BEING ME AS PLANNED

I took my first course in preaching long after I had actually started preaching.  But I didn’t find the course annoying or frustrating because of that.  I enjoyed it and learned some important stuff that I have been using continually as a preacher and a teacher of preachers.  But one of the things that stands out from the course happened during one of the practise preaching sessions.

Everyone had to preach in front of the class.  It was–and is–probably one of the most challenging sermons a preacher will ever have to do.  We stand in front of our peers, all of whom are primed to critique our work.  There is a professor sitting there with a paper, making notes at seemingly random intervals.  We strive to produce an “A” sermon so hard that we probably end up with a “C” sermon.  In that sort of tense, anxiety producing setting, we all fall back on what we know works because we have seen it work.

So, one student approached the pulpit for his practise sermon.  He wasn’t the greatest student but he had some powerful stuff working for him, he thought.  He moved into the pulpit with his newly purchased black leather-covered floppy Bible held open to his text in his outstretched hand.  When  you realize that this happened in the early 1970s, you will recognize the style–this was Billy Graham’s classic preaching pose.  This student was going to wow us by borrowing some of Billy Graham’s mojo.

But I can’t really condemn the student all that much.  All of us end up borrowing stuff from other people.  I have been told now and then that some of my mannerisms in ministry remind people of some of the mentors I had along the way, something that doesn’t upset me all that much most of the time.  The whole purpose of mentors and examples is to help us develop the skills and abilities and even mannerisms that we need along the way.

There is, however, a balancing act here.  If I adopt too much of the mentor, I become a flawed version of the mentor. But if I don’t work on changing some of the things about me that need to be changed, I become an even more flawed version of the me God meant me to be.

One of my mentors was a great preacher–but rarely if ever made any kind of hand gesture in the pulpit.  Occasionally, he would lift a hand to waist level, at which point all of us who knew him knew he was really engaged with the topic and we paid closer attention.  But while I have tried to copy his preparedness, his deep understanding of the Scripture and his strong pastoral compassion, I simply can’t copy his lack of gestures in the pulpit–if I can’t use my hands, I can’t talk.  Shutting me up is simple–tie my hands.

To follow his example would take away from who I really am.  I needed his lesson on study, his example of showing compassion in the sermon, his teaching on the seriousness of what we preachers are doing.  All those things touched on areas of my life that needed work so that I could become the person God intended me to be.  I don’t do any of them exactly as he did them but his example and his mentorship were important in forming those areas of my life.  But his lack of gestures would have been a serious mistake for me to try and follow.

The balancing act is to learn what we need from others in order to become more ourselves as God planned on us being.  Taking too much from others puts a veneer of otherness on us that hides who we are really meant to be–but not taking enough leaves the holes and empty spots that need work glaringly obvious.

Billy Graham had his floppy Bible.  One of my mentors had his occasional small hand movement.  I, well, I have my tablet on the pulpit and wave my hands like I am trying to fly.  What the Holy Spirit taught me from others is both what I need to do and what I need to not do to become more what he means for me to be.

May the peace of God be with you.

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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.

WHAT NOW?

Recently, several things have come together to suggest that I am not where I used to be.  It began one morning on vacation.  Our almost six year old granddaughter was playing with sidewalk chalk and decided that it would be great fun for her to draw my outline on the pavement.  I thought it would be fun as well, until I remembered that while I might get down on my back on the pavement, I probably wouldn’t get up, at least not without serious complaining from my knees.

I also spent some time with a friend who is planning a major week long wilderness hike along a trail that I had done a few years ago.  He gave me a serious invitation to join the group, an invitation that I very quickly turned down–it my knees can’t deal with getting up off of pavement, they are definitely not going to deal well with that hike.

Then, after getting back, I was catching up on some bits and pieces including looking at our denominational website.  I clicked to the page telling about various pastoral changes and discovered that a lot of pastors were retiring this year.  Some were part of my peer group and some were actually second career pastors whom I had taught during my various teaching stints.

But what probably tied these things together was the fact that I turned 65 during our vacation–one of the few birthdays I have been able to spend with at least some of our kids in a long time.  Normally, I am not too concerned with age but culturally, 65 is a significant point.  We get to retire, start drawing pensions and enjoy senior discounts.

But since I had decided a while ago that I was wasn’t ready to retire this year and so have deferred all my various pensions, I didn’t expect to pay much more attention to the birthday than any other.  The senior discount is a nice perk, but I am discovering that there are enough restrictions that even that may not be all that great.

So, I am 65.  In some ways, that doesn’t make any difference–I couldn’t have been a chalk model for my granddaughter last year or two years ago.  While I could retire, I am committed to the churches I work for a while yet–we are involved in things that will take more time to process.

But at the same time, it does make a difference.  I am discovering that I am not what I used to be and not what I see myself as.  Mentally, I have tended to see myself as some indeterminate age between 40 and 55–an age where I have few physical limits, good career prospects and lots of options.  But the reality of 65 is that I have serious physical limits, mostly associated with arthritis and other age-related issues.  My career options are limited–most congregations aren’t looking for 65 year old pastors and other options want the potential for a longer commitment.

On the other hand, I am 65.  I am doing what I am called to do to the best of my ability.  I might not be able to do a week long wilderness hike or lie down on pavement but I can use the exercise bike and find other ways to play with my grandchildren.  I might not have all the career options I once had but I am comfortable with the calling that God has given me right now and an content to let tomorrow take care of itself, or rather, to trust that God is at work taking care of tomorrow.

I am 65–do I feel 65?  Sometimes, I do–and sometimes I don’t.  In a week or two when the newness of 65 wears off, I am  probably going to treat my age as I always have.  It is there, it is a reality and I don’t need to let it have too much effect on me as I deal with the realities of my life.  There are things a lot more significant to deal with than the number of years I have accumulated.  But, if the senior discount is a good one, I will flash the 65 to get it.

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.

WHAT TO DO?

As a pastor, I have spent my career working in contexts where most of the people I deal with need a self-esteem boost.  As a missionary in East Africa, I worked primarily with theology students and church leaders and only a few church people–but again, the majority of people I worked with needed some help in loving themselves.  At one point, I was a part-time chaplain  in a correctional facility for young offenders and discovered that most of the youth I was working with needed a major infusion of self-esteem.  Some of the staff probably would have benefited from some help in that department as well.

Basically, I understand and can deal with low self-esteem.  I approach people with an awareness of the issues and difficulties that can cause the lack of self-appreciation.  I have studied, researched, practised and developed some ways of helping people improve their self-evaluations and have used my skills as a pastor, preacher, teacher and counsellor to help them. And because right now, my self-esteem is fairly healthy, I can write that I have helped people develop a better view of themselves without feeling too uncomfortable.

The low self-esteem thing is something I can deal with and am comfortable dealing with.  However, I have to confess that I have real problems dealing with the other side of the issue.  When the self-esteem crosses the barrier and gets too self-focused and too self-impressed, I begin to have serious problems.

Partly, that is because the nature of my contacts is that I don’t see it too often and often when I see it, I am not really in a position to do anything about it.  But mostly, the problem is that when people have an overly inflated view of themselves, they alternately scare and anger me–and neither fear nor anger are particularly good things to base a relationship on.

Sometimes, I have been able to deal with the person when they begin to realize that their problem is really an underlying lack of self-esteem that they are trying to cover up.  Once they see their over-compensation for what it is, we are in territory that I am comfortable and familiar with and know what to do.

But in general, I really don’t know how to deal with the other side, either as a helper or as someone who has to be in relationship with such people.  I tend to avoid such people since they are a serious vexation to me.  I also tend to avoid  them because they make me angry and I have to confess that my anger comes out in some unpleasant ways that benefit neither me nor the other person.  When I have to be around such people, I find myself being very uncomfortable and looking for a way out before my anger gets the best of me and the situation.

That is probably a weakness in my personality and training and professional life–after all, not everyone is going to suffer from low or acceptable self-esteem. Given that self-esteem can be distorted and become too strong, there is a need for people who understand and can deal with this distortion–God loves these people as much as he loves all the rest of us and wants them to be healthy as well.

But I can truthfully say that up to this point in my ministry, this has not really been part of my calling.  My gifts and abilities and experience have all been focused in other areas.  I might joke that I am glad I haven’t been called to deal with many over-inflated egos, but in the end, the more prosaic truth is that I recognize my limits and until God sees fit to call me beyond those limits, I don’t really have to worry about what I can’t do.

I would like to think that if God really needs me to intervene in the life of such a person, he will give me the skill and knowledge and courage to do so and I would be willing to hear and follow his call.  But up to this point, he has not called me in that direction so I am comfortable continuing with what I have been called to and have been doing.  I have enough self-esteem to know that I can do lots of things and not enough to think that I have to do everything.  I am sure that God is still working in me, though, so who knows what he plans.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE OTHER SIDE

Fairness is important to me.  When we were teaching this concept to our kids, in involved things like teaching them to share equally, not to take more than was rightfully theirs and so on.  If they were dividing something to share, the rule was that the one who cut or divided had last pick–all this in an attempt to ensure fairness.  We never really defined what being fair meant but in my mind, it means that no one should get an advantage that they didn’t deserve.

In my approach to life means that no matter what I believe, I do have to look at the other side(s).  I tend to get irritated at “unfair” writing, speaking and thinking which picks a side and simply assumes that everything else is wrong.  I don’t believe that everything is equally right but for me fairness demands that everything be given equal treatment and consideration–all of which means that I get really frustrated with election campaigns, advertising, and a lot of religious stuff.

And so, I need to write about something to be fair.  I have been writing a lot about low self-esteem and the need to give ourselves more value and challenge the debilitating myths that make us think we should see ourselves as worthless and unimportant and unworthy.  Over the years of my ministry, I think this is the default position for most conservative believers, the position that we are encouraged to adopt if we want to be “good” Christians.

I will most likely return to that theme many times as I work on this blog–but my sense of fairness demands that I write something about the other side.  I need to look a bit at what happens when our self-focus becomes too strong and too powerful and we develop an overly inflated ego. I have known a few people whose pride has become so powerful that it takes over their lives and relationships and become as serious problem as low self-esteem.  I have even been accused of this myself more than a few times.

I don’t have as much experience with the problem of over-developed pride as I do with under-developed pride but I have observed an interesting thing about some of the people who show this trait.  Underneath that over-developed love of self and the boasting and the constant self-focus that can drive people away is often a deeply submerged lack of confidence and a very bad self-image.  Yes, I am saying that an over-inflated ego often comes from the same place as the low self-esteem that I am more familiar with.  The pride and boasting and superiority are sometimes a defense for the problem that I see all too often.

But some people who have low-self esteem follow the path of trying to compensate by building a beautiful facade which they carefully place over the fear and insecurity that is their real life.  Then, they use this facade like an army tank to defend their shaky view of themselves.  It seems that they work on the premise that “The best defense is a good offense” and blow up or run over everyone and everything they perceive to be threat to their scared and poorly developed self hiding inside the tank.

There are probably people with this over-whelming pride who come from a very different place.  Some, for example, have come from such privileged backgrounds which have sheltered them from the realities of life and they never develop a balanced and sober view of themselves.  Some may have such serious emotional damage that they are incapable of  seeing anything but themselves.  A few may get so disoriented by their distorted belief systems that they really believe they are more important than anyone else.

But my experience has been that many of us believe deep down that we are pretty much worthless and unimportant.  Some of us, perhaps most of us, let ourselves accept this as our reality and wallow around in the swamps of low  self-esteem.  A few go a different way, trying to convince themselves of their value by building an elaborate self-image to compensate for their poor self-esteem.

In both processes, the end result is the same–we don’t get a real and honest view of ourselves and therefore we have an equally distorted view of others and even God.  I don’t think one distortion is any worst than the other–and both need to be exposed to the powerful light of God’s love and grace and acceptance so that we can discover who and what we really are.

May the peace of God be with you.

KNOWING SELF

A long time ago, I was taking a pastoral counselling course.  The course had a stated purpose and an unstated purpose.  The stated purpose was to help us become better at counselling, something that pastors are called upon to do a lot but which we aren’t all qualified to do.  The unstated purpose was to help us discover a lot more about ourselves so that we could actually provide some honest help to people.

During one class session, one member of the class mentioned that he felt like he was a pastoral version of a politician of that time who had a reputation for being weak, wimpy and ineffective.  I looked at him in surprise and before I thought it through, told him that he wasn’t at all like that politician but was actually a perfect match for a different politician, one who had a reputation for being aggressive, brash and something of a bully.  After falling silent for a few minutes, the student abruptly got up and walked out.

The next day, he was back in class.  After apologizing for walking out, he looked at me and thanked me for my comment, telling the class that at first, it made him mad and then it opened his eyes to his real nature, which he had been trying to hide from himself but was obviously not hiding from anyone else.  Once he began to challenge his carefully constructed and basically ineffective image, he could begin to deal with who he really was and begin an honest journey to becoming who he was meant to be.

I was confused and even a bit scared by the process.  My comment hadn’t been made out of any great psychological or theological insight.  It was more of an offhand remark based on what I was seeing, meant more as a funny observation than anything.  But somehow, it penetrated his self-image and opened some important doors for him.

For me, it was a perfect example of what Paul is talking about when he says in Romans 12.3, “… rather think of yourself with sober judgment in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.”  (NIV).  Many of us are sadly lacking in this sober judgement.  A lot of us who have been part of the more conservative part of the church for a long time have been taught and learned well the lesson that we are pretty much worthless and have no redeeming value.

That particular heresy has damaged our ability to see ourselves as we really are and therefore seriously hampered our ability to grow and develop healthy relationships with ourselves, others and God.  The antidote is to allow ourselves to develop a sober estimate–which in this context, means a balanced and realistic understanding of who and what we are.

For most of us, this will require some help.  We have often lived with the distorted image and pressure to maintain the distorted image for so long that it is so much a part of our thinking that we don’t know what to begin.  Of course, we need to be careful where we look for help–there are lots of people who want us to maintain the worm theology we have been so carefully taught.

Because my life and work involve me primarily with groups of believers, I can say that I have seen such support within the church and its groups.  When believers gather together and care for each other and really pray for and with each other, the Holy Spirit has a fertile ground to work at helping people see and understand and grow.  When a group affirms some aspect of our being, we need to listen carefully.  Forget about the false modesty that requires us to attribute everything to God.  Listen to the group tell us that we sing well or understand Scripture well or are really caring or make people feel comfortable or always know just what to do or say.  Listen and ponder–use those comments as revelation from God about who we really are and what we can really do.  These shafts of light are one of God’s ways of showing us who we are.

We can also formalize the process by find a counsellor or mentor or spiritual guide, someone who is gifted by God in helping people discover themselves and therefore their path to growth and development.

The bottom line is that knowing self begins by rejecting the pressure to define ourselves as worthless and begin developing a realistic and sober self-understanding.  We are seeking to see ourselves as God sees us, which is the beginning of a sometimes scary but always exciting journey.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT YOU SEE…

There have only been a few congregations I served as pastor where I had an actual office outside of our home.  It was nice to have a place for work separate from home–it seemed to keep things a bit more organized, at least in my head.  The work things that needed to be finished or started or whatever were at the office, instead of sitting somewhere in our home.  Mind you, with the invention of laptops, that separation got harder to maintain, since the work was on the same laptop I was using to surf the net or play games.

Anyway, one office I had was particularly well designed, I thought.  It was at the corner of the building with one window facing the parking lot and another facing the way people walked to enter the building.  I had a perfect view of who was coming into the building.  Since I was the only person there except for Sundays and Bible Study night, that normally meant they were coming to see me.  As I watched people come in, it was always interesting and revealing to discover how they were feeling as they walked into the building and notice the transformation as they put on their public face when they arrived at my door.

Most of us like to think that we are pretty good at keeping our thoughts and feelings to ourselves.  And while some people are pretty good at this, most of us are nowhere as good at as we think we are–and we are not good at it for a very basic reason.  We aren’t good at hiding how we feel because in the end, we generally don’t know all that much about what we are feeling and thinking.

The real irony is that when we won’t recognize our own stuff, we are generally broadcasting to the rest of the world a very powerful message about where we are that many others can see.  And so when we stick on a public face, it is plastered over a very clear message that keeps poking out of the disguise, which is confusing and perplexing to a lot of people.

As a pastor, I often find myself in the position of seeing the discrepancy between what people are consciously projecting and what is peeking out that they don’t want seen–or don’t know they are feeling.  Sometimes, it is appropriate to ignore the discrepancy–when we are supposed to be discussing the schedule of worship services for the next year, seeing the difference between what people show and what is underneath isn’t an appropriate topic.  It might be significant and might have an effect on the ease of carrying our out stated task but it generally isn’t wise or necessary to address it then.

Other times, it is important to address it.  Since I do some counselling, there are times when it is my job and responsibility to open the issue and help people confront the difference in what they think they are feeling and what they are really feeling.  It is often a real surprise to people that they have this whole other set of feelings that that either aren’t conscious of or are sort of aware of and feel slightly guilty about.  Ultimately, until people can see and address the deeper, more truthful feelings and realities, there is not much any counselling can do to help people deal with whatever prompted the request for counselling.  I sometimes spend a lot of time helping people understand what is going on that they don’t want to acknowledge.

We human beings have an almost infinite capacity for self-deception, a capacity that creates a great deal of trouble for everyone.  And along with that ability is an almost universal inability to avoid showing other people not only what we want them to see but also what we don’t want to acknowledge or show but show nonetheless.

Rather than self-knowledge, we are often better at self-denial.  This self-denial is not some kind of virtue, however.  It is a real and serious problem because it keeps us from really experiencing life, relationships and God.  It limits our ability to grow in faith and damages our ability to form healthy relationships with others.

It is much healthier in the end to heave the self-denial thing and discover who we really are. After all, we were created in God’s image so there must be something worthwhile there.

May the peace of God be with you.

DENYING SELF

I am the pastor of small, rural congregations.  All of our buildings are old–at least 100 years and one is getting close to 200.  While all have been updated and upgraded to some extent with new-fangled things like electricity and somewhat efficient heating systems–a couple of them even have restrooms–they are still old buildings, designed and built in a era when personal comfort was something looked on with great suspicion.  People who wanted to be comfortable when worshipping God were soft and probably in serious danger of committing sin.

While I sometimes joke with people that the seats in our old buildings were designed specifically to be uncomfortable, I think that is much more a reality than a joke.  The Christian church has a long history of being at odds with comfort and ease.  I think this comes out of a desire to take seriously the words of Jesus that we find in Matthew 16.24, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (NIV)  In order to enable people to take up their cross, the church has perfected many ways of helping people deny themselves.

The seats in our older church buildings are a prime example, although seats themselves, no matter how uncomfortable, would have been seen as something of a temptation to an earlier generation of church leaders–many early buildings didn’t have seats at all.  I mean, after all, Acts 20 tells the story of a young man named Eutychus, who was sitting down during worship and managed to fall asleep.  Standing was a much better option for some church designers when it came to imposing self-denial.

Now, as pastor, I don’t normally have to sit in the pews in our church buildings, although the chair for the preacher which I get to sit in for short periods of time is not a particularly comfortable one.  But I do have some thoughts on the whole self-denial thing, whether it is forced or voluntarily chosen.  For me, we generally start the self-denial process in the wrong place, make some wrong assumptions and then, on the basis of this, end up doing some pretty pointless things.

When we begin the process with the denial stuff, I think we are bound for trouble.  As a pastor and a counsellor, I have realized over many years of ministry that self-denial needs to begin with the self–meaning that we need to have a much better understanding of who and what we are before we begin denying ourselves or others than we normally do.

Often, we are taught that we are worthless, evil and sinful from the moment we are conceived.  We are encouraged to see ourselves as beings with no redeeming features–our very best is still sinful and wrong and tainted and hopelessly evil.  And while that may be a very common and popular conservative-leaning Christian theology, it is simply wrong.

Humans are made in the image of God.  As the Psalmist tells us, we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139.14).  We come into the world with talents and abilities and possibilities and potentials that are divinely planned.  Certainly, we and all that we are affected by sin, both ours and the rest of the world’s.  But we don’t somehow become worthless as soon as we come into being.  We become beings whose whole life and potential is affected negatively by the reality of sin–but that doesn’t mean that we lose all the good and all the potential and all that might be.  It does mean that it will be harder to be who we were meant to be; that we probably won’t reach the heights that God planned for us; that our full potential will never be realized–but it doesn’t mean that we are worthless worms.

Before we begin denying self or giving in to the institutionally encouraged denials, we would probably be a lot further ahead emotionally and spiritually if we got to know who and what we are.  We can and need to look at how we are affected by sin–but we also need to know what we are and what we can be.  We need to be able to see what God has given us; to discover the fearful and wonderful way God has knit us together.

Before we even think about denying self, we should get to know ourselves.  After all, the God who knows us better than we know ourselves loves us as we are.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE GOD FACTOR

Our personalities are the result of a combination of factors, some of which we can control and some of which we can’t control.  But our personality is also always evolving, changing a as result of these same factors.  It is probably much more accurate to talk about what we are becoming than what we are when it comes to personality.  This is an important reality that has some significant implications.

If my personality isn’t static but is always changing and evolving, that opens the possibility of managing and directing the change.  And while that sounds good, it brings up several questions:  Who is managing the change?  In what direction is the change moving?  What is the purpose of the change?

Answering these questions is important–letting the changes in our personality happen and assuming that it will produce good results isn’t a wise option.  There are lots of people around who would like to manage the changes in our personality.  There are lots of groups and organizations that want to help us become what they think we should become.  And there are lots of reasons for the changes that really don’t help anyone in the long run.

Because I am a follower of Christ, I have to look at this whole process of personality development from a Christian perspective.  And for me, that means beginning with a couple of theological realities.  First, anything I am or am becoming here is affected by human sin–both mine own and that of everyone else in the world.  Secondly, only God, the Creator, really knows what I can be and was actually meant to be.

And so for me, personality development becomes a part of spiritual growth and development.  Who I am becoming can best be determined by God, which makes my personality development a process in which I seek God’s leading and then work at submitting to God’s infinitely superior wisdom and sense of direction.

But in order to get there, I need to learn how to deal with a great many issues and problems that I don’t always want to deal with.  There are, for example, genetic issues that have an effect on who I am becoming.  I struggle with mild depression on a regular basis.  While a certain amount of that depression is the result of what is going on around me, I am pretty sure that my brain is genetically wired in such a way that makes depression the go to response in certain situations.

There are also environmental issues that affect who I am and who I am becoming.  I grew up poor and even now, I find myself reacting to certain circumstances in ways that come from this–I am uncomfortable spending money for things that break until after I have exhausted every possible way of repairing whatever it is–sometimes even spending more on the repair attempts than I would have spent on the new whatever.

So, given that my personality is being determined by so many factors that seem to be beyond my control, where does God’s knowledge and plan enter into the process?  God knows who and what I am meant to be–he is my creator and he had a plan and idea in mind for me, my life and who I can become.    And because God is a God of grace and love, he doesn’t force me to make any changes or to change in any particular direction–but God does seek to help by offering me direction and help and strength through the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life.  If I am willing to open myself to this divine intervention, I have the potential to become more and more what God wants me to become.  I won’t ever get there–there are too many factors at work making it too tempting to follow other paths to personality development that get in the way, leading me down different paths.

But in the end, a personality development process that seeks to discover and find God’s plan for who I am and am becoming seeks to me to be the only really viable process–at least I think this on good days.  Rather than let my personality develop in random, uncontrolled ways, opening myself to God’s direction provides a much better possibility for my becoming.

May the peace of God be with you.