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.

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MY DAY OFF

One day recently, I was so tired at night that I barely made it through the 10:00 news—I think I was awake during most of it but I am also pretty sure that I didn’t focus fully on what was being said. My reading time before going to sleep was rather brief—the words on the ereader didn’t seem to make sense, either because of a software problem with the ereader or a different problem with the actual reader.

I know why I was tired. The day had been very full and part of a very full week. It began with study time. I had a worship service to prepare for the local nursing home. I got that done and then turned to the funeral service that I had prepared the day before. I read it over, tinkered a bit with it and transferred it to my tablet. By then, it was time to leave for the funeral service. I arrived early, spent some time talking with people and at the appropriate time, lead the funeral service.

When that was done, I went home for lunch ( and a brief nap), followed by some work on a session for the lay preaching class that would be happening the next day. I also gave some though to a sermon because Sundays inevitably show up each week and the congregation expects me to have something to say. And so until the lay preaching class members are ready, that means I need to have a sermon prepared. I didn’t write the sermon that afternoon—I reached a point where I couldn’t do any more creative stuff and so too a bit of time to do very little.

But the day wasn’t actually done. After supper, I had a counselling session with a couple I have been working with for a while. We had been doing well but there had been some external trauma that we needed to work through. But after that session, I was done for the day. At that point, I think I began counting the minutes until I could actually go to bed.

As you probably guessed from the title, this all happened on my day off. I was not supposed to be doing any work that day, let alone everything I did. And this is where I have something of a problem. I grew up in the era of ministry being a 24-7 occupation. Clergy worked all the time—it was part of their commitment to God. There was stuff to be done—important stuff and no one called by God could expect to slow down.

I never bought into that particular myth. I have always believed that even clergy need a healthy work/rest balance and I have worked hard over the years to have such a balance. As a teacher and mentor of clergy, I have encouraged ministry students to take care of themselves and even scolded a few for not working on a healthy balance in their lives. Over the course of my ministry, I have worked hard not to work too hard.

But that week on my day off, I spent most of the day working. And it isn’t like I will get that day back during the week—that week was just beyond belief and there was no time, except for the few hours freed up because of a cancellation because of a snowstorm. I broke all my own personal rules about work/life balance that week.

And while I know many clergy who like to brag about how much they work, I don’t feel proud about my week—I feel equal amounts of fatigue and guilt. Fatigue because I worked too much with too little rest and guilt because I didn’t get the balance right.

Fortunately, not every week is like this and most weeks, I do get my day off. Equally fortunately, I have learned how to forgive myself for breaking my rules of work/life balance. Some days and some weeks inevitably demand more that I am supposed to give. But as long as I can forgive myself and make sure that I eventually get the break and rest I need, things will be okay. I am doing what God has called me to do—and part of that calling involves self care, which means I might have worked one day off but I won’t work every day off.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE RIGHT FORMULA

After a longer than usual break because of Christmas and a couple of snow storms, one of the Bible studies finally got going again. And, because we haven’t met in a while, we had lots of stuff to talk about. Somehow, we got on the topic of the process of becoming a believer and began talking about the process, which some people in the faith have turned into a fairly rigid formula.

There are several variations of the formula. The one I grew up with insisted that the process began with walking up the aisle in an evangelistic campaign. Others require that the person seeking God repeat a certain prayer. Some require that specific Scriptures must be read and accepted. Such details become the basis of significant discussion and debate in some branches of the church—can someone really be called a believer if they leave out some part of the formula?

On the surface, there seems to be some validity to this line of thinking. Formulas are really important. Whenever I have had to study or, even worse, teach statistics, I have had to work hard to get the right formula to manipulate the raw data into something comprehensible. When I drive, I am really hoping that the engineers involved in designing the car and the road used the right formulas in the right way in their design process. When my wife was hospitalized shortly after the birth of our third child, getting his formula right was a very important thing for him.

We would be in serious trouble if some of the formulas that underlie our culture weren’t there or weren’t followed properly. We occasionally read of a bridge collapse caused by less than scrupulous contractors cheating on the formula for concrete or one of the many formulas involved in building a solid and safe bridge. Having the right formulas and using them properly is part of the foundation of our culture.

But as important at the right formulas are in some areas of life, an insistence on formulas can become a serious problem in other areas of life—and our relationship with God is one of those areas where an insistence on the right formula will cause problems. The stories of people encountering God in the Bible don’t follow a formula. None of the stories are the same. Paul didn’t open himself to God by following the same process Peter did. Moses wasn’t called by God in the same way David was. Isaiah didn’t have the same prophetic formula as John the Baptist.

It seems to me as I look at God and his relationships with people that there is a very basic formula. It begins and ends with God. He does what he wants and needs to do to engage people in a relationship with him. His grace and love are big enough to encompass any process that brings people to the point of accepting what he offers through Jesus Christ.

The problem is that when we try to formalize God’s love and grace and create a formula for God, we end up creating roadblocks and distractions. If I am becoming open to God as a result of something going on inside me, something that God is working with and through, it becomes a distraction to tell me that I have to go through a certain process. I can begin to focus more on the process than the presence of God. I can check the boxes in the formula and miss God completely.

Some of us humans love to categorize and organize—and that need has a definite and important place in life. But we need to resist the temptation to organize God. He is God and we are not—and our feeble and vain attempts to organize and formulize God and his love and grace just get in the way. God can and will continue to work and will often work around our attempts to organize him. I think that it would be much better for us, though, if we were willing to trust that God knows what he is doing, that he really doesn’t need us to organize him and that he rarely follows the same formula twice, and that in the end, God is going to accomplish his will in his way and in his time.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHERE IS GRACE?

I have been cleaning up my reading backlog recently. I find that Igo through spells where serious reading is hard work—well, actually, it is more truthful to say that at times, serious reading becomes a prelude to a nap. Anyway, I have been able to get a lot of reading done recently, probably because I won’t let myself use the Christmas book gift certificates until I clean up the reading list.

A couple of the books that I have recently finished have caused me some problems. One dealt with the nature of the relationship between believers and God and carried on from there to look at how this relationship needs to affect our relationship with other believers. The second book dealt with God’s call to believers to go into the world with the message of the Gospel. I picked up both books through an email service that offers discounted and even free Christian books. These two were free and dealt with topics that I am deeply interested in. But in both cases, I was disappointed.

Both approached their topics from a very legalistic and duty oriented perspective. The one on relationships dealt both our relationship with God and our relationships with each other by turning it into a contract—he tried to set out a set of rules and requirements that we needed to obey for the relationship to be valid. As I understood the book, the author seemed to be saying that if we obeyed the terms of the contract, all was well and if we didn’t, well, there really wasn’t a relationship.

The other book looked at the Great Commission and strongly suggested that unless we approached the great commission in exactly the way he set out, using his formulas and checklists, we were not actually doing what we were supposed to be doing. His rules made the commission real and anything else was a fake and a falsification of the Gospel and the commission.

Both writers had some valid points—but overall, I was troubled by both books because in the end, it seemed that they were trying to deal with important aspects of the faith without including God. They were certainly concerned about the faith; they wanted people to know the truth about the faith; they had tremendous potential with their themes but in the end, neither really did all that much to advance the faith. They simply offered a few rigid and demanding rules that must be followed.

I was upset because in the end, we really can’t reduce God and the requirements of faith to a few rules. That has been tried endlessly since humanity first began to seek God. The essence of the New Testament is that God recognizes that we are unable to keep rules and so in grace, he acts through Jesus Christ to provide us a way to be in relationship with him in spite of our inability to keep the rules.

To discuss any aspect of the Christian faith without an adequate foundation of grace is to miss the point of our faith entirely. Certainly, grace doesn’t preclude the need to deal with our wrongs, sins and evils. Grace doesn’t remove the need to work at living up to the holiness that God has given us in Christ. Grace definitely doesn’t give us the freedom to do whatever we want because grace covers it.

But grace does deal realistically and powerfully with the deep underlying reality of human life: we are terrible at keeping rules. Every one of is going to break some rule at some point. And so any discussion of any aspect of the Christian faith that results is a rigid set of must follow rules is a failure. For believers, grace comes first—everything else is built on this foundation of the grace shown to us through Jesus Christ.

Any book, sermon, lecture, discussion or blog about the faith that isn’t grounded in the reality of grace probably misses the whole point of the Gospel, which at its base seeks to assure us that there is a better way than the futile and vain pursuit of legalistic attempts to bootstrap ourselves into the presence of God.

I appreciated what the writers were trying to say in their books—but because they somehow missed the role of grace, their books really didn’t accomplish what they thought they were doing, which is unfortunate because they were addressing important themes.

May the peace of God be with you.

FIXER-UPPER

I confess–I can’t help it.  In the last post, I was content to share my fix-it rules and leave it at that.  Writing the post helped pass the time while the glue on the Fitbit repair dried (it is still holding).  But I am a teacher and a preacher as well as a fixer–and most of my ministry has been spend working for an organization that always needs fixing.  Given that no church has ever been perfect and there will never be a perfect church until we all come together as perfected beings in heaven, there is always something that needs to be fixed in the church.  So, I am going to take a simple post written while fixing a Fitbit and turn it into a pastoral illustration about fixing churches.

But there, however,  are some important differences between what I do with lawn mowers, broken furniture and Fitbits.  One of the first and most significant differences is that in the church, I am not just the fixer–I am also part of the problem.  I am generally involved with churches as pastor–but that doesn’t change the fact that I bring my own flaws and difficulties to the church.

When I approach the church, I need to make sure that the thing I think I am called to fix isn’t more my problem than the church’s problem.  I also need to make sure that the fix I think I am called to apply isn’t coming from my needs and flaws and not the church needs and flaws.  Basically, the first rule of fixing in the church is that we are all in need of some fixing at some point.  If I forget that rule, I just might fix the church into a worse mess than it was before.  Unfortunately, the history of the church shows that too many of us who have tried to fix the church have forgotten our own need to be fixed.

The second rule of church fixing comes from the fact that sometimes the things that actually need to be fixed aren’t that easy to see, or some relatively minor need covers a much deeper and much more serious need.   In the kind of small churches that I work with, there are always some obvious things that new pastors think should be fixed.  Most people prefer to sit near the back, making it hard for them to hear.  A lot of pastors spend a lot of energy trying to fix that by getting people to move up to the front.

But where people sit is something of a distraction for deeper, more serious problems that have a more serious effect on the long-term health of the church.  I have learned to ignore the distraction and focus on the seating pattern, which sometimes reveals the underlying problem of tensions and factions in the church, something that is very serious and which actually needs to be addressed–carefully and sensitively and patiently–but still needs to be addressed much more than whether people sit at the back or not.

But for me, the biggest difference between fixing a broken chair leg and fixing a church has to do with the fact that when I fix a chair leg or a Fitbit or a lamp cord, I am on my own.  Sure, I can talk to friends, check my home repair books, look things up on the internet–I can even sidestep the whole process and hire someone to do the work.  But even with all that, I am in charge of the repairs.  I decide what to do, what not to do, what rules to follow and which ones to ignore.

In the church, though, I am not alone.  I work with the church in the process.  The Fitbit doesn’t know or care that I am trying to fix it–it has no input on what I do.  But the church does–I need their permission and cooperation in the process.  It is not me, the expert, fixing them, the problem.  It is us, a collection of flawed individuals seeking to use our collective gifts and abilities to address our collective issues.  In the church, we are all fixer and fixee.

And as well, we aren’t on our own–all our fixes and repairs need to be done with the leading and empowering of the Holy Spirit.  I don’t see the need on my own; I don’t develop the fix process on my own; I don’t implement it on my own.  We, the church, open ourselves to each other and the Holy Spirit who shows us where we need fixing, guides us to the proper fix and helps us in the process.

May the peace of God be with you.

FIXING THINGS

We grew up poor which meant that we didn’t have a lot of stuff–and what we did have had to last.  That meant that my parents became really good at fixing things.  Because this was while ago when our culture had a different view of gender roles, Mum looked after clothes and related stuff and Dad fixed things around the house.  While I am familiar enough with a needle and thread to fix a small rip or sew on a button, I have tended over the years to follow in my father’s footsteps as far as my fixing things is concerned.

Because I like to fix things, I have had to learn a few rules, rules that represent some frustrating and/or expensive failures in my fit it career.  Probably the first and most basic is this: if it is still under warranty, don’t touch.  No matter how simple the fix looks to be, no matter how long the warranty repair might take, no matter how motivated I am to fix it, if it is under  warranty, put down the tools, call the warranty number and walk away.  Warranties are wonderful but can be extremely trying for fixers.

But if the warranty never existed or has expired, well, the fun begins.  But even there, there are some rules I eventually learned.  One of them is to find out the cost of a replacement.  That cost needs to be a factor in the fix it process.  My wife still occasionally reminds me of the fact that I once spent almost as much fixing an old lawn mower as a new one would cost–and when you factor in the time–and frustration–expended in the process, the repairs cost much more than a new one.

Rule number two says that I should never take anything apart to fix it unless one of two conditions applies.  Condition one is that I know how to disassemble and most importantly reassemble it.  Taking things apart isn’t a real problem–with the right tools and enough pressure, anything comes apart, sometimes even the way it is supposed to.  Getting all the parts to fit back together is a different issue, although these days, the Internet probably has at least one video showing the process from start to finish.

Condition two is the fun one.  It says that if the condition is hopeless and we are committed to replacing or living without the item, then I basically get to do whatever I want to do.  If I succeed, we win.  If I don’t succeed, we haven’t lost anything and I have had some fun indulging my inquisitive side.

Rule three states that all things being equal, functionality trumps appearance.  Duct tape may not be a designer product but if it holds the metal post on the screen text together after the dog’s crash broke it, we get to eat outside during bug season even the repairs disqualify us from being featured in home magazines.

Rule four is a difficult one for many of us fixers but one that I have found invaluable once I began using it.  According to this rule, I ask my friends who might know more about the process than I do.  I can ask my mechanic brother about car repairs, my techie friend about my laptop, my carpenter buddy about house repairs.  In the process, we get to spend some time together, they might offer to actually help and they feel free to ask my advice on whatever I might know better than them–you might be surprised how many fixers would like some help fixing their sermons.

As I was writing this post, I was having a dilemma.  The post started because I am in the process of fixing my wife’s Fitbit.  It isn’t covered by warranty and it is broken enough that it can’t be used so all the appropriate rules are covered.  I am typing with one hand right now because the only to clamp the broken parts is to hold them with my thumb and one finger and sitting like that for the whole drying time would be boring.

The dilemma–do I become a preacher and make the fix it rules an illustration for life or do I leave the rules and let you do what you want with them?  I think I will let you do what you want–the glue must be dry by now and there are some other things I want to fix.

May the peace of God be with you.

SERVANT OR SERVED?

Kenya, like most of Africa, was taken over by European powers in the late 19th century as the various nations in Europe scrambled to exert their power over the world.  The reality that the lands in question were already occupied and governed by other people was simply ignored–the prevailing opinion at the time was that since those peoples were obviously inferior, there could be nothing but benefit for them to be under European rule.  Eventually, most of Africa decided that they preferred to be independent and made it happen.

One of the lasting legacies of colonialism in Kenya is a well developed sense of entitlement and privilege.  Social stratification is a deep seated addition to Kenyan culture, with everyone seeking an important place in the pecking order.  Money, tribe, geography, education, connections, special skills–everything has a place in determining who gets what privileges and who gets to serve who.  Nobody wants to be doing the serving–everyone wants to be served.

It may be that this culture of entitlement and privilege seeking will come to be seen as one of the worst of the long term effects of colonialism because of the way it encouraged so many of the current underlying problems African countries struggle with.  Corruption, nepotism, tribalism, instability–all owe something to the colonial example.  African countries may have thrown out the colonizers but they often kept the colonial mentality.

But this problem of entitlement and privilege seeking affects more than just post-colonial countries.  Unfortunately, it affects the church–and the consequences of these attitudes is causing no end of harm to the mission of the church.

Recently, I saw a news item while I was washing the dishes.  A man got a parking ticket while he was in worship on Easter Sunday.  He openly admitted that he was parked in a no parking zone.  The church parking lot was full–the Christmas and Easter crowd were out in full force.  He and many other worshippers parked on the street, ignoring the no parking signs.  Some enterprising traffic officer saw an opportunity to improve the municipal finances and gave all the illegal cars tickets.

The man on the news was upset.  One of his comments was that he was parked there because he was in worship on one of the holiest days of the Christian year and so the police should have shown some leniency.  And while that might sound good to other worshippers and to those struggling with the lessening influence of the Christian faith in an increasingly pluralistic culture, it is really only a thinly veiled call for special privileges.  Our faith should be allowed to break the rules when our parking lot is full.

As Christians in North America, we want our culture to serve us.  We picture ourselves as being special–our western culture is built on Christian foundations.  We have made a significant contribution to our culture–and now, we want to collect the interest on that contribution.  We  deserve a break on the parking ticket; we deserve to be given exemptions from rules that we don’t like; we deserve a better place in the culture than other groups.

But aren’t we called to be servants?  Somewhere along the line, it seems that we have lost sight of what it really means to be a servant.  We have continued to call ourselves servants but have redefined the word servant to mean that we are the ones who get served.  The privileges and special treatment we want and even demand amount to us as believers thinking that our culture needs to pay us back for all that we have done for our culture over the years.  Whether it is being allowed to break parking laws on Easter Sunday or trying to stop multicultural realities, we are really not being all that much different from the colonial powers in Africa or their independent successors.

We seem to have turned our understanding of a basic part of our faith on its head.  We talk of being servants but really want to be served.  We talk of serving others but really want others to serve us.  We call for justice but really want free parking in illegal parking zones when the church parking lot is full.  And maybe this reversal in our understanding of servant-hood is at the root of the serious decline of the church in the west.  Maybe our culture needs servants more than it needs one more entitled group demanding privilege.

May the peace of God be with you.

ONE MORE RULE

Way back when I was a theology student, one of the strongest rules I learned came from the professor teaching us pastoral counselling.  Our group was assigned to do our practical work in a long term care hospital specifically for people with chronic lung problems.  During our initial briefing, we were given this basic and most important rule: “Don’t sit on the patient’s hospital bed.”  This was undoubtedly an important rule–sitting on the bed while convenient for the visitor did tend to make movements that upset the patient and likely increased the possibility of catching something from or giving something to the patient.  I have tended to be pretty good about obeying that rule.

But an even more important rule for me has always been concerned with the love of God.  His rule is that he loves me unconditionally and permanently.  Nothing can make God love me more or less.  His love for me–and the rest of humanity–is basic and unchanging, a constant in the ever-changing universe that we inhabit.

This is one rule that I have no interest in challenging or changing.  But as I look at the church and how we have approached this rule over the years, I discover that unfortunately, none of us in the Christian faith has been all that great about keeping the reality of this foundational rule in front of us.  Some of what I read, hear, see and occasionally practise myself suggests that the rule about God’s absolute and unconditional love is open to flexible application.

There is a church group, for example that regularly proclaims that God hates homosexuals, although they prefer to use a derogatory term for homosexuals.  I have heard Christians suggest that we need to do something about Muslims because God doesn’t love them.  I know of believers who are anti-immigrant because it seems that to them, the love of God doesn’t apply to immigrants, at least from some places and from some historical periods.

There are also the traditional theological flash points in our faith where believers line up and call names or worse, on the assumption that God can’t really love someone who doesn’t believe in the inerrancy of the Bible or the right of homosexual couples to be legally married.  The aura of anger, hatred and nastiness seen in such confrontations brings into serious question the reality of God’s universal and unending love.

But if this one basic and foundational rule isn’t true or is open to interpretation or is seriously flexible, none of us has a chance.  If that rule that God loves all equally and totally isn’t true, then there is really no hope for any of us, given the reality that none of us is perfect.  I think we sometimes get so focused on pointing out the flaws and imperfections of other people that we forget to look at the reality of our own.   And if we do look at our own imperfections, they are obviously relatively minor, more like endearing quirks than actual sins and imperfections.

Maybe that is inflexible rule number 2:  none of us is perfect.   We are all in some way shape or form tainted by our personal experience of rebellion against God, which is what the Bible calls sin.  And because we are all in that category, we all need rule number one to be true:  we need God to love us no matter what.

And if loving us no matter what is God’s number one personal rule, then we who claim to follow God through Jesus probably need to put a whole lot more effort into understanding, following and showing that rule.  Now, keep in mind that God isn’t going to love us more if we do a good job of this nor is he going to love us less if we do a poor job of this.  He is going to love us with his pure, unending and unlimited love, just the way he did before creation and just the way he will continue to do for all eternity.

I may not always like the rules that limit how fast I can drive; I may get annoyed by the rule that says I need to wear a tie in topical heat; I may find the rules about standing in line irksome when I could easily push people out of my way–but this rule, the rule about God’s unlimited, unending, unchanging, eternal love–that rule I like and am glad that nothing in all creation can change it.

May the peace of God be with you.

BREAKING RULES AND LOVING GOD

My personal quest to develop rules for breaking rules finds a great deal of help from my faith.  As a Christian, I believe that God knows best.  I don’t always agree with how God is interpreted or portrayed by some people–and to be honest, there are times when I am disagreeing with God himself.  But in general, my faith is important and I try to use it as I deal with the various rules I encounter.

But even there, I am selective.  Part of our Friday night tradition is a movie with either nachos or pizza–both of which need bacon to be complete.  However, eating bacon in forbidden by the rules that God gave the people of Israel.  Sure, that is the Old Testament and I follow Jesus who is the New Testament but God still gave the rule and I still follow some of the rules in the Old Testament–the 10 Commandments, for example, are important to me.

So, how is it that I try to avoid lying but eat bacon (not to mention lobster and scallops, which are also forbidden in the Old Testament.  If the only reason I can give is my own self-interest, then I could be in trouble–maybe my desire for bacon on pizza and nachos is having a permanent affect on my relationship with God.  As good as bacon is by itself or on pizza, it really isn’t worth going to hell.

Jesus provides us with some help here.  In Matthew 22.40, he tells us that there are two rules that underlie all the law and prophets.  These two rules are both from the Old Testament and Jesus repeats them in Matthew 22.37-39:  ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ “ (NIV)

The purpose of God’s rules was threefold.  We were to use them as the basis for loving God, loving others and loving ourselves.  And, just in case we want to quibble about what it means to love in this context, God has given us a great deal of commentary on these verses.  One very powerful and clear commentary on how to love this way is found in I Corinthians 13.1-13.  There, Paul offers powerful insights into this kind of love.

Essentially, he makes it clear that the kind of love God requires is based on our being willing to make choices that enhance relationships.  In I Corinthians 13.4, we are told that this love God wants is patient and kind.  Patience and kindness do not suddenly appear in our lives when we need them.  Being patient and kind–or impatient and unkind–are choices we make.  I can choose to be patient and kind when I get behind a slow driver or I can choose to be impatient and unkind.  The other driver may never know which I am choosing–but I still have to choose to love in this way.

The rules in faith don’t exist just to exist.  They exist to enhance relationships.  God has given a framework to show me how to have proper relationships with him, with others and with myself.  Jesus goes to the heart of the matter by exposing the foundational purpose of the rules and then God uses writers like Paul and John and others to help us see what the rules were meant to foster.

To be honest, I am not sure how avoiding bacon or scallops helped people love God, others and themselves.  But I do know that these prohibitions do have a specific application in one relationship I have.  My wife is allergic to shellfish so I only cook and eat scallops when she isn’t around–that is one of my expressions of love for her.

For me as a follower of Christ, rules have to be run through the filter of my faith.  I need God’s leading and direction before I challenge a rule–or at least that is the theory.  In practise, I still use self-interest too often and God’s leading too little.  Fortunately for me, God has a rule of his own–he will never stop loving me and that means he will never stop working with me, even when it comes to which rules I break and which I keep and when.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHO RULES THE RULES?

             For some reason, I have been doing a lot of thinking about rules these last few days (and posts). I am not really sure why that is–my best guess is that it developed from my own self-imposed rule of having something to post here three days a week.  In previous posts, I have already established that I am somewhat ambivalent towards rules, wanting some of them sometimes, wanting others all the time and not wanting some ever.  I have sometimes been classed as a rule-breaker, mostly because of my lack of concern for certain rules–is splitting an infinitive really all that bad?

But even though I am sometimes ambivalent about rules, I recognize the need for some rules–humans can’t exist without rules to guide our interactions.  Unfortunately, sometimes we have taken that need for rules and gone overboard, creating rules and regulations for everything under the sun and quite a few things that aren’t under the sun.  And then we find ourselves in the position of having to decide which rules we are going to follow and which we are going to break.  And that is no easy task.

Some seem bent on obeying every rule.  Their personal rule book declares all rules valid and important and must be obeyed.  There are some who see every rule as something to be challenged.  Their personal rules book is very short, consisting of one rule only: “Break all rules”.  Between these extremes, the majority of the rest of us sit and wonder what to do.

Ironically, we all probably need some personal rules about keeping and breaking rules.  And those of us who feel a need to break rules probably have something like that somewhere in our minds, although we probably have never really examined our rules for breaking rules.

We would likely benefit a lot from taking some time to look at our standards for rules.  If we do that, we will probably find that a major factor in our decisions about whether to follow a rule of not is based in our self-interest.

When the highway is clear and dry, it is in my self-interest to break the speed limit rule.  I don’t actually gain much benefit from breaking the rule since I always have enough time to get to where I am going but in the end,  I will probably break the rule because I want to.  However, if I know there will be police on the road, I won’t break the rule–again, out of self-interest.  I don’t really want to pay the fine.

Self-interest isn’t the best standard for choosing which rules to follow.  Adam and Eve used self-interest to make their decision about breaking the one rule they had.  For their sakes, I hope the fruit they wanted tasted great because that would have been the only benefit they got from using self-interest as their way of deciding which rules to break.

We all get upset when someone breaks rules to benefit themselves at the sake of others.  Picture yourself waiting in a line up somewhere–a theater or bank line perhaps.  We all wait our turn because that is the rule.  Someone comes in and jumps to the head of the line, maybe mumbling an apologetic excuse or maybe just jumping in.  Since I am Canadian, I will quietly fume but still be angry.  Someone might say something but since most of us don’t, the line jumper is pretty safe.  But his self-interest does cause problems for the rest of us.

My guess is that most rules get broken from some form of self-interest.  But I am not sure that is a particularly good standard for breaking rules.  My experience has been that for every self-interest that benefits from breaking a rule, there is probably another self-interest that is harmed, irritated or upset by breaking that rule.  No matter how many justifications, explanations, reasons or excuses we come up with, breaking the rules just because it benefits us is going to create some resentment for someone.  Even when the line breaker is a disabled, sick, elderly person who needs money right now to keep the evil creditor from repossessing the family farm, someone is still going to be upset when she breaks the rule and cuts in line.

While rules are not necessarily made to be broken, most of us will decide to break a lot of them in the course of our lives.  Maybe, though, we need a better theory and theology of rules than our own self-interest.

May the peace of God be with you.