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.


Dis-establishment: A Re-frame That Mattered

May 24, 2016

The frame church as established and dominant began to crack and then disintegrate early in my ministry. For so long I didn’t have a frame to replace it. I couldn’t find the clarity I needed to lead a congregation.

In the early 80’s the Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall appeared on my life stage, soon assuming a major role. His bold insight became a re-frame that mattered. With convincing lucidity he announced: Christendom is over! The 1,500 years of church prominence in Western civilization is at the end of its ending. Rejoice! Be glad! Claim the freedom in shaping a new future of Christianity!

Perhaps my journey toward this clarity might sufficiently parallel your experience, enough so to make sense of this new perspective.

Born in 1934, a Knoxville, Tennessee native, growing up during “pre” to “post” World War II years, I experienced the church as established. Like other standing institutions (governmental, legal, educational, medical) the church in its varied forms was visible and prominent, its permanence assumed. It was a dependable trellis, a trustworthy frame that seemed to uphold the moral structure of the community. In those days religious identity was generally inherited, much like skin color or last name.

Gestures of this establishment were conspicuous: church and state arm and arm in the “war effort”; opening prayer at civic occasions, even football games; attendance at church services more the norm than not; “ministerial discounts” for pastors; church property as tax free; Jews in their ghettos, Muslims non-existent. After all, we were a Christian nation.

During my university years I came alive with a sense of larger purpose. Defining myself within the Jesus story took me to seminary to learn more. Serving the church vocationally was not my motivator at the time. During my seminary years the church was still firmly established, with Protestant Christianity presumed to be the dominant religion nationally and the superior religion globally. Foreign missionaries bore the badge of supreme devotion.

But gaping cracks were appearing in the established church. The Secular City by Harvey Cox announced the growing assumption of secularism. As graduate students we pondered the meaning of Bonhoeffer’s inscrutable phrase, “religion-less” faith; the “death of God” theologians were even more mystifying. Various religious and non-religious worldviews surfaced as the norm in our neighborhoods and workplace. All the while, loyalty to congregation and denomination was eroding. Even the renewal movements of the time felt like efforts to recover something important that was lost and needed recapturing.

Yet churches were growing, or were expected to, when I assumed my first position as pastor in 1967. Still fueled by the optimism of post-war years, the American economy, American global power, and suburban congregations were growing. Once a pastor accepted the role, it was assumed that, given effective leadership, the congregation would surely grow larger. Anything less would be failure.

But an uncertainty persisted. Something was changing that I couldn’t see, name, or measure. It seemed that deep underground plates were shifting — “foundations were shaking,” to borrow Tillich’s phrase. I just couldn’t settle the questions: What is the church for? What is a pastor for? No longer could I embrace without question the church’s mission to “save” people, win souls, convert the world to Christ. Equally dissatisfying was defining the church as another social agency that served the world in its need for mercy, healing, and justice. After all, weren’t we still called to share the hope within us? And wasn’t this a hope in God, from God?

Along came Douglas John Hall just when I needed him. He offered a clear frame that gave borders to my confusion. Hall invited me to step back . . . way, way back to see the larger picture. I heard him saying: “Open your eyes. See it! See the evidence all around us. Christianity in Western civilization is winding down from its privileged status that began in the 4th century. Face it. We are experiencing the end of Christendom’s fifteen hundred years of church prominence.”

Hall’s framing differentiates a beginning and ending. The beginning was Emperor Constantine’s adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the empire in the 4th century; the ending, after fifteen hundred years, was a gradual decline of the church’s established and dominant positions. These two great social transitions mark the history of the western church. During those centuries empires, kings, philosophers, and political systems came and went. But through it all the church in the West maintained its superiority as the official religion. While it’s true that during these centuries there had always been small alternative faith communities, the larger church always maintained its established status. Hall convincingly names the bit-by-bit ending of Christendom, noting its few remaining vestiges in places like the southern states in our country.

Then Hall, once he makes his compelling case, responds with a surprising challenge: “Welcome dis-establishment! Don’t fret it. Embrace it! Claim the gift of it for the church in our time!”

I remember thinking that it was no wonder I had been confused. It’s appropriate to be confused when the church we serve is experiencing the end of a fifteen-hundred-year period of dominance. Of course the future is uncertain with no clear path forward. How could this awkward moment in history be otherwise?

The gift from this new frame was this: as pastor, I felt invited to sit down before a new set of questions.

The old establishment questions are familiar: How can we attract members? How can we raise the budget? How can we keep our building repaired? These are worthy questions, ones that I dutifully asked as a leader of an established congregation that was just beginning to feel the angst of this vast transition. But these inquiries are secondary questions.

With dis-establishment confirmed, I felt the excitement of different questions, more basic and future oriented:

  • What does following Jesus look like in our time?
  • What is the church for?
  • What is the pastor for?
  • What new metaphors, forms, and directions are trying to be born within us?
  • What are we being asked to let go of that is no longer life-giving?
  • How do we respond respectfully to those among us grieving the loss of what was?
  • Being increasingly dis-established, side-lined, and alternative, how can we learn from other Christian communities throughout church history whose witness was anti-establishment, marginal, and alternative? (See Bass, A People’s History of Christianity)
  • How can we respond to the particular longings of our time? (Hall, in The End of Christendom and the Future of Christianity, mentions four such longings, or quests: the quests for moral authenticity, meaningful community, transcendence and mystery, and meaning.)

To reiterate a former point, in our nation and particularly in the South, ample vestiges of Establishment are still present, so much so that some deny that such a major social and religious shift is occurring. Any pastor can identify those members who believe that “if we could just do ‘this’ or try ‘that’ then our church could return to its ‘better’ days.” The denial of death, so strong and deep within each of us, is an equally powerful drive in us institutionally. In another Re-frame I express an overlapping observation with this Re-frame today: pastors are both hospice chaplains and mid-wives. We stand in the breach between what is ending and what is being born.

This too I appreciate from Hall: he pictures the church of today and tomorrow as coming alongside the church in the first centuries before Constantine. Those first followers of Jesus, not inhibited by being a minority, even at times a persecuted minority, claimed the transforming power of the small. In parallel, we too can be small, feisty communities of our day. The favorite metaphors of Jesus can be ours to manifest in fresh ways by self-identifying as salt, yeast, and seeds — as a small “light shining before others.” (Matthew 5: 16)

Thanks to you, Douglas John Hall, for your location of the contemporary western church. Your frame, when I allowed it, gave me new questions to live as I went about my leading, preaching, teaching, and pastoral caring. You invited a lightness, curiosity, and trust in the Spirit at work in our dying and in our rising. You gave me a re-frame that mattered.

 


Visionary Dreamers: Be Warned

January 27, 2015

“Without a vision, the people perish”—a truism we live by. We are marinated in biblical, historical and current visions of reconciliation, healing, forgiveness, liberation. Recently, on MLK day, once again we blew on the embers of the Dream. In our leading, teaching and preaching we keep painting pictures of what could be, plus the audacity to call them “dreams of God.”

But there is a “shadow” side to this light. And greater the visionary dream, greater is the “shadow.” Let me explain.

It was 1972, an autumn day, bright sun above, Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance with a gentle breeze near as breath. Sitting on a bench I was taking in the beauty . . . and sadness, too. Two months’ prior I had resigned as pastor with no vocational place to go. I simply was unable to sustain beyond five years my first major attempt as pastor. I had hit a wall. Something had to give. So our family of six retreated to the mountains, piecing together a “living,” while granting ourselves a year to re-group. It felt like a divorce with most friends and family not knowing what to say.

Sitting on the bench that day, with adequate emotional distance, I began to ponder—what happened? My eyes landed on these non-inclusive, yet searing words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together:

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.”

“Is that what happened?” I whispered. Some “lights” were coming on. Did I “fashion a visionary ideal” for our congregation and expect us to reach it? The Bonhoeffer downward spiral sure felt familiar. As things didn’t happen as envisioned, first I blamed the church, and in time blamed myself. In his words: “ . . . first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.” This startling awareness, though over forty years old, remains vivid, a memory still full of color and feeling. I think my soul journey started at that point. I was beginning to see the difference between clinging to a vision and having a vision. Clinging is idolatry.

I came from seminary fresh with an ideal of what church ought to be. I set about to lead this D.C. area Baptist congregation in that direction. It was 1967, soon a period of more assassinations, rising black power consciousness, the activism for fair housing, the Poor People’s Campaign and, most of all, the height of the Vietnam War that took many of our husbands and fathers away for a year at a time. It was a turbulent season for families and nation. From feeling located in the center of this vortex, the opportunities reverberated through our little congregation wanting to be a pastoral, prophetic presence in it all.

The congregation was partner in my dreaming. At least, the leaders were. I was a young man entering a young, seven year old congregation ripe for large visions of what could be. We were a co-dependent pair—the church and me—rightly excited by the challenges, but also, I came to see, ripe for the seduction of lofty self-ideals. Together we were eager to become a “unique, special” witness amid social, political disarray.

Of course, my ending at this church was not that simple or singular. My resignation was many layered, as all of them are. But that day something shifted. Bonhoeffer’s sharp insight lanced the boil of my church-ideal and self-ideal as pastor. Since then I have been alert to that visionary side of me. It’s a gift I cherish. I like my capacity to see the big picture, discern possibilities and hold curiosity about what can be. But it’s a danger, as well, to be attached to the dream, to fuel it with intensity, to allow it to yank me from the present ambiguities, and to choose an abstract vision over the tangled intricacies of what’s before me.

I hear an “amen” in a quote from Fyodor Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov. I found it recently in my friend’s (Ken Sehested) prayer&politiks website:

“Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Active love is labor and fortitude.”

Bonhoeffer had to shout to get my attention. Clearly he is not against dreaming. He, for sure, was a dreamer, creating an alternative residential seminary, plus visioning a church free of anti-Semitism. In fact, for his vision he was executed. Maybe he was shouting at himself along with avid dreamers like me who are prone to love the “what could be” more than “what is.”

 


Eschatology as Provocative Re-frame

April 28, 2014

Plan with the end in mind — a piece of advice I keep coming across in leadership material.

This bit of wisdom came to mind during two recent conversations with pastors getting clear about their retirement. While not time to announce their plans, their clarity was internal. I asked both of them, “What’s this like for you?” They both made similar responses, “I feel lighter.” And, I noticed this in both. They were working the same questions: “Now that I know the end time, what is most needed from me now? And what do I most want to give?” 

Let’s pull off our “theological shelf” and dust off this esoteric word — eschatology. Yes, both of these pastors are living in a personal scatological “end time.” And obviously this awareness is bringing clarity, and with it an exchange of one kind of energy for another. The difference is striking.

Then I began to ponder my own pastoral experience. In my first flight as pastor I served a seven-year old congregation. We both had little flight experience. Jointly we felt the exhilaration of a new beginning with no awareness of endings. Our sense of limitless horizons contributed to an eventual “burn out” in my case.

Later, much later, I became pastor of an almost hundred year old congregation. What a difference! I knew immediately — no matter how long I stayed — that I was an “interim” pastor. I served that congregation for fifteen years, a longer than usual ministry in one place. Yet, in terms of its history, fifteen years granted a very short privilege to come alongside this congregation rich in heritage.

Then, with that same congregation, I entered my 60′s with a deep weariness setting in. I went to the lay leaders saying two things: one, I felt I had more work to do with them; and two, I needed a few months to step back and catch my breath. During that time I asked to relinquish worship and committee responsibilities. We came up with a plan.

What surprised me during that mini-sabbatical was the “eschatology” that kicked in. I knew my time as pastor was coming to an end. This awareness forced the questions: for these next few years what does this church most need from my leadership? And, given my excitements, what do I most want to give? The clarity — a result from this sense of end-time — contributed to my final years being the most joyful and creative.

It’s something for you to think about. You are an interim-pastor. Your congregation was there before you came; it will continue after you leave. It is as if you come on board of a train at a particular station platform. Then somewhere down the tracks you will depart at another station, waving back to all the well wishers until they are out of sight.

This scatological re-frame, working with that end in sight, raises generative questions: Given the limited time, what does this congregation most need from me? And, given my gifts, concerns and interests, what do I most want to give?

It just may be a fast track to some joy, lightness, energy and clarity.

P.S. I’m playing imaginatively with this scatological re-frame. I picture myself at my death-bed, hearing this question from my grandchildren: “What were you thinking to left us a planet damaged beyond repair?” I want to be able to say, “Regrettably I woke up late, but when I did, I took action.”


Locating God

March 24, 2014

Where is God? Where do we look for God in our secular age?

I was asking these questions out loud while driving home from a recent discussion group. In the group one person was telling the Jonah story, treating it like a myth or parable. The presenter was asking: where is the Jonah in us? What are the ways, like Jonah, we flee from a God so radically loving of “the enemy,” Nineveh in this case?

A few in the circle quickly self-identified themselves as “secularists.” They interpreted the story literally, dismissing as fanciful any God who stages an ocean storm, including a large fish to swallow fleeing Jonah, later regurgitated on the land. “We can’t relate to this story. We don’t believe in God, especially that kind of God,” they all said in various ways.

Later in the conversation, a member of the circle (let’s call her Kelly), one of the “secularists,” spoke movingly of her long history with an elder in a remote Mexican village. Once a researcher in this village, she remained his friend through the years. When she heard of his dying, she made the long trip to be at his side. It seemed that he was staying alive to have his last moments with her.

By the time of her arrival, the elder has slipped into a coma. “Too late,” she lamented. But Kelly stays, remaining at his bedside, holding his hand in hers. She spoke of a profound, palatable presence of love that pervaded the room. Even the animals seem aware of this difference. Hours pass until the unexpected happens. Her mentor opens his eyes, fully and clearly, smiles, squeezes her hand and the hand of his son, then closes his eyelids, and stops breathing. It was a brief moment, so full, so unexpected, so unexplainable.

I blurted out, “Why God was all over that!” She smiled with a puzzled acknowledgment that neither of us pursued.

While driving home, I imagine saying more to Kelly. I wanted to add: “Kelly, in my way of seeing, what you experienced was God. The invisible, loving presence, so palatable to you, I name Spirit. The name is not so important to me, but naming the experience is. Your love for and from this Mexican elder, culminating in that sacred moment, is a Reality more than just you and him, more like a magnetic field, a Mystery that pulled you beyond explanation into awe.”

I assume most people have such profound moments igniting similar responses: “Wow! What a gift. And surprise. A presence, too deep for words!” Every one, from time to time, gets knocked off their feet with unexpected goodness. But I’m sad when these life-shaking experiences are left without symbols, story and metaphor, without rejoicing in community. Naming, I think, gives these spiritual experiences a marker, a container, an anticipation for more.

Isn’t this what church, at its best, does? Church, as corporate worship and caring relationships, can provide the context where such experiences are named, appreciated and expected. Of course, we cannot make these extra-ordinary events happen, but within community we do offer liturgy, story, and silence where openings to gracious/terrifying Mystery are invited and celebrated — the very fuel for acting compassionately in our worlds.

This is my assumption: Kelly, and many “secularists” like her, do have spiritual experiences. She strikes me as a person open to wonder over breakthroughs of kindness, beauty and self-giving acts of compassion. But with her image of God so tied to an other-worldly figure removed from our humanity, she may miss the connection so obvious to me.

I am thinking of the preachers among you. Probably you have a congregation full of those who still worship a God separated from this world who intervenes from time to time according to whim. I keep being surprised about how imprinted in our psyche is a deity “up there, out there,” not in here, the invisible, in-between part, the love energy in relationships.

I suppose I am a literalist at this point. I take this truth at face value: “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God, for God is love.” (I John 4:7). There’s where I look for God.


A Spiral Upward

March 5, 2014

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?


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?