THINKING, FEELING AND BELIEVING

            Right now, I have been doing quite well when it comes to depression.  While I have experienced some bouts of tiredness that result from overwork, they have not transmuted into depression.  So it is a good time to look at my depression and think about something that I realized a while ago that has been a very important factor in how I deal with depression.

When I am depressed, I feel miserable.  I am an introvert so I am not overly social but when I get depressed, it is worse.  I feel tired all the time.  I have a dark and negative view of life–nothing will work out.  At the same time, my thinking gets distorted.  I no longer want to write or work or lead Bible study–all of it becomes a job and half, a job and a half I would rather not have.

When I am depressed, I feel depressed.  Very early in the process, I recognize what it happening and know I am depressed–my thinking tells me I am depressed.  Because I am oriented towards thinking, I can probably figure out why I am depressed, it I can muster up enough energy and initiative to do it.  When I am depressed, I feel depressed, my thinking is depressed and I can follow the thinking-feeling process around and around in circles.  I feel depressed, I think I am depressed and both my thinking and feeling conspire to keep me there.

But I made a discovery many years ago.  I have feelings and I am a thinking person–but I am also a person of faith.  And that faith has a deep and powerful effect on both my thinking and feeling.  It has a powerful effect no matter what–but when I actively and consciously involve my faith in the depression, it has an even more powerful effect.

It all came into focus during one spell of depression.  For most people suicidal thoughts are part of the depression  process at some point.  But in a flash of divine insight, I realized that I generally didn’t give suicide much thought during my depression.  It was there but I never really looked at it as a serious option.  That insight was startling enough that even in my depression, I had to think about it.

Now, the process was slower and more difficult because of the depression but I eventually realized that deep down, underneath the depression, beyond the thinking, there was a powerful core of faith–I might feel depressed, I might be thinking depression but I still believed that God was there and that his love and grace were carrying me and that faith was more important and significant in my life than either the depression or the disordered thought process.

I believe–and that belief creates a solid and secure foundation for everything else in my life.  Because I believe, I have hope–and the best and most effective antidote for depression is hope.  The hope my faith produces isn’t dependent on what I am thinking or feeling, it isn’t dependent on what is happening or not happening in my life, it isn’t lessened by my depression.  It is just there, forming the core of my being.

So, I get depressed–but because I believe, I am depressed in the presence and power of God and no matter how far down I get, that faith is going to be there.  And because it is there, I know that the depression isn’t the end nor the be all of my life–there is more because of God.

And once I re-discover that core of faith, God can and does work within me to give me whatever I need to overcome the depression.  And that is true whether the causes of the depression change or not.

As I write this, I am aware that it sounds like I am playing games in my mind or denying what is really going on.  And I may be doing some of that sometimes–but the bottom line for me is that I am a person of faith and so I do believe that God is present and willing to help.  And so I call upon that faith to help me when my thinking and feeling get distorted by depression or something else.  And really, if that isn’t a valid expression of faith, what it the point of having faith in the first place?

May the peace of God be with you.

Advertisements

SABBATH

One of the interesting but often unspoken realities of any form of ministry is that it can be very hazardous to one’s spiritual health.  On the surface, that seems like it shouldn’t be true–and maybe even less true for me than for others.  To start with, while I am pastor of two separate church settings, I am 40% at each, which even with my shaky math works out to 80%, leaving me lots of free time to do a variety of other things, including spiritual development.

In practise, though, ministry of any kind and any temporal duration has a tendency to expand.  Last week, my 40% position at one church expanded to well above 50%.  Fortunately, the other position was pretty much “normal” last week but there have been times when both have had expansionary weeks and “free” time consisted of trying to stay awake while I watched the evening news.

And there is a deeper, more significant side of this ministry expansion.  I work hard at having an approach to spiritual growth that takes into account my particular needs and personality, which involves a lot of reading since my primary approach to spiritual development involves study and contemplation.  But reading takes energy–or rather, reading in a way that allows me to understand and process what I am reading so that I can use it as the basis of a contemplative spiritual development process takes energy.

But as the ministry week expands and grows and fills in spaces set aside for other things, it also fills in the space I set aside for reading–and at the same time, taps into the energy I need to effectively use the time I have.  And that means that after a short time of battling ministry expansion and resulting fatigue, I find myself approaching my reading time with the realization that no matter what I read, I am not going to take much in because I am tired physically, emotionally and spiritually.

I could, I suppose, summon up vast amounts of spiritual discipline (or guilt) and read anyway.  Having tried that approach, I can assure you that it doesn’t work for.  If I am reading while on the exercise bike, I realize my mind is drifting and I am taking in nothing.  If I am sitting in the living room, I eventually realize that I have been asleep for the past 15 minutes and so haven’t taken in anything.  At least for me, forcing myself really doesn’t help.

Ministry expands and the expansion threatens to fill every part of life.  And whether a person is a pastor like I am or a lay person, ministry is always expanding.  No matter what the ministry is, there is always potential for expansion and when we commit to ministry and crank up our gifts and openness to the Spirit, we have a tendency to follow the expansion wherever it goes.

That might sound faithful and might look faithful but in the end, it is spiritually unwise and will lead to burnout, depression, anxiety, anger, and a decreased ability to relate lovingly to ourselves, others and God.  Our faith and our concern for the ministry God has given us come together and produce an unhealthy minister.

That is why the Biblical idea of Sabbath is so important.  Technically, the Sabbath was the one day out of seven when the people were supposed to rest and reconnect.  Most of the Christian church has moved from Sabbath observation (Saturday) to keeping the Lord’s Day (Sunday) but many of the Sabbath ideas were transferred to Sunday.

Taking one day out of seven to rest and reconnect with ourselves, others and God is good theology and good psychology.  And the idea of Sabbath can be expanded.  We can have Sabbath moments during our day–on Sundays, I have about an hour between worship services, which provides me with a mini-Sabbath.  During that hour, I have some lunch, read some news and take a power nap.  I do read over my notes for the next service but the other components of the mini-Sabbath are much more important.

We need Sabbaths during the year as well.  The longer I go without a break from ministry, the more I need a break.  Fortunately, a short vacation is coming up soon.

Ministry, whether paid or not expands with inexorable force.  We need to work hard at countering the negative effects of that expansion with the powerful antidote of the Sabbath.

May the peace of God be with you.

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.

WHO IS MY PASTOR?

A couple of times in my career as pastor, I have had people ask me an interesting question.  Essentially, they want to know who is my pastor.  One person who asked the question didn’t actually have much to do with the church but knew me and knew that I was involved in some pretty difficult situations with people he knew.  Another was a church member whom I had helped through some difficulties as part of my pastoral activity.

The question is one that I have actually given a lot of thought to over the years.  Very early, I was exposed to the myth of pastoral invulnerability–the idea that since I am a pastor, I have such a strong connection with God that I don’t need a pastor.  My strong, deeply rooted faith and my powerful connection with God keep protect me and shelter me and take away the need for the kind of pastoral support I provide for others.  Mostly, pastors who believe in this myth don’t talk about it–or much of anything personal for that matter.  They just continue along, doing God’s work until they crash and burn, something that is always painful for them and the church.

I actually believed the myth–for something like 3.5 minutes.  My own growing awareness of my weaknesses and witnessing the depressingly regular crash of “strong” pastors very quickly showed me the folly of that particular myth.  And so even though I tend to be a fairly self-contained individual who has learned to handle a lot of things on my own, I am aware of my own need to outside help and welcome it.

All through my ministry, I have has people who were willing to be my pastor–of course, since I have pretty much always been a pastor myself, none of them were officially my pastor and in true church fashion, most of them never got paid for being my pastor.  But they were and are there.

Early in my ministry preparation and career, I didn’t actually recognize these pastoral presences for what they really were.  I knew there were people there who were willing to talk with me, listen to me and support me whose presence I deeply appreciated and would occasionally seek out but it never really clicked with me that they were being my pastor.  At other times, there were people whose pastoral role I recognized–our denomination actually had staff people who were to be pastors to the pastors for a time.

I also had the tremendous blessing of marrying a pastor and we have provided mutual pastoral support for each other as part of our life together.  Our relationship is about much more than being a pastor to each other but that is a factor in our relationship.

These days, our denomination no longer has a pastor to pastors because of financial realities.  And many times, my advanced age puts me in the position of being a pastor to younger pastors in the same way other more senior pastors cared for me.  But my advanced age and extended career in ministry haven’t brought me to the place where I am the living embodiment of the strong and unshakable pastor who needs nothing but the Bible and a “season of prayer” to deal with anything and everything.

I still need a pastor, just like the people I am called to shepherd.  And so I find pastors.  Often, my first choice is my wife.  But I find others as well.  I let the congregations provide pastoral care–I have told congregations for years that I struggle with depression and many within the congregation will check on me and offer care and prayer when I need it.  Contrary to many pastoral theorists, being open to the pastoral care from the congregation makes my ministry with them stronger and more effective.

I also have people I meet with at irregular intervals and over coffee or lunch, we pastor each other.  Sometimes, we both know this is a mutual pastoral care event, sometimes one or the other recognizes it for what it is and occasionally, neither of us knows that pastoral care is happening as we drink our coffee.

God has provided pastors because we all need something sometime–and we pastors are no different from anyone else.  We may not have a pastor in the same way the people we shepherd have a pastor but God does provide us with pastors and those of us who are wise enough to see our needs take advantage of God’s provision.

May the peace of God be with you.

AM I DEPRESSED?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

CONFESS IT–OUT LOUD

While I am not a professional therapist, I am a pastoral counsellor and have some experience with emotional and psychological issues that all of us deal with.  My experience has come both from the people I work with and from my own personal issues. And based on that experience, I would suggest that one of the most effective ways of dealing with most issues, after we have recognized and accepted the reality of it, is to confess it, out loud.

One of the most common ways I at least have tried to deal with stuff is by keeping it inside my head, trying to figure out some way to take care of whatever it going on.  Unfortunately, this internal process really makes things worse because in the end, all I am really doing is spinning my mental tires on the stuff that it getting me stuck.  Whatever the issue, I keep seeing it in the same way and in the same light, following the same ineffective mental paths time after time–and no matter how many times I roll things around in my head, I can’t see anything different.  Things get worse instead of better.

I have to get out of my head–and the way to do that is to confess openly what I am going through.  If I am down, I admit to being down.  If I am tense, I admit to being tense.  If I am suicidal, I admit to being suicidal.  To avoid confusion, let me state that I am not stating in any way that what I am confessing is sin or wrong.  I am using the word confession to describe the process of honestly and openly describing what is going on inside my head that is causing me trouble.

For me, there are several good places to confess what it going on.    First, because I believe in God through Jesus, I confess to God.  This confession is different from praying for help and healing.  I do that–but before I do that, I let God know that I am feeling whatever and it is affecting me in certain ways.  I know that God already knows that–he knew it before I was even willing to recognize it.  But I still need to confess it to him.  This confession creates an honesty that is based on having everything out in the open.  Both God and I now know what is there and we can both look at it openly and honestly.

I also confess to other people.  It is probably not a good idea to confess everything to everyone but in truth, open and honest confession is generally the best policy.  The first person to hear my confession is my wife.  I have and will continue to confess various struggles to people within the congregation, such as Bible study groups and even occasionally in sermons.  If things get bad enough, I am willing to confess to a professional therapist, someone with the necessary training and expertise to help me.

The idea behind the confession is to get out of my head.  Rolling things around in my head doesn’t get anywhere after a certain point and even begins to make things worse.  Confession as presented here externalizes things so that I can see them from a different perspective.  Whether it is to God, my wife, the Bible study group or a therapist, the new viewpoint enables me to process in different ways.  Often, I don’t even need advice from the other person–just saying things out loud to a caring listener allows me to see and understand and deal with things differently.

Do I worry about what people will think of me?  Well, honestly, I have never been too concerned about that.  If my Bible study group or my congregation are upset with the fact that I sometimes get depressed, that is something they will need to deal with.  Mostly, though, the responses I have received to my confessions is concern, support and lots of prayer.  I have also found that my confession encourages others to make their own confession.

So, in the end, if January is dark, dreary and cold and I end up depressed, I am going to accept that reality and confess it.  Likely, the feeling will go away when I manage to get out skiing but if it doesn’t, I know how to handle it.

May the peace of God be with you.

DARK, DREARY AND COLD

            Let me begin with a confession:  I like winter.  I love snow and I like cold weather.  A winter blizzard is a real treat for me.  And I don’t just enjoy winter through the window while sitting in a comfortable chair in a warm living room while enjoying coffee or hot chocolate (or a cup of both combined).  I do enjoy that but I also enjoy being outside in the storm.  While I don’t really want to drive in the blizzard, I am not opposed to cross-country skiing or show shoeing in it.  I even like shovelling snow, in moderation anyway.  I am aware that many people I associate with on a regular basis, including the majority of people who form the congregations I have been called to pastor think I am a lot strange because of that but that is really their problem, not mine–I am very comfortable in my minority position.

But as much as I like winter, I am aware that behind the banter and joking that I do with the congregations, there is a deeper and more painful reality.  Winter in Nova Scotia puts some serious and significant limitations on lives.  There are the obvious ones:  difficulty travelling, disruptions and closures because of storms, dangers coming from walking on ice and snow, the issue of cold and darkness caused by power failures and so on.

But there are also some significant psychological emotional issues that many people face.  The restrictions often mean that people don’t get out all that much and that isolation creates havoc with our needs to be social.  The lack of sunlight because of shorter days and increased cloud cover is depressing, causing things like Seasonal Affective Disorder and so on.  Some people also develop a fear associated with winter and its difficulties, expressed in comments and questions like, “What if I get sick in a blizzard–how will I get help?”

A lot of the feelings and difficulties associated with winter get worse in January.  We enter January tired from the Christmas rush and stress.  January means the party is over and we have to get back to normal, although the normal is often negatively affected by the weather, or our perceptions of the weather.  The post-Christmas let down coupled with the winter darkness and travel restrictions provide the perfect breeding ground for depression, anxiety, and interpersonal tensions.

Now, because I like winter, I am not as prone to Seasonal Affective Disorder–if I am going to get depressed, it won’t be because of snow.  Lack of snow in January might do it but normally, my depression is tied to my perceptions of what is going on in my life.  But because I know depression from personal experience, I have a lot of empathy for those who get down in winter.

While many believe an early spring is the best cure for the mid-winter blahs and a trip to somewhere warm and sunny is a good temporary fix, there are other ways to deal with the issues that many people struggle with at this time of the year–or six months from now south of the equator.

The first step, as with any issue, it to accept the fact that it is happening and it is happening to us.  Often, we like to pretend that we are find.  We aren’t fine, we don’t feel fine, everyone else can see we aren’t fine–but we still pretend.  Denial might seem like an effective coping mechanism but in the end, it really only postpones the inevitable need to actually deal with whatever is going on.

So, we begin by accepting that we are depressed or tense or worried or angry or whatever we are feeling because of the mid-winter winteriness that surrounds us.  We admit that we are fed up with snow (that statement sounds seriously messed up to me personally), with not being able to do what we want to do, with feeling on edge worrying about the weather–whatever is there, we get it out in the open first for ourselves and then for others.

This honesty is different from whining about the weather, something that is almost guaranteed to increase social isolation.  This honesty is based on being willing to admit that we are  not right and that there are things we can’t control that contribute to the not rightness.  For some, this admission might itself be enough to start turning things around.  Self-honesty is as much a tonic to the soul as cross-country skiing in a blizzard can be to me.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT NOW?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT DO THE REST OF US DO?

I have to confess that I may not actually be the best person to be writing about what people do as worship participants because my attendance at worship as anything but a worship leader is relatively rare.  It is an occupational hazard for clergy that we attend a of worship but because we are leading the worship both our preparation and our worship experience are different from that of people who attend as participants.

However, I do think I have something to offer to the topic drawing partly on my limited attendance as a non-leading participant and my study and observation of worship.  Some of what I write will certainly be biased by my expectations of what the people I lead in worship “should” do but I hope that I am not being too out of touch.

Since worship is about recognizing and acknowledging and praising God, good worship probably begins before the actual service begins.  The worshipped needs to prepare for worship.  When I was just beginning to attend worship, that preparation was normally seen as entering the sanctuary and sitting quietly.  We were supposed to be praying and meditating as we opened our hearts and minds to God.  Reading the Bible at this time was worth extra points.

A more modern approach to worship involves the worshippers talking and laughing together before the appointed time.  People gather in groups, discuss the latest news, make social plans, hold informal church business meetings, look at baby pictures of grandchildren (my congregations are older) and generally make lots of noise.  I occasionally jokingly tell people that the purpose of the call to worship is to subtly tell the congregation to shut up and sit down so we can start.

I am not going to play these options off against each other or reject them in favour of some other option such as worship music or videos or whatever else happens somewhere before worship.  Silence and meditation can help us become open to God.  Talking with fellow believers can do the same thing.  Both can also help us avoid becoming open to God.  The real issue is the attitude that the worshipper brings to worship.

On some of the few occasions that I have attended worship as a worshipper, I have come with depression, frustration and/or fatigue prominent in my mind.   I was at worship because I am a pastor and should be there, even if I wasn’t leading.  But because of my feelings and attitude, I didn’t really come to encounter God–in fact, a few times, I was there in spite of God.  I didn’t want to encounter him because I was somewhat upset with God because of what was going on in my life that he wasn’t fixing fast enough.

The worship leader lead a well prepared and worshipful service.  The choir and organist provided wonderful music that was designed to enable the worshipper to engage their emotional response to the presence of God.  The other participants sang, listened, responded, prayed and hopefully recognized the presence of God.  But me?  Well, I sat there when I was supposed to sit, I stood and made noise when I was supposed to sing, I closed my eyes when I was supposed to pray–I did all the right stuff at the right times but I didn’t worship because my heart and mind were focused on my own stuff, stuff which I wasn’t willing at the time to let God be a part of.

And so I didn’t worship.  And because I didn’t worship, I didn’t get the reminder of the presence and power of God that I needed to help me deal with the stuff that was getting in the way in the first place.  I was not prepared for worship.  I was not willing to look beyond myself to discover the real context of life, a context that always includes the presence and power of God.

When  we worship, we need to be willing to let ourselves become aware of the reality of God’s presence.  We are not letting God in–he is already there.  We are not asking God to come to us–he is already there.  We are, in the end, seeking to let ourselves recognize the presence of God so that we can not only praise and thank him for his presence and power but also receive the blessing of remembering that we are never alone.  That remembrance is both the reason for worship and the blessing of worship.

May the peace of God be with you.

UP AND DOWN

A few weeks ago, we had a great worship service at one of the churches I serve.  We were commemorating the founders of the original congregation that produced the two present congregations that I serve.  The original building is still standing and we had planned on holding the service in the building until we found out that for safety reasons, the old wood stove and stove pipe had been removed.  Since this was October in Nova Scotia, we decided to hold the service in a local community hall.

We had a great service–the attendance was good, the hall was warm, the music was great, the sermon was short and the potluck lunch was great as always.  We had time to talk and laugh and share together.  There were some visitors and everything worked well.  The hall committee refunded our rental fee and offered to work with us if we wanted to hold worship there at other times, which gives us some options during the winter shut down of our regular buildings.  The sixteen of us at the worship service went home having experienced a real spiritual lift.

Skip ahead a week.  At 10:30, when worship was supposed to start, there were three people and me–but one had to leave because the building was too cold and she is particularly sensitive to cold.  As she left, another person came.  And just as I was wondering what we would do, a couple of others came, relatively new people.  So, the six of us worshipped.  As worship with six people goes, it wasn’t bad.  Two of the ladies carried us in singing the hymns a capella, there was some good discussion during the sermon with an insightful and important question coming from one of the new people, showing that he understood and liked our somewhat non-traditional format.

But after the high of the week before, it was a bit of a let-down.  But for me, it was only a bit of a let-down and only because the week before had set a high standard.  Fortunately, I had to foresight to plan for the let down.  Well, it is probably more honest and accurate to say that the Spirit was inspiring me to plan for the let down.  I went to the second worship expecting less than the week before.

First, I knew that the attendance would be way down.  Two regulars would be away, the people from the city were not visiting that weekend, another was away for medical reasons.  I knew we would be way down in  attendance–when 15 is a high number, it doesn’t take too many to drastically reduce the attendance.  In a congregation of 100, having 10 not attend is barely noticeable–but when 15 is a season high, missing 10 is extremely noticeable.

The low attendance, the lack of music to accompany our singing, the cold building–all of this combined to make the second worship much less exciting and sparkling than the one the week before.  But the truth is that this second worship is much closer to our norm–and wasn’t even our lowest attendance this year.

Being prepared for the contrast helped me a great deal.  I didn’t go home after the worship with the same spiritual high of the week before but I also didn’t go home in a dark down of depression.  I went home, had lunch and a short nap and headerd out for worship at the other churches I serve.

I think I am learning something.  It isn’t totally clear in my mind yet and I probably have more to learn but I think it involves accepting what is for what it is, not getting upset for what it isn’t.  That was easy to do with the first worship service because everything was so great.  But it was a bit harder for the second because it was such a contrast to the first one.

But God was present at both services; we opened ourselves in worship at both services and we were aware of the presence of God in our midst.  We missed our regulars who weren’t with us at both services and we welcomed our visitors at both services and they seemed to feel at home.  While I would have liked a bit more of the numbers and feelings of the earlier service at the second service, both did what they were supposed to do–and what more can we really ask?

May the peace of God be with you.