Saturday, December 28, 2013

“Like a son of the gods”

Our family gathered in Mobile for Christmas Eve.  It was a joyous occasion as we celebrated the Nativity for the first-time with our nine-month-old grandson.

Nora and I were there along with son Chris (who had the day before celebrated his 32nd birthday), daughter Leigh, son-in-law Fred, and grandson Wilt.  The weather was perfect for a southern Christmas – a chill in the air with a starry night. It was a good night to be in warm homes, gathered with family, preparing to share presents.

The family gathered fully for the first time on this holiday at the Christmas Eve service at Christ Church Cathedral.  The musical prelude was beautiful.  It set the tone for the service so well.  The church was full as families came together in reserved pews for the sacred beginning of the observance of Christmas.  The Bishop celebrated and the Dean preached.  Hers was a moving sermon, recalling the example of Phillips Brooks, one-time rector of Trinity Church, Copley Square, in Boston, and lyricist of the hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

There was a sense of warmth present – a feeling that, for that brief moment, all was right with the world.  The Savior had come.  A child had been born. Emmanuel. God with us.  The ground of our being had become one with us in human form. From him we have all received grace upon grace.

We departed the peace and majesty of that service in the cold, dark night.  Our children and grandson went in one car.  Nora and I left in our car.  We began the three-mile drive back to our daughter’s home in Midtown Mobile.

As we drove west on Government Street, I looked for a place to purchase gas for my car.  Nora and I had a 65 mile drive to Fort Morgan later that night, and I needed gas to make the drive.

We were perhaps half-way down Government Street when I saw an Exxon station lighted and open.  I pulled in to the station and up to a vacant pump.  The manager of the station was hosing down the concrete premises. The station appeared largely vacant, other than him.

As I got out of my car to pump the gas, I saw an older African American man walking across the station’s concrete apron.  He was talking to the station manager as he walked, and was carrying two plastic grocery store bags, one in each hand.  He was bundled against the night’s cold.  His sparse beard was flecked with grey. His wool hat was pulled over his hair.  A few of his stained teeth were missing.  He walked toward me.

I was dressed in my typical “civilian” church clothes: navy blue blazer, blue-and-white tape-stripe shirt, faintly-patterned grey-checkered slacks, and my comfortable brown oxford shoes.  I did not wear a tie.  I was “Mr. Middle Class”.

As he walked toward me, I thought of the four $20 bills folded neatly in my pocket.  I wondered what he would ask, and I thought about what I would give.  “After all, it is Christmas Eve,” I thought to myself.

He walked to within about eight feet of me.  “Ain’t it wonderful?” he said.  “The girl was nearly burned to death 30 years ago.”  He was clearly clued into a story I did not know.

“Yes, that’s right.  She nearly burned to death.  And now she is a young woman! Isn’t that wonderful? God is good!”

Surprised and puzzled, I responded: “Yes, that is good.” 

He continued, a smile on his weathered face:  “And you know what?  Have you ever seen the story in the Bible?  The one about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego?”

“Yes, I know that one,” I replied. “The one about the fiery furnace.”

“That’s right,” he said.  “They were in the fire and they saw a fourth man in there..”

“Like a son of God,” I completed his sentence.

“That’s right,” he said. “There was a fourth person with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. One like God.  Isn’t that great?  That’s what happened to that girl.  God was with her.  And now she’s a grown woman.” 

“That’s a wonderful story,” I said.

“Have a merry Christmas,” he said, as he walked away into the night.

“And you, too,” I responded.

He had asked for nothing.  And he gave me so much.

I finished filling my car.  I put the nozzle back in its place, replaced the gas cap, and closed the cover.

I looked around in the night.  There was Nora, me, and the station manager. The three of us.  And the mysterious, grateful man who had walked into the night, “one like a son of the gods.”

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Is there balm in Gilead?

My previous blog post may pose an interesting question: What promotes balance within the cleric’s life? In other words, how does an ordained person avoid the gaping maw of those destructive characteristics described in the last post?  Are we merely to live life as it comes with the phrase que sera, sera, as our fatalistic approach to life? 

No, we are not.  There are ways to achieve some modicum of balance in our lives, though, by necessity, it will be a dynamic balance – always subject to shifting, movement, and adjustment. 

Following are some remedies to prevent the downward spiral caused by tendencies such as isolation, despair, anger, overwork, mania, emptiness and addictions: 

·         Consistent Spiritual Disciplines – This may seem like a “no brainer” for a priest, but sometimes the tendency is to be so wrapped-up in “church work” that we forget to tend the vine which nourishes us.  A personal discipline of prayer, quietness, mindfulness, and solitude will contribute significantly to a foundation for the healthy exercise of the ordained vocation. There are many variations and forms of this discipline.  The key is to have some form as part of your daily life. (I would note that many people find a frank, open relationship to a spiritual companion/director very important.) 

·         Exercise – Exercise which a person enjoys is good for the body and the soul.  There are physiological changes, on several levels, which occur with exercise and any thorough description of those effects is well beyond my expertise.  I know from personal experience that moderate exercise serves to clear the cobwebs from my head, allows me to release pent-up frustration in a healthy way, and provides a sense of vitality and relaxation that is good for me.  My personal form of exercise is walking. And while it is not the same as running a marathon, the recommended 30-minutes per day, five-days per week is a good standard for maintaining balance. 

·         Collegial Support – I have said to Mississippi clergy that if I had one gift to give all clergy, it would be the gift of a self-selected peer support group.  Such a group – which has as its foundations candor, confidentiality, and accountability – can be a meaningful means of support.  It helps the ordained person realize that the vocational journey need not be an isolated one; that others walk a similar path and share similar experiences.  The characteristics of candor, confidentiality, and accountability are important. Otherwise, the exercise becomes meaningless and has reduced benefits.  This particular concept is at the core of Post Ordination Consultation and Fresh Start. 

·         Time with Loved Ones – The concept of balance, at its core, should provide time for those we love.  I know that relates to many permutations of relations – family of various sorts, and friends of many types.  An important factor is that this is time away from the vocation and an opportunity to share life with those for whom our vocation is irrelevant. It is in such times that we are able to delve into the connections by which our lives are fed and by which we express our gratitude – by time and presence – with those who are important to us.  In many cases, the vows we have taken – in marriage or at the baptismal font – precede our ordination vows.  Those meaningful relationships should not be cast-off or sacrificed on the altar of vocation. 

·         Fun – Life can become heavy and burdensome in the ordained ministry.  We deal with matters that have significant impacts on people’s lives.  We must hold much of it within the corners of our own hearts.  Much that we deal with cannot be easily solved or resolved at all. Many times we live grasping the tragic remainder.  We are subject to projections and transferences, for better or worse, that are out of our control. All these factors mean that we need to have sources of joy that are outside of the vocation. There is a limitless list of possibilities: various hobbies, such as cooking, golf, tennis, model railroading, knitting, painting, photography and others; hiking; bicycling; music; and sporting events.  These, and others, can be yeast to provide airiness to life when it becomes too oppressive.  

·         Intellectual Stimulation – I was told by a friend that she had mentioned to another acquaintance that she was reading a specific book that was popular at the time.  The acquaintance responded, “I don’t read.”  If we find ourselves encountering life without the intellectual curiosity that is so characteristically human, we lose an important part of ourselves.  The intellectual stimulation which is encouraged here is not necessarily something that contributes directly to our vocational exercise. I am not saying that a cleric needs to be poring over the volumes of Church Dogmatics by Karl Barth. I am suggesting that it is important to find a stimulating intellectual area and pursue it.  Find an area of literature or life that you enjoy, and then go deep into it.  It will likely yield benefits to your life and vocation (and, yes, conversation) on many levels. 

·         Laughter – Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her much-admired book Team of Rivals, wrote of Abraham Lincoln’s bountiful sense of humor, even in the darkest days of the Civil War.  He had a tendency, even in the tensest of moments, to recall a story or anecdote which brought levity to the direst circumstances.  As the portion of Reader’s Digest is named, “Laughter is the Best Medicine.”  If our vocations become so heavy that we lose all sense of perspective, we are of little use to anyone. One saying states it so well, “Angels can fly because they take themselves so lightly.” Laughter, in an appropriate setting, can prick the balloon of seriousness and allow us to move forward, perhaps not with happiness, but at least joy 

I have found that in this blogging, there is joy for me. I am able to organize rather convoluted and disorganized thoughts, and bring them into a cogent set of concepts.  This is an exercise of balance for me.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Fire Bells in the Night

Twenty-six years of ordained ministry have hammered home various points about this peculiar vocation.  Some are realized intuitively over time, and hopefully become part of the background wisdom that informs the exercise of ministry.  Other key points are discussed or taught openly in a variety of formal or informal settings.  It is hoped that some of those insights will be found to be authentic and, like the earlier, intuitive lessons, will be incorporated into the healthy living of vocation. 

Some have greater truth than others.  Some have a greater sense of resonance. Some are like a fire bell in the night.  

I have been fortunate to have known and worked under some very thoughtful people.  The lessons they have shared and the wisdom they have exhibited have been great gifts.  I hope some of them have stuck.  It is true, indeed, that what we do not know can hurt us.

Years ago, before I was on diocesan staff or the Commission on Ministry, I heard of the marital break-ups of three close friends, all of whom were clergy. I reflected on what I saw as the trail of wreckage left by clergy whose lives had descended into the depths.  I wrote an earnest letter expressing my concern to the chair of the Wellness Subcommittee of the Commission on Ministry.  While he and I commiserated personally on the situation, the response was much like the sound of silence that Elijah encountered outside the cave on Mount Horeb.

I recently heard other news. I learned of the deposition of a longtime friend in another diocese. Like others I have seen over the years, there was sexual misconduct involved. Some situations which have arisen in years past were hardly a surprise.  This one was truly unexpected.  But, from what I understand, the essential predictive elements were present – as it seems they always are. Warning signs are there.  But they go unheeded. Lives are ruined. A vocation is lost. Countless costs – spiritually, emotionally, vocationally, and personally – are incurred. The impact is like a meteor crater – a definitive point of impact with concentric circles of damage emanating outward from the original damage

Again and again, in various forms, the key point is conveyed: Balance is a key element in the healthy exercise of ordained ministry.  Absent that balance, an ordained person either becomes ineffective (by lack of intellectual, spiritual or vocational rigor) or, tragically, by burning-out and acting out. It is all too predictable.

The former situation (characterized by lack of engagement or connection with the congregation) is a subject for another time.  However, the imbalance which leads to destructive behavior is my topic here.

In the CREDO component focusing on Vocation, there are two elements which have a bearing on this subject and can lead, at least partly, to the slippery slope that ends in loss of vocation or vocational identity.  Those two areas of focus are Margin and Emotional Labor.

Margin has to do with “open space” which exists in our emotional, physical, financial, and time lives.  A credit score might be a good metaphor for margin.  If a priest has a metaphorical credit score of 350 in any of those four areas of margin, they are skating on thin ice.  An image of a rubber band may be helpful, too.  If the rubber band is stretched too far, it snaps.  Likewise, if we stretch ourselves too far in the areas of emotional, physical financial, or time reserves, we are in a potentially dangerous position. (Note: A helpful book on this aspect is Margin, by Richard A. Swenson, M.D.)

Emotional Labor is another potential area of peril.  This has to do, to a great extent, with hiding, disguising or minimizing emotions.  Critical to this concept are the display rules we observe (or are imposed on us in terms of expectations).  Clergy may feel elated over something about which it would be perceived as inappropriate to feel that way.  Likewise, a cleric might feel anger, sadness or any other form of emotion which might not seem to be appropriate in a particular setting. This can lead to a phenomenon known as deep acting, in which we are so separated from our true emotions, we are not aware of them at all.  This is a form of suppression, and can be dangerous to one’s wellbeing. (Note:  A good book on this subject is The Managed Heart, by Arlie Russell Hochschild.)

These two topics highlight some of the dangers of unawareness in the ordained vocation.  There are others I would highlight very briefly:

·         OverworkWorkaholism is a valued behavior for clergy by congregations. There are rewards (short-term) for the congregation and the cleric. Ultimately, though, it is destructive. Congregations tend to value an over-functioning rector.  Likewise, clergy find the approval they receive for such over-functioning is like crack cocaine – addictive, giving a sense of a high, a steadily increasing requirement for “more”, but ultimately of no value. There is likely to be an ultimate crash.

·         Isolation – When clergy become lone rangers, alarms should be sounded.  We find vitality and wholeness of life in community.  With a cleric, community will need to be more than one’s parish. A peer support group or constructive involvement in other ways with people outside the parish is important for balance. Withdrawal from wider church functions is frequently evidence of such isolation.

·         Mania – The hyperactive lifestyle should be noted. This is the behavioral and unholy whirling dervish. Life is accelerating. The high which accompanies this level of mania serves as a drug to anesthetize inner wounds.  This may sometimes be accompanied by a loss of appropriate boundaries. The cleric exhibiting these tendencies is potentially moving quickly in the direction of being “out of control.”

·         Anger – Another “mine canary” would be anger, or maybe resentment (best defined as anger with dust on it).  This may be low-grade, simmering anger.  Or it might be evidenced in outbursts that are out-of-proportion to the circumstances. The anger may sometimes be within the parish or, more likely, directed toward ecclesiastical superiors, such as the Bishop.

·         Despair – This word may be a bit too dramatic, but it captures the heart of the matter.  Sometimes clergy feel trapped and do not see a viable option for moving upward, downward, or sideways.  They may have been involved in search processes which led to dead-ends.  They do not know a way out of the circumstances.  The despair fuels the anger and isolation. Depression may set in. The fuse is lit.

·         Emptiness – The ordained vocation can be one of great depth and texture, but like a vineyard, it must be tended. I am referring to one’s spiritual journey.  Spiritual disciplines – which are so much more than the empty “pray without ceasing” – can provide a foundation below which we cannot fall.  The importance of regular, anticipated connection to the numinous helps us to maintain perspective, clear lenses through which we can comprehend our journey, and, above all, a sense of hope.  In those disciplines – even when we encounter the Ignatian experience of desolation – we discover that we are not alone in this ministry.  A reading of Romans 8 is tonic for the soul. Mindfulness and time alone in silence can be enormously restorative.

·         Addictions – These are more the result of the above – evidence that the horse is out of barn.  Addictions come in many forms – alcohol, drugs, work, spending, sex, inappropriate relationships, pornography, and gambling, among others. These are among the most significant red lights to be observed and responded to.

This listing is by no means complete or authoritative.  These are my insights gained over 26 years of ordained ministry, and they are characteristics of which I am mindful.  If I discern them in my own life – or, if, by God’s grace, someone points them out to me in my own actions – I seek to take restorative action.  If I see them in others, I want to respond in a healing, renewing, honest, and hope-filled way.

The irony in all this is that the church and its leaders have been well-aware of all the warning signs associated with these tendencies.  Yet we do little or nothing about them.  The church tends to be complicit in the denial of their significance. The person who is (hopefully) lovingly told of his or her tendencies in these areas will likely resist such insight.  He or she may be expected to become angrier and withdrawn – which is counterproductive to the desire for healing.

Sadly, the dance of denial or avoidance continues – until it all comes crashing down.  And when it does, great was the fall of lives connected and the institutions served.