TRAFFIC CHECK

Sunday morning at about five minutes before worship time and most of our regulars aren’t there. I wasn’t expecting all that many to start with because the travel season has arrived and a lot of our people seek out warmer climates. But there were still some regulars not present and I was wondering what was going on.

The door opens and one couple come in with a story about being stopped at a traffic check, something that rarely happens on our very rural road. In their talk with the officers, the couple had told them they were on their way to worship. As we were talking and joking, a second regular comes in, also with a story of being stopped at the traffic check. He also told the officers he was on his way to worship and if they wanted to get warm, they could join us.

The door opens again and in come his visiting adult children, who also joke about being stopped by the police. They told the officers that their father was just ahead and was going to get to worship before them. Everyone is by now involved, joking about the stops and telling the latecomers how lucky they were not to get arrested.

Since it is now well past starting time, I begin to head for the pulpit when the door opens again—and we are joined by the two police officers, who want to know if they can come to our worship. We welcome them and I scramble to find copies of the papers I have passed out since they put our numbers well over my expectations.

We begin our worship: our small band of regulars, the visiting adult children and two police officers with all their equipment. As I always do when we have visitors, I make sure that I explain the various parts of the service so they know what it going on. The officers pay attention, participate in the singing and other aspects of the worship and generally appear to be there for more than just getting warm.

Just as I am getting to the conclusion of my sermon, the officers begin staring straight ahead and one of them whispers into her radio. As they get up and slip out, I thank them for coming and they wave, with one still talking on the radio.

I really don’t know why they showed up that day. It might be because it was a very cold day and about the only traffic to stop on our road at that time of day would have been the people on their way to our worship. But whatever it was, somehow our people provided a witness of some positive sort to these two officers. Each one stopped made it clear where they were going and one even invited them to join us.

I don’t know if they will ever show up again and I really don’t have much way to contact them. This was very much a serendipitous moment in our lives and, I hope, their lives. And sometimes, that is all we get. Sometimes, our witness is like that. It is nice when we see the whole process of witnessing in a person’s life and how the Spirit works but sometimes, maybe most times, we are a part of some bigger process where our involvement is decontextualized and we never see where it is going or how it is being used.

I do believe that God is at work, though and that through the Holy Spirit, he is using our brief contact with those two officers. God will use that contact in conjunction with many other contacts and events and witnesses to speak to them. But he isn’t just at work there—he is also at work in our churches. Bringing them to us was also a part of his process for us. We are a small group and we sometimes think we aren’t doing much. To see that God is working in and through and around us is a great thing—it reminds us that small or not, we are not forgotten, that God still has a place and a purpose for us in his plan for the redemption of the world.

I think it is exciting that even a routine traffic stop can be used by the Spirit to make a difference in the world.

May the peace of God be with you.

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THE VISIT

A recently retired friend invited me for a visit because another friend we both know was visiting them. I was happy to spend some time with all of them—the retired friend is living part-time in the area I serve as pastor and attends worship so I could multi-task. With that one visit, I was both improving my pastoral visit statistics and spending time with friends. That sounds like win-win to me.

All of us are or have been involved in ministry, either as pastors, missionaries or spouses of pastors. Inevitably, then, the conversation turned to ministry and we began telling stories. The friend of the friend was the most extroverted so managed to tell the most stories but we all go a chance to tell stories. Because I can’t do much in life without analysing and studying, I was keeping a sort of mental record of the stories—who told which story, which themes kept coming up, who responded to which story in which way.

The results were interesting. We were all telling stories about things, events and incidents that affected our ministry and that enhanced both our faith and our ministry. One of the people kept referring to times when God called him spend money he didn’t have—his faith commitment was always to help out someone who needed serious help. All of his stories ended with his amazement at how God had honoured his faith be ensuring that the money he spent and didn’t have was returned to him.

One of the other people present had obviously heard some of the stories before and really wanted to hear them again, to the point of asking someone to retell a particular story. It seemed that the retelling of the stories was an important part of their faith. This person also had their own stories, stories that focused on how God provided the support and help needed when they were facing scary times in ministry, like when God showed them that their step of faith in attending seminary wouldn’t result in their family starving.

I tended to tell stories of how God worked to make up some deficit in my life so that I could do the ministry I was called to or stories of how people I had taught or mentored went on to do what I considered significant ministry. Another told stories that indicated how God had provided the faith to enable them to follow in the scary footsteps of a partner whose faith was often several steps ahead of them.

At first, my analytical side was tempted to rank the stories. The temptation was to see the stories about money as less significant than my stories about real ministry or to see stories where the teller was the hero as less important than the ones where the teller didn’t look good. But I realized that this wasn’t actually a very productive avenue of thought (NOTE—I do actually process at several levels during conversations and can still maintain focus on what is being said).

This wasn’t a contest. This was a group of friends who had all spent serious time in ministry talking about the wonder of being a part of God’s work. We all approached ministry from our personal perspective; we all had different needs in our faith and ministry; we all had different skill and gift sets—but we were all still amazed that God had chosen us, equipped us and was willing to work through us. The stories were our expressions of amazement and gratitude.

And because we were all different, it is no surprise that the themes of our stories were different. God celebrates diversity. He encourages diversity. He created humanity to thrive on diversity. I don’t need other people to tell the same kind of stories I tell—I need to listen to their stories and hear how God is working in their lives so that I can grow in faith and my understanding of God, just as they can grow and develop in hearing my stories. If we all told the same story, what would be the point?

I enjoyed my visit so much that I felt a tiny bit guilty including it in my visitation statistics—not guilty enough to leave it out of the list, though. It was good to share time and stories with people I have known for years and whose lives have followed similar paths as mine. In our diversity, we enabled and encouraged each other.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE FAMILY REUNION

I come from a large family—I am the second oldest of nine. These days, we are scattered all over Canada, which is something of an improvement from the times when some of us have had international addresses. For a variety of reasons, we haven’t been together for a lot of years. A major factor in that has probably been that we have had no real family base for many years. Everyone in the family has moved out of the community we grew up in, the house has been sold and there was really no reason to go there.

But one brother has bought a house nearby and so this year, we had a family reunion. All but one of us attended, along with various partners, children, grandchildren, cousins and some whose relationship I am not totally sure of. For three days, we gathered, talked, laughed, ate and remembered. The hot, muggy, rainy weather didn’t create too many problems, although it made the family picture a bit more difficult and interrupted the camp fire.

Sometimes, as I was there, I was an observer. I love watching groups of people, seeing how they interact and fit together and structure themselves. I enjoyed the process of seeing who was being the extrovert; who was doing the work that needed to be done; who was talking to who; how the groups formed and reformed and all the rest. All the skills and abilities I have developed with groups of people over the years had a field day during the reunion. At one point, I was joking with my wife that maybe we should write an academic paper about the dynamics of the reunion.

That paper will never get written because although I can’t help but watch and analyse, I was a serious part of this group and so most of the time, I was participating. Well, I was participating in the stuff that a 66 year old with bad knees could participate in. I left “Capture the Flag” to the family members who have functioning knees. But most of the time, I was talking and joking and sharing with the rest of the family.

I was part of the ever shifting groups that spontaneously popped up as we caught up with each other, shared about the triumphs and tragedies of the past few years, reminded each other of this or that event. I got to know the next generations, many of whom were much older than they were when I last connected with them—some of them even have children of their own who were about the same age they were when I last saw them. I also had some time to connect fairly deeply with some of them.

At one point, one of the brothers brought the last contents of our mother’s apartment. While all of us had helped in the clearing out, these things were somehow missed and we needed to go through them, picking and choosing. That was a very mixed activity for all of us. The old photo albums were filled with funny pictures—my 70s and 80s hair was a source of much comment and laughter. But the other bits and pieces in the box brought other, sadder emotions—I found the watch that Dad had been given for 25 years at his work place which was exciting and sad at the same time.

At one point, I found myself sitting beside a great-nephew I didn’t know too well explaining who the people in the pictures were, helping him see where he fit in this collection of people—seeing a picture of his great, great grandparents helped him see more of the context of his life. Helping him see that helped me see more of the context of my life as well.

I don’t really know when or if we will get together again. Most of us are getting on and some health issues are beginning to show up. We talked about getting together again and I expect we will once someone is willing to take on the task of organizing and arranging the whole thing. I am not sure that as many of us will make it to another one (a sad idea) but I will look forward to the next one—maybe even I will help arrange it.

May the peace of God be with you.

AN INTERESTING MEETING

I was working on a sermon recently and remembered a meeting that I attended years ago that seemed to be a perfect illustration of a point I was trying to make. Since the story involved our time in Africa, I kept thinking about it after finishing the sermon—and even after preaching the sermon, the story of that meeting stayed with me. The more I think about the story, the more I discover exciting realities about God and the Christian faith and the difference it can make to individuals and the world.

The meeting happened in a classroom of a pastoral training school in Rwanda. The school was somewhat hard to get to—either a four hour drive over roads that included a rickety bridge that we walked over after the car successfully made it across or a 30-40 minute boat trip. We were meeting with the school faculty and officials of the denomination that ran the school.

The meeting included both Hutus and Tutsis—and although this was about 10 years after the genocide, the scars and trauma were still obvious and real. Several of those at the meeting has lost family members, others had suffered personally, all carried emotional issues relating to that time. There were some others there from the Congo, who were dealing with their own issues from the genocide and the civil war happening then in the Congo. There was one Kenyan, separated from his family and somewhat concerned about what was going on back home. And there was also two Canadians. While we didn’t carry the emotional load that some of the others did, we were part of the wider international community which had effectively ignored the genocide and was pretty much ignoring the civil war in the Congo.

The first order of business was language. With so many languages represented, we had to discover one that we could all work with. At the end of a brief discussion, we discovered that all of us at the meeting were fluent in Kiswahli, a language that none of us were born speaking. All of us had learned to speak it as at least our second language.

That to me provided an essential key to understanding the significance of this meeting. None of us felt the need to insist on our native or national language. It would have been possible for some group or another to insist that we meet in their language and rely on translators for those of us who couldn’t speak the chosen language. The Rwandans didn’t insist on Kinyarwanda. We Canadians didn’t insist on English. We happily went with a language that all of us spoke with some degree of fluency so that we could all be a direct part of the meeting.

For me, this has always been a Kingdom moment. We met there in that classroom as fellow believers. We were discussing ways that we could work together to carry out the work God was setting before us. And we were able to do that in spite of all the barriers that could have disrupted the meeting, things like ethnic tensions, national rivalries, language issues, cultural issues, national and international politics and on and on.

The Kingdom brings people together. Our shared faith bridges divisions. Our faith in God through Christ changes our perspective. We learn how to work together. We learn how to care for each other. We learn how to give up what some consider important for the sake of a bigger cause, the Kingdom of God.

We met together and the spirit and flavour of the meeting was set by our common willingness to give up our language for the sake of the others. We all gave up our fluency and familiarity with our birth language to work in a second or third language that none of us spoke well but which we all spoke well enough to understand each other. That is the Kingdom at work, one of the many manifestations of the Kingdom here and now that give us a glimpse of what the fullness of the Kingdom will be like.

The Kingdom call us out of our selfish and sinful ruts and allows us to open ourselves to the wonder of being united with the rest of God’s Kingdom people so that we can all reach well beyond our human limits.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE PLAN

It was a good plan, one that took into account both our needs and allowed us to get our stuff done without causing either of us to have a long wait.  Basically, we both had to see people in the regional hospital an hour or so from home but we both also had a variety of other things to do–and since there were no real tempting movies playing, it would be an there and back trip, with the obligatory stop at the big grocery story.

The plan was simple.  Before I headed to my appointment to get my hearing aids checked, I would drop my wife off at the store where she was looking for something.  Then, when my appointment was done, I would call her and we would meet for lunch in the downtown area, after which we would do our hospital visits and shopping.  Cell phones are a tremendous blessing when it comes to coordinating plans.

I actually got to see the hearing aid tech a bit early and the work they needed to do didn’t take all that long so I was back to the car within 10-15 minutes.  The first attempt to call didn’t work–but I assumed that it was just because the phone and the car Bluetooth systems hadn’t finished talking to each other to get working together.  I decided to head downtown, find a parking spot near the restaurant and try again–after all, I was early so I had time.

After the fifth failed attempt, I was beginning to think my phone wasn’t working.
After the tenth, I was positive there was a problem with the phone and was wondering if there was a phone store in the area where I could get the phone fixed or replaced.  After a few more tries, I remembered that there were still pay phones in the town and headed for them–I actually had some change with me.  After three attempts, I still wasn’t able to make a connection.

Frustrated, angry and hungry, I walked around the area, looking in all the stores I thought my wife might be in.  Eventually, she appeared–frustrated, hungry and wondering why her cell phone wasn’t working and why I hadn’t called.  Eventually, we discovered that one whole communication company infrastructure had gone down–the company we used.  We eventually got lunch, saw the people we needed to see and did our shopping.  Of course, we needed to visit the bank to get real money since the collapse took out most store credit card machines.

So, I am a preacher, which means that I need to find a moral in everything that happens–sermon illustrations are an important part of my life.  This is a good story but I need to find the right sermon to drop it into.  In fact, it is such a good story that it should probably have the prime spot in the sermon.  Since I serve two different collections of churches, I will get to use to twice, maybe with different applications.

But right now, I am not exactly sure how I will use it.  I am mostly aware of how much a relatively new technology has become such a basic part of my life.  The first phone I used was a basic black Bakelite device fastened to the wall with a battery box under it and a crank to connect with the operator who would put the call through.  Now, I have a high-tech device that will call anyone, connect to the internet, give me directions, figure out my finances, and help me hang pictures (I discovered and installed a carpenter level app).

With the old wall mounted phone, I could only connect with people if I was standing within the length of the phone cord on the handset.  With the cell phone, I can call my friend in Kenya who is so far out of the way that his friends pity him.  But of course, that only happens when the system works, which it didn’t the other day.

I am sure there is a great sermon illustration in that–but I just have to figure out how I want to use it.  I am sure it will come to me.  The fact that I have two chances helps.

But in  the meantime, the next time we make a plan that depends on the cell phone, I may also include a backup plan.

May the peace of God be with you.

IN THE GRAVEYARD

I led a funeral the other day and after the service and committal, one of the funeral home staff and I were talking as we waited for people to leave so she could take me back to my car at the church building–this wasn’t a drive around graveyard, you have to go out the same way you came in.  The conversation began with a discussion of the ages on some of the stones–this was an old graveyard, going back more than 100 years.  Then, the conversation turned to funerals–I am not actually sure how we got there but we did.

In essence, the discussion dealt with the length of funerals and particularly the funeral message.  Her comment was that many that she heard were way too long–the speaker went on and on, long after the people at the service had stopped listening.  Now, I know she wasn’t talking about my message that day–I have a reputation for having short funeral messages and she had already told me that she thought what I said was very appropriate.

The conversation got me thinking about a lot of things having to do with the process of pastors and preachers speaking to people.  My personal experience as a listener to such things is somewhat limited since I am mostly the one doing the talking.  But I do occasionally attend other pastor’s services and occasionally attend funerals that I am not leading.  I have also spend some time teaching preaching and preachers which does have some application to this blog.

My admittedly very biased opinion is that many of us in ministry talk too much.  Our sermons are too long, our funerals are too long, sometimes even our grace before meals is too long.  When I say too long, I am not thinking strictly in terms of seconds, minutes or even hours. I am thinking about the perception of the listener.  When the listener stops listening, the speaker has gone on too long.

There are of course some realities to keep in mind.  Some people are never going to listen, no matter who is speaking and what they are saying and how long or short it is.  Some are going to be trying to listen but their personal circumstances will get in the way.  But aside from that, there is a point for most people where the speaker should shut up and when that point is passed, people stop listening.

I tend to be fairly sensitive to groups I am speaking to and am aware of how I am being heard.  I used to think that that was a normal part of the process for speaking in public–we pay attention to the audience response and stop speaking before they stop listening.  But I learned early that this just isn’t the case.  Way to many speakers–preachers, politicians, advocates of various kinds–don’t know when to stop talking.

On my cynical days, I think that comes about because the speaker really has no respect for or understanding of the people they are speaking to.  On my less cynical days, I think that maybe the speaker is so carried away with their topic they can’t stop or that they never really learned how to read an audience and measure their response.

But whether it is a cynical day or a less cynical day, the reality is that a great many audiences of all kinds are forced to sit through a barrage of words that may have started well but which go beyond the point of being helpful and become a waste of time for the audience.  I would like to say that it is a waste of time for the speaker as well but sometimes, I think some people who speak beyond the capacity of the listeners to listen are speaking because they love to hear themselves talk and so that may not be wasting their time–but it would be better for everyone if they were talking in a different place.

As a pastor, a preacher, a teacher and occasionally as a friend, I have spent a lot of time teaching preachers and other public speakers that one of the vital skills of speaking is knowing what to say and for how long to say it.  Knowing when to stop is as vital a part of speaking as knowing how and what to say.

May the peace of God be with you.

COME, LET US WORSHIP

In the early days of computing, when computers were big and expensive and owned by companies and universities, I used to hang around with some of the computer students–people who would be identified as “nerds” at this point.  Back then, they were the ones who got to play with the multi-million dollar toys in the computer science department.  One of their favourite sayings was “GIGO”–which translates to “Garbage in, Garbage out”.

While they were referring to programming and the results from any given program, GIGO applies in many areas of life, including worship.  Worship is intended to be our heartfelt and sincere response to God, a response that recognizes and acknowledges God’s presence and activity and love and grace and all the rest.  But worship mostly depends on what the worshipper is willing to put into the worship.

Certainly, the worship leader does have some effect on worship–the development and leading of a worship event helps the worshippers a great deal in the process.  But no matter how good the worship leader; no matter how well prepared the service; no matter how good the music; no matter how inspired the sermon, worship depends in the end on the willingness of the worshipper to give themselves to the worship.

When  the worshipper gives garbage to the worship, garbage is the result not worship.  We bring garbage to the worship when we get hung up on the physical setting–too hot or cold or the seats too soft or hard or the windows too bright or too stained glassy or the worship leaders are dressed too formally or too informally or–well, that particular garbage list is endless.

We also bring garbage to worship when we are seeing our fellow worshippers as anything but brothers and sisters in Christ.  When we are at odds with some of them; when we don’t bother to get to know some of them; when we don’t respect them; when their needs and abilities are ignored, we bring garbage to worship because ours is a community faith and we cannot really say that we are worshipping God until we have acknowledged and respected and loved the community that joins together for worship.

We bring garbage to the worship when we come unprepared to receive the presence of God in all elements of the worship.  I am not the most musically minded person in the world and so if I choose to shut off during the music, I am bringing garbage to the worship.

We worship when we come together, acknowledging each other and our mutual faith as well as our mutual journeying to become what God knows we can become.  Sometimes, that means that we spend time before worship greeting each other and sometimes, it might mean asking for or giving forgiveness.

We worship when we open ourselves to the elements of worship.  Each has place and a part in helping us as we seek to offer ourselves to God.  Music tends to open our emotions to God, the sermon seeks to open our minds to God, the offering seeks to help us worship in a tangible way, the prayers are there to help us become more aware of God.  Worship that is truly offered to God seeks to use each of the elements as a stepping stone on the way to a deep awareness of the God who is already present.

We worship when  we offer ourselves to God. If I come to worship happy, I offer my happiness to God.  If I come to worship stressed, I offer my stress to God.  If I come to worship tired, I offer my tiredness to God.  I offer it all to him because he has seen it all, he knows it is there and when  I offer it to him, he can work in and through and with and in spite of it.

We worship when we come prepared to surrender to God our desire to get something out of worship.  Worship isn’t about what we get–it is about what we give to God.  When worship is about what we want to get, it isn’t worship because it isn’t about God.

We worship when we honestly come to God by seeking to see him as he is:  present, loving and caring no matter where we are or what is going on.  When we begin with attitudes and desires like this, we don’t bring garbage to worship–and we will worship.

May the peace of God be with you.

A PRAYER REQUEST

I mentioned gossip in the last post and that began a train of thought leading to this blog.  Mentioning gossip reminded me of a joke I sometimes use when talking about gossip and the church.  It goes like this:

Q:  How do Baptists (or whatever group you prefer) gossip?

A:  They say, “I have a prayer request to share with you.”

We humans love to gossip but since gossip is one of those things specifically mentioned in the lists of things we believers shouldn’t do, we need to find a way to do it that at least sounds acceptable.  We all know that the prayers are really a minor part of the whole process but it at least gives a veneer of respectability to something which is no different from what everyone does.

We humans love to talk about other human beings.  Sharing what we know, think we know or speculate we know is probably as old as speech.  Probably the first intelligible conversation between people was a warning about the predator hiding in the tall grass–but the second was probably someone telling about how so and so was so stupid that he almost got eaten by the predator.

Gossip seems to be almost a necessity for humanity.  Get people together, provide coffee, tea, wine, beer or boredom and the talk will almost always turn to someone who isn’t present.  Rarely will it stay on basic concern for that person’s welfare.  Eventually, the comments will become negative, pointed and exaggerated.  Depending on the status of the individual in the group, the comments can be gentle or nasty but in the end, the group members will feel something that made the process of talking about the absent one(s) worthwhile.  The person being talked about, however, rarely gains status as a result of the conversation.

And this is the real problem with gossip–it contributes to a lessening of both the one being gossiped and those doing the gossiping.  There are certainly legitimate times and reasons to talk about someone who isn’t present–but in general, the purpose isn’t to help anyone but to make the gossipers feel something–a superiority, a sense of being better, a feeling of being in the know, all at the expense of the absent person’s reputation.

As a pastor, I have an ambivalent relationship to gossip.  I think it is wrong to talk about someone absent without their permission and knowledge.  But at the same time, the gossip going around the church and community often provides me with important information that benefits my ministry–the gossip helps me anticipate and deal with issues that may or may not develop in the church.

But in order to get the information, I have to hear the gossip, which encourages the whole process.  I let people know that as pastor, I am not going to tell them anything I know about people and their situations because of confidentiality issues but in the end, it is as much gossiping to hear it as to say it.  I am still working on that dilemma because it does help me as pastor to know what is being said.  Could I do my work without hearing a lot of what I hear–probably–but I would likely be slower picking up on some things that are easier dealt with earlier.

If I could make everyone stop gossiping, things would be great.  But in truth, I can’t even really control myself in that area.  Give me a cup of coffee, some free time and a group of non-church friends and before too long, I am telling the group about our mutual acquaintance who….

So, at best I am a passive consumer of gossip (purely for professional reasons) and at worst, I am as involved as anyone on the giving and receiving of gossip.  But then, it gets even more complicated.

I am sometimes called upon to give a reference for people, a process that generally involves no more than writing a letter.  But sometimes, I get a call from the person who received the letter.  Or, I might simply be contacted about someone in the context of a job search, asking me about someone we both know.  Is it gossip to talk about the person to the prospective employer?

This is getting complicated.  Maybe I need to figure out just what gossip is–it might help me to know when I am receiving and sharing legitimate and important information as opposed to gossiping.   So that is my task and the topic for the next post–what is gossip?

May the peace of God be with you.

THE DINNER PARTY

There is an interesting story about Jesus in Luke 7.36-50 that reveals great deal about Jesus’ character and the character of people around him.  Jesus was a wandering religious teacher who was becoming very popular with a great many people–things like healings, providing food and showing love and compassion were causing a great many people to seek him out and spend time with him.

Some of the religious leaders thought it would be a good idea to get to know more about Jesus–this story is obviously set in the days before the religious leaders were actively plotting to get rid of Jesus.  So, one of them, called Simon, invited Jesus to eat with him.  The meal was going along well until there was an unexpected interruption.  An uninvited guest showed up–a woman whose reputation in the community was well known.  As this uninvited and unwelcome guest is washing Jesus feet with her tears and anointing them oil, the dinner party is scandalized.

Simon, the host, a man seen as religious and moral, mutters to himself–he is not happy that the woman in there.  His is a religious household and this sinful woman is tainting his house and the dinner party.  The fact that Jesus is letting this woman touch him is even worse–Jesus is claiming to be a religious leader and this awful woman is actually touching him.  If Jesus knew who she was, he would be as horrified as Simon, or at least that is what Simon feels.

Simon is a product of his time and place.  He, like many others, believed that the effects of sin could be transmitted by contact.  There are lots of laws in the Old Testament dealing with what happens when something defiled touched something clean–and generally, the consequence of this touching is that the clean object is made unclean and must be either destroyed or ceremonially cleansed.  So, when Simon sees this unclean woman touching Jesus, he thinks that her touch is making Jesus unclean–and what makes it worse is that Jesus is allowing it–if he only knew.

What Simon doesn’t know or doesn’t want to know is that Jesus does know who is touching him.  Jesus has divine insight and is fully aware of all that this woman has done and all that has been done to her.  When he allows her to wash his feet and anoint them, he is not only fully aware of who she is but also doesn’t care what she has done or will do.

This story is a powerful example of the character of Jesus and the character of Simon.  And while I would love to say that I identify with Jesus here, the truth is that I am more often reacting like Simon, condemning and judging.

I see someone on the highway do something really stupid and dangerous–and call him an idiot, overlooking the fact that I may have done the same thing recently.  I hear on the news about someone arrested for some offense and feel vaguely superior because I don’t do things like that.  I drive to worship on Sunday morning feeling smug because I am going to worship and am not suffering from a hangover like some in the houses I drive by.

Simon is alive and well at least in me.  While I teach and preach on the need to be like Jesus–I can do a great sermon of this woman and Jesus’ reaction to her and how we should be more like Jesus–but in the end, I am more like Simon than I want to admit to myself or to God.

Fortunately, God through Jesus has made the same grace available to me that was available to Simon’s unwelcome guest–and that was available to Simon as well for that matter.  Jesus doesn’t mind my being around him any more than he minds that woman being around him.  He offers me the same forgiveness that he offered the woman–and had available for Simon as well.

When I show up as an uninvited and even unwelcome guest, at least by some, Jesus is going to treat me the same as he treated this woman, whose life story he knew completely and totally, just as he knows mine and Simon’s.  I would rather be like the woman in the story than  like Simon–and that realization helps me as I work at trying to overcome myself to be more like Jesus.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE KID TEST

            In some of the courses I have taught at various times and in various places, I look closely  at the character of the pastor.  Now, the way pastors see themselves and what persona they choose to project has always fascinated me.  Various sources counsel pastors to adopt various characteristics, ranging from distant, formal and commanding to meek acceptance of everything.  Most pastors tend to be drawn towards the more powerful and dynamic end of the spectrum, as were many of the students I was teaching at that point.

And so I generally introduce students to what I call “The Kid Test” for pastors.   I did run into a bit of a problem when I taught the test Kenya–I had to spend some time helping the students understand that the English word “kid” didn’t just refer to young goats but could also be used for children before I could actually explain the test.

The Kid Test is simple–we look at how people react to children–or more properly, we look at how people in leadership and children react to each other.  Some people in leadership ignore children, even their own, completely.  It is as if the kids don’t exist.  They are non-beings who might have potential but who aren’t worth the bother right now.  Kids soon learn to ignore such leaders in return.

Others might notice the kids but only to make sure they aren’t doing something they shouldn’t be doing, like breathing or smiling or worst of all, laughing and making other noise.  These leaders require that if children are present, they must be controlled by others.  They might see value in the children (after all, children are the future of the church, they say) but the children must behave.  Children respond to these leaders in one of two ways:  their either run from them or they purposely set out to irritate these leaders.

And there are a few leaders who love having children around, who love the noise and confusion and who might rather be playing with the kids than doing whatever grownup stuff they are doing.  Kids love these leaders and want to be with them and even offer to share toys and snacks with them.

When I taught the basics of the test, I then asked students to think of pastors they knew and look at how these pastors responded to kids.  Then I asked them to think about how the kids responded to the pastors.  To protect everyone involved, I always insisted that no names be used as we discussed.  The third stage in the test was to ask the students to think about how they and the rest of the congregation responded to the pastor.   The process generally revealed that the way pastors treated kids mirrored the way those same pastors treated the rest of the congregation.

There is a point to this story–most of the time, I am not a preacher (or writer) who uses stories just for the sake of using it.  I developed the kid test a while ago, after reflecting on some of the stories of Jesus from the Gospels.  Jesus had significant interactions with children and the stories indicate that there was a mutual respect and like there.

In one story, taken from Matthew 9.13-15, the disciples want to save Jesus from being interrupted by children, only to have Jesus stop what he was doing and welcome the children.  He blesses them and everyone is happy.  In other places in the Gospels, we find Jesus telling people to develop a child-like faith or we won’t become a part of the kingdom of God (Luke 18.17).  As well, he tells us that welcoming a child is like welcoming him (Luke 8.47-48).

What was Jesus like?  He was a warm and welcoming person who cared for children and to whom children responded in a positive way.  I think we can easily extend this obvious care for children to a wider care for all who are weak and vulnerable.  It may be that when we get so concerned about our own position and authority and dignity, we have missed the point.

If we are too important or scared or uncertain or whatever to open ourselves to children, we will likely be to whatever to open ourselves to anyone else either.  We will have failed the kid test.  Being Christ-like is hard work, especially when His example challenges some of our deepest personality traits.

May the peace of God be with you.