Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

July 8, 2013

Who am I? . . . a question, like a sinker on a fishing line, that takes you down, down into your depths. For Jacob, in front of a mirror, asking the question over and over again transformed his life.

Here is the story. Jacob gave me permission to share his story as long as I used his real name. He wants to claim it. Jacob is an inmate at Marion maximum-security prison and a member of our weekly writing group. As facilitator, my plan on this particular day was to reflect on transformation stories of other famous prisoners, e.g. Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, and my favorite, Victor Frankl. But before I knew it, our writing circle of five began to tell their own stories of radical change.

Jacob shared his. This is the setting: Jacob in “solitary” for thirty-four months with an hour a day for exercise and shower. A toilette in the corner, bare bed along one side, wash basin in the other corner . . . and a metal mirror secured to the wall. “Yes,” I thought, “mirror, mirror on the wall!”

For two years anger keeps him alive. He spends his little bit of freedom on outbursts of defiance, spewing abusive language with accompanying obscene behavior. “What happened at the two year mark?” I ask.

“It was that damn mirror on wall that got me,” he says. “It was ever-present, always there, as if staring me down. No where to hide. Over and over and over again, it keeps asking: “Who are you?” “Who are you?” “Who are you?”

Over time something happens. He calls it a miracle. I call it grace. Somehow through his mirrored encounters he begins to answer the question on deeper and deeper levels. From identifying himself primary as a criminal, as a angry person, as a complete failure at twenty-seven, he begins, with the help of his new Rastafarian faith, to identify himself as African. (His father, whom he never knew, was from Ghana.) He goes deeper still with the question — who am I really — beginning to glimpse himself as a cherished child of God. In telling the story he keeps repeating the words, “identity” and “home.” There is such mystery to his story, no clear step-by-step path to this deeper place. But no doubt about it — his presence, his spirit, his smile gives evidence of this profound change.

Since that day I have been pondering two questions.

First, why Jacob? There are many, many other inmates experiencing solitary confinement. And they, each one, have mirrors fastened to the wall. What was it about Jacob that led him to see in the mirror these deeper and deeper responses to “who are you?” Why do some — including us all — “get” grace, or better, realize “being graced,” but most people don’t? And why is it so counter-intuitive for any of us to sustain the awareness that our worth as pure gift, not our achievement? For me, there remains such mystery about how, with whom and how long inner transformation happens.

My second question is this. What if I took, as a spiritual exercise, looking in the mirror asking repeatedly “who are you?” Currently I only glance into the mirror, long enough to part my hair, wash my face and brush my teeth. I don’t like reminders of my aging. Now, because of Jacob, I am experimenting with lingering long enough to ask, “Who are you? Whom will you be today? From what identity will you live this day?”

Thanks, Jacob.


For Those Who See . . . or Want to See

July 13, 2011

This provocative metaphor, “getting to the balcony,” I carry around with me, and suggest you do as well. It is a way of naming the leader’s challenge to balance immediate action (the dance floor) with a larger/deeper perspective (the balcony).

A congregation, our any system, looks like the activity on a dance floor. Some members are into “line” dancing, other dancing in twos, or even solo. Everyone is attempting, sometimes successfully, to follow the music. Some sit along the sidelines, contented or discontented observers.

And as leader, you move in and out of these dances, frequently uncertain of next steps. Sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow. Regardless, you are expected to stay focussed on immediate action: deadlines to meet; phones calls, text messages, e-mails to answer; visits to make; always another task to complete. I’m guessing that you feel on your own to “get to the balcony,” where you can see the “big picture,” noticing patterns, observing discordance, detecting direction, gaining perspective, looking for the Spirit’s movement toward mercy and justice—in other words, the work of discerning.

This is more than seeing the larger sense of your congregation. In our day, with commentators of our times saying we are experiencing major paradigm shifts, we are left asking, “Where is the Spirit moving within the Western church . . . within religions . . . within humanity , . . within creation?” You and I have assumptions that profoundly influence our active leadership. But how clear and conscious are they?

This summer I am savoring a recent biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, by Eric Metaxas.

I’m curious, what made it possible for him to see so early the demonic thread of anti-Semitism, so skillfully understated, in early Nazism? What enabled him to perceive so clearly the existential choice before the German church—either Hitler or Christ? No one seemed to see so perceptively as Bonhoeffer.

What were the “balconies” from which Bonhoeffer gained such prophetic perspectives? These are the balcony places in his life that stand out to me: his regular, daily practice of meditating on Scripture, asking, “What is God saying to me and the church? To what is God calling me?”; his ongoing reflections on “the signs of the time,” usually in dialogue with close friends (sometimes in retreat settings); his love of solitude, prayer and music; his preparations for teaching and especially preaching; and his international and ecumenical relationships which gave him the distance and perspective that other German pastors did not have. All of these were disciplined occasions for him to drop back from the disorienting chaos of his environment and the constant press for immediate action. From these places he seemed able to see beyond the moment, beyond his fear, beyond the German church, and beyond even Germany. Paradoxically, his imprisonment while awaiting execution (which was intended to neutralize Bonhoeffer) became the final “balcony” from which he could see the post-war re-shaping of the Christian witness. We are still unpacking his words from the prison at Tegel.

Take with you the example of Bonhoeffer and the provoking questions, “What helps you see? What balconies are places from which you attempt to discern the movment of Spirit in your life, congregation, and larger church and world?

Having those balcony places located, and regularly visiting them, just may be the most important discipline of your pastoral leadership. And, likely, this practice will be the least supported, rewarded, and understood by others. It’s up to you.

I always value your responses.

[The metaphor, “getting to the balcony,” comes from Ronald Heifetz in his books, Leadership on the Line and The Practice of Adaptive Leadership]

Leading in the In-between Time

January 4, 2010

“I feel both like a hospice chaplain and mid-wife.”

The pastor was responding to my question: “Your current ministry feels like, looks like a . . . . . what?” His answer resonated with our small group of clergy, so much so, we began to unpack his metaphors. Let’s continue the conversation.

Being a hospice chaplain meant to this pastor more than the standard, expected grief ministry — responding to personal losses (e.g. death of a loved one, marriage, house, job, reputation, etc.) That’s huge by itself. Grief work is at the core of what we offer, demanding attention, indeed, skillful and caring attention.

But this pastor was referring to other losses more characteristic of our time in history. You and I see and feel this truth: We serve a church losing social status. The mainline church, firmly established as a major institution for fifteen hundred years in Western civilization, is being disestablished and sidelined. A survivalist mentality, like a dark cloud, hovers over denominations, including many local churches. (Personally I welcome this disestablishment that brings us closer to the pre-Constantine Christian movement of the first centuries. A topic for another reflection.)

Some members lament, “With all these changes — in status . . . in membership . . . in worship . . . in structures . . . in programs . . . in communication — well, I feel less at home. Sometimes it seems like I’m losing my church.” Others decry changes, not only in form, but also in ideas. The familiar ways of speaking of faith are being reshaped or even displaced, as implied in one parishioner’s comment: “Pastor, it is not so much what you say in your sermons that bothers me. It is what you don’t say.”

Thus, on one hand this pastor defined himself as a hospice chaplain who honors and works with dying and death on multiple levels.

Yet, on the other hand, he sees himself as a shepherd of innovation, a midwife assisting in new birth here and there. There are new programs, new members (often with little religious background), new forms of mission, and new ways of understanding God’s movement in our time. He offers a steadying, supportive hand to these births, each carrying the promise of a new life.

Does this resonate with you as a leader in our time? Do you see yourself standing in this breach, offering leadership in a “transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born?” (Vaclav Havel) In what ways do these metaphors fit? In what ways do they not?

And, I am thinking, you are pastor or priest of one congregation. Where then is the source of oneness amid diverse pulls on time and energy? You must be asking where is the glue that holds us together? What convictions do we gather around regularly that we wager with our lives?

You seem to be in a position not unlike the one Jesus faced. He was revering and fulfilling the Torah, yet with interpretations that were like “new wine in old wineskins.” His respect for heritage that he expressed in new ways was confusing. No wonder the stewards of his tradition (in positions like ours) pressed him for clarity about essentials. Some sample responses we know like the back of our hand: “Love God and the other as yourself;” “Love as I have loved you;” “I have come that you might have life, life abundantly;” “I am the way, the truth, the life.”

Maybe there is this blessing in our time of chaotic transition. We are forced to keep clarifying the faith around which we circle. We are compelled to name our integrating core, knowing full well that the gracious Mystery we worship also defies precise definition. We are challenged to covenant and re-covenant around a Way of living, all the while resisting its codification into hardened beliefs.

I am suggesting that times of rapid change push us back to basics. They challenge us to live the essential questions: What does it mean to follow Jesus? What does faithfulness look like in our lives and life together?

How would you add to the conversation begun with the pastor’s self-understanding as hospice chaplain and midwife?


Two Functions of Religion: Meaning and Transformation

December 21, 2009

Ken Wilbur, contemporary philosopher, psychologist, mystic and student of human consciousness, proposes that religion has two primary functions: offers meaning (his word, “translation”) and offers transformation. Both he deems important, even critical, contributions to the human enterprise.

For most people, according to Wilbur, religion provides a way to establish meaning. It helps us, as separate selves, to make sense of our lives, cope with difficulties, strengthen our resolve, and endure “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Through rituals, symbols and narratives people find beliefs that grant purpose and place and perspective. Finding meaning in life is a function of religion that is absolutely necessary. We humans require a strong sense of self.

But some reach for another level of consciousness, a higher (or deeper) way of seeing. They come to that place in the maturation process where the strengths of separate self are insufficient. A strong ego is not enough to hold life together. Our inner eyes are opened. We see God, no longer as separate object, but as subject, God alive within and through us. We see Christ, no longer as separate, but as subject, Christ within us. And we see other humans as part of us, no longer totally separate, neighbors that we love as ourselves (not “like we love ourselves). The music, the orchestra, the violin and violinist cannot be separated. They all belong together. We understand this mutuality on this level of spiritual awareness.

This is the way of transformation. I, the ego, is a mistaken identity. We are so much more. At our core we are God’s beloved. On this level the separate self is transcended, not fortified. There is a dying again and again not to ego but to ego-centeredness, the separate self. In Paul’s words: “Nevertheless I live but not I, but Christ lives in me,” or, “No-thing in life or death, things present or things to come, can separate us from the love of God,” or Jesus’ words, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies (breaks open) …” With each act of surrender, separate self-consciousness is broken open like a seed, yielding to the larger creative force of fruitfulness far beyond our efforts or imagining. This spiritual level of consciousness transcends, yet includes the level of egoic functioning, just as the music (divine love, justice) transcends, yet includes the participation of orchestra (faith community), violin and violinist (self).

If my reflection on Wilbur’s proposition is on target, I see three implications for pastoral leaders.

One, you cannot assume, as I did at the beginning of my ministry, that people come to church wanting transformation. Truthfully, neither was I seeking self-transcendence at that point in my life.

Second, we can assume that our members are living at different levels of awareness (consciousness). Some see and interpret symbols, rituals, narratives of Scripture literally, unable to acknowledge truth through metaphor. Some see and interpret rationally, unable to understand truth that appears illogical and contradictory (e.g. lose your life to find it). Still others, likely a minority, see, through repeated gestures of self-surrender, the unitive, non-separation, interdependent vision of the kingdom of God. For them, religion is less about the meaning of their lives and more about the Music of their lives. (No wonder there are such diverse responses to the same sermon.)

The challenge becomes to love people where they are, interpret the gospel in ways they can understand, and be ready to assist their spiritual growth when cracks appear and openings occur.

And third, how about us? In what sense is our religious vocation a source of meaning and/or transformation?

. . .

See Ken Wilbur, The Essential Ken Wilbur, pp.140–143. For more on levels of consciousness, see Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, Wisdom Jesus and Jim Marion, Putting on the Mind of Christ.