AM I DEPRESSED?

A few days ago, I was sitting in my work chair in the living room.  I was supposed to be writing one of the two sermons I have to produce each week.  I had done the research, I had a theme, the sermon was part of a series so I had some sense of where it was supposed to go–all I had to do was start writing and soon, I would have a sermon ready.  Except, that wasn’t happening.  I was struggling–not because of the topic, not because of interruptions, not because the computer was giving me trouble.  I just couldn’t get started and when I finally got started, the words didn’t want to come.

I finished the sermon finally and went on to other stuff until it was time to go see some people in the church.  Being an introvert, that is something I always struggle with a bit but that day, it was really hard to get motivated to go out and see people.  I went, I saw people and I actually enjoyed the contacts.

But on the way home, as I was thinking about it and had a scary thought.  I put my struggle with the sermon together with the increased difficulty going to see people and began to think, “I’m depressed”.  Depression is something I struggle with and the thought that it might be making another appearance bothered me a lot.

But as I began the process of dealing with the depression, I ran into further problems.  Normally, once I realize I am slipping into depression, I look for the trigger(s), whatever it is that started the process.  But try as I might, I couldn’t find any trigger.  Nor did I find all the normal stuff associated with my depression–for example, I was still listening to the car radio when I was driving.  When I am depressed, I just can’t do that–I have to drive in silence.

So, I wondered some more–was I slipping into some new, unknown expression of depression that was growing out of some deeply repressed stuff that would send me into a long and difficult bout of depression and struggle and all the rest?  I don’t like the depression process that I have dealt with too often in my life and so tend to be somewhat anxious about everything connected with depression.  Not being able to get a quick hold on it was depressing me.

As I worked through the stuff, I realized that what I was experiencing might not be depression.  It also wasn’t likely some other form of emotional upheaval either.  There was nothing major percolating up from the depths and the surface stuff wasn’t all that much of a problem, except for the fact that there was a whole lot of it and my personal time was getting lost.

I was missing exercise time; I was having less personal time, I was spending much more time in intense contact with people, I was putting in too many hours at both my jobs.  I looked at the whole picture and realized that in the end, I was tired, not depressed.   I do realize that physical fatigue can and does lead to serious stuff and in my case, prolonged physical fatigue can indeed lead to depression but what I was (and am) dealing with here was tiredness, not depression.

I can deal with that–probably not right now  but eventually.  I am tired because a variety of things have come together requiring a lot more work than normal.  There is a slow down coming–that isn’t the workaholic’s “someday” dream but rather is a basic reality.  A lot of the stuff keeping me so busy will soon be done and churches simply don’t do all that much in the summer.  In the meantime, I can do a few things, like allow myself to take longer to write sermons (and blog posts), exercise when I can, take a nap now and then, watch a TV show, plan and take some vacation time or just enjoy sitting and doing not much of anything.

I am tired and not depressed.  I do need to take the fatigue seriously but fatigue is much less painful for me than depression.   While I might not be overly thankful for being tired, I am deeply thankful that it isn’t depression and even more thankful that I can tell the difference.

May the peace of God be with you.

EASTER SERMONS

            I have been preaching for a lot of years, which means I have been preaching about Easter for a lot of years.  Some years, it gets really hard to find something to say–or maybe it is more precise to say it gets really hard to find some way to say something in a fresh and attention grabbing way. As a preacher, I don’t get to listen to too many sermons but  have been bored enough by some of the ones that I have heard to work hard at not boring those who listen to my sermons.

This year, when I began sermon planning for the Easter season, I followed my usual practise of typing the date of each Sunday and then staring at the computer screen, hoping for inspiration.   I reviewed what I did last year but that didn’t help whole lot–I began working at one of the pastorates on Easter Sunday and the other the Sunday after Easter.  That should have made the whole process easier but it didn’t–I was forced to confront my own boredom when it comes to Easter preaching.  I needed to see the story from a different perspective.  I needed something that would interest me so that I could have some enthusiasm to communicate to the congregations–and since I am working for two different pastorates with two different set of needs, I really needed two new interesting approaches.

Fortunately, God is merciful and graceful even to aging, bored (and maybe boring) preachers and helped me with some inspiration.  For one set of sermons, I have been giving serious thought to the choices that led Jesus to the cross.  As I was staring at the blank screen, I began to see how Jesus makes choices at critical points along the way to the cross.  At several points, his choice can either stop or continue the process.

I began to think and mediate on the reality of the freedom Jesus had–he wasn’t a robot, pre-programmed to head for the cross, ignoring everything else.  Jesus had the freedom to not go to the cross.  As God, it is his creation and his plan. He is in charge and therefore has the right and the freedom to change the plan.  Even more, since he is God and makes the rules, whatever he decides is right by definition.

While the cross and resurrection are absolutely essential from my perspective as a beneficiary, from Jesus perspective, they were always an option.  Not going to the cross was also an option–a good option from Jesus’ perspective, even if it is a terrible option from my perspective.  When  I look at the choices Jesus made that led him to the cross, I see his love and grace in a whole new light.

He volunteered–and kept volunteering.  Right up to his death he kept making choices that would put him on the cross–and he kept making them because of his love towards us.  Now, I have been preaching about the unending love of God for us forever (at least it feels like that) but this year, making myself look at how Jesus kept making clear decisions to go to the cross, I have seen anew the depths of God’s love in Jesus Christ.

As I contemplate the choices, I see the depth of fear and pain in the prayer in Gethsemane–this is not some robot following a program; this is not some remote-controlled being dancing to some controller; this is not a drone acting out of instinct and programming.  This is the story of Jesus, who has to work hard to get to the cross.  He has to make the right decisions at the right time, all the while being able to see the consequences of each decision and each alternative decision and therefore, likely feeling the pain of the nails long before they were actually driven into his wrists.

There are days when I can’t make a non-self focused decision to save myself–but Easter tells us that Jesus’ whole life was a series of non-self focused decisions to save everyone else at the cost of his own safety and life.  That is a real love story, one that I will have an eternity to contemplate.

May the peace of God be with you.

ONE MORE RULE

Way back when I was a theology student, one of the strongest rules I learned came from the professor teaching us pastoral counselling.  Our group was assigned to do our practical work in a long term care hospital specifically for people with chronic lung problems.  During our initial briefing, we were given this basic and most important rule: “Don’t sit on the patient’s hospital bed.”  This was undoubtedly an important rule–sitting on the bed while convenient for the visitor did tend to make movements that upset the patient and likely increased the possibility of catching something from or giving something to the patient.  I have tended to be pretty good about obeying that rule.

But an even more important rule for me has always been concerned with the love of God.  His rule is that he loves me unconditionally and permanently.  Nothing can make God love me more or less.  His love for me–and the rest of humanity–is basic and unchanging, a constant in the ever-changing universe that we inhabit.

This is one rule that I have no interest in challenging or changing.  But as I look at the church and how we have approached this rule over the years, I discover that unfortunately, none of us in the Christian faith has been all that great about keeping the reality of this foundational rule in front of us.  Some of what I read, hear, see and occasionally practise myself suggests that the rule about God’s absolute and unconditional love is open to flexible application.

There is a church group, for example that regularly proclaims that God hates homosexuals, although they prefer to use a derogatory term for homosexuals.  I have heard Christians suggest that we need to do something about Muslims because God doesn’t love them.  I know of believers who are anti-immigrant because it seems that to them, the love of God doesn’t apply to immigrants, at least from some places and from some historical periods.

There are also the traditional theological flash points in our faith where believers line up and call names or worse, on the assumption that God can’t really love someone who doesn’t believe in the inerrancy of the Bible or the right of homosexual couples to be legally married.  The aura of anger, hatred and nastiness seen in such confrontations brings into serious question the reality of God’s universal and unending love.

But if this one basic and foundational rule isn’t true or is open to interpretation or is seriously flexible, none of us has a chance.  If that rule that God loves all equally and totally isn’t true, then there is really no hope for any of us, given the reality that none of us is perfect.  I think we sometimes get so focused on pointing out the flaws and imperfections of other people that we forget to look at the reality of our own.   And if we do look at our own imperfections, they are obviously relatively minor, more like endearing quirks than actual sins and imperfections.

Maybe that is inflexible rule number 2:  none of us is perfect.   We are all in some way shape or form tainted by our personal experience of rebellion against God, which is what the Bible calls sin.  And because we are all in that category, we all need rule number one to be true:  we need God to love us no matter what.

And if loving us no matter what is God’s number one personal rule, then we who claim to follow God through Jesus probably need to put a whole lot more effort into understanding, following and showing that rule.  Now, keep in mind that God isn’t going to love us more if we do a good job of this nor is he going to love us less if we do a poor job of this.  He is going to love us with his pure, unending and unlimited love, just the way he did before creation and just the way he will continue to do for all eternity.

I may not always like the rules that limit how fast I can drive; I may get annoyed by the rule that says I need to wear a tie in topical heat; I may find the rules about standing in line irksome when I could easily push people out of my way–but this rule, the rule about God’s unlimited, unending, unchanging, eternal love–that rule I like and am glad that nothing in all creation can change it.

May the peace of God be with you.

COME LET US WORSHIP

I enjoy reading the book of Leviticus.  That probably tells you a great deal about me, because many Christians see Leviticus as a major roadblock which destroys more commitments to reading the Bible through than anything.  Leviticus is a book of detail.  It describes at great length how the people of Israel are to deal with the realities of their lives.

One of the reasons why I enjoy the book is that it shows clearly that God is concerned about all of life and that people who serve God need to submit even the way they harvest their crops to God (Leviticus 19.9-10).   God covers most of life in this book, giving people a clear indication that he is concerned with everything we do, not just the “spiritual” things.  In fact, reading through the book of Leviticus shows that there really isn’t a division of life into “spiritual” and “secular”.

But the other reason I enjoy the book of Leviticus is more basic in many ways.  When I read the book, I am incredibly happy that I am a Christian pastor and not a Jewish priest of that time.  Being a Protestant pastor is demanding and difficult at times but at least I am not slaughtering animals all day or evaluating skin lesions for leprosy or conducting trials to determine the fidelity of wives.  Reading the book of Leviticus makes even the busiest and most demanding of pastoral weeks seem a lot easier and much less demanding.

There is also another insight that I pick up when I read Leviticus, an insight that concerns worship.  The more I meditate on this theme, the more I am concerned about the worship that I help lead each week.  In the book of Leviticus, we discover that worship is costly–no one in the book of Leviticus approaches God without being aware of the cost of worship.

Before they come, they must have the proper sacrifice.  While there are gradations based on the individual’s financial status, everyone must have the best within the category.  The cow or sheep or dove must be perfect–no weak, old, worthless animal need apply.  If all the worshipper has is a weak, lame, sick and dying animal, they are out of luck–until they get a better offering, they can’t really worship.  Worship was expensive–it demanded something of the worshipper.

Now, this is not a ploy to suggest that we all have to give more at offering time, nor is it an attempt to make people feel guilty for sleeping during worship.  Truthfully, I am not totally sure where I am going with this–I have been thinking about this for a long time and am not completely sure what it means to me, let alone to the worshipping community.

I think it partly means that we need to see worship as something more than it sometimes is, at least for me.  In worship, we are openly recognizing the ever-present God.  We are acknowledging our dependence on him.  We are renewing our commitment to him.  Well, we are supposed to be doing that.

But many times, we are going through the motions, making an appearance, doing a job, following a tradition.  Worship doesn’t really recognize the presence of God–it just passed the time and gives us a star for attendance.  And maybe we treat worship like that because it doesn’t cost us that much–a bit of time and a few dollars.

Theologically, our Christian worship is even more expensive than worship in the book of Leviticus.  There, the cost of worship was a perfect animal.  For us, the cost of worship is God’s own perfect Son, Jesus Christ.  We come to worship as Christians because we believe that God in Christ took care of everything.  We come to worship as God’s loved and forgiven children, who now have complete freedom to approach God without any conditions.

But our worship is still expensive–we just didn’t have to pay the price of admission.  We worship because God paid the price himself.  And maybe as we spend some time meditating on that, our worship will become a more significant part of our lives.  When we remind ourselves of the cost of our worship, it helps us open ourselves more fully and completely to the presence of God.  It allows us to really worship the one who values our presence so much that he personally paid the price for our worship.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT NOW?

Christmas is pretty much over for this year.  All the rushing and spending and planning and cooking and giving and receiving–it is all pretty much over for most of us.  Some may have some gifts that still haven’t shown up yet and they will be a pleasant little blip in the after Christmas let down.  But basically, the focus now is on resting a bit, thinking about exercising a bit and wondering when the pack the Christmas stuff away.

For many, there is an inevitable let down after something like Christmas.  All the activity, all the work, all the energy expended has to come from somewhere and when it is over, we need to pay for it.  We are tired and worn out–and the bigger the Christmas, the more tired we are.  It might be tempting for some to lapse into a depression, especially since the after Christmas let down can easily provide a spring board for the beginning of seasonal affective disorder.  And if not depression, then there are other ways to deal with the let down, many of them as undesirable as depression.

I think we should recognize a couple of things.  First and most importantly, we don’t live on a holiday high all the time.  Holidays like Christmas are bright spots in life, times and places when we can have some fun and do something different.  But these high spots take time and energy which need to come from somewhere.  When we elevate our time and energy expenditure, we are draining reserves.  At some point, we have no more reserve and we are forced to cut back to normal levels.

Christmas and any other high energy event in our lives is going to produce a slow down–a slow down that will express itself in physical, emotional and spiritual ways.  It isn’t that we have done something wrong; it isn’t that we have lost the real meaning purpose; it isn’t that Christmas or whatever event wasn’t good or worthwhile–in the end, it is just because we lived beyond our limits and now we have to get back to our regular pace and rebuilt the reserves that we used up.

And that brings us to the second reality.  When we party, we need to pay.  Now, I am not suggesting that we pay for our sins or anything like that.  Rather, it we use our energy, no matter how much we enjoyed it, we have to slow down and take it easy for a while.  So, relax and take it easy.  Read the new book you got for Christmas and don’t worry about how many times you fall asleep in the process–the words in the book won’t disappear if you sleep more than you read.

Relax–and don’t get too bent out of shape about how much you over-ate during Christmas.  You probably don’t have enough energy to consistently do too much about it right now anyway.  A walk might be a great idea but whether you do it today or after a couple of days of taking it easy isn’t going to make all that much difference.

Relax–things will get back to normal soon enough and if we allow ourselves to rest a bit before that, normal isn’t some soul-destroying rut that we hate and want out of.  Normal is normal and if we rest and relax a bit after the party, we are ready for normal–we will even welcome it because it is normal and comfortable.  We had the fun, enjoyed the party and the season–now we rest and then get back to the reality of normal live which necessarily is lived as a different pace, one that in the end, we probably enjoy more than we want to admit.

So, for now, relax and enjoy whatever slow down and in-between time you can get.  I plan on taking it easy this week, relaxing, puttering in  the workshop, spending time with my wife and enjoying the break.  Christmas is over, things aren’t quite back to normal yet and so I can use the in between to rest from the party that is Christmas and be ready for next week, when things begin to slip back into the normal routine, where I will be until the next high point, whatever that will be.

May the peace of God be with you.

NOW AND FOREVER

I love writing.  It allows me the freedom to think and process, the opportunity to take what might be a random thought and develop it and turn it over and around and occasionally inside out and see where it takes me.  It also helps me see how things relate to each other because one thought nudges another and as I contemplate the second, a third pops up demanding attention and as I put that third thought somewhere safe for further consideration, a fourth peeks around the edge of the third silently pleading for a bit of my time and attention.

As I was finishing the last post, I became conscious of one of those silent peeking thoughts.  As I was writing about surrendering to God, I wrote, “… having done it once, there is no guarantee that I will do it again.”  The thought that was peeking around the edge went something like this, “That could suggest that we are never sure of where we stand with God because of all the surrendering we have yet to do.”–or at least that is sort of what I think it was suggesting–sometimes, my thoughts make a whole lot more sense peeking around the corners than they do when I actually look at them.

But this did start another train in motion.  At some point in my life, I surrendered my life to God through Jesus.  I was around 13 or 14 and just knew that this was what I wanted to do.  I didn’t have a totally clear idea of what I was actually doing but I knew it was an important decision.  I probably knew a lot more about my decision that the thief on the cross when he made his decision but a lot less than  the Apostle Paul when he made his.

But the thought that came peeking around wants me to think about that.  Was that very early commitment, made with the incomplete knowledge I had at the time, going to ensure that I had a place with God now and forever?  I mean, I have already acknowledged that I am not always all that good at surrendering to God.  I also know a whole lot more about the faith and my faith now than I did then.  Can a commitment I made at 13 be enough to cover me now?  Or do I need to keep renewing that commitment, something like a magazine subscription?

There are many who believe something like this, that faith commitments are limited and need to be renewed on a regular basis, meaning that between the time the commitment lapses and gets renewed, we have nothing.  Such theology can produce a desire to continually re-commit just to be safe and it can also produce a huge spiritual insecurity because we can never relax and enjoy our place with God.

This uncomfortable peeking thought made things worse by reminding me of my inconsistency.  I know I don’t always live up to the commitment I made way back then.  There have in fact, been a few times in my life when I actually regretted the decision.  All in all, my first surrender to God was weak, not completely informed, and inconsistently applied.

That peeking and uncomfortable thought has a good premise–my surrender back then by itself isn’t what keeps me safely in the presence of God.  But all is not lost because that surrender was to God through Jesus and because it involves God, it isn’t all dependent on me.  God has a part in this whole process and his part is the crucial and important one.

God takes my surrender, weak and incomplete though it was, inconsistent as it is and he reinforces and empowers and guarantees it. My surrender in Christ becomes permanent because of the love and grace and power of God.  As Paul puts it in Romans 8.39b, there is nothing in all creation that “… will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” NIV

My initial surrender to God established my place with God now and forever.  Nothing can ever end that.  And, on the basis of that initial surrender, I make all the rest of the surrenders in the context of knowing that surrender or not, from that point of accepting God, I have also been accepted by God, whose constancy and love and grace and power ensure that I will be with him now and forever.

May the peace of God be with you.

O LORD OUR LORD

Whenever I am encouraging people to read the Bible, I warn them about the book of Leviticus, hoping to help them avoid bogging down there.  Leviticus is filled with rules and regulations and descriptions of what to do in a variety of life situations the early readers will face at some point.  While I warn people that it can be slow going, secretly, I like the book of Leviticus, partly because it teaches me to be grateful that I am a Baptist pastor and not a Jewish priest in the days the book was written.

A good deal of the book of Leviticus focuses on worship and how it is done and what the priests and assistants must do and what they must not do.  Worship in the book of Leviticus is serious business as two sons of Aaron find out in Leviticus 10–they don’t follow the rules and end up dead–Leviticus isn’t particularly concerned about seeker-sensitive worship.

Worship in Leviticus is concerned about sacrifices, deportment, and the right attitude on the part of the worshippers.  Real worship in Leviticus is expensive because no worshipper approaches God without a perfect sacrificial animal; it is scary because of the ever present sense of danger of getting something wrong; it is totally focused on pleasing God.

Worship, according to the Leviticus rules, would have been far different from our worship today.  There would have been lots of noise–not inspirational worship music but trumpet sounds, drums and so on, mingled with the bleats and noises of panicky animals about to be sacrificed.  There would have been serious smells–animal smells, the smell of spilling blood, the smell of burning flesh, all mingled with the smell of incense valiantly trying but failing to completely mask the other stronger smells.

Worship had no participant seats.  There were prescribed places for the various leaders and helpers as well as clear warnings about which people could go where but basically, worshippers milled around, following the action around their particular sacrificial animal and hoping they were outside the danger zone should the presiding priest make mistake.

My suspicion is that when worship leaders and worshippers left a worship service the predominant feeling was relief that they had got it right and were still alive after the worship.  Their shouts of “Praise God” and “Hallelujah” came from deep in their being as they realized that they had stood in the presence of God and solely by his grace, managed to survive.

I very much doubt that a worshipper leaving a service at that time would be heard to mutter, “I didn’t get a thing out of that service”–survival was the sign of good worship, not feeling good.

Now, I am not advocating a return to Levitical worship.  As a worship leader, I would be in serious trouble.  I regularly forget elements of the worship, including that most sacred of sacred elements, the offering.  I get confused and lose my place in my notes and sometimes do the wrong prayer at the wrong time–fortunately, I think fast on my feet and can re-direct the prayer once I realize I am doing the wrong one.  But based on my track record, I would have joined Nadab and Abihu from Leviticus 10 a long time ago.

While I enjoy reading Leviticus, I don’t want to be a Levitical priest nor do I want to turn worship into a potentially lethal activity.  But Leviticus does, I think, help us by providing a strong and powerful contrast to the kind of worship that is so common today.  Leviticus shows us a worship that is centered on the Divine and requires the worshipper to step outside themselves and their feelings to encounter the fullness of God and his presence.  Leviticus worship wants people to know the fullness of God and have their lives shaped and formed and guided by the serious power and wonder of God.

Worship in Leviticus focuses on God–any effects on the worshipper are by-products and are not the focus of worship.  The writer of Leviticus doesn’t really care what the worshipper feels as long as he or she leaves with the awareness that they have touched the presence of God and seen something of his glory and power and submitted themselves to the God of all creation.

So, how do we worship in a way that focuses on God without being a potentially fatal activity?  We will look at that in the next post.

May the peace of God be with you.