(Abandoned Line by The B’s 2007 Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)
I woke today from a teaching-dream, an insight dream that came as well with a lesson of significance to aid in understanding and correct interpretation. These are uncommon gifts, and one I felt was worth sharing. The dream has to do with western rationalist progressive thinking, and how that influences our interpretations of what we see, how that causes value judgments that might not always be that helpful.
I dreamt this morning that we sold our old house, my partner and I. We sold our house in Camas and we moved into a crappy house, to be frank. It was small, like a trailer but not as good. There were three rooms, it was a rectangle. There was a small square sitting room, bland and dim, and a hovel kitchen, and a rectangle family room that looked like it had been used as a meth house or some other failure-of-life situation. It had great swaths of black over walls and the ceiling, as if it had been either scorched by fire or someone with black spray paint had had at it. The paint in general was splotched and awful. The carpet was whole, but torn and ragged at the walls.
(Trashed house by David 2012 Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)
There were no windows in the house. This room had three closets that came into the room as protruding triangles. These storage areas were small and ridiculous really, what space was there? I opened two of them. One was a desk with the doors folded awkwardly so as to be a hidden computer & desk area. The other was a closet proper but little space inside. There was stuff it there, our old vacuum cleaner, and some kind of electronic instrument—electric ‘piano’ or synthesizer. These hung on a hook and were plugged in. Someone had left the switch for the vacuum on. It was loud and obnoxious. I could not at first figure it out, but then turned the vacuum off.
I hollered to my partner in the smaller room how much work there was to do here. The room needed painting and decorating and cleaning and the carpet needed to be replaced. My partner suggested the carpet might survive. I wasn’t sure about that. Maybe just good cleaning would work. I looked at the room. The dirt wasn’t so much of the problem, I thought, as much as was the design. It was so badly designed and awkward.
I went back in the small room for a meal. My partner had similarities to my husband about him, but was very different. This man was bulkier, sicker. He was okay personally and mentally, not an oaf but a regular guy, decent, and a good partner. But physically different and really not the same man as my husband.
I sat at a bald table in the dingy room next to a friend from years ago. I can’t remember the conversation.
I began to wake up. Rolling over I contemplated this dream, with its horrible house. I thought to myself, what have I done? I thought of my own lovely-but-needing-a-few-things house in Camas, and houses much bigger and more beautiful I have dreamed of more recently. Particularly I thought of the dream I had at the Commissioning retreat, where I dreamed I had been appointed to a beautiful church…a house turned place of worship… so very beautiful, such affirmation, assurance, and blessing! And I thought, what have I done? I have sold out my beautiful house and taken on this one! I have been working too hard, compromising too much of my own self and spiritual health. I have chosen a professional path that keeps me behind the scenes, and I miss opportunities of promotion and interactions that I value.
I drifted a bit, back into the dream world and the dream house. I thought about something. I thought of how I have been working through assumptions of progressiveness in my life and my theology. I have realized in this working-through that I am not really a ‘progressive.’ What is progressivism, really. Where am I in this? What is their/the/my assumptive ground?
I lack a full definition of ‘progressive’ for myself, but very particularly I resist the thought under-girding progressivism that everything is better ‘going forward.’ I believe true aliveness and the activity of the divine is more cyclical or seasonal, rotational, that sort of thing, than a rising linear line churning a forward wave with expectations of constant improvement. (Don’t tell my wonderful process-theo friends, for I love them I just can’t meet them here.)
From that progressive perspective, this house felt like a ‘downgrade,’ a ‘set back.’ And, those words freighted with the progressive value set says that back is bad, less evolved, less whole, less capable, and less self-actuated (with self actuation always an assumed good, though it is not).
Think of how we western rationalists freight the phrases ‘going up’ or ‘going down.’ Which is ‘better’? And I have noticed this and called baloney on this many times. The freight given to the expression ‘going forward’ can be deserved. ‘Going forward’ can be a good thing and wise-in-action (I like the word ‘wise’ rather than ‘true’ in this example, as we really do not know what is true. Truth as a divine thing inbreaks our world in different times and places so that it does not always look the same to us—individually or collectively. True and real divine ‘truth’ from different perspectives can cause sectarian and ideological conflict. True then, realized, is not always a given good, and that is horrifying to consider.)
‘Truth’ also falls prey to the ‘progressive’ freighting system which diminishes it with the idea that truth itself ‘evolves’ and becomes better over chronological—or even divine—time. Again, this is a dangerous perspective as ‘truth,’ like the divine, is essentially unchanging and eternal. Our view and understanding of truth can change, but not truth itself.
(Cherub rock by INTVGene 2007 Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)
‘Progressives’ might freight the change in a human’s understanding of truth as ‘better’ and ‘more advanced’ over chronological time, as well. I would push back against that and suggest we find a way to talk about our own ‘rotating, not developing’ (or even rotating-as-developing) understanding to make room(s) for us to recognize that there are seasons of thought or feeling. John Wesley talks about ‘maturing’ in faith, and maturing is a seasoned activity.
It is a good thing to mature in faith, and we can and do experience chronological time. As long as our faith-language speaks to the goal of clearing and moving faithfully then it can be very helpful language. However, we must guard for ideologies that impose limits, arrogance, or tyrannies.
So this dream exposed another inner tyranny. Though I have mulled my non-progressive self I also recognize how steeped I am in progressive thinking. This dream invited me to see a little more, again.
I recognized that in all the aspects of the dream were things I would associate with ‘down grade.’ The old vacuum (now broken), the synthesizer, the horrible, torn up room, the tiny closets, the crammed in desk (at least there was one!), the awful kitchen, the dingy square room, the less-healthy partner, the less-admired friend.
When looking at the larger room, I had been more optimistic at first thinking that a little paint and brightening up would go a long way. But I was rapidly moving toward feelings of pessimism and regret. The more I looked, the more the trade off seemed awful. We traded our lovely house for this? Really?
In waking I had a chance to bring this contemplation to my waking memory. I listened to this dream conversation and reflective insight that if I broke free from judging with the ‘progressive’ eye I might see the situation differently. I thought, ‘well, if I am not a progressive I do not have to think of a setback as a bad thing.’ That very thought freed me to see differently. I was at this time back in the dream again, and I thought that where I was presented presented not decline (with progressive freight added) but opportunity. I realized that I had the freedom always to see ‘setbacks’ as a working of the divinehood (and manifested in its nature—we are the nature of the divine in that we are the creation) that makes room for opportunity and space for new things, different outcomes, deeper meaning-making.
I know that feels like a big ‘duh,’ but let it sink in. Let it form you. Let it make space within you in a holy way.
In sitting in the pool of this, I then turned back toward the square room. As I did so I saw a new door. It occurred to me that I had not thought of bedrooms before, or any other possibilities belonging to this house. The new door was an open passageway. It was in shadow, but beyond the door I saw there were more rooms. And this, to me, was the validation, if you will. The proof that I had shifted-to-the-good in some important way.
This new sight/site was a gift, a gift that came out of the recognition that ‘set back’ when freed of the progressive gaze gains (invites intentional openness to) the power of possibility. Possibility, then, becomes the primary good over every trajectory of course. Possibility becomes the power-conduit traversed in reaching for a in-or-outbreaking truth. ‘Set back’ then, not only vitally reveals possibility, but it is, as a reduction to the assumption (a descent from the ascension), especially essential to it.
Photo: Woman holding hair (modified) by Helmuts Guigo 2012 Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0
Change is an integral part of life, but it is not always easy. Change is often accompanied by stress and discomfort. For some, discomfort is really difficult and frustrating—at all costs we want the discomfort to stop! For others, discomfort is a sign of good things on the horizon—they sense new opportunities and new challenges ahead!
Our bodies are material, spiritual, and biochemical. We experience discomfort physically in our bodies and identify this feeling as ‘stress.’ For a long time stress was thought of as ‘bad,’ destructive to the body and its systems, and so to be avoided. Research proves the opposite is true. This is good news! In times of discomfort, our bodies, created by God, are designed to give us a biochemical ‘boost’ to help us out. This boost is a gift of energy and courage. We are biochemically ‘charged up to buckle down’ and make it through the present challenges to the good possibilities ahead. (See Kelly McGonigal’s 2013 TedTalk ‘How to make stress your friend.’ )
Complaint is a short term stress reliever. It can feel better in the short term to ‘kvetch’ a little. This can really be helpful when it does not bring people down, sort of like letting a little air out of an overly-stretched balloon. Complaint can help us release emotional turmoil so we can think clearly again. Prayer, peace, a nap, these things also help.
Complaint can also draw attention to important problems that need solutions. In the story of Moses and the Exodus, Moses leads the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, across the Reed Sea, and into the desert wilderness.
While there is plenty of complaining in the book of Exodus that is just not necessary, in chapter seventeen, when the people complain about the lack of water, it seems to me that this complaint is exactly on point. This is a people near crisis. They are exhausted, homeless, wandering, and there is no water. They have nothing left and cannot yet imagine a way forward. They complain to Moses: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?” God responds, saying to Moses, “I’ll be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Hit the rock. Water will come out of it, and the people will be able to drink.”
Photo: Split Apple Rock by Tristan Schmurr 2012 flickr cc by 2.0
We get a similar complaint in the gospels with the story of the storm on the sea of Galilee. Peter and the disciples are in a boat when a storm kicks up and they experience real fear. They do not think God is doing enough as the waves increase (Jesus is asleep in the boat) and so they wake him by crying out “Master, we are perishing!” (Luke 8:24 ; Matt 8:25 ; Mark 4:38). Jesus is less patient than Moses as he admonishes the disciples for complaining! But he also listens. Jesus calms the storm and the disciples get a little lecture about needing to have more faith.
In both cases the complaint comes from faithful people as an expression of logical or emotional last resort. These folks recognize their lives are at risk from forces much bigger than they are, and their complaint is a protest to this injustice. If they have acted faithfully, why the storm at all? They experience real powerlessness and frustration. They call out to God recognizing it is God’s power they need and as a reminder to God of God’s promises to them. In the midst of massive cultural changes—as for the Israelites in the Exodus—or deep social and religious change—such as for the disciples—both groups want to know “is the Lord with us or not?” (Ex 17:7)
Photo: Lifeboat by Paul Appleton 2013 Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0
Complaint has real use. But the catch with complaint is that it can be enormously destructive to good changes and good community. Complaints can become loud and build from one person to another bringing the whole group down. There is the group in Exodus who would much rather return to slavery and be fed, than face the changes required to live in the new community God is making.
Complaint is especially destructive when it is used as a strategy to gain power in order to destroy change and restore status quo. Complaining requires someone to complain to, and soon a group can form that complain together, thus dividing the community. If a complainant can get enough people ‘on their side,’ they can really undermine missional efforts and even insist all changes stop. Though the intent may be to use the power of complaint to restore their comfort, the result is a power struggle that actively divides people, thereby thwarting and/or complicating the mission of the community. (See this lovely video breakdown by Mathew David Bardwell ‘Friedman’s Theory of Differentiated Leadership Made Simple’ based on Edwin Friedman’s book Failure of Nerve.)
As a member of healthy community, there are some things everyone has a right to. As a community member, you have a right (in fact, your community is counting on you!) to speak your truth. You have a right to be heard, a right to lament, and a right to be loved and respected. You have a right to be part of what God is doing in this good world. But, you do not have the right to use your gifts and energies to bring down your neighbor or your community, consolidate power in your favor, or exclude others. No one person gets all the power or all the talent, that’s the strength of community. We delegate, include, invite, share, work, struggle, dream, build and reap the harvest all together.
A community is a specific group of people. I believe that in church work, we are called together because God—who is so loving and so good—has brought us here! Something about who we are in Christ is essential to what God is doing right now in and through relational community. Our communities are counting on us to show up with our gifts and to grow our knowledge and abilities because we are an integral part of God’s great work and essential to the mission at hand.
So perhaps, as you kvetch a little to ease the discomforts you feel, also practice seeing and using stress in a new way. If someone needs to kvetch to you, give them the gift of empathy and listen—then encourage them to be courageous and take some forward-leaning action that will benefit the mission of the community. Let us all rejoice in recognizing that the presence of stress is a ‘boost’, a blessing not a curse! Let the gift of stress energize your mind toward solutions, energize your body toward the necessary work, and fill your heart with courage. Extend a hand through the storm, strike the rock! And help your neighbor through.
Photo: Woman reaching out by Helmuts Guigo 2012 Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0
And in all things, practice gratitude to God who is steadfast in the wilderness. Mourn the losses when they come, for they are real. But do not forget to celebrate every new blessing from a loving God who is making all things new.
And yet we are alive!
In times of stress, trust to the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
• Speak your truth with courage, love and tact.
• Practice empathy and positive listening. Ask “How can I help?” Or say, “I really need help.”
• Actively seek constructive remedy. Ask, “how can my gifts and strengths contribute to a good outcome, here?”
And here is a hymn to sing as we rejoice:
And Yet We Are Alive
And are we yet alive,
and see each other’s face?
Glory and thanks to Jesus give
for his almighty grace!
Preserved by power divine
to full salvation here,
again in Jesus’ praise we join,
and in his sight appear.
What troubles have we seen,
what mighty conflicts past,
fightings without, and fears within,
since we assembled last!
Yet out of all the Lord
hath brought us by his love;
and still he doth his help afford,
and hides our life above.
Then let us make our boast
of his redeeming power,
which saves us to the uttermost,
till we can sin no more.
Let us take up the cross
till we the crown obtain,
and gladly reckon all things loss
so we may Jesus gain.
I was scrolling through tweets this morning to discover Amy Hanson’s little gem “For the love of all things holy can we please STOP referring to the sort of worship/music popularized 30 years ago as contemporary?!”
To which I retweeted a resounding YES! And appreciated as well the statement that Contemporary Worship/Music is a hallmark of the boomers.
I am 48 (Gen X) and I get frustrated because it seems that everyone agrees I should be eager to celebrate every Sunday morning with ‘Contemporary’ worship music. (And if it bothers me…and my hair is gray…what can this mean for Millennials & Gen Y?)
Yes, there are things I like about this music. These are the anthems of the Baby Boomers and those who love them. (And I love Baby Boomers, too.) I sing these on Sunday like I sing the anthems of the Traditional Generations (from the Hymnal and at the Assisted Living) before them. I love, respect, admire, and share the music of many generations—even generations long, long gone as is the case for something like Ode to Joy and the Hallelujah Chorus. I am happy to continue traditions that feed our hunger. What I don’t want is tyranny.
The trouble (and whining) I have is when a word like ‘Contemporary’ gets confused to mean ‘in perpetuity’ and applied to me as if ‘Contemporary’ in any way names my experiences, or the experiences of those in the 21st century. Contemporary in the worship setting to me means ‘antique.’ Sorry, but that’s just true. (On the upside, I do not think of ‘antique’ as bad. I like new things and antique things, both.)
Here’s some really good news: If we don’t worship Modernity-Contemporaneity, we don’t have to trash everything else.
The idea of ‘Contemporary’ has its roots in modernism. In their day (1910s) the ‘Modernists’ felt modern indeed. And they were. It was the dawn of the power of theories such as biological evolution, and our minds as material biology seemed to have reached some transcendent and wonderful peak—or was right on the cusp. Modernism ruled the day. The generations who held to modernism gave us an idea so powerful—one that was so richly rewarding to the psyche—that the idea of ‘modernity’ maintained its power for a century. The word morfed into ‘Contemporary’ so it could sound hipper to the Boomers who were young people of the time. And the word clung on—bug-eyed—and refused to leave forcing a nomenclature that included it as post-modernism.
I really don’t want to rant…what you are hearing from me is more fatigue and frustration. I just want us to get past this. I really do. (But, if you really want a rant, check out my blog from May 2008. 2008! Sigh. Why are we still talking about this? Festival of Homiletics: Day Six)
In a nutshell, I want what Amy wants. I want us to ‘please STOP referring to the sort of worship/music popularized 30 years ago as contemporary.’ STOP using it as if this is a ‘modern’ term, & STOP imagining the ‘modern’ way of life is still in place. It’s not. Not as Modernism. Not as Post-Modernism. Modernism has already left the church but not the building. Church buildings have become that place of last stand, that last fortress island. If only the trustees would relinquish the key.
This mindset trips us up and prevents us from growing. It trips us and actually prevents us from living the Gospel today in the face of stark realities like child poverty, homelessness, lack of health care, lack of a living wage… No true ‘Modernist’ was ever supposed to lack anything. I wish that that had turned out to be the case, I really do. But that’s not what happened. That’s not where we are now. And until we look again to see what is really here today, this day, we’re going to be blindly balancing in our walkers as we clutch the microphone, singing Shine, Jesus, Shine ‘in perpetuity.’
in road construction
I can see
the metaphor of church
from my place
in the line
I can see
the green light
God just ahead,
just ahead, but
I am completely stymied
by the flaggers and
stalls and thwarters—
I do not know
whether to rejoice
in the repair,
rebuild & reconstruction,
or should I scream
in sheer frustration
at my paralysis,
at my paralysis,
to the light of God.
Photo: Road Work Ahead by Wayan Vota 2009 flickr CC BY NC SA 2.0
I read a post on a clergy website today that I could myself have written just a few years ago. The post was a plea for wisdom—and there are some wise and wonderful people on that site—from those with more experience on the job. The plea was for balance, how to find it!? How to balance the pastorate, the family, seminary, that sermon on Sunday…
Pastors work hard. This job is a vocation—a calling—not a paycheck. We do it because God has called us in, through, and by the people we serve, in visions, by inspiration, by scripture, by practice. This is a job that calls out every branch, root, and shoot of our being. It is not easy.
I am sure that is why some of the earliest religious people were hermits!
The question she posed is sadly unanswerable. How do you serve the pastorate, the people, the baptizand, the dying, the grieving, the betrothed, the confirmands, the Eucharist, your kids, your spouse, your church family, your not-yet church family, your never-thank you church family, and your own spiritual and biological needs? Frankly, you can’t.
It’s like the world expects you to be a nerdy-yet-pastoral Martha Stewart in a black shirt and collar. You sure look efficient and ecclesiastical, but the Stewart-Media-Mogul superpower stuff is not where your own power is coming from. It cost you real energy to iron that shirt. No one was there to press it for you because you are a servant of God in a smallish community. Forget an actual assistant (who wouldn’t iron in any case) you are still working on getting a reliable powerpoint person for Sunday mornings.
As I reflected on the post this morning—and my own struggles with those very same issues—I reflected on the story of the Good Samaritan. I like to keep the first reading of any biblical story as true as possible to its original meaning and social context. But having done that, I like to be open also to the ways biblical stories break free of their origins to provide meaning and metaphor in some new way.
For me the story of the Good Samaritan turned a new way today, a new facet opened up. I thought about the naked wounded stranger in the story, lying there, desperate or dead. A remember Jesus’s admonition regarding the priest in the story who had walked by the stranger without looking, without helping, without a second glance.
In the story I can imagine it, a hurried priest sensing the nearness of yet one more broken person tugging at his sleeve. I feel the adrenalin and the cortisole spike, the quick breath and rabid heartbeat as the priest is beset with a sudden panic, a sudden self-preservation, and sudden desire to flee. I see him hike up his robes to facilitate speed. I see him hurrying on by, his head deliberately turned down or aside in fear; he has nothing left to give but the hard-hearted boundary of his refusal to see. It is validating evidence, at the least, of the reality of the sheer desperate condition of the man he leaves behind.
Years ago I would have joined my voice to Jesus’s with a rousing ‘Yeah!’ ‘Amen, brother!’ ‘Preach!’ when hearing that story. Can you imagine that faithless beetle-priest, scurrying by when a naked stranger, beaten and bruised, lay in need in the street.
Today I might lift a small and plaintive whine. “But, Jesus, have you seen her/his schedule? Have you any idea how tabbed out this month’s Google Calendar is? He/her did three funerals this week, on top of everything else!”
As a cleric—as a person—I see many of naked strangers, and I leave a lot of things undone. I cannot stop for everyone. I cannot give to every cause. I cannot fix the brokennesses of a single day let alone a month. I am guilty even when wearing priestly garb of hiking up my robe and scurrying away. I cannot be the help or the catharsis that many people need.
I am trying to make friends with this, but I am not glad to be too-often the example of the “bad” insider while the “good” outsider—with nothing better to do than troll around scamming people of their pots and pans, mind you!—gets all the credit for helping out.
Being a pastor means that even if I work 24 hour days without sleeping that strangers will be left naked and the laundry won’t get done. It means I will scramble at the last minute before the funeral because I forgot I hadn’t ironed that shirt yet. It means in a busy week I get to choose between offering a canned or lackluster sermon or staying up and compromising my sleep.
Being a pastor means I have to learn to let things go undone.
Yes, the goal is to empower and train the congregation, to lift up their gifts and capabilities. But in a congregation where skills must be grown, or there is simply not people with the skills needed, that means you are working around your limitations trying to resource your needs as best you can. And that takes work.
But I am praying and I am listening and I am learning.
I am learning to let things go undone.
This really isn’t a choice. I need to do this not simply for ‘balance’ but to maintain real and meaningful reserves, as well. A religious leader reacts to the schedule-god, the tick-tock fix-it god, the panic-god that you forgot, again, that thing you were supposed to do! A Spiritual leader responds to Christ. A Spiritual leader prioritizes tasks gently and recognizes in the undone gaps opportunities for the Spirit to work in ways that won’t be all about you and what you can or can’t do.
A Spiritual leader awaits the outcome surprise and accepts limitations and mystery. A ‘Good Samaritan,’ who knew! I mean, how cool is that? Awaiting God’s surprises means a Spiritual leader can walk by the naked stranger without shame, without having to scuttle away like a bug, because they have faith that God is there and working to make things right—even if you can’t imagine it right now. A Spiritual leader recognizes that they are not the only game in town and are not the only one in and through whom God works. In God’s world there is no insider tyranny because the outsiders get some glory, too.
In God’s world a Spiritual leader focuses on what God is making possible, not on what they think ‘must be done.’ Must anything be done? (What makes you so sure you know?)
But, perhaps most hopeful of all, a Spiritual leader know the value of ‘chillax.’ They hold the power of the Spirit at their center, and do not heap glory on themselves and their own powers. They seek to have enough in reserve—yes, reserve!—that they needn’t pass by at all, but can stop and be a responsive person of faith in that moment of great need. This is the kind of leader I try hard and one day hope to be.
I believe we have to find a way through the mess to try to be leaders of faith even amidst the great sea of all that is undone. If God isn’t rushing in to fill every pothole, then maybe we are not called to do that, either. We need to model faithful Spiritual leadership so that failure to jump to the expectations of others is not recognized as failure at all. We have deified self and created god-the-clock, and in so doing we are driven by the demon chronos. But God is so much, much bigger than that.
So chillax with me.
(And yes. It’s really hard to do. And I am still working on it.)