GOING BACK

Like a good many other people today, I am deeply concerned about the present and future of the Church in the west. I became involved in the church in the late 1950s as a Sunday School student so I remember a different church era. Those were the last of the glory days of the church—the days when Sunday School was a part of every kid’s life; when every almost adult attended worship at some point; when faith leaders were respected and consulted; when it seemed that the Kingdom of God had arrived in its fullness.

My whole ministry has been spent dealing with the reality of the western Church’s downward spiral. I have ministered to declining congregation that decline even in the face of new believers joining. Although there are some bright spots in the North American church scene, overall, the picture isn’t great—the Church is losing ground and only the most naïve refuse to see that this is a serious problem.

While there is much that can be and should be said about this whole painful situation, one particular aspect of it caught my eye again recently. Given the level of concern about the state of the Church, it is not surprising that many people are writing and speaking about this issue. And among the myriad of writers and speakers, there is one group whose approach I find equally fascinating and annoying. This is the group who wants to solve the whole thing by going back.

There is generally one key thing that needs to be changed back to the way it was that will wipe out the whole problem. The decline of the Church began with that one change and all we need to do is go back to what was and the decline will magically disappear. Over the years, I have been told that once we get prayer back in our schools, all will be well. Others suggest that we need to go back to the days when Christian men were men and Christian women were women. Or, as some suggest, if we allow parents to really parent, things will change.

A few have some more disputed suggestions. Getting rid of new music in favour of real Christian music has its supporters. The proliferation of translations and paraphrases in English is the problem for others—going back to the real Bible, the KJV, will fix everything. Occasionally, I run into someone who suggests that the problem is that hell has been removed from the preaching and if we would give people more hell, the church would flourish.

There are lots of other suggestions of things from the past to bring back—but the painful reality is that if any of these suggestions were the reason, we would be seeing results. Every suggestion has people trying to bring it back—and the results are almost uniformly underwhelming.

I think that the problem is bigger than we want to realize. Somewhere along the way, the Church in the west has lost its way. There isn’t one mistake or change or event that we can point to as the essential problem. I think we have made a bunch of mistakes, we have shot ourselves in the foot too many times, we have missed people too much for any one thing to be both the problem and the solution.

In fact, I don’t really think that there is a solution, at least not one that will magically fix the whole church. The decline of the Church and the Christian faith in the west is the result of uncounted mistakes, issues and even sins, so many that church historians will had doctoral thesis topics and book themes for centuries.

But I am not without hope. The future of the Church doesn’t actually depend on what its theorists and pastors and theologians think and do. The Church depends of the power of the risen, living Christ expressed through the presence and leading of the Holy Spirit. God will take care of the Church—even a quick glance at church history shows how the Church has defied every attempt to destroy it.

It is God’s church and he will care for it. We might have created the mess—but in the end, God is and will be working in, through and even around us to accomplish his goals for us, churches and the Church.

May the peace of God be with you.

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FAITH, GENDER AND BEING ME

Issues surrounding gender have been making the news a lot these days. And, as is often the case, the church hasn’t been as helpful as it might be in helping people discover a way to deal with the issues being raised. I just finished reading a book promising to help me become a better Christian male. As a disclaimer, I will say I didn’t actually buy the book—it was offered free from a website that sends me frequent lists of offers.

To be fair, there was nothing in the book that upset or offended me. The book was calling for men who are believers to be more Christ-like: honest, moral, compassionate, committed and so on. All these are good qualities and many men of faith would benefit from using the power of the Holy Spirit to cultivate them. I don’t know but I would assume that any of the many books pitched towards Christian men would have similar themes. There is also a whole segment of the evangelical book market focused on helping Christian women become better Christian women—I confess to not having read any of them, partly because none of them have been offered to me free of cost.

My question and concern about the whole evangelical gendered spiritual growth industry deals with its validity and necessity. The one book I have read on developing good male Christianity seemed to me to be a good book for any Christian to read and follow. Good faith seems to me to be gender neutral. Our relationship with God through Christ doesn’t seem to have different categories for different genders.

Certainly, gender is a reality of life. I am male and that does make some real differences in my life. One basic difference, for example, is that I will never be a biological mother—my gender gives me the biological father part of the process. And there are probably some intrinsic gender differences that crop up along the way—but they may not be as rigid as people sometimes believe. I taught our sons and our daughter how to play ball, light a campfire and cook spaghetti. I also gave all of them a swiss army knife when they reached the age of mature knife ownership—and I didn’t get a pink one for our daughter.

Being a Christian is a process of moving from what we were in our pre-Christian state to what we will eventually be in our heavenly state. And since there is good evidence that gender will not be a significant factor in heaven, maybe the route that suggests there are different requirements for male and female Christians misses the point. Maybe we are actually looking to become the version of ourselves that God meant us to be.
That process of seeking to Holy Spirit’s guidance to discover, understand and deal with the rough edges caused by human sinfulness has a bigger focus than gender. Most of the teaching about growing in faith in the New Testament is gender neutral—and a lot of it is actually quite inclusive, or at least as inclusive as it can be coming from a culture that was very gender dominated. Galatians 3.28, for example, is pretty gender neutral: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” NIV

Gender does exist in our world and I am sure that there are some aspects of the Christian growth process that are affected by gender. But it just may be that we have actually gone too far with the gendering of the faith and allowed culture and bias and prejudice to become more important in our approach than the Holy Spirit or the Bible. According to the free book I read, being a Christian male means that I have to be honest, compassionate and caring—but those traits are basic requirements for all believers. Some of us male Christians may need to work a bit harder to develop them because of our cultural biases but they are definitely not just for male believers.

Mostly, we are called to grow in Christ-likeness. And while Christ identified as a male while on Earth, that doesn’t appear to be an endorsement of one gender over another. All of us are to move towards Christ-likeness, a process that probably doesn’t involve gender as much as some might think it does.

May the peace of God be with you.

CHRISTMAS VACATION

During the Advent season, the two Bible studies I lead chose to spend some time looking at Christmas, technically from the Biblical perspective but practically from any perspective we wanted. In the course of the discussion with one group, I mentioned the movie Christmas Vacation as the example of how people have unrealistic expectations of the Christmas season. Most of us had actually seen the movie—and the one who hadn’t seen it was quite happy to watch it when I loaned him my copy.

I realized a while ago that although my expectations for Christmas aren’t the same as the “hero” of the movie, I was also in possession of some seriously unrealistic Christmas expectations. I wanted the Advent process to be a deeply spiritual journey for the churches and me. Together, we would explore the wonder of the Incarnation through worship, study and conversation. We would also develop and implement ways of using the Advent/Christmas season as a means of sharing our faith with our communities.

At the same time, I would thoughtfully and carefully choose perfect presents for all the significant people I buy presents for. I would participate in both secular and church Christmas events, parties and processes to the full. That tended to involve a great deal more activity when our children were home but even after they left home, there were a considerable number of events to take part in both inside and outside the church.

And then, because all this wasn’t enough, I wanted Christmas to be a time for me to both grow spiritually and get some much needed rest and relaxation so that I would be able to enter the winter church season ready to lead the church well as they continued to follow God and seek to do his will.

Obviously, there are some significant and irreconcilable conflicts build into those expectations. It is pretty much impossible to experience cultural and spiritual Advent/Christmas to the full and end the season rested and revitalized. While juggling a full church schedule and full cultural schedule is required at this time of the year, it precludes the kind and amount of time necessary for personal spiritual growth. The need to develop and write compelling and inspiring sermons, Advent Candle programs and Bible studies for the church pretty much eliminates the ability to inspire myself.

And so I tended to end the Advent/Christmas season worn out and somewhat depressed. My expectations were high and unattainable—I was almost guaranteed to fail. I would be able to accomplish some things but overall, the results were much less than I anticipated or wanted, which when combined with the physical fatigue meant I began the new year down, depressed and lacking motivation.

It took a while before I realized that the problem was my expectations. I had to admit that I couldn’t do everything the way I thought it should be done. And so I began to focus and select. There are some things that just have to be done—the churches pay me to preach, for example, and so I do need to give attention to my preaching. That might mean that I have less time and mental space to work on perfect presents—but the truth is that there are no perfect presents and the search for them could actually be cut back.

It was important for me and the church that I come out of the Advent/Christmas season ready to move into the new year of church activity somewhat rested and at least partially prepared—and that would mean that there had to be some careful selection in what I did and didn’t do over the Advent/Christmas season. It also meant recognizing that just as most people in the church pretty much stopped for a few days after Christmas, I could do the same. The sermon had to be written but nobody really needed or wanted a visit from the pastor, unless they were facing a crisis.

These days, I have fewer expectations for the Christmas season. I don’t do as much—but what I do, I have the opportunity and time and energy to do well. And I also have the space needed to rest and relax a bit before things get going after Christmas.

May the peace of God be with you.

I AM NOT A PSYCHOPATH

Since much of my work in the “office” involves writing using the computer, it isn’t surprising that a lot of my mini-breaks also involve the computer. Sometimes, the break involves a game of solitaire while my brain finalizes the second point of the sermon to the point where I can type it out. Now and then, when I need a longer break, the home page on my browser contains a never-ending buffer of stories, articles and pictures.

During a break the other day, I clicked on an article suggesting that people who do a certain thing might be a psychopath. The article suggested that people who drink their coffee black and who make a point of letting people they drink it black just might be psychopaths. From the day I began seriously drinking coffee, I have drunk it black with no sugar. I have also been known to proclaim that if God meant us to have milk and sugar in coffee, he would have created milk and sugar trees linked to the coffee trees. So, obviously I am a psychopath.

I wasn’t actually ready to accept that diagnosis, especially since I have some background in psychology and have done almost every psychological test invented at some point and never had even a small indication of psychopathology show up. But rather than simply click out of the article, I kept going. Way down near the end of the article, the author indicated that the black coffee thing was only one out of many many other things that were found to be correlated with the issue and the correlation with black coffee was actually fairly small.

So, instead of saying if you drink black coffee, you might be a psychopath, the article would have been much more honest to suggest that a very small percentage of people who drink black coffee have a chance of being a psychopath, which is pretty much the same as saying that a small percentage of any identified group of people might be psychopaths. But such truthful but vague statements don’t entice people to click and therefore don’t increase the views of the page, which I suppose puts up advertising rates.

The article does illustrate perfectly a dangerous and all too common human reality. We have a tendency to categorize and define people on the basis of one or two obvious characteristics or qualities, which may or may not actually have anything to do with the reality of that person.

So, for example, it isn’t hard to find someone telling us that all Muslims are terrorists and all evangelicals are republican. All illegal immigrants are criminals. All politicians are liars. All car salespeople are crooked and dishonest. The list goes on and on—and is as misleading and wrong as calling black coffee drinkers psychopaths. But we all do this.

There is an antidote to this kind of thinking. Rather than define people by one or two almost incidental traits, we get to know people. We move beyond the identified marker and we discover the real person. Occasionally, we are going to have our initial assessment proven right—but in general, we are going to find that behind the biased and ignorant assumption, there is a real person, a person with whom we can have a great relationship and even deep friendship.

But that takes both effort and courage. It takes courage to break out of our carefully defined boxes and embrace what is different or unknown or too quickly defined. And then, because the person we have categorized has likely been the victim of fast and mindless categorization before, it takes effort to develop the kind of relationship that allows each of us to get to know the other. It is much easier and simpler in the end to watch for the one or two defined markers and place the person in the appropriate box.

But most of the time, the markers don’t tell us what we think they tell us and the boxes we use don’t really work for us or the other. I drink black coffee—but I am actually not a psychopath. I am an evangelical Christian but I am not a republican—actually, I am not even American. Maybe, if we sit down and have a coffee, we can actually see beyond the preconceptions and get to really know each other. By the way, I take my coffee black, the way God meant it to be drunk.

May the peace of God be with you.

A SCARY DRIVE

We were taking our son and grandchildren to the airport after their visit. Part of the drive included a lunch stop—we ran it, picked up food and everyone was going to eat in the car on the way. With my coffee beside me, I pulled into traffic and headed for the on ramp. There was some confusion in the back seat as the grandchildren got their meal organized and just as I began to turn onto the ramp, I hit a pothole which rattled the car seriously. I was distracted and didn’t watch the on ramp carefully and as a result I cut off the driver who had the right of way. He let me know I had goofed with a blast of his horn.

I waved and was planning to go slow so that he could go by—but he maintained his distance and didn’t go by. With my head filled with recent stories of road rage shootings, I got more and more uncomfortable with him behind me. I watched him closely in the mirror, positive that at some point, he was going to step on the gas and catch up with me to do, well, to do something that I wouldn’t like. I was a very nervous driver until I saw him turn off after a few kilometers.

I find myself reacting more and more like that these days when I am driving. The other driver that day had simply reacted to my serious mistake—but we live in an increasingly self-centered and self-focused culture where a significant number of people feel justified in expressing their personal outrage in increasingly violent ways. The other driver in this event did nothing wrong and acted appropriately to my mistake. If anything, he was quite gentlemanly about what I did—but since I didn’t know him, I really had no idea of how he was reacting and so I was anxious until he turned off.

My paranoia was wasted but in truth, it wasn’t out of line. As a culture, we have exchanged civility and forgiveness for anger and revenge. If you cut me off, I get to give you the finger or ram your car off the road or even shoot you. Certainly, the majority of people are not going to react this way—but we are seeing more and more people who feel justified in making their upset clear in increasingly violent ways.

I would like to make a direct connection between that reality and the increasingly depressing church attendance statistics but I can’t. The increase in self-centered behaviour in our culture is a result of a great many factors, some of which have also led people to abandon things like worship. As a culture, we are becoming much more concerned with self and less and less concerned with anything else. While I can and do speculate on the various causes of this, I will leave it to social scientists and historians to write the definitive study of the causes.

But as a theologian, I will make a comment. This drive to self-focus isn’t really new nor should it be all that much of a surprise. It has been around since the beginning. The essence of what the Bible calls sin is the desire on my part to be the most important. I want to be God—remember, that was the original temptation and it has never lost its appeal.

We are created as pretty amazing beings—but we also need to remember that we are not alone in the world. We live in a world that also includes others. Those others are inevitably going to intersect with our lives and when our self-centeredness clashed with their self-centeredness, there are going to be sparks and tensions and problems.

The only really effective solution to the issue is self-centeredness is God. As we relate to the Divine, we discover who and what we are and we are able to locate ourselves in the universe. I am not the most important, I am not the only one. I am one of many created by, sustained by and loved by God—and as I discover more and more of what that means, I discover more and more how to live with other people.

I am going to make mistakes—as are others. We can learn from our relationship with God how to live with the reality of our mistakes without resorting to evil and violence.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHO ARE YOU?

Every now and then, I get caught by my assumptions. I learn a thing or two about someone or something and on the basis of that, I assume a whole bunch of things. One of these situations involved someone who showed up as a worship service where I as preaching. I knew a bit about the person—he was a member of a fairly conservative church group that I knew something about. I didn’t agree with some of the group’s ideas and practises—I am somewhat less conservative than that group.

That particular Sunday, the sermon was on a topic that could have created some real issues between this person and me. I was in the middle of a sermon series and was dealing with a topic where that group he represented had some seriously different ideas from mine. I was pretty sure that my sermon would offend him. My assumption was that it he didn’t walk out during the sermon, I would either be ignored at the end or get told how wrong I was.

All through the sermon, I was conscious of that person and their response. I didn’t preach to him alone. I didn’t ignore him or spend all my time watching his reaction but I was aware of his presence and basically assumed that he was going to be upset by what I was saying. He didn’t give out much in the way of body language but I was pretty sure that he didn’t like it—my assumptions are based on lots of experience with his group.

He didn’t actually leave, nor did he go to sleep or stare out the window during the sermon. He didn’t get visibly agitated or angry—I assumed that he had been taught to control himself in preparation for setting me straight at the end of the worship. The sermon ended, we sang the hymn—I sort of hoped that he would sneak out during the singing but he didn’t. We finished the hymn, I pronounced the benediction and limped towards door to greet everyone as they left.

The rest of the church spent some time talking with this guy, welcoming him and all that and so it was a while before he got to the back. I stuck out my hand to shake his. He grabbed my hand, shook it firmly and told me that my sermon was the best and clearest treatment of the topic that he had ever heard. Over the noise of the rest of the members chatting and laughing, I heard the sound of my assumptions shattering.

I will confess right now that this is a preacher story—there is a core of truth in it but I have embellished it a bit and jammed several incidents together . We preachers simply have an inborn inability to release a story without some polishing and editing. But the story does capture a common reality for me. I tend to make judgments based on my assumptions that turn out to be seriously and completely wrong.

Fortunately, God has been at work through the Holy Spirit to help me grow through such incidents. It has happened enough that you would think I would have learned a long time ago not to make such assumptions but I am not all that bright, I guess, because I keep doing the same thing time after time.

This does help me understand the reality and power of God’s grace, though. God uses an incident to teach me something that I need to know. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, I learn the lesson. And then, through the power of my humanness, I forget the lesson and make the same mistake based on the same assumptions. God, in his infinite grace, forgives me and uses another incident when I make the mistake to teach me again. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, I learn the lesson, only to forget it again and need a refresher.

God reveals his infinite love and grace and patience because as many times as I need the same lesson, God will happily provide it. And if and when I finally learn the lesson, he will move on to something else that I need to learn. I am a slow learner but God is a loving and patient teacher, which is great for me and everyone else.

May the peace of God be with you.

ASSUMPTIONS

Our area has just come through an early and serious heat wave, which produced my normal reaction to extreme heat—I began to complain. I don’t do well in heat. I am very much a winter person and like things cool and even cold. Cold is much easier to deal with than heat—I can always put on more clothes when I am cold but there is a limit to how much I can take off when I am hot, especially when I am preaching.

My complaining produced expected results. The people I know who thrive on heat look at me like I am strange and tell me that they are enjoying it. Some suggest that I shouldn’t complain about the heat because in a few months, I will be complaining about the cold. I remind those people that I rarely if ever complain about the cold.

And then there are the ones who haven’t known me for a long time but who do know that I have spent a lot of time in East Africa. Their response to my complaints about the heat generally revolve around the irony of someone who has spent so much time in Africa complaining about the heat, because as we all know, all of Africa is hot. This is an assumption that everyone knows is true—to say that Africa is hot is like saying that the sun rises in the east.

But like many assumptions, this one isn’t exactly true. I kind of like pointing put to people that the part of East Africa where I have lived and worked so much might be pretty much on the equator but it is also at an elevation of over 5000 feet, which means that the temperature there isn’t that hot. While it gets warm, the highest temperatures experienced there are lower than the highest temperatures in the summer where I live right now. I am pretty sure that most people simply don’t believe me.

After all, everyone knows that Africa is hot and so I must be mistaken, joking or don’t know what I am talking about. My comments about African heat oppose the assumptions being made by the other person. And one of the realities of life is that most people prefer to have their assumptions unchallenged and pristine.

And actually some assumptions are safe to leave unchallenged. When I assume that other drivers on the road are going to do something stupid or dangerous, that assumption keeps me alert and safer. It probably isn’t a totally valid assumption but I and my passengers are safer because I make that assumption.

However, when I assume that someone who belongs to a certain church will have what I consider a distorted theology or someone who speaks a different language will be a danger to me or someone who doesn’t have much money will want to take my money or someone of a different colour isn’t as important as I am or someone whose sexual orientation is different than mine is somehow less human than I am, my assumptions are a serious problem and need to be challenged.

Unfortunately, it seems that we live in a world where instead of being encouraged to challenge our assumptions, we are encouraged to harden and tighten our assumptions. Politics has degenerated into a process of encouraging assumptions rather than enabling development. Religion seems to strive to baptise and sanctify assumptions rather than produce personal growth. Leadership seems to have become the process of harnessing as many assumptions as possible and using them to build a power base.

The end result is that our world is becoming more and more dysfunctional because more and more of us are treating our assumptions as truths that need to be defended with walls, legislation, guns and organizations. In the process, we are losing our ability to really relate to each other as real people. I see others through the lens of my assumptions and so miss the real person.

But all of Africa isn’t hot—and most of the rest of our assumptions are equally flawed. But we can only discover the flaws when we are willing to challenge even our most cherished assumptions so that we can discover the truth and reality that our assumptions hide and distort.

May the peace of God be with you.

HEAVEN, HELL AND ALL THAT STUFF

One of the Bible study groups I work with decided last year that we should spend some time looking at the Biblical ideas of heaven and hell. Since this was the first time in my long ministry that a group had requested that topic, it gave me a chance to do some original research. While the research took more time than digging stuff out of my old files, it is kind of fun to spend some time looking at something different.

At first, I thought this would be a relatively easy research project—after all, heaven and hell are basic topics in the Bible and the Christian life. Anyone who has spend any amount of time in the conservative church knows all about what heaven and hell will be like. Of course, we have tended over the years to get fuller descriptions of hell than heaven—the conservative church has traditionally been more comfortable scaring people with stories of hell than we have enticing them with pictures of heaven.

But as the research progressed, I began to realize that this wasn’t as easy a project as I first thought. Heaven and hell are important topics in the Bible, especially in the New Testament. But as I read through the various references, it soon became clear that the New Testament, while assuming that there is a heaven for the faithful and a hell for the unfaithful, doesn’t actually tell us a lot about them. And, as I dug further and further, much of what it does tell us about them is likely more an attempt to use what we know to understand what we don’t know.

And far from being troubling or a problem, I found that reality quite pleasing. After years and years of listening to descriptions of heaven and hell, I can take a new look at the whole thing. I don’t need to expect streets paved with gold running past huge mansions in heaven. I don’t have to squirm and twist internally at the thought of eternal flames torturing people forever and ever. The relatively few descriptive images we have in the New Testament about what comes next are God’s attempt to compress the infinite so that we finite beings can have something of a glimpse of what it is really going to be like.

The few images are built on the idea that to be fully and completely in the presence of God will be great but beyond our imagining—and being fully and completely without God will be terrible beyond our imagining. I am pretty sure that we can’t even imagine the greatness and terribleness.

The essential message is that there is much more—and the much more is so far from what we know and understand and can comprehend that we can only have vague and very imperfect glimpses of it. This realization does a couple of things for me.

First, it serves to remind me that God is God—he (or she) is infinite and eternal and beyond anything I can imagine—and given that my imagination is partly fueled by science and science fiction, I can really imagine a lot of far out stuff. I need to be reminded at times that God is beyond my ability to comprehend. God is—and most of that being is outside my ability to get a hold of.

But that reality isn’t scary or confusing or depressing because of the second thing it does for me. I may not be able to comprehend heaven, I may be seriously limited in my ability to understand the reality of God but one of the things that God has made very clear is that in his (or her) infiniteness and eternalness, God wants me to be with him, to be in relationship with him (or her).

I don’t know why God would want that. In fact, I doubt that I will ever be able to figure that out this side of eternity—I am limited here and now by my finiteness. But I can and do believe it. It is a core and foundational part of my life now. I believe that God loves me. There are a lot of details that I don’t and probably can’t understand but this, I can understand and trust—God loves me with an eternal and undying love and because of that, there is more to me and life than the here and now.

May the peace of God be with you.