THE CANE

For the past few weeks, my very old knees have been complaining about still being engaged in the work of carrying me around. They have been complaining for years but for some reason, this last couple of weeks has seen the complaining develop into a sort of strike. One knee became so weak and painful that walking became seriously difficult—and since the other knee is weaker to start with, the extra strain on it meant that I began to sit lot and waited until there were several reasons to get up.

And, because I can’t sit all the time, I dug out my cane and started using it when I had to go further than a few feet. This was a major event for me. I am somewhat stubborn, somewhat independent, somewhat dedicated to accomplishing what I want to do free of help. I resisted glasses as a teenager for several months; I resisted hearing aids at a 60+ year old for several years and I resisted the pain in my knee for longer than anyone knows. But I realized that if I was going to make it from the car to the church hall for Bible study, I would need the cane—rolling along wouldn’t be all that successful while carrying my briefcase and water.

It wouldn’t be all that big a problem, though, because I always arrive first and would be inside and settled before anyone else arrived. And, if I followed my usual practise of being the last one to leave, most wouldn’t even notice my limp or the cane. Although I joke sometimes about using the cane to garner sympathy, I really don’t like the limits the cane illustrates or the multiple questions and so on that accompany the cane.

Shortly after I began the drive to the study, I realized I was in trouble. The long awaited resurfacing of our road was underway—and I managed to arrive at the work site just as the traffic going my way was stopped. There was still time but as the wait stretched on into minutes, I began to fidget and wonder how much longer and all the rest. There are no other practical routes from my house to the Bible study so my only choice was to wait. Finally, we were allowed through, although we had to drive slowly behind the guide truck for what seemed like hours. I couldn’t even make up a lot of time after we were free of the work area because several of the cars in front of me were obviously being driven by people seeking to save the planet by poking along well under the speed limit.

But I could still arrive before most people, I thought, at least until I came up to the second set of road works and flagperson, who also timed their work perfectly to stop me for another several minutes, followed by another slow trip behind the follow me truck and another forced speed reduction by the drivers in front.

I finally arrived—and most of the members of the study were there, either standing by the locked door (the person who normally opens the door and turns on the heat was away that day) or sitting in their cars waiting. So, I park, open the door and crawl out of the car and stand unsteadily as I juggle my briefcase, water and cane. By the time I was standing with everything sort of in control, most of the study group was right there, asking what was wrong, if they could help, did I need anything, was I okay.

Eventually, I got inside. One person took the key to open the door, another ended up with my water, a third had the briefcase. No one offered to carry me but that was probably just because of the fact that all of us are actually too old to make such foolish gestures. I did actually appreciate the help—it is much easier to use a cane when I don’t have anything else to carry at the same time. Getting out was the reverse—all my duties and burdens were taken on by others. All I had to do was limp to the car and fall inside.

I hate being dependent on anyone or anything. But honestly, it was really great to have people so willing to help out and the cane made the trip from the car to the hall much easier. My pride can be a real problem at times.

May the peace of God be with you.

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REAL MINISTRY

I am a pastor, which means many things: I get to be chief grace sayer at all kinds of meals; I am expected to know the meaning of every obscure word and verse in the Bible; I am able to conjure up food and money for every needy person and situation. In short, I am involved in ministry. While I am aware that others are involved in ministry as well, I have a tendency to forget that.

But recently, I was talking with someone who needed someone to listen while they opened up about something they were involved in—that is another of the many activities that go along with being a pastor. I actually knew a fair bit about the situation since it had been a topic of the church and our prayers for a while. I knew about this person’s involvement. As they talked, the story became more interesting.

The person was a bit frustrated with the response to the situation. The person we were all concerned about needed serious help financially, emotionally and medically. He needed major repairs on his house or he would spend the winter with a temporarily patched roof—never a good thing in a Nova Scotia winter where wind, rain and snow come regularly. But in spite of the fact that this was a small community, there wasn’t a lot of activity. Some work had been done and some money had been raised but not what might be expected.

The person talking to me was trying really hard to get things going and frustrated at the results. As we talked, the person acknowledged that helping this other person was difficult: the life choices he had made had tended to turn people away from him. His alcoholic life style, his sometimes difficult personality, his overly independent personality had all worked to create a situation where he was more tolerated in his community than appreciated. Nobody would actually wish his harm but nobody was very quick to step in and help either.

But the person was trying, which I thought was great. But as they talked to me, what I was hearing became even more significant. The person acknowledged that the person was difficult. And then they told me that they had been bullied and I suspect even abused by this person and had spend many years being afraid of the person. There were clearly painful and deep scars associated with this particular individual.

And yet the person talking to me was committed to making sure that the person had a safe and secure home for the winter. They were making arrangements, setting up processes, ensuring that money was accounted for, pushing community leaders. They had made a commitment to this person, a person whom I wasn’t even sure they really liked.

As I reflected on the conversation, I had lots of thoughts, one of which was that this person was engaged in real ministry. They were committed to helping someone others were rejecting for some valid reasons. They themselves had good reason to ignore the person and the situation. And yet, the individual in question needed help—and for some reason, the person talking to me felt it was their job to make sure that the help was delivered. I think what I was hearing from this person qualified as a call to ministry.

Not a call to ministry in the sense of committing to spending a life time working in and for the church, which is what we often consider a call to ministry to be. But this was a specific call to a specific ministry for a specific time. For some reason or reasons, I think God has asked the person talking to me to be his agent for a person they might not like but to whom they can be used as God’s hands. The results of this call are already evident: the man in need is slowly getting the help he needs and if the person I was talking to has anything to say about it, they will have a warm shelter for the winter. But there are other results of that call that are equally valid, results that have to do with the ability of the person talking to me to open themselves to God to find the resources needed to do what God asks.

May the peace of God be with you.

HERE AM I, LORD

As a pastor, I have discovered that I often end up dealing with things from a variety of perspectives. Sometimes, I am a student, discovering as much as I can about a topic. Sometimes, I am a teacher, explaining the issues to students and parishioners. Sometimes, I am part of a larger group that is seeing to do something on a larger scale. But the truth is that most of the time, as a pastor, I am dealing with stuff one on one, as someone struggles to figure out how their life deals with whatever happens to be coming their way.

At those times, I draw deeply on all my education, my research, my training, my talents, my gifts. I have been called by God to help this person in this area—and as much as possible, I work to give them my best for God to use in their life process. Whatever the person is dealing with, I have been called by God to used everything I have to help them make the connection with God that will enable them to find the divine resources to deal with whatever comes their way.

I am not always comfortable with this calling. There are times when it is extremely uncomfortable and even scary. There are times when I feel like I am walking on a tightrope in a still cross wind. There are times when I am sure that I am wasting my time but have to try anyway. There are, of course, times when through the grace of God, everything comes together and the person overcomes. More often, the person makes a step that diminishes the problem a bit and sets up the process for another step down the road a bit.

Some of the things I deal with one on one would be a lot easier to deal with in a different socio-cultural-political climate. Some of the stuff I help people agonize through would be a lot easier if things were different on the macro scale. Helping survivors of childhood sexual abuse, for example, would be a lot easier for the survivor is there weren’t the social stigma and reluctance to admit the problem exists let alone the serious long term consequences that it brings.

At times, I think that someone should do something about the big stuff. Occasionally, I toy with the idea of starting something to deal with the big picture. And now and then in my ministry, I have actually been involved in some of the big picture stuff, working with others to bring about changes. But mostly, I have spent my career dealing with one issue at a time, one person at a time, one day at a time.

It isn’t that I don’t see the big picture. Intellectually, emotionally and vocationally, I am hard wired to seek out and understand the big picture. I am comfortable with the big picture and generally have no problem relating the specific to the general. Part of my ability to help in the specific is tied to my ability to grasp the general.

But for all that, I spend most of my time working with the specifics. And that, I think, is tied closely with my calling. I have been called to be a pastor and teacher. My calling, at least as I have seen it up to this point, is to be the one who can help people mobilize their faith to find what they need to deal with whatever part of life they are currently dealing with. A smaller part of that calling is teaching those not in the specific to understand and be ready for the specific when it happens to them or they are called to help others deal with it.

I sometimes tell people who want me to become involved in the big picture stuff that I am too busy to be involved. And that is pretty much the truth. I have a calling, a calling to be a pastor and teacher. To carry out that calling properly takes significant time and effort, time and effort that I willing offer to God and others. When God calls me to the big picture stuff, it has always been in the context of caring for the specific first and then using spare time and energy to deal with the big picture.

I am grateful for those called to deal with the big picture—someone needs to do it. But someone also needs to deal with the specifics and that is where my calling has tended to take me. Here I am, Lord.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHOM SHALL I SEND?

Recently, my wife and I gave up one of our Saturdays to attend a seminar. The topic looked interesting and timely and we both decided that it was worth the loss of a leisurely day that normally includes sleeping in and breakfast somewhere. We did get breakfast out but it was eaten in the car on the way to the meeting, which wasn’t quite the same.

Anyway, the seminar was interesting and I did learn some stuff about the topic that helped me understand the issue better. The speaker was interesting, her comments provocative, here small group questions produced good discussion. But as the sessions progressed, I realized that the agenda I thought we were going to focus was different from the agenda that the seminar leader wanted to focus on.

The initial announcement seemed to suggest to me that the seminar would look at ways that I as a pastor could approach the issue in my ministry. I was expecting practical and specific approaches that could affect my preaching and my pastoral contacts with people affected by the issue. There was some mention of this but the speaker chose to focus on the larger cultural and social aspects of the issue, seeking to elicit support for a larger, more political response to the issue.

As she talked and explained, I realized that she was making some very valid points. There were some serious dangers in the processes involved that needed someone to speak up—or rather, that needed many someones to speak up. The issue has political implications and in politics, the number and volume of voices are decisive factors.

This is not the first time I have been in the position of seeing the need for a larger action process. Sometimes, the calls have come from dedicated, committed people like the speaker at this seminar. Sometimes, they have come from our denominational staff who identify a problem and suggest a solution. And occasionally, I personally see the vision for what could be if there were just enough of us squeaking the wheel.

Some things just cry out for large involvement. Some things need not just a one on one solution. They need a group of dedicated and committed people who will give a lot of time and effort, people who will take on the cause and make the noise and offend the settled and upset the established and rattle the cages. Such a process needs one or two or a very small inner group of deeply committed leaders; a larger group of less committed but very active supporters and an even larger group of sympathetic listeners. All need to be prepared to go outside their routines, change their priorities, make sacrifices—stepping onto the political process in any organization and at any time is demanding.

And it is a part of the Christian process. God can and does work through such people and their supporters. He can and does call people to commit themselves to this mission. I am pretty sure that the speaker at this seminar was one of the called, a missionary from God to seek others to help deal with this significant social and political issue. The need is there and it is a clear and demanding need, one that if left unchecked will contribute to the increasing disrespect for individuals.

And so as the speaker taught and challenged, I was listening to an Isaiah moment—God pointing out the problem and calling out for people to respond. (Isaiah 6.1-8). Now, this call wasn’t as dramatic—there were no seraphim flying and praising. There were just 60-70 of us packed in a room that would have been more comfortable with about 50. But there was still a call from God for people to follow his leading and step into the arena to help protect people from the less publicized and more unpalatable aspects of a current social issue.

I hope and pray that there were some in the room who heard the call and discovered that this was a specific call from God to them, that this was their Isaiah moment, the time when God speaks and their place is confirmed. I hope and pray that for two reasons. First, someone needs to do it—this is an important issue. And second, I hope and pray someone responds because I am not going to respond. This was not my call—and why I can say that is the topic of my next post.

May the peace of God be with you.

AN ANSWER TO PRAYER

I am a part-time pastor—and a part-time pastor who likes to research and study and stuff like that. So, I have spent some time looking at part-time ministry—I even wrote a short book about it a few years ago for our denomination. Anyway, one of the bits of data I have dug up indicated that there are two broad categories of congregations that seek part-time pastors.

New church plants often begin with some form of part-time ministry. If the plant is successful, the group eventually become large enough that they can afford a full-time pastor or two. While I have been connected with a few such situations through my denomination, I have spent my time as a part-time pastor working in the other major category.

This category includes all those congregations which once used to be bigger and financially more solid and which used to have a full-time pastor. But as membership shrinks and the costs of full-time ministry escalate, the congregation eventually has to make the difficult and demoralizing to shift from a full-time pastor to a part-time pastor. This is without question one of the most traumatic decisions a congregation has to make because to most, it signifies that they are on the way out—it might take years but their decline will eventually result in the church closing.

I begin work in part-time settings very much aware of this mindset—and feel that a big part of my responsibility as the pastor is helping the congregation deal with their realities. But I don’t generally include closing as one of the realities I am concerned about. Certainly, it is always a reality. But there are other possible realities: stabilization, for example, is a possibility—a small congregation that is healthy and doing ministry is a valid reality. Reversing the downward trend is also a valid reality—sometimes, given the cultural context not as possible as stabilization but still a possibility.

So, with that in mind, I think a large part of my ministry is helping the part-time congregation look at itself and discover the reality of God’s love and grace working in and through it. But I have to confess that recently, the direction of my thoughts concerning the smaller of the two pastorates I work with has been a bit on the gloomy side. I hadn’t been able to really get a sense of direction or potential. I have been praying, thinking, listening and all the rest but mostly kept seeing our small numbers and the relative lack of what I would consider positive signs.

I am aware that we have an uphill climb—but I wasn’t seeing much to suggest that we had what it takes to make the climb. That is, I didn’t until a recent church meeting. This wasn’t an official meeting but more the general discussion we do before, during and after worship. We discussed and made a significant decision on helping out in a community need. But underneath, there were all sorts of revelations that I saw—the members there might not have seen them all but I did.

I saw a group of people who were not only deeply concerned with their community but who were also very active in the community. Everyone knew who was needing what and was working to meet those needs in a variety of ways: some visit and provide food and conversation; some provide a listening ear; some pound nails to repair houses; some provide prayer; some fill out complex application forms—and everyone is known and respected and appreciated in the community.

And in this, I found an answer to my prayers and my worries. We are small and struggling in some ways—but we are deeply involved in the life of the community. We are taking the light of God’s grace and love directly to our community. Many of the people touched by our small group haven’t been in our building for years, if ever—but they are experiencing God at work through our group.

I still don’t know where we are going as a group—but I have an answer to my prayers. As a church, we keep doing the ministry we are doing and as a pastor, I keep encouraging and enabling this gathering of believers to be God’s light and salt in our community.

May the peace of God be with you.

A DISAGREEMENT ABOUT MONEY

I have spend my entire working career in ministry, most of it in the context of small, struggling rural congregations. There are a great many realities clustered around that statement but one of the more significant realities is that I have basically spent my entire working career in a context where there is never enough money. There may be small, rural congregations that have tons of money (I have heard rumours about such things) but I have never been called to be the pastor of one of them.

This means that I have spent a lot of time discussing money. Sometimes, we call it discussing vision and ministry and options and all that but in the end, it becomes a discussion of money—or, to be more honest, it becomes a discussion about our lack of money, how we can get some more money and what we can’t do until we get some more money. I know there are lots of ministries that can be done with very little money but one of the basic truths of living in our culture is that ministry costs money and if we don’t have the money, it makes a difference in terms of what we can and can’t do. Dreaming is free—implementing dreams generally costs money.

The tensions between the need to do ministry and the lack of finances create some difficult, long, heated and painful discussions in small churches. Generally, one side wants to keep as much money as possible, holding it for the inevitable crisis in the future. The other side wants to do something, reasoning that having money in the bank isn’t much good if we are doing nothing. As pastor, I tend to be caught in the middle, wanting to encourage the church to do ministry but also recognizing that some of that money in the bank ensures that my paycheque won’t bounce at the end of the month.

So, with all that in mind, join me as one of my pastoral charges discusses a money issue. Worship was late starting because during the announcements, we discussed the fire in the community the night before. A house was severely damaged, likely beyond repair. The owner was in the hospital, fortunately in stable condition. He had been disabled for several months and therefore unable to work—and probably wouldn’t be able to work, especially given his injuries suffered in the fire. While no one actually said it, I think we were all assuming there was no insurance on the house or contents.

Since everyone knew the person and he was related to some on the church, the congregation wanted to help—and in this case, that meant a financial contribution. We had been planning on making a donation to another cause which ultimately didn’t need our help so some thought it would be a good idea to use that money to help. That started the discussion—what we were going to give wasn’t enough given the needs caused by the fire and injuries. Certainly, the wider community was likely going to hold some sort of benefit at some point. Definitely, there was a need—but there were several other serious needs in the community as well.

The discussion didn’t take too long. We wanted to help, the need was real, the amount we have been going to give wasn’t enough. So, the amount was almost doubled, everyone agreed and that was it. Most of the donation would be coming from our “reserves”—we don’t take in enough to make any kind of donation beyond paying the part-time pastor. We moved on and began our worship, later than normal but that isn’t unusual for us.

Not much of a discussion—but a significant one from my perspective. This group of people is interested in doing ministry and instead of seeing limits and walls and barriers, they see opportunities and want to respond. Money is a tool to use for ministry here and now. So, as a church, we look at the need and we respond—and then we move on to discover what else God has in store for us.

This is healthy and positive and significant. It says a lot about the underlying faith of this small group. This church is comfortable putting its money where its ministry is.

May the peace of God be with you.

A DONATED SUIT

I am sitting in a deacons’ meeting where we have been looking at a lot of different issues affecting our church. Since we were slowly climbing out of a serious mess that occurred just before I was called to the church, there was a lot to talk about. We rejoiced at the signs of life we were seeing and pondered the best ways to deal with the continuing issues from the previous mess. Near the end of the meeting, we opened the agenda to anyone who might have concerns.

Our senior deacon wanted to raise a concern. Since he was a retired pastor with many years of experience who tended to be on the ball and quite helpful, we all listened to him. He raised the issue of the young people who were attending our worship—about six of them, week after week, faithfully attending, participating and seeming to really appreciate what we were doing. I had wanted to raise the issue myself—we had a lot to rejoice about: the kids were coming, our student intern was doing great things with them, they made up 10-20 percent of our small but growing attendance.

But the senior deacon had a whole different idea. He was concerned about how the kids dressed. Their clothing wasn’t respectful. Some of them were showing up in jeans and t-shirts, covered with various jackets. They were wearing sneakers and some of the guys wore baseball hats—although somewhere along the line, they had learned to take the hats off during worship. But the bottom line was that these young people were not showing sufficient respect for God because they weren’t well dressed.

He had a solution, one that had helped him as a young person. He came from a poor family and didn’t feel comfortable attending worship until someone in the congregation graciously donated a used suit that he could wear. As a church, we needed to find people to donate good used suits for the guys and appropriate dresses for the girls. Then they would feel much more at home and be more reverent and respectful.

The only thing I found more difficult than preventing my student intern from climbing over the table to do physical harm to the senior deacon was preventing myself from climbing over the table to do serious harm to the senior deacon. Somehow, the grace of God broke through and neither I nor the student intern did what we were thinking.

Instead, we had a serious and significant discussion about cultural relatively. The senior deacon was concerned about these kids but was working from a whole different culture. It made a major difference to him when I pointed out that the jeans the kids wore on Sunday morning likely cost more than the suit he wore—these weren’t poor street kids. The student intern pointed out that some of those kids got more allowance than the senior deacon got in pension, which was probably an exaggeration on both sides but helped the discussion along.

While the senior deacon would still liked to have seen the kids coming in attire appropriate to the culture from 40 years ago, he began to get some insights into the changes that had occurred over the past years and decided that maybe jeans that cost more than his suit were more appropriate for those kids than a donated suit. With the crisis averted, we adjourned the meeting, secure in the knowledge that we could continue the ministry we were involved in and could rejoice in the fact that these kids found our worship valuable enough to get up early on Sunday morning, put on their best jeans and t-shirts and join us.

Is there a point here? Well, maybe we in the church need to pay attention to our culture and realize that much of the time, we want to donate suits to people who neither want nor need our used suits. They need and want something different and sometimes actually find it—but because we get caught up in the need to supply a suit to the suitless, we damage their ability to get what they actually need and want. Isn’t is much better to amplify what we are doing that they need and want than spend all the effort it would take to donate a used suit?

May the peace of God be with you.

THE SERMON

A few weeks ago, I was preaching a series of sermons on the parables of Jesus. One of the first sermons in the series seems to have made a significant impression on the congregation. For a while after that sermon, people kept referring to the sermon and especially to a visual representation I used during the sermon. The Bible study group discussed the sermon. Individuals mentioned it at meetings and at other times. I even overheard people describing the sermon to members who hadn’t been there. Overall, it seems like this was a pretty successful sermon.

But that was several weeks ago. We have since moved on. We finished the series on the parables and moved into Easter. I haven’t heard anything about the parable sermon in weeks. I have heard a few comments about other sermons suggesting that people are still listening to what I have to say at least some of the time but the parable sermon seems to have disappeared into wherever sermons go in people’s minds after a period of time.

I very much doubt that old sermons go into a special mental file for most people. I doubt that people spend time thinking about the best sermons of the year or the decade. In fact, the painful truth that many preachers don’t want to deal with is that most sermons barely survive the handshake at the door on the way out of the sanctuary. A few, of course, manage to survive a little longer. A sermon with a good story or joke, a sermon that touches a special place for the worshipper or a really bad one—any of them can last into the next week and maybe even beyond.

But eventually, every sermon ends up as a part of a shapeless mass of forgotten prose, decomposed and decontextualized, sitting somewhere in the memory banks of church goers. No matter how hard I work at the sermon, no matter how deeply I research, no matter how powerful the illustrations are, the sermon ultimately loses shape and form and exists, if at all, as a blob among other blobs in people’s minds.

That could be depressing and discouraging, especially if I had some insecurities or felt that my words were so important that they had to be remembered exactly. And while there may have been times in the past when I struggled with such things, there days, I tend not to get too bent out of shape by the fact that no one really remembers my sermons for all that long. Honestly, I can’t remember them either—in order to be certain I know what I preached the Sunday before when we discuss the worship at Bible study, I keep a copy of the sermon on my phone so I can refer to it if necessary.

I don’t expect people to remember the sermon. It was flattering to have people remember and talk about the parable sermon for so long—but is doesn’t depress me that I haven’t heard anyone mention that sermon in weeks. I don’t actually preach to have people remember the sermon. I preach because I want to help people grow in faith—and any one individual sermon is about as valuable to spiritual growth as any one individual meal is valuable to physical growth.

If a person were to get just one meal in their life, they would have a very short life. No matter how great the meal was, just one meal can’t sustain life. Life is build and sustained by the accumulation of meals over the course of a lifetime—and the health and vitality of the lifetime depends on the nutritional balance of all those meals. Anyone meal is unimportant—but all of them together make the person.

Well, any one sermon by itself is pretty much worthless—even if people remember it and refer to it for days and even weeks, it still won’t be enough by itself to sustain and develop spiritual life. But when that one sermon gets folded in with all the other sermons, it can develop into a sort of spiritual compost that provides a base for solid and healthy spiritual growth.

While it was nice that people remembered an individual sermon for so long, even the best of my sermons isn’t all that memorable. But over time, my hope is that accumulation of sermons composting in the believer’s mind will make a difference, enabling them to grow strong in the faith.

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.

SETTING LIMITS

I have been involved in some form of ministry for my entire working life. While I have mostly been the pastor of small, rural congregations, I have also had the privilege of serving as a jail chaplain, a teacher of pastors in Canada and Kenya and a pastoral counsellor. Part of the reason I do what I do is because I am deeply conscious of the calling that God has given me to the various forms of ministry I do. There have been times I have resented God’s calling, times when I have fought against it and a few times when I have asked, begged and demanded that God rescind that call. But in the end, I do both accept and appreciate the calling that God has given me.

Another part of the reason why I do what I do is because in the end, I like helping people. Now, I am pretty sure that is connected with the calling–it is one of the gifts or qualities or attributes that God has given me as part of the tool kit that comes with his calling. When God calls us to anything, he also provides the equipment that we need to follow his leading. But whatever the reason, I actually like helping people.

That can be a mixed blessing. We who like helping people do a lot of good for a lot of people but we can also do a lot of harm to a lot of people. A lot of the difference can be attributed to our motives for helping.

If I am helping people to satisfy my need to help out, I am probably going to cause more harm than good because I am more concerned with what I will get out of the process than what will really help in the process. I will likely end up diminishing the people I want to help because I put myself before them.

When my helping takes away the individual’s freedom to make their own choices, I have actually ceased helping them. When I do counselling for example, it really isn’t my place to tell people they have to stop doing something, no matter how destructive it might be for them. I can help them see the consequences of their actions, I can help them formulate different ways of dealing with stuff, I can even be willing to help hold them accountable. In some situations, I can and have told people I will have to report them to appropriate authorities but I can’t make them change. But I can’t actually make them do whatever it is that we are talking about.

Learning and remembering that one basic reality has saved me and those I minister to a great deal of pain, confusion and emotional turmoil. A real helper is one who has real and realistic limits. I can’t live another person’s life–and I can’t make them live their life the way I think it should be lived. I can only help them as they seek to deal with their own stuff as best they can. I can offer tools, support, counselling, accountability–but I can’t make them.

That means that there are a lot of times when my attempts to help are frustrated. It means that there are times when the proper and best response are really clear to me and the people I am trying to help and they still chose a lesser response. There are times when I get angry because of how hard I have worked only to have someone make poor or even self-destructive choices. There have even been times when I have had to stop my involvement because of the frustration.

But learning that limit has also been liberating and enabling for me in my ministry and my helping of others. I like helping–but I need to begin with the reality of the otherness of the people I am helping. They have a right to be themselves, even if I disagree with their definition of themselves. I need clear and strong limits on my helping so that I don’t try to take over their life or their issues. I am there to help, not to dominate or command or take over. As one poet from another age put it, “Good fences make good neighbours”.

May the peace of God be with you.