THE VISITOR

The last Sunday before my vacation, we had a visitor at our worship service.  While not a completely unusual event, visitors in that particular place are not overly common.  This visitor had actually been in worship before–she lives in the community and is well known to the church members, all of whom welcomed her and talked with her and included her in the community.  I don’t know if the welcome encouraged her to come back–I kind of suspect that her attendance will continue to be somewhat sporadic and unpredictable.

The key issue for me was that the church did everything right, at least from my perspective.   The visitor was welcomed, included and involved.  That is a strong contrast to many congregations where visitors are either under-welcomed or overwhelmed with welcomes.  The traditional welcome for visitors in small rural congregations such as I serve is covert glances, somewhat hidden whispered questions about who that person is and maybe a welcome or two, although some rural congregations aren’t willing to go that far.

My experience as a visitor in larger congregations has convinced me that the typical welcome isn’t much different, except that because the larger congregations have greeters and ushers, the visitor is generally at least given a greeting and a bulletin.  I do remember one instance, though, when I visited a large congregation and was ignored by the greeter, who was engaged in a conversation with another greeter about some event they had both attended.  I found a bulletin and a seat and was eventually greeted after the greeters found out I was a friend of the pastor.

I understand the difficulty surrounding visitors.  On the one hand, we want them to feel welcomed and accepted.  But on the other hand, most of us are introverts who have difficulty connecting with people we don’t know.  Even as the pastor, I would rather hide in the office until just before the time to begin worship–but since all the church buildings where I lead worship share my living room office, I have no place to hide before worship.  And since I don’t have assigned seating in the congregational area, I tend to be standing and thus the first person to see and be available to greet visitors.

I have to confess that I am much more comfortable when visitors come in late, after we have already started worship and I am behind the pulpit leading the worship service.  Actually, everyone is happier with that because the visitors find their own seats and since worship has already started, no one has to talk to them.  We will overlook the fact that in this particular congregation, we have a very open worship with lots of back and forth chatter during the worship time.

So, we are all pretty much happy to see visitors but not really sure how to deal with them.  We are doing okay–there are some of our people who are getting comfortable greeting and welcoming people.  One is something of an extrovert who likes to talk to everyone.  Another has come from away and worked in public service so is used to greeting new people.  And one or two others are becoming aware of the need to at least say hi to people.

In our small group visitors stand out–but they also cause us some anxiety.  We want new people–but since new people have to start out as visitors, we need to get better at welcoming them.  In the end, this becomes both a test and sign of our faith.

When we have visitors, our faith is tested–it our faith real enough and strong enough for us to overcome our fears and anxieties about strangers?  Can we find the Holy Spirit’s help and leading to help us greet new people appropriately?

The way we greet visitors shows the reality of our faith–are they objects of fear and curiosity or are they real people whom God loves and whom we are therefore to love as well?  Is our faith just words about loving as God loves or can we really do what we say we are supposed to do?

Like all small churches and probably many larger churches, we have some ambivalence about visitors but we are learning and hopefully are creating an atmosphere where visitors feel comfortable and accepted.

May the peace of God be with you.

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THE PHONE CALL

The only phone I have these days is a cell phone which is used for both work and private conversations so I always have it with me.  Normally, I remember to turn the ringer off before worship and Bible Study and other meetings.  But this Sunday, I was busy and forgot to silence it.  Just before worship was to begin, it started to ring.  Since I didn’t recognize the number, I sent it to the answering function and turned off the sound.  We began worship and it started again–this time, I could feel the vibration in my pocket.

After worship, it rang again as I was talking to one of the worshippers.  Thinking it might be important, I checked and when I saw who it was, I excused myself and answered the phone–the caller wouldn’t have called unless there it was important.  After the culturally appropriate greetings, he asked me if I had got a call earlier.  When I told him about not answering, he explained that someone had called him and after telling they had had a long conversation at the Easter worship service, asked for financial help.  He didn’t know what to do so he gave the called my number, for which he now apologized.

The interesting thing is that a couple of weeks before this, I had been at meeting with other pastors where one of the participants told us of a scam phone call he had received.  The details he shared about his call matched exactly with the details the caller had given the person I was talking to.  I was able to assure my friend that this wasn’t a real problem but was a scam and I wouldn’t be calling the person but if he called me, I would give it all the consideration which it deserved.  I think he was relieved that it was a scam–the story he was told was a real tear-jerker and while he was a bit skeptical, he wasn’t completely sure.

This call was easy to deal with–I had some warning.  But that is a rarity–over the years, I, like most clergy, have had my share of desperate sounding phone calls from people looking for help.  Some are legitimate–and while I sometimes struggle to know how to respond, I want to help and try to find ways to alleviate the problem.  But the depressing reality is that many of the calls are scams.

Some aren’t even good scams.  This particular individual had done no homework–our Easter attendance was up to about 30 but even so, a stranger would have been immediately noticed.  Another from a long time ago began his story to a Baptist pastor by saying he had been playing poker while drunk and lost all his money–not a story designed to tug on my heart strings.  Every pastor I know has such stories because we are seen as easy targets.

I think Jesus probably had situations like this in mind when he spoke the words we find in Matthew 10.16, ” …be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (NIV).  As believers we have an obligation to help others in any way possible, anything from a cup of cold water to a helping hand on the way to reconciliation to God.  Often, helping people is going to cost:  time, money, effort, increased stress and so on.  But when we step in and become a channel of God’s grace to someone in need of that grace, we can rejoice.

However, when the person is a scammer, we can get depressed and cynical–and begin to ask questions and wonder if we should even bother.  Well, I learned an important lesson a long time ago.  If I want to help people, I have to accept the fact that I am going to get taken.  My best response is to be shrewd enough to weed out the most blatant scammers but innocent enough that I don’t cut off people who actually do need help but have a terrible story or questionable presentation.

For me, if the choice is between getting taken sometimes so that I can help people or not helping anyone so that I avoid being scammed, I am going to accept the reality that I will be scammed sometimes–but that does bring with it the more important reality that I will help people receive God’s grace a lot of the time.

May the peace of God be with you.

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.

BRIGHTEN THE CORNER WHERE YOU ARE

It is becoming really common these days for believers to take part in mission trips.  After raising a serious amount of  money, a group of believers will take off for some faraway place where they will fellowship with local believers (often through an interpreter), test out the national food (with the assurance that a real meal awaits at the hotel), and build something.  They come home with a nice tan, great stories and a deeper awareness of the realities of life.

Interestingly, I have had serious discussions with Kenyan Christians who wanted to explore the possibility of making a mission trip to Canada so that they could help Canadians engage in ministry.  From their perspective, such a mission trip would be a great thing–based on what they see in the media, we need a lot of help in North America carrying out the mission of the church.  Of course, the North American church would have to pay for their trip since Kenya is poor and Canada is rich.

There is a major debate about the value of such trips which I will not engage at this point.  I do want to use this trend to point out a significant irony concerning the mission of the church:  the further away the mission focus is geographically and culturally, the easier it is to get people to support it financially and physically.  I think the key problem is that real ministry, where ever it happens, is messy and difficult and filled with frustration and confusion and potential for real pain.  Real ministry also generally requires serious long term commitment of money and time–and there is no guarantee that it will succeed.  I can think of many ministry situations over the years where I have given a lot of my money, time and effort and got very little in terms of tangible results:  the alcoholic returns to alcohol; the couple breaks up; the near-convert decides to become Buddhist; the potential pastor becomes a professional dirt-biker.

On the other hand, doing ministry for a week or two far away is much less messy and demanding.  We get to see and participate in what is clearly a messy, needy situation.  We get to involve ourselves deeply and intimately in the mess and solution–and then, after a week or two, we get to shower and head for home (although occasionally, we have to reverse those two events).  Our involvement in the messy situation far away after that is somewhat voluntary and involves prayer, some fund raising and maybe some publicity.

I am aware that this sounds cynical–and probably is.  But cynicism or not, it is difficult to get churches and believers to commit to sustained ministry in the messes that exist close to us.  We are often more concerned with the starving in Africa than we are with the kids who go to school hungry at our local schools.  And that makes sense:  feeding the starving far away involves giving money while dealing with the hungry school kids may involve us in the lives of real people with real problems that need much more than just our financial contributions.

Kids going to school hungry is the result of a complex and difficult set of realities that will involve us with poverty, poor choices, politics, addictions, and on and on.  It will take sustained energy of many people over long periods of time and bring us into contact with people that we might prefer to avoid.  It may open us to manipulation and to being exploited.  It may result in us being ripped off, either as churches or individuals or both.  And, after putting in all the effort and time and whatever, nothing may change.

But that is the reality of ministry–and it is the reality that we need to be involved in.  I heartily endorse feeding the starving in Africa.  I am somewhat in favour of mission trips.  And I am deeply concerned with the ministry we do just outside our church building.  For most of us, this will be our real mission and our real ministry.  And if we let our fears and frustrations get in the way, we will miss the opportunity to be used by the Holy Spirit to make a real difference.  The mess is real, the pitfalls are ever present, the results aren’t predictable or assured–but it is part of what we are called to do.

May the peace of God be with you.

A NEW BEGINNING

            A few years ago, I was involved with some theology students who were connected with a large established urban congregation.  The congregation inhabited an older building that had originally been located in the thriving downtown core of the city.  It was an influential congregation in the city and the denomination for many years.  It was so important that students from the theological school I attended were regularly invited to seminars to help us better understand how to do ministry in an urban setting.  It was so important in the city that the chief of police was willing to come to talk to us theology students–and quite willing to suspend local no parking ordinances for the theology students.

But as with all things, the neighbourhood and church underwent serious changes.  The church membership got older; the building began to fall apart; the neighbourhood became less desirable.  Parking became both more and less of a problem–less of a problem because there were more and more empty spaces and more of a problem because cars parked near the building were probably going to be vandalized.  The building doors were locked and alarmed and visitors were carefully scrutinized.

Eventually, the congregation made a decision.  They would have to move.  The downtown location was no longer desirable and with safety becoming a significant issue for the increasingly older congregation, the future of the congregation was at stake if they stayed where they were.  They bought land in a much safer suburban location and began planning the relocation process that was vital to the future of their church.  The downtown core just wasn’t safe anymore.  How can you worship God when some street person is going to break into your car looking for anything that will help them buy drugs, alcohol or food?

The new location would allow the congregation to flourish again.  They could do real ministry, rather than hide behind locked doors.  They could invite friends to special events without warning them to bring the old car and make sure there was nothing of value in it.  They could have a new building from which to really affect their community.  They could get back to the serious business of ministry without having to worry about pan-handlers, street people, vagrants and prostitution.

Of course, this is a preacher story–this has never happened.  No church would ever think of ignoring the needs of people just outside their doors.  All churches want to do ministry.  All believers see every individual as a person loved by God and in need of a tangible expression of the love of God through the efforts of the faithful.  After all, we are called by God to be servants to God and to people.

Except that we don’t always do a good job of being servants in the messiness of life.  I think we sometimes see mission and ministry as involving only those people who would fit well in a 50s TV sitcom–hard-working, wise father; stay-at-home mother always dressed like a fashion model; 2.5 mischievous but high achieving kids and one slightly less than perfect friend who says “darn” a bit too much.  We can do serious ministry in that context–why, the work is pretty much done anyway.  Even that “darn” kid will dress up as a shepherd for the Christmas concert and will likely become a pastor.

Jesus, of course, wants these people to know about his love.  But what we forget too often is that Jesus also wants to street person breaking into a worshipper’s car to know about the love of God as well.   He wants the model family to become part of the faith–but he also wants the teen run-away who is into drugs and prostitution to be a part of the faith as well.  And his plan for reaching the model family and the street person and the teen addict is the same–he wants to use the ministry of the faithful expressed through the church.

As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “Real ministry is messy”.  And whether our church is located in a deteriorating downtown core, an up and coming affluent suburb or a dying fishing village, we need to open ourselves to the Spirit who will lead us into the best way to ministry and serve those around us.  Moving the building to get a better class of sinners doesn’t quite seem to follow the pattern that Jesus gave us.

May the peace of God be with you.

DO UNTO OTHERS

I have been writing about Christian community for the last few posts.  This is an important topic for me because I believe that re-discovering authentic Christian community is one of the foundations for reviving the church in North America.  As we begin to develop the kind of community that God had in mind for the church, we strengthen the church internally and make our witness to the world what it should be.

But as much as I believe in the importance of Christian community, I am not some naive first year theology student who thinks that proper community should just pop into existence just because it is supposed to be.  I know from my own experience and the experience of others that Christian community isn’t always what it is meant to be–and at times, it become a dangerous and damaging witness to the power of human sin.

But I have also learned that for the community to develop in the right direction, it requires risk–someone has to be willing to start the process.  The difficulty with that is deciding who takes the first risk.  When we need someone to do something, it often means that everyone waits for someone else to be the first someone.

Since I am the one who studies and researches and digs out these things, my part in the process is obvious.  I need to explain to people how Jesus envisioned community.  I need to define and describe and explain and teach and preach the concepts.  I need to help people see the benefits and blessings of Christian community.  I need to show them the negative consequences of a lack of community.  I need to carefully show how God through the Holy Spirit provides the courage and wisdom to build community.  All that is my job–after all, I  am the pastor, the person called by God to shepherd and care for the community

I teach and preach and because of my brilliant teaching and preaching, people are inspired to develop powerful and breath-taking Christian communities.  And at this point, we end the fairy tale with “They all lived happily ever after.”  If preaching and teaching were enough to make the church and people what God wants us to be, we probably wouldn’t need churches because everything would have been fixed a long time ago.

I realized that if community is important, I need to be willing to be one of the someones who takes a risk.  It is not enough to preach and teach about community–I need to practise community.  I need to offer my gifts and my weaknesses and treat the gathering of believers as the community they are called to be.  I need to follow the teaching of Jesus 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.” (NIV)

I am not necessarily saying that I need to do this because I am the pastor, although that is a factor. Mostly, I become responsible for doing it because I have done the research and know the importance of community and therefore become responsibly before God who has led me to these insights.  I need to take the risk because I see the need.

I would like to say that this has always worked out perfectly and I have always been able to develop powerful and exciting Christian communities–but I believe in honesty.  While acting as if the community existed as it is called to be does help develop community, it has not been an always positive thing for me.  I haven’t always been willing to do what I know I should and sometimes when I have done what I consider to be right, it has been wrong and occasionally my attempts to treat the community of believers as believers has been used against me by parts of the community.

But someone has to start–and since I am often the one who has the insight and does the study, I have a responsibility.  We build community by being in community and living community.  It can be painful and frustrating and slow and disappointing–but if we really believe in the idea of community, we need to work at it.  Someone has to start the process–why not me (or you)?

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT CAN I DO?

I am a part of several Christian communities.  I am a part time pastor for two different worshipping communities which have a total of six buildings between them.  I am preaching at another Christian community during the winter shut down of one of the pastorates I work with.  I also have some connections with the three congregations that my wife pastors.  For an introvert who prefers books and writing, that is a lot of community.

But one of the vital parts of my ministry as a pastor has always been a commitment to building community.  Because I have spent most of my time in the church as a pastor, I tend to approach this process differently than most people in the church–after all, I get to determine what people hear from the pulpit week after week and I get a fair amount of input into things like Bible Study topics and ministry plans and so on.

I use these opportunities to talk about community and building the community, among other things.  But community really can’t be built simply by talking about it.  Community, Christian community can only really be built as believers are willing to take the necessary risks that being a part of a caring community requires.  No matter how much I teach, preach and encourage community, the kind of Christian community God had in mind for the church cannot develop until people are willing to open themselves up to the community.

There are two sides to that opening up.  The easiest, of course, it to offer to the community our strengths and gifts and seek to build community by giving of ourselves.  I am aware that is only easy in comparison with the other side of building community, which we will look at later.  It can be difficult to offer ourselves to the community–there is the ever present danger that the community will not accept or appreciate what we have to offer.

Much of our experience with community is formed by communities outside the church.  Our family is a community, as is school, work, neighbourhood, clubs–even the people we see and greet regularly during the course of living our lives are part of a community with us on some level.  As we grow and develop, we discover some painful truths of community living, one of which is that communities are not always warm, friendly, caring places.

We get hurt, we get ignored, we get shut out, we may even get bullied.  Many people learn to protect themselves by not getting too close to the community or by developing a small exclusive community within a larger community.  All this means that by the time we are ready to be part of a church community, we have learned a lot of lessons about community, lessons which we bring with us and apply to the church.

If, like many people, we learn that communities can be somewhat dangerous, we approach the church with suspicion and stand near the exit, ready to bolt when things get tough.  If we learn that communities can be uncaring, we don’t really offer much of ourselves to the church, occupying a pew but little else.

It is an unfortunate reality of life that most of us learn enough negative things about community that we tend not to be as open and giving to the church community as God seems to expect of us.  This then creates a Christian community where everyone is there but there isn’t really any community.

So, part of building community is taking a risk–we need to take the risk of offering ourselves and our gifts to the community.  We offer to give to the community what we have been given by God and nature so that the community can benefit and grow and develop.  Rather that ignore community, we seek to build community by being free and generous with ourselves.

We face the risk of rejection, of being misunderstood, of being taken for granted, of being abused–but then again, I don’t think that God ever said that it would all be sunshine and roses, at least on this side of eternity.  To build community, someone has to be willing to take the risk.  Fortunately, the God who provides our salvation is also willing and able to provide the wisdom and courage we need to deal with the risks involved in giving our strengths to the community.

May the peace of God be with you.