I’M RIGHT—YOU’RE WRONG

I have been a news junkie most of my life, something I am pretty sure I inherited from my father. I can sort of remember as a relatively new reader waiting somewhat impatiently for my father to finish reading the newspaper so I could have a chance at it, not just for the funny pages but for the front page and the opinion page and all the other stuff contained within the pages. I probably spend at least a couple of hours a day reading and watching news from a variety of sources.

This can be a depressing occupation—I have many friends who simply refuse to pay any attention to news in any form. All of those friends think I am a bit strange but I can live with that. What I can’t live with is not knowing what is going on in the world.

I am pretty sure that a major part of my desire to know what is going on in the world comes from the fact that I am by nature an accumulator and analyser of information, which I then use to develop theories, understand trends, project possibilities and illustrate sermons and Bible studies. I like to know and understand what is going on so that I can make projections about what is coming.

These days, my thinking as a result of the news reports I imbibe are making me nervous. There is a powerful force towards disunity, division and dissension being exhibited all over the world these days. Everyone wants their own way—and anyone or anything that stands in the way of that is wrong. And when someone or something is wrong, they can be ridiculed, put down, sidelined, disrespected, attacked physically, legislated against, demonized—I can’t think of any more words but the picture should be clear.

Our world is following a dangerous road because the less respect and appreciation we have for others and their ideas, the more we increase the potential for conflict. The less I see someone and their ideas as valid, the more likely I am to treat them as less than human. The more I see difference as a threat, the more likely I am to attack. The bigger the threat, the more serious the attack. The progression from words to civil action to legislative action to physical action is well documented and strongly in evidence all over the world.

Whether it is one politician calling into question the intelligence or nationalism of another; a person of one sexual orientation calling someone of another a pervert; a person of one race abusing a person of another race; a zealot bombing the home of an opposing zealot the pattern is clear—we are developing a new ethic that allows us to hate and disrespect and abuse those whose views and ideas are different from ours.

Except that this isn’t a new ethic. It is almost the oldest ethical approach in the book. One early version of the process has one man killing his brother because the brother got praised for his sacrifice to God. This approach to life and others has repeated itself throughout history—it seems we human beings can’t get enough of hatred, prejudice and self-centeredness. I, my, me always seeks to come out on top—we all want them to be at least subservient to us—and it would be even better if they simply didn’t exist. And history is filled with stories of people who tried to get rid of all the “thems” in their world.

There is, of course, a different way, a way also contained in the book that has the story of the brother killing his brother. That way involves embracing the other, respecting the different, seeking the common ground between we and them. Of course, there is a catch to this other way.

Before we can really follow the other way, we have to acknowledge that neither we nor they are at the centre of creation. Creation isn’t human-centric. It is God-centric. And when we begin to see that God is at the centre, we can begin to see things differently, if we are willing to submit to the God who is really at the centre of all creation. As we submit and begin to see things through God’s eyes, the differences we magnify become less and less important.

May the peace of God be with you.

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LISTEN!

I have been studying the communicating process for a long time and have read—and written—a lot of stuff trying to understand the whole complicated process. Over that time, I have learned a couple of things. The first is that with all the possible problems and impediments, it sometimes amazes me that we can communicate at all.

The second thing I have learned is that most of the time, the major disruption in the communication process comes about because of a significant lack of one vital part of the process. Stripped of all the verbiage and explanations and descriptions, communication involves three elements: a message, a sender and a receiver. Two of those elements are abundant and one is scarce.

There are tons of senders—everyone and everything had a message to send. Our world is filled with senders. We use sound and sight and touch and smell and who knows what ways to send our message. According to relatively new scientific discoveries, even plants are sending messages to other plants. Senders are not in short supply. And that means that messages are also not in short supply, which makes sense. If there are an infinite number of senders, there must be an even larger number of messages, unless each sender limits itself to one message, which is unlikely.

So we have no shortage of senders and consequently no shortage of message, which suggests that the breakdown comes with the third required element, the receivers. My experience as a pastor and counsellor and my research supports this—message receivers are in short supply.

Here is a very common pastoral counselling scenario. I am listening to someone tell me about their problems. The problems can be trivial or moderate or severe. They talk about their problem and their frustrations and their struggles. And, in a great many cases, somewhere in their message, they will make the comment that one of the problems is that nobody will listen to them. Leaving aside the reality that I am actually listening to them, I can understand their message.

People don’t like to receive messages—we don’t actually like listening. We might listen to a bit but mostly, we want people to stop sending messages so that we can continue sending our messages. We especially don’t want to hear messages that are going to inconvenience us, bother us, ask something of us, upset our comfortable world view or harm our ability to get our message out. So, we live in a culture which has a surfeit of senders, an overdose of messages and very few receivers, which probably explains why our culture also has sky high rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and other forms of social and emotional dysfunction.

When nobody listens, nobody is heard. When nobody receives, the communication process is broken. We have senders sending to emptiness and messages going nowhere. But if the sender’s message isn’t received, everyone involved suffers and the message is lost.

I wish I could say that there is a simple solution to this problem. But there really isn’t. Listening is hard work. We seem to be predisposed to sending and reluctant to receive. As a theologian, I would suggest that that is a result of our essential self-centeredness, what the Bible calls sin. We all want to be the most important being in all creation, the being whose messages are received by everyone else without our having to be bothered by receiving messages from beings who aren’t us.

Communication breaks down because we are selfish, often too selfish to stop broadcasting our message long enough to receive someone else’s message. I once read a description of conversation that suggested that a conversation consists of me thinking of what I am going to say once you stop talking.

It is possible to learn how to receive messages from others—it takes hard work, as many former students of mine will attest. But the hardest part of learning to listen is the willingness to stop being so selfish. In order to really receive a message from someone else, we need to actually focus on them, not on ourselves. Once we make that commitment, the rest is easy. But as long as we focus on ourselves, we will ignore the message, distort the message, misunderstand the message—we will not receive it.

May the peace of God be with you.

NOT ANONYMOUS!

Many of my Kenyan friends were pleased to discover that my given names come from my grandfathers—they felt that somehow my parents had known their tribal naming customs and followed them. The fact that many of them couldn’t easily pronounce any of my names didn’t take away from the fact that my names fit their customs. To solve the pronunciation problem, they gave me another name, one from their culture which fit my circumstance. Later, some of the students I taught gave me at least one nickname—I say at least one because this one they revealed to me. There may have been other names that they didn’t reveal—these were students, after all.

So, I have a name. Actually, I have several names, all of which I acknowledge and to be honest, am proud of. I appreciate the family connection coming from my given names. I also deeply appreciate the names given to me by my Kenyan friends. My names are a basic part of who I am; they mark my place in the world; they connect me with others and cultures. I would likely still be the same person with a different name but still, the names I have been given are important to me. I am careful to introduce myself with the appropriate name in the appropriate circumstance.

When I am in Kenya, for example, there isn’t all that much value in giving people my Canadian given and family names. I tend to use my Kenyan name, which, in the right circles is recognized. Most of the people in the church we work with there know me or know someone who knows me, at least as long as I use the Kenyan name. In Canada, I use some version of my given names—mind you, that doesn’t always go over well because many people find “Legassie” hard to pronounce.

I am who I am and my names are a part of who I am—and despite the increasingly anonymous culture we live in, I choose to be known by name. To be honest, I hate hiding behind anonymity. When faced with an anonymous survey, I often choose not to fill it out—and if I do fill it out, I often sign it.

When I read something that interests me, I try to discover who wrote it—I want a name to put with the thoughts—not a made up net identity but a real name. It doesn’t really matter what culture the name comes from expect that it can’t come from the internet culture. I tend to ignore stuff identified by strange letter and number combinations or timely slogans or some other way of hiding identity. If I have something to say, I am going to own it—and for me, part of owning it is to tell people who I really am. Not telling them who I really am suggests that I am not really committed to what I am saying or that what I am saying isn’t that important or, perhaps, I am a coward.

I am aware that this puts me at odds with a significant part of our culture, the part which prefers not to be known as they slash and trash and troll and generally spew vitriol and anger and disrespect all over the internet. It puts me at odds with the moral cowards who send anonymous letters to people they don’t like telling them to move or change or even die. My desire for names puts me on the opposite side of a culture that wants increasingly to be able to say and do whatever it wants without taking personal responsibility, which suggests to me that we are fast developing a culture that doesn’t want to deal with consequences.

I am probably a dinosaur because I want real names from real people. If I disagree with someone enough to speak or write it, I am going to let them know who I am. If people disagree with me enough to speak or write it, I want to know who they are. And if people don’t give me their name with their comments, I am going to ignore their comments. This, I think, it part of the personal honesty that my faith teaches. I am who I am and my name is part of who I am. If I am going to be honest, you need to know my name.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHY BOTHER?

I don’t get to attend worship as an ordinary participant very often. Generally, I get to do that while I am on vacation, unless we decide not to attend that Sunday which happens. But when I do, I notice just how far from the prevailing cultural norms I actually am. Most preachers these days were jeans and polo shirts or some other casual attire. I have noticed that most clean up and wear a suit and tie for funerals and maybe some weddings but mostly, the causal, comfortable look dominated the pulpit these days.

I happen to think that is great. It sets a tone for worship and enables both preacher and congregation to relax and enjoy the reality of God and his love and grace. Being comfortable in the presence of God is one of the prime messages of the Christian faith and the trend to casual, comfortable clothing is a visual and powerful statement of the relationship we have with God because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

But when I am leading the worship and preaching, I will be wearing one of my two dark suits and one of my small selection of ties. There are two exceptions:

• When it is really warm, I lose the suit jacket.
• When we are having a potluck, I wear the sporty pants than came with the new suit

Isn’t that just a bit hypocritical on my part, especially since I love to point out the pointlessness of wearing ties and encourage people to dress as comfortable as possible? In fact, when asked about our church’s dress code, I tell people that we have a very strict code—you have to wear clothes. But week after week, there I am, wearing my suit and tie while everyone else has jeans, shorts (in summer), sneakers and definitely, no tie.

It probably is hypocritical on some levels but on other levels, what I am wearing is perfectly congruent with what I am telling people. I encourage people to be comfortable with what they are wearing for worship. And for me, that means a suit and tie. My experience and cultural influences go way back and are deeply rooted. I grew up in the era when worship attire was the best jacket and tie you had. I spent serious time working with an independent Kenyan denomination which has a fairly formal dress code—the only leaders who don’t have to wear ties are the ones entitled to wear clerical collars.

I actually upset the leadership of the church in Kenya early in my first time there. I wasn’t wearing a tie to teach—after all, ties are anachronistic cultural hold overs that have no real purpose or meaning. When the church leaders finally got up enough courage to suggest that I wear a tie, I realized my mistake, apologized and put on a tie. Given the heat in Kenya much of the school year, they didn’t mind if I skipped the suit jacket now and then.

I just don’t feel comfortable leading worship and preaching unless I am wearing a tie and at least part of my suit—the jacket doesn’t count on warm days. It isn’t a requirement placed on me by anyone else. In fact, I might fight against any regulation that said I had to wear a tie, at least in North America. I don’t make it a requirement for anyone else—not even the occasionally student I mentor for the nearby seminary. If someone wants to come to worship in ripped jeans and well worn t-shirt, I welcome them and am not the least concerned about their costume. If they are comfortable, they can probably better enter into the reality of worship and have a better experience of the awareness of the presence of God.

And me—well, wearing my suit and tie allows me to be comfortable in the presence of God. He doesn’t require it but my personal culture and background does. I could put in the effort to align my personal preference with the freedom that I teach and preach and encourage for others—but truthfully, I am comfortable doing what I do and there is enough really serious stuff that I need to deal with in my personal life that it isn’t worth the effort to change my approach to worship wear. I am comfortable, God loves me and the people understand me. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

May the peace of God be with you.

A SCIENTIST?

I was watching a TV show recently where a couple of characters were having an argument.   One, a pastor, was telling the other, a budding scientist, that the scientists needed to believe in God.  The budding scientist said he didn’t need God because he had science.  That interchange pretty much summed up a dichotomy I see a lot of these days.  It seems that a lot of people believe that you can have faith or you can have science but you can’t have both.  Those who believe in faith and God built their fortress of faith and those who believe in science build their fortress of faith and they sit in their forts and take shots at each other.

I personally don’t really want to be in either fort.  I prefer being on the outside of both forts–not because I am against both faith and science.  No, I don’t want to be in either fort because I want to be free to make use of both or criticize both, depending on the realities of life that I deal with outside of the sacred walls of the competing fortresses.  In short, I want to be a person of deep faith and a scientist.

Well, maybe not a full-fledged scientist–that boat sailed without me mostly because of my somewhat less that spectacular math skills.  Maybe I should call myself a science wannabe or science groupie or closet nerd.  But I am also a person of faith–even more, a person whose calling and profession and desire is to help other people both discover and develop their faith.  I want it all.

I especially want both sides to stop the war. Just because I am a believer doesn’t mean  I refuse to accept global warming.  It doesn’t mean that I think the world is 6000 years old.  It doesn’t mean that I will accept any claim any faith charlatan  makes to try and part me from some of my money.  It doesn’t mean that I am vaguely afraid of technology because I see hints of Revelation style demonic conspiracy in chip technology.

Just because I am a believer, I don’t think that scientists are agents of satan.  I don’t see attempts to understand the wonder of creation at attempts to get rid of God.  I don’t see men and women in lab coats as my rivals for the hearts and minds of people. I don’t think scientists want to prove that my faith is dumb, pointless and the result of genetic anomalies in my brain.

We of faith and the scientific community have a lot we need to say to each other.  We probably need to apologize to each other for all the stupidity and pettiness and prejudice we have used against each other in the last few years.  We probably need to drink a lot more coffee and tea together to get to really know each other. (Sorry, science people–many conservative believers won’t be comfortable having a beer or glass of wine with you).  We probably need to spend a lot of time actually reading what the other is using to base their ideas on instead of basing our relationships on hearsay and innuendo and what someone thinks someone else said.

We need to accept that both people of faith and people of science are people first and actually need each other.  When I get sick, I want the best of science to treat my illness.  And when a scientist gets sick, I am pretty sure I have some faith stuff that will help that scientist deal with the realities of that illness.

As is always the case when we set up opposing sides and start fighting, we miss the point.  The war between science and faith exists in our minds, not in reality.  God is not diminished when a scientists discovers the earth is several billion years old and science is not diminished when a believer says that God created the earth.  We could both help each other a lot to sit down and really look at what we are saying and discover that we have a lot more in common that we sometimes want to admit.

I am a person of faith–but as much as my poor math skills allow, I am a person of science.  I not only like both, I need both to make my life complete.

May the peace of God be with you.

NUMBER 80 AGAIN

Being the 80th pastor in a pastorate that goes back 185 years puts an interesting perspective on ministry.  Like most pastors, early in my ministry, I tended to see what I do in a church as an isolated segment of time and space.  Most of us, I think, discount much of what happened before we arrived and aren’t overly concerned about what happens after we leave.

Very quickly, I learned that a smart pastor needs to know something about what happened before they arrived.  The present is shaped by the past and unless we know the past, we can’t work effectively.  I was pastor in one congregation which insisted that they didn’t want anything to do with evangelism.  Given that being evangelists on one of our basic tasks as believers and churches, I was somewhat surprised at this revelation.  After some digging, I discovered that the real difficulty was a certain approach to evangelism that was part of some painful experiences for the church.

Based on that historical understanding, I helped the church develop an outreach program that was actually quite beneficial to the church and community.  As long as we didn’t call it evangelism, the church was enthusiastic in their support.

As a result, I discovered that it is good for a pastor to know what happened in the past.  The past helps shape the present ministry.  Sometimes, the present ministry needs to work to correct or modify the past.  Other times, we can build on the past–rather than re-inventing the wheel by doing all the stuff that has been done before, we get to build a cart on the wheels prepared in the past.

And when you are the 80th pastor, there are a lot of things from the past.  It might be easy to dismiss anything beyond last year as ancient history but listen to people long enough and you will hear and see the effects of those long ago events.  At a Bible study recently, some of the members recalled the pain and turmoil associated with the ministry of a previous pastor, pain and turmoil that still hurts a bit after forty years.  At some levels, I have to be aware of this ancient pain in my ministry.

In another Bible Study session, someone talked about the love and compassion they experienced from a former Sunday School teacher.  Heads nodded from the others who remembered that teacher–and several were eager to tell her story to the relative new-comers in the group whose experience didn’t go back the necessary 50 years.

So, I am the 80th pastor in one place–and in the other set of congregations, I am at an even higher number although no one I know has a complete list.  But given that this other pastorate goes back to about 1780, that should put me into the low 100s, based on the 2.3 year average of the younger pastorate.  While it might make sense to say I really only need to be concerned about the former pastors up to the age of the oldest members, that isn’t really true

Occasionally, I talk to someone who passes on the family story of old Rev. So and So whose actions in relation to their long dead grandparents kept their family in or out of the church, depending on the nature of that long ago event.

My ministry in both places is built on the foundation of all these previous ministries.  Sometimes, I have to apologize for and undo some of what came before.  Sometimes, I get to renovate and update what came before.  And occasionally, I inherit a really good working thing that I don’t need to touch but which makes my ministry much better.  My ministry is also built on the foundation of all the elders, deacons, choir members, organists, Sunday School teachers, ordinary members and community members affected by what went on before.

I am the 80th in one place and well over the 80th in  another.  I have been called by God to serve these congregations for a time.  What I do will become part of the next pastor.  It makes sense to me now to be aware of the past–remembering where the church has been helps is determine what to do now to get to where God wants us to go.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE BIBLE STUDY

After being on vacation for a couple of weeks, it was time to get back to work.  The first official task was leading Bible Study.  Well, actually, the first official task was preparing the material for the Bible study that would begin at 10:00am the first day back at work.  This particular study had been shut down for the summer and my plan was that over the summer, I would use the more relaxed work time to get the new Bible study ready.

Of course, as with all plans, this one fell apart very quickly.  Early in the summer, I did some initial research and created a file on the computer with some notes, planning on getting back to it soon.  But, well, there was a week of vacation early in the summer and I needed to take some time off to compensate for the ballooning overtime hours and there was the wedding that had to be done and some meetings and some pastoral visits.  And somehow, I arrived at the first day back at work with some notes in a file on the computer.

Fortunately, I had enough time to beat the notes into some sort of shape before I left.  I arrived early, as usual–and someone was there before me, which was bit of a surprise.  Even more surprising was the fact that I didn’t know the people–they were coming to check out the Bible study from a community a few kilometers away.

Before I could get to the door, another car arrived and as I was greeting them, another car arrived–this one with a couple who were going away for a while and wanted to let me know that they were going to be away.  As I was praying with them, others arrived and before I could get the door unlocked, we had a crowd standing around.

I finally unlocked the door and we got seated, the kettle boiling and we settled down to catching up on the summer, meeting the visitors, discussing my vacation and greeting everyone as they came in, including another visitor.  Even with several of our regulars being away, we had a full house by the time we got started.

We got down to work–and even with three new people, the Bible study worked like it always has.  We talked, got off topic, looked at interesting and significant questions and comments, did some of the material I had prepared, followed side trails, raised issues, had disagreements, got confused and occasionally had no idea how we got to where we ended up.  The new people–well, instead of sitting there bewildered by our chaotic process, the three new people jumped right in acting as if they had been there from the beginning.  Their questions and comments were as thought provoking, as pertinent and as prone to taking us off course as those of any veteran of the study.

In the end, the material I had rushed together provided lots of stuff to work with.  It started discussion, answered and raised questions and covered the topic that the group has wanted to look at.  I began the study wondering if I had enough material to fill in the time–and then part way through, began to worry that I had too much material.  In the end, we finished the topic, which was meant to be a one week study to deal with a specific issue before we went on to another topic.

As I left after the study, I realized something.  I missed the Bible study–or rather, I missed the interaction with the group of people.  While I am officially the leader of the study, practically, we have evolved an approach to Bible study that allows all of us to teach and learn, question and answer, confuse and enlighten–and do it all in an atmosphere where everyone has respect and appreciation for each other.  We don’t agree on everything–and we are comfortable leaving the disagreement on the table without trying to win the point.

I am pretty sure that if I had showed up at the study and confessed that I hadn’t been able to get anything done on the study topic, we would have still had a good Bible study because the group would have taken over.  I may have to do that next week–I still have to put together the material for the next topic.

May the peace of God be with you.

BACK TO WORK

I am now back at work after a two week vacation, which I enjoyed and appreciated.  But as the vacation was winding down, I realized something.  Normally, when I am on vacation, one of the low level background activities going on in my mind concerns whatever ministry or ministries I happen to be involved in.  In the past, I have vacationed and during the down time, I have planned courses, worked on preaching plans, thought about directions for ministry and so on.  This just sort of happened and didn’t take time and energy from the vacation–I could paddle a canoe, enjoy the lake, talk to my family and still organize a preaching plan enough so that when I actually sat down at a desk, I could remember the plan.

But this vacation, I didn’t do that.  Well,  I did give some thought to a Bible Study I am leading for the local church council later this fall during one of the times my wife was sleeping during the drive to Quebec but that was it.  I didn’t do sermon planning.  I didn’t organize the self-evaluation process some of the churches will begin in a couple of weeks.  I didn’t look at what we can do to improve our community visibility and involvement.  I didn’t even work on the new Bible study that I actually needed to have done for the first day back at work.

I would like to say that this comes from a newly discovered maturity that allows me to be on vacation when I am on vacation.  We clergy have a terrible time taking time off–we all too often treat vacation time as time to get caught up and maybe even get a bit ahead.  Of course, we all know that we are not supposed to do that.  Study after study shows that stress and its related consequences are enhanced by not taking proper time off.  We clergy struggle to relax and unwind.  Partly that is the nature of our calling–our work is never really done.  As I often told students, “You can preach the best sermon ever on Sunday–but you then have to start getting ready for next Sunday.”

Another part of the inability to really relax is our personality.  Many of us in ministry are deeply committed to serving God and therefore somewhat driven.  We believe that we have been called by God to important work and breaks, vacations and relaxation somehow seem sinful so we try to appease our conscience by working even on breaks.  I remember one book on pastoral ministry telling readers that the absolute best use of vacation time was to prepare the next year’s sermon plan.

But in spite of all of that and years of practise, I didn’t do any church work while on vacation–and didn’t even think of the churches all that much.  But I am pretty sure that it wasn’t because I have finally matured and developed wisdom and positive self-care practises.  I think that in the end, I didn’t think about or do work because I didn’t want to.

I have been involved in ministry for a long time and while I still believe I have a lot more ministry to do, I am tired.  Not physically tired and not spiritually tired–and not even emotionally tired.  I think I am vocationally tired.  Ministry is demanding and complex and difficult when done well–and I think I have reached the point where I can’t really do what I used to do.

Just like my bad knees won’t let me walk for hours a day like I used to so my ministry engines are getting worn and tired and need a real break.  It doesn’t mean that I care less about the people I minister to.  It isn’t a sign that I don’t care about my preaching any more.  It doesn’t say that I  am not concerned with the self-examination process we are beginning.  What it says to me is that I don’t have the energy I used to have and I really need to take real breaks.  When I work, I work–and when I rest, I rest.

Probably if I had started actually using vacation to rest years ago, I wouldn’t be as vocationally tired now–but at least I have learned to do it now.

May the peace of God be with you.

BACK HOME

As I mentioned in previous posts, we have been on vacation, travelling in Quebec with our daughter and son-in-law.  We had a great trip–we visited some great places, saw some really exciting things, ate some great meals and had a great time together talking and laughing and sharing.  We ate too much of the wrong things generally at the wrong time; we slept in and started the day late and finished it late.  We didn’t have internet most of the time and generally didn’t miss it.  In short, it was a great vacation.

But as we were on the final section of the drive home, the urge to drive faster and faster became stronger and stronger–fortunately, my wife, who likes cruise control, was driving at that point and therefore able to resist the urge to speed up.  When we pulled in the driveway, we were both glad to be home, even if it meant engaging in the tedious process of unpacking, putting away and picking up pieces.  We were glad to be home.

So, we were glad to be away and glad to be home.  I think it is interesting that most of us have similar reactions to vacations and being away.  Unless the reason for being away is painful or forced, we tend to like the change and distraction and difference–at least for a while.  But there seems to be a somewhat hard to define limit to the change and distraction and difference.  We need a certain amount of time–but if we have even one day longer, the whole thing changes character and becomes less exciting and less interesting and maybe even irritating.

The real difficulty, at least for me, is figuring out the optimal time for being away.  On the whole, I like where we live, I like my work, I like my surroundings.  I like my routine–schedules have a way of helping me find peace and stability.  I need breaks and trips away now and then, but they need to be breaks and not the norm.  And they need to be the right length–to short and I don’t get the break and too long begins to undercut the benefits of being away.

One of the benefits of self-knowledge is the ability to understand our own needs and take them into consideration as we deal with the details of our lives.  I have never been a great fan of the whole extreme self-denial and even self-abuse school of Christianity.  Living on 2 hours of sleep accompanied by bread and water once a week might look good in the biography of some saint or other but as a real life style, it doesn’t do much for anyone.

Knowing who I am and what works for me and allowing myself to take my needs and desires into consideration allows me to be better at being me and at doing what I need to do.  Knowing that I need several vacation periods during the year in order to be effective in my work is important.  If I try to keep going beyond my limits, denying the basic realities of who I am, I end up tired, grumpy, frustrated and increasingly ineffective in my ministry.  Extreme self-denial doesn’t make me more spiritual–in fact, it does just the opposite.

Certainly, some self-denial is good for me.  While I like chocolate, a diet of chocolate isn’t going to do me much good in the long run.  I really like coffee–but too much of that great stuff  ends up creating all sorts of problems for me.  I also enjoy eating–but too much eating tends to make my clothes tight and stretches my belt.

The issue seems to me to be finding the balance between healthy indulgence and healthy denial.  Our just completed vacation worked because it was the perfect length and the perfect amount of self-indulgence.  But now, we are back home and I can eat less, sleep properly and even exercise regularly–and even more, I am ready to get back to work with a renewed and rested spirit.  While I didn’t do anything in the way of work while I was away, I am ready to get back to it, with all sorts of idea and plans and energy.

May the peace of God be with you.

NOTHING TO SAY

During one of our times working in Kenya, I was team teaching a course for potential teachers.  Both the mission agency we worked for and the church we were working with recognized the need to develop qualified local teachers for the pastoral training school.  So, a group of pastors and other church workers were identified as possibilities and were brought together for the course.

Since the whole purpose of the course was to identify potential teachers, all the participants had to do some very practical assignments:  develop a course outline, organize a lecture schedule and teach at least one session from their prepared course.  It was during one of the practise teaching sessions that I saw another side of one of my Kenyan friends and got a perfect story for aspiring preachers and teachers all over the world.

My friend was a senior, well respected and capable church leader–but he always appeared to me to be a bit on the stiff side.  While I had seen him laugh and joke, that was only in small private groups.  In public, he was serious, sober and to a lot a people, a bit intimidating.  But during one of the practise teaching sessions, his other side came out.

The student who was practise teaching was well meaning, capable, and eventually became a very good teacher but that particular day, his anxiety or lack or caffeine or some combination of factors caused him to attempt to deliver one of the most boring and pointless teaching sessions of the whole course.  As he droned on, I was getting more and more disappointed–I had taught this student before and had been impressed by his abilities.  I was sure that he would be good but this day, he succeeded in putting at least half the class to sleep.

Except for my friend, who decided that enough was enough.  He began coughing–at first, it was a barely noticeable cough, as would be fitting in a real class.  But it began to escalate to the point where he was shaking his seat, waking up the students around him and eventually falling on the floor, causing the rest of the students and the instructors to scurry around trying to help:  getting water, opening the classroom door for fresh air, helping his sit up right.  Soon, everyone as involved, except for the student teacher, who kept right on with his lesson plan, even when it was clear that no one, not even the instructors, was listening.

My friend was fine–he was faking the coughing fit to make a point.  The point was that this student teacher wasn’t paying any attention to the class, making his efforts to teach worthless.  He wasn’t teaching a class–he was talking for the sake of talking.  The student teacher had absolutely nothing to say to the class but was determined to say it anyway.

I wonder how many sincere and searching believers have sat through the same thing Sunday after Sunday.  They gather to hear a word from the Lord, some comfort or direction from God and get nothing but pointless words from a preacher who has no connection with them or their lives.  Instead of creating a deeper relationship with God and a better grasp of their faith, the emptiness of the words becomes an irritating and pointless noise, good only as background for a nap or a good daydream.

Good teachers and good preachers must have a deep respect and love for their listeners.  That respect and love is necessary because it pushes us to discover what these respected and loved people are looking for and what the God who also loves and respects them has to say for them.  We who teach and preach stand between the people and God and in the exercise of our gifts, we seek to open them to God and interpret God’s love and grace to them.  Without a firm connection to both God and the people we are called to teach, we are wasting the people’s time, our time and God’s time.

In the end, if we feel that the message can be delivered to anyone at anytime and they have to listen, we are doing exactly what the student preacher did.  We are called to deliver specific messages from God to specific people at specific times–and if we aren’t doing that, maybe someone in the audience will fake a coughing fit to show us the error of our ways.

May the peace of God be with you.