FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT–AGAIN

Because I have two separate pastorates, I have two worship services.  I have already described the morning worship on the first Sunday of Advent.  After some lunch, a brief nap and a chance to read over the afternoon service, I left for the second service.  This was not our normal afternoon service.

To start with, we had scheduled a potluck supper after the worship, something we do several times a year.  That meant the service would start later so that the supper would happen closer to actual supper time.  It also meant some extra people who come because of the meal and the chance to visit with people over the supper.  It also means that things are more hectic before worship begins as we juggle final arrangements for the supper with getting ready for worship. We also had to get the Advent Candle stuff set up, which meant scouring the building for a suitable table.

It was also a cloudy, dreary day which made the burned out bulbs in over half the light fixtures in the sanctuary very obvious.  Since the fixtures are high and hard to get to, we tend not to pay much attention to them, until we all of a sudden realize half the sanctuary is in darkness and we need to do something–except the pre-worship discussion revealed that none of us had any good idea of how we were going to replace the bulbs,

With all that going on, I was kept fairly busy before worship began and didn’t realize until just before we began that in my worship preparation the week before, I had neglected to make sure my tablet and the bulletin were in sync.  I forgot to add in the hymns to the order of service on the tablet and also forgot to add in the second special music slot.  Fortunately, those were easy to remedy.

But things kept slipping.  I announced the Advent Candle reading and sat down while the reader did that part of worship.  And then, instead of standing to announce the offering, I forgot the offering, thinking the choir would sing, which they did–fortunately, other people seem to be able to pick up after me.  I eventually got the offering in and worship continued.  But when the choir did their next selection, I stood up, not realizing they were doing two pieces.  The congregation had a bit of a laugh as the choir told me to sit down.

I was not at my best during that service.  The activity and confusion before the service combined with a busy week leading to the worship meant that I was not as prepared as I should have been going into the worship and not as focused during the worship as I should have been.  I did manage to include all the required bits and pieces, even if the order of service I was following didn’t always connect with the order of service printed in the bulletin.

Eventually, we reached the end of the service and most of us went to the church hall for our supper.  But for me, the important thing was that in spite of all the confusion and my mistakes, we worshipped.  It might not have been exactly as planned.  I might have made more mistakes than normal.  People might have been a bit distracted by the enticing smells coming from the hall.  The dreary cloudy weather might have affected some of us, especially since the lack of adequate lighting made it hard to see the hymn books.

But in  spite of all that, we worshipped God.  We prayed, we sang, we presented our offerings and we heard and responded to God’s word to us for that day.  We greeted each other, welcomed each other and enabled each other to be reminded of the reality of God in our lives so that we could together give him the worship he deserves.

I very much doubt that we will ever have a perfect setting for our worship.  I would hope that we don’t always have as many issues as we had this afternoon but there will always be something.  Our worship depends on our ability to remember the reality of God in the midst of the confusion of life.  We worship not when things are perfect but because God is present and loving and graceful in the midst of the confusion and reality of life.

May the peace of God be with you.

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HOW FAR?

I am a pastor, a person called by God to help others find and understand the love of God.  I teach, I preach, I counsel and go to a lot of meetings, some of which actually have a point.  And in the course of  all that activity, I encounter a lot of people–even as the pastor of small congregations in a rural area, I encounter a lot of people.

Some of these people are church people, people who are kind and loving and accepting and could be referred to as the “salt of the earth”.  Others, well, others are somewhat less likable–and a few are incredibly easy to dislike.  Some are comfortable to be around; some are okay for a while; a few I prefer to avoid if I can and there are a few who create a bit of fear in me when I encounter them.

But I am a pastor and part of my job is a commitment to serving God through serving people.  But every now and then, I have to deal with the issue of just how far I am supposed to go in dealing with people.  Sometimes, the problem comes in the way the person treats me–while it isn’t common, I have come across people who insult me, want to dominate me or who threaten me in some way shape of form.  More often, the problem comes about when I realize that the person I am encountering has been guilty of some particular behaviour.

For example, because of my work with victims of childhood sexual abuse, I tend to seriously dislike people who sexually abuse children.  I am sure that God loves them–but I generally find it difficult to be around them, let alone minister to them.  My response comes from years and years of listening to the pain and hurt and struggles of people trying to re-create a life seriously damaged by abuse.  When I am around such people, I tend to be angry and judgemental.

There are other people who react to other things.  On a somewhat regular basis, I talk to people in the church who wonder if it is possible for us to do something about so and so, who says/does/did/ might do that thing that really upsets them.  At least once, I had a church member suggest that it might be better if I didn’t make a pastoral visit to a family because, well, “they” were “like that”.

How far does tolerance, acceptance and Christian love go?  When do people cross the line that separates being included in God’s command to love from the legitimate withholding of that love?  I know, I know–the Gospel message is for all people, no matter who they are and what they have done.  Jesus came to rescue all people, including whichever group I happen to be having problems with at any given time.

But does God expect the same limitlessness love from me?  Do I have to minister to the child abuser?  Do I have to welcome “those” people into the church I pastor?  Do I have to defend them from the sanctified abuse the church sometimes likes to dish out to those who break the rules?

What does God expect of me?  Well, he does expect me to push my limits.  He does expect me to follow him into the places and to the people I would prefer to ignore or condemn.  He does call me to challenge my positions and bring them into congruence with his positions.

That is painful, difficult, frustrating, scary.  It also produces serious anger.  But in the end, it is part of my commitment to the faith.  I wish I could conclude this blog by saying that I have overcome all the limits and love everyone as God loves them and calls me to love them.  But I am trying to be as honest as possible in this writing and so the best I can say is that God’s grace is at work and he is patiently working with me.  I know that because there are a couple of people I know who have abused children whom I see on a semi-regular basis.  God is working in me and helping me learn how my faith needs to help shape loving response to them.  It isn’t easy–but it is coming.

I am glad that God’s love is not limited by my limits.

May the peace of God be with you.

THOUGHTS DURING WORSHIP

Because of the fact that I am a pastor, I rarely get to attend worship where I am not involved somehow in the leadership of the service.  That means that my involvement in worship tends to focus on what is going on and what I need to do next and how the worship is flowing.  In addition, because I am a pastor, I am also watching the congregation picking up clues and hints and indications about how they are reacting to the worship as well as how they are in general.

However, that isn’t all that I think about during worship.  At one recent worship, I came to worship in pain.  I am not sure if I overdid walking or the change in weather affected me or I was sitting too much but my knees and shoulders were seriously painful.  Standing to lead worship was tolerable, although I took the two steps up to the pulpit area a bit more slowly than sometimes.  But when I announced the offering and sat down, I noticed something.

The pulpit chair is really low–and the creaky knees that I currently possess did some severe protesting at the extra distance to sit down.  Normally, I grab the chair arm and use that to take some of the strain–but the shoulder taking that strain decided it was going to lodge a protest.  I did set down but to be honest, it is more like I fell the last inch or so.  Since the choir does their special right after the offering, I had a few minutes to recover–and wonder if I would be able to stand up after the special.

Now, I am not alone having such issues. There were at least 3 canes and one walker in use during that worship service–remember, we are an older congregation.  I know for a fact that I am not the youngest person there but that particular day, there were only about 4 people younger than me there.

But as I was sitting in that way too low chair, listening to the choir and wondering if I would be able to stand without looking like my knees were in open rebellion, I wasn’t thinking too much about the others in the congregation.  I was thinking about my knees, my shoulders and the fingers on my left hand, all of which seem to have decided that arthritis was a good choice.  I was conscious of being 65, conscious of not being able to do what I used to do, conscious of having to think through even simple physical activities like standing up from a too low chair without further upsetting my knees.

I am getting old.  Now, I know that aging is a state of mind and that we are only as old as we think we are and that my attitude makes a difference and that 65 really isn’t old anymore.  I have heard all the platitudes, I may actually have used them now and then, hopefully not to shut someone up as they talked about their struggles with aging.  But in spite of all the propaganda to the contrary, aging isn’t a picnic.

I hurt–and that is a direct result of living for a certain number of years. I am tired a lot–and that is a result of just not having the energy I used to have.  I forget things–well, to be honest, that has always been a problem and has stayed about the same over the years.  But I do notice a decline in what I can do and in my level of physical comfort.

What am I going to do about all that?  Well, when the choir finished their selection, I grabbed the arm of the chair, put my painful knees under me and levered myself up to begin the prayer time that came next in the order of service.  I carried on with the worship, preached my sermon, concluded the worship service, carefully stepped down the two steps and then, at the impromptu meeting to arrange our annual tea and sale, volunteered to be there pretty much the whole day.

Which is to say that I am getting older, I have more aches and pains, I am slower and more limited in what I can do but I am adapting and I am going to do what I can while I can as much as I can.  Learning to live with and around my limits just might be a sign that I am developing some maturity.

May the peace of God be with you.

I DO BELIEVE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

FACTS AND FIGURES

I like facts, things that can be proven with clear and understandable rationale.  When someone makes a claim, I want to see their facts.  I am not content with “Someone said…” or “I heard…”–I want verifiable facts that I can examine and study and compare with other facts and figures.  One study or one report really isn’t enough for me.

As a result, I tend to be a bit of a skeptic when it comes to a lot of the claims people make.  The latest miracle cold remedy?  Let me see the results of several double-blind studies conducted by reputable scientists and I might consider taking it.  Otherwise, I am going to rely on cough drops and warn ginger ale.  I don’t actually have studies on those but they both help me.

In many area of my life, this desire for facts and figures and verifiable studies helps me a lot.  I am not likely to take questionable medication just because someone publishes a glowing testimony.  I am not inclined to participate in a get rich quick scheme pushed by the latest charismatic financial guru.  I probably won’t buy the latest device to reduce gas consumption that has been suppressed by gas companies for years.

On the other hand, I am going to take the cholesterol lowering medication that my doctor prescribed–I have seen the studies, I know my numbers and the promised effects make scientific sense.  I am still going to get my numbers checked regularly and watch for the side effects.  I also eat a lot of fiber, since that also shows good numbers in a variety of good studies.

But there is one area of my life where this desire and love of verifiable facts and figures tends to get me in trouble.  I am a Christian and in fact have spent my working life working for and with Christians–and I have always been amazed by how few Christians share my love of facts, figures, studies and verifiable information.

One story stands out.  We were sharing in a Bible study many years ago and the talk turned to miracles.  One lady was excited to tell of a miracle she knew about.  A friend of hers was talking to someone else whose cousin’s former school classmate read of a miracle that happened to a friend of the writers’ ex-boyfriend’s pen pal.  As far as she was concerned, this was just one more example of how God still does miracles.

As she was talking, I was struggling.  As the story got  more and more involved and as the layers of distant relationships got deeper and deeper, I knew there would be a problem.  If I let it stand, my facts and figures side would gripe and complain and whine.  But if I questioned the truth of this miracle, I would be guilty of questioning the Holy Spirit, maybe even showing once again that I didn’t really have faith in God.

Well, I questioned–I mostly can’t help that.  And, according to the lady, if I can’t believe such a clear report of miracles, maybe I need to re-examine my faith. Now, I didn’t and don’t actually deny that God does miracles–I just like my miracles to be clear miracles, things that can be verified.

But the longer I am part of the faith, the more I realize that too many people think faith needs to be divorced from reality.  Any claim that a person makes needs to be treated as the gospel truth.  People like me who ask questions about the claims are mostly seen as unfaithful deniers of the truth.

But in the end, I have to be true to who I am.  And fortunately for me, God endorses my approach.  Jesus said in Matthew 7.15, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” (NIV).  The apostle John says in I John 4.1, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”  (NIV)

So, I am not going to immediately take a cold medicine because someone says it works.  I am not going to rush to invest my money because someone says they can give 300% returns.  And I am not going to blindly accept a report of God working. I am going to test them all before I commit to something I will regret or which will damage my faith.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE SERMON

For a variety of reasons, preparing sermons is a lot easier and faster for me now than it was when I first started preaching.  When I preached my sermon over 45 years ago, the preparation  process was long, agonizing and painful.  I struggled to get an idea, worried and fretted to get some substance to the idea, poured over commentaries to understand the Scripture, thought about the passage and theme consciously and unconsciously.  While I don’t think I ever actually reached the seminary recommended one hour of study for every minute of preaching, I probably came close in those early years.

Over the years, the process has become easier.  I don’t actually need to do as much research–I have read and written on enough of the Bible in my ministry that research is more to check and make sure I am on the right track, not a search for the real meaning.  I learned early in ministry that a good sermon must touch the lives of the people I work with and that insight removed a lot of the stress and time associated with finding topics and developing them–because my sermons are based on the real needs of real people in real churches, I generally have a lot more ideas than I need and the occasional struggle I have in that area concerns which idea to use for this series.

As a result of a couple of really stressful and busy weeks, I discovered that I can go from a vague idea to a finished, ready to preach sermon manuscript in about 90 minutes, as long as I am preaching in English–desperation sermons in Kiswahili take about twice that.  Now, the end result isn’t always pretty, doesn’t have the style or polish I would like but as the old saying goes, “They will preach” and some days, that is a major accomplishment.

Since I am a part time pastor for two different church settings and need two different sermons each week, I have a shorter preparation process than I would like.  But I still put in a significant block of my part time hours preparing sermons.  I still work hard on the process, even if it takes a shorter time than most recommend and that I would like under ideal conditions.  I take preaching seriously and give every sermon the best I can give it before I take it to the pulpit.

In one of the pastorates, we introduced a new element in our worship service at the request of the congregation.  When  I finish reading the Scriptures, there is an opportunity for people to ask questions or make comments about the Scriptures or anything somewhat related to the Scriptures.  Many times, these are short questions for clarification, brief words of appreciation for the message of the passage or personal applications of the verses.

But occasionally, the questions and comments take off as the congregation begins seriously getting into the passage.  We begin with questions, move on to comments and other questions, slip into personal illustrations, follow faint tracks into other issues, bounce ideas off each other, ignite deep thoughts in other members.  The discussion goes on and on.  My job is to try to answer some of the questions (remember the years of commentary reading and other research?), moderate the discussion, help people clarify their thoughts and encourage those who obviously want to speak but are hesitant for some reason.

Time slips by as we work together discovering the Holy Spirit’s message for us from the chosen passage.  And one level of my mind is monitoring my watch, which is lying on the pulpit before me–and at some point, I realize that the sermon I worked so hard to prepare isn’t going to get preached today.  Sometimes, I don’t get to it at all.  More often, I get to strip it down to a Readers’ Digest version.  But all the work, all the effort–well, I could have skipped it.

But I don’t and won’t.  I love the Sundays when the discussion takes off.  It says to me that the Scripture and direction I was working on have really touched something in the congregation and the work I put into sermon preparation has become background for the congregation as we together prepare the real sermon for that day.  I may or may not ever use the sermon I prepared as I prepared it–but as a congregation, we had a real sermon, prepared by us for us through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE BIBLE STUDY

After being on vacation for a couple of weeks, it was time to get back to work.  The first official task was leading Bible Study.  Well, actually, the first official task was preparing the material for the Bible study that would begin at 10:00am the first day back at work.  This particular study had been shut down for the summer and my plan was that over the summer, I would use the more relaxed work time to get the new Bible study ready.

Of course, as with all plans, this one fell apart very quickly.  Early in the summer, I did some initial research and created a file on the computer with some notes, planning on getting back to it soon.  But, well, there was a week of vacation early in the summer and I needed to take some time off to compensate for the ballooning overtime hours and there was the wedding that had to be done and some meetings and some pastoral visits.  And somehow, I arrived at the first day back at work with some notes in a file on the computer.

Fortunately, I had enough time to beat the notes into some sort of shape before I left.  I arrived early, as usual–and someone was there before me, which was bit of a surprise.  Even more surprising was the fact that I didn’t know the people–they were coming to check out the Bible study from a community a few kilometers away.

Before I could get to the door, another car arrived and as I was greeting them, another car arrived–this one with a couple who were going away for a while and wanted to let me know that they were going to be away.  As I was praying with them, others arrived and before I could get the door unlocked, we had a crowd standing around.

I finally unlocked the door and we got seated, the kettle boiling and we settled down to catching up on the summer, meeting the visitors, discussing my vacation and greeting everyone as they came in, including another visitor.  Even with several of our regulars being away, we had a full house by the time we got started.

We got down to work–and even with three new people, the Bible study worked like it always has.  We talked, got off topic, looked at interesting and significant questions and comments, did some of the material I had prepared, followed side trails, raised issues, had disagreements, got confused and occasionally had no idea how we got to where we ended up.  The new people–well, instead of sitting there bewildered by our chaotic process, the three new people jumped right in acting as if they had been there from the beginning.  Their questions and comments were as thought provoking, as pertinent and as prone to taking us off course as those of any veteran of the study.

In the end, the material I had rushed together provided lots of stuff to work with.  It started discussion, answered and raised questions and covered the topic that the group has wanted to look at.  I began the study wondering if I had enough material to fill in the time–and then part way through, began to worry that I had too much material.  In the end, we finished the topic, which was meant to be a one week study to deal with a specific issue before we went on to another topic.

As I left after the study, I realized something.  I missed the Bible study–or rather, I missed the interaction with the group of people.  While I am officially the leader of the study, practically, we have evolved an approach to Bible study that allows all of us to teach and learn, question and answer, confuse and enlighten–and do it all in an atmosphere where everyone has respect and appreciation for each other.  We don’t agree on everything–and we are comfortable leaving the disagreement on the table without trying to win the point.

I am pretty sure that if I had showed up at the study and confessed that I hadn’t been able to get anything done on the study topic, we would have still had a good Bible study because the group would have taken over.  I may have to do that next week–I still have to put together the material for the next topic.

May the peace of God be with you.

BACK TO WORK

I am now back at work after a two week vacation, which I enjoyed and appreciated.  But as the vacation was winding down, I realized something.  Normally, when I am on vacation, one of the low level background activities going on in my mind concerns whatever ministry or ministries I happen to be involved in.  In the past, I have vacationed and during the down time, I have planned courses, worked on preaching plans, thought about directions for ministry and so on.  This just sort of happened and didn’t take time and energy from the vacation–I could paddle a canoe, enjoy the lake, talk to my family and still organize a preaching plan enough so that when I actually sat down at a desk, I could remember the plan.

But this vacation, I didn’t do that.  Well,  I did give some thought to a Bible Study I am leading for the local church council later this fall during one of the times my wife was sleeping during the drive to Quebec but that was it.  I didn’t do sermon planning.  I didn’t organize the self-evaluation process some of the churches will begin in a couple of weeks.  I didn’t look at what we can do to improve our community visibility and involvement.  I didn’t even work on the new Bible study that I actually needed to have done for the first day back at work.

I would like to say that this comes from a newly discovered maturity that allows me to be on vacation when I am on vacation.  We clergy have a terrible time taking time off–we all too often treat vacation time as time to get caught up and maybe even get a bit ahead.  Of course, we all know that we are not supposed to do that.  Study after study shows that stress and its related consequences are enhanced by not taking proper time off.  We clergy struggle to relax and unwind.  Partly that is the nature of our calling–our work is never really done.  As I often told students, “You can preach the best sermon ever on Sunday–but you then have to start getting ready for next Sunday.”

Another part of the inability to really relax is our personality.  Many of us in ministry are deeply committed to serving God and therefore somewhat driven.  We believe that we have been called by God to important work and breaks, vacations and relaxation somehow seem sinful so we try to appease our conscience by working even on breaks.  I remember one book on pastoral ministry telling readers that the absolute best use of vacation time was to prepare the next year’s sermon plan.

But in spite of all of that and years of practise, I didn’t do any church work while on vacation–and didn’t even think of the churches all that much.  But I am pretty sure that it wasn’t because I have finally matured and developed wisdom and positive self-care practises.  I think that in the end, I didn’t think about or do work because I didn’t want to.

I have been involved in ministry for a long time and while I still believe I have a lot more ministry to do, I am tired.  Not physically tired and not spiritually tired–and not even emotionally tired.  I think I am vocationally tired.  Ministry is demanding and complex and difficult when done well–and I think I have reached the point where I can’t really do what I used to do.

Just like my bad knees won’t let me walk for hours a day like I used to so my ministry engines are getting worn and tired and need a real break.  It doesn’t mean that I care less about the people I minister to.  It isn’t a sign that I don’t care about my preaching any more.  It doesn’t say that I  am not concerned with the self-examination process we are beginning.  What it says to me is that I don’t have the energy I used to have and I really need to take real breaks.  When I work, I work–and when I rest, I rest.

Probably if I had started actually using vacation to rest years ago, I wouldn’t be as vocationally tired now–but at least I have learned to do it now.

May the peace of God be with you.

ENDING WELL

I am a pastor who has spent my entire career working with small congregations.  The largest average attendance I ever remember having was in the neighbourhood of 50 or so, depending of course on the proximity of the latest blizzard, the season of the year, the opening and closing of various cyclical events and so on.  The smallest congregation I ever served averaged 4–although we did eventually have a 50% increase and average 6 in attendance.

Although I am comfortable working in small congregations and can do a lot of ministry there, I am also aware that congregations of the size I work with are always aware of the possibility of closing down.  In the area where I live and work, I regularly drive by up to a dozen buildings that used to house churches–or the spots where the building used to stand.  Some were closed by decisions made outside the congregation–presbyteries and bishops and other bodies crunched numbers and issued decisions and churches ceased to exist.

Closing churches is a bit harder in my denomination.  We Baptists don’t have an outside agency that can close a congregation down.  As long as there is one member alive who wants to keep the church going, the church–and its building–keeps going.  Things get a bit more complicated, though, because often, people in the community whose great-grandmother was married in that church’s building get involved in the process and don’t want to see the church shut down.  Of course, they are actually trying to preserve the building–the church that inhabits a building is the people.

And so the reality is that many of us who are part of small congregations are living in a paradox.  On the one hand, we seek to be faithful to God, doing the best we can to ministry with the limited money and people and resources that we have.  We worship, we fellowship, we organize fund raising events, we minister to the wider community, we experiment, we pray, we hope.

But we are also aware that being a church takes money–and that is always in short supply.  If the building needs major repairs or Aunt Emma goes to a nursing home or dies or the big church in the next community attracts the family with our youth group, we face an inevitable financial crunch, which often gets expressed in very simple and graphic terms:  If we pay the pastor, we can’t afford to pay for the heat for worship but if we heat the building for worship, we probably can’t afford to pay the pastor.

Small congregations are very adept and very resilient and very good at finding and stretching money.  They are very good and adept at getting people to multi-task.  They are not so good at making tough decisions about their future, especially when those decisions seem to represent a step along the road to closure.

When the income won’t support full time ministry, it is hard to make the decision to move to some form of part-time ministry.  When the income won’t really support heating a very energy inefficient sanctuary in a Canadian winter, it is hard to consider moving or closing worship down.  When the church owned house the pastor lives in needs too many repairs, it is hard to consider getting rid of it.

The end result is that many small congregations keep going, dealing with the potential reality of closure by trying to ignore and avoid and pretend isn’t there.  Occasionally, the church must deal with the reality–when the sills rot out or the pastor moves on, the church has to look at the present realities and future possibilities.

And generally, the church will worry and stress and pray and come up with a solution that replaces the sills and finds a pastor.  That happens because we are talking about the church and the church has a resource that no other organization has.  We have the Holy Spirit and when we open ourselves to the Spirit, the results and consequences are completely unpredictable.

We who are part of small congregations live with the reality of closure looming over us.  But we also live in the presence of the Holy Spirit–and that means that we open ourselves to the Spirit, follow his leading and minister until we can no longer minister.  Because of the Spirit’s presence, we can live until we die.

May the peace of God be with you.

THINKING, FEELING AND BELIEVING

            Right now, I have been doing quite well when it comes to depression.  While I have experienced some bouts of tiredness that result from overwork, they have not transmuted into depression.  So it is a good time to look at my depression and think about something that I realized a while ago that has been a very important factor in how I deal with depression.

When I am depressed, I feel miserable.  I am an introvert so I am not overly social but when I get depressed, it is worse.  I feel tired all the time.  I have a dark and negative view of life–nothing will work out.  At the same time, my thinking gets distorted.  I no longer want to write or work or lead Bible study–all of it becomes a job and half, a job and a half I would rather not have.

When I am depressed, I feel depressed.  Very early in the process, I recognize what it happening and know I am depressed–my thinking tells me I am depressed.  Because I am oriented towards thinking, I can probably figure out why I am depressed, it I can muster up enough energy and initiative to do it.  When I am depressed, I feel depressed, my thinking is depressed and I can follow the thinking-feeling process around and around in circles.  I feel depressed, I think I am depressed and both my thinking and feeling conspire to keep me there.

But I made a discovery many years ago.  I have feelings and I am a thinking person–but I am also a person of faith.  And that faith has a deep and powerful effect on both my thinking and feeling.  It has a powerful effect no matter what–but when I actively and consciously involve my faith in the depression, it has an even more powerful effect.

It all came into focus during one spell of depression.  For most people suicidal thoughts are part of the depression  process at some point.  But in a flash of divine insight, I realized that I generally didn’t give suicide much thought during my depression.  It was there but I never really looked at it as a serious option.  That insight was startling enough that even in my depression, I had to think about it.

Now, the process was slower and more difficult because of the depression but I eventually realized that deep down, underneath the depression, beyond the thinking, there was a powerful core of faith–I might feel depressed, I might be thinking depression but I still believed that God was there and that his love and grace were carrying me and that faith was more important and significant in my life than either the depression or the disordered thought process.

I believe–and that belief creates a solid and secure foundation for everything else in my life.  Because I believe, I have hope–and the best and most effective antidote for depression is hope.  The hope my faith produces isn’t dependent on what I am thinking or feeling, it isn’t dependent on what is happening or not happening in my life, it isn’t lessened by my depression.  It is just there, forming the core of my being.

So, I get depressed–but because I believe, I am depressed in the presence and power of God and no matter how far down I get, that faith is going to be there.  And because it is there, I know that the depression isn’t the end nor the be all of my life–there is more because of God.

And once I re-discover that core of faith, God can and does work within me to give me whatever I need to overcome the depression.  And that is true whether the causes of the depression change or not.

As I write this, I am aware that it sounds like I am playing games in my mind or denying what is really going on.  And I may be doing some of that sometimes–but the bottom line for me is that I am a person of faith and so I do believe that God is present and willing to help.  And so I call upon that faith to help me when my thinking and feeling get distorted by depression or something else.  And really, if that isn’t a valid expression of faith, what it the point of having faith in the first place?

May the peace of God be with you.