USING THE MIRROR

I gave up shaving a long time ago—why waste so much time on an activity that doesn’t do all that much for me in the long run? Having a beard has many benefits but it does mean that I don’t actually spend much time in front of mirrors, a fact that get emphasized now and then when my wife suggests that it is time to get my beard trimmed. It isn’t that I never use the mirror—its just that I don’t actually pay much attention when I am brushing my teeth in front of the mirror and so don’t really notice that both my beard and what hair I have left are getting somewhat shaggy.

I find it interesting, though, that looking in the mirror is one of the minor themes in the New Testament associated with spiritual growth and development. In James 1.23-24, the writer makes this comment: “Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.” (NIV) Reading the Bible, according to James, is supposed to be a lot like looking in a mirror—we need to see ourselves and deal with ourselves.

One of the most serious problems facing the church is the lack of believers actually reading the Bible because it leads to an even more serious problem of believers not actually following the Bible or even worse, doing exactly the opposite of what God teaches us through the Bible and thinking it is God’s will. In my persistent efforts to get believers to read the Bible, I have a reason beyond reading the words—I want people to read the Bible so that they can discover themselves in its pages.

We are all in the Bible. In fact, we are all there in two or perhaps three versions. The first version is the familiar one, the version of ourselves as we are. Granted, the Bible doesn’t actually mention left-handed, colour blind introverts as a class (although left-handed people are mentioned). But on a deeper level, we are all in the Bible. We are shown our essential selfishness, our inability to consistently do what we know we should so, our distance from God. We all show up as we are.

But we also show us as we could be. We are given glimpses of the original plan, the one where we are together with God, discovering the wonder of who we were meant to be and how great being with God really and what we were meant for before we messed it all up. And then, we are also show the third version, the us that floats between what we are and what we can be, the version that all believers spend their lives struggling with and against.

The point of reading the Bible is so that we can see ourselves as we are, commit to becoming what we were meant to be and most importantly, discovering the divine power and help we need as we struggle in the intermediate stage where we will live all of our faith life. We don’t read to discover who was the fourth king of Israel, although that is interesting. We read so that we can see who we are and discover how we can become what we were meant to be.

Sometimes, I think that all the reluctance to read the Bible; all the debates over which version of the Bible to read; all the fierce disagreements over interpretations; all the wrangling and bickering over that bits and pieces of the Bible are popular simply to help us avoid seeing ourselves in its pages—because when we see ourselves as we really are, we are challenged to become what we were meant to be and can be. It is easier to fight each other over which translation of the Bible God wants us to use than it is to fight our selfishness to become the version of us that God meant us to be. Really reading the Bible challenges us with both our failures and our potential.

But it also gives us hope. The God who gave us the Bible and our salvation also gives us all the help and hope we need as we move from what we are to what we can be—just look in the mirror and follow the directions we find there.

May the peace of God be with you.

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LET US PRAY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

BEING ORDINARY

I was at a meeting the other day and on my way back from the snack table, I stopped to have a short chat with one of the people who attends one of the churches I pastor. We were joking a bit and talking a bit about the meeting and our Bible study and generally enjoying seeing each other. I made what I thought was a somewhat innocent comment that wasn’t phrased in “ministerial” language. Her response was interesting. She said, “I love it that you are so ordinary!”

We both laughed because I pretended not to know what she meant—and she knew I was pretending. I then thanked her for the compliment. Being ordinary is part of my self-identity. I really don’t want to be seen as “THE MINISTER” or ‘THE PASTOR” or any other “THE”. I am a pastor and I take pride in doing my pastoral and ministerial work well. I have spent a lot of time and effort over the years to ensure that I am good at what I have been called to do. I also appreciate it when people recognize that I am good at what I do. But I really don’t want to be perceived as being something special because of that.

That attitude does sometimes make me feel a bit strange, both in clergy circles and lay circles. Laity have often been taught and encouraged to treat pastors as if our calling turns us into spiritual and moral and general experts, who are somehow out of touch with the rest of humanity because we are so close to God. Other clergy sometimes want to maintain a distance between clergy and laity—one of the ongoing debates in clergy circles, for example, it whether clergy can actually have friends in the church they serve.

My denominational tradition supports my thinking, at least theoretically. Baptists began partly in protest to the elevated position of clergy. We espoused the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, which means that all believers have the freedom and responsibility and ability to approach God directly, without the need for an intermediary. When I begin with that theological position and add to it the Biblical teaching on gifts and calling, I very quickly come to a position that has a equal place for all people of faith.

We are most definitely not equal when it comes to our abilities and gifts—we are very unequal in that area. I am much better at preaching that some of the members of the church, a few of whom can’t even manage to croak out a word when they are in front of people. On the other hand, I am much worse at singing that some of them—my croaking tends to encourage people to call for silent singing or loud organ playing. Some of our church members who can’t preach or sing bring to the congregation the ability to count and care for our church money—they can actually add and subtract numbers and get them right.

Our inequality in terms of gifts and abilities is part of our overall equality. Each gift and ability and individual has a part of play in our church and ministry—and that makes us equal. My gifts are important at times and at other times, they really aren’t important. When the church puts on their annual tea and sale, my gift of preaching and teaching isn’t overly important, which is why I get assigned to the dishpan in the kitchen, where my lack of tea and sale specific gifts isn’t a problem. But the member of the church whose gift of organizing and administering becomes the most important person that day.

I appreciate my gifts and my calling. I work hard at keeping myself current and capable. I want to be the best I can be at understanding and using my gifts. But I don’t want my gifts and calling to stand out simply because they exist. I much prefer the situation where people recognize my gifts, their gifts and other’s gifts and feel comfortable calling on the gifted person for the exercise of their gifts in the appropriate ways—and when the gifts aren’t needed, everyone is equal and ordinary. When we see each other as both gifted and ordinary, I think we have a solid and strong foundation for our church, one that God can and will build on.

May the peace of God be with you.

A SQUIRREL IN A TREE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

BEGINNING AGAIN

September has arrived. The days are noticeable shorter and even though they can still be quite warm, mornings have a fall feel. The air is cooler and sometimes, there is a vague hint of frost in the air. Summer is over and for most people, the year is drawing to a close. We look ahead to the coming of really cold weather, snow and winter. The next big bump in the year is Christmas and then it is over.

Except for me and many other clergy, September really marks the beginning of the year. For many of us, the church year actually runs from September to May or June. I make my plans based on that year and most of the people I know in ministry follow the same pattern. So, for me, that means the coming of September means the start of a new year. The programs and groups we shut down in May or June start back up. The new initiatives and plans start to unfold. We will turn on the engine and get things moving as we begin another church year.

This is generally a hopeful and enjoyable time. When Bible Study starts up, we will reconnect and rekindle our exciting process. The new ideas we have been planning for get brought online. Our numbers stabilize after the summer fluctuations—summer visitors go home, regulars come back and preaching can focus on more in-depth themes. For the next eight or nine months, we will be full steam ahead, being the church the way we interpret God’s calling on us, with the Christmas shift and the anticipated snow days.

I have been involved in the September New Year activities for a long time—I began serving churches as a pastor a long time ago and consider myself a seasoned veteran of the church New Year process. I have made a few changes over the years to cater to cultural shifts and ministry trends—we start a bit later in September than I used to because of the summer creep that has pushed the summer slump further into September. Some programs have disappeared—when there is no Sunday School, there is no need to plan and push the Sunday School opening.

I have generally approached September with a positive outlook. I work with the church leadership to make plans for the new year which will help us as a church. I see each year as an opportunity to help the church become more and more the church. Sometimes, we are using our new year to clean up and repair some problem whose time has come. Sometimes, we use our new year to look at ourselves and explore God’s leading and grace. Sometimes, we are looking beyond problems and using the new year to try something new and different that will help us become what we feel God is leading us to become. Every now and then, there has been a new year when we haven’t had to do clean up and haven’t planned new initiatives—those have been rest years, something like the Jubilee year the OT sets for the people of Israel.

Each of these approaches to the new year has its excitement and requirements and blessings and setbacks. Each requires pastor and church to focus and work and gives us a direction and goal to properly harness our energy. Each helps us define and express our nature as believers and churches. Each helps shape not just our present ministry but also our future ministry.

As pastor, I have a vital part in the whole process. I am paid to focus on the church. My calling and my position give me the luxury of being able to focus most of my time and energy on the work we are doing together. I become the cheerleader, the analyst, the encourager, the teacher. And so the new year always brings new demands, new directions, new things to do and try. Since a healthy church isn’t just doing the same old stuff every year, my role as pastor means that each year, I have to be looking at new and different stuff, challenging myself and the church to make the best of the year to come.

I know that by the middle of next May, we will all be ready for a break—but right now in September, we are at the beginning of a new year, filled with excitement and possibility. Happy New Year!

May the peace of God be with you.

6:00 AM MONDAY MORNING

Yesterday was an extremely busy Sunday. It was the day we switch back from evening services to afternoon worship in one pastorate and the day we had a planning meeting after morning worship in the other pastorate. I had perhaps 30 minutes at home between the two events, just time enough to take a very brief nap and grab the afternoon worship briefcase. Fortunately, we had lunch as part of the planning meeting.

Sunday evening was basically spent trying to stay awake until bedtime, something that I accomplished but just barely. So, 6:00am Monday morning comes, as it inevitably does. It is somewhat dark; I am still tired; I don’t have to work today; it is warm and cosy in bed. But it is 6:00am, time to get up. As I reluctantly crawl out of bed and head for the exercise bike, I ask myself exactly why I am doing this. My wife is still sleeping, her dog isn’t interested in getting up, nobody else on our street is moving—so why, on my day off am I dragging my still tired self out of bed to start another day when nobody is requiring me to do that and a most other people I know would quickly suggest I was more than a bit strange for doing so?

I didn’t get an answer when I was biking. No great insights appeared in the Bible reading I was doing. Nothing that I read on the news feeds gave me reasons for getting up so early on a non-work day. I finished my hour on the bike and headed back to the kitchen. The dog was still not interested in getting up. My wife still sleeping. The neighbourhood was still silent. I opened the curtains, turned on the laptop and poured my granola over a cut up banana and sat down in my work chair by the living room window.

And as I sat down, I realized why I was doing this. This is my time, a time and space when I can do what I want with no outside demands. I have sermons to write—but they can wait until tomorrow and the next day. I have people to visit—but they can wait until I begin work tomorrow. I have a report on the meeting to get ready—but that doesn’t need to be done until next Sunday.

Right now, all I have to do is eat my granola and banana and write what I want to write—or not write, if I choose. I realize that this time is my gift to myself, a time and space when I can focus on me and my stuff. It is quiet, peaceful, comfortable. Nobody is going to bother me, unless there is some terrible catastrophe—but those tend to be rare and so basically, I have this time to myself.

I might be tired—but I can nap later. That isn’t a real issue since I would likely nap anyway, whether I got up at 6:00am or 8:00am. What I can do is enjoy the peace and solitude and freedom from demands, except for the few that I put on myself for this time, demands that are essentially what I want to do anyway. The only extraneous demand during this time comes from the dog, who often decides that he should probably wake up and make a trip outside—but that is much easier to deal with than writing sermon or preparing a funeral message or making a pastoral visit.

This short time on Monday morning seems to have become an oasis for me, a time when I put everything else on hold and minister to myself. I can write a blog post, stare out the window, read an interesting article I run across getting to somewhere else, check out some blogs that I like, eat my breakfast. I could sleep in but in truth, as much as I might appreciate the extra sleep, I think I would miss the blessings of the unstressed and undemanding time provides me. There may be Monday mornings when I choose to sleep in but mostly, I recognize that I need this time for my own personal spiritual and emotional health.

May the peace of God be with you.

ACORNS AND OAK TREES

My working chair is situated in the living room in a perfect spot. I can see the whole living room and the corridor that leads to the bedrooms and kitchen so I can keep track of what everyone else in the house is doing. That is important because the dog often parks himself there when it is time to go outside. The chair also gives me a great view outside allowing me to see trees, part of the road and some of our neighbours’ houses. That is important because my creative process involved a lot of staring out the window, waiting for the various neurons in my brain to fire and make connections so that the sermon or Bible study or blog post can take shape.

But the staring out the window can also be an end in itself. I really like trees and without moving from my work chair, I can see several impressive trees: a old oak, a mature maple, a couple of adolescent maples and a struggling oak sapling growing in absolutely the wrong place. Both this small oak and one of the adolescent maples are growing within inches of the house foundation and should probably be removed before they cause damage to the house and the walkways. I probably won’t remove them because I don’t own the house and an not responsible for that stuff, which is great since cutting trees is hard for me.

My bigger concern in the huge oak that fills about a third of the window view. This ancient tree must be 50 feet high and its foliage circle is likely that big around. One of the major branches hangs over the driveway and is growing longer and therefore closer to the day when I need to decide to trim it to protect the paint on my car when I drive under it. Right now, the branches are filled with nearly mature acorns which will start dropping any time in the next few weeks, to the delight of the squirrels and deer, both of whom will use them to fatten up for the long cold winter that we might have this year.

But in spite of its size and fruitfulness, all is not well with this tree. From where I sit, a significant portion of the branches are bare, dead sticks. They haven’t somehow managed to lose their leaves early—they haven’t had leaves for several years now. In spite of the heavy leaf cover and bumper crop of acorns, this particular tree is dying.

I am not a tree health expert and so I can’t say for sure but my guess, based on the size of the tree, is that it is dying of old age. It will keep going for many more years but each year, fewer and fewer branches will produce leaves and more and more of them will stand starkly bare against the sky. In a few years, the dead branches will start breaking off as a result of rot encountering too much wind or snow. The broken branch stubs will provide access to insects and other attackers which will speed the dying process. Its days are numbered—its death isn’t going to be immediate but it is inevitable. I probably won’t live here long enough to see its ultimate demise because trees like this live a long time and die a long death and I will likely move away in retirement long before its end.

So, the tree is dying. But in the process, it is still doing its tree thing. It produces leaves, produces oxygen, filters the air, grows acorns to feel local wildlife and perpetuate the species (this tree is most likely the parent of the poorly place baby oak in front of the house). It provides me with a soothing and even inspiring target for my “don’t know what to write starting into space”—being vaguely aware of the tree during the staring seems to be more productive than staring at the end of the living room or the dog.

The oak is dying—but it is still living, still doing its tree thing as best it can. There may be barren, soon to fall branches but there are also leaves, acorns and branches that are still growing. It will live until it dies, doing the best it can until it can’t do any more—and even then, a dead oak tree provides lots of great stuff for lots of great purposes. I am not sure that there is a better summary of a good life and death than that.

May the peace of God be with you.