A GOOD COMBINATION

There are some things in life that are just made to go together. Hamburgers obviously need fries to be complete. Abbot needs Costello to make the comedy work. The Old Testament needs the New Testament for the Christian revelation to be fully understood. A blank page (or computer screen these days) needs meaningful words to become something valuable and inspiring. A good stew needs uglai to be perfect. (If you haven’t tried stew and ugali, trust me—or better yet visit East Africa and try it out).

Another combination that makes sense but which works out less often that a burger and fries is the combination of a pastor and a congregation. When the combination works, it is a beautiful thing. When it doesn’t work, it is a disaster not only for the church and the pastor but also for the wider Christian community because it shows our inability to actually follow the faith that we claim.

There are a variety of reasons why the combination doesn’t work. Sometimes, both congregations and pastors enter the relationship without God’s clear leading. That combination is going to fail simply because it results from people presuming to know as much or more than God. They either ignore the need to consult God on the potential combination or assume that what they want it what God wants.

While that is unfortunately a more common reality than most churches and pastors want to admit, I am going to ignore it in this post—I may deal with it sometime. Today, I want to look at why a combination put together by God goes wrong. Presumably, if God in his infinite wisdom brings together a pastor and a combination, it is literally a match made in heaven—so why would it fail?

Most of the time, the match fails because one side or the other or both forget something vital and important. They forget that God himself has selected this congregation and this pastor to be linked together for this point in time. God created the combination because at the point in time the pastor and congregation come together, it is the very best for both in the ever unfolding divine plan for the redemption of creation.

That may sound like a pretty big understanding of what is a very common reality—afterall, there are probably millions of churches around the world and therefore millions of pastor/congregation combinations. Do all of them have that same divine seal of approval making that particular combination a significant and vital part of God’s overall plan of redemption? Well, if both congregation and pastor ( and denominational leadership where applicable) have faithfully engaged in the process and have been fully open to the leading of the Spirit, then yes, their combination is a divinely planned connection that has a part to play in the overall process of moving a sin-scarred world towards its eventual rebirth.

And if that is true, then congregation and pastor need to work together to discover what God envisions them as being a good combination. The gifts, talents, needs and potentials of both pastor and congregation have been carefully and divinely considered and the combination brought together so that the congregation can continue to develop in faith, so that the pastor can continue to develop in faith and so that the overall momentum leading to the full redemption of creation can be maintained. When either the pastor or congregation—or both—forget the divine reality behind their being together, the whole thing gets out of whack.

Instead of seeing their combination as being for the betterment of both and the advancement of the kingdom, each side sees only what they want and seek to achieve it at the expense of the other—and also at the expense of putting yet another kink in the overall plan of redemption which God then has to work around.

Much better for both pastor and congregation to recognize the divine nature of their calling, to accept the need for mutual submission, to humbly seek the Spirit’s guidance as they seek to discover and express the reason for their coming together. When pastor and congregation mutually submit to each other and all submit to God, they are truly a good combination that will work even better than stew and ugali because stew and uglai will have a temporary effect while a good combination of pastor and congregation will have eternal effects.

May the peace of God be with you.

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GETTING BETTER!?

My list of hoped for gifts always includes gift certificates for the various ebook sources I regularly buy from. Every gift event throughout the year gives me a few certificates, which I ration out over the course of the year, picking and choosing books that look interesting. I recently finished one of the resulting purchases. I didn’t particularly agree with everything the writer said, which is always a plus for me—why bother to read something I already agree with?

One of the themes of this book was that humanity is getting better and better. As a species we are maturing and developing and becoming….The writer couldn’t actually say what we were becoming—but I will get to that in a bit.

In many ways, he was repeating an idea in vogue near the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Now, I am old but not that old but some of the reading I have done so much of over the years supplied this information. At that point, various writers were assuring us that humanity was getting better and better all the time. Those writers did have a goal and a direction in mind. Many of them were writing from a Christian perspective and were sure that humanity was becoming more and more what God planned us to be.

The recent book I read wasn’t written from a Christian perspective and so had more trouble saying where we were going as a species. Since he was approaching everything from an evolutionary perspective, the best he could suggest was that we were evolving well.

I find it interesting that this idea of the perfectibility of humanity is still being trotted out. The evidence is stacked seriously against this thesis. The Christian run at the theory in the late 1800s and early 1900s was pretty much destroyed by the horror of World War I. Any remnants and holdouts were wiped out by World War II. The present restatement of the theory sounds good but really only works if you squint so that you don’t see the evil that stalks humanity today.

If you can overlook the modern day racial, cultural, economic, sectarian, political and other unnamed divisions that are hardening into life choices; if you can pretend that people seem to believe that killing a bunch of people is a legitimate way to settle differences or make a political point; if you can tune out all the anonymous hatred that social media enables and supports; if we can ignore the abuse, disrespect and comidification of the weak by the strong—if you can do all that and ignore a bunch more stuff, well then humanity is getting much better.

I can’t ignore the evil and consequent suffering. I would like to be able to think that humanity is getting more and more Christian. I would be willing to settle for humanity to be evolving into some vague better reality. But the evidence is just too powerful for me to accept such ideas. There are certainly individuals and groups who manage to overcome humanity’s drive to cause pain. There are times and places where we humans actually treat each other well.

But on the whole, the idea of a perfect humanity will always crash on the rocks of the inherent evil that plagues our species. I approach this issue as a Christian and we have a theological explanation for the problem—we are sinful. Essentially, we are self-centered and want the world to revolve around us. If you don’t want to approach the problem from a faith perspective, we might suggest that there is something flaw in our generic make up that drives us to make choices that have negative consequences for ourselves and others, choices which can and do threaten the existence not just of our species but of many others as well.

I will stick to the Christian line of thought—it is what I know and what I believe. As Christians, we believe that there is an answer to the problem of evil, especially the evil that comes about as a result of the selfishness of humanity. The answer isn’t found within us, nor is it found in the possibility of a random genetic mutation that makes us better. We need to surrender our selfishness to God because only by getting out of ourselves can we become more than we are.

May the peace of God be with you.

WAITING

Right now, I am waiting to find out when I will have surgery. I am also waiting for enough snow of the right kind to go cross-country skiing. I am waiting for our spring vacation (which might be cancelled because of the coming surgery). I am waiting to hear if the group that was interested in having me speak at an event has made a final decision about my coming. I am waiting for the next StarWars movie. I am also waiting for retirement, buying a house, knee replacements and tons of other things, including the dishwasher finishing its cycle so I can unload it.

It might just be me at the stage of life I currently occupy but it seems to me that we human beings spend a lot of time waiting. Waiting often requires patience and my relative lack of patience might be part of the reason I find waiting difficult. I have never been good at waiting—all the experience I have at waiting hasn’t actually translated into making waiting all that easy.

I have, of course, learned lots of tricks and techniques. I always have a book or two with me. These days, that is much easier thanks to smart phones. Having my books on the phone also has another benefit—when I get tired of the book, I can switch to the games on the phone. Also, given that many waiting rooms these days no longer provide newspapers or back issues of magazines, I always have something to do while I wait. I can also watch people, which is great when there are other people around. Watching other people handle the waiting process poorly is a big help in keeping myself from dealing poorly with the waiting.

But these and other tricks only mask the real problem. I don’t much like waiting, especially when I am waiting in North America. I am a bit more comfortable waiting in Kenya—my cultural training and insight seems to allow me to deal with reality of waiting in Kenya better than I deal with it in Canada. But even then, waiting is a chore. Whether it is waiting 2 minutes for my wife, 10 minutes to see my doctor, 2 hours for my car to be serviced, several weeks for surgery or months until the next StarWars, waiting is hard—I am not blessed with an abundance of patience.

Actually, that isn’t true. Like all who follow the Christian faith, I have been given all the patience that I need. Becoming a believer brings with it the presence of the Holy Spirit and according to Galatians 5.22, one of the fruit of the presence of Spirit is patience, along with a bunch of other stuff. So, as an individual, I might suffer from a lack of patience but as a follower of Christ, I have all the patience I will ever need, made available to me from God himself through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

So, if that is true, how come I get fidgety when the wait is 60 seconds, annoyed when it is 5 minutes and have to have something else to do when it is longer than 10 minutes? How come the divine patience doesn’t just wash over me and allow me to peacefully and placidly and patiently wait? Am I missing something somewhere? Maybe I have to enter a user name and password on some form somewhere to access the patience sitting in my account, just like when I access some of my ebooks?

No—the problem isn’t technical. It is personal. God gives in abundance and freely but I don’t always want to open myself to the abundance that God gives. Accepting what God gives doesn’t just imply that I need something—it bluntly and blatantly states that I am less than perfect and need what God is so willing to give. I have to confront my imperfection and admit my needs before I can admit that I need what God is so willing to give. In short, I am pretty much a normal person who struggles with admitting that I need God.

Fortunately, I have recognized this need and accepted the grace of God offered in the risen and living Christ. Now, as I wait, God is at work, helping me see how this works out in all areas of my life, including the waiting.

May the peace (and patience) of God be with you.

MUTUAL SUBMISSION

One of the overlooked themes in the New Testament teaching on the Christian faith is the idea of submission. The idea of submission is clear and not subtle, as we see in Ephesians 5.21, for example: Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (NIV). The problem, though, is that we western Christians have serious issues with the concept of submission.

That is partly based on our perception that submission is the same as surrender. We tend to see submission as giving up, letting our lives be taken over by someone or something else—and real, independent, self-respecting western believers don’t want to surrender anything to anyone. They will have to pry our independence out of our cold dead hands. Of course, if people want to submit to us, well that is great—it might even be an act of wisdom on their part since we likely know better than them anyway.

But I am pretty sure that the New Testament idea of submission is based on something very different from surrender and giving up. To start with, remember that the context of the teaching on submission in relationships begins with the need to love each other as Christ lives us (John 13.34-35). This gives us a very different context for submission. Submission in the Christian sense isn’t about winning and losing or gaining or giving up power. It isn’t about making people do what we want or giving in and doing what they want. And even more, it isn’t about losing ourselves and becoming mindless automatons controlled by the need to submit to everything.

Mutual submission in the Christian faith begins with a commitment to love each other with the same kind of sincere, powerful love that Christ showed us. He was willing to die for us—and even more, willing to live for us and make it possible for us to be with him always. Along the way, he offers help in whatever we need, while at the same time always respecting our freedom, even our freedom to be stupid and/or sinful.

To love as Jesus loved doesn’t take away from who we are—it actually requires that we know who we are and offer ourselves to other believers, just as they know who they are and offer themselves to us. We seek to be of service to each other, a service that may at times require self-sacrifice but which more likely requires a giving of our real self. We seek to love the other person as they are while being there for them as appropriate. We seek to let others love us this way as well. Christian love isn’t about dominance or control or manipulation. It is about a commitment to each other before God that enables each person to become the fullness of what they were meant to be as we grow towards God.

Within the context of Christian love, we learn to submit to each other. This submission is a willingness to recognize that we need each other and at times, one or the other is going to have a better sense of God and his desire in any given situation. Mutual submission recognizes both the weakness and the strength of individuals and makes choice that are appropriate in each context.

When the gathering of believers meets to discuss the colour scheme of the sanctuary, I submit to the leading of fellow believers who can actually see colours. The reality of my colour-blindness makes any comments about colour I make worthless. On the other hand, when the discussion of which colours to use gets heated and threatens to get out of hand, the group might be wise to submit to my attempts to help us move to a more loving process—one of the things I do know how to do is help groups have positive discussions about difficult topics. As we recognize each other’s gifts, strengths and weaknesses in the context of loving each other in the way Jesus love us, we learn how to submit to each other.

Far from being a surrender, mutual submission is a powerful expression of the reality of our faith. We can and do love and respect each other enough to let the Spirit work through each as appropriate in the situation. Mutual submission among believers isn’t about some winning and some losing but about all winning as we together seek to help each other grow closer to each other and to God.

May the peace of God be with you.