COUNTDOWN

I have to have some surgery in the near future. All surgery is invasive and brings a variety of risks, some of them potentially serious, as the surgeon explained. However, the benefits of this particular surgery clearly outweigh the dangers and so I am waiting. Because of various factors beyond my and the surgeon’s control, the wait has been longer than either of us anticipated when we began this process.

Essentially, that means I have spent the past few months delaying and postponing and tentatively scheduling things, especially in my ministry. For a while, it looked like the date might fall around Easter, which meant I was tentatively planning our Easter services, half-expecting (and seriously hoping) someone else would be doing them. Then, it was winter vacation—we weren’t sure our winter trip to kids and grandkids would work out. Eventually, both Easter and the vacation happened.

And best of all, I got a date—as solid a date as one can get in any medical system. So now, I find myself dividing life and ministry into before and after surgery. When we talk about doing something in the churches, we need to decide if we can do it before or after my sick leave. Some stuff, like the ministry planning meeting for one pastorate, I would like to do before I am off, so that when I get back, we can jump right into work.

Some stuff, like the meeting at the other pastorate to discuss buildings and related stuff would be nice but can be put off—although the reality is that if we put it off, it likely won’t happen until fall because my sick leave likely ends at about the time most people stop wanting to have meetings because of the summer.

So, the churches and I find ourselves making ministry decisions based on the date of my surgery. For me, that is an interesting place to be in. Normally, my time and situation aren’t a big factor in the decisions we make as far as dates are concerned. As I jokingly tell church people, I am getting paid to be there and so unless the meeting falls on my previously scheduled vacation, I will be there. Many times, even my vacation has been scheduled around church events.

Decisions are made based on which deacon has to be away; how many regulars can’t make the meeting; who is going to have family visiting; which couple is having a significant celebration on the day we want to have a church picnic and so on. Those are all legitimate reasons to consider when scheduling a meeting or activity, at least as far as I am concerned. But as pastor, well, I am paid to work for the church and generally, that means my schedule flexes more than the church schedule.

I don’t have a problem with that—that’s why I get the big bucks. Well, actually, it is part of my calling. I committed to serving God through serving the churches and that involves a certain amount of flex in my planning. It is generally easier to make my plans flexible than it is to try and flex plans for half a dozen or more others.

But for now, everything seems to hang on my surgery and recovery. The churches aren’t going to be on hold for that period of time but we are dividing stuff up into before surgery and after surgery. Now, as a committed pastor, I should probably write that I feel guilty about that—but I actually don’t. I would prefer not to need the surgery but I do and that does affect the church.

But we are a church, a gathering of people who seek to work together to serve God, making allowances and flexing plans based on the needs of all our members. While I am generally one of the more flexible players in the process, this time I can’t be. The churches are comfortable with that, I am comfortable with that—and so we are all spending these days counting down to surgery day and working around this disruption in ministry. Right now, most stuff is being seen as pre- or post-surgery. That, for me, is part of the essence of a healthy church—we deal with the needs of our members, including the needs of the pastor.

May the peace of God be with you.

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I DID IT AGAIN

For just the second time in my 45+ years of ministry, I walked out of a worship service. Given that I was conducting the worship service both times, these mark two very significant events. Let me say that I didn’t walk our because I disagreed with the leader/preacher—I was the leader preacher.

Not did I leave because I was upset with the music or the singers. We have a small church but our musicians are dedicated and do a good job every week. I wasn’t fighting with anyone in the congregation and they weren’t fighting with me. No, the reason I walked out of worship was simple—both times, I was sick and realized that if I stayed in the pulpit, I would pass out. The first time, I realized this after the invocation prayer. This last time, it occurred three minutes into the sermon.

Both times, the congregations were deeply concerned and understanding. I had lots of offers for a drive home. No one was upset in least. But both times, I left the worship and headed for home, I felt guilty. But this last event reminded me of something I know but need have reinforced now and then.

Worship is an important part of my faith and the faith of the people I serve. I work hard to prepare for worship—not just the sermon but everything. I spend time on prayers, make sure the worship theme is clear and understandable, pay attention to transitions. Leading this group of people in worship is an awesome responsibility, one that I work hard at—and which always takes a lot of energy.

Both times I left worship, I knew I was feeling sort of miserable but not all that bad. I was able to function and didn’t have any serious symptoms. But when I was standing in the pulpit, I became aware of just how much energy this activity required—much more than I had available at the time. I think I could have easily managed a lot of other activities: reading, watching TV, cooking a meal and so on. But leading worship and preaching—the energy demand was well beyond what I had available at that point in time.

I know that worship is a corporate activity and I know that the Holy Spirit ultimately directs our worship. But I am the designated worship leader and preacher and because I take that set of responsibilities seriously, it demands a lot of energy. I have to be willing to focus on the worshippers; seek to be open to the Spirit, make sure that everyone hears what I am saying, keep my tablet on the right place in the order of service and critique my process on the fly.

It might be possible to lead worship and preach without such involvement. My guess is that there are people out there for whom the process isn’t demanding and taxing. I have heard hints and stories that suggest to me that this is the case. But I am not able to do that. If I am going to follow the sacred calling to lead worship and preach, I am going to give it my best, which is demanding and requires a great deal of energy. My commitment to the people whom I serve, my calling and God himself demand that I treat what I am doing with respect and reverence.

And so, when I can’t carry out the duties I have been called to, I feel a bit guilty. I feel I cheated the people I serve both times. They came expecting to worship God and perhaps to hear a message from God for their lives. They have a right to expect that. I couldn’t do what I was called to do or what they were expecting. I failed those times.

Fortunately, we serve a God of love and grace and forgiveness, who doesn’t hold grudges and doesn’t require detentions. I failed to do what I was called to do—but God has already forgiven me. The people I serve are more concerned with my health than with my failure. And me—well, the bug was short lived and after an evening of vegging in front of the TV and a good night’s sleep, I am doing much better, which is a good thing since I have to conduct a funeral today.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE HEARING AID

Every year at the beginning of Advent, I put up the outside Christmas lights. That is an occupation that involves ladders, staple guns, frustration and some irritation. This year, I realized that there had to be some changes because of the deteriorating state of my knees. I simply wouldn’t be able to put up as many lights—my knees would shut down after a certain number of ladder steps. So, we worked out a compromise solution that provided a good balance between my physical limits and our desire to decorate the house. The compromise was fewer lights than we wanted and a bit more knee strain than I wanted.

After the job was done, I was slowly putting the ladders and tools away—slowly because the limited job was still causing my knees to protest. I happened to touch my ear to adjust one of my hearing aids when I realized it wasn’t there. I quickly checked the other ear—maybe I hadn’t put them in that morning. That aid was in place and working so it was official—I had managed to lost one of my hearing aids.

I was pretty sure that I knew sort of where I lost it. Part of the house has lots of small trees and tall shrubs that required me to maneuver the ladder and myself around and my best guess was that a branch snagged the hearing aid and sent it flying. As I searched through the leaves and grass and all the rest, I was conscious of lots of feelings.

I was angry at myself for losing such an expensive piece of equipment—I should have been a lot more careful. I was frustrated with myself for putting the aids in that morning—I didn’t need good hearing to staple wires to the house. I was upset with the landscaping committee that put in the shrubs and trees—why couldn’t they have just paved the place with a suitable contrasting colour that would let the lost hearing aid be visible? I was angry at the hearing aid manufacturers—why didn’t they make them with beepers and flashing lights so they could be easily spotted in leaf litter.

And then, after spending some time searching the grass and leaves and realizing that the chances of finding the lost hearing aid were essentially zero, I had a sinking feeling of loss, bordering on depression—I was realizing that not only was I now half-deaf but also remedying the problem would require a lot of money.

I searched some more, even while realizing it was worthless. And then I remembered something. I was having a conversation with a friend from one of the churches a few months ago and he told me that he had lost both his hearing aids but wasn’t upset about it—not because he is independently wealthy but because he discovered that his household insurance covered the hearing aids. When I remembered that, I relaxed a bit. I did search some more but with a different attitude. I wanted to find the hearing aid—but the reality of the loss was easier to deal with.

I made a call to the insurance company and was excited and pleased with their response. Aside from the process and time, this loss will soon be taken care of. In a few days, I will have my replacement aid and will be hearing better again.

From my perspective, the emotional journey was the most significant part of the process and still is. I am still upset with myself for losing my hearing aid. I understand that it was an accident and that these things happen—but I still feel a bit stupid and incompetent. I think I need to forgive myself—and I probably will, after I punish myself enough. I know that it isn’t they right attitude and shows an unwillingness to practise what I preach but I tend to be harder on myself than I am on others—I was much more pastoral with my friend when he lost his hearing aids than I was when I lost mine.

I am still in process, I guess—still in process when it comes to learning to forgive myself. Fortunately, God is much more forgiving and graceful than I am and he has already put the hearing aid thing behind him. I will get there eventually.

May the peace of God be with you.

FORGIVE ME

One of my Bible study groups is studying the Lord’s Prayer. We are slowly moving through the content of the prayer, with many journeys here, there and everywhere as we examine the implications of the prayer for our lives. Eventually, we arrived at the place where we ask God, “Forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. That verse kept our study going for several weeks.

This isn’t a passage telling us that God will only forgive us as much as we forgive others. That would be at odds with the rest of the New Testament, which makes it clear that God’s forgiveness in Christ is unrestricted and unfettered, a limitless offer of love and grace that most of us will never fully understand.

As I and various people, including the Bible study, have grappled with this passage over the years, it seems to me that the real message the passage is trying to get to has to do more with our ability to forgive than with God’s ability to forgive. The bottlenecks and roadblocks and impediments to forgiveness all come from us, not from God.

And the biggest problem, I think, is our inability to actually forgive ourselves. Most people, especially faithful people, are terrible at forgiving themselves. We often have a sense of what “good” people should be like and an even better sense of why we are not like that. We know that God forgives—but we are uncomfortable believing that he could actually forgive us for that terrible sin of having an extra piece of pie (or maybe even the first piece, depending on the circumstances).

Often, we who are people of faith have our insides cluttered with sins and perceived sins that we are pretty sure are the worst sins in the history of faith, stuff that makes us feel guilty and unworthy and sinful and which we are sure that God couldn’t ever forgive. And if God can’t forgive us, who are we to let ourselves off the hook?

But the Gospel truth is that God can and does and even did forgive everything—that is the point of the cross and the resurrection. God can forgive us. And if God can and has forgiven us, who are we to argue? We can’t claim to know more than God; we can’t suggest that he doesn’t have the full story; we can’t argue that he has missed something—although in truth, we do all that stuff. But God is God, he does know the full story, he didn’t miss anything and when he offers to forgive, he can and will deliver.

So, many of us in the faith walk around as forgiven children of God who are still carrying heavy imaginary burdens of unforgiveness simply because we won’t in the end forgive ourselves. We make God into a liar and a weakling because we refuse to believe that he is stronger than us and our sins.

And then it gets worse because we are pretty sure that if we don’t really deserve forgiveness, that no one else actually deserves it either. If I can’t forgive myself for that second slice of pie, how can I forgive you who joined me in the raid on the fridge? Or even worse, if I don’t eat the pie and can’t forgive myself for even thinking about it, how can I ever forgive you for actually eating the pie?

Our theology of forgiveness needs to be improved. Actually, it needs to be real theology, not our thoughts and feelings. God has made it clear that forgiveness is a consequence of his love and grace. He makes it clear that there are no limits (I know about the sin of blasphemy of the Holy Spirit in Matthew 12.31 but essentially worrying about this sin is a pretty good sign you haven’t committed it). He goes to inhuman lengths to let us know that he is prepared to forgive us no matter what.

So, if the God of all creation, who know everything there is to know about me and everything else is willing to die to forgive me, I should probably learn how to forgive myself—and at the same time, that will help me forgive others. When we let God’s rules about forgiveness guide the process, we will all do better.

May the peace of God be with you.

FEELING GUILTY

The other day, I was at the fall fundraising event for several of the churches in our area. Rather than set up competing events, the churches get together, rent a large hall and do the event together. So, in one big space, there are bake sales, jam sales, quasi-yard sales, silent auctions and a really good brunch. Since we browse the tables at different speeds, my wife and I quickly got separated but since we both knew we would end up at the brunch tables, that wasn’t a problem.

As I looked at the tables and talked to people I knew from all the various churches, I came to the table run by a neighbour who is on one of the same committees I serve on. She had volunteered to take the minutes of our last meeting, which I would then scan and send on to the rest of the committee. As soon as she saw me, she joked about feeling guilty because she didn’t have the minutes done. My joking response was that my job as a pastor was done because I had made her feel guilty. We both knew we were joking and went on to talk about other things—and in the process made a tentative plan to get the minutes done.

I have been thinking on the topic of guilt since then—well, to be honest, it is a topic that I have been thinking about on and off for a while. It seems like guilt is almost synonymous with being a person of faith. I have heard pastors (and comedians) talk about various religious groups as being the inventors of guilt. I remember one person whose faith I admired telling a visiting speaker that she really appreciated his message because it made her feel so guilty—she was giving him what was her supreme compliment.

There is a connection between faith and guilt but not the one that is popularly assumed to be there. It seems like many people both inside and outside the faith want guilt to be the supreme quality of a religious person. Such thinking almost has a valid point. Most religions begin with the idea that we human beings are imperfect and that there is a better, holier and perfect something beyond us. Our continued imperfection is a problem—and guilt seems to be the appropriate response for most people.

Interestingly enough, most people want to maintain a perfect level of guilt. They want to have enough to feel religious but not enough to change behaviour. This is a hard balance to maintain, though, and often people get caught in the swamp of uncontrolled guilt that causes them to slip into low self-esteem, despair, even hopelessness. The process isn’t helped by the vast amount of guilt producing preaching, teaching and advice given by religious leaders.

But what if guilt isn’t the purpose of faith? What if, instead of guilt being the goal and focus of faith, it is only a tool to get us to something greater, a tool that has a important but limited use? What is God uses guilt to motivate us to confess and accept his forgiveness so that we can be free of guilt? What is guilt that can’t be dealt with by God’s offer of forgiveness is false guilt and isn’t something that we need to or should deal with?

I think that this what if is actually the case. I think our Christian faith is based on the reality that God doesn’t want us to feel guilty. In actual fact, he wants us to feel forgiven—and forgiveness by definition ends the hold of guilt on our lives. God wants us to live in the freedom that comes from knowing that we are forgiven and that there is no need to hold on to the guilt that led us to accept God’s forgiveness. Sometimes, that left over guilt is really a sign of our inability to really accept and appreciate the forgiveness that God has given us in Jesus. We hold on to our guilt probably because we feel better feeling guilty that we do feeling free.

But as believers, we are free, we are forgiven and for us, guilt should only be a temporary reminder that we have more to take to God and when we take it to him, he takes care of us, relieving us of the need to feel guilty. Real faith is marked by a sense of freedom from guilt, a freedom that comes from opening ourselves to the grace of God.

May the peace of God be with you.

MORE VACATION

One of the perks of being a pastor in our denomination is the vacation time recommendation that our head office suggests. The denomination recommends that pastors get four weeks of vacation a year. Most of the churches within our denomination follow that recommendation, which I really appreciate. Many pastors choose to take their vacation in a block. Some, according to one cynical church member I knew years ago, try to schedule their vacation for a five Sunday month to get an extra week.

That has never really worked for us. In fact, I don’t think that we have ever taken a month of vacation all at one time ever during my time in ministry. There have been a couple of times when I have been away from the church for a month or so but that was generally vacation combined with church sanctioned ministry which didn’t count as vacation. We have tended to take two or three breaks during the year, a pattern which works much better with both our personal fatigue cycles and the church year. An added bonus is that by not taking a whole month off during the slower summer months, I get the opportunity to use some of the over-time hours I accumulate during the busier seasons as extra summer time off.

While this plan has worked really well for my time in ministry, there is a drawback. The drawback is that I always seem to be telling the church that I will be away on vacation again. Nobody in the churches minds that I am taking vacation. Some, in fact, would allow me to take even more time if I wanted it. And yet there is that nagging sense of guilt when I approach the deacons or write the announcement in the bulletin or tell the church that I am off yet again for another vacation.

The only ones who ever say anything about the vacation fall into two categories. One group teases me about being away so much, asking didn’t I just have a vacation and so on. They are not being serious, we all know they are joking. The other group, who are often exactly the same people, tell me it is about time and that I need to forget about the church and have a good break.

My problem isn’t with the church—they are quite happy to give me my vacation time. No—the problem is mine. Even after 40+ years of ministry, I am still a bit uncomfortable getting paid to travel, go camping, visit family, finish woodworking projects or just sit home and do nothing related to church work. I know that I need the time—my ministry is much better after a vacation than it is just before a vacation time. The break, whether it is one week or two, is enough to clear out the accumulated fatigue, re-motivate me and allow me to get on with the ministry that I have been called to do.

And having three such breaks a year, combined with the compensatory time off during the slower seasons of ministry allows me to recharge at regular intervals, rather than trying to jam the whole rest and restoration process into one long break. But that does mean that three times a year, I have to stand in the pulpit and announce that I am going to be on vacation for a certain period of time—and deal with the nagging sense of guilt that comes with that.

It isn’t debilitating guilt. It isn’t strong enough that I resist vacations. I don’t feel guilty enough to have to do penance when I get back. There definitely isn’t enough guilt to take away from the enjoyment of being on vacation. I just feel enough guilt to make the announcement in worship uncomfortable. Once that is out of the way, I am on vacation and the guilt can get lost.

I am not going to find a way to get rid of that guilt at this point. It has been there for 40+ years so I am pretty sure that it will only go away when I retire. But that is okay because my vacation guilt and I have come to an agreement that works. I will acknowledge the guilt and having been acknowledged, the guilt will then let me enjoy my vacation.

May the peace of God be with you.