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.

JUDGEMENT DAY

When I begin to think about what Jesus was actually like, my thoughts almost immediately turn to the story found in John 8.1-11.  It appears to me that this story has presented problems for the church since it happened.  While most translations include the story, there are often notes suggesting that the story doesn’t appear in some early manuscripts or appears in some other place.  The general feeling is that this is a true story about Jesus but the nature of the story presented some serious problems.

We lose some of the impact of the story because of the moral climate we live in.  Adultery is still a serious issue–but there are so many more moral and ethical issues that people today would consider much more serious.  Even within the church, there have been cases of high profile church leaders being caught in adulterous relationships who feel justified in continuing on in ministry.

But in Jesus’ day, there were few moral issues more serious than adultery.  For a variety of cultural and religious reasons, the Jewish faith considered the marriage bond sacred–and breaking that bond was an offense requiring the death penalty (Leviticus 20.10).  For the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, this provided a perfect opportunity for them to discredit Jesus.

I think they knew enough about Jesus and his teaching that they were aware he wouldn’t want to have the woman killed.  But if he took as stand against the Law, they could prosecute him for breaking the law.  If he went along with them and agreed to the execution, that would destroy his reputation among the people.

What didn’t happen in the story is as important as what did happen.  At the end of the story, the woman walks away, alive and uncondemned.  Her accusers slink away, leaving behind their condemnation and stones.  The woman has not confessed, hasn’t begged for forgiveness, hasn’t apologized but she has been forgiven–at least that would be my understanding of Jesus words in John 8.11, ” … neither do I condemn you…” (NIV)

The woman, whose guilt doesn’t seem to be questioned, walks away freely.  The religious leaders, whose official guilt isn’t supposed to exist, slink away in embarrassment. Is that any way for a story dealing with religion and morals and all that to end?  No wonder the early church had such a hard time with the story–it seems to allow people to get away with their sins, something that was unheard of in that day.  Religious people want sins to be condemned–and that often means that we want sinners condemned.

But here is Jesus basically ignoring sin.  He focus on the people in the story, wanting all involved to make changes.  He gets the religious leaders to make a change–they lose their desire to execute this woman.  He encourages the woman to change her ways but when he says, “Go now and leave your life of sin.” he doesn’t even give her an “or else”.

My guess is that the story ran into trouble because of the fact that it seems to treat sin lightly.  But the point of the story isn’t that Jesus was being soft on sin.  The point of the story is that Jesus is showing us that for him, people are always more than their sins and helping them is more important than punishing their sin.  Jesus knows how serious sin is–he came into the world to be a solution for the problem of sin and was willing to die to solve the problem of sin.  But because he had the solution for sin taken care of, he is free to focus on people and helping them in love and grace.

Maybe we in the church would be better off if we followed this pattern and began to ignore sin so that we could focus on really providing people with the love and grace of God.  If we accept the reality that Jesus dealt with the seriousness of sin with his death and resurrection, we can forget about dealing with sin and deal with real people who have a real need to understanding the love and grace of God that Jesus shows so powerfully here.

This desire to love people, to look beyond their sins, to love them in spite of their sins–this provides us with powerful insight into what Jesus was like and an equally powerful insight into what we need to be like.

May the peace of God be with you.

SHANNON

I had originally planned on using the current story theme for a few days and then move on to something else but I kept thinking about stories that meant something to me so the string has been extended a bit. Shannon’s story has given me a lot to think about since it happened so today, I want to share it.

Shannon was one of our students during our last time working in Kenya. Because of the interesting process of translating English names into an African language, her name is actually pronounced something like “sha NAN”. Shannon, like the majority of our theology students, came from a small, rural church. I didn’t know her pastor but my African counterpart, Mwangi, knew him and described him as a very conservative and very opinionated individual.

Shannon seemed to have happily followed in his footsteps. Almost from the very first time I stepped into the class room, it felt like we were at war. As a teacher, I feel it is part of my task to stretch students by showing them other ideas and other ways of thinking. Whether they accept these new things is up to them–but if they don’t accept them, they at least need to be able to explain why they accept what they accept.

So, as I threw out some ideas and thoughts, Shannon began making it clear that if we disagreed, I was wrong and she was right. Her logic and reasoning was simple and blunt–she was right because she believed what Christians believed. While not every class ended in a debate over whatever theological or Biblical or practical point I was trying to get across, it did happen with great regularity.

At first, I thought it was because I was not from the ABC and not Kenyan. But then I watched the same thing happen to Mwangi during the courses we taught together–and Mwangi was much closer to her thinking than I was.

Now, technically, both Mwangi and I were guilty of breaking one of the cardinal rules of the Kenyan education system. At various assemblies of students during my time there, school leadership made it clear to the students that teachers were the experts and students were supposed to listen, accept and regurgitate on the exams. Since I really can’t teach that way and Mwangi didn’t much care for that approach to education, we ignored the rule in our classroom, allowing debate and discussion and requiring that students support what they believed, even if they disagreed. We were careful to warn students that different rules applied to our class and while they could say what they wanted in our class, they had to obey the rules in other classes.

So, for two years, going to teach Shannon’s class was an adventure–I never knew what would set off a debate. After a while, I learned some of the triggers and only opened the topics if I felt the debate would enhance the teaching process. Shannon consistently disagreed, debated and in the end, generally refused to budge even one word from her position.

Anyway, we reached the end of our time in Kenya. My last day at the school, I decided to visit all the classes I taught, thank them, have prayer with them and say goodbye. The students were studying for exams and so appreciated a break. As I expected, the visits were emotional for all of us, with wishes that we could stay, thanks for what we had taught, some tears and some prayers.

When I got to Shannon’s classroom, I entered thinking that probably the only person happy to see us leave would be Shannon. I talked with the students, they expressed their sorrow, asked me why I couldn’t stay–just like the others. I asked them to join hands in a circle so we could pray together and prayed for them. At the “amen”, the circle broke up and I noticed Shannon heading for her seat–obviously in tears. She didn’t want us to leave.

It seems that the debating and discussion and even argument was more important than I realized. I think the freedom to disagree and debate and not be forced to adopt a position touched something in Shannon. Her tears, more than anything else, made me feel that I had actually accomplished something in the classroom.

May the peace of God be with you.