WHAT LIMITS?

Recently, I have been suffering from a painful medical condition. It is not a condition that is written up in any medical textbook nor it is one that any doctor is likely to diagnosis. But it is nonetheless a real condition that I am currently suffering from. It is called “Grandchildren knees”. The condition develops when old, in need of replacement knees are subjected to 10 days of playing with grandchildren. The walking, carrying, getting up and down and so on associated with a visit to children and grandchildren seen too infrequently results in some serious mobility limits once I arrive back home.

There is actually no realistic way to avoid the medical condition. My knees have aged much faster than the rest of me and simply refuse to stay quiet when they are pushed beyond their limits. Normally, I have a good sense of those limits and have a well established process and procedure to take care of them. But when I am visiting our family in their geographically distant homes, the awareness and process disappear.

Certainly, I have the freedom to tell two pre-school grandchildren that I am not going to walk to the park with them because it is hard on my knees. I have the freedom to sit out the family outing to continue the exploration of the ravine and brook behind the new house. I can demand that we only visit attractions that bring displays and exhibits to us, rather than tramp around on wobbly knees. I can ignore requests that I get down on the floor to play trains or cars or colour. I can do all that—and actually, I occasionally do some of that.

But the reality is that I am with children and grandchildren I don’t see often enough and I am not going to sit back and follow the demands of my aging knees. I am going to do as much as I can, which is going to be more than I probably should. I will avoid the blatantly dumb stuff—skipping rope is just not going to happen. Jumping off anything just doesn’t make sense. But slipping and sliding down a muddy ravine wall—that is going to happen. The rope and walking stick help, as does being the last one down so as not to slow anyone down but it is going to happen. The knees might not like it but the rest of me is quite happy to frustrate their desires to sit and watch.

I know the consequences of my actions. In fact, before the trip is over, I am deeply aware of the consequences. The swelling, the restricted motion, the increased pain, the occasionally knee collapses—I notice and cope with all of them. But that isn’t going to stop me. It may slow me down—there is a reason why I am always behind the group, especially going down stairs.

But I am back home now. The visit is over and with it, the need and desire to be an active participant. Now I need to slow down and behave like a senior with knees in need of replacement. I will consciously walk less—the short walk I had been doing will be replaced with more time on the exercise bike for a while. I definitely won’t be getting down on the floor for anything—if I can’t reach down for is, it belongs to the dog or vacuum cleaner. I will sit a bit more, at least until my knees get back to some sort of equilibrium. That won’t be a problem—I have to sit anyway to write sermons and Bible studies and blog posts. In fact, most of my work and a lot of my relaxation involves sitting.

Long term, I have started the process that will eventually lead to knee replacement surgery but since I live in an area with one of the longest wait times for such surgery, I will likely have at least one more knee unfriendly trip in the future. I can live with that—the pain I deal with when the trip is over is well worth it because of the enjoyment of being with kids and grandkids whom I really don’t see enough. I might be the last one down the ravine but I will be there.

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.

BEING A PASTOR

I am a pastor—to be honest, it is the only job I have ever had. I have done a few other things but they have all been related to being a pastor. One of the things that means is that I know really well the traditional joke about pastors that everyone loves to make. I tell someone I am a pastor and the immediate response is something along to lines of “That means you work for an hour a week!”

Over the years, I have developed several responses to that tired joke:

• I have two worship services a week so I actually work two hours a week
• Actually, since everyone sleeps during worship, I sleep then as well
• Its even better than that—since nobody listens, I have been using the same sermon for 40 years.
• I had a wedding and a funeral this week as well so I had to work three hours—I am worn out.

Once the joke is out of the way, we can get on with whatever it was that we were supposed to doing in the first place. While I am a bit tired of the joke, I can understand where it comes from. I think there are two sources that lead to the joke and the assumption that pastors really don’t work.

The first reason is that most of my work isn’t seen by many people. People see me leading worship or conducting funerals or some other public activity but they don’t see the hours of preparation or the time spend with a grieving family or the counselling sessions or the even the amount of time spent driving from one pastoral activity to another. One person might know that I conducted a funeral and a worship service and counselled them and their family during the week but others simply don’t know everything I do—and given the realities of life, they probably don’t actually give much thought into how I fill in the unseen hours.

The other reason people think we pastors don’t do much is not as pleasant to think about. There are pastors who don’t actually do all that much. There aren’t many of them but they do exist and their lack of activity is real and tends to affect the rest of us. Much of ministry is self-directed and a very few take advantage of that, a process that has become even easier these days when you can easily down load a sermon from somewhere on the internet.

I can’t do much about the small minority whose lack of actual work gives the rest of us a black eye. Even when I have been teaching pastors, I have been aware that there would be a few who would turn their lackadaisical, as little as possible student careers into a very lazy ministry career. Such pastors have made one contribution to the overall ministry we engage in—they provided the grounds for the very old joke I mentioned at the beginning of this post.

The rest of us, well we work. Generally, we work too much, stress too much, bite off more than we can comfortably chew in one week. We are generally on the knife edge of burnout, secretly praying for a snow day (even in July), juggling a schedule that is always too full and wondering how we can get everything done with only seven days a week.

While there are those few who would benefit from doing some actual work, most of us in ministry need to learn how not to work—as a whole, we clergy are pretty terrible at setting and keeping limits. No matter how well the limits are set out, there is always that call that we need to respond to immediately—that is, after all, what we do.

I am a pastor. I actually work much more than an hour a week. Since I am part time, I actually am supposed to work 32 hours a week—and some weeks, I actually reach that number of hours. Unfortunately, most weeks, I reach it and pass it and still have a pile of stuff that needs to be done.

However, God is gracious and loving and through the Holy Spirit, he continues to work with me, helping me know and even occasionally keep the limits that allow me to minister well to the church and myself.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE CANE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

I’M NOT THAT BUSY

I was sitting in the doctor’s office to get the results of some tests. I had also decided to ask him about the fatigue that had been plaguing me recently. It might have been related to the tests that I was getting the results from but it could have been from something else. It was getting so bad that I felt tired all the time and needed to sit for only a couple of minutes before I was falling asleep. Given that one of my relaxing pastimes is sitting reading, the fatigue was seriously cutting into my reading. I enjoy a nap as much or more than the next guy but when I fall asleep three or four times when trying to read for an hour or so, that is getting a bit much.

So, the test results were sort of wishy-washy, suggesting that maybe I did or maybe I didn’t have a problem associated with the tests. But the results did suggest that the extreme fatigue likely came from other sources, which my doctor decided to check out through a set of other tests. But he also asked me about how busy I was.

That was an easy answer, of course. I am a part time pastor and I work 40% time at two different places. That means I work an 80% job, which isn’t all that bad and should be easily accomplished by a 66 year old reasonably healthy male. My doctor, who is also a friend and who therefore knows me as more than just a medical file reframed his question—he wasn’t asking how much I worked, he wanted to know how busy I actually was.

Well, I am 80% at official work. I also mentor a theology student. I do a bit of counselling. I spend some time writing. I occasionally do some “consulting” with other congregations and pastors—the quotation marks are because I think real consultants get paid and I don’t take money for the meetings I have. The more I listed stuff, the more the doctor nodded.

Just as he was beginning to suggest that I was actually quite busy, I realized that I might only work for pay 80% time but I actually am doing a lot—and the unpaid time and effort adds up—I am probably well over 100% if I were really honest and accurate. I think I had allowed myself to fall into the mindset that unpaid stuff was not really work and therefore shouldn’t actually count when it came to counting work/leisure hours.

I have long had this vision of myself as a sort of laid back, slightly lazy guy who gets things done but who manages to take it easy a good deal of the time. Well, that vision evaporated quickly under the harsh lights of my reality. I am actually quite busy, busier than I let myself realize. Most of what I do, I like and I do it because I think it is valuable and important.

But during that visit to the doctor, I realized that I am going to have to make some changes to deal with the realities I live with now. The doctor is making sure that there is no serious underlying medical issue—I gave up enough blood to the technicians to ensure everything is tested and checked.

But even without the results of those tests, it is clear that I need to make some adjustments in my life style. I need to make some different choices that take into account the reality that I am 66 not 26 and the energy I need to do all that I want to do isn’t as easy to come by as it was 40 years ago. I am making some adjustments to my sleep patterns. I am looking carefully at all the things I am doing, seeking to cut down the work load a bit—realizing that unpaid isn’t the same as not working helps out here. I want to get to the point where I can actually read for an hour or so without falling asleep. I want to be able to nap but I want the nap time to be my choice, not something that I have no control over.

I think the new sleep pattern is working and I am pretty sure there isn’t much going on beyond the fact that I need to relearn my limits.

May the peace of God be with you.