WHO’S TALKING TO WHO?

We had a serious technical glitch develop before worship the other day.  Our choir often sings with accompaniment supplied by a CD played over a portable CD player, a process that works for us and our context.  But yesterday, the choir director brought everything needed for the music except the actual CD, which put our special music at risk.

Because I am something of a techie, I got involved.  Since we had copied the CD to have a working copy while the original remained safe, I just happened to have a copy of the CD on my phone.  I began working to find a way to connect the phone to the CD player but the phone is too new and the CD player too old for them to be able to talk to each other.  Eventually, we decided to put the mic from the PA system next to the phone speaker and work that way, a process that worked.  We had our special music.

However, getting that going took 15 minutes or so and that meant that when I finally had things connected and knew how to make them work, it was within a few minutes of time to start.  I looked around the sanctuary and realized that most people were already present and I hadn’t had a chance to talk to many of them.  They were all engaged in their conversations with each other, some settled in their seats and others having conversations before they headed to their seats.

In the few minutes I had before it was time to start, I managed to get around and at least greet each person there–but I felt rushed and unsettled and extra stressed as I began the worship.  I think the extra stress was partly because of the technical glitch that turned me into the choir accompanist for that service.  But I also think more of the extra stress was the result of not having sufficient contact with the people gathering for worship before we began.  I didn’t really have a sense of the gathering, who was experiencing what and what space they were in–it felt like I was blind and deaf, stepping into an unknown situation.

Well, that is something of an overstatement–but I was very much aware of the lack of a real sense of the congregation when I began worship. Fortunately, we are informal and flexible in worship and by time we reached the offering, I was getting into the worship process and once the choir had sung and I was off the hook for providing the music, I was pretty much back on track–and once the worship finished, I had a chance to talk and connect with the congregation.

People never rush out of our sanctuary after worship.  We talk to each other, a lot.  We don’t need to institute the process of greeting each other during the worship because it is already a part of our worship process–we talk to each other before and after the worship (and more than  occasionally during the worship).

This is part of being the church.  We worship as a community of people who are in relationship with each other, not as a group of unrelated individuals who come together because it is the most efficient way for the preacher to get the message across.  We are a community and before we can effectively worship, we have to be aware of the community.  After we worship, we need to take our leave of the community.  And even during the worship, we need to recognize the community.

From my perspective, the level of conversation before and after worship is directly proportional to the health of the congregation.  The more people who talk and the more people they talk to, the healthier the congregation and the more we are together helping each other worship and grow in faith.  And the reality includes me as the pastor and preacher.  I can’t be as effective leading worship and preaching if I don’t establish my connection with the congregation before and after we worship.

The technical glitch yesterday reminded me of that reality. And while I love solving technical glitches, I prefer them to happen at times when they don’t interfere with my time  to connect with the people I am worshipping with.  The church worships best when it worships as a community which has taken the time to be a community.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE FAMILY OF GOD

In my early 30s, I was a full time pastor.  My wife and I had three small children and with both of us working, we found life somewhat hectic.  In the midst of that busy and demanding time, I decided that it would be a great time to go back to study so I enrolled in a Doctor of Ministry program.  This was a non-resident program but did require regular trips to the seminary in the States.  Somehow, things worked out and in fact we must have worked them out really well because my wife decided to enroll in a similar program at a different seminary before I had finished.

Anyway, I had to find a topic for my doctoral project-thesis and decided the work on something that even then was occupying my thoughts–the nature of the church.  I decided that I would take one New Testament image of the church and find ways to help local congregations strengthen themselves using that image.  I ended up spending a lot of time and effort on image of the church as the family of God.

As I think about it now, that thesis project did help the congregations come to a better understanding of who and what they were.  But on another level that I hadn’t given much thought to until now, the whole project would not have been possible without the church working as a family to support my decision to study.

The church accepted my decision, happily recommended me to the seminary for study (a requirement of the admission process), gave me study time each year in addition to my regular vacation time and willingly participated in all the activities that a Doctor of Ministry project-thesis required of the church.  Even more than that, church members and adherents volunteered to help out with things like child-care and a variety of other things that none of us has anticipated when I began the program.  When I received my degree after three and a half years, it was as much due to the support and care of the church as my efforts.

While I would like to say that my experience of a caring and supporting and enabling church is the norm, the best I can say is that this is the goal of the church.  The unfortunate  reality is that the church often falls short.  But rather than bash the church, I want to bring a slightly different approach to the lack of support from churches.

My sense is that in some cases, perhaps many cases, the reason the church doesn’t provide the support and care and concern that it is theoretically supposed to provide is because many people don’t want that support.  To acknowledge a need for help is to acknowledge a need–and our individualistic culture sees need as weak.  We want to stand on our own two feet–only wimps and losers need help.

And so the church sits there, often willing and able to provide the help that we need but since we won’t really acknowledge our need, we can’t receive the help that God has ordained for us through his chosen instrument, the church.

Over the years, I have found it very liberating and freeing to open myself to the church for the help that I need.  Whether it was help looking after the kids when both of were studying, asking for prayers from the church for my depression or availing myself of a Bible Study group’s willingness to help me work through some of the hurt associated with our last stint in Kenya, I have found churches a great help and support.

Now remember, I have been and am the pastor in all these situations.  Has it weakened my pastoral position to seek the help of the church?  No–in fact, I think allowing the church to care for me has enabled me to do better ministry.  Because the church knows I struggle with depression, it seems like people are more comfortable acknowledging their issues and seeking help from me or others.

I have learned that if I want to help the church, I need to model the behaviour that the church needs to develop.  If I open myself to their help, it enables the church people to open themselves to each other more and all of us discover something very important about ourselves, the church and the love of God.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT ABOUT THE CHURCH?

I am by nature a very independent person.  When that is coupled with my relatively strong introversion, you get a person like me, who doesn’t have a huge need for connecting with other people a whole lot.  Give me a book, my computer and the occasional piece of wood to turn into sawdust and I am generally content.  Now, I am not a complete social isolationist–I do interact with a lot of people on a regular basis.  I see lots of people in the course of my ministry, I have some friends with whom I meet for coffee on an irregular basis and even taking a walk in our small town often results in extended conversations with people I know.

But I am an independent and introverted individual.  And this means that I am somewhat reluctant to become part of a group of any kind.  I don’t join clubs; I don’t seek out social activities; I think hard before committing to parties and so on.  But there is one group that I have been part of for most of my life and have spend some serious time in the last few years thinking about.  I have been a member of the church since I became a believer in my early teens–and before that, I was a part of the church through Sunday School and other groups.

And one of the things I have been coming to see in the past few years is that God’s plan and vision for the church is much more significant and important than many independent, introverted people like me realize.  It seems to me that at least in the Western church, we have lost sight of the community nature of our faith that makes the church a vital part of God’s plan for believers and their spiritual development.  Our Western expressions of the Christian faith tend to focus on the relationship between the individual and God, leaving the church as a convenient organization to store hymnbooks or listen to sermons or something like that.

But the church is meant to be much more than a place for individuals to get input for their individual spiritual journey.  While I have known and taught this for years, I had a new view of is recently as I was reading something that took me to John 17, Jesus’ prayer after the Last Supper.  In the course of the prayer, we find Jesus praying these words in John 17.20-21a, “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” (NIV).

This is a prayer for those of us who are believers in Christ.  It is a prayer that we will be in relationship with each other–but it is a prayer for a very powerful and deep and special relationship, a relationship that is in its essence the same as the relationship between the Father and the Son.  Whatever we say and think about this, we have to deal with the fact that the nature of our relationship with other believers is meant to be much different than what we often have.

Now, although it isn’t directly referred to in this passage, the place where those relationships are developed and fostered must be the church–that is where we are placed in closest proximity with other believers.  It is where we will be with other believers the most.

When I say church, I am not thinking some building somewhere where we gather to listen to a sermon and sing some hymns.  The church is a gathering of people and exists when we come together conscious of our relationship with God and each other through Jesus.  We could be together in a traditional building using a traditional liturgy to guide our worship or we could be two or three friends sitting in a coffee shop somewhere–what makes us the church is our shared commitment to God through Jesus Christ.

And as the church, we have mutual responsibilities and privileges that are meant to help us grow together in the faith that we claim.  Our unity in Christ is meant to involve us with other believers in ways and in depths that most of us never anticipated, which means that for many believers, the church is probably the most underutilized and  under-appreciated blessing that God has given to his people.

In the next few posts, I plan on exploring the role of the church in our individualistic culture.

May the peace of God be with you.

ITS MONDAY AGAIN–AGAIN

            One of the two pastorates I serve has closed down for the winter.  The high cost of heating old, uninsulated buildings coupled with the difficulties getting around that plague our senior orientated congregation have led them to take a three month shut down each winter.  This winter, we are making a slight variation–one of the community halls stays open all winter and we have made arrangements with them to hold a worship service there once a month.

So, my work week has been reduced from 80% to 40%, sort of.  I am filling in on Sundays for another congregation nearby but that is supposed to be preaching on Sunday and I am using a slightly modified version of the sermon from my other pastorate so that really only takes a bit of extra time each week.

In preparation for this break, I did some planning.  I know myself and knew that is I didn’t have anything in mind, I would spent way too much time sitting in a chair reading and watching Youtube videos.  So, I have the parts and the wood for a tide clock, I have a couple of chairs that need to be sanded and varnished, an intricate metal R2D2 model that I got for Christmas and a backing for newsprint pads all sitting in the office and workshop in various stages of production.

Today is Monday again and you might expect that the big issue today is which project(s) to get at and how much time to give to each of them.   Our snow has disappeared and been replaced by a light skim that is way too inadequate for skiing so the day should focus on some of the projects.  But that isn’t going to happen.

I had a call from a couple I have worked with before who need some refresher sessions, starting this morning.  I am doing a funeral in the afternoon and this evening, I have to visit a family about another funeral coming later in the week.  Somewhere in there, I hope to find some time to unwind from yesterday, although the process of unwinding on a day when I have a funeral scheduled and a family to see about another funeral might be unrealistic in the first place.

Except for the counselling session, I didn’t have much choice about the way this Monday developed.  Well, actually, I do have control over the day–I am not being forced to do any of it.  But the choice is not a direct one.  While I was consulted on the time of the funeral, I long ago decided that unless I have an unbreakable appointment, I would go with the time requested by those needing the funeral.  The visit later, well, I could have scheduled that anytime but the longer the wait to meet about the service, the longer the family sits in limbo.

Sometimes, I forget that I do have a choice because of the fact that I don’t need to make choices immediately because I am acting on decisions that I made a long time ago.  And I am realizing that it is important to remember that I do have and have made a choice.  When my Monday off in the workshop or on the ski trail gets taken over by a variety of things, I do need to remember that in the end, I decided to do these things–my free time wasn’t stolen from me, I decided to give it up.

That is important for a couple of reasons.  First, it means that I can’t blame anyone else–I made the decisions.  Even if I didn’t make them right now, what I am doing is the consequence of decisions I made.  I remain accountable for my use of my time.

Secondly, remembering that I made the decision reminds me that I can make other decisions.  I am working today because I chose to–but I could chose not to work.  I would have to revisit some other decisions but I have the freedom to do that.  I will choose to do some things differently this week because of the decisions to work today–I may or may not end up in the workshop this week but in the end, that will be my choice, not the result of things beyond my control.  I am still accountable for what I do with my time.

May the peace of God be with you.

OZYMANDIAS

As I mentioned in the last post, poetry and I don’t have a strong and intimate relationship.  And so it was a bit of a surprise to me to remember and think about the poem that provided the basis for the last post.  It was an even greater surprise to me that as I was writing the post, another poem from long ago popped into my mind.  And I even knew where to find this one–it is in one of the few university textbooks I have left.

Shelley’s poem Ozymandias describes a traveller who finds a ruined statue in a desert with these words written on its base:  “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings.  Look at my works, ye Mighty and despair!”. The poem ends with a description of the barren desert stretching as far as the eye can see.  For a variety of reasons, that poem has also stuck in my mind and keeps coming back at various times–enough so that I can always find it in the book when I want to.

I think the reason it keeps coming back because God knows that I need the injection of realism the poem brings.  In the end, no matter what I or someone else builds, things will change and I will be a long forgotten curiosity.  The obvious application is not to take myself and my work too seriously.  My work in churches is important–but once I leave the church, I become the former pastor and what I did may or may not have lasting effects.  I have to let God be in control–I am reminded that I am seeking to do his will and work and build his church, not a monument to myself.

One of my Ozymandias moments came one day when I member of a church I pastored years ago met me in a store and struggled to remember my name and when I was at the church.  This was one of the significant leaders of the church when I was there.  Since she wasn’t struggling with any form or dementia, it did remind me that I do what I do not to be remembered but to follow God–or at least, I am supposed to do that.

While that application of the Ozymandias principle is important and humbling and therefore somewhat painful at times, there is another application that I find more helpful.  Over the years, I have been hurt more than I care to admit by church members and leaders.  It seems like my personality and approach to ministry put me in positions where I am on the losing side of issues with other leaders.  Without going into details, at several point in my ministry, I have ended up battered and bruised, depressed and even unemployed as a result of such events while the others have continued on in the ministry I loved and lost.

Ozymandias helps here–God has a way of using effective tools in a variety of ways.  The pain and difficulty and the loss take on a new perspective when seen through the lens of the crashed statue and grandiose inscription.  Both I and the person(s) I had issues with are Ozymandias.  No matter what we build and what battles we win, eventually, things will change and we will become curiosities and our battles will be covered with the desert of time.

This, by the way, is not meant to be a cynical and depressing post.  I actually find this a freeing thought.  Ultimately, Ozymandias teaches me that God lasts and what I do is temporary.  God’s plans and directions will never crumble and they don’t depend on me.  The plans and schemes of those I disagree with are also not the same as God’s plans and they too will pass.

In the end, I think God uses Ozymandias to remind me of what is really important.  The poem helps me remember the advice of Jesus from Matthew 6.33, where he tells us to “…seek first his kingdom and his righteousness..”  In seeking his kingdom, I need to remember that I am helping God accomplish his goal and that it isn’t about me.  God will work through me on my good days and around me on my bad days and in the end, I hope that the glory will be his.

May the peace of God be with you.

MENDING WALL

The title of this post comes from a poem I remember from my school days.  The fact that I remembered it is significant because poetry tends not to stick with me for some reason.  In the poem, two neighbours are getting together to repair the rock wall between their farm fields.  The younger wonders why they bother since they get along well and know where the boundaries are and won’t have problems over the lines.  The older neighbour justifies the work by telling his friend, “Good fences make good neighbours”.

Skip ahead to the present day.  I am a pastor, a teacher and an occasional pastoral counsellor.  In my professional life, I have discovered that this poem learned long ago is actually a powerful statement of good inter-personal relationships.  I don’t remember who wrote the poem but whoever it was must have been something of a psychologist to recognize an important reality about relationships.  Of course, we don’t really talk about fences when we talk about the way we relate to people–but we do talk a lot about boundaries and an important truism about relationships is that good boundaries make good neighbours.

Unfortunately, there are a great many of us who have very poor boundaries.  Instead of having a clear understanding of where we end and another person begins, we are often caught in a confused and confusing tangle of over and under functioning caused by weak or non-existent personal boundaries.

I see this a lot in my professional life.  Some pastors seem to feel that every issue another person faces is their responsibility–their boundaries are so wide that the whole world is included.  So, if someone has a problem, that pastor feels they have to be intimately involved–and the more serious the problem, the more involved they need to be.  And given that most pastors have more than one person in their congregation, this over-functioning quickly takes up all their time and energy.

Some people turn their lack of boundaries into a virtue, seeing themselves as angels of mercy being used by God to help everyone make all things right.  They have answers, advice, money, used clothing, job offers–anything they can think of to help the need, they can and will find and supply.

But somehow, the individual they are seeking to help gets lost.  The individual’s personality and individuality and freedom disappear as the ever expanding boundaries of the helper encounter and dissolve and walls or fences the person had.  The helper becomes supreme, so much so that often, the helper succeeds in creating a dependency because the other person has given up trying to maintain their own boundaries.

Good boundaries are important in our relationships.  I need to know where I end and the other person begins.  I need to understand what is my responsibility and what is the other person’s responsibility.  I need to be aware that while I can intervene in the life of another person, I need to have permission to intervene–my desire isn’t enough.

But before I can have good boundaries, I need to have a good sense of myself.  I have to be willing to look at where my boundaries should be.  Just because I can help someone manage their life better than they are doesn’t give me the right to do that.  I need to remember that God himself has good boundaries when it comes to me.  Even though he has the right to over-ride my boundaries, he chooses to let me make all the stupid mistakes I choose to make.  He gracefully and lovingly offers me help and guidance and direction and all the rest but if I decide to do something really dumb, he lets me and then offers me forgiveness and help and everything I need yet again.

God has called me to a profession that involves me in the process of helping people.  But he has not given me the right to trample all over people, doing what is best for them in spite of them.  I am called to work like God works–lovingly and gracefully and respecting their boundaries and freedom. Like God, I need to know where I stop and the other person begins.  Good boundaries make good neighbours.

May the peace of God be with you.

ITS MONDAY AGAIN

Monday mornings can be hard for some of us in ministry.  Traditionally, Monday was the pastor’s day off (listen carefully and you can hear the snickers in the background).  Leading worship, preaching and connecting with people is demanding and therefore Sundays take a lot of energy from clergy, especially those of us who are introverts.  And many of us are introverts–I read a study a while ago that suggested that the percentage of introverts in ministry is higher than the percentage of introverts in the general population.

So that means that many of us in ministry wake up on Monday morning with the equivalent of a hangover–we are tired, perhaps a bit irritable, not totally sure why we should get out of bed and wishing we had won the lottery and could retire.  Taking the day of seems like a good idea, which is why all the ministry books suggest Monday as a day off.

But it doesn’t often happen, at least not completely.  There is always something to do–ministry is an occupation where things just never get finished.  When  we finish a sermon, there is another one needing to be done.  When we visit a parishioner, there are three more who need a visit.  When we finally figure out why the photocopier isn’t working, well, someone has to make sure there is coffee in the kitchen for the Bible Study group.  And sometimes, the only time to really get to those things in Monday.

The rational is simple–I will just do these few things and then I will go skiing or spend some time in the workshop.  But if I don’t do these other things today, then I have to find time to do them during the work week and that is full enough already.  Maybe I can take all of next Monday off if I get some things out of the way today.  And when I begin thinking that way, a Monday off becomes the Monday that never comes because no matter what I do this Monday, there will be something else next Monday.

We who are in ministry have some of the worst personal care habits of any occupation–or maybe not.  I don’t know too much about people in other occupations and their work/relaxation habits but I do know about clergy.  Some of us seem to function on the idea that we are pretty much indispensible.  If we are not working, the church, the Kingdom and the universe will fall apart.  It seems that some of us think that while God might have taken a day off to rest, we have to pick up the slack caused by his day of rest.

So, this is Monday.  I have no work planned today and actually hope to go skiing sometime today.  Well, I do have to send the chair of the deacons an email about the items I would like included in the agenda for our next meeting and maybe I should spend a little bit of time planning my work week so I can get a quick start tomorrow and there is that person in the hospital that I could drop in and see before I go skiing–well, you get the picture.

I have spent my ministry career trying to find the balance between the demands of ministry and the need for time for myself.  I have actually tried to teach others of the need to take time off.  And with all my teaching, writing and attempts, I generally have one foot on the wrong side of the burn-out line and keep going by assuring myself that I will take next Monday off completely.

Now, I have been getting better.  It helps that the combined total of my work week is 80%  but there is still that temptation to do just a bit more, take care of just a few things, to postpone the break until I get that important task done.  But I am working on making sure that down time is actually down time,  not just a sometime fantasy.

God was secure enough in himself and his creation that he could rest after six days of work, so maybe he can look after the universe if I take this Monday off.

May the peace of God be with you.