“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.

I UNDERSTAND COMPLETELY

As a pastor, I work with a lot of people who struggle with lots of things.  I regularly deal with people facing illness and loss of functions.  I spend a lot of time with people dealing with death–their own or that of someone close.  I work with victims of terrible abuse.  I visit parishioners who have had to have a pet put down.  Now and then, I even find myself spending time with a techie whose laptop is sick or dying.  I also spend a lot of time with people whose problems are less earth-shaking:  a stalled car, a lost book, a staple sticking through the upholstery of a favourite chair, a cake that didn’t turn out right.

I learned early in ministry that even if I think the problem is trivial, I can’t treat it that way–it is their problem and their response to it that matters.  I might think it is trivial and in fact the rest of the world might think it is trivial but since it isn’t trivial to them, I need to accept that and work on that basis.  Some days, that can be difficult but I think I learned that lesson fairly well.

What took longer to learn is that even if I have the same experience, I can’t assume that my emotional experience is the same as theirs.  I can’t assume that I understand exactly what they are feeling and know exactly what they need.  Just as I can’t try to make a problem small because I think it is small, I also can’t assume that I fully and completely understand the problem and am therefore completely qualified to give them the benefit of my wisdom and experience.

Certainly, my experience can be helpful in understanding their experience–but my experience isn’t their experience and I can’t forget this.  When I deal with children grieving the loss of a parent, I have some inkling of what they feel, having been through the grief of losing my father, my mother and my step-father.  But I really can’t know exactly what people are feeling.

Every experience has twists and turns and undercurrents that only the person in the middle fully understands–and even then, they may not fully understand them.  When  I claim that I understand, I am actually proclaiming to people that I don’t really care enough for them to find out what is really going on in their lives.

When my father died, for example, it was painful and difficult.  We had a good relationship and got along well and respected and loved each other.  But not every family has that same relationship with a father.  The internal realities of such relationships are hidden under the surface of the visible, public presentation–but they are very real and very much a part of the grief process.  If I assume that everyone who loses a father feels just like I did, I am probably going to do a very poor job helping people with their grief.  A family struggling with the death of a father who was an abuser or a alcoholic or simply not present emotionally will have their grief compounded if I assume their experience is just the same as mine.

I don’t know what people are experiencing.  I might have some idea, based on my experience and my study and what I have heard–but I really don’t understand what people are experiencing, at least not until I have spent some serious time with them and they have been willing to open up about what they are experiencing.

One of the strong reactions I have seen from  people suffering is their anger at people telling them they understand.  Out of politeness, the struggling people nod and say thank you but at some point, they end up telling someone like me that they were angry because the people didn’t really understand–no one can really understand.

We can actually come to understand what people are feeling, it we are willing to admit that we don’t really understand and commit to spending the time it takes to really listen and let people work through their feelings.  While I may never fully understand what someone is feeling, I can understand their need to be understood and make the effort to suspend my assumptions so that I can hear the reality of their experience.

May the peace of God be with you.

HE ISN’T LISTENING

If we pastors give people the opportunity to really talk about their faith and really listen to what they are saying, we will always discover some interesting things.  In  most settings, the discussion will eventually get to prayer and there will be some really powerful comments about prayer.  But at some point after the saints tell their prayer victory stories and the new believers tell their stories about learning to trust God in prayer and the more emotional ones telling just how wonderful prayer makes them feel, someone in the group will hesitantly and haltingly tell their story, a story about the time (or times) they prayed and God didn’t listen to them.  When asked how they know that God didn’t listen to them, the answer is obvious to them–they know that God didn’t listen because he didn’t answer.

There are many ways of dealing with this individual.  We can remind them that no matter what we feel, God hears us.  We can quote a lot of Scripture verses that tell us to pray and keep praying.  We can talk about how their doubt obviously gets in the way.  We can have the successful pray-ers tell some more of their stories.

We can do all of those things–and as a pastor, I have probably done most of them at some point.  But probably what is needed most in a setting like that is for us to really listen to what the person is saying.  This is more than just a theological question–this is a deep-down problem and maybe even a crisis for the person.  Their faith tells them to pray and when they pray, it feels like God isn’t listening.

And, after they have found the courage to share this story, if I or anyone else tries to fix things with another story or a call to have faith or a veiled attempt to shame them for their lack of faith, we haven’t listened.  And if people can’t find other people who will listen to them, it is harder for them to find God listening to them.  To paraphrase  I John 4.20, “If my brother whom I can see can’t listen to me, how can I believe that God whom I can’t see is listening?”

There is no question in my mind that when a person feels that God isn’t listening, the problem lies within them.  They aren’t being totally honest with themselves or God; they are not being truly open to hearing God; they only want to hear one thing; the message that God wants them to hear is too painful or different for them to hear–these and other reasons easily explain why they think the God of all love and grace who listens perfectly isn’t listening.  It is their problem, not God’s.

But it is their problem–and my task isn’t to defend God.  My task is to listen to them enough so that they can hear themselves and understand what is going on in their spirit and mind.  My task is to listen to them using all my skill and patience so that they can learn to listen to themselves.  And in being listened to, they learn to listen to themselves.  And when they learn to listen to themselves, they can then learn to listen to God, who has been listening to them–and us–all along.

I have discovered that just as we struggle to listen to others, so also we struggle to listen to ourselves.  Often, we are no better at listening to ourselves than we are to others.  We don’t hear ourselves say that we are tired or anxious or afraid or excited or whatever.  We don’t hear ourselves say that we really want X but will pretend to want Y.  And when we don’t listen to ourselves praying, we can’t really believe that God is listening to our prayers.

And so when people tell me God isn’t listening, I need to listen.  In some ways, I become the physical embodiment of God, using my listening to help them as they grope their way to understanding that God is listening–and answering–no matter what they think.  As they are heard by a physical being, it helps them hear themselves and that opens the door to them understanding that God hears them.

Listening and being listened to may be among the most important things in life–and one of the hardest to actually do.

May the peace of God be with you.

LISTENING TO GOD

We were sitting around the table at Bible Study, talking about something that had sparked a discussion about something else and that lead to something else and we eventually landed on the topic of hearing God.  One of the members of the study looked at me and asked me if I ever heard God speaking directly to me.  Now, as a pastor, preacher and teacher, I frequently tell people things about God and things that I believe God has said that I need to pass on.  I have helped many other people (I hope) connect with God and hear his message.  But, as I answered the inquirer, I have never heard God speak directly to me in the same way a person would speak to me.

I know people who claim that God speaks directly to them.  And I have to confess that some of them I believe–and some of them I really wonder about.  I rejoice with those who hear direct verbal messages from God that are in fact direct verbal messages from God, although my personal experience is that people who receive such messages are rare and even they don’t have the experience all that often.

And that makes sense to me.  As a species, we have a serious hearing problem.  We struggle to hear the messages we send ourselves.  We are terrible at hearing even the most basic of messages from other human beings.  So it stands to reason that when it comes to God, whose reality is far beyond ours, our ability to hear him would be a problem.  But that doesn’t stop us from claiming to have heard God.

Just as with our fellow humans, we let a whole long list of things get in the way of our ability to really hear God.  And at the head of the list of things that prevent us from hearing God is the basic problem that we likely really don’t want to hear what God has to say to us.  God is in the business of helping us become what we were meant to be, rather than confirming us in what we want to be and so many of the messages he wants us to hear are inconvenient, uncomfortable and even scary.

The messages we would like to get from God; the messages we would send ourselves if we were God; the messages we fantasize receiving–these are all much more acceptable and enjoyable and easier to hear.  So, we hear them–and assume that they come from God.  If I want a new computer, then it is amazing how easily God seems to agree with that need.  If I don’t want to go see someone in the church, it is amazing how quickly God tells me that I shouldn’t do that.

God speaks to us all the time in a variety of ways and using many different approaches–and we, like the good listening beings that most of us are, are always ready and able to not actually hear what he has to say.  And of course, when we aren’t listening to God, it is always because he is silent, a situation that causes us a great deal of spiritual frustration.  That spiritual frustration has a lot in common with my frustration with people speaking too softly all the time–it had to be their fault I couldn’t hear them. I am amazed at how much better people talk these days, especially when I have my hearing aids in.

How do we hear God? Like we hear everyone else–we have to work at it.  And just as our own stuff is the most serious hearing impediment with other people, so it is the most serious blockage when it comes to hearing God.  My solution to this hearing problem?  Well, I recognize that I don’t listen to God as I should; I commit myself to working at listening; I get my stuff out in the open by admitting what I want to hear–and then I wait  patiently and expectantly, testing and evaluating everything I am hearing and seeing, looking for the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5.22-23).  It is a slow process and I get lots of false messages but eventually, I do hear what God has been saying to me.

May the peace of God be with you.