BACK HOME

As I mentioned in previous posts, we have been on vacation, travelling in Quebec with our daughter and son-in-law.  We had a great trip–we visited some great places, saw some really exciting things, ate some great meals and had a great time together talking and laughing and sharing.  We ate too much of the wrong things generally at the wrong time; we slept in and started the day late and finished it late.  We didn’t have internet most of the time and generally didn’t miss it.  In short, it was a great vacation.

But as we were on the final section of the drive home, the urge to drive faster and faster became stronger and stronger–fortunately, my wife, who likes cruise control, was driving at that point and therefore able to resist the urge to speed up.  When we pulled in the driveway, we were both glad to be home, even if it meant engaging in the tedious process of unpacking, putting away and picking up pieces.  We were glad to be home.

So, we were glad to be away and glad to be home.  I think it is interesting that most of us have similar reactions to vacations and being away.  Unless the reason for being away is painful or forced, we tend to like the change and distraction and difference–at least for a while.  But there seems to be a somewhat hard to define limit to the change and distraction and difference.  We need a certain amount of time–but if we have even one day longer, the whole thing changes character and becomes less exciting and less interesting and maybe even irritating.

The real difficulty, at least for me, is figuring out the optimal time for being away.  On the whole, I like where we live, I like my work, I like my surroundings.  I like my routine–schedules have a way of helping me find peace and stability.  I need breaks and trips away now and then, but they need to be breaks and not the norm.  And they need to be the right length–to short and I don’t get the break and too long begins to undercut the benefits of being away.

One of the benefits of self-knowledge is the ability to understand our own needs and take them into consideration as we deal with the details of our lives.  I have never been a great fan of the whole extreme self-denial and even self-abuse school of Christianity.  Living on 2 hours of sleep accompanied by bread and water once a week might look good in the biography of some saint or other but as a real life style, it doesn’t do much for anyone.

Knowing who I am and what works for me and allowing myself to take my needs and desires into consideration allows me to be better at being me and at doing what I need to do.  Knowing that I need several vacation periods during the year in order to be effective in my work is important.  If I try to keep going beyond my limits, denying the basic realities of who I am, I end up tired, grumpy, frustrated and increasingly ineffective in my ministry.  Extreme self-denial doesn’t make me more spiritual–in fact, it does just the opposite.

Certainly, some self-denial is good for me.  While I like chocolate, a diet of chocolate isn’t going to do me much good in the long run.  I really like coffee–but too much of that great stuff  ends up creating all sorts of problems for me.  I also enjoy eating–but too much eating tends to make my clothes tight and stretches my belt.

The issue seems to me to be finding the balance between healthy indulgence and healthy denial.  Our just completed vacation worked because it was the perfect length and the perfect amount of self-indulgence.  But now, we are back home and I can eat less, sleep properly and even exercise regularly–and even more, I am ready to get back to work with a renewed and rested spirit.  While I didn’t do anything in the way of work while I was away, I am ready to get back to it, with all sorts of idea and plans and energy.

May the peace of God be with you.

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TODAY

            I have been suffering through the effects of a cold or something:  coughing, stuffy nose, mild headache, low-grade fever.  I don’t much like being sick and since I have had a run of almost a year without a cold, fever or anything more than an upset stomach from eating too much of the wrong stuff, being sick now seems even worse. So, I am sitting here at the computer, hacking my lungs out, feeling feverish and using up large amounts of tissues.  I am very aware of not feeling good.

So, does that awareness of what I am feeling right now mean that I am truly living in the now?  I would much rather not be living in this particular “now”.  I much prefer the now that will come in a few days when the hacking, fever and headache will be gone.  The now of a few days before the whole things started isn’t a bad second choice.  Unfortunately, I am stuck here, tied to the now by the tissue box, the thermometer and social stigma that would be focused on me if I went to a public place broadcasting my whatever this is.

But even when I am not sick, I am not sure how much I live fully in the now.  Since some of my now is determined by the past, things that generally need to be dealt with in some way, and by the need to do certain things to be ready for tomorrow, a lot of my now time is spent looking back or looking ahead.

I suppose that I could get myself into a mental and spiritual state where all I can see and focus on is the now.  I could detach from the past and shut off the future–but then, I wouldn’t be able to write this post, since I work a week ahead on my blog.  I would have to focus totally on how miserable I feel.  True, I could enjoy looking out the living room window at the trees and tidal flats and the lawn which doesn’t need mowing right now.  I could focus on the ever-present pain in my knee which is reminding me it is time to move it a bit to relieve the pain.

But I already do that stuff, along with lots of other in the now stuff.  Since I am on dog duty, I am always listening to make sure that he isn’t getting in trouble outside.  I am continually scanning the tree line looking for the deer.  I am aware of the vague idea flitting around in my mind that may become a sermon idea or blog post at some point but which right now is too vague and flighty to do more than notice.

I live in the now–but I also live as a result of the past and in anticipation of the future.  The issue for me, I think, is to keep a proper balance.  Too much focus on the pain and difficulty and triumph of the past takes me to places where I have already been and probably stops me from going where I need to go–I begin to  be like some counselling clients who can only see the pain of the past.  Too much focus on tomorrow likely means I am trying to live in an imaginary land where everything is perfect and I don’t have to deal with yesterday or today–again, like some counselling clients whose future is rosy and perfect and completely unrealistic.  And of course, too much focus on today means that I have no idea why I am ignoring a specific person and will likely retire at 110 because I don’t have a pension.

As in so much of life, the balance is the issue.  I am affected by yesterday, I am affecting tomorrow–and I do it all from today.  I stand (well, sit actually) in the here and now, looking both ahead and back to see how the here and now is affected by yesterday and what potential affect it might have on tomorrow.  I can enhance the here and now by how I deal with yesterday–and I can probably enhance tomorrow by how I deal with today.

So, I will be aware of my hacking and fever while looking ahead to the day when I won’t have this illness, giving thanks that the past tells me that I will recover.  I am aware of the here and now but am not sure that I am totally enjoying parts of this particular here and now.

May the peace of God be with you.

YESTERDAY

Recently, I was at a large meeting where I ran into a lot of people I hadn’t seen in a long time.  Some of them I likely hadn’t seen since I last attended this annual meeting a couple of  years ago.  I had a variety of responses to the people I connected with.

Some of them were people I was relatively close to but because of time, distance, work and whatever else, we don’t manage to connect much.  These encounters were long as we caught up, shared our lives and re-connected.  Sometimes, we talked in the corridors when we should be at a meeting; sometimes, we shared a meal or a coffee break; sometimes, we made arrangements to get together at another time–but each of these meetings was important and valuable and part of the reason why I drag my introverted self to such meetings.

Some of the people I met were acquaintances, people I knew from some context and am friends with but we have never had the time or opportunity to really develop beyond the “how are you” stage.  We greet each other, exchange a few words and carry on.  There is always the possibility that such a meeting might spark a deeper conversation but often, we greet and carry on.

And then there are the people I know and have had significant contact with–but the contact has tended to be negative and painful.  These people, well, I confess that knowing some of them will likely be at the meeting prompts me to keep my eyes open in a defensive scan at all times so that I can avoid awkward and uncomfortable encounters.  When I have no choice, I try to be polite but tend to be polite in the context of keeping moving as if the coming meeting is the most vital thing in my life instead another long, dreary and somewhat boring business meeting.

I realize that a great deal of who I an and what I do now is a result of the relationships I have developed in the past.  Like everyone else beyond 2 minutes old, my life has been shaped to a large degree by the people in my life.  Certainly there are other factors that help determine who I am–my introversion, colour-blindness and left-handedness have also had a part in shaping who and what I am and I arrived with those already hardwired in place.

But the basic hardware that I was born with is combined with the myriad of experiences and people I have encountered in my life.  My past deeply affects my present, to the point that I can and do plan my route through a meeting venue partly on the anticipation of who I might meet and how I can maximize the positive contacts and minimize the negative ones.  I might actually live in the present but the present is shaped and affected by the past.

I can’t ignore my past–nor would it be healthy to ignore it.  It is much healthier to acknowledge the past and seek to understand its affect on my life.  I can celebrate the positive influences and try to arrange the present so that I can enjoy and enhance those.  I can accept and seek to learn what I need to learn from the negative influences and seek to grow through them.  And I can understand and appreciate how the nature of the influence can change from negative to positive or positive to negative as time passes and my understanding grows.

For me, it is important to remember that my past is important.  It has been a significant factor in shaping who I am now.  I can’t ignore it and shouldn’t minimize it.  The events of the past, the people of the past, the interactions of people and events are realities in my life, realities that I need to remember and seek to understand so that I can make clear and better choices today.

When I walk down a corridor to a meeting, I think it is important to realize that I am taking to left hand corridor more because people I don’t want to encounter will likely be in the right hand corridor than any other reason.  If I understand why I make the choices I make and have dealt with the stuff I need to deal with, I can make better decisions here and now.

Yesterday may have come and gone but it has left its mark on me–and the more I understand and accept those marks, the better I deal with today.

May the peace of God be with you.

SELECTIVE HEARING

A few years ago, I was attempting to prove that while my hearing was fine, my wife had been gradually lowering her voice making it difficult for me to hear so I scheduled an appointment with a hearing specialist.  An hour and lots of money later, I had hearing aids because it was my hearing that was the actual problem after all.  The specialist was careful to brief both of us on what to expect and what not to expect from the new hearing aids.  Since I could now hear, I listened carefully–and am glad I did because of what began to happen.

I was hearing everything.  After getting the devices fitted, we went shopping.  As I was standing in line, I heard the conversation between a couple several spots behind me in the line–did I mention that the new hearing aids have both forward and rear facing microphones?  I heard the squeaks and rattles in the car, the rustling of the groceries in the back, the raindrops hitting my hat.  Everything was clear and audible and eventually annoying.

I would have been tempted to rush back to the dealer and have him readjust the hearing aids, except he had warned me about this.  My hearing had been slowly deteriorating over the years and I hadn’t realized I wasn’t hearing all this stuff.  Normally, our brain processes out most of the extraneous noise–but because my hearing had been bad, the areas that do that processing had to be retrained to ignore the stuff I could now hear but really didn’t need to hear.

We all have somewhat selective hearing.  Right now, I am working in our living room.  There is an air purifier running by the living room door.  The kitchen fridge adds to the noise level.  If I focus, I can hear the dehumidifier in the basement.  The fan in my laptop cycles on and off.  The dog flops and walks and does whatever else he does.  With my hearing aids, I can now hear all that stuff.

But I have had them long enough that my filtering systems are back at work and so I only hear them when I choose to or something goes wrong with them.  My hearing is normal in that I can hear it all and depend on my brain to select what I really need to hear, except for a few minutes immediately after I put the hearing aids on in the morning until the filtering process kicks in.

This selective sensing works in most areas of life.  I look out the window and see the trees, the deer, the squirrels and the salt marsh, ignoring the lawn, the wires and the neighbour’s cat.  I can smell the cinnamon from my breakfast granola and not notice the slight odour of wet dog.  I notice the perpetual pain in my left knee from but ignore the lesser pain in my right knee.

And on the larger level, I stand in the pulpit every Sunday and look at the congregation members.  I know these people–remember, I pastor small churches.  As I talk with them before and after the service (and sometimes during), I see and hear lots of things, some of which I actually pay attention to and some of which I don’t.

I see the need of the person I know is struggling with grief and the related issues.  I hear the person who is struggling with some personal issue.  I might perceive the tensions sitting between one of the couples in worship.  I hear the excitement of the couple with grandchildren visiting.  I am aware of the person carrying the burden of an aging and increasingly disabled relative.

And because I am a pastor, I often need to do something in many of these situations–but part of my ministry is knowing what to focus on and what to ignore.  Just like I filter out what my hearing aid augmented ears pick up, so I need to filter out what my pastoral senses show me.

I have learned that the best way for me to do that is to open myself not only to the people but also to God so that the Holy Spirit can help me in the process.  Left to myself, I would either hear it all, which leads to burnout or ignore it all, which is just wrong.  While I am still learning that process, I have discovered a few things, which will be the topic of the next post.

May the peace of God be with you.

MY CALLING

             Early in my ministry career, I was speaking in a city in Western Canada and the pastor of the church I was speaking at arranged an interview with the local paper.  Rather than ask is I would like to be interviewed, he simply set up the interview and told me to expect the reporter at a certain time.  Since I was a bit less inclined to complain at that stage of my life, I let his rudeness go and was polite for the interview.

During the course of the interview, the reporter asked why I was doing what I was doing.  I used my professional shorthand and told her that it because of my calling from God.  Her lack of much in the way of faith background immediately became clear when she looked at me blankly and asked me to explain what a call was.  I really can’t remember what I said to explain the concept of God’s call but in the end, everything I have done professionally and a lot of what I have done personally is a result of my belief that God has called me to do it.

Now, I don’t get emails, snail mail or phone calls from God.  Nor is his call accompanied by a clear timeline and a specific set of plans and directions.  And at any given time in my life, I can be extremely confused about what God is calling me to; fighting against what I know God wants me to do or begging him to change the call or at least its specific application.

But overall, I believe that one of the consequences of my accepting Jesus as Saviour and Lord is willingness to let God make decisions about what I do and where I do it.  If I have really accepted Him as Lord, that involves my being willing to submit my life to him and allow him to direct me.  For me, that has played out primarily in terms of my work.  I believe that God has called me to make ministry my occupation.  Not everyone is called to that particular career path–but all of us are called by God to serve him and follow him in all areas of life.

For me, knowing and following God’s leading has been important.  It has also mean that I have not always been happy with where the call took me.  In fact, many times I have been more than a bit unhappy with where the call has taken me.  If I had been in charge of my life, I would have bulked up the teaching and researching and writing and basically eliminated the pastoral stuff.

But I am not in charge–or it is probably better to say that I work hard at not being in charge.  Because I have chosen to make God through Christ Lord of my life, in the end, I seek to do what he wants me to do, even if I am not always happy with his leading.  I am free to complain, I am free to pray (beg) for a change–I am even free to simply refuse to do what God asks of me.

But overall, I keep coming back to where God calls me, even when I am not happy.  That almost sounds like I have some serious emotional or mental issues but the truth is, I learned a long time ago that while I may not always be happy with where God is calling me, it is always better for me to be where God wants me to be.  Underneath the struggles and the bouts of unhappiness and even depression, there is a sense of joy and peace that comes from doing what I know God wants.

And in the end, I have also learned that giving up a certain amount of short-term happiness is well compensated for by the deep seated and long term joy and peace that comes from doing what I know God wants and being where I know God wants me to be.

So, that means that at a point in my life when I could easily be done with a career that hasn’t always been the happiest for me, I am still going.  I am still going because this is where God wants me to be and I am doing what he wants me to be doing.  I am sure that retirement is there somewhere down the road–but for now, I will follow the calling and enjoy the joy and peace that comes from that.

May the peace of God be with you.

 

THINKING, FEELING AND BELIEVING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

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.

FEELING AND THINKING

Sometimes, when I am in a counselling session with a troubled individual, I will use a question to help them get a hold of what it going on in their lives.  I will say something like, “What are you feeling?” or “How did (does) that make you feel?”.  A significant number of people will answer the question by saying, “I think…” and then going on to give a reasoned response that tells me two things:  first, they know what they should feel and secondly, they have no idea what they personally feel.  Often, I will keep asking the question, pointing out that they are giving me thoughts instead of feelings until they either tell me to stop or begin to see their feelings.

There are significant and deep connections between what we feel and what we think but they are actually two different processes and two different viewpoints.  We all feel and we all think–and in the long run, it is good to know the difference between the two as well as how they are related and interact.

My feelings affect my thinking–and my thinking affects my feelings.  The less I am aware of my thinking or my feeling, the more complicated the process becomes and the less I am in control of any of it.  For many people, the difficulty is that we don’t recognize or acknowledge our feelings–and that opens the door for those unrecognized and unacknowledged feelings to dominate my thinking.

I am an introvert, a reality which means I tend to be uncomfortable in large groups of people.  The larger the group, the more uncomfortable I feel.  Unless I can be assured of a certain amount of physical and psychological space, I have serious negative feelings.  So, when the possibility of going to something where there will be a lot of people, I need to take that into consideration.

If I don’t consider my initial negative feelings, I can think myself into lots of good reasons for not going:  parking will be a problem; it will be late and I am tired; it will cost too much; a riot might break out; it will be a great spot for a terrorist to strike; someone there might have the flu–well, you get the idea.  When I don’t take into consideration my feelings, my thinking falls into alignment with my feelings and gives me reasons for not doing (or doing) what my feelings want.

Now, when the feelings are about a crowded concert, that is one thing.  But my feelings can have serious affects on all my life.  If I was abused by a school teacher, I can and probably will let those feelings affect my entire view of education–especially if I repress the feelings and pretend that the abuse didn’t happen or didn’t affect me or doesn’t matter.  My thinking gets distorted by the feelings that I haven’t been willing or able to deal with.

From my perspective as a pastor and occasional counsellor, the solution to the issue of feelings dominating thinking is simple.  All we need to do is admit and accept our feelings.  As a pastor and occasional counsellor, I recognize that this can be a very painful, difficult and time-consuming process that is anything but easy.  Sometimes, it can seem to an individual to be beyond their ability, which is why God has given us pastors, counsellors and therapists of various kinds–having someone there to help us through the painful process of coming to grips with our feelings makes a real difference.

In the end, the more we recognize and understand and accept the reality of our feelings, the freer we are to actually live our lives.  Rather than be guided and directed by what we don’t know and thus don’t control, we are able to think better because we know all (or at least more of) the factors that have been causing problems.  We can take into account our feelings but we can also think of ways around them and ways to deal with them and reasons why the feelings can be ignored or deal with in a better way.

Asking people how they are feeling is an important part of my pastoral and counselling processes–and it can be a valuable tool for any of us.  The more we understand our feelings, the freer our thought process.

May the peace of God be with you.