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.