Archive for From the Pastor

Loneliness and Community

From Romans 12: “Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all!……Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone……If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink. ……. Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.”

Can you imagine being married for 65 years and what it would feel like to lose your closest companion after that long? For Keith Davison it meant overwhelming loneliness and feeling disconnected from his community. Also, at such an age, I imagine it’s difficult to make new friends. Determined to change the situation, Mr. Davison decided to do something fairly radical; he built a large, in-ground pool in his backyard and invited the neighborhood to enjoy it . . . for the entire summer!

Instead of giving up and simply feeling sorry for himself, Davison created a space where his neighbors could relax, make friends and form meaningful relationships through plain old ordinary fun. “Now his backyard is filled with the squeals and laughter of kids enjoying their summer with a dip in the pool.” Davison’s one requirement is that “they have to be accompanied by a parent or grandparent in order to take a swim in the 32-foot pool, which has a diving board and a 9-foot deep end.”

According to a news article, Davison, who has “one daughter and two sons but no grandchildren, has become somewhat of a surrogate grandfather to the local kids.” Of course, he still misses his wife. But now his time is often occupied with happy people, who are grateful for his generosity and have a desire to make new friends. “It’s him spreading joy,” neighbour Jessica Huebner said, “throughout our neighbourhood for these kids.”

God’s desire is for us to have relationships with one another. Spending too much time alone and feeling isolated is not healthy. Instead of being stuck in our individual circumstances, feeling paralyzed by loss or sorry for ourselves, we can allow God to do something new and exciting through each of us. When we do this, we’ll not only be happier ourselves but also we’ll bring joy to others.

We can’t all build swimming pools for the neighbourhood, but there are many small ways in which we can bring joy to others: check in on our neighbours with a visit or phone call; give a mother with small children a break by taking them to the zoo or babysitting for a while; take the neighbour who can’t drive shopping or a visit to a museum, art gallery, or farmers’ market; volunteer at your local hospital or nursing home. The possibilities are endless.

When God created human beings, it was because God was looking for companionship. None of us, not even God, were ever meant to be alone or isolated. We were created to live with, love, and support one another. We were created to be community, not individuals.

Do You Idolize Fear?

Idolatry is a horrible, dangerous thing. Sadly, far too many Christians are so very guilty of it. You can see it in the way they complain on social media, in the way they comment on the news of the day; in the defeatist, alarmist language that they use as to describe the world. You see it in the way they furrow their brows, and throw up their hands, and slam their pulpits. It shows-up in the lazy stereotypes and the religious rhetoric that flows so easily in church lobby coffee chats and extremist blog rants.

It’s as if everything has now become an imminent threat: Muslims, Atheists, Gays, The President, inner city criminals, Hollywood, illegal immigrants, The Government, school hallways. The world outside the church building is broadly painted as a vile, immoral war zone, with “God’s people” hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned.

Parroting the politicized talk show hosts and re-posting the latest terrible news stories, they perpetuate the now comfortable, largely White Evangelical Christian narrative of impending destruction, and they make it clear at every opportunity: The whole damn sky is falling!

Though they loudly, repeatedly and confidently proclaim Christ as Lord, in reality they no longer practice faith in a God that has any real power, any true control and inherent God-ness. They seem to have little more than a neutered figurehead Deity, who doesn’t seem to be able to handle much at all anymore.

He’s lost his Old Testament swagger. Dig just beneath the sunny “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” Bible covers, and the shouted “God’s judgment is coming” bullhorn warnings, and you can see that the Emperor is buck naked.

For far too many Christians, all that flowery, blustery spiritual talk is a loud paper tiger dressed-up as religion. The truth is, Fear has become their false God, one they worship with complete and undying devotion. The symptoms of Fear Idolatry are pretty easy to spot.

When you’re not sure that God is there or that He’ll really come through, you start to spend most of your time defending Him in absentia. You become a self-appointed Crusader of Truth, whose mission is to do the holy work of policing the world (just in case God can’t or won’t). You spend a lot of time calling out evil, forecasting disaster and predicting damnation.

When Fear is your God, you start majoring in Exterior Sin Management. You slowly yet ultimately turn all of your attention to the things in other people that you’re certain really tick God off, and you make it your sacred business to modify their behaviour in the name of Jesus. When your God isn’t big enough, you’ll try to do in others what you’ve decided He wants, instead of actually trusting Him to do it Himself.

I really feel for Christians whose Jesus seems so integral to personal salvation in the afterlife, and so useless for the life we live now. He may be able to save souls, but He’s apparently freaked-out by a Muslim prayer breakfast or gay marriage vote or school prayer policy. Is that really God? Is that Divinity?

Is that the One about Whom the psalmist wrote: The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands (Psalm 19:1)? Is that the God who spoke the world into being, and calmed the seas, and healed the blind, and raised the dead? I invite you to pray for so many of our brothers and sisters in Christ, to stop worshipping the false idol of Fear. I invite you to pray that they recapture a God Who is worthy; not just of defending and quoting, but trusting.

I invite you to pray for the rest, joy and humility that comes from putting faith in something greater than ourselves and in the things we fear. Every day, even with the mystery that grows on my journey, my security grows too. I know how big my God is. Do you?

Calling All Church Members

Five Reasons Church Members Attend Church Less Frequently by Thomas Rainer (Theologian, Author, Educator)

About 20 years ago, a church member was considered active in the church if he or she attended three times a week. Today, a church member is considered active in the church if he or she attends three times a month.

Something is wrong with this picture. For 2,000 years, the local church, as messy as it is, has been God’s place for believers to gather, worship, minister and be accountable to one another.

Every time I write something about church membership and attendance, I inevitably hear cries of “legalism” or “the church is not a building” or “the church is a messed up institution”. But the local church, the messy local church, is what God has used as His primary instrument to make disciples. But commitment is waning among many church members. Why?

1. We are minimizing the importance of the local church. When we do, we are less likely to attend. A few drops of rain may keep many folks from attending church, but it won’t stop them from sitting three hours in the downpour watching their favourite football team.

2. We worship the idols of activities. Many members will replace a day in their church with a day at kids’ soccer or softball games or sleeping off the hangover of the previous day’s activities.

3. We take a lot of vacations from church. I am not anti-vacation. But 20 years or so ago, we would make certain we attended a church where we were taking a vacation. Today, many members take a vacation from church.

4. We do not have high expectations of our members. Any purposeful organization expects and gets much of it members, whether it’s a sports team or a civic organization. It is ironic that most churches do not come close to being a high expectation church.

5. We make infrequent attendees leaders in our churches. When we do, we are making a clear statement that even the leaders of the church do not have to be committed to the place they supposedly lead.

I heard a leader of an organization tell the members he did not want them if they were not fully committed. They could not be AWOL if they wanted to be a part of the group. He expected full commitment. He is a high school football coach. And all the team members follow that high expectation of commitment.

If we truly expect to make a difference in our communities and our families, members of local churches need to have at least the same level of commitment as members of sports teams. After all, the mission of each local church is far more important. At least it should be.

Is Jesus Jewish?

We have just celebrated the miracle around which Christian life revolves: the death and resurrection of Jesus. It makes one wonder if we are truly ready to embrace a Jewish Jesus.

Jesus is seen as a Jew in many pulpits and pews, but usually as an exception, an anomaly. In too many sermons, commentaries and hymnals his teachings on love, inclusion and forgiveness are set up as a contrast against the Jews and Judaism of his day. What makes him distinctive, we say, is that he’s not like the other Jews. He reached people on the margins. He talked to women. He ate with sinners and tax collectors. But these characterizations of a Jewish Jesus are still distorted. Dr. Amy-Jill Levine explains why:

“Jesus becomes the rebel who, unlike every other Jew, practices social justice. He is the only one to speak with women; he is the only one who teaches nonviolent responses to oppression; he is the only one who cares about the “poor and the marginalized” (that phrase has become a litany in some Christian circles). Judaism becomes in such discourse a negative foil: whatever Jesus stands for, Judaism isn’t it; what Jesus is against, Judaism epitomizes the category.”

Yes, Jesus reached out to all kinds of people. Yes, he counselled mercy and patience. Yes, he healed and set people free. But rather than see Jesus as different from the Jews around him, it is time to see Jesus’ ministry as a natural evolution of the whole history of Jewish teaching, ethics, morality, practice and service of God. Otherwise he serves as an archetypal anti-Jew.

Let’s think about it for a moment. If Jesus were fully Jewish, operating in a Jewish context, living a Jewish life, studying Jewish texts, praying to a Jewish God, clothing himself in the Jewish commandments, where else did it come from? If we believe that Jesus was one with the God of Israel, then surely, Jesus drew upon the same Source and sources that inspired all the other teachers, miracle-workers, prophets and kings that preceded and surrounded him. Quite often the rabbis of his era were arriving at the same conclusions he was, from the Golden Rule, to teachings on Sabbath, the importance of love of God and neighbor. Others were engaged in calling disciples, healing and miracle-working. Even his interactions with women, children, and Gentiles were not anomalous.

More than that, the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is marked by theological and behavioral leaps, beginning with Abraham’s innovation that God is one, not many; continuing with Moses’ skilled but previously unknown leadership in leading the Israelites from slavehood to peoplehood; game-changing visions from prophets; and the courageous renewal of Judaism under Nehemiah and Ezra after the return from Babylonian exile. Jesus is the product of generations of Jewish innovators, completely in line with the spiritual genius that went before him and even those that came after him.

If we were to truly embrace a fully Jewish Jesus, it would take a renewed scholarship, prayers, poets, professors and Bible study writers and teachers. It would take some work to leave behind comfortable but dishonest dichotomies and ready stereotypes – not that easy for already overworked church leaders. But there are many excellent resources that can help, for example, “The Jew Named Jesus” by Rebekah Simon-Peter. It’s worth the effort. We are grand participants in a historic reconciliation, the fruits of which are only beginning to be realized.

This historic reconciliation points out an underlying truth: it hasn’t always been good between Christians and Jews. A long history of Christian teaching of “contempt of the Jews” made positive interfaith relations all but impossible for centuries. After hitting a theological bottom in the Holocaust, though, the church has intentionally hammered out new theologies and reached for new understandings that allow for love, acceptance and embrace of Jews. In response, Jews have done the hard work of forgiving and rapprochement too.

All of this brings us to the point where we can ask the question: Can we truly embrace a fully Jewish Jesus? Even the question is a good one. It leads to all kinds of other interesting questions. If Judaism and Christianity could hammer out a new relationship, is the same possible for Christianity and Islam? If we could, should we?

The truth is, the work has begun. And it’s been initiated by Muslims. In 2007, 138 Muslim clerics and scholars representing every branch of Islam sent a beautifully worded and carefully researched letter to Christian leaders. This letter, “A Common Word Between Us and You,” stated that as the two largest world religions, the peace of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians. It used as its reference point the Hebrew Bible teachings of love of God and neighbor, saying they were common to both Islam and Christianity.

We have the opportunity to turn a new page. To restore and revamp our understandings of Jesus and Judaism, and to open our hearts to new understandings of our Muslim neighbours. What a great response to the Easter season this would be. They’re certainly risky moves, especially in an age of nationalism, terrorism, and blame-game politics. But isn’t that when the resurrection is needed most?

What really matters?

Beyond the realm of churches, religious blogs, and bible colleges, nobody really cares about theology. What does matter is the way you treat other people.

Within Christendom, we’re often taught the exact opposite: that doctrines, traditions, theologies, and distinct beliefs are the only things that matter. It’s what separates churches, denominations, theologians, and those who are “saved” and “unsaved.”

Historically, Christians have been tempted to categorize the Bible into numerous sets of beliefs that are either inspired or heretical, good or bad, right or wrong — with no room for doubt or questioning or uncertainty.

It’s easy to get caught up in theorizing about God, but within our everyday lives reality is what matters most to the people around us. Theorizing only becomes important once it becomes relevant and practical and applicable to our lives.

When I’m sick, and you bring me a meal, I don’t care whether you’re a Calvinist or Arminian.

When I’m poor, and you give me some food and money, I don’t care if you’re pre-millennial or post-millennial.

When I’m in the hospital, and you send me a get-well basket, I don’t care what your church denomination is.

When you visit my grandparents in the nursing home, I don’t care what style of worship music you listen to.

When you’re kind enough to shovel my parent’s driveway, I don’t care what translation of the Bible you read.

When you give my friend a lift when their car breaks down, I don’t care if you’re Baptist or Catholic.

When you help my grandmother carry a heavy load of groceries, I don’t care what you believe about evolution.

When you protect my kids from getting hit by a car when they’re running across the street, I don’t care who your favourite theologian is.

When you’re celebrating my birthday with me, I don’t care about your views related to baptism.

When you grieve alongside me during the death of a family member, I don’t care if you tithe or not.

When you love me in deep and meaningful and authentic ways — nothing else really matters.

When you idolize belief systems and turn theology into an agenda, it poisons the very idea of selfless love. The gospel message turns into propaganda, friends turn into customers, and your relationship with God turns into a religion.

You may have the most intellectually sound theology, but if it’s not delivered with love, respect, and kindness — it’s worthless.

The practical application of your love is just as important as the theology behind it. Our faith is evidenced by how we treat others. Does the reality of your life reflect the theory behind your spiritual beliefs?

We should never give up on theology, academic study, or the pursuit of understanding God, the Bible, and the history and traditions of the church, but these things should inspire us to emulate Christ — to selflessly, sacrificially, and holistically love others. Theology should reinforce our motivation for doing things to make the world a better place — not serve as platforms to berate, criticize, and attack others.

Too often, we’re guilty of failing to practically apply our beliefs in tangible ways that actually help others. In the end, this is what matters most to the world around us: that we simply love as Christ loved.