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.