The Myth of Redemptive Violence: A Re-Frame That Mattered

March 19, 2018

The new reality Jesus proclaimed was nonviolent . . . The church must affirm nonviolence without reservation because nonviolence is the way God’s domination-free order is coming . . . Jesus has never seemed more relevant. The world has never been more ready.

 Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers

It may be the warmest, most intimate memory with my father. The picture in my mind is vivid. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 6:30 to 7:00 my dad and I listened to the “Lone Ranger.” I picture him stretched out on a chaise lounge sofa with me sitting on its edge and the bronze radio a few feet away. For thirty minutes we are huddled together in a bubble of shared imagination. This regular ritual continued from about my seventh to tenth year.

But more was happening than just a warm, memorable experience with my father. When Walter Wink and his award-winning book, Engaging the Powers, appeared in my life in 1992 our Lone Ranger experience took on deeper meaning. Each Lone Ranger episode followed the same pattern, a pattern also consistent with the other prominent cartoons of the day — Popeye, Batman, Superman, Captain Marvel and others. This same pattern runs through the high-tech games that currently occupy the imagination of our youth.

The pattern. The Lone Ranger and Tonto are the good guys pitted against the bad guys. It looks like the bad guys will win until the good guys somehow overpower the evil threat. And, at the end, the Lone Ranger and Tonto ride away victorious, leaving me as a young boy enamored with their moral greatness and wondering “who is this masked man?” Similarly, Popeye, protecting Olive against the brute Bluto, would at the last minute from the spinach infusion of power pummel him to near death.

Wink makes a bold claim. He builds a case that these seemingly inconsequential childhood stories quietly condition us with the dominant spirituality in America. He sees this same socialization occurring from the stories we tell about our history and current events. This secular spirituality, or if you prefer, this pervasive ideology Wink names the myth of redemptive violence.

Let’s break this bold assertion down into parts. Violence is destructive, overpowering acts that demean human dignity and soul with the goal of winning at all cost (the end justifies the means), as in “winning” an argument or “winning a war.” Redemptive violence is the assumption — violence redeems, violence saves, violence wins, violence deters aggressors, violence solves problems, violence brings peace, violence is trustworthy, violence eradicates evil. Myth is a worldview or belief or narrative that mirrors a particular view of reality. We all have myths or narratives through which we see the world.

Let’s return to the Lone Ranger myth. He and Tonto redeem or save an evil situation by overpowering the enemy through violence, usually gun violence. They are righteous, the opposition is evil. Within the Lone Ranger himself there is no sign of ambiguity, no sense of internal contradiction, no trace of sin, no hint of evil. What fear or outrage he feels is projected on to the face of the enemy. The evil is “out there” to be destroyed. As a young boy, I was being invited to identify with the good guys, to feel righteous, superior, and justified in overpowering what or whoever opposes me.

Walter Wink opened my eyes in 1992. I began to see this myth of redemptive violence everywhere. I observed it being played out on macro and micro levels, for example, from the macro event of forcing with violence democracy (a nonviolent form of government) in the Near East to the micro violence of “winning” an argument with a friend or spouse through a power-play of some form.

Other examples are plentiful. These come to mind: countering murdering by killing murderers; stopping children fighting by spanking them; maintaining control in the home through physical or psychological abuse; establishing security with more guns for citizens; annihilating the evil of terrorism; declaring war on poverty or drugs; defining opposing leaders as enemies, not colleagues; winning the best divorce settlement by whatever means possible.

In all these illustrations of conflict, and those that come to your mind, the desired solution is accomplished through violence, that is, some method of overpowering the other. But this for me is the new insight — all of these violent actions are efforts to save or redeem some problematic situation, large or small.

In retirement I have worked with inmates in a nearby maximum-security prison. Even they, at the moment of their violent act, felt they were solving a problem. They were trying to save or achieve something vital to them.

This pattern of redeeming through violence is an assumption so entrenched in our culture that to think otherwise requires a deliberate, conscious effort. For most of us it’s just the way life works. It’s so common we don’t name it as insane. We don’t notice that violence always breeds more violence.

More to the point of our vocation, I want to name some ways that Wink’s wisdom affected my ministry: understanding of Jesus, understanding leadership and understanding my inner life.

* * *

During seminary years and in my early years as a pastor, like many of my peers I was inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement for racial equality. Along with the nation, I watched the power of social change through nonviolent action. I read in King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail about the concept of breaking an unjust law in obedience to the higher law of justice. Along with an alarmed world, I saw its cost and redemptive power embodied in the children being hosed to their knees on the streets in Birmingham. They and others in the movement absorbed the suffering and loved in return. I knew at the time that Gandhi’s wisdom was informing King, and Leo Tolstoy was informing Gandhi, and all of them were informed by the Sermon on the Mount.

But Wink took me to another level by grounding this wisdom in the very core of Jesus. It was as if Wink was focusing my camera lens. He gave me not a new Jesus, but a clearer Jesus. Direct nonviolent behavior was not just a way for social change. It is the way to live your life. It’s the way Jesus lived and died.

Underneath all this capacity to live nonviolently is Jesus’ rock-bottom conviction, the central commandment — connecting loving God to loving the neighbor (the “other”) as yourself. On the deepest level the “other” is part of you, you are part of the “other.” I acknowledge it does not look that way. We can’t see how deeply we are connected with all that lives around us. But we are. According to Jesus and current physicists, we are profoundly “quantum entangled.” This means what happens to you affects me and vice versa. If this invisible connection is true — for sure, a radical shift in worldview — then any violence toward our neighbor (including the earth) is violence to ourselves. And conversely, as strange as it seems, loving our enemy is a form of loving ourselves.

Let’s assume, as Jesus does, that reality in its essence is relational. Simply, life is relationship. Furthermore, in most relationships some have the power to dominate and violate — what Wink calls domination systems. Predictably when conflicts occur within these relationships, the myth of redemptive violence is activated. Those with the power, either in overt or covert ways, dominate or oppress the other as the way to reestablish comfort and order.

Jesus offers another stance, another kind of power, a third option to fleeing and fighting. We watch him taking stands in the face of dominating power, not fleeing in fear, not responding with escalating violence. He never “takes the bait.” Neither does he define the opposing “other” as foe or victim. The enemy, according to Jesus’ behavior, is to be loved, not hated; prayed for, not ignored; valued, not demonized. We follow his life with amazement, watching him always on the lookout for a third way beyond the polarizing differences fueled by domination.

I hasten to add that to follow this nonviolent third way of Jesus is not only costly. It’s impossible. Our determined will-power to be like Jesus is futile. To follow this alternative way is to be driven to prayer. Only with God’s power as Abba, Spirit and Christ within us can we approximate this Love.

The re-frame is Wink’s gift. He deepened my awareness of the radical good news of Jesus. Against the backdrop of the myth of redemptive violence — the favored secular religion of our time — Jesus could not be more relevant. The church, if willing to offer and embody this radical option of Jesus, could not be in a better position. Without soft-pedaling the cost of those who choose this Way — after all, to love is to suffer with and for — Wink writes of the joy of participating in nonviolent behavior that is history’s only alternative to non-existence. The spiral of redemptive violence spawned within Domination Systems, unless checked, will lead to the non-existence of life as we know it. The Jesus vision is not only relevant, it is urgent.

* * *

And Wink’s understanding influenced my way of leading as a pastor. I have already mentioned one example in another re-frame on the “angel” of a congregation. But, beyond that insight, Wink challenged me to see leadership through the lens of redemptive nonviolence. I mention a few examples.

At a point in my ministry I was planning to change a staff configuration. I wanted a part-time person to become full time and in the process change her focus. Time was short to make this change. I mentioned this hope of mine to a supportive member of the congregation. Matt, let’s call him, immediately became invested in helping me create a strategy for achieving my goal. With a spark in his eyes, he said, “Mahan, let’s figure out your allies. Then let’s name your opposition.” Before I knew it, I was swept up into a strategy to overtake the opposition and win what I wanted. But, thankfully, I woke up, seeing it as a violent plan of action. The more collaborative process, a bit long and messy, yielded a conclusion opposed to my original goal. It became a gentle reminder that this congregation belonged to them, not to me. After all, we are “interim” pastors, privileged to be present only for a season.

Another example of Wink’s wisdom impacting my leadership occurred during a denominational crisis. For reasons I need not elaborate, I became a point person to be attacked in the effort of one faction of our denomination to overpower another faction. I was the enemy. In their mind I must be eliminated. Devious strategies were implemented to discredit me — taping my talks without permission, quoting me out of context, mounting a campaign to fire me as an adjunct professor and “dis-fellowship” our congregation from the denomination on local, state and national levels. They were successful on all points.

I happened to be reading Wink during those years. He gave me a way to see what was happening. These leaders, within my family of faith, saw me as a threat to their vision of our denomination. They were trying to save, to redeem what they feared was being undermined. They were working for redemption. The end — saving the denomination — justified any violent means. I, and those like me, were a cancer to the body that must be destroyed. That’s the conventional approach to cancer.

This knowing didn’t produce any joy but it did help me understand. In understanding I could carry it all more lightly as a season of conflict that would eventually pass. Wink also challenged me to look for active, nonviolent ways of responding. Sometimes I found them, sometimes I didn’t.

At every point in our leadership amid conflict these Wink glasses are there to be picked up. These lenses will bring into focus the power dynamics at work in all relationships. And with such awareness come options.

* * *

The strongest payoff from reading Wink’s Engaging the Powers is in the relationship with myself. And, not only does Wink speak about this inner work, he, with considerable vulnerability, takes us into his own violence against himself. The myth of redemptive violence, so pervasive in our culture, is internalized in all of us. It’s the log in our own eye that keeps us from seeing, not just any splinter in another person’s eye, but hinders our seeing the violence we do to ourselves. Living nonviolently is largely an inside job. This is the place to start — our internal violence.

Just listen to the voices in your head. Your inner voices might be similar to mine. I hear the voice, “You’re not enough. That sermon or idea or pastoral response was not good enough. You can do better. Try harder. Do more. Work harder.” This voice blesses excessive over-functioning that never counts the cost of physical, emotional and spiritual exhaustion that eventually sets in.

Another voice is full of fear. “I fear exposure. I fear being caught in my inadequacy. I fear failure. So, play it safe, don’t risk, hold back.” Another voice is anger. “Who can I blame? Who is at fault? Not me. Who needs to change for me to feel better?”

You know your own self-talk. You also have turned to various modalities that help in understanding these inner parts of yourself. But this insight from Wink might be new to you as it was for me. These self-judgments, he is saying, are a form of redemptive violence internalized. This means that these violent, inner voices are for, not against us. They are attempts to help us, save us, redeem us. They are loud in their desire to assist us in reaching our goals.

Yet these violent messages against ourselves, while attempting to be redemptive, are destructive. Violence is violence. What is true externally is true internally. Violence breeds violence.

Yet, like the Lone Ranger, I want to see myself as right, on the righteous side of conflict. How uncomfortable it is to say, “I am violent to myself. I can be an enemy of myself.” And we all know what happens next. To maintain the illusion of being right we must project our uncomfortable feelings of fear, guilt, shame and anger onto the face of some “other.” We must keep evil and wrong “out there.” The Lone Ranger, as you may recall, had no sense of inner contradiction or evil. For him the enemy was external and must be overcome. Remember, he’s the “masked” man.

I’m challenged by Wink’s conviction that the practice of loving your enemy is the acid test of discipleship in our time. He keeps lifting up the central place of nonviolence and love of enemies in Jesus’ teaching, life and death.

But I am more challenged by the practice of loving the enemy within. According to Wink it means allowing God’s love to engage these voices of “not enough,” fear, shame, anger and self-despising. It means loving yourself with God’s power to heal and transform. Indeed, God’s assurance of grace is the very strength needed to engage these inner, potent, self-judgmental voices. If John the Baptist declared, “Repent and be forgiven,” Jesus declared, “Be forgiven and repent.” God’s forgiveness comes first. It is security of God’s nonviolent, unconditional love that grants us the courage to face the ways we are violent to ourselves. Internally, as well as in external relationships, it is only this force of nonviolent love that truly saves and redeems.

Strange as it might read, the enemy, both internally and externally, turns out to be a gift. The enemy, both within and beyond, reveals what we would not otherwise see. These opposing powers smoke us out and compel us to acknowledge what is being denied, hidden and projected. Only then do the resources of confession and forgiveness make sense. Our inner violence can propel us toward God. This vulnerability of seeing the ways we violate ourselves is a doorway into freedom and grace.

These words of Thomas Merton to his friend Jim Forest stopped me in my tracks with conviction when I first read them.

 “The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form of contemporary violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activity neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

Wink’s concept of facing and then loving the enemy within puts in perspective Merton’s confrontation. It’s the inner work that makes the outer work of nonviolent shalom-oriented ministry possible.

I hope you can feel my gratitude for this New Testament scholar who wrote for church leaders like us. He focused my lens, making clearer the urgent relevance of Jesus by showing his embodiment of nonviolence within a violent world. This changed my teaching, preaching and pastoral leadership — a re-frame that mattered.


Ministry For Our Transformation: A Re-Frame That Mattered

February 5, 2018

I owe this re-frame to Ted Purcell. It was March 1988. Clergy friends, Ted, Mel, Alan, Anne and I were together for our weekly Sabbath day. Somewhere in our interaction, Ted dropped an idea into the conversation that found no traction. But it must have lodged somewhere in my subconscious because a few days later it re-surfaced during a walk in the woods.

Ted’s idea reminded me of the challenge that I had heard from family systems theorist, Rabbi Edwin Friedman. Friedman said, “What if you treat your ministry as a research project?” That is, approach any aspect of it with the curious question, “What can I discover and learn here?” But Ted’s idea seemed deeper.

Ted said: “Maybe vocation is for our transformation.” The reversal caught my attention. We would expect the statement: our vocation is for the transformation of others, both social and personal. But pastoral ministry as a resource for our transformation — well, that’s another matter. His words, the order of them, intrigued me. From that moment I began to play with the idea that our work itself can be a spiritual practice. I invite you to do the same. If transformation, the stage beyond formation, is the journey we are on — as I suggest in the previous re-frames — then why not see ministry bringing challenges that work toward that end?

Notice the difference between this re-frame and the previous one. Both are about spiritual practices. In the last re-frame contemplative practices prepare us to be active in ministry from a transformed identity as being Love. In this re-frame I am exploring how our work itself can be a source of inner transformation.

I’m raising the question, what if baptism trumps ordination? At the rite of baptism, whether as infants or adults, our deepest identity is declared. It signals our launch into a process of “putting on the mind of Christ,” as the Apostle Paul names it. At baptism, you and I hear, as Jesus heard, that we are God’s delight, God’s beloved or as Merton said, our identity as being Love.

To place as primary our vows at baptism/confirmation is to establish this life-long path of transformation as the over-arching frame into which ordination vows (and marriage vows) are folded. Pastoral work, I’m suggesting, is nourishing soil for this ongoing conversion.

I like to imagine every service of ordination including this prayer: “God, grant that by serving the church I will lose myself, be humbled, broken open to being transformed by your Love into being Love.”

Let’s consider four typical situations in pastoral ministry: situations of criticism; situations of painful loss; situations of appreciation; and the situation of preaching.

Each of these situations contains triggers that invite egoic reactions. Each one is a hook with enticing meat on it that, when grasped, will take you off center into anxiety, fear, and defensiveness.

We can be glad, even grateful for triggers. They bring up what is unresolved in us. Invariably they pull back the curtain, exposing how deeply our self-serving ego is entrenched. Each trigger, if we notice and allow, will grant the option to take next steps in transformation. Each one opens the possibility to re-center your core identity as God’s beloved, being Love.

First, consider those times when criticism and confrontation come your way. Being public, an up-front leader, ensures for us a ready supply of criticism. We are Rorschach tests, easy targets for projection.

Defensive reactions to criticism are inevitable. Our earliest brain, the amygdala, activates at the slightest threat. It’s our friend that’s there for our survival, ever ready under threat to fire off automatic reactions — fight, flee or freeze.

So where is the transformation possibility? Cynthia Bourgeault, a wisdom teacher to many, offers a practice that’s counter-intuitive, simple but difficult. Welcoming Practice is what she calls “a powerful companion for turning daily life into a virtually limitless field for inner awakening.” (Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, pg. 135) According to Bourgeault, this practice is a three-step process. I’ve added a fourth step. This practice is particularly useful in dealing with criticism.

This practice assumes our capacity to observe ourselves, called the inner observer or inner witness. We seem to be unique among animals. We can watch ourselves reacting or responding. We can imagine our selves yesterday at 10:00 am or what we might be doing tomorrow at 10:00 am. This capacity to observe ourselves means that we have choices. We are responsible (response-able) for our responses to the circumstances that come our way. We can choose where to place our attention and with it our energy.

Let’s go through the practice in slow motion. First, you focus and sink in. You focus on the sensation in your body from the criticism being experienced. Your pay attention to what your response feels like inside you. Shortness of breath? Jaw clenched? Knots in your stomach? Fight or flight adrenaline? Whatever the feeling, don’t try to change it. Just be present to what you are sensing in your body. Don’t think or interpret, rather feel and locate these feelings within you.

Second, you welcome. This is the counter-intuitive, paradoxical part. You welcome the particular feeling: “Welcome, anger” or “Welcome, fear” or “Welcome, shame.” You are creating an inner state of hospitality. This is important — you are not welcoming the criticism, particularly negative criticism. Rather, you are welcoming the sensations associated with the confrontation or critique. You accept them fully until the reaction runs its chemical course through your body, usually for about sixty seconds.

Then you face a choice. By observing your inner reactions you come to a point of choice. One option is to attach to the feelings, build on them, and add them to former times of anger or fear or shame that are already alive in your emotional life. It has a “here we go again” sensation. This is an alluring choice — to feed these familiar miserable feelings.

Or . . . you can take a third step. You can let go. Easy to write but challenging to do. But once you have honored the feelings, feeling them in your body, then you can decide to release them. Only after you have welcomed fully the feelings is it time to let them go. You can gently say something like “I let go of my anger . . . or fear . . . or shame.” You do so firmly. Then it helps to intentionally focus on something or someone else. Where you focus is where your energy goes.

And I add a fourth act assumed by Bourgeault. Once you release these reactive emotions, you relax and let yourself fall into your core as God’s beloved, being Love. It’s the shift from feeling caught up in reactivity to remembering who you are, your given identity. You re-center: I am compassion, I am grateful, I am joy, I am love. That’s who I am. You are letting yourself down into the currents of grace that carry you. It’s a choice, a repeated choice, a shift, a practice and gesture of surrender.

Don’t believe that I followed this practice every time I faced criticism. Probably most of the time I didn’t. My ego was bruised every time and quick to defend. But when I could catch myself, pause, watch, and release, I placed myself in a better position to hear what’s true in the confrontation and let the rest roll off my back. That’s possible because our core is not in question. Being beloved and immersed in love are givens, always there to be recognized. This truth gives us a platform to stand on and listen from. A gift from living more and more from our given identity (transformation) is less and less defensiveness when criticized.

Each time you make this internal shift, you walk away having strengthened, ever so slightly, the habit of transcending ego’s dominance, living more fully from your identity as God’s beloved.

The second one — situations of painful loss — names a common pastoral experience. You are invited regularly into heartbreaking crises: “Pastor, Bill is leaving me”; “Pastor, we are just back from the doctor’s office. Anne has pancreatic cancer”; “Pastor, we don’t know what to do with Andy. He never listens to us”; “Pastor, Alice doesn’t have long. You better come.”

Almost daily we come alongside the penetrating grief from pain and loss. My ego, and likely yours, usually is the first voice to show up in self-talk: “How can I fix or solve or look competent?” In each crisis I am up against my limits to save and my pride in wanting to do so.

The invitation is to practice some version of Bourgeault’s counsel. From your inner observer note what’s happening within you. Catch yourself avoiding being fully present to the other in pain. Expect, even laugh, at ego’s need to be at the center of things. Again by shifting to your core you will know a freedom — from your own agendas; from absorbing, beyond feeling, the other’s pain; from a quickness to answer, explain, advise; and from your own anxiety in the relationship. With ego’s needs stepping aside we can better partner with them, joining the Love already present, looking together for ways of healing and hope.

And each time you make this internal shift, you walk away having strengthened, ever so slightly, the habit of transcending ego’s dominance, living more fully from your identity as God’s beloved.

Next, let’s consider the gratitude, sometimes becoming adulation, that comes your way. Because you help people connect with sacred meaning, appreciation for you is certain. And when expressed, these affirmations feel good, real good. Of course they do. Who doesn’t enjoy being validated with gratitude?

The peril in these interactions will not surprise you. Our egos relish the appreciations that easily can morph into adulation and specialness. They feed on it. They savor the adrenaline rush from affirmation. “More, more, not enough, not enough!” is its cry.

You and I have good company here. Jesus encountered in the wilderness the very temptations so familiar to us: “You can be magnificent, even spectacular! You can know power over others! You can make ‘bread” that nourishes! You are special.” Along with Jesus we are vulnerable to the grandiosity that comes with being a leader. The more we feel our ministry is about us and up to us — the ego’s message — the more our specialness is a vocational hazard.

Once again, the opportunities for spiritual practice are present. The practice has a familiar sequence: step back internally; observe the temptation at work; welcome, feel, notice your sensations; then let go gently, returning once again to being rooted and grounded in Love. From that space we are more likely to receive and enjoy the appreciation without yielding to its addictive lure.

Each time you make this internal shift you walk away having strengthened, ever so slightly, the habit of transcending ego’s dominance, living more fully from your identity as God’s beloved.

Then there is preaching, an art form unique to our vocation. It is easy to see preparation for sermons as a spiritual practice. You are working the text, not just for the congregants, but also for yourself. You are always asking of the text, “Where is the good news? What wants to come through me to the congregation?” And there is the question, particularly pertinent to this essay, “How is this text a source for my transformation? How is it reading me, changing me?”

I was asked at retirement whether I would miss preaching. My response was surprisingly immediate: “Yes. Certainly. How will I know what I believe?” It’s true. Unique is the privilege to keep working out within a community what is the meaning of faith, hope, and love in our lives. It’s the journey, not the destination, that keeps the excitement alive.

But the dangerous part for me, and I am assuming for you, is the sermon delivery and its aftermath. That’s where the triggers lay in wait. The danger never left me, the peril to stand before a congregation with truth about God and life to tell. It’s heady. It’s audacious. It’s impossible.

And, furthermore, most congregants assume the sermon is from you, not from beyond you. You hear it in their comments, either liking or taking issue with “your” sermon. And all the while our ego is jumping up and down with delight for this chance to be center stage again.

How can we possibly resist being hooked and taken away into hubris? How can we stay grounded in the deeper truth of who we are during these highly seductive moments? How can we tell ourselves, “Yes, certainly I am in this sermon. But more accurately it’s not about me. It’s about what’s larger than me, some good news coming through me.”

Yet once again, this dangerous act has the promise of transformation within it. The practice is the same: self-observation; welcoming the peril; welcoming ego’s delight, feeling its presence; then detaching, perhaps laughing at ego’s wiles, remembering who you are; then removing your “specialness,” along with your robe, at the end of the worship service. Preaching — the preparation, delivery, and aftermath — is full of potential for practicing this shift from being the message to being the messenger.

Each time you make this internal shift you walk away having strengthened, ever so slightly, the habit of transcending ego’s dominance, living more fully from your identity as God’s beloved.

I have been raising with you the question, what if, in addition to our work of service to the church, this very work itself becomes a fertile field in which, like a seed, our egos are broken open to the transforming forces around and within us? You have limited control over how fully your ministry goals will be achieved. But this you can realize: your vocation can be for your transformation.

With this re-frame in mind, a prayer for the day might look like this:

Grant that the difficulties of today strengthen my capacity to let go of attachments to outcomes, to being right, and to being affirmed.

Grant that preparations for preaching and teaching bring to me a Word that breaks me open to the grace I’m privileged to declare.

Grant that I will harbor in my self-awareness the sobering reminders: my ministry is not about me; my ministry is not up to me; my ministry is not about my worth.

Grant that I find in the joys and sorrows of today the gifts to be seen, named and lived.

Grant that the invisible presence of Christ, the very love that is God, becomes visible in my life today.

Grant today the courage to bear the symbols of God, even be a symbol of God, without playing God.


Contemplative Practice: A Re-frame That Mattered

January 8, 2018

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs . . . that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation . . . And if only everybody could realize this!” Trappist monk, Thomas Merton

This re-frame on practice is a sequel to the former re-frame — from formation to trans-formation.

It’s one thing to understand the movement from egoic identity as the small self to our deeper identity as beloved, as loved and loving. It’s another thing to feel and live from that identity. It’s the difference of living for God and living from God. It’s the difference from believing in Jesus the Christ living in us. It’s the difference from thinking about transformation and participating in transformation. The challenge is engaging in practices that strengthen our identity as being in Love until living from this Love becomes increasingly habitual.

Some form of regular contemplative practice is non-negotiable. Granted, this is a forceful, impetuous statement to make. But this is why I make it. You are offering pastoral leadership within an atmosphere of chronic anxiety to an extent not true when I began being a pastor in 1967. The culture, both inside and outside the church, is marked by increasing levels of binary thinking, herding into camps, blaming, reactivity, distrust, willfulness, and eagerness for quick fixes. That is the air you and I are breathing. This is the air your members are breathing. In order to lead in such a climate, you must find a way to be in this environment but not of it. You must find a way to get back to center. The way I will be putting forward is contemplative practices that root and ground you at your core as beloved, Love.

Let’s allow Thomas Merton to help us see how these two — understanding transformation and embodying transformation — go together. In the former re-frame I quoted Merton’s description of our primary identity.

“To say we are made in the image of God is to say that Love is the reason for my existence. Being Love is my true identity.”

Now consider with me the words of Merton in the heading of this re-frame. In this description we see the fruition of Merton’s years of contemplative practicing. For decades he experienced regular monastic practices that enhanced his living from his identity as being Love. On March 18, 1958 in a Louisville shopping center his vision of loving these strangers surprises him. He experiences the sudden awareness of being vitally connected to all these people, so much so that he speaks of it as love — “I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs.” This experience, he further notes, was “like waking up from a dream of separateness.” In his sudden clarity Merton sees, feels and describes the contours of personal transformation. Merton ends with a plea: “If only everybody could realize this!” You and I are the ones he is addressing. You and I are “everybody” who can realize this radical shift in seeing.

But just reading this passage and realizing its insight are not by themselves transformative. Thinking, teaching and preaching transformation, while pointing us in the right direction, do not change our behavior. We cannot think our way into a new way of seeing and being. Only practice takes us there. It’s not unlike the challenge of learning to play tennis or the piano. While some understanding is required, we know that playing either tennis or piano is dependent on intentional, regular practice until new habits become internalized with ascending levels of proficiency.

For me, this re-frame — contemplative practicing — began to form amid a stormy, turbulent controversy in my ministry in 1992. “We have backed into a whirlwind,” I heard myself saying. During a five-month window of time members were excited; members were exiting. Members were moving closer toward the center; members were moving away from the center. Daily on the phone, in letters, even in the local paper people were voicing, “Yes! Thumbs up!” while others declared, “No! Thumbs down!”  Telephone calls to the church office ranged from “Pass on my support” to “Pass on my disbelief, disdain, disagreement!” The church was either splintering or splitting. I did not know which at the time.

How could I remain reasonably centered and grounded within this highly anxious and reactive climate? That was the question. I turned to familiar practices, my “go-to” scriptural treasures: Psalm 139; Isaiah 40, in particular the “walking and not fainting”; the “Jesus with you” promises; Paul’s “nothing, no-thing, now or later can separate us from the love of God” and his “putting on the whole armor of God” when up against systemic forces. There were other dependable “watering holes” — favorite writers, favorite music, favorite friends, favorite trails to walk.

During that troubled time a gift came “out of the blue” in the mail. It was from a Sunday School teacher that I knew during university days who read about our controversy in his local Nashville newspaper. This gift, a book, opened up for me a whole new way of praying that became over time a re-frame that mattered. But for the moment let’s set aside the story of this gift. I’ll return to it.

First, some context. The tradition of spirituality has distinguished two types of spiritual practice: kataphatic and apophatic. Kataphatic practices call on familiar faculties — reason, memory, imagination, feelings, and will. These practices feature words: reading words, interpreting words, singing words, and praying with words. These practices under-gird the usual ways of our worship and devotional life. During my congregational crisis, I turned to these familiar resources and they did indeed strengthen my determination to keep going.

However, the gift from my Nashville friend introduced me to the other tradition of spiritual practicing — the apophatic way — the way of letting-go, self-emptying, the vianegativa. The gift was the book Open Mind, Open Heart by Father Thomas Keating. John, a former Sunday School teacher whom I had not seen for over forty years, added this inscription on the inside title page: “Mahan, I thought this may be useful during stressful days.” And it was, so much so that it opened an additional practice of praying that I began in 1992 and continue to the present. This book introduced to me a form of contemplation or meditation that Keating calls Centering Prayer.

This apophatic way of praying does not depend on kataphatic faculties. Rather, it bypasses our capacities for reason, imagination, emotion, and memory. It’s as if this spiritual practice puts a stick in the spokes of our inner wheels of incessant thinking.

Centering Prayer, like other meditation practices, does not resist or reject the busy mind of our interior life. Rather, the person meditating acknowledges these thoughts and feelings as they inevitably rise to the surface, then gently lets them pass, returning to one’s center as loved, beloved, Love — over and over again.

This practice is easy to explain; it’s profoundly difficult to do. I assume you have tried some form of meditation. You know the constant flow of anxious thoughts and reactive feelings, what Buddhists name the “monkey mind.” Thoughts and reactions, like monkeys, keep jumping freely “from tree to tree” in our minds.

This is the gift from this method of praying: these busy thoughts need not take captive our attention, kidnap our calm center, or subvert our “being rooted and grounded in Love.” The repeated letting go and relaxing into a grace-full center — over time — will strengthen an inner muscle of dis-identifying from mental and emotional attachments. And as the neuroscientists verify in research, this practice creates new neuronal pathways in the brain. Continuing practice re-wires these new connections that become increasingly habitual.

I invite you to stop for a moment. Take one of your hands, tighten it around a pencil or pen, grasping it as firmly as possible. Then, release your grip, opening your hand fully. Feel the freedom from the tension. Similarly, we grasp thoughts, then they grasp us, taking us away from the present moment. Meditative practice frees us, or at least loosens us a bit from our grasping, opening us more fully to the “open hand” receptivity to the gift of the moment.

Thomas Keating tells the story of a nun who was being trained in this method of praying. After trying for twenty minutes, she lamented, “Oh, Father Keating, I’m such a failure at this prayer. In twenty minutes, I’ve had ten thousand thoughts.” His quick response: “How lovely! Ten thousand opportunities to return to God.” This story makes the point: returning to our core identity as beloved even ten thousand times speaks to our willingness and desire to transcend our busy mind. The nun, we could say, was experiencing a vigorous aerobic workout of her muscle of surrender.

I’m hoping that now you can see why this gift of Centering Prayer in 1992 was so timely. What I most needed was not more thinking, more words, more reflection, more fortification of my will. What I most needed was release from my busy thoughts and fear-full anxiety on the way to becoming more and more anchored in a non-anxious center. At first, the practice would take me only two or three feet beneath the turbulent surface waters. Not far, but far enough to taste its promise of a deeper, calmer center in the midst of the swirling anxieties around me and within me. These years later making this shift may be slightly easier. But I am still a beginner, more often than not catching myself attached to obsessive thinking, analyzing, judging, fearing, and fixing.

I am not discounting our thinking mind. This is not an either/or proposition. The thinking mind differentiates. Cynthia Bourgeault sees it as our operating system programmed into us. This operating system allows us to distinguish, judge, analyze, and see the binaries — good/bad, up/down, in/out, etc. Contemplative practices bypass the busy, analytical mind and go straight to the heart. From our heart we see and feel loving connections, cooperation, collaboration, and community. The heart sees relationship, not separation. Obviously both are needed: the mind and heart. It’s the marriage of mind and heart that makes us whole.

The contemplative practice of Centering Prayer happens to be my choice of meditation. You may have made another choice. We live in a time when there are multiple options of sitting and walking meditations. They all, it seems to me, facilitate the release of our over-identifying with thoughts and reactions, allowing us to fall again and again into our inner, core identity as Love. The practice, whatever form you choose, keeps carving out and deepening your capacity to live in a state of love, gratitude and creativity.

The hardest part is making the time to do it.

In this re-frame I am highlighting the place of practicing the movement that I conceptualized in the previous re-frame, From Formation to Transformation.  Both re-frames, this one and the last one, are to be held together — mind and heart, understanding transformation and experiencing transformation.

You and I are fortunate to be offering pastoral leadership in a historical period when our Christian contemplative tradition is being recovered. Some say that this re-discovery began with Thomas Merton, upon whom I have leaned in these initial re-frames. Both this heritage and current neuroscientists are telling us: we become what we practice. It’s a re-frame that matters.


From Formation to Transformation: A Re-frame That Mattered

October 30, 2017

Religion has always performed two very important, but very different, functions. One, it acts as a way of creating meaning for the separate self; two, religion has also served radical transformation . . . a transcending of the separate self . . . not a matter of belief but of the death of the believer. — Ken Wilber

I submit this as the key possibility of our lives: the shift, again and again, from our primary identity as separate self (small self) to our essential identity as beloved of God. This key unlocks the capacity to participate in God’s love that connects all that lives, a relating and reconciling compassion most visible in Jesus. This transcending of the separate self, while including the separate self, is the personal transformation at the heart of the Gospel that has gripped you and me for life.

Ken Wilber is a current philosopher, wisdom teacher and mystic who I began reading in 1992. I value his distinction between two important functions of religion noted in the heading of this reflection. I’m translating his insight for our purposes. I’m assuming that most congregants look to their Christian experience for meaning and purpose. They find in church a resource for coping with the challenges, often overwhelming, that come at them week after week. I call this “formation.” They expect from worship, community, and learning events sustenance for forming a strong sense of self as self-understanding and for courage, moral guidance and motivation for living.

Some congregants, likely a minority, long for more. For them the ideal of a strong separate self breaks at some point along the way. This break may be sudden or a gradual yearning for more. For whatever reason the person is cracked open for the possibility of trans-formation, that is, the transcending of separate, egoic self however well formed it may be. It’s waking up from the dream of separateness and discovering ourselves to be vitally connected with all that lives. This felt communion with God, other humans and all creation, once realized, will no longer let us rest in the illusion of being separate persons. The egoic self dies as the center of our lives through repeated practices of surrendering, self-emptying, self-giving. It’s what Wilber calls “the death of the believer.” This radical transformation, so foundational to our vocation, is the topic of this re-frame.

Both my personal faith and professional vocation began with finding a meaningful purpose for living — the first of the religious functions named by Wilber. This life-altering pivot in my life happened during university years. I’m indebted to some older students for pointing me in a new direction. Simply, conversations with these seekers opened a curiosity about Jesus. His radical vision grasped me. His “follow me” felt simple, direct, demanding, mysterious, adventurous and total.

At the time I was well along the path of fulfilling a family script for my life. Being the only son, it was assumed by everyone, including me, that I would “go into the family business.” It looked that way—first, working in the warehouse, then later as a salesperson and finally the dutiful “major” in business administration. The further I traveled down this expected path the less it seemed like me. It was not a path with heart. It was not a path with my heart.

I was ready. I was restless, yearning for a new way forward. The word was “purpose.” Just maybe, I thought, I had found a purpose that’s much larger, more challenging and exciting than the one scripted for me. Within months a fire was laid, then lit, that ignited a desire for learning that astounded anyone who knew me. Staying up late to study, until 11:00 and 12:00, even 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning was unprecedented. This fired-up interest soon took me to the seminary with no clarity at that point about vocation. It was enough at that time for the seminary to provide a container, community and Table where food was served to satisfy my hunger. In time, as described in the introduction, the pull to become a pastor took hold and I spent the next seven years becoming formed in our vocation.

When I was graduated I felt well formed in pastoral knowledge and skills. To a comfortable degree I had digested understanding of scripture, church history, pastoral care and congregational leadership. I enjoyed some practice-runs as pastor in a few small congregations. As I moved to more demanding challenges my work as pastoral leader continued to be purposeful, full of meaning. Each morning I would leave my bed excited about the day. In Richard Rohr’s words (with depth psychologist Carl Jung whispering in his ears), I was completing the work of the “first half of life.” I felt established in the role. I felt confident. I had formed a strong sense of self to offer to the world. That worked well until it didn’t work well.

This formation was not enough. I was not enough. My developed self was not enough. Likely a deeper, older, more primal sense of not being enough erupted through the surface of my everyday living. Regardless of its origin my work began to exhaust the love that gave birth to it. The struggle of institutional leadership nibbled at the meaning I had previously found so purposeful. “Burn-out” and “compassion fatigue” are clever labels that gloss over the desperation and humiliation beneath them. With growing dismay, plus the needs of our young family, I resigned. I left the role, finding another ministry for ten years, only to return fifteen years later to serve a congregation until my retirement. The return felt like a second marriage, a second attempt, a new chance to be what I most loved—a pastor.

During that in-between decade a re-frame began to emerge. I saw the contours of a movement from formation to transformation. I began exploring the second function of religion that Ken Wilber describes — “radical transformation . . . the transcending of the separate self . . . not a matter of belief but the death of the believer.”

It became clearer to me that personal transformation was at the core message of the New Testament. The awareness was gradual like a photo print revealing itself in a darkroom. From Jesus: lose your life to find it; take up your cross and follow (Luke 17:33, Matthew 16:25); a grain of wheat falling into the ground, dying, husks broken open, yielding a rich harvest (John 12:24); not my will but Thine be done (Mark 14:36); love as I have loved you (John 13:34). And from Paul the same themes of transformation—in baptism a dying to rise in newness of life (Romans 5:3-4); not I, but Christ the one living in me (Galatians 2:20); being transformed by degrees into the likeness of Christ (II Corinthians 3:18); taking on the mind or consciousness of Christ as kenosis, a self-emptying, non-clinging, self-giving love no matter what (Philippians 2:4-11).

Perhaps a clever parable can scrape away the glaze from these overly familiar passages and reveal just how breathtaking this change really is. This parable devised by Maurice Nicoll in the 1950’s has been then revised by Jacob Needleman, next by Cynthia Bourgeault in Wisdom Way of Knowing, and now slightly by me.

Once upon a time, in a not-so-faraway land, there was a kingdom of acorns, nestled at the foot of a grand old oak tree. Since the citizens of this kingdom were modern, fully Westernized acorns, they went about their business with purposeful energy. They were busy developing their human potential, taking advantage of books and conferences that enhanced self-actualization. There were seminars called “Getting All You Can out of Your Shell.” There were wounded-ness and recovery groups for acorns who had been bruised in their original fall from the tree. There were spas for oiling and polishing those shells and various acornopathic therapies to enhance longevity and well-being.

One day in the midst of this kingdom there suddenly appeared a knotty little stranger, apparently dropped “out of the sky” by a passing bird. He was capless and dirty, making an immediate negative impression on his fellow acorns. And crouched beneath the oak tree, he stammered out a wild tale. Pointing upward toward the tree, he said, “We . . . are . . . that!”

Delusional thinking, obviously, the other acorns concluded, but one of them continued to engage him in conversation: “So tell us, how would we become that tree?” “Well,” said he, pointing downward, “it has something to do with going into the ground . . . and cracking open the shell.”

“Insane,” they responded. “Totally morbid! Why, then we wouldn’t be acorns any more.”

This we know about acorns. They are seeds. Their nature and destiny are to become oak trees. Acorns, to be true to what they are, must fall into the ground and die as acorns, allowing their shells to be cracked open, thus taking into themselves the nourishment of soil, water and sun. In time they become oak trees.

Let’s place this parable alongside of Jesus’ words and note the parallel: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single grain, but if it dies, it shall yield a rich harvest.” (John 12: 24)

Could this be true? Are we made for a transformation as amazing as the acorn becoming an oak tree or a grain becoming wheat or losing one self for a fuller, more authentic one? Is that magnificent possibility coiled within us? Is there an identity in us that is beyond a strong, polished personality (acorn)? The gospel narrative says “yes,” a resounding “yes!”

Martin Laird offers two metaphors of transcending this separate self while including our egoic self. A sponge in the ocean, like the egoic self, is immersed in the transcendent water that flows through it. Or, our core identity is like a mountain that we picture as being centered, firm while witnessing the unruly weather of thoughts, feelings, reactions that come and go. “We are the mountain, not the weather,” Laird imagines.

This core, transformed identity goes by a variety of names that include Beloved, Spirit, Kingdom or Realm of God within, child of God, Christ-ness, Christlikeness, Christ living in us, True Self, or image of God.

In Thomas Merton’s conciseness:

“To say we are made in the image of God is to say that Love is the reason for my existence. Being Love is my true identity.”

This means falling into divine Love. Falling in love, we know from experience, changes our consciousness. It changes everything. This love is joyful but also unsettling. You never know where it will take you. The cost is your ego as your center. Transformation is waking up to and falling into this reality, a gift already given but seldom recognized. This awareness is a secure starting point, a different foundation from which we can interrogate and change the lies we tell ourselves about earning our worth. From this deeper center we find both the freedom to let go of binding attachments and the freedom to risk extravagant self-giving.

This transformation occurs always in relationship. Love is a relational word. A focus on the individual alone simply mirrors our cultural flaw of individualism—the illusion that you and I are separate individuals. Reality is relational. We are part of an interconnected web, an “entangled universe,” as quantum physicists name it. We live and move within mutual relationships with God, with nature and one another. Only within caring relationships can we differentiate as unique individual persons who in turn can offer their unique ways of giving. Relationships provide the context for transformation. To be is to be with.

This shift to our primary identity changes the way we carry ourselves in the world. A few examples:

You have a ministry but you are not primarily your ministry. At the core you are beloved, Love.

You have a personality but you are not primarily your personality. At the core you are beloved, Love.

You have weaknesses and failures but you are not primarily your weaknesses and failures. At the core you are beloved, Love.

You have racism (and other “isms”) as a wound to be healed, but you are not primarily a racist. At the core you are beloved, Love.

You have successful achievements but you are not primarily your accomplishments. At the core you are beloved, Love.

Let’s take my racism as an illustration. If my identity is primarily Mahan (my ego, personality, gifts/abilities, etc.) and you call me a racist, I’m defensive, unable to hear the full truth. But if I am grounded in my God-given identity as Beloved then I am freer to acknowledge the truth of my racism. From that inner grace-full place I am more able to admit my white privilege and work to minimize its destructive force in relationships.

The same goes with other obstacles. To be rooted and grounded in Love (our True Self) is to be freer to work on changes in our personal selves. This core identity gives us leverage, a place to stand while participating fully in God’s transforming energy, both within us and within the world.

This movement—from formation to transformation—is the overarching re-frame that has mattered. The next re-frame addresses the critical place of practice in our inner, personal transformation. Then a third re-frame unveils our work, pastoral leadership, as the prime context for our own transformation. These three re-frames provide the foundation for all the other re-frames.

 


The Wager: A Re-Frame That Mattered

July 31, 2017

Religion is what people do with their wonder.  — Abraham Heschel

From my perch in aging, now a distant eighteen years from retirement, I am amazed. I am astounded by the wager we make. You and I have this in common: we have bet our lives on a reality we cannot measure or control or prove or name precisely. This reality, in the words of Rudolph Otto, is mysterium tremendum et fascinans: mystery that makes us tremble with awe, shakes us up, yet ever lures us forward with fascination. Furthermore, you and I wager that this mystery, most clear in Jesus of Nazareth, is a Love from which nothing in life or death, now or later can separate us. In other words, you wager that reality in its essence is relational, inter-connective, oneness, love-energy, shalom. And, as if that is not wonder enough, this gracious mystery wants to be incarnated or embodied in us.

So strong was this fascination that you staked your vocational life on this invisible Spirit that, like the wind, blows where it wills. Daily you gamble with what you have, your life energy. Daily you place your bet with the coins of your time — 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 hours a week; 20, 30 even for some 50, 60, 70 years of your life — declaring a wager that can look foolish in a world that distrusts what’s not explainable. You surrender. You doubt. You adore. You wonder. You stammer. You accept being “fingers pointing to the Moon” — so you point. You witness. This fact remains: Without the existence and our experience of this mysterious Spirit our vocation collapses into folly.

Will Campbell was a maverick Baptist in my time. Once I was in a group of pastors where Will was present. The conversation turned toward an “ain’t it awful” direction. Will, it seems, weary of the clergy complaining, proceeded to stop the bitching session in its tracks. “Well, as I see it,” speaking in his drawn out Southern drawl, “life is a horse race. And I’m bettin’ on Jesus.” While the mystery remains with multiple interpretations of Jesus, nevertheless you and I keep looking to Jesus as our way, our truth-full witness and our clue to abundant living. In short: you keep bettin’ on Jesus, so much so, you serve the church that called you to be his body in the world. Amazing. Absolutely amazing.

This re-frame, a full-of-mystery wager, stoked by radical amazement, surfaced with clarity for me against the backdrop of its opposite — my denomination’s ideological turn toward “certainty.” For this re-frame it’s important to understand this context. In the 1980s and 90’s a fundamentalist arm of Southern Baptists gradually, deliberately seized control by establishing doctrinal norms, the primary one being the infallibility of Scripture. Denominational agencies, including seminaries, were required to affirm a doctrinal statement of faith. This set of beliefs served as a knife that divided those “in” from those “out,” the faithful from unfaithful, truth from error. I felt the sharp edge of this knife, so much so, the congregation I served was cut from its denomination’s ties in 1992. I was also dismissed as an adjunct professor at a near-by seminary. I, and those like me, were deemed cancer to the body and must be cut out.

This was my learning: up close I saw the danger of religion that hardens its arteries in the form of set beliefs. Mystery is forfeited. Wonder is silenced. “Right” beliefs thrive on certainty, fueled by binary thinking with its either/or, right/wrong, in/out, true/false ways of seeing. And, this as well, belief systems require opposition to stay alive. Advocates for their own belief system enter the battle for “truth” with self-sacrificial allegiance.

During that fundamentalist takeover a gift dropped into my lap. In 1983 I was introduced to the life and thought of Rabbi Abraham Heschel through his book, Man Is Not Alone, loaned to me by a member of the congregation. That book and his other writings re-awakened in me what was being depreciated by my family of faith — the awesome wonder of faith, hope and love that had summoned me in the first place. We hear Heschel’s voice in these few quotes.

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement . . . get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

“The surest way to suppress our ability to understand the meaning of God and the importance of worship is to take things for granted. Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin. Wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of the religious man’s attitude toward history and nature.”

“Only one response can maintain us: gratefulness for witnessing the wonder, for the gift of our unearned right to serve, to adore, and to fulfill. It is gratefulness which makes the soul great.”

A personal story captures the heart of his witness. Heschel, from a long line of hasidic rabbis, spent most of his years as teacher and writer at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. When he was coming toward the end of his life his rabbi friend, Samuel Dresner, visits him. Dresner writes: “Heschel spoke slowly and with effort . . . ‘I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder. And You [Yahweh] gave it to me.’” Religion, as he noted, is what we do with that wonder.

In retirement I came across James P. Carse’s book, The Religious Case Against Belief. Carse illuminates some important nuances of wonder in his distinguishing three types of ignorance.

  • Ordinary ignorance is simply not knowing. We don’t know who will be the next President or who will win the World Series next year or when we will die.
  • Willful ignorance is choosing not to know. We may choose not to hear the news of a bad diagnosis or see the contradictions in Scripture or admit the verification of global warming. We can close our eyes or refuse to listen to what we don’t want to see or hear.
  • Higher ignorance, Carse suggests, is learned curiosity about what we don’t know. It’s the “wondering about” that fuels scientists, philosophers, and yes, theologians and preachers. This perspective invites us to lead with inquisitive questions, not answers. Only from “not knowing” can we reach for the understanding we don’t possess. Higher ignorance exchanges the certainty of right-believing for paradox, curiosity and mystery. The risks of faith, Carse insists, do not guarantee safe, conclusive conclusions. Rather, they assure the exhilaration of creativity and new learning.

With the witness of Heschel and Carse highlighting the wager we keep making, how then might this re-frame translate into ministry? I suggest two opposite postures. You can either lean in or step back.

Leaning in means leading from curious questions, admitting, even valuing the stance of not-knowing. In preaching you publicly, and with a playful curiosity, lean into the connection between the storied, biblical text and the storied life of congregants. In pastoral care you lean in with curious questions, probing with the parishioner into what new territory their crisis may be taking them. In committee meetings you lean in from a not-knowing position with curious questions that invite creative solutions. In pastoral conversations you lean in, asking open-ended queries, experiencing the wonder of where the vulnerable exchanges take you, the other, and your relationship. Or coming up close, very close to a flower, butterfly, weed or any one aspect of nature, you and I cannot help but marvel at its beauty and complexity.

Or, you can step back allowing the radical amazement of any situation to sink in. Have you ever stepped back from glancing through the church directory or from scanning the congregation on a Sunday morning and felt the wonder of it all — all these people choosing to volunteer their time, money, love energy in common cause, making church possible? Have you ever paused for even a moment in the pulpit with Bible before a congregation and pondered the miracle of this 2,000 year old narrative in your hand or the miracle of your worship space bequeathed by those not present? And if we step way, way back we can’t suppress the awe over being a very recent species, arriving the last 30 minutes if we imagine evolution as a 12-month calendar. Have you ever walked away from a family, whether profoundly grieving or celebrating, asking yourself, “How can people love so deeply and be loved so profoundly? Where does such capacity come from?” What mystery! What grace, what gift!

This practice you can do any time and from any place: stepping back, pausing, focusing and noticing the breath-taking gift of what or who is before you. Immediately you go to that place of wonder, radical amazement. You may even hear yourself saying, “This wonders me — this thing, this person, these persons wonder me!”

You and I are in the mystery business. We work with realities — love, life, faith, trust, community, grace, forgiveness, hope — that we cannot measure or prove or name with certainty. In the spirit of Rabbi Heschel, we could say, “I asked for wonder and God gave it to me in a vocation.”

But we cannot live and serve from wonder and mystery alone. We must risk words and Word becoming flesh, only to fall short every time. This is what we do. We wager. We wager on the mystery with our lives. We wonder at the mystery, yes, but also wager on its Truth. We lean into life with curiosity and occasionally step back in awe. Over time this posture became a new way of framing the complex ministry we offer.

 


The Power of Rituals: A Re-Frame That Mattered

May 2, 2017

To lose ritual is to lose the way. It is a condition not only painful and pathetic but also dangerous… As for the whole society, sooner or later it will find rituals again … Rituals have much to do with our fate.
–Tom Driver, The Magic of Rituals

My fascination with the power of rituals, more than any other one factor, summoned my return to congregational leadership. Like Tom Driver I was feeling the loss of empowering rituals. Take, for instance, the rituals of initiation into adulthood. For most youth the ritual is reduced to getting a driver’s license. For a few it’s joining the army or walking the Appalachian Trail or some comparable clear, challenging transition event. And still fewer experience a meaningful bar mitzvah, baptism, or confirmation. Even weddings and funerals have become more private, seen by many as necessary but not embraced by a larger community of friends and family. Driver’s conclusion became mine: “To lose ritual is to lose the way … Rituals have much to do with our fate.”

At mid-life I took a second look at the church and observed rituals all over the place. I took a closer look and saw, as if for the first time, how the very core of the pastor’s call is to create and lead rituals. I took an ever closer look and noticed the lack of transforming power in most of these rituals most of the time.

Let’s review the array of rituals. As pastors you design and lead the standing rituals of the church that mark the major life-cycle transitions of birth, adolescence-adulthood, marriage, and death, as well as the occasional ordination. All these markers of human development are in addition to weekly rituals of worship with sacred song and story, bread and cup, Word and Sacrament. Then, add to this abundance the rituals in pastoral care that seldom are named as such. Pastors create private ritual space for those experiencing personal and familial crises. Both are called for: the established rituals you lead repeatedly; the rituals you establish as needed.

I returned to parish ministry with the desire to accentuate the potential of rituals. I brought with me a frame that became a re-frame that mattered. This new pair of glasses came from the early tribal wisdom of “initiation” or “rite of passage” available to us from the research by anthropologists Arnold Van Gennep and Victor Turner. A rite of passage calls for three stages: separation … open to challenge … return transformed. Victor Turner highlighted the in-between period of challenge as “liminal space.” Limen is Latin for “threshold.” They observed young males being separated from their mothers, taken by older males across a “threshold” (limen) into an open, unknown space where their capacity for manhood was tested. Then, they returned to the village, crossing back over the “threshold” (limen) as men, no longer boys, picking up adult privileges and responsibilities.

Note the movement: crossing one threshold from the familiar and comfortable to a time of uncomfortable questing and questioning within a contained space both protected and empty. Then, in time the initiated would re-cross the original threshold as a different person. In short, from separation to liminal space to re-entry changed. Or, another description: from order to dis-order to re-order.

Try on these glasses with me. Let’s start with corporate worship. In public worship, as leader, you create liminal space by drawing from your tradition. Congregants, by walking through an entrance into the church building, are crossing a threshold (limen). As they do they are invited to leave behind the pressing concerns of their ordinary, day-to-day lives. They are welcomed into another kind of inner and outer space where it’s “open season” on the meaning of their lives. They position their lives as vulnerable to the awe of divine Mystery experienced through silence, symbol, and story. For an hour or so the cell phone is muted along with other external distractions. Congregants are encouraged to relax into sanctuary, to settle into a protected community and be alert to any sign and surprise of grace. Within this liminal space, you are liturgical guides that call on a range of symbols — written, sung, spoken, silent, embodied — all of which kindle experiences of the Sacred. In some small, mostly unconscious way, everyone is asking once again the big, existential questions: Who am I? Who are we? What really matters? What can I let go of? What am I to do? What are we called to do?

Then, after this Service of Worship, congregants cross back over the threshold, returning to their ordinary lives but not totally the same persons. To some degree, likely a degree not definable, worshipers re-enter their familiar lives slightly transformed.

Or take a look at funerals. Here you are not only creating liminal space, you are naming the liminal space that the grieving family and friends are already experiencing. Framing the event as safe liminal space is the gift. For a brief but “full” time, family and friends leave their normal lives, cross a threshold into an intentional numinous place where the meaning of life and death is faced in intense, raw, profound ways. Then, following this extra-ordinary time, everyone returns to their daily lives, changed. You and I cannot contemplate our relationship with a loved one’s life and death without reviewing our own. We cannot remain untouched. We are changed.

Weddings follow the same pattern. The engaged couple enters the liminal space (sanctuary) from separate directions, meeting at the altar standing before the priest/pastor. Within this sacred space they ritualize their union to be broken only by death. Then they exit down the aisle together, crossing the threshold, re-entering their community as a new unit, a new family. Transformation has occurred, visible and irrefutable.

Confirmation, baptism — whatever the tradition — follows the same pattern: separation from ordinary time into liminal space in which a new identity is declared, and then the return with the new identity to be embodied. For the Apostle Paul, the rite of baptism mirrors vividly this ancient wisdom: the person separating from or dying to ego-centeredness as immersed under water. And under water the person is out of control, trusting and then finally lifted out of the water, rising to “walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:1-5) Notice the movement: separation, surrender, and re-entry as a changed person, or if you prefer, from order, to dis-order, then re-order.

In pastoral care this three-fold pattern is not so obvious. Let’s make it obvious. There are dual aspects: you are both creating liminal space and naming crises as liminal events. It’s what pastoral care is.

On one hand, you create sacred space. There is the crossing of a threshold — whether the door to your office or front door to a home or coming from the outside and sitting down at a restaurant table. The person or family are invited into an out-of-the-ordinary, separate place for conversation and prayer. Within this secure, protected, and confidential space, the crisis or challenge is explored. This place of non-judgment and assumed confidentiality allows for life experience shared, questions raised, healing invited, decisions made. Then, with the time completed, persons cross back over the threshold, returning to their ordinary lives altered to some degree.

In addition, as pastors with these ritual lenses, you have the authority to frame a person’s crisis as liminal. The crisis itself thrusts them out of their ordinary lives into a place of disequilibrium where questions of identity and meaning are raised in bold relief. In these instances, you help them structure their disruptive experience as liminal, that is, offering a holding space that is pregnant with birthing possibilities.

For example, consider a person grieving the loss of a job held for decades or a marriage broken after many years or the loss of health not to be regained or the death of a loved one. This grieving itself is liminal. It is heart-breaking and possibly soul-making. The suffering, not to be denied or even relieved, can be embraced as a painful invitation to deeper places of acceptance, forgiveness, grace, and new life. This is your gift: framing the situation as liminal where new questions are engaged, new possibilities surface, and letting go is invited. You are given the pastoral authority to structure intentionally your care in this way. You mark the separation, set the boundary of liminal space, and assist in the birthing of new life.

This is an example of naming and structuring ritual space. Lois, let’s call her, was still experiencing profound grief. It had been three years since waking up one morning to experience her husband’s dead body beside her. She had been processing her gift with a psychiatrist, close friends, and me. But the grief remained heavy within her. She so wanted to move on with her life but couldn’t. She asked me one day, “Mahan, this may be a silly thought, but since there is a ceremony for putting on the wedding ring is there a ceremony for taking it off?” “Not silly at all,” I was quick to say. “It makes total sense.”

Lois and I set up a time in her home for the ritual. Slowly she recounted the history of the ring: shopping for it; the moment when Jack placed it on her finger in the wedding celebration; her refusal to take off the ring even during a couple of surgeries; and a few other memories I cannot recall. We talked about a place of honor where the ring would be placed. This was an attempt to acknowledge that her relationship with the ring, as with Jack, is never ended. The ring changes its place, just as her relationship with Jack changes, but neither relationship is terminated. In time she was ready for me to remove the ring. I did. We remained in prayer and silence for a while. Then she placed the ring in its new place along with other prime treasures.

You see in this ritual that Lois and I separated from our daily pursuits, created together a safe, sacred space in her home, and eventually left to return to our ordinary interests. But the ritual itself also incorporated all the marks of a rite of passage: preparation of separation through story telling, then the separation of the ring from her finger, and finally the placement of the ring in its new place. This home-made ritual embodied her desire to take another step away from what was but no longer is. The ritual provided concreteness.

I’m lifting up this dual perspective of pastoral care: often we invite people who know they are in crisis into liminal space, as we do by making appointments; at other times, we create tailor-made rituals to frame some disorienting crisis, as I did with Lois.

In this reflection I want to re-kindle, if needed, the appreciation of your role as ritual creator and leader. This is your privilege, one that is unique to your profession. If, as theologian Tom Driver says, “To lose ritual is to lose our way,” then you are uniquely positioned to help us find “our way” through carefully crafted rituals. And to aid you in this call, I’m pointing to the early wisdom of indigenous peoples who can teach us about the power of rituals. Their understanding is timeless, namely, the movement in rites of passage through separation from the ordinary order … to liminal disorder with openness to challenge … then to the return, re-ordered or transformed to some degree. For me it became a re-frame that mattered.


Collegial Friends: A Re-Frame That Mattered

April 3, 2017

The growth of any craft depends on shared practice and honest dialogue among the people who do it … when any function is privatized, the most likely outcome is that people will perform conservatively refusing to stay far from the silent consensus on what works — even when it clearly does not.  — Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach

Isolation is your vocational reality. Being a pastor, embodying this role, colors the water of every relationship, including neighbors, family, and particularly, of course, church members. In these relationships the role is a significant factor. Our ordination sets us apart as different, inviting projections, mostly unconscious. Expectations unnamed are always in play. Indeed, you are living symbols of More than you are. This question inevitably lingers: How will I manage this isolation?

I have come to believe that there are two kinds of pastors: those who conclude, “It’s up to me,” and those who say, “I cannot do this vocation without collegial community.”

Pastors in the first group offer their ministry in virtual isolation. They are on their own to give shape to their work. It is up to them. It’s up to them to interpret the gospel, read the “signs” of our time in history, intuit feedback, determine their use of time, judge appropriate responses to congregational crises, establish practices of self-care, worship while leading in worship, and integrate the learning from the plethora of resources available to us. No doubt these pastors have warm and effective relationships with members but, as is the case with all pastors, there is so much of themselves they cannot share. This includes the secrets they carry with confidentiality. These pastors, I observe, tend to be competent and self-confident, qualities that, while strong, can undermine the need for colleagues. For these pastors, their isolation, already a component of our vocation, will likely harden and over time encourage a fusion of personal identity with vocational role.

Those in the second cadre intentionally form relationships in which they are out of role with colleagues who understand the role. That’s a critical distinction: being both out of role and closely connected to others who understand the role’s promise and complexity. These deliberate relationships take form in various ways — unstructured cultivated relationships with peers, structured small clergy groups that meet regularly or in scheduled meetings with a coach, spiritual director, therapist, or consultant. All these examples meet the criterion of this re-frame: out of role with those who know the role.

Many of you are in this second category. You meet this criterion. You have deliberately sought out peer relationships in which you are both not in role and yet experience the support needed for exploring your role. This might happen with a friend, perhaps a clergy friend or others you meet with regularly over coffee or phone or internet or time-away together. Many of us have benefited from therapy, coaching, and spiritual direction. Consultants are another resource. I developed a relationship with a consultant, a former parish priest, with whom for twenty years I would occasionally review a pastoral or congregational dilemma. Perhaps you are fortunate to have staff colleagues with whom you can be open and trusting, but note the limit — you are still in role. The common factor in all these relationships is this: the isolation is broken; you feel not so alone; and your ministry seems less on your shoulders. Some of you have initiated such relationships. It may be enough.

For me it was not enough. I became inspired to reach for a deeper expression of collegial friendships during my decade on the staff of the Department of Pastoral Care at North Carolina Baptist Hospitals, Winston-Salem, N.C. The department had developed over the years a strong program of Clinical Pastoral Education. I am not a CPE supervisor but I was an active participant in this model of theological education. I experienced its genius: a small community of practicing clergy peers committed to each other’s mutual learning under skilled facilitation. During those ten years I kept asking, “Why is this model reserved only for preparation in the practice of pastoral ministry? Why is it not the way of doing pastoral leadership and ministry?” The question, never answered to my satisfaction, kept buzzing around my head like a persistent mosquito.

I took this question with me when, in 1983, I moved from being a director of pastoral care in a hospital setting to being a pastor again, serving Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, N. C. The immediate contrast was striking. In my former role the boundaries and accountability were clear. Not so in my new role. At first I reveled in the freedom to construct my own life in ministry, but soon unspoken agreements and unnamed expectations had me scrambling for a clearer role definition. Within broad limits I was on my own to create its contour.

With my question of collegial community in mind I joined a circle of friends, a small group of men who had been meeting for over ten years. For two hours every other week we gifted each other with an acceptance close to unconditional. It was a container I needed. With these friends, I found support for my life — but less so for my life as pastor.

I needed more. I wanted to be with pastor friends who could focus with me on our efforts at priestly and prophetic leadership. The question was still alive from my years with Clinical Pastoral Education: Could some variation of this collegial learning be possible in parish ministry? I began the search for peers who might be interested in this experiment. After a year or so, I sent this letter to a circle of clergy friends:

I fear we have internalized the hallmark of our American culture — individualism. For all our talk about communion and indeed for all our efforts in building community with others, we tend to craft our work by ourselves. What Alexis de Tocqueville said of our forebears in Democracy in America could be said of us: ‘They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine that their whole destiny is in their hands.’

Instead of continuing like this, I wonder whether you would be interested in being part of a clergy Sabbath Day — a time to nurture our souls with colleague-friends, a time to return to our first love, God, a time to be reminded that the ministry of the church belongs to God and not to us.

Three pastors responded. Another joined us later. Each Wednesday for several years we set aside a Sabbath day for silence, prayer, conversation about our work, rest, laughter, celebrating Eucharist, and walking in the woods. Never in my years as pastor have I felt so balanced between inner work and outer work, contemplation and action, play and work, self-care and self-giving. We were not alone in our need to step back and tease apart our tangled ministries. Together we reflected, played, prayed, and imagined by learning off of each other’s experience in ways that yielded clarities that surprised.

Yet, over time, the full day became a half-day, then an occasional half-day, and finally no day at all. Our clergy Sabbaths, like sand castles, gave way to wave after wave of pressing congregational needs. This fragile container of sacred space cracked, and finally crumbled after four years or so.

Absent was a clear covenant among us that could have withstood the pull of competing commitments, both from church and family. Absent was a covenant with church leaders who would support and appreciate this expression of vocational and self-care. Also absent was a facilitator, which I came later to regard as important. Although we felt its value, we stopped short of declaring that this way of offering pastoral ministry, namely, a few pastors committed to mutual nurture, collaboration, and accountability, is non-negotiable.

The question, now a tested possibility, stayed alive within me until retirement. In 1998 I retired a bit early at sixty-three in order to continue the experiment. And I have. During these two decades of retirement I have tested this hypothesis of collegial communities that I came to name AnamCara, Celtic for “soul friend.” This was my working definition:

AnamCara as a network of small collegial circles of five to eight clergy leaders of congregations who meet regularly to offer mutual nurture, collaboration, and accountability in their practices of theological reflection, leadership, and soul care.

The experiments took different forms. From a Lilly grant I organized and either led or co-led four ecumenical, inter-faith clergy groups, each of eight to ten participants, who met in retreat settings regularly (monthly or bi-monthly) for either a year or eighteen months. I was consultant to three other clergy groups. For twelve years I have led a group of Episcopal clergy who still meet monthly for three hours. All in all I have worked with approximately sixty clergy leaders of congregations.

My underlying question in forming these collegial groups was this: Will these clergy leaders complete this way of practicing ministry saying, “This has been another valuable continuing education experience, thank you very much.” Or will they say, “Being in some expression of collegial community must be a primary context from which I offer ministry.” In other words, will they regard the experience as an educational “add on” or will they see and embrace another way of being in ministry?

A small minority, about twelve of the sixty, continued to commit to a practicing community of peers. Steve spoke of this shift in his self-understanding:

“I can no longer imagine doing pastoral ministry without my group of soul friends. Our time together often feels like a taste of the Kingdom, a feast of deep laughter and friendship among competent peers who respect each other. In a wonderfully paradoxical way, the worship, study, and conversation we share make me a better pastor and remind me there is more to my life than ministry.”

Briefly, this is what I learned:

  • The recruitment and organizing requires a person or two called to this possibility.
  • A skilled facilitator frees the pastors to be completely out of the leadership role.
  • Pastors are more willing to participate fully if the facilitator knows pastoral leadership personally.
  • AnamCara is a radical alternative to the deeply internalized individualism in our culture.
  • Once trust is felt the hunger for collegial friends is intense and generative.
  • Ecumenical groups of clergy, with their commonality of serving congregations, offer the richness of differing traditions.
  • To be led in worship and common prayer is an experience some pastors seldom experience.

In 2009 this vision was published as AnamCara: Collegial Clergy Communities, which can be purchased through this website.

In this reflection I have traced my engagement with the isolation that accompanies our vocation, both as a pastor and a pastor in retirement. As I have noted, this way of being in pastoral ministry is only one context in which to define our vocation. Its appeal is limited. But for me this model — a small community of practicing clergy peers, gathering together in a facilitated environment — has been a re-frame that I have explored through the years. It has mattered.


Covenant Promises: A Re-Frame That Mattered

March 13, 2017

This re-frame started in the most unlikely place. A conversation yielded an insight that morphed into a frame through which I saw most of ministry.

Martin was an exchange student from Germany. At the end of his year with our family his parents came for their first visit to our country. After their whirlwind tour of our nation they ended their vacation with us. I asked Fritz, the father, “You’ve covered a lot of our country, exploring an amazing amount of territory. With all that travel, what surprised you the most?” His surprise surprised me. “I’m surprised by all the churches.” Fritz went on, “It’s remarkable; each church is on its own. Not so in our country. We all pay taxes to support the church whether or not we attend.”

His observation had never occurred to me. Even now, I must admit, when I see a church building I often, like Fritz, marvel at that congregation’s existence. You and I pass probably twenty or thirty churches as we drive through our communities. Has it ever struck you as remarkable that each congregation, whatever the size and flavor, consists of enough people who give and keep promises? That’s the glue. When congregants stop keeping their promises, trust erodes, and soon the building is empty with locked doors to prove it.

After this surprise I began to notice that all relationships are held together by this rather fragile thread — the willingness and capacity to make and keep promises. If you look closely, they are kept alive by ordinary, simple everyday interactions. “I will be home at six. If not, I’ll call you. I promise.” … “Agreed. Let’s do it.” … “I’ll tell you about it when I get to the office.” … “Will you give me a ride?” … “How about coffee at ten, our usual place. Will that work?” … “I forgot. Our meeting was right there on my calendar but I didn’t see it. I’m so sorry. Can we re-schedule?”

Everyday acts of making and keeping promises, and dealing with broken promises, were largely unnoticed by me. But once noticed the formula became clear: promises-made, both small promises and big life-defining vows, risk commitment; promises-kept embody faithfulness, building trust; promises-broken sow seeds of distrust and, if continued, result in the death of the relationship. It is as simple as that, as fragile as that, as profound as that. Relationships live or die by promises-made and promises-kept and broken promises healed … or not.

The growing awareness made its way into my opening statement for wedding ceremonies:

  The wedding ceremony is a joyous occasion … a solemn occasion … and a worshipful occasion. This is a joyous occasion because the possibility of joy from marital life together is one of the deepest we can know on the earth. This is a solemn occasion because the implications of the promises spoken this day will have a ripple effect — for good or for ill — upon countless others down through the years. And this is a worshipful occasion because we worship a God who delights in promises-made and promises-kept.

This statement seemed adequate enough until my divorced friend, Leo, attended one of the ceremonies that I was officiating. He offered how he felt alien in the service, like someone looking in from the outside. How could he worship this God, he wondered, with broken pieces of his marital promises in his hands … and heart?

So for the next wedding ceremony I added a phrase:

 And this is a worshipful occasion because we worship a God who delights in promises-made and promises-kept … and who delights in the healing of broken promises.

That seemed satisfactory. I wanted those, like Leo, to feel the possibility of reconciliation within primary relationships strained and even broken. But Leo continued to feel left out. My words still excluded Leo and those with his life experience because Leo never found any healing in the relationship with his former wife. No reconciliation; no friendship; no contact. They had promised faithfulness “till death do us part.” Well, death happened. In the relationship death-dealing kept increasing, life-giving kept diminishing.

So I added another phrase to the litany:

And this is a worshipful service because we worship a God who delights in covenant promises-made and covenant promises-kept … and who delights in the healing of broken covenant promises … and who delights in the healing of those broken by broken covenant promises.

Note that I also added the word “covenant” to deepen the biblical, theological dimension of exchanging promises. Covenants, in contrast to contracts, include the exchanges of promises among humans within the larger covenant of God’s promises. In covenants God’s promises are triangled into the relationships.

You and I share familiarity with the biblical concept of covenant. From my study this is what has remained significant for me. God’s covenant with Israel and New Israel (church) is the covenant promise to be with us and for us, exposing the pain and consequences of broken promises, while at the same time ever summoning us with a forgiving, healing “love that will not let us go.” Relationships, formed by implicit or explicit promises, can die, that is, cease to be life-giving. Faithfulness, in those instances, might require leaving these relationships and leaning into the grace to continue in other relationships, always, once again, formed by promises-made and promises-kept.

This is not “cheap grace” that bypasses the hard work of accountability. It invites the inner work of confession that can flow into forgiveness of the other and oneself, again and again, “seventy times seven.” Forgiveness, according to Jesus’s actions, was often the first declaration in a troubling situation. By letting in this divine gift of forgiveness we have the security necessary to face our brokenness and offer it up to the assurance of grace. It’s breathing in the breath-taking generosity of God that undergirds both our capacity for risking mutual promises and our freedom to detach from dashed promises.

Covenant is at the heart of relationships. This makes our promises sacramental, a “means of grace.” They light up the grace (gift) of life and love in the everyday exchanges of promises made and kept; they make possible the grace (gift) of life and love in the healing of broken promises and in the healing of those broken by broken promises. All grace. All gift.

The philosopher Hannah Arendt, author of The Banality of Evil and The Human Condition, makes central the requisite of covenants. The capacity to make and keep promises provides islands of security as one faces into the future of uncertainty. And the capacity to forgive the consequences of broken promises grants freedom from being held hostage to one’s past. She placed side by side both the power of promise and the power of forgiveness.

Seeing pastoral ministry through the eye of covenant promises — made, kept, broken with the possibility of restoration, and always the possibility of grace — became a major re-frame that mattered during my last ten years or so of being pastor. I offer a few examples in addition to the marriage covenant already noted.

Church membership can be framed as a covenant. The person promises; the church promises. I gave effort to clarifying these promises. But disappointments and unmet expectations will occur. So I included this promise: when the covenant isn’t working as expected, then the disappointment or failure would be named, heard, and confessed in the hope of a new, deepened covenant. To see membership as covenants increases the likelihood that these differences and disappointments along the way, including the ending of the covenants, can be redemptive. Even a member leaving in anger is sometimes willing to see it in covenant terms. By reviewing the covenant both parties can acknowledge the good, confess failure and disappointment, call upon forgiveness, and bless the future covenants with another congregation.

To see staff relationships in covenant terms is another example. It means spending time making covenant, that is, clarifying expectations, rooting out assumptions, writing the promises down, and committing to review them periodically. The challenge for me was confronting or allowing myself to be confronted when the promises were broken, the little ones as well as the larger promises. For re-covenanting to have integrity it must include naming the failure, asking for forgiveness, and re-promising. Otherwise the covenant softens, accountability diminishes, avoidance of conflict sets in with the opportunity for growth being lost.

I recommend a clearer covenant between pastor and the elected lay leaders. I wish I had put more energy into this crucial partnership. While lay leaders and I did talk about mutual expectations in general terms, I would now advocate specificity. Since we are called to different but complementary roles of leadership, a covenant can define these roles, becoming an agreement that can be reviewed and modified as needed. This enhances not only accountability but also the permission to address broken or unfulfilled promises before they fester and enlarge.

The covenant lens is particularly relevant when addressing congregational conflict and challenges. Every congregation has a covenant or mission statement, a stated reason-for-being. There is some purpose around which a congregation gathers that’s both explicit and implicit, formal and informal. For the purpose of illustration, let’s assume that some heated differences arise around a budget or property or personnel concerns. The concept of covenant promises provides a way to frame a conversation that invites faithful listening and creative problem-solving. Given the frame — we are held together by covenant promises — then we can ask what are our responses in light of our mission, in light of being the body of Christ, in light of being bound together in faith, hope and love — in other words, in light of our promises.

The most volatile challenge I faced as a pastor was when in 1991 a member of our congregation requested for himself and his partner a public service of blessing — in essence, a wedding. What kept our congregation from splitting over this heated possibility was framing the process in terms of our covenant. How will we be in covenant with members who are gay (LGBTQ) persons? By being the body of Christ what is our sense of what Jesus would have us do? What’s the mind of Christ? Given our covenant grounded in God’s generosity, how will we speak our truth to each other in love and listen to the felt truth of the other? The language of covenant promises provides a theological and ethical framework for proceeding with highly charged conversations. Covenants are the containers for difficult speech and collective discernment.

In summary, the church is called to embody covenantal relationships with each other within God’s larger covenant with us. If so, all relationships can be viewed in this covenantal context. That means promise-making (risking commitment), promise-keeping (trust), confronting broken promises in the hope of re-covenanting (reconciliation), and the healing grace offered to those broken by broken promises (confession/forgiveness).

Arendt helps me taper this gospel truth more precisely: promise-making and promise-keeping provide communities of trust, hope, and love for facing into an uncertain future; the radical giving and receiving of forgiveness grants the freedom to release the hold of brokenness from our past. This became a re-frame that mattered.

 


Engaging Death as Practice: Two Re-Frames That Mattered

February 1, 2017

Let’s allow the word “practice” to entice us with its double meaning: a profession, as in the practice of medicine or psychotherapy; and practicing for learning, as in piano practice or spiritual practice. In both ways, I submit, pastors engage death as their practice.

We begin with the first meaning — pastor in a professional practice that specializes. If, let’s say, Alicia practices law and Alice, a therapist, practices psychotherapy, then Helen, a pastor, specializes in death and dying. Death and dying are her specialty, her practice.

With that point named I can hear the quick rebuttal, “Why, don’t you know, Mahan, that pastoral ministry is one of the last generalist professions?” I have made the same observation. It’s true that we are more general practitioners than specialists with broad competence expected in multiple roles: preaching, teaching, designing and directing rituals, leading and managing, caring and counseling, writing and speaking, and offering leadership in the wider church and community.

Nonetheless I want to make a case for engaging death as our specialty. The presence of death is always close by. If the shaman Don Juan challenges Carlos Castaneda to heed death’s wisdom as a companion just over the left shoulder, then for pastors the presence of death is more in front of our nose, not to be missed. Most people can keep at bay the reality of death, denying its inevitability most of the time, out of sight, out of mind. Not so with pastors.

For us death is present. While we scamper from appointment to appointment there is on the edge of our consciousness a member experiencing a profound loss — the loss of a loved one, job, health, marriage, home, hope, status, memory, or even a worldview crumbling from the weight of irrelevance. There’s so much diminishment in the air we breathe. Death stalks the halls of hospitals we regularly visit. In nursing homes you see its presence in the gaunt, vacant eyes you pass by, faces registering gratitude for the briefest recognition. In the homes of grieving members there’s unspeakable grief in memories noted and photographs exchanged, reminding everyone of what was but is no more. In every service of worship, whether funerals, weddings, or weekly gatherings, some are always there with moistened eyes, feeling the pain of a particular loss welling up from deep within. The security and privacy of a church sanctuary provides the sacred space for felt grief to surface. My point: for the pastor death is close, ever near.

I name as well the special role of pastoral presence throughout the dying and death journey of a parishioner: present during the dying whether extended or short term; present during the days around the death, including the preparation and leadership of corporate rituals; and present during the after-care of continued grieving. Other professionals — physicians, nurses, chaplains, funeral directors, financial planners, therapists — have their unique roles but the pastor is, or can be, the over-seer of this lengthy process. Pastors, given the constituency of the congregation they serve, will have many or few deaths of members in a given year. In my first congregation, a church of young families, I led about two or three funerals a year. In my last congregation, there were as many as fifteen funerals each year.

But regardless of the number of funerals, the death and dying that pastors confront far exceeds the circumstances surrounding physical deaths. Grieving is so much larger. If you were to stop reading for a moment, you could quickly recall recent conversations with parishioners about some loss they are experiencing. Most pastoral care is grief work in some manner. Death and dying, in its multiple forms, is our specialty. It’s our forte.

I will amplify one example of this larger dying, usually not understood as grief ministry. I began as pastor in the post-World War II era when progress, growth, and advancement seemed everyone’s potential. Economic growth and rising national prominence in the world were assumed. Larger Protestant denominations shared in this expectation of progress with numerical growth being the gauge of a successful ministry. With marketing savvy the church became another attractive commodity of choice. During my forty-two years as an ordained leader of the church I have experienced the gradual breakdown of this prominence, privilege, and exceptionalism. I have watched our churches move from main-line to side-line. And along with the loss of external status has come for many the internal loss of meaningful beliefs and church programs that no longer nurture them. These losses are also deaths that demand pastoral attention. As I presented in another reflection on a re-frame that mattered, in our time most pastors are hospice chaplains caring for the dying in its many forms and mid-wives assisting in the birthing of the new.

I rest my case. Death and dying define a specialty practice. And this practice must be done with effectiveness. Like no other pastoral function, the skilled care offered around losses will either deepen or distance the relationship between pastor and people. Faithfulness in this specialty is not forgotten; unfaithfulness is not forgiven. No one told me this during my formation years, or if it was said, I wasn’t listening. I learned it on the job, an awareness that became a re-frame that mattered.

. . .

The second re-frame is more personal. As I turned into my fifties, entering my last decade or so of being pastor, another shift occurred. As a pastor being so often near death experiences they began to be for me my near-death experiences. As I allowed it, I could hear each one whisper, “You too will die! So will your loved ones and friends. So will your vocation. So will your energy, health and mobility. It’s only a matter of time.” I’m reminded of what I have been told about monks whispering to each other, memento more (remember death).

This may sound bleak, if not morbid; for sure it’s sobering. Note my disclaimer, “if I allowed it.” Most of the time I didn’t allow this awareness to linger, but when I did — and when you do — it can be paradoxically life-giving. You know this truth: to survive a near-death experience enhances the preciousness of life. You have watched this miracle in others. In every religious tradition it’s a practice: contemplating intentionally your death that in turn ignites the joy in the gift of being alive, breathing in, breathing out. Could it be that this is one of the fringe benefits of our work — the consistent near-death reminders of our dying?

The weighty theological word “eschatology” (acknowledging the “end times”) can help us. Let’s pull it off the shelf, dust if off and seize its life-giving benefits. What if we lived with the end in sight? For instance, imagine yourself at the end of your pastoral leadership with your current congregation — let’s say, three or five or ten years in the future. With that ending or death before you, ask what does this congregation most need from me (or not need) and what do I want to give (or not give) during this time?

When I turned sixty I imagined myself serving my congregation a few more years until retirement. I asked these questions: what was most needed from me, and what gifts would I enjoy giving before resigning. It turned out that these were my most enjoyable years, no doubt in part because my eschatology brought clarity.

Now at my current age of eighty-two my sense of eschatology still asks the same questions: what is most needed that matches the gifts I have to offer. What’s clearer?

. . .

My last illustration is the challenge of living with our end in sight, namely, our ending, our dying. What’s the picture? Likely you see yourself, as I do, in a bed at home or in a hospital. Though research tells us that most of us will not be conscious let’s assume we are conscious, very present, feeling only moderate pain. I’m guessing that you and I have a similar fantasy: loved ones around the bed amid blessing, tears, and laughter. At this moment, this truth crystallizes: love is what really matters — profoundly painful in its absence, deeply joyful in its presence.

No wonder, in light of our many near-death experiences, you and I offer at every funeral some form of “love is what really matters.” We express in some way how our taste of love is a part of a larger divine Love that never ends and from which nothing in life and death, now or later, can separate us. Maybe it’s easier for us, having journeyed with others so often through “the valley of death,” to hear and even heed on occasion the summons to live from that part of us — Love — that never dies.

So I say, why not maximize the vocational advantage given to us — regularly engaging, as practice, the mystery of death and dying, including our own. I do not minimize the truth that as pastors we are generalists fulfilling a broad range of expectations. But I’m proposing a correction. We are generalists with a specialty. Death is our practice: as a unique role of care to the dying and death of congregants, and as a spiritual practice of personal transformation. These are twin re-frames that mattered.

 


Seeing Under Water: A Re-Frame That Mattered

January 10, 2017

I was trying to shoe-horn one worldview into a shoe that didn’t fit. It took me a while, and not without some blisters, before I realized it. Here is what I think happened.

My formation as a person and pastor took place within Newtonian thinking. This map or worldview pictures reality as a machine with individual separate parts that, if working well, hums along with clockwork precision.

This map accents the importance of individual development, individual rights, and individual salvation, with individual teachers and professors providing guidance. My seminary was divided into separate, individual departments: biblical, historical, theological, and practical. Even theology was broken into parts — Neo-Orthodox, feminist, liberation, process, Old and New Testament theologies, etc. Very able and caring specialists, all ordained, were preparing me to be a generalist practitioner with non-ordained laity.

It was just assumed that I would be able, largely on my own, to synthesize this huge body of knowledge coming from separate disciplines. When I came to my first post as pastor, on one hand, I had never known so much; on the other hand, I had never known that so much was not integrated.

So I began my pastoral ministry as I had lived my life. I envisioned the congregation as a functioning machine with individual members. It looked that way. In committee meetings I would lead with clear agendas but, more often than not, I left these meetings frustrated over unexpected interactions that colored outside the lines. I encouraged a long-range planning process with goals and objectives precisely negotiated, only to find that after a few months this crafted plan had lost its steam. Similarly I would begin each day with a carefully thought out to-do list and end the day with only two or three “to-dos” crossed out. In those days I was scratching my head. The congregation was far from a smooth humming machine. There was something missing and it wasn’t more oil.

Like a slow dawning I began to see beyond the Newtonian map. Church work, I realized, is all about relationships; more like family and friendship, less like a machine with separate parts. And relationships are unpredictable — from order to disorder to order again, ever changing, full of surprises, all happening within a general frame of commitment.

A shift began to occur. In a committee meeting, for instance, a person might introduce an idea that sparks other ideas and synergy occurs. Yet this synergy would dismantle any tight, straight-line agenda.

Long-range planning that projected our life together five or ten years in the future was laid aside as a futile exercise. Yes, dialogue about direction is critical and can be energizing, but precise plans will always evaporate beneath uncontrollable, uncertain forces of change. The context of church work is always about ever-changing relationships within ever-changing environments, with no semblance of machine-like precision.

And let’s don’t leave out my frustration from interruptions to a carefully scheduled day. The common thread of these interruptions to daily planning was relationships — a member in crisis needing to talk now; a colleague needing some “time”; someone wanting to join (or leave) the church; a prolonged hospital visit; a call, “Have you got a minute?”; a death, a job loss, a birth, a complaint; a question about your sermon. The list of possible interruptions is endless. But each one happens within relationship; each one is about relationships; and each one opens the possibility for more life-giving relationships. Engaging the interruptions, in this sense, was my work.

The mystic Rumi names this awareness: “You think because you understand one you must also understand two, because one and one make two. But you must also understand and.”

That’s it. That is what I am raising with you, namely, understanding the “and,” the invisible, in-between energy in relationships. This was not simply for me an on-the-job learning. During those years I was being awakened by other forces pressing for a post-Newtonian worldview — quantum physics, feminism, systems theory, chaos theory, the Buddhist truth of inter-being, the South African “ubuntu,” Buber’s I-Thou, and the recovery of our contemplative tradition with its accent on the unitive, non-dual, non-separation consciousness of Jesus, as in “love your neighbor as yourself” (not like you love yourself) and Paul’s vision of the church as Christ’s organic body.

I am raising with you what you already know and experience. You too have moved from a strictly Newtonian worldview. But we tend to forget. Non-dual awareness is not our general way of seeing unless we intentionally choose to be conscious of the unseen reality of “and.” Marcel Proust wrote that “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes.” I am writing about new eyes.

A metaphor can help us. The nature mystic Loren Eiseley suggests that we humans are like the Brazilian amphibian fish whose eyes have two lenses, one for seeing under the water and one for seeing above the water.

Above water you and I see individuals and marvel at their distinctive personalities and peculiarities. We differentiate, separate, compare, distinguish. To live in our culture is to be immersed in these waters of individualism. The French social critic Alexis de Tocqueville named this characteristic early in our history: “They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine that their whole destiny is in their hands.” This heritage is in our bones, our DNA. It’s a map of reality — a Newtonian map — that has benefited us greatly. But it’s limited, oh so limited.

Under water we see through another set of lenses. We see relationships and individuals within relationships. We see the invisible “and,” the in-between spirit, the Kingdom of God that Jesus announced that is within and between us. Through these lenses (this map or worldview) we see this deeper truth, the underwater truth — everything is inter-connected, inter-being. According to this map separation into parts is an illusion.

Imagine holding a banana in your hands. Above water seeing recognizes its distinctive texture, color and other separate features. But to see under water is to realize all the relationships that make possible this banana’s presence in your hand at this moment — the connections with the tree, soil, rain, and sun, with the harvesters, transporters, and sellers, and now with the banana in your hand. Suddenly, when you see this, you are caught up in banana wonder.

Love, the core and point of our faith, is invisible, relational energy. God is Love; Love is God. But love makes no sense apart from relationships. To see this is to unwrap a different map than the familiar Newtonian map that names separate locations, separate persons, separate institutions, separate parts. It’s the map or worldview that Thomas Merton unfolds: “We are already one. But we imagine we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to do is be what we already are.”

The problem, it seems, is that most people only see above ground. Their vision of life is binary with its separation thinking — you-me, either-or, right-wrong, in-out, up-down. For many, perhaps for most people, the map of distinctions and differentiation is the only map they live by.

In a poetic moment Merton marks his waking up from a dream of separateness only to see everyone walking, shining like the sun. And he later writes, “We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and God is shining through it all the time … in people and things and in nature and in events. But the problem is — we don’t see it!”

So what if we see it as pastors? What difference would it make if this awareness of relational synergy was the way we went about our work? I have already referenced committee meetings, long-range planning, and our daily “to-do” list. I’ll suggest a few more.

Take feedback for instance. I found feedback, at its best, to be direct and relational. At any of the numerous church meetings, what if you saved ten or fifteen minutes to ask, “Well, how did we work together? What helped? What got in the way?” You are assessing the strengths of collaboration, not primarily individual contributions.

Or a member may comment, “Pastor I really liked (or didn’t like) what you said.” At that point you could shift to, “Can we get together and talk about it?” Or, in a strained relationship sometimes a bold question is needed: “Sam, can we talk about our relationship? It’s important to me. What’s working? What’s not?”

Marriage is obviously a relationship. Seeing above water we focus on the growth and well-being of each individual. What is frequently left out is the under water, invisible “and” dimension — the growth and well-being of the relationship. It’s not so obvious.

Or, consider your congregation’s way of making decisions. This assumption you can bank on: relationships will either deepen or diminish in every decision-making process. During challenging congregational decisions I kept declaring, like a mantra, that the way we make this decision (how we relate) is as important, maybe more important, than what we decide.

And there are always issues to deal with. Problems and challenges are often couched as issues. I submit that issues can be and should be re-defined as challenges to relationships. For example, the “racial issue” can be re-defined as “How will we be in relationship with those of different skin color?” Or the “gay or LGBTQ issue” is more appropriately “How will we be in mutual relationship?”

Then, note that all the church rituals tap into this relational synergy. If done well, relationships — the in-between part, the “and” — will strengthen. At the wedding the two individuals enter separately from different directions, meet to make covenant with each other, God, and family, and finally exit the ceremony as one in community. Baptisms are not about individuals being sprinkled or immersed. Rather, we are sprinkled or immersed into community, a web of relationships, a body working together at embodying the mind of Christ. At funerals we celebrate Love from which we cannot be separated and remind ourselves that while loving relationships change they do not end. And the Eucharist is relational energy through and through, re-member-ing who we already are — a Communion, a Body.

So over time I came to appreciate two maps. One, the Newtonian map, which highlighted individual effort, differentiation, separation, and binary thinking, I inherited. The second post-Newtonian map with its awareness of relational synergy came to me as a gift along the way. Gradually, not abruptly, the new awareness took hold: Love — the business of church — is all about unpredictable, messy, creative, destructive, exciting relationships that carry the yearning for Shalom, the inter-abiding dream of God.

And yes, God is alive in all these relationships — luring, challenging, healing, forgiving, dancing with joy. God is present in and around and between and under and behind and ahead. In every relationship God is shining through, whether we are aware or not. Whether we know it or not, we are all in relationship with God, with each other, and with all that lives. The Spirit is relational synergy; the relational synergy is the Spirit.

Life is all about relationships. Ministry is all about relationships. It took me many years to see it, to see under water. It became a re-frame that mattered.

 


Dealing with Chronic Anxiety: A Re-frame That Mattered

November 17, 2016

“There is more chronic anxiety to deal with,” was his answer to my question during a recent visit. John, let’s name him, is approaching the end of his pastoral ministry. In contrast, my ending has now been eighteen years. So my question: “How is it different?” His response: “There is more chronic anxiety to deal with now.”

I remember precisely when I first heard the phrase “chronic anxiety.” In a lecture on leadership Edwin Friedman, referencing his mentor Murray Bowen, said, “Our society is functioning like a chronically anxious family.” I perked up and took notice. What does that mean? Understanding this manifestation of anxiety changed my functioning as pastor. It became a re-frame that mattered.

During seminary days I learned about anxiety. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote about the angst of being human, the inherent anxiety of being finite, uncertain, not in control. Paul Tillich, in The Courage to Be, identified the recurrent human anxieties as fate and death, guilt and condemnation, and emptiness and meaninglessness. He believed that the form of anxiety dominant in our time is meaninglessness, the lack of a compelling purpose for living. Then there is acute anxiety. Much of my pastoral care training was learning skilled, compassionate responses to persons and families in acute crises, the kind of anxiety in loss of life, faith, jobs, health, and relationships.

But chronic anxiety is another matter. Here’s the difference. Acute anxiety is definable and pin-pointed; it results from a specific loss and has a beginning and ending. In acute anxiety the loss is keenly experienced, but over time the acuteness or intensity of the felt loss usually subsides. The loss of relationship, the loss of a job, the loss of faith — the familiar arena of every pastor — are examples of acute anxiety. Chronic anxiety, on the other hand, is systemic. It lives within and between us with no clear boundaries. It’s in the air we breathe, invisible and potentially explosive like gas fumes.

There are specific behaviors that signal chronic anxiety at work, whether in family or congregation or society.

Blaming: The fault is not mine; it is out there, someone or something else. Blame for difficulty is displaced, distancing us from painful acknowledgment.

Reactivity: the vicious cycle of intense reaction to events or persons that by-passes the cortex (thoughtful thinking), like billiard balls bouncing off of each other.

Herding: the polarizing instinct to retreat into camps in a posture of “us” against “them.”

Pushing for a quick fix: the urge to relieve the painful anxiety by finding quick solutions.

Do these behaviors look familiar? Of course they do. At every turn, whether in the public or private arena, we see and feel ample examples. In fact, this behavior is so prevalent that some just presume that’s the way life is.

The connection to pastoral leadership — the subject of our conversation — is striking. Leadership, let’s understand, calls for the opposite of each of these chronically anxious behaviors. When leading, in contrast to blaming, we call for taking responsibility for our participation in both the problem and its resolution. When leading, in contrast to automatically reacting, we call for thoughtful responses. When leading, in contrast to herding or polarizing, we call for collaboration across differences in the pursuit of shared goals. When leading, in contrast to quick fixes, we think long-term and call for the willingness to accept short-term pain for future gain.

No wonder — I want to shout — it’s so challenging to be a leader in our day! No wonder it feels like swimming against the tide! No wonder there is the current level of burn out, loneliness, and despair among many leaders! The atmosphere of chronic anxiety makes creative leadership almost impossible. My admiration goes to you and other leaders who dare to assume this role, placing yourselves intentionally in the midst of toxic anxiety and from that place attempt to lead with courage, wisdom, and vision.

Friedman goes on to speculate why there is such a high level of chronic anxiety in our day. The rapid rate of change is one. All of us feel, to some degree, overwhelmed by the amount and speed of change. In previous eras change came at an arithmetic pace — 2-4-6-8-10. Now the pace is exponential — 2-4-8-16-32. At the end of World War II, the complete knowledge of humankind doubled every 25 years. Today knowledge doubles every 13 months. Change at this pace keeps our heads spinning, generating the anxiety of never “catching up,” feeling “behind” much of the time.

A second source of chronic anxiety is the release of anxiety binders. Friedman notes that the anxiety around difference has traditionally been bound in tight, discriminating stereotypes such as racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and hetero-sexism. While we celebrate the cracking open of these binding prejudices, we are also left with the anxiety of uncertainty. In relationships of diversity we find ourselves in unfamiliar, uncharted territory, feeling the challenge of learning new ways of relating on multiple fronts across differences that are honest and mutually respectful.

How then do you deal with increasing chronic anxiety? How can we approximate being an open-hearted presence in the midst of chronically anxious situations? Here are a few of my practices that I hope will stimulate a review of your own.

First, notice without judgment expressions of chronic anxiety. Perk up when you experience either in relationships or in yourself the alarms, that is, reactivity in the form of blaming or polarizing or pushes for quick fixes. Notice. Notice these behaviors and remember that when they reign, creativity and reasonableness are sabotaged.

Second, if you notice these behaviors in relationships, with either one or more persons, consider ways to invite the lowering of anxiety. The most essential gift that lowers anxiety is your own non-anxious presence. This does not mean you are not anxious. It means you find ways to reduce your own anxiety so you can be non-anxious within your role as leader. We know from experience that leaders, like thermostats, by their presence and actions, will either fuel more heat or lower it.

Other lowering responses in a group might include these. When noting the “not listening” occurring, you might call for a few minutes of thoughtful, prayerful silence. Or, “triangling” in the mission/purpose of the meeting can sometimes return the attention to the larger, mutual reason for gathering. Offering or joining lightness and humor will also lower the tension, because we can’t be anxious and playful at the same time. Even simply slowing down the interactions by a careful, respectful summary of what is being said will reduce the pace and stress.

This leads to the third point, the most important and challenging one: working with your own anxiety. You have your own ways. Know them, use them, and expand your repertoire. Again, noticing is the first step. Notice when and how you are being triggered into reactive behavior — blaming (including yourself), polarizing (binary thinking), and over-identifying with quick, specific outcomes.

Fortunately we live in a time when there is a plethora of technologies being rediscovered and offered as resources for our chronically anxious time. These include contemplative prayer, other meditation traditions, stress relaxation techniques, chanting, yogi, and other body-work practices. All of them are practices that help you over time develop, like a muscle, the capacity to let go of anxious reactivity sometimes even in the midst of it.

Theologically I see these practices as surrender, a letting go, a dis-identifying of these anxious thoughts and feelings, then returning to my deepest identity as rooted and grounded in Love, in God. I am fond of Martin Laird’s metaphor: “I am the mountain, not the weather.” My identity — the grace of Being, being loved — if I allow it, is as solid as a mountain. All else, the array of thoughts and feelings, comes and goes like the weather.

Self-regulation is the widely understood word for this inner work. Whatever the particular practice you might employ, it’s a process of releasing our energies squandered through egoic re-activity and returning to a non-anxious center, sometimes even within chronically anxious settings. There’s no quick fix here. This is long-term inner work. More accurately, this is life-long inner work.

In summary, naming chronic anxiety gifted me in two ways. It unveiled the energy source of ruinous chronic behaviors ever so present in all our institutions, including congregations and family. Also this understanding framed the spiritual, inner work required for leadership, namely, how to be in chronic anxiety without being of it. It is a re-frame that has mattered.

A comprehensive description of this inner process of self-regulation as prayer can be found in the chapter “The Welcoming Prayer,” in Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening.

 


Agent of Change: A Re-frame That Mattered

October 18, 2016

Change is at the core of our vocation. We hear it in the weighty words like repentance, conversion, redemption, transformation, and reconciliation. But how change occurs is complex, more mystery than not. During my walking around in this mystery I came across a pair of glasses that helped me see from a particular angle.

I came out of seminary excited, feeling ready to be an agent of change. The Search Committee that offered my first pastoral opportunity shared a similar expectation. They proposed: “Here is where we are as a congregation. Here is where we want to be.” The subliminal message I heard: “Your leadership can change us.” So I set about to be an agent of their change?

But along the way — about five years actually — I began to question my capacity to change “the other.” It didn’t work. A particular change might be willed for a period, but when the pressure was released the behavior went back to previous patterns. It didn’t work with my wife, not with my children, not with friends, not with the congregation, and not with myself. Any willful effort to change always invited the counter force of resistance. Clearly, something was missing in my view of change.

What was missing — and it became a re-frame that mattered — is understanding change from a systems’ perspective. It speaks counter-intuitively: focus on yourself, not your congregation, and that, to some degree, will change the congregation. You work on yourself — your clarity of vision, your learning, your integrity, your transformation, your responses, your relationships, your questions, your calling, your presence. It all sounds totally self-serving and selfish until you see the paradox: by working on changing yourself you change the system. By focusing on our functioning in relationships we change the relationships. This perspective — centering in on changing self not congregation — felt like a 180-degree turn.

Let’s review the systems view of change. Imagine a system as a mobile with various hanging, dangling parts. We know from experience that if the height of one part is changed, then the total mobile is changed. All the parts of the mobile are thrown out of balance until the force of togetherness (homeostasis) brings the parts into balance again … but in slightly new positions.

Remember a sermon in which you took a stand that challenged the congregation. It was a new position you were taking, like changing your part of the mobile. The sermon was unsettling. The congregation, like a mobile, was thrown out of balance, however slightly. But you also noticed, either immediately or over time, there was a power in the congregational system at work pulling toward a new stability. The mobile-like congregation eventually settled down into a new balance, somewhat changed.

Or, imagine a number of separate parts connected to each other by rubber bands. Let’s say that you take one part and pull it upward to a new position. Note what happens. All the rubber bands, not just one, are stretched. Then, three possibilities emerge. One, all the rubber bands connecting the other parts could pull the deviant part back to the comfort level of what had been. Or, the deviant part will stretch so far that the band will break, causing a “cut off,” a disconnection. Or, the pull of the adventurous part could invite all of the parts to change in that direction to some degree.

Think again of that same visionary sermon you preached. Notice the options: Did your vision get no traction, no movement of change from the system, with congregants saying in effect, “We are not ready for that”? If so, you go back and wait for another opportunity. Or, was the vision so “far out” it was rejected, “cut off” like the break of a rubber band? Or, was there enough curiosity and excitement from congregants for there to be significant movement toward the vision articulated in the sermon?

Each metaphor illustrates the central point: changing yourself, your position in any relational system changes in some way the relational system as a whole, whether it’s two people or an entire congregation.

While we cannot change the other, we can offer with clarity the changes occurring in us in a way that invites the possibility of significant change happening in them. We challenge by defining our self in relationships. Note this difference. To try to change another is to say, “This is what I think you should believe or do or be.” It’s a “you” message. To focus on our self is to send an “I” message. My message, “Here is where I am with … (issue, situation, belief, conflict). This is what I see or feel,” contains an inherent invitation, “Where are you with this? What do you see or feel?” By focusing on defining yourself and offering that self-awareness, you challenge the other person or persons to do the same, namely, to take responsibility for defining themselves. And these mutual self-expressions create change, hopefully change toward growth and maturity.

This is the essential interaction: This is what I see; what do you see? It’s present in preaching — this is what I see in this text; what do you see? Or in a committee meeting, “This is where I see the connection with our mission; how about you?” These interactions strengthen mutual capacity to take responsibility for our thinking, feeling, and doing.

But this is an important clarity. This focus on self is not to be confused with autonomy or independence or self-differentiation alone. In systems’ thinking, according to Murray Bowen and his interpreter Ed Friedman, a self is a connected self, a self in relationship. The self is always in relationship, like the parts of a mobile and the rubber bands illustrated in my two metaphors. There is so such thing as a separate self. I once heard Friedman muse, “Maybe life is all about how to be a self in relationship.” That’s the heart of it. That’s the challenge of it. It’s the essence of leadership.

I found in this re-frame both a gift and cost. The gift is the energy saved in efforts to change the other. Simply put, willful leadership is exhausting. There is relief in realizing that we cannot motivate people to change, as if we know what others need to become. It’s freeing, not wearying, to stay focused on questioning, challenging, offering, and inviting.

While the gift of this re-frame is huge, I experienced cost from it as well. I did so in three ways. First, because you and others will inevitably “see” differently, conflict can be expected. And if the differences become heated then your work is how to stay connected without agreement. It is costly, hard work to stay in relationship when differences are being mutually voiced and felt. This takes time, emotion, patience, vulnerability, and detachment from outcome.

A second cost. Don’t underestimate the time, maturity and effort it takes to find the space within yourself to clarify your responses. This work of self-definition is demanding. To react from our oldest “reptilian” part of the brain is quick and easy; to respond with thought-through, non-anxious words and presence reflects years of inner work.

A third cost. Challenging others with what you see, along with the invitation for them to do the same while staying in relationship — well, that’s a tall order. It’s an unrealistic ideal to expect such maturity from everybody, including yourself. Leading from self-differentiation will elicit multiple responses: some will be unable to respond with “I” statements; some will experience your self-definition as coercive; some will misinterpret your intent and content; and some will blame you for challenging the status quo. The stretch of the “rubber band” may be too much, too fast, too threatening. No one told me that this expression of intentional leadership could reap so much misunderstanding and loneliness. While systems’ thinking altered my understanding of change, I had to look elsewhere to find the inner strength required to adopt it.

Being a part of change within our multiple relationships is at the heart and in the heart of our call. We are about transformation. In this reflection, like a pair a glasses, I’ve offered one aspect of change I came to see more clearly. For me it was a shift: from focusing on changing others to focusing on changing myself, and from that place stimulate and engage others in their choices. It became a re-frame that mattered.


The Congregation’s Angel: A Re-Frame That Mattered

September 7, 2016

You remember the hand gesture — locking your fingers inward and saying, “This is the church, this is the steeple,” and then, as you open your hands, “open the door, here’s all the people.”

That’s the way church looks — an aggregate of individuals. When you look out over the congregation on a Sunday morning, what do you see? You see individuals separated in rows, each with a distinct appearance, each with a different personality, each with a different history with you. Or, looking through the church pictorial directory you notice individual faces, most of whom are shown within families, each with different names. Or, in your imagination when your congregation comes to mind you likely think of individuals to call or families to visit.

But on some level we know there’s more. Intuitively we know church to be more than separate individuals and family units. We just know it. There’s an invisible reality that will never show up in a church directory. Consider two fictitious individuals reflecting on their first visits to a particular congregation:

“I walked down the aisle, found a seat, looked around, breathed in the ambiance of the space, glanced through the worship bulletin, and took a deep breath. I don’t know why but I just felt at home. This fits. I could be a member here.”

“The people seemed nice enough. The sermon was okay. Nothing wrong with the music. But, somehow, I didn’t feel engaged. I’m not sure what I am looking for, but this is not the congregation for me.”

This felt, invisible force that each of these church visitors experienced we call by a number of names: “culture,” “spirit,” “corporate personality,” or “gravitas” of a congregation. Walter Wink calls this reality the “angel” of a congregation. Wink’s interpretation of angel, new to me, immediately became a re-frame that mattered.

Angel? Angel of a congregation? Who believes in angels these days? Aren’t angels disembodied figments of a non-enlightened mind? What possible meaning could this ethereal construct have for us?

Walker Wink is convincing. He opened my eyes to an added dimension of congregational life. This New Testament scholar wrote a trilogy that shook the theological world, including my theological worldview: Naming the Powers (1984), Unmasking the Powers (1986), and Engaging the Powers (1992). In Unmasking the Powers Wink notices that in the Book of Revelation, in chapters two and three, seven letters are sent to the seven churches in Asia Minor. But they are addressed to the angel of each congregation, e.g. “To the angel of the church of Ephesus,” “To the angel of the church of Sardis,” etc. In contrast, Paul addresses his letters to an entire congregation, like the church at Ephesus or the church at Philippi. Until Wink’s observation I had never noticed this before. Frankly, up to this point angels had no place in my understanding of life. They were contrary to my way of thinking. Never had I taken them seriously — until Wink came along.

For Wink the angel of each congregation represents its totality. The angel is not something separate or moralistic or airy. Rather, the congregation is the angel’s incarnation. The spirit or angel of a church is embodied in the people and place. The angel represents the spirituality of a congregation, its corporate personality, its interiority, its felt sense of the whole. Angel (aggelos) in this context means “messenger.” The angel of a church conveys its true unvarnished message. It tells it like it is, the good and not so good. In the above illustration of fictitious visitors, these individuals encountered the angel of the same congregation. They engaged its spirit or culture. For one visitor the experience felt uninviting; for the other it was a coming-home feeling.

The angel or spirit in each of the seven churches in Revelation reveals a mixture of mature and immature characteristics. These letters picture Christ’s spirit addressing the angels of these congregations with both affirmation and challenging critique. For example, to the angel of Ephesus: “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance … [but] you have abandoned the love you had at first.” (Revelation 2:2) To the angel of Laodicea, the message begins with a scathing indictment, “…because you are neither cold or hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth,” but ends with, “Listen, I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” (Revelation 3:16, 20) In fact each letter ends with the same challenge: “Let everyone who has an ear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”

Although Wink, and this reflection, focus on congregations, it is important to note that every collective entity with continuity through time has an angel. A family or a business has it own unique spirit, as does a school. We even speak of “school spirit.” Wink provides a way to name the invisible spirituality within any visible institution. Wink reclaims a biblical image — granted an unfamiliar one — for naming this invisible reality.

This is the picture: In these seven letters in the Book of Revelation, Christ is imaged as walking among the congregations, engaging the angel of each, sometimes critically, sometimes affirmatively — all in the service of transforming the angel into Christ-likeness. The living Christ is at work not only in the lives of persons in all their relationships. The Spirit is also at work loving, confronting, healing, and transforming the spirit-angel of each congregation.

Now, let’s turn to the significance of this re-frame during my last stint as pastor. This awareness I received from Wink dove-tailed so perfectly with family systems theory. As the new pastor I set before me two tasks: one, come to know the people; and two, come to know the system, the corporate spirit that I later learned from Wink to be the angel of the church.

The second task felt like detective work. I saw clues. I noted the architecture, the placement of pulpit, choir, and other symbols. What’s the message they tell about our spirit-angel? I kept asking questions: what’s the glue that holds us together? I continued to listen for favorite stories about past events, past crises, and past pastors. What former rituals continue to be life giving? And what are people in the community saying about us? One observation began to clarify as a characteristic of our long history: our angel had two strong wings — attention to worship and attention to social justice. Of course, there was more to learn about the angel, but this awareness jumped out with clarity and became a reference point for the rest of my leadership.

This was my assumption: The angel, if I allowed it, was introducing itself to me. I was being invited, less to analyze the angel than to learn to love the angel. In what may appear strange, I was forming a pastoral relationship with the angel, as well as with the people. It’s not unlike learning to care for another person. I was being invited to love this particular congregation with all its complexities, gifts, failures, inconsistencies, and richness.

Perhaps some specific examples will help you understand the value of this double vision seeing individual persons and paradoxically seeing the invisible corporate spirit, the angel.

I first experienced the angel of this congregation as cool, reluctant to extend a warm welcome to visitors. The church had been through some stressful years that absorbed the energy required for getting through a significant transition. So when the congregation gathered for worship members wanted to be together, to reassure each other, to enjoy each other. Wink gave me language for what I was intuiting, namely a wound in our angel that needed healing. For the next decade a priority for our leaders was to recover the church’s former generosity and eagerness to welcome the stranger.

This angel was severely tested in my ninth year. The congregation was discerning whether or not to add a ritual to our ministry — the blessing of a same-sex union. At the time there was not a more contentious, divisive issue in the larger church. This was the surprise. During this extended process of decision-making, we experienced more conflict outside the congregation than within it. We splintered, but we did not split.

I wondered then and now — what kept us steady in the water during this whirlwind of controversy? I believe it was the angel. During those stressful months, often a member would say something like, “Yes, we will lose some members. Yes, we will lose some money. Just like we did when we elected women deacons in the ’40s and when we racially integrated in the late ’50s and when our pastor was speaking out against the Vietnam War in the late ’60s. We made it through then. We’ll make it through now.” The angel with its passion for social justice, rooted in favorite passages such as Micah 6:8 and Jesus’ mission statement in Luke 4, provided the keel that kept our ship from overturning in turbulent waters. When enough members said, “This is who we are,” they were referring to our angel.

This imaginative metaphor of a congregation’s spirit inspired my occasional sermon that addressed the angel of our congregation. In a 1990 sermon, drawing on Wink’s interpretation of these verses in the Book of Revelation, I imaged Christ walking among us, engaging our angel. I spoke of Christ’s affirmation of our angel’s heart for community matters arising from and supported by our core practice of worshiping God. I gave some specific examples of this rhythm between worship and service, being at our best when not taking ourselves too seriously. But I also imagined Christ confronting our angel for our sometimes pride in feeling special, “progressive,” and yes, superior. I also envisioned our angel being chastised for being, at times, so open and inclusive that such grace could be morphed into cheap grace with little sacrifice or commitment.

And I ended the sermon, “So, these are some reflections on our angel. More importantly, I want you to take home this picture — the image of the spirit of Christ encountering our collective spirit, walking among us with the desire to transform our angel into his likeness.”

I conclude this reflection by noting a peculiar characteristic of our work. Like few vocations, pastoral ministry is all about seeing the un-seeable. The realities of trust, hope, and love — indeed, the Mystery we name God — are all invisible Spirit, like the wind, an uncontrollable force experienced but not seen. Even inter-personal relationships, the very heart of our work, cannot be seen or precisely measured. In these words I am underscoring another invisible reality on the list: the angel. Discerning and loving the angel of the congregation in the service of further transformation became for me a re-frame that mattered.

 


Symbolic Exemplar: A Re-Frame That Mattered

July 25, 2016

I didn’t know what I was getting into. I thought being a pastor was similar to being a teacher or social worker or father. These roles give you a position from which you can contribute. That’s the way I saw it.

I went to seminary with the excitement of a seeker who had just discovered a new map of unexplored terrain. This joy of a larger purpose freed me from an earlier vocational direction assumed by my family. I knew no one at the seminary when I arrived. Being Baptist had little substance. Church experience was limited. My knowledge of clergy was almost nil. To be “called” felt strange and remote. But the idea of some kind of paid work that allowed further exploration into the realm or kingdom of God was promising.

Surprise happened in an introductory class on pastoral care. The professor had recorded on tape his pastoral conversation with a grieving widow. I heard his gift of empathic listening and skillful questions that helped her find a measure of release and hope. On that day, in that moment, sitting on the fourth row of a large class in the “Map” room at Southern Baptist Seminary, I whispered to myself, “I want to do that!” And I have for forty-eight years.

What I felt then, and never lost, is this: the role gave me a way into those holy places of people’s lives, where I could offer a presence with a caring curiosity about their pursuit of meaning. A reporter once asked me, “What do you like most about your job?” I heard myself say, “I love having a ringside seat on how people make sense of their lives.” This was the constant joy—the role unlocking doors to these sacred places of presence and conversation.

You can anticipate my shock at running into the full complexity of this vocation. Immediately I protested the “difference,” the “set-apartness” that came with the role. I resisted the various titles—Brother Mahan, Preacher, Reverend, Pastor Siler, Doctor Siler. “Just call me Mahan,” I sometimes said. “I’m just a regular guy with a huge curiosity about life and faith in God.”

My ordination, with its language of “being set apart” to serve the church, declared more about my future than I could absorb at the time. I was wonderfully challenged by the vows yet felt broadsided by the loneliness and projections that came in their wake. The new role changed how people perceived me, including my neighbors and larger family. Even my pre-ordination friends didn’t quite know what to do with my new identity. I felt placed into a separate category I didn’t understand.

Eventually a re-frame came to me, in the form of a gift from a rabbi friend, which described with clarity the role I was assuming. The gift was a book from another rabbi, Jack Bloom, in which Bloom describes the tension: as rabbis (or pastors) we are both living symbols of More than we are and ordinary human beings. We are both. Both at the same time.

A symbol points beyond itself to some other reality from which it draws power. Take our national flag, for instance. We know it’s not simply a colored piece of cloth. It draws our attention powerfully to the “republic for which it stands.” Or, even more familiar to us, we regularly participate in the transforming symbolic power of water (baptism) and bread and wine/grape juice (Eucharist).

But acknowledging our symbolic power is another matter. Imagine the scene: rabbis, priests, or pastors in the pulpit beneath a robe and stole (or dark suit) with Scripture in hand. Note the symbols. Note the symbol we are. Yes, we remain very human under the robe, with all our peculiar human traits. But we are so much more. We feel it. We know it. We are symbols of More than we are, signs of a narrative and worldview we call Gospel. Or to say it boldly: You and I are symbols pointing to God, the ultimate Mystery. By just being a clergy person you announce a huge wager. You and I dare to wager that God is real, a loving presence in us, with us, and through us, active in the world making love, making justice, making shalom. And furthermore our symbolic identity deepens with each passing funeral, wedding, worship service, and pastoral visit. We are walking, talking representatives of More than ourselves. The projections abound. The symbolic role opens doors; it closes doors. We are different. Not better, but different.

And, if that is not enough to carry, as pastors we are not just symbols, we are symbolic exemplars. Certain ethical behaviors are expected of us. As the ordination of Episcopal clergy words it, we vow to be “wholesome examples” of the gospel. Leaders in other fields are also symbols of more than they are, but few leaders carry such additional moral pressure. Pastors, and in some sense their families, are expected to show, as well as tell, what loving God and neighbor looks like.

Bloom puts the two together: The pastor or rabbi as symbol and as exemplar. Then he mixes in the third reality: we are symbolic exemplars and ordinary human beings. It’s a re-frame that has mattered.

Let’s place these truths on a continuum — symbolic exemplar on one end and human being on the other end. The extremes are easy to see. On the symbolic exemplar end we have observed pastors and priests overly identified with their symbolic role. Behind the role so much of their humanity is hidden. Their sense of self is fused, it seems, with their pastoral identity. “He must sleep in his collar,” I recall hearing about a Lutheran pastor in my neighborhood. At retirement these ministers have the toughest work of discovering who they are apart from the role that has identified them for so long. I admit, when I retired this inner work was necessary for me as well.

The other extreme is protecting our humanness, so much so that we discount the authority and appropriate power invested in the role. To insist, “I’m just me, a person like everyone else,” is folly. I found, as you have, that there were times when this transcending power was undeniable. You know it when, on occasion, while preaching, the message comes more through you than from you. Or standing by the bed of a very ill parishioner, or sitting across from a person in crisis, you palpably experience being a symbol of More than yourself. When they see you they see the faith community you represent. When they see you they “see” the un-seeable you represent, namely, an invisible Reality. In those times it’s so clear—the person is relating to you but also to so much More than you.

There are times when we consciously, intentionally call on the full authority of the role. I am reminding you of those times when you are face-to-face with persons, usually in the safety of your office, who pour out their sense of “not being enough,” who are feeling particularly victim to relentless, self-condemning voices rising from their depths. In those times we deliberately wrap the role around us like a robe. Our voice is up against the self-despising voices we are hearing. In those moments you too would claim your pastoral authority and say something like, “What you tell yourself is not true. Your deepest truth is this: You are a child of God, loved and loving, totally forgiven and full of worth just as you are.” By claiming this authority we hope that the Power we symbolize undermines and eventually replaces the power of these self-condemning voices.

Or, the best example is the obvious one. Every time you and I rise to stand behind the pulpit to lead in worship, we intentionally wrap ourselves around the privilege and courage of being both our authentic selves and More than our authentic selves.

We know multiple examples of those in our vocation who have abused this symbolic power to the great harm to others, to themselves, and to their congregation. The examples are legion. But the longer I was a pastor the more I understood and appreciated this power to bless and speak in the name of God. But it always felt uncomfortable. The audacity never left me. Each deliberate attempt was not without a good measure of “fear and trembling.” I was flirting with danger, and I knew it. Speaking from ego, for ego, or speaking from God, for God—which was it? No doubt it was a mixture of both. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

Precisely; that’s the point! When we embrace this tension of being both symbolic exemplar and the very human person we are, you and I are reduced to prayer. We are driven to our knees. The chutzpah demands mercy; the mercy makes possible the chutzpah.

Naming the un-nameable Mystery … Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

Putting on, like a robe, the privilege, ambiguities, set-apartness, projections, and loneliness of this work … Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

Embracing the tension of being both living symbol of More than I am and a human being not more than I am … Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

Being a flawed leader of an imperfect institution that frequently contradicts the compassion it espouses … Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

Bearing the symbols of God, even being a symbol of God, at the perilous risk of playing God … Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

I leave you with a paradox — being both fully, uniquely human and fully, uniquely a symbolic exemplar. Embracing, not resolving, this paradox became for me a re-frame that mattered.

Reference: The Rabbi As Symbolic Exemplar: By the Power Vested in Me, Jack H. Bloom

 


Evolution: A Re-frame That Mattered

June 20, 2016

The picture frame: God and evolution at opposite corners. The re-frame: God within evolution as the meta-narrative, an umbrella story into which the Christian narrative is folded.

For the first half of my ministry the understanding of God and the understanding of our evolving universe co-existed, with little interaction between the two. During my first years as pastor, the concept of evolution seldom showed up in my sermons or teaching. It was there as a background story, acknowledged but seldom connecting with life experience. Occasionally, if pressed by a Creationist, I would defend my view of creation as unfolding over millenniums. It was a “soft” belief, one which I knew to be well-documented by contemporary scientists.

What a shock it must have been during the late Middle Ages for humans to hear, “You are no longer the center of the universe!” This startling truth—the earth revolving around the sun—shattered our primal place within a presumed stable, orderly world. During the centuries that followed the church was largely in denial about this discovery, while at the same time science emerged, triumphantly solidifying our evolving as humans in an evolving universe. Even the sun lost its prominence, becoming but one of countless suns within countless galaxies.

Picture the vastness of evolution compressed into 100 years, a schema perhaps familiar to you. The Big Bang occurred in the first year, then after about 67 years our solar system is formed, with us, the human species, appearing around the 99th year. That leaves the birth of Jesus occurring during the last hours, which, in turn, leaves me with my mouth wide open in radical amazement. Imagine that! Christianity and other faith traditions are recent—just getting started, we could say. You and I serve an early, early church. Could there be a more abrupt shift in perspective?

My turn toward this re-frame—the evolving universe as meta-narrative—began with Claude Stewart, a nearby professor, who I asked in 1987 to deepen my understanding of “process theology.” My first assignment took me by surprise. “Read Report to Greco by Nikos Kazantzakis,” he said. Claude in his wisdom didn’t want us to begin with an intellectual discussion of theory. First, he invited me to experience “process,” to feel it in my bones, know it viscerally, and encounter its throbbing dynamism. He wanted the starting point to be the awe, power, and beauty of evolution. Kazantzakis’ poetic grasp of evolution did just that. I’ll quote part of it.

Blowing through heaven and earth, and in our hearts and the heart of every living thing, is a gigantic breath—a great Cry—which we call God. Plant life wished to continue its motionless sleep next to stagnant water, but the Cry leaped up within it and violently shook its roots: “Away, let go of the earth, walk!” Had the tree been able to think and judge, it would have cried, “I don’t want to. What are you urging me to do! You are demanding the impossible! But the Cry, without pity, kept shaking its roots and shouting, “Away, let go of the earth, walk!”

It shouted in this way for thousands of eons; and lo! As a result of desire and struggle, life escaped the motionless tree and was liberated.

Animals appeared—worms—making themselves at home in water and mud. “We are just fine here,” they said. “We have peace and security; we’re not budging!”

But the terrible Cry hammered itself pitilessly into their loins. “Leave the mud, stand up, give birth to your betters!”

“We don’t want to! We can’t.”

“You can’t, but I can. Stand up!”

And lo! After thousands of eons, man emerged, trembling on his still unsolid legs. Man calls in despair, “Where can I go?”

And the Cry answers, “I am beyond. Stand up!”

This Cry, this pitiless hammering in our loins, the Beyond luring us forward—don’t you feel it at times? You know that fiery mixture of fear and excitement welling up within, whispering or shouting sometimes, “Wake up. Leave your comfort zone. Risk. Stand up. Give birth to your betters!”

Your mother felt this Cry. So did my mother. At our births each one heard the Cry. While fearing, “I can’t do this! This is too hard, too painful!” they heard the counter Cry rising within them: “You can. Let go. Yield to the struggle. Embrace the pain. Don’t hold back. Give birth to ‘your betters.’ Welcome the new life coming through you!”

You felt that Cry when you decided for the first time to stand up on your own two legs. It was a micro moment of defying fear by choosing the risk of walking over the comfort of crawling. It was the same Cry calling you to courage when you risked preaching your first sermon, when you vowed “yes” at your ordination, when you risked rejection within an important personal relationship for a deeper acceptance and intimacy, or when you took a stand out of integrity in the face of inner voices shouting, “No. Don’t do it. We’re just fine here. Don’t disturb us.” Yet, you heeded a different voice, and, to your surprise, your self-confidence thickened. The feared catastrophe likely didn’t happen. This is the process that occurs when you “give birth to your betters.”

You can almost hear this Cry pounding in the heart of a trapeze artist: the risk of letting go of one bar, feeling the “up in the air” anxious suspension, yet trusting the new bar coming toward you. It’s the metaphor I turn to when I think of evolution: the summons—to risk failure for a higher stage, to risk discomfort for the sake of integrity, to risk misunderstanding for a more complex, deeper mutuality. It’s the Cry, a gigantic breath “blowing through heaven and earth, and in our hearts and in the heart of every living thing,” a force some of us call God and Spirit.

This re-frame shifted my perspective in multiple directions. My understanding of evolution evolved as God within evolution became the meta-narrative. You gain a sense of this shifting from these short paragraphs.

  • If time is imagined as a long corridor, then this evolving universe blew away the backdoor on my sense of history. Our human capacity for transcendence is comparably recent.
  • Creation did not happen; creation is happening. Nothing is ordered, fixed and stable; life is dynamic, chaotic, devolving, evolving, ever more complex, demanding ever more collaboration. At our best, we are co-creators with God in an unfinished universe.
  • Our planet, the beautiful blue ball pictured from outer space as whole, undivided, is the mythic symbol of our age.
  • Reality is relational, interconnected, systemic, fluid, ever evolving on all levels from micro to macro within an expanding universe. Separation is an illusion.
  • God is active within our evolving creation; our evolving creation is within God (pan-en-theism). God is the Cry, the Lure, the summoning life-force of Love—Love as eros, desiring to connect creatively; as philia, forming covenant partnerships; and as agape, radical self-giving to the “other,” the neighbor “as yourself.” God is the subject of Love, glowing and active in and through our relationships.
  • The Spirit is divine Love-in-action. Evolution is Spirit-in-action, a Ken Wilber phrase.
  • Jesus, Life-giver, icon of the fully human, is the divine Cry incarnated, giving body, mind, and soul to this movement toward the fullness of shalom.
  • Church is those who desire and allow the Love embodied in Jesus to be embodied in them, his Body in the world.
  • Prayer is surrendering to and partnering with this divine movement toward justice and right relationships (shalom), allowing ourselves to be transformed in the process.
  • Meditation is an inner muscle builder, a repeated practice of letting go the inner noise of anxious mental thoughts, past or future, and falling into the heart space of “belovedness,” our true human nature, our deepest identity.
  • Worship, from a place of awe, is our self-offering to the God movement toward shalom.
  • Hope is standing back, way, way back, far enough to see the vastness of evolution with its repeated patterns of death and resurrection, dying and rising, the Paschal Mystery and its movement toward increasing complexity and collaboration in the direction of wholeness. My hope is in those who hear and heed this summoning Cry, feeling it, questioning it, fearing it, and who finally, over and over again, yield to its call to “give birth to their betters.”

I am not proposing determinism. We experience both the pull of evolution and the force of devolution. Extinctions are occurring. From self-destructive and earth-destructive behavior, we homo sapiens might be the next. Yet, evolution will not end. Death never has the last word. Life keeps coming out of death—a conviction formed from my understanding of the Gospel, my trust in the Cry, and my understanding of evolution.

Recently some elder friends and I were lamenting the current state of affairs. The conversation bounced around the table. “Democracy is gone. Let’s face it. We have an oligarchy—the few with wealth, political power calling the shots,” said one friend. Another bemoaned international crises, saying “I can’t stand watching nations implode, with thousands of refugees fleeing for safety. I see no solution.” Still another reminded us of our founders’ choice—a messy political process over the option of tyranny—and despaired, “Yet now in the last decade people are elected to obstruct the political process as a way to sabotage the other political party.” The chorus claiming our voices was “Ain’t it awful! Ain’t it awful!”

On and on it went. After a while I asked my friends, “Well, what gives you hope?” Like a boomerang the question came back, “Well, Mahan, what gives you hope?”

I told them about the Cry. It’s been a re-frame that’s mattered.

 

For further reading:

The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution, and the Power of Love, by Ilia Delio

 


Dis-establishment: A Re-frame That Mattered

May 24, 2016

The frame church as established and dominant began to crack and then disintegrate early in my ministry. For so long I didn’t have a frame to replace it. I couldn’t find the clarity I needed to lead a congregation.

In the early 80’s the Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall appeared on my life stage, soon assuming a major role. His bold insight became a re-frame that mattered. With convincing lucidity he announced: Christendom is over! The 1,500 years of church prominence in Western civilization is at the end of its ending. Rejoice! Be glad! Claim the freedom in shaping a new future of Christianity!

Perhaps my journey toward this clarity might sufficiently parallel your experience, enough so to make sense of this new perspective.

Born in 1934, a Knoxville, Tennessee native, growing up during “pre” to “post” World War II years, I experienced the church as established. Like other standing institutions (governmental, legal, educational, medical) the church in its varied forms was visible and prominent, its permanence assumed. It was a dependable trellis, a trustworthy frame that seemed to uphold the moral structure of the community. In those days religious identity was generally inherited, much like skin color or last name.

Gestures of this establishment were conspicuous: church and state arm and arm in the “war effort”; opening prayer at civic occasions, even football games; attendance at church services more the norm than not; “ministerial discounts” for pastors; church property as tax free; Jews in their ghettos, Muslims non-existent. After all, we were a Christian nation.

During my university years I came alive with a sense of larger purpose. Defining myself within the Jesus story took me to seminary to learn more. Serving the church vocationally was not my motivator at the time. During my seminary years the church was still firmly established, with Protestant Christianity presumed to be the dominant religion nationally and the superior religion globally. Foreign missionaries bore the badge of supreme devotion.

But gaping cracks were appearing in the established church. The Secular City by Harvey Cox announced the growing assumption of secularism. As graduate students we pondered the meaning of Bonhoeffer’s inscrutable phrase, “religion-less” faith; the “death of God” theologians were even more mystifying. Various religious and non-religious worldviews surfaced as the norm in our neighborhoods and workplace. All the while, loyalty to congregation and denomination was eroding. Even the renewal movements of the time felt like efforts to recover something important that was lost and needed recapturing.

Yet churches were growing, or were expected to, when I assumed my first position as pastor in 1967. Still fueled by the optimism of post-war years, the American economy, American global power, and suburban congregations were growing. Once a pastor accepted the role, it was assumed that, given effective leadership, the congregation would surely grow larger. Anything less would be failure.

But an uncertainty persisted. Something was changing that I couldn’t see, name, or measure. It seemed that deep underground plates were shifting — “foundations were shaking,” to borrow Tillich’s phrase. I just couldn’t settle the questions: What is the church for? What is a pastor for? No longer could I embrace without question the church’s mission to “save” people, win souls, convert the world to Christ. Equally dissatisfying was defining the church as another social agency that served the world in its need for mercy, healing, and justice. After all, weren’t we still called to share the hope within us? And wasn’t this a hope in God, from God?

Along came Douglas John Hall just when I needed him. He offered a clear frame that gave borders to my confusion. Hall invited me to step back . . . way, way back to see the larger picture. I heard him saying: “Open your eyes. See it! See the evidence all around us. Christianity in Western civilization is winding down from its privileged status that began in the 4th century. Face it. We are experiencing the end of Christendom’s fifteen hundred years of church prominence.”

Hall’s framing differentiates a beginning and ending. The beginning was Emperor Constantine’s adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the empire in the 4th century; the ending, after fifteen hundred years, was a gradual decline of the church’s established and dominant positions. These two great social transitions mark the history of the western church. During those centuries empires, kings, philosophers, and political systems came and went. But through it all the church in the West maintained its superiority as the official religion. While it’s true that during these centuries there had always been small alternative faith communities, the larger church always maintained its established status. Hall convincingly names the bit-by-bit ending of Christendom, noting its few remaining vestiges in places like the southern states in our country.

Then Hall, once he makes his compelling case, responds with a surprising challenge: “Welcome dis-establishment! Don’t fret it. Embrace it! Claim the gift of it for the church in our time!”

I remember thinking that it was no wonder I had been confused. It’s appropriate to be confused when the church we serve is experiencing the end of a fifteen-hundred-year period of dominance. Of course the future is uncertain with no clear path forward. How could this awkward moment in history be otherwise?

The gift from this new frame was this: as pastor, I felt invited to sit down before a new set of questions.

The old establishment questions are familiar: How can we attract members? How can we raise the budget? How can we keep our building repaired? These are worthy questions, ones that I dutifully asked as a leader of an established congregation that was just beginning to feel the angst of this vast transition. But these inquiries are secondary questions.

With dis-establishment confirmed, I felt the excitement of different questions, more basic and future oriented:

  • What does following Jesus look like in our time?
  • What is the church for?
  • What is the pastor for?
  • What new metaphors, forms, and directions are trying to be born within us?
  • What are we being asked to let go of that is no longer life-giving?
  • How do we respond respectfully to those among us grieving the loss of what was?
  • Being increasingly dis-established, side-lined, and alternative, how can we learn from other Christian communities throughout church history whose witness was anti-establishment, marginal, and alternative? (See Bass, A People’s History of Christianity)
  • How can we respond to the particular longings of our time? (Hall, in The End of Christendom and the Future of Christianity, mentions four such longings, or quests: the quests for moral authenticity, meaningful community, transcendence and mystery, and meaning.)

To reiterate a former point, in our nation and particularly in the South, ample vestiges of Establishment are still present, so much so that some deny that such a major social and religious shift is occurring. Any pastor can identify those members who believe that “if we could just do ‘this’ or try ‘that’ then our church could return to its ‘better’ days.” The denial of death, so strong and deep within each of us, is an equally powerful drive in us institutionally. In another Re-frame I express an overlapping observation with this Re-frame today: pastors are both hospice chaplains and mid-wives. We stand in the breach between what is ending and what is being born.

This too I appreciate from Hall: he pictures the church of today and tomorrow as coming alongside the church in the first centuries before Constantine. Those first followers of Jesus, not inhibited by being a minority, even at times a persecuted minority, claimed the transforming power of the small. In parallel, we too can be small, feisty communities of our day. The favorite metaphors of Jesus can be ours to manifest in fresh ways by self-identifying as salt, yeast, and seeds — as a small “light shining before others.” (Matthew 5: 16)

Thanks to you, Douglas John Hall, for your location of the contemporary western church. Your frame, when I allowed it, gave me new questions to live as I went about my leading, preaching, teaching, and pastoral caring. You invited a lightness, curiosity, and trust in the Spirit at work in our dying and in our rising. You gave me a re-frame that mattered.

 


On Time: A Re-frame That Mattered

May 4, 2016

As pastors we have time in our hands. Not a stethoscope. Not checks or prescriptions to write. No goods to sell. No papers to grade. No legal documents to consult. We have time, time to show up, be present, and invite others to find themselves in the Story as their defining story.

The congregation says to us: “We free you from having to spend part or all of your work time earning money. We are buying your time to lead us.” Then with no clear expectations, no structure, no supervision, no schedules offered, they walk away, trusting our use, not abuse, of this time given. It’s an awesome trust; it’s burdensome freedom.

Time, my relationship to it, was the blessing and bane of my pastoral ministry. I loved the freedom of choice; I felt the burden of its up-to-me stewardship.

A pastor was describing his thirteen-hour Sunday: the early review of his sermon; leading worship, including preaching; a pastoral response to a family crisis; a late afternoon committee meeting; a hospital visit; and then another meeting at the church that evening. Most disturbing was that, while driving home after a long day, his mind was still working, thinking of things not done and people not seen. “Always more, no endings, never enough,” he said out loud to himself. Later he left our vocation, in large part, he said, “for lack of time.”

Granted, such long hours are typical for many workers caught up in a job with high expectations, either self imposed or imposed by others. Thirteen-hour days are not so extraordinary. We all live and work in an environment that applauds over-functioning. “Not enough time” is a refrain sung by most adults I know.

But, and this may surprise you, for pastors the issue is not about having enough time. It looks that way. It feels that way. But insufficient time is not the problem. The truth is, we have time. Time is the gift that awaits us each weekday morning. It is ours to fill, to spend. We are paid to show up in time with presence.

This is the way I see the covenant between pastor and congregation:

We set you apart (ordination) to lead alongside us from a different angle. We give you time to understand, define, and offer yourself in the role of pastoral leader. We free you from some, if not all, the obligations to earn a salary outside the church. We pledge adequate personal and financial support for you to have the time you need to fulfill your calling. We make it possible for you to have time to study, reflect, and pray in ways that nourish your season with us as pastoral leader. Together, as pastor and people, we seek to embody in our historical moment the extravagant compassion of God, made most clear in Jesus.

Note the freedom. Let’s acknowledge up front the uncommon freedom we have as pastors. Yes, it can be a burdensome freedom, but it is freedom nevertheless. Most laborers, including professionals, have limited to no control over their schedules. Their time is carefully measured, sometimes in 15-minute increments. Most workers adapt to schedules largely set for them by others. Not so with us. We have an unusual freedom of choice.

This difference I felt keenly when I moved from being a director of a department within a medical center to becoming again the pastor of a local congregation. In my hospital context my work schedule had structure—office hours from 8:00-5:00 Monday to Friday, many standing committees, one boss, with weekends usually free. I could still over-function, but I knew when I was working beyond the agreed-upon boundaries.

In contrast, the congregation offers minimal structure, vague and conflicting expectations, and fluid boundaries. Apart from Sunday morning worship and a few fixed committees, I was on my own to figure out my best use of time. Unless our misuse of time is flagrant, we are our own “boss” when it comes to time management. It’s up to you. It was up to me.

That’s my first preliminary point: we are given time along with the freedom and responsibility to invest it. There is a second point to make before I record the re-frame, namely, we are employed by people who don’t understand our job.

I’m not complaining or blaming, mind you. I am naming a lack of understanding that comes with our profession. Most of our work is invisible to the congregation that employs us. How could this lack of understanding be otherwise when much of pastoral ministry is private? For instance, most lay members seem surprised to learn that preparation for leading a worship service, including crafting a sermon, usually requires at least twelve hours. And how would members know that a funeral service takes six to eight hours of pastoral care, preparation, and leadership of the service? And there is the care we give to individuals and families that is appropriately confidential.

Technically, in some situations, congregational members are not the employer. For instance, in the Methodist system the pastor is appointed. But functionally, I’m assuming that in all parishes the power that allows us to minister belongs to the people. If congregational expectations of the clergy are not met, then it is only a matter of time before the bishop or superintendent or representative lay leaders say, “We think it is time for you to move on. The match is no longer a good one. It’s not working.”

Furthermore, with each “employer” (member) a pastor has a slightly different contract, a difference in large part unacknowledged. For example, some members insist on certain standards in liturgical leadership, especially preaching, yet seem less demanding in other areas. Others, however, expect availability and effectiveness in pastoral care. These members can tolerate less quality in worship leadership. Still others look for efficient management. Above all else they expect effective oversight of the staff, budget, programs, and building. A few members give top priority to pastoral leadership in the community, expecting their pastor to be a connecting link between congregational resources and community needs.

Again, I feel the need to say that I am not blaming. Members do not intentionally participate in these competing pulls on a pastor’s time and energy. These overlapping member-pastor contracts are expectations that live beneath awareness and only occasionally are brought to the surface in conversation.

This is the nature of our work. We offer ourselves in the midst of conflicting contracts, unconscious assumptions, and unnamed expectations. Our vocation is not for those who require detailed agreements, tight structure, and precise boundaries. Simply, we are employed by those who don’t understand our job. To the extent that this bold statement is true, we are left with a daunting responsibility. Our relationship to time is left up to us.

Now, to my point. This is the re-frame that mattered: giving top priority to prioritizing my calling in order to prioritize my time. This may sound counter-intuitive—taking time, lots of time, to prioritize the focus of our ministry as prerequisite to decisions about our use of time.

I’m advocating that the place to start is not a to-do list for the day. That’s too late. The to-do list comes last, not first. To begin with a list of what to do today leaves us vulnerable to the immediate, pressing, short-term needs. Left out of the list would likely be the larger arc of our calling.

Perhaps, at this point in this reflection, my own experience would be helpful. I hesitate because, as I have admitted, my relationship to time was my greatest single challenge. I reference my efforts in managing time not as a model to follow but as a set of assumptions and practices against which you can review your own stewardship of this gift.

First must come the work of self-definition. The on-going defining of call precedes and informs defining the use of time.

This means setting down before us a set of questions and working them toward focus, not once but repeatedly. I offer these primary questions that invite clarity of call, which in turn clarify management of time. They fall into three contexts ranging from macro to micro perspectives: church and world, congregation, and your personal life.

These are balcony questions. Getting to the “balcony” happens when we leave the dance floor of the complex movements of congregational life and step back, way back, in order to see the big picture. From the balcony we look for patterns, noting the connections and disconnections in order to weigh our options for re-entering the dance floor.

Context: church and world. Balcony questions: What’s the call of God to the church in our moment in history? Within our time in American culture, what is the prime purpose of the church? How does our perception of our local community shape the church’s witness? What resources, including interpreters of our time, stimulate your balcony reflections about the church in the world?

Context: your congregation. Balcony questions: With congregation as partner in ministry, what am I called to give? What is being asked of me? Where do my gifts and the needs of the congregation meet? What is it time for in our congregation’s life and mission? What are the resources within and beyond the congregation that can help me clarify the focus of my leadership?

Context: your personal life. Balcony questions: What time is it in your life and the life of your family? What’s being birthed in you? How do you nurture your soul within this role? Where’s the gladness? Where’s the sadness?

Priorities of importance arise from working these kinds of questions. And from these ABC priorities comes direction for the best use of time.

Key to this process, as you can see, is setting specific “balcony” times for this inner work of discernment. This key is non-negotiable. I tried but never could do this inner work on the run. It requires a different space and sufficient time. Here is the plan that worked for me.

During the typically low-maintenance week between Christmas and New Year, I worked with these balcony questions. First I would read through my journals from the past year, looking for patterns and themes. Journals, kept regularly but not daily, served as a catcher for ruminations about where I sensed God at work, what I was learning from my reading and life experiencing. For me my journals became the place I tracked the changes in my call, both to inner transformation and to outer work of the church. Out of these annual days came a revision of priorities for ministry, self, and family to guide me during the next year, sometimes years. Every month or so I would review and update these priorities.

All the better if this discernment can include others, in particular, your spouse, close friends, colleagues, congregational leaders, and the congregation itself. They join you in living the question of calling or purpose or mission, reason for being. The question, of course, never gets fully answered. It’s the asking that distinguishes “good” action in order to discover the “necessary” action.

Finally, I come to the daily to-do-list. Each day, for around twenty minutes, with the priorities before me, I prayerfully asked, “What is the best use of my time for this day, for the rest of this week?” This meant that I could enter the day with a measure of clarity. Of course, unexpected interruptions, the “bread and butter” of ministry, would occur. But with my focus for the day in place I was more likely to respond, not react, to the events coming toward me. I had a frame.

And now a last word, lest my thoughts blind us to reality. Everything will work against what I have suggested. Sabotage awaits any effort to claim the time for prioritizing your call as prelude to prioritizing your time. You will hear the resistance in these questions: Where will I find the time to work with my call and time? Who cares enough to ask, to understand, to support this effort? Can I embrace the conflict this will bring? This inner work will likely create dissonance simply because the clearer your self-definition, the more precise your “yes” and “no,” the more difference will surface. Your clarity will call for the clarity in others. It’s the way of growth, with more and more people taking responsibility for their agency. The energy released invites maturation both within the person and within the congregation.

You and I are fortunate recipients of time with few strings attached. How to unpack and offer this gift from your congregation for your congregation is an exceptional challenge. This was the assumption that crystallized in my struggle: on-going defining of one’s call into priorities precedes the daily use of this gift of time. It is a re-frame that mattered and matters.

 


Falling Upward: A Re-Frame That Mattered

April 13, 2016

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.

 


Liminal Space: A Re-Frame That Mattered

February 16, 2016

I first heard of the concept from anthropologist Victor Turner. From his study of primitive rites of passage, Turner describes the trans-formative space in between being a boy and becoming a man as “liminal space.” It’s odd to me, and perhaps to you, that this learning from another time and distant culture could be a frame for understanding pastoral work.

Limen is Latin for “threshold.” Turner observed young males being taken from their mothers by older males across a “threshold” (limen) into the “wilderness,” an open, uncertain space where their capacity for manhood was tested in multiple ways. Then, they returned to the village, crossing back over the “threshold” as men, no longer boys, picking up adult privileges and responsibilities.

What about the girls? What rituals mark their transition from young to adult women? I don’t know the answer to this good question, a question perhaps more difficult to explore in a patriarchal society. It’s the concept of liminal space that I find so transferable to the work we do.

Note the movement: crossing one threshold from the familiar and comfortable . . . to a time for questioning and challenge within a contained space that’s unfamiliar, unpredictable and yet protected . . . then re-crossing the original threshold as a new person, a different person. In short: from separation to liminal space to re-assimilation. It’s that trans-formative, numinous space beyond the threshold that fascinates and engages me.

This is the connection. Our work, in large measure, is creating liminal spaces or naming the liminal spaces into which life crises thrust us. That’s what we do. We invite others to enter or see these trans-formative places and stay awhile, long enough to engage some aspect of the essential religious questions—Who am I? Why am I here? How will I live? And with whom? Then, after a period of time, they return to their familiar, more ordinary lives. But they return, in some measure, different persons.

It’s a frame, a re-frame, a way of seeing what we do. I invite you to pick up this concept, as if it were a pair of glasses, and notice what you see.

Let’s look at corporate worship. In public worship, as leader, you are creating liminal space. Congregants, by walking through an entrance into the church building, are crossing a threshold, a limen. Ideally they are leaving behind the pressing concerns of their ordinary, day-to-day lives. They are welcomed into another kind of space, liminal space, designed for reflection on their lives in relationship with God and others. For an hour or so the phone doesn’t ring, the computer screen is blank, and no appeals beg for attention. Congregants settle down into a sanctuary, a protected, safe container, with clear boundaries amid a plethora of pointers to the Transcendent.

In this liminal space, you and other leaders, as liturgical guides, provide an array of symbols—written, sung, spoken, silent, embodied—that kindle the experience of the mind and heart with the Sacred. In this safe environment each person is invited to ponder the meaning of their lives, who they are and what they are about.

Then, after this Service of Worship, congregants cross back over the threshold, back to their ordinary lives, as changed persons. No one leaves as the same person who entered. To be in a safe, contained space with others who are also engaging essential questions is trans-formative. It has to be. To some degree, likely a degree not definable, worshipers re-enter their familiar lives as different persons.

If I were again a pastor, I would mark these thresholds more clearly and sensitively. It’s so difficult, given the pace and busyness of our lives, to leave behind the agendas pressing on our minds. Without a conscious crossing and returning, the space between will be neither liminal nor trans-formative.

Or take a look at funerals. Here you are not only creating liminal space, you are naming, or framing, the liminal space the grieving family and friends are already experiencing. Framing the event as safe, liminal space is the gift. For a brief but “full” time, family and friends leave their normal lives, cross a threshold into an intentional numinous place where the meaning of life and death is faced in intense, profound ways. Then, following this extra-ordinary time, everyone returns to their daily lives, but not the same person. You and I cannot contemplate our relationship with a loved one’s life and death without reviewing our own. Transformation happens.

Leading weddings is creating liminal space. It’s so obvious. The individuals, engaged to be married, literally enter the liminal space (sanctuary) from separate directions, meeting at the altar before the priest/pastor. Within this safe, holy space they ritualize their union, to be broken only by death, whether relational or physical. Then they exit down the aisle, through the threshold, back into the community no longer as just separate persons but as a new unit, a couple, a family. Transformation has occurred, visible and irrefutable.

In pastoral care, the dual aspects of both creating liminal space and naming a crisis as liminal are ways to see this work. It’s what pastoral care is.

On one hand, you create sacred space. There is the crossing of a threshold—whether a door to your office or door to a home or coming from the outside and sitting down at a table. The person or family are invited into an out-of-the-ordinary, separate place for conversation and prayer. Within this secure, protected, and confidential space, the unknown occurs. Without the fear of judgment, life is shared, questions are raised, healing is invited, decisions are made. Then, with the time completed, persons cross back over the threshold, returning to their ordinary lives, somewhat different, somewhat changed.

On the other hand, in crises people may be in liminal space and not know it. The crisis takes them out of the ordinary to a place where the primary questions of identity and meaning are being raised in bold relief. In these instances, you help them frame their disruptive experience as liminal, full of trial, testing and change.

Consider a person grieving the loss of a job held for decades or a marriage broken after many years or the loss of health not to be regained or the death of a loved one. This grieving is liminal space. It is a heart-breaking, soul-making place. The suffering, not to be denied or even relieved, can be embraced as a painful invitation to deeper places of acceptance, forgiveness, grace and new life. It’s the in-between place where new questions are engaged, new possibilities surface and letting go is demanded.

Pastoral care has these two dimensions: we regularly invite people into liminal space; at other times, we invite others to see that they are already in liminal space, providing a caring and curious presence within clear boundaries.

Even in our role of managers and leaders of the congregation we offer liminal space. That’s what the opening prayer or opening statement of a committee or business meeting is about. You are saying, “This meeting occurs in a sacred space. We gather as disciples seeking to embody the spirit of Christ as best we can discern.” You are inviting them to leave behind their ordinary “business as usual” assumptions, to cross that threshold into business as worship and embrace presence, God’s and each others’. Then, at some point, the meeting will end, some summary stated and benediction offered before members re-cross the threshold, returning to their various worlds. But changes have occurred in perceptible or imperceptible ways.

This privilege of ritual leadership, more than any other reason, accounts for my return to a congregation as pastor. But let’s admit that rituals can be deadly and deadening. They may not be strong enough to break us open to the new. The container with pointers to the Sacred can fail to hold our attention. Simply, our preoccupations may be so charged that leaving them behind is impossible. But sometimes, even often, the soul is stirred. Unexpected breakthroughs, fresh clarities and new decisions occur. Rituals are that powerful. When they are led with sensitivity, the church is at its best, and it’s at its best for this reason—rituals invite transformation.

It was Victor Turner, through conversation with a friend, Dick Hester, who helped me see the connection between the early human rites of passage and our current multiple rites of passage within congregational life. The common thread—liminal space as trans-formative—became a re-frame that mattered.


Taming the Monkeys: A Re-frame That Mattered

December 15, 2015

I’ve been fortunate. I have faced only one serious controversy in my ministry, but it was a doozy. In that “five-month moment” members were excited; members were exiting. Members were moving closer toward the center; members were moving out from the center. Letters to the Editor in the local paper, almost daily, were verbalizing “Yes! —Thumbs up!” while others declared, “No!—Thumbs down!” Telephone calls came in to the church office ranging from “Pass on my support” to “Pass on my disbelief, disdain, disagreement!”

“We have backed into a whirlwind,” was the feeling I named, but more than a passing feeling, it was the reality. All the signs of anxiety in the “family” were present: lots of blaming, “it’s your fault” . . . polarizing, taking sides . . . reacting like billiard balls bouncing off each other . . . and the urgent pressure to get through this, find some quick-fix, to “do something, Mahan” to lower the stress. The church was either splintering or splitting. I did not know which at the time.

There was outer chaos. There was inner chaos. I tried praying. I tried stress-reducing practices. I tried physical exercising. But none of these took me deep enough, down to some calmer center beneath the surface turbulence. The “monkey mind,” as the Buddhists smilingly name it, was unstoppable with thoughts, feeling and worries, like monkeys, jumping freely from tree to tree in my mind. The inner talking seemed endless.

A miracle happened. That’s a large word I seldom use, but this time it fits. I received in the mail a gift from a distant Sunday School teacher, a distance, in fact, of thirty-eight years. John had read about our controversy in the Nashville Banner. His miracle gift was Open Mind, Open Heart by Father Thomas Keating, with the inscription, “Thought this may be useful during these stressful days.” And it was, so much so that it inaugurated in me a new way of praying. Centering Prayer became a re-frame that mattered, a new perspective, and even more, a new practice. Mostly I look to books for insights, those “aha” moments that turn up the lights and illuminate a situation. Not this time. This book was different. It offered a practice.

This method of praying is an addition, not a replacement to my habitual ways of praying since youth, that is, with words, thoughts and feelings in prayers of adoration, thanksgiving, intercession, confession and petition. Other examples would be prayerful readings of the 23rd Psalm, praying with others the Lord’s Prayer, and, of course, the multiple hymns of praise and prayer. This use of words, thoughts, reason, memory, imagination, feelings and will is called kataphatic prayer.

This re-frame, introduced by John’s gift of Keating’s Open Mind, Open Heart, is apophatic prayer. It’s about subtraction, not addition, about emptying, not filling, about relinquishing, not attaching. This way of praying bypasses faculties of the mind through a process of simply letting go of these thoughts and feelings as they surface. These thoughts, worries, plans, regrets—like monkeys—need taming, lest they consume all of our attention, each time taking us out of the present.

“Simply letting go,” noted in the last paragraph, is deceptive. On one hand, this method is simple; on the other hand, it remains my most challenging discipline.

The simple part is explaining the practice. You sit or stop, acknowledge rising thoughts into your awareness, then release the thoughts as they hold your attention, gently letting them go, sinking down into an non-anxious space of grace and trust—“resting in God,” in Keating’s words.

The hard part is doing the practice. We learn quickly how busy our minds are. External silence may be a challenge but internal silence seems an impossibility. The thoughts and feelings keep coming. Keating recommends this repetitive practice for twenty to thirty minutes once or twice a day: over and over, letting go, dis-identifying with the “monkeys” and returning to our deepest, given identity as being—being loved, being beloved, being love, light, being salt, being centered, being Christ-Spirit within. Actually, it’s inter-being we come to deep within, being profoundly interconnected, in communion, in relationship with others, all sentient beings, earth and Spirit. It’s an inner chamber where everything becomes more still, paradoxically both empty and full.

This additional gesture offers another way of practicing. Stop for a moment, take one of your hands, tighten it around a pencil or pen, grasping the object as firmly as possible. Then, release your grip, open your hand fully. Feel the freedom from the tension. Similarly, we grasp thoughts, then they grasp us, taking us away from the present moment. This prayer’s intention is to free us, at least loosen us a bit, from our grasping, opening us more fully our receptivity to the moment, sometimes to the Spirit’s leading in the moment.

In his poem, The Swan, Rilke captures this gesture. He pictures the swan lumbering awkwardly “as if in ropes through what is not done,” then, letting himself down into the water “which receives him gaily and which flows joyfully under and after him . . . [he being] pleased to be carried.” Centering Prayer invites that very movement of relinquishing our awkward pacing, letting ourselves down into the currents of grace, and knowing the pleasure and freedom of being carried.

Understand that the goal is not to eliminate the “monkeys,” as if we could. Obviously, my thoughts and feelings are making possible this essay. And at times these thoughts become anxious, “jumping from tree to tree.” But this is the gift from this method of praying: these busy thoughts need not take captive our attention, kidnap our creativity, subvert our calmness, or overwhelm and paralyze our responses. This regular practice of release and surrender—over time—patterns incrementally this gesture of release and surrender into our behavior, forming new neuronal pathways in the brain. A muscle develops, an inner, spiritual muscle of acknowledging and letting go that strengthens with practice over time.

Thomas Keating tells the story of a nun who was being trained in this method. After trying for twenty minutes, she lamented, “Oh, Father Keating, I’m such a failure at this prayer. In twenty minutes, I’ve had ten thousand thoughts.” His quick response: “How lovely! Ten thousand opportunities to return to God!” This story makes the point: returning even ten thousand times speaks to our willingness and desire to transcend our busy mind, allowing a way of being beyond thoughts and words. The nun, we could say, was experiencing a vigorous aerobic workout of her muscle of surrender.

Cynthia Bourgeault, who has written in my judgment the finest book on Centering Prayer, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, calls this prayer “‘boot camp in Gethsemane,’ for it practices over and over, thought by thought, the basic gesture of Jesus’ night of struggle in the garden: ‘Not my will be done, Oh Lord, but thine.’” She adds, “It’s like putting a stick in the spoke of your wheels of thinking.”

Let’s go back to those few months of controversy in 1992. Return with me to the timely gift of Keating’s book. My desperate need led me to try it, to give this “letting go” practice a try. At first, it could take me only two or three feet beneath the turbulent surface waters. Not far, but far enough to taste its promise of a more calm center in the midst of the swirling anxieties around me and within me.

I remind you this is a practice. Think how much learning a language or playing the piano requires repetitive practice, some say as much as 90% practice and 10% innate skill. While presenting this method I don’t want to present myself as anything but who I am—a beginner. But each practicing can be a mini-vacation from my over-functioning ego.

During these years I have added a step that includes more of my body in the process. This counter-intuitive response welcomes the anxious thoughts and honors the “triggering event” that “pushes our buttons.” As I have noted, first is acknowledging the “monkeys.” But next, I seek to locate the emotion in my body, feel it, experience the anger or fear or frustration, or even praise, as fully as possible. Only then do I release it, allowing the letting of go to include all of me—body, mind, and spirit. (Full prostrations, the total surrender of the body to the supporting floor, is for me Centering Prayer acted out, embodied.)

Bourgeault, in her book, presents this Welcoming Prayer as a way of carrying this practice into daily life. Not limited to private times of twenty minutes or so, this welcoming practice during a given day can potentially break the cycle of re-activity that usually accompanies “triggering events.”

Centering Prayer has gifted me in ways that other spiritual practices have gifted you. It has been for me a primary way to keep finding the center outside of ego and stake there my deepest identity. Over and over this practice invites the return to my core, being “rooted and grounded in Love,” a Love that seeks incarnation in my particular person as it does in yours. This method of “taming the monkeys” opens the inner space, reveals the roots, grounds me in Shalom’s summons that sends me back into the fray.

Much of the time, like the nun, I fail. The “monkeys” are too active to tame. But over the years I have come to notice within me a stronger muscle of release and surrender, enough for it to be a re-frame that has mattered.


Being a Leader: A Re-frame That Mattered

November 10, 2015

Why would “being a leader” qualify as a significant re-frame? Isn’t it obvious that pastors are leaders of congregations? Why would this re-frame make the list of those shifts in perspective that mattered? For me, this shift in self-understanding made a profound difference in the way I came to practice ministry.

“Being a pastor” was my first compelling identity. The memory is vivid when that possibility fell into place. The setting: an introductory course in Pastoral Care, in the large map room, Norton Hall, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1957. The professor, Wayne E. Oates, was up-front unpacking a typical pastoral incident — as I recall, a pastor’s response to a grieving widow. I leaned forward, intrigued and curious, saying under my breath, “I want to do that!” And I have ever since. For me, the title “pastor” has a depth of resonance not found in other titles often assigned to me, such as “senior minister,” or in early days, “Rev,” “Brother Mahan,” “preacher,” or, on occasion, “troublemaker.

My seminary experience gave me additional identities: preacher, teacher, prophet, manager, and liturgist. So, during my first years in pastoral ministry I juggled these roles, valuing them all, attempting them all, but feeling fragmented most of the time. During those years, if someone would have asked me, “Are you a leader?” I would no doubt have answered, “Yes, I am.” But functionally, that is, the way I functioned during those first years was to regard leadership of the institution as the rent I paid in return for the joy of preaching, teaching, leading worship, and offering pastoral care.

This arrangement didn’t work. For a number of reasons my first five-year chapter as pastor came to an unanticipated, precipitous, humbling end. One reason was that my vocational self-identity was fragmented, not integrated. Being pastor proved to be an insufficient pole around which to wrap the many functions of parish ministry. The fragmentation led to over-functioning; over-functioning led to emotional and spiritual exhaustion.

During the ten years between serving congregations as pastor I learned to see myself as a leader. For most of that time I was director of a department within a medical system that included both hospital and medical school. When I returned to congregational life, picking up once again the mantle of pastor, I had changed. I saw myself as pastoral leader. This re-frame, from pastor to pastoral leader, included these shifts:

  • from attempting to define others to defining self and self-expression
  • from self-defining and losing connection to self-defining and staying connected, particularly with those who differ and resist
  • from attempting to change others to changing self in relationship with others
  • from preoccupation with content to attending to emotional, relational processes
  • from personality-led leadership to position-led leadership, claiming the position in the system (body/church) as “eyes” over-looking, scanning the congregation (body), seeing connections and patterns that others cannot see (aware that others in different positions in the body/church see what the leader cannot)
  • from avoiding resistance to valuing resistance, appreciating the energy of inevitable push-back from the challenge to habits, worldviews, and beliefs
  • from reacting to others to responding to others
  • from the limits of management, Are we doing things right? to include the challenge of leadership, Are we doing the right things?
  • from leading confined to problem-solving with current know-how to leading with challenges without current know-how, requiring engaging questions, difficult choices, experimental actions, risking toward what is not yet clear
  • from a place of anxiousness (showing up in the congregation as blaming, herding, re-activity, pushing for quick-fixes), to a disciplined effort in non-anxious leading from a Center, an inner freedom from attachment to specific outcomes
  • from seeing only pastor and congregation in relationship to frequent triangling in the church’s purpose/mission under which both pastor and congregation respond with curiosity and faithfulness
  • from leading for God to leading from God

You might recognize in these statements a number of my influential teachers about leadership: Edwin Friedman, Larry Matthews, Rod Reineke, Peter Steinke, Ronald Richardson, Margaret Wheatley, Ronald Heifetz, and Marty Linsky. These resources showed up just when I needed them.

I entered my last fifteen-year stint with a congregation having internalized this re-frame. Being a pastoral leader, alongside of lay leaders, became my primary vocational identity. I had found a pole around which to wrap the various functions of ministry.

As preacher and liturgist, I was leading, intervening weekly in the congregational system with challenges to hear and embody God’s movement of shalom in the world.

As pastoral “carer” in crises, I was leading, knowing that change in one personal relationship affects change in the larger network of relationships, however slight.

As manager, I was leading, influencing the ways we work together including the decisions we make.

Through my involvement in community concerns, I was leading the mutual impact of church and world.

In each of these functions I was leading; only the forms of expression changed. For good or ill, the spirit-culture of the congregation was impacted by each ministry action. In all of them I was functioning as pastoral leader.

Looking through the rear-view mirror, this shift is noticeable. It’s a re-frame that mattered.


Pulling Back the Veil: A Re-Frame That Mattered

October 20, 2015

This may be the most crucial re-frame of all—pulling back the veil on reality as relational, as deeply, totally relational. It’s shifting from seeing “separate” to seeing “connection,” from seeing parts to seeing whole, from seeing “either/or” to “both/and.” And it’s not just seeing. It’s an embodied awareness that changes everything.

And this re-frame is more like re-framing again and again. In other words, the veil doesn’t stay parted. Most of the time the veil remains, but occasionally it parts for us to see anew this larger reality.

I remember when I first consciously pulled back this veil. I was director of a growing Department of Pastoral Care at the time, around 1976. We were expanding our home base—Clinical Pastoral Education and Pastoral Counseling at N.C. Hospital/ Bowman-Gray Medical Center in Winston-Salem—to other cities in the state, namely, Fayetteville, Raleigh, Morganton and Charlotte. Five separate ministry centers, in five separate cities, led by five separate staffs. As director of them all, they all looked very separate, but it didn’t feel that way, particularly when butting heads around the budget. In those moments we found ourselves in the same boat, interdependent, connected—like it or not. What affected one affected all. In those moments the veil was pulled back revealing a surprising truth: separation is an illusion; the School of Pastoral Care is one invisible web.

Soon Edwin Friedman came on the scene. Translating and interpreting for religious leaders the family systems theory of pioneer Maury Bowen, he helped me pull back this same veil. His book, From Generation to Generation, plus his lectures, opened my eyes to see and think systems. And as leader I was in the position of the “eyes,” overseeing the body of this interconnected, complex system. I found it to be a foreign language, learned only—as all languages are learned—by practice, practice, practice. I began to see our expanded pastoral care system as connected like rubber bands. When one ministry made significant changes, such as adding staff, then every center would feel being stretched to accommodate. Either these stretches would remain with new adjustments made or the other ministry centers would resist, like a strong rubber band, bringing the system back to its familiar pattern. Both, efforts to change and efforts to resist, now made sense, to be understood and valued. With the veil parted, the department became a web of relationships. What looked separate was, in fact, deeply interconnected, relational at its core.

But this is important to note. Relational systems’ seeing does not replace separation seeing. And it shouldn’t. In fact, it can’t. We grow up with a binary operating system installed in us. Either/or seeing and thinking are our first and necessary ways of making sense of the world. Soon in those first months we begin to distinguish between mom and dad, dog and cat, night and day, rain and sunshine, right and wrong, and most significantly, distinguishing me from you. We could not manage a day, even an hour, without binary, dualistic, differentiating thinking that enables us to see separate parts, separate choices, separate persons. But, like many of us, I was stuck in that worldview, in that way of viewing the world. That is, until the veil was parted and I could see beyond separation, polarities, and difference.

Albert Einstein captures this unveiling beautifully, succinctly:

A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

This is the veil that parts. Without it we are left in prison, “a kind of optical delusion of [separation] consciousness.” According to Einstein, pulling back the veil becomes a major “task” that frees us through widening our circles of compassion, embracing all living creatures and all of creation.

Isn’t that a description of our task—to keep widening our circles of compassion, crossing all boundaries that imprison us in our separate ways of thinking and behaving? Jesus didn’t say, love our neighbor as we love our separate self. He commanded us to love the neighbor as our self, as an extension of our self, a reflection of our self. Essentially, on the deepest level, there’s No Separation! You hear this truth in Paul’s phrase: “We are members one of another.” Not, we are separate peas in a pod. Rather, we actually spill over into each other, acknowledged or not. Or, the native-American prayerful awareness: “All my relations.” That’s the luminous web in which we live and move and have our being.

I can’t resist noting when this acknowledgment burst into Thomas Merton’s awareness. This parting of the veil was, for this Trappist monk, an aspect of his turn back toward the world:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world . . . This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrow and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun . . . If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time.”

You know first-hand this experience. I’m assuming you have experienced moments of being profoundly connected to the “other,” including God, so much so, the lines of separation evaporate into “with-ness,” love, union, unitive awareness. The moments might be while preaching when losing yourself in Something larger/Spirit, or when seeing a third way beyond “fight or flight,” or experiencing the love in a group, another person, nature’s beauty that transcends the beginning sense of separation, or those times of being silenced with awe from living within the Mystery that love is, that life is, that beauty is, that forgiveness is, that this breath is. You know the experience. 

This pulling back the veil is more than an intellectual insight. It was for me at the beginning when challenged by Friedman to “think systemically.” It became more than a leadership tool. This truth moved down into the heart to a deeper kind of knowing that reality is essentially relational. Some name this awareness “unitive consciousness,” others of us prefer “Christ consciousness.” This awakening converts the seer, opening the way to see non-judgmentally the potential creativity in all relationships. The converted seer builds bridges, not boundaries.

We cannot think our way into this revelation of radical relatedness. We cannot make it happen. But we can keep opening ourselves to this re-framing by cultivating practices that invite and even anticipate this awareness.

Here is one, a simple one, a sample that can be practiced at a moment’s notice:

Stop, be still for a minute or two, allowing your breathing to carry this repetition:

  • I am profoundly connected with what is before me—a person(s) or thing. I am in relationship. I am in love, within love with what is before me. 
  • Repeat over and over and allow this truth to be felt throughout your body. And when the “monkey mind” with its agenda asserts itself, as it will, then simply and gently return to the breath with your prayerful awareness.
  • You have your own ways and practices that invite this “parting of the veil.” I hope you value the importance of intentional practicing and remain alert to “see” what happens.

This metaphor—pulling back the veil of separation—suggests a sudden and permanent change. In fact, this shift in consciousness is usually gradual, occasional, erratic . . . yet transforming. It’s another re-frame in my pastoral life that mattered. It matters still, increasingly so.


Pulling Back the Veil: A Re-Frame That Mattered

October 20, 2015

This may be the most crucial re-frame of all—pulling back the veil on reality as relational, as deeply, totally relational. It’s shifting from seeing “separate” to seeing “connection,” from seeing parts to seeing whole, from seeing “either/or” to “both/and.” And it’s not just seeing. It’s an embodied awareness that changes everything.

And this re-frame is more like re-framing again and again. In other words, the veil doesn’t stay parted. Most of the time the veil remains, but occasionally it parts for us to see anew this larger reality.

I remember when I first consciously pulled back this veil. I was director of a growing Department of Pastoral Care at the time, around 1976. We were expanding our home base—Clinical Pastoral Education and Pastoral Counseling at N.C. Hospital/Bowman-Gray Medical Center in Winston-Salem—to other cities in the state, namely, Fayetteville, Raleigh, Morganton and Charlotte. Five separate ministry centers, in five separate cities, led by five separate staffs. As director of them all, they all looked very separate, but it didn’t feel that way, particularly when butting heads around the budget. In those moments we found ourselves in the same boat, interdependent, connected—like it or not. What affected one affected all. In those moments the veil was pulled back revealing a surprising truth: separation is an illusion; the School of Pastoral Care is one invisible web.

Soon Edwin Friedman came on the scene. Translating and interpreting for religious leaders the family systems theory of pioneer Maury Bowen, he helped me pull back this same veil. His book, From Generation to Generation, plus his lectures, opened my eyes to see and think systems. And as leader I was in the position of the “eyes,” overseeing the body of this interconnected, complex system. I found it to be a foreign language, learned only—as all languages are learned—by practice, practice, practice. I began to see our expanded pastoral care system as connected like rubber bands. When one ministry made significant changes, such as adding staff, then every center would feel being stretched to accommodate. Either these stretches would remain with new adjustments made or the other ministry centers would resist, like a strong rubber band, bringing the system back to its familiar pattern. Both, efforts to change and efforts to resist, now made sense, to be understood and valued. With the veil parted, the department became a web of relationships. What looked separate was, in fact, deeply interconnected, relational at its core.

But this is important to note. Relational systems’ seeing does not replace separation seeing. And it shouldn’t. In fact, it can’t. We grow up with a binary operating system installed in us. Either/or seeing and thinking are our first and necessary ways of making sense of the world. Soon in those first months we begin to distinguish between mom and dad, dog and cat, night and day, rain and sunshine, right and wrong, and most significantly, distinguishing me from you. We could not manage a day, even an hour, without binary, dualistic, differentiating thinking that enables us to see separate parts, separate choices, separate persons. But, like many of us, I was stuck in that worldview, in that way of viewing the world. That is, until the veil was parted and I could see beyond separation, polarities, and difference.

Albert Einstein captures this unveiling beautifully, succinctly:

A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

This is the veil that parts. Without it we are left in prison, “a kind of optical delusion of [separation] consciousness.” According to Einstein, pulling back the veil becomes a major “task” that frees us through widening our circles of compassion, embracing all living creatures and all of creation.

Isn’t that a description of our task—to keep widening our circles of compassion, crossing all boundaries that imprison us in our separate ways of thinking and behaving? Jesus didn’t say, love our neighbor as we love our separate self. He commanded us to love the neighbor as our self, as an extension of our self, a reflection of our self. Essentially, on the deepest level, there’s No Separation! You hear this truth in Paul’s phrase: “We are members one of another.” Not, we are separate peas in a pod. Rather, we actually spill over into each other, acknowledged or not. Or, the native-American prayerful awareness: “All my relations.” That’s the luminous web in which we live and move and have our being.

I can’t resist noting when this acknowledgment burst into Thomas Merton’s awareness. This parting of the veil was, for this Trappist monk, an aspect of his turn back toward the world:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world . . . This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrow and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun . . . If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time.

You know first-hand this experience. I’m assuming you have experienced moments of being profoundly connected to the “other,” including God, so much so, the lines of separation evaporate into “with-ness,” love, union, unitive awareness. The moments might be while preaching when losing yourself in Something larger/Spirit, or when seeing a third way beyond “fight or flight,” or experiencing the love in a group, another person, nature’s beauty that transcends the beginning sense of separation, or those times of being silenced with awe from living within the Mystery that love is, that life is, that beauty is, that forgiveness is, that this breath is. You know the experience. 

This pulling back the veil is more than an intellectual insight. It was for me at the beginning when challenged by Friedman to “think systemically.” It became more than a leadership tool. This truth moved down into the heart to a deeper kind of knowing that reality is essentially relational. Some name this awareness “unitive consciousness,” others of us prefer “Christ consciousness.” This awakening converts the seer, opening the way to see non-judgmentally the potential creativity in all relationships. The converted seer builds bridges, not boundaries.

We cannot think our way into this revelation of radical relatedness. We cannot make it happen. But we can keep opening ourselves to this re-framing by cultivating practices that invite and even anticipate this awareness.

Here is one, a simple one, a sample that can be practiced at a moment’s notice:

Stop, be still for a minute or two, allowing your breathing to carry this repetition:

I am profoundly connected with what is before me—a person(s) or thing. I am in relationship. I am in love, within love with what is before me.

Repeat over and over and allow this truth to be felt throughout your body. And when the “monkey mind” with its agenda asserts itself, as it will, then simply and gently return to the breath with your prayerful awareness.

You have your own ways and practices that invite this “parting of the veil.” I hope you value the importance of intentional practicing and remain alert to “see” what happens.

This metaphor—pulling back the veil of separation—suggests a sudden and permanent change. In fact, this shift in consciousness is usually gradual, occasional, erratic . . . yet transforming. It’s another re-frame in my pastoral life that mattered. It matters still, increasingly so.


Power-Over to Power-With: A Re-Frame That Mattered

September 14, 2015

“I’ve been Pharaoh to every liberation movement,” once wrote William Sloan Coffin. “Me too,” I remember thinking when these words passed in front of my eyes over thirty years ago.

I’ve been “Pharaoh” in this sense: I was born into systems — family, church, nation, world — that work to my favor, my well-being and to the dis-favor, ill-being of others. Just being male, white, heterosexual, upper middle class, American — not my choice or achievement — gives me a privilege and power edge. “Born on third base” makes the point. At times this fact has been a source of guilt; at other healthier times, it’s been a resource of influence, an “alongside” resource to mercy and justice making.

During my life-time I have been engaged by the major freedom movements of our day:
women’s liberation; black liberation; gay liberation; class/economic liberation; and liberation from USA as empire. The surprise to me, or more accurately, the grace to me has been the taste of inner freedom these movements have brought to me as well. In my advantages, often disguised, I have found some liberation from the loneliness, constriction, and fear that comes with being in “Pharaoh’s” seat. Or to shift to a biblical metaphor, privileged positions are “logs in our eyes,” preventing clear vision. Every liberation movement is all about seeing clearly and acting from that awareness, from that awakening.

The re-frame that mattered is this: from relationships characterized by power-over to relationships embodying shared power, power-with. Unlike the other re-frames I have named, this change has been gradual and incremental, sometimes painfully so. The older I become, the deeper I see my complicity with domination systems that privilege me. But this re-frame has been clear for decades. It has provided a lens through which I have viewed power. This aspiration for just relationships, which I take to be God’s intention, has been a theme of inner work for all these years.

The rise of feminine power came first to my awareness. In my nuclear family, it was my education that received priority, since my sister would be “only” a wife and mother. There were no females in my seminary classes. At the time, there were no female pastors anywhere except among Pentecostals. And it was assumed that once married, Janice and I would move to where my vocation took us . . . with no questions raised.

But the question was raised soon after Betty Friedan in Feminine Mystique (1964) set fire to a revolution. Around 1968, my wife, Janice said to me, “No longer do I want to be the woman behind the man. I’m returning to graduate school to prepare for my own vocation.”

She did. And we entered therapy. The hard, long work of redefining our marriage began. We relinquished marriage as a one-vote system or one-vocation system while reaching for the capacity and skills to become partners, equal partners. We risked, both of us did, toward a fresh life in this new way of experiencing power. Janice and I were among the fortunate ones, making it through these rapids without capsizing. Beyond marriage, this shift opened me to the gift of women in church leadership, the gift of feminine scholarship, and friendships that have gifted my life and ministry ever since.

Next came the black liberation movement. “Black power” was the awareness finding voice in neighboring Washington, D.C. in 1967. Our suburban congregation, Ravensworth Baptist Church, formed a partnership with a black congregation, First Rising Mount Zion Baptist Church. On many Saturdays about twelve members from each congregation met with a trained facilitator to explore the possibilities of honest, interracial relationships. We keep meeting until they became tired of helping us see our racism. However, during the riots following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, our church partnership provided a bridge of support during those fearful, divisive days. It was the beginning, a very small beginning, of interracial friendships that allow for difficult, transformative conversations.

Let’s stop at this point, allowing me to name the theological shift that was under-girding this re-ordering of power-relationships. Walter Wink was my primary mentor, in particular his Engaging the Powers, the third book in his trilogy on Powers. Other theological framing, such as process theological thinking, has shaped me as well, but Wink addressed directly the theme of this essay. He notes the rise of systemic domination around 3000 B.C.E. with the city-states of Sumer and Babylon, each system being authoritarian and patriarchal. He steps back, noting the prevailing assumption of “domination systems” for these five thousand years — the fundamental right of some to have coercive power over others (power-over). There developed what Wink calls “the myth of redemptive violence,” the belief that power as violence can save, can solve problems. No wonder, with so many centuries of re-enforcement, this transformation of power in relationships is slow, arduous work, one step at a time.

Domination systems have largely prevailed as the norm during these centuries, but not without challenges and not without alternative options of relational power. The Old Testament prophets denounced the domination arrangements of their day, giving words to the longing for a more just order. In Jesus, God’s domination-free order of nonviolent love is clearly and profoundly unveiled. By word and action Jesus gave flesh to this re-frame of liberation by up-ending assumed power structures of his day. But the domination system proved too strong. Roman imperial forces joined with Jewish leadership to crush the Jesus non-violent movement of compassion and equality. Well . . . not fully or finally. Resurrection, among other things, means that this God movement could not be crushed. Indeed, and in every century since, within domination systems there have always been counter witnesses of Domination-Free relationships. Against this historical background, we can marvel and hail — and yes, join — the multiple liberation movements over time, and in particular our time.

Then came the gay liberation movement in the last decades in the 20th century, another challenge to “Pharaoh.” At that time, when I was a pastoral counselor, some persons came to me struggling with their sexual identity. A few became clear: their orientation was same-sex attraction, not opposite-sex attraction. I was close enough to feel their dilemma — costly to “come out of the closet,” costly not to. There it was again: I, a person of privilege, hearing stories of abusive power, including condemnation from the church. By 1984 I had returned to the church as pastor. Soon I began hearing from some clergy: “AIDS is God’s judgment on homosexuality.” I knew better, I thought. I was, in some sense, forced out of “my closet,” feeling called to offer another voice from the church. Once again, the paradox was at work. In joining a freedom movement I experienced a measure of new freedom and grace.

Economic injustice, another form of abusive power, remains even more entrenched in my life. My privilege of income, house, insurance, and automobile has set me apart, in spite of efforts here and there to come alongside the hungry, thirsty stranger, the naked, sick, and imprisoned — those relationships where Jesus said we could find him. I remain, certainly by global standards, an affluent Christian, just as I remain in systems that favor me and disfavor others.

Within these systems, I can and do attempt to dis-identify, dis-engage, and de-tach from the abuses of power, while at the same time I continue to enjoy the fruits of privilege. Rooted and grounded in mercy within this soil of ambivalence and ambiguity, I can find some laughter at my efforts, even a measure of joy in my half-heartedness.

In this reflection I am not advocating the effort to dismantle hierarchy, even if we could. A hierarchy of roles is necessary in families and other organizations. I am advocating a different understanding of power, one incarnated clearly in Jesus of Nazareth. We know the difference between power that is coercive, dominating, and abusive and power that aligns, comes alongside, empowers, and invites, valuing mutuality, offering partnership. We know that difference.

It’s the difference I saw in the re-frame: from power-over to power-with in all relationships.

This re-frame mattered. It still matters.


Ministry as a Research Project: A Re-Frame That Mattered

August 4, 2015

Friends, I have revised my website and blog to reflect this time in my life. As a way of leaving this vocation that always exceeded by grasp while filling me with purpose, I’m going back and picking up some tools (re-frames) that I found useful in the gardening we do. These “re-frames” mattered to me in my years of pastoral ministry. I’m passing them along with the hope that some will serve you as well.

“Ministry as a research project”—a phrase I first heard from Ed Friedman, the rabbi connecting family systems theory with leadership. But the antecedents for this re-frame go back a way. When I allowed it, this re-frame could change the way I viewed my work.

First, let’s understand Friedman’s point. He spoke of taking with him into a session with a client a yellow legal-sized pad with a line drawn down the middle of the page. On the left side of the pad he wrote factual notes from his conversation that might assist him at a later point in the therapy, e.g. age, work, family members, hospitalizations, medications, etc. And on the right side of the pad he recorded what he was learning for himself from the interactions. Much later, he reports, he would cut the paper down the middle, discarding the process notes while preserving for himself the personal learning gleaned from the experience.

The story stayed with me as a metaphor—the “yellow pad with a line down the middle” with new ideas on the right side to be harvested. For me it was a fresh slant on ministry, asking, “What am I learning here?”

The antecedents to this stance go back further for me. Early in seminary the classic Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl came to my attention. I suspect you know the story. Frankl, a young psychoanalyst, was abducted and taken to a Nazi concentration camp, just for being Jewish. Everything was confiscated from him: his family, his friends, his synagogue, his community, his work, his book manuscript, his clothes, his hair, potentially his life, and even his name, now a number. Everything. Everything . . . except one thing. He discovered that the one thing that could not be taken from him was his freedom to respond. He claimed this freedom. He chose to treat this horrific prison experience as a research project, observing how inmates found meaning or failed to find meaning in this death-dealing existence. The project—what he was learning—kept him alive, gave him purpose, and became the basis of a new approach to psychotherapy that he later developed as Logotherapy or “meaning” therapy.

Let’s review a characteristic frame of ministry. Drawing on the “yellow pad” metaphor, most of ministry is preoccupation with the left side, that is, focusing entirely on the work itself, the people involved, their needs, their possibilities. That’s the way I framed it initially. I was to be available to help, not to learn . . . show up to give, not receive . . . present to serve, not to be served . . . eager to change, not be changed. You can guess where that frame led me. Yes, to over-functioning, over-attaching to results, and eventually to bone weariness of heart and body.

Later I began to experiment with the re-frame—what am I learning here? What am I clinging to that I need to release? What am I seeing in the other or myself or situation that I want to savor, perhaps digest for growth, my own and others? Something is trying to grow here, something trying to emerge, something of the Spirit happening here—where and what?

This re-frame could change my angle of vision. The very question, like a crowbar, could prize open my emotional over-investment in a person or situation. It could release my grip on forcing some quick solution. Just by asking the question—what am I learning?—would grant distance and perspective. Raising the question, either in the moment or later, created space for exploring options. Even better is the question that invites mutual insights—what are we learning here?

An example. The closer I came to my retirement as pastor the higher the level of my anxiety. The prior endings of my predecessors were problematic, so I felt the pressure to help configure a good ending, both for myself but especially for the congregation. By that time I was schooled, as you are, in the impact of pastor endings upon a congregational system for years and years, for good or ill. So I was full of angst, asking: When to announce my retirement? How long between announcement and last Sunday? How will my preaching be different during the last months? What will be my agreements about requests for weddings and funerals? How will I say goodbye? With whom do I need personal time? How will “ending” gatherings and rituals be handled? You get the picture. I was feeling a huge amount of responsibility. And all this anxiety, even before my announcement.

Then the re-frame inspired by Frankl and Friedman came to mind. I began asking myself, “What if I treat the ending process as a research project?” Immediately curiosity peaked. My energy shifted. My anxiety lifted a degree or two. My thinking was invited in another direction. What if I framed the question: “In our fifteen years with you as pastor what have we learned about being church together?” What if I kept journal notes about what I am learning about my leadership over these years? What if I selected an “ending” committee to be with me and share all the planning that must happen?

You can sense the shift from this re-frame. For me the difference is noteworthy. I entered my last months with less anxiety, less sole responsibility and with more curiosity, more inner freedom. There were times when I could pause, take a deep breath, and ask, “What am I learning here? What are we learning here?”

And, you may be thinking, this could apply to other areas of my life—marriage or illness or friendship as research projects, occasions for learning and growth. Try it out and see.

I pass along this shift for your consideration. Occasionally seeing ministry as a research project gave perspective, sparked curiosity, invited playfulness and provoked transformation. It’s a re-frame that mattered.