Falling Upward: A Re-Frame That Mattered

April 13, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


The Powers

October 20, 2014

“I’m so tired, so very tired,” she said. “Physically, but more emotionally and spiritually. I feel exhausted. I know what to do but I don’t have the energy to do it.” Let’s name her, Linda.

I remember the feeling. When I was about her age, also a first time parent and first time solo pastor, that same dark tar settled in my soul to stay for a long while. “I can’t go on like this,” she said. And I said.

I wish I had known then about Walter Wink. He was the gift that made a second round of being pastor a different, more understanding, more liberating experience. In Engaging The Powers, he writes about folks like us—persons caught up in the good, exciting work of healing and justice and mercy. He names the time when the wells of compassion run dry, when the very love that gave birth to our vocation is exhausted. “If you feel powerless,” he says, “then it’s a sure sign that the Powers have your spirit.”

The Powers? What does that mean? What are the Powers? The Powers are the third factor in every situation. The first two factors we can see. Factor one is ourselves; factor two is the other person or group of others, for example, a colleague, family, committee or congregation. People, along with the physical environment, are what we see. Do you remember the ditty with movements: “Here’s the church; here’s the people. Open the door and there’s all the people.” That’s it, I thought. Ministry is about people and me.

But there’s a third factor, always a third factor. It’s invisible, a spiritual reality we cannot measure, control or name precisely. These Powers are supra-human, transcendent forces, the more than “flesh and blood,” what the Apostle Paul named “principalities and powers” against which we contend, lest they capture our spirit. (Ephesians 6:10–17)

You and I experience this truth—the Powers—but seldom name it. We feel it in a cheering, crowded stadium and call it “school” spirit. Or, it may be a mob spirit that we name “demonic.” We enter a home and sense hospitality or hostility, formality or informality. The same when you worship in a church that is new to you. Immediately you take in the spirit of the place coming from the architecture, the congregants, and leaders. When we speak about the personality of a congregation, we are referencing its culture, its collective spirit—that is, the Powers. And Powers, whether for good or ill, whether life-giving or death-dealing always influence what’s possible in a system. They can be so dominating they virtually determine what’s possible. Wink names this the “domination system” in which, along with divine Spirit, we live and move and have our being.

Back to Linda. She is not primarily contending with “flesh and blood” congregants. Actually, most members, she says, are supportive, collaborative and appreciative. She is contending with supra-human forces. She is breathing in and internalizing the thick messages of her family, church and cultural context. She is inhaling its imperatives: “It’s up to you to pull out of this exhaustion” . . . “you are not enough, spiritual enough, doing enough” . . . “pull yourself together, try harder” . . . “your worth is on the line” . . . “after all, you are paid to carry the anxiety of this church” . . . “to ask for help is weakness.”

Then there is the larger pervasive assumption: what Wink calls the “myth of redemptive violence,” that is, coercive force (violence) solves problems—internally or externally. Linda was violating herself, condemning herself, trying to force or coerce different behavior and feelings.

All this and more are the unacknowledged waters we swim in. It’s the air we breathe. These invisible powers press upon us, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. They are the third factor, always present. When we give in to these oppressive, dominating Powers, we feel powerless—like Linda.

“Great,” I imagine Wink responding to Linda. “Now, you know a freeing truth: by yourself you can not fuel your good work even with your gifts, stimulating insights, superior training, ‘try it again’ efforts or a self-willed determination. Simply, you are being reduced to prayer. He writes, “Unprotected by prayer, our social activism [ministry] runs the danger of becoming self-justifying good works, as our inner resources atrophy, [and] the well of love dries up.” Prayer, for Wink, is opening up to the transcendent possibilities of God always pressing for realization in every situation. Praying is aggressive, joining God as partner in the struggle for Shalom against the anti-human Powers ever pressing us down. This struggle against “principalities and powers” is so challenging, Paul writes, it demands “the whole armor of God.”

“Linda,” I hear Wink saying, “You have over-estimated your will power in overcoming the oppressive messages, both internal and external; you have under-estimated the prayerful resource of alignment with the power of God. Paul even provides a sample prayer (in the same Ephesian letter) that, I like to believe, includes us as well.

I pray that, according to the riches of God’s glory, God may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through the Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Now to the One who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Eph. 3: 14–21)