BEING ORDINARY

I was at a meeting the other day and on my way back from the snack table, I stopped to have a short chat with one of the people who attends one of the churches I pastor. We were joking a bit and talking a bit about the meeting and our Bible study and generally enjoying seeing each other. I made what I thought was a somewhat innocent comment that wasn’t phrased in “ministerial” language. Her response was interesting. She said, “I love it that you are so ordinary!”

We both laughed because I pretended not to know what she meant—and she knew I was pretending. I then thanked her for the compliment. Being ordinary is part of my self-identity. I really don’t want to be seen as “THE MINISTER” or ‘THE PASTOR” or any other “THE”. I am a pastor and I take pride in doing my pastoral and ministerial work well. I have spent a lot of time and effort over the years to ensure that I am good at what I have been called to do. I also appreciate it when people recognize that I am good at what I do. But I really don’t want to be perceived as being something special because of that.

That attitude does sometimes make me feel a bit strange, both in clergy circles and lay circles. Laity have often been taught and encouraged to treat pastors as if our calling turns us into spiritual and moral and general experts, who are somehow out of touch with the rest of humanity because we are so close to God. Other clergy sometimes want to maintain a distance between clergy and laity—one of the ongoing debates in clergy circles, for example, it whether clergy can actually have friends in the church they serve.

My denominational tradition supports my thinking, at least theoretically. Baptists began partly in protest to the elevated position of clergy. We espoused the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, which means that all believers have the freedom and responsibility and ability to approach God directly, without the need for an intermediary. When I begin with that theological position and add to it the Biblical teaching on gifts and calling, I very quickly come to a position that has a equal place for all people of faith.

We are most definitely not equal when it comes to our abilities and gifts—we are very unequal in that area. I am much better at preaching that some of the members of the church, a few of whom can’t even manage to croak out a word when they are in front of people. On the other hand, I am much worse at singing that some of them—my croaking tends to encourage people to call for silent singing or loud organ playing. Some of our church members who can’t preach or sing bring to the congregation the ability to count and care for our church money—they can actually add and subtract numbers and get them right.

Our inequality in terms of gifts and abilities is part of our overall equality. Each gift and ability and individual has a part of play in our church and ministry—and that makes us equal. My gifts are important at times and at other times, they really aren’t important. When the church puts on their annual tea and sale, my gift of preaching and teaching isn’t overly important, which is why I get assigned to the dishpan in the kitchen, where my lack of tea and sale specific gifts isn’t a problem. But the member of the church whose gift of organizing and administering becomes the most important person that day.

I appreciate my gifts and my calling. I work hard at keeping myself current and capable. I want to be the best I can be at understanding and using my gifts. But I don’t want my gifts and calling to stand out simply because they exist. I much prefer the situation where people recognize my gifts, their gifts and other’s gifts and feel comfortable calling on the gifted person for the exercise of their gifts in the appropriate ways—and when the gifts aren’t needed, everyone is equal and ordinary. When we see each other as both gifted and ordinary, I think we have a solid and strong foundation for our church, one that God can and will build on.

May the peace of God be with you.

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LIFE IS GREAT!

I ran into a friend recently whom I haven’t really connected with since his retirement over a year ago. We were both involved in the same event so didn’t have a lot of time to talk but we did exchange the basic information pertinent to our relationship: my knees are worse, he is now serving a church quarter time, I am not retired, he is loving retirement. He sort of wondered why I wasn’t retired because he is finding retirement to be really great.

I could, I suppose, have questioned how great retirement is if he is back at work after such a short time—I think he had been retired only a few months before he started at his new position. He was also involved in the same inter-church program I was in that evening as well, which suggests that maybe his retirement isn’t as retiring as he wanted me to believe. I have no doubt that his life is great right now and that he is enjoying himself—but maybe retirement isn’t the whole reason why he is doing well.

Life needs purpose and direction and meaning, I think. For most people, that is found in the process of work and family and the normal stuff that we do along the way. I am aware that that is a significant over-generalization but I think it does contain a lot of truth as well. I do know that there are many people whose work and family and living situations don’t provide sufficient purpose and direction and meaning. But the truth is that most of us find enough in the realities of living and working to keep going, even if we have times when we want more.

And that is why for many people, retirement creates some serious problems. Suddenly, everything that provided meaning and purpose and hope is gone—and for some people, it is really hard to replace that. In one fishing village that I used to be the pastor for, the men used to have a way of expressing it: a fisher who retired and didn’t go back to the wharf regularly died within a year of retirement. I think they recognized the reality that losing work and not having anything to replace it produced a hopelessness that made life hard to continue.

While this has traditionally been a problem with men, it is becoming more and more a problem for all people. In a more traditional times in the past, men worked outside the home and women worked inside the home, meaning there was still a purpose and meaning for the woman since their job of cooking and cleaning and care giving as still needed. But with everyone needing to work, everyone faces the life dilemma of what gives meaning after retirement.

Some of my older friends in ministry approach this problem by having several retirements. They retire, accept a call to “interim” ministry, retire again, accept another call and so on. I like to joke that they just do this because they really like retirement parties. More likely, they don’t like the feelings that come from not doing what was so important and central to their lives.

So, why write about retirement aside from the fact that it was on my mind after talking with my happily “retired” friend? I suppose part of it is because I plan on retiring someday. I am not sure when—the ministry I am doing now isn’t done yet and I want to see where God is taking me and the churches I have been called to. But I am past retirement age, my pensions will provide a comfortable income, my aging process is producing more and more aches and pains and limits and I am beginning to think that it will be nice at some point to wake up on the morning and not have to get moving because the sermon isn’t done or there is that meeting or I need to lead worship.

So, I am planning on retiring someday—but I am also planning my retirement already. I have a list of things I would like to do and explore. Nothing is written down but I keep seeing and thinking of things I want to try when I have some time. I want to learn how to make chocolate croissants and built scale model Cape Island boats for example. Will that be enough? I don’t know—but if it isn’t, I guess I can try my friend’s part time retirement approach.

May the peace of God be with you.

KEEP MOVING

I was talking with a friend on ministry the other day about our mutual occupation. We were both in the midst of the fall rush. Basically, from mid-September to mid-December, pastors and church workers don’t have much time for anything beyond work. And as the fall transitions to Advent, things get even worse. The time period is filled with special events, new programs, pastoral emergencies, church and denominational meetings—the list goes on and on. I find myself taking a deep breath in the middle of September and basically beginning to run the marathon.

Except that this marathon has a nasty surprise near the end. Fall church programming leads into Advent and Christmas programming. To use the marathon analogy, this marathon ends with a steep uphill climb. I don’t actually run marathons but have children and friends who do—and from their stories of marathons, I am pretty sure that a marathon with a steep hill at the end would be the very last thing they would want to do.

So, with Advent beginning soon, I find myself in the middle of the hill. Because of my preparation process, I hit the hill a bit before some of my colleagues in ministry. I try to stay a week ahead in all my preparation which does give me some psychological and practical wiggle room but also means I hit the crunch earlier. So, this next two weeks are probably the busiest I am going to have. Two sermons, the Bible study for the area churches that seemed like such a great idea last April, the church fund raiser that helps ensure I get paid, the Advent programs that need to be prepared, the Christmas newsletter, the meeting to prepare our next year’s worship schedule, along with all the other stuff that must be done means that I need to take another deep breath to make sure I keep going—I am definitely feeling the steepness of the hill right now.

Based on previous years of ministry (and I have a lot of those), I will get everything done and I will survive the climb. Eventually, the middle of December will come and things will slow down a bit and then, well, there is always the post-Christmas slump which also brings with it the possibility of a Sunday snow storm with produces a cancellation.

The issue for me is always doing the best I can. I used to be concerned with doing my best, which sounds noble and heroic and faithful but which in practise leads to stress, fatigue, anxiety and burnout. I know that I am capable of doing some pretty good stuff—but the unfortunate reality is that I can’t always work to my limits. Or maybe it is better to say that my limits are moved by my circumstances. The fantastic sermon I could produce with unlimited time becomes a somewhat less fantastic sermon because I also have to write the ecumenical study, the Advent candle program and our regular Bible study.

None of them will be my best work—none of them will be as good as what I could produce if I had only that one thing to do. So, each one of them gets the best that I can do given the time and opportunity I have. I can’t do my best work—but I can and will do the best I can in the circumstances.

And I will do what I always do—I will give God and the church my best and then depend on God to take care of the rest. Ultimately, I do what I do because God has called me to be his agent to carry out his will. All that I do passes through him and any effects and results are due more to his divine work than my efforts.

For me, this isn’t a cop out or an excuse of sub-standard work or an extra nap. For me, this is a basic reality that enables me to cope with the impossible task that I have been called to. Even if I could produce me best all the time, it still isn’t good enough. But if I consciously work at giving God and the church the very best I can in any circumstance, then I can take comfort in the reality that God is going to use what I do to accomplish his will.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHERE IS FORGIVENESS?

The Bible study that closes down for the summer was starting up again for the fall. People began arriving and the talking and sharing begins. I sit at the table, enjoying the presence of the group—I miss these sessions. My attention hops from group to group, sampling their conversations until there are so any streams going that I really can’t follow them. One of the sub-groups asks me a question that draws me into their conversation.

They are talking about the latest revelation about someone prominent who has done something that he shouldn’t have done. The conversation doesn’t take the predictable course, with speculation on whether he did or didn’t and whether he will get away with it. Interestingly enough, the incident opened a larger discussion of ethics and morality. Our western culture is in the midst of an ethical upheaval where established and accepted moral standards are being challenged.

While it is too early to tell exactly which direction the process will settle on, there was one question that this little group wanted to talk about. There is much about the new ethic that is commendable: any approach that protects anyone from being exploited and takes away the exploiter impunity is an improvement. When people can expect special treatment because of their age, gender, economic status, race or political persuasion or any other standard, that ethical and moral code needs to be challenged.

This challenge to the status quo is relatively new—but it has fairly deep roots. One could make a case that its roots go all the way back to Jesus and his teachings. But if we are not prepared to go back that far, we can at least suggest that the roots go back to the turbulent 60s. I am pretty sure that the movement will result in a significant alteration on the ethical practises of many in leadership, which is a very good thing. Exploitation and abuse are sin, no matter how accepted and normalized we want to pretend it is.

I have high hopes for this whole cultural process—but I also have a worry. There is an area of the process that probably needs to be given some serious thought. Opening doors on the underlying abuse and exploitation that has been a hidden and accepted part of our western culture is good. But at some point, we need to decide what we are going to do about, with and for the exploiters and abusers. Currently, there doesn’t seem to be much going on in that direction. Revelation and exposure are the key themes right now, with punishment of some form as a minor theme.

But the question that needs to be addressed is this: Is this developing ethical and moral movement going to include a process for forgiveness? Will there be a way for the exploiter and the abuser to put the past behind them and develop a new life? This question is incredibly important because if we say no to forgiveness, we simple invert the present process and turn the victims into the abusers.

Abuse of any sort destroys significant parts of the victim’s life. Exploitation of any sort destroys significant parts of the exploited’s life. But to simple turn the tables and make the abused the abuser and the exploited the exploiter doesn’t make things better because abuse and exploitation also destroy significant parts of the abuser’s and exploiter’s lives.

Forgiveness, on the other hand, allows both sides an opportunity to change direction. It provides a new start. Certainly, there will be effects and consequences for both sides that will have long term effects. Abusers should suffer consequences like imprisonment and loss of status. The abused will suffer consequences like long term emotional struggles. But without a process of forgiveness, both abuser and abused are locked into their respective roles and consequences with no hope of anything better.

Forgiveness unlocks the chains binding both the abuser and the abused, allowing them to see, accept and move beyond the evil. Forgiveness opens new roads that replace the roads blocked by the abuse. Forgiveness also provides a much needed alternative to the dangerous and empty road of revenge and counter-revenge which some find so tempting.

Abuse and exploitation in any form are wrong—and the current movement to stop the institutionalized abuse and exploitation that has been so deeply a part of our culture is a good thing. It will become a great social movement when it begins to include the reality of forgiveness in the process.

May the peace of God be with you.

BACK TO WORK

After a two week vacation, I am back at work—well, I have actually been back at work for a few days now. After two weeks of sleeping in, playing with grandchildren, visiting and all that fun stuff, getting back into the process of writing sermons and all the other stuff that I was supposed to do was hard work. For a variety of reasons, my first week back didn’t include much time with church people, beyond some phone calls and emails, although I did do one Bible study. It was mostly preparation, dealing with stuff that I put off until after vacation, planning for the fall church season and resting my knees from too much time spent with busy and active grandchildren. (In the interest if clarity, the too much time was just on the part of my knees, not the rest of me.)

So, the first real contact I had with church people was Sunday worship. They had had a substitute preacher for two weeks and I has two weeks off, including one Sunday where I didn’t actually attend worship at all. Driving to both worship services, I did my usual contemplation about who would be there and who wouldn’t—in small congregations like ours, it is fairly easy to remember who is going to be where when. I actually don’t know why I do this to myself because my anticipated numbers are always smaller than the actual attendance.

But when I arrived and as people started arriving, we got to the real point. We had missed each other. I was happy to see them and they were happy to see me. We talked about my time off (the family retreat was great, the grandchildren were even better, I needed to get back to work to get a rest from my vacation); their time while I was away (We really appreciated hearing the supply preacher, we miss Bible study, did you know she is having surgery tomorrow, isn’t is great that it isn’t as hot, we need to have a business meeting to discuss this); and anything else we could think of.

It was good to be back. I have to confess that during my vacation, I spent some time wondering why I am still doing what I am doing. I have passed the accepted retirement age, I have sufficient funds available to retire, I have lots of things I would like to do that I don’t have time to do because of work, writing sermons is getting to be harder work that it used to be—I thought of all sorts of things in an attempt to figure out why I am still doing what I am doing.

And while I don’t yet have a complete answer, I do think I found part of the answer at those two worship services the first Sunday back. I am a pastor, called by God to be in a special relationship with a specific group of people. We are in a God ordained relationship where we work together to help each other in our common journey through life and towards God. I am the pastor, called to give whatever it is that God has called me to give. As the church, they are called to receive whatever it is that God has ordained that they receive.

But it is more than that because the roles are flexible and changeable—often, the church is the pastor and I am the recipient of the pastoral input. I teach and preach—but often, the church teaches me and preaches to me. Our relationship is deep, complex and multifaceted. We are joined together by our common faith and by God’s calling. Working in and through all of us, God has something to accomplish in the church, the individuals who make up the church and me.

And so part of the answer to the question of why I am still doing what I am doing is that God isn’t finished with this particular pairing of pastor and church. He still has things to accomplish through us. Church and pastor are still united by God because we both still have stuff to give and receive from each other. This relationship is a powerful and profound one and while I know that someday it will end, that day isn’t right now. We all have more to do.

May the peace of God be with you.

CATCHING UP

As I was writing the last post about the never ending nature of ministry, I realized that there is another aspect of ministry that is probably even more of a problem than the fact that nothing is ever done. And that is the fact that in the end, I am always behind. There is always something sitting there that should have been done yesterday or last week or even last month. On some levels, ministry sometimes feels like mad dash to try and get last week’s work done before the end of this week.

I have a meeting report that should have been presented to the church about three weeks ago. I have an unfinished annual report that would be better if I actually got it done before heading out for the annual meeting. I have been promising certain people that I am going to drop in for a visit for long enough that it is embarrassing to see them now. Some stuff, of course, I can’t get behind on—the sermon always has to be ready for Sunday, a reality that often means the work on the sermon pushes something else into the background.

My problem is compounded by the fact that I am a part-time pastor who believes in being part time. I try to be careful with my work hours and try as much as possible to keep within viewing distance of the agreed upon hours. And so, within the context of my work agreement, two things happen:

• Stuff keeps getting put off to as later date, when there will be more time to get it done.
• I work more hours than I should, knowing that when things slow down, I will take some time off.

Basically, I keep telling myself that someday, I will get caught up because things will slow down and there will be time to get everything done and take some time off. It is a good message to give to myself, even though I know that it really isn’t true. It is one of those messages we give ourselves so that we can cope with the uncopable. There will never be enough time to get everything done; I am not actually ever going to catch up; a delayed task that I finish is probably going to be at the expense of some other task or my time.

Ministry has a way of filling up time and space. Some people deal with this reality by running as hard as they can, hoping that they will get it all done on time and perfectly. And while that might sound commendable, it is a process that actually has another name—it is better called burnout.

I decided a long time ago, probably around my first bout of near burnout that a much better approach was learning how to set and keep priorities. In a world when I am always going to be behind, I decided to learn what could slip, how long it could slip and how to measure the consequences of the slip.

So, a sermon has very limited slip time—and not having the sermon done has serious consequences. A pastoral visit, though important, often has more slip time and occasionally, there are no real long term consequences if I don’t get to it this month. A funeral—no slippage and serious consequences if I skip it. Writing a report about the meeting last month, well, so far the slippage hasn’t been noticed by anyone but me and there are limited consequences if I let it slip some more.

In the end, I know that I am never going to get caught up. Even when I tie up some of the delayed stuff, more gets added to the list. I am probably never going to work off all the extra hours of work time. Someday is actually like tomorrow—I keep looking for it but it never comes. But within that context, I set priorities, I get stuff done, I let things slip, I even manage to take some time off. It is never enough, I will never get caught up but then again being caught up isn’t the goal of what I do anyway.

I do what I do because I have been called by God to do it and in the end, I depend on his leading to help me see what needs to be done now, what can be done later and what just might never need to be done.

May the peace of God be with you.

SOMETHING IS FINALLY DONE

There is an empty space in the corner of the basement that I use for a workshop. The cabinet and shelf unit that I have been working on for several months is finally done. It took several weeks longer that I had planned but it did come in under budget, thanks in part to sales and discount scratch off coupons. This was a winter project designed to fill in some of the “free” time I was anticipating during the three months one of the pastorates I serve was shutdown.

As I have posted here before, the time wasn’t as free as I had anticipated and when it was, the weather wasn’t always cooperative, which wouldn’t have been a big problem except for the fact that I have to do major cutting and sanding outside. But eventually, the job got done and I moved the cabinet and shelf into the dining room where it is now filling up with all the stuff that needed a place so that we could get at other stuff.

Each time I walk through the dining room, I look at the finished project and have a sense of accomplishment. I do notice the imperfections and “not quite right” stuff that are incorporated in the piece because of my less than perfect woodworking skills. But even seeing all those doesn’t take away from the fact that the job is done, the project is finished and it is now doing what it was built for and the next time I have to do anything with it will be the day I take it apart so that we can move, a day which isn’t happening anytime soon.

That might seem like a small thing but for me, it is significant. I have spend most of my life involved in ministry: pastor, chaplain, teacher, missionary, counsellor and one of the most clear and unchanging realities about ministry is that completed projects are few and far between. I can spend a week on a sermon, researching and planning and writing and rewriting to get it just right. I stand in the pulpit and preach the sermon, doing an almost perfect job of presenting the message. (Or I could waste time, skimp on the research, present poorly—it happens.) But the job isn’t done—because I have to do the same thing all over again—and again and again.

Or suppose I am teaching a class. I research the topic, read extensively, write out the syllabus and the individual lectures. I plan the assignments. The class begins, I teach and discuss and mark and do all the work. And then, we finish—but it isn’t over because likely as not, I will need to do the same course again for another group or prepare a different course for a different group. So, I work hard and then I start all over again with the same thing.

Ministry keeps going and the stuff I do in ministry just keeps going as well. Even when I finish one chapter in ministry, another opens up. When I realize that I have finished the particular work God has called me to do on one place, I discover that God’s call and leading are taking me to another place where there is work to be done—it might not be exactly the same kind of work but there are enough similarities that the same processes work.

And that probably goes a long way towards explaining why I like woodworking. No matter how long it takes, no matter how complicated the process, no matter how much delay, there will come a point where the work is actually done and I don’t need to do anything more. The project is done—it sits in place, doing the work it was designed to do and I only need to appreciate the enjoyment I got out of doing the work and that I get out of it doing what it was designed to do.

I am comfortable with the reality that ministry doesn’t have clear and easy to notice completions. In many ways, I appreciate the process nature of ministry. I work well in the context of always being in process. But it is also good to have a part of my life where I can point to clear completions, to things that I have finished and which don’t need my input anymore.

May the peace of God be with you.