FACTS AND FIGURES

I like facts, things that can be proven with clear and understandable rationale.  When someone makes a claim, I want to see their facts.  I am not content with “Someone said…” or “I heard…”–I want verifiable facts that I can examine and study and compare with other facts and figures.  One study or one report really isn’t enough for me.

As a result, I tend to be a bit of a skeptic when it comes to a lot of the claims people make.  The latest miracle cold remedy?  Let me see the results of several double-blind studies conducted by reputable scientists and I might consider taking it.  Otherwise, I am going to rely on cough drops and warn ginger ale.  I don’t actually have studies on those but they both help me.

In many area of my life, this desire for facts and figures and verifiable studies helps me a lot.  I am not likely to take questionable medication just because someone publishes a glowing testimony.  I am not inclined to participate in a get rich quick scheme pushed by the latest charismatic financial guru.  I probably won’t buy the latest device to reduce gas consumption that has been suppressed by gas companies for years.

On the other hand, I am going to take the cholesterol lowering medication that my doctor prescribed–I have seen the studies, I know my numbers and the promised effects make scientific sense.  I am still going to get my numbers checked regularly and watch for the side effects.  I also eat a lot of fiber, since that also shows good numbers in a variety of good studies.

But there is one area of my life where this desire and love of verifiable facts and figures tends to get me in trouble.  I am a Christian and in fact have spent my working life working for and with Christians–and I have always been amazed by how few Christians share my love of facts, figures, studies and verifiable information.

One story stands out.  We were sharing in a Bible study many years ago and the talk turned to miracles.  One lady was excited to tell of a miracle she knew about.  A friend of hers was talking to someone else whose cousin’s former school classmate read of a miracle that happened to a friend of the writers’ ex-boyfriend’s pen pal.  As far as she was concerned, this was just one more example of how God still does miracles.

As she was talking, I was struggling.  As the story got  more and more involved and as the layers of distant relationships got deeper and deeper, I knew there would be a problem.  If I let it stand, my facts and figures side would gripe and complain and whine.  But if I questioned the truth of this miracle, I would be guilty of questioning the Holy Spirit, maybe even showing once again that I didn’t really have faith in God.

Well, I questioned–I mostly can’t help that.  And, according to the lady, if I can’t believe such a clear report of miracles, maybe I need to re-examine my faith. Now, I didn’t and don’t actually deny that God does miracles–I just like my miracles to be clear miracles, things that can be verified.

But the longer I am part of the faith, the more I realize that too many people think faith needs to be divorced from reality.  Any claim that a person makes needs to be treated as the gospel truth.  People like me who ask questions about the claims are mostly seen as unfaithful deniers of the truth.

But in the end, I have to be true to who I am.  And fortunately for me, God endorses my approach.  Jesus said in Matthew 7.15, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” (NIV).  The apostle John says in I John 4.1, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”  (NIV)

So, I am not going to immediately take a cold medicine because someone says it works.  I am not going to rush to invest my money because someone says they can give 300% returns.  And I am not going to blindly accept a report of God working. I am going to test them all before I commit to something I will regret or which will damage my faith.

May the peace of God be with you.

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THE SERMON

For a variety of reasons, preparing sermons is a lot easier and faster for me now than it was when I first started preaching.  When I preached my sermon over 45 years ago, the preparation  process was long, agonizing and painful.  I struggled to get an idea, worried and fretted to get some substance to the idea, poured over commentaries to understand the Scripture, thought about the passage and theme consciously and unconsciously.  While I don’t think I ever actually reached the seminary recommended one hour of study for every minute of preaching, I probably came close in those early years.

Over the years, the process has become easier.  I don’t actually need to do as much research–I have read and written on enough of the Bible in my ministry that research is more to check and make sure I am on the right track, not a search for the real meaning.  I learned early in ministry that a good sermon must touch the lives of the people I work with and that insight removed a lot of the stress and time associated with finding topics and developing them–because my sermons are based on the real needs of real people in real churches, I generally have a lot more ideas than I need and the occasional struggle I have in that area concerns which idea to use for this series.

As a result of a couple of really stressful and busy weeks, I discovered that I can go from a vague idea to a finished, ready to preach sermon manuscript in about 90 minutes, as long as I am preaching in English–desperation sermons in Kiswahili take about twice that.  Now, the end result isn’t always pretty, doesn’t have the style or polish I would like but as the old saying goes, “They will preach” and some days, that is a major accomplishment.

Since I am a part time pastor for two different church settings and need two different sermons each week, I have a shorter preparation process than I would like.  But I still put in a significant block of my part time hours preparing sermons.  I still work hard on the process, even if it takes a shorter time than most recommend and that I would like under ideal conditions.  I take preaching seriously and give every sermon the best I can give it before I take it to the pulpit.

In one of the pastorates, we introduced a new element in our worship service at the request of the congregation.  When  I finish reading the Scriptures, there is an opportunity for people to ask questions or make comments about the Scriptures or anything somewhat related to the Scriptures.  Many times, these are short questions for clarification, brief words of appreciation for the message of the passage or personal applications of the verses.

But occasionally, the questions and comments take off as the congregation begins seriously getting into the passage.  We begin with questions, move on to comments and other questions, slip into personal illustrations, follow faint tracks into other issues, bounce ideas off each other, ignite deep thoughts in other members.  The discussion goes on and on.  My job is to try to answer some of the questions (remember the years of commentary reading and other research?), moderate the discussion, help people clarify their thoughts and encourage those who obviously want to speak but are hesitant for some reason.

Time slips by as we work together discovering the Holy Spirit’s message for us from the chosen passage.  And one level of my mind is monitoring my watch, which is lying on the pulpit before me–and at some point, I realize that the sermon I worked so hard to prepare isn’t going to get preached today.  Sometimes, I don’t get to it at all.  More often, I get to strip it down to a Readers’ Digest version.  But all the work, all the effort–well, I could have skipped it.

But I don’t and won’t.  I love the Sundays when the discussion takes off.  It says to me that the Scripture and direction I was working on have really touched something in the congregation and the work I put into sermon preparation has become background for the congregation as we together prepare the real sermon for that day.  I may or may not ever use the sermon I prepared as I prepared it–but as a congregation, we had a real sermon, prepared by us for us through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE BIBLE STUDY

After being on vacation for a couple of weeks, it was time to get back to work.  The first official task was leading Bible Study.  Well, actually, the first official task was preparing the material for the Bible study that would begin at 10:00am the first day back at work.  This particular study had been shut down for the summer and my plan was that over the summer, I would use the more relaxed work time to get the new Bible study ready.

Of course, as with all plans, this one fell apart very quickly.  Early in the summer, I did some initial research and created a file on the computer with some notes, planning on getting back to it soon.  But, well, there was a week of vacation early in the summer and I needed to take some time off to compensate for the ballooning overtime hours and there was the wedding that had to be done and some meetings and some pastoral visits.  And somehow, I arrived at the first day back at work with some notes in a file on the computer.

Fortunately, I had enough time to beat the notes into some sort of shape before I left.  I arrived early, as usual–and someone was there before me, which was bit of a surprise.  Even more surprising was the fact that I didn’t know the people–they were coming to check out the Bible study from a community a few kilometers away.

Before I could get to the door, another car arrived and as I was greeting them, another car arrived–this one with a couple who were going away for a while and wanted to let me know that they were going to be away.  As I was praying with them, others arrived and before I could get the door unlocked, we had a crowd standing around.

I finally unlocked the door and we got seated, the kettle boiling and we settled down to catching up on the summer, meeting the visitors, discussing my vacation and greeting everyone as they came in, including another visitor.  Even with several of our regulars being away, we had a full house by the time we got started.

We got down to work–and even with three new people, the Bible study worked like it always has.  We talked, got off topic, looked at interesting and significant questions and comments, did some of the material I had prepared, followed side trails, raised issues, had disagreements, got confused and occasionally had no idea how we got to where we ended up.  The new people–well, instead of sitting there bewildered by our chaotic process, the three new people jumped right in acting as if they had been there from the beginning.  Their questions and comments were as thought provoking, as pertinent and as prone to taking us off course as those of any veteran of the study.

In the end, the material I had rushed together provided lots of stuff to work with.  It started discussion, answered and raised questions and covered the topic that the group has wanted to look at.  I began the study wondering if I had enough material to fill in the time–and then part way through, began to worry that I had too much material.  In the end, we finished the topic, which was meant to be a one week study to deal with a specific issue before we went on to another topic.

As I left after the study, I realized something.  I missed the Bible study–or rather, I missed the interaction with the group of people.  While I am officially the leader of the study, practically, we have evolved an approach to Bible study that allows all of us to teach and learn, question and answer, confuse and enlighten–and do it all in an atmosphere where everyone has respect and appreciation for each other.  We don’t agree on everything–and we are comfortable leaving the disagreement on the table without trying to win the point.

I am pretty sure that if I had showed up at the study and confessed that I hadn’t been able to get anything done on the study topic, we would have still had a good Bible study because the group would have taken over.  I may have to do that next week–I still have to put together the material for the next topic.

May the peace of God be with you.

NOTHING TO SAY

During one of our times working in Kenya, I was team teaching a course for potential teachers.  Both the mission agency we worked for and the church we were working with recognized the need to develop qualified local teachers for the pastoral training school.  So, a group of pastors and other church workers were identified as possibilities and were brought together for the course.

Since the whole purpose of the course was to identify potential teachers, all the participants had to do some very practical assignments:  develop a course outline, organize a lecture schedule and teach at least one session from their prepared course.  It was during one of the practise teaching sessions that I saw another side of one of my Kenyan friends and got a perfect story for aspiring preachers and teachers all over the world.

My friend was a senior, well respected and capable church leader–but he always appeared to me to be a bit on the stiff side.  While I had seen him laugh and joke, that was only in small private groups.  In public, he was serious, sober and to a lot a people, a bit intimidating.  But during one of the practise teaching sessions, his other side came out.

The student who was practise teaching was well meaning, capable, and eventually became a very good teacher but that particular day, his anxiety or lack or caffeine or some combination of factors caused him to attempt to deliver one of the most boring and pointless teaching sessions of the whole course.  As he droned on, I was getting more and more disappointed–I had taught this student before and had been impressed by his abilities.  I was sure that he would be good but this day, he succeeded in putting at least half the class to sleep.

Except for my friend, who decided that enough was enough.  He began coughing–at first, it was a barely noticeable cough, as would be fitting in a real class.  But it began to escalate to the point where he was shaking his seat, waking up the students around him and eventually falling on the floor, causing the rest of the students and the instructors to scurry around trying to help:  getting water, opening the classroom door for fresh air, helping his sit up right.  Soon, everyone as involved, except for the student teacher, who kept right on with his lesson plan, even when it was clear that no one, not even the instructors, was listening.

My friend was fine–he was faking the coughing fit to make a point.  The point was that this student teacher wasn’t paying any attention to the class, making his efforts to teach worthless.  He wasn’t teaching a class–he was talking for the sake of talking.  The student teacher had absolutely nothing to say to the class but was determined to say it anyway.

I wonder how many sincere and searching believers have sat through the same thing Sunday after Sunday.  They gather to hear a word from the Lord, some comfort or direction from God and get nothing but pointless words from a preacher who has no connection with them or their lives.  Instead of creating a deeper relationship with God and a better grasp of their faith, the emptiness of the words becomes an irritating and pointless noise, good only as background for a nap or a good daydream.

Good teachers and good preachers must have a deep respect and love for their listeners.  That respect and love is necessary because it pushes us to discover what these respected and loved people are looking for and what the God who also loves and respects them has to say for them.  We who teach and preach stand between the people and God and in the exercise of our gifts, we seek to open them to God and interpret God’s love and grace to them.  Without a firm connection to both God and the people we are called to teach, we are wasting the people’s time, our time and God’s time.

In the end, if we feel that the message can be delivered to anyone at anytime and they have to listen, we are doing exactly what the student preacher did.  We are called to deliver specific messages from God to specific people at specific times–and if we aren’t doing that, maybe someone in the audience will fake a coughing fit to show us the error of our ways.

May the peace of God be with you.

TODAY

            I have been suffering through the effects of a cold or something:  coughing, stuffy nose, mild headache, low-grade fever.  I don’t much like being sick and since I have had a run of almost a year without a cold, fever or anything more than an upset stomach from eating too much of the wrong stuff, being sick now seems even worse. So, I am sitting here at the computer, hacking my lungs out, feeling feverish and using up large amounts of tissues.  I am very aware of not feeling good.

So, does that awareness of what I am feeling right now mean that I am truly living in the now?  I would much rather not be living in this particular “now”.  I much prefer the now that will come in a few days when the hacking, fever and headache will be gone.  The now of a few days before the whole things started isn’t a bad second choice.  Unfortunately, I am stuck here, tied to the now by the tissue box, the thermometer and social stigma that would be focused on me if I went to a public place broadcasting my whatever this is.

But even when I am not sick, I am not sure how much I live fully in the now.  Since some of my now is determined by the past, things that generally need to be dealt with in some way, and by the need to do certain things to be ready for tomorrow, a lot of my now time is spent looking back or looking ahead.

I suppose that I could get myself into a mental and spiritual state where all I can see and focus on is the now.  I could detach from the past and shut off the future–but then, I wouldn’t be able to write this post, since I work a week ahead on my blog.  I would have to focus totally on how miserable I feel.  True, I could enjoy looking out the living room window at the trees and tidal flats and the lawn which doesn’t need mowing right now.  I could focus on the ever-present pain in my knee which is reminding me it is time to move it a bit to relieve the pain.

But I already do that stuff, along with lots of other in the now stuff.  Since I am on dog duty, I am always listening to make sure that he isn’t getting in trouble outside.  I am continually scanning the tree line looking for the deer.  I am aware of the vague idea flitting around in my mind that may become a sermon idea or blog post at some point but which right now is too vague and flighty to do more than notice.

I live in the now–but I also live as a result of the past and in anticipation of the future.  The issue for me, I think, is to keep a proper balance.  Too much focus on the pain and difficulty and triumph of the past takes me to places where I have already been and probably stops me from going where I need to go–I begin to  be like some counselling clients who can only see the pain of the past.  Too much focus on tomorrow likely means I am trying to live in an imaginary land where everything is perfect and I don’t have to deal with yesterday or today–again, like some counselling clients whose future is rosy and perfect and completely unrealistic.  And of course, too much focus on today means that I have no idea why I am ignoring a specific person and will likely retire at 110 because I don’t have a pension.

As in so much of life, the balance is the issue.  I am affected by yesterday, I am affecting tomorrow–and I do it all from today.  I stand (well, sit actually) in the here and now, looking both ahead and back to see how the here and now is affected by yesterday and what potential affect it might have on tomorrow.  I can enhance the here and now by how I deal with yesterday–and I can probably enhance tomorrow by how I deal with today.

So, I will be aware of my hacking and fever while looking ahead to the day when I won’t have this illness, giving thanks that the past tells me that I will recover.  I am aware of the here and now but am not sure that I am totally enjoying parts of this particular here and now.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?

I am a news junkie.  I watch at least two news casts a day and read several news sites on the internet every day.  If I have an opportunity to hear a newscast on the  car radio while travelling, I am happy–the trip is better because of that.  As a result of all of this, I tend to have a very good idea of what is going on in the world, or at least the parts of the world that the various newscasts choose to tell me about.

And because I love doing analysis, all that news goes into the analytical part of my mind and rolls around and gets looked at and correlated and categorized and compared and produces conclusions and summaries and concerns.  And one of my major concerns these days is the marked increase in groups and individuals demanding that that their particular understanding of life become the norm for everyone.  Even more troubling is the almost total lack of ethical concern with such claims.

Outright lying, serious distortion of facts, selective quoting, de-contextualization are all parts of the process and the only time anyone says anything about these tactics is when the other side is doing them–mind you, it isn’t unusual for those calling out the ethical failures of the other side to use the same unethical tactics in their denunciation.  Violence has become a regular part of the process of getting what our side wants.  It is made to sound better by labelling is as “defence” but people are hurt and killed for the cause, whether they are directly involved or not.

It seems like we are developing a world where selfishness and self-centeredness are now the norm.  And because I am now the centre of the universe, anything I need to do to ensure my will is accomplish is right and proper.

The interesting thing is that this whole process started from some very good and positive seeds.  Humans have been oppressing and enslaving and harming other humans from the days of Cain and Abel and while many cultures and peoples didn’t see that as a problem, the last couple of centuries have seen significant advances in creating respect for human beings:  we have seen ending of slavery in the west, the increasing reality of gender equality, great strides in universal access to education.  All these and more came about because someone decided that what was happening wasn’t right and needed to be changed.

But somewhere along the way, a dangerous corner was turned and we began to believe that in the process of curing oppression and injustice, it is okay to oppress and be unjust.  Unfortunately, all that thinking does is change roles:  the oppressed now become the oppressors and the harassed now become the harassers. Rather than actually change anything, we simply re-label the problems, give different people different places and the whole process continues along its way.

There has to be a better way to deal with the injustice and inequality and just plain wrong in the world.  As a Christian, I am convinced that my faith provides a better way–but even the Christian faith has been hijacked and twisted and abused to make it into an tool to use in defending the things we want to defend.  Everyone claims Jesus sees things their way–and in the process, forgetting completely that Jesus’ whole purpose in coming to earth was to show us just how wrong we actually were and how we needed a complete reset–what he called a new birth.

His message is that we are and were wrong.  Many who list Jesus as their sponsor really haven’t come to grips with the reality of his teaching and the power of his example.  He was fair and just when facing unfairness and injustice.  He was peaceful in the face of violence.  He sought to help others at the expense of himself.  He continually showed the error and even evil of our ways, but always did is from the perspective of someone who loved everyone involved, both oppressor and oppressed; both slave and slave owner, both male and female–and had it been as cultural an issue in his day as in ours, both straight and LGBT.

Given that our current approach is simply making things worse, maybe we need to take another look at the real Jesus, not the Jesus who has been co-opted by so many different groups for their own purposes.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE PLAN

It was a good plan, one that took into account both our needs and allowed us to get our stuff done without causing either of us to have a long wait.  Basically, we both had to see people in the regional hospital an hour or so from home but we both also had a variety of other things to do–and since there were no real tempting movies playing, it would be an there and back trip, with the obligatory stop at the big grocery story.

The plan was simple.  Before I headed to my appointment to get my hearing aids checked, I would drop my wife off at the store where she was looking for something.  Then, when my appointment was done, I would call her and we would meet for lunch in the downtown area, after which we would do our hospital visits and shopping.  Cell phones are a tremendous blessing when it comes to coordinating plans.

I actually got to see the hearing aid tech a bit early and the work they needed to do didn’t take all that long so I was back to the car within 10-15 minutes.  The first attempt to call didn’t work–but I assumed that it was just because the phone and the car Bluetooth systems hadn’t finished talking to each other to get working together.  I decided to head downtown, find a parking spot near the restaurant and try again–after all, I was early so I had time.

After the fifth failed attempt, I was beginning to think my phone wasn’t working.
After the tenth, I was positive there was a problem with the phone and was wondering if there was a phone store in the area where I could get the phone fixed or replaced.  After a few more tries, I remembered that there were still pay phones in the town and headed for them–I actually had some change with me.  After three attempts, I still wasn’t able to make a connection.

Frustrated, angry and hungry, I walked around the area, looking in all the stores I thought my wife might be in.  Eventually, she appeared–frustrated, hungry and wondering why her cell phone wasn’t working and why I hadn’t called.  Eventually, we discovered that one whole communication company infrastructure had gone down–the company we used.  We eventually got lunch, saw the people we needed to see and did our shopping.  Of course, we needed to visit the bank to get real money since the collapse took out most store credit card machines.

So, I am a preacher, which means that I need to find a moral in everything that happens–sermon illustrations are an important part of my life.  This is a good story but I need to find the right sermon to drop it into.  In fact, it is such a good story that it should probably have the prime spot in the sermon.  Since I serve two different collections of churches, I will get to use to twice, maybe with different applications.

But right now, I am not exactly sure how I will use it.  I am mostly aware of how much a relatively new technology has become such a basic part of my life.  The first phone I used was a basic black Bakelite device fastened to the wall with a battery box under it and a crank to connect with the operator who would put the call through.  Now, I have a high-tech device that will call anyone, connect to the internet, give me directions, figure out my finances, and help me hang pictures (I discovered and installed a carpenter level app).

With the old wall mounted phone, I could only connect with people if I was standing within the length of the phone cord on the handset.  With the cell phone, I can call my friend in Kenya who is so far out of the way that his friends pity him.  But of course, that only happens when the system works, which it didn’t the other day.

I am sure there is a great sermon illustration in that–but I just have to figure out how I want to use it.  I am sure it will come to me.  The fact that I have two chances helps.

But in  the meantime, the next time we make a plan that depends on the cell phone, I may also include a backup plan.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHY AM I STILL DOING THIS?

I am currently serving as part time pastor of two different collections of congregations.  On a good Sunday the smaller group will have a dozen or so in worship.  The larger one will have 25 or so.  On a bad Sunday, the numbers can drop seriously.  I have passed official retirement age recently but am still working and have no real plans for actually retiring.

I am not continuing because the work I do is so deeply satisfying to me that I can’t imagine life without it.  In fact, when I let myself fantasize a bit, I can see all sorts of things that I could be doing to occupy my time–there are lots of woodworking projects begging to be built, trips that look interesting, topics that just need to be researched, leisurely coffee times with friends that don’t have to be rushed or postponed because of a funeral.  Ministry in a variety of forms has occupied my working life–but I can think of lots of other things that I would rather be doing so I can’t say that I am still doing it because of an intrinsic love of ministry.

And while ministry, at least ministry in small congregations isn’t a path to wealth, it isn’t finances that keeps me involved in ministry.  Pastoral salaries might not make one rich, but our denomination as least has a well managed pension plan that will enable me to be financially comfortable in retirement.

I was talking to a friend recently who had retired.  He told me that part of his reason was that when he took the job he had, he saw certain things that needed to be accomplished.  With those accomplished, he was ready to retire.  I appreciated what he was saying–and having seen some of that he had done, I knew what he was talking about.

But I can’t really say I am postponing retirement until I accomplish the things I see that I need to accomplish.  Unlike many people who write about ministry these days, I don’t have a grand, over-arching vision of what the churches I pastor should be doing and accomplishing.  I believe in vision and direction and all that–but I think the real vision of a congregation needs to come from the congregation.  And while I see a major part of my ministry as helping people see and achieve their vision, I generally have no real sense of where things are going until we are almost there.  My vision for the congregations isn’t what keeps me going.  Mostly, I spend my time trying to keep up with the congregation and trying to put into words what we are doing and where we are going.

Nor is it the pastoral needs of the congregations.  As a pastor, I am intimately involved in the lives of the people I serve.  I am their pastor, which means I am committed to being there for them.  I am called to help them in times of difficulty, to visit when they are sick, the teach them about their faith, to encourage their ministry, to perform their weddings and funerals, to provide counselling, to do whatever I and they believe is within my mandate as their pastor.

But I do not think that I can’t retire because these people can’t survive without me.  Most of them did pretty well before I arrived–and the few who didn’t do well before I arrived, well, I am pretty sure that my presence or absence isn’t making all that much difference.  Certainly,  I believe that I am called to help and I do help and I know it makes a difference.  But I have been in ministry long enough to know that when I leave the congregation, God will provide them with another way to have their needs met.  I am their pastor but in the end, I am not indispensible–they would all survive if I retired.

So far, I have looked at a lot of reasons why other people don’t retire–but  none of them really work for me. But I am still working, still in ministry, and still committed for the foreseeable future.  Fortunately, I know the reason why I am doing what I am doing–it is the same reason I have been doing what I have been doing for my whole ministry.  That is the topic for the next post.

May the peace of God be with you.

CHANGING QUESTIONS

Recently, I have been reflecting on a series of related but changing questions that I have been regularly asked during my life.  The first one I remember in the series came very early, as people around asked me “What do you want to do when you grow up?”  The idea behind the question was that people needed to pick their life occupation and prepare to spend the next 40 years or so doing whatever they picked.  I don’t really know if people ask that question as much–given the cultural reality that most people these days will have several different occupations in life, we should probably be asking people what they are going to start with.

Anyway, the next question came after I had finished university and was actually involved in ministry.  The common question I would get was, “Where are you now?”, especially if I was in a context where I wasn’t wearing a  name badge giving my occupation and location.  I was involved in ministry and although I didn’t  move around as much as some people in ministry, I tended to make some large moves, involving extended periods of time in Kenya.

Since I tended to stay in pastorates for a long period of time, some people began asking me a different question:  “Are you still there?”.  Sometimes, the question was asked from genuine curiosity and other times, well, I am pretty sure that were subtly asking what was wrong with me since I appeared to have very little interest in climbing the ecclesiastical success ladder.  I have to confess that with some of those people I took some secret delight in subtly slipping in the fact that I was also an adjunct professor at our seminary or was involved in several denominational projects or was just back from a short-term trip teaching in Kenya.  I know–I was bragging but that question did tire me sometimes.

I have noticed that I am being asked a different question these days.  I have reached the stage where people want to know “When are you planning on retiring?”.  People in the churches I serve aren’t asking that question–they simply tell me I can’t retire.  But people I have known for a while and haven’t seen recently seem to want to know the answer to that question.  My answer tends to be non-committal.  I plan on retiring someday but right now, I am not sure when.  A few people don’t like that answer, especially when their subsequent (somewhat invasive) questions lead them to discover that financially and chronologically, I can retire anytime.

A few people who know me well find the answer confusing for another reason.  Although I have been involved in pastoral ministry for most of my working life, I have never really liked pastoral ministry. I think I bring some skills and abilities and gifts to ministry that congregations appreciate and which help individuals and congregations and I get a fair amount of gratification from using these gifts and helping people, but pastoral ministry itself really isn’t a joy-filled, deeply gratifying part of my life.  It is challenging, it can be interesting, it is demanding, it has significant rewards but for me, the real joy and deep gratification has always come from teaching, something which has ultimately been a minor part of my overall ministry.

So here I am–at a stage of my life when I could be retired and I am still at work, still involved in the kind of ministry that I have done most of my working life.  It is a ministry that is important and valuable and which makes a difference to people, but a ministry which has likely done a lot more for other people than it has done for me.  And yet, I am committed to what I am doing for a while–I don’t know how much longer but am pretty sure that it is measured in years not months, although there times when I would like it to be days.

So, that brings me to another question, one that no one has actually asked me but which I needed to ask myself.  And that question is, “Why are you still doing what you are doing?”

But since the answer to that question is going to require some serious staring at the trees and marsh outside the living room window (and ignoring the lawn and wires), I will postpone the answer until the next post.

May the peace of God be with you.

HOW BIG IS THE CHURCH?

I have been the pastor of a lot of small congregations in my 40+ years of ministry.  I have never broken the 100 mark in regular attendance.  These days, the combined attendance at the two pastorates I serve part time rarely reaches 40, unless it is for a funeral. (I don’t know about weddings–we haven’t had any yet.)  I did once pastor a church that had over 250 members on paper but because of problems and issues, there were only about 25 in worship when I started as pastor.

Given that I am within visual range of retirement, I am pretty sure that my chances of being pastor to a large church are pretty small.  That’s okay with me–I don’t dream of being the next world-famous mega-church pastor any more (well, not much anyway).

But as I have been reading about church growth and how to deal with large increases in attendance and how to prepare for it and all sorts of stuff like that for years.  I know that there is more than just a difference in numbers when it comes to church size.  Beyond a certain point, the quality and nature of the congregation changes.  One blog I read recently suggested that once a church reaches a certain size, the pastor can’t know everyone–and everyone else can’t know everyone either.  His suggestion of nametags was an appropriate way of dealing with that problem.

But one of the nagging questions that has always bothered me when I think about this qualitative difference focuses on exactly this issue.  If I can’t know at least the names of everyone joined together with me in a congregation, are we really a church?  We can be a gathering of believers, we can have a strong theoretical commitment to God and each other but if I can’t know all of the others, are we really a church?

Christianity is a social faith, which requires that our commitment to God through Christ express itself in our relationships with other believers.  And I don’t think that is meant to be a theoretical, generalized expression.  We are called to love each other in very practical and personal ways–but if there are so many of us that I can’t even remember names, how personal can my expression of faith be in that context?

If I am to love other believers as Jesus loved us (John 13.34-35), don’t I need to know the names of my fellow believers (John 10.1-17, especially verse 3)? If I have to look at a name tag to know who I am talking to, how can I be expected to really love people as Christ loved us–without a real sense of who the person is, isn’t my love more generic than personal?

This isn’t an anti-big church rant.  I have friends who pastor large congregations and others who attend large congregations and whose faith I respect and appreciate.  But as I look at some of these larger congregations, it seems to me that they really aren’t united and unified.  Rather than being one big happy church family, they seem to be several different but slightly overlapping church families–several congregations meeting together.

And there are lots of good reasons for such groupings of churches in one congregation.  It allows for more and better programs and facilities and makes delivery of ministry more efficient and allows them to afford things that my small congregations can’t even afford to dream about.  But in the end, I wonder if it might not be better and more correct to call these large groups a gathering of churches rather than a church.

Maybe, once we lose the ability to know names and therefore the ability to really know people, we have lost something vital to the nature of the church.  Knowing someone’s name opens the door to knowing a lot more about the person and that allows us to specifically and personally show people how our common faith in God is expressed in our relationship.

And so while I really hope and pray that our small congregations will grow in numbers, I also am not really interested in the kind of growth that means I can’t know the names of the people I lead in worship.  If we ever get that big, we can start another church so that people can live their faith with people whose names they know and who know their names.

May the peace of God be with you.