WHAT DO I KNOW?

I am leading worship, something I do twice a Sunday almost every Sunday of the year–I do take vacations.  I have finished the announcements, begun the worship and we are singing the first hymn.  After making sure that I have the bookmarks in place for the responsive reading and the next hymn (I am organized, not obsessive), I take some time to look around at the congregation.  I have greeted everyone as they come in and had a brief conversation with most of them but this is my first time to really see the whole congregation.

I know who is there but at this point in the service, I get to take a quick count (a relatively quick and easy job in small congregations) and at the same time, discover who isn’t there.  Some, I already know won’t be present–they have mentioned to me that they will be away because of this or that commitment.  I am pretty sure that I know the reason for the absence of one or two others.  But there are a couple whose absence concerns me.

I am not concerned because it makes the numbers look bad–having been the pastor of small congregations for many years, I don’t get too concerned about numbers until there is a major, sustained deviation from the average.  But I am concerned because I don’t know why they are missing from the worship that day.

You might think this shows that I am a controlling, nosey, busybody who needs to know every detail of everyone’s life.  I prefer to think that I am a pastor, a person called by God to provide spiritual and other input as God leads me–and being a pastor means that I am concerned with what goes on in the lives of the people that God has called me to shepherd.  Most Sundays, my big concern isn’t whether we have 17 or 20 people in worship–my real concern is whether those who aren’t there are okay.

I have the same concern for those who are there as well–but I can do something about that.  As I greet them and talk with them, I can and do get a sense of how they are doing and whether I need to plan some pastoral input during the coming week.  But when someone expected isn’t there, I have to confess that I have alarm bells going off in my mind–not level one, all out panic alarm bells but alarm bells nonetheless.

If I am really lucky, someone will mention to me that one of the absentees had company drop in or caught a cold or something equally minor.  If not, I might ask one of their friends.  And if no one knows, the person  goes on my pastoral list.  Because I am a pastor in small, rural communities, I can be pretty sure that if the person missing from worship is suffering from a major, catastrophic event, everyone will know about it and someone will tell me eventually.  But there are lots of things between minor and catastrophic that I can and do respond to as their pastor.

One of the things I know is that I am called by God to provide pastoral care to the churches that I worship with each week.  Pastoral care is a vague and hard to define concept that is often much easier to see in its absence that in its presence.  It is a calling that I sometimes get tired of–but can’t seem to ever get away from.  Even when I am not a pastor, I find myself reacting to people like a pastor–listening and watching and paying attention, looking for the clues that God helps me see so that I know how best to respond to the individual and their needs in God’s name.

Being a pastor tires me–but it also completes me.  It irritates me at times–but it also gives me a sense of purpose and direction.  Being a pastor clashes with my introverted nature sometimes–but it also fulfills an even deeper part of my nature.

I know that I am called to be a pastor.  Some days, I am not sure of much and other days, I discover that what I think I know is wrong–but every day, I know that I am a pastor and need to care for those people whom God has called me to shepherd.

May the peace of God be with you.

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DO UNTO OTHERS…

Every now and then, I run into a “modern” version of the Golden Rule, the words of Jesus found in Matthew 7.12: ” So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”  This modern version is often presented in semi-humorous contexts and goes something like this “Do unto others before they do unto you.”

Unfortunately, it seems that our culture has decided that the humorous “before” is more applicable than the original “to”–since my rights and the privileges and desires that I feel belong to me by virtue of my existence are more important than anyone else’s rights, privileges and desires, I need to protect them.  And as we are often told, “The best defence is a strong offence.”

Others, especially others who are or might be different, are a threat to me and what I deserve.  Their choices and desires and practises threaten me and my freedom to be what I want to be.  I need to ban them, restrict them, overcome them, segregate them, control them–and in extreme cases, maybe even find a way to get rid of them.  And if that sounds harsh and hate filled, these are just the headlines that we humans have been reading, experiencing and creating over the years.

Jesus’ words about doing to others fly in the face of socially acceptable norms–norms that are as common and dangerous today as they were in his day–and which go back to the beginning of human awareness.  But Jesus knows that our self-focused, insane drive to put ourselves at the centre of the universe only results in pain, suffering, and continual conflict.  He calls for a different way.

We do to others what we would like done to us. In one compact sentence, Jesus manages to open the door to a new understanding of self and others.  His route doesn’t demand that I ignore myself to benefit others but it also doesn’t demand that I ignore others for the benefit of myself.  Jesus calls for me to engage in a conscious dialogue involving me, the other and the situation.  There is a fourth aspect to the dialogue but I going to hold off on that for a bit.

I need to know what I want/need in the situation.  I need to be aware of myself and my needs and wants.  To really carry out Jesus’ call here, I also need to be willing to examine the validity and necessity of my needs/wants–maybe some of what I need/want isn’t all that important and can be sacrificed or at least downsized.

I need to be aware of the reality of the other–what are their real need/wants.  That will probably mean I need to engage the other and develop some form of relationship–I can’t really get to know the other from a theoretical point of view.  I need to know the other as well as I can.

And I need to know the situation well.  If I am lost, hungry and bleeding, what would I need/want?  I probably wouldn’t want a Gospel tract, unless it was made of cloth and I could use it as a bandage.  I would appreciate directions, first aid and maybe a sandwich although if I am hungry enough, even a pocket-lint covered cough drop might help.

Realistically, that is a major amount of work–and doing it effectively demands that I open myself to the legitimacy of the other as I figure out how to do to them what I want done to myself.  In small, clearly defined situations, I can probably do it and might do it.  But the bigger the situation, the more complex the needs/wants, the more “other” the other is, the harder the whole process and the more unlikely I am to do it.

And this is where I need to remember the fourth part of the dialogue I am engaged in.  I need to involve God.  I need to open myself to the Holy Spirit, whose task in my life is to both guide me in my thinking process and strengthen me in the actual doing.  To really do as Jesus said, I need the power and help of God.  Fortunately, God is both willing and able to give me all the help I need to do to others what I would have them do to me.

May the peace of God be with you.

TWO KINDS OF PEOPLE

There are two kinds of people in the world:  those who say there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t say there are two kinds of people in the world.  The second kind are a rarity, as far as I can tell because it seems that most of us have this deep seated drive to reduce the complexities of the world’s population to a simple, easy to grasp dichotomy–everyone is either this or that.  It is a staple tactic of many preachers (including me, at times):  we preachers categorize people as Christian/non-Christian; good Christian/bad Christian; tither/non-tither; sermon note taker/sermon sleeper; pastoral supporter/pastoral opponent–well, you get the idea.

Unfortunately for preachers and all of us with this deep seated need for simplistic understandings of reality, it is pretty much impossible to actually reduce people to two kinds because of the incredibly complexity and diversity of humanity.  Take one of the examples I have been known to use:  there are two kinds of people in the world–those who have accepted Christ and those who haven’t yet accepted Christ.

As a division of humanity, it sounds good and I used it for years.  But a while ago, in the process of preparing for a course on evangelism that I was teaching, I thought myself into a mess.  I was looking for a way to help Kenyan students understand some point in the course outline and drew a line on the paper.  I labelled one end “No connection with God at all” and labeled the other end “Total connection with God”.  The graphic looked good, I could easily create it on the computer for the course handbook and it would help illustrate the point.

Except that the more I looked at the continuum this simple line made, the more complicated it got.  To start with, I realized that here and now, there is no human being at either end–no one has absolutely no connection with God and no one has a total connection with God–people in those conditions will only exist after the return of Christ and the end of this era.  So, the reality is that all of us exist somewhere between the two ends of the line.

Certainly, some of us have made a clear commitment to Christ somewhere along the line–but our position on the line doesn’t have any connection with the commitment.  The thief on the cross makes his commitment when he is near the no connection end (maybe–I am making a big assumption here) while Paul was likely further along the line when he made a commitment (another assumption but he was certainly working at his relationship with God as he understood it).  But in the end, all of us are somewhere along the line and somewhere in the process of making a commitment to accepting Christ.

Then it got a bit more complicated because I realized that another reality is that although I come from a Christian tradition that puts a great deal of emphasis on knowing the exact time, place and circumstance of the commitment to Christ, there are people whose commitment to Christ is genuine but who really don’t know when they made it–they sort of drift into it, a reality which infuriates some people because it seems so fuzzy but which is a reality for many, including me.

So, after these and a few other complications, I developed the graphic for the students and decided to live with a less than simple understanding of salvation.   The process is more complex and confusing that a simple two-category division of Christian/non-Christian. We could propose several categories:  non-Christian; non-Christian leaning to commitment; Christian but not aware of having made a commitment; Christian aware of having made a commitment; non-Christian who thinks they have made a commitment; Christian who doesn’t realize they have made a commitment.  The whole thing gets more and more confusing and complicated and makes one wish for a simple, clear, two kinds description.

Or, maybe we could do what we are supposed to do anyway, which is concentrate on being God’s agents in the world and let him worry about who is and isn’t a believer.  If we stop trying to simplify the complicated (which isn’t really our job) and work at being agents of God’s love and grace (which is our job), we can trust that God will take care of the rest.

May the peace of God be with you.

A HUMBLE CONFESSION

As I was writing the last post, I realized that it could suggest that I have a very high opinion of my pastoral abilities.  And I do think that I am pretty good at what I do–I have been a pastor for a lot of years and have helped congregations through some difficult times.  And while I have never been called to a large congregation, I think I have been good for the churches that I have pastored.  As well, I have been called to teach pastors both in Canada and Kenya.

But at the same time,  I have to confess that most of the time in ministry, I really don’t know what I am doing.  Sure, there are some basics:  I need to preach, teach Bible study, visit people, attend (and sometimes chair) meetings, do some counselling, and be there for life transitions like funerals and weddings.  But beyond the basics, I don’t always have great plans and inspiring visions.  I don’t dream (much) of seeing the congregation become a mega-church; I am never sure where we will be next month let alone 5 or 10 years from now.  In truth, sometimes, I can’t even tell you what I will be preaching next Sunday, although that only happens when I forget that the current sermon plan actually ends next week.

None of my congregations have ever given me a coffee mug with the message “World’s Greatest Pastor” printed on it–nor have I even felt that I deserve one.  Even more, there are times when I am convinced that I made a serious mistake when I decided that God wanted me to be a pastor–and more than a few times when I have been convinced that God made a serious mistake by calling me to be a pastor.

I get tired of what I am doing; I get depressed when the stress of ministry leads to overwork; I waste time when I could be studying or seeing people; I wonder why God didn’t call me to some other work; I get angry at things that happen in the church; I fantasize about winning the lottery and retiring; I sometimes hope for snow days for more than just the opportunity to go cross-country skiing.

I am a pastor–but even after all these years of pastoring, teaching pastors, reflecting and writing on pastoring, I am still trying to figure out what it really means to be a pastor.  Maybe after I retire sometime in the not too distant future, I will have some time to figure out what it is that I am really supposed to be doing.

I have actually made some progress at figuring it out.  I have learned some things that pastors shouldn’t do.  Some of these I have learned from my own painful experience.  Others I have learned from watching the experience of others–those lessons have been less painful for me but no less painful for congregations and pastors.  Knowing what not to do is actually a helpful start on the road to knowing what to do.

If it is a mistake to scold the congregation with every sermon, as it is, then not only do I know to avoid that but also, I have an opportunity to discover what might be a better use of the sermon.  Teaching during the sermon, encouraging with the message, inspiring congregations through the preaching–all these are much better for everyone than a ranting scold every week.

And even more importantly, I have learned one of the most basic realities of my profession.  Ministry is really about developing relationships with people that can help them and me develop our relationship with God.  In the course of developing those relationships, we may discover God’s leading and empowering to do interesting, exciting and inspiring things but the development of the relationships is the key issue.  We have to really know each other before we can trust each other.  We have to trust each other before we can really open to each other about faith.  We have to open to each other about faith before we can experience the fullness of the presence of God in our midst.

So, day after day, I take my introverted self and go be a pastor–I joke with people, drink coffee with people, cry with people, pray with people, teach people, get taught by people.  I do my job, a job that I don’t always understand and which I sometimes struggle to explain and am not sure how good at it I really am but which God has called me to do.

May the peace of God be with you.

BRIGHTEN THE CORNER WHERE YOU ARE

It is becoming really common these days for believers to take part in mission trips.  After raising a serious amount of  money, a group of believers will take off for some faraway place where they will fellowship with local believers (often through an interpreter), test out the national food (with the assurance that a real meal awaits at the hotel), and build something.  They come home with a nice tan, great stories and a deeper awareness of the realities of life.

Interestingly, I have had serious discussions with Kenyan Christians who wanted to explore the possibility of making a mission trip to Canada so that they could help Canadians engage in ministry.  From their perspective, such a mission trip would be a great thing–based on what they see in the media, we need a lot of help in North America carrying out the mission of the church.  Of course, the North American church would have to pay for their trip since Kenya is poor and Canada is rich.

There is a major debate about the value of such trips which I will not engage at this point.  I do want to use this trend to point out a significant irony concerning the mission of the church:  the further away the mission focus is geographically and culturally, the easier it is to get people to support it financially and physically.  I think the key problem is that real ministry, where ever it happens, is messy and difficult and filled with frustration and confusion and potential for real pain.  Real ministry also generally requires serious long term commitment of money and time–and there is no guarantee that it will succeed.  I can think of many ministry situations over the years where I have given a lot of my money, time and effort and got very little in terms of tangible results:  the alcoholic returns to alcohol; the couple breaks up; the near-convert decides to become Buddhist; the potential pastor becomes a professional dirt-biker.

On the other hand, doing ministry for a week or two far away is much less messy and demanding.  We get to see and participate in what is clearly a messy, needy situation.  We get to involve ourselves deeply and intimately in the mess and solution–and then, after a week or two, we get to shower and head for home (although occasionally, we have to reverse those two events).  Our involvement in the messy situation far away after that is somewhat voluntary and involves prayer, some fund raising and maybe some publicity.

I am aware that this sounds cynical–and probably is.  But cynicism or not, it is difficult to get churches and believers to commit to sustained ministry in the messes that exist close to us.  We are often more concerned with the starving in Africa than we are with the kids who go to school hungry at our local schools.  And that makes sense:  feeding the starving far away involves giving money while dealing with the hungry school kids may involve us in the lives of real people with real problems that need much more than just our financial contributions.

Kids going to school hungry is the result of a complex and difficult set of realities that will involve us with poverty, poor choices, politics, addictions, and on and on.  It will take sustained energy of many people over long periods of time and bring us into contact with people that we might prefer to avoid.  It may open us to manipulation and to being exploited.  It may result in us being ripped off, either as churches or individuals or both.  And, after putting in all the effort and time and whatever, nothing may change.

But that is the reality of ministry–and it is the reality that we need to be involved in.  I heartily endorse feeding the starving in Africa.  I am somewhat in favour of mission trips.  And I am deeply concerned with the ministry we do just outside our church building.  For most of us, this will be our real mission and our real ministry.  And if we let our fears and frustrations get in the way, we will miss the opportunity to be used by the Holy Spirit to make a real difference.  The mess is real, the pitfalls are ever present, the results aren’t predictable or assured–but it is part of what we are called to do.

May the peace of God be with you.

A NEW BEGINNING

            A few years ago, I was involved with some theology students who were connected with a large established urban congregation.  The congregation inhabited an older building that had originally been located in the thriving downtown core of the city.  It was an influential congregation in the city and the denomination for many years.  It was so important that students from the theological school I attended were regularly invited to seminars to help us better understand how to do ministry in an urban setting.  It was so important in the city that the chief of police was willing to come to talk to us theology students–and quite willing to suspend local no parking ordinances for the theology students.

But as with all things, the neighbourhood and church underwent serious changes.  The church membership got older; the building began to fall apart; the neighbourhood became less desirable.  Parking became both more and less of a problem–less of a problem because there were more and more empty spaces and more of a problem because cars parked near the building were probably going to be vandalized.  The building doors were locked and alarmed and visitors were carefully scrutinized.

Eventually, the congregation made a decision.  They would have to move.  The downtown location was no longer desirable and with safety becoming a significant issue for the increasingly older congregation, the future of the congregation was at stake if they stayed where they were.  They bought land in a much safer suburban location and began planning the relocation process that was vital to the future of their church.  The downtown core just wasn’t safe anymore.  How can you worship God when some street person is going to break into your car looking for anything that will help them buy drugs, alcohol or food?

The new location would allow the congregation to flourish again.  They could do real ministry, rather than hide behind locked doors.  They could invite friends to special events without warning them to bring the old car and make sure there was nothing of value in it.  They could have a new building from which to really affect their community.  They could get back to the serious business of ministry without having to worry about pan-handlers, street people, vagrants and prostitution.

Of course, this is a preacher story–this has never happened.  No church would ever think of ignoring the needs of people just outside their doors.  All churches want to do ministry.  All believers see every individual as a person loved by God and in need of a tangible expression of the love of God through the efforts of the faithful.  After all, we are called by God to be servants to God and to people.

Except that we don’t always do a good job of being servants in the messiness of life.  I think we sometimes see mission and ministry as involving only those people who would fit well in a 50s TV sitcom–hard-working, wise father; stay-at-home mother always dressed like a fashion model; 2.5 mischievous but high achieving kids and one slightly less than perfect friend who says “darn” a bit too much.  We can do serious ministry in that context–why, the work is pretty much done anyway.  Even that “darn” kid will dress up as a shepherd for the Christmas concert and will likely become a pastor.

Jesus, of course, wants these people to know about his love.  But what we forget too often is that Jesus also wants to street person breaking into a worshipper’s car to know about the love of God as well.   He wants the model family to become part of the faith–but he also wants the teen run-away who is into drugs and prostitution to be a part of the faith as well.  And his plan for reaching the model family and the street person and the teen addict is the same–he wants to use the ministry of the faithful expressed through the church.

As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “Real ministry is messy”.  And whether our church is located in a deteriorating downtown core, an up and coming affluent suburb or a dying fishing village, we need to open ourselves to the Spirit who will lead us into the best way to ministry and serve those around us.  Moving the building to get a better class of sinners doesn’t quite seem to follow the pattern that Jesus gave us.

May the peace of God be with you.

SERVANT OR SERVED?

Kenya, like most of Africa, was taken over by European powers in the late 19th century as the various nations in Europe scrambled to exert their power over the world.  The reality that the lands in question were already occupied and governed by other people was simply ignored–the prevailing opinion at the time was that since those peoples were obviously inferior, there could be nothing but benefit for them to be under European rule.  Eventually, most of Africa decided that they preferred to be independent and made it happen.

One of the lasting legacies of colonialism in Kenya is a well developed sense of entitlement and privilege.  Social stratification is a deep seated addition to Kenyan culture, with everyone seeking an important place in the pecking order.  Money, tribe, geography, education, connections, special skills–everything has a place in determining who gets what privileges and who gets to serve who.  Nobody wants to be doing the serving–everyone wants to be served.

It may be that this culture of entitlement and privilege seeking will come to be seen as one of the worst of the long term effects of colonialism because of the way it encouraged so many of the current underlying problems African countries struggle with.  Corruption, nepotism, tribalism, instability–all owe something to the colonial example.  African countries may have thrown out the colonizers but they often kept the colonial mentality.

But this problem of entitlement and privilege seeking affects more than just post-colonial countries.  Unfortunately, it affects the church–and the consequences of these attitudes is causing no end of harm to the mission of the church.

Recently, I saw a news item while I was washing the dishes.  A man got a parking ticket while he was in worship on Easter Sunday.  He openly admitted that he was parked in a no parking zone.  The church parking lot was full–the Christmas and Easter crowd were out in full force.  He and many other worshippers parked on the street, ignoring the no parking signs.  Some enterprising traffic officer saw an opportunity to improve the municipal finances and gave all the illegal cars tickets.

The man on the news was upset.  One of his comments was that he was parked there because he was in worship on one of the holiest days of the Christian year and so the police should have shown some leniency.  And while that might sound good to other worshippers and to those struggling with the lessening influence of the Christian faith in an increasingly pluralistic culture, it is really only a thinly veiled call for special privileges.  Our faith should be allowed to break the rules when our parking lot is full.

As Christians in North America, we want our culture to serve us.  We picture ourselves as being special–our western culture is built on Christian foundations.  We have made a significant contribution to our culture–and now, we want to collect the interest on that contribution.  We  deserve a break on the parking ticket; we deserve to be given exemptions from rules that we don’t like; we deserve a better place in the culture than other groups.

But aren’t we called to be servants?  Somewhere along the line, it seems that we have lost sight of what it really means to be a servant.  We have continued to call ourselves servants but have redefined the word servant to mean that we are the ones who get served.  The privileges and special treatment we want and even demand amount to us as believers thinking that our culture needs to pay us back for all that we have done for our culture over the years.  Whether it is being allowed to break parking laws on Easter Sunday or trying to stop multicultural realities, we are really not being all that much different from the colonial powers in Africa or their independent successors.

We seem to have turned our understanding of a basic part of our faith on its head.  We talk of being servants but really want to be served.  We talk of serving others but really want others to serve us.  We call for justice but really want free parking in illegal parking zones when the church parking lot is full.  And maybe this reversal in our understanding of servant-hood is at the root of the serious decline of the church in the west.  Maybe our culture needs servants more than it needs one more entitled group demanding privilege.

May the peace of God be with you.