HOW CAN I HELP YOU?

            This is another preacher story–one of those stories we love to use in sermons but have to change enough details so that no one really recognizes the people involved.  In this story, I am on a mission–a parishioner has had an accident and has suffered some injury.  She slipped on some ice and ended up lying in the cold for a time because her injuries prevented her from getting up on her own. Since she, like most of my parishioners, is elderly, I figured that she would have lots of worries, anxieties and stuff resulting from the fall, lying in the cold for so long and the further limits on her life style because of her injuries.  Like a good pastor, I wanted to help her as much as I could.

As the visit progressed, I used all the pastoral care techniques and approaches to give her the opportunity to talk about anything coming out of the experience that was bothering her.  I anticipated fear, anger, anxiety, frustration, depression–all things that I has seen in similar situations over the years.  Instead of this long and expected list of issues, there was really only one thing that she wanted to talk about and needed help with.

She was required to rest and take it easy and so she and her friends had made her a nest in her living room, using her recliner as a base.  Everything she needed was close at hand:  her books, the TV remote, the radio, the portable phone.  Friends were dropping in the check on her, get her meals and just to chat.  She was feeling secure, comfortable and cared for, except for one real issue.

Something sharp was sticking into her ankle every time she moved in her chair.  None of her friends could figure out what it was for sure and even the ones who could find the sharp object didn’t have the tools to deal with it.  Her cozy nest was much less cozy and the sharp point was fast becoming a major irritant.  She asked me to take a look, just as she had been asking everyone who came in.

I quickly located the object and identified it as an upholstery staple that has come loose on one end.  She then asked if there was anything I could do about it.  With her permission, I pulled my multi-tool out of its pouch and pulled the offending staple out of the chair  The staple was tossed into the garbage can, the problem was solved and all the anticipated problems simply weren’t issues that day–and I checked carefully, using all the pastoral care stuff I have learned over the years.

There is a point to this story beyond the obvious one that all pastors should carry a multi-tool or Swiss army knife for such emergencies.  The point is that in the end, only this lady knew what her problem was and only she could identify it.  As a contentious and caring pastor, I visited with a long list of possible things I would run into, a list that was valid based on my experience and research–in many similar situations in the past, I had helped surface and deal with lots of those issues.

Having that mental list wasn’t a problem–it is sort of the mental equivalent of the multi-tool I happened to have with me that day.  Should the issue present itself, I was mentally prepared to help deal with it.  The problem would come in if and when I assumed that she must have some of the issues I was prepared for and kept looking for them, even trying to solve them for her before I even knew what the real problem was.

That particular day, the only thing she needed was someone with pliers and enough strength to pull out an upholstery staple.  All the other issues I anticipated were either non-issues for her or had been taken care of by others.  My visit as a pastor was appreciated as was the prayer I offered at the end of the visit–but the best pastoral work I did that day was use my multi-tool to pull out a staple.

As a pastor, I would prefer to pull a staple that is a real problem rather than waste her time and mine trying to fix problems that she doesn’t have and therefore doesn’t need help for.

May the peace of God be with you.

HE ISN’T LISTENING

If we pastors give people the opportunity to really talk about their faith and really listen to what they are saying, we will always discover some interesting things.  In  most settings, the discussion will eventually get to prayer and there will be some really powerful comments about prayer.  But at some point after the saints tell their prayer victory stories and the new believers tell their stories about learning to trust God in prayer and the more emotional ones telling just how wonderful prayer makes them feel, someone in the group will hesitantly and haltingly tell their story, a story about the time (or times) they prayed and God didn’t listen to them.  When asked how they know that God didn’t listen to them, the answer is obvious to them–they know that God didn’t listen because he didn’t answer.

There are many ways of dealing with this individual.  We can remind them that no matter what we feel, God hears us.  We can quote a lot of Scripture verses that tell us to pray and keep praying.  We can talk about how their doubt obviously gets in the way.  We can have the successful pray-ers tell some more of their stories.

We can do all of those things–and as a pastor, I have probably done most of them at some point.  But probably what is needed most in a setting like that is for us to really listen to what the person is saying.  This is more than just a theological question–this is a deep-down problem and maybe even a crisis for the person.  Their faith tells them to pray and when they pray, it feels like God isn’t listening.

And, after they have found the courage to share this story, if I or anyone else tries to fix things with another story or a call to have faith or a veiled attempt to shame them for their lack of faith, we haven’t listened.  And if people can’t find other people who will listen to them, it is harder for them to find God listening to them.  To paraphrase  I John 4.20, “If my brother whom I can see can’t listen to me, how can I believe that God whom I can’t see is listening?”

There is no question in my mind that when a person feels that God isn’t listening, the problem lies within them.  They aren’t being totally honest with themselves or God; they are not being truly open to hearing God; they only want to hear one thing; the message that God wants them to hear is too painful or different for them to hear–these and other reasons easily explain why they think the God of all love and grace who listens perfectly isn’t listening.  It is their problem, not God’s.

But it is their problem–and my task isn’t to defend God.  My task is to listen to them enough so that they can hear themselves and understand what is going on in their spirit and mind.  My task is to listen to them using all my skill and patience so that they can learn to listen to themselves.  And in being listened to, they learn to listen to themselves.  And when they learn to listen to themselves, they can then learn to listen to God, who has been listening to them–and us–all along.

I have discovered that just as we struggle to listen to others, so also we struggle to listen to ourselves.  Often, we are no better at listening to ourselves than we are to others.  We don’t hear ourselves say that we are tired or anxious or afraid or excited or whatever.  We don’t hear ourselves say that we really want X but will pretend to want Y.  And when we don’t listen to ourselves praying, we can’t really believe that God is listening to our prayers.

And so when people tell me God isn’t listening, I need to listen.  In some ways, I become the physical embodiment of God, using my listening to help them as they grope their way to understanding that God is listening–and answering–no matter what they think.  As they are heard by a physical being, it helps them hear themselves and that opens the door to them understanding that God hears them.

Listening and being listened to may be among the most important things in life–and one of the hardest to actually do.

May the peace of God be with you.

LISTENING TO GOD

We were sitting around the table at Bible Study, talking about something that had sparked a discussion about something else and that lead to something else and we eventually landed on the topic of hearing God.  One of the members of the study looked at me and asked me if I ever heard God speaking directly to me.  Now, as a pastor, preacher and teacher, I frequently tell people things about God and things that I believe God has said that I need to pass on.  I have helped many other people (I hope) connect with God and hear his message.  But, as I answered the inquirer, I have never heard God speak directly to me in the same way a person would speak to me.

I know people who claim that God speaks directly to them.  And I have to confess that some of them I believe–and some of them I really wonder about.  I rejoice with those who hear direct verbal messages from God that are in fact direct verbal messages from God, although my personal experience is that people who receive such messages are rare and even they don’t have the experience all that often.

And that makes sense to me.  As a species, we have a serious hearing problem.  We struggle to hear the messages we send ourselves.  We are terrible at hearing even the most basic of messages from other human beings.  So it stands to reason that when it comes to God, whose reality is far beyond ours, our ability to hear him would be a problem.  But that doesn’t stop us from claiming to have heard God.

Just as with our fellow humans, we let a whole long list of things get in the way of our ability to really hear God.  And at the head of the list of things that prevent us from hearing God is the basic problem that we likely really don’t want to hear what God has to say to us.  God is in the business of helping us become what we were meant to be, rather than confirming us in what we want to be and so many of the messages he wants us to hear are inconvenient, uncomfortable and even scary.

The messages we would like to get from God; the messages we would send ourselves if we were God; the messages we fantasize receiving–these are all much more acceptable and enjoyable and easier to hear.  So, we hear them–and assume that they come from God.  If I want a new computer, then it is amazing how easily God seems to agree with that need.  If I don’t want to go see someone in the church, it is amazing how quickly God tells me that I shouldn’t do that.

God speaks to us all the time in a variety of ways and using many different approaches–and we, like the good listening beings that most of us are, are always ready and able to not actually hear what he has to say.  And of course, when we aren’t listening to God, it is always because he is silent, a situation that causes us a great deal of spiritual frustration.  That spiritual frustration has a lot in common with my frustration with people speaking too softly all the time–it had to be their fault I couldn’t hear them. I am amazed at how much better people talk these days, especially when I have my hearing aids in.

How do we hear God? Like we hear everyone else–we have to work at it.  And just as our own stuff is the most serious hearing impediment with other people, so it is the most serious blockage when it comes to hearing God.  My solution to this hearing problem?  Well, I recognize that I don’t listen to God as I should; I commit myself to working at listening; I get my stuff out in the open by admitting what I want to hear–and then I wait  patiently and expectantly, testing and evaluating everything I am hearing and seeing, looking for the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5.22-23).  It is a slow process and I get lots of false messages but eventually, I do hear what God has been saying to me.

May the peace of God be with you.

PRAY–GOD IS LISTENING

Sometimes, when I am working hard at listening to someone, I hear a comment that could bother me a great deal.  The comment often comes after I have spend a considerable amount of time focusing on the person, giving all the necessary feedback to let them know I am listening.  I am not faking, I am actually listening and can, when necessary, give them a full replay of the whole session, including both the verbal and non-verbal content of their communication.

As the session progresses and they get more comfortable (a powerful consequence of being listened to), some will eventually utter a comment something like, “I just want someone to listen to me–but nobody listens.”  Early in my ministry, I would quickly respond with, “I am listening”. At other stages, I would think to myself, “What do you think I have been doing for the past half-hour?”.  These days, I privately enjoy the irony:  if I weren’t listening, they would not likely be comfortable enough to complain that nobody listens to them.

Unfortunately, their complaint is an all too accurate and too common one–listening is a skill we all want others to have but don’t always want to practise ourselves.  We want to be heard but don’t necessarily want to hear.  All of us need to know that there is someone to listen to us–and we all want the listener to be a real person, someone who cares and whose care shows and helps us feel important and valuable and significant.  Nothing can take the place of a real live human listener.

Along with that need for a human ear to hear us, we also need a sense that something beyond us is listening.  As a Christian, I need to know that God is listening.  But because I so used to not being listened to, I sometimes make the assumption that God listens like many of the humans I associate with.  Like many people, I have experienced prayer times when I have felt that no one is listening–it feels like God is on vacation or at least on a coffee break.

That can be a devastating and frustrating experience, especially when the prayer is coming from deep inside and dealing with some significant issue.  Feeling that God isn’t listening can make someone feel really isolated and insignificant and worthless.

And since God is Spirit and therefore doesn’t give the usual signs of listening:  nodding, non-word verbal prompts, appropriate reflection and helpful questions, it is harder to know that God is listening.  I am pretty good at telling is someone is actually listening to me or not–but since I can’t see God, I have none of the usual clues that show someone is listening.

The difference I need to remember is that when I deal with God, I am dealing with a qualitatively different situation.  I am moving into the faith realm.  I can see whether another person is listening to me.  I have to believe that God is listening to me.  With many people, I can feel whether they are there listening or not–but with God, I need to believe that he hears and is listening.

There are lots of Scripture verses that I could quote and thus prove that God is always listening to me, but the bottom line is that I have to depend on my faith here, not my feelings or my observations.  I pray because I believe God is listening.  When I feel God isn’t listening, I pray because I believe he is listening.  When I don’t observe anything to show he is listening, I pray because I believe he is listening.  When I pray and am sure that the prayers bump up against an unlistening and uncaring universe, I continue praying because I believe God is listening.  When I pray and pray and get no answer, I still pray because I believe that God is listening.

Even more, I pray because I believe that God does more than listen.  I believe that he answers.  I might have trouble seeing the answer, but I still pray because God is both listening and answering.

May the peace of God be with you.

LISTEN TO ME!

We live in a world where we are surrounded by sound and pictures and videos–people have more methods of communicating than ever before.  The internet has added another layer of communication possibilities which allows people to communicate as never before–real-time, as it happens reports on everything potentially available to everyone, or at least to everyone with internet.

It seems like we human beings have a desperate need to communicate with each other.  We want people to know what we had for supper, where we went for vacation, how the cancer treatment is going, when the new job starts, who we care about.  And so we communicate:  we talk, we post, we upload, we visit coffee shops, we stop the pastor on the way to the pulpit.  We want to communicate and so except for a few people even more introverted that me, we look for any possible way of communicating.

But the weakness in the whole thing is that we often forget that communication is a two way process.  Communication is more than just someone speaking or writing or posting or uploading a video.  The communication process consists of me sending a message and you receiving that message and letting me know that you have received the message.  Unfortunately, my admittedly biased impression is that we all want to do the first part but don’t want to do the second part.

One somewhat cynical description of general conversation that I ran into a while ago says, “When you are talking, I am thinking about what I want to say next and wishing you would stop talking so I can say it.”  As a pastor and counsellor, one of the most common things I hear from people struggling with some issue is that no one will listen to them.  Not feeling that we have been heard is one of the great causes of pain in our culture.

As Christians, this is something that we need to pay attention to.  Learning to listen to others is a major part of the practical expression of our faith.  Ours is a community based faith and to be a healthy community, we need to be willing and able to listen to each other.  While there are some who are gifted in listening, either by birth or because of the Holy Spirit, we can all learn to listen better.  Part of loving our neighbour as ourselves (Matthew 22.39) consists of listening to our neighbour as we would like to be listened to.

So, how do we listen? Well, I think most of us would be wise to begin with some prayer.  We could pray a prayer of confession, openly admitting to God that we don’t listen very well.  The small percentage of the population who does listen well could still benefit from this prayer because even the best listeners aren’t perfect.

We can follow that prayer with a prayer for enlightenment–part of the task of the Holy Spirit is to teach us what we need to know (John 14.26)–and how to listen is something that we all need to know.  And then we can follow that with a prayer for the discipline to actually practise good listening skills.

It should be clear that I am approaching our poor listening skills as a spiritual problem.  The difficulty we have in listening to others seems to me to point directly to the self-focus that is the root of all sin.  We can’t see beyond ourselves and that means we can’t hear beyond ourselves.  Overcoming a lack of ability to listen is the same as overcoming any sin–we need to involve God and the presence of the Holy Spirit in the process.

I am not totally sure that I am comfortable seeing my inability to listen to others as a sin–I would rather see it as a result of my introversion or my need to focus on getting ready for worship or being tired or having something important on my mind or needing someone to listen to me for a change.  But in the end, when I don’t have time or space or interest in  listening to someone else, it is because I am focused on my own stuff.  And at times, that might be okay–but when I consistently don’t listen to others, that slips into sin and I need God’s help to deal with that.

May the peace of God be with you.

CONFESS IT–OUT LOUD

While I am not a professional therapist, I am a pastoral counsellor and have some experience with emotional and psychological issues that all of us deal with.  My experience has come both from the people I work with and from my own personal issues. And based on that experience, I would suggest that one of the most effective ways of dealing with most issues, after we have recognized and accepted the reality of it, is to confess it, out loud.

One of the most common ways I at least have tried to deal with stuff is by keeping it inside my head, trying to figure out some way to take care of whatever it going on.  Unfortunately, this internal process really makes things worse because in the end, all I am really doing is spinning my mental tires on the stuff that it getting me stuck.  Whatever the issue, I keep seeing it in the same way and in the same light, following the same ineffective mental paths time after time–and no matter how many times I roll things around in my head, I can’t see anything different.  Things get worse instead of better.

I have to get out of my head–and the way to do that is to confess openly what I am going through.  If I am down, I admit to being down.  If I am tense, I admit to being tense.  If I am suicidal, I admit to being suicidal.  To avoid confusion, let me state that I am not stating in any way that what I am confessing is sin or wrong.  I am using the word confession to describe the process of honestly and openly describing what is going on inside my head that is causing me trouble.

For me, there are several good places to confess what it going on.    First, because I believe in God through Jesus, I confess to God.  This confession is different from praying for help and healing.  I do that–but before I do that, I let God know that I am feeling whatever and it is affecting me in certain ways.  I know that God already knows that–he knew it before I was even willing to recognize it.  But I still need to confess it to him.  This confession creates an honesty that is based on having everything out in the open.  Both God and I now know what is there and we can both look at it openly and honestly.

I also confess to other people.  It is probably not a good idea to confess everything to everyone but in truth, open and honest confession is generally the best policy.  The first person to hear my confession is my wife.  I have and will continue to confess various struggles to people within the congregation, such as Bible study groups and even occasionally in sermons.  If things get bad enough, I am willing to confess to a professional therapist, someone with the necessary training and expertise to help me.

The idea behind the confession is to get out of my head.  Rolling things around in my head doesn’t get anywhere after a certain point and even begins to make things worse.  Confession as presented here externalizes things so that I can see them from a different perspective.  Whether it is to God, my wife, the Bible study group or a therapist, the new viewpoint enables me to process in different ways.  Often, I don’t even need advice from the other person–just saying things out loud to a caring listener allows me to see and understand and deal with things differently.

Do I worry about what people will think of me?  Well, honestly, I have never been too concerned about that.  If my Bible study group or my congregation are upset with the fact that I sometimes get depressed, that is something they will need to deal with.  Mostly, though, the responses I have received to my confessions is concern, support and lots of prayer.  I have also found that my confession encourages others to make their own confession.

So, in the end, if January is dark, dreary and cold and I end up depressed, I am going to accept that reality and confess it.  Likely, the feeling will go away when I manage to get out skiing but if it doesn’t, I know how to handle it.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE GOD FACTOR

Our personalities are the result of a combination of factors, some of which we can control and some of which we can’t control.  But our personality is also always evolving, changing a as result of these same factors.  It is probably much more accurate to talk about what we are becoming than what we are when it comes to personality.  This is an important reality that has some significant implications.

If my personality isn’t static but is always changing and evolving, that opens the possibility of managing and directing the change.  And while that sounds good, it brings up several questions:  Who is managing the change?  In what direction is the change moving?  What is the purpose of the change?

Answering these questions is important–letting the changes in our personality happen and assuming that it will produce good results isn’t a wise option.  There are lots of people around who would like to manage the changes in our personality.  There are lots of groups and organizations that want to help us become what they think we should become.  And there are lots of reasons for the changes that really don’t help anyone in the long run.

Because I am a follower of Christ, I have to look at this whole process of personality development from a Christian perspective.  And for me, that means beginning with a couple of theological realities.  First, anything I am or am becoming here is affected by human sin–both mine own and that of everyone else in the world.  Secondly, only God, the Creator, really knows what I can be and was actually meant to be.

And so for me, personality development becomes a part of spiritual growth and development.  Who I am becoming can best be determined by God, which makes my personality development a process in which I seek God’s leading and then work at submitting to God’s infinitely superior wisdom and sense of direction.

But in order to get there, I need to learn how to deal with a great many issues and problems that I don’t always want to deal with.  There are, for example, genetic issues that have an effect on who I am becoming.  I struggle with mild depression on a regular basis.  While a certain amount of that depression is the result of what is going on around me, I am pretty sure that my brain is genetically wired in such a way that makes depression the go to response in certain situations.

There are also environmental issues that affect who I am and who I am becoming.  I grew up poor and even now, I find myself reacting to certain circumstances in ways that come from this–I am uncomfortable spending money for things that break until after I have exhausted every possible way of repairing whatever it is–sometimes even spending more on the repair attempts than I would have spent on the new whatever.

So, given that my personality is being determined by so many factors that seem to be beyond my control, where does God’s knowledge and plan enter into the process?  God knows who and what I am meant to be–he is my creator and he had a plan and idea in mind for me, my life and who I can become.    And because God is a God of grace and love, he doesn’t force me to make any changes or to change in any particular direction–but God does seek to help by offering me direction and help and strength through the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life.  If I am willing to open myself to this divine intervention, I have the potential to become more and more what God wants me to become.  I won’t ever get there–there are too many factors at work making it too tempting to follow other paths to personality development that get in the way, leading me down different paths.

But in the end, a personality development process that seeks to discover and find God’s plan for who I am and am becoming seeks to me to be the only really viable process–at least I think this on good days.  Rather than let my personality develop in random, uncontrolled ways, opening myself to God’s direction provides a much better possibility for my becoming.

May the peace of God be with you.