FREE TIME

The last few months in the churches have been hectic and stressed—church work can be that way, even in small congregations. The regular activities like worship and Bible study and pastoral care get supplemented by funerals, crises, special events and a variety of unpredictable things. While I try to find breaks and rest stops along the way, most of the time, I find myself hanging on, counting the days until the next break.

Because of my particular situation, I also look forward to the New Year because one of the pastorates I serve basically closes down for the winter months. The membership decided several years ago that the stress of winter travel, snow clearing and heating old buildings was too much for a small aging group of people. Better to shut down and wait out the winter. Since these congregations account for half my work week, the shut down means that I have some free time over the winter.

This year looked even better because the congregation I had been filling in for during the shutdown months has recently called a permanent pastor. In the past, I have made significant plans for the use of this free time. I have had woodworking projects, outdoor plans like skiing, plans to meet with friends for coffee and so on. But I didn’t actually get around to making any plans for this year. The fall was busier than normal for some reason and I didn’t have the time to give the break a lot of thought. I knew it was coming and was depending on it mentally but didn’t really give in much thought, beyond the occasional “I’ll get to that in the new year.”

Well, the New Year has arrived—and if the first few weeks are any indication, I was really wise not to plan anything major that depended on having that time free. The free time is turning out to be busier that I expected and probably busier than I want. Today, for example, should be relatively free—it’s a Monday, a day when I don’t normally work and it is a Monday during the down time of the year so it should be even freer. But instead of having a relaxed Monday where the most difficult decision is coffee or chocolate for my mid-morning break, I have three appointments. Two are related to ministry I am involved in beyond the churches and one is a health appointment.

So far, the month of January is pretty much filled with stuff like this. Some of the health stuff I am not all that fussy about but it does need to be taken care of. The ministry stuff is all stuff that I want to do—I either volunteered or didn’t resist being volunteered because it involves things I like or feel strongly that I should do. But January at least isn’t going to have the amount of free time that I anticipated.

I am sure that there will be some free time during this down time—and the reason I am sure of it is that I will make it happen. I need the break so that I am able to function at my best. And so I will decide just how busy I am during this time. I am not going to play the game that keeps me running and rushing all the time because it gives me some inner gratification to think that I am so important that I can’t actually slow down. I know that in the end, I am in charge of my schedule and my plans.

There are certainly some things that I can’t control: the various health related activities or the crises arising in the churches, for example. But ultimately, I decide how much I do and when I do it. If I let the whole three month shut down go by without getting some time and space for relaxation and restoration, I have no one to blame but myself. So, as busy as this time seems to be starting out, I will find the time I need to prepare myself physically, mentally and spiritually for the rest of the year. It will take some effort and work but it is my schedule and my life and I have no one to blame but myself if it doesn’t happen.

May the peace of God be with you.

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JUMPING FENCES

I was recently visiting a spot near an urban setting where there are several waterfalls, deep gorges and beautiful views. Since it is near a lot of people, there were lots of visitors, even on a cold, cloudy day like the one when we visited. Whoever ran the sites had provided parking, good trails and lots of fences along the steep drops. The fences were high, strong and plastered with signs telling people not to climb the fences or cross the fences because of the dangers presented by the steep high gorges.

We stopped at one spot to take pictures and as I was looking for the best angle, I spotted two people who had clearly decided the signs were not for them—they were at the bottom of the gorge, clearly enjoying their much better view. A little later along the trail, at another photo spot, I saw another pair of people who had crossed the fence line and descended the steep cliff to get a much better view.

One of the people accompanying us on the visit mentioned that the local fire department has a special unit trained to rescue the significant number of people who cross the fence and get stuck at the bottom of the gorge. The unit has lots of practise because the signs simply can’t overcome the desire to go where no one has (or shouldn’t have) gone before.

Metaphorically, I am no stranger to climbing fences and wandering in territory that could be difficult or dangerous—a lot of my work in ministry has taken me into areas that others have warned me to avoid. That has caused some problems and produced some significant ministry. As a teacher and mentor of other pastors, I have tended to encourage people to see the fences and occasionally challenge them, while being aware of the possibility of danger.

But that metaphorical fence jumping somehow doesn’t seem to be anywhere near the same as the physical jumping of a real fence and deliberately stepping into a dangerous situation that just might require significant time, effort, expense and risk on the part of other people to pull out the fence jumper.

I am not entirely sure what inspires such behaviour. I know that some of us see warning signs as a challenge. Others are pretty sure that only normal people need to avoid the dangers. Some might suggest that it is their right to step into dangerous positions. Others, perhaps ignore signs and warnings and assume they can do what they want. And the majority of people who jump the fence seem to get away with it, probably through a combination of luck, skill and possible divine intervention.

But each success encourages another attempt. Each time a fence jumper is spotted, another is encouraged to go deeper or higher or further. And eventually, the rescue crew has to step in; the sign painters prepare another sign; the lawyers begin figuring out who pays for what—and in the meantime, someone else is going to jump the fence, probably using the sign as a support to climb the fence.

We humans don’t like limits. We have all sorts of justifications and reasons and explanations. But probably the best and most profound explanation comes from the Bible. We are sinful people. I am using that word in the broad sense—we are essentially self-centered and selfish, convinced that if the world doesn’t revolve around us, it should. This self-focus is at the root of all fence jumping going all the way back to the day when a man and a woman climbed a fence to eat from a tree that they had been told not to eat from.

In our desire for self-gratification, we miss some significant realities. We miss the fact that some things are bad for us. We will suffer physically, emotionally, spiritually or some combination of those. Others will suffer as well—and unfortunately, others will sometimes suffer a whole lot more than we do when we cross the fence. The person who falls down the cliff because they copied my successful attempt at jumping the fence suffers much more than I do.

But for all that, I can’t quite bring myself to say that we must always stay within the fences. Some fences need to be jumped—the real trick is figuring out which ones need to be jumped and which ones need to be respected.

May the peace of God be with you.

CHRISTMAS VACATION

During the Advent season, the two Bible studies I lead chose to spend some time looking at Christmas, technically from the Biblical perspective but practically from any perspective we wanted. In the course of the discussion with one group, I mentioned the movie Christmas Vacation as the example of how people have unrealistic expectations of the Christmas season. Most of us had actually seen the movie—and the one who hadn’t seen it was quite happy to watch it when I loaned him my copy.

I realized a while ago that although my expectations for Christmas aren’t the same as the “hero” of the movie, I was also in possession of some seriously unrealistic Christmas expectations. I wanted the Advent process to be a deeply spiritual journey for the churches and me. Together, we would explore the wonder of the Incarnation through worship, study and conversation. We would also develop and implement ways of using the Advent/Christmas season as a means of sharing our faith with our communities.

At the same time, I would thoughtfully and carefully choose perfect presents for all the significant people I buy presents for. I would participate in both secular and church Christmas events, parties and processes to the full. That tended to involve a great deal more activity when our children were home but even after they left home, there were a considerable number of events to take part in both inside and outside the church.

And then, because all this wasn’t enough, I wanted Christmas to be a time for me to both grow spiritually and get some much needed rest and relaxation so that I would be able to enter the winter church season ready to lead the church well as they continued to follow God and seek to do his will.

Obviously, there are some significant and irreconcilable conflicts build into those expectations. It is pretty much impossible to experience cultural and spiritual Advent/Christmas to the full and end the season rested and revitalized. While juggling a full church schedule and full cultural schedule is required at this time of the year, it precludes the kind and amount of time necessary for personal spiritual growth. The need to develop and write compelling and inspiring sermons, Advent Candle programs and Bible studies for the church pretty much eliminates the ability to inspire myself.

And so I tended to end the Advent/Christmas season worn out and somewhat depressed. My expectations were high and unattainable—I was almost guaranteed to fail. I would be able to accomplish some things but overall, the results were much less than I anticipated or wanted, which when combined with the physical fatigue meant I began the new year down, depressed and lacking motivation.

It took a while before I realized that the problem was my expectations. I had to admit that I couldn’t do everything the way I thought it should be done. And so I began to focus and select. There are some things that just have to be done—the churches pay me to preach, for example, and so I do need to give attention to my preaching. That might mean that I have less time and mental space to work on perfect presents—but the truth is that there are no perfect presents and the search for them could actually be cut back.

It was important for me and the church that I come out of the Advent/Christmas season ready to move into the new year of church activity somewhat rested and at least partially prepared—and that would mean that there had to be some careful selection in what I did and didn’t do over the Advent/Christmas season. It also meant recognizing that just as most people in the church pretty much stopped for a few days after Christmas, I could do the same. The sermon had to be written but nobody really needed or wanted a visit from the pastor, unless they were facing a crisis.

These days, I have fewer expectations for the Christmas season. I don’t do as much—but what I do, I have the opportunity and time and energy to do well. And I also have the space needed to rest and relax a bit before things get going after Christmas.

May the peace of God be with you.

CHRISTMAS VACATION

During the Advent season, the two Bible studies I lead chose to spend some time looking at Christmas, technically from the Biblical perspective but practically from any perspective we wanted. In the course of the discussion with one group, I mentioned the movie Christmas Vacation as the example of how people have unrealistic expectations of the Christmas season. Most of us had actually seen the movie—and the one who hadn’t seen it was quite happy to watch it when I loaned him my copy.

I realized a while ago that although my expectations for Christmas aren’t the same as the “hero” of the movie, I was also in possession of some seriously unrealistic Christmas expectations. I wanted the Advent process to b a deeply spiritual journey for the churches and me. Together, we would explore the wonder of the Incarnation through worship, study and conversation. We would also develop and implement ways of using the Advent/Christmas season as a means of sharing our faith with our communities.

At the same time, I would thoughtfully and carefully choose perfect presents for all the significant people I but presents for. I would participate in both secular and church Christmas events, parties and processes to the full. That tended to involve a great deal more activity when our children were home but even after they left home, there were a considerable number of events to take part in both inside and outside the church.

And then, because all this wasn’t enough, I wanted Christmas to be a time for me to both grow spiritually and get some much needed rest and relaxation so that I would be able to enter the winter church season ready to lead the church well as they continued to follow God and seek to do his will.

Obviously, there are some significant and irreconcilable conflicts build into those expectations. It is pretty much impossible to experience cultural and spiritual Advent/Christmas to the full and end the season rested and revitalized. While juggling a full church schedule and full cultural schedule is required at this time of the year, it precludes the kind and amount of time necessary for personal spiritual growth. The need to develop and write compelling and inspiring sermons, Advent Candle programs and Bible studies for the church pretty much eliminates the ability to inspire myself.

And so I tended to end the Advent/Christmas season worn out and somewhat depressed. My expectations were high and unattainable—I was almost guaranteed to fail. I would be able to accomplish some things but overall, the results were much less than I anticipated or wanted, which when combined with the physical fatigue meant I began the new year down, depressed and lacking motivation.

It took a while before I realized that the problem was my expectations. I had to admit that I couldn’t do everything the way I thought it should be done. And so I began to focus and select. There are some things that just have to be done—the churches pay me to preach, for example, and so I do need to give attention to my preaching. That might mean that I have less time and mental space to work on perfect presents—but the truth is that there are no perfect presents and the search for them could actually be cut back.

It was important for me and the church that I come out of the Advent/Christmas season ready to move into the new year of church activity somewhat rested and at least partially prepared—and that would mean that there had to be some careful selection in what I did and didn’t do over the Advent/Christmas season. It also meant recognizing that just as most people in the church pretty much stopped for a few days after Christmas, I could do the same. The sermon had to be written but nobody really needed or wanted a visit from the pastor, unless they were facing a crisis.

These days, I have fewer expectations for the Christmas season. I don’t do as much—but what I do, I have the opportunity and time and energy to do well. And I also have the space needed to rest and relax a bit before things get going after Christmas.

May the peace of God be with you.

SENSOR CHECK

It’s was about a week and a half before Christmas and I had to go to the town where everyone goes to do their Christmas shopping. Part of the reason for my trip was to finish my Christmas shopping—as much as I like online shopping, I need to check out the real stores because there are just some things I have to see before I know they are just what I want. Beside, the backlog from the mail strike was making delivery times sort of vague.

But the Christmas shopping was actually an add on to the real reason for the trip. I had to be fitted for my new hearing aids and get my eyes tested. I referred to it as a sensor check with a friend which led to an extended conversation about the bionic man and what his enhancements would look like today. But for me, there is something about going for both appointments on the same day that causes me to think and wonder.

On some levels, the reality of sensor enhancements is great. Eye glasses mean that I can read whatever I want whenever I want and enjoy the beauty of our area. Hearing aids mean that I can hear what people say to me without asking them to repeat stuff a million times. When I get around to having my aging knees replaced, I will be able to walk without as much pain and complaining. That part is all good for me and everyone else who makes use of the medical and technological enhancements.

But somehow, combining the two appointments with Christmas shopping made for a very difficult and tiring day. Now, it made perfect sense to join them all together—it is an hour drive one way to the shopping area and I try to be as ecologically sensitive as is possible for a rural pastor serving two different spread out pastorates.

The day didn’t start too badly—as usual, I was early and had time to check out one possible present before the first appointment. But then things started going bad—I used the wrong credit card to buy the present. That was only a minor problem—the real problem was that the five minutes it should have taken to get to the first appointment was taken up just getting out of the store parking lot—obviously, I wasn’t the only person shopping that day.

I did arrive at the appointment on time and had my eyes tested, including having drops which made everything look funny for a bit. But now, the rush was on. There was time for some quick reconnaissance and lunch before the second appointment—and I really don’t like being rushed. I am more of a contemplative, think things through, don’t rush personality which, when combined with my obsession for being early at everything means that I spend the next block of time checking my watch and running the time and travel calculations in my head. Ultimately, the calculations suggested I leave and have lunch at a less desirable spot that had the advantage of being near the second appointment—no need to find another parking space.

Anyway, in the end, I survived the day. I have new hearing aids which I am going to hate, at least until I get used to them at which point I will love them. I have new glasses coming—another trip up the Valley. And I got the Christmas shopping done and even managed to surprise myself with a couple of the selections. But when I got home, I was tired and borderline grumpy.

I realize that I don’t do rushed and stressed and over-scheduled all that well. Some of it is likely a function of age and some of it probably has to do with the fact that most of the time, I am rushed and stressed anyway and therefore don’t have the capacity to add the extra that comes from a day like this one—although, to be honest, I did cope with the day. Maybe most of the problem is my reaction to stress not so much the handling of the stress. Maybe my problem is that I forget I am capable of doing what I need to do and letting myself forget that allows room for counterfeit stress to thrive.

May the peace of God be with you.

PLAYING WITH FIRE

During the second Wednesday of the ecumenical Bible Study, I took a cup of de-caf coffee rather than water with me—the various churches supply muffins for the study and water really doesn’t seem to go well with chocolate chip/banana muffins. The next day, the church Bible study was meeting in a home since it is too cold for the community hall to be open. Since the host makes great shortbread cookies, I chose another cup of coffee ( caffeinated). The next Monday, I had coffee with a friend. The following Wednesday, more Ecumenical coffee and muffins. Finally, the Thursday study in another house, this host providing great ginger cookies, which obviously required another coffee.

That is actually more coffee than I normally drink in a month and even though most of it was de-caf, by the end of the second Thursday in the sequence, I was noticing the effects: upset stomach, heartburn, the coffee cough that has plagued me for years. None of this was a surprise to me. Although I love coffee, I have been suffering the effects of drinking it for years.

My coffee addiction goes way back. Although I grew up in a tea drinking house, my father drank coffee at breakfast and one of the perks of getting up first when he was working day shift was getting to eat the piece of bacon and quarter cup of sugary, milky coffee he left for which ever kid was up first. I moved on to develop my own coffee habit—black, no sugar and relatively strong. At times, I would be up to 4-5 cups a day. But I liked it, it kept me going and it wasn’t harming anyone.

Eventually, though, I began to suffer the effects of too much caffeine and in the mid 1990s, I decided to quit coffee and all forms of caffeine. For well over a year, I didn’t drink anything with caffeine and even avoided de-caf coffee. I knew that even drinking de-caf was going to be a problem, given that I really like coffee and was seriously missing it. But after I got over the withdrawal effects (headache, grouchiness, inability to get moving), I was able to avoid it.

After more than a year, I began allowing myself a cup of de-caf now and then. I could even treat myself to a cup of real coffee occasionally. Because it was an occasional treat, I made sure that it was really good coffee—no instant or bargain perk coffee for me. If I was going to have coffee, it would be good coffee—an African blend, strong, hot, black and no sugar, something to be savoured and enjoyed.

But with each cup of de-caf and each treat, I was reminded again just how much I liked coffee—and more seriously, how easily I can become re-addicted to caffeine. Mostly, I remember the problems and am pretty good about setting and keeping limits. Coffee was reserved for long drives and occasional breakfast treats. Unfortunately, my will power breaks down when I haven’t had any coffee for awhile and the presence of cinnamon buns, muffins, shortbread and ginger cookies make the temptation too much to resist. Then I begin to pay the price and swear off coffee, at least for awhile.

I am aware that my addiction and struggle with coffee isn’t a serious problem and really doesn’t compare to the struggles people have with other more dangerous and serious addictions. But it is a struggle and it is an addiction and I do have to deal with it. I think it helps me on a very practical level understand the reality of the human condition. We like the stuff that isn’t really good for us—and no matter what our level of will power and commitment, we can’t guarantee that we are free from the stuff that we shouldn’t have.

Whether it is me and my coffee; the workaholic and her dangerous work ethic; the alcoholic and his single-minded commitment to alcohol; the approval addict doing everything possible to be liked, we all struggle with something controlling our lives. And as a Christian, I think that allowing anything to control my life is a problem. My need to be in control of caffeine in my life grows out of my understanding that I was made to be free to become what God wants to help me become—and anything that gets in the way of that is a problem.

So, I am off coffee again, at least until the next Bible study, when there will again be those great shortbread cookies.

May the peace of God be with you.

LIFE IS GREAT!

I ran into a friend recently whom I haven’t really connected with since his retirement over a year ago. We were both involved in the same event so didn’t have a lot of time to talk but we did exchange the basic information pertinent to our relationship: my knees are worse, he is now serving a church quarter time, I am not retired, he is loving retirement. He sort of wondered why I wasn’t retired because he is finding retirement to be really great.

I could, I suppose, have questioned how great retirement is if he is back at work after such a short time—I think he had been retired only a few months before he started at his new position. He was also involved in the same inter-church program I was in that evening as well, which suggests that maybe his retirement isn’t as retiring as he wanted me to believe. I have no doubt that his life is great right now and that he is enjoying himself—but maybe retirement isn’t the whole reason why he is doing well.

Life needs purpose and direction and meaning, I think. For most people, that is found in the process of work and family and the normal stuff that we do along the way. I am aware that that is a significant over-generalization but I think it does contain a lot of truth as well. I do know that there are many people whose work and family and living situations don’t provide sufficient purpose and direction and meaning. But the truth is that most of us find enough in the realities of living and working to keep going, even if we have times when we want more.

And that is why for many people, retirement creates some serious problems. Suddenly, everything that provided meaning and purpose and hope is gone—and for some people, it is really hard to replace that. In one fishing village that I used to be the pastor for, the men used to have a way of expressing it: a fisher who retired and didn’t go back to the wharf regularly died within a year of retirement. I think they recognized the reality that losing work and not having anything to replace it produced a hopelessness that made life hard to continue.

While this has traditionally been a problem with men, it is becoming more and more a problem for all people. In a more traditional times in the past, men worked outside the home and women worked inside the home, meaning there was still a purpose and meaning for the woman since their job of cooking and cleaning and care giving as still needed. But with everyone needing to work, everyone faces the life dilemma of what gives meaning after retirement.

Some of my older friends in ministry approach this problem by having several retirements. They retire, accept a call to “interim” ministry, retire again, accept another call and so on. I like to joke that they just do this because they really like retirement parties. More likely, they don’t like the feelings that come from not doing what was so important and central to their lives.

So, why write about retirement aside from the fact that it was on my mind after talking with my happily “retired” friend? I suppose part of it is because I plan on retiring someday. I am not sure when—the ministry I am doing now isn’t done yet and I want to see where God is taking me and the churches I have been called to. But I am past retirement age, my pensions will provide a comfortable income, my aging process is producing more and more aches and pains and limits and I am beginning to think that it will be nice at some point to wake up on the morning and not have to get moving because the sermon isn’t done or there is that meeting or I need to lead worship.

So, I am planning on retiring someday—but I am also planning my retirement already. I have a list of things I would like to do and explore. Nothing is written down but I keep seeing and thinking of things I want to try when I have some time. I want to learn how to make chocolate croissants and built scale model Cape Island boats for example. Will that be enough? I don’t know—but if it isn’t, I guess I can try my friend’s part time retirement approach.

May the peace of God be with you.

CHRISTMAS IS COMING

The afternoon worship a week or so ago started out a little slowly. I arrived at the regular time but the organist who is normally there practising wasn’t there. I puttered around and set up my stuff and cleared a couple of things off the bulletin board until she arrived. The choir director arrived at about the same time and from there, things started getting hectic. Several more people came in at the same time, several of whom had questions and comments. One of the deacons arrived and I immediately passed off the bulletins to him so I could deal with other stuff.

As I rushed from task to task and person to person, I was aware that the noise level was slowly rising in the sanctuary—laughter, multiple discussions, even people talking to each other from across the small sanctuary. I try to greet everyone as they come in but that was difficult—things were hectic and every now and then, when I had time to scan the sanctuary, there were a bunch of people whom I hadn’t greeted. Granted, we are not talking large numbers but it was still hard to connect with everyone.

In the midst of the activity, I checked my watch and realized that it was time to start. The choir and I gathered for prayer but the noise level was so loud that I got distracted in the prayer, which did give the choir a laugh before we started. Eventually, I got to the pulpit and suggested that the snow that we had in the previous week must have put everyone in a good mood because of all the noise and laughter I was hearing. While no one agreed with my suggestion, the noise level was significantly louder.

Later that day, we had a Skype call with one of the kids. The call was somewhat chaotic because our two grandchildren were very active and wound up, making conversation difficult and confusing. The grandchildren had been busy with a variety of things, some of them involving candy, but there was even more activity than could be explained by that.

I am pretty sure that both events I have described are connected with the Christmas season. While the Sunday in question wasn’t an Advent Sunday, it was part of our cultural Christmas build up. I have been noticing lots of ads, the stores are seriously Christmased up, some houses are already sporting Christmas lights and at least one ten foot Santa is already inflated along our road.

Couple that with the snow that we had just before this Sunday and I am pretty sure that what I was seeing was the beginning of the Christmas season. People are being affected. We are in Christmas mode, which is hard to define completely but which seems to me to be a real thing. We are more gregarious, a bit louder when we are together, more focused on the bits and pieces of the season, quicker to laugh, more responsive to helping out and generally more interested in being with other people. Normal stuff, like getting settled down for worship, gets lost in the process.

I think I need to pay attention to what I am seeing and maybe even let it infect me a bit. I have been somewhat preoccupied with the professional demands of the season, getting plans and programs in place to enable people to remember the birth of Jesus and its significance for our faith. And while I think that is important, it does tend to take my time and energy and leave me a bit tired and even unresponsive to all the rest of the Christmas stuff.

I probably need to remember that as well as being a Christian event, Christmas is primarily a cultural event these days and maybe I need to allow myself to enjoy that part of it a bit more. I probably don’t need to get as wound up and excited as my grandchildren but it might be appropriate if I had some of the seasonal excitement that I was seeing among the worship attendees that Sunday.

We all know that after Christmas, we settle into the long, cold winter with all the restrictions and limits that brings (at least for some people who never learned to appreciate snow) so why not have some fun before that? If it makes worship a bit more hectic, I can handle that.

May the peace of God be with you.

TWO BLESSINGS

According to the schedule, this was going to be a really busy week. I had all the regular stuff to do: two sermons, two Bible studies and all the other associated stuff that comes from being a pastor. On top of that, there was an extra Bible study for our inter-church council, a part in the annual memorial service our funeral home sponsors plus added Advent/Christmas stuff. While I like being busy, I don’t actually like being too busy and I especially don’t like being in a position where I simply can’t do all that needs to be done—but that is what this week looked like when I began work on Tuesday morning.

I had to do some mental juggling, wondering what bits and pieces I could put off, which involves not just figuring out what isn’t as critical but also trying to find a spot to put it in later. I have found over the years that just postponing doing stuff without planning on when I will do them leads to even more stress down the road. It was a tough process but by the end of Tuesday, I had a sort of a plan that would allow me to get stuff done, sort of on time.

Wednesday arrives—and brings with it snow and wind and cold temperatures. I checked the local cancellation list and discovered there is no school. Since all our kids are grown and living too far away, I didn’t check it for them. I checked because the inter-church Bible study has a neat and effective rule—when school is cancelled, it is cancelled. Suddenly, I have a whole morning with nothing planned. And even more, one of the requirements for that day that wasn’t going to get done was to have a handout ready for the next study.

The cancellation pushed the coming studies a week down the line, giving me some breathing room to get the final study session ready. It also meant that rather than rush around and head for the study, I had some choices.

Among the possibilities were a significant session with some books that have been occupying memory space on my electronics. There is a small project sitting on my work bench in the basement, a set of Advent candle holders for a couple of the churches. There is always the option of doing almost nothing or even nothing.

I actually chose to focus on getting some of the stuff cluttering my need to do list out of the way. The extra time the cancellation gave me was a blessing. I probably wouldn’t have cancelled the study that day but since we had the rule in place, I chose to embrace the blessing the cancelation brought with it.

The next day, the morning weather was actually worse. There was more snow, more wind and even colder temperatures. I checked again and school was cancelled again. That wasn’t an automatic cancel for the church Bible study but it was a indication that I had better make some phone calls and discuss the situation, which resulted in another cancellation. Once again, I had time—and another blessing.

The deferred list got even shorter. I actually got some serious work done on the last of the inter-church studies, a start on the Christmas Eve services and some reading done. I also got the Advent candle holders finished and had some time to actually do nothing. I think the second blessing was even more valuable than the first one. The first one took the pressure off—but the second one allowed for some actual relaxation and de-stressing.

My work plan doesn’t count on these unexpected blessings. But when they happen, I can and will embrace them because of the space that they give. I am aware that having got a head a bit on all the stuff won’t be a long term reality—but in the short term, I did get some stuff cleared that might have clogged things up down the road. There will be more stuff that needs to be done and diminishing time to do it before too long.

But for now, I had two blessings that allowed me to catch up and even get a bit ahead. That is great, although I just realized that I need to find time to prepare the Christmas newsletter. But thanks to the cancellations, there is time for that.

May the peace of God be with you.

KEEP MOVING

I was talking with a friend on ministry the other day about our mutual occupation. We were both in the midst of the fall rush. Basically, from mid-September to mid-December, pastors and church workers don’t have much time for anything beyond work. And as the fall transitions to Advent, things get even worse. The time period is filled with special events, new programs, pastoral emergencies, church and denominational meetings—the list goes on and on. I find myself taking a deep breath in the middle of September and basically beginning to run the marathon.

Except that this marathon has a nasty surprise near the end. Fall church programming leads into Advent and Christmas programming. To use the marathon analogy, this marathon ends with a steep uphill climb. I don’t actually run marathons but have children and friends who do—and from their stories of marathons, I am pretty sure that a marathon with a steep hill at the end would be the very last thing they would want to do.

So, with Advent beginning soon, I find myself in the middle of the hill. Because of my preparation process, I hit the hill a bit before some of my colleagues in ministry. I try to stay a week ahead in all my preparation which does give me some psychological and practical wiggle room but also means I hit the crunch earlier. So, this next two weeks are probably the busiest I am going to have. Two sermons, the Bible study for the area churches that seemed like such a great idea last April, the church fund raiser that helps ensure I get paid, the Advent programs that need to be prepared, the Christmas newsletter, the meeting to prepare our next year’s worship schedule, along with all the other stuff that must be done means that I need to take another deep breath to make sure I keep going—I am definitely feeling the steepness of the hill right now.

Based on previous years of ministry (and I have a lot of those), I will get everything done and I will survive the climb. Eventually, the middle of December will come and things will slow down a bit and then, well, there is always the post-Christmas slump which also brings with it the possibility of a Sunday snow storm with produces a cancellation.

The issue for me is always doing the best I can. I used to be concerned with doing my best, which sounds noble and heroic and faithful but which in practise leads to stress, fatigue, anxiety and burnout. I know that I am capable of doing some pretty good stuff—but the unfortunate reality is that I can’t always work to my limits. Or maybe it is better to say that my limits are moved by my circumstances. The fantastic sermon I could produce with unlimited time becomes a somewhat less fantastic sermon because I also have to write the ecumenical study, the Advent candle program and our regular Bible study.

None of them will be my best work—none of them will be as good as what I could produce if I had only that one thing to do. So, each one of them gets the best that I can do given the time and opportunity I have. I can’t do my best work—but I can and will do the best I can in the circumstances.

And I will do what I always do—I will give God and the church my best and then depend on God to take care of the rest. Ultimately, I do what I do because God has called me to be his agent to carry out his will. All that I do passes through him and any effects and results are due more to his divine work than my efforts.

For me, this isn’t a cop out or an excuse of sub-standard work or an extra nap. For me, this is a basic reality that enables me to cope with the impossible task that I have been called to. Even if I could produce me best all the time, it still isn’t good enough. But if I consciously work at giving God and the church the very best I can in any circumstance, then I can take comfort in the reality that God is going to use what I do to accomplish his will.

May the peace of God be with you.