R U OK?

IMG_1281Today is ‘Keep a low profile’ day. Well, I expect it will be for many. It’s actually R U OK day – a day to remind us all that it’s important to look out for one another. The trouble is that many will cringe if the only time people care for them is on a designated day. Every day is a good day to ask R U OK. So let’s slow down sufficiently to keep an eye out for each other.

I know a good number of my friends aren’t OK. Life sucks sometimes, and sometimes often. I get this. Sometimes life feels like the walls are closing in on me and I need help to see the big picture.

So if you’re not OK, please reach out.

Beyond Blue  1300 224 636

Lifeline  13 11 14

(Original artwork by Liam)

Will you be my Facebook friend?

facebookSome books are long. Others are short. Don’t judge the value of a book by its size. Will you be my Facebook friend? Social Media and the Gospel is only 48 pages short. The font size is large and the lines are well spaced, but the message is profoundly important. Tim Chester asks us to carefully consider both the benefits and the pitfalls of social media. This isn’t a tirade against the internet, but rather a plea to use it wisely. Social media has the capacity to radically distort reality, and we need to be wise to the dangers. Chester doesn’t leave us with a call to be more self-disciplined, which will lead only to pride or despair. Rather, he reminds us how the gospel reorients our lives and puts them back in real perspective—God’s perspective.

Here are a few words to consider…

The genius of Facebook is that all your friends come to you and all your friends come to them. So we simultaneously all inhabit our own little worlds, each with me at the centre. (p20)

Is your Facebook self more attractive or successful than your real-world self? (p26)

Am I using Facebook to enhance real-world relationships, or to replace them? (p39)

Remember the medium is the message, and Facebook was designed by a teenage nerd. (p42)

The Facebook comments wither and the tweets fall, but the word of our God stands forever. (p46)

If you or your kids are into Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, spend hours in front of the TV, surf the net, scour blog sites, or the like—then do yourself a favour, turn off the computer, the TV, the X-Box, or whatever else, make yourself a coffee and read this book. It might take two cups of coffee, but I think you’ll find it worthwhile!

Growing yourself up

GYUThis book takes me back a quarter of a century to my times as a social worker. In the final year of my BSW degree, I focused primarily on studying family therapy and the writings of Murray Bowen were very influential. I loved this stuff. It was so helpful to see people as part of a family system and to explore the influences and impact of relationships, family members, experiences, and expectations. One time we saw an adolescent boy for counselling. He had been acting out at school and finding a multitude of ways to get into trouble. It wasn’t until we met with his family and discovered that his father had become dependent on a kidney dialysis machine, that we were able to begin understanding and helping him. It wasn’t his problem alone–it was a family problem.

I enjoyed reading through this book and discovered many insights relevant to my circumstances. I know others have found much benefit in this material, but one or two have commented to me that they’ve found it hard going, like entering another world with its own vocal and jargon. Perhaps, my earlier training made this book easier.

Jenny Brown has built heavily on the work of Bowen in her excellent book, Growing Yourself Up. You could probably describe this as a ‘self help’ book, but with a difference. It’s about helping the reader to gain an increased sense of ‘self’ to enable them to enjoy better relationships with others. We grow into personal maturity as we learn to more clearly differentiate ourselves from others so that we develop healthy personal relationships. This book draws on family systems theory to help us understand who we are in the light of, and distinct from, our relationships with others. Our families of origin have a profound impact on who we are—how we think and act and speak.

Brown’s underlying conviction is that it’s never too late for any of us do do some more growing up. Greater emotional maturity is at the heart of this goal.

This book starts with the big question: Are you willing to take a fresh look at your own maturity gaps, instead of declaring that another needs to ‘grow up’?  (p8)

Growing Yourself Up helps us to see and understand the immature part that that we are playing in our relationships with others. Instead of pointing the blame, we are helped to see our own contribution to the problems and impasses we find ourselves caught up in. Unlike much recent psychotherapy which focuses on finding our inner child, this approach is about growing our inner adult in all areas of our relationships. Moving beyond childhood to adulthood can be expressed by the following attributes:

  1. Have your feelings without letting them dominate; tolerate delayed gratification
  2. Work on inner guidelines; refrain from blaming
  3. Accept people with different views; keep connected
  4. Be responsible for solving our own problems
  5. Hold onto your principles
  6. See the bigger picture of reactions and counter-reactions  (p17-19)

It takes time to work through these things. We need to learn about ourselves in relationship with others. We need to learn not to let our emotions dominate our thinking. We need to learn how to take control of our anxieties. This is all part of growing our inner adult—slowly.

Relationships—close relationships, while remaining a distinct self—are at the core of adult maturity. Our experiences of relationship from our earliest times vary along a continuum of feeling isolated and abandoned, through to feeling inseparable or smothered by others. We are helped to understand more clearly the strengths and weaknesses of our previous experiences of relationships—especially those in our family of origin—and how they impact our decision making in the present.

This book takes us through various key life stages, circumstances, and changes. It looks at the threats to and opportunities for growing in maturity. Such areas include leaving home, single adulthood, marriage, sex, parenting, work, facing setbacks such as separation or divorce, midlife, ageing, empty nests, retirement, old age, and facing death. Pretty well covers it really! In all these situations there are issues to face in our quest to grow into adult-maturity. This book helps us to understand our part in navigating these changes and stages wisely.

One section in this book, I found particularly helpful deals with the temptation to triangulate our relationships, especially in situations of conflict. This is one of the major threats to adult maturity. A relationship triangle is where the tensions between two people are relieved by escaping to a third party. (p44) This may serve to dissipate tension and help families and groups to manage, but it also results in issues not being addressed and often placing the third person is a vary awkward position. It’s helpful to examine how we might have been (or currently be) involved in such triangles, and why. Such triangles are very common and universally unhelpful for dealing with conflict and tensions in families, churches, teams, and a range of relationships.

This is the type of book that you benefit from reading through completely and then returning to digest the most relevant sections in more detail. As a pastor who deals with people all the time, I found this book offering many helpful insights. It is especially important to understand people in the context of their relationships. And it’s in these relationships that we grow ourselves up.

Faith, hope and tears

The shortest verse in the Bible is filled with empathy. Jesus, the author of life, understands what it feels like to experience grief and loss when a loved one dies. It hurts. It aches. We cry tears of sadness. We grieve in death. There’s a time for mourning, a time for weeping. As it says in John 11:35…

Jesus wept.

Some might question whether it’s necessary or appropriate for Christians to mourn the loss of a fellow believer. Don’t we believe they’ll be raised? Aren’t we confident they’re now with Jesus? Doesn’t our faith in eternal life make such sorrow out of place? Surely, a Christian funeral should be a celebration, not a time of grief and sadness?

Look again at John 11:35…

Jesus wept.

Jesus believed in resurrection. In fact he spoke of himself as the resurrection and the life. He knew that his good friend Lazarus would be raised from the dead. He knew, because he would raise him!

And yet, John 11:35…

Jesus wept.

If you’ve experienced the loss of someone you love, let the tears flow. Jesus did.

No comment? On reflection, comment!

In my recent post on A pastor’s pride I initially finished it with a request for people not to make comments. I wrote much the same thing on the Facebook link. It wasn’t that I was seeking to stifle comment or engagement on the topic. It was more that the post was raw, the subject was deeply personal, and I probably felt more vulnerable than usual. In particular, I didn’t want people stroking my ego or denying my analysis. I just wanted it to sit there and be heard.

However, it’s not hard to get around my request, and I received a number of comments via Facebook messages or email! Many of these included appreciation of the candid honesty of the post or statements about how they had been moved to reflect on their own pride. Two comments stood out from the rest. One suggested that I shouldn’t stifle comment because it would confirm that I or the church (I’m not sure) was ‘controlling’. I certainly didn’t want to promote this perception, so I removed the last sentence from my post. The other was a comment on the phone by my father, who suggested that allowing comments was fundamental to the nature of my blog. I was seeking engagement on the issues I wrote about, and commenting was a good way to get people thinking and acting.

P1010221My father sent this to me via email as a personal letter and invited me to determine whether I’d post it on the blog as a comment. I’ve decided instead to include it as the centrepiece of this post. The last 2 years have been seen important developments in the relationship between my father and I. Mid 2011, he was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma following the discovery of a large tumour in his throat. This led to a series of successful chemotherapy treatments that have removed any evidence of the disease. About the same time my father was going into remission, in December 2011, I was diagnosed with an incurable lung cancer. I know how shocking this has been to both my father and my mother.

One of the blessings of this experience is that we have grown closer, having a deeper awareness of what we’re both experiencing. I think this has strengthened our relationship in a range of areas. Not that you want to have both of us suffer from cancer to nurture the relationship, but it’s not a bad side benefit! My father will often discuss issues from my blog with me over the phone and sometimes post a comment on the blog itself. Sometimes he’ll make suggestions, sometimes he’ll share how it’s got him thinking, and he regularly forwards the posts to others. Here’s the comment he sent me today:

Dear David my beloved son,

When you first posted “A Pastor’s Pride” you concluded with the sentence “And I think I’d prefer that you didn’t write comments on this.” I note that you have now removed that request. As your father, I had chosen to ignore your preference on this occasion, and I think my decision to comment is supported by the comments now appearing from others. There are several reasons, but let me comment on just one.

Over the past year you have shared your journey with cancer with us in a very public way. Macarisms have included the pain and struggle, the ups and downs, the challenges and the changes of so many aspects of the personal, medical, emotional, relational, social, spiritual dimensions of what it has meant to learn that you have a terminal cancer. It is evident that the macarism has become a significant part of the new ministry which you are discovering and which God is growing in you. It is also evident that macarisms have been fulfilling the hope that you expressed in the very first post – “that people will be blessed as they read and think about life.”

One of the important additional ways in which people might find that blessing is by themselves giving expression to what they have learned or what has happened to them as they have read the macarism and thought about life. That has been evidenced again and again in the comments written in response to the diverse range of subjects that you have covered in your blog. Dealing with pride is one of those subjects upon which we all might do well to read and think and respond.

It is likely that I was participating in a prayer gathering on Saturday morning considering future directions for our congregation at the same time that you were writing your blog. An issue that greatly influenced my thinking and shaped my praying was so close to your writing. Given my many years as a pastor and wide experience, part of my praying was seeking guidance on what is the best contribution I can make to my church’s ministry in this place? It is not an easy question for one who is retired, and our denomination has some expectations about how retired pastors might support but not interfere in the life and current leadership of a congregation. A sense of pride about past ministry can very easily stand in the way of hearing what God is saying about the here and now of his word and call for today.

I noted, too, that whilst you were with your oncologist on Wednesday being reminded that you still have a terminal illness, I was at the Cancer Clinic having my sixth cycle of post-chemo “booster” Mabthera treatment. I, too, have been enjoying the congratulations of people for looking and being and feeling so well in remission. How easy it is to neglect the goodness and grace of God when things are going well for us.

I rejoice in the experiences that you have had during the past week, tough though they have been, and thank God for those persons who have been ministers of his grace to you in this recent encounter.

May God’s grace continue to minister to you, as you minister to others and as others minister to you and to us.

A pastor’s pride

Late last night I wept. I lay in my bed and I cried until my pillow was wet. What brought it on? It suddenly hit me how proud I’d become. My heart was full of me. And this blog was a big part of it.

I wasn’t sure if I should write this post. It could be just another example of what brought me to tears. A proud response to my response to pride. But I need to write it. I want to apologise and I want to change. I think my pride had become public, and thus so should my confession.

My dramatic realisation of my own pride hit me hard. It was a bit like hearing that I had a tumour. I was devastated, the tears flowed, and I prayed. The kids were away, Fiona was in another room, and I cried out on my own to God.

I’d just written a post telling pastors to be humble and yet my own heart was hard. I was writing as the preacher, not the practitioner. I was pronouncing who pastors should and shouldn’t be, but it was me that needed to listen. Here was I, doing all my reading, making all my comments, implicitly claiming to be an authority, telling others what to do, and I wasn’t doing it.

Sometime last night God told me. I don’t know how exactly, but he made it very clear to me that my heart was the problem. I’d been getting the message all week, but I wasn’t listening.

On Sunday I joined in the memorial service for my friend Bronwyn. On the front cover of the order of service, were printed these words:

Not to us, LORD, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness.  (Psalm 115:1)

I was so convicted as I read and heard these words. These words seemed so true on the lips of Bronwyn, but as I mouthed them they seemed so hollow. In fact, even during the service I found my thoughts and tears and prayers wandering away to my self and my family instead.

There were so many people at that service to thank God for Bronwyn, support the family, and pay tribute to her life. I knew so many of them, and they kept coming up to me saying how good it was to see me looking so well, and how they’d been praying for me, even daily. And my heart swelled up. I’d become the prayer celebrity. Oh, how I hate it how my heart can take what is good and twist it so badly.

On Monday and Tuesday I joined a planning retreat with the staff of our church, and it did my head in. I was struggling with the effects of chemo, but that wasn’t the real problem. It was being in a situation I was so familiar with, but in a role that was totally foreign. I’d been the leader and now I wasn’t. It’s not that I wanted to be. I’m very grateful for Marcus, and for the grace that all the team have shown me. But I realise that my heart is still catching up with my head.

On Wednesday I went to the oncologist. It had been a while and I’d been doing so well. I wanted him to tell me that I was the best patient he’d had, that he’d been wrong about me, and that we could expect the cancer to disappear very soon. I now realise I’d become proud of how I’d been going. I’d had 23 cycles of chemo. Most people don’t have more than 5 or 6. I’d been battling cancer and winning. I could succeed where others had failed! How stupid and how arrogant. The oncologist made it clear that I still have a terminal illness. I’d done nothing, but fill myself with pride.

Thursday and Friday I’d been writing. Telling people what to look for in a pastor, what a pastor should be like. What I should have been doing was listening to the word of God that I was preaching. I should have been looking into the mirror and seeing what I looked like. We’d actually read these verses on our staff retreat only days before:

22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.  (James 1:22-24)

And I’d been doing exactly that! It took the words of two friends to point it out to me. They don’t know it, but they were angels, messengers from God. They were true prophets, for they told me the truth from God. They weren’t so rude as to tell me outright, but their gentle and wise questions helped me to see the truth clearly last night. My heart was proud and it needed to change.

Last night I prayed and I cried, asking God to forgive me and to change me. Thank God, he is gracious and merciful and forgiving. My ongoing prayer is that God will gently work within me to give me humility.

I’ve written and published this because I believe that I owe you, my reader, an apology. Please forgive me my pride.

Please let us speak

CrossroadsDec2011‘Confessions of a blind pastor’ or ‘A new view from the pew’. These were potential titles for this post. You see, I’ve started to observe church a little differently over the past year or so. Instead of being up front nearly every week, viewing all that happens through my leadership glasses, I’ve gained a clearer perspective on how things look as part of the congregation.

If you’d ask me whether church should be an opportunity to speak, I’d have said yes. If you’d asked me whether church should involve interactive and two-way communication, I’d have said yes. If you’d asked me if people were getting an opportunity to speak using their own words during church, I’d have said yes. I’d have said yes, because I believed these things should be happening in church. And I’d have said yes, because I got to speak my own words in church just about every week. I was seeing things from my perspective as preacher or service leader, not as a member of the congregation. In fact, I think the answer is commonly no.

Let me illustrate. A few weeks back I went to church and sat down. We started singing and there were three or four songs in a row. During this time someone I didn’t know came in and sat beside me. The songs ran into each other, so I didn’t get an opportunity to speak. The leader then welcomed people and introduced church. We moved from singing, to praying, to having the Bible read, to listening to a sermon, then singing. I’d been consciously waiting for a break in what was happening up front so that I could at least say g’day and introduce myself to the person beside me. There wasn’t one provided and all I could manage was a very quick “Hi, I’m Dave!” while the musicians played an intro to a song. Church came to a finish, the leader wrapped things up, and then invited us to continue our conversations over supper.

That’s when it hit me. “Continue our conversations!?” We hadn’t even begun. We didn’t have a chance. There was no space. And it wasn’t on the run sheet.

The church I go to is independent. We have no traditional liturgy or forms of words. We’re supposed to be, almost by definition, relaxed and informal. And yet that night there was no space even to greet the person sitting next to me. I’d expect that more traditional churches with their formalities and fixed liturgies might be guilty of this, but not us! We’re supposed to be more relational. I’ve come to realise that independent and informal churches need to pay attention to this issue just as much as denominational and more formal churches.

Now there are some counter-arguments, and I’ve used them. People do get to speak up during church. Every time we sing, people are involved using their voices. When someone leads in prayer, we are invited to say amen. More formal liturgies often involve scripted call and response readings, corporate prayers, reciting of creeds together, and sometimes a break where people are instructed to walk around and ‘pass the peace’. This goes something like ‘Peace be with you’ followed by the reply ‘And also with you.’ Isn’t this evidence of people’s involvement in speaking during church?

It’s speaking, yes. But it’s not voluntary speech using our own words. It’s not natural conversation. It’s following a script. Scripted words can have an important place, but they’re not the ideal way to build relationships between people. Sometimes I’ve visited churches that have invited us to pass the peace to one another. A complete stranger comes up to me and says, ‘Peace be with you’. I find myself replying, ‘G’day. I’m Dave. Sorry, what’s your name?’ I crave an opportunity to relate to people, not to perform a ritual set of words.

So why do I think voluntary, natural, two-way personal communication is important in church? There are many reasons. Here’s a few:

  1. The experience of church should be very different to attending a concert, school speech night, watching a movie, or listening to a lecture. It should be the gathering of a community for the purpose of mutual edification. However amazing the sermon, songs, prayers, readings, videos, dramas, or up front interviews may be… they are all communication from the front.
  2. We shouldn’t force newcomers, guests, or visitors to sit among strangers for 75+ minutes before anyone speaks to them. (Unless they choose to.) It will simply make the people in church look extremely unfriendly. If we create space for a friendly ‘hello’ early on, then people will be more comfortable during church, and more likely to stay afterwards.
  3. Talking together during church can help us to engage more with what’s going on. If we are talking, even for a minute or so, on issues related to the sermon, we’re likely to be listening more attentively.
  4. As we hear God’s word it calls for our response. If we want to promote discussion and mutual edification after church, it’s much more likely to happen if we get it going during church.
  5. We should be helping people get to know one another at church. While the potential for this is limited in a large congregation, and we may rely heavily on small groups, we  should look for ways for people to connect during church also.
  6. It’s helpful for people to be able to share what God has been doing in their lives, or issues they are dealing with. Of course, there are limitations on how much we can do this in a large gathering, but we could at least give it some thought.

So how and when can we get this interaction happening? Here are a few suggestions to get us thinking. You may like to add your own.

  1. Encourage friendly conversations in your auditorium or church building before things officially kick off. During this time, look out for people sitting on their own, and make sure they are welcomed.
  2. The service leader, after welcoming people from the front, can allow 3-5 minutes for people to say g’day to those around them. The kids and youth head out to their own programs in our morning congregation. During this time people are encouraged to be friendly and talk together. Our evening congregation doesn’t have this opportunity, so we have to create one.
  3. The leader could also raise an issue for people to talk about for a minute or so. This could lead people into a Bible reading or the sermon. For example, if the passage deals with issues of suffering, we could get people sharing the questions they have about suffering. The leader could then invite a few responses from the congregation.
  4. While we can all add our amen to up front prayers, it is helpful to encourage people to make their own response in prayer. This can happen by allowing a time of silence for people to pray. In some cases we can invite people to pray with those seated around them (so long as no one feels uncomfortable or pressured to speak out loud).
  5. Questions and comments after the sermon are a helpful way to engage the congregation further in thinking and working through their understanding and application of the passage. If there’s no time for this, perhaps we could trim a little off the talk to allow it. I think people are more likely to discuss the message afterwards if they’ve already been doing it in church.
  6. People could be invited to share something of what God has been doing in their lives with the congregation. This is probably best arranged in advance, so as to give people time to think about what they want to say.

On the question of open sharing times during church we need to consider the logistics. In larger congregations like ours with 300+ people. If everyone spoke for 30 seconds with no breaks between, then it would take 2.5 hours just to get through everyone each week! If we gave everyone 5 minutes to speak and only had one person a week, you would get an opportunity to do this once every 6 years. Maybe this is feasible in a house church, but we have to be more selective in a larger congregation. But, if we allowed 3 minutes for each person to share something with the person beside them, then in 6 minutes everyone would have the opportunity to share something every time we met! Food for thought!