YEAR END REVIEWS

One of my Christmas gifts every year for the past few years is a subscription to a science magazine.  I think it was a desperation gift when our son first gave it but it was and is a deeply appreciated part of my Christmas and the rest of the year.  And, because of the way magazines get published, I had the January issue in early December.

I look forward to that issue because it summarizes the top scientific stories and issues for the past year.  When I read through the issue, I am reminded of some things I knew of, I discover some things that I didn’t hear about and I end up feeling like I know something more than before I read the magazine.

And the magazine publishers are not alone–almost everyone does a year end review.  News programs review the top stories; various musical styles do their top 100 for the year; movies get rated  from best to worst–everyone seems to want to review the year.

So, I sometimes think I should review my year–but what should I include in the review?  What parts of my life do I want to look over and rate?  I suppose I could do a top ten sermons list–but truthfully, when I finish a sermon, I am pretty much done with it, except for the occasional discussion that it sparks at the following week’s Bible study.  Going back and re-reading them to rate them isn’t all that appealing to me.

I do have to do something of a work review for the churchs’ annual meetings but that tends to be a statistical report with some ideas and suggestions and is sometimes hard to do because a lot of what I do in the church is in process and can’t really be measured or evaluated on a chronological basis.

I could do some personal review but that sometimes takes on a negative slant:  the weight I didn’t lose, the bike rides I didn’t  take; the people I didn’t get to spend time with; the books that are still waiting to be read.  The things I accomplished, well, sometimes they don’t seem all that significant–the naps I really needed to take or the coffee I really wanted to drink or the hour of YouTube that I couldn’t pass up.

I decided a while ago that my life and my work don’t actually lend themselves to an annual evaluation.   I believe in and practice self and professional evaluation but have realized that the process works a lot better if I allow the evaluation to fit into the natural and intrinsic patterns and cycles of whatever I am evaluating.

My personal life doesn’t cycle around the January date.  My professional life doesn’t fit the New Year evaluation pattern.  Trying to do a year end review or a best of the year process ends up being frustrating and somewhat pointless.   My professional cycle, for example, actually runs from September to May, with a short and needed break at the end of December.  It makes much more sense to do work evaluations in June or July than it does in December.

Likewise, my personal life follows a cycle that is intertwined with my professional life, the seasons and when the next Star Wars or Star Trek movie will come out.  Most of those cycles don’t lend themselves well to a December 31 evaluation process.  They can be evaluated and some of them need to be evaluated but evaluating them based on the cycles they follow is better and more effective.

So, I am going to anticipate and enjoy the science magazine’s year in review.  I might listen to some of the top 100 music of the past year.  I will summarize the past year for the church annual report.  I will try to avoid looking too closely at the bathroom scales report on my after Christmas personal expansion.  But I won’t do a year end review and best of report.  I won’t make resolutions to do things better next year.

I will evaluate and plan and make changes as they are appropriate and necessary and fit in the patterns and cycles of my life because that works better for me than using an artificial and arbitrary date as a reason for evaluation and review.

May the peace of God be with you.

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COMPARATIVE SUFFERING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

HAVING IT ALL

Unlike many people I know in  the more conservative part of the Christian faith that I affiliate with, I am not at all interested in an annual ritual.  This time of the year, it is not unusual for people to point out some cultural trend and use it as a symbol of the continual secular conspiracy to take Christ out of Christmas.  The obvious antidote it to work hard to put Christ back in Christmas.  There will be sermons, Christmas newsletters, social media rants and on and one telling us that we need to do this.

Early in my ministry, I was one of the people trying to put Christ back in Christmas.  As time passed and I learned more about Christmas traditions, Christian  history and theology and the reality of North American demographics, I became less and less vocal about the need to put Christ back into Christmas.  I began to realize that there are some people for whom the whole Christmas scene is depressing.  There are others who don’t celebrate Christmas for a variety of reasons.  And increasingly, there are many whose cultural background doesn’t have a Christian component.  As I learned things like this and realized some of the implications of these realities, I spoke less and less about putting Christ back into Christmas.

And eventually, I began to think that maybe we as believers just might be better off if we actively worked at taking Christ out of Christmas.  What we call Christmas is really nothing more than a huge cultural event sponsored primarily by commercial enterprises.  The glossy veneer of Christianity that gets plastered over the whole mess is actually demeaning to our faith.  Do we actually want the name of Christ associated with the riots that happen in shopping malls on Black Friday, which somehow marks the official beginning of Christmas shipping?

It is probably time for us to realize that there are two events going one here:  the cultural festival that sort of grew out of a Christian celebration and the Christian remembrance of the birth of Jesus.  The events were once related but in truth, the only real connection these days is the fact that both happen at the same time.  They may have once been closely related but today, the connection is slim and tenuous and is an actual problem for those trying to really focus on the love and grace of God shown in the Incarnation.

Since we can’t put Christ back in Christmas–our culture has gone far beyond that–we might well be better off to take Christ completely out of Christmas.  Let culture have the holiday.  As Christians, we can live with “Season’s Greetings” and “Happy Holidays”.  The faith can survive when schools have “Winter Concerts”.  Holiday shopping can happen without Joy to the World in the background.

I suggest that we as believers accept the inevitable–this season has been effectively severed from  its tenuous Christian roots.  Great–that means we can actually focus on the remembrance of the birth in our terms in our worship and private devotions.  We don’t need to force our culture to celebrate the birth of Christ.  We do need to give witness to the love and grace of God shown in the risen and living Christ, something that gets harder and harder to do when we are fighting our culture for a season that we are never going to get back.

I would suggest that we treat the cultural celebrations as we treat all the rest of our culture.  We can take part as responsible believers who are attempting to live and show the reality of our faith in all situations. As believers, we can and should use our faith as a guide to our celebrations, seeking the Spirit’s leading on things like how much to spend on what for who.  We probably avoid rioting at the shopping mall when  the must-have toy is no longer in stock–and maybe in the spirit of turn the other cheek, we give the one we manage to snag to someone else.

We can’t put Christ back in Christmas, at least not like we thought we could.  But we can put Christianity in the seasonal celebration.  It takes some thought and some work and some changes, all of which the Holy Spirit will help us with but we can have the celebration of Christ and the cultural festival without one having to win over the other.

May the peace of God be with you.

A SCIENTIST?

I was watching a TV show recently where a couple of characters were having an argument.   One, a pastor, was telling the other, a budding scientist, that the scientists needed to believe in God.  The budding scientist said he didn’t need God because he had science.  That interchange pretty much summed up a dichotomy I see a lot of these days.  It seems that a lot of people believe that you can have faith or you can have science but you can’t have both.  Those who believe in faith and God built their fortress of faith and those who believe in science build their fortress of faith and they sit in their forts and take shots at each other.

I personally don’t really want to be in either fort.  I prefer being on the outside of both forts–not because I am against both faith and science.  No, I don’t want to be in either fort because I want to be free to make use of both or criticize both, depending on the realities of life that I deal with outside of the sacred walls of the competing fortresses.  In short, I want to be a person of deep faith and a scientist.

Well, maybe not a full-fledged scientist–that boat sailed without me mostly because of my somewhat less that spectacular math skills.  Maybe I should call myself a science wannabe or science groupie or closet nerd.  But I am also a person of faith–even more, a person whose calling and profession and desire is to help other people both discover and develop their faith.  I want it all.

I especially want both sides to stop the war. Just because I am a believer doesn’t mean  I refuse to accept global warming.  It doesn’t mean that I think the world is 6000 years old.  It doesn’t mean that I will accept any claim any faith charlatan  makes to try and part me from some of my money.  It doesn’t mean that I am vaguely afraid of technology because I see hints of Revelation style demonic conspiracy in chip technology.

Just because I am a believer, I don’t think that scientists are agents of satan.  I don’t see attempts to understand the wonder of creation at attempts to get rid of God.  I don’t see men and women in lab coats as my rivals for the hearts and minds of people. I don’t think scientists want to prove that my faith is dumb, pointless and the result of genetic anomalies in my brain.

We of faith and the scientific community have a lot we need to say to each other.  We probably need to apologize to each other for all the stupidity and pettiness and prejudice we have used against each other in the last few years.  We probably need to drink a lot more coffee and tea together to get to really know each other. (Sorry, science people–many conservative believers won’t be comfortable having a beer or glass of wine with you).  We probably need to spend a lot of time actually reading what the other is using to base their ideas on instead of basing our relationships on hearsay and innuendo and what someone thinks someone else said.

We need to accept that both people of faith and people of science are people first and actually need each other.  When I get sick, I want the best of science to treat my illness.  And when a scientist gets sick, I am pretty sure I have some faith stuff that will help that scientist deal with the realities of that illness.

As is always the case when we set up opposing sides and start fighting, we miss the point.  The war between science and faith exists in our minds, not in reality.  God is not diminished when a scientists discovers the earth is several billion years old and science is not diminished when a believer says that God created the earth.  We could both help each other a lot to sit down and really look at what we are saying and discover that we have a lot more in common that we sometimes want to admit.

I am a person of faith–but as much as my poor math skills allow, I am a person of science.  I not only like both, I need both to make my life complete.

May the peace of God be with you.

I DO BELIEVE

I love to ask questions and that love of asking questions extends deeply into my faith life.  Because I am a pastor and occasional teacher of pastors in training, my desire to ask deep and troubling questions about my faith and accepted faith traditions ends up being a blessing and a curse.  And the blessing and curse are so close that sometimes the same question can produce both at the same time.  Someone will find the question liberating and opens up new avenues for their faith development, which is always a blessing.

But others in the same context will react in a totally different way.  They will see the question and the subsequent discussion as a problem at best and a sign of heresy at the worst–and some can and will go on to question the reality of my faith.  I have to confess that even after having been at this process for over 40 years, when my commitment to God through Christ is questioned in this way, I am both hurt and angry.  I have learned a few things about dealing with this sort of thing over the years, which has been helpful.

In the early stages of my ministry (and faith), my temptation was to both defend my faith and attack the person who questioned my faith.  They were obviously wrong, both on the topic we were discussing and about my faith.  My two-pronged response provoked lots of heat and anger and tension and little else.  I went away seething and filled with lots of not nice thoughts while the person who questioned my faith generally left with even more evidence that my faith was at least lacking and likely non-existent.

But while the simultaneous defend and attack strategy sounds good, it really isn’t an effective one–and for a pastor seeking to help people grow in faith, it is an absolute disaster.  When the pastor attacks church people, it is a betrayal of everything we are supposed to stand for.  Instead of being the shepherd to the flock, we are now the predator attacking them.  The rest of the church tends to respond:  some align with the pastor, some with the other person involved and many others settle in to wait for the next pastor, who they know will be coming within the foreseeable future because of the mess stirred up.

I never seriously looked at the option of not asking questions.  That would be such a denial of who I am that it was never a viable solution.  But I did learn to ask the questions differently.  I present them as questions that I and others struggle with.  I sometimes skip a question when I know or suspect that it will be too much for some people.  I might present a milder version of the question.  I try to help people see that asking the question isn’t a direct threat to them and their faith–and as their pastor, I am going to help them deal with the question and its consequences in as caring a way as I can.

But in the end, I am probably going to ask the question.  And even with all the safeguards in place and all the preparation and all the attempts to make it as unthreatening as possible, someone at some point is going to get really upset and question the reality of my faith.  They may do it hesitantly; they may be afraid to do it; they may be very angry and confrontational.  But someone will do it at some point.

It will hurt, I will be angry.  But I know that it will come and I have learned that I can survive the accusation.  I no longer feel the need to defend my faith.  I believe.  Sure, my faith isn’t perfect, it has weak spots, it may verge on heresy at times–but I believe.  I have given myself to God through Jesus.  That is a reality, a basic foundational fact of my life.

Others can question the reality of that commitment–but I know that it is real and I can and do see the evidence of my commitment in the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life.  And so, when my faith is questioned, I am aware of the hurt and anger–but I can also deal with the real issue, which is helping the person deal with their reaction to the question that started things in the first place.  I can roll up my pastoral sleeves and shepherd the flock I have been called to.

May the peace of God be with you.

IT DOESN’T SAY THAT

I am teaching in a Kenyan classroom.  It is a class in  pastoral ministry and we are looking at how we as pastors try to help the people God has called us to shepherd.  The discussion turns to working with alcoholics.  This isn’t an  accident or coincidence. Based on my experience in Kenya and my knowledge of the church, I specifically direct the discussion to this topic–I have a pretty good idea what will be coming and have decided that this is the day we will deal with an important issue.

Before too long, the issue starts to surface.  One of the students tells me that part of helping alcoholics involves preaching about it.  I agree–and then push a bit harder by asking about the content of such sermons.  To the students, the answer is obvious–a good anti-alcohol sermon begins with the Biblical teaching that tells us God forbids people to drink alcohol.  Then, the sermon tells them they will suffer in hell because of their alcohol use.  And then, the sermon tells them to stop drinking.

There is enough in that sermon to keep us going for years–but this particular day, I only want to focus on one facet of this discussion–the Biblical text they propose on using to tell people that God prohibits the use of alcohol.  Very quickly, I am given Proverbs 20.1 as the text–in the KJV because this is a conservative culture:  “Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise.”

Now comes the fun part.  I tell the students that this actually doesn’t tell people not to drink alcohol.  It shows some of the possible consequences of over-use but it doesn’t prohibit the use of alcohol.  Various other verses are tossed in to the mix–none of which prohibit the use of alcohol.  To stir things up a bit, I give them I Timothy 5.23, ” Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.” (NIV).

With that, the whole class is convinced that I am officially a heretic.  I have challenged one of their most basic understandings of the Bible.  Now comes the hard work–I have to become the teacher and help them understand what is really going on here.  I am not trying to get them all to go have a drink.  Rather, I am helping them see that Scripture doesn’t always say what we want it to say or assume it says or think it should say.

To discover that the Bible doesn’t say what they want it to say is traumatic and painful and difficult–but also essential.  And it is not just that class of Kenyan theology students who need to learn this lesson.  All of us who use the Bible are guilty at some point of trying to make the Bible say something that we want it to say rather than really dealing with what it does say.

When it comes to Biblical interpretation, I confess to being a serious skeptic.  I really don’t want to accept something as true just because it sounds good or reinforces some idea I have or has been passed down for generations.  I am going to try as hard as possible to find out what it actually says.  So I study the Bible–not looking for verses that confirm what I already want to be true but for what it really says.  I have discovered that it the Bible isn’t making me uncomfortable, I am probably not giving it the freedom it needs to speak its truth.

Scripture needs to speak with its own voice, not the voice we would like it to have.  Scripture must be free to give us God’s word, not reinforce our word. I am sometimes accused of not believing the Bible–I am pretty sure that several groups of Kenyan students believed that, as well as a few people in churches here in Canada.

But my problem isn’t that I don’t believe the Bible.  The real problem I deal with is that I do believe the Bible but I want to make sure that I am not trying to constrain the Bible and the Spirit by making it say what I want.  As painful and as difficult as it may be at times, I want to Bible to speak with God’s voice, not my voice.

May the peace of God be with you.

FACTS AND FIGURES

I like facts, things that can be proven with clear and understandable rationale.  When someone makes a claim, I want to see their facts.  I am not content with “Someone said…” or “I heard…”–I want verifiable facts that I can examine and study and compare with other facts and figures.  One study or one report really isn’t enough for me.

As a result, I tend to be a bit of a skeptic when it comes to a lot of the claims people make.  The latest miracle cold remedy?  Let me see the results of several double-blind studies conducted by reputable scientists and I might consider taking it.  Otherwise, I am going to rely on cough drops and warn ginger ale.  I don’t actually have studies on those but they both help me.

In many area of my life, this desire for facts and figures and verifiable studies helps me a lot.  I am not likely to take questionable medication just because someone publishes a glowing testimony.  I am not inclined to participate in a get rich quick scheme pushed by the latest charismatic financial guru.  I probably won’t buy the latest device to reduce gas consumption that has been suppressed by gas companies for years.

On the other hand, I am going to take the cholesterol lowering medication that my doctor prescribed–I have seen the studies, I know my numbers and the promised effects make scientific sense.  I am still going to get my numbers checked regularly and watch for the side effects.  I also eat a lot of fiber, since that also shows good numbers in a variety of good studies.

But there is one area of my life where this desire and love of verifiable facts and figures tends to get me in trouble.  I am a Christian and in fact have spent my working life working for and with Christians–and I have always been amazed by how few Christians share my love of facts, figures, studies and verifiable information.

One story stands out.  We were sharing in a Bible study many years ago and the talk turned to miracles.  One lady was excited to tell of a miracle she knew about.  A friend of hers was talking to someone else whose cousin’s former school classmate read of a miracle that happened to a friend of the writers’ ex-boyfriend’s pen pal.  As far as she was concerned, this was just one more example of how God still does miracles.

As she was talking, I was struggling.  As the story got  more and more involved and as the layers of distant relationships got deeper and deeper, I knew there would be a problem.  If I let it stand, my facts and figures side would gripe and complain and whine.  But if I questioned the truth of this miracle, I would be guilty of questioning the Holy Spirit, maybe even showing once again that I didn’t really have faith in God.

Well, I questioned–I mostly can’t help that.  And, according to the lady, if I can’t believe such a clear report of miracles, maybe I need to re-examine my faith. Now, I didn’t and don’t actually deny that God does miracles–I just like my miracles to be clear miracles, things that can be verified.

But the longer I am part of the faith, the more I realize that too many people think faith needs to be divorced from reality.  Any claim that a person makes needs to be treated as the gospel truth.  People like me who ask questions about the claims are mostly seen as unfaithful deniers of the truth.

But in the end, I have to be true to who I am.  And fortunately for me, God endorses my approach.  Jesus said in Matthew 7.15, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” (NIV).  The apostle John says in I John 4.1, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”  (NIV)

So, I am not going to immediately take a cold medicine because someone says it works.  I am not going to rush to invest my money because someone says they can give 300% returns.  And I am not going to blindly accept a report of God working. I am going to test them all before I commit to something I will regret or which will damage my faith.

May the peace of God be with you.

BACK TO WORK

I am now back at work after a two week vacation, which I enjoyed and appreciated.  But as the vacation was winding down, I realized something.  Normally, when I am on vacation, one of the low level background activities going on in my mind concerns whatever ministry or ministries I happen to be involved in.  In the past, I have vacationed and during the down time, I have planned courses, worked on preaching plans, thought about directions for ministry and so on.  This just sort of happened and didn’t take time and energy from the vacation–I could paddle a canoe, enjoy the lake, talk to my family and still organize a preaching plan enough so that when I actually sat down at a desk, I could remember the plan.

But this vacation, I didn’t do that.  Well,  I did give some thought to a Bible Study I am leading for the local church council later this fall during one of the times my wife was sleeping during the drive to Quebec but that was it.  I didn’t do sermon planning.  I didn’t organize the self-evaluation process some of the churches will begin in a couple of weeks.  I didn’t look at what we can do to improve our community visibility and involvement.  I didn’t even work on the new Bible study that I actually needed to have done for the first day back at work.

I would like to say that this comes from a newly discovered maturity that allows me to be on vacation when I am on vacation.  We clergy have a terrible time taking time off–we all too often treat vacation time as time to get caught up and maybe even get a bit ahead.  Of course, we all know that we are not supposed to do that.  Study after study shows that stress and its related consequences are enhanced by not taking proper time off.  We clergy struggle to relax and unwind.  Partly that is the nature of our calling–our work is never really done.  As I often told students, “You can preach the best sermon ever on Sunday–but you then have to start getting ready for next Sunday.”

Another part of the inability to really relax is our personality.  Many of us in ministry are deeply committed to serving God and therefore somewhat driven.  We believe that we have been called by God to important work and breaks, vacations and relaxation somehow seem sinful so we try to appease our conscience by working even on breaks.  I remember one book on pastoral ministry telling readers that the absolute best use of vacation time was to prepare the next year’s sermon plan.

But in spite of all of that and years of practise, I didn’t do any church work while on vacation–and didn’t even think of the churches all that much.  But I am pretty sure that it wasn’t because I have finally matured and developed wisdom and positive self-care practises.  I think that in the end, I didn’t think about or do work because I didn’t want to.

I have been involved in ministry for a long time and while I still believe I have a lot more ministry to do, I am tired.  Not physically tired and not spiritually tired–and not even emotionally tired.  I think I am vocationally tired.  Ministry is demanding and complex and difficult when done well–and I think I have reached the point where I can’t really do what I used to do.

Just like my bad knees won’t let me walk for hours a day like I used to so my ministry engines are getting worn and tired and need a real break.  It doesn’t mean that I care less about the people I minister to.  It isn’t a sign that I don’t care about my preaching any more.  It doesn’t say that I  am not concerned with the self-examination process we are beginning.  What it says to me is that I don’t have the energy I used to have and I really need to take real breaks.  When I work, I work–and when I rest, I rest.

Probably if I had started actually using vacation to rest years ago, I wouldn’t be as vocationally tired now–but at least I have learned to do it now.

May the peace of God be with you.

BACK HOME

As I mentioned in previous posts, we have been on vacation, travelling in Quebec with our daughter and son-in-law.  We had a great trip–we visited some great places, saw some really exciting things, ate some great meals and had a great time together talking and laughing and sharing.  We ate too much of the wrong things generally at the wrong time; we slept in and started the day late and finished it late.  We didn’t have internet most of the time and generally didn’t miss it.  In short, it was a great vacation.

But as we were on the final section of the drive home, the urge to drive faster and faster became stronger and stronger–fortunately, my wife, who likes cruise control, was driving at that point and therefore able to resist the urge to speed up.  When we pulled in the driveway, we were both glad to be home, even if it meant engaging in the tedious process of unpacking, putting away and picking up pieces.  We were glad to be home.

So, we were glad to be away and glad to be home.  I think it is interesting that most of us have similar reactions to vacations and being away.  Unless the reason for being away is painful or forced, we tend to like the change and distraction and difference–at least for a while.  But there seems to be a somewhat hard to define limit to the change and distraction and difference.  We need a certain amount of time–but if we have even one day longer, the whole thing changes character and becomes less exciting and less interesting and maybe even irritating.

The real difficulty, at least for me, is figuring out the optimal time for being away.  On the whole, I like where we live, I like my work, I like my surroundings.  I like my routine–schedules have a way of helping me find peace and stability.  I need breaks and trips away now and then, but they need to be breaks and not the norm.  And they need to be the right length–to short and I don’t get the break and too long begins to undercut the benefits of being away.

One of the benefits of self-knowledge is the ability to understand our own needs and take them into consideration as we deal with the details of our lives.  I have never been a great fan of the whole extreme self-denial and even self-abuse school of Christianity.  Living on 2 hours of sleep accompanied by bread and water once a week might look good in the biography of some saint or other but as a real life style, it doesn’t do much for anyone.

Knowing who I am and what works for me and allowing myself to take my needs and desires into consideration allows me to be better at being me and at doing what I need to do.  Knowing that I need several vacation periods during the year in order to be effective in my work is important.  If I try to keep going beyond my limits, denying the basic realities of who I am, I end up tired, grumpy, frustrated and increasingly ineffective in my ministry.  Extreme self-denial doesn’t make me more spiritual–in fact, it does just the opposite.

Certainly, some self-denial is good for me.  While I like chocolate, a diet of chocolate isn’t going to do me much good in the long run.  I really like coffee–but too much of that great stuff  ends up creating all sorts of problems for me.  I also enjoy eating–but too much eating tends to make my clothes tight and stretches my belt.

The issue seems to me to be finding the balance between healthy indulgence and healthy denial.  Our just completed vacation worked because it was the perfect length and the perfect amount of self-indulgence.  But now, we are back home and I can eat less, sleep properly and even exercise regularly–and even more, I am ready to get back to work with a renewed and rested spirit.  While I didn’t do anything in the way of work while I was away, I am ready to get back to it, with all sorts of idea and plans and energy.

May the peace of God be with you.

NOTHING TO SAY

During one of our times working in Kenya, I was team teaching a course for potential teachers.  Both the mission agency we worked for and the church we were working with recognized the need to develop qualified local teachers for the pastoral training school.  So, a group of pastors and other church workers were identified as possibilities and were brought together for the course.

Since the whole purpose of the course was to identify potential teachers, all the participants had to do some very practical assignments:  develop a course outline, organize a lecture schedule and teach at least one session from their prepared course.  It was during one of the practise teaching sessions that I saw another side of one of my Kenyan friends and got a perfect story for aspiring preachers and teachers all over the world.

My friend was a senior, well respected and capable church leader–but he always appeared to me to be a bit on the stiff side.  While I had seen him laugh and joke, that was only in small private groups.  In public, he was serious, sober and to a lot a people, a bit intimidating.  But during one of the practise teaching sessions, his other side came out.

The student who was practise teaching was well meaning, capable, and eventually became a very good teacher but that particular day, his anxiety or lack or caffeine or some combination of factors caused him to attempt to deliver one of the most boring and pointless teaching sessions of the whole course.  As he droned on, I was getting more and more disappointed–I had taught this student before and had been impressed by his abilities.  I was sure that he would be good but this day, he succeeded in putting at least half the class to sleep.

Except for my friend, who decided that enough was enough.  He began coughing–at first, it was a barely noticeable cough, as would be fitting in a real class.  But it began to escalate to the point where he was shaking his seat, waking up the students around him and eventually falling on the floor, causing the rest of the students and the instructors to scurry around trying to help:  getting water, opening the classroom door for fresh air, helping his sit up right.  Soon, everyone as involved, except for the student teacher, who kept right on with his lesson plan, even when it was clear that no one, not even the instructors, was listening.

My friend was fine–he was faking the coughing fit to make a point.  The point was that this student teacher wasn’t paying any attention to the class, making his efforts to teach worthless.  He wasn’t teaching a class–he was talking for the sake of talking.  The student teacher had absolutely nothing to say to the class but was determined to say it anyway.

I wonder how many sincere and searching believers have sat through the same thing Sunday after Sunday.  They gather to hear a word from the Lord, some comfort or direction from God and get nothing but pointless words from a preacher who has no connection with them or their lives.  Instead of creating a deeper relationship with God and a better grasp of their faith, the emptiness of the words becomes an irritating and pointless noise, good only as background for a nap or a good daydream.

Good teachers and good preachers must have a deep respect and love for their listeners.  That respect and love is necessary because it pushes us to discover what these respected and loved people are looking for and what the God who also loves and respects them has to say for them.  We who teach and preach stand between the people and God and in the exercise of our gifts, we seek to open them to God and interpret God’s love and grace to them.  Without a firm connection to both God and the people we are called to teach, we are wasting the people’s time, our time and God’s time.

In the end, if we feel that the message can be delivered to anyone at anytime and they have to listen, we are doing exactly what the student preacher did.  We are called to deliver specific messages from God to specific people at specific times–and if we aren’t doing that, maybe someone in the audience will fake a coughing fit to show us the error of our ways.

May the peace of God be with you.