WOUNDED HEALERS

I am a pastor and have been a teacher of pastors.  I have worked with pastors in at least four countries, taught pastors from half a dozen countries and done pastoral work myself for over 40 years.  At the beginning of my pastoral career, I came to an important realization that has been strengthened and deepened by all my experience in pastoral work.  That realization is that we pastors are not perfect.

Now, that may seem like a glaringly obvious reality to many non-pastors but it can be hard for we who are pastors to really understand and believe this reality.  Our calling puts us in a privileged and important position.  We get involved in people’s lives when things are painful, hectic, exciting or confusing.  We deal with issues and thoughts and ideas that many people shy away from.  We get asked for advice and answers on many things from the trivial (Why do Baptists use grape juice for Communion?) to the profound (How can God love someone like me?).  We are seen as being the representative of God–when we are present, people can feel like God is present.

The always present temptation is the temptation to believe that we really are what some people think we are and to forget who we really are.  When I am the person to deliver the understanding of the presence of God and his grace, it is all too tempting to believe that something divine has rubbed off on me and that I have somehow been elevated to another level–certainly, in all modesty, I keep the halo hidden but, well, we all know that it is there.

Except that it really isn’t there.  I might be God’s representative, I might presume to speak for God twice each Sunday, I might mediate between the hurting world and the graceful God–but none of the holiness of God has rubbed off on me.  Or better, no more of it has rubbed off on me that has rubbed off on others–and there may be some who have managed to attract even more.

Very early in my ministry, I ran across Henri Nouwen’s book  The Wounded Healer.  Without even reading the book, I was and continue to be struck by the insight and profound truth expressed by the title.  Reading the book just amplifies and solidifies the bedrock reality that no matter what I think I am; no matter that I wrestle with the things of God as a matter of course; no matter that I can and do bring the awareness of God to the darkness of life, I am still human and approach my calling as an imperfect person who must deal with my own imperfections while I help others deal with theirs.  All of us need the grace of God, not just the people I work with.

God calls us in our wounded state and works to heal us.  But we will remain wounded and imperfect for the whole of our existence here.  We never reach perfection because as soon as we finally deal with one wound, God shows us another one.  When we take the bandage off one healed spot, we probably manage to cut ourselves with the scissors God gave us to cut the bandage and so need healing for that new wound.

As a pastor, I long ago realized I can’t really hide my wounds from anyone but myself.  And if I can’t hide them, I needed to learn how to do my calling with them.  Sometimes, I try to do it in spite of my wounds.  But mostly, I have realized that my best work at carrying out my calling comes when I let God work through both my strengths and my weaknesses.  Sometimes, the fact that I can get beyond my bouts of depression help people and sometimes the fact that I can still minister even during a bout of depression helps even more people.  Sometimes, my wounds need healing from the people I pastor, which is also part of God’s plan for me and them.

I am a pastor, which means that in the end, I am a wounded healer.  I need help even as I offer help.  Fortunately, the presence and grace of God means that he is willing to both heal me and work through me, just as he heals and works through those I am called to shepherd.

May the grace of God be with you.

A HUMBLE CONFESSION

As I was writing the last post, I realized that it could suggest that I have a very high opinion of my pastoral abilities.  And I do think that I am pretty good at what I do–I have been a pastor for a lot of years and have helped congregations through some difficult times.  And while I have never been called to a large congregation, I think I have been good for the churches that I have pastored.  As well, I have been called to teach pastors both in Canada and Kenya.

But at the same time,  I have to confess that most of the time in ministry, I really don’t know what I am doing.  Sure, there are some basics:  I need to preach, teach Bible study, visit people, attend (and sometimes chair) meetings, do some counselling, and be there for life transitions like funerals and weddings.  But beyond the basics, I don’t always have great plans and inspiring visions.  I don’t dream (much) of seeing the congregation become a mega-church; I am never sure where we will be next month let alone 5 or 10 years from now.  In truth, sometimes, I can’t even tell you what I will be preaching next Sunday, although that only happens when I forget that the current sermon plan actually ends next week.

None of my congregations have ever given me a coffee mug with the message “World’s Greatest Pastor” printed on it–nor have I even felt that I deserve one.  Even more, there are times when I am convinced that I made a serious mistake when I decided that God wanted me to be a pastor–and more than a few times when I have been convinced that God made a serious mistake by calling me to be a pastor.

I get tired of what I am doing; I get depressed when the stress of ministry leads to overwork; I waste time when I could be studying or seeing people; I wonder why God didn’t call me to some other work; I get angry at things that happen in the church; I fantasize about winning the lottery and retiring; I sometimes hope for snow days for more than just the opportunity to go cross-country skiing.

I am a pastor–but even after all these years of pastoring, teaching pastors, reflecting and writing on pastoring, I am still trying to figure out what it really means to be a pastor.  Maybe after I retire sometime in the not too distant future, I will have some time to figure out what it is that I am really supposed to be doing.

I have actually made some progress at figuring it out.  I have learned some things that pastors shouldn’t do.  Some of these I have learned from my own painful experience.  Others I have learned from watching the experience of others–those lessons have been less painful for me but no less painful for congregations and pastors.  Knowing what not to do is actually a helpful start on the road to knowing what to do.

If it is a mistake to scold the congregation with every sermon, as it is, then not only do I know to avoid that but also, I have an opportunity to discover what might be a better use of the sermon.  Teaching during the sermon, encouraging with the message, inspiring congregations through the preaching–all these are much better for everyone than a ranting scold every week.

And even more importantly, I have learned one of the most basic realities of my profession.  Ministry is really about developing relationships with people that can help them and me develop our relationship with God.  In the course of developing those relationships, we may discover God’s leading and empowering to do interesting, exciting and inspiring things but the development of the relationships is the key issue.  We have to really know each other before we can trust each other.  We have to trust each other before we can really open to each other about faith.  We have to open to each other about faith before we can experience the fullness of the presence of God in our midst.

So, day after day, I take my introverted self and go be a pastor–I joke with people, drink coffee with people, cry with people, pray with people, teach people, get taught by people.  I do my job, a job that I don’t always understand and which I sometimes struggle to explain and am not sure how good at it I really am but which God has called me to do.

May the peace of God be with you.

A NOT VERY CHRISTIAN DRIVER

This is a too common and too true story about me.  I am driving on a highway going somewhere.  I have plenty of time to get where I am going–if I am driving, there will be lots of time because I always build into the trip time to stop for coffee, take a bathroom break, change a flat or write a book.  But as I am driving along at my desired speed (which won’t be mentioned to avoid self-incrimination), I pull up behind someone going slower that I want to go.

To make matters worse, it is impossible to pass the person immediately.  There is too much on-coming traffic or no passing lane or the road conditions are poor.  Whatever the reason, I am stuck behind the slower driver, forced to slow down and drive as what I consider a less than optimal speed.  Now, remember, I am not going to be late–I have built in enough time for the trip so that I could probably walk and still make it on time.

My response to the situation is to get very frustrated.  The longer I am behind the slow driver, the more frustrated I get.  When I run the route in my mind, I get even more frustrated when I realize that the next best passing spot is at least 3 minutes away–an eternity at this point.  Then, almost inevitably, I begin to question the sanity of the other driver, wondering why they are even allowed to be on the road, questioning what right they have to be there.  Soon, I wonder who they bribed to get a driver’s license–obviously someone so poor at driving couldn’t have actually passed a driving test.   Finally, the passing zone comes and I get by, making sure to think nasty thoughts about the other driver, his/her family, the driving instructor and inspector and anyone else as well on the way by.

I am not overly Christian when I drive, something that I have been becoming more and more aware of.  And when I am honest, I discover lots of other areas in my life where my Christian faith is set on the shelf while I deal with things in alternative ways.  I get very angry with pastors who abuse churches; I get incredibly judgemental and vengeful towards people who abuse children;  when I see intolerance, I become incredibly intolerant; hearing someone insult and denigrate another group of people caused me to become very insulting and denigrating towards them.

I could take some of the sting out of these revelations by suggesting that I am no different than anyone else but as tempting as that it, and as common as it is, being in the same bad category as a lot of other people doesn’t really deal with the fact that there are large areas of my life that have only a distant acquaintance with my Christian faith.  Knowing that nobody is perfect and that I am in good company doesn’t alter the fact that I am a sinner–nor does it make the confession any easier.

The essential struggle for me–and most other believers–is to deal with the reality that we aren’t what God meant us to be.  I am pretty sure that God’s original design plans for me didn’t include me being a rude, impatient and insulting driver.  I am equally convinced that somewhere in God’s blueprint for me was a specification for how I would drive as a person of faith.  In fact, I actually have read some of those specifications.  The design specs require Christian drivers to be kind, not rude, not self-seeking and not easily angered (I Corinthians 13).

I actually teach those design specifications to others–and get paid for it.  Granted, as a part-time pastor for small, struggling rural congregations,  I am not getting paid big bucks, but I am getting paid to tell other people how to drive as a Christian.  Some of the people paying me actually listen to me and maybe some of them are actually becoming more Christian in their driving.

I  need to listen to my own sermons–I need to practise what I preach.  I know that and have known that forever but every now and then, I need to remind myself that I need the lessons as well and that I need to grow in faith and learn how to integrate my faith into more and more of my life.

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.

I DON’T KNOW

The relatively new Bible study group was deep into a discussion of some point from the study–given the way my Bible study groups work, it probably wasn’t the point I had intended to be discussed but an off-shoot that grew out of someone wondering about an implication of something someone said about the point–our Bible studies tend to be rather free flowing and open.  Anyway, as the discussion progressed, someone wanted to know some Biblical or theological fact that would help them in the discussion.

As the question was being asked, all eyes turned to the supposed resident expert on Biblical and theological issues.  I thought a bit, couldn’t come up with anything, not even one of my “some suggest…” answers.  So, I answered in what to me seemed the most logical way.  I said, “I really have no idea”.  The discussion stopped.  Mouths flew open in surprise.  People looked at me in shock.

Well, to be honest, the reaction wasn’t that strong–but a couple of people at the study were obviously struck by something.  I looked their way and asked what was going on–in Bible study, I am as concerned with people’s reactions as I am with their questions and comments.  One of them said she was surprised–she had never heard a pastor say they didn’t know something before.

Now, in fairness, their spiritual journey had taken them on some interesting paths and they had recently been part of a group whose pastor probably wouldn’t feel comfortable admitting they didn’t know but very quickly, the rest of the Bible study chimed in agreeing that they really couldn’t remember a pastor ever admitting they didn’t know something.  The discussion kept going, with one story after another of pastors and church leaders who wouldn’t admit to being wrong or not knowing something, even when it was clear to everyone else that the individual in question was either wrong or didn’t know what they claimed to know.  Eventually, we got back on track.  When I reported back the next week that I had done some research and had an answer to the question, we had a bit of a replay of the week before.

But I discovered something else–or maybe somethings else.  First, I rediscovered just how insecure many in leadership can be.  I learned a long time ago that my leadership doesn’t depend on my being infallible–because if it did, I would be in serious trouble.  Generally, people see through the defences we build around our insecurity and our attempts to look secure become pathetic signs of our real insecurity.

I also learned that our community became stronger as I offered my weakness.  I love research and reading and learning and tend to have lots of facts about lots of stuff–but I don’t know everything.  I am comfortable offering the community my lack of knowledge.  I also offer my skills as a researcher and student to find out some of the things I don’t know and my skills as a teacher to help them find out what they and I don’t know.  But the exciting thing is that far from being upset that I didn’t know the answer, our community became stronger.

Community grows as we talk and share and are honest with each other.  As one person has the willingness to share both good and bad, it provides encouragement for all to share both good and bad.  When I, as the community pastor, am honest about what I don’t know and can’t do, that provides the rest of the community with an incentive to be equally honest.  Community grows through the examples of its members.  If all the members are honest, the community grows more honest.  If some members pretend, the rest of the community both sees through the pretense and begins to pretend themselves.

In Christian communities, pastors and other leaders play a significant role in the kind of community the church becomes.  When we can be honest and open with the community about both our strengths and weaknesses, what we know and what we don’t know, that set a path for the rest of the community.  We model what we expect the community to become–and in the end, the community will follow the path we model.

A leader in the Christian community needs to think carefully about what kind of Christian community they want to develop and then begin to live in community that way–or maybe, it is better to say, we as leaders need to think carefully about what kind of community God wants and then live that community.

May the peace of God be with you.

FOR BETTER–OR WORSE

As a pastor, I am called upon to do a lot of weddings.  While marriage may not be as popular as it once was, there are still enough people who want to get married and who want to have the ceremony in a church with a real minister that I am quite familiar with the wedding process.  In all of the available ceremony booklets that I know of, part of the commitment the couple makes to each other is a commitment to be there for each other in both the good and bad time–often expressed with the phrases such as , “in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, for better or worse”.

These marriage commitments also provide a good basis for Christian community.  Real community forms around a willingness to accept people as they are–for better or worse.  From the perspective of a person entering the community, this means they need to be willing to offer the community their best and their worst, their strength and their weakness.

In the last post we looked at the difficulties of offering our best to the community.  And as hard as that can be, it is made easy when we compare it to the difficulty of offering the community our weakness.  We generally don’t want to deal with our weakness ourselves, let alone offer it to a group of people.

I am a pastor and so I enter a Christian community with certain expectations–some that I have and some that the community has.  Often, the expectations involve the pastor having it all together–or at least being able to appear to have it all together.  I expect to offer the community my gifts, my wisdom, my insight–my strengths.  I used to expect that I was supposed to act as if I didn’t have weaknesses or needs–my job was to be the pastor, the one to help the rest of the congregation deal with their needs.

Good Christians don’t have needs.  Their faith is strong and effective; their prayers are all they need for any less than perfect area of life; they are to make a net positive contribution to the community.  Good Christians have no fear of offering their best to the community and the community gratefully accepts it.

But none of us, not even we who are pastors, has only good and positive.  And to be the real, honest, effective Christian community that God has in mind for the church, we need to be willing to include our weaknesses in the offering of ourselves to the community.  And for many of us that is really hard.

I can remember as a beginning pastor believing that I could and should do anything that the church needed to have done:  preaching, teaching, visiting, counselling, painting the building, solving all problems, singing in the choir, doing evangelism–I was the pastor.  I worked with church people who were equally positive and hard working.  None of us struggled with depression; none of us were dealing with family issues; none of us were grieving some loss; none of us had problems.  In fact, the rare times when one of us admitted a problem, all of us were shocked and deeply concerned, feeling that perhaps that person was losing their faith.

But as I continued in ministry, I began to admit the truth.  I wasn’t perfect and neither were the deacons, the choir, the trustees, the laity in the pews.  We all had something contribute–but we also all needed something.  And as I began to recognize and accept and speak my limits and needs, I began to discover that far from being an outcast, I was helping a real community develop.  I might not be able to sing–but there were people who could.  I might not be able to avoid bouts of depression–but there were people who would pray for me when I was depressed and even more, who would still listen  to my sermons and my teaching.  In fact, they listened even more because my willingness to share my needs allowed them to offer their help–and between us, we developed a stronger community.

The Christian community needs my strengths–but I need the strengths of the Christian community.  Offering the community both my strengths and weaknesses allows all of us to grow and develop and become the believers and the community that God has in mind.

May the peace of God be with you.

OZYMANDIAS

As I mentioned in the last post, poetry and I don’t have a strong and intimate relationship.  And so it was a bit of a surprise to me to remember and think about the poem that provided the basis for the last post.  It was an even greater surprise to me that as I was writing the post, another poem from long ago popped into my mind.  And I even knew where to find this one–it is in one of the few university textbooks I have left.

Shelley’s poem Ozymandias describes a traveller who finds a ruined statue in a desert with these words written on its base:  “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings.  Look at my works, ye Mighty and despair!”. The poem ends with a description of the barren desert stretching as far as the eye can see.  For a variety of reasons, that poem has also stuck in my mind and keeps coming back at various times–enough so that I can always find it in the book when I want to.

I think the reason it keeps coming back because God knows that I need the injection of realism the poem brings.  In the end, no matter what I or someone else builds, things will change and I will be a long forgotten curiosity.  The obvious application is not to take myself and my work too seriously.  My work in churches is important–but once I leave the church, I become the former pastor and what I did may or may not have lasting effects.  I have to let God be in control–I am reminded that I am seeking to do his will and work and build his church, not a monument to myself.

One of my Ozymandias moments came one day when I member of a church I pastored years ago met me in a store and struggled to remember my name and when I was at the church.  This was one of the significant leaders of the church when I was there.  Since she wasn’t struggling with any form or dementia, it did remind me that I do what I do not to be remembered but to follow God–or at least, I am supposed to do that.

While that application of the Ozymandias principle is important and humbling and therefore somewhat painful at times, there is another application that I find more helpful.  Over the years, I have been hurt more than I care to admit by church members and leaders.  It seems like my personality and approach to ministry put me in positions where I am on the losing side of issues with other leaders.  Without going into details, at several point in my ministry, I have ended up battered and bruised, depressed and even unemployed as a result of such events while the others have continued on in the ministry I loved and lost.

Ozymandias helps here–God has a way of using effective tools in a variety of ways.  The pain and difficulty and the loss take on a new perspective when seen through the lens of the crashed statue and grandiose inscription.  Both I and the person(s) I had issues with are Ozymandias.  No matter what we build and what battles we win, eventually, things will change and we will become curiosities and our battles will be covered with the desert of time.

This, by the way, is not meant to be a cynical and depressing post.  I actually find this a freeing thought.  Ultimately, Ozymandias teaches me that God lasts and what I do is temporary.  God’s plans and directions will never crumble and they don’t depend on me.  The plans and schemes of those I disagree with are also not the same as God’s plans and they too will pass.

In the end, I think God uses Ozymandias to remind me of what is really important.  The poem helps me remember the advice of Jesus from Matthew 6.33, where he tells us to “…seek first his kingdom and his righteousness..”  In seeking his kingdom, I need to remember that I am helping God accomplish his goal and that it isn’t about me.  God will work through me on my good days and around me on my bad days and in the end, I hope that the glory will be his.

May the peace of God be with you.