WHY NOT?

When ever there is a terrible tragedy involving a lot of people being hurt or killed, there is almost always a side piece in the coverage dealing with some who was supposed to be there and who wasn’t.  If the person who avoided the tragedy is a Christian, the article is incredibly predictable.  The person will talk about how something told them not to go or do whatever and immediately praise God for delivering them.

And, while I am happy for them that they didn’t have to go through whatever it was and believe that God can do anything including deliver one person from something terrible, I always finish those side pieces with frustration and more questions than answers.

The questions begin innocently enough:  “Why was that person delivered”.  They move to less innocent, “Why that person and not some other?”.  Then they move further and further into the swamps of spiritual confusion: “Why not prevent the whole thing?”; “Why deliver Christians who are going to heaven anyway?”; “Where does human freedom enter the picture of such deliverances?”; “How do I get on the deliverance list?”; “Is there a chance that the person wasn’t actually delivered but just got lucky?”

I am sure there are some who find such questions irreverent, unspiritual and offensive.  There are some, I know, for whom the answer to these and most other such questions is to say, “The will of God”.  I know where they are coming from–I grew up in a spiritual context where it was assumed that everything that happened was the will of God and so there was no need to ask questions, unless of course, God willed you to ask the questions for some reason.

I trust God–I have committed my life to doing what God asks of me, sometimes even getting it right.  But I have decided that for me, relying too heavily on “the will of God” as an explanation for everything is a bit too simplistic and at the same time, allows we human beings to easily slip out from under any responsibility we might have.  It also prevents us from dealing with the essential reality that God is God and we aren’t.

We live in a world that is messed up–and the mess is the result of human sin.  While God had to allow us to sin, it wasn’t–and isn’t–his will that we sin.  And so a great deal of what happens in life is the result of sin, not God’s will.  We can easily see and accept this reality in some cases–people reap what they sow.  When a person who habitually drives drunk eventually gets killed in a drunk driving accident, we make the connection–generally privately because polite society generally doesn’t allow us to do it too publically.

But in many other situations, the connection is hard or even impossible to make.  I have arthritis in both knees.  I genuinely believe that arthritis was not in the original plan for creation, nor do I believe I am being punished for some sin in my life–as near as I can tell, there are some genetic issues that lead to the early development of arthritis.

The Apostle Paul makes a powerful and profound theological statement in Romans 8.20-21: “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” (NIV)  Essentially, Paul is suggesting “Stuff happens”.  It isn’t God’s will but a sign of the depths of disruption caused by human sin.

Not everything that happens in God’s will.  While he may sometimes deliver people, sometimes the deliverance is a result of the randomness of the universe messed up by human sin.  One might miss the tragedy and another might get caught–and both are simply caught up in the results of living in an creation groaning for deliverance.

So, does that remove God and faith from the picture?  Not for me.  While I might both suffer from and occasionally benefit from the randomness of the universe that sin introduced, I also believe that God is greater that the randomness.  He is at work, using the randomness to get to where he is going, the new heaven and new earth promised in  Revelation 21 where all will be as it is supposed to be.

Until then, we live, trusting that God is with us, working in and through the randomness to bring about his will for us and the whole of creation.

May the peace of God be with you.

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ANNA

In my blog posted on January 11, 2016 called “One Night At the Hospital”, I told a story about Anna, one of the students I was teaching at the time. Her willingness to minister to a grieving mother whom she didn’t know and might never see again not only provided me with a great story to use with other ministry students but also helped me understand the nature of ministry much better. But Anna’s story doesn’t end there.

After we left Kenya and Anna finished her study, she became a church leader. At that time, the ABC didn’t ordain women and so Anna became a “Sister”. The sisters had their own structure and as if often the case, did a great deal of the work in the church. Anna’s duties would have involved preaching, administration, pastoral visitation, teaching, organizing–in short, she would have been doing everything her male counterparts were doing, except she couldn’t be ordained.

As I put it to the class one time, Anna and the other women would preach a better sermon than many of the male leaders, do good counselling with people after the worship service and then still have to make tea for the men in leadership who hadn’t done much of anything during the service. Anna and many of the women in the church thought this wasn’t right.

But Anna was called to ministry and wasn’t going to be stopped by the rules of the church, no matter what she thought about them. She did her work well, often serving in the shadows of the male leaders–and most of the time, I suspect, making them look good as a result of her good work,.

So, our story flips ahead about 30 years. I am standing on the balcony outside the teacher’s staff room at our school in Kenya. Just below is the church pastor’s house. I had heard that there had been a recent change in pastoral leadership at the church but hadn’t met the new pastor yet. So, as I am walking along the balcony to the staff room, I hear a female voice say, “Jambo, mwalimu” (Hello, teacher).

At the door of the pastor’s house is Anna, newly ordained, preparing to serve with her husband as pastor of the church. I run down to greet her and we chat a bit about old times, what we have been doing since, she asks about our daughter whom she had really taken to. It was a great meeting and one that made me feel that my earlier work was still bearing fruit.

A bit later, I have a meeting with my Kenyan counterpart as we work to set up a mentored ministry program. My job is to develop the structure and requirements of the program since I had administered a similar program in Canada. Mwangi’s part was to make sure that my structure worked in the ABC and to select good pastors as mentors since he knew the pastors better than I did.

He was excited at the meeting because he knew one pastor who would be one of the best choices we could get the for program. This pastor has a good track record and had even been an unofficial mentor to Mwangi. He developed a deep and powerful appreciation for the demands of ministry because of this association. Of course, as you have already guessed, this pastor was Anna.

So, I train Anna who trains Mwangi and then together, Anna, Mwangi and I train others. Anna’s story from the hospital became one of our case studies in the mentored ministry program and her input and insights were very valuable during the training sessions for the other mentors. The students she mentored all appreciated her wisdom and understanding of ministry.

This is part of the excitement of trying to do what God wants. He works through time and distance and separation and orchestrates a vast plan that brings people together and works through them and reunites them and does all sorts of wonderful things. My early work in Kenya helped Anna shape her already impressive ministry gifts, she helps Mwangi shape his impressive ministry gifts, I re-appear for a bit and help them develop a process that will help others benefit from their training and insights and abilities.

I don ‘t know when or even if Anna and I will connect again–but I do know that because of God’s grace, both of our ministries are stronger because of our times together.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT IS GOD SAYING?

During the time I have been working on this current theme about knowing God’s will, I have run into variations of the theme several times. At a recent meeting, I pastor whom I respect and whose ministry I appreciate was telling the group how he realized on Saturday evening that he had to change his sermon for the next day because of significant events that he felt people would need to have help dealing with–and he felt that God wanted him to deal with. That isn’t quite as bad as throwing away the prepared sermon just before the worship service begins but it is pretty close.

I have also had conversations with people struggling with what in the end is a struggle to know what God’s will for their lives is–and again, these were people I know and respect and who are seriously seeking God’s leading for their lives and who are involved in helping others follow God. Personally, I have been struggling with God’s leading and plan for me for over a year–I have been pretty sure there is a plan and that something is coming but as I have shared before, the “wait” answer and I have never been on really good terms.

I think that in the end, I at least have to admit that knowing God’s will isn’t always an easy task. While there may be times when it is clear what God wants, even then there are problems with our willingness to accept and follow that leading. There may be people for whom God’s leading is always clear and precise and east to follow but on my good days, I kind of think those people are few and far between.

On my bad days, I think that people who are so sure all the time may be somewhat self-deluded, guilty of substituting their own will and desire for God’s will and desire. Sometimes, I can see that I am right in this assessment because their version of God’s will fails to produce the harvest of the Spirit (Galatians 5.22-23), which is a requirement for anything that genuinely comes from God.

All of this leads me to one important aspect of my own personal search for God’s leading. I personally need to allow myself lots of time for the process to work itself out. And even when I think I have arrived at an understanding of the will and leading of God, I need to allow more time to ensure that I have got it right. There has been more than one time in my personal journey when I have begun rejoicing at finding God’s leading only to realize a day or two later that I had got it wrong and the real answer was something else.

This time allows me to think, meditate, pray and consult with others. All of these are important parts of the search process that have helped me over the years. Allowing lots of time has obviously made the process longer but when I allow the time, I eventually arrive at a “kairos” point, where the answer is clear and I am willing to follow the leading.

As a pastor and pastoral counsellor, I encourage individuals to allow sufficient time for an adequate search. I encourage congregations to take time to work through their searches–often, for example, I will introduce ideas and approaches to the congregation without asking for any kind of decision. This is to allow them to become comfortable with the idea and have adequate time to think and pray through the ideas.

How much time is enough time? I really don’t know. I think we have to make sure we allow time for the process and then in the end, we make a decision. Is there a change that we could make the wrong decision–definitely. I believe that the more honest searching time we allow, the more likely we are to come up with the right decision, there is always the very real possibility that we can get it wrong.

The thought of making the wrong decision about God’s leading can produce serious problems–we can get to the point where we are unwilling to make any decision. This spiritual paralysis is a real problem for some.

So, we will look at this topic–what happens if we get it wrong?

May the peace of God be with you.

WHEN ARE WE CALLED?

Some people knew what ministry God called them to very early in life–I was in high school when I first began to believe that God was calling me to s specific type of ministry. I had been a Christian only for a couple of years at that point but was aware that God wanted me for something particular–and began to fight against that calling at the same time.

I know other people whose call to a specific ministry came much later in their lives. Some of the became believers later in life so the lateness of their call can be understood in that context–God can’t really call someone to ministry if they haven’t first answered the initial to come to him. But there have been others whose calling seems to have been delayed until much later in their lives. Although he was in a very different situation from Christians seeking a call, Moses experienced his call to a specific ministry when he was 80.

This raises a question for me about when God calls people to their ministry, a question that is a bit complicated by a quotation from Jeremiah 1.4-5:

The word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart….” (NIV)

Theologically, this verse does reveal a reality that I believe–God knows what is going to happen in every life and so he not only knows who is going to be called to what but also how they will react to that calling. That doesn’t really answer the question of when people are called though. It does form part of the background in my thinking though.

I would suggest several factors are involved in the answer. First, we remember that God calls every believer to some form of ministry. Those who don’t know or believe this may not recognize God’s calling, somewhat like Samuel in I Samuel. He was called but didn’t recognize the call until it was explained to him by Eli. There may be many believers who claim not to be called who actually don’t recognize they are being called.

Some people who are called may recognize the call for what it is–but as happened in my case, the called one resists that calling. My personal resistance didn’t last longer than a few months, although it flares up now and then even today. But others I have talked to report resisting for years and years. To them and others, this could be seen as a delayed call–but the reality is that the answer is delayed, not the calling.

Another part of the answer is that we sometimes conceive the call to ministry in the wrong way. There is a tendency to see it as a lifetime commitment to teaching Sunday School or being the church treasurer or becoming a pastor. I and others have been known to joke that the only way to get out of a job in the church is to die.

But I have realized that the commitment we need to make is a commitment to following God and answering the call to ministry as a general commitment rather than a commitment to a specific ministry. God can and does change the specifics of the call to ministry. We see that clearly in those called to paid ministry–very few pastors spend their whole ministry in one congregation. As well, those of us who are wise in ministry realize that no matter how well what we did in one congregation worked, we will probably have to do something very different in new congregation. God calls us to ministry in general–but there may be several calls to different specific ministries.

I have also realized that some of the ministry I have been called to I like more than others. Some people may feel that being called to something they really like is their first call, while in fact they have been answering the call but just in a ministry they weren’t as excited about.

For all these reasons, I think the answer to the question of when God calls us is simplified. If we are believers, we are called to ministry. We may resist but that doesn’t mean there is no call. Our commitment as believers needs to include a willingness to answer God’s call to ministry and seek to serve him as he leads.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHEN THE SMALL CHURCH NEEDS A VISION

As I began thinking about this post, I realized that I had put myself in a bit of a difficult position. I planned on listing some times when a clear vision will benefit the small church but as I was thinking about the topic, I realized that it isn’t as easy to come up with a list of times when the small church needs a vision. One example came to me immediately but as we will see, it probably isn’t the greatest example of such a time.

Part of the difficulty comes from the fact that the small church doesn’t always have to have a vision. As long as ministry is going well and the church is responding to the needs it sees through the leading of the Holy Spirit, it probably doesn’t need to waste the time, energy and resources developing and implementing a vision requires.

As I continued to think about the need for vision, I realized that the time for vision in the small church depends not so much on the chronological time but on what the New Testament calls “kairos”. This kind of time describes a set of circumstances that come together and create the right setting for something to happen. God seems to work on this time rather that clock time.

There are then “kairos” times in the life of a small congregation when the vision process is a benefit and the resulting vision can help the congregation. The times I mention here are not a complete list and I would be really interested in hearing from you about your thoughts on the topic, either disagreeing with the things I have suggested or adding to the list.

A small church can benefit from the vision process when:

1. They have been static or in a plateau period for an extended period of time–probably more than a year or two. Such a period will also probably be accompanied by a small but noticeable decline in giving, attendance and ministry activity.

2. When there has been a crisis in the church. The crisis might be the result of a dispute in the congregation, loss or damage to the building, a leadership failure of some sort, a significant community event like the closing of a major employer or any one of a number of negative events that take the energy, resources and enthusiasm from the congregation.

3. After a long and successful or a short and disastrous pastoral tenure. Either of these can have a significant effect on the congregation that can disrupt their ability to minister well.

4. When the congregation has a sense that something more is needed in their congregational life. It might be a sense of dissatisfaction, a feeling that something in missing, a touch of boredom. This is a somewhat intangible item but wise pastors and congregations pay attention to it.

5. When there is a major new opportunity for ministry. If a major housing development is planned for the areas served by the congregation, that opportunity would require some planning and vision so that the congregation might make the best of the opportunity.

I haven’t forgotten the first example of a time for a vision that I mentioned earlier–I just didn’t want to include it in the main list because that situation comes about when the pastor is doing advanced education and requires congregational participation. I know several congregations that have developed a vision in response to the requirements of their pastor’s Doctor of Ministry studies–including my own D. Min. studies. These visions tend to do a great deal more for the pastor than the congregation although a well designed D. Min. project can greatly enhance the ministry of a congregation.

There are probably other times when it would benefit a small church to develop a vision and if you know of any, I would love to hear them.

Even when the “kairos” is right, good vision doesn’t just happen spontaneously. It requires work on the part of both pastor and congregation to develop and implement the vision. Some of the work required to discover if a vision is needed and then the develop and implement the vision is work that should already be taking place in the congregation. We will look at that work and the vision process beginning tomorrow.

May the peace of God be with you.