GIVE ME A GOOD BOOK

I have always been a reader. I discovered books early on life and began reading them as early as possible. There were some rough early years when books were hard to come by—we didn’t have much money and the town we lived in didn’t have a library. Books came to us through the same route as clothes and most other things: a few gifts, a lot of hand-me-downs and the occasionally purchase. I remember that a lot of the money I earned splitting and piling wood for neighbours or picking and selling blueberries ended up being spent of books. A significant part of my first steady income ( a newspaper route) also went towards books.

At one point, I was suffering from frequent headaches, which was automatically attributed to my reading too much. That, and the fact that I preferred reading to actually doing chores meant that there were times when my reading was on a timer—I could only read a certain amount a day. That was a powerful stimulus to change the behaviour that lead to the restriction.

I have enough understanding of people to know that not everyone shares my love of reading. Very early in my life, I realized that for some people, reading was a chore, something they did only when they had to and then only if someone was actually watching them. I discovered that many people would rather read a commercially available summary of books we had to read for school—the summaries were shorter and pre-digested. Given my love of reading, I probably read the assigned book and then read the summary also—reading is reading, right?

These days, I do most of my reading via an electronic platform. If there is a debate over the merits of paper versus electronic books, I am firmly and completely on the electronic side. When I have to sit at the car dealer for a couple of hours while my car is serviced, my ereader is a vital necessity. The hundreds of books I can carry that way mean that I will never run out of reading. And if the battery runs down, well, I still have access to the books through my phone, tablet and computer. As an added benefit, moving electronic books involves far fewer boxes and much less muscle power than print books.

There is something about a well written book that goes well beyond the actual words. Reading at its best involves my whole being and even all my senses. I read and the reading draws me into the material. Whether it is fiction or non-fiction, I can enter the world of the writer and live in the material. I can get to know not just the topic but also the author. I become a part of their world and they become a part of mine. I read—but at the same time, I see, I feel, I understand, I grow—I become different because of having spent time with Stephen Hawking, Tom Clancy, Martin Noth, Isaac Asimov, Jurgen Moltmann—the list goes on and on and will continue to go on and on. I fully expect that on my deathbed, the doctor will have to move a book of some sort to listen to my fading heartbeat—and me being me, the book will probably be describing the process I am going through or be something totally and completely unconnected to anything.

Because I am a Christian and a pastor, a good part of my reading involves books about faith and ministry. And no matter what else I am reading, I am reading the Bible. I have read through the Bible more times than I can count in more translations and versions than I can count. And that isn’t an exaggeration or literary conceit. A few years ago, in an effort to make life simpler before moving to Kenya for work, I got rid of most of my print library, including most of my collection of print Bibles. I literally can’t count them because I don’t have them. That, by the way, is another reason why I love ebooks—I never have to lose my books that way again.

By the way, there is no moral, no hidden purpose, no hidden meaning in this post. I may be a preacher but this isn’t a preacherly attempt to hide the meaning in an extended story. I just love reading and wanted to write about that today.

May the peace of God be with you.

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A CROW IN A TREE

It’s Monday morning, which means that yesterday was Sunday. I lead two worship services, one of which included a lunch afterwards. I preached twice and felt that both sermons went over fairly well. Attendance was good for both services, given the time of the year and all the other factors that determine worship attendance. I even managed to grab a short nap between the worship services. But when the day finished, I was finished. In fact, I was beyond finished because I stared the day tired—I lead a funeral service the day before that involved extra time visiting the family and preparing and so on. It probably doesn’t help that I have a really crazy week coming up with more to do that I have time to do it in. Nor does it help that this mid-winter day is dark, dreary and drippy and the thin layer of unskiiable snow is going to disappear probably before noon.

So, it’s now Monday morning and I am sitting in the living room, trying to figure out what to write for this blog post. So far, the most interesting thing to cross my mind has been the crow that landed on the top of one the pine trees I can see out the living room window—it is much easier to look out the window that at a blank computer screen. But even our normally active street is quiet on this Monday morning. The deer haven’t been around in a few days, the squirrels seem to be sleeping in today, it is too early for one of our neighbours to leave for his coffee group. So, I keep coming back to the empty computer screen.

Staring at a blank computer screen is marginally better than staring at a blank piece of paper, at least in my opinion. In the old days, back when the creative process involved a piece of paper and a pencil (I always worked in pencil until it was time for a final copy), there was much less distraction. A computer screen with no words on it at least has all the information supplied by the word processor program. It also holds the potential for some serious distraction—with just a few key strokes, I can play solitaire as I allow my sub-conscious mental process to wake up and get to work.

I can use a few other key stokes to open the whole world to me. The connection I have to the wider universe through the Internet means that I can discover anything I want. I haven’t tried it yet but I bet that if I type “cure for writer’s block” in a search engine, I will find tons of suggestions—all of which will provide welcome distraction from the demands of a blank word processor page.

I could even use the computer to access some of the many books that are in my various online accounts. While a lot of them are fiction, there are also a lot of books that have and will helped me with my professional development. Reading some of them would not only provide a distraction from the blank screen but might also provide an idea that I can steal adapt for my blog. I am sure that there must be lots of blog ideas in the as yet unread book that discusses the science behind the Star Wars universe.

But it is Monday morning—and so far, the crow in the tree top has been the only thing that has grabbed my attention and even it has gone somewhere else, probably to enjoy a breakfast at the local crow watering hole.

Monday mornings are difficult for those of us in ministry. We are probably at our lowest point physically, emotionally and spiritually. It is no coincidence that one popular ministry book many years ago was titled, Never Resign on Monday. I have modified that a bit for my particular situation to tell me Never decide to stop blogging on Monday.

It’s Monday morning—a drippy, dark, dreary Monday morning. I am tired as much from what I have to do this week as from what I did last week. I am not going to resign from the churches, I am not going to stop blogging. The crow in the pine tree obviously dealt with Monday morning and so will I.

May the peace of God be with you.

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.

RANDOM NUMBERS

Because I like to read a lot of different things and pay a lot of attention to the news, I end up with a wealth of facts, figures and bits and pieces.  Sometimes, this data has a point–it ends up in  a sermon or adding another piece to some other issue I am thinking about or all by itself, it explains something else.  But more often than not, these facts and figures just sit there in my brain, occupying memory cells and often sticking in place much better than other, more important things like the name of the person I just met who would like some pastoral counselling.

There is another use for these random numbers–I get to throw them out at random intervals in conversation or I get to use them when I am a bit stuck about something to write for this blog.  So, here are some totally random numbers that I have picked up over the years.  Some I have verified, some I can’t guarantee and some may sound fishy.  Some come from reliable sources–but the sources don’t stick in my mind as much as the numbers.  Some, I have no idea where they came from but here they are:

  • There are currently an estimated 30 million slaves in the world. While the majority are in faraway places, there are a significant number in North America–think poorly paid transient agricultural workers and sex trade workers.
  • Several sources suggest there are something like 40 million refugees in the world. Refugees are people who fled their home land primarily because of armed conflict but also because of drought, famine or some other natural disaster.  There are also millions more people who had to flee their homes but because they are still in their own country, they are not counted as refugees.
  • Something like 80% of the world’s churches have less than 100 people in attendance at worship–and 50% of the world’s churches have less than 50 in worship.
  • About 2 billion people in the world suffer from hunger. They either don’t get enough food or they don’t get the right balance of food.
  • About 2 billion people in the world are overweight or obese. They get too much food or too much of the wrong kinds of food.
  • At one hospital in an urban Canadian setting, two people were diagnosed with scurvy in one year. Neither of them was poor and neither was a 17th century sailor, the more traditional victims of scurvy.
  • In the part of Canada where I live, 20% of children come from homes that are too poor to provide the kids with breakfast, meaning that the majority of schools in our area have developed breakfast programs.
  • The Bible has been and continues to be the best-selling book of all time. My admittedly biased observation is that is also the most unread book of all time.
  • A conservative estimate suggests that 20% of males and 40% of females have been sexually abused before they reached adulthood.
  • Something like 75-80% of the North American population suffers from anxiety or depression.
  • According to some sources, the amount of money spent on armaments around the world in a year could effectively end poverty and hunger forever.

That is probably enough. If I go on, things will probably get depressing–I seem to remember a lot more depressing and gloomy statistics than positive ones.  That may be because positive numbers tend not to be reported in the places I get my numbers from.  It may be because I have a somewhat dark memory process–I recognize that sometimes, I am out of step with my culture.

These numbers that float around in my head do one thing.  They help me see why my faith is so important to me.  While there are some really great things in the world, there is a lot that isn’t right.  And for me at least, the source of hope comes from my faith.  My faith tells me that in spite of the dismal numbers, God is at work.  And even more, he has a place for me in that work.  My faith tells me there is hope both here and now and in the afterlife because of God and his love and grace.

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.

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.

I’M STUCK

I like writing, which is a good thing since I do a lot of writing in my job as a pastor.  A typical week these days sees me writing two sermons, two Bible studies and assorted other things.  I can easily write between 4000-10,000 words a week.  And then, I turn to my hobbies, which currently consist of learning how to keep a drone out of the trees (only on days without a lot of wind) and writing entries for this blog.

With all that writing, I am always looking for ideas.  Sermon ideas are crucial and I plan them in three to four month cycles.  Church newsletters, special projects and so on come at irregular intervals and generally have a theme already suggested.  Blog ideas come easily  sometimes–I have occasionally had weeks of ideas sitting in a file on the hard drive, waiting for me to develop and post.

But every now and then, I get stuck.  This is one of those stuck times.  I have pretty much used up the ideas in the folder–all that are left are those ideas that really don’t make any sense anymore, if they ever did.  I look at them and wonder who hacked my computer and put those strange ideas in the folder.

So, what else is there to do but write about being stuck?  I am pretty sure that I know why I am stuck this morning.  To start with, it’s Monday morning.  I am aware that this is posted on a Friday but I do my blog writing on Monday.  Mondays come after Sunday, which for me consisted of two worship services and the completion of a three part series on Islam for a church/community group.

I am tired today and when I get tired, my mind doesn’t really want to be overly creative.  I could take to morning off and mow the lawn, except sitting staring at a computer screen with nothing to write is still more interesting than mowing the lawn.  I could have written about the questions associated with moving lawns but I have already done that.

So, I am stuck.  But I am not worried about being stuck.  I know why I am stuck, I know that I will get unstuck eventually and find something more interesting to write about.  Being stuck now and then is a reality and over the years, I have learned to be graceful with myself, at least in that area.

There are times and places in my life that I need to learn to be more graceful with myself–and maybe the grace I show myself when  I am stuck can help me with that.  All of us need to be a bit better being graceful, both to ourselves and to others.  God’s supply of grace is limitless and eternal–but when it reaches is, we tend to be somewhat stingy with it, treating grace as if it was some exotic commodity that is expensive, hard to get and perpetually on back order.

But grace isn’t all that.  True, it is expensive–but that expense was covered by God.  It isn’t hard to get–God freely makes it available to all who ask.  And it is never on back order–it is always fresh and in stock.

So, I am going to be graceful to myself and finish this post today.  It is short and may not have much point.  But it does open the door to look at the unlimited grace of God and I doubt if I can do anything better than that even on my most unstuck day.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE TWO HUNDRED BARRIER

Our Kenyan church family
Our Kenyan church family

The last time we worked in Kenya (2012-2014), we began worshipping in a large town church. The church has both an English and a Kiswahili worship service, both of which were generally packed. The sanctuary could hold perhaps 400-500 and there were always people sitting outside. As Kenyan churches go, they were well set up: lots of leadership; an excellent choir; some well off members and good facilities. We were welcomed and began to feel a part of both English and Kiswahili congregations.

But after a few weeks, we end up settling in with a different congregation a few kilometers away. This group had one worship service that on its best Sunday would include 50 people, if we included the kids who wandered in and out. They were lead by a senior church leader who was also heavily involved in denominational affairs so a lot of the pastoral work fell on two lay people who lead services, preached and administered the church.

The church building was solid but unfinished–the windows were wire screen not glass, a fact all the worshippers were very aware of on cloudy, windy mornings during the cold part of the year. The choir sang enthusiastically, when enough of them arrived in time for the special. Money was a problem because the congregation was mainly older people, widows and assorted unemployed. We were accepted in the congregation and were a part of it until we left to return to Canada. More than that, though, we were at home in the congregation–to say this congregation became our spiritual home in Kenya wouldn’t be an overstatement.

This decision to worship with a small struggling church rather than a large thriving one says a great deal about us personally. But it seems to me that it provides a good starting place for looking at an issue that I have been thinking about a lot over the years–church size.

Statistically, small churches abound–I have seen stats that say something like 80% of congregations have less than 100 members. Often, this statistic is quoted in the context of a concept called the “200 Barrier”. The “200 Barrier” refers to the fact that moving a congregation to grow beyond 200 members seems to be a difficult and complicated process that most congregations will never accomplish.

Unfortunately, it seems like all the information pastors and church leaders receive is produced by the leadership of the congregations that have passed that barrier. There is the unspoken but very real sense that churches that don’t pass that barrier are not as faithful or as dynamic and their leadership isn’t as capable or as good. Some of the stuff being produced seems to suggest that every congregation can break the 200 barrier if they just follow the right path and have the right leadership.

I am not against large congregations but drawing on my experience in small congregations, I don’t think that breaking the 200 barrier is necessarily the goal or measuring stick for a congregation. Small congregations are not large congregations in waiting and large congregations are not small congregations that have fulfilled their destiny. Both are being used by God and both have an important place in the Kingdom.

I am a confirmed small church fan and because of that, this blog will generally look at things from that perspective. I might refer to large (200+) churches now and then but I don’t have the experience or the background to say much definitive about them. That isn’t a problem for me because there are lots of people writing and speaking about those churches. But as we did in Kenya, I am going to settle in on the under 200 side and look at ministry from that perspective. I hope to provide some insight and food for thought for others on the same side of the barrier.

The peace of God be with you.

I Was Wondering About

I have been involved in Christian ministry since the summer of 1973, when I became pastor of two small churches in rural Nova Scotia, Canada. Although I had done a bit of preaching before that, this was the beginning of my career in ministry. Since that beginning, I have been involved in some form of paid ministry almost continuously, except for brief periods between various ministries. In those years, I have been a pastor (both full and part time), a missionary, a prison chaplain and a professor at both Canadian and Kenyan theological schools. I am currently in one of the in-between situations. I am providing Sunday worship for a couple of small struggling congregations while I wait for the next stage of my ministry.

In all these years of practising, studying and teaching ministry, I have discovered a few things about ministry that have become bedrock foundational truths about ministry. I have discovered a lot of things that seem like such bedrock foundational truths but really aren’t. I have also discovered a lot of things that help and hinder ministry, depending on the specifics of the setting. Overall, the list of things that are solid, bedrock foundational truths is very small but very important and the list of things that fit in the other categories is very big. But just which category a particular ministry approach or idea or theory is put in can be very controversial and confusing.

All this means I have spent a lot of time in ministry wondering about stuff. Sometimes, I have shared the wonderings with others; sometimes, I have written about the wonderings; sometimes, I have used them as the basis for preaching and sometimes, I really haven’t done much with the wonderings. I hope to use this blog to share some of these wonderings. If you connect with anything you read here, great–it doesn’t matter if you agree on not because the truth is that some of these things I may change my mind on as I continue wondering. I would be very interested in your comments and thoughts on my wonderings.

In order to help contextualize my thoughts, it might help to know that I am an ordained pastor in a Baptist denomination. Baptists on the whole are fairly conservative but I tend to be in the centre or a bit to the left of the Baptist theological spectrum. I have primarily ministered as a pastor in small rural congregations and have spend a lot of time studying and working with such congregations. While I have been both a full time and part time pastor, I have spent more time as a part time pastor and have even written a small book on part-time ministry.

I am not sure where this blog will go or how long it will continue but right now, it seems like the right thing to do. I look forward to your comments.

May God’s peace be with you.