WHO ARE WE?

One of my Bible study groups just started a new topic.  Last year, we had planned to do a study of basic Christian doctrine and follow that up with a study of our specific denomination.  We got a bit sidetracked and spent several months on a study of the Holy Spirit but in both the Bible study groups I work with, getting sidetracked is one of the most exciting parts of the study process.

But this particular diversion meant that instead of going right from a study of Christian theology into a more specific denominational approach, we had a gap.  I had a concern that the gap would mean that we would lose sight of the connection between the two studies.  My original plan was to move right from one to the other, which would help us see ourselves as believers in a specific context within the wider church.

I think our study group will be able to make the connection–but just to make sure, I dug out and passed around a 2 page summary of Christian history that I developed years ago with help from a variety of sources.  But on a wider scale, one of my concerns throughout ministry has been that we believers have a terrible tendency to forget the big picture.

Because I belong to the Baptist segment of the church, I have a tendency to think that the rest of the church is somehow off course.  There are also people within this tradition who are absolutely convinced that anyone who isn’t a Baptist really isn’t part of the Church.  If such thinking were confined only to the Baptist segment, that would be a serious but somewhat manageable problem–the rest of the Church could ignore our thinking and get on with its business.

Unfortunately, the inability to contextualize denominational stances within the wider church seems to be one of the defining characteristics of  the church as a whole, at least in North America.  You would think that at a time when the whole Christian faith is experiencing a decline in the West, we would be more willing to pull together–but instead of pulling together, we are often doing our best to put each other down.

We even spend more time than any of us want to admit trying to convince believers from other segments of the Church to join our segment.  While some might call this evangelism, it really isn’t.  We are just rearranging the seating plan, not reaching into the darkness to rescue people as we are called to do.

But the reality is that we believers need to deal more effectively with all the other branches of the faith that we do at this point.  It is simply wrong to assume that everyone outside our particular brand is either wrong or needs to switch.  Christianity isn’t a competition to see who can capture the most from the “other side”.  The Church is a wide and diverse gathering of believers whose actual expression of the faith takes many forms and many styles, none of which is perfectly right or perfectly wrong.

Jesus died and rose to life for the sake of all humanity and instituted the Church as a place where those who follow him can grow and develop and fellowship and enable each other.  And he died and rose to life and instituted the church for Baptists and Catholics and the Africa Brotherhood Church and Brother Joe’s Independent Chapel and all the rest.  I may not feel particularly comfortable in Brother Joe’s Independent Chapel and I am much too happy being a married pastor to consider being a Catholic priest but I am joined to Brother Joe and the Roman Catholic church is deep, powerful and eternal ways that I need to recognize and strengthen.

The things that tie me to the rest of the church are important and basic.  The things that differentiate me from the rest of the church are also important–but nowhere near as important as the love and grace of God shown to all through the crucified, risen, living and someday to return Jesus Christ.  When I look at the Church through the lens of Jesus Christ, many of the things that separate me from other believers really aren’t that important.  So what if Anglicans use wine and Baptists use grape juice and the Africa Brotherhood Church uses some local dried powder reconstituted with questionable water?  We all see it as the blood of Christ, which ties us together with an unbreakable bond.

May the peace of God be with you.

A DIFFICULT BALANCING ACT

When I am bored or finishing up my time on the exercise bike, I spend a few minutes watching Youtube.  One of the story lines these days shows a guy walking on a webbing strap stretched between two anchor points several feet above the ground.  Since this is Youtube, the likelihood when the video starts is that things will go wrong.  Inevitably, the walker loses his balance and falls with one foot on either side of the strap, which snaps back into place now that the weight is off it.  The painful results have convinced me that this is something I never want to try.

However, I realize that I have been struggling with an equally difficult balancing act for  most of my life.  For as long as I can remember, I have been struggling with the balance between individual freedom and community responsibility.  I belong to a denomination (Baptist) which developed out of a desire for a greater role of personal freedom before God in organized faith–and have remained in that denominational family because of that foundational principle.

Yet at the same time, I have struggled with freedom that tramples on others, which often happens when people begin to think that their personal freedom (or needs or desires or wants or wishes) are absolute and take priority over everything else, including the freedom of others.   Having been on the receiving end of that sort of treatment a few times, I may be a bit more sensitive to it than some.

At the risk of over-simplifying the problem, let me try an illustration.  I am colour blind–the red-green version of this problem. (I know I should probably be saying “colour-deficient” but I have been using colour blind for so long that I am going to exercise my freedom to use the term I am familiar with.)  I struggle with anything beyond a very clear green and very clear red–once people start mixing colours, I am lost.  And so I live with and around that.  I only wear colours that I can easily identify.  I ask for directions using civic addresses not house colours.  I paint walls with whatever paint someone else picks out and will never notice if the tint is slightly off.  I use words like “light” or “dark” rather than colour names.

I choose to live in as colour-neutral a world as possible–not a world where colour doesn’t exist but where it has as little an effect on my life as possible.  That is my choice and in some ways, my need.  And when it comes to my shirts and my directions and my painting, it works well for me.  I avoid looking like a clown wearing mismatched clothing, I generally find the right location and I get the walls painted.  I have the freedom to choose my own course as a colour-blind individual in a coloured world.

But the coloured world keeps getting in my way.  I subscribe to a science magazine which has all sorts of great articles–some of which come with informative graphics like pie charts and graphs and other neat ways of presenting blocks of interesting information.  Most of them use colours to present the information, a simple and easy way of portraying information clearly–except for me, it becomes a meaningless blob of frustration because I normally can’t tell the differences in the colours.

Obviously, the whole publishing industry needs to change because of me–well, because of me and all the other colour challenged people in the world who get equally frustrated with those graphics.  They will have to present the information in other ways so I can understand it–shading and cross-hatching of various kinds would work.  And, while we are at it, maybe we need to change the fashion world so that colours are banned as well.  And maybe we should get legislation passed that limits the number of crayons in a package and makes sure that each is clearly labeled–and colouring books are marked with which crayon is appropriate for each space.  We could also require cars to be white or black, although natural metal colour might also work.

I think I just fell off the webbing strap.

May the peace of God be with you.

GOD LOVES DIVERSITY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

BEING DIFFERENT

            If balkanization is a problem, the seemingly obvious solution is for us to focus on being as much alike as we can be.  I remember reading a science fiction story years ago about a cult that decided this was the case.  They developed a strong doctrine based on everyone being the same–and then, in the logical consequence of the doctrine, every member was surgically altered so that everyone looked the same.

The story was based on the idea that no matter how much they wanted to be the same, there were still differences that could not be erased.  In that fictional group, someone was murdering members of the group.  I don’t remember the story all that well but it seems to me that the reason for the murders was that one member of the group felt that those being killed were not quite the same as all the others.

And so while making everyone the same might seem to be the antidote to balkanization, it really isn’t.  We are different and no matter how much we try to be the same, we will never make it.  Our differences are basic to our humanness–it begins in our genetic makeup and is reinforced by our experiences in life.  We have significant similarities and significant differences and both are a part of who and what we are.  We can no more ignore our differences than we can  ignore our similarities.

We need to learn to celebrate our differences without making them a basis of division.  I am left-handed.  Being left-handed makes me part of a minority–about 10% of the population is left-handed.  Since the majority of the population is predominantly right-handed, most things are designed and build by and for right-handed people.  Technically, that is a form of discrimination which puts me at a disadvantage and occasionally in danger–some tools designed for right handed-people put us lefties in danger by causing us to reach over or around spinning blades and other parts in order to use our dominant hand.

I didn’t have a choice about being left-handed–it is ultimately a result of factors beyond my control.  I have spend my life living left-handed and learning how to adapt myself to living in a right-handed world.  But I have never spent much time trying to differentiate myself from the right-handed majority nor have I spent time blaming or shaming the right-handed (except in fun when everyone knows we are having fun).  I don’t worry about being minority, majority or whatever–I just do what I do to function.  And when I can’t function as left-handed in a right-handed world, I either adapt or find a right-handed person to do the job.

I really don’t need to create a militant left-handed group.  I am left-handed and like being left-handed but that is likely because I don’t know anything else.  But I don’t need to put down right-handed people to enjoy my left-handedness.  I can celebrate and enjoy what I am without going the balkanization route.  Being left-handed isn’t one of the major flash points when it comes to human difference, although it has been at times and continues to be in a few cultures.

There are many differences that are flash points in  life–but they are flash points because of cultural, ethnic, political, theological issues.  Someone or some group decides that being from one ethnic group is not as acceptable as being from another group.  But the truth is that these differences are part of human reality.  We can be different and still be human.  We can barbeque hamburgers or goat or egg plant and still be human.  We can read the Bible in KJV or NIV or the original Greek and Hebrew and still be Christian.  We can celebrate Communion with wine or grape juice and still be faithful to God.

And if we pay attention, the differences we see and experience can help us experience more of the fullness of life and faith.  As we discover how others have faced and dealt with life and faith, we gain a deeper and broader understanding of the possibilities.  We discover that different is not wrong or better or strange or sinful–it is just different.  Some difference we can embrace–I like my Kenyan friends’ food.  Some, we can’t embrace as easily–I always have to figure out how to use right-handed tools safely.  But we can celebrate the differences–just as God does.

May the peace of God be with you.