WHO IS MY PASTOR?

A couple of times in my career as pastor, I have had people ask me an interesting question.  Essentially, they want to know who is my pastor.  One person who asked the question didn’t actually have much to do with the church but knew me and knew that I was involved in some pretty difficult situations with people he knew.  Another was a church member whom I had helped through some difficulties as part of my pastoral activity.

The question is one that I have actually given a lot of thought to over the years.  Very early, I was exposed to the myth of pastoral invulnerability–the idea that since I am a pastor, I have such a strong connection with God that I don’t need a pastor.  My strong, deeply rooted faith and my powerful connection with God keep protect me and shelter me and take away the need for the kind of pastoral support I provide for others.  Mostly, pastors who believe in this myth don’t talk about it–or much of anything personal for that matter.  They just continue along, doing God’s work until they crash and burn, something that is always painful for them and the church.

I actually believed the myth–for something like 3.5 minutes.  My own growing awareness of my weaknesses and witnessing the depressingly regular crash of “strong” pastors very quickly showed me the folly of that particular myth.  And so even though I tend to be a fairly self-contained individual who has learned to handle a lot of things on my own, I am aware of my own need to outside help and welcome it.

All through my ministry, I have has people who were willing to be my pastor–of course, since I have pretty much always been a pastor myself, none of them were officially my pastor and in true church fashion, most of them never got paid for being my pastor.  But they were and are there.

Early in my ministry preparation and career, I didn’t actually recognize these pastoral presences for what they really were.  I knew there were people there who were willing to talk with me, listen to me and support me whose presence I deeply appreciated and would occasionally seek out but it never really clicked with me that they were being my pastor.  At other times, there were people whose pastoral role I recognized–our denomination actually had staff people who were to be pastors to the pastors for a time.

I also had the tremendous blessing of marrying a pastor and we have provided mutual pastoral support for each other as part of our life together.  Our relationship is about much more than being a pastor to each other but that is a factor in our relationship.

These days, our denomination no longer has a pastor to pastors because of financial realities.  And many times, my advanced age puts me in the position of being a pastor to younger pastors in the same way other more senior pastors cared for me.  But my advanced age and extended career in ministry haven’t brought me to the place where I am the living embodiment of the strong and unshakable pastor who needs nothing but the Bible and a “season of prayer” to deal with anything and everything.

I still need a pastor, just like the people I am called to shepherd.  And so I find pastors.  Often, my first choice is my wife.  But I find others as well.  I let the congregations provide pastoral care–I have told congregations for years that I struggle with depression and many within the congregation will check on me and offer care and prayer when I need it.  Contrary to many pastoral theorists, being open to the pastoral care from the congregation makes my ministry with them stronger and more effective.

I also have people I meet with at irregular intervals and over coffee or lunch, we pastor each other.  Sometimes, we both know this is a mutual pastoral care event, sometimes one or the other recognizes it for what it is and occasionally, neither of us knows that pastoral care is happening as we drink our coffee.

God has provided pastors because we all need something sometime–and we pastors are no different from anyone else.  We may not have a pastor in the same way the people we shepherd have a pastor but God does provide us with pastors and those of us who are wise enough to see our needs take advantage of God’s provision.

May the peace of God be with you.

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BEING DIFFERENT

            If balkanization is a problem, the seemingly obvious solution is for us to focus on being as much alike as we can be.  I remember reading a science fiction story years ago about a cult that decided this was the case.  They developed a strong doctrine based on everyone being the same–and then, in the logical consequence of the doctrine, every member was surgically altered so that everyone looked the same.

The story was based on the idea that no matter how much they wanted to be the same, there were still differences that could not be erased.  In that fictional group, someone was murdering members of the group.  I don’t remember the story all that well but it seems to me that the reason for the murders was that one member of the group felt that those being killed were not quite the same as all the others.

And so while making everyone the same might seem to be the antidote to balkanization, it really isn’t.  We are different and no matter how much we try to be the same, we will never make it.  Our differences are basic to our humanness–it begins in our genetic makeup and is reinforced by our experiences in life.  We have significant similarities and significant differences and both are a part of who and what we are.  We can no more ignore our differences than we can  ignore our similarities.

We need to learn to celebrate our differences without making them a basis of division.  I am left-handed.  Being left-handed makes me part of a minority–about 10% of the population is left-handed.  Since the majority of the population is predominantly right-handed, most things are designed and build by and for right-handed people.  Technically, that is a form of discrimination which puts me at a disadvantage and occasionally in danger–some tools designed for right handed-people put us lefties in danger by causing us to reach over or around spinning blades and other parts in order to use our dominant hand.

I didn’t have a choice about being left-handed–it is ultimately a result of factors beyond my control.  I have spend my life living left-handed and learning how to adapt myself to living in a right-handed world.  But I have never spent much time trying to differentiate myself from the right-handed majority nor have I spent time blaming or shaming the right-handed (except in fun when everyone knows we are having fun).  I don’t worry about being minority, majority or whatever–I just do what I do to function.  And when I can’t function as left-handed in a right-handed world, I either adapt or find a right-handed person to do the job.

I really don’t need to create a militant left-handed group.  I am left-handed and like being left-handed but that is likely because I don’t know anything else.  But I don’t need to put down right-handed people to enjoy my left-handedness.  I can celebrate and enjoy what I am without going the balkanization route.  Being left-handed isn’t one of the major flash points when it comes to human difference, although it has been at times and continues to be in a few cultures.

There are many differences that are flash points in  life–but they are flash points because of cultural, ethnic, political, theological issues.  Someone or some group decides that being from one ethnic group is not as acceptable as being from another group.  But the truth is that these differences are part of human reality.  We can be different and still be human.  We can barbeque hamburgers or goat or egg plant and still be human.  We can read the Bible in KJV or NIV or the original Greek and Hebrew and still be Christian.  We can celebrate Communion with wine or grape juice and still be faithful to God.

And if we pay attention, the differences we see and experience can help us experience more of the fullness of life and faith.  As we discover how others have faced and dealt with life and faith, we gain a deeper and broader understanding of the possibilities.  We discover that different is not wrong or better or strange or sinful–it is just different.  Some difference we can embrace–I like my Kenyan friends’ food.  Some, we can’t embrace as easily–I always have to figure out how to use right-handed tools safely.  But we can celebrate the differences–just as God does.

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.

FIRST PERSON PLURAL

I confess that I have never been a big fan of grammar.  In school, grammar classes were painful for me–having to learn about nouns and pronouns and adverbs and conjunctions and infinitives and all the rest was just no fun.  Given that I have developed a deep love for writing and make my living as one who regularly speaks in public, my dislike of grammar might seem strange but that is the way it is.  Language is a tool to facilitate communication and as long as I can communicate, I can’t get too excited about the rules.

However, there is one area involving grammar that I have been thinking a lot about in the past few years.  And that is the area hinted at by the title of this post–the grammar of how we refer to people.  Actually, I am more concerned about the theology and psychology behind the grammar of how we refer to people.

I see this working itself out in  practical terms in the church.  I often find myself in meetings with other pastors.  I have learned that the grammar pastors use to talk about their current church situation tells a lot about the future of that particular church-pastor combination.

Almost invariably, the pastors who talk about the church as “they” are either having problems or will be having problems.  Those who talk about “we” generally don’t have as many problems.  Another difference also emerges.  Those who refer to the church in the third person plural (they) haven’t been with that church for long–and won’t be there much longer.  Those who use the first person plural (we) have been there for  awhile and will likely be there for a while longer.

This grammatical distinction occurs everywhere, not just among pastors.  But the problem isn’t because of the grammar–the grammar points to the problem.  When we use the third person in the context of people, we are emphasising the differences, drawing distinctions and making sure that people know they aren’t included in our group.  “They” are different from us and we want to emphasise the difference.

When we use the third person grammar to describe individuial or groups, we open the door to all sorts of problems, like prejudice, discrimination, injustice, exploitation and on and on.  Beyond certain legitimate grammatical usage, the way we tend to use the third person becomes a way of excluding people and making differences clear, often with the unspoken understanding that “they” aren’t good or wise or smart or rich or capable or whatever as us.

So whether it is pastors discussing church members, citizens discussing immigrants, conservative theologians or politicians discussing liberal theologians or politicians, purple people discussing fuchsia people, cat people discussing dog people, the “they” tends to the negative and includes a put down.

And while it is true that we are incredibly diverse as humans, our diversity isn’t the most important thing about us.  Underneath the differences that make us “they” is a deeper reality that makes us a “we”.  We are all humans, created in God’s image, in need of a deep relationship with God and each other and we are all somewhere between what we shouldn’t be and what God meant us to be.  And to get from where we are to where we were meant to be involves not just our relationship with God but also our relationship with each other.  It was and is God’s plan that we best become what we were meant to be by recognizing the “we” rather than the “they”.  We all need God and his help; we all mess up; we all need help–and we all need to work with each other and God to become what he meant us to be.

Our differences are real–no matter how well I speak Kiswahili and no matter how much ugali I eat, no one is ever going to seriously believe that I am a Kikamba–the differences that make me a Msungu and not a Kamba are obvious.  But I am still in relationship with my Kamba friends–before God, we are “we”, all of us in need of his grace and love and help, grace and love and help which we will find best when we come together around our similarities rather than try to magnify our  differences.  We are all in this together.

May the peace of God be with you.

SERVANT OR SERVED?

Kenya, like most of Africa, was taken over by European powers in the late 19th century as the various nations in Europe scrambled to exert their power over the world.  The reality that the lands in question were already occupied and governed by other people was simply ignored–the prevailing opinion at the time was that since those peoples were obviously inferior, there could be nothing but benefit for them to be under European rule.  Eventually, most of Africa decided that they preferred to be independent and made it happen.

One of the lasting legacies of colonialism in Kenya is a well developed sense of entitlement and privilege.  Social stratification is a deep seated addition to Kenyan culture, with everyone seeking an important place in the pecking order.  Money, tribe, geography, education, connections, special skills–everything has a place in determining who gets what privileges and who gets to serve who.  Nobody wants to be doing the serving–everyone wants to be served.

It may be that this culture of entitlement and privilege seeking will come to be seen as one of the worst of the long term effects of colonialism because of the way it encouraged so many of the current underlying problems African countries struggle with.  Corruption, nepotism, tribalism, instability–all owe something to the colonial example.  African countries may have thrown out the colonizers but they often kept the colonial mentality.

But this problem of entitlement and privilege seeking affects more than just post-colonial countries.  Unfortunately, it affects the church–and the consequences of these attitudes is causing no end of harm to the mission of the church.

Recently, I saw a news item while I was washing the dishes.  A man got a parking ticket while he was in worship on Easter Sunday.  He openly admitted that he was parked in a no parking zone.  The church parking lot was full–the Christmas and Easter crowd were out in full force.  He and many other worshippers parked on the street, ignoring the no parking signs.  Some enterprising traffic officer saw an opportunity to improve the municipal finances and gave all the illegal cars tickets.

The man on the news was upset.  One of his comments was that he was parked there because he was in worship on one of the holiest days of the Christian year and so the police should have shown some leniency.  And while that might sound good to other worshippers and to those struggling with the lessening influence of the Christian faith in an increasingly pluralistic culture, it is really only a thinly veiled call for special privileges.  Our faith should be allowed to break the rules when our parking lot is full.

As Christians in North America, we want our culture to serve us.  We picture ourselves as being special–our western culture is built on Christian foundations.  We have made a significant contribution to our culture–and now, we want to collect the interest on that contribution.  We  deserve a break on the parking ticket; we deserve to be given exemptions from rules that we don’t like; we deserve a better place in the culture than other groups.

But aren’t we called to be servants?  Somewhere along the line, it seems that we have lost sight of what it really means to be a servant.  We have continued to call ourselves servants but have redefined the word servant to mean that we are the ones who get served.  The privileges and special treatment we want and even demand amount to us as believers thinking that our culture needs to pay us back for all that we have done for our culture over the years.  Whether it is being allowed to break parking laws on Easter Sunday or trying to stop multicultural realities, we are really not being all that much different from the colonial powers in Africa or their independent successors.

We seem to have turned our understanding of a basic part of our faith on its head.  We talk of being servants but really want to be served.  We talk of serving others but really want others to serve us.  We call for justice but really want free parking in illegal parking zones when the church parking lot is full.  And maybe this reversal in our understanding of servant-hood is at the root of the serious decline of the church in the west.  Maybe our culture needs servants more than it needs one more entitled group demanding privilege.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE EXECUTIVE DINING ROOM

The last time we lived and worked in Kenya, we weren’t living on the school compound as we had at other times.  That meant a daily half hour or so commute from our home to the school.  It also meant that instead of going home to work between classes, I ended up working in the school staff room with all the other faculty.  It also meant that my wife and I were included in the tea and lunch that were part of the faculty employment package.  Since I enjoy Kenyan food (except for the tea) and they wanted me to take part, I joined in, although I did bring my thermos of decaf coffee so I wouldn’t have to drink the tea.

The first official day we were there, our lunch was served in what would be called the executive dining room with the deans of the schools and several other important school officials.  The rest of the faculty ate in the staff room as always.  The next day, a similar process.  The next day, I was summoned to the executive dining room (really, it was an empty office that like most things Kenyan, did double duty.) and told that the dean of the school would be along later.  He never showed up and after eating my lunch alone, I wandered back to the staff room to work before going to class.

After this happened a couple more times, I scheduled an appointment with the dean–which meant I managed to hear him in his office and asked if I could see him.  I was tired of being treated as a special visitor and ending up eating by myself while the rest of the faculty ate in the staff room.  Since the executive dining room shared a very thin wall with the staff room, I could head them talking and laughing and having a good time while I or Elizabeth and I ate by ourselves.  I asked the dean if I could stop being a guest and become a regular faculty member, able have my lunch with the rest of the faculty.

He was actually quite happy with that–I think the extra effort to put on lunch on the executive dining room for one or two people was an annoyance for him and the kitchen as well.  So, why do it in the first place?  Well, Elizabeth and I were Wazungu–and based on past experience, the dean and others were sure that we needed special treatment.  We were just too important to eat with the rest of the faculty.  My request to eat in the staff room challenged their preconceptions of my minority group and made life easier for the dean and kitchen staff.

It also changed the nature of my relationship with the rest of the faculty.  I went from being a curious but somewhat unapproachable Mzungu to being a regular faculty member, standing in line for my food, taking part in the multi-lingual the joking, answering questions about Canada, seeking advice on school issues and generally being part of the staff.  I became aware of a major change the day we had a new staff member, who was amazed that a Mzungu would be able to eat the day’s lunch of corn and beans.  His surprise was matched by the assurances from the rest of the faculty that I wasn’t really a Mzungu–I was one of them and had no problem with the food or anything else.

So, we are now back in Canada, part of another visible minority, relating to people who don’t really understand me or my minority.  One temptation my minority in Canada faces is to find the equivalent of the executive dining room and spend all our time there, except for those times when we must interact with the majority, like funerals and weddings.  We worship together but we also coffee together, vacation together and meet together.

But we need to get out of the executive dining room.  We need to eat the food that everyone else eats where they eat it and when they eat it.  We are a visible minority–but when we emphasise our minority status, we create distance between us and the very people we are called to serve.  We are called to be salt and light in the world, not a visible minority eating in  the executive dining room.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHO RULES THE RULES?

             For some reason, I have been doing a lot of thinking about rules these last few days (and posts). I am not really sure why that is–my best guess is that it developed from my own self-imposed rule of having something to post here three days a week.  In previous posts, I have already established that I am somewhat ambivalent towards rules, wanting some of them sometimes, wanting others all the time and not wanting some ever.  I have sometimes been classed as a rule-breaker, mostly because of my lack of concern for certain rules–is splitting an infinitive really all that bad?

But even though I am sometimes ambivalent about rules, I recognize the need for some rules–humans can’t exist without rules to guide our interactions.  Unfortunately, sometimes we have taken that need for rules and gone overboard, creating rules and regulations for everything under the sun and quite a few things that aren’t under the sun.  And then we find ourselves in the position of having to decide which rules we are going to follow and which we are going to break.  And that is no easy task.

Some seem bent on obeying every rule.  Their personal rule book declares all rules valid and important and must be obeyed.  There are some who see every rule as something to be challenged.  Their personal rules book is very short, consisting of one rule only: “Break all rules”.  Between these extremes, the majority of the rest of us sit and wonder what to do.

Ironically, we all probably need some personal rules about keeping and breaking rules.  And those of us who feel a need to break rules probably have something like that somewhere in our minds, although we probably have never really examined our rules for breaking rules.

We would likely benefit a lot from taking some time to look at our standards for rules.  If we do that, we will probably find that a major factor in our decisions about whether to follow a rule of not is based in our self-interest.

When the highway is clear and dry, it is in my self-interest to break the speed limit rule.  I don’t actually gain much benefit from breaking the rule since I always have enough time to get to where I am going but in the end,  I will probably break the rule because I want to.  However, if I know there will be police on the road, I won’t break the rule–again, out of self-interest.  I don’t really want to pay the fine.

Self-interest isn’t the best standard for choosing which rules to follow.  Adam and Eve used self-interest to make their decision about breaking the one rule they had.  For their sakes, I hope the fruit they wanted tasted great because that would have been the only benefit they got from using self-interest as their way of deciding which rules to break.

We all get upset when someone breaks rules to benefit themselves at the sake of others.  Picture yourself waiting in a line up somewhere–a theater or bank line perhaps.  We all wait our turn because that is the rule.  Someone comes in and jumps to the head of the line, maybe mumbling an apologetic excuse or maybe just jumping in.  Since I am Canadian, I will quietly fume but still be angry.  Someone might say something but since most of us don’t, the line jumper is pretty safe.  But his self-interest does cause problems for the rest of us.

My guess is that most rules get broken from some form of self-interest.  But I am not sure that is a particularly good standard for breaking rules.  My experience has been that for every self-interest that benefits from breaking a rule, there is probably another self-interest that is harmed, irritated or upset by breaking that rule.  No matter how many justifications, explanations, reasons or excuses we come up with, breaking the rules just because it benefits us is going to create some resentment for someone.  Even when the line breaker is a disabled, sick, elderly person who needs money right now to keep the evil creditor from repossessing the family farm, someone is still going to be upset when she breaks the rule and cuts in line.

While rules are not necessarily made to be broken, most of us will decide to break a lot of them in the course of our lives.  Maybe, though, we need a better theory and theology of rules than our own self-interest.

May the peace of God be with you.

GROWING IN FAITH

One of the Bible study groups has been discussing the gifts of the Spirit recently.  We started talking about using the Spiritual gifts and that lead to the need to develop the gifts, which caused some significant discussion–it was hard for some members of the study to understand that we could have a gift from the Spirit and not be automatically able to use it.  In the process of the discussion, I mentioned that I have the gift of preaching, which didn’t really surprise anyone in the group.

(I am aware that the New Testament doesn’t specifically mention the gift of preaching, although several of the gifts: prophecy, exhortation and encouragement could be seen as being related to preaching.  However, I am just going to skip by the issue at this point so that I can deal with the issue I want to look at–something I don’t always get to do in Bible study.)

I then went on to suggest that although I have that gift, I am probably a better preacher than I was when I started preaching 40 or so years ago.  At that point, a couple of members of the study who had heard me preach regularly 30-35 years ago agreed with me emphatically.  The strength of their agreement caused some laughter in the group and before anyone else could say anything, one of them quickly assured me and the group that I wasn’t a bad preacher in those days but am definitely a better preacher today.

I have to confess that while I appreciated the affirmation of my point, there was a small part of me that found it disconcerting that I had changed enough in the area of preaching for it to be noticeable.  While I firmly believe in the need to grow in faith, hearing the evidence that it is happening can be a bit painful.

It can be painful because while the reality of spiritual growth is positive and good, the fact that we had to grow reminds us that we were not perfect–and maybe, more significantly at least for me, that I wasn’t as perfect as I thought I was.  Theoretically, I know that, I confess that, I teach that.  Practically, I occasionally need to confront the pride that would like my development as a preacher to have been only a minor improvement of what was an already impressive ability even all those years ago.

Tied with that is the idea that I am probably not at evolved spiritually today as I think I am–I mean, if I wasn’t all that clear about what I was back then and how far I have come, I am probably not as aware of where I am now as I think  am.   Maybe the childish things that I think I have put away (I Corinthians 13.11) haven’t really been put away.  I may have a newer, more expensive and more sophisticated version that looks better but it may still be the same thing I had before.

Fortunately, my place with God doesn’t depend on how much I grow or in what direction I grow.  That is one of the bed-rock realities of the grace of God.  But growth in the right direction does help me connect better with the God whom I serve and enables me to better do what he calls me to.  And, even more fortunately, God provides all kinds of help and resources to me to enable me to not only know the direction of my growth but also to have the strength, courage, support and all the rest needed to grow in that direction.

Whether that growth involves showing me how to become a more Christian driver, a better preacher, a more attentive listener, a more understanding pastor, a more focused researcher or whatever, God has a direction and a plan and offers me the resources that I need for the process.  I can choose to stay the way I am–or I can take the steps of faith this grace from God asks of me and continue the journey from being what I was to being what God knows and wants me to be.

Either way, God’s grace assures me that I am loved and accepted–but for me, at least, that same love and acceptance almost always encourages me to take the next step.  Following God may not always be comfortable but it is always fulfilling and worthwhile.

May the peace of God be with you.

LISTENING TO GOD

We were sitting around the table at Bible Study, talking about something that had sparked a discussion about something else and that lead to something else and we eventually landed on the topic of hearing God.  One of the members of the study looked at me and asked me if I ever heard God speaking directly to me.  Now, as a pastor, preacher and teacher, I frequently tell people things about God and things that I believe God has said that I need to pass on.  I have helped many other people (I hope) connect with God and hear his message.  But, as I answered the inquirer, I have never heard God speak directly to me in the same way a person would speak to me.

I know people who claim that God speaks directly to them.  And I have to confess that some of them I believe–and some of them I really wonder about.  I rejoice with those who hear direct verbal messages from God that are in fact direct verbal messages from God, although my personal experience is that people who receive such messages are rare and even they don’t have the experience all that often.

And that makes sense to me.  As a species, we have a serious hearing problem.  We struggle to hear the messages we send ourselves.  We are terrible at hearing even the most basic of messages from other human beings.  So it stands to reason that when it comes to God, whose reality is far beyond ours, our ability to hear him would be a problem.  But that doesn’t stop us from claiming to have heard God.

Just as with our fellow humans, we let a whole long list of things get in the way of our ability to really hear God.  And at the head of the list of things that prevent us from hearing God is the basic problem that we likely really don’t want to hear what God has to say to us.  God is in the business of helping us become what we were meant to be, rather than confirming us in what we want to be and so many of the messages he wants us to hear are inconvenient, uncomfortable and even scary.

The messages we would like to get from God; the messages we would send ourselves if we were God; the messages we fantasize receiving–these are all much more acceptable and enjoyable and easier to hear.  So, we hear them–and assume that they come from God.  If I want a new computer, then it is amazing how easily God seems to agree with that need.  If I don’t want to go see someone in the church, it is amazing how quickly God tells me that I shouldn’t do that.

God speaks to us all the time in a variety of ways and using many different approaches–and we, like the good listening beings that most of us are, are always ready and able to not actually hear what he has to say.  And of course, when we aren’t listening to God, it is always because he is silent, a situation that causes us a great deal of spiritual frustration.  That spiritual frustration has a lot in common with my frustration with people speaking too softly all the time–it had to be their fault I couldn’t hear them. I am amazed at how much better people talk these days, especially when I have my hearing aids in.

How do we hear God? Like we hear everyone else–we have to work at it.  And just as our own stuff is the most serious hearing impediment with other people, so it is the most serious blockage when it comes to hearing God.  My solution to this hearing problem?  Well, I recognize that I don’t listen to God as I should; I commit myself to working at listening; I get my stuff out in the open by admitting what I want to hear–and then I wait  patiently and expectantly, testing and evaluating everything I am hearing and seeing, looking for the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5.22-23).  It is a slow process and I get lots of false messages but eventually, I do hear what God has been saying to me.

May the peace of God be with you.

A THEOLOGY OF LISTENING

I am standing in front of a class of 120.  It was supposed to be maybe 50 at most when we were asked to teach the class but this is Kenya and plans and projections are never actually finalized and compete until after things are finished.  The 70 extra students are a minor blip for the organizers–a major problem for my wife and I, though, because we only have student books for 50.

The room we are in would be a poor one for 50 people–it is long and narrow, meaning that the students at the back probably need binoculars to see us and with no PA system, they probably can’t hear us all that well.  With 120 people jammed into the room, the acoustics and comfort level are even worse.  With my poor hearing, I have to be up close to people to hear what they are saying but finding a route to the people at the back involves twists and turns that would make a yoga teacher squirm.

We are there to teach these students how to do some basic pastoral care.  And the most basic of pastoral care processes is listening.  From long experience in teaching listening skills, we both know that this will be a big job–if we can reach the end of the week with at least some of the students being aware that listening isn’t a natural process for many of us, we will have accomplished something.

We have a bag of tricks to get the point across:  there is Proverbs 18.13, which says, ” He who answers before listening—that is his folly and his shame.”; we also use the old proverb, “God gave us two ears and one tongue so that we will listen twice as much as we speak.” and I also joke that most people only use their ears to hold up their glasses.  We also have some exercises that look simple but which give the students extreme frustration when they fail and extreme laughs when others fail.

We also know that we have to fight against a reality that crosses cultures and may be a deeply embedded human trait.  Most of us don’t put a lot of value in listening.  In truth, our approach to listening says a great deal about our approach to other people.  The almost universal human desire to talk rather than listen says that in the end, we value ourselves more than others.  Listening requires that we focus on the other person–and for many of us, that is just too much for our essentially self-focused nature.  And this self-focus is at the root of that the Bible calls sin.

Not to listen to another person is not to value that person.  Not to listen is to put ourselves above that person.  Not to listen is to think–and act–as if we are more important than the other person.  To think that what I have to say is more important than what another person has to say is to make myself more important in my own eyes than they are.

If we are to truly love others, we need to work at expressing that love by actually listening to the other person.  I can teach tricks and give tips on how to do that but in the end, being able to listen is not a matter of tricks and tips–it is a matter of the soul.  We have to know that the other person is important and valuable and has inherent worth.  We have to be willing to give them space in our lives to be important and valuable worthy–and the best and most basic way of doing that is to listen to them.

No amount of my telling a person how valuable and important and worthy they are will make up for the fact that when I don’t listen to them, I am telling them they are of no value, unimportant and unworthy.  And the irony is that I can be telling them just the opposite verbally but my lack of listening will give them exactly the opposite message.

We did, I think, succeed in helping some of those 120 students learn a bit about the importance of listening.  Some were actually really good at listening.  But even me, one of the teachers that day, needs to put a lot more effort into what is one of the most important and most lacking of the acts of love.

May the peace of God be with you.