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.

TREES

A few years ago, I had a stretched muscle in my back that made sitting at a desk very painful.  Since I was well into laptops at that point, the obvious solution was to do as much of my work as possible sitting in a comfortable chair that didn’t aggravate the pain in my back.  Eventually with the help of therapy, my back got better.  But by then, I was so comfortable working in the living room that it became my permanent office.  I still have a desk in our home office and it serves a very important purpose–it provides a place to put everything that I need to deal with sometime but not right now.  Normally, I try to clean it up sometime before the pile falls over and crushes the robot vacuum cleaner.

So, what does that have to do with the title of this post?  There is actually a connection.  Sitting at a desk, I tend to focus on the desk and other office junk–the printer, the books, the calendar telling me what I have to do and on and on.  It is a work environment and while it might be effective to have all the work stuff in one place, it isn’t an overly inspiring or creative environment for me.  Working in the living room, well that is a very different thing.  I have the laptop I am working on.  If I need something else, like a hymn book to plan worship, I have to go get it.  Since the coffee table beside the work chair also holds a candle, some plants, my coffee cup or cereal bowl and occasionally my feet, there isn’t a lot of room for much else.

I get to focus on what I am working on–and when the inspiration isn’t flowing or my spelling is so bad that even Spell-check can’t figure it out, I can look out the window.  Looking around in the office shows me stuff that needs to be done.  Looking out the living room window allows me to see trees.  Right now, the maples and the oak are in full leaf, the pine is showing its different coloured growing tips and the unknown berry bush is in bloom.  If I look a bit more to the right, I can see the tidal flat and the hills and trees beyond that.  If I look carefully, I don’t need to look at the lawn that needs mowing.

This is important to me because trees are an important part of my relaxation process.  Being able to see trees somehow relaxes me and helps me think.  When the sermon isn’t coming together or the blog post doesn’t make sense or the phone call goes on and on, being able to look at trees provides a break and a whiff of peace and relaxation.  And, if one of the local squirrels happens to be performing in the tree when I look up, that is even better. Staring at trees does much more for my mental and spiritual health that staring at a desk (cluttered or clean) ever did.  Looking at a wall of green leaves and needles is a much more powerful mini-break than looking at a wall with a calendar, a bulletin board and some pictures.  Even looking at shelves full of books, as helpful as that is for me, doesn’t have the same effect as resting my eyes on trees.

I am not recommending this for everyone.  But I would suggest that all of us have something that has this same sort of relaxing effect.  My wife likes to see water–rivers, lakes, oceans.  Some like to see children at play.  A friend likes to see his car–or any car for that matter.  There may even be some people who get that jolt of relaxation from looking at a cluttered desk and functional office space.

I think it is important that we learn about ourselves and what makes us tick and what makes us relax and build our daily rhythms around these insights.  I have always known that trees relax me but it took a serious back pain before I learned that I could incorporate that insight into my actual work.  I don’t know how much more effective and efficient my work is because of being able to see trees when I write but that doesn’t really matter–and if I ever need to quantify the effect, staring at the trees will help me figure out how calculate the effect.

Anyway, the squirrel is back and the tide is coming in.

 

May the peace of God be with you.

MORE SABBATH STUFF

It has been about six months since I have had a break of longer than a day or two.  Since the Sunday after Christmas, I have been producing and preaching two sermons a week, leading two Bible studies for most of that time, seeing people dealing with a variety of issues and struggles, and officiated at nine funerals.  During that time, I have tried to take regular breaks during the day, during the week and occasional longer breaks, although I am still wondering if a two day retirement planning seminar actually qualifies as a break.

But in spite of the breaks, the cumulative effects of ministry have begun to show:  it is harder and harder to write my sermons–the ideas just don’t seem to come;  it is more and more difficult to go see people–the excuses for not going sound better and better; work related reading is happening less and less–the pointless, mind-numbing call of Solitaire or Youtube becomes louder and louder.  I am tired and worn out.  I am not depressed yet–but I sense that it is just around the corner.

Normally, I don’t go that long without some sort of longer break but a variety of circumstances came together and made a week long break impossible.  Now, some of the pastors I have run into along the way would have suggested that in the end, I need to stop whining and get on with the work.  I am a pastor.  I have been called by God to the ministry I do.  God gives me the strength that I need to do this work.  It is vital work and people are deeply in need and God needs me to get at it.  Pastors don’t have the luxury of fatigue or tiredness or down time, or so the traditional line goes.  Fatigue is all in my mind–and besides, there will be plenty of time for rest in heaven.

Even though I have heard and read and seen this example for most of my ministry, I have never really bought it.  Part of that might be because my physical make up is such that when I need to sleep, I need to sleep–none of the traditional work arounds (coffee, tea, cola, prayer, exercise, denial) actually work for me for very long.  Even the most powerful work around for me–coffee–really only gives me a few  more hours.  Eventually, I am going to sleep.

Trying to ignore that reality has created all sorts of interesting scenarios: I have fallen asleep in meetings; I have fallen asleep in the staff room while typing on the computer; I fall asleep while reading; I have fallen asleep in worship–not while I have been preaching, yet.  And, in a couple of very sobering incidents, I have fallen asleep while driving.  Those, more than anything convinced me that I am not superman and that when I am tired, I need to pay attention and do something to really deal with the fatigue.

Ministry is a fulfilling and demanding process, whether it is done professionally as I do it or as a lay person.  Ministry always involves giving of ourselves to others–if we are not giving of ourselves, we are not really engaged with the people we are ministering to and we are not likely doing what God calls us to do.

Ministry is so demanding that as important as mini-sabbaths are, they really can’t clear away all the accumulated fatigue and tiredness.  While it is important to have sabbath rests daily, weekly and monthly, we also need to allow ourselves a longer and more significant break, a period of time when we can let it all go for a time.

The world will continue on while we are resting.  God will still accomplish his will while we are taking a break.  People with needs will find a way to meet those needs while we are unavailable.  But if we don’t take the break we need, we will most likely find ourselves at the end of a shortened ministry, probably needing someone to give us some serious ministry.

Why have I been spending so much time on the topic of breaks and sabbaths?  Simple–I am tired, I recognize my own need of a break and the plane tickets are booked.  I may not be the world’s greatest pastor, but I have learned to minister to myself and take the breaks I need.

May the peace of God be with you.

SPIRITUAL DEVELOPMENT OR YOUTUBE?

I don’t read many real books these days.  That isn’t because I have stopped reading.  I read almost as much as I ever did–but these days, I have made a conscious decision to use ebooks as much as possible.  I would like to say that I made the decision based on sound environmental and economic reasons:  ebooks don’t use paper thereby saving trees and they generally cost less.  But the truth is that I made the decision to switch to ebooks because after giving my large theological library away for what seemed like a good reason at the time ( maybe a story for another blog someday), I decided that having a library I could carry in a pocket was a great idea.

But work related paper books are still plentiful and I end up with a good number of them in the course of the year, many of which look interesting.  They end up in the new book section of the book shelf in the study, until their turn to be read at which point the book gets transferred to top of the cardboard box that serves as a shelf beside my exercise bike.  My plan is that during my hour on the bike in the morning, I will do my daily Bible reading which takes about 20 minutes, check email and the day’s headlines on the tablet, which takes about 5 minutes  and then finish out the hour reading the latest book on the box.

And I actually do that–at least until I hit one of those stretches of ministry expansion when I have too much to do and not enough time to do it and the fatigue gets the better of me.  I know that is coming when I finish the Bible reading, do the email and headlines and pick up the book.  I feel a sense of dread–well, probably not dread but at least a sense of “Do I have to?”.  Early in the fatigue process, I sternly tell myself that I have to–I committed myself to this and it is as much a part of my spiritual development as reading the Bible and praying and so I have to do it.

On those stern days, I might actually get a couple of pages read before I realize I am not taking anything in and in fact, am getting quite bored with the whole thing.  My ability to spend an hour on the exercise bike is dependant entirely on my ability to distract myself from the boredom of exercising so being bored reading threatens my ability to stay on the bike.

The debate begins: “I’m tired–maybe I should quit biking early.  All this biking probably isn’t good for me knee.  This book is really boring.  Read it! But I am not processing it! I’m tired.  My knee might start to hurt.”

The only viable and workable solution ultimately seems to be watching Youtube videos on the tablet.  They distract me enough so that I can continue the exercise session–and as for that boring book, well maybe the dog will eat it the next time he is in the basement by himself.  So, for the sake of my physical health, Youtube it is.

Do I feel guilty about not reading?  A bit–but it’s the kind of guilt I am used to as a religious person.  There is enough guilt to take to take the fun edge off of what I am doing but not enough to stop me from doing it.  Besides, watching other people’s failures and foibles gives me some comfort on my fatigue.

Should I force myself to read?  Well, having tried that, I can say for sure that it doesn’t work.  But from experience, I also know that I will get tired of Youtube and the ministry expansion will slow down and eventually, that book will become more interesting.  So, I watch Youtube.  Rather than see it as a failure, I see it as another form of Sabbath.  It gives me the ability to continue the physical exercise, allows me to rest the emotionally and spiritually overworked parts of my being.  It also allows me to laugh, which is physically, emotionally and spiritually healthy.

So, I read the book most of the time–but when I can’t, I allow myself the Sabbath I need because that way, I know I will eventually get back to the book.

May the peace of God be with you.

WOUNDED HEALERS

I am a pastor and have been a teacher of pastors.  I have worked with pastors in at least four countries, taught pastors from half a dozen countries and done pastoral work myself for over 40 years.  At the beginning of my pastoral career, I came to an important realization that has been strengthened and deepened by all my experience in pastoral work.  That realization is that we pastors are not perfect.

Now, that may seem like a glaringly obvious reality to many non-pastors but it can be hard for we who are pastors to really understand and believe this reality.  Our calling puts us in a privileged and important position.  We get involved in people’s lives when things are painful, hectic, exciting or confusing.  We deal with issues and thoughts and ideas that many people shy away from.  We get asked for advice and answers on many things from the trivial (Why do Baptists use grape juice for Communion?) to the profound (How can God love someone like me?).  We are seen as being the representative of God–when we are present, people can feel like God is present.

The always present temptation is the temptation to believe that we really are what some people think we are and to forget who we really are.  When I am the person to deliver the understanding of the presence of God and his grace, it is all too tempting to believe that something divine has rubbed off on me and that I have somehow been elevated to another level–certainly, in all modesty, I keep the halo hidden but, well, we all know that it is there.

Except that it really isn’t there.  I might be God’s representative, I might presume to speak for God twice each Sunday, I might mediate between the hurting world and the graceful God–but none of the holiness of God has rubbed off on me.  Or better, no more of it has rubbed off on me that has rubbed off on others–and there may be some who have managed to attract even more.

Very early in my ministry, I ran across Henri Nouwen’s book  The Wounded Healer.  Without even reading the book, I was and continue to be struck by the insight and profound truth expressed by the title.  Reading the book just amplifies and solidifies the bedrock reality that no matter what I think I am; no matter that I wrestle with the things of God as a matter of course; no matter that I can and do bring the awareness of God to the darkness of life, I am still human and approach my calling as an imperfect person who must deal with my own imperfections while I help others deal with theirs.  All of us need the grace of God, not just the people I work with.

God calls us in our wounded state and works to heal us.  But we will remain wounded and imperfect for the whole of our existence here.  We never reach perfection because as soon as we finally deal with one wound, God shows us another one.  When we take the bandage off one healed spot, we probably manage to cut ourselves with the scissors God gave us to cut the bandage and so need healing for that new wound.

As a pastor, I long ago realized I can’t really hide my wounds from anyone but myself.  And if I can’t hide them, I needed to learn how to do my calling with them.  Sometimes, I try to do it in spite of my wounds.  But mostly, I have realized that my best work at carrying out my calling comes when I let God work through both my strengths and my weaknesses.  Sometimes, the fact that I can get beyond my bouts of depression help people and sometimes the fact that I can still minister even during a bout of depression helps even more people.  Sometimes, my wounds need healing from the people I pastor, which is also part of God’s plan for me and them.

I am a pastor, which means that in the end, I am a wounded healer.  I need help even as I offer help.  Fortunately, the presence and grace of God means that he is willing to both heal me and work through me, just as he heals and works through those I am called to shepherd.

May the grace of God be with you.

AM I DEPRESSED?

A few days ago, I was sitting in my work chair in the living room.  I was supposed to be writing one of the two sermons I have to produce each week.  I had done the research, I had a theme, the sermon was part of a series so I had some sense of where it was supposed to go–all I had to do was start writing and soon, I would have a sermon ready.  Except, that wasn’t happening.  I was struggling–not because of the topic, not because of interruptions, not because the computer was giving me trouble.  I just couldn’t get started and when I finally got started, the words didn’t want to come.

I finished the sermon finally and went on to other stuff until it was time to go see some people in the church.  Being an introvert, that is something I always struggle with a bit but that day, it was really hard to get motivated to go out and see people.  I went, I saw people and I actually enjoyed the contacts.

But on the way home, as I was thinking about it and had a scary thought.  I put my struggle with the sermon together with the increased difficulty going to see people and began to think, “I’m depressed”.  Depression is something I struggle with and the thought that it might be making another appearance bothered me a lot.

But as I began the process of dealing with the depression, I ran into further problems.  Normally, once I realize I am slipping into depression, I look for the trigger(s), whatever it is that started the process.  But try as I might, I couldn’t find any trigger.  Nor did I find all the normal stuff associated with my depression–for example, I was still listening to the car radio when I was driving.  When I am depressed, I just can’t do that–I have to drive in silence.

So, I wondered some more–was I slipping into some new, unknown expression of depression that was growing out of some deeply repressed stuff that would send me into a long and difficult bout of depression and struggle and all the rest?  I don’t like the depression process that I have dealt with too often in my life and so tend to be somewhat anxious about everything connected with depression.  Not being able to get a quick hold on it was depressing me.

As I worked through the stuff, I realized that what I was experiencing might not be depression.  It also wasn’t likely some other form of emotional upheaval either.  There was nothing major percolating up from the depths and the surface stuff wasn’t all that much of a problem, except for the fact that there was a whole lot of it and my personal time was getting lost.

I was missing exercise time; I was having less personal time, I was spending much more time in intense contact with people, I was putting in too many hours at both my jobs.  I looked at the whole picture and realized that in the end, I was tired, not depressed.   I do realize that physical fatigue can and does lead to serious stuff and in my case, prolonged physical fatigue can indeed lead to depression but what I was (and am) dealing with here was tiredness, not depression.

I can deal with that–probably not right now  but eventually.  I am tired because a variety of things have come together requiring a lot more work than normal.  There is a slow down coming–that isn’t the workaholic’s “someday” dream but rather is a basic reality.  A lot of the stuff keeping me so busy will soon be done and churches simply don’t do all that much in the summer.  In the meantime, I can do a few things, like allow myself to take longer to write sermons (and blog posts), exercise when I can, take a nap now and then, watch a TV show, plan and take some vacation time or just enjoy sitting and doing not much of anything.

I am tired and not depressed.  I do need to take the fatigue seriously but fatigue is much less painful for me than depression.   While I might not be overly thankful for being tired, I am deeply thankful that it isn’t depression and even more thankful that I can tell the difference.

May the peace of God be with you.

GOD LOVES DIVERSITY

            During my later teen years, I was involved in lots of military stuff:  I was an army cadet and after that, a Reserve Force officer involved in training cadets.  I enjoyed my time in both–I got to do interesting things, travel to interesting places and pay for a couple of years of university.  I discovered an interesting paradox about me during that time:  I enjoyed the military experience and the military toys but I really wasn’t at home with a culture that required so much conformity.

The uniform I could deal with–clothes are not something that I get all concerned over.  But I did get tired of having to do the same thing as everyone else at the same time as everyone else in the same way as everyone else.  My boots needed the same shine as everyone else’s; my shirts needed the same pressing as everyone else’s; my pants needed the same crease as everyone else’s; my sleep pattern had to be the same as everyone else’s–well, you get the picture.

On some levels, I thought that I would have a better future in the church–after all, I belong to a part of the church that began because of a commitment on the part of our founders to allow for personal freedom and the ability of the individual to think and approach God on their own.  And while that hasn’t always worked out quite the way I thought it might, overall, I have found that my faith has room to grow and develop as I feel God is leading me.  That is not to say that I haven’t been confronted by people who feel I  need to conform to their understanding of what God wants but whenever that has been an issue, I think God has graciously shown me ways to deal with such pressure.

My faith experience has taught me that God understands, accepts celebrates and even encourages our human diversity.  As Creator, God had the option of making us all the same.  He chose to create us with a highly variable genetic structure and insures that every human being is going to end up different from every other human being–even identical twins who share the same genetic makeup end up becoming different.

And God carries that diversity even further.  As a Christian, I believe that the only way to God is through acceptance of Jesus Christ–but the ways people discover Christ (or are brought to Christ to be theologically correct) are as varied as the number of people in the world.  Even those whose experience seems to be the same have significant differences when we take a closer look.

I grew up during the last days of successful evangelistic campaigns.  Many of my friends and I “walked the aisle” during the yearly crusade, as was the expected custom in our day.  But even though the outward appearance was the same, the experience of God through Christ was very different.  I walked the aisle because it was expected–but I realize now that I had been a believer for months before that.  One friend walked the aisle because of family pressure but somewhere in the process, he genuinely encountered God.  Another, well, maybe he walked the aisle physically but spiritually, he was still sitting in his seat.

In my spiritual growth after that time, I have followed a different path from others–not a strange or weird path–unless you consider frequent sojourns in Kenya strange.  I followed a ministry path–but even there, my path wasn’t the same as everyone else.  Some in the class focused on working with youth.  Some wanted to be great preachers.  Some actually liked and understood Patristic Theology.  We weren’t the same then and we aren’t the same now–after 40 years of ordained ministry, I am pastoring the same churches I started pastoral ministry in while my peer group from school are pastoring other congregations, leading para-church organizations, being denominational staff–and a few have actually engaged in “secular” work as their ministry.

God celebrates and encourages our diversity.  He designed us to be different.  One of our greatest strengths as a species is our diversity. And one of our greatest strengths as people of faith is our diversity. As we explore and understand our diversity before God, I think we develop a better picture of who we are and who God is–and that is always a good thing.

May the peace of God be with you.

AFTER THE BIBLE STUDY

Doing Bible Study groups in the churches I pastor is an intense experience for me–and from what I hear from the participants, it can be quite intense for some of them  Since I am the named teacher of the study, I carry a lot of responsibility during the study time.  I try to keep things on some track, enough so that everyone feels they are involved and that any side tracks we take aren’t simply the desires of any one person.

I spend a lot of energy listening to and observing the members.  Because I am their pastor, I am not only trying to pick up on how well they are following and understanding the study, but also, I am listening and watching for indications of stuff outside the study:  the normally verbal individual who is silent may be wrestling with the point under discussion or they may be getting the flu or they may be dealing with the cancer diagnosis they received yesterday that they haven’t told anyone about yet.

While all this is going on at some level, I am also processing the study:  reviewing old material, asking and answering questions, seeking and receiving comments and ideas from the group, directing traffic a bit to keep everyone from talking at once, remembering the order of who speaks after the current speaker, laughing at the jokes, gently encouraging the silent to speak more and the verbal to speak less.  And occasionally, during lulls in the questions and comments, I get to insert some new material for the group to chew on.

Bible study is a busy, interactive and often fast paced process on both my pastoral settings, one in which we all learn and all teach.  But I am the teacher, facilitator, leader or whatever you want to call the person who gets paid to be there and participate.  I am also, as I have mentioned here a few times, an introvert.

And that means that I love Bible Study, I seek and encourage the high level of participation, I enjoy the time.  But when Bible study is over and I have finished with the last of the private conversations that follow Bible study, I am wiped out.

A few years ago, our two sons and I spend a week on a wilderness hike that involved me carrying a 25+ kilo pack 12-20 kilometers a day.  I was tired at the end of each hiking day–but I don’t recall being as tired after those days as I am after one Bible study session.  When possible, Bible study is followed by a short nap–and when it isn’t, it is followed by incessant yawning and wishing I had time for a nap.

One of the things I have learned about myself is that I have two conflicting realities within me.  I am a pastor/teacher, which drives me to interact with people on a deep level.  I want to help, to instruct, to enable, to encourage people as they grow in faith.  I am both driven and attracted to opportunities to teach and pastor.  But I am also an introvert.  I prefer my computer or a book or a solitary walk.  I don’t actually mind being by myself–when I talk about getting away from it all, I am normally thinking of getting away from people or at least people I need to pastor/teach.

I am probably not alone in this–many pastors and professional helpers I know are introverts so there are a great many of us living with these conflicting drives.  I don’t think that I have any earth-shaking insights about how to deal with them.  But I have learned that I need to accept both of them as real and deal with them in a practical, pragmatic way that keeps them in a proper balance.

I am a pastor/teacher so I am going to have to interact with people on a deep basis–they don’t pay me to sit at home and be alone.  I am an introvert who gets tired as a result of the interaction.  So, I care for both sides.  When I am with people, they are getting the very best I can give during that time–and when I finish interacting with people, I take the time I need to rest and restore myself.  All through the process, I am looking to God for strength, leading and acceptance, which he graciously gives to me.

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.

A THEOLOGY OF LISTENING

I am standing in front of a class of 120.  It was supposed to be maybe 50 at most when we were asked to teach the class but this is Kenya and plans and projections are never actually finalized and compete until after things are finished.  The 70 extra students are a minor blip for the organizers–a major problem for my wife and I, though, because we only have student books for 50.

The room we are in would be a poor one for 50 people–it is long and narrow, meaning that the students at the back probably need binoculars to see us and with no PA system, they probably can’t hear us all that well.  With 120 people jammed into the room, the acoustics and comfort level are even worse.  With my poor hearing, I have to be up close to people to hear what they are saying but finding a route to the people at the back involves twists and turns that would make a yoga teacher squirm.

We are there to teach these students how to do some basic pastoral care.  And the most basic of pastoral care processes is listening.  From long experience in teaching listening skills, we both know that this will be a big job–if we can reach the end of the week with at least some of the students being aware that listening isn’t a natural process for many of us, we will have accomplished something.

We have a bag of tricks to get the point across:  there is Proverbs 18.13, which says, ” He who answers before listening—that is his folly and his shame.”; we also use the old proverb, “God gave us two ears and one tongue so that we will listen twice as much as we speak.” and I also joke that most people only use their ears to hold up their glasses.  We also have some exercises that look simple but which give the students extreme frustration when they fail and extreme laughs when others fail.

We also know that we have to fight against a reality that crosses cultures and may be a deeply embedded human trait.  Most of us don’t put a lot of value in listening.  In truth, our approach to listening says a great deal about our approach to other people.  The almost universal human desire to talk rather than listen says that in the end, we value ourselves more than others.  Listening requires that we focus on the other person–and for many of us, that is just too much for our essentially self-focused nature.  And this self-focus is at the root of that the Bible calls sin.

Not to listen to another person is not to value that person.  Not to listen is to put ourselves above that person.  Not to listen is to think–and act–as if we are more important than the other person.  To think that what I have to say is more important than what another person has to say is to make myself more important in my own eyes than they are.

If we are to truly love others, we need to work at expressing that love by actually listening to the other person.  I can teach tricks and give tips on how to do that but in the end, being able to listen is not a matter of tricks and tips–it is a matter of the soul.  We have to know that the other person is important and valuable and has inherent worth.  We have to be willing to give them space in our lives to be important and valuable worthy–and the best and most basic way of doing that is to listen to them.

No amount of my telling a person how valuable and important and worthy they are will make up for the fact that when I don’t listen to them, I am telling them they are of no value, unimportant and unworthy.  And the irony is that I can be telling them just the opposite verbally but my lack of listening will give them exactly the opposite message.

We did, I think, succeed in helping some of those 120 students learn a bit about the importance of listening.  Some were actually really good at listening.  But even me, one of the teachers that day, needs to put a lot more effort into what is one of the most important and most lacking of the acts of love.

May the peace of God be with you.