A GOOD COMBINATION

There are some things in life that are just made to go together. Hamburgers obviously need fries to be complete. Abbot needs Costello to make the comedy work. The Old Testament needs the New Testament for the Christian revelation to be fully understood. A blank page (or computer screen these days) needs meaningful words to become something valuable and inspiring. A good stew needs uglai to be perfect. (If you haven’t tried stew and ugali, trust me—or better yet visit East Africa and try it out).

Another combination that makes sense but which works out less often that a burger and fries is the combination of a pastor and a congregation. When the combination works, it is a beautiful thing. When it doesn’t work, it is a disaster not only for the church and the pastor but also for the wider Christian community because it shows our inability to actually follow the faith that we claim.

There are a variety of reasons why the combination doesn’t work. Sometimes, both congregations and pastors enter the relationship without God’s clear leading. That combination is going to fail simply because it results from people presuming to know as much or more than God. They either ignore the need to consult God on the potential combination or assume that what they want it what God wants.

While that is unfortunately a more common reality than most churches and pastors want to admit, I am going to ignore it in this post—I may deal with it sometime. Today, I want to look at why a combination put together by God goes wrong. Presumably, if God in his infinite wisdom brings together a pastor and a combination, it is literally a match made in heaven—so why would it fail?

Most of the time, the match fails because one side or the other or both forget something vital and important. They forget that God himself has selected this congregation and this pastor to be linked together for this point in time. God created the combination because at the point in time the pastor and congregation come together, it is the very best for both in the ever unfolding divine plan for the redemption of creation.

That may sound like a pretty big understanding of what is a very common reality—afterall, there are probably millions of churches around the world and therefore millions of pastor/congregation combinations. Do all of them have that same divine seal of approval making that particular combination a significant and vital part of God’s overall plan of redemption? Well, if both congregation and pastor ( and denominational leadership where applicable) have faithfully engaged in the process and have been fully open to the leading of the Spirit, then yes, their combination is a divinely planned connection that has a part to play in the overall process of moving a sin-scarred world towards its eventual rebirth.

And if that is true, then congregation and pastor need to work together to discover what God envisions them as being a good combination. The gifts, talents, needs and potentials of both pastor and congregation have been carefully and divinely considered and the combination brought together so that the congregation can continue to develop in faith, so that the pastor can continue to develop in faith and so that the overall momentum leading to the full redemption of creation can be maintained. When either the pastor or congregation—or both—forget the divine reality behind their being together, the whole thing gets out of whack.

Instead of seeing their combination as being for the betterment of both and the advancement of the kingdom, each side sees only what they want and seek to achieve it at the expense of the other—and also at the expense of putting yet another kink in the overall plan of redemption which God then has to work around.

Much better for both pastor and congregation to recognize the divine nature of their calling, to accept the need for mutual submission, to humbly seek the Spirit’s guidance as they seek to discover and express the reason for their coming together. When pastor and congregation mutually submit to each other and all submit to God, they are truly a good combination that will work even better than stew and ugali because stew and uglai will have a temporary effect while a good combination of pastor and congregation will have eternal effects.

May the peace of God be with you.

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I’M RIGHT—YOU’RE WRONG

I have been a news junkie most of my life, something I am pretty sure I inherited from my father. I can sort of remember as a relatively new reader waiting somewhat impatiently for my father to finish reading the newspaper so I could have a chance at it, not just for the funny pages but for the front page and the opinion page and all the other stuff contained within the pages. I probably spend at least a couple of hours a day reading and watching news from a variety of sources.

This can be a depressing occupation—I have many friends who simply refuse to pay any attention to news in any form. All of those friends think I am a bit strange but I can live with that. What I can’t live with is not knowing what is going on in the world.

I am pretty sure that a major part of my desire to know what is going on in the world comes from the fact that I am by nature an accumulator and analyser of information, which I then use to develop theories, understand trends, project possibilities and illustrate sermons and Bible studies. I like to know and understand what is going on so that I can make projections about what is coming.

These days, my thinking as a result of the news reports I imbibe are making me nervous. There is a powerful force towards disunity, division and dissension being exhibited all over the world these days. Everyone wants their own way—and anyone or anything that stands in the way of that is wrong. And when someone or something is wrong, they can be ridiculed, put down, sidelined, disrespected, attacked physically, legislated against, demonized—I can’t think of any more words but the picture should be clear.

Our world is following a dangerous road because the less respect and appreciation we have for others and their ideas, the more we increase the potential for conflict. The less I see someone and their ideas as valid, the more likely I am to treat them as less than human. The more I see difference as a threat, the more likely I am to attack. The bigger the threat, the more serious the attack. The progression from words to civil action to legislative action to physical action is well documented and strongly in evidence all over the world.

Whether it is one politician calling into question the intelligence or nationalism of another; a person of one sexual orientation calling someone of another a pervert; a person of one race abusing a person of another race; a zealot bombing the home of an opposing zealot the pattern is clear—we are developing a new ethic that allows us to hate and disrespect and abuse those whose views and ideas are different from ours.

Except that this isn’t a new ethic. It is almost the oldest ethical approach in the book. One early version of the process has one man killing his brother because the brother got praised for his sacrifice to God. This approach to life and others has repeated itself throughout history—it seems we human beings can’t get enough of hatred, prejudice and self-centeredness. I, my, me always seeks to come out on top—we all want them to be at least subservient to us—and it would be even better if they simply didn’t exist. And history is filled with stories of people who tried to get rid of all the “thems” in their world.

There is, of course, a different way, a way also contained in the book that has the story of the brother killing his brother. That way involves embracing the other, respecting the different, seeking the common ground between we and them. Of course, there is a catch to this other way.

Before we can really follow the other way, we have to acknowledge that neither we nor they are at the centre of creation. Creation isn’t human-centric. It is God-centric. And when we begin to see that God is at the centre, we can begin to see things differently, if we are willing to submit to the God who is really at the centre of all creation. As we submit and begin to see things through God’s eyes, the differences we magnify become less and less important.

May the peace of God be with you.

GETTING BETTER!?

My list of hoped for gifts always includes gift certificates for the various ebook sources I regularly buy from. Every gift event throughout the year gives me a few certificates, which I ration out over the course of the year, picking and choosing books that look interesting. I recently finished one of the resulting purchases. I didn’t particularly agree with everything the writer said, which is always a plus for me—why bother to read something I already agree with?

One of the themes of this book was that humanity is getting better and better. As a species we are maturing and developing and becoming….The writer couldn’t actually say what we were becoming—but I will get to that in a bit.

In many ways, he was repeating an idea in vogue near the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Now, I am old but not that old but some of the reading I have done so much of over the years supplied this information. At that point, various writers were assuring us that humanity was getting better and better all the time. Those writers did have a goal and a direction in mind. Many of them were writing from a Christian perspective and were sure that humanity was becoming more and more what God planned us to be.

The recent book I read wasn’t written from a Christian perspective and so had more trouble saying where we were going as a species. Since he was approaching everything from an evolutionary perspective, the best he could suggest was that we were evolving well.

I find it interesting that this idea of the perfectibility of humanity is still being trotted out. The evidence is stacked seriously against this thesis. The Christian run at the theory in the late 1800s and early 1900s was pretty much destroyed by the horror of World War I. Any remnants and holdouts were wiped out by World War II. The present restatement of the theory sounds good but really only works if you squint so that you don’t see the evil that stalks humanity today.

If you can overlook the modern day racial, cultural, economic, sectarian, political and other unnamed divisions that are hardening into life choices; if you can pretend that people seem to believe that killing a bunch of people is a legitimate way to settle differences or make a political point; if you can tune out all the anonymous hatred that social media enables and supports; if we can ignore the abuse, disrespect and comidification of the weak by the strong—if you can do all that and ignore a bunch more stuff, well then humanity is getting much better.

I can’t ignore the evil and consequent suffering. I would like to be able to think that humanity is getting more and more Christian. I would be willing to settle for humanity to be evolving into some vague better reality. But the evidence is just too powerful for me to accept such ideas. There are certainly individuals and groups who manage to overcome humanity’s drive to cause pain. There are times and places where we humans actually treat each other well.

But on the whole, the idea of a perfect humanity will always crash on the rocks of the inherent evil that plagues our species. I approach this issue as a Christian and we have a theological explanation for the problem—we are sinful. Essentially, we are self-centered and want the world to revolve around us. If you don’t want to approach the problem from a faith perspective, we might suggest that there is something flaw in our generic make up that drives us to make choices that have negative consequences for ourselves and others, choices which can and do threaten the existence not just of our species but of many others as well.

I will stick to the Christian line of thought—it is what I know and what I believe. As Christians, we believe that there is an answer to the problem of evil, especially the evil that comes about as a result of the selfishness of humanity. The answer isn’t found within us, nor is it found in the possibility of a random genetic mutation that makes us better. We need to surrender our selfishness to God because only by getting out of ourselves can we become more than we are.

May the peace of God be with you.

AN INTROVERT’S WEEK

Being an introvert is something I didn’t have any choice over, at least according to my understanding of current psychological theories. While there may be some environmental factors involved, most likely I am hard wired to be an introvert. I can and do function as an extrovert because of my calling—ministry in small congregations and rural areas demands a certain degree of extraversion.

But honestly, my ideal work week would consist of sitting with my laptop, writing the sermon and Bible study, reading the various books and articles that interest me, taking short walks and long trips on the exercise bike and not actually interacting with too many people during the week. The ideal week would get even better if there were a couple of strategic snowstorms that cancelled existing appointments and allowed me the opportunity to play in the snow a bit. Certainly, I would get tired of that week if it was repeated too often for too long. I don’t actually know how long it would take to get tired of the repetition because I have never actually has one ideal introvert week, let alone a string of them.

This week is shaping up to be the anti-introvert week. I began with two worship services, one of which was followed by a potluck lunch. During the rest of the week, I have two counselling sessions, a mentoring session, a Bible study, a ecumenical clergy retreat and strategy session, two doctor appointments—and that is just the stuff that I know about. The nature of ministry is that invariably, there will be other people contacts along the way, either in person or on the phone. By the way, while some might see phone contacts as something of a blessing for an introvert, I actually don’t like talking on the phone—I need the non-verbal information that is so vital a part of real communication.

This week is a bit unusual but only a bit. I normally don’t have doctor appointments and try to keep counselling sessions to one a week. But in the end, this week is closer to the norm of my life than that idealized introvert-friendly week. I occasionally dream of having blocks of introvert-friendly weeks after retirement but in my more realistic moments, I am aware that while my basic nature might be introversion, I have also been called to and gifted for pastoral ministry, which means that in the end, I have an equally powerful drive to connect with people.

So, how does an introvert called to live an extrovert life cope? There are lots of psychological and emotional coping mechanisms that I know and use—but the truth is that these really aren’t what makes the whole thing work. They are tools that can and do mitigate the fatigue and stress somewhat but they aren’t the real answer.

The real way I cope is tied in with my faith. I am an introvert who has been called by God to an extroverted role. God, I have noticed repeatedly, specializes in calling unqualified people to tasks they are particularly unsuited to. In fact, I have been known to tell theology students that we don’t get called to ministry because we are qualified—we get called like all the Biblical examples because we are unqualified and likely losers who will never be able to do what we are called to.

Why would God specialize in calling the unqualified? Why would he chose a clear introvert for a job involving so much and so intense contact with people? Simple: God wants us to depend on him. The callings that God gives us are not given because he needs us to do his work. They are given so that we who are called can learn more about the faith we have accepted and grow more in that faith through discovering that what we can’t do on our own, God is willing and able to help us do. As we surrender our weakness and unqualified state to him and accept his power and leading, he accomplished ministry through us. A significant part of that ministry is for us—we learn and we grow as we allow God to teach and nurture others through our ministry.

I will survive this week from an introvert’s hell. More than that, I will likely actually accomplish some significant things as I interact with God and his people to do his work. What I really can’t do on my own, he will accomplish through me.

May the peace of God be with you.

WAITING

Right now, I am waiting to find out when I will have surgery. I am also waiting for enough snow of the right kind to go cross-country skiing. I am waiting for our spring vacation (which might be cancelled because of the coming surgery). I am waiting to hear if the group that was interested in having me speak at an event has made a final decision about my coming. I am waiting for the next StarWars movie. I am also waiting for retirement, buying a house, knee replacements and tons of other things, including the dishwasher finishing its cycle so I can unload it.

It might just be me at the stage of life I currently occupy but it seems to me that we human beings spend a lot of time waiting. Waiting often requires patience and my relative lack of patience might be part of the reason I find waiting difficult. I have never been good at waiting—all the experience I have at waiting hasn’t actually translated into making waiting all that easy.

I have, of course, learned lots of tricks and techniques. I always have a book or two with me. These days, that is much easier thanks to smart phones. Having my books on the phone also has another benefit—when I get tired of the book, I can switch to the games on the phone. Also, given that many waiting rooms these days no longer provide newspapers or back issues of magazines, I always have something to do while I wait. I can also watch people, which is great when there are other people around. Watching other people handle the waiting process poorly is a big help in keeping myself from dealing poorly with the waiting.

But these and other tricks only mask the real problem. I don’t much like waiting, especially when I am waiting in North America. I am a bit more comfortable waiting in Kenya—my cultural training and insight seems to allow me to deal with reality of waiting in Kenya better than I deal with it in Canada. But even then, waiting is a chore. Whether it is waiting 2 minutes for my wife, 10 minutes to see my doctor, 2 hours for my car to be serviced, several weeks for surgery or months until the next StarWars, waiting is hard—I am not blessed with an abundance of patience.

Actually, that isn’t true. Like all who follow the Christian faith, I have been given all the patience that I need. Becoming a believer brings with it the presence of the Holy Spirit and according to Galatians 5.22, one of the fruit of the presence of Spirit is patience, along with a bunch of other stuff. So, as an individual, I might suffer from a lack of patience but as a follower of Christ, I have all the patience I will ever need, made available to me from God himself through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

So, if that is true, how come I get fidgety when the wait is 60 seconds, annoyed when it is 5 minutes and have to have something else to do when it is longer than 10 minutes? How come the divine patience doesn’t just wash over me and allow me to peacefully and placidly and patiently wait? Am I missing something somewhere? Maybe I have to enter a user name and password on some form somewhere to access the patience sitting in my account, just like when I access some of my ebooks?

No—the problem isn’t technical. It is personal. God gives in abundance and freely but I don’t always want to open myself to the abundance that God gives. Accepting what God gives doesn’t just imply that I need something—it bluntly and blatantly states that I am less than perfect and need what God is so willing to give. I have to confront my imperfection and admit my needs before I can admit that I need what God is so willing to give. In short, I am pretty much a normal person who struggles with admitting that I need God.

Fortunately, I have recognized this need and accepted the grace of God offered in the risen and living Christ. Now, as I wait, God is at work, helping me see how this works out in all areas of my life, including the waiting.

May the peace (and patience) of God be with you.