THE HAPPY PLACE

Many years ago, I sometimes watched a TV comedy with a cast of over the top characters whose activities provided some needed diversion during my busy and active weeks. I am pretty sure that a significant part of the attraction of this show was that although the characters all had seriously dysfunctional lives, I didn’t have any obligation or responsibility to help them deal with their dysfunction. That is a rarity for a pastor who has lived for a long time in the same rural communities.

One of the characters had a tendency to slip into dangerous rages which could be destructive. Now, since this was a comedy, the rages never resulted in people getting hurt and only produced slapstick comedy but all the other characters in the show were suitably afraid of the rages and did whatever they could to prevent them.

Somewhere along the way, some therapist or friend had taught the character to develop a safe place in his mind that he could go to when he felt the rage coming on. And so on the show, whenever he or his friends saw signs of the rage, everyone would begin repeating, “Go to your safe place, go to your safe place, go to your safe place….” until the danger had passed, unless of course the writers needed the rage to come on to complete some comedic theme.

The show, like all others has passed on. It can probably be found somewhere given all the media outlets available today but to be honest, it wasn’t on my list of shows that I need to watch again and again. But I did like the idea of a safe mental place. I am not sure the idea is an overly effective remedy for a person with the kind of rage the TV character had but as a relaxation tool for more “normal” people, it might not be a bad idea.

Whether it is a real favourite chair, a physically comfortable couch, a spot under a specific tree or a imaginary white sand beach in the tropics, we all might benefit from having a place where we can relax and de-stress and be at peace. Life tends to be hectic and demanding and busy and active and have too little time and space to unwind and relax. For most people, the default setting is move, do, rush, prepare. Our lives are dominated by active, compelling verbs that keep us moving and rushing and doing.

And maybe we all need a place where we shut off the action verbs and enjoy things like peace and quiet and relaxation and rest. Maybe we would all benefit from some static nouns in place of active verbs for a bit. But because of the reality of life, we need to specifically seek out the static restful nouns. If we don’t, the active verbs keep pounding away, driving us to keep active.

A happy place just might be what we need to get out from under the demands of the verbs. Maybe we all need a place, either a real physical place or an imagined place where we can hang a sign saying, “Static noun zone. No action verbs allowed”. We might benefit from a place where we can just be, a place where rest and relaxation and peace dominate, a place where we can undo the effects of all the action verbs that are so powerful.

I have several such places. One is the chair where I sit and write or stare out the window at the trees. The nice thing about this place is that it is also the place where I do most of my work so I can quickly and easily transition from the action verbs of writing and planning and thinking and designing to the static nouns of resting and relaxing and being at peace. Using the same place for both might now work for everyone but it does work for me.

I can be deep within the pressures of writing a difficult sermon that just won’t come together and with a glance out the window, be in a whole different place. When I get back, after 5 seconds or 2 minutes or whatever, the sermon is still there but I am in a better place because I have been to the other place.

May the peace of God be with you.

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THE DISHWASHER

To be involved in ministry and be serious about it brings an intimate understanding of stress. I have spend my whole life in ministry of some sort so I am not really qualified to say how that stress level compares to other occupations. I have read a perhaps made up story of a second career pastor who found the stress too much and went back to his previous occupation—air-traffic controller. I do have a friend who is a second career pastor and who found the stress level in ministry much higher than the stress level in his previous job—he was a police special operations officer.

Anyway, no matter how it compares to other occupations, ministry has its stresses and recognizing and managing that stress is an important part of successful ministry. We are all taught that, often by professors whose recognition and handling of their own ministry stress is inspiring in its ability to show us a bad example. The key struggle for many of us in ministry is learning how to recognize our stress levels. The difficulty is that the signs of stress keep changing—as soon as we recognize one sign and make (hopefully) effective changes in our habits, the inherent stress expresses itself in another sign.

I have been aided in my stress battle by a variety of signs: recurring dreams, insomnia, depression, unfocused anger and so on—all relatively common and normal signs and symptoms of stress that many others is all occupations would experience. But recently, I discovered a new sign of my stress levels, one that I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere else.

This sign of stress involves our dishwasher. We live in a church supplied house, which came equipped with a dishwasher, which I personally appreciate. I cook most of the meals we eat together and we have a rule that he who cooks also cleans up. I have occasionally sought to change that rule but so far, it has been consistently applied in our context. So, I am also in charge of the dishwasher. Since there are only the two of us most of the time, it takes a couple of days to get a full load of dishes—and we try to be as energy conscious as possible so I wait until the dishwasher is full or we run out of vital dishware before I run the dishwasher.

So, how does this pretty normal activity show my stress level? It has nothing to do with repressed anger coming out at the dishwasher or how hard I shut the door or how much noise I make putting the dishes in the machine. No—the new indicator of how high my stress level is comes when I see the dishwasher getting full and think there must be something wrong because I just emptied the thing yesterday. When life is hectic and ministry is gobbling up my time and energy, I lose track of how long it has been since I actually ran and emptied the dishwasher.

I don’t know how long this will remain an effective sign of high stress levels—I suspect that now that I have identified it, it will probably go back on the shelf in my mind which holds the inactive indicators like the recurring dreams and so on. Right now, it works and helps me in the never-ending task of keeping my stress levels in the acceptable range.

And that is important because stress is a integral part of ministry—and learning to both recognize and deal with stress is an integral part of developing a long and effective ministry. Those of us who are called to serve God through his people are accepting a high-stress occupation. But we are not called to accept high stress as a fact of life. The God who calls us also empowers and enables us and provides the help we need to cope with the stress of ministry. He provides the signs that we are stressed, even using dishwashers to point out the problem. He also graciously provides the help we need to deal with the stress and carry out our calling, provided of course, we let him minister to us.

Right now, God used the dishwasher to remind me that I don’t need to save the world—he has already done that. I just need to use his help to deal with the little bit of the universe that he has called me serve.

May the peace of God be with you.

FREE TIME?

I have mentioned before that one of the places where I preach basically closes down during the winter. The combination of aging buildings, aging congregations, heating costs, winter driving conditions and winter anxiety mean that we close down except for one service a month. This has been our pattern since I have been there and I have learned a few things about the free time this arrangement gives me.

At the beginning, I had large plans for this time. It was unscheduled and uncommitted and so I could finally have time to do all the stuff that got shoved on the back shelf of the to do list: coffee with friends, some research into interesting topics, some woodworking, some cross country skiing, a bit of relaxing and doing nothing. In my mind, I pictures pleasant days of comfortably enjoying the potential of free time.

I soon discovered that free time for me really doesn’t exist. It kept getting eaten up. First, there were increasing requests from a congregation where I was supposed to be preaching only during the time—but as pastoral needs like funerals and hospitalizations piles up, they asked me to provide some pastoral care. It was only for this one thing but soon one more and one more and a junk of free time disappeared.

That was okay because there was still some free time. But then there was this request to see someone that I had helped a few years ago and who needed a booster shot of pastoral care. There was a meeting with denominational people that I had forgotten I volunteered for. And the mentoring process for the theology student was still ongoing. That first year, the small woodworking project that was going to be the beneficiary of all that free time did actually get done—well into the return to work time when I actually found the time to get it done.

After discovering the reality that free time seems to invite activity, I approached this year’s shut-down with a different mindset. I didn’t plan a woodworking project. I didn’t plan on writing that best-selling book that has been on my mind for a while. I didn’t plan on coffee with friends. I did have a few ideas of things that needed to be done but none of them were things that absolutely had to be done—and none of them were all that important. Sorting and organizing my file cabinet drawer of computer and media cables wasn’t a high priority and wouldn’t make much difference if it got done or not.

Interestingly enough, by not actually planning for my free time, I discovered a bit more free time. There were lots of unexpected things that kept popping up, a lot of them having to do with medical appointments connected with the surgery that is coming in the near future. But there were also the unexpected unexpected stuff like funerals and pastoral visits beyond my regular pastoral duties.

Because I didn’t have a long list of things that I wanted to get done, I am half way through this shut down with less frustration and anxiety. I am not actually trying to find spots in the less than free time to enjoy the free time. There are no projects that need to be done and no coffee times that must be arranged before the start up. And, interestingly enough, I have made better use of the actual free time.

I have read several books that have been sitting in my ebook accounts. I have coffied with friends. I even got the cables organized—now, when I or someone else needs a triple RCA connector, I know how many I have and where to find them. The fact that people rarely use triple RCA connectors these days is something I will ignore for now.

More importantly, I am finding and using time to relax and rest and look after myself. Because I don’t have a long list of things to accomplish during this break, I can relax a lot more because when I am sitting reading, I can actually read rather than think about what I should be doing to make the best use of my free time. I can actually enjoy the free time and will probably head back to work more rested, except of course for the surgery which promises more free time of s different and probably more frustrating kind.

May the peace of God be with you.

SENSOR CHECK

It’s was about a week and a half before Christmas and I had to go to the town where everyone goes to do their Christmas shopping. Part of the reason for my trip was to finish my Christmas shopping—as much as I like online shopping, I need to check out the real stores because there are just some things I have to see before I know they are just what I want. Beside, the backlog from the mail strike was making delivery times sort of vague.

But the Christmas shopping was actually an add on to the real reason for the trip. I had to be fitted for my new hearing aids and get my eyes tested. I referred to it as a sensor check with a friend which led to an extended conversation about the bionic man and what his enhancements would look like today. But for me, there is something about going for both appointments on the same day that causes me to think and wonder.

On some levels, the reality of sensor enhancements is great. Eye glasses mean that I can read whatever I want whenever I want and enjoy the beauty of our area. Hearing aids mean that I can hear what people say to me without asking them to repeat stuff a million times. When I get around to having my aging knees replaced, I will be able to walk without as much pain and complaining. That part is all good for me and everyone else who makes use of the medical and technological enhancements.

But somehow, combining the two appointments with Christmas shopping made for a very difficult and tiring day. Now, it made perfect sense to join them all together—it is an hour drive one way to the shopping area and I try to be as ecologically sensitive as is possible for a rural pastor serving two different spread out pastorates.

The day didn’t start too badly—as usual, I was early and had time to check out one possible present before the first appointment. But then things started going bad—I used the wrong credit card to buy the present. That was only a minor problem—the real problem was that the five minutes it should have taken to get to the first appointment was taken up just getting out of the store parking lot—obviously, I wasn’t the only person shopping that day.

I did arrive at the appointment on time and had my eyes tested, including having drops which made everything look funny for a bit. But now, the rush was on. There was time for some quick reconnaissance and lunch before the second appointment—and I really don’t like being rushed. I am more of a contemplative, think things through, don’t rush personality which, when combined with my obsession for being early at everything means that I spend the next block of time checking my watch and running the time and travel calculations in my head. Ultimately, the calculations suggested I leave and have lunch at a less desirable spot that had the advantage of being near the second appointment—no need to find another parking space.

Anyway, in the end, I survived the day. I have new hearing aids which I am going to hate, at least until I get used to them at which point I will love them. I have new glasses coming—another trip up the Valley. And I got the Christmas shopping done and even managed to surprise myself with a couple of the selections. But when I got home, I was tired and borderline grumpy.

I realize that I don’t do rushed and stressed and over-scheduled all that well. Some of it is likely a function of age and some of it probably has to do with the fact that most of the time, I am rushed and stressed anyway and therefore don’t have the capacity to add the extra that comes from a day like this one—although, to be honest, I did cope with the day. Maybe most of the problem is my reaction to stress not so much the handling of the stress. Maybe my problem is that I forget I am capable of doing what I need to do and letting myself forget that allows room for counterfeit stress to thrive.

May the peace of God be with you.