BEING ORDINARY

I was at a meeting the other day and on my way back from the snack table, I stopped to have a short chat with one of the people who attends one of the churches I pastor. We were joking a bit and talking a bit about the meeting and our Bible study and generally enjoying seeing each other. I made what I thought was a somewhat innocent comment that wasn’t phrased in “ministerial” language. Her response was interesting. She said, “I love it that you are so ordinary!”

We both laughed because I pretended not to know what she meant—and she knew I was pretending. I then thanked her for the compliment. Being ordinary is part of my self-identity. I really don’t want to be seen as “THE MINISTER” or ‘THE PASTOR” or any other “THE”. I am a pastor and I take pride in doing my pastoral and ministerial work well. I have spent a lot of time and effort over the years to ensure that I am good at what I have been called to do. I also appreciate it when people recognize that I am good at what I do. But I really don’t want to be perceived as being something special because of that.

That attitude does sometimes make me feel a bit strange, both in clergy circles and lay circles. Laity have often been taught and encouraged to treat pastors as if our calling turns us into spiritual and moral and general experts, who are somehow out of touch with the rest of humanity because we are so close to God. Other clergy sometimes want to maintain a distance between clergy and laity—one of the ongoing debates in clergy circles, for example, it whether clergy can actually have friends in the church they serve.

My denominational tradition supports my thinking, at least theoretically. Baptists began partly in protest to the elevated position of clergy. We espoused the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, which means that all believers have the freedom and responsibility and ability to approach God directly, without the need for an intermediary. When I begin with that theological position and add to it the Biblical teaching on gifts and calling, I very quickly come to a position that has a equal place for all people of faith.

We are most definitely not equal when it comes to our abilities and gifts—we are very unequal in that area. I am much better at preaching that some of the members of the church, a few of whom can’t even manage to croak out a word when they are in front of people. On the other hand, I am much worse at singing that some of them—my croaking tends to encourage people to call for silent singing or loud organ playing. Some of our church members who can’t preach or sing bring to the congregation the ability to count and care for our church money—they can actually add and subtract numbers and get them right.

Our inequality in terms of gifts and abilities is part of our overall equality. Each gift and ability and individual has a part of play in our church and ministry—and that makes us equal. My gifts are important at times and at other times, they really aren’t important. When the church puts on their annual tea and sale, my gift of preaching and teaching isn’t overly important, which is why I get assigned to the dishpan in the kitchen, where my lack of tea and sale specific gifts isn’t a problem. But the member of the church whose gift of organizing and administering becomes the most important person that day.

I appreciate my gifts and my calling. I work hard at keeping myself current and capable. I want to be the best I can be at understanding and using my gifts. But I don’t want my gifts and calling to stand out simply because they exist. I much prefer the situation where people recognize my gifts, their gifts and other’s gifts and feel comfortable calling on the gifted person for the exercise of their gifts in the appropriate ways—and when the gifts aren’t needed, everyone is equal and ordinary. When we see each other as both gifted and ordinary, I think we have a solid and strong foundation for our church, one that God can and will build on.

May the peace of God be with you.

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CHRISTMAS IS COMING

The afternoon worship a week or so ago started out a little slowly. I arrived at the regular time but the organist who is normally there practising wasn’t there. I puttered around and set up my stuff and cleared a couple of things off the bulletin board until she arrived. The choir director arrived at about the same time and from there, things started getting hectic. Several more people came in at the same time, several of whom had questions and comments. One of the deacons arrived and I immediately passed off the bulletins to him so I could deal with other stuff.

As I rushed from task to task and person to person, I was aware that the noise level was slowly rising in the sanctuary—laughter, multiple discussions, even people talking to each other from across the small sanctuary. I try to greet everyone as they come in but that was difficult—things were hectic and every now and then, when I had time to scan the sanctuary, there were a bunch of people whom I hadn’t greeted. Granted, we are not talking large numbers but it was still hard to connect with everyone.

In the midst of the activity, I checked my watch and realized that it was time to start. The choir and I gathered for prayer but the noise level was so loud that I got distracted in the prayer, which did give the choir a laugh before we started. Eventually, I got to the pulpit and suggested that the snow that we had in the previous week must have put everyone in a good mood because of all the noise and laughter I was hearing. While no one agreed with my suggestion, the noise level was significantly louder.

Later that day, we had a Skype call with one of the kids. The call was somewhat chaotic because our two grandchildren were very active and wound up, making conversation difficult and confusing. The grandchildren had been busy with a variety of things, some of them involving candy, but there was even more activity than could be explained by that.

I am pretty sure that both events I have described are connected with the Christmas season. While the Sunday in question wasn’t an Advent Sunday, it was part of our cultural Christmas build up. I have been noticing lots of ads, the stores are seriously Christmased up, some houses are already sporting Christmas lights and at least one ten foot Santa is already inflated along our road.

Couple that with the snow that we had just before this Sunday and I am pretty sure that what I was seeing was the beginning of the Christmas season. People are being affected. We are in Christmas mode, which is hard to define completely but which seems to me to be a real thing. We are more gregarious, a bit louder when we are together, more focused on the bits and pieces of the season, quicker to laugh, more responsive to helping out and generally more interested in being with other people. Normal stuff, like getting settled down for worship, gets lost in the process.

I think I need to pay attention to what I am seeing and maybe even let it infect me a bit. I have been somewhat preoccupied with the professional demands of the season, getting plans and programs in place to enable people to remember the birth of Jesus and its significance for our faith. And while I think that is important, it does tend to take my time and energy and leave me a bit tired and even unresponsive to all the rest of the Christmas stuff.

I probably need to remember that as well as being a Christian event, Christmas is primarily a cultural event these days and maybe I need to allow myself to enjoy that part of it a bit more. I probably don’t need to get as wound up and excited as my grandchildren but it might be appropriate if I had some of the seasonal excitement that I was seeing among the worship attendees that Sunday.

We all know that after Christmas, we settle into the long, cold winter with all the restrictions and limits that brings (at least for some people who never learned to appreciate snow) so why not have some fun before that? If it makes worship a bit more hectic, I can handle that.

May the peace of God be with you.

FORGIVE ME

One of my Bible study groups is studying the Lord’s Prayer. We are slowly moving through the content of the prayer, with many journeys here, there and everywhere as we examine the implications of the prayer for our lives. Eventually, we arrived at the place where we ask God, “Forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. That verse kept our study going for several weeks.

This isn’t a passage telling us that God will only forgive us as much as we forgive others. That would be at odds with the rest of the New Testament, which makes it clear that God’s forgiveness in Christ is unrestricted and unfettered, a limitless offer of love and grace that most of us will never fully understand.

As I and various people, including the Bible study, have grappled with this passage over the years, it seems to me that the real message the passage is trying to get to has to do more with our ability to forgive than with God’s ability to forgive. The bottlenecks and roadblocks and impediments to forgiveness all come from us, not from God.

And the biggest problem, I think, is our inability to actually forgive ourselves. Most people, especially faithful people, are terrible at forgiving themselves. We often have a sense of what “good” people should be like and an even better sense of why we are not like that. We know that God forgives—but we are uncomfortable believing that he could actually forgive us for that terrible sin of having an extra piece of pie (or maybe even the first piece, depending on the circumstances).

Often, we who are people of faith have our insides cluttered with sins and perceived sins that we are pretty sure are the worst sins in the history of faith, stuff that makes us feel guilty and unworthy and sinful and which we are sure that God couldn’t ever forgive. And if God can’t forgive us, who are we to let ourselves off the hook?

But the Gospel truth is that God can and does and even did forgive everything—that is the point of the cross and the resurrection. God can forgive us. And if God can and has forgiven us, who are we to argue? We can’t claim to know more than God; we can’t suggest that he doesn’t have the full story; we can’t argue that he has missed something—although in truth, we do all that stuff. But God is God, he does know the full story, he didn’t miss anything and when he offers to forgive, he can and will deliver.

So, many of us in the faith walk around as forgiven children of God who are still carrying heavy imaginary burdens of unforgiveness simply because we won’t in the end forgive ourselves. We make God into a liar and a weakling because we refuse to believe that he is stronger than us and our sins.

And then it gets worse because we are pretty sure that if we don’t really deserve forgiveness, that no one else actually deserves it either. If I can’t forgive myself for that second slice of pie, how can I forgive you who joined me in the raid on the fridge? Or even worse, if I don’t eat the pie and can’t forgive myself for even thinking about it, how can I ever forgive you for actually eating the pie?

Our theology of forgiveness needs to be improved. Actually, it needs to be real theology, not our thoughts and feelings. God has made it clear that forgiveness is a consequence of his love and grace. He makes it clear that there are no limits (I know about the sin of blasphemy of the Holy Spirit in Matthew 12.31 but essentially worrying about this sin is a pretty good sign you haven’t committed it). He goes to inhuman lengths to let us know that he is prepared to forgive us no matter what.

So, if the God of all creation, who know everything there is to know about me and everything else is willing to die to forgive me, I should probably learn how to forgive myself—and at the same time, that will help me forgive others. When we let God’s rules about forgiveness guide the process, we will all do better.

May the peace of God be with you.

MY PLANS

I am a planner. I like to have a sense of where things are going, when they are going to get done, who is doing what, how things are going to progress. I am not obsessive about it or at least I don’t think I am. I am sure that some theology student along the way whom I have taught or mentored might disagree, especially when the assignment is to develop a three month sermon plan or something like that. Planning is part of my nature and is as well, I think, one of the gifts that the Spirit has given me.

On a very practical level, that means that every Bible study day, I spend some time planning that particular session. My advanced planning already has the specific content prepared but I also make a plan for that day. It isn’t an elaborate plan. We begin with a review of last week’s worship and then I ask some review questions so that people are reminded of what we talked about last week. After the review, we move into the specific content that I plan on covering that day.

Because I have two pastoral charges, I have two Bible study groups, generally doing different topics. So, each week, I dutifully make my plans for each, using my gifts and skills to ensure that I have stuff that will help people grow in faith.

Here is what my planning accomplishes. Right now, one Bible study group has gone three weeks without finishing the review—and the other is right behind, having completed two weeks without finishing the review. I haven’t touched new material in either group during that time. I plan and prepare and then sit back at the study, watching the plan get shredded and trampled by the breadth and depth of the discussion.

Some weeks, the previous Sunday’s worship and sermon destroy the plan. The discussion becomes a way for those present to deepen their understanding of the sermon. It provides an opportunity for disagreement, for testimony, for diverse applications, for suggestions about follow-ups, as well as a time to joke about my mistakes or laugh again at the story they liked.

Some week, the worship review is quick and easy but the review catches us. Sometimes, I actually plan that. I pay attention and notice the areas that people struggle with and include those in the review, hoping that the review process will help them understand the stuff that they didn’t understand fully last week. Sometimes, a member of the study has an idea or thought or example that none of us considered last week and the review question pulls this out, which allows us the opportunity to work it through. And occasionally, someone asks a question that comes from somewhere in their faith experience that touches the rest of the group and we are off on that trail seeking what we can find.

I could, I suppose, impose order and structure and organization on the Bible studies. I have a plan and I have prepared the content that we agreed on and I am the pastor so I probably could take charge and ensure that the study follows my plan. After all, I have put a lot of thought and effort into developing content that will help them grow in their faith. And if I were to do that, most of the members of both groups would go along with it.

But our studies would lose much more from that than they would gain. They might gain well planned content on Romans and prayer (one topic for each group) which would no doubt be helpful and important and even spiritually valuable. But what the group would lose is the freedom to explore our faith in real time. We would lose the ability to help each other as we together work to understand and develop the faith we share. We would lose the excitement of seeing the work of the Spirit touching each of us in diverse ways. We would lose the opportunity to get to know God and each other on a deeper and more intimate basis.

We all like our approach to Bible study. We know we will get to the specific content at some point—but we also know that we will be able to deal with anything we need to deal with fully and safely.

The only problem is mine—how do I plan review questions when we haven’t done new content for two or three weeks?

May the peace of God be with you.

THE SERMON

I work hard at sermon preparation. The whole process is important to me. I put serious effort into deciding what to preach and when. I work hard to bring together Scripture and the needs of the congregation. I make sure that I am not distorting or minimizing or hijacking Scripture passages. I use all my creative skills to pull the whole thing together in a 18-20 minute package that will make sense. I prayerfully and hopefully believe that what I prepare is a message from God for the people I am called to preach to mediated through me and my efforts.

My process is much faster and more efficient these days than it was when I first began preaching. The process that took hours and hours of sitting, reading, researching, drafting, editing, rewriting and all that has been compressed into a couple of hours of screen time—although there are actually uncountable mental processing hours and something like 45 years of research also involved in every sermon. The sermon I bring to the pulpit represents a lot of hard work, a lot of time, a lot of prayer, a lot of faith so that I can bring to people what I sincerely believe is God’s message for them that day.

So, with that in mind, join me at a worship service a few weeks ago. This church has a somewhat unique addition to the worship service. After I finish reading the Scripture, we have a time for discussion. If members of the congregation have questions or comments about the Scripture—or anything else in the worship for that matter—this time is set aside to look into them. Most Sundays, there are is a question or two seeking clarification, a comment or two dealing with the passage and then we move on.

But every now and then, the discussion takes off and one thing leads to another and this comment sparks that question which leads to this story which produces that question and that leads to another question and this produces a heart-felt testimony—and before anyone but me notices, the sermon time has been eaten up.

Actually, there are a couple of stages here. At some point in the discussion, I am following the discussion on one level and at another mentally editing the sermon to fit it onto the remaining time, trying to decide if I dump the story or condense the second point. But as the discussion continues, I realize that there will be neither time nor focus for the sermon. Eventually, the discussion concludes, I point out the time, we sing the final hymn and go home.

I rearrange the preaching plan to make room for the missed sermon—and rejoice that I will be able to use that preparation time for something else. There are many blessings to those Sundays when the discussion becomes the sermon.

So, this sermon got rescheduled. There were several special things that were the focus of the next Sundays but eventually, the rescheduled sermon comes up again. I read the Scripture and open the door for comments. There is a silence—five seconds, ten seconds, fifteen seconds. Just as I am about to call us to prayer before the sermon, there is a comment, which prompts another and suddenly, we are in full discussion mode as we share and question and explain. The discussion is important, powerful and there are even a few tears as we wrestle with the ideas and questions and feelings. Once again, the sermon time disappears as the discussion provides the Spirit with the opening he needs that day to touch people’s lives.

And me? Well, I worked hard on that sermon. But I also recognize the wonder of the Spirit at work in our midst. That twice missed sermon will get preached and will take its place in the Spirit’s schedule for me and the congregation. I didn’t waste my time preparing it and I didn’t miss the opportunity to speak God’s word. Instead of being upset or frustrated, I am excited that we have discovered a way that allows the Spirit freedom to really speak to us, in a way that might not happen if we (or I) insisted that the sermon has to be preached.

I am not advocating this process for everyone—it probably won’t work. But it does work for us and that makes it an important part of our worship—and I actually get a week off from sermon preparation now and then.

May the peace of God be with you.

I AM A CHRISTIAN

Both the Bible studies I lead have been looking seriously at how we live our faith on a daily basis. That isn’t the official topic of either study but all of us involved in the studies are really interested in how what we are studying affects daily life so almost everything we look at ends up being walked down mainstreet.

We also look at how others deal with the connection between faith and daily life. It is sometimes much easier and safer to look at other people and learn from their processes before we look too closely at our own. We sometimes work on the principle I have voiced often: We learn from our mistakes—but we learn less painfully from the mistakes of others.

One of the things that has been a frequent focus of our discussions in this area is the fact that often, our faith gets connected with other things—to be seen as a Christian is to be seen as something else as well. One of the most common because it is mentioned in the media a lot is that in some places, to be a Christian is to almost automatically be identified with a certain spot on the political spectrum. In many cases, to be identified as a Christian pretty much identifies how you will vote. There are variations and subtleties, of course, depending on the theological flavour of the believer, the geographic and cultural factors involved and maybe even the unspoken biases of the observers but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that some believers at least assume that a Christian will automatically be ________ (fill in the blank) because that is what Christ was.

Christianity is also sometimes overly associated with culture and colour. White westerners have been known to self-identify as Christian on the basis of culture and colour alone. For some, at least as far as I have observed, those factors alone make someone Christian. There is no need for things like church attendance, Bible reading or Bible following. I have often wondered if such people realize that Jesus was neither white nor western.

When I worked in Kenya, Christianity was often identified with tribes—to know a person’s tribe was to know their faith. Some tribes were Christian and some were Muslim. It was even possible to narrow down the brand of Christianity if you knew the tribe. Given that many tribes make use of traditional names, just hearing a person’s name was often enough to nail down their faith.

But the question I and both Bible studies struggle with is the validity of such identifications. Am I Christian because I am a white westerner? Because I am a Christian, can a certain political party know that I will automatically support them? When you hear my name, should you be able to slot me into a certain faith stream?

The more I learn about Jesus, who he was and what he did, I am pretty sure that being a Christian needs to be seen as something that sets us apart from many of the human classifications that we hold so dear. I am not suggesting that Christians need to somehow separate themselves from the world—that has been tried often in the history of the church and benefits neither the faith nor the world.

I am suggesting that we need to see Christian as an overarching description that exists independently of all other labels. The Christian faith is dependent on seeing and accepting God’s grace shown in Jesus Christ without the addition of any other qualifiers. And that means that those qualifiers that we love so much don’t have any effect on our faith. Certainly, we claim that our faith has the right to affect the qualifiers but it really should be a one way street. My faith needs to affect my political decisions—but my political stance must not affect my faith. My allegiance to a tribe is affected by my faith—but my faith must not be affected by my allegiance to a tribe.

That is the theory—the practise is much more difficult. But I think authentic Christianity needs to make the effort to get rid of the add ons and accretions that we have allowed to hijack our faith. To claim to be a Christian should make a statement about the nature of our relationship with God, not about our politics or colour or culture or tribe.

May the peace of God be with you.

I CAN’T SEE CLEARLY

I have been wearing eye glasses since I was about 16. At the beginning, I needed them for sustained close up stuff like reading but over the years, I have progressed to needing glasses pretty much all the time. I went from wearing them now and then to wearing them most of the time to getting bifocals and now putting on my progressive lens glasses when I get up and taking them off when I go to bed.

One of the interesting discovering I have made is that the more I wear my glasses, the less I pay attention to them, especially how clean they are. Right now, I am aware that there are smudges on the glasses—but because I don’t want to get up and find the cleaner and cloth to clean them I am ignoring the smudges because I know that after a short time, my mind will adjust my sight so that I don’t see the smudges. Somehow, the photo editing system that is part of my vision process clears up the smudges, spots, specks and skin oils that collect on my glasses and I carry on. Of course, once I actually clean the glasses, I am amazed at how much better I am seeing that I was before.

But the truth is that I get used to the poor vision. It becomes normal. I forget what could be and accept something far less. The glasses that make it easier for me to see the world become something that blocks my ability to see. Wearing dirty and smudged glasses limits my vision—but I keep wearing them that way because even the limited vision I get with them is still better than the vision I have without them.

What does that have to do with anything aside from the fact that this is Monday morning, I am just back from vacation and need to write something? Well, using my preacherly licence to find an illustration in anything, I think there is a message in my willingness to continue to wear dirty glasses. It seems to be that we human beings are very good at accepting and living with less than optimal situations.

As believers, for example, we have before us the high and inspiring standards set out by our faith: things like loving one another, caring for the poor, helping the hurting, dealing with injustice. Our faith calls us to be involved in the world, seeking to work as God’s agents in making a difference. But while we might all openly acknowledge this, we all manage to find ways to avoid engaging in the task.

The street person sitting on the corner isn’t really one of those people whom God has called us to care for—he (or she) is just some lazy beggar whom we can ignore. The person down the street whose lawn isn’t mowed isn’t someone with physical limits whom we are called to help out—she (or he) is just some uncaring resident bringing down all property values. The kids who throws rocks at vacant buildings aren’t struggling with abandonment and social issues—they are delinquents who need to be taught a lesson.

On the larger scale, the millions of starving in the world aren’t hungry because of geo-political policies and climate change that we help cause and sustain and who need our help—they are just a bunch of unimportant people living somewhere we will never go and therefore don’t have to worry about.

The faith we claim somehow gets smudged and spotted and dirty enough so that we look at the world through a distorted lens that allows us to ignore the very things that God has called us to see and engage with. The streaks and spots and smudges we allow to accumulate on our faith allow us to ignore the obvious and continue to see what we want to see—and sometimes, in fact, the smudges even allow us to convince ourselves that what we want to see is actually what God wants us to see. But in the end, our glasses are dirty and until we clean them, we are not really seeing what God wants us to see.

So, I am going to clean my real glasses—that is something I can do quickly. But I also need to work at clearing up my spiritual vision so that I can actually see what God wants me to see.

May the peace of God be with you.

I BELIEVE…

A long time ago, I was a theology student. That occupation entailed sitting a lot—in classrooms and in the school common room between classes. It involved listening a lot as well—listening to professors and classmates in class time and to other students in the common room. While I contributed my fair share of words to all these sitting and talking sessions, I also listened a lot, a practise which I have always followed—we introverts are generally better at listening than talking.

While sitting and listening as a theology student, I discovered that in some significant ways, I as different from a lot of the other students at the schools I attended. I discovered that I didn’t believe as much as they did. Some of them had elaborate and detailed belief systems that seemed to cover every conceivable possibility they would ever encounter in life. I also discovered that I wasn’t as invested in my belief system as they were in theirs. It seemed that everything they believed was a matter of life and death—or heaven and hell.

So, I was sitting in a theological school common room one day, probably drinking coffee so as to be somewhat awake for the next class when one of the students in the room made a faith proclamation. Because his wife had a good job and he was nearing graduation and had been called to a church, he bought a new car—not an old, beat up, barely running car like the rest of us poor theology students but an brand new car, so new that it has things like warranties and good tires and new car smell. As might be expected, he was the centre of attention—most theology students in those long ago days were male and new cars tend to do something in the male mind.

He told us that he bought the brand he bought after prayer. He believed that as a Christian, he had an obligation to buy a car build in a Christian country. His belief system included what kind of car to buy—and as well, it included an obligation to point out the sin of people who would buy a car from a non-Christian country. He had a very elaborate and well developed system that covered everything.

At the time, I was driving a beat up foreign car hoping I could keep it together until I graduated so some of my reaction to his comment likely came from that fact. However, I didn’t really appreciate his belief system. While I think and believe that faith should be a factor in all life decisions, I am not sure that it needs to be so detailed. I very much doubt that God has written a supplementary commandment that tells me what brand of car to buy. I didn’t believe that then and I don’t believe that now—my belief system simply isn’t that detailed.

But I do believe. And I even believe that God has some concerns about my car purchases. I believe that he care about how much I spend, why I buy what I buy and how I approach the process. I believe that he cares about me practising good stewardship in the process and acting in good faith with the dealers and living my faith as I buy. Those are all parts of my belief system. I even believe that God doesn’t want me to brag or show off my new purchase too much. But I don’t believe that which brand of car I buy is ultimately an article of faith or that it will determine my eternal status.

Over the years, I have actually worked at creating as small a body of faith essentials as possible. I don’t need or want to carry around a huge faith statement that nails down everything from what coffee to drink and which car to buy and who to spend time with and how to wash my hands before meals. I don’t need that.

I prefer a slimmed down statement that covers the basics and which can then be used to help craft a specific response as needed. God doesn’t endorse one car over another—but he does have a part in the process of choosing and buying a car. My minimalist faith statement seems to open the door for much more time with God as I allow him to speak specifically to my life rather than through a multitude of laws and regulations.

May the peace of God be with you.

SAD NEWS

In that past couple of weeks, the news from our denominational office has included obituaries of two pastors. Both of them were second career pastors, people who had sensed God’s calling later in their lives and were willing to answer that call. Both of them attended the seminary where I was teaching at the time and both were in my classes so I knew them fairly well.

There are not the first students from my teaching days to have died. Several students from my times teaching in Kenya have died—but given the realities of life in Kenya, those deaths, while sad, were not a total surprise. There have even been some students from my time teaching in Canada. A couple of students died as a result of existing medical conditions and so again, their death, although sad, were not unexpected.

These last two, however, were a bit harder for me to process. Both were older and their death were ultimately the result of accumulating enough years that their bodies simply wore out. What makes these more difficult is that neither student was that much older that I am—well, one was a fair bit older but the other was much closer to my age than I realized.

I am saddened by their deaths. They were students but because of the nature of my teaching style and the relatively small size of the clergy community in our denomination, they were also friends. I didn’t see either of them all that much beyond denominational events but we could and did talk and share and were concerned with each other’s lives and ministry. It is sad to think that I won’t see either of them again this side of eternity.

But their deaths also opened a door that I have pretty much been avoiding. I am getting older. Normally, I am not overly conscious of being 66 years old, unless of course it is one of those days when my much older knees are protesting and complaining. I am not sure exactly what age I perceive myself but it is definitely younger than 66. But as I was reading the obituary of the former student who was pretty close to my age, I realized that being 66 has some serious implications. I am in pretty good health, according to my personal observations and my GP’s evaluations, but the basic statistical reality is that I am closer to my death date than I am to my birth date. And since the latest scientific research suggests that the upper limit of human aging is about 120, by that most optimistic standard, I have lived well over half my life.

I deal with death as a regular part of my work. The pastor is one of the first people called in rural areas when death occurs. But most of the time, there is a professional wall between me and the death. I am concerned with helping the people I pastor work through their trauma and grief and so on. Without question, some of these deaths touch me and affect me—my professionalism isn’t something I use as a defence against my own grief.

But these two students dying of essentially age related causes at an age that I can identify with because of its proximity to my age—well, I really can’t professionalize that. To start with, I am not the pastor in either of those situations. I am just one of the many who knew them and who grieves their loss. And without the professional focus to distract me, I look at their loss more personally—and I also recognize the implications of their deaths for me and my context.

Their deaths are sad—I will miss them. Their deaths also point out to me that I am getting up there and could be closer to my own end that I want to realize. But in the end, I really can’t live well if I pay too much attention to the statistical realities that come with my present age. I know that I will die some day. I do take care physically—eating sort of right, sleeping enough, doing some exercise. But I am not really interested in living with the fear or dread of my death. The reminders of the potential that my former students death’s brought are real—but I think that in the end, I decided a long time ago to live until I die, without too much worry about when and how that will be.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT MAKES A CHURCH?

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day that touched on my career as a pastor. I have spend my whole ministry career working in small congregations—and given the realities of my age, ministry gifts and so on, the chances of my being called to be the pastor of a big church are about as slim as the chances of either pastorate I serve mushrooming into a mega church. I am deeply aware that God can and does do great, wonderful and unexpected things so I can’t really close the doors on either thing happening but practically, I will in the next few years be retiring, having spent most of my ministry pastoring small congregations.

And that isn’t written with a tinge of sadness or wistfully wondering “what if?”. Being the pastor of small churches has been good for me for a variety of reasons. One of the reasons I appreciate is that I have learned a great deal about what the church is and can be because I have always worked with the church at its most basic. We who live in the small church are sometimes forced to be much closer to who and what we are called to be by virtue of the fact that most extraneous stuff is stripped away.

We don’t have much money so we can’t simply buy ministry. We don’t have many people so we can’t do stuff just because someone else is doing it. We often lack gifted people so we have to be selective about what ministry we do. We share our leadership with every other group and organization so we have to limit the demands we make on our member’s time. We are generally located in the midst of people who know us and our church from way back so we can’t do generic evangelism. In older congregations such as I serve, our history is well known, so we can’t pretend to be better that we actually are.

Within those real constraints, along with many others, we work at being the church. We work at being the embodied expression of God’s people here on earth. Because we don’t have the trimmings and options and bells and whistles, we have to learn how to be the essential church. And the real essence of the church is a group of people who share faith in God through Jesus Christ seeking to use the presence of the Holy Spirit to relate to each other and the world in ways that are congruent with the faith we proclaim.

And because we are small and live in the reality of the wider community, we need to do this in a context where everyone is aware of our failure to actually live up to the claims that we make. In small churches, our sins are more visible and more quickly pointed out. I joke with my churches that when something bad happens in our churches, it is being talked about in the local coffee shop before the benediction is finished. The talk may not actually get the story right, but that isn’t the issue—the issue is that we live church much more publically and openly when we are a small church living in a bigger community.

I think at our best, we in small churches learn about giftedness early—when there is only one person who can actually sing a solo in the congregation, that gift is seen, appreciated and valued. When there are only two people who can actually minister to pre-teens, they have an assured ministry spot.

We learn about grace and forgiveness—when the sinner is also a friend and a family member, it is harder to shun and condemn. It can be done and is done in some small congregations but more often than not, we discover the reality of grace and love and forgiveness as we grapple with the pain of our shared imperfection. Not many of us are willing to cast the first stone when we know and are known as well as we are in small churches.

We learn that effective evangelism doesn’t involve a program or a canned speech. Instead, it comes as a result of our hesitant and uncertain attempts to live and share our faith in the wider community. Both our successes and our failures are part of our evangelism.

I am not suggesting that large churches can’t learn these things—rather, I am saying that as the pastor of small churches, I have learned these things in this context and have tried to help others learn them as well.

May the peace of God be with you.