WHO ARE YOU?

Every now and then, I get caught by my assumptions. I learn a thing or two about someone or something and on the basis of that, I assume a whole bunch of things. One of these situations involved someone who showed up as a worship service where I as preaching. I knew a bit about the person—he was a member of a fairly conservative church group that I knew something about. I didn’t agree with some of the group’s ideas and practises—I am somewhat less conservative than that group.

That particular Sunday, the sermon was on a topic that could have created some real issues between this person and me. I was in the middle of a sermon series and was dealing with a topic where that group he represented had some seriously different ideas from mine. I was pretty sure that my sermon would offend him. My assumption was that it he didn’t walk out during the sermon, I would either be ignored at the end or get told how wrong I was.

All through the sermon, I was conscious of that person and their response. I didn’t preach to him alone. I didn’t ignore him or spend all my time watching his reaction but I was aware of his presence and basically assumed that he was going to be upset by what I was saying. He didn’t give out much in the way of body language but I was pretty sure that he didn’t like it—my assumptions are based on lots of experience with his group.

He didn’t actually leave, nor did he go to sleep or stare out the window during the sermon. He didn’t get visibly agitated or angry—I assumed that he had been taught to control himself in preparation for setting me straight at the end of the worship. The sermon ended, we sang the hymn—I sort of hoped that he would sneak out during the singing but he didn’t. We finished the hymn, I pronounced the benediction and limped towards door to greet everyone as they left.

The rest of the church spent some time talking with this guy, welcoming him and all that and so it was a while before he got to the back. I stuck out my hand to shake his. He grabbed my hand, shook it firmly and told me that my sermon was the best and clearest treatment of the topic that he had ever heard. Over the noise of the rest of the members chatting and laughing, I heard the sound of my assumptions shattering.

I will confess right now that this is a preacher story—there is a core of truth in it but I have embellished it a bit and jammed several incidents together . We preachers simply have an inborn inability to release a story without some polishing and editing. But the story does capture a common reality for me. I tend to make judgments based on my assumptions that turn out to be seriously and completely wrong.

Fortunately, God has been at work through the Holy Spirit to help me grow through such incidents. It has happened enough that you would think I would have learned a long time ago not to make such assumptions but I am not all that bright, I guess, because I keep doing the same thing time after time.

This does help me understand the reality and power of God’s grace, though. God uses an incident to teach me something that I need to know. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, I learn the lesson. And then, through the power of my humanness, I forget the lesson and make the same mistake based on the same assumptions. God, in his infinite grace, forgives me and uses another incident when I make the mistake to teach me again. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, I learn the lesson, only to forget it again and need a refresher.

God reveals his infinite love and grace and patience because as many times as I need the same lesson, God will happily provide it. And if and when I finally learn the lesson, he will move on to something else that I need to learn. I am a slow learner but God is a loving and patient teacher, which is great for me and everyone else.

May the peace of God be with you.

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HOW MANY?

Both the worship services I lead recently had me feeling much more nervous. The morning service was a special worship to which we invited the community. While I suggested the idea and thought it was a good one, I wasn’t expecting much increase in attendance—it was a holiday weekend, after all. On the drive to worship, I counted in my mind the ones who would likely be there: our normal 8 or so, depending on who was sick or away plus maybe 4-6 more from the visiting family of one of our members.

But that morning, people just kept coming and coming. We ran out of chorus sheets early in the process. At one point, after seating more than expected I peeked out the open door and saw as many people standing around as were seated. My final count was 27 while one of the others got 29—we decided to go with his numbers.

The second service at my other pastorate was definitely not going to be that good, I thought. To start with, it was a stifling hot day—and our buildings have no air conditioning. It was the first Sunday of our summer worship schedule, meaning worship was in the evening. And then there was the fact that the we couldn’t use the building we were supposed to use because of serious emergency repairs. We called everyone and put a sign on the building about the change but I was pretty sure the change would upset things.

And just like the morning worship, once people started coming, they kept coming. We surpassed our average of 18-20 really quickly. We ran out of bulletins. We used up all the new chorus books we are printing for the church. And people kept coming. When we started, we had 29 people in our worship.

Now, I know that for many people, those numbers are small and that for some churches, that might be the number of greeters and ushers, not the whole congregation. But these are big numbers for us—and while I was excited and pleased and happy, I was also more nervous. I am always nervous about leading worship and preaching but on a normal Sunday with our normal group, I have more control of the nervousness. But more people tend to increase my anxiety.

To start with, there is more to do before the worship. I like to greet people as they come—since our buildings are basically one room, I am obviously there and so it makes sense to greet people as they come in. There are other bits and pieces to deal with, questions about the worship, changes to the music and so on that get harder to work out as we have more people. I begin to lose focus and forget things.

In the morning service, I forgot to take my water cup to the pulpit—in fact, I completely forget where I put it and couldn’t see it from the pulpit. Fortunately, I had some cough drops for when my voice needed some help. In the evening service, I forgot to turn on my tablet until I got to the pulpit to start worship, an omission that I confessed and which delayed our start a bit since I didn’t have a bulletin to read the announcements from.

There are probably some who would suggest my increased nervousness is a negative thing. There are some who would suggest that being nervous at all before leading worship is a negative thing, perhaps a sign of a weaknesses of faith or something like that. I am the first to admit that I don’t have a perfect faith and have definite weaknesses in my faith.

But my nervousness before worship isn’t a sign of weak faith or something negative. I think it is a healthy sign and an indication of my respect for the people I lead in worship and the God I serve through that process. I want to do my best to help the worshippers experience the reality of God’s presence and be faithful to God’s calling to me. If I am not nervous, I am probably relying on myself in the process not God through the power of the Holy Spirit. My nervousness is a sign that I am aware of my need of God’s strength and help and a reminder to open myself to him in the process.

May the peace of God be with you.

DRIVING BY OTHER CHURCHES

I spend a lot of time on the road when I am working. The nearest of the churches I serve is an 18 kilometer round trip and the most distant is a 78 kilometer round trip. No matter which building I am going to, I have to pass other churches—some Baptist and some representing other denominations. And because I have lived in this area for a long time, I know quite a bit about those other churches.

And the one fact that stares me in face every time I drive by is that they all have more people in worship that I have. It doesn’t matter which denomination or where they are on the theological spectrum, they have more people in worship than I have. There are a couple of congregations in the area that have fewer but they aren’t on my regular routes so the bottom line is that every congregation I drive by has more people in worship than I have.

Now, being the spiritually mature, balanced and understanding pastor that I am, this doesn’t bother me at all. I can drive by and say a prayer of thanksgiving that they are doing so well and go to my small worship spiritually secure in the knowledge that all is well and that numbers don’t matter and that as long as God is being praised, all is well.

And if you are willing to believe that last paragraph, can I interest you in some land I have for sale? It is a great piece of land, although we need to wait for a six month dry spell so the ground is firm enough to stand on without sinking in too much.

Being the pastor of some of the smallest congregations in our area does bother me, especially since I have been working there for over two years and have managed to slightly decrease our average attendance in that time. Driving by other congregations can be painful.

I drive by the very conservative ones that have clear answers for everything, along with lots and lots of cars in the parking lot and wonder if maybe I need to start giving people clear answers like those groups do. But then, as I think about the people in the pews that I work with week after week, I realize that they neither need nor want clear and rigid answers—their faith needs the freedom to ask questions and seek answers that is such a strong part of our ministry.

I drive by the buildings of more liberal denominations which sometimes question what I consider the basics of the faith—and who also have lots of cars in the parking lot. I wonder of maybe I should copy their approach—but then I remember that most of the people I work with have built their lives and their faith on these foundational realities.

I drive by charismatic congregations, whose music and worship are obviously attracting people, at least according to the number of cars in the lot and I wonder if maybe we need to ditch the organ and piano and traditional hymns for a worship team and choruses projected on the wall—but then I remember that we are lucky to have any musician at all and we do like the older hymns but when possible, we try some new stuff.

So, I drive by. I look at the cars in the lot with some envy and maybe more jealousy that I am comfortable with. I wonder if I am doing something wrong that keeps us small and struggling. I wonder if maybe we should close up shop and go somewhere else. And then I realize that we gather each week for worship and for Bible study because we have found something that works for us. It probably won’t work for others—well, obviously, it doesn’t work for a lot of others because they aren’t there. But what happens in other places might not work for us either—I know that because some have tied hard to fit in there and it just doesn’t work.

So, I drive by and look at the cars and continue to my congregations where we gather as a small group seeking to understand God’s presence and calling and purpose for us. I don’t really know why we are who and what we are—but I do know that we are who and what we are because God has called us together and works in and through us—and for now, that counteracts the parking lot envy enough to keep me going.

May the peace of God be with you.

TWO LOSSES

Earlier this year, I was saddened by two deaths that happened around the same time. Billy Graham died and his death was followed by that of Stephen Hawking. Given the fact that these two men had what appeared to be vastly different spheres of influence, very few reports that I saw made any connection between the two. But I admired both of them and both were influential in my life and the two death coming so close together had an effect on me.

I really don’t know if there was any real connection between the two—my speculation is that each at least knew of the other but probably didn’t spend a lot of time reading each other stuff or pondering each other’s teachings. In fact, given the misguided assumption on the part of many in the modern western world that science and religion don’t mix, there are more than a few who might suggest that Hawking and Graham would likely have been enemies, since they were widely recognized as leaders in their respective spheres.

But for me, well, I didn’t see a conflict. I am a science nerd and a theology nerd. And in truth, there have been lots of times when I have found myself working hard to wrap my head around both men’s ideas—and more than a few when their ideas have come together in that confusing mix in my mind and created a theological-scientific thought process that resulted in a headache and more confusion.

Unlike some, I don’t approach theology and science with the expectation of conflict and tension. When I struggle to read Hawking on time and the origin of all things or when I read Graham on faith and salvation, I don’t weigh one against the other to see who is right. Thinking about heaven and the afterlife seems to naturally lead into thinking about time and what it is—Graham leading to Hawking. Thinking about the Big Bang naturally leads to thinking about who and why—Hawking leading to Graham.

Both have had an effect on my thinking and my theology. Both have troubled and inspired me. Both have confused and irritated me. Both inspired agreement and disagreement . Both have helped me understand more about myself, my place in creation and my faith. And as a result, the deaths of both left me saddened and feeling like my world has shrunk a bit.

I didn’t spend a lot of time reading and studying the writings of either. I own and have read books by both and enjoyed them. Mostly, I was content to know that they were both there, both doing their thing and both accessible through their writings and so on should I ever decide to really follow up on their work. Honestly, I sometimes felt the Graham’s stuff was a bit too easy to understand and Hawking’s was a bit too hard to understand—but that didn’t stop me from buying and reading some of their work.

I am never going to be an evangelist like Graham nor a theoretical scientist like Hawking but I do appreciate their work—and have never felt a need to decide which body of material was more valuable to me or to the world. Each did their thing and each did it well and both taught me important stuff about God, creation and even myself.

I am not interested here is moralizing about their lives, choices or spiritual fates. That isn’t my job. God in his grace makes those kinds of decisions. Me—well, I admired both, I read both and I learned from both. Their lives and their work and their personality were and are important to me. I can and will continue to appreciate the contribution both have made to me personally and the world in general. And most of all, I will not fall into the trap of seeing these people as representations of sides in some mythical and mystical eternal battle.

These were two people who gave themselves completely to their callings and in the process of chasing their dreams and visions, showed the rest of glimpses of deeper and higher truths that we can all benefit from. So, to Stephen Hawking and Billy Graham, I say, “Thank you—I will miss you.”

May the peace of God be with you.

A CROW IN A TREE

It’s Monday morning, which means that yesterday was Sunday. I lead two worship services, one of which included a lunch afterwards. I preached twice and felt that both sermons went over fairly well. Attendance was good for both services, given the time of the year and all the other factors that determine worship attendance. I even managed to grab a short nap between the worship services. But when the day finished, I was finished. In fact, I was beyond finished because I stared the day tired—I lead a funeral service the day before that involved extra time visiting the family and preparing and so on. It probably doesn’t help that I have a really crazy week coming up with more to do that I have time to do it in. Nor does it help that this mid-winter day is dark, dreary and drippy and the thin layer of unskiiable snow is going to disappear probably before noon.

So, it’s now Monday morning and I am sitting in the living room, trying to figure out what to write for this blog post. So far, the most interesting thing to cross my mind has been the crow that landed on the top of one the pine trees I can see out the living room window—it is much easier to look out the window that at a blank computer screen. But even our normally active street is quiet on this Monday morning. The deer haven’t been around in a few days, the squirrels seem to be sleeping in today, it is too early for one of our neighbours to leave for his coffee group. So, I keep coming back to the empty computer screen.

Staring at a blank computer screen is marginally better than staring at a blank piece of paper, at least in my opinion. In the old days, back when the creative process involved a piece of paper and a pencil (I always worked in pencil until it was time for a final copy), there was much less distraction. A computer screen with no words on it at least has all the information supplied by the word processor program. It also holds the potential for some serious distraction—with just a few key strokes, I can play solitaire as I allow my sub-conscious mental process to wake up and get to work.

I can use a few other key stokes to open the whole world to me. The connection I have to the wider universe through the Internet means that I can discover anything I want. I haven’t tried it yet but I bet that if I type “cure for writer’s block” in a search engine, I will find tons of suggestions—all of which will provide welcome distraction from the demands of a blank word processor page.

I could even use the computer to access some of the many books that are in my various online accounts. While a lot of them are fiction, there are also a lot of books that have and will helped me with my professional development. Reading some of them would not only provide a distraction from the blank screen but might also provide an idea that I can steal adapt for my blog. I am sure that there must be lots of blog ideas in the as yet unread book that discusses the science behind the Star Wars universe.

But it is Monday morning—and so far, the crow in the tree top has been the only thing that has grabbed my attention and even it has gone somewhere else, probably to enjoy a breakfast at the local crow watering hole.

Monday mornings are difficult for those of us in ministry. We are probably at our lowest point physically, emotionally and spiritually. It is no coincidence that one popular ministry book many years ago was titled, Never Resign on Monday. I have modified that a bit for my particular situation to tell me Never decide to stop blogging on Monday.

It’s Monday morning—a drippy, dark, dreary Monday morning. I am tired as much from what I have to do this week as from what I did last week. I am not going to resign from the churches, I am not going to stop blogging. The crow in the pine tree obviously dealt with Monday morning and so will I.

May the peace of God be with you.

YUCKY WEATHER AND BAD KNEES

In my ongoing issue with depression, I have identified another factor in the process, or actually two factors that are sort of tied together. The first is the weather. I happen to like winter, even if, according to most of the members of the churches I serve, that makes me strange. But I enjoy snow and cold weather and snowstorms. A nice snow storm is really enjoyable, provided of course that the power doesn’t fail and no one is stranded on the road. I enjoy that weather sitting in our warm living room looking out the window—but I also enjoy it when I am out in it, shoveling the snow or cross-country skiing or trying to get the cars into the driveway.

So, part of the low grade depression I seem to be dealing with these days probably comes from the fact that so far, our winter has been a bust. We have had snow and cold weather and all the winter stuff—but just as soon as it comes and begins to look good, the weather changes and we get warm weather and rain. All the snow goes and everything is grey and depressing. A cloudy day with snow on the ground is always going to be brighter than a rainy, cloudy min-winter day—and given the strong connection between light and some depressions, the lack of snow has to have an effect. Of course, there are all those people in the churches who will tell me that the presence of snow depresses them.

So, the weather has some effect on my depression. It might to bad if I could get outside and do a few things. Part of my plan for today, for example, involves working on the cabinet I am building—but that may not happen because of the weather since I have to do the messy sawing and sanding outside. Unfortunately, neither the power tools nor the pine react well to getting wet.

At one time, I would have essentially ignored the weather, pulled on a rain suit over my warm clothes and gone for a nice long walk. But this is where the second factor kicks in. I can’t really do any serious walking. Even going down the basement stairs requires some planning as I mentally set up a list of things that I need or can do down there. Stairs present problems for my arthritic knees and the fewer trips I make, the better. And if a few stairs are a problem, a nice long walk becomes something of an impossibility, unless there is someone on call to pick me up when the knees decide they have had enough.

In short, I, like many people in my peer group, am dealing with the realities of aging. There are certain real and indisputable limits that develop just because of the fact that I have been around for 65+ years. The increasingly limiting aches and pains, the progressing wear and tear of various bits and pieces, the increasing fatigue all emphatically state that I can’t do what I used to be able to do.

This all comes together on a dark and rainy mid-winter day. There is no snow to add some bright edge to the day. The rain means I can’t pretend to be a carpenter and turn nice boards into sawdust. The arthritis means I can’t defy the rain and go for a walk. So, I sit in the living room, type a blog post and wonder what I am going to do for the rest of the day, or at least until the theology student I am mentoring shows up for his appointment this afternoon.

That can be depressing, at least for me. But I think I am on top of this particular bout of depression. I have options that don’t involve walking, woodworking or too many trips down the basement stairs and which aren’t as pointless as hours of Youtube. I have some new books that are quite interesting. I have that mentoring session. And above all, I have my faith, which is what always keeps the depression under control in the end.

I may be prone to depression. The weather and my increasing physical limits may encourage that depression. But in the end, I know that God is with me and he will help me as I deal with it all and the depression will not take over.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHY BOTHER?

I realized recently that I might be sitting on the edge of depression. While I am normally aware when I start getting to that point, it sort of crept up on me for a variety of reasons. I have been tired since Christmas, a tiredness that wasn’t really helped by our vacation trip—the trip was great but the travel process is always tiring. Also, I am sitting more these days—my arthritic knees are bothering me more and more and being off them feels better than being on them. And, because one of the churches I serve has shut down for three months, I have less to do.

So, it was easy to rationalize not doing stuff—I am still tired from Christmas and the trip, my knees are hurting or will hurt and there is nothing I really have to do. Sitting in the chair and watching Youtube seems justified. And so I wasn’t keeping all that close an eye out for the things that indicate I am slipping into a depression.

I have things to do: the latest woodworking project is underway, the newest issue of National Geographic arrived this week, there is always a need to write blog entries, there are several people I could meet for coffee, I could even hobble my way through a short walk. But with all the possibilities, I found myself sitting in the chair, glued to the screen mindlessly. I would find myself thinking about some of the options and asking, “Why bother?”.

Everything would take a lot of effort. Working on the cabinet would require dragging the saw and sander and other tools outside and it is cold out there. I could read my magazine but that would require using the keyboard to navigate the pages (I get the digital version). I could call or text a friend but that would require getting dressed for the weather and driving to a coffee shop. I could go for a walk but that would require dressing for the weather and finding my walking stick and maybe being in pain afterwards. Why bother?

So, now I have a choice. I can let the depression develop or I can do something about it that might prevent it from developing. The reality for me is that the depression I sometimes slip into is totally dependent on my response to my situation—there is no medical basis for it. There might be a genetic disposition to dealing with life by getting depressed but essentially, the depression I deal with is a result of the way I deal with things and is most effectively dealt with by recognizing it and deciding to things differently.

And while that is incredibly easy to write, the actual practise is much harder. Depression can be self-sustaining and self-perpetuating, at least for me. When I start getting depressed, I begin making choices that sustain and enable the depression. Given a choice between moving the saw outside to create some sawdust from otherwise good boards or staring mindlessly at a Youtube video, it becomes easier to stare at the laptop screen.

The earlier I spot the symptoms of the coming depression, the easier it is to change the behaviours that encourage the depression. Based on my reluctance to change behaviours right now, I am probably further along than I would like to be and therefore facing a somewhat more difficult process that I would have if I had been paying more attention.

I have to confess, though, that even though I can see where I am, it is still difficult to motivate myself to deal with it. Depression is somehow comfortable in its familiarity—I have been here enough that I have developed a tolerance for a certain level of depression, maybe even some sort of psychological habituation to it. It might not feel good but it feels familiar. The temptation is to let the familiarity have more say in the process than is healthy.

Based on past experience, I know that I will eventually come out of this developing depression. I don’t actually like being depressed, not even if it feels familiar and comfortable like an old, well worn pair of jeans. I could start dealing with it right now—I just have to convince myself that it is worth the bother.

May the peace of God be with you.

ON THE OTHER HAND…

As I mentioned (or confessed) in the previous post, I have a deep and strong connection with my electronic devices. Keyboards and screens and processors and memories are a basic and significant part of my life—a day that involves my not looking at some type of screen at some point would be possible but it would likely involve a total wilderness experience or a coma. On second thought, I would most likely have my camera on the total wilderness experience so maybe only a coma would keep me from my electronics—I probably wouldn’t be paying attention to the medical device screens I was hooked up to.

So, in many ways, I am a typical member of the electronic age—plugged in, carrying a backup power supply, using the car connectors to charge equipment and rarely without at least one electronic device with me. But there is one line that I have yet to cross and given my personality, may not cross.

I first became aware of the line after the wide spread adoption of smart phones. It became more and more common to see people seated together at a restaurant absorbed in conversations—with their smart phones, not each other. I discovered that more and more conversations with people were being put on hold as the other person answered their phone or read and responded to a text. As a teacher, I found myself having to make and enforce anti-phone call rules in class, a decidedly unpopular move for many students.

It seems that many people have shifted their relationship priorities. Anyone on an electronic connection automatically becomes more important than a real, live, physically present human being. This is, I think, a real problem. It is likely also a sign of a huge shift in human relationships that likely isn’t going to go in a good direction.

My uneducated guess is that the shift began innocently enough. Cell phones began as an expensive novelty—and all of us like to show off our expensive novelties. Answering a ringing cell phone was a way of letting people know that you had one—and those of us who like technology weren’t all that upset because we wanted to see the cell phone anyway. But at some point, some people began to prioritize electronic communication over face to face communication.

I think one of the underlying factors is the reality that face to face communication can be tricky. When we are with people physically, we can never really tell or control what will happen—personal communication can be messy, what with all the feelings and potential mis-understandings and non-verbals and all that other stuff. Electronic communication, even with video is clean, crisp and more than a little impersonal.

We can separate ourselves more from the person and all the stuff that goes along with really relating to people in a full face to face communication. With electronics, we either can’t see or can ignore non-verbals. We have some real distance, not just physically but also psychologically. No matter how clear the picture on the screen and how high quality the sound, communicating with my grandchildren electronically just isn’t the same as holding them on my lap while we get silly together.

I am afraid that we as a culture are using electronics to distance ourselves from each other. We want the semblance of communication and relationship without the demands and potential messiness of real face to face communication. That goes against a lot of what I believe.

Even the fact that I am a confirmed introvert doesn’t lessen my concern over the distancing effect of electronic communication. I believe that we were created as social beings and best relate to each other when as many barriers as possible are removed. I believe that Jesus’ command to love each other as he loved us require that we do more than text and spend screen time with each other. To really communicate, we need to be present so that we can hear and see and, according to some studies, even smell each other because all those means of communication are essential to the process.

So, let me make a suggestion. Use some screen time to send a message to someone inviting them to have a real face to face conversation.

May the peace of God be with you.

IT’S GONE

I had a conversation with a couple recently that ended with a discussion about the health of one of the family pets. It may have a serious illness and the conversation briefly touched on their worry and anxiety over what might happen and how they would deal with it. There are some who might find that conversation a bit pointless, suggesting that it is an animal, it happens, get over it.

While I am not personally an animal person, I am aware that this is a difficult and painful situation for many people. We human beings develop significant attachments with other people, animals and inanimate objects—and when those connections are threatened, damaged or broken, we are going to react. Whenever we are in danger of losing something to which we are attached, we are going to have a grief reaction.

Our reaction to losing someone or something from our lives isn’t something that we have a lot of control over. We might thing we can control it—but often the control takes the form of denial or repression. We pretend that we are not bothered by the loss. Some of us can pull off the pretence fairly well for a time but eventually, denial and repression are going to catch up with us and we will have to deal with the loss that we didn’t deal with when it happened.

I am thinking about loss a bit these days, partly because helping people deal with loss is a basic and essential part of a pastor’s job. I tell students that helping people deal with the grief connected with loss is probably the single biggest part of our jobs as pastors, especially when we remember that any loss produces some level of grief reaction.

So, when the couple mentioned their sick pet, I was professionally prepared. But I was also personally connected as well. For most of the past week and a half, I have been dealing with a loss myself. My laptop has a hard drive that is crashing. Now, before you think I am crazy or overly nerdy, remember that we get attached to things as well as people and losing the source of the attachment is going to produce a grief reaction.

I have had the laptop for six years and it has traveled across Canada with me, it has lived in Kenya with me, it connected me to the rest of the world and it allowed me to write stuff that I can actually read and understand the next day, something that my handwriting hasn’t allowed for many years.

I liked my laptop and was used to it and it was comfortable. It had its problems and scars and limitations—but it was mine and I did a lot of stuff with it. I will soon have a new laptop—the old, back up laptop from the bottom shelf of the TV cabinet is okay but it is ancient and heavy and may not last all that long. I am not looking forward to the process of setting up a new laptop with various programs and files and all the bits and pieces of my electronic life but I am sure that once I get that done, I will attach to the new laptop.

Our grief reactions are a very personal and private and subjective thing. They grow directly out of our attachment and connection with what we have lost or are losing—and we are the only ones that get to determine the level and severity of our reaction, or rather, we are the ones who have to deal with the level and severity of our reaction. The fact that I am not an animal person doesn’t mean that I can minimize the grief of someone losing a pet, any more than a conformed technology hater gets to minimize my grief over the dead laptop.

In the end, we all need to accept and recognize our losses by letting ourselves grieve as we need to. We also need to recognize the essential subjectivity of grief—a loss that we can completely ignore can and will affect others deeply. Even if we don’t agree with the level of their grief, we can provide support and compassion.

May the peace of God be with you.

COMPARATIVE SUFFERING

I was having a conversation with someone recently about a problem they were dealing with.  It was a physical problem that was somewhat painful, somewhat annoying and somewhat limiting.  The problem wasn’t going to be fatal and it was treatable but right then and there, it was causing the individual to suffer.  I did my pastoral thing, listening and encouraging them to talk and doing all the stuff that has become second nature to me over many years of ministry.

But my comfortable professional approach was interrupted by a comment the person made. After telling me about the problem,  the person abruptly said something like, “I shouldn’t be complaining about this–there are lots of people worse off than me.”  Although I have heard the comment a lot, something about it set me off that day.

It isn’t all that uncommon a idea–we are often encouraged to compare our problems and difficulties with those of others, generally with the idea that if theirs are worse, we should stop complaining.  I seem to remember a song from years ago that said something like, “I used to complain about having no shoes until I met a man with no feet.”  If someone is suffering more than we are, then we need to stop whining, count our blessings and get on with life.

Sounds good–there is some semi-religious moralizing, some thinly veiled guilt, some covert attempts to foster denial and some social pressure to smile and carry on.  What more could be asked of an approach to suffering?

Well, maybe we could ask for a more honest approach to suffering.  Comparative suffering is really a terrible approach to suffering.  On some levels, my lack of shoes is certainly less serious than someone else’s lack of feet–but my lack of shoes is my problem and my issue and the other person’s lack of feet, tragic as that is, really doesn’t do much to help me deal with my issue.  In fact, the comparative suffering approach probably adds to my suffering because not only do I have to deal with my lack of shoes but I also have to deal with my guilt over having feet and therefore not suffering as much as the other guy.

Suffering isn’t really comparative.  My stuff is my stuff and while it may or may not be as bad as someone else’s stuff, it is my stuff and I have to deal with it using my resources and my abilities and my support systems.  And in the end, I can only really do that by being honest with myself about what I am dealing with and its effects on me.

So, when the person I was talking to suggested that they shouldn’t be complaining about their suffering when so many were worse off, I interrupted the flow of the conversation by suggesting that suffering wasn’t comparative and that what they were dealing was what they were dealing with.  There was a pause in the conversation as the person thought about this–and then a very visible and audible change in the their demeanor.  It was like they relaxed–they could be open and free about what they were dealing with because they didn’t have to compare it to someone else.  They didn’t have to put it on the global suffering scale and forget about it because it didn’t rate enough.

We continued talking and the person talked more about how the problem was affecting them and their family.  We also talked about how not having to compare it with others was a relief.  They could recognize and accept their suffering for what it was–it was something that was causing them pain and trouble and it was inconvenient and miserable and they had a right to  be upset.

The guy with no feet has a tough deal in life and I can appreciate his suffering–but his suffering is his suffering, just as my suffering is my suffering.  We each have to deal with what we have–or don’t have.  And we deal with it best by dealing with it ourselves, not by trying to place it on some cosmic scale of suffering.  I might have feet–but my lack of shoes is still a real problem in my life, one that I need to deal with honestly and freely.

May the peace of God be with you.