A GOOD PASTOR

I have never been called to serve as the pastor of a perfect church. But that is okay since none of the congregations I have been called to serve were calling a perfect pastor. I wasn’t perfect before they called me, I didn’t become perfect when I served the church and I didn’t become perfect when I left the congregation. There are some pastors who manage to achieve perfection—but only a few years after they have left the congregation and when succeeding pastors have more glaring weaknesses than they had. But while hindsight might make a pastor look perfect, that is more a case of selective remembering than actual reality.

Like congregations, pastors are not perfect. We are called, we are forgiven, we are gifted—but we are not perfect. We pick up our calling and carry it out with a confusing blend of good and bad that can be wildly infuriating to both pastor and congregation. We provide the absolutely perfect ministry that changes a life one minute and the next, we drive three other people to question not just our call but our basic faith.

When congregations forget that pastors aren’t perfect, all sorts of problems develop. Congregations forget to test the spirits, as I John 4.1 tells us. This allows us as pastors to operate without accountability—and the worst thing we can give to an imperfect individual is a freedom from accountability. With no accountability, we have no reason to see or acknowledge or deal with our imperfections. Generally, lack of accountability results in increased imperfection, not less imperfection.

When congregations forget that pastors aren’t perfect, it become very traumatic when the real imperfections manifest themselves. While some congregation members can and will ignore any and all imperfections, most people will eventually discover the pastor whom they thought was perfect isn’t perfect and that will create all sorts of responses, from mild irritation to rejection of the church to rejection of the faith.

When pastors forget that pastors aren’t perfect, the consequences are even worse. When we pastors forget that we don’t have it all together, we then begin to minister from our imperfection, not from our commitment to God. Our desire for power gets wrapped in “doing God’s will”; our need for approval overshadows the need to speak the truth of God; our desire for affection rewrites the moral standards of the faith. We end up hurting not just ourselves but the wider church. Our imperfections can often become the institutionalized dysfunction of the congregation or denomination.

So, let me be clear. Pastors are not perfect—nor will we be perfect this side of eternity. And since that someday perfection simply isn’t the reality here and now, we pastors need to learn to minister as imperfect people and congregations need to accept the reality that their pastor isn’t perfect and won’t be perfect—and wasn’t actually perfect in the case of former pastors.

How do we imperfect pastors minister to imperfect congregations? I think we start with honesty. It isn’t quite the blind leading the blind—but is the imperfect pastoring the imperfect. If we all start there, then we can become mutually accountable and responsible. As an imperfect pastor of an imperfect congregation, I need to make sure that both I and the congregation are willing to commit proper time and resources to seeking the leading from the Perfect that we need. My latest and greatest idea that will revitalize our church and change the face of Christianity needs the careful and prayerful consideration of the congregation to make sure it isn’t actually an expression of my imperfection wrapped in a few decontextualized Scriptures. While I am called to be their pastor, I am not called to be their boss or dictator. Rather, both pastor and congregation are called to mutual responsibility and accountability as we together seek to offer our imperfection to God so that he can bring us all closer to what we are meant to be.

The churches I have been called to serve as pastor didn’t get a perfect pastor when they called me. But then again, they didn’t have one before I arrived (no matter what the older members say) and they won’t have one after I leave. As long as I and the congregation remember that, we are better able to seek God’s perfection to deal with our imperfection.

May the peace of God be with you.

I’M RIGHT—YOU’RE WRONG

I have been a news junkie most of my life, something I am pretty sure I inherited from my father. I can sort of remember as a relatively new reader waiting somewhat impatiently for my father to finish reading the newspaper so I could have a chance at it, not just for the funny pages but for the front page and the opinion page and all the other stuff contained within the pages. I probably spend at least a couple of hours a day reading and watching news from a variety of sources.

This can be a depressing occupation—I have many friends who simply refuse to pay any attention to news in any form. All of those friends think I am a bit strange but I can live with that. What I can’t live with is not knowing what is going on in the world.

I am pretty sure that a major part of my desire to know what is going on in the world comes from the fact that I am by nature an accumulator and analyser of information, which I then use to develop theories, understand trends, project possibilities and illustrate sermons and Bible studies. I like to know and understand what is going on so that I can make projections about what is coming.

These days, my thinking as a result of the news reports I imbibe are making me nervous. There is a powerful force towards disunity, division and dissension being exhibited all over the world these days. Everyone wants their own way—and anyone or anything that stands in the way of that is wrong. And when someone or something is wrong, they can be ridiculed, put down, sidelined, disrespected, attacked physically, legislated against, demonized—I can’t think of any more words but the picture should be clear.

Our world is following a dangerous road because the less respect and appreciation we have for others and their ideas, the more we increase the potential for conflict. The less I see someone and their ideas as valid, the more likely I am to treat them as less than human. The more I see difference as a threat, the more likely I am to attack. The bigger the threat, the more serious the attack. The progression from words to civil action to legislative action to physical action is well documented and strongly in evidence all over the world.

Whether it is one politician calling into question the intelligence or nationalism of another; a person of one sexual orientation calling someone of another a pervert; a person of one race abusing a person of another race; a zealot bombing the home of an opposing zealot the pattern is clear—we are developing a new ethic that allows us to hate and disrespect and abuse those whose views and ideas are different from ours.

Except that this isn’t a new ethic. It is almost the oldest ethical approach in the book. One early version of the process has one man killing his brother because the brother got praised for his sacrifice to God. This approach to life and others has repeated itself throughout history—it seems we human beings can’t get enough of hatred, prejudice and self-centeredness. I, my, me always seeks to come out on top—we all want them to be at least subservient to us—and it would be even better if they simply didn’t exist. And history is filled with stories of people who tried to get rid of all the “thems” in their world.

There is, of course, a different way, a way also contained in the book that has the story of the brother killing his brother. That way involves embracing the other, respecting the different, seeking the common ground between we and them. Of course, there is a catch to this other way.

Before we can really follow the other way, we have to acknowledge that neither we nor they are at the centre of creation. Creation isn’t human-centric. It is God-centric. And when we begin to see that God is at the centre, we can begin to see things differently, if we are willing to submit to the God who is really at the centre of all creation. As we submit and begin to see things through God’s eyes, the differences we magnify become less and less important.

May the peace of God be with you.

BEING A PARENT

One of my granddaughters got a bit upset with me during our recent visit. We were reading a book snuggled together on the couch or engaged in some equally grandparently activity when I called her my baby girl. She indignantly told me that she was five and wasn’t a baby—she was a big girl. That sparked a short discussion of parenting (and grandparenting) that sort of satisfied her and allowed me to continue sitting with her.

I told her that her aunt, whom she likes but is older than her father is still my baby girl because children—and grandchildren—will always be baby girls (and baby boys) to their parents and grandparents. I wasn’t joking or trying to cover a mistake. Parents and grandparents have a hard time letting children grown up.

On the whole, I think I have done a pretty good job of letting my kids grow up. I have always encouraged them to think for themselves; to make their own decisions; to take responsibility for themselves. I have rejoiced at their successes; grieved with them over their failures; supported even their questionable decisions. I enjoy having an adult coffee time with my kids much more than I enjoyed reading Dr. Seuss to them.

But they are still my kids—and grandkids. I will always have a part of me that feels that I have to look after them and be concerned with their welfare and future and wellbeing. I don’t express that parental reality by trying to run their lives. I am not an overzealous parent who thinks my kids and grandkids need my advice and guidance and control in every aspect of their lives. If asked, I might give an opinion but I am much more comfortable listening to them as they talk out some decision or another without my specific input. I work hard at respecting their independence and freedom and seeing them as mature adults and maturing grandchildren. I work hard at giving them the respect and relationship their situation requires: reading books with the pre-schoolers; pushing the swing for the toddlers; enduring the emotional swings of the second grader; listening to the child turned parent as they deal with some issue or another.

But in the end, they are still my children and grandchildren. I have relationships and responsibilities with them that I have with no others. I am a pastor and counsellor and have a great many relationships where I am involved in helping people. But as significant as those relationships are, they can never be the same as the one I have with my children and by extension with their children. My wife and I have been involved in their lives from the moment of their conception and the relationship is a basic part of our whole being.

Our sons and daughter are fully grown, mature adults all of whom have become responsible and capable human beings. They are caring and helpful and are all making a positive contribution to society. They are in stable, healthy relationships and live good lives. But they are still and will still be my babies as long as I am alive.

The fact that my baby boys tower over me and my baby girl is highly respected in her profession doesn’t change the fact that they are still my babies. The fact that I am proud of the adults they have become and marvel at their abilities and sensibilities doesn’t alter the reality that they are still my little ones. The fact that all of them are providing significant care and support for others doesn’t alter the fact that I am and always will be their (very proud) father.

So, when I sit snuggled on the couch reading a book with a five year old or in a coffee shop talking life with a 30 something or follow a 40 something around her work, I am honoured and happy to be the parent and grandparent of my baby girls and baby boys. Some are definitely well past the official baby stage—but as any parent or grandparent knows, that is only a chronological thing. Baby boys and girls are still baby boys and girls no matter what their age or stage.

May the peace of God be with you.

NOT ANONYMOUS!

Many of my Kenyan friends were pleased to discover that my given names come from my grandfathers—they felt that somehow my parents had known their tribal naming customs and followed them. The fact that many of them couldn’t easily pronounce any of my names didn’t take away from the fact that my names fit their customs. To solve the pronunciation problem, they gave me another name, one from their culture which fit my circumstance. Later, some of the students I taught gave me at least one nickname—I say at least one because this one they revealed to me. There may have been other names that they didn’t reveal—these were students, after all.

So, I have a name. Actually, I have several names, all of which I acknowledge and to be honest, am proud of. I appreciate the family connection coming from my given names. I also deeply appreciate the names given to me by my Kenyan friends. My names are a basic part of who I am; they mark my place in the world; they connect me with others and cultures. I would likely still be the same person with a different name but still, the names I have been given are important to me. I am careful to introduce myself with the appropriate name in the appropriate circumstance.

When I am in Kenya, for example, there isn’t all that much value in giving people my Canadian given and family names. I tend to use my Kenyan name, which, in the right circles is recognized. Most of the people in the church we work with there know me or know someone who knows me, at least as long as I use the Kenyan name. In Canada, I use some version of my given names—mind you, that doesn’t always go over well because many people find “Legassie” hard to pronounce.

I am who I am and my names are a part of who I am—and despite the increasingly anonymous culture we live in, I choose to be known by name. To be honest, I hate hiding behind anonymity. When faced with an anonymous survey, I often choose not to fill it out—and if I do fill it out, I often sign it.

When I read something that interests me, I try to discover who wrote it—I want a name to put with the thoughts—not a made up net identity but a real name. It doesn’t really matter what culture the name comes from expect that it can’t come from the internet culture. I tend to ignore stuff identified by strange letter and number combinations or timely slogans or some other way of hiding identity. If I have something to say, I am going to own it—and for me, part of owning it is to tell people who I really am. Not telling them who I really am suggests that I am not really committed to what I am saying or that what I am saying isn’t that important or, perhaps, I am a coward.

I am aware that this puts me at odds with a significant part of our culture, the part which prefers not to be known as they slash and trash and troll and generally spew vitriol and anger and disrespect all over the internet. It puts me at odds with the moral cowards who send anonymous letters to people they don’t like telling them to move or change or even die. My desire for names puts me on the opposite side of a culture that wants increasingly to be able to say and do whatever it wants without taking personal responsibility, which suggests to me that we are fast developing a culture that doesn’t want to deal with consequences.

I am probably a dinosaur because I want real names from real people. If I disagree with someone enough to speak or write it, I am going to let them know who I am. If people disagree with me enough to speak or write it, I want to know who they are. And if people don’t give me their name with their comments, I am going to ignore their comments. This, I think, it part of the personal honesty that my faith teaches. I am who I am and my name is part of who I am. If I am going to be honest, you need to know my name.

May the peace of God be with you.

I AM NOT A PSYCHOPATH

Since much of my work in the “office” involves writing using the computer, it isn’t surprising that a lot of my mini-breaks also involve the computer. Sometimes, the break involves a game of solitaire while my brain finalizes the second point of the sermon to the point where I can type it out. Now and then, when I need a longer break, the home page on my browser contains a never-ending buffer of stories, articles and pictures.

During a break the other day, I clicked on an article suggesting that people who do a certain thing might be a psychopath. The article suggested that people who drink their coffee black and who make a point of letting people they drink it black just might be psychopaths. From the day I began seriously drinking coffee, I have drunk it black with no sugar. I have also been known to proclaim that if God meant us to have milk and sugar in coffee, he would have created milk and sugar trees linked to the coffee trees. So, obviously I am a psychopath.

I wasn’t actually ready to accept that diagnosis, especially since I have some background in psychology and have done almost every psychological test invented at some point and never had even a small indication of psychopathology show up. But rather than simply click out of the article, I kept going. Way down near the end of the article, the author indicated that the black coffee thing was only one out of many many other things that were found to be correlated with the issue and the correlation with black coffee was actually fairly small.

So, instead of saying if you drink black coffee, you might be a psychopath, the article would have been much more honest to suggest that a very small percentage of people who drink black coffee have a chance of being a psychopath, which is pretty much the same as saying that a small percentage of any identified group of people might be psychopaths. But such truthful but vague statements don’t entice people to click and therefore don’t increase the views of the page, which I suppose puts up advertising rates.

The article does illustrate perfectly a dangerous and all too common human reality. We have a tendency to categorize and define people on the basis of one or two obvious characteristics or qualities, which may or may not actually have anything to do with the reality of that person.

So, for example, it isn’t hard to find someone telling us that all Muslims are terrorists and all evangelicals are republican. All illegal immigrants are criminals. All politicians are liars. All car salespeople are crooked and dishonest. The list goes on and on—and is as misleading and wrong as calling black coffee drinkers psychopaths. But we all do this.

There is an antidote to this kind of thinking. Rather than define people by one or two almost incidental traits, we get to know people. We move beyond the identified marker and we discover the real person. Occasionally, we are going to have our initial assessment proven right—but in general, we are going to find that behind the biased and ignorant assumption, there is a real person, a person with whom we can have a great relationship and even deep friendship.

But that takes both effort and courage. It takes courage to break out of our carefully defined boxes and embrace what is different or unknown or too quickly defined. And then, because the person we have categorized has likely been the victim of fast and mindless categorization before, it takes effort to develop the kind of relationship that allows each of us to get to know the other. It is much easier and simpler in the end to watch for the one or two defined markers and place the person in the appropriate box.

But most of the time, the markers don’t tell us what we think they tell us and the boxes we use don’t really work for us or the other. I drink black coffee—but I am actually not a psychopath. I am an evangelical Christian but I am not a republican—actually, I am not even American. Maybe, if we sit down and have a coffee, we can actually see beyond the preconceptions and get to really know each other. By the way, I take my coffee black, the way God meant it to be drunk.

May the peace of God be with you.

ANONYMOUS

I am not particularly surprised by what the guy in my office is saying. He and I have disagreed on many aspects of my ministry since I began working for the church. He doesn’t like some of what I am preaching and teaching. But the reason for this particular visit grows out of a complicated situation that I have been providing pastoral care for. He doesn’t know the whole story and feels he should. Furthermore, he says, there are a lot of people in the church who feel the same way. “They” are saying that I am a problem and that I am going to cause serious harm to the church. “They” are talking to him because he stands for right and I don’t.

I have always had a very strong response to anonymous reports. On the one hand, I do like knowing what “they” are saying. Any organization, including the church, has a background level of discontent that generally doesn’t often become serious enough that people feel obligated to take a stand but it serious enough that they talk about it, as long as “they” don’t have to become identified with the talk. Part of my pastoral responsibility to the church is being aware of this background discontent. That generally only happens when someone tells me what “they” are saying. Sometimes, people tell me what “they” are saying as a favour because I need to know and sometimes, as in this particular situation, because the person speaking somehow hopes that what “they” are saying will reinforce their comments. Whatever the reason, I think it is good for me as pastor to know what “they” are saying.

However, I am also very aware of the reality that whatever “they” are saying isn’t important enough for them to take any real risk. “They” generally want to be able to complain without dealing with the responsibility that comes from taking a stand. Comments like this may sound serious and may even have a serious base but in truth, when “they” lack the conviction or courage to make their comments openly, I have difficulty taking them seriously and even more difficulty basing my actions on what “they” are saying.

I am aware that there are some times when being anonymous is necessary to protect the life of someone. I can understand that and approve of that. But in general, anonymous comments, no matter how strong or how pointed or how serious don’t overly affect my decisions. If I hear that “they” are upset by the new tie that my daughter gave me for my birthday, I am not going to stop wearing it.

So, back to the session we began this post with. When the guy told me that there were others who agreed with him and that “they” were equally upset with me, I responded in the way I learned a long time ago. I told him that I don’t respond to anonymous comments made by “they”. If “they” had something they think I needed to hear, “they” needed to come to me personally. If and when “they” came to see me, we could and would talk about their concerns openly and directly. But until then, I would listen to his complaints and respond directly to his concerns but I would neither listen to nor respond to any comments from the anonymous “they”, no matter how many of them he claimed there were.

Eventually, “they” showed up in my office. “They” consisted of this guy’s wife, who had already made it clear that she agreed with her husband. There were no other “theys”, or at least there were no other “theys” concerned enough to take a public stand. And if “they” were not willing to stand openly for what they were saying, I have no obligation to take them seriously.

Being anonymous allows too many people to say too much too often without having to be responsible. Hiding behind anything or anyone means that I don’t really have much invested in my stance—I have courage enough to say it anonymously but not enough courage to say it in my openly. But if I am not willing to say it openly, how committed can I really be to what I am thinking and saying?

May the peace of God be with you.

YOU, ME AND JESUS

When I was starting out in the Christian faith and becoming involved in youth rallies and programs, we were introduced to a simple understanding of the way to really live life. We were taught JOY—the way of life was Jesus first, Others second, Yourself third. Some religious supply company or organization even produced a banner that was quite popular among many more conservative Christian groups—I think I had one that I carried around and posted prominently where ever my theological student wanderings took me.

The JOY idea is one of those religious catch phrases that sounds really good and is simple enough that anyone can understand it—and it has the added benefit of providing the perfect three-point outline for a sermon. It works on many levels, which is probably why it became something of a fad among some people for a time. It was also the perfect counter to the open self-centeredness that was becoming a significant part of our culture at the time.

But no matter how many levels it works on, it is a flawed statement. The theology is wrong and the approach to life it fostered was wrong. In many ways, it was a disguised version of the same old selfishness that plagued humanity from the beginning. In one of the perverse twists of apparent reality, putting ourselves last amounted to taking pride in our humility and our ability to take the last place. Following JOY, we all strove to be the least important, which ultimately meant that we are all pretty sure we were really important and therefore had to work hard to present ourselves as unimportant. Selfishness disguised as unselfishness is still selfishness.

The JOY approach did capture one basic truth—that the way to overcome selfishness is to put Jesus first. I suspect that the developers of that idea were not delving deeply into that part of the theology and psychology of the concept—they seem to have been more concerned with having us submit or defer to others.

Theologically, we human seem to have a built in need to serve something or someone. Sometimes, we serve ourselves; sometimes we serve something that benefits us; sometimes we get caught in something that ultimately harms us—but we all seem to need something beyond ourselves to follow and even serve. This gets confused and wrapped up in our selfishness and it sometimes becomes really difficult to determine where we end and the thing we serve begins.

Jesus, however, shows us a way to serve in a way that helps us deal with our selfishness without pretending we are less selfish that we really are. Mostly, he does that by example. Jesus never claimed to be the least of the least; he never developed a sense of false and sick humility. He was the son of God. He was God in human form. He had power and authority and was sinless and perfect and all that.

He was well aware of his place in the universe—all humanity depended on him and his decisions. He put humanity before himself in the sense that he gave up what was rightfully his; he accepted limits and limitations that he didn’t need to accept; he put up with stuff that he could have easily avoided—and all the while, he was aware of the fact that he was divine, powerful and didn’t have to do what he was doing.

He chose to do it as part of his commitment to the divine will. Jesus the son was serving God with his full being. He gave himself to God and for humanity, knowing exactly who and what he was and just how important he was. He was self-aware but not selfish.

That, I think, becomes the goal for us as his followers. We seek this sense of self-awareness of who and what we are and who and what we can be through Christ. Rather than trying to make ourselves unimportant, we can and should recognize the importance we have in God’s eyes. We are valuable to God; we are worth something to him; Jesus was willing to both die for us and rise to life for us.

My awareness of who I am because of God through Jesus allows me to commit to him—and gives me a way to overcome the selfishness that is at the root of all the evil in life. As believers, we are to develop self-awareness of our place with God.

May the peace of God be with you.

BEYOND SELFISHNESS

I am colour blind and by now, most people I spend any amount of time with know that. Most of them have asked me what it is like and I have given the explanation, including how I deal with traffic lights. But even with all that, people who know me well regularly give me directions that include turning at the orange and purple sign and following that road to the green house, directions that are incredibly useful to most people but which are totally useless to me and many others.

I also get really upset when I am reading a magazine that gives me a really interesting survey results in the form of a graphic in which each variable is represented by a different colour, all of which look pretty much the same to me, making the chart useless to me.

My response is simple: I am starting a movement to outlaw colour or at least colour where it matters. You can have your colours in the privacy of your own home, as long as you aren’t exposing children to them. But outside, there needs to be a complete absence of colour where it matters. Traffic lights, directions, magazine charts—anything that relies on colour will need to be re-formulated and re-visioned so that we who can’t see colour are not longer the victims of discrimination and prejudice and danger.

The unfortunate reality of our modern age is that it I actually started such a movement, there would be followers, some of whom would commit completely, filing the quest for a colour neutral world with anger and partisanship and bickering and maybe even anti-colour terrorism. We all want our agenda to be the agenda for everyone and struggle to deal with the fact that our wants and wishes are not the most important things in the world.

This is also an approach that is bound to create more problems than it solves because once I begin pushing my stuff, others feel the need to push back in defence of their stuff. If I see colour, why should I have my freedom limited because of those who can’t?

This is the problem of seeing ourselves as the centre of the universe—there is no room for anyone else. And this is the essential problem that God was faced with at our creation. We were created with self-awareness and self-understanding and the ability to love and appreciate ourselves. I think that is part of the meaning of being made in the image of God.

But we need to remember another part of the meaning of the image of God to balance this self awareness. Being made in God’s image also means that we were created to be in relationship with God. In fact, we can only realize the fullness of who we are and what we are meant to be when we are in relationship with God. This relationship with God gives us the proper perspective on creation. We are important and significant bur we are to be in relationship with God, a relationship which helps us understand the real order of creation.

We are not the centre of creation. Our thoughts and desires and wishes are not the be all and end all of everything. Getting my way isn’t the goal of life. Making people do things my way isn’t the purpose. Trying to make everyone into me isn’t why I am here.

The antidote to human selfishness is an openness to God. As we develop the relationship with God that is inherent to being made in his image, we learn how to deal with our selves without becoming self-centered. When we are God-centered, we fit in the universe. We discover that in God’s vision, we have a place that fits and works. We are not at the centre but we are in the universe, we are important and we do have a place.

Our faith is rooted our being willing to open ourselves to God and accept his vision and version. We are required to surrender our desire to be God and be willing to be in relationship with the real God, who by definition is a God of love and compassion. Surrendering our selfishness to His love and compassion allows us to become who we really are in a way that no selfish plans and schemes can ever do.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHY BOTHER?

I don’t get to attend worship as an ordinary participant very often. Generally, I get to do that while I am on vacation, unless we decide not to attend that Sunday which happens. But when I do, I notice just how far from the prevailing cultural norms I actually am. Most preachers these days were jeans and polo shirts or some other casual attire. I have noticed that most clean up and wear a suit and tie for funerals and maybe some weddings but mostly, the causal, comfortable look dominated the pulpit these days.

I happen to think that is great. It sets a tone for worship and enables both preacher and congregation to relax and enjoy the reality of God and his love and grace. Being comfortable in the presence of God is one of the prime messages of the Christian faith and the trend to casual, comfortable clothing is a visual and powerful statement of the relationship we have with God because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

But when I am leading the worship and preaching, I will be wearing one of my two dark suits and one of my small selection of ties. There are two exceptions:

• When it is really warm, I lose the suit jacket.
• When we are having a potluck, I wear the sporty pants than came with the new suit

Isn’t that just a bit hypocritical on my part, especially since I love to point out the pointlessness of wearing ties and encourage people to dress as comfortable as possible? In fact, when asked about our church’s dress code, I tell people that we have a very strict code—you have to wear clothes. But week after week, there I am, wearing my suit and tie while everyone else has jeans, shorts (in summer), sneakers and definitely, no tie.

It probably is hypocritical on some levels but on other levels, what I am wearing is perfectly congruent with what I am telling people. I encourage people to be comfortable with what they are wearing for worship. And for me, that means a suit and tie. My experience and cultural influences go way back and are deeply rooted. I grew up in the era when worship attire was the best jacket and tie you had. I spent serious time working with an independent Kenyan denomination which has a fairly formal dress code—the only leaders who don’t have to wear ties are the ones entitled to wear clerical collars.

I actually upset the leadership of the church in Kenya early in my first time there. I wasn’t wearing a tie to teach—after all, ties are anachronistic cultural hold overs that have no real purpose or meaning. When the church leaders finally got up enough courage to suggest that I wear a tie, I realized my mistake, apologized and put on a tie. Given the heat in Kenya much of the school year, they didn’t mind if I skipped the suit jacket now and then.

I just don’t feel comfortable leading worship and preaching unless I am wearing a tie and at least part of my suit—the jacket doesn’t count on warm days. It isn’t a requirement placed on me by anyone else. In fact, I might fight against any regulation that said I had to wear a tie, at least in North America. I don’t make it a requirement for anyone else—not even the occasionally student I mentor for the nearby seminary. If someone wants to come to worship in ripped jeans and well worn t-shirt, I welcome them and am not the least concerned about their costume. If they are comfortable, they can probably better enter into the reality of worship and have a better experience of the awareness of the presence of God.

And me—well, wearing my suit and tie allows me to be comfortable in the presence of God. He doesn’t require it but my personal culture and background does. I could put in the effort to align my personal preference with the freedom that I teach and preach and encourage for others—but truthfully, I am comfortable doing what I do and there is enough really serious stuff that I need to deal with in my personal life that it isn’t worth the effort to change my approach to worship wear. I am comfortable, God loves me and the people understand me. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

May the peace of God be with you.

WOODWORKING

I like working with wood. I am not very good at it and I sometimes lack the patience that it requires but I do like taking a piece of wood and playing with it—measuring, cutting, sanding, joining and all the rest. There is something relaxing about the process and also very gratifying if I manage to produce more than sawdust and scrap wood. As far back as I can remember, working with wood has been something that I have enjoyed. As a kid, I remember using scrap pieces of ¼ inch plywood to make a toy airplane and even remember having a discussion with the guy at the hardware store about what nails were best for joining the pieces of plywood together.

Whenever we move, one of the basic steps in the settling in process is to develop a work area where my tools can be set out and organized. When we have gone to Kenya to work, I have always carried some tools with me and bought others there so that I could continue playing with wood. Generally, when we leave, some local craftsman benefits from an upgrade to his tool kit because I can’t bring back everything I bought there.

My tinkering with wood does have some benefits for my ministry. I have lots of stories of mistakes and poor execution to liven up an otherwise dull sermon. Now and then, I can talk tools and projects with someone who might not otherwise talk to a minister. Sometimes, my limited skills come in handy for a church work day.

But overall, my enjoyment of woodworking doesn’t have much connection with my ministry. I suppose I could force it and draw comparisons based on Jesus’ carpentry background but I don’t want to do that. And more importantly, I don’t need to do that. Woodworking is one part of who I am and doesn’t have to fit perfectly with everything else. We human beings are a collection of bits and pieces that taken together make us who we are.

But the bits and pieces don’t have to fit together seamlessly and perfectly. Some of them simply don’t fit together all that well, in fact. I might get the occasional sermon illustration from my poor woodworking skills and now and then be able to pound nails at the church building as part of a work day but mostly the connection between my ministry and my woodworking is that the woodworking needs to exist in the cracks and spaces left over from ministry.

Rather than we human beings existing as a unified and complete finished project, we are more like the pile of boards and tools that clutter my woodworking area in the basement. The stuff there is all valuable and important but a lot of it doesn’t really fit together. I am not going to go through the pile and get rid of stuff that doesn’t fit together, though, because all of it as a use, even if that use is more potential and theoretical that practical right now.

The short piece of scrap wood that I tossed on the pile months ago may not look like much but it just might have a use at some point—it may prop up an uneven piece of furniture; in might become a wedge for my gluing clamps; it might become kindling for a fire—but it will have a use, somewhere, somehow.

And without sounding too much like a preacher, all the bits and pieces of my life have a use somewhere, either in practise or in theory. The skills and knowledge and characteristics that make me me belong and have a place, even if it is hard to see how they fit. Truthfully, they may not actually all fit well together. My love and appreciation of science sometimes gets me in trouble with less scientifically inclined members of the faith. My love of woodworking doesn’t much help me in the pulpit—and can even be a distraction at times if I happen to look too closely at the fit and finish of the pulpit and lost track of where I am in the sermon because I am wondering how they did that particular joint or how I could improve the pulpit.

The various parts of me make up who I am—it is a package that is changing and developing but which God has declared loveable and important—and who am I to argue with God?

May the peace of God be with you.