THE OLD CHURCH BUILDING

            The area where I live is one of the oldest settled areas in Canada.  Before the arrival of European settlers, there was a thriving Native population.  European settlers arrived here in 1605 and have been here every since.  As might be expected, we have a great many old buildings.  The coffee shop where I treat myself to the world’s greatest cinnamon buns, for example, is housed in a building put up in 1747, although the coffee and cinnamon buns are much newer.

Among the old buildings are several unused church buildings of various denominations.  Some of them belong to denominations that have no problem  dealing with old, unused  church buildings.  The bishop, presbytery, committee or some other outside organization signs a paper and the building disappears or is sold and become an antique shop or funky house.  But other denominations, like the one I belong to, have serious problems because control of the building belongs to the membership.

But one of the interesting realities is that when the membership passes, control of the building seems to vest itself in a variety of people who want it kept for a variety of reasons.  Some have fond memories of family members who attended there.  Some are deeply appreciative of the architecture of the building.  Some swoon over the historical connections of the building.  Some see it as a possible money making opportunity–a wedding chapel or something like that.

Everyone wants it preserved and repaired and painted.  But very few want to pay the money and put in the time to make all that happen–and the few who do soon discover that having an unused church building to look after can be a major source of frustration, aggravation, stress and anger.

Interestingly enough, very few people see the building for what it really is.  An unused church building is the last sign physical of a once vibrant worshipping community.  It speaks of the faith that brought people to God and each other; a faith that enabled relatively poor people to build a building to house their congregation; a faith that sustained that worshipping community for many years–but also a faith that faded as its membership aged and moved and died.

If the congregation was faithful and worked at being the church, the deteriorating building isn’t the last sign of the former congregation’s life, nor is it even the best symbol of the legacy of the congregation.  To really know the value of a congregation, it is necessary to look at the lives touched by the congregation who used to worship in that building.  How many were helped through the valley of the shadow of death?  How many discovered the wonder of God’s grace?  How many found a cup of cold water when they needed it?  How many found their lives more abundant because of that congregation?

Unfortunately, answers to questions like that are sometimes hard to find.  People move away; communities shrink and fade away; memories grow dim.  The people who were touched by that congregation may not be anywhere near the old building–and the building probably isn’t anywhere near as important to them as the people who once made up the congregation.

I like old church buildings–but then, I like all church buildings, from the huge cathedral to the mud and wattle hut in the Kenyan bush.  But I like the congregations that inhabit the buildings even more.  I might appreciate the furtively scratched ship drawings hidden on the back pew in the balcony of an old unused church building but I appreciate even more the legacy of the congregation that used to inhabit that building.  Their worship might have bored at least one budding artist, but it also touched lives and made a difference.

The old building might have historical, architectural, cultural and emotional significance but the real story and real value of the building is written in the lives of those who built it and worshipped in it and in the lives touched by that group of people.  What happens to the building after the worshipping community ceases to exist?  Let the historians and the architects and the culture buffs and the nostalgia surfers figure it out.  I am going to take some pictures, thank God for the church that used to be there and worship somewhere else, where God is using another group of believers to touch lives.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE PHONE CALL

The only phone I have these days is a cell phone which is used for both work and private conversations so I always have it with me.  Normally, I remember to turn the ringer off before worship and Bible Study and other meetings.  But this Sunday, I was busy and forgot to silence it.  Just before worship was to begin, it started to ring.  Since I didn’t recognize the number, I sent it to the answering function and turned off the sound.  We began worship and it started again–this time, I could feel the vibration in my pocket.

After worship, it rang again as I was talking to one of the worshippers.  Thinking it might be important, I checked and when I saw who it was, I excused myself and answered the phone–the caller wouldn’t have called unless there it was important.  After the culturally appropriate greetings, he asked me if I had got a call earlier.  When I told him about not answering, he explained that someone had called him and after telling they had had a long conversation at the Easter worship service, asked for financial help.  He didn’t know what to do so he gave the called my number, for which he now apologized.

The interesting thing is that a couple of weeks before this, I had been at meeting with other pastors where one of the participants told us of a scam phone call he had received.  The details he shared about his call matched exactly with the details the caller had given the person I was talking to.  I was able to assure my friend that this wasn’t a real problem but was a scam and I wouldn’t be calling the person but if he called me, I would give it all the consideration which it deserved.  I think he was relieved that it was a scam–the story he was told was a real tear-jerker and while he was a bit skeptical, he wasn’t completely sure.

This call was easy to deal with–I had some warning.  But that is a rarity–over the years, I, like most clergy, have had my share of desperate sounding phone calls from people looking for help.  Some are legitimate–and while I sometimes struggle to know how to respond, I want to help and try to find ways to alleviate the problem.  But the depressing reality is that many of the calls are scams.

Some aren’t even good scams.  This particular individual had done no homework–our Easter attendance was up to about 30 but even so, a stranger would have been immediately noticed.  Another from a long time ago began his story to a Baptist pastor by saying he had been playing poker while drunk and lost all his money–not a story designed to tug on my heart strings.  Every pastor I know has such stories because we are seen as easy targets.

I think Jesus probably had situations like this in mind when he spoke the words we find in Matthew 10.16, ” …be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (NIV).  As believers we have an obligation to help others in any way possible, anything from a cup of cold water to a helping hand on the way to reconciliation to God.  Often, helping people is going to cost:  time, money, effort, increased stress and so on.  But when we step in and become a channel of God’s grace to someone in need of that grace, we can rejoice.

However, when the person is a scammer, we can get depressed and cynical–and begin to ask questions and wonder if we should even bother.  Well, I learned an important lesson a long time ago.  If I want to help people, I have to accept the fact that I am going to get taken.  My best response is to be shrewd enough to weed out the most blatant scammers but innocent enough that I don’t cut off people who actually do need help but have a terrible story or questionable presentation.

For me, if the choice is between getting taken sometimes so that I can help people or not helping anyone so that I avoid being scammed, I am going to accept the reality that I will be scammed sometimes–but that does bring with it the more important reality that I will help people receive God’s grace a lot of the time.

May the peace of God be with you.

WOUNDED HEALERS

I am a pastor and have been a teacher of pastors.  I have worked with pastors in at least four countries, taught pastors from half a dozen countries and done pastoral work myself for over 40 years.  At the beginning of my pastoral career, I came to an important realization that has been strengthened and deepened by all my experience in pastoral work.  That realization is that we pastors are not perfect.

Now, that may seem like a glaringly obvious reality to many non-pastors but it can be hard for we who are pastors to really understand and believe this reality.  Our calling puts us in a privileged and important position.  We get involved in people’s lives when things are painful, hectic, exciting or confusing.  We deal with issues and thoughts and ideas that many people shy away from.  We get asked for advice and answers on many things from the trivial (Why do Baptists use grape juice for Communion?) to the profound (How can God love someone like me?).  We are seen as being the representative of God–when we are present, people can feel like God is present.

The always present temptation is the temptation to believe that we really are what some people think we are and to forget who we really are.  When I am the person to deliver the understanding of the presence of God and his grace, it is all too tempting to believe that something divine has rubbed off on me and that I have somehow been elevated to another level–certainly, in all modesty, I keep the halo hidden but, well, we all know that it is there.

Except that it really isn’t there.  I might be God’s representative, I might presume to speak for God twice each Sunday, I might mediate between the hurting world and the graceful God–but none of the holiness of God has rubbed off on me.  Or better, no more of it has rubbed off on me that has rubbed off on others–and there may be some who have managed to attract even more.

Very early in my ministry, I ran across Henri Nouwen’s book  The Wounded Healer.  Without even reading the book, I was and continue to be struck by the insight and profound truth expressed by the title.  Reading the book just amplifies and solidifies the bedrock reality that no matter what I think I am; no matter that I wrestle with the things of God as a matter of course; no matter that I can and do bring the awareness of God to the darkness of life, I am still human and approach my calling as an imperfect person who must deal with my own imperfections while I help others deal with theirs.  All of us need the grace of God, not just the people I work with.

God calls us in our wounded state and works to heal us.  But we will remain wounded and imperfect for the whole of our existence here.  We never reach perfection because as soon as we finally deal with one wound, God shows us another one.  When we take the bandage off one healed spot, we probably manage to cut ourselves with the scissors God gave us to cut the bandage and so need healing for that new wound.

As a pastor, I long ago realized I can’t really hide my wounds from anyone but myself.  And if I can’t hide them, I needed to learn how to do my calling with them.  Sometimes, I try to do it in spite of my wounds.  But mostly, I have realized that my best work at carrying out my calling comes when I let God work through both my strengths and my weaknesses.  Sometimes, the fact that I can get beyond my bouts of depression help people and sometimes the fact that I can still minister even during a bout of depression helps even more people.  Sometimes, my wounds need healing from the people I pastor, which is also part of God’s plan for me and them.

I am a pastor, which means that in the end, I am a wounded healer.  I need help even as I offer help.  Fortunately, the presence and grace of God means that he is willing to both heal me and work through me, just as he heals and works through those I am called to shepherd.

May the grace of God be with you.

WHO IS MY PASTOR?

A couple of times in my career as pastor, I have had people ask me an interesting question.  Essentially, they want to know who is my pastor.  One person who asked the question didn’t actually have much to do with the church but knew me and knew that I was involved in some pretty difficult situations with people he knew.  Another was a church member whom I had helped through some difficulties as part of my pastoral activity.

The question is one that I have actually given a lot of thought to over the years.  Very early, I was exposed to the myth of pastoral invulnerability–the idea that since I am a pastor, I have such a strong connection with God that I don’t need a pastor.  My strong, deeply rooted faith and my powerful connection with God keep protect me and shelter me and take away the need for the kind of pastoral support I provide for others.  Mostly, pastors who believe in this myth don’t talk about it–or much of anything personal for that matter.  They just continue along, doing God’s work until they crash and burn, something that is always painful for them and the church.

I actually believed the myth–for something like 3.5 minutes.  My own growing awareness of my weaknesses and witnessing the depressingly regular crash of “strong” pastors very quickly showed me the folly of that particular myth.  And so even though I tend to be a fairly self-contained individual who has learned to handle a lot of things on my own, I am aware of my own need to outside help and welcome it.

All through my ministry, I have has people who were willing to be my pastor–of course, since I have pretty much always been a pastor myself, none of them were officially my pastor and in true church fashion, most of them never got paid for being my pastor.  But they were and are there.

Early in my ministry preparation and career, I didn’t actually recognize these pastoral presences for what they really were.  I knew there were people there who were willing to talk with me, listen to me and support me whose presence I deeply appreciated and would occasionally seek out but it never really clicked with me that they were being my pastor.  At other times, there were people whose pastoral role I recognized–our denomination actually had staff people who were to be pastors to the pastors for a time.

I also had the tremendous blessing of marrying a pastor and we have provided mutual pastoral support for each other as part of our life together.  Our relationship is about much more than being a pastor to each other but that is a factor in our relationship.

These days, our denomination no longer has a pastor to pastors because of financial realities.  And many times, my advanced age puts me in the position of being a pastor to younger pastors in the same way other more senior pastors cared for me.  But my advanced age and extended career in ministry haven’t brought me to the place where I am the living embodiment of the strong and unshakable pastor who needs nothing but the Bible and a “season of prayer” to deal with anything and everything.

I still need a pastor, just like the people I am called to shepherd.  And so I find pastors.  Often, my first choice is my wife.  But I find others as well.  I let the congregations provide pastoral care–I have told congregations for years that I struggle with depression and many within the congregation will check on me and offer care and prayer when I need it.  Contrary to many pastoral theorists, being open to the pastoral care from the congregation makes my ministry with them stronger and more effective.

I also have people I meet with at irregular intervals and over coffee or lunch, we pastor each other.  Sometimes, we both know this is a mutual pastoral care event, sometimes one or the other recognizes it for what it is and occasionally, neither of us knows that pastoral care is happening as we drink our coffee.

God has provided pastors because we all need something sometime–and we pastors are no different from anyone else.  We may not have a pastor in the same way the people we shepherd have a pastor but God does provide us with pastors and those of us who are wise enough to see our needs take advantage of God’s provision.

May the peace of God be with you.

TIME AND TIDE

The house we live in sits just above a tidal flat.  At low tide, we see a flat grassy meadow that stretches to the dike along the river bank in the distance.  At high tide, the meadow disappears to varying degrees, depending on the phase of the moon.  When the moon is full, the whole flat disappears and the water comes near to the top of the dyke.  Fortunately, our house is 10-15 meters above the highest tide mark so I can watch the tide without wondering if I need to invest in a canoe for emergencies.

But even though I can watch this twice daily process, I tend not to pay much attention.  If people had asked me where the tide was, I probably couldn’t answer–or that was the case until recently. For the past few months, I have been paying close attention to the tides and can easily tell people what stage the tide is at.

This didn’t come from a concern about raising ocean levels because of global warming.  There is a spot near our house that is so affected and before much longer, a really high tide is going to go over the road there–but I have known that for years and there are other ways to get to where that road leads.  And as I mentioned, we have several meters beyond the most pessimistic predictions of ocean level rise.

What changed for me is that I build a tide clock.  I like clocks and I like building clocks.  So my winter project was to design and build a tide clock.  It wasn’t as quick a process as I thought–the winter was much busier than I anticipated and my wood-working skills were much rustier that I expected.  But the clock is done and sits on the mantle in the living room.  When I am sitting in my working chair in the living room, I can see the tide clock and the tidal flat with just a slight turn of my head.  When I walk into the room during the day time when the curtains are open, I automatically check the clock and the tide.

Part of that began as I worked at regulating the clock.  Although I can look up tide times on the internet, I did have to set the clock hand that tells the state of the tide.  And while the mechanism is interesting, it is a bit hard to adjust perfectly and so I have been tinkering with it since I placed it on the mantle–I think I have is set now but I will continue to watch it.

There is a parable here–remember, I am a preacher and therefore can’t let something just be something–it also has to be something else to feed the insatiable demand for stories to keep people interested on Sunday.

And so the meaning of the parable is this.  I live beside a tidal flat but because the coming and going to the tide has no affect on me personally, I ignore it.  My house is safe from the highest tide predictable; I don’t make my living digging for clams at low tide; I don’t need to know when I can get my boat out from the wharf and the only road that might have some affect on my life is easily bypassed.  The tide comes and goes and has no affect on me.

But as soon as I build a tide clock, I have a personal interest in the tide.  It makes a difference to me where the tide is.  Sure, the difference is only because I want to check the accuracy of the new clock–but I am still interested.

So, we live in a world where there is a great deal wrong, which we ignore because we can’t perceive a direct effect on us.  Some, we can ignore.  Some, we can pretend isn’t a problem.  Some, we have to deny.  And in truth, some we have to work really hard to avoid.  As long as we can tell ourselves it doesn’t affect us, we can ignore it, at least until it becomes too personal.

But as believers, we are called to be involved with the world–instead of ignoring the darkness and its effects, we are to shine the light of God into the darkness.  We didn’t create the light–but we have been given the light.  We need to turn it on and challenge the darkness because whatever we want to think, we do have a personal stake in making the darkness go away, a personal stake that came to us through Jesus Christ.

May the peace of God be with you.

AFTER THE BIBLE STUDY

Doing Bible Study groups in the churches I pastor is an intense experience for me–and from what I hear from the participants, it can be quite intense for some of them  Since I am the named teacher of the study, I carry a lot of responsibility during the study time.  I try to keep things on some track, enough so that everyone feels they are involved and that any side tracks we take aren’t simply the desires of any one person.

I spend a lot of energy listening to and observing the members.  Because I am their pastor, I am not only trying to pick up on how well they are following and understanding the study, but also, I am listening and watching for indications of stuff outside the study:  the normally verbal individual who is silent may be wrestling with the point under discussion or they may be getting the flu or they may be dealing with the cancer diagnosis they received yesterday that they haven’t told anyone about yet.

While all this is going on at some level, I am also processing the study:  reviewing old material, asking and answering questions, seeking and receiving comments and ideas from the group, directing traffic a bit to keep everyone from talking at once, remembering the order of who speaks after the current speaker, laughing at the jokes, gently encouraging the silent to speak more and the verbal to speak less.  And occasionally, during lulls in the questions and comments, I get to insert some new material for the group to chew on.

Bible study is a busy, interactive and often fast paced process on both my pastoral settings, one in which we all learn and all teach.  But I am the teacher, facilitator, leader or whatever you want to call the person who gets paid to be there and participate.  I am also, as I have mentioned here a few times, an introvert.

And that means that I love Bible Study, I seek and encourage the high level of participation, I enjoy the time.  But when Bible study is over and I have finished with the last of the private conversations that follow Bible study, I am wiped out.

A few years ago, our two sons and I spend a week on a wilderness hike that involved me carrying a 25+ kilo pack 12-20 kilometers a day.  I was tired at the end of each hiking day–but I don’t recall being as tired after those days as I am after one Bible study session.  When possible, Bible study is followed by a short nap–and when it isn’t, it is followed by incessant yawning and wishing I had time for a nap.

One of the things I have learned about myself is that I have two conflicting realities within me.  I am a pastor/teacher, which drives me to interact with people on a deep level.  I want to help, to instruct, to enable, to encourage people as they grow in faith.  I am both driven and attracted to opportunities to teach and pastor.  But I am also an introvert.  I prefer my computer or a book or a solitary walk.  I don’t actually mind being by myself–when I talk about getting away from it all, I am normally thinking of getting away from people or at least people I need to pastor/teach.

I am probably not alone in this–many pastors and professional helpers I know are introverts so there are a great many of us living with these conflicting drives.  I don’t think that I have any earth-shaking insights about how to deal with them.  But I have learned that I need to accept both of them as real and deal with them in a practical, pragmatic way that keeps them in a proper balance.

I am a pastor/teacher so I am going to have to interact with people on a deep basis–they don’t pay me to sit at home and be alone.  I am an introvert who gets tired as a result of the interaction.  So, I care for both sides.  When I am with people, they are getting the very best I can give during that time–and when I finish interacting with people, I take the time I need to rest and restore myself.  All through the process, I am looking to God for strength, leading and acceptance, which he graciously gives to me.

May the peace of God be with you.

BRIGHTEN THE CORNER WHERE YOU ARE

It is becoming really common these days for believers to take part in mission trips.  After raising a serious amount of  money, a group of believers will take off for some faraway place where they will fellowship with local believers (often through an interpreter), test out the national food (with the assurance that a real meal awaits at the hotel), and build something.  They come home with a nice tan, great stories and a deeper awareness of the realities of life.

Interestingly, I have had serious discussions with Kenyan Christians who wanted to explore the possibility of making a mission trip to Canada so that they could help Canadians engage in ministry.  From their perspective, such a mission trip would be a great thing–based on what they see in the media, we need a lot of help in North America carrying out the mission of the church.  Of course, the North American church would have to pay for their trip since Kenya is poor and Canada is rich.

There is a major debate about the value of such trips which I will not engage at this point.  I do want to use this trend to point out a significant irony concerning the mission of the church:  the further away the mission focus is geographically and culturally, the easier it is to get people to support it financially and physically.  I think the key problem is that real ministry, where ever it happens, is messy and difficult and filled with frustration and confusion and potential for real pain.  Real ministry also generally requires serious long term commitment of money and time–and there is no guarantee that it will succeed.  I can think of many ministry situations over the years where I have given a lot of my money, time and effort and got very little in terms of tangible results:  the alcoholic returns to alcohol; the couple breaks up; the near-convert decides to become Buddhist; the potential pastor becomes a professional dirt-biker.

On the other hand, doing ministry for a week or two far away is much less messy and demanding.  We get to see and participate in what is clearly a messy, needy situation.  We get to involve ourselves deeply and intimately in the mess and solution–and then, after a week or two, we get to shower and head for home (although occasionally, we have to reverse those two events).  Our involvement in the messy situation far away after that is somewhat voluntary and involves prayer, some fund raising and maybe some publicity.

I am aware that this sounds cynical–and probably is.  But cynicism or not, it is difficult to get churches and believers to commit to sustained ministry in the messes that exist close to us.  We are often more concerned with the starving in Africa than we are with the kids who go to school hungry at our local schools.  And that makes sense:  feeding the starving far away involves giving money while dealing with the hungry school kids may involve us in the lives of real people with real problems that need much more than just our financial contributions.

Kids going to school hungry is the result of a complex and difficult set of realities that will involve us with poverty, poor choices, politics, addictions, and on and on.  It will take sustained energy of many people over long periods of time and bring us into contact with people that we might prefer to avoid.  It may open us to manipulation and to being exploited.  It may result in us being ripped off, either as churches or individuals or both.  And, after putting in all the effort and time and whatever, nothing may change.

But that is the reality of ministry–and it is the reality that we need to be involved in.  I heartily endorse feeding the starving in Africa.  I am somewhat in favour of mission trips.  And I am deeply concerned with the ministry we do just outside our church building.  For most of us, this will be our real mission and our real ministry.  And if we let our fears and frustrations get in the way, we will miss the opportunity to be used by the Holy Spirit to make a real difference.  The mess is real, the pitfalls are ever present, the results aren’t predictable or assured–but it is part of what we are called to do.

May the peace of God be with you.

HOW CAN I HELP YOU?

            This is another preacher story–one of those stories we love to use in sermons but have to change enough details so that no one really recognizes the people involved.  In this story, I am on a mission–a parishioner has had an accident and has suffered some injury.  She slipped on some ice and ended up lying in the cold for a time because her injuries prevented her from getting up on her own. Since she, like most of my parishioners, is elderly, I figured that she would have lots of worries, anxieties and stuff resulting from the fall, lying in the cold for so long and the further limits on her life style because of her injuries.  Like a good pastor, I wanted to help her as much as I could.

As the visit progressed, I used all the pastoral care techniques and approaches to give her the opportunity to talk about anything coming out of the experience that was bothering her.  I anticipated fear, anger, anxiety, frustration, depression–all things that I has seen in similar situations over the years.  Instead of this long and expected list of issues, there was really only one thing that she wanted to talk about and needed help with.

She was required to rest and take it easy and so she and her friends had made her a nest in her living room, using her recliner as a base.  Everything she needed was close at hand:  her books, the TV remote, the radio, the portable phone.  Friends were dropping in the check on her, get her meals and just to chat.  She was feeling secure, comfortable and cared for, except for one real issue.

Something sharp was sticking into her ankle every time she moved in her chair.  None of her friends could figure out what it was for sure and even the ones who could find the sharp object didn’t have the tools to deal with it.  Her cozy nest was much less cozy and the sharp point was fast becoming a major irritant.  She asked me to take a look, just as she had been asking everyone who came in.

I quickly located the object and identified it as an upholstery staple that has come loose on one end.  She then asked if there was anything I could do about it.  With her permission, I pulled my multi-tool out of its pouch and pulled the offending staple out of the chair  The staple was tossed into the garbage can, the problem was solved and all the anticipated problems simply weren’t issues that day–and I checked carefully, using all the pastoral care stuff I have learned over the years.

There is a point to this story beyond the obvious one that all pastors should carry a multi-tool or Swiss army knife for such emergencies.  The point is that in the end, only this lady knew what her problem was and only she could identify it.  As a contentious and caring pastor, I visited with a long list of possible things I would run into, a list that was valid based on my experience and research–in many similar situations in the past, I had helped surface and deal with lots of those issues.

Having that mental list wasn’t a problem–it is sort of the mental equivalent of the multi-tool I happened to have with me that day.  Should the issue present itself, I was mentally prepared to help deal with it.  The problem would come in if and when I assumed that she must have some of the issues I was prepared for and kept looking for them, even trying to solve them for her before I even knew what the real problem was.

That particular day, the only thing she needed was someone with pliers and enough strength to pull out an upholstery staple.  All the other issues I anticipated were either non-issues for her or had been taken care of by others.  My visit as a pastor was appreciated as was the prayer I offered at the end of the visit–but the best pastoral work I did that day was use my multi-tool to pull out a staple.

As a pastor, I would prefer to pull a staple that is a real problem rather than waste her time and mine trying to fix problems that she doesn’t have and therefore doesn’t need help for.

May the peace of God be with you.

I UNDERSTAND COMPLETELY

As a pastor, I work with a lot of people who struggle with lots of things.  I regularly deal with people facing illness and loss of functions.  I spend a lot of time with people dealing with death–their own or that of someone close.  I work with victims of terrible abuse.  I visit parishioners who have had to have a pet put down.  Now and then, I even find myself spending time with a techie whose laptop is sick or dying.  I also spend a lot of time with people whose problems are less earth-shaking:  a stalled car, a lost book, a staple sticking through the upholstery of a favourite chair, a cake that didn’t turn out right.

I learned early in ministry that even if I think the problem is trivial, I can’t treat it that way–it is their problem and their response to it that matters.  I might think it is trivial and in fact the rest of the world might think it is trivial but since it isn’t trivial to them, I need to accept that and work on that basis.  Some days, that can be difficult but I think I learned that lesson fairly well.

What took longer to learn is that even if I have the same experience, I can’t assume that my emotional experience is the same as theirs.  I can’t assume that I understand exactly what they are feeling and know exactly what they need.  Just as I can’t try to make a problem small because I think it is small, I also can’t assume that I fully and completely understand the problem and am therefore completely qualified to give them the benefit of my wisdom and experience.

Certainly, my experience can be helpful in understanding their experience–but my experience isn’t their experience and I can’t forget this.  When I deal with children grieving the loss of a parent, I have some inkling of what they feel, having been through the grief of losing my father, my mother and my step-father.  But I really can’t know exactly what people are feeling.

Every experience has twists and turns and undercurrents that only the person in the middle fully understands–and even then, they may not fully understand them.  When  I claim that I understand, I am actually proclaiming to people that I don’t really care enough for them to find out what is really going on in their lives.

When my father died, for example, it was painful and difficult.  We had a good relationship and got along well and respected and loved each other.  But not every family has that same relationship with a father.  The internal realities of such relationships are hidden under the surface of the visible, public presentation–but they are very real and very much a part of the grief process.  If I assume that everyone who loses a father feels just like I did, I am probably going to do a very poor job helping people with their grief.  A family struggling with the death of a father who was an abuser or a alcoholic or simply not present emotionally will have their grief compounded if I assume their experience is just the same as mine.

I don’t know what people are experiencing.  I might have some idea, based on my experience and my study and what I have heard–but I really don’t understand what people are experiencing, at least not until I have spent some serious time with them and they have been willing to open up about what they are experiencing.

One of the strong reactions I have seen from  people suffering is their anger at people telling them they understand.  Out of politeness, the struggling people nod and say thank you but at some point, they end up telling someone like me that they were angry because the people didn’t really understand–no one can really understand.

We can actually come to understand what people are feeling, it we are willing to admit that we don’t really understand and commit to spending the time it takes to really listen and let people work through their feelings.  While I may never fully understand what someone is feeling, I can understand their need to be understood and make the effort to suspend my assumptions so that I can hear the reality of their experience.

May the peace of God be with you.

TROUBLING TIMES

Today is going to be a difficult day for me–actually, it could be the beginning of several difficult days.  I am going to be dealing with some hardship, some deprivation, and a loss of my (perceived) ability to function effectively.  The reason:  my laptop needs to go in for repairs and I probably will not have it back for a couple of days.

Now, I have been planning for this process.  I worked out with the repair shop the best time to be without the laptop–it’s not that I don’t need it for the two or three days but that these are the days I need it less.  I will be transferring the most necessary files, the ones that I will be working on (I hope) to my tablet and if I get really desperate, there is that old, obsolete laptop on a shelf in the TV room.  I suppose for that matter, I could even do some work on my phone.  I will survive but it won’t be pretty or fun.

I know that compared to the pain and suffering in the world, not having my laptop for a couple of days really isn’t all that much of an issue.  I know some people, in fact, who would see not having a laptop for a couple of days as something of a blessing.  Others might think that I probably need to re-adjust my priorities and think about what it really important.  There are some, however, who might be prompted to send my sympathy cards because losing their laptop would severely traumatize them.

When it comes to dealing with the pain and difficulty of others, we all need to look at the fact that we are tempted to evaluate the suffering of others on the basis of our experience and our understanding.  What upsets us must be traumatic for others and what doesn’t upset us is something others should be able to deal with easily.  When we give in to this temptation and evaluate their situation from our perspective, we are not likely going to be able to provide real help to the person going through whatever they are going through.

If we think the situation isn’t that serious, we will have a tendency to down-play whatever they are going through.  Our approach will often be to try and help them see that having their laptop sit in the shop for a couple of days isn’t all that much of a problem and may even be a blessing in disguise.  We might suggest all sorts of possible options the person has:  the tablet, the smart phone, the old computer–why, the laptop deprived individual might even appreciate the opportunity to rediscover pen and paper, an old but still viable technology.

When that doesn’t work, the helpers might try to force comparisons on the person–suggesting that an unavailable laptop really isn’t that much of a problem when compared to starvation, genocide and other things that people face.  This approach became popular as “I used to complain about having no shoes until I met a man with no feet”.

There is also the “dose of reality” approach, which somewhat confrontationally tells the person to get over it–its only a laptop and only a couple of days and really isn’t the end of the world so just snap out of it and stop whining or moaning or whatever.

These all sound like proper and appropriate ways to help someone deal with a problem that we are pretty sure isn’t as much of a problem as they think it is.  Obviously, our job as helpers is to convince them that what they are dealing with isn’t a problem, or at least isn’t as much of a problem as they think it is.  Once we succeed in helping them see the problem in the right way (our way, of course), then the problem is solved and everything is fine.

Except it isn’t fine.  We don’t really help people by trying to convince them that because we don’t think the problem is significant, they should think the same way.  In the end, people need to deal with their issues based on what they think about the issue, not what we think about the issue.  Trying to revise their thinking so that they see things like we see them doesn’t help–it just adds a layer of frustration and more pain to the problem.

May the peace of God be with you.

 

 

Mathe peace of God be with you.