SELECTIVE HEARING

A few years ago, I was attempting to prove that while my hearing was fine, my wife had been gradually lowering her voice making it difficult for me to hear so I scheduled an appointment with a hearing specialist.  An hour and lots of money later, I had hearing aids because it was my hearing that was the actual problem after all.  The specialist was careful to brief both of us on what to expect and what not to expect from the new hearing aids.  Since I could now hear, I listened carefully–and am glad I did because of what began to happen.

I was hearing everything.  After getting the devices fitted, we went shopping.  As I was standing in line, I heard the conversation between a couple several spots behind me in the line–did I mention that the new hearing aids have both forward and rear facing microphones?  I heard the squeaks and rattles in the car, the rustling of the groceries in the back, the raindrops hitting my hat.  Everything was clear and audible and eventually annoying.

I would have been tempted to rush back to the dealer and have him readjust the hearing aids, except he had warned me about this.  My hearing had been slowly deteriorating over the years and I hadn’t realized I wasn’t hearing all this stuff.  Normally, our brain processes out most of the extraneous noise–but because my hearing had been bad, the areas that do that processing had to be retrained to ignore the stuff I could now hear but really didn’t need to hear.

We all have somewhat selective hearing.  Right now, I am working in our living room.  There is an air purifier running by the living room door.  The kitchen fridge adds to the noise level.  If I focus, I can hear the dehumidifier in the basement.  The fan in my laptop cycles on and off.  The dog flops and walks and does whatever else he does.  With my hearing aids, I can now hear all that stuff.

But I have had them long enough that my filtering systems are back at work and so I only hear them when I choose to or something goes wrong with them.  My hearing is normal in that I can hear it all and depend on my brain to select what I really need to hear, except for a few minutes immediately after I put the hearing aids on in the morning until the filtering process kicks in.

This selective sensing works in most areas of life.  I look out the window and see the trees, the deer, the squirrels and the salt marsh, ignoring the lawn, the wires and the neighbour’s cat.  I can smell the cinnamon from my breakfast granola and not notice the slight odour of wet dog.  I notice the perpetual pain in my left knee from but ignore the lesser pain in my right knee.

And on the larger level, I stand in the pulpit every Sunday and look at the congregation members.  I know these people–remember, I pastor small churches.  As I talk with them before and after the service (and sometimes during), I see and hear lots of things, some of which I actually pay attention to and some of which I don’t.

I see the need of the person I know is struggling with grief and the related issues.  I hear the person who is struggling with some personal issue.  I might perceive the tensions sitting between one of the couples in worship.  I hear the excitement of the couple with grandchildren visiting.  I am aware of the person carrying the burden of an aging and increasingly disabled relative.

And because I am a pastor, I often need to do something in many of these situations–but part of my ministry is knowing what to focus on and what to ignore.  Just like I filter out what my hearing aid augmented ears pick up, so I need to filter out what my pastoral senses show me.

I have learned that the best way for me to do that is to open myself not only to the people but also to God so that the Holy Spirit can help me in the process.  Left to myself, I would either hear it all, which leads to burnout or ignore it all, which is just wrong.  While I am still learning that process, I have discovered a few things, which will be the topic of the next post.

May the peace of God be with you.

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THE OLD CHURCH BUILDING

            The area where I live is one of the oldest settled areas in Canada.  Before the arrival of European settlers, there was a thriving Native population.  European settlers arrived here in 1605 and have been here every since.  As might be expected, we have a great many old buildings.  The coffee shop where I treat myself to the world’s greatest cinnamon buns, for example, is housed in a building put up in 1747, although the coffee and cinnamon buns are much newer.

Among the old buildings are several unused church buildings of various denominations.  Some of them belong to denominations that have no problem  dealing with old, unused  church buildings.  The bishop, presbytery, committee or some other outside organization signs a paper and the building disappears or is sold and become an antique shop or funky house.  But other denominations, like the one I belong to, have serious problems because control of the building belongs to the membership.

But one of the interesting realities is that when the membership passes, control of the building seems to vest itself in a variety of people who want it kept for a variety of reasons.  Some have fond memories of family members who attended there.  Some are deeply appreciative of the architecture of the building.  Some swoon over the historical connections of the building.  Some see it as a possible money making opportunity–a wedding chapel or something like that.

Everyone wants it preserved and repaired and painted.  But very few want to pay the money and put in the time to make all that happen–and the few who do soon discover that having an unused church building to look after can be a major source of frustration, aggravation, stress and anger.

Interestingly enough, very few people see the building for what it really is.  An unused church building is the last sign physical of a once vibrant worshipping community.  It speaks of the faith that brought people to God and each other; a faith that enabled relatively poor people to build a building to house their congregation; a faith that sustained that worshipping community for many years–but also a faith that faded as its membership aged and moved and died.

If the congregation was faithful and worked at being the church, the deteriorating building isn’t the last sign of the former congregation’s life, nor is it even the best symbol of the legacy of the congregation.  To really know the value of a congregation, it is necessary to look at the lives touched by the congregation who used to worship in that building.  How many were helped through the valley of the shadow of death?  How many discovered the wonder of God’s grace?  How many found a cup of cold water when they needed it?  How many found their lives more abundant because of that congregation?

Unfortunately, answers to questions like that are sometimes hard to find.  People move away; communities shrink and fade away; memories grow dim.  The people who were touched by that congregation may not be anywhere near the old building–and the building probably isn’t anywhere near as important to them as the people who once made up the congregation.

I like old church buildings–but then, I like all church buildings, from the huge cathedral to the mud and wattle hut in the Kenyan bush.  But I like the congregations that inhabit the buildings even more.  I might appreciate the furtively scratched ship drawings hidden on the back pew in the balcony of an old unused church building but I appreciate even more the legacy of the congregation that used to inhabit that building.  Their worship might have bored at least one budding artist, but it also touched lives and made a difference.

The old building might have historical, architectural, cultural and emotional significance but the real story and real value of the building is written in the lives of those who built it and worshipped in it and in the lives touched by that group of people.  What happens to the building after the worshipping community ceases to exist?  Let the historians and the architects and the culture buffs and the nostalgia surfers figure it out.  I am going to take some pictures, thank God for the church that used to be there and worship somewhere else, where God is using another group of believers to touch lives.

May the peace of God be with you.

WWJD

Every now and then, I am struck by the wonder and breadth of the Christian church.  The Church worships God and that worship comes from many places in many languages and in many forms.  Whether it is a formal, liturgical English service or a relaxed, informal Kikamba service, God is worshipped and it is still the church.  While some lament the fragmentation of the church into denominations, I actually rejoice in the diversity of the church–since we are all different as humans, it makes sense that God would allow the Church to develop structures and forms that allow everyone to have a place to comfortably worship God.

That aspect of our diversity excites and encourages me.  It says that God speaks our language; that God accepts our worship in all its diversity; that God cares about who we are and what has meaning for us.  We may struggle with human diversity but God seems to celebrate and encourage it.  I appreciate the ability to worship in different styles and languages with different approaches to music and liturgy and preaching.

But there is a dark side to our diversity.  The dark side begins when we become aware of our differences and begin to think that different automatically means that we are right and they are wrong.  It occurs when we begin to think that Jesus must have done things the way we do things and that he must somehow have put his stamp of approval on our ways.  When  we begin to claim that Jesus is on our side, we have moved into the darkness.

While I would like to think that Jesus was a Baptist, the reality is that Jesus was non-denominational.   He wasn’t Baptist or Catholic or Pentecostal or Anglican–but at the same time, he is all of these and more.  And so, while I read the New Testament with my Baptist bias and find support for believers’ baptism by full immersion, I need to realize that there is also support for other forms of baptism.  Would Jesus practise immersion or pouring or sprinkling?  Well, since there is no record of Jesus actually baptizing anyone, we can’t say for sure what he would have done.

And if we can’t say for sure what he would have done, we probably need to have a more open mind on baptism that we generally do.  That reality generalizes to most of church life.  We don’t have a clear and definitive model of the church in the New Testament.  Sometimes, it acts congregational, as it did in Acts 15 when the church was dealing with the issue of how to deal with the influx of Gentile believers coming from  Paul’s ministry. At other times, it acts as a hierarchy,  with the apostles exercising considerable authority, as we see in other places in the book of Acts and in some of Paul’s writings.

I am not sure that Jesus had any particular denominational approach in mind when he set up the church.  He wanted the church to be the gathering of the faithful, a place where believers could help each other and reach into the world.  He wanted the church to be known for its love to God and its members.  He wanted the church to show the world a better way–but whether we should have a congregational or hierarchical system of government didn’t enter the picture.

He wanted the church to be his agent in the world–but didn’t tell us how we should structure our worship, what language we should worship in, what type of music we should use, who should preach, what style of preaching we should use, how long the worship should be and so on.  Most of the things that we look at and consider important in the church don’t even rate a mention in the New Testament, which should tell us a lot.

Rather than  try to make the whole church the same or waste time fighting over our differences, we in the church need to remember to worship God, love each other and show the light to the world.  Beyond that, we can enjoy our particular spot in the diversity that is the church while appreciating and maybe even borrowing from the rest of the church.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE PICNIC

One of the collections of churches I serve has to meet once a year and plan our worship services for the coming year.  We have four buildings and only one worship service a week so we have to decide which building we meet it on which Sunday.  That sounds simple–we can just have a simple rotation where each building has worship every fourth Sunday.  Unfortunately, things are not that simple.

To start with, some buildings are better for some events–only two of them can host meals or receptions.  Each building needs to have worship on some of the special event days like Easter and Christmas.  Parking in the winter can be a problem at some of the locations.  So, every year, we have to have a meeting to take into consideration all these factors plus some others and design a schedule to be approved by the church.

(By the way, the answer to the question “Why not just have one building?” is long, complicated and while some have been asking it for years, we are not likely going to get to that point for a long time.)

Anyway, during the last planning session, we tried to add some different events to add some variety.  One of the additions was an outdoor worship service with a picnic to follow.  As we talked, we even decided to invite the members of my other pastorate to join with us.  When we were planning this late last year, this looked and sounded like a great idea.

But, as things got closer and closer, well, the idea needed to be structured and organized and put together better.  The key issue was the weather, something which is notoriously hard to predict in Nova Scotia.  We needed sunny and warm but would settle for cloudy and warm–cloud and rain would be a killer.

While I have great leaders in the congregations, as pastor there were some things that only I could take care of.  My first act was to discuss rainy day backup plans–if it was raining, the deacons and church moderator would make a final go/no go decision since I would be leading worship somewhere else when the final decision had to be made.

I also decided that I needed to be prepared for any eventuality.  After some thought, I decided that I would use the same sermon no matter where we were but the other elements of worship needed some attention.  We would need different music, different orders of service and even different announcement, which necessitated different bulletins.

I like to be prepared so I eventually prepared two complete worship services and two different bulletins.  I would choose the appropriate service when the time came and I would copy the bulletin just before I left for worship (remember, we are talking small congregations here–copying the bulletin doesn’t take that long) and hope that the weather didn’t change while I was on my way.

Some might suggest that my extra work to prepare two services and two bulletins was a sign of weak faith.  They might be right–I have never claimed to have great faith.  Since we actually did have the outdoor service and the picnic along with a sprinkle of rain, I didn’t need the backup service and so wasted my time.

But for me, it wasn’t wasted time.  If I hadn’t done the extra work to have a backup ready, I would have been more anxious and would have spent even more time worrying and fussing and wondering if I should have created a backup.  Knowing myself meant that I could circumvent the anxiety stage and do the back up.  The extra time spent on that saved me a lot of strain and stress during the week and even  more on Sunday.  No matter what happened, I was ready.

I can’t anticipate every twist and turn in ministry–but I have learned that I function better when I am ready for the ones that I can anticipate. It is means that I do a bit of extra work that ends up being unused, that isn’t a real problem since I have avoided a major amount of stress.  And while stress does have some good points, finding ways to reduce unnecessary stress is always a good thing.

May the peace of God be with you.

COME LET US WORSHIP

I enjoy reading the book of Leviticus.  That probably tells you a great deal about me, because many Christians see Leviticus as a major roadblock which destroys more commitments to reading the Bible through than anything.  Leviticus is a book of detail.  It describes at great length how the people of Israel are to deal with the realities of their lives.

One of the reasons why I enjoy the book is that it shows clearly that God is concerned about all of life and that people who serve God need to submit even the way they harvest their crops to God (Leviticus 19.9-10).   God covers most of life in this book, giving people a clear indication that he is concerned with everything we do, not just the “spiritual” things.  In fact, reading through the book of Leviticus shows that there really isn’t a division of life into “spiritual” and “secular”.

But the other reason I enjoy the book of Leviticus is more basic in many ways.  When I read the book, I am incredibly happy that I am a Christian pastor and not a Jewish priest of that time.  Being a Protestant pastor is demanding and difficult at times but at least I am not slaughtering animals all day or evaluating skin lesions for leprosy or conducting trials to determine the fidelity of wives.  Reading the book of Leviticus makes even the busiest and most demanding of pastoral weeks seem a lot easier and much less demanding.

There is also another insight that I pick up when I read Leviticus, an insight that concerns worship.  The more I meditate on this theme, the more I am concerned about the worship that I help lead each week.  In the book of Leviticus, we discover that worship is costly–no one in the book of Leviticus approaches God without being aware of the cost of worship.

Before they come, they must have the proper sacrifice.  While there are gradations based on the individual’s financial status, everyone must have the best within the category.  The cow or sheep or dove must be perfect–no weak, old, worthless animal need apply.  If all the worshipper has is a weak, lame, sick and dying animal, they are out of luck–until they get a better offering, they can’t really worship.  Worship was expensive–it demanded something of the worshipper.

Now, this is not a ploy to suggest that we all have to give more at offering time, nor is it an attempt to make people feel guilty for sleeping during worship.  Truthfully, I am not totally sure where I am going with this–I have been thinking about this for a long time and am not completely sure what it means to me, let alone to the worshipping community.

I think it partly means that we need to see worship as something more than it sometimes is, at least for me.  In worship, we are openly recognizing the ever-present God.  We are acknowledging our dependence on him.  We are renewing our commitment to him.  Well, we are supposed to be doing that.

But many times, we are going through the motions, making an appearance, doing a job, following a tradition.  Worship doesn’t really recognize the presence of God–it just passed the time and gives us a star for attendance.  And maybe we treat worship like that because it doesn’t cost us that much–a bit of time and a few dollars.

Theologically, our Christian worship is even more expensive than worship in the book of Leviticus.  There, the cost of worship was a perfect animal.  For us, the cost of worship is God’s own perfect Son, Jesus Christ.  We come to worship as Christians because we believe that God in Christ took care of everything.  We come to worship as God’s loved and forgiven children, who now have complete freedom to approach God without any conditions.

But our worship is still expensive–we just didn’t have to pay the price of admission.  We worship because God paid the price himself.  And maybe as we spend some time meditating on that, our worship will become a more significant part of our lives.  When we remind ourselves of the cost of our worship, it helps us open ourselves more fully and completely to the presence of God.  It allows us to really worship the one who values our presence so much that he personally paid the price for our worship.

May the peace of God be with you.

ONE DAY DURING WORSHIP

            One Sunday we were at worship.  We were between snow storms–most had just finished the clean up from the most recent one and we were waiting for the one was due in a few hours.  That probably cut our attendance by about 10 percent (which in our case means a couple of people didn’t make it).  Worship was going smoothly–I hadn’t made any major mistakes and think I even avoided the minor ones.  I had lots of time before worship to get ready and no one had provided any unexpected confusion.

We went through the announcements, began worship and reached the point for the choir to sing.  As they were singing, I looked at my watch and realized that I was pretty much through the order of service except for the Scriptures and sermon and we had used up only about 10 minutes.

I remember thinking, “What have we done?”  But I wasn’t asking the question in the same way some melodramatic TV or movie character would ask it. I was really asking myself if during the previous 10 minutes we had really worshipped God.  I had lead the congregation through the order of service, making appropriate comments about the music and doing the prayers at the right time–even using the right prayer at the right time.  We had sung and read together and prayed and offered our offering and listened to the choir–but had we really worshipped God.

That isn’t an easy question for me to answer.  I am aware that simply following the order of service and getting it right (something I don’t always do) doesn’t ensure that we worship.  Worship involves an opening of ourselves to the presence of God.  God is always present in our lives but we don’t always make the effort to be aware of his presence.  Public and private worship provide us with times to actually remind ourselves of the wonder of the presence of God.

But to be honest, I am not always aware of the presence of God during worship.  I am busy leading, guiding the flow of the service, making sure that I follow the order of service, reading people’s reactions to the service, coping with my nervousness, anticipating the next several steps of worship, making sure that I move the text on the tablet at the right time.  Am I aware of the presence God in our midst?  Intellectually and theologically, I am deeply and profoundly aware of the powerful truth that God is with us no matter what.  Practically, when I am leading worship, I am often more aware of leading the worship that the presence of God.

What are the worshippers aware of?  That I can’t say with any great degree of certainty, but from past experience, I can say that some are aware of the physical limitations of the sanctuary, the pain they experience from their arthritic joints meeting hard pews, the worry about life issues they bring with them to worship, the smell of the coffee we will share after the worship, and maybe trying to figure out the joke the worship leader (me) told poorly.

And yet, in spite of all of this, week after week, we come and somehow, by the grace of God, we manage to connect with God.  Somehow, I see beyond the anxiety of leading the worship and experience the presence of God.  Somehow, the congregation reaches beyond the hard pews, aches and pains, life baggage and poor preaching and encounters the reality of the presence of God in their midst.  Somehow, we do it–we see God, we experience God, we thank God, we praise God.

How do I know that?  Well, sometimes, people tell me how they encountered God.  Sometimes, I have my own personal encounter.  But more often than now, I realize that we have encountered God simply because we leave worship with more than we brought to worship.  We worship and because we somehow experience the reality of the presence of God in our lives, we are touched with the grace of God, a touch that changes our lives.  It may not be a spectacular change, although those do happen now and then.  It may not be a touch that lasts a long time, although those too happen from time to time.

But we are touched by the presence of God and we do take the experience of that touch with us and it does make a difference–and so in some way, somehow, we have worshipped.

May the peace of God be with you.

AT THE POTLUCK

We had a potluck supper after one of our worship services recently, something we do regularly.  Since I was one of the last people in the food line, I was still eating and talking to the people at the table when another person who had been near the beginning moved to our table and joined in our conversation while he waited for the desert line to begin–we don’t have enough space to put main course and desert out at the same time.

One of the guys told us that he had been a fisherman for all his life and faced some really rough times on the water and that didn’t bother him at all but when he thought about having to stand in front of a group of people, he was terrified.  The guy who joined us agreed that getting up in front of people was a major source of fear and he really didn’t like it.  Both looked at me and indicated that they figured that I obviously didn’t have a problem with being in front of people.

Both were a bit surprised when I told them that I have preaching and being in front of people for almost 50 years and am still nervous before and during times of being in front of people.  And then, I told them at as a teacher of people who preach and lead worship, I would fail anyone who didn’t get nervous when leading worship or preaching.

The interesting thing is that I had actually been thinking about my nervousness as the worship service before the potluck began.  Generally, I arrive early and try to have everything set up and ready before worship begins:  tablet on and with the order of service and sermon called up, hymn book opened to the first hymn and a marker in place for the responsive reading, scraps of paper with last minute announcements prominently placed where I can see them, water glass positioned in easy reach–because I know from experience that if anything isn’t ready when I start, I will fumble and stumble until it is.  That is one expression of my nervousness.

Another is the reality that when I begin, it is a dangerous time–that is when I am going to miss something or say the wrong thing or get my words mixed up or read some number wrong or get someone’s name wrong.  This is all made worse on those occasional Sundays when the majority of people show up tired or down because of the weather and don’t give as lot of feedback as the worship begins.

When I tell people things like this, as I did at the potluck, they tend to look at me with skepticism and tell me that I don’t show it.  My response is that over the years, the one thing I have learned is how to hide my nervousness, which I do pretty well, unless of course the breeze blows the hymnbook to the wrong page or I lost track of the last minute announcements or I make a mistake.

Should I be better at not being nervous?  I don’t think so.  The day I stop being nervous about leading worship and preaching and teaching is the day I will officially retire.  My nervousness comes from the deep seated awareness of the importance of what I am doing.  I am leading God’s people in worship; I am speaking God’s message to his people; I am seeking to let God work through me to touch the lives of his people–and that scares me.

I am afraid that I might get in the way and somehow block God’s approach to his people be letting my stuff get in the way.  I am afraid that I might not block the message but somehow weaken it.  I am equally afraid when the message actually gets through–who am I that God would be willing to work through me?  I stand in the pulpit during worship or sit in the leader’s seat at Bible study very much aware of the wonder and importance of what is going on and really can’t help but be nervous and concerned.

I kind of doubt that the guys at the potluck fully understand these dynamics–but they don’t have to.  I, however, need to understand the dynamics and use the nervousness to help me do a better job of doing what God has called me to do.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHO’S TALKING TO WHO?

We had a serious technical glitch develop before worship the other day.  Our choir often sings with accompaniment supplied by a CD played over a portable CD player, a process that works for us and our context.  But yesterday, the choir director brought everything needed for the music except the actual CD, which put our special music at risk.

Because I am something of a techie, I got involved.  Since we had copied the CD to have a working copy while the original remained safe, I just happened to have a copy of the CD on my phone.  I began working to find a way to connect the phone to the CD player but the phone is too new and the CD player too old for them to be able to talk to each other.  Eventually, we decided to put the mic from the PA system next to the phone speaker and work that way, a process that worked.  We had our special music.

However, getting that going took 15 minutes or so and that meant that when I finally had things connected and knew how to make them work, it was within a few minutes of time to start.  I looked around the sanctuary and realized that most people were already present and I hadn’t had a chance to talk to many of them.  They were all engaged in their conversations with each other, some settled in their seats and others having conversations before they headed to their seats.

In the few minutes I had before it was time to start, I managed to get around and at least greet each person there–but I felt rushed and unsettled and extra stressed as I began the worship.  I think the extra stress was partly because of the technical glitch that turned me into the choir accompanist for that service.  But I also think more of the extra stress was the result of not having sufficient contact with the people gathering for worship before we began.  I didn’t really have a sense of the gathering, who was experiencing what and what space they were in–it felt like I was blind and deaf, stepping into an unknown situation.

Well, that is something of an overstatement–but I was very much aware of the lack of a real sense of the congregation when I began worship. Fortunately, we are informal and flexible in worship and by time we reached the offering, I was getting into the worship process and once the choir had sung and I was off the hook for providing the music, I was pretty much back on track–and once the worship finished, I had a chance to talk and connect with the congregation.

People never rush out of our sanctuary after worship.  We talk to each other, a lot.  We don’t need to institute the process of greeting each other during the worship because it is already a part of our worship process–we talk to each other before and after the worship (and more than  occasionally during the worship).

This is part of being the church.  We worship as a community of people who are in relationship with each other, not as a group of unrelated individuals who come together because it is the most efficient way for the preacher to get the message across.  We are a community and before we can effectively worship, we have to be aware of the community.  After we worship, we need to take our leave of the community.  And even during the worship, we need to recognize the community.

From my perspective, the level of conversation before and after worship is directly proportional to the health of the congregation.  The more people who talk and the more people they talk to, the healthier the congregation and the more we are together helping each other worship and grow in faith.  And the reality includes me as the pastor and preacher.  I can’t be as effective leading worship and preaching if I don’t establish my connection with the congregation before and after we worship.

The technical glitch yesterday reminded me of that reality. And while I love solving technical glitches, I prefer them to happen at times when they don’t interfere with my time  to connect with the people I am worshipping with.  The church worships best when it worships as a community which has taken the time to be a community.

May the peace of God be with you.

TRADITION!?

For a variety of reasons, we gave serious thought to an artificial Christmas tree as opposed to the traditional fir that we used to cut (with permission from the landowner) and now buy from a local service club.  After some discussion and looking, we opted to stay with tradition this year, although we might look at the sales after Christmas.  When I shared with a few friends, there were two responses:  some were extolling the virtues of artificial trees and others were saying that they would miss the smell of a real tree.

At the same time, I was working on plans for Christmas Eve services.  Since I am still in my first year, I was asking some questions about what has been done and what is expected.  I discovered that I can do pretty much whatever I want, as long as:  it is short, we have everyone light a candle and we close with Silent Night.  I am actually wondering if I plan a service with the congregational candle lighting and Silent Night right after the opening prayer if that would be all I need to do.

This is a season of both the church and secular year where traditions abound.  We have to have the right kind of tree with the right decorations put on by the right people.  We need to right foods at the right times and the right presents for the right people in the right wrapping.  Changing the traditions is hard, difficult and provokes a powerful emotional response, even if the tradition is only a year or two old.

I have a marked ambivalence about traditions.  Sometimes, I see myself on a mission to root out and change every tradition I run up against.   I have my worship notes and sermon on a tablet that I use in the pulpit–no traditional paper and bulletin for me.  I sometimes use Christmas music at Easter and Easter music at Christmas.  I read and use a variety of Biblical translations, some of which I carry with me as an app on my phone.

Other times, I find myself defending and loving traditions.  I love the older hymns in worship.  I wear a suit and tie in the pulpit.  I want our traditional family meal of lasagna on Christmas Eve and turkey on Christmas Day.  And, when I am thinking about Scripture passages, they come to my mind in KJV English not the language of one of the modern translations that I champion and use.

And as I think about traditions, that is likely the way it is for most people.  Some traditions we love and some we can wait to change.  Traditions become traditions because they have a meaning that is important to us.  The meaning is often as much an emotional meaning as anything and because of that, we may have difficulty explaining why it is so important.  And because so much of the meaning is emotional, those who don’t share the tradition have great difficulty understanding why it is so important.

All of this means we need to be careful around traditions, both our own and those of others.  We can’t just throw them away because they mean nothing to us.  The tradition means something to someone and throwing it away needs to be given some thought and some preparation–and sometimes, that importance means that we simply endure what has little meaning for us for the sake of others.

I happen to like the Silent Night tradition on Christmas Eve–but if I didn’t, I would still follow it because the majority of people who come to that worship would go away unsatisfied if we didn’t use it.  And while there are times when it is good to challenge people’s traditions, there needs to be a good reason–and I have yet to find a good reason to challenge that particular tradition.  But if I ever find a reason to challenge it, I will do so–carefully and with much discussion and planning so that everyone knows why and has a part in the process.  Fortunately, I don’t see anything on the horizon that will cause that challenge to come any time soon.

The traditions of Christmas, the traditions of the church, the traditions of a family or group are all there for a reason.  There are times and purposes for changing them–but as long as the reasons still hold meaning for people, we might as well enjoy the traditions.  So, I will close my short Christmas Eve service with candles and Silent Night and go home to my lasagna, remembering to turn off my tablet when I am done.

Merry Christmas.

 

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT DO I GET OUT OF IT?

There is an interesting paradox with worship, particularly in our western context of worship.  Worship is often evaluated on the basis of what the worshipper gets out of it.  There are wars in congregations as various groups and individuals within the congregation demand that their particular approach to worship be adopted as the norm and the things they dislike be banned from the service.  To leave worship saying, “I didn’t get a thing out of that” is the beginning of a church fight or a journey to find a “better” church where worship provides what the worshipper is looking for.

The paradox is that the more worship is defined by what the worshipper is looking for, the less it is worship.  Rather than worship being a time when people can consciously and freely concentrate on the wonder of God’s love and grace and presence in our world and lives, it becomes a time when I want my favourite hymns, the perfect temperature, the left side back seat, the proper volume for the music, the kids quiet and under control, the sermon short and funny–or whatever combination of factors I happen to be looking for that particular day.

It is possible to find somewhere or create somewhere everything falls into place and all the elements are perfect or as close to perfect as possible.  When we find that sweet spot and attend the service, we go away feeling that we have received something.  But the question that we don’t want to look at is whether we have really worshipped.  If we are looking for what gratifies us or what we think must be done or what turns our crank, do we really have room to see and worship God?

In Matthew 6, Jesus deals with this issue, sort of.  While not actually mentioning worship, he does talk about people who give their donations with lots of publicity and who make their prayers publically and loudly–they want to be noticed.  According to Jesus, they have received their reward–they are noticed by the people around them. (Matthew 6.1-6). I think the warning there applies to worship.  When we try to make worship too much about us and our needs, we might feel something–but instead of that good feeling being the working of the Spirit, it is more likely the result of the psychological, emotional and physical bubble we have created so that we can feel good.

The solution is not the approach of some of the forefathers in my own Baptist denomination.  Rather than try to give worshippers a good feeling, some of them thought the key to good worship was making people feel guilty and uncomfortable.  So in every way,  beginning with relatively cold buildings in cold climates to seats designed to be uncomfortable to music as unemotional as possible to sermons as long and boring as humanly possible, the goal was to have the worshipper leave feeling unimportant like the worms their theology compared them to.  But this is really the same problem–making worship about the worshipper.

The more we try to make worship about what we want, the less we worship.  Certainly, we might achieve what we want but since worship is about God not us, we will go away feeling good (or bad) and think we have worshipped.  But we will not have encountered the wonder of the love and grace of God–we will only have encountered ourselves and our desires and pushed ourselves a little more into the place God is supposed to occupy.

That isn’t to say that we make worship a dry and sterile event that doesn’t touch us.  Rather, we seek to make worship about recognizing the presence of God and giving him what is due to him.  What we feel is a by-product of good worship.  If we truly worship God, we will certainly experience something, maybe not what we expected to feel because God has become involved, but we will experience something.

When we reach beyond ourselves to see the presence of God and worship God for who and what he is and does, we will experience a blessing in our spiritual lives.  We will grow in faith.  But the paradox is that if we design worship for what we want to get out of it, we might get some reasonable facsimile of what we want, but we won’t worship.  When we truly seek to recognize and acknowledge the presence of God in our lives, we will worship–and we will receive a blessing.

May the peace of God be with you.