Seeing Under Water: A Re-Frame That Mattered

January 10, 2017

I was trying to shoe-horn one worldview into a shoe that didn’t fit. It took me a while, and not without some blisters, before I realized it. Here is what I think happened.

My formation as a person and pastor took place within Newtonian thinking. This map or worldview pictures reality as a machine with individual separate parts that, if working well, hums along with clockwork precision.

This map accents the importance of individual development, individual rights, and individual salvation, with individual teachers and professors providing guidance. My seminary was divided into separate, individual departments: biblical, historical, theological, and practical. Even theology was broken into parts — Neo-Orthodox, feminist, liberation, process, Old and New Testament theologies, etc. Very able and caring specialists, all ordained, were preparing me to be a generalist practitioner with non-ordained laity.

It was just assumed that I would be able, largely on my own, to synthesize this huge body of knowledge coming from separate disciplines. When I came to my first post as pastor, on one hand, I had never known so much; on the other hand, I had never known that so much was not integrated.

So I began my pastoral ministry as I had lived my life. I envisioned the congregation as a functioning machine with individual members. It looked that way. In committee meetings I would lead with clear agendas but, more often than not, I left these meetings frustrated over unexpected interactions that colored outside the lines. I encouraged a long-range planning process with goals and objectives precisely negotiated, only to find that after a few months this crafted plan had lost its steam. Similarly I would begin each day with a carefully thought out to-do list and end the day with only two or three “to-dos” crossed out. In those days I was scratching my head. The congregation was far from a smooth humming machine. There was something missing and it wasn’t more oil.

Like a slow dawning I began to see beyond the Newtonian map. Church work, I realized, is all about relationships; more like family and friendship, less like a machine with separate parts. And relationships are unpredictable — from order to disorder to order again, ever changing, full of surprises, all happening within a general frame of commitment.

A shift began to occur. In a committee meeting, for instance, a person might introduce an idea that sparks other ideas and synergy occurs. Yet this synergy would dismantle any tight, straight-line agenda.

Long-range planning that projected our life together five or ten years in the future was laid aside as a futile exercise. Yes, dialogue about direction is critical and can be energizing, but precise plans will always evaporate beneath uncontrollable, uncertain forces of change. The context of church work is always about ever-changing relationships within ever-changing environments, with no semblance of machine-like precision.

And let’s don’t leave out my frustration from interruptions to a carefully scheduled day. The common thread of these interruptions to daily planning was relationships — a member in crisis needing to talk now; a colleague needing some “time”; someone wanting to join (or leave) the church; a prolonged hospital visit; a call, “Have you got a minute?”; a death, a job loss, a birth, a complaint; a question about your sermon. The list of possible interruptions is endless. But each one happens within relationship; each one is about relationships; and each one opens the possibility for more life-giving relationships. Engaging the interruptions, in this sense, was my work.

The mystic Rumi names this awareness: “You think because you understand one you must also understand two, because one and one make two. But you must also understand and.”

That’s it. That is what I am raising with you, namely, understanding the “and,” the invisible, in-between energy in relationships. This was not simply for me an on-the-job learning. During those years I was being awakened by other forces pressing for a post-Newtonian worldview — quantum physics, feminism, systems theory, chaos theory, the Buddhist truth of inter-being, the South African “ubuntu,” Buber’s I-Thou, and the recovery of our contemplative tradition with its accent on the unitive, non-dual, non-separation consciousness of Jesus, as in “love your neighbor as yourself” (not like you love yourself) and Paul’s vision of the church as Christ’s organic body.

I am raising with you what you already know and experience. You too have moved from a strictly Newtonian worldview. But we tend to forget. Non-dual awareness is not our general way of seeing unless we intentionally choose to be conscious of the unseen reality of “and.” Marcel Proust wrote that “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes.” I am writing about new eyes.

A metaphor can help us. The nature mystic Loren Eiseley suggests that we humans are like the Brazilian amphibian fish whose eyes have two lenses, one for seeing under the water and one for seeing above the water.

Above water you and I see individuals and marvel at their distinctive personalities and peculiarities. We differentiate, separate, compare, distinguish. To live in our culture is to be immersed in these waters of individualism. The French social critic Alexis de Tocqueville named this characteristic early in our history: “They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine that their whole destiny is in their hands.” This heritage is in our bones, our DNA. It’s a map of reality — a Newtonian map — that has benefited us greatly. But it’s limited, oh so limited.

Under water we see through another set of lenses. We see relationships and individuals within relationships. We see the invisible “and,” the in-between spirit, the Kingdom of God that Jesus announced that is within and between us. Through these lenses (this map or worldview) we see this deeper truth, the underwater truth — everything is inter-connected, inter-being. According to this map separation into parts is an illusion.

Imagine holding a banana in your hands. Above water seeing recognizes its distinctive texture, color and other separate features. But to see under water is to realize all the relationships that make possible this banana’s presence in your hand at this moment — the connections with the tree, soil, rain, and sun, with the harvesters, transporters, and sellers, and now with the banana in your hand. Suddenly, when you see this, you are caught up in banana wonder.

Love, the core and point of our faith, is invisible, relational energy. God is Love; Love is God. But love makes no sense apart from relationships. To see this is to unwrap a different map than the familiar Newtonian map that names separate locations, separate persons, separate institutions, separate parts. It’s the map or worldview that Thomas Merton unfolds: “We are already one. But we imagine we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to do is be what we already are.”

The problem, it seems, is that most people only see above ground. Their vision of life is binary with its separation thinking — you-me, either-or, right-wrong, in-out, up-down. For many, perhaps for most people, the map of distinctions and differentiation is the only map they live by.

In a poetic moment Merton marks his waking up from a dream of separateness only to see everyone walking, shining like the sun. And he later writes, “We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and God is shining through it all the time … in people and things and in nature and in events. But the problem is — we don’t see it!”

So what if we see it as pastors? What difference would it make if this awareness of relational synergy was the way we went about our work? I have already referenced committee meetings, long-range planning, and our daily “to-do” list. I’ll suggest a few more.

Take feedback for instance. I found feedback, at its best, to be direct and relational. At any of the numerous church meetings, what if you saved ten or fifteen minutes to ask, “Well, how did we work together? What helped? What got in the way?” You are assessing the strengths of collaboration, not primarily individual contributions.

Or a member may comment, “Pastor I really liked (or didn’t like) what you said.” At that point you could shift to, “Can we get together and talk about it?” Or, in a strained relationship sometimes a bold question is needed: “Sam, can we talk about our relationship? It’s important to me. What’s working? What’s not?”

Marriage is obviously a relationship. Seeing above water we focus on the growth and well-being of each individual. What is frequently left out is the under water, invisible “and” dimension — the growth and well-being of the relationship. It’s not so obvious.

Or, consider your congregation’s way of making decisions. This assumption you can bank on: relationships will either deepen or diminish in every decision-making process. During challenging congregational decisions I kept declaring, like a mantra, that the way we make this decision (how we relate) is as important, maybe more important, than what we decide.

And there are always issues to deal with. Problems and challenges are often couched as issues. I submit that issues can be and should be re-defined as challenges to relationships. For example, the “racial issue” can be re-defined as “How will we be in relationship with those of different skin color?” Or the “gay or LGBTQ issue” is more appropriately “How will we be in mutual relationship?”

Then, note that all the church rituals tap into this relational synergy. If done well, relationships — the in-between part, the “and” — will strengthen. At the wedding the two individuals enter separately from different directions, meet to make covenant with each other, God, and family, and finally exit the ceremony as one in community. Baptisms are not about individuals being sprinkled or immersed. Rather, we are sprinkled or immersed into community, a web of relationships, a body working together at embodying the mind of Christ. At funerals we celebrate Love from which we cannot be separated and remind ourselves that while loving relationships change they do not end. And the Eucharist is relational energy through and through, re-member-ing who we already are — a Communion, a Body.

So over time I came to appreciate two maps. One, the Newtonian map, which highlighted individual effort, differentiation, separation, and binary thinking, I inherited. The second post-Newtonian map with its awareness of relational synergy came to me as a gift along the way. Gradually, not abruptly, the new awareness took hold: Love — the business of church — is all about unpredictable, messy, creative, destructive, exciting relationships that carry the yearning for Shalom, the inter-abiding dream of God.

And yes, God is alive in all these relationships — luring, challenging, healing, forgiving, dancing with joy. God is present in and around and between and under and behind and ahead. In every relationship God is shining through, whether we are aware or not. Whether we know it or not, we are all in relationship with God, with each other, and with all that lives. The Spirit is relational synergy; the relational synergy is the Spirit.

Life is all about relationships. Ministry is all about relationships. It took me many years to see it, to see under water. It became a re-frame that mattered.

 


Agent of Change: A Re-frame That Mattered

October 18, 2016

Change is at the core of our vocation. We hear it in the weighty words like repentance, conversion, redemption, transformation, and reconciliation. But how change occurs is complex, more mystery than not. During my walking around in this mystery I came across a pair of glasses that helped me see from a particular angle.

I came out of seminary excited, feeling ready to be an agent of change. The Search Committee that offered my first pastoral opportunity shared a similar expectation. They proposed: “Here is where we are as a congregation. Here is where we want to be.” The subliminal message I heard: “Your leadership can change us.” So I set about to be an agent of their change?

But along the way — about five years actually — I began to question my capacity to change “the other.” It didn’t work. A particular change might be willed for a period, but when the pressure was released the behavior went back to previous patterns. It didn’t work with my wife, not with my children, not with friends, not with the congregation, and not with myself. Any willful effort to change always invited the counter force of resistance. Clearly, something was missing in my view of change.

What was missing — and it became a re-frame that mattered — is understanding change from a systems’ perspective. It speaks counter-intuitively: focus on yourself, not your congregation, and that, to some degree, will change the congregation. You work on yourself — your clarity of vision, your learning, your integrity, your transformation, your responses, your relationships, your questions, your calling, your presence. It all sounds totally self-serving and selfish until you see the paradox: by working on changing yourself you change the system. By focusing on our functioning in relationships we change the relationships. This perspective — centering in on changing self not congregation — felt like a 180-degree turn.

Let’s review the systems view of change. Imagine a system as a mobile with various hanging, dangling parts. We know from experience that if the height of one part is changed, then the total mobile is changed. All the parts of the mobile are thrown out of balance until the force of togetherness (homeostasis) brings the parts into balance again … but in slightly new positions.

Remember a sermon in which you took a stand that challenged the congregation. It was a new position you were taking, like changing your part of the mobile. The sermon was unsettling. The congregation, like a mobile, was thrown out of balance, however slightly. But you also noticed, either immediately or over time, there was a power in the congregational system at work pulling toward a new stability. The mobile-like congregation eventually settled down into a new balance, somewhat changed.

Or, imagine a number of separate parts connected to each other by rubber bands. Let’s say that you take one part and pull it upward to a new position. Note what happens. All the rubber bands, not just one, are stretched. Then, three possibilities emerge. One, all the rubber bands connecting the other parts could pull the deviant part back to the comfort level of what had been. Or, the deviant part will stretch so far that the band will break, causing a “cut off,” a disconnection. Or, the pull of the adventurous part could invite all of the parts to change in that direction to some degree.

Think again of that same visionary sermon you preached. Notice the options: Did your vision get no traction, no movement of change from the system, with congregants saying in effect, “We are not ready for that”? If so, you go back and wait for another opportunity. Or, was the vision so “far out” it was rejected, “cut off” like the break of a rubber band? Or, was there enough curiosity and excitement from congregants for there to be significant movement toward the vision articulated in the sermon?

Each metaphor illustrates the central point: changing yourself, your position in any relational system changes in some way the relational system as a whole, whether it’s two people or an entire congregation.

While we cannot change the other, we can offer with clarity the changes occurring in us in a way that invites the possibility of significant change happening in them. We challenge by defining our self in relationships. Note this difference. To try to change another is to say, “This is what I think you should believe or do or be.” It’s a “you” message. To focus on our self is to send an “I” message. My message, “Here is where I am with … (issue, situation, belief, conflict). This is what I see or feel,” contains an inherent invitation, “Where are you with this? What do you see or feel?” By focusing on defining yourself and offering that self-awareness, you challenge the other person or persons to do the same, namely, to take responsibility for defining themselves. And these mutual self-expressions create change, hopefully change toward growth and maturity.

This is the essential interaction: This is what I see; what do you see? It’s present in preaching — this is what I see in this text; what do you see? Or in a committee meeting, “This is where I see the connection with our mission; how about you?” These interactions strengthen mutual capacity to take responsibility for our thinking, feeling, and doing.

But this is an important clarity. This focus on self is not to be confused with autonomy or independence or self-differentiation alone. In systems’ thinking, according to Murray Bowen and his interpreter Ed Friedman, a self is a connected self, a self in relationship. The self is always in relationship, like the parts of a mobile and the rubber bands illustrated in my two metaphors. There is so such thing as a separate self. I once heard Friedman muse, “Maybe life is all about how to be a self in relationship.” That’s the heart of it. That’s the challenge of it. It’s the essence of leadership.

I found in this re-frame both a gift and cost. The gift is the energy saved in efforts to change the other. Simply put, willful leadership is exhausting. There is relief in realizing that we cannot motivate people to change, as if we know what others need to become. It’s freeing, not wearying, to stay focused on questioning, challenging, offering, and inviting.

While the gift of this re-frame is huge, I experienced cost from it as well. I did so in three ways. First, because you and others will inevitably “see” differently, conflict can be expected. And if the differences become heated then your work is how to stay connected without agreement. It is costly, hard work to stay in relationship when differences are being mutually voiced and felt. This takes time, emotion, patience, vulnerability, and detachment from outcome.

A second cost. Don’t underestimate the time, maturity and effort it takes to find the space within yourself to clarify your responses. This work of self-definition is demanding. To react from our oldest “reptilian” part of the brain is quick and easy; to respond with thought-through, non-anxious words and presence reflects years of inner work.

A third cost. Challenging others with what you see, along with the invitation for them to do the same while staying in relationship — well, that’s a tall order. It’s an unrealistic ideal to expect such maturity from everybody, including yourself. Leading from self-differentiation will elicit multiple responses: some will be unable to respond with “I” statements; some will experience your self-definition as coercive; some will misinterpret your intent and content; and some will blame you for challenging the status quo. The stretch of the “rubber band” may be too much, too fast, too threatening. No one told me that this expression of intentional leadership could reap so much misunderstanding and loneliness. While systems’ thinking altered my understanding of change, I had to look elsewhere to find the inner strength required to adopt it.

Being a part of change within our multiple relationships is at the heart and in the heart of our call. We are about transformation. In this reflection, like a pair a glasses, I’ve offered one aspect of change I came to see more clearly. For me it was a shift: from focusing on changing others to focusing on changing myself, and from that place stimulate and engage others in their choices. It became a re-frame that mattered.


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

 


Dis-establishment: A Re-frame That Mattered

May 24, 2016

The frame church as established and dominant began to crack and then disintegrate early in my ministry. For so long I didn’t have a frame to replace it. I couldn’t find the clarity I needed to lead a congregation.

In the early 80’s the Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall appeared on my life stage, soon assuming a major role. His bold insight became a re-frame that mattered. With convincing lucidity he announced: Christendom is over! The 1,500 years of church prominence in Western civilization is at the end of its ending. Rejoice! Be glad! Claim the freedom in shaping a new future of Christianity!

Perhaps my journey toward this clarity might sufficiently parallel your experience, enough so to make sense of this new perspective.

Born in 1934, a Knoxville, Tennessee native, growing up during “pre” to “post” World War II years, I experienced the church as established. Like other standing institutions (governmental, legal, educational, medical) the church in its varied forms was visible and prominent, its permanence assumed. It was a dependable trellis, a trustworthy frame that seemed to uphold the moral structure of the community. In those days religious identity was generally inherited, much like skin color or last name.

Gestures of this establishment were conspicuous: church and state arm and arm in the “war effort”; opening prayer at civic occasions, even football games; attendance at church services more the norm than not; “ministerial discounts” for pastors; church property as tax free; Jews in their ghettos, Muslims non-existent. After all, we were a Christian nation.

During my university years I came alive with a sense of larger purpose. Defining myself within the Jesus story took me to seminary to learn more. Serving the church vocationally was not my motivator at the time. During my seminary years the church was still firmly established, with Protestant Christianity presumed to be the dominant religion nationally and the superior religion globally. Foreign missionaries bore the badge of supreme devotion.

But gaping cracks were appearing in the established church. The Secular City by Harvey Cox announced the growing assumption of secularism. As graduate students we pondered the meaning of Bonhoeffer’s inscrutable phrase, “religion-less” faith; the “death of God” theologians were even more mystifying. Various religious and non-religious worldviews surfaced as the norm in our neighborhoods and workplace. All the while, loyalty to congregation and denomination was eroding. Even the renewal movements of the time felt like efforts to recover something important that was lost and needed recapturing.

Yet churches were growing, or were expected to, when I assumed my first position as pastor in 1967. Still fueled by the optimism of post-war years, the American economy, American global power, and suburban congregations were growing. Once a pastor accepted the role, it was assumed that, given effective leadership, the congregation would surely grow larger. Anything less would be failure.

But an uncertainty persisted. Something was changing that I couldn’t see, name, or measure. It seemed that deep underground plates were shifting — “foundations were shaking,” to borrow Tillich’s phrase. I just couldn’t settle the questions: What is the church for? What is a pastor for? No longer could I embrace without question the church’s mission to “save” people, win souls, convert the world to Christ. Equally dissatisfying was defining the church as another social agency that served the world in its need for mercy, healing, and justice. After all, weren’t we still called to share the hope within us? And wasn’t this a hope in God, from God?

Along came Douglas John Hall just when I needed him. He offered a clear frame that gave borders to my confusion. Hall invited me to step back . . . way, way back to see the larger picture. I heard him saying: “Open your eyes. See it! See the evidence all around us. Christianity in Western civilization is winding down from its privileged status that began in the 4th century. Face it. We are experiencing the end of Christendom’s fifteen hundred years of church prominence.”

Hall’s framing differentiates a beginning and ending. The beginning was Emperor Constantine’s adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the empire in the 4th century; the ending, after fifteen hundred years, was a gradual decline of the church’s established and dominant positions. These two great social transitions mark the history of the western church. During those centuries empires, kings, philosophers, and political systems came and went. But through it all the church in the West maintained its superiority as the official religion. While it’s true that during these centuries there had always been small alternative faith communities, the larger church always maintained its established status. Hall convincingly names the bit-by-bit ending of Christendom, noting its few remaining vestiges in places like the southern states in our country.

Then Hall, once he makes his compelling case, responds with a surprising challenge: “Welcome dis-establishment! Don’t fret it. Embrace it! Claim the gift of it for the church in our time!”

I remember thinking that it was no wonder I had been confused. It’s appropriate to be confused when the church we serve is experiencing the end of a fifteen-hundred-year period of dominance. Of course the future is uncertain with no clear path forward. How could this awkward moment in history be otherwise?

The gift from this new frame was this: as pastor, I felt invited to sit down before a new set of questions.

The old establishment questions are familiar: How can we attract members? How can we raise the budget? How can we keep our building repaired? These are worthy questions, ones that I dutifully asked as a leader of an established congregation that was just beginning to feel the angst of this vast transition. But these inquiries are secondary questions.

With dis-establishment confirmed, I felt the excitement of different questions, more basic and future oriented:

  • What does following Jesus look like in our time?
  • What is the church for?
  • What is the pastor for?
  • What new metaphors, forms, and directions are trying to be born within us?
  • What are we being asked to let go of that is no longer life-giving?
  • How do we respond respectfully to those among us grieving the loss of what was?
  • Being increasingly dis-established, side-lined, and alternative, how can we learn from other Christian communities throughout church history whose witness was anti-establishment, marginal, and alternative? (See Bass, A People’s History of Christianity)
  • How can we respond to the particular longings of our time? (Hall, in The End of Christendom and the Future of Christianity, mentions four such longings, or quests: the quests for moral authenticity, meaningful community, transcendence and mystery, and meaning.)

To reiterate a former point, in our nation and particularly in the South, ample vestiges of Establishment are still present, so much so that some deny that such a major social and religious shift is occurring. Any pastor can identify those members who believe that “if we could just do ‘this’ or try ‘that’ then our church could return to its ‘better’ days.” The denial of death, so strong and deep within each of us, is an equally powerful drive in us institutionally. In another Re-frame I express an overlapping observation with this Re-frame today: pastors are both hospice chaplains and mid-wives. We stand in the breach between what is ending and what is being born.

This too I appreciate from Hall: he pictures the church of today and tomorrow as coming alongside the church in the first centuries before Constantine. Those first followers of Jesus, not inhibited by being a minority, even at times a persecuted minority, claimed the transforming power of the small. In parallel, we too can be small, feisty communities of our day. The favorite metaphors of Jesus can be ours to manifest in fresh ways by self-identifying as salt, yeast, and seeds — as a small “light shining before others.” (Matthew 5: 16)

Thanks to you, Douglas John Hall, for your location of the contemporary western church. Your frame, when I allowed it, gave me new questions to live as I went about my leading, preaching, teaching, and pastoral caring. You invited a lightness, curiosity, and trust in the Spirit at work in our dying and in our rising. You gave me a re-frame that mattered.

 


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.

 


Falling Upward: A Re-Frame That Mattered

April 13, 2016

Life’s theme—walk, stumble, fall, up again, dust off, move on. In big and small ways that’s a drama we know.

This particular re-frame rises from a fall, felt as a huge failure. It may be an example of what current elder Richard Rohr calls “falling upward.” In my case, while the fall was abrupt, the upward part was gradual and uneven, its trajectory only clear from this perch of time and distance.

I live by the verse, “Without a vision, the people perish.” Possibility thinking. Long-range planning. Defining expectations. Goal orientation. I register as a strong intuitive on the Myers-Briggs Indicator, one who relishes “big picture” thinking. But surprisingly, along my vocational path I tripped over the visionary’s counter truth: “By attaching to a vision, people—including myself—can likewise perish.” That danger hints at the nature of this re-frame.

I came from seminary fresh with a vision of what church could be. During those seven years I built a solid platform from which to launch my vocation. After graduation a Washington D.C. suburban congregation became a willing partner in this good work. Beginning in 1967 my partner and I entered a season of suburban flight, rising black power awareness, the push for fair housing, assassinations of leaders, the Civil Rights Movement embodied for us in the Poor People’s Campaign, and, most of all, the Vietnam War that took many of our husbands, fathers, and sons away for a year or more at a time. Some came home in “body bags.” It was a turbulent season for families and nation. The exhilaration of this vortex was addictive. I found seductive these reverberations moving through our little congregation, so eager, as I was, to be a “light set on a hill.”

The congregation was collaborator in my visionary dreaming. At least, the leaders were. I was a young man joining a young, seven-year-old congregation ripe for large visions of what could be. We became a co-dependent pair—the church and me—rightly excited by the challenges, but also, as I came to see, primed for the lure of lofty self-ideals.

At about the five-year mark I hit a wall. I had never encountered a barrier that I couldn’t scale or circumvent, due, in large part, to privileges from being “born on third base.” But this wall was different. Trying harder only deepened the ruts of physical and spiritual exhaustion. My usual ways of coping, such as taking a few days off, didn’t dent the hardening mixture of depression and bewilderment. Something had to give.

The “give” was resigning my position with no vocational place to go. Our family of six retreated to the mountains, moved into in a friend’s empty trailer, and pieced together a “living” while granting ourselves a year to re-group. It felt like a divorce from a vocation and congregation I loved. And, like a divorce, most friends and family didn’t know what to say. And, truthfully, I didn’t know what to say either.

An epiphany came early in this year of withdrawal. It was 1972, an autumn day, bright sun above, Blue Ridge mountains in the distance, with a gentle breeze near as breath. Only a month had passed since my resignation; I was still seeking sense of what had happened. Sitting on a bench, absorbing the beauty, I began re-reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. My eyes fell on these searing words:

God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself . . . He acts as the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.”

I asked myself, “Is that what happened?” and quickly answered, “Yes!” There it was, painfully clear. I traced in my mind the downward spiral Bonhoeffer named. First, fashioning a “visionary ideal of community”; then, when it wasn’t realized, blaming the church, then God, and finally the self. I don’t recall ever blaming God, but I sure did a “number” on myself, accusing myself of inadequate self-care, over-functioning, and not being enough—in other words, for failing at my first full-time gig as pastor.

My ending at this church was not that simple. My resignation was many-layered, as all of them are. But that autumn day on the bench something shifted. Bonhoeffer’s sharp insight lanced the boil of my church-ideal and self-ideal as pastor. My lofty expectations, for self and others, lay exposed like shards from a broken pot. How clear it was, my deeply ingrained need to produce results. I remember thinking, “Have I loved our dreams, our goals, our possibilities, more than I loved the people? Was I so focused on ‘getting somewhere’ that I missed the marvel of being who and where we already were?”

Simply, the re-frame is this. Focus less on outcomes; re-focus on the here-and-now complexity, truth, and beauty of relationships. I faced a new awareness: dependence on results had become a primary source of personal satisfaction, robbing me of the joy in simply doing the work.

It was a turning. A clarity surfaced from those months. Being well formed—having dreams, developing leadership habits, honing pastoral skills, developing self-awareness, and working out my pastoral identity—is what Rohr calls “first half of life” work. But this good work proved insufficient as an adequate base on which to build a vocation. It was not enough. I was not enough. We were not enough.

There is more, namely, trans-formation, transcending while including ego. Forming a strong ego is imperative, but only as a conduit for the transforming power of Love. So, having visions is crucial. Dreams give direction. But attaching ego to them is fatal. To do so not only jerks us out of the present but tempts us to wed our well-being to their realization.

This failure in 1972 offered a gift. From this fall I saw clearly on a deeper level what I had been preaching all along, namely, that ministry, as is all of life, is grace, not achievement. What I most wanted was already given. Visionary dreaming could then take its rightful place as playful longings of “what ifs.” From that “gap” year I began a gradual, wavering shift of awareness from living my life in ministry to a sense of being lived through by a larger Life. Paradoxically, ministry continued to be mine, yet not mine.

I can still see myself sitting alone on that bench, the distant mountains in view, feeling the sun’s warmth and the soft breeze, reading the words from Bonhoeffer. I closed the book gently, knowing that I had just taken a turn in my journey.

 


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.


Pulling Back the Veil: A Re-Frame That Mattered

October 20, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Albert Einstein captures this unveiling beautifully, succinctly:

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

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

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

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

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world . . . This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrow and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun . . . If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hospice Chaplain / Midwife: A Re-Frame That Mattered

July 13, 2015

Friends, I have revised my website and blog to reflect this time in my life. As a way of leaving this vocation that always exceeded by grasp while filling me with purpose, I’m going back and picking up some tools (re-frames) that I found useful in the gardening we do. These “re-frames” mattered to me in my years of pastoral ministry. I’m passing them along with the hope that some will serve you as well.

. . .

Pete named it: “I feel like a hospice chaplain and a midwife.

In our circle of pastors we were responding to the question: “Your current ministry feels like or looks like a … what?” Pete’s response stayed with me. I played with it, trying on the images, experimenting with seeing pastoral ministry through these lenses. Over time it became a re-frame of the role for me. Of course, no metaphor captures the complexity of our work. But this frame reflects a truth I want to explore with you. Let’s consider these images separately.

Hospice chaplains help people die. They look for ways to align with the little, sometimes compelling movements of faith and gratitude during the journey toward one’s final breath. Pastors, as well, are given this sacred opportunity with parishioners.

But Pete was not referencing the standard, expected grief ministries of pastors, namely, the responses to personal losses that include death of a loved one or marriage or job or reputation. He was pointing to another level of loss more peculiar to the church in our historical moment.

This grief takes us to another category: the loss of church status, once “main-line,” now “side-lined”; the loss of congregational programs once vital but no more; the loss of familiar faith concepts, once life-giving but no more; the loss of institutional loyalty; and the loss of consensus about the essentials, e.g. what is Spirit/God about? … what is church about? … what is being human about?

Pastors these days hear a litany of laments:

“We don’t have young people like we used to” …

“I miss the old hymns” …

“you don’t talk about God in ways I’m accustomed to” …

“our ‘active’ members only attend maybe twice a month” …

“why, we used to have a thriving Sunday School” …

“nobody talks about tithing any more” …

“change, change everywhere, and now in church too.”

But there is an even larger sense of loss and lamenting, seldom named but nevertheless in the air we breathe. Nation-states are collapsing. Refuges know homelessness in unprecedented numbers. No longer can we assume a stable climate, predictable shorelines, and an ample, unending supply of clean water. Others have noted that 9/11, 2001 symbolically represents the undoing of U.S. exceptionalism. For sure, we are witnessing a gradual decline of our sense of privileged super-power at its peak during post-Cold War years.

This is my point. A huge amount of felt loss — losses on multiple levels, deaths experienced in various ways — is experienced by every pastor on a regular basis. People grieving over some kind of dying are the norm, not the exception. I think Pete is right. We are more, but not less than hospice chaplains.

Yet, I know of no pastor who “signed on” to be a hospice chaplain. Not one. Granted, hospice chaplaincy is both worthy and needed. But to see oneself as a hospice chaplain is a major shift in self-perception. A re-frame. It means valuing and appreciating grief work on these many levels. A priority insists on being clarified and embraced: assisting others in the letting go of what is no longer life-giving and, at the same time, companioning with others in the move toward re-formation, toward new life, toward birthing.

Yes, birthing. This takes us to the second image — a midwife. Clearly at this point I am now beyond my personal experience and can only draw on conversations with others, particularly with my ob-gyn physician daughter-in-law. But the birthing metaphor is so perfect, so essential, so biblical, so full of awe and mystery. Think of the fetus forming in the womb, growing until pre-natal life outgrows the constricting walls of the womb. The mother’s excruciating pain announces this point of no-return. But the movement toward new life cannot be stopped. Pushing forward is demanded. Evolution will not be denied. Either this singular evolving life will be supported or aborted. Amid it all, persons with “midwife” capacities offer skilled, compassionate, supportive presence.

Pete, in explaining his metaphor, felt the excitement of a midwife. He was witnessing pushes for birthing the new. Here and there, emerging from congregational relationships, were experimental ideas, programs and practices. This included many who were at work re-imaging their understanding of God, church and discipleship. The winds of spirituality blowing largely outside of the institutional church were beginning to blow within the congregation as well. It was as if he was midwife to emerging life pressing for birth, for breath, for new forms against the womblike strictures of the church.

At first glance, this metaphor of Pete’s — hospice chaplain and midwife — might appear as binary, as either-or. No, it’s not. It is not as if we do grief hospice work in the morning and midwifing of the new in the afternoon. Rather, I see the two dimensions, hospice chaplain and midwife, as held together by our most central theological affirmation of faith, namely, dying and rising, death and resurrection. It’s the Spirit’s way.

We affirm, as I understand our faith, that life and love cannot die; only the form of life and love dies. Any form — whether stage of human life development or stage of church life development or stage of faith development — will die. Our ego, ever clinging to form for security and comfort, will resist the dying, the letting go of our finite formulations. But like the trapeze artist, the trick is learning repeatedly to trust the letting go of one bar, enduring the up-in-the-air anxiety before grasping the next bar coming toward us. Isn’t this what we in the church name the paschal mystery embodied in Jesus — letting go, taking hold; dying, rising; life, death, resurrection.

If true, then this is our work: to help others learn to die in order to live, to help others learn to let go in order to embrace the next stage, to help others release their efforts to control/cling and trust the new life wanting to birth through them. This is where hospice chaplain and midwife meet. It’s one work that faces in two directions. It’s one call to be present in a way that bridges past and future.

This reflection ends with admiration. To stand in that breach, attending both to helping in the letting go and supporting the new being birthed, takes courage. Especially in our time of paradigm shifting, experienced in every institution, this role is seldom understood and appreciated. You can see why. Who likes to hear the message that much is dying in the church? Who is eager to hear the invitation to let go and trust the new yet unformed and unknown? Expect no kudos for that message! Then, on the other hand, what innovative souls, eager to get on and experiment with “being church” in fresh ways, want to hear, “Now be patient with those still denying the death occurring in the church!” Expect no kudos from them!

But this leadership during the “in-between-time” is critical. The church needs clergy called to this challenge. This challenge includes the inner work required. The pastor must learn to release dependence on kudos, to let go of the egoic need to be understood and affirmed, to, as Ethel Waters once said, learn to become “applause deaf.” To relinquish the known and trust the birthing Spirit of the unknown may be the hardest inner spiritual work embedded in this re-frame — being both hospice chaplain and midwife.

I hear this same re-frame in Vaclav Havel, the poet, playwright, philosopher and first president of liberated Czechoslovakia. Let’s give him the final word: “We offer leadership in a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born.”


Triangling in the Purpose: A Re-Frame That Mattered

June 22, 2015

This re-frame, Triangling in the Purpose, has a similar feel to the last one, Triangling in the Text. The first re-frame about preaching, as I wrote, came in a flash while reading Brueggemann’s article. This one about leadership came gradually over a period of time.

As clergy we are “set apart” at ordination to serve the church. For years this sparked internal resistance. I was uncomfortable being “set apart,” as if it meant being special or better than. “Call me Mahan,” I would urge. “We are all priests, all ministers,” I would teach. “We all share baptismal vows to walk the Jesus way,” I would preach. These are true affirmations, I hasten to add. So, what is it about being “set apart”?

Functionally, to be “set apart” looks something like this: we, the congregation, set you apart to oversee activities at our church. We pay you for managing congregational life, leading worship including preaching, officiating at church rituals and being available for pastoral crises. Often ordination boils down to a contract for services.

I came to embrace a re-frame that transcends, yet includes these multiple services: we, the congregation, set you apart to keep triangling in our Purpose for being.

Every congregation I know has a Purpose (mission) statement. The good ones are crisp, short and portable. Each one is a variation on one theme: love God, love neighbor. Some I have known are “we are people of the Way”; “followers of Jesus;” and Micah’s version—“do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God.” Each version carries its own local accent. In fact, these identity statements are particularly forceful when hammered out by a congregation over time. But, in my experience, seldom are mission statements alive and active in congregational life. They are displayed somewhere on a wall and website or hidden away in a file labeled “Important Documents.” Rarely are they listened to … I mean really listened to for inspiration and guidance in decision-making, program-making, service-making, vision-making and especially leadership-making.

I submit that as ordained pastors we are set apart to keep reminding the congregation of its Purpose. Regularly we can triangle into our collective life the Purpose that knits us together. It’s primary, critical, though usually a role unnamed and unexpected. Why? Why is this so important? It’s because we forget who we are, why we are together, what’s our purpose for being. We forget. We experience memory loss. Amnesia sets in as a common malaise.

It’s not that others in the congregation don’t raise the Purpose question. I hope some do, but that’s not in their job description in the same way it is in ours. I like to imagine the church saying to the pastor:

We are setting you apart to study, reflect and meditate on the Purpose of the church in our time and place. We expect you to live the question and help us live the question: Who are we? What is our raison d’etre, our reason for being? How is our Purpose being embodied in our decisions and actions? By paying you a salary, we free the time required for you to keep the meaning and promise of our Purpose ever before us.

So when we are in the midst of a budget committee arguing over the best use of our money, we expect you to triangle in the Purpose question: How does this proposed budget reflect our calling, our mission statement? Or, in the midst of some conflict when we are locked into polarities, we expect you to raise the Purpose question: Where is the Spirit active in this? What new resolution is trying to emerge? What depth of loving is being asked of us? Or, in your preaching, teaching, and worship leadership we expect you to keep reminding us of the Purpose question: Who are we? Whose are we? What’s the shape of our participation in God’s movement toward Shalom, individually and collectively?

I hear an “amen!” from the research of Frederic Laloux in his recent book, Re-Inventing Organizations. Laloux, assuming that all institutions in our time of accelerating change are pressed to re-invent themselves, studied a few global organizations that navigated such difficult transitions. He particularly focused on the leadership required in these re-inventions. These leaders shared these qualities:

  • they focused on the clear, compelling Purpose of the organization while, at the same time, holding lightly any particular structures or programs;
  • they gathered around them colleagues who were equally excited about the Purpose;
  • they offered no clear future vision of the organization but rather trusted that from the collective listening to the Purpose new forms, directions, and programs would emerge;
  • they placed Purpose over profit or survival;
  • and they did their inner work (e.g. meditation) that freed them from inordinate self-interest.

Laloux notes one practice that I found intriguing. One executive when meeting with his leadership council would place an empty chair to represent the Purpose of the organization. During the discussion of organizational concerns and plans anyone on the council at any time could move from their chair to the empty chair and speak to the discussion from the perspective of the Purpose. They might say, “How does this decision fit with our Purpose? Here is how I see it. This where I see us veering from our Purpose.”

In congregational settings I’m saying that the pastor often sits in the “empty chair,” seeing, listening and speaking from the perspective of Purpose/Mission/Calling. And in addition, I’m advocating that pastors invite other members, especially lay leaders, to feel the freedom to occupy that seat as well.

Everybody I read these days either assumes or addresses the transition the church is experiencing in our time. All institutions, including the church, are in the business of re-inventing themselves. This paradigm shifting, as it is sometimes named, is true today in a way it was not when I began my ministry during post-WWII years. In those days the Purpose was unspoken, assumed and seldom challenged. Our purpose was to grow; our message was come. Now, with growth unlikely and fewer and fewer persons coming, we are driven wonderfully and painfully back to essentials—why are we here? What is our calling? What does it mean for us to allow the justice-love of God to incarnate in us? Or, in other words … we keep triangling in the Purpose.


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.


Preaching as Conversation

December 2, 2014

Funny, the things I remember about preaching. Like the time someone suggested that I preface each sermon with the warning noted on cigarette packages: “What you are about to receive may be hazardous to your health!” Don’t know what he meant, but I liked it. For sure, the gospel is hazardous to ready comfort and quick fixes. Dangerous, indeed. As Jesus warned John, sometimes it will take you where you don’t want to go.

Recently another one-liner was jogged to awareness when a pastor friend, on the verge of retiring, asked me if I missed preaching. His question reminded me of that very same question upon my retiring, “Mahan, will you miss preaching?” My quick response even surprised me: “Well, how will I know what I believe?”

Somewhere along the way preaching became for me a week-to-week conversation with a particular set of pilgrim comrades. It’s unique. I can’t think of anything like it. The regular interaction was always on the same topic: What does following Jesus, loving God and the “other” look like in our time and place. It’s where I hammered out in public what I believed as a way to challenge members to engage in the same inner work. My part of the conversation was more external; their part of the conversation more internal.

I once commented — and here is another one-liner — “Why, I could begin each sermon with . . . ‘as I was saying.’” That’s true. I was picking up on an on-going conversation about the stories of God incarnating in the world. Out of a week of pastoral conversations, plus the study of the text (a form of conversation), I would pick up on the conversation, making it public, knowing that those present would in turn carry forward the conversation within themselves and within their relationships. Week by week, Sunday by Sunday I imagined this feedback loop occurring.

So back to the question: Do I miss preaching? I do miss that privilege. There is nothing to compare with preaching that comes out of a network of relationships and cycles back into these same relationships — over and over again. Preaching to congregations full of strangers never appealed to me. I always feel in those contexts that the sermon is a presentation, more a performance, less a to-be-continued conversation.

Then along the way, toward the end of my ministry, Walter Brueggemann shows up to deepen this understanding of preaching. In an article in Theology Today (1990) entitled “The Preacher, The Text, and the People,” he draws upon the concept of “triangles” from family system’s theorist Murray Bowen.

Bowen noted that life requires homeostasis (balance and stability). When two human beings become anxious they will likely “triangle” in a third person or issue or symptom as a way to reduce the tension. Always, a tripod is more stable than a dyad. You know the experience: two persons in conflict may “triangle” you in as problem solver or as the “problem.” If it works, you are left holding the anxiety while they walk away feeling lighter. These challenging triangles are the daily bread for pastors.

But Brueggemann draws on the positive use of “triangling.” He points out that preaching is often seen as a transaction between pastor/preacher (A) and people /congregation (B). It looks that way. Preacher in the pulpit, people in pew; preacher speaking, congregation listening; preacher interpreting, people agreeing or not agreeing. In other words, preaching appears to be a two-way interaction with the focus on the preacher and his message.

What if, as Brueggemann suggests, the voice of the biblical text is “triangled” in as “C”? What if the text is the focus, not the preacher, not the sermon. 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 is the sense of God’s Word through these words that matters. You, the preacher, are talking out loud about your engagement with the text, hoping the congregants will not only be in conversation with you, but even more, be in conversation with the Spirited text.

I found freedom in this view of preaching as a three-way conversation. Less did I obsess about correct interpretation, a polished sermon, a brilliant message. In this way of framing, the preacher becomes more prompter than expert, more witness than final authority. The preacher is liberated to engage the text, struggle with it, play and fuss with it — out loud — trusting that your authenticity, vulnerability and ideas will provoke a similar engagement between congregant and text, “B” with “C,” parishioner with Spirit. We say in effect: “Fellow pilgrims (congregants) this is what I see, feel and hear in this text, what do you see, feel and hear? This is the Word that comes to me for us, what is the Word that comes to you?” The shift occurs: the sermon becomes more about God, less about you.

An addendum: This understanding of preaching as conversation, drawing on Breuggemann’s insight, has implication for other pastoral functions. “Triangling” in the “text” can also be a way of pastoral leadership. Take note, for a moment, of situations with potential for win-lose debates (between “A” and “B”) — e.g. differences over budget figures or couples in conflict or controversy on some public issue. Now see the difference when in such a situation you intentionally “triangle” in the “text” as “C” (i.e. your church mission or the loving act or an agreed upon guiding principle or mind of Christ, etc.) and ask how does our faithfulness to this agreed-upon commitment speak to this situation? What would faithfulness to the “text” look like? Looking through the eyes of our covenant commitments, what connections or possibilities do you see?

It’s a practice I recommend — triangling in the “text.” This reframing, like a pair of glasses, can change or reenforce the way you see preaching and even pastoral leadership.


The Powers

October 20, 2014

“I’m so tired, so very tired,” she said. “Physically, but more emotionally and spiritually. I feel exhausted. I know what to do but I don’t have the energy to do it.” Let’s name her, Linda.

I remember the feeling. When I was about her age, also a first time parent and first time solo pastor, that same dark tar settled in my soul to stay for a long while. “I can’t go on like this,” she said. And I said.

I wish I had known then about Walter Wink. He was the gift that made a second round of being pastor a different, more understanding, more liberating experience. In Engaging The Powers, he writes about folks like us—persons caught up in the good, exciting work of healing and justice and mercy. He names the time when the wells of compassion run dry, when the very love that gave birth to our vocation is exhausted. “If you feel powerless,” he says, “then it’s a sure sign that the Powers have your spirit.”

The Powers? What does that mean? What are the Powers? The Powers are the third factor in every situation. The first two factors we can see. Factor one is ourselves; factor two is the other person or group of others, for example, a colleague, family, committee or congregation. People, along with the physical environment, are what we see. Do you remember the ditty with movements: “Here’s the church; here’s the people. Open the door and there’s all the people.” That’s it, I thought. Ministry is about people and me.

But there’s a third factor, always a third factor. It’s invisible, a spiritual reality we cannot measure, control or name precisely. These Powers are supra-human, transcendent forces, the more than “flesh and blood,” what the Apostle Paul named “principalities and powers” against which we contend, lest they capture our spirit. (Ephesians 6:10–17)

You and I experience this truth—the Powers—but seldom name it. We feel it in a cheering, crowded stadium and call it “school” spirit. Or, it may be a mob spirit that we name “demonic.” We enter a home and sense hospitality or hostility, formality or informality. The same when you worship in a church that is new to you. Immediately you take in the spirit of the place coming from the architecture, the congregants, and leaders. When we speak about the personality of a congregation, we are referencing its culture, its collective spirit—that is, the Powers. And Powers, whether for good or ill, whether life-giving or death-dealing always influence what’s possible in a system. They can be so dominating they virtually determine what’s possible. Wink names this the “domination system” in which, along with divine Spirit, we live and move and have our being.

Back to Linda. She is not primarily contending with “flesh and blood” congregants. Actually, most members, she says, are supportive, collaborative and appreciative. She is contending with supra-human forces. She is breathing in and internalizing the thick messages of her family, church and cultural context. She is inhaling its imperatives: “It’s up to you to pull out of this exhaustion” . . . “you are not enough, spiritual enough, doing enough” . . . “pull yourself together, try harder” . . . “your worth is on the line” . . . “after all, you are paid to carry the anxiety of this church” . . . “to ask for help is weakness.”

Then there is the larger pervasive assumption: what Wink calls the “myth of redemptive violence,” that is, coercive force (violence) solves problems—internally or externally. Linda was violating herself, condemning herself, trying to force or coerce different behavior and feelings.

All this and more are the unacknowledged waters we swim in. It’s the air we breathe. These invisible powers press upon us, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. They are the third factor, always present. When we give in to these oppressive, dominating Powers, we feel powerless—like Linda.

“Great,” I imagine Wink responding to Linda. “Now, you know a freeing truth: by yourself you can not fuel your good work even with your gifts, stimulating insights, superior training, ‘try it again’ efforts or a self-willed determination. Simply, you are being reduced to prayer. He writes, “Unprotected by prayer, our social activism [ministry] runs the danger of becoming self-justifying good works, as our inner resources atrophy, [and] the well of love dries up.” Prayer, for Wink, is opening up to the transcendent possibilities of God always pressing for realization in every situation. Praying is aggressive, joining God as partner in the struggle for Shalom against the anti-human Powers ever pressing us down. This struggle against “principalities and powers” is so challenging, Paul writes, it demands “the whole armor of God.”

“Linda,” I hear Wink saying, “You have over-estimated your will power in overcoming the oppressive messages, both internal and external; you have under-estimated the prayerful resource of alignment with the power of God. Paul even provides a sample prayer (in the same Ephesian letter) that, I like to believe, includes us as well.

I pray that, according to the riches of God’s glory, God may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through the Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Now to the One who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Eph. 3: 14–21)


Eschatology as Provocative Re-frame

April 28, 2014

Plan with the end in mind — a piece of advice I keep coming across in leadership material.

This bit of wisdom came to mind during two recent conversations with pastors getting clear about their retirement. While not time to announce their plans, their clarity was internal. I asked both of them, “What’s this like for you?” They both made similar responses, “I feel lighter.” And, I noticed this in both. They were working the same questions: “Now that I know the end time, what is most needed from me now? And what do I most want to give?” 

Let’s pull off our “theological shelf” and dust off this esoteric word — eschatology. Yes, both of these pastors are living in a personal scatological “end time.” And obviously this awareness is bringing clarity, and with it an exchange of one kind of energy for another. The difference is striking.

Then I began to ponder my own pastoral experience. In my first flight as pastor I served a seven-year old congregation. We both had little flight experience. Jointly we felt the exhilaration of a new beginning with no awareness of endings. Our sense of limitless horizons contributed to an eventual “burn out” in my case.

Later, much later, I became pastor of an almost hundred year old congregation. What a difference! I knew immediately — no matter how long I stayed — that I was an “interim” pastor. I served that congregation for fifteen years, a longer than usual ministry in one place. Yet, in terms of its history, fifteen years granted a very short privilege to come alongside this congregation rich in heritage.

Then, with that same congregation, I entered my 60′s with a deep weariness setting in. I went to the lay leaders saying two things: one, I felt I had more work to do with them; and two, I needed a few months to step back and catch my breath. During that time I asked to relinquish worship and committee responsibilities. We came up with a plan.

What surprised me during that mini-sabbatical was the “eschatology” that kicked in. I knew my time as pastor was coming to an end. This awareness forced the questions: for these next few years what does this church most need from my leadership? And, given my excitements, what do I most want to give? The clarity — a result from this sense of end-time — contributed to my final years being the most joyful and creative.

It’s something for you to think about. You are an interim-pastor. Your congregation was there before you came; it will continue after you leave. It is as if you come on board of a train at a particular station platform. Then somewhere down the tracks you will depart at another station, waving back to all the well wishers until they are out of sight.

This scatological re-frame, working with that end in sight, raises generative questions: Given the limited time, what does this congregation most need from me? And, given my gifts, concerns and interests, what do I most want to give?

It just may be a fast track to some joy, lightness, energy and clarity.

P.S. I’m playing imaginatively with this scatological re-frame. I picture myself at my death-bed, hearing this question from my grandchildren: “What were you thinking to left us a planet damaged beyond repair?” I want to be able to say, “Regrettably I woke up late, but when I did, I took action.”


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 Wager

January 6, 2014

You and I often lament the overuse, the abuse, and the misuse of two words: God and love. Some recommend a moratorium on these words. Others suggest substitutes, like “G-d,” or synonyms like, “Holy One” or “Spirit” or “Life Force” or “compassion” or “justice” or “mercy.” But there is no way around it — these words, God and love, are essential, not replaceable, despite our being tongue-tied in naming the unnamable.

Over the past Christmas season I joined these two words, God and love, in a poem inspired by Raymond Lull.

The Wager

“I love you” . . .  “I love you too.”

the universal exchange

resounding around the globe.

Subtract “I” and “you,” “love” remains.

The in-between part

the invisible, can’t measure it, part

the word with many names — justice, passion, compassion, mercy

the Mystery with no names.

Strange: Betting your life on a Mystery.

“Where did you come from?” “From love.”

“Who are you?” “Beloved, be-loved.”

“What formed you?” “Love”

“What’s your practice?” “Extravagant loving.”

“What about difficulty?” “That too . . . hold in love.”

“What’s permanent?” “Only . . . love.”

“What about Christmas?” “Love enfleshed.”

“What about God?” “Love Source.”

“Why are you here?”  “To fall into Love.”

“Where are you now?” “A beginner.”

Strange: Betting your life on a Mystery.


A Spiral Upward

November 25, 2013

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?


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.


A Story to Steward

January 2, 2013

Evidently mystical, spiritual experiences are common. I am referring to those times when you seem lifted out of your limited self-preoccupations and feel a part of Something larger. You experience, even if for a moment, the extraordinary in the ordinary. That experience seems widespread.

I am thinking of times like these: in a crisis – feeling held together by love you can’t generate, a strength given you cannot explain; or, a typical day in the garden feeling suddenly a part of growth beyond your control or understanding; or the poignant awareness of loving someone as an extension of yourself; or, those moments of “wow,” when you feel the wonder of what is before you.

 These common experiences are sometimes transformative, that is, they change the way you see the world. A shift in perspective occurs, however slight or major. We walk away from these experiences never to be quite the same.

 This is what I am wondering: How many of these self-transcendent moments go unrecognized? And do they go unrecognized because there is no story or worldview to name them? Is a transforming change from these mystical moments undermined because there is no container, no narrative, no worldview to hold and sustain them?

Actually, these are statements, not questions. I think what we have as Christians, along with holders of every other religious narratives, is a framing story, that, like a string, can tread these spiritual experiences. It’s being a part of a larger Story that grants them definition, continuity and context. Otherwise, these potentially transforming moments will fall to the ground, like separate beads, left behind.

We have a Story that connects, that names, that incorporates. To the ones experiencing the sense of loving another as an extension of themselves, I think of Jesus’ saying, “Love your neighbor as yourself (not as you love yourself).” To the ones enthralled in gardening, I think of creation spirituality as in Jeremiah’s vision, “Their life will be like a watered garden.” To the one’s held by love in some devastating crisis, I think of the biblical refrain, “I am with you . . . with you . . . with you as Love from which no-thing in life or death, now or later can separate you.”

We live within a historical context of competing Stories or worldviews to live in and from. Defining narratives plead for our allegiance, such as, the myth of redemptive violence (violence saves, solves problems), or the story of progress (we are getting better and better, bigger and bigger, or should be); or reality is limited to what you can see, touch, feel, taste or hear (secular materialism); then our Story of God as force of Love, most clearly embodied in Jesus, ever seeking connection, healing, reconciliation, justice, mercy — in other words, Shalom. And, being human and inconsistent, we live within all of these stories. We claim no purity. Yet, I have the desire, likely you do as well, for the Jesus story to define our way, hold and motivates us.

Once I pridefully thought that it was my job to help people have transforming experiences. Now I assume that these openings happen, though often unacknowledged. As steward of a Story, I feel the privilege to look for these spiritual openings, to recognize them, to expect them, to name them, and assist their sustenance in community.


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)


Carol and Kenosis

June 12, 2012

Not many Carols have crossed my path over my lifetime. She is empty of religion, no church background whatsoever, yet hungry, relishing each morsel of bread now extended.

Here’s the story. I met my new neighbor, Carol some months ago while walking my dog, Katie. I discovered that she moved to Asheville to work at Mission Hospital as a nurse in the trauma unit. But soon after her move, she broke her leg which, in turn, precipitated early retirement. Without family close by and no mobility, she was left to herself throughout a long winter recovery.

Alone and lonely she accepted the invitation by another neighbor to attend their church. As she was telling the story about attending, her eyes lit up with excitement. She spoke with delight about what she had found at that church — the Jesus “take” on God’s love within a community that fully accepted her beginner’s questions.

I thought to myself — here is a person full of professional competence in her medical field, plus parenting three children into adulthood, yet speaking of a “hole” being filled with a joy she didn’t know she was missing. I was surprised over her surprise as she stood before me with such childlike wonder over a church and its message.

I added, “I know that church well and the pastor, Guy Sayles, is a close friend. Have you come to know him?” “Oh, no,” she quickly responded. “Why, I wouldn’t know what to say. Besides he might ask me a question. You see, I know nothing, absolutely nothing about God or Jesus or the bible. Nothing! I couldn’t approach him. I wouldn’t know what to say?” “Well, how about me going with you?” I offered. “Oh, yes, yes,” she said. “Would you do that?”

So I arranged the appointment. A few days ago Carol and I had our time with Guy.

I wanted you to meet Carol. For those of us too full of religion, she can be our teacher. Carol is  eager. Open. Questioning. Curious. Not knowing. Awed over the Mystery of faith.

For most of my ministry I have come alongside those sorting out their faith, deciding what to keep from their religious upbringing, what to cast aside and what to incorporate in new life-giving ways. That’s been my inner work as well. I am full of knowledge and, with each new book, I attempt to “shoe-horn” some more insight. And I am richer for it as in rich food.

But I also want to be more like Carol — hungry, curious, not-knowing, amazed, with a large hole to be filled. “Kenosis” is the fancy Greek work for “self-emptying,” used in Paul’s Philippian poem about Jesus emptying himself of status, opening himself up to life as it came to him, surrendering himself, even in death, to the surprising, rising movement of Spirit.

In a manner, I am too full. I know it. I live among people very full of themselves, mostly full of exciting ideas, creative insights, and seasoned convictions. But Carol — in her excitement about good news — paradoxically has become for me some good news. She reminds me of the goodness in un-fulfillment. She points me to kenosis, self-emptying. Her hunger calls out and blesses my hunger.

She laughed with denial when I told her that her emptiness was a gift to us. It was another amazement to her. Radical amazement all around.


No Separation — Really?

April 3, 2012

I have been pondering a lot these days the so-called delusion or illusion of separation. If true, the implications are enormous. You and I keep hearing from various quarters today, including quantum physics, that everything, as well as everybody, are profoundly connected. Here are some quotes that have been rolling around in my mind and heart.

From Albert Einstein: “A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest . . . a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace ALL living creatures and the whole of nature into its beauty.”

Then there is the Trappist,Thomas Merton, who wrote an autobiography as a young monk about leaving the evils of the world. Years later a sudden epiphany at the corner of 4th and Walnut in Louisville seemed to turn him toward the world.  He was on a routine visit when he found himself in the middle of a shopping center staring at a group of strangers. He writes, “I was suddenly overwhelmed by the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I was theirs . . . It was like waking from a dream of separateness.” With joy overflowing, he continues, “Thank God, I am like other men!”

According to Jim Marion and others, this “no separation” way of viewing the world is what  Jesus was about. In his book, Putting on the Mind of Christ, he suggests that the central message of Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven, is a metaphor for a unitive or non-dual state of consciousness. This awareness sees no separation — not between God and humans, not between humans and other humans (and I would add, between humans and non-humans). No separation as in the image, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Abide in me as I in you.” No separation as in “Love you neighbor as yourself (not “as much as you love yourself”)

Are we that connected? Are we to be continuations of each other? Is the power, the juice in  relationships found in the connection of “in between,” and not either-or? I have heard this in the voice of feminine thinkers. I hear it in the voice of leaders calling for collaboration, partnership and cooperation.

The lower consciousness we know well. We live by seeing differences, by separating this idea from that idea, this person from that person, this option from that option. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, we cannot get very far in our world without this capacity for binary thinking. But the starting and ending place for us in the West has been the single, separate person or part or group. That’s changing, it seems.

Truly I am trying to sort this out. Some suggest a multi-level approach. Perhaps on one level of consciousness we see separation and value differentiation. But we appear also to have a capacity for another way of seeing. If I understand those quoted above, on another level of consciousness, separateness is a prison, a delusion, a dream from which we must awaken if widening circles of  compassion have a future.

No separation — really?


On Being a Change Agent

March 5, 2012

The term “change agent” has been around for a while. We all want to be agents of change. Our faith perspective is full of “change” words, like repentance, conversion, growth, formation, transformation. But being a “change agent” is tricky, even down right dangerous.

I was talking with a pastor about the difference between two congregational experiences. The earlier one ended in disappointment and early resignation. The current pastoral relationship seems to be thriving. I asked about the difference.

He noted that in the earlier experience he came to the congregation with changes in mind. The search committee thought that they knew what the church needed and persuaded my friend to join them in reforming their system. End result? Disaster, as you might have guessed.

I thought of Menken’s comment: “Every third American devotes himself to improving and lifting up his fellow citizens, usually by force; this messianic delusion is our national disease.” You and I know this delusional disease. We have “caught that cold” more than once, believing by willful force lasting change can occur.

This pastor approached his current congregation with a different stance. He assumed that church members had within them, though not yet named, the best sense of their direction. So the first year he listened and listened and listened, including listening to his own responses as well. In it all—and this is the faith part—he assumed that the Spirit was nudging, ever trying to give birth to something new. Some patterns and possibilities emerged to which he, along with lay leaders, could align themselves.

Let me linger for a moment with the “birthing” metaphor. It’s obviously a gift from feminine consciousness and experience. I find it provocative to think of leaders as midwives who assist in the new life wanting to be born.

Back to the phrase, “change agent.” Maybe we should retire the phrase. It implies we can make change happen. But we learn, sooner or later, in every relationship that pushing for change only, and inevitably, invites a push back. Oh, we may be able to force the “rubber band” to stretch a bit, but as soon as the pressure is released, it goes back to where it was.

We are left with a paradox, one I learned from family systems theory. And its so counter-intuitive. The best chance for meaningful change is working at staying in relationship while changing ourselves, The dynamics of change are much more than this, but not less. It’s true, whether we are talking about leadership of a congregation or surviving in a marriage or working on a staff. It’s our best chance for meaningful change.           

 


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.