TOMORROW

When I got my first job after graduating with my Masters, I discovered that I was enrolled in a pension plan–well, actually two of them if you count the government pension plan that was also reducing the take home portion of my pay cheque.  I have to confess that in my early 20s, the idea of a pension plan was only mildly interesting.  The demands of student loan repayments, married life and the expenses of starting out after university meant that if I had been given an even choice, I just might have tossed the pension plan for a few extra dollars every week.

Fortunately, I didn’t have an option about making that choice–both the government and my employer required that I give them money every pay period.  Without any attention from me, the pension money disappeared from the pay cheque and showed up in a statement that came once a year.  Since I was young, busy and couldn’t do anything with or about the money, I tended to ignore it, at least until a few years ago when the state of my pension became important.  As I got closer and closer to retirement, I paid more attention to the annual statements and now that the fund is computerized, I occasionally peak at the accumulating amount.

For all my working life, that pension has been there, generally growing (except for years with economic downturns) and sitting there having an effect on my future without my paying much attention to it.  But when the time comes that I actually decide to retire, I am going to be very glad that decisions about my future was made a long time ago.

Now, in a lot of other areas of my life, I have been concerned about my future and have  taken a fairly active part in preparing for tomorrow.  I choose university courses and programs with an eye to the future.  I decided on advanced education because I was looking ahead.  A lot of my work in ministry involved and involves looking ahead and trying to structure the present to enable certain things to develop in the future.  I chose to begin  a serious exercise regime early in  life to prevent certain health issues in the future.  We began putting money away for our kids’ education shortly after each was born.

In short, I, like a great many people, was living partly in the future.  I was and still am willing to defer things now because of some future benefit.  Less money now meant more money in the future.  More exercise now meant better health tomorrow.  This meeting in the church today meant we could begin that ministry next year.

Well, actually, the best we can actually say is that if we do this stuff today, it might have an effect on tomorrow.  I can’t actually guarantee that I will live long enough to spend my pension money.  I can’t guarantee that this sermon series will produce a healthier church in five years.  I can’t guarantee that my kids will want to go to university.  I can’t even guarantee that  the lawn mower will start in an hour or so when I run out of excuses to avoid doing the lawn.

With no guarantees, why plan?  There are actually lots of people who live for today and who seem to be doing quite well.  Living in the now is something of a mantra for a lot of people today.  The idea of pensions, educational saving plans, exercise plans and ministry plans is something of an anathema to many people, some of whom are quite willing to quote Matthew 6.34 as support, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (NIV)

And, as with all Jesus’ words, there is a powerful truth here.  We can only live right now.  But right now does become tomorrow and because most of us will inhabit tomorrow or a certain number of tomorrows, we really can’t ignore tomorrow.  Statically, the likelihood of tomorrow coming is pretty good and the likelihood of our being around tomorrow is equally high so it makes sense to give it some thought.  We can’t live only for tomorrow–but we do need to keep an eye on tomorrow since we are likely going to get there.  It is likely better to have the pension and not get to use it than not have it and need it.

May the peace of God be with you.

SELECTIVE HEARING

A few years ago, I was attempting to prove that while my hearing was fine, my wife had been gradually lowering her voice making it difficult for me to hear so I scheduled an appointment with a hearing specialist.  An hour and lots of money later, I had hearing aids because it was my hearing that was the actual problem after all.  The specialist was careful to brief both of us on what to expect and what not to expect from the new hearing aids.  Since I could now hear, I listened carefully–and am glad I did because of what began to happen.

I was hearing everything.  After getting the devices fitted, we went shopping.  As I was standing in line, I heard the conversation between a couple several spots behind me in the line–did I mention that the new hearing aids have both forward and rear facing microphones?  I heard the squeaks and rattles in the car, the rustling of the groceries in the back, the raindrops hitting my hat.  Everything was clear and audible and eventually annoying.

I would have been tempted to rush back to the dealer and have him readjust the hearing aids, except he had warned me about this.  My hearing had been slowly deteriorating over the years and I hadn’t realized I wasn’t hearing all this stuff.  Normally, our brain processes out most of the extraneous noise–but because my hearing had been bad, the areas that do that processing had to be retrained to ignore the stuff I could now hear but really didn’t need to hear.

We all have somewhat selective hearing.  Right now, I am working in our living room.  There is an air purifier running by the living room door.  The kitchen fridge adds to the noise level.  If I focus, I can hear the dehumidifier in the basement.  The fan in my laptop cycles on and off.  The dog flops and walks and does whatever else he does.  With my hearing aids, I can now hear all that stuff.

But I have had them long enough that my filtering systems are back at work and so I only hear them when I choose to or something goes wrong with them.  My hearing is normal in that I can hear it all and depend on my brain to select what I really need to hear, except for a few minutes immediately after I put the hearing aids on in the morning until the filtering process kicks in.

This selective sensing works in most areas of life.  I look out the window and see the trees, the deer, the squirrels and the salt marsh, ignoring the lawn, the wires and the neighbour’s cat.  I can smell the cinnamon from my breakfast granola and not notice the slight odour of wet dog.  I notice the perpetual pain in my left knee from but ignore the lesser pain in my right knee.

And on the larger level, I stand in the pulpit every Sunday and look at the congregation members.  I know these people–remember, I pastor small churches.  As I talk with them before and after the service (and sometimes during), I see and hear lots of things, some of which I actually pay attention to and some of which I don’t.

I see the need of the person I know is struggling with grief and the related issues.  I hear the person who is struggling with some personal issue.  I might perceive the tensions sitting between one of the couples in worship.  I hear the excitement of the couple with grandchildren visiting.  I am aware of the person carrying the burden of an aging and increasingly disabled relative.

And because I am a pastor, I often need to do something in many of these situations–but part of my ministry is knowing what to focus on and what to ignore.  Just like I filter out what my hearing aid augmented ears pick up, so I need to filter out what my pastoral senses show me.

I have learned that the best way for me to do that is to open myself not only to the people but also to God so that the Holy Spirit can help me in the process.  Left to myself, I would either hear it all, which leads to burnout or ignore it all, which is just wrong.  While I am still learning that process, I have discovered a few things, which will be the topic of the next post.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHY AM I STILL DOING THIS?

I am currently serving as part time pastor of two different collections of congregations.  On a good Sunday the smaller group will have a dozen or so in worship.  The larger one will have 25 or so.  On a bad Sunday, the numbers can drop seriously.  I have passed official retirement age recently but am still working and have no real plans for actually retiring.

I am not continuing because the work I do is so deeply satisfying to me that I can’t imagine life without it.  In fact, when I let myself fantasize a bit, I can see all sorts of things that I could be doing to occupy my time–there are lots of woodworking projects begging to be built, trips that look interesting, topics that just need to be researched, leisurely coffee times with friends that don’t have to be rushed or postponed because of a funeral.  Ministry in a variety of forms has occupied my working life–but I can think of lots of other things that I would rather be doing so I can’t say that I am still doing it because of an intrinsic love of ministry.

And while ministry, at least ministry in small congregations isn’t a path to wealth, it isn’t finances that keeps me involved in ministry.  Pastoral salaries might not make one rich, but our denomination as least has a well managed pension plan that will enable me to be financially comfortable in retirement.

I was talking to a friend recently who had retired.  He told me that part of his reason was that when he took the job he had, he saw certain things that needed to be accomplished.  With those accomplished, he was ready to retire.  I appreciated what he was saying–and having seen some of that he had done, I knew what he was talking about.

But I can’t really say I am postponing retirement until I accomplish the things I see that I need to accomplish.  Unlike many people who write about ministry these days, I don’t have a grand, over-arching vision of what the churches I pastor should be doing and accomplishing.  I believe in vision and direction and all that–but I think the real vision of a congregation needs to come from the congregation.  And while I see a major part of my ministry as helping people see and achieve their vision, I generally have no real sense of where things are going until we are almost there.  My vision for the congregations isn’t what keeps me going.  Mostly, I spend my time trying to keep up with the congregation and trying to put into words what we are doing and where we are going.

Nor is it the pastoral needs of the congregations.  As a pastor, I am intimately involved in the lives of the people I serve.  I am their pastor, which means I am committed to being there for them.  I am called to help them in times of difficulty, to visit when they are sick, the teach them about their faith, to encourage their ministry, to perform their weddings and funerals, to provide counselling, to do whatever I and they believe is within my mandate as their pastor.

But I do not think that I can’t retire because these people can’t survive without me.  Most of them did pretty well before I arrived–and the few who didn’t do well before I arrived, well, I am pretty sure that my presence or absence isn’t making all that much difference.  Certainly,  I believe that I am called to help and I do help and I know it makes a difference.  But I have been in ministry long enough to know that when I leave the congregation, God will provide them with another way to have their needs met.  I am their pastor but in the end, I am not indispensible–they would all survive if I retired.

So far, I have looked at a lot of reasons why other people don’t retire–but  none of them really work for me. But I am still working, still in ministry, and still committed for the foreseeable future.  Fortunately, I know the reason why I am doing what I am doing–it is the same reason I have been doing what I have been doing for my whole ministry.  That is the topic for the next post.

May the peace of God be with you.

CHANGING QUESTIONS

Recently, I have been reflecting on a series of related but changing questions that I have been regularly asked during my life.  The first one I remember in the series came very early, as people around asked me “What do you want to do when you grow up?”  The idea behind the question was that people needed to pick their life occupation and prepare to spend the next 40 years or so doing whatever they picked.  I don’t really know if people ask that question as much–given the cultural reality that most people these days will have several different occupations in life, we should probably be asking people what they are going to start with.

Anyway, the next question came after I had finished university and was actually involved in ministry.  The common question I would get was, “Where are you now?”, especially if I was in a context where I wasn’t wearing a  name badge giving my occupation and location.  I was involved in ministry and although I didn’t  move around as much as some people in ministry, I tended to make some large moves, involving extended periods of time in Kenya.

Since I tended to stay in pastorates for a long period of time, some people began asking me a different question:  “Are you still there?”.  Sometimes, the question was asked from genuine curiosity and other times, well, I am pretty sure that were subtly asking what was wrong with me since I appeared to have very little interest in climbing the ecclesiastical success ladder.  I have to confess that with some of those people I took some secret delight in subtly slipping in the fact that I was also an adjunct professor at our seminary or was involved in several denominational projects or was just back from a short-term trip teaching in Kenya.  I know–I was bragging but that question did tire me sometimes.

I have noticed that I am being asked a different question these days.  I have reached the stage where people want to know “When are you planning on retiring?”.  People in the churches I serve aren’t asking that question–they simply tell me I can’t retire.  But people I have known for a while and haven’t seen recently seem to want to know the answer to that question.  My answer tends to be non-committal.  I plan on retiring someday but right now, I am not sure when.  A few people don’t like that answer, especially when their subsequent (somewhat invasive) questions lead them to discover that financially and chronologically, I can retire anytime.

A few people who know me well find the answer confusing for another reason.  Although I have been involved in pastoral ministry for most of my working life, I have never really liked pastoral ministry. I think I bring some skills and abilities and gifts to ministry that congregations appreciate and which help individuals and congregations and I get a fair amount of gratification from using these gifts and helping people, but pastoral ministry itself really isn’t a joy-filled, deeply gratifying part of my life.  It is challenging, it can be interesting, it is demanding, it has significant rewards but for me, the real joy and deep gratification has always come from teaching, something which has ultimately been a minor part of my overall ministry.

So here I am–at a stage of my life when I could be retired and I am still at work, still involved in the kind of ministry that I have done most of my working life.  It is a ministry that is important and valuable and which makes a difference to people, but a ministry which has likely done a lot more for other people than it has done for me.  And yet, I am committed to what I am doing for a while–I don’t know how much longer but am pretty sure that it is measured in years not months, although there times when I would like it to be days.

So, that brings me to another question, one that no one has actually asked me but which I needed to ask myself.  And that question is, “Why are you still doing what you are doing?”

But since the answer to that question is going to require some serious staring at the trees and marsh outside the living room window (and ignoring the lawn and wires), I will postpone the answer until the next post.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT NOW?

Recently, several things have come together to suggest that I am not where I used to be.  It began one morning on vacation.  Our almost six year old granddaughter was playing with sidewalk chalk and decided that it would be great fun for her to draw my outline on the pavement.  I thought it would be fun as well, until I remembered that while I might get down on my back on the pavement, I probably wouldn’t get up, at least not without serious complaining from my knees.

I also spent some time with a friend who is planning a major week long wilderness hike along a trail that I had done a few years ago.  He gave me a serious invitation to join the group, an invitation that I very quickly turned down–it my knees can’t deal with getting up off of pavement, they are definitely not going to deal well with that hike.

Then, after getting back, I was catching up on some bits and pieces including looking at our denominational website.  I clicked to the page telling about various pastoral changes and discovered that a lot of pastors were retiring this year.  Some were part of my peer group and some were actually second career pastors whom I had taught during my various teaching stints.

But what probably tied these things together was the fact that I turned 65 during our vacation–one of the few birthdays I have been able to spend with at least some of our kids in a long time.  Normally, I am not too concerned with age but culturally, 65 is a significant point.  We get to retire, start drawing pensions and enjoy senior discounts.

But since I had decided a while ago that I was wasn’t ready to retire this year and so have deferred all my various pensions, I didn’t expect to pay much more attention to the birthday than any other.  The senior discount is a nice perk, but I am discovering that there are enough restrictions that even that may not be all that great.

So, I am 65.  In some ways, that doesn’t make any difference–I couldn’t have been a chalk model for my granddaughter last year or two years ago.  While I could retire, I am committed to the churches I work for a while yet–we are involved in things that will take more time to process.

But at the same time, it does make a difference.  I am discovering that I am not what I used to be and not what I see myself as.  Mentally, I have tended to see myself as some indeterminate age between 40 and 55–an age where I have few physical limits, good career prospects and lots of options.  But the reality of 65 is that I have serious physical limits, mostly associated with arthritis and other age-related issues.  My career options are limited–most congregations aren’t looking for 65 year old pastors and other options want the potential for a longer commitment.

On the other hand, I am 65.  I am doing what I am called to do to the best of my ability.  I might not be able to do a week long wilderness hike or lie down on pavement but I can use the exercise bike and find other ways to play with my grandchildren.  I might not have all the career options I once had but I am comfortable with the calling that God has given me right now and an content to let tomorrow take care of itself, or rather, to trust that God is at work taking care of tomorrow.

I am 65–do I feel 65?  Sometimes, I do–and sometimes I don’t.  In a week or two when the newness of 65 wears off, I am  probably going to treat my age as I always have.  It is there, it is a reality and I don’t need to let it have too much effect on me as I deal with the realities of my life.  There are things a lot more significant to deal with than the number of years I have accumulated.  But, if the senior discount is a good one, I will flash the 65 to get it.

May the peace of God be with you.