LEARNING TO HEAR

Like most people engaging in a new career, I made a lot of mistakes in my early years of ministry.  I still make mistakes at this late stage of my career but hope that I have learned to avoid some of the more serious ones from the early days.  A lot of the early problems came from not knowing what to pay attention to and what to ignore–I hadn’t developed a sense of ministerial selective hearing.

I was noticing and seeing all sorts of things.  This couple was obviously having a struggle in their marriage.  That individual has an addiction problem.  That teen is heading down the wrong road.  Those parents are going to cause their child serious problems.  This congregation really needs to understand their faith.  That deacon is terrible at his calling.  These people need to make more effort to share their faith.  The things I was hearing and seeing were endless and with very little effort, I could easily have waded into the deep, murky waters of ministry and quickly been overwhelmed.

Fortunately, I had some fantastic mentors who helped me discover that seeing or hearing something wasn’t the same as being responsible for it.  I learned that what I was hearing and seeing needed to be processed through some important filters that would help me determine what needed attention and what kind of attention it needed.

Among the filters I learned to use was an awareness of my limitations.  Early in ministry, as a single pastor with no children, I might notice issues in marriages and in child rearing, but the real truth is that I had no experience with either and no credibility beyond that course I took, a course that really didn’t qualify me to intervene in such things.

I also learned to make use of the filter described in the old adage, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink”.  Some people are deeply attached to what I consider problems.  They may be unwilling or unable to deal with them or give them up.  While I might be able to help them, I really can’t help them until they want help–to try and “fix” things when they don’t want them fixed creates problems for all of us.

I learned another filter.  This filter involves the reality that other people likely see what I see and may already be involved and my help, no matter how well meaning it is, probably does nothing more than get in the way of what the other people are doing.  If the other helpers are making a difference, I need to help by allowing them to do their job.

I also learned to filter by time.  In any given congregation, even small ones like I serve, there are lots of issues and problems and things that would benefit from someone doing something.  If I see and respond to everything, I could be busy 24-7 and arrive at worship on Sunday morning with nothing to say during the sermon time because I was busy helping people.  Of course, that would only be a short term problem because the ensuing burnout would do away with the need for sermons.

Not everything needs to be dealt with right away.  Certainly, there are some critical issues that need to be deal with immediately–but sometimes, I need to be the person who defines criticality, not the nosey neighbour down the street or the well meaning friend who tends to make mountains out of a grain of sand.  And sometimes, I even need to avoid buying into the individual’s sense of how critical their situation is.

The end result of all this filtering is that I hear a lot and act on a lot–but sometimes, the action is to postpone, delay or ignore.  This isn’t because of a lack of concern or laziness or unwillingness to do my job.  It comes because I have learned to be strategic about ministry. Not everything I perceive needs to be dealt with right now by me.  In fact, I have learned that in the end, some stuff doesn’t need to be dealt with anytime by anyone.

I have also learned to trust the leading of the Holy Spirit–opening myself to this leading has proven to be the best filter possible for me.

Because I have learned to use some filters, I am more able to respond appropriately to the things that need a response when they need a response.  I may have selective hearing in my ministry but I think it makes my ministry more effective for both me and the people I am called to serve.

May the peace of God be with you.

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THE PHONE CALL

The only phone I have these days is a cell phone which is used for both work and private conversations so I always have it with me.  Normally, I remember to turn the ringer off before worship and Bible Study and other meetings.  But this Sunday, I was busy and forgot to silence it.  Just before worship was to begin, it started to ring.  Since I didn’t recognize the number, I sent it to the answering function and turned off the sound.  We began worship and it started again–this time, I could feel the vibration in my pocket.

After worship, it rang again as I was talking to one of the worshippers.  Thinking it might be important, I checked and when I saw who it was, I excused myself and answered the phone–the caller wouldn’t have called unless there it was important.  After the culturally appropriate greetings, he asked me if I had got a call earlier.  When I told him about not answering, he explained that someone had called him and after telling they had had a long conversation at the Easter worship service, asked for financial help.  He didn’t know what to do so he gave the called my number, for which he now apologized.

The interesting thing is that a couple of weeks before this, I had been at meeting with other pastors where one of the participants told us of a scam phone call he had received.  The details he shared about his call matched exactly with the details the caller had given the person I was talking to.  I was able to assure my friend that this wasn’t a real problem but was a scam and I wouldn’t be calling the person but if he called me, I would give it all the consideration which it deserved.  I think he was relieved that it was a scam–the story he was told was a real tear-jerker and while he was a bit skeptical, he wasn’t completely sure.

This call was easy to deal with–I had some warning.  But that is a rarity–over the years, I, like most clergy, have had my share of desperate sounding phone calls from people looking for help.  Some are legitimate–and while I sometimes struggle to know how to respond, I want to help and try to find ways to alleviate the problem.  But the depressing reality is that many of the calls are scams.

Some aren’t even good scams.  This particular individual had done no homework–our Easter attendance was up to about 30 but even so, a stranger would have been immediately noticed.  Another from a long time ago began his story to a Baptist pastor by saying he had been playing poker while drunk and lost all his money–not a story designed to tug on my heart strings.  Every pastor I know has such stories because we are seen as easy targets.

I think Jesus probably had situations like this in mind when he spoke the words we find in Matthew 10.16, ” …be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (NIV).  As believers we have an obligation to help others in any way possible, anything from a cup of cold water to a helping hand on the way to reconciliation to God.  Often, helping people is going to cost:  time, money, effort, increased stress and so on.  But when we step in and become a channel of God’s grace to someone in need of that grace, we can rejoice.

However, when the person is a scammer, we can get depressed and cynical–and begin to ask questions and wonder if we should even bother.  Well, I learned an important lesson a long time ago.  If I want to help people, I have to accept the fact that I am going to get taken.  My best response is to be shrewd enough to weed out the most blatant scammers but innocent enough that I don’t cut off people who actually do need help but have a terrible story or questionable presentation.

For me, if the choice is between getting taken sometimes so that I can help people or not helping anyone so that I avoid being scammed, I am going to accept the reality that I will be scammed sometimes–but that does bring with it the more important reality that I will help people receive God’s grace a lot of the time.

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.

TWO KINDS OF PEOPLE

There are two kinds of people in the world:  those who say there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t say there are two kinds of people in the world.  The second kind are a rarity, as far as I can tell because it seems that most of us have this deep seated drive to reduce the complexities of the world’s population to a simple, easy to grasp dichotomy–everyone is either this or that.  It is a staple tactic of many preachers (including me, at times):  we preachers categorize people as Christian/non-Christian; good Christian/bad Christian; tither/non-tither; sermon note taker/sermon sleeper; pastoral supporter/pastoral opponent–well, you get the idea.

Unfortunately for preachers and all of us with this deep seated need for simplistic understandings of reality, it is pretty much impossible to actually reduce people to two kinds because of the incredibly complexity and diversity of humanity.  Take one of the examples I have been known to use:  there are two kinds of people in the world–those who have accepted Christ and those who haven’t yet accepted Christ.

As a division of humanity, it sounds good and I used it for years.  But a while ago, in the process of preparing for a course on evangelism that I was teaching, I thought myself into a mess.  I was looking for a way to help Kenyan students understand some point in the course outline and drew a line on the paper.  I labelled one end “No connection with God at all” and labeled the other end “Total connection with God”.  The graphic looked good, I could easily create it on the computer for the course handbook and it would help illustrate the point.

Except that the more I looked at the continuum this simple line made, the more complicated it got.  To start with, I realized that here and now, there is no human being at either end–no one has absolutely no connection with God and no one has a total connection with God–people in those conditions will only exist after the return of Christ and the end of this era.  So, the reality is that all of us exist somewhere between the two ends of the line.

Certainly, some of us have made a clear commitment to Christ somewhere along the line–but our position on the line doesn’t have any connection with the commitment.  The thief on the cross makes his commitment when he is near the no connection end (maybe–I am making a big assumption here) while Paul was likely further along the line when he made a commitment (another assumption but he was certainly working at his relationship with God as he understood it).  But in the end, all of us are somewhere along the line and somewhere in the process of making a commitment to accepting Christ.

Then it got a bit more complicated because I realized that another reality is that although I come from a Christian tradition that puts a great deal of emphasis on knowing the exact time, place and circumstance of the commitment to Christ, there are people whose commitment to Christ is genuine but who really don’t know when they made it–they sort of drift into it, a reality which infuriates some people because it seems so fuzzy but which is a reality for many, including me.

So, after these and a few other complications, I developed the graphic for the students and decided to live with a less than simple understanding of salvation.   The process is more complex and confusing that a simple two-category division of Christian/non-Christian. We could propose several categories:  non-Christian; non-Christian leaning to commitment; Christian but not aware of having made a commitment; Christian aware of having made a commitment; non-Christian who thinks they have made a commitment; Christian who doesn’t realize they have made a commitment.  The whole thing gets more and more confusing and complicated and makes one wish for a simple, clear, two kinds description.

Or, maybe we could do what we are supposed to do anyway, which is concentrate on being God’s agents in the world and let him worry about who is and isn’t a believer.  If we stop trying to simplify the complicated (which isn’t really our job) and work at being agents of God’s love and grace (which is our job), we can trust that God will take care of the rest.

May the peace of God be with you.

I UNDERSTAND COMPLETELY

As a pastor, I work with a lot of people who struggle with lots of things.  I regularly deal with people facing illness and loss of functions.  I spend a lot of time with people dealing with death–their own or that of someone close.  I work with victims of terrible abuse.  I visit parishioners who have had to have a pet put down.  Now and then, I even find myself spending time with a techie whose laptop is sick or dying.  I also spend a lot of time with people whose problems are less earth-shaking:  a stalled car, a lost book, a staple sticking through the upholstery of a favourite chair, a cake that didn’t turn out right.

I learned early in ministry that even if I think the problem is trivial, I can’t treat it that way–it is their problem and their response to it that matters.  I might think it is trivial and in fact the rest of the world might think it is trivial but since it isn’t trivial to them, I need to accept that and work on that basis.  Some days, that can be difficult but I think I learned that lesson fairly well.

What took longer to learn is that even if I have the same experience, I can’t assume that my emotional experience is the same as theirs.  I can’t assume that I understand exactly what they are feeling and know exactly what they need.  Just as I can’t try to make a problem small because I think it is small, I also can’t assume that I fully and completely understand the problem and am therefore completely qualified to give them the benefit of my wisdom and experience.

Certainly, my experience can be helpful in understanding their experience–but my experience isn’t their experience and I can’t forget this.  When I deal with children grieving the loss of a parent, I have some inkling of what they feel, having been through the grief of losing my father, my mother and my step-father.  But I really can’t know exactly what people are feeling.

Every experience has twists and turns and undercurrents that only the person in the middle fully understands–and even then, they may not fully understand them.  When  I claim that I understand, I am actually proclaiming to people that I don’t really care enough for them to find out what is really going on in their lives.

When my father died, for example, it was painful and difficult.  We had a good relationship and got along well and respected and loved each other.  But not every family has that same relationship with a father.  The internal realities of such relationships are hidden under the surface of the visible, public presentation–but they are very real and very much a part of the grief process.  If I assume that everyone who loses a father feels just like I did, I am probably going to do a very poor job helping people with their grief.  A family struggling with the death of a father who was an abuser or a alcoholic or simply not present emotionally will have their grief compounded if I assume their experience is just the same as mine.

I don’t know what people are experiencing.  I might have some idea, based on my experience and my study and what I have heard–but I really don’t understand what people are experiencing, at least not until I have spent some serious time with them and they have been willing to open up about what they are experiencing.

One of the strong reactions I have seen from  people suffering is their anger at people telling them they understand.  Out of politeness, the struggling people nod and say thank you but at some point, they end up telling someone like me that they were angry because the people didn’t really understand–no one can really understand.

We can actually come to understand what people are feeling, it we are willing to admit that we don’t really understand and commit to spending the time it takes to really listen and let people work through their feelings.  While I may never fully understand what someone is feeling, I can understand their need to be understood and make the effort to suspend my assumptions so that I can hear the reality of their experience.

May the peace of God be with you.

TROUBLING TIMES

Today is going to be a difficult day for me–actually, it could be the beginning of several difficult days.  I am going to be dealing with some hardship, some deprivation, and a loss of my (perceived) ability to function effectively.  The reason:  my laptop needs to go in for repairs and I probably will not have it back for a couple of days.

Now, I have been planning for this process.  I worked out with the repair shop the best time to be without the laptop–it’s not that I don’t need it for the two or three days but that these are the days I need it less.  I will be transferring the most necessary files, the ones that I will be working on (I hope) to my tablet and if I get really desperate, there is that old, obsolete laptop on a shelf in the TV room.  I suppose for that matter, I could even do some work on my phone.  I will survive but it won’t be pretty or fun.

I know that compared to the pain and suffering in the world, not having my laptop for a couple of days really isn’t all that much of an issue.  I know some people, in fact, who would see not having a laptop for a couple of days as something of a blessing.  Others might think that I probably need to re-adjust my priorities and think about what it really important.  There are some, however, who might be prompted to send my sympathy cards because losing their laptop would severely traumatize them.

When it comes to dealing with the pain and difficulty of others, we all need to look at the fact that we are tempted to evaluate the suffering of others on the basis of our experience and our understanding.  What upsets us must be traumatic for others and what doesn’t upset us is something others should be able to deal with easily.  When we give in to this temptation and evaluate their situation from our perspective, we are not likely going to be able to provide real help to the person going through whatever they are going through.

If we think the situation isn’t that serious, we will have a tendency to down-play whatever they are going through.  Our approach will often be to try and help them see that having their laptop sit in the shop for a couple of days isn’t all that much of a problem and may even be a blessing in disguise.  We might suggest all sorts of possible options the person has:  the tablet, the smart phone, the old computer–why, the laptop deprived individual might even appreciate the opportunity to rediscover pen and paper, an old but still viable technology.

When that doesn’t work, the helpers might try to force comparisons on the person–suggesting that an unavailable laptop really isn’t that much of a problem when compared to starvation, genocide and other things that people face.  This approach became popular as “I used to complain about having no shoes until I met a man with no feet”.

There is also the “dose of reality” approach, which somewhat confrontationally tells the person to get over it–its only a laptop and only a couple of days and really isn’t the end of the world so just snap out of it and stop whining or moaning or whatever.

These all sound like proper and appropriate ways to help someone deal with a problem that we are pretty sure isn’t as much of a problem as they think it is.  Obviously, our job as helpers is to convince them that what they are dealing with isn’t a problem, or at least isn’t as much of a problem as they think it is.  Once we succeed in helping them see the problem in the right way (our way, of course), then the problem is solved and everything is fine.

Except it isn’t fine.  We don’t really help people by trying to convince them that because we don’t think the problem is significant, they should think the same way.  In the end, people need to deal with their issues based on what they think about the issue, not what we think about the issue.  Trying to revise their thinking so that they see things like we see them doesn’t help–it just adds a layer of frustration and more pain to the problem.

May the peace of God be with you.

 

 

Mathe peace of God be with you.

GROWING IN FAITH

One of the Bible study groups has been discussing the gifts of the Spirit recently.  We started talking about using the Spiritual gifts and that lead to the need to develop the gifts, which caused some significant discussion–it was hard for some members of the study to understand that we could have a gift from the Spirit and not be automatically able to use it.  In the process of the discussion, I mentioned that I have the gift of preaching, which didn’t really surprise anyone in the group.

(I am aware that the New Testament doesn’t specifically mention the gift of preaching, although several of the gifts: prophecy, exhortation and encouragement could be seen as being related to preaching.  However, I am just going to skip by the issue at this point so that I can deal with the issue I want to look at–something I don’t always get to do in Bible study.)

I then went on to suggest that although I have that gift, I am probably a better preacher than I was when I started preaching 40 or so years ago.  At that point, a couple of members of the study who had heard me preach regularly 30-35 years ago agreed with me emphatically.  The strength of their agreement caused some laughter in the group and before anyone else could say anything, one of them quickly assured me and the group that I wasn’t a bad preacher in those days but am definitely a better preacher today.

I have to confess that while I appreciated the affirmation of my point, there was a small part of me that found it disconcerting that I had changed enough in the area of preaching for it to be noticeable.  While I firmly believe in the need to grow in faith, hearing the evidence that it is happening can be a bit painful.

It can be painful because while the reality of spiritual growth is positive and good, the fact that we had to grow reminds us that we were not perfect–and maybe, more significantly at least for me, that I wasn’t as perfect as I thought I was.  Theoretically, I know that, I confess that, I teach that.  Practically, I occasionally need to confront the pride that would like my development as a preacher to have been only a minor improvement of what was an already impressive ability even all those years ago.

Tied with that is the idea that I am probably not at evolved spiritually today as I think I am–I mean, if I wasn’t all that clear about what I was back then and how far I have come, I am probably not as aware of where I am now as I think  am.   Maybe the childish things that I think I have put away (I Corinthians 13.11) haven’t really been put away.  I may have a newer, more expensive and more sophisticated version that looks better but it may still be the same thing I had before.

Fortunately, my place with God doesn’t depend on how much I grow or in what direction I grow.  That is one of the bed-rock realities of the grace of God.  But growth in the right direction does help me connect better with the God whom I serve and enables me to better do what he calls me to.  And, even more fortunately, God provides all kinds of help and resources to me to enable me to not only know the direction of my growth but also to have the strength, courage, support and all the rest needed to grow in that direction.

Whether that growth involves showing me how to become a more Christian driver, a better preacher, a more attentive listener, a more understanding pastor, a more focused researcher or whatever, God has a direction and a plan and offers me the resources that I need for the process.  I can choose to stay the way I am–or I can take the steps of faith this grace from God asks of me and continue the journey from being what I was to being what God knows and wants me to be.

Either way, God’s grace assures me that I am loved and accepted–but for me, at least, that same love and acceptance almost always encourages me to take the next step.  Following God may not always be comfortable but it is always fulfilling and worthwhile.

May the peace of God be with you.

KNOWING SELF

A long time ago, I was taking a pastoral counselling course.  The course had a stated purpose and an unstated purpose.  The stated purpose was to help us become better at counselling, something that pastors are called upon to do a lot but which we aren’t all qualified to do.  The unstated purpose was to help us discover a lot more about ourselves so that we could actually provide some honest help to people.

During one class session, one member of the class mentioned that he felt like he was a pastoral version of a politician of that time who had a reputation for being weak, wimpy and ineffective.  I looked at him in surprise and before I thought it through, told him that he wasn’t at all like that politician but was actually a perfect match for a different politician, one who had a reputation for being aggressive, brash and something of a bully.  After falling silent for a few minutes, the student abruptly got up and walked out.

The next day, he was back in class.  After apologizing for walking out, he looked at me and thanked me for my comment, telling the class that at first, it made him mad and then it opened his eyes to his real nature, which he had been trying to hide from himself but was obviously not hiding from anyone else.  Once he began to challenge his carefully constructed and basically ineffective image, he could begin to deal with who he really was and begin an honest journey to becoming who he was meant to be.

I was confused and even a bit scared by the process.  My comment hadn’t been made out of any great psychological or theological insight.  It was more of an offhand remark based on what I was seeing, meant more as a funny observation than anything.  But somehow, it penetrated his self-image and opened some important doors for him.

For me, it was a perfect example of what Paul is talking about when he says in Romans 12.3, “… rather think of yourself with sober judgment in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.”  (NIV).  Many of us are sadly lacking in this sober judgement.  A lot of us who have been part of the more conservative part of the church for a long time have been taught and learned well the lesson that we are pretty much worthless and have no redeeming value.

That particular heresy has damaged our ability to see ourselves as we really are and therefore seriously hampered our ability to grow and develop healthy relationships with ourselves, others and God.  The antidote is to allow ourselves to develop a sober estimate–which in this context, means a balanced and realistic understanding of who and what we are.

For most of us, this will require some help.  We have often lived with the distorted image and pressure to maintain the distorted image for so long that it is so much a part of our thinking that we don’t know what to begin.  Of course, we need to be careful where we look for help–there are lots of people who want us to maintain the worm theology we have been so carefully taught.

Because my life and work involve me primarily with groups of believers, I can say that I have seen such support within the church and its groups.  When believers gather together and care for each other and really pray for and with each other, the Holy Spirit has a fertile ground to work at helping people see and understand and grow.  When a group affirms some aspect of our being, we need to listen carefully.  Forget about the false modesty that requires us to attribute everything to God.  Listen to the group tell us that we sing well or understand Scripture well or are really caring or make people feel comfortable or always know just what to do or say.  Listen and ponder–use those comments as revelation from God about who we really are and what we can really do.  These shafts of light are one of God’s ways of showing us who we are.

We can also formalize the process by find a counsellor or mentor or spiritual guide, someone who is gifted by God in helping people discover themselves and therefore their path to growth and development.

The bottom line is that knowing self begins by rejecting the pressure to define ourselves as worthless and begin developing a realistic and sober self-understanding.  We are seeking to see ourselves as God sees us, which is the beginning of a sometimes scary but always exciting journey.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT YOU SEE…

There have only been a few congregations I served as pastor where I had an actual office outside of our home.  It was nice to have a place for work separate from home–it seemed to keep things a bit more organized, at least in my head.  The work things that needed to be finished or started or whatever were at the office, instead of sitting somewhere in our home.  Mind you, with the invention of laptops, that separation got harder to maintain, since the work was on the same laptop I was using to surf the net or play games.

Anyway, one office I had was particularly well designed, I thought.  It was at the corner of the building with one window facing the parking lot and another facing the way people walked to enter the building.  I had a perfect view of who was coming into the building.  Since I was the only person there except for Sundays and Bible Study night, that normally meant they were coming to see me.  As I watched people come in, it was always interesting and revealing to discover how they were feeling as they walked into the building and notice the transformation as they put on their public face when they arrived at my door.

Most of us like to think that we are pretty good at keeping our thoughts and feelings to ourselves.  And while some people are pretty good at this, most of us are nowhere as good at as we think we are–and we are not good at it for a very basic reason.  We aren’t good at hiding how we feel because in the end, we generally don’t know all that much about what we are feeling and thinking.

The real irony is that when we won’t recognize our own stuff, we are generally broadcasting to the rest of the world a very powerful message about where we are that many others can see.  And so when we stick on a public face, it is plastered over a very clear message that keeps poking out of the disguise, which is confusing and perplexing to a lot of people.

As a pastor, I often find myself in the position of seeing the discrepancy between what people are consciously projecting and what is peeking out that they don’t want seen–or don’t know they are feeling.  Sometimes, it is appropriate to ignore the discrepancy–when we are supposed to be discussing the schedule of worship services for the next year, seeing the difference between what people show and what is underneath isn’t an appropriate topic.  It might be significant and might have an effect on the ease of carrying our out stated task but it generally isn’t wise or necessary to address it then.

Other times, it is important to address it.  Since I do some counselling, there are times when it is my job and responsibility to open the issue and help people confront the difference in what they think they are feeling and what they are really feeling.  It is often a real surprise to people that they have this whole other set of feelings that that either aren’t conscious of or are sort of aware of and feel slightly guilty about.  Ultimately, until people can see and address the deeper, more truthful feelings and realities, there is not much any counselling can do to help people deal with whatever prompted the request for counselling.  I sometimes spend a lot of time helping people understand what is going on that they don’t want to acknowledge.

We human beings have an almost infinite capacity for self-deception, a capacity that creates a great deal of trouble for everyone.  And along with that ability is an almost universal inability to avoid showing other people not only what we want them to see but also what we don’t want to acknowledge or show but show nonetheless.

Rather than self-knowledge, we are often better at self-denial.  This self-denial is not some kind of virtue, however.  It is a real and serious problem because it keeps us from really experiencing life, relationships and God.  It limits our ability to grow in faith and damages our ability to form healthy relationships with others.

It is much healthier in the end to heave the self-denial thing and discover who we really are. After all, we were created in God’s image so there must be something worthwhile there.

May the peace of God be with you.

DENYING SELF

I am the pastor of small, rural congregations.  All of our buildings are old–at least 100 years and one is getting close to 200.  While all have been updated and upgraded to some extent with new-fangled things like electricity and somewhat efficient heating systems–a couple of them even have restrooms–they are still old buildings, designed and built in a era when personal comfort was something looked on with great suspicion.  People who wanted to be comfortable when worshipping God were soft and probably in serious danger of committing sin.

While I sometimes joke with people that the seats in our old buildings were designed specifically to be uncomfortable, I think that is much more a reality than a joke.  The Christian church has a long history of being at odds with comfort and ease.  I think this comes out of a desire to take seriously the words of Jesus that we find in Matthew 16.24, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (NIV)  In order to enable people to take up their cross, the church has perfected many ways of helping people deny themselves.

The seats in our older church buildings are a prime example, although seats themselves, no matter how uncomfortable, would have been seen as something of a temptation to an earlier generation of church leaders–many early buildings didn’t have seats at all.  I mean, after all, Acts 20 tells the story of a young man named Eutychus, who was sitting down during worship and managed to fall asleep.  Standing was a much better option for some church designers when it came to imposing self-denial.

Now, as pastor, I don’t normally have to sit in the pews in our church buildings, although the chair for the preacher which I get to sit in for short periods of time is not a particularly comfortable one.  But I do have some thoughts on the whole self-denial thing, whether it is forced or voluntarily chosen.  For me, we generally start the self-denial process in the wrong place, make some wrong assumptions and then, on the basis of this, end up doing some pretty pointless things.

When we begin the process with the denial stuff, I think we are bound for trouble.  As a pastor and a counsellor, I have realized over many years of ministry that self-denial needs to begin with the self–meaning that we need to have a much better understanding of who and what we are before we begin denying ourselves or others than we normally do.

Often, we are taught that we are worthless, evil and sinful from the moment we are conceived.  We are encouraged to see ourselves as beings with no redeeming features–our very best is still sinful and wrong and tainted and hopelessly evil.  And while that may be a very common and popular conservative-leaning Christian theology, it is simply wrong.

Humans are made in the image of God.  As the Psalmist tells us, we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139.14).  We come into the world with talents and abilities and possibilities and potentials that are divinely planned.  Certainly, we and all that we are affected by sin, both ours and the rest of the world’s.  But we don’t somehow become worthless as soon as we come into being.  We become beings whose whole life and potential is affected negatively by the reality of sin–but that doesn’t mean that we lose all the good and all the potential and all that might be.  It does mean that it will be harder to be who we were meant to be; that we probably won’t reach the heights that God planned for us; that our full potential will never be realized–but it doesn’t mean that we are worthless worms.

Before we begin denying self or giving in to the institutionally encouraged denials, we would probably be a lot further ahead emotionally and spiritually if we got to know who and what we are.  We can and need to look at how we are affected by sin–but we also need to know what we are and what we can be.  We need to be able to see what God has given us; to discover the fearful and wonderful way God has knit us together.

Before we even think about denying self, we should get to know ourselves.  After all, the God who knows us better than we know ourselves loves us as we are.

May the peace of God be with you.