Helping Without Hurting

June 7, 2010

Here we are, working in one of the “helping professions.” People expect help from us; we expect to give help. However most “help,” I suspect, is hurtful.

Sometimes, but not often, helping actually does mean rescuing, fixing, taking charge. Mary is paralyzed, deep in depression, unable to see options. You help by saying in some way, “Mary, you need a doctor. I will make the appointment and go with you.” Or, someone is controlling the group that you are facilitating. So you say, “Joe, there are others who have not spoken. Let’s hear from them before you speak again.” Or in a crisis, you say, “We don’t have time to process this as we usually do. Lee, will you do this . . . Ellen, would you do that . . . and Eric, do you have time to check with . . . ?”

But most times requests for help and our impulse to help can be saboteurs to genuine helping. Co-dependence looms. “Helper” needs the “helpless;” the “helpless” needs the “helper.”

So what is genuine helping? Recently I was invited to join a healthy, redemptive example of helping. Roy, let’s call him, was struggling with a huge self-defining decision. He came to Jack for help. Jack suggested that Roy invite a few trusted friends to sit with him as he struggled with “what to do.” I was invited to join the small circle of five that met about every other week.

Here is what struck me about Jack’s helping. We began each time with a few minutes of silence that allowed me to get myself out of the way, namely, my desire to interpret, my tendency to offer solutions, my investment in Roy making a particular decision. I needed to be reminded that this is about him, not me. Then Jack, more by example than word, honored, without diminishing, Roy’s suffering. He invited us to be a holding circle, a space without judgment, without advising, without analysis, without fixing, offering instead a prayerful place of trust and not-knowing. Our occasional questions and mirroring kept the inner work with Roy. And work he did! After many months, Roy came to a clearness that empowered courageous action. From his suffering was birthed a Soulful clarity.

This experience reminds me of a question I carried with me as a pastor. When I was in a relationship where I was in the role of helper, particularly when there is no movement toward resolution, I found this question revealing: “Am I working harder than he/she/they are?” If so, I knew my needs—possibly the need to be needed or right or admired—were in the way of their inner work. Then, if I were having a mature moment, I would back off and hold the relationship in grace, asking curious questions, not giving answers, trusting their capacity to discern Spirit, Soul at work in their depths.

Are we not talking about “agape” love here?


The Courage to Show Up

May 17, 2010

Let’s think about those times when you enter those human spaces where, in Paul’s thought, the “sighs [are] too deep for words.”

Roy, let’s name him, was presenting his pastoral challenge to his circle of clergy friends. On a snowy day in February, just as he was settling in for sermon preparation, the word came that Bill Lowery, friend and community leader, had suddenly died from a massive heart attack. Roy rushes to the hospital to be present to the shocked family who look to him for words. Two months later, the heart broken widow commits suicide. Again Roy rushes to the place of death to be present to the surviving sons who look to him for words.

In both situations, Roy spoke of having no “right” words, feeling inadequate, uncomfortably vulnerable, standing, it seemed, naked before a Mystery “too deep for words.” Priding himself as a professional crafter of words, he was lost for words.

You can imagine the responses from his colleagues: “But Roy, you were authentic, not mouthing pious platitudes that discount the anguish and deny the mystery” . . .”You were present with touch and feeling” . . .”You must have invited trust because the sons later wanted time and conversation with you.”

I drove away from this conversation thinking about the courage it took for Roy to show up in such a surreal place, a space extraordinary, corded off from the ordinary, a timeless moment oblivious to the clock on the wall.

I remember—as I suspect you are remembering—the dread in driving to the hospital or home knowing you will be walking into a “sighing too deep for words.” You anticipate expectations you cannot meet. You assume eruptions of feeling you cannot predict. Yes, there will be words, but they must be few and carefully parsed.

But . . . you go.

Physicians go into these holy places with a stethoscope and other tangibles. The nurses, funeral director, and friends show up with things to do. You don’t have much to do. You don’t have much to say. But, and this may be the point, you have much to be.

Being present, representing a “with us” Presence, may be the wordless Word declared that really matters and comforts.

In retrospect, Roy might turn to Paul’s assurance that Spirit is in the “sighing.” “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8: 26)

But let’s not smooth over Roy’s angst: his felt weakness, inadequacy, left to share the sighs too deep for words. I want to honor his courage, and yours, to show up, offering Presence within so much not-knowing.

—Mahan Siler


For Pastors — Good Grief

April 5, 2010

You in grief ministry, how do you handle your own grieving?

As pastors we are knee deep in grief work. It may be our specialty. Isn’t death and dying our professional “turf”? While many other professionals, like doctors, nurses, chaplains, funeral home directors, are involved in the care for the dying and their families, the pastor is the “point person.” Ideally, we are the overseer of the continuity of care—alongside during the process of dying, sometimes present at the time of death, then designer and leader of the funeral/ memorial service, and afterwards, the follow-through care to the grieving family. This spectrum, I submit, is our arena of expertise. Our congregants expect this. We expect this of ourselves. We are general practitioners with a specialty. (I am also thinking of chaplains and counselors for whom grief work is a primary practice.)

It was Tom, let’s call him, who put his finger on an occupational hazard. He was in Raleigh on sabbatical leave from a congregation he had been leading for twenty years. He was feeling tired, slightly depressed. Tom turned to me as a fellow pastor to probe the source of his heaviness.

In our first pastoral visit, I asked him to tell me about his last years of ministry. I saw my question as a gentle way of easing into our conversation. To his surprise, and mine, losses came pouring out—the deaths of congregants, many of whom were intimate friends and leaders in the church; families with whom he shared life-changing events who moved away; resignations of close colleagues; and members who left the church in anger or indifference. Multiple “deaths,” I heard.

These were not the “necessary losses” from living described in Judith Viorst’s book by that title. Rather, my friend’s felt losses are peculiar to our vocation.

Tom’s focus centered on the mourning of others, shepherding them through grief’s movement in theirs lives. That was his role. That was his job. But few, if any, turned to assist him with his grieving. More to the point, seldom did he ask for assistance.

Tom saw the pattern. While fulfilling his role as comforter, he discounted his need for comfort. And after twenty years of neglect, he sat before me with layers of unprocessed grief. We began to peal off these layers, one by one, as he recalled, and in some sense relived, the loss of each important relationship. He left our conversations a little lighter.

I left more aware.

Tom’s vulnerability was a mirror in which I saw myself. I too, in the care of grieving parishioners, would discount my own grieving. I didn’t have the time, I would tell myself. Often I stuffed it down in my haste toward next tasks, responsibilities postponed due to the unanticipated, additional attention that crisis grief-care requires.

Today, in the catbird seat of retirement, I wonder what happened to my unacknowledged grieving. Did it contribute to the occasional heaviness I could feel, wanting to curl up before a fire-place, reflecting and digesting? Did my denials of death caution me from investing deeply in relationships, using my role as buffer? Did the pain of these losses spark the fantasies of escaping to another congregation or another job free of emotional entanglements? (I wonder if unprocessed grief contributes to short, not long, pastoral commitments to congregations.)

Yes, to all the above but . . . thanks to Tom, I see, more than an occupational hazard. I also see an occupational opportunity, even blessing. At the time of death, including the death of a relationship, I drew on my pastoral authority by insisting on private time with the persons, usually the family. I see now, this was one place where I could share my sense of loss along with theirs. My tears, my stories, my laughter, my regrets, my gratitude could join theirs. Invariably these were cherished sacred moments.

I think of Nouwen’s infamous description of our role as “wounded healer.” Yes, it surely means that we lead from our own vulnerability, weakness, and woundedness. But I am also thinking, as I write this reflection, that welcoming, not denying, our proximity to the wounds of those under our care carves out and deepens our capacity for compassion. In this sense, by their wounds we are healed.

Do you identity, as I did, with Tom denial of grieving? Would you name this as an occupational hazard and/or blessing?

I don’t see these questions raised in the literature about pastoral leadership. I hope you find them provocative, and, if you have the time, respond with your thoughts on the matter.


Graceful, Grace-fueled Practicing

March 15, 2010

With the word, “practice,” have I lost you already?

Spiritual practices can be heavy with expectation, especially self-expectation: “I should pray more, more Sabbath time, more rest, more exercise—more, more, more.” Practices, so subtly, become something you do to reach where you ought to be spiritually. This has a whiff of acquiring, accomplishing, “works righteousness,” to use a traditional phrase.

Wonder with me, can spiritual practicing be graceful, grace-fueled?

We were wrapping up another banjo lesson. Cary Fridley, my teacher, began describing the work involved in “cutting” her next CD: recruiting musicians, practicing privately, practicing together again and again—all in preparation for the final recording session.

“I get increasingly anxious as we approach the recording, she admitted. “Well,” I asked, “what helps you with your anxiety?” Her response was profound beyond her knowing. When I can get to that place where the music is more important than me, then I am not anxious.”

You have been to that place. Recall a time in the pulpit when an inner shift occurs. You get to that place where the “message” becomes more important than your delivery. Self-consciousness fades; “other”-consciousness arises. You feel carried by Something larger, unpredictable, mysterious. It’s no longer, you preaching a sermon. The sermon, it seems, is being preached through you. There is a flow, a freedom, a sense of participating in a Force not your own. How often have I gotten to that place? Not often.

Or, in the midst of an intense pastoral situation, you find yourself at loss for words. Anxiety churns within. You don’t know what to say. Then, on occasion, from that silent place of emptiness and yearning, words come, right words, words that carry grace and truth. You walk away knowing you had received a gift beyond your wisdom. How often have I gotten to that place? Not often.

Or, even in the midst of a committee or congregational meeting “It” can happen. Anxiety is high. Differences are polarizing. Reactivity abounds. Then, miraculously it seems, enough people get to that place beyond self-serving. Here and there, listening happens; truth telling is risked; options surface. Something More than our selves, a Spirit, seems to be at work. The mutual possibilities, the hopes (the Music) become more important than personal points of view (the players). How often have I seen church members get to that place? Not often.

Consider this: spiritual practices help you experience that place more often. All of us from time to time, as noted, know moments of self-transcendence when we cease to be the center of the action. I’m saying that practices help move us from “time to time” to “often,” from occasional “peak experiences” to daily experiences. Spiritual practices develop an inner capacity for detecting and surrendering to the Holy. They sharpen our sensitivities to the Spirit at work in the world. Like with a musician, practicing doesn’t make the Music happen; rather, it allows the Music to be heard and played.

How then can this practicing be graceful and grace-fueled? Well, it’s a matter of where we start. A musician is first captivated by the music, then she begins practicing. We were first loved, then we began learning how to love. You and I were captivated by the Way of Jesus, then we began to practice our vocation of ministry. We start with Grace. You were brought to your knees before this amazement: you are, along with every living being, unconditionally beloved, valued, forgiven, and delighted in—- all gift, not achievement. Made in the image of God, your true nature is to love, to create, and give. This is who you are. This is who I am at my core. This news about you, and all creation, is the Music that resonates deeply and profoundly.

So, practices ring the bell that awakens us to what we already are. Again and again, they break through the amnesia, reminding us of what is given, not achieved. They recall us to our deepest identity as beloved of God. Practices in this sense don’t get us somewhere; they remind us we are already at home in a love from which nothing in life or death, now or later can separate us. Spiritual practices invite us to fall into that Love, regularly as a daily discipline.

Simple? Yes, radically simple, as simple as waking up or putting on a pair of glasses or remembering something forgotten.

Simple, but, oh, so costly. By waking up to our true identity in God’s love, we then begin to practice dis-identifying from every dependency on others to validate us, including ministry. By recognizing our given worth, we then begin to practice letting go of all the ways we attempt to earn our worth, including ministry. By becoming aware of grace, we then begin to practice dying to our ego’s claim as center of our lives.

Grace is the starting point. Grace fuels the practicing. But it is a costly grace. It costs the surrender of every effort at self-justification along the way of transformation.

Seems to me that it’s all about getting to that place where the Music is more important than me. How about you?


On Liberating the Preacher

February 15, 2010

Preaching may have been my chief cause of anxiety. I come from a tradition where the pulpit and pulpiteer hold a central place both architecturally and vocationally. People come expecting a lively, relevant Word of the Lord. I never shook the audacity of preaching. And I never found a deaf ear to the responses to “how I did.” Often, too often, it seemed to be about me.

So, I see liberation in the idea from family systems’ theorist Murray Bowen, filtered through friend of preachers, Walter Breuggemann (“The Preacher, The Text, and the People,” Theology Today 47 (1990). 237–47).

Bowen noted that life requires homeostasis (balance and stability). For instance, a tripod is more stable than a dyad. 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. You know all too well the experience: two persons in conflict “triangling” you in as problem solver or the “problem” or the one left to worry about their problem. If it works, you hold the anxiety, they walk away feeling lighter. These lethal triangles are “bread and butter” challenges for pastors.

But here is a positive use of “triangling.” Often preaching is seen as what happens between pastor/preacher (A) and people /congregation (B). It sure looks that way. Preacher in the pulpit addressing people in pew; preacher speaking, congregation listening; preacher interpreting, people agreeing or not agreeing. A two-way conversation, A-B, it seems. And when the conversation is controversial, it’s predictably a win-lose proposition, some agreeing with the preacher, others not. In either case, the focus remains on the preacher and sermon.

What if, as Brueggemann suggests, the voice of the biblical text is “triangled” in as “C”? I’m not talking about “tipping our hat” to the text, seeing the text as a jumping off place for our pet ideas. Rather, 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 words, scripture and ours, that matters.

I find this perspective liberating. As I confessed above, I can become overly preoccupied with my voice, feeling the pressure of crafting a correct interpretation, a polished sermon, a brilliant message. Yes, quite a burden to carry.

But can you feel the burden lifting when you turn up the volume, both the voice of the text and the voice of the people? Your voice becomes more prompter than expert. You are free to honestly struggle, play and fuss with the text—out loud—hoping that your words will provoke a similar engagement between listener and text, “B” with “C,” parishioner with God. When it works, or better, when the Spirit works, your interaction, “A” with “C (text)” stimulates the congregant’s interaction with “C” (text). We say in effect: “Folks, this is what I see, feel and hear in this text. What do you see, feel and hear?” The shift occurs: the sermon becomes about God, not you.

I see in this idea an addendum. It occurs to me that “triangling” in the “text” can also be a way of pastoral leadership. Note situations of potential win-lose debate between “A” and “B”—e.g. differences over budget figures or couples in conflict or controversy on health care reform, homosexuality, illegal migrants or any controversial topic. Can you feel the difference, when in such a situation, you intentionally “triangle” in the “text” as “C” (i.e. church mission, God’s love, mind of Christ, covenants, etc.) and ask, “How does our faithfulness to our mutual commitments speak to this problem? What would faithfulness to the “text” look like?” Recognizing that beyond differences is the common desire to love as God loves, your ask, “What shape would this Love take in this situation?”

Maybe we do our best work when we “triangle” in the “texts” of our mutual calling in a variety of conversations, including preaching. What do you think?


Playing with Ministry

February 1, 2010

Let’s consider playfulness in pastoral leadership. It may be a form of spirituality.

I catch myself looking for playfulness in leaders. Not sharp barbs as zingers. Not clever putdowns that summon laughter at another’s expense. Not jokes that distract, drawing attention away from the sticky issue at hand. Rather, playful responses, that, at their best, convey perspective (“This is not primarily about me”), that reveal humility (“I don’t have a clue about next steps”), that exudes curiosity ( “My, what will we learn here?”), and invites creativity (“Let’s offer what we have and see what happens”).

Karl Barth was the super-serious, post-World War II theologian of my seminary days. And with Tom Torrance, his primary English translator, as one of my professors, I poured over his thick books of systematic theology. As far as I can tell, only one truth stuck (and it was enough), namely, the overwhelming mystery, majesty, wonder of God.

So with all that assumed seriousness, Barth’s self caricature caught me off guard. He pictured himself coming to final judgment with God saying, “ Oh, no !!! . . . Here comes Karl Barth pushing a wheelbarrow full of his Dogmatics.” Even Karl Barth didn’t take himself too seriously. I love the playful perspective, humility, and yes, the bold offering of his work that is conveyed in that self-portrait.

As leaders, we long for that place of nirvana, when in the midst of stress, we respond creatively and not react automatically. Brain studies remind us that our first brain to develop, the one that we share with other animals, is the reptilian brain. Like reptiles, when anxious and threatened we instinctively react with either fight or flight. These two survival options are anxiety driven, fierce and obstinate. Leadership demands a third option.

Being a “non-anxious presence” is a mantra I hear frequently in conversations about leadership. It is a filtered down truism from systems thinking. But standing by itself, it is a poor motivator. For instance, we know the folly of talking ourselves out of anger, “I must not feel this frustration. Go away anger!” Of course, that only re-enforces our anger, like hands sticking to the proverbial “tar baby.” The same with “being non-anxious.” Telling ourselves to be non-anxious only fortifies the anxiety.

What if the best defense is a good offense? I am thinking we can learn to crowd out anxiety with playfulness. And playfulness has to do with being curious about the ways of the Spirit. And curious discernment has to do with nonattachment to outcomes. And nonattachment has to do with security. And security has to do with our well-being as gift (grace), not achievement.

Or, to work this sequence backwards, the more our identity is secure in a Love from which no-thing in life or death can separate us, the less our worth is tied to external outcomes, and the more inner freedom to play creatively with people and possibilities.

If this is true, then our inner work is practice. Like with any musician, we practice playing the notes and chords until we feel the harmonies of grace. We rehearse with others until our identity as God’s beloved becomes the center we live in and out of. Over time, I trust, we can develop the capacity to respond playfully and gratefully, less and less reacting instinctively from anxiety.

The musician “plays” the Music and “plays around” with the Music as improviser. And the more surrendered to the Music, the freer we can be from self-preoccupation and performance anxiety.

At my graduation from seminary, a favorite professor gave me a strange blessing. I was telling him about my call to a church in Northern Virginia. His response, not understood at the time, was, “Mahan, you will have some real fun there.” I was too serious, too eager to prove myself to hear his blessing. Now, I am beginning to get it.


The “X” factor: Danger and Opportunity

January 18, 2010

Let’s think about the dynamics of transference or projection in pastoral ministry.

To be human is to experience transference; the projection of authority on to others, and being the recipient of projected expectations. Who doesn’t hyperventilate slightly at the sound of a police siren signaling us to pull to the side of the road, or the pressure the surgeon feels when introduced as the very best in the country? And how about the knot in our stomach when we are called in for a conference with our child’s teacher, or the relief we feel when, in the midst of a tragedy, the leader—whether physician, parent, or president—comes before us with words of assurance?

For pastoral leaders of congregations, the force of transference is particularly tenacious and pervasive. I don’t understand why, in contrast to psychotherapists, working with transference and counter-transference  is not more apart of our training, because becoming a ‘‘reverend’’ impacts virtually all relationships, for good or ill. We are human beings with a difference. Once you and I assume the role of pastora/leader, this “difference,” this “X” factor, kicks in.

This difference is appropriately accentuated in the ways we fulfill the role. We don the robes. We bear sacred symbols. We risk interpreting Mystery. We preside over rites of passage, from birth to death. Even with our more unknowing than knowing, we still dare to represent God, God’s people and God’s purposes in the world. With “fear and trembling,” we allow maximum transference.

Lucy, a rabbi friend, gave me a book that describes this “X’ factor for me. Jack Bloom, in The Rabbi as Symbolic Exemplar, says that, as ordained leaders of congregations, we are both human beings and living symbols of more than we are. Both are true and remain in tension. Yes, in every sense we are “human beings” with our particular personalities and peculiarities. Also, we are walking, talking, embodied representatives of more. We are living signs pointing beyond ourselves to the larger Reality we name God. And this symbolic identity deepens with each passing pastoral visit, funeral, wedding, and worship service.

And more than symbol, Bloom insists that we are symbolic exemplars. 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 moral freight. Pastors, and in some sense their families, are expected to show, as well as tell, what loving God and neighbor looks like.

There’s opportunity with the “X” factor. You know the privilege of standing by a member’s bedside in solitary. Intensive Care, putting a face to a caring God and praying congregation; or, sitting before a person consumed with self-hatred, confronting the lie with all the authority of your position, saying, “No, the truth is you are God’s beloved”; or, claiming the very force of God’s character by proclaiming in concrete settings that domination of some over others is wrong, evil, violent and counter to the God movement of shalom; or, placing bread into the open hands of a celebrant, saying, “The body of Christ for you.”

Privilege, yes, but also audacity, in accepting the pastoral authority to name, bless, and heal, to express at times a power we don’t feel, to convey an outward boldness with our “knees knocking” out of sight.

Seduction is the danger. With the courage it takes to be a living symbol of more than we are, we assume the perilous risk of believing we are more than we are. Projections are ingested. You tell me that I am wonderful, then I must be wonderful. You tell me that I am not enough, then I must be not enough.

I found this the most severe temptation: moving from having a ministry to becoming my ministry. Our work, intended to be penultimate, can become ultimate. ‘‘Difference’’ can become “special.” “Set apart” can become set apart as “better,” “superior.” Ordination vows can trump the baptismal vows we share with all disciples of Jesus. Our sense of well-being can, ever so gradually, stick to our role, then harden, so much so that the role ceases to be a ‘‘robe’’ we wear for symbolic purposes, then remove. It defines our core identity . . . idolatry, that is.

I am wondering what helps you have a ministry, without being your ministry? What supports your offer of ministry from your center of “being enough,” Graced, grounded in Being, loved unconditionally? If Bloom’s description resonates, what helps you embrace the tension from being both a human being in every way and a living, symbolic exemplar of more than you are?


Leading in the In-between Time

January 4, 2010

“I feel both like a hospice chaplain and mid-wife.”

The pastor was responding to my question: “Your current ministry feels like, looks like a . . . . . what?” His answer resonated with our small group of clergy, so much so, we began to unpack his metaphors. Let’s continue the conversation.

Being a hospice chaplain meant to this pastor more than the standard, expected grief ministry — responding to personal losses (e.g. death of a loved one, marriage, house, job, reputation, etc.) That’s huge by itself. Grief work is at the core of what we offer, demanding attention, indeed, skillful and caring attention.

But this pastor was referring to other losses more characteristic of our time in history. You and I see and feel this truth: We serve a church losing social status. The mainline church, firmly established as a major institution for fifteen hundred years in Western civilization, is being disestablished and sidelined. A survivalist mentality, like a dark cloud, hovers over denominations, including many local churches. (Personally I welcome this disestablishment that brings us closer to the pre-Constantine Christian movement of the first centuries. A topic for another reflection.)

Some members lament, “With all these changes — in status . . . in membership . . . in worship . . . in structures . . . in programs . . . in communication — well, I feel less at home. Sometimes it seems like I’m losing my church.” Others decry changes, not only in form, but also in ideas. The familiar ways of speaking of faith are being reshaped or even displaced, as implied in one parishioner’s comment: “Pastor, it is not so much what you say in your sermons that bothers me. It is what you don’t say.”

Thus, on one hand this pastor defined himself as a hospice chaplain who honors and works with dying and death on multiple levels.

Yet, on the other hand, he sees himself as a shepherd of innovation, a midwife assisting in new birth here and there. There are new programs, new members (often with little religious background), new forms of mission, and new ways of understanding God’s movement in our time. He offers a steadying, supportive hand to these births, each carrying the promise of a new life.

Does this resonate with you as a leader in our time? Do you see yourself standing in this breach, offering leadership in a “transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born?” (Vaclav Havel) In what ways do these metaphors fit? In what ways do they not?

And, I am thinking, you are pastor or priest of one congregation. Where then is the source of oneness amid diverse pulls on time and energy? You must be asking where is the glue that holds us together? What convictions do we gather around regularly that we wager with our lives?

You seem to be in a position not unlike the one Jesus faced. He was revering and fulfilling the Torah, yet with interpretations that were like “new wine in old wineskins.” His respect for heritage that he expressed in new ways was confusing. No wonder the stewards of his tradition (in positions like ours) pressed him for clarity about essentials. Some sample responses we know like the back of our hand: “Love God and the other as yourself;” “Love as I have loved you;” “I have come that you might have life, life abundantly;” “I am the way, the truth, the life.”

Maybe there is this blessing in our time of chaotic transition. We are forced to keep clarifying the faith around which we circle. We are compelled to name our integrating core, knowing full well that the gracious Mystery we worship also defies precise definition. We are challenged to covenant and re-covenant around a Way of living, all the while resisting its codification into hardened beliefs.

I am suggesting that times of rapid change push us back to basics. They challenge us to live the essential questions: What does it mean to follow Jesus? What does faithfulness look like in our lives and life together?

How would you add to the conversation begun with the pastor’s self-understanding as hospice chaplain and midwife?


Two Functions of Religion: Meaning and Transformation

December 21, 2009

Ken Wilbur, contemporary philosopher, psychologist, mystic and student of human consciousness, proposes that religion has two primary functions: offers meaning (his word, “translation”) and offers transformation. Both he deems important, even critical, contributions to the human enterprise.

For most people, according to Wilbur, religion provides a way to establish meaning. It helps us, as separate selves, to make sense of our lives, cope with difficulties, strengthen our resolve, and endure “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Through rituals, symbols and narratives people find beliefs that grant purpose and place and perspective. Finding meaning in life is a function of religion that is absolutely necessary. We humans require a strong sense of self.

But some reach for another level of consciousness, a higher (or deeper) way of seeing. They come to that place in the maturation process where the strengths of separate self are insufficient. A strong ego is not enough to hold life together. Our inner eyes are opened. We see God, no longer as separate object, but as subject, God alive within and through us. We see Christ, no longer as separate, but as subject, Christ within us. And we see other humans as part of us, no longer totally separate, neighbors that we love as ourselves (not “like we love ourselves). The music, the orchestra, the violin and violinist cannot be separated. They all belong together. We understand this mutuality on this level of spiritual awareness.

This is the way of transformation. I, the ego, is a mistaken identity. We are so much more. At our core we are God’s beloved. On this level the separate self is transcended, not fortified. There is a dying again and again not to ego but to ego-centeredness, the separate self. In Paul’s words: “Nevertheless I live but not I, but Christ lives in me,” or, “No-thing in life or death, things present or things to come, can separate us from the love of God,” or Jesus’ words, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies (breaks open) …” With each act of surrender, separate self-consciousness is broken open like a seed, yielding to the larger creative force of fruitfulness far beyond our efforts or imagining. This spiritual level of consciousness transcends, yet includes the level of egoic functioning, just as the music (divine love, justice) transcends, yet includes the participation of orchestra (faith community), violin and violinist (self).

If my reflection on Wilbur’s proposition is on target, I see three implications for pastoral leaders.

One, you cannot assume, as I did at the beginning of my ministry, that people come to church wanting transformation. Truthfully, neither was I seeking self-transcendence at that point in my life.

Second, we can assume that our members are living at different levels of awareness (consciousness). Some see and interpret symbols, rituals, narratives of Scripture literally, unable to acknowledge truth through metaphor. Some see and interpret rationally, unable to understand truth that appears illogical and contradictory (e.g. lose your life to find it). Still others, likely a minority, see, through repeated gestures of self-surrender, the unitive, non-separation, interdependent vision of the kingdom of God. For them, religion is less about the meaning of their lives and more about the Music of their lives. (No wonder there are such diverse responses to the same sermon.)

The challenge becomes to love people where they are, interpret the gospel in ways they can understand, and be ready to assist their spiritual growth when cracks appear and openings occur.

And third, how about us? In what sense is our religious vocation a source of meaning and/or transformation?

. . .

See Ken Wilbur, The Essential Ken Wilbur, pp.140–143. For more on levels of consciousness, see Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, Wisdom Jesus and Jim Marion, Putting on the Mind of Christ.


Ministry as a Research Project

December 7, 2009

Try this on for size. Particularly when passion drives you to over-functioning, over-investing, over-attachment to results, consider this reframing: treating your work as a research project.

This idea of ministry as a learning project is another leaf from Edwin Friedman’s notebook. Friedman describes the way he offers therapy to clients. He takes with him into the therapy session a yellow legal-sized pad with a line drawn down the middle of the page. On the left side of the pad he writes process notes that might assist him at a later point in the therapy. But on the right side of the pad he records what he is learning that might assist him in his life, either personally or professionally. Later, he discards the process notes while preserving for himself the learning gleaned from the experience.

I attached this picture — a yellow legal-sized pad with a line down the middle — on the inner lining of my mind. It goes with me.

As I approached the time to announce my retirement in 1998, my anxiety spiked. Self-talk was lively: When do I tell? Who first needs to know? How will I say, “good-bye”? How will I feel? How will they feel? What will they say?

My “yellow pad friend” came to the rescue. “What if I treat my last months at Pullen [Memorial Baptist Church] as a research project?” After “drawing a line down the middle,” I began to ask: What will I learn about how I do endings? What will we (both Pullen and myself) learn about our life together during these past fifteen years? Where were noteable evidences of the Spirit at work? What, I wonder, will be the surprises?

During those intense months, there were times I stepped back and worked these questions. And when I did, I tasted the excitement, playful curiosity, and objectivity of a research scientist.

But don’t save it for the end. This practice of reframing works even better during the “everydayness” of pastoral ministry. Without fail, this “yellow legal-sized” image could pull me back from my intensity, with the question, “Let’s see, what am I learning here?”

Pastoral work gives us a ringside seat in the arena of human striving, an up close look at the blows, bruises and knockdowns people experience. Or to shift the metaphor, what better laboratory for observing and researching the ways people find meaning in their lives.

What if we viewed the people involved with us in ministry as our teachers. Beyond showing us how they make sense of life, they will also trigger our emotion-packed addictions, call forth our latent gifts, and open spaces for grace to happen.

We cannot always be effective or faithful. We can always be a curious learner, disciple that is.