WHAT LIMITS?

Recently, I have been suffering from a painful medical condition. It is not a condition that is written up in any medical textbook nor it is one that any doctor is likely to diagnosis. But it is nonetheless a real condition that I am currently suffering from. It is called “Grandchildren knees”. The condition develops when old, in need of replacement knees are subjected to 10 days of playing with grandchildren. The walking, carrying, getting up and down and so on associated with a visit to children and grandchildren seen too infrequently results in some serious mobility limits once I arrive back home.

There is actually no realistic way to avoid the medical condition. My knees have aged much faster than the rest of me and simply refuse to stay quiet when they are pushed beyond their limits. Normally, I have a good sense of those limits and have a well established process and procedure to take care of them. But when I am visiting our family in their geographically distant homes, the awareness and process disappear.

Certainly, I have the freedom to tell two pre-school grandchildren that I am not going to walk to the park with them because it is hard on my knees. I have the freedom to sit out the family outing to continue the exploration of the ravine and brook behind the new house. I can demand that we only visit attractions that bring displays and exhibits to us, rather than tramp around on wobbly knees. I can ignore requests that I get down on the floor to play trains or cars or colour. I can do all that—and actually, I occasionally do some of that.

But the reality is that I am with children and grandchildren I don’t see often enough and I am not going to sit back and follow the demands of my aging knees. I am going to do as much as I can, which is going to be more than I probably should. I will avoid the blatantly dumb stuff—skipping rope is just not going to happen. Jumping off anything just doesn’t make sense. But slipping and sliding down a muddy ravine wall—that is going to happen. The rope and walking stick help, as does being the last one down so as not to slow anyone down but it is going to happen. The knees might not like it but the rest of me is quite happy to frustrate their desires to sit and watch.

I know the consequences of my actions. In fact, before the trip is over, I am deeply aware of the consequences. The swelling, the restricted motion, the increased pain, the occasionally knee collapses—I notice and cope with all of them. But that isn’t going to stop me. It may slow me down—there is a reason why I am always behind the group, especially going down stairs.

But I am back home now. The visit is over and with it, the need and desire to be an active participant. Now I need to slow down and behave like a senior with knees in need of replacement. I will consciously walk less—the short walk I had been doing will be replaced with more time on the exercise bike for a while. I definitely won’t be getting down on the floor for anything—if I can’t reach down for is, it belongs to the dog or vacuum cleaner. I will sit a bit more, at least until my knees get back to some sort of equilibrium. That won’t be a problem—I have to sit anyway to write sermons and Bible studies and blog posts. In fact, most of my work and a lot of my relaxation involves sitting.

Long term, I have started the process that will eventually lead to knee replacement surgery but since I live in an area with one of the longest wait times for such surgery, I will likely have at least one more knee unfriendly trip in the future. I can live with that—the pain I deal with when the trip is over is well worth it because of the enjoyment of being with kids and grandkids whom I really don’t see enough. I might be the last one down the ravine but I will be there.

May the peace of God be with you.

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JUMPING FENCES

I was recently visiting a spot near an urban setting where there are several waterfalls, deep gorges and beautiful views. Since it is near a lot of people, there were lots of visitors, even on a cold, cloudy day like the one when we visited. Whoever ran the sites had provided parking, good trails and lots of fences along the steep drops. The fences were high, strong and plastered with signs telling people not to climb the fences or cross the fences because of the dangers presented by the steep high gorges.

We stopped at one spot to take pictures and as I was looking for the best angle, I spotted two people who had clearly decided the signs were not for them—they were at the bottom of the gorge, clearly enjoying their much better view. A little later along the trail, at another photo spot, I saw another pair of people who had crossed the fence line and descended the steep cliff to get a much better view.

One of the people accompanying us on the visit mentioned that the local fire department has a special unit trained to rescue the significant number of people who cross the fence and get stuck at the bottom of the gorge. The unit has lots of practise because the signs simply can’t overcome the desire to go where no one has (or shouldn’t have) gone before.

Metaphorically, I am no stranger to climbing fences and wandering in territory that could be difficult or dangerous—a lot of my work in ministry has taken me into areas that others have warned me to avoid. That has caused some problems and produced some significant ministry. As a teacher and mentor of other pastors, I have tended to encourage people to see the fences and occasionally challenge them, while being aware of the possibility of danger.

But that metaphorical fence jumping somehow doesn’t seem to be anywhere near the same as the physical jumping of a real fence and deliberately stepping into a dangerous situation that just might require significant time, effort, expense and risk on the part of other people to pull out the fence jumper.

I am not entirely sure what inspires such behaviour. I know that some of us see warning signs as a challenge. Others are pretty sure that only normal people need to avoid the dangers. Some might suggest that it is their right to step into dangerous positions. Others, perhaps ignore signs and warnings and assume they can do what they want. And the majority of people who jump the fence seem to get away with it, probably through a combination of luck, skill and possible divine intervention.

But each success encourages another attempt. Each time a fence jumper is spotted, another is encouraged to go deeper or higher or further. And eventually, the rescue crew has to step in; the sign painters prepare another sign; the lawyers begin figuring out who pays for what—and in the meantime, someone else is going to jump the fence, probably using the sign as a support to climb the fence.

We humans don’t like limits. We have all sorts of justifications and reasons and explanations. But probably the best and most profound explanation comes from the Bible. We are sinful people. I am using that word in the broad sense—we are essentially self-centered and selfish, convinced that if the world doesn’t revolve around us, it should. This self-focus is at the root of all fence jumping going all the way back to the day when a man and a woman climbed a fence to eat from a tree that they had been told not to eat from.

In our desire for self-gratification, we miss some significant realities. We miss the fact that some things are bad for us. We will suffer physically, emotionally, spiritually or some combination of those. Others will suffer as well—and unfortunately, others will sometimes suffer a whole lot more than we do when we cross the fence. The person who falls down the cliff because they copied my successful attempt at jumping the fence suffers much more than I do.

But for all that, I can’t quite bring myself to say that we must always stay within the fences. Some fences need to be jumped—the real trick is figuring out which ones need to be jumped and which ones need to be respected.

May the peace of God be with you.

PLAYING WITH FIRE

During the second Wednesday of the ecumenical Bible Study, I took a cup of de-caf coffee rather than water with me—the various churches supply muffins for the study and water really doesn’t seem to go well with chocolate chip/banana muffins. The next day, the church Bible study was meeting in a home since it is too cold for the community hall to be open. Since the host makes great shortbread cookies, I chose another cup of coffee ( caffeinated). The next Monday, I had coffee with a friend. The following Wednesday, more Ecumenical coffee and muffins. Finally, the Thursday study in another house, this host providing great ginger cookies, which obviously required another coffee.

That is actually more coffee than I normally drink in a month and even though most of it was de-caf, by the end of the second Thursday in the sequence, I was noticing the effects: upset stomach, heartburn, the coffee cough that has plagued me for years. None of this was a surprise to me. Although I love coffee, I have been suffering the effects of drinking it for years.

My coffee addiction goes way back. Although I grew up in a tea drinking house, my father drank coffee at breakfast and one of the perks of getting up first when he was working day shift was getting to eat the piece of bacon and quarter cup of sugary, milky coffee he left for which ever kid was up first. I moved on to develop my own coffee habit—black, no sugar and relatively strong. At times, I would be up to 4-5 cups a day. But I liked it, it kept me going and it wasn’t harming anyone.

Eventually, though, I began to suffer the effects of too much caffeine and in the mid 1990s, I decided to quit coffee and all forms of caffeine. For well over a year, I didn’t drink anything with caffeine and even avoided de-caf coffee. I knew that even drinking de-caf was going to be a problem, given that I really like coffee and was seriously missing it. But after I got over the withdrawal effects (headache, grouchiness, inability to get moving), I was able to avoid it.

After more than a year, I began allowing myself a cup of de-caf now and then. I could even treat myself to a cup of real coffee occasionally. Because it was an occasional treat, I made sure that it was really good coffee—no instant or bargain perk coffee for me. If I was going to have coffee, it would be good coffee—an African blend, strong, hot, black and no sugar, something to be savoured and enjoyed.

But with each cup of de-caf and each treat, I was reminded again just how much I liked coffee—and more seriously, how easily I can become re-addicted to caffeine. Mostly, I remember the problems and am pretty good about setting and keeping limits. Coffee was reserved for long drives and occasional breakfast treats. Unfortunately, my will power breaks down when I haven’t had any coffee for awhile and the presence of cinnamon buns, muffins, shortbread and ginger cookies make the temptation too much to resist. Then I begin to pay the price and swear off coffee, at least for awhile.

I am aware that my addiction and struggle with coffee isn’t a serious problem and really doesn’t compare to the struggles people have with other more dangerous and serious addictions. But it is a struggle and it is an addiction and I do have to deal with it. I think it helps me on a very practical level understand the reality of the human condition. We like the stuff that isn’t really good for us—and no matter what our level of will power and commitment, we can’t guarantee that we are free from the stuff that we shouldn’t have.

Whether it is me and my coffee; the workaholic and her dangerous work ethic; the alcoholic and his single-minded commitment to alcohol; the approval addict doing everything possible to be liked, we all struggle with something controlling our lives. And as a Christian, I think that allowing anything to control my life is a problem. My need to be in control of caffeine in my life grows out of my understanding that I was made to be free to become what God wants to help me become—and anything that gets in the way of that is a problem.

So, I am off coffee again, at least until the next Bible study, when there will again be those great shortbread cookies.

May the peace of God be with you.

ANONYMOUS AGAIN

Many years ago, I was approached by a friend to serve on a committee. Committees involve meetings and since meetings are something I try to avoid as much as possible, I didn’t (and don’t) do committees all that much. My friend knew all that but still wanted to nominate me for the committee. He explained his reason for asking me.

The committee was dealing with some significant issues in our denominational life, issues that I and many others, including my friend, were concerned about. He felt that the views we held needed to be expressed and he believed that I was the person to express them on the committee because I said what I thought clearly and openly and wasn’t intimidated by disagreement.

Over the years, I have developed a reputation as one who sometimes (often? too often?) speaks the unpopular view. I have a tendency to see things differently at times and in the right circumstances, am willing to speak out. Early in my ministry career, I confess to speaking out often and loudly. These days, I still think a lot but tend to speak less often and less loudly. I let a lot of stuff pass by—I might have some thoughts and even some disagreement but I am not really interested in putting out the effort to comment or engage.

However, when I chose to engage, I am always going to do it openly and clearly. When I disagree with something or someone, I will make it clear that I disagree. I am not going to hide behind someone else; I am not going to use an anonymous web name; I am not going to become a “they” whispering around the edges. I will speak in my own voice, with my name openly and clearly attached. If need be, I will even put it in writing, clearly accepting responsibility for what I am saying.

I am aware that this puts me at odds with a major trend in our society. Thanks to the proliferation of social media, a great many people get to make a great many comments about a great many things without ever having to take any responsibility whatsoever. It is incredibly easy to comment when you can become anonymous commentator 219. People now have an powerful outlet for the hate, the anger, the vitriol, the mindless, the pointless, the ignorance that at one point might have been put in an anonymous letter but which more likely rarely if ever saw the light of day in another age.

But today, anyone can say anything, safe and secure behind the barrier of their keyboard and screen name. As Randy Legassie, I am responsible for what I write and say. But as anonymous commentator 219, I am no longer responsible—I am anonymous and cannot be held responsible for what I have said or written.

Obviously, some people find that incredibly liberating and freeing. But in the end, freedom without responsibility is never a good thing. Freedom without responsibility tends to being out the worst in people. We become rude, nasty, biased, prejudiced and just plain not nice. I gave up reading comment threads on websites a long time ago simply because they very quickly degenerated into the kind of interchange I used to require my kids to take a time out for engaging in.

There have been times in my ministry when my comments and opinions have cost me. I have been fired, passed over and ignored. It would have been much easier to be anonymous—I might not have suffered as much. But in becoming anonymous, I would have suffered even more because I would have stopped being me. I would have lost some essential part of who I am. My ideas might have been expressed but I wouldn’t really be there—I would be hiding behind some convenient shelter.

That may work for some—and I can even envision a few scenarios where in might be the appropriate way to proceed. Those scenarios, however, tend to involve bullets, death squads and unjust imprisonment. Most of the time, though, well, hiding behind anything or anyone really doesn’t cut it for me. If I am going to say it, I am going to say it knowing that I will be held responsible for what I am saying.

May the peace of God be with you.

LIGHT BULBS AND GETTING OLDER

All of the buildings where I lead worship were built in the days before electricity was an option for small congregations. The original lighting would have come from candles and oil lamps. Because the buildings were designed as houses of worship, they were built with high ceilings to give a sense of grandeur and awe—people in those days didn’t seem to worry about heating costs or efficiency.

Eventually, electricity was discovered and wires were strung and after some initial reluctance, the churches wired their buildings. The candles and hanging oil lamps were removed and replaced with electric bulbs, generally hanging down from the high ceiling. The installers made a couple of assumptions that plague our churches to this day.

Assumption one was that since light bulbs last almost forever, it wasn’t necessary to think about how to replace them. That assumption lead people to do away with the system in place for the hanging oil lamps—a rope and pulley system that allowed the lamps to be lowered for cleaning, refilling and lighting. Those new electric fixtures were hung from the ceiling on a chain or wire at the same height as the oil lamps—well beyond the reach of even a star NBA player.

The second assumption was that the church would always have a significant number of young, athletic and risk-taking members who would love to take on the challenge of replacing the burnt out light bulbs. Over the years, there have been some truly interesting and dangerous methods utilized to change the bulbs—but young people don’t care about the danger and it was part of their way of expressing their faith.

However, some things have changed in our churches. The light bulbs are still in high and inaccessible fixtures and still burn out. However, we no longer have the young, energetic spiritual athletes in our congregations. We tend to ignore the burnt out bulbs for as long as we can—and since most of our worship events happen during the day time, we can ignore them for years.

But in two of our buildings, the situation got so bad that we can’t really ignore it any longer. We have to change light bulbs. That reality has sparked more discussion and consternation than our budget shortfall. None of us is all that comfortable with heights—aging seems to heighten the awareness of the things that can happen when the human body makes an unexpected vertical drop of that height. Also, aging knees and ladders don’t always work all that well together.

So, the congregation struggles. There are those who demand that something be done about the lights. There are those who might have done it years ago who are happy to describe the process but whose increased maturity makes it clear to them how bad a solution it really was. And then there are people like me who figure that the light on my tablet is fine for most stuff and when I really need it, I have the flashlight app on my phone.

In the end, we will replace the bulbs. One building has already been taken care of—I helped design a relatively safe process that was too high for me but one of the other men was comfortable climbing. In another, well, we are pretty sure a son will take care of it on his next visit home—we can wait for that one. In the other buildings, at this point the bulbs are all still working so we are fine for a while. When we include the time we allow ourselves to ignore the burnt out bulbs, we probably have a couple of years or more in them.

This sounds like a silly and even frivolous problem, especially if you are reading this in the context of a church whose building has people to care for these things. But these are real problems that some of us have to deal with. Fortunately, small churches are adaptable, flexible and enduring. We will find a way to deal with whatever we have to deal with, whether it is burnt out bulbs, serious financial problems or difficulty finding a pastor willing to work part-time for low pay.

We may sit in the dark for longer than we should but eventually, we will take care of things as we continue to discover how God can still use us aging people in the work of his Kingdom.

May the peace of God be with you.

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.

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.