I BELIEVE…

A long time ago, I was a theology student. That occupation entailed sitting a lot—in classrooms and in the school common room between classes. It involved listening a lot as well—listening to professors and classmates in class time and to other students in the common room. While I contributed my fair share of words to all these sitting and talking sessions, I also listened a lot, a practise which I have always followed—we introverts are generally better at listening than talking.

While sitting and listening as a theology student, I discovered that in some significant ways, I as different from a lot of the other students at the schools I attended. I discovered that I didn’t believe as much as they did. Some of them had elaborate and detailed belief systems that seemed to cover every conceivable possibility they would ever encounter in life. I also discovered that I wasn’t as invested in my belief system as they were in theirs. It seemed that everything they believed was a matter of life and death—or heaven and hell.

So, I was sitting in a theological school common room one day, probably drinking coffee so as to be somewhat awake for the next class when one of the students in the room made a faith proclamation. Because his wife had a good job and he was nearing graduation and had been called to a church, he bought a new car—not an old, beat up, barely running car like the rest of us poor theology students but an brand new car, so new that it has things like warranties and good tires and new car smell. As might be expected, he was the centre of attention—most theology students in those long ago days were male and new cars tend to do something in the male mind.

He told us that he bought the brand he bought after prayer. He believed that as a Christian, he had an obligation to buy a car build in a Christian country. His belief system included what kind of car to buy—and as well, it included an obligation to point out the sin of people who would buy a car from a non-Christian country. He had a very elaborate and well developed system that covered everything.

At the time, I was driving a beat up foreign car hoping I could keep it together until I graduated so some of my reaction to his comment likely came from that fact. However, I didn’t really appreciate his belief system. While I think and believe that faith should be a factor in all life decisions, I am not sure that it needs to be so detailed. I very much doubt that God has written a supplementary commandment that tells me what brand of car to buy. I didn’t believe that then and I don’t believe that now—my belief system simply isn’t that detailed.

But I do believe. And I even believe that God has some concerns about my car purchases. I believe that he care about how much I spend, why I buy what I buy and how I approach the process. I believe that he cares about me practising good stewardship in the process and acting in good faith with the dealers and living my faith as I buy. Those are all parts of my belief system. I even believe that God doesn’t want me to brag or show off my new purchase too much. But I don’t believe that which brand of car I buy is ultimately an article of faith or that it will determine my eternal status.

Over the years, I have actually worked at creating as small a body of faith essentials as possible. I don’t need or want to carry around a huge faith statement that nails down everything from what coffee to drink and which car to buy and who to spend time with and how to wash my hands before meals. I don’t need that.

I prefer a slimmed down statement that covers the basics and which can then be used to help craft a specific response as needed. God doesn’t endorse one car over another—but he does have a part in the process of choosing and buying a car. My minimalist faith statement seems to open the door for much more time with God as I allow him to speak specifically to my life rather than through a multitude of laws and regulations.

May the peace of God be with you.

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MORE VACATION

One of the perks of being a pastor in our denomination is the vacation time recommendation that our head office suggests. The denomination recommends that pastors get four weeks of vacation a year. Most of the churches within our denomination follow that recommendation, which I really appreciate. Many pastors choose to take their vacation in a block. Some, according to one cynical church member I knew years ago, try to schedule their vacation for a five Sunday month to get an extra week.

That has never really worked for us. In fact, I don’t think that we have ever taken a month of vacation all at one time ever during my time in ministry. There have been a couple of times when I have been away from the church for a month or so but that was generally vacation combined with church sanctioned ministry which didn’t count as vacation. We have tended to take two or three breaks during the year, a pattern which works much better with both our personal fatigue cycles and the church year. An added bonus is that by not taking a whole month off during the slower summer months, I get the opportunity to use some of the over-time hours I accumulate during the busier seasons as extra summer time off.

While this plan has worked really well for my time in ministry, there is a drawback. The drawback is that I always seem to be telling the church that I will be away on vacation again. Nobody in the churches minds that I am taking vacation. Some, in fact, would allow me to take even more time if I wanted it. And yet there is that nagging sense of guilt when I approach the deacons or write the announcement in the bulletin or tell the church that I am off yet again for another vacation.

The only ones who ever say anything about the vacation fall into two categories. One group teases me about being away so much, asking didn’t I just have a vacation and so on. They are not being serious, we all know they are joking. The other group, who are often exactly the same people, tell me it is about time and that I need to forget about the church and have a good break.

My problem isn’t with the church—they are quite happy to give me my vacation time. No—the problem is mine. Even after 40+ years of ministry, I am still a bit uncomfortable getting paid to travel, go camping, visit family, finish woodworking projects or just sit home and do nothing related to church work. I know that I need the time—my ministry is much better after a vacation than it is just before a vacation time. The break, whether it is one week or two, is enough to clear out the accumulated fatigue, re-motivate me and allow me to get on with the ministry that I have been called to do.

And having three such breaks a year, combined with the compensatory time off during the slower seasons of ministry allows me to recharge at regular intervals, rather than trying to jam the whole rest and restoration process into one long break. But that does mean that three times a year, I have to stand in the pulpit and announce that I am going to be on vacation for a certain period of time—and deal with the nagging sense of guilt that comes with that.

It isn’t debilitating guilt. It isn’t strong enough that I resist vacations. I don’t feel guilty enough to have to do penance when I get back. There definitely isn’t enough guilt to take away from the enjoyment of being on vacation. I just feel enough guilt to make the announcement in worship uncomfortable. Once that is out of the way, I am on vacation and the guilt can get lost.

I am not going to find a way to get rid of that guilt at this point. It has been there for 40+ years so I am pretty sure that it will only go away when I retire. But that is okay because my vacation guilt and I have come to an agreement that works. I will acknowledge the guilt and having been acknowledged, the guilt will then let me enjoy my vacation.

May the peace of God be with you.

I’M NOT THAT BUSY

I was sitting in the doctor’s office to get the results of some tests. I had also decided to ask him about the fatigue that had been plaguing me recently. It might have been related to the tests that I was getting the results from but it could have been from something else. It was getting so bad that I felt tired all the time and needed to sit for only a couple of minutes before I was falling asleep. Given that one of my relaxing pastimes is sitting reading, the fatigue was seriously cutting into my reading. I enjoy a nap as much or more than the next guy but when I fall asleep three or four times when trying to read for an hour or so, that is getting a bit much.

So, the test results were sort of wishy-washy, suggesting that maybe I did or maybe I didn’t have a problem associated with the tests. But the results did suggest that the extreme fatigue likely came from other sources, which my doctor decided to check out through a set of other tests. But he also asked me about how busy I was.

That was an easy answer, of course. I am a part time pastor and I work 40% time at two different places. That means I work an 80% job, which isn’t all that bad and should be easily accomplished by a 66 year old reasonably healthy male. My doctor, who is also a friend and who therefore knows me as more than just a medical file reframed his question—he wasn’t asking how much I worked, he wanted to know how busy I actually was.

Well, I am 80% at official work. I also mentor a theology student. I do a bit of counselling. I spend some time writing. I occasionally do some “consulting” with other congregations and pastors—the quotation marks are because I think real consultants get paid and I don’t take money for the meetings I have. The more I listed stuff, the more the doctor nodded.

Just as he was beginning to suggest that I was actually quite busy, I realized that I might only work for pay 80% time but I actually am doing a lot—and the unpaid time and effort adds up—I am probably well over 100% if I were really honest and accurate. I think I had allowed myself to fall into the mindset that unpaid stuff was not really work and therefore shouldn’t actually count when it came to counting work/leisure hours.

I have long had this vision of myself as a sort of laid back, slightly lazy guy who gets things done but who manages to take it easy a good deal of the time. Well, that vision evaporated quickly under the harsh lights of my reality. I am actually quite busy, busier than I let myself realize. Most of what I do, I like and I do it because I think it is valuable and important.

But during that visit to the doctor, I realized that I am going to have to make some changes to deal with the realities I live with now. The doctor is making sure that there is no serious underlying medical issue—I gave up enough blood to the technicians to ensure everything is tested and checked.

But even without the results of those tests, it is clear that I need to make some adjustments in my life style. I need to make some different choices that take into account the reality that I am 66 not 26 and the energy I need to do all that I want to do isn’t as easy to come by as it was 40 years ago. I am making some adjustments to my sleep patterns. I am looking carefully at all the things I am doing, seeking to cut down the work load a bit—realizing that unpaid isn’t the same as not working helps out here. I want to get to the point where I can actually read for an hour or so without falling asleep. I want to be able to nap but I want the nap time to be my choice, not something that I have no control over.

I think the new sleep pattern is working and I am pretty sure there isn’t much going on beyond the fact that I need to relearn my limits.

May the peace of God be with you.

CLOSE THEM DOWN!

Recently, both my wife and I has parishioners in the large regional hospital 2.5 hours away. Our pastoral calling made a trip to the city necessary—and practical considerations made going together in one car a good idea. The fact that we would have some uninterrupted time together while we were doing our respective jobs was a blessing. The five hour drive wasn’t such a great blessing but we were at least together.

On the way back, we stopped for coffee and groceries—whenever we pass near a larger centre, we plan our shopping trip to take advantage of the lower prices and greater selection. While we were having our coffee break, a friend we hadn’t seen since our last stint in Kenya noticed us and came over to sit with us. We had a good time catching up with what was going on in all of our lives.

Except that one part of the conversation upset us both a bit. Our friend knew we were back in Canada but didn’t know what we were doing so we had to do the story of which churches we were serving. It took a while to get across the idea that between us, we serve nine different churches. We had to go through the explanation of how many worship services we do each Sunday; how many people there are in worship; how many in my pastorates go wherever the worship is and so on.

After we got that part done, our friend made the profound observation that it would make a lot more sense to close a lot of the buildings and save everyone a lot of time and effort. At that point, I sort of began looking at my watch, wondering if it we could graciously break off the conversation and head for the groceries and then home.

Our friend’s observation, delivered with such conviction, was the perfect example of armchair pastoring. I am not sure but I suspect that his comments about closing buildings were delivered as if I had never thought of that. He likely felt that he was giving me some important advice that would change the course of my ministry.

Certainly, on the level of simple logic, closing buildings makes perfect sense. But the practical realities of closing get twisted together with social, cultural, personal, family and theological ties that create a knot with deep and powerful roots. Closing church buildings isn’t an easy process—it is a Gordian knot that even Alexander’s chopping solution won’t work for.

There are valid reasons and effective processes for closing church buildings—but the process is long, slow and inefficient to the extreme. And that is because the process doesn’t involve economics and efficiencies and logic. It actually involves feelings and traditions and hopes and dreams and a bunch of other non-logical and hard to measure stuff. Any pastor who approaches the process of closing a building steps into a mindfield protected by lasers, machine guns, trained attack scorpions, dive bombers and super ninjas—and that is just the normal level of protection. Threaten the building and the people really get serious about its defence.

I learned a long time ago that ministry in rural areas and small churches is going to have to be done in the context of too many and too much building. The demands of buildings are going to consume lots of time and energy and money. Long term, some of them must and will close. But in view of the difficulty and poor return on time and energy investment, I decided to ignore buildings and focus on ministry. I use the buildings, I appreciate the history, I even try to take part in repaid and clean up days—but the building isn’t the focus of my ministry. The people are—and if they want to continue with too many and too much building, that really isn’t a big issue for me. I will encourage them to look at their building status, I will encourage them to think seriously about their buildings, I might even suggest that the church isn’t a building—but I will do that in the context of trying to remember which building we meet in this week and which building is going to need repairs this week and all the rest.

My friend’s suggestion was a much too simple solution to a much too complicate issue that I generally choose to ignore because there are better ways to spend my ministry time.

May the peace of God be with you.

OCCUPATIONAL HAZARD

Although I am the pastor of small churches, both the pastorates I serve are active with a variety of events going on. Besides the regular and expected activities like worship and Bible Study, we also have a lot of special events. And because of our unofficial denominational traditions or deeply rooted cultural traditions, special events require food as part of the process.

Normally, the special events that we do in the separate pastorates happen at different times and so my attendance at food events is staggered, allowing me some time to work off my indulgence before another one happens. I could, I suppose, set severe limits on how much I eat at special church events but the reality is that I pastor two pastorates full of really good cooks and food events are therefore one temptation that I really can’t resist. Both the old favourites and the new offerings are all so good that I struggle to resist going back the third time. Some separation between the pastorate special events is therefore a blessing.

However, the inevitable happened recently. Both pastorates had special events on the same Sunday—and both events were special enough that we had to have food. The first event was a community blessing service at the local wharf, followed by a potluck lunch at a community hall. That was followed by a hymn sing at the other pastorate, which included a pot luck supper. I did manage to get a break between the two, long enough to bring home one set of church stuff and dishes, take a quick nap and grab the second set of church stuff and food for the second service.

The services went well. The community blessing did bring a few community members to our service and hopefully raised our profile a bit in the community. The second, the hymn sing, was a regular part of our church schedule there and was well attended, including people for whom the hymn sing is an opportunity to check in with our congregation.

The first potluck was everything I expected: a new dish from an experimental cook that was both interesting and delicious; a soup from another that was great; some salads that fit well with the warmth of the day and some tasty deserts. In spite of my well thought out plan to pace myself in view of the next potluck, the table temptation won out and I had more than I needed—but it was really good.

After the quick stop at home, I was off to the second. As the sanctuary filled up, the hall also filled up with tantalizing smells and appetizing dishes. As I ran around between the sanctuary and hall doing all the stuff that pastors do before a special event, I can’t actually say that I was feeling hungry but the smells and visual presentations were interesting and actually tempting.

The hymn sing was good—everyone enjoys the opportunity to sing their favourite hymn and experiment with some new ones. And after the hymn sing, as I pronounced the benediction and the blessing, we headed for the hall. As usual, I hung back to greet people and do some pastoral stuff and that sort of thing. That is normal—but this time, there really wasn’t all that much pull to the food table. But eventually, I got in the line and grabbed a plate.

And then, well, that looked really good and I know this is always good and I have to try that and isn’t that interesting and is that really curry—and before I knew it, I had a plate full and was wondering if there was room for just a bit of that, which of course there was. Once again, I celebrated the giftedness and generosity of the people I serve—or I gave in to temptation. I prefer the first version of events, although I know there are some small minded people who would insist on the second explanation.

I did actually spend an hour on the exercise bike when I finally got home. That really didn’t erase the effects of the two potlucks but it did help me feel a bit more virtuous after the indulgence. Add to that the fact that the next potluck is a month away and that will only be one and I should probably be okay.

May the peace of God be with you.

SEND ME

Years ago, our denomination was beginning a new, improved, streamlined approach to some part of our shared life. They needed people to help the denomination understand the process they were developing. And because this was new thing, they needed not just anybody but specific, respected, articulate, capable people to be a part of this process. They weren’t advertising the new volunteer positions—they were targeting very carefully chosen people whose wisdom, experience and gifts were identified after careful thought and discussion. Given the importance of the new program, that was the only way to really deal with the recruitment process.

As recruitment attempts go, this was one of the slickest that I have been a part of. Instead of trying to use guilt to motivate people into taking part or issuing a blanket call and hoping someone good would show up, this was an attempt to make the potential recruit feel special and important and valuable and significant. When I clearly told the recruiter no, I watched the dismay and surprise flash across his face—how could anyone turn down such a well planned and well executed recruitment process?

I have often been the focus of denominational and other recruitment drives. Some, like this one are slick and polished. Some are sloppy and unconvincing. A few still try to use the guilt process. And some come smacking of desperation. Because I have spend my career working in and for the church, I haven’t had recruitment attempts that come with financial incentives, although now and then the process has included coffee or lunch.

What they all mostly have in common is the assumption that it is God’s will for me to be involved in this process. Whether through the careful study process or the grace of God in a sloppy process, somehow, the recruiters are being used by God to call me to what must be God’s will for my life. There are no shortage of calls in the life of a pastor or other religious leader.

I believe that God has called me. I believe that he has called me to ministry in general and to specific expressions of that general call to serve. But I don’t believe that everything that claims to be a call from God is actually a call from God. And since I generally can’t actually depend on the person seeking to recruit me to help understand God’s calling on my life, I have to find other ways to testing to see whether this great opportunity is a calling from God or a distraction from my real calling.

For me, it is important to recognize that not everything that claims to be a call from God is actually a call from God—or at least it isn’t a call from God for me. God may well be calling someone to serve him through the new and improved denominational program—but the fact that God is seeking to call someone doesn’t mean he is specifically calling me to be involved. The fact that the recruiter is convinced that God wants me there isn’t the same as God actually wanting me there.

And so I have to look carefully at each claim, prayerfully considering it. I sometimes discuss it with friends. Now and then, I will check with the church. But mostly, I evaluate a potential new call in the context of the present call from God. If it is clear that God has called me to something like being a pastor, anything that threatens that call is probably not from God, unless it includes something from God that makes it clear to me how the new call and the continuing call fit together.

I am committed to following where God leads me. I have spend my life doing just that. But for me, part of this commitment to following also includes a commitment to knowing when God isn’t calling me. I think this part of the commitment has saved me and my primary calling a great deal of pain and hardship over the years. I have passed up some “tremendous” calls over the years—but in the end, if it isn’t actually from God, can it really be counted as a call from God?

May the peace of God be with you.

HERE AM I, LORD

As a pastor, I have discovered that I often end up dealing with things from a variety of perspectives. Sometimes, I am a student, discovering as much as I can about a topic. Sometimes, I am a teacher, explaining the issues to students and parishioners. Sometimes, I am part of a larger group that is seeing to do something on a larger scale. But the truth is that most of the time, as a pastor, I am dealing with stuff one on one, as someone struggles to figure out how their life deals with whatever happens to be coming their way.

At those times, I draw deeply on all my education, my research, my training, my talents, my gifts. I have been called by God to help this person in this area—and as much as possible, I work to give them my best for God to use in their life process. Whatever the person is dealing with, I have been called by God to used everything I have to help them make the connection with God that will enable them to find the divine resources to deal with whatever comes their way.

I am not always comfortable with this calling. There are times when it is extremely uncomfortable and even scary. There are times when I feel like I am walking on a tightrope in a still cross wind. There are times when I am sure that I am wasting my time but have to try anyway. There are, of course, times when through the grace of God, everything comes together and the person overcomes. More often, the person makes a step that diminishes the problem a bit and sets up the process for another step down the road a bit.

Some of the things I deal with one on one would be a lot easier to deal with in a different socio-cultural-political climate. Some of the stuff I help people agonize through would be a lot easier if things were different on the macro scale. Helping survivors of childhood sexual abuse, for example, would be a lot easier for the survivor is there weren’t the social stigma and reluctance to admit the problem exists let alone the serious long term consequences that it brings.

At times, I think that someone should do something about the big stuff. Occasionally, I toy with the idea of starting something to deal with the big picture. And now and then in my ministry, I have actually been involved in some of the big picture stuff, working with others to bring about changes. But mostly, I have spent my career dealing with one issue at a time, one person at a time, one day at a time.

It isn’t that I don’t see the big picture. Intellectually, emotionally and vocationally, I am hard wired to seek out and understand the big picture. I am comfortable with the big picture and generally have no problem relating the specific to the general. Part of my ability to help in the specific is tied to my ability to grasp the general.

But for all that, I spend most of my time working with the specifics. And that, I think, is tied closely with my calling. I have been called to be a pastor and teacher. My calling, at least as I have seen it up to this point, is to be the one who can help people mobilize their faith to find what they need to deal with whatever part of life they are currently dealing with. A smaller part of that calling is teaching those not in the specific to understand and be ready for the specific when it happens to them or they are called to help others deal with it.

I sometimes tell people who want me to become involved in the big picture stuff that I am too busy to be involved. And that is pretty much the truth. I have a calling, a calling to be a pastor and teacher. To carry out that calling properly takes significant time and effort, time and effort that I willing offer to God and others. When God calls me to the big picture stuff, it has always been in the context of caring for the specific first and then using spare time and energy to deal with the big picture.

I am grateful for those called to deal with the big picture—someone needs to do it. But someone also needs to deal with the specifics and that is where my calling has tended to take me. Here I am, Lord.

May the peace of God be with you.

ANOTHER BEGINNING

Another September with its new beginnings. This September begins with a new sermon series, requested by the church as part of our on-going self-study. We will spend a good part of the fall season looking at the mission of the church in general and our church in specific. I have already prepared and distributed the survey to evaluate the changes we have made in our approach to worship. They will clutter my briefcase for a few days (weeks?) until I find time to look them over. We have a special musical event coming up, which I don’t have to do too much for given my low level musical abilities. We have a sort of a plan for Advent that I need to pull together sometime before the Advent season. We might be a small church but we have a lot going on—and remember, that I serve two different collections of churches and so I have another whole different set of start up stuff going on there.

So, I begin this new church year with excitement and some anticipation of interesting things coming. Having the process going on in two places means that I have lots of excitement and positive anticipation to carry me through the church year. Except that I am also noticing something else. Underneath the excitement and anticipation is a fatigue. I am tired. I had a vacation in the summer and I purposely took compensatory time off over the summer—but I am still tired.

I am not tired enough to warrant sick leave—but I am tired enough that the food bank contributions from Sunday might sit in the car until tomorrow before I deliver them. I am not tired enough that I will mess up the new sermon series but I am tired enough that preparing any given sermon might take longer than it used to. I am not tired enough that I will require Bible study to be cancelled but I am tired enough that I will probably need a longer break (nap) after the study.

At some points in my ministry career, I would be worried that this fatigue was the first hint of a coming depression. And while I openly admit that is always a possibility, I don’t think that is the case right now. The fatigue could be a sign of some physical problem developing. I am going to get that checked out but since I have had regular tests and medical consults, I don’t think there is a serious medical reason for the tiredness.

I think that in the end, I am beginning this new church year with a sense fatigue simply because I have accumulated enough years that my energy levels aren’t what they used to be. I am getting old. I passed official retirement age recently but haven’t reached my personal compulsory retirement age. But I am definitely not a fresh out of school pastor, young and brimming with energy, ready to do a youth camping trip, a deacons’ meeting and write a sermon at the same time.

I am recognizing that I have new limits which require new ways of doing things. I can’t push myself as much as I used to. I can’t caffeinate my way through fatigue. I can’t run and not be weary—actually, because of my failing knees, I can’t really run and walking any distance requires a walking stick or cane. When I get done both Sunday worship services, I am probably not going to wish I was invited to be guest speaker at an evening service—I am much more likely to hope I can stay awake until after the evening news.

This is my reality. I like what I am doing, I think what I am doing is important and I plan on keeping doing it. But I also recognize the fatigue that has come from doing what I am doing for more years than I want to count. For now, I can manage the fatigue: naps, taking regular time off, getting proper exercise and sleep, eating well and so on are all part of the self-care process that I follow.

So, I start this new church year with excitement and anticipation tempered with the reality that while I care for the churches I have been called to, I also need to care for myself.

May the peace of God be with you.

BEGINNING AGAIN

September has arrived. The days are noticeable shorter and even though they can still be quite warm, mornings have a fall feel. The air is cooler and sometimes, there is a vague hint of frost in the air. Summer is over and for most people, the year is drawing to a close. We look ahead to the coming of really cold weather, snow and winter. The next big bump in the year is Christmas and then it is over.

Except for me and many other clergy, September really marks the beginning of the year. For many of us, the church year actually runs from September to May or June. I make my plans based on that year and most of the people I know in ministry follow the same pattern. So, for me, that means the coming of September means the start of a new year. The programs and groups we shut down in May or June start back up. The new initiatives and plans start to unfold. We will turn on the engine and get things moving as we begin another church year.

This is generally a hopeful and enjoyable time. When Bible Study starts up, we will reconnect and rekindle our exciting process. The new ideas we have been planning for get brought online. Our numbers stabilize after the summer fluctuations—summer visitors go home, regulars come back and preaching can focus on more in-depth themes. For the next eight or nine months, we will be full steam ahead, being the church the way we interpret God’s calling on us, with the Christmas shift and the anticipated snow days.

I have been involved in the September New Year activities for a long time—I began serving churches as a pastor a long time ago and consider myself a seasoned veteran of the church New Year process. I have made a few changes over the years to cater to cultural shifts and ministry trends—we start a bit later in September than I used to because of the summer creep that has pushed the summer slump further into September. Some programs have disappeared—when there is no Sunday School, there is no need to plan and push the Sunday School opening.

I have generally approached September with a positive outlook. I work with the church leadership to make plans for the new year which will help us as a church. I see each year as an opportunity to help the church become more and more the church. Sometimes, we are using our new year to clean up and repair some problem whose time has come. Sometimes, we use our new year to look at ourselves and explore God’s leading and grace. Sometimes, we are looking beyond problems and using the new year to try something new and different that will help us become what we feel God is leading us to become. Every now and then, there has been a new year when we haven’t had to do clean up and haven’t planned new initiatives—those have been rest years, something like the Jubilee year the OT sets for the people of Israel.

Each of these approaches to the new year has its excitement and requirements and blessings and setbacks. Each requires pastor and church to focus and work and gives us a direction and goal to properly harness our energy. Each helps us define and express our nature as believers and churches. Each helps shape not just our present ministry but also our future ministry.

As pastor, I have a vital part in the whole process. I am paid to focus on the church. My calling and my position give me the luxury of being able to focus most of my time and energy on the work we are doing together. I become the cheerleader, the analyst, the encourager, the teacher. And so the new year always brings new demands, new directions, new things to do and try. Since a healthy church isn’t just doing the same old stuff every year, my role as pastor means that each year, I have to be looking at new and different stuff, challenging myself and the church to make the best of the year to come.

I know that by the middle of next May, we will all be ready for a break—but right now in September, we are at the beginning of a new year, filled with excitement and possibility. Happy New Year!

May the peace of God be with you.

HONESTLY

We were discussing a possible addition to our church’s official board. One possibility was mentioned. Since I was relatively new and didn’t really know people, I let the others carry the discussion. In the course of the conversation, one of the people suggested that we not include that person because they had two personal habits that might cause problems: they liked to gossip and liked even more “telling more than they knew.” I suspect these days, they might have been described as purveyors of fake news.

I do have to be careful here. I am a preacher—and preachers make a lot of use of stories. I confess to tailoring my stories to some degree. Sometimes, details need to be obscured so no one recognizes the people involved—because most of my ministry has happened in a limited geographical area that is a big consideration. Sometimes, though, I edit the story to make it fit better with the sermon theme or to make me look a bit less inept or stupid. There is truth in the story as presented but how much depends on the sermon needs and how much sleep I had.

There have always been issues with personal honesty, even within the church. People make claims that are blatantly false to anyone in the know and go on to defend those claims vigorously, even to the point of attacking those who disagree. I like to think that some of the people doing this sort of thing aren’t actually lying—they are just mistaken and because of their personality, they need to defend what they believe it right.

But there are others whom I am pretty sure know what they are saying is wrong and keep saying it and defending it because doing so advances them. They might gain power, followers, notoriety, money or some other benefit. When the person doing this is an advertiser or a politician, I can almost understand the dishonesty. They are getting paid to be dishonest and most of us don’t actually believe what they say anyway.

When it is a member of the faith doing this, whether pastor or layperson, I tend to be more upset and even angry. Honesty is one of the basic requirements of an ethical and faithful life. If we can’t trust a person to be honest about one area of their life, how can we trust them to be honest about their claims about their faith?

But the painful truth is that our whole culture suffers when people are knowingly dishonest. No matter what the purpose of the lie, it undermines the basic trust that a culture depends on. When a culture allows whole groups of people to lie with impunity, it allows itself to drift into a state where anything goes. Soon, we come to the place where we prefer the lies to the truth. We want to be lied to, since the lies are generally prettier and more comforting than the truth. We might know that it is a lie, but it is a nice lie and we begin to prefer the lie to the truth.

When people who speak the truth become the targets of anger and even persecution; when those who knowing lie are seen as heroes; when right becomes an inconvenience to be hidden behind a more convenient lie, we are all in trouble. The lie works in the short term, but eventually, the sea will rise, the air will choke us, the economy will collapse, the preacher will be caught in immorality, the victim will demand revenge, the pyramid scheme will collapse, the partisan manoeuvring will be seen for what it is.

While more painful and difficulty, honesty does work better. The Truth is not just one of the foundations of the Christian faith—it is also a foundation of a healthy culture. Unfortunately, our western culture seems to have abandoned both the Truth and truth itself, preferring the temporary comfort of the lie and the liar. We are paying for this, we will pay even more for it. The price we pay and will pay isn’t worth it.

When liars become our leaders and when lies become our vision, we are doomed. Whether it is the church, the club, the local council, or the nation, when we build on lies, we are building on sand and what we build will collapse. As cliché as it might sound, long term, honesty is the best policy.

May the peace of God be with you.