Falling Upward: A Re-Frame That Mattered

Life’s theme—walk, stumble, fall, up again, dust off, move on. In big and small ways that’s a drama we know.

This particular re-frame rises from a fall, felt as a huge failure. It may be an example of what current elder Richard Rohr calls “falling upward.” In my case, while the fall was abrupt, the upward part was gradual and uneven, its trajectory only clear from this perch of time and distance.

I live by the verse, “Without a vision, the people perish.” Possibility thinking. Long-range planning. Defining expectations. Goal orientation. I register as a strong intuitive on the Myers-Briggs Indicator, one who relishes “big picture” thinking. But surprisingly, along my vocational path I tripped over the visionary’s counter truth: “By attaching to a vision, people—including myself—can likewise perish.” That danger hints at the nature of this re-frame.

I came from seminary fresh with a vision of what church could be. During those seven years I built a solid platform from which to launch my vocation. After graduation a Washington D.C. suburban congregation became a willing partner in this good work. Beginning in 1967 my partner and I entered a season of suburban flight, rising black power awareness, the push for fair housing, assassinations of leaders, the Civil Rights Movement embodied for us in the Poor People’s Campaign, and, most of all, the Vietnam War that took many of our husbands, fathers, and sons away for a year or more at a time. Some came home in “body bags.” It was a turbulent season for families and nation. The exhilaration of this vortex was addictive. I found seductive these reverberations moving through our little congregation, so eager, as I was, to be a “light set on a hill.”

The congregation was collaborator in my visionary dreaming. At least, the leaders were. I was a young man joining a young, seven-year-old congregation ripe for large visions of what could be. We became a co-dependent pair—the church and me—rightly excited by the challenges, but also, as I came to see, primed for the lure of lofty self-ideals.

At about the five-year mark I hit a wall. I had never encountered a barrier that I couldn’t scale or circumvent, due, in large part, to privileges from being “born on third base.” But this wall was different. Trying harder only deepened the ruts of physical and spiritual exhaustion. My usual ways of coping, such as taking a few days off, didn’t dent the hardening mixture of depression and bewilderment. Something had to give.

The “give” was resigning my position with no vocational place to go. Our family of six retreated to the mountains, moved into in a friend’s empty trailer, and pieced together a “living” while granting ourselves a year to re-group. It felt like a divorce from a vocation and congregation I loved. And, like a divorce, most friends and family didn’t know what to say. And, truthfully, I didn’t know what to say either.

An epiphany came early in this year of withdrawal. It was 1972, an autumn day, bright sun above, Blue Ridge mountains in the distance, with a gentle breeze near as breath. Only a month had passed since my resignation; I was still seeking sense of what had happened. Sitting on a bench, absorbing the beauty, I began re-reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. My eyes fell on these searing words:

God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself . . . He acts as the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.”

I asked myself, “Is that what happened?” and quickly answered, “Yes!” There it was, painfully clear. I traced in my mind the downward spiral Bonhoeffer named. First, fashioning a “visionary ideal of community”; then, when it wasn’t realized, blaming the church, then God, and finally the self. I don’t recall ever blaming God, but I sure did a “number” on myself, accusing myself of inadequate self-care, over-functioning, and not being enough—in other words, for failing at my first full-time gig as pastor.

My ending at this church was not that simple. My resignation was many-layered, as all of them are. But that autumn day on the bench something shifted. Bonhoeffer’s sharp insight lanced the boil of my church-ideal and self-ideal as pastor. My lofty expectations, for self and others, lay exposed like shards from a broken pot. How clear it was, my deeply ingrained need to produce results. I remember thinking, “Have I loved our dreams, our goals, our possibilities, more than I loved the people? Was I so focused on ‘getting somewhere’ that I missed the marvel of being who and where we already were?”

Simply, the re-frame is this. Focus less on outcomes; re-focus on the here-and-now complexity, truth, and beauty of relationships. I faced a new awareness: dependence on results had become a primary source of personal satisfaction, robbing me of the joy in simply doing the work.

It was a turning. A clarity surfaced from those months. Being well formed—having dreams, developing leadership habits, honing pastoral skills, developing self-awareness, and working out my pastoral identity—is what Rohr calls “first half of life” work. But this good work proved insufficient as an adequate base on which to build a vocation. It was not enough. I was not enough. We were not enough.

There is more, namely, trans-formation, transcending while including ego. Forming a strong ego is imperative, but only as a conduit for the transforming power of Love. So, having visions is crucial. Dreams give direction. But attaching ego to them is fatal. To do so not only jerks us out of the present but tempts us to wed our well-being to their realization.

This failure in 1972 offered a gift. From this fall I saw clearly on a deeper level what I had been preaching all along, namely, that ministry, as is all of life, is grace, not achievement. What I most wanted was already given. Visionary dreaming could then take its rightful place as playful longings of “what ifs.” From that “gap” year I began a gradual, wavering shift of awareness from living my life in ministry to a sense of being lived through by a larger Life. Paradoxically, ministry continued to be mine, yet not mine.

I can still see myself sitting alone on that bench, the distant mountains in view, feeling the sun’s warmth and the soft breeze, reading the words from Bonhoeffer. I closed the book gently, knowing that I had just taken a turn in my journey.

 

5 Responses to Falling Upward: A Re-Frame That Mattered

  1. Peggy Payne says:

    oh boy, does this ever hit home!

    Like

  2. Nancy Sehested says:

    Mahan, this rings with so much truth and power. Thank you for opening the threshold to a deeper understanding of our pastoral vocation. How much I needed to hear it now, this week.
    It is a grace.
    Nancy

    Like

  3. Anne Hunter Eidson says:

    Yes, yes, yes.

    Like

  4. Jim Strickland says:

    Mahan,

    One of your best blogs in my opinion and they are all good and helpful.

    Hope you and Janice are doing well. Hope to see you sooner than later.

    Jim

    Like

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