CHAOS OR GROWTH?

I realized that to anyone who is a regular reader of this blog (thank you–I really appreciate your support) the situations I describe from the congregations I serve could sound somewhat chaotic.  We have people talking during worship, people making comments and asking questions during the sermon, Bible studies that might get on topic once a month, business meetings that have little structure, a very fluid and changing concept of membership among other things.

While it might all seem a bit chaotic, the deeper reality is that it is very chaotic at times.  As pastor, I am often playing catch up and am more likely to be surprised by the latest suggestion than I am to have originated the suggestion. I do prep work on Bible Study and sermons and make plans for a variety of things and sometimes–many times–the actual on the ground activity takes off in a very different direction.  To say that I am the leader of the congregations that give me a pay cheque every month would probably be technically correct, at least as far as the modern understanding of pastoral ministry is concerned.  But the practical reality is that I most often feel like a leaf floating down a stream, twisting and turning and bumping into things as I am carried along by the current.

And I love it.  I have never felt that it was my job as pastor to be the leader.  I don’t have the need to determine every aspect of the life of the church.  I don’t see the church as an  institution that needs my great wisdom and knowledge to keep it on the right track and prevent it from going astray.  Mostly, that is because the church isn’t an institution or an organization or a business or anything like that.

Essentially, the church is a group of people linked by their common allegiance to God through Jesus Christ, each one filled with the Holy Spirit.  We come into the faith as different people and we grow in the faith in different ways and in different directions.  But because we all have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit, each one of us has something valuable and important to offer to the church.  Because of that, most of my ministry has been focused on discovering the leading of the Holy Spirit for the particular group of church people I have been called to work with.

And so much of my ministry is spend listening and responding.  I do work hard at trying to bring together all the disparate voices and views of the Spirit’s leading,  because I believe one of the gifts the Spirit has given me is the ability to create an overview of the confusing and complex package that is a local expression of the church.  I am not called to impose my overview on the church–rather, I am gifted and called to help the church discover the overview that the Holy Spirit is seeking to bring to a particular gathering of believers.

One of my early ministry discoveries was that in order for my gift to be effective, there has to be stuff happening.  My particular ministry gifts thrive best in what often seems a chaotic situation.  I seem to work best when there are lots of expressions of the Spirit coupled with the ever-present reality that some of what the church and I think are expressions of the Spirit are really not coming from God.

So, the Bible Study, the worship, the meetings, the encounters with people–all these things that come together to make a church that seems chaotic and confused are in actual fact part of the working of the Holy Spirit in our midst.  As I participate in the chaos, reacting often and initiating occasionally, part of my Spirit given giftedness is to help the church make sense of the chaos and discover just what God is saying to us and where he is leading us.

I struggle with this at times because I am not naturally inclined to chaos.  I like structure and organization and predictability.   I use my gifts to help the congregation go from chaos to growth–but then the growth produces another type of chaos and so I keep going, responding to the chaos that is the church.

May the peace of God be with you.

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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.

LEARNING TO HEAR

Like most people engaging in a new career, I made a lot of mistakes in my early years of ministry.  I still make mistakes at this late stage of my career but hope that I have learned to avoid some of the more serious ones from the early days.  A lot of the early problems came from not knowing what to pay attention to and what to ignore–I hadn’t developed a sense of ministerial selective hearing.

I was noticing and seeing all sorts of things.  This couple was obviously having a struggle in their marriage.  That individual has an addiction problem.  That teen is heading down the wrong road.  Those parents are going to cause their child serious problems.  This congregation really needs to understand their faith.  That deacon is terrible at his calling.  These people need to make more effort to share their faith.  The things I was hearing and seeing were endless and with very little effort, I could easily have waded into the deep, murky waters of ministry and quickly been overwhelmed.

Fortunately, I had some fantastic mentors who helped me discover that seeing or hearing something wasn’t the same as being responsible for it.  I learned that what I was hearing and seeing needed to be processed through some important filters that would help me determine what needed attention and what kind of attention it needed.

Among the filters I learned to use was an awareness of my limitations.  Early in ministry, as a single pastor with no children, I might notice issues in marriages and in child rearing, but the real truth is that I had no experience with either and no credibility beyond that course I took, a course that really didn’t qualify me to intervene in such things.

I also learned to make use of the filter described in the old adage, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink”.  Some people are deeply attached to what I consider problems.  They may be unwilling or unable to deal with them or give them up.  While I might be able to help them, I really can’t help them until they want help–to try and “fix” things when they don’t want them fixed creates problems for all of us.

I learned another filter.  This filter involves the reality that other people likely see what I see and may already be involved and my help, no matter how well meaning it is, probably does nothing more than get in the way of what the other people are doing.  If the other helpers are making a difference, I need to help by allowing them to do their job.

I also learned to filter by time.  In any given congregation, even small ones like I serve, there are lots of issues and problems and things that would benefit from someone doing something.  If I see and respond to everything, I could be busy 24-7 and arrive at worship on Sunday morning with nothing to say during the sermon time because I was busy helping people.  Of course, that would only be a short term problem because the ensuing burnout would do away with the need for sermons.

Not everything needs to be dealt with right away.  Certainly, there are some critical issues that need to be deal with immediately–but sometimes, I need to be the person who defines criticality, not the nosey neighbour down the street or the well meaning friend who tends to make mountains out of a grain of sand.  And sometimes, I even need to avoid buying into the individual’s sense of how critical their situation is.

The end result of all this filtering is that I hear a lot and act on a lot–but sometimes, the action is to postpone, delay or ignore.  This isn’t because of a lack of concern or laziness or unwillingness to do my job.  It comes because I have learned to be strategic about ministry. Not everything I perceive needs to be dealt with right now by me.  In fact, I have learned that in the end, some stuff doesn’t need to be dealt with anytime by anyone.

I have also learned to trust the leading of the Holy Spirit–opening myself to this leading has proven to be the best filter possible for me.

Because I have learned to use some filters, I am more able to respond appropriately to the things that need a response when they need a response.  I may have selective hearing in my ministry but I think it makes my ministry more effective for both me and the people I am called to serve.

May the peace of God be with you.

SELECTIVE HEARING

A few years ago, I was attempting to prove that while my hearing was fine, my wife had been gradually lowering her voice making it difficult for me to hear so I scheduled an appointment with a hearing specialist.  An hour and lots of money later, I had hearing aids because it was my hearing that was the actual problem after all.  The specialist was careful to brief both of us on what to expect and what not to expect from the new hearing aids.  Since I could now hear, I listened carefully–and am glad I did because of what began to happen.

I was hearing everything.  After getting the devices fitted, we went shopping.  As I was standing in line, I heard the conversation between a couple several spots behind me in the line–did I mention that the new hearing aids have both forward and rear facing microphones?  I heard the squeaks and rattles in the car, the rustling of the groceries in the back, the raindrops hitting my hat.  Everything was clear and audible and eventually annoying.

I would have been tempted to rush back to the dealer and have him readjust the hearing aids, except he had warned me about this.  My hearing had been slowly deteriorating over the years and I hadn’t realized I wasn’t hearing all this stuff.  Normally, our brain processes out most of the extraneous noise–but because my hearing had been bad, the areas that do that processing had to be retrained to ignore the stuff I could now hear but really didn’t need to hear.

We all have somewhat selective hearing.  Right now, I am working in our living room.  There is an air purifier running by the living room door.  The kitchen fridge adds to the noise level.  If I focus, I can hear the dehumidifier in the basement.  The fan in my laptop cycles on and off.  The dog flops and walks and does whatever else he does.  With my hearing aids, I can now hear all that stuff.

But I have had them long enough that my filtering systems are back at work and so I only hear them when I choose to or something goes wrong with them.  My hearing is normal in that I can hear it all and depend on my brain to select what I really need to hear, except for a few minutes immediately after I put the hearing aids on in the morning until the filtering process kicks in.

This selective sensing works in most areas of life.  I look out the window and see the trees, the deer, the squirrels and the salt marsh, ignoring the lawn, the wires and the neighbour’s cat.  I can smell the cinnamon from my breakfast granola and not notice the slight odour of wet dog.  I notice the perpetual pain in my left knee from but ignore the lesser pain in my right knee.

And on the larger level, I stand in the pulpit every Sunday and look at the congregation members.  I know these people–remember, I pastor small churches.  As I talk with them before and after the service (and sometimes during), I see and hear lots of things, some of which I actually pay attention to and some of which I don’t.

I see the need of the person I know is struggling with grief and the related issues.  I hear the person who is struggling with some personal issue.  I might perceive the tensions sitting between one of the couples in worship.  I hear the excitement of the couple with grandchildren visiting.  I am aware of the person carrying the burden of an aging and increasingly disabled relative.

And because I am a pastor, I often need to do something in many of these situations–but part of my ministry is knowing what to focus on and what to ignore.  Just like I filter out what my hearing aid augmented ears pick up, so I need to filter out what my pastoral senses show me.

I have learned that the best way for me to do that is to open myself not only to the people but also to God so that the Holy Spirit can help me in the process.  Left to myself, I would either hear it all, which leads to burnout or ignore it all, which is just wrong.  While I am still learning that process, I have discovered a few things, which will be the topic of the next post.

May the peace of God be with you.

MORE WIRES

In the last post, I wrote that there were two things contemplating the wires I tend not to see actually showed me, one of which was my selective blindness.  The other thing the wires reminded me of is the depth and breadth of connections I have with the rest of humanity.

As an introvert with very strong independent tendencies, it is easy for me to downplay and ignore the connections I have with others.  I am quite comfortable most of the time doing my thing and if I occasionally go for extended periods of time not interacting with others, well, that is okay.  But even an independent introvert like me has more need of others that I sometimes let myself be aware of.

And the wires coming in to the house are a visible reminder of those connections.  If my introverted self wants to slump down in the recliner watching TV and ignore people, the cable wire reminds me that I can’t actually do that without some significant interactions with real people.  These people connect the signal to my TV.  They repair the wires that carry the signal.  They run the switching equipment that brings the signals to the wires.  They administer the business that provides the service.  They make the programs that come through the wires.  They do all that just so I can sit in front the TV and ignore people.  And they can do that because I and many others interact with them.  Paying the monthly cable bill is an interaction, one that involves a lot of other people at banks and so on.

The poet John Donne wrote “No man is an island”.  Putting aside his non-politically correct language as an artifact of a different era, he is making a powerful point.  No matter what we would like to think, we humans are intricately and intimately related in more ways that we can imagine.  The connections are beneficial–but they are also two way.  The cable company will happily provide me with diversions, provided I provide them with a monthly income. The power company will likewise give me power to run my various toys and heat the house, provided I interact with them financially.

The wires connect me to the world so that I can supervise a food security project being done by a Congolese pastor as part of the requirements for the course he is taking at a Kenyan theology school–and I can do it from the comfort of one of my two work chairs in my living room in Canada.

If I am drinking a cup of coffee while I am doing it, I am connected with the whole coffee production line, which means that in the end, some of the money I paid for the coffee ends up helping some farmer somewhere buy food or pay school fees. And maybe that does involve me in the debate over whether that farmer actually gets enough for his time and effort to provide me with my coffee.

After Cain killed his brother Abel and was trying to hide the crime from God, he asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4.9).  He would desperately like the answer to be “no”–but it can’t be no.  We humans are so interlinked and intertwined that a sneeze in Canada affects farmers in Kenya. All human need becomes the responsibility of all humanity–we are all connected in some way and have mutual responsibilities and benefits.  Often, we are aware of some of the connection and responsibilities but would like to ignore others.  I want to ignore the panhandlers on the streets when I am in the city.  But ultimately, I have a connection to them–maybe because a former student is using some of the stuff I taught to develop a ministry to the street people whom I am trying to ignore.  Or maybe that person with their hand out is the grandchild of one of the people who occasionally comes to one of the worship services I lead.  Or maybe the connection is that God wants me to intervene directly in that life.

I will probably continue to ignore the wires coming into the house, at least until one of them doesn’t work or I get desperate for something to write.  But I do need to remember the connections they represent and the wider connections they symbolize.  Even at my most introverted and independent, I have benefits and responsibilities connecting me with the rest of humanity.

May the peace of God be with you.

FEELING AND THINKING

Sometimes, when I am in a counselling session with a troubled individual, I will use a question to help them get a hold of what it going on in their lives.  I will say something like, “What are you feeling?” or “How did (does) that make you feel?”.  A significant number of people will answer the question by saying, “I think…” and then going on to give a reasoned response that tells me two things:  first, they know what they should feel and secondly, they have no idea what they personally feel.  Often, I will keep asking the question, pointing out that they are giving me thoughts instead of feelings until they either tell me to stop or begin to see their feelings.

There are significant and deep connections between what we feel and what we think but they are actually two different processes and two different viewpoints.  We all feel and we all think–and in the long run, it is good to know the difference between the two as well as how they are related and interact.

My feelings affect my thinking–and my thinking affects my feelings.  The less I am aware of my thinking or my feeling, the more complicated the process becomes and the less I am in control of any of it.  For many people, the difficulty is that we don’t recognize or acknowledge our feelings–and that opens the door for those unrecognized and unacknowledged feelings to dominate my thinking.

I am an introvert, a reality which means I tend to be uncomfortable in large groups of people.  The larger the group, the more uncomfortable I feel.  Unless I can be assured of a certain amount of physical and psychological space, I have serious negative feelings.  So, when the possibility of going to something where there will be a lot of people, I need to take that into consideration.

If I don’t consider my initial negative feelings, I can think myself into lots of good reasons for not going:  parking will be a problem; it will be late and I am tired; it will cost too much; a riot might break out; it will be a great spot for a terrorist to strike; someone there might have the flu–well, you get the idea.  When I don’t take into consideration my feelings, my thinking falls into alignment with my feelings and gives me reasons for not doing (or doing) what my feelings want.

Now, when the feelings are about a crowded concert, that is one thing.  But my feelings can have serious affects on all my life.  If I was abused by a school teacher, I can and probably will let those feelings affect my entire view of education–especially if I repress the feelings and pretend that the abuse didn’t happen or didn’t affect me or doesn’t matter.  My thinking gets distorted by the feelings that I haven’t been willing or able to deal with.

From my perspective as a pastor and occasional counsellor, the solution to the issue of feelings dominating thinking is simple.  All we need to do is admit and accept our feelings.  As a pastor and occasional counsellor, I recognize that this can be a very painful, difficult and time-consuming process that is anything but easy.  Sometimes, it can seem to an individual to be beyond their ability, which is why God has given us pastors, counsellors and therapists of various kinds–having someone there to help us through the painful process of coming to grips with our feelings makes a real difference.

In the end, the more we recognize and understand and accept the reality of our feelings, the freer we are to actually live our lives.  Rather than be guided and directed by what we don’t know and thus don’t control, we are able to think better because we know all (or at least more of) the factors that have been causing problems.  We can take into account our feelings but we can also think of ways around them and ways to deal with them and reasons why the feelings can be ignored or deal with in a better way.

Asking people how they are feeling is an important part of my pastoral and counselling processes–and it can be a valuable tool for any of us.  The more we understand our feelings, the freer our thought process.

May the peace of God be with you.

“THEY” ARE PEOPLE TOO

One of the (dis?)advantages of being a pastor is that I accumulate a great deal of information about people.  In the normal course of pastoral activity, I see, hear and deduce a great many things about the people I work with.  Some of the things I know, they know I know.  Some, well, they don’t know I know.  And because I am a pastor, a lot of what I know needs to be kept confidential.

So, imagine this scenario which happens with great regularity.  We are in a meeting–Bible study, coffee party, potluck, business or whatever.  The talk turns to something topic, say whether tea or coffee is the better beverage.  A convert to coffee begins to testify–they drank tea for years and only after starting coffee did they realize that tea was so bad and evil.  Then, they begin to discuss tea drinkers–“they” are all deluded and have possibly been seriously harmed by tea.  “They” are also trying to trap people, especially good coffee drinkers, and get them mired in the tea trap.

So, I am sitting there, listening to this.  I know the convert’s story and can understand their antipathy towards tea.  But I also know that two of the people at the meeting need to drink tea regularly because of serious medical problems that only regular doses of tea can prevent from becoming terminal.  As the coffee convert becomes more agitated, I know that the tea drinkers are becoming more and more uncomfortable.  Generally, if I have any means to do so, I gently guide the discussion into a different direction, trying to avoid breaking confidence or creating a confrontational situation.

It seems to me that often when we talk about “they”, we are forgetting that “they” are actually real people.  We all have an all too human tendency to see anyone outside our comfort zone as suspicious, dangerous or just plain wrong–and even more, we somehow manage to let ourselves see them as not human.

When I studied anthropology a long time ago, I remember reading about groups of people who had very strong rules against killing people.  In their language, their group name was “people”, making everyone outside the group not people, who could therefore be killed with no penalty.  I think our modern use of “they” accomplishes the same thing.

We dehumanize people when we “they” them.  We make them less than people–they don’t need respect, they don’t need justice, they don’t need understanding, they may not even need God’s love because, well, “they” are like that.

So, go back to the fictional tea/coffee dichotomy at the fictional meeting we started with.  I know the tea drinker story and I know the coffee convert story.  I know that the coffee convert and the tea drinker are really good friends.  I also know that the tea drinker has never told the coffee convert about the tea–and so I know that as the coffee convert is talking, the tea drinker is shrinking inside and their friendship is dying a little bit.  Fortunately, this is a fictional story so I don’t have to figure out how their pastor is going to help them deal with this issue.

I have been as guilty of the “they” process as anyone.  And I have also learned the best and maybe only way to deal with the “they” process.  The more I get to know “them”, the less I am willing to dehumanize them.  As I spend time with “them”, getting to know who they are and why they do what they do and where the differences come from, it is harder and harder to lump them into a group called “they”.  The more I get to know people, the more “they” become “we”–and given the realities of life, “we” is much better for all of us than “they”.

And in the end, God wants us to be “we” not “they”.  The Bible is based on God’s love for us, a love he wants us to take to the whole world.  We all need the same thing–the love and grace of God.  God’s love doesn’t exclude or ignore or dehumanize “them” because it sees no “they” or “them”.  God’s love makes us “we”–and our call and privilege is to be used by God to make that love available for all of us.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE CHURCH WEATHER REPORT

A few times over the course of my ministry with small congregations, I have been taken aside by some member of the congregation and thanked for what I have done and am doing in the congregation.  Since I am somewhat analytical by nature, I have generally asked the person to tell me just what it is that they think I have done.  Initially, I was thinking I would hear some comment about my breathtaking preaching, my incredibly inspiring teaching, my superlative administrative skills or at least the fact that last Sunday, I managed to produce a bulletin with no discernible mistakes.

But in almost every case in which this scenario happened, the informant doesn’t mention any of those things.  Almost all have told me that what I have done that is so important to them is change the atmosphere of the congregation.  They mention that they come to worship now because they want to, not because they feel it is their duty.  They talk about the fact that we laugh a lot as a congregation–and often add that we laugh together, not at each other.  Sometimes, the person will say that the congregation used to be gloomy but now they feel hope and excitement.

I have to confess that this hasn’t been some planned strategy on my part but as I have reviewed the ministry I have done, I can see that a change of atmosphere is generally a by-product of what I have been doing.  And in each situation, I haven’t been doing anything more than what I think is my job as pastor.

My primary area of skill, ability, gifts and inclination is pastoral.  I am concerned about people.  Now, because I am an introvert, I joke with churches that I don’t actually like people but that really isn’t true.  As a pastor, I like and care for the people I am working with and for–and they are my primary focus.  That doesn’t seem to be the case for all pastor-congregation matches.

As I read and study pastoral trends these days, I find strong encouragement for me to be a Leader, a Visionary or even better, a Visionary Leader.  I am told by others that I must be an unflinching advocate of the TRUTH, unwavering in my defence of all that it right.  Others suggest that I must be Seeker Sensitive, designing worship and programs for those who aren’t there but who might come if I get things right.  I also need to be an advocate of Church Growth, following which ever theory is hot at the moment.

In the end, though, I am a pastor, called by God to love and care for a specific group of people.  The spiritual (and sometimes actual) feeding of this flock is my focus.  And as I have analysed the congregations I have worked with, I realize that the comments I mentioned at the beginning of this post are a direct result of the fact that the people feel cared for and supported in their spiritual development–and that changes the nature of their relationship with both the faith and the church.

These days, I am more aware of the atmosphere of congregations and more concerned with changing the atmosphere.  But the process I follow really hasn’t changed.  I am still a pastor.  I work at listening and caring and supporting.  I build my teaching and preaching on what I am hearing and seeing and deducing from my pastoral contacts.  But most of all, I spend time with people, listening and learning.

The results of good pastoral care are many and varied–but one of the most important is that people feel valued and important.  Worship becomes a time of sharing with each other and with God their sense of value and importance.  Whatever we do as a congregation grows out of this atmosphere of value and importance.  People are free to open themselves to the leading of the Spirit–and when the congregation opens themselves to this leading, there is no telling what will happen but it will generally be positive, powerful and exciting for everyone involved.

The church weather report is one of the most powerful indicators of the health and potential of a congregation–and the role of the pastor is crucial to establishing conditions for a good weather report.

May the peace of God be with you.

RULES AND/OR RELATIONSHIPS

In most of the contexts where I am teaching, I eventually get around to discussing the difference between religion and faith.  Religion is the codified set of customs, rules, regulations and norms essentially define the way for follower of the particular approach.  Within that code, interestingly enough, is almost always a description of who can break what part of the code and when that is possible.  These codes are sometimes written but are most often a combination of written material accompanied by a significant amount of oral commentary.

Faith, on the other hand, is often seen as a living, dynamic relationship between an individual and the deity.  While the code of the religion shapes and describes the nature of the relationship to a certain extent, the goal of faith is an ever-deepening, more fulfilling relationship with the deity.

That distinction helps me and others understand some of what goes on in our human search for God.  All too often, though, it can easily break down into a simplistic, black and white argument over whether the rules are more important or the relationship.  Which side of the argument you end up on says a lot about your personality and spirituality.

I have been on both sides of the argument,  although I do have to be honest and state that my being on the rule side happened very early in my faith life and didn’t last very long–it seems I was born with a mental condition that turns rules into suggestions for debate, something which I discovered isn’t acceptable in military or some religious circles.

After a long spell on the relationship side, I began to re-examine the value and place of rules.  It all started one day in Kenya.  I was a very young teacher in a school for training pastors for an independent African denomination.  I was filled with idealism and wanted to teach with as much openness to their culture as possible.  In my desire to strip Christianity to its most basic by getting rid of all the North American add-ons possible, I chose to get rid of one cultural attachment that I had always hated anyway.  I taught without a tie.

That isn’t all that startling these days–but way back then in the late 1970s, ties were still an essential part of the Christian faith in Canada.  But I was in Kenya and they were an independent denomination and they didn’t need cultural baggage like ties cluttering up their development of an indigenous African understanding of our common faith.

Great idea, I thought.  They get an unfettered faith and I get an unfettered neck–everyone wins.  Except that one of their rules was that preachers and teachers wear ties.  All my male students wore ties and jackets to class and everywhere.  All the other male faculty wore ties and jackets to class and for everything else.  My lack of a tie wasn’t a liberating step on the way to a truer and deeper relationship with each other and through that to God–rather, it was a road block because everyone was upset but no one knew quite how to tell this rule-breaker that although they appreciated my teaching, they needed me to wear a tie.

Eventually, the school principal found a way to get the message across and I went to class with a tie.  Eventually, I began wearing a clerical collar, since that was appropriate and desired for my position within the church.  Breaking the rules didn’t enhance any relationships–following them did.

I believe that relationships are basic, whether it is the relationship between me and God, me and students, me and parishioners, me and anyone.  Anything that gets in the way or hinders the relationships is a problem.  But I have seen that I can’t automatically class all rules as a hindrance to relationships.  Rules can also enhance relationships and enable them to grow and develop.  I might not have like wearing a tie in tropical heat (or winter cold for that matter) but if wearing that tie helped me relate better to students and church people, then I will follow the rule.  Even today, I would not think of stepping into a Kenyan class room without a tie or clerical collar.  It is also hard for me to step into a Canadian pulpit without a tie, probably because of my African rules.

The trick in the end is discovering and using those rules that enhance relationships and changing those which harm relationships.

May the peace of God be with you.

HOW CAN I HELP YOU?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.