WOUNDED HEALERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the grace of God be with you.

WHO IS MY PASTOR?

A couple of times in my career as pastor, I have had people ask me an interesting question.  Essentially, they want to know who is my pastor.  One person who asked the question didn’t actually have much to do with the church but knew me and knew that I was involved in some pretty difficult situations with people he knew.  Another was a church member whom I had helped through some difficulties as part of my pastoral activity.

The question is one that I have actually given a lot of thought to over the years.  Very early, I was exposed to the myth of pastoral invulnerability–the idea that since I am a pastor, I have such a strong connection with God that I don’t need a pastor.  My strong, deeply rooted faith and my powerful connection with God keep protect me and shelter me and take away the need for the kind of pastoral support I provide for others.  Mostly, pastors who believe in this myth don’t talk about it–or much of anything personal for that matter.  They just continue along, doing God’s work until they crash and burn, something that is always painful for them and the church.

I actually believed the myth–for something like 3.5 minutes.  My own growing awareness of my weaknesses and witnessing the depressingly regular crash of “strong” pastors very quickly showed me the folly of that particular myth.  And so even though I tend to be a fairly self-contained individual who has learned to handle a lot of things on my own, I am aware of my own need to outside help and welcome it.

All through my ministry, I have has people who were willing to be my pastor–of course, since I have pretty much always been a pastor myself, none of them were officially my pastor and in true church fashion, most of them never got paid for being my pastor.  But they were and are there.

Early in my ministry preparation and career, I didn’t actually recognize these pastoral presences for what they really were.  I knew there were people there who were willing to talk with me, listen to me and support me whose presence I deeply appreciated and would occasionally seek out but it never really clicked with me that they were being my pastor.  At other times, there were people whose pastoral role I recognized–our denomination actually had staff people who were to be pastors to the pastors for a time.

I also had the tremendous blessing of marrying a pastor and we have provided mutual pastoral support for each other as part of our life together.  Our relationship is about much more than being a pastor to each other but that is a factor in our relationship.

These days, our denomination no longer has a pastor to pastors because of financial realities.  And many times, my advanced age puts me in the position of being a pastor to younger pastors in the same way other more senior pastors cared for me.  But my advanced age and extended career in ministry haven’t brought me to the place where I am the living embodiment of the strong and unshakable pastor who needs nothing but the Bible and a “season of prayer” to deal with anything and everything.

I still need a pastor, just like the people I am called to shepherd.  And so I find pastors.  Often, my first choice is my wife.  But I find others as well.  I let the congregations provide pastoral care–I have told congregations for years that I struggle with depression and many within the congregation will check on me and offer care and prayer when I need it.  Contrary to many pastoral theorists, being open to the pastoral care from the congregation makes my ministry with them stronger and more effective.

I also have people I meet with at irregular intervals and over coffee or lunch, we pastor each other.  Sometimes, we both know this is a mutual pastoral care event, sometimes one or the other recognizes it for what it is and occasionally, neither of us knows that pastoral care is happening as we drink our coffee.

God has provided pastors because we all need something sometime–and we pastors are no different from anyone else.  We may not have a pastor in the same way the people we shepherd have a pastor but God does provide us with pastors and those of us who are wise enough to see our needs take advantage of God’s provision.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT DO I KNOW?

I am leading worship, something I do twice a Sunday almost every Sunday of the year–I do take vacations.  I have finished the announcements, begun the worship and we are singing the first hymn.  After making sure that I have the bookmarks in place for the responsive reading and the next hymn (I am organized, not obsessive), I take some time to look around at the congregation.  I have greeted everyone as they come in and had a brief conversation with most of them but this is my first time to really see the whole congregation.

I know who is there but at this point in the service, I get to take a quick count (a relatively quick and easy job in small congregations) and at the same time, discover who isn’t there.  Some, I already know won’t be present–they have mentioned to me that they will be away because of this or that commitment.  I am pretty sure that I know the reason for the absence of one or two others.  But there are a couple whose absence concerns me.

I am not concerned because it makes the numbers look bad–having been the pastor of small congregations for many years, I don’t get too concerned about numbers until there is a major, sustained deviation from the average.  But I am concerned because I don’t know why they are missing from the worship that day.

You might think this shows that I am a controlling, nosey, busybody who needs to know every detail of everyone’s life.  I prefer to think that I am a pastor, a person called by God to provide spiritual and other input as God leads me–and being a pastor means that I am concerned with what goes on in the lives of the people that God has called me to shepherd.  Most Sundays, my big concern isn’t whether we have 17 or 20 people in worship–my real concern is whether those who aren’t there are okay.

I have the same concern for those who are there as well–but I can do something about that.  As I greet them and talk with them, I can and do get a sense of how they are doing and whether I need to plan some pastoral input during the coming week.  But when someone expected isn’t there, I have to confess that I have alarm bells going off in my mind–not level one, all out panic alarm bells but alarm bells nonetheless.

If I am really lucky, someone will mention to me that one of the absentees had company drop in or caught a cold or something equally minor.  If not, I might ask one of their friends.  And if no one knows, the person  goes on my pastoral list.  Because I am a pastor in small, rural communities, I can be pretty sure that if the person missing from worship is suffering from a major, catastrophic event, everyone will know about it and someone will tell me eventually.  But there are lots of things between minor and catastrophic that I can and do respond to as their pastor.

One of the things I know is that I am called by God to provide pastoral care to the churches that I worship with each week.  Pastoral care is a vague and hard to define concept that is often much easier to see in its absence that in its presence.  It is a calling that I sometimes get tired of–but can’t seem to ever get away from.  Even when I am not a pastor, I find myself reacting to people like a pastor–listening and watching and paying attention, looking for the clues that God helps me see so that I know how best to respond to the individual and their needs in God’s name.

Being a pastor tires me–but it also completes me.  It irritates me at times–but it also gives me a sense of purpose and direction.  Being a pastor clashes with my introverted nature sometimes–but it also fulfills an even deeper part of my nature.

I know that I am called to be a pastor.  Some days, I am not sure of much and other days, I discover that what I think I know is wrong–but every day, I know that I am a pastor and need to care for those people whom God has called me to shepherd.

May the peace of God be with you.

HOW BIG IS THE CHURCH?

I have been the pastor of a lot of small congregations in my 40+ years of ministry.  I have never broken the 100 mark in regular attendance.  These days, the combined attendance at the two pastorates I serve part time rarely reaches 40, unless it is for a funeral. (I don’t know about weddings–we haven’t had any yet.)  I did once pastor a church that had over 250 members on paper but because of problems and issues, there were only about 25 in worship when I started as pastor.

Given that I am within visual range of retirement, I am pretty sure that my chances of being pastor to a large church are pretty small.  That’s okay with me–I don’t dream of being the next world-famous mega-church pastor any more (well, not much anyway).

But as I have been reading about church growth and how to deal with large increases in attendance and how to prepare for it and all sorts of stuff like that for years.  I know that there is more than just a difference in numbers when it comes to church size.  Beyond a certain point, the quality and nature of the congregation changes.  One blog I read recently suggested that once a church reaches a certain size, the pastor can’t know everyone–and everyone else can’t know everyone either.  His suggestion of nametags was an appropriate way of dealing with that problem.

But one of the nagging questions that has always bothered me when I think about this qualitative difference focuses on exactly this issue.  If I can’t know at least the names of everyone joined together with me in a congregation, are we really a church?  We can be a gathering of believers, we can have a strong theoretical commitment to God and each other but if I can’t know all of the others, are we really a church?

Christianity is a social faith, which requires that our commitment to God through Christ express itself in our relationships with other believers.  And I don’t think that is meant to be a theoretical, generalized expression.  We are called to love each other in very practical and personal ways–but if there are so many of us that I can’t even remember names, how personal can my expression of faith be in that context?

If I am to love other believers as Jesus loved us (John 13.34-35), don’t I need to know the names of my fellow believers (John 10.1-17, especially verse 3)? If I have to look at a name tag to know who I am talking to, how can I be expected to really love people as Christ loved us–without a real sense of who the person is, isn’t my love more generic than personal?

This isn’t an anti-big church rant.  I have friends who pastor large congregations and others who attend large congregations and whose faith I respect and appreciate.  But as I look at some of these larger congregations, it seems to me that they really aren’t united and unified.  Rather than being one big happy church family, they seem to be several different but slightly overlapping church families–several congregations meeting together.

And there are lots of good reasons for such groupings of churches in one congregation.  It allows for more and better programs and facilities and makes delivery of ministry more efficient and allows them to afford things that my small congregations can’t even afford to dream about.  But in the end, I wonder if it might not be better and more correct to call these large groups a gathering of churches rather than a church.

Maybe, once we lose the ability to know names and therefore the ability to really know people, we have lost something vital to the nature of the church.  Knowing someone’s name opens the door to knowing a lot more about the person and that allows us to specifically and personally show people how our common faith in God is expressed in our relationship.

And so while I really hope and pray that our small congregations will grow in numbers, I also am not really interested in the kind of growth that means I can’t know the names of the people I lead in worship.  If we ever get that big, we can start another church so that people can live their faith with people whose names they know and who know their names.

May the peace of God be with you.

A HUMBLE CONFESSION

As I was writing the last post, I realized that it could suggest that I have a very high opinion of my pastoral abilities.  And I do think that I am pretty good at what I do–I have been a pastor for a lot of years and have helped congregations through some difficult times.  And while I have never been called to a large congregation, I think I have been good for the churches that I have pastored.  As well, I have been called to teach pastors both in Canada and Kenya.

But at the same time,  I have to confess that most of the time in ministry, I really don’t know what I am doing.  Sure, there are some basics:  I need to preach, teach Bible study, visit people, attend (and sometimes chair) meetings, do some counselling, and be there for life transitions like funerals and weddings.  But beyond the basics, I don’t always have great plans and inspiring visions.  I don’t dream (much) of seeing the congregation become a mega-church; I am never sure where we will be next month let alone 5 or 10 years from now.  In truth, sometimes, I can’t even tell you what I will be preaching next Sunday, although that only happens when I forget that the current sermon plan actually ends next week.

None of my congregations have ever given me a coffee mug with the message “World’s Greatest Pastor” printed on it–nor have I even felt that I deserve one.  Even more, there are times when I am convinced that I made a serious mistake when I decided that God wanted me to be a pastor–and more than a few times when I have been convinced that God made a serious mistake by calling me to be a pastor.

I get tired of what I am doing; I get depressed when the stress of ministry leads to overwork; I waste time when I could be studying or seeing people; I wonder why God didn’t call me to some other work; I get angry at things that happen in the church; I fantasize about winning the lottery and retiring; I sometimes hope for snow days for more than just the opportunity to go cross-country skiing.

I am a pastor–but even after all these years of pastoring, teaching pastors, reflecting and writing on pastoring, I am still trying to figure out what it really means to be a pastor.  Maybe after I retire sometime in the not too distant future, I will have some time to figure out what it is that I am really supposed to be doing.

I have actually made some progress at figuring it out.  I have learned some things that pastors shouldn’t do.  Some of these I have learned from my own painful experience.  Others I have learned from watching the experience of others–those lessons have been less painful for me but no less painful for congregations and pastors.  Knowing what not to do is actually a helpful start on the road to knowing what to do.

If it is a mistake to scold the congregation with every sermon, as it is, then not only do I know to avoid that but also, I have an opportunity to discover what might be a better use of the sermon.  Teaching during the sermon, encouraging with the message, inspiring congregations through the preaching–all these are much better for everyone than a ranting scold every week.

And even more importantly, I have learned one of the most basic realities of my profession.  Ministry is really about developing relationships with people that can help them and me develop our relationship with God.  In the course of developing those relationships, we may discover God’s leading and empowering to do interesting, exciting and inspiring things but the development of the relationships is the key issue.  We have to really know each other before we can trust each other.  We have to trust each other before we can really open to each other about faith.  We have to open to each other about faith before we can experience the fullness of the presence of God in our midst.

So, day after day, I take my introverted self and go be a pastor–I joke with people, drink coffee with people, cry with people, pray with people, teach people, get taught by people.  I do my job, a job that I don’t always understand and which I sometimes struggle to explain and am not sure how good at it I really am but which God has called me to do.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE CHURCH WEATHER REPORT

A few times over the course of my ministry with small congregations, I have been taken aside by some member of the congregation and thanked for what I have done and am doing in the congregation.  Since I am somewhat analytical by nature, I have generally asked the person to tell me just what it is that they think I have done.  Initially, I was thinking I would hear some comment about my breathtaking preaching, my incredibly inspiring teaching, my superlative administrative skills or at least the fact that last Sunday, I managed to produce a bulletin with no discernible mistakes.

But in almost every case in which this scenario happened, the informant doesn’t mention any of those things.  Almost all have told me that what I have done that is so important to them is change the atmosphere of the congregation.  They mention that they come to worship now because they want to, not because they feel it is their duty.  They talk about the fact that we laugh a lot as a congregation–and often add that we laugh together, not at each other.  Sometimes, the person will say that the congregation used to be gloomy but now they feel hope and excitement.

I have to confess that this hasn’t been some planned strategy on my part but as I have reviewed the ministry I have done, I can see that a change of atmosphere is generally a by-product of what I have been doing.  And in each situation, I haven’t been doing anything more than what I think is my job as pastor.

My primary area of skill, ability, gifts and inclination is pastoral.  I am concerned about people.  Now, because I am an introvert, I joke with churches that I don’t actually like people but that really isn’t true.  As a pastor, I like and care for the people I am working with and for–and they are my primary focus.  That doesn’t seem to be the case for all pastor-congregation matches.

As I read and study pastoral trends these days, I find strong encouragement for me to be a Leader, a Visionary or even better, a Visionary Leader.  I am told by others that I must be an unflinching advocate of the TRUTH, unwavering in my defence of all that it right.  Others suggest that I must be Seeker Sensitive, designing worship and programs for those who aren’t there but who might come if I get things right.  I also need to be an advocate of Church Growth, following which ever theory is hot at the moment.

In the end, though, I am a pastor, called by God to love and care for a specific group of people.  The spiritual (and sometimes actual) feeding of this flock is my focus.  And as I have analysed the congregations I have worked with, I realize that the comments I mentioned at the beginning of this post are a direct result of the fact that the people feel cared for and supported in their spiritual development–and that changes the nature of their relationship with both the faith and the church.

These days, I am more aware of the atmosphere of congregations and more concerned with changing the atmosphere.  But the process I follow really hasn’t changed.  I am still a pastor.  I work at listening and caring and supporting.  I build my teaching and preaching on what I am hearing and seeing and deducing from my pastoral contacts.  But most of all, I spend time with people, listening and learning.

The results of good pastoral care are many and varied–but one of the most important is that people feel valued and important.  Worship becomes a time of sharing with each other and with God their sense of value and importance.  Whatever we do as a congregation grows out of this atmosphere of value and importance.  People are free to open themselves to the leading of the Spirit–and when the congregation opens themselves to this leading, there is no telling what will happen but it will generally be positive, powerful and exciting for everyone involved.

The church weather report is one of the most powerful indicators of the health and potential of a congregation–and the role of the pastor is crucial to establishing conditions for a good weather report.

May the peace of God be with you.

GETTING TO THE PULPIT

I will begin this post with a disclaimer:  the story I am about to tell is a pastoral story.  That means that I have used my pastoral privilege to alter details to protect the identity of anyone who might be involved and of course, to make the story fit my point better.  We pastors like nothing better than a story that perfectly fits our point and it is often easier to tweak the story than the point.

Anyway, the story.  I am almost always one of the first to arrive for worship.  I like the time it gives me to set up my stuff on the pulpit and refocus on the coming worship.  My nervousness level generally requires that I re-visit the pulpit several times to make sure that things are still set up properly–who knows when some evil gremlin will turn the hymnbook to the wrong page.

So, I start for the pulpit to check the hymnbook and tablet yet again.  But now, there are people present so I stop and talk.  I hear about the frustration of getting a driveway cleared (we had heavy snow before the worship;  I hear about the sick grandchild in another province; I hear about the depression someone is struggling with; I hear about the anniversary trip coming up soon.  Eventually, I make it to the pulpit and discover that the hymnbook and tablet are just as I left them.  I check my watch and discover that we have 2 minutes before we are supposed to start, just enough time to get to the back and pray with the choir before worship begins.

But the trip to the back of the sanctuary, which should take 15 seconds (20 on bad knee days) gets interrupted as I hear about the upcoming surgery and how comfortable someone feels in our worship and how someone else has to be away and will miss Bible study next week.  Eventually, I make it to the back for prayer–it has  be rushed because it is already past time to start–but one of the choir members has to finish telling his story and another has to remind us that she won’t be with us next week.

Now, as I mentioned, this has never happened–but it happens almost every week.  People have stuff they need to share–and they want to share it with me.  They want to share it with me not because I am such a great person or because they recognize that I am too polite to ignore them.  They want to share this stuff with me because I am the pastor.  Sharing it with me helps them be aware that God is concerned with their concerns.  When I listen to them, they feel that God has been listening to them.

Many of us in ministry struggle with this reality.  We forget, I think, just how important it is to many people to receive this pastoral care.  It is easy for me to focus on the coming worship and try to make sure that everything is ready so I can lead worship without the anxiety that comes from not checking the pulpit 42.5 times.  It is sometimes tempting to think that my task of helping the church develop a newer and bigger vision is more important than listening to someone talk about some fear or triumph or detail of life.  I am tempted to think that my study of the derivation of the key words in the text for Sunday’s sermon is a more important focus for my energy than listening (for the 10th time) to the story of how a grandchild who had problems at birth is now walking and talking.

But the truth I have learned is that I am a pastor–and people in the congregation need their pastor to hear them and listen to them and care for them.  Feeding the sheep is not an option for when I have some extra time–feeding the sheep is the essential priority of my calling.  When I don’t give this pastoral care the priority it deserves, I get reminders of how important it is.  One reminder is how long it takes to get to the pulpit.

If I ignore the reminders and continue to neglect the feeding of the flock I have been called to, the whole congregation will suffer–and anything else that I think is important will fall apart.

Trips to the pulpit such as I described here are a reminder to me of what is really important.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHO’S TALKING TO WHO?

We had a serious technical glitch develop before worship the other day.  Our choir often sings with accompaniment supplied by a CD played over a portable CD player, a process that works for us and our context.  But yesterday, the choir director brought everything needed for the music except the actual CD, which put our special music at risk.

Because I am something of a techie, I got involved.  Since we had copied the CD to have a working copy while the original remained safe, I just happened to have a copy of the CD on my phone.  I began working to find a way to connect the phone to the CD player but the phone is too new and the CD player too old for them to be able to talk to each other.  Eventually, we decided to put the mic from the PA system next to the phone speaker and work that way, a process that worked.  We had our special music.

However, getting that going took 15 minutes or so and that meant that when I finally had things connected and knew how to make them work, it was within a few minutes of time to start.  I looked around the sanctuary and realized that most people were already present and I hadn’t had a chance to talk to many of them.  They were all engaged in their conversations with each other, some settled in their seats and others having conversations before they headed to their seats.

In the few minutes I had before it was time to start, I managed to get around and at least greet each person there–but I felt rushed and unsettled and extra stressed as I began the worship.  I think the extra stress was partly because of the technical glitch that turned me into the choir accompanist for that service.  But I also think more of the extra stress was the result of not having sufficient contact with the people gathering for worship before we began.  I didn’t really have a sense of the gathering, who was experiencing what and what space they were in–it felt like I was blind and deaf, stepping into an unknown situation.

Well, that is something of an overstatement–but I was very much aware of the lack of a real sense of the congregation when I began worship. Fortunately, we are informal and flexible in worship and by time we reached the offering, I was getting into the worship process and once the choir had sung and I was off the hook for providing the music, I was pretty much back on track–and once the worship finished, I had a chance to talk and connect with the congregation.

People never rush out of our sanctuary after worship.  We talk to each other, a lot.  We don’t need to institute the process of greeting each other during the worship because it is already a part of our worship process–we talk to each other before and after the worship (and more than  occasionally during the worship).

This is part of being the church.  We worship as a community of people who are in relationship with each other, not as a group of unrelated individuals who come together because it is the most efficient way for the preacher to get the message across.  We are a community and before we can effectively worship, we have to be aware of the community.  After we worship, we need to take our leave of the community.  And even during the worship, we need to recognize the community.

From my perspective, the level of conversation before and after worship is directly proportional to the health of the congregation.  The more people who talk and the more people they talk to, the healthier the congregation and the more we are together helping each other worship and grow in faith.  And the reality includes me as the pastor and preacher.  I can’t be as effective leading worship and preaching if I don’t establish my connection with the congregation before and after we worship.

The technical glitch yesterday reminded me of that reality. And while I love solving technical glitches, I prefer them to happen at times when they don’t interfere with my time  to connect with the people I am worshipping with.  The church worships best when it worships as a community which has taken the time to be a community.

May the peace of God be with you.

DENY OR SURRENDER?

For some reason, I end up connecting with a lot of people who struggle with self-acceptance.  As I talk with them, work with them and observe them, I am often amazed at how much an individual can not like themselves.  Their lives and conversations are filled with personal put-downs, denials of personal worth, self-harm and self-destructive behaviour.  And the deeper issue is that these are often people who have significant talents and gifts and  abilities, who can be very caring and helpful, who are well liked and respected by others.  But in their minds, they are worthless, their activities are insignificant, their talents are unimportant, and people are faking liking them.

If such a person is a part of a Christian group, particularly a conservative Christian group, they often find that their faith enables and encourages this self-hate.  After all, isn’t self-denial the proper way for Christians?  Aren’t we supposed to realize that we are worms and worthless with no abilities and incapable of making any contribution?  A commitment to God through Christ must also include a commitment to putting ourselves down, doesn’t it?

But that sort of thinking misses entirely the whole point of the Christian message.  The Good News that we have been given by God through Jesus Christ is that God loves us–not that he might love us if we weren’t so worthless; not that he could love us if we cleaned up our act a lot; not that he might hate us less is we hate ourselves more.  No, the Good News is that God loves us, as we are.  Sometimes, in an effort to help people understand this deep and essential message, I tell people something like, “If you, as you are right now, were the only person on earth, Jesus would still have gone to the cross for you–that’s how much God loves you.”

For years, I have struggled to understand the theological and psychological twisting necessary to turn God’s powerful and unconditional love into a call for emotional, physical and spiritual self-abuse.  When we begin with the fact that God loves us no matter what, how do we then see a need to destroy ourselves with self-hatred?  There is obviously a way to go from one to the other but it is a route that I simply don’t understand.

The issue of self-denial strikes me as an important one in the Scripture but I don’t think it means I have to hate myself.  God doesn’t hate me so why should I hate me?  Jesus, whom I am committed to emulating, doesn’t hate me, so how can I justify hating me?  It is clear to me that the Biblical call for self-denial isn’t a call to hate myself.

Based on what I see in the Bible, it seems to me that self-denial is more akin to surrender or sacrifice or self-giving.  I offer my whole being to God through Christ.  I offer the good and the bad; the positive and the negative, the polished and the rough–I give it all to God so that he can help me discover the fullness of what I was meant to be.  What I am surrendering is my desire to control my life.

It is clear that no matter what else I can say about myself, I don’t always make good choices.  I don’t do what I know I should as often as I should.  God, because of his infinite wisdom combined with his infinite love, knows far better than I do what is best for me and those I connect with.  If I am willing to surrender my desire to make my own choices to him, he will help me make choices that are much better for me and everyone.  God is going to love me with an infinite love whether I surrender or not but if I surrender to him, I actually become more me.

That is relatively easy to write–but the reality is that I am often very reluctant to surrender to God through Christ.  And, having done it once, there is no guarantee that I will do it again.  Learning to surrender and trust God takes a life time because we are going against our ingrained selfishness.  But the one important constant is that God loves me and has shown the extent of that love in Jesus Christ–and if God loves me that much, I don’t need to hate myself in order to have God love me.

May the peace of God be with you.

LOVING THE CORINTHIAN SAINTS

One of the things that comes to me very clearly when I read Paul’s letters to the Corinthian believers is how much he loves these people and how deeply he cares for them. He isn’t physically present with them, he has other vital ministry going on where he is located at the time, he is hurt by the attitude of some of the members towards him–but in spite of all that, his deep love and concern for the church comes through.

For me, that evidence of love between a pastor and a congregation has become something of a foundation for my understanding of ministry. Because I am a pastor, I see and understand this foundation. What I am writing here also applies to other congregational leaders and although I will refer to pastors, the material is directed towards deacons, elders, teachers–anyone in a leadership position.

It is not uncommon when pastors get together for at least one to begin talking about how difficult his/her congregation is. Because the group is primarily pastors, there often seems to be the unspoken assumption that the church is always at fault. In pastoral circles, some congregations have reputations as being “hard” or “difficult” and the suggested advice is not to go there but if you do, by very careful.

I have talked with churches and pastors where the relationship between the two is marked by suspicion, mistrust and even paranoia. There are often deliberate attempts to hide things, mislead people and create power groups. And if I happen to hear about the underlying causes from either or both sides, I see that there are some serious problems–after all, there are no perfect churches, no perfect pastors and therefore no perfect pairings.

And yet, once the deep, dark secrets are out in the open, they are generally bad but somehow never quite as bad at the stuff going on in Corinth. That is not to minimize the real problems that some pastors face–there are serious problems in churches and pastors often end up dealing with the effects of these problems both professionally and personally.

But the issue for me becomes the way we as pastors often deal with the issues we see. It seems like we fall into the classic “fight or flight” pattern. As pastors confronting the issues in the churches we serve, we either run away from the church or turn it into a battle that either we pastors or the church has to win. Unfortunately, most of the time neither flight or fight helps the situation.

Running away from the problem just means that someone else will have to deal with it–and probably have a harder time dealing with it because it will be bigger and stronger. But an open fight doesn’t solve the problem either–no matter who “wins”, both church and pastor are seriously damaged, as is the congregation’s witness in the community.

For that reason, we need to take a look at how Paul handles his difficult congregation in Corinth–and realize that the love and concern that comes through so clearly in his letters is the crucial factor that allowed him to help that congregation. Certainly, he is at times very blunt and even harsh with the congregation. Sure, his language isn’t always as diplomatic as it could be. But no matter what he writes, it is clear that he loves these people. And I think that in the end, this is why his letters had an effect on the church. He didn’t run away from the church nor did he battle them in to submission. He loved them–and that love was used by the Holy Spirit to help the church change.

When I teach pastors, I generally find some point to make a strong statement to them. I tell pastors that we need to compliment and praise the church we are called to serve–and then, I tell them that if we can’t find anything to praise the church for, we are the ones with the problem, not the church. Our first responsibility as pastors is to love the church. Unless we as pastors can fulfill this requirement, we are not qualified to help the congregation deal with its issues–before we can help them with the sawdust in their eye, we need to deal with the plank in our eye. (Matthew 7.3-5)

Paul dealt with what was probably the most dysfunctional congregation of all time and did it with love and grace. Maybe if we church leaders were willing to follow that example more closely, there would be fewer Corinthian problems around today.

May the peace of God be with you.