FACTS AND FIGURES

I like facts, things that can be proven with clear and understandable rationale.  When someone makes a claim, I want to see their facts.  I am not content with “Someone said…” or “I heard…”–I want verifiable facts that I can examine and study and compare with other facts and figures.  One study or one report really isn’t enough for me.

As a result, I tend to be a bit of a skeptic when it comes to a lot of the claims people make.  The latest miracle cold remedy?  Let me see the results of several double-blind studies conducted by reputable scientists and I might consider taking it.  Otherwise, I am going to rely on cough drops and warn ginger ale.  I don’t actually have studies on those but they both help me.

In many area of my life, this desire for facts and figures and verifiable studies helps me a lot.  I am not likely to take questionable medication just because someone publishes a glowing testimony.  I am not inclined to participate in a get rich quick scheme pushed by the latest charismatic financial guru.  I probably won’t buy the latest device to reduce gas consumption that has been suppressed by gas companies for years.

On the other hand, I am going to take the cholesterol lowering medication that my doctor prescribed–I have seen the studies, I know my numbers and the promised effects make scientific sense.  I am still going to get my numbers checked regularly and watch for the side effects.  I also eat a lot of fiber, since that also shows good numbers in a variety of good studies.

But there is one area of my life where this desire and love of verifiable facts and figures tends to get me in trouble.  I am a Christian and in fact have spent my working life working for and with Christians–and I have always been amazed by how few Christians share my love of facts, figures, studies and verifiable information.

One story stands out.  We were sharing in a Bible study many years ago and the talk turned to miracles.  One lady was excited to tell of a miracle she knew about.  A friend of hers was talking to someone else whose cousin’s former school classmate read of a miracle that happened to a friend of the writers’ ex-boyfriend’s pen pal.  As far as she was concerned, this was just one more example of how God still does miracles.

As she was talking, I was struggling.  As the story got  more and more involved and as the layers of distant relationships got deeper and deeper, I knew there would be a problem.  If I let it stand, my facts and figures side would gripe and complain and whine.  But if I questioned the truth of this miracle, I would be guilty of questioning the Holy Spirit, maybe even showing once again that I didn’t really have faith in God.

Well, I questioned–I mostly can’t help that.  And, according to the lady, if I can’t believe such a clear report of miracles, maybe I need to re-examine my faith. Now, I didn’t and don’t actually deny that God does miracles–I just like my miracles to be clear miracles, things that can be verified.

But the longer I am part of the faith, the more I realize that too many people think faith needs to be divorced from reality.  Any claim that a person makes needs to be treated as the gospel truth.  People like me who ask questions about the claims are mostly seen as unfaithful deniers of the truth.

But in the end, I have to be true to who I am.  And fortunately for me, God endorses my approach.  Jesus said in Matthew 7.15, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” (NIV).  The apostle John says in I John 4.1, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”  (NIV)

So, I am not going to immediately take a cold medicine because someone says it works.  I am not going to rush to invest my money because someone says they can give 300% returns.  And I am not going to blindly accept a report of God working. I am going to test them all before I commit to something I will regret or which will damage my faith.

May the peace of God be with you.

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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.

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.

YESTERDAY

Recently, I was at a large meeting where I ran into a lot of people I hadn’t seen in a long time.  Some of them I likely hadn’t seen since I last attended this annual meeting a couple of  years ago.  I had a variety of responses to the people I connected with.

Some of them were people I was relatively close to but because of time, distance, work and whatever else, we don’t manage to connect much.  These encounters were long as we caught up, shared our lives and re-connected.  Sometimes, we talked in the corridors when we should be at a meeting; sometimes, we shared a meal or a coffee break; sometimes, we made arrangements to get together at another time–but each of these meetings was important and valuable and part of the reason why I drag my introverted self to such meetings.

Some of the people I met were acquaintances, people I knew from some context and am friends with but we have never had the time or opportunity to really develop beyond the “how are you” stage.  We greet each other, exchange a few words and carry on.  There is always the possibility that such a meeting might spark a deeper conversation but often, we greet and carry on.

And then there are the people I know and have had significant contact with–but the contact has tended to be negative and painful.  These people, well, I confess that knowing some of them will likely be at the meeting prompts me to keep my eyes open in a defensive scan at all times so that I can avoid awkward and uncomfortable encounters.  When I have no choice, I try to be polite but tend to be polite in the context of keeping moving as if the coming meeting is the most vital thing in my life instead another long, dreary and somewhat boring business meeting.

I realize that a great deal of who I an and what I do now is a result of the relationships I have developed in the past.  Like everyone else beyond 2 minutes old, my life has been shaped to a large degree by the people in my life.  Certainly there are other factors that help determine who I am–my introversion, colour-blindness and left-handedness have also had a part in shaping who and what I am and I arrived with those already hardwired in place.

But the basic hardware that I was born with is combined with the myriad of experiences and people I have encountered in my life.  My past deeply affects my present, to the point that I can and do plan my route through a meeting venue partly on the anticipation of who I might meet and how I can maximize the positive contacts and minimize the negative ones.  I might actually live in the present but the present is shaped and affected by the past.

I can’t ignore my past–nor would it be healthy to ignore it.  It is much healthier to acknowledge the past and seek to understand its affect on my life.  I can celebrate the positive influences and try to arrange the present so that I can enjoy and enhance those.  I can accept and seek to learn what I need to learn from the negative influences and seek to grow through them.  And I can understand and appreciate how the nature of the influence can change from negative to positive or positive to negative as time passes and my understanding grows.

For me, it is important to remember that my past is important.  It has been a significant factor in shaping who I am now.  I can’t ignore it and shouldn’t minimize it.  The events of the past, the people of the past, the interactions of people and events are realities in my life, realities that I need to remember and seek to understand so that I can make clear and better choices today.

When I walk down a corridor to a meeting, I think it is important to realize that I am taking to left hand corridor more because people I don’t want to encounter will likely be in the right hand corridor than any other reason.  If I understand why I make the choices I make and have dealt with the stuff I need to deal with, I can make better decisions here and now.

Yesterday may have come and gone but it has left its mark on me–and the more I understand and accept those marks, the better I deal with today.

May the peace of God be with you.

CHANGING QUESTIONS

Recently, I have been reflecting on a series of related but changing questions that I have been regularly asked during my life.  The first one I remember in the series came very early, as people around asked me “What do you want to do when you grow up?”  The idea behind the question was that people needed to pick their life occupation and prepare to spend the next 40 years or so doing whatever they picked.  I don’t really know if people ask that question as much–given the cultural reality that most people these days will have several different occupations in life, we should probably be asking people what they are going to start with.

Anyway, the next question came after I had finished university and was actually involved in ministry.  The common question I would get was, “Where are you now?”, especially if I was in a context where I wasn’t wearing a  name badge giving my occupation and location.  I was involved in ministry and although I didn’t  move around as much as some people in ministry, I tended to make some large moves, involving extended periods of time in Kenya.

Since I tended to stay in pastorates for a long period of time, some people began asking me a different question:  “Are you still there?”.  Sometimes, the question was asked from genuine curiosity and other times, well, I am pretty sure that were subtly asking what was wrong with me since I appeared to have very little interest in climbing the ecclesiastical success ladder.  I have to confess that with some of those people I took some secret delight in subtly slipping in the fact that I was also an adjunct professor at our seminary or was involved in several denominational projects or was just back from a short-term trip teaching in Kenya.  I know–I was bragging but that question did tire me sometimes.

I have noticed that I am being asked a different question these days.  I have reached the stage where people want to know “When are you planning on retiring?”.  People in the churches I serve aren’t asking that question–they simply tell me I can’t retire.  But people I have known for a while and haven’t seen recently seem to want to know the answer to that question.  My answer tends to be non-committal.  I plan on retiring someday but right now, I am not sure when.  A few people don’t like that answer, especially when their subsequent (somewhat invasive) questions lead them to discover that financially and chronologically, I can retire anytime.

A few people who know me well find the answer confusing for another reason.  Although I have been involved in pastoral ministry for most of my working life, I have never really liked pastoral ministry. I think I bring some skills and abilities and gifts to ministry that congregations appreciate and which help individuals and congregations and I get a fair amount of gratification from using these gifts and helping people, but pastoral ministry itself really isn’t a joy-filled, deeply gratifying part of my life.  It is challenging, it can be interesting, it is demanding, it has significant rewards but for me, the real joy and deep gratification has always come from teaching, something which has ultimately been a minor part of my overall ministry.

So here I am–at a stage of my life when I could be retired and I am still at work, still involved in the kind of ministry that I have done most of my working life.  It is a ministry that is important and valuable and which makes a difference to people, but a ministry which has likely done a lot more for other people than it has done for me.  And yet, I am committed to what I am doing for a while–I don’t know how much longer but am pretty sure that it is measured in years not months, although there times when I would like it to be days.

So, that brings me to another question, one that no one has actually asked me but which I needed to ask myself.  And that question is, “Why are you still doing what you are doing?”

But since the answer to that question is going to require some serious staring at the trees and marsh outside the living room window (and ignoring the lawn and wires), I will postpone the answer until the next post.

May the peace of God be with you.

THINKING, FEELING AND BELIEVING

            Right now, I have been doing quite well when it comes to depression.  While I have experienced some bouts of tiredness that result from overwork, they have not transmuted into depression.  So it is a good time to look at my depression and think about something that I realized a while ago that has been a very important factor in how I deal with depression.

When I am depressed, I feel miserable.  I am an introvert so I am not overly social but when I get depressed, it is worse.  I feel tired all the time.  I have a dark and negative view of life–nothing will work out.  At the same time, my thinking gets distorted.  I no longer want to write or work or lead Bible study–all of it becomes a job and half, a job and a half I would rather not have.

When I am depressed, I feel depressed.  Very early in the process, I recognize what it happening and know I am depressed–my thinking tells me I am depressed.  Because I am oriented towards thinking, I can probably figure out why I am depressed, it I can muster up enough energy and initiative to do it.  When I am depressed, I feel depressed, my thinking is depressed and I can follow the thinking-feeling process around and around in circles.  I feel depressed, I think I am depressed and both my thinking and feeling conspire to keep me there.

But I made a discovery many years ago.  I have feelings and I am a thinking person–but I am also a person of faith.  And that faith has a deep and powerful effect on both my thinking and feeling.  It has a powerful effect no matter what–but when I actively and consciously involve my faith in the depression, it has an even more powerful effect.

It all came into focus during one spell of depression.  For most people suicidal thoughts are part of the depression  process at some point.  But in a flash of divine insight, I realized that I generally didn’t give suicide much thought during my depression.  It was there but I never really looked at it as a serious option.  That insight was startling enough that even in my depression, I had to think about it.

Now, the process was slower and more difficult because of the depression but I eventually realized that deep down, underneath the depression, beyond the thinking, there was a powerful core of faith–I might feel depressed, I might be thinking depression but I still believed that God was there and that his love and grace were carrying me and that faith was more important and significant in my life than either the depression or the disordered thought process.

I believe–and that belief creates a solid and secure foundation for everything else in my life.  Because I believe, I have hope–and the best and most effective antidote for depression is hope.  The hope my faith produces isn’t dependent on what I am thinking or feeling, it isn’t dependent on what is happening or not happening in my life, it isn’t lessened by my depression.  It is just there, forming the core of my being.

So, I get depressed–but because I believe, I am depressed in the presence and power of God and no matter how far down I get, that faith is going to be there.  And because it is there, I know that the depression isn’t the end nor the be all of my life–there is more because of God.

And once I re-discover that core of faith, God can and does work within me to give me whatever I need to overcome the depression.  And that is true whether the causes of the depression change or not.

As I write this, I am aware that it sounds like I am playing games in my mind or denying what is really going on.  And I may be doing some of that sometimes–but the bottom line for me is that I am a person of faith and so I do believe that God is present and willing to help.  And so I call upon that faith to help me when my thinking and feeling get distorted by depression or something else.  And really, if that isn’t a valid expression of faith, what it the point of having faith in the first place?

May the peace of God be with you.

THINKING WITH FEELING

On the thinking-feeling spectrum, I tend to be a bit more on the thinking side, although I do work hard at recognizing and taking my feelings into account in my thinking process.  But for me, the process of thinking things through and having a plan and understanding is important.  I do find it difficult then, to understand people whose lives are more controlled by their feelings.  Although I grew up in the era when the mantra “If it feels good, do it” was being developed and followed, it didn’t have a lot of appeal to me.

I have also had to deal with the strong feeling orientation that some people bring to faith.  I have worked with people who have jumped from church to church as they looked for a worship service or fellowship time or Bible study that made them feel good.  I have watched people seek experiences that enable them to feel the presence of God.  I have listened to them tell me that they can’t do something because they don’t feel it–or can do it because they feel it.  I even had one member of a youth group tell me that she didn’t have to love another person because she didn’t feel it right then.

Now, I do believe our feelings are important.  As a pastor and counsellor, I work hard at helping people understand, own and deal with their feelings.  As a worship leader, I seek to include elements of the worship that will help people feel the worship–the choice of music, the flow of the service, the approach to the sermon topic–I use it all to help people have an appropriate emotional response to worship.

So I don’t approach the issue of feelings as a super-rational, emotionally detached individual.  But just as I think that thinking without taking our feelings into account is a problem, so I also think that feeling without thinking is a problem.

Take worship music, for example.  Are the feelings I have during the worship music being produced by a heightened awareness of the presence of God?  Or they being produced by the  use of certain tones, rhythms, and contexts which can produce certain emotional responses, according to a variety of reputable studies?  When  I worship, I want to know where the feelings come from because I want a real sense of the presence of God that will contribute to my spiritual development, not just a situational jolt produced because the music person happens to hit the right notes at the right time in the right order.

I suppose that causes some people to suggest that I think too much.  The obvious response is that they probably don’t think enough–but that would be an invitation to one of those pointless debates where people are saying a lot but not hearing each other because they are speaking different languages.  So rather than talk about thinking vs feeling, I would rather look at balance.

I like feeling good–and don’t particularly like feeling bad.  Given a free choice between watching a movie with lots of good car chases (a feel good event for me) or reading a very poorly written student paper on some obscure theological topic that doesn’t make a bit of difference to anyone (a definite downer for me), I would always prefer the movie.  But at various times and places, I have given up the movie for the student paper.  It might not feel good, but my thinking process tells me that reading the student paper is my responsibility, no matter how much of a downer it is.

My thinking process might alleviate some of the bad feeling by letting me realize that if I get right at the paper and work hard at it, I will still have time to watch the movie.  I might have the bad feelings of the paper but up ahead is the good feeling that comes from watching a good car chase while eating chips.  While my thinking is dominant, I am still aware of my feelings and am thinking of a way that allows me to feel good and accomplish more than just a passing feeling.

Our feelings are important and valid–but so is taking the time to think about them and understand them.

May the peace of God be with you.