IT’S GONE

I had a conversation with a couple recently that ended with a discussion about the health of one of the family pets. It may have a serious illness and the conversation briefly touched on their worry and anxiety over what might happen and how they would deal with it. There are some who might find that conversation a bit pointless, suggesting that it is an animal, it happens, get over it.

While I am not personally an animal person, I am aware that this is a difficult and painful situation for many people. We human beings develop significant attachments with other people, animals and inanimate objects—and when those connections are threatened, damaged or broken, we are going to react. Whenever we are in danger of losing something to which we are attached, we are going to have a grief reaction.

Our reaction to losing someone or something from our lives isn’t something that we have a lot of control over. We might thing we can control it—but often the control takes the form of denial or repression. We pretend that we are not bothered by the loss. Some of us can pull off the pretence fairly well for a time but eventually, denial and repression are going to catch up with us and we will have to deal with the loss that we didn’t deal with when it happened.

I am thinking about loss a bit these days, partly because helping people deal with loss is a basic and essential part of a pastor’s job. I tell students that helping people deal with the grief connected with loss is probably the single biggest part of our jobs as pastors, especially when we remember that any loss produces some level of grief reaction.

So, when the couple mentioned their sick pet, I was professionally prepared. But I was also personally connected as well. For most of the past week and a half, I have been dealing with a loss myself. My laptop has a hard drive that is crashing. Now, before you think I am crazy or overly nerdy, remember that we get attached to things as well as people and losing the source of the attachment is going to produce a grief reaction.

I have had the laptop for six years and it has traveled across Canada with me, it has lived in Kenya with me, it connected me to the rest of the world and it allowed me to write stuff that I can actually read and understand the next day, something that my handwriting hasn’t allowed for many years.

I liked my laptop and was used to it and it was comfortable. It had its problems and scars and limitations—but it was mine and I did a lot of stuff with it. I will soon have a new laptop—the old, back up laptop from the bottom shelf of the TV cabinet is okay but it is ancient and heavy and may not last all that long. I am not looking forward to the process of setting up a new laptop with various programs and files and all the bits and pieces of my electronic life but I am sure that once I get that done, I will attach to the new laptop.

Our grief reactions are a very personal and private and subjective thing. They grow directly out of our attachment and connection with what we have lost or are losing—and we are the only ones that get to determine the level and severity of our reaction, or rather, we are the ones who have to deal with the level and severity of our reaction. The fact that I am not an animal person doesn’t mean that I can minimize the grief of someone losing a pet, any more than a conformed technology hater gets to minimize my grief over the dead laptop.

In the end, we all need to accept and recognize our losses by letting ourselves grieve as we need to. We also need to recognize the essential subjectivity of grief—a loss that we can completely ignore can and will affect others deeply. Even if we don’t agree with the level of their grief, we can provide support and compassion.

May the peace of God be with you.

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SETTING LIMITS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

 

SEARCHING FOR PERFECTION

One of the constant realities of my work as a pastor is the connections I have made with victims of childhood abuse.  As I have worked with people who have suffered physical, emotional and sexual abuse during their early years, I have become deeply aware of how painful and traumatic such abuse is.  It can and does affect an individual for the rest of their lives.  It affects the ability to form healthy relationships; it affects the ability to develop healthy self-esteem; it may even affect the ability to live a long life.

Any kind of abuse at any age is wrong and evil.  And for that reason, I am hopeful about the developing trend for abuse victims to feel able to report their abuse and name names.  As long as abusers of any kind can do their evil without fear of the consequences, abuse will flourish.  Fear of being named may not change an abuser’s basic drives but it might prevent at least some of them some from abusing some people some of the time–and while that may not seem like a great victory, it is a victory for the potential victim who doesn’t get abused.

So, my hope and prayer is that our culture continues this recent trend to empower victims of all kinds of abuse to speak out.  Evil flourishes when it is hidden in the dark–shining light in the dark corners of life is a positive and powerful force that benefits everyone.   Taking away the power that fear and concealment provide to abusers and giving it to those who need protection from abuse is an essential part of changing our world.

But I have to say that I do find one part of the developing process interesting, at least from a theological point of view.  While there are some people whose outing as abusers surprises no one, there are other situations where everyone is surprised that so and so could ever do something like that.

For a variety of reasons, we assume that certain people would never do anything bad.  They are such nice people or they play such nice people in the media or that have such a great job or wonderful family or they have lots of money or are so smart.  We assume that because they are X they could never do evil–another application of the halo effect (see my post for Nov. 24/17).

And because we assume some people are incapable of such terrible things, we have one of two reactions.  Sometimes, we simply deny the reports–they accuser has to have made them up for some evil reason of their own.  But mostly, we believe the report and end up disappointed and become even more cynical–if we can’t trust so and so, who can we trust?

Theologically, we shouldn’t actually be surprised.  We can be disappointed and hurt and upset–but not surprised.  The Christian faith–and most other faiths, for that matter–is very clear on the fact that there are no perfect people.  As Paul puts it in  Romans 3.23, “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (NIV).  All of humanity shares this fatal reality:  the best of us harbour dark and evil sides and the worst of us harbour light and good sides.

And that means that all of us are guilty of something.  Dig deep enough into someone’s life and you will find the darkness and the evil.  This is a reality well known to politicians seeking to ruin an opponent, investigative reporters looking for a big story and theologians seeking to understand the world.  We all have a dark and evil side and we all will either act on that darkness or fight it for our whole lives.

When people act out their dark and evil side, it really shouldn’t be a surprise.  It can be wrong; it can be criminal; it can be devastating; it will have consequences and it must be dealt with appropriately–but it really shouldn’t be a surprise.  It is a reality of the human condition, a reality that God recognizes and seeks to deal with through the live, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

May the peace of God be with you.