“Unlocked”

May 22

One of the unfortunate consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic was our need to isolate from one another. Here at St. Andrew’s, Coldwater it meant cutting back on all of our “in-person” activities…
…and locking the doors shut when anything at all happened in our building.
Even as the restrictions eased and we were allowed to have folks gather together for things like our “Caring Closet”, numbers were limited greatly…
…and the doors were locked shut, requiring guests and volunteers to ring or knock in order to enter in.
We weren’t alone. Many volunteer organizations and businesses took similar precautions, allowing access to their facilities only through locked doors. Where once we could access whatever service or facility we needed, we were offered only limited and controlled opportunities to shop, work, or do what we pleased. Locked doors became the new “normal” to keep us stay safe and protect one another from being exposed to, or spreading, the COVID-19 virus.
Now, as the Pandemic seems to be under control, doors are being unlocked and we’re able to gather together without having to pass through stringent security checks. We still have to be cautious, and wearing a mask is still the rule in many places (including St. Andrew’s, Coldwater) but at least we don’t have to wait for a door to be unlocked before going to get our morning coffee.
I wish I could say the same thing for many human hearts. God gave us hearts with which to love and care for one another. It’s a risky thing, no doubt about it. Loving others with unlocked hearts means opening the door to being hurt or rejected. It means having our kindness thrown in our face or taken for granted. It means giving without expecting anything in return. It means caring for folks who don’t care for us, or anyone else.
An unlocked heart opens the door to it being broken but that’s no reason not to leave it open, because when our hearts are locked, love simply can’t happen.
Yet that’s what happens when folks reject others because of their sexuality or gender identity. When racists speak out against folks with a different skin tone, they do so with hearts bound and shackled and unable to love the way Jesus calls us to. Locked hearts hoard wealth and deny the needy their fair share. Locked hearts fail to see a neighbour in anyone different from them. The saddest thing of all is that a locked heart not only fails to love, but keeps itself from truly knowing and experiencing love. After all, when nothing is allowed out, nothing is allowed in, either.

“On Display”

May 15

“It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.”
This absurd statement can be found in Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy”, which is an irreverent, funny and thought-provoking book. The opening quote was spoken in frustration by Arthur Dent, the hero of the novel whose home, and indeed all of planet Earth, was about to be destroyed. Asking why, he was told that it was so that an Interplanetary Bypass could be built, and it just happened to pass through our Galaxy. Complaining that nobody on Earth had been warned of their planet’s impending doom, the head of the demolition crew informed him that the Intergalactic’s Planning council had placed the plans on display for a long time. Of course, there seemed to be a difference of opinion between the planning council’s and Arthur’s version of what “on display” meant.
We can assume the the Planning Council was deliberately trying to hide their plans, lest someone from Earth complain about them or otherwise hold up the building of the Interplanetary Bypass. Folks can be pretty mean sometimes. But sometimes, it’s not a matter of being mean. Sometimes we hide our true intentions because of our language and assumptions.
We Christians have a great story to tell. We have Good News to share! But we’re not always the best story-tellers or the most effective sharers. All too often we hide our message in complex language or terms that folks outside the Christian faith don’t get. Even our concept of a “fallen” humanity in need of forgiveness is hard for folks to understand, as it’s not part of their culture. That means that what we might believe is obvious to others, isn’t necessarily so. Our “Good News” might well be “on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.” as far as they’re concerned.
Even more challenging for us is the truth that not everyone is interested in what we have to offer as followers of Christ. For a great many folk, it’s not just Christianity that is of no interest to them, but any kind of organized religion at all. While they might be interested in the Spiritual concepts and ideas about loving others found in our faith, they might not be interested in the organization or systems we use. What we believe might be very clearly on display and easily accessed, but if people aren’t interested, it doesn’t matter.
Or maybe it does. Maybe it’s how we share the “Good News” of Jesus Christ. After all, love and compassion aren’t hard to hide. Caring for others can be pretty obvious without being pushy or over-the-top. When we act in a Christ-like way, His heart is on display through us. He can be felt through us. Even people not interested in Christianity itself can be touched and moved by His love. When we display Jesus through our genuine care for others, there is no way, and no place, it can be hidden from view.

“Uncomfortable”

May 8

Back in the heyday of the Borscht Belt, where comedic geniuses like Milton Berle, Rodney Dangerfield, Lenny Bruce and many others got their start, you might have heard a less politically correct version of this joke:
A poor man needs a new suit. After many tailors turn him away, he finds one who will help. “For that little money, I can only sell you this return, but I’ll throw in the alterations for free.” Unfortunately, our hero was a husky man, while the suit had been tailored for more svelte person. Undeterred, the tailor works his magic, and after many contortions, twisting and wriggling, our hero dons a perfectly tailored suit. Ok, he can’t stand straight, staggers while he walks, and his left arm sticks straight up, but he looks fabulous. As he walks proudly down the street, two observers remark on his appearance. “Oh dear,” says the first chap, “look at that handicapped man. I feel sorry for him.” “Why?” says the second fellow, “Look how great that suit fits him!”
I know, I know, this joke might not fly today, but there’s an underlying truth to it. All too often, we human thingies would rather squeeze into an uncomfortable truth than go the extra mile to be true to ourselves.
Following Jesus should be a comfortable fit. Unfortunately, many folks, rather than following Jesus faithfully, conform to the human-made rules and regulations their religion, never asking what they’re doing or why. As a result, they might not even be aware of their discomfort or how poorly their faith fits what Jesus modelled.
Questions are vital to an authentic faith and to life in general. They help us better understand ourselves and the systems in which we live. A religion that denies asking questions, provides self-serving or vague answers or shames the inquirer is one that itself should itself be called into question.
Writer Lex Laursmith puts it this way: “If we cannot ask questions, our life task becomes one in which we try to bend and twist ourselves into various existing structures that may or may not suit us.” While not specifically dealing with faith, her point is clear: our questions help us fit into the world without having to bend ourselves out of shape.
Jesus met people where they were. He did not make folks twist themselves to conform to His calling. He came to love the world back to health and to empower us to live and to love in a way that fits our genuine selves. When questioned, He answered in love and challenged his challengers. The folks that were offended by His answers were those so twisted by the system they followed, they could not unbend themselves to hear what he had to say.
Jesus invites us to love one another as we would be loved by in a way that’s tailored to suit our unique Creator-given gifts. It’s really that simple. If your faith is an uncomfortable fit, ask yourself why. Ask your mentors why. Ask folks who think differently than you. If the answers don’t point to Jesus’ love, or if they make you more uncomfortable, you have your answer right there. Following Jesus, after all, should be a comfortable fit that suits who and what you are.

“Eject!”

May 1
“Eject!”
My mighty MacBook Pro laptop computer is both my work and play machine. At home, I use it for fun things, but it largely goes unused, as there are enough chores or fun activities to do without it. When I go to the office, it helps me to do much of my work more efficiently, and there some things I can’t do without it.. At home, it’s an optional extra. At work, it’s a necessity. At home, its job is informal and often trivial. At work, it’s work is meaningful and important.
Because what I do at work matters, I connect my mighty MacBook Pro to a back-up device, and a couple of external storage units that hold data I only need at the office. Record keeping matters, and the back-drive ensures that I have extra copies of the work I have done, just in case the main versions on my laptop becime corrupted, or the computer itself breaks. Connecting these devices is simple. One cable gets plugged in and they’re good to go.
Disconnecting them, on the other hand, requires a bit more effort. You see, once they’re connected to my mighty MacBook Pro, the computer assumes they are a single, integrated unit. Should I inadvertently disconnect them, I get yelled at. The operating system gives me a rude notice that its precious external storage devices have been ripped away, implying that I am in big trouble and I shouldn’t be so careless.
So, in order to avoid the wrath of my mighty MacBook Pro, I have to formally “eject” each external device. I have to tell the operating system that they will be disconnected, at which point I’m free from blame. As long as I let my mighty MacBook Pro know what’s going on, it’s OK with my decision.
Our Creator did not create us to be static and unchanging beings. Change is not just inevitable, it is constant. Even the simple process of going through a day includes a number of changes. When those changes are part of our routine, they don’t matter; we know they are happening; we are in control.
When change involves others, a little courtesy goes a long way. Like telling my mighty MacBook Pro that I am ejecting its external storage units, letting folks know in advance that you have to change things helps with the transition.
When change is inevitable, we worry about how others will react. Yet when we help them understand what’s happening, it’s easier for them to deal with. In fact, there are times when folks have already anticipated things are changing in our lives, and rather than letting them in on something new, we simply confirm their suspicions.
Whether expected or not, when change happens, a little courtesy goes a long way. Not only does it help them deal with what’s coming, it also shows folks you respect them and care for them and that whatever else might be changing in your life, your love for them remains constant.

“Free”

April 24

I’ve talked about “free” before, so if you already know what I’m going to say, feel free to stop reading. I won’t mind. If you haven’t read what “Free” means to me, or you can remember (don’t worry, this is a judgment-free zone), you’re still free to do as you please, but you might find something useful, annoying, interesting, or a combination of all three here.
The idea of being free is vital to North American society, so much so that it’s part of our neighbour to the south’s constitution.In fact, it’s extremely important to our American friends, because the “pursuit of happiness” is constitutionally enshrined since you can’t pursue your joy if you’re bound in any way.
That’s great for some folks, but for Christians? Not so much. As Christians, we aren’t free at all, no matter where you live, or whatever your constitution says.
“Now, hold on a minute, Pastor John!” Didn’t Jesus die so that we might be freed from the shame and guilt of sin?” Yes indeed He did. No argument there. We are indeed freed from shame, guilt and sin. We’re also free to be who and what God made us to be, to use our gifts of time, talents and treasures and to worship God as we see fit. We’re also free to pray to God, to listen to the Holy Spirit’s guidance, and to call Jesus our friend. “So, PJ, we are free after all, right? You’re just teasing us with the idea of not being free, right?”
Actually, no. We are not free because we are bound to Jesus. We are the earthly expressions of our Creator’s heavenly essence. We are free to follow Jesus or not, free to claim our place as God’s children or not, and free to decide whether or not we will honour our version of the image of the one who created us. Choosing to do none of those things makes us truly free. Choosing to do any of those things, which are really the same thing, binds us to following Jesus, serving humanity and honouring our Creator.
How we do that is our choice. How we present God’s image within us is up to us. We are totally free to choose how we use our gifts of time, talents and treasures to serve others. We’re even free to enjoy ourselves. But that freedom is bound by our commitment to praise and glorify God. We are free to be just and good. We are free to follow Jesus as best we can. We’re even free to make mistakes, to be less than perfect, to be fully human, warts and all…
…as long as we remember that we are not free to do as we please or to pursue whatever makes us happy. That’s not what freedom means for those who really want to love and honour Jesus.
One more thing. We are not free to pick and choose who we love. We are bound by Jesus’ commandment to love one another as we would be loved. Yes, we’re free to do it in a way that honours who God made us, but if we are to do more than pay lip-service to Jesus’ law of love, it’s not a suggestion. We may be free in certain ways, but when it comes to loving others (especially the ones we think are the least loveable…), we aren’t free at all.

“Bargain Hunters”

April 17
“Bargain Hunters”
I have a friend who is a fully trained chef. We’ve shared many meals together as friends, and he’s taught me a great deal about the art of cooking. As friends, both the food he prepared when we went to his place, and the lessons he offered at each other’s home were always free. That’s how friends do things. We share our blessings, even if there are times when those blessings are more than a little unequal. There’s no way I could ever teach Kenton anything about cooking, so there’s no way I could repay him for his generosity.
Things changed, however, when I asked him to cater a meal for a party I was holding. Usually I do my own cooking, but this time I wanted to focus on the fun whilst featuring fabulous festive food. As Kenton is a friend I respect highly, I assured him that I would pay whatever the going rate was for a trained chef. I didn’t want the “friend’s discount”. I didn’t want to lessen the value of his offering. Most of all, I didn’t want to use our friendship as a bargaining chip. Having his skillset available at whatever cost was a bargain in and of itself.
Some folks wouldn’t agree with me. They feel entitled to a friend’s services, as if friendship was enough to obtain something for nothing. Not me. It think it’s unfair to expect a “friend’s discount” when asking for their professional service. After all, I was asking Kenton to work for me, and I know full well the value of someone who is not only well-trained, but also a true artist in their craft.
That’s not to say if Kenton ever offered to cater a party for me as a gift, I would say “No!”. When a blessing is initiated by others out of generosity, I would accept their gift thankfully. However, had he made that offer when I initiated the request, I would have said “No”. In my mind there’s a big difference between being offered something without prompting and offering something in response to a request. Maybe I’m nit-picking, but it seems wrong to receive something for free when you’ve asked for it. Don’t even get me started on expecting things for free because you’re friends. Gifts should never be asked for, period.
Well, Ok, there is an exception. We can always ask for God’s gifts of love, grace, mercy and forgiveness, whether it’s from a friend, a stranger or God. And those gifts are ours to give away without cost or expecting to be repaid. They have been freely and generously offered with the intention that they be freely and generously shared.
Are you looking for a bargain? God’s heart is the place to start, because no matter what we ask for, God offers more than we expect, and far more than we deserve. When we ask God for grace, or mercy, or kindness or forgiveness or love, you can be sure that God will respond generously. In fact, God will respond so generously that you will have more than enough to give away.

“Brown”

April 10

Did you know that Brown does not exist as an actual colour? Yep, it’s true. Looking carefully at the colours in the rainbow reveals that there is no Brown in the mix. Search high and low, peak and prod as much as you’d like it simply won’t be there. “But what about those “Brown” pants you wear for Sunday worship, Pastor John?” “The mud on my car is definitely “Brown, good sir!”. “Are telling me my chocolate pudding is NOT “Brown?, Mr. Know-it-all?”
Well, according to science, the actual colour of each of those things is…
…Orange. Sort of. In a way. And maybe other colours, too.
Yep, you read correctly; the colour we call “Brown” is actually a variation of the colour “Orange”, as found in the light spectrum. Why then, does your chocolate pudding not look orange by any stretch of the imagination? The answer is found in the various qualities that make up the colours we perceive and in the process of naming them.
The pure rainbow of colours revealed through a Prism are altered by blending them together and by their proximity to one another. When we see what we call “brown” we’re actually looking at a complex mix of colours altered by the other colours around them. It’s hard to explain in words, but the bottom line is that “brown”, only exists as a combination of many factors to which we have given a specific name and not as an actual colour in the rainbow.
I know. It’s weird. My pants, the mud and the chocolate pudding many of us love are real, but the colour itself is an illusion we all agree to call “Brown”.
If wrapping your head around the non-existence of “Brown” as a colour in the rainbow is tricky, wait ’til I talk about the thing we call “love”.
We say “God is love”. We talk about Jesus’ commandment to love one another. We love our neighbour as best we can. We seek our “one true love”. It is the greatest gift God has given us. We even talk about degrees of love, with the highest order of love being the willingness to lay our lives down for another. There is no doubt that love exists…
…but pinning it down is another thing. Once there was a single panel comic entitled “Love is…”. Every day the “…” became a different phrase, but even if the series had gone on forever, it would never have expressed “love” fully. It’s just too big and too important to pin down easily.
 Like the colour “Brown”, love is an idea, a concept we share. Unlike the colour, which some folks love and others don’t, we can’t survive without it. While a simple definition is hard to pin down, we can agree on love involving compassion, a desire for well-being and happiness of the other, an appreciation of who and what they are, and a powerful force that can help us overcome the pain and sorrow we cause one another. And, while Brown, or any colour for that matter, is only seen, love must be lived and shared if it is to be everything that God means it to be.

“A Wrestling Match”

April 3

There’s an odd story in the Bible in which Jacob, one of God’s favoured people, gets all but beaten up by a man, who turns out to be God. The match ends up a draw, although Jacob ends up with a permanent limp. Jacob’s ability to stand up to God does, however earn him a name change. Jacob would be called “Israel”, which probably means “he struggles with God” from that moment on. Israel, the man, would go on to have 12 sons, who became the twelve tribes known as God’s chosen people.
No motive is ever given for the apparent assault on Jacob. Jacob was doing what God wanted, so there was no cause for him to be attacked. It’s just one of those things that we have to accept as part of the Bible’s occasional oddity.
We don’t have to accept it easily, however. The question as to why God wrestled with Jacob might not be answered during our earthly existence, but that doesn’t mean we can’t struggle with it. Does it speak to an internal struggle on Jacob’s part? Was he having a hard time with the responsibility of having to serve God? Was God testing Jacob’s resilience ahead of the challenges he would face as Israel? Was there some other reason that I haven’t thought of, but might have crossed your mind?
So many questions, so many possibilities, so much wrestling…
…and not one single, absolute answer.
But, then again, even if no answer can be discerned, the struggle itself helps us grow. Maybe the answers we offer to the questions we ask of the text reveal our own strengths. Maybe by sharing our concerns with others they offer us new insights into God’s work. Maybe we wrestle with them as we try to understand each other and find common ground.
It might be that when we’ve finished wrestling we have no answers, but we do find a sense of peace in the midst of our uncertainty. Maybe, like Jacob being renamed Israel, we end up with a new sense of identity along with the insights gained by our efforts. And maybe, when we make it through that struggle, we come out stronger and better able to tackle other questions the Bible offers us
There are parts of God’s written word that cause us to pause and think. Odd passages like Jacob wrestling with God invite us to think about what happened and why. Other parts, like Jesus’ commandment that we love one another, might seem more straightforward, but lead us to wrestle with just how we’re going to follow it in our own way. There might be no single simple answer to the challenging questions posed in the Bible, but without facing them head on, we’ll never find out.
And who knows, it might be in the very act of wrestling that we not only find answers, but also how we might best live them out.

“Darkness”

March 27

Way back before digital technology transformed photography, pictures were printed on special paper. It was a process that I learned from my dad, an avid photographer. I never did master colour photography, but I was good enough with black and white developing that I could print pretty good pictures. 
Unlike other hobbies, developing photographs requires virtual darkness, as the materials used are highly reactive to visible light. Since we humans don’t work very well with the lights totally out, photographers use “darkrooms”, which are lit by a red tinted light. The materials used don’t react very well to that colour while humans work quite well in it, making it a functional compromise. 
While the light isn’t bright, it’s amazing how much you can see in it. After a while you see more and more and soon it feels almost natural. Only when you turn the regular lights back on do you realize just how much you weren’t seeing, even though it felt like absolutely everything was visible to you. 
That’s the crazy thing about the darkness, whether it’s the dim red light of a photographer’s darkroom, or the state of our mood or circumstances. Just as a photographer adapts to the limited lighting of their workspace, we human thingies adapt to the darkness of our souls or our situations. Not only do we adapt, we also get used to it. It starts to feel normal. It becomes part of who we are, skewing how we see ourselves, the world and the folks around us. 
Moving from dark to light is simple for the photographer. It only requires the flip of a switch and “Presto!”, it’s bright again. Moving from personal darkness into the light of joy and hope takes more work. 
While a darkroom’s darkness is the absence of light’s energy, personal darkness and its negative emotions consume energy and they require even more energy, much more than what a photographer uses flipping a switch. 
What’s more, unlike a photographer, who can go from dark to light on their own, moving from personal darkness into the light is impossible to do alone. We need the help of others not only to dispel our darkness, but to help us look for the light in the first place. 
We are beings of light. That’s why God’s son, Jesus, is known as “the Light of the World.” He is more than just God’s physical presence or wisdom made flesh. Jesus is the light that dispels human darkness. We see that light in Christ-like people who help us see that there is hope and in turn seek out joy. They never force us into the light. They join us in the darkness, encouraging us gently, patiently until we get used to being in the light once again. They shine a light onto the good things we can’t see within ourselves. They help the light within burn ever more brightly so that we can begin to shine once again. 
We are beings of light. Sometimes we enter the darkness for reasons beyond our control, and need the help of Christ-like people to help us return to the light. And sometimes we step into the darkness willingly so the  so that we can let our Christ-like love help someone return to the light.

“Shades”

March 20

One of our long-time members died recently, and I had the honour of conducting her funeral service. She was Presbyterian from the moment she was born and grew up when stiff collars and Geneva gowns were the order of the day. To honour a revered and devoted member of our congregation I decided I would wear the complete traditional preaching garb she grew up with.
I started with a long-sleeve black shirt, one of the few I still own, since I’m not personally one for formal outfits. This was paired with a pair of black dress pants. They were a somewhat darker shade than the shirt, but black is black, no? Well, maybe not. My full-length Geneva gown, the big one with puffy sleeves and high collar, was a third shade of black. Finally, my stole, which was black for the occasion, was the fourth, and final, shade of black I wore that day. Thankfully, the big robe covered everything, and the slightly darker black of the stole just made it “pop” rather than stand out like a sore thumb.
So much for choosing a single, simple colour, even if that colour is deep black.
Of course, I kinda knew this already. Our dog is pure white until he stands on a fresh snowbank, in which case he tends more towards yellow. I have a lovely pair of grey slacks that look good on me and are very comfortable unless I should wear them with my grey dress shirt, which even from a distance will clash with my trousers.
Dark blues? Shamrock greens? Cardinal reds? Merely names in some designer’s imagination, because the variations between the named colour and their appearance in real-life is as varied as we human thingies are.
Did you ever notice that folks might call themselves something, might be unified by that something, might even be identified by others by that one something, but beyond that one “something” they share, they are totally different? Like variations of a colour, not all left-handed disco-dancing Yodellers are alike. Some are vegetarians. Some play football. Some read romance novels. Some even throw in the odd tango every once in a while.
Even when we seem to be the same, we aren’t, and that’s a true blessing. While we have enough in common with another person to share similar hobbies or interests, there is enough variation to keep things interesting and inspire us to grow. In this way we live out God’s true image, each one of us a variation or two of one of the many themes that make up our Creator. We reflect not colours or shades, but traits like love, mercy, kindness, justice and forgiveness. What we share is God’s gift to us. How we reflect God in our own way is our gift to God.