GOD LOVES DIVERSITY

            During my later teen years, I was involved in lots of military stuff:  I was an army cadet and after that, a Reserve Force officer involved in training cadets.  I enjoyed my time in both–I got to do interesting things, travel to interesting places and pay for a couple of years of university.  I discovered an interesting paradox about me during that time:  I enjoyed the military experience and the military toys but I really wasn’t at home with a culture that required so much conformity.

The uniform I could deal with–clothes are not something that I get all concerned over.  But I did get tired of having to do the same thing as everyone else at the same time as everyone else in the same way as everyone else.  My boots needed the same shine as everyone else’s; my shirts needed the same pressing as everyone else’s; my pants needed the same crease as everyone else’s; my sleep pattern had to be the same as everyone else’s–well, you get the picture.

On some levels, I thought that I would have a better future in the church–after all, I belong to a part of the church that began because of a commitment on the part of our founders to allow for personal freedom and the ability of the individual to think and approach God on their own.  And while that hasn’t always worked out quite the way I thought it might, overall, I have found that my faith has room to grow and develop as I feel God is leading me.  That is not to say that I haven’t been confronted by people who feel I  need to conform to their understanding of what God wants but whenever that has been an issue, I think God has graciously shown me ways to deal with such pressure.

My faith experience has taught me that God understands, accepts celebrates and even encourages our human diversity.  As Creator, God had the option of making us all the same.  He chose to create us with a highly variable genetic structure and insures that every human being is going to end up different from every other human being–even identical twins who share the same genetic makeup end up becoming different.

And God carries that diversity even further.  As a Christian, I believe that the only way to God is through acceptance of Jesus Christ–but the ways people discover Christ (or are brought to Christ to be theologically correct) are as varied as the number of people in the world.  Even those whose experience seems to be the same have significant differences when we take a closer look.

I grew up during the last days of successful evangelistic campaigns.  Many of my friends and I “walked the aisle” during the yearly crusade, as was the expected custom in our day.  But even though the outward appearance was the same, the experience of God through Christ was very different.  I walked the aisle because it was expected–but I realize now that I had been a believer for months before that.  One friend walked the aisle because of family pressure but somewhere in the process, he genuinely encountered God.  Another, well, maybe he walked the aisle physically but spiritually, he was still sitting in his seat.

In my spiritual growth after that time, I have followed a different path from others–not a strange or weird path–unless you consider frequent sojourns in Kenya strange.  I followed a ministry path–but even there, my path wasn’t the same as everyone else.  Some in the class focused on working with youth.  Some wanted to be great preachers.  Some actually liked and understood Patristic Theology.  We weren’t the same then and we aren’t the same now–after 40 years of ordained ministry, I am pastoring the same churches I started pastoral ministry in while my peer group from school are pastoring other congregations, leading para-church organizations, being denominational staff–and a few have actually engaged in “secular” work as their ministry.

God celebrates and encourages our diversity.  He designed us to be different.  One of our greatest strengths as a species is our diversity. And one of our greatest strengths as people of faith is our diversity. As we explore and understand our diversity before God, I think we develop a better picture of who we are and who God is–and that is always a good thing.

May the peace of God be with you.

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THE CHURCH WEATHER REPORT

A few times over the course of my ministry with small congregations, I have been taken aside by some member of the congregation and thanked for what I have done and am doing in the congregation.  Since I am somewhat analytical by nature, I have generally asked the person to tell me just what it is that they think I have done.  Initially, I was thinking I would hear some comment about my breathtaking preaching, my incredibly inspiring teaching, my superlative administrative skills or at least the fact that last Sunday, I managed to produce a bulletin with no discernible mistakes.

But in almost every case in which this scenario happened, the informant doesn’t mention any of those things.  Almost all have told me that what I have done that is so important to them is change the atmosphere of the congregation.  They mention that they come to worship now because they want to, not because they feel it is their duty.  They talk about the fact that we laugh a lot as a congregation–and often add that we laugh together, not at each other.  Sometimes, the person will say that the congregation used to be gloomy but now they feel hope and excitement.

I have to confess that this hasn’t been some planned strategy on my part but as I have reviewed the ministry I have done, I can see that a change of atmosphere is generally a by-product of what I have been doing.  And in each situation, I haven’t been doing anything more than what I think is my job as pastor.

My primary area of skill, ability, gifts and inclination is pastoral.  I am concerned about people.  Now, because I am an introvert, I joke with churches that I don’t actually like people but that really isn’t true.  As a pastor, I like and care for the people I am working with and for–and they are my primary focus.  That doesn’t seem to be the case for all pastor-congregation matches.

As I read and study pastoral trends these days, I find strong encouragement for me to be a Leader, a Visionary or even better, a Visionary Leader.  I am told by others that I must be an unflinching advocate of the TRUTH, unwavering in my defence of all that it right.  Others suggest that I must be Seeker Sensitive, designing worship and programs for those who aren’t there but who might come if I get things right.  I also need to be an advocate of Church Growth, following which ever theory is hot at the moment.

In the end, though, I am a pastor, called by God to love and care for a specific group of people.  The spiritual (and sometimes actual) feeding of this flock is my focus.  And as I have analysed the congregations I have worked with, I realize that the comments I mentioned at the beginning of this post are a direct result of the fact that the people feel cared for and supported in their spiritual development–and that changes the nature of their relationship with both the faith and the church.

These days, I am more aware of the atmosphere of congregations and more concerned with changing the atmosphere.  But the process I follow really hasn’t changed.  I am still a pastor.  I work at listening and caring and supporting.  I build my teaching and preaching on what I am hearing and seeing and deducing from my pastoral contacts.  But most of all, I spend time with people, listening and learning.

The results of good pastoral care are many and varied–but one of the most important is that people feel valued and important.  Worship becomes a time of sharing with each other and with God their sense of value and importance.  Whatever we do as a congregation grows out of this atmosphere of value and importance.  People are free to open themselves to the leading of the Spirit–and when the congregation opens themselves to this leading, there is no telling what will happen but it will generally be positive, powerful and exciting for everyone involved.

The church weather report is one of the most powerful indicators of the health and potential of a congregation–and the role of the pastor is crucial to establishing conditions for a good weather report.

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.

I UNDERSTAND COMPLETELY

As a pastor, I work with a lot of people who struggle with lots of things.  I regularly deal with people facing illness and loss of functions.  I spend a lot of time with people dealing with death–their own or that of someone close.  I work with victims of terrible abuse.  I visit parishioners who have had to have a pet put down.  Now and then, I even find myself spending time with a techie whose laptop is sick or dying.  I also spend a lot of time with people whose problems are less earth-shaking:  a stalled car, a lost book, a staple sticking through the upholstery of a favourite chair, a cake that didn’t turn out right.

I learned early in ministry that even if I think the problem is trivial, I can’t treat it that way–it is their problem and their response to it that matters.  I might think it is trivial and in fact the rest of the world might think it is trivial but since it isn’t trivial to them, I need to accept that and work on that basis.  Some days, that can be difficult but I think I learned that lesson fairly well.

What took longer to learn is that even if I have the same experience, I can’t assume that my emotional experience is the same as theirs.  I can’t assume that I understand exactly what they are feeling and know exactly what they need.  Just as I can’t try to make a problem small because I think it is small, I also can’t assume that I fully and completely understand the problem and am therefore completely qualified to give them the benefit of my wisdom and experience.

Certainly, my experience can be helpful in understanding their experience–but my experience isn’t their experience and I can’t forget this.  When I deal with children grieving the loss of a parent, I have some inkling of what they feel, having been through the grief of losing my father, my mother and my step-father.  But I really can’t know exactly what people are feeling.

Every experience has twists and turns and undercurrents that only the person in the middle fully understands–and even then, they may not fully understand them.  When  I claim that I understand, I am actually proclaiming to people that I don’t really care enough for them to find out what is really going on in their lives.

When my father died, for example, it was painful and difficult.  We had a good relationship and got along well and respected and loved each other.  But not every family has that same relationship with a father.  The internal realities of such relationships are hidden under the surface of the visible, public presentation–but they are very real and very much a part of the grief process.  If I assume that everyone who loses a father feels just like I did, I am probably going to do a very poor job helping people with their grief.  A family struggling with the death of a father who was an abuser or a alcoholic or simply not present emotionally will have their grief compounded if I assume their experience is just the same as mine.

I don’t know what people are experiencing.  I might have some idea, based on my experience and my study and what I have heard–but I really don’t understand what people are experiencing, at least not until I have spent some serious time with them and they have been willing to open up about what they are experiencing.

One of the strong reactions I have seen from  people suffering is their anger at people telling them they understand.  Out of politeness, the struggling people nod and say thank you but at some point, they end up telling someone like me that they were angry because the people didn’t really understand–no one can really understand.

We can actually come to understand what people are feeling, it we are willing to admit that we don’t really understand and commit to spending the time it takes to really listen and let people work through their feelings.  While I may never fully understand what someone is feeling, I can understand their need to be understood and make the effort to suspend my assumptions so that I can hear the reality of their experience.

May the peace of God be with you.

GETTING TO THE PULPIT

I will begin this post with a disclaimer:  the story I am about to tell is a pastoral story.  That means that I have used my pastoral privilege to alter details to protect the identity of anyone who might be involved and of course, to make the story fit my point better.  We pastors like nothing better than a story that perfectly fits our point and it is often easier to tweak the story than the point.

Anyway, the story.  I am almost always one of the first to arrive for worship.  I like the time it gives me to set up my stuff on the pulpit and refocus on the coming worship.  My nervousness level generally requires that I re-visit the pulpit several times to make sure that things are still set up properly–who knows when some evil gremlin will turn the hymnbook to the wrong page.

So, I start for the pulpit to check the hymnbook and tablet yet again.  But now, there are people present so I stop and talk.  I hear about the frustration of getting a driveway cleared (we had heavy snow before the worship;  I hear about the sick grandchild in another province; I hear about the depression someone is struggling with; I hear about the anniversary trip coming up soon.  Eventually, I make it to the pulpit and discover that the hymnbook and tablet are just as I left them.  I check my watch and discover that we have 2 minutes before we are supposed to start, just enough time to get to the back and pray with the choir before worship begins.

But the trip to the back of the sanctuary, which should take 15 seconds (20 on bad knee days) gets interrupted as I hear about the upcoming surgery and how comfortable someone feels in our worship and how someone else has to be away and will miss Bible study next week.  Eventually, I make it to the back for prayer–it has  be rushed because it is already past time to start–but one of the choir members has to finish telling his story and another has to remind us that she won’t be with us next week.

Now, as I mentioned, this has never happened–but it happens almost every week.  People have stuff they need to share–and they want to share it with me.  They want to share it with me not because I am such a great person or because they recognize that I am too polite to ignore them.  They want to share this stuff with me because I am the pastor.  Sharing it with me helps them be aware that God is concerned with their concerns.  When I listen to them, they feel that God has been listening to them.

Many of us in ministry struggle with this reality.  We forget, I think, just how important it is to many people to receive this pastoral care.  It is easy for me to focus on the coming worship and try to make sure that everything is ready so I can lead worship without the anxiety that comes from not checking the pulpit 42.5 times.  It is sometimes tempting to think that my task of helping the church develop a newer and bigger vision is more important than listening to someone talk about some fear or triumph or detail of life.  I am tempted to think that my study of the derivation of the key words in the text for Sunday’s sermon is a more important focus for my energy than listening (for the 10th time) to the story of how a grandchild who had problems at birth is now walking and talking.

But the truth I have learned is that I am a pastor–and people in the congregation need their pastor to hear them and listen to them and care for them.  Feeding the sheep is not an option for when I have some extra time–feeding the sheep is the essential priority of my calling.  When I don’t give this pastoral care the priority it deserves, I get reminders of how important it is.  One reminder is how long it takes to get to the pulpit.

If I ignore the reminders and continue to neglect the feeding of the flock I have been called to, the whole congregation will suffer–and anything else that I think is important will fall apart.

Trips to the pulpit such as I described here are a reminder to me of what is really important.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE OTHER SIDE

Fairness is important to me.  When we were teaching this concept to our kids, in involved things like teaching them to share equally, not to take more than was rightfully theirs and so on.  If they were dividing something to share, the rule was that the one who cut or divided had last pick–all this in an attempt to ensure fairness.  We never really defined what being fair meant but in my mind, it means that no one should get an advantage that they didn’t deserve.

In my approach to life means that no matter what I believe, I do have to look at the other side(s).  I tend to get irritated at “unfair” writing, speaking and thinking which picks a side and simply assumes that everything else is wrong.  I don’t believe that everything is equally right but for me fairness demands that everything be given equal treatment and consideration–all of which means that I get really frustrated with election campaigns, advertising, and a lot of religious stuff.

And so, I need to write about something to be fair.  I have been writing a lot about low self-esteem and the need to give ourselves more value and challenge the debilitating myths that make us think we should see ourselves as worthless and unimportant and unworthy.  Over the years of my ministry, I think this is the default position for most conservative believers, the position that we are encouraged to adopt if we want to be “good” Christians.

I will most likely return to that theme many times as I work on this blog–but my sense of fairness demands that I write something about the other side.  I need to look a bit at what happens when our self-focus becomes too strong and too powerful and we develop an overly inflated ego. I have known a few people whose pride has become so powerful that it takes over their lives and relationships and become as serious problem as low self-esteem.  I have even been accused of this myself more than a few times.

I don’t have as much experience with the problem of over-developed pride as I do with under-developed pride but I have observed an interesting thing about some of the people who show this trait.  Underneath that over-developed love of self and the boasting and the constant self-focus that can drive people away is often a deeply submerged lack of confidence and a very bad self-image.  Yes, I am saying that an over-inflated ego often comes from the same place as the low self-esteem that I am more familiar with.  The pride and boasting and superiority are sometimes a defense for the problem that I see all too often.

But some people who have low-self esteem follow the path of trying to compensate by building a beautiful facade which they carefully place over the fear and insecurity that is their real life.  Then, they use this facade like an army tank to defend their shaky view of themselves.  It seems that they work on the premise that “The best defense is a good offense” and blow up or run over everyone and everything they perceive to be threat to their scared and poorly developed self hiding inside the tank.

There are probably people with this over-whelming pride who come from a very different place.  Some, for example, have come from such privileged backgrounds which have sheltered them from the realities of life and they never develop a balanced and sober view of themselves.  Some may have such serious emotional damage that they are incapable of  seeing anything but themselves.  A few may get so disoriented by their distorted belief systems that they really believe they are more important than anyone else.

But my experience has been that many of us believe deep down that we are pretty much worthless and unimportant.  Some of us, perhaps most of us, let ourselves accept this as our reality and wallow around in the swamps of low  self-esteem.  A few go a different way, trying to convince themselves of their value by building an elaborate self-image to compensate for their poor self-esteem.

In both processes, the end result is the same–we don’t get a real and honest view of ourselves and therefore we have an equally distorted view of others and even God.  I don’t think one distortion is any worst than the other–and both need to be exposed to the powerful light of God’s love and grace and acceptance so that we can discover who and what we really are.

May the peace of God be with you.

HOW DO I WORSHIP?

In some circles, I might be called a professional worshipper.  Most Sundays, I lead at least one worship service and generally do more than one.  I am also called upon to lead worship in a variety of other contexts:  nursing homes, public events, family functions, life transitions and the list goes on.  I take my task of leading worship seriously.  I spend time preparing worship so that it flows and the elements mesh well.  As much as possible, I try to have the emotional content and the cognitive content complement each other.  When other people are involved in the process, I work to help them be prepared and able to do their part well.  I even periodically use sermons and Bible Studies to teach people what worship is and how we worship.

During the worship service, I am mostly conscious of my role as leader of the worship.  While we are singing a hymn, I am looking up and marking the next one.  When the choir is singing, I am using the time to look over the order of service and make sure I am prepared.  I have all my prayers written out, except for the benediction which I memorized a long time ago.  I even have the Lord’s Prayer written out in front of me so that I can make sure I get it right.

So, when we are worshipping God, I am sometimes not sure that I am really worshipping.  Well, to be honest, I know there are times when I am not really worshipping.  I am too focused on the worship to be able to worship.  I could say that is an occupational hazard and someone has to do it and let it go.  But I too need to worship and I, like everyone else, need to worship not just privately but as part of a community.  The few times a year I get to attend worship and not lead it just don’t do it from that perspective.

So, how do I worship?  Well,  I think it means that I offer to God my leadership.  He has called me to this ministry and so I believe he wants me doing what I am doing–so part of my worship is making him an offering of my leading worship.

When I remember that, I can worship.  I try to begin that before worship.  I greet all the worshippers as they come in–we are small congregations and our buildings have no office or vestry for me to hide in.  Mind you, even when I had an office to hide in, I tended to spend time before worship greeting people.

Then, as worship is beginning, I take a few seconds to open myself to God–I suppose it could be called prayer but often, it is physically not much more than a brief closing of my eyes and a re-focusing on the worship to come.  Sometimes, I use actual words but often, the words actually get in the way.

Then, as worship proceeds, I try to be conscious of doing what I do as an offering to God.  I don’t always succeed.  When I miss something in the order of service, I go into panic mode as I work out how to fix it.  When my eyes fall on the wrong prayer and I begin to repeat the invocation instead of doing the offertory prayer, I get busy revising the prayer on the fly.  When the sanctuary is too hot or too cold, I am wondering how that is affecting various individuals and how I can take care of the problem.

But in spite of my failures, I keep trying.  I know that I can both lead worship and worship myself at the same time–but I need to make sure that I am prepared to open myself to the presence and wonder of God.  In the end, my situation isn’t any different from any other worshipper.  When I put in garbage, I get garbage.  When I approach as an opportunity to acknowledge and praise God, I can worship, even if in the course of the worship I forget the offering or hit the wrong button on the tablet or am worried that the Advent wreath might catch on fire.

I lead the congregation in worship–but when I open myself to God, I can and so worship at the same time.

May the peace of God be with you.

BOW DOWN AND WORSHIP

In the last few days, I have been part of three worship services.  At one, I was speaking–someone else designed and lead the worship and there were several other people taking part.  The service had several hundred people in attendance, a large band providing music and a well trained community choir.  I was both leader and preacher at the other two worship services.  One had twelve in attendance–a good number for that service–and a musician who lead the music on her guitar–always a treat since the other option is a capella singing.  The third service had about 13 in attendance–just over half our regular number and I was the accompanist–or at least, I pushed the buttons on the remote for the CD player.

All three worship services went well–there were no major mistakes, interruptions or problems.  All three were well received by those attending, or at least the comments I heard and the non-verbals I perceived during and after indicated that.  As worship services go, I would put all three on the positive side of the evaluation scale.  I have been at worship that was better and I have been at worship that was a lot worse.

So far, anything I have been saying about these worship services is pretty normal and common.  We, or at least people I associate with a lot, talk about worship in those terms a lot.  I (and we) are evaluating the worship and we have some basic requirements for good worship.  It needs to have some recognizable structure that we are comfortable with, good music that we can all identify with, an intelligible message that is relatively short and maybe has some point or at least some humor is there is no point and a comfortable number in attendance.  There are probably many other basic requirements–for example, when working in Kenya, I generally preferred a worship service in one of the languages I could understand.

We all have a set of requirements for worship and if enough of them are met well enough, we declare the worship good and feel it was worth our time.  If a major requirement isn’t met or a lot of smaller ones aren’t met, then worship isn’t good and we aren’t happy.  If worship continues to make us unhappy, we will probably adjust our attendance by going less, finding a worship service that meets our requirements better or not attending at all.

We tend to evaluate worship on a very personal level, looking at what touches us and what moves us and what we like and dislike.  And truthfully, that isn’t all bad.  I much prefer worship in a language I can understand.  I have attended worship in languages I don’t understand and while parts of the worship are accessible and understandable, mostly it is a confusing and frustrating activity.  Some worship music helps me focus and some makes me wonder who in their right mind would appreciate that kind of music.

But it may be that in our concern for what moves us in worship that we miss the actual point of what we are doing.  The point of worship is to recognize God, give him praise and thanksgiving, renew our relationship with him, reaffirm our submission to him, remind ourselves of God’s supremacy over creation and generally let God know that we love and appreciate him for all that he has done.

To give God true worship doesn’t require that I end up feeling good as a result.  It may happen but that really isn’t a requirement for true worship since in the end, worship is supposed to be focused on God not on me.  But it is too easy to confuse my feelings with the reality of worship–if I feel good, worship must have been good and if I feel bad, worship must not have been very good.  And so we who lead worship begin to structure worship so that those in attendance will feel good because if they don’t feel good, they probably won’t come back.

I have been attending worship regularly since I was about nine or so leading worship regularly for over 40 years and have actually taught courses on worship to theology students–and I still find myself evaluating worship from my perspective, looking for what makes me feel good and what makes those attending feel good.  Periodically, I need to remind myself of what worship really is–and so that is what I will look at in the next post.

May the peace of God be with you.

HOW DOES IT WORK?

            I grew up around tools and in a culture where being able to do your own work around the house was considered a fact of life.  I love tools and religiously watch the sales for good prices on that tool I never knew existed but which I suddenly realize I must have.  I research my tools seeking to get the best value for my money and how to make the best use of them.  I like to know how to use my tools and how to care for them.

I tend to get upset with people who misuse tools.  I am not fanatic about it, though.  I don’t mind using a screwdriver as a chisel or a pry bar (screwdrivers are, after all, relatively cheap and shaped perfectly for those jobs), although I am opposed to using a chisel or pry bar as a screwdriver.  I like tools and like to use them properly so that I can get the best use and the best value from them.

And that carries over into my use of Biblical tools–I want to see the various tools God has given us in the Scripture used well and properly.  And so when I look at Romans 8.28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”, I want to be sure that it is used well and wisely.  In the last post, I looked at how not to use the verse.  And so now, we look at how to best use it.

Remember that this isn’t a magic incantation, something that we can say and immediately calm the troubled soul.  We need to know the right time and circumstance to make the best use of the power behind this promise.  In my experience, that right time and circumstance isn’t in the middle of a crisis or painful situation.

At that point in time, people need a supportive, active listening care giver; someone who will give them the space and freedom to get out what they need to get out, to say what they need to say, to cry the tears they need to cry, to be free to process their feelings.  Quoting Romans 8.28 at that time serves only to restrict and attempt to re-direct what should be a free flow of feelings.

I have found that the best time to introduce Romans 8.28 is well before it is needed.  Rather than seeing it as a cure for suffering, we might be better off seeing this promise as a prescription to be taken before the suffering to help lessen the effects of the suffering.

Whenever we go to Kenya to work, one of the things we do is request a prescription for the latest recommended anti-malarial medication for our destination.  We get the medication and take it, following the directions carefully.  Now, anti-malarials do not prevent us from getting malaria.  They greatly lessen the chances and ensure that if and when we do get it, the effects will be much less.  We will experience a mild to moderate flu-like episode rather than a severe to fatal illness.

As a pastor, I try to include this promise in my preaching and teaching on a regular basis.  Suffering is a reality of life and while we can’t really prepare ourselves for every possible problem and difficulty, we can prepare ourselves by knowing that when suffering comes for us as believers, God is still going to be there and still going to be at work and somewhere, somehow, he will transform the painful and wrong and evil and bring into being something positive and good for those of us who have chosen to follow him.

Like the anti-malarials we take, knowing this promise won’t prevent us from having bad stuff and struggles in life but it will help us as we seek to deal with it.  It will help us to remember that God is present and active, even if we don’t feel it.  It will help us to mobilize our faith to help us in the midst of the struggle as we remember that God is at work on our behalf.  It will remind us of the power of God directed towards us as we remember that God is doing all that he can to transform the situation.  And as we remember all this, our faith will eventually help us to see the pain and struggle from the perspective of God’s love and grace.

May the peace of God be with you.