Monday, November 17, 2008

J in the box

I bought a litre of chicken milk this week. You know Lait de Poulet. I had my first Christmas planning meeting so I brought along some Eggnog.

Of all the qualities it takes to be a good minister, the one (of many) that I’m missing is an appreciation of special holy days. I’m not into special occasions. That goes for birthdays, anniversaries, Halloween, Canada Day, Remembrance Day, etc. etc – and Christmas and New Years.

Despite all the helpful advice I’ve received regarding this over the years - including “get with it” - “get over yourself” - “snap out of it” and my personal favourite “just go along with it” - I find that I still struggle through each one.


Expectations. I hate the way that a special occasion creates a box of expectations around the event. This and that and this has to happen and that’s what makes it special.

I often hide behind a spiritual high ground that says “Every day, every moment is special.” as in “Every day should be Christmas day.”. But I don’t think that’s really it.

Is it just that I feel that I’m no good at meeting the ritual’s expectations? I feel like I’m just not an in-the-box kind of guy. I find the box cramped and it conjures up all those memories of my size 13 boots stepping on people’s sensibilities. When it comes to performing the niceties of ritual, I feel like the proverbial bull in a china shop.

An Anglican friend was telling me about how much he appreciates a Communion liturgy that isn’t just “done” or “gotten through”. He told me about a priest who, for him, was able to capture the mystery of Christ’s presence with every gesture and intonation of the eucharist performed.

When I do communion there’s always crumbs on the floor and grape juice on the white table cloth (is there a special name for that table cloth? What is table cloth in Latin?)

As a pastor, what I come up against on a regular basis is guilt. And not just my own. My own little blazing fire of guilt is constantly being fed new sticks as people share their guilt with me.
“I’m sorry I haven’t been in church in a long time.”
“I’m sorry I missed that meeting.”
“I feel so bad that I haven’t made time to do that thing I said I was going to do.”

No wonder people avoid church. It can be a guilt producing machine. Sometimes people come and put their expectations for themselves onto me. “Have you visited so and so? I’m really worried about them.”
It feels like they’re saying “even though I’ve failed again– as long as the Minister is a good neighbour – I know that it’s possible for me to meet that mark – someday – maybe – if I’m sorry enough…”

And so the Minister is responsible for proving that human beings really are not as self-centered and self-interested as I feel that I am. As long as there is one Selfless superhero out there in the community – I can keep my expectations for my self high and not let that “ish” part of my “self” get away with not meeting those – EXPECTATIONS.

I was raised in the church where there was lots of talk about God’s grace and forgiveness and lots of action around meeting God’s expectations. When I left home as a young man, I left the church behind too. I left it all stored in a box in my parent’s basement. I put a lot of distance between me and those expectations.

Me and the devil and Jesus wrestled for a year in mountains and tidal flats and – to make a long story short – I learned how to put the moves on those slippery expectations and get them into a half nelson hold. The Christ I met in spirit – later surprising me by jumping out of the gospel stories like a jack-in-the –box – showed me those moves. Serving Christ’s hope for humanity wasn’t about meeting high expectations. It was about meeting my brothers and sisters as human beings, as creatures, with compassion and without my judgement or my advice or even my help.

Just as Christ simply offered to walk with me, what I had to offer others was simply –first and last - companionship. And that was all that Christ expected of me. Really. No REALLY! That’s it.

Now just cause I got a hold on those slippery expectations didn’t mean the wrestling match was over. The devil continues to dance three steps ahead of me and three steps behind. I retrieved that box from my parents’ basement and chose to jump right in – become a churchworker. I can get distracted by “shoulds” and “should haves” and before you know it my arm’s twisted up behind my back and I’m in existential pain trying to prove my worth in the devil’s mirror again.

The journey that I’m on with Jesus is not about meeting expectations. No I’m on foot beside that superhighway to hell. I meet people as they pull off for gas or food and tell me about the good intentions they’re driving on (as in “the road to hell is paved with…”)

Slowly, slowly – Tai Chi slowly – I am learning how to move, when to block, when to punch, when to grab hold and pull. And inside that box that is Sunday mornings I keep cranking that handle round. Crank and wait. Crank and wait. Crank and wait as the Advent Christmas music tinkles on…

I know Jesus is in there. I know the surprise is coming. And when it comes – it makes me jump every time. Right out of my guilty skin! It makes me laugh and remember how big a child’s soul is. So big that work is play and one forgets to check the score.


corrie said...

Hi Allan, Being yourself is the most important thing in your spiritual walk with Jesus. The devil will always be there, either behind or in front of you, but you know where to go with that. Welcome him and tell him to leave. Remember the retreat? Jesus already took care of him and crushed his head. Don't change, be Allan because that is who God loves, you. There will always be expectations and you can never make everyone happy. The thing is, and don't worry about all these holidays, just focus on Jesus, the rest will fall in place. Corrie.

brenda said...

Well, Allan, this reflection shows a high degree of self awareness and even self-acceptance. This is who you are. Of course - guilt for that - isn't that what we were all brought up to struggle with - being who everyone else expects us to be and not "just" (or "even") ourselves? There;s the slice of guilt - between those two.

Congratulations for shining the light on it in such an understandable and HUMAN NATURE kind of way. Jesus would smile - even from his Christmas box!

Northern Chirp said...

Good one, Al. You know, I was just going to forward it to my minister up here, and it occurred to me that I was about to use your lovely reflections as a club to beat him over the head, to make him change. Now I'm confused, because all I want him to do is stop beating us over the head, but I guess whacking him is not a good way to try to make him stop whacking us. Sheesh, I'll have to think on this. Hmmm, maybe just being a companion. See you next Friday. Blessings, John