The Pastoral Work of Nay-Saying

One of the weaknesses of our human nature appears to be that we are attracted to easy answers. We want reality to be simple. We want a universe where good deeds are clearly and quickly rewarded, and bad deeds are promptly and obviously punished. We want a life in which the way forward is always clear, and where there’s always a simple solution to every difficulty. We want a world where morality is always reassuringly black and white. We want to be able to avoid the terrifying feeling that we are tiny, helpless beings set in the midst of a dangerous world that seems callously indifferent to our existence.

But the truth is that the world is not simple. The real world, the world we actually live in, is a place where good people die of cancer at a young age, leaving families who spend years processing the pain of their loss. It’s a world where children are kidnapped and forced to become child soldiers or sex slaves. It’s a world where people brought up by good parents in good homes find themselves saddled with mental illnesses that make their lives a constant struggle. It’s a world where a tiny little virus that very few people saw coming can end the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and disrupt the lives of millions more.

One of Eugene Peterson’s most brilliant books for pastors is called ‘Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work’ (the ‘five smooth stones’ title is an allusion to the story of David and Goliath, where David takes his sling and selects ‘five smooth stones’ from the brook to kill the giant). In it, Peterson looks at five lesser-known Old Testament books and explores their relevance for the pastoral task. They are the books of ‘Song of Songs’, ‘Ruth’, ‘Lamentations’, ‘Ecclesiastes’. and ‘Esther’. Possibly my favourite chapter is the one on Ecclesiastes; he calls it ‘The Pastoral Work of Nay-Saying’.

Yes, nay-saying can be a pastoral task. The quest for easy answers does real damage to people’s souls and people’s relationships, and it can be a legitimate pastoral task to point this out to people. Kate Bowler, grappling with a diagnosis of terminal cancer while in her thirties, writes about this in her brilliant book ‘Everything Happens for a Reason’ and Other Lies I’ve Loved. ‘Everything happens for reason’ is a cliche people use to protect themselves from the feeling that their lives are spiralling out of control. Well-meaning people think they are bringing comfort to others when they use it, but in fact, they rarely are. When you’re on the receiving end of that particular pat answer, it feels as if your pain is being trivialized or dismissed. The person who tells me “Everything happens for a reason” is not taking my suffering seriously. They find it too hard to just listen to what I have to say, without trying to give me solutions to my problem.

If your prayer life is shaped by the psalms, you know that reality is far from simple. The writers of the psalms love the image of God as ‘a rock of refuge in times of trouble’. In other words, when it seems as if life is a deadly quicksand, they have discovered that the presence of God can be a solid rock, a secure place to stand. But at the same time, they are well aware that God often seems to be absent, or asleep. They complain about how long he’s taking to show up and change things. They ask what they’ve done to deserve what they’re getting. They agonize over the prosperity of the wicked and the sufferings of the innocent.

It seems to me that to live as an adult in this world is to acknowledge both these truths: ‘Life is hard and complex’ and ‘God is my rock’. This has certainly been my experience in the present pandemic. On the one hand, in the past few weeks I’ve experienced the physical symptoms of stress in ways more severe than ever before. On the other hand, I can’t remember a period in my life when I’ve been more aware of the presence of God, especially in our shared times of Morning Prayer and Night Prayer on Facebook Live.

So yes, I believe in the ‘pastoral work of nay-saying’, and in the next few weeks I want to do a bit of nay-saying on this blog. I want to look at some of these easy answers, these ‘lies we’ve loved’, to use Kate Bowler’s phrase, and explore why, in the long run, they really aren’t very helpful. I haven’t yet decided which of these pat answers to consider first. Will it be ‘everything happens for a reason?’ Or ‘God is in control’? Or ‘God won’t send you more than you can cope with?’ Or ‘God is good, all the time’? Or ‘now I am happy all the day?’ I’m not sure yet. Stay tuned!

Ban that phrase…

I’ve been doing a bit of exploring on Joe’s blog Felix Hominum, which still exists, although it’s been a long time since anything was written on it.

On Thursday I referred to Joe’s last post. Here is one of his first posts, written in 2004.

Just a quick note to let you know that the phrase “God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle”  should be banned for all time from every conversation.  It is a favorite response when you run across someone who is facing an unexpected (or anticipated) difficulty or crisis of some sort.

I first came across this phrase in great quantity a few years ago.  During the time we were expecting Sarah Joy, and during the time immediately after her birth, well-meaning folks who discovered she had a serious heart defect and also has Down Syndrome used this phrase over and over again to try to be “pastoral”.

The intentions I am sure were good, but the phrase is less than helpful.

Read the rest here. Again, please do.

Let’s Listen

This week we had Bell’s ‘Let’s Talk’ day. I’m not sure how long this has been going on, but a lot of people are taking part in it on social media. The basic idea is to break the stigma about mental illness and mental health by talking about our struggles. This, I’m sure, is a good thing. Most people don’t have a problem talking about broken bones and heart disease; why shouldn’t we feel just as free to talk about anxiety and depression? And so this week I’ve seen many brave people opening up on social media about their struggles with mental health, hoping to encourage those who are still suffering in silence to find a friend they trust and talk about their issues.

But there’s a corollary, of course, and I’m not so sure we’re as good at it as we should be. If we’re going to encourage people to talk, we also need to be good listeners. And listening isn’t something a lot of people are good at. It’s not always something I’m good at.

Sometimes I’m too distracted to listen carefully. I’m sure you know the sort of situation I’m talking about. I come home from church, and some of the conversations I had during the coffee hour are replaying in my mind, and I suddenly realize that someone said something that might be really significant—and I didn’t pick up on it. I was distracted (and probably tired), and I wasn’t paying attention.

Sometimes I’m not willing to take the time to really listen. I’ve got a hundred things to do, and only limited time for this conversation. So I listen just long enough to delude myself into thinking I’ve got a good grasp of the issue, and then I start firing off well-meaning advice. But I haven’t really understood the full complexity of the situation the other person is describing for me, and so my advice is not helpful.

And anyway, chances are good that the other person wasn’t really looking for advice. Often, people aren’t. They’re looking for assurance that they’re not alone. They get that assurance when we really listen to them and don’t try to minimize or dismiss their struggles, and when we show by our answers that we understand and empathize with them, and assure them that the way they feel is valid. But if we’re too quick to answer, they don’t get that assurance.

Sometimes I find it hard to deal with the darkness people are struggling with. I want to fix it. I need to be able to fix it, so that I can keep my confidence that the world is a place where everything can be healed and set right. So I offer what I think in my arrogance is a very good solution, and, not wanting to upset me, the other person pretends to be grateful. But inside, they’re feeling disappointment and loneliness, because they know I haven’t really understood.

I need to learn to be a better listener. The letter of James in the New Testament says, ‘Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.‘ (James 1.19 NLT) Usually, when I consider this verse, I skip to the last phrase: ‘slow to get angry.’ But I need to pay attention to the first part too: ‘quick to listen, slow to speak…’ Those velocity descriptors are important: ‘Quick to listen, slow to speak…’ I need way more practice with those two.

So yes, ‘Let’s Talk’ is a good thing. But in order to be really effective, it needs to be coupled with ‘Let’s Listen.’ God help us all to learn to be better listeners.

P.S. This fuzzy picture is Ken Burningham and me, back in the 1990s. As I said yesterday on Facebook, Ken was a real mentor to me in my early days of ministry in Saskatchewan. He was also the best and most intentional listener I’ve ever known. When I know I need to learn to be a better listener, I think of Ken.

Tim & Ken

I’m not OK—you’re not OK—and that’s okay

I’m dating myself here, I know, but back in the late 1970s when I began my ministry, I’m OK, You’re OK was still a very popular self-help book. Based on the psychology of Transactional Analysis, it outlined several different approaches people take in their relationships with each other. “I’m OK—you’re not OK”, “I’m not OK—you’re OK”, “I’m not OK—you’re not OK”, and finally (you’ve guessed that this is the one the book recommended!), “I’m OK—you’re OK.”

I was discussing Transactional Analysis one day with a good friend of mine and he made what I thought was a very wise comment. He said, “The problem is that they missed out the best option: ‘I’m not OK—you’re not okay—and that’s OK.'” I have never forgotten that. To me, it was a profound statement of the Christian experience of grace, which is that God loves us with a fierce and stubborn love that absolutely refuses to let us go. We all fall short of what we ought to be ‘through ignorance, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault’, but God is patient with us, refusing to abandon us. And God calls us to the same love for each other. Hence, ‘I’m not OK—you’re not okay—and that’s OK.’

I’ve been thinking about this lately in connection with a statement I read in Brené Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection: ‘Everyone is basically doing the best they can.’ I love that statement. It’s encouraging us to be gentle with each other. We all have complicated stories, and they’ve shaped us into the people we are today. None of us has a perfect story, so none of us is a perfect person. Knowing that about ourselves, and hoping others will be gentle with us, we ought to be gentle with them too.

But is it really true that everyone is basically doing the best they can? To answer that question I need only look into my own heart. No, I don’t always do the best I can. Sometimes I choose not to, because I’m getting older now and I have to be aware of my energy levels. Sometimes I choose not to, because I’m selfish and lazy, and my natural inclination is to aim for a pass mark rather than the best mark I could achieve. Am I proud of that? Of course not. Is it reality? Absolutely.

I remember a conversation with my friend Steve London about this subject. We’re both lovers of the Anabaptist movement, which has a high vision for Christian discipleship. It emphasizes how each of us is called to put the teaching and example of Jesus into practice in our daily lives, including the tough stuff like loving your enemies, living a simple life, caring for the poor and marginalized, telling the truth, and seeking first the Kingdom of God.

But Steve and I both realize that we fall far short of that, and we’re also lovers of Brennan Manning’s book The Ragamuffin Gospel, which basically takes the view that all of us fall short, and without God’s grace we’d be sunk. I know this is true too. Yes, we should all be trying harder, but at the end of the day it so often feels as if it’s two steps forward and one step back—or sometimes one step forward and two steps back. But God’s mercy and grace is the safety net, and when I fall, it’s there to catch me. Or rather, he’s there to catch me.

So we have what appear to be two contradictory visions of what it means to be a Christian. There’s the discipleship vision, which calls us to press on as followers of Jesus, working hard to put his teaching into practice in our daily lives, so that we’re transformed into his likeness. And there’s the ragamuffin vision, which basically seems to say that we’re ragamuffins today, we always will be, and so will everyone else, so we’d be wise not to be too hard on ourselves or other people.

How do we reconcile these two visions? Are they totally contradictory?

It occurred to me a while back that they’re really not.

The ragamuffin vision is profoundly true. I am not OK. I try to be, but I fall short. There’s never a day when I don’t need to pray the prayer, “I have not loved you, God, with my whole heart, and I have not loved my neighbour as myself. Please forgive me.” And I can pray that prayer with confidence, because God is a God of indestructible grace, patient and gentle, ‘slow to anger and abounding in love’.

But where does the discipleship vision come in? Well, it seems to me that, when it comes to putting the teaching of Jesus into practice, some of the toughest parts of it are about forgiving one another and being patient with one another. In other words, the ragamuffin vision assures us that God loves us in the midst of our failures. And the discipleship vision challenges us to love other ragamuffins in the same way we’ve been loved—in the midst of our ragamuffin-ness.

And at the end of the day this is what matters. Business leaders may exhort me to ‘be my best self’, but I really don’t think my best self has anything to do with metrics and sales figures. My best self is to do with love, patience, gentleness, compassion, kindness, and generosity. It’s about forgiving others and refusing to give up on them. And the Christian gospel tells me I can do these things with the help of the God who refuses to give up on me.

One of my favourite Bible passages goes like this:

‘Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.’ (Ephesians 4.31-32, New Living Translation).

I think this gets right to the heart of the matter. God help us to live by it, for our own comfort and the comfort of others.

A few thoughts on clergy self-care (mainly directed to myself!)

A couple of things have happened in the last few weeks have made me think about self-care, and why we clergy are often not very good at it.

First, I had the opportunity on January 5th to sit in the congregation at St. Margaret’s while my honorary assistant, Susan, led the service. This is something I haven’t done before. I was on holiday, and usually when I’m on holiday I don’t go to church at St. Margaret’s, because try as they might, people find it difficult not to treat me as the rector. Or at least, in my mind, they find it difficult.

Turns out I was mostly wrong about that. Mainly, they were very good about it. It was my Mum’s last day with us (she was flying home to England mid-afternoon), and some of our kids came to St. Margaret’s, too, so we took up a whole row in the church. Susan did an excellent job of leading the service and preaching; she’s highly competent, as well as being relaxed and natural, and it was a wonderful experience to receive communion at someone else’s hands, rather than being the one who gave it to everyone. And for the most part, people treated us as ordinary members of the congregation. It felt incredibly peaceful.

The second thing that happened was that I had a conversation with someone who reads my sermons online. This person is part of a parish far from here where there isn’t a particularly good or consistent preaching ministry, and she was expressing appreciation for the fact that, through reading my sermons, she ‘got fed’ spiritually in a way she didn’t experience at her own church. And I found myself thinking, “I know exactly how you feel, because week by week, I’m the one that does the feeding.” Very rarely do I get to listen while someone else opens up the Bible for me and applies it to our daily lives. That was something else I really appreciated about January 5th.

Which leads me to ask: why do I feel guilty when I take an hour to read a good theological book (even though my to-do list isn’t getting any shorter), or do some self-directed Bible study that’s not aimed at producing a sermon? And why do I so very rarely give others the chance to lead? After all, I have an honorary assistant who’s very willing, and six lay readers as well. It’s not as if I couldn’t give them more scope for ministry. So why don’t I let them do more? Is it something to do with ego, or the need to be needed? Surely I’m not that immature, am I?

I’ll let you be the judge of that. Meanwhile, it turns out I need to have a talk with someone about being accountable for my own self-care. I suspect I’m not alone in that!

‘I must’ or ‘I choose’

I’ve been reading and reflecting on Brené Brown’s excellent book The Gifts of Imperfection, which is subtitled Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. A big theme of the book is authenticity—which I as a Christian would define as ‘taking the risk of being the person God designed me to be, not the person I think I should be or the person other people want me to be.’

It has reminded me of something C.S. Lewis wrote to a god-daughter on the day of her confirmation service. I can’t remember the exact wording, but it’s something like this: ‘Always remember that there are only three things anyone must do: (1) duties, (2) necessities, and (3) things we take pleasure in.’

‘Duties’ means moral imperatives: commands of God, given to guide us in wise, loving and holy living (eg. ‘Love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself’). ‘Necessities’ means things we have to do to live and be healthy and well (go to work, eat sensibly and get good exercise, brush your teeth etc.). ‘Things we take pleasure in’—well, that of course will vary widely, depending on our tastes.

The problem is, so many people have added fourth and fifth categories: (4) ‘things other people want me to do’, and (5) ‘things I think I should do because I think they’re what other people expect.’

Of course, ‘things other people want me to do’ can be duties and/or necessities—for instance, if they’re part of my job. If I’ve taken a job that includes certain responsibilities, I can’t then turn around and say ‘I don’t want to fulfil some of those responsibilities because I don’t enjoy them.’ They’re job requirements, and if I want to draw a pay cheque, I’m obligated to fulfil them.

But in so many cases, (4) and (5) aren’t job requirements; they’re things I feel compelled to do, so that other people will like me and approve of me. Many of us are so insecure that we bend ourselves into pretzel shapes, trying to be who we’re not and do what we’re not suited to do, in the desperate attempt to win people’s liking and approval. And it’s all an empty quest, because even if we succeed, the person they like and approve of is not the real me; it’s a fake persona I’ve created to impress them.

I’ve noticed that some people seem bound by the language of compulsion: ‘We’ve got to do such and such’. I often feel like saying, ‘No, we don’t. We live in a free country, and we can choose what we do. But every choice we make leads to consequences, so we get to choose which set of consequences are important to us.’

I’m commanded by Jesus to love my neighbour as myself. But that doesn’t mean I have to do everything my neighbour wants me to do or asks me to do. Some of my neighbour’s expectations of me may well be unreasonable and/or impossible. Some will be things my neighbour can and should do for herself. And some of them are legitimate needs, but better suited to the expertise of others. For instance, my neighbour may need some repairs to his vinyl plank flooring, but I’d be foolish to offer that help; I’d just make the problem worse!

As I look back over my life, one of the things I regret the most is the amount of time and energy I’ve wasted on being a people-pleaser, rather than a person who relaxes in the certainty of God’s love for me, and chooses freely to love people appropriately and wisely, not out of a sense of compulsion. The Gifts of Imperfection is helping me reflect on that problem, and find a better way forward. As I go into this new year, I look forward to the next steps on that journey of freedom.

How are you going to grow in your faith in 2019?

2016 was the year I lost over 50 lbs. I had been wanting to do that for years, but wanting didn’t cut it. So I made a decision, came up with a plan, adjusted it as the year progressed, and eventually reached my goal.

Good wishes don’t lead to change. Change happens when I adopt a course of action until it becomes a habit.

Actually, weight loss wasn’t the only change I took on in 2016. I also took up the habit of daily journalling, which I have kept up now for three years. I enjoy it and I appreciate the sense of accountability it gives me (because I try to be honest about myself in its pages). I also used the ‘One-Year Bible’ reading plan to read through the entire NIV 2011 Bible translation.

So how are you going to grow in your faith in 2019?

Sadly, I see many Christians who come to church regularly but don’t seem to want to put any effort into growing in their faith. They’re willing to put huge amounts of effort into other parts of their life – professional development, for instance – but they seem content to stay where they are when it comes to their life as disciples of Jesus.

This doesn’t make sense to me. There’s always more to learn about God. There’s always room for improvement in my behaviour as a Christian. There’s always more to explore in the pages of the Bible. There’s always more love to put into practice.

Peter says ‘But grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’ (2 Peter 3:18 REB). How will you grow this year? It won’t happen by accident. It will happen when you identify the priority areas for growth, pick one or two things to work on, and then make a plan.

This will involve a change of habits. Gretchen Ruben says that what we do every day is far more important than what we do occasionally. The most powerful change in your life will come from the new daily habits that you learn and practice until they become an instinctive part of you.

So – it’s less than a week now until 2019. 2019 can be a powerful year of change for you (as 2016 was for me). How are you going to grow in your faith in this new year?