GONE FISHIN’

When I was growing up, cartoons were a important part of our TV time.  In the days before cable and satellite TV, we got a total of one channel and knew exactly when each cartoon show was on.  There were some themes that cut across all the shows, no matter what company produced them.  One theme, for example, was that small and smart always wins over big and mean, which probably reflects the desires of the primary viewing audience.

Another theme is expressed by the words used in the title of this post–“Gone Fishin'”.  These words often appeared on the door or in the window of someone important to the main characters of the cartoon.  The character would be in trouble, being chased or sick or in need of money or food or something equally vital.  There would often be a cartoon balloon revealing that the desired thing could be found at such and such a place.

After much trial and tribulation, the character would arrive at the place, only to find it empty with the “Gone Fishin'” sign on display.  As a kid, I remember thinking how unfair that was–the protagonist needed help and the person who could supply the help had callously and selfishly taken off, not caring about the needs of the desperate cartoon character.

I know a lot of people in helping professions like ministry who seem to have felt the same sense of injustice because they never seem to take time off.  They don’t want to be the person whose help is desperately needed and who has gone fishing at just the point when the help is needed.  And while it may seem like such people are altruistic and genuinely caring in a day and age when such qualities are in short supply, I have to confess that I have a very different view.

I have been part of a helping profession for a long time and in that time, I have seen a lot of people come and go.  I have at times been the one always on duty, always there, never going fishing.  But somewhere along the line, my cartoon inspired sense of injustice was shaken when I realized that while there were lots and lots of helpers who burned the candle at both ends, there were very few old helpers who burned the candle at both ends.  There were burned out helpers who didn’t provide help to anyone anymore.  There were sick or dead helpers who weren’t providing help to anyone any more.  There were formerly high-paced helpers who were permanently out of the helping profession because of ethical issues.  But there were no old or long time helpers who burned the candle at both ends.

There were, however, helpers who had been in the business for a long time and who were still helping a lot of people in a lot of ways–and they were the ones who know when and how to go fishing.  Well, actually, not all of them went on real fishing trips.  But they all knew how to hang out the sign and take some time for themselves, getting the rest and recreation they needed to unstress and relax and enable them to be effective long term care providers.

Having flirted with burn-out at various times in my ministry, I have no real desire crash and burn.  And so, I learned relatively early that while the cartoons were fun for me as a kid, the cartoon morality and lifestyle needed some modifications.  I learned to hang out the “Gone Fishin'” sign, except I would spell it properly.

And so to the point of this post.  I will be “Gone Fishin'” for a bit.  We are taking some vacation time and although I will have my tablet and internet access most of the time, I will be taking a break from everything, including writing this blog.  I will be playing with grandchildren, talking with our sons and their partners, eating too much at the wrong times, not exercising enough, sleeping in (grandchildren permitting), seeing some new things, enjoying time with my wife and basically making my days as different as possible from what I normally do.  I may even watch cartoons with the older grandchildren–and if I see the “Gone Fishin'” sign in a cartoon, I will congratulate the one who posted the sign–remember, in the cartoons, the protagonist always managed to win even when the sign was posted.

May the peace of God be with you.

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YOUR CHOICE

As a pastor, a pastoral counsellor and a friend, I have a deep concern for people I know who struggle with low self-esteem.  Their inability to really like or love themselves is painful for me–not nearly as painful as it is to them but it is still painful for me to observe.  As I indicated in my last post, I have discovered some things that don’t really work to change the way people look at themselves.

I can’t really say that I have figured out a sure-fire way of helping people change the way they look at themselves.  I would love to be able to help them change and become the confident and comfortable people I would like them to be and which they show lots of evidence that they can be but as much as I would like that, I can’t.  But there are some things I can do that have helped some people sometimes.

One thing I discovered is that it does help some people to shift their focus.  Rather than spend their time looking at themselves, the messages from the past and their inadequacies, it helps to encourage and enable people to look at themselves theologically.  As we discover who we are in God’s eyes, we can develop a different foundation.  Now, I am aware of the danger this approach presents–there is some really bad theology of people out there, theology that encourages and reinforces low self-esteem.

But theology based on Scriptures like Psalm 139, which talks about God’s perfect knowledge of us and his eternal love for us, can help re-build a foundation of personal understanding and acceptance.  If the God of all creation loves and values us enough to send Christ for us, who are we to argue?

I have also found that honestly sharing with people what I see as their personal value and ability and importance can be a help.  I make sure what I say is true and I never push them to accept what I say–I just tell them what I see and leave it there.  I do need to be careful not to create a dependence of this sort of support but used well, it does provide some help.

Another thing I have discovered is that it helps people to understand they have the freedom an ability to either change or stay the same.  I am not going to force people to change and in the end, if they are content to go through life thinking they are less important than dirt, that is their choice.  I probably won’t ever agree with them but I will still go for coffee with them and still appreciate them.  It is interesting that the power to stay the same can become a motivating factor in changing.

I think people struggling with low self-esteem suffer because of the messages and hurts and abuses they have dealt with in their lives–and these external factors create a feeling that they have no control over their lives or thinking.  Realizing that they stay where they are because of the decisions they make here and now can sometimes open the door to making different decisions.  They are beginning to shift from reacting to external factors to an internal control of their lives.

And one of the major things that I have found important in the process of changing from low to healthy self-esteem is time.  Most people don’t flip a switch and change immediately, no matter how much I would like that to happen.  The journey from low to healthy self-esteem is generally a slow and painful process.  It can take years of incremental steps, complete with set-backs, regressions and frustration for all involved.

I like my friends even if they struggle with low self-esteem.  And while I would like them to be different, if I push too much in my concern, I have really become one of the external factors giving them the message that they aren’t good enough.  They have has enough messages like that already–that’s why they are in the place they are in.  While I can contribute to their development of healthy self-esteem in the ways I have mentioned, I also have to learn to accept them as they are.  If enough of us would learn how to do this all the time with all people, there would probably be a lot less trouble with low self-esteem.

May the peace of God be with you.

THIS DOESN’T WORK

When I first became aware of the darkness of low self-esteem and how it causes such suffering and pain for people,  I was concerned.  I wanted to help.  A big part of my being is tied in with being called and gifted by God to be a pastor, a caregiver.  It is an ingrained part of who I am–I can no more ignore that part of me than I can ignore my need to read and watch the news.

So, as a pastoral care-giver confronted by the darkness of low self-esteem and its effects on people, especially my friends, I was determined to help.  Since I am also a writer and speaker, I turned to my favourite tool–words.  All I had to do was show my friends how great they really were and everything would be fine.  I would tell them how good they were at (fill in the blank), how much I and others appreciated their ability to (fill in the blank) and how their ability to (FITB) made the world a better place.

The results were always less than I expected.  Some would basically ignore what I was saying, pretending modesty.  Others would deflect my compliments by telling me that all the glory should go to God, not them.  A few would light up just a little and say thank you–but only a little and only for a short time–I assume that their darkness easily snuffed out the compliment.  And a few, to my surprise, would actually argue with me, telling me that I really didn’t know what I was talking about.  And a very few would tell me that if I really knew what they were like, I would never want to be around them.

I learned early that trying to compliment people out of their darkness didn’t really work.  the compliment coming from outside was generally no match for the darkness coming from the inside.  The darkness of low self-esteem easily explains away anything from outside.  It isn’t prepared to hear or accept the positive and can quickly wrap tendrils of darkness around any compliment or positive statement.

I tried the approach of helping people dig into the origins of their darkness.  As we move through life, there are people and events that affect us deeply–and the younger we are, the more significant these people and events are.  When I had permission, I would (and still do) help people open up some of the rooms in their mental storage spaces and air out some of these old and painful memories.  As hard as it is, people can and do make the connection between the pain of the past and the darkness of the present.  They learn to see how their present is formed and shaped by the past; how what they do and think now grows out of what happened then.

And this is a valuable process and an important accomplishment for all of us in  all areas of life.  We are all hoarders of past events and experiences and feelings–and the deeper the pile, the more festering and rotting stuff there is to complicate our present.  Cleaning and airing the storerooms of the past is a valuable process for all, not just those struggling with the darkness of low self-esteem.

But I also discovered something interesting.  The insights into the past were always helpful and valuable–but the person would end the session or sessions with lots of insight, a deeper understanding of who they were and are and why they are who they were and are.  They could even see the strong connection between the junk from the past and the poor self-image of the present.  But they would still carry the darkness and would still feel inadequate.  They might understand why they were the way they were but that was as far as it went.  The darkness was still there and still affecting them.

So I discovered that although external compliments and looking at the past might have some effect, they often didn’t really illuminate the darkness.  I don’t think doing either is wrong but it does seem to me that is just isn’t enough–my friends struggling with the darkness of poor self-image needed something else.  I still compliment and still help people process the past–but I have been looking for the something else for a long time.  While I won’t say that I have found it, I have discovered a few things that seem to help some people some time–those we will look at in another post.

May the peace of God be with you.

MEET MY FRIEND

            I want to write about a friend of mine–although this friend isn’t a real person.  I am taking bits and pieces of several friends to create this portrait.  Some reading it might recognize some of the picture but it really isn’t you, at least not you directly.  The parts you recognize and claim as well as the parts you don’t recognize are drawn from a lot of different people.  It’s sort of like I am using a bunch of different coloured lego blocks to create my picture.

Anyway, this friend (who doesn’t really exist in reality) is a very capable person.  They are not only good at what they do but good enough at it that they don’t need to brag or try to impress people.  My friend is comfortable to be around in good times and a real help is difficult times.  I enjoy having coffee and breaks with them–and as an indication of how much I enjoy it, I am sometimes willing to break out of my comfortable introverted ruts and initiate time together.

I assume and hope that you know people like this–people who are the “salt of the earth”, “give you the shirt off their back”, “a ray of sunshine” or whatever well worn but powerfully descriptive cliché you prefer to describe them.  Coffee tastes better in their company; conversation flows smoother, jokes are funnier, tears are less threatening when we are with them.  All of us need at least one friend like this–and I have been blessed with many.

But lurking in the background of this friend is a major blob of darkness.  Most people don’t get to see it–well, in truth, most people don’t want to see it.  But because of my training, my pastoral experience and probably because of my sometimes perverse way of looking at things, I see the darkness.  Often, my friend doesn’t even see it.

But the darkness is there and once I see it, I also begin to see how its negative effects on an otherwise positive person.  The clues are sometimes subtle, sometimes glaring.  It may be my friend who is a good preacher being afraid that he/she isn’t a good enough preacher.  It may be the very caring and appropriate helper being afraid that what they are doing isn’t good enough or isn’t enough.  It may be the person who appears so confident confesses to feeling inadequate all the time.

In short, my friend lives with the darkness and heaviness of low self-esteem.  No matter what I and others may think of them, they think they are inadequate and not good enough.  No matter how much good they do and how much others appreciate them and what they do, they carry around a sense that not only is what they do not good enough but also that they themselves are not good enough.

Now, to be fair, all of us likely have days and moments when we are pretty sure that we aren’t good enough.  When I was repairing the clothes dryer went pipe the other day, I was pretty sure after the third trip to the hardware store, the second mini-tantrum and the first cut that I wasn’t really a good enough handyman for this task.  But this isn’t the kind of thing my friend is dealing with.

My friend is dealing with a deep-down, embedded personal awareness that they simply don’t measure up.  As a pastoral counsellor, I can generally understand where that feeling comes from–these deep-seated feelings of inadequacy are generally laid down early in life by events and people close to my friend.  But knowing why the darkness of lack of self-love is there really doesn’t fix the problem.  It doesn’t take away the suffering and lack of peace that my friend lives with, the terror of wondering what will happen if someone finds out what they are really like.

As I mentioned, my friend is fictional–but not all that fictional.  There is probably some of this darkness in all of us but those in whom the darkness resides permanently and deeply suffer in ways that the rest of us can’t really comprehend.  For some reason, I can often see this darkness and the suffering and struggle.

And as a result, for many years,  I have been trying to find ways to bring some light to this darkness.  In the end, I want my friends to like themselves at least as much as I like them.  It would be better if they could go beyond this, but that is a start–and so next time I post, I will look at some light for this darkness.

May the peace of God be with you.

OUR FATHER…

I had an interesting and startling experience the other day.  I was conducting a funeral.  The family had no connection with my churches or any church for that matter.  I occasionally get asked to lead such funerals by the funeral director probably because I have been in the area for a long time and we have worked together a lot.  I have been quite busy and almost said no when the call came but in the end, agreed to do the funeral.

The name of the family contact sounded familiar and it turned out that I knew him from past days when I was an officer with the Army Cadet program and he was a cadet.  When he recognized me, he mentioned that he had no idea I was a minister–my role in the Cadet program was supply officer, making sure that uniforms of approximately the right size and other equipment on were given to the right people at the right time.  But that connection did make it easier for both of us as we worked together to design the funeral service.

Anyway, I quickly became aware of the fact that the family had very little in the way of church connections.  The person who had died had attended worship as a child but stopped when she got married–and given that she married very young, that was a long time ago.  The family didn’t know any hymns except “Amazing Grace”.  They didn’t know any Scriptures.   They had no church home but since the service was going to be in the funeral home, that wasn’t a problem.  Eventually, we manage to develop a service that they were comfortable with.

The day of the funeral arrived.  As usual, I arrived early to make sure everything was ready and to chat with the funeral people.  Some of the family was already there–dressed in jeans and t-shirts, some inside being uncomfortable and others outside having a last smoke being equally uncomfortable.  Nobody knew what to do, how to behave, what to expect, how to function.

The funeral home staff did their usual great job of helping people with the process and I greeted and talked with people, offering prayer with the family before we began.  As the service started, I was well aware that this was what Christian academics would call a “post-Christian” group.

I followed the order of service, well aware that nobody was paying much attention to what I was saying.  I did a brief eulogy based on what the family had told me that did produce a few responses from the family.  Then I started the pastoral prayer which was to end with the Lord’s Prayer.  Part way through the prayer, I realized that many people there probably didn’t know the Lord’s prayer and I wondered if maybe I should skip it–multi-tasking isn’t just a part of my computer life.

But since the Lord’s Prayer was included in the bulletin, I began it as normal–and repeated the whole prayer by myself.  Not one member of the audience joined in.  I finished the prayer and moved on with the service.

I live and work in an part of Canada that has deep and strong Christian roots–our area was site of the first European settlement in Canada and the settlers had a priest with them.  My own denomination, the Baptists, were a vital part of our local history–at one point there was a active Baptist congregation about every 8 kilometers (5 miles) along our roads.  All the other major and a lot of minor denominations are represented as well.

But as that funeral shows me, somewhere along the line, we have lost our way and allowed our faith and churches to become ghettoized.  I think it is sad and serious that the people at this funeral didn’t know the Lord’s Prayer.  But the problem isn’t with them.  The problem is with those of us who have faith.  We have, I think, forgotten that one of Jesus’ two commands was to “Go” (Matthew 28.19).  As a result, we sit in our church buildings, waiting for people to come to us.  But these days, there are many things to do that are a lot more interesting than what we offer.

And people are more interested in those things than in us.  Both as individuals and as churches, we need to discover the reality of being in a post-Christian world, confess our failures that have lead to that happening and then we need to follow the Holy Spirit back into the real world where people live and work and need the light of God.

May the peace of God be with you.

DON’T BURN YOUR HAND

            Many years ago, I was a new pastor just beginning my pastoral career.  I was spending time getting to know the church people which for me involved visiting them in their homes.  One afternoon, I dropped in on a family who were fairly involved in the congregation and who were well respected by the rest.  They were good people and I was enjoying getting to know them and working with them.

On the afternoon in question, I was driving by and saw their car in the driveway and decided to dropped in unannounced–this was a totally acceptable and even expected thing in those days.  The husband and son were in the yard, taking a break from some yard work they were doing.  I got out of the car, walked over to them and began chatting about the weather, the work they were doing and other bits and pieces of conversational fluff that we generally use to get things going.

I noticed that the father was a bit uncomfortable but thought it was because he needed to get back to the chores he was doing before I arrived.  However, as I mentally processed the scene, I realized there was a different problem.  I became aware of the smell of tobacco smoke and noticed with my peripheral vision that his right hand was curled into an awkward position–and that there was smoke coming from it.  His break included a cigarette but he didn’t want the minister to know that he was smoking but hadn’t had time to throw it away when I drove into the yard.

Later in my ministry, I could and did joke with him about that day but right then, he felt a need to hide his smoking from me–actually, he wasn’t really hiding it from me.  He was hiding it from the minister either because he was sure that as a minister I didn’t know anything about people smoking or he was embarrassed about being a Christian and a smoker.  My response to the situation right then was to ask if his wife was home so I could see her and give him time to finish or get rid of his cigarette before he burned his hand.

We all have things that we like to hide from someone.  Some of these things are signs of deeper problems–the alcoholic who claims to be in the wagon but who has a hidden stash in the workshop probably is doing something potentially more serious than my friend with his cigarette.  As I have been thinking about it, the key issue isn’t what we are hiding but the fact that we feel we have to hide something.  The desire to hide things is as old as humanity–shortly after Adam and Eve came into being, they felt it necessary to hide themselves from God.

Hiding things from other people is one thing.  Sometimes, we can successfully keep things hidden from most people for a long time.  But often, we really aren’t as deceptive as we think we are.  People who don’t want others to know they smoke, for example, don’t seem to realize that smoking outside in secret doesn’t really hide the obvious cigarette smoke smell that hangs on their clothes and hair.

Even more serious is the problem of thinking that we can hide things from God.  I expect that almost everyone who has faith in God also has a sense that we aren’t what we should be or could be and we know that God knows everything so he already knows what we are trying to hide–Psalm 139 among other Scriptures makes that really clear.  But even knowing that, we still try to pretend that we can hide things from God.

We pretty up our prayers to avoid letting God know what we really think or want; we put on a suit and tie for worship, hoping that a smart exterior will cover the less than great interior; we quote the Bible hoping that will deflect God’s vision from the less than Biblical stuff we are contemplating and even doing.

Of course, we know that none of this works–but we try it anyway.  But for me, there is a real freedom in  remembering that while I might be able to hide some things from some people, I can’t hide anything from God–and his response to his total knowledge of me is to continue to love me and shower me with grace.  That allows total honesty with God, which is much better than a potential burn to my hand.

May the peace of God be with you.

A CHEESE SANDWICH

A few nights ago, just before the evening news, I had an overpowering urge for a cheese sandwich.  When the sandwich wasn’t quite enough, I also indulges in a couple of peanut butter cookies.  That is a far cry from my normal evening snack of a few taco chips but it was low fat cheese on whole grain bread–and the leftovers and salad we had for supper was a bit skimpy.  Later that night, I woke up about 3:00am and realized that as tired as I was when I went to bed, I was now wide awake.  I reflected on the fact that I had been tired a lot lately and was surprised that I couldn’t sleep right then.

And then  the light bulb (not a real one–the metaphorical one) went on.  Binge eating, tired all the time, unable to sleep–I was heading towards depression.  Now, I am something of an expert on depression.  I have taken graduate courses in depression, I have taught theology students how to deal with depression and more importantly, I have struggled with depression most of my life.  I don’t get seriously depressed, at least not enough for medication or active treatment.

But I do get depressed.  And when I recognize the depression coming, I have learned that unless I deal with it quickly and aggressively,  I will  be in trouble.  As I thought about the depression, I quickly realized where it was coming from–and at that point, I fell back asleep and didn’t wake up until it was time to get up.

Knowing where it is coming from is important to me.  This depression has a clear cause–or causes, rather.  I have been working more than normal and therefore having less than normal free time for myself.  One of the extras was the funeral process for a church member who was a good friend.   As well, both my wife and I had been talking about Kenya and were missing our friends and work there.  All this combined with the annoying pain in my shoulder from a pulled muscle to push me into a developing depression.

In the past, I tried to ignore the depression–working on the principle that if I didn’t acknowledge it, it would go away.  That always sounded good in theory but never worked well in practise–ignoring the depression and its causes allowed the depression to become more deeply rooted and have stronger effects on me, my work and my relationships.  The binge eating that sometimes accompanies it didn’t do much good for my clothes or our grocery bills either.

But I learned that once I acknowledge the depression both to myself and to others, I gain control.  And so once I recognized this depression, I confessed it–to myself, to my wife and to one of my Bible Study groups.  The last happened because it provided a very appropriate example for something we were talking about.

I am also making some changes that will allow me to relax and unwind–I am invoking the clause in my employment agreements with the churches that allows me to take time off when I work more than the agreed hours.  That is taking a bit more effort than I would like because of some things I can’t control but I will be taking some time off.  And as well, between therapy, exercises and infrequent pain medication, the pulled muscle pain is lessening.

By the way, I am not advocating this approach for everyone dealing with depression.  This is my response to my brand of depression.  The point I am working on here is that even though I am a believer, I have issues and I get depressed.  And that doesn’t lessen the value of my faith or my ability to minister to others.  I am not perfect–but God loves me with all my imperfections.  Whether I am depressed or not, God loves me.  And since I can love me better when I am not depressed, God works with me to help me deal with the depression–I am pretty sure the 3:00am light bulb I mentioned had a Divine finger on the switch.

In Luke 10.27,  Jesus tells us to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Allowing myself to deal with my depression openly and honestly is part of my loving myself–I would and have helped others do the same thing so turning it inward is really just doing what God has told me to do.

May the peace of God be with you.