IT’S GONE

I had a conversation with a couple recently that ended with a discussion about the health of one of the family pets. It may have a serious illness and the conversation briefly touched on their worry and anxiety over what might happen and how they would deal with it. There are some who might find that conversation a bit pointless, suggesting that it is an animal, it happens, get over it.

While I am not personally an animal person, I am aware that this is a difficult and painful situation for many people. We human beings develop significant attachments with other people, animals and inanimate objects—and when those connections are threatened, damaged or broken, we are going to react. Whenever we are in danger of losing something to which we are attached, we are going to have a grief reaction.

Our reaction to losing someone or something from our lives isn’t something that we have a lot of control over. We might thing we can control it—but often the control takes the form of denial or repression. We pretend that we are not bothered by the loss. Some of us can pull off the pretence fairly well for a time but eventually, denial and repression are going to catch up with us and we will have to deal with the loss that we didn’t deal with when it happened.

I am thinking about loss a bit these days, partly because helping people deal with loss is a basic and essential part of a pastor’s job. I tell students that helping people deal with the grief connected with loss is probably the single biggest part of our jobs as pastors, especially when we remember that any loss produces some level of grief reaction.

So, when the couple mentioned their sick pet, I was professionally prepared. But I was also personally connected as well. For most of the past week and a half, I have been dealing with a loss myself. My laptop has a hard drive that is crashing. Now, before you think I am crazy or overly nerdy, remember that we get attached to things as well as people and losing the source of the attachment is going to produce a grief reaction.

I have had the laptop for six years and it has traveled across Canada with me, it has lived in Kenya with me, it connected me to the rest of the world and it allowed me to write stuff that I can actually read and understand the next day, something that my handwriting hasn’t allowed for many years.

I liked my laptop and was used to it and it was comfortable. It had its problems and scars and limitations—but it was mine and I did a lot of stuff with it. I will soon have a new laptop—the old, back up laptop from the bottom shelf of the TV cabinet is okay but it is ancient and heavy and may not last all that long. I am not looking forward to the process of setting up a new laptop with various programs and files and all the bits and pieces of my electronic life but I am sure that once I get that done, I will attach to the new laptop.

Our grief reactions are a very personal and private and subjective thing. They grow directly out of our attachment and connection with what we have lost or are losing—and we are the only ones that get to determine the level and severity of our reaction, or rather, we are the ones who have to deal with the level and severity of our reaction. The fact that I am not an animal person doesn’t mean that I can minimize the grief of someone losing a pet, any more than a conformed technology hater gets to minimize my grief over the dead laptop.

In the end, we all need to accept and recognize our losses by letting ourselves grieve as we need to. We also need to recognize the essential subjectivity of grief—a loss that we can completely ignore can and will affect others deeply. Even if we don’t agree with the level of their grief, we can provide support and compassion.

May the peace of God be with you.

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SETTING LIMITS

I have been involved in some form of ministry for my entire working life. While I have mostly been the pastor of small, rural congregations, I have also had the privilege of serving as a jail chaplain, a teacher of pastors in Canada and Kenya and a pastoral counsellor. Part of the reason I do what I do is because I am deeply conscious of the calling that God has given me to the various forms of ministry I do. There have been times I have resented God’s calling, times when I have fought against it and a few times when I have asked, begged and demanded that God rescind that call. But in the end, I do both accept and appreciate the calling that God has given me.

Another part of the reason why I do what I do is because in the end, I like helping people. Now, I am pretty sure that is connected with the calling–it is one of the gifts or qualities or attributes that God has given me as part of the tool kit that comes with his calling. When God calls us to anything, he also provides the equipment that we need to follow his leading. But whatever the reason, I actually like helping people.

That can be a mixed blessing. We who like helping people do a lot of good for a lot of people but we can also do a lot of harm to a lot of people. A lot of the difference can be attributed to our motives for helping.

If I am helping people to satisfy my need to help out, I am probably going to cause more harm than good because I am more concerned with what I will get out of the process than what will really help in the process. I will likely end up diminishing the people I want to help because I put myself before them.

When my helping takes away the individual’s freedom to make their own choices, I have actually ceased helping them. When I do counselling for example, it really isn’t my place to tell people they have to stop doing something, no matter how destructive it might be for them. I can help them see the consequences of their actions, I can help them formulate different ways of dealing with stuff, I can even be willing to help hold them accountable. In some situations, I can and have told people I will have to report them to appropriate authorities but I can’t make them change. But I can’t actually make them do whatever it is that we are talking about.

Learning and remembering that one basic reality has saved me and those I minister to a great deal of pain, confusion and emotional turmoil. A real helper is one who has real and realistic limits. I can’t live another person’s life–and I can’t make them live their life the way I think it should be lived. I can only help them as they seek to deal with their own stuff as best they can. I can offer tools, support, counselling, accountability–but I can’t make them.

That means that there are a lot of times when my attempts to help are frustrated. It means that there are times when the proper and best response are really clear to me and the people I am trying to help and they still chose a lesser response. There are times when I get angry because of how hard I have worked only to have someone make poor or even self-destructive choices. There have even been times when I have had to stop my involvement because of the frustration.

But learning that limit has also been liberating and enabling for me in my ministry and my helping of others. I like helping–but I need to begin with the reality of the otherness of the people I am helping. They have a right to be themselves, even if I disagree with their definition of themselves. I need clear and strong limits on my helping so that I don’t try to take over their life or their issues. I am there to help, not to dominate or command or take over. As one poet from another age put it, “Good fences make good neighbours”.

May the peace of God be with you.

 

YEAR END REVIEWS

One of my Christmas gifts every year for the past few years is a subscription to a science magazine.  I think it was a desperation gift when our son first gave it but it was and is a deeply appreciated part of my Christmas and the rest of the year.  And, because of the way magazines get published, I had the January issue in early December.

I look forward to that issue because it summarizes the top scientific stories and issues for the past year.  When I read through the issue, I am reminded of some things I knew of, I discover some things that I didn’t hear about and I end up feeling like I know something more than before I read the magazine.

And the magazine publishers are not alone–almost everyone does a year end review.  News programs review the top stories; various musical styles do their top 100 for the year; movies get rated  from best to worst–everyone seems to want to review the year.

So, I sometimes think I should review my year–but what should I include in the review?  What parts of my life do I want to look over and rate?  I suppose I could do a top ten sermons list–but truthfully, when I finish a sermon, I am pretty much done with it, except for the occasional discussion that it sparks at the following week’s Bible study.  Going back and re-reading them to rate them isn’t all that appealing to me.

I do have to do something of a work review for the churchs’ annual meetings but that tends to be a statistical report with some ideas and suggestions and is sometimes hard to do because a lot of what I do in the church is in process and can’t really be measured or evaluated on a chronological basis.

I could do some personal review but that sometimes takes on a negative slant:  the weight I didn’t lose, the bike rides I didn’t  take; the people I didn’t get to spend time with; the books that are still waiting to be read.  The things I accomplished, well, sometimes they don’t seem all that significant–the naps I really needed to take or the coffee I really wanted to drink or the hour of YouTube that I couldn’t pass up.

I decided a while ago that my life and my work don’t actually lend themselves to an annual evaluation.   I believe in and practice self and professional evaluation but have realized that the process works a lot better if I allow the evaluation to fit into the natural and intrinsic patterns and cycles of whatever I am evaluating.

My personal life doesn’t cycle around the January date.  My professional life doesn’t fit the New Year evaluation pattern.  Trying to do a year end review or a best of the year process ends up being frustrating and somewhat pointless.   My professional cycle, for example, actually runs from September to May, with a short and needed break at the end of December.  It makes much more sense to do work evaluations in June or July than it does in December.

Likewise, my personal life follows a cycle that is intertwined with my professional life, the seasons and when the next Star Wars or Star Trek movie will come out.  Most of those cycles don’t lend themselves well to a December 31 evaluation process.  They can be evaluated and some of them need to be evaluated but evaluating them based on the cycles they follow is better and more effective.

So, I am going to anticipate and enjoy the science magazine’s year in review.  I might listen to some of the top 100 music of the past year.  I will summarize the past year for the church annual report.  I will try to avoid looking too closely at the bathroom scales report on my after Christmas personal expansion.  But I won’t do a year end review and best of report.  I won’t make resolutions to do things better next year.

I will evaluate and plan and make changes as they are appropriate and necessary and fit in the patterns and cycles of my life because that works better for me than using an artificial and arbitrary date as a reason for evaluation and review.

May the peace of God be with you.

HAPPY NEW YEAR

As holidays go, our western New Year is a pretty strange and maybe even pointless holiday.  To start with, there isn’t really any purpose or point beyond marking the passage of an arbitrary passage of time.  Other cultures in the past have had annual celebrations that actually  make sense:  the change of seasons; the annual flooding of the Nile river; the beginning of harvest or planting seasons; annual astronomical events or anniversaries of special events.  But in the west, we have a holiday stuck in the middle of a temporal nowhere, remembered only because the calendar says remember it.

To make matters worse, it is just a week after one of the biggest cultural events we have.  Whether we celebrate Christmas or some other December party, we arrive at New Year’s pretty much worn out and somewhat broke.

All that means that we don’t have much of a sense of how to celebrate the holiday.  When the new year is marked by the beginning of planting, we celebrate by planting.  When it marks the harvest, we celebrate by harvesting and feasting.  If it marks the anniversary of some important event, we can celebrate and remember the event.  But for us, well, we have this day when the most significant thing is that the old calendar has run out of days.

As a culture, we try to celebrate.  We are encouraged to do a review of the past year and resolve to do better next year.  We commit to making changes:  lose the Christmas weight; start Christmas shopping earlier; be a nicer person; give up some vice or another.  We have a party.  But in the end, we likely don’t change much, probably because the whole thing is so artificial and contrived.

I am not calling for a change or anything like.  This is more of a “Isn’t it strange” post.  I suppose I could do some research and discover why we ended up with such a strange and unremarkable time for a recognition of the new year–but up to this point, I haven’t been interested enough to put the effort in to the process.  As it stands now, I don’t expect to develop it anytime soon.  Maybe, when I someday actually retire it will make a good project to stave off boredom.

But for now, I will simply point out how strange a choice for a new year recognition and wish you a Happy New Year.  Now, I have to go and change the calendars.

May the peace of God be with you.

I’M TIRED

One of the two pastorates I currently serve is the same one where I started my career as a pastor back on 1981 after a couple of years working in Kenya.  The other pastorate I serve was my wife’s first pastorate and we lived in their parsonage for a couple of years while we finished our Master’s degrees and before we went to Kenya.  That means I have a long history with both places.

That history has some significant benefits in my ministry.  But there is also another side to having that history.  I remember other stuff that creates some interesting thoughts for me.  For example, in one of our church buildings, the platform for the pulpit and the choir is about 16 inches above the floor.  There is a step but when I first began there over 35 years ago, I ignored the step–when worship began and I was following the choir up in our somewhat informal processional, I simple hopped up onto the platform–that step was an annoyance more than a help.

But when  I started ministry there again, I discovered that the platform was much higher than it used to be–either that or my bad knees are much worse that I want to admit.  My attempt to hop onto the platform never got beyond the preliminary thought stage before I realized that I needed that step–and a hand railing would be deeply appreciated as well.

In the other pastorate, I regularly drive by hay fields where I used to help my friend during haying season.  Tossing bales of hay on to the wagon was hard work and I knew I had done a day’s work when I was done but I did enjoy it.  I also got to drive the tractor now and then, which was a bonus.  But as I drive by those fields now, I realize that while I can probably still pick up a bale of hay, giving it the toss onto the wagon would probably cause my arthritic shoulders to loudly protest and my knees would begin to tell me that walking around the field after the tractor wasn’t their job.

But even more, I recognize that I am simply tired.  Not just physically tired but somehow spiritually tired.  I am not in danger of losing my faith–that is probably firmer and more rooted that it was way back then.  But I am finding it harder and harder to carry on the work I have been called to do.  I do things–but I don’t do them with the same energy level I used to have.  I have discovered that I need to space things out more–meetings need to be less frequent.  I need to remember that I have to have time and space to rest–a good Bible study with lots of discussion leaves me drained and wanting a nap.  When I finish two worship services on Sunday, I mostly want to collapse in front of the TV–and sometimes, it doesn’t matter what it on or even if it is on.

But for all that, I also realize that I bring something else to this stage of ministry.  It may be because I don’t have the energy I used to have or because I have managed to gain some wisdom over the years or because God has gracefully helped me but I look at my ministry differently.  I have different priorities.  I know that I can’t do everything I used to do, let alone everything that could be done so I have learned to think about what I do or should do or could do more strategically.  I need to invest my time and limited energy and creatively in ways that will do the most good for the church, which means that I think and pray more about stuff than I used to do–and I feel less guilty about what doesn’t get done.

I could retire and I know that I will retire at some point.  But even with the fatigue, I am not ready for that yet.  I believe that God has called me to these churches for a reason and I experience evidence of his Spirit working in and through and around me.  I may be tired but I am not done yet.

May the peace of God be with you.

MERRY CHRISTMAS

Christmas Day–even for people like us whose kids are grown and far away, this can be a busy day.  I was up early to put the turkeys in the ovens–the church my wife pastors is having a free Christmas dinner and I volunteered to look after the turkeys.  For me, cooking a turkey is part of the Christmas process.

Between the Christmas dinner preparations and all that go with hosting 30-40 people for dinner, this is a busy day.  There is a lot that we have to squeeze in:  our traditional bacon and egg breakfast; checking the stockings that Santa filled sometime during the night; finding time to open our presents; watching the grandchildren open some of their presents via Skype.  We also need to find time for the obligatory nap after we finally finish at the church as well as at least open the new Christmas books–that does combine well with the nap sometimes.

We will also probably eat some stuff that we shouldn’t; watch a movie or at least sit in front of the TV while a movie plays; try to clean up the wrapping paper and maybe even do some exercise–my wife’s dog will begin to insist on that at some point.  I will take a lot of pictures, find some time to check the news on the Internet and TV–although that also might get combined with the nap.

Today is a busy day–and we are not alone in being busy.  There is so much to do and so many things that we want to do that it is hard to fit it all in.  Christmas is busy and active and filled with fun and traditions and customs and indulgences.   It is a busy day, a good day, a stressful day, a tiring day, a wonderful day.

And we, like most of the people celebrating the day will probably end up forgetting why we have this day in the first place.  That statement isn’t meant to be the introduction to a rant about losing sight of God or letting culture replace faith or losing Christ from Christmas.  There have been times in the past when I would have probably followed that route–and in reality, there may be times in the future when I am tempted to go that way.

But right now, I am seeing one of the real implications of Christmas.  The Christmas story tells us that Jesus will be called “Immanuel”, a name which means “God with us”.  The story of Christmas is part of the bigger story of the Gospel, which assures us that because of Jesus Christ, God is with us.  His presence is dependent on his grace and love–and isn’t dependant on our recognition of his presence.

Certainly, it is probably better for our faith development if we work at being conscious of the presence of God in our lives but the deep and powerful reality of the Gospel is that God is with us and will be with us and nothing can change that.  When I remember that, I can seek and realize the evidence of the presence.

But in truth, on Christmas afternoon, after I have helped provide a meal for 30-40 and helped with the clean up, come home and spent time on Skype and the phone with the rest of the family and am sitting in  a comfortable chair pretending to be reading the new Christmas book a as a cover for an unofficial nap, God is still with me whether I am thinking about him or not.  If I manage to read the book or if I more likely fall asleep, God is with me.  If I rouse out of the post meal stupor and consciously open myself to his presence, he is with me.  If I spend the day busily accomplishing all the things that “need” to be done and don’t ever consciously think of God’s presence, he is still with me.

That is the important thing:  God is with me because of Jesus.  He is here, he stays with me, he isn’t dependant on what I am doing or not doing, what I am thinking or not thinking.  Immanuel–God with us.  Merry Christmas.

May the peace of God be with you.

A CHRISTMAS GIFT

Christmas is almost here.  The outside decorations are in place, the tree is up, the presents are (sort of) wrapped.  And like any good pastor–and even the not-so-good ones, I am busy trying to keep my head above water as I deal with all the stuff that churches and our culture have built into this season of the year.  There are extra worship services, extra social events, extra shopping, extra cooking–it seems like there is extra everything except time.

I realized a few days ago that I am waiting impatiently, which seems to be a culturally  acceptable response to Christmas.  We expect it mostly in children but it is still acceptable for adults, even senior-discount qualified adults.  However, I am waiting impatiently for something different.  I am eagerly awaiting the lasagna and movie that are our Christmas Eve ritual.  It will be nice to open the presents on Christmas day.  I am looking forward to cooking the turkeys and making the gravy for the church sponsored Christmas dinner.  I am even happily planning on turkey leftovers.

But as nice as these things are, they are not what I am impatiently waiting for.  They will come in due time and I will enjoy them.  But what I am impatient for begins on the day after Christmas.  No, it isn’t Boxing Day sales.  What I am really waiting for is the free time that comes between the week between Christmas and New Years.

That is a great and wonderful time.  All the special stuff in the church is over.  Even the regular programs like Bible study take a break.  The cultural bash takes a break as we digest Christmas dinner and wear out batteries.  New Years is coming  but we don’t need to do much about that.  People tend to hunker down and rest up from the strain and stress of the holiday.

And all that means that aside from working on a sermon for the next Sunday, I don’t have a long list of things to do.  As long as the sermon and worship service are put together, my week is pretty much free.  We have some plans but mostly the week will be about unwinding, relaxing and taking it easy.  We will likely take a day to see a movie that we want to see, which will include a meal of course.

We will sleep in.  We will watch movies.  We might go cross country skiing, although the weather predictions make that look less likely.  We will eat at strange times.  We will spend some time reading the books we got for Christmas and eating the goodies that showed up in the Christmas stockings.

I am looking forward to that relaxing and relatively unscheduled time.  The Advent/Christmas season is busy and hectic and demanding.  I do what I do voluntarily and willingly but it is tiring and gets more tiring each year.  But I learned long ago that that week between Christmas and New Years is another gift, a gift of time.

Somehow, our church culture and our actual culture have come together to produce a week of dead time, a few days where nobody expects much of anyone–and that includes pastors.  I could call it a happy coincidence.  I could spend a lot of time exploring how the church and the culture end up with a space at the same time.  I could research the development of this time in history.

But truthfully, I am not likely going to do any of that.  I am going to enjoy it to the fullest.  I will write a sermon and plan a worship service.  But for the rest of the time, I am going to treat that precious time for what it really is–a gift from God to all of us who are tired from the Advent/Christmas activity and who need some space and time before we step into the New Year and all its activities.

However it came about, these few days are too valuable and important not to see them as a another sign of God’s grace.  And so, I wait in eager anticipation of the time to relax and rest and sleep and do whatever.  I like Christmas–and I really like the break following Christmas.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE MEETING

Recently, in a moment of weakness, I volunteered to be on a committee.  Well, actually, in all honestly, I volunteered because I was convinced that being on this committee was something that I felt God wanted me to do.  I generally don’t like committees and meetings and all that but I had been working on stuff related to this committee for years and when volunteers were called for, it didn’t seem like I had much choice–this was God’s will.

So, like all good committees, we planned a meeting.  In order to attend the meeting, I would end up making an eight hour round trip.  The meeting itself lasted about three hours.  Because this was a denominational committee, something that counts as work according to my agreement with the churches I work for, I worked eleven and a half hours that day, most of it driving.

Since I did take two other people with me, the drive wasn’t all that bad–we had good conversation in the car and ended up helping each other out in several ministry related areas.  But the meeting did take a whole day and involve a lot of driving, which meant that as driver, I couldn’t work on my sermon, prepare a Bible Study, visit someone in the hospital or even take a nap.

Thanks to the Internet, our committee probably won’t meet again until our work is mostly done and we need to tie things together.  And this work is important–we are trying to address an issue that has become a drag on a lot of ministry but will involve making changes in things that have a long history in our denomination.

Since this committee was drawn from all over the geography covered by our denomination and many of us didn’t really know each other, we needed to have this meeting to get to know each other and understand each other, something that is harder to do when we are linked by electronic media that obscures a great deal of the all important non-verbal information that is so vital to real communication.

But even with all that, driving eight hours for a three hour meeting isn’t particularly efficient or cost-effective.  One of the things that I realized really early in ministry is that efficiency and cost-effectiveness are generally poor drivers for effective and efficient ministry.  And that actually makes sense.

Real ministry ultimately involves relationships with real people–and we human beings are generally not concerned with efficiency and cost-effectiveness when it comes to relationships.  Real ministry to real people is sloppy, time-consuming and often incredibly cost-ineffective.

Often, I find myself making the two hour round trip to spend 20-30 minutes with someone in the regional hospital.  A phone call to check on a possible hymn for worship can take 20 minutes.  A “brief” conversation after worship can become a half hour pastoral care session.  A walk for some needed exercise becomes an impromptu counselling session with someone I meet along the way. Ministry deals with people and people really can’t be placed in time slots and cost per minute schemes and efficient schedules.

I try to be as efficient and cost-effective as possible.  Both money and time are scarce commodities in ministry and I don’t like wasting either.  But as careful as I try to be, inevitably, I end up using more time and money for some things than might appear to be efficient. While an eight hour round trip for a three hour meeting is fortunately on the unusual side, a two hour round trip for a 30 minute hospital visit is fairly common.  But if I try for efficiency by waiting until there is more than one person in the regional hospital, I will end up not seeing someone who actually needs that 30 minutes more that I need to two hours for whatever.

The day after my meeting, I kind of regretted that whole thing, mostly because I was tired and had to catch up on the stuff I didn’t get done.  But that was a temporary regret not a comment on the whole process.  Ministry of any kind has a great deal of build in inefficiency–but the irony is that allowing the inefficiency actually makes for a much more effective ministry in the end.

May the peace of God be with you.

COMPARATIVE SUFFERING

I was having a conversation with someone recently about a problem they were dealing with.  It was a physical problem that was somewhat painful, somewhat annoying and somewhat limiting.  The problem wasn’t going to be fatal and it was treatable but right then and there, it was causing the individual to suffer.  I did my pastoral thing, listening and encouraging them to talk and doing all the stuff that has become second nature to me over many years of ministry.

But my comfortable professional approach was interrupted by a comment the person made. After telling me about the problem,  the person abruptly said something like, “I shouldn’t be complaining about this–there are lots of people worse off than me.”  Although I have heard the comment a lot, something about it set me off that day.

It isn’t all that uncommon a idea–we are often encouraged to compare our problems and difficulties with those of others, generally with the idea that if theirs are worse, we should stop complaining.  I seem to remember a song from years ago that said something like, “I used to complain about having no shoes until I met a man with no feet.”  If someone is suffering more than we are, then we need to stop whining, count our blessings and get on with life.

Sounds good–there is some semi-religious moralizing, some thinly veiled guilt, some covert attempts to foster denial and some social pressure to smile and carry on.  What more could be asked of an approach to suffering?

Well, maybe we could ask for a more honest approach to suffering.  Comparative suffering is really a terrible approach to suffering.  On some levels, my lack of shoes is certainly less serious than someone else’s lack of feet–but my lack of shoes is my problem and my issue and the other person’s lack of feet, tragic as that is, really doesn’t do much to help me deal with my issue.  In fact, the comparative suffering approach probably adds to my suffering because not only do I have to deal with my lack of shoes but I also have to deal with my guilt over having feet and therefore not suffering as much as the other guy.

Suffering isn’t really comparative.  My stuff is my stuff and while it may or may not be as bad as someone else’s stuff, it is my stuff and I have to deal with it using my resources and my abilities and my support systems.  And in the end, I can only really do that by being honest with myself about what I am dealing with and its effects on me.

So, when the person I was talking to suggested that they shouldn’t be complaining about their suffering when so many were worse off, I interrupted the flow of the conversation by suggesting that suffering wasn’t comparative and that what they were dealing was what they were dealing with.  There was a pause in the conversation as the person thought about this–and then a very visible and audible change in the their demeanor.  It was like they relaxed–they could be open and free about what they were dealing with because they didn’t have to compare it to someone else.  They didn’t have to put it on the global suffering scale and forget about it because it didn’t rate enough.

We continued talking and the person talked more about how the problem was affecting them and their family.  We also talked about how not having to compare it with others was a relief.  They could recognize and accept their suffering for what it was–it was something that was causing them pain and trouble and it was inconvenient and miserable and they had a right to  be upset.

The guy with no feet has a tough deal in life and I can appreciate his suffering–but his suffering is his suffering, just as my suffering is my suffering.  We each have to deal with what we have–or don’t have.  And we deal with it best by dealing with it ourselves, not by trying to place it on some cosmic scale of suffering.  I might have feet–but my lack of shoes is still a real problem in my life, one that I need to deal with honestly and freely.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE POTLUCK

            One of our well-established traditions at both the pastorates I serve is the potluck.  At regular intervals, we get together after worship to eat together.  Such meals are a basic part of our church culture–not just our churches but most churches in our area.  More importantly they are a vital and basic part of our spiritual growth.

This is not an attempt to equate the inevitable overeating that goes with potluck meals with some sort of spiritual blessing.  I over eat at the potlucks because I have to try everything and have extra of some of the dishes that I really like and only get at the potluck.  There is no spiritual blessing in overeating–there is a physical blessing from enjoying the good food and the physical consequences that I need to deal with later.

The spiritual blessing comes from the fact that we are together, sharing food and fellowship.  We eat together; we talk together; we laugh together; we support each other.  This fellowship time draws us closer to each other in a safe, comfortable, warm environment.  The act of eating together is always a sign of a comfortable relationship.

Our potlucks at one of the pastorates even have a way of extending the fellowship.  When everyone has been through the main course line as often as they want, there is a pause in the process while the main courses are removed and the desserts are put out–our hall isn’t big enough for two separate serving tables.  This change over takes a bit longer than in some places because several plates are filled with food.  These plates are taken to community members who can’t get out–and it doesn’t matter whether they are part of our or any church.  Some of the plates are also given to people who are there but who we feel should have some take out from the meal.  A similar process happens after the desserts have been  sufficiently sampled.

By the way, we are not giving people the ragged ends and skimpy leftovers.  Real potluck culture requires that everyone bring enough food to feed army battalion and so even after everyone has gone through the serving line as much as they want, there is still more than enough of all the food to feed everyone there again–or to share with lots of people who aren’t there.

And while the food is great, the time together is even better.  People talk.  Since I am a deeply committed people watcher, I spend a lot of time watching the groupings and connections and conversational groups.  The seating arrangements are open and who sits where tends to be random.  Couples don’t always sit together.  The same people don’t always sit near each other.  Visitors and new people don’t end up by themselves because they aren’t part of an established group.

We get our food, we grab an empty seat and we talk.  We might change seats in the lull between courses.  We might engage is a conversation with someone at another table.  We likely take a long time to get to the serving table for seconds because we need to talk to several people on the way there and back.

We eat and laugh and catch up on news and share stories and make plans and ask about families and offer help and discuss cars and recipes and grandchildren.  We spill coffee and tea and tease each other about the number of trips we make to the serving table and we offer to carry the empty plates to the cleaning area.  We spend time together and we enjoy each other’s company.

And in the process we grow as individuals and as a church.  We grow as individuals because we are discovering how to express our faith in the context of others, which is a basic Biblical requirement for real faith.  We grow as churches because we are getting to know and appreciate each other more and more, developing trust and closeness and understanding.  When we have eaten and joked together, it is somehow easier and more meaningful to worship together.

It is no coincidence that Jesus instituted what we now call Communion at a meal.  There is a powerful and profound connection between the process of eating together and our ability to express our faith.

May the peace of God be with you.