JESUS’ CHOICES

For my Easter sermons this year, I decided to spend some serious time looking at Jesus and the Easter story. Because of my theological predispositions, I don’t see the Easter story as a predetermined process that made all those involved act and respond in a certain way. I have long espoused a theological view that allows freedom—we have real choices and what we chose has real consequences.

When I bring that theological slant to the study of the Easter story, I realize that the freedom that God has given to us is also given to Jesus. He was, after all, fully human and like all of us, he had choices before him. I will quickly add here that Jesus was also fully God. Both must be a part of our thinking about Jesus.

But for this Easter season, I have been thinking about and preaching about the process from the perspective of the human Jesus. And from that perspective, the story seems to be to be very clear that at each step along the way to the Cross, Jesus had to decide to go to the cross. He had other options. Certainly, the perfect option was to go to the cross. But along the way, there were other options presented that might not have been perfect but which would have been okay.

For example, on Palm Sunday, Jesus is acclaimed by the crowds entering the city for the Passover. This huge crowd was stirred up by their religious passion for the Passover. They were excited by the stories they had heard about Jesus. They were also angry and frustrated with the continued Roman occupation of their country. It wouldn’t have taken much to turn that crowd into an army of liberation.

Jesus could have used them to liberate the nation and the temple. Sure, a lot of them might die—but there were enough that the vastly outnumbered Roman legions would simple get worn out trying to kill them all. Add to that the fact that Jesus isn’t just limited to human means—he could heal and even resurrect people.

While we might want to dismiss this as the fantasy of a preacher tired of the traditional approach to Easter, we do, I think, need to realize that this was an option open to Jesus. He could have done it, just as he could have given in to the temptations of satan early in his ministry or walked away from the whole thing in the garden before the arrest. He keeps choosing the painful and difficult.

For me, understanding that Jesus had choices makes the whole story different and more powerful and significant. The cross was necessary—but not inevitable. Jesus chose the cross—not just once but repeatedly. Knowing the pain and suffering that would come from the whole process, he still chose to follow that path.

And for me, this reality sheds all sorts of exciting light on the story. When Jesus says he loves us, we can take that to the bank because his love gets shown every time he makes a difficult choice that brings the cross closer. His is an active, powerful, dynamic love that looks at the benefit to us in the fact of the suffering he will face and somehow always manages to find the courage and determination to make the choice that benefits us the most.

I could perhaps write that I don’t know how he could do that but that wouldn’t actually be true. I know how he found the strength to make those painful choices. The human/divine being who was Jesus makes the difficult human choices in the presence and power of the divine. He has powerful help.

And the story gets even better because the risen living Christ offers to us the same help. When we accept the love of Christ shown in the cross and resurrection, we receive not only reconciliation with God but the active and real presence of God in our lives through the Holy Spirit. We have access to the same divine help that enabled Jesus to make the difficult choices.

Now, obviously, the divine isn’t integrated into our lives like it was with Jesus. But we as believers have access to the divine power and guidance and help that enabled Jesus to make the hard choices.

May the peace of God be with you.

BEING DIFFERENT

The other day at one of the Bible studies I pretend to lead, we touched on the topic of DNA. I happened to mention that DNA is one of the signs of God’s love and grace. He loves us enough to create us with a foolproof way to ensure that we will each one be different. Because of the seemingly infinite number of possible combinations of DNA, the chances of two people being born exactly the same are for all intents and purposes impossible, except of course for identical twins.

But a variety of studies have also shown that identical twins, who are born with the same DNA, eventually end up showing some differences. They might have the same DNA but the actual process of living causes them to diverge. One might catch an illness that the other manages to avoid; one might have an accident that changes them; one might have some trauma that the other doesn’t. Whatever the reason, although their DNA might produce nearly identical individuals, the effects of their environment are going to individualize them.

So why, given that God can and does do what he wants by definition, does he create living things including humans, based on a pretty much foolproof mechanism for ensuring diversity? That seems counter-intuitive, especially for people living in the machine/tech age that we live in. We pretty much assume things will be the same.

If I see someone with the same make and model of computer as I have, I can be pretty sure that unless they have more tech knowledge or money than I have, the computer they are working on is exactly the same as mine: same tech inside, same specs on paper; same colour; same performance. Some differences might develop—their computer may not get dropped as much as mine and I don’t spill as much wine on mine as they do on theirs. But ignoring outside influences like that, we have the same computer.

Large segments of humanity seem to prefer things be the same. Many organizations from the military to coffee shop chains require their members to dress identically. Some require the same hairstyle, the same way of talking, the same beliefs. Even the church isn’t immune from this drive to sameness. Many church groups require its members to believe the same doctrines with the same fervor, based on the same interpretation of the same translation of the Scriptures by the same gurus. Divergence, whether in military uniforms, coffee preparation processes or doctrinal stances are suspect and dangerous.

And yet, God has created us in a way that requires is to be different. In the Bible study that sparked this post, two of us are left handed. One of us is colour blind. Two prefer the KJV. One loves to bake cookies for the group. All of us love eating the cookies. Some are quite conservative in their theology. Others are willing to look at less conservative understandings. We have no real uniformity except for the fact that we all show up at the same place week after week to share and discuss and discover what God is trying to say to us.

And the most significant reason for our ability to do this is that we have learned to celebrate our diversity and use that God given diversity as one of the vital foundation stones of our study process. As we talk and share and discuss and question, we give each other glimpses of what God is showing us. The more we talk and share and discuss and question, the closer we come to understanding what God wants us to see. And we have discovered that one of the prime messages that God gives to us is that diversity is one of his gifts to humanity, a gift that we need to accept and celebrate.

We don’t all need to be left handed. We don’t all need to be colour blind. Some of us can prefer the KJV. Some of us can be Baptist and some Catholic. Some of us can have grey hair and some can have blue hair. Our diversity is important and valuable and points us to a basic theological truth: God loves our diversity. He must, since it was and is part of his plan that it is pretty much impossible for us to be the same.

May the peace of God be with you.

A SQUIRREL IN A TREE

I woke up this morning to a light snowfall. The ground is covered and the trees are wearing white veils. The old oak tree beside the house still has more than half its leaves (oaks are notoriously slow losing their leaves in the fall), which are now covered with snow. Most of the acorns have fallen off, littering the neighbour’s lawn and our driveway. Leaving or entering the driveway is always accompanied by the pop-pop-pop of the tires crushing the acorns.

Needless to say, looking out at the gently falling snow is much more inviting than stating at a blank laptop screen. One such glance provided a bonus. Sitting on a branch was a big squirrel having his breakfast. The oak tree obviously hasn’t shed all its acorns yet because he found some. I doubt is he collected the food from the ground and then ran up the tree—our collection of houses has no free-ranging dogs and the one cat that wanders the neighbourhood is so well fed that it presents no real danger to a squirrel. Mostly, they sit and eat where they find their food, although they sometimes stop to stare at me if I happen to move to the window for a closer look.

This squirrel is quite content. The remaining leaves provide some shelter from the falling snow. The thick tree trunk protects his from the gentle breeze. The tree provides an seemingly endless supply of food. There may even be a hidden hole or two in the tree that provides him and his family with shelter. What more could a squirrel want: high protein food, shelter, minimal threat from predators—it sounds like a made in heaven setting.

And actually, it is. I doubt if the squirrel realizes or cares but he is enjoying the grace of God but he is. The acorns, the oak tree, the gently falling snow, the whole neighbourhood depends on the eternal grace of God. He brought it into being, he sustains it and he is also redeeming it. If we would spend a lot more time just looking at the world around us, rather than trying to figure out how to use it to make more money for us, we would all be better off, I think.

To be honest, I am not really interested in the tedious creation/evolution debate that some inside and outside the faith think is so important. However it came to be, we have this world because of the grace of God. He caused it to be and set it up so that that oak trees can grow and produce acorns to feed squirrels (and people when properly prepared); so that humans can use the oak wood for sturdy and beautiful stuff; so that the snow which some hate can protect the dirt-based life during the cold and provide moisture for next year’s growth. Everything is connected and interlinked and comes from the hand of a loving and graceful God.

If we spent more time looking for the evidence of the grace of God in creation, we would all be better off. That squirrel peacefully eating his breakfast in the oak tree really doesn’t care if it took 14 billion years or 6000 years to produce the tree that provides his breakfast—he is just enjoying breakfast. The squirrel probably doesn’t do much theological reflection on the grace of God but in the end, his breakfast and his breakfast nook are still powerful signs of the grace of God.

We could probably learn a lot from the squirrel. Some things are pretty obvious, like enjoy breakfast on a snowy day. Other things are a bit deeper but probably even more important, things like remembering that we are not God and are as dependant on the grace of God as that squirrel. We might have a broader understanding of oak trees and natural history and theology than the squirrel but we are still not God. We can plant acorns, we can grow oak trees, we can produce acorn flour, we can make oak boards—but we didn’t bring the oak tree into being and we didn’t design its place in the overall scheme of things. And more importantly, we probably won’t understand the full picture until we are fully reunited with God in eternity.

Until then, enjoy the snow, have a good breakfast and hold firmly to the eternal grace of God.

May the peace of God be with you.

DEPRESSION ALERT

This has been a very busy weekend. One of the pastorates I serve had a major fund raising event on Saturday—it was a great event, from what I saw and heard, although my sight and vision were limited since my skill set pretty much confines me to the kitchen, well, really the sink washing dishes. I am pretty good at that task and it does keep me from spilling coffee and tea on guests at the tables. Sunday, of course, it always busy with two worship services and lots of people to talk to. We even had some visitors at the early service, which was nice.

But I work up this morning a bit before time to get up. As I enjoyed the warmth of the bed while thinking over the day’s activities, I had something of a shock. I caught a glimpse of my depression peeking around the corners of my thoughts. It wasn’t strong but it was there. I began to recognize the symptoms—feeling tired after a good night’s sleep; a lack of real interest in what I had planned for the day; an inability to go back to sleep combined with the fatigue feelings; a desire to crawl in a hole and disappear.

The depression hasn’t really arrived. This event was more of a preliminary message, a sort of an “I’m coming” promise. The conditions are right: lots of work activity; some personal stuff that is taxing; some frustrating circumstances preventing some important decisions. There are lots of reasons why the depression shouldn’t be there. Things are going well in the churches; my knees are not as painful, the cold didn’t develop into anything serious and it is actually snowing. But the potential is there—and it is close enough that the depression feels confident enough to show itself.

Now, I have to make some decisions. I need to decide what I am going to do about it. I recognize that not everyone fighting depression has the same options I have. My particular brand of depression tends to be closely related to my decisions and my willingness to take care of myself physically, emotionally and spiritually. I know all that and even do a pretty good job of paying attention to all the relevant factors most of the time. But when life gets hectic and things pile up, I take less and less care of myself, opening the door for the depression to worm its way in.

The problem is compounded by the fact that I am committed to what I do. My faith and my work are intimately connected—God has called me to ministry and whatever form it takes wherever it is, I am going to do my best, which involves more time that I probably should give it, more thought than I should give it, more energy that I should give it. I appreciate the opportunity God has given me to make a difference in the lives of the people he has called me to serve. I thrive on the opportunity to match Biblical teaching with the specific needs of the congregations. I love connecting churches, individuals and other groups with God through sermons, worship, Bible studies, counselling sessions and so on.

But it is too easy to lose myself in the process. And I know that the call to faith and service comes in the context of sacrifice and commitment and self-denial. Answering a call to ministry is demanding. But what I forget is that there is still a need to care for myself in the process. And once I forget that call to care for myself, everything else is built on a sandy foundation.

The threatening depression is a warning of that reality. I really can’t do what I have been called to do and want to do when I am depressed. I can go through the motions, letting momentum carry me but it isn’t really what I have been called to do. And while God can and does gracefully promise to work around my weaknesses, it is much better for me when I look after myself so that I can give him, the church and myself the best I am capable of at any given time.

So, thanks for the warning, depression. But because I have seen you peeking around the edges of my life, I am watching for you—and even more, I am pretty sure that God is looking after me.

May the peace of God be with you.

FORGIVE ME

One of my Bible study groups is studying the Lord’s Prayer. We are slowly moving through the content of the prayer, with many journeys here, there and everywhere as we examine the implications of the prayer for our lives. Eventually, we arrived at the place where we ask God, “Forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. That verse kept our study going for several weeks.

This isn’t a passage telling us that God will only forgive us as much as we forgive others. That would be at odds with the rest of the New Testament, which makes it clear that God’s forgiveness in Christ is unrestricted and unfettered, a limitless offer of love and grace that most of us will never fully understand.

As I and various people, including the Bible study, have grappled with this passage over the years, it seems to me that the real message the passage is trying to get to has to do more with our ability to forgive than with God’s ability to forgive. The bottlenecks and roadblocks and impediments to forgiveness all come from us, not from God.

And the biggest problem, I think, is our inability to actually forgive ourselves. Most people, especially faithful people, are terrible at forgiving themselves. We often have a sense of what “good” people should be like and an even better sense of why we are not like that. We know that God forgives—but we are uncomfortable believing that he could actually forgive us for that terrible sin of having an extra piece of pie (or maybe even the first piece, depending on the circumstances).

Often, we who are people of faith have our insides cluttered with sins and perceived sins that we are pretty sure are the worst sins in the history of faith, stuff that makes us feel guilty and unworthy and sinful and which we are sure that God couldn’t ever forgive. And if God can’t forgive us, who are we to let ourselves off the hook?

But the Gospel truth is that God can and does and even did forgive everything—that is the point of the cross and the resurrection. God can forgive us. And if God can and has forgiven us, who are we to argue? We can’t claim to know more than God; we can’t suggest that he doesn’t have the full story; we can’t argue that he has missed something—although in truth, we do all that stuff. But God is God, he does know the full story, he didn’t miss anything and when he offers to forgive, he can and will deliver.

So, many of us in the faith walk around as forgiven children of God who are still carrying heavy imaginary burdens of unforgiveness simply because we won’t in the end forgive ourselves. We make God into a liar and a weakling because we refuse to believe that he is stronger than us and our sins.

And then it gets worse because we are pretty sure that if we don’t really deserve forgiveness, that no one else actually deserves it either. If I can’t forgive myself for that second slice of pie, how can I forgive you who joined me in the raid on the fridge? Or even worse, if I don’t eat the pie and can’t forgive myself for even thinking about it, how can I ever forgive you for actually eating the pie?

Our theology of forgiveness needs to be improved. Actually, it needs to be real theology, not our thoughts and feelings. God has made it clear that forgiveness is a consequence of his love and grace. He makes it clear that there are no limits (I know about the sin of blasphemy of the Holy Spirit in Matthew 12.31 but essentially worrying about this sin is a pretty good sign you haven’t committed it). He goes to inhuman lengths to let us know that he is prepared to forgive us no matter what.

So, if the God of all creation, who know everything there is to know about me and everything else is willing to die to forgive me, I should probably learn how to forgive myself—and at the same time, that will help me forgive others. When we let God’s rules about forgiveness guide the process, we will all do better.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHO ARE YOU?

Every now and then, I get caught by my assumptions. I learn a thing or two about someone or something and on the basis of that, I assume a whole bunch of things. One of these situations involved someone who showed up as a worship service where I as preaching. I knew a bit about the person—he was a member of a fairly conservative church group that I knew something about. I didn’t agree with some of the group’s ideas and practises—I am somewhat less conservative than that group.

That particular Sunday, the sermon was on a topic that could have created some real issues between this person and me. I was in the middle of a sermon series and was dealing with a topic where that group he represented had some seriously different ideas from mine. I was pretty sure that my sermon would offend him. My assumption was that it he didn’t walk out during the sermon, I would either be ignored at the end or get told how wrong I was.

All through the sermon, I was conscious of that person and their response. I didn’t preach to him alone. I didn’t ignore him or spend all my time watching his reaction but I was aware of his presence and basically assumed that he was going to be upset by what I was saying. He didn’t give out much in the way of body language but I was pretty sure that he didn’t like it—my assumptions are based on lots of experience with his group.

He didn’t actually leave, nor did he go to sleep or stare out the window during the sermon. He didn’t get visibly agitated or angry—I assumed that he had been taught to control himself in preparation for setting me straight at the end of the worship. The sermon ended, we sang the hymn—I sort of hoped that he would sneak out during the singing but he didn’t. We finished the hymn, I pronounced the benediction and limped towards door to greet everyone as they left.

The rest of the church spent some time talking with this guy, welcoming him and all that and so it was a while before he got to the back. I stuck out my hand to shake his. He grabbed my hand, shook it firmly and told me that my sermon was the best and clearest treatment of the topic that he had ever heard. Over the noise of the rest of the members chatting and laughing, I heard the sound of my assumptions shattering.

I will confess right now that this is a preacher story—there is a core of truth in it but I have embellished it a bit and jammed several incidents together . We preachers simply have an inborn inability to release a story without some polishing and editing. But the story does capture a common reality for me. I tend to make judgments based on my assumptions that turn out to be seriously and completely wrong.

Fortunately, God has been at work through the Holy Spirit to help me grow through such incidents. It has happened enough that you would think I would have learned a long time ago not to make such assumptions but I am not all that bright, I guess, because I keep doing the same thing time after time.

This does help me understand the reality and power of God’s grace, though. God uses an incident to teach me something that I need to know. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, I learn the lesson. And then, through the power of my humanness, I forget the lesson and make the same mistake based on the same assumptions. God, in his infinite grace, forgives me and uses another incident when I make the mistake to teach me again. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, I learn the lesson, only to forget it again and need a refresher.

God reveals his infinite love and grace and patience because as many times as I need the same lesson, God will happily provide it. And if and when I finally learn the lesson, he will move on to something else that I need to learn. I am a slow learner but God is a loving and patient teacher, which is great for me and everyone else.

May the peace of God be with you.

COERCION OR CONVICTION?

I often find myself walking on a theological tight rope. I believe that God in Christ loves us with a perfect, unending and unconditional love. He loves us as we are—and the proof of that love and grace are seen clearly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. There is nothing I could, can or might do that will ever make God love me less or more; nothing that will limit or increase the grace that he offers to me through Jesus Christ. This is a basic and foundational reality of my faith.

If I just had this reality, I would be fine. Unfortunately, there is another equally valid reality that I need to deal with. I am not what I was meant to be. My being has been affected by sin—mine and others. Some of the effect isn’t my fault—it comes from living in a world deeply affected by human sin. But some of the effect of sin is my fault. I have made choices and followed paths that have taken me further and further away from the ideal that God had in mind when he began the creation process.

The tightrope I walk is the struggle to find the balance between these two realities. If I begin to believe that God’s love and grace are so powerful that my current imperfect state doesn’t matter, I will never grow in faith. But if I spend too much time on my imperfection, I run the risk of beginning to let my imperfection block my ability to appreciate the love and grace of God.

In both my ministry and my personal spiritual life, I have had to deal with the consequences of ignoring one of these realities and focusing too much on the other. Because I belong to the conservative part of the Christian faith, I am very familiar with the traditional conservative approach to this dichotomy. We have tended to see our imperfection more than we have seen the love of God.

We end up believing, but pretty sure that we are not good enough for God. We tend to be insecure about our faith—there is always the fear that some Biblical scholar is going to suddenly realize that the Bible actually says that God only loves us when we become perfect. We on the conservative side of the faith tend to do our faith thing from a sense of fear—we understand really well that we aren’t good enough but we really struggle to find the balance that a proper awareness of the love and grace of God will bring.

There are other believers whose sense of the love and grace of God allow them to completely ignore their imperfection—because God loves them, they can and do follow any path they want. Content and comfortable in the powerful love of God, they have no need to look at who they are and who they were meant to be.

For me, though, I need to be at the balance point. I know my imperfections, the places where I need to grow, the things I need to change. But I also need to remember that God in Christ loves me the way I am. He doesn’t want to change the negative parts of my being so that he can love me more. Part of the expression of his eternal love and grace is the willingness to help me discover more of what I was really meant to be, not so that God can love me more but simply so that I can be more me.

When I keep this balance, I am comfortable. I can grow and develop—or fail and not develop in the safe and protected limitlessness of God’s love. I don’t seek to grow because God coerces me. I seek to grow because the God who loves me also wants me to experience the good and wonderful that I have been keeping myself from experiencing because of the reality of sin.

Whether I grow on not, God’s love and grace continue to be there. But if I am willing to grow, I become more and more of what I was meant to be. God will not love me more either way—but I am more comfortable and more at home with myself, others and God when I open myself to grow as God leads me.

May the peace of God be with you.

THAT’S FUNNY

 

One of the interesting tasks I had one time was to be a reader for a doctoral thesis that was looking at the topic of humour in the Bible. Since I like humour, I was looking forward to the process—I was hoping to get a good laugh out of the thesis. Unfortunately, the thesis, although well written, well researched and well presented was no funnier than any other thesis I have read, which is to say it wasn’t very funny at all.

There seems to be within the faith a strong tendency to minimize the place of humour. I think that some feel that since our faith deals with big, important themes like eternal destiny, there isn’t much room for humour. We are engaged in serious stuff and laughter is frivolous and maybe even sacrilegious.

And yet, the Bible is a book shot through with humour. Of course, it seems that commentators and preachers and others have worked hard over the years to minimize and hide the humour that is present, almost as if there is a conspiracy to prevent faithful people from having a good laugh.

Take the comment Jesus makes in Matthew 19.24 for example: “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (NIV). Most commentaries spend lots of time discussing the possible references Jesus in making here, drawing on possible nautical and cultural themes supposedly from that day and age. But very few highlight the absolute humour of this passage. The absurdity of a camel trying to get through the eye of a needle conjurors up hilarious images that would not be out of place in a Saturday morning cartoon.

Or take one of my personal favorites, found in Matthew 7.3, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (NIV) The essential humour in this passage is lost as we deal with heavy issues like hypocrisy and human sin and confession and all those other important themes that we can draw out of the passage.

But this is funny. The idea of a man with a 2×4 stuck in his eye trying to help another with a piece of sawdust in his eye is the premise for a skit worthy of the Three Stooges or some other great slapstick comedy team. Picture the chaos that accompanies a person with a 2×4 trying to help someone: there will be smashing and bashing and crashing and breaking glass and head bangs and gloriously funny mayhem.

And I am pretty sure that this humour isn’t some unintentional coincidence that crept in while the super serious God of all creation was distracted by the seriousness of human sin. I think the humour we find scattered through the Bible is intentional and deliberate and there because God also has a sense of humor. After all, he created us with the ability—and need—to laugh. When he relates to us, he shows flashes of marvelous humour. Having a donkey speak to a somewhat stubborn prophet (Numbers 22.28) is funny on a lot of levels, including the part where the prophet argues with the donkey oblivious to the weirdness of the situation.

Life is serious and heavy and often painful. In the faith, we deal with some pretty serious and heavy duty topics, like the point of life and eternal destiny. But we also need to balance this heaviness with the lightness provided by humour and laughter, a reality that God seeks to teach us in the Scripture. God created us with the need and ability to laugh—and then, he writes some pretty good material for us to laugh at.

Certainly, there is a serious side to God’s humour and there are deeper lessons in all the jokes and pratfalls—but they are also funny and the humour deserves to be given the laugh it deserves and that we also deserve. I think it adds to our ability to understand and relate to God when we realize that God, like most humans, appreciates a good joke now and then and he isn’t above sneaking a good one into the most serious of material.

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.

HOW FAR?

I am a pastor, a person called by God to help others find and understand the love of God.  I teach, I preach, I counsel and go to a lot of meetings, some of which actually have a point.  And in the course of  all that activity, I encounter a lot of people–even as the pastor of small congregations in a rural area, I encounter a lot of people.

Some of these people are church people, people who are kind and loving and accepting and could be referred to as the “salt of the earth”.  Others, well, others are somewhat less likable–and a few are incredibly easy to dislike.  Some are comfortable to be around; some are okay for a while; a few I prefer to avoid if I can and there are a few who create a bit of fear in me when I encounter them.

But I am a pastor and part of my job is a commitment to serving God through serving people.  But every now and then, I have to deal with the issue of just how far I am supposed to go in dealing with people.  Sometimes, the problem comes in the way the person treats me–while it isn’t common, I have come across people who insult me, want to dominate me or who threaten me in some way shape of form.  More often, the problem comes about when I realize that the person I am encountering has been guilty of some particular behaviour.

For example, because of my work with victims of childhood sexual abuse, I tend to seriously dislike people who sexually abuse children.  I am sure that God loves them–but I generally find it difficult to be around them, let alone minister to them.  My response comes from years and years of listening to the pain and hurt and struggles of people trying to re-create a life seriously damaged by abuse.  When I am around such people, I tend to be angry and judgemental.

There are other people who react to other things.  On a somewhat regular basis, I talk to people in the church who wonder if it is possible for us to do something about so and so, who says/does/did/ might do that thing that really upsets them.  At least once, I had a church member suggest that it might be better if I didn’t make a pastoral visit to a family because, well, “they” were “like that”.

How far does tolerance, acceptance and Christian love go?  When do people cross the line that separates being included in God’s command to love from the legitimate withholding of that love?  I know, I know–the Gospel message is for all people, no matter who they are and what they have done.  Jesus came to rescue all people, including whichever group I happen to be having problems with at any given time.

But does God expect the same limitlessness love from me?  Do I have to minister to the child abuser?  Do I have to welcome “those” people into the church I pastor?  Do I have to defend them from the sanctified abuse the church sometimes likes to dish out to those who break the rules?

What does God expect of me?  Well, he does expect me to push my limits.  He does expect me to follow him into the places and to the people I would prefer to ignore or condemn.  He does call me to challenge my positions and bring them into congruence with his positions.

That is painful, difficult, frustrating, scary.  It also produces serious anger.  But in the end, it is part of my commitment to the faith.  I wish I could conclude this blog by saying that I have overcome all the limits and love everyone as God loves them and calls me to love them.  But I am trying to be as honest as possible in this writing and so the best I can say is that God’s grace is at work and he is patiently working with me.  I know that because there are a couple of people I know who have abused children whom I see on a semi-regular basis.  God is working in me and helping me learn how my faith needs to help shape loving response to them.  It isn’t easy–but it is coming.

I am glad that God’s love is not limited by my limits.

May the peace of God be with you.