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.

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IT SNOWED

We have had an unusually dry and warm fall here in western Nova Scotia.  Most years, the ice scraper gets dug out in early to mid October and stays busy pretty much until spring.  But this year, the temperatures have been at or near record level highs all fall.  We actually had night-time lows of 17 Celsius (mid 60s for those who don’t use celsius), meaning that the ice scraper remained lodged in the space between the back seat and the cargo area of my Jeep until well into November when I had to find it one morning.

This made great weather for our local economy.  We are heavily dependent on tourism in this area and the extended summer like weather seems to have encouraged a lot more people to travel here a lot later than normal.  It also meant that the people who provide lawn care were working longer, which may or may not have thrilled them but work is work.

But for me, well, the fall was something of a disappointment.  I really don’t like heat much and I especially don’t like heat at night when I am trying to sleep.  Mostly I cope but the extended warm weather was getting to me.  I really don’t have anything against warm weather or sunny weather except when it interferes with my sleep.  I would like a lot more rain that we have been getting but since the dryness slowed down the growth of the lawn, there was a bit of a benefit to the dryness.

So a few days ago, I was sitting in my “office”–the living room.  I was writing something, probably a sermon that wasn’t really coming together.  I was sort of aware that it was a dark and dreary morning, with rain in the forecast.  Given the number of times that rain has been forecast and failed to show up, I wasn’t expecting all that much precipitation.  It was also cold–near zero.  I actually had the heat turned on, probably for the second time this fall.

But mostly, I was fighting with the sermon that refused to come together.  The theme sounded great when I prepared the sermon plan a couple of months ago but the actual writing was hard work–I would compare it to slogging through sand with a full backpack but I have actually done that and it was easier than this sermon process.

Because I was fighting with the sermon, I wasn’t paying much attention to what was happening outside.  I normally glance out the window a lot, looking for the deer who frequent our street or the squirrels looking for acorns or to see whether the tide agrees with my tide clock or just to get a break from whatever I am writing.  But this day, the fight with the sermon was taking all my attention.

But eventually, I looked out the window and it was raining.  But even more exciting was the fact that there was snow mixed with the rain.  That was exciting and gave me a real lift.  Now, I knew that it was too warm for the snow to amount to anything.  It was just a brief flurry quickly overcome by the rain and above zero temperatures–I doubt that one flake ever made it to the ground.  But it was snow.

And that means that we can get on with the year.  I can find the snow shovel, check the supplies of salt and sand for the driveway and most importantly sleep under covers at night.  I am aware that most of the people I know, including the majority of the people in the churches I serve saw that snow as a depressing omen of things to come.  I am also aware that sometime next March, I will greet snow with a very different attitude.  But right now, seeing the snow was a bright and positive note to my day and week.  I am aware that that makes me somewhat strange but my church people all knew I was strange when they called me to be their pastor so I am not worried about that.

I like snow and cold weather.  I don’t mind shovelling snow, especially since the church gets most of it plowed and I generally don’t have more than half to 3/4 of an hour clean up.  Seeing that brief flurry gave me some optimism.  The sermon was still hard work but at least it was snowing.

May the peace of God be with you.

RANDOM NUMBERS

Because I like to read a lot of different things and pay a lot of attention to the news, I end up with a wealth of facts, figures and bits and pieces.  Sometimes, this data has a point–it ends up in  a sermon or adding another piece to some other issue I am thinking about or all by itself, it explains something else.  But more often than not, these facts and figures just sit there in my brain, occupying memory cells and often sticking in place much better than other, more important things like the name of the person I just met who would like some pastoral counselling.

There is another use for these random numbers–I get to throw them out at random intervals in conversation or I get to use them when I am a bit stuck about something to write for this blog.  So, here are some totally random numbers that I have picked up over the years.  Some I have verified, some I can’t guarantee and some may sound fishy.  Some come from reliable sources–but the sources don’t stick in my mind as much as the numbers.  Some, I have no idea where they came from but here they are:

  • There are currently an estimated 30 million slaves in the world. While the majority are in faraway places, there are a significant number in North America–think poorly paid transient agricultural workers and sex trade workers.
  • Several sources suggest there are something like 40 million refugees in the world. Refugees are people who fled their home land primarily because of armed conflict but also because of drought, famine or some other natural disaster.  There are also millions more people who had to flee their homes but because they are still in their own country, they are not counted as refugees.
  • Something like 80% of the world’s churches have less than 100 people in attendance at worship–and 50% of the world’s churches have less than 50 in worship.
  • About 2 billion people in the world suffer from hunger. They either don’t get enough food or they don’t get the right balance of food.
  • About 2 billion people in the world are overweight or obese. They get too much food or too much of the wrong kinds of food.
  • At one hospital in an urban Canadian setting, two people were diagnosed with scurvy in one year. Neither of them was poor and neither was a 17th century sailor, the more traditional victims of scurvy.
  • In the part of Canada where I live, 20% of children come from homes that are too poor to provide the kids with breakfast, meaning that the majority of schools in our area have developed breakfast programs.
  • The Bible has been and continues to be the best-selling book of all time. My admittedly biased observation is that is also the most unread book of all time.
  • A conservative estimate suggests that 20% of males and 40% of females have been sexually abused before they reached adulthood.
  • Something like 75-80% of the North American population suffers from anxiety or depression.
  • According to some sources, the amount of money spent on armaments around the world in a year could effectively end poverty and hunger forever.

That is probably enough. If I go on, things will probably get depressing–I seem to remember a lot more depressing and gloomy statistics than positive ones.  That may be because positive numbers tend not to be reported in the places I get my numbers from.  It may be because I have a somewhat dark memory process–I recognize that sometimes, I am out of step with my culture.

These numbers that float around in my head do one thing.  They help me see why my faith is so important to me.  While there are some really great things in the world, there is a lot that isn’t right.  And for me at least, the source of hope comes from my faith.  My faith tells me that in spite of the dismal numbers, God is at work.  And even more, he has a place for me in that work.  My faith tells me there is hope both here and now and in the afterlife because of God and his love and grace.

May the peace of God be with you.

TODAY

            I have been suffering through the effects of a cold or something:  coughing, stuffy nose, mild headache, low-grade fever.  I don’t much like being sick and since I have had a run of almost a year without a cold, fever or anything more than an upset stomach from eating too much of the wrong stuff, being sick now seems even worse. So, I am sitting here at the computer, hacking my lungs out, feeling feverish and using up large amounts of tissues.  I am very aware of not feeling good.

So, does that awareness of what I am feeling right now mean that I am truly living in the now?  I would much rather not be living in this particular “now”.  I much prefer the now that will come in a few days when the hacking, fever and headache will be gone.  The now of a few days before the whole things started isn’t a bad second choice.  Unfortunately, I am stuck here, tied to the now by the tissue box, the thermometer and social stigma that would be focused on me if I went to a public place broadcasting my whatever this is.

But even when I am not sick, I am not sure how much I live fully in the now.  Since some of my now is determined by the past, things that generally need to be dealt with in some way, and by the need to do certain things to be ready for tomorrow, a lot of my now time is spent looking back or looking ahead.

I suppose that I could get myself into a mental and spiritual state where all I can see and focus on is the now.  I could detach from the past and shut off the future–but then, I wouldn’t be able to write this post, since I work a week ahead on my blog.  I would have to focus totally on how miserable I feel.  True, I could enjoy looking out the living room window at the trees and tidal flats and the lawn which doesn’t need mowing right now.  I could focus on the ever-present pain in my knee which is reminding me it is time to move it a bit to relieve the pain.

But I already do that stuff, along with lots of other in the now stuff.  Since I am on dog duty, I am always listening to make sure that he isn’t getting in trouble outside.  I am continually scanning the tree line looking for the deer.  I am aware of the vague idea flitting around in my mind that may become a sermon idea or blog post at some point but which right now is too vague and flighty to do more than notice.

I live in the now–but I also live as a result of the past and in anticipation of the future.  The issue for me, I think, is to keep a proper balance.  Too much focus on the pain and difficulty and triumph of the past takes me to places where I have already been and probably stops me from going where I need to go–I begin to  be like some counselling clients who can only see the pain of the past.  Too much focus on tomorrow likely means I am trying to live in an imaginary land where everything is perfect and I don’t have to deal with yesterday or today–again, like some counselling clients whose future is rosy and perfect and completely unrealistic.  And of course, too much focus on today means that I have no idea why I am ignoring a specific person and will likely retire at 110 because I don’t have a pension.

As in so much of life, the balance is the issue.  I am affected by yesterday, I am affecting tomorrow–and I do it all from today.  I stand (well, sit actually) in the here and now, looking both ahead and back to see how the here and now is affected by yesterday and what potential affect it might have on tomorrow.  I can enhance the here and now by how I deal with yesterday–and I can probably enhance tomorrow by how I deal with today.

So, I will be aware of my hacking and fever while looking ahead to the day when I won’t have this illness, giving thanks that the past tells me that I will recover.  I am aware of the here and now but am not sure that I am totally enjoying parts of this particular here and now.

May the peace of God be with you.

TOMORROW

When I got my first job after graduating with my Masters, I discovered that I was enrolled in a pension plan–well, actually two of them if you count the government pension plan that was also reducing the take home portion of my pay cheque.  I have to confess that in my early 20s, the idea of a pension plan was only mildly interesting.  The demands of student loan repayments, married life and the expenses of starting out after university meant that if I had been given an even choice, I just might have tossed the pension plan for a few extra dollars every week.

Fortunately, I didn’t have an option about making that choice–both the government and my employer required that I give them money every pay period.  Without any attention from me, the pension money disappeared from the pay cheque and showed up in a statement that came once a year.  Since I was young, busy and couldn’t do anything with or about the money, I tended to ignore it, at least until a few years ago when the state of my pension became important.  As I got closer and closer to retirement, I paid more attention to the annual statements and now that the fund is computerized, I occasionally peak at the accumulating amount.

For all my working life, that pension has been there, generally growing (except for years with economic downturns) and sitting there having an effect on my future without my paying much attention to it.  But when the time comes that I actually decide to retire, I am going to be very glad that decisions about my future was made a long time ago.

Now, in a lot of other areas of my life, I have been concerned about my future and have  taken a fairly active part in preparing for tomorrow.  I choose university courses and programs with an eye to the future.  I decided on advanced education because I was looking ahead.  A lot of my work in ministry involved and involves looking ahead and trying to structure the present to enable certain things to develop in the future.  I chose to begin  a serious exercise regime early in  life to prevent certain health issues in the future.  We began putting money away for our kids’ education shortly after each was born.

In short, I, like a great many people, was living partly in the future.  I was and still am willing to defer things now because of some future benefit.  Less money now meant more money in the future.  More exercise now meant better health tomorrow.  This meeting in the church today meant we could begin that ministry next year.

Well, actually, the best we can actually say is that if we do this stuff today, it might have an effect on tomorrow.  I can’t actually guarantee that I will live long enough to spend my pension money.  I can’t guarantee that this sermon series will produce a healthier church in five years.  I can’t guarantee that my kids will want to go to university.  I can’t even guarantee that  the lawn mower will start in an hour or so when I run out of excuses to avoid doing the lawn.

With no guarantees, why plan?  There are actually lots of people who live for today and who seem to be doing quite well.  Living in the now is something of a mantra for a lot of people today.  The idea of pensions, educational saving plans, exercise plans and ministry plans is something of an anathema to many people, some of whom are quite willing to quote Matthew 6.34 as support, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (NIV)

And, as with all Jesus’ words, there is a powerful truth here.  We can only live right now.  But right now does become tomorrow and because most of us will inhabit tomorrow or a certain number of tomorrows, we really can’t ignore tomorrow.  Statically, the likelihood of tomorrow coming is pretty good and the likelihood of our being around tomorrow is equally high so it makes sense to give it some thought.  We can’t live only for tomorrow–but we do need to keep an eye on tomorrow since we are likely going to get there.  It is likely better to have the pension and not get to use it than not have it and need it.

May the peace of God be with you.

THINKING, FEELING AND BELIEVING

            Right now, I have been doing quite well when it comes to depression.  While I have experienced some bouts of tiredness that result from overwork, they have not transmuted into depression.  So it is a good time to look at my depression and think about something that I realized a while ago that has been a very important factor in how I deal with depression.

When I am depressed, I feel miserable.  I am an introvert so I am not overly social but when I get depressed, it is worse.  I feel tired all the time.  I have a dark and negative view of life–nothing will work out.  At the same time, my thinking gets distorted.  I no longer want to write or work or lead Bible study–all of it becomes a job and half, a job and a half I would rather not have.

When I am depressed, I feel depressed.  Very early in the process, I recognize what it happening and know I am depressed–my thinking tells me I am depressed.  Because I am oriented towards thinking, I can probably figure out why I am depressed, it I can muster up enough energy and initiative to do it.  When I am depressed, I feel depressed, my thinking is depressed and I can follow the thinking-feeling process around and around in circles.  I feel depressed, I think I am depressed and both my thinking and feeling conspire to keep me there.

But I made a discovery many years ago.  I have feelings and I am a thinking person–but I am also a person of faith.  And that faith has a deep and powerful effect on both my thinking and feeling.  It has a powerful effect no matter what–but when I actively and consciously involve my faith in the depression, it has an even more powerful effect.

It all came into focus during one spell of depression.  For most people suicidal thoughts are part of the depression  process at some point.  But in a flash of divine insight, I realized that I generally didn’t give suicide much thought during my depression.  It was there but I never really looked at it as a serious option.  That insight was startling enough that even in my depression, I had to think about it.

Now, the process was slower and more difficult because of the depression but I eventually realized that deep down, underneath the depression, beyond the thinking, there was a powerful core of faith–I might feel depressed, I might be thinking depression but I still believed that God was there and that his love and grace were carrying me and that faith was more important and significant in my life than either the depression or the disordered thought process.

I believe–and that belief creates a solid and secure foundation for everything else in my life.  Because I believe, I have hope–and the best and most effective antidote for depression is hope.  The hope my faith produces isn’t dependent on what I am thinking or feeling, it isn’t dependent on what is happening or not happening in my life, it isn’t lessened by my depression.  It is just there, forming the core of my being.

So, I get depressed–but because I believe, I am depressed in the presence and power of God and no matter how far down I get, that faith is going to be there.  And because it is there, I know that the depression isn’t the end nor the be all of my life–there is more because of God.

And once I re-discover that core of faith, God can and does work within me to give me whatever I need to overcome the depression.  And that is true whether the causes of the depression change or not.

As I write this, I am aware that it sounds like I am playing games in my mind or denying what is really going on.  And I may be doing some of that sometimes–but the bottom line for me is that I am a person of faith and so I do believe that God is present and willing to help.  And so I call upon that faith to help me when my thinking and feeling get distorted by depression or something else.  And really, if that isn’t a valid expression of faith, what it the point of having faith in the first place?

May the peace of God be with you.