TWO LOSSES

Earlier this year, I was saddened by two deaths that happened around the same time. Billy Graham died and his death was followed by that of Stephen Hawking. Given the fact that these two men had what appeared to be vastly different spheres of influence, very few reports that I saw made any connection between the two. But I admired both of them and both were influential in my life and the two death coming so close together had an effect on me.

I really don’t know if there was any real connection between the two—my speculation is that each at least knew of the other but probably didn’t spend a lot of time reading each other stuff or pondering each other’s teachings. In fact, given the misguided assumption on the part of many in the modern western world that science and religion don’t mix, there are more than a few who might suggest that Hawking and Graham would likely have been enemies, since they were widely recognized as leaders in their respective spheres.

But for me, well, I didn’t see a conflict. I am a science nerd and a theology nerd. And in truth, there have been lots of times when I have found myself working hard to wrap my head around both men’s ideas—and more than a few when their ideas have come together in that confusing mix in my mind and created a theological-scientific thought process that resulted in a headache and more confusion.

Unlike some, I don’t approach theology and science with the expectation of conflict and tension. When I struggle to read Hawking on time and the origin of all things or when I read Graham on faith and salvation, I don’t weigh one against the other to see who is right. Thinking about heaven and the afterlife seems to naturally lead into thinking about time and what it is—Graham leading to Hawking. Thinking about the Big Bang naturally leads to thinking about who and why—Hawking leading to Graham.

Both have had an effect on my thinking and my theology. Both have troubled and inspired me. Both have confused and irritated me. Both inspired agreement and disagreement . Both have helped me understand more about myself, my place in creation and my faith. And as a result, the deaths of both left me saddened and feeling like my world has shrunk a bit.

I didn’t spend a lot of time reading and studying the writings of either. I own and have read books by both and enjoyed them. Mostly, I was content to know that they were both there, both doing their thing and both accessible through their writings and so on should I ever decide to really follow up on their work. Honestly, I sometimes felt the Graham’s stuff was a bit too easy to understand and Hawking’s was a bit too hard to understand—but that didn’t stop me from buying and reading some of their work.

I am never going to be an evangelist like Graham nor a theoretical scientist like Hawking but I do appreciate their work—and have never felt a need to decide which body of material was more valuable to me or to the world. Each did their thing and each did it well and both taught me important stuff about God, creation and even myself.

I am not interested here is moralizing about their lives, choices or spiritual fates. That isn’t my job. God in his grace makes those kinds of decisions. Me—well, I admired both, I read both and I learned from both. Their lives and their work and their personality were and are important to me. I can and will continue to appreciate the contribution both have made to me personally and the world in general. And most of all, I will not fall into the trap of seeing these people as representations of sides in some mythical and mystical eternal battle.

These were two people who gave themselves completely to their callings and in the process of chasing their dreams and visions, showed the rest of glimpses of deeper and higher truths that we can all benefit from. So, to Stephen Hawking and Billy Graham, I say, “Thank you—I will miss you.”

May the peace of God be with you.

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ON THE OTHER HAND…

Both the part-time pastoral positions I hold consist of small congregations meeting in old buildings that have been a part of their communities for well over 100 years in the case of newest of the congregations and well over 200 years in the case of the oldest congregation. All of them are currently struggling. We deal with a variety of issues—aging membership, declining abilities, financial shortfalls and so on.

We sometimes feel that we are pretty much alone in whatever we are doing. But the truth is that we have a wider support base than we realize. That wider support base may not consist of people who attend our worship or support us financially but that base it present. The communities around us pay attention to us and tend to know what is going on within our fellowship.

When we are being faithful and doing what we are called to do, the community knows—and whether we know it or not, they appreciate us. We are salt and light and in a variety of ways, the wider community appreciates our salt and light.

But when we are not being faithful and not doing what we are called to do, the wider community also sees that—and they don’t appreciate that at all. Instead of being salt and light in our community, enabling people to discover something about the love and grace of God, we become anti-salt and anti-light, giving the community a message about faith that upsets and antagonizes them.

They see what we are doing, they talk about what we are doing—and they are offended that we would act in such a non-faithful way. This is a reality that we in the church often forget, especially, it seems to me, when our church is small and struggling. We become so wrapped up in our perpetual and demanding attempt to keep the doors open that we forget we are being watched by a great many people whose understanding of God’s love and grace come from what they see and hear concerning our congregation.

But the wider community sees and talks and makes decisions based on what they see. When we get ourselves into a mess and end up fighting and not talking to each as we try to ensure our side wins the war over what colour hymn books to buy, the wider community sees us as flawed salt and light. We bring harm to the wider community, not just our community. Our internal mess creates a crisis in the wider community. We disappoint and hurt them. They want us to be a positive example of what faith can do and when we fail to do that, both we and the wider community hurt.

Our church hurts because we are failing to follow the path we have committed ourselves to. And the wider community hurts because the salt and light they want and need has been taken from them. They don’t have a clear connection with God, a connection that they want to have in place even if they don’t seem to pay much attention to us and what we do. The anger and disillusionment and frustration we see in the wider community when the church messes up is a sign of several things. It shows that the community is watching us. It says that the community wants us to be what we claim to be. It proclaims that we hurt them when we aren’t being adequate salt and light. We have failed our community as well as ourselves and God when we aren’t the gathered community that we have committed ourselves to being.

I am not sure that we in the church pay enough attention to this reality—and I am equally sure that a lot of what we see as resistance to the faith in local communities is a result of the fact that we have not been the salt and light we could or should be in our community. Our failure to love each other as Jesus loves us becomes a failure to our community, a failure that they feel more deeply than we or they can fully understand.

We exist in a wider community—and that community sees us and wants us to be salt and light. When we are anti-salt and anti-light, the wider community sees and reacts strongly. We have failed ourselves, we have failed God and we have failed the community.

May the peace of God be with you.

CLEARING SNOW

Palm Sunday was supposed to be either the last of the once a month winter worship services or the first of our regular weekly worship services—either way, the winter break was over and it was time to start up the ministry at one of the part-time pastoral situations I serve. But there was a problem—not a problem that I paid much attention to but a problem nonetheless.

The problem began with a late season snowstorm that ended up giving us as much snow as we had all winter. That meant that the parking lot and driveway at the building we were going to use for worship was filled with snow. Since it is a 60 kilometer round trip for me to get to the building, I didn’t know about the state of the parking lot—but the people who attend knew and were concerned. They decided that they needed to have the lot cleared and made some calls to find someone to do the job. Since we don’t normally use the building during the winter, we don’t have a regular person to clear our snow.

The guy who showed up to clear the parking lot had one basic requirement that he insisted on strongly—he didn’t want to be paid for doing the work. He wasn’t a member of our congregation. He didn’t attend worship regularly. He hadn’t been a visitor at some point. My guess is that he likely hadn’t been inside the building in years, it ever. His closest connection with the church was that years ago, his grandmother had been a member of the congregation. But he wanted to clear our parking lot for free.

We talked about this during our worship. After hearing that what he had done, those of us who were there were grateful—so grateful that during the prayer time, one person asked if we could give thanks for the person’s generosity, which sparked a larger conversation on why he would do that which led us into a discussion of the role of our church in the community.

Given that we had seven people counting me in worship that morning, it would be easy to see ourselves as insignificant and unimportant with no real impact on the community. But incidents like this suggest that we might have a bigger influence and role in the community that we realize. One of the comments made during the discussion was that people in the community regularly ask how the church is doing—they don’t actually come to worship but it seems important to them that we exist and are doing okay.

In my visiting in the community, I regularly make contact with people who don’t attend our church but who seem to know what is going and even have opinions about what we should and shouldn’t be doing. They also don’t attend but somehow, we are important to them.

It seems to me that what we are seeing and hearing is connected to something Jesus said in Matthew 5.13-14, where he tells believers that we are salt and light in the world. The gathering of believers, the church, exists for many reasons, one of which is to be a witness of God’s love. Our presence in the world and the local community by itself is to be a witness, a salting and lighting of the world and local community with the a visible representation of the love and grace of God.

If we are doing our salt and light job well, the community will notice and respond. The response might be limited but it will be there. It might take to form of a willingness to clear our parking lot for free. It might show when there is a crisis that prompts someone to ask a member to say a prayer for them. It might be the response to the salt and light they see will prompt them to seek a stronger sense of God during some crisis.

Whatever the response, we are called to be aware that we are salt and light in our community. Our existence is rooted in more than just our numbers and our internal activities. We are the church, and our existence makes a difference not just to our group but to the world and our local community. Our salt and light make a difference, a difference that we might not always see but which is real and important.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE MYSTERY

 

I have always loved science. I can remember as a kid of perhaps 10-12 or so conducting an experiment. I put a bottle of water on the window ledge of my bedroom in the winter and recording each morning whether it was frozen or not—we lived in an uninsulated house with no central heating so the water actually froze some nights. An early Christmas gift was microscope, which I wore out looking at stuff.

I want to know about stuff and understand stuff and love the question “why”, along with its siblings and cousins like “How” and “what” and on and on. Discovering how something works makes my day—and it is even greater if I discover why something works wrong and can figure out how to make it work better. It seems that I have an essential curiosity that pushes me to understand and define and describe and explain.

I bring this drive with me to the church and my faith. As a pastor, I am always examining the church, seeking to understand it. All through my ministry, I have done experiments in the church to make it more effective and more church. Let me quickly assure you that always, the experiments have been done with the informed consent and enthusiastic participation of the church—we all know what we are doing and why. We just embarked on a series of experiments with our worship in one of the sets of churches I serve. We generally like our worship but we want to see if there are things that will make it even more worshipful.

In my personal faith, I have the same drive to understand and explain and even to experiment. I want to understand the fullness of my faith. I want to know what is true and what is fake and what is possible and what isn’t possible. I am sometimes in trouble with colleagues in ministry and people in the church because I can and do ask difficult questions that undercut or repudiate some of their cherished theories. I ask blunt questions about “miracles” people tell me about—the fact that someone’s cousin’s nephew’s girlfriend’s garbage man’s acquaintance knew someone who lived in the same city as someone who wrote about a miraculous healing he heard about isn’t sufficient validation for me to rejoice in the wonder of God’s works.

I approach everything with an analytical, critical, searching attitude. I want to know and understand and asking questions, analysing and studying are basic to me and my faith. But for all of that, I realized a long time ago that there are limits to what I can learn and understand. I can learn a lot about God and faith and the church. But there comes a point where I can’t learn anymore or understand any more. I realized early on in my faith life that I am human and God is God and there is a gap there that I cannot get beyond. I cannot squeeze the whole of God into my finite being.

I learn as much as I can. I study and meditate and experiment and develop theories—but at some point, I always come up against the reality that there is a point where my abilities fail. The fullness of God is beyond me. I can understand the love of God. I can observe and describe examples of the love of God. I can experiment with the love of God. (Does God still love me if I…). But I can’t figure out why God loves. Sure, I can get theological and say that God loves because that is his nature—but that is playing with words not real understanding.

God is God and even though I have devoted a good part of my life to understanding God, there is a reality there—as a finite human, I am not capable of understanding completely the infinite God. And I am okay with that reality. I want to know and understand and I will continue to study and observe and experiment. But I am also a person of faith. I may not be able to understand why God would choose to love all of humanity including me—but I can and do believe it. I don’t need to understand everything because I trust God.

May the peace of God be with you.

ON THE OTHER HAND…

As I mentioned (or confessed) in the previous post, I have a deep and strong connection with my electronic devices. Keyboards and screens and processors and memories are a basic and significant part of my life—a day that involves my not looking at some type of screen at some point would be possible but it would likely involve a total wilderness experience or a coma. On second thought, I would most likely have my camera on the total wilderness experience so maybe only a coma would keep me from my electronics—I probably wouldn’t be paying attention to the medical device screens I was hooked up to.

So, in many ways, I am a typical member of the electronic age—plugged in, carrying a backup power supply, using the car connectors to charge equipment and rarely without at least one electronic device with me. But there is one line that I have yet to cross and given my personality, may not cross.

I first became aware of the line after the wide spread adoption of smart phones. It became more and more common to see people seated together at a restaurant absorbed in conversations—with their smart phones, not each other. I discovered that more and more conversations with people were being put on hold as the other person answered their phone or read and responded to a text. As a teacher, I found myself having to make and enforce anti-phone call rules in class, a decidedly unpopular move for many students.

It seems that many people have shifted their relationship priorities. Anyone on an electronic connection automatically becomes more important than a real, live, physically present human being. This is, I think, a real problem. It is likely also a sign of a huge shift in human relationships that likely isn’t going to go in a good direction.

My uneducated guess is that the shift began innocently enough. Cell phones began as an expensive novelty—and all of us like to show off our expensive novelties. Answering a ringing cell phone was a way of letting people know that you had one—and those of us who like technology weren’t all that upset because we wanted to see the cell phone anyway. But at some point, some people began to prioritize electronic communication over face to face communication.

I think one of the underlying factors is the reality that face to face communication can be tricky. When we are with people physically, we can never really tell or control what will happen—personal communication can be messy, what with all the feelings and potential mis-understandings and non-verbals and all that other stuff. Electronic communication, even with video is clean, crisp and more than a little impersonal.

We can separate ourselves more from the person and all the stuff that goes along with really relating to people in a full face to face communication. With electronics, we either can’t see or can ignore non-verbals. We have some real distance, not just physically but also psychologically. No matter how clear the picture on the screen and how high quality the sound, communicating with my grandchildren electronically just isn’t the same as holding them on my lap while we get silly together.

I am afraid that we as a culture are using electronics to distance ourselves from each other. We want the semblance of communication and relationship without the demands and potential messiness of real face to face communication. That goes against a lot of what I believe.

Even the fact that I am a confirmed introvert doesn’t lessen my concern over the distancing effect of electronic communication. I believe that we were created as social beings and best relate to each other when as many barriers as possible are removed. I believe that Jesus’ command to love each other as he loved us require that we do more than text and spend screen time with each other. To really communicate, we need to be present so that we can hear and see and, according to some studies, even smell each other because all those means of communication are essential to the process.

So, let me make a suggestion. Use some screen time to send a message to someone inviting them to have a real face to face conversation.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE ELECTRONIC AGE

When I was growing up, our phone was a big, heavy, black wall mounted unit that connected us to the world via a party line. We kids could use the phone, if we had a good reason and if it wasn’t long distance and if no one else on the line needed the phone. There wasn’t any problem knowing if someone else wanted the line—they picked up their phone and told us they needed the line. Our needs as kids were obviously less important than their adult needs.

We had a phone, a radio and a TV—and that was really the extent of our electronics. But I was aware early on that there were fascinating things coming: computers, for example, were starting to make inroads on life beyond research centres and secret government activities. I read about possible applications of computers and wished that I could somehow see a real, working computer, something I actually got to do during my senior year in high school when we were taken on a class trip to the nearby university and see their computer which filled a room bigger than our school classroom.

I really appreciated seeing that computer—but never really anticipated that I would sit in my living room with a laptop computer of my own with more computing power than those early computer developers likely dreamed of, a computer which allowed me to write and research and work and play and communicate. And when my laptop is too big and bulky, I have a tablet. And when even that tablet is too cumbersome, I have my phone. There is also my ereader, which might be a bit of overkill but it does keep a lot of books in one place and because I only use it for reading, the battery lasts forever. The computer, tablet and phone will all take pictures but I am fussy when it comes to pictures and so also have a nice digital camera which also has more computing power than the computers used to support the moon landings.

I also own a couple of pens—well, I actually own a lot of pens but only two of them are worth keeping track of. One was given to me by a friend about 30 years ago and the other was given to me by my mother when I assisted at her wedding to my step-father. Both pens have special places and get used occasionally—but the truth is that for me, pens are mostly for show because most of what I write, from sermons to shopping lists gets written on some sort of electronic device.

Although I spend a great deal of time with people talking and listening, I also spend a lot of time connecting with people via text, Sype, and email. In my more honest moments, I confess that my introverted self prefers text and email, although there are lots of times when face to face unplugged is great—but if what needs to be communicated can be effectively communicated via a keyboard, I am right there.

What would happen if all my electronics suddenly stopped working at the same time? That is a nightmare scenario I don’t even want to think about. When my laptop died recently, I was stressed until I got the replacement up and working, even though I had a perfectly good but somewhat obsolete backup to work with. I fret about the decreasing battery life on my tablet. My ancient ereader won’t talk to my new laptop. My phone is over three years old and who knows how much longer it will last.

I might not have been born in the electronic age—but I have certainly made myself at home in it. Even my Bible is electronic. I have paper Bibles and am actually using one now for my personal devotional reading—but that is only because I don’t have a new translation on any of my electronic devices to read. Most of my Bible work is done with the benefit of multiple, fully searchable translations on some piece of electronics—the only one that doesn’t have multiple Bibles on it is my camera.

For me, there is no problem here. As long as hard drives work, batteries produce power and chargers do their thing, I am going to enjoy my electronics. I will keep and appreciate my two special pens but the ink in their refills may dry out before I use it up.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE EXPERIMENT

I did something recently that I haven’t done too often in my preaching career. I used the same sermon in three different congregations. Normally, I try to match the sermon to the needs of the congregation, something which requires different approaches even with the same Scriptures and themes.

But recently, well, using one sermon is three different places just sort of evolved. The sermon began as part of a preaching plan for the year round pastorate that I serve. But since the other pastorate has closed down for three months, I have been doing some fill in preaching for another local congregation. Rather than put together a whole new sermon, I wrote the original sermon with them in mind as well as the regular congregation.

And then, after getting back from vacation and picking up all the pieces and getting back into things, I realized it was also the week to prepare for the monthly worship service we have at the pastorate that has closed for the winter. When we made this plan last November, I had visions of preparing a special message that would fit there and help us celebrate being back together after several weeks.

But the time just wasn’t there—nor was the energy or creatively necessary to pull things together. I expect that playing with grandchildren may have depleted my creativity storehouse, although a sleepless night on the flight back home probably didn’t help. Given the situation, the special sermon became the already written sermon. I felt a bit guilty, but not guilty enough to force myself to write a whole new sermon.

There were certainly some minor differences in the delivered sermons. In one congregation, I was more tied to the manuscript because one of the worshippers is quite deaf and follows the sermon with the aid of a printed copy of the sermon so I can’t ad lib as much as I might like. In the other two, I could wander a bit. But in the end, all three congregations got the same basic message, with the same illustrations and even the same hand gestures.

Because my mind generally works in a structured and questioning way, I began to look at this as an experiment: I was going to see how one sermon played out in three different congregations. I would look for differences in response—how well people listened, what they said, how many slept and so on. Mind you, the experiment would be quite limited in scope since the process of leading worship and preaching takes most of my energy and focus. Couple that with the fact that data recording isn’t really possible in that context and I had a very unscientific experiment. If it had been offered as a project in one of the classes I have taught on research methodology, I would have rejected it.

But over the course of two Sundays, I preached basically the same sermon three times. My biased and unscientific observation is that it went over fairly well. People seemed to respond to the basic theme; they responded well to the humour I used to drive the point home and a significant portion of each congregation made positive comments about the message.

It probably helped that all three congregations have a lot in common coming out of the fact that they are all small, struggling congregations wondering about their future. My sermon writing mind was probably thinking about all three on some levels when I was writing the message. And the theme touched on an issue that is pretty common to most Christian congregations and which has been an issue for all three at some point in their recent history.

I think, though, that in the end, the sermon worked not because of my unconscious mind pulling all three congregations together; not because I had great illustrations; not because I am such a great orator—in the end, the sermon worked in all three places because I did my best in the circumstances and the Holy Spirit did the rest.

I have discovered that this is an important faith reality: I am responsible before God for doing the best I can in any given situation. But in the end, the results are the work of the Holy Spirit, who can and does take both my best and my worst and accomplish God’s will. It is better for all though, when I give God my best than when I give him less than my best.

May the peace of God be with you.

WOODWORKING

I like working with wood. I am not very good at it and I sometimes lack the patience that it requires but I do like taking a piece of wood and playing with it—measuring, cutting, sanding, joining and all the rest. There is something relaxing about the process and also very gratifying if I manage to produce more than sawdust and scrap wood. As far back as I can remember, working with wood has been something that I have enjoyed. As a kid, I remember using scrap pieces of ¼ inch plywood to make a toy airplane and even remember having a discussion with the guy at the hardware store about what nails were best for joining the pieces of plywood together.

Whenever we move, one of the basic steps in the settling in process is to develop a work area where my tools can be set out and organized. When we have gone to Kenya to work, I have always carried some tools with me and bought others there so that I could continue playing with wood. Generally, when we leave, some local craftsman benefits from an upgrade to his tool kit because I can’t bring back everything I bought there.

My tinkering with wood does have some benefits for my ministry. I have lots of stories of mistakes and poor execution to liven up an otherwise dull sermon. Now and then, I can talk tools and projects with someone who might not otherwise talk to a minister. Sometimes, my limited skills come in handy for a church work day.

But overall, my enjoyment of woodworking doesn’t have much connection with my ministry. I suppose I could force it and draw comparisons based on Jesus’ carpentry background but I don’t want to do that. And more importantly, I don’t need to do that. Woodworking is one part of who I am and doesn’t have to fit perfectly with everything else. We human beings are a collection of bits and pieces that taken together make us who we are.

But the bits and pieces don’t have to fit together seamlessly and perfectly. Some of them simply don’t fit together all that well, in fact. I might get the occasional sermon illustration from my poor woodworking skills and now and then be able to pound nails at the church building as part of a work day but mostly the connection between my ministry and my woodworking is that the woodworking needs to exist in the cracks and spaces left over from ministry.

Rather than we human beings existing as a unified and complete finished project, we are more like the pile of boards and tools that clutter my woodworking area in the basement. The stuff there is all valuable and important but a lot of it doesn’t really fit together. I am not going to go through the pile and get rid of stuff that doesn’t fit together, though, because all of it as a use, even if that use is more potential and theoretical that practical right now.

The short piece of scrap wood that I tossed on the pile months ago may not look like much but it just might have a use at some point—it may prop up an uneven piece of furniture; in might become a wedge for my gluing clamps; it might become kindling for a fire—but it will have a use, somewhere, somehow.

And without sounding too much like a preacher, all the bits and pieces of my life have a use somewhere, either in practise or in theory. The skills and knowledge and characteristics that make me me belong and have a place, even if it is hard to see how they fit. Truthfully, they may not actually all fit well together. My love and appreciation of science sometimes gets me in trouble with less scientifically inclined members of the faith. My love of woodworking doesn’t much help me in the pulpit—and can even be a distraction at times if I happen to look too closely at the fit and finish of the pulpit and lost track of where I am in the sermon because I am wondering how they did that particular joint or how I could improve the pulpit.

The various parts of me make up who I am—it is a package that is changing and developing but which God has declared loveable and important—and who am I to argue with God?

May the peace of God be with you.

IT’S GONE

I had a conversation with a couple recently that ended with a discussion about the health of one of the family pets. It may have a serious illness and the conversation briefly touched on their worry and anxiety over what might happen and how they would deal with it. There are some who might find that conversation a bit pointless, suggesting that it is an animal, it happens, get over it.

While I am not personally an animal person, I am aware that this is a difficult and painful situation for many people. We human beings develop significant attachments with other people, animals and inanimate objects—and when those connections are threatened, damaged or broken, we are going to react. Whenever we are in danger of losing something to which we are attached, we are going to have a grief reaction.

Our reaction to losing someone or something from our lives isn’t something that we have a lot of control over. We might thing we can control it—but often the control takes the form of denial or repression. We pretend that we are not bothered by the loss. Some of us can pull off the pretence fairly well for a time but eventually, denial and repression are going to catch up with us and we will have to deal with the loss that we didn’t deal with when it happened.

I am thinking about loss a bit these days, partly because helping people deal with loss is a basic and essential part of a pastor’s job. I tell students that helping people deal with the grief connected with loss is probably the single biggest part of our jobs as pastors, especially when we remember that any loss produces some level of grief reaction.

So, when the couple mentioned their sick pet, I was professionally prepared. But I was also personally connected as well. For most of the past week and a half, I have been dealing with a loss myself. My laptop has a hard drive that is crashing. Now, before you think I am crazy or overly nerdy, remember that we get attached to things as well as people and losing the source of the attachment is going to produce a grief reaction.

I have had the laptop for six years and it has traveled across Canada with me, it has lived in Kenya with me, it connected me to the rest of the world and it allowed me to write stuff that I can actually read and understand the next day, something that my handwriting hasn’t allowed for many years.

I liked my laptop and was used to it and it was comfortable. It had its problems and scars and limitations—but it was mine and I did a lot of stuff with it. I will soon have a new laptop—the old, back up laptop from the bottom shelf of the TV cabinet is okay but it is ancient and heavy and may not last all that long. I am not looking forward to the process of setting up a new laptop with various programs and files and all the bits and pieces of my electronic life but I am sure that once I get that done, I will attach to the new laptop.

Our grief reactions are a very personal and private and subjective thing. They grow directly out of our attachment and connection with what we have lost or are losing—and we are the only ones that get to determine the level and severity of our reaction, or rather, we are the ones who have to deal with the level and severity of our reaction. The fact that I am not an animal person doesn’t mean that I can minimize the grief of someone losing a pet, any more than a conformed technology hater gets to minimize my grief over the dead laptop.

In the end, we all need to accept and recognize our losses by letting ourselves grieve as we need to. We also need to recognize the essential subjectivity of grief—a loss that we can completely ignore can and will affect others deeply. Even if we don’t agree with the level of their grief, we can provide support and compassion.

May the peace of God be with you.

SETTING LIMITS

I have been involved in some form of ministry for my entire working life. While I have mostly been the pastor of small, rural congregations, I have also had the privilege of serving as a jail chaplain, a teacher of pastors in Canada and Kenya and a pastoral counsellor. Part of the reason I do what I do is because I am deeply conscious of the calling that God has given me to the various forms of ministry I do. There have been times I have resented God’s calling, times when I have fought against it and a few times when I have asked, begged and demanded that God rescind that call. But in the end, I do both accept and appreciate the calling that God has given me.

Another part of the reason why I do what I do is because in the end, I like helping people. Now, I am pretty sure that is connected with the calling–it is one of the gifts or qualities or attributes that God has given me as part of the tool kit that comes with his calling. When God calls us to anything, he also provides the equipment that we need to follow his leading. But whatever the reason, I actually like helping people.

That can be a mixed blessing. We who like helping people do a lot of good for a lot of people but we can also do a lot of harm to a lot of people. A lot of the difference can be attributed to our motives for helping.

If I am helping people to satisfy my need to help out, I am probably going to cause more harm than good because I am more concerned with what I will get out of the process than what will really help in the process. I will likely end up diminishing the people I want to help because I put myself before them.

When my helping takes away the individual’s freedom to make their own choices, I have actually ceased helping them. When I do counselling for example, it really isn’t my place to tell people they have to stop doing something, no matter how destructive it might be for them. I can help them see the consequences of their actions, I can help them formulate different ways of dealing with stuff, I can even be willing to help hold them accountable. In some situations, I can and have told people I will have to report them to appropriate authorities but I can’t make them change. But I can’t actually make them do whatever it is that we are talking about.

Learning and remembering that one basic reality has saved me and those I minister to a great deal of pain, confusion and emotional turmoil. A real helper is one who has real and realistic limits. I can’t live another person’s life–and I can’t make them live their life the way I think it should be lived. I can only help them as they seek to deal with their own stuff as best they can. I can offer tools, support, counselling, accountability–but I can’t make them.

That means that there are a lot of times when my attempts to help are frustrated. It means that there are times when the proper and best response are really clear to me and the people I am trying to help and they still chose a lesser response. There are times when I get angry because of how hard I have worked only to have someone make poor or even self-destructive choices. There have even been times when I have had to stop my involvement because of the frustration.

But learning that limit has also been liberating and enabling for me in my ministry and my helping of others. I like helping–but I need to begin with the reality of the otherness of the people I am helping. They have a right to be themselves, even if I disagree with their definition of themselves. I need clear and strong limits on my helping so that I don’t try to take over their life or their issues. I am there to help, not to dominate or command or take over. As one poet from another age put it, “Good fences make good neighbours”.

May the peace of God be with you.