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.

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ITS TOO HARD TO UNDERSTAND

Because I am continually beating the drum about reading the Bible, I occasionally have people tell me that they are going to start reading the Bible. I get excited and based on past experience, give them some advice that I hope will help them. Generally, I tell people not to start with Genesis 1.1 and plan on reading through to Revelation 22.21. That method is pretty much doomed to fail. The reader often gets lost in the swamps of Leviticus or founders in the depths of Numbers. If they somehow heroically make it out of the first five books, they tend to lose interest in the repetitious history books.

There are other ways to approach reading—but that is a post for another day. Today, I am going to deal with another issue that often comes up when people make a commitment to growing their faith by reading the Bible. The initial stages go well—but then, things slow down because of a serious problem. The would be reader often comes back to me with a serious complaint—they are reading but they really can’t understand what they are reading. The Bible is just too hard to understand. It may be okay for people like me, who have been to university and have specialized in Bible stuff, but they are lost. It is too hard to understand.

That stops a lot of people. And they have a valid complaint. The Bible is hard to understand, or at least some part of it are hard to understand. We need to remember that the Bible was written and compiled by people from a very different time and culture—or rather times and cultures—from ours. There are references and allusions and details that make absolutely no sense to us when we read them because they come from the realities of people living at least 2000 years ago in places from away, speaking languages that most of us will never encounter, dealing with things that we only read about in the Bible. Of course parts of the Bible are going to be hard to understand.

As part of my spiritual journey, I have come to realize that not only are there parts of the Bible that I struggle to understand but also I don’t actually need to understand. If I don’t understand the ins and outs of the Levitical law code, my personal spiritual growth doesn’t suffer. If I can’t break the poetic message of some of the Psalms, it isn’t going to keep me from coming closer to God. If the symbolism of Daniel and Revelation confuses and irritates me, I am still going to have a spot in heaven.

The bottom line for me is that I don’t think I need to understand the whole Bible. God has given the Bible as his message to all people of all time and that means that the revelation that was so vitally important for the wandering ex-slaves who would form the nation of Israel probably isn’t all that vital for me. I confess to finding Leviticus interesting but if it disappeared from the Bible, my faith wouldn’t really suffer. Some of the parts of the Bible that I don’t understand are perfectly clear to my Kenyan friends. Some parts that neither of us understand will like be very clear to the Martian colonists sitting in their domed shelters 200 years from now.

I don’t need to understand the whole Bible. The whole thing isn’t written for me. What I need to deal with are the parts that were written for me—and to find those, I need to read the whole thing. There isn’t a specific part with my name on it—my parents didn’t give me a Biblical name so I can’t claim one of the books as mine and mine alone. But I have discovered that as I read through the Bible, I keep running into stuff that I do understand because it speaks directly. If I hadn’t systematically read the Bible, I would never have run into Psalm 13, which has and still does provide me with tremendous help during my depressions.

I read a comment one time but can’t remember who it come from. Essentially, the writer said he wasn’t worried about the parts of the Bible he couldn’t understand. He was worried about the parts that he could understand. That works for me.

May the peace of God be with you.

A DONATED SUIT

I am sitting in a deacons’ meeting where we have been looking at a lot of different issues affecting our church. Since we were slowly climbing out of a serious mess that occurred just before I was called to the church, there was a lot to talk about. We rejoiced at the signs of life we were seeing and pondered the best ways to deal with the continuing issues from the previous mess. Near the end of the meeting, we opened the agenda to anyone who might have concerns.

Our senior deacon wanted to raise a concern. Since he was a retired pastor with many years of experience who tended to be on the ball and quite helpful, we all listened to him. He raised the issue of the young people who were attending our worship—about six of them, week after week, faithfully attending, participating and seeming to really appreciate what we were doing. I had wanted to raise the issue myself—we had a lot to rejoice about: the kids were coming, our student intern was doing great things with them, they made up 10-20 percent of our small but growing attendance.

But the senior deacon had a whole different idea. He was concerned about how the kids dressed. Their clothing wasn’t respectful. Some of them were showing up in jeans and t-shirts, covered with various jackets. They were wearing sneakers and some of the guys wore baseball hats—although somewhere along the line, they had learned to take the hats off during worship. But the bottom line was that these young people were not showing sufficient respect for God because they weren’t well dressed.

He had a solution, one that had helped him as a young person. He came from a poor family and didn’t feel comfortable attending worship until someone in the congregation graciously donated a used suit that he could wear. As a church, we needed to find people to donate good used suits for the guys and appropriate dresses for the girls. Then they would feel much more at home and be more reverent and respectful.

The only thing I found more difficult than preventing my student intern from climbing over the table to do physical harm to the senior deacon was preventing myself from climbing over the table to do serious harm to the senior deacon. Somehow, the grace of God broke through and neither I nor the student intern did what we were thinking.

Instead, we had a serious and significant discussion about cultural relatively. The senior deacon was concerned about these kids but was working from a whole different culture. It made a major difference to him when I pointed out that the jeans the kids wore on Sunday morning likely cost more than the suit he wore—these weren’t poor street kids. The student intern pointed out that some of those kids got more allowance than the senior deacon got in pension, which was probably an exaggeration on both sides but helped the discussion along.

While the senior deacon would still liked to have seen the kids coming in attire appropriate to the culture from 40 years ago, he began to get some insights into the changes that had occurred over the past years and decided that maybe jeans that cost more than his suit were more appropriate for those kids than a donated suit. With the crisis averted, we adjourned the meeting, secure in the knowledge that we could continue the ministry we were involved in and could rejoice in the fact that these kids found our worship valuable enough to get up early on Sunday morning, put on their best jeans and t-shirts and join us.

Is there a point here? Well, maybe we in the church need to pay attention to our culture and realize that much of the time, we want to donate suits to people who neither want nor need our used suits. They need and want something different and sometimes actually find it—but because we get caught up in the need to supply a suit to the suitless, we damage their ability to get what they actually need and want. Isn’t is much better to amplify what we are doing that they need and want than spend all the effort it would take to donate a used suit?

May the peace of God be with you.

WHOSE SIDE IS JESUS ON?

I have been involved in learning about my faith from the very earliest beginnings of my faith journey. I have had a lot of teachers: my parents, pastors, professors, writers, friends, parishioners. Being a perpetual student allows me to learn from almost anyone and almost any situation. I have learned that I need to be discriminating and willing to evaluate what I am learning, though, because not everything I learn has equal value—and in the end, not everything I learn is true.

And that is important because it seems that the amount of information about faith has exploded. Mostly, this is a result of the increase in media options. Everyone today had an opinion and a way to make that opinion known. And so we are inundated with information about faith. And if we are not willing to think about what we hear and read, we are likely in trouble.

According to various media sources, for example, if Jesus were alive today, he would support banning assault weapons or he would be carrying an AR-15. He would be in favour of opening immigration doors wide or he would support restrictive regulations that protect our homes. Probably, he would speak in King James English—or maybe he would rap the Gospel. Jesus would be a capitalist—or a communist. He would be a conservative voter—or a liberal one. Jesus wants the unborn protected—but he also stands for reproductive rights. I personally am pretty sure that Jesus was left-handed but there are many others who suggest that he was right-handed.

Jesus and our faith get drafted by everyone and everybody who feels that their ideas and causes need a bit of a push. And the real tragedy is that no matter what side drafts Jesus, there are believers who are prepared to accept what they are told without question. The underlying reality is that we all want to assume that Jesus is like us and believes like us and that gives us a divine supporter for our side. The fact that the New Testament is silent on many of the major cultural issues allows us to pick and choose and cherry pick bits and pieces that we can weave into a divine approval of our side.

To see Jesus and the rest of the Christian faith as simply a support and confirmation of what we already believe and want is really to miss completely that reality of Jesus and the faith. Jesus didn’t come to us to confirm what we want confirmed. Jesus came because not one of us was getting it right. The best of us still weren’t what we were supposed to be. And if we couldn’t get it together individually, there was and is absolutely no chance that we can get it together as groups—our cultural standards are as shot through with wrong and evil as our personal standards.

Jesus came to rescue us from ourselves—and there was no question that we needed rescuing. We were going to hell in a handbasket. Jesus came to deal with our wrongs, beginning with the individual personal wrong in our lives and moving out from there to the cultural wrongs. To treat Jesus as anything but a divine statement about our inability to get it right is to miss entirely the point of the Christian faith and reduce Jesus to a personal and cultural flunky that we can use to support our stupidity, wrong and evil.

Jesus isn’t the supporter of our ideas that we often want him to be. In reality, he came to point out just how wrong we are and that even at our best, we are still a long way from what we were meant to be. He came to rescue us from our self-induced messes and at the same time, to stand as a clear and powerful statement in opposition to our self-centered wrongness. Rather than use Jesus to support our ways, we need to see Jesus as standing outside our lives, existing to show us a better way than any culturally, politically or personally correct idea that we might have.

May the peace of God be with you.

OUR FATHER…

I had an interesting and startling experience the other day.  I was conducting a funeral.  The family had no connection with my churches or any church for that matter.  I occasionally get asked to lead such funerals by the funeral director probably because I have been in the area for a long time and we have worked together a lot.  I have been quite busy and almost said no when the call came but in the end, agreed to do the funeral.

The name of the family contact sounded familiar and it turned out that I knew him from past days when I was an officer with the Army Cadet program and he was a cadet.  When he recognized me, he mentioned that he had no idea I was a minister–my role in the Cadet program was supply officer, making sure that uniforms of approximately the right size and other equipment on were given to the right people at the right time.  But that connection did make it easier for both of us as we worked together to design the funeral service.

Anyway, I quickly became aware of the fact that the family had very little in the way of church connections.  The person who had died had attended worship as a child but stopped when she got married–and given that she married very young, that was a long time ago.  The family didn’t know any hymns except “Amazing Grace”.  They didn’t know any Scriptures.   They had no church home but since the service was going to be in the funeral home, that wasn’t a problem.  Eventually, we manage to develop a service that they were comfortable with.

The day of the funeral arrived.  As usual, I arrived early to make sure everything was ready and to chat with the funeral people.  Some of the family was already there–dressed in jeans and t-shirts, some inside being uncomfortable and others outside having a last smoke being equally uncomfortable.  Nobody knew what to do, how to behave, what to expect, how to function.

The funeral home staff did their usual great job of helping people with the process and I greeted and talked with people, offering prayer with the family before we began.  As the service started, I was well aware that this was what Christian academics would call a “post-Christian” group.

I followed the order of service, well aware that nobody was paying much attention to what I was saying.  I did a brief eulogy based on what the family had told me that did produce a few responses from the family.  Then I started the pastoral prayer which was to end with the Lord’s Prayer.  Part way through the prayer, I realized that many people there probably didn’t know the Lord’s prayer and I wondered if maybe I should skip it–multi-tasking isn’t just a part of my computer life.

But since the Lord’s Prayer was included in the bulletin, I began it as normal–and repeated the whole prayer by myself.  Not one member of the audience joined in.  I finished the prayer and moved on with the service.

I live and work in an part of Canada that has deep and strong Christian roots–our area was site of the first European settlement in Canada and the settlers had a priest with them.  My own denomination, the Baptists, were a vital part of our local history–at one point there was a active Baptist congregation about every 8 kilometers (5 miles) along our roads.  All the other major and a lot of minor denominations are represented as well.

But as that funeral shows me, somewhere along the line, we have lost our way and allowed our faith and churches to become ghettoized.  I think it is sad and serious that the people at this funeral didn’t know the Lord’s Prayer.  But the problem isn’t with them.  The problem is with those of us who have faith.  We have, I think, forgotten that one of Jesus’ two commands was to “Go” (Matthew 28.19).  As a result, we sit in our church buildings, waiting for people to come to us.  But these days, there are many things to do that are a lot more interesting than what we offer.

And people are more interested in those things than in us.  Both as individuals and as churches, we need to discover the reality of being in a post-Christian world, confess our failures that have lead to that happening and then we need to follow the Holy Spirit back into the real world where people live and work and need the light of God.

May the peace of God be with you.

A CUP OF COFFEE

            When I am on the road by myself on a long trip, I am wise enough to stop regularly for a break, which generally involves a bathroom and a cup of coffee.  But because I don’t want to stop long, the coffee is takeout and I want to be in and out as quickly as possible so I can get on the road again to get to wherever I am going to do whatever I am going to do.  Generally, that involves some kind of ministry–visiting someone in the regional hospital, for example.

So, I stop for coffee and a bathroom.  I stand in the line for the coffee, getting a bit frustrated when the people in front of me haven’t looked at the signs showing what is available to make their choices.  Instead, they get to the counter as ask a million questions, ordering the most obscure and time consuming items on the menu.  The frustration grows as the counter person struggles with the process, quickly showing that this is likely the very first time this particular individual has worked here.

Finally, I get to the counter and place my order–only two things:  a coffee and a snack (you can’t drink coffee on the road without a snack, right?).  The counter person gets the order wrong and I have to correct it.  As it is being filled the counter person makes another mistake and another when punching in the prices.  And to top it all off, the card reader won’t read the gift card I want to use, the card I know has enough money on it to cover everything.  All the while, I am getting more and more frustrated, watching the time pass and the mistakes multiply.  I want to bolt out of the line and get back on the road–don’t these people realize that I have important ministry to do and that they are wasting my time with this “fast” process?

I would go somewhere else but I like the coffee here and anyway, somewhere else is probably going to be the same and then I would waste even more time.  I just want a cup of coffee (and snack) so I can get back on the road and get on with both my life and my ministry.

Hold that scene in your mind–I have confess that this has never actually happened to me this way.  All these things have happened but not all together.  This is the coffee stop from hell, the time when all that could possible go wrong goes wrong.  But it does provide a sense of what I sometimes feel and think when in a situation like that.

My question is, “What do I say to the counter person?”  I am always tempted to slam them with some comment about the service, their lack of skill or intelligence, or my decision never to return.  I would like to make their day as miserable as mine has become because of a simple coffee stop.  I want to grumble and complain and make them at least feel bad that they have inconvenienced me.

But I generally don’t do any of that.  I know that I will be back–I like the coffee and they have a convenient location.  Getting even won’t do anything much because most likely, anything I say will have been said before and with a lot more choice words than I generally use.  Making a scene of any kind just slows me down even more.

And besides all that, I am a Christian and my faith needs to be an active part of my life, even when I am suffering through the coffee stop from hell.  Even if the counter person doesn’t know or care that I am a Christian, I know I am a Christian and I know that part of my commitment to God is buying my coffee as a Christian.  I can’t leave my faith in the car while I run in to the coffee shop.  Mind you, giving a condensed version of the Christian faith probably isn’t a good idea in the coffee shop lineup either–that will only encourage others to act like I want to act.

So, I take my coffee and thank the counter person with a smile.  If they apologize for the confusion, I offer them a kind of forgiveness by telling them it’s okay.  Then, I head for the car, hoping they actually got the order right.  It might not be a big thing, but I feel that I did at least function in as Christian a way as possible, maybe shining some light in the darkness.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT ABOUT THE CHURCH?

Recently, a friend who has been involved in pastoral ministry even longer than I have asked me what I thought the future of the church would be.  It may be that since he had spent his life working in and for the church and was now sort of retired, he was wondering if his life’s work had any value.  Or it just might be that he was making conversation.

Anyway, the more I have thought about his question, the more complex and confusing it  seems to become.  The state of the church today is not an easy one to describe and therefore, the future of the church is even harder to describe.

On many levels, the church, especially the church in North America, looks like it is in trouble.  Attendance is dropping and those who do attend are getting greyer and greyer.  I led worship in two separate congregations yesterday, one with 12 people and the other with 17 people.  Both these congregations used to have much bigger congregations, full time pastors, Sunday Schools and even youth groups.  Now, these small groups carry on, faithful but asking serious questions about how much longer they will last.

The church is also in trouble in terms of its image.  I know more people who don’t attend worship than who do attend worship these days.  Spirituality has become a popular trend in western culture but the church isn’t often seen as a valid avenue to develop spirituality.  Even many whose spiritual journey follows the Christian path feel that they don’t really need to church–and have no problem expressing that lack of need and even encouraging others to avoid the church.

Even the church’s traditional public ministries of weddings and funerals are being expressed in different ways–and more and more, the church and its services are being ignored as people develop new ways to celebrate these transitions.

It is relatively easy to find all kinds of information about the decline of the church, the irrelevancy of the church, the dangers of the church, the evils of the church even.  Thanks to the Internet, people wanting to show the dangers and difficulties of the church don’t need a pulpit–they just need a keyboard and internet access.

And the real problem facing the church today is that no matter how biased the article, no matter how poorly written, no matter how slanted the perspective, no matter how awful the claims made against the church, everyone who writes against the church is tapping a deep vein of truth–the church today, as always, is not perfect.

And while some organizations may get to hide their imperfections behind PR firewalls and confidentiality agreements, the church’s imperfections–both real and imagined–get shouted from the rooftops for all to see and hear and pass around.  Even the most dedicated church member probably has at least one bad story about the church and since we live in the Internet age, that story can be and probably will be made public.

When we look at the very negative images of the church that are so common today and couple that with the statistical reality that in Canada, less than 20% of the population actually attend Christian worship regularly, things don’t look too good for the church.   If I were a new pastor just beginning my career in ministry, seeing all the negative concerning the church might encourage me to get qualified in something else just to be on the safe side.

But after looking at all the negative stuff, I still have to deal with the reality of my pastoral charges–the 12 and the 17.  I have heard some of their stories and will hear more of their stories in the future.  Some of those stories will be about negative stuff associated with the church in general and our churches in specific.  But next Sunday, we will still gather for worship.  We will sing some hymns and choruses, maybe even with an accompanist, and pray some prayers.  I will preach a sermon that most will listen to most of the time.  We will lament the lack of numbers even as we are shaking hands, hugging and asking how the week has been, if the cold in getting better and offering condolences for latest tragedy we have heard about.

We will be the church–for how long, we don’t know.  But for now, we are the church and we will do church stuff, even if it seems somewhat futile in the light of the stats and reports coming from everywhere and everyone.

May the peace of God be with you.

EARTH DAY

            This year, April 22 is Earth Day.  I never remember Earth Day until I begin to see comments and articles about it on some of the websites and blogs I check regularly.  It isn’t because I am not interested in Earth Day but more because I have enough dates to remember and Earth Day always comes somewhere in the busy Easter season, although this year it is about a month after Easter.

I do remember one or two years in my pastoral ministry that I actually remembered Earth Day and focused the worship service on it.  Among some of my clergy friends, that was considered a bit much–after all, Earth Day is a secular event and has very little to do with our faith.  The fact that I would not only focus a worship service on Earth Day but also preach on it made me just a little suspect in some of their minds–like maybe I had jumped the barrier and ended up in theologically liberal territory.  Among the more conservative parts of the church where I live and work and feel comfortable, becoming a liberal is probably the worst thing that can happen.

But at the time, and still today, I think that Earth Day is a valid focus for the Christian faith.  Earth Day itself may have been developed by secular environmentalists, but a lot of the concern and reasoning behind Earth Day has deep Christian roots.  Unfortunately, neither the Christian church nor the environmental movement are terrible aware of that reality.

In fact, Christians are often described as being among the causes of the current ecological disaster.  The Protestant work ethic and the Industrial Revolution were partially responsible for the increase in the over-exploitation of natural resources.  Many of the early exploiters used their faith as a justification for the destruction of the natural environment, or at least that is the theme of some of the things I have read at various times.

And I have no doubt that there is some truth in this–historically, all faiths have been used as justification for what people want to do.  Some early industrialists most likely believed it was their God-given right to destroy landscapes and toss waste where ever they wanted.  Some of them likely believed that the poor were there to exploit along with the natural resources. Some may even have had Biblical proof tests and captive clergy to validate their claims.

But the Christian faith can’t really be used as a justification for ecological destruction.  True, there isn’t a great deal in the NT about the environment and its care.  There is the passage in Romans 8.19-21 which tells us that all creation is suffering from the effects of sin and is waiting for deliverance through Jesus Christ.  This can be referring to the damage humanity has done to creation as a result of our greed and ignorance.

But even more significant is the charge God gave humanity in Genesis 1.27-30.  There, humanity was given the task of looking after the creation that God had lavished so much love on.  Some read this as a justification for any kind of use and abuse of creation but I think the passage needs to be contextualized.  God is the creator and it is his creation.  Humanity is not being given creation to exploit as we see fit–rather, we are being given an important position as managers of God’s creation.

We benefit from the creation, we are provided with food, shelter, economic benefits and so on–but we are not to manage creation for our benefit alone.  We are God’s managers, tasked with the job of managing what God has so carefully and lovingly put together.  While we benefit from creation, it isn’t ours and we need to remember that.

Our faith should actually put us in the forefront of the environmental movement–we are, after all, God’s servants and agents in the world.  That calling includes caring for the poor, spreading the Good News and caring for creation.  If giving a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name (Matthew 10.42) is a blessing, it is an equal blessing to ensure that that cup of cold water not only is available but also is free from pollution and disease.  Care of creation is also part of our Christian task.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE RULES OF SINNING

Growing up in a conservative church in a rural community, I quickly learned the basic rules about sin:  It was wrong so don’t do it.  Don’t even think about it!  Don’t let other people do it!  These basic rules were part of my spiritual growth and development and worked well, at least in that context.  There were, of course, some discussions and disputes–not about the rules but about what exactly constituted a sin.

School dances, for example, were a terrible sin for some believers but a safe and normal part of life for others.  Watching TV could be sinful or okay, depending on which family and which denomination the watcher was part of.  While we might have had some disagreement on the definitions of, the basic rules were clear and undisputed.

Or, at least I thought so.  As I grew and became more involved in the life of the church, I began to see that the basic rules weren’t as rigid and as clear as it seemed at first.  It began to dawn on me that there were some exceptions.

When the men’s choir sang, the shy guy with the great voice was allowed to show up smelling like he had had a drink of rum before he got there.  We were a seriously non-drinking church but his bay-rum “aftershave” gave him courage to add his voice to the choir, which wouldn’t have been much otherwise.

And then there was the pastor who was abusing kids, including his own who was quietly resettled somewhere else and the families and kids convinced that it wasn’t his fault–he was doing great things for God and it would be a shame to let something like that stop his ministry.

Of course, there were also the generous givers whose contributions played a significant role in the congregation’s finances and somehow allowed them a free pass on some things that others were not able to get away with.

I began to realize that the rules were not as simple and clear.  Not all sin was equal and not all sinners were equal.  In fact, the rules get murkier and more confusing the longer I look at them.  But it seems like there were some essential rules that superseded all the others.  One was, “The more important I can make myself in the church, the more I get to break the rules.”  Another was connected, “The more the church needs my money, the more I can get away with”

Others include, “The better I sing, preach, teach, etc, the more rules I can break”; “The closer I am related to someone who can break the rules, the more rules I can break”; “If you must break the rules, don’t get caught”.  In the end, it seems like the basic rule about sin is that I get to condemn your sin and justify mine.

I am not sure if what I have just written qualifies as cynicism or whether it is a “tongue-in-cheek” poke at one of the real issues in the church but the problem is real.  We really don’t have a comfortable way of dealing with the reality of human sin within the church.  The uncomfortable route we tend to follow allows some people to sin with impunity while others pay a disproportional price for the same sin.

Now to be honest, I have spent much or my ministry trying to avoid the issue of sin–I prefer to deal with important things like grace and forgiveness and reconciliation and love.  But I also recognize the pain caused by our uncomfortable and inequitable way of dealing with sin.  In fact, many of the people I know who are not a part of the church are outside the church because somewhere along the line, they encountered the hypocrisy that is such a basic part of the conservative church’s approach to sin.

I don’t have clear answers yet–just a recognition that the results of sin can be painful and serious and the results of poor handling of sin can be even more painful and serious.  But since we are all sinners, we need to find a way that recognizes the reality of the pain we cause ourselves and others while at the same time, allowing everyone sufficient access to God’s love and grace.

May the peace of God be with you.

GUNS AND JESUS

I few months ago, I was reading some news on the Internet when I stumbled across a story about a restaurant somewhere in the US Midwest.  The restaurant’s claim to fame was that all the staff openly carried handguns and encouraged the customers to do the same thing.  What really caught my attention, however, was the conclusion of the article.  One of the waitresses was being interviewed and was gushing about how great their restaurant was and how carrying guns was so important–and she concluded her comments with “Guns and Jesus–that’s what we’re all about!”

Now, I am not going to get caught up in the firearms debate in the United States–I am Canadian and don’t really feel called to address that particular cultural difference between the two countries.  Nor am I going to comment on wait staff carrying handguns, except to suggest that a gun toting waitress might get better tips, especially from unarmed patrons.

What I want to do is use this story to show a really common problem that we all have as believers.  We have a tendency to think that somehow, Jesus likes our particular life style and what Jesus would do is generally what we would want to do.  So, if I like guns, Jesus must like guns.

There isn’t any Biblical evidence for Jesus liking guns–he was on earth long before firearms were invented.  There is little evidence that he owned a weapon of any sort.  He does talk about swords now and then but those references tend to be more figurative than literal.  And a great deal of his teaching can easily be interpreted to suggest that believers and offensive weapons are not a good match–loving our enemies, for example, seems to require an absence of weapons to really show love.

But as believers, we tend not to do our homework and make the assumption that Jesus would be a lot like us.  I am pretty sure, for example, that Jesus would travel 10kph above the speed limit on the highways, which makes my doing it okay.  Jesus obviously didn’t drive a car and there is more evidence that he tended to be more law-abiding than otherwise.  But because I drive too fast and I am a follower of Jesus, he must be somewhere up in front of me, not holding up traffic like those slow pokes driving the speed limit.

Maybe the time has come to develop a new set of basic assumptions about Jesus and our character.  Maybe, instead of assuming that we and Jesus are together in everything, we need to begin with the assumption that our desires are not right, that our characters are flawed, that the things we like might just be signs of our fallen state.

I am not trying to suggest that we are totally evil beings without an redeeming qualities, nor am I requiring a return to what some call “worm theology”, the idea that we are such awful beings that only God could love us and even then only if we can clean up a bit.

Because we are made in the image of God, there is something valuable and worthwhile a and significant about us all.  But our fallen human state has affected everything.   If we begin with the assumption that we might be wrong, then we are forced to do the work necessary to discover if we are really wrong or if we have somehow stumbled onto one of those areas where we are in the right place to start with.

When we begin with the assumption that we are always in agreement with Jesus, we are rarely interested checking ourselves out–the image we use to gauge our Christlikeness is one that we have developed by putting Jesus’ picture on our package.  The real Jesus gets lost and we champion guns and Jesus, speeding and Jesus, bigotry and Jesus, racism and Jesus, slavery and Jesus.

But if we begin with the assumption that our whole being has been tarnished by our fallen state, then we do the homework.  We might discover that we need to change.  We might discover we need to tweak things a bit.  We might discover that we got it right.  Whatever the case, beginning with the assumption that Jesus isn’t like us probably is a better starting point for our growth in faith.

May the peace of God be with you.