THE EXPERIMENT

I did something recently that I haven’t done too often in my preaching career. I used the same sermon in three different congregations. Normally, I try to match the sermon to the needs of the congregation, something which requires different approaches even with the same Scriptures and themes.

But recently, well, using one sermon is three different places just sort of evolved. The sermon began as part of a preaching plan for the year round pastorate that I serve. But since the other pastorate has closed down for three months, I have been doing some fill in preaching for another local congregation. Rather than put together a whole new sermon, I wrote the original sermon with them in mind as well as the regular congregation.

And then, after getting back from vacation and picking up all the pieces and getting back into things, I realized it was also the week to prepare for the monthly worship service we have at the pastorate that has closed for the winter. When we made this plan last November, I had visions of preparing a special message that would fit there and help us celebrate being back together after several weeks.

But the time just wasn’t there—nor was the energy or creatively necessary to pull things together. I expect that playing with grandchildren may have depleted my creativity storehouse, although a sleepless night on the flight back home probably didn’t help. Given the situation, the special sermon became the already written sermon. I felt a bit guilty, but not guilty enough to force myself to write a whole new sermon.

There were certainly some minor differences in the delivered sermons. In one congregation, I was more tied to the manuscript because one of the worshippers is quite deaf and follows the sermon with the aid of a printed copy of the sermon so I can’t ad lib as much as I might like. In the other two, I could wander a bit. But in the end, all three congregations got the same basic message, with the same illustrations and even the same hand gestures.

Because my mind generally works in a structured and questioning way, I began to look at this as an experiment: I was going to see how one sermon played out in three different congregations. I would look for differences in response—how well people listened, what they said, how many slept and so on. Mind you, the experiment would be quite limited in scope since the process of leading worship and preaching takes most of my energy and focus. Couple that with the fact that data recording isn’t really possible in that context and I had a very unscientific experiment. If it had been offered as a project in one of the classes I have taught on research methodology, I would have rejected it.

But over the course of two Sundays, I preached basically the same sermon three times. My biased and unscientific observation is that it went over fairly well. People seemed to respond to the basic theme; they responded well to the humour I used to drive the point home and a significant portion of each congregation made positive comments about the message.

It probably helped that all three congregations have a lot in common coming out of the fact that they are all small, struggling congregations wondering about their future. My sermon writing mind was probably thinking about all three on some levels when I was writing the message. And the theme touched on an issue that is pretty common to most Christian congregations and which has been an issue for all three at some point in their recent history.

I think, though, that in the end, the sermon worked not because of my unconscious mind pulling all three congregations together; not because I had great illustrations; not because I am such a great orator—in the end, the sermon worked in all three places because I did my best in the circumstances and the Holy Spirit did the rest.

I have discovered that this is an important faith reality: I am responsible before God for doing the best I can in any given situation. But in the end, the results are the work of the Holy Spirit, who can and does take both my best and my worst and accomplish God’s will. It is better for all though, when I give God my best than when I give him less than my best.

May the peace of God be with you.

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WOODWORKING

I like working with wood. I am not very good at it and I sometimes lack the patience that it requires but I do like taking a piece of wood and playing with it—measuring, cutting, sanding, joining and all the rest. There is something relaxing about the process and also very gratifying if I manage to produce more than sawdust and scrap wood. As far back as I can remember, working with wood has been something that I have enjoyed. As a kid, I remember using scrap pieces of ¼ inch plywood to make a toy airplane and even remember having a discussion with the guy at the hardware store about what nails were best for joining the pieces of plywood together.

Whenever we move, one of the basic steps in the settling in process is to develop a work area where my tools can be set out and organized. When we have gone to Kenya to work, I have always carried some tools with me and bought others there so that I could continue playing with wood. Generally, when we leave, some local craftsman benefits from an upgrade to his tool kit because I can’t bring back everything I bought there.

My tinkering with wood does have some benefits for my ministry. I have lots of stories of mistakes and poor execution to liven up an otherwise dull sermon. Now and then, I can talk tools and projects with someone who might not otherwise talk to a minister. Sometimes, my limited skills come in handy for a church work day.

But overall, my enjoyment of woodworking doesn’t have much connection with my ministry. I suppose I could force it and draw comparisons based on Jesus’ carpentry background but I don’t want to do that. And more importantly, I don’t need to do that. Woodworking is one part of who I am and doesn’t have to fit perfectly with everything else. We human beings are a collection of bits and pieces that taken together make us who we are.

But the bits and pieces don’t have to fit together seamlessly and perfectly. Some of them simply don’t fit together all that well, in fact. I might get the occasional sermon illustration from my poor woodworking skills and now and then be able to pound nails at the church building as part of a work day but mostly the connection between my ministry and my woodworking is that the woodworking needs to exist in the cracks and spaces left over from ministry.

Rather than we human beings existing as a unified and complete finished project, we are more like the pile of boards and tools that clutter my woodworking area in the basement. The stuff there is all valuable and important but a lot of it doesn’t really fit together. I am not going to go through the pile and get rid of stuff that doesn’t fit together, though, because all of it as a use, even if that use is more potential and theoretical that practical right now.

The short piece of scrap wood that I tossed on the pile months ago may not look like much but it just might have a use at some point—it may prop up an uneven piece of furniture; in might become a wedge for my gluing clamps; it might become kindling for a fire—but it will have a use, somewhere, somehow.

And without sounding too much like a preacher, all the bits and pieces of my life have a use somewhere, either in practise or in theory. The skills and knowledge and characteristics that make me me belong and have a place, even if it is hard to see how they fit. Truthfully, they may not actually all fit well together. My love and appreciation of science sometimes gets me in trouble with less scientifically inclined members of the faith. My love of woodworking doesn’t much help me in the pulpit—and can even be a distraction at times if I happen to look too closely at the fit and finish of the pulpit and lost track of where I am in the sermon because I am wondering how they did that particular joint or how I could improve the pulpit.

The various parts of me make up who I am—it is a package that is changing and developing but which God has declared loveable and important—and who am I to argue with God?

May the peace of God be with you.

FREE TIME

One of the pastorates I serve shuts down for the worst of the winter. From January to March, I have a block of free time that would have been used to work for that church but which I can use for whatever I want. Again this year, I made the same mistaken assumptions about that free time. Along about September, I began to fantasize about all the free time I would have during those three months.

There were lots of things I could do. There is the ever growing list of ebooks I have acquired that are begging to be read. Statistically, there is a good change that I will get out cross country skiing a couple of times. My drone might get taken off the window ledge and spend some time in the air. And, just to make sure that I make effective use of the free time, we decided that we need a cabinet and shelf combination to match the buffet and hutch I made a few years ago.

The months between September and January passed, with more and more bits and pieces being added to the free time list. There were other things coming up as well. We realized that we need to take some vacation during that time period, partly to finish up the vacation time we didn’t take last year. Then there was the call from the neighbouring pastorate about my filling in some Sundays during my break like I have done for the past couple of years. There was the request to mentor a student from our seminary. None of these was a problem—I would have lots of time.

Except that I am not real good at actually seeing how all this fits together. I spend lots of time visualizing how I was going to fit the fun extra stuff into the time off: woodworking in the mornings, unless it was really stormy (I have to use my saws outside); skiing when the driveway is cleared; reading in the afternoon (after the refreshing nap) and maybe even a coffee visit or two with some friends.

Well, it is now almost the end of January and the free time isn’t as free as I thought. There seems to be a temporal conspiracy at work that sees free time for fun stuff as some sort of oddity that needs to be filled with other stuff. The fill in preaching takes more time that I allowed. It also comes with requests for funerals, which are pretty much impossible to say no to. The vacation was great but required extra time before and after to get ready for and pick up after for the churches I am continuing to serve throughout the winter. Meeting with the ministry student takes a block of time that I could be reading or skiing or napping. The unexpected need to buy and set up the new laptop ate up a bunch of time.

I did get some of the reading done—my earphones and the airplane sound system didn’t work together all that well so I got lots of reading done on the plane trip. But the woodworking—well, I finally got started this week and realize that there is absolutely no way I am going to be finished by the end of March.

Fortunately, this is only mildly frustrating mostly because on most levels of my planning and thinking, I knew that this block of free time wasn’t going to be all that free. I enjoyed the planning process but actually knew that there wouldn’t be as much time as I would like or anticipate. Based on past experience, I am aware that free time functions like a vacuum and sucks in all sorts of unexpected and unanticipated bits and pieces that end up having priority over the really fun stuff.

My response is not to get frustrated and bent out of shape. Rather, I have learned to be flexible. Some of the demands on the free time can’t be avoided—funerals, for example, are hard to put off. But at the same time, I can and do find ways to get into the wood work. If we get some snow that actually stays on the ground, I will go skiing. I squeeze in the reading as I can—and it is ridiculously easy to find time and place for a nap. I will make use of the free time, even if it isn’t as free as I anticipated in September.

May the peace of God be with you

WHERE IS GRACE?

I have been cleaning up my reading backlog recently. I find that Igo through spells where serious reading is hard work—well, actually, it is more truthful to say that at times, serious reading becomes a prelude to a nap. Anyway, I have been able to get a lot of reading done recently, probably because I won’t let myself use the Christmas book gift certificates until I clean up the reading list.

A couple of the books that I have recently finished have caused me some problems. One dealt with the nature of the relationship between believers and God and carried on from there to look at how this relationship needs to affect our relationship with other believers. The second book dealt with God’s call to believers to go into the world with the message of the Gospel. I picked up both books through an email service that offers discounted and even free Christian books. These two were free and dealt with topics that I am deeply interested in. But in both cases, I was disappointed.

Both approached their topics from a very legalistic and duty oriented perspective. The one on relationships dealt both our relationship with God and our relationships with each other by turning it into a contract—he tried to set out a set of rules and requirements that we needed to obey for the relationship to be valid. As I understood the book, the author seemed to be saying that if we obeyed the terms of the contract, all was well and if we didn’t, well, there really wasn’t a relationship.

The other book looked at the Great Commission and strongly suggested that unless we approached the great commission in exactly the way he set out, using his formulas and checklists, we were not actually doing what we were supposed to be doing. His rules made the commission real and anything else was a fake and a falsification of the Gospel and the commission.

Both writers had some valid points—but overall, I was troubled by both books because in the end, it seemed that they were trying to deal with important aspects of the faith without including God. They were certainly concerned about the faith; they wanted people to know the truth about the faith; they had tremendous potential with their themes but in the end, neither really did all that much to advance the faith. They simply offered a few rigid and demanding rules that must be followed.

I was upset because in the end, we really can’t reduce God and the requirements of faith to a few rules. That has been tried endlessly since humanity first began to seek God. The essence of the New Testament is that God recognizes that we are unable to keep rules and so in grace, he acts through Jesus Christ to provide us a way to be in relationship with him in spite of our inability to keep the rules.

To discuss any aspect of the Christian faith without an adequate foundation of grace is to miss the point of our faith entirely. Certainly, grace doesn’t preclude the need to deal with our wrongs, sins and evils. Grace doesn’t remove the need to work at living up to the holiness that God has given us in Christ. Grace definitely doesn’t give us the freedom to do whatever we want because grace covers it.

But grace does deal realistically and powerfully with the deep underlying reality of human life: we are terrible at keeping rules. Every one of is going to break some rule at some point. And so any discussion of any aspect of the Christian faith that results is a rigid set of must follow rules is a failure. For believers, grace comes first—everything else is built on this foundation of the grace shown to us through Jesus Christ.

Any book, sermon, lecture, discussion or blog about the faith that isn’t grounded in the reality of grace probably misses the whole point of the Gospel, which at its base seeks to assure us that there is a better way than the futile and vain pursuit of legalistic attempts to bootstrap ourselves into the presence of God.

I appreciated what the writers were trying to say in their books—but because they somehow missed the role of grace, their books really didn’t accomplish what they thought they were doing, which is unfortunate because they were addressing important themes.

May the peace of God be with you.

GRANDCHILDREN, SNOWSTORMS, COMPUTERS

Since my last post here, (Jan. 8/18), the focus of my days has been on something other than work or writing. We have had a lot of snow here in Nova Scotia since Christmas. Clearing the part of the driveway the snow plow guy doesn’t do, the walkways and the deck began to seem like a full-time job. Because of our geography, we get a lot of water effect flurries, which tend to be light and fluffy and beautiful coming down but which accumulate and need to be cleared. While I like snow and actually don’t mind shovelling snow, it was getting a bit much.

I as actually glad that we were going on vacation to lower mainland BC, where snow and shovelling are the stuff of nightmares for the people living there. The attraction of lower mainland BC isn’t the lack of snow, however—if I really want to escape snow, I would prefer my destination to be somewhere sunny and drier than BC in the winter time. The real attraction is our sons and their families. Our vacation was short but involved spending lots of time with our grandchildren.

I took my tablet, fully intending to find some time to do some writing, maybe even figure out how to post blogs using the tablet. I am certain that it is easy to do and before leaving, I was sure that I would use my vacation time to figure it all out. As you might have guessed, time with family was much more tempting and the time I was sure I could use for writing disappeared, replaced by time to talk and play—and as well the essential time needed to rest after playing with highly mobile and active grandchildren.

And then of course, there was the computer. My laptop decided that it didn’t really want a seventh year of work and so the hard drive began shutting down—giving in to the electronic version of dementia. After a consultation with the repair shop, I decided that the best solution was a replacement—but the replacement would have to wait until after vacation.

I salvaged the partially finished sermon from the laptop and finished it on the tablet. The tablet and our ancient backup computer kept me going until vacation but once we got back, it was time to find a replacement. Buying a computer wasn’t a big deal. Less than 15 minutes after I got to the store, I walked out with my new laptop—and about 5 minutes of that time was spend looking at the clearance tables. I knew what I wanted and it was just a matter of walking down the computer aisle, balancing tech specifications with price.

The annoying part was the set up after getting home. All the files, programs and assorted bits and pieces that I needed from the old computer needed to be transferred to the new one. I keep good backups so the data wasn’t a problem but finding and installing all the other stuff was time consuming and still isn’t done—I keep thinking of things that I need to track down and install.

All this means that my focus has been elsewhere for the past couple of weeks, which has been a good thing. Pastoral ministry is demanding and stressful and the effects seem to affect me more and more these days. I am tired a lot and don’t always sleep as well as I should. I try to practise good stress management techniques and all that but I think the cumulative effects of 40 years or so of ministry aren’t all that easy to shake off. So it may be that in the long run, snowstorm, grandchildren and computers just might be a more effective part of my stress management process than I realize. Not having to think about sermons and Bible Studies and visits for a while was important.

I am now back a work, the new computer is functional, I miss our family and there is no real serious snow in the forecast. I enjoyed the break and more importantly, I came back ready to get back to the ministry I have been called to do.

May the peace of God be with you.

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.

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.