TWO BUILDINGS

One of the realities of being a pastor for rural churches is that I get to work in some really old buildings. One Sunday recently, both worship services occurred in old buildings. One dates back to 1835 and the other to 1833. In another pastorate, we were responsible for a building that was put up in 1810. By European standards, these are of course relatively new buildings—but by our standards, they are very old.

These buildings have all the drawbacks that you might expect from such an old building: limited facilities, inadequate electricity, inefficient heating systems, no cooling system, poor parking, uncomfortable and fixed seating. Most of them are wooden buildings, which always need serious work—the 1835 building needs sills replaced and the 1833 building has had major work done recently. The majority of them indicate their age with the tell tale scent of mold and decay. Basic maintenance jobs tend to be expensive and eat up lots of time, energy and money getting them taken care of.

There are some advantages to the buildings: we have a place for our church to gather, we can enjoy the old-time craftsmanship, we can complain about the hard seats. If we get enough money and support, we can and so make some modifications that make them better for our purposes.

But lots of people ask why we are so committed to these old, expensive, inefficient buildings. Generally, the only people not asking that question are the ones who have regularly worshipped in the buildings year after year. New comers, people from away, leaders of bigger congregations in other places, denominational dealership, even theology professors ask the question a lot, sometimes assuming that just because they ask the question, we inhabiting these old buildings will see the light and abandon the buildings.

But those of us who worship in such buildings aren’t asking the question. A person like me who has pastored congregations like this for years used to ask the question. These days, I don’t bother asking because I know the answer. Why do we in small churches keep meeting in old, antiquated, expensive to maintain and heat buildings? The answer is simple: because we can.

We don’t worship the building—well, maybe a few do. Mostly, we continue to inhabit our buildings because they are ours. We worship week after week and the building itself enhances our worship. Occasionally, the enhancement is a result of the building itself–the acoustics, the craftsmanship, the view—but more often, the enhancements occurs because of what the building houses.

It houses our memories. That seat at the back left—that is where I first went to Sunday School. The third pew from the front in the centre, that is where Deacon Zeke used to sit—he was a wise and wonderful example of the Christian faith. That pew right there—that is where I was sitting when I decided to follow Jesus. That Communion table—that was donated by my great-grandparents and my great-grandfather made it by hand from wood he cut himself.

The building houses other memories as well. We remember those we grieved and whose lives we celebrated at the funeral. We remember the weddings when new families came into being. We remember those who grew up in our midst and went on to serve God in the pulpit or the mission field. We are reminded each week of the faithful whose memories are collected and celebrated in our buildings.

We keep our buildings because they hold the memories. We keep our buildings because they allow us to celebrate the cloud of witnesses that are part of our story. We keep our buildings because they are a visible symbol of the endurance of our faith. We keep our buildings because they help our faith.

We don’t worship our buildings and we don’t need the building to have and express our faith. If the building is beyond repair or suffers a fire, we will grieve. We will mourn the loss—but we won’t lose our faith. We will still be believers, albeit believers struggling to find a place to locate our memories.

Our old, inefficient and expensive to maintain buildings could disappear and our faith would continue. But we have them—and because we have them, we can and do use them to enhance our faith.

May the peace of God be with you.

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AN INTERESTING MEETING

I was working on a sermon recently and remembered a meeting that I attended years ago that seemed to be a perfect illustration of a point I was trying to make. Since the story involved our time in Africa, I kept thinking about it after finishing the sermon—and even after preaching the sermon, the story of that meeting stayed with me. The more I think about the story, the more I discover exciting realities about God and the Christian faith and the difference it can make to individuals and the world.

The meeting happened in a classroom of a pastoral training school in Rwanda. The school was somewhat hard to get to—either a four hour drive over roads that included a rickety bridge that we walked over after the car successfully made it across or a 30-40 minute boat trip. We were meeting with the school faculty and officials of the denomination that ran the school.

The meeting included both Hutus and Tutsis—and although this was about 10 years after the genocide, the scars and trauma were still obvious and real. Several of those at the meeting has lost family members, others had suffered personally, all carried emotional issues relating to that time. There were some others there from the Congo, who were dealing with their own issues from the genocide and the civil war happening then in the Congo. There was one Kenyan, separated from his family and somewhat concerned about what was going on back home. And there was also two Canadians. While we didn’t carry the emotional load that some of the others did, we were part of the wider international community which had effectively ignored the genocide and was pretty much ignoring the civil war in the Congo.

The first order of business was language. With so many languages represented, we had to discover one that we could all work with. At the end of a brief discussion, we discovered that all of us at the meeting were fluent in Kiswahli, a language that none of us were born speaking. All of us had learned to speak it as at least our second language.

That to me provided an essential key to understanding the significance of this meeting. None of us felt the need to insist on our native or national language. It would have been possible for some group or another to insist that we meet in their language and rely on translators for those of us who couldn’t speak the chosen language. The Rwandans didn’t insist on Kinyarwanda. We Canadians didn’t insist on English. We happily went with a language that all of us spoke with some degree of fluency so that we could all be a direct part of the meeting.

For me, this has always been a Kingdom moment. We met there in that classroom as fellow believers. We were discussing ways that we could work together to carry out the work God was setting before us. And we were able to do that in spite of all the barriers that could have disrupted the meeting, things like ethnic tensions, national rivalries, language issues, cultural issues, national and international politics and on and on.

The Kingdom brings people together. Our shared faith bridges divisions. Our faith in God through Christ changes our perspective. We learn how to work together. We learn how to care for each other. We learn how to give up what some consider important for the sake of a bigger cause, the Kingdom of God.

We met together and the spirit and flavour of the meeting was set by our common willingness to give up our language for the sake of the others. We all gave up our fluency and familiarity with our birth language to work in a second or third language that none of us spoke well but which we all spoke well enough to understand each other. That is the Kingdom at work, one of the many manifestations of the Kingdom here and now that give us a glimpse of what the fullness of the Kingdom will be like.

The Kingdom call us out of our selfish and sinful ruts and allows us to open ourselves to the wonder of being united with the rest of God’s Kingdom people so that we can all reach well beyond our human limits.

May the peace of God be with you.

WELCOME BACK

Both the pastorates I serve are located in beautiful, rural areas. Both have waterfront and both have relatively inexpensive property, even relatively inexpensive waterfront property. This is not an introduction to a post encouraging people to buy real estate in our area—it is actually background to help understand something that happens in our churches. Our congregations have bigger summer attendance that we do during the winter because a lot of our people only spend the summers with us. Some are with us for several months, some for a few weeks and some come and go.

Whatever their pattern, we have a significant part of our worshipping community who are with us only part of the time. But they are a part of our community and we all respond positively when they are with us. Worship starts a bit late because everyone has to greet and be greeted by those who have arrived for the summer. It takes longer to get away after worship because the conversations that were interrupted by worship are picked up again.

We are happy that our seasonal people are back and are again sharing their gifts with us. The normally tight budget gets some wiggle room as more people contribute. The singing, which is normally good, becomes even better as the seasonal voices kick in. The special seasonal events that they are so much a part of begin to take shape as dates are set. The social scene in our community ramps up as everyone tries to make the best use of the time that people are here.

From my perspective, the arrival of the summer participants has some real benefits. Several of them are pastors, both retired and active. One Sunday recently saw a total of two active vacationing pastors, two retired pastors and one theology student attending the two worship services I lead. Several of them are interested in supply preaching, which means that I can call on them when I want to take vacation, something I really appreciate. A couple of them also provide some valuable professional feedback on my sermons and ministry.

The seasonal people are not visitors. They are a basic and vital part of our congregations, even if they are only with us part of the time. Both they and the permanent members of the congregation recognize that. We do some of our planning around their schedules. I include their presence in my sermon planning process. We minister to them and are ministered to by them. We are a stronger congregation because they are with us, even if only for a couple of weeks now and then.

For me, this points to a deeper reality of church life. All congregations except the most informal and loose ones have an official membership—but all congregations are much bigger than that. As well as the official membership, there are those who attend but who for some reason aren’t official members. There are the seasonal people, the ones who live away part of the year and those who can’t get out part of the year. There are those who look to our church for a variety of spiritual services like weddings, funerals, counselling, prayer and so on. There are the people whose parents or grandparents brought them to worship once or twice who still feel some connection with us. There are also some who used to be an active part of the congregation but who got upset and left but whom still feel they have a stake in the congregation and who want some say in what happens.

All of these people are part of our congregations—and as pastor, part of my responsibility to is figure out how to ministry to all of them. And given that I am a part-time pastor at both places, that can get complicated at times. The active, permanent members might understand that I have only so much time and can understand and live with the limits. But the further from the centre people are the less they are likely to understand that there are good reasons why they aren’t getting the ministry they think they should be getting.

This too is part of my ministry—figuring out how to juggle time so that I can get 20 hours of ministry out of 16 hours of real time. It doesn’t always work but the process is interesting at times. It is nice to have the summer people back—but I had better go so I can figure out how to see them before they leave.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHICH DIRECTION?

These days, I find myself spending a lot of time wondering where I am going, at least in terms of the churches I have been called to pastor. Both the pastorates I work with have great people and lots of potential. While neither of them is actually rolling in money, they both have enough to ensure they have a future, especially since they have made the difficult decision to move to part-time ministry. Both are located in geographical settings where they are basically the only organized expression of the Christian faith. And although both settings don’t have as many people as they used to have, there are still a significant number of people living in the communities served by the congregations and a significant number of them have no real connection with our faith.

I am entering my third year of service with this somewhat unique ministry—and to be totally honest, I have much less idea of what I am supposed to be doing than I did when I began this work. When I began, the process was clear: lead worship and preach on Sunday, prepare and lead Bible study and get to know the people, as well as deal with things like weddings and funerals and so on. In the process of doing that basic stuff, I would work at developing a sense of the churches and communities and help develop an approach to ministry that would help the churches become more healthy.

I have been doing this for a lot of years and used to think that I was pretty good at this process. I listen, observe, ask questions, research and eventually, begin to get a sense not just of what is but of what can be. I work with the church and together, we do what we feel God is calling us to do in the way God is calling us to do it. Generally, by the two year mark, I am starting to develop a fairly well focused sense of the church and its needs.

But instead of having this developing focus, I find myself these days spending a lot of time wondering what I am doing, what I need to be doing, what is needed for the church and what directions we need to be moving in. Since my ministry involves a lot of time in the car, I find myself wondering what I am supposed to be doing a lot during the drives between home and church building. But I also catch myself worrying the question when I am sanding a piece of my woodworking project or preparing a preaching plan or waiting in the line up at the grocery store.

I spend a lot of time on the question because I don’t have an answer. We have a great spirit in both settings—but our numbers are not improving and our average age isn’t decreasing. We are doing some interesting and innovative things but so far, no matter how much we enjoy it, noting much has changed our overall reality. We hear through the grapevine that people in the communities are noticing us and are pleased at what they see, something that hasn’t always been the case in our communities but that hasn’t translated more people coming to worship or special programs.

As individuals, we are learning more and more about our faith and what it means to us and we are learning how to express that faith to each other in better ways. We have been experimenting with a lot of stuff and we are finding stuff that we enjoy and stuff that we don’t really need. Our worship tends to be a bit more worshipful, our Bible study tends to be a bit more significant, our churches seem a bit more churchy—but for all that, we are still small, rural churches caught in a long-term decline. I like to think that the rate of decline has slowed down since we began looking at ourselves but the truth is that the causes of our decline haven’t really changed—we are still basically the same people we were two years ago but we are all two years older.

So, I wonder. What are we supposed to do and where are we supposed to be going and most especially, what am I supposed to be doing as the pastor of these churches?

May the peace of God be with you.

TOO MANY BUILDINGS

My job sounds much more demanding than it really is, a fact that almost inevitably leads to a specific conversational track when someone asks about it. The process begins when someone who doesn’t know what I am doing asks and I explain that I am part-time pastor to two different pastorates, one of which has four congregations and the other of which has 2 congregations.

The immediate response is one of surprise and comments of how busy I must be, which I respond to by saying that the congregations are all small, we only have one service a week at each pastorate and in the end, each pastorate basically functions as one congregation, although we meet in multiple buildings. My explanation that the small size of the congregations and the fact that I am part-time means that I don’t work anywhere near as hard as they might think are met with nods and winks.

The next phase of the conversation tends to focus on the buildings—it seems that people really can’t get a hold of the fact that I can and do actually manage to keep myself to part-time hours (mostly) and so they need something to focus on to avoid calling me a liar. The building provide a convenient focus.

And we have lots of buildings. And these aren’t all great buildings. Between the six buildings, there are two and a half bathrooms—the half comes about because the women of the building with a porta-potti out back don’t consider that to be a bathroom for some reason. The newest of the buildings is well over 100 years old, although two of them have recent additions (including batrooms) that play a valuable part in our ministry. All of the building have considerable maintenance costs—although these old buildings are well built, time-induced deterioration simply can’t be avoided. Add to that the fact that old buildings are simply not energy efficient and you have a fairly expensive ministry base. In the end, we simply have too many buildings for the people and ministry.

So, the person talking to me generally makes a comment about the number of buildings and wonders why we just don’t get rid of some of them—or all of them for that matter. A few of the people I talk to come from denominational traditions where the bishop or some outside committee makes the decision to close a building, which makes the issue all the more difficult for them to understand.

I have been in this conversation so many times that I have developed a standard answer. For me the bottom line is that the buildings aren’t my responsibility or focus. There is a lot of ministry that needs to be done and focusing on buildings takes away from my ability to do the real ministry. As long as there is money to keep the building usable, I don’t get involved in the process. I use the building, I appreciate the building and I work hard to make sure I am at the right building at the right time for the right purpose—but I am not going to get involved in the debate over if and when to close down a building.

And fortunately for me, I belong to a denomination where that decision isn’t one I really have to be involved in. In our tradition, the building belongs to the people who make up the church that makes that building their home and they have final say on everything about the building. My job as pastor is to teach, preach, enable, encourage, care for and generally be a shepherd to the people. I can and occasionally do draw attention to the excess number of buildings and encourage people to think about that reality. When the issue arises at a meeting, I agree that we need to think carefully about our buildings—but I am also going to be working at the fund raiser for the building.

I have more important things to do than worry about buildings. As long as the building is providing a base for ministry and the church has the means to support the buildings, I don’t much care whether I lead worship in one building or four buildings. My responses to the conversation about buildings tends not to satisfy people who think we would be further ahead with fewer buildings—but they tend to become quiet when I ask them if they would close down their building.

May the peace of God be with you.

BEING SALT AND LIGHT

I knew a guy one time who was looking for the perfect church, one where he would be free to develop his understanding of God and the Kingdom. He was convinced that when he found that perfect church, everything would be great. He was a pastor and had some connections with the people who helped churches find pastors so he used the connections and discovered a church that looked good. Unfortunately, after he had been there a short time, he began to see some problems—and if the truth be told, he himself began to create some problems. Eventually, the imperfection in the church became so serious that he resigned to go to another church that looked perfect.

I am pretty sure that he is still looking for that perfect church. Personally, I entered ministry with the understanding that neither churches nor pastors are perfect and that we both need to try and help each other become a bit better at following the faith that we claim. So, whenever I am called to a church as their pastor, I know without question that I am not going to a perfect church. That is alright, though, because I also know without question that when they call me, they are not getting a perfect pastor.

Neither the church nor the pastor is perfect—and given the theological realities of sin and its persistence even after we become believers, there is no chance of a perfect church or perfect pastor this side of eternity. For me, that raised all sorts of questions, issues and concerns. One of those many questions, issues and concerns grows out of the fact that we are supposed to be sale and light in the world, a visible and concrete reminder to the community of the love and grace of God.

When we show our imperfection to the community, which we do with depressing regularity, what does that do to our saltiness and lightness? It can and all too often does turn into anti-salt and anti-light, discouraging people outside the faith from seeing our faith as a viable option for their lives. Mind you, if we try to cover up our imperfections, the community is also very aware that we are not perfect and our cover up attempts also discourage people when it comes to the faith.

We are called to be salt and light—and we are imperfect. And any approach to being the church or an individual believer that doesn’t keep those two basic truths in mind is doomed to failure. We can’t be perfect—and we can’t help but give witness to our faith. And so it seems to me that the only real choice we have is to be upfront about who and what we really are.

We need to be willing to admit to any and all that we are imperfect. What makes us people of faith and churches is not our perfection but rather the fact that we have admitted to God that we can’t deal with our imperfection by ourselves. We surrender ourselves to God who then has our permission to work in our lives: smoothing the rough spots; teaching our ignorance; forgiving the sins; guiding our footsteps and all the rest. God knows we are not perfect—but he loves and graces us anyway.

We are salt and light when we freely admit our sins and imperfections not just to God, each other and the church but also to the community and the rest of the world. We don’t always get it right—in fact, we get it wrong as much as anyone else and maybe even more than some people. What sets us apart is that we have discovered that God can deal with us in our imperfect state and wants us to be in a deep relationship with him even in our imperfect state. When we live our faith and run our churches conscious of our imperfection and our dependence of the love and grace of God, then our sin and imperfection become part of our divine saltiness and lightness because our confession and forgiveness and trying again point beyond our imperfection to the perfect God who can and does provide a way for us even in our imperfection.

We show salt and light when we remember and then let the community know that we are not perfect—but we believe in a God who is and whose love and grace can deal with our imperfection.

May the peace of God be with you.

CLEARING SNOW

Palm Sunday was supposed to be either the last of the once a month winter worship services or the first of our regular weekly worship services—either way, the winter break was over and it was time to start up the ministry at one of the part-time pastoral situations I serve. But there was a problem—not a problem that I paid much attention to but a problem nonetheless.

The problem began with a late season snowstorm that ended up giving us as much snow as we had all winter. That meant that the parking lot and driveway at the building we were going to use for worship was filled with snow. Since it is a 60 kilometer round trip for me to get to the building, I didn’t know about the state of the parking lot—but the people who attend knew and were concerned. They decided that they needed to have the lot cleared and made some calls to find someone to do the job. Since we don’t normally use the building during the winter, we don’t have a regular person to clear our snow.

The guy who showed up to clear the parking lot had one basic requirement that he insisted on strongly—he didn’t want to be paid for doing the work. He wasn’t a member of our congregation. He didn’t attend worship regularly. He hadn’t been a visitor at some point. My guess is that he likely hadn’t been inside the building in years, it ever. His closest connection with the church was that years ago, his grandmother had been a member of the congregation. But he wanted to clear our parking lot for free.

We talked about this during our worship. After hearing that what he had done, those of us who were there were grateful—so grateful that during the prayer time, one person asked if we could give thanks for the person’s generosity, which sparked a larger conversation on why he would do that which led us into a discussion of the role of our church in the community.

Given that we had seven people counting me in worship that morning, it would be easy to see ourselves as insignificant and unimportant with no real impact on the community. But incidents like this suggest that we might have a bigger influence and role in the community that we realize. One of the comments made during the discussion was that people in the community regularly ask how the church is doing—they don’t actually come to worship but it seems important to them that we exist and are doing okay.

In my visiting in the community, I regularly make contact with people who don’t attend our church but who seem to know what is going and even have opinions about what we should and shouldn’t be doing. They also don’t attend but somehow, we are important to them.

It seems to me that what we are seeing and hearing is connected to something Jesus said in Matthew 5.13-14, where he tells believers that we are salt and light in the world. The gathering of believers, the church, exists for many reasons, one of which is to be a witness of God’s love. Our presence in the world and the local community by itself is to be a witness, a salting and lighting of the world and local community with the a visible representation of the love and grace of God.

If we are doing our salt and light job well, the community will notice and respond. The response might be limited but it will be there. It might take to form of a willingness to clear our parking lot for free. It might show when there is a crisis that prompts someone to ask a member to say a prayer for them. It might be the response to the salt and light they see will prompt them to seek a stronger sense of God during some crisis.

Whatever the response, we are called to be aware that we are salt and light in our community. Our existence is rooted in more than just our numbers and our internal activities. We are the church, and our existence makes a difference not just to our group but to the world and our local community. Our salt and light make a difference, a difference that we might not always see but which is real and important.

May the peace of God be with you.

I CAN DO IT BY MYSELF!

The man just wants to be left alone. We don’t know about his past but hints and clues suggest that his life hasn’t been easy. There may be something terrible back somewhere but all we see now is a strong, independent individual who just wants to farm his farm, herd his cattle, fish his fish, research his research, raise his family—that part varies depending on the movie. What doesn’t vary is the need for independence and the lack of a need for much in the way of relationships with other people.

This movie, book, TV show, coffee shop tale is something of a theme for our western culture: the strong, capable independent hero who just wants to be left alone. He (sometimes, she) needs nothing beyond what he produces himself. We in the west like to think of ourselves in terms of this cultural archetype—we are all like this, or wish we were like this.

And this cultural desire for independence is part of the reason why Christian worship attendance in Canada is so low when claims of being a Christian are still relatively high. Just as we celebrate the hero taking care of business by himself, we have developed a faith culture that sees faith as not needing anything beyond an individual and God—and if we are really honest, the God part of the equation is open to a great deal of interpretation. We are not all that comfortable with God unless we have the independence to tinker and edit so that the God who is the focus of our faith looks and feels like we want him (her, it) to look and feel.

We are, in reality, a culture that celebrates independence. We don’t really like obligations that are imposed by relationships. We don’t want to owe people. In fact, we have created a culture that tries to reduce every interpersonal transaction to the lowest common denominator—and that tends to be money.

If I pay for something, I am still independent and in control. I made the money, I chose to spend it. The relationship is bounded by the financial transaction. There is no need for gratitude, returning favours, mutual support—all that kind of ucky and troubling stuff that relationships and commitments bring.

I am aware that I am overstating the reality. But our western independence is a reality and it does, I think, have an effect on how we western believers relate to each other and the church. To be a part of a church might suggest that we need something or someone. At the very least, it suggests that someone might be able to ask us for something and we might not be in a position to say no. And so it is easier and safer in the long run to conceptualize our faith as a part of our independence.

My very western faith is focused on God—we have a good thing going here. I don’t really need God and he doesn’t really need me but we can get together now and then and within the rules of my independence, I can do whatever—maybe complain about the difficulties of life, maybe blame God for some trouble, maybe tell God how to do her job. I don’t actually need God but it is nice to have him or her around, as long as God doesn’t make any unreasonable demands, like suggesting that I join a church.

So, we have become a culture of independent Christians, people whose faith is expressed in solitude and not in community. And while there is certainly a need and encouragement in the Christian faith for solitude, it isn’t the defining characteristic of the Christian faith. And the deeper, darker, ignored reality is that it really isn’t a defining characteristic of our western culture.

Remember the independent hero standing on his own two feet, dealing with life on his terms? Well, doesn’t that movie always end up with the hero discovering the wonder of a relationship as he battles for the woman or the child or the older couple or even the dog or horse? Doesn’t the movie end with the independent hero happily trading his independence for the relationship?

Our culture may love the theory of independence but the practise tends to be lonely and boring. Our culture and our faith in the end need us to be in real relationships with real people.

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.

NUMBER 80 AGAIN

Being the 80th pastor in a pastorate that goes back 185 years puts an interesting perspective on ministry.  Like most pastors, early in my ministry, I tended to see what I do in a church as an isolated segment of time and space.  Most of us, I think, discount much of what happened before we arrived and aren’t overly concerned about what happens after we leave.

Very quickly, I learned that a smart pastor needs to know something about what happened before they arrived.  The present is shaped by the past and unless we know the past, we can’t work effectively.  I was pastor in one congregation which insisted that they didn’t want anything to do with evangelism.  Given that being evangelists on one of our basic tasks as believers and churches, I was somewhat surprised at this revelation.  After some digging, I discovered that the real difficulty was a certain approach to evangelism that was part of some painful experiences for the church.

Based on that historical understanding, I helped the church develop an outreach program that was actually quite beneficial to the church and community.  As long as we didn’t call it evangelism, the church was enthusiastic in their support.

As a result, I discovered that it is good for a pastor to know what happened in the past.  The past helps shape the present ministry.  Sometimes, the present ministry needs to work to correct or modify the past.  Other times, we can build on the past–rather than re-inventing the wheel by doing all the stuff that has been done before, we get to build a cart on the wheels prepared in the past.

And when you are the 80th pastor, there are a lot of things from the past.  It might be easy to dismiss anything beyond last year as ancient history but listen to people long enough and you will hear and see the effects of those long ago events.  At a Bible study recently, some of the members recalled the pain and turmoil associated with the ministry of a previous pastor, pain and turmoil that still hurts a bit after forty years.  At some levels, I have to be aware of this ancient pain in my ministry.

In another Bible Study session, someone talked about the love and compassion they experienced from a former Sunday School teacher.  Heads nodded from the others who remembered that teacher–and several were eager to tell her story to the relative new-comers in the group whose experience didn’t go back the necessary 50 years.

So, I am the 80th pastor in one place–and in the other set of congregations, I am at an even higher number although no one I know has a complete list.  But given that this other pastorate goes back to about 1780, that should put me into the low 100s, based on the 2.3 year average of the younger pastorate.  While it might make sense to say I really only need to be concerned about the former pastors up to the age of the oldest members, that isn’t really true

Occasionally, I talk to someone who passes on the family story of old Rev. So and So whose actions in relation to their long dead grandparents kept their family in or out of the church, depending on the nature of that long ago event.

My ministry in both places is built on the foundation of all these previous ministries.  Sometimes, I have to apologize for and undo some of what came before.  Sometimes, I get to renovate and update what came before.  And occasionally, I inherit a really good working thing that I don’t need to touch but which makes my ministry much better.  My ministry is also built on the foundation of all the elders, deacons, choir members, organists, Sunday School teachers, ordinary members and community members affected by what went on before.

I am the 80th in one place and well over the 80th in  another.  I have been called by God to serve these congregations for a time.  What I do will become part of the next pastor.  It makes sense to me now to be aware of the past–remembering where the church has been helps is determine what to do now to get to where God wants us to go.

May the peace of God be with you.