A PLACE TO STAND

When I was young, both chronologically and spiritually, I lived in a time and place where the physical and theological grounding of life were clear and firm and solid and comforting. Life was easy because there were clear answers and everything was simple. School, home, church, culture all gave the same answers for the same issues and we all agreed on them.

Of course, there was that somewhat confusing set of events when I was 9 or 10 when we switched from one denominational church to another but there was a simple answer for that helped ease my confusion. My father, who hadn’t attended worship decided that it was time to attend but he would only go to the church that was his, or at least where my grandparents attended. That was an acceptable answer because family was always important in our world.

But as I grew chronologically and theologically, I began to run into more and more troubling realities, places where my firm footing was suddenly shaken. The ground under my feet turned from bedrock to sand, gravel or even mud. I discovered, for example, that my treasured KJV Bible wasn’t acceptable for the introductory Biblical studies course—I had to buy and read a different translation. Things got even worse when I realized that I actually liked that translation.

It kept getting shaky. I discovered that some people didn’t actually walk the aisle to become believers. Some weren’t baptized like I was. Some found comfort and encouragement in other denominations. Even worse, there were some people who believed—and practised—the scary idea that a Christian could drink alcohol. And then, somewhere along the line, I discovered that some Christians actually engaged in pre-marital sex. And then, I discovered that some people called themselves believers and were willing to accept the idea that Jesus was more of a mythical figure than a real person. A few suggested that maybe Christians could be found in all political parties and all denominations. And then, the biggest blow of all—some were suggesting that there wasn’t actually any rock in the first place, that everything was relative and flexible and sort of muddy anyway.

Slowly and painfully, the ground I stood on was becoming shakier and muddier and was often more of a trap than a solid support. I sometimes felt that I was wallowing in a mud pit rather than standing on the solid rock—and then I heard a lecture about plate tectonics that told me that even solid bedrock of the earth was in motion. While I didn’t have a crisis of some sort, I did need something, a place to stand that I could be sure of.

One temptation was to decide that the mud I was standing in was actually solid rock. If I called the mud rock long enough and was loud enough and sure enough and strong enough, I could petrify the mud and move everything back to the past when my place to stand was big and solid and comforting. That was a real temptation, one that many people I know have tried to use.

But for me, mud is mud—calling it rock and pretending it was solid really didn’t make it any less muddy. I decided that I needed a different answer. Instead of trying to turn mud into rock, I would find the solid rock, the places where I could stand that were going to support me and enable me to keep going.
I discovered some solid ground—or perhaps it is better to say that God through the Holy Spirit led me to some solid ground. I don’t have a lot of solid ground but what I have is real and strong and unchanging—and most of all, it is sufficient. Standing on that bedrock allows me to engage the mud all around me—and I discovered that I actually enjoy the mud to some extent when I am not in danger of drowning in it or getting stuck.

I don’t have as many answers as I had when I lived in that long ago time of endless solid rock. But I do have some answers, answers that give me a place to stand as I interact with the mud and relativity that marks most of life. And the solidest and most important part of the bedrock is the grace that God extends to me and everyone else.

May the peace of God be with you.

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JUMPING FENCES

I was recently visiting a spot near an urban setting where there are several waterfalls, deep gorges and beautiful views. Since it is near a lot of people, there were lots of visitors, even on a cold, cloudy day like the one when we visited. Whoever ran the sites had provided parking, good trails and lots of fences along the steep drops. The fences were high, strong and plastered with signs telling people not to climb the fences or cross the fences because of the dangers presented by the steep high gorges.

We stopped at one spot to take pictures and as I was looking for the best angle, I spotted two people who had clearly decided the signs were not for them—they were at the bottom of the gorge, clearly enjoying their much better view. A little later along the trail, at another photo spot, I saw another pair of people who had crossed the fence line and descended the steep cliff to get a much better view.

One of the people accompanying us on the visit mentioned that the local fire department has a special unit trained to rescue the significant number of people who cross the fence and get stuck at the bottom of the gorge. The unit has lots of practise because the signs simply can’t overcome the desire to go where no one has (or shouldn’t have) gone before.

Metaphorically, I am no stranger to climbing fences and wandering in territory that could be difficult or dangerous—a lot of my work in ministry has taken me into areas that others have warned me to avoid. That has caused some problems and produced some significant ministry. As a teacher and mentor of other pastors, I have tended to encourage people to see the fences and occasionally challenge them, while being aware of the possibility of danger.

But that metaphorical fence jumping somehow doesn’t seem to be anywhere near the same as the physical jumping of a real fence and deliberately stepping into a dangerous situation that just might require significant time, effort, expense and risk on the part of other people to pull out the fence jumper.

I am not entirely sure what inspires such behaviour. I know that some of us see warning signs as a challenge. Others are pretty sure that only normal people need to avoid the dangers. Some might suggest that it is their right to step into dangerous positions. Others, perhaps ignore signs and warnings and assume they can do what they want. And the majority of people who jump the fence seem to get away with it, probably through a combination of luck, skill and possible divine intervention.

But each success encourages another attempt. Each time a fence jumper is spotted, another is encouraged to go deeper or higher or further. And eventually, the rescue crew has to step in; the sign painters prepare another sign; the lawyers begin figuring out who pays for what—and in the meantime, someone else is going to jump the fence, probably using the sign as a support to climb the fence.

We humans don’t like limits. We have all sorts of justifications and reasons and explanations. But probably the best and most profound explanation comes from the Bible. We are sinful people. I am using that word in the broad sense—we are essentially self-centered and selfish, convinced that if the world doesn’t revolve around us, it should. This self-focus is at the root of all fence jumping going all the way back to the day when a man and a woman climbed a fence to eat from a tree that they had been told not to eat from.

In our desire for self-gratification, we miss some significant realities. We miss the fact that some things are bad for us. We will suffer physically, emotionally, spiritually or some combination of those. Others will suffer as well—and unfortunately, others will sometimes suffer a whole lot more than we do when we cross the fence. The person who falls down the cliff because they copied my successful attempt at jumping the fence suffers much more than I do.

But for all that, I can’t quite bring myself to say that we must always stay within the fences. Some fences need to be jumped—the real trick is figuring out which ones need to be jumped and which ones need to be respected.

May the peace of God be with you.

FORGIVE ME

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

I BELIEVE…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.