I’M NOT THAT BUSY

I was sitting in the doctor’s office to get the results of some tests. I had also decided to ask him about the fatigue that had been plaguing me recently. It might have been related to the tests that I was getting the results from but it could have been from something else. It was getting so bad that I felt tired all the time and needed to sit for only a couple of minutes before I was falling asleep. Given that one of my relaxing pastimes is sitting reading, the fatigue was seriously cutting into my reading. I enjoy a nap as much or more than the next guy but when I fall asleep three or four times when trying to read for an hour or so, that is getting a bit much.

So, the test results were sort of wishy-washy, suggesting that maybe I did or maybe I didn’t have a problem associated with the tests. But the results did suggest that the extreme fatigue likely came from other sources, which my doctor decided to check out through a set of other tests. But he also asked me about how busy I was.

That was an easy answer, of course. I am a part time pastor and I work 40% time at two different places. That means I work an 80% job, which isn’t all that bad and should be easily accomplished by a 66 year old reasonably healthy male. My doctor, who is also a friend and who therefore knows me as more than just a medical file reframed his question—he wasn’t asking how much I worked, he wanted to know how busy I actually was.

Well, I am 80% at official work. I also mentor a theology student. I do a bit of counselling. I spend some time writing. I occasionally do some “consulting” with other congregations and pastors—the quotation marks are because I think real consultants get paid and I don’t take money for the meetings I have. The more I listed stuff, the more the doctor nodded.

Just as he was beginning to suggest that I was actually quite busy, I realized that I might only work for pay 80% time but I actually am doing a lot—and the unpaid time and effort adds up—I am probably well over 100% if I were really honest and accurate. I think I had allowed myself to fall into the mindset that unpaid stuff was not really work and therefore shouldn’t actually count when it came to counting work/leisure hours.

I have long had this vision of myself as a sort of laid back, slightly lazy guy who gets things done but who manages to take it easy a good deal of the time. Well, that vision evaporated quickly under the harsh lights of my reality. I am actually quite busy, busier than I let myself realize. Most of what I do, I like and I do it because I think it is valuable and important.

But during that visit to the doctor, I realized that I am going to have to make some changes to deal with the realities I live with now. The doctor is making sure that there is no serious underlying medical issue—I gave up enough blood to the technicians to ensure everything is tested and checked.

But even without the results of those tests, it is clear that I need to make some adjustments in my life style. I need to make some different choices that take into account the reality that I am 66 not 26 and the energy I need to do all that I want to do isn’t as easy to come by as it was 40 years ago. I am making some adjustments to my sleep patterns. I am looking carefully at all the things I am doing, seeking to cut down the work load a bit—realizing that unpaid isn’t the same as not working helps out here. I want to get to the point where I can actually read for an hour or so without falling asleep. I want to be able to nap but I want the nap time to be my choice, not something that I have no control over.

I think the new sleep pattern is working and I am pretty sure there isn’t much going on beyond the fact that I need to relearn my limits.

May the peace of God be with you.

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ANONYMOUS AGAIN

Many years ago, I was approached by a friend to serve on a committee. Committees involve meetings and since meetings are something I try to avoid as much as possible, I didn’t (and don’t) do committees all that much. My friend knew all that but still wanted to nominate me for the committee. He explained his reason for asking me.

The committee was dealing with some significant issues in our denominational life, issues that I and many others, including my friend, were concerned about. He felt that the views we held needed to be expressed and he believed that I was the person to express them on the committee because I said what I thought clearly and openly and wasn’t intimidated by disagreement.

Over the years, I have developed a reputation as one who sometimes (often? too often?) speaks the unpopular view. I have a tendency to see things differently at times and in the right circumstances, am willing to speak out. Early in my ministry career, I confess to speaking out often and loudly. These days, I still think a lot but tend to speak less often and less loudly. I let a lot of stuff pass by—I might have some thoughts and even some disagreement but I am not really interested in putting out the effort to comment or engage.

However, when I chose to engage, I am always going to do it openly and clearly. When I disagree with something or someone, I will make it clear that I disagree. I am not going to hide behind someone else; I am not going to use an anonymous web name; I am not going to become a “they” whispering around the edges. I will speak in my own voice, with my name openly and clearly attached. If need be, I will even put it in writing, clearly accepting responsibility for what I am saying.

I am aware that this puts me at odds with a major trend in our society. Thanks to the proliferation of social media, a great many people get to make a great many comments about a great many things without ever having to take any responsibility whatsoever. It is incredibly easy to comment when you can become anonymous commentator 219. People now have an powerful outlet for the hate, the anger, the vitriol, the mindless, the pointless, the ignorance that at one point might have been put in an anonymous letter but which more likely rarely if ever saw the light of day in another age.

But today, anyone can say anything, safe and secure behind the barrier of their keyboard and screen name. As Randy Legassie, I am responsible for what I write and say. But as anonymous commentator 219, I am no longer responsible—I am anonymous and cannot be held responsible for what I have said or written.

Obviously, some people find that incredibly liberating and freeing. But in the end, freedom without responsibility is never a good thing. Freedom without responsibility tends to being out the worst in people. We become rude, nasty, biased, prejudiced and just plain not nice. I gave up reading comment threads on websites a long time ago simply because they very quickly degenerated into the kind of interchange I used to require my kids to take a time out for engaging in.

There have been times in my ministry when my comments and opinions have cost me. I have been fired, passed over and ignored. It would have been much easier to be anonymous—I might not have suffered as much. But in becoming anonymous, I would have suffered even more because I would have stopped being me. I would have lost some essential part of who I am. My ideas might have been expressed but I wouldn’t really be there—I would be hiding behind some convenient shelter.

That may work for some—and I can even envision a few scenarios where in might be the appropriate way to proceed. Those scenarios, however, tend to involve bullets, death squads and unjust imprisonment. Most of the time, though, well, hiding behind anything or anyone really doesn’t cut it for me. If I am going to say it, I am going to say it knowing that I will be held responsible for what I am saying.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT DO I DO?

I had my dream job: I was teaching in Kenya, helping prepare students for ministry in a growing, independent denomination. I was teaching in English but had ample opportunity to use Kiswahili. Everything was great except for the fact that I didn’t seem to be able to establish a comfortable working relationship with the mission board leadership. Eventually, things got to the point where we were fired.

I was deeply hurt. I crashed into a depression which was made worse by the fact that very few churches want to call a pastor who was getting close to retirement age. My pain and hurt and disappointment and depression were deep and strong and more than I wanted to deal with. I wanted to finish my ministry teaching others some of the things I had learned over the years—but instead, I was unemployed and perhaps even unemployable.

I found myself sometimes engaged in an interesting process. I wanted the whole mission board leadership to fall apart. Their mishandling of the situation would be discovered, they would be fired, I would be vindicated and offered the job of rebuilding the whole thing. I would, of course, refuse to accept the job, preferring to see the whole thing crash and burn. If I was going to have to feel pain, they should also feel the pain.

It was a pleasant fantasy that got me through more than a few difficult nights. But I was never tempted to make it more than a fantasy. While having the whole leadership become unemployed and the whole organization come crashing down might have seemed like a fitting response to my pain, even if that had happened, I would still have been unemployed in Canada, not teaching in Kenya and more importantly, still dealing with as much pain.

I made a decision very early in the pain management process that I think was God-inspired—it certainly didn’t originate with me. I decided that I was going to let them go their way and I was going to go my way. I would speak neither for nor against them. The painful process we were involved in was done and in the past—nothing was going to change that.

By helping me accepting that reality and focus on dealing with my pain and hurt, I think I was given a gift of grace. God showed me a better way. Rather than try to make others feel pain, I was given the grace to see and feel and deal with my pain. This grace kept me where I needed to be—dealing with what I could deal with. I couldn’t change the decision that brought us home. I couldn’t alleviate my pain by causing others pain. I couldn’t bring peace by stirring up trouble for others.

I could, with the grace of God, see and deal with my pain. As I waded through depression and hurt and confusion, I was able to see how much I was hurt, why I was hurting, how the hurt was affecting the rest of my life. I was also able to see the grace that God was setting before me through empathetic friends, concerned pastors, even inspired strangers. God was and is at work, helping me not only see the reality of the pain I was experiencing but also helping me see that through his graceful presence, I could deal with the pain.

I was able to see how my personality interacted poorly with the corporate culture I was trying to work in. I was able to understand that when one thing falls apart, God in his grace has a plan B or C. I was able to see that in the power of God’s presence, I could live in spite of the hurt. I learned to deal with the pain in the way it needed to be dealt with. It is and was my pain and I needed to deal with it internally. Fortunately, I had the grace and presence of God to help me in the process.

I still am aware of the pain that came from the whole event. But I am doing okay—I am not depressed, I am involved in what I see as an important ministry and I am at peace. The mission board hasn’t collapsed and they haven’t offered me the job of reforming it but that really doesn’t matter—with God’s grace, I learned to deal with the pain.

May the peace of God be with you.

TREES

Years ago, I was travelling in rural Saskatchewan, speaking at various churches about our upcoming work in East Africa. I was roaming the province, following a schedule put together by someone somewhere. Each day brought visits to several places and a variety of forms of transportation to get from one place to another. Sometimes, I was on a bus; sometimes, I was being driven by a church volunteer; occasionally, I was in a taxi. I was sometimes in several different homes and church buildings in the course of a day: wake up in one place, have lunch at another, have supper in yet another, and spend the night on one more.

It was an interesting trip and one where I discovered something interesting about myself. As I was driven over the vast open spaces of Saskatchewan, I was enjoying seeing a whole new geography: rolling plains that stretched for miles was something that I had only read about and seen on TV and movies but now, I was on them travelling uncounted miles over them. After a few days, I realized that there was something on the plains that always caught my eye and captured my attention.

I was generally travelling in farm country and most farm houses had a square of trees protecting the house from wind and hot sun. These little squares of trees always took my attention. The huge tractors in the fields were interesting; the square mile cultivated grain fields were awesome; the endless vistas provided by the geography were inspiring—but the squares of trees where what I kept looking for and focusing on. And one trip took us through an area with an actual forest—that produced a level of peace and comfort that actually surprised me.

I discovered that I need trees. I need to be able to see them and hear them. The bigger they are, the better. The thicker the growth, the more inspiring. One of the only negative aspects of living in East Africa was the relative lack of real trees in our area. We lived in a dry area and the trees tended to be scrubby throne trees scattered over large plains—there were very few big, fully developed, actual trees, although we were fortunate to have some in front of the house.

When I first walked among the towering giant trees on Canada’s west coast, it felt like a touch of heaven—trees that hurt my neck to look up at them, trees so big around that they could be hollowed out and used as a home, trees that when they died and fell provided a new beginning for lots of life forms.

Trees provide me with something that grounds me. Large, mature trees towering over me provide a sense of peace and stability. And that is true no matter what is affecting the trees. A tall oak tree on a calm sunny day is restful and inspiring. That same tree being whipped about by strong winds is still inspiring and oddly calming. In the winter, the bare branches trace interesting and intricate shapes against the leaden sky that are still inspiring and peaceful.

I imagine that part of the attraction of trees is that I grew up with trees all around. I played in and on trees. I cut and processed trees for firewood. I built and build useful stuff from trees. But if I never burned another stick of wood or used another board for a project, I would still need trees just because their presence calms and relaxes me.

As I studied science in school and university, I discovered a great deal about the ecological niche trees occupy. I discovered how tree varieties succeed each other, with each generation preparing for the next. I discovered their value as carbon sinks. Trees provide significant amounts of oxygen and filter out tons of junk.

With all that I learned, I don’t believe that God created trees just so that I could have something to make my life calmer and more peaceful but I am deeply grateful that he did create them. Something about trees touches me at a deep level of my being and provides something that I can’t get elsewhere. The wonders of creation are never ending.

May the peace of God be with you.

I AM NOT THE LEADER

One of the pastorates I serve finally got around to holding our annual meeting. We tend to have that meeting fairly late in the year because of things like the possibility of bad weather in the early part of the year (snow in Nova Scotia in January?), the need to hold several other meetings before that meeting (who can meet with who when?) and mostly because most of us really don’t much like meetings.

So, we gathered for the meeting and amid the chatter and discussion and all the rest that goes with a meeting of people who like each other and don’t like meetings, someone made a comment that bothered me. In the course of a discussion about something that we were doing or going to do, one of the people looked at me and said something like, “You are our leader”.

The comment bothered me because I don’t want to be a leader. I am not interested in being a leader. I am, I realize, a leader in some areas of our church life and even at times in our denominational life but in general, leader is not a title I use about myself nor one that I seek. If I need to describe my role, I prefer pastor or teacher.

I realize that this puts me at odds with the majority of ministry practitioners these days, as well as with the majority of those who teach and write about ministry. Some of that may be my age, although many of those espousing the leadership mantle are close in age to me. Some of it may be my basic personality—I am a somewhat introverted individual who basically likes to do my own thing. I like neither being a leader nor being led. I can do both when I need to be prefer to work in situations where there is a more free-flowing, less formal structure that allows me and others to work out our gifts and roles together.

For me, that means that my ministry doesn’t focus on my leadership. In the church meeting that sparked this post, we have several leaders. One leads well when we deal with organizational needs. Another leads well when it comes to our financial needs. Another always has a handle on our music needs. One of the people there doesn’t generally say a lot but when he does, we tend to accept his leadership. We have a variety of leaders in our group and we have learned that when we let each one express their leadership abilities and gifts, we are stronger.

There is even a leadership role for me in that mix. I tend to provide leadership is our Bible Study and our ministry focus—but since we have some others who have insights and ideas and proven abilities is those areas, I am not the sole leader even there. I can and do step up to the leadership plate when necessary but in truth, I much prefer it when someone else provides the necessary leadership.

That is not to say that I am passive and laisse-faire in my ministry. I work hard at developing and presenting the teaching I believe God is calling our church to look at. I seek to identify and develop the gifts among our people. I am not afraid to speak clearly and directly to issues and concerns that will affect our overall church health. I take an active part in determining the direction of our ministry and regularly present ideas and proposals and plans to the church for discussion and implementation—but I do all this in the context of not seeing myself as the leader of the church. I am one of many, seeking to use my gifts and abilities to the best of my ability for the sake of the whole church.

I will gladly accept the role of teacher in our church. I am comfortable with the role of pastor for our church. I am able to function as a counsellor or therapist when necessary and as time allows for our church. But leader—well, I can handle that as long as we all understand that I am not the leader, but only one among many leaders, all of us pooling our leadership to enable God’s will to be done in and through our church.

May the peace of God be with you.

NOT DEPRESSED

Because depression tends to be one of my less desired coping mechanisms, I am generally on the lookout for signs that I am slipping into another bout of the familiar low level, persistent depression that steals enjoyment from me and those around me. There are some clear signs that I have learned to watch for over the years. Feeling tired is one, especially if I find myself telling myself “I’m tired” a lot. Inability to get out of the chair is another, as is becoming more and more focused on TV or Youtube. Depression also brings an increase in appetite in its early stages, especially for junk food, cheese sandwiches and lots of sugar. Disturbed sleep patterns are also part of the warning package.

Over the last few weeks, I have noticed a lot of these symptoms and began to get a bit worried/prepared for another bout of depression. But as I began the process of looking at what was going on and trying to discover what was pushing me towards depression, I discovered that although the symptoms might be there, I am not actually depressed.

I am tired, there is no question about that. But I actually know why I am tired. The past three months have been extra busy for a variety of reasons and I simply don’t have the same energy level I had when I was younger. Physically, emotionally and intellectually, I get tired sooner and more often. But being tired isn’t the same as being depressed.

I also found myself sitting more—but some of that has to do with arthritic knees that react poorly to standing and walking and stuff like that. However, since they also react poorly to long bouts of sitting, I realized that I might sit a lot but I also moved around a lot—I just don’t go for hour long walks like I used to.

I do spend time in front of the TV and actually watch Youtube videos. But I have limits and keep them. The TV in the kitchen is on when I am cooking and I watch an hour or so before the news in the evening. Youtube, well, I watch one or two as a break and then move on to something else a bit more constructive.

I do have an appetite for chips, cheese sandwiches and extra cookies, which I sometimes give into. But in truth, I have those appetites anyway and have to set limits all the time. Having the desire for a bag of chips and cheese sandwich isn’t really a sign of depression—it’s the giving into the desire too many times that is the real symptom and so far, I have been doing okay there. I am also sleeping well, or at least as well as I normally do—even my non-depressed self doesn’t often have an unbroken night of sleep.

So, the signs are there but I am not depressed. I am definitely tired, definitely sitting more and dealing with other stuff but right now, I am not depressed. And for me, that is important. I probably should be depressed—I definitely have been at other points in my life when I have been stressed from work and over-tired but right now, I am not depressed.

I am not rejoicing too loudly or emphatically. I am not seeing this lack of depression as a sign that I have finally been freed from the pain of depression. I am not going to write a book on how I overcame a life time of low level depression. I am not going to blog about how God has delivered me from the demons of depression.

No, I am not going to do any of that. I can’t guarantee that I won’t be depressed again. So, this is what I am going to do.

I will take a nap or two. I am going to watch a Youtube video or two. I am going to write a sermon or two, attend a meeting or two, lead Bible studies and worship, do some thinking about the churches’ directions, read some books, take a short walk and even mow the lawn. I am going to deal with what is going on without having to deal with the overlay of low-level depression that sometimes hits when circumstances are like they are now. But for now, I am not depressed and I can enjoy that.

May the peace of God be with you.

PRAYING MY PRAYERS

Over the years, I have discovered that one of the most effective tools for some forms of ministry is a cup of coffee and one of the most effective locations for that ministry is in a coffee shop. When I was younger, that particular approach to ministry was custom made for me—I love coffee and didn’t need any excuse to drink coffee. These days, I have to be a bit more careful about coffee and generally order decaf but the ministry works just as well without or without caffeine.

Because I tend to be an introvert, I generally don’t initiate too many of these coffee connections. But over the years, there have been a fair number of people who have wanted to get together for coffee and I am generally glad to accept the invitation, even to the point of being willing to pay for the coffee for both of us. Some of these invitations will be a conversation between friends, where we go back and forth and joke and laugh and touch on serious stuff and all the rest—and sometimes, in those conversations, I might even come close to talking about half the time, which is really significant for an introvert like me.

Other coffee conversations are more focused—we are together because both of us know that the other person wants/needs this conversation to deal with an issue. It isn’t really counselling or ministry because we are doing it over coffee at the coffee shop—but underneath, we both know that this is serious stuff and I am going to be expected to drink my coffee and be as professional as possible while both of us pretend that this is really a coffee conversation. I am fine with that, although I do reserve the right to get professional and suggest real counselling if the problem is serious enough.

So, what does this have to do with prayer, particularly my prayers? I am working this through at this point but I do think that there is a connection between my coffee conversations and my personal prayer life. While I don’t actually have much in the way of an organized private prayer life, I do spend time both talking to and listening to God. And even though these times don’t generally involve coffee, there are some similarities.

I think I listen to and for God a lot. When I am reading the Bible, when I am doing my study for a sermon or a Bible study, when I am contemplating the congregations I have been called to pastor, when I am depressed, when I am desperately trying to figure out where I am going with the next sermon plan—at all those times, I am deeply aware that I need some serious divine guidance and insight and wisdom. I generally don’t preface those times with a specific request for God to guide me—but I am listening for the guidance. On many levels, that isn’t much different than me and my friend engaging in pastoral ministry in the coffee shop without calling it pastoral ministry.

Sometimes, I do engage in serious talk with God: when I am frustrated and tired and verging on depression, I have a tendency to spill my anger and hurt and frustration—and that looks and sounds a whole lot like some of the coffee conversations that I have had in various coffee shops over the years. After I pour out whatever is there, I discover the peace that God continually promises, provided, of course, I remember to be willing to listen to him. That does sometimes take a while but so far, I have always ended up listening and discovering the presence of God.

The one difference I can see between my prayers and my coffee shop experiences is that I don’t actually have to go to a coffee shop and I don’t need the coffee. In fact, my personal prayer process generally works better when I am by myself with God. With some people, I need to go to the coffee shop for that—but with God and my prayers, any place and any time works, which is a really good thing because in the area where I live, it is quite a drive to get to a 24 hour coffee shop.

May the peace of God be with you.

GROWING IN FAITH

One of the consistent themes of my ministry is that people should read the Bible—not occasionally but regularly. And the reading shouldn’t be restricted to “best of”, “favourites” or stuff that we understand—it should be a systematic approach that covers the whole of the Bible within a reasonable time frame. It is relatively easy to read through the while Bible in about a year, although some plans allow for two years.

Because I have a fascination with history, I look at the whole Bible reading thing through a slightly different lens. Because I live in a time and place where there is almost universal literacy, it is difficult for me to imagine a time and place where this wasn’t so. But the truth is that for most of recorded human history, the ability to read and write has been the preserve of an elite group of specialists. Ordinary people generally didn’t have access to nor much need of reading and writing.

Most people were dependent on others to tell them stuff and they then had to either memorize what they had been told or continually return to the teller for refreshers. The person who could remember well generally became a powerful and important part of the culture—an organic library. When Judaism and later Christianity were graced by God with written collections of divine instruction, the majority of believers only had access to those materials through others.

At times, even those who could read didn’t have access to the Scriptures because written materials were scarce and expensive. At some points in history, most churches and leaders probably didn’t own a Bible—and if they did, it was often chained up with carefully controlled access. The open Bibles on the table at the front of many sanctuaries are likely a holdover from the days when that Bible would be the community Bible, the only Bible and maybe even the only book in the community.

So, with that on mind, my historian side prods my Bible reading encouraging side with some questions. No doubt the prodding is encouraged by the side of me that loves to ask difficult questions. Anyway, the question that I look at now and then is something like this, “Why bother to encourage people to read the Bible when the church has managed to survive so long with so few people being able to read the Bible?”

The historian asks and the encourager admits that it is a very good question. And because I am who I am, I can’t put myself off with one of the traditional Christian answers like “because” or “I said so”. I can point out the fact that during those times of restricted access to the Scriptures, the church suffered and struggled with heresies and got off track and wandered in theological wildernesses. However, I also have to remind myself that with almost unlimited access to the Bible, the church today suffers and struggles with heresies and gets off track and wanders in theological wildernesses.

Probably the best reason I can give for reading the Bible is because we can. I don’t like second and third hand sources. I am openly skeptical when someone makes a claim about something they heard from a friend who knows someone whose cousin was there. I am not going to take the latest wonder supplement because “they” say it works miracles. I want more than that. I want to go to the source and find out for myself.

And with my faith, I am no different. I don’t want someone else’s predigested and edited understanding of what God says. I want to read it for myself and spend time with it and work at understanding it. I appreciate the thoughts of others, I enjoy spending time in other understandings of what I am reading—but in the end, I want to spend time in the source myself.

My faith is important to me—too important to let it depend only on what someone else tells me about what they understand about what God is saying to me. I want to head—or read—it for myself. I read my car manual, I study my computer instructions, I read and sort of follow directions—and for the same reason, I read my Bible regularly and systematically. I will pay attention to what someone else tells me, but I still want to get back to the source and because of God’s grace, I can do that.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHY BOTHER?

I don’t get to attend worship as an ordinary participant very often. Generally, I get to do that while I am on vacation, unless we decide not to attend that Sunday which happens. But when I do, I notice just how far from the prevailing cultural norms I actually am. Most preachers these days were jeans and polo shirts or some other casual attire. I have noticed that most clean up and wear a suit and tie for funerals and maybe some weddings but mostly, the causal, comfortable look dominated the pulpit these days.

I happen to think that is great. It sets a tone for worship and enables both preacher and congregation to relax and enjoy the reality of God and his love and grace. Being comfortable in the presence of God is one of the prime messages of the Christian faith and the trend to casual, comfortable clothing is a visual and powerful statement of the relationship we have with God because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

But when I am leading the worship and preaching, I will be wearing one of my two dark suits and one of my small selection of ties. There are two exceptions:

• When it is really warm, I lose the suit jacket.
• When we are having a potluck, I wear the sporty pants than came with the new suit

Isn’t that just a bit hypocritical on my part, especially since I love to point out the pointlessness of wearing ties and encourage people to dress as comfortable as possible? In fact, when asked about our church’s dress code, I tell people that we have a very strict code—you have to wear clothes. But week after week, there I am, wearing my suit and tie while everyone else has jeans, shorts (in summer), sneakers and definitely, no tie.

It probably is hypocritical on some levels but on other levels, what I am wearing is perfectly congruent with what I am telling people. I encourage people to be comfortable with what they are wearing for worship. And for me, that means a suit and tie. My experience and cultural influences go way back and are deeply rooted. I grew up in the era when worship attire was the best jacket and tie you had. I spent serious time working with an independent Kenyan denomination which has a fairly formal dress code—the only leaders who don’t have to wear ties are the ones entitled to wear clerical collars.

I actually upset the leadership of the church in Kenya early in my first time there. I wasn’t wearing a tie to teach—after all, ties are anachronistic cultural hold overs that have no real purpose or meaning. When the church leaders finally got up enough courage to suggest that I wear a tie, I realized my mistake, apologized and put on a tie. Given the heat in Kenya much of the school year, they didn’t mind if I skipped the suit jacket now and then.

I just don’t feel comfortable leading worship and preaching unless I am wearing a tie and at least part of my suit—the jacket doesn’t count on warm days. It isn’t a requirement placed on me by anyone else. In fact, I might fight against any regulation that said I had to wear a tie, at least in North America. I don’t make it a requirement for anyone else—not even the occasionally student I mentor for the nearby seminary. If someone wants to come to worship in ripped jeans and well worn t-shirt, I welcome them and am not the least concerned about their costume. If they are comfortable, they can probably better enter into the reality of worship and have a better experience of the awareness of the presence of God.

And me—well, wearing my suit and tie allows me to be comfortable in the presence of God. He doesn’t require it but my personal culture and background does. I could put in the effort to align my personal preference with the freedom that I teach and preach and encourage for others—but truthfully, I am comfortable doing what I do and there is enough really serious stuff that I need to deal with in my personal life that it isn’t worth the effort to change my approach to worship wear. I am comfortable, God loves me and the people understand me. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE BRANCH

For the past few weeks, I have been watching a particular branch on one of our neighbour’s oak trees. When I am sitting in the living room (which is my office these days), I can look out the window and see the tree and branch—and since my creative process tends to involve a lot of staring out the window searching for inspiration, I see the branch a lot.

This particular branch broke sometime this winter, maybe because of the snow load or the wind or whatever—oak branches don’t always seem to need a clear and visible reason for breaking. The break wasn’t complete and the branch has been hanging pretty much straight down for weeks. Initially, it was attached by a fair amount of wood but that has been getting less and less which each windy day we have. Since we live in south-western Nova Scotia, we get a lot of windy days.

I am not sure exactly what is holding the branch these days. It swings freely in any breeze and looks like it should have come down days ago. But it hands on, swinging and twisting slightly all day and providing a something for me to look at when the sermon or Bible study or blog post isn’t coming together like it should. I am pretty sure it is going to fall one of these days—I am hoping that I will actually be watching when it falls.

Now, I am going to resist the temptation that all preachers face, the temptation to turn that hanging branch onto a sermon illustration. Sure, it can be a great story about persistence or doing your best no matter what or—well, you have probably heard enough sermons to know what we preachers can do with a branch hanging from a tree.

Mostly, I like watching the branch because it is something to focus on when I need a short break from the keyboard. If the deer and squirrels aren’t playing around and my neighbours aren’t doing anything much, the branch provides something to focus on that occupies my conscious mind so that the deeper layers of my thought process can shove the needed idea up to the surface. When the branch falls, I will find something else to look at. The added benefit is that since it is on my neighbour’s lawn, I won’t have to pick it up.

The branch is important right now and as long as it hangs there, I will watch it. It isn’t particularly important—it’s not big enough to do any damage when it falls; it isn’t going to fall on anything; it’s loss isn’t going to affect the tree. I personally have nothing invested in the branch aside from its temporary value as a distraction. That distraction value will be easily replaced when it actually falls.

I think the branch is important because it isn’t important. Most of my work involves me in significant and important stuff. I am a pastor, called by God to help people grow in their relationship with themselves, with each other and with God. I am called to help the churches I serve become healthier and be better witnesses to the wonder of God. I work with people on an individual and couple basis as they try to work through various crises and issues and problems. I have my own issues to deal with: the effects of aging, decisions about my future after retiring someday, figuring out when to schedule surgery for my bad knees.

In short, like most people, I deal with a lot of stress, both my own and others. And while I think I deal with that stress fairly well most of the time, it is stress and it does have an effect. The tree branch, well, it has absolutely no effect on my life, I have absolutely no responsibility towards it. It is just there, hanging and swinging where I can see it. It provides a distraction, a brief interlude where I can ignore the pressure of the sermon, the stress of the upcoming counselling session, the concern for the future of the church. I can look out the window, look at the branch and let everything else go on hold for a few seconds. And even better, when it finally falls, there will be something else equally unimportant to provide the necessary distraction.

May the peace of God be with you.