HAPPY NEW YEAR

As holidays go, our western New Year is a pretty strange and maybe even pointless holiday.  To start with, there isn’t really any purpose or point beyond marking the passage of an arbitrary passage of time.  Other cultures in the past have had annual celebrations that actually  make sense:  the change of seasons; the annual flooding of the Nile river; the beginning of harvest or planting seasons; annual astronomical events or anniversaries of special events.  But in the west, we have a holiday stuck in the middle of a temporal nowhere, remembered only because the calendar says remember it.

To make matters worse, it is just a week after one of the biggest cultural events we have.  Whether we celebrate Christmas or some other December party, we arrive at New Year’s pretty much worn out and somewhat broke.

All that means that we don’t have much of a sense of how to celebrate the holiday.  When the new year is marked by the beginning of planting, we celebrate by planting.  When it marks the harvest, we celebrate by harvesting and feasting.  If it marks the anniversary of some important event, we can celebrate and remember the event.  But for us, well, we have this day when the most significant thing is that the old calendar has run out of days.

As a culture, we try to celebrate.  We are encouraged to do a review of the past year and resolve to do better next year.  We commit to making changes:  lose the Christmas weight; start Christmas shopping earlier; be a nicer person; give up some vice or another.  We have a party.  But in the end, we likely don’t change much, probably because the whole thing is so artificial and contrived.

I am not calling for a change or anything like.  This is more of a “Isn’t it strange” post.  I suppose I could do some research and discover why we ended up with such a strange and unremarkable time for a recognition of the new year–but up to this point, I haven’t been interested enough to put the effort in to the process.  As it stands now, I don’t expect to develop it anytime soon.  Maybe, when I someday actually retire it will make a good project to stave off boredom.

But for now, I will simply point out how strange a choice for a new year recognition and wish you a Happy New Year.  Now, I have to go and change the calendars.

May the peace of God be with you.

Advertisements

CHISELLING OFF THE NAME

When I was in school, I had a serious ambivalence about history.  I had some serious dread associated with the topic partly because most history teachers have this thing about students remembering dates.  Because numbers tend not to stick in my mind, I was always getting dates wrong.  On the other hand, I found the narrative of history fascinating and loved looking at connections and relationships and how actions in one place and time affected actions in another place and time.

During one of the course I took in history, we were looking at ancient Egypt. Fortunately, the dates for that course were not particularly important and I could really focus on the narrative.  One interesting fact I discovered was that when a new pharaoh or dynasty took over, one of their first official acts in office was often to send out crews of workers whose job was to chisel the name of the previous ruler off all the public and private monuments that they could reach.  Sometimes the name was simply chipped off and a blank space left–and other times, the new ruler had his name cut into the monument.

I thought at the time that that was hilarious.  The ruler was trying to do away with the past, probably trying to wipe out the existence of a predecessor just by removing a name.  No matter what the new ruler did, someone would remember the previous ruler and depending on what the ruler did, would laugh or applaud the vain efforts to get rid of the past.

Well, skip ahead.  We live in a whole new era, an era where we have a deeper understanding of history and people and how things work.  But we are still trying to chip the names of the monuments–or in some cases, removing the monuments.  When we discover that our heroes of the past had feet of clay, we often feel that we have to remove them from the historical record.

In the nearest city to where I live, for example, there is a statue of one of the city’s founders.  He was a significant figure in the history of the city and our province and so his name is everywhere.  But he was also responsible for some significant evil, causing the death of a great many native people.

We don’t actually know what to do with such people.  Does the evil they did outweigh the good or does the good overcome the evil?  Do we build them a statue and name things after them or do we remove the statue and change all the names?  Maybe we are not all that much different from the ancient Egyptians trying to alter history by chipping names off monuments.

People are people.  The greatest are sinful and the worst are good somehow.  The man who founds a city also persecuted natives.  The politician who did so much to help the nation also owned slaves.  The preacher who brought help to many also abused others.  The drug lord funded a children’s hospital.  The war criminal deeply loved his wife and children.  The liberator of the nation was also prejudiced against outsiders.  These are realities coming from the heart of humanity–we are both good and bad.

We probably need to discover how to live with that reality.  We need to learn how to accept and praise the good while accepting and denouncing the bad.  We need to learn how to balance our accounts so that both the good and the bad have their rightful place.  Some people deserve a statue or monument for their good–but their evil also needs to be recognized and condemned.  As we learn how to deal with this human reality in history, we can then help ourselves deal with it in our own lives today.

Chiselling names off monuments; erecting and then removing statues; rewriting history books to fit our cultural and personal desires are all rather expensive and pointless ways of trying to deal with an essential human reality:  the best of us are going to do bad stuff and the worst of us are going to do good stuff.  God knows how to deal with our reality:  he show us all the same grace in Jesus Christ.  I expect that in the end, our answer to the dilemma involves learning how to be as graceful as God.

May the peace of God be with you.

WORSHIP INTERRUPTIONS

Given that my spot during worship is at the front facing the congregation, I get a great view of everything that is going on in the sanctuary, except for the choir area behind me.  While that area can be a source of interruptions, it is more normal for the interruptions to happen in front of me.

So, when the visiting grandchild starts acting out their boredom, I get to watch the grandparents struggle to cope.  When the busy farmer drops off to sleep because worship is the longest time he has sat still in weeks, I see and empathize.  I am used to interruptions and so was prepared for what happened at a recent worship service.

We were about 30 minutes into the service and I was just getting into the introduction to the sermon when I heard a noise at the front door.  Since all our regulars were either present or accounted for (one of the benefits of a small congregation), I thought that we were having visitors.  Visitors are always nice, even when they come during the sermon when the service is half over.

I was on the wrong side of the pulpit to actually see the door so in the course of preaching, I casually moved enough to see the door.  As it opened, someone peeked around the side of the door, saw me and quickly closed the door and left.  I actually wasn’t surprised that the visitor left–in that brief time his face was visible, I recognized who it was.

He wasn’t an actual late coming visitor coming to check out our worship.  He was a local resident well known for showing up at worship services and asking for money to help out his family.  The latest request tends to be for gas so his wife can get to work.  How do I know that?

Well, I have been pastor in this area for years and have worked with three generations of this family and with him directly.  He had actually called me a few weeks previously asking for money.  But since I knew that he had been making the rounds of local churches (one of the benefits of good relationships between churches) and that one pastor was offering to help the family with budgeting, I told him that I couldn’t help.

I know that he has been visiting local churches for a while looking for money.  I had worked with him and his family a lot over the years and have seen this pattern and process first hand.  I expect that his visit to our worship service was made in ignorance of the fact that I am the pastor–the church hasn’t got around to replacing the name of the previous pastor yet.  When he saw me, I think he realized that he was unlikely to get help that day.

The irony of the situation is that my sermon theme was that healthy churches seek to serve God by serving their community.  I am not at all sure what I think of this interruption during this particular sermon.  I think I handled the initial request wisely and graciously.  I am aware that I reached my limit with this particular family quite a while ago.  I am also aware that others have stepped in and tried.

But as my sermon progressed, part of my mind was processing the interruption and my response.  What is my responsibility to this individual and his family?  How do I serve God in my relationship with him?  I didn’t get too far in the process because the sermon does take most of my focus.  But I did decide that the family isn’t starving at this point–I know that they both have jobs.  I re-affirmed my decision not to give money.  And I decided that if he was sitting in his car waiting for us to be done to ask for money, I would offer budgeting help again hoping that this time, it would take.

Well, worship finished and by the time I actually got out the door, the parking lot was empty so I didn’t have to deal with any requests for money.  I can’t say I was upset with that, just as I can’t say I am upset with my response to the situation.  I decided that the issue for me isn’t that I don’t want to help, it is that I don’t want to help in a way which reinforces the present situation.  I want to offer something that will help change things which to me seems a much better option.

May the peace of God be with you.

I DO BELIEVE

I love to ask questions and that love of asking questions extends deeply into my faith life.  Because I am a pastor and occasional teacher of pastors in training, my desire to ask deep and troubling questions about my faith and accepted faith traditions ends up being a blessing and a curse.  And the blessing and curse are so close that sometimes the same question can produce both at the same time.  Someone will find the question liberating and opens up new avenues for their faith development, which is always a blessing.

But others in the same context will react in a totally different way.  They will see the question and the subsequent discussion as a problem at best and a sign of heresy at the worst–and some can and will go on to question the reality of my faith.  I have to confess that even after having been at this process for over 40 years, when my commitment to God through Christ is questioned in this way, I am both hurt and angry.  I have learned a few things about dealing with this sort of thing over the years, which has been helpful.

In the early stages of my ministry (and faith), my temptation was to both defend my faith and attack the person who questioned my faith.  They were obviously wrong, both on the topic we were discussing and about my faith.  My two-pronged response provoked lots of heat and anger and tension and little else.  I went away seething and filled with lots of not nice thoughts while the person who questioned my faith generally left with even more evidence that my faith was at least lacking and likely non-existent.

But while the simultaneous defend and attack strategy sounds good, it really isn’t an effective one–and for a pastor seeking to help people grow in faith, it is an absolute disaster.  When the pastor attacks church people, it is a betrayal of everything we are supposed to stand for.  Instead of being the shepherd to the flock, we are now the predator attacking them.  The rest of the church tends to respond:  some align with the pastor, some with the other person involved and many others settle in to wait for the next pastor, who they know will be coming within the foreseeable future because of the mess stirred up.

I never seriously looked at the option of not asking questions.  That would be such a denial of who I am that it was never a viable solution.  But I did learn to ask the questions differently.  I present them as questions that I and others struggle with.  I sometimes skip a question when I know or suspect that it will be too much for some people.  I might present a milder version of the question.  I try to help people see that asking the question isn’t a direct threat to them and their faith–and as their pastor, I am going to help them deal with the question and its consequences in as caring a way as I can.

But in the end, I am probably going to ask the question.  And even with all the safeguards in place and all the preparation and all the attempts to make it as unthreatening as possible, someone at some point is going to get really upset and question the reality of my faith.  They may do it hesitantly; they may be afraid to do it; they may be very angry and confrontational.  But someone will do it at some point.

It will hurt, I will be angry.  But I know that it will come and I have learned that I can survive the accusation.  I no longer feel the need to defend my faith.  I believe.  Sure, my faith isn’t perfect, it has weak spots, it may verge on heresy at times–but I believe.  I have given myself to God through Jesus.  That is a reality, a basic foundational fact of my life.

Others can question the reality of that commitment–but I know that it is real and I can and do see the evidence of my commitment in the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life.  And so, when my faith is questioned, I am aware of the hurt and anger–but I can also deal with the real issue, which is helping the person deal with their reaction to the question that started things in the first place.  I can roll up my pastoral sleeves and shepherd the flock I have been called to.

May the peace of God be with you.

FACTS AND FIGURES

I like facts, things that can be proven with clear and understandable rationale.  When someone makes a claim, I want to see their facts.  I am not content with “Someone said…” or “I heard…”–I want verifiable facts that I can examine and study and compare with other facts and figures.  One study or one report really isn’t enough for me.

As a result, I tend to be a bit of a skeptic when it comes to a lot of the claims people make.  The latest miracle cold remedy?  Let me see the results of several double-blind studies conducted by reputable scientists and I might consider taking it.  Otherwise, I am going to rely on cough drops and warn ginger ale.  I don’t actually have studies on those but they both help me.

In many area of my life, this desire for facts and figures and verifiable studies helps me a lot.  I am not likely to take questionable medication just because someone publishes a glowing testimony.  I am not inclined to participate in a get rich quick scheme pushed by the latest charismatic financial guru.  I probably won’t buy the latest device to reduce gas consumption that has been suppressed by gas companies for years.

On the other hand, I am going to take the cholesterol lowering medication that my doctor prescribed–I have seen the studies, I know my numbers and the promised effects make scientific sense.  I am still going to get my numbers checked regularly and watch for the side effects.  I also eat a lot of fiber, since that also shows good numbers in a variety of good studies.

But there is one area of my life where this desire and love of verifiable facts and figures tends to get me in trouble.  I am a Christian and in fact have spent my working life working for and with Christians–and I have always been amazed by how few Christians share my love of facts, figures, studies and verifiable information.

One story stands out.  We were sharing in a Bible study many years ago and the talk turned to miracles.  One lady was excited to tell of a miracle she knew about.  A friend of hers was talking to someone else whose cousin’s former school classmate read of a miracle that happened to a friend of the writers’ ex-boyfriend’s pen pal.  As far as she was concerned, this was just one more example of how God still does miracles.

As she was talking, I was struggling.  As the story got  more and more involved and as the layers of distant relationships got deeper and deeper, I knew there would be a problem.  If I let it stand, my facts and figures side would gripe and complain and whine.  But if I questioned the truth of this miracle, I would be guilty of questioning the Holy Spirit, maybe even showing once again that I didn’t really have faith in God.

Well, I questioned–I mostly can’t help that.  And, according to the lady, if I can’t believe such a clear report of miracles, maybe I need to re-examine my faith. Now, I didn’t and don’t actually deny that God does miracles–I just like my miracles to be clear miracles, things that can be verified.

But the longer I am part of the faith, the more I realize that too many people think faith needs to be divorced from reality.  Any claim that a person makes needs to be treated as the gospel truth.  People like me who ask questions about the claims are mostly seen as unfaithful deniers of the truth.

But in the end, I have to be true to who I am.  And fortunately for me, God endorses my approach.  Jesus said in Matthew 7.15, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” (NIV).  The apostle John says in I John 4.1, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”  (NIV)

So, I am not going to immediately take a cold medicine because someone says it works.  I am not going to rush to invest my money because someone says they can give 300% returns.  And I am not going to blindly accept a report of God working. I am going to test them all before I commit to something I will regret or which will damage my faith.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE PLAN

It was a good plan, one that took into account both our needs and allowed us to get our stuff done without causing either of us to have a long wait.  Basically, we both had to see people in the regional hospital an hour or so from home but we both also had a variety of other things to do–and since there were no real tempting movies playing, it would be an there and back trip, with the obligatory stop at the big grocery story.

The plan was simple.  Before I headed to my appointment to get my hearing aids checked, I would drop my wife off at the store where she was looking for something.  Then, when my appointment was done, I would call her and we would meet for lunch in the downtown area, after which we would do our hospital visits and shopping.  Cell phones are a tremendous blessing when it comes to coordinating plans.

I actually got to see the hearing aid tech a bit early and the work they needed to do didn’t take all that long so I was back to the car within 10-15 minutes.  The first attempt to call didn’t work–but I assumed that it was just because the phone and the car Bluetooth systems hadn’t finished talking to each other to get working together.  I decided to head downtown, find a parking spot near the restaurant and try again–after all, I was early so I had time.

After the fifth failed attempt, I was beginning to think my phone wasn’t working.
After the tenth, I was positive there was a problem with the phone and was wondering if there was a phone store in the area where I could get the phone fixed or replaced.  After a few more tries, I remembered that there were still pay phones in the town and headed for them–I actually had some change with me.  After three attempts, I still wasn’t able to make a connection.

Frustrated, angry and hungry, I walked around the area, looking in all the stores I thought my wife might be in.  Eventually, she appeared–frustrated, hungry and wondering why her cell phone wasn’t working and why I hadn’t called.  Eventually, we discovered that one whole communication company infrastructure had gone down–the company we used.  We eventually got lunch, saw the people we needed to see and did our shopping.  Of course, we needed to visit the bank to get real money since the collapse took out most store credit card machines.

So, I am a preacher, which means that I need to find a moral in everything that happens–sermon illustrations are an important part of my life.  This is a good story but I need to find the right sermon to drop it into.  In fact, it is such a good story that it should probably have the prime spot in the sermon.  Since I serve two different collections of churches, I will get to use to twice, maybe with different applications.

But right now, I am not exactly sure how I will use it.  I am mostly aware of how much a relatively new technology has become such a basic part of my life.  The first phone I used was a basic black Bakelite device fastened to the wall with a battery box under it and a crank to connect with the operator who would put the call through.  Now, I have a high-tech device that will call anyone, connect to the internet, give me directions, figure out my finances, and help me hang pictures (I discovered and installed a carpenter level app).

With the old wall mounted phone, I could only connect with people if I was standing within the length of the phone cord on the handset.  With the cell phone, I can call my friend in Kenya who is so far out of the way that his friends pity him.  But of course, that only happens when the system works, which it didn’t the other day.

I am sure there is a great sermon illustration in that–but I just have to figure out how I want to use it.  I am sure it will come to me.  The fact that I have two chances helps.

But in  the meantime, the next time we make a plan that depends on the cell phone, I may also include a backup plan.

May the peace of God be with you.

CHANGING QUESTIONS

Recently, I have been reflecting on a series of related but changing questions that I have been regularly asked during my life.  The first one I remember in the series came very early, as people around asked me “What do you want to do when you grow up?”  The idea behind the question was that people needed to pick their life occupation and prepare to spend the next 40 years or so doing whatever they picked.  I don’t really know if people ask that question as much–given the cultural reality that most people these days will have several different occupations in life, we should probably be asking people what they are going to start with.

Anyway, the next question came after I had finished university and was actually involved in ministry.  The common question I would get was, “Where are you now?”, especially if I was in a context where I wasn’t wearing a  name badge giving my occupation and location.  I was involved in ministry and although I didn’t  move around as much as some people in ministry, I tended to make some large moves, involving extended periods of time in Kenya.

Since I tended to stay in pastorates for a long period of time, some people began asking me a different question:  “Are you still there?”.  Sometimes, the question was asked from genuine curiosity and other times, well, I am pretty sure that were subtly asking what was wrong with me since I appeared to have very little interest in climbing the ecclesiastical success ladder.  I have to confess that with some of those people I took some secret delight in subtly slipping in the fact that I was also an adjunct professor at our seminary or was involved in several denominational projects or was just back from a short-term trip teaching in Kenya.  I know–I was bragging but that question did tire me sometimes.

I have noticed that I am being asked a different question these days.  I have reached the stage where people want to know “When are you planning on retiring?”.  People in the churches I serve aren’t asking that question–they simply tell me I can’t retire.  But people I have known for a while and haven’t seen recently seem to want to know the answer to that question.  My answer tends to be non-committal.  I plan on retiring someday but right now, I am not sure when.  A few people don’t like that answer, especially when their subsequent (somewhat invasive) questions lead them to discover that financially and chronologically, I can retire anytime.

A few people who know me well find the answer confusing for another reason.  Although I have been involved in pastoral ministry for most of my working life, I have never really liked pastoral ministry. I think I bring some skills and abilities and gifts to ministry that congregations appreciate and which help individuals and congregations and I get a fair amount of gratification from using these gifts and helping people, but pastoral ministry itself really isn’t a joy-filled, deeply gratifying part of my life.  It is challenging, it can be interesting, it is demanding, it has significant rewards but for me, the real joy and deep gratification has always come from teaching, something which has ultimately been a minor part of my overall ministry.

So here I am–at a stage of my life when I could be retired and I am still at work, still involved in the kind of ministry that I have done most of my working life.  It is a ministry that is important and valuable and which makes a difference to people, but a ministry which has likely done a lot more for other people than it has done for me.  And yet, I am committed to what I am doing for a while–I don’t know how much longer but am pretty sure that it is measured in years not months, although there times when I would like it to be days.

So, that brings me to another question, one that no one has actually asked me but which I needed to ask myself.  And that question is, “Why are you still doing what you are doing?”

But since the answer to that question is going to require some serious staring at the trees and marsh outside the living room window (and ignoring the lawn and wires), I will postpone the answer until the next post.

May the peace of God be with you.

HE ISN’T LISTENING

If we pastors give people the opportunity to really talk about their faith and really listen to what they are saying, we will always discover some interesting things.  In  most settings, the discussion will eventually get to prayer and there will be some really powerful comments about prayer.  But at some point after the saints tell their prayer victory stories and the new believers tell their stories about learning to trust God in prayer and the more emotional ones telling just how wonderful prayer makes them feel, someone in the group will hesitantly and haltingly tell their story, a story about the time (or times) they prayed and God didn’t listen to them.  When asked how they know that God didn’t listen to them, the answer is obvious to them–they know that God didn’t listen because he didn’t answer.

There are many ways of dealing with this individual.  We can remind them that no matter what we feel, God hears us.  We can quote a lot of Scripture verses that tell us to pray and keep praying.  We can talk about how their doubt obviously gets in the way.  We can have the successful pray-ers tell some more of their stories.

We can do all of those things–and as a pastor, I have probably done most of them at some point.  But probably what is needed most in a setting like that is for us to really listen to what the person is saying.  This is more than just a theological question–this is a deep-down problem and maybe even a crisis for the person.  Their faith tells them to pray and when they pray, it feels like God isn’t listening.

And, after they have found the courage to share this story, if I or anyone else tries to fix things with another story or a call to have faith or a veiled attempt to shame them for their lack of faith, we haven’t listened.  And if people can’t find other people who will listen to them, it is harder for them to find God listening to them.  To paraphrase  I John 4.20, “If my brother whom I can see can’t listen to me, how can I believe that God whom I can’t see is listening?”

There is no question in my mind that when a person feels that God isn’t listening, the problem lies within them.  They aren’t being totally honest with themselves or God; they are not being truly open to hearing God; they only want to hear one thing; the message that God wants them to hear is too painful or different for them to hear–these and other reasons easily explain why they think the God of all love and grace who listens perfectly isn’t listening.  It is their problem, not God’s.

But it is their problem–and my task isn’t to defend God.  My task is to listen to them enough so that they can hear themselves and understand what is going on in their spirit and mind.  My task is to listen to them using all my skill and patience so that they can learn to listen to themselves.  And in being listened to, they learn to listen to themselves.  And when they learn to listen to themselves, they can then learn to listen to God, who has been listening to them–and us–all along.

I have discovered that just as we struggle to listen to others, so also we struggle to listen to ourselves.  Often, we are no better at listening to ourselves than we are to others.  We don’t hear ourselves say that we are tired or anxious or afraid or excited or whatever.  We don’t hear ourselves say that we really want X but will pretend to want Y.  And when we don’t listen to ourselves praying, we can’t really believe that God is listening to our prayers.

And so when people tell me God isn’t listening, I need to listen.  In some ways, I become the physical embodiment of God, using my listening to help them as they grope their way to understanding that God is listening–and answering–no matter what they think.  As they are heard by a physical being, it helps them hear themselves and that opens the door to them understanding that God hears them.

Listening and being listened to may be among the most important things in life–and one of the hardest to actually do.

May the peace of God be with you.

ONE DAY DURING WORSHIP

            One Sunday we were at worship.  We were between snow storms–most had just finished the clean up from the most recent one and we were waiting for the one was due in a few hours.  That probably cut our attendance by about 10 percent (which in our case means a couple of people didn’t make it).  Worship was going smoothly–I hadn’t made any major mistakes and think I even avoided the minor ones.  I had lots of time before worship to get ready and no one had provided any unexpected confusion.

We went through the announcements, began worship and reached the point for the choir to sing.  As they were singing, I looked at my watch and realized that I was pretty much through the order of service except for the Scriptures and sermon and we had used up only about 10 minutes.

I remember thinking, “What have we done?”  But I wasn’t asking the question in the same way some melodramatic TV or movie character would ask it. I was really asking myself if during the previous 10 minutes we had really worshipped God.  I had lead the congregation through the order of service, making appropriate comments about the music and doing the prayers at the right time–even using the right prayer at the right time.  We had sung and read together and prayed and offered our offering and listened to the choir–but had we really worshipped God.

That isn’t an easy question for me to answer.  I am aware that simply following the order of service and getting it right (something I don’t always do) doesn’t ensure that we worship.  Worship involves an opening of ourselves to the presence of God.  God is always present in our lives but we don’t always make the effort to be aware of his presence.  Public and private worship provide us with times to actually remind ourselves of the wonder of the presence of God.

But to be honest, I am not always aware of the presence of God during worship.  I am busy leading, guiding the flow of the service, making sure that I follow the order of service, reading people’s reactions to the service, coping with my nervousness, anticipating the next several steps of worship, making sure that I move the text on the tablet at the right time.  Am I aware of the presence God in our midst?  Intellectually and theologically, I am deeply and profoundly aware of the powerful truth that God is with us no matter what.  Practically, when I am leading worship, I am often more aware of leading the worship that the presence of God.

What are the worshippers aware of?  That I can’t say with any great degree of certainty, but from past experience, I can say that some are aware of the physical limitations of the sanctuary, the pain they experience from their arthritic joints meeting hard pews, the worry about life issues they bring with them to worship, the smell of the coffee we will share after the worship, and maybe trying to figure out the joke the worship leader (me) told poorly.

And yet, in spite of all of this, week after week, we come and somehow, by the grace of God, we manage to connect with God.  Somehow, I see beyond the anxiety of leading the worship and experience the presence of God.  Somehow, the congregation reaches beyond the hard pews, aches and pains, life baggage and poor preaching and encounters the reality of the presence of God in their midst.  Somehow, we do it–we see God, we experience God, we thank God, we praise God.

How do I know that?  Well, sometimes, people tell me how they encountered God.  Sometimes, I have my own personal encounter.  But more often than now, I realize that we have encountered God simply because we leave worship with more than we brought to worship.  We worship and because we somehow experience the reality of the presence of God in our lives, we are touched with the grace of God, a touch that changes our lives.  It may not be a spectacular change, although those do happen now and then.  It may not be a touch that lasts a long time, although those too happen from time to time.

But we are touched by the presence of God and we do take the experience of that touch with us and it does make a difference–and so in some way, somehow, we have worshipped.

May the peace of God be with you.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.