MOWING THE LAWN

            One of the last tasks I had to do before we left for our vacation was to mow the lawn.  One of the first tasks I had to do after getting back was to mow the lawn.  There was a time when I enjoyed mowing lawns–I remember when the first lawn mower showed up at our childhood home.  It was a push mower–no, not push the motorized mower rather than sit on the ride one mower.  It had no motor except for the person pushing.  I really wanted to mow the lawn when that mower showed up.

But after pushing the things for a few minutes, I discovered that mowing lawns was not a particularly good source of entertainment or fun.  Unfortunately, it became one of those things that needed to be done whether I wanted to do or not.  Even when I finally managed to end up somewhere where there was a mower with a real motor, the process of mowing lawns never really got beyond a have to.  As the mowers got older and broke down, there was some fun working on them to get them going again but a repaired mower is good for only one thing so even doing repairs lost some of its fun.

When we moved into the house belonging to the church my wife pastors, one of the men who looks after the house told me that they normally asked the minister to mow the lawn but that I should probably see that as my job–secretly, I was hoping that maybe they had planted spiritually mature grass that didn’t need mowing.  They graciously provided the mower and I less than graciously mow the lawn at regular intervals, including right before and right after vacation.

It is a duty, I guess–and duty has become something of a negative thing in our culture.  If we aren’t excited, thrilled, edified, fulfilled or something like that, the cultural pressure is to avoid it.  Unfortunately, there are a lot of things that cannot be avoided.  Like mowing the lawn, a lot of life needs to be taken care of, no matter how unfulfilling or unedifying or unfun it actually is.

I think the issue of “duty” has some significant spiritual roots.  Our relationship with God and our service of God doesn’t always thrill us.  When I was doing the work associated with my ninth funeral in three months, I didn’t get much of a thrill out of the process–the accumulated time and fatigue associated with so many funerals in such a short time meant that in the end, I was doing it because it was my job (or duty).  I gave it my best, I used all my pastoral abilities, I worked hard–but given a choice, I would have preferred to watch TV.

The sermons I preached just before vacation were done the same way.  I like the people I work with; I worked hard on the sermon preparation; I used my best presentation processes; I gave the sermons everything I normally do–but I would much rather have been starting the vacation a day early.

Duty and discipline may be out of favour in our culture of self-gratification and feeling good but they are an essential part of life and faith.  I don’t always feel like doing the Christian thing–but part of my commitment to God is a commitment to doing what he asks of me, even if I don’t want to or won’t feel uplifted because of it.  Sometimes, we need to do things just because they need to be done and we need to be the one doing them.  Some suggest that the self-gratification comes from knowing that we have done the right thing–and that sometimes works.  But in the end, the ninth funeral has to be done no matter what I feel and I have to do it because that is my commitment to the church and to God.  Part of my commitment to God was a commitment to accept Jesus as Saviour and Lord–the Saviour part I like but the Lord part I sometimes struggle with, since it means that I have made a commitment to putting God first, not me.  But then again, wasn’t the initial separation between God and humanity a result of humanity putting themselves first?  That didn’t work out too well for anyone.

Anyway, the lawn needs mowed again–back to duty.

 

May the peace of God be with you.

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TREES

A few years ago, I had a stretched muscle in my back that made sitting at a desk very painful.  Since I was well into laptops at that point, the obvious solution was to do as much of my work as possible sitting in a comfortable chair that didn’t aggravate the pain in my back.  Eventually with the help of therapy, my back got better.  But by then, I was so comfortable working in the living room that it became my permanent office.  I still have a desk in our home office and it serves a very important purpose–it provides a place to put everything that I need to deal with sometime but not right now.  Normally, I try to clean it up sometime before the pile falls over and crushes the robot vacuum cleaner.

So, what does that have to do with the title of this post?  There is actually a connection.  Sitting at a desk, I tend to focus on the desk and other office junk–the printer, the books, the calendar telling me what I have to do and on and on.  It is a work environment and while it might be effective to have all the work stuff in one place, it isn’t an overly inspiring or creative environment for me.  Working in the living room, well that is a very different thing.  I have the laptop I am working on.  If I need something else, like a hymn book to plan worship, I have to go get it.  Since the coffee table beside the work chair also holds a candle, some plants, my coffee cup or cereal bowl and occasionally my feet, there isn’t a lot of room for much else.

I get to focus on what I am working on–and when the inspiration isn’t flowing or my spelling is so bad that even Spell-check can’t figure it out, I can look out the window.  Looking around in the office shows me stuff that needs to be done.  Looking out the living room window allows me to see trees.  Right now, the maples and the oak are in full leaf, the pine is showing its different coloured growing tips and the unknown berry bush is in bloom.  If I look a bit more to the right, I can see the tidal flat and the hills and trees beyond that.  If I look carefully, I don’t need to look at the lawn that needs mowing.

This is important to me because trees are an important part of my relaxation process.  Being able to see trees somehow relaxes me and helps me think.  When the sermon isn’t coming together or the blog post doesn’t make sense or the phone call goes on and on, being able to look at trees provides a break and a whiff of peace and relaxation.  And, if one of the local squirrels happens to be performing in the tree when I look up, that is even better. Staring at trees does much more for my mental and spiritual health that staring at a desk (cluttered or clean) ever did.  Looking at a wall of green leaves and needles is a much more powerful mini-break than looking at a wall with a calendar, a bulletin board and some pictures.  Even looking at shelves full of books, as helpful as that is for me, doesn’t have the same effect as resting my eyes on trees.

I am not recommending this for everyone.  But I would suggest that all of us have something that has this same sort of relaxing effect.  My wife likes to see water–rivers, lakes, oceans.  Some like to see children at play.  A friend likes to see his car–or any car for that matter.  There may even be some people who get that jolt of relaxation from looking at a cluttered desk and functional office space.

I think it is important that we learn about ourselves and what makes us tick and what makes us relax and build our daily rhythms around these insights.  I have always known that trees relax me but it took a serious back pain before I learned that I could incorporate that insight into my actual work.  I don’t know how much more effective and efficient my work is because of being able to see trees when I write but that doesn’t really matter–and if I ever need to quantify the effect, staring at the trees will help me figure out how calculate the effect.

Anyway, the squirrel is back and the tide is coming in.

 

May the peace of God be with you.

THE PHONE CALL

The only phone I have these days is a cell phone which is used for both work and private conversations so I always have it with me.  Normally, I remember to turn the ringer off before worship and Bible Study and other meetings.  But this Sunday, I was busy and forgot to silence it.  Just before worship was to begin, it started to ring.  Since I didn’t recognize the number, I sent it to the answering function and turned off the sound.  We began worship and it started again–this time, I could feel the vibration in my pocket.

After worship, it rang again as I was talking to one of the worshippers.  Thinking it might be important, I checked and when I saw who it was, I excused myself and answered the phone–the caller wouldn’t have called unless there it was important.  After the culturally appropriate greetings, he asked me if I had got a call earlier.  When I told him about not answering, he explained that someone had called him and after telling they had had a long conversation at the Easter worship service, asked for financial help.  He didn’t know what to do so he gave the called my number, for which he now apologized.

The interesting thing is that a couple of weeks before this, I had been at meeting with other pastors where one of the participants told us of a scam phone call he had received.  The details he shared about his call matched exactly with the details the caller had given the person I was talking to.  I was able to assure my friend that this wasn’t a real problem but was a scam and I wouldn’t be calling the person but if he called me, I would give it all the consideration which it deserved.  I think he was relieved that it was a scam–the story he was told was a real tear-jerker and while he was a bit skeptical, he wasn’t completely sure.

This call was easy to deal with–I had some warning.  But that is a rarity–over the years, I, like most clergy, have had my share of desperate sounding phone calls from people looking for help.  Some are legitimate–and while I sometimes struggle to know how to respond, I want to help and try to find ways to alleviate the problem.  But the depressing reality is that many of the calls are scams.

Some aren’t even good scams.  This particular individual had done no homework–our Easter attendance was up to about 30 but even so, a stranger would have been immediately noticed.  Another from a long time ago began his story to a Baptist pastor by saying he had been playing poker while drunk and lost all his money–not a story designed to tug on my heart strings.  Every pastor I know has such stories because we are seen as easy targets.

I think Jesus probably had situations like this in mind when he spoke the words we find in Matthew 10.16, ” …be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (NIV).  As believers we have an obligation to help others in any way possible, anything from a cup of cold water to a helping hand on the way to reconciliation to God.  Often, helping people is going to cost:  time, money, effort, increased stress and so on.  But when we step in and become a channel of God’s grace to someone in need of that grace, we can rejoice.

However, when the person is a scammer, we can get depressed and cynical–and begin to ask questions and wonder if we should even bother.  Well, I learned an important lesson a long time ago.  If I want to help people, I have to accept the fact that I am going to get taken.  My best response is to be shrewd enough to weed out the most blatant scammers but innocent enough that I don’t cut off people who actually do need help but have a terrible story or questionable presentation.

For me, if the choice is between getting taken sometimes so that I can help people or not helping anyone so that I avoid being scammed, I am going to accept the reality that I will be scammed sometimes–but that does bring with it the more important reality that I will help people receive God’s grace a lot of the time.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE PICNIC

One of the collections of churches I serve has to meet once a year and plan our worship services for the coming year.  We have four buildings and only one worship service a week so we have to decide which building we meet it on which Sunday.  That sounds simple–we can just have a simple rotation where each building has worship every fourth Sunday.  Unfortunately, things are not that simple.

To start with, some buildings are better for some events–only two of them can host meals or receptions.  Each building needs to have worship on some of the special event days like Easter and Christmas.  Parking in the winter can be a problem at some of the locations.  So, every year, we have to have a meeting to take into consideration all these factors plus some others and design a schedule to be approved by the church.

(By the way, the answer to the question “Why not just have one building?” is long, complicated and while some have been asking it for years, we are not likely going to get to that point for a long time.)

Anyway, during the last planning session, we tried to add some different events to add some variety.  One of the additions was an outdoor worship service with a picnic to follow.  As we talked, we even decided to invite the members of my other pastorate to join with us.  When we were planning this late last year, this looked and sounded like a great idea.

But, as things got closer and closer, well, the idea needed to be structured and organized and put together better.  The key issue was the weather, something which is notoriously hard to predict in Nova Scotia.  We needed sunny and warm but would settle for cloudy and warm–cloud and rain would be a killer.

While I have great leaders in the congregations, as pastor there were some things that only I could take care of.  My first act was to discuss rainy day backup plans–if it was raining, the deacons and church moderator would make a final go/no go decision since I would be leading worship somewhere else when the final decision had to be made.

I also decided that I needed to be prepared for any eventuality.  After some thought, I decided that I would use the same sermon no matter where we were but the other elements of worship needed some attention.  We would need different music, different orders of service and even different announcement, which necessitated different bulletins.

I like to be prepared so I eventually prepared two complete worship services and two different bulletins.  I would choose the appropriate service when the time came and I would copy the bulletin just before I left for worship (remember, we are talking small congregations here–copying the bulletin doesn’t take that long) and hope that the weather didn’t change while I was on my way.

Some might suggest that my extra work to prepare two services and two bulletins was a sign of weak faith.  They might be right–I have never claimed to have great faith.  Since we actually did have the outdoor service and the picnic along with a sprinkle of rain, I didn’t need the backup service and so wasted my time.

But for me, it wasn’t wasted time.  If I hadn’t done the extra work to have a backup ready, I would have been more anxious and would have spent even more time worrying and fussing and wondering if I should have created a backup.  Knowing myself meant that I could circumvent the anxiety stage and do the back up.  The extra time spent on that saved me a lot of strain and stress during the week and even  more on Sunday.  No matter what happened, I was ready.

I can’t anticipate every twist and turn in ministry–but I have learned that I function better when I am ready for the ones that I can anticipate. It is means that I do a bit of extra work that ends up being unused, that isn’t a real problem since I have avoided a major amount of stress.  And while stress does have some good points, finding ways to reduce unnecessary stress is always a good thing.

May the peace of God be with you.

TIME AND TIDE

The house we live in sits just above a tidal flat.  At low tide, we see a flat grassy meadow that stretches to the dike along the river bank in the distance.  At high tide, the meadow disappears to varying degrees, depending on the phase of the moon.  When the moon is full, the whole flat disappears and the water comes near to the top of the dyke.  Fortunately, our house is 10-15 meters above the highest tide mark so I can watch the tide without wondering if I need to invest in a canoe for emergencies.

But even though I can watch this twice daily process, I tend not to pay much attention.  If people had asked me where the tide was, I probably couldn’t answer–or that was the case until recently. For the past few months, I have been paying close attention to the tides and can easily tell people what stage the tide is at.

This didn’t come from a concern about raising ocean levels because of global warming.  There is a spot near our house that is so affected and before much longer, a really high tide is going to go over the road there–but I have known that for years and there are other ways to get to where that road leads.  And as I mentioned, we have several meters beyond the most pessimistic predictions of ocean level rise.

What changed for me is that I build a tide clock.  I like clocks and I like building clocks.  So my winter project was to design and build a tide clock.  It wasn’t as quick a process as I thought–the winter was much busier than I anticipated and my wood-working skills were much rustier that I expected.  But the clock is done and sits on the mantle in the living room.  When I am sitting in my working chair in the living room, I can see the tide clock and the tidal flat with just a slight turn of my head.  When I walk into the room during the day time when the curtains are open, I automatically check the clock and the tide.

Part of that began as I worked at regulating the clock.  Although I can look up tide times on the internet, I did have to set the clock hand that tells the state of the tide.  And while the mechanism is interesting, it is a bit hard to adjust perfectly and so I have been tinkering with it since I placed it on the mantle–I think I have is set now but I will continue to watch it.

There is a parable here–remember, I am a preacher and therefore can’t let something just be something–it also has to be something else to feed the insatiable demand for stories to keep people interested on Sunday.

And so the meaning of the parable is this.  I live beside a tidal flat but because the coming and going to the tide has no affect on me personally, I ignore it.  My house is safe from the highest tide predictable; I don’t make my living digging for clams at low tide; I don’t need to know when I can get my boat out from the wharf and the only road that might have some affect on my life is easily bypassed.  The tide comes and goes and has no affect on me.

But as soon as I build a tide clock, I have a personal interest in the tide.  It makes a difference to me where the tide is.  Sure, the difference is only because I want to check the accuracy of the new clock–but I am still interested.

So, we live in a world where there is a great deal wrong, which we ignore because we can’t perceive a direct effect on us.  Some, we can ignore.  Some, we can pretend isn’t a problem.  Some, we have to deny.  And in truth, some we have to work really hard to avoid.  As long as we can tell ourselves it doesn’t affect us, we can ignore it, at least until it becomes too personal.

But as believers, we are called to be involved with the world–instead of ignoring the darkness and its effects, we are to shine the light of God into the darkness.  We didn’t create the light–but we have been given the light.  We need to turn it on and challenge the darkness because whatever we want to think, we do have a personal stake in making the darkness go away, a personal stake that came to us through Jesus Christ.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE TROUBLE WITH DIVERSITY

I am sitting in a Bible Study group–well, I am actually leading the Bible Study, although leading might be too strong a word for the open style I have adopted with Bible Studies.  In this particular (fictional, of course) group, we have a variety of individuals with different experiences, different levels of faith development, different understandings of God’s love, different native languages.  We are united by our common faith and our experience together, drinking tea and coffee, talking together and being stuck in the same space for an hour or two each week for several months.  We are a diverse group but we like each other and because we like each other, we tend to ignore our diversity, choosing to celebrate our common desire to grow together in faith.

And that is great–some days, it feels like a piece of heaven as this diverse group shares and cares and supports and enables and laughs together.  We can forget our diversity and enjoy our similarities, our common faith and all the rest.  But diversity doesn’t disappear just because we are feeling good and comfortable.  And so, in the feel good time of the Bible study, it makes an appearance.

Some one begins talking about their faith experience.  They had a really bad experience in Denomination A, an experience which has affected their whole life and which they are just now beginning to deal with.  Denomination A is filled with demons–there are no believers in the denomination, there are only fakers and frauds and liars and abusers.  As the speaker is talking, we are all aware of the pain, the fear, the hurt that drives the words.  We are aware as well of the beginnings of a sense of liberation from the past that the speaker is experiencing and we feel some sense of joy because part of the liberation is coming through our group.

But we, or at least some of us, are aware that at least two members of our group are members of Denomination A, active members whose faith and Christian experience have been shaped and enhanced by their membership–they are with us because their local Denomination A congregation doesn’t currently have a Bible Study.

Fortunately for our group, the members of Denomination A are caring and loving and are more concerned with the speaker’s pain than with the actual comments about the denomination they love and appreciate.  Eventually, we help the speaker understand that the pain is real but the generalization can be a problem.

The potential danger is diffused but the unfortunate reality is that because we are diverse as believers, there is always going to be the potential for someone to say or do something offensive to another.  We are diverse–even our basic and important Christian unity doesn’t remove the diversity that God gave us and which is as much a basic part of our being as our human and faith-based similarities.  And if not understood properly, that diversity can undermine and destroy the carefully build unity of the group.

That is not hard to see.  We live in an increasingly divided culture, with everyone demanding that their particular slice of human diversity be given priority over every other slice of human diversity–and with more than a few slices calling for the punishment or banning of competing slices of diversity.

I really don’t have much impact on the increasingly fragmenting nature of western culture.  But I am a pastor and I do work with groups of people whose unity in faith is exercised in the reality of their diversity.  And so I work with that.  I try to understand our diversity, both its good and bad.  I try to model acceptance of the individual in the face of disagreement with some aspect of that individual’s thinking or practise.  I teach and preach the need for real communication and real openness and real understanding.  And when the reality of diversity threatens our unity, I work hard at helping the diversity of our group become an opportunity for growth and love.

Our Christian faith calls for unity within the reality of our diversity.  Loving one another isn’t dependent on our being the same.  Loving one another is based on our understanding that just as God loves us in our diversity, so we are to love each other in the diversity that we were created with.  We are not called to be the same–we are called to love each other as we are.

May the peace of God be with you.

DO UNTO OTHERS…

Every now and then, I run into a “modern” version of the Golden Rule, the words of Jesus found in Matthew 7.12: ” So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”  This modern version is often presented in semi-humorous contexts and goes something like this “Do unto others before they do unto you.”

Unfortunately, it seems that our culture has decided that the humorous “before” is more applicable than the original “to”–since my rights and the privileges and desires that I feel belong to me by virtue of my existence are more important than anyone else’s rights, privileges and desires, I need to protect them.  And as we are often told, “The best defence is a strong offence.”

Others, especially others who are or might be different, are a threat to me and what I deserve.  Their choices and desires and practises threaten me and my freedom to be what I want to be.  I need to ban them, restrict them, overcome them, segregate them, control them–and in extreme cases, maybe even find a way to get rid of them.  And if that sounds harsh and hate filled, these are just the headlines that we humans have been reading, experiencing and creating over the years.

Jesus’ words about doing to others fly in the face of socially acceptable norms–norms that are as common and dangerous today as they were in his day–and which go back to the beginning of human awareness.  But Jesus knows that our self-focused, insane drive to put ourselves at the centre of the universe only results in pain, suffering, and continual conflict.  He calls for a different way.

We do to others what we would like done to us. In one compact sentence, Jesus manages to open the door to a new understanding of self and others.  His route doesn’t demand that I ignore myself to benefit others but it also doesn’t demand that I ignore others for the benefit of myself.  Jesus calls for me to engage in a conscious dialogue involving me, the other and the situation.  There is a fourth aspect to the dialogue but I going to hold off on that for a bit.

I need to know what I want/need in the situation.  I need to be aware of myself and my needs and wants.  To really carry out Jesus’ call here, I also need to be willing to examine the validity and necessity of my needs/wants–maybe some of what I need/want isn’t all that important and can be sacrificed or at least downsized.

I need to be aware of the reality of the other–what are their real need/wants.  That will probably mean I need to engage the other and develop some form of relationship–I can’t really get to know the other from a theoretical point of view.  I need to know the other as well as I can.

And I need to know the situation well.  If I am lost, hungry and bleeding, what would I need/want?  I probably wouldn’t want a Gospel tract, unless it was made of cloth and I could use it as a bandage.  I would appreciate directions, first aid and maybe a sandwich although if I am hungry enough, even a pocket-lint covered cough drop might help.

Realistically, that is a major amount of work–and doing it effectively demands that I open myself to the legitimacy of the other as I figure out how to do to them what I want done to myself.  In small, clearly defined situations, I can probably do it and might do it.  But the bigger the situation, the more complex the needs/wants, the more “other” the other is, the harder the whole process and the more unlikely I am to do it.

And this is where I need to remember the fourth part of the dialogue I am engaged in.  I need to involve God.  I need to open myself to the Holy Spirit, whose task in my life is to both guide me in my thinking process and strengthen me in the actual doing.  To really do as Jesus said, I need the power and help of God.  Fortunately, God is both willing and able to give me all the help I need to do to others what I would have them do to me.

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.

FIRST PERSON PLURAL

I confess that I have never been a big fan of grammar.  In school, grammar classes were painful for me–having to learn about nouns and pronouns and adverbs and conjunctions and infinitives and all the rest was just no fun.  Given that I have developed a deep love for writing and make my living as one who regularly speaks in public, my dislike of grammar might seem strange but that is the way it is.  Language is a tool to facilitate communication and as long as I can communicate, I can’t get too excited about the rules.

However, there is one area involving grammar that I have been thinking a lot about in the past few years.  And that is the area hinted at by the title of this post–the grammar of how we refer to people.  Actually, I am more concerned about the theology and psychology behind the grammar of how we refer to people.

I see this working itself out in  practical terms in the church.  I often find myself in meetings with other pastors.  I have learned that the grammar pastors use to talk about their current church situation tells a lot about the future of that particular church-pastor combination.

Almost invariably, the pastors who talk about the church as “they” are either having problems or will be having problems.  Those who talk about “we” generally don’t have as many problems.  Another difference also emerges.  Those who refer to the church in the third person plural (they) haven’t been with that church for long–and won’t be there much longer.  Those who use the first person plural (we) have been there for  awhile and will likely be there for a while longer.

This grammatical distinction occurs everywhere, not just among pastors.  But the problem isn’t because of the grammar–the grammar points to the problem.  When we use the third person in the context of people, we are emphasising the differences, drawing distinctions and making sure that people know they aren’t included in our group.  “They” are different from us and we want to emphasise the difference.

When we use the third person grammar to describe individuial or groups, we open the door to all sorts of problems, like prejudice, discrimination, injustice, exploitation and on and on.  Beyond certain legitimate grammatical usage, the way we tend to use the third person becomes a way of excluding people and making differences clear, often with the unspoken understanding that “they” aren’t good or wise or smart or rich or capable or whatever as us.

So whether it is pastors discussing church members, citizens discussing immigrants, conservative theologians or politicians discussing liberal theologians or politicians, purple people discussing fuchsia people, cat people discussing dog people, the “they” tends to the negative and includes a put down.

And while it is true that we are incredibly diverse as humans, our diversity isn’t the most important thing about us.  Underneath the differences that make us “they” is a deeper reality that makes us a “we”.  We are all humans, created in God’s image, in need of a deep relationship with God and each other and we are all somewhere between what we shouldn’t be and what God meant us to be.  And to get from where we are to where we were meant to be involves not just our relationship with God but also our relationship with each other.  It was and is God’s plan that we best become what we were meant to be by recognizing the “we” rather than the “they”.  We all need God and his help; we all mess up; we all need help–and we all need to work with each other and God to become what he meant us to be.

Our differences are real–no matter how well I speak Kiswahili and no matter how much ugali I eat, no one is ever going to seriously believe that I am a Kikamba–the differences that make me a Msungu and not a Kamba are obvious.  But I am still in relationship with my Kamba friends–before God, we are “we”, all of us in need of his grace and love and help, grace and love and help which we will find best when we come together around our similarities rather than try to magnify our  differences.  We are all in this together.

May the peace of God be with you.

“THEY” ARE PEOPLE TOO

One of the (dis?)advantages of being a pastor is that I accumulate a great deal of information about people.  In the normal course of pastoral activity, I see, hear and deduce a great many things about the people I work with.  Some of the things I know, they know I know.  Some, well, they don’t know I know.  And because I am a pastor, a lot of what I know needs to be kept confidential.

So, imagine this scenario which happens with great regularity.  We are in a meeting–Bible study, coffee party, potluck, business or whatever.  The talk turns to something topic, say whether tea or coffee is the better beverage.  A convert to coffee begins to testify–they drank tea for years and only after starting coffee did they realize that tea was so bad and evil.  Then, they begin to discuss tea drinkers–“they” are all deluded and have possibly been seriously harmed by tea.  “They” are also trying to trap people, especially good coffee drinkers, and get them mired in the tea trap.

So, I am sitting there, listening to this.  I know the convert’s story and can understand their antipathy towards tea.  But I also know that two of the people at the meeting need to drink tea regularly because of serious medical problems that only regular doses of tea can prevent from becoming terminal.  As the coffee convert becomes more agitated, I know that the tea drinkers are becoming more and more uncomfortable.  Generally, if I have any means to do so, I gently guide the discussion into a different direction, trying to avoid breaking confidence or creating a confrontational situation.

It seems to me that often when we talk about “they”, we are forgetting that “they” are actually real people.  We all have an all too human tendency to see anyone outside our comfort zone as suspicious, dangerous or just plain wrong–and even more, we somehow manage to let ourselves see them as not human.

When I studied anthropology a long time ago, I remember reading about groups of people who had very strong rules against killing people.  In their language, their group name was “people”, making everyone outside the group not people, who could therefore be killed with no penalty.  I think our modern use of “they” accomplishes the same thing.

We dehumanize people when we “they” them.  We make them less than people–they don’t need respect, they don’t need justice, they don’t need understanding, they may not even need God’s love because, well, “they” are like that.

So, go back to the fictional tea/coffee dichotomy at the fictional meeting we started with.  I know the tea drinker story and I know the coffee convert story.  I know that the coffee convert and the tea drinker are really good friends.  I also know that the tea drinker has never told the coffee convert about the tea–and so I know that as the coffee convert is talking, the tea drinker is shrinking inside and their friendship is dying a little bit.  Fortunately, this is a fictional story so I don’t have to figure out how their pastor is going to help them deal with this issue.

I have been as guilty of the “they” process as anyone.  And I have also learned the best and maybe only way to deal with the “they” process.  The more I get to know “them”, the less I am willing to dehumanize them.  As I spend time with “them”, getting to know who they are and why they do what they do and where the differences come from, it is harder and harder to lump them into a group called “they”.  The more I get to know people, the more “they” become “we”–and given the realities of life, “we” is much better for all of us than “they”.

And in the end, God wants us to be “we” not “they”.  The Bible is based on God’s love for us, a love he wants us to take to the whole world.  We all need the same thing–the love and grace of God.  God’s love doesn’t exclude or ignore or dehumanize “them” because it sees no “they” or “them”.  God’s love makes us “we”–and our call and privilege is to be used by God to make that love available for all of us.

May the peace of God be with you.