TOMORROW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

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WHY AM I STILL DOING THIS?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

A NEW BEGINNING

            A few years ago, I was involved with some theology students who were connected with a large established urban congregation.  The congregation inhabited an older building that had originally been located in the thriving downtown core of the city.  It was an influential congregation in the city and the denomination for many years.  It was so important that students from the theological school I attended were regularly invited to seminars to help us better understand how to do ministry in an urban setting.  It was so important in the city that the chief of police was willing to come to talk to us theology students–and quite willing to suspend local no parking ordinances for the theology students.

But as with all things, the neighbourhood and church underwent serious changes.  The church membership got older; the building began to fall apart; the neighbourhood became less desirable.  Parking became both more and less of a problem–less of a problem because there were more and more empty spaces and more of a problem because cars parked near the building were probably going to be vandalized.  The building doors were locked and alarmed and visitors were carefully scrutinized.

Eventually, the congregation made a decision.  They would have to move.  The downtown location was no longer desirable and with safety becoming a significant issue for the increasingly older congregation, the future of the congregation was at stake if they stayed where they were.  They bought land in a much safer suburban location and began planning the relocation process that was vital to the future of their church.  The downtown core just wasn’t safe anymore.  How can you worship God when some street person is going to break into your car looking for anything that will help them buy drugs, alcohol or food?

The new location would allow the congregation to flourish again.  They could do real ministry, rather than hide behind locked doors.  They could invite friends to special events without warning them to bring the old car and make sure there was nothing of value in it.  They could have a new building from which to really affect their community.  They could get back to the serious business of ministry without having to worry about pan-handlers, street people, vagrants and prostitution.

Of course, this is a preacher story–this has never happened.  No church would ever think of ignoring the needs of people just outside their doors.  All churches want to do ministry.  All believers see every individual as a person loved by God and in need of a tangible expression of the love of God through the efforts of the faithful.  After all, we are called by God to be servants to God and to people.

Except that we don’t always do a good job of being servants in the messiness of life.  I think we sometimes see mission and ministry as involving only those people who would fit well in a 50s TV sitcom–hard-working, wise father; stay-at-home mother always dressed like a fashion model; 2.5 mischievous but high achieving kids and one slightly less than perfect friend who says “darn” a bit too much.  We can do serious ministry in that context–why, the work is pretty much done anyway.  Even that “darn” kid will dress up as a shepherd for the Christmas concert and will likely become a pastor.

Jesus, of course, wants these people to know about his love.  But what we forget too often is that Jesus also wants to street person breaking into a worshipper’s car to know about the love of God as well.   He wants the model family to become part of the faith–but he also wants the teen run-away who is into drugs and prostitution to be a part of the faith as well.  And his plan for reaching the model family and the street person and the teen addict is the same–he wants to use the ministry of the faithful expressed through the church.

As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “Real ministry is messy”.  And whether our church is located in a deteriorating downtown core, an up and coming affluent suburb or a dying fishing village, we need to open ourselves to the Spirit who will lead us into the best way to ministry and serve those around us.  Moving the building to get a better class of sinners doesn’t quite seem to follow the pattern that Jesus gave us.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHO RULES THE RULES?

             For some reason, I have been doing a lot of thinking about rules these last few days (and posts). I am not really sure why that is–my best guess is that it developed from my own self-imposed rule of having something to post here three days a week.  In previous posts, I have already established that I am somewhat ambivalent towards rules, wanting some of them sometimes, wanting others all the time and not wanting some ever.  I have sometimes been classed as a rule-breaker, mostly because of my lack of concern for certain rules–is splitting an infinitive really all that bad?

But even though I am sometimes ambivalent about rules, I recognize the need for some rules–humans can’t exist without rules to guide our interactions.  Unfortunately, sometimes we have taken that need for rules and gone overboard, creating rules and regulations for everything under the sun and quite a few things that aren’t under the sun.  And then we find ourselves in the position of having to decide which rules we are going to follow and which we are going to break.  And that is no easy task.

Some seem bent on obeying every rule.  Their personal rule book declares all rules valid and important and must be obeyed.  There are some who see every rule as something to be challenged.  Their personal rules book is very short, consisting of one rule only: “Break all rules”.  Between these extremes, the majority of the rest of us sit and wonder what to do.

Ironically, we all probably need some personal rules about keeping and breaking rules.  And those of us who feel a need to break rules probably have something like that somewhere in our minds, although we probably have never really examined our rules for breaking rules.

We would likely benefit a lot from taking some time to look at our standards for rules.  If we do that, we will probably find that a major factor in our decisions about whether to follow a rule of not is based in our self-interest.

When the highway is clear and dry, it is in my self-interest to break the speed limit rule.  I don’t actually gain much benefit from breaking the rule since I always have enough time to get to where I am going but in the end,  I will probably break the rule because I want to.  However, if I know there will be police on the road, I won’t break the rule–again, out of self-interest.  I don’t really want to pay the fine.

Self-interest isn’t the best standard for choosing which rules to follow.  Adam and Eve used self-interest to make their decision about breaking the one rule they had.  For their sakes, I hope the fruit they wanted tasted great because that would have been the only benefit they got from using self-interest as their way of deciding which rules to break.

We all get upset when someone breaks rules to benefit themselves at the sake of others.  Picture yourself waiting in a line up somewhere–a theater or bank line perhaps.  We all wait our turn because that is the rule.  Someone comes in and jumps to the head of the line, maybe mumbling an apologetic excuse or maybe just jumping in.  Since I am Canadian, I will quietly fume but still be angry.  Someone might say something but since most of us don’t, the line jumper is pretty safe.  But his self-interest does cause problems for the rest of us.

My guess is that most rules get broken from some form of self-interest.  But I am not sure that is a particularly good standard for breaking rules.  My experience has been that for every self-interest that benefits from breaking a rule, there is probably another self-interest that is harmed, irritated or upset by breaking that rule.  No matter how many justifications, explanations, reasons or excuses we come up with, breaking the rules just because it benefits us is going to create some resentment for someone.  Even when the line breaker is a disabled, sick, elderly person who needs money right now to keep the evil creditor from repossessing the family farm, someone is still going to be upset when she breaks the rule and cuts in line.

While rules are not necessarily made to be broken, most of us will decide to break a lot of them in the course of our lives.  Maybe, though, we need a better theory and theology of rules than our own self-interest.

May the peace of God be with you.

TROUBLING TIMES

Today is going to be a difficult day for me–actually, it could be the beginning of several difficult days.  I am going to be dealing with some hardship, some deprivation, and a loss of my (perceived) ability to function effectively.  The reason:  my laptop needs to go in for repairs and I probably will not have it back for a couple of days.

Now, I have been planning for this process.  I worked out with the repair shop the best time to be without the laptop–it’s not that I don’t need it for the two or three days but that these are the days I need it less.  I will be transferring the most necessary files, the ones that I will be working on (I hope) to my tablet and if I get really desperate, there is that old, obsolete laptop on a shelf in the TV room.  I suppose for that matter, I could even do some work on my phone.  I will survive but it won’t be pretty or fun.

I know that compared to the pain and suffering in the world, not having my laptop for a couple of days really isn’t all that much of an issue.  I know some people, in fact, who would see not having a laptop for a couple of days as something of a blessing.  Others might think that I probably need to re-adjust my priorities and think about what it really important.  There are some, however, who might be prompted to send my sympathy cards because losing their laptop would severely traumatize them.

When it comes to dealing with the pain and difficulty of others, we all need to look at the fact that we are tempted to evaluate the suffering of others on the basis of our experience and our understanding.  What upsets us must be traumatic for others and what doesn’t upset us is something others should be able to deal with easily.  When we give in to this temptation and evaluate their situation from our perspective, we are not likely going to be able to provide real help to the person going through whatever they are going through.

If we think the situation isn’t that serious, we will have a tendency to down-play whatever they are going through.  Our approach will often be to try and help them see that having their laptop sit in the shop for a couple of days isn’t all that much of a problem and may even be a blessing in disguise.  We might suggest all sorts of possible options the person has:  the tablet, the smart phone, the old computer–why, the laptop deprived individual might even appreciate the opportunity to rediscover pen and paper, an old but still viable technology.

When that doesn’t work, the helpers might try to force comparisons on the person–suggesting that an unavailable laptop really isn’t that much of a problem when compared to starvation, genocide and other things that people face.  This approach became popular as “I used to complain about having no shoes until I met a man with no feet”.

There is also the “dose of reality” approach, which somewhat confrontationally tells the person to get over it–its only a laptop and only a couple of days and really isn’t the end of the world so just snap out of it and stop whining or moaning or whatever.

These all sound like proper and appropriate ways to help someone deal with a problem that we are pretty sure isn’t as much of a problem as they think it is.  Obviously, our job as helpers is to convince them that what they are dealing with isn’t a problem, or at least isn’t as much of a problem as they think it is.  Once we succeed in helping them see the problem in the right way (our way, of course), then the problem is solved and everything is fine.

Except it isn’t fine.  We don’t really help people by trying to convince them that because we don’t think the problem is significant, they should think the same way.  In the end, people need to deal with their issues based on what they think about the issue, not what we think about the issue.  Trying to revise their thinking so that they see things like we see them doesn’t help–it just adds a layer of frustration and more pain to the problem.

May the peace of God be with you.

 

 

Mathe peace of God be with you.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

I have often wondered why our culture ended up with New Year’s in the middle of nowhere chronologically speaking.  By that I mean there is really absolutely nothing to mark the transition except an arbitrary mark on a calendar.  Other cultures have clear and explicit reasons for the new year beginning.  Judaism ties the new year to the events connected with the Passover.  Islam connects it to Mohammed’s return to Mecca.  Agricultural societies use planting season as a mark for a new year.

But us, well, we get a new year beginning a week after Christmas.  If we didn’t need to replace calendars, we could easily miss it, except for the parties and so on that go with it.  But even they would be more fun if we had them at a time when we weren’t already partied out from Christmas.

I did some quick research and discovered that according to some sources, the Romans started the practise of using January 1 as New Years Day.  The month of January is named after the Roman god Janus, who is portrayed as having two faces so he can see both forward and backward and therefore that makes him a god who can split time into new and old years.   But even with that insight, our new year is an entirely artificial and somewhat pointless holiday in our culture.  It doesn’t mark the time when I need to get busy planting the crops I need for food next winter.  It doesn’t mark the transition of a season.  It commemorates no significant date in our cultural history.  It just sits there, requiring us to change calendars and remember to change the last digit of dates.      As one of the guys said after worship one day, “The only thing New Year’s does is make you a year older–and I really don’t want that much.”

Perhaps some of my discontent with New Years comes about because many seem to think that I need to preach a sermon about the holiday–and given the realities I have just pointed out, there isn’t a whole lot to say about it in a sermon.  There are a few sentimental poems and stories that I could toss in; I could reflect on the past year and hope for better in the year to come; I could suggest a list of resolutions we would all benefit from; I could even proclaim the coming year “The Year of (Something)” and call people to commit to that.

Of course, all this runs smack dab into one of the painful realities of New Year’s worship services:  the worship service after Christmas is easily the worst attended worship service of the whole year.  I have often suggested that people who attend worship the Sunday after Christmas are probably going to receive a major reward when they reach heaven.  Clergy–well, we get paid to be there so we probably won’t get a reward, unless it is for figuring out what to say that isn’t trite, sentimental or pointless.

So, again this year, I will struggle with what to preach on New Year’s.  I may deal with the New Year and then again, I may follow my more traditional approach of ignoring the day in favour of something more Biblical and more significant.  That I will work out later–I have time still–not a lot but still some time to figure what I will be doing.

But for now, since New Years is coming and it does mark a change in the calendar, I will follow protocol and wish you a Happy New Year.

May the peace of God be with you.

TRADITION!?

For a variety of reasons, we gave serious thought to an artificial Christmas tree as opposed to the traditional fir that we used to cut (with permission from the landowner) and now buy from a local service club.  After some discussion and looking, we opted to stay with tradition this year, although we might look at the sales after Christmas.  When I shared with a few friends, there were two responses:  some were extolling the virtues of artificial trees and others were saying that they would miss the smell of a real tree.

At the same time, I was working on plans for Christmas Eve services.  Since I am still in my first year, I was asking some questions about what has been done and what is expected.  I discovered that I can do pretty much whatever I want, as long as:  it is short, we have everyone light a candle and we close with Silent Night.  I am actually wondering if I plan a service with the congregational candle lighting and Silent Night right after the opening prayer if that would be all I need to do.

This is a season of both the church and secular year where traditions abound.  We have to have the right kind of tree with the right decorations put on by the right people.  We need to right foods at the right times and the right presents for the right people in the right wrapping.  Changing the traditions is hard, difficult and provokes a powerful emotional response, even if the tradition is only a year or two old.

I have a marked ambivalence about traditions.  Sometimes, I see myself on a mission to root out and change every tradition I run up against.   I have my worship notes and sermon on a tablet that I use in the pulpit–no traditional paper and bulletin for me.  I sometimes use Christmas music at Easter and Easter music at Christmas.  I read and use a variety of Biblical translations, some of which I carry with me as an app on my phone.

Other times, I find myself defending and loving traditions.  I love the older hymns in worship.  I wear a suit and tie in the pulpit.  I want our traditional family meal of lasagna on Christmas Eve and turkey on Christmas Day.  And, when I am thinking about Scripture passages, they come to my mind in KJV English not the language of one of the modern translations that I champion and use.

And as I think about traditions, that is likely the way it is for most people.  Some traditions we love and some we can wait to change.  Traditions become traditions because they have a meaning that is important to us.  The meaning is often as much an emotional meaning as anything and because of that, we may have difficulty explaining why it is so important.  And because so much of the meaning is emotional, those who don’t share the tradition have great difficulty understanding why it is so important.

All of this means we need to be careful around traditions, both our own and those of others.  We can’t just throw them away because they mean nothing to us.  The tradition means something to someone and throwing it away needs to be given some thought and some preparation–and sometimes, that importance means that we simply endure what has little meaning for us for the sake of others.

I happen to like the Silent Night tradition on Christmas Eve–but if I didn’t, I would still follow it because the majority of people who come to that worship would go away unsatisfied if we didn’t use it.  And while there are times when it is good to challenge people’s traditions, there needs to be a good reason–and I have yet to find a good reason to challenge that particular tradition.  But if I ever find a reason to challenge it, I will do so–carefully and with much discussion and planning so that everyone knows why and has a part in the process.  Fortunately, I don’t see anything on the horizon that will cause that challenge to come any time soon.

The traditions of Christmas, the traditions of the church, the traditions of a family or group are all there for a reason.  There are times and purposes for changing them–but as long as the reasons still hold meaning for people, we might as well enjoy the traditions.  So, I will close my short Christmas Eve service with candles and Silent Night and go home to my lasagna, remembering to turn off my tablet when I am done.

Merry Christmas.

 

May the peace of God be with you.

ALL THINGS WORK TOGETHER

For the more Biblically literate, there is a Bible verse that occasionally pops up when confronted with the pain and struggle of suffering.  It is a verse that is true, a verse that does have some the ability to help people in their struggles but it is not a magic verse–invoking it does not automatically make everything better.  In fact, like the rest of the Bible, this verse needs to be properly understood and used wisely to be of any value.

The verse is found in Romans 8.28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (NIV).  It is a powerful verse, promising God’s active presence in all of life, even at the most painful and difficult times.  The message found here can be very positive and valuable to people, provided it is interpreted and used properly.

And so, I want to begin looking at this verse from the perspective of what it doesn’t say and what not to do with it–I have always worked on the principle that we need to know as much about what not to do as what to do.

So, while this verse makes great promises, we need to realize that it doesn’t tell us that God causes everything or that everything is good.  I mention that because I have had occasion to hear people twist the passage enough to get those meanings out of it.  The message here is meant to be applied after things happen–God doesn’t send the stuff we are worked up about–but he promises to be there and to be working to bring something good out of the process.

The passage doesn’t tell us that we will immediately see and understand the good.  I have heard some people quote the verse and then immediately begin speculating on what the good in the pain is or will be.  In the end, their far-fetched or pietistic speculation is at best boring and at worst condescending and insensitive.  God works in God’s way and in God’s time and that means that we may or may not see immediate good in any particular situation.  It may also mean that when the good God promises to bring out of the situation actually comes about, it will likely be clear and hard to argue with rather than  vague and open to interpretation.

I am not sure but it may be that the good that comes from the situation may not necessarily be a personal good for those involved.  God sometimes uses the suffering of one to bring about the good of another–Jesus’ suffering on the Cross provides a good example of that reality.  And so even though there is a promise of good coming out of the situation, it might not be a personalized good for those in the midst of the suffering.

There is also a major restriction on this verse.  While a great deal of the Bible is applicable to believer and non-believer, this particular promise is valid only for those who are followers of God through Christ.  For we who have accepted God’s love and grace in Christ, God promises that no matter what happens in our lives–good, bad or indifferent–he will be at work, using his divine power and wisdom to bring about something positive and good from the situation.  But the promise, great as it is, isn’t made to those who don’t yet follow God.

Theologically and practically, I think we are safe to say that God can and will use less than positive events in the life of a non-believer to bring about some good for them, such as their salvation.  We can also say that God doesn’t turn his back on people who haven’t yet accepted his grace when their lives are in turmoil and even more will offer them grace and help and whatever he can–but this promise in Romans is made to those of us who believe.   God promises that no matter what we deal with in life, he is there and even more, he is at work, using all his power and ability and wisdom to bring something good out of the suffering and pain we are dealing with.

For all the limitations, it is a great and wonderful promise, a valuable tool that God has gifted to his people.  But like any tool, we need to know how to use it–and that will be the focus of our next post.

May the peace of God be with you.

LIVING WITH THE UNREASONABLE

            While it is technically true that everything has a reason, knowing that really doesn’t help most people deal with what feels like the unreasonable realities of life. I am a fan of the TV show Bones, in which the chief character, Dr. Temperance Brennan, can always describe the reasonable chain of events that caused the victim to die.  She regularly offers this chain to the victim’s family in an attempt to help them deal with their loss.  Her partner and husband, Booth, then has the difficult task of getting Brennan to stop talking, sooth the family’s ruffled feathers and get the required information from the family.

People in a crisis rarely want to know reasons and generally don’t believe that knowing the reasons will make it all better.  Nor are they likely going to refocus their emotional response to the crisis to joy at hearing that things happen for a reason.  A discussion of causation and consequences probably is very valuable in a scientific experiment, a philosophy seminar or a theology book but does very little good when real people are facing real life situations with real feelings.

But it seems that we who stand on the side lines and look in on the struggles of those in the middle of things need something to say.  We want to make the people feel better–or, as is often the unstated but deeper reason, we want them to stop struggling and suffering so that we aren’t reminded of our own struggles and suffering.  And so we try to come up with some words that will cover over the suffering and make everything better.

The painful and difficult truth is that when people suffer, there are no words that will take away the suffering.  We can’t say something that will magically make it all better so that they no longer suffer and we don’t have to be reminded of our suffering. The endless platitudes and clichés and worn out phrases that we use are empty words, doing nothing but filling space and giving us some distance from the suffering.  They generally bring no comfort to the people struggling but might make us feel a bit better, giving us a false sense of accomplishment that we helped.

When people are in the midst of a crisis, they likely need and want help, although there are a few who claim to neither need nor want anything.  But the help that makes a difference comes when we are willing to acknowledge the reality of their suffering and open ourselves to discovering the best way to provide the help they need in the situation.

Because I am a Christian, I believe that the Holy Spirit will guide me in the situation, if I will listen.  As a pastor, I am called in to many difficult situations and I have learned over the years that I need to listen carefully to the people involved and to the Holy Spirit.  My listening to those two sources is greatly enhanced if I keep my mouth shut.  I used to joke with counselling students that when the mouth opens, the ears and mind are automatically shut off.  I am aware that that isn’t really true, but for many of us, that is practically true.

Rather than spend my time trying to remove the suffering with magic words, I have discovered that I need to let the suffering exist and listen to it and step into it, letting the people I am with off-load a bit of their burden on me for the time I am with them.  My presence is the biggest help I can give them–or rather, my actively listening presence is the biggest help I can give them.  As they talk and cry and rage and sputter and wonder and all the rest, I am trying to be there–not looking for some magic words to turn off the tap of their suffering but letting the suffering come out, encouraging it with my listening and my acceptance.

They may ask for reasons–but I have none.  They may ask for time to turn back–I can’t do that.  They may get really angry–I can’t stop that.  They may cry–I might not feel comfortable with that.  But as they get to freely let it all out, I am actually helping.  I think it is much better to listen and help than speak empty words and not help.

May the peace of God be with you.

EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON

I was sitting with a family after a particularly terrible set of events that everyone was struggling with.  Neighbours and friends were dropping by, some to drop off food; some to sit and cry a bit; some to stand silently in the kitchen because they didn’t know what to say or do.  A few of the visitors did make a some halting comments, mostly expressing sorrow and offering whatever support was needed.  Before too long, the expected happened–or at least what I expected would happen at some point.

One of the visitors, seeking to bring some hope into the darkness of the situation, begins to talk and utters a comment that takes many forms but can be reduced to something like, “Everything happens for a reason”.   It almost inevitable that someone will say something like this at some point in the process.  There is no rhyme or reason as to who will say it or when it will be said.  It comes from religious and non-religious alike, male and female, young and old–the only thing predictable is that someone will say it at some point.

This comment and its various siblings is somehow supposed to put the whole process in a new perspective, making everyone feel better and lightening the darkness that has settled in because of whatever trauma or tragedy.  It will be greeted with thoughtful nods from some, confused silence from others and denial from me–always mentally and occasionally, in the right circumstances, a verbal denial.

This comment in all its related versions comes from a very structured and ordered view of life.  In Christian contexts, it is called “predestination”.  Philosophers prefer to discuss it under the name “determinism”.   Whatever the term, it points to a context where everything is planned and determined long before it happens, either by God or some scientific view of causation.

And in some ways, the comment and its cognates is right–everything does have a reason behind it.  Some reasons are clear and direct–if I eat everything I want to eat and don’t exercise, I will gain weight.  Some reasons are unclear and indirect–if I end up getting cancer, there is a scientific reason but I may or may not ever discover the reason.

But often, when this comment is made, it presupposes that the reasons behind things are benevolent and positive and that understanding this can help us overcome the pain and difficulty of the situation by first of all remembering that there is a reason and then looking for the benevolent reason behind the events that will somehow enable us to understand and accept and move on.

Well, I have enough scientific understanding to accept the statement on some levels.  Everything that happens does have a reason.  But often, those reasons are neither benevolent nor malevolent, they just are.  The rules and regulations of nature simply exist and operate without judgement or long term meaning and purpose.

And that means that when stuff happens, the reasons are often impersonal, indifferent and even irrelevant to the way we deal with stuff.  When a family is mourning the loss of a member in a car accident, knowing that inflexible rules of nature meant that driving too fast on slippery roads after too much drinking made a crash almost inevitable doesn’t bring much comfort.  In fact, it can cause more hurt and pain as the impersonal nature of the actual reasons permeates the situation.

Certainly, many people in tragic situations are looking for reasons and purpose and meaning that can help them deal with whatever they are facing.  Unfortunately, reason and purpose and meaning that actually help often can’t be found.  Life can be really impersonal and tragedy really doesn’t come with a reasonable explanation that makes it all better.  There probably is a “why” when looking at life’s stuff but knowing the why probably doesn’t do what the people who love to comment on everything having a reason want it to do.

At best, it is a neutral statement that simply says something that is both obvious and somewhat worthless to say–and at its worst, it seeks to cause people to hide their real feelings and pretend that there is a reasonableness to tragedy that really doesn’t exist.  It is one of those statements that people would like to think is profound but which in the end doesn’t really do much for anyone.  There are things to say and do in tragedy that actually help–but pointing out that there are reasons for it really don’t help.

May the peace of God be with you.