BEGINNING AGAIN

September has arrived. The days are noticeable shorter and even though they can still be quite warm, mornings have a fall feel. The air is cooler and sometimes, there is a vague hint of frost in the air. Summer is over and for most people, the year is drawing to a close. We look ahead to the coming of really cold weather, snow and winter. The next big bump in the year is Christmas and then it is over.

Except for me and many other clergy, September really marks the beginning of the year. For many of us, the church year actually runs from September to May or June. I make my plans based on that year and most of the people I know in ministry follow the same pattern. So, for me, that means the coming of September means the start of a new year. The programs and groups we shut down in May or June start back up. The new initiatives and plans start to unfold. We will turn on the engine and get things moving as we begin another church year.

This is generally a hopeful and enjoyable time. When Bible Study starts up, we will reconnect and rekindle our exciting process. The new ideas we have been planning for get brought online. Our numbers stabilize after the summer fluctuations—summer visitors go home, regulars come back and preaching can focus on more in-depth themes. For the next eight or nine months, we will be full steam ahead, being the church the way we interpret God’s calling on us, with the Christmas shift and the anticipated snow days.

I have been involved in the September New Year activities for a long time—I began serving churches as a pastor a long time ago and consider myself a seasoned veteran of the church New Year process. I have made a few changes over the years to cater to cultural shifts and ministry trends—we start a bit later in September than I used to because of the summer creep that has pushed the summer slump further into September. Some programs have disappeared—when there is no Sunday School, there is no need to plan and push the Sunday School opening.

I have generally approached September with a positive outlook. I work with the church leadership to make plans for the new year which will help us as a church. I see each year as an opportunity to help the church become more and more the church. Sometimes, we are using our new year to clean up and repair some problem whose time has come. Sometimes, we use our new year to look at ourselves and explore God’s leading and grace. Sometimes, we are looking beyond problems and using the new year to try something new and different that will help us become what we feel God is leading us to become. Every now and then, there has been a new year when we haven’t had to do clean up and haven’t planned new initiatives—those have been rest years, something like the Jubilee year the OT sets for the people of Israel.

Each of these approaches to the new year has its excitement and requirements and blessings and setbacks. Each requires pastor and church to focus and work and gives us a direction and goal to properly harness our energy. Each helps us define and express our nature as believers and churches. Each helps shape not just our present ministry but also our future ministry.

As pastor, I have a vital part in the whole process. I am paid to focus on the church. My calling and my position give me the luxury of being able to focus most of my time and energy on the work we are doing together. I become the cheerleader, the analyst, the encourager, the teacher. And so the new year always brings new demands, new directions, new things to do and try. Since a healthy church isn’t just doing the same old stuff every year, my role as pastor means that each year, I have to be looking at new and different stuff, challenging myself and the church to make the best of the year to come.

I know that by the middle of next May, we will all be ready for a break—but right now in September, we are at the beginning of a new year, filled with excitement and possibility. Happy New Year!

May the peace of God be with you.

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6:00 AM MONDAY MORNING

Yesterday was an extremely busy Sunday. It was the day we switch back from evening services to afternoon worship in one pastorate and the day we had a planning meeting after morning worship in the other pastorate. I had perhaps 30 minutes at home between the two events, just time enough to take a very brief nap and grab the afternoon worship briefcase. Fortunately, we had lunch as part of the planning meeting.

Sunday evening was basically spent trying to stay awake until bedtime, something that I accomplished but just barely. So, 6:00am Monday morning comes, as it inevitably does. It is somewhat dark; I am still tired; I don’t have to work today; it is warm and cosy in bed. But it is 6:00am, time to get up. As I reluctantly crawl out of bed and head for the exercise bike, I ask myself exactly why I am doing this. My wife is still sleeping, her dog isn’t interested in getting up, nobody else on our street is moving—so why, on my day off am I dragging my still tired self out of bed to start another day when nobody is requiring me to do that and a most other people I know would quickly suggest I was more than a bit strange for doing so?

I didn’t get an answer when I was biking. No great insights appeared in the Bible reading I was doing. Nothing that I read on the news feeds gave me reasons for getting up so early on a non-work day. I finished my hour on the bike and headed back to the kitchen. The dog was still not interested in getting up. My wife still sleeping. The neighbourhood was still silent. I opened the curtains, turned on the laptop and poured my granola over a cut up banana and sat down in my work chair by the living room window.

And as I sat down, I realized why I was doing this. This is my time, a time and space when I can do what I want with no outside demands. I have sermons to write—but they can wait until tomorrow and the next day. I have people to visit—but they can wait until I begin work tomorrow. I have a report on the meeting to get ready—but that doesn’t need to be done until next Sunday.

Right now, all I have to do is eat my granola and banana and write what I want to write—or not write, if I choose. I realize that this time is my gift to myself, a time and space when I can focus on me and my stuff. It is quiet, peaceful, comfortable. Nobody is going to bother me, unless there is some terrible catastrophe—but those tend to be rare and so basically, I have this time to myself.

I might be tired—but I can nap later. That isn’t a real issue since I would likely nap anyway, whether I got up at 6:00am or 8:00am. What I can do is enjoy the peace and solitude and freedom from demands, except for the few that I put on myself for this time, demands that are essentially what I want to do anyway. The only extraneous demand during this time comes from the dog, who often decides that he should probably wake up and make a trip outside—but that is much easier to deal with than writing sermon or preparing a funeral message or making a pastoral visit.

This short time on Monday morning seems to have become an oasis for me, a time when I put everything else on hold and minister to myself. I can write a blog post, stare out the window, read an interesting article I run across getting to somewhere else, check out some blogs that I like, eat my breakfast. I could sleep in but in truth, as much as I might appreciate the extra sleep, I think I would miss the blessings of the unstressed and undemanding time provides me. There may be Monday mornings when I choose to sleep in but mostly, I recognize that I need this time for my own personal spiritual and emotional health.

May the peace of God be with you.

ACORNS AND OAK TREES

My working chair is situated in the living room in a perfect spot. I can see the whole living room and the corridor that leads to the bedrooms and kitchen so I can keep track of what everyone else in the house is doing. That is important because the dog often parks himself there when it is time to go outside. The chair also gives me a great view outside allowing me to see trees, part of the road and some of our neighbours’ houses. That is important because my creative process involved a lot of staring out the window, waiting for the various neurons in my brain to fire and make connections so that the sermon or Bible study or blog post can take shape.

But the staring out the window can also be an end in itself. I really like trees and without moving from my work chair, I can see several impressive trees: a old oak, a mature maple, a couple of adolescent maples and a struggling oak sapling growing in absolutely the wrong place. Both this small oak and one of the adolescent maples are growing within inches of the house foundation and should probably be removed before they cause damage to the house and the walkways. I probably won’t remove them because I don’t own the house and an not responsible for that stuff, which is great since cutting trees is hard for me.

My bigger concern in the huge oak that fills about a third of the window view. This ancient tree must be 50 feet high and its foliage circle is likely that big around. One of the major branches hangs over the driveway and is growing longer and therefore closer to the day when I need to decide to trim it to protect the paint on my car when I drive under it. Right now, the branches are filled with nearly mature acorns which will start dropping any time in the next few weeks, to the delight of the squirrels and deer, both of whom will use them to fatten up for the long cold winter that we might have this year.

But in spite of its size and fruitfulness, all is not well with this tree. From where I sit, a significant portion of the branches are bare, dead sticks. They haven’t somehow managed to lose their leaves early—they haven’t had leaves for several years now. In spite of the heavy leaf cover and bumper crop of acorns, this particular tree is dying.

I am not a tree health expert and so I can’t say for sure but my guess, based on the size of the tree, is that it is dying of old age. It will keep going for many more years but each year, fewer and fewer branches will produce leaves and more and more of them will stand starkly bare against the sky. In a few years, the dead branches will start breaking off as a result of rot encountering too much wind or snow. The broken branch stubs will provide access to insects and other attackers which will speed the dying process. Its days are numbered—its death isn’t going to be immediate but it is inevitable. I probably won’t live here long enough to see its ultimate demise because trees like this live a long time and die a long death and I will likely move away in retirement long before its end.

So, the tree is dying. But in the process, it is still doing its tree thing. It produces leaves, produces oxygen, filters the air, grows acorns to feel local wildlife and perpetuate the species (this tree is most likely the parent of the poorly place baby oak in front of the house). It provides me with a soothing and even inspiring target for my “don’t know what to write starting into space”—being vaguely aware of the tree during the staring seems to be more productive than staring at the end of the living room or the dog.

The oak is dying—but it is still living, still doing its tree thing as best it can. There may be barren, soon to fall branches but there are also leaves, acorns and branches that are still growing. It will live until it dies, doing the best it can until it can’t do any more—and even then, a dead oak tree provides lots of great stuff for lots of great purposes. I am not sure that there is a better summary of a good life and death than that.

May the peace of God be with you.