HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH?

I made two trips to our regional shopping area recently. One was shortly before Christmas and the other was a couple of days after Christmas. Neither trip was primarily for shopping but since that is where the biggest stores and best prices are, both trips involved shopping. On both trips, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people driving to the stores, filling the parking lots, jamming the store aisles and stretching the checkout lines. I was also amazed at the number of heaped shopping carts.

Of course, I really shouldn’t have been amazed. The first trip was just before Christmas, when everyone was busy completing their Christmas shopping—a task that I also had that day. The cultural norm requires that we spend and spend and fill carts and jam store aisles. If we don’t spend enough, the economy will collapse.

The second trip happened on the day of Canadian Boxing Day sales—the day when everything that was full price before Christmas is now seriously discounted. People need to get to the stores to take advantage of all the deals on all the stuff that they didn’t know they needed but now that it is on sale at 40-60% off, is a must have—and maybe we even need two of them.

I don’t much like shopping and really don’t like shopping in crowded stores and that fact probably affects my thinking about the whole shopping process. But I can’t help but ask myself what is actually going on here. Where does this desire to have more and more come from? And perhaps even more basic, there is this question: How much is enough?

It seems that as a culture, we have decided to answer that question by saying that we will only have enough when we get something at the next sale. But since there is always another sale coming up, we never really have enough. When 50% discounts are dangled in front of us, we rush out to the malls, charge cards in hand, ready to buy more stuff that we just realized we need or might need or might find a use for—after all, a 50% discount saves us so much money that it is worth it to get whatever we can.

I don’t think we actually ask the right questions. For me, a much better question is “Why”, as in “Why do I need that?” or “Why does something being 50% off mean I need it?” or “Why does spending money on something I don’t really need qualify as saving money?” When I get home, I have less money that I started with and more stuff that I am not really sure what to do with or where to put while I decide what to do with it.

I think we have developed a cultural norm that is wrong and even dangerous. We believe that more is always better—and that getting it for less than expected is a good thing. But really, how much do we really need? The continual quest for more simply enriches those who have lots of money and impoverishes those who don’t have as much money. We buy and buy. Our culture has even spawned yard and garage sales to allow us to buy more—we sell off some of the stuff we accumulate so that we can afford more.

How much is enough? My guess is that most of us need a whole lot less than we think we need and much less than advertisers would like us to think we need. Life needs to involve more than just accumulating things. It needs to be about more than just filling shopping carts with discounted stuff that will go into next year’s yard sale. When we fill all the carts and save all the money and fill all our storage space, what do we really have?

Maybe our push to accumulate stuff is an attempt to fill holes in our lives, holes that would better be filled with deeper more significant human relationships and a deeper and more fulfilling relationship with God. Maybe we need to discover that even if we manage to accumulate the whole world, it won’t really fill the holes in our lives that need to be filled with love, faith and hope that really only come from relationships with others and God.

May the peace of God be with you.

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NO VISITING

Both our Bible study groups are now on Christmas break. Before we closed down, we switched gears and put our regular topic on hold because so many of our people are travelling and visiting family that it wouldn’t be fair to cover new stuff while they were away—we would just have to do it again when they got back anyway. So, we spent some time looking at the Christmas story, comparing the Biblical story with the culturally accepted version of the story.

Along the way, I was again struck by a part of the story that always catches me. Matthew tells of the wise men calling in at Herod’s palace to discover where the king had been born. While this probably made perfect sense to them, it was a real problem for Herod and anyone who knew him—historical records tell us that Herod was quick to execute anyone who even looked like he/she might someday possible entertain a thought of replacing Herod.

Almost lost in the story of Herod’s attempt to use the wise men as spies and their journey to Bethlehem is the interesting way they discover where this baby was to be born. Herod doesn’t know who or where or what concerning this birth—he just knows that he doesn’t like the idea. So, he calls in his version of the wise men. This would have been the religious leaders, the priests and scholars and temple officials. Herod was half Jewish and so probably has some understanding of the promises that someone was coming at some point. He naturally turned to the people who were supposed to know—the religious leadership.

This was a natural and east choice. These people had spend their whole lives reading, studying, interpreting and understanding the texts that God had given them to help people reach God. They knew the words, they knew the prophecies. Their whole lives were lived in anticipation of the time when God would act decisively and clearly to bring his chosen one into the world. No one else had the potential to answer the question Herod was asking—no other group of people could know where the king would be born.

The story doesn’t tell us if they had to consult their texts or have a conference or hold a long debate. I would have liked to know their process—having spent my entire career and clergy and academic circles, it would be interesting to know how these academically inclined clergy worked. Matthew, unfortunately, was a tax collector and seems to have only been interested in the conclusion.

The religious leaders come through—they know where the king will be born. Their years of study; their learned discussions; their generations long debates—all of it comes together and they know the answer. I can picture the delegation confidently standing before Herod with the relevant scroll open to the spot as they read the prophecy point to Bethlehem as the place where the king would be born. They pacify Herod temporarily, allowing him to make plans to use the wise men.

The wise men happily head for Bethlehem. Herod begins alerting soldiers about a coming mission. The city breathes a sigh of relief—Herod’s well know wrath won’t be expressed towards them. And the religious leaders? What of them? What did they do after giving the answer to this question?

What we know is that they didn’t go to Bethlehem. As far as we can tell from the story, they didn’t even send a delegation of the least senior to check things out. It seems like they went back to their offices, poured glass of wine (not Baptist, remember) and went about their regular business that had been interrupted by this question.

My question is why didn’t they go to Bethlehem? They knew the prophecies; they had the startlingly unusual visit of foreign astrologers; they saw Herod’s apprehension; they above all people knew that God was going to do something—so why, seeing all that was going on, why didn’t they go to Bethlehem to at least check it out?

I have been struggling with this question for years and still don’t have a satisfactory answer. But somehow, the answer is a faith issue—and it becomes a larger question. How come we who believe and who know the wonder of God in action, how come we too are slow to move in whatever direction God wants us to move in? Maybe if I can find an answer about the wise men, it might help me understand me and my faith more.

May the peace of God be with you.

TRAFFIC CHECK

Sunday morning at about five minutes before worship time and most of our regulars aren’t there. I wasn’t expecting all that many to start with because the travel season has arrived and a lot of our people seek out warmer climates. But there were still some regulars not present and I was wondering what was going on.

The door opens and one couple come in with a story about being stopped at a traffic check, something that rarely happens on our very rural road. In their talk with the officers, the couple had told them they were on their way to worship. As we were talking and joking, a second regular comes in, also with a story of being stopped at the traffic check. He also told the officers he was on his way to worship and if they wanted to get warm, they could join us.

The door opens again and in come his visiting adult children, who also joke about being stopped by the police. They told the officers that their father was just ahead and was going to get to worship before them. Everyone is by now involved, joking about the stops and telling the latecomers how lucky they were not to get arrested.

Since it is now well past starting time, I begin to head for the pulpit when the door opens again—and we are joined by the two police officers, who want to know if they can come to our worship. We welcome them and I scramble to find copies of the papers I have passed out since they put our numbers well over my expectations.

We begin our worship: our small band of regulars, the visiting adult children and two police officers with all their equipment. As I always do when we have visitors, I make sure that I explain the various parts of the service so they know what it going on. The officers pay attention, participate in the singing and other aspects of the worship and generally appear to be there for more than just getting warm.

Just as I am getting to the conclusion of my sermon, the officers begin staring straight ahead and one of them whispers into her radio. As they get up and slip out, I thank them for coming and they wave, with one still talking on the radio.

I really don’t know why they showed up that day. It might be because it was a very cold day and about the only traffic to stop on our road at that time of day would have been the people on their way to our worship. But whatever it was, somehow our people provided a witness of some positive sort to these two officers. Each one stopped made it clear where they were going and one even invited them to join us.

I don’t know if they will ever show up again and I really don’t have much way to contact them. This was very much a serendipitous moment in our lives and, I hope, their lives. And sometimes, that is all we get. Sometimes, our witness is like that. It is nice when we see the whole process of witnessing in a person’s life and how the Spirit works but sometimes, maybe most times, we are a part of some bigger process where our involvement is decontextualized and we never see where it is going or how it is being used.

I do believe that God is at work, though and that through the Holy Spirit, he is using our brief contact with those two officers. God will use that contact in conjunction with many other contacts and events and witnesses to speak to them. But he isn’t just at work there—he is also at work in our churches. Bringing them to us was also a part of his process for us. We are a small group and we sometimes think we aren’t doing much. To see that God is working in and through and around us is a great thing—it reminds us that small or not, we are not forgotten, that God still has a place and a purpose for us in his plan for the redemption of the world.

I think it is exciting that even a routine traffic stop can be used by the Spirit to make a difference in the world.

May the peace of God be with you.

A SQUIRREL IN A TREE

I woke up this morning to a light snowfall. The ground is covered and the trees are wearing white veils. The old oak tree beside the house still has more than half its leaves (oaks are notoriously slow losing their leaves in the fall), which are now covered with snow. Most of the acorns have fallen off, littering the neighbour’s lawn and our driveway. Leaving or entering the driveway is always accompanied by the pop-pop-pop of the tires crushing the acorns.

Needless to say, looking out at the gently falling snow is much more inviting than stating at a blank laptop screen. One such glance provided a bonus. Sitting on a branch was a big squirrel having his breakfast. The oak tree obviously hasn’t shed all its acorns yet because he found some. I doubt is he collected the food from the ground and then ran up the tree—our collection of houses has no free-ranging dogs and the one cat that wanders the neighbourhood is so well fed that it presents no real danger to a squirrel. Mostly, they sit and eat where they find their food, although they sometimes stop to stare at me if I happen to move to the window for a closer look.

This squirrel is quite content. The remaining leaves provide some shelter from the falling snow. The thick tree trunk protects his from the gentle breeze. The tree provides an seemingly endless supply of food. There may even be a hidden hole or two in the tree that provides him and his family with shelter. What more could a squirrel want: high protein food, shelter, minimal threat from predators—it sounds like a made in heaven setting.

And actually, it is. I doubt if the squirrel realizes or cares but he is enjoying the grace of God but he is. The acorns, the oak tree, the gently falling snow, the whole neighbourhood depends on the eternal grace of God. He brought it into being, he sustains it and he is also redeeming it. If we would spend a lot more time just looking at the world around us, rather than trying to figure out how to use it to make more money for us, we would all be better off, I think.

To be honest, I am not really interested in the tedious creation/evolution debate that some inside and outside the faith think is so important. However it came to be, we have this world because of the grace of God. He caused it to be and set it up so that that oak trees can grow and produce acorns to feed squirrels (and people when properly prepared); so that humans can use the oak wood for sturdy and beautiful stuff; so that the snow which some hate can protect the dirt-based life during the cold and provide moisture for next year’s growth. Everything is connected and interlinked and comes from the hand of a loving and graceful God.

If we spent more time looking for the evidence of the grace of God in creation, we would all be better off. That squirrel peacefully eating his breakfast in the oak tree really doesn’t care if it took 14 billion years or 6000 years to produce the tree that provides his breakfast—he is just enjoying breakfast. The squirrel probably doesn’t do much theological reflection on the grace of God but in the end, his breakfast and his breakfast nook are still powerful signs of the grace of God.

We could probably learn a lot from the squirrel. Some things are pretty obvious, like enjoy breakfast on a snowy day. Other things are a bit deeper but probably even more important, things like remembering that we are not God and are as dependant on the grace of God as that squirrel. We might have a broader understanding of oak trees and natural history and theology than the squirrel but we are still not God. We can plant acorns, we can grow oak trees, we can produce acorn flour, we can make oak boards—but we didn’t bring the oak tree into being and we didn’t design its place in the overall scheme of things. And more importantly, we probably won’t understand the full picture until we are fully reunited with God in eternity.

Until then, enjoy the snow, have a good breakfast and hold firmly to the eternal grace of God.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE MYSTERY

 

I have always loved science. I can remember as a kid of perhaps 10-12 or so conducting an experiment. I put a bottle of water on the window ledge of my bedroom in the winter and recording each morning whether it was frozen or not—we lived in an uninsulated house with no central heating so the water actually froze some nights. An early Christmas gift was microscope, which I wore out looking at stuff.

I want to know about stuff and understand stuff and love the question “why”, along with its siblings and cousins like “How” and “what” and on and on. Discovering how something works makes my day—and it is even greater if I discover why something works wrong and can figure out how to make it work better. It seems that I have an essential curiosity that pushes me to understand and define and describe and explain.

I bring this drive with me to the church and my faith. As a pastor, I am always examining the church, seeking to understand it. All through my ministry, I have done experiments in the church to make it more effective and more church. Let me quickly assure you that always, the experiments have been done with the informed consent and enthusiastic participation of the church—we all know what we are doing and why. We just embarked on a series of experiments with our worship in one of the sets of churches I serve. We generally like our worship but we want to see if there are things that will make it even more worshipful.

In my personal faith, I have the same drive to understand and explain and even to experiment. I want to understand the fullness of my faith. I want to know what is true and what is fake and what is possible and what isn’t possible. I am sometimes in trouble with colleagues in ministry and people in the church because I can and do ask difficult questions that undercut or repudiate some of their cherished theories. I ask blunt questions about “miracles” people tell me about—the fact that someone’s cousin’s nephew’s girlfriend’s garbage man’s acquaintance knew someone who lived in the same city as someone who wrote about a miraculous healing he heard about isn’t sufficient validation for me to rejoice in the wonder of God’s works.

I approach everything with an analytical, critical, searching attitude. I want to know and understand and asking questions, analysing and studying are basic to me and my faith. But for all of that, I realized a long time ago that there are limits to what I can learn and understand. I can learn a lot about God and faith and the church. But there comes a point where I can’t learn anymore or understand any more. I realized early on in my faith life that I am human and God is God and there is a gap there that I cannot get beyond. I cannot squeeze the whole of God into my finite being.

I learn as much as I can. I study and meditate and experiment and develop theories—but at some point, I always come up against the reality that there is a point where my abilities fail. The fullness of God is beyond me. I can understand the love of God. I can observe and describe examples of the love of God. I can experiment with the love of God. (Does God still love me if I…). But I can’t figure out why God loves. Sure, I can get theological and say that God loves because that is his nature—but that is playing with words not real understanding.

God is God and even though I have devoted a good part of my life to understanding God, there is a reality there—as a finite human, I am not capable of understanding completely the infinite God. And I am okay with that reality. I want to know and understand and I will continue to study and observe and experiment. But I am also a person of faith. I may not be able to understand why God would choose to love all of humanity including me—but I can and do believe it. I don’t need to understand everything because I trust God.

May the peace of God be with you.

RANDOM NUMBERS

Because I like to read a lot of different things and pay a lot of attention to the news, I end up with a wealth of facts, figures and bits and pieces.  Sometimes, this data has a point–it ends up in  a sermon or adding another piece to some other issue I am thinking about or all by itself, it explains something else.  But more often than not, these facts and figures just sit there in my brain, occupying memory cells and often sticking in place much better than other, more important things like the name of the person I just met who would like some pastoral counselling.

There is another use for these random numbers–I get to throw them out at random intervals in conversation or I get to use them when I am a bit stuck about something to write for this blog.  So, here are some totally random numbers that I have picked up over the years.  Some I have verified, some I can’t guarantee and some may sound fishy.  Some come from reliable sources–but the sources don’t stick in my mind as much as the numbers.  Some, I have no idea where they came from but here they are:

  • There are currently an estimated 30 million slaves in the world. While the majority are in faraway places, there are a significant number in North America–think poorly paid transient agricultural workers and sex trade workers.
  • Several sources suggest there are something like 40 million refugees in the world. Refugees are people who fled their home land primarily because of armed conflict but also because of drought, famine or some other natural disaster.  There are also millions more people who had to flee their homes but because they are still in their own country, they are not counted as refugees.
  • Something like 80% of the world’s churches have less than 100 people in attendance at worship–and 50% of the world’s churches have less than 50 in worship.
  • About 2 billion people in the world suffer from hunger. They either don’t get enough food or they don’t get the right balance of food.
  • About 2 billion people in the world are overweight or obese. They get too much food or too much of the wrong kinds of food.
  • At one hospital in an urban Canadian setting, two people were diagnosed with scurvy in one year. Neither of them was poor and neither was a 17th century sailor, the more traditional victims of scurvy.
  • In the part of Canada where I live, 20% of children come from homes that are too poor to provide the kids with breakfast, meaning that the majority of schools in our area have developed breakfast programs.
  • The Bible has been and continues to be the best-selling book of all time. My admittedly biased observation is that is also the most unread book of all time.
  • A conservative estimate suggests that 20% of males and 40% of females have been sexually abused before they reached adulthood.
  • Something like 75-80% of the North American population suffers from anxiety or depression.
  • According to some sources, the amount of money spent on armaments around the world in a year could effectively end poverty and hunger forever.

That is probably enough. If I go on, things will probably get depressing–I seem to remember a lot more depressing and gloomy statistics than positive ones.  That may be because positive numbers tend not to be reported in the places I get my numbers from.  It may be because I have a somewhat dark memory process–I recognize that sometimes, I am out of step with my culture.

These numbers that float around in my head do one thing.  They help me see why my faith is so important to me.  While there are some really great things in the world, there is a lot that isn’t right.  And for me at least, the source of hope comes from my faith.  My faith tells me that in spite of the dismal numbers, God is at work.  And even more, he has a place for me in that work.  My faith tells me there is hope both here and now and in the afterlife because of God and his love and grace.

May the peace of God be with you.

TWO KINDS OF PEOPLE

There are two kinds of people in the world:  those who say there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t say there are two kinds of people in the world.  The second kind are a rarity, as far as I can tell because it seems that most of us have this deep seated drive to reduce the complexities of the world’s population to a simple, easy to grasp dichotomy–everyone is either this or that.  It is a staple tactic of many preachers (including me, at times):  we preachers categorize people as Christian/non-Christian; good Christian/bad Christian; tither/non-tither; sermon note taker/sermon sleeper; pastoral supporter/pastoral opponent–well, you get the idea.

Unfortunately for preachers and all of us with this deep seated need for simplistic understandings of reality, it is pretty much impossible to actually reduce people to two kinds because of the incredibly complexity and diversity of humanity.  Take one of the examples I have been known to use:  there are two kinds of people in the world–those who have accepted Christ and those who haven’t yet accepted Christ.

As a division of humanity, it sounds good and I used it for years.  But a while ago, in the process of preparing for a course on evangelism that I was teaching, I thought myself into a mess.  I was looking for a way to help Kenyan students understand some point in the course outline and drew a line on the paper.  I labelled one end “No connection with God at all” and labeled the other end “Total connection with God”.  The graphic looked good, I could easily create it on the computer for the course handbook and it would help illustrate the point.

Except that the more I looked at the continuum this simple line made, the more complicated it got.  To start with, I realized that here and now, there is no human being at either end–no one has absolutely no connection with God and no one has a total connection with God–people in those conditions will only exist after the return of Christ and the end of this era.  So, the reality is that all of us exist somewhere between the two ends of the line.

Certainly, some of us have made a clear commitment to Christ somewhere along the line–but our position on the line doesn’t have any connection with the commitment.  The thief on the cross makes his commitment when he is near the no connection end (maybe–I am making a big assumption here) while Paul was likely further along the line when he made a commitment (another assumption but he was certainly working at his relationship with God as he understood it).  But in the end, all of us are somewhere along the line and somewhere in the process of making a commitment to accepting Christ.

Then it got a bit more complicated because I realized that another reality is that although I come from a Christian tradition that puts a great deal of emphasis on knowing the exact time, place and circumstance of the commitment to Christ, there are people whose commitment to Christ is genuine but who really don’t know when they made it–they sort of drift into it, a reality which infuriates some people because it seems so fuzzy but which is a reality for many, including me.

So, after these and a few other complications, I developed the graphic for the students and decided to live with a less than simple understanding of salvation.   The process is more complex and confusing that a simple two-category division of Christian/non-Christian. We could propose several categories:  non-Christian; non-Christian leaning to commitment; Christian but not aware of having made a commitment; Christian aware of having made a commitment; non-Christian who thinks they have made a commitment; Christian who doesn’t realize they have made a commitment.  The whole thing gets more and more confusing and complicated and makes one wish for a simple, clear, two kinds description.

Or, maybe we could do what we are supposed to do anyway, which is concentrate on being God’s agents in the world and let him worry about who is and isn’t a believer.  If we stop trying to simplify the complicated (which isn’t really our job) and work at being agents of God’s love and grace (which is our job), we can trust that God will take care of the rest.

May the peace of God be with you.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

I have often wondered why our culture ended up with New Year’s in the middle of nowhere chronologically speaking.  By that I mean there is really absolutely nothing to mark the transition except an arbitrary mark on a calendar.  Other cultures have clear and explicit reasons for the new year beginning.  Judaism ties the new year to the events connected with the Passover.  Islam connects it to Mohammed’s return to Mecca.  Agricultural societies use planting season as a mark for a new year.

But us, well, we get a new year beginning a week after Christmas.  If we didn’t need to replace calendars, we could easily miss it, except for the parties and so on that go with it.  But even they would be more fun if we had them at a time when we weren’t already partied out from Christmas.

I did some quick research and discovered that according to some sources, the Romans started the practise of using January 1 as New Years Day.  The month of January is named after the Roman god Janus, who is portrayed as having two faces so he can see both forward and backward and therefore that makes him a god who can split time into new and old years.   But even with that insight, our new year is an entirely artificial and somewhat pointless holiday in our culture.  It doesn’t mark the time when I need to get busy planting the crops I need for food next winter.  It doesn’t mark the transition of a season.  It commemorates no significant date in our cultural history.  It just sits there, requiring us to change calendars and remember to change the last digit of dates.      As one of the guys said after worship one day, “The only thing New Year’s does is make you a year older–and I really don’t want that much.”

Perhaps some of my discontent with New Years comes about because many seem to think that I need to preach a sermon about the holiday–and given the realities I have just pointed out, there isn’t a whole lot to say about it in a sermon.  There are a few sentimental poems and stories that I could toss in; I could reflect on the past year and hope for better in the year to come; I could suggest a list of resolutions we would all benefit from; I could even proclaim the coming year “The Year of (Something)” and call people to commit to that.

Of course, all this runs smack dab into one of the painful realities of New Year’s worship services:  the worship service after Christmas is easily the worst attended worship service of the whole year.  I have often suggested that people who attend worship the Sunday after Christmas are probably going to receive a major reward when they reach heaven.  Clergy–well, we get paid to be there so we probably won’t get a reward, unless it is for figuring out what to say that isn’t trite, sentimental or pointless.

So, again this year, I will struggle with what to preach on New Year’s.  I may deal with the New Year and then again, I may follow my more traditional approach of ignoring the day in favour of something more Biblical and more significant.  That I will work out later–I have time still–not a lot but still some time to figure what I will be doing.

But for now, since New Years is coming and it does mark a change in the calendar, I will follow protocol and wish you a Happy New Year.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT DO I GET OUT OF IT?

There is an interesting paradox with worship, particularly in our western context of worship.  Worship is often evaluated on the basis of what the worshipper gets out of it.  There are wars in congregations as various groups and individuals within the congregation demand that their particular approach to worship be adopted as the norm and the things they dislike be banned from the service.  To leave worship saying, “I didn’t get a thing out of that” is the beginning of a church fight or a journey to find a “better” church where worship provides what the worshipper is looking for.

The paradox is that the more worship is defined by what the worshipper is looking for, the less it is worship.  Rather than worship being a time when people can consciously and freely concentrate on the wonder of God’s love and grace and presence in our world and lives, it becomes a time when I want my favourite hymns, the perfect temperature, the left side back seat, the proper volume for the music, the kids quiet and under control, the sermon short and funny–or whatever combination of factors I happen to be looking for that particular day.

It is possible to find somewhere or create somewhere everything falls into place and all the elements are perfect or as close to perfect as possible.  When we find that sweet spot and attend the service, we go away feeling that we have received something.  But the question that we don’t want to look at is whether we have really worshipped.  If we are looking for what gratifies us or what we think must be done or what turns our crank, do we really have room to see and worship God?

In Matthew 6, Jesus deals with this issue, sort of.  While not actually mentioning worship, he does talk about people who give their donations with lots of publicity and who make their prayers publically and loudly–they want to be noticed.  According to Jesus, they have received their reward–they are noticed by the people around them. (Matthew 6.1-6). I think the warning there applies to worship.  When we try to make worship too much about us and our needs, we might feel something–but instead of that good feeling being the working of the Spirit, it is more likely the result of the psychological, emotional and physical bubble we have created so that we can feel good.

The solution is not the approach of some of the forefathers in my own Baptist denomination.  Rather than try to give worshippers a good feeling, some of them thought the key to good worship was making people feel guilty and uncomfortable.  So in every way,  beginning with relatively cold buildings in cold climates to seats designed to be uncomfortable to music as unemotional as possible to sermons as long and boring as humanly possible, the goal was to have the worshipper leave feeling unimportant like the worms their theology compared them to.  But this is really the same problem–making worship about the worshipper.

The more we try to make worship about what we want, the less we worship.  Certainly, we might achieve what we want but since worship is about God not us, we will go away feeling good (or bad) and think we have worshipped.  But we will not have encountered the wonder of the love and grace of God–we will only have encountered ourselves and our desires and pushed ourselves a little more into the place God is supposed to occupy.

That isn’t to say that we make worship a dry and sterile event that doesn’t touch us.  Rather, we seek to make worship about recognizing the presence of God and giving him what is due to him.  What we feel is a by-product of good worship.  If we truly worship God, we will certainly experience something, maybe not what we expected to feel because God has become involved, but we will experience something.

When we reach beyond ourselves to see the presence of God and worship God for who and what he is and does, we will experience a blessing in our spiritual lives.  We will grow in faith.  But the paradox is that if we design worship for what we want to get out of it, we might get some reasonable facsimile of what we want, but we won’t worship.  When we truly seek to recognize and acknowledge the presence of God in our lives, we will worship–and we will receive a blessing.

May the peace of God be with you.

EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON

I was sitting with a family after a particularly terrible set of events that everyone was struggling with.  Neighbours and friends were dropping by, some to drop off food; some to sit and cry a bit; some to stand silently in the kitchen because they didn’t know what to say or do.  A few of the visitors did make a some halting comments, mostly expressing sorrow and offering whatever support was needed.  Before too long, the expected happened–or at least what I expected would happen at some point.

One of the visitors, seeking to bring some hope into the darkness of the situation, begins to talk and utters a comment that takes many forms but can be reduced to something like, “Everything happens for a reason”.   It almost inevitable that someone will say something like this at some point in the process.  There is no rhyme or reason as to who will say it or when it will be said.  It comes from religious and non-religious alike, male and female, young and old–the only thing predictable is that someone will say it at some point.

This comment and its various siblings is somehow supposed to put the whole process in a new perspective, making everyone feel better and lightening the darkness that has settled in because of whatever trauma or tragedy.  It will be greeted with thoughtful nods from some, confused silence from others and denial from me–always mentally and occasionally, in the right circumstances, a verbal denial.

This comment in all its related versions comes from a very structured and ordered view of life.  In Christian contexts, it is called “predestination”.  Philosophers prefer to discuss it under the name “determinism”.   Whatever the term, it points to a context where everything is planned and determined long before it happens, either by God or some scientific view of causation.

And in some ways, the comment and its cognates is right–everything does have a reason behind it.  Some reasons are clear and direct–if I eat everything I want to eat and don’t exercise, I will gain weight.  Some reasons are unclear and indirect–if I end up getting cancer, there is a scientific reason but I may or may not ever discover the reason.

But often, when this comment is made, it presupposes that the reasons behind things are benevolent and positive and that understanding this can help us overcome the pain and difficulty of the situation by first of all remembering that there is a reason and then looking for the benevolent reason behind the events that will somehow enable us to understand and accept and move on.

Well, I have enough scientific understanding to accept the statement on some levels.  Everything that happens does have a reason.  But often, those reasons are neither benevolent nor malevolent, they just are.  The rules and regulations of nature simply exist and operate without judgement or long term meaning and purpose.

And that means that when stuff happens, the reasons are often impersonal, indifferent and even irrelevant to the way we deal with stuff.  When a family is mourning the loss of a member in a car accident, knowing that inflexible rules of nature meant that driving too fast on slippery roads after too much drinking made a crash almost inevitable doesn’t bring much comfort.  In fact, it can cause more hurt and pain as the impersonal nature of the actual reasons permeates the situation.

Certainly, many people in tragic situations are looking for reasons and purpose and meaning that can help them deal with whatever they are facing.  Unfortunately, reason and purpose and meaning that actually help often can’t be found.  Life can be really impersonal and tragedy really doesn’t come with a reasonable explanation that makes it all better.  There probably is a “why” when looking at life’s stuff but knowing the why probably doesn’t do what the people who love to comment on everything having a reason want it to do.

At best, it is a neutral statement that simply says something that is both obvious and somewhat worthless to say–and at its worst, it seeks to cause people to hide their real feelings and pretend that there is a reasonableness to tragedy that really doesn’t exist.  It is one of those statements that people would like to think is profound but which in the end doesn’t really do much for anyone.  There are things to say and do in tragedy that actually help–but pointing out that there are reasons for it really don’t help.

May the peace of God be with you.