SETTING LIMITS

I have been involved in some form of ministry for my entire working life. While I have mostly been the pastor of small, rural congregations, I have also had the privilege of serving as a jail chaplain, a teacher of pastors in Canada and Kenya and a pastoral counsellor. Part of the reason I do what I do is because I am deeply conscious of the calling that God has given me to the various forms of ministry I do. There have been times I have resented God’s calling, times when I have fought against it and a few times when I have asked, begged and demanded that God rescind that call. But in the end, I do both accept and appreciate the calling that God has given me.

Another part of the reason why I do what I do is because in the end, I like helping people. Now, I am pretty sure that is connected with the calling–it is one of the gifts or qualities or attributes that God has given me as part of the tool kit that comes with his calling. When God calls us to anything, he also provides the equipment that we need to follow his leading. But whatever the reason, I actually like helping people.

That can be a mixed blessing. We who like helping people do a lot of good for a lot of people but we can also do a lot of harm to a lot of people. A lot of the difference can be attributed to our motives for helping.

If I am helping people to satisfy my need to help out, I am probably going to cause more harm than good because I am more concerned with what I will get out of the process than what will really help in the process. I will likely end up diminishing the people I want to help because I put myself before them.

When my helping takes away the individual’s freedom to make their own choices, I have actually ceased helping them. When I do counselling for example, it really isn’t my place to tell people they have to stop doing something, no matter how destructive it might be for them. I can help them see the consequences of their actions, I can help them formulate different ways of dealing with stuff, I can even be willing to help hold them accountable. In some situations, I can and have told people I will have to report them to appropriate authorities but I can’t make them change. But I can’t actually make them do whatever it is that we are talking about.

Learning and remembering that one basic reality has saved me and those I minister to a great deal of pain, confusion and emotional turmoil. A real helper is one who has real and realistic limits. I can’t live another person’s life–and I can’t make them live their life the way I think it should be lived. I can only help them as they seek to deal with their own stuff as best they can. I can offer tools, support, counselling, accountability–but I can’t make them.

That means that there are a lot of times when my attempts to help are frustrated. It means that there are times when the proper and best response are really clear to me and the people I am trying to help and they still chose a lesser response. There are times when I get angry because of how hard I have worked only to have someone make poor or even self-destructive choices. There have even been times when I have had to stop my involvement because of the frustration.

But learning that limit has also been liberating and enabling for me in my ministry and my helping of others. I like helping–but I need to begin with the reality of the otherness of the people I am helping. They have a right to be themselves, even if I disagree with their definition of themselves. I need clear and strong limits on my helping so that I don’t try to take over their life or their issues. I am there to help, not to dominate or command or take over. As one poet from another age put it, “Good fences make good neighbours”.

May the peace of God be with you.

 

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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.

HOW FAR?

I am a pastor, a person called by God to help others find and understand the love of God.  I teach, I preach, I counsel and go to a lot of meetings, some of which actually have a point.  And in the course of  all that activity, I encounter a lot of people–even as the pastor of small congregations in a rural area, I encounter a lot of people.

Some of these people are church people, people who are kind and loving and accepting and could be referred to as the “salt of the earth”.  Others, well, others are somewhat less likable–and a few are incredibly easy to dislike.  Some are comfortable to be around; some are okay for a while; a few I prefer to avoid if I can and there are a few who create a bit of fear in me when I encounter them.

But I am a pastor and part of my job is a commitment to serving God through serving people.  But every now and then, I have to deal with the issue of just how far I am supposed to go in dealing with people.  Sometimes, the problem comes in the way the person treats me–while it isn’t common, I have come across people who insult me, want to dominate me or who threaten me in some way shape of form.  More often, the problem comes about when I realize that the person I am encountering has been guilty of some particular behaviour.

For example, because of my work with victims of childhood sexual abuse, I tend to seriously dislike people who sexually abuse children.  I am sure that God loves them–but I generally find it difficult to be around them, let alone minister to them.  My response comes from years and years of listening to the pain and hurt and struggles of people trying to re-create a life seriously damaged by abuse.  When I am around such people, I tend to be angry and judgemental.

There are other people who react to other things.  On a somewhat regular basis, I talk to people in the church who wonder if it is possible for us to do something about so and so, who says/does/did/ might do that thing that really upsets them.  At least once, I had a church member suggest that it might be better if I didn’t make a pastoral visit to a family because, well, “they” were “like that”.

How far does tolerance, acceptance and Christian love go?  When do people cross the line that separates being included in God’s command to love from the legitimate withholding of that love?  I know, I know–the Gospel message is for all people, no matter who they are and what they have done.  Jesus came to rescue all people, including whichever group I happen to be having problems with at any given time.

But does God expect the same limitlessness love from me?  Do I have to minister to the child abuser?  Do I have to welcome “those” people into the church I pastor?  Do I have to defend them from the sanctified abuse the church sometimes likes to dish out to those who break the rules?

What does God expect of me?  Well, he does expect me to push my limits.  He does expect me to follow him into the places and to the people I would prefer to ignore or condemn.  He does call me to challenge my positions and bring them into congruence with his positions.

That is painful, difficult, frustrating, scary.  It also produces serious anger.  But in the end, it is part of my commitment to the faith.  I wish I could conclude this blog by saying that I have overcome all the limits and love everyone as God loves them and calls me to love them.  But I am trying to be as honest as possible in this writing and so the best I can say is that God’s grace is at work and he is patiently working with me.  I know that because there are a couple of people I know who have abused children whom I see on a semi-regular basis.  God is working in me and helping me learn how my faith needs to help shape loving response to them.  It isn’t easy–but it is coming.

I am glad that God’s love is not limited by my limits.

May the peace of God be with you.

IT SNOWED

We have had an unusually dry and warm fall here in western Nova Scotia.  Most years, the ice scraper gets dug out in early to mid October and stays busy pretty much until spring.  But this year, the temperatures have been at or near record level highs all fall.  We actually had night-time lows of 17 Celsius (mid 60s for those who don’t use celsius), meaning that the ice scraper remained lodged in the space between the back seat and the cargo area of my Jeep until well into November when I had to find it one morning.

This made great weather for our local economy.  We are heavily dependent on tourism in this area and the extended summer like weather seems to have encouraged a lot more people to travel here a lot later than normal.  It also meant that the people who provide lawn care were working longer, which may or may not have thrilled them but work is work.

But for me, well, the fall was something of a disappointment.  I really don’t like heat much and I especially don’t like heat at night when I am trying to sleep.  Mostly I cope but the extended warm weather was getting to me.  I really don’t have anything against warm weather or sunny weather except when it interferes with my sleep.  I would like a lot more rain that we have been getting but since the dryness slowed down the growth of the lawn, there was a bit of a benefit to the dryness.

So a few days ago, I was sitting in my “office”–the living room.  I was writing something, probably a sermon that wasn’t really coming together.  I was sort of aware that it was a dark and dreary morning, with rain in the forecast.  Given the number of times that rain has been forecast and failed to show up, I wasn’t expecting all that much precipitation.  It was also cold–near zero.  I actually had the heat turned on, probably for the second time this fall.

But mostly, I was fighting with the sermon that refused to come together.  The theme sounded great when I prepared the sermon plan a couple of months ago but the actual writing was hard work–I would compare it to slogging through sand with a full backpack but I have actually done that and it was easier than this sermon process.

Because I was fighting with the sermon, I wasn’t paying much attention to what was happening outside.  I normally glance out the window a lot, looking for the deer who frequent our street or the squirrels looking for acorns or to see whether the tide agrees with my tide clock or just to get a break from whatever I am writing.  But this day, the fight with the sermon was taking all my attention.

But eventually, I looked out the window and it was raining.  But even more exciting was the fact that there was snow mixed with the rain.  That was exciting and gave me a real lift.  Now, I knew that it was too warm for the snow to amount to anything.  It was just a brief flurry quickly overcome by the rain and above zero temperatures–I doubt that one flake ever made it to the ground.  But it was snow.

And that means that we can get on with the year.  I can find the snow shovel, check the supplies of salt and sand for the driveway and most importantly sleep under covers at night.  I am aware that most of the people I know, including the majority of the people in the churches I serve saw that snow as a depressing omen of things to come.  I am also aware that sometime next March, I will greet snow with a very different attitude.  But right now, seeing the snow was a bright and positive note to my day and week.  I am aware that that makes me somewhat strange but my church people all knew I was strange when they called me to be their pastor so I am not worried about that.

I like snow and cold weather.  I don’t mind shovelling snow, especially since the church gets most of it plowed and I generally don’t have more than half to 3/4 of an hour clean up.  Seeing that brief flurry gave me some optimism.  The sermon was still hard work but at least it was snowing.

May the peace of God be with you.

WORSHIP INTERRUPTIONS

Given that my spot during worship is at the front facing the congregation, I get a great view of everything that is going on in the sanctuary, except for the choir area behind me.  While that area can be a source of interruptions, it is more normal for the interruptions to happen in front of me.

So, when the visiting grandchild starts acting out their boredom, I get to watch the grandparents struggle to cope.  When the busy farmer drops off to sleep because worship is the longest time he has sat still in weeks, I see and empathize.  I am used to interruptions and so was prepared for what happened at a recent worship service.

We were about 30 minutes into the service and I was just getting into the introduction to the sermon when I heard a noise at the front door.  Since all our regulars were either present or accounted for (one of the benefits of a small congregation), I thought that we were having visitors.  Visitors are always nice, even when they come during the sermon when the service is half over.

I was on the wrong side of the pulpit to actually see the door so in the course of preaching, I casually moved enough to see the door.  As it opened, someone peeked around the side of the door, saw me and quickly closed the door and left.  I actually wasn’t surprised that the visitor left–in that brief time his face was visible, I recognized who it was.

He wasn’t an actual late coming visitor coming to check out our worship.  He was a local resident well known for showing up at worship services and asking for money to help out his family.  The latest request tends to be for gas so his wife can get to work.  How do I know that?

Well, I have been pastor in this area for years and have worked with three generations of this family and with him directly.  He had actually called me a few weeks previously asking for money.  But since I knew that he had been making the rounds of local churches (one of the benefits of good relationships between churches) and that one pastor was offering to help the family with budgeting, I told him that I couldn’t help.

I know that he has been visiting local churches for a while looking for money.  I had worked with him and his family a lot over the years and have seen this pattern and process first hand.  I expect that his visit to our worship service was made in ignorance of the fact that I am the pastor–the church hasn’t got around to replacing the name of the previous pastor yet.  When he saw me, I think he realized that he was unlikely to get help that day.

The irony of the situation is that my sermon theme was that healthy churches seek to serve God by serving their community.  I am not at all sure what I think of this interruption during this particular sermon.  I think I handled the initial request wisely and graciously.  I am aware that I reached my limit with this particular family quite a while ago.  I am also aware that others have stepped in and tried.

But as my sermon progressed, part of my mind was processing the interruption and my response.  What is my responsibility to this individual and his family?  How do I serve God in my relationship with him?  I didn’t get too far in the process because the sermon does take most of my focus.  But I did decide that the family isn’t starving at this point–I know that they both have jobs.  I re-affirmed my decision not to give money.  And I decided that if he was sitting in his car waiting for us to be done to ask for money, I would offer budgeting help again hoping that this time, it would take.

Well, worship finished and by the time I actually got out the door, the parking lot was empty so I didn’t have to deal with any requests for money.  I can’t say I was upset with that, just as I can’t say I am upset with my response to the situation.  I decided that the issue for me isn’t that I don’t want to help, it is that I don’t want to help in a way which reinforces the present situation.  I want to offer something that will help change things which to me seems a much better option.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE LETTER

I got a letter the other day.  I almost didn’t bother opening it because it came from a large, international Christian organization and so I assumed that the letter was a begging letter, especially since it wasn’t actually addressed to  me personally.  Letters that come addressed to “Pastor” or even “Senior Pastor” tend to have a request for money somewhere in them.  But I did open it and was a bit surprised that a return envelope didn’t fall out when I pulled the letter out.

The letter was a letter of thanks to me for being a pastor.  The letter arrived in the middle of October which someone has decided is “Pastor Appreciation Month”, one of the many special days and weeks and months throughout the course of the year which I tend to ignore.  But this letter from this large international organization was thanking me for my work as a pastor.  I confess that the letter didn’t do a whole lot for me.

While it might have seemed like a good idea to someone at some point, it really didn’t  make me feel appreciated because it really wasn’t addressed to me.  The fact that it was a computer generated letter with a generic “Dear Pastor” salutation and talked about ministry in such vague, general terms didn’t help.  Nor did the fact that I got two other copies of the same letter with others probably coming as the various congregations I pastor get around to passing along the mail they have collected since they last saw me.

I will take some of the blame for the lack of appreciation.  Most of the mail I get from this organization is asking for money and I expect that this letter is part of a well thought out campaign to make me feel better about them than about all the other organizations that didn’t send me a letter.  If I feel better about them, maybe I will send them money.

But generic appreciation really doesn’t do all that much for me.  A letter from a huge organization which doesn’t know or care that I pastor several congregations, which doesn’t know the specifics of my ministry, which doesn’t know the particular stresses I deal with really doesn’t make me feel appreciated as a pastor.

I do feel appreciated as a pastor–but not because it is pastor appreciation month and not because some organization sends me an appreciation letter.  I know that my ministry is important and helps people.  Some of them actually tell me now and then.  But I can also see and hear the appreciation in the way people respond to my ministry.

Ministry is demanding and doesn’t always provide a whole lot of tangible appreciation.  A lot of the people I minister to are dealing with serious stuff that takes most of their focus.  People struggling with death, people excited about their wedding, people dealing with life crises don’t always have the emotional space to tell me they appreciate what I am doing.  Church members who take part in the weekly Bible Study and who listen to the sermon every week don’t often feel a need to tell me how much they appreciate what I taught and preached.  When they do, that is great.

But when they don’t, which is more often the case, it isn’t the end of the world.  I actually am pretty independent and can function without a lot of thanks and so on–a very helpful character trait for a pastor.  I don’t do what I do to get expressions of appreciation.  I do it because it is part of who God is helping me become.  He had given me gifts and abilities and desires and following those is important to me.  If people along the way thank me for it and let me know they appreciate it, that is great but I will be doing what I do anyway.

As for the multiple copies of an impersonal letter of generic appreciation, well, that didn’t do a whole lot for me.  I tossed two of them unopened into the recycling and might do the same with any others that arrive, although maybe not.  The letter did have one redeeming feature.  It was a one page letter with nothing on the back, which means that it can also go in my scrap paper pile to be used as scratch pads or working paper for church meetings.  I do appreciate that, a bit.

May the peace of God be with you.

I DO BELIEVE

I love to ask questions and that love of asking questions extends deeply into my faith life.  Because I am a pastor and occasional teacher of pastors in training, my desire to ask deep and troubling questions about my faith and accepted faith traditions ends up being a blessing and a curse.  And the blessing and curse are so close that sometimes the same question can produce both at the same time.  Someone will find the question liberating and opens up new avenues for their faith development, which is always a blessing.

But others in the same context will react in a totally different way.  They will see the question and the subsequent discussion as a problem at best and a sign of heresy at the worst–and some can and will go on to question the reality of my faith.  I have to confess that even after having been at this process for over 40 years, when my commitment to God through Christ is questioned in this way, I am both hurt and angry.  I have learned a few things about dealing with this sort of thing over the years, which has been helpful.

In the early stages of my ministry (and faith), my temptation was to both defend my faith and attack the person who questioned my faith.  They were obviously wrong, both on the topic we were discussing and about my faith.  My two-pronged response provoked lots of heat and anger and tension and little else.  I went away seething and filled with lots of not nice thoughts while the person who questioned my faith generally left with even more evidence that my faith was at least lacking and likely non-existent.

But while the simultaneous defend and attack strategy sounds good, it really isn’t an effective one–and for a pastor seeking to help people grow in faith, it is an absolute disaster.  When the pastor attacks church people, it is a betrayal of everything we are supposed to stand for.  Instead of being the shepherd to the flock, we are now the predator attacking them.  The rest of the church tends to respond:  some align with the pastor, some with the other person involved and many others settle in to wait for the next pastor, who they know will be coming within the foreseeable future because of the mess stirred up.

I never seriously looked at the option of not asking questions.  That would be such a denial of who I am that it was never a viable solution.  But I did learn to ask the questions differently.  I present them as questions that I and others struggle with.  I sometimes skip a question when I know or suspect that it will be too much for some people.  I might present a milder version of the question.  I try to help people see that asking the question isn’t a direct threat to them and their faith–and as their pastor, I am going to help them deal with the question and its consequences in as caring a way as I can.

But in the end, I am probably going to ask the question.  And even with all the safeguards in place and all the preparation and all the attempts to make it as unthreatening as possible, someone at some point is going to get really upset and question the reality of my faith.  They may do it hesitantly; they may be afraid to do it; they may be very angry and confrontational.  But someone will do it at some point.

It will hurt, I will be angry.  But I know that it will come and I have learned that I can survive the accusation.  I no longer feel the need to defend my faith.  I believe.  Sure, my faith isn’t perfect, it has weak spots, it may verge on heresy at times–but I believe.  I have given myself to God through Jesus.  That is a reality, a basic foundational fact of my life.

Others can question the reality of that commitment–but I know that it is real and I can and do see the evidence of my commitment in the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life.  And so, when my faith is questioned, I am aware of the hurt and anger–but I can also deal with the real issue, which is helping the person deal with their reaction to the question that started things in the first place.  I can roll up my pastoral sleeves and shepherd the flock I have been called to.

May the peace of God be with you.

BEING ME AS PLANNED

I took my first course in preaching long after I had actually started preaching.  But I didn’t find the course annoying or frustrating because of that.  I enjoyed it and learned some important stuff that I have been using continually as a preacher and a teacher of preachers.  But one of the things that stands out from the course happened during one of the practise preaching sessions.

Everyone had to preach in front of the class.  It was–and is–probably one of the most challenging sermons a preacher will ever have to do.  We stand in front of our peers, all of whom are primed to critique our work.  There is a professor sitting there with a paper, making notes at seemingly random intervals.  We strive to produce an “A” sermon so hard that we probably end up with a “C” sermon.  In that sort of tense, anxiety producing setting, we all fall back on what we know works because we have seen it work.

So, one student approached the pulpit for his practise sermon.  He wasn’t the greatest student but he had some powerful stuff working for him, he thought.  He moved into the pulpit with his newly purchased black leather-covered floppy Bible held open to his text in his outstretched hand.  When  you realize that this happened in the early 1970s, you will recognize the style–this was Billy Graham’s classic preaching pose.  This student was going to wow us by borrowing some of Billy Graham’s mojo.

But I can’t really condemn the student all that much.  All of us end up borrowing stuff from other people.  I have been told now and then that some of my mannerisms in ministry remind people of some of the mentors I had along the way, something that doesn’t upset me all that much most of the time.  The whole purpose of mentors and examples is to help us develop the skills and abilities and even mannerisms that we need along the way.

There is, however, a balancing act here.  If I adopt too much of the mentor, I become a flawed version of the mentor. But if I don’t work on changing some of the things about me that need to be changed, I become an even more flawed version of the me God meant me to be.

One of my mentors was a great preacher–but rarely if ever made any kind of hand gesture in the pulpit.  Occasionally, he would lift a hand to waist level, at which point all of us who knew him knew he was really engaged with the topic and we paid closer attention.  But while I have tried to copy his preparedness, his deep understanding of the Scripture and his strong pastoral compassion, I simply can’t copy his lack of gestures in the pulpit–if I can’t use my hands, I can’t talk.  Shutting me up is simple–tie my hands.

To follow his example would take away from who I really am.  I needed his lesson on study, his example of showing compassion in the sermon, his teaching on the seriousness of what we preachers are doing.  All those things touched on areas of my life that needed work so that I could become the person God intended me to be.  I don’t do any of them exactly as he did them but his example and his mentorship were important in forming those areas of my life.  But his lack of gestures would have been a serious mistake for me to try and follow.

The balancing act is to learn what we need from others in order to become more ourselves as God planned on us being.  Taking too much from others puts a veneer of otherness on us that hides who we are really meant to be–but not taking enough leaves the holes and empty spots that need work glaringly obvious.

Billy Graham had his floppy Bible.  One of my mentors had his occasional small hand movement.  I, well, I have my tablet on the pulpit and wave my hands like I am trying to fly.  What the Holy Spirit taught me from others is both what I need to do and what I need to not do to become more what he means for me to be.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE MEETING

In both the collections of congregations that I serve, we have a very informal approach to doing the business of the church.  There is a formal process requiring notice and written agendas and stuff like that but we reserve that for really important stuff where we would actually have to discuss and have a recorded vote–something that might happen once or twice a decade.  Mostly, we realize that we need a meeting and sometines announce it for the next week after worship but sometimes, we announce it during the announcements and have it after that worship.  It is a system that would probably drive some people and churches up the wall but it works for us and so we keep doing it.

Anyway, one Sunday, the moderator told me that she had a long list of things that needed to be dealt with.  There was nothing on the list that was difficult or controversial so she suggested that we have a meeting after the worship and deal with it all.  Worship began, followed its appointed course and finished.  After we finished singing the threefold “Amen”, I reminded people of the meeting and headed for a seat–I don’t have much to do at meetings except begin and end them with prayer.

As the congregation settled down for the meeting, our new couple got up to leave, at which point, the moderator called out their names and said they were welcome to stay, something that she and others have done before when we have new people–it is an almost automatic response.  We are a small group and like to include everyone in what we do.  I managed to get to them to greet them before they left and reinforced the invitation but they chose to leave.  After seeing them off, I sat down, the meeting progressed, we finished, I prayed and we all went home.  Just another somewhat typical worship and meeting for our small church.

So, we all show up for Bible Study during the week.  Almost all the regulars are there and the group now includes the new couple.  We always begin Bible study with an opportunity for people to ask questions or make comments about the past Sunday worship service.  There were a couple of comments about the service and a bit of discussion about the sermon theme.  And as that petered out, the husband of the new couple began to talk about the meeting after worship.

He had some very strong feelings about that part of the afternoon.  He did mention that he liked the sermon but for him, the high point of the day was being invited by name to stay for the meeting.  It gave him a sense of belonging, a feeling that he was part of us.  It was clear to all of us that the moderator’s invitation touched both of them deeply.  I don’t think I have ever seen anyone as deeply moved by an invitation to attend a business meeting.  He went on to give a little background that helped us see some of what made the invitation significant to him–not the whole story but enough.

We are always hearing about how some off the cuff remark offends and upsets people.  It is not uncommon to hear of someone who has stopped being a part of a church because of some comment that the pastor or Sunday School teacher or janitor or someone else made.  Sometimes, I get a bit paranoid and spend too much time wondering how I am going to phrase a comment that I know can cause some problems.

And so it is nice now and then to see an unplanned and somewhat off-hand comment have the opposite effect.  It is encouraging to know that thanks to the Holy Spirit, those comments that we might have made a dozen times before are sometimes just the thing that a person needs to hear and will be used powerfully by the Holy Spirit.  That particular day, our worship was good, the meeting was okay–but the most significant thing that happened, I think, was that God was able to use something all of us had done many times before to make a difference to someone who needed it.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE VISITOR

The last Sunday before my vacation, we had a visitor at our worship service.  While not a completely unusual event, visitors in that particular place are not overly common.  This visitor had actually been in worship before–she lives in the community and is well known to the church members, all of whom welcomed her and talked with her and included her in the community.  I don’t know if the welcome encouraged her to come back–I kind of suspect that her attendance will continue to be somewhat sporadic and unpredictable.

The key issue for me was that the church did everything right, at least from my perspective.   The visitor was welcomed, included and involved.  That is a strong contrast to many congregations where visitors are either under-welcomed or overwhelmed with welcomes.  The traditional welcome for visitors in small rural congregations such as I serve is covert glances, somewhat hidden whispered questions about who that person is and maybe a welcome or two, although some rural congregations aren’t willing to go that far.

My experience as a visitor in larger congregations has convinced me that the typical welcome isn’t much different, except that because the larger congregations have greeters and ushers, the visitor is generally at least given a greeting and a bulletin.  I do remember one instance, though, when I visited a large congregation and was ignored by the greeter, who was engaged in a conversation with another greeter about some event they had both attended.  I found a bulletin and a seat and was eventually greeted after the greeters found out I was a friend of the pastor.

I understand the difficulty surrounding visitors.  On the one hand, we want them to feel welcomed and accepted.  But on the other hand, most of us are introverts who have difficulty connecting with people we don’t know.  Even as the pastor, I would rather hide in the office until just before the time to begin worship–but since all the church buildings where I lead worship share my living room office, I have no place to hide before worship.  And since I don’t have assigned seating in the congregational area, I tend to be standing and thus the first person to see and be available to greet visitors.

I have to confess that I am much more comfortable when visitors come in late, after we have already started worship and I am behind the pulpit leading the worship service.  Actually, everyone is happier with that because the visitors find their own seats and since worship has already started, no one has to talk to them.  We will overlook the fact that in this particular congregation, we have a very open worship with lots of back and forth chatter during the worship time.

So, we are all pretty much happy to see visitors but not really sure how to deal with them.  We are doing okay–there are some of our people who are getting comfortable greeting and welcoming people.  One is something of an extrovert who likes to talk to everyone.  Another has come from away and worked in public service so is used to greeting new people.  And one or two others are becoming aware of the need to at least say hi to people.

In our small group visitors stand out–but they also cause us some anxiety.  We want new people–but since new people have to start out as visitors, we need to get better at welcoming them.  In the end, this becomes both a test and sign of our faith.

When we have visitors, our faith is tested–it our faith real enough and strong enough for us to overcome our fears and anxieties about strangers?  Can we find the Holy Spirit’s help and leading to help us greet new people appropriately?

The way we greet visitors shows the reality of our faith–are they objects of fear and curiosity or are they real people whom God loves and whom we are therefore to love as well?  Is our faith just words about loving as God loves or can we really do what we say we are supposed to do?

Like all small churches and probably many larger churches, we have some ambivalence about visitors but we are learning and hopefully are creating an atmosphere where visitors feel comfortable and accepted.

May the peace of God be with you.