DRIVING BY OTHER CHURCHES

I spend a lot of time on the road when I am working. The nearest of the churches I serve is an 18 kilometer round trip and the most distant is a 78 kilometer round trip. No matter which building I am going to, I have to pass other churches—some Baptist and some representing other denominations. And because I have lived in this area for a long time, I know quite a bit about those other churches.

And the one fact that stares me in face every time I drive by is that they all have more people in worship that I have. It doesn’t matter which denomination or where they are on the theological spectrum, they have more people in worship than I have. There are a couple of congregations in the area that have fewer but they aren’t on my regular routes so the bottom line is that every congregation I drive by has more people in worship than I have.

Now, being the spiritually mature, balanced and understanding pastor that I am, this doesn’t bother me at all. I can drive by and say a prayer of thanksgiving that they are doing so well and go to my small worship spiritually secure in the knowledge that all is well and that numbers don’t matter and that as long as God is being praised, all is well.

And if you are willing to believe that last paragraph, can I interest you in some land I have for sale? It is a great piece of land, although we need to wait for a six month dry spell so the ground is firm enough to stand on without sinking in too much.

Being the pastor of some of the smallest congregations in our area does bother me, especially since I have been working there for over two years and have managed to slightly decrease our average attendance in that time. Driving by other congregations can be painful.

I drive by the very conservative ones that have clear answers for everything, along with lots and lots of cars in the parking lot and wonder if maybe I need to start giving people clear answers like those groups do. But then, as I think about the people in the pews that I work with week after week, I realize that they neither need nor want clear and rigid answers—their faith needs the freedom to ask questions and seek answers that is such a strong part of our ministry.

I drive by the buildings of more liberal denominations which sometimes question what I consider the basics of the faith—and who also have lots of cars in the parking lot. I wonder of maybe I should copy their approach—but then I remember that most of the people I work with have built their lives and their faith on these foundational realities.

I drive by charismatic congregations, whose music and worship are obviously attracting people, at least according to the number of cars in the lot and I wonder if maybe we need to ditch the organ and piano and traditional hymns for a worship team and choruses projected on the wall—but then I remember that we are lucky to have any musician at all and we do like the older hymns but when possible, we try some new stuff.

So, I drive by. I look at the cars in the lot with some envy and maybe more jealousy that I am comfortable with. I wonder if I am doing something wrong that keeps us small and struggling. I wonder if maybe we should close up shop and go somewhere else. And then I realize that we gather each week for worship and for Bible study because we have found something that works for us. It probably won’t work for others—well, obviously, it doesn’t work for a lot of others because they aren’t there. But what happens in other places might not work for us either—I know that because some have tied hard to fit in there and it just doesn’t work.

So, I drive by and look at the cars and continue to my congregations where we gather as a small group seeking to understand God’s presence and calling and purpose for us. I don’t really know why we are who and what we are—but I do know that we are who and what we are because God has called us together and works in and through us—and for now, that counteracts the parking lot envy enough to keep me going.

May the peace of God be with you.

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WHICH DIRECTION?

These days, I find myself spending a lot of time wondering where I am going, at least in terms of the churches I have been called to pastor. Both the pastorates I work with have great people and lots of potential. While neither of them is actually rolling in money, they both have enough to ensure they have a future, especially since they have made the difficult decision to move to part-time ministry. Both are located in geographical settings where they are basically the only organized expression of the Christian faith. And although both settings don’t have as many people as they used to have, there are still a significant number of people living in the communities served by the congregations and a significant number of them have no real connection with our faith.

I am entering my third year of service with this somewhat unique ministry—and to be totally honest, I have much less idea of what I am supposed to be doing than I did when I began this work. When I began, the process was clear: lead worship and preach on Sunday, prepare and lead Bible study and get to know the people, as well as deal with things like weddings and funerals and so on. In the process of doing that basic stuff, I would work at developing a sense of the churches and communities and help develop an approach to ministry that would help the churches become more healthy.

I have been doing this for a lot of years and used to think that I was pretty good at this process. I listen, observe, ask questions, research and eventually, begin to get a sense not just of what is but of what can be. I work with the church and together, we do what we feel God is calling us to do in the way God is calling us to do it. Generally, by the two year mark, I am starting to develop a fairly well focused sense of the church and its needs.

But instead of having this developing focus, I find myself these days spending a lot of time wondering what I am doing, what I need to be doing, what is needed for the church and what directions we need to be moving in. Since my ministry involves a lot of time in the car, I find myself wondering what I am supposed to be doing a lot during the drives between home and church building. But I also catch myself worrying the question when I am sanding a piece of my woodworking project or preparing a preaching plan or waiting in the line up at the grocery store.

I spend a lot of time on the question because I don’t have an answer. We have a great spirit in both settings—but our numbers are not improving and our average age isn’t decreasing. We are doing some interesting and innovative things but so far, no matter how much we enjoy it, noting much has changed our overall reality. We hear through the grapevine that people in the communities are noticing us and are pleased at what they see, something that hasn’t always been the case in our communities but that hasn’t translated more people coming to worship or special programs.

As individuals, we are learning more and more about our faith and what it means to us and we are learning how to express that faith to each other in better ways. We have been experimenting with a lot of stuff and we are finding stuff that we enjoy and stuff that we don’t really need. Our worship tends to be a bit more worshipful, our Bible study tends to be a bit more significant, our churches seem a bit more churchy—but for all that, we are still small, rural churches caught in a long-term decline. I like to think that the rate of decline has slowed down since we began looking at ourselves but the truth is that the causes of our decline haven’t really changed—we are still basically the same people we were two years ago but we are all two years older.

So, I wonder. What are we supposed to do and where are we supposed to be going and most especially, what am I supposed to be doing as the pastor of these churches?

May the peace of God be with you.

A SUNNY DAY

Sunday morning—a bright, sunny day. While the overnight temperature was below zero, the day promised to warm up. In fact, by the time I was ready to leave for the first of two worship services, it was warm enough that I didn’t feel the need for a topcoat—my suit jacket would be enough for the short distances that I would be walking outside. It was a really nice day, after a longish spell of cloudy, drippy gray days and I was enjoying it to the fullest.

Well, actually, I wasn’t enjoying it to the fullest. Enjoying it to the fullest would probably involve a walk ( or hobble, in my case), a bike ride, a trip to a park or other wilderness area or something like that. Enjoying it to the fullest doesn’t involve having two worship services that keep me inside older, slightly moldy buildings. But that is the reality of most Sundays for me—it’s why I get the big bucks.

Well, actually, it is what I have been called to. And mostly, I am okay with my calling. But I do have to confess that now and then, I kind of wish that I had the option that most church people have—the option of taking the day off and enjoying the sun. I know worship is supposed to be an important part of the week and it is an expression of my gratitude to God and the call to lead God’s people in worship is scared and all that, but honestly, some days, I would like to have a bit more choice.

There are two types of Sundays that make me feel that way. One is the bright, sunny day after a period of drippy days, like the one I described at the beginning of this post. The other kind of day that inspires these feelings is a snowy, windy, blizzard day. I love snow storms—they inspire me. There is nothing better than being out in a snow storm, clearing the driveway or cross country skiing—and the only thing that even comes close to that feeling is sitting inside the warm house, drinking a coffee-hot chocolate blend while watching the snow swirl and twist and pile up, which I seem to be doing more and more of on such days as I get older.

Generally, I get my wish for a day off on the snow storm days. Since I am a braver (dumber?) driver than most church people, I have removed myself from that decision making process and leave it completely to the church. I have served churches long enough to pretty much know what their decision will be just by looking out the window and can actually start enjoying the day before the official phone call.

But bright, sunny days—well, there is no protocol for those days. The roads are clear and dry, the parking lot is open, the building is warm, everything is a go. The members choose whether they will come to worship or visit a friend, take a walk, go for a bike ride, go out for lunch. Bright, sunny days in the spring tend to have about the same attendance as the Sundays when there are flurries but not enough to invoke the cancelation process. People stay away for different reasons and different people stay away on different days but the weather makes a significant difference on attendance—and really great days have about the same effect as borderline days.

Except for me. I do get the occasional snow day, which I enjoy. But the bright, sunny days after several gray days, well, no matter how much I suggest to the deacons and the whole church, we don’t have a policy about them. We aren’t going to cancel when the weather is so nice that being inside a stuffy, somewhat moldy building seems wrong. That strikes me as a bit of a double standard and maybe even discriminatory against people whose constitution requires an adequate amount of sun but that is the way it is I guess.

And in the end, I probably don’t actually want the day off. I know that when we have a snow day, I am disappointed that we aren’t having worship and so I would probably feel the same way about a worship service cancelled because the day is too nice. But I like to play with the idea anyway.

May the peace of God be with you.

FOLLOWING JESUS

I have been doing a lot of thinking these days about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. And mixed in with the questions and ideas and possibilities was a nagging and annoying thought that just wouldn’t go away. I would much rather spend time on other questions but this one keeps popping up both in my thinking and in my reading. And it probably should keep popping up because it is actually an important question.

The question that annoys me and stops me is this: If I want to follow Jesus, which Jesus do I follow?” It might seem like a pointless question—there is only one Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, who lived, died and rose to life, at least according to my sort of middle of the road theology. Unfortunately, the reality isn’t as simple as that. There are a variety of Jesus models out there. Basically, Jesus has been edited and redefined by everyone and their neighbour.

So, we have the gentle and mild Jesus who tells us to love everyone and be nice to each other but who can’t really seem to get any traction in dealing with drug addiction, family violence and the endemic lack of plaguing our culture.

We could switch to the militant Jesus whose tough, no nonsense approach demands obedience and is backed up by the threat of hell. This Jesus confronts the painful realities of human life with a big stick—but doesn’t offer much in the way of compassion and comfort.

Or we could follow one of the innumerable cultural versions of Jesus, the Jesus figures who support any culturally sacred idea that we want supported. There is a Jesus for carnivores and vegans; a Jesus for savers and spenders; a Jesus for hunters and animal rights activists; a Jesus for activists and pacifists. We live in a glorious age where there is a Jesus for everyone, a Jesus who can be counted on to support whatever we want supported and to condemn whatever (and whoever) we want condemned.

This multiplication of Jesus isn’t anything new—our culture might have a bit of an edge on the actual numbers of alternate Jesus models but there have always been multiple versions of Jesus. Even before the actual incarnation, there was serious disagreement over the nature and person of Jesus. The Old Testament prophets predicted one Messiah and the popular religious thinking wanted another.

When Jesus was teaching and preaching, there was serious disagreement over who he really was. Some saw him as a miracle worker who could feed people for free. Some saw a political liberator. Some saw a threat to the status quo.

After he died and came back, the number of versions increased. For some, he becomes a mythical figure whose life and resurrection probably didn’t happen but whose words have some great stuff behind them. Others see him as a shining example of what people who really know themselves can do. Over the years, more than a few have even claimed that Jesus is exactly like them because they are actually Jesus.

And in the midst of all of these confusing and often conflicting claims and counter claims, I want to follow Jesus. Would the real Jesus please stand up? But this isn’t a TV quiz show and the real Jesus isn’t going to stand up to the applause of the audience and the rest of the contestants who willingly reveal their deception and congratulate the real Jesus.

Finding the real Jesus among the fakes and frauds is both an important and demanding task. For me, the real process began many years ago with an interchange in a class room in Kenya. A couple of the students were setting me straight on the real Jesus and I found myself struggling to answer them. I was pretty sure that were wrong but didn’t know for sure how to deal with what they were saying.

I made a suggestion to the class that I at least have appreciated and have been using every since. I suggested that we shelve the actual discussion for a bit while we all took the time to re-read the four Gospels, which are our primary source material about Jesus. Where that that went is the focus of my next post.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE MYSTERY

 

I have always loved science. I can remember as a kid of perhaps 10-12 or so conducting an experiment. I put a bottle of water on the window ledge of my bedroom in the winter and recording each morning whether it was frozen or not—we lived in an uninsulated house with no central heating so the water actually froze some nights. An early Christmas gift was microscope, which I wore out looking at stuff.

I want to know about stuff and understand stuff and love the question “why”, along with its siblings and cousins like “How” and “what” and on and on. Discovering how something works makes my day—and it is even greater if I discover why something works wrong and can figure out how to make it work better. It seems that I have an essential curiosity that pushes me to understand and define and describe and explain.

I bring this drive with me to the church and my faith. As a pastor, I am always examining the church, seeking to understand it. All through my ministry, I have done experiments in the church to make it more effective and more church. Let me quickly assure you that always, the experiments have been done with the informed consent and enthusiastic participation of the church—we all know what we are doing and why. We just embarked on a series of experiments with our worship in one of the sets of churches I serve. We generally like our worship but we want to see if there are things that will make it even more worshipful.

In my personal faith, I have the same drive to understand and explain and even to experiment. I want to understand the fullness of my faith. I want to know what is true and what is fake and what is possible and what isn’t possible. I am sometimes in trouble with colleagues in ministry and people in the church because I can and do ask difficult questions that undercut or repudiate some of their cherished theories. I ask blunt questions about “miracles” people tell me about—the fact that someone’s cousin’s nephew’s girlfriend’s garbage man’s acquaintance knew someone who lived in the same city as someone who wrote about a miraculous healing he heard about isn’t sufficient validation for me to rejoice in the wonder of God’s works.

I approach everything with an analytical, critical, searching attitude. I want to know and understand and asking questions, analysing and studying are basic to me and my faith. But for all of that, I realized a long time ago that there are limits to what I can learn and understand. I can learn a lot about God and faith and the church. But there comes a point where I can’t learn anymore or understand any more. I realized early on in my faith life that I am human and God is God and there is a gap there that I cannot get beyond. I cannot squeeze the whole of God into my finite being.

I learn as much as I can. I study and meditate and experiment and develop theories—but at some point, I always come up against the reality that there is a point where my abilities fail. The fullness of God is beyond me. I can understand the love of God. I can observe and describe examples of the love of God. I can experiment with the love of God. (Does God still love me if I…). But I can’t figure out why God loves. Sure, I can get theological and say that God loves because that is his nature—but that is playing with words not real understanding.

God is God and even though I have devoted a good part of my life to understanding God, there is a reality there—as a finite human, I am not capable of understanding completely the infinite God. And I am okay with that reality. I want to know and understand and I will continue to study and observe and experiment. But I am also a person of faith. I may not be able to understand why God would choose to love all of humanity including me—but I can and do believe it. I don’t need to understand everything because I trust God.

May the peace of God be with you.

PRAYER

In both of the collections of congregations that I serve, our worship service includes a prayer time. We do the traditional pastoral prayer followed by the Lord’s prayer. But in both, we have introduced some variations. First, I don’t do a long pastoral prayer—it is short and focused on something growing out of the sermon. We also include a time of silence for people to make their own prayers. Normally, this comes at the beginning of the prayer time but now and then, we have it in the middle of the pastoral prayer.

We also encourage people to share prayer requests with the congregation which I then incorporate into the pastoral prayer. Occasionally, we have a Sunday when we get no such requests. Those are unusual because we generally have a few requests for prayer. Some come from within the congregation and others come from people outside, requests passed on to us because even people outside the church want prayer.

As a pastor, I am obviously in the prayer business. I pray a lot both publically and privately. I do Bible studies and other courses on prayer. I write about prayer. I encourage people to pray. But for all of that, I have to confess that I am still working on understanding what prayer really is.

You see, most times when people talk to me about prayer, they seem to want something. They want God to know that they have this need that they want God to take care of, generally is a specified way. There is an unspoken assumption that it we can get enough people to pray for us about the request, God is more likely to answer with the answer that we want.

And so while we are divinely encouraged to bring all our needs to God, it does seem to me that a lot of people view prayer as some sort of spiritual version of 911, something that it great to have but which we only use when there is an emergency. We pray when we are in trouble and need God’s help.

I don’t want to take away from the right and ability to approach God in prayer when I or others am in need but the more I think about it, the more I wonder is maybe we have allowed ourselves to take prayer down a side road and in the process of following the side road, have missed the main road of prayer. I wonder if we have settled for a stripped down version of prayer when we could just as easily have the full-featured version.

The full-featured version may be hinted at in Genesis 3. There, in the midst of the tragic story of sin entering the creation, we find the story of God walking in the garden in the evening (Genesis 1.8). Now, I managed, with great effort, to pull off a shaky “D” in Hebrew so what I am going to say about the passage comes from others, whose ability to understand Biblical Hebrew obviously far surpasses mine. But many commentators suggest that the underlying grammar suggests that this walk was an habitual thing, something that God did every evening.

My conjecture would be that God walked in the garden with the man and the woman and they talked and shared. The man and the woman were praying. I suspect there wasn’t a lot of “Give me, grant this, fix this, do this, heal that, remove this”—there was likely some of that during these evening walks but mostly, I think, God and the humans enjoyed each other’s company and shared or walked together quietly as people who know and love each other do so comfortably and well.

That has always been my vision and goal of prayer, to be able to be comfortable in the awareness of the presence of God. I can ask for things if I want. I can make comments about this and that. I can ask questions. I can tell a joke. I can enjoy a comfortable silence.

I am definitely not there in my prayers. I would like to be and I work at being there but I have a ways to go—my introversion means that I don’t do this well with people and it is much harder with God. But I want to walk in the garden so I keep working at it.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE EXPERIMENT

I did something recently that I haven’t done too often in my preaching career. I used the same sermon in three different congregations. Normally, I try to match the sermon to the needs of the congregation, something which requires different approaches even with the same Scriptures and themes.

But recently, well, using one sermon is three different places just sort of evolved. The sermon began as part of a preaching plan for the year round pastorate that I serve. But since the other pastorate has closed down for three months, I have been doing some fill in preaching for another local congregation. Rather than put together a whole new sermon, I wrote the original sermon with them in mind as well as the regular congregation.

And then, after getting back from vacation and picking up all the pieces and getting back into things, I realized it was also the week to prepare for the monthly worship service we have at the pastorate that has closed for the winter. When we made this plan last November, I had visions of preparing a special message that would fit there and help us celebrate being back together after several weeks.

But the time just wasn’t there—nor was the energy or creatively necessary to pull things together. I expect that playing with grandchildren may have depleted my creativity storehouse, although a sleepless night on the flight back home probably didn’t help. Given the situation, the special sermon became the already written sermon. I felt a bit guilty, but not guilty enough to force myself to write a whole new sermon.

There were certainly some minor differences in the delivered sermons. In one congregation, I was more tied to the manuscript because one of the worshippers is quite deaf and follows the sermon with the aid of a printed copy of the sermon so I can’t ad lib as much as I might like. In the other two, I could wander a bit. But in the end, all three congregations got the same basic message, with the same illustrations and even the same hand gestures.

Because my mind generally works in a structured and questioning way, I began to look at this as an experiment: I was going to see how one sermon played out in three different congregations. I would look for differences in response—how well people listened, what they said, how many slept and so on. Mind you, the experiment would be quite limited in scope since the process of leading worship and preaching takes most of my energy and focus. Couple that with the fact that data recording isn’t really possible in that context and I had a very unscientific experiment. If it had been offered as a project in one of the classes I have taught on research methodology, I would have rejected it.

But over the course of two Sundays, I preached basically the same sermon three times. My biased and unscientific observation is that it went over fairly well. People seemed to respond to the basic theme; they responded well to the humour I used to drive the point home and a significant portion of each congregation made positive comments about the message.

It probably helped that all three congregations have a lot in common coming out of the fact that they are all small, struggling congregations wondering about their future. My sermon writing mind was probably thinking about all three on some levels when I was writing the message. And the theme touched on an issue that is pretty common to most Christian congregations and which has been an issue for all three at some point in their recent history.

I think, though, that in the end, the sermon worked not because of my unconscious mind pulling all three congregations together; not because I had great illustrations; not because I am such a great orator—in the end, the sermon worked in all three places because I did my best in the circumstances and the Holy Spirit did the rest.

I have discovered that this is an important faith reality: I am responsible before God for doing the best I can in any given situation. But in the end, the results are the work of the Holy Spirit, who can and does take both my best and my worst and accomplish God’s will. It is better for all though, when I give God my best than when I give him less than my best.

May the peace of God be with you.

HAPPY NEW YEAR

As holidays go, our western New Year is a pretty strange and maybe even pointless holiday.  To start with, there isn’t really any purpose or point beyond marking the passage of an arbitrary passage of time.  Other cultures in the past have had annual celebrations that actually  make sense:  the change of seasons; the annual flooding of the Nile river; the beginning of harvest or planting seasons; annual astronomical events or anniversaries of special events.  But in the west, we have a holiday stuck in the middle of a temporal nowhere, remembered only because the calendar says remember it.

To make matters worse, it is just a week after one of the biggest cultural events we have.  Whether we celebrate Christmas or some other December party, we arrive at New Year’s pretty much worn out and somewhat broke.

All that means that we don’t have much of a sense of how to celebrate the holiday.  When the new year is marked by the beginning of planting, we celebrate by planting.  When it marks the harvest, we celebrate by harvesting and feasting.  If it marks the anniversary of some important event, we can celebrate and remember the event.  But for us, well, we have this day when the most significant thing is that the old calendar has run out of days.

As a culture, we try to celebrate.  We are encouraged to do a review of the past year and resolve to do better next year.  We commit to making changes:  lose the Christmas weight; start Christmas shopping earlier; be a nicer person; give up some vice or another.  We have a party.  But in the end, we likely don’t change much, probably because the whole thing is so artificial and contrived.

I am not calling for a change or anything like.  This is more of a “Isn’t it strange” post.  I suppose I could do some research and discover why we ended up with such a strange and unremarkable time for a recognition of the new year–but up to this point, I haven’t been interested enough to put the effort in to the process.  As it stands now, I don’t expect to develop it anytime soon.  Maybe, when I someday actually retire it will make a good project to stave off boredom.

But for now, I will simply point out how strange a choice for a new year recognition and wish you a Happy New Year.  Now, I have to go and change the calendars.

May the peace of God be with you.

CHISELLING OFF THE NAME

When I was in school, I had a serious ambivalence about history.  I had some serious dread associated with the topic partly because most history teachers have this thing about students remembering dates.  Because numbers tend not to stick in my mind, I was always getting dates wrong.  On the other hand, I found the narrative of history fascinating and loved looking at connections and relationships and how actions in one place and time affected actions in another place and time.

During one of the course I took in history, we were looking at ancient Egypt. Fortunately, the dates for that course were not particularly important and I could really focus on the narrative.  One interesting fact I discovered was that when a new pharaoh or dynasty took over, one of their first official acts in office was often to send out crews of workers whose job was to chisel the name of the previous ruler off all the public and private monuments that they could reach.  Sometimes the name was simply chipped off and a blank space left–and other times, the new ruler had his name cut into the monument.

I thought at the time that that was hilarious.  The ruler was trying to do away with the past, probably trying to wipe out the existence of a predecessor just by removing a name.  No matter what the new ruler did, someone would remember the previous ruler and depending on what the ruler did, would laugh or applaud the vain efforts to get rid of the past.

Well, skip ahead.  We live in a whole new era, an era where we have a deeper understanding of history and people and how things work.  But we are still trying to chip the names of the monuments–or in some cases, removing the monuments.  When we discover that our heroes of the past had feet of clay, we often feel that we have to remove them from the historical record.

In the nearest city to where I live, for example, there is a statue of one of the city’s founders.  He was a significant figure in the history of the city and our province and so his name is everywhere.  But he was also responsible for some significant evil, causing the death of a great many native people.

We don’t actually know what to do with such people.  Does the evil they did outweigh the good or does the good overcome the evil?  Do we build them a statue and name things after them or do we remove the statue and change all the names?  Maybe we are not all that much different from the ancient Egyptians trying to alter history by chipping names off monuments.

People are people.  The greatest are sinful and the worst are good somehow.  The man who founds a city also persecuted natives.  The politician who did so much to help the nation also owned slaves.  The preacher who brought help to many also abused others.  The drug lord funded a children’s hospital.  The war criminal deeply loved his wife and children.  The liberator of the nation was also prejudiced against outsiders.  These are realities coming from the heart of humanity–we are both good and bad.

We probably need to discover how to live with that reality.  We need to learn how to accept and praise the good while accepting and denouncing the bad.  We need to learn how to balance our accounts so that both the good and the bad have their rightful place.  Some people deserve a statue or monument for their good–but their evil also needs to be recognized and condemned.  As we learn how to deal with this human reality in history, we can then help ourselves deal with it in our own lives today.

Chiselling names off monuments; erecting and then removing statues; rewriting history books to fit our cultural and personal desires are all rather expensive and pointless ways of trying to deal with an essential human reality:  the best of us are going to do bad stuff and the worst of us are going to do good stuff.  God knows how to deal with our reality:  he show us all the same grace in Jesus Christ.  I expect that in the end, our answer to the dilemma involves learning how to be as graceful as God.

May the peace of God be with you.

SEARCHING FOR PERFECTION

One of the constant realities of my work as a pastor is the connections I have made with victims of childhood abuse.  As I have worked with people who have suffered physical, emotional and sexual abuse during their early years, I have become deeply aware of how painful and traumatic such abuse is.  It can and does affect an individual for the rest of their lives.  It affects the ability to form healthy relationships; it affects the ability to develop healthy self-esteem; it may even affect the ability to live a long life.

Any kind of abuse at any age is wrong and evil.  And for that reason, I am hopeful about the developing trend for abuse victims to feel able to report their abuse and name names.  As long as abusers of any kind can do their evil without fear of the consequences, abuse will flourish.  Fear of being named may not change an abuser’s basic drives but it might prevent at least some of them some from abusing some people some of the time–and while that may not seem like a great victory, it is a victory for the potential victim who doesn’t get abused.

So, my hope and prayer is that our culture continues this recent trend to empower victims of all kinds of abuse to speak out.  Evil flourishes when it is hidden in the dark–shining light in the dark corners of life is a positive and powerful force that benefits everyone.   Taking away the power that fear and concealment provide to abusers and giving it to those who need protection from abuse is an essential part of changing our world.

But I have to say that I do find one part of the developing process interesting, at least from a theological point of view.  While there are some people whose outing as abusers surprises no one, there are other situations where everyone is surprised that so and so could ever do something like that.

For a variety of reasons, we assume that certain people would never do anything bad.  They are such nice people or they play such nice people in the media or that have such a great job or wonderful family or they have lots of money or are so smart.  We assume that because they are X they could never do evil–another application of the halo effect (see my post for Nov. 24/17).

And because we assume some people are incapable of such terrible things, we have one of two reactions.  Sometimes, we simply deny the reports–they accuser has to have made them up for some evil reason of their own.  But mostly, we believe the report and end up disappointed and become even more cynical–if we can’t trust so and so, who can we trust?

Theologically, we shouldn’t actually be surprised.  We can be disappointed and hurt and upset–but not surprised.  The Christian faith–and most other faiths, for that matter–is very clear on the fact that there are no perfect people.  As Paul puts it in  Romans 3.23, “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (NIV).  All of humanity shares this fatal reality:  the best of us harbour dark and evil sides and the worst of us harbour light and good sides.

And that means that all of us are guilty of something.  Dig deep enough into someone’s life and you will find the darkness and the evil.  This is a reality well known to politicians seeking to ruin an opponent, investigative reporters looking for a big story and theologians seeking to understand the world.  We all have a dark and evil side and we all will either act on that darkness or fight it for our whole lives.

When people act out their dark and evil side, it really shouldn’t be a surprise.  It can be wrong; it can be criminal; it can be devastating; it will have consequences and it must be dealt with appropriately–but it really shouldn’t be a surprise.  It is a reality of the human condition, a reality that God recognizes and seeks to deal with through the live, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

May the peace of God be with you.