Saturday, September 29, 2007

Light Bulbs

How many Charismatics does it take to change a light bulb?
One, since his/her hand is in the air anyway.

How many Calvinists does it take to change a light bulb?
None. God has predestined when the lights will be on.

How many liberals does it take to change a light bulb?
Ten, as they need to conduct a debate as to whether or not the light bulb exists.

How many Catholics does it take to change a light bulb?
None. They use candles instead.

How many Unitarians does it take to change a light bulb?
Ten--one to change the bulb, and nine to share the experience.

How many military Chaplains does it take to change a light bulb?
The Chaplain tells his Enlisted assistant, who calls the base Engineers.

How many Christian Science practitioners does it take to change a light bulb?
None. Light bulbs are an illusion and do not exist.

How many Evangelicals does it take to change a light bulb?
Evangelicals do not change light bulbs. They simply read out the instructions and hope the light bulb will decide to change itself.

How many Congregationalists does it take to change a light bulb?
Every one available votes on it, then authorizes the Trustees to change it.

How many Atheists does it take to change a light bulb?
One, but they are still in darkness.

How many Brethren does it take to change a light bulb?

The Care of Souls

People occasionally ask me, “When do you take a day off?” Others think that ministers only work on Sundays. Often things come up on the day I’d normally take off, which means somehow coming up with some creative, alternative times to break away from the duties of pastoral care. Lately I’ve been taking a few hours here and there to go kayaking in nearby rivers and lakes, but not for much longer with the cold weather coming. A pastor is never “off-duty.”

Pastoral care is task-oriented, which means one can always find more to do. With every creative idea, there’s some work involved to implement it. Emergencies arise, and lots of meetings. Then there’s the matter of sermon preparation. Clergy don’t improvise; we take seriously the preparation of messages, which helps keep our professional edge. Whenever I moved while serving as a military chaplain, the packers were always amazed at my professional library. They’d always ask, “How many books do you have, and do you read them?” They weren’t too thrilled to box them up, but they’re the tools of the trade. I’m thankful there are nearby seminary libraries in the area, but I wasn’t always so blessed.

Pastoral care has been described as being a “wounded healer.” Our own woundedness enables us to care for the hurts of others. We comfort with the same comfort we’ve received, and the compassion we’ve developed over dealing with our own pain. Before you can dry another’s tears, you have to learn to weep. And while clergy can’t identify with everyone’s issues, pain is universal and unique. We all experience it, and we do so in our own way. So while I would never say, “I know how you feel,” I do know what it means to hurt. And I know that God cares. We have the choice in our pain to become bitter or compassionate. Pain is inevitable; misery is optional.

Whenever someone meets a minister, they view that individual through the lens of their own experience and perception. It may be a positive or negative one. High profile clergy who’ve had moral failure don’t make the average pastor’s life easier. But I believe if someone acts contrary to the teachings of their religion, we blame them, not their religion. Unfortunately the actions of some can make us all look bad. An Army Corps of Engineers major was introduced to me and said with an edge to his voice, “Oh, you’re a chaplain? I can tell you about some chaplains I’ve known.” I answered, “Yes sir, and when you’re done I can tell you about some Engineers I’ve known.” He got the point. We take people as they are, as we meet them, and try not to pre-judge based on what others may have done.

Someone said to me once, “I’d hate having your job, listening to people’s problems all day long.” He was a CPA, and I told him I wouldn’t want his job either. Fortunately God has made us with diverse gifts. Most clergy have to be general practitioners. We may not do every task well, but we have to handle a lot of matters: counseling, preaching, mentoring, teaching, praying, administering the sacraments/ordinances (also baptisms, weddings, funerals), administrative matters, visitation, discipleship, worship, and maintaining professional development. We also do what’s been called “ministry of presence”, being accessible, visible in the community whenever possible. Most of us are computer-savvy, applying ministry in a technological age. I recently attended a theological update at Gordon-Conwell seminary, and nearly every minister pulled out a PDA.

Maybe you might call your minister up and ask if you can stop by for a cup of coffee, or invite your pastor to your home. Your pastor wants to get to know you better; we’re here for you. When life hurts, we want to offer consolation. When you have questions, we want to walk with you to help you find answers.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

the Voice of God

In a 1950 movie The Next Voice You’ll Hear (staring James Whitmore and Nancy Reagan), one ordinary day without any warning, on every radio in the world, people hear the following: "This is God. I'll be with you for the next few days." More messages come; some people react positively, others negatively. There’s no profound theology in the movie, but it raises a wish we’ve all had, for God to speak audibly to us. Wouldn’t it be great if we could only hear His voice? I told a fellow regular at a coffee shop I was checking my email and he said, “Doesn’t God talk to you directly?”

Does God speak today? Many people figure they’re on their own, or they surrender to a kind of fatalism, “What will be, will be.” Or they plot out their own path somehow. But we’re not left floundering without guidance. We can know the will of God for our lives. He has a calling for each one of us. A buddy of mine calls himself an “ordained plumber.” Some people claim that God has literally spoken to them in an audible voice, as He spoke to the prophets of old. I wonder about some of these people, especially the faith-healers you see on TV. It seems the “message” is always about money. Yet some reputable Christian leaders also have claimed to hear an actual voice.

What if we, like Moses, encountered our own burning bush? That is certainly possible, but we’d have to proceed cautiously and evaluate the content of such communication. It doesn’t appear to be God’s standard means of speaking today. Some people claim God has “told” them something in order to elevate their own credibility. Others say they have a sense of what to do, an impression or leading, a kind of discernment that doesn’t seem to come from their own awareness.

How do we proceed in life? How do we make wise decisions? God guides us through His word, through impressing us inwardly, and outwardly, through circumstance and the advice of people we trust. One caution about impressions--they need to be tested by Scripture. God won’t lead us to do something the Bible disapproves. And of circumstance--we have to be careful about “open doors” to be sure others we trust agree this we’re on a wise course of action. And of advisors--we need to be sure those we listen to are godly people with a Christian worldview. We discover wisdom as we become students of Scripture. We’re equipped for life. We know right from wrong and we know what God expects of us.

Sometimes God's voice seems obvious, and at other times cloaked in mystery. Understanding God’s will doesn’t mean we’ll be able to grasp His purpose completely. Much of life remains hidden, forcing us to trust in God, Who loves us and has reasons for the challenges we face. We rest in His providence. Sometimes His will is obvious, and at other times we’re faced with being patient in our journey of faith.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Mother Theresa's struggles

This past week private letters from Mother Theresa were published, troubling letters that reveal a woman who struggled with the silence of God.
All of us at one time or another have struggled with the silence of God. We all have dry seasons, dark days, times when life simply hurts and God seems distant. If this has been your experience, it doesn’t mean you have no faith or have lost your faith…it means that you are facing inner turmoil. We’re waiting for God to act, and we cry out like the psalmist, “How long, O Lord?” Then when life takes a nasty turn, we wonder if God has lost interest in us, or if He is remote, uninvolved. We feel abandoned, but in truth God is near.
Mother Theresa felt anguish, yet she remained faithful. Closeness to God is not about feelings; it’s about obedience. She kept doing what she believed God had called her to do, even though she felt little joy. God has called us to be faithful and obedient, but He has not guaranteed that we’ll necessarily be happy all the time.
God does not accept us on the basis of our feelings but on the basis of our faith (which is a gift). He promises to heal our souls. He is present, even when it seems like He is absent. To expect a life of unbroken happiness all the time is an unrealistic view of Christianity. With faith will follow suffering, struggle, persecution, even doubt. Those who know sorrow are closest to the heart of Jesus, the wounded Healer. The One who struggled in dark Gethsemane walks with us in the valley of the shadow.