However I think most of us would have felt that we were genuinely blessed. We enjoyed wonderful hospitality from the Rangiora people – rich in food, sheer generosity through the people hours contributed, the pastor's (Ivan Button) wonderful stone paintings that we each took away, and some memorable quirkiness, plus some really good Canterbury weather. A particular gift was also the very creatively prepared prayer room and the art that many of you brought. We came to hear from the God who speaks but we were also given the opportunity to 'speak to the God who listens' (Neil Perry's phrase) and that makes for a rich experience.
Did we hear from God? A number of people have told me they did. I did! In a way it was a reiteration of something I'm very aware of. I particularly appreciated the work done by David Moko, our Kaihautu, who brought together a great team of people for an evening to challenge and inform us with regard to the relationship that we should have with Maori. We were encouraged to enter their world, a very basic mission principle that we struggle to act on. It was a long evening which for me was a significant part of entering the Maori world. There was a very moving response time in the latter part of the evening that was well worth waiting for, and some beautiful music.
A few days later I was on my way to Samoa to enter an unfamiliar world of tragedy and devastation. I was met at the airport at Apia by Pale and Sene Seupule, our Samoan pastors from Wainuiomata. Meetings had been arranged for me with village elders in Satitoa where we were hoping to be able to rebuild a school through BANZAid in partnership with the Samoan people. I also had a meeting scheduled with the Samoan Prime Minister to help further the project.
Sene had decided wisely that I should wear the local dress – the skirt like lavalava and a Samoan shirt. This felt good and it was clearly appreciated. One of the first things commented on by the Samoan Prime Minister in our very good meeting was that our whole delegation including Paul Thompson, Phil Bull and Neil Hamilton of BANZAid were wearing lavalavas.
This together with the experience of the Saturday evening of the Gathering impressed itself on me and so the following Sunday when I was speaking at a combined advent service in Levin, I preached from Philippians 2 'He entered our world', and wore my lavalava. It felt good and not just because the lavalava is very comfortable. It felt right. Surely one of our great written treasures is the Philippians 2 passage speaking of God's sheer generosity in Jesus entering our world. Is there a greater Christmas message, or Easter one come to that!
I normally have my first sight of the denominational stats around the time of the Gathering. Over the past year we've had an increase in the numbers of people being baptised, but our attendance numbers are similar to the previous year. This means that in relation to population growth in New Zealand we're declining. I don't believe there are new or quick fixes with this situation but I take encouragement from the Christ-like character shown by a number of our church communities and individuals within the communities and am naïve enough to believe that if we take seriously a great scripture like Philippians 2, then God will honour our desire to have the same attitude as Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5.)
People were clearly moved by Chris Sola at the Gathering because Chris and his people are prepared to leave their comfort zones again and again. It was a great story because it's the Philippians 2 story. If you weren't at the Gathering consider listening to the CDs or DVDs. It was inspiring.
Back to the stats for a moment – I can almost feel the groans but bear with me for a moment. An examination of the stats reveals two things – neither of them rocket science. Where a church experiences serious conflict it remains damaged for years and, pastor health is vitally important. We've brought a group together to work on the resolution of conflict and I'm hopeful of tangible progress in this area but I want to go on and reflect on an aspect of pastor health that I've been very aware of over the years.
The Gathering tends to be a bit of a marathon for me personally as I find I'm 'on call' from the moment it starts on the Thursday morning through to the Sunday lunchtime. I'm aware that, despite being a bit aged and decrepit, I don't get particularly tired during the Gathering. (One boring committee meeting can put me to sleep very quickly.) I can be tired both before the Gathering and after but not during. I think most of you would have an appreciation of this. We tend to have these adrenaline surges that keep us very wide awake, engaged and energised (and sometimes a bit high). With the Gathering it's a four day one! I'm used to the adrenaline rushes.
They're very much a feature of being an opera singer. There are those couple of hours of very high concentration and communication during a performance. It can take hours to wind down, particularly after an opening night. Socialising, reading, watching tellie, none of them do it. My mind will be racing with tunes from the opera going over and over in my mind. Often it can be three in the morning or later before I sleep, and then it's a bit fitful.
Why am I writing about this? Because for many of us it's very similar. Preaching is a big event. It can thrill and drain at the same time. It calls on our gifts, we have a high sense of privilege, we have prepared for the event and it's very concentrated. Then it's over. Often it takes a while to come down to earth. Immediately after is not the best time for someone to start picking over the message and tell us where we've missed out, even spouses! This was one thing Lorna picked up fairly early with me as singer and preacher, even if I was looking for a bit of feedback. But it's not just the preaching. We're often leading or on show in some way with a major presentation or a very important meeting.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that there is a sense in which I love that adrenaline rush but we have to be very careful that we're not 'running on empty'. We need to know the signs. It's not for nothing that Monday has been recognised as a good day for a day off for many pastors. I reckon that some of the 'falls' we've witnessed of high profile preachers have come about because they've known they can summon up a lot with the adrenaline rush but really they've been running on empty and become very vulnerable, with limited reserves to defend themselves against the darts of the evil one.
Jesus, who clearly knew what that was about, took time out following the big events like the feeding of the 5000, and we need that same balance (Matthew 14:13 – 23). We need to be intentional about the replenishing of our spiritual and emotional reserves. Personally I've found that there's a necessary balance - body, mind and spirit, and some good hard physical exercise to get my body into the same exhausted state as my spirit and my emotions is a good thing to help me truly relax. Many of us will have a sense that we're close to running on empty as we come near the end of the year. I hope that if that's your situation then you'll have a great time of replenishment over the summer.
I've written before about George Balmer who was a great mentor to me when I was an associate pastor with him in High Wycombe in the UK. George was a very hard worker and a perfectionist but I remember that in the summer he would consciously slow the pace and he encouraged me to do the same. If we are in for the long haul ,and I hope we are, then we need to pace our ministries for the decades, not just the months or a year. I think you can expect Grahame Walker in his new national role with our pastors to be hounding us a bit over this issue. It's always risky to say things like, "It's a very tough time to be a pastor", because it's always been tough, but it's a wonderful calling.
So I want to encourage you as you take that break – celebrate your calling, remember it doesn't all depend on you and think about the crucial support relationships you have and the balance in your life. Healthy pastors are a wonderful blessing to their churches and the Kingdom. This is a message to Rodney Macann – I'm looking forward to that break!
The Lord bless and encourage you.