REAL MINISTRY

I am a pastor, which means many things: I get to be chief grace sayer at all kinds of meals; I am expected to know the meaning of every obscure word and verse in the Bible; I am able to conjure up food and money for every needy person and situation. In short, I am involved in ministry. While I am aware that others are involved in ministry as well, I have a tendency to forget that.

But recently, I was talking with someone who needed someone to listen while they opened up about something they were involved in—that is another of the many activities that go along with being a pastor. I actually knew a fair bit about the situation since it had been a topic of the church and our prayers for a while. I knew about this person’s involvement. As they talked, the story became more interesting.

The person was a bit frustrated with the response to the situation. The person we were all concerned about needed serious help financially, emotionally and medically. He needed major repairs on his house or he would spend the winter with a temporarily patched roof—never a good thing in a Nova Scotia winter where wind, rain and snow come regularly. But in spite of the fact that this was a small community, there wasn’t a lot of activity. Some work had been done and some money had been raised but not what might be expected.

The person talking to me was trying really hard to get things going and frustrated at the results. As we talked, the person acknowledged that helping this other person was difficult: the life choices he had made had tended to turn people away from him. His alcoholic life style, his sometimes difficult personality, his overly independent personality had all worked to create a situation where he was more tolerated in his community than appreciated. Nobody would actually wish his harm but nobody was very quick to step in and help either.

But the person was trying, which I thought was great. But as they talked to me, what I was hearing became even more significant. The person acknowledged that the person was difficult. And then they told me that they had been bullied and I suspect even abused by this person and had spend many years being afraid of the person. There were clearly painful and deep scars associated with this particular individual.

And yet the person talking to me was committed to making sure that the person had a safe and secure home for the winter. They were making arrangements, setting up processes, ensuring that money was accounted for, pushing community leaders. They had made a commitment to this person, a person whom I wasn’t even sure they really liked.

As I reflected on the conversation, I had lots of thoughts, one of which was that this person was engaged in real ministry. They were committed to helping someone others were rejecting for some valid reasons. They themselves had good reason to ignore the person and the situation. And yet, the individual in question needed help—and for some reason, the person talking to me felt it was their job to make sure that the help was delivered. I think what I was hearing from this person qualified as a call to ministry.

Not a call to ministry in the sense of committing to spending a life time working in and for the church, which is what we often consider a call to ministry to be. But this was a specific call to a specific ministry for a specific time. For some reason or reasons, I think God has asked the person talking to me to be his agent for a person they might not like but to whom they can be used as God’s hands. The results of this call are already evident: the man in need is slowly getting the help he needs and if the person I was talking to has anything to say about it, they will have a warm shelter for the winter. But there are other results of that call that are equally valid, results that have to do with the ability of the person talking to me to open themselves to God to find the resources needed to do what God asks.

May the peace of God be with you.

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GOING TO WORK

The drive to my first worship service each Sunday is normally taken up with thinking about the coming service: how many people I can expect; what was the second point of the sermon again; did I get all the announcements; what hymn can we use if they don’t know the one I want. When I get fed up with that sort of pre-worship obsessing, I begin to play around with the car sound system, deciding if the one radio station that comes in clearly along most of the road is the what I want to listen to or do I need to stop and set up something from my phone to play on the car Bluetooth. On top of all that, I do focus most of my attention on the driving, which is important because there are a significant number of people who ignore things like speed limits, double lines and stop signs.

However, the last two times I have made the trip have been different. The second last began that way, sort of. I wasn’t actually going for worship but was heading for community banquet at which I was invited to be the official prayer giver. It was a cloudy evening but as the sun was getting close to setting, the clouds began to break up, beginning in the west. I was driving east with the sun low in the sky behind me, bright enough that I had to adjust the mirrors to keep it out of my eyes.

And then, ahead of me on the right, highlighted by the dark rain clouds still in the eastern sky, there was a rainbow. I don’t see all the colours of the rainbow but I still appreciate them. That was a serendipitous blessing for the trip—but it got better because I looked to the left over the water and saw the other side of the rainbow. For most of the trip, I drove towards the rainbow, enjoying the view—both ends of the rainbow in plain sight. The contrast of the rainbow against the dark clouds was both inspiring and somehow relaxing.

The next day, I headed out for the morning worship service along the same road. The sun was shining and there was a fairly strong wind blowing towards the shore that I was driving along. I know what that means and was prepared for it. An onshore wind with the tide coming in means that there would be spectacular waves beating the shore—and several stretches of the road allow for great views of the waves. Add to that the profusion of fall colours and I knew I was in for a great drive without much time or need to focus on the coming worship service.

But the drive got even better. I actually found another radio station that plays classical music and is clear all along the drive. And, because the fall fishing season had just begun, the Bay was filled with boats—well, there were half a dozen or so boats bobbing along as they braved the waves to haul their lobster traps. The music, the sun, the fall leaves, the waves and the boats made for a great drive. On both trips, I still gave most of my attention to making sure that I was driving safely but the extra focus wasn’t spent on needless worrying about the coming worship or who would or wouldn’t be there or stuff like that.

The lack of worrying and fussing about the coming events didn’t actually affect the events I went to. The meal was graced, the worship went well, I remembered the second sermon point (which really isn’t all that great a feat since the whole text was right there on my tablet). I could probably look around at the scenery on every trip and arrive just as well prepared as when I spend the trip fussing and worrying. Actually, I probably arrive in a better frame of mind because the scenery is more relaxing that anxiety and being relaxed means that I am probably better able to conduct the worship service.

I likely won’t change everything because of these two trips though—there are some things that just need to be worried about. But I do hope that I am able to be aware of what I am driving through so that I can enjoy the waves and rainbows and all the rest. God put them in place—the least I can do is see them and enjoy them.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE CHURCH SUPPER

While on vacation recently, we took a trip to another part of our province to see the fall colours. We have the same colours in our area but the grass is always greener somewhere else and so we thought the fall colours might be brighter there. Since we couldn’t look at trees and leaves all the time, we looked for other stuff to do while we were away. One of the things that we ended up doing was going to a church supper. I know—that seems a bit strange to travel miles and miles to attend a function pretty much like the ones we have regularly in our own churches.

But we do like church suppers and one of the real advantages of this one was that we had nothing at all to do with the supper. I didn’t have to say grace, we didn’t have to help cook and set up, we weren’t serving, we didn’t have to wash dishes. All we did was pay our money, take our meal and eat it—that was a really interesting and enjoyable experience.

The experience was more interesting because of a couple we ran into waiting for the supper to start. They too had come to see the fall colours—but they had come from much further. They live in Australia and don’t actually have fall colours where they come from so this was an interesting and exciting trip for them. Everyone was enjoying the fall colours. Even though it was rainy, drippy and cold, everyone agreed that the colours were great. The supper was great as well.

Back in the car the next day, my wife and I had a bit of a discussion about the colours. Given that I am colour blind, our discussion of the various colours we were seeing was marked by some confusion and uncertainty. I was telling her I was really enjoying the yellows that I was seeing—they seemed to me to be the brightest and most showy of the colours. She happened to like the oranges—which I really couldn’t see. Beyond the brilliant yellows, all the other colours were the usual mass of undistinguishable something or others that I couldn’t really name. And even the yellows that I liked probably weren’t really yellow—or at least that is what she suggested.

So why, you might ask, does a colour blind person make a trip to see colours that he can’t actually see? Well, it was a vacation week, I was spending time with my wife and the “yellows” were pretty. Some might suggest that I was missing most of the experience—and on some levels, I was. But I was born colour blind and so I have never actually experienced what some say I am missing—it is hard to miss what I never actually had.

Unless I am driving in an area with lots of traffic lights, I don’t actually pay all that much attention to colour. I like the colours I see and enjoy colour photography much more than black and white. But I will never see colours like “normal” people. On the other hand, “normal” people will never see things like I see them either. When I talk about colour with other people, we are often talking different languages—I can’t understand words like “purple” and “fuchsia” or even “orange”—and when I say “yellow”, I may or may not be using a concept they can understand from my perspective.

But in the end, what difference does it make? Our new Australian friends were enjoying the colours that they had never experienced before. My wife was enjoying the oranges in the leaves and lots of other colours that are just meaningless words to me. I was enjoying the drive, the company and the yellows. The church supper was great. Do I feel cheated that I didn’t get to see the full colour spectrum? Not really—I saw what I saw and I liked what I saw and since I really don’t know what I am missing, I am happy with what I saw and experienced. I know others see more but I expect that they don’t experience any more in terms of enjoyment—I can’t change what I can’t see but I can determine how I to react to what I do see.

May the peace of God be with you

I CAN’T SEE CLEARLY

I have been wearing eye glasses since I was about 16. At the beginning, I needed them for sustained close up stuff like reading but over the years, I have progressed to needing glasses pretty much all the time. I went from wearing them now and then to wearing them most of the time to getting bifocals and now putting on my progressive lens glasses when I get up and taking them off when I go to bed.

One of the interesting discovering I have made is that the more I wear my glasses, the less I pay attention to them, especially how clean they are. Right now, I am aware that there are smudges on the glasses—but because I don’t want to get up and find the cleaner and cloth to clean them I am ignoring the smudges because I know that after a short time, my mind will adjust my sight so that I don’t see the smudges. Somehow, the photo editing system that is part of my vision process clears up the smudges, spots, specks and skin oils that collect on my glasses and I carry on. Of course, once I actually clean the glasses, I am amazed at how much better I am seeing that I was before.

But the truth is that I get used to the poor vision. It becomes normal. I forget what could be and accept something far less. The glasses that make it easier for me to see the world become something that blocks my ability to see. Wearing dirty and smudged glasses limits my vision—but I keep wearing them that way because even the limited vision I get with them is still better than the vision I have without them.

What does that have to do with anything aside from the fact that this is Monday morning, I am just back from vacation and need to write something? Well, using my preacherly licence to find an illustration in anything, I think there is a message in my willingness to continue to wear dirty glasses. It seems to be that we human beings are very good at accepting and living with less than optimal situations.

As believers, for example, we have before us the high and inspiring standards set out by our faith: things like loving one another, caring for the poor, helping the hurting, dealing with injustice. Our faith calls us to be involved in the world, seeking to work as God’s agents in making a difference. But while we might all openly acknowledge this, we all manage to find ways to avoid engaging in the task.

The street person sitting on the corner isn’t really one of those people whom God has called us to care for—he (or she) is just some lazy beggar whom we can ignore. The person down the street whose lawn isn’t mowed isn’t someone with physical limits whom we are called to help out—she (or he) is just some uncaring resident bringing down all property values. The kids who throws rocks at vacant buildings aren’t struggling with abandonment and social issues—they are delinquents who need to be taught a lesson.

On the larger scale, the millions of starving in the world aren’t hungry because of geo-political policies and climate change that we help cause and sustain and who need our help—they are just a bunch of unimportant people living somewhere we will never go and therefore don’t have to worry about.

The faith we claim somehow gets smudged and spotted and dirty enough so that we look at the world through a distorted lens that allows us to ignore the very things that God has called us to see and engage with. The streaks and spots and smudges we allow to accumulate on our faith allow us to ignore the obvious and continue to see what we want to see—and sometimes, in fact, the smudges even allow us to convince ourselves that what we want to see is actually what God wants us to see. But in the end, our glasses are dirty and until we clean them, we are not really seeing what God wants us to see.

So, I am going to clean my real glasses—that is something I can do quickly. But I also need to work at clearing up my spiritual vision so that I can actually see what God wants me to see.

May the peace of God be with you.

HERE AM I, LORD

As a pastor, I have discovered that I often end up dealing with things from a variety of perspectives. Sometimes, I am a student, discovering as much as I can about a topic. Sometimes, I am a teacher, explaining the issues to students and parishioners. Sometimes, I am part of a larger group that is seeing to do something on a larger scale. But the truth is that most of the time, as a pastor, I am dealing with stuff one on one, as someone struggles to figure out how their life deals with whatever happens to be coming their way.

At those times, I draw deeply on all my education, my research, my training, my talents, my gifts. I have been called by God to help this person in this area—and as much as possible, I work to give them my best for God to use in their life process. Whatever the person is dealing with, I have been called by God to used everything I have to help them make the connection with God that will enable them to find the divine resources to deal with whatever comes their way.

I am not always comfortable with this calling. There are times when it is extremely uncomfortable and even scary. There are times when I feel like I am walking on a tightrope in a still cross wind. There are times when I am sure that I am wasting my time but have to try anyway. There are, of course, times when through the grace of God, everything comes together and the person overcomes. More often, the person makes a step that diminishes the problem a bit and sets up the process for another step down the road a bit.

Some of the things I deal with one on one would be a lot easier to deal with in a different socio-cultural-political climate. Some of the stuff I help people agonize through would be a lot easier if things were different on the macro scale. Helping survivors of childhood sexual abuse, for example, would be a lot easier for the survivor is there weren’t the social stigma and reluctance to admit the problem exists let alone the serious long term consequences that it brings.

At times, I think that someone should do something about the big stuff. Occasionally, I toy with the idea of starting something to deal with the big picture. And now and then in my ministry, I have actually been involved in some of the big picture stuff, working with others to bring about changes. But mostly, I have spent my career dealing with one issue at a time, one person at a time, one day at a time.

It isn’t that I don’t see the big picture. Intellectually, emotionally and vocationally, I am hard wired to seek out and understand the big picture. I am comfortable with the big picture and generally have no problem relating the specific to the general. Part of my ability to help in the specific is tied to my ability to grasp the general.

But for all that, I spend most of my time working with the specifics. And that, I think, is tied closely with my calling. I have been called to be a pastor and teacher. My calling, at least as I have seen it up to this point, is to be the one who can help people mobilize their faith to find what they need to deal with whatever part of life they are currently dealing with. A smaller part of that calling is teaching those not in the specific to understand and be ready for the specific when it happens to them or they are called to help others deal with it.

I sometimes tell people who want me to become involved in the big picture stuff that I am too busy to be involved. And that is pretty much the truth. I have a calling, a calling to be a pastor and teacher. To carry out that calling properly takes significant time and effort, time and effort that I willing offer to God and others. When God calls me to the big picture stuff, it has always been in the context of caring for the specific first and then using spare time and energy to deal with the big picture.

I am grateful for those called to deal with the big picture—someone needs to do it. But someone also needs to deal with the specifics and that is where my calling has tended to take me. Here I am, Lord.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHOM SHALL I SEND?

Recently, my wife and I gave up one of our Saturdays to attend a seminar. The topic looked interesting and timely and we both decided that it was worth the loss of a leisurely day that normally includes sleeping in and breakfast somewhere. We did get breakfast out but it was eaten in the car on the way to the meeting, which wasn’t quite the same.

Anyway, the seminar was interesting and I did learn some stuff about the topic that helped me understand the issue better. The speaker was interesting, her comments provocative, here small group questions produced good discussion. But as the sessions progressed, I realized that the agenda I thought we were going to focus was different from the agenda that the seminar leader wanted to focus on.

The initial announcement seemed to suggest to me that the seminar would look at ways that I as a pastor could approach the issue in my ministry. I was expecting practical and specific approaches that could affect my preaching and my pastoral contacts with people affected by the issue. There was some mention of this but the speaker chose to focus on the larger cultural and social aspects of the issue, seeking to elicit support for a larger, more political response to the issue.

As she talked and explained, I realized that she was making some very valid points. There were some serious dangers in the processes involved that needed someone to speak up—or rather, that needed many someones to speak up. The issue has political implications and in politics, the number and volume of voices are decisive factors.

This is not the first time I have been in the position of seeing the need for a larger action process. Sometimes, the calls have come from dedicated, committed people like the speaker at this seminar. Sometimes, they have come from our denominational staff who identify a problem and suggest a solution. And occasionally, I personally see the vision for what could be if there were just enough of us squeaking the wheel.

Some things just cry out for large involvement. Some things need not just a one on one solution. They need a group of dedicated and committed people who will give a lot of time and effort, people who will take on the cause and make the noise and offend the settled and upset the established and rattle the cages. Such a process needs one or two or a very small inner group of deeply committed leaders; a larger group of less committed but very active supporters and an even larger group of sympathetic listeners. All need to be prepared to go outside their routines, change their priorities, make sacrifices—stepping onto the political process in any organization and at any time is demanding.

And it is a part of the Christian process. God can and does work through such people and their supporters. He can and does call people to commit themselves to this mission. I am pretty sure that the speaker at this seminar was one of the called, a missionary from God to seek others to help deal with this significant social and political issue. The need is there and it is a clear and demanding need, one that if left unchecked will contribute to the increasing disrespect for individuals.

And so as the speaker taught and challenged, I was listening to an Isaiah moment—God pointing out the problem and calling out for people to respond. (Isaiah 6.1-8). Now, this call wasn’t as dramatic—there were no seraphim flying and praising. There were just 60-70 of us packed in a room that would have been more comfortable with about 50. But there was still a call from God for people to follow his leading and step into the arena to help protect people from the less publicized and more unpalatable aspects of a current social issue.

I hope and pray that there were some in the room who heard the call and discovered that this was a specific call from God to them, that this was their Isaiah moment, the time when God speaks and their place is confirmed. I hope and pray that for two reasons. First, someone needs to do it—this is an important issue. And second, I hope and pray someone responds because I am not going to respond. This was not my call—and why I can say that is the topic of my next post.

May the peace of God be with you.

BEGINNING AGAIN

September has arrived. The days are noticeable shorter and even though they can still be quite warm, mornings have a fall feel. The air is cooler and sometimes, there is a vague hint of frost in the air. Summer is over and for most people, the year is drawing to a close. We look ahead to the coming of really cold weather, snow and winter. The next big bump in the year is Christmas and then it is over.

Except for me and many other clergy, September really marks the beginning of the year. For many of us, the church year actually runs from September to May or June. I make my plans based on that year and most of the people I know in ministry follow the same pattern. So, for me, that means the coming of September means the start of a new year. The programs and groups we shut down in May or June start back up. The new initiatives and plans start to unfold. We will turn on the engine and get things moving as we begin another church year.

This is generally a hopeful and enjoyable time. When Bible Study starts up, we will reconnect and rekindle our exciting process. The new ideas we have been planning for get brought online. Our numbers stabilize after the summer fluctuations—summer visitors go home, regulars come back and preaching can focus on more in-depth themes. For the next eight or nine months, we will be full steam ahead, being the church the way we interpret God’s calling on us, with the Christmas shift and the anticipated snow days.

I have been involved in the September New Year activities for a long time—I began serving churches as a pastor a long time ago and consider myself a seasoned veteran of the church New Year process. I have made a few changes over the years to cater to cultural shifts and ministry trends—we start a bit later in September than I used to because of the summer creep that has pushed the summer slump further into September. Some programs have disappeared—when there is no Sunday School, there is no need to plan and push the Sunday School opening.

I have generally approached September with a positive outlook. I work with the church leadership to make plans for the new year which will help us as a church. I see each year as an opportunity to help the church become more and more the church. Sometimes, we are using our new year to clean up and repair some problem whose time has come. Sometimes, we use our new year to look at ourselves and explore God’s leading and grace. Sometimes, we are looking beyond problems and using the new year to try something new and different that will help us become what we feel God is leading us to become. Every now and then, there has been a new year when we haven’t had to do clean up and haven’t planned new initiatives—those have been rest years, something like the Jubilee year the OT sets for the people of Israel.

Each of these approaches to the new year has its excitement and requirements and blessings and setbacks. Each requires pastor and church to focus and work and gives us a direction and goal to properly harness our energy. Each helps us define and express our nature as believers and churches. Each helps shape not just our present ministry but also our future ministry.

As pastor, I have a vital part in the whole process. I am paid to focus on the church. My calling and my position give me the luxury of being able to focus most of my time and energy on the work we are doing together. I become the cheerleader, the analyst, the encourager, the teacher. And so the new year always brings new demands, new directions, new things to do and try. Since a healthy church isn’t just doing the same old stuff every year, my role as pastor means that each year, I have to be looking at new and different stuff, challenging myself and the church to make the best of the year to come.

I know that by the middle of next May, we will all be ready for a break—but right now in September, we are at the beginning of a new year, filled with excitement and possibility. Happy New Year!

May the peace of God be with you.

A BIBLE STUDY QUESTION

Part of my pastoral responsibility involves spending some time thinking about and praying about the church, trying to figure out where God is leading us and what he is asking of us. This isn’t exclusively my job but because I am actually paid to focus on the church, I tend to have more time to devote to the process. This process works best when I base my thinking on what I am hearing and seeing from God and the church.

So, with that in mind, come with me to the first Bible study after vacation. As I drive to the study (about 30 minutes away from my home), I am thinking about the church and its direction and its future and what I could/should be doing. I don’t have a lot of ideas since it is just after vacation but I am thinking.

I arrive and Bible study begins. As usual, I ask about their response to last Sunday’s worship, joking that for a change, I couldn’t say anything because I wasn’t there. Those who were there made some positive comments about the worship and the supply preacher and then the discussion took a different direction, something that happens regularly at our Bible study.

One of the members was obviously trying to formulate a question. Since he normally doesn’t have a lot of trouble putting his questions together, I asked him what he was working on. His commented that while the visiting speaker was great, he was wondering is maybe the next time I went away, the congregation could take responsibility for the service. He was quick to point out that this wasn’t a comment about the fill in speaker but rather a real question that he had been looking at.

The response around the table was interesting. One member of the study reacted a bit negatively—she had been responsible for doing just that in the past and didn’t really enjoy the process. Speaking in public just wasn’t her thing. But most of the others looked sort of interested.

So, as always happens with our Bible study when an interesting topic comes up, we followed it. I assured the group that there was absolutely no reason why they couldn’t lead the worship service, including the message. And, to help the person who had obviously been pushed into the preacher role unwillingly, I talked about leading worship in accordance with the gifts that God has given us. As we talked, various people got more and more excited as they began to see things that they could contribute to a worship service.

At some point in the discussion, I realized that I definitely didn’t want this to happen while I was on vacation—given the level of interest and developing excitement, if the congregation was going to lead the service, I wanted to be there, at least the first time they did it. I wanted to be able to share in and benefit from the spiritual process that was obviously going on here. I suggested we look at having the congregation arrange and lead the service sometime soon and I would be there. Before the service, I would be there to help people develop and understand their gift and contribution.

That was where we left the discussion—the congregation is going to lead worship, with various people who are gifted using their gifts. I will help out with advice and suggestions and moral support. In the next week or so, I will look at the church schedule and come up with some suggested dates for the worship.

I think we were all excited by this discussion. I may have been even more excited than the others because this question and the discussion ties into my thinking about overall direction of my ministry. This is a small congregation which may have some difficulty finding a regular preacher when the time comes that God calls me to something else. But if they discover and develop their gifts and abilities, they are not as dependent on finding someone, anyone to fill the pulpit.

I saw this question and the discussion and the plans coming out of it as part of God’s answer to my questions about ministry direction. He was not only letting me know where he was leading us but also reminding me once again that he speaks to and through the whole congregation so that together, we can find and follow his leading.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHO CARES?

When I started this blog back in 2015, I had a sort of a vague goal—or maybe a couple of them. I was unemployed at the time and needed something to do that would relieve the boredom and depression of unemployment. And I wanted to be able to think and organize and share some of my thoughts and ideas relating to faith, the church and spiritual growth. Very early in the process, I decided that I wasn’t comfortable dealing with some topics and since it is my blog, I can and do pretty much ignore anything I don’t want to write about.

One area I have avoided is commenting on current political and cultural events. I am a news junkie and so I am aware of what is going on but have never really wanted to wade into the cultural and political debates that are so prevalent and so divisive in our culture and churches these days. I have been troubled by a lot of what I see; I have been enraged by some of what I see; I have been saddened and depressed by what I see—but up until today, I haven’t been inspired by what I see.

And even today isn’t going to be a rant for or against some particular political move or figure—there are enough comedians and bloggers who make a living doing that way. We really don’t need another.

But maybe what we do need is someone who is willing to step back, forget the partisan politics and ask some difficult questions that come from the heart of our faith. Given that most major questions these days get addressed from the perspective of nationalism or partisan political stances or narrow perspectives, maybe we need someone to open the questions up and give them a bigger, divine context.

For example, some statistics suggest that over 65 million people are classed as refugees or internally displaced people—that is a good sized nation. Mostly the response to this crisis is that someone should do something, preferably far away from us and at no cost to us. Politicians debate and people are dying where they try to live and dying trying to get to safety. And while that might be a popular political response, what is the divine response? What does God think? Does God care? And if God cares, how should his people act?

Recent statistics in Canada suggest that around 20% of Canadian children live in poverty. There are all kinds of political suggestions about how to deal with the problem but since most of them require people who have helping people who don’t have, there tends to be a lot of talk but little action beyond band aids like food banks. So politicians debate and plans get drafted but since little money gets spent, the poor remain poor, get poorer and go to school and bed hungry and cold. But what is the divine response? What does God think? Does God care? And if God cares, how should his people act?

Our political and cultural responses tend to be narrow, self-serving, protectionist, biased and prejudicial—we like ourselves and ours. Being different is grounds for exclusion, mistreatment, name-calling and persecution. Unfortunately, politicians of all types love to build a base on these self-centered realities. We are all afraid of the other—and politicians know how to work that fear. But what is the divine response? What does God think? Does God care? And if God cares, how should his people act?

Too often, we have tried to fit God and the Christian faith into the cultural and political armour that we wear ourselves. But even a quick reading of the message that God has given us shows something far different. God has a deep and powerful concern for the alien, the poor, the different. God cares—and even more, he requires that his people care. He wants us to step out of the narrow and constrained ruts we dig for ourselves and begin to really care. He calls us to follow his example—he cared enough for selfish and self-centered people that he went to the cross for us. God cares. He made his care real, at great personal cost.

And us—well, we are called to care as well. And maybe that care demands that we step outside the cultural and political and show some real care, care based not in cultural and political fears and prejudices but in the love and grace of God.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHY DO I HAVE TO BE THE LEADER?

One of the best paying jobs I ever had while a university student was as a reserve army officer. For a couple of summers, I was an active duty officer, working as a cadet instructor. The pay was great and as an added benefit, I got to play with some neat toys and even run around in the dark firing off blank rounds and throwing flash-bangs.

But those summers weren’t all fun and games. I discovered a few things about myself in the process. I was an officer, someone who was given a great deal of authority. True, I was pretty much the lowest level of officer but most of the time, I was actually with people who were lower in rank than I was, meaning that what I wanted tended to be what happened. I discovered that I liked having that power—and at the same time, I realized that that kind of power can be seductive and extremely dangerous.

I also discovered that in the end, I don’t need that kind of power in my life. I liked it and probably would still like it—but the truth is that having power over other people is as addictive and destructive as any drug. There are people who seem to be able to deal with the dangers of this power but I realized that I am not one of them. I have also seen that many others probably aren’t the ones who can deal with it either.

I think that experience was important for me as I prepared for a career in ministry. I got into ministry just as the ministerial culture was shifting from a pastoral orientation to a leadership orientation. I began ministry understanding that I was to provide spiritual care and guidance and teaching to the people God had called me to shepherd. But more and more, I was being encouraged to lead these people: to tell them what God wanted them to do and then use my leadership to make sure that they got the job done. The books and seminars used words like “vision” and “visionary” and so on, but the whole idea was that I was responsible for leading the church to where it needed to go—and even more, I was responsible for deciding where it needed to go.

Being an introspective introvert, I couldn’t just buy into the books and trends. I needed to know why—and so began my study of leadership as it applies to the faith. I quickly discovered the real question, at least for me. The church, like any organization, needs leaders—but why did I automatically have to be the leader? Why does being given the title “Rev” also confer the supreme leadership of the church on me?

I have yet to find a good answer to that question. I have not yet found any convincing theological or Biblical reason that allows me to automatically equate pastor with leader. In fact, I have discovered a lot of reasons why too much leadership takes away from the ability of an individual to be a pastor. If I am the leader pushing (and even fighting) to get my vision accomplished by the church, I can seriously damage my ability to actually provide pastoral care to someone who might disagree with my vision. Or what of the people who have been slighted by my push to move the reluctant church in the way I see them needing to go? Are they going to be as open to my teaching at Bible Study or my preaching?

The church needs leaders—but why do I automatically have to be the leader just because I am the pastor? There are certainly times and situations when I provide pastorally oriented leadership but I am first of all a pastor and secondarily a teacher. I needed to learn to work from my strengths—and that means that I don’t need to be the leader. The God who called me and gifted me with the pastoral gifts I need also calls and gifts the leaders the church needs. I have discovered that I am at me best when I work my real gifts and calling and encourage others to work their real gifts and calling. I need to be a pastor and teacher—I don’t need to be a leader.

May the peace of God be with you.