HOW DOES IT WORK?

            I grew up around tools and in a culture where being able to do your own work around the house was considered a fact of life.  I love tools and religiously watch the sales for good prices on that tool I never knew existed but which I suddenly realize I must have.  I research my tools seeking to get the best value for my money and how to make the best use of them.  I like to know how to use my tools and how to care for them.

I tend to get upset with people who misuse tools.  I am not fanatic about it, though.  I don’t mind using a screwdriver as a chisel or a pry bar (screwdrivers are, after all, relatively cheap and shaped perfectly for those jobs), although I am opposed to using a chisel or pry bar as a screwdriver.  I like tools and like to use them properly so that I can get the best use and the best value from them.

And that carries over into my use of Biblical tools–I want to see the various tools God has given us in the Scripture used well and properly.  And so when I look at Romans 8.28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”, I want to be sure that it is used well and wisely.  In the last post, I looked at how not to use the verse.  And so now, we look at how to best use it.

Remember that this isn’t a magic incantation, something that we can say and immediately calm the troubled soul.  We need to know the right time and circumstance to make the best use of the power behind this promise.  In my experience, that right time and circumstance isn’t in the middle of a crisis or painful situation.

At that point in time, people need a supportive, active listening care giver; someone who will give them the space and freedom to get out what they need to get out, to say what they need to say, to cry the tears they need to cry, to be free to process their feelings.  Quoting Romans 8.28 at that time serves only to restrict and attempt to re-direct what should be a free flow of feelings.

I have found that the best time to introduce Romans 8.28 is well before it is needed.  Rather than seeing it as a cure for suffering, we might be better off seeing this promise as a prescription to be taken before the suffering to help lessen the effects of the suffering.

Whenever we go to Kenya to work, one of the things we do is request a prescription for the latest recommended anti-malarial medication for our destination.  We get the medication and take it, following the directions carefully.  Now, anti-malarials do not prevent us from getting malaria.  They greatly lessen the chances and ensure that if and when we do get it, the effects will be much less.  We will experience a mild to moderate flu-like episode rather than a severe to fatal illness.

As a pastor, I try to include this promise in my preaching and teaching on a regular basis.  Suffering is a reality of life and while we can’t really prepare ourselves for every possible problem and difficulty, we can prepare ourselves by knowing that when suffering comes for us as believers, God is still going to be there and still going to be at work and somewhere, somehow, he will transform the painful and wrong and evil and bring into being something positive and good for those of us who have chosen to follow him.

Like the anti-malarials we take, knowing this promise won’t prevent us from having bad stuff and struggles in life but it will help us as we seek to deal with it.  It will help us to remember that God is present and active, even if we don’t feel it.  It will help us to mobilize our faith to help us in the midst of the struggle as we remember that God is at work on our behalf.  It will remind us of the power of God directed towards us as we remember that God is doing all that he can to transform the situation.  And as we remember all this, our faith will eventually help us to see the pain and struggle from the perspective of God’s love and grace.

May the peace of God be with you.

ALL THINGS WORK TOGETHER

For the more Biblically literate, there is a Bible verse that occasionally pops up when confronted with the pain and struggle of suffering.  It is a verse that is true, a verse that does have some the ability to help people in their struggles but it is not a magic verse–invoking it does not automatically make everything better.  In fact, like the rest of the Bible, this verse needs to be properly understood and used wisely to be of any value.

The verse is found in Romans 8.28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (NIV).  It is a powerful verse, promising God’s active presence in all of life, even at the most painful and difficult times.  The message found here can be very positive and valuable to people, provided it is interpreted and used properly.

And so, I want to begin looking at this verse from the perspective of what it doesn’t say and what not to do with it–I have always worked on the principle that we need to know as much about what not to do as what to do.

So, while this verse makes great promises, we need to realize that it doesn’t tell us that God causes everything or that everything is good.  I mention that because I have had occasion to hear people twist the passage enough to get those meanings out of it.  The message here is meant to be applied after things happen–God doesn’t send the stuff we are worked up about–but he promises to be there and to be working to bring something good out of the process.

The passage doesn’t tell us that we will immediately see and understand the good.  I have heard some people quote the verse and then immediately begin speculating on what the good in the pain is or will be.  In the end, their far-fetched or pietistic speculation is at best boring and at worst condescending and insensitive.  God works in God’s way and in God’s time and that means that we may or may not see immediate good in any particular situation.  It may also mean that when the good God promises to bring out of the situation actually comes about, it will likely be clear and hard to argue with rather than  vague and open to interpretation.

I am not sure but it may be that the good that comes from the situation may not necessarily be a personal good for those involved.  God sometimes uses the suffering of one to bring about the good of another–Jesus’ suffering on the Cross provides a good example of that reality.  And so even though there is a promise of good coming out of the situation, it might not be a personalized good for those in the midst of the suffering.

There is also a major restriction on this verse.  While a great deal of the Bible is applicable to believer and non-believer, this particular promise is valid only for those who are followers of God through Christ.  For we who have accepted God’s love and grace in Christ, God promises that no matter what happens in our lives–good, bad or indifferent–he will be at work, using his divine power and wisdom to bring about something positive and good from the situation.  But the promise, great as it is, isn’t made to those who don’t yet follow God.

Theologically and practically, I think we are safe to say that God can and will use less than positive events in the life of a non-believer to bring about some good for them, such as their salvation.  We can also say that God doesn’t turn his back on people who haven’t yet accepted his grace when their lives are in turmoil and even more will offer them grace and help and whatever he can–but this promise in Romans is made to those of us who believe.   God promises that no matter what we deal with in life, he is there and even more, he is at work, using all his power and ability and wisdom to bring something good out of the suffering and pain we are dealing with.

For all the limitations, it is a great and wonderful promise, a valuable tool that God has gifted to his people.  But like any tool, we need to know how to use it–and that will be the focus of our next post.

May the peace of God be with you.

LIVING WITH THE UNREASONABLE

            While it is technically true that everything has a reason, knowing that really doesn’t help most people deal with what feels like the unreasonable realities of life. I am a fan of the TV show Bones, in which the chief character, Dr. Temperance Brennan, can always describe the reasonable chain of events that caused the victim to die.  She regularly offers this chain to the victim’s family in an attempt to help them deal with their loss.  Her partner and husband, Booth, then has the difficult task of getting Brennan to stop talking, sooth the family’s ruffled feathers and get the required information from the family.

People in a crisis rarely want to know reasons and generally don’t believe that knowing the reasons will make it all better.  Nor are they likely going to refocus their emotional response to the crisis to joy at hearing that things happen for a reason.  A discussion of causation and consequences probably is very valuable in a scientific experiment, a philosophy seminar or a theology book but does very little good when real people are facing real life situations with real feelings.

But it seems that we who stand on the side lines and look in on the struggles of those in the middle of things need something to say.  We want to make the people feel better–or, as is often the unstated but deeper reason, we want them to stop struggling and suffering so that we aren’t reminded of our own struggles and suffering.  And so we try to come up with some words that will cover over the suffering and make everything better.

The painful and difficult truth is that when people suffer, there are no words that will take away the suffering.  We can’t say something that will magically make it all better so that they no longer suffer and we don’t have to be reminded of our suffering. The endless platitudes and clichés and worn out phrases that we use are empty words, doing nothing but filling space and giving us some distance from the suffering.  They generally bring no comfort to the people struggling but might make us feel a bit better, giving us a false sense of accomplishment that we helped.

When people are in the midst of a crisis, they likely need and want help, although there are a few who claim to neither need nor want anything.  But the help that makes a difference comes when we are willing to acknowledge the reality of their suffering and open ourselves to discovering the best way to provide the help they need in the situation.

Because I am a Christian, I believe that the Holy Spirit will guide me in the situation, if I will listen.  As a pastor, I am called in to many difficult situations and I have learned over the years that I need to listen carefully to the people involved and to the Holy Spirit.  My listening to those two sources is greatly enhanced if I keep my mouth shut.  I used to joke with counselling students that when the mouth opens, the ears and mind are automatically shut off.  I am aware that that isn’t really true, but for many of us, that is practically true.

Rather than spend my time trying to remove the suffering with magic words, I have discovered that I need to let the suffering exist and listen to it and step into it, letting the people I am with off-load a bit of their burden on me for the time I am with them.  My presence is the biggest help I can give them–or rather, my actively listening presence is the biggest help I can give them.  As they talk and cry and rage and sputter and wonder and all the rest, I am trying to be there–not looking for some magic words to turn off the tap of their suffering but letting the suffering come out, encouraging it with my listening and my acceptance.

They may ask for reasons–but I have none.  They may ask for time to turn back–I can’t do that.  They may get really angry–I can’t stop that.  They may cry–I might not feel comfortable with that.  But as they get to freely let it all out, I am actually helping.  I think it is much better to listen and help than speak empty words and not help.

May the peace of God be with you.

EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON

I was sitting with a family after a particularly terrible set of events that everyone was struggling with.  Neighbours and friends were dropping by, some to drop off food; some to sit and cry a bit; some to stand silently in the kitchen because they didn’t know what to say or do.  A few of the visitors did make a some halting comments, mostly expressing sorrow and offering whatever support was needed.  Before too long, the expected happened–or at least what I expected would happen at some point.

One of the visitors, seeking to bring some hope into the darkness of the situation, begins to talk and utters a comment that takes many forms but can be reduced to something like, “Everything happens for a reason”.   It almost inevitable that someone will say something like this at some point in the process.  There is no rhyme or reason as to who will say it or when it will be said.  It comes from religious and non-religious alike, male and female, young and old–the only thing predictable is that someone will say it at some point.

This comment and its various siblings is somehow supposed to put the whole process in a new perspective, making everyone feel better and lightening the darkness that has settled in because of whatever trauma or tragedy.  It will be greeted with thoughtful nods from some, confused silence from others and denial from me–always mentally and occasionally, in the right circumstances, a verbal denial.

This comment in all its related versions comes from a very structured and ordered view of life.  In Christian contexts, it is called “predestination”.  Philosophers prefer to discuss it under the name “determinism”.   Whatever the term, it points to a context where everything is planned and determined long before it happens, either by God or some scientific view of causation.

And in some ways, the comment and its cognates is right–everything does have a reason behind it.  Some reasons are clear and direct–if I eat everything I want to eat and don’t exercise, I will gain weight.  Some reasons are unclear and indirect–if I end up getting cancer, there is a scientific reason but I may or may not ever discover the reason.

But often, when this comment is made, it presupposes that the reasons behind things are benevolent and positive and that understanding this can help us overcome the pain and difficulty of the situation by first of all remembering that there is a reason and then looking for the benevolent reason behind the events that will somehow enable us to understand and accept and move on.

Well, I have enough scientific understanding to accept the statement on some levels.  Everything that happens does have a reason.  But often, those reasons are neither benevolent nor malevolent, they just are.  The rules and regulations of nature simply exist and operate without judgement or long term meaning and purpose.

And that means that when stuff happens, the reasons are often impersonal, indifferent and even irrelevant to the way we deal with stuff.  When a family is mourning the loss of a member in a car accident, knowing that inflexible rules of nature meant that driving too fast on slippery roads after too much drinking made a crash almost inevitable doesn’t bring much comfort.  In fact, it can cause more hurt and pain as the impersonal nature of the actual reasons permeates the situation.

Certainly, many people in tragic situations are looking for reasons and purpose and meaning that can help them deal with whatever they are facing.  Unfortunately, reason and purpose and meaning that actually help often can’t be found.  Life can be really impersonal and tragedy really doesn’t come with a reasonable explanation that makes it all better.  There probably is a “why” when looking at life’s stuff but knowing the why probably doesn’t do what the people who love to comment on everything having a reason want it to do.

At best, it is a neutral statement that simply says something that is both obvious and somewhat worthless to say–and at its worst, it seeks to cause people to hide their real feelings and pretend that there is a reasonableness to tragedy that really doesn’t exist.  It is one of those statements that people would like to think is profound but which in the end doesn’t really do much for anyone.  There are things to say and do in tragedy that actually help–but pointing out that there are reasons for it really don’t help.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE SECOND MILE–THE THIRD TIME

I seem to be stuck on the issue of helping this week.  That is probably because I am a helper and a helper to helpers.  It is also probably partly because I have seen and experienced some very poor examples of helping in my life.  As a pastor, I spend more time than most involved in the painful situations of life and have therefore had ample opportunity to see the best and the worst of helping and helpers.

I am also in a position to hear many comments about helpers from the people on the receiving end of the help–and the truth is that many helpers aren’t really very helpful.  In fact, they are often a cause of problem and difficulty for the people dealing with whatever they are dealing with.

I remember officiating at a wedding one time.  I was asked to do the wedding because the couple had family connections with people in the church I was pastoring at the time.  The couple didn’t have a church connection of any kind and by default, I was asked to do the wedding.  The family members were excited about the wedding, pleased that it was to be in the sanctuary they worshipped in on occasion and thrilled to be actively involved in the planning of the event.

At the end of the service, I breathed a sigh of relief and was secretly praying that there would not be another wedding in that family, at least until after I was called to another church far enough away that I would not be the default option for the service.   The problem wasn’t the couple–they were easy to work with and we developed a good relationship.  However, the family members in the church were significantly over-functioning in the process.

It was hard to schedule pre-marital sessions with the couple because the family members felt they should be involved–they has insights and ideas that would be helpful in the process.  The rehearsal was somewhat difficult with the family members telling everyone who was to be where, when they were to be there and what they were to do. Given the fact that they didn’t always know what they were talking about, that created some tension, as did the fact that I often specifically asked the prospective bride and groom about their preference, bypassing the family members.

At the wedding itself, I realized just how frustrating the help was when the family members tried to take over the signing process, grabbing for the various papers that needed to be signed before I could systematically point out to each signer what they were to sign.  After the ceremony and reception were over, the family members were so excited about how much they had been able to help in the process.

As for the couple–well, they were less impressed with the help and thanked me for dealing with the “help” and for giving them some control of their own process.  Me–well, I was glad the thing was over and that no wars broke out over the help being provided.  I also decided that I would definitely not be recommending them as wedding planners, at least not for weddings I was involved in.

I also realized again that we all need to think more carefully about how–and why–we are helping people.  The help we think we are providing may well be something we are doing to meet our own personal internal needs, needs that we may not understand or perceive.  But in meeting that need, we end up walking all over other people and in the process, complicating whatever process we think we are helping.

To really help people, we need to understand our motives and internal emotional drivers.  We are helpers for a variety of reasons, some of which are due to our own internal needs.  But we need to keep those needs in balance–when our needs become more important in the helping process, we have actually stopped helping and likely become a hindrance in whatever is going on.

Helpers are a vital part of life–all of us need help at some point.  But good helpers have learned how to respect the freedom of those being helped following the pattern set before us by God, who offers us all the help we need but respects our right to accept or reject the help.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE SECOND MILE AGAIN

                        When I used to have an actual office, I frequently had people show up asking for something. Sometimes, it was fairly innocuous stuff:  someone wanting me to perform a wedding or borrow a hymn book or a get a photocopy made or needing some money for groceries.  Those were easy to deal with:  the wedding is fine as long as I am not on vacation; help yourself to the hymnbook; pass on the key to the photocopy room; make sure the person meets the church criteria for groceries.

But some requests were of a different nature.  Someone would come in or call and tell me about a third person who needed counselling desperately and would I see the person, preferable right now and with no previous contact.  The person making the request was trying to help–their friend was obviously in trouble and they were trying to help out by making arrangements for them to see me.

Often, the petitioner was surprised and even upset by my response.  I would tell the person that I would see the person–as long that the individual in question personally contacted me and made arrangements.  I would be treated to a recap of how serious the person’s problems were, of how they really needed to see someone now, of how this was the best way of getting them the help they needed.  Occasionally, there would be some anger and accusations that I wasn’t doing my job.  I would listen, tell the person I would be glad to see the person as long as they would make contact with me themselves.

This wasn’t just a ploy to avoid work.  I have lots of those and don’t really need more of them.  This was an attempt to make sure that the person in question wasn’t being railroaded into seeing me or didn’t need or want help.  Too many “helpers” end up trying to put both me and the person they think needs help in a very awkward position.  I decided a long time ago that it is much better to seek permission before stepping in to help someone.  So, while I am generally willing to see people and provide counselling, I want their permission first and that can only come from the individual, not from their concerned friends.

I sometimes run into people who obviously need to listening ear or a shoulder to cry on–I am, after all, a pastor and tend to spend a lot of time in situations where people are struggling.  And while I have been trained as a counsellor and find that counselling techniques come in very handy in my pastoral work, I don’t provide counselling without permission.  I can and do offer counselling to people but I never expect an immediate answer and I don’t counsel covertly.

There are occasions when I need to break this rule.  The day someone passed out in the worship service, I didn’t bother asking their permission before I ran to the office to call an ambulance.  When a parishioner suffers a loss or celebrates a milestone, I don’t ask permission before connecting with them–although I will call them first to see if it is a good time to see them so maybe I am actually asking permission more often than I realize.

I think it is important to have respect for the freedom that God has given us all–and that respect includes respecting an individual’s freedom not to get the help we think they need.  As I read the stories of Jesus’ encounters with people, he seems to have approached everyone with this kind of respect.  Rather than just broadcast help, he entered into a relationship with people and sought their permission before helping them.  In fact, he clearly asks one disabled person, “Do you want to get well?” (John 5.5, NIV). This, I think, becomes the pattern for the way we help others.  As long as they are conscious and able to make decisions, we get permission before we help.  To do otherwise it to reduce the other person to a less than human status.  We might see it as just helping out someone who clearly needs help but if we trample their freedom in the process, our help becomes a hindrance to them and  them and their continued development as beings created in God’s image.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE SECOND MILE

I am a somewhat independent individual who both likes and wants to take care of myself.  I generally don’t want help doing what I plan on doing–my plans generally include a way of doing by myself what I could sometimes use help with.  Now, I am not a complete independent–I do have a sense of my limits and am open to and even willing to seek help beyond those limits.  But I am reluctant to seek help inside my limits–and not always really appreciative of help that is offered within those limits.

Years ago, we bought a new car.  Because of the financial realities of that point in time, it was a stripped down economy model with no bells and whistles.  It didn’t even have a radio, which was an expensive (at the time for us) option.  We bought the model without the radio, but I had a plan that would allow us to save some money and install a cheaper radio with a tape deck sometime in the next year or so, depending on how many honoraria I got for weddings and funerals.

Shortly after getting the car, we had a visit from some friends.  As the guy looked over the car, he noted the lack of a radio.  I explained the choice and the plan for a radio.  The next day, he showed up again, with a  radio/tape player, speakers and antenna.  While I thanked him and installed the radio and used both it and the tape deck regularly, inside I was not as thankful as I looked.

I didn’t need his help.  I had a plan and I was content with the stripped down car until we completed the plan.  You might accuse me of being ungrateful and too independent and too stubborn and all that–and it might be true.  But at the same time, I think that incident did help me understand some of the dynamics associated with helping others a bit better.

As Christians, we are supposed to help others.  We are even supposed to go out of our way to help others–the title of this post comes from a comment Jesus made about helping in 5.40-42:  “And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.  If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.  Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (NIV).  I expect my friend with the radio would have referred to this verse or something similar if I had actually told him what I was feeling about his gift.

Going the second mile is great–unless of course the other person needs–or wants–to go the second mile themselves.  It isn’t helping when the process takes away something from the person being helped or purportedly being helped.  When an individual’s freedom and choice is taken away, there is no help.  The process can be called many things at that point:  meddling, over-functioning, controlling to name a few.  It can also be coercive and even bullying.  But it just isn’t help nor it is going the second mile as Jesus envisioned it.

The process of providing help is more complicated than many realize or what to realize.  A decision to help out sometimes needs to be the end result on a process that involves a consideration of what is best for the individuals involved; what will help all people grow and develop; what will avoid creating dependency and resentment and what best shows the love of God to all involved.

As a pastor and a counsellor, I often find myself going the second mile, giving more than can be expected.  But at other times, I actually refuse to go the first mile–and not just because my bad knees prevent it.  I don’t give the help because the healthiest response on my part it to enable the individual to do what needs to be done themselves.  Sometimes, my help is best offered in a way that enables the other person to grow and develop and do something for themselves.

I know that I am sometimes too independent for my own good.  But if I am not allowed to do for myself what I can and need to do for myself, the help being given makes me less of what I can be, something that in the end seems to defeat the purpose of helping in the first place.

May the peace of God be with you.