THE WEATHER

According to the calendar and the trees outside, the grass that has already been mowed once, the dandelions that somehow escaped the mover, the geese and other migratory birds that are back, it is spring in Nova Scotia. But no matter what the signs suggest, it has been a cold, wet, miserable spring. We are Canadian so we generally endure. We have lots of ways of making ourselves feel “better” about the slow coming of warm sunny weather.

All the rain is good for the farmers. Of course, we have to ignore the reality that although they might be grateful for the rain, it makes it pretty much impossible to get fields ready for planting—tractors churn the soil into mud and then get stuck. The rain also makes the grass grow—as if that is a good thing to someone like me whose dislike of mowing lawns verges on the pathological. And there is always the old saying, “April showers bring May flowers”, which might be somewhat helpful if May had some actual sunshine that encouraged us to get out and find the may flowers.

In the end, the weather is the weather. We live with whatever comes. Whether the weather is good or bad, it does have a vital function in human relationships—it gives us something to talk about. That is more than just a cynical attempt at humour. Talking about the weather may well be one of the most common conversational themes among people and as such, it serves a vital role in human relationships.

Talking about the weather is more than small talk. It actually serves as a powerful tool that helps us determine whether we can and should engage in further communication. It allows us to gauge the status of the person we are meeting without asking outright if they are in a good mood and if it is safe to talk to them. Talking about the weather tells us a lot about the individual, their current state and the relative value and safety of carrying on with the conversation.

Most human are totally unaware that this is what we are doing when we talk about the weather. Some, in fact, downplay and even claim to hate talking about the weather. They believe such small talk gets in the way of real conversation. My experience has been that if we aren’t going to talk about the weather with someone, we probably aren’t going to have a pleasant, good or constructive conversation with the person. We might talk but without the lubricant and evaluation provided by the weather discussion, we have no sense of the other’s context or state and rather than enter the serious side of the conversation prepared, we go in cold and have to discover the context and status while at the same time dealing with whatever heavy stuff the conversation brings.

So, over the years, I have learned to deeply appreciate small talk, discussions about the weather, TV shows, new cars (and old cars), kids and grandkids and so on. Sometimes, the small talk has been interesting all by itself—one friend years ago had a seemingly inexhaustible store of old sayings related to the weather that I found fascinating and more than a bit true. Sometimes, the small talk has been the whole conversation—we complain about the wet, the dry, the cold, the heat and then move on. But somehow, something has been put in place that allows a deeper conversation somewhere down the road.

And occasionally, the weather talk leads directly to a significant and serious conversation that likely wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been willing to give the right signals during the discussion of the wet or dry or snowy weather.

Mostly, I don’t care about what the weather is. I do appreciate rain on the days I am supposed to mow the lawn because it gives me an excuse to sit inside and read or write. But I do deeply appreciate the weather because of its profound effect in human interaction. If we can talk comfortably about the weather, we set the stage for being able to comfortably talk about almost anything. So, we have had a wet, cold, miserable spring—think about how many conversations have been able to grow and flourish from that wonderful beginning.

May the peace of God be with you.

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BUSINESS MEETINGS

I don’t like meetings. There are a few that have been tolerable, many that have actually been important and a whole lot that could have been shorter, tighter and more effective. Generally, given an even choice between attending a meeting or going to the dentist, I would pick the dentist, except for the fact that going to the dentist is a lot like going to a meeting.

I don’t dispute the need for meetings. They are important and significant and are a necessary part of church and denominational and even normal life. I am not an anarchist, a dictator or a megalomaniac. Getting people together to talk about stuff is often the only way we can discover God’s leading and figure out how he wants us to do the work he has called us to do. Over the years, I have become very good at enabling meetings to become places where people have the freedom and encouragement to share and grow and develop ministry. I have also tied to teach other church leaders how to make meeting more effective and more a part of the process of discerning God’s leading.

But for all that, I don’t actually like meetings. So, when a new year rolls around, I brace myself for the wave of annual meetings I have to deal with—these days, that means anywhere up to a dozen different meetings by the time I count finance meetings, deacons’ meetings, congregational meetings and pastorate meetings. Sometimes, I am the chair of the meeting and other times, someone else chairs the meeting (I prefer someone else to be the chair).

Typically, church business meetings have been somewhat restricted to church members but because of the nature of our churches, we have been having open meetings and specifically inviting our non-members to be part of the process. I jokingly tell them during the announcement of the meeting that they are really a part of our fellowship and if we members have to endure the business meeting, they should have to as well.

One pastorate just wrapped up our season of annual meetings. And in spite of my antipathy to meetings, I felt that all the meetings in the process had a positive flavour. We did more than look at financial statements and hear reports. We spent time together, sharing about family and friends, passing on information about absent people, joking about who did what when. We were comforted by the fact that we didn’t go into debt over the past year and that we actually did some good stuff over the past year.

It wasn’t all sunshine and roses—we talked about those who had died or had to move in the past year. We wondered how our aging creaky membership could look after our aging creaky buildings—none of us is able anymore to grab a hammer and fix the rotting sills that make the floor sag around the front door. But there are ways to deal with that, especially since we do have some money in the bank.

As pastor, I had some good things to report. Our churches grew over the year—not so much in numbers but definitely in faith. We have a sense of confidence in our churches. We have a developing understanding of how we are being salt and light in our communities; we are seeing some positive response from the community to the ministry we are doing; we have encouraged and enabled people to try a variety of things; we have experimented with worship and mission; we have shared life and all its triumphs and crises with prayer and support and casseroles. We have been the church.

So, I still hate meetings. But this meeting cycle has been worthwhile because it allowed us to take a look at ourselves and see where God has been working, what he has been doing and how he is leading us into the future. We have a bit of money, enough for our needs. Our buildings need some work but we can handle it. We have grown in a lot of ways—and we can all see it. We might have seen all that stuff without the meetings but then again, without the meetings, we wouldn’t have had the chance to get it all together at the same time. I won’t actually say “Thank God for meetings” but I will thank him for what he has shown us through the meetings.

May the peace of God be with you.

WRONG TIME, WRONG PLACE

I am feeling a bit down on myself right now. For some reason, I have ended up in a couple of situations saying things that probably would have been better left unsaid. What I actually said wasn’t false, it wasn’t malicious and it didn’t cause any harm—but all the same, it was probably the wrong things to say in the context where I said it. Nobody was upset by what I said and there were no serious consequences. But I recognized that somehow, I had crossed a line I don’t normally cross.

The fact that I did it once would be unusual but I actually went too far twice—in different contexts and about different things but both times, I realized that I said too much to the wrong people. That by itself is somewhat surprising. I am an introvert with a very strong listening gift, which means that most times in a group setting, I am the one in the group who is helping everyone else talk and share. I am also often the one people look at when they are sharing something difficult or painful.

But here I was in the group talking—and talking too much, taking the group in a very different direction than our stated purpose and in the process giving people too much information that they really didn’t need and which wasn’t all that helpful in the context. I am feeling kind of something which although I can’t exactly describe is somewhat negative.

My first response was to do what I always do when something isn’t right: I analyse. I needed to know what prompted the over sharing. Interestingly enough, each infraction had a different reason. In the first case, our group was given a discussion question that I couldn’t answer for a variety of reasons. Instead of letting the group carry on, I blurted out my inability and essentially stopped the group process. I am pretty sure that that was result of being tired and therefore less able to discipline myself—my normally efficient self-censor was off taking a nap.

The second time was different. Someone asked me a question and in the process of answering, I went a bit too far. I knew a lot about the question they asked and once started on the answer, the teacher inside kicked into gear and I kept going after I had given the questioner everything they wanted to know—and then I proceeded to give them lots that they didn’t want or need to know. Sometimes, my teacher likes showing off.

So, different reasons for the same behaviour. Given that there were no negative consequences that amounted to anything, it might seem like I am making a mountain out of a mole-hill. But I like to understand what I am doing and why I am doing it. It is part of my continual growth emotionally and spiritually. Knowing why I do what I do, or knowing as much as I can about why I do what I do is important to my continued growth.

I don’t want to go with the flow and not understand myself. I want to know what rough edges still need sanding, what holes need patching, what weak spots need shoring up. I think that is all part of personal and spiritual growth. Yes, I am what I am—but my faith teaches me that I am not what I could be. God loves me as I am—but he also loves me enough to encourage and help me to become what I can be.

And it is important to me to be involved personally in the development process that God has going on in my life. I believe I went too far both times. I see something that I need to work on. I don’t think I am a failure or a hopeless case. I goofed. I messed up. What now?

Well, I figured out what went wrong. God has already forgiven me. I can and will forgive me. And together, God and I will move on, continuing to work at the project of helping me become what God knows I can become. I hope I won’t make those same mistakes again—but if I do, well, God’s grace is big enough to deal with it.

May the peace of God be with you.

I’M RIGHT—YOU’RE WRONG

I have been a news junkie most of my life, something I am pretty sure I inherited from my father. I can sort of remember as a relatively new reader waiting somewhat impatiently for my father to finish reading the newspaper so I could have a chance at it, not just for the funny pages but for the front page and the opinion page and all the other stuff contained within the pages. I probably spend at least a couple of hours a day reading and watching news from a variety of sources.

This can be a depressing occupation—I have many friends who simply refuse to pay any attention to news in any form. All of those friends think I am a bit strange but I can live with that. What I can’t live with is not knowing what is going on in the world.

I am pretty sure that a major part of my desire to know what is going on in the world comes from the fact that I am by nature an accumulator and analyser of information, which I then use to develop theories, understand trends, project possibilities and illustrate sermons and Bible studies. I like to know and understand what is going on so that I can make projections about what is coming.

These days, my thinking as a result of the news reports I imbibe are making me nervous. There is a powerful force towards disunity, division and dissension being exhibited all over the world these days. Everyone wants their own way—and anyone or anything that stands in the way of that is wrong. And when someone or something is wrong, they can be ridiculed, put down, sidelined, disrespected, attacked physically, legislated against, demonized—I can’t think of any more words but the picture should be clear.

Our world is following a dangerous road because the less respect and appreciation we have for others and their ideas, the more we increase the potential for conflict. The less I see someone and their ideas as valid, the more likely I am to treat them as less than human. The more I see difference as a threat, the more likely I am to attack. The bigger the threat, the more serious the attack. The progression from words to civil action to legislative action to physical action is well documented and strongly in evidence all over the world.

Whether it is one politician calling into question the intelligence or nationalism of another; a person of one sexual orientation calling someone of another a pervert; a person of one race abusing a person of another race; a zealot bombing the home of an opposing zealot the pattern is clear—we are developing a new ethic that allows us to hate and disrespect and abuse those whose views and ideas are different from ours.

Except that this isn’t a new ethic. It is almost the oldest ethical approach in the book. One early version of the process has one man killing his brother because the brother got praised for his sacrifice to God. This approach to life and others has repeated itself throughout history—it seems we human beings can’t get enough of hatred, prejudice and self-centeredness. I, my, me always seeks to come out on top—we all want them to be at least subservient to us—and it would be even better if they simply didn’t exist. And history is filled with stories of people who tried to get rid of all the “thems” in their world.

There is, of course, a different way, a way also contained in the book that has the story of the brother killing his brother. That way involves embracing the other, respecting the different, seeking the common ground between we and them. Of course, there is a catch to this other way.

Before we can really follow the other way, we have to acknowledge that neither we nor they are at the centre of creation. Creation isn’t human-centric. It is God-centric. And when we begin to see that God is at the centre, we can begin to see things differently, if we are willing to submit to the God who is really at the centre of all creation. As we submit and begin to see things through God’s eyes, the differences we magnify become less and less important.

May the peace of God be with you.

LISTEN!

I have been studying the communicating process for a long time and have read—and written—a lot of stuff trying to understand the whole complicated process. Over that time, I have learned a couple of things. The first is that with all the possible problems and impediments, it sometimes amazes me that we can communicate at all.

The second thing I have learned is that most of the time, the major disruption in the communication process comes about because of a significant lack of one vital part of the process. Stripped of all the verbiage and explanations and descriptions, communication involves three elements: a message, a sender and a receiver. Two of those elements are abundant and one is scarce.

There are tons of senders—everyone and everything had a message to send. Our world is filled with senders. We use sound and sight and touch and smell and who knows what ways to send our message. According to relatively new scientific discoveries, even plants are sending messages to other plants. Senders are not in short supply. And that means that messages are also not in short supply, which makes sense. If there are an infinite number of senders, there must be an even larger number of messages, unless each sender limits itself to one message, which is unlikely.

So we have no shortage of senders and consequently no shortage of message, which suggests that the breakdown comes with the third required element, the receivers. My experience as a pastor and counsellor and my research supports this—message receivers are in short supply.

Here is a very common pastoral counselling scenario. I am listening to someone tell me about their problems. The problems can be trivial or moderate or severe. They talk about their problem and their frustrations and their struggles. And, in a great many cases, somewhere in their message, they will make the comment that one of the problems is that nobody will listen to them. Leaving aside the reality that I am actually listening to them, I can understand their message.

People don’t like to receive messages—we don’t actually like listening. We might listen to a bit but mostly, we want people to stop sending messages so that we can continue sending our messages. We especially don’t want to hear messages that are going to inconvenience us, bother us, ask something of us, upset our comfortable world view or harm our ability to get our message out. So, we live in a culture which has a surfeit of senders, an overdose of messages and very few receivers, which probably explains why our culture also has sky high rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and other forms of social and emotional dysfunction.

When nobody listens, nobody is heard. When nobody receives, the communication process is broken. We have senders sending to emptiness and messages going nowhere. But if the sender’s message isn’t received, everyone involved suffers and the message is lost.

I wish I could say that there is a simple solution to this problem. But there really isn’t. Listening is hard work. We seem to be predisposed to sending and reluctant to receive. As a theologian, I would suggest that that is a result of our essential self-centeredness, what the Bible calls sin. We all want to be the most important being in all creation, the being whose messages are received by everyone else without our having to be bothered by receiving messages from beings who aren’t us.

Communication breaks down because we are selfish, often too selfish to stop broadcasting our message long enough to receive someone else’s message. I once read a description of conversation that suggested that a conversation consists of me thinking of what I am going to say once you stop talking.

It is possible to learn how to receive messages from others—it takes hard work, as many former students of mine will attest. But the hardest part of learning to listen is the willingness to stop being so selfish. In order to really receive a message from someone else, we need to actually focus on them, not on ourselves. Once we make that commitment, the rest is easy. But as long as we focus on ourselves, we will ignore the message, distort the message, misunderstand the message—we will not receive it.

May the peace of God be with you.