THE SERMON

A few weeks ago, I was preaching a series of sermons on the parables of Jesus. One of the first sermons in the series seems to have made a significant impression on the congregation. For a while after that sermon, people kept referring to the sermon and especially to a visual representation I used during the sermon. The Bible study group discussed the sermon. Individuals mentioned it at meetings and at other times. I even overheard people describing the sermon to members who hadn’t been there. Overall, it seems like this was a pretty successful sermon.

But that was several weeks ago. We have since moved on. We finished the series on the parables and moved into Easter. I haven’t heard anything about the parable sermon in weeks. I have heard a few comments about other sermons suggesting that people are still listening to what I have to say at least some of the time but the parable sermon seems to have disappeared into wherever sermons go in people’s minds after a period of time.

I very much doubt that old sermons go into a special mental file for most people. I doubt that people spend time thinking about the best sermons of the year or the decade. In fact, the painful truth that many preachers don’t want to deal with is that most sermons barely survive the handshake at the door on the way out of the sanctuary. A few, of course, manage to survive a little longer. A sermon with a good story or joke, a sermon that touches a special place for the worshipper or a really bad one—any of them can last into the next week and maybe even beyond.

But eventually, every sermon ends up as a part of a shapeless mass of forgotten prose, decomposed and decontextualized, sitting somewhere in the memory banks of church goers. No matter how hard I work at the sermon, no matter how deeply I research, no matter how powerful the illustrations are, the sermon ultimately loses shape and form and exists, if at all, as a blob among other blobs in people’s minds.

That could be depressing and discouraging, especially if I had some insecurities or felt that my words were so important that they had to be remembered exactly. And while there may have been times in the past when I struggled with such things, there days, I tend not to get too bent out of shape by the fact that no one really remembers my sermons for all that long. Honestly, I can’t remember them either—in order to be certain I know what I preached the Sunday before when we discuss the worship at Bible study, I keep a copy of the sermon on my phone so I can refer to it if necessary.

I don’t expect people to remember the sermon. It was flattering to have people remember and talk about the parable sermon for so long—but is doesn’t depress me that I haven’t heard anyone mention that sermon in weeks. I don’t actually preach to have people remember the sermon. I preach because I want to help people grow in faith—and any one individual sermon is about as valuable to spiritual growth as any one individual meal is valuable to physical growth.

If a person were to get just one meal in their life, they would have a very short life. No matter how great the meal was, just one meal can’t sustain life. Life is build and sustained by the accumulation of meals over the course of a lifetime—and the health and vitality of the lifetime depends on the nutritional balance of all those meals. Anyone meal is unimportant—but all of them together make the person.

Well, any one sermon by itself is pretty much worthless—even if people remember it and refer to it for days and even weeks, it still won’t be enough by itself to sustain and develop spiritual life. But when that one sermon gets folded in with all the other sermons, it can develop into a sort of spiritual compost that provides a base for solid and healthy spiritual growth.

While it was nice that people remembered an individual sermon for so long, even the best of my sermons isn’t all that memorable. But over time, my hope is that accumulation of sermons composting in the believer’s mind will make a difference, enabling them to grow strong in the faith.

May the peace of God be with you.

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WORSHIP

For a variety of reasons, we took a week’s vacation recently. We didn’t have any great plans but were going away for a few days. However, the weather wiped out the plans—the road to the get away spot was under too much snow to actually get there without a long hike carrying food and all the rest for our few days. We compensated and made other arrangements based on several day trips.

But the vacation did mean that we had a free Sunday—neither of us had to preach or lead worship or do announcements or anything at all. The first decision we had to make was whether we would actually attend worship. I confess that I sometimes appreciate a Sunday without attending worship. But we decided that we would go somewhere.

That created a second, more difficult question—where would we go? There was no shortage of possibilities but one of the other of us managed to have a reason for not attending there. Some were rejected because one or the other of us had been pastor there. Some were rejected because one or the other of us had taught or mentored the pastor. Some were rejected for less than positive reasons—we thought we knew what to expect from the sermon.

Anyway, we finally made a decision and left for worship. We knew the pastor, knew some of the people in the congregation and I had even preached there a couple of times. The worship was something of a blend of contemporary and traditional. I had absolutely nothing to do with the design or conduct of the service. I was there to worship—something that is a rarity for me. In fact, there have been times when I have wondered if I actually know how to worship, given that most of my faith life I have been the leader of worship.

So, did I worship? I think so. I sang some of the songs during the opening music time. I followed along and read the appropriate places in the responsive reading. I followed the Scripture reading comparing my translation to the one being projected on the screen. I followed the sermon and didn’t do too much projecting of what my friend was going to say next and didn’t do any of the sermon evaluation that I have often had to do when listening to sermons.

I also lost focus a few times—the sanctuary clock was an old pendulum clock that probably came from their old building and I love clocks. One of the hymns started an interesting theological speculation that I followed for a bit. I may have missed a bit of the sermon here and there as I thought about something else. I squirmed a bit seeking to get my knees to stop telling me they weren’t happy. But overall, I worshipped. I was conscious of the presence of the other worshippers and of the Spirit of God. And, more importantly, I didn’t want to take over the service or spend a lot of time figuring out how to make the worship better. I was a participant and was quite happy to be a participant.

That may not sound like a very significant thing—but it actually is, at least for me. I have been leading worship and preaching for most of my life. Since I began as a pastor well over 40 years ago, there haven’t been many times when worship or some part of it weren’t my responsibility. I am also very analytical—I like looking at how things work and how they could work better. And that has been a significant part of my life as well as a teacher and mentor of ministry students. A part of me has always been somewhat concerned about how I would do in a context where I am no longer the one to design and lead worship and preach the sermon.

Based on this experience plus a few other such opportunities in the last few years, I think I just might be able to make the transition from leader to participant when it comes to worship. That is important because with my 65th birthday in the past, I will be retiring one of these days. It is nice to know that there is worship after ministry.

May the peace of God be with you.

I CAN DO IT BY MYSELF!

The man just wants to be left alone. We don’t know about his past but hints and clues suggest that his life hasn’t been easy. There may be something terrible back somewhere but all we see now is a strong, independent individual who just wants to farm his farm, herd his cattle, fish his fish, research his research, raise his family—that part varies depending on the movie. What doesn’t vary is the need for independence and the lack of a need for much in the way of relationships with other people.

This movie, book, TV show, coffee shop tale is something of a theme for our western culture: the strong, capable independent hero who just wants to be left alone. He (sometimes, she) needs nothing beyond what he produces himself. We in the west like to think of ourselves in terms of this cultural archetype—we are all like this, or wish we were like this.

And this cultural desire for independence is part of the reason why Christian worship attendance in Canada is so low when claims of being a Christian are still relatively high. Just as we celebrate the hero taking care of business by himself, we have developed a faith culture that sees faith as not needing anything beyond an individual and God—and if we are really honest, the God part of the equation is open to a great deal of interpretation. We are not all that comfortable with God unless we have the independence to tinker and edit so that the God who is the focus of our faith looks and feels like we want him (her, it) to look and feel.

We are, in reality, a culture that celebrates independence. We don’t really like obligations that are imposed by relationships. We don’t want to owe people. In fact, we have created a culture that tries to reduce every interpersonal transaction to the lowest common denominator—and that tends to be money.

If I pay for something, I am still independent and in control. I made the money, I chose to spend it. The relationship is bounded by the financial transaction. There is no need for gratitude, returning favours, mutual support—all that kind of ucky and troubling stuff that relationships and commitments bring.

I am aware that I am overstating the reality. But our western independence is a reality and it does, I think, have an effect on how we western believers relate to each other and the church. To be a part of a church might suggest that we need something or someone. At the very least, it suggests that someone might be able to ask us for something and we might not be in a position to say no. And so it is easier and safer in the long run to conceptualize our faith as a part of our independence.

My very western faith is focused on God—we have a good thing going here. I don’t really need God and he doesn’t really need me but we can get together now and then and within the rules of my independence, I can do whatever—maybe complain about the difficulties of life, maybe blame God for some trouble, maybe tell God how to do her job. I don’t actually need God but it is nice to have him or her around, as long as God doesn’t make any unreasonable demands, like suggesting that I join a church.

So, we have become a culture of independent Christians, people whose faith is expressed in solitude and not in community. And while there is certainly a need and encouragement in the Christian faith for solitude, it isn’t the defining characteristic of the Christian faith. And the deeper, darker, ignored reality is that it really isn’t a defining characteristic of our western culture.

Remember the independent hero standing on his own two feet, dealing with life on his terms? Well, doesn’t that movie always end up with the hero discovering the wonder of a relationship as he battles for the woman or the child or the older couple or even the dog or horse? Doesn’t the movie end with the independent hero happily trading his independence for the relationship?

Our culture may love the theory of independence but the practise tends to be lonely and boring. Our culture and our faith in the end need us to be in real relationships with real people.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT ABOUT THE CHURCH?

I have been quoting an interesting statistic for several years ago, every since I discovered it in a book written by a friend. In discussing the state of the Christian faith in Canada, he mentioned that about 16% of Canadians attend Christian worship these days. I have seen other statistics that put the number slightly higher but none of the other statistical pictures of the church in Canada put attendance all that much higher.

A quick and very unscientific (on my part, anyway) web search reveals that a majority of Canadians still claim to be believers. The sites all make the usual disclaimers about statistical validity and so on and some lament that the numbers claiming faith have dropped over the years but the reality is that most people in Canada still claim to be followers of Christ.

For me, that raises a very important and troubling question. If people claim to be followers of Christ, why aren’t they in worship? You might suggest that that is a very biased and self-focused question, given that I am a pastor and have a vested interest in people attending worship. But I am choosing to overlook that part of the question for now—over the years, I have become comfortable with being the pastor of small congregations. I am excited when someone new discovers the church and/or the faith but I don’t define myself or my ministry by the numbers.

I approach the question as one who would like to know why the discrepancy exists. Surely, if we are part of something, we would be interested in being with people who are also part of that something. People seem to love to connect with those who share their thinking and interests. If I put out an invitation for left-handed, colour-blind people who like photography and cross country skiing but who are limited by seriously arthritic knees, I am pretty sure that before too long, I would have enough responses to form a club—by the way, I don’t want to be president, secretary or treasurer.

So why do such a significant number of people who claim to follow Christ not associate with other believers? Like any significant question, I am sure that there are many interlinked answers to that question, answers that I have been hearing and thinking about for many years. This isn’t an easy question nor it is one that can be answered with a simple or simplistic response.

One of the factors in the answer is certainly a lack of understanding of the nature of the church. Many people in Canada—well probably the whole Western world, but I am really only qualified to talk about Canada—many people here have either forgotten or never really understood the strong community base of the Christian faith. Christianity was conceived as a faith that brings about reconciliation. People are reconciled to God, to themselves and to others.

There is a lot of emphasis on the community in the Christian faith, including the very blunt and powerful message we find in I John 4.20-21: “If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.” (NIV)

This was written to believers to help them understand one of the essentials of their faith—our love of God is shown for what it really is in our relationship with other people, especially other believers. If we can’t actually use our faith in God to enhance our relationships with people who share our faith, then our claimed faith isn’t as significant as we think or hope it is.

In the New Testament, to be a believer is to be a part of a group of believers because it is within and through that group that we have our best opportunity to grow in faith. As we interact with each other in the presence of the Holy Spirit, we are enabled and enabling in the faith. That is the point of the church—it was planned as the safe place where faith can be cultivated and grown and expressed. But for a variety of reasons, believers have forgotten or ignored that important reality—to the detriment of both church and individual believers.

May the peace of God be with you.

COERCION OR CONVICTION?

I often find myself walking on a theological tight rope. I believe that God in Christ loves us with a perfect, unending and unconditional love. He loves us as we are—and the proof of that love and grace are seen clearly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. There is nothing I could, can or might do that will ever make God love me less or more; nothing that will limit or increase the grace that he offers to me through Jesus Christ. This is a basic and foundational reality of my faith.

If I just had this reality, I would be fine. Unfortunately, there is another equally valid reality that I need to deal with. I am not what I was meant to be. My being has been affected by sin—mine and others. Some of the effect isn’t my fault—it comes from living in a world deeply affected by human sin. But some of the effect of sin is my fault. I have made choices and followed paths that have taken me further and further away from the ideal that God had in mind when he began the creation process.

The tightrope I walk is the struggle to find the balance between these two realities. If I begin to believe that God’s love and grace are so powerful that my current imperfect state doesn’t matter, I will never grow in faith. But if I spend too much time on my imperfection, I run the risk of beginning to let my imperfection block my ability to appreciate the love and grace of God.

In both my ministry and my personal spiritual life, I have had to deal with the consequences of ignoring one of these realities and focusing too much on the other. Because I belong to the conservative part of the Christian faith, I am very familiar with the traditional conservative approach to this dichotomy. We have tended to see our imperfection more than we have seen the love of God.

We end up believing, but pretty sure that we are not good enough for God. We tend to be insecure about our faith—there is always the fear that some Biblical scholar is going to suddenly realize that the Bible actually says that God only loves us when we become perfect. We on the conservative side of the faith tend to do our faith thing from a sense of fear—we understand really well that we aren’t good enough but we really struggle to find the balance that a proper awareness of the love and grace of God will bring.

There are other believers whose sense of the love and grace of God allow them to completely ignore their imperfection—because God loves them, they can and do follow any path they want. Content and comfortable in the powerful love of God, they have no need to look at who they are and who they were meant to be.

For me, though, I need to be at the balance point. I know my imperfections, the places where I need to grow, the things I need to change. But I also need to remember that God in Christ loves me the way I am. He doesn’t want to change the negative parts of my being so that he can love me more. Part of the expression of his eternal love and grace is the willingness to help me discover more of what I was really meant to be, not so that God can love me more but simply so that I can be more me.

When I keep this balance, I am comfortable. I can grow and develop—or fail and not develop in the safe and protected limitlessness of God’s love. I don’t seek to grow because God coerces me. I seek to grow because the God who loves me also wants me to experience the good and wonderful that I have been keeping myself from experiencing because of the reality of sin.

Whether I grow on not, God’s love and grace continue to be there. But if I am willing to grow, I become more and more of what I was meant to be. God will not love me more either way—but I am more comfortable and more at home with myself, others and God when I open myself to grow as God leads me.

May the peace of God be with you.

FOLLOWING JESUS

I have been doing a lot of thinking these days about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. And mixed in with the questions and ideas and possibilities was a nagging and annoying thought that just wouldn’t go away. I would much rather spend time on other questions but this one keeps popping up both in my thinking and in my reading. And it probably should keep popping up because it is actually an important question.

The question that annoys me and stops me is this: If I want to follow Jesus, which Jesus do I follow?” It might seem like a pointless question—there is only one Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, who lived, died and rose to life, at least according to my sort of middle of the road theology. Unfortunately, the reality isn’t as simple as that. There are a variety of Jesus models out there. Basically, Jesus has been edited and redefined by everyone and their neighbour.

So, we have the gentle and mild Jesus who tells us to love everyone and be nice to each other but who can’t really seem to get any traction in dealing with drug addiction, family violence and the endemic lack of plaguing our culture.

We could switch to the militant Jesus whose tough, no nonsense approach demands obedience and is backed up by the threat of hell. This Jesus confronts the painful realities of human life with a big stick—but doesn’t offer much in the way of compassion and comfort.

Or we could follow one of the innumerable cultural versions of Jesus, the Jesus figures who support any culturally sacred idea that we want supported. There is a Jesus for carnivores and vegans; a Jesus for savers and spenders; a Jesus for hunters and animal rights activists; a Jesus for activists and pacifists. We live in a glorious age where there is a Jesus for everyone, a Jesus who can be counted on to support whatever we want supported and to condemn whatever (and whoever) we want condemned.

This multiplication of Jesus isn’t anything new—our culture might have a bit of an edge on the actual numbers of alternate Jesus models but there have always been multiple versions of Jesus. Even before the actual incarnation, there was serious disagreement over the nature and person of Jesus. The Old Testament prophets predicted one Messiah and the popular religious thinking wanted another.

When Jesus was teaching and preaching, there was serious disagreement over who he really was. Some saw him as a miracle worker who could feed people for free. Some saw a political liberator. Some saw a threat to the status quo.

After he died and came back, the number of versions increased. For some, he becomes a mythical figure whose life and resurrection probably didn’t happen but whose words have some great stuff behind them. Others see him as a shining example of what people who really know themselves can do. Over the years, more than a few have even claimed that Jesus is exactly like them because they are actually Jesus.

And in the midst of all of these confusing and often conflicting claims and counter claims, I want to follow Jesus. Would the real Jesus please stand up? But this isn’t a TV quiz show and the real Jesus isn’t going to stand up to the applause of the audience and the rest of the contestants who willingly reveal their deception and congratulate the real Jesus.

Finding the real Jesus among the fakes and frauds is both an important and demanding task. For me, the real process began many years ago with an interchange in a class room in Kenya. A couple of the students were setting me straight on the real Jesus and I found myself struggling to answer them. I was pretty sure that were wrong but didn’t know for sure how to deal with what they were saying.

I made a suggestion to the class that I at least have appreciated and have been using every since. I suggested that we shelve the actual discussion for a bit while we all took the time to re-read the four Gospels, which are our primary source material about Jesus. Where that that went is the focus of my next post.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHOSE SIDE IS JESUS ON?

I have been involved in learning about my faith from the very earliest beginnings of my faith journey. I have had a lot of teachers: my parents, pastors, professors, writers, friends, parishioners. Being a perpetual student allows me to learn from almost anyone and almost any situation. I have learned that I need to be discriminating and willing to evaluate what I am learning, though, because not everything I learn has equal value—and in the end, not everything I learn is true.

And that is important because it seems that the amount of information about faith has exploded. Mostly, this is a result of the increase in media options. Everyone today had an opinion and a way to make that opinion known. And so we are inundated with information about faith. And if we are not willing to think about what we hear and read, we are likely in trouble.

According to various media sources, for example, if Jesus were alive today, he would support banning assault weapons or he would be carrying an AR-15. He would be in favour of opening immigration doors wide or he would support restrictive regulations that protect our homes. Probably, he would speak in King James English—or maybe he would rap the Gospel. Jesus would be a capitalist—or a communist. He would be a conservative voter—or a liberal one. Jesus wants the unborn protected—but he also stands for reproductive rights. I personally am pretty sure that Jesus was left-handed but there are many others who suggest that he was right-handed.

Jesus and our faith get drafted by everyone and everybody who feels that their ideas and causes need a bit of a push. And the real tragedy is that no matter what side drafts Jesus, there are believers who are prepared to accept what they are told without question. The underlying reality is that we all want to assume that Jesus is like us and believes like us and that gives us a divine supporter for our side. The fact that the New Testament is silent on many of the major cultural issues allows us to pick and choose and cherry pick bits and pieces that we can weave into a divine approval of our side.

To see Jesus and the rest of the Christian faith as simply a support and confirmation of what we already believe and want is really to miss completely that reality of Jesus and the faith. Jesus didn’t come to us to confirm what we want confirmed. Jesus came because not one of us was getting it right. The best of us still weren’t what we were supposed to be. And if we couldn’t get it together individually, there was and is absolutely no chance that we can get it together as groups—our cultural standards are as shot through with wrong and evil as our personal standards.

Jesus came to rescue us from ourselves—and there was no question that we needed rescuing. We were going to hell in a handbasket. Jesus came to deal with our wrongs, beginning with the individual personal wrong in our lives and moving out from there to the cultural wrongs. To treat Jesus as anything but a divine statement about our inability to get it right is to miss entirely the point of the Christian faith and reduce Jesus to a personal and cultural flunky that we can use to support our stupidity, wrong and evil.

Jesus isn’t the supporter of our ideas that we often want him to be. In reality, he came to point out just how wrong we are and that even at our best, we are still a long way from what we were meant to be. He came to rescue us from our self-induced messes and at the same time, to stand as a clear and powerful statement in opposition to our self-centered wrongness. Rather than use Jesus to support our ways, we need to see Jesus as standing outside our lives, existing to show us a better way than any culturally, politically or personally correct idea that we might have.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE JOURNEY OR THE DESTINATION?

I grew up in a small community in a poor family. We didn’t have a car until I was 11 or so. That meant that in my early life, I really didn’t go too far. Although a couple of my siblings had medical issues that required them to travel all the way to the city, any health issues I had were taken care of by the local doctor, whose office we walked to. Travelling was something that other people did and I heard about or watched on TV.

Eventually, that changed and I began to travel. We got a car and I got to go to the city. I won a summer trip to the Caribbean in high school. I got my own car and travelled to university. I worked overseas. I have travelled a lot and hope to travel a lot more. But I realized a while ago that in the end, I don’t much like travelling—I like being other places but the process of getting there tends to be a pain. I would really like the Stat Trek transporter to be invented. Rather than drive or fly or whatever, I just want to be there, to do whatever it is that I want to be there to do.

That impatience with travel doesn’t seem to carry over into the rest of my life. I find that I am most comfortable and focused when I am working on something—I like to know where I am going but generally am not overly concerned with actually getting there. As a pastor, for example, I spend a lot of time and effort helping churches do self-evaluations and determine directions and make plans to move towards those directions.

In fact, most of my time as a pastor is spent with congregations moving from some place to another place. There are differences in the ultimate destination and significant differences in the journey to that destination and that is what makes things interesting, at least for me. We study, we discuss, we plan, we experiment, we implement, we revise, we pray, we take a few steps, we fall back, we make progress—we are on a journey.

My personal life follows the same pattern. There is always somewhere to go personally. Maybe I need to learn some new ability. Maybe I need to deal with some less than great part of my personality. Maybe I need to understand and change the way I react to certain people. If I am not perfect, there is always something that needs to be worked on—and when I get a bit lazy or complacent in that area, God has a tendency to make pointed and persistent suggestions.

If I had to, I could define the destination for our church journeys. When I need to, I can define the destination for my personal journeys. But most of the time, the journey is more important than the destination in both those areas. And I think the reason for that is that any destination for the church or me personally is always temporary. Doing the hard work of reaching the destination is important—but once I or we reach the destination, there is always another destination in the distance that is beckoning or which God is suggesting that we head for.

So, I make the journey to deal with my current bout of depression and arrive at the depression-free destination. That is great. I can stretch and relax and enjoy the destination—at least until I look ahead and see that maybe if I take this route, I just might be able to avoid then next bout of depression all together. And the journey begins again.

I am going to spend my whole life on the journey. But that is actually okay. I know where the whole thing is going and the final destination is pretty great. But before I reach that destination where I will be in the full and complete presence of God, there are a lot of journeys to a lot of temporary destinations—and I generally enjoy the journey.

I might not care much for the long hours sitting in cars, airports and airplanes required to visit my grandchildren but until the transporter is invented, I will cope because the destination is worth it. But on the journey to my final destination, both the journey and the destination are worth it.

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.

WOODWORKING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.