person I am interceding for. I know that I can ultimately rely on the all knowing God to understand the need and the situation before any of us involved is even aware of it—but while that theological reality is important, it needs to be balanced with the reality that I as priest and the other(s) as supplicant(s) are better served emotionally and spiritually when we have a handle on what we are praying.

And so I work hard at prayer for others. I listen carefully to both the verbal and non-verbal messages. I make use of my ability to collate information and see themes and trends and underlying issues. I ensure that people have as clear an idea of what they are needing as possible. And before I pray for and with people, I will often share with them the intended content of the prayer to see if that is really what they want me to say to God on their behalf. Only then do I pray. My prayers are short, focused and sincere. Rather than trust that if I throw enough words upward, the message will get through, I seek to understand the request or need well enough that I can clearly and succinctly fulfill my role as priest.

I pray a lot—and when I pray for others, I work hard at being an effective and caring priest.

May the peace of God be with you.

MY PLANS

I am a planner. I like to have a sense of where things are going, when they are going to get done, who is doing what, how things are going to progress. I am not obsessive about it or at least I don’t think I am. I am sure that some theology student along the way whom I have taught or mentored might disagree, especially when the assignment is to develop a three month sermon plan or something like that. Planning is part of my nature and is as well, I think, one of the gifts that the Spirit has given me.

On a very practical level, that means that every Bible study day, I spend some time planning that particular session. My advanced planning already has the specific content prepared but I also make a plan for that day. It isn’t an elaborate plan. We begin with a review of last week’s worship and then I ask some review questions so that people are reminded of what we talked about last week. After the review, we move into the specific content that I plan on covering that day.

Because I have two pastoral charges, I have two Bible study groups, generally doing different topics. So, each week, I dutifully make my plans for each, using my gifts and skills to ensure that I have stuff that will help people grow in faith.

Here is what my planning accomplishes. Right now, one Bible study group has gone three weeks without finishing the review—and the other is right behind, having completed two weeks without finishing the review. I haven’t touched new material in either group during that time. I plan and prepare and then sit back at the study, watching the plan get shredded and trampled by the breadth and depth of the discussion.

Some weeks, the previous Sunday’s worship and sermon destroy the plan. The discussion becomes a way for those present to deepen their understanding of the sermon. It provides an opportunity for disagreement, for testimony, for diverse applications, for suggestions about follow-ups, as well as a time to joke about my mistakes or laugh again at the story they liked.

Some week, the worship review is quick and easy but the review catches us. Sometimes, I actually plan that. I pay attention and notice the areas that people struggle with and include those in the review, hoping that the review process will help them understand the stuff that they didn’t understand fully last week. Sometimes, a member of the study has an idea or thought or example that none of us considered last week and the review question pulls this out, which allows us the opportunity to work it through. And occasionally, someone asks a question that comes from somewhere in their faith experience that touches the rest of the group and we are off on that trail seeking what we can find.

I could, I suppose, impose order and structure and organization on the Bible studies. I have a plan and I have prepared the content that we agreed on and I am the pastor so I probably could take charge and ensure that the study follows my plan. After all, I have put a lot of thought and effort into developing content that will help them grow in their faith. And if I were to do that, most of the members of both groups would go along with it.

But our studies would lose much more from that than they would gain. They might gain well planned content on Romans and prayer (one topic for each group) which would no doubt be helpful and important and even spiritually valuable. But what the group would lose is the freedom to explore our faith in real time. We would lose the ability to help each other as we together work to understand and develop the faith we share. We would lose the excitement of seeing the work of the Spirit touching each of us in diverse ways. We would lose the opportunity to get to know God and each other on a deeper and more intimate basis.

We all like our approach to Bible study. We know we will get to the specific content at some point—but we also know that we will be able to deal with anything we need to deal with fully and safely.

The only problem is mine—how do I plan review questions when we haven’t done new content for two or three weeks?

May the peace of God be with you.

I BELIEVE…

A long time ago, I was a theology student. That occupation entailed sitting a lot—in classrooms and in the school common room between classes. It involved listening a lot as well—listening to professors and classmates in class time and to other students in the common room. While I contributed my fair share of words to all these sitting and talking sessions, I also listened a lot, a practise which I have always followed—we introverts are generally better at listening than talking.

While sitting and listening as a theology student, I discovered that in some significant ways, I as different from a lot of the other students at the schools I attended. I discovered that I didn’t believe as much as they did. Some of them had elaborate and detailed belief systems that seemed to cover every conceivable possibility they would ever encounter in life. I also discovered that I wasn’t as invested in my belief system as they were in theirs. It seemed that everything they believed was a matter of life and death—or heaven and hell.

So, I was sitting in a theological school common room one day, probably drinking coffee so as to be somewhat awake for the next class when one of the students in the room made a faith proclamation. Because his wife had a good job and he was nearing graduation and had been called to a church, he bought a new car—not an old, beat up, barely running car like the rest of us poor theology students but an brand new car, so new that it has things like warranties and good tires and new car smell. As might be expected, he was the centre of attention—most theology students in those long ago days were male and new cars tend to do something in the male mind.

He told us that he bought the brand he bought after prayer. He believed that as a Christian, he had an obligation to buy a car build in a Christian country. His belief system included what kind of car to buy—and as well, it included an obligation to point out the sin of people who would buy a car from a non-Christian country. He had a very elaborate and well developed system that covered everything.

At the time, I was driving a beat up foreign car hoping I could keep it together until I graduated so some of my reaction to his comment likely came from that fact. However, I didn’t really appreciate his belief system. While I think and believe that faith should be a factor in all life decisions, I am not sure that it needs to be so detailed. I very much doubt that God has written a supplementary commandment that tells me what brand of car to buy. I didn’t believe that then and I don’t believe that now—my belief system simply isn’t that detailed.

But I do believe. And I even believe that God has some concerns about my car purchases. I believe that he care about how much I spend, why I buy what I buy and how I approach the process. I believe that he cares about me practising good stewardship in the process and acting in good faith with the dealers and living my faith as I buy. Those are all parts of my belief system. I even believe that God doesn’t want me to brag or show off my new purchase too much. But I don’t believe that which brand of car I buy is ultimately an article of faith or that it will determine my eternal status.

Over the years, I have actually worked at creating as small a body of faith essentials as possible. I don’t need or want to carry around a huge faith statement that nails down everything from what coffee to drink and which car to buy and who to spend time with and how to wash my hands before meals. I don’t need that.

I prefer a slimmed down statement that covers the basics and which can then be used to help craft a specific response as needed. God doesn’t endorse one car over another—but he does have a part in the process of choosing and buying a car. My minimalist faith statement seems to open the door for much more time with God as I allow him to speak specifically to my life rather than through a multitude of laws and regulations.

May the peace of God be with you.