WHO CARES?

When I started this blog back in 2015, I had a sort of a vague goal—or maybe a couple of them. I was unemployed at the time and needed something to do that would relieve the boredom and depression of unemployment. And I wanted to be able to think and organize and share some of my thoughts and ideas relating to faith, the church and spiritual growth. Very early in the process, I decided that I wasn’t comfortable dealing with some topics and since it is my blog, I can and do pretty much ignore anything I don’t want to write about.

One area I have avoided is commenting on current political and cultural events. I am a news junkie and so I am aware of what is going on but have never really wanted to wade into the cultural and political debates that are so prevalent and so divisive in our culture and churches these days. I have been troubled by a lot of what I see; I have been enraged by some of what I see; I have been saddened and depressed by what I see—but up until today, I haven’t been inspired by what I see.

And even today isn’t going to be a rant for or against some particular political move or figure—there are enough comedians and bloggers who make a living doing that way. We really don’t need another.

But maybe what we do need is someone who is willing to step back, forget the partisan politics and ask some difficult questions that come from the heart of our faith. Given that most major questions these days get addressed from the perspective of nationalism or partisan political stances or narrow perspectives, maybe we need someone to open the questions up and give them a bigger, divine context.

For example, some statistics suggest that over 65 million people are classed as refugees or internally displaced people—that is a good sized nation. Mostly the response to this crisis is that someone should do something, preferably far away from us and at no cost to us. Politicians debate and people are dying where they try to live and dying trying to get to safety. And while that might be a popular political response, what is the divine response? What does God think? Does God care? And if God cares, how should his people act?

Recent statistics in Canada suggest that around 20% of Canadian children live in poverty. There are all kinds of political suggestions about how to deal with the problem but since most of them require people who have helping people who don’t have, there tends to be a lot of talk but little action beyond band aids like food banks. So politicians debate and plans get drafted but since little money gets spent, the poor remain poor, get poorer and go to school and bed hungry and cold. But what is the divine response? What does God think? Does God care? And if God cares, how should his people act?

Our political and cultural responses tend to be narrow, self-serving, protectionist, biased and prejudicial—we like ourselves and ours. Being different is grounds for exclusion, mistreatment, name-calling and persecution. Unfortunately, politicians of all types love to build a base on these self-centered realities. We are all afraid of the other—and politicians know how to work that fear. But what is the divine response? What does God think? Does God care? And if God cares, how should his people act?

Too often, we have tried to fit God and the Christian faith into the cultural and political armour that we wear ourselves. But even a quick reading of the message that God has given us shows something far different. God has a deep and powerful concern for the alien, the poor, the different. God cares—and even more, he requires that his people care. He wants us to step out of the narrow and constrained ruts we dig for ourselves and begin to really care. He calls us to follow his example—he cared enough for selfish and self-centered people that he went to the cross for us. God cares. He made his care real, at great personal cost.

And us—well, we are called to care as well. And maybe that care demands that we step outside the cultural and political and show some real care, care based not in cultural and political fears and prejudices but in the love and grace of God.

May the peace of God be with you.

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RETIREMENT AGE

Sometimes, when I need a break from whatever I am working on but don’t want to “waste” time, I log on to our denominational website. I don’t do that from some great desire to discover what my denomination is doing—I generally know what I need to know from other sources. I go to the website because one of the resources there is a page devoted to the changes in status of the clergy in our denomination. I know many of the clergy but because of geography, time and inertia, I don’t connect with many of them on a regular basis.

But by checking the website, I can discover who is doing what—it makes a great way to catch up with people I studied with, others I have met along the way, students I have taught and so on. These days when I check the site, I am struck by two things, both of which sort of point out something similar.

First, I read a lot of names of people I don’t know. There have always been some clergy I didn’t know but often, I would have at least heard the name from someone else. But these days, the number of names I don’t know seems to be in the majority. The few times I have tried to find out who they are, I have discovered that they are people who have come into ministry from another career or who are younger graduates. I don’t know them because I am not as involved in the denomination structures or educational process as I once was.

It takes a certain amount of energy to work as a pastor and another amount of energy to be involved in denominational activities and in the last few years, I have been choosing to conserve my energy by not having as much involvement outside the local churches I pastor.

The other thing I notice as I read through the changes page of the website is the number of people who are as the site describes it “retiring from active ministry”. Now, these people, I tend to know quite well. Some were pastors who were active when I started out. A few I studied with. Some I met during my stints on denominational committees and boards. A few were students I taught—second vocation, older students but students I taught. I read those lists, do some rudimentary math and realize that while some of those retiring are older than I am, I significant number are my age—and some are younger than me.

Both discoveries point in the same direction for me—I am getting old. I passed the official retirement age on my last birthday. Many of my friends in ministry are retired or have announced their retirement. In the churches I pastor, the majority of the congregations are retired—and not a few of them are younger than I am.

So, I ask myself, why am I still working? I am not working for financial reasons. Although ministry doesn’t pay a lot, my denomination has a good pension plan, especially for those of us who have been in it for 40+ years—compound interest over that period of time works wonders.

Nor am I still working because I am a Type A person who must always be at the centre of things and who will shrivel up and die without a job to use as my definition of self. I have tons of things I would prefer to be doing: more woodworking, gardening, travelling, reading, photography are all appealing but are somewhat on hold because of the demands of pastoral ministry.

So, I am old enough to retire. I can afford to retire. I have plans for a post retirement life. But I am still working and plan to be doing so for a while yet. Why? Well, the best I can say is that I believe that this is what God wants me to be doing here and now. I don’t think God’s kingdom will fall apart if I retire but I do believe that God still has something to accomplish through my efforts and so I am trying to be faithful.

I am pretty sure that I will be retiring someday but not today.

May the peace of God be with you.

THINKING WITH FEELING

On the thinking-feeling spectrum, I tend to be a bit more on the thinking side, although I do work hard at recognizing and taking my feelings into account in my thinking process.  But for me, the process of thinking things through and having a plan and understanding is important.  I do find it difficult then, to understand people whose lives are more controlled by their feelings.  Although I grew up in the era when the mantra “If it feels good, do it” was being developed and followed, it didn’t have a lot of appeal to me.

I have also had to deal with the strong feeling orientation that some people bring to faith.  I have worked with people who have jumped from church to church as they looked for a worship service or fellowship time or Bible study that made them feel good.  I have watched people seek experiences that enable them to feel the presence of God.  I have listened to them tell me that they can’t do something because they don’t feel it–or can do it because they feel it.  I even had one member of a youth group tell me that she didn’t have to love another person because she didn’t feel it right then.

Now, I do believe our feelings are important.  As a pastor and counsellor, I work hard at helping people understand, own and deal with their feelings.  As a worship leader, I seek to include elements of the worship that will help people feel the worship–the choice of music, the flow of the service, the approach to the sermon topic–I use it all to help people have an appropriate emotional response to worship.

So I don’t approach the issue of feelings as a super-rational, emotionally detached individual.  But just as I think that thinking without taking our feelings into account is a problem, so I also think that feeling without thinking is a problem.

Take worship music, for example.  Are the feelings I have during the worship music being produced by a heightened awareness of the presence of God?  Or they being produced by the  use of certain tones, rhythms, and contexts which can produce certain emotional responses, according to a variety of reputable studies?  When  I worship, I want to know where the feelings come from because I want a real sense of the presence of God that will contribute to my spiritual development, not just a situational jolt produced because the music person happens to hit the right notes at the right time in the right order.

I suppose that causes some people to suggest that I think too much.  The obvious response is that they probably don’t think enough–but that would be an invitation to one of those pointless debates where people are saying a lot but not hearing each other because they are speaking different languages.  So rather than talk about thinking vs feeling, I would rather look at balance.

I like feeling good–and don’t particularly like feeling bad.  Given a free choice between watching a movie with lots of good car chases (a feel good event for me) or reading a very poorly written student paper on some obscure theological topic that doesn’t make a bit of difference to anyone (a definite downer for me), I would always prefer the movie.  But at various times and places, I have given up the movie for the student paper.  It might not feel good, but my thinking process tells me that reading the student paper is my responsibility, no matter how much of a downer it is.

My thinking process might alleviate some of the bad feeling by letting me realize that if I get right at the paper and work hard at it, I will still have time to watch the movie.  I might have the bad feelings of the paper but up ahead is the good feeling that comes from watching a good car chase while eating chips.  While my thinking is dominant, I am still aware of my feelings and am thinking of a way that allows me to feel good and accomplish more than just a passing feeling.

Our feelings are important and valid–but so is taking the time to think about them and understand them.

May the peace of God be with you.

MOWING THE LAWN

            One of the last tasks I had to do before we left for our vacation was to mow the lawn.  One of the first tasks I had to do after getting back was to mow the lawn.  There was a time when I enjoyed mowing lawns–I remember when the first lawn mower showed up at our childhood home.  It was a push mower–no, not push the motorized mower rather than sit on the ride one mower.  It had no motor except for the person pushing.  I really wanted to mow the lawn when that mower showed up.

But after pushing the things for a few minutes, I discovered that mowing lawns was not a particularly good source of entertainment or fun.  Unfortunately, it became one of those things that needed to be done whether I wanted to do or not.  Even when I finally managed to end up somewhere where there was a mower with a real motor, the process of mowing lawns never really got beyond a have to.  As the mowers got older and broke down, there was some fun working on them to get them going again but a repaired mower is good for only one thing so even doing repairs lost some of its fun.

When we moved into the house belonging to the church my wife pastors, one of the men who looks after the house told me that they normally asked the minister to mow the lawn but that I should probably see that as my job–secretly, I was hoping that maybe they had planted spiritually mature grass that didn’t need mowing.  They graciously provided the mower and I less than graciously mow the lawn at regular intervals, including right before and right after vacation.

It is a duty, I guess–and duty has become something of a negative thing in our culture.  If we aren’t excited, thrilled, edified, fulfilled or something like that, the cultural pressure is to avoid it.  Unfortunately, there are a lot of things that cannot be avoided.  Like mowing the lawn, a lot of life needs to be taken care of, no matter how unfulfilling or unedifying or unfun it actually is.

I think the issue of “duty” has some significant spiritual roots.  Our relationship with God and our service of God doesn’t always thrill us.  When I was doing the work associated with my ninth funeral in three months, I didn’t get much of a thrill out of the process–the accumulated time and fatigue associated with so many funerals in such a short time meant that in the end, I was doing it because it was my job (or duty).  I gave it my best, I used all my pastoral abilities, I worked hard–but given a choice, I would have preferred to watch TV.

The sermons I preached just before vacation were done the same way.  I like the people I work with; I worked hard on the sermon preparation; I used my best presentation processes; I gave the sermons everything I normally do–but I would much rather have been starting the vacation a day early.

Duty and discipline may be out of favour in our culture of self-gratification and feeling good but they are an essential part of life and faith.  I don’t always feel like doing the Christian thing–but part of my commitment to God is a commitment to doing what he asks of me, even if I don’t want to or won’t feel uplifted because of it.  Sometimes, we need to do things just because they need to be done and we need to be the one doing them.  Some suggest that the self-gratification comes from knowing that we have done the right thing–and that sometimes works.  But in the end, the ninth funeral has to be done no matter what I feel and I have to do it because that is my commitment to the church and to God.  Part of my commitment to God was a commitment to accept Jesus as Saviour and Lord–the Saviour part I like but the Lord part I sometimes struggle with, since it means that I have made a commitment to putting God first, not me.  But then again, wasn’t the initial separation between God and humanity a result of humanity putting themselves first?  That didn’t work out too well for anyone.

Anyway, the lawn needs mowed again–back to duty.

 

May the peace of God be with you.