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.

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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.

SO, DON’T ASK?

Every now and then when I am leading a Bible Study someone in the group begins to struggle with a particularly deep issue, one that eventually leads us to one of those mysteries of faith that may or may not have a final answer.  Since my Bible study groups are flexible enough to allow discussion of just about any question, we spend a bit of time on the student’s issue.  Sometimes, as we discuss, the student who began the question begins to look concerned.  When I ask them what is going on, I sometimes get an interesting response.

They want to know if we should be talking about this.  It seems like drawing near to these faith mysteries worries them–maybe we are trampling all over sacred ground.  They begin to wonder if the proper approach to the mysteries of faith isn’t to metaphorically at least remove our shoes and bow down, acknowledge our dependence on God, accept that he is God and we aren’t God and back away from the question or issue in fear and trembling.

There is good reason for some people to react that way.  People of faith, any faith, have not always been the most open about asking and allowing questions.  There is almost always a rule against asking certain kinds of questions in faith, any faith.  The rules might be written but more likely they are unwritten–but no less powerful for being unwritten.  The rules generally include not questioning the agreed upon basics, the structure and organization or the leadership.

In my Bible study groups, I try to operate without those rules because I think they are unnecessary and limiting.  Questions are important–and questions that some say shouldn’t be asked are, in my mind anyway, some of the most important.  And, when I run into a question that some say I shouldn’t ask, I immediately have another question, “Why shouldn’t I ask the question?”

Even when those questions take us into the realm the unanswerable, we need to ask them.  Going back to the book of Job, it was Job, the man who asked the questions that others thought he shouldn’t ask, who received satisfaction at the end of the book.  He didn’t really get an answer to his questions, at least not an answer he was looking for, but the asking and the conversation with God resulting from the question did something very positive for him and his faith.

Asking the questions isn’t wrong.  Asking the questions, even the hard and unanswerable questions is a valuable process.  If we ask and get answers, that is great.  If we ask and discover in the process one of the unanswerable mysteries of the faith, that too is great.  We have still learned something about ourselves, God and our faith.  We might not have learned what we were asking about, but we still learned something important.

There is one caveat here, though.  There is a time when we might want to at least consider not asking questions.  If we are not sure we want to know the answer, we might want to hold off asking the question, at least until after we have asked why we don’t want to know the answer.  If we ask the question knowing we might not like the answer, it is much harder sometimes to hear and process the answer or lack thereof.

Aside from that, ask the question, whatever it is.  There may be a readily available, easy to grasp answer just sitting there.  There may be a more difficult, harder to understand answer that will take some work.  There may be a wealth of unsatisfactory answers that we have to dig through.  There may not be a good answer now but in asking and encouraging the question, we may get an answer someday. And occasionally, the question may point us directly at the deep, mysterious unanswerable questions that show us the limits of our humanness in the face of God’s unlimitedness.

There may not always be answers but there will always be questions to be asked.  And when we begin to realize that the questions we allow ourselves to ask are sometimes as important as the answers we get, we will probably be much better off.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE MYSTERIES OF FAITH

            Anyone who has had any contact with the Book of Job knows about the patience of Job–except when we actually read the book, wading through the long-winded theological and practical debating points, we discover that Job is anything but patient.  He is demanding at times, depressed at times, angry at his friends at times, upset with God at times–but he definitely isn’t  patient.  He faces the terrible loses in his life and he wants an answer–he wants to know WHY.  He isn’t content with the pat non-answers of the friends–he is going right to the top and wants God to tell him why.

His persistence pays off and Job eventually gets an answer from God, beginning in chapter 38.  But it isn’t the answer he expects.  Once we read through all the natural history questions and the occasional theological allusions, God’s answer to Job is: “I am God, you are not god.”  Job is satisfied with the answer, his life turns around, the friends are scolded and everyone lives happily ever after.

Job wants to know “why” and gets what could be considered the theological equivalent of “because”.  While his generation may have been comfortable with that answer, our time frame generally isn’t too happy with that answer.  We want the real answer.  Ours is the age of the question, the age of information, the age of reason.  Given enough money and computer power, any question can be answered–or should be able to be answered.  All we need to do is give someone a research grant, an office, a staff and a deadline and we will have an answer.

We have serious difficulty admitting that there are some questions that we won’t get an answer to because we don’t have the capacity to answer them.  There are unanswered and unanswerable questions in life that come about from the fact that we are human, not God.  For all our capacity and all our potential and all that we can do and will be able to do, we have a limit–and that limit is that we are creations of God, not God.  Granted, we are created with great potential, we are created in the image of God (Genesis 1.26-27) but we are not God and that sets limits on what we can understand.

There will always be mysteries and unanswered questions when it comes to faith.  Given time and effort, we might be able to answer some of the scientific questions God asked Job–but there are going to be some things we simply won’t be able to understand because our finite minds aren’t able to fully comprehend the infinite.  Maybe, someday when the new heaven and new earth are in place and we are transformed, we might have the capacity to understand–but here and now, if we ask any questions at all, we are going to run smack into the wall formed by our inability to comprehend the fullness of God.

When we ask a question like, “Why does God love us?”, for example, there will be all sorts of theological formulations; multitudes of definitions of God, love and humanity; reams of pages of discussion; uncounted words written and spoken–but in the end, the only answer that even begins to make sense is “Because”.  We can reveal in God’s love for us; we can rejoice at the expressions of this love; we can praise God forever for this love–but we won’t ever find the full and complete answer to this why because that answer depends on something we don’t have–the mind of God.

Now, not everything that is a mystery now will be a mystery forever.  Our human potential and capacity has looked at mystery and found the key to unlock what has appeared to be unknowable.  We know why disease happens and even how to prevent and cure it.  We know how birds fly–and have developed technology to allow humans to fly.  We can understand many of the secrets of the human mind and even know how to repair some of the problems that develop there.  We have made some faltering and hesitant steps to control weather.

We have found answers to a great many mysteries and will undoubtedly find others.  But in the end, we will always have to deal with the fact that some mysteries will remain mysteries because they come from the mind of God, not our minds.  Like Job, we will find that sometimes, the answer to “why” is a divine “because”.

May the peace of God be with you.