For Meaning Addicts: An Achilles Heel

January 17, 2011

You and I are in the “meaning” business. We get our “highs” from someone’s, “Wow! I see what you are talking about. Or, this makes such sense! That is so helpful!”

Of course, we don’t make meaning, but we sure love being around when meaning happens. We like to fan the flames of a person’s passion for understanding. And as they struggle to make sense of a life situation, we are not averse to throwing in a question or two, maybe even a suggestion. What fun. What a privilege.

“Purpose” was the first word that marked my becoming a Christian as a young adult. I was bored, unmotivated and headed toward a job scripted from early days. But the “lights came up” when following Jesus was introduced to me as a grand adventure, as a huge purpose for living, exciting enough to awaken my motivation to learn and serve. I remember the amazement of studying beyond mid-night—just because I wanted to. Then, so seamless it seemed, this curiosity about life’s meaning drew me into our vocation. A journalist once asked me what I liked about being a pastor. My answer came quickly: “I love having a close up, ringside seat to people’s struggle to find meaning in their life experiences.”

But in the spirit of—light has a shadow and every strength has a weakness and every powerful person has a vulnerable Achilles’ heel—within the search for meaning there is a danger for us who love the quest. I felt “ouch” when I read this quote recently.

Treya Killan was blessed with friends, including her husband, Ken Wilbur, people who were profoundly curious about the meaning of life. So, when she discovered the aggressive cancer cells in her body, her friends rushed to help by convincing her of ways to understand her illness and find meaning in her suffering. She writes:

“I needed to be around people who loved me as I was, not people who were trying to motivate me or change me or convince me of their favorite idea or theory.”

Hence the challenge: to love without condition, even meaningful conditions.

On Making a New Year’s Resolution

January 3, 2011

Are you one of those, at the beginning of a new year, who makes a resolution? I am this year.

From Sue Bender’s Plain and Simple, I lift up a distinction she learned from the Amish during the months she lived with them. She experienced in them the difference in having choices and making a choice. As one who intepreted freedom as having many choices, she witnessed in the Amish the freedom granted by a framework from making a few essential choices.

When I moved from being a director of a department within a medical center to be a pastor, I relished the freedom of many choices. With the exception of worship planning/leadership, plus a sprinkling of “have to” commitments during the week, I could develop my own calendar. Each morning I would wake up to the question: “What is the best use of my time today?” I thought, what freedom to shape my ministry on my own! In time, not long actually, I felt the burden of this freedom. The fatigue of over-choice set in. I missed the framework, the structure and accountability of my former job.

We know this truth. It’s a paradox at the very heart of the gospel: “In God’s service is perfect freedom,” we declare. Or, being bound to our first love, God, is to be free from worshiping and serving other “ultimates.” Or, to promise “yes” to a life partner until death parts us is to free us to say “no” to other intimate relationships. We know this truth: freedom is not having as many choices as possible: it’s the fruit of our capacity to make a choice.

And since we are in a vocation full of expectations, requests, and opportunities coming at us, we are especially vulnerable to expending huge amounts of energy and time determining our responding choices. If it’s going to happen, it is largely up to us to make a few essential choices that frame our life in ministry, a few choices that set in place structures that assist our discerning “yes” and “no.”

Take as a case in point: your “day-off” for self-care. It is your decision what day to choose or not choose a set day-off. I observe that if pastors make a choice and it becomes the norm for them and known by staff and congregation, then the freedom to decline or negotiate requests for your time is greatly enhanced. A structure, a framework is in place.

The same principle works with committees and congregations. How often we want to protect our options, have lots of choices, leave open many possibilities—then experience how unfreeing and time/energy consuming this can be. On the contrary, from all the choices possible, how freeing and energizing making an essential choice can be.

Here is a choice I am making, my New Year’s Resolution: I will practice being present to what is before me—with wonder, love, or at least curiosity. So during times of “wool gathering” (which are many, many, many) I want to practice developing a muscle for bringing me back to “showing up” to what is before me. And I give you permission to ask me, “Mahan, how are you doing with that resolution?”

You, my friend, you with many choices, is there an essential choice you making this year?