I AM A CHRISTIAN

Both the Bible studies I lead have been looking seriously at how we live our faith on a daily basis. That isn’t the official topic of either study but all of us involved in the studies are really interested in how what we are studying affects daily life so almost everything we look at ends up being walked down mainstreet.

We also look at how others deal with the connection between faith and daily life. It is sometimes much easier and safer to look at other people and learn from their processes before we look too closely at our own. We sometimes work on the principle I have voiced often: We learn from our mistakes—but we learn less painfully from the mistakes of others.

One of the things that has been a frequent focus of our discussions in this area is the fact that often, our faith gets connected with other things—to be seen as a Christian is to be seen as something else as well. One of the most common because it is mentioned in the media a lot is that in some places, to be a Christian is to almost automatically be identified with a certain spot on the political spectrum. In many cases, to be identified as a Christian pretty much identifies how you will vote. There are variations and subtleties, of course, depending on the theological flavour of the believer, the geographic and cultural factors involved and maybe even the unspoken biases of the observers but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that some believers at least assume that a Christian will automatically be ________ (fill in the blank) because that is what Christ was.

Christianity is also sometimes overly associated with culture and colour. White westerners have been known to self-identify as Christian on the basis of culture and colour alone. For some, at least as far as I have observed, those factors alone make someone Christian. There is no need for things like church attendance, Bible reading or Bible following. I have often wondered if such people realize that Jesus was neither white nor western.

When I worked in Kenya, Christianity was often identified with tribes—to know a person’s tribe was to know their faith. Some tribes were Christian and some were Muslim. It was even possible to narrow down the brand of Christianity if you knew the tribe. Given that many tribes make use of traditional names, just hearing a person’s name was often enough to nail down their faith.

But the question I and both Bible studies struggle with is the validity of such identifications. Am I Christian because I am a white westerner? Because I am a Christian, can a certain political party know that I will automatically support them? When you hear my name, should you be able to slot me into a certain faith stream?

The more I learn about Jesus, who he was and what he did, I am pretty sure that being a Christian needs to be seen as something that sets us apart from many of the human classifications that we hold so dear. I am not suggesting that Christians need to somehow separate themselves from the world—that has been tried often in the history of the church and benefits neither the faith nor the world.

I am suggesting that we need to see Christian as an overarching description that exists independently of all other labels. The Christian faith is dependent on seeing and accepting God’s grace shown in Jesus Christ without the addition of any other qualifiers. And that means that those qualifiers that we love so much don’t have any effect on our faith. Certainly, we claim that our faith has the right to affect the qualifiers but it really should be a one way street. My faith needs to affect my political decisions—but my political stance must not affect my faith. My allegiance to a tribe is affected by my faith—but my faith must not be affected by my allegiance to a tribe.

That is the theory—the practise is much more difficult. But I think authentic Christianity needs to make the effort to get rid of the add ons and accretions that we have allowed to hijack our faith. To claim to be a Christian should make a statement about the nature of our relationship with God, not about our politics or colour or culture or tribe.

May the peace of God be with you.

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REAL MINISTRY

I am a pastor, which means many things: I get to be chief grace sayer at all kinds of meals; I am expected to know the meaning of every obscure word and verse in the Bible; I am able to conjure up food and money for every needy person and situation. In short, I am involved in ministry. While I am aware that others are involved in ministry as well, I have a tendency to forget that.

But recently, I was talking with someone who needed someone to listen while they opened up about something they were involved in—that is another of the many activities that go along with being a pastor. I actually knew a fair bit about the situation since it had been a topic of the church and our prayers for a while. I knew about this person’s involvement. As they talked, the story became more interesting.

The person was a bit frustrated with the response to the situation. The person we were all concerned about needed serious help financially, emotionally and medically. He needed major repairs on his house or he would spend the winter with a temporarily patched roof—never a good thing in a Nova Scotia winter where wind, rain and snow come regularly. But in spite of the fact that this was a small community, there wasn’t a lot of activity. Some work had been done and some money had been raised but not what might be expected.

The person talking to me was trying really hard to get things going and frustrated at the results. As we talked, the person acknowledged that helping this other person was difficult: the life choices he had made had tended to turn people away from him. His alcoholic life style, his sometimes difficult personality, his overly independent personality had all worked to create a situation where he was more tolerated in his community than appreciated. Nobody would actually wish his harm but nobody was very quick to step in and help either.

But the person was trying, which I thought was great. But as they talked to me, what I was hearing became even more significant. The person acknowledged that the person was difficult. And then they told me that they had been bullied and I suspect even abused by this person and had spend many years being afraid of the person. There were clearly painful and deep scars associated with this particular individual.

And yet the person talking to me was committed to making sure that the person had a safe and secure home for the winter. They were making arrangements, setting up processes, ensuring that money was accounted for, pushing community leaders. They had made a commitment to this person, a person whom I wasn’t even sure they really liked.

As I reflected on the conversation, I had lots of thoughts, one of which was that this person was engaged in real ministry. They were committed to helping someone others were rejecting for some valid reasons. They themselves had good reason to ignore the person and the situation. And yet, the individual in question needed help—and for some reason, the person talking to me felt it was their job to make sure that the help was delivered. I think what I was hearing from this person qualified as a call to ministry.

Not a call to ministry in the sense of committing to spending a life time working in and for the church, which is what we often consider a call to ministry to be. But this was a specific call to a specific ministry for a specific time. For some reason or reasons, I think God has asked the person talking to me to be his agent for a person they might not like but to whom they can be used as God’s hands. The results of this call are already evident: the man in need is slowly getting the help he needs and if the person I was talking to has anything to say about it, they will have a warm shelter for the winter. But there are other results of that call that are equally valid, results that have to do with the ability of the person talking to me to open themselves to God to find the resources needed to do what God asks.

May the peace of God be with you.

I CAN’T SEE CLEARLY

I have been wearing eye glasses since I was about 16. At the beginning, I needed them for sustained close up stuff like reading but over the years, I have progressed to needing glasses pretty much all the time. I went from wearing them now and then to wearing them most of the time to getting bifocals and now putting on my progressive lens glasses when I get up and taking them off when I go to bed.

One of the interesting discovering I have made is that the more I wear my glasses, the less I pay attention to them, especially how clean they are. Right now, I am aware that there are smudges on the glasses—but because I don’t want to get up and find the cleaner and cloth to clean them I am ignoring the smudges because I know that after a short time, my mind will adjust my sight so that I don’t see the smudges. Somehow, the photo editing system that is part of my vision process clears up the smudges, spots, specks and skin oils that collect on my glasses and I carry on. Of course, once I actually clean the glasses, I am amazed at how much better I am seeing that I was before.

But the truth is that I get used to the poor vision. It becomes normal. I forget what could be and accept something far less. The glasses that make it easier for me to see the world become something that blocks my ability to see. Wearing dirty and smudged glasses limits my vision—but I keep wearing them that way because even the limited vision I get with them is still better than the vision I have without them.

What does that have to do with anything aside from the fact that this is Monday morning, I am just back from vacation and need to write something? Well, using my preacherly licence to find an illustration in anything, I think there is a message in my willingness to continue to wear dirty glasses. It seems to be that we human beings are very good at accepting and living with less than optimal situations.

As believers, for example, we have before us the high and inspiring standards set out by our faith: things like loving one another, caring for the poor, helping the hurting, dealing with injustice. Our faith calls us to be involved in the world, seeking to work as God’s agents in making a difference. But while we might all openly acknowledge this, we all manage to find ways to avoid engaging in the task.

The street person sitting on the corner isn’t really one of those people whom God has called us to care for—he (or she) is just some lazy beggar whom we can ignore. The person down the street whose lawn isn’t mowed isn’t someone with physical limits whom we are called to help out—she (or he) is just some uncaring resident bringing down all property values. The kids who throws rocks at vacant buildings aren’t struggling with abandonment and social issues—they are delinquents who need to be taught a lesson.

On the larger scale, the millions of starving in the world aren’t hungry because of geo-political policies and climate change that we help cause and sustain and who need our help—they are just a bunch of unimportant people living somewhere we will never go and therefore don’t have to worry about.

The faith we claim somehow gets smudged and spotted and dirty enough so that we look at the world through a distorted lens that allows us to ignore the very things that God has called us to see and engage with. The streaks and spots and smudges we allow to accumulate on our faith allow us to ignore the obvious and continue to see what we want to see—and sometimes, in fact, the smudges even allow us to convince ourselves that what we want to see is actually what God wants us to see. But in the end, our glasses are dirty and until we clean them, we are not really seeing what God wants us to see.

So, I am going to clean my real glasses—that is something I can do quickly. But I also need to work at clearing up my spiritual vision so that I can actually see what God wants me to see.

May the peace of God be with you.

SAD NEWS

In that past couple of weeks, the news from our denominational office has included obituaries of two pastors. Both of them were second career pastors, people who had sensed God’s calling later in their lives and were willing to answer that call. Both of them attended the seminary where I was teaching at the time and both were in my classes so I knew them fairly well.

There are not the first students from my teaching days to have died. Several students from my times teaching in Kenya have died—but given the realities of life in Kenya, those deaths, while sad, were not a total surprise. There have even been some students from my time teaching in Canada. A couple of students died as a result of existing medical conditions and so again, their death, although sad, were not unexpected.

These last two, however, were a bit harder for me to process. Both were older and their death were ultimately the result of accumulating enough years that their bodies simply wore out. What makes these more difficult is that neither student was that much older that I am—well, one was a fair bit older but the other was much closer to my age than I realized.

I am saddened by their deaths. They were students but because of the nature of my teaching style and the relatively small size of the clergy community in our denomination, they were also friends. I didn’t see either of them all that much beyond denominational events but we could and did talk and share and were concerned with each other’s lives and ministry. It is sad to think that I won’t see either of them again this side of eternity.

But their deaths also opened a door that I have pretty much been avoiding. I am getting older. Normally, I am not overly conscious of being 66 years old, unless of course it is one of those days when my much older knees are protesting and complaining. I am not sure exactly what age I perceive myself but it is definitely younger than 66. But as I was reading the obituary of the former student who was pretty close to my age, I realized that being 66 has some serious implications. I am in pretty good health, according to my personal observations and my GP’s evaluations, but the basic statistical reality is that I am closer to my death date than I am to my birth date. And since the latest scientific research suggests that the upper limit of human aging is about 120, by that most optimistic standard, I have lived well over half my life.

I deal with death as a regular part of my work. The pastor is one of the first people called in rural areas when death occurs. But most of the time, there is a professional wall between me and the death. I am concerned with helping the people I pastor work through their trauma and grief and so on. Without question, some of these deaths touch me and affect me—my professionalism isn’t something I use as a defence against my own grief.

But these two students dying of essentially age related causes at an age that I can identify with because of its proximity to my age—well, I really can’t professionalize that. To start with, I am not the pastor in either of those situations. I am just one of the many who knew them and who grieves their loss. And without the professional focus to distract me, I look at their loss more personally—and I also recognize the implications of their deaths for me and my context.

Their deaths are sad—I will miss them. Their deaths also point out to me that I am getting up there and could be closer to my own end that I want to realize. But in the end, I really can’t live well if I pay too much attention to the statistical realities that come with my present age. I know that I will die some day. I do take care physically—eating sort of right, sleeping enough, doing some exercise. But I am not really interested in living with the fear or dread of my death. The reminders of the potential that my former students death’s brought are real—but I think that in the end, I decided a long time ago to live until I die, without too much worry about when and how that will be.

May the peace of God be with you.

OCCUPATIONAL HAZARD

Although I am the pastor of small churches, both the pastorates I serve are active with a variety of events going on. Besides the regular and expected activities like worship and Bible Study, we also have a lot of special events. And because of our unofficial denominational traditions or deeply rooted cultural traditions, special events require food as part of the process.

Normally, the special events that we do in the separate pastorates happen at different times and so my attendance at food events is staggered, allowing me some time to work off my indulgence before another one happens. I could, I suppose, set severe limits on how much I eat at special church events but the reality is that I pastor two pastorates full of really good cooks and food events are therefore one temptation that I really can’t resist. Both the old favourites and the new offerings are all so good that I struggle to resist going back the third time. Some separation between the pastorate special events is therefore a blessing.

However, the inevitable happened recently. Both pastorates had special events on the same Sunday—and both events were special enough that we had to have food. The first event was a community blessing service at the local wharf, followed by a potluck lunch at a community hall. That was followed by a hymn sing at the other pastorate, which included a pot luck supper. I did manage to get a break between the two, long enough to bring home one set of church stuff and dishes, take a quick nap and grab the second set of church stuff and food for the second service.

The services went well. The community blessing did bring a few community members to our service and hopefully raised our profile a bit in the community. The second, the hymn sing, was a regular part of our church schedule there and was well attended, including people for whom the hymn sing is an opportunity to check in with our congregation.

The first potluck was everything I expected: a new dish from an experimental cook that was both interesting and delicious; a soup from another that was great; some salads that fit well with the warmth of the day and some tasty deserts. In spite of my well thought out plan to pace myself in view of the next potluck, the table temptation won out and I had more than I needed—but it was really good.

After the quick stop at home, I was off to the second. As the sanctuary filled up, the hall also filled up with tantalizing smells and appetizing dishes. As I ran around between the sanctuary and hall doing all the stuff that pastors do before a special event, I can’t actually say that I was feeling hungry but the smells and visual presentations were interesting and actually tempting.

The hymn sing was good—everyone enjoys the opportunity to sing their favourite hymn and experiment with some new ones. And after the hymn sing, as I pronounced the benediction and the blessing, we headed for the hall. As usual, I hung back to greet people and do some pastoral stuff and that sort of thing. That is normal—but this time, there really wasn’t all that much pull to the food table. But eventually, I got in the line and grabbed a plate.

And then, well, that looked really good and I know this is always good and I have to try that and isn’t that interesting and is that really curry—and before I knew it, I had a plate full and was wondering if there was room for just a bit of that, which of course there was. Once again, I celebrated the giftedness and generosity of the people I serve—or I gave in to temptation. I prefer the first version of events, although I know there are some small minded people who would insist on the second explanation.

I did actually spend an hour on the exercise bike when I finally got home. That really didn’t erase the effects of the two potlucks but it did help me feel a bit more virtuous after the indulgence. Add to that the fact that the next potluck is a month away and that will only be one and I should probably be okay.

May the peace of God be with you.

SEND ME

Years ago, our denomination was beginning a new, improved, streamlined approach to some part of our shared life. They needed people to help the denomination understand the process they were developing. And because this was new thing, they needed not just anybody but specific, respected, articulate, capable people to be a part of this process. They weren’t advertising the new volunteer positions—they were targeting very carefully chosen people whose wisdom, experience and gifts were identified after careful thought and discussion. Given the importance of the new program, that was the only way to really deal with the recruitment process.

As recruitment attempts go, this was one of the slickest that I have been a part of. Instead of trying to use guilt to motivate people into taking part or issuing a blanket call and hoping someone good would show up, this was an attempt to make the potential recruit feel special and important and valuable and significant. When I clearly told the recruiter no, I watched the dismay and surprise flash across his face—how could anyone turn down such a well planned and well executed recruitment process?

I have often been the focus of denominational and other recruitment drives. Some, like this one are slick and polished. Some are sloppy and unconvincing. A few still try to use the guilt process. And some come smacking of desperation. Because I have spend my career working in and for the church, I haven’t had recruitment attempts that come with financial incentives, although now and then the process has included coffee or lunch.

What they all mostly have in common is the assumption that it is God’s will for me to be involved in this process. Whether through the careful study process or the grace of God in a sloppy process, somehow, the recruiters are being used by God to call me to what must be God’s will for my life. There are no shortage of calls in the life of a pastor or other religious leader.

I believe that God has called me. I believe that he has called me to ministry in general and to specific expressions of that general call to serve. But I don’t believe that everything that claims to be a call from God is actually a call from God. And since I generally can’t actually depend on the person seeking to recruit me to help understand God’s calling on my life, I have to find other ways to testing to see whether this great opportunity is a calling from God or a distraction from my real calling.

For me, it is important to recognize that not everything that claims to be a call from God is actually a call from God—or at least it isn’t a call from God for me. God may well be calling someone to serve him through the new and improved denominational program—but the fact that God is seeking to call someone doesn’t mean he is specifically calling me to be involved. The fact that the recruiter is convinced that God wants me there isn’t the same as God actually wanting me there.

And so I have to look carefully at each claim, prayerfully considering it. I sometimes discuss it with friends. Now and then, I will check with the church. But mostly, I evaluate a potential new call in the context of the present call from God. If it is clear that God has called me to something like being a pastor, anything that threatens that call is probably not from God, unless it includes something from God that makes it clear to me how the new call and the continuing call fit together.

I am committed to following where God leads me. I have spend my life doing just that. But for me, part of this commitment to following also includes a commitment to knowing when God isn’t calling me. I think this part of the commitment has saved me and my primary calling a great deal of pain and hardship over the years. I have passed up some “tremendous” calls over the years—but in the end, if it isn’t actually from God, can it really be counted as a call from God?

May the peace of God be with you.

HERE AM I, LORD

As a pastor, I have discovered that I often end up dealing with things from a variety of perspectives. Sometimes, I am a student, discovering as much as I can about a topic. Sometimes, I am a teacher, explaining the issues to students and parishioners. Sometimes, I am part of a larger group that is seeing to do something on a larger scale. But the truth is that most of the time, as a pastor, I am dealing with stuff one on one, as someone struggles to figure out how their life deals with whatever happens to be coming their way.

At those times, I draw deeply on all my education, my research, my training, my talents, my gifts. I have been called by God to help this person in this area—and as much as possible, I work to give them my best for God to use in their life process. Whatever the person is dealing with, I have been called by God to used everything I have to help them make the connection with God that will enable them to find the divine resources to deal with whatever comes their way.

I am not always comfortable with this calling. There are times when it is extremely uncomfortable and even scary. There are times when I feel like I am walking on a tightrope in a still cross wind. There are times when I am sure that I am wasting my time but have to try anyway. There are, of course, times when through the grace of God, everything comes together and the person overcomes. More often, the person makes a step that diminishes the problem a bit and sets up the process for another step down the road a bit.

Some of the things I deal with one on one would be a lot easier to deal with in a different socio-cultural-political climate. Some of the stuff I help people agonize through would be a lot easier if things were different on the macro scale. Helping survivors of childhood sexual abuse, for example, would be a lot easier for the survivor is there weren’t the social stigma and reluctance to admit the problem exists let alone the serious long term consequences that it brings.

At times, I think that someone should do something about the big stuff. Occasionally, I toy with the idea of starting something to deal with the big picture. And now and then in my ministry, I have actually been involved in some of the big picture stuff, working with others to bring about changes. But mostly, I have spent my career dealing with one issue at a time, one person at a time, one day at a time.

It isn’t that I don’t see the big picture. Intellectually, emotionally and vocationally, I am hard wired to seek out and understand the big picture. I am comfortable with the big picture and generally have no problem relating the specific to the general. Part of my ability to help in the specific is tied to my ability to grasp the general.

But for all that, I spend most of my time working with the specifics. And that, I think, is tied closely with my calling. I have been called to be a pastor and teacher. My calling, at least as I have seen it up to this point, is to be the one who can help people mobilize their faith to find what they need to deal with whatever part of life they are currently dealing with. A smaller part of that calling is teaching those not in the specific to understand and be ready for the specific when it happens to them or they are called to help others deal with it.

I sometimes tell people who want me to become involved in the big picture stuff that I am too busy to be involved. And that is pretty much the truth. I have a calling, a calling to be a pastor and teacher. To carry out that calling properly takes significant time and effort, time and effort that I willing offer to God and others. When God calls me to the big picture stuff, it has always been in the context of caring for the specific first and then using spare time and energy to deal with the big picture.

I am grateful for those called to deal with the big picture—someone needs to do it. But someone also needs to deal with the specifics and that is where my calling has tended to take me. Here I am, Lord.

May the peace of God be with you.

BACK TO BASICS?

It’s summer time. At worship, we have an ever shifting congregation because of summer travel. Some travel to our area and join us for worship while others travel away from our area and are therefore absent from our services. A few are involved in seasonal activities that involve commitments on Sunday and there are a few who simply decide to take the summer off. The end result is that most of the time, summer feels like a slower, less hectic and less stressed time in the church.

Summer provides time for a couple of things for me as a pastor. The first is that I get to slow down a bit myself and recover some of the overtime hours that I accumulate during more active times in the church cycle. I am actually getting pretty good at that—I rarely feel guilty enough to find work to do and can even relax a bit during these hours.

And the second thing I get to do is slow down and do some thinking and examining and planning. Some of it is very work focused—I have time to look at what I will be preaching on in the fall and do a bit of research on the coming Bible study topics. I can and do try to see the bigger picture of the church, where we are and where God is trying to lead us. It is much easier to do this sort of thing when there isn’t the pressure of the next meeting or sermon or study.

Some of the thinking and examining and planning focuses on my personal choices: when do we take vacation and what do we do? I might actually find the time to take that long delayed trip to the city to replace my ailing e-reader. And there just might be time to replace the rotten board on the deck.

And some of my thinking concerns personal directions: when do I retire? Do I continue working on this blog? If we do actually retire someday, where do we want to live? Can I actually live without having to do at least one sermon every week?

This last category of questions is the most difficult and probably most important in many ways. While I have already passed the socially accepted age for retirement, I am still working and not actively planning a retirement date. But the time is coming. I realize that I am tired—not physically tired and not emotionally tired so much as vocationally tired. Ministry, at least the way I have practised it, is demanding. It takes a lot of energy to do the work that I believe God has called me to do.

I work closely with people in lots of different life situations. I work hard at finding the messages from God for the people I have been called to serve. I take seriously my role as pastor and teacher. I spend a lot of time with a lot of people in contexts as diverse as potluck picnics and grief counselling. And I personally do all this as an introvert, which I am sure must add another layer of complexity to the equation.

As a result, some of my summer time thinking these days has focused on some important and basic “why” questions: Why keep working? Why keep writing a blog? Why mow the lawn? (Well, maybe not that one). The thinking and examining process has been interesting and valuable, although the only answer I have come up with so far is “because”, which is really a non-answer that suggests I don’t yet have any real reason for making big changes like retiring from work or blogging just yet.

And that is probably the best I am going to get during this spell of thinking and examining. I am vocationally tired but I don’t think I have finished the work I have been called to do where I am now. Some days, I am not overly interested in writing a blog but overall, I still like writing and eventually I discover something that interests me enough to write about. And the thought of lots and lots of free time is appealing but not quite appealing enough just yet to overcome the need to follow the calling that God has given me.

May the peace of God be with you.

BLEST BE THE TIE

I am probably the only pastor I know who still wears a suit and tie when I preach. That is simply a statement, rather than an introduction to a rant about people who don’t wear a suit and tie or the beginning of an introspective post on how I am about to change the habit of a lifetime so that I can become more relevant in my ministry. I wear my suit for my reasons—I am pretty comfortable taking off my jacket on warm days but unless the government passes an anti-suit and tie law, I will likely continue to do that until I retire—and if I preach anywhere after I retire, I will probably still wear my suit and tie.

This is all somewhat ironical, though, since I really don’t like ties and am much more comfortable wearing jeans and a t-shirt, which is my general attire when I am not working. I have been known to spend a lot of time telling people why ties are an anachronistic, pointless hangover from a long past cultural tradition that has as much validity as making women wear hats to worship. I have made significant progress towards modernization, though—I don’t wear a suit and tie for regular stuff like visitation and Bible Study and meetings and so on. But for all that, every Sunday I am leading worship and preaching, I put on my suit, pick out a tie and head out to lead worship.

And with that, we can get to the real point of this post—the tie I pick out. As befits someone who really doesn’t like ties, I don’t have many of them—and since I no longer own a brown suit, several of the ones I have don’t get worn any more. I am not a fashion expert but I have it on good advice that some of my ties simply don’t “work” with my navy suits. Ultimately, I have about seven ties I actually wear—but since one is specifically for Christmas and one works best around Easter, I have about five that get worn regularly.

And interestingly enough, each one has a lot of emotional content. Two were given to me by a former parishioner who has since passed away. She saw the ties in a thrift shop and they reminded her of me. One has a depiction of Mt. Kilimanjaro and a rhino painted on it and it makes me homesick for Kenya every time I wear it. The other has a bright sun and paintings of children from around the world, which always puts me in a good mood.

Another was given to me by my mother many years ago—and I still feel a strong connection with her when I wear it, along with a touch of sadness because I miss her. Another tie has the cast of the Peanuts cartoons—my wife gave it to me for a Valentine’s present a long time ago. Each character is paired with the character they were closest to, making it a great present—and since I learned most of my theology from the Peanuts characters, it is totally appropriate for me.

I have another that I wear occasionally. The only distinction it has is that it is my oldest tie—I think I have had it since shortly after I began in ministry. I really don’t know where it came from but its persistence keeps it in my closet and around my neck on a regular basis. It also represents my rebellion against the accepted practise when I began ministry—way back then, pastoral ties were supposed to be dark and unadorned but this one is a bright multi-coloured mosaic that signifies nothing.

I don’t much like ties—they really don’t serve much purpose beyond satisfying some ancient forgotten social need. But for a variety of reasons, I still wear them and will likely wear them, at least for formal church functions until I die—and will likely be buried in a suit and tie. And if I am going to keep wearing an anachronistic and seriously pointless strip of cloth, I am going to wear something that has meaning to me. The fact that congregation members find most of the ties I wear interesting is good but mostly, I wear them because they mean something to me.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE RIGHT FORMULA

After a longer than usual break because of Christmas and a couple of snow storms, one of the Bible studies finally got going again. And, because we haven’t met in a while, we had lots of stuff to talk about. Somehow, we got on the topic of the process of becoming a believer and began talking about the process, which some people in the faith have turned into a fairly rigid formula.

There are several variations of the formula. The one I grew up with insisted that the process began with walking up the aisle in an evangelistic campaign. Others require that the person seeking God repeat a certain prayer. Some require that specific Scriptures must be read and accepted. Such details become the basis of significant discussion and debate in some branches of the church—can someone really be called a believer if they leave out some part of the formula?

On the surface, there seems to be some validity to this line of thinking. Formulas are really important. Whenever I have had to study or, even worse, teach statistics, I have had to work hard to get the right formula to manipulate the raw data into something comprehensible. When I drive, I am really hoping that the engineers involved in designing the car and the road used the right formulas in the right way in their design process. When my wife was hospitalized shortly after the birth of our third child, getting his formula right was a very important thing for him.

We would be in serious trouble if some of the formulas that underlie our culture weren’t there or weren’t followed properly. We occasionally read of a bridge collapse caused by less than scrupulous contractors cheating on the formula for concrete or one of the many formulas involved in building a solid and safe bridge. Having the right formulas and using them properly is part of the foundation of our culture.

But as important at the right formulas are in some areas of life, an insistence on formulas can become a serious problem in other areas of life—and our relationship with God is one of those areas where an insistence on the right formula will cause problems. The stories of people encountering God in the Bible don’t follow a formula. None of the stories are the same. Paul didn’t open himself to God by following the same process Peter did. Moses wasn’t called by God in the same way David was. Isaiah didn’t have the same prophetic formula as John the Baptist.

It seems to me as I look at God and his relationships with people that there is a very basic formula. It begins and ends with God. He does what he wants and needs to do to engage people in a relationship with him. His grace and love are big enough to encompass any process that brings people to the point of accepting what he offers through Jesus Christ.

The problem is that when we try to formalize God’s love and grace and create a formula for God, we end up creating roadblocks and distractions. If I am becoming open to God as a result of something going on inside me, something that God is working with and through, it becomes a distraction to tell me that I have to go through a certain process. I can begin to focus more on the process than the presence of God. I can check the boxes in the formula and miss God completely.

Some of us humans love to categorize and organize—and that need has a definite and important place in life. But we need to resist the temptation to organize God. He is God and we are not—and our feeble and vain attempts to organize and formulize God and his love and grace just get in the way. God can and will continue to work and will often work around our attempts to organize him. I think that it would be much better for us, though, if we were willing to trust that God knows what he is doing, that he really doesn’t need us to organize him and that he rarely follows the same formula twice, and that in the end, God is going to accomplish his will in his way and in his time.

May the peace of God be with you.