SETTING LIMITS

I have been involved in some form of ministry for my entire working life. While I have mostly been the pastor of small, rural congregations, I have also had the privilege of serving as a jail chaplain, a teacher of pastors in Canada and Kenya and a pastoral counsellor. Part of the reason I do what I do is because I am deeply conscious of the calling that God has given me to the various forms of ministry I do. There have been times I have resented God’s calling, times when I have fought against it and a few times when I have asked, begged and demanded that God rescind that call. But in the end, I do both accept and appreciate the calling that God has given me.

Another part of the reason why I do what I do is because in the end, I like helping people. Now, I am pretty sure that is connected with the calling–it is one of the gifts or qualities or attributes that God has given me as part of the tool kit that comes with his calling. When God calls us to anything, he also provides the equipment that we need to follow his leading. But whatever the reason, I actually like helping people.

That can be a mixed blessing. We who like helping people do a lot of good for a lot of people but we can also do a lot of harm to a lot of people. A lot of the difference can be attributed to our motives for helping.

If I am helping people to satisfy my need to help out, I am probably going to cause more harm than good because I am more concerned with what I will get out of the process than what will really help in the process. I will likely end up diminishing the people I want to help because I put myself before them.

When my helping takes away the individual’s freedom to make their own choices, I have actually ceased helping them. When I do counselling for example, it really isn’t my place to tell people they have to stop doing something, no matter how destructive it might be for them. I can help them see the consequences of their actions, I can help them formulate different ways of dealing with stuff, I can even be willing to help hold them accountable. In some situations, I can and have told people I will have to report them to appropriate authorities but I can’t make them change. But I can’t actually make them do whatever it is that we are talking about.

Learning and remembering that one basic reality has saved me and those I minister to a great deal of pain, confusion and emotional turmoil. A real helper is one who has real and realistic limits. I can’t live another person’s life–and I can’t make them live their life the way I think it should be lived. I can only help them as they seek to deal with their own stuff as best they can. I can offer tools, support, counselling, accountability–but I can’t make them.

That means that there are a lot of times when my attempts to help are frustrated. It means that there are times when the proper and best response are really clear to me and the people I am trying to help and they still chose a lesser response. There are times when I get angry because of how hard I have worked only to have someone make poor or even self-destructive choices. There have even been times when I have had to stop my involvement because of the frustration.

But learning that limit has also been liberating and enabling for me in my ministry and my helping of others. I like helping–but I need to begin with the reality of the otherness of the people I am helping. They have a right to be themselves, even if I disagree with their definition of themselves. I need clear and strong limits on my helping so that I don’t try to take over their life or their issues. I am there to help, not to dominate or command or take over. As one poet from another age put it, “Good fences make good neighbours”.

May the peace of God be with you.

 

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I’M TIRED

One of the two pastorates I currently serve is the same one where I started my career as a pastor back on 1981 after a couple of years working in Kenya.  The other pastorate I serve was my wife’s first pastorate and we lived in their parsonage for a couple of years while we finished our Master’s degrees and before we went to Kenya.  That means I have a long history with both places.

That history has some significant benefits in my ministry.  But there is also another side to having that history.  I remember other stuff that creates some interesting thoughts for me.  For example, in one of our church buildings, the platform for the pulpit and the choir is about 16 inches above the floor.  There is a step but when I first began there over 35 years ago, I ignored the step–when worship began and I was following the choir up in our somewhat informal processional, I simple hopped up onto the platform–that step was an annoyance more than a help.

But when  I started ministry there again, I discovered that the platform was much higher than it used to be–either that or my bad knees are much worse that I want to admit.  My attempt to hop onto the platform never got beyond the preliminary thought stage before I realized that I needed that step–and a hand railing would be deeply appreciated as well.

In the other pastorate, I regularly drive by hay fields where I used to help my friend during haying season.  Tossing bales of hay on to the wagon was hard work and I knew I had done a day’s work when I was done but I did enjoy it.  I also got to drive the tractor now and then, which was a bonus.  But as I drive by those fields now, I realize that while I can probably still pick up a bale of hay, giving it the toss onto the wagon would probably cause my arthritic shoulders to loudly protest and my knees would begin to tell me that walking around the field after the tractor wasn’t their job.

But even more, I recognize that I am simply tired.  Not just physically tired but somehow spiritually tired.  I am not in danger of losing my faith–that is probably firmer and more rooted that it was way back then.  But I am finding it harder and harder to carry on the work I have been called to do.  I do things–but I don’t do them with the same energy level I used to have.  I have discovered that I need to space things out more–meetings need to be less frequent.  I need to remember that I have to have time and space to rest–a good Bible study with lots of discussion leaves me drained and wanting a nap.  When I finish two worship services on Sunday, I mostly want to collapse in front of the TV–and sometimes, it doesn’t matter what it on or even if it is on.

But for all that, I also realize that I bring something else to this stage of ministry.  It may be because I don’t have the energy I used to have or because I have managed to gain some wisdom over the years or because God has gracefully helped me but I look at my ministry differently.  I have different priorities.  I know that I can’t do everything I used to do, let alone everything that could be done so I have learned to think about what I do or should do or could do more strategically.  I need to invest my time and limited energy and creatively in ways that will do the most good for the church, which means that I think and pray more about stuff than I used to do–and I feel less guilty about what doesn’t get done.

I could retire and I know that I will retire at some point.  But even with the fatigue, I am not ready for that yet.  I believe that God has called me to these churches for a reason and I experience evidence of his Spirit working in and through and around me.  I may be tired but I am not done yet.

May the peace of God be with you.

MERRY CHRISTMAS

Christmas Day–even for people like us whose kids are grown and far away, this can be a busy day.  I was up early to put the turkeys in the ovens–the church my wife pastors is having a free Christmas dinner and I volunteered to look after the turkeys.  For me, cooking a turkey is part of the Christmas process.

Between the Christmas dinner preparations and all that go with hosting 30-40 people for dinner, this is a busy day.  There is a lot that we have to squeeze in:  our traditional bacon and egg breakfast; checking the stockings that Santa filled sometime during the night; finding time to open our presents; watching the grandchildren open some of their presents via Skype.  We also need to find time for the obligatory nap after we finally finish at the church as well as at least open the new Christmas books–that does combine well with the nap sometimes.

We will also probably eat some stuff that we shouldn’t; watch a movie or at least sit in front of the TV while a movie plays; try to clean up the wrapping paper and maybe even do some exercise–my wife’s dog will begin to insist on that at some point.  I will take a lot of pictures, find some time to check the news on the Internet and TV–although that also might get combined with the nap.

Today is a busy day–and we are not alone in being busy.  There is so much to do and so many things that we want to do that it is hard to fit it all in.  Christmas is busy and active and filled with fun and traditions and customs and indulgences.   It is a busy day, a good day, a stressful day, a tiring day, a wonderful day.

And we, like most of the people celebrating the day will probably end up forgetting why we have this day in the first place.  That statement isn’t meant to be the introduction to a rant about losing sight of God or letting culture replace faith or losing Christ from Christmas.  There have been times in the past when I would have probably followed that route–and in reality, there may be times in the future when I am tempted to go that way.

But right now, I am seeing one of the real implications of Christmas.  The Christmas story tells us that Jesus will be called “Immanuel”, a name which means “God with us”.  The story of Christmas is part of the bigger story of the Gospel, which assures us that because of Jesus Christ, God is with us.  His presence is dependent on his grace and love–and isn’t dependant on our recognition of his presence.

Certainly, it is probably better for our faith development if we work at being conscious of the presence of God in our lives but the deep and powerful reality of the Gospel is that God is with us and will be with us and nothing can change that.  When I remember that, I can seek and realize the evidence of the presence.

But in truth, on Christmas afternoon, after I have helped provide a meal for 30-40 and helped with the clean up, come home and spent time on Skype and the phone with the rest of the family and am sitting in  a comfortable chair pretending to be reading the new Christmas book a as a cover for an unofficial nap, God is still with me whether I am thinking about him or not.  If I manage to read the book or if I more likely fall asleep, God is with me.  If I rouse out of the post meal stupor and consciously open myself to his presence, he is with me.  If I spend the day busily accomplishing all the things that “need” to be done and don’t ever consciously think of God’s presence, he is still with me.

That is the important thing:  God is with me because of Jesus.  He is here, he stays with me, he isn’t dependant on what I am doing or not doing, what I am thinking or not thinking.  Immanuel–God with us.  Merry Christmas.

May the peace of God be with you.

A CHRISTMAS GIFT

Christmas is almost here.  The outside decorations are in place, the tree is up, the presents are (sort of) wrapped.  And like any good pastor–and even the not-so-good ones, I am busy trying to keep my head above water as I deal with all the stuff that churches and our culture have built into this season of the year.  There are extra worship services, extra social events, extra shopping, extra cooking–it seems like there is extra everything except time.

I realized a few days ago that I am waiting impatiently, which seems to be a culturally  acceptable response to Christmas.  We expect it mostly in children but it is still acceptable for adults, even senior-discount qualified adults.  However, I am waiting impatiently for something different.  I am eagerly awaiting the lasagna and movie that are our Christmas Eve ritual.  It will be nice to open the presents on Christmas day.  I am looking forward to cooking the turkeys and making the gravy for the church sponsored Christmas dinner.  I am even happily planning on turkey leftovers.

But as nice as these things are, they are not what I am impatiently waiting for.  They will come in due time and I will enjoy them.  But what I am impatient for begins on the day after Christmas.  No, it isn’t Boxing Day sales.  What I am really waiting for is the free time that comes between the week between Christmas and New Years.

That is a great and wonderful time.  All the special stuff in the church is over.  Even the regular programs like Bible study take a break.  The cultural bash takes a break as we digest Christmas dinner and wear out batteries.  New Years is coming  but we don’t need to do much about that.  People tend to hunker down and rest up from the strain and stress of the holiday.

And all that means that aside from working on a sermon for the next Sunday, I don’t have a long list of things to do.  As long as the sermon and worship service are put together, my week is pretty much free.  We have some plans but mostly the week will be about unwinding, relaxing and taking it easy.  We will likely take a day to see a movie that we want to see, which will include a meal of course.

We will sleep in.  We will watch movies.  We might go cross country skiing, although the weather predictions make that look less likely.  We will eat at strange times.  We will spend some time reading the books we got for Christmas and eating the goodies that showed up in the Christmas stockings.

I am looking forward to that relaxing and relatively unscheduled time.  The Advent/Christmas season is busy and hectic and demanding.  I do what I do voluntarily and willingly but it is tiring and gets more tiring each year.  But I learned long ago that that week between Christmas and New Years is another gift, a gift of time.

Somehow, our church culture and our actual culture have come together to produce a week of dead time, a few days where nobody expects much of anyone–and that includes pastors.  I could call it a happy coincidence.  I could spend a lot of time exploring how the church and the culture end up with a space at the same time.  I could research the development of this time in history.

But truthfully, I am not likely going to do any of that.  I am going to enjoy it to the fullest.  I will write a sermon and plan a worship service.  But for the rest of the time, I am going to treat that precious time for what it really is–a gift from God to all of us who are tired from the Advent/Christmas activity and who need some space and time before we step into the New Year and all its activities.

However it came about, these few days are too valuable and important not to see them as a another sign of God’s grace.  And so, I wait in eager anticipation of the time to relax and rest and sleep and do whatever.  I like Christmas–and I really like the break following Christmas.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE MEETING

Recently, in a moment of weakness, I volunteered to be on a committee.  Well, actually, in all honestly, I volunteered because I was convinced that being on this committee was something that I felt God wanted me to do.  I generally don’t like committees and meetings and all that but I had been working on stuff related to this committee for years and when volunteers were called for, it didn’t seem like I had much choice–this was God’s will.

So, like all good committees, we planned a meeting.  In order to attend the meeting, I would end up making an eight hour round trip.  The meeting itself lasted about three hours.  Because this was a denominational committee, something that counts as work according to my agreement with the churches I work for, I worked eleven and a half hours that day, most of it driving.

Since I did take two other people with me, the drive wasn’t all that bad–we had good conversation in the car and ended up helping each other out in several ministry related areas.  But the meeting did take a whole day and involve a lot of driving, which meant that as driver, I couldn’t work on my sermon, prepare a Bible Study, visit someone in the hospital or even take a nap.

Thanks to the Internet, our committee probably won’t meet again until our work is mostly done and we need to tie things together.  And this work is important–we are trying to address an issue that has become a drag on a lot of ministry but will involve making changes in things that have a long history in our denomination.

Since this committee was drawn from all over the geography covered by our denomination and many of us didn’t really know each other, we needed to have this meeting to get to know each other and understand each other, something that is harder to do when we are linked by electronic media that obscures a great deal of the all important non-verbal information that is so vital to real communication.

But even with all that, driving eight hours for a three hour meeting isn’t particularly efficient or cost-effective.  One of the things that I realized really early in ministry is that efficiency and cost-effectiveness are generally poor drivers for effective and efficient ministry.  And that actually makes sense.

Real ministry ultimately involves relationships with real people–and we human beings are generally not concerned with efficiency and cost-effectiveness when it comes to relationships.  Real ministry to real people is sloppy, time-consuming and often incredibly cost-ineffective.

Often, I find myself making the two hour round trip to spend 20-30 minutes with someone in the regional hospital.  A phone call to check on a possible hymn for worship can take 20 minutes.  A “brief” conversation after worship can become a half hour pastoral care session.  A walk for some needed exercise becomes an impromptu counselling session with someone I meet along the way. Ministry deals with people and people really can’t be placed in time slots and cost per minute schemes and efficient schedules.

I try to be as efficient and cost-effective as possible.  Both money and time are scarce commodities in ministry and I don’t like wasting either.  But as careful as I try to be, inevitably, I end up using more time and money for some things than might appear to be efficient. While an eight hour round trip for a three hour meeting is fortunately on the unusual side, a two hour round trip for a 30 minute hospital visit is fairly common.  But if I try for efficiency by waiting until there is more than one person in the regional hospital, I will end up not seeing someone who actually needs that 30 minutes more that I need to two hours for whatever.

The day after my meeting, I kind of regretted that whole thing, mostly because I was tired and had to catch up on the stuff I didn’t get done.  But that was a temporary regret not a comment on the whole process.  Ministry of any kind has a great deal of build in inefficiency–but the irony is that allowing the inefficiency actually makes for a much more effective ministry in the end.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE POTLUCK

            One of our well-established traditions at both the pastorates I serve is the potluck.  At regular intervals, we get together after worship to eat together.  Such meals are a basic part of our church culture–not just our churches but most churches in our area.  More importantly they are a vital and basic part of our spiritual growth.

This is not an attempt to equate the inevitable overeating that goes with potluck meals with some sort of spiritual blessing.  I over eat at the potlucks because I have to try everything and have extra of some of the dishes that I really like and only get at the potluck.  There is no spiritual blessing in overeating–there is a physical blessing from enjoying the good food and the physical consequences that I need to deal with later.

The spiritual blessing comes from the fact that we are together, sharing food and fellowship.  We eat together; we talk together; we laugh together; we support each other.  This fellowship time draws us closer to each other in a safe, comfortable, warm environment.  The act of eating together is always a sign of a comfortable relationship.

Our potlucks at one of the pastorates even have a way of extending the fellowship.  When everyone has been through the main course line as often as they want, there is a pause in the process while the main courses are removed and the desserts are put out–our hall isn’t big enough for two separate serving tables.  This change over takes a bit longer than in some places because several plates are filled with food.  These plates are taken to community members who can’t get out–and it doesn’t matter whether they are part of our or any church.  Some of the plates are also given to people who are there but who we feel should have some take out from the meal.  A similar process happens after the desserts have been  sufficiently sampled.

By the way, we are not giving people the ragged ends and skimpy leftovers.  Real potluck culture requires that everyone bring enough food to feed army battalion and so even after everyone has gone through the serving line as much as they want, there is still more than enough of all the food to feed everyone there again–or to share with lots of people who aren’t there.

And while the food is great, the time together is even better.  People talk.  Since I am a deeply committed people watcher, I spend a lot of time watching the groupings and connections and conversational groups.  The seating arrangements are open and who sits where tends to be random.  Couples don’t always sit together.  The same people don’t always sit near each other.  Visitors and new people don’t end up by themselves because they aren’t part of an established group.

We get our food, we grab an empty seat and we talk.  We might change seats in the lull between courses.  We might engage is a conversation with someone at another table.  We likely take a long time to get to the serving table for seconds because we need to talk to several people on the way there and back.

We eat and laugh and catch up on news and share stories and make plans and ask about families and offer help and discuss cars and recipes and grandchildren.  We spill coffee and tea and tease each other about the number of trips we make to the serving table and we offer to carry the empty plates to the cleaning area.  We spend time together and we enjoy each other’s company.

And in the process we grow as individuals and as a church.  We grow as individuals because we are discovering how to express our faith in the context of others, which is a basic Biblical requirement for real faith.  We grow as churches because we are getting to know and appreciate each other more and more, developing trust and closeness and understanding.  When we have eaten and joked together, it is somehow easier and more meaningful to worship together.

It is no coincidence that Jesus instituted what we now call Communion at a meal.  There is a powerful and profound connection between the process of eating together and our ability to express our faith.

May the peace of God be with you.

FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT

It was the first Sunday of Advent and I was ready.  The write up for the Advent Candle was done.  The sermon was ready and was what I thought was an interesting approach to the Advent season–at least it was interesting to me and that helps it be interesting to those listening, I hope.  I was ready for this.

Except, well, the reality was that I didn’t expect there to be too many people there.  We are a small group and with some of our group doing their seasonal migration to warmer climates, another being involved with a family event and others having other stuff going on, I didn’t expect too many there for worship.

I gave some thought to that during the week.  With the absolute best attendance I could expect being 4, I gave myself some options:

  • Four in the congregation would mean a regular service–after all, we have done that before and it works.
  • Two in the congregation would mean a smaller service with no sermon. We would do the Advent Candle, prayers and Communion.
  • Three in worship–well, that would be a bit harder to figure out and so I would ask them what they wanted to do.

I arrived early, as always. Someone was there setting up the Communion service.  She had also come the day before and decorated the building for Christmas.  It looked great.  We talked about a variety of things as we waited for others.  She let me know that one I had on my possible list wasn’t coming so that made three a real possibility.

Our regular starting time arrived and it was still just the two of us.  We wondered where the other almost definite member was–I tried to remember if he has said he was going to be away or something.  Just as I was thinking of suggesting we close up, we heard his truck in the parking lot.  He commented on the small numbers and took his seat.

I explained my plan, which they agreed to, including the part about no singing–the only real singer in the group really didn’t want to do a solo that day.  We worshipped.  Our worship included the Advent Candle, prayers, Scripture and Communion.  We received the offering, which really meant two of us gave our envelopes to the other person who was looking after the money that day.

The service was short and didn’t include many of the regular things we do.  There was no sermon.  We didn’t have a long discussion about the Scripture readings.  We didn’t sing.  We didn’t do the responsive reading.  But we did worship.  We spent time together, sharing our common faith and encouraging each other as we worshipped God.

Would I have preferred a large congregation, say our regular 8-9?  Definitely.  Did I feel I was wasting my time leading worship for 2 people?  Definitely not.  Fortunately for all of us who pastor small churches, God doesn’t have a quorum for worship.  He doesn’t require that there be a certain number of people present.  He just requires that we come together prepared to meet with each other and him.

I am and have been a pastor of small congregations for most of my ministry.  This was probably my smallest congregation in all those years but it was still a congregation of people seeking to worship God.  It was still my responsibility to lead them in the worship–maybe not the one that I had planned and organized but I was and am still called to lead them in worship.

I suspect that will be our smallest congregation this year–given that we have only a few services left before the winter shut-down and there are no plans for the regulars to miss any more of the services we have planned, except for the snowbirds who won’t be back until spring.

I really don’t know where God is leading us as a church or what will happen as we continue with our ministry.  We may grow.  We may continue our present slow decline.  We might, like many small congregations grow enough to keep going.  But I do know that this particular Sunday, three of us showed up to worship God and together, we did just that.

May the peace of God be with you.

HAVING IT ALL

Unlike many people I know in  the more conservative part of the Christian faith that I affiliate with, I am not at all interested in an annual ritual.  This time of the year, it is not unusual for people to point out some cultural trend and use it as a symbol of the continual secular conspiracy to take Christ out of Christmas.  The obvious antidote it to work hard to put Christ back in Christmas.  There will be sermons, Christmas newsletters, social media rants and on and one telling us that we need to do this.

Early in my ministry, I was one of the people trying to put Christ back in Christmas.  As time passed and I learned more about Christmas traditions, Christian  history and theology and the reality of North American demographics, I became less and less vocal about the need to put Christ back into Christmas.  I began to realize that there are some people for whom the whole Christmas scene is depressing.  There are others who don’t celebrate Christmas for a variety of reasons.  And increasingly, there are many whose cultural background doesn’t have a Christian component.  As I learned things like this and realized some of the implications of these realities, I spoke less and less about putting Christ back into Christmas.

And eventually, I began to think that maybe we as believers just might be better off if we actively worked at taking Christ out of Christmas.  What we call Christmas is really nothing more than a huge cultural event sponsored primarily by commercial enterprises.  The glossy veneer of Christianity that gets plastered over the whole mess is actually demeaning to our faith.  Do we actually want the name of Christ associated with the riots that happen in shopping malls on Black Friday, which somehow marks the official beginning of Christmas shipping?

It is probably time for us to realize that there are two events going one here:  the cultural festival that sort of grew out of a Christian celebration and the Christian remembrance of the birth of Jesus.  The events were once related but in truth, the only real connection these days is the fact that both happen at the same time.  They may have once been closely related but today, the connection is slim and tenuous and is an actual problem for those trying to really focus on the love and grace of God shown in the Incarnation.

Since we can’t put Christ back in Christmas–our culture has gone far beyond that–we might well be better off to take Christ completely out of Christmas.  Let culture have the holiday.  As Christians, we can live with “Season’s Greetings” and “Happy Holidays”.  The faith can survive when schools have “Winter Concerts”.  Holiday shopping can happen without Joy to the World in the background.

I suggest that we as believers accept the inevitable–this season has been effectively severed from  its tenuous Christian roots.  Great–that means we can actually focus on the remembrance of the birth in our terms in our worship and private devotions.  We don’t need to force our culture to celebrate the birth of Christ.  We do need to give witness to the love and grace of God shown in the risen and living Christ, something that gets harder and harder to do when we are fighting our culture for a season that we are never going to get back.

I would suggest that we treat the cultural celebrations as we treat all the rest of our culture.  We can take part as responsible believers who are attempting to live and show the reality of our faith in all situations. As believers, we can and should use our faith as a guide to our celebrations, seeking the Spirit’s leading on things like how much to spend on what for who.  We probably avoid rioting at the shopping mall when  the must-have toy is no longer in stock–and maybe in the spirit of turn the other cheek, we give the one we manage to snag to someone else.

We can’t put Christ back in Christmas, at least not like we thought we could.  But we can put Christianity in the seasonal celebration.  It takes some thought and some work and some changes, all of which the Holy Spirit will help us with but we can have the celebration of Christ and the cultural festival without one having to win over the other.

May the peace of God be with you.

CHRISTMAS SHOPPING

We did something this year that I don’t remember ever doing before.  We went shopping on Black Friday.  We needed something that we could only get in the city with its big box stores and after comparing schedules and calendars, we found the one Friday in weeks that we could go.  As the day got closer, we realized that it was also Black Friday.  Now, in our defence, remember that I live in Canada and our Canadian Thanksgiving in is October so Black Friday for Canadians is an imported idea that isn’t tied to anything in our national culture.

But given that this was the only time we could both go, we decided that the trip was on. Predictably, traffic was heavy and got heavier as we got closer to the city.  The store parking lot was well on its way to being full when we arrived mid-morning.  The store was huge but in spite of its size, it felt crowded.  And while some of that crowded feeling was certainly due to the fact that in our rural stores, three other people in the store makes it crowded, most of it was due to the fact that it was crowded.

The line up for lunch was long–there were probably more people ahead of us in line that both of us together would have in all four of our respective worship services even on the best Sunday.  The checkout lines were mercifully short probably because the checkout area was huge and  most sales points were occupied.  Getting out of the city was okay, because although there was a lot of traffic, it was moving well.

But the bottom line is that we went shopping on Black Friday, joining what was probably the majority of North Americans in the annual ritual to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.  Or at least that seems to be how our culture thinks we should celebrate.

But in the last few years, I have been having more and more trouble with this.  Using Jesus as an excuse to spend money doesn’t fit in really well with my theology.  Our culture has made a significant shift in the meaning of Christ that we in the faith don’t seem to really comprehend.  Instead of worshipping Jesus as the Saviour of the world, we are encouraged to see him as the economic saviour of our economy.  We worship by spending money–and the more we spend, the better it is and the salvation of the economy is assured for another year.

On the other hand, there is the reality that we do have this great cultural event every year which demands some sort of response–and it is kind of fun to watch the grandchildren get excited about new stuff and all that.  And I do enjoy a turkey dinner, not to mention the culturally sanctioned excuse to eat more chocolate and chips than is probably good for me.

The cultural part of the season pre-dates the Christian part of the season. The dark days of December in the Northern Hemisphere are a great time for a party.  A good party in December probably counteracts the lack of sunlight which can produce all sorts of problems.  Unfortunately, when the church fathers developed Christmas in the fourth century, they created the context for our modern day mess where Silent Night and marketing jingles compete for air time and we are told that the power and wonder of the Incarnation can best be expressed by battling our way through crowded stores and beating everyone else to get the latest and most important thing.

I can’t stop the cultural festival–and don’t actually want to.  We probably need a party in December.  But I would like to get Christ out of Christmas–or at least what Christmas has become.  I think this year, I won’t do any Christmas shopping.  I will shop for holiday gifts, maybe even in the overcrowded store.  I will enjoy the parts of the seasonal party that I want to–some of the parties are fun and some of the traditions are enjoyable.

And I will also celebrate Christmas–by discovering and doing things that honour Christ and his love and grace.  It is unfortunate that both things have become so twisted together but I can work at untwisting them for myself.

May the peace of God be with you.

ADVENT

As a pastor of two different sets of congregations, much of the year is consumed with trying to juggle the different needs of the churches I work for.  They are different enough that I have different sermons, different Bible studies, different meetings and so on.  Only rarely do I get to use the same stuff in both places at the same time.  Most often, even when I can use something similar, it needs serious re-working to fit into the context of the other setting.

Except for Advent and Easter-or at least that is the way I am approaching things.  Advent is the part of the church year set aside to help prepare the church for the remembrance of the birth of Jesus.  I am a member of the Baptist tradition and while we don’t have to pay much attention to the church year, I do like to use the Advent season.  So, when advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, I get to do one set of sermons, one set of Advent candle programs, one Candlelight Christmas Eve service.

And this Advent season, for some reason, I am pretty much ready for everything.  I actually have each week’s Advent Candle program written, I have the sermons planned for each week, including the Sunday after Christmas.  I have the Christmas Eve service roughed out and just need to get a few bits of input from other participants to have that ready.  I am ready for Advent.

Except I am not really ready for Advent.  I am ready to help lead other people through the Advent season, which is part of my job.  But personally, I am not all that sure where I stand on the readiness issue.  Part of my problem is figuring out what the whole Christmas/Advent thing actually means to me and my faith.

Christmas as a celebration has been becoming less and less significant for me the last few years–since the kids all moved out and away, there hasn’t been the same level of excitement with gift giving and over eating and all the rest.  On those occasions when some of the family gets home or we are with them, some of the excitement comes back–but that would be there if we were together in July.

The whole gift process is less interesting.  Neither of us has much of a wish list.  We are at the point in our lives where we have lots of stuff and if we want something, we can and do buy it when we want it.  The eating part of the event–well, I am pretty sure that over-eating is an over-rated sport, given the fact that it is so much harder to get enough exercise to compensate for the extra calories.

Theologically, I am happy for the birth of Jesus–but I find that my thinking is more in tune with the early church.  There is pretty good evidence that the birth of Jesus wasn’t much celebrated until after the time of Constantine, about 350 years or so after Jesus.  They focused on the resurrection, which makes sense–life was difficult and Christianity was technically illegal and so they focused in the really important thing, the resurrection.

But for all that, it is Advent.  I do need to prepare for the celebration of the birth of Christ.  And I need to do it not just for the people who have called me to be their pastor but for myself.  The part about leading the church through Advent I have pretty much ready–it is all either written or will soon be written.

The personal part, well, that it a work in progress and has been for the last few years.  I try to focus not just on the birth but all its implications.  For me, that includes the rest of the story.  Seeing the birth in its context is important–we don’t worship the baby because he is a baby, we worship the risen and living Christ whom he grew into.  The baby in the manger isn’t important because of being a baby in a manger–he is important because he rose to life on the third day.

So, I will give and receive gifts; I will light Advent Candles; I will listen to the Messiah.  I will help the churches celebrate Advent and Christmas and I will continue to work on my own celebration of the process.

May the peace of God be with you.