CLOSE THEM DOWN!

Recently, both my wife and I has parishioners in the large regional hospital 2.5 hours away. Our pastoral calling made a trip to the city necessary—and practical considerations made going together in one car a good idea. The fact that we would have some uninterrupted time together while we were doing our respective jobs was a blessing. The five hour drive wasn’t such a great blessing but we were at least together.

On the way back, we stopped for coffee and groceries—whenever we pass near a larger centre, we plan our shopping trip to take advantage of the lower prices and greater selection. While we were having our coffee break, a friend we hadn’t seen since our last stint in Kenya noticed us and came over to sit with us. We had a good time catching up with what was going on in all of our lives.

Except that one part of the conversation upset us both a bit. Our friend knew we were back in Canada but didn’t know what we were doing so we had to do the story of which churches we were serving. It took a while to get across the idea that between us, we serve nine different churches. We had to go through the explanation of how many worship services we do each Sunday; how many people there are in worship; how many in my pastorates go wherever the worship is and so on.

After we got that part done, our friend made the profound observation that it would make a lot more sense to close a lot of the buildings and save everyone a lot of time and effort. At that point, I sort of began looking at my watch, wondering if it we could graciously break off the conversation and head for the groceries and then home.

Our friend’s observation, delivered with such conviction, was the perfect example of armchair pastoring. I am not sure but I suspect that his comments about closing buildings were delivered as if I had never thought of that. He likely felt that he was giving me some important advice that would change the course of my ministry.

Certainly, on the level of simple logic, closing buildings makes perfect sense. But the practical realities of closing get twisted together with social, cultural, personal, family and theological ties that create a knot with deep and powerful roots. Closing church buildings isn’t an easy process—it is a Gordian knot that even Alexander’s chopping solution won’t work for.

There are valid reasons and effective processes for closing church buildings—but the process is long, slow and inefficient to the extreme. And that is because the process doesn’t involve economics and efficiencies and logic. It actually involves feelings and traditions and hopes and dreams and a bunch of other non-logical and hard to measure stuff. Any pastor who approaches the process of closing a building steps into a mindfield protected by lasers, machine guns, trained attack scorpions, dive bombers and super ninjas—and that is just the normal level of protection. Threaten the building and the people really get serious about its defence.

I learned a long time ago that ministry in rural areas and small churches is going to have to be done in the context of too many and too much building. The demands of buildings are going to consume lots of time and energy and money. Long term, some of them must and will close. But in view of the difficulty and poor return on time and energy investment, I decided to ignore buildings and focus on ministry. I use the buildings, I appreciate the history, I even try to take part in repaid and clean up days—but the building isn’t the focus of my ministry. The people are—and if they want to continue with too many and too much building, that really isn’t a big issue for me. I will encourage them to look at their building status, I will encourage them to think seriously about their buildings, I might even suggest that the church isn’t a building—but I will do that in the context of trying to remember which building we meet in this week and which building is going to need repairs this week and all the rest.

My friend’s suggestion was a much too simple solution to a much too complicate issue that I generally choose to ignore because there are better ways to spend my ministry time.

May the peace of God be with you.

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THE CHURCH MEETS

I am sitting in a coffee shop with a friend. He is drinking real coffee but I have been good and ordered a decaf so I don’t have to pay the extra price of regular coffee later. We have been friends for a long time but haven’t connected for a while so the conversations hops back and forth, covering a variety of topics as we try to catch up and move along at the same time. Because we are both believers and both fairly heavily involved in the work of our respective congregations, part of the conversation concerns our church life and our faith.

I have had this meeting a great many times with various people over the years, in several countries and two languages. And somewhere along the line, a question about the nature of the meeting popped into my mind—not during the meeting because the conversation is too free-flowing and jumps around so much that most of my attention is required to keep up. But after some meeting somewhere sometime, I began to wonder about the nature of the time together.

I wondered if I could properly say that the two or three of us sitting there drinking coffee and sharing and talking could be called a church. On one level, the answer is easy: No way. We were people drinking coffee and talking. We have none of the commonly recognized attributes of a church. There was no order of service, no sermon, no offering, no singing, no membership list. We don’t meet regularly, we don’t have an administrative structure, we have never developed a constitution and bylaws. We have never developed a program, run a Sunday School, conducted a baptism—although in fairness, I do have to say that at some point all of those things have likely been topics at the coffee shop.

That isn’t a good enough answer for me—I tend not to like pat and quick answers. Actually, to answer the question, I needed to ask another question, “Just what is a church at its most basic?” That is a question my analytical, research loving self can really dig into. Obviously, the best place to start is the New Testament, where our faith is explored and described and explained. There must be somewhere where there is a simple, clear definition of what the church is.

Except there really isn’t. It seems that the New Testament is based on several assumptions about the church: it will be made of believers, the believers will join together, they will have problems and they will be filled with the Holy Spirit. The New Testament has a lot of good advice for the church but no real definition of the church, which probably goes a long way to explain the incredibly diversity in churches around the world and throughout history.

But there is one place where I think we have something that comes close to a basic definition of the church. Matthew 18.20 records Jesus as saying, “… where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” NIV And maybe that is what I am looking for, a basic, elemental definition of the church, stripped of all the cultural, theological and ecclesiastical qualifications and requirements and all the rest.

The church exists when two or three people come together conscious of their shared faith. Their shared faith means that they aware of the presence of the risen, living Christ with them and that makes them the church or at least a church. For that time and that space, they are a church, a part of the universal gathering of God’s people of all time and space. I think this provides a very important definition of who and what we are as a church. It takes no more than a couple of people coming together conscious of their shared faith to be the church.

So, whether we need to share a consecrated Cup of wine, a blessed single serving of grape juice or a cup of coffee (even decaf), we can be the church. In this definition, the church is much more widespread, much more pervasive and much more involved in the world than if we see it as only a specific gathering meeting in a specific place conforming to all the specific requirements.

Two or three conscious of the presence of the Spirit—that gathering becomes a church. I like that lot. I will have to give that idea some more thought.

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.

THE SERMON

In one of the collection of churches that I serve as pastor, we have an interesting twist in the worship service. At the request of some of the people attending, we pause after the reading of the Scriptures and have time for questions and comments about the Scriptures, although that sometimes broadens to include questions about the rest of the service and things that the people attending that day are thinking about. Most weeks, we have a question or two, a comment or two and then we move on to the sermon.

Before I continue on, I need to mention here that I work hard on sermon preparation. I believe that a sermon is a specific message from God for a specific group of people at a specific point in time and my role is to be God’s messenger, discovering and understanding and delivering that message. I serve two different sets of churches and their needs are different enough that I generally can’t use the same sermon.

So, in one order of service, we have a Q&A session just before the sermon. Normally, I open the process, there are a couple of questions for clarification that I explain as best I can (sometimes, I have to postpone the answer so I can get the information needed to answer the question), a comment or two about some part of the Scripture and then we move on.

Now and then, the discussion really gets going and eats into the sermon time, so much so that I end up having to edit the sermon on the fly, shortening the message to fit into the shorter time frame that results from the extended discussion. That is okay—it is kind of an interesting challenge to condense the sermon while still getting across the basis points.

And then, there are those rare weeks when the discussion takes off and the questions and comments begin feeding off each other and the congregation really gets engaged and involved and time flies by. As the pastor and worship leader, I stand in the pulpit, moderating the process, enabling people to talk and making sure that everyone has an opportunity and sometimes helping people clarify their remarks, all the while keeping an eye on my watch lying on the pulpit (the really nice antique clock at the back hasn’t worked in the memory of anyone there).

And at some point, I realize that there will be no sermon this week—there is no way to shorten the message for the time remaining and the discussion is going so well that it can’t be stopped. The message I worked so hard to prepare is dead, at least for this week. The sermon is being delivered but not be me. It is coming from the congregation, as we share and talk and riff off each other. The discussion isn’t a distraction; it isn’t a diversion; it isn’t a waste of time—the discussion is the message that God wanted delivered that day. My calling on those days isn’t to be the preacher—it it to be the moderator as the sermon develops through the wonder of the Holy Spirit speaking in and through all of us gathered that day. The sermon I worked so hard on, well, I will deal with that later because right now, the sermon is developing in real time.

These Sundays are rare occurrences. I can’t predict them. There is no way to anticipate them. There is definitely no way to make the occur. But when they do happen, they are wonderful, powerful, spontaneous movements of the Holy Spirit speaking to us directly by speaking through each of us. We talk and share and open ourselves to God and each other and we grow. We grow because of what we are hearing; we grow because of what we are saying; we grow because we are letting the Spirit be free.

We eventually finish and I close the meeting—but the wonder of the movement of the Spirit stays with us. We all treasure these Sundays. We don’t try and make them happen but when they do, we embrace them and the blessing that they bring to us. I can and likely will preach the prepared sermon another Sunday—but the best sermon for that Sunday was provided directly by the working of the Holy Spirit.

May the peace of God be with you.

A BIBLE STUDY QUESTION

Part of my pastoral responsibility involves spending some time thinking about and praying about the church, trying to figure out where God is leading us and what he is asking of us. This isn’t exclusively my job but because I am actually paid to focus on the church, I tend to have more time to devote to the process. This process works best when I base my thinking on what I am hearing and seeing from God and the church.

So, with that in mind, come with me to the first Bible study after vacation. As I drive to the study (about 30 minutes away from my home), I am thinking about the church and its direction and its future and what I could/should be doing. I don’t have a lot of ideas since it is just after vacation but I am thinking.

I arrive and Bible study begins. As usual, I ask about their response to last Sunday’s worship, joking that for a change, I couldn’t say anything because I wasn’t there. Those who were there made some positive comments about the worship and the supply preacher and then the discussion took a different direction, something that happens regularly at our Bible study.

One of the members was obviously trying to formulate a question. Since he normally doesn’t have a lot of trouble putting his questions together, I asked him what he was working on. His commented that while the visiting speaker was great, he was wondering is maybe the next time I went away, the congregation could take responsibility for the service. He was quick to point out that this wasn’t a comment about the fill in speaker but rather a real question that he had been looking at.

The response around the table was interesting. One member of the study reacted a bit negatively—she had been responsible for doing just that in the past and didn’t really enjoy the process. Speaking in public just wasn’t her thing. But most of the others looked sort of interested.

So, as always happens with our Bible study when an interesting topic comes up, we followed it. I assured the group that there was absolutely no reason why they couldn’t lead the worship service, including the message. And, to help the person who had obviously been pushed into the preacher role unwillingly, I talked about leading worship in accordance with the gifts that God has given us. As we talked, various people got more and more excited as they began to see things that they could contribute to a worship service.

At some point in the discussion, I realized that I definitely didn’t want this to happen while I was on vacation—given the level of interest and developing excitement, if the congregation was going to lead the service, I wanted to be there, at least the first time they did it. I wanted to be able to share in and benefit from the spiritual process that was obviously going on here. I suggested we look at having the congregation arrange and lead the service sometime soon and I would be there. Before the service, I would be there to help people develop and understand their gift and contribution.

That was where we left the discussion—the congregation is going to lead worship, with various people who are gifted using their gifts. I will help out with advice and suggestions and moral support. In the next week or so, I will look at the church schedule and come up with some suggested dates for the worship.

I think we were all excited by this discussion. I may have been even more excited than the others because this question and the discussion ties into my thinking about overall direction of my ministry. This is a small congregation which may have some difficulty finding a regular preacher when the time comes that God calls me to something else. But if they discover and develop their gifts and abilities, they are not as dependent on finding someone, anyone to fill the pulpit.

I saw this question and the discussion and the plans coming out of it as part of God’s answer to my questions about ministry direction. He was not only letting me know where he was leading us but also reminding me once again that he speaks to and through the whole congregation so that together, we can find and follow his leading.

May the peace of God be with you.

TWO BUILDINGS

One of the realities of being a pastor for rural churches is that I get to work in some really old buildings. One Sunday recently, both worship services occurred in old buildings. One dates back to 1835 and the other to 1833. In another pastorate, we were responsible for a building that was put up in 1810. By European standards, these are of course relatively new buildings—but by our standards, they are very old.

These buildings have all the drawbacks that you might expect from such an old building: limited facilities, inadequate electricity, inefficient heating systems, no cooling system, poor parking, uncomfortable and fixed seating. Most of them are wooden buildings, which always need serious work—the 1835 building needs sills replaced and the 1833 building has had major work done recently. The majority of them indicate their age with the tell tale scent of mold and decay. Basic maintenance jobs tend to be expensive and eat up lots of time, energy and money getting them taken care of.

There are some advantages to the buildings: we have a place for our church to gather, we can enjoy the old-time craftsmanship, we can complain about the hard seats. If we get enough money and support, we can and so make some modifications that make them better for our purposes.

But lots of people ask why we are so committed to these old, expensive, inefficient buildings. Generally, the only people not asking that question are the ones who have regularly worshipped in the buildings year after year. New comers, people from away, leaders of bigger congregations in other places, denominational dealership, even theology professors ask the question a lot, sometimes assuming that just because they ask the question, we inhabiting these old buildings will see the light and abandon the buildings.

But those of us who worship in such buildings aren’t asking the question. A person like me who has pastored congregations like this for years used to ask the question. These days, I don’t bother asking because I know the answer. Why do we in small churches keep meeting in old, antiquated, expensive to maintain and heat buildings? The answer is simple: because we can.

We don’t worship the building—well, maybe a few do. Mostly, we continue to inhabit our buildings because they are ours. We worship week after week and the building itself enhances our worship. Occasionally, the enhancement is a result of the building itself–the acoustics, the craftsmanship, the view—but more often, the enhancements occurs because of what the building houses.

It houses our memories. That seat at the back left—that is where I first went to Sunday School. The third pew from the front in the centre, that is where Deacon Zeke used to sit—he was a wise and wonderful example of the Christian faith. That pew right there—that is where I was sitting when I decided to follow Jesus. That Communion table—that was donated by my great-grandparents and my great-grandfather made it by hand from wood he cut himself.

The building houses other memories as well. We remember those we grieved and whose lives we celebrated at the funeral. We remember the weddings when new families came into being. We remember those who grew up in our midst and went on to serve God in the pulpit or the mission field. We are reminded each week of the faithful whose memories are collected and celebrated in our buildings.

We keep our buildings because they hold the memories. We keep our buildings because they allow us to celebrate the cloud of witnesses that are part of our story. We keep our buildings because they are a visible symbol of the endurance of our faith. We keep our buildings because they help our faith.

We don’t worship our buildings and we don’t need the building to have and express our faith. If the building is beyond repair or suffers a fire, we will grieve. We will mourn the loss—but we won’t lose our faith. We will still be believers, albeit believers struggling to find a place to locate our memories.

Our old, inefficient and expensive to maintain buildings could disappear and our faith would continue. But we have them—and because we have them, we can and do use them to enhance our faith.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHO CARES?

When I started this blog back in 2015, I had a sort of a vague goal—or maybe a couple of them. I was unemployed at the time and needed something to do that would relieve the boredom and depression of unemployment. And I wanted to be able to think and organize and share some of my thoughts and ideas relating to faith, the church and spiritual growth. Very early in the process, I decided that I wasn’t comfortable dealing with some topics and since it is my blog, I can and do pretty much ignore anything I don’t want to write about.

One area I have avoided is commenting on current political and cultural events. I am a news junkie and so I am aware of what is going on but have never really wanted to wade into the cultural and political debates that are so prevalent and so divisive in our culture and churches these days. I have been troubled by a lot of what I see; I have been enraged by some of what I see; I have been saddened and depressed by what I see—but up until today, I haven’t been inspired by what I see.

And even today isn’t going to be a rant for or against some particular political move or figure—there are enough comedians and bloggers who make a living doing that way. We really don’t need another.

But maybe what we do need is someone who is willing to step back, forget the partisan politics and ask some difficult questions that come from the heart of our faith. Given that most major questions these days get addressed from the perspective of nationalism or partisan political stances or narrow perspectives, maybe we need someone to open the questions up and give them a bigger, divine context.

For example, some statistics suggest that over 65 million people are classed as refugees or internally displaced people—that is a good sized nation. Mostly the response to this crisis is that someone should do something, preferably far away from us and at no cost to us. Politicians debate and people are dying where they try to live and dying trying to get to safety. And while that might be a popular political response, what is the divine response? What does God think? Does God care? And if God cares, how should his people act?

Recent statistics in Canada suggest that around 20% of Canadian children live in poverty. There are all kinds of political suggestions about how to deal with the problem but since most of them require people who have helping people who don’t have, there tends to be a lot of talk but little action beyond band aids like food banks. So politicians debate and plans get drafted but since little money gets spent, the poor remain poor, get poorer and go to school and bed hungry and cold. But what is the divine response? What does God think? Does God care? And if God cares, how should his people act?

Our political and cultural responses tend to be narrow, self-serving, protectionist, biased and prejudicial—we like ourselves and ours. Being different is grounds for exclusion, mistreatment, name-calling and persecution. Unfortunately, politicians of all types love to build a base on these self-centered realities. We are all afraid of the other—and politicians know how to work that fear. But what is the divine response? What does God think? Does God care? And if God cares, how should his people act?

Too often, we have tried to fit God and the Christian faith into the cultural and political armour that we wear ourselves. But even a quick reading of the message that God has given us shows something far different. God has a deep and powerful concern for the alien, the poor, the different. God cares—and even more, he requires that his people care. He wants us to step out of the narrow and constrained ruts we dig for ourselves and begin to really care. He calls us to follow his example—he cared enough for selfish and self-centered people that he went to the cross for us. God cares. He made his care real, at great personal cost.

And us—well, we are called to care as well. And maybe that care demands that we step outside the cultural and political and show some real care, care based not in cultural and political fears and prejudices but in the love and grace of God.

May the peace of God be with you.

DRIVING BY OTHER CHURCHES

I spend a lot of time on the road when I am working. The nearest of the churches I serve is an 18 kilometer round trip and the most distant is a 78 kilometer round trip. No matter which building I am going to, I have to pass other churches—some Baptist and some representing other denominations. And because I have lived in this area for a long time, I know quite a bit about those other churches.

And the one fact that stares me in face every time I drive by is that they all have more people in worship that I have. It doesn’t matter which denomination or where they are on the theological spectrum, they have more people in worship than I have. There are a couple of congregations in the area that have fewer but they aren’t on my regular routes so the bottom line is that every congregation I drive by has more people in worship than I have.

Now, being the spiritually mature, balanced and understanding pastor that I am, this doesn’t bother me at all. I can drive by and say a prayer of thanksgiving that they are doing so well and go to my small worship spiritually secure in the knowledge that all is well and that numbers don’t matter and that as long as God is being praised, all is well.

And if you are willing to believe that last paragraph, can I interest you in some land I have for sale? It is a great piece of land, although we need to wait for a six month dry spell so the ground is firm enough to stand on without sinking in too much.

Being the pastor of some of the smallest congregations in our area does bother me, especially since I have been working there for over two years and have managed to slightly decrease our average attendance in that time. Driving by other congregations can be painful.

I drive by the very conservative ones that have clear answers for everything, along with lots and lots of cars in the parking lot and wonder if maybe I need to start giving people clear answers like those groups do. But then, as I think about the people in the pews that I work with week after week, I realize that they neither need nor want clear and rigid answers—their faith needs the freedom to ask questions and seek answers that is such a strong part of our ministry.

I drive by the buildings of more liberal denominations which sometimes question what I consider the basics of the faith—and who also have lots of cars in the parking lot. I wonder of maybe I should copy their approach—but then I remember that most of the people I work with have built their lives and their faith on these foundational realities.

I drive by charismatic congregations, whose music and worship are obviously attracting people, at least according to the number of cars in the lot and I wonder if maybe we need to ditch the organ and piano and traditional hymns for a worship team and choruses projected on the wall—but then I remember that we are lucky to have any musician at all and we do like the older hymns but when possible, we try some new stuff.

So, I drive by. I look at the cars in the lot with some envy and maybe more jealousy that I am comfortable with. I wonder if I am doing something wrong that keeps us small and struggling. I wonder if maybe we should close up shop and go somewhere else. And then I realize that we gather each week for worship and for Bible study because we have found something that works for us. It probably won’t work for others—well, obviously, it doesn’t work for a lot of others because they aren’t there. But what happens in other places might not work for us either—I know that because some have tied hard to fit in there and it just doesn’t work.

So, I drive by and look at the cars and continue to my congregations where we gather as a small group seeking to understand God’s presence and calling and purpose for us. I don’t really know why we are who and what we are—but I do know that we are who and what we are because God has called us together and works in and through us—and for now, that counteracts the parking lot envy enough to keep me going.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHICH DIRECTION?

These days, I find myself spending a lot of time wondering where I am going, at least in terms of the churches I have been called to pastor. Both the pastorates I work with have great people and lots of potential. While neither of them is actually rolling in money, they both have enough to ensure they have a future, especially since they have made the difficult decision to move to part-time ministry. Both are located in geographical settings where they are basically the only organized expression of the Christian faith. And although both settings don’t have as many people as they used to have, there are still a significant number of people living in the communities served by the congregations and a significant number of them have no real connection with our faith.

I am entering my third year of service with this somewhat unique ministry—and to be totally honest, I have much less idea of what I am supposed to be doing than I did when I began this work. When I began, the process was clear: lead worship and preach on Sunday, prepare and lead Bible study and get to know the people, as well as deal with things like weddings and funerals and so on. In the process of doing that basic stuff, I would work at developing a sense of the churches and communities and help develop an approach to ministry that would help the churches become more healthy.

I have been doing this for a lot of years and used to think that I was pretty good at this process. I listen, observe, ask questions, research and eventually, begin to get a sense not just of what is but of what can be. I work with the church and together, we do what we feel God is calling us to do in the way God is calling us to do it. Generally, by the two year mark, I am starting to develop a fairly well focused sense of the church and its needs.

But instead of having this developing focus, I find myself these days spending a lot of time wondering what I am doing, what I need to be doing, what is needed for the church and what directions we need to be moving in. Since my ministry involves a lot of time in the car, I find myself wondering what I am supposed to be doing a lot during the drives between home and church building. But I also catch myself worrying the question when I am sanding a piece of my woodworking project or preparing a preaching plan or waiting in the line up at the grocery store.

I spend a lot of time on the question because I don’t have an answer. We have a great spirit in both settings—but our numbers are not improving and our average age isn’t decreasing. We are doing some interesting and innovative things but so far, no matter how much we enjoy it, noting much has changed our overall reality. We hear through the grapevine that people in the communities are noticing us and are pleased at what they see, something that hasn’t always been the case in our communities but that hasn’t translated more people coming to worship or special programs.

As individuals, we are learning more and more about our faith and what it means to us and we are learning how to express that faith to each other in better ways. We have been experimenting with a lot of stuff and we are finding stuff that we enjoy and stuff that we don’t really need. Our worship tends to be a bit more worshipful, our Bible study tends to be a bit more significant, our churches seem a bit more churchy—but for all that, we are still small, rural churches caught in a long-term decline. I like to think that the rate of decline has slowed down since we began looking at ourselves but the truth is that the causes of our decline haven’t really changed—we are still basically the same people we were two years ago but we are all two years older.

So, I wonder. What are we supposed to do and where are we supposed to be going and most especially, what am I supposed to be doing as the pastor of these churches?

May the peace of God be with you.

THE MYSTERY

 

I have always loved science. I can remember as a kid of perhaps 10-12 or so conducting an experiment. I put a bottle of water on the window ledge of my bedroom in the winter and recording each morning whether it was frozen or not—we lived in an uninsulated house with no central heating so the water actually froze some nights. An early Christmas gift was microscope, which I wore out looking at stuff.

I want to know about stuff and understand stuff and love the question “why”, along with its siblings and cousins like “How” and “what” and on and on. Discovering how something works makes my day—and it is even greater if I discover why something works wrong and can figure out how to make it work better. It seems that I have an essential curiosity that pushes me to understand and define and describe and explain.

I bring this drive with me to the church and my faith. As a pastor, I am always examining the church, seeking to understand it. All through my ministry, I have done experiments in the church to make it more effective and more church. Let me quickly assure you that always, the experiments have been done with the informed consent and enthusiastic participation of the church—we all know what we are doing and why. We just embarked on a series of experiments with our worship in one of the sets of churches I serve. We generally like our worship but we want to see if there are things that will make it even more worshipful.

In my personal faith, I have the same drive to understand and explain and even to experiment. I want to understand the fullness of my faith. I want to know what is true and what is fake and what is possible and what isn’t possible. I am sometimes in trouble with colleagues in ministry and people in the church because I can and do ask difficult questions that undercut or repudiate some of their cherished theories. I ask blunt questions about “miracles” people tell me about—the fact that someone’s cousin’s nephew’s girlfriend’s garbage man’s acquaintance knew someone who lived in the same city as someone who wrote about a miraculous healing he heard about isn’t sufficient validation for me to rejoice in the wonder of God’s works.

I approach everything with an analytical, critical, searching attitude. I want to know and understand and asking questions, analysing and studying are basic to me and my faith. But for all of that, I realized a long time ago that there are limits to what I can learn and understand. I can learn a lot about God and faith and the church. But there comes a point where I can’t learn anymore or understand any more. I realized early on in my faith life that I am human and God is God and there is a gap there that I cannot get beyond. I cannot squeeze the whole of God into my finite being.

I learn as much as I can. I study and meditate and experiment and develop theories—but at some point, I always come up against the reality that there is a point where my abilities fail. The fullness of God is beyond me. I can understand the love of God. I can observe and describe examples of the love of God. I can experiment with the love of God. (Does God still love me if I…). But I can’t figure out why God loves. Sure, I can get theological and say that God loves because that is his nature—but that is playing with words not real understanding.

God is God and even though I have devoted a good part of my life to understanding God, there is a reality there—as a finite human, I am not capable of understanding completely the infinite God. And I am okay with that reality. I want to know and understand and I will continue to study and observe and experiment. But I am also a person of faith. I may not be able to understand why God would choose to love all of humanity including me—but I can and do believe it. I don’t need to understand everything because I trust God.

May the peace of God be with you.