WHICH DIRECTION?

These days, I find myself spending a lot of time wondering where I am going, at least in terms of the churches I have been called to pastor. Both the pastorates I work with have great people and lots of potential. While neither of them is actually rolling in money, they both have enough to ensure they have a future, especially since they have made the difficult decision to move to part-time ministry. Both are located in geographical settings where they are basically the only organized expression of the Christian faith. And although both settings don’t have as many people as they used to have, there are still a significant number of people living in the communities served by the congregations and a significant number of them have no real connection with our faith.

I am entering my third year of service with this somewhat unique ministry—and to be totally honest, I have much less idea of what I am supposed to be doing than I did when I began this work. When I began, the process was clear: lead worship and preach on Sunday, prepare and lead Bible study and get to know the people, as well as deal with things like weddings and funerals and so on. In the process of doing that basic stuff, I would work at developing a sense of the churches and communities and help develop an approach to ministry that would help the churches become more healthy.

I have been doing this for a lot of years and used to think that I was pretty good at this process. I listen, observe, ask questions, research and eventually, begin to get a sense not just of what is but of what can be. I work with the church and together, we do what we feel God is calling us to do in the way God is calling us to do it. Generally, by the two year mark, I am starting to develop a fairly well focused sense of the church and its needs.

But instead of having this developing focus, I find myself these days spending a lot of time wondering what I am doing, what I need to be doing, what is needed for the church and what directions we need to be moving in. Since my ministry involves a lot of time in the car, I find myself wondering what I am supposed to be doing a lot during the drives between home and church building. But I also catch myself worrying the question when I am sanding a piece of my woodworking project or preparing a preaching plan or waiting in the line up at the grocery store.

I spend a lot of time on the question because I don’t have an answer. We have a great spirit in both settings—but our numbers are not improving and our average age isn’t decreasing. We are doing some interesting and innovative things but so far, no matter how much we enjoy it, noting much has changed our overall reality. We hear through the grapevine that people in the communities are noticing us and are pleased at what they see, something that hasn’t always been the case in our communities but that hasn’t translated more people coming to worship or special programs.

As individuals, we are learning more and more about our faith and what it means to us and we are learning how to express that faith to each other in better ways. We have been experimenting with a lot of stuff and we are finding stuff that we enjoy and stuff that we don’t really need. Our worship tends to be a bit more worshipful, our Bible study tends to be a bit more significant, our churches seem a bit more churchy—but for all that, we are still small, rural churches caught in a long-term decline. I like to think that the rate of decline has slowed down since we began looking at ourselves but the truth is that the causes of our decline haven’t really changed—we are still basically the same people we were two years ago but we are all two years older.

So, I wonder. What are we supposed to do and where are we supposed to be going and most especially, what am I supposed to be doing as the pastor of these churches?

May the peace of God be with you.

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WHAT HAVE I ACCOMPLISHED?

At the beginning of the year, I began working on a project in my shop. We needed some more storage space and decided that the need would be met if I built a cabinet and shelf unit similar to the china cabinet and hutch I built a few years ago. The new unit needed to be slightly smaller and a bit different in design but they would match in terms of basic design, wood selection and finish. We got really lucky when the knotty pine I planned on using was on sale at a nearby building supply store.

The project has been moving along. It hasn’t been as fast as I would like. I still have to work and that limits my time for woodworking. I can’t do sawing or sanding in the house, which means those particular jobs can only be done with it is nice enough outside. The requirements for free time and relatively comfortable outside weather in Nova Scotia in the winter happening at the same time mean that I don’t get at the project as often as I would like and the finishing date keeps getting shifted forward.

But the project is moving along. The basic structures are formed, a lot of the sanding is done and there are just a few more assembly steps necessary before I can finish the whole thing. Even though I don’t care much for the final sanding and varnishing process, I can see that I will get the work done. I can also see just how much progress I have made along the way—I have moved from a pile of boards on the basement floor to a pretty much finished project that will soon become a finished and functional part of our household.

There are times when I wish the success of my ministry was as easy to evaluate. But the reality I live with is that much of what I do for ministry isn’t all that easy to evaluate, especially if I am looking at and for long term results. Sure, I can relatively easily gage how well a sermon went over—I just have to count the number of people awake when I finish. Evaluating a Bible study session is relatively simple—I look at how far I got or didn’t get in my lesson plan.

But figuring out how that sermon fits into the long term health of the individuals and the church or seeing how that Bible study session affects the church three years from now—that is much more difficult. In fact, it actually might be pretty much impossible. When I cut a board in the workshop, I can pretty much tell immediately if it will work or not. But when I finish a sermon, who really knows what the effects will be?

Even the traditional measures of evaluating ministry really don’t give a lot of insight into the effectiveness of ministry. Traditionally, churches and leadership have used the numerical growth of the congregation and the increase in giving as measuring sticks—what some call the “nickels and noses” evaluation. But all that says in the end is that we have more or less people and money that when we started.

I believe in evaluation processes and have lots of measuring tools that I use in my ministry but I have realized that in the end, most of what I do will ultimately be evaluated by God, not me or the church or the denomination. Without sounding too whatever, I think that the real value of the ministry I do here and now will be evaluated by God himself. I base that partly on Paul’s comments in I Corinthians 2.10-15, where he suggests that only when God calls “time” will the final word on anyone’s ministry by spoken.

That doesn’t really bother me, all that much. While I can and do use all sorts of evaluation processes and tools to help make my ministry as effective as I can make it, I recognize that God has the final say and I am responsible for doing the best I can with the tools I have and the time I have—and am also responsible for making sure that I keep open to his leading because he knows where it all needs to go much better than I do.

It’s probably good that I like woodworking because that means there is at least some place where I can see clearly what I am accomplishing.

May the peace of God be with you.

YEAR END REVIEWS

One of my Christmas gifts every year for the past few years is a subscription to a science magazine.  I think it was a desperation gift when our son first gave it but it was and is a deeply appreciated part of my Christmas and the rest of the year.  And, because of the way magazines get published, I had the January issue in early December.

I look forward to that issue because it summarizes the top scientific stories and issues for the past year.  When I read through the issue, I am reminded of some things I knew of, I discover some things that I didn’t hear about and I end up feeling like I know something more than before I read the magazine.

And the magazine publishers are not alone–almost everyone does a year end review.  News programs review the top stories; various musical styles do their top 100 for the year; movies get rated  from best to worst–everyone seems to want to review the year.

So, I sometimes think I should review my year–but what should I include in the review?  What parts of my life do I want to look over and rate?  I suppose I could do a top ten sermons list–but truthfully, when I finish a sermon, I am pretty much done with it, except for the occasional discussion that it sparks at the following week’s Bible study.  Going back and re-reading them to rate them isn’t all that appealing to me.

I do have to do something of a work review for the churchs’ annual meetings but that tends to be a statistical report with some ideas and suggestions and is sometimes hard to do because a lot of what I do in the church is in process and can’t really be measured or evaluated on a chronological basis.

I could do some personal review but that sometimes takes on a negative slant:  the weight I didn’t lose, the bike rides I didn’t  take; the people I didn’t get to spend time with; the books that are still waiting to be read.  The things I accomplished, well, sometimes they don’t seem all that significant–the naps I really needed to take or the coffee I really wanted to drink or the hour of YouTube that I couldn’t pass up.

I decided a while ago that my life and my work don’t actually lend themselves to an annual evaluation.   I believe in and practice self and professional evaluation but have realized that the process works a lot better if I allow the evaluation to fit into the natural and intrinsic patterns and cycles of whatever I am evaluating.

My personal life doesn’t cycle around the January date.  My professional life doesn’t fit the New Year evaluation pattern.  Trying to do a year end review or a best of the year process ends up being frustrating and somewhat pointless.   My professional cycle, for example, actually runs from September to May, with a short and needed break at the end of December.  It makes much more sense to do work evaluations in June or July than it does in December.

Likewise, my personal life follows a cycle that is intertwined with my professional life, the seasons and when the next Star Wars or Star Trek movie will come out.  Most of those cycles don’t lend themselves well to a December 31 evaluation process.  They can be evaluated and some of them need to be evaluated but evaluating them based on the cycles they follow is better and more effective.

So, I am going to anticipate and enjoy the science magazine’s year in review.  I might listen to some of the top 100 music of the past year.  I will summarize the past year for the church annual report.  I will try to avoid looking too closely at the bathroom scales report on my after Christmas personal expansion.  But I won’t do a year end review and best of report.  I won’t make resolutions to do things better next year.

I will evaluate and plan and make changes as they are appropriate and necessary and fit in the patterns and cycles of my life because that works better for me than using an artificial and arbitrary date as a reason for evaluation and review.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE HALO EFFECT

            I was at a meeting a while ago where someone was talking about the situation that prompted the meeting and made a comment concerning her understanding of how the problem developed.  Essentially, she was pretty sure that older pastors had caused the problem.  I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to the comment because I was trying to focus on the problem at hand which was and is more complex than any of us realized–and besides, I have been working on this particular problem for a long time and had no sense that I had actually caused it.

However, a friend was sitting nearby and was quite upset by the comment.  He has been in ministry almost as long as me and I heard his mutter something like, “I am tired of being blamed for everything that happened in the past.”  He had heard the words and took them personally–and when I looked at it from his perspective, I understood his hurt.

We tend to make sweeping statements that inaccurately and unfairly include a wider group of people that we realize.  Part of that comes from falling into a psychological trap that I learned about early in my university days.  Some psychology book or professor referred to something called the “Halo Effect”.  This effect has nothing to do with the contemporary computer game and had no theological base.  It refers what happens when we assume person with one characteristic has several other characteristics.

So, the speaker at the meeting recognized that the problem we were dealing with was often associated with older pastors–and was suggesting that anyone possessing the characteristic of being an older pastor was therefore also responsible for creating the problem.  Since my friend has been involved in trying to fix this particular problem almost as long as I have, he felt upset at being “haloed” into the other group.

There are a great many people who do bad, evil, stupid and wrong things.  Some of them fall into neatly defined categories.  Older white males have managed to create some serious problems over the years.  But to assume that all older white males are equally guilty of all the offenses that have been committed by some older white males is really no different than assuming that all people of a certain colour or ethnic background or age or gender or sexual orientation are guilty of whatever current evil some members of the defined group are accused of committing.

But it is easier to make use of the halo effect than it is to be honest and discerning.  It is easier to make blanket statements than it is to sort out the real causes and perpetrators and issues.  It is simpler to tar a whole group than it is to deal with the reality that people are different and unique and that one polka-dotted individual who secretly pulls the tags off mattresses isn’t a sign that the whole group does the same thing.

It seems to me that our western culture is moving in two directions, neither of which is overly helpful.  While we are becoming increasingly individualistic and demanding,  we are also becoming increasing unwilling to see others as individuals.  While we want our personal rights and freedoms to be given sacred status, we are increasingly willing as a culture to say and act as if “their” rights should be limited because “they” all do that.

Fortunately for all of us, God doesn’t lump us into groups and treat the group the same based on some characteristic of one or some of the group.  He is aware that although my friend (and I) are older pastors, we didn’t actually create the problem and have actually been working hard to change the problem.  God sees us as individuals; God loves us as individuals; God responds to us as individuals; God rescues us as individuals.

God, in fact, created us with individuality in mind–the fact that I am left-handed doesn’t make me exactly the same as all left-handed people. The fact that I am an older pastor doesn’t make me the same as all older pastors.  The fact that I am colour blind might make me wear strange combinations now and then but it still doesn’t make me the same as all colour-blind people.

God celebrates our diversity and doesn’t use the halo effect–thank God for that.

May the peace of God be with you.

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.

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.