A GOOD CHURCH

I have never been called to serve as the pastor of a perfect church. In fact, sometimes, I have found myself called to churches which were struggling with some serious dysfunction. I have also had contact with a lot of other churches over the years and have yet to find a perfect church. Because of the nature of the connections I have had with many congregations, I have often ended up discovering the hidden dysfunction in even the best of churches.

Now, I want to be clear at this point—I don’t go looking for the problems in various congregations. I am actually not overly interested in the internal dynamics of other congregations—most of the time, it takes most of my energy and ambition to cope with the realities of the congregations that I have been called to serve. But because I have taught pastors, written about the struggles of small churches and been the pastor of churches with open problems, I have learned much more about many congregations than I want to know.

The end result of all this experience with churches is the depressing insight that there are no perfect churches. That might seem like a totally unnecessary statement of the obvious to some people. But I think many people pay lip service to the imperfection of churches while at the same time assuming that the congregation they are part of or want to be part of is somehow an exception to the rule. Whatever the reason, there are plenty of believers out there looking for the perfect congregation.

To those of you still looking, let me be clear: there are no perfect churches. They don’t exist. Every Christian congregation in the world is going to be a confusing blend of good and bad; right and wrong; inspiring and depressing; perfection and imperfection. The congregation that produces the deeply spiritual Good Friday worship will also discriminate against some people groups. The congregation that condemns any deviation from their norms loudly and publically will also love and care for their disabled members in ways that put others to shame.

No matter what the congregation looks like from the outside, once you become a part of it, you will see both the good and the bad. Well, actually, you might see both, although there is a more than even chance that you will only see one or the other. We human beings are prone to selective vision so we can and do block out the parts we don’t want to see. But if we are honest with ourselves, we will soon discover that the great congregation has some serious problems and the dysfunctional congregation has some seriously good expressions of the faith.

There are no perfect Christian congregations. There are just gatherings of believers who are trying to work at and work out their faith in the context of a Christian community. Running through the whole of the New Testament is the assumption that believers will form communities and that these communities, which we call churches, will be imperfect expressions of the ideal that the New Testament writers keep pointing is towards. Many of the letters in the New Testament were actually written in response to the lack of perfection in various congregations.

Very early in ministry, I realized some implications of the lack of perfect congregations. If there are no perfect congregations, I will never be called to one—and even more importantly, I will never create one. My ministry goal isn’t to create a perfect congregation but to work with the imperfect congregation I have been called to so that together, we can overcome some of the imperfection and dysfunction and become a better congregation—not a perfect one but a better one. And the goal of every member of every congregation should be the same. We become part of a congregation and seek to use our gifts to make an imperfect gathering a better gathering, all the while recognizing that we are never going to be perfect.

Rather than look for a different congregation when we see the problems in the one we are at—or give up on the church completely, as some have done, our response to the reality of imperfection in the church probably needs to be confession of our part in the imperfection, acceptance of the reality of the imperfection and commitment to doing what we can to make things better. We might never become a perfect church but we can become a good church.

May the peace of God be with you.

Advertisements

CHURCH GROWTH

I was reading an article recently dealing with church growth. Now, I am not normally a fan of church growth articles but this was from someone whose stuff I read regularly and who almost always has good stuff to say. I liked what he had to say in the article but I was actually more interested in a chain of thought that developed for me as I was reading and afterwards.

I pastor small churches, churches which have a stable and involved attendance. We know each other; we appreciate each other; we are aware of each other’s gifts and abilities; we generally know why someone isn’t present. Our small numbers present some problems at times because we lack bodies to do specific jobs—or, as is sometimes the case, the bodies we have are no longer capable of the jobs that need to be done.

It would be nice to have more people, which I suppose puts me in the category of church growth supporter. But I realized that I simply don’t see church growth in the same way as some people do. Often, church growth is presented in terms of statistical analysis, with suggestions that a certain growth rate is healthy; that a certain percentage of the community is open to evangelism; that various approaches to outreach have specified success rates. The discussions and planning focus on numbers.

But my thinking goes in a totally different direction, something I realized as I was reading that article after a week in which I had two funerals in one of the pastorates I serve. Both were men who were well known in the community and had many connections, which meant that many of the same people attended both funerals. Before and after the service, I had a chance to connect with many of those attending. Both church and non-church people were there and since I have lived in this area for almost than 40 years, I knew most of the people attending.

So, at one point, a couple coming in to the second funeral was held up in the line to sign the condolence book. The husband looked at me and said that this was the third death he had to deal with this week. His voice was shaky and his eyes were watery—and this from a strong, no nonsense, salt of the earth man who normally appeared unflappable. But he was obviously affected by these losses.

He and his wife have been on the fringes of the church for as long as a I can remember: their kids were part of our kids programs, they attended concerts and special events, they probably gave money when the church was hurting financially a while ago, they show up at all fund raisers, they both have shown an openness to the things of faith. But they don’t attend worship.

I realized that when I think church growth, I think of people like this. I am not actually thinking about statistical increases and rate of growth possibilities. In the end, I am concerned with how I can help people like this couple make their faith more a part of their lives. Or I think of some of the family members who attended funerals, wondering how we as a church can somehow become more responsive to their needs. Or I wonder how we can atone for the stupidities of our church past that prevents some people from becoming more involved.

I don’t actually want a bigger church—I want a church that these people a part of it. Sure, that likely means that our churches will grow. But it isn’t the growth that I want. I probably won’t even know the percentage increase—and wouldn’t care if someone told me. I am concerned about specific people, some of whom I know and many of whom I don’t yet know. And so I don’t think much about church growth.

I do think a lot about ministry, how I look after the people I have been called to shepherd and how we as a church minister to the people we see every day. We already have a significant relationship with these people and many of them look to us for spiritual support. I want to provide them with more of the love and grace that God has for them. That is my version of church growth.

May the peace of God be with you.

A PLACE TO STAND

When I was young, both chronologically and spiritually, I lived in a time and place where the physical and theological grounding of life were clear and firm and solid and comforting. Life was easy because there were clear answers and everything was simple. School, home, church, culture all gave the same answers for the same issues and we all agreed on them.

Of course, there was that somewhat confusing set of events when I was 9 or 10 when we switched from one denominational church to another but there was a simple answer for that helped ease my confusion. My father, who hadn’t attended worship decided that it was time to attend but he would only go to the church that was his, or at least where my grandparents attended. That was an acceptable answer because family was always important in our world.

But as I grew chronologically and theologically, I began to run into more and more troubling realities, places where my firm footing was suddenly shaken. The ground under my feet turned from bedrock to sand, gravel or even mud. I discovered, for example, that my treasured KJV Bible wasn’t acceptable for the introductory Biblical studies course—I had to buy and read a different translation. Things got even worse when I realized that I actually liked that translation.

It kept getting shaky. I discovered that some people didn’t actually walk the aisle to become believers. Some weren’t baptized like I was. Some found comfort and encouragement in other denominations. Even worse, there were some people who believed—and practised—the scary idea that a Christian could drink alcohol. And then, somewhere along the line, I discovered that some Christians actually engaged in pre-marital sex. And then, I discovered that some people called themselves believers and were willing to accept the idea that Jesus was more of a mythical figure than a real person. A few suggested that maybe Christians could be found in all political parties and all denominations. And then, the biggest blow of all—some were suggesting that there wasn’t actually any rock in the first place, that everything was relative and flexible and sort of muddy anyway.

Slowly and painfully, the ground I stood on was becoming shakier and muddier and was often more of a trap than a solid support. I sometimes felt that I was wallowing in a mud pit rather than standing on the solid rock—and then I heard a lecture about plate tectonics that told me that even solid bedrock of the earth was in motion. While I didn’t have a crisis of some sort, I did need something, a place to stand that I could be sure of.

One temptation was to decide that the mud I was standing in was actually solid rock. If I called the mud rock long enough and was loud enough and sure enough and strong enough, I could petrify the mud and move everything back to the past when my place to stand was big and solid and comforting. That was a real temptation, one that many people I know have tried to use.

But for me, mud is mud—calling it rock and pretending it was solid really didn’t make it any less muddy. I decided that I needed a different answer. Instead of trying to turn mud into rock, I would find the solid rock, the places where I could stand that were going to support me and enable me to keep going.
I discovered some solid ground—or perhaps it is better to say that God through the Holy Spirit led me to some solid ground. I don’t have a lot of solid ground but what I have is real and strong and unchanging—and most of all, it is sufficient. Standing on that bedrock allows me to engage the mud all around me—and I discovered that I actually enjoy the mud to some extent when I am not in danger of drowning in it or getting stuck.

I don’t have as many answers as I had when I lived in that long ago time of endless solid rock. But I do have some answers, answers that give me a place to stand as I interact with the mud and relativity that marks most of life. And the solidest and most important part of the bedrock is the grace that God extends to me and everyone else.

May the peace of God be with you.

USING THE MIRROR

I gave up shaving a long time ago—why waste so much time on an activity that doesn’t do all that much for me in the long run? Having a beard has many benefits but it does mean that I don’t actually spend much time in front of mirrors, a fact that get emphasized now and then when my wife suggests that it is time to get my beard trimmed. It isn’t that I never use the mirror—its just that I don’t actually pay much attention when I am brushing my teeth in front of the mirror and so don’t really notice that both my beard and what hair I have left are getting somewhat shaggy.

I find it interesting, though, that looking in the mirror is one of the minor themes in the New Testament associated with spiritual growth and development. In James 1.23-24, the writer makes this comment: “Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.” (NIV) Reading the Bible, according to James, is supposed to be a lot like looking in a mirror—we need to see ourselves and deal with ourselves.

One of the most serious problems facing the church is the lack of believers actually reading the Bible because it leads to an even more serious problem of believers not actually following the Bible or even worse, doing exactly the opposite of what God teaches us through the Bible and thinking it is God’s will. In my persistent efforts to get believers to read the Bible, I have a reason beyond reading the words—I want people to read the Bible so that they can discover themselves in its pages.

We are all in the Bible. In fact, we are all there in two or perhaps three versions. The first version is the familiar one, the version of ourselves as we are. Granted, the Bible doesn’t actually mention left-handed, colour blind introverts as a class (although left-handed people are mentioned). But on a deeper level, we are all in the Bible. We are shown our essential selfishness, our inability to consistently do what we know we should so, our distance from God. We all show up as we are.

But we also show us as we could be. We are given glimpses of the original plan, the one where we are together with God, discovering the wonder of who we were meant to be and how great being with God really and what we were meant for before we messed it all up. And then, we are also show the third version, the us that floats between what we are and what we can be, the version that all believers spend their lives struggling with and against.

The point of reading the Bible is so that we can see ourselves as we are, commit to becoming what we were meant to be and most importantly, discovering the divine power and help we need as we struggle in the intermediate stage where we will live all of our faith life. We don’t read to discover who was the fourth king of Israel, although that is interesting. We read so that we can see who we are and discover how we can become what we were meant to be.

Sometimes, I think that all the reluctance to read the Bible; all the debates over which version of the Bible to read; all the fierce disagreements over interpretations; all the wrangling and bickering over that bits and pieces of the Bible are popular simply to help us avoid seeing ourselves in its pages—because when we see ourselves as we really are, we are challenged to become what we were meant to be and can be. It is easier to fight each other over which translation of the Bible God wants us to use than it is to fight our selfishness to become the version of us that God meant us to be. Really reading the Bible challenges us with both our failures and our potential.

But it also gives us hope. The God who gave us the Bible and our salvation also gives us all the help and hope we need as we move from what we are to what we can be—just look in the mirror and follow the directions we find there.

May the peace of God be with you.

FAITH, GENDER AND BEING ME

Issues surrounding gender have been making the news a lot these days. And, as is often the case, the church hasn’t been as helpful as it might be in helping people discover a way to deal with the issues being raised. I just finished reading a book promising to help me become a better Christian male. As a disclaimer, I will say I didn’t actually buy the book—it was offered free from a website that sends me frequent lists of offers.

To be fair, there was nothing in the book that upset or offended me. The book was calling for men who are believers to be more Christ-like: honest, moral, compassionate, committed and so on. All these are good qualities and many men of faith would benefit from using the power of the Holy Spirit to cultivate them. I don’t know but I would assume that any of the many books pitched towards Christian men would have similar themes. There is also a whole segment of the evangelical book market focused on helping Christian women become better Christian women—I confess to not having read any of them, partly because none of them have been offered to me free of cost.

My question and concern about the whole evangelical gendered spiritual growth industry deals with its validity and necessity. The one book I have read on developing good male Christianity seemed to me to be a good book for any Christian to read and follow. Good faith seems to me to be gender neutral. Our relationship with God through Christ doesn’t seem to have different categories for different genders.

Certainly, gender is a reality of life. I am male and that does make some real differences in my life. One basic difference, for example, is that I will never be a biological mother—my gender gives me the biological father part of the process. And there are probably some intrinsic gender differences that crop up along the way—but they may not be as rigid as people sometimes believe. I taught our sons and our daughter how to play ball, light a campfire and cook spaghetti. I also gave all of them a swiss army knife when they reached the age of mature knife ownership—and I didn’t get a pink one for our daughter.

Being a Christian is a process of moving from what we were in our pre-Christian state to what we will eventually be in our heavenly state. And since there is good evidence that gender will not be a significant factor in heaven, maybe the route that suggests there are different requirements for male and female Christians misses the point. Maybe we are actually looking to become the version of ourselves that God meant us to be.
That process of seeking to Holy Spirit’s guidance to discover, understand and deal with the rough edges caused by human sinfulness has a bigger focus than gender. Most of the teaching about growing in faith in the New Testament is gender neutral—and a lot of it is actually quite inclusive, or at least as inclusive as it can be coming from a culture that was very gender dominated. Galatians 3.28, for example, is pretty gender neutral: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” NIV

Gender does exist in our world and I am sure that there are some aspects of the Christian growth process that are affected by gender. But it just may be that we have actually gone too far with the gendering of the faith and allowed culture and bias and prejudice to become more important in our approach than the Holy Spirit or the Bible. According to the free book I read, being a Christian male means that I have to be honest, compassionate and caring—but those traits are basic requirements for all believers. Some of us male Christians may need to work a bit harder to develop them because of our cultural biases but they are definitely not just for male believers.

Mostly, we are called to grow in Christ-likeness. And while Christ identified as a male while on Earth, that doesn’t appear to be an endorsement of one gender over another. All of us are to move towards Christ-likeness, a process that probably doesn’t involve gender as much as some might think it does.

May the peace of God be with you.

I BELIEVE…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

LET US PRAY

For a while now, I have been pondering a reality of my spiritual life. As a pastor, I pray a lot—every worship service has several prayers included, as well as the prayer I have with the choir before we begin. It is not unusual for me to pray with parishioners before or after worship if the situation warrants it. When there is a meal or fellowship time, I pray for the food. When I make a pastoral visit in a home or hospital, I generally pray with the people I visit. I have also prayed during phone calls and occasionally on the street with someone who obviously needs the divine support that prayer helps us to remember. Overall, I pray a lot.

Except, I actually don’t, at least outside of professional prayers. My personal prayer life has gone through a lot of phases but for the last few years, I don’t actually have a specific prayer time. I used to have long and ever growing prayer lists: one for the ministry I was involved in, one for family and friends, one for things in the news that caught my eye. I would read my Bible and then pray through the lists. Sometimes the lists were so long that I would do some lists some days and other lists on other days—organizing is one of my gifts.

But one day, I realized that the prayer list driven prayers were just not doing it for me. I realized that I was just running over the names and topics as if I was reading the grocery list. I wasn’t really involved in the list—I wasn’t actually sure that what I was doing could actually be classified as prayer. Now, before I go further, let me assure anyone who used and finds value in prayer lists that I am not going to bash the process or people who do it. I am dealing with my personal prayers, not someone else’s. I know that prayer lists are an important spiritual aid for many people and that is great—I support and encourage anything that helps people grow in faith.

But for me, the process wasn’t working and so one day during my morning devotional time, I simply decided to stop doing the lists. I threw out the papers and didn’t do it anymore. I still have a devotional time but it involves reading the Bible, which has been and is important to my spiritual development. I could perhaps suggest that I have developed some alternate devotional technique that involves me praying the Scripture that I am reading but that really isn’t the case. When I read the Bible, I am thinking and focused on what I am reading.

Sometimes, when I am sitting on my office (the Ikea chair by the living room window), I close my eyes and engage in prayer about some issue in ministry or my life that concerns me. I thought this might be a good prayer technique and it is a great technique, for the 30 seconds it takes me to fall asleep. It is probably valuable but then again that might just be the result of the nap.

As I have pondered this over the last few years, I realized that my prayer life kind of reflects the rest of my life. In most of my relationships, I don’t actually talk a lot. Outside of preaching and some parts of Bible Study, I generally do a whole lot more listening than I do talking. I am quite at home listening to people and generally feel most comfortable in a conversation when I get to listen and others get to talk.

I am not an entirely passive individual though. I can and do talk—and can be quite forceful when I need to be. But even then, I am likely going to say what I need to say with as few words as possible—why use 10 words when 2 will are perfectly capable of expressing everything I want to say?

So, with that insight in place, I looked at my personal prayers again. I don’t actually talk to God a lot—but when I do, it is times that are important to me and I say what I need to say with the same economy of words I use in any conversation. I try to listen to and for God. So, maybe I do pray—in a way that fits my personality. For now, it seems to work for me—but that just might be due more to the limitless grace of God than any great spiritual wisdom on my part.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT ABOUT THE CHURCH?

I have been quoting an interesting statistic for several years ago, every since I discovered it in a book written by a friend. In discussing the state of the Christian faith in Canada, he mentioned that about 16% of Canadians attend Christian worship these days. I have seen other statistics that put the number slightly higher but none of the other statistical pictures of the church in Canada put attendance all that much higher.

A quick and very unscientific (on my part, anyway) web search reveals that a majority of Canadians still claim to be believers. The sites all make the usual disclaimers about statistical validity and so on and some lament that the numbers claiming faith have dropped over the years but the reality is that most people in Canada still claim to be followers of Christ.

For me, that raises a very important and troubling question. If people claim to be followers of Christ, why aren’t they in worship? You might suggest that that is a very biased and self-focused question, given that I am a pastor and have a vested interest in people attending worship. But I am choosing to overlook that part of the question for now—over the years, I have become comfortable with being the pastor of small congregations. I am excited when someone new discovers the church and/or the faith but I don’t define myself or my ministry by the numbers.

I approach the question as one who would like to know why the discrepancy exists. Surely, if we are part of something, we would be interested in being with people who are also part of that something. People seem to love to connect with those who share their thinking and interests. If I put out an invitation for left-handed, colour-blind people who like photography and cross country skiing but who are limited by seriously arthritic knees, I am pretty sure that before too long, I would have enough responses to form a club—by the way, I don’t want to be president, secretary or treasurer.

So why do such a significant number of people who claim to follow Christ not associate with other believers? Like any significant question, I am sure that there are many interlinked answers to that question, answers that I have been hearing and thinking about for many years. This isn’t an easy question nor it is one that can be answered with a simple or simplistic response.

One of the factors in the answer is certainly a lack of understanding of the nature of the church. Many people in Canada—well probably the whole Western world, but I am really only qualified to talk about Canada—many people here have either forgotten or never really understood the strong community base of the Christian faith. Christianity was conceived as a faith that brings about reconciliation. People are reconciled to God, to themselves and to others.

There is a lot of emphasis on the community in the Christian faith, including the very blunt and powerful message we find in I John 4.20-21: “If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.” (NIV)

This was written to believers to help them understand one of the essentials of their faith—our love of God is shown for what it really is in our relationship with other people, especially other believers. If we can’t actually use our faith in God to enhance our relationships with people who share our faith, then our claimed faith isn’t as significant as we think or hope it is.

In the New Testament, to be a believer is to be a part of a group of believers because it is within and through that group that we have our best opportunity to grow in faith. As we interact with each other in the presence of the Holy Spirit, we are enabled and enabling in the faith. That is the point of the church—it was planned as the safe place where faith can be cultivated and grown and expressed. But for a variety of reasons, believers have forgotten or ignored that important reality—to the detriment of both church and individual believers.

May the peace of God be with you.

COERCION OR CONVICTION?

I often find myself walking on a theological tight rope. I believe that God in Christ loves us with a perfect, unending and unconditional love. He loves us as we are—and the proof of that love and grace are seen clearly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. There is nothing I could, can or might do that will ever make God love me less or more; nothing that will limit or increase the grace that he offers to me through Jesus Christ. This is a basic and foundational reality of my faith.

If I just had this reality, I would be fine. Unfortunately, there is another equally valid reality that I need to deal with. I am not what I was meant to be. My being has been affected by sin—mine and others. Some of the effect isn’t my fault—it comes from living in a world deeply affected by human sin. But some of the effect of sin is my fault. I have made choices and followed paths that have taken me further and further away from the ideal that God had in mind when he began the creation process.

The tightrope I walk is the struggle to find the balance between these two realities. If I begin to believe that God’s love and grace are so powerful that my current imperfect state doesn’t matter, I will never grow in faith. But if I spend too much time on my imperfection, I run the risk of beginning to let my imperfection block my ability to appreciate the love and grace of God.

In both my ministry and my personal spiritual life, I have had to deal with the consequences of ignoring one of these realities and focusing too much on the other. Because I belong to the conservative part of the Christian faith, I am very familiar with the traditional conservative approach to this dichotomy. We have tended to see our imperfection more than we have seen the love of God.

We end up believing, but pretty sure that we are not good enough for God. We tend to be insecure about our faith—there is always the fear that some Biblical scholar is going to suddenly realize that the Bible actually says that God only loves us when we become perfect. We on the conservative side of the faith tend to do our faith thing from a sense of fear—we understand really well that we aren’t good enough but we really struggle to find the balance that a proper awareness of the love and grace of God will bring.

There are other believers whose sense of the love and grace of God allow them to completely ignore their imperfection—because God loves them, they can and do follow any path they want. Content and comfortable in the powerful love of God, they have no need to look at who they are and who they were meant to be.

For me, though, I need to be at the balance point. I know my imperfections, the places where I need to grow, the things I need to change. But I also need to remember that God in Christ loves me the way I am. He doesn’t want to change the negative parts of my being so that he can love me more. Part of the expression of his eternal love and grace is the willingness to help me discover more of what I was really meant to be, not so that God can love me more but simply so that I can be more me.

When I keep this balance, I am comfortable. I can grow and develop—or fail and not develop in the safe and protected limitlessness of God’s love. I don’t seek to grow because God coerces me. I seek to grow because the God who loves me also wants me to experience the good and wonderful that I have been keeping myself from experiencing because of the reality of sin.

Whether I grow on not, God’s love and grace continue to be there. But if I am willing to grow, I become more and more of what I was meant to be. God will not love me more either way—but I am more comfortable and more at home with myself, others and God when I open myself to grow as God leads me.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHO AM I?

The classroom was hot, stuffy and basic. We didn’t even have a blackboard—just a square of black paint on the white wall. But we were working hard. Some of the students were sure that Jesus’ main message was one of judgement and demand. I was asking them where love and grace fit into the picture. The discussion kept going around and around, with each of us making claims and counter-claims.

As the teacher, I realized I was losing control and had better do something to get things back on track. So, I suggested that all of us were making a mistake—we were trying to define Jesus based on our desires, our cultural perceptions and the theology we had absorbed over the years. I suggested that had better stop and take to time to read the Gospel accounts of Jesus because unless we made use of that basic and most primary of resources, we were all arguing from ignorance and personal preference.

Since issuing that challenge, I have spend a lot of time looking at what God has told us about Jesus. I began with the Gospels, which gave me a firm and solid base. It also moved me into the rest of the Scripture as I discovered the need to know how the rest of the Bible tied in with the Gospels. My abilities in reading Greek and Hebrew were sufficient to pass both courses in university but truthfully, not all that good in practise. I compensated by reading a variety of translations to see how others had understood the texts. I very quickly realized that I could read the Bible through in about a year if I could discipline myself to followed a basic and simple reading plan—three chapters of the OT and 2 of the NT every day. I supplemented this basic reading with more focused reading and in depth study at various times along the way.

The results have been important and significant and crucial to my faith. Often, the most important things I learned was what Jesus wasn’t. Jesus wasn’t a white westerner, for example. Jesus wasn’t a capitalist—or a socialist for that matter. He actually wasn’t even a Baptist, although some suggest that his cousin was and that gives him a family tie with us Baptists. I discovered that Jesus wasn’t particularly conservative or liberal when it came to politics.

I also discovered that Jesus was deeply and powerfully concerned with the reality of the human condition—and he mostly dealt with the human condition one person at a time. I also learned something that has made me increasingly uncomfortable over the years. I learned that Jesus tended to have hard and pointed words of disapproval for religious people and leaders who refused to distinguish between their wants and desires and what God was saying in and through Jesus. Trying to appropriate Jesus for personal means gets some serious negative comments both from Jesus himself and others in the Bible.

The more I have tried to discover Jesus, the more I discover how hard to is to discover Jesus. This isn’t because Jesus is hard to discover. It is true that there is lots of stuff about Jesus that is hard to understand mostly because Jesus is both the fullness of God and the fullness of humanity. But most of the problem with understanding who Jesus really is comes from my inability to fully differentiate Jesus and me. I want Jesus not only to love me but also to approve of me and validate me completely.

But Jesus keeps frustrating me. He loves me with an undying and eternal love—but he keeps calling me to become something I am not. He accepts me with a basic acceptance that assures me that I am with him always—but he also keeps pointing at beloved parts of me and suggesting that with his help, I can do better. He gave of himself completely so that I could be with him—but he also keeps suggesting that that great idea I have might not be completely valid or acceptable.

There are some days when I might rather have the Jesus I used to follow, the Jesus who followed me more than I actually followed him—but in the end, most of the time, I prefer to follow the Jesus I have been discovering, Jesus revealed to us by God.

May the peace of God be with you.