SPIRITUAL DEVELOPMENT OR YOUTUBE?

I don’t read many real books these days.  That isn’t because I have stopped reading.  I read almost as much as I ever did–but these days, I have made a conscious decision to use ebooks as much as possible.  I would like to say that I made the decision based on sound environmental and economic reasons:  ebooks don’t use paper thereby saving trees and they generally cost less.  But the truth is that I made the decision to switch to ebooks because after giving my large theological library away for what seemed like a good reason at the time ( maybe a story for another blog someday), I decided that having a library I could carry in a pocket was a great idea.

But work related paper books are still plentiful and I end up with a good number of them in the course of the year, many of which look interesting.  They end up in the new book section of the book shelf in the study, until their turn to be read at which point the book gets transferred to top of the cardboard box that serves as a shelf beside my exercise bike.  My plan is that during my hour on the bike in the morning, I will do my daily Bible reading which takes about 20 minutes, check email and the day’s headlines on the tablet, which takes about 5 minutes  and then finish out the hour reading the latest book on the box.

And I actually do that–at least until I hit one of those stretches of ministry expansion when I have too much to do and not enough time to do it and the fatigue gets the better of me.  I know that is coming when I finish the Bible reading, do the email and headlines and pick up the book.  I feel a sense of dread–well, probably not dread but at least a sense of “Do I have to?”.  Early in the fatigue process, I sternly tell myself that I have to–I committed myself to this and it is as much a part of my spiritual development as reading the Bible and praying and so I have to do it.

On those stern days, I might actually get a couple of pages read before I realize I am not taking anything in and in fact, am getting quite bored with the whole thing.  My ability to spend an hour on the exercise bike is dependant entirely on my ability to distract myself from the boredom of exercising so being bored reading threatens my ability to stay on the bike.

The debate begins: “I’m tired–maybe I should quit biking early.  All this biking probably isn’t good for me knee.  This book is really boring.  Read it! But I am not processing it! I’m tired.  My knee might start to hurt.”

The only viable and workable solution ultimately seems to be watching Youtube videos on the tablet.  They distract me enough so that I can continue the exercise session–and as for that boring book, well maybe the dog will eat it the next time he is in the basement by himself.  So, for the sake of my physical health, Youtube it is.

Do I feel guilty about not reading?  A bit–but it’s the kind of guilt I am used to as a religious person.  There is enough guilt to take to take the fun edge off of what I am doing but not enough to stop me from doing it.  Besides, watching other people’s failures and foibles gives me some comfort on my fatigue.

Should I force myself to read?  Well, having tried that, I can say for sure that it doesn’t work.  But from experience, I also know that I will get tired of Youtube and the ministry expansion will slow down and eventually, that book will become more interesting.  So, I watch Youtube.  Rather than see it as a failure, I see it as another form of Sabbath.  It gives me the ability to continue the physical exercise, allows me to rest the emotionally and spiritually overworked parts of my being.  It also allows me to laugh, which is physically, emotionally and spiritually healthy.

So, I read the book most of the time–but when I can’t, I allow myself the Sabbath I need because that way, I know I will eventually get back to the book.

May the peace of God be with you.

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.

“GOOD” FRIDAY?

I like movies that deal with a relatively innocent individual who ends up being attacked unjustly by some other individual, group or shadowy organization.  Such stories are predictable:  a peaceful life is disrupted, the protagonist turns out to be a retired expert at martial arts, guerilla warfare, improvised weapons manufacturing who has access to unlimited funds, fast cars and airplanes (along with the occasional tank and ballistic missile) and who knows people who freely and quickly fill him (generally it is a “he” in these movies) in on all sorts of top secret details that he needs to know.

Armed with his skills, money, resources and intel,  he sets out to destroy the villains, rescue the lady and get his life back.  We expect that he will be beaten several times, trapped in an inescapable trap, shot and be involved in at least one car chase. At some point, he will appear to be defeated, maybe even killed. But at some point, he will make a comeback–and he will win.  The bad guys will be destroyed in appropriately violent ways and the hero and his new found (or returned) love will settle back down in their peaceful life, at least until the sequel.

I like the movies and the stories because they are predictable, they have car chases, they have improbable feats of “skill”, and because the good guy wins no matter what the odds are.  No matter how evil the antagonist; no matter how powerful the opposition group; no matter how high in the government the shadowy organization reaches, the hero wins.  And it may be that this appreciation of that particular media genre comes from my faith.

I don’t think it comes because I see myself as the faith equivalent of the movie hero–far from it.  If I were in the movie, I would likely be the innocent, uninvolved driver whose car is the first one run off the road in the car chase–and I wouldn’t even be the one that gets to take flight and land in a tree or someone’s dining room.  No, I think the reason my faith gets tied up in this sort of movies is that my faith is based on the biggest version of this story.

Jesus’ story has it all, except for the car chase.  A quiet hero minding his own business who attracts the attention of a powerful organization who sets out to destroy him; some serious injustice and conspiracy; a betrayal; a beating–and in the end, an execution.  But where this story parts company with the movies is that this is a real execution, not something thrown together with special effects, top secret medications and covert assistants in the conspiracy.  Jesus dies and the bad guys sit around congratulating themselves on their power and ability to deal with issues.

All this in less than a week–by Friday, the conspirators are ready for a break and settle down to enjoy the holiday.  Jesus is dead; the story is over–roll the credits.  This is not a good movie–or a good day.

Of course, we know the end of the story.  Jesus is the ultimate hero who defeats even death.  The whole story gets turned around because everything that the bad guys did was part of the plan from the beginning.  Jesus dies–but for the story to end the way it is supposed to end, he has to die.  The conspiracy really only does what Jesus knows they are going to do–he uses their free choices to bring about his end.

And that is why a day filled with hatred, injustice, evil conspiracies, betrayals, denials, torture and anything else that our all too human bent towards evil can come up with becomes “Good Friday”.  It isn’t good because of what happens that day–it becomes good because of the way God transforms the evil of the day into the ultimate good.  Good Friday is only good because of Easter Sunday, the day when the ultimate hero stages the ultimate comeback for the ultimate good.

Good Friday shows us how God takes on the absolute worst that we human beings have to offer and overcome it with the absolute best that he can offer–the power of his unlimited love and grace.  Even though there isn’t a car chase, it is still without question the best hero story of all time.

May the peace of God be with you.

CHOCOLATE BUNNIES OR EXECUTIONS?

            As secularized religious holidays go, Easter really doesn’t measure up to the standard set by Christmas.  Christmas gets our whole western culture looking at religious themes.  If we aren’t seeing manger scenes everywhere, we are hearing about court battles to prevent or allow them.  We even get treated to religiously themes songs in various media outlets.

But Easter, well, Easter is a different kind of holiday.  Then whole season deals with stuff that most of our culture–well, most of most cultures–find unpleasant.  Easter puts the focus on things like political and religious corruption.  It deals with false arrest and torture.  It tells the story of a good man being legally, physically and emotionally brutalized for political reasons.  And then to make matters  worse, the man dies.  We could probably deal with the story as a culture if Jesus suddenly turns on his captors and using some swift and skillful Ninja moves, puts his captors in their place.

But Jesus isn’t some movie hero.  He feels the weight of authority and that authority wins–Jesus dies after a painful and sadistic process designed to not only kill the victim but also demoralize anyone nearby.  Crucifixion was Rome’s way of telling everyone that they had better watch their step or else–and the “or else” was regularly exercised along the public highways.

Compared to a baby being born in a stable with angels and cuddly lambs, this story really doesn’t cut it for our society.  That is probably why our culture has tended to ignore the basic Easter story in  favour of bunnies, chicks and a ton of candy.  Those sell better.  Eating a chocolate Easter bunny is a whole lot more fun that contemplating a cruel and vicious execution and the death of a popular but defeated hero.

Maybe we need to change the story to make it more acceptable to our culture.  We could, for example, talk about Jesus as a great teacher, a humanitarian whose words and deeds serve to inspire us even though he is dead.  If we emphasise that side, we don’t have to deal with the sordid and messy details like death and all that.  Jesus could join the ranks of people such as Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela.  We could use Easter to celebrate the words of Jesus and pledge to make the world a better place by trying to follow some of his teachings–and still enjoy all the candy.

The words of Jesus are important.  The things he did are important.  But in the end, without the cross and the tomb which becomes empty, his story is somewhat pointless and meaningless.  And that is because underneath the whole story is a much deeper, much more unpleasant truth that our culture simply doesn’t want to see or deal with.

This deep and unpleasant truth concerns us as human beings.  Easter is built on the fact that we are not what we think we are and we are not what we were meant to be.  Easter reminds us that we are all flawed and imperfect beings who got ourselves into a mess that we can’t get ourselves out of and need serious help.

Easter tells us that we are as much a part of the corrupt, self-serving political-religious machine that executed Jesus as Pilate and the chief priest and the fickle crowed who praised on Palm Sunday and jeered on Good Friday.  We are those people and they are us–we are all tainted and damaged–we are all both the perpetrators and victims of sin, both ours and everyone else’s’.  This inconvenient truth poses problems for most people.  We generally recognize the reality of sin but want sin to be something we see on TV from some distant place were really evil people do terrible things.  We don’t want sin  to be something we do and we definitely don’t want it to be something serious enough that Jesus needs to go through all that cruelty and pain and injustice because of us.

But that is the story.  That is the reality.  And if most people prefer a chocolate bunny to this real story, that is understandable–not right but understandable.  We all tend to run away from what we don’t like–a good diversion beats reality hands down in our culture.

As for me–well, I like a chocolate bunny now and then–but don’t really need it.  I hate the idea of a crucifixion and unjust death–but boy do I need the resurrection and the forgiveness and acceptance that the risen, living Christ provides.

May the peace of God be with you.

ONE MORE RULE

Way back when I was a theology student, one of the strongest rules I learned came from the professor teaching us pastoral counselling.  Our group was assigned to do our practical work in a long term care hospital specifically for people with chronic lung problems.  During our initial briefing, we were given this basic and most important rule: “Don’t sit on the patient’s hospital bed.”  This was undoubtedly an important rule–sitting on the bed while convenient for the visitor did tend to make movements that upset the patient and likely increased the possibility of catching something from or giving something to the patient.  I have tended to be pretty good about obeying that rule.

But an even more important rule for me has always been concerned with the love of God.  His rule is that he loves me unconditionally and permanently.  Nothing can make God love me more or less.  His love for me–and the rest of humanity–is basic and unchanging, a constant in the ever-changing universe that we inhabit.

This is one rule that I have no interest in challenging or changing.  But as I look at the church and how we have approached this rule over the years, I discover that unfortunately, none of us in the Christian faith has been all that great about keeping the reality of this foundational rule in front of us.  Some of what I read, hear, see and occasionally practise myself suggests that the rule about God’s absolute and unconditional love is open to flexible application.

There is a church group, for example that regularly proclaims that God hates homosexuals, although they prefer to use a derogatory term for homosexuals.  I have heard Christians suggest that we need to do something about Muslims because God doesn’t love them.  I know of believers who are anti-immigrant because it seems that to them, the love of God doesn’t apply to immigrants, at least from some places and from some historical periods.

There are also the traditional theological flash points in our faith where believers line up and call names or worse, on the assumption that God can’t really love someone who doesn’t believe in the inerrancy of the Bible or the right of homosexual couples to be legally married.  The aura of anger, hatred and nastiness seen in such confrontations brings into serious question the reality of God’s universal and unending love.

But if this one basic and foundational rule isn’t true or is open to interpretation or is seriously flexible, none of us has a chance.  If that rule that God loves all equally and totally isn’t true, then there is really no hope for any of us, given the reality that none of us is perfect.  I think we sometimes get so focused on pointing out the flaws and imperfections of other people that we forget to look at the reality of our own.   And if we do look at our own imperfections, they are obviously relatively minor, more like endearing quirks than actual sins and imperfections.

Maybe that is inflexible rule number 2:  none of us is perfect.   We are all in some way shape or form tainted by our personal experience of rebellion against God, which is what the Bible calls sin.  And because we are all in that category, we all need rule number one to be true:  we need God to love us no matter what.

And if loving us no matter what is God’s number one personal rule, then we who claim to follow God through Jesus probably need to put a whole lot more effort into understanding, following and showing that rule.  Now, keep in mind that God isn’t going to love us more if we do a good job of this nor is he going to love us less if we do a poor job of this.  He is going to love us with his pure, unending and unlimited love, just the way he did before creation and just the way he will continue to do for all eternity.

I may not always like the rules that limit how fast I can drive; I may get annoyed by the rule that says I need to wear a tie in topical heat; I may find the rules about standing in line irksome when I could easily push people out of my way–but this rule, the rule about God’s unlimited, unending, unchanging, eternal love–that rule I like and am glad that nothing in all creation can change it.

May the peace of God be with you.

I DESERVE THIS

            I was doing the supper dishes a while ago and was watching the 6:00 news as I worked–if I sit to watch the news at that time, it becomes the 6:00 snooze.  Anyway, one item concerned a complaint an individual was making about a funeral or rather his experience associated with the funeral.  I gave this more than the usual half-focus since as a pastor in small, aging rural communities, funerals are a bigger part of my life than that of most other people except for funeral directors.

According to the news report, he and his family arrived at the funeral location a bit late and discovered to their dismay that there were no parking spots handy.  So, he dropped off his passengers and set out to find a parking spot.  After the funeral, he went to retrieve the car and found that it had been clamped and would not be released until he paid a fine.  The news report went on to tell how upset he was, how unfair he felt this was, that he was attending a funeral and should have been shown some compassion.

While the news report was fairly obviously slanted in favour of the person complaining, they did at least point out that the man had decided to park in a private for profit parking lot that had very large and very prominent signs telling people it was only for permit holders and that violators would be clamped and fined.  Returning to find the car clamped and a fine being levied shouldn’t have been a surprise to the man in the story.  But it obviously was–he felt that he should be shown special consideration because he was attending a funeral.

The story set off a chain of thought in my mind.  We live in a culture where we are becoming more and more convinced that we are all an exception to the rule and should all be given special consideration.  There are rules and regulations and standards–but they simply shouldn’t apply to me.  And in a lot of cases, I am not concerned about this trend–some rules, regulations and standards are wrong and unjust and unfair and need to be challenged and changed.

I was born left-handed and had I been born just a few years earlier, I might have been forced to become right-handed, no matter that the change would likely have caused some physical and even psychological problems.  When the rules and regulations and standards are obviously affecting the freedom and equality of individuals and groups, they need to change.

But that is a different issue from the attitude of entitlement that suggests that everyone is an exception to everything.  It may sound like I am just an old-fashioned ranting Baptist preacher but that route is exactly the route that the first man and woman followed and is at the root of all human sin–we think we are important enough to be an exception to every rule and regulation and standard.  In Genesis 2.16-17, God made one rule for humanity–they were not to eat from a certain tree.  According to the story, at that point humanity consisted of one man and one woman, who ultimately decided that they were an exception to the rule,

I break rules a lot–in my writing, I have been known to deliberatively split infinitives; in my driving, I occasionally drive too fast; in my work, I often challenge and go against the accepted approach to church activity.  Sometimes, I do this because it makes sense.  Sometimes, I do this because it needs to be done.  Sometimes, I do it because I don’t know the rule.  But I decided a long time ago that when I break the rules, I need to be willing to accept the consequences. As an old prison adage puts it, “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.”

So, if and when I get caught for speeding, I won’t argue–I deserve the ticket because I chose to do something wrong.  And if I am caught speeding while on my way to a funeral, well, that is my problem.  Trying to make myself an exception to everything is really only the same thing Adam and Eve did and we all know that that didn’t work out well for anyone.

May the peace of God be with you.

A NOT VERY CHRISTIAN DRIVER

This is a too common and too true story about me.  I am driving on a highway going somewhere.  I have plenty of time to get where I am going–if I am driving, there will be lots of time because I always build into the trip time to stop for coffee, take a bathroom break, change a flat or write a book.  But as I am driving along at my desired speed (which won’t be mentioned to avoid self-incrimination), I pull up behind someone going slower that I want to go.

To make matters worse, it is impossible to pass the person immediately.  There is too much on-coming traffic or no passing lane or the road conditions are poor.  Whatever the reason, I am stuck behind the slower driver, forced to slow down and drive as what I consider a less than optimal speed.  Now, remember, I am not going to be late–I have built in enough time for the trip so that I could probably walk and still make it on time.

My response to the situation is to get very frustrated.  The longer I am behind the slow driver, the more frustrated I get.  When I run the route in my mind, I get even more frustrated when I realize that the next best passing spot is at least 3 minutes away–an eternity at this point.  Then, almost inevitably, I begin to question the sanity of the other driver, wondering why they are even allowed to be on the road, questioning what right they have to be there.  Soon, I wonder who they bribed to get a driver’s license–obviously someone so poor at driving couldn’t have actually passed a driving test.   Finally, the passing zone comes and I get by, making sure to think nasty thoughts about the other driver, his/her family, the driving instructor and inspector and anyone else as well on the way by.

I am not overly Christian when I drive, something that I have been becoming more and more aware of.  And when I am honest, I discover lots of other areas in my life where my Christian faith is set on the shelf while I deal with things in alternative ways.  I get very angry with pastors who abuse churches; I get incredibly judgemental and vengeful towards people who abuse children;  when I see intolerance, I become incredibly intolerant; hearing someone insult and denigrate another group of people caused me to become very insulting and denigrating towards them.

I could take some of the sting out of these revelations by suggesting that I am no different than anyone else but as tempting as that it, and as common as it is, being in the same bad category as a lot of other people doesn’t really deal with the fact that there are large areas of my life that have only a distant acquaintance with my Christian faith.  Knowing that nobody is perfect and that I am in good company doesn’t alter the fact that I am a sinner–nor does it make the confession any easier.

The essential struggle for me–and most other believers–is to deal with the reality that we aren’t what God meant us to be.  I am pretty sure that God’s original design plans for me didn’t include me being a rude, impatient and insulting driver.  I am equally convinced that somewhere in God’s blueprint for me was a specification for how I would drive as a person of faith.  In fact, I actually have read some of those specifications.  The design specs require Christian drivers to be kind, not rude, not self-seeking and not easily angered (I Corinthians 13).

I actually teach those design specifications to others–and get paid for it.  Granted, as a part-time pastor for small, struggling rural congregations,  I am not getting paid big bucks, but I am getting paid to tell other people how to drive as a Christian.  Some of the people paying me actually listen to me and maybe some of them are actually becoming more Christian in their driving.

I  need to listen to my own sermons–I need to practise what I preach.  I know that and have known that forever but every now and then, I need to remind myself that I need the lessons as well and that I need to grow in faith and learn how to integrate my faith into more and more of my life.

May the peace of God be with you.