PEER PRESSURE

For most of my working life, I have been a pastor serving small, rural churches. I have basically lived and worked in the same geographic area for over 35 years so I have deep connections in many of the area churches and communities. Because I am a pastor and because this is a somewhat traditional area, I am still one of the first people contacted when life gets difficult for the people in the church and often for the community as well.

When I was a new pastor, this was difficult. I often found myself sitting with families as they struggled with the death of a loved one, a devastating medical diagnosis, a crushing family break up. My training provided suggestions and hints on how to help people in these situations but my very limited experience kept getting in the way. I hope I didn’t do any lasting damage in those first years—and since I still live in the area, I would likely know if there were serious messes as a result of my early pastoral work.

Having been out of pastoral ministry for a bit while I worked in Kenya, I came back to a somewhat different pastoral experience. I was called to a pastorate I had served before. It is rural, somewhat traditional and I know everyone—and some of them, I have known since the day I preached my first sermon in those churches over 35 years ago. I am still one of the first calls made when there is a disruption in life.

But these days, I am not the young pastor sitting with the children of older people. I am often sitting with the children of those now departed older people—but they are my friends. More and more often, I am sitting with the families of one of my friends, someone who is near my age and whom I have known forever, or at least it feels that way at the time. My training still helps—I have kept up and upgraded and am not working from a 40 year old data base. My experience level has grown—I like to think that I have used my time in ministry to develop my skills and abilities and enhance my overall ministry.

But these days, I am still sitting with friends while we deal with the death of someone who was also my friend. I get called because I am the pastor—but also because I am a friend. And more and more often, it is the friendship that leads to the call, not so much the pastoral side of the relationship. I am a friend who happens to be the pastor.

All of us involved recognize that I come into the situation wearing two very different hats. I am the pastor, tasked with helping others deal with the effects and feelings of whatever we are dealing with—but I am also a friend who has my own relationship and my own stuff to deal with. As I said to one person recently, this job was a whole lot easier back when I didn’t know people so well.

On the whole, I think my long term relationships with people have made my ministry stronger and more effective. I can use that knowledge to help the church look at specific ideas and processes and so on that are more closely tied to their needs, possibilities and abilities. But it also means that I have a lot more of my own feelings to deal with. Not only do I have to design a funeral service to help the family, but also I have to find ways to work through my own grief and feelings, without taking away my effectiveness in helping others deal with the issues.

I need to be honest with myself and my congregations about my experience, while at the same time recognizing that I have been called to help them. My relationship with people is important and valuable and deep—but that means I have to make sure that deal with my stuff appropriately so that I can carry out my ministry. I am working with my peer group these days and we are all seeking to find out how our common faith and relationship expresses itself when life gets messy.

May the peace of God be with you.

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NATIVITY SCENES

We tried something new this year as part of our Advent process. One of the church members really likes Nativity scenes and has a considerable collection. She was also aware that others also have such scenes so she suggested that we have a display of them before and after worship. We announced it for a couple of weeks to get people ready. A couple of people had of the display ready when I arrived and added my two Kenyan versions to the mix.

It was really interesting to see all the variations on the theme. There were a variety of materials, a variety of styles, a variety of approaches. Some were elaborate and some were simple. Some would be classed as folk art and some were pretty close to professional artistic standards. I kind of thought one of my contributions would be the most unique one there—it was hand carved in Kenya from a single short branch and opened to reveal mother, child and Joseph along with a star. I was somewhat surprised to discover an almost identical one already on the table—someone had a friend who had been in Kenya who gave them the scene as a gift.

I am rather ambivalent about Nativity scenes. I appreciate the devotional thought that is behind them—the various characters and animals arrayed around the new born Christ, worshipping him who is destined to bring salvation to the world. But at the same time, I know that the traditional scene never happened. There was never a point when the holy family, the shepherds and three wise men were all together in the stable with a star beaming overhead.

There definitely was a stable or barn; there was definitely a new family; shepherds did show up; there was a star and there were even wise men. But the actual story took a lot longer. Mary and Joseph weren’t in the stable all that long, perhaps a few days. They would have been visited by the shepherds—but shepherds working the night shift were not high on the social scale in those days and most likely, their story about the night would have been written off as coming from the empty wine skins.

Eventually, the crowd of people in Bethlehem moves along and places open up. They move to a house, which is where they are visited by the wise men. We actually don’t know how many there were—the number three probably developed because that was the number of gifts. But as anyone who has ever attended a baby shower knows, there is a lot of duplication of gifts and so a simple recounting of how many types of gifts can’t really be used to tell how many people attended.

We aren’t even sure how long after the birth this visit actually was. Herod, in his attempt to discourage a potential rival, kills all the male babies under two years old, which suggests a long stay in the town after the birth. Travelling was difficult in those days and I expect that Joseph found work rather than try travelling with a new born.

None of that takes away from the story but it does make the traditional Nativity scene inaccurate. The traditional gathering of all the characters is a powerful symbol of the events that are so important but it is only a symbol, making use of compression and artistic licence to capture a significant event in an inaccurate but effective way.

I like the idea of everyone being there at the same time even while I know it didn’t happen that way. Symbolically, the traditional scene expressed the universality of Christ. He brings together the socially outcaste shepherds, the cultural outsider astrologers, the new parents and their child. And that bringing together of the diverse and the outcasts is a powerful part of the Christian message—there is room for everyone. We all have a place.

I suspect that we could create a manger scene with another character or two—unknown visitors who represent each of us. We weren’t actually there but since the birth affects us and we are involved in the ongoing worship of the risen Christ, we have as much right there as the wise men.

May the peace of God be with you.

I AM NOT A PSYCHOPATH

Since much of my work in the “office” involves writing using the computer, it isn’t surprising that a lot of my mini-breaks also involve the computer. Sometimes, the break involves a game of solitaire while my brain finalizes the second point of the sermon to the point where I can type it out. Now and then, when I need a longer break, the home page on my browser contains a never-ending buffer of stories, articles and pictures.

During a break the other day, I clicked on an article suggesting that people who do a certain thing might be a psychopath. The article suggested that people who drink their coffee black and who make a point of letting people they drink it black just might be psychopaths. From the day I began seriously drinking coffee, I have drunk it black with no sugar. I have also been known to proclaim that if God meant us to have milk and sugar in coffee, he would have created milk and sugar trees linked to the coffee trees. So, obviously I am a psychopath.

I wasn’t actually ready to accept that diagnosis, especially since I have some background in psychology and have done almost every psychological test invented at some point and never had even a small indication of psychopathology show up. But rather than simply click out of the article, I kept going. Way down near the end of the article, the author indicated that the black coffee thing was only one out of many many other things that were found to be correlated with the issue and the correlation with black coffee was actually fairly small.

So, instead of saying if you drink black coffee, you might be a psychopath, the article would have been much more honest to suggest that a very small percentage of people who drink black coffee have a chance of being a psychopath, which is pretty much the same as saying that a small percentage of any identified group of people might be psychopaths. But such truthful but vague statements don’t entice people to click and therefore don’t increase the views of the page, which I suppose puts up advertising rates.

The article does illustrate perfectly a dangerous and all too common human reality. We have a tendency to categorize and define people on the basis of one or two obvious characteristics or qualities, which may or may not actually have anything to do with the reality of that person.

So, for example, it isn’t hard to find someone telling us that all Muslims are terrorists and all evangelicals are republican. All illegal immigrants are criminals. All politicians are liars. All car salespeople are crooked and dishonest. The list goes on and on—and is as misleading and wrong as calling black coffee drinkers psychopaths. But we all do this.

There is an antidote to this kind of thinking. Rather than define people by one or two almost incidental traits, we get to know people. We move beyond the identified marker and we discover the real person. Occasionally, we are going to have our initial assessment proven right—but in general, we are going to find that behind the biased and ignorant assumption, there is a real person, a person with whom we can have a great relationship and even deep friendship.

But that takes both effort and courage. It takes courage to break out of our carefully defined boxes and embrace what is different or unknown or too quickly defined. And then, because the person we have categorized has likely been the victim of fast and mindless categorization before, it takes effort to develop the kind of relationship that allows each of us to get to know the other. It is much easier and simpler in the end to watch for the one or two defined markers and place the person in the appropriate box.

But most of the time, the markers don’t tell us what we think they tell us and the boxes we use don’t really work for us or the other. I drink black coffee—but I am actually not a psychopath. I am an evangelical Christian but I am not a republican—actually, I am not even American. Maybe, if we sit down and have a coffee, we can actually see beyond the preconceptions and get to really know each other. By the way, I take my coffee black, the way God meant it to be drunk.

May the peace of God be with you.

I’M NOT THAT BUSY

I was sitting in the doctor’s office to get the results of some tests. I had also decided to ask him about the fatigue that had been plaguing me recently. It might have been related to the tests that I was getting the results from but it could have been from something else. It was getting so bad that I felt tired all the time and needed to sit for only a couple of minutes before I was falling asleep. Given that one of my relaxing pastimes is sitting reading, the fatigue was seriously cutting into my reading. I enjoy a nap as much or more than the next guy but when I fall asleep three or four times when trying to read for an hour or so, that is getting a bit much.

So, the test results were sort of wishy-washy, suggesting that maybe I did or maybe I didn’t have a problem associated with the tests. But the results did suggest that the extreme fatigue likely came from other sources, which my doctor decided to check out through a set of other tests. But he also asked me about how busy I was.

That was an easy answer, of course. I am a part time pastor and I work 40% time at two different places. That means I work an 80% job, which isn’t all that bad and should be easily accomplished by a 66 year old reasonably healthy male. My doctor, who is also a friend and who therefore knows me as more than just a medical file reframed his question—he wasn’t asking how much I worked, he wanted to know how busy I actually was.

Well, I am 80% at official work. I also mentor a theology student. I do a bit of counselling. I spend some time writing. I occasionally do some “consulting” with other congregations and pastors—the quotation marks are because I think real consultants get paid and I don’t take money for the meetings I have. The more I listed stuff, the more the doctor nodded.

Just as he was beginning to suggest that I was actually quite busy, I realized that I might only work for pay 80% time but I actually am doing a lot—and the unpaid time and effort adds up—I am probably well over 100% if I were really honest and accurate. I think I had allowed myself to fall into the mindset that unpaid stuff was not really work and therefore shouldn’t actually count when it came to counting work/leisure hours.

I have long had this vision of myself as a sort of laid back, slightly lazy guy who gets things done but who manages to take it easy a good deal of the time. Well, that vision evaporated quickly under the harsh lights of my reality. I am actually quite busy, busier than I let myself realize. Most of what I do, I like and I do it because I think it is valuable and important.

But during that visit to the doctor, I realized that I am going to have to make some changes to deal with the realities I live with now. The doctor is making sure that there is no serious underlying medical issue—I gave up enough blood to the technicians to ensure everything is tested and checked.

But even without the results of those tests, it is clear that I need to make some adjustments in my life style. I need to make some different choices that take into account the reality that I am 66 not 26 and the energy I need to do all that I want to do isn’t as easy to come by as it was 40 years ago. I am making some adjustments to my sleep patterns. I am looking carefully at all the things I am doing, seeking to cut down the work load a bit—realizing that unpaid isn’t the same as not working helps out here. I want to get to the point where I can actually read for an hour or so without falling asleep. I want to be able to nap but I want the nap time to be my choice, not something that I have no control over.

I think the new sleep pattern is working and I am pretty sure there isn’t much going on beyond the fact that I need to relearn my limits.

May the peace of God be with you.

ANOTHER BEGINNING

Another September with its new beginnings. This September begins with a new sermon series, requested by the church as part of our on-going self-study. We will spend a good part of the fall season looking at the mission of the church in general and our church in specific. I have already prepared and distributed the survey to evaluate the changes we have made in our approach to worship. They will clutter my briefcase for a few days (weeks?) until I find time to look them over. We have a special musical event coming up, which I don’t have to do too much for given my low level musical abilities. We have a sort of a plan for Advent that I need to pull together sometime before the Advent season. We might be a small church but we have a lot going on—and remember, that I serve two different collections of churches and so I have another whole different set of start up stuff going on there.

So, I begin this new church year with excitement and some anticipation of interesting things coming. Having the process going on in two places means that I have lots of excitement and positive anticipation to carry me through the church year. Except that I am also noticing something else. Underneath the excitement and anticipation is a fatigue. I am tired. I had a vacation in the summer and I purposely took compensatory time off over the summer—but I am still tired.

I am not tired enough to warrant sick leave—but I am tired enough that the food bank contributions from Sunday might sit in the car until tomorrow before I deliver them. I am not tired enough that I will mess up the new sermon series but I am tired enough that preparing any given sermon might take longer than it used to. I am not tired enough that I will require Bible study to be cancelled but I am tired enough that I will probably need a longer break (nap) after the study.

At some points in my ministry career, I would be worried that this fatigue was the first hint of a coming depression. And while I openly admit that is always a possibility, I don’t think that is the case right now. The fatigue could be a sign of some physical problem developing. I am going to get that checked out but since I have had regular tests and medical consults, I don’t think there is a serious medical reason for the tiredness.

I think that in the end, I am beginning this new church year with a sense fatigue simply because I have accumulated enough years that my energy levels aren’t what they used to be. I am getting old. I passed official retirement age recently but haven’t reached my personal compulsory retirement age. But I am definitely not a fresh out of school pastor, young and brimming with energy, ready to do a youth camping trip, a deacons’ meeting and write a sermon at the same time.

I am recognizing that I have new limits which require new ways of doing things. I can’t push myself as much as I used to. I can’t caffeinate my way through fatigue. I can’t run and not be weary—actually, because of my failing knees, I can’t really run and walking any distance requires a walking stick or cane. When I get done both Sunday worship services, I am probably not going to wish I was invited to be guest speaker at an evening service—I am much more likely to hope I can stay awake until after the evening news.

This is my reality. I like what I am doing, I think what I am doing is important and I plan on keeping doing it. But I also recognize the fatigue that has come from doing what I am doing for more years than I want to count. For now, I can manage the fatigue: naps, taking regular time off, getting proper exercise and sleep, eating well and so on are all part of the self-care process that I follow.

So, I start this new church year with excitement and anticipation tempered with the reality that while I care for the churches I have been called to, I also need to care for myself.

May the peace of God be with you.

HONESTLY

We were discussing a possible addition to our church’s official board. One possibility was mentioned. Since I was relatively new and didn’t really know people, I let the others carry the discussion. In the course of the conversation, one of the people suggested that we not include that person because they had two personal habits that might cause problems: they liked to gossip and liked even more “telling more than they knew.” I suspect these days, they might have been described as purveyors of fake news.

I do have to be careful here. I am a preacher—and preachers make a lot of use of stories. I confess to tailoring my stories to some degree. Sometimes, details need to be obscured so no one recognizes the people involved—because most of my ministry has happened in a limited geographical area that is a big consideration. Sometimes, though, I edit the story to make it fit better with the sermon theme or to make me look a bit less inept or stupid. There is truth in the story as presented but how much depends on the sermon needs and how much sleep I had.

There have always been issues with personal honesty, even within the church. People make claims that are blatantly false to anyone in the know and go on to defend those claims vigorously, even to the point of attacking those who disagree. I like to think that some of the people doing this sort of thing aren’t actually lying—they are just mistaken and because of their personality, they need to defend what they believe it right.

But there are others whom I am pretty sure know what they are saying is wrong and keep saying it and defending it because doing so advances them. They might gain power, followers, notoriety, money or some other benefit. When the person doing this is an advertiser or a politician, I can almost understand the dishonesty. They are getting paid to be dishonest and most of us don’t actually believe what they say anyway.

When it is a member of the faith doing this, whether pastor or layperson, I tend to be more upset and even angry. Honesty is one of the basic requirements of an ethical and faithful life. If we can’t trust a person to be honest about one area of their life, how can we trust them to be honest about their claims about their faith?

But the painful truth is that our whole culture suffers when people are knowingly dishonest. No matter what the purpose of the lie, it undermines the basic trust that a culture depends on. When a culture allows whole groups of people to lie with impunity, it allows itself to drift into a state where anything goes. Soon, we come to the place where we prefer the lies to the truth. We want to be lied to, since the lies are generally prettier and more comforting than the truth. We might know that it is a lie, but it is a nice lie and we begin to prefer the lie to the truth.

When people who speak the truth become the targets of anger and even persecution; when those who knowing lie are seen as heroes; when right becomes an inconvenience to be hidden behind a more convenient lie, we are all in trouble. The lie works in the short term, but eventually, the sea will rise, the air will choke us, the economy will collapse, the preacher will be caught in immorality, the victim will demand revenge, the pyramid scheme will collapse, the partisan manoeuvring will be seen for what it is.

While more painful and difficulty, honesty does work better. The Truth is not just one of the foundations of the Christian faith—it is also a foundation of a healthy culture. Unfortunately, our western culture seems to have abandoned both the Truth and truth itself, preferring the temporary comfort of the lie and the liar. We are paying for this, we will pay even more for it. The price we pay and will pay isn’t worth it.

When liars become our leaders and when lies become our vision, we are doomed. Whether it is the church, the club, the local council, or the nation, when we build on lies, we are building on sand and what we build will collapse. As cliché as it might sound, long term, honesty is the best policy.

May the peace of God be with you.

ANONYMOUS AGAIN

Many years ago, I was approached by a friend to serve on a committee. Committees involve meetings and since meetings are something I try to avoid as much as possible, I didn’t (and don’t) do committees all that much. My friend knew all that but still wanted to nominate me for the committee. He explained his reason for asking me.

The committee was dealing with some significant issues in our denominational life, issues that I and many others, including my friend, were concerned about. He felt that the views we held needed to be expressed and he believed that I was the person to express them on the committee because I said what I thought clearly and openly and wasn’t intimidated by disagreement.

Over the years, I have developed a reputation as one who sometimes (often? too often?) speaks the unpopular view. I have a tendency to see things differently at times and in the right circumstances, am willing to speak out. Early in my ministry career, I confess to speaking out often and loudly. These days, I still think a lot but tend to speak less often and less loudly. I let a lot of stuff pass by—I might have some thoughts and even some disagreement but I am not really interested in putting out the effort to comment or engage.

However, when I chose to engage, I am always going to do it openly and clearly. When I disagree with something or someone, I will make it clear that I disagree. I am not going to hide behind someone else; I am not going to use an anonymous web name; I am not going to become a “they” whispering around the edges. I will speak in my own voice, with my name openly and clearly attached. If need be, I will even put it in writing, clearly accepting responsibility for what I am saying.

I am aware that this puts me at odds with a major trend in our society. Thanks to the proliferation of social media, a great many people get to make a great many comments about a great many things without ever having to take any responsibility whatsoever. It is incredibly easy to comment when you can become anonymous commentator 219. People now have an powerful outlet for the hate, the anger, the vitriol, the mindless, the pointless, the ignorance that at one point might have been put in an anonymous letter but which more likely rarely if ever saw the light of day in another age.

But today, anyone can say anything, safe and secure behind the barrier of their keyboard and screen name. As Randy Legassie, I am responsible for what I write and say. But as anonymous commentator 219, I am no longer responsible—I am anonymous and cannot be held responsible for what I have said or written.

Obviously, some people find that incredibly liberating and freeing. But in the end, freedom without responsibility is never a good thing. Freedom without responsibility tends to being out the worst in people. We become rude, nasty, biased, prejudiced and just plain not nice. I gave up reading comment threads on websites a long time ago simply because they very quickly degenerated into the kind of interchange I used to require my kids to take a time out for engaging in.

There have been times in my ministry when my comments and opinions have cost me. I have been fired, passed over and ignored. It would have been much easier to be anonymous—I might not have suffered as much. But in becoming anonymous, I would have suffered even more because I would have stopped being me. I would have lost some essential part of who I am. My ideas might have been expressed but I wouldn’t really be there—I would be hiding behind some convenient shelter.

That may work for some—and I can even envision a few scenarios where in might be the appropriate way to proceed. Those scenarios, however, tend to involve bullets, death squads and unjust imprisonment. Most of the time, though, well, hiding behind anything or anyone really doesn’t cut it for me. If I am going to say it, I am going to say it knowing that I will be held responsible for what I am saying.

May the peace of God be with you.

ANONYMOUS

I am not particularly surprised by what the guy in my office is saying. He and I have disagreed on many aspects of my ministry since I began working for the church. He doesn’t like some of what I am preaching and teaching. But the reason for this particular visit grows out of a complicated situation that I have been providing pastoral care for. He doesn’t know the whole story and feels he should. Furthermore, he says, there are a lot of people in the church who feel the same way. “They” are saying that I am a problem and that I am going to cause serious harm to the church. “They” are talking to him because he stands for right and I don’t.

I have always had a very strong response to anonymous reports. On the one hand, I do like knowing what “they” are saying. Any organization, including the church, has a background level of discontent that generally doesn’t often become serious enough that people feel obligated to take a stand but it serious enough that they talk about it, as long as “they” don’t have to become identified with the talk. Part of my pastoral responsibility to the church is being aware of this background discontent. That generally only happens when someone tells me what “they” are saying. Sometimes, people tell me what “they” are saying as a favour because I need to know and sometimes, as in this particular situation, because the person speaking somehow hopes that what “they” are saying will reinforce their comments. Whatever the reason, I think it is good for me as pastor to know what “they” are saying.

However, I am also very aware of the reality that whatever “they” are saying isn’t important enough for them to take any real risk. “They” generally want to be able to complain without dealing with the responsibility that comes from taking a stand. Comments like this may sound serious and may even have a serious base but in truth, when “they” lack the conviction or courage to make their comments openly, I have difficulty taking them seriously and even more difficulty basing my actions on what “they” are saying.

I am aware that there are some times when being anonymous is necessary to protect the life of someone. I can understand that and approve of that. But in general, anonymous comments, no matter how strong or how pointed or how serious don’t overly affect my decisions. If I hear that “they” are upset by the new tie that my daughter gave me for my birthday, I am not going to stop wearing it.

So, back to the session we began this post with. When the guy told me that there were others who agreed with him and that “they” were equally upset with me, I responded in the way I learned a long time ago. I told him that I don’t respond to anonymous comments made by “they”. If “they” had something they think I needed to hear, “they” needed to come to me personally. If and when “they” came to see me, we could and would talk about their concerns openly and directly. But until then, I would listen to his complaints and respond directly to his concerns but I would neither listen to nor respond to any comments from the anonymous “they”, no matter how many of them he claimed there were.

Eventually, “they” showed up in my office. “They” consisted of this guy’s wife, who had already made it clear that she agreed with her husband. There were no other “theys”, or at least there were no other “theys” concerned enough to take a public stand. And if “they” were not willing to stand openly for what they were saying, I have no obligation to take them seriously.

Being anonymous allows too many people to say too much too often without having to be responsible. Hiding behind anything or anyone means that I don’t really have much invested in my stance—I have courage enough to say it anonymously but not enough courage to say it in my openly. But if I am not willing to say it openly, how committed can I really be to what I am thinking and saying?

May the peace of God be with you.

BE ANGRY—AND DON’T SIN

I have always had a problem dealing with my anger. Now, if anger were an infrequent and uncommon emotional response in my life, I wouldn’t have as big a problem dealing with it. An emotional response I have once on a blue moon is much easier to handle than one that happens all the time and where one episode impinges on another. But I get angry a lot—my emotional response to a lot of issues involves anger.

I get angry when someone cuts me off in traffic—and I get angry when I cut someone off in traffic. I get angry when religious leaders abuse their position and harm others. I get angry when self-serving politicians lie and cheat. I get angry when children starve while over-weight people don’t care. I get angry when I get hurt. I get angry when I can’t find the advertised sale item that I have gone to buy. I get angry when I am not as prepared for worship as I want to be. I get angry when the hero in the movie gets cheated and beaten up by the bad guys.

Now, before you get the idea that I am a seething ball of anger who is going to snap and so something that will make the national news, let me state very quickly that my anger is a normal reaction in most of those situations. Anger is a natural and normal emotional response, one that all of us experience. Most anger is a momentary experience that we move on from, like most emotional responses.

When I see a beautiful sunset, I feel a sense of joy, which I move on from to other emotional responses. When a driver cuts me off, I get angry—and then I move on from that anger to something else on the drive. Joy, happiness, anger—they are all equally valid emotional responses that all of us have all the time.

But anger has a way of getting out of balance, probably because we don’t really know how to deal with it. Anger is a heavy and even scary emotion and we have generally been trained to avoid it in ourselves and others. Being angry has often been equated to being bad and sinful and wrong.

But anger isn’t bad or sinful or wrong. Some of the consequences of anger can be bad or sinful or wrong but the anger itself is simply one of the many emotional responses that God created us to experience. What we need to learn is how to better process our anger.

Ultimately, we are angry in response to something. And I have realized that the key to handling to my anger is discovering what it is that has produced the anger response and dealing what that. When I am angry, I need to look at what created the anger. I deal with the anger by dealing with the context that produced the anger.

So, a driver cuts me off and I get angry. My anger is a result of my fear about what could have happened and the lack of respect the other driver showed. I can nurse and feed my anger or I can recognize and accept the fear and hurt and concentrate on driving defensively so I can be ready when someone does that again.

Or, my employer treats me unfairly, maybe even fires me. I get angry because I have been treated unfairly and fired. I can nurse and feed my anger or I can think of a constructive way to deal with the situation: by filing a complaint with the appropriate body, taking legal action, finding another job or making a conscious decision to move on. All of these can be appropriate responses to the anger producing situation.

In effect, I have discovered that the best way to deal with my anger is to discover and deal with the cause of the anger. Anger is an emotional response to something, a marker to show me that something is having a negative effect on me. When I follow the anger to its source, I have something clear to deal with. Dealing with the source can be difficult but it is much better than letting the anger fester and take over my life. I would much rather use my anger as a way to improve things than let it rule my life.

May the peace of God be with you.

YOU, ME AND JESUS

When I was starting out in the Christian faith and becoming involved in youth rallies and programs, we were introduced to a simple understanding of the way to really live life. We were taught JOY—the way of life was Jesus first, Others second, Yourself third. Some religious supply company or organization even produced a banner that was quite popular among many more conservative Christian groups—I think I had one that I carried around and posted prominently where ever my theological student wanderings took me.

The JOY idea is one of those religious catch phrases that sounds really good and is simple enough that anyone can understand it—and it has the added benefit of providing the perfect three-point outline for a sermon. It works on many levels, which is probably why it became something of a fad among some people for a time. It was also the perfect counter to the open self-centeredness that was becoming a significant part of our culture at the time.

But no matter how many levels it works on, it is a flawed statement. The theology is wrong and the approach to life it fostered was wrong. In many ways, it was a disguised version of the same old selfishness that plagued humanity from the beginning. In one of the perverse twists of apparent reality, putting ourselves last amounted to taking pride in our humility and our ability to take the last place. Following JOY, we all strove to be the least important, which ultimately meant that we are all pretty sure we were really important and therefore had to work hard to present ourselves as unimportant. Selfishness disguised as unselfishness is still selfishness.

The JOY approach did capture one basic truth—that the way to overcome selfishness is to put Jesus first. I suspect that the developers of that idea were not delving deeply into that part of the theology and psychology of the concept—they seem to have been more concerned with having us submit or defer to others.

Theologically, we human seem to have a built in need to serve something or someone. Sometimes, we serve ourselves; sometimes we serve something that benefits us; sometimes we get caught in something that ultimately harms us—but we all seem to need something beyond ourselves to follow and even serve. This gets confused and wrapped up in our selfishness and it sometimes becomes really difficult to determine where we end and the thing we serve begins.

Jesus, however, shows us a way to serve in a way that helps us deal with our selfishness without pretending we are less selfish that we really are. Mostly, he does that by example. Jesus never claimed to be the least of the least; he never developed a sense of false and sick humility. He was the son of God. He was God in human form. He had power and authority and was sinless and perfect and all that.

He was well aware of his place in the universe—all humanity depended on him and his decisions. He put humanity before himself in the sense that he gave up what was rightfully his; he accepted limits and limitations that he didn’t need to accept; he put up with stuff that he could have easily avoided—and all the while, he was aware of the fact that he was divine, powerful and didn’t have to do what he was doing.

He chose to do it as part of his commitment to the divine will. Jesus the son was serving God with his full being. He gave himself to God and for humanity, knowing exactly who and what he was and just how important he was. He was self-aware but not selfish.

That, I think, becomes the goal for us as his followers. We seek this sense of self-awareness of who and what we are and who and what we can be through Christ. Rather than trying to make ourselves unimportant, we can and should recognize the importance we have in God’s eyes. We are valuable to God; we are worth something to him; Jesus was willing to both die for us and rise to life for us.

My awareness of who I am because of God through Jesus allows me to commit to him—and gives me a way to overcome the selfishness that is at the root of all the evil in life. As believers, we are to develop self-awareness of our place with God.

May the peace of God be with you.