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.

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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.

TAKE IT PERSONALLY

One of the scariest passages in the Bible for me is Matthew 23.  Jesus is seriously upset and it letting one group of people know that he is upset.  He calls them hypocrites, blind guides, whitewashed tombs, snakes and vipers.  He accuses them of serious offences, like keeping people from God and making things so hard that people don’t have time or energy to connect with God.  The harshness of the language is uncharacteristic for Jesus in the Gospels and resembles that of some of the later Old Testament prophets more than it resembles much of Jesus’ other teaching, say the Sermon on the Mount.

I am afraid of this passage because of the group of people it is directed at.   Jesus is speaking to and about the religious leaders of his day.  Did I mention that I am a pastor, a modern day version of the group that Jesus is speaking to and about here?  While I would like to ignore the passage or found a movement to have it removed from the Scriptures, my faith requires that I deal with the passage.

Jesus is upset and even angry with this group because in the end, they had a job to do and didn’t do it.  They had been called and ordained by God to be his representatives on earth, the ones who helped people find peace with God.  While their primary task appeared to be offering sacrifices, interpreting the Law and maintaining the rituals of the faith, their real task was to do all they could to enable people to re-connect with God.

According to the charges leveled in Matthew 23, the leadership was failing miserably at that task.  People were not discovering God through their work; they were not being enabled to re-connect with God through their efforts; their lives were not fuller because of their efforts.  In fact, it appears that the end result of the religious leaders’ activity was a more stressed, more insecure, less faithful people who knew God only as a feared, disapproving being who was always ready to get them for any infraction, no matter how small.

Sometimes, when I look at the Church, especially the more conservative part of the Church of which I am a part, I think we have all become more like these religious leaders than we want to admit.  In some of the blogs and websites I look at now and then, there is always some terrible sin that needs to be dealt with, generally in a way that alienates a whole group of people from God.  There is a black joke that used to be told in my part of the Church–“If it looks like fun, it is sin so don’t do it.”

Sometimes, it seems to me that what we present to the world is the message that if people can somehow divest themselves of their sins (which we are quite happy to define for them), then they can be considered for an opportunity to connect with God, as long as they are willing to follow the path that we have laid out for them.

And, when I look at this objectively, it doesn’t seem all that much different from what the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were doing.  Rather than being a guide to help people find their way back to God, we have become security agents, seeking to ensure that only the “right” people make it into the presence of God.

So, I am scared of Matthew 23–and that fear has helped shape my approach to people.  I don’t always get it right and many times I don’t even think enough about what I am doing but in the end, I am trying to avoid the issues pointed out in Matthew 23 and display more of the characteristics Jesus shows in other places in the Gospels.  Matthew 23 is a very powerful passage of Scripture because it serves as the warning page in the instruction book, telling us the things that we shouldn’t do.

Unfortunately, I at least am more at home doing the Mathew 23 stuff that I am doing the other stuff Jesus shows.  I might be a pastor and therefore a religious leader but I still have a long way to go.  Fortunately, there is grace and forgiveness, even for off track religious leaders like me, if we are willing to accept it.  The positive thing is that the more I accept the grace and forgiveness for myself, the easier it is to offer it to others.

May the peace of God be with you

THE KID TEST

            In some of the courses I have taught at various times and in various places, I look closely  at the character of the pastor.  Now, the way pastors see themselves and what persona they choose to project has always fascinated me.  Various sources counsel pastors to adopt various characteristics, ranging from distant, formal and commanding to meek acceptance of everything.  Most pastors tend to be drawn towards the more powerful and dynamic end of the spectrum, as were many of the students I was teaching at that point.

And so I generally introduce students to what I call “The Kid Test” for pastors.   I did run into a bit of a problem when I taught the test Kenya–I had to spend some time helping the students understand that the English word “kid” didn’t just refer to young goats but could also be used for children before I could actually explain the test.

The Kid Test is simple–we look at how people react to children–or more properly, we look at how people in leadership and children react to each other.  Some people in leadership ignore children, even their own, completely.  It is as if the kids don’t exist.  They are non-beings who might have potential but who aren’t worth the bother right now.  Kids soon learn to ignore such leaders in return.

Others might notice the kids but only to make sure they aren’t doing something they shouldn’t be doing, like breathing or smiling or worst of all, laughing and making other noise.  These leaders require that if children are present, they must be controlled by others.  They might see value in the children (after all, children are the future of the church, they say) but the children must behave.  Children respond to these leaders in one of two ways:  their either run from them or they purposely set out to irritate these leaders.

And there are a few leaders who love having children around, who love the noise and confusion and who might rather be playing with the kids than doing whatever grownup stuff they are doing.  Kids love these leaders and want to be with them and even offer to share toys and snacks with them.

When I taught the basics of the test, I then asked students to think of pastors they knew and look at how these pastors responded to kids.  Then I asked them to think about how the kids responded to the pastors.  To protect everyone involved, I always insisted that no names be used as we discussed.  The third stage in the test was to ask the students to think about how they and the rest of the congregation responded to the pastor.   The process generally revealed that the way pastors treated kids mirrored the way those same pastors treated the rest of the congregation.

There is a point to this story–most of the time, I am not a preacher (or writer) who uses stories just for the sake of using it.  I developed the kid test a while ago, after reflecting on some of the stories of Jesus from the Gospels.  Jesus had significant interactions with children and the stories indicate that there was a mutual respect and like there.

In one story, taken from Matthew 9.13-15, the disciples want to save Jesus from being interrupted by children, only to have Jesus stop what he was doing and welcome the children.  He blesses them and everyone is happy.  In other places in the Gospels, we find Jesus telling people to develop a child-like faith or we won’t become a part of the kingdom of God (Luke 18.17).  As well, he tells us that welcoming a child is like welcoming him (Luke 8.47-48).

What was Jesus like?  He was a warm and welcoming person who cared for children and to whom children responded in a positive way.  I think we can easily extend this obvious care for children to a wider care for all who are weak and vulnerable.  It may be that when we get so concerned about our own position and authority and dignity, we have missed the point.

If we are too important or scared or uncertain or whatever to open ourselves to children, we will likely be to whatever to open ourselves to anyone else either.  We will have failed the kid test.  Being Christ-like is hard work, especially when His example challenges some of our deepest personality traits.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT WAS JESUS LIKE?

            In 1896, a man called Charles Sheldon wrote a book entitled In His Steps.  According to Wikipedia, the book was a novel based on a series of sermons he had preached.  I wonder a bit about how you create a novel out of sermons–the two seem to be somewhat unrelated in my mind.  I, like many other people, have never read–or even seen the novel.  However, I, like many other people, have a connection with the novel because of its sub-title.

Sheldon used the phrase, “What would Jesus do?” as the sub-title of his book and through a series of events, that phrase became something of a Christian fad in the 1990s.  There was a little twist, though, because at the end of the 1800s, people had time and spoke in complete thoughts whereas by the 1990s, we were too busy and stressed to use complete thoughts so we used initials.  As a result the 1896 phrase, “What would Jesus do”  was reduced to “WWJD”–we also didn’t have time for punctuation in the 1990s.

As well as being faster to write and perhaps say, WWJD was also short enough to be easily reproduced on jewellery and WWJD bracelets became very popular.  Sheldon’s work in the 1890s enjoyed a new burst of popularity in the 1990s.  In fact, it may have been more popular in the 1990s than the 1890s because wearing a bracelet is a lot less work than reading a book, especially one published in 1896, a time when language was formal and somewhat overly wordy.

The good thing about the whole fad was that people were actually thinking about their actions in the context of their faith.  Anything that encourages us to really integrate our faith is a good thing.  I didn’t actually wear a bracelet but like many preachers of that time, I probably at least referred to it in my preaching.

And while I think WWJD is a good thing and would encourage people to ask themselves that question, there is one little (or maybe not so little) problem with WWJD.  If we are looking to Jesus’ actions as an example for our actions, we are fine if we face a starving crowd of people, 10 lepers looking for healing, a woman caught in adultery and so on.  Mind you, we might have some serious difficulty feeding thousands with biscuits and sardines but we could stretch the interpretation to include food banks and emergency food aid programs.

However, what of the things that we face that Jesus didn’t face–or may have faced but the Gospel writers didn’t choose to record?   The Gospels don’t show us Jesus interacting with a gay couple wanting to get married.  They don’t show Jesus talking with a young rape victim trying to decide if she should have an abortion.  They don’t show Jesus dealing directly with terrorism and racial prejudice and gender issues.

In many of those situations, the answer to WWJD seems to be that Jesus would do what I want to do–so Christians end up acting in totally opposite ways in response to the same thing and all claim to be doing what Jesus would have done.  With no actual precedent to quote, WWJD ultimately allows us to baptize our actions.

So, maybe before we ask WWJD, we need to ask another question, one that probably doesn’t get asked enough.  Maybe we need to focus on “What was Jesus like?” first–we can even reduce it to WWJL as a concession to our era.  Jesus’ actions grew out of his character and personality and if we have a better understanding of his character, we stand a better chance of answering WWJD in a way that is consistent with what he was.

Unfortunately, WWJL isn’t as easy to answer as WWJD.  WWJL requires that we take the time to serious look at Jesus.  And that means serious time with the Gospels.  We don’t have the physical presence of Jesus–but we do have the record of significant parts of his life and from that record, we can develop a picture of what Jesus was like.  And once we have a better sense of WWJL, it becomes easier to answer WWJD.  It also becomes less likely that we will be tempted to baptize our desires–the more we learn what Jesus was like, the more we discover that we have a long way to go in our spiritual development.

May the peace of God be with you.