IT’S RAINING

The weather forecast was right–it predicted rain for today and when I got up, it was raining, something that is putting a bit of a down spin on my day.  Now, I really don’t have any plans for being outside today.  I mowed the lawn earlier in the week based on the long range forecast that predicted rain for today.  I have a bunch of things to do that require me to be inside various buildings or the car for most of the day.

About the only ways the rain today affects me are I probably won’t go for a walk if it is raining hard but since the majority of my exercise is accomplished on the exercise bike, that isn’t a big issue.  But nonetheless, the dark and drippy day is making me feel a bit down–not depressed and nothing serious but just a bit down, a different feeling than I have when the sun is shining.

I am probably not alone in my reaction to the weather today and by itself, that really isn’t all that much to blog about.  But when I had been up for a bit and realized my emotional response to the rain, I realized that there have been times in my life when the same kind of day produced a very different emotional response.

During the times when we have lived in Kenya, rain produced a very different reaction.  Most of Kenya is dependent on rain for its water supply.  There isn’t a lot on the way of water infrastructure and what there is depends on rain.  At times, our water supply was two 1000 gallon water tanks filled by the rainwater off the roof of our house.  During the long six month dry season when those tanks were empty, our water supply consisted of two five gallon jerry cans that went everywhere the car went that there was a chance of getting some water.

The last time, we lived in a town that had a municipal water system.  A couple of times a week, the town turned our water on and the 500 liter tank in the attic filled with enough water to keep us going until the next time the water was turned on.  This depended on how many breaks there were in the water line, how careful we were with our water, and how full the rain-filled town reservoir was.  During the long dry season the twice a week water supply dwindled and stopped and our water supply consisted of the two buckets I carried up three flights of stairs from the backup reservoir in the parking lot.

So, when we are in Kenya, waking up to a rainy day produced a feeling of pleasure and a sense that this was going to be a good day.  Rain in Kenya produced the kind of emotional uplift for everyone that a bright, warm sunny day does here in rural Nova Scotia.

This suggests many things to me, among which is the deep reality that we human beings are much more adaptable and flexible that we often give ourselves credit for.  And if we are more flexible and adaptable that we think, that means that we probably don’t need to get as bent out of shape about things as we sometimes do.  The problem isn’t really the external events or circumstances but the way I am choosing to react to them.  Am I looking at the rain as a Nova Scotian or a Kenyan?

And because I am a Christian, that suggests to me that I need to work at making sure that my Christian faith plays a big part in how I look at life and its realities and in how I respond to life.  Rather than seeing my faith as an add on that only kicks in when I am in worship or somewhere where being a Christian is required, I need to work at placing my faith in the centre of my response to life.

Do I view the stranger in town from a basically mono-cultural Nova Scotian, a multi-cultural Kenyan or a supra-cultural Christian viewpoint?  My response to the stranger varies depending on which set of cultural norms I bring to the front.  I would like to say that my Christian norms trump all the others but I try to be honest here.  Like my response to the rain today, I need to work more on what I respond with.

May the peace of God be with you.

TIME AND TIDE

The house we live in sits just above a tidal flat.  At low tide, we see a flat grassy meadow that stretches to the dike along the river bank in the distance.  At high tide, the meadow disappears to varying degrees, depending on the phase of the moon.  When the moon is full, the whole flat disappears and the water comes near to the top of the dyke.  Fortunately, our house is 10-15 meters above the highest tide mark so I can watch the tide without wondering if I need to invest in a canoe for emergencies.

But even though I can watch this twice daily process, I tend not to pay much attention.  If people had asked me where the tide was, I probably couldn’t answer–or that was the case until recently. For the past few months, I have been paying close attention to the tides and can easily tell people what stage the tide is at.

This didn’t come from a concern about raising ocean levels because of global warming.  There is a spot near our house that is so affected and before much longer, a really high tide is going to go over the road there–but I have known that for years and there are other ways to get to where that road leads.  And as I mentioned, we have several meters beyond the most pessimistic predictions of ocean level rise.

What changed for me is that I build a tide clock.  I like clocks and I like building clocks.  So my winter project was to design and build a tide clock.  It wasn’t as quick a process as I thought–the winter was much busier than I anticipated and my wood-working skills were much rustier that I expected.  But the clock is done and sits on the mantle in the living room.  When I am sitting in my working chair in the living room, I can see the tide clock and the tidal flat with just a slight turn of my head.  When I walk into the room during the day time when the curtains are open, I automatically check the clock and the tide.

Part of that began as I worked at regulating the clock.  Although I can look up tide times on the internet, I did have to set the clock hand that tells the state of the tide.  And while the mechanism is interesting, it is a bit hard to adjust perfectly and so I have been tinkering with it since I placed it on the mantle–I think I have is set now but I will continue to watch it.

There is a parable here–remember, I am a preacher and therefore can’t let something just be something–it also has to be something else to feed the insatiable demand for stories to keep people interested on Sunday.

And so the meaning of the parable is this.  I live beside a tidal flat but because the coming and going to the tide has no affect on me personally, I ignore it.  My house is safe from the highest tide predictable; I don’t make my living digging for clams at low tide; I don’t need to know when I can get my boat out from the wharf and the only road that might have some affect on my life is easily bypassed.  The tide comes and goes and has no affect on me.

But as soon as I build a tide clock, I have a personal interest in the tide.  It makes a difference to me where the tide is.  Sure, the difference is only because I want to check the accuracy of the new clock–but I am still interested.

So, we live in a world where there is a great deal wrong, which we ignore because we can’t perceive a direct effect on us.  Some, we can ignore.  Some, we can pretend isn’t a problem.  Some, we have to deny.  And in truth, some we have to work really hard to avoid.  As long as we can tell ourselves it doesn’t affect us, we can ignore it, at least until it becomes too personal.

But as believers, we are called to be involved with the world–instead of ignoring the darkness and its effects, we are to shine the light of God into the darkness.  We didn’t create the light–but we have been given the light.  We need to turn it on and challenge the darkness because whatever we want to think, we do have a personal stake in making the darkness go away, a personal stake that came to us through Jesus Christ.

May the peace of God be with you.

A DIFFICULT BALANCING ACT

When I am bored or finishing up my time on the exercise bike, I spend a few minutes watching Youtube.  One of the story lines these days shows a guy walking on a webbing strap stretched between two anchor points several feet above the ground.  Since this is Youtube, the likelihood when the video starts is that things will go wrong.  Inevitably, the walker loses his balance and falls with one foot on either side of the strap, which snaps back into place now that the weight is off it.  The painful results have convinced me that this is something I never want to try.

However, I realize that I have been struggling with an equally difficult balancing act for  most of my life.  For as long as I can remember, I have been struggling with the balance between individual freedom and community responsibility.  I belong to a denomination (Baptist) which developed out of a desire for a greater role of personal freedom before God in organized faith–and have remained in that denominational family because of that foundational principle.

Yet at the same time, I have struggled with freedom that tramples on others, which often happens when people begin to think that their personal freedom (or needs or desires or wants or wishes) are absolute and take priority over everything else, including the freedom of others.   Having been on the receiving end of that sort of treatment a few times, I may be a bit more sensitive to it than some.

At the risk of over-simplifying the problem, let me try an illustration.  I am colour blind–the red-green version of this problem. (I know I should probably be saying “colour-deficient” but I have been using colour blind for so long that I am going to exercise my freedom to use the term I am familiar with.)  I struggle with anything beyond a very clear green and very clear red–once people start mixing colours, I am lost.  And so I live with and around that.  I only wear colours that I can easily identify.  I ask for directions using civic addresses not house colours.  I paint walls with whatever paint someone else picks out and will never notice if the tint is slightly off.  I use words like “light” or “dark” rather than colour names.

I choose to live in as colour-neutral a world as possible–not a world where colour doesn’t exist but where it has as little an effect on my life as possible.  That is my choice and in some ways, my need.  And when it comes to my shirts and my directions and my painting, it works well for me.  I avoid looking like a clown wearing mismatched clothing, I generally find the right location and I get the walls painted.  I have the freedom to choose my own course as a colour-blind individual in a coloured world.

But the coloured world keeps getting in my way.  I subscribe to a science magazine which has all sorts of great articles–some of which come with informative graphics like pie charts and graphs and other neat ways of presenting blocks of interesting information.  Most of them use colours to present the information, a simple and easy way of portraying information clearly–except for me, it becomes a meaningless blob of frustration because I normally can’t tell the differences in the colours.

Obviously, the whole publishing industry needs to change because of me–well, because of me and all the other colour challenged people in the world who get equally frustrated with those graphics.  They will have to present the information in other ways so I can understand it–shading and cross-hatching of various kinds would work.  And, while we are at it, maybe we need to change the fashion world so that colours are banned as well.  And maybe we should get legislation passed that limits the number of crayons in a package and makes sure that each is clearly labeled–and colouring books are marked with which crayon is appropriate for each space.  We could also require cars to be white or black, although natural metal colour might also work.

I think I just fell off the webbing strap.

May the peace of God be with you.

SMALLER AND SMALLER

Somewhere in my education career, I learned a neat word that describes a somewhat nasty human process.  I think I first ran into it during high school history classes when we were looking at the political roots of the first world war.  As near as I can remember, many of the smaller middle and central European regions began seeking independence.  They wanted to form countries based on specific ethnic groupings.  This process was given a name by historians, a name that reflected the geographic location of many of these groups.  Since most were located in the Balkan region, the process was called “balkanization”.

The difficulty was that many of these groups defined themselves partly in terms of who they were and partly in terms of who they weren’t–they often wanted it to be clear that they were not part of other groups.  In fact, one of the keys to understanding the balkanization process is that the various groups not only wanted freedom for their group but also wanted dominance over the other groups.  According to historians, the regional tensions and squabbles among these groups was an underlying cause of the ensuing war.

The word isn’t all that common these days–unfortunately, the process is all too common.  We can see the process at work in the classical sense in parts of the world:  sections of Africa and even eastern Europe are engaged in movements to become independent of groups they consider less valuable than they are.  But we also see the process working itself out in less traditional ways–various political parties are finding ways to appeal to smaller and smaller groups in their attempts to build support.  Often, the rhetoric used by these groups includes a great deal of anti-other talk.

Even the church isn’t immune from the balkanization process.  In the past, it wasn’t uncommon for various denominations to make sure that its members knew who they weren’t.  I know people within my denominational family who know more about the “heresies” of other denominations than they actually know about the doctrine and polity of our particular group.

These days, balkanization is also taking another form.  Groups within denominations are claiming to have the real truth about the denominational distinctives–and making it clear that their grasp of the truth makes them better than those who see it somewhat different.  Those within my denominational family who use the KJV of the Bible like to make sure that those of us who use more modern translations know we are on the wrong track and might have endangered our place in heaven by losing sight of the “truth”.

The logical extension of this process is the one congregation denomination made up of those who have seen the truth and know that it can only be expressed outside the bounds of denominations.  True believers would not be caught dead in a denomination.

Balkanization is a serious danger in many areas–but since I am part of the church and have spent most of my life working in, with and for the church, I have seen and experienced the dangers of balkanization there from a very personal perspective.  From my earliest experiences in ministry, I have experienced the problems that come from this process.

During my first year of university, we were required to read the Bible from a relatively new translation, the New English Bible.  That requirement caused serious problems for some students, who felt that this was somehow a compromise of the faith–after all, if the KJV was good enough for Paul, it is good enough for us.  I later discovered that because I wasn’t pre-(or post- or a-) mil in my theology, I was missing the point and wandering into heretical territory.  If I read a prayer during a worship service, I was slipping away from the true faith which was based on free, spontaneous prayer, not the stifling, stilted rote prayers in a book.

Even today, I see and experience the balkanization process as work.  I happen to like to old hymns of the faith–but true believers these days need to follow the Spirit through the use of modern choruses, preferably projected on a screen.

It seems that one of the trends of the faith is more and more restricted views of truth, views that focus as much or more on what they aren’t than on what they are.  Unfortunately, history has taught us that balkanization never has a positive outcome–and no amount of noise will make it a valuable process.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT AM I DOING?

There are some days when I have no clue what I am doing, at least in terms of what I am doing as a pastor.  It is important to remember the context here.  I have been involved in some form of ministry since 1973.  Although I have done many different things during that time, I have primarily been a pastor, serving small rural congregations in western Nova Scotia, Canada.  I have advanced education in ministry and have taught other pastors at schools in Canada, Kenya and Rwanda.  I have done seminars and workshops and conferences geared towards pastors.  And so when I saw that there are some days when I have no clue what I am doing as a pastor, it isn’t because I have no background.

Nor am I doing the false modesty thing–you know, pretending that I am less capable than I really am.  I am actually being honest here–there are a lot of times when I really don’t know what I am doing in ministry.  And that is a culturally difficult admission because I do ministry in a climate when pastors are supposed to be all knowing and all capable leaders who have a vision and a plan and who are going to build the next great mega church.

I have read all that stuff and have even attended a few of the conferences on vision and stuff like that.  And for a short spell a few years ago, I was actually doing workshops on the vision process.  Being me, I took a different approach to the vision process, suggesting that the vision for the church needed to arise from the church and that the pastor’s real task was helping the congregation see and articulate their own home-grown vision.  So I know the expectation of other pastors–I should be a vision-casting, purpose-driven inspired and inspiring leader who knows where he is going and where the church needs to go.

But the truth is that most days, I have difficulty articulating a vision for anything, let alone the church.  I feel many days that I really have no clue what I am doing.  Of course, that isn’t entirely true.  I know that I have to lead Bible Study, preach on Sunday, visit the sick, connect with the congregation, be open to emergencies and unexpected calls and all that.  But at the same time, there are many days when I couldn’t tell you why I do these things and how they fit into some overall scheme of things.

In short, I really don’t have much of a vision for the churches I pastor.  Some of the stuff being produced these days about vision and leadership would suggest that this is why I have spend my ministry career in small congregations–if I don’t have a vision and a plan to implement the vision, I won’t get anywhere.

Some of this not knowing comes about because I am still relatively new in the congregations I serve and I have discovered that developing a real and meaningful vision for a church takes time and effort on the part of the church and the pastor.  After I am there for a few more years, the church and I will probably have a sense of what God’s vision for the church is.  I have some hints and glimpses of that in the congregation I have been working with for a couple of years now.

But when I really think about it, I realize that the stuff I am doing as a pastor is often the goal and purpose of my calling anyway.  I have never sensed God calling me to be a visionary.  I am called and gifted to be a pastor and teacher–or, to use one variation of the list of gifts found in Ephesians 4.11, I am a pastor/teacher.  I care for people in the name of God, doing things like preaching and teaching and visiting and caring and counselling and praying and answering the phone and returning calls and responding to emergencies.  The things I do don’t always have some great visionary purpose-they just need to be done because that is what God has called me to do.

If in the process, God chooses to use the things I do to help me and the church develop some greater vision and purpose, I hope and pray that we are open to seeing that vision.  But even now, the things I do are important and so when I say I don’t know what I am doing, maybe I am saying that I don’t know where things fit in some cosmic vision–but I do them because they are important and I have been called to do them and maybe that is enough, at least for now.

May the peace of God be with you.

WORK AROUND OR RESET?

Since one of the churches I serve is closing down for three months, I have some extra time.  I am sure that most of it will get filled up with a variety of things that I can’t plan on or foresee but I do have plans for some of it.  I bought some clockworks and am going to build a tide clock.  The clockworks only need a battery to work–but the clock body is my project for the next few weeks.

I haven’t done too much wood working for the last few years for a variety of reasons and so my skills are a bit rusty.  I am as good as ever at turning nice pieces of wood into sawdust but getting the remaining wood to look like it is supposed to is a bit harder.  In fact, the nice piece of clear, kiln dried pine that I bought to build the clock body is currently sitting on the work bench in small pieces that don’t quite fit together as I planned on them fitting together.

They will work, sort of, especially if I make some changes in the original plan.  The clock won’t look quite like I saw it in my mind but if I make the changes, it will look okay and will definitely tell me the time and the state of the tides.  Now, of course, as a preacher, this reality sparked all kinds of thoughts.  I can and probably will use the clock as a sermon illustration some day, showing how God often has to alter his perfect plans for us to make up for our less than perfect execution.  God has proven himself a master at work-arounds, at least in my life.  Some days, I feel that God’s plan A for my life has been reworked around my mess ups that we are currently on plan ZZZzz, version 1.3.

I have used the work-around route in my ministry more times than I can count.  None of us is perfect and when we come together, our imperfections interact and, well, work-arounds become the order of the day.

But with this clock project, I didn’t want a work around, not even if it would give me a funny and effective sermon illustration.  I liked the original plan, even if it only existed in my head.  I could still see what I want the clock to look like.  And so the more I thought of the work around, the less I liked it.  So, I am not going to go with the work-around.  I am starting over.  I know what caused the problem and I am pretty sure I can avoid it.  The small pieces that won’t fit together will either get incorporated in another project or start a fire–dry pine is great (but expensive) kindling.

But I am still a preacher and so there has to be an illustration in there somewhere.  Right  now, it looks like the potential sermon story focuses on the fact that sometimes, we work around and sometimes, we start over.  The real key is knowing when to do which, as far as I am concerned.  I can afford to start the clock over–I have lots of time since there is no deadline for finishing it; I can afford another piece of kiln-dried pine since the clock body will only require a short length and most of all, I won’t be content with a work around for this clock, or at least the work around I was facing.  Given my woodworking skills, the ultimate clock will definitely have work arounds but at least it won’t have this one.

I am not a perfectionist but I do have some standards and desires.  For me, much of my approach to woodworking and the rest of my life for that matter is summed up by some words of wisdom from a professor I encountered early in my university life.  He was talking about writing papers but the words work for most things:  “Do the best you can with the time you have”.  I might alter it a bit to have it say, “Do the best you can within the circumstances you find yourself” but either way, it is good advice for woodworking and life.

May the peace of God be with you.

EMBRACING COLOUR

            Recently, one of the congregations I serve held an outdoor worship service at a local park.  As part of the worship, I asked people to look at Creation and find something of God to share with the rest of the group, using Romans 1.20 as a springboard into the exercise.  One of the participants chose to talk about the greens he was surrounded by.  He was excited about God’s extravagance in creating so many shades of green.

While I could appreciate his excitement, I didn’t share his vision.  I am colour blind and have difficulty recognizing green at all, let alone being able to see many different shades and variations of green–for me, there is maybe green and beyond that, a blob of indistinguishable colour.

But my physical disability doesn’t predispose me to black and white thinking.  I like colour, even if I don’t see it well.  In my photography, I have always preferred colour to black and white–and in life and theology, I much prefer colour to black and white.  In fact, I have come to realize that even what I and others sometimes call grey is actually a riot of colour that is best appreciated when we are willing to put the effort into understanding it.

Any issue that some people want to make black and white and I have called grey is probably better viewed as a riot of shades of all the colours that some claim to actually see.  And maybe our role as believers is to learn to embrace the colours of life, rather than try to reduce them to a simplistic black and white or less simplistic grey.

For me, the colours of life represent the stories and circumstances and happenings and pains and joys and heights and depths that make up a real life.  To try and reduce an individual’s life to black and white denies the reality of that person’s life.  To see it is shades of grey misses the vitality and aliveness of that life.

To see the colours of that life makes that life more understandable and approachable.  It allows us to understand the person better, to celebrate the bright and lively colours and struggle with the dark and heavy colours.  It gives us the opportunity to be used by God to introduce the colours of love and grace and hope that the Gospel offers, colours that can brighten and even replace the darkness of despair and confusion and pain.

The more I get to know people, the less I am concerned about the black and white issues that used to upset so many when I was in college.  And, I have discovered, the more I discover and embrace the colours of an individual’s life, the better I am at becoming God’s agent in that life, being used by God to introduce even more colour into that life.

Life really can’t be reduced to black and white.  Morality for some believers may seem like it can be made black and white but even morality cannot be made so simple and simplistic without doing theological and practical damage to the reality of life in general and individual lives in particular.  And even more, trying to reduce life to black and white or even shades of grey takes love out of the picture.  And, as I Corinthians 13.1-3 points out so clearly, without love nothing else matters.

So this has been my journey from my first encounters with black and white, moving on to grey and then to the discovery of the range of colours available.  Real life is a riot of colours and shades and tones and hues.  Many of these colours and shades and tones and hues I can’t see in the physical world–I probably can’t even describe them without resorting to a very scientific listing of wavelengths and so on, which sort of takes the colour out of the colour.

But I have been and am learning to recognize the wealth of colour in life, the shades and tones and hues that make up an individual’s particular life situation.  I have been and am learning how God wants to introduce new colours into that life and how he can use colour blind me to be part of that process.

I am colour blind in many settings–but this blind person is learning how to really see others–and it is great to see the fulness of colour, even if it is only metaphorically.

May the peace of God be with you.