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.


Preaching as Conversation

December 2, 2014

Funny, the things I remember about preaching. Like the time someone suggested that I preface each sermon with the warning noted on cigarette packages: “What you are about to receive may be hazardous to your health!” Don’t know what he meant, but I liked it. For sure, the gospel is hazardous to ready comfort and quick fixes. Dangerous, indeed. As Jesus warned John, sometimes it will take you where you don’t want to go.

Recently another one-liner was jogged to awareness when a pastor friend, on the verge of retiring, asked me if I missed preaching. His question reminded me of that very same question upon my retiring, “Mahan, will you miss preaching?” My quick response even surprised me: “Well, how will I know what I believe?”

Somewhere along the way preaching became for me a week-to-week conversation with a particular set of pilgrim comrades. It’s unique. I can’t think of anything like it. The regular interaction was always on the same topic: What does following Jesus, loving God and the “other” look like in our time and place. It’s where I hammered out in public what I believed as a way to challenge members to engage in the same inner work. My part of the conversation was more external; their part of the conversation more internal.

I once commented — and here is another one-liner — “Why, I could begin each sermon with . . . ‘as I was saying.’” That’s true. I was picking up on an on-going conversation about the stories of God incarnating in the world. Out of a week of pastoral conversations, plus the study of the text (a form of conversation), I would pick up on the conversation, making it public, knowing that those present would in turn carry forward the conversation within themselves and within their relationships. Week by week, Sunday by Sunday I imagined this feedback loop occurring.

So back to the question: Do I miss preaching? I do miss that privilege. There is nothing to compare with preaching that comes out of a network of relationships and cycles back into these same relationships — over and over again. Preaching to congregations full of strangers never appealed to me. I always feel in those contexts that the sermon is a presentation, more a performance, less a to-be-continued conversation.

Then along the way, toward the end of my ministry, Walter Brueggemann shows up to deepen this understanding of preaching. In an article in Theology Today (1990) entitled “The Preacher, The Text, and the People,” he draws upon the concept of “triangles” from family system’s theorist Murray Bowen.

Bowen noted that life requires homeostasis (balance and stability). When two human beings become anxious they will likely “triangle” in a third person or issue or symptom as a way to reduce the tension. Always, a tripod is more stable than a dyad. You know the experience: two persons in conflict may “triangle” you in as problem solver or as the “problem.” If it works, you are left holding the anxiety while they walk away feeling lighter. These challenging triangles are the daily bread for pastors.

But Brueggemann draws on the positive use of “triangling.” He points out that preaching is often seen as a transaction between pastor/preacher (A) and people /congregation (B). It looks that way. Preacher in the pulpit, people in pew; preacher speaking, congregation listening; preacher interpreting, people agreeing or not agreeing. In other words, preaching appears to be a two-way interaction with the focus on the preacher and his message.

What if, as Brueggemann suggests, the voice of the biblical text is “triangled” in as “C”? What if the text is the focus, not the preacher, not the sermon. In Brueggemann’s thinking, you as preacher (A), along with the congregation (B), come under the authority of the text (C). It’s the text that matters. It is the sense of God’s Word through these words that matters. You, the preacher, are talking out loud about your engagement with the text, hoping the congregants will not only be in conversation with you, but even more, be in conversation with the Spirited text.

I found freedom in this view of preaching as a three-way conversation. Less did I obsess about correct interpretation, a polished sermon, a brilliant message. In this way of framing, the preacher becomes more prompter than expert, more witness than final authority. The preacher is liberated to engage the text, struggle with it, play and fuss with it — out loud — trusting that your authenticity, vulnerability and ideas will provoke a similar engagement between congregant and text, “B” with “C,” parishioner with Spirit. We say in effect: “Fellow pilgrims (congregants) this is what I see, feel and hear in this text, what do you see, feel and hear? This is the Word that comes to me for us, what is the Word that comes to you?” The shift occurs: the sermon becomes more about God, less about you.

An addendum: This understanding of preaching as conversation, drawing on Breuggemann’s insight, has implication for other pastoral functions. “Triangling” in the “text” can also be a way of pastoral leadership. Take note, for a moment, of situations with potential for win-lose debates (between “A” and “B”) — e.g. differences over budget figures or couples in conflict or controversy on some public issue. Now see the difference when in such a situation you intentionally “triangle” in the “text” as “C” (i.e. your church mission or the loving act or an agreed upon guiding principle or mind of Christ, etc.) and ask how does our faithfulness to this agreed-upon commitment speak to this situation? What would faithfulness to the “text” look like? Looking through the eyes of our covenant commitments, what connections or possibilities do you see?

It’s a practice I recommend — triangling in the “text.” This reframing, like a pair of glasses, can change or reenforce the way you see preaching and even pastoral leadership.


A Spiral Upward

March 5, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Swan
This clumsy living that moves lumbering
as if in ropes through what is not done,
reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks.
And to die, which is the letting go
of the ground we stand on and cling to every day,
is like the swan, when he nervously lets himself down
into the water, which receives him gaily
and which flows joyfully under
and after him, wave after wave
while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm,
is pleased to be carried, each moment more fully grown,
more like a king, further and further on.

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


The Pastoral Prophetic Edge

August 27, 2013

Prophetic is such a vigorous word. It brings to mind the courageous actions of an Amos, Shiphrah and Puah, Ghandi, Day, or King. Prophets stand up, stick out with their actions for justice in the face of oppression.

I have been thinking about the prophetic edge of pastors.

In North Carolina there is currently a ground swell of protest to current legislation called Moral Monday. When legislators were in session, rallies, led by the N.C. NAACP, gathered each Monday in Raleigh to protest legislation that many of us regard as unjust and immoral. Thousands gathered each week. Over nine hundred were arrested in non-violent witness. I joined in both.

Recently I participated, along with my grandaughter, Leigh and son, Mark, in a Walk for Grandchildren culminating in a rally at Layette Park in front of the White House. We were protesting the destructive effects of fossil fuels on global climate in general and the Keystone XL pipeline in particular.

Were my actions prophetic? Hardly. They cost me little. I hold no position to protect. I have the time. I have the health. I have little to lose.

I’m thinking, what about the prophetic edge of pastors? Their prophetic witness is not so obvious or dramatic. Here is a way to see it.

Johanna Macy and Chris Johnstone in their provocative book, Active Hope, lists three dimensions of the prophetic. One is direct action, the kind I just named. This collective witness can expose publicly the damage caused by political, educational, religious and economic policies. Events, like rallies, boycotts, campaigns, petitions and other forms of protest can awaken the larger population to awareness — and possibly to action.

A second form of prophetic witness is changing the system. This involves rethinking the way we do things and, likely in the process, redesigning structures and policies. The current attempt to recreate our health care system would be an example. So would the increasing options for socially responsible financial investing. It’s the hope that these protests of Moral Monday will affect future elections and, as a result, affect future legislation.

There is a third dimension of prophetic action: the change in consciousness. It is probably the most important, least measureable and less noticed of the three. Neither protesting nor changing systems will stick unless there is a change in our mind/heart set. New structures or policies will not survive without deeply embedded values to sustain them. These external changes require a consciousness that both summon and undergird the actions for “mercy and justice.”

This takes us to the home turf of pastors. We are in the business of advocating a new way of seeing. We are all about worldviews, the way we see the world, inviting others to “put on the mind (consciousness) of Christ.” Reality, we declare, is thoroughly relational with no separation from a Love that never ends, not now or later, nor in life or death. Within this network of interdependence, communion, and mutuality, the Spirit is ever present working for just relationships. It’s gospel, good news.

I submit this to be a prophetic edge, even a prophetic wedge toward personal and social change. What is “good news” to us is “bad news” to those seeing Reality as consisting of separate parts with the point of life being individual success, individual gain, individual freedom, individual power, individual salvation. We proclaim partnership, not domination; power-with, not power-over; community, not individualism; collaboration, not binary either-or thinking; non-violence, not violence as problem solving; and grace as gift, not achievement.

I close with what you know all too well. When you talk this way and walk this talk, watch out! Resistance happens next. It’s the prophetic edge that cuts both ways. Count on it. Nothing is more threatening than messin’ with the way people see the world and themselves in it. Those captivated by the Dream always call forth killers of the Dream. The more we live this Way and invite others to this path, the greater the push back, criticism, and yes, persecution.

It was promised by Jesus . . . along with the barrels of joy.


Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

July 8, 2013

Who am I? . . . a question, like a sinker on a fishing line, that takes you down, down into your depths. For Jacob, in front of a mirror, asking the question over and over again transformed his life.

Here is the story. Jacob gave me permission to share his story as long as I used his real name. He wants to claim it. Jacob is an inmate at Marion maximum-security prison and a member of our weekly writing group. As facilitator, my plan on this particular day was to reflect on transformation stories of other famous prisoners, e.g. Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, and my favorite, Victor Frankl. But before I knew it, our writing circle of five began to tell their own stories of radical change.

Jacob shared his. This is the setting: Jacob in “solitary” for thirty-four months with an hour a day for exercise and shower. A toilette in the corner, bare bed along one side, wash basin in the other corner . . . and a metal mirror secured to the wall. “Yes,” I thought, “mirror, mirror on the wall!”

For two years anger keeps him alive. He spends his little bit of freedom on outbursts of defiance, spewing abusive language with accompanying obscene behavior. “What happened at the two year mark?” I ask.

“It was that damn mirror on wall that got me,” he says. “It was ever-present, always there, as if staring me down. No where to hide. Over and over and over again, it keeps asking: “Who are you?” “Who are you?” “Who are you?”

Over time something happens. He calls it a miracle. I call it grace. Somehow through his mirrored encounters he begins to answer the question on deeper and deeper levels. From identifying himself primary as a criminal, as a angry person, as a complete failure at twenty-seven, he begins, with the help of his new Rastafarian faith, to identify himself as African. (His father, whom he never knew, was from Ghana.) He goes deeper still with the question — who am I really — beginning to glimpse himself as a cherished child of God. In telling the story he keeps repeating the words, “identity” and “home.” There is such mystery to his story, no clear step-by-step path to this deeper place. But no doubt about it — his presence, his spirit, his smile gives evidence of this profound change.

Since that day I have been pondering two questions.

First, why Jacob? There are many, many other inmates experiencing solitary confinement. And they, each one, have mirrors fastened to the wall. What was it about Jacob that led him to see in the mirror these deeper and deeper responses to “who are you?” Why do some — including us all — “get” grace, or better, realize “being graced,” but most people don’t? And why is it so counter-intuitive for any of us to sustain the awareness that our worth as pure gift, not our achievement? For me, there remains such mystery about how, with whom and how long inner transformation happens.

My second question is this. What if I took, as a spiritual exercise, looking in the mirror asking repeatedly “who are you?” Currently I only glance into the mirror, long enough to part my hair, wash my face and brush my teeth. I don’t like reminders of my aging. Now, because of Jacob, I am experimenting with lingering long enough to ask, “Who are you? Whom will you be today? From what identity will you live this day?”

Thanks, Jacob.


Flying Close to the Sun

April 15, 2013

Over the phone I was hearing a familiar story. Another visionary (not a pastor) flying too close to the sun with wax between the wings melting, intimate relationships dissolving, then the predictable fall from the sky. I hung up the phone, and sat in silence for a while, feeling deep sadness. A profound tragic sadness.

​This is the tragedy: he has been a voice of life-changing news. His vision was eye-opening for many. His five-talent skills were invested for good, much good.

​This is the sadness: he came to believe he was good news. His admirers made the message about him. And, sadly, he came to believe them.

​I’m referencing the familiar Greek myth. Icarus, in spite of the warning from his father, Daedalus, flies so close to the sun that the wax attaching wings to body melts. The wings fall, along with his body, into the sea.

​Flying high is a part of a pastor’s job description. It’s not optional. It’s inherent in the fine print of an unwritten contract. With no small amount of chutzpa, every week pastors stand before congregation being a living symbol of More than they are. They enter into the dark places of human anguish, vulnerable to the raw cries, “Pastor, where is God in this? Why us? What should we do?” Pastors fly high with their humanity on display, becoming the subject of evaluations seldom heard and a Rorschach for outrageous projections — all the while holding confidential information without it showing. What daring, I say. What audacity.

​Most pastors I know fly high with a vision that they cannot but proclaim. They cannot stop themselves from attempting the flight. They seem to heed a compelling summons that will not let them go.

​But they fly high at the great risk of self-destructive and others-destructive hubris.

​But I call attention to the rest of the story. Often left out of the telling of this myth is the other advice that Daedalus gives his son. He also warns him not to fly too low, too close to the sea, less the water prohibit the lift of his wings. This is the counter caution: flying too low, playing it safe are equally self-destructive. Fear of failure, risk, and vulnerability is as lethal as flying too close to the sun.

​This seems to be a cautionary tale in two directions: the danger of believing your service is about you; and the danger of believing it is not about you. One hazard is pride that “goeth before the fall;” the other is low self-regard that lacks boldness.

​I’m left wondering if there is a wax that holds in high flying? I suspect its substance includes humility, not hubris. The few visionary leaders that come to my mind are keenly aware of the Wind that sustains and empowers them. If pressed, they speak of yielding to and working with a force far more than their power or even their understanding. “Success” or “achievement” are not in their vocabulary. “Gratefulness” is.