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.


Symbolic Exemplar: A Re-Frame That Mattered

July 25, 2016

I didn’t know what I was getting into. I thought being a pastor was similar to being a teacher or social worker or father. These roles give you a position from which you can contribute. That’s the way I saw it.

I went to seminary with the excitement of a seeker who had just discovered a new map of unexplored terrain. This joy of a larger purpose freed me from an earlier vocational direction assumed by my family. I knew no one at the seminary when I arrived. Being Baptist had little substance. Church experience was limited. My knowledge of clergy was almost nil. To be “called” felt strange and remote. But the idea of some kind of paid work that allowed further exploration into the realm or kingdom of God was promising.

Surprise happened in an introductory class on pastoral care. The professor had recorded on tape his pastoral conversation with a grieving widow. I heard his gift of empathic listening and skillful questions that helped her find a measure of release and hope. On that day, in that moment, sitting on the fourth row of a large class in the “Map” room at Southern Baptist Seminary, I whispered to myself, “I want to do that!” And I have for forty-eight years.

What I felt then, and never lost, is this: the role gave me a way into those holy places of people’s lives, where I could offer a presence with a caring curiosity about their pursuit of meaning. A reporter once asked me, “What do you like most about your job?” I heard myself say, “I love having a ringside seat on how people make sense of their lives.” This was the constant joy—the role unlocking doors to these sacred places of presence and conversation.

You can anticipate my shock at running into the full complexity of this vocation. Immediately I protested the “difference,” the “set-apartness” that came with the role. I resisted the various titles—Brother Mahan, Preacher, Reverend, Pastor Siler, Doctor Siler. “Just call me Mahan,” I sometimes said. “I’m just a regular guy with a huge curiosity about life and faith in God.”

My ordination, with its language of “being set apart” to serve the church, declared more about my future than I could absorb at the time. I was wonderfully challenged by the vows yet felt broadsided by the loneliness and projections that came in their wake. The new role changed how people perceived me, including my neighbors and larger family. Even my pre-ordination friends didn’t quite know what to do with my new identity. I felt placed into a separate category I didn’t understand.

Eventually a re-frame came to me, in the form of a gift from a rabbi friend, which described with clarity the role I was assuming. The gift was a book from another rabbi, Jack Bloom, in which Bloom describes the tension: as rabbis (or pastors) we are both living symbols of More than we are and ordinary human beings. We are both. Both at the same time.

A symbol points beyond itself to some other reality from which it draws power. Take our national flag, for instance. We know it’s not simply a colored piece of cloth. It draws our attention powerfully to the “republic for which it stands.” Or, even more familiar to us, we regularly participate in the transforming symbolic power of water (baptism) and bread and wine/grape juice (Eucharist).

But acknowledging our symbolic power is another matter. Imagine the scene: rabbis, priests, or pastors in the pulpit beneath a robe and stole (or dark suit) with Scripture in hand. Note the symbols. Note the symbol we are. Yes, we remain very human under the robe, with all our peculiar human traits. But we are so much more. We feel it. We know it. We are symbols of More than we are, signs of a narrative and worldview we call Gospel. Or to say it boldly: You and I are symbols pointing to God, the ultimate Mystery. By just being a clergy person you announce a huge wager. You and I dare to wager that God is real, a loving presence in us, with us, and through us, active in the world making love, making justice, making shalom. And furthermore our symbolic identity deepens with each passing funeral, wedding, worship service, and pastoral visit. We are walking, talking representatives of More than ourselves. The projections abound. The symbolic role opens doors; it closes doors. We are different. Not better, but different.

And, if that is not enough to carry, as pastors we are not just symbols, we are symbolic exemplars. Certain ethical behaviors are expected of us. As the ordination of Episcopal clergy words it, we vow to be “wholesome examples” of the gospel. Leaders in other fields are also symbols of more than they are, but few leaders carry such additional moral pressure. Pastors, and in some sense their families, are expected to show, as well as tell, what loving God and neighbor looks like.

Bloom puts the two together: The pastor or rabbi as symbol and as exemplar. Then he mixes in the third reality: we are symbolic exemplars and ordinary human beings. It’s a re-frame that has mattered.

Let’s place these truths on a continuum — symbolic exemplar on one end and human being on the other end. The extremes are easy to see. On the symbolic exemplar end we have observed pastors and priests overly identified with their symbolic role. Behind the role so much of their humanity is hidden. Their sense of self is fused, it seems, with their pastoral identity. “He must sleep in his collar,” I recall hearing about a Lutheran pastor in my neighborhood. At retirement these ministers have the toughest work of discovering who they are apart from the role that has identified them for so long. I admit, when I retired this inner work was necessary for me as well.

The other extreme is protecting our humanness, so much so that we discount the authority and appropriate power invested in the role. To insist, “I’m just me, a person like everyone else,” is folly. I found, as you have, that there were times when this transcending power was undeniable. You know it when, on occasion, while preaching, the message comes more through you than from you. Or standing by the bed of a very ill parishioner, or sitting across from a person in crisis, you palpably experience being a symbol of More than yourself. When they see you they see the faith community you represent. When they see you they “see” the un-seeable you represent, namely, an invisible Reality. In those times it’s so clear—the person is relating to you but also to so much More than you.

There are times when we consciously, intentionally call on the full authority of the role. I am reminding you of those times when you are face-to-face with persons, usually in the safety of your office, who pour out their sense of “not being enough,” who are feeling particularly victim to relentless, self-condemning voices rising from their depths. In those times we deliberately wrap the role around us like a robe. Our voice is up against the self-despising voices we are hearing. In those moments you too would claim your pastoral authority and say something like, “What you tell yourself is not true. Your deepest truth is this: You are a child of God, loved and loving, totally forgiven and full of worth just as you are.” By claiming this authority we hope that the Power we symbolize undermines and eventually replaces the power of these self-condemning voices.

Or, the best example is the obvious one. Every time you and I rise to stand behind the pulpit to lead in worship, we intentionally wrap ourselves around the privilege and courage of being both our authentic selves and More than our authentic selves.

We know multiple examples of those in our vocation who have abused this symbolic power to the great harm to others, to themselves, and to their congregation. The examples are legion. But the longer I was a pastor the more I understood and appreciated this power to bless and speak in the name of God. But it always felt uncomfortable. The audacity never left me. Each deliberate attempt was not without a good measure of “fear and trembling.” I was flirting with danger, and I knew it. Speaking from ego, for ego, or speaking from God, for God—which was it? No doubt it was a mixture of both. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

Precisely; that’s the point! When we embrace this tension of being both symbolic exemplar and the very human person we are, you and I are reduced to prayer. We are driven to our knees. The chutzpah demands mercy; the mercy makes possible the chutzpah.

Naming the un-nameable Mystery … Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

Putting on, like a robe, the privilege, ambiguities, set-apartness, projections, and loneliness of this work … Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

Embracing the tension of being both living symbol of More than I am and a human being not more than I am … Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

Being a flawed leader of an imperfect institution that frequently contradicts the compassion it espouses … Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

Bearing the symbols of God, even being a symbol of God, at the perilous risk of playing God … Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

I leave you with a paradox — being both fully, uniquely human and fully, uniquely a symbolic exemplar. Embracing, not resolving, this paradox became for me a re-frame that mattered.

Reference: The Rabbi As Symbolic Exemplar: By the Power Vested in Me, Jack H. Bloom

 


On Time: A Re-frame That Mattered

May 4, 2016

As pastors we have time in our hands. Not a stethoscope. Not checks or prescriptions to write. No goods to sell. No papers to grade. No legal documents to consult. We have time, time to show up, be present, and invite others to find themselves in the Story as their defining story.

The congregation says to us: “We free you from having to spend part or all of your work time earning money. We are buying your time to lead us.” Then with no clear expectations, no structure, no supervision, no schedules offered, they walk away, trusting our use, not abuse, of this time given. It’s an awesome trust; it’s burdensome freedom.

Time, my relationship to it, was the blessing and bane of my pastoral ministry. I loved the freedom of choice; I felt the burden of its up-to-me stewardship.

A pastor was describing his thirteen-hour Sunday: the early review of his sermon; leading worship, including preaching; a pastoral response to a family crisis; a late afternoon committee meeting; a hospital visit; and then another meeting at the church that evening. Most disturbing was that, while driving home after a long day, his mind was still working, thinking of things not done and people not seen. “Always more, no endings, never enough,” he said out loud to himself. Later he left our vocation, in large part, he said, “for lack of time.”

Granted, such long hours are typical for many workers caught up in a job with high expectations, either self imposed or imposed by others. Thirteen-hour days are not so extraordinary. We all live and work in an environment that applauds over-functioning. “Not enough time” is a refrain sung by most adults I know.

But, and this may surprise you, for pastors the issue is not about having enough time. It looks that way. It feels that way. But insufficient time is not the problem. The truth is, we have time. Time is the gift that awaits us each weekday morning. It is ours to fill, to spend. We are paid to show up in time with presence.

This is the way I see the covenant between pastor and congregation:

We set you apart (ordination) to lead alongside us from a different angle. We give you time to understand, define, and offer yourself in the role of pastoral leader. We free you from some, if not all, the obligations to earn a salary outside the church. We pledge adequate personal and financial support for you to have the time you need to fulfill your calling. We make it possible for you to have time to study, reflect, and pray in ways that nourish your season with us as pastoral leader. Together, as pastor and people, we seek to embody in our historical moment the extravagant compassion of God, made most clear in Jesus.

Note the freedom. Let’s acknowledge up front the uncommon freedom we have as pastors. Yes, it can be a burdensome freedom, but it is freedom nevertheless. Most laborers, including professionals, have limited to no control over their schedules. Their time is carefully measured, sometimes in 15-minute increments. Most workers adapt to schedules largely set for them by others. Not so with us. We have an unusual freedom of choice.

This difference I felt keenly when I moved from being a director of a department within a medical center to becoming again the pastor of a local congregation. In my hospital context my work schedule had structure—office hours from 8:00-5:00 Monday to Friday, many standing committees, one boss, with weekends usually free. I could still over-function, but I knew when I was working beyond the agreed-upon boundaries.

In contrast, the congregation offers minimal structure, vague and conflicting expectations, and fluid boundaries. Apart from Sunday morning worship and a few fixed committees, I was on my own to figure out my best use of time. Unless our misuse of time is flagrant, we are our own “boss” when it comes to time management. It’s up to you. It was up to me.

That’s my first preliminary point: we are given time along with the freedom and responsibility to invest it. There is a second point to make before I record the re-frame, namely, we are employed by people who don’t understand our job.

I’m not complaining or blaming, mind you. I am naming a lack of understanding that comes with our profession. Most of our work is invisible to the congregation that employs us. How could this lack of understanding be otherwise when much of pastoral ministry is private? For instance, most lay members seem surprised to learn that preparation for leading a worship service, including crafting a sermon, usually requires at least twelve hours. And how would members know that a funeral service takes six to eight hours of pastoral care, preparation, and leadership of the service? And there is the care we give to individuals and families that is appropriately confidential.

Technically, in some situations, congregational members are not the employer. For instance, in the Methodist system the pastor is appointed. But functionally, I’m assuming that in all parishes the power that allows us to minister belongs to the people. If congregational expectations of the clergy are not met, then it is only a matter of time before the bishop or superintendent or representative lay leaders say, “We think it is time for you to move on. The match is no longer a good one. It’s not working.”

Furthermore, with each “employer” (member) a pastor has a slightly different contract, a difference in large part unacknowledged. For example, some members insist on certain standards in liturgical leadership, especially preaching, yet seem less demanding in other areas. Others, however, expect availability and effectiveness in pastoral care. These members can tolerate less quality in worship leadership. Still others look for efficient management. Above all else they expect effective oversight of the staff, budget, programs, and building. A few members give top priority to pastoral leadership in the community, expecting their pastor to be a connecting link between congregational resources and community needs.

Again, I feel the need to say that I am not blaming. Members do not intentionally participate in these competing pulls on a pastor’s time and energy. These overlapping member-pastor contracts are expectations that live beneath awareness and only occasionally are brought to the surface in conversation.

This is the nature of our work. We offer ourselves in the midst of conflicting contracts, unconscious assumptions, and unnamed expectations. Our vocation is not for those who require detailed agreements, tight structure, and precise boundaries. Simply, we are employed by those who don’t understand our job. To the extent that this bold statement is true, we are left with a daunting responsibility. Our relationship to time is left up to us.

Now, to my point. This is the re-frame that mattered: giving top priority to prioritizing my calling in order to prioritize my time. This may sound counter-intuitive—taking time, lots of time, to prioritize the focus of our ministry as prerequisite to decisions about our use of time.

I’m advocating that the place to start is not a to-do list for the day. That’s too late. The to-do list comes last, not first. To begin with a list of what to do today leaves us vulnerable to the immediate, pressing, short-term needs. Left out of the list would likely be the larger arc of our calling.

Perhaps, at this point in this reflection, my own experience would be helpful. I hesitate because, as I have admitted, my relationship to time was my greatest single challenge. I reference my efforts in managing time not as a model to follow but as a set of assumptions and practices against which you can review your own stewardship of this gift.

First must come the work of self-definition. The on-going defining of call precedes and informs defining the use of time.

This means setting down before us a set of questions and working them toward focus, not once but repeatedly. I offer these primary questions that invite clarity of call, which in turn clarify management of time. They fall into three contexts ranging from macro to micro perspectives: church and world, congregation, and your personal life.

These are balcony questions. Getting to the “balcony” happens when we leave the dance floor of the complex movements of congregational life and step back, way back, in order to see the big picture. From the balcony we look for patterns, noting the connections and disconnections in order to weigh our options for re-entering the dance floor.

Context: church and world. Balcony questions: What’s the call of God to the church in our moment in history? Within our time in American culture, what is the prime purpose of the church? How does our perception of our local community shape the church’s witness? What resources, including interpreters of our time, stimulate your balcony reflections about the church in the world?

Context: your congregation. Balcony questions: With congregation as partner in ministry, what am I called to give? What is being asked of me? Where do my gifts and the needs of the congregation meet? What is it time for in our congregation’s life and mission? What are the resources within and beyond the congregation that can help me clarify the focus of my leadership?

Context: your personal life. Balcony questions: What time is it in your life and the life of your family? What’s being birthed in you? How do you nurture your soul within this role? Where’s the gladness? Where’s the sadness?

Priorities of importance arise from working these kinds of questions. And from these ABC priorities comes direction for the best use of time.

Key to this process, as you can see, is setting specific “balcony” times for this inner work of discernment. This key is non-negotiable. I tried but never could do this inner work on the run. It requires a different space and sufficient time. Here is the plan that worked for me.

During the typically low-maintenance week between Christmas and New Year, I worked with these balcony questions. First I would read through my journals from the past year, looking for patterns and themes. Journals, kept regularly but not daily, served as a catcher for ruminations about where I sensed God at work, what I was learning from my reading and life experiencing. For me my journals became the place I tracked the changes in my call, both to inner transformation and to outer work of the church. Out of these annual days came a revision of priorities for ministry, self, and family to guide me during the next year, sometimes years. Every month or so I would review and update these priorities.

All the better if this discernment can include others, in particular, your spouse, close friends, colleagues, congregational leaders, and the congregation itself. They join you in living the question of calling or purpose or mission, reason for being. The question, of course, never gets fully answered. It’s the asking that distinguishes “good” action in order to discover the “necessary” action.

Finally, I come to the daily to-do-list. Each day, for around twenty minutes, with the priorities before me, I prayerfully asked, “What is the best use of my time for this day, for the rest of this week?” This meant that I could enter the day with a measure of clarity. Of course, unexpected interruptions, the “bread and butter” of ministry, would occur. But with my focus for the day in place I was more likely to respond, not react, to the events coming toward me. I had a frame.

And now a last word, lest my thoughts blind us to reality. Everything will work against what I have suggested. Sabotage awaits any effort to claim the time for prioritizing your call as prelude to prioritizing your time. You will hear the resistance in these questions: Where will I find the time to work with my call and time? Who cares enough to ask, to understand, to support this effort? Can I embrace the conflict this will bring? This inner work will likely create dissonance simply because the clearer your self-definition, the more precise your “yes” and “no,” the more difference will surface. Your clarity will call for the clarity in others. It’s the way of growth, with more and more people taking responsibility for their agency. The energy released invites maturation both within the person and within the congregation.

You and I are fortunate recipients of time with few strings attached. How to unpack and offer this gift from your congregation for your congregation is an exceptional challenge. This was the assumption that crystallized in my struggle: on-going defining of one’s call into priorities precedes the daily use of this gift of time. It is a re-frame that mattered and matters.

 


Taming the Monkeys: A Re-frame That Mattered

December 15, 2015

I’ve been fortunate. I have faced only one serious controversy in my ministry, but it was a doozy. In that “five-month moment” members were excited; members were exiting. Members were moving closer toward the center; members were moving out from the center. Letters to the Editor in the local paper, almost daily, were verbalizing “Yes! —Thumbs up!” while others declared, “No!—Thumbs down!” Telephone calls came in to the church office ranging from “Pass on my support” to “Pass on my disbelief, disdain, disagreement!”

“We have backed into a whirlwind,” was the feeling I named, but more than a passing feeling, it was the reality. All the signs of anxiety in the “family” were present: lots of blaming, “it’s your fault” . . . polarizing, taking sides . . . reacting like billiard balls bouncing off each other . . . and the urgent pressure to get through this, find some quick-fix, to “do something, Mahan” to lower the stress. The church was either splintering or splitting. I did not know which at the time.

There was outer chaos. There was inner chaos. I tried praying. I tried stress-reducing practices. I tried physical exercising. But none of these took me deep enough, down to some calmer center beneath the surface turbulence. The “monkey mind,” as the Buddhists smilingly name it, was unstoppable with thoughts, feeling and worries, like monkeys, jumping freely from tree to tree in my mind. The inner talking seemed endless.

A miracle happened. That’s a large word I seldom use, but this time it fits. I received in the mail a gift from a distant Sunday School teacher, a distance, in fact, of thirty-eight years. John had read about our controversy in the Nashville Banner. His miracle gift was Open Mind, Open Heart by Father Thomas Keating, with the inscription, “Thought this may be useful during these stressful days.” And it was, so much so that it inaugurated in me a new way of praying. Centering Prayer became a re-frame that mattered, a new perspective, and even more, a new practice. Mostly I look to books for insights, those “aha” moments that turn up the lights and illuminate a situation. Not this time. This book was different. It offered a practice.

This method of praying is an addition, not a replacement to my habitual ways of praying since youth, that is, with words, thoughts and feelings in prayers of adoration, thanksgiving, intercession, confession and petition. Other examples would be prayerful readings of the 23rd Psalm, praying with others the Lord’s Prayer, and, of course, the multiple hymns of praise and prayer. This use of words, thoughts, reason, memory, imagination, feelings and will is called kataphatic prayer.

This re-frame, introduced by John’s gift of Keating’s Open Mind, Open Heart, is apophatic prayer. It’s about subtraction, not addition, about emptying, not filling, about relinquishing, not attaching. This way of praying bypasses faculties of the mind through a process of simply letting go of these thoughts and feelings as they surface. These thoughts, worries, plans, regrets—like monkeys—need taming, lest they consume all of our attention, each time taking us out of the present.

“Simply letting go,” noted in the last paragraph, is deceptive. On one hand, this method is simple; on the other hand, it remains my most challenging discipline.

The simple part is explaining the practice. You sit or stop, acknowledge rising thoughts into your awareness, then release the thoughts as they hold your attention, gently letting them go, sinking down into an non-anxious space of grace and trust—“resting in God,” in Keating’s words.

The hard part is doing the practice. We learn quickly how busy our minds are. External silence may be a challenge but internal silence seems an impossibility. The thoughts and feelings keep coming. Keating recommends this repetitive practice for twenty to thirty minutes once or twice a day: over and over, letting go, dis-identifying with the “monkeys” and returning to our deepest, given identity as being—being loved, being beloved, being love, light, being salt, being centered, being Christ-Spirit within. Actually, it’s inter-being we come to deep within, being profoundly interconnected, in communion, in relationship with others, all sentient beings, earth and Spirit. It’s an inner chamber where everything becomes more still, paradoxically both empty and full.

This additional gesture offers another way of practicing. Stop for a moment, take one of your hands, tighten it around a pencil or pen, grasping the object as firmly as possible. Then, release your grip, open your hand fully. Feel the freedom from the tension. Similarly, we grasp thoughts, then they grasp us, taking us away from the present moment. This prayer’s intention is to free us, at least loosen us a bit, from our grasping, opening us more fully our receptivity to the moment, sometimes to the Spirit’s leading in the moment.

In his poem, The Swan, Rilke captures this gesture. He pictures the swan lumbering awkwardly “as if in ropes through what is not done,” then, letting himself down into the water “which receives him gaily and which flows joyfully under and after him . . . [he being] pleased to be carried.” Centering Prayer invites that very movement of relinquishing our awkward pacing, letting ourselves down into the currents of grace, and knowing the pleasure and freedom of being carried.

Understand that the goal is not to eliminate the “monkeys,” as if we could. Obviously, my thoughts and feelings are making possible this essay. And at times these thoughts become anxious, “jumping from tree to tree.” But this is the gift from this method of praying: these busy thoughts need not take captive our attention, kidnap our creativity, subvert our calmness, or overwhelm and paralyze our responses. This regular practice of release and surrender—over time—patterns incrementally this gesture of release and surrender into our behavior, forming new neuronal pathways in the brain. A muscle develops, an inner, spiritual muscle of acknowledging and letting go that strengthens with practice over time.

Thomas Keating tells the story of a nun who was being trained in this method. 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 even ten thousand times speaks to our willingness and desire to transcend our busy mind, allowing a way of being beyond thoughts and words. The nun, we could say, was experiencing a vigorous aerobic workout of her muscle of surrender.

Cynthia Bourgeault, who has written in my judgment the finest book on Centering Prayer, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, calls this prayer “‘boot camp in Gethsemane,’ for it practices over and over, thought by thought, the basic gesture of Jesus’ night of struggle in the garden: ‘Not my will be done, Oh Lord, but thine.’” She adds, “It’s like putting a stick in the spoke of your wheels of thinking.”

Let’s go back to those few months of controversy in 1992. Return with me to the timely gift of Keating’s book. My desperate need led me to try it, to give this “letting go” practice a try. At first, it could take me only two or three feet beneath the turbulent surface waters. Not far, but far enough to taste its promise of a more calm center in the midst of the swirling anxieties around me and within me.

I remind you this is a practice. Think how much learning a language or playing the piano requires repetitive practice, some say as much as 90% practice and 10% innate skill. While presenting this method I don’t want to present myself as anything but who I am—a beginner. But each practicing can be a mini-vacation from my over-functioning ego.

During these years I have added a step that includes more of my body in the process. This counter-intuitive response welcomes the anxious thoughts and honors the “triggering event” that “pushes our buttons.” As I have noted, first is acknowledging the “monkeys.” But next, I seek to locate the emotion in my body, feel it, experience the anger or fear or frustration, or even praise, as fully as possible. Only then do I release it, allowing the letting of go to include all of me—body, mind, and spirit. (Full prostrations, the total surrender of the body to the supporting floor, is for me Centering Prayer acted out, embodied.)

Bourgeault, in her book, presents this Welcoming Prayer as a way of carrying this practice into daily life. Not limited to private times of twenty minutes or so, this welcoming practice during a given day can potentially break the cycle of re-activity that usually accompanies “triggering events.”

Centering Prayer has gifted me in ways that other spiritual practices have gifted you. It has been for me a primary way to keep finding the center outside of ego and stake there my deepest identity. Over and over this practice invites the return to my core, being “rooted and grounded in Love,” a Love that seeks incarnation in my particular person as it does in yours. This method of “taming the monkeys” opens the inner space, reveals the roots, grounds me in Shalom’s summons that sends me back into the fray.

Much of the time, like the nun, I fail. The “monkeys” are too active to tame. But over the years I have come to notice within me a stronger muscle of release and surrender, enough for it to be a re-frame that has mattered.


Meaningful Evaluation

August 27, 2014

Meaningful evaluation—an oxymoron? Well, maybe not.

Jim Chatham, a retired Presbyterian pastor, told me a story that gives a new angle on evaluation. I wish I had heard the story in earlier days of active leadership.

Jim invited a glass artist, Ken VonRoen to meet with him and some other pastors. The setting: one artist of one medium meeting with other artists of another medium. The conversation included the question of meaningful feedback or evaluation. VonRoen was clear:

I don’t ever let the question, “Do you like it?” be the question used to evaluate my art. No. The question is, “Does my art call you forward to a place where you have not been before? Does it ask you to look at your normal world through different eyes? Does it invite you to a new perspective?” If it does, then I have succeeded! I hope you like my art. I try to design it so you will. But that is not the point.

Upon hearing this story my imagination fired, picturing its application as a pastor.

Parishioner: leaving the worship service saying, “I sure liked your sermon.” Pastor: “Thank you, so much. Could we step aside for a moment (or, more likely, can I call you this afternoon)? I want to hear what you liked and what it meant to you.”

Or, on Monday morning at staff meeting, “Where did our ministry last week, including leading worship yesterday, take us personally to new places in our lives, to new ways of seeing?”

Or, parishioner in a note: “Pastor, during my grief, you meant so much to me. We couldn’t have made it without your words and presence.”

Pastor: calling (not emailing or texting), “Pat, thank you for your gracious note. I treasure as well the time together. Could we talk now or at a later time that suits you? I am curious. What about my words and presence helped you get through that dark time? Also, I would like to share how that time with you, Kathy and Mel, helped me see some new things.”

Or, parishioner or colleague: “I didn’t much like your sermon (or your comment, or what you did).” Pastor: “I’m interested. Tell me more. Where did what I said (or do) take you?

Or, pastor meeting with core leaders at the usually unsatisfying annual evaluation, suggesting, “Let’s talk specifically about where our leadership of the congregation during this year has taken us— perhaps personally or as a leadership team or as a congregation. Are we in new places we have never been before? Are we seeing with new perspectives?

Meaningful evaluation? Yes. Maybe it is possible. But my, what courage and inner security it takes to ask these questions. Do we really want to know?


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?


The Pastoral Prophetic Edge

August 27, 2013

Prophetic is such a vigorous word. It brings to mind the courageous actions of an Amos, Shiphrah and Puah, Ghandi, Day, or King. Prophets stand up, stick out with their actions for justice in the face of oppression.

I have been thinking about the prophetic edge of pastors.

In North Carolina there is currently a ground swell of protest to current legislation called Moral Monday. When legislators were in session, rallies, led by the N.C. NAACP, gathered each Monday in Raleigh to protest legislation that many of us regard as unjust and immoral. Thousands gathered each week. Over nine hundred were arrested in non-violent witness. I joined in both.

Recently I participated, along with my grandaughter, Leigh and son, Mark, in a Walk for Grandchildren culminating in a rally at Layette Park in front of the White House. We were protesting the destructive effects of fossil fuels on global climate in general and the Keystone XL pipeline in particular.

Were my actions prophetic? Hardly. They cost me little. I hold no position to protect. I have the time. I have the health. I have little to lose.

I’m thinking, what about the prophetic edge of pastors? Their prophetic witness is not so obvious or dramatic. Here is a way to see it.

Johanna Macy and Chris Johnstone in their provocative book, Active Hope, lists three dimensions of the prophetic. One is direct action, the kind I just named. This collective witness can expose publicly the damage caused by political, educational, religious and economic policies. Events, like rallies, boycotts, campaigns, petitions and other forms of protest can awaken the larger population to awareness — and possibly to action.

A second form of prophetic witness is changing the system. This involves rethinking the way we do things and, likely in the process, redesigning structures and policies. The current attempt to recreate our health care system would be an example. So would the increasing options for socially responsible financial investing. It’s the hope that these protests of Moral Monday will affect future elections and, as a result, affect future legislation.

There is a third dimension of prophetic action: the change in consciousness. It is probably the most important, least measureable and less noticed of the three. Neither protesting nor changing systems will stick unless there is a change in our mind/heart set. New structures or policies will not survive without deeply embedded values to sustain them. These external changes require a consciousness that both summon and undergird the actions for “mercy and justice.”

This takes us to the home turf of pastors. We are in the business of advocating a new way of seeing. We are all about worldviews, the way we see the world, inviting others to “put on the mind (consciousness) of Christ.” Reality, we declare, is thoroughly relational with no separation from a Love that never ends, not now or later, nor in life or death. Within this network of interdependence, communion, and mutuality, the Spirit is ever present working for just relationships. It’s gospel, good news.

I submit this to be a prophetic edge, even a prophetic wedge toward personal and social change. What is “good news” to us is “bad news” to those seeing Reality as consisting of separate parts with the point of life being individual success, individual gain, individual freedom, individual power, individual salvation. We proclaim partnership, not domination; power-with, not power-over; community, not individualism; collaboration, not binary either-or thinking; non-violence, not violence as problem solving; and grace as gift, not achievement.

I close with what you know all too well. When you talk this way and walk this talk, watch out! Resistance happens next. It’s the prophetic edge that cuts both ways. Count on it. Nothing is more threatening than messin’ with the way people see the world and themselves in it. Those captivated by the Dream always call forth killers of the Dream. The more we live this Way and invite others to this path, the greater the push back, criticism, and yes, persecution.

It was promised by Jesus . . . along with the barrels of joy.


Flying Close to the Sun

April 15, 2013

Over the phone I was hearing a familiar story. Another visionary (not a pastor) flying too close to the sun with wax between the wings melting, intimate relationships dissolving, then the predictable fall from the sky. I hung up the phone, and sat in silence for a while, feeling deep sadness. A profound tragic sadness.

​This is the tragedy: he has been a voice of life-changing news. His vision was eye-opening for many. His five-talent skills were invested for good, much good.

​This is the sadness: he came to believe he was good news. His admirers made the message about him. And, sadly, he came to believe them.

​I’m referencing the familiar Greek myth. Icarus, in spite of the warning from his father, Daedalus, flies so close to the sun that the wax attaching wings to body melts. The wings fall, along with his body, into the sea.

​Flying high is a part of a pastor’s job description. It’s not optional. It’s inherent in the fine print of an unwritten contract. With no small amount of chutzpa, every week pastors stand before congregation being a living symbol of More than they are. They enter into the dark places of human anguish, vulnerable to the raw cries, “Pastor, where is God in this? Why us? What should we do?” Pastors fly high with their humanity on display, becoming the subject of evaluations seldom heard and a Rorschach for outrageous projections — all the while holding confidential information without it showing. What daring, I say. What audacity.

​Most pastors I know fly high with a vision that they cannot but proclaim. They cannot stop themselves from attempting the flight. They seem to heed a compelling summons that will not let them go.

​But they fly high at the great risk of self-destructive and others-destructive hubris.

​But I call attention to the rest of the story. Often left out of the telling of this myth is the other advice that Daedalus gives his son. He also warns him not to fly too low, too close to the sea, less the water prohibit the lift of his wings. This is the counter caution: flying too low, playing it safe are equally self-destructive. Fear of failure, risk, and vulnerability is as lethal as flying too close to the sun.

​This seems to be a cautionary tale in two directions: the danger of believing your service is about you; and the danger of believing it is not about you. One hazard is pride that “goeth before the fall;” the other is low self-regard that lacks boldness.

​I’m left wondering if there is a wax that holds in high flying? I suspect its substance includes humility, not hubris. The few visionary leaders that come to my mind are keenly aware of the Wind that sustains and empowers them. If pressed, they speak of yielding to and working with a force far more than their power or even their understanding. “Success” or “achievement” are not in their vocabulary. “Gratefulness” is.


Shepherd and Manager

March 6, 2013

Shepherding a family of faith; managing a religious institution. Two hats, two roles, two job descriptions. It seems that way. It feels often like a balancing act. But is it? Or, could these be separate tilts or bows from a single identity?

I hear this polarity in comments like these: “The church pays me to handle staff. The rest (the soul/spiritual work) I would gladly give free of charge.” Or, “You gotta pay the rent (organization management), so you can do what you love to do.”

I remember this self-talk during seminary days, “Just think, when I am a pastor, I will be paid to study/ponder the gracious mystery of God, teach and preach this grace, embody its hope in caring ways, and in following Jesus help a congregation put flesh and blood to this justice/love in the world. Incredible! Paid for that? What a deal!”

Then the rude awakening came at my first call as pastor of Coffee Creek Baptist Church for $50 a week and at all the subsequent congregational invitations to be pastor. There it was in the fine print of an unwritten contract: I was paid to help manage a religious institution. Yes, I was paid for more than that, but not less. And yes, I did not manage alone. But I was expected to work with budgets, funding, policies, records, staff supervision, membership loss/gain, and building maintenance, not unlike a manager of a Walmart or a Hardees or a Ford dealership.

I recall a conversation with a pastor in which I saw a glimpse of how shepherding and managing might be two stances from the same identity. I like it because it is a typical issue that comes to congregational leadership.

The church leaders’ were expressing appropriate concern for the security of the church building, and, in particular the safety of the secretary who is often alone in the building. The building committee took it upon itself to purchase a number of surveillance cameras without checking with the pastor and some other lay leaders. They saw what needed to be done, and did it.

The pastor spoke of being aware of both hats. Her management-head was concerned about the hasty action that left out other leaders, including herself. She knew the leaders would need to review their process in decision-making.

Her shepherd heart saw something else. Their building is a hospitable, anonymous, safe space for the 12-step participants in recovery who meet weekly. The multiple surveillance cameras might compromise this ministry.

What struck me about the story was the pastor’s integration of both process management and spiritual leader. She saw and lifted up what was missing, namely, the witness of their church in management decisions. The solution, a good business decision, might jeopardize the mission value of hospitality. As I saw it, she was bridging the false dichotomy between business issues and ministry issues. In this “bread and butter” management dilemma she saw embedded a faith opportunity, a possible teachable moment. What she saw is incarnational — God’s compassion for the invisible taking on flesh and blood in ordinary church life situations?

Maybe that’s what she is paid for — to keep showing up in institutional/family relationships and asking the faith question, the Jesus question, the mind of Christ question.


On Addressing the Angel

July 17, 2012

Do you remember the shock when, for the first time, you were in a position of leading an institution? If you are a pastor, it would be your first church.

In 1957, I was invited to be pastor of Coffee Creek Baptist Church in rural southern Indiana. The “call” was extended after a brief huddle of a few deacons one Sunday night. They approached me with this package: fifty dollars a week, along with eliminating the “annual call.” I didn’t know what an “annual call” was, but I could tell by the tone of their voices that it was some special fringe benefit to “seal the deal.” I said, “Yes, I can do that” (and later said yes to teaching fifth and sixth grades and coaching the high school basketball team). I dropped out of seminary for a year in order to try on the pastoral role, like a robe, to see if it would fit.

Initially, with this first attempt as leader of an institution, I saw only people and a building. You know the ditty: “Here is the church and here is the steeple. Open the door, and there are the people.” That’s was I saw — building, steeple, people.

But here is the shock: There were invisible forces at work in Coffee Creek Baptist Church. Like a free-floating planet pulled into the gravitational field of a solar system, I was pulled into the gravity field of this rural, Indiana congregation of century vintage. I kept bumping up against invisible norms that protected past routines, “Oh pastor, this is the way we do it,” such as, music or Communion or funerals or decision-making. I was bumping into the personality, the values, the habits of the congregation — mostly out of their awareness and certainly out of mine.

My “wet behind the ears” suggestion about changing the pattern of viewing the open casket during the funeral service made perfect sense to me, and, even to them in the abstract. But when it came to a real funeral, the viewing of the casket was done as it always was. It’s like driving a car down a road that you think is smooth and level, and suddenly you experience the wheels of your car being pulled into ruts established from previous driving. That’s the feeling. That’s the shock.

I was engaging the corporate personality of Coffee Creek church, the kind of awareness totally left out of my pastoral education. I was prepared to see individuals and families, but I was ill prepared to “see” the invisible spirituality of a congregational system.

It was Walter Wink who opened my eyes to engaging the supra-human powers of institutions, powers that work for both good and ill. He noted that the letters in the book of Revelation were addressed to the “angel” of each congregation. In contrast to the Apostle Paul’s letters to churches with individual leaders often named, the letters in Revelation are directed to the “angel,” that is, the essential core, the spirit, the collective personality of each congregation. Today we speak of this reality as the culture of an institution.

For systemic change to happen you must address the “angel” of an institution. You must understand the “angel.” At times, you align with the “angel” when its a force for good. Sometimes you call the “angel” back to its original vocation when it has become a destructive, dehumanizing force.  (Wink spoke of “angels” of institution originally intending good, but “angels” fall, yet can be redeemed.) Regardless, you quickly learn that “angel” is more powerful than you are, and, in fact, more powerful that any few persons in the congregation. The gravitational pull is fierce.

Here is an example of the positive power of the “angel.” Our congregation was facing a controversial recommendation, one, that if affirmed, would surely mean the loss of members. The power of the “angel” surfaced in the comments like, “Well, when this church took a stand for racial integration back in the 50’s, we lost members, but we made it through those rapids.” Other examples of past difficult decisions were given, each one affirming the congregation’s capacity to survive tough times.

Looking back, I realize that these comments were referencing the “angel.” They were lifting up the norm: “In our congregation, it is our nature to take risks out of conviction.” In one sense, it was our “angel” that carried us through that stressful, challenging time.

What clues give hints about the “angel” of the institution you are leading? I suggest pondering: What’s the message from your “angel” through the architecture of the building or through the stories frequently told (especially the founding stories), the favorite scriptures, or the norms attached to decision-making, rituals and policies? What’s the collective personality that comes through?

Being intrigued by this understanding, each January (in parallel with the President’s State of the Union), I would preach that day on “Addressing the Angel of Pullen (the congregation).” I was addressing, or, more hopefully, I was allowing the gospel to address the invisible, inner spirituality of our life together.

I think we are drawing on Paul’s wisdom: we struggle not just with flesh and blood (visible people) but also with supra-human Powers (invisible spiritual forces). Then, he adds, “Don’t even try it without the whole armor of God!” (Ephesians 6:10-17)


Over and Over Again

February 6, 2012

“And what will be the focus on your prolonged retreat?” I asked. His response: “I want to allow this truth to deepen within me: I am profoundly loved, delighted in, graced unconditionally. I have believed it on occasion, but mostly end up judging myself unmercifully.”

“How simple,” I thought. “How profound. Yet, how difficult to believe, really believe.”

I asked: “How will you practice internalizing this truth?

For most of my life I have sought personal change through insight. If I could “see” it, I would change, so I believed. How often, with great anticipation and excitement, I turned to books, articles, lectures and conversation in search of awareness. I loved, perhaps to the point of addiction, the excitement of a breakthrough, that eureka moment when the “lights come on.”

Yes, insightful awareness is the first step. It opens up options. But for the longest time I assumed that insight, by itself, was transformative. I thought that awareness produces behavioral change. It doesn’t.

When it comes to learning a language or a musical instrument, we don’t make this mistake. It’s understood that progress requires about 20% understanding and 80% practicing. Only on-going practicing and more practicing, preferably with others, can deepen habits of speaking or reading or playing an instrument.

The recent research of neuroscientists helps me understand the power of practicing “over and over.” In their article, The Neuroscience of Leadership, David Rock and Jeffrey Schwatz address how behavioral change happens.

Let’s imagine this example. Our pre-frontal cortex (the hard working part of the brain, the insight part) decides to make a significant change in behavior, such as, learn to drive a car or change one’s diet or master a new song on the piano or, in my friend’s case, treat oneself mercifully, not judgmentally. However, another part of the brain, basil ganglia, is hardwired for routine, set habits and familiar activity. So when the pre-frontal cortex begins to focus on the desired change, the basil ganglia rises up with a resounding, “No. Don’t do that! Come back to what is familiar!” Usually, as with New Years resolutions, the effort to change a particular behavior is too uncomfortable to sustain. More often than not, the sabotaging pull from the habitual part of the brain will prevail.

Initially, it seems, a particular practice is the work of the pre-frontal cortex. It requires a sustained focus of repetitive attention on the desired changes—until new patterns and connections of the brain are formed. Eventually, with “over and over again” practicing, the new pattern becomes familiar and routine. Then basil ganglia takes over as primary motivator. The new behavior in time—it may take a long time—becomes an old habit.

My friend hopes to move the insight of being Loved, abiding in Love, and conduit of Love from his pre-frontal cortex to his basil ganglia where loving and being loved in more habit than idea.

I wonder what practices he is calling on. That’s my first question upon his return.


Non-attachment . . . But How?

January 3, 2012

Not to be attached to outcomes — was our subject last time. But how? How can we do that?

Those of you who responded agreed on the importance of not identifying with outcomes. But you likely said under your breath, as I did, “Sounds good, but it’s sure easier said than done!”

So, what practices help us find that inner freedom from detaching to particular outcomes? What helps us keep from “nailing” (attaching) our well-being on what we cannot control, like particular results?

I’m suspect you have some practices that work for you. Here is one that I practice occasionally. I encourage you to read it slowly, perhaps many times until it sinks in. It is all about detaching, or dis-identifying, and realigning with our deepest identity. This is my adaptation of the exercise from Ken Wilbur in No Boundary.

I have a body, but I am not my body. My body may be tired or excited, sick or healthy, heavy or light, but that is not my deepest identity. I have a body, but I am not my body. I am, beloved, graced . . . unconditionally.

I have desires, but I am not my desires. Desires come and go, floating through my awareness, but they are not my deepest identity. I have desires but I am not desires. I am, beloved,  graced . . . unconditionally.

I have anxieties, but I am not my anxieties. I can feel anxiety and other emotions. They pass through me, but they are not my deepest identity. I have emotions, but I am not emotions. I am, beloved, graced . . .  unconditionally.

I have thoughts, but I am not my thoughts. Thoughts come to me and thoughts leave me. Egoic thoughts are not my deepest identity. I have thoughts, but I am not my thoughts. I am, beloved, graced. . . unconditionally.

I have a work/vocation, but I am not my work. Work comes and goes, sometimes exciting, sometimes discouraging. Work is not my deepest identity. I have work experiences but I am not work. I am, beloved, graced . . . unconditionally.

I have hopes for outcomes, but I am not any outcomes. Outcomes come and go, sometimes realized, sometimes not. They do not form my deepest identity. My well-being is not attached to results. I have aspirations, but I am not my aspirations. I am, beloved, graced . . . unconditionally.

If you continue to repeat this exercise, you may notice subtle shifts in your sense of “self.” Our deepest identity, as I understand the gospel, is being a delight, graced, unconditionally accepted, a participant in the flow of divine compassion in the world — always gift, not our achievement. But to get to this core identity requires dis-identifying from other attachments (“idolatry” would be the biblical word). It’s the shift from nailing our sense of self to particular results to holding lightly hoped-for outcomes. It is the difference between “I have to” and “I want to.”

I hear a lot these days that spirituality is about “letting go” and “letting be.” And I agree. But how is that possible unless we are rooted and grounded in an identity already given? It seems we spend a life time learning to accept and live from what’s been true all along.

My dog, Katie, has no problem living in grace, from grace. I sure do.


On the Dark Side: Attachment to Outcomes

December 5, 2011

I don’t know where this truism came from, but it stays stuck to my frame like a worn out label. It goes like this. Life consists of four challenges: show up: be present; speak your truth; and don’t be attached to outcomes.

The zinger for me is in the last one—don’t be attached to outcomes.

I am such a future oriented person, off the Myers-Briggs chart on “intuition.” I love to plan and prioritize goals and dream of possibilities. I delight in casting the anchor way out in front of my boat and pull the rope in that direction. There’s good in that. Besides, it is just who I am. I can’t help it. But, as with all things good, there is a shadow side.

The dark side is attachments to outcomes. Of course, we hope for outcomes. I’m talking about our identity, our well being being attached, “nailed” to results. For instance, when I was pastor, I could be so caught up in where the church ought to go that I would miss appreciating where it was. I could be so invested in someone’s growth that I, laying aside evocative questions, would focus on where they needed to be. With regard to myself, how often my expectations, plans and goals could conveniently distract me from the messy, difficult, vulnerable present. Underneath, way down deep, I suspect attachments to results come from feelings of not being enough, not loving enough, not doing enough, not worth enough.

Wendell Berry, as he often does, gets to the deep place of loving. He describes this kind of “nonattachment to outcomes” love in his character Dorie Carlett’s relationship to forever-drunken Uncle Peach. “She had long ago given up hope for Uncle Peach. She cared for him without hope, because she had passed the place of turning back or looking back. Quietly, almost submissively, she propped herself against him, because in her fate and faith she was opposed to his ruin.”

Sometimes we love just because we have to in order to be who we are. That’s what I see in Dorie. Being true to her core self, loving, not changing Uncle Peach, is what motivated her.


Leading from the Heart

November 1, 2011

Leading from the heart, what might that look like? My last posting addressed leading from the mind. It highlighted that wonderful capacity within us to detach, step back, getting to the “balcony” and observe both patterns and options in a given complex situation.

Leading from the heart offers a different perspective. In this reflection, I am attempting to translate some teaching from Cynthia Bourgeault and apply it to leadership. Bourgeault, an Episcopal priest steeped in the contemplative tradition, defines the heart as the organ of alignment. This is in contrast to our accustomed thinking of the heart as the seat of emotions. Rather, see the heart as that cultivated capacity within us to discern and join the Spirit at work in a complex situation.

In a lecture about the Trinity, Bourgeault refers to the “Law of the Three.” This differs from the more familiar Hegelian schema: thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis. With thesis and antithesis as conflicting forces, we look for some synthesis, a compromise usually not satisfying to either side.

The Law of the Three is different. It posits that in many, if not most, situations, there are affirming forces and opposing or denying forces. But, according to this Law, there is also present a third force, the reconciling or creative force. By aligning with the third creative force the result can be, not just compromise, but a new thing, a new creation that is more satisfying to all parties.

Bourgeault offers two metaphors. There is the wind and the water, both opposing forces. There is creative movement only when the helmsman with tiller in hand works respectfully with the opposing forces in ways that move the sailboat forward in the desired direction.

Or, there is the sperm and the egg. By themselves, nothing happens. Only with love-making are they joined in a way that creates the new, the formation of a person.

In this Law of the Three paradigm the leader from the aligning “heart” intentionally places herself in the midst of opposing forces. Within the chaos she looks for creative possibilities that are attempting to form. She values the differences, honors the resistances and works to avoid “either-or” stances. You are willing to “hold” both sides with care. All the while, as leader, she looks for commonalities. In Genesis 1:1 fashion, she assumes that a creative Spirit is brooding within the chaos, working to bring forth fresh creations. In other words, something new is trying to be born. So, much like a midwife, the leader searches for ways to align with this birthing Spirit. And, I assume, this midwifery capacity can be cultivated over time.

With the Law of the Three in mind, I have been working on a point-of-view article for the local newspaper. With the coming spring ballot on amending the N.C. state constitution to further outlaw same-sex marriage, soon the media will be full of strident voices “for” and “against.” Along with acknowledging both opposing forces, I am wondering, might there be a creative third force at work? Where is the creative force, besides “yes” and “no” that I can align with?

I am thinking that within this divisive conversation, one truth may be overlooked: both sides value marriage. Both movements care about the sanctity of marriage. Both opposing voices are speaking for marriage in a time when the institution of marriage is itself being questioned by our society. For many, gays and straights alike, marriage looks unduly confining, an option they choose to avoid.

I go on to argue that faithful promises of covenant love in one relationship strengthens this capacity in us all. I suggest that the increasing number of same-sex couples, documented by the U.S. Census, just may enhance, not diminish, the institution of marriage. They help us hold high the “bar” of covenant love.

My point is not for you to focus on gay marriage, a topic more complicated than my few comments. Simply, I am illustrating my effort to practice the Law of the Three, this process of leading from the heart. I found it intriguing and worth playing with. Hope you do as well.


A Good Word for Un-fulfillment

August 30, 2011

I felt good about the first half of the retreat. Then something happened, perhaps only noticed by me upon reflection.

Five co-pastor teams came together for two days and I was their leader. The aim of the retreat was obvious: These are pioneering pastors eager to be with other co-pastors who are taking similar risks. These pastors, attempting a new model of congregational leadership, needed space to learn from each other’s stories. So I structured the retreat to allow for mutual learning. Indeed, it was happening as they named their joys and challenges with those who could understand.

But during the last half of the time, when I began to offer some content on leadership, a shift occurred. The agenda became more mine than theirs. They began to respond to me and less to each other. I have never been a co-pastor, yet I felt full of my multi-decades of pastoral experience. I just had to share some of my wisdom, I felt. I left the retreat, driving down the mountain, with a gut feeling of dis-ease about my leadership, yet not knowing why.

But the next morning, while re-reading Gerald May’s The Awakening Heart, I saw “it.”  The proverbial “light” came on. During the last part of the retreat, feeling full of my ideas, I was filling in the empty space so requisite to their exchanges. I ceased to hold open the space for deeper sharing to occur. In wanting the retreatants to have a “fulfilling experience” I discounted the potential of un-filled time together.

May writes: “Most importantly, the myth of fulfillment makes us miss the most beautiful aspect of our human souls: our emptiness, our incompleteness, our radical yearning for love. We were never meant to be completely fulfilled; we were meant to taste it, to long for it, and to grow toward it. In this way we participate in love becoming life, life becoming love. To miss our emptiness is, finally, to miss our hope.” (p. 103)

Don’t you hate it when you have to re-learn something you thought you knew? I have always valued unfilled spaces in my relationships. I have treated, like a mantra, Kahil Gibran’s advice about marriage: “Let there be spaces in your togetherness.” I knew that. I know that. How humbling not to act on what you know. As one friend puts it, growth is like a spiral staircase. You keep circling around to the same issues with the hope you are moving toward some measure of maturity.


Behavior Change: How Does It Happen?

July 25, 2011

Change. You and I are in the change business, more typically called by us—conversion or transformation or repentance. In our preaching, teaching, leading and pastoral care, we assume that, with God, positive/healthy/redemptive change is possible.

Yet, we lament how hard change is, how little significant behavior change actually occurs in ourselves and in others. Apostle Paul names it: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7: 18,19)

I found some help from the current research on the brain. Specifically, I pass along some findings noted in an article, “The Neuroscience of Leadership,” by Jeffrey Schwartz and David Rock (Strategy and Business, Spring, 2009)

Let’s begin by understanding the pain in change. One part of the brain (basil ganglia) is hardwired for routine, set habits, and familiar activity. It will set up a fierce fight against desired changes in behavior. When the prefrontal cortex, the hard working part of the brain, wants to implement some important change, expect the basil ganglia part of the brain to rise up with a resounding, “No. Don’t do that! Stay with what’s comfortable and predictable!” This part of the brain makes strong efforts to sabotage. Because of this persistent resistance, Skinner’s incentives, “carrot and stick” approaches to changing behavior do not last. Neither do, according to Rock and Schwartz, the approaches to change from humanistic psychology that depend on empathetic listening and self-understanding.

From this brain research, what is required in change are three things. One, from the prefrontal cortex, there must be a sustained focus of repetitive attention on the desired changes. This means practicing this new behavior regularly, even daily. From such focused attention, even in the face of discomfort and impulse to return to familiarity and routine, new patterns and connections in the brain will be formed. And eventually, the new pattern drops to the basil ganglia, becoming habitual.

Think of learning to drive a car or learning to play a song on the piano. If the repetitive focus of the prefrontal cortex remains strong during the disorienting phrase and does not yield to the resistance, eventually our driving the car or playing the song becomes more routine and comfortable. That is, the behavior comes more from the basil ganglia than prefrontal cortex.

A second insight, relevant to our work, is the place of small peer-learning groups. For example, the Toyota company has fostered behavior change through workplace sessions in each unit that occur weekly, even daily. In these meetings, workers talk about how to make things better. In the interactive, collaborative process, they are training the brain to make new connections. In fact, Rock and Schwartz note, “These shop-floor or meeting-room practices resonate deeply with the innate predispositions of the human brain.”

A third finding I find significant is the importance of self-direction in change of behavior. Any pressure to change from others, as in advice-giving, will be resisted. So for lasting change to occur, a person must choose it. This is why coaching is effective. A coach supports and honors the self-direction of the client by asking curious questions and wondering with the client about options. The motivation for change must be from self, for self-chosen goals.

I take away from this article these three things to ponder: the crucial role of regular practicing; the importance of peer-learning; and the importance of self-direction, for our change and the change we hope for in others.


On Making a New Year’s Resolution

January 3, 2011

Are you one of those, at the beginning of a new year, who makes a resolution? I am this year.

From Sue Bender’s Plain and Simple, I lift up a distinction she learned from the Amish during the months she lived with them. She experienced in them the difference in having choices and making a choice. As one who intepreted freedom as having many choices, she witnessed in the Amish the freedom granted by a framework from making a few essential choices.

When I moved from being a director of a department within a medical center to be a pastor, I relished the freedom of many choices. With the exception of worship planning/leadership, plus a sprinkling of “have to” commitments during the week, I could develop my own calendar. Each morning I would wake up to the question: “What is the best use of my time today?” I thought, what freedom to shape my ministry on my own! In time, not long actually, I felt the burden of this freedom. The fatigue of over-choice set in. I missed the framework, the structure and accountability of my former job.

We know this truth. It’s a paradox at the very heart of the gospel: “In God’s service is perfect freedom,” we declare. Or, being bound to our first love, God, is to be free from worshiping and serving other “ultimates.” Or, to promise “yes” to a life partner until death parts us is to free us to say “no” to other intimate relationships. We know this truth: freedom is not having as many choices as possible: it’s the fruit of our capacity to make a choice.

And since we are in a vocation full of expectations, requests, and opportunities coming at us, we are especially vulnerable to expending huge amounts of energy and time determining our responding choices. If it’s going to happen, it is largely up to us to make a few essential choices that frame our life in ministry, a few choices that set in place structures that assist our discerning “yes” and “no.”

Take as a case in point: your “day-off” for self-care. It is your decision what day to choose or not choose a set day-off. I observe that if pastors make a choice and it becomes the norm for them and known by staff and congregation, then the freedom to decline or negotiate requests for your time is greatly enhanced. A structure, a framework is in place.

The same principle works with committees and congregations. How often we want to protect our options, have lots of choices, leave open many possibilities—then experience how unfreeing and time/energy consuming this can be. On the contrary, from all the choices possible, how freeing and energizing making an essential choice can be.

Here is a choice I am making, my New Year’s Resolution: I will practice being present to what is before me—with wonder, love, or at least curiosity. So during times of “wool gathering” (which are many, many, many) I want to practice developing a muscle for bringing me back to “showing up” to what is before me. And I give you permission to ask me, “Mahan, how are you doing with that resolution?”

You, my friend, you with many choices, is there an essential choice you making this year?


The Time of Your Life

November 15, 2010

It’s an interesting phrase: “I’m having the time of my life!” From a faint remembrance of NT Greek, I can identify that as “ kairos”time, “wonder-full time,” as in Jesus came “in the fullness of time.”(Galatians 4:4)

These “kairos” moments of wonder/awe/astonishment are huge surprises of joy that occasionally wake us up to abundant life. But they are occasional. We can’t produce them, plan them, manipulate them. Like accidents, they just happen. Yes, our intentional anticipation makes us more “accident prone.” But “kairos” moments remain gifts, not achievements.

So, let’s think about what we do have some control over — “chronos,” the other kind of time, as in clock time, calendar time. This we have to work with: our presence in time. “I’ll stop by at 4:00” . . .”Let’s make it at your place at 11:00” . . .”Does 7:30 work for you?”

Other professionals have tangible tools to yield, drugs to dispense, documents full of rules to follow. Much of their work is scheduled; most of our work we schedule. Their day is largely structured; we, for the most part, structure our day. Most leaders report their use of time. We don’t.

I felt the difference when I moved from being a director of a hospital department to becoming a pastor again. Oh, the freedom to plan my day! But soon I was feeling, oh, the burden of this freedom, so many demands and so little time. My to-do list, created in the morning, ended the day with maybe half of the resolves checked off.

e.e. cummings has a word for us: “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best to make you somebody else, means to fight the hardest human battle ever and to never stop fighting.”

If that’s a human dilemma, and I think it is, then how much more this is true for us. We don’t have one contract about our use of time with an employer; we have multiple, ill-defined contracts with a congregation full of employers. And if our primary offering is our “presence in time,” then congregants rightfully have claims on our calendar. Their personal needs and the needs of the institution fill our schedule. Given the nature of our work, not from some evil intent, much of each day is spent responding to needs as they arise. Before we know it, we can feel defined by others, or in cummings’ words, these expectations can “make you somebody else.”

I’m interested in how you handle this freedom. As for me, this one practice helped me most in this “fight” to maintain the final word of self-identity: working at self-definition at the front end of a day or season or year.

My day was, and is, different when I can take at least an hour in the morning to remember. I turn to readings and prayer that call me back to the one mirror that reflects my deepest identity, as Abba’s beloved, as a follower of Jesus, as a graced channel of Spirit. I assume that the day will bring other mirrors that reflect lesser identities, so I try to start the day “rooted and grounded” in the Love/Life much larger than me. Then I look at the calendar’s day and week with this priority in place. What matters most about this day? How will I align myself with this Spirit today?

Also, periodically, usually every month or so, with calendar in hand, I would look at my investment of time through these questions: What does the congregation at this point in time most need from my leadership? And, what am I passionate to give?

And finally, once a year during vacation, Janice and I would review the next year, first penciling in a week of renewal for each one of us, then a week for us, and finally at least a week for the family.

I’m not discounting the truth that much of ministry is in the unplanned interruptions. To the contrary, because of this truth I attempted the ever redefining of calling, values and core identity at the front end of the day or season or year. This attention to “chronos” time made “yes” and “no” easier to discern.

I am interested in how you “fight this hardest battle” with the time of your life.


Relationships, Not Issues

October 25, 2010

Listen to the language around you. Notice how often problems are defined as “issues” e.g., the racial issue, Islamic terrorist issue, the abortion issue. Or closer to home, “Pastor, we’ve got an issue ____ that needs solving.” (You fill in the blank—“our giving is way behind the budget this year”; or “Jan doesn’t respond to e-mails fast enough.” Or, even closer, more personal, “Pastor, some of our older members don’t think you visit enough,” or, “I get lost in your sermons, not sure what your point is.”

My assumption around most “issues” is this: the problem is someone else’s fault and someone else (often you) should solve it. In family systems’ language, an “issue” (C) is often triangled in as a way to avoid the responsibility of the persons involved (A and B). Issues invite projection; the problem is out there. Issues, on the other hand, can challenge those in relationships to take responsibility for resolution.

Consider this rule of thumb: redefine issues as challenges to deepen relationships.

Let’s try this with the above examples. From “racial issue” to “How are we in relationships that cross racial lines?” From “Islamic terrorists” to “How can we foster understanding and deepen relationships with Islamic persons?” From the “abortion issue” to “How are all relationships, including with the fetus, impacted by the option of abortion?” From “Pastor, our giving is behind . . .” to “Thanks for raising this. Who do you think, along with the two of us, needs to join us in deciding how to respond?” From “Jan doesn’t . . .” to “Have you talked with her or him about your concern?” From “ . . . don’t visit enough” to “You are exactly right. Help me. Since you know these members so well, would you be willing to visit with me, perhaps even set up the appointments? A bonus would be getting to know you better.” From “getting lost in your sermons . . .” to “Thank you for letting me know. I want you to understand my messages, and I want to listen to your questions and confusions. How about us getting together over coffee and talk about last Sunday’s sermon?”

My biggest pastoral challenge in this regard was when a gay couple in the congregation asked for a public service of blessing on their commitment to each other. Most people, including the media, wanted to define this as a “gay issue.” I kept saying, with limited success, “No, this is not an issue. This is about people, two members who are part of our community. Let’s ask, ‘How will we be in relationship with Jim and Bill, with each other, with our sense of God’s purpose?” And I kept saying during our many months of discernment, “How we decide is as important as what we decide.” That is, how we listened, how we expressed ourselves, how we studied, prayed and worshipped together would either deepen our relationships or fracture them.

In retirement, I have been gifted with close Quaker friends. By valuing the leading of the Spirit within and between persons, they make every effort to listen and not coerce. In fact, for them the process of decision-making is an extension of worship. Making decisions, for them, is another way to deepen their relationships with each other, with the Spirit and with the world. That is their intention.

I suppose there are “issues” that are just that, issues. But, most of the time, I submit, they distract us from the hard work of deepening relationships.

 


The Mountain, Not the Weather

October 11, 2010

“What’s it like, Carl, when you moved from professor to pastor?” I asked. At the time, I was making a similar transition. His response, “Well, your highs will be higher and your lows will be lower.”

Carl was right. The nature of our work makes it so. Even within the same day, you can move from the thrill of celebrating the Wilson’s first born to the shock of Lou’s diagnosed, inoperable cancer . . . from the high of someone “getting it,” hearing grace to the low of another hearing “judgment, I’m not enough” . . . from the charged promises embedded in pre-marital counseling to the despairing news of Al moving out of his house . . . from the synergy of committee collaboration to the fractiousness of committee differences . . . from the hope in Alice’s baptism to the lament of Jim’s exit from the church in anger. What a roller-coaster ride ministry can be, up and down, emotionally high, emotionally low.

In some sense this is life, everybody’s life. In a given day, we are stretched between the poles of suffering and wonder. Our hearts are asked to contain huge amounts of both pain and joy.

For us, the occupational hazard is in the projections. As pastors, we stand up, stick out, and like a Rorschach test, we invite judgments all the way from “You are the best preacher I have heard”

. . .”you listen well, not like our previous pastor” . . .”you are just what we need” . . .”I love the way you put things” to “your sermons are good but I wished you visited more” . . .”you visit, I appreciate that, but I wished you studied more for your sermons” . . .”you talk about money and mission too much” . . .”You don’t speak enough about money. Just lay it on the line!” We are employed by those with the right of evaluation. Multiple employers; multiple evaluations—salted with projections.

Of course, we internalize these projections, even if for a moment, feeling special, feeling inadequate. As if riding on an emotional roller-coaster, “up” we go toward ego-inflation; “down” we go toward ego-deflation. Or as one pastor admitted, “I go from ‘I am so privileged to be doing this,’” to ‘I want to get out of here.’”

Ah, “ego” is the word. Our ego loves the excitement of roller-coaster rides. That’s not bad, but it is so limiting . . . and exhausting. There is another larger part of us, sometimes called the Self or inner observer or inner Witness or Christ within. It’s that part of us that can sit back, stroke our chin with curiosity, and ask, “What’s going on here? Where is the kernel of truth is what’s being said? What’s being ‘hooked” in me that needs the light of day?”

In my case, often lurking in the shadows was my need to be needed, to be loved, to be applauded. So these projections, if I allowed them, could invite me, once again, to thicken the truth of being loved as gift, not achievement.

Working with projections, ours and others, can be this kind of inner soul work. The “highs” and “lows,” like the weather come and go, while the mountain rests secure in its grace. At our deepest identity, we are the mountain, not the weather.


Preaching from Astonishment

August 2, 2010

“The way to faith leads through acts of wonder and radical amazement. Awe precedes faith.” (God’s Search for Man, Abraham Joshua Heschel)

I heard it first from Heschel: awe/wonder/ radical amazement precedes faith. Astonishment comes first.

Did you not find it so? At some point, and many points after, you were overwhelmed with the outrageous generosity of God. You got it! You realized with heart and mind that all living beings, including yourself, are enfolded in a gracious Mystery, most clear but not limited to Jesus. Amazing! You “saw” it, that the love you are wired for is already present, a gift to be received and lived from. In those moments that interrupted times of doubt and despair, you turned (repented), trusting yourself to this “hold on to your hat,” astonishing Presence. And your initial “turnings” led you to ordination then on to pastoral leadership.

But astonishment is hard to sustain. Like love, astonishment is both an effortless happening and the result of constant effort. We fall in love; we create love. Love happens to us; we make love happen. So it is with astonishment, awe, radical amazement.

With this in mind, let’s think about preaching. It can be difficult to sustain astonishment in our preaching. After all, as pastors, you preach—say, forty sermons a year, not counting the funeral and wedding messages. How can something so regular maintain its mystery and wonder?

Let’s get even more specific and practical. And personal too. I’m remembering a typical week of sermon preparation. For me it started on Monday. I loved, well mostly, I loved the discipline of wrestling with a text. It’s a spiritual practice I miss. Early in the week my pattern was to live with the text—think, pray and play with it, carry it around with me to the hospital and committee meetings. The text for the week was always just over my right shoulder.

Then about Wednesday I would pull out the commentaries and take some notes. Thursday, for me, was “fish or cut bait” time, because Sunday was a comin.’ With earnesty now, I looked for a path within the forest of possibilities in my head and notes before me. If sermons make one basic point, then by Thursday I was agonizing over the question, “What’s the point in this text that pierces? Where am I going with this? Where is it taking me?” This could be a very anxious moment for me. Sunday is coming closer and no clear point is emerging. No clear path could be seen. By now it might be Friday or even Saturday.

Over the years I developed this practice: With various ideas and the text before me, I kept asking over and over, “What’s astonishing about this text? Where am I being surprised and radically amazed by this passage? What about this scripture both summons and confronts me, and through me the church and community?”

Recently I was overhearing a debate about how much of the preacher’s life should show in the sermon. I think this is a confusing question. If this means lots of personal references, then we should wonder about ego promotion. But if this means the passion of the preacher about the text, then that is another matter. I assume the person in the pew benefits from our open and lively engagement of the Message. This invites their lively engagement with the text. They want to feel our passion, our curiosity, our questions, and, yes, our excitements.

I’m saying that the most important aspect of sermon preparation is your wrestling with the text—however long it takes—until it blesses you with astonishment. It’s the place to preach from.

How do you hear this?


Graceful, Grace-fueled Practicing

March 15, 2010

With the word, “practice,” have I lost you already?

Spiritual practices can be heavy with expectation, especially self-expectation: “I should pray more, more Sabbath time, more rest, more exercise—more, more, more.” Practices, so subtly, become something you do to reach where you ought to be spiritually. This has a whiff of acquiring, accomplishing, “works righteousness,” to use a traditional phrase.

Wonder with me, can spiritual practicing be graceful, grace-fueled?

We were wrapping up another banjo lesson. Cary Fridley, my teacher, began describing the work involved in “cutting” her next CD: recruiting musicians, practicing privately, practicing together again and again—all in preparation for the final recording session.

“I get increasingly anxious as we approach the recording, she admitted. “Well,” I asked, “what helps you with your anxiety?” Her response was profound beyond her knowing. When I can get to that place where the music is more important than me, then I am not anxious.”

You have been to that place. Recall a time in the pulpit when an inner shift occurs. You get to that place where the “message” becomes more important than your delivery. Self-consciousness fades; “other”-consciousness arises. You feel carried by Something larger, unpredictable, mysterious. It’s no longer, you preaching a sermon. The sermon, it seems, is being preached through you. There is a flow, a freedom, a sense of participating in a Force not your own. How often have I gotten to that place? Not often.

Or, in the midst of an intense pastoral situation, you find yourself at loss for words. Anxiety churns within. You don’t know what to say. Then, on occasion, from that silent place of emptiness and yearning, words come, right words, words that carry grace and truth. You walk away knowing you had received a gift beyond your wisdom. How often have I gotten to that place? Not often.

Or, even in the midst of a committee or congregational meeting “It” can happen. Anxiety is high. Differences are polarizing. Reactivity abounds. Then, miraculously it seems, enough people get to that place beyond self-serving. Here and there, listening happens; truth telling is risked; options surface. Something More than our selves, a Spirit, seems to be at work. The mutual possibilities, the hopes (the Music) become more important than personal points of view (the players). How often have I seen church members get to that place? Not often.

Consider this: spiritual practices help you experience that place more often. All of us from time to time, as noted, know moments of self-transcendence when we cease to be the center of the action. I’m saying that practices help move us from “time to time” to “often,” from occasional “peak experiences” to daily experiences. Spiritual practices develop an inner capacity for detecting and surrendering to the Holy. They sharpen our sensitivities to the Spirit at work in the world. Like with a musician, practicing doesn’t make the Music happen; rather, it allows the Music to be heard and played.

How then can this practicing be graceful and grace-fueled? Well, it’s a matter of where we start. A musician is first captivated by the music, then she begins practicing. We were first loved, then we began learning how to love. You and I were captivated by the Way of Jesus, then we began to practice our vocation of ministry. We start with Grace. You were brought to your knees before this amazement: you are, along with every living being, unconditionally beloved, valued, forgiven, and delighted in—- all gift, not achievement. Made in the image of God, your true nature is to love, to create, and give. This is who you are. This is who I am at my core. This news about you, and all creation, is the Music that resonates deeply and profoundly.

So, practices ring the bell that awakens us to what we already are. Again and again, they break through the amnesia, reminding us of what is given, not achieved. They recall us to our deepest identity as beloved of God. Practices in this sense don’t get us somewhere; they remind us we are already at home in a love from which nothing in life or death, now or later can separate us. Spiritual practices invite us to fall into that Love, regularly as a daily discipline.

Simple? Yes, radically simple, as simple as waking up or putting on a pair of glasses or remembering something forgotten.

Simple, but, oh, so costly. By waking up to our true identity in God’s love, we then begin to practice dis-identifying from every dependency on others to validate us, including ministry. By recognizing our given worth, we then begin to practice letting go of all the ways we attempt to earn our worth, including ministry. By becoming aware of grace, we then begin to practice dying to our ego’s claim as center of our lives.

Grace is the starting point. Grace fuels the practicing. But it is a costly grace. It costs the surrender of every effort at self-justification along the way of transformation.

Seems to me that it’s all about getting to that place where the Music is more important than me. How about you?