THE CANE

For the past few weeks, my very old knees have been complaining about still being engaged in the work of carrying me around. They have been complaining for years but for some reason, this last couple of weeks has seen the complaining develop into a sort of strike. One knee became so weak and painful that walking became seriously difficult—and since the other knee is weaker to start with, the extra strain on it meant that I began to sit lot and waited until there were several reasons to get up.

And, because I can’t sit all the time, I dug out my cane and started using it when I had to go further than a few feet. This was a major event for me. I am somewhat stubborn, somewhat independent, somewhat dedicated to accomplishing what I want to do free of help. I resisted glasses as a teenager for several months; I resisted hearing aids at a 60+ year old for several years and I resisted the pain in my knee for longer than anyone knows. But I realized that if I was going to make it from the car to the church hall for Bible study, I would need the cane—rolling along wouldn’t be all that successful while carrying my briefcase and water.

It wouldn’t be all that big a problem, though, because I always arrive first and would be inside and settled before anyone else arrived. And, if I followed my usual practise of being the last one to leave, most wouldn’t even notice my limp or the cane. Although I joke sometimes about using the cane to garner sympathy, I really don’t like the limits the cane illustrates or the multiple questions and so on that accompany the cane.

Shortly after I began the drive to the study, I realized I was in trouble. The long awaited resurfacing of our road was underway—and I managed to arrive at the work site just as the traffic going my way was stopped. There was still time but as the wait stretched on into minutes, I began to fidget and wonder how much longer and all the rest. There are no other practical routes from my house to the Bible study so my only choice was to wait. Finally, we were allowed through, although we had to drive slowly behind the guide truck for what seemed like hours. I couldn’t even make up a lot of time after we were free of the work area because several of the cars in front of me were obviously being driven by people seeking to save the planet by poking along well under the speed limit.

But I could still arrive before most people, I thought, at least until I came up to the second set of road works and flagperson, who also timed their work perfectly to stop me for another several minutes, followed by another slow trip behind the follow me truck and another forced speed reduction by the drivers in front.

I finally arrived—and most of the members of the study were there, either standing by the locked door (the person who normally opens the door and turns on the heat was away that day) or sitting in their cars waiting. So, I park, open the door and crawl out of the car and stand unsteadily as I juggle my briefcase, water and cane. By the time I was standing with everything sort of in control, most of the study group was right there, asking what was wrong, if they could help, did I need anything, was I okay.

Eventually, I got inside. One person took the key to open the door, another ended up with my water, a third had the briefcase. No one offered to carry me but that was probably just because of the fact that all of us are actually too old to make such foolish gestures. I did actually appreciate the help—it is much easier to use a cane when I don’t have anything else to carry at the same time. Getting out was the reverse—all my duties and burdens were taken on by others. All I had to do was limp to the car and fall inside.

I hate being dependent on anyone or anything. But honestly, it was really great to have people so willing to help out and the cane made the trip from the car to the hall much easier. My pride can be a real problem at times.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT DO I DO?

I had my dream job: I was teaching in Kenya, helping prepare students for ministry in a growing, independent denomination. I was teaching in English but had ample opportunity to use Kiswahili. Everything was great except for the fact that I didn’t seem to be able to establish a comfortable working relationship with the mission board leadership. Eventually, things got to the point where we were fired.

I was deeply hurt. I crashed into a depression which was made worse by the fact that very few churches want to call a pastor who was getting close to retirement age. My pain and hurt and disappointment and depression were deep and strong and more than I wanted to deal with. I wanted to finish my ministry teaching others some of the things I had learned over the years—but instead, I was unemployed and perhaps even unemployable.

I found myself sometimes engaged in an interesting process. I wanted the whole mission board leadership to fall apart. Their mishandling of the situation would be discovered, they would be fired, I would be vindicated and offered the job of rebuilding the whole thing. I would, of course, refuse to accept the job, preferring to see the whole thing crash and burn. If I was going to have to feel pain, they should also feel the pain.

It was a pleasant fantasy that got me through more than a few difficult nights. But I was never tempted to make it more than a fantasy. While having the whole leadership become unemployed and the whole organization come crashing down might have seemed like a fitting response to my pain, even if that had happened, I would still have been unemployed in Canada, not teaching in Kenya and more importantly, still dealing with as much pain.

I made a decision very early in the pain management process that I think was God-inspired—it certainly didn’t originate with me. I decided that I was going to let them go their way and I was going to go my way. I would speak neither for nor against them. The painful process we were involved in was done and in the past—nothing was going to change that.

By helping me accepting that reality and focus on dealing with my pain and hurt, I think I was given a gift of grace. God showed me a better way. Rather than try to make others feel pain, I was given the grace to see and feel and deal with my pain. This grace kept me where I needed to be—dealing with what I could deal with. I couldn’t change the decision that brought us home. I couldn’t alleviate my pain by causing others pain. I couldn’t bring peace by stirring up trouble for others.

I could, with the grace of God, see and deal with my pain. As I waded through depression and hurt and confusion, I was able to see how much I was hurt, why I was hurting, how the hurt was affecting the rest of my life. I was also able to see the grace that God was setting before me through empathetic friends, concerned pastors, even inspired strangers. God was and is at work, helping me not only see the reality of the pain I was experiencing but also helping me see that through his graceful presence, I could deal with the pain.

I was able to see how my personality interacted poorly with the corporate culture I was trying to work in. I was able to understand that when one thing falls apart, God in his grace has a plan B or C. I was able to see that in the power of God’s presence, I could live in spite of the hurt. I learned to deal with the pain in the way it needed to be dealt with. It is and was my pain and I needed to deal with it internally. Fortunately, I had the grace and presence of God to help me in the process.

I still am aware of the pain that came from the whole event. But I am doing okay—I am not depressed, I am involved in what I see as an important ministry and I am at peace. The mission board hasn’t collapsed and they haven’t offered me the job of reforming it but that really doesn’t matter—with God’s grace, I learned to deal with the pain.

May the peace of God be with you.

I HURT!

Because I am a pastor who is also a news junkie, I am exposed to a lot of pain. Some of it is up close and personal, as I work with the victim of some unspeakable abuse or spend time with a family grieving an unexpected and unfair death. Some of it is less close and less personal, as I watch news reports of someone who had enough and expressed their pain and hurt in very public ways or hear the interviews with the survivors of such an event. Occasionally, my own pain becomes a factor in the process, as I deal with the limits imposed by aging and so on.

So I spend a lot of time around pain. And as might be expected, I have been thinking about what I am seeing—and what I am seeing both saddens and inspires me. The part that saddens me is what has been on my mind today.

When people hurt, it seems that a large number of us want other people to hurt as well. Sometimes, we show that by calling for severe punishment on those who caused the hurt. It is not uncommon for the family of a murder victim to sum up their calls for punishment by saying something like, “Our loved one will never be with us again—why should the murderer be allowed to live?” While I can understand the thinking, it does seem to suggest that at least some people think that if they hurt, others must hurt as well.

Sometimes, when the press covers some mass shooting, they tell the story of an individual who was bullied, marginalized and deeply hurt by others. Some of these people respond by harming themselves—but these days, many are prompted to grab a gun or a knife or a car and inflict pain on others. While I have a great deal of empathy for the victims of bullying and social hurt, it appears to me that some of the victims at least operate on the principle that if I hurt, others must hurt as well.

As a pastor and a pastoral counsellor, I am very much aware of the fact that when pain and hurt are shared, they are much easier to bear—but what I am seeing so much of is not this healthy, therapeutic and healing sharing. What I am seeing too much of is the desire to make others hurt. It is almost as if our society has decided that the only way I can deal with my hurt and pain is to make sure that others hurt as well. If those others are somehow responsible for my pain, that is great but in the end, it seems that when we hurt, we just want others to hurt as well. In the end, it doesn’t seem to matter a whole lot why they hurt, it just matters that they hurt because we hurt.

Objectively, this is a pretty dumb idea. I really can’t relieve my pain by making someone else feel pain. At the very best, causing pain to others provides a temporary distraction from the reality of my pain—and when the distraction wears out, I still have my pain to deal with. Making others hurt neither decreases nor shares my pain, it just increases the overall level of pain in the world and creates more people who want to make others hurt in a vicious cycle that never ends.

Whether we call it justice or revenge, causing pain for others isn’t a way of dealing with my pain. Certainly, there is a need for justice—but justice isn’t pain relief. Revenge—well, revenge merely distracts with golden promises and delivers only more pain. I simply can’t deal with my pain and hurt by causing others to experience pain and hurt. It just doesn’t work—in fact, it has the opposite effect overall.

The pain and hurt I feel are inside me—and the reality is that dealing with that pain and hurt is an internal process. I have to deal with me. It is my pain. I am suffering. I hurt. And I need to discover how to deal with that pain within me. It can be done—but trying to deal with my pain by making others hurt is a lose-lose solution.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHO CARES?

When I started this blog back in 2015, I had a sort of a vague goal—or maybe a couple of them. I was unemployed at the time and needed something to do that would relieve the boredom and depression of unemployment. And I wanted to be able to think and organize and share some of my thoughts and ideas relating to faith, the church and spiritual growth. Very early in the process, I decided that I wasn’t comfortable dealing with some topics and since it is my blog, I can and do pretty much ignore anything I don’t want to write about.

One area I have avoided is commenting on current political and cultural events. I am a news junkie and so I am aware of what is going on but have never really wanted to wade into the cultural and political debates that are so prevalent and so divisive in our culture and churches these days. I have been troubled by a lot of what I see; I have been enraged by some of what I see; I have been saddened and depressed by what I see—but up until today, I haven’t been inspired by what I see.

And even today isn’t going to be a rant for or against some particular political move or figure—there are enough comedians and bloggers who make a living doing that way. We really don’t need another.

But maybe what we do need is someone who is willing to step back, forget the partisan politics and ask some difficult questions that come from the heart of our faith. Given that most major questions these days get addressed from the perspective of nationalism or partisan political stances or narrow perspectives, maybe we need someone to open the questions up and give them a bigger, divine context.

For example, some statistics suggest that over 65 million people are classed as refugees or internally displaced people—that is a good sized nation. Mostly the response to this crisis is that someone should do something, preferably far away from us and at no cost to us. Politicians debate and people are dying where they try to live and dying trying to get to safety. And while that might be a popular political response, what is the divine response? What does God think? Does God care? And if God cares, how should his people act?

Recent statistics in Canada suggest that around 20% of Canadian children live in poverty. There are all kinds of political suggestions about how to deal with the problem but since most of them require people who have helping people who don’t have, there tends to be a lot of talk but little action beyond band aids like food banks. So politicians debate and plans get drafted but since little money gets spent, the poor remain poor, get poorer and go to school and bed hungry and cold. But what is the divine response? What does God think? Does God care? And if God cares, how should his people act?

Our political and cultural responses tend to be narrow, self-serving, protectionist, biased and prejudicial—we like ourselves and ours. Being different is grounds for exclusion, mistreatment, name-calling and persecution. Unfortunately, politicians of all types love to build a base on these self-centered realities. We are all afraid of the other—and politicians know how to work that fear. But what is the divine response? What does God think? Does God care? And if God cares, how should his people act?

Too often, we have tried to fit God and the Christian faith into the cultural and political armour that we wear ourselves. But even a quick reading of the message that God has given us shows something far different. God has a deep and powerful concern for the alien, the poor, the different. God cares—and even more, he requires that his people care. He wants us to step out of the narrow and constrained ruts we dig for ourselves and begin to really care. He calls us to follow his example—he cared enough for selfish and self-centered people that he went to the cross for us. God cares. He made his care real, at great personal cost.

And us—well, we are called to care as well. And maybe that care demands that we step outside the cultural and political and show some real care, care based not in cultural and political fears and prejudices but in the love and grace of God.

May the peace of God be with you.

SITTING DOWN

A long time ago (in this galaxy, not one far, far away), I was interviewed for the weekly paper published in the community where I grew up. We were getting ready to leave for work in Kenya and that was newsworthy back in those days when the story of the hour trip to the city was worth a free cup of coffee at the local gathering place. When I was reading the article later, I discovered that I was described as an active and avid outdoorsman—I suppose that today, that would be written as outdoorsperson.

And that was fairly true then. I liked walking, biking, and being in the woods. I could set up a campsite and have a fire going in less than a half an hour and have a camp meal ready shortly after that. Sitting around—well, I liked and like to read so I did that. And given that my work involved both study and people, I sat a lot inside at other times. But ultimately, I had to get outside, to walk around. Even puttering in the yard was an acceptable reason to get outside and move around. At several points in my ministry, I managed to combine ministry and being outdoors be being involved in camping ministry, including a several year stint as a wilderness camp counsellor and co-director.

Let’s move forward to today. I am currently sitting in the living room, a posture which will pretty much define my day. Today, every 2-3 hours, I will be heading to the basement to put another coat of varnish on my woodworking project. At some point, I will spend an hour or so on the exercise bike. I will be outside sometime today—maybe to get some groceries and definitely to go to the play this evening that a friend is directing.

But mostly, I will be in my chair, either writing something, catching up on email or reading news. We won’t mention the fact that there might be some YouTube videos along the way. I definitely won’t be walking all that far. If it were drier, I might be tempted to dig out the bike and go for a ride but today, well, the best and safest trail is still quite wet from all the rain we have had.

So, why do I spend so much time sitting? The answer is relatively simple. I am 65 and my arthritic knees set serious limits on what I can do. I can actually go for a walk—but going for a walk involves a complex set of decisions as I weigh the value of the walk against the consequences: serious pain that leads to limping and possible a sleepless night. To be completely honest, often the results of the calculation indicate that sitting in the chair is the best solution.

I do need to move some—I can’t sit all day. Sitting too much also causes complaints from my knees so most days, I struggle to find the balance between sitting and moving that results in the most manageable amount of pain. There is a solution—knee replacement and that is coming, although for a variety of what I think are valid reasons, I am putting that off for a while.

The aging process is interesting and frustrating for me. I have to learn and live with limits imposed by an aging body. Some limits have fixes and some don’t. All of them need to be realistically addressed. And all of them need to be emotionally addressed. It is sometimes depressing to realize that I likely won’t ever be a counsellor at a kids’ wilderness camp again. It is even more depressing to realize that I probably won’t even go wilderness camping myself. But that is reality and even though I have a good imagination and am somewhat creative, I have also learned that I need to keep a close connection with the realities of my life, including the realities that come with accumulating years.

There are good things about the aging process and I embrace them as well—if some business wants to give me a discount just because I have managed to live a certain number of years, I am going to take it. When the local seminary asks me to mentor a student because of my accumulated years of ministry, I am going to do it. I may have to sit down a lot more than I used to but I am going to be actively sitting.

May the peace of God be with you.

IT’S GONE

I had a conversation with a couple recently that ended with a discussion about the health of one of the family pets. It may have a serious illness and the conversation briefly touched on their worry and anxiety over what might happen and how they would deal with it. There are some who might find that conversation a bit pointless, suggesting that it is an animal, it happens, get over it.

While I am not personally an animal person, I am aware that this is a difficult and painful situation for many people. We human beings develop significant attachments with other people, animals and inanimate objects—and when those connections are threatened, damaged or broken, we are going to react. Whenever we are in danger of losing something to which we are attached, we are going to have a grief reaction.

Our reaction to losing someone or something from our lives isn’t something that we have a lot of control over. We might thing we can control it—but often the control takes the form of denial or repression. We pretend that we are not bothered by the loss. Some of us can pull off the pretence fairly well for a time but eventually, denial and repression are going to catch up with us and we will have to deal with the loss that we didn’t deal with when it happened.

I am thinking about loss a bit these days, partly because helping people deal with loss is a basic and essential part of a pastor’s job. I tell students that helping people deal with the grief connected with loss is probably the single biggest part of our jobs as pastors, especially when we remember that any loss produces some level of grief reaction.

So, when the couple mentioned their sick pet, I was professionally prepared. But I was also personally connected as well. For most of the past week and a half, I have been dealing with a loss myself. My laptop has a hard drive that is crashing. Now, before you think I am crazy or overly nerdy, remember that we get attached to things as well as people and losing the source of the attachment is going to produce a grief reaction.

I have had the laptop for six years and it has traveled across Canada with me, it has lived in Kenya with me, it connected me to the rest of the world and it allowed me to write stuff that I can actually read and understand the next day, something that my handwriting hasn’t allowed for many years.

I liked my laptop and was used to it and it was comfortable. It had its problems and scars and limitations—but it was mine and I did a lot of stuff with it. I will soon have a new laptop—the old, back up laptop from the bottom shelf of the TV cabinet is okay but it is ancient and heavy and may not last all that long. I am not looking forward to the process of setting up a new laptop with various programs and files and all the bits and pieces of my electronic life but I am sure that once I get that done, I will attach to the new laptop.

Our grief reactions are a very personal and private and subjective thing. They grow directly out of our attachment and connection with what we have lost or are losing—and we are the only ones that get to determine the level and severity of our reaction, or rather, we are the ones who have to deal with the level and severity of our reaction. The fact that I am not an animal person doesn’t mean that I can minimize the grief of someone losing a pet, any more than a conformed technology hater gets to minimize my grief over the dead laptop.

In the end, we all need to accept and recognize our losses by letting ourselves grieve as we need to. We also need to recognize the essential subjectivity of grief—a loss that we can completely ignore can and will affect others deeply. Even if we don’t agree with the level of their grief, we can provide support and compassion.

May the peace of God be with you.

COMPARATIVE SUFFERING

I was having a conversation with someone recently about a problem they were dealing with.  It was a physical problem that was somewhat painful, somewhat annoying and somewhat limiting.  The problem wasn’t going to be fatal and it was treatable but right then and there, it was causing the individual to suffer.  I did my pastoral thing, listening and encouraging them to talk and doing all the stuff that has become second nature to me over many years of ministry.

But my comfortable professional approach was interrupted by a comment the person made. After telling me about the problem,  the person abruptly said something like, “I shouldn’t be complaining about this–there are lots of people worse off than me.”  Although I have heard the comment a lot, something about it set me off that day.

It isn’t all that uncommon a idea–we are often encouraged to compare our problems and difficulties with those of others, generally with the idea that if theirs are worse, we should stop complaining.  I seem to remember a song from years ago that said something like, “I used to complain about having no shoes until I met a man with no feet.”  If someone is suffering more than we are, then we need to stop whining, count our blessings and get on with life.

Sounds good–there is some semi-religious moralizing, some thinly veiled guilt, some covert attempts to foster denial and some social pressure to smile and carry on.  What more could be asked of an approach to suffering?

Well, maybe we could ask for a more honest approach to suffering.  Comparative suffering is really a terrible approach to suffering.  On some levels, my lack of shoes is certainly less serious than someone else’s lack of feet–but my lack of shoes is my problem and my issue and the other person’s lack of feet, tragic as that is, really doesn’t do much to help me deal with my issue.  In fact, the comparative suffering approach probably adds to my suffering because not only do I have to deal with my lack of shoes but I also have to deal with my guilt over having feet and therefore not suffering as much as the other guy.

Suffering isn’t really comparative.  My stuff is my stuff and while it may or may not be as bad as someone else’s stuff, it is my stuff and I have to deal with it using my resources and my abilities and my support systems.  And in the end, I can only really do that by being honest with myself about what I am dealing with and its effects on me.

So, when the person I was talking to suggested that they shouldn’t be complaining about their suffering when so many were worse off, I interrupted the flow of the conversation by suggesting that suffering wasn’t comparative and that what they were dealing was what they were dealing with.  There was a pause in the conversation as the person thought about this–and then a very visible and audible change in the their demeanor.  It was like they relaxed–they could be open and free about what they were dealing with because they didn’t have to compare it to someone else.  They didn’t have to put it on the global suffering scale and forget about it because it didn’t rate enough.

We continued talking and the person talked more about how the problem was affecting them and their family.  We also talked about how not having to compare it with others was a relief.  They could recognize and accept their suffering for what it was–it was something that was causing them pain and trouble and it was inconvenient and miserable and they had a right to  be upset.

The guy with no feet has a tough deal in life and I can appreciate his suffering–but his suffering is his suffering, just as my suffering is my suffering.  We each have to deal with what we have–or don’t have.  And we deal with it best by dealing with it ourselves, not by trying to place it on some cosmic scale of suffering.  I might have feet–but my lack of shoes is still a real problem in my life, one that I need to deal with honestly and freely.

May the peace of God be with you.