A Spiral Upward

November 25, 2013

I experienced, and I have noticed this paradox in pastoral ministry. It was about me and up to me; yet it was not about me, nor up to me. A strong ego on one hand; a transcended ego on the other.

Maybe this dynamic is more of a spiral movement, round and round from one side of the paradox to the other. The hoped for direction of the spiral is this: ministry happens more and more through us, not just from us, more letting it happen than making it happen.

In one sense, ministry is about you, and its up to you. That’s the way it begins. During the season of pastoral formation, the seminary and early years as a pastor, you need to be self-focused. After all, you are preparing for a particular vocation. There is so much to learn, so much knowledge to take in, chew and digest. You are busy ingesting church history, systematic theology, biblical studies, Christian ethics, liturgy, and church polity. It’s all foundational to the work looming before you. In addition, there is the “practical” side of the curriculum, the skill-set of pastoral care and congregational management required. Hopefully, all this adds up to a strong sense of self.

And, upon assuming leadership in a congregation, it’s all the more about you and up to you — your preaching, your leadership, your personality, your pastoral visits or lack of them. On the surface, that is the way it looks, about you and up to you. You are visible, up-front, public, employed, hence a convenient, obvious rack on which to hang unending judgments.

But occasionally, and increasingly so, we experience pastoral ministry as impossible. For all our heroic efforts to meet expectations, both ours and others, we come to the end of the day whispering to ourselves, “I can’t keep doing this. I don’t have what it takes.” How often, it seems, what worked doesn’t work any longer. Or those insights we glean from this book or that conversation are insufficient for long term travel. Even the conference we attend or lectures we download grant short-term benefits that dissolve like cotton candy.

I remind you what you know. These times of “impossible” can be times we trust the More than we are. Likely, we ask our will power and personal acumen to take us as far at they can. But it’s never far enough. Our finest efforts break down, in small and, for some of us, in big ways. It’s the heart of 12-Step wisdom: only at the point of admitted powerlessness can we experience the Higher Power, God, that is.

Recall those “impossible” moments when you fell into a wisdom not your own. It could be in the midst of a sermon or counseling session or interpersonal conflict or contentious committee meeting, when the “possible” surprisingly emerges from the “impossible.” You know this experience. I imagine it as being a violin making music you didn’t compose.

I am suggesting that maturity in ministry, as in life generally, is yielding to this spiral upward — from our ministry being about me and up to me to it being not about me or up to me. It seems, if we allow it, that increasingly we experience creativity and strength coming more through us than from us.

Think of the mature among us. They speak less about striving, controlling and trying so hard, and more about allowing, being carried, graced as an agent of intentions much larger and wondrous.

This spiraling movement from self to transcending self calls for poetry, not prose. Rainer Rilke names it beautifully.

The Swan

This clumsy living that moves lumbering
as if in ropes through what is not done,
reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks.

And to die, which is the letting go
of the ground we stand on and cling to every day,
is like the swan, when he nervously lets himself down
into the water, which receives him gaily
and which flows joyfully under
and after him, wave after wave
while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm,
is pleased to be carried, each moment more fully grown,
more like a king, further and further on.

I’m left with a question. I’m asking myself, and now you, what helps us die, to let go of clinging, allowing the giving of our selves to the Water that receives us gaily and flows joyfully under us, granting us pleasure in being carried? What helps us do that?


Music Matters

November 5, 2013

I am just back from one of those powerful, ‘full of power’ week-long conferences. You know what I mean, events that renew your body, mind and spirit. Upon returning, I’ve experienced the familiar frustration of naming this “power” to those pressing me for its meaning.

​I found myself focussing on the leader, a typical fall back position. After all, the leader is up front, visible, the one most easy to blame or commend. I chose commending. I spoke of her inner freedom to offer fully who she is, her clarity of thought, her humor, her generosity and other such glowing, yet nebulous words. I gave some examples. I drew a few mental pictures.

​But, upon reflection, it was the “music” that empowered me. She helped us make music together. Her vulnerability invited ours. Her self-giving invited ours. Her wisdom invited ours. The power is from what happened between us — the invisible, immeasurable, mysterious — like a symphony. I most enjoyed what flowed through her, much like the music that flows through the violin and violinist in concert with other musicians.

​Then I remembered a quote from Anthony DeMello in Awareness. I pulled down from my shelf this favorite book in former years, leafed the pages, finding these words:

“What I really enjoy is not you; it’s something that’s greater than both you and me. It is ​something that I discovered, a kind of symphony, a kind of orchestra that plays one ​melody in your presence, but when you depart, the orchestra doesn’t stop. When I meet ​someone else, it plays another melody, which is also very delightful. And when I’m ​alone, it continues to play. There’s a greater repertoire and it never cease to play.” ​(p.54)

​That’s it. That’s the deeper truth. Last week I experienced a symphony, many variations on a theme, with numerous players involved and — yes, an authentic, skillful maestro leading us all.

​Then my mind jumped to another memory:

The surprise came at the end of a banjo lesson. Cary Fridley, my teacher, began describing the ​work involved in “cutting” her next CD: recruiting musicians, practicing privately, practicing ​together again and again — all in preparation for the final recording session coming up ​the next week.

​“I get increasingly anxious as we approach the recording,” she admitted.

​“Well,” I asked, “what helps you with your anxiety?”

​Her response was profound beyond her knowing.“When I can get to that place within myself ​and with others where the music is more important than me, then I am not anxious.”

​Maybe the music is what’s important, what really matters — the Music we experience through others; the Music others experience through us. Name it Love, Grace, Spirit, God, Sacred, Christ, as I am prone to do. But today Music is my word of choice.