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)


A Spiral Upward

November 25, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Swan

This clumsy living that moves lumbering
as if in ropes through what is not done,
reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks.

And to die, which is the letting go
of the ground we stand on and cling to every day,
is like the swan, when he nervously lets himself down
into the water, which receives him gaily
and which flows joyfully under
and after him, wave after wave
while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm,
is pleased to be carried, each moment more fully grown,
more like a king, further and further on.

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