SPIRITUAL GUIDANCE

Recently, some of my electronics have been giving me indications that they are thinking about retirement. Since some of them are getting really old for electronics, I have been observing their symptoms with some mixed feelings. I appreciate my electronics and use them heavily—while I am not totally dependent on them, I would be very reluctant to go back to pre-electronic days. But at the same time, new electronics are new—better specs, new tricks, updated everything.

So, given the realities of my aging electronics, I began researching the possibilities for replacements. I began with my tablet, which I use heavily in my ministry—I don’t do paper anymore, carrying everything on the tablet. The research thrilled my tech loving heart. Eventually, I discovered two real possibilities: one looked good and was much cheaper than the second choice. However, before I bought, I checked reviews and discovered that it didn’t perform as well as the more expensive one, which went to the head of the list.

I was ready. I was in the store, looking at samples and lifting and touching—I wasn’t actually salivating, at least not physically. I was almost ready to pull out the charge card and make the purchase when something told me not to buy right then. Since we had other stuff to do, I moved on, figuring I would be back soon to get my new tablet.

What I didn’t know then was that the something telling me not to buy was actually a spiritual message. God was speaking. Now, before you stop reading, let me explain. I think that faith needs to touch every area of life, which means that God should be a part of every decision, including what electronics I buy. I know that, I tell people that, I preach that. But at some point, my love of electronics sort of shoved that insight into the background. After all, what does faith have to do with tablets? The only tablets mentioned in the Bible are made of stone and had zero battery life.

But as I thought about buying a new, expensive tablet that would do everything I wanted and more, I believe that God was also at work, seeking to convince me that there were other options that just might be more pleasing to him. I am still not sure whether God is deeply concerned about which tablet I buy or if he is more concerned with my being willing to involve him in the process, although based on my past experience, I am pretty sure that his first concern is that I involve him in the process and then he can help me make a better decision.

Is buying a new tablet a faith decision? Well, according to many sermons I have preached, everything has a faith connection so my decision about a tablet should involve a faith component. I think that was the message God was sending in the electronics store when I just couldn’t quite buy the tablet my research—and desire—told me was the best choice for me.

Since then, I have gone back to the research process—but I have also specifically involved God in the process. I am not expecting God to become a celebrity spokesperson (spokesbeing?) for any particular brand of tablet. Nor am I expecting him to give me a list of divinely approved tablets. But I am expecting that if I open the process to God, he will do what he always does when we bring him into the process. He will help us evaluate and examine and think through things in a different way.

In this particular case, it seems that buying a new, expensive tablet probably isn’t the best decision. My desires for new tech got in the way of some realities that involving God helped me see. The new, expensive tablet would look really great—but in truth, it is more than I really need. As I thought and allowed God some part in the process, I began to see other options, other ways that would work even better and be more realistic. I will eventually end up with some new tech, some repaired tech and more of what I need.

This has been an interesting process—who knew that buying tech could be a spiritual exercise? Well, actually I did—but forgot to remind myself of what I keep telling others.

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.

A PLACE TO STAND

When I was young, both chronologically and spiritually, I lived in a time and place where the physical and theological grounding of life were clear and firm and solid and comforting. Life was easy because there were clear answers and everything was simple. School, home, church, culture all gave the same answers for the same issues and we all agreed on them.

Of course, there was that somewhat confusing set of events when I was 9 or 10 when we switched from one denominational church to another but there was a simple answer for that helped ease my confusion. My father, who hadn’t attended worship decided that it was time to attend but he would only go to the church that was his, or at least where my grandparents attended. That was an acceptable answer because family was always important in our world.

But as I grew chronologically and theologically, I began to run into more and more troubling realities, places where my firm footing was suddenly shaken. The ground under my feet turned from bedrock to sand, gravel or even mud. I discovered, for example, that my treasured KJV Bible wasn’t acceptable for the introductory Biblical studies course—I had to buy and read a different translation. Things got even worse when I realized that I actually liked that translation.

It kept getting shaky. I discovered that some people didn’t actually walk the aisle to become believers. Some weren’t baptized like I was. Some found comfort and encouragement in other denominations. Even worse, there were some people who believed—and practised—the scary idea that a Christian could drink alcohol. And then, somewhere along the line, I discovered that some Christians actually engaged in pre-marital sex. And then, I discovered that some people called themselves believers and were willing to accept the idea that Jesus was more of a mythical figure than a real person. A few suggested that maybe Christians could be found in all political parties and all denominations. And then, the biggest blow of all—some were suggesting that there wasn’t actually any rock in the first place, that everything was relative and flexible and sort of muddy anyway.

Slowly and painfully, the ground I stood on was becoming shakier and muddier and was often more of a trap than a solid support. I sometimes felt that I was wallowing in a mud pit rather than standing on the solid rock—and then I heard a lecture about plate tectonics that told me that even solid bedrock of the earth was in motion. While I didn’t have a crisis of some sort, I did need something, a place to stand that I could be sure of.

One temptation was to decide that the mud I was standing in was actually solid rock. If I called the mud rock long enough and was loud enough and sure enough and strong enough, I could petrify the mud and move everything back to the past when my place to stand was big and solid and comforting. That was a real temptation, one that many people I know have tried to use.

But for me, mud is mud—calling it rock and pretending it was solid really didn’t make it any less muddy. I decided that I needed a different answer. Instead of trying to turn mud into rock, I would find the solid rock, the places where I could stand that were going to support me and enable me to keep going.
I discovered some solid ground—or perhaps it is better to say that God through the Holy Spirit led me to some solid ground. I don’t have a lot of solid ground but what I have is real and strong and unchanging—and most of all, it is sufficient. Standing on that bedrock allows me to engage the mud all around me—and I discovered that I actually enjoy the mud to some extent when I am not in danger of drowning in it or getting stuck.

I don’t have as many answers as I had when I lived in that long ago time of endless solid rock. But I do have some answers, answers that give me a place to stand as I interact with the mud and relativity that marks most of life. And the solidest and most important part of the bedrock is the grace that God extends to me and everyone else.

May the peace of God be with you.

WAITING

Right now, I am waiting to find out when I will have surgery. I am also waiting for enough snow of the right kind to go cross-country skiing. I am waiting for our spring vacation (which might be cancelled because of the coming surgery). I am waiting to hear if the group that was interested in having me speak at an event has made a final decision about my coming. I am waiting for the next StarWars movie. I am also waiting for retirement, buying a house, knee replacements and tons of other things, including the dishwasher finishing its cycle so I can unload it.

It might just be me at the stage of life I currently occupy but it seems to me that we human beings spend a lot of time waiting. Waiting often requires patience and my relative lack of patience might be part of the reason I find waiting difficult. I have never been good at waiting—all the experience I have at waiting hasn’t actually translated into making waiting all that easy.

I have, of course, learned lots of tricks and techniques. I always have a book or two with me. These days, that is much easier thanks to smart phones. Having my books on the phone also has another benefit—when I get tired of the book, I can switch to the games on the phone. Also, given that many waiting rooms these days no longer provide newspapers or back issues of magazines, I always have something to do while I wait. I can also watch people, which is great when there are other people around. Watching other people handle the waiting process poorly is a big help in keeping myself from dealing poorly with the waiting.

But these and other tricks only mask the real problem. I don’t much like waiting, especially when I am waiting in North America. I am a bit more comfortable waiting in Kenya—my cultural training and insight seems to allow me to deal with reality of waiting in Kenya better than I deal with it in Canada. But even then, waiting is a chore. Whether it is waiting 2 minutes for my wife, 10 minutes to see my doctor, 2 hours for my car to be serviced, several weeks for surgery or months until the next StarWars, waiting is hard—I am not blessed with an abundance of patience.

Actually, that isn’t true. Like all who follow the Christian faith, I have been given all the patience that I need. Becoming a believer brings with it the presence of the Holy Spirit and according to Galatians 5.22, one of the fruit of the presence of Spirit is patience, along with a bunch of other stuff. So, as an individual, I might suffer from a lack of patience but as a follower of Christ, I have all the patience I will ever need, made available to me from God himself through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

So, if that is true, how come I get fidgety when the wait is 60 seconds, annoyed when it is 5 minutes and have to have something else to do when it is longer than 10 minutes? How come the divine patience doesn’t just wash over me and allow me to peacefully and placidly and patiently wait? Am I missing something somewhere? Maybe I have to enter a user name and password on some form somewhere to access the patience sitting in my account, just like when I access some of my ebooks?

No—the problem isn’t technical. It is personal. God gives in abundance and freely but I don’t always want to open myself to the abundance that God gives. Accepting what God gives doesn’t just imply that I need something—it bluntly and blatantly states that I am less than perfect and need what God is so willing to give. I have to confront my imperfection and admit my needs before I can admit that I need what God is so willing to give. In short, I am pretty much a normal person who struggles with admitting that I need God.

Fortunately, I have recognized this need and accepted the grace of God offered in the risen and living Christ. Now, as I wait, God is at work, helping me see how this works out in all areas of my life, including the waiting.

May the peace (and patience) of God be with you.

THE OTHER SIDE

I need some surgery sometime in the near future. While it is fairly serious surgery, it is important because it will prevent even more serious stuff down the road. After thought and prayer and some consultation, it just makes sense to me to go ahead with the process.

However, committing to that process also commits me to another process, one that I am normally involved with on the other side. I need to inform and involve my church people. Normally, I am the one church people inform and involve—they want my prayers, my pastoral concern, my connection with God. I am happy to be involved in their process. My giftedness, my calling and my temperament enables me to support them and do what I can to help them through the process. Most of the people I have provided pastoral care for through their process have seemed to be appreciative.

But approaching the whole thing from the other side—well, that is and has been and will be a huge shift for me. I haven’t actually had to deal with medical issues in my ministry. The only time I have been hospitalized was for kidney stones and that occurred between public ministry activities and so I didn’t miss anything. For this surgery, I will be out for at least a month, which means that I have to tell people so they can make arrangements.

My introverted inclination was to simply forget about telling people and have my wife call the deacons the day of surgery and tell them I won’t be there for a while. Aside from the fact that my wife simply wouldn’t assist my fantasy, that really wouldn’t be a very good way to deal with things.

I teach, preach and encourage Christian community and sharing. I seek to have people involved with each other as an expression of their faith. I want people to know that faith needs to involve us with other people so that we can both give and receive the love and grace of God through each other. For me to follow my introverted fantasy process would be hypocritical at best and ministry destroying at worst.

So, pushing the all too tempting fantasy out of my mind, I set about informing people. I had a meeting scheduled with the church leadership before I knew about the surgery so that became the first place to announce what was coming. I didn’t swear them to secrecy and released them to tell others in the church what was coming. I think I was secretly hoping that the message would quickly travel through the church the way most things do.

That didn’t happen, or it didn’t happen the way I wanted or as fast as I wanted. I faced a congregation on Sunday made up of people who knew and people who didn’t. Since the surgery is coming soon but not that soon, I chose not to make an announcement from the pulpit—that will come when I know dates and so on. But I did find myself telling individuals as the opportunity arose during the potluck that followed the worship.

I have spent most of my life on the other side of this part of ministry and now I have to learn how to receive what I have been giving. I could continue the role of pastor and say that it is good for the church to learn how to minister to the pastor—and that is a good thing. But the deeper reality is that I need to learn more about how to be ministered to. I haven’t done that well over the years. Being an introvert means that I tend to keep to myself and be somewhat self-sufficient. I have had times when others have ministered to me and they have been very important and valuable—but overall, I am much more comfortable providing the ministry.

So, the coming surgery will not only take care of a medical problem but will be another step in the more significant learning process that is helping an introvert who encourages community to experience the fullness of Christian community. I really do want and value the prayers and concerns and support of my Christian community—I just don’t like telling people that I need their prayers and concerns and support. Like all of us, I have a lot to learn about the fullness of my faith.

May the peace of God be with you.

DON’T GET CAUGHT!

I grew up physically and spiritually in a rural, conservative environment. The church I was part of for most of my childhood wasn’t hyper-rigid like some but it was conservative in its views and teaching. I absorbed that mindset along with the cookies and juice served at snack time during Vacation Bible School.

I don’t think I ever heard a sermon explicitly giving the rules but I pretty much knew by the time I as a teen that “good Christians” obeyed the big three: “Don’t drink, Don’t smoke, Don’t dance.” There were of course, other evils, like anything sexual but Christians didn’t even think about stuff like that so we didn’t need rules in those areas. There were, of course, Christians who did that stuff—but they were always from other churches, not ours. We obeyed the rules.

But even then, I sort of noticed something that I liked to pretend wasn’t there. Some of the “good Christians” from our church actually did some of the big three—occasionally at the same time. How did I know? Well, we were teens in a small town who didn’t have a whole lot to do so we talked and eventually the “good Christian” would get around to telling some of us what they did—or those of us who didn’t break the rules but stood as close to the boundary as possible would see them break the rule.

As long as it was only us who knew about the infraction, they pretty much got away with it—and actually became something of underground heros in the group. The peer group rules wouldn’t allow anyone to tell about the infraction so we would all attend Sunday School and worship pretty much knowing that Mike wasn’t actually suffering from a cold coming on–he was a bit hung-over.

This secrecy would continue until the good Christian was caught breaking the rules by someone important, like another church member or a deacon or the church gossip or, heaven forbid, the minister. Then, well, the phrase “all hell broke loose” was coined just for times like that. The newly discovered sinner would be the talk of the church and town. Their infraction, as well as suggested and real punishments would be the topic of conversation everywhere, including the local barber shop, where the barber was a member of our church.

And the rest of us good Christians, who knew about the infraction before it was discovered, including those in the peer group who were equally guilty but undiscovered? Well, we picked up stones and heaved them as accurately and as powerfully as anyone else. As we stoned the offender, we also prayed. We joined the rest of the church in praying for the soul of the offender and we also prayed with even more fervor that the offender would remember the rules of silence that controlled the peer group.

As I have reflected on all that, I realize that our group, like all groups, actually had another rule, one that nobody ever actually articulated but which was nonetheless as powerful as all the other rules. This unspoken rule was simple: “Don’t get caught!”. In many ways, getting caught was a more serious infraction than breaking all the others at the same time. Getting caught was not just a sign that you were a sinner but even more significantly, you weren’t all that bright a sinner. Getting caught jeopardized the whole elaborate hypocritical structure that allowed the rest of us to indulge in rule breaking while still getting to keep our saintliness intact. Someone getting caught exposed the reality we didn’t want to have exposed and so we needed to attack mercilessly just to protect ourselves—how could someone who threw so many stones so hard and so accurately be guilty of such a sin?

In our current cultural environment, I see a lot of my past. Wrongs are being exposed—and that is a good thing. Much evil has been done and much hurt has resulted and it all needs to be dealt with in an open, therapeutic and cleansing manner. But at the same time, those of us who haven’t been caught need to be wise. We might not have done what is currently being revealed but since none of us is perfect, maybe we should use fewer stones and more mercy when someone is caught.

May the peace of God be with you.

FAITH AND CULTURE

Whether we realize it or not, much of Western culture is being affected by a non-western religion. While many people in Western countries aren’t aware of how deeply this non-western religion has affected us. Mind you, many participants in this faith aren’t aware of how much the western culture as affected this approach to religion either. Both have been modified and re-arranged by the other.

Unfortunately, the culture has tended to gain the upper hand in this modification process. Some of the ways this old, non-western religion has been changed have had beneficial effects on it. For many years, for example, some branches of this faith explicitly required that it be practised in a language that many followers didn’t really understand. Eventually, the cultural pressures allowed the religion to discover the value of using the language of the people. Another change in this ancient religion came about in the way the worship was conducted-over time, cultural pressure brought about more culturally appropriate styles and approaches to worship. Mind you, parts of this religion have successfully resisted all such changes.

But for all the good changes, the religion has tended to be on the losing side of the culture war. It’s essential teachings have been tampered with; it’s codes of conduct have been weakened or selectively ignored; it’s followers have been encouraged to follow cultural norms rather than original teachings; it’s greatest insights have been blunted or ignored. In many geographic areas of the west, the legacy of this ancient religion is all but forgotten while a culturally modified façade seeks to use bits and pieces of it to bolster cultural norm and patterns.

The irony is that this ancient religion has at it’s core a call to change culture. The basic teachings and tenants of this faith call for a different approach to life, an approach that stands in sharp contrast to the individualistic and self-centered western approach to life. This religion began claiming to be a divinely given alternate to the destructive and selfish realities of human life. And at times, it did a fantastic job of changing culture.

It was and is especially effective on the individual level. People discovered the core of this religion and made changes in their lives, changes that made them stand out. Sometimes, they were seen and noticed and gave others courage to follow the faith. Other times, they were seen and noticed and the difference was so dramatic and so counter-cultural that they were shunned, scorned, persecuted and even killed. But often, the religion reached enough people and for a time, the culture it found itself in changed for the better.

But human selfishness is a powerful force—and faced with a force that tries to set limits on selfishness, it reacts in self-defence. Culture comes roaring back and begins chipping away at the core of this religion. Eventually, this religion stopped being a cultural change agent and becomes an agent of the culture, one more way of channeling the essential human selfishness into self-serving ways.

Our western culture has been deeply affected by this ancient religion, Christianity. We see the continuing effects of this change in the continuing calls for equality and fairness in our culture. But at some point in the last century, it seems like a line was crossed and the changes western culture made in Christianity became more significant than the changes Christianity made on western culture. The faith no longer stands outside the culture, seeking to make the culture better—now, unfortunately, it has too often become the weaker partner in the relationship and has become nothing more than a tool to force people into being better players in the cultural games.

But culture rarely has the final answer because the Christian faith is a living and dynamic faith empowered by the presence of the Holy Spirit. No matter how strong the call and temptation of selfishness, the Spirit will eventually act, bringing about a reformation, a reformation that will break some of the tangled bonds it has with culture. Human culture is always based in our human selfishness—Christianity is based in and on God’s eternal love and grace and no matter what it looks like at any given point in time, God will always win.

May the peace of God be with you.

JUMPING FENCES

I was recently visiting a spot near an urban setting where there are several waterfalls, deep gorges and beautiful views. Since it is near a lot of people, there were lots of visitors, even on a cold, cloudy day like the one when we visited. Whoever ran the sites had provided parking, good trails and lots of fences along the steep drops. The fences were high, strong and plastered with signs telling people not to climb the fences or cross the fences because of the dangers presented by the steep high gorges.

We stopped at one spot to take pictures and as I was looking for the best angle, I spotted two people who had clearly decided the signs were not for them—they were at the bottom of the gorge, clearly enjoying their much better view. A little later along the trail, at another photo spot, I saw another pair of people who had crossed the fence line and descended the steep cliff to get a much better view.

One of the people accompanying us on the visit mentioned that the local fire department has a special unit trained to rescue the significant number of people who cross the fence and get stuck at the bottom of the gorge. The unit has lots of practise because the signs simply can’t overcome the desire to go where no one has (or shouldn’t have) gone before.

Metaphorically, I am no stranger to climbing fences and wandering in territory that could be difficult or dangerous—a lot of my work in ministry has taken me into areas that others have warned me to avoid. That has caused some problems and produced some significant ministry. As a teacher and mentor of other pastors, I have tended to encourage people to see the fences and occasionally challenge them, while being aware of the possibility of danger.

But that metaphorical fence jumping somehow doesn’t seem to be anywhere near the same as the physical jumping of a real fence and deliberately stepping into a dangerous situation that just might require significant time, effort, expense and risk on the part of other people to pull out the fence jumper.

I am not entirely sure what inspires such behaviour. I know that some of us see warning signs as a challenge. Others are pretty sure that only normal people need to avoid the dangers. Some might suggest that it is their right to step into dangerous positions. Others, perhaps ignore signs and warnings and assume they can do what they want. And the majority of people who jump the fence seem to get away with it, probably through a combination of luck, skill and possible divine intervention.

But each success encourages another attempt. Each time a fence jumper is spotted, another is encouraged to go deeper or higher or further. And eventually, the rescue crew has to step in; the sign painters prepare another sign; the lawyers begin figuring out who pays for what—and in the meantime, someone else is going to jump the fence, probably using the sign as a support to climb the fence.

We humans don’t like limits. We have all sorts of justifications and reasons and explanations. But probably the best and most profound explanation comes from the Bible. We are sinful people. I am using that word in the broad sense—we are essentially self-centered and selfish, convinced that if the world doesn’t revolve around us, it should. This self-focus is at the root of all fence jumping going all the way back to the day when a man and a woman climbed a fence to eat from a tree that they had been told not to eat from.

In our desire for self-gratification, we miss some significant realities. We miss the fact that some things are bad for us. We will suffer physically, emotionally, spiritually or some combination of those. Others will suffer as well—and unfortunately, others will sometimes suffer a whole lot more than we do when we cross the fence. The person who falls down the cliff because they copied my successful attempt at jumping the fence suffers much more than I do.

But for all that, I can’t quite bring myself to say that we must always stay within the fences. Some fences need to be jumped—the real trick is figuring out which ones need to be jumped and which ones need to be respected.

May the peace of God be with you.

PLAYING WITH FIRE

During the second Wednesday of the ecumenical Bible Study, I took a cup of de-caf coffee rather than water with me—the various churches supply muffins for the study and water really doesn’t seem to go well with chocolate chip/banana muffins. The next day, the church Bible study was meeting in a home since it is too cold for the community hall to be open. Since the host makes great shortbread cookies, I chose another cup of coffee ( caffeinated). The next Monday, I had coffee with a friend. The following Wednesday, more Ecumenical coffee and muffins. Finally, the Thursday study in another house, this host providing great ginger cookies, which obviously required another coffee.

That is actually more coffee than I normally drink in a month and even though most of it was de-caf, by the end of the second Thursday in the sequence, I was noticing the effects: upset stomach, heartburn, the coffee cough that has plagued me for years. None of this was a surprise to me. Although I love coffee, I have been suffering the effects of drinking it for years.

My coffee addiction goes way back. Although I grew up in a tea drinking house, my father drank coffee at breakfast and one of the perks of getting up first when he was working day shift was getting to eat the piece of bacon and quarter cup of sugary, milky coffee he left for which ever kid was up first. I moved on to develop my own coffee habit—black, no sugar and relatively strong. At times, I would be up to 4-5 cups a day. But I liked it, it kept me going and it wasn’t harming anyone.

Eventually, though, I began to suffer the effects of too much caffeine and in the mid 1990s, I decided to quit coffee and all forms of caffeine. For well over a year, I didn’t drink anything with caffeine and even avoided de-caf coffee. I knew that even drinking de-caf was going to be a problem, given that I really like coffee and was seriously missing it. But after I got over the withdrawal effects (headache, grouchiness, inability to get moving), I was able to avoid it.

After more than a year, I began allowing myself a cup of de-caf now and then. I could even treat myself to a cup of real coffee occasionally. Because it was an occasional treat, I made sure that it was really good coffee—no instant or bargain perk coffee for me. If I was going to have coffee, it would be good coffee—an African blend, strong, hot, black and no sugar, something to be savoured and enjoyed.

But with each cup of de-caf and each treat, I was reminded again just how much I liked coffee—and more seriously, how easily I can become re-addicted to caffeine. Mostly, I remember the problems and am pretty good about setting and keeping limits. Coffee was reserved for long drives and occasional breakfast treats. Unfortunately, my will power breaks down when I haven’t had any coffee for awhile and the presence of cinnamon buns, muffins, shortbread and ginger cookies make the temptation too much to resist. Then I begin to pay the price and swear off coffee, at least for awhile.

I am aware that my addiction and struggle with coffee isn’t a serious problem and really doesn’t compare to the struggles people have with other more dangerous and serious addictions. But it is a struggle and it is an addiction and I do have to deal with it. I think it helps me on a very practical level understand the reality of the human condition. We like the stuff that isn’t really good for us—and no matter what our level of will power and commitment, we can’t guarantee that we are free from the stuff that we shouldn’t have.

Whether it is me and my coffee; the workaholic and her dangerous work ethic; the alcoholic and his single-minded commitment to alcohol; the approval addict doing everything possible to be liked, we all struggle with something controlling our lives. And as a Christian, I think that allowing anything to control my life is a problem. My need to be in control of caffeine in my life grows out of my understanding that I was made to be free to become what God wants to help me become—and anything that gets in the way of that is a problem.

So, I am off coffee again, at least until the next Bible study, when there will again be those great shortbread cookies.

May the peace of God be with you.

DEPRESSION ALERT

This has been a very busy weekend. One of the pastorates I serve had a major fund raising event on Saturday—it was a great event, from what I saw and heard, although my sight and vision were limited since my skill set pretty much confines me to the kitchen, well, really the sink washing dishes. I am pretty good at that task and it does keep me from spilling coffee and tea on guests at the tables. Sunday, of course, it always busy with two worship services and lots of people to talk to. We even had some visitors at the early service, which was nice.

But I work up this morning a bit before time to get up. As I enjoyed the warmth of the bed while thinking over the day’s activities, I had something of a shock. I caught a glimpse of my depression peeking around the corners of my thoughts. It wasn’t strong but it was there. I began to recognize the symptoms—feeling tired after a good night’s sleep; a lack of real interest in what I had planned for the day; an inability to go back to sleep combined with the fatigue feelings; a desire to crawl in a hole and disappear.

The depression hasn’t really arrived. This event was more of a preliminary message, a sort of an “I’m coming” promise. The conditions are right: lots of work activity; some personal stuff that is taxing; some frustrating circumstances preventing some important decisions. There are lots of reasons why the depression shouldn’t be there. Things are going well in the churches; my knees are not as painful, the cold didn’t develop into anything serious and it is actually snowing. But the potential is there—and it is close enough that the depression feels confident enough to show itself.

Now, I have to make some decisions. I need to decide what I am going to do about it. I recognize that not everyone fighting depression has the same options I have. My particular brand of depression tends to be closely related to my decisions and my willingness to take care of myself physically, emotionally and spiritually. I know all that and even do a pretty good job of paying attention to all the relevant factors most of the time. But when life gets hectic and things pile up, I take less and less care of myself, opening the door for the depression to worm its way in.

The problem is compounded by the fact that I am committed to what I do. My faith and my work are intimately connected—God has called me to ministry and whatever form it takes wherever it is, I am going to do my best, which involves more time that I probably should give it, more thought than I should give it, more energy that I should give it. I appreciate the opportunity God has given me to make a difference in the lives of the people he has called me to serve. I thrive on the opportunity to match Biblical teaching with the specific needs of the congregations. I love connecting churches, individuals and other groups with God through sermons, worship, Bible studies, counselling sessions and so on.

But it is too easy to lose myself in the process. And I know that the call to faith and service comes in the context of sacrifice and commitment and self-denial. Answering a call to ministry is demanding. But what I forget is that there is still a need to care for myself in the process. And once I forget that call to care for myself, everything else is built on a sandy foundation.

The threatening depression is a warning of that reality. I really can’t do what I have been called to do and want to do when I am depressed. I can go through the motions, letting momentum carry me but it isn’t really what I have been called to do. And while God can and does gracefully promise to work around my weaknesses, it is much better for me when I look after myself so that I can give him, the church and myself the best I am capable of at any given time.

So, thanks for the warning, depression. But because I have seen you peeking around the edges of my life, I am watching for you—and even more, I am pretty sure that God is looking after me.

May the peace of God be with you.