A GOOD COMBINATION

There are some things in life that are just made to go together. Hamburgers obviously need fries to be complete. Abbot needs Costello to make the comedy work. The Old Testament needs the New Testament for the Christian revelation to be fully understood. A blank page (or computer screen these days) needs meaningful words to become something valuable and inspiring. A good stew needs uglai to be perfect. (If you haven’t tried stew and ugali, trust me—or better yet visit East Africa and try it out).

Another combination that makes sense but which works out less often that a burger and fries is the combination of a pastor and a congregation. When the combination works, it is a beautiful thing. When it doesn’t work, it is a disaster not only for the church and the pastor but also for the wider Christian community because it shows our inability to actually follow the faith that we claim.

There are a variety of reasons why the combination doesn’t work. Sometimes, both congregations and pastors enter the relationship without God’s clear leading. That combination is going to fail simply because it results from people presuming to know as much or more than God. They either ignore the need to consult God on the potential combination or assume that what they want it what God wants.

While that is unfortunately a more common reality than most churches and pastors want to admit, I am going to ignore it in this post—I may deal with it sometime. Today, I want to look at why a combination put together by God goes wrong. Presumably, if God in his infinite wisdom brings together a pastor and a combination, it is literally a match made in heaven—so why would it fail?

Most of the time, the match fails because one side or the other or both forget something vital and important. They forget that God himself has selected this congregation and this pastor to be linked together for this point in time. God created the combination because at the point in time the pastor and congregation come together, it is the very best for both in the ever unfolding divine plan for the redemption of creation.

That may sound like a pretty big understanding of what is a very common reality—afterall, there are probably millions of churches around the world and therefore millions of pastor/congregation combinations. Do all of them have that same divine seal of approval making that particular combination a significant and vital part of God’s overall plan of redemption? Well, if both congregation and pastor ( and denominational leadership where applicable) have faithfully engaged in the process and have been fully open to the leading of the Spirit, then yes, their combination is a divinely planned connection that has a part to play in the overall process of moving a sin-scarred world towards its eventual rebirth.

And if that is true, then congregation and pastor need to work together to discover what God envisions them as being a good combination. The gifts, talents, needs and potentials of both pastor and congregation have been carefully and divinely considered and the combination brought together so that the congregation can continue to develop in faith, so that the pastor can continue to develop in faith and so that the overall momentum leading to the full redemption of creation can be maintained. When either the pastor or congregation—or both—forget the divine reality behind their being together, the whole thing gets out of whack.

Instead of seeing their combination as being for the betterment of both and the advancement of the kingdom, each side sees only what they want and seek to achieve it at the expense of the other—and also at the expense of putting yet another kink in the overall plan of redemption which God then has to work around.

Much better for both pastor and congregation to recognize the divine nature of their calling, to accept the need for mutual submission, to humbly seek the Spirit’s guidance as they seek to discover and express the reason for their coming together. When pastor and congregation mutually submit to each other and all submit to God, they are truly a good combination that will work even better than stew and ugali because stew and uglai will have a temporary effect while a good combination of pastor and congregation will have eternal effects.

May the peace of God be with you.

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TWO FUNERALS

One of the pastorates I serve is in the midst of their winter shutdown. An aging congregation combine with old energy inefficient buildings and possible winter driving conditions is such a way as to suggest that I should have some extra time to myself in the winter. We have modified the winter plan just a bit and have one service a month but basically, we are closed for business for the first three months of the year.

Except that when it comes to anything involving people, it is pretty much impossible to be closed for business. The people who form the churches and the people who live in the communities served by the churches still require ministry. They get sick, have operations, get down, need a coffee, want to get married. They also die. And many of them want a representative of God available to help them deal with the realities of life.

So, I minister. One week recently, that ministry during the shutdown involved two funerals. Fortunately, they were on separate days. One funeral is a lot of work but two pretty much wipes out the week—nothing else gets done. So, when I got the notice about the first one, I was a bit frustrated, since I had plans for the week and wasn’t actually supposed to be working for that church anyway. But I am the pastor and so I went to see the family. In the process of the visit to plan the funeral, I discovered that here had been a another death—this in the family of the partner of the person I was meeting with.

That death had just occurred and so no one knew anything about arrangements or plans—but I, as the all knowing pastor of rural congregations, I knew that I would likely end up getting a call about that funeral as well. There are not a lot of options open to families in small communities when it comes to someone to conduct a funeral. We finished the planning session and I had prayer with the family, including a prayer for the family of the second person and headed home, pretty sure that before the end of the day, I would get another call.

When it came, I made my plans to visit the family, which was a bit complicated because the visit had to be arranged around my other worship services and between two winter storms. Having accomplished the visit, we made plans and I prayed and left, feeling sorry for myself for all the extra work this week would have because of the two funerals. I was also doing some major recalculating of my week so that I could get everything done that needed to be done. That recalculating involved cancelling my attendance at a meeting later in the week—given my dislike of meetings, that wasn’t a major inconvenience.

While I was somewhat upset with the extra work, I didn’t focus on that too much once I got a plan for the week developed. After that, I began to think more about the connections between the two funerals and all the people who would be affected by both. Families, friends, community members were all involved because of the tangled relationships that are a basic part of rural life. I anticipated seeing many of the same people at both services, which meant that I had to make sure that the services were different but offered the same level of hope and comfort that I try to bring to a funeral service.

Normally, funerals are separated by enough time that if I use the same Scriptures or the same reference, it isn’t a problem. But with the services following each other so closely and so many attending both, I had to work a bit harder to make sure I wasn’t repeating myself—I wanted people to have a sense that the service was designed for them and their needs and wasn’t just something I cut and pasted together.

Part of the reason I like rural living is the dense web of connections linking people. Sometimes, I don’t discover the connections until I get involved in ministry with the people. That network is a powerful part of rural living—and if it means that planning two funerals back to back is a bit more difficult, I will accept the difficulty because of the blessings that network provides.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE PHONE CALL

I am part of the cell phone revolution—we don’t have a landline in our home. That has several implications, one of which is that my name no longer appears in a phone book. As a pastor, that means in order for people to contact me, I have to be very liberal passing our my business cards, as well as making sure that my number is published every week in the church bulletin. I am not hard to get a hold of, at least within my ministry circle.

Recently, though, I discovered that my ministry circle is much bigger than I thought. I got a call from an acquaintance, someone we used to live near. We had a good relationship, comfortable enough to pass some time when we met but nothing deep or significant. The neighbours knew I was a pastor—they may even have showed up at a funeral or two I conducted. I knew that like many people they didn’t have any real church connection. When we moved to another house, we didn’t see each other all that much but when we did, we would pass some time and move on.

The phone call, though, was an overt request for pastoral care. A death is imminent and the caller wanted me to be involved in the process. He explained how he got my number, mentioning a third person whose name I didn’t actually recognize at first gave him the number. When I finally remembered who the other person was, I realized that my connection was through another funeral for a family member—and I may have given him a card. Like the caller, this person has no real church connection other than a familial connection. But even after a year or more, he had retained my card and number and was quite happy to pass it along to his friend who needed some help.

It isn’t that there are no other clergy around. The person who passed on the phone number has a tentative connection with a church that has a pastor. The caller likely knows another clergy person personally since they are close to the same age and grew up in the same area. All the church in our town have landlines and therefore are listed in the phone book.

But the caller wanted to connect with me. It suggests to me that on some deep level, I am his pastor. I doubt if he would define the relationship that way but essentially, that is the reality. He needs a pastor—he finds my number so that he can talk to his pastor. The fact that he has never been in a worship service in any church I have pastored aside from a funeral isn’t an issue. He needs a pastor and I am his pastor.

My pastoral ministry extends well beyond the churches I serve. And it is based on a whole lot more than the activities I get paid to engage in. I am his pastor likely because of the nature of the relationship we had when we were neighbours and because of some ministry I provided to another neighbour, who also didn’t and doesn’t have any other church connection.

I realized again that believers really are never off duty. My faith is part of my being and its reality is always visible. And because of that, I am always a witness. Sometimes, as in the case of this called, my witness is positive, setting the stage for a deeper ministry when it is needed. But there is the very real possibility that some of the phone calls I don’t get are a result of a negative witness that I have shown some person along the way, a negative witness that speaks not only about how my ministry has been perceived but also about how the God I claim to follow has been perceived. I might be a part-time pastor for small congregations but I am a full time witness to a very large circle of people, a circle whose boundaries I will probably never know.

Fortunately, God is aware of the boundaries of that circle and through the power of the Holy Spirit, can and does enable one person to give another person a phone number so that they can contact me—and the same Spirit will guide my ministry with the called, as long as I am willing to listen to the Spirit.

May the peace of God be with you.

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.

MORE WIRES

In the last post, I wrote that there were two things contemplating the wires I tend not to see actually showed me, one of which was my selective blindness.  The other thing the wires reminded me of is the depth and breadth of connections I have with the rest of humanity.

As an introvert with very strong independent tendencies, it is easy for me to downplay and ignore the connections I have with others.  I am quite comfortable most of the time doing my thing and if I occasionally go for extended periods of time not interacting with others, well, that is okay.  But even an independent introvert like me has more need of others that I sometimes let myself be aware of.

And the wires coming in to the house are a visible reminder of those connections.  If my introverted self wants to slump down in the recliner watching TV and ignore people, the cable wire reminds me that I can’t actually do that without some significant interactions with real people.  These people connect the signal to my TV.  They repair the wires that carry the signal.  They run the switching equipment that brings the signals to the wires.  They administer the business that provides the service.  They make the programs that come through the wires.  They do all that just so I can sit in front the TV and ignore people.  And they can do that because I and many others interact with them.  Paying the monthly cable bill is an interaction, one that involves a lot of other people at banks and so on.

The poet John Donne wrote “No man is an island”.  Putting aside his non-politically correct language as an artifact of a different era, he is making a powerful point.  No matter what we would like to think, we humans are intricately and intimately related in more ways that we can imagine.  The connections are beneficial–but they are also two way.  The cable company will happily provide me with diversions, provided I provide them with a monthly income. The power company will likewise give me power to run my various toys and heat the house, provided I interact with them financially.

The wires connect me to the world so that I can supervise a food security project being done by a Congolese pastor as part of the requirements for the course he is taking at a Kenyan theology school–and I can do it from the comfort of one of my two work chairs in my living room in Canada.

If I am drinking a cup of coffee while I am doing it, I am connected with the whole coffee production line, which means that in the end, some of the money I paid for the coffee ends up helping some farmer somewhere buy food or pay school fees. And maybe that does involve me in the debate over whether that farmer actually gets enough for his time and effort to provide me with my coffee.

After Cain killed his brother Abel and was trying to hide the crime from God, he asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4.9).  He would desperately like the answer to be “no”–but it can’t be no.  We humans are so interlinked and intertwined that a sneeze in Canada affects farmers in Kenya. All human need becomes the responsibility of all humanity–we are all connected in some way and have mutual responsibilities and benefits.  Often, we are aware of some of the connection and responsibilities but would like to ignore others.  I want to ignore the panhandlers on the streets when I am in the city.  But ultimately, I have a connection to them–maybe because a former student is using some of the stuff I taught to develop a ministry to the street people whom I am trying to ignore.  Or maybe that person with their hand out is the grandchild of one of the people who occasionally comes to one of the worship services I lead.  Or maybe the connection is that God wants me to intervene directly in that life.

I will probably continue to ignore the wires coming into the house, at least until one of them doesn’t work or I get desperate for something to write.  But I do need to remember the connections they represent and the wider connections they symbolize.  Even at my most introverted and independent, I have benefits and responsibilities connecting me with the rest of humanity.

May the peace of God be with you.