Triangling in the Text: A Re-Frame That Mattered

June 1, 2015

Friends, I have revised my website and blog to reflect this time in my life. The reflections will be “re-frames” that have mattered in my years of pastoral ministry. I’m grateful that this astounding technology makes possible on-going connections with you and others. For this to be possible at my age and from my home is a gift beyond measure. I treasure your participation.  

 . . .

With this first re-frame, let’s go to a characteristic aspect of our work—preaching. Addressing regularly the same community over multiple years is unique among professions.

When I retired someone asked me, “Mahan, will you miss preaching?” Without hesitation I blurted out, “Yeah, I sure will. How will I know what I believe?” It’s true. Preaching was the opportunity to work out my sense of the gospel’s take on the meaning of life with a community of soul friends week after week after week . . . in my latest instance, for fifteen years. It became an on-going conversation that starts with the life and lives of the congregation and returns to the life and lives of the congregation. Each Sunday after stepping up to the pulpit I could have said, “Now . . . as we were saying.” There’s nothing like it: this on-going conversation about faith, hope and love with people you know and who know you. Preaching, while never losing its sense of audacity and chutzpah, came increasingly to feel like an unimagined privilege.

But privilege was not my word for preaching during the first part of my pastoral ministry. “Performance” was the word. I felt an enormous pressure to “make it happen.” My congregation deserved my very best. And more to the point, my competence was “on the line” week in and week out. More than I like to admit, it was about me, an awareness frequently confirmed by after-comments: “That was a great sermon . . . you really touched me today . . . you are getting better and better.” These responses, of course, just pushed me to try harder.

But along my learning curve of this art appeared a fresh, new concept that named what I was beginning to intuit. It is a re-frame that changed my understanding of preaching. The gift came from friend of preachers, Walter Brueggemann, drawing on an insight from family systems theorist Murray Bowen in an article “The Preacher, The Text, and the People,” (Theology Today 47 1990. 237–47).

Bowen noted that life requires homeostasis (balance and stability). For instance, a tripod requires three legs, not two, in order to be stable. Similarly, when two human beings feel unstable, they often “triangle” in a third person or issue as a way of reducing the tension and sustaining the balance between them. You know well the experience. Recall two parishioners in conflict who (likely unconsciously) “triangle” you in as problem-solver or maybe even as the “problem.” This reduces the tension in their relationship while leaving you holding the anxiety. These lethal triangles are “bread and butter” challenges for pastors.

But the re-frame so helpful to me is a positive use of “triangling.” Brueggemann calls on the triangle concept in family systems theory to present his understanding of preaching. Preaching is generally seen as occurring between pastor/preacher (A) and people/congregation (B). It sure looks that way: preacher in the pulpit addressing people in pew; preacher speaking, congregation listening; preacher interpreting scripture, people agreeing or not agreeing. It’s an interaction between only A and B, it seems. And when the conversation is controversial, it’s predictably a win-lose proposition, some agreeing with the preacher, others not. In either case, the focus remains on the preacher and sermon.

(C) text

SilerTriangle

(A) preacher               (B) congregation

What if, as Brueggemann suggests, the voice of the biblical text is “triangled” in as “C”? I’m not talking about “tipping our hat” to the text, seeing the text as a jumping off place for our untethered imagination. Rather, in Brueggemann’s thinking, you as preacher (A), along with the congregation (B), come under the authority of the text (C). It’s the text that matters. It’s the sense of God’s Word through words—scripture and ours—that matters.

I found this perspective liberating. When I allowed it, I was no longer performing. It lifted the burden I felt to interpret brilliantly, to craft a polished sermon, to declare a memorable message. I was freed to realize that I am not the subject. My sermon is not the subject. The text is the subject. God is the subject. Christ is the subject. Spirit is the subject. The “triangle” makes it clear. The primary action is between the congregation and the text, not between the congregation and me.

We, as preachers, are left with the privilege to engage the meaning of the text out loud hoping all along that the preaching stimulates the member’s interaction with the text. My role becomes more prompter than expert. I was to honestly struggle, play and fuss with the text—in public—wanting my words to provoke a similar engagement between listener and text, “B” with “C,” parishioner with Spirit. We say in effect: “Friends, this is what I see, feel and hear in this text. Here is where it takes me. This is where it can take us. Where does it take you? What do you see, feel and hear? ”The shift occurs: the sermon becomes primarily about God and the congregation, not about you and the congregation.

I found this re-frame transformative. It re-shaped my vision of preaching. And more importantly, on occasion I could internalize this truth emotionally and spiritually.

This way of re-framing preaching is also a way to conceptualize leadership. That will be the subject of the next Re-frame.


Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

July 8, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

Since that day I have been pondering two questions.

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

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

Thanks, Jacob.