IT’S RAINING

The weather forecast was right–it predicted rain for today and when I got up, it was raining, something that is putting a bit of a down spin on my day.  Now, I really don’t have any plans for being outside today.  I mowed the lawn earlier in the week based on the long range forecast that predicted rain for today.  I have a bunch of things to do that require me to be inside various buildings or the car for most of the day.

About the only ways the rain today affects me are I probably won’t go for a walk if it is raining hard but since the majority of my exercise is accomplished on the exercise bike, that isn’t a big issue.  But nonetheless, the dark and drippy day is making me feel a bit down–not depressed and nothing serious but just a bit down, a different feeling than I have when the sun is shining.

I am probably not alone in my reaction to the weather today and by itself, that really isn’t all that much to blog about.  But when I had been up for a bit and realized my emotional response to the rain, I realized that there have been times in my life when the same kind of day produced a very different emotional response.

During the times when we have lived in Kenya, rain produced a very different reaction.  Most of Kenya is dependent on rain for its water supply.  There isn’t a lot on the way of water infrastructure and what there is depends on rain.  At times, our water supply was two 1000 gallon water tanks filled by the rainwater off the roof of our house.  During the long six month dry season when those tanks were empty, our water supply consisted of two five gallon jerry cans that went everywhere the car went that there was a chance of getting some water.

The last time, we lived in a town that had a municipal water system.  A couple of times a week, the town turned our water on and the 500 liter tank in the attic filled with enough water to keep us going until the next time the water was turned on.  This depended on how many breaks there were in the water line, how careful we were with our water, and how full the rain-filled town reservoir was.  During the long dry season the twice a week water supply dwindled and stopped and our water supply consisted of the two buckets I carried up three flights of stairs from the backup reservoir in the parking lot.

So, when we are in Kenya, waking up to a rainy day produced a feeling of pleasure and a sense that this was going to be a good day.  Rain in Kenya produced the kind of emotional uplift for everyone that a bright, warm sunny day does here in rural Nova Scotia.

This suggests many things to me, among which is the deep reality that we human beings are much more adaptable and flexible that we often give ourselves credit for.  And if we are more flexible and adaptable that we think, that means that we probably don’t need to get as bent out of shape about things as we sometimes do.  The problem isn’t really the external events or circumstances but the way I am choosing to react to them.  Am I looking at the rain as a Nova Scotian or a Kenyan?

And because I am a Christian, that suggests to me that I need to work at making sure that my Christian faith plays a big part in how I look at life and its realities and in how I respond to life.  Rather than seeing my faith as an add on that only kicks in when I am in worship or somewhere where being a Christian is required, I need to work at placing my faith in the centre of my response to life.

Do I view the stranger in town from a basically mono-cultural Nova Scotian, a multi-cultural Kenyan or a supra-cultural Christian viewpoint?  My response to the stranger varies depending on which set of cultural norms I bring to the front.  I would like to say that my Christian norms trump all the others but I try to be honest here.  Like my response to the rain today, I need to work more on what I respond with.

May the peace of God be with you.

TIME AND TIDE

The house we live in sits just above a tidal flat.  At low tide, we see a flat grassy meadow that stretches to the dike along the river bank in the distance.  At high tide, the meadow disappears to varying degrees, depending on the phase of the moon.  When the moon is full, the whole flat disappears and the water comes near to the top of the dyke.  Fortunately, our house is 10-15 meters above the highest tide mark so I can watch the tide without wondering if I need to invest in a canoe for emergencies.

But even though I can watch this twice daily process, I tend not to pay much attention.  If people had asked me where the tide was, I probably couldn’t answer–or that was the case until recently. For the past few months, I have been paying close attention to the tides and can easily tell people what stage the tide is at.

This didn’t come from a concern about raising ocean levels because of global warming.  There is a spot near our house that is so affected and before much longer, a really high tide is going to go over the road there–but I have known that for years and there are other ways to get to where that road leads.  And as I mentioned, we have several meters beyond the most pessimistic predictions of ocean level rise.

What changed for me is that I build a tide clock.  I like clocks and I like building clocks.  So my winter project was to design and build a tide clock.  It wasn’t as quick a process as I thought–the winter was much busier than I anticipated and my wood-working skills were much rustier that I expected.  But the clock is done and sits on the mantle in the living room.  When I am sitting in my working chair in the living room, I can see the tide clock and the tidal flat with just a slight turn of my head.  When I walk into the room during the day time when the curtains are open, I automatically check the clock and the tide.

Part of that began as I worked at regulating the clock.  Although I can look up tide times on the internet, I did have to set the clock hand that tells the state of the tide.  And while the mechanism is interesting, it is a bit hard to adjust perfectly and so I have been tinkering with it since I placed it on the mantle–I think I have is set now but I will continue to watch it.

There is a parable here–remember, I am a preacher and therefore can’t let something just be something–it also has to be something else to feed the insatiable demand for stories to keep people interested on Sunday.

And so the meaning of the parable is this.  I live beside a tidal flat but because the coming and going to the tide has no affect on me personally, I ignore it.  My house is safe from the highest tide predictable; I don’t make my living digging for clams at low tide; I don’t need to know when I can get my boat out from the wharf and the only road that might have some affect on my life is easily bypassed.  The tide comes and goes and has no affect on me.

But as soon as I build a tide clock, I have a personal interest in the tide.  It makes a difference to me where the tide is.  Sure, the difference is only because I want to check the accuracy of the new clock–but I am still interested.

So, we live in a world where there is a great deal wrong, which we ignore because we can’t perceive a direct effect on us.  Some, we can ignore.  Some, we can pretend isn’t a problem.  Some, we have to deny.  And in truth, some we have to work really hard to avoid.  As long as we can tell ourselves it doesn’t affect us, we can ignore it, at least until it becomes too personal.

But as believers, we are called to be involved with the world–instead of ignoring the darkness and its effects, we are to shine the light of God into the darkness.  We didn’t create the light–but we have been given the light.  We need to turn it on and challenge the darkness because whatever we want to think, we do have a personal stake in making the darkness go away, a personal stake that came to us through Jesus Christ.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT AM I DOING?

There are some days when I have no clue what I am doing, at least in terms of what I am doing as a pastor.  It is important to remember the context here.  I have been involved in some form of ministry since 1973.  Although I have done many different things during that time, I have primarily been a pastor, serving small rural congregations in western Nova Scotia, Canada.  I have advanced education in ministry and have taught other pastors at schools in Canada, Kenya and Rwanda.  I have done seminars and workshops and conferences geared towards pastors.  And so when I saw that there are some days when I have no clue what I am doing as a pastor, it isn’t because I have no background.

Nor am I doing the false modesty thing–you know, pretending that I am less capable than I really am.  I am actually being honest here–there are a lot of times when I really don’t know what I am doing in ministry.  And that is a culturally difficult admission because I do ministry in a climate when pastors are supposed to be all knowing and all capable leaders who have a vision and a plan and who are going to build the next great mega church.

I have read all that stuff and have even attended a few of the conferences on vision and stuff like that.  And for a short spell a few years ago, I was actually doing workshops on the vision process.  Being me, I took a different approach to the vision process, suggesting that the vision for the church needed to arise from the church and that the pastor’s real task was helping the congregation see and articulate their own home-grown vision.  So I know the expectation of other pastors–I should be a vision-casting, purpose-driven inspired and inspiring leader who knows where he is going and where the church needs to go.

But the truth is that most days, I have difficulty articulating a vision for anything, let alone the church.  I feel many days that I really have no clue what I am doing.  Of course, that isn’t entirely true.  I know that I have to lead Bible Study, preach on Sunday, visit the sick, connect with the congregation, be open to emergencies and unexpected calls and all that.  But at the same time, there are many days when I couldn’t tell you why I do these things and how they fit into some overall scheme of things.

In short, I really don’t have much of a vision for the churches I pastor.  Some of the stuff being produced these days about vision and leadership would suggest that this is why I have spend my ministry career in small congregations–if I don’t have a vision and a plan to implement the vision, I won’t get anywhere.

Some of this not knowing comes about because I am still relatively new in the congregations I serve and I have discovered that developing a real and meaningful vision for a church takes time and effort on the part of the church and the pastor.  After I am there for a few more years, the church and I will probably have a sense of what God’s vision for the church is.  I have some hints and glimpses of that in the congregation I have been working with for a couple of years now.

But when I really think about it, I realize that the stuff I am doing as a pastor is often the goal and purpose of my calling anyway.  I have never sensed God calling me to be a visionary.  I am called and gifted to be a pastor and teacher–or, to use one variation of the list of gifts found in Ephesians 4.11, I am a pastor/teacher.  I care for people in the name of God, doing things like preaching and teaching and visiting and caring and counselling and praying and answering the phone and returning calls and responding to emergencies.  The things I do don’t always have some great visionary purpose-they just need to be done because that is what God has called me to do.

If in the process, God chooses to use the things I do to help me and the church develop some greater vision and purpose, I hope and pray that we are open to seeing that vision.  But even now, the things I do are important and so when I say I don’t know what I am doing, maybe I am saying that I don’t know where things fit in some cosmic vision–but I do them because they are important and I have been called to do them and maybe that is enough, at least for now.

May the peace of God be with you.

WORK AROUND OR RESET?

Since one of the churches I serve is closing down for three months, I have some extra time.  I am sure that most of it will get filled up with a variety of things that I can’t plan on or foresee but I do have plans for some of it.  I bought some clockworks and am going to build a tide clock.  The clockworks only need a battery to work–but the clock body is my project for the next few weeks.

I haven’t done too much wood working for the last few years for a variety of reasons and so my skills are a bit rusty.  I am as good as ever at turning nice pieces of wood into sawdust but getting the remaining wood to look like it is supposed to is a bit harder.  In fact, the nice piece of clear, kiln dried pine that I bought to build the clock body is currently sitting on the work bench in small pieces that don’t quite fit together as I planned on them fitting together.

They will work, sort of, especially if I make some changes in the original plan.  The clock won’t look quite like I saw it in my mind but if I make the changes, it will look okay and will definitely tell me the time and the state of the tides.  Now, of course, as a preacher, this reality sparked all kinds of thoughts.  I can and probably will use the clock as a sermon illustration some day, showing how God often has to alter his perfect plans for us to make up for our less than perfect execution.  God has proven himself a master at work-arounds, at least in my life.  Some days, I feel that God’s plan A for my life has been reworked around my mess ups that we are currently on plan ZZZzz, version 1.3.

I have used the work-around route in my ministry more times than I can count.  None of us is perfect and when we come together, our imperfections interact and, well, work-arounds become the order of the day.

But with this clock project, I didn’t want a work around, not even if it would give me a funny and effective sermon illustration.  I liked the original plan, even if it only existed in my head.  I could still see what I want the clock to look like.  And so the more I thought of the work around, the less I liked it.  So, I am not going to go with the work-around.  I am starting over.  I know what caused the problem and I am pretty sure I can avoid it.  The small pieces that won’t fit together will either get incorporated in another project or start a fire–dry pine is great (but expensive) kindling.

But I am still a preacher and so there has to be an illustration in there somewhere.  Right  now, it looks like the potential sermon story focuses on the fact that sometimes, we work around and sometimes, we start over.  The real key is knowing when to do which, as far as I am concerned.  I can afford to start the clock over–I have lots of time since there is no deadline for finishing it; I can afford another piece of kiln-dried pine since the clock body will only require a short length and most of all, I won’t be content with a work around for this clock, or at least the work around I was facing.  Given my woodworking skills, the ultimate clock will definitely have work arounds but at least it won’t have this one.

I am not a perfectionist but I do have some standards and desires.  For me, much of my approach to woodworking and the rest of my life for that matter is summed up by some words of wisdom from a professor I encountered early in my university life.  He was talking about writing papers but the words work for most things:  “Do the best you can with the time you have”.  I might alter it a bit to have it say, “Do the best you can within the circumstances you find yourself” but either way, it is good advice for woodworking and life.

May the peace of God be with you.

EMBRACING COLOUR

            Recently, one of the congregations I serve held an outdoor worship service at a local park.  As part of the worship, I asked people to look at Creation and find something of God to share with the rest of the group, using Romans 1.20 as a springboard into the exercise.  One of the participants chose to talk about the greens he was surrounded by.  He was excited about God’s extravagance in creating so many shades of green.

While I could appreciate his excitement, I didn’t share his vision.  I am colour blind and have difficulty recognizing green at all, let alone being able to see many different shades and variations of green–for me, there is maybe green and beyond that, a blob of indistinguishable colour.

But my physical disability doesn’t predispose me to black and white thinking.  I like colour, even if I don’t see it well.  In my photography, I have always preferred colour to black and white–and in life and theology, I much prefer colour to black and white.  In fact, I have come to realize that even what I and others sometimes call grey is actually a riot of colour that is best appreciated when we are willing to put the effort into understanding it.

Any issue that some people want to make black and white and I have called grey is probably better viewed as a riot of shades of all the colours that some claim to actually see.  And maybe our role as believers is to learn to embrace the colours of life, rather than try to reduce them to a simplistic black and white or less simplistic grey.

For me, the colours of life represent the stories and circumstances and happenings and pains and joys and heights and depths that make up a real life.  To try and reduce an individual’s life to black and white denies the reality of that person’s life.  To see it is shades of grey misses the vitality and aliveness of that life.

To see the colours of that life makes that life more understandable and approachable.  It allows us to understand the person better, to celebrate the bright and lively colours and struggle with the dark and heavy colours.  It gives us the opportunity to be used by God to introduce the colours of love and grace and hope that the Gospel offers, colours that can brighten and even replace the darkness of despair and confusion and pain.

The more I get to know people, the less I am concerned about the black and white issues that used to upset so many when I was in college.  And, I have discovered, the more I discover and embrace the colours of an individual’s life, the better I am at becoming God’s agent in that life, being used by God to introduce even more colour into that life.

Life really can’t be reduced to black and white.  Morality for some believers may seem like it can be made black and white but even morality cannot be made so simple and simplistic without doing theological and practical damage to the reality of life in general and individual lives in particular.  And even more, trying to reduce life to black and white or even shades of grey takes love out of the picture.  And, as I Corinthians 13.1-3 points out so clearly, without love nothing else matters.

So this has been my journey from my first encounters with black and white, moving on to grey and then to the discovery of the range of colours available.  Real life is a riot of colours and shades and tones and hues.  Many of these colours and shades and tones and hues I can’t see in the physical world–I probably can’t even describe them without resorting to a very scientific listing of wavelengths and so on, which sort of takes the colour out of the colour.

But I have been and am learning to recognize the wealth of colour in life, the shades and tones and hues that make up an individual’s particular life situation.  I have been and am learning how God wants to introduce new colours into that life and how he can use colour blind me to be part of that process.

I am colour blind in many settings–but this blind person is learning how to really see others–and it is great to see the fulness of colour, even if it is only metaphorically.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHO NEEDS HELP?

A few days ago, my wife and I treated ourselves to supper out.   The food at supper was good and it is always great to have time together, especially when it doesn’t end with having to do the dishes and clean up the kitchen.  We are both pastors and have been in the area for a long time so most places we go, we run into someone we know.

This particular evening, we ran into a couple we hadn’t seen for a while and so we chatted while we waited for our meals.  Very quickly, the conversation broke into the husband and I carrying on one conversation while the two women carried on another one.  During my conversation with the husband, he mentioned some work he was doing through his church, helping provide support from some people in the community who needed help.

That was great, I thought–but then the conversation took a bit of a turn as he began making some pointed remarks about the local efforts to settle refugees in our area.  Several committees have been formed by church and community groups to settle and support a number of refugees in our area, which I also think is great.

I am pretty sure that the person I was talking to didn’t share this viewpoint–he wasn’t reacting to the presence of the refugees; he wasn’t showing some of the paranoia some people have about refugees from Islamic areas; he wasn’t being bigoted.  Rather, he was, I think, upset at his perception that the refugees were getting all the attention and the local needs were being ignored.  Listening to him, I got the impression that he felt he was the only one caring for the needs of the local people.

Many people seem to get caught in a dilemma over who we help.  There is the “Charity begins at home” faction; the “They are living in camps with nothing” faction; the “We are ignoring the hungry in our own backyard” faction; the “What about the (fill in the blank)” faction, all busy saving their own corner of the world and wondering why no one else is as concerned as they are.

I thought a couple of things about that.  First, I know that there are other people involved in helping out with the local needs–as near as I can tell, the concern for refugees hasn’t diminished the support for local needs, at least in our area.  Food banks, church benevolent funds, various service groups and organizations are as busy as ever.  They are all saying they don’t have enough resources but to be fair, they said that before the refugee crisis as well.

The second thought is more theological or theoretical in nature.  If our neighbour is someone who has a need, which seems to me to be the message behind the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.30-37), then we are called to help those with needs wherever they are.  It isn’t a matter of local over refugees; hungry local children over the hungry far away; the needs at home over the needs far away–in the end, it is a matter of meeting needs in the name of Jesus Christ.

Some of us will find our calling to the needs close at home.  Some will be led to refugees or disaster victims somewhere far away.  Some will be called to be organizers of school breakfast programs.  Some will become committee chairs for refugee resettlement.  Some will be called to give money and support to a variety of these causes.

The problem comes, I think, when we make it a competition.  Essentially, the competition begins when I see my ministry as more important than your ministry.  And being human, we are much more prone to this kind of competitiveness than we want to admit.  If I am involved in something, everyone else should be involved in the same thing, with the same amount of commitment and enthusiasm.

And maybe if we were Jesus, we would have the energy and enthusiasm to be involved in everything everywhere.  But we aren’t Jesus.  We follow him and in his grace, he is going to use us to meet the needs.  He won’t call all of us to the same needs  but he does call us to be his agents in helping him meet the needs of the world.  It isn’t a competition but a division of labour so that God gets the most out of his people in terms of helping meet the needs.  We do our work for God and rejoice that someone else is doing their part.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE PASTOR’S PERSONAL VISION

My experience has taught me that the majority of pastors are fairly driven people. It may be due to the nature of our calling or something in our personality or some other intangible factor but we pastors tend to want to accomplish something and we want that accomplishment to be important in our eyes, in the eyes of others and sometimes even in God’s eyes.

It may be that part of the problem we have with maintenance ministry is that it doesn’t seem to accomplish much–actually, it is probably better to say that it doesn’t seem to accomplish much in the short term. Like most people in North America, we want to accomplish great things is less time than it takes for our latest electronic device to become obsolete. The regular caring ministry of the church does accomplish great things but it takes time.

This drive to accomplish may be part of the reason why so many pastors push and prod and even demand that their churches adopt a vision, often a vision that these pastors have developed. Their vision will help the church, they claim. A careful examination of the proposed vision will sometimes reveal that the proposed vision will also do great things for the pastor if it is adopted.

Pastors, like congregations, have times when they need a vision. Some pastors, in fact, seem to need a vision all the time, while others need a vision at certain times in their lives and ministry. It is important therefore for pastors to understand their need for a vision and how that personal vision relates to the congregations they serve.

There will often be a connection between the personal vision and the ministry the pastor is involved in. When I decided that I wanted to study for my D. Min., that personal vision had a direct effect on the churches I was pastoring at the time: the congregations had to recommend me to the seminary; they had to allow me time off for study; my work for them was the focus of much of my study and they had to be willing to be a part of the project that was part of my study.

The important thing about this process was that it was my personal vision and I gave them a free and clear choice about being a part of that vision. Had they not been interested, I would have had to revise my personal vision. It was not a requirement that they become part of my personal vision.

I encourage pastors to develop a personal vision–it can be a very important part of their personal growth and development. While some might chose a vision that has nothing to do with ministry, most will chose a vision that has ministry implications. But we must always be clear that our personal vision doesn’t necessarily have to be the church’s vision. If the congregation isn’t interested in our vision, that doesn’t mean they are unspiritual, unwilling to develop, against us or anything like that. It simply means they aren’t moved by our personal vision and if we want to pursue that vision, we need to do it on our own.

In my ministry, I have had many personal visions. Some, like my educational desires, have been shared with the congregation who happily volunteered to participate in the vision. Others, like my desire to be involved in denominational activity, were approved and supported by the congregation but not adopted as their vision. Others, like my writing, were quite separate from the congregation who didn’t always know what I was writing or for whom.

The pastor’s personal vision is important–but it isn’t always important that the church adopt that vision. Particularly in the small church, the congregation’s vision needs to grow and develop from the real setting and needs of the congregation. While the pastor is an important part of the congregation and vision process, he/she must always be aware of the important distinction between his/her personal vision and the congregation’s vision. The two may be related–but they may also have no real connection beyond the person of the pastor.

May the peace of God be with you.