DO UNTO OTHERS…

Every now and then, I run into a “modern” version of the Golden Rule, the words of Jesus found in Matthew 7.12: ” So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”  This modern version is often presented in semi-humorous contexts and goes something like this “Do unto others before they do unto you.”

Unfortunately, it seems that our culture has decided that the humorous “before” is more applicable than the original “to”–since my rights and the privileges and desires that I feel belong to me by virtue of my existence are more important than anyone else’s rights, privileges and desires, I need to protect them.  And as we are often told, “The best defence is a strong offence.”

Others, especially others who are or might be different, are a threat to me and what I deserve.  Their choices and desires and practises threaten me and my freedom to be what I want to be.  I need to ban them, restrict them, overcome them, segregate them, control them–and in extreme cases, maybe even find a way to get rid of them.  And if that sounds harsh and hate filled, these are just the headlines that we humans have been reading, experiencing and creating over the years.

Jesus’ words about doing to others fly in the face of socially acceptable norms–norms that are as common and dangerous today as they were in his day–and which go back to the beginning of human awareness.  But Jesus knows that our self-focused, insane drive to put ourselves at the centre of the universe only results in pain, suffering, and continual conflict.  He calls for a different way.

We do to others what we would like done to us. In one compact sentence, Jesus manages to open the door to a new understanding of self and others.  His route doesn’t demand that I ignore myself to benefit others but it also doesn’t demand that I ignore others for the benefit of myself.  Jesus calls for me to engage in a conscious dialogue involving me, the other and the situation.  There is a fourth aspect to the dialogue but I going to hold off on that for a bit.

I need to know what I want/need in the situation.  I need to be aware of myself and my needs and wants.  To really carry out Jesus’ call here, I also need to be willing to examine the validity and necessity of my needs/wants–maybe some of what I need/want isn’t all that important and can be sacrificed or at least downsized.

I need to be aware of the reality of the other–what are their real need/wants.  That will probably mean I need to engage the other and develop some form of relationship–I can’t really get to know the other from a theoretical point of view.  I need to know the other as well as I can.

And I need to know the situation well.  If I am lost, hungry and bleeding, what would I need/want?  I probably wouldn’t want a Gospel tract, unless it was made of cloth and I could use it as a bandage.  I would appreciate directions, first aid and maybe a sandwich although if I am hungry enough, even a pocket-lint covered cough drop might help.

Realistically, that is a major amount of work–and doing it effectively demands that I open myself to the legitimacy of the other as I figure out how to do to them what I want done to myself.  In small, clearly defined situations, I can probably do it and might do it.  But the bigger the situation, the more complex the needs/wants, the more “other” the other is, the harder the whole process and the more unlikely I am to do it.

And this is where I need to remember the fourth part of the dialogue I am engaged in.  I need to involve God.  I need to open myself to the Holy Spirit, whose task in my life is to both guide me in my thinking process and strengthen me in the actual doing.  To really do as Jesus said, I need the power and help of God.  Fortunately, God is both willing and able to give me all the help I need to do to others what I would have them do to me.

May the peace of God be with you.

WORDS OF WISDOM

When my freedom to live in a colour independent world and your freedom to live in a colour dependent world collide, we have a problem.  One of the troubling solutions to that problem in much of North America is for us to start shouting at each other about our respective rights.  The process fairly quickly escalates:  we begin to push and shove, sometimes physically and sometimes legally but more and more often through the media.  Generally, the collision of competing freedoms results in pain, confusion and more collisions.

As a Christian, I think we need to be willing to look beyond the socially normal practises that we so easily adopt to settle our issues.  If we are going to claim to follow Jesus, we probably need to actually try to apply his words to our life situations.   And so, facing the clash of competing rights and freedoms, I look to him for some words of wisdom.  My preferred choice would be words from Jesus that support my particular desire, or at least words that I can beat into shape to support my desire.

Unfortunately, Jesus didn’t have much to say about colour-blindness so I can’t really quote him as supporting my desire for a colour independent world.  So, I have to actually look at his teaching and do some thinking, praying and work a bit–although it isn’t all that hard a task to discover Jesus’ teaching on clashing desires.  Jesus actually has quite a bit to say on that topic.

One of the foundational sayings comes from Matthew 22.39, where Jesus uses an Old Testament quotation to answer a question about the most important commandments.  After reminding the inquirer that the first command is to love God completely, he tells him the second is like it:  “Love your neighbour as yourself”.  As I have worked at this sentence over the years, I have come to deeply appreciate the layers and layers of truth here.

One layer deals with the complex interactions between competing human realities.  Jesus isn’t supporting my need for colour-independence nor the prevailing colour-dependence in our culture.  Rather, he is calling for an interdependence and mutual responsibility that benefits all.  Instead of “either-or”, Jesus is calling for us to work things out in an atmosphere of mutual respect and concern and appreciation.  I have to love my neighbour not at the expense of loving myself but in the same way I love myself.

Seen from this perspective,  the ultimate question isn’t who wins in the clash of desires but how we can mutually and respectfully work towards a solution that works for all involved.  This is a much more difficult process than making enough noise and causing enough confusion so that in the end, one side or the other gains some sort of victory.  Jesus’ solution requires that we engage with others to find a mutually acceptable solution, a solution that may not give anyone exactly what they want but which will allow them to develop a much stronger relationship with each other and with God.

Of course, this is just Bible talk, which we know has no real connection with the realities of life where winning is everything and my desires are my rights.  But given the reality that our western culture is becoming increasingly fragmented, increasingly fractious, increasingly violent and increasingly unworkable, we just might want to look at these words of wisdom as a better way.

The current direction of our culture leads us into a dystopian future where every left-handed, colour-blind, bearded,  60+  Jeep driving male runs the world–of course, every right handed, colour seeing, clean shaven, 20+ Prius driving female is also running the world which means that we are going to spend a lot of time fighting.

Jesus’ way is hard because it requires us to work together to find a balance between what we think we must have and what others think they must have.  If we love each other, we engage in a give and take–I will memorize the position of the traffic light I can’t distinguish because the present colour dependent system works better than anarchy.  But if you give me directions to your house, give me the civic number not the colour and tell me that there are two maples and a pine tree in the front.

If I love my neighbour as myself, I will be concerned with a solution that benefits us both and will be willing to give up something so that we both gain.

May the peace of God be with you.

FIRST PERSON PLURAL

I confess that I have never been a big fan of grammar.  In school, grammar classes were painful for me–having to learn about nouns and pronouns and adverbs and conjunctions and infinitives and all the rest was just no fun.  Given that I have developed a deep love for writing and make my living as one who regularly speaks in public, my dislike of grammar might seem strange but that is the way it is.  Language is a tool to facilitate communication and as long as I can communicate, I can’t get too excited about the rules.

However, there is one area involving grammar that I have been thinking a lot about in the past few years.  And that is the area hinted at by the title of this post–the grammar of how we refer to people.  Actually, I am more concerned about the theology and psychology behind the grammar of how we refer to people.

I see this working itself out in  practical terms in the church.  I often find myself in meetings with other pastors.  I have learned that the grammar pastors use to talk about their current church situation tells a lot about the future of that particular church-pastor combination.

Almost invariably, the pastors who talk about the church as “they” are either having problems or will be having problems.  Those who talk about “we” generally don’t have as many problems.  Another difference also emerges.  Those who refer to the church in the third person plural (they) haven’t been with that church for long–and won’t be there much longer.  Those who use the first person plural (we) have been there for  awhile and will likely be there for a while longer.

This grammatical distinction occurs everywhere, not just among pastors.  But the problem isn’t because of the grammar–the grammar points to the problem.  When we use the third person in the context of people, we are emphasising the differences, drawing distinctions and making sure that people know they aren’t included in our group.  “They” are different from us and we want to emphasise the difference.

When we use the third person grammar to describe individuial or groups, we open the door to all sorts of problems, like prejudice, discrimination, injustice, exploitation and on and on.  Beyond certain legitimate grammatical usage, the way we tend to use the third person becomes a way of excluding people and making differences clear, often with the unspoken understanding that “they” aren’t good or wise or smart or rich or capable or whatever as us.

So whether it is pastors discussing church members, citizens discussing immigrants, conservative theologians or politicians discussing liberal theologians or politicians, purple people discussing fuchsia people, cat people discussing dog people, the “they” tends to the negative and includes a put down.

And while it is true that we are incredibly diverse as humans, our diversity isn’t the most important thing about us.  Underneath the differences that make us “they” is a deeper reality that makes us a “we”.  We are all humans, created in God’s image, in need of a deep relationship with God and each other and we are all somewhere between what we shouldn’t be and what God meant us to be.  And to get from where we are to where we were meant to be involves not just our relationship with God but also our relationship with each other.  It was and is God’s plan that we best become what we were meant to be by recognizing the “we” rather than the “they”.  We all need God and his help; we all mess up; we all need help–and we all need to work with each other and God to become what he meant us to be.

Our differences are real–no matter how well I speak Kiswahili and no matter how much ugali I eat, no one is ever going to seriously believe that I am a Kikamba–the differences that make me a Msungu and not a Kamba are obvious.  But I am still in relationship with my Kamba friends–before God, we are “we”, all of us in need of his grace and love and help, grace and love and help which we will find best when we come together around our similarities rather than try to magnify our  differences.  We are all in this together.

May the peace of God be with you.

“THEY” ARE PEOPLE TOO

One of the (dis?)advantages of being a pastor is that I accumulate a great deal of information about people.  In the normal course of pastoral activity, I see, hear and deduce a great many things about the people I work with.  Some of the things I know, they know I know.  Some, well, they don’t know I know.  And because I am a pastor, a lot of what I know needs to be kept confidential.

So, imagine this scenario which happens with great regularity.  We are in a meeting–Bible study, coffee party, potluck, business or whatever.  The talk turns to something topic, say whether tea or coffee is the better beverage.  A convert to coffee begins to testify–they drank tea for years and only after starting coffee did they realize that tea was so bad and evil.  Then, they begin to discuss tea drinkers–“they” are all deluded and have possibly been seriously harmed by tea.  “They” are also trying to trap people, especially good coffee drinkers, and get them mired in the tea trap.

So, I am sitting there, listening to this.  I know the convert’s story and can understand their antipathy towards tea.  But I also know that two of the people at the meeting need to drink tea regularly because of serious medical problems that only regular doses of tea can prevent from becoming terminal.  As the coffee convert becomes more agitated, I know that the tea drinkers are becoming more and more uncomfortable.  Generally, if I have any means to do so, I gently guide the discussion into a different direction, trying to avoid breaking confidence or creating a confrontational situation.

It seems to me that often when we talk about “they”, we are forgetting that “they” are actually real people.  We all have an all too human tendency to see anyone outside our comfort zone as suspicious, dangerous or just plain wrong–and even more, we somehow manage to let ourselves see them as not human.

When I studied anthropology a long time ago, I remember reading about groups of people who had very strong rules against killing people.  In their language, their group name was “people”, making everyone outside the group not people, who could therefore be killed with no penalty.  I think our modern use of “they” accomplishes the same thing.

We dehumanize people when we “they” them.  We make them less than people–they don’t need respect, they don’t need justice, they don’t need understanding, they may not even need God’s love because, well, “they” are like that.

So, go back to the fictional tea/coffee dichotomy at the fictional meeting we started with.  I know the tea drinker story and I know the coffee convert story.  I know that the coffee convert and the tea drinker are really good friends.  I also know that the tea drinker has never told the coffee convert about the tea–and so I know that as the coffee convert is talking, the tea drinker is shrinking inside and their friendship is dying a little bit.  Fortunately, this is a fictional story so I don’t have to figure out how their pastor is going to help them deal with this issue.

I have been as guilty of the “they” process as anyone.  And I have also learned the best and maybe only way to deal with the “they” process.  The more I get to know “them”, the less I am willing to dehumanize them.  As I spend time with “them”, getting to know who they are and why they do what they do and where the differences come from, it is harder and harder to lump them into a group called “they”.  The more I get to know people, the more “they” become “we”–and given the realities of life, “we” is much better for all of us than “they”.

And in the end, God wants us to be “we” not “they”.  The Bible is based on God’s love for us, a love he wants us to take to the whole world.  We all need the same thing–the love and grace of God.  God’s love doesn’t exclude or ignore or dehumanize “them” because it sees no “they” or “them”.  God’s love makes us “we”–and our call and privilege is to be used by God to make that love available for all of us.

May the peace of God be with you.

NOW AND FOREVER

I love writing.  It allows me the freedom to think and process, the opportunity to take what might be a random thought and develop it and turn it over and around and occasionally inside out and see where it takes me.  It also helps me see how things relate to each other because one thought nudges another and as I contemplate the second, a third pops up demanding attention and as I put that third thought somewhere safe for further consideration, a fourth peeks around the edge of the third silently pleading for a bit of my time and attention.

As I was finishing the last post, I became conscious of one of those silent peeking thoughts.  As I was writing about surrendering to God, I wrote, “… having done it once, there is no guarantee that I will do it again.”  The thought that was peeking around the edge went something like this, “That could suggest that we are never sure of where we stand with God because of all the surrendering we have yet to do.”–or at least that is sort of what I think it was suggesting–sometimes, my thoughts make a whole lot more sense peeking around the corners than they do when I actually look at them.

But this did start another train in motion.  At some point in my life, I surrendered my life to God through Jesus.  I was around 13 or 14 and just knew that this was what I wanted to do.  I didn’t have a totally clear idea of what I was actually doing but I knew it was an important decision.  I probably knew a lot more about my decision that the thief on the cross when he made his decision but a lot less than  the Apostle Paul when he made his.

But the thought that came peeking around wants me to think about that.  Was that very early commitment, made with the incomplete knowledge I had at the time, going to ensure that I had a place with God now and forever?  I mean, I have already acknowledged that I am not always all that good at surrendering to God.  I also know a whole lot more about the faith and my faith now than I did then.  Can a commitment I made at 13 be enough to cover me now?  Or do I need to keep renewing that commitment, something like a magazine subscription?

There are many who believe something like this, that faith commitments are limited and need to be renewed on a regular basis, meaning that between the time the commitment lapses and gets renewed, we have nothing.  Such theology can produce a desire to continually re-commit just to be safe and it can also produce a huge spiritual insecurity because we can never relax and enjoy our place with God.

This uncomfortable peeking thought made things worse by reminding me of my inconsistency.  I know I don’t always live up to the commitment I made way back then.  There have in fact, been a few times in my life when I actually regretted the decision.  All in all, my first surrender to God was weak, not completely informed, and inconsistently applied.

That peeking and uncomfortable thought has a good premise–my surrender back then by itself isn’t what keeps me safely in the presence of God.  But all is not lost because that surrender was to God through Jesus and because it involves God, it isn’t all dependent on me.  God has a part in this whole process and his part is the crucial and important one.

God takes my surrender, weak and incomplete though it was, inconsistent as it is and he reinforces and empowers and guarantees it. My surrender in Christ becomes permanent because of the love and grace and power of God.  As Paul puts it in Romans 8.39b, there is nothing in all creation that “… will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” NIV

My initial surrender to God established my place with God now and forever.  Nothing can ever end that.  And, on the basis of that initial surrender, I make all the rest of the surrenders in the context of knowing that surrender or not, from that point of accepting God, I have also been accepted by God, whose constancy and love and grace and power ensure that I will be with him now and forever.

May the peace of God be with you.

CHURCHES FIGHT

Recently, it was our church’s turn to lead the weekly worship service at a local nursing home.  It was my first time doing this since starting at the church but some of the choir had been there before.  I arrived early as always and chatted with some of the staff and residents as they gathered in the multi-purpose room that was our sanctuary for the afternoon.  One of the staff people had heard I had been doing some fill in preaching at another congregation, which prompted her to ask how things were going at that church.

That quickly lead to her talking about the recent struggles the congregation had, which lead several of the residents to talk about struggles that other congregations were having.  In the midst of the back and forth, a young woman staffer brought another resident to the room and as she was positioning the wheelchair, was obviously listening to the conversation.  Picking me out as the obvious pastor, she asked, “Do churches really have fights?”

I immediately thought that she was being ironic, since everyone knows that churches fight.  But it quickly became clear that she didn’t know this.  She didn’t have a church background and said that she just assumed that churches were supposed to be places where stuff like that didn’t happen.  It was difficult to follow up with her, interact with the others having the conversation and greet new patients coming to the service so all I was able to do in response to her question was assure her that although churches do fight, they are not supposed to.   With that, she headed off to other duties and I began the worship service.

Given the nature of life in small communities, I may or may not get another chance to talk with this woman–there is so much I would have liked to say about the church and its potential as well as its propensity to fight.  I do have a concern that she might write the church and the faith off because of this chance conversation–I hope and pray not but the reality is this may be what happens.

Churches do fight–and in rural areas like ours, everyone soon finds out about this reality.  Although only a minority of people in Canada actually attend worship or are actively involved in churches, we are all related in some way, shape or form and being human, we love to trade stories–I won’t call it gossip because that might be a good topic for another blog.  The woman at the nursing home who didn’t know that churches fight obviously hadn’t been a part of any such relationship net but I am sure that she will eventually know people who have been involved in and hurt by a church fight.

What bothers me is that in spite of this woman’s lack of knowledge, many others do know about church fights–and often, this is the only real knowledge of the church that they have.  This becomes the public witness of the church and the faith–we fight.  I know lots of churches in our area that are doing all kinds of good ministry, have good worship services, provide their communities with support and service and so on but mostly, if I hear about a church, it is because they had a fight, are having a fight or look like they are getting ready to have a fight.

I can’t stop churches from fighting.  I can’t stop the stories of church fights from spreading.  I can’t give everyone a long explanation of why churches fight and why they shouldn’t. What I can do is work with the churches I am called to and help them learn better ways to deal with their disagreements.  I can work with myself and learn how to better deal with myself in the context of the disagreements that I am involved in.  I can write and teach and pray things that will encourage the wider church to learn how to disagree without being disagreeable.

To me, the church is the place where people of faith are supposed to be–the gathering of believers called together to help each other grow and serve.  A church fighting itself is a complete denial of all that we are supposed to be and are called to be.  While I wish church fights were so rare that the staff person’s reaction was normal, that isn’t the case–but I can hope and dream and pray.

May the peace of God be with you.

DID I FORGIVE?

On a regular basis during the summertime, I have a conversation with a certain person.  We chat about the weather, his work, my work, his family, his stress level and so on–or we chat as best we can given that I tend to see him at his work and have to chat between customers.  Our time is therefore limited but it is always cordial, friendly, unforced and feels genuine.  It is the kind of conversation that I have with a lot of people whom I know, one of those pleasant times that are appreciated as much as a cool drink on a hot day.

But when I reflect on these particular conversations, I am always a bit surprised and wonder what is going on.  This person and I have a very unpleasant history which at one point involved his leading a campaign that ended with my resignation from the church and spending about half an hour at a church business meeting pointing out all the real and imagined deficiencies and weaknesses and even sins in my ministry after I had resigned.  I am pretty sure that the trauma of that whole thing has affected our youngest and his understanding of the church in a negative way.  At the time, I felt betrayed, attacked and even persecuted. I am pretty sure he felt the same thing.  When the dust settled, I was given a second call to serve the congregation and he and a few others departed.

I am pretty sure that I was the wronged party in the process and therefore was the one with the obligation to offer forgiveness.  My guess is that he was pretty sure that he was the one wronged and therefore should be offering me forgiveness.  On my better days, I am pretty sure that we both did each other wrong and both have an obligation to forgive and be forgiven.  Both of us are somewhat strong-willed (which, of course, was part of the underlying problem) and so neither of us has ever yet asked for or spoken of forgiveness.

But every summer, we talk and my sense is that it is a genuine talk on both our parts.  He could avoid talking by focusing on work and I could avoid talk by altering my path just a bit.  But I don’t alter my path and he takes the time to talk.  I realized a while ago that I like him and enjoy talking with him.  I doubt that I would be jumping up and down with happiness if he were to join one of the congregations I pastor but I could probably deal with it.

Did I forgive him or he forgive me?  I have never consciously forgiven him, neither in my mind nor with words.  I am not very good at reading minds so I don’t know if he has mentally forgiven me but I know he has never spoken the words of forgiveness.

But we talk and enjoy the talk.  And so I have begun to think that maybe sometimes, forgiveness creeps into situations without either the forgiver or forgiven actually being aware of what is going on.  Maybe some part of our being gets the message of forgiveness and the ability to forgive without it going through the logic circuits.  Maybe the Holy Spirit actually does more in and through us than we realize at times.

As a counsellor, I generally teach and practise that we need to verbalize things to make them real–and yet it seems that to verbalize everything with my friend would be counterproductive.  What we have works.  There is a real concern and interest, a sense of respect and a lack of background tension.  Somehow, we both seem to have let things go and maybe the talking we do is a tacit admission to each other that we have forgiven and been forgiven.

This is another of those great mysteries of the faith that I struggle with.  I haven’t consciously forgiven or been forgiven but at the same time,  I feel forgiven and feel I have forgiven.  And the relationship shows evidence of that.  We don’t see each other all that much but we do see each other and we don’t avoid each other and there is genuine interest and concern when we talk.

Did I forgive or get forgiven?  Given the reality of the situation, I would have to say yes–but don’t ask me when or how because I have no idea.

May the peace of God be with you.

FIRST BE RECONCILED

Any congregation that consists of more than one person is going to have disagreements and differences among its members. And, given the reality of the human condition, if there was a congregation of one person, that congregation would also experience disagreement and difference. Being a believer doesn’t mean that we miraculously begin agreeing with each other on everything. It doesn’t mean that we will agree that every idea brought forward will automatically be accepted. Our diversity and our divinely given freedom mean that there will always be disagreement and difference when people gather together in a group.

The presence of disagreement and difference in the church isn’t a problem. It is a reality and in the end, probably something to be appreciated and even celebrated–diversity is another of God’s gifts to humanity. The issue the church faces in not that we are different and have different ideas–the issue the church faces is how we deal with those differences.

Because we live in North America, we have a tendency to see differences as something to be overcome–when there are differences, one has to be right. We live in a very competitive culture and difference becomes a reason to compete. So, if one church member prefers worship with the traditional hymns played on an organ while another prefers choruses played by a worship band, that difference almost automatically leads to a contest to see who can gain the most support for their choice so they can win. Winning, you see, is the key point in our culture and this cultural trait has become an essential part of church life in North America.

So, whether it is pastor against congregation, congregational leadership against pastor, congregation members against congregation members, the church has been seriously infected with our cultural love of competition and we firmly believe that it is God’s will that someone win whenever there is a difference or disagreement.

Of course, we have to ignore the cost of winning: unhealthy congregations, church splits; believers who won’t talk to each other; a poor witness in our communities to mention but a few of the consequences of making winning the point.

Christianity was not built on winning–or perhaps it is better to say that Christianity is not built on the North American cultural understanding of winning. In Christ, we are all winners–through our faith response to God’s grace, we win because we are reconciled with God. And the idea of reconciliation provides the Christian pattern of dealing with disagreement.

Jesus puts it this way in Matthew 5.23-24:

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. (NIV)

Reconciliation, not winning, is the key here. The state of the relationship between Christians is more important than the issues they disagree on. Now, reconciliation doesn’t mean they have to agree on everything. Reconciliation is not a theological word for winning. No, reconciliation occurs when people look beyond the issue and focus on their relationship with each other. Reconciliation is not a sneaky way to win a contest. It is a concrete expression of the love that believers have for each other working itself out by maintaining the bonds of love in spite of difference and disagreement.

If maintaining a loving relationship between believers is not the first and most important consideration in any disagreement, the church has already lost no matter what the outcome. If believers are willing to put their side before the need to love each other as Christ has loved us, the church doesn’t have a chance of winning no matter what the outcome.

Disagreement and difference are basic realities of the human situation, which means they are also basic realities of the church as well. The church wins when it is willing to put more effort into maintaining the quality of relationships than it does into winning the various disagreements that come up. The church can and does exist when its members disagree with each other. The church can and does exist as a powerful witness to the world when it can allow disagreement and difference and still love each other as Christ loved us.

May the peace of God be with you.