MORE WIRES

In the last post, I wrote that there were two things contemplating the wires I tend not to see actually showed me, one of which was my selective blindness.  The other thing the wires reminded me of is the depth and breadth of connections I have with the rest of humanity.

As an introvert with very strong independent tendencies, it is easy for me to downplay and ignore the connections I have with others.  I am quite comfortable most of the time doing my thing and if I occasionally go for extended periods of time not interacting with others, well, that is okay.  But even an independent introvert like me has more need of others that I sometimes let myself be aware of.

And the wires coming in to the house are a visible reminder of those connections.  If my introverted self wants to slump down in the recliner watching TV and ignore people, the cable wire reminds me that I can’t actually do that without some significant interactions with real people.  These people connect the signal to my TV.  They repair the wires that carry the signal.  They run the switching equipment that brings the signals to the wires.  They administer the business that provides the service.  They make the programs that come through the wires.  They do all that just so I can sit in front the TV and ignore people.  And they can do that because I and many others interact with them.  Paying the monthly cable bill is an interaction, one that involves a lot of other people at banks and so on.

The poet John Donne wrote “No man is an island”.  Putting aside his non-politically correct language as an artifact of a different era, he is making a powerful point.  No matter what we would like to think, we humans are intricately and intimately related in more ways that we can imagine.  The connections are beneficial–but they are also two way.  The cable company will happily provide me with diversions, provided I provide them with a monthly income. The power company will likewise give me power to run my various toys and heat the house, provided I interact with them financially.

The wires connect me to the world so that I can supervise a food security project being done by a Congolese pastor as part of the requirements for the course he is taking at a Kenyan theology school–and I can do it from the comfort of one of my two work chairs in my living room in Canada.

If I am drinking a cup of coffee while I am doing it, I am connected with the whole coffee production line, which means that in the end, some of the money I paid for the coffee ends up helping some farmer somewhere buy food or pay school fees. And maybe that does involve me in the debate over whether that farmer actually gets enough for his time and effort to provide me with my coffee.

After Cain killed his brother Abel and was trying to hide the crime from God, he asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4.9).  He would desperately like the answer to be “no”–but it can’t be no.  We humans are so interlinked and intertwined that a sneeze in Canada affects farmers in Kenya. All human need becomes the responsibility of all humanity–we are all connected in some way and have mutual responsibilities and benefits.  Often, we are aware of some of the connection and responsibilities but would like to ignore others.  I want to ignore the panhandlers on the streets when I am in the city.  But ultimately, I have a connection to them–maybe because a former student is using some of the stuff I taught to develop a ministry to the street people whom I am trying to ignore.  Or maybe that person with their hand out is the grandchild of one of the people who occasionally comes to one of the worship services I lead.  Or maybe the connection is that God wants me to intervene directly in that life.

I will probably continue to ignore the wires coming into the house, at least until one of them doesn’t work or I get desperate for something to write.  But I do need to remember the connections they represent and the wider connections they symbolize.  Even at my most introverted and independent, I have benefits and responsibilities connecting me with the rest of humanity.

May the peace of God be with you.

FEELING AND THINKING

Sometimes, when I am in a counselling session with a troubled individual, I will use a question to help them get a hold of what it going on in their lives.  I will say something like, “What are you feeling?” or “How did (does) that make you feel?”.  A significant number of people will answer the question by saying, “I think…” and then going on to give a reasoned response that tells me two things:  first, they know what they should feel and secondly, they have no idea what they personally feel.  Often, I will keep asking the question, pointing out that they are giving me thoughts instead of feelings until they either tell me to stop or begin to see their feelings.

There are significant and deep connections between what we feel and what we think but they are actually two different processes and two different viewpoints.  We all feel and we all think–and in the long run, it is good to know the difference between the two as well as how they are related and interact.

My feelings affect my thinking–and my thinking affects my feelings.  The less I am aware of my thinking or my feeling, the more complicated the process becomes and the less I am in control of any of it.  For many people, the difficulty is that we don’t recognize or acknowledge our feelings–and that opens the door for those unrecognized and unacknowledged feelings to dominate my thinking.

I am an introvert, a reality which means I tend to be uncomfortable in large groups of people.  The larger the group, the more uncomfortable I feel.  Unless I can be assured of a certain amount of physical and psychological space, I have serious negative feelings.  So, when the possibility of going to something where there will be a lot of people, I need to take that into consideration.

If I don’t consider my initial negative feelings, I can think myself into lots of good reasons for not going:  parking will be a problem; it will be late and I am tired; it will cost too much; a riot might break out; it will be a great spot for a terrorist to strike; someone there might have the flu–well, you get the idea.  When I don’t take into consideration my feelings, my thinking falls into alignment with my feelings and gives me reasons for not doing (or doing) what my feelings want.

Now, when the feelings are about a crowded concert, that is one thing.  But my feelings can have serious affects on all my life.  If I was abused by a school teacher, I can and probably will let those feelings affect my entire view of education–especially if I repress the feelings and pretend that the abuse didn’t happen or didn’t affect me or doesn’t matter.  My thinking gets distorted by the feelings that I haven’t been willing or able to deal with.

From my perspective as a pastor and occasional counsellor, the solution to the issue of feelings dominating thinking is simple.  All we need to do is admit and accept our feelings.  As a pastor and occasional counsellor, I recognize that this can be a very painful, difficult and time-consuming process that is anything but easy.  Sometimes, it can seem to an individual to be beyond their ability, which is why God has given us pastors, counsellors and therapists of various kinds–having someone there to help us through the painful process of coming to grips with our feelings makes a real difference.

In the end, the more we recognize and understand and accept the reality of our feelings, the freer we are to actually live our lives.  Rather than be guided and directed by what we don’t know and thus don’t control, we are able to think better because we know all (or at least more of) the factors that have been causing problems.  We can take into account our feelings but we can also think of ways around them and ways to deal with them and reasons why the feelings can be ignored or deal with in a better way.

Asking people how they are feeling is an important part of my pastoral and counselling processes–and it can be a valuable tool for any of us.  The more we understand our feelings, the freer our thought process.

May the peace of God be with you.

SPIRITUAL DEVELOPMENT OR YOUTUBE?

I don’t read many real books these days.  That isn’t because I have stopped reading.  I read almost as much as I ever did–but these days, I have made a conscious decision to use ebooks as much as possible.  I would like to say that I made the decision based on sound environmental and economic reasons:  ebooks don’t use paper thereby saving trees and they generally cost less.  But the truth is that I made the decision to switch to ebooks because after giving my large theological library away for what seemed like a good reason at the time ( maybe a story for another blog someday), I decided that having a library I could carry in a pocket was a great idea.

But work related paper books are still plentiful and I end up with a good number of them in the course of the year, many of which look interesting.  They end up in the new book section of the book shelf in the study, until their turn to be read at which point the book gets transferred to top of the cardboard box that serves as a shelf beside my exercise bike.  My plan is that during my hour on the bike in the morning, I will do my daily Bible reading which takes about 20 minutes, check email and the day’s headlines on the tablet, which takes about 5 minutes  and then finish out the hour reading the latest book on the box.

And I actually do that–at least until I hit one of those stretches of ministry expansion when I have too much to do and not enough time to do it and the fatigue gets the better of me.  I know that is coming when I finish the Bible reading, do the email and headlines and pick up the book.  I feel a sense of dread–well, probably not dread but at least a sense of “Do I have to?”.  Early in the fatigue process, I sternly tell myself that I have to–I committed myself to this and it is as much a part of my spiritual development as reading the Bible and praying and so I have to do it.

On those stern days, I might actually get a couple of pages read before I realize I am not taking anything in and in fact, am getting quite bored with the whole thing.  My ability to spend an hour on the exercise bike is dependant entirely on my ability to distract myself from the boredom of exercising so being bored reading threatens my ability to stay on the bike.

The debate begins: “I’m tired–maybe I should quit biking early.  All this biking probably isn’t good for me knee.  This book is really boring.  Read it! But I am not processing it! I’m tired.  My knee might start to hurt.”

The only viable and workable solution ultimately seems to be watching Youtube videos on the tablet.  They distract me enough so that I can continue the exercise session–and as for that boring book, well maybe the dog will eat it the next time he is in the basement by himself.  So, for the sake of my physical health, Youtube it is.

Do I feel guilty about not reading?  A bit–but it’s the kind of guilt I am used to as a religious person.  There is enough guilt to take to take the fun edge off of what I am doing but not enough to stop me from doing it.  Besides, watching other people’s failures and foibles gives me some comfort on my fatigue.

Should I force myself to read?  Well, having tried that, I can say for sure that it doesn’t work.  But from experience, I also know that I will get tired of Youtube and the ministry expansion will slow down and eventually, that book will become more interesting.  So, I watch Youtube.  Rather than see it as a failure, I see it as another form of Sabbath.  It gives me the ability to continue the physical exercise, allows me to rest the emotionally and spiritually overworked parts of my being.  It also allows me to laugh, which is physically, emotionally and spiritually healthy.

So, I read the book most of the time–but when I can’t, I allow myself the Sabbath I need because that way, I know I will eventually get back to the book.

May the peace of God be with you.

AM I DEPRESSED?

A few days ago, I was sitting in my work chair in the living room.  I was supposed to be writing one of the two sermons I have to produce each week.  I had done the research, I had a theme, the sermon was part of a series so I had some sense of where it was supposed to go–all I had to do was start writing and soon, I would have a sermon ready.  Except, that wasn’t happening.  I was struggling–not because of the topic, not because of interruptions, not because the computer was giving me trouble.  I just couldn’t get started and when I finally got started, the words didn’t want to come.

I finished the sermon finally and went on to other stuff until it was time to go see some people in the church.  Being an introvert, that is something I always struggle with a bit but that day, it was really hard to get motivated to go out and see people.  I went, I saw people and I actually enjoyed the contacts.

But on the way home, as I was thinking about it and had a scary thought.  I put my struggle with the sermon together with the increased difficulty going to see people and began to think, “I’m depressed”.  Depression is something I struggle with and the thought that it might be making another appearance bothered me a lot.

But as I began the process of dealing with the depression, I ran into further problems.  Normally, once I realize I am slipping into depression, I look for the trigger(s), whatever it is that started the process.  But try as I might, I couldn’t find any trigger.  Nor did I find all the normal stuff associated with my depression–for example, I was still listening to the car radio when I was driving.  When I am depressed, I just can’t do that–I have to drive in silence.

So, I wondered some more–was I slipping into some new, unknown expression of depression that was growing out of some deeply repressed stuff that would send me into a long and difficult bout of depression and struggle and all the rest?  I don’t like the depression process that I have dealt with too often in my life and so tend to be somewhat anxious about everything connected with depression.  Not being able to get a quick hold on it was depressing me.

As I worked through the stuff, I realized that what I was experiencing might not be depression.  It also wasn’t likely some other form of emotional upheaval either.  There was nothing major percolating up from the depths and the surface stuff wasn’t all that much of a problem, except for the fact that there was a whole lot of it and my personal time was getting lost.

I was missing exercise time; I was having less personal time, I was spending much more time in intense contact with people, I was putting in too many hours at both my jobs.  I looked at the whole picture and realized that in the end, I was tired, not depressed.   I do realize that physical fatigue can and does lead to serious stuff and in my case, prolonged physical fatigue can indeed lead to depression but what I was (and am) dealing with here was tiredness, not depression.

I can deal with that–probably not right now  but eventually.  I am tired because a variety of things have come together requiring a lot more work than normal.  There is a slow down coming–that isn’t the workaholic’s “someday” dream but rather is a basic reality.  A lot of the stuff keeping me so busy will soon be done and churches simply don’t do all that much in the summer.  In the meantime, I can do a few things, like allow myself to take longer to write sermons (and blog posts), exercise when I can, take a nap now and then, watch a TV show, plan and take some vacation time or just enjoy sitting and doing not much of anything.

I am tired and not depressed.  I do need to take the fatigue seriously but fatigue is much less painful for me than depression.   While I might not be overly thankful for being tired, I am deeply thankful that it isn’t depression and even more thankful that I can tell the difference.

May the peace of God be with you.

DO UNTO OTHERS…

Every now and then, I run into a “modern” version of the Golden Rule, the words of Jesus found in Matthew 7.12: ” So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”  This modern version is often presented in semi-humorous contexts and goes something like this “Do unto others before they do unto you.”

Unfortunately, it seems that our culture has decided that the humorous “before” is more applicable than the original “to”–since my rights and the privileges and desires that I feel belong to me by virtue of my existence are more important than anyone else’s rights, privileges and desires, I need to protect them.  And as we are often told, “The best defence is a strong offence.”

Others, especially others who are or might be different, are a threat to me and what I deserve.  Their choices and desires and practises threaten me and my freedom to be what I want to be.  I need to ban them, restrict them, overcome them, segregate them, control them–and in extreme cases, maybe even find a way to get rid of them.  And if that sounds harsh and hate filled, these are just the headlines that we humans have been reading, experiencing and creating over the years.

Jesus’ words about doing to others fly in the face of socially acceptable norms–norms that are as common and dangerous today as they were in his day–and which go back to the beginning of human awareness.  But Jesus knows that our self-focused, insane drive to put ourselves at the centre of the universe only results in pain, suffering, and continual conflict.  He calls for a different way.

We do to others what we would like done to us. In one compact sentence, Jesus manages to open the door to a new understanding of self and others.  His route doesn’t demand that I ignore myself to benefit others but it also doesn’t demand that I ignore others for the benefit of myself.  Jesus calls for me to engage in a conscious dialogue involving me, the other and the situation.  There is a fourth aspect to the dialogue but I going to hold off on that for a bit.

I need to know what I want/need in the situation.  I need to be aware of myself and my needs and wants.  To really carry out Jesus’ call here, I also need to be willing to examine the validity and necessity of my needs/wants–maybe some of what I need/want isn’t all that important and can be sacrificed or at least downsized.

I need to be aware of the reality of the other–what are their real need/wants.  That will probably mean I need to engage the other and develop some form of relationship–I can’t really get to know the other from a theoretical point of view.  I need to know the other as well as I can.

And I need to know the situation well.  If I am lost, hungry and bleeding, what would I need/want?  I probably wouldn’t want a Gospel tract, unless it was made of cloth and I could use it as a bandage.  I would appreciate directions, first aid and maybe a sandwich although if I am hungry enough, even a pocket-lint covered cough drop might help.

Realistically, that is a major amount of work–and doing it effectively demands that I open myself to the legitimacy of the other as I figure out how to do to them what I want done to myself.  In small, clearly defined situations, I can probably do it and might do it.  But the bigger the situation, the more complex the needs/wants, the more “other” the other is, the harder the whole process and the more unlikely I am to do it.

And this is where I need to remember the fourth part of the dialogue I am engaged in.  I need to involve God.  I need to open myself to the Holy Spirit, whose task in my life is to both guide me in my thinking process and strengthen me in the actual doing.  To really do as Jesus said, I need the power and help of God.  Fortunately, God is both willing and able to give me all the help I need to do to others what I would have them do to me.

May the peace of God be with you.

AFTER THE BIBLE STUDY

Doing Bible Study groups in the churches I pastor is an intense experience for me–and from what I hear from the participants, it can be quite intense for some of them  Since I am the named teacher of the study, I carry a lot of responsibility during the study time.  I try to keep things on some track, enough so that everyone feels they are involved and that any side tracks we take aren’t simply the desires of any one person.

I spend a lot of energy listening to and observing the members.  Because I am their pastor, I am not only trying to pick up on how well they are following and understanding the study, but also, I am listening and watching for indications of stuff outside the study:  the normally verbal individual who is silent may be wrestling with the point under discussion or they may be getting the flu or they may be dealing with the cancer diagnosis they received yesterday that they haven’t told anyone about yet.

While all this is going on at some level, I am also processing the study:  reviewing old material, asking and answering questions, seeking and receiving comments and ideas from the group, directing traffic a bit to keep everyone from talking at once, remembering the order of who speaks after the current speaker, laughing at the jokes, gently encouraging the silent to speak more and the verbal to speak less.  And occasionally, during lulls in the questions and comments, I get to insert some new material for the group to chew on.

Bible study is a busy, interactive and often fast paced process on both my pastoral settings, one in which we all learn and all teach.  But I am the teacher, facilitator, leader or whatever you want to call the person who gets paid to be there and participate.  I am also, as I have mentioned here a few times, an introvert.

And that means that I love Bible Study, I seek and encourage the high level of participation, I enjoy the time.  But when Bible study is over and I have finished with the last of the private conversations that follow Bible study, I am wiped out.

A few years ago, our two sons and I spend a week on a wilderness hike that involved me carrying a 25+ kilo pack 12-20 kilometers a day.  I was tired at the end of each hiking day–but I don’t recall being as tired after those days as I am after one Bible study session.  When possible, Bible study is followed by a short nap–and when it isn’t, it is followed by incessant yawning and wishing I had time for a nap.

One of the things I have learned about myself is that I have two conflicting realities within me.  I am a pastor/teacher, which drives me to interact with people on a deep level.  I want to help, to instruct, to enable, to encourage people as they grow in faith.  I am both driven and attracted to opportunities to teach and pastor.  But I am also an introvert.  I prefer my computer or a book or a solitary walk.  I don’t actually mind being by myself–when I talk about getting away from it all, I am normally thinking of getting away from people or at least people I need to pastor/teach.

I am probably not alone in this–many pastors and professional helpers I know are introverts so there are a great many of us living with these conflicting drives.  I don’t think that I have any earth-shaking insights about how to deal with them.  But I have learned that I need to accept both of them as real and deal with them in a practical, pragmatic way that keeps them in a proper balance.

I am a pastor/teacher so I am going to have to interact with people on a deep basis–they don’t pay me to sit at home and be alone.  I am an introvert who gets tired as a result of the interaction.  So, I care for both sides.  When I am with people, they are getting the very best I can give during that time–and when I finish interacting with people, I take the time I need to rest and restore myself.  All through the process, I am looking to God for strength, leading and acceptance, which he graciously gives to me.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE CHURCH WEATHER REPORT

A few times over the course of my ministry with small congregations, I have been taken aside by some member of the congregation and thanked for what I have done and am doing in the congregation.  Since I am somewhat analytical by nature, I have generally asked the person to tell me just what it is that they think I have done.  Initially, I was thinking I would hear some comment about my breathtaking preaching, my incredibly inspiring teaching, my superlative administrative skills or at least the fact that last Sunday, I managed to produce a bulletin with no discernible mistakes.

But in almost every case in which this scenario happened, the informant doesn’t mention any of those things.  Almost all have told me that what I have done that is so important to them is change the atmosphere of the congregation.  They mention that they come to worship now because they want to, not because they feel it is their duty.  They talk about the fact that we laugh a lot as a congregation–and often add that we laugh together, not at each other.  Sometimes, the person will say that the congregation used to be gloomy but now they feel hope and excitement.

I have to confess that this hasn’t been some planned strategy on my part but as I have reviewed the ministry I have done, I can see that a change of atmosphere is generally a by-product of what I have been doing.  And in each situation, I haven’t been doing anything more than what I think is my job as pastor.

My primary area of skill, ability, gifts and inclination is pastoral.  I am concerned about people.  Now, because I am an introvert, I joke with churches that I don’t actually like people but that really isn’t true.  As a pastor, I like and care for the people I am working with and for–and they are my primary focus.  That doesn’t seem to be the case for all pastor-congregation matches.

As I read and study pastoral trends these days, I find strong encouragement for me to be a Leader, a Visionary or even better, a Visionary Leader.  I am told by others that I must be an unflinching advocate of the TRUTH, unwavering in my defence of all that it right.  Others suggest that I must be Seeker Sensitive, designing worship and programs for those who aren’t there but who might come if I get things right.  I also need to be an advocate of Church Growth, following which ever theory is hot at the moment.

In the end, though, I am a pastor, called by God to love and care for a specific group of people.  The spiritual (and sometimes actual) feeding of this flock is my focus.  And as I have analysed the congregations I have worked with, I realize that the comments I mentioned at the beginning of this post are a direct result of the fact that the people feel cared for and supported in their spiritual development–and that changes the nature of their relationship with both the faith and the church.

These days, I am more aware of the atmosphere of congregations and more concerned with changing the atmosphere.  But the process I follow really hasn’t changed.  I am still a pastor.  I work at listening and caring and supporting.  I build my teaching and preaching on what I am hearing and seeing and deducing from my pastoral contacts.  But most of all, I spend time with people, listening and learning.

The results of good pastoral care are many and varied–but one of the most important is that people feel valued and important.  Worship becomes a time of sharing with each other and with God their sense of value and importance.  Whatever we do as a congregation grows out of this atmosphere of value and importance.  People are free to open themselves to the leading of the Spirit–and when the congregation opens themselves to this leading, there is no telling what will happen but it will generally be positive, powerful and exciting for everyone involved.

The church weather report is one of the most powerful indicators of the health and potential of a congregation–and the role of the pastor is crucial to establishing conditions for a good weather report.

May the peace of God be with you.

RULES AND/OR RELATIONSHIPS

In most of the contexts where I am teaching, I eventually get around to discussing the difference between religion and faith.  Religion is the codified set of customs, rules, regulations and norms essentially define the way for follower of the particular approach.  Within that code, interestingly enough, is almost always a description of who can break what part of the code and when that is possible.  These codes are sometimes written but are most often a combination of written material accompanied by a significant amount of oral commentary.

Faith, on the other hand, is often seen as a living, dynamic relationship between an individual and the deity.  While the code of the religion shapes and describes the nature of the relationship to a certain extent, the goal of faith is an ever-deepening, more fulfilling relationship with the deity.

That distinction helps me and others understand some of what goes on in our human search for God.  All too often, though, it can easily break down into a simplistic, black and white argument over whether the rules are more important or the relationship.  Which side of the argument you end up on says a lot about your personality and spirituality.

I have been on both sides of the argument,  although I do have to be honest and state that my being on the rule side happened very early in my faith life and didn’t last very long–it seems I was born with a mental condition that turns rules into suggestions for debate, something which I discovered isn’t acceptable in military or some religious circles.

After a long spell on the relationship side, I began to re-examine the value and place of rules.  It all started one day in Kenya.  I was a very young teacher in a school for training pastors for an independent African denomination.  I was filled with idealism and wanted to teach with as much openness to their culture as possible.  In my desire to strip Christianity to its most basic by getting rid of all the North American add-ons possible, I chose to get rid of one cultural attachment that I had always hated anyway.  I taught without a tie.

That isn’t all that startling these days–but way back then in the late 1970s, ties were still an essential part of the Christian faith in Canada.  But I was in Kenya and they were an independent denomination and they didn’t need cultural baggage like ties cluttering up their development of an indigenous African understanding of our common faith.

Great idea, I thought.  They get an unfettered faith and I get an unfettered neck–everyone wins.  Except that one of their rules was that preachers and teachers wear ties.  All my male students wore ties and jackets to class and everywhere.  All the other male faculty wore ties and jackets to class and for everything else.  My lack of a tie wasn’t a liberating step on the way to a truer and deeper relationship with each other and through that to God–rather, it was a road block because everyone was upset but no one knew quite how to tell this rule-breaker that although they appreciated my teaching, they needed me to wear a tie.

Eventually, the school principal found a way to get the message across and I went to class with a tie.  Eventually, I began wearing a clerical collar, since that was appropriate and desired for my position within the church.  Breaking the rules didn’t enhance any relationships–following them did.

I believe that relationships are basic, whether it is the relationship between me and God, me and students, me and parishioners, me and anyone.  Anything that gets in the way or hinders the relationships is a problem.  But I have seen that I can’t automatically class all rules as a hindrance to relationships.  Rules can also enhance relationships and enable them to grow and develop.  I might not have like wearing a tie in tropical heat (or winter cold for that matter) but if wearing that tie helped me relate better to students and church people, then I will follow the rule.  Even today, I would not think of stepping into a Kenyan class room without a tie or clerical collar.  It is also hard for me to step into a Canadian pulpit without a tie, probably because of my African rules.

The trick in the end is discovering and using those rules that enhance relationships and changing those which harm relationships.

May the peace of God be with you.

HOW CAN I HELP YOU?

            This is another preacher story–one of those stories we love to use in sermons but have to change enough details so that no one really recognizes the people involved.  In this story, I am on a mission–a parishioner has had an accident and has suffered some injury.  She slipped on some ice and ended up lying in the cold for a time because her injuries prevented her from getting up on her own. Since she, like most of my parishioners, is elderly, I figured that she would have lots of worries, anxieties and stuff resulting from the fall, lying in the cold for so long and the further limits on her life style because of her injuries.  Like a good pastor, I wanted to help her as much as I could.

As the visit progressed, I used all the pastoral care techniques and approaches to give her the opportunity to talk about anything coming out of the experience that was bothering her.  I anticipated fear, anger, anxiety, frustration, depression–all things that I has seen in similar situations over the years.  Instead of this long and expected list of issues, there was really only one thing that she wanted to talk about and needed help with.

She was required to rest and take it easy and so she and her friends had made her a nest in her living room, using her recliner as a base.  Everything she needed was close at hand:  her books, the TV remote, the radio, the portable phone.  Friends were dropping in the check on her, get her meals and just to chat.  She was feeling secure, comfortable and cared for, except for one real issue.

Something sharp was sticking into her ankle every time she moved in her chair.  None of her friends could figure out what it was for sure and even the ones who could find the sharp object didn’t have the tools to deal with it.  Her cozy nest was much less cozy and the sharp point was fast becoming a major irritant.  She asked me to take a look, just as she had been asking everyone who came in.

I quickly located the object and identified it as an upholstery staple that has come loose on one end.  She then asked if there was anything I could do about it.  With her permission, I pulled my multi-tool out of its pouch and pulled the offending staple out of the chair  The staple was tossed into the garbage can, the problem was solved and all the anticipated problems simply weren’t issues that day–and I checked carefully, using all the pastoral care stuff I have learned over the years.

There is a point to this story beyond the obvious one that all pastors should carry a multi-tool or Swiss army knife for such emergencies.  The point is that in the end, only this lady knew what her problem was and only she could identify it.  As a contentious and caring pastor, I visited with a long list of possible things I would run into, a list that was valid based on my experience and research–in many similar situations in the past, I had helped surface and deal with lots of those issues.

Having that mental list wasn’t a problem–it is sort of the mental equivalent of the multi-tool I happened to have with me that day.  Should the issue present itself, I was mentally prepared to help deal with it.  The problem would come in if and when I assumed that she must have some of the issues I was prepared for and kept looking for them, even trying to solve them for her before I even knew what the real problem was.

That particular day, the only thing she needed was someone with pliers and enough strength to pull out an upholstery staple.  All the other issues I anticipated were either non-issues for her or had been taken care of by others.  My visit as a pastor was appreciated as was the prayer I offered at the end of the visit–but the best pastoral work I did that day was use my multi-tool to pull out a staple.

As a pastor, I would prefer to pull a staple that is a real problem rather than waste her time and mine trying to fix problems that she doesn’t have and therefore doesn’t need help for.

May the peace of God be with you.

I UNDERSTAND COMPLETELY

As a pastor, I work with a lot of people who struggle with lots of things.  I regularly deal with people facing illness and loss of functions.  I spend a lot of time with people dealing with death–their own or that of someone close.  I work with victims of terrible abuse.  I visit parishioners who have had to have a pet put down.  Now and then, I even find myself spending time with a techie whose laptop is sick or dying.  I also spend a lot of time with people whose problems are less earth-shaking:  a stalled car, a lost book, a staple sticking through the upholstery of a favourite chair, a cake that didn’t turn out right.

I learned early in ministry that even if I think the problem is trivial, I can’t treat it that way–it is their problem and their response to it that matters.  I might think it is trivial and in fact the rest of the world might think it is trivial but since it isn’t trivial to them, I need to accept that and work on that basis.  Some days, that can be difficult but I think I learned that lesson fairly well.

What took longer to learn is that even if I have the same experience, I can’t assume that my emotional experience is the same as theirs.  I can’t assume that I understand exactly what they are feeling and know exactly what they need.  Just as I can’t try to make a problem small because I think it is small, I also can’t assume that I fully and completely understand the problem and am therefore completely qualified to give them the benefit of my wisdom and experience.

Certainly, my experience can be helpful in understanding their experience–but my experience isn’t their experience and I can’t forget this.  When I deal with children grieving the loss of a parent, I have some inkling of what they feel, having been through the grief of losing my father, my mother and my step-father.  But I really can’t know exactly what people are feeling.

Every experience has twists and turns and undercurrents that only the person in the middle fully understands–and even then, they may not fully understand them.  When  I claim that I understand, I am actually proclaiming to people that I don’t really care enough for them to find out what is really going on in their lives.

When my father died, for example, it was painful and difficult.  We had a good relationship and got along well and respected and loved each other.  But not every family has that same relationship with a father.  The internal realities of such relationships are hidden under the surface of the visible, public presentation–but they are very real and very much a part of the grief process.  If I assume that everyone who loses a father feels just like I did, I am probably going to do a very poor job helping people with their grief.  A family struggling with the death of a father who was an abuser or a alcoholic or simply not present emotionally will have their grief compounded if I assume their experience is just the same as mine.

I don’t know what people are experiencing.  I might have some idea, based on my experience and my study and what I have heard–but I really don’t understand what people are experiencing, at least not until I have spent some serious time with them and they have been willing to open up about what they are experiencing.

One of the strong reactions I have seen from  people suffering is their anger at people telling them they understand.  Out of politeness, the struggling people nod and say thank you but at some point, they end up telling someone like me that they were angry because the people didn’t really understand–no one can really understand.

We can actually come to understand what people are feeling, it we are willing to admit that we don’t really understand and commit to spending the time it takes to really listen and let people work through their feelings.  While I may never fully understand what someone is feeling, I can understand their need to be understood and make the effort to suspend my assumptions so that I can hear the reality of their experience.

May the peace of God be with you.