The Wager: A Re-Frame That Mattered

July 31, 2017

Religion is what people do with their wonder.  — Abraham Heschel

From my perch in aging, now a distant eighteen years from retirement, I am amazed. I am astounded by the wager we make. You and I have this in common: we have bet our lives on a reality we cannot measure or control or prove or name precisely. This reality, in the words of Rudolph Otto, is mysterium tremendum et fascinans: mystery that makes us tremble with awe, shakes us up, yet ever lures us forward with fascination. Furthermore, you and I wager that this mystery, most clear in Jesus of Nazareth, is a Love from which nothing in life or death, now or later can separate us. In other words, you wager that reality in its essence is relational, inter-connective, oneness, love-energy, shalom. And, as if that is not wonder enough, this gracious mystery wants to be incarnated or embodied in us.

So strong was this fascination that you staked your vocational life on this invisible Spirit that, like the wind, blows where it wills. Daily you gamble with what you have, your life energy. Daily you place your bet with the coins of your time — 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 hours a week; 20, 30 even for some 50, 60, 70 years of your life — declaring a wager that can look foolish in a world that distrusts what’s not explainable. You surrender. You doubt. You adore. You wonder. You stammer. You accept being “fingers pointing to the Moon” — so you point. You witness. This fact remains: Without the existence and our experience of this mysterious Spirit our vocation collapses into folly.

Will Campbell was a maverick Baptist in my time. Once I was in a group of pastors where Will was present. The conversation turned toward an “ain’t it awful” direction. Will, it seems, weary of the clergy complaining, proceeded to stop the bitching session in its tracks. “Well, as I see it,” speaking in his drawn out Southern drawl, “life is a horse race. And I’m bettin’ on Jesus.” While the mystery remains with multiple interpretations of Jesus, nevertheless you and I keep looking to Jesus as our way, our truth-full witness and our clue to abundant living. In short: you keep bettin’ on Jesus, so much so, you serve the church that called you to be his body in the world. Amazing. Absolutely amazing.

This re-frame, a full-of-mystery wager, stoked by radical amazement, surfaced with clarity for me against the backdrop of its opposite — my denomination’s ideological turn toward “certainty.” For this re-frame it’s important to understand this context. In the 1980s and 90’s a fundamentalist arm of Southern Baptists gradually, deliberately seized control by establishing doctrinal norms, the primary one being the infallibility of Scripture. Denominational agencies, including seminaries, were required to affirm a doctrinal statement of faith. This set of beliefs served as a knife that divided those “in” from those “out,” the faithful from unfaithful, truth from error. I felt the sharp edge of this knife, so much so, the congregation I served was cut from its denomination’s ties in 1992. I was also dismissed as an adjunct professor at a near-by seminary. I, and those like me, were deemed cancer to the body and must be cut out.

This was my learning: up close I saw the danger of religion that hardens its arteries in the form of set beliefs. Mystery is forfeited. Wonder is silenced. “Right” beliefs thrive on certainty, fueled by binary thinking with its either/or, right/wrong, in/out, true/false ways of seeing. And, this as well, belief systems require opposition to stay alive. Advocates for their own belief system enter the battle for “truth” with self-sacrificial allegiance.

During that fundamentalist takeover a gift dropped into my lap. In 1983 I was introduced to the life and thought of Rabbi Abraham Heschel through his book, Man Is Not Alone, loaned to me by a member of the congregation. That book and his other writings re-awakened in me what was being depreciated by my family of faith — the awesome wonder of faith, hope and love that had summoned me in the first place. We hear Heschel’s voice in these few quotes.

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement . . . get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

“The surest way to suppress our ability to understand the meaning of God and the importance of worship is to take things for granted. Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin. Wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of the religious man’s attitude toward history and nature.”

“Only one response can maintain us: gratefulness for witnessing the wonder, for the gift of our unearned right to serve, to adore, and to fulfill. It is gratefulness which makes the soul great.”

A personal story captures the heart of his witness. Heschel, from a long line of hasidic rabbis, spent most of his years as teacher and writer at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. When he was coming toward the end of his life his rabbi friend, Samuel Dresner, visits him. Dresner writes: “Heschel spoke slowly and with effort . . . ‘I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder. And You [Yahweh] gave it to me.’” Religion, as he noted, is what we do with that wonder.

In retirement I came across James P. Carse’s book, The Religious Case Against Belief. Carse illuminates some important nuances of wonder in his distinguishing three types of ignorance.

  • Ordinary ignorance is simply not knowing. We don’t know who will be the next President or who will win the World Series next year or when we will die.
  • Willful ignorance is choosing not to know. We may choose not to hear the news of a bad diagnosis or see the contradictions in Scripture or admit the verification of global warming. We can close our eyes or refuse to listen to what we don’t want to see or hear.
  • Higher ignorance, Carse suggests, is learned curiosity about what we don’t know. It’s the “wondering about” that fuels scientists, philosophers, and yes, theologians and preachers. This perspective invites us to lead with inquisitive questions, not answers. Only from “not knowing” can we reach for the understanding we don’t possess. Higher ignorance exchanges the certainty of right-believing for paradox, curiosity and mystery. The risks of faith, Carse insists, do not guarantee safe, conclusive conclusions. Rather, they assure the exhilaration of creativity and new learning.

With the witness of Heschel and Carse highlighting the wager we keep making, how then might this re-frame translate into ministry? I suggest two opposite postures. You can either lean in or step back.

Leaning in means leading from curious questions, admitting, even valuing the stance of not-knowing. In preaching you publicly, and with a playful curiosity, lean into the connection between the storied, biblical text and the storied life of congregants. In pastoral care you lean in with curious questions, probing with the parishioner into what new territory their crisis may be taking them. In committee meetings you lean in from a not-knowing position with curious questions that invite creative solutions. In pastoral conversations you lean in, asking open-ended queries, experiencing the wonder of where the vulnerable exchanges take you, the other, and your relationship. Or coming up close, very close to a flower, butterfly, weed or any one aspect of nature, you and I cannot help but marvel at its beauty and complexity.

Or, you can step back allowing the radical amazement of any situation to sink in. Have you ever stepped back from glancing through the church directory or from scanning the congregation on a Sunday morning and felt the wonder of it all — all these people choosing to volunteer their time, money, love energy in common cause, making church possible? Have you ever paused for even a moment in the pulpit with Bible before a congregation and pondered the miracle of this 2,000 year old narrative in your hand or the miracle of your worship space bequeathed by those not present? And if we step way, way back we can’t suppress the awe over being a very recent species, arriving the last 30 minutes if we imagine evolution as a 12-month calendar. Have you ever walked away from a family, whether profoundly grieving or celebrating, asking yourself, “How can people love so deeply and be loved so profoundly? Where does such capacity come from?” What mystery! What grace, what gift!

This practice you can do any time and from any place: stepping back, pausing, focusing and noticing the breath-taking gift of what or who is before you. Immediately you go to that place of wonder, radical amazement. You may even hear yourself saying, “This wonders me — this thing, this person, these persons wonder me!”

You and I are in the mystery business. We work with realities — love, life, faith, trust, community, grace, forgiveness, hope — that we cannot measure or prove or name with certainty. In the spirit of Rabbi Heschel, we could say, “I asked for wonder and God gave it to me in a vocation.”

But we cannot live and serve from wonder and mystery alone. We must risk words and Word becoming flesh, only to fall short every time. This is what we do. We wager. We wager on the mystery with our lives. We wonder at the mystery, yes, but also wager on its Truth. We lean into life with curiosity and occasionally step back in awe. Over time this posture became a new way of framing the complex ministry we offer.

 


Engaging Death as Practice: Two Re-Frames That Mattered

February 1, 2017

Let’s allow the word “practice” to entice us with its double meaning: a profession, as in the practice of medicine or psychotherapy; and practicing for learning, as in piano practice or spiritual practice. In both ways, I submit, pastors engage death as their practice.

We begin with the first meaning — pastor in a professional practice that specializes. If, let’s say, Alicia practices law and Alice, a therapist, practices psychotherapy, then Helen, a pastor, specializes in death and dying. Death and dying are her specialty, her practice.

With that point named I can hear the quick rebuttal, “Why, don’t you know, Mahan, that pastoral ministry is one of the last generalist professions?” I have made the same observation. It’s true that we are more general practitioners than specialists with broad competence expected in multiple roles: preaching, teaching, designing and directing rituals, leading and managing, caring and counseling, writing and speaking, and offering leadership in the wider church and community.

Nonetheless I want to make a case for engaging death as our specialty. The presence of death is always close by. If the shaman Don Juan challenges Carlos Castaneda to heed death’s wisdom as a companion just over the left shoulder, then for pastors the presence of death is more in front of our nose, not to be missed. Most people can keep at bay the reality of death, denying its inevitability most of the time, out of sight, out of mind. Not so with pastors.

For us death is present. While we scamper from appointment to appointment there is on the edge of our consciousness a member experiencing a profound loss — the loss of a loved one, job, health, marriage, home, hope, status, memory, or even a worldview crumbling from the weight of irrelevance. There’s so much diminishment in the air we breathe. Death stalks the halls of hospitals we regularly visit. In nursing homes you see its presence in the gaunt, vacant eyes you pass by, faces registering gratitude for the briefest recognition. In the homes of grieving members there’s unspeakable grief in memories noted and photographs exchanged, reminding everyone of what was but is no more. In every service of worship, whether funerals, weddings, or weekly gatherings, some are always there with moistened eyes, feeling the pain of a particular loss welling up from deep within. The security and privacy of a church sanctuary provides the sacred space for felt grief to surface. My point: for the pastor death is close, ever near.

I name as well the special role of pastoral presence throughout the dying and death journey of a parishioner: present during the dying whether extended or short term; present during the days around the death, including the preparation and leadership of corporate rituals; and present during the after-care of continued grieving. Other professionals — physicians, nurses, chaplains, funeral directors, financial planners, therapists — have their unique roles but the pastor is, or can be, the over-seer of this lengthy process. Pastors, given the constituency of the congregation they serve, will have many or few deaths of members in a given year. In my first congregation, a church of young families, I led about two or three funerals a year. In my last congregation, there were as many as fifteen funerals each year.

But regardless of the number of funerals, the death and dying that pastors confront far exceeds the circumstances surrounding physical deaths. Grieving is so much larger. If you were to stop reading for a moment, you could quickly recall recent conversations with parishioners about some loss they are experiencing. Most pastoral care is grief work in some manner. Death and dying, in its multiple forms, is our specialty. It’s our forte.

I will amplify one example of this larger dying, usually not understood as grief ministry. I began as pastor in the post-World War II era when progress, growth, and advancement seemed everyone’s potential. Economic growth and rising national prominence in the world were assumed. Larger Protestant denominations shared in this expectation of progress with numerical growth being the gauge of a successful ministry. With marketing savvy the church became another attractive commodity of choice. During my forty-two years as an ordained leader of the church I have experienced the gradual breakdown of this prominence, privilege, and exceptionalism. I have watched our churches move from main-line to side-line. And along with the loss of external status has come for many the internal loss of meaningful beliefs and church programs that no longer nurture them. These losses are also deaths that demand pastoral attention. As I presented in another reflection on a re-frame that mattered, in our time most pastors are hospice chaplains caring for the dying in its many forms and mid-wives assisting in the birthing of the new.

I rest my case. Death and dying define a specialty practice. And this practice must be done with effectiveness. Like no other pastoral function, the skilled care offered around losses will either deepen or distance the relationship between pastor and people. Faithfulness in this specialty is not forgotten; unfaithfulness is not forgiven. No one told me this during my formation years, or if it was said, I wasn’t listening. I learned it on the job, an awareness that became a re-frame that mattered.

. . .

The second re-frame is more personal. As I turned into my fifties, entering my last decade or so of being pastor, another shift occurred. As a pastor being so often near death experiences they began to be for me my near-death experiences. As I allowed it, I could hear each one whisper, “You too will die! So will your loved ones and friends. So will your vocation. So will your energy, health and mobility. It’s only a matter of time.” I’m reminded of what I have been told about monks whispering to each other, memento more (remember death).

This may sound bleak, if not morbid; for sure it’s sobering. Note my disclaimer, “if I allowed it.” Most of the time I didn’t allow this awareness to linger, but when I did — and when you do — it can be paradoxically life-giving. You know this truth: to survive a near-death experience enhances the preciousness of life. You have watched this miracle in others. In every religious tradition it’s a practice: contemplating intentionally your death that in turn ignites the joy in the gift of being alive, breathing in, breathing out. Could it be that this is one of the fringe benefits of our work — the consistent near-death reminders of our dying?

The weighty theological word “eschatology” (acknowledging the “end times”) can help us. Let’s pull it off the shelf, dust if off and seize its life-giving benefits. What if we lived with the end in sight? For instance, imagine yourself at the end of your pastoral leadership with your current congregation — let’s say, three or five or ten years in the future. With that ending or death before you, ask what does this congregation most need from me (or not need) and what do I want to give (or not give) during this time?

When I turned sixty I imagined myself serving my congregation a few more years until retirement. I asked these questions: what was most needed from me, and what gifts would I enjoy giving before resigning. It turned out that these were my most enjoyable years, no doubt in part because my eschatology brought clarity.

Now at my current age of eighty-two my sense of eschatology still asks the same questions: what is most needed that matches the gifts I have to offer. What’s clearer?

. . .

My last illustration is the challenge of living with our end in sight, namely, our ending, our dying. What’s the picture? Likely you see yourself, as I do, in a bed at home or in a hospital. Though research tells us that most of us will not be conscious let’s assume we are conscious, very present, feeling only moderate pain. I’m guessing that you and I have a similar fantasy: loved ones around the bed amid blessing, tears, and laughter. At this moment, this truth crystallizes: love is what really matters — profoundly painful in its absence, deeply joyful in its presence.

No wonder, in light of our many near-death experiences, you and I offer at every funeral some form of “love is what really matters.” We express in some way how our taste of love is a part of a larger divine Love that never ends and from which nothing in life and death, now or later, can separate us. Maybe it’s easier for us, having journeyed with others so often through “the valley of death,” to hear and even heed on occasion the summons to live from that part of us — Love — that never dies.

So I say, why not maximize the vocational advantage given to us — regularly engaging, as practice, the mystery of death and dying, including our own. I do not minimize the truth that as pastors we are generalists fulfilling a broad range of expectations. But I’m proposing a correction. We are generalists with a specialty. Death is our practice: as a unique role of care to the dying and death of congregants, and as a spiritual practice of personal transformation. These are twin re-frames that mattered.