A CROW IN A TREE

It’s Monday morning, which means that yesterday was Sunday. I lead two worship services, one of which included a lunch afterwards. I preached twice and felt that both sermons went over fairly well. Attendance was good for both services, given the time of the year and all the other factors that determine worship attendance. I even managed to grab a short nap between the worship services. But when the day finished, I was finished. In fact, I was beyond finished because I stared the day tired—I lead a funeral service the day before that involved extra time visiting the family and preparing and so on. It probably doesn’t help that I have a really crazy week coming up with more to do that I have time to do it in. Nor does it help that this mid-winter day is dark, dreary and drippy and the thin layer of unskiiable snow is going to disappear probably before noon.

So, it’s now Monday morning and I am sitting in the living room, trying to figure out what to write for this blog post. So far, the most interesting thing to cross my mind has been the crow that landed on the top of one the pine trees I can see out the living room window—it is much easier to look out the window that at a blank computer screen. But even our normally active street is quiet on this Monday morning. The deer haven’t been around in a few days, the squirrels seem to be sleeping in today, it is too early for one of our neighbours to leave for his coffee group. So, I keep coming back to the empty computer screen.

Staring at a blank computer screen is marginally better than staring at a blank piece of paper, at least in my opinion. In the old days, back when the creative process involved a piece of paper and a pencil (I always worked in pencil until it was time for a final copy), there was much less distraction. A computer screen with no words on it at least has all the information supplied by the word processor program. It also holds the potential for some serious distraction—with just a few key strokes, I can play solitaire as I allow my sub-conscious mental process to wake up and get to work.

I can use a few other key stokes to open the whole world to me. The connection I have to the wider universe through the Internet means that I can discover anything I want. I haven’t tried it yet but I bet that if I type “cure for writer’s block” in a search engine, I will find tons of suggestions—all of which will provide welcome distraction from the demands of a blank word processor page.

I could even use the computer to access some of the many books that are in my various online accounts. While a lot of them are fiction, there are also a lot of books that have and will helped me with my professional development. Reading some of them would not only provide a distraction from the blank screen but might also provide an idea that I can steal adapt for my blog. I am sure that there must be lots of blog ideas in the as yet unread book that discusses the science behind the Star Wars universe.

But it is Monday morning—and so far, the crow in the tree top has been the only thing that has grabbed my attention and even it has gone somewhere else, probably to enjoy a breakfast at the local crow watering hole.

Monday mornings are difficult for those of us in ministry. We are probably at our lowest point physically, emotionally and spiritually. It is no coincidence that one popular ministry book many years ago was titled, Never Resign on Monday. I have modified that a bit for my particular situation to tell me Never decide to stop blogging on Monday.

It’s Monday morning—a drippy, dark, dreary Monday morning. I am tired as much from what I have to do this week as from what I did last week. I am not going to resign from the churches, I am not going to stop blogging. The crow in the pine tree obviously dealt with Monday morning and so will I.

May the peace of God be with you.

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YUCKY WEATHER AND BAD KNEES

In my ongoing issue with depression, I have identified another factor in the process, or actually two factors that are sort of tied together. The first is the weather. I happen to like winter, even if, according to most of the members of the churches I serve, that makes me strange. But I enjoy snow and cold weather and snowstorms. A nice snow storm is really enjoyable, provided of course that the power doesn’t fail and no one is stranded on the road. I enjoy that weather sitting in our warm living room looking out the window—but I also enjoy it when I am out in it, shoveling the snow or cross-country skiing or trying to get the cars into the driveway.

So, part of the low grade depression I seem to be dealing with these days probably comes from the fact that so far, our winter has been a bust. We have had snow and cold weather and all the winter stuff—but just as soon as it comes and begins to look good, the weather changes and we get warm weather and rain. All the snow goes and everything is grey and depressing. A cloudy day with snow on the ground is always going to be brighter than a rainy, cloudy min-winter day—and given the strong connection between light and some depressions, the lack of snow has to have an effect. Of course, there are all those people in the churches who will tell me that the presence of snow depresses them.

So, the weather has some effect on my depression. It might to bad if I could get outside and do a few things. Part of my plan for today, for example, involves working on the cabinet I am building—but that may not happen because of the weather since I have to do the messy sawing and sanding outside. Unfortunately, neither the power tools nor the pine react well to getting wet.

At one time, I would have essentially ignored the weather, pulled on a rain suit over my warm clothes and gone for a nice long walk. But this is where the second factor kicks in. I can’t really do any serious walking. Even going down the basement stairs requires some planning as I mentally set up a list of things that I need or can do down there. Stairs present problems for my arthritic knees and the fewer trips I make, the better. And if a few stairs are a problem, a nice long walk becomes something of an impossibility, unless there is someone on call to pick me up when the knees decide they have had enough.

In short, I, like many people in my peer group, am dealing with the realities of aging. There are certain real and indisputable limits that develop just because of the fact that I have been around for 65+ years. The increasingly limiting aches and pains, the progressing wear and tear of various bits and pieces, the increasing fatigue all emphatically state that I can’t do what I used to be able to do.

This all comes together on a dark and rainy mid-winter day. There is no snow to add some bright edge to the day. The rain means I can’t pretend to be a carpenter and turn nice boards into sawdust. The arthritis means I can’t defy the rain and go for a walk. So, I sit in the living room, type a blog post and wonder what I am going to do for the rest of the day, or at least until the theology student I am mentoring shows up for his appointment this afternoon.

That can be depressing, at least for me. But I think I am on top of this particular bout of depression. I have options that don’t involve walking, woodworking or too many trips down the basement stairs and which aren’t as pointless as hours of Youtube. I have some new books that are quite interesting. I have that mentoring session. And above all, I have my faith, which is what always keeps the depression under control in the end.

I may be prone to depression. The weather and my increasing physical limits may encourage that depression. But in the end, I know that God is with me and he will help me as I deal with it all and the depression will not take over.

May the peace of God be with you.

CHRISTMAS SHOPPING

We did something this year that I don’t remember ever doing before.  We went shopping on Black Friday.  We needed something that we could only get in the city with its big box stores and after comparing schedules and calendars, we found the one Friday in weeks that we could go.  As the day got closer, we realized that it was also Black Friday.  Now, in our defence, remember that I live in Canada and our Canadian Thanksgiving in is October so Black Friday for Canadians is an imported idea that isn’t tied to anything in our national culture.

But given that this was the only time we could both go, we decided that the trip was on. Predictably, traffic was heavy and got heavier as we got closer to the city.  The store parking lot was well on its way to being full when we arrived mid-morning.  The store was huge but in spite of its size, it felt crowded.  And while some of that crowded feeling was certainly due to the fact that in our rural stores, three other people in the store makes it crowded, most of it was due to the fact that it was crowded.

The line up for lunch was long–there were probably more people ahead of us in line that both of us together would have in all four of our respective worship services even on the best Sunday.  The checkout lines were mercifully short probably because the checkout area was huge and  most sales points were occupied.  Getting out of the city was okay, because although there was a lot of traffic, it was moving well.

But the bottom line is that we went shopping on Black Friday, joining what was probably the majority of North Americans in the annual ritual to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.  Or at least that seems to be how our culture thinks we should celebrate.

But in the last few years, I have been having more and more trouble with this.  Using Jesus as an excuse to spend money doesn’t fit in really well with my theology.  Our culture has made a significant shift in the meaning of Christ that we in the faith don’t seem to really comprehend.  Instead of worshipping Jesus as the Saviour of the world, we are encouraged to see him as the economic saviour of our economy.  We worship by spending money–and the more we spend, the better it is and the salvation of the economy is assured for another year.

On the other hand, there is the reality that we do have this great cultural event every year which demands some sort of response–and it is kind of fun to watch the grandchildren get excited about new stuff and all that.  And I do enjoy a turkey dinner, not to mention the culturally sanctioned excuse to eat more chocolate and chips than is probably good for me.

The cultural part of the season pre-dates the Christian part of the season. The dark days of December in the Northern Hemisphere are a great time for a party.  A good party in December probably counteracts the lack of sunlight which can produce all sorts of problems.  Unfortunately, when the church fathers developed Christmas in the fourth century, they created the context for our modern day mess where Silent Night and marketing jingles compete for air time and we are told that the power and wonder of the Incarnation can best be expressed by battling our way through crowded stores and beating everyone else to get the latest and most important thing.

I can’t stop the cultural festival–and don’t actually want to.  We probably need a party in December.  But I would like to get Christ out of Christmas–or at least what Christmas has become.  I think this year, I won’t do any Christmas shopping.  I will shop for holiday gifts, maybe even in the overcrowded store.  I will enjoy the parts of the seasonal party that I want to–some of the parties are fun and some of the traditions are enjoyable.

And I will also celebrate Christmas–by discovering and doing things that honour Christ and his love and grace.  It is unfortunate that both things have become so twisted together but I can work at untwisting them for myself.

May the peace of God be with you.

CONFESS IT–OUT LOUD

While I am not a professional therapist, I am a pastoral counsellor and have some experience with emotional and psychological issues that all of us deal with.  My experience has come both from the people I work with and from my own personal issues. And based on that experience, I would suggest that one of the most effective ways of dealing with most issues, after we have recognized and accepted the reality of it, is to confess it, out loud.

One of the most common ways I at least have tried to deal with stuff is by keeping it inside my head, trying to figure out some way to take care of whatever it going on.  Unfortunately, this internal process really makes things worse because in the end, all I am really doing is spinning my mental tires on the stuff that it getting me stuck.  Whatever the issue, I keep seeing it in the same way and in the same light, following the same ineffective mental paths time after time–and no matter how many times I roll things around in my head, I can’t see anything different.  Things get worse instead of better.

I have to get out of my head–and the way to do that is to confess openly what I am going through.  If I am down, I admit to being down.  If I am tense, I admit to being tense.  If I am suicidal, I admit to being suicidal.  To avoid confusion, let me state that I am not stating in any way that what I am confessing is sin or wrong.  I am using the word confession to describe the process of honestly and openly describing what is going on inside my head that is causing me trouble.

For me, there are several good places to confess what it going on.    First, because I believe in God through Jesus, I confess to God.  This confession is different from praying for help and healing.  I do that–but before I do that, I let God know that I am feeling whatever and it is affecting me in certain ways.  I know that God already knows that–he knew it before I was even willing to recognize it.  But I still need to confess it to him.  This confession creates an honesty that is based on having everything out in the open.  Both God and I now know what is there and we can both look at it openly and honestly.

I also confess to other people.  It is probably not a good idea to confess everything to everyone but in truth, open and honest confession is generally the best policy.  The first person to hear my confession is my wife.  I have and will continue to confess various struggles to people within the congregation, such as Bible study groups and even occasionally in sermons.  If things get bad enough, I am willing to confess to a professional therapist, someone with the necessary training and expertise to help me.

The idea behind the confession is to get out of my head.  Rolling things around in my head doesn’t get anywhere after a certain point and even begins to make things worse.  Confession as presented here externalizes things so that I can see them from a different perspective.  Whether it is to God, my wife, the Bible study group or a therapist, the new viewpoint enables me to process in different ways.  Often, I don’t even need advice from the other person–just saying things out loud to a caring listener allows me to see and understand and deal with things differently.

Do I worry about what people will think of me?  Well, honestly, I have never been too concerned about that.  If my Bible study group or my congregation are upset with the fact that I sometimes get depressed, that is something they will need to deal with.  Mostly, though, the responses I have received to my confessions is concern, support and lots of prayer.  I have also found that my confession encourages others to make their own confession.

So, in the end, if January is dark, dreary and cold and I end up depressed, I am going to accept that reality and confess it.  Likely, the feeling will go away when I manage to get out skiing but if it doesn’t, I know how to handle it.

May the peace of God be with you.

DARK, DREARY AND COLD

            Let me begin with a confession:  I like winter.  I love snow and I like cold weather.  A winter blizzard is a real treat for me.  And I don’t just enjoy winter through the window while sitting in a comfortable chair in a warm living room while enjoying coffee or hot chocolate (or a cup of both combined).  I do enjoy that but I also enjoy being outside in the storm.  While I don’t really want to drive in the blizzard, I am not opposed to cross-country skiing or show shoeing in it.  I even like shovelling snow, in moderation anyway.  I am aware that many people I associate with on a regular basis, including the majority of people who form the congregations I have been called to pastor think I am a lot strange because of that but that is really their problem, not mine–I am very comfortable in my minority position.

But as much as I like winter, I am aware that behind the banter and joking that I do with the congregations, there is a deeper and more painful reality.  Winter in Nova Scotia puts some serious and significant limitations on lives.  There are the obvious ones:  difficulty travelling, disruptions and closures because of storms, dangers coming from walking on ice and snow, the issue of cold and darkness caused by power failures and so on.

But there are also some significant psychological emotional issues that many people face.  The restrictions often mean that people don’t get out all that much and that isolation creates havoc with our needs to be social.  The lack of sunlight because of shorter days and increased cloud cover is depressing, causing things like Seasonal Affective Disorder and so on.  Some people also develop a fear associated with winter and its difficulties, expressed in comments and questions like, “What if I get sick in a blizzard–how will I get help?”

A lot of the feelings and difficulties associated with winter get worse in January.  We enter January tired from the Christmas rush and stress.  January means the party is over and we have to get back to normal, although the normal is often negatively affected by the weather, or our perceptions of the weather.  The post-Christmas let down coupled with the winter darkness and travel restrictions provide the perfect breeding ground for depression, anxiety, and interpersonal tensions.

Now, because I like winter, I am not as prone to Seasonal Affective Disorder–if I am going to get depressed, it won’t be because of snow.  Lack of snow in January might do it but normally, my depression is tied to my perceptions of what is going on in my life.  But because I know depression from personal experience, I have a lot of empathy for those who get down in winter.

While many believe an early spring is the best cure for the mid-winter blahs and a trip to somewhere warm and sunny is a good temporary fix, there are other ways to deal with the issues that many people struggle with at this time of the year–or six months from now south of the equator.

The first step, as with any issue, it to accept the fact that it is happening and it is happening to us.  Often, we like to pretend that we are find.  We aren’t fine, we don’t feel fine, everyone else can see we aren’t fine–but we still pretend.  Denial might seem like an effective coping mechanism but in the end, it really only postpones the inevitable need to actually deal with whatever is going on.

So, we begin by accepting that we are depressed or tense or worried or angry or whatever we are feeling because of the mid-winter winteriness that surrounds us.  We admit that we are fed up with snow (that statement sounds seriously messed up to me personally), with not being able to do what we want to do, with feeling on edge worrying about the weather–whatever is there, we get it out in the open first for ourselves and then for others.

This honesty is different from whining about the weather, something that is almost guaranteed to increase social isolation.  This honesty is based on being willing to admit that we are  not right and that there are things we can’t control that contribute to the not rightness.  For some, this admission might itself be enough to start turning things around.  Self-honesty is as much a tonic to the soul as cross-country skiing in a blizzard can be to me.

May the peace of God be with you.