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.

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THE PLAN

I like structure and organization—well, except for my desk. Since I rarely use my desk as a desk, it has become a place to put everything work related until I need it or it can be thrown out. But aside from that, I like structure and organization. I keep a tentative plan in my head for how a week will unfold—and when the week begins to look over-stuffed, I supplement that mental plan with entries in the calendar on my phone. If I have a plan, I have a way to make it through a too busy week. If I don’t have a plan, I stumble and worry and end up forgetting something important or wasting time on something unimportant.

So, this week began to looked stuffed earlier in the month. Things kept falling into it—a meeting here, a seminar there, preparing soup for another meeting, a trip to buy church supplies. As last week drew to a close, I realized that my car needed service during this week as well. The list grew and grew—I was careful to shift some stuff to later dates but it seemed like some stuff just had to be done this week. Last week, it began to look like this week was going to be to full. I would end up working more than I was supposed and still might not have time to get everything done. I was prepared for the week—I had a plan, and even had some of it entered into the phone calendar. I might not have much free time this week, but I would get most everything done—well, I wasn’t exactly sure where sermon writing would fit in but there were a couple of small spots where I could probably get something done.

With the plan in place, I was ready for the week. Now, because a lot of my work focuses on Sunday, my practical weekly planning uses Monday as the beginning of the week. Which means that when I got a text on Sunday postponing one meeting, the week hadn’t actually begun but the plan was already coming apart. It was coming apart in a good way but it was still coming apart. I now had almost a full day unscheduled.

Then, I counted the church supplies and realized that I didn’t need the stuff I was running short on this week—I could put that trip off to next week, when things aren’t quite as crazy, which meant that now, a whole afternoon was uncommitted. While that is the good news, the bad news is that there is still more to do this week than I have work hours for. The extra stuff I need to do this week could pretty much fill up the regular hours this week but that leaves no time for the regular stuff—and I am pretty sure that the church expects me to have a sermon on Sunday and the long-range weather forecast doesn’t suggest that we will get a storm day next Sunday.

The dilemma is do I use the unscheduled time to catch up on the work or do I use it to take care of myself? Do I read, work on my cabinet project, rest and take a break or do I use the now unplanned time to work and get some other stuff out of the way? The temptation is to work, even knowing that all the books and my practical experience suggest that working those uncommitted hours is another step on the path to burnout.

If I were teaching a class of ministry students as I have in the past, the solution would be simple. I would tell them to use the uncommitted time to take care of themselves. The students would nod their heads and then go out and do what all of us in ministry would likely do—we would fill those hours with work. But since I am not currently teaching ministry students, I still need to decide what to do to revise my plan for this week.

I will use some of the uncommitted time for my self—and some of it, I will use for the critical stuff that needs to be done this week. Next week looks better and the week after that is even better because it is a vacation week.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE JOURNEY OR THE DESTINATION?

I grew up in a small community in a poor family. We didn’t have a car until I was 11 or so. That meant that in my early life, I really didn’t go too far. Although a couple of my siblings had medical issues that required them to travel all the way to the city, any health issues I had were taken care of by the local doctor, whose office we walked to. Travelling was something that other people did and I heard about or watched on TV.

Eventually, that changed and I began to travel. We got a car and I got to go to the city. I won a summer trip to the Caribbean in high school. I got my own car and travelled to university. I worked overseas. I have travelled a lot and hope to travel a lot more. But I realized a while ago that in the end, I don’t much like travelling—I like being other places but the process of getting there tends to be a pain. I would really like the Stat Trek transporter to be invented. Rather than drive or fly or whatever, I just want to be there, to do whatever it is that I want to be there to do.

That impatience with travel doesn’t seem to carry over into the rest of my life. I find that I am most comfortable and focused when I am working on something—I like to know where I am going but generally am not overly concerned with actually getting there. As a pastor, for example, I spend a lot of time and effort helping churches do self-evaluations and determine directions and make plans to move towards those directions.

In fact, most of my time as a pastor is spent with congregations moving from some place to another place. There are differences in the ultimate destination and significant differences in the journey to that destination and that is what makes things interesting, at least for me. We study, we discuss, we plan, we experiment, we implement, we revise, we pray, we take a few steps, we fall back, we make progress—we are on a journey.

My personal life follows the same pattern. There is always somewhere to go personally. Maybe I need to learn some new ability. Maybe I need to deal with some less than great part of my personality. Maybe I need to understand and change the way I react to certain people. If I am not perfect, there is always something that needs to be worked on—and when I get a bit lazy or complacent in that area, God has a tendency to make pointed and persistent suggestions.

If I had to, I could define the destination for our church journeys. When I need to, I can define the destination for my personal journeys. But most of the time, the journey is more important than the destination in both those areas. And I think the reason for that is that any destination for the church or me personally is always temporary. Doing the hard work of reaching the destination is important—but once I or we reach the destination, there is always another destination in the distance that is beckoning or which God is suggesting that we head for.

So, I make the journey to deal with my current bout of depression and arrive at the depression-free destination. That is great. I can stretch and relax and enjoy the destination—at least until I look ahead and see that maybe if I take this route, I just might be able to avoid then next bout of depression all together. And the journey begins again.

I am going to spend my whole life on the journey. But that is actually okay. I know where the whole thing is going and the final destination is pretty great. But before I reach that destination where I will be in the full and complete presence of God, there are a lot of journeys to a lot of temporary destinations—and I generally enjoy the journey.

I might not care much for the long hours sitting in cars, airports and airplanes required to visit my grandchildren but until the transporter is invented, I will cope because the destination is worth it. But on the journey to my final destination, both the journey and the destination are worth it.

May the peace of God be with you.

YUCKY WEATHER AND BAD KNEES

In my ongoing issue with depression, I have identified another factor in the process, or actually two factors that are sort of tied together. The first is the weather. I happen to like winter, even if, according to most of the members of the churches I serve, that makes me strange. But I enjoy snow and cold weather and snowstorms. A nice snow storm is really enjoyable, provided of course that the power doesn’t fail and no one is stranded on the road. I enjoy that weather sitting in our warm living room looking out the window—but I also enjoy it when I am out in it, shoveling the snow or cross-country skiing or trying to get the cars into the driveway.

So, part of the low grade depression I seem to be dealing with these days probably comes from the fact that so far, our winter has been a bust. We have had snow and cold weather and all the winter stuff—but just as soon as it comes and begins to look good, the weather changes and we get warm weather and rain. All the snow goes and everything is grey and depressing. A cloudy day with snow on the ground is always going to be brighter than a rainy, cloudy min-winter day—and given the strong connection between light and some depressions, the lack of snow has to have an effect. Of course, there are all those people in the churches who will tell me that the presence of snow depresses them.

So, the weather has some effect on my depression. It might to bad if I could get outside and do a few things. Part of my plan for today, for example, involves working on the cabinet I am building—but that may not happen because of the weather since I have to do the messy sawing and sanding outside. Unfortunately, neither the power tools nor the pine react well to getting wet.

At one time, I would have essentially ignored the weather, pulled on a rain suit over my warm clothes and gone for a nice long walk. But this is where the second factor kicks in. I can’t really do any serious walking. Even going down the basement stairs requires some planning as I mentally set up a list of things that I need or can do down there. Stairs present problems for my arthritic knees and the fewer trips I make, the better. And if a few stairs are a problem, a nice long walk becomes something of an impossibility, unless there is someone on call to pick me up when the knees decide they have had enough.

In short, I, like many people in my peer group, am dealing with the realities of aging. There are certain real and indisputable limits that develop just because of the fact that I have been around for 65+ years. The increasingly limiting aches and pains, the progressing wear and tear of various bits and pieces, the increasing fatigue all emphatically state that I can’t do what I used to be able to do.

This all comes together on a dark and rainy mid-winter day. There is no snow to add some bright edge to the day. The rain means I can’t pretend to be a carpenter and turn nice boards into sawdust. The arthritis means I can’t defy the rain and go for a walk. So, I sit in the living room, type a blog post and wonder what I am going to do for the rest of the day, or at least until the theology student I am mentoring shows up for his appointment this afternoon.

That can be depressing, at least for me. But I think I am on top of this particular bout of depression. I have options that don’t involve walking, woodworking or too many trips down the basement stairs and which aren’t as pointless as hours of Youtube. I have some new books that are quite interesting. I have that mentoring session. And above all, I have my faith, which is what always keeps the depression under control in the end.

I may be prone to depression. The weather and my increasing physical limits may encourage that depression. But in the end, I know that God is with me and he will help me as I deal with it all and the depression will not take over.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHY BOTHER?

I realized recently that I might be sitting on the edge of depression. While I am normally aware when I start getting to that point, it sort of crept up on me for a variety of reasons. I have been tired since Christmas, a tiredness that wasn’t really helped by our vacation trip—the trip was great but the travel process is always tiring. Also, I am sitting more these days—my arthritic knees are bothering me more and more and being off them feels better than being on them. And, because one of the churches I serve has shut down for three months, I have less to do.

So, it was easy to rationalize not doing stuff—I am still tired from Christmas and the trip, my knees are hurting or will hurt and there is nothing I really have to do. Sitting in the chair and watching Youtube seems justified. And so I wasn’t keeping all that close an eye out for the things that indicate I am slipping into a depression.

I have things to do: the latest woodworking project is underway, the newest issue of National Geographic arrived this week, there is always a need to write blog entries, there are several people I could meet for coffee, I could even hobble my way through a short walk. But with all the possibilities, I found myself sitting in the chair, glued to the screen mindlessly. I would find myself thinking about some of the options and asking, “Why bother?”.

Everything would take a lot of effort. Working on the cabinet would require dragging the saw and sander and other tools outside and it is cold out there. I could read my magazine but that would require using the keyboard to navigate the pages (I get the digital version). I could call or text a friend but that would require getting dressed for the weather and driving to a coffee shop. I could go for a walk but that would require dressing for the weather and finding my walking stick and maybe being in pain afterwards. Why bother?

So, now I have a choice. I can let the depression develop or I can do something about it that might prevent it from developing. The reality for me is that the depression I sometimes slip into is totally dependent on my response to my situation—there is no medical basis for it. There might be a genetic disposition to dealing with life by getting depressed but essentially, the depression I deal with is a result of the way I deal with things and is most effectively dealt with by recognizing it and deciding to things differently.

And while that is incredibly easy to write, the actual practise is much harder. Depression can be self-sustaining and self-perpetuating, at least for me. When I start getting depressed, I begin making choices that sustain and enable the depression. Given a choice between moving the saw outside to create some sawdust from otherwise good boards or staring mindlessly at a Youtube video, it becomes easier to stare at the laptop screen.

The earlier I spot the symptoms of the coming depression, the easier it is to change the behaviours that encourage the depression. Based on my reluctance to change behaviours right now, I am probably further along than I would like to be and therefore facing a somewhat more difficult process that I would have if I had been paying more attention.

I have to confess, though, that even though I can see where I am, it is still difficult to motivate myself to deal with it. Depression is somehow comfortable in its familiarity—I have been here enough that I have developed a tolerance for a certain level of depression, maybe even some sort of psychological habituation to it. It might not feel good but it feels familiar. The temptation is to let the familiarity have more say in the process than is healthy.

Based on past experience, I know that I will eventually come out of this developing depression. I don’t actually like being depressed, not even if it feels familiar and comfortable like an old, well worn pair of jeans. I could start dealing with it right now—I just have to convince myself that it is worth the bother.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE ELECTRONIC AGE

When I was growing up, our phone was a big, heavy, black wall mounted unit that connected us to the world via a party line. We kids could use the phone, if we had a good reason and if it wasn’t long distance and if no one else on the line needed the phone. There wasn’t any problem knowing if someone else wanted the line—they picked up their phone and told us they needed the line. Our needs as kids were obviously less important than their adult needs.

We had a phone, a radio and a TV—and that was really the extent of our electronics. But I was aware early on that there were fascinating things coming: computers, for example, were starting to make inroads on life beyond research centres and secret government activities. I read about possible applications of computers and wished that I could somehow see a real, working computer, something I actually got to do during my senior year in high school when we were taken on a class trip to the nearby university and see their computer which filled a room bigger than our school classroom.

I really appreciated seeing that computer—but never really anticipated that I would sit in my living room with a laptop computer of my own with more computing power than those early computer developers likely dreamed of, a computer which allowed me to write and research and work and play and communicate. And when my laptop is too big and bulky, I have a tablet. And when even that tablet is too cumbersome, I have my phone. There is also my ereader, which might be a bit of overkill but it does keep a lot of books in one place and because I only use it for reading, the battery lasts forever. The computer, tablet and phone will all take pictures but I am fussy when it comes to pictures and so also have a nice digital camera which also has more computing power than the computers used to support the moon landings.

I also own a couple of pens—well, I actually own a lot of pens but only two of them are worth keeping track of. One was given to me by a friend about 30 years ago and the other was given to me by my mother when I assisted at her wedding to my step-father. Both pens have special places and get used occasionally—but the truth is that for me, pens are mostly for show because most of what I write, from sermons to shopping lists gets written on some sort of electronic device.

Although I spend a great deal of time with people talking and listening, I also spend a lot of time connecting with people via text, Sype, and email. In my more honest moments, I confess that my introverted self prefers text and email, although there are lots of times when face to face unplugged is great—but if what needs to be communicated can be effectively communicated via a keyboard, I am right there.

What would happen if all my electronics suddenly stopped working at the same time? That is a nightmare scenario I don’t even want to think about. When my laptop died recently, I was stressed until I got the replacement up and working, even though I had a perfectly good but somewhat obsolete backup to work with. I fret about the decreasing battery life on my tablet. My ancient ereader won’t talk to my new laptop. My phone is over three years old and who knows how much longer it will last.

I might not have been born in the electronic age—but I have certainly made myself at home in it. Even my Bible is electronic. I have paper Bibles and am actually using one now for my personal devotional reading—but that is only because I don’t have a new translation on any of my electronic devices to read. Most of my Bible work is done with the benefit of multiple, fully searchable translations on some piece of electronics—the only one that doesn’t have multiple Bibles on it is my camera.

For me, there is no problem here. As long as hard drives work, batteries produce power and chargers do their thing, I am going to enjoy my electronics. I will keep and appreciate my two special pens but the ink in their refills may dry out before I use it up.

May the peace of God be with you.

WOODWORKING

I like working with wood. I am not very good at it and I sometimes lack the patience that it requires but I do like taking a piece of wood and playing with it—measuring, cutting, sanding, joining and all the rest. There is something relaxing about the process and also very gratifying if I manage to produce more than sawdust and scrap wood. As far back as I can remember, working with wood has been something that I have enjoyed. As a kid, I remember using scrap pieces of ¼ inch plywood to make a toy airplane and even remember having a discussion with the guy at the hardware store about what nails were best for joining the pieces of plywood together.

Whenever we move, one of the basic steps in the settling in process is to develop a work area where my tools can be set out and organized. When we have gone to Kenya to work, I have always carried some tools with me and bought others there so that I could continue playing with wood. Generally, when we leave, some local craftsman benefits from an upgrade to his tool kit because I can’t bring back everything I bought there.

My tinkering with wood does have some benefits for my ministry. I have lots of stories of mistakes and poor execution to liven up an otherwise dull sermon. Now and then, I can talk tools and projects with someone who might not otherwise talk to a minister. Sometimes, my limited skills come in handy for a church work day.

But overall, my enjoyment of woodworking doesn’t have much connection with my ministry. I suppose I could force it and draw comparisons based on Jesus’ carpentry background but I don’t want to do that. And more importantly, I don’t need to do that. Woodworking is one part of who I am and doesn’t have to fit perfectly with everything else. We human beings are a collection of bits and pieces that taken together make us who we are.

But the bits and pieces don’t have to fit together seamlessly and perfectly. Some of them simply don’t fit together all that well, in fact. I might get the occasional sermon illustration from my poor woodworking skills and now and then be able to pound nails at the church building as part of a work day but mostly the connection between my ministry and my woodworking is that the woodworking needs to exist in the cracks and spaces left over from ministry.

Rather than we human beings existing as a unified and complete finished project, we are more like the pile of boards and tools that clutter my woodworking area in the basement. The stuff there is all valuable and important but a lot of it doesn’t really fit together. I am not going to go through the pile and get rid of stuff that doesn’t fit together, though, because all of it as a use, even if that use is more potential and theoretical that practical right now.

The short piece of scrap wood that I tossed on the pile months ago may not look like much but it just might have a use at some point—it may prop up an uneven piece of furniture; in might become a wedge for my gluing clamps; it might become kindling for a fire—but it will have a use, somewhere, somehow.

And without sounding too much like a preacher, all the bits and pieces of my life have a use somewhere, either in practise or in theory. The skills and knowledge and characteristics that make me me belong and have a place, even if it is hard to see how they fit. Truthfully, they may not actually all fit well together. My love and appreciation of science sometimes gets me in trouble with less scientifically inclined members of the faith. My love of woodworking doesn’t much help me in the pulpit—and can even be a distraction at times if I happen to look too closely at the fit and finish of the pulpit and lost track of where I am in the sermon because I am wondering how they did that particular joint or how I could improve the pulpit.

The various parts of me make up who I am—it is a package that is changing and developing but which God has declared loveable and important—and who am I to argue with God?

May the peace of God be with you.

SETTING LIMITS

I have been involved in some form of ministry for my entire working life. While I have mostly been the pastor of small, rural congregations, I have also had the privilege of serving as a jail chaplain, a teacher of pastors in Canada and Kenya and a pastoral counsellor. Part of the reason I do what I do is because I am deeply conscious of the calling that God has given me to the various forms of ministry I do. There have been times I have resented God’s calling, times when I have fought against it and a few times when I have asked, begged and demanded that God rescind that call. But in the end, I do both accept and appreciate the calling that God has given me.

Another part of the reason why I do what I do is because in the end, I like helping people. Now, I am pretty sure that is connected with the calling–it is one of the gifts or qualities or attributes that God has given me as part of the tool kit that comes with his calling. When God calls us to anything, he also provides the equipment that we need to follow his leading. But whatever the reason, I actually like helping people.

That can be a mixed blessing. We who like helping people do a lot of good for a lot of people but we can also do a lot of harm to a lot of people. A lot of the difference can be attributed to our motives for helping.

If I am helping people to satisfy my need to help out, I am probably going to cause more harm than good because I am more concerned with what I will get out of the process than what will really help in the process. I will likely end up diminishing the people I want to help because I put myself before them.

When my helping takes away the individual’s freedom to make their own choices, I have actually ceased helping them. When I do counselling for example, it really isn’t my place to tell people they have to stop doing something, no matter how destructive it might be for them. I can help them see the consequences of their actions, I can help them formulate different ways of dealing with stuff, I can even be willing to help hold them accountable. In some situations, I can and have told people I will have to report them to appropriate authorities but I can’t make them change. But I can’t actually make them do whatever it is that we are talking about.

Learning and remembering that one basic reality has saved me and those I minister to a great deal of pain, confusion and emotional turmoil. A real helper is one who has real and realistic limits. I can’t live another person’s life–and I can’t make them live their life the way I think it should be lived. I can only help them as they seek to deal with their own stuff as best they can. I can offer tools, support, counselling, accountability–but I can’t make them.

That means that there are a lot of times when my attempts to help are frustrated. It means that there are times when the proper and best response are really clear to me and the people I am trying to help and they still chose a lesser response. There are times when I get angry because of how hard I have worked only to have someone make poor or even self-destructive choices. There have even been times when I have had to stop my involvement because of the frustration.

But learning that limit has also been liberating and enabling for me in my ministry and my helping of others. I like helping–but I need to begin with the reality of the otherness of the people I am helping. They have a right to be themselves, even if I disagree with their definition of themselves. I need clear and strong limits on my helping so that I don’t try to take over their life or their issues. I am there to help, not to dominate or command or take over. As one poet from another age put it, “Good fences make good neighbours”.

May the peace of God be with you.

 

I DO BELIEVE

I love to ask questions and that love of asking questions extends deeply into my faith life.  Because I am a pastor and occasional teacher of pastors in training, my desire to ask deep and troubling questions about my faith and accepted faith traditions ends up being a blessing and a curse.  And the blessing and curse are so close that sometimes the same question can produce both at the same time.  Someone will find the question liberating and opens up new avenues for their faith development, which is always a blessing.

But others in the same context will react in a totally different way.  They will see the question and the subsequent discussion as a problem at best and a sign of heresy at the worst–and some can and will go on to question the reality of my faith.  I have to confess that even after having been at this process for over 40 years, when my commitment to God through Christ is questioned in this way, I am both hurt and angry.  I have learned a few things about dealing with this sort of thing over the years, which has been helpful.

In the early stages of my ministry (and faith), my temptation was to both defend my faith and attack the person who questioned my faith.  They were obviously wrong, both on the topic we were discussing and about my faith.  My two-pronged response provoked lots of heat and anger and tension and little else.  I went away seething and filled with lots of not nice thoughts while the person who questioned my faith generally left with even more evidence that my faith was at least lacking and likely non-existent.

But while the simultaneous defend and attack strategy sounds good, it really isn’t an effective one–and for a pastor seeking to help people grow in faith, it is an absolute disaster.  When the pastor attacks church people, it is a betrayal of everything we are supposed to stand for.  Instead of being the shepherd to the flock, we are now the predator attacking them.  The rest of the church tends to respond:  some align with the pastor, some with the other person involved and many others settle in to wait for the next pastor, who they know will be coming within the foreseeable future because of the mess stirred up.

I never seriously looked at the option of not asking questions.  That would be such a denial of who I am that it was never a viable solution.  But I did learn to ask the questions differently.  I present them as questions that I and others struggle with.  I sometimes skip a question when I know or suspect that it will be too much for some people.  I might present a milder version of the question.  I try to help people see that asking the question isn’t a direct threat to them and their faith–and as their pastor, I am going to help them deal with the question and its consequences in as caring a way as I can.

But in the end, I am probably going to ask the question.  And even with all the safeguards in place and all the preparation and all the attempts to make it as unthreatening as possible, someone at some point is going to get really upset and question the reality of my faith.  They may do it hesitantly; they may be afraid to do it; they may be very angry and confrontational.  But someone will do it at some point.

It will hurt, I will be angry.  But I know that it will come and I have learned that I can survive the accusation.  I no longer feel the need to defend my faith.  I believe.  Sure, my faith isn’t perfect, it has weak spots, it may verge on heresy at times–but I believe.  I have given myself to God through Jesus.  That is a reality, a basic foundational fact of my life.

Others can question the reality of that commitment–but I know that it is real and I can and do see the evidence of my commitment in the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life.  And so, when my faith is questioned, I am aware of the hurt and anger–but I can also deal with the real issue, which is helping the person deal with their reaction to the question that started things in the first place.  I can roll up my pastoral sleeves and shepherd the flock I have been called to.

May the peace of God be with you.

FIXER-UPPER

I confess–I can’t help it.  In the last post, I was content to share my fix-it rules and leave it at that.  Writing the post helped pass the time while the glue on the Fitbit repair dried (it is still holding).  But I am a teacher and a preacher as well as a fixer–and most of my ministry has been spend working for an organization that always needs fixing.  Given that no church has ever been perfect and there will never be a perfect church until we all come together as perfected beings in heaven, there is always something that needs to be fixed in the church.  So, I am going to take a simple post written while fixing a Fitbit and turn it into a pastoral illustration about fixing churches.

But there, however,  are some important differences between what I do with lawn mowers, broken furniture and Fitbits.  One of the first and most significant differences is that in the church, I am not just the fixer–I am also part of the problem.  I am generally involved with churches as pastor–but that doesn’t change the fact that I bring my own flaws and difficulties to the church.

When I approach the church, I need to make sure that the thing I think I am called to fix isn’t more my problem than the church’s problem.  I also need to make sure that the fix I think I am called to apply isn’t coming from my needs and flaws and not the church needs and flaws.  Basically, the first rule of fixing in the church is that we are all in need of some fixing at some point.  If I forget that rule, I just might fix the church into a worse mess than it was before.  Unfortunately, the history of the church shows that too many of us who have tried to fix the church have forgotten our own need to be fixed.

The second rule of church fixing comes from the fact that sometimes the things that actually need to be fixed aren’t that easy to see, or some relatively minor need covers a much deeper and much more serious need.   In the kind of small churches that I work with, there are always some obvious things that new pastors think should be fixed.  Most people prefer to sit near the back, making it hard for them to hear.  A lot of pastors spend a lot of energy trying to fix that by getting people to move up to the front.

But where people sit is something of a distraction for deeper, more serious problems that have a more serious effect on the long-term health of the church.  I have learned to ignore the distraction and focus on the seating pattern, which sometimes reveals the underlying problem of tensions and factions in the church, something that is very serious and which actually needs to be addressed–carefully and sensitively and patiently–but still needs to be addressed much more than whether people sit at the back or not.

But for me, the biggest difference between fixing a broken chair leg and fixing a church has to do with the fact that when I fix a chair leg or a Fitbit or a lamp cord, I am on my own.  Sure, I can talk to friends, check my home repair books, look things up on the internet–I can even sidestep the whole process and hire someone to do the work.  But even with all that, I am in charge of the repairs.  I decide what to do, what not to do, what rules to follow and which ones to ignore.

In the church, though, I am not alone.  I work with the church in the process.  The Fitbit doesn’t know or care that I am trying to fix it–it has no input on what I do.  But the church does–I need their permission and cooperation in the process.  It is not me, the expert, fixing them, the problem.  It is us, a collection of flawed individuals seeking to use our collective gifts and abilities to address our collective issues.  In the church, we are all fixer and fixee.

And as well, we aren’t on our own–all our fixes and repairs need to be done with the leading and empowering of the Holy Spirit.  I don’t see the need on my own; I don’t develop the fix process on my own; I don’t implement it on my own.  We, the church, open ourselves to each other and the Holy Spirit who shows us where we need fixing, guides us to the proper fix and helps us in the process.

May the peace of God be with you.