Saturday, February 25, 2012

Dealing with Depression as a Christian

On Thursday morning, a guy came into the church through the front door, and went out in handcuffs. Not because of anything he did... but because he was actively suicidal, and Pastor Becky believed that he needed to be protected from himself. She called the police to escort him to the hospital, and when they arrived, he thought they were taking him to jail and tried to hit them (hence the cuffs).

His last words to us were 'I trusted you! I thought you were going to help me!' It was a cry that wrenched my heart. He might not have understood it, but we WERE helping him. Just talking to him wasn't going to change anything. All the prayers and reassurance in the world weren't going to make him feel better for more than a few minutes or hours. Then he'd be alone again without anybody to keep him safe.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Now is the season of Lent

Now is the season of Lent. Depending on your religious denomination and particular church, Lent can be observed ritually, automatically, religiously (literally!), casually, or not at all.

I didn't grow up in a Lenten-observant church. It was talked about casually, and the Holy Week itself was absolutely vital to us... Australia doesn't have the bee in its bonnet about seperation of church and state that the US does. They're not afraid to have a 'Christian' event as a national holiday, so we were free to fully and solemnly observe Good Friday every year. More about that closer to the day. That's still six weeks away. The point is, that I grew up celebrating Easter for a period of one week, from Palm Sunday through to Easter Sunday. Some people in the church 'did' Lent, but it wasn't expected. 

The little church we went to when we moved to the US shocked me. While our pastor believed in periodic periods of fasting and prayer, he didn't tie them into the official church calender. He fasted in January, or when he felt called to it later in the year, and encouraged the rest of the church to join him, but it was nothing to do with any particular 'season'. The Easter season itself lasted one single day. It began and ended on Easter Sunday, and even then it seemed to be almost irrelevant to them. I wondered whether ALL American churches were that unobservant. After a couple of years, I discovered the local Methodist church and I was able to go back to my lifelong practice of going to church at lunchtime on Good Friday and spending the afternoon in solemn prayer and reflection. Church members were encouraged to observe Lent, but it really wasn't something I was comfortable with or understood, so I let it go.

Our current church is the most observant I've been to. Last year was our first Lent with them, and the first time I felt drawn to try to give something up for Lent. I surrendered my recent obsession with Facebook games and made it a whole four weeks before my life got too stressed and I retreated back to the games to survive. This year I haven't felt called to give anything up for Lent. I'm not physically able to fast, I don't care about television enough for giving it up to be a sacrifice, and I'm too busy working for the church to really have time for anything else give-up-able. Okay, I COULD give up icecream or chocolate, but I know I wouldn't make it more than a week. Seriously, instead of subtracting from my life, this year I've been feeling the pull to add to it instead. All week I've been feeling like I need to be physically on my knees before God. Is that because it's Lent? Because I'm so much more involved in church leadership, and have so much emotionally invested in our church, and I'm passionate about trying to make it the best possible place for us all? Or just because God is calling me? It doesn't matter. I need to listen to Him and to do what I'm told. And right now I'm told to pray...

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The parable of the ducklings

When I took the trash out this morning, there was a fire truck parked outside in the street, with the crew crouched around an open manhole cover by our building, peering in. Had some small child suffered a disaster, like Timmy down the well? Somebody dropped something potentially toxic down there? Was a valuable diamond ring missing from somebody's finger and fallen down the grate? Nope. None of the above. The cause, as is common in breeding season, were a couple of the local ducklings who had gone astray. Somehow they wandered away from their mama and either fell down a drainage grate, or possibly swam into the drainage pipe from the lake. We only know they're there when they swim under one of the open drainage grates and you can see a flash of yellow, or hear plaintive peeping wafting up through the grate. They're small enough to paddle through the pipes as long as their strength holds out, but they don't know how to get out of the maze, and there's not much, if any, food down there for them, nor good places for them to rest.  And mama duck can't get them out of trouble, even if she saw them fall in - she's far too big to fit through the pipe. All she can do is worry over her remaining brood and mourn the ones who are missing.

Who knows how long they've been swimming around down there... but somebody saw them and the fire crew came to try to pull them out before they could starve to death down there. Meanwhile, the ducklings were totally oblivious to their danger. All THEY saw was that somebody big and scary was trying to grab them, and they were swimming back down the pipe to 'safety'. The fire crew could have said 'it's just a bunch of ducks, it's a waste of our time, we've got REAL work to do' and gone away to do more important things. But they didn't. When the ducklings backed down the pipe and refused to be rescued, they sat back patiently and waited. Eventually the silly little ducklings swam back into view, and the fire crew gently grabbed them with a long looped pole to pull them out to safety. Even rescued, the ducklings are still oblivious to how very lucky they are... but they will live to swim another day, and hopefully grow up to be much older and wiser adult ducks.

How often are we those ducklings? We're so intent on what we're doing with our lives that we don't notice the pit in front of us until we've fallen in. Even then, we'll continue trying to climb our own way out when it's obviously impossible. It takes somebody else reaching out to save us... and it takes us having the courage to allow them to help. Otherwise we'll swim in circles in the darkness for the rest of our lives, wondering why we can't find the daylight. What is the pit in your life today? Are you swimming in the darkness? And to those who stand in lieu of the fire crew, may God give you the strength and courage to grab the right moment to help, and the patience to wait for it to occur. God doesn't want us swimming in the dark - there's a whole world of love and light waiting for us. All we have to do is to say yes. And when somebody older and wiser reaches out to you, take their hand and let them show you the way.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Tis the gift to be... spiritual?

I had one of those dreams last night that shows me where I've failed... ie. another teaching dream, where I was standing in front of a class of 12-yos and making a complete hash of everything no matter how hard I tried. I was passionate about what I was trying to teach, but I wasn't getting through to them, or teaching them anything. Sometimes those dreams are just to make me feel like a failure and I wake up wanting to curl up in a hole and never come out again... but this one just made me thoughtful. I think this one was to remind me that I can't do everything, and nor should I try...

John has to look at a book about Spiritual Gifts for church (he hasn't had time to open it yet!) and of course I read through it while it was sitting on the table waiting for him. I'm always intrigued by the whole question of 'spiritual gifts' and figuring out where I fit into the bigger picture, as I am with learning more about myself in general. This one takes a narrower view of 'gifts' than some and it focuses in on the ones that are directly mentioned in the bible, leaving things like musicianship, creativity, craftsmanship etc. out of the picture entirely. It says that things like that are abilities and talents that anybody can have, not spiritual gifts, because you don't have to be a Christian to demonstrate them. I kind of take issue at that - the actual skills aren't the issue. It's how you USE them that counts. God put them into your spirit for a reason. The book says that they're just a vehicle to demonstrate whatever your actual spiritual gifts are. A musician with the gift of healing might leave their audiences feeling very comforted and soothed etc etc. or an Evangelist will fire people up with their words. And so on. I really don't know where that leaves me. Going back to the music ministries and picking up my music again has demonstrated to me clearly that music is one of the greatest joys of my life. God gave me a voice to be able to sing - I don't pretend it's anything special and it's nothing to be particularly proud of or to show off and boast about - but using it is pure joy, whether there's anybody listening to me or not.  Lately, I'm not even nervous to get up and sing solo in front of the congregation. I find that a surprising development because I used to be paralysed by stage fright. But I'm not worrying about their judging me, or whether I'm going to mess it up and embarrass myself.  I'm not singing to try to make them think I'm something wonderful, or to impress them etc etc., I'm singing for God. I considered dropping out of the choir and leaving the music ministry because I'm seriously over-committed and something is going to have to give sooner or later, but I really and truly do not want to do that. It would break my heart to have to leave music behind in my life yet again, whether it was voluntary or not. Music is welded into my soul, and to deny it is to deny a vitally important part of myself.

Anyway, back to teaching. Teaching IS a named spiritual gift. The difference between somebody who learned the skills of teaching (like me) and somebody who has a real gift for it is how their students react... and I definitely fall into the former category. And I'm okay with that. I wouldn't have been for a long time, because I wanted to teach from the time I was about five years old. But I didn't really want to TEACH. I wanted to nurture and encourage and spend time loving on the innocent before the world ruined them. And I wanted to protect children who were like me, and nurture them the way that my beloved teachers did me, to save them from the childhood I endured, and to let them know that somebody understood their position and really cared about them. Probably all very worthy ambitions, but none of them are directly related to TEACHING. That's one of the things that the teacher does, but it's not their job. I was trying to be something that I wasn't really meant to be, which is why it ended in total and utter disaster. I love learning, I love books, and I love knowledge in general - but I don't want to be in the position of authority of having to be 'the teacher' ever again. I'm too loving and gentle (okay, wishy-washy) to be a disciplinarian.I don't do 'authority' very well, and anybody in the same room with me for more than two minutes knows it!

My gifts lie in the practical realm, and I have a lot of trouble relating to the more airy-fairy biblical stuff like prophecy, tongues, interpretation, healing, and prayer in general. God has never demonstrated any of them concretely in my life, and a lot of the time I've never seen them demonstrated believably through anybody else. I've seen people who WANTED the gifts, and who honestly believed that they had them - but they didn't have any positive results to demonstrate from them. Anybody can babble, or make people be 'overcome by the holy spirit' by giving them a push! And it's easy to stand there and tell somebody what they want to hear when there's somebody who knows them whispering cues in your ear - but it's much rarer to hear directly from God and to KNOW what's needed. I tend to say 'seeing is believing'. On occasion, I've had deeply moving spiritual 'god times' - but they have been few and far between. It's not something that happens just because you want it to. I could sit here and pray myself blue in the face asking God to give me one of these gifts, but there hasn't been any sign of it in thirty years.  I believe that there ARE miracles - there have been miracles of healing in John's family that none of us expected until God gave them to us... I believe that God really does give some people the revelation of what they need to pray about and say - I've seen it myself and nobody was giving the guy any cues when it came my turn to have him lay hands on me, but he knew something important about me that I didn't even know myself. God just doesn't give those things directly to me. If I have trouble with all this, you might ask why am I so tied up in the God thing anyway? But it was inborn in me to love God and to trust God and to have faith in Him, whether I can see Him or not. In one way, I've moved way beyond simple faith - nothing in life is EVER simple. In another, it's as simple as they come. God loves us and He wants the best for us. I pray to God the Comforter more than God the Miracle-Maker. God is the one who is with us when we walk through the times of trouble. He is the invisible hand on our shoulder and the voice in our ear telling us that everything will be right in the end. That doesn't make everything that happens to us easy, or right, or even deserved... horrible things happen every day. Sometimes God gives us a miracle to take us out of them, but more often He's just holding our hand to lead us through. But He is always and absolutely there loving us from now until the end of time.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

What are we here for? Putting 'you' into church.

I know I haven't exactly written in this thing regularly... and I know nobody else is actually reading it. But I'm going to write anyway... I'm still thinking about the book I read on church leadership. John wants to read it but he hasn't had time to get past the first couple of chapters. He agreed with me that it seems valid and he wants to finish it if he ever has time.

What is our aim as a church? What are we really here for? To provide everyone with a nice morning's entertainment? To make them feel good about themselves? To get them in and out the door in 60 minutes flat so they can get on with their day assured that they've fulfilled their religious obligation without any real involvement on their part? To give people a place to chat with their friends over coffee? To tell them exactly what they should be thinking and doing, and to sternly correct anybody who seems 'wrong'? To give them things to think about during the week? To help them grow? Your answer pretty much depends on what kind of church you go to, and what your general expectations are from 'the church'.

Our mission is basically to be a church for everyone who wants to be with us... we say it every week, in our rather lengthy creed that basically breaks down into 'everyone is welcome here'. We mean it. We actively invite many people who would not be welcome in any other church in the area, and we are the richer for their presence. But it's such a wide-open invitation that it can easily turn into 'this is the church where you don't have to do anything to change yourself because you're just fine the way you are...' What we really want is to be the church where people are helped to become the people that God wants them to be. It's a place to become more fully and completely 'you' in the image of God. That doesn't mean you have to be a carbon copy of me, or John, or Pastor Becky, or anybody else you might see in church this week. If you were doing that, you wouldn't be being 'you'. God made us all unique individuals with completely different gifts, talents, and abilities... and when you add everyone together it makes an incredible whole. But not when people sit there and hold back. If you only put half of yourself into church, the puzzle is only half complete, and it feels like there are still a lot of people who are just sitting there and thinking that's all they need to do. :(

I'm not a sitter... I'm a doer, which should be pretty obvious by how many different hats I wear in the church. I'm in the choir and involved in the Worship group (and my part there seems to be becoming church decorator!), I'm on Missions and serving the homeless every Thursday, and I was asked to be the church clerk and part of the Executive team. That last 'hat' was not one I chose for myself, and it fits the least comfortably... I avoid responsibility in my life, especially financial responsibility! But it has to be done, and accepting the responsibility is part of growing up. All in all, I'm so busy that I couldn't possibly take on anything else... which is why I hesitated a full thirty seconds before I told John about the new bible study class at church. I love doing bible study and I really miss being part of a small group who are learning together (rather than just filling some special purpose in the church).  I couldn't go last night - I had to go to a special musical rehearsal at the same time - but John went, and I figured I'd join him next week.

Only one problem. Turns out I wasn't quite correct about the new class. It's not a bible study group - it's a class to try to develop some new leaders so that they can HAVE more bible study classes later in the year. He's not quite sure whether that's something he wants to do, but he'd be good at it. He's always talked about how they trained him to lead classes and he had to do that stuff before, and he's considered getting involved in it, so now here's his shot. Time to put his money where his mouth is and see what happens... I'm sure he'll do fine. But he's going to have to do it without me! Makes me feel bad that I led him there, but I am not a leader of anything, no matter how many different jobs I take on in the church.

Teaching is not something I feel equipped to do unless it was a craft workshop or something. I've never had any formal Christian education at any level, and I'm completely ignorant when it comes to matters theological.  I love DOING bible study in small groups, but I wouldn't know where to begin when it came to LEADING it. I get completely tongue-tied if somebody puts me on the spot because I don't have the required vocabulary to put my thoughts into words. All I really know is what my heart tells me. I connect with God on an emotional heart-level that is very hard to put into words. I know God talks to some people's minds, but not mine. (Read 'The Five Love Languages of God' some time... fascinating stuff, and super easy to read.) And I don't have a steel-trap mind for trivia like quoting chapter and verse. Quite the opposite - I have great difficulty in memorising stuff like that. Names and numbers just don't seem to quite make it into my brain. I once had to get a new PIN number from the bank because mine vanished away overnight and it was impossible for me to remember it. I am absolutely abominable with names and faces too... it's embarrassing -  I call everyone 'lovey' and 'dear' etc because it's easier than digging in my memory bank for five minutes and trying to find some kind of association to bring their name back to me when I've forgotten it and I know I'm SUPPOSED to remember! But that's wandering way off the track... except that God just didn't put me together that way. It's just not who I am...