CHRISTMAS VACATION

During the Advent season, the two Bible studies I lead chose to spend some time looking at Christmas, technically from the Biblical perspective but practically from any perspective we wanted. In the course of the discussion with one group, I mentioned the movie Christmas Vacation as the example of how people have unrealistic expectations of the Christmas season. Most of us had actually seen the movie—and the one who hadn’t seen it was quite happy to watch it when I loaned him my copy.

I realized a while ago that although my expectations for Christmas aren’t the same as the “hero” of the movie, I was also in possession of some seriously unrealistic Christmas expectations. I wanted the Advent process to b a deeply spiritual journey for the churches and me. Together, we would explore the wonder of the Incarnation through worship, study and conversation. We would also develop and implement ways of using the Advent/Christmas season as a means of sharing our faith with our communities.

At the same time, I would thoughtfully and carefully choose perfect presents for all the significant people I but presents for. I would participate in both secular and church Christmas events, parties and processes to the full. That tended to involve a great deal more activity when our children were home but even after they left home, there were a considerable number of events to take part in both inside and outside the church.

And then, because all this wasn’t enough, I wanted Christmas to be a time for me to both grow spiritually and get some much needed rest and relaxation so that I would be able to enter the winter church season ready to lead the church well as they continued to follow God and seek to do his will.

Obviously, there are some significant and irreconcilable conflicts build into those expectations. It is pretty much impossible to experience cultural and spiritual Advent/Christmas to the full and end the season rested and revitalized. While juggling a full church schedule and full cultural schedule is required at this time of the year, it precludes the kind and amount of time necessary for personal spiritual growth. The need to develop and write compelling and inspiring sermons, Advent Candle programs and Bible studies for the church pretty much eliminates the ability to inspire myself.

And so I tended to end the Advent/Christmas season worn out and somewhat depressed. My expectations were high and unattainable—I was almost guaranteed to fail. I would be able to accomplish some things but overall, the results were much less than I anticipated or wanted, which when combined with the physical fatigue meant I began the new year down, depressed and lacking motivation.

It took a while before I realized that the problem was my expectations. I had to admit that I couldn’t do everything the way I thought it should be done. And so I began to focus and select. There are some things that just have to be done—the churches pay me to preach, for example, and so I do need to give attention to my preaching. That might mean that I have less time and mental space to work on perfect presents—but the truth is that there are no perfect presents and the search for them could actually be cut back.

It was important for me and the church that I come out of the Advent/Christmas season ready to move into the new year of church activity somewhat rested and at least partially prepared—and that would mean that there had to be some careful selection in what I did and didn’t do over the Advent/Christmas season. It also meant recognizing that just as most people in the church pretty much stopped for a few days after Christmas, I could do the same. The sermon had to be written but nobody really needed or wanted a visit from the pastor, unless they were facing a crisis.

These days, I have fewer expectations for the Christmas season. I don’t do as much—but what I do, I have the opportunity and time and energy to do well. And I also have the space needed to rest and relax a bit before things get going after Christmas.

May the peace of God be with you.

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THE CHURCH SUPPER

While on vacation recently, we took a trip to another part of our province to see the fall colours. We have the same colours in our area but the grass is always greener somewhere else and so we thought the fall colours might be brighter there. Since we couldn’t look at trees and leaves all the time, we looked for other stuff to do while we were away. One of the things that we ended up doing was going to a church supper. I know—that seems a bit strange to travel miles and miles to attend a function pretty much like the ones we have regularly in our own churches.

But we do like church suppers and one of the real advantages of this one was that we had nothing at all to do with the supper. I didn’t have to say grace, we didn’t have to help cook and set up, we weren’t serving, we didn’t have to wash dishes. All we did was pay our money, take our meal and eat it—that was a really interesting and enjoyable experience.

The experience was more interesting because of a couple we ran into waiting for the supper to start. They too had come to see the fall colours—but they had come from much further. They live in Australia and don’t actually have fall colours where they come from so this was an interesting and exciting trip for them. Everyone was enjoying the fall colours. Even though it was rainy, drippy and cold, everyone agreed that the colours were great. The supper was great as well.

Back in the car the next day, my wife and I had a bit of a discussion about the colours. Given that I am colour blind, our discussion of the various colours we were seeing was marked by some confusion and uncertainty. I was telling her I was really enjoying the yellows that I was seeing—they seemed to me to be the brightest and most showy of the colours. She happened to like the oranges—which I really couldn’t see. Beyond the brilliant yellows, all the other colours were the usual mass of undistinguishable something or others that I couldn’t really name. And even the yellows that I liked probably weren’t really yellow—or at least that is what she suggested.

So why, you might ask, does a colour blind person make a trip to see colours that he can’t actually see? Well, it was a vacation week, I was spending time with my wife and the “yellows” were pretty. Some might suggest that I was missing most of the experience—and on some levels, I was. But I was born colour blind and so I have never actually experienced what some say I am missing—it is hard to miss what I never actually had.

Unless I am driving in an area with lots of traffic lights, I don’t actually pay all that much attention to colour. I like the colours I see and enjoy colour photography much more than black and white. But I will never see colours like “normal” people. On the other hand, “normal” people will never see things like I see them either. When I talk about colour with other people, we are often talking different languages—I can’t understand words like “purple” and “fuchsia” or even “orange”—and when I say “yellow”, I may or may not be using a concept they can understand from my perspective.

But in the end, what difference does it make? Our new Australian friends were enjoying the colours that they had never experienced before. My wife was enjoying the oranges in the leaves and lots of other colours that are just meaningless words to me. I was enjoying the drive, the company and the yellows. The church supper was great. Do I feel cheated that I didn’t get to see the full colour spectrum? Not really—I saw what I saw and I liked what I saw and since I really don’t know what I am missing, I am happy with what I saw and experienced. I know others see more but I expect that they don’t experience any more in terms of enjoyment—I can’t change what I can’t see but I can determine how I to react to what I do see.

May the peace of God be with you

MORE VACATION

One of the perks of being a pastor in our denomination is the vacation time recommendation that our head office suggests. The denomination recommends that pastors get four weeks of vacation a year. Most of the churches within our denomination follow that recommendation, which I really appreciate. Many pastors choose to take their vacation in a block. Some, according to one cynical church member I knew years ago, try to schedule their vacation for a five Sunday month to get an extra week.

That has never really worked for us. In fact, I don’t think that we have ever taken a month of vacation all at one time ever during my time in ministry. There have been a couple of times when I have been away from the church for a month or so but that was generally vacation combined with church sanctioned ministry which didn’t count as vacation. We have tended to take two or three breaks during the year, a pattern which works much better with both our personal fatigue cycles and the church year. An added bonus is that by not taking a whole month off during the slower summer months, I get the opportunity to use some of the over-time hours I accumulate during the busier seasons as extra summer time off.

While this plan has worked really well for my time in ministry, there is a drawback. The drawback is that I always seem to be telling the church that I will be away on vacation again. Nobody in the churches minds that I am taking vacation. Some, in fact, would allow me to take even more time if I wanted it. And yet there is that nagging sense of guilt when I approach the deacons or write the announcement in the bulletin or tell the church that I am off yet again for another vacation.

The only ones who ever say anything about the vacation fall into two categories. One group teases me about being away so much, asking didn’t I just have a vacation and so on. They are not being serious, we all know they are joking. The other group, who are often exactly the same people, tell me it is about time and that I need to forget about the church and have a good break.

My problem isn’t with the church—they are quite happy to give me my vacation time. No—the problem is mine. Even after 40+ years of ministry, I am still a bit uncomfortable getting paid to travel, go camping, visit family, finish woodworking projects or just sit home and do nothing related to church work. I know that I need the time—my ministry is much better after a vacation than it is just before a vacation time. The break, whether it is one week or two, is enough to clear out the accumulated fatigue, re-motivate me and allow me to get on with the ministry that I have been called to do.

And having three such breaks a year, combined with the compensatory time off during the slower seasons of ministry allows me to recharge at regular intervals, rather than trying to jam the whole rest and restoration process into one long break. But that does mean that three times a year, I have to stand in the pulpit and announce that I am going to be on vacation for a certain period of time—and deal with the nagging sense of guilt that comes with that.

It isn’t debilitating guilt. It isn’t strong enough that I resist vacations. I don’t feel guilty enough to have to do penance when I get back. There definitely isn’t enough guilt to take away from the enjoyment of being on vacation. I just feel enough guilt to make the announcement in worship uncomfortable. Once that is out of the way, I am on vacation and the guilt can get lost.

I am not going to find a way to get rid of that guilt at this point. It has been there for 40+ years so I am pretty sure that it will only go away when I retire. But that is okay because my vacation guilt and I have come to an agreement that works. I will acknowledge the guilt and having been acknowledged, the guilt will then let me enjoy my vacation.

May the peace of God be with you.

A BIBLE STUDY QUESTION

Part of my pastoral responsibility involves spending some time thinking about and praying about the church, trying to figure out where God is leading us and what he is asking of us. This isn’t exclusively my job but because I am actually paid to focus on the church, I tend to have more time to devote to the process. This process works best when I base my thinking on what I am hearing and seeing from God and the church.

So, with that in mind, come with me to the first Bible study after vacation. As I drive to the study (about 30 minutes away from my home), I am thinking about the church and its direction and its future and what I could/should be doing. I don’t have a lot of ideas since it is just after vacation but I am thinking.

I arrive and Bible study begins. As usual, I ask about their response to last Sunday’s worship, joking that for a change, I couldn’t say anything because I wasn’t there. Those who were there made some positive comments about the worship and the supply preacher and then the discussion took a different direction, something that happens regularly at our Bible study.

One of the members was obviously trying to formulate a question. Since he normally doesn’t have a lot of trouble putting his questions together, I asked him what he was working on. His commented that while the visiting speaker was great, he was wondering is maybe the next time I went away, the congregation could take responsibility for the service. He was quick to point out that this wasn’t a comment about the fill in speaker but rather a real question that he had been looking at.

The response around the table was interesting. One member of the study reacted a bit negatively—she had been responsible for doing just that in the past and didn’t really enjoy the process. Speaking in public just wasn’t her thing. But most of the others looked sort of interested.

So, as always happens with our Bible study when an interesting topic comes up, we followed it. I assured the group that there was absolutely no reason why they couldn’t lead the worship service, including the message. And, to help the person who had obviously been pushed into the preacher role unwillingly, I talked about leading worship in accordance with the gifts that God has given us. As we talked, various people got more and more excited as they began to see things that they could contribute to a worship service.

At some point in the discussion, I realized that I definitely didn’t want this to happen while I was on vacation—given the level of interest and developing excitement, if the congregation was going to lead the service, I wanted to be there, at least the first time they did it. I wanted to be able to share in and benefit from the spiritual process that was obviously going on here. I suggested we look at having the congregation arrange and lead the service sometime soon and I would be there. Before the service, I would be there to help people develop and understand their gift and contribution.

That was where we left the discussion—the congregation is going to lead worship, with various people who are gifted using their gifts. I will help out with advice and suggestions and moral support. In the next week or so, I will look at the church schedule and come up with some suggested dates for the worship.

I think we were all excited by this discussion. I may have been even more excited than the others because this question and the discussion ties into my thinking about overall direction of my ministry. This is a small congregation which may have some difficulty finding a regular preacher when the time comes that God calls me to something else. But if they discover and develop their gifts and abilities, they are not as dependent on finding someone, anyone to fill the pulpit.

I saw this question and the discussion and the plans coming out of it as part of God’s answer to my questions about ministry direction. He was not only letting me know where he was leading us but also reminding me once again that he speaks to and through the whole congregation so that together, we can find and follow his leading.

May the peace of God be with you.

SUMMER SLUMP

I have been a bit concerned these last few days about my mental state. Work has become harder and harder: after writing two sermons this week, I sat down to work on a short devotional for an upcoming nursing service and had nothing. I puttered for about an hour, writing out the order of service, finding a suitable text for the service, trying to develop an idea but nothing was coming. And to make matters worse, the solitaire game that normally helps me think picked this day to present me with essentially unwinnable games.

I coupled that with my general lethargy—I am not overly interested in doing much these days. The thought of moving from the chair is quickly banished by the realization that if I sit just a bit longer, I just might be able to fall asleep.

My thinking eventually caught up with my symptoms and I began to wonder if I had somehow slipped into a depression. Normally, I am pretty vigilant and have a pretty good idea when I am moving in that direction and as well, a pretty good idea why I am moving that way. But I don’t always catch myself and so on some levels, I was beginning to worry that I was slipping into a depression. Part of me was concerned but another part of me just wanted to click on another Youtube video that I might end up sleeping through.

The part of me that is a bit more mature did manage to keep working and I have decided that although depression is a possibility, it is more likely that I am suffering from a basic summer slump. It has been hot, humid and not overly busy these last couple of weeks. The heat and humidity keep me from doing a lot outside and the not overly busy allows me to realize that I have been pushing myself since the beginning of April. With some breathing space in my schedule, I am realizing how little breathing space I have had since then.

I also realized that part of the not wanting to do anything is a result of the fact that I have two weeks of vacation coming pretty quickly. We will attend a family reunion, have some time with two of our children and their families and I won’t have to write a sermon for two weeks. The anticipation is likely working away somewhere in my mind, suggesting that maybe since the break is coming, we might just as well start early.

So, the bottom line is that I am not depressed and am not likely getting close to a depression. I am tired, I need a vacation and the heat and humidity make it harder to get a good night’s sleep. I suspect that if I am not careful this naturally occurring summer slump could turn into a depression so I have to keep an eye on things. Managing a pre-vacation slump is much easier than managing a depression, though.

Because it is hot and humid, I am not much interested in doing a lot of physical stuff—but instead of mindlessly watching videos or TV, I have been reading some of the books I have bought with the gift cards I have accumulated. It is amazing what great stuff is available on Ebook sites at sale prices.

I make an effort to move, even when it is hot and humid. The lawn needs to be mowed, the planter with my lettuce and tomato plant need weeding and watering, the mail needs to be picked up, and the rotten board on the deck does need to be replaced. I also need to give some thought into how I am going to turn a couple of pieces of rescued birch firewood into candle holders for our Advent celebration this year, although it is a bit hard to think of Advent when it is so hot. And of course, the vacation is coming. I can deal with the stuff I need to do before that—it will get done, even the reluctant nursing home service.

Until then, I will do what I need to do, relax when I have the opportunity, enjoy the books, survive the heat and plan for the vacation. I am in an understandable slump, not a worrying depression. And now, I have to move because the lawn needs to be mowed before it gets too hot.

May the peace of God be with you.