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.

DENY OR SURRENDER?

For some reason, I end up connecting with a lot of people who struggle with self-acceptance.  As I talk with them, work with them and observe them, I am often amazed at how much an individual can not like themselves.  Their lives and conversations are filled with personal put-downs, denials of personal worth, self-harm and self-destructive behaviour.  And the deeper issue is that these are often people who have significant talents and gifts and  abilities, who can be very caring and helpful, who are well liked and respected by others.  But in their minds, they are worthless, their activities are insignificant, their talents are unimportant, and people are faking liking them.

If such a person is a part of a Christian group, particularly a conservative Christian group, they often find that their faith enables and encourages this self-hate.  After all, isn’t self-denial the proper way for Christians?  Aren’t we supposed to realize that we are worms and worthless with no abilities and incapable of making any contribution?  A commitment to God through Christ must also include a commitment to putting ourselves down, doesn’t it?

But that sort of thinking misses entirely the whole point of the Christian message.  The Good News that we have been given by God through Jesus Christ is that God loves us–not that he might love us if we weren’t so worthless; not that he could love us if we cleaned up our act a lot; not that he might hate us less is we hate ourselves more.  No, the Good News is that God loves us, as we are.  Sometimes, in an effort to help people understand this deep and essential message, I tell people something like, “If you, as you are right now, were the only person on earth, Jesus would still have gone to the cross for you–that’s how much God loves you.”

For years, I have struggled to understand the theological and psychological twisting necessary to turn God’s powerful and unconditional love into a call for emotional, physical and spiritual self-abuse.  When we begin with the fact that God loves us no matter what, how do we then see a need to destroy ourselves with self-hatred?  There is obviously a way to go from one to the other but it is a route that I simply don’t understand.

The issue of self-denial strikes me as an important one in the Scripture but I don’t think it means I have to hate myself.  God doesn’t hate me so why should I hate me?  Jesus, whom I am committed to emulating, doesn’t hate me, so how can I justify hating me?  It is clear to me that the Biblical call for self-denial isn’t a call to hate myself.

Based on what I see in the Bible, it seems to me that self-denial is more akin to surrender or sacrifice or self-giving.  I offer my whole being to God through Christ.  I offer the good and the bad; the positive and the negative, the polished and the rough–I give it all to God so that he can help me discover the fullness of what I was meant to be.  What I am surrendering is my desire to control my life.

It is clear that no matter what else I can say about myself, I don’t always make good choices.  I don’t do what I know I should as often as I should.  God, because of his infinite wisdom combined with his infinite love, knows far better than I do what is best for me and those I connect with.  If I am willing to surrender my desire to make my own choices to him, he will help me make choices that are much better for me and everyone.  God is going to love me with an infinite love whether I surrender or not but if I surrender to him, I actually become more me.

That is relatively easy to write–but the reality is that I am often very reluctant to surrender to God through Christ.  And, having done it once, there is no guarantee that I will do it again.  Learning to surrender and trust God takes a life time because we are going against our ingrained selfishness.  But the one important constant is that God loves me and has shown the extent of that love in Jesus Christ–and if God loves me that much, I don’t need to hate myself in order to have God love me.

May the peace of God be with you.

HOW DO WE WORSHIP?

In spite of what you  might think, it can get uncomfortably cold in Africa.  During the long dry season in Kenya, for example, it is often cloudy and chilly–the temperature where we lived can drop to 8 degrees (Celsius scale–I am Canadian, after all).  So, on one of these cold days, I am in worship.  The church building is an unfinished stone building–the unfinished part is the windows, which have wide mesh screening on them and no glass or other shutters.            I am sitting in a plastic chair at the front side which is more comfortable than the backless benches others are sitting on but does have the disadvantage of being by the cold stone wall of the building and beside one of the permanently open windows.

Worship begins.  Technically, we are supposed to be worshipping in Kiswahili, a language I can handle if I pay close enough attention but practically, the worship leader today doesn’t handle Kiswahili well so large chunks of the worship are conducted in Kikamba, a language that I recognize and can speak about 10 words.  The choir is enthusiastic, or at least they are when they all get there–some are still wandering in when the choir selection begins.  The offering and announcements take a long time, as usual–mostly in Kikamba.  The sermon, well, the sermon is in Kiswahili, mostly, but in all honesty if one of my students preached it, they would get a failing grade.  Finally, after about 2.5 hours, we are done.  We have worshipped God.

I’m back in Canada.  We are attending worship in an upscale urban church.  The pastor is a friend of ours and his church is being talked about for its innovative style and approach.  The sanctuary is old, historic, warm, and relatively comfortable.  The music is near professional and accompanied by videos on the screen which also links us with the satellite congregation nearby.  The sermon is illustrated by powerpoint and touches on some of the major struggles that people have and isn’t too bad–this preacher would pass my course.  After an hour or so, we are done.  We have worshipped God.

Now, I am back in ministry leading worship.  There are 6 of us in the sanctuary.  It is fall in Canada and unfortunately, the person who turns the heat on in the building didn’t get it on early enough so the building is chilly.  The pews were built in the era when Baptists distrusted comfort.  It isn’t the week for our guitar lady to be up from the city so the two who can actually sing have picked some music that we can hopefully sing together.  The sermon–well, because of our less than traditional format, the sermon gets interrupted and improved by a couple of good questions and comments from the congregation.  I know that I am biased but I would give the sermon a pass mark.  After about 45-50 minutes, we are done.  We have worshipped God.

Now, of course, in each of those settings, I could have equally well written, “After 2.5 hours (or an hour or so or about 45-50 minutes), we are done.  We have tried but failed to worship God.  That is because in the end, worship doesn’t depend on the setting, the style, the music, the leadership, the sermon, the language.  Worship depends on people who are willing to open themselves to the presence of God.

Certainly, there are peripheral issues that will affect our response to worship.  I prefer being comfortably warm in worship to being too hot or cold.  I prefer a sermon that is prepared and says something to one that is thrown together and consists of empty words. I like the hymns I grew up with more than some of the modern worship music.  I much prefer my worship to be conducted in one of the two languages that I am comfortable with.  But none of these nor any other factor is a worship killer.    The only real worship killer is my attitude, which affects my response to everything else and my ability to recognize that I am in the presence of God.  If I am prepared to open myself to the presence of God, I can worship no matter what.  If I am not prepared to open myself to the presence of God, I cannot worship no matter what.

How do we worship?  We worship by opening ourselves to reality of the presence and wonder of God in our lives.

May the peace of God be with you.

BOW DOWN AND WORSHIP

In the last few days, I have been part of three worship services.  At one, I was speaking–someone else designed and lead the worship and there were several other people taking part.  The service had several hundred people in attendance, a large band providing music and a well trained community choir.  I was both leader and preacher at the other two worship services.  One had twelve in attendance–a good number for that service–and a musician who lead the music on her guitar–always a treat since the other option is a capella singing.  The third service had about 13 in attendance–just over half our regular number and I was the accompanist–or at least, I pushed the buttons on the remote for the CD player.

All three worship services went well–there were no major mistakes, interruptions or problems.  All three were well received by those attending, or at least the comments I heard and the non-verbals I perceived during and after indicated that.  As worship services go, I would put all three on the positive side of the evaluation scale.  I have been at worship that was better and I have been at worship that was a lot worse.

So far, anything I have been saying about these worship services is pretty normal and common.  We, or at least people I associate with a lot, talk about worship in those terms a lot.  I (and we) are evaluating the worship and we have some basic requirements for good worship.  It needs to have some recognizable structure that we are comfortable with, good music that we can all identify with, an intelligible message that is relatively short and maybe has some point or at least some humor is there is no point and a comfortable number in attendance.  There are probably many other basic requirements–for example, when working in Kenya, I generally preferred a worship service in one of the languages I could understand.

We all have a set of requirements for worship and if enough of them are met well enough, we declare the worship good and feel it was worth our time.  If a major requirement isn’t met or a lot of smaller ones aren’t met, then worship isn’t good and we aren’t happy.  If worship continues to make us unhappy, we will probably adjust our attendance by going less, finding a worship service that meets our requirements better or not attending at all.

We tend to evaluate worship on a very personal level, looking at what touches us and what moves us and what we like and dislike.  And truthfully, that isn’t all bad.  I much prefer worship in a language I can understand.  I have attended worship in languages I don’t understand and while parts of the worship are accessible and understandable, mostly it is a confusing and frustrating activity.  Some worship music helps me focus and some makes me wonder who in their right mind would appreciate that kind of music.

But it may be that in our concern for what moves us in worship that we miss the actual point of what we are doing.  The point of worship is to recognize God, give him praise and thanksgiving, renew our relationship with him, reaffirm our submission to him, remind ourselves of God’s supremacy over creation and generally let God know that we love and appreciate him for all that he has done.

To give God true worship doesn’t require that I end up feeling good as a result.  It may happen but that really isn’t a requirement for true worship since in the end, worship is supposed to be focused on God not on me.  But it is too easy to confuse my feelings with the reality of worship–if I feel good, worship must have been good and if I feel bad, worship must not have been very good.  And so we who lead worship begin to structure worship so that those in attendance will feel good because if they don’t feel good, they probably won’t come back.

I have been attending worship regularly since I was about nine or so leading worship regularly for over 40 years and have actually taught courses on worship to theology students–and I still find myself evaluating worship from my perspective, looking for what makes me feel good and what makes those attending feel good.  Periodically, I need to remind myself of what worship really is–and so that is what I will look at in the next post.

May the peace of God be with you.

YOU WILL RECEIVE POWER

I think one of the most overlooked aspects of witnessing is the reality of who is actually doing the witnessing.  Most of my background in witnessing has been dominated by seminars, sermons and books telling me how to be witness.  The advice has ranged from the openly confrontational to the subtle and covert.  I have been told that I need to get in people’s faces and confront them about heaven and hell and I have been told to feed the hungry and visit the sick so that I can get an opening to tell people why I am doing what I am doing.

I have also been provided with lots of witnessing aids–tracts that range from the polished and slick to the smudged and confusing; witnessing schemes guaranteed to bring people to faith;  books to recommend; videos to show.  Supposedly, if I can memorize the latest techniques, spout them off perfectly and confidently and provide the latest book or YouTube resource,  then I can be assured of the opportunity to lead someone through the Sinners’ Prayer.

The emphasis is on me and what I need to do to be an effective witness.  But lately, I have been thinking a lot about Acts 1.  Although the ultimate goal is for the early believers to give witness to the risen and living Jesus, they are told to wait (Acts 1.4).  They are charged up because of the resurrection and the presence of Jesus and the wonder of the newness and would have made great witnesses–but they are told to wait.

The waiting, I think, is because they need something before they can be effective witnesses–they need the Holy Spirit.  Jesus himself makes this connection when he says in Acts 1.8, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (NIV)  Before they can be witnesses, they need the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.  I think we need to think a lot more about what that means.

If the witnessing cannot begin until after the Spirit comes, it means that the Spirit is a vital and basic component in the witnessing process.  I am a witness because of the presence of the Spirit–and maybe I can only be a good witness if I am letting the Holy Spirit lead me in the process.  Maybe the sermons, seminars and books got it all wrong–maybe witnessing is the role of the Spirit, who uses my openness to the Spirit to accomplish the process of helping people discover God’s love.

If that is the case–and I think it is, then witnessing becomes something very different.  Rather than being dependent on me, witnessing becomes a process of me opening myself to the Spirit’s power and leading.  After all, the Spirit knows the whole context much better than I do and can be trusted to show me the best approach and process for any given person.  The Spirit was at work in the life of the person I think I should witness to before I got there and will be at work after I leave the picture.

So, to be an effective witness, I need to open myself to the Spirit’s leading in the situation so that I can add to the Spirit’s witness, not confuse or block the Spirit’s process.  My efforts, growing out of my knowledge and desire, may be just the thing the Spirit needs–or they may be just the thing that the Spirit doesn’t need.  I may actually make the process more difficult when I step in, unless I begin and end with a commitment to discovering where the Spirit is going and what the Spirit wants me to do in the process.

Maybe effective witnessing isn’t about techniques, memorized programs or someone else’s approach.  Maybe effective witnessing begins with learning how to better open myself to the Holy Spirit, a process that I know from personal experience can be slow and difficult.  Maybe, like the disciples in Acts 1, waiting is an essential part of the witnessing process.  We wait for the leading of the Spirit, who is at work and knows just how to proceed and who will reveal our role in the process when the time is right.

Maybe the real power behind effective witnessing is waiting for the Spirit and working with the Spirit rather than trying to do it on my own.

May the peace of God be with you.