The Myth of Redemptive Violence: A Re-Frame That Mattered

March 19, 2018

The new reality Jesus proclaimed was nonviolent . . . The church must affirm nonviolence without reservation because nonviolence is the way God’s domination-free order is coming . . . Jesus has never seemed more relevant. The world has never been more ready.

 Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers

It may be the warmest, most intimate memory with my father. The picture in my mind is vivid. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 6:30 to 7:00 my dad and I listened to the “Lone Ranger.” I picture him stretched out on a chaise lounge sofa with me sitting on its edge and the bronze radio a few feet away. For thirty minutes we are huddled together in a bubble of shared imagination. This regular ritual continued from about my seventh to tenth year.

But more was happening than just a warm, memorable experience with my father. When Walter Wink and his award-winning book, Engaging the Powers, appeared in my life in 1992 our Lone Ranger experience took on deeper meaning. Each Lone Ranger episode followed the same pattern, a pattern also consistent with the other prominent cartoons of the day — Popeye, Batman, Superman, Captain Marvel and others. This same pattern runs through the high-tech games that currently occupy the imagination of our youth.

The pattern. The Lone Ranger and Tonto are the good guys pitted against the bad guys. It looks like the bad guys will win until the good guys somehow overpower the evil threat. And, at the end, the Lone Ranger and Tonto ride away victorious, leaving me as a young boy enamored with their moral greatness and wondering “who is this masked man?” Similarly, Popeye, protecting Olive against the brute Bluto, would at the last minute from the spinach infusion of power pummel him to near death.

Wink makes a bold claim. He builds a case that these seemingly inconsequential childhood stories quietly condition us with the dominant spirituality in America. He sees this same socialization occurring from the stories we tell about our history and current events. This secular spirituality, or if you prefer, this pervasive ideology Wink names the myth of redemptive violence.

Let’s break this bold assertion down into parts. Violence is destructive, overpowering acts that demean human dignity and soul with the goal of winning at all cost (the end justifies the means), as in “winning” an argument or “winning a war.” Redemptive violence is the assumption — violence redeems, violence saves, violence wins, violence deters aggressors, violence solves problems, violence brings peace, violence is trustworthy, violence eradicates evil. Myth is a worldview or belief or narrative that mirrors a particular view of reality. We all have myths or narratives through which we see the world.

Let’s return to the Lone Ranger myth. He and Tonto redeem or save an evil situation by overpowering the enemy through violence, usually gun violence. They are righteous, the opposition is evil. Within the Lone Ranger himself there is no sign of ambiguity, no sense of internal contradiction, no trace of sin, no hint of evil. What fear or outrage he feels is projected on to the face of the enemy. The evil is “out there” to be destroyed. As a young boy, I was being invited to identify with the good guys, to feel righteous, superior, and justified in overpowering what or whoever opposes me.

Walter Wink opened my eyes in 1992. I began to see this myth of redemptive violence everywhere. I observed it being played out on macro and micro levels, for example, from the macro event of forcing with violence democracy (a nonviolent form of government) in the Near East to the micro violence of “winning” an argument with a friend or spouse through a power-play of some form.

Other examples are plentiful. These come to mind: countering murdering by killing murderers; stopping children fighting by spanking them; maintaining control in the home through physical or psychological abuse; establishing security with more guns for citizens; annihilating the evil of terrorism; declaring war on poverty or drugs; defining opposing leaders as enemies, not colleagues; winning the best divorce settlement by whatever means possible.

In all these illustrations of conflict, and those that come to your mind, the desired solution is accomplished through violence, that is, some method of overpowering the other. But this for me is the new insight — all of these violent actions are efforts to save or redeem some problematic situation, large or small.

In retirement I have worked with inmates in a nearby maximum-security prison. Even they, at the moment of their violent act, felt they were solving a problem. They were trying to save or achieve something vital to them.

This pattern of redeeming through violence is an assumption so entrenched in our culture that to think otherwise requires a deliberate, conscious effort. For most of us it’s just the way life works. It’s so common we don’t name it as insane. We don’t notice that violence always breeds more violence.

More to the point of our vocation, I want to name some ways that Wink’s wisdom affected my ministry: understanding of Jesus, understanding leadership and understanding my inner life.

* * *

During seminary years and in my early years as a pastor, like many of my peers I was inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement for racial equality. Along with the nation, I watched the power of social change through nonviolent action. I read in King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail about the concept of breaking an unjust law in obedience to the higher law of justice. Along with an alarmed world, I saw its cost and redemptive power embodied in the children being hosed to their knees on the streets in Birmingham. They and others in the movement absorbed the suffering and loved in return. I knew at the time that Gandhi’s wisdom was informing King, and Leo Tolstoy was informing Gandhi, and all of them were informed by the Sermon on the Mount.

But Wink took me to another level by grounding this wisdom in the very core of Jesus. It was as if Wink was focusing my camera lens. He gave me not a new Jesus, but a clearer Jesus. Direct nonviolent behavior was not just a way for social change. It is the way to live your life. It’s the way Jesus lived and died.

Underneath all this capacity to live nonviolently is Jesus’ rock-bottom conviction, the central commandment — connecting loving God to loving the neighbor (the “other”) as yourself. On the deepest level the “other” is part of you, you are part of the “other.” I acknowledge it does not look that way. We can’t see how deeply we are connected with all that lives around us. But we are. According to Jesus and current physicists, we are profoundly “quantum entangled.” This means what happens to you affects me and vice versa. If this invisible connection is true — for sure, a radical shift in worldview — then any violence toward our neighbor (including the earth) is violence to ourselves. And conversely, as strange as it seems, loving our enemy is a form of loving ourselves.

Let’s assume, as Jesus does, that reality in its essence is relational. Simply, life is relationship. Furthermore, in most relationships some have the power to dominate and violate — what Wink calls domination systems. Predictably when conflicts occur within these relationships, the myth of redemptive violence is activated. Those with the power, either in overt or covert ways, dominate or oppress the other as the way to reestablish comfort and order.

Jesus offers another stance, another kind of power, a third option to fleeing and fighting. We watch him taking stands in the face of dominating power, not fleeing in fear, not responding with escalating violence. He never “takes the bait.” Neither does he define the opposing “other” as foe or victim. The enemy, according to Jesus’ behavior, is to be loved, not hated; prayed for, not ignored; valued, not demonized. We follow his life with amazement, watching him always on the lookout for a third way beyond the polarizing differences fueled by domination.

I hasten to add that to follow this nonviolent third way of Jesus is not only costly. It’s impossible. Our determined will-power to be like Jesus is futile. To follow this alternative way is to be driven to prayer. Only with God’s power as Abba, Spirit and Christ within us can we approximate this Love.

The re-frame is Wink’s gift. He deepened my awareness of the radical good news of Jesus. Against the backdrop of the myth of redemptive violence — the favored secular religion of our time — Jesus could not be more relevant. The church, if willing to offer and embody this radical option of Jesus, could not be in a better position. Without soft-pedaling the cost of those who choose this Way — after all, to love is to suffer with and for — Wink writes of the joy of participating in nonviolent behavior that is history’s only alternative to non-existence. The spiral of redemptive violence spawned within Domination Systems, unless checked, will lead to the non-existence of life as we know it. The Jesus vision is not only relevant, it is urgent.

* * *

And Wink’s understanding influenced my way of leading as a pastor. I have already mentioned one example in another re-frame on the “angel” of a congregation. But, beyond that insight, Wink challenged me to see leadership through the lens of redemptive nonviolence. I mention a few examples.

At a point in my ministry I was planning to change a staff configuration. I wanted a part-time person to become full time and in the process change her focus. Time was short to make this change. I mentioned this hope of mine to a supportive member of the congregation. Matt, let’s call him, immediately became invested in helping me create a strategy for achieving my goal. With a spark in his eyes, he said, “Mahan, let’s figure out your allies. Then let’s name your opposition.” Before I knew it, I was swept up into a strategy to overtake the opposition and win what I wanted. But, thankfully, I woke up, seeing it as a violent plan of action. The more collaborative process, a bit long and messy, yielded a conclusion opposed to my original goal. It became a gentle reminder that this congregation belonged to them, not to me. After all, we are “interim” pastors, privileged to be present only for a season.

Another example of Wink’s wisdom impacting my leadership occurred during a denominational crisis. For reasons I need not elaborate, I became a point person to be attacked in the effort of one faction of our denomination to overpower another faction. I was the enemy. In their mind I must be eliminated. Devious strategies were implemented to discredit me — taping my talks without permission, quoting me out of context, mounting a campaign to fire me as an adjunct professor and “dis-fellowship” our congregation from the denomination on local, state and national levels. They were successful on all points.

I happened to be reading Wink during those years. He gave me a way to see what was happening. These leaders, within my family of faith, saw me as a threat to their vision of our denomination. They were trying to save, to redeem what they feared was being undermined. They were working for redemption. The end — saving the denomination — justified any violent means. I, and those like me, were a cancer to the body that must be destroyed. That’s the conventional approach to cancer.

This knowing didn’t produce any joy but it did help me understand. In understanding I could carry it all more lightly as a season of conflict that would eventually pass. Wink also challenged me to look for active, nonviolent ways of responding. Sometimes I found them, sometimes I didn’t.

At every point in our leadership amid conflict these Wink glasses are there to be picked up. These lenses will bring into focus the power dynamics at work in all relationships. And with such awareness come options.

* * *

The strongest payoff from reading Wink’s Engaging the Powers is in the relationship with myself. And, not only does Wink speak about this inner work, he, with considerable vulnerability, takes us into his own violence against himself. The myth of redemptive violence, so pervasive in our culture, is internalized in all of us. It’s the log in our own eye that keeps us from seeing, not just any splinter in another person’s eye, but hinders our seeing the violence we do to ourselves. Living nonviolently is largely an inside job. This is the place to start — our internal violence.

Just listen to the voices in your head. Your inner voices might be similar to mine. I hear the voice, “You’re not enough. That sermon or idea or pastoral response was not good enough. You can do better. Try harder. Do more. Work harder.” This voice blesses excessive over-functioning that never counts the cost of physical, emotional and spiritual exhaustion that eventually sets in.

Another voice is full of fear. “I fear exposure. I fear being caught in my inadequacy. I fear failure. So, play it safe, don’t risk, hold back.” Another voice is anger. “Who can I blame? Who is at fault? Not me. Who needs to change for me to feel better?”

You know your own self-talk. You also have turned to various modalities that help in understanding these inner parts of yourself. But this insight from Wink might be new to you as it was for me. These self-judgments, he is saying, are a form of redemptive violence internalized. This means that these violent, inner voices are for, not against us. They are attempts to help us, save us, redeem us. They are loud in their desire to assist us in reaching our goals.

Yet these violent messages against ourselves, while attempting to be redemptive, are destructive. Violence is violence. What is true externally is true internally. Violence breeds violence.

Yet, like the Lone Ranger, I want to see myself as right, on the righteous side of conflict. How uncomfortable it is to say, “I am violent to myself. I can be an enemy of myself.” And we all know what happens next. To maintain the illusion of being right we must project our uncomfortable feelings of fear, guilt, shame and anger onto the face of some “other.” We must keep evil and wrong “out there.” The Lone Ranger, as you may recall, had no sense of inner contradiction or evil. For him the enemy was external and must be overcome. Remember, he’s the “masked” man.

I’m challenged by Wink’s conviction that the practice of loving your enemy is the acid test of discipleship in our time. He keeps lifting up the central place of nonviolence and love of enemies in Jesus’ teaching, life and death.

But I am more challenged by the practice of loving the enemy within. According to Wink it means allowing God’s love to engage these voices of “not enough,” fear, shame, anger and self-despising. It means loving yourself with God’s power to heal and transform. Indeed, God’s assurance of grace is the very strength needed to engage these inner, potent, self-judgmental voices. If John the Baptist declared, “Repent and be forgiven,” Jesus declared, “Be forgiven and repent.” God’s forgiveness comes first. It is security of God’s nonviolent, unconditional love that grants us the courage to face the ways we are violent to ourselves. Internally, as well as in external relationships, it is only this force of nonviolent love that truly saves and redeems.

Strange as it might read, the enemy, both internally and externally, turns out to be a gift. The enemy, both within and beyond, reveals what we would not otherwise see. These opposing powers smoke us out and compel us to acknowledge what is being denied, hidden and projected. Only then do the resources of confession and forgiveness make sense. Our inner violence can propel us toward God. This vulnerability of seeing the ways we violate ourselves is a doorway into freedom and grace.

These words of Thomas Merton to his friend Jim Forest stopped me in my tracks with conviction when I first read them.

 “The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form of contemporary violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activity neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

Wink’s concept of facing and then loving the enemy within puts in perspective Merton’s confrontation. It’s the inner work that makes the outer work of nonviolent shalom-oriented ministry possible.

I hope you can feel my gratitude for this New Testament scholar who wrote for church leaders like us. He focused my lens, making clearer the urgent relevance of Jesus by showing his embodiment of nonviolence within a violent world. This changed my teaching, preaching and pastoral leadership — a re-frame that mattered.


Contemplative Practice: A Re-frame That Mattered

January 8, 2018

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs . . . that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation . . . And if only everybody could realize this!” Trappist monk, Thomas Merton

This re-frame on practice is a sequel to the former re-frame — from formation to trans-formation.

It’s one thing to understand the movement from egoic identity as the small self to our deeper identity as beloved, as loved and loving. It’s another thing to feel and live from that identity. It’s the difference of living for God and living from God. It’s the difference from believing in Jesus the Christ living in us. It’s the difference from thinking about transformation and participating in transformation. The challenge is engaging in practices that strengthen our identity as being in Love until living from this Love becomes increasingly habitual.

Some form of regular contemplative practice is non-negotiable. Granted, this is a forceful, impetuous statement to make. But this is why I make it. You are offering pastoral leadership within an atmosphere of chronic anxiety to an extent not true when I began being a pastor in 1967. The culture, both inside and outside the church, is marked by increasing levels of binary thinking, herding into camps, blaming, reactivity, distrust, willfulness, and eagerness for quick fixes. That is the air you and I are breathing. This is the air your members are breathing. In order to lead in such a climate, you must find a way to be in this environment but not of it. You must find a way to get back to center. The way I will be putting forward is contemplative practices that root and ground you at your core as beloved, Love.

Let’s allow Thomas Merton to help us see how these two — understanding transformation and embodying transformation — go together. In the former re-frame I quoted Merton’s description of our primary identity.

“To say we are made in the image of God is to say that Love is the reason for my existence. Being Love is my true identity.”

Now consider with me the words of Merton in the heading of this re-frame. In this description we see the fruition of Merton’s years of contemplative practicing. For decades he experienced regular monastic practices that enhanced his living from his identity as being Love. On March 18, 1958 in a Louisville shopping center his vision of loving these strangers surprises him. He experiences the sudden awareness of being vitally connected to all these people, so much so that he speaks of it as love — “I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs.” This experience, he further notes, was “like waking up from a dream of separateness.” In his sudden clarity Merton sees, feels and describes the contours of personal transformation. Merton ends with a plea: “If only everybody could realize this!” You and I are the ones he is addressing. You and I are “everybody” who can realize this radical shift in seeing.

But just reading this passage and realizing its insight are not by themselves transformative. Thinking, teaching and preaching transformation, while pointing us in the right direction, do not change our behavior. We cannot think our way into a new way of seeing and being. Only practice takes us there. It’s not unlike the challenge of learning to play tennis or the piano. While some understanding is required, we know that playing either tennis or piano is dependent on intentional, regular practice until new habits become internalized with ascending levels of proficiency.

For me, this re-frame — contemplative practicing — began to form amid a stormy, turbulent controversy in my ministry in 1992. “We have backed into a whirlwind,” I heard myself saying. During a five-month window of time members were excited; members were exiting. Members were moving closer toward the center; members were moving away from the center. Daily on the phone, in letters, even in the local paper people were voicing, “Yes! Thumbs up!” while others declared, “No! Thumbs down!”  Telephone calls to the church office ranged from “Pass on my support” to “Pass on my disbelief, disdain, disagreement!” The church was either splintering or splitting. I did not know which at the time.

How could I remain reasonably centered and grounded within this highly anxious and reactive climate? That was the question. I turned to familiar practices, my “go-to” scriptural treasures: Psalm 139; Isaiah 40, in particular the “walking and not fainting”; the “Jesus with you” promises; Paul’s “nothing, no-thing, now or later can separate us from the love of God” and his “putting on the whole armor of God” when up against systemic forces. There were other dependable “watering holes” — favorite writers, favorite music, favorite friends, favorite trails to walk.

During that troubled time a gift came “out of the blue” in the mail. It was from a Sunday School teacher that I knew during university days who read about our controversy in his local Nashville newspaper. This gift, a book, opened up for me a whole new way of praying that became over time a re-frame that mattered. But for the moment let’s set aside the story of this gift. I’ll return to it.

First, some context. The tradition of spirituality has distinguished two types of spiritual practice: kataphatic and apophatic. Kataphatic practices call on familiar faculties — reason, memory, imagination, feelings, and will. These practices feature words: reading words, interpreting words, singing words, and praying with words. These practices under-gird the usual ways of our worship and devotional life. During my congregational crisis, I turned to these familiar resources and they did indeed strengthen my determination to keep going.

However, the gift from my Nashville friend introduced me to the other tradition of spiritual practicing — the apophatic way — the way of letting-go, self-emptying, the vianegativa. The gift was the book Open Mind, Open Heart by Father Thomas Keating. John, a former Sunday School teacher whom I had not seen for over forty years, added this inscription on the inside title page: “Mahan, I thought this may be useful during stressful days.” And it was, so much so that it opened an additional practice of praying that I began in 1992 and continue to the present. This book introduced to me a form of contemplation or meditation that Keating calls Centering Prayer.

This apophatic way of praying does not depend on kataphatic faculties. Rather, it bypasses our capacities for reason, imagination, emotion, and memory. It’s as if this spiritual practice puts a stick in the spokes of our inner wheels of incessant thinking.

Centering Prayer, like other meditation practices, does not resist or reject the busy mind of our interior life. Rather, the person meditating acknowledges these thoughts and feelings as they inevitably rise to the surface, then gently lets them pass, returning to one’s center as loved, beloved, Love — over and over again.

This practice is easy to explain; it’s profoundly difficult to do. I assume you have tried some form of meditation. You know the constant flow of anxious thoughts and reactive feelings, what Buddhists name the “monkey mind.” Thoughts and reactions, like monkeys, keep jumping freely “from tree to tree” in our minds.

This is the gift from this method of praying: these busy thoughts need not take captive our attention, kidnap our calm center, or subvert our “being rooted and grounded in Love.” The repeated letting go and relaxing into a grace-full center — over time — will strengthen an inner muscle of dis-identifying from mental and emotional attachments. And as the neuroscientists verify in research, this practice creates new neuronal pathways in the brain. Continuing practice re-wires these new connections that become increasingly habitual.

I invite you to stop for a moment. Take one of your hands, tighten it around a pencil or pen, grasping it as firmly as possible. Then, release your grip, opening your hand fully. Feel the freedom from the tension. Similarly, we grasp thoughts, then they grasp us, taking us away from the present moment. Meditative practice frees us, or at least loosens us a bit from our grasping, opening us more fully to the “open hand” receptivity to the gift of the moment.

Thomas Keating tells the story of a nun who was being trained in this method of praying. After trying for twenty minutes, she lamented, “Oh, Father Keating, I’m such a failure at this prayer. In twenty minutes, I’ve had ten thousand thoughts.” His quick response: “How lovely! Ten thousand opportunities to return to God.” This story makes the point: returning to our core identity as beloved even ten thousand times speaks to our willingness and desire to transcend our busy mind. The nun, we could say, was experiencing a vigorous aerobic workout of her muscle of surrender.

I’m hoping that now you can see why this gift of Centering Prayer in 1992 was so timely. What I most needed was not more thinking, more words, more reflection, more fortification of my will. What I most needed was release from my busy thoughts and fear-full anxiety on the way to becoming more and more anchored in a non-anxious center. At first, the practice would take me only two or three feet beneath the turbulent surface waters. Not far, but far enough to taste its promise of a deeper, calmer center in the midst of the swirling anxieties around me and within me. These years later making this shift may be slightly easier. But I am still a beginner, more often than not catching myself attached to obsessive thinking, analyzing, judging, fearing, and fixing.

I am not discounting our thinking mind. This is not an either/or proposition. The thinking mind differentiates. Cynthia Bourgeault sees it as our operating system programmed into us. This operating system allows us to distinguish, judge, analyze, and see the binaries — good/bad, up/down, in/out, etc. Contemplative practices bypass the busy, analytical mind and go straight to the heart. From our heart we see and feel loving connections, cooperation, collaboration, and community. The heart sees relationship, not separation. Obviously both are needed: the mind and heart. It’s the marriage of mind and heart that makes us whole.

The contemplative practice of Centering Prayer happens to be my choice of meditation. You may have made another choice. We live in a time when there are multiple options of sitting and walking meditations. They all, it seems to me, facilitate the release of our over-identifying with thoughts and reactions, allowing us to fall again and again into our inner, core identity as Love. The practice, whatever form you choose, keeps carving out and deepening your capacity to live in a state of love, gratitude and creativity.

The hardest part is making the time to do it.

In this re-frame I am highlighting the place of practicing the movement that I conceptualized in the previous re-frame, From Formation to Transformation.  Both re-frames, this one and the last one, are to be held together — mind and heart, understanding transformation and experiencing transformation.

You and I are fortunate to be offering pastoral leadership in a historical period when our Christian contemplative tradition is being recovered. Some say that this re-discovery began with Thomas Merton, upon whom I have leaned in these initial re-frames. Both this heritage and current neuroscientists are telling us: we become what we practice. It’s a re-frame that matters.


From Formation to Transformation: A Re-frame That Mattered

October 30, 2017

Religion has always performed two very important, but very different, functions. One, it acts as a way of creating meaning for the separate self; two, religion has also served radical transformation . . . a transcending of the separate self . . . not a matter of belief but of the death of the believer. — Ken Wilber

I submit this as the key possibility of our lives: the shift, again and again, from our primary identity as separate self (small self) to our essential identity as beloved of God. This key unlocks the capacity to participate in God’s love that connects all that lives, a relating and reconciling compassion most visible in Jesus. This transcending of the separate self, while including the separate self, is the personal transformation at the heart of the Gospel that has gripped you and me for life.

Ken Wilber is a current philosopher, wisdom teacher and mystic who I began reading in 1992. I value his distinction between two important functions of religion noted in the heading of this reflection. I’m translating his insight for our purposes. I’m assuming that most congregants look to their Christian experience for meaning and purpose. They find in church a resource for coping with the challenges, often overwhelming, that come at them week after week. I call this “formation.” They expect from worship, community, and learning events sustenance for forming a strong sense of self as self-understanding and for courage, moral guidance and motivation for living.

Some congregants, likely a minority, long for more. For them the ideal of a strong separate self breaks at some point along the way. This break may be sudden or a gradual yearning for more. For whatever reason the person is cracked open for the possibility of trans-formation, that is, the transcending of separate, egoic self however well formed it may be. It’s waking up from the dream of separateness and discovering ourselves to be vitally connected with all that lives. This felt communion with God, other humans and all creation, once realized, will no longer let us rest in the illusion of being separate persons. The egoic self dies as the center of our lives through repeated practices of surrendering, self-emptying, self-giving. It’s what Wilber calls “the death of the believer.” This radical transformation, so foundational to our vocation, is the topic of this re-frame.

Both my personal faith and professional vocation began with finding a meaningful purpose for living — the first of the religious functions named by Wilber. This life-altering pivot in my life happened during university years. I’m indebted to some older students for pointing me in a new direction. Simply, conversations with these seekers opened a curiosity about Jesus. His radical vision grasped me. His “follow me” felt simple, direct, demanding, mysterious, adventurous and total.

At the time I was well along the path of fulfilling a family script for my life. Being the only son, it was assumed by everyone, including me, that I would “go into the family business.” It looked that way—first, working in the warehouse, then later as a salesperson and finally the dutiful “major” in business administration. The further I traveled down this expected path the less it seemed like me. It was not a path with heart. It was not a path with my heart.

I was ready. I was restless, yearning for a new way forward. The word was “purpose.” Just maybe, I thought, I had found a purpose that’s much larger, more challenging and exciting than the one scripted for me. Within months a fire was laid, then lit, that ignited a desire for learning that astounded anyone who knew me. Staying up late to study, until 11:00 and 12:00, even 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning was unprecedented. This fired-up interest soon took me to the seminary with no clarity at that point about vocation. It was enough at that time for the seminary to provide a container, community and Table where food was served to satisfy my hunger. In time, as described in the introduction, the pull to become a pastor took hold and I spent the next seven years becoming formed in our vocation.

When I was graduated I felt well formed in pastoral knowledge and skills. To a comfortable degree I had digested understanding of scripture, church history, pastoral care and congregational leadership. I enjoyed some practice-runs as pastor in a few small congregations. As I moved to more demanding challenges my work as pastoral leader continued to be purposeful, full of meaning. Each morning I would leave my bed excited about the day. In Richard Rohr’s words (with depth psychologist Carl Jung whispering in his ears), I was completing the work of the “first half of life.” I felt established in the role. I felt confident. I had formed a strong sense of self to offer to the world. That worked well until it didn’t work well.

This formation was not enough. I was not enough. My developed self was not enough. Likely a deeper, older, more primal sense of not being enough erupted through the surface of my everyday living. Regardless of its origin my work began to exhaust the love that gave birth to it. The struggle of institutional leadership nibbled at the meaning I had previously found so purposeful. “Burn-out” and “compassion fatigue” are clever labels that gloss over the desperation and humiliation beneath them. With growing dismay, plus the needs of our young family, I resigned. I left the role, finding another ministry for ten years, only to return fifteen years later to serve a congregation until my retirement. The return felt like a second marriage, a second attempt, a new chance to be what I most loved—a pastor.

During that in-between decade a re-frame began to emerge. I saw the contours of a movement from formation to transformation. I began exploring the second function of religion that Ken Wilber describes — “radical transformation . . . the transcending of the separate self . . . not a matter of belief but the death of the believer.”

It became clearer to me that personal transformation was at the core message of the New Testament. The awareness was gradual like a photo print revealing itself in a darkroom. From Jesus: lose your life to find it; take up your cross and follow (Luke 17:33, Matthew 16:25); a grain of wheat falling into the ground, dying, husks broken open, yielding a rich harvest (John 12:24); not my will but Thine be done (Mark 14:36); love as I have loved you (John 13:34). And from Paul the same themes of transformation—in baptism a dying to rise in newness of life (Romans 5:3-4); not I, but Christ the one living in me (Galatians 2:20); being transformed by degrees into the likeness of Christ (II Corinthians 3:18); taking on the mind or consciousness of Christ as kenosis, a self-emptying, non-clinging, self-giving love no matter what (Philippians 2:4-11).

Perhaps a clever parable can scrape away the glaze from these overly familiar passages and reveal just how breathtaking this change really is. This parable devised by Maurice Nicoll in the 1950’s has been then revised by Jacob Needleman, next by Cynthia Bourgeault in Wisdom Way of Knowing, and now slightly by me.

Once upon a time, in a not-so-faraway land, there was a kingdom of acorns, nestled at the foot of a grand old oak tree. Since the citizens of this kingdom were modern, fully Westernized acorns, they went about their business with purposeful energy. They were busy developing their human potential, taking advantage of books and conferences that enhanced self-actualization. There were seminars called “Getting All You Can out of Your Shell.” There were wounded-ness and recovery groups for acorns who had been bruised in their original fall from the tree. There were spas for oiling and polishing those shells and various acornopathic therapies to enhance longevity and well-being.

One day in the midst of this kingdom there suddenly appeared a knotty little stranger, apparently dropped “out of the sky” by a passing bird. He was capless and dirty, making an immediate negative impression on his fellow acorns. And crouched beneath the oak tree, he stammered out a wild tale. Pointing upward toward the tree, he said, “We . . . are . . . that!”

Delusional thinking, obviously, the other acorns concluded, but one of them continued to engage him in conversation: “So tell us, how would we become that tree?” “Well,” said he, pointing downward, “it has something to do with going into the ground . . . and cracking open the shell.”

“Insane,” they responded. “Totally morbid! Why, then we wouldn’t be acorns any more.”

This we know about acorns. They are seeds. Their nature and destiny are to become oak trees. Acorns, to be true to what they are, must fall into the ground and die as acorns, allowing their shells to be cracked open, thus taking into themselves the nourishment of soil, water and sun. In time they become oak trees.

Let’s place this parable alongside of Jesus’ words and note the parallel: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single grain, but if it dies, it shall yield a rich harvest.” (John 12: 24)

Could this be true? Are we made for a transformation as amazing as the acorn becoming an oak tree or a grain becoming wheat or losing one self for a fuller, more authentic one? Is that magnificent possibility coiled within us? Is there an identity in us that is beyond a strong, polished personality (acorn)? The gospel narrative says “yes,” a resounding “yes!”

Martin Laird offers two metaphors of transcending this separate self while including our egoic self. A sponge in the ocean, like the egoic self, is immersed in the transcendent water that flows through it. Or, our core identity is like a mountain that we picture as being centered, firm while witnessing the unruly weather of thoughts, feelings, reactions that come and go. “We are the mountain, not the weather,” Laird imagines.

This core, transformed identity goes by a variety of names that include Beloved, Spirit, Kingdom or Realm of God within, child of God, Christ-ness, Christlikeness, Christ living in us, True Self, or image of God.

In Thomas Merton’s conciseness:

“To say we are made in the image of God is to say that Love is the reason for my existence. Being Love is my true identity.”

This means falling into divine Love. Falling in love, we know from experience, changes our consciousness. It changes everything. This love is joyful but also unsettling. You never know where it will take you. The cost is your ego as your center. Transformation is waking up to and falling into this reality, a gift already given but seldom recognized. This awareness is a secure starting point, a different foundation from which we can interrogate and change the lies we tell ourselves about earning our worth. From this deeper center we find both the freedom to let go of binding attachments and the freedom to risk extravagant self-giving.

This transformation occurs always in relationship. Love is a relational word. A focus on the individual alone simply mirrors our cultural flaw of individualism—the illusion that you and I are separate individuals. Reality is relational. We are part of an interconnected web, an “entangled universe,” as quantum physicists name it. We live and move within mutual relationships with God, with nature and one another. Only within caring relationships can we differentiate as unique individual persons who in turn can offer their unique ways of giving. Relationships provide the context for transformation. To be is to be with.

This shift to our primary identity changes the way we carry ourselves in the world. A few examples:

You have a ministry but you are not primarily your ministry. At the core you are beloved, Love.

You have a personality but you are not primarily your personality. At the core you are beloved, Love.

You have weaknesses and failures but you are not primarily your weaknesses and failures. At the core you are beloved, Love.

You have racism (and other “isms”) as a wound to be healed, but you are not primarily a racist. At the core you are beloved, Love.

You have successful achievements but you are not primarily your accomplishments. At the core you are beloved, Love.

Let’s take my racism as an illustration. If my identity is primarily Mahan (my ego, personality, gifts/abilities, etc.) and you call me a racist, I’m defensive, unable to hear the full truth. But if I am grounded in my God-given identity as Beloved then I am freer to acknowledge the truth of my racism. From that inner grace-full place I am more able to admit my white privilege and work to minimize its destructive force in relationships.

The same goes with other obstacles. To be rooted and grounded in Love (our True Self) is to be freer to work on changes in our personal selves. This core identity gives us leverage, a place to stand while participating fully in God’s transforming energy, both within us and within the world.

This movement—from formation to transformation—is the overarching re-frame that has mattered. The next re-frame addresses the critical place of practice in our inner, personal transformation. Then a third re-frame unveils our work, pastoral leadership, as the prime context for our own transformation. These three re-frames provide the foundation for all the other re-frames.

 


Pulling Back the Veil: A Re-Frame That Mattered

October 20, 2015

This may be the most crucial re-frame of all—pulling back the veil on reality as relational, as deeply, totally relational. It’s shifting from seeing “separate” to seeing “connection,” from seeing parts to seeing whole, from seeing “either/or” to “both/and.” And it’s not just seeing. It’s an embodied awareness that changes everything.

And this re-frame is more like re-framing again and again. In other words, the veil doesn’t stay parted. Most of the time the veil remains, but occasionally it parts for us to see anew this larger reality.

I remember when I first consciously pulled back this veil. I was director of a growing Department of Pastoral Care at the time, around 1976. We were expanding our home base—Clinical Pastoral Education and Pastoral Counseling at N.C. Hospital/ Bowman-Gray Medical Center in Winston-Salem—to other cities in the state, namely, Fayetteville, Raleigh, Morganton and Charlotte. Five separate ministry centers, in five separate cities, led by five separate staffs. As director of them all, they all looked very separate, but it didn’t feel that way, particularly when butting heads around the budget. In those moments we found ourselves in the same boat, interdependent, connected—like it or not. What affected one affected all. In those moments the veil was pulled back revealing a surprising truth: separation is an illusion; the School of Pastoral Care is one invisible web.

Soon Edwin Friedman came on the scene. Translating and interpreting for religious leaders the family systems theory of pioneer Maury Bowen, he helped me pull back this same veil. His book, From Generation to Generation, plus his lectures, opened my eyes to see and think systems. And as leader I was in the position of the “eyes,” overseeing the body of this interconnected, complex system. I found it to be a foreign language, learned only—as all languages are learned—by practice, practice, practice. I began to see our expanded pastoral care system as connected like rubber bands. When one ministry made significant changes, such as adding staff, then every center would feel being stretched to accommodate. Either these stretches would remain with new adjustments made or the other ministry centers would resist, like a strong rubber band, bringing the system back to its familiar pattern. Both, efforts to change and efforts to resist, now made sense, to be understood and valued. With the veil parted, the department became a web of relationships. What looked separate was, in fact, deeply interconnected, relational at its core.

But this is important to note. Relational systems’ seeing does not replace separation seeing. And it shouldn’t. In fact, it can’t. We grow up with a binary operating system installed in us. Either/or seeing and thinking are our first and necessary ways of making sense of the world. Soon in those first months we begin to distinguish between mom and dad, dog and cat, night and day, rain and sunshine, right and wrong, and most significantly, distinguishing me from you. We could not manage a day, even an hour, without binary, dualistic, differentiating thinking that enables us to see separate parts, separate choices, separate persons. But, like many of us, I was stuck in that worldview, in that way of viewing the world. That is, until the veil was parted and I could see beyond separation, polarities, and difference.

Albert Einstein captures this unveiling beautifully, succinctly:

A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

This is the veil that parts. Without it we are left in prison, “a kind of optical delusion of [separation] consciousness.” According to Einstein, pulling back the veil becomes a major “task” that frees us through widening our circles of compassion, embracing all living creatures and all of creation.

Isn’t that a description of our task—to keep widening our circles of compassion, crossing all boundaries that imprison us in our separate ways of thinking and behaving? Jesus didn’t say, love our neighbor as we love our separate self. He commanded us to love the neighbor as our self, as an extension of our self, a reflection of our self. Essentially, on the deepest level, there’s No Separation! You hear this truth in Paul’s phrase: “We are members one of another.” Not, we are separate peas in a pod. Rather, we actually spill over into each other, acknowledged or not. Or, the native-American prayerful awareness: “All my relations.” That’s the luminous web in which we live and move and have our being.

I can’t resist noting when this acknowledgment burst into Thomas Merton’s awareness. This parting of the veil was, for this Trappist monk, an aspect of his turn back toward the world:

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 those 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 in a special world . . . This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrow and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun . . . If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time.”

You know first-hand this experience. I’m assuming you have experienced moments of being profoundly connected to the “other,” including God, so much so, the lines of separation evaporate into “with-ness,” love, union, unitive awareness. The moments might be while preaching when losing yourself in Something larger/Spirit, or when seeing a third way beyond “fight or flight,” or experiencing the love in a group, another person, nature’s beauty that transcends the beginning sense of separation, or those times of being silenced with awe from living within the Mystery that love is, that life is, that beauty is, that forgiveness is, that this breath is. You know the experience. 

This pulling back the veil is more than an intellectual insight. It was for me at the beginning when challenged by Friedman to “think systemically.” It became more than a leadership tool. This truth moved down into the heart to a deeper kind of knowing that reality is essentially relational. Some name this awareness “unitive consciousness,” others of us prefer “Christ consciousness.” This awakening converts the seer, opening the way to see non-judgmentally the potential creativity in all relationships. The converted seer builds bridges, not boundaries.

We cannot think our way into this revelation of radical relatedness. We cannot make it happen. But we can keep opening ourselves to this re-framing by cultivating practices that invite and even anticipate this awareness.

Here is one, a simple one, a sample that can be practiced at a moment’s notice:

Stop, be still for a minute or two, allowing your breathing to carry this repetition:

  • I am profoundly connected with what is before me—a person(s) or thing. I am in relationship. I am in love, within love with what is before me. 
  • Repeat over and over and allow this truth to be felt throughout your body. And when the “monkey mind” with its agenda asserts itself, as it will, then simply and gently return to the breath with your prayerful awareness.
  • You have your own ways and practices that invite this “parting of the veil.” I hope you value the importance of intentional practicing and remain alert to “see” what happens.

This metaphor—pulling back the veil of separation—suggests a sudden and permanent change. In fact, this shift in consciousness is usually gradual, occasional, erratic . . . yet transforming. It’s another re-frame in my pastoral life that mattered. It matters still, increasingly so.