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.

 


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.

 


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.