I AM A…

I grew up in a small town that had at least five different denominational congregations with at least one independent congregation.  I also grew up in the era when basically, everyone when to worship on Sunday–as far as I know, we didn’t have any Seventh Day groups in the community.  That meant that everyone in the town “belonged” to some group or another.  It also meant that we generally knew why we didn’t belong to one of the other groups.

Of course, the reasons we didn’t belong to one of the other groups were always because of something our group did much better.  We Baptists, for example, were proud of the fact that when we worshipped, it was under the leading of God, not some canned worship program written long ago by people who obviously weren’t Baptist.  We were also convinced that those groups that actually used wine for Communion were just opening the door to alcoholism.  And of course, we allowed ourselves to be lead by God, not the Holy Spirit because the group that talked a lot about the Holy Spirit was definitely off base.  And we certainly were holding to the true Gospel, unlike that group that was moving off the theological base into liberalism.

So there we were–at least six separate groups, meeting at about the same time on Sunday morning, listening to each other’s church bells peel around the same time, singing many of the same hymns, reading from the same Bible (although some were using the RSV not the KJV), worshipping the same God of love and grace and working really hard to make sure we all knew how different we were.

Except, we really weren’t that different.  Our Baptist insistence on extemporaneous prayers rather than a prayer book tended to fall apart when you actually listened to the prayers we made–the prayers tended to sound pretty much the same from week to week.  We didn’t have written prayers but we did a lot of repetition and saying the same thing week after week.

And more seriously, we all had our theological strengths and our practical weaknesses.  The “liberal” denomination was trying to actually show God’s love in concrete ways.  The “Holy Spirit” group was trying to open themselves to the movement of God in daily life.  The liturgical worship approaches were trying to tie is together with the deep historical roots of the church.  Our Baptist group, well, we were trying to make sure that there was room for individuality in faith.

Together, we has a deeper, fuller and more complete understanding of what God was trying to show us and teach us and ask of us.  Together, the churches in our community came close to understanding the fullness of the Gospel.  Unfortunately, we were too much interested in our own small insights and understandings to really benefit from the things that we could learn from each other.  We had to be right and they had to be wrong.

I am deeply appreciative of the fact that I live and work in a very different church climate.  I am aware that there are still many places where the church or parts of it are more concerned with division and difference than unity and similarity but I don’t work there and don’t want to be there.

I think the process of moving to a new place began when I started to understand that it was alright to question my own group, to be open about the things that we did and didn’t do that caused problem for the faith.  I moved from there to realizing that others had similar realities–there was some good and some bad.  And I realized that I was free to challenge the bad in my group and import some of the good from other groups.  I didn’t stop being Baptist–but I did begin to realize that before I was Baptist, I was a follower of Jesus Christ.

And as a follower of Jesus Christ, I am united with all other followers and can look at what others do in their journey in a different light.  When their journey helps someone else’s journey, it is great.  So I can borrow printed prayers, new translations, emphasis on the Holy Spirit and couple it with extemporaneous prayers, traditional hymns and grape juice–the goal is God, not Baptist.

May the peace of God be with you.

IT’S RAINING

The weather forecast was right–it predicted rain for today and when I got up, it was raining, something that is putting a bit of a down spin on my day.  Now, I really don’t have any plans for being outside today.  I mowed the lawn earlier in the week based on the long range forecast that predicted rain for today.  I have a bunch of things to do that require me to be inside various buildings or the car for most of the day.

About the only ways the rain today affects me are I probably won’t go for a walk if it is raining hard but since the majority of my exercise is accomplished on the exercise bike, that isn’t a big issue.  But nonetheless, the dark and drippy day is making me feel a bit down–not depressed and nothing serious but just a bit down, a different feeling than I have when the sun is shining.

I am probably not alone in my reaction to the weather today and by itself, that really isn’t all that much to blog about.  But when I had been up for a bit and realized my emotional response to the rain, I realized that there have been times in my life when the same kind of day produced a very different emotional response.

During the times when we have lived in Kenya, rain produced a very different reaction.  Most of Kenya is dependent on rain for its water supply.  There isn’t a lot on the way of water infrastructure and what there is depends on rain.  At times, our water supply was two 1000 gallon water tanks filled by the rainwater off the roof of our house.  During the long six month dry season when those tanks were empty, our water supply consisted of two five gallon jerry cans that went everywhere the car went that there was a chance of getting some water.

The last time, we lived in a town that had a municipal water system.  A couple of times a week, the town turned our water on and the 500 liter tank in the attic filled with enough water to keep us going until the next time the water was turned on.  This depended on how many breaks there were in the water line, how careful we were with our water, and how full the rain-filled town reservoir was.  During the long dry season the twice a week water supply dwindled and stopped and our water supply consisted of the two buckets I carried up three flights of stairs from the backup reservoir in the parking lot.

So, when we are in Kenya, waking up to a rainy day produced a feeling of pleasure and a sense that this was going to be a good day.  Rain in Kenya produced the kind of emotional uplift for everyone that a bright, warm sunny day does here in rural Nova Scotia.

This suggests many things to me, among which is the deep reality that we human beings are much more adaptable and flexible that we often give ourselves credit for.  And if we are more flexible and adaptable that we think, that means that we probably don’t need to get as bent out of shape about things as we sometimes do.  The problem isn’t really the external events or circumstances but the way I am choosing to react to them.  Am I looking at the rain as a Nova Scotian or a Kenyan?

And because I am a Christian, that suggests to me that I need to work at making sure that my Christian faith plays a big part in how I look at life and its realities and in how I respond to life.  Rather than seeing my faith as an add on that only kicks in when I am in worship or somewhere where being a Christian is required, I need to work at placing my faith in the centre of my response to life.

Do I view the stranger in town from a basically mono-cultural Nova Scotian, a multi-cultural Kenyan or a supra-cultural Christian viewpoint?  My response to the stranger varies depending on which set of cultural norms I bring to the front.  I would like to say that my Christian norms trump all the others but I try to be honest here.  Like my response to the rain today, I need to work more on what I respond with.

May the peace of God be with you.

SMALLER AND SMALLER

Somewhere in my education career, I learned a neat word that describes a somewhat nasty human process.  I think I first ran into it during high school history classes when we were looking at the political roots of the first world war.  As near as I can remember, many of the smaller middle and central European regions began seeking independence.  They wanted to form countries based on specific ethnic groupings.  This process was given a name by historians, a name that reflected the geographic location of many of these groups.  Since most were located in the Balkan region, the process was called “balkanization”.

The difficulty was that many of these groups defined themselves partly in terms of who they were and partly in terms of who they weren’t–they often wanted it to be clear that they were not part of other groups.  In fact, one of the keys to understanding the balkanization process is that the various groups not only wanted freedom for their group but also wanted dominance over the other groups.  According to historians, the regional tensions and squabbles among these groups was an underlying cause of the ensuing war.

The word isn’t all that common these days–unfortunately, the process is all too common.  We can see the process at work in the classical sense in parts of the world:  sections of Africa and even eastern Europe are engaged in movements to become independent of groups they consider less valuable than they are.  But we also see the process working itself out in less traditional ways–various political parties are finding ways to appeal to smaller and smaller groups in their attempts to build support.  Often, the rhetoric used by these groups includes a great deal of anti-other talk.

Even the church isn’t immune from the balkanization process.  In the past, it wasn’t uncommon for various denominations to make sure that its members knew who they weren’t.  I know people within my denominational family who know more about the “heresies” of other denominations than they actually know about the doctrine and polity of our particular group.

These days, balkanization is also taking another form.  Groups within denominations are claiming to have the real truth about the denominational distinctives–and making it clear that their grasp of the truth makes them better than those who see it somewhat different.  Those within my denominational family who use the KJV of the Bible like to make sure that those of us who use more modern translations know we are on the wrong track and might have endangered our place in heaven by losing sight of the “truth”.

The logical extension of this process is the one congregation denomination made up of those who have seen the truth and know that it can only be expressed outside the bounds of denominations.  True believers would not be caught dead in a denomination.

Balkanization is a serious danger in many areas–but since I am part of the church and have spent most of my life working in, with and for the church, I have seen and experienced the dangers of balkanization there from a very personal perspective.  From my earliest experiences in ministry, I have experienced the problems that come from this process.

During my first year of university, we were required to read the Bible from a relatively new translation, the New English Bible.  That requirement caused serious problems for some students, who felt that this was somehow a compromise of the faith–after all, if the KJV was good enough for Paul, it is good enough for us.  I later discovered that because I wasn’t pre-(or post- or a-) mil in my theology, I was missing the point and wandering into heretical territory.  If I read a prayer during a worship service, I was slipping away from the true faith which was based on free, spontaneous prayer, not the stifling, stilted rote prayers in a book.

Even today, I see and experience the balkanization process as work.  I happen to like to old hymns of the faith–but true believers these days need to follow the Spirit through the use of modern choruses, preferably projected on a screen.

It seems that one of the trends of the faith is more and more restricted views of truth, views that focus as much or more on what they aren’t than on what they are.  Unfortunately, history has taught us that balkanization never has a positive outcome–and no amount of noise will make it a valuable process.

May the peace of God be with you.

SERVANT OR SERVED?

Kenya, like most of Africa, was taken over by European powers in the late 19th century as the various nations in Europe scrambled to exert their power over the world.  The reality that the lands in question were already occupied and governed by other people was simply ignored–the prevailing opinion at the time was that since those peoples were obviously inferior, there could be nothing but benefit for them to be under European rule.  Eventually, most of Africa decided that they preferred to be independent and made it happen.

One of the lasting legacies of colonialism in Kenya is a well developed sense of entitlement and privilege.  Social stratification is a deep seated addition to Kenyan culture, with everyone seeking an important place in the pecking order.  Money, tribe, geography, education, connections, special skills–everything has a place in determining who gets what privileges and who gets to serve who.  Nobody wants to be doing the serving–everyone wants to be served.

It may be that this culture of entitlement and privilege seeking will come to be seen as one of the worst of the long term effects of colonialism because of the way it encouraged so many of the current underlying problems African countries struggle with.  Corruption, nepotism, tribalism, instability–all owe something to the colonial example.  African countries may have thrown out the colonizers but they often kept the colonial mentality.

But this problem of entitlement and privilege seeking affects more than just post-colonial countries.  Unfortunately, it affects the church–and the consequences of these attitudes is causing no end of harm to the mission of the church.

Recently, I saw a news item while I was washing the dishes.  A man got a parking ticket while he was in worship on Easter Sunday.  He openly admitted that he was parked in a no parking zone.  The church parking lot was full–the Christmas and Easter crowd were out in full force.  He and many other worshippers parked on the street, ignoring the no parking signs.  Some enterprising traffic officer saw an opportunity to improve the municipal finances and gave all the illegal cars tickets.

The man on the news was upset.  One of his comments was that he was parked there because he was in worship on one of the holiest days of the Christian year and so the police should have shown some leniency.  And while that might sound good to other worshippers and to those struggling with the lessening influence of the Christian faith in an increasingly pluralistic culture, it is really only a thinly veiled call for special privileges.  Our faith should be allowed to break the rules when our parking lot is full.

As Christians in North America, we want our culture to serve us.  We picture ourselves as being special–our western culture is built on Christian foundations.  We have made a significant contribution to our culture–and now, we want to collect the interest on that contribution.  We  deserve a break on the parking ticket; we deserve to be given exemptions from rules that we don’t like; we deserve a better place in the culture than other groups.

But aren’t we called to be servants?  Somewhere along the line, it seems that we have lost sight of what it really means to be a servant.  We have continued to call ourselves servants but have redefined the word servant to mean that we are the ones who get served.  The privileges and special treatment we want and even demand amount to us as believers thinking that our culture needs to pay us back for all that we have done for our culture over the years.  Whether it is being allowed to break parking laws on Easter Sunday or trying to stop multicultural realities, we are really not being all that much different from the colonial powers in Africa or their independent successors.

We seem to have turned our understanding of a basic part of our faith on its head.  We talk of being servants but really want to be served.  We talk of serving others but really want others to serve us.  We call for justice but really want free parking in illegal parking zones when the church parking lot is full.  And maybe this reversal in our understanding of servant-hood is at the root of the serious decline of the church in the west.  Maybe our culture needs servants more than it needs one more entitled group demanding privilege.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE EXECUTIVE DINING ROOM

The last time we lived and worked in Kenya, we weren’t living on the school compound as we had at other times.  That meant a daily half hour or so commute from our home to the school.  It also meant that instead of going home to work between classes, I ended up working in the school staff room with all the other faculty.  It also meant that my wife and I were included in the tea and lunch that were part of the faculty employment package.  Since I enjoy Kenyan food (except for the tea) and they wanted me to take part, I joined in, although I did bring my thermos of decaf coffee so I wouldn’t have to drink the tea.

The first official day we were there, our lunch was served in what would be called the executive dining room with the deans of the schools and several other important school officials.  The rest of the faculty ate in the staff room as always.  The next day, a similar process.  The next day, I was summoned to the executive dining room (really, it was an empty office that like most things Kenyan, did double duty.) and told that the dean of the school would be along later.  He never showed up and after eating my lunch alone, I wandered back to the staff room to work before going to class.

After this happened a couple more times, I scheduled an appointment with the dean–which meant I managed to hear him in his office and asked if I could see him.  I was tired of being treated as a special visitor and ending up eating by myself while the rest of the faculty ate in the staff room.  Since the executive dining room shared a very thin wall with the staff room, I could head them talking and laughing and having a good time while I or Elizabeth and I ate by ourselves.  I asked the dean if I could stop being a guest and become a regular faculty member, able have my lunch with the rest of the faculty.

He was actually quite happy with that–I think the extra effort to put on lunch on the executive dining room for one or two people was an annoyance for him and the kitchen as well.  So, why do it in the first place?  Well, Elizabeth and I were Wazungu–and based on past experience, the dean and others were sure that we needed special treatment.  We were just too important to eat with the rest of the faculty.  My request to eat in the staff room challenged their preconceptions of my minority group and made life easier for the dean and kitchen staff.

It also changed the nature of my relationship with the rest of the faculty.  I went from being a curious but somewhat unapproachable Mzungu to being a regular faculty member, standing in line for my food, taking part in the multi-lingual the joking, answering questions about Canada, seeking advice on school issues and generally being part of the staff.  I became aware of a major change the day we had a new staff member, who was amazed that a Mzungu would be able to eat the day’s lunch of corn and beans.  His surprise was matched by the assurances from the rest of the faculty that I wasn’t really a Mzungu–I was one of them and had no problem with the food or anything else.

So, we are now back in Canada, part of another visible minority, relating to people who don’t really understand me or my minority.  One temptation my minority in Canada faces is to find the equivalent of the executive dining room and spend all our time there, except for those times when we must interact with the majority, like funerals and weddings.  We worship together but we also coffee together, vacation together and meet together.

But we need to get out of the executive dining room.  We need to eat the food that everyone else eats where they eat it and when they eat it.  We are a visible minority–but when we emphasise our minority status, we create distance between us and the very people we are called to serve.  We are called to be salt and light in the world, not a visible minority eating in  the executive dining room.

May the peace of God be with you.

RULES

            I think I share something in common with many people–I have a strong ambivalence towards rules.  There are some rules that I follow carefully; some that I regularly ignore and some that I work hard to break and change.  Added to the ambivalence is the fact that for me, these categories are not particularly bound by rules themselves–a rule can be in one category one day and by the end of the week, have worked its way through all the other categories until is returns to where it started.

Some rules just make sense.  In my woodworking, I pay serious attention to the rule, “Measure twice, cut once”.  Obeying that rule has saved me countless board feet of lumber, which is probably balanced by the number of board feet of lumber I have wasted by ignoring the rule.

I am part of the Baptist spectrum of Christian denominations not because I always like Baptist rules but because I deeply appreciate the freedom that is foundational to the historic Baptist position.  I like to tell people that I choose to be Baptist because I don’t have to be a good Baptist–our denominational house has room for a great deal of variety in its historical development.

Sometimes, when I am driving, the speed limit seems totally arbitrary–when the divided highway is clear and  dry and the traffic is almost non-existent, 110 km per hour seems like a such a waste of time.  But when that same road is covered with wind-blown snow over ice and traffic is backed up and heavy, the 110kph speed limit seems criminally stupid and I think–and occasionally say–nasty things about drivers who try to drive at that speed.

I know that a society needs rules and that when we all follow the rules, things work out much better for all of us.  If you doubt that, take a drive on the Mombasa highway between Nairobi and the Machakos turnoff at Makutano during rush hour.  Most of the standard rules of driving are applicable in Kenya but many drivers regularly ignore them so they pass on both sides, use the shoulders as an extra lane, ignore right of ways, stop on the middle of the road, use the opposing lane as their own private lane all of which leads to sky high accident rates.  That drive will quickly show you the value of everyone following culturally accepted rules.

On the other hand, I also know that some rules are arbitrary and simply wrong.  A rule that enables discrimination of any kind, whether official or unofficial is wrong.  We might pretty it up and dress it in sophisticated reasoning but when rules negatively affect people because of their colour, origins, language, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status or any other reality of life, the rule is wrong and needs to be dealt with.  Unfortunately, every culture and society has many such laws that it protects and promotes.

Even the Christian faith gets burdened with rules and regulations that often have little to do with the purpose of faith.  And these rules bother me more that a great many other rules because if the Christian faith is supposed to be a vibrant relationship with God through Jesus Christ, any rule that gets in the way of this relationship needs to be challenged and brought into the grace of the Gospel.

I think this is part of the message and example of the Gospel.  Jesus himself both endorsed and gave rules.  He endorsed the Old Testament rules about loving God, loving others and loving self.  (Matthew 22.32-40).  He gave rules telling us to love each other as Jesus loved us (John 13.34-35) and to carry to news of this love to the world (Matthew 28.19-20).  The other New Testament writers expand on and apply these rules in a variety of ways.  So we don’t have a faith without rules.

But we do have a faith where the rules are mean to help us relate to God.  This reality is at the root of essential struggle between Jesus and his opponents in the New Testament.  The old rules reached the point where there were getting in the way of really loving God, others and self as God planned.  Jesus challenged these rules and showed a better way, a way where the few rules make sense because they help us love God, others and self the way God wants us to.

May the peace of God be with you.

FELLOWSHIP TIME

In many of the congregations I know and have worked with, there is an insider language which we use to describe things in ways that might seem hard to understand to outsiders but which make perfect sense to us.  Often, for example, a special service of some kind might be followed by a “fellowship time”.  The basic translation is simple–there will be food afterwards and all the regulars of the congregation need to remember to bring their particular speciality.

I happen to like fellowship times as my long suffering belt will give witness to.  But one of the interesting realities of church life is that the fellowship time we all enjoy has a very strong and direct connection with another part of church life that many are not aware of.  Fellowship times with food and the worship at the Table (variously called Communion, the Lost Supper, the Eucharist among other things) have an interesting relationship that can make both more significant.

At first glance, there isn’t a strong connection.  Fellowship times have lots of food, coffee and tea, lots of talk, spilled drinks, dropped food, sharing of recipes, laughter and so on.  The worship of the Table is serious and solemn, filled with symbolism and ritual, conducted with reverence and congregational silence.  Fellowship time seeks to bring us together with each other and Communion seeks to reconnect us with God and give us a spiritual boost.

The two are clearly separate but important aspects of church and faith–except that they aren’t as separate and different as we think.  The worship at the Table began as a meal.  Jesus and the disciples were sharing in the Passover meal when Jesus instituted the Communion worship.  The Passover meal has a lot of symbolic and highly spiritual aspects–but in the end, it is a meal complete with all the aspects of a normal meal.  That would include lots of conversation, passing of food, spilling and slopping (Da Vinci’s Last Supper includes a spilled salt dish by Judas).  The people at the table were friends–they had their differences and tensions like any normal group of people but they were in the end friends enjoying a good meal together–much like any collection of people enjoying a fellowship time.

For me, the connection between fellowship times and Communion is important and can help both become more important.  When we look at fellowship times as a form of Communion, our laughing and sharing becomes a spiritual exercise.  When we drink coffee and share food at a fellowship time, we are in some real way experiencing the reality of the Last Supper.  As we fellowship, we can be more aware of the presence of God in our midst, bringing us together and blessing our time together.  We eat and laugh but we also make concrete our love for each other, which makes concrete our love for God.

When we take elements at a Communion service, we can see them not just as symbols of the love of God but also as reminders of the fact that the worship at the table began as a meal among friends and that underneath the centuries of ritual and tradition, we are still sharing food and drink with friends in the presence of God who called us together to the table.  The reverence and solemnity of the Communion should never hide the fact that it began as a good meal among friends.

Both the fellowship time and Communion also point to the fact that ours is a community based faith.  We are joined together by God’s love for us in Jesus Christ and when we eat and drink together, we can remember the community, whether the eating is a full meal or a ritualized event filled with symbolism.  We eat and drink together with people who are important to us and with whom we are comfortable–and in the Christian context, we eat and drink together as people joined together by our shared acceptance of the grace of God shown to us in Jesus Christ.

So, whether we celebrate Communion during worship or eat together after worship, we are called to remember and emphasize the community nature of our faith.  God has invited us together to share at his table, a table that we can see not just in worship but also in the food of a fellowship time.

May the peace of God be with you.

TRADITION!?

For a variety of reasons, we gave serious thought to an artificial Christmas tree as opposed to the traditional fir that we used to cut (with permission from the landowner) and now buy from a local service club.  After some discussion and looking, we opted to stay with tradition this year, although we might look at the sales after Christmas.  When I shared with a few friends, there were two responses:  some were extolling the virtues of artificial trees and others were saying that they would miss the smell of a real tree.

At the same time, I was working on plans for Christmas Eve services.  Since I am still in my first year, I was asking some questions about what has been done and what is expected.  I discovered that I can do pretty much whatever I want, as long as:  it is short, we have everyone light a candle and we close with Silent Night.  I am actually wondering if I plan a service with the congregational candle lighting and Silent Night right after the opening prayer if that would be all I need to do.

This is a season of both the church and secular year where traditions abound.  We have to have the right kind of tree with the right decorations put on by the right people.  We need to right foods at the right times and the right presents for the right people in the right wrapping.  Changing the traditions is hard, difficult and provokes a powerful emotional response, even if the tradition is only a year or two old.

I have a marked ambivalence about traditions.  Sometimes, I see myself on a mission to root out and change every tradition I run up against.   I have my worship notes and sermon on a tablet that I use in the pulpit–no traditional paper and bulletin for me.  I sometimes use Christmas music at Easter and Easter music at Christmas.  I read and use a variety of Biblical translations, some of which I carry with me as an app on my phone.

Other times, I find myself defending and loving traditions.  I love the older hymns in worship.  I wear a suit and tie in the pulpit.  I want our traditional family meal of lasagna on Christmas Eve and turkey on Christmas Day.  And, when I am thinking about Scripture passages, they come to my mind in KJV English not the language of one of the modern translations that I champion and use.

And as I think about traditions, that is likely the way it is for most people.  Some traditions we love and some we can wait to change.  Traditions become traditions because they have a meaning that is important to us.  The meaning is often as much an emotional meaning as anything and because of that, we may have difficulty explaining why it is so important.  And because so much of the meaning is emotional, those who don’t share the tradition have great difficulty understanding why it is so important.

All of this means we need to be careful around traditions, both our own and those of others.  We can’t just throw them away because they mean nothing to us.  The tradition means something to someone and throwing it away needs to be given some thought and some preparation–and sometimes, that importance means that we simply endure what has little meaning for us for the sake of others.

I happen to like the Silent Night tradition on Christmas Eve–but if I didn’t, I would still follow it because the majority of people who come to that worship would go away unsatisfied if we didn’t use it.  And while there are times when it is good to challenge people’s traditions, there needs to be a good reason–and I have yet to find a good reason to challenge that particular tradition.  But if I ever find a reason to challenge it, I will do so–carefully and with much discussion and planning so that everyone knows why and has a part in the process.  Fortunately, I don’t see anything on the horizon that will cause that challenge to come any time soon.

The traditions of Christmas, the traditions of the church, the traditions of a family or group are all there for a reason.  There are times and purposes for changing them–but as long as the reasons still hold meaning for people, we might as well enjoy the traditions.  So, I will close my short Christmas Eve service with candles and Silent Night and go home to my lasagna, remembering to turn off my tablet when I am done.

Merry Christmas.

 

May the peace of God be with you.