It Isn’t Pretty . . .

As I look back, I now see that she was grieving. It wasn’t pretty, but then grief usually isn’t.

We were living abroad when we traveled to a neighboring country for medical attention. As we were sitting in the clinic, an American woman entered with her spouse and preteens/tweens, and to be honest, that is when it became . . . well . . . interesting, to put it mildly. The waiting room was teeming with an angry presence—hers. We witnessed her verbally berating the reserved national behind the desk, which was eventually followed by disparaging speech about the culture as she departed from the clinic.

To say the least, it was not pretty.

I am only guessing here, but it would be my opinion that authors William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick would characterize this woman as a prime example of an “ugly American.” Their novel The Ugly American was a best-seller in the 1950s and was even touted by Senator John F. Kennedy who purchased copies for each of the U.S. Senators. The book’s content? A novel that was a searing critique. Of whom? Americans and how they behaved poorly overseas. But it was not simply a harsh commentary on the ordinary American. Instead, it severely criticized the educated diplomat, the one who represented America in foreign countries. The book denounced American representatives for their refusal to learn the local language and customs while insisting they had insight into what was best for the nationals.[1] In other words, The Ugly American believes American customs, perspectives, and standards are superior and shows disregard for other cultures.

And that is not pretty.

Having recently returned from a month of being overseas, I recalled this incident and wondered how loss/grief plays a part of the image of the ugly American. Each of us carries a particular perspective of how the world operates, which provides each of us with a certain amount of stability and predictability from which we derive security. However, our immersion into another culture can change all that. We may discover that much of what we know and understand is no longer successful in safeguarding us; thus, our anxiety rises when security is replaced by danger. We find ourselves floundering like a fish out of water as we become uncomfortable with an unfamiliar people, language, and local behaviors. That is, we are experiencing loss. Loss of how to communicate. Loss of how to conduct ourselves. Loss of understanding. To put it simply, we find it difficult to grasp the world around us. Our speaking English more loudly in a country that uses another language miserably fails. Our insisting on utilizing dollars rather than the local currency generates increased frustration. We may become quickly confused, anxious, and fearful, but not wanting to appear vulnerable, we may conceal it with anger. Anger is a common secondary emotion, then, that becomes a tool to shield ourselves from risk, uncertainty, and emotional exposure. Perhaps we could say we become the ugly griever.

And that . . . isn’t pretty.

Yet, the ugly griever is not simply reserved for those who travel to foreign lands. It may appear whenever we experience any loss. I have been the ugly griever. As an ugly griever, I have been less understanding of others, easily hurt, and defensive. I have readily used blame, labels, sweeping generalities, and belittling in which I have turned the other into an object. No longer was the other a human being, who had inadvertently hurt me, but an enemy to be conquered . . . one who had to be proven wrong. In essence, I refused to genuinely see the other. To truly listen. To express curiosity. To learn through difference. To be empathic. No longer was the other simply doing the best she could with the resources she had. He simply just should have known better. I felt disdain for her. I felt contempt for his behavior.

And . . . it wasn’t pretty.

As I write, my mind is drawn towards my own nation, and I wonder, “How many of us inside our American borders have become the ugly American, or should we say, ugly griever?”

Let’s face it: right now, it isn’t pretty.

Consider loneliness, for instance. Grief and loneliness go hand in hand. Brené Brown notes that even though our nation has taken definitive sides with an us vs. them mentality (e.g., the liberals vs. the conservatives; the Democrats vs. the Republicans), disconnection is a common malady, and loneliness is increasing. Rather than feeling more connected because people nearby hold similar beliefs to our own, Brown notes that loneliness has more than doubled since 1980.[2] Grief is lonely. Furthermore, our inability to express empathy for each other, including those who hold the same values as we, is evident. We are . . . well . . . angry. It is difficult to be angry and be empathic, even towards those with whom we agree. If social media is any indication, our tendency is: when we find someone with whom we agree, we vent with each other, freely expressing our anger and protesting the losses. While this may be helpful to a point (protesting is a part of grief), we may become stuck at this place with no movement forward. In other words, simply venting does not necessarily allow us to be truly connected with the other. That comes through empathy. It is empathy that helps us make a connection which helps us to feel less isolated. Empathy also moves us toward reconciliation of the loss. If I can express empathy with myself and with others, it enables me to move towards reconciling the losses that I have experienced. Notice that I said, “moves us toward.” This is a never-ending journey of healing.

Grief counselor, Alan Wolfelt, speaks of the importance of reconciliation as it pertains to loss and grief.

For Wolfelt, movement towards reconciliation occurs as the griever integrates the loss into his/her whole life. This may mean striving towards healing the rifts between each of us as well as healing within ourselves. It may come as a choice to be empathic both with the other and ourselves. The learning how to be empathic (both with others and me) and to receive empathy (both from others and me) is what brings the most movement towards healing, or reconciliation, with my losses. It is what moved me out of being the ugly griever to the reconciled griever.

As a Christ-follower, I also am not unfamiliar with the word “reconciliation,” and for me, it has similar meaning with Wolfelt’s.

Let me explain. Theologian Ray Anderson speaks of reconciliation (healing) as that which transpires as the Christ-follower becomes more and more whole—that is, one becomes more of the person God has intended. Notice how Wolfelt speaks of integrating the loss, which is healing and movement toward wholeness.

The apostle Paul also speaks of reconciliation in a letter to the church at Corinth (2 Cor. 5). Paul is speaking about being reconciled to God in that God has reconciled the world to God in Christ. This is important because as one who is reconciled to God, Paul states he no longer sees anyone from a human standpoint (v. 16). He admits he used to see Christ in this way, a possible reference to his conversion on the road to Damascus. Paul was a persecutor, viewing Jesus and Christ-followers as the enemy, but now, since he is reconciled to God in Christ, he does so no longer. People, then, are no longer the enemy. Now, he understands that in Christ people are a new creation. This understanding points towards a theology in which he is being pulled toward a future, the eschaton (see also vv. 1-4), a time when all of creation will be renewed—that is, a time when God’s kingdom will have fully come. And that is pretty. This, then, is the lens  through which he now views others. As such, now he is a participant in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation (v. 18), of healing, in this world. His new lens pulls him towards this future so that now he is an agent of healing, not of harm, such as a persecutor. Now, he calls himself a representative, or ambassador, of Christ’s ministry of reconciliation (vs. 20). In other words, the one once unreconciled becomes the reconciler, or the unhealed becomes the healer.

This seems so current for us today, particularly in our nation. We live in a hurting nation where we are prone to see the other as the enemy. Whether it is male or female, Black or White, Liberal or Conservative, Democrat or Republican, we all know what it is to be blamed, labeled, belittled, and judged. We are wounded. As the wounded, we wound others. We blame, label, belittle, and judge. Such wounds, be it in the wounder or the woundee, point towards our grief, or our ugliness, which isn’t pretty. Yet, it is in this place of woundedness that we may become wounded healers, to use Henri Nouwen’s term. After all, is this not in one sense what Paul is saying? The unreconciled become the reconcilers? The ones who are being pulled toward a future that is pretty.

That is why I write this blog. I, too, have been wounded, and it is my desire to be a wounded healer.

“But [through] deeds of love and mercy, the heavenly kingdom comes.”[3]

 

[1] Michael Meyer, “Still Ugly After All These Years,” NY Times, July 10, 2009, https://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/12/books/review/Meyer-t.html (accessed October 29, 2018).

[2] Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, New York: Random House, 2017), 50-51.

[3] Lyrics from Sara Groves, “Lead on O King Eternal,” Abide with Me, 2017.

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Playing the Blame Game

There I was . . . doing the best I could . . .

I wanted to be helpful, but then my best efforts turned out to be troublesome. Suddenly, I was pulled unwillingly into playing a game . . . the blame game . . . and I was losing. I heard the words that were spoken to me, “What did you do that for? You should’ve known better.” Blame had been assigned. The high bar of expectation had not been cleared. In an instant, my feeling of euphoria in being helpful became one of distress and misery as power had been wielded over me, and I had become imprisoned by blame.

Before I go any further, let me say that blame may have a function. Sometimes we truly have committed an egregious offense for which there is a high penalty. As the authors of “The Contours of Blame” write, blame often arises out of a sense of moral responsibility as a moral standard has not been maintained.[1] Compassionate Communication speaks of blame and judgments flowing out of a need that is unmet (needs in this context are universal qualities in which humanity thrives, such as respect, security, dignity, equality, trust, freedom, etc.); thus, in the above story, the unmet need of  the one placing blame may have been efficiency. Blame, then, may be positive since it alerts our moral compass of a wrong direction or informs us of unmet needs.

Yet, it can hinder open and authentic discussion as people are imprisoned by blame.

There is no doubt in my mind that it is a tricky maneuver to discuss blame for even in the very discussion of it, one may appear to be blaming others. Of course, it is an impossibility for humans to avoid blaming. After all, since everyone does it, we may actually be unaware of when we are doing it. Yet . . . that’s the point: our being unaware.

Blame can come from anywhere and at any time. It may be from a spouse, a parent, or an adult child. It could be from your boss, a Facebook friend, another church member. It could be couched in generic labels, such as liberal, conservative, Boomer, Millennial, Muslim, Christian, Republican, Democrat, etc. Or maybe it is simply that incessant internal voice—you blaming you.

The assaults of blame can begin in various ways. You should’ve . . . You should’ve known better . . . You could’ve . . . You could’ve done that differently . .  . What did you do that for . . . What were you thinking . . . It’s your fault. Blame may lie behind such pronouns as they or those people, which removes the personal element from the equation. Think about it. We can use the word “they” in a way that makes the other less human and more like an object. Such a move only serves to increase the gulf between us and them. The other disappears into a category, a label, that seems benign, such as immigrant, the Left, or the Right. However, collective labels can become subtle tools of power over. Collective labels may be wielded with finesse to gain the upper hand and to reduce its victims to nothing, all the while appearing innocuous. Such labels are not harmless. Blame combined with labels is a way we implicitly detach ourselves from others, turning them into the enemy, an object of our disdain.

Megan Feldman states that the psychological definition of blame is “to discharge pain and discomfort.” She goes on to say, “Blame creates bullying, self-loathing, and war. Blame is violent.”[2] Thus, it becomes a tool of violence whose mission is to seek, sink, and destroy.

Blame.

It is powerful.

The blame game is played in the halls of relationships.

It may begin with the breaking of something—a business deal, a relationship, a machine, a system, a principle, a standard, a promise—and the placing of blame is soon to follow. However, when we play the blame game, we actually enter a losing game. The cards, which are dealt, are stacked against us from the start. It is a game because blaming is a competition—who can win, who can have the better hand, and who can achieve and sustain power over the other. Like a game, it boils down to us vs. them as we seek to defend ourselves.

Our defense, I believe, is motivated to a large degree by fear. Fear is uncomfortable, so we seek to cover it up. Maybe we fear we will be found out—that people will see us as a fraud, a failure, or a freak. It might be fear of rejection. Fear of a loss of security. Fear of losing our dignity, friend, approval, companion, acceptance, respect, etc. And so, we seek a strategy to defend ourselves.

For some, fear instigates a fighting strategy.

We become like an angry caged animal. We growl and hiss at the foe in our attempts to protect ourselves from the pain of blame. We may have been dealt a losing hand, but we are determined to go down fighting with our claws extended. Baring our teeth, we fight back. We heap blame on the other. Such an attack mode may appear as overt yelling. Fists are clenched, and we are striking blows wherever we can. Playing dirty. Committing overt fouls. For others, the fighting appears as being passive aggressive. I will destroy you with silence or sarcasm. I will subtly undercut you at every turn . . . or if I am blaming me, maybe I will sabotage my own efforts.

For some, fear triggers the strategy of fleeing.

I will put distance between you and me—I’ll cut the other off. This could be physical, such as moving to the other side of the nation. It could be emotional, such as putting up emotional barriers. We may attend the same church, live in the same city, even on the same block, or maybe next door . . . Or even in the same house. However, our interactions will be minimal . . . if at all. I will de-friend the other on Facebook. Yet, despite going to such lengths to remove myself from the game, I remain in it. Cutting myself off from the other only intensifies the game—it does not remove me from it. When I use this strategy, the other retains power over me. In fact, I give away my power to the other by distancing myself from him/her. If he/she moves closer, I move farther away; hence, my movement is based on what the other player does, thereby they retain power over me, and I am trapped in the game.

For still others, our fear produces the strategy of freezing.

We do not attack outwardly; we do not attempt to run away, but instead we turn inward—self-blame becomes the strategy of choice. Such a response takes the cards the other player has dealt us and uses them for further condemnation—towards one’s self. Being steeped in shame, it believes, “I am bad. I am not good enough.” It believes, “I am responsible, not only for what is broken, but also for you and your reactions. It is my fault that you failed to land on Park Place. I am to blame for the hand you have been dealt. I caused you to roll deuces when you needed fives.” Rather than fighting back by saying, “You should’ve . . .,” this response says, “I should’ve . . ..” It takes responsibility without having the power to change the situation. This strategy not only keeps the self imprisoned, but it also seeks out further isolation — self-imposed solitary confinement.

Since the blame game fuels our competitive nature and our fears and since we may seem to be playing several games of blame throughout the day, or maybe even every hour, it may be too much to ask that we stop playing altogether. But perhaps we can slow down the games through self-awareness and learn new strategies to end at least some of the particular blaming games.

I learned one such strategy while taking a class for a master’s degree, a strategy that eases one out of a blame game. And . . . well . . . I will admit . . . it changed me.

The class? Conflict and Conciliation.

The demonstration? A role play of four students who were Mom/Dad and their two sons.

The conflict? The athletic son, who usually received all the accolades, had broken his brainiac brother’s science exhibit—a plane for a highly competitive contest. The plane stood out as a potentially momentous event for the non-athletic son as it was his first opportunity to gain recognition from others. In the role playing, the “parents” were to attempt to resolve this conflict.

Their strategy? They confronted the athletic son by saying, “Why did you do this?” The whole class was drawn into the blaming game as the “father” utilized “you . . . you . . . you” and the athletic son utilized strategies of attacking, distancing, or turning inward. Needless to say, the conflict was unresolved as blame sucked the air out of the room. Blame had caged us all.

At this point, the professor entered the circle and began to play the role of the father. In a similar manner that we use blame with great finesse, the professor overflowed with gentleness and grace, and the blame seeped out of the room. Rather than focusing on the athletic son’s actions, which were so apparent to all of us (including the son), the professor centered on the broken plane. It became the focus of our problem. We stared at this plane . . . which is saying a lot considering that it was a make-believe plane. As our attention was drawn away from the son, we entered into questions such as, “What are we going to do about this broken plane with the competition being hours away?” In the midst of the conflict, there emerged a super-ordinate goal, a goal we all shared.

And a shift transpired in the room.  

The change was so distinct that it seemed we could taste it. We could breathe. My desire to distance myself or to blame me (my go-to strategies in the blame game) dissipated. Self-defensiveness left the building, and the blame game ended when power over was replaced by power with. This was accompanied by healing as the athletic son embraced his action that had hurt this family, and together, the family began to work on a plan to solve the problem of the broken plane.

Tears came to my eyes. I was dumbfounded. Up to that point in my life, I had only experienced blame’s power over, but on that day, I witnessed a different power . . . power with.

As a Christ-follower, I see how such a strategy is portrayed in our scriptures.

Take for instance the sending of the Son, Jesus. According to Christian theology, Jesus Christ embodies power with through the hypostatic union of being fully God and fully human in his very person. God is forever alongside humanity in a power-with relationship in the being of Jesus Christ.

We see a similar strategy of power with in the story of Daniel in the Hebrew Scriptures. Daniel and his friends were taken captive by the Babylonians and were living in exile in Babylon under the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar. In such a situation Daniel and his friends found themselves far from home in a strange city with foreign customs, meaning familiarity and personal freedom were absent. Such circumstances could produce for anyone feelings of anger, anxiety, sadness, or depression as one grieves a multitude of losses. So, it is possible that Daniel and his friends experienced such emotions as an outflow of their own humanity, which may invite blaming, such as, “This is the fault of the Babylonians,” but Scripture is silent on this subject. However, we do know of one instance when Daniel chose not to blame in the face of conflict. Instead, Daniel centered on the “broken airplane.”

The conflict? Daniel and his friends were chosen to be in service to the king and were thereby to be trained for three years. They were to consume a diet of rich foods and drink the wine of Babylon, which meant that Daniel and his friends would be ceremonially unclean according to their own beliefs. When Daniel informed their overseer of the issue, the overseer was concerned that Daniel and his friends would appear malnourished, which would endanger the overseer’s life.

The strategy? Daniel, recognizing the issue, did not blame the overseer or the king, but instead the diet became his focus—it was “the broken plane.” A deal was struck: Daniel and his friends would eat their own diet for ten days and at the end of which, they would be compared to those who ate and drank food and wine from the king’s table. It just so happened, that at the end of the ten days, Daniel and his friends looked better and were healthier than those who ate the food from the king.

The point? Daniel refused to participate in the blame game’s competitive nature of power over. Instead, he sought power with his enemy as Daniel joined with those who were responsible for him and his friends by focusing on the issue, “the broken plane.”

So this blog becomes an invitation to us to become self-aware of our blaming; to recognize our current strategies in playing the blame game; to differentiate (see The Powerful Reality of a System and When A Transformational Shift Occurs . . .); and center on the “broken planes” among us. In so doing, maybe we will begin to heal the rifts that occur in relationships due to blame, thereby participating in Christ’s healing ministry to humanity that occurs in his very being as the divine-human one.

 

[1] D. Justin Coates and Neal A Tognazzini, “The Contours of Blame,” Blame: Its Nature and Norms, edited by D. Justin Coates and Neal A Tognazzini, 3-26, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[2] Megan Feldman, “Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World,” TED Talk, http://meganfeldman.com/books/.

Sacred Space: A Divine Encounter Between Us

As a Pentecostal, I take encounters with the divine seriously.

For those of you who do not know much about Pentecostalism, there are a couple of things that make us tick:

  • Encounters with God
  • Transformation

And these two are inextricably linked as the proof of a genuine encounter with God lies in transformation. So whether it is a bodily healing or someone sensing God’s love, the transformation may be seen from a physical change to an emotional change in one’s state of being.

I recall one such divine encounter transpiring. It was on a day when I was angry . . . maybe even enraged . . . and fearful. Being overwhelmed with grief from a deep loss, both my identity and my theology had been uprooted. On this day, I was quiet and withdrawn as evidenced in a three-way conversation with a friend, my husband, and me. At some point, which actually turned out to be a pivotal point, the friend asked a question—a question that is now long forgotten—that was directed towards me. While I was responding, it was as if someone had suddenly flipped a switch and a transformation transpired. I admit I did not notice the metamorphosis at first, but at some point, my husband and our friend commented, “Have you noticed how energized you have become?”

In that moment . . . We all knew . . . something had changed.

I knew . . .  some confusion had lifted.

The lostness  . . . the fog . . .  had dissipated.

In its place . . . some clarity had come.

We had encountered God.

I have never forgotten that moment. Every detail of the room . . . the street on which it was located . . . the moment in time when something changed . . .  there was a shift . . . It is all etched deep within the recesses of my brain. It seemed like yesterday, but it was 10 years ago. I moment in time when a shift had occurred. It was one of the turning points in this journey we call life . . .  a point when God came.

Why, you may wonder, do I tell such a story?

Pentecostals often talk about divine interventions, such as when there is a crisis as in a sickness, a disaster, an accident, a lack of funds, or God visiting a service with a prophecy or a word of knowledge. In those moments, Pentecostals know things have changed. God has spoken.

But what about those occasions when God does not dramatically intervene?

What about those occasions when the person remains sick or the disaster crashes into us unabated? Where is this transcendent, omnipotent God then? Let me be clear. On that day, my grief was not magically lifted . . . my theological moorings were not suddenly re-established . . . I still had questions . . . I was still grieving . . . my circumstances had not been supernaturally transformed.

Yet . . . God had been encountered, not in a thundering, dramatic entrance, but via relationality. 

Such a divine encounter through relationality makes the space between people . . . well . . . sacred. When I speak of space, it is not simply the absence of matter as in the physical dimension, but it is an abstract holding place between people that becomes sacred. To further explain what I mean, I turn to the psychological theory of Object Relations.

The term “sacred space” evolves from the concept of holding by object relations theorist, D. W. Winnicott.

What did Winnicott mean by holding? John Newton and Helen Goodman note that the term “holding” for Winnicott references the mother’s physical holding of the infant that is done in such a way that the infant feels safe, “enabling the infant to play and so create its own identity.”[1] In other words, as the mother holds the child, the mother creates a space in which the child is put at ease, enabling the child to explore. There is an openness to an unearthing of something new for both the mother and the infant. As Newton and Goodman state, it is an amalgamation of “internal and external factors” that generates for Winnicott a “transitional space”: It exists both within the persons and between them with an element of playfulness, so they may “discover each other.”[2] Think of an infant finding her foot or her fingers. It is during the child’s self-discovery that the mother not only learns about her child but also about herself, her own humanity.

As self-discovery continues, maturity emerges. As referenced in my previous blog (When A Transformational Shift Occurs . . . ), a child moves from complete dependence towards independence. For Object Relations theory, such a movement transpires in this space between the caregiver and the child. Peter VanKatwyk observes that Winnicott’s concept of holding the infant was seen to make the child ready to eventually be equipped to independently ride through life’s storms. Accordingly, Winnicott applied holding to the therapy session, which Vankatwyk understands Winnicott to be preparing the client to journey alone.[3] That is, in the space in the relationship between the counselor and the counselee, there is movement from absolute dependence towards independence—growth unfolds. Mary Fraser similarly notices that in Winnicott’s transferring of this concept to therapy, he views “transitional space” as “an environment in which people felt so safe and so nurtured that they could open themselves emotionally and psychologically to work through their conflicts and gain insight into life predicaments.”[4] Herzel Yogev also reports that the concept of holding has been expanded so that in therapy both the counselor and the client move toward a mutual holding.[5] That is, a reciprocal discovery of each other and of life. Pamela Cooper White demonstrates this mutuality in her understanding of the concept of space in her application to the pastor/client relationship:

The pastoral relationship involves intersubjectivity, a sharing of understandings and meanings that arises in the “potential space” of exploration between us.’ There is a shared wisdom that grows and is held between helper and helpee in the pastoral relationship, and this shared wisdom exists in both conscious and unconscious dimensions of “I,” “Thou,” and “We.”[6]

This space of experiencing and honoring the other, then, is a space of respect and value, not disregard and violation between a caregiver and a carereceiver, be it pastor to congregant or Christ-follower to Christ-follower.

This space embraces and esteems the otherness of a person and affirms the other’s worth. Thus, the space between people becomes a holding place: As the carereceiver transparently shares one’s self, the caregiver joins in the holding of the other by demonstrating that the other matters through listening and being present, providing a space to wrestle with life’s conundrums. Fraser remarks that the space becomes sacred when it is a place of “meaning-making” in which the person finds value in both herself and in her world.[7] VanKatwyk summarizes it well, “[T]he sacred appears in acts of caring in a harsh world, and caring constructs the sacred places where people live the meanings of their lives.”[8]

As a Christ-follower, who is also Pentecostal, I understand the image of sacred space as a space for a possible in-breaking of God.

I begin with a brief description of perichoresis, an image of the Trinity provided by the Cappadocian Fathers in the fourth century. This metaphor embraces both the unity and the diversity of the trinitarian theological construct. As Paul Fiddes writes, it was used to describe God’s nature (ousia) as being a “communion” of three persons (emphasis Fiddes).[9] Cooper-White says that perichoresis connotes persons who exist equally and are mutually interpermeating.[10] John Zizioulas explains, “Each person carries a full, undivided nature while co-inhering in the other person.”[11] For example, in using Miroslav Volf’s thought, one can say that the “Son” is not only himself, but rather the “Son” also carries within himself the other divine persons, “Father and Spirit,” and only in this indwelling of the other two persons existing in the “Son” is the “Son” really the “Son” (the reader can then extrapolate for the other two persons).[12] Volf clarifies, “[E]ach divine person is the other persons, though is such in its own way.”[13] In other words, the Father has a distinct nature while also fully indwelling the Son and Spirit and vice versa. The divine persons, then, exist in relations. This brings to mind another metaphor that Fiddes discusses, which is perichoreuo; it emerged in the Medieval Period to portray a “divine dance.”[14] Fiddes remarks, “In this dance the partners not only encircle each other and weave in and out between each other as in human dancing; in the divine dance, so intimate is the communion that they move in and through each other so that the pattern is all-inclusive.”[15] In essence, the Three-in-One are described by Fiddes as existing as relations in movement.[16] Through the use of these metaphors of the Trinity, theologians have concluded that humanity mirrors the divine by being in relationship with God and other humans. It is by being in community that human beings reflect the imago Dei.

This description becomes vital for my understanding of the sacred space and the in-breaking of God.

As a caregiver and a carereceiver formulate a healing relationship, there are multiple dynamics at work. First, between the caregiver and the carereceiver there will be movement towards mutuality and respect. The caregiver will seek to create a safe environment within which the carereceiver may express both positive and negative emotions without fear of rejection. In this, the caregiver attempts to create a sacred space in which the carereceiver may find worth and meaning. Within this space is a sense of solidarity, which proclaims that together the caregiver and carereceiver will walk through a carereceiver’s joy and sorrow. In the place of pious platitudes there is empathy. In the place of a denial of the pain, there is compassion, which suffers with the carereceiver.

Theologian Ray Anderson asserts that the Christ-follower who serves in the capacity of paraclesis, “a role of comforting, exhorting, and encouraging,” continues Christ’s ministry “through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.”[17] Anderson explains:

The continuing paracletic ministry of the Spirit takes place through a human encounter by which the Word produces change and growth through the motive power of the Spirit. It is important to note that the motive power is not located in who performs the paracletic ministry nor in the one who receives it, but the new motive power for growth and change is actually mediated into the relation through the Spirit by the human person.[18]

This points toward the second dynamic at work, which is the presence and the movement of the Spirit.

Recognizing that the Spirit is given to believers (e.g., Eph 1:13-14), the Spirit resides within the caregiver and carereceiver who are Christ-followers, working in each of them to transform them. Furthermore, with the images of perichoresis and perichoreuo and Anderson’s belief that the Spirit is already ministering, I believe that the Spirit is moving within the space between the caregiver and carereceiver, including them in the divine dance. Cooper-White supports this when she writes, “The intersubjective space created between two persons in the pastoral relationship is sacred space. We enter with awe, with fear and trembling.”[19] It is a powerful encounter of the Spirit, then, for not only is the Spirit within each person but also moving between the persons or within their relationship. Cooper White reiterates that “we do not do this merely by our own powers of reason or intuition, but with the help of the pulsing, energizing breath of God dwelling in both partners in the therapeutic dance, and dwelling in the intersubjective space between us.”[20]

Thus, with the Spirit’s presence, the sacred space is transformed to a Sacred space (capital “S”). The Holy is present.

In mirroring the relations of the triune Godhead, Sacred space is a space of mutuality and equality that becomes infused with the presence of the divine. There is a willingness to acknowledge the mystery and to admit to not knowing. Both the caregiver and the carereceiver recognize their weakness and finitude. As the caregiver moves toward the carereceiver with respect, honor, and consideration, an atmosphere is created that reflects the community of the divine. In this, as the caregiver and the carereceiver listen to the Spirit who is moving and dancing in their midst, they partake in the dance—an in-breaking of God occurs—the Holy Divine One is present.

Transformation is made possible.

The Space is sacred.

 

Special thanks to pixabay.com for the picture.

 

[1] John Newton and Helen Goodman, “Only to Connect: Systems Psychodynamics and Communicative Space,” Action Research 7, no. 3 (2009): 300, DOI: 10.1177/1476750309336719 (accessed December 13, 2012).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Peter VanKatwyk, “Pastoral Counseling as a Spiritual Practice: An Exercise in a Theology of Spirituality,” Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling 56, no. 2 (June 1, 2002): 118, http://www.luthersem.edu/library/auth_resource.aspx?resource_link=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0001370096&site=ehost-live&scope=site (accessed December 9, 2012).

[4] Mary L. Fraser, “Space: The Final Frontier: The Use of Psychological, Emotional, and Sacred Space in Biblical Texts 
and Contemporary Psychotherapy,” Pastoral Psychology 48, no. 3 (2000): 212, http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=pbh&AN=2794092&site=ehost-live (accessed December 13, 2012).

[5] Herzel Yogev, “Holding in Relational Theory and Group Analysis,” Group Analysis 41 (2008): 381-382, DOI: 10.1177/0533316408098442 (accessed December 13, 2012).

[6] Pamela Cooper-White, Shared Wisdom: Use of the Self in Pastoral Care and Counseling (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2004), Kindle edition, preface.

[7] Fraser, 214.

[8] VanKatwyk, 111.

[9] Paul Fiddes, Participating in God: A Pastoral Doctrine of the Trinity (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 71.

[10] Pamela Cooper-White, Many Voices: Pastoral Psychotherapy in Relational and Theological Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), Kindle edition, 76.

[11] John Zizioulas, Communion & Otherness, ed. Paul McPartlan (London: T&T Clark, 2006), 106, f. 14.

[12] Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998), 209.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Fiddes, 72.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ray Anderson, The Shape of Practical Theology: Empowering Ministry with Theological Praxis (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 195.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Cooper-White, Shared Wisdom, Kindle edition, Chapter 5.

[20] Cooper-White, Many Voices, Kindle edition, 94.

When A Transformational Shift Occurs . . .

There I was . . . sitting in a class . . . simply moving through a master’s degree . . . minding my own business . . . when my worldview took an unexpected turn . . . my life underwent a transformational shift.

The class . . . pastoral counseling.

The instructor . . . waxing eloquent on the psychological theory of family systems.

At some point in the lecture, the instructor began to use his own life as an illustration of the concept of differentiation  . . . he drew a diagram  . . . and my perspective was changed forever.

  • At one end of a continuum, he spoke of the I. This is called disengagement.
  • At the other end, he discussed the We. This is called enmeshment.
  • In the middle was I/We. This is called differentiation.

Of course, a person could be anywhere on this continuum. For instance, to the left of the middle was I/we, and to the right of the middle was i/We.

The instructor talked about how we begin life with absolute dependency (We), and as we mature, we progress towards independence (I). Thus, one could say, we begin life enmeshed and move in the direction of disengagement. However, as I discussed last time in my blog, our family system teaches us how to relate to other people, and in doing so, it helps to spawn our identity, or how we relate to others in relation to ourselves. Through the relational patterns that we acquire in our family system, we learn who we are with others outside the system. If we are raised in a family system in which we tend to be more enmeshed than not, we may tend to take responsibility for the other’s feelings. For instance, if we were given intermittent praise from our parents, we become dependent on others for approval and respect (I say this because intermittent praise is the most powerful motivator, creating addictive behavior . . . just think of gambling). If our parents were emotionally distant from each other (that is, they were disengaged from each other, being emotionally described as Is), they may turn to a child to care for their emotional needs, generating enmeshment in the child (We); therefore, rather than teaching the child to become an I that is interdependent from the We, the child becomes emotionally responsible for the adults. Disengagement may also be part of the emotional-relational pattern in a multi-generational family. Rather than being there for each other, members of the family may distance themselves physically/emotionally when they are in pain or in conflict. That is to say, whether there be enmeshment or disengagement, the emotional/relational patterns in our family system may be such that they keep us stuck in our journey to becoming I/We. As a result, we become more dependent on others (i/We) or more independent from others (I). In the former, we are fused to others, and in the latter, we are emotionally (and maybe physically) cut off from others.

A healthy emotional/relational person, according to family systems, is differentiated.

It is that ability to be connected to the other while still being who we are. In disengagement, we are only able to be who we are if we remain separate from others, and in enmeshment we are only able to be who we are if we lose a portion or all of ourselves in others [think Runaway Bride in which the character, played by Julia Roberts, enjoyed whatever type of eggs that her fiancée enjoyed, be they fried (fiancée #1), poached (fiancée #2), or egg whites only (fiancée #3)].

The concept of differentiation is actually borrowed from biology. When the sperm (male cell) and the egg (female cell) unite, they form a cell that science calls zygote. Science informs us that when the zygote has multiple cell divisions, it becomes an embryo. Notice: this cell division is not disengagement, but it is called differentiation in that there is division and connection that transpires at the same time. Thus, we can say that cells remain connected while still being who they were meant to be. A nose is connected to the respiratory system, but it is a nose, not a lung.

So it may be said of human differentiation.

 

How do I know to what degree I am differentiated . . . you may inquire.

Glad you asked.

 

The first test was mentioned in my previous blog (The Powerful Reality of a System) . . . how long does it take you to become like your 12 or 15-year-old self when you are back with family? 2 days? 2 hours? 2 minutes? You see, family systems theory holds that our true level of differentiation appears in how differentiated we are in our own family of origin. In other words . . .

When Dad mentions _____, how do you respond?

When your sibling says _____, what is your emotional reaction?

Are you able to think about your reaction and choose how you will respond, or is it a knee jerk reaction of disengagement or enmeshment? Examples of emotional reactivity are compliance, rebellion, cut off, attack, withdrawal, overfunctioning, or underfunctioning. The more emotionally reactive we are, the less differentiated we are.

If we would be honest with others and ourselves, each of us will spend the rest of our lives learning to differentiate. The question is: are we up for the challenge?  And if so, how is this done?

At this point, I feel it is my duty to warn you: when I discovered the concept of differentiation, it seemed that everywhere I looked, I was repeatedly exposed to this idea. TV. Movies. Circumstances. From driving down the freeway with someone tailgating me to needing to fly regularly to another city to finish my degree, my opportunities to differentiate seemed to abound. Such opportunities became so frequent that it became the running joke in our marriage. Thus, consider yourself forewarned.

According to family systems theorists, the process of becoming more differentiated transpires within our own family system.

This occurs by setting out to learn who people are in our family. “Oh,” you say, “I know my family.” But do we? Do we only know our older brother as he is in his role as an older brother? Or do we genuinely know his story? What was it like when he was the only one in the family? What did he think of having another sibling? In other words, we need to learn the stories behind the people in our family. By learning who they are, their fears, anxieties, joys, by sharing the family secrets, we learn who each other is . . . really. Thus, we remain connected to each other, but not just to their role. Such a connection helps us to embrace more who we are and who they are, generating in the relationship an energy when the other is seen, heard, and valued.

Thus, one could say that close relationships are a test.

  • to be able to be connected while being separate;
  • to be an I amidst the We;
  • to accept them and ourselves no matter if others approve/disapprove of or agree/disagree with us;
  • to be a non-anxious presence in the midst of emotional reactivity.

Relationships, then, are particularly opportunities for self-differentiation.

As a Christ-follower, a theology of differentiation may be seen in a variety of ways. It may be viewed in an understanding of the Trinity in that each member of the triune Godhead remains connected while being separate persons. There is homogeneity with diversity. Thus, if we are to reflect the image of God as persons, we are to be connected while being separate.

Most recently, I was struck by Jesus’ self-differentiation.

This is repeatedly seen in the Gospel of John. For example, in chapter 7, the Feast of Tabernacles was about to be under way, and Jesus’ brothers told Jesus:

Leave here and go to Judea so your disciples may see your miracles that you are performing. For no one who seeks to make a reputation for himself does anything in secret. If you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.

Now, before we think, “Oh, they are just giving him helpful advice,” we need to notice the John’s parenthetical phrase in verse 5:

For not even his own brothers believed in him.

Taken what we have discussed in the previous paragraphs, here are Jesus’ siblings . . . his own family system. Yet, at this point his siblings do not really know him. They are making fun of him. After all, if you want to make a name for yourself, go out and show yourself to the world!!! If they are typical siblings, they are laughing at him as they say it, and if I am the typical undifferentiated sibling, I emotionally react by fighting back or crying (and since I am the youngest in my family, I would probably go to Mom). However, Jesus responds, “My time has not arrived, but you are always ready for any opportunity.” It is to be noted that Jesus in the Fourth Gospel is in charge, which is different from the Gospel of Mark. This is seen by the repeated use of the word “hour” or “time” (e.g., 2:4; 7:6, 8, 30; 8:20; 12:23; 13:1; 17:1; 19:28). Jesus being in control may be viewed in that Jesus knows his betrayer (ch. 6) and places in motion the very act of betrayal. It is also seen in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus reveals who he is and negotiates the release of his disciples. We see it when he bears his own cross, whereas Mark speaks of Simon of Cyrene carrying Jesus’ cross. In addition, Jesus’ legs are not broken since Jesus dies on his own accord in John, whereas Mark omits the possibility of the breaking of legs. John also speaks of Jesus being the one who lays down his life rather than someone taking his life from him. Thus, in chapter 7 of John, Jesus refuses to join his brothers, but he does travel to Jerusalem for the feast at a later time, but he does so in secret.

I also believe that Matthew implicitly points to Jesus’ own differentiation.

In chapter 16, Jesus informs his disciples that he will suffer much and die at the hands of others. It is at this point, Peter takes Jesus aside and says, “No! This must not happen to you!!” While we may be prone to focus on Peter’s reaction, I want to draw our attention to Jesus’. Imagine, in the last three years this is one of the people with whom you have been investing much of your time. In fact, John’s Gospel says that Jesus calls his disciples “friends” (Jn. 15:15). Not only that, but here is one who is considered to be part of your inner circle of three (see Mt. 17:1). This is one with whom you have a close relationship. It is with him the two of you walked on water (Mt. 14), albeit for only a little bit. You even have changed his name, calling him Peter, rather than Simon. This is one into whom you have invested much of your energies. After all this effort of being with him, he has recently indicated he knows you when he declared you to be the Christ, the Son of the Living God (Mt. 16:16). By all accounts, this is a close relationship in which each other is known. Now, he wants to have a little talk with you . . . privately. Herein lies a genuine temptation. Herein lies an opportunity to differentiate. Such tests . . . such opportunities may come from those who seem to know us best but do not. It comes from those with whom we have a relationship. In this passage, Jesus sees it for what it is: a temptation not to remain true to who he is, but to deviate from being God’s act of ministry to the world, the embodiment of the love of God. Jesus looked beyond Peter, saw the spiritual warfare in which he found himself, and rebuked Satan. Jesus remains separate from Peter while remaining connected. After all, Jesus died for Peter, too.

I think in the contemporary church, we, too, are being faced with the opportunity to differentiate, to be a We while being an I.

Within the political landscape of our nation, we are a nation divided. Unfortunately, I fear we are also becoming divided in Christ’s own body, cutting members off from one another, saying, “I don’t need you.” Hmmm . . . This sounds reminiscent of Paul’s words to the Corinthians about the body of Christ in chapters 12 and 14. Could it be that the American church is being faced with a test, and that test appears in our relationships? An opportunity to differentiate? Are we able to hear the one who is on the opposing side, or are we emotionally reactive, judging and/or labeling the other without taking time to hear the other and may be even cutting off any relationship with the other?

Today, I believe the church has an opportunity to powerfully reflect the image of the triune God to the world through our relationships: an opportunity for members of Christ’s body to differentiate by embracing each other in both our homogeneity and in our diversity. I leave you with these words of Jesus from John’s Gospel:

Everyone will know by this that you are my disciples—if you have love for one another.

 

 

 

 

The Powerful Reality of a System

A decision has been made to visit your immediate family.

Whether you live a few hours from your siblings and/or parents or whether they are simply minutes from your doorstep, the plans are in place . . . and so is the customary little speech.

You know . . . that little talk your spouse gives you prior to visiting family. Or maybe it is the little lecture you give yourself. No matter if it is your spouse or you talking to yourself, the contents of such an admonishment have a similar ring:

  • Do not react when your sibling says . . .
  • Do not be pulled into the fray when your father says . . .
  • Do not become defensive when Mom chides you for . . .

And every time, you wholeheartedly agree that this time it will be different. This time you will be kind. This time you will not become emotional. But . . . after each visit a different lecture ensues, “I thought you said you wouldn’t react!” and once again, the little pep talk has fallen on deaf ears. Once again, it only took a day (if you’re lucky) or maybe an hour (and for some of us, minutes) of being with family before you find yourself reacting as if you were . . . well . . . twelve, or maybe much older like . . . fifteen. If you were honest, it really puzzles you as to why it is that every time you are with family, it is the same reaction.

May I simply say . . . I feel your pain . . .  or  . . . been there done that . . . too many times to count.

Herein lies the power of a system, and in this case, it is the family system.

In the West we have the tendency to underscore the individual, or the self, overlooking the power of a system. This is interesting, considering systems exist all around us, and we live in systems as well as having systems living in each of us. There is the solar system. Ecosystem. The governmental system. An automobile has systems, such as the electrical system, the climate-control system, or a computer system. Our body has systems, such as the nervous system, the digestive system, or the respiratory system. At the risk of stating the obvious . . . if one piece malfunctions in the system, if one tiny little part breaks or is injured, it impacts the entirety of the system. Suddenly, we are sweating in the car when the climate-control system breaks down. Or perhaps we ate too many hot peppers, and our digestive system is complaining. The word “system” comes from Latin and Greek words, which mean “to place together.” A system, then, is a corporate entity that is more than the sum of its parts. As such, the system unites and organizes the individual parts into a functioning whole. The system, then, is powerful as it influences every member of the system. If one part changes, it influences the other elements of the system.

The family system is no different.

When we were born, we were dropped into a multi-generational family system that had been operating for years. Patterns existed on how to relate.  Roles were established. Spoken and unspoken rules are obeyed. As a newborn in this family system, we begin to learn these patterns, our role, and the rules because these are the types of things that help the system maintain its balance (homeostasis) and resist change. This balance, which has been formed by several generations, looks different for each family. Maybe one family has an unspoken rule: You shall not express feelings while another family system has a rule that feelings are to be expressed. Both families may implement similar strategies to ease their anxiety when the rule in their family system is broken. If, in the case of the non-expressive family system, a member begins to express feelings, the members of this system become anxious and seek to bring the family back into balance through such strategies as overfuntioning/underfunctioning; distancing from/pursuing the member who broke the rule; or triangulating with another member by talking to one member in the family about the rule breaker in order to ease any anxiety.

Or maybe the oldest child has the role of an overfunctioner, the one who takes responsibility for everyone else. If the oldest child begins to change and no longer overfunctions, the family members become anxious and may attempt to begin acting in ways so that the oldest continues in his/her role as the overfunctioner or maybe some other family member replaces the oldest as the overfunctioner.

This is the power of a system.

The power of the family system stretches to our relationships with those outside of our family of origin.

  • If we are an overfunctioner, we may take responsibility for others’ feelings and/or actions in another system, such as our work system, school system, or our place of worship. That is, we have a strong desire to fix everyone or to ensure the other does not feel badly—that is, the other’s problems become our responsibility. This is a common trait among clergy or those in the other helping professions.
  • Or maybe as the youngest we learned in our family system to be irresponsible, the underfunctioner, and the family clown; thus, we may fulfill this role in a similar manner in other systems, expecting others to care for us by picking up the slack for us.
  • Or maybe a rule in our family system was that anger was to be expressed through silence or loud shouting; thus, as we enter other systems, we find ourselves adhering to this rule, be it among friends, co-workers, or congregants.

This is the power of a system.

 

It behooves us as Christ-followers to pay attention to a system’s power.

My own pentecostal tradition has a reputation for stressing the individual above that of the community.[1] Such individualism appears in the pentecostal approach to Scripture. For instance, when reading Ephesians 6, my tradition underlines the spiritual warfare that individuals face. That is, demon powers and individual spirits are emphasized as beings who wreak havoc on the individual Christ-follower. I want to assure you that the purpose of this blog is not to debate the theology of the existence of demonic powers, but it is to stress a broader view of this passage as presented by such scholars as Walter Wink in which powers refer to spiritual systems of a society that seek to dominate and control, such as a corporate personality or the basic essence of an institution. I am not suggesting that individual evil spirits are nonexistent, but I am inviting us to consider that this is not the only way to view the concept of powers and principalities in Ephesians 6. That is, I am taking a both-and-approach, and in this blog I am stressing cosmic powers, the powers of domination that a system of an institution (local, regional, or national) or of a culture (be it local, regional or national) may hold over us.

Consider with me the broader system of a culture whose values are informed by the media and television/movies. What if I asked you to describe the image of a superhero? Until recently, I suspect that the image Americans held of a superhero seldom deviated from being a Caucasian male. Now, thanks to movies such as Wonder Woman and the Black Panther, the superhero image is beginning to become more diverse. This is the power of a system. It has been in existence for many generations, and it teaches us particular roles and rules, both explicitly and implicitly.

As a Christ-follower, we, too, must become aware how the cultural system or an institution of society or government is influencing us, and in this blog, I seek to underscore this influence in the area of violence.

Contemplate with me the following question: Are we easily embracing the violence of the cultural or the institutional system that upholds domination, or are we striving towards the non-violence upheld by the kingdom of God? Granted, I fully recognize that as fallen humans, we will not do this fully as God instructs, demonstrating our dependence on the reconciliation of Jesus Christ. Yet, in this blog I seek to expose how we may have been abiding more by the violence of the spiritual systems of society rather than the non-violence of God’s reign, particularly in more recent times.

Consider with me the words of Jesus when he speaks of the violence of the kingdom (Mt 11:12). Theologian Thomas Torrance points out that the violence of the kingdom of God refers to Jesus living a life of non-violence, which calls forth the violence of this world. The message of grace and forgiveness, for Torrance, is the non-violent violence of God in that it is more powerful than any other force and can overthrow evil.[2] Practical Theologian Cynthia Crysdale supports this when she uses Wink’s understanding by noting that it is ingrained in us that good people (such as Popeye) fight evil that is outside of themselves (Popeye’s nemesis, Bluto) through the violent use of power and control (Popeye wins a fight with Bluto after swallowing a can of spinach); this promotes and perpetrates a myth that “violence and control” are “redemptive” (Popeye saves Olive Oyl).[3] However, Jesus does not support this view of violence. As Crysdale comments, Jesus Christ, who embodies God’s reign, does not use violence but lives his life according to a different set of values from the religious and political orders of his day, and the logical result is his death. Through his acceptance of death, Jesus reveals both the nature of God and the nature of true humanity in that God does not use violence to destroy violence.[4]

In Matthew, we see how God’s reign is not characterized by the violent systems of humanity. Consider with me the contrast between the systems of this world and the characteristics of God’s kingdom as seen in chapter 5 of this Gospel. In our cultural system mourning (the externalization of grief) is no longer upheld as it once was. No longer is it expected that the immediate family wears black for a year. It also is now a rarity to observe the pulling over of vehicles to honor a funeral procession, and it is even becoming increasingly acceptable to avoid having a funeral or memorial service, a space in which people are free to externalize their grief. Contra to the systems of this world, God’s kingdom welcomes the mourners by blessing them, and not only them but the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are poor in spirit as well.

Matthew continues in verses 21-22 by stating how the system of this world embraces the rule “Do not murder”; however, in God’s kingdom one does not insult the other. In verses 27-30, we note that in our human systems, we frown upon adultery, but under God’s reign, one treats each person with dignity, respect, equality, and mutuality by not even lusting after the other.

Such is the contrast of the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of God.

Unfortunately, I fear, we who proclaim God’s reign with our lips, have succumbed to the influence of the kingdoms of this world. We readily embrace the violence rather than the non-violence as embodied in Jesus Christ. Instead of offering mercy when others label and condemn us, we practice an eye for an eye by labeling and condemning them in turn. Thus, no longer is it only politicians who practice insult for insult, but as Christ-followers, we follow their example with other Christ-followers, be it on Facebook, email, or face to face. In essence, we are living out the rules and roles of the systems of this world. These are spiritual forces. Not simply individual spirits who wreak havoc in individual lives but powerful systems of domination as seen in our institutions, our businesses, and our cultures.

As Christ-followers, specifically as Pentecostals, I fear we may have become blindsided by focusing on individuals fighting individual spirits to our detriment by missing the domination of the violence of the systems of this world. I admit to being heartbroken how we implicitly embrace the patterns of the world’s systems through our violence in which members of God’s kingdom label and insult one another who are also members of God’s kingdom. Hence, we are inadvertently embracing the influence of the powers and principalities of violent domination that the systems of this world have perpetuated among us as members of Christ’s universal church. In the same way that Jesus Christ embodied the violence of God’s kingdom through non-violence, we are called in the power of the Spirit to participate in Christ’s ministry of non-violence. According to Galatians 5, I surmise that the violence of world systems includes hostilities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish rivalries, dissensions, and factions, but the non-violence of God’s reign are: love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control, against such there is no law. That is, there is no law against exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit; thus, we have the freedom to live them out in abundance in God’s kingdom.

It is the intention of this blog to generate a call to take the higher road, to embody the violence of the kingdom of God through non-violence. It is a reminder, that we are not simply fighting individual demonic powers, but we also are fighting the powers and principalities of the systems of this world. We enter into the fray of the battle when we seek to live out the fruit of the Spirit in the power of the Spirit. That is, we fight the violence by embodying the non-violence of God’s kingdom.

Holy Spirit, open our eyes to see the principalities and powers of the systems of this world, so we may participate in your ministry of non-violence by standing against the tide of violence, thereby being involved in spiritual warfare. On this day, may God’s kingdom come right here on earth as it is in heaven through your people.

 

[1] Such a characteristic is not only apparent in the West but in pentecostalism worldwide, such as  research conducted on the content of pentecostal sermons by Gwyneth McClendon and Rachel Beatty Riedl, “Individualism and Empowerment in Pentecostal Sermons: New Evidence from Nairobi, Kenya.” African Affairs 115, no. 458 (2016) 119–44. doi: 10.1093/afraf/adv056.

[2] Thomas Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008), 149-150.

[3] Cynthia Crysdale, Embracing Travail: Retrieving the Cross Today (New York: Continuum), 43-44.

[4] Ibid., 53-55.

The Power of Touch

I smiled to myself when I saw them.

It appeared to be an older sibling walking his younger sibling to his first day of school. As they passed by me, the expression of the older one communicated to me that the older sibling seemed .  .  . well .  .  . how shall I say it .  .  . uncomfortable. You see, the older sibling was holding the younger one’s hand. Despite the appearance of awkwardness, the older one was willing to hold the sibling’s hand, causing me to wonder if the little brother was afraid or anxious.

The power of touch.

An appropriate touch can calm the anxious soul. Communicate peace to the conflicted heart. Heal an inner wound. Provide comfort to the bereaved. Convey care to the hurting. Relate love to the outcast. Simply the holding of someone’s hand can be reassuring, stating wordlessly, “You are no longer alone and isolated. I am with you.”

Some of you who know me may be surprised that I would write about touch as it may seem out of character for me. After all, I am not a touchy-huggy-kind-of person. You may wonder, “What qualifies her to address the topic of touch?” Maybe that is precisely the reason I am writing about it: it is something on which I reflect and analyze due to the fact that I am a minimalist hugger.

For those of you who do not know me, I was raised in a family system that was not exactly the hugging type. When I speak of family system, I am referring to a system that is multi-generational, not simply one’s immediate family. As I consider my relatives, I cannot recollect a single one of them that I would label as The Hugger. I am of rather reserved German heritage with a Hutterite-Mennonite background; thus, part of who I am results from generations of relatives being less than the emotional and physical expressive types.

At the same time, I am fully aware of the healing power of touch. In an article published in January of 2017, the Harvard Health Publishing posted, “The Healing Power of Touch” in which it cites a number of studies that demonstrate how massage therapy assists in physically healing a person, such as in the recovery from surgery or an injury, in the amelioration of pain, and in the lessening of stress.[1]

Similarly, a colleague of mine told a story of attending a seminar in which the presenter requested a volunteer to join him on the platform. The audience observed the presenter holding this volunteer in an embrace until eventually the volunteer began to weep. Such a demonstration was utilized to illustrate the healing power of touch.

And yet . . . as healing as touch can be, it can also be wounding.

  • Ask Pat Baranowski, the former executive assistant to Pastor Bill Hybels. After the being sexually violated by Hybels, The NY Times reports that Baranowski eventually went from being high performing, capable executive assistant to a woman who struggled in maintaining a job, losing her condo, and suffering from panic attacks and physical difficulties.[2]
  • Inquire of the one who has experienced sexual abuse as a child, such as one of the 1000s of childhood sexual abuse survivors who were molested by any one of the 300 priests in Pennsylvania.
  • Invite a client to share her story of boundaries being violated by a counselor.
  • Talk to the 1 in 5 college women who were violated[3] or read the many stories in a Washington Post article of college students who experienced sexual assault, including college students of Christian schools.[4]

When touch becomes inappropriate, physical boundaries are violated, and wounds are inflicted.

Healing. Wounding. This is the power of touch.

As Christ-followers, it behooves us to be sensitive about the appropriateness of touch, particularly if we are desiring to be considerate of those who walk among us, be it a visitor or a long-time attendee. Behind that smile may be the wound or a scar of boundaries that were crossed. Of personal power having been usurped. Of the rules of a family system that had clear physical boundaries. Thus, in a day when inappropriate touch is in the news and an increase of individuals are surfacing around the world who have experienced the violation of said boundaries, it may be time to stress and/or examine a theology of touch. It may be time to ask ourselves, “When does touch heal and when does it wound?” For me, this includes an additional question, “Am I respecting and honoring the other’s will? Does my interaction with the other communicate honor toward the person’s being?”

I have experienced a variety of churches across the USA in my lifetime, and one quality seems to remain among Christ-followers who are huggers: They hold fast to the belief, “Everybody is to be a hugger.” Unfortunately, by their actions, and sometimes words, they force this belief on others, showing disregard for the other’s being and the other’s needs for respect, mutuality, honor, dignity, and equality. By asserting, “I am a hugger,” huggers have the tendency to violate the will and boundaries of strangers and friends alike by dishonoring and disrespecting the personal space of their intended targets.

Consider a person whose boundaries were violated in either a sexual or non-sexual manner in a relationship containing a power differential. Now consider huggers pushing their way past the clear fences that have been erected by the intended target. Instead of respect, the target is dishonored. Instead of exhibiting power with, huggers assert power over. When a hug is forced upon someone, her identity is subsumed while her power is being usurped. In essence, huggers extinguish the will and the individuality of the huggee. While they may intend to be a giving and healing agent, they are actually focusing on themselves and their own needs, and thereby communicating to the target, “You are to be like me. You are here to meet my needs.” In family systems theory, this signifies an unhealthy relationship of enmeshment that conveys, “We are to be the same. I need you to be like me in order for me to be comfortable. I need you to be a hugger like me because I cannot tolerate differences. My identity comes from your being like me.”

If we teach children about appropriate and inappropriate touch, is it time we instruct congregants and pastors on this as well? If we are to provide spaces of healing through relationships among congregants, then is it time develop a practical theology of touch that heals through respect?

Consider the following reflections with me.

  • If a church encourages people to greet one another in the congregation, is it only sufficient to express welcome and love through touching? May the elements of welcome and love be communicated without touching while respecting the other’s will?
  • If we are sitting with one who is crying, do we assume the person longs for a hug? Or is our desire to give a hug more about our uncomfortableness with the other’s tears than it is about us comforting a person? At times, when I am crying, I desire someone to embrace me; however, I have also experienced moments when I am crying that I do not want to be touched. Tears in the presence of the other means one is emotionally exposed, vulnerable. Security is of the utmost importance and to violate the other’s space during such vulnerability can hinder, if not abruptly terminate, the healing impact of tears. How many times has our own uncomfortableness with the other’s tears motivated us to hug someone, secretly hoping that the hug will heal—that is, the tears will stop? In such moments, we neglect the reality that tears have their own healing power, as “emotional tears also contain stress hormones which get excreted from the body through crying.”[5]

As a Christ-follower, I am actually a member of a tradition that underscores touch. As you can imagine, belonging to such a group as a minimalist hugger elicits many opportunities for reflection on the relationship between touch and respect. Pentecostals have a practical theology of touch, meaning they demonstrate their theology through action. We may not openly discuss it in our services, but we believe in embodying our faith through touch.

  • People are frequently anointed with oil in prayers for healing.
  • People pray for one another by placing a hand on them and verbally offering up requests to God.

These types of practices demonstrate how touch is associated with faith in our circles.

We often note how Jesus Christ touched people and how people touched Jesus in order for healing to occur. Recall with me the woman with the issue of blood (Mk 5) who believed, “If only I touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Mark records:

“Jesus knew at once that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’”

It is evident that touch was an embodiment of faith, particularly when Jesus says to her:

“Daughter, your faith has made you well.”

I also suspect that there was something about Jesus that drew people to him, specifically those who were labeled as sinners or unclean. It would seem they trusted him, for why else would they spend time with him? These people were people who were unclean. Some were rejected and shamed so that they became accustomed to people avoiding them, such as the lepers or even the woman with the issue of blood. Yet, something about this One said, “He is one to be trusted.” His very presence, then, for these individuals fostered trust.

Yet, there is one more thing about Jesus: his embodiment of touch is healing.

Consider with me for a moment the theology of the hypostatic union in which Jesus Christ is completely divine and completely human. In the person of Jesus and in the theological construct of hypostasis, one could say that God touches humanity completely—embodying humanity—so that there is a relationship between the divine and humanity within the person of Jesus. That is to say, the divine relates to humanity in the very body of Jesus Christ. Touch cannot be more intimate than that! The divine is forever connected to humanity. This is the touch, this embodiment, that heals humanity. As Christ-followers we speak of the day when God will be all-in-all so that all of creation will be healed—that is, reconciled. We have a taste of this when Jesus is completely God while being completely human. This is a portrayal of healing through embodiment.

It is significant to note that while God longs for a relationship with humanity, Jesus does not violate human will by forcing his will on us. Instead, although Jesus reconciles all of humanity to God, Jesus is also one unique human; thus, he honors the will of other humans, respecting their individual choices. It would be my assertion, based on my last blog, that we are able to participate in Christ’s ministry through touch and also through non-touch while honoring the will of the other. We respect the other’s will by offering an opportunity to touch through such words of inquiry as:

  • Would a hug be helpful?
  • Would it be helpful if I held your hand?
  • Would it be appropriate if I prayed for you by touching you on the shoulder or hand?

Since we do not always know who walks among us who has been wounded by the inappropriate crossing of boundaries, we empower that person who may have been robbed of her power when we use the language of invitation. By respecting the will of the other, we are being healing agents through the power of the Spirit. We are trusting that if the other says “no” to being touched, he is saying “yes” to something else very vital to him, such as security. When we learn to invite and to embrace the possible difference of the other through our inquiry, we provide an opportunity for healing.

 

[1] “The Healing Power of Touch,” Harvard Health Publishing Harvard Medical School, January 2017, https://www.health.harvard.edu/alternative-and-complementary-medicine/the-healing-power-of-touch.

[2] Laurie Goodstein, “He’s a Superstar Pastor. She Worked for Him and Says He Groped Her Repeatedly,” The New York Times, August 5, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/05/us/bill-hybels-willow-creek-pat-baranowski.html

[3] Nick Anderson and Scott Clement, “1 in 5 College Say They Were Violated,” The Washington Post, June 12, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/local/2015/06/12/1-in-5-women-say-they-were-violated/?utm_term=.601329cc7cfd.

[4] Nick Anderson, Emma Brown, Steve Hendrix, and Susan Svrluga, “Sexual Assault Survivors Tell Their Stories,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/local/sexual-assault/.

[5] Judith Orloff, “The Health Benefits of Tears,” Psychology Today, July 27, 2010, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/emotional-freedom/201007/the-health-benefits-tears.

[The above picture is provided by pixabay.com]

A Lesson from Souper Potatoes

My Dad loved Souper Potatoes!

“What are Souper Potatoes?” you say?

This is a little recipe I discovered a number of years ago that involves combining 5-6 partially cooked medium potatoes, grated (frozen hash browns if you prefer, but fresh potatoes make it creamier and tastier); 1 can of cream of chicken soup; 2 cups of sour cream; 2 cups of shredded Cheddar; and 2 Tbl. of minced onions and placing them in a buttered baking dish and baking them at 360 degrees F for about 45-60 minutes. For variations, you can include maple flavored sausage and/or sprinkle some crushed corn flakes on top. And my Dad would devour a huge portion of a pan in an attempt to fully assault his taste buds.

When my husband traveled to SD to spend a weekend with my Dad while I was pursuing my doctorate, Dad became excited (truly!!) about his son-in-law making Souper Potatoes. If you know my Dad, he tended to be a reserved man, keeping his feelings and thoughts to himself . . . unless he was hunting or playing a competitive game of Moon. This enthusiasm showed when my Dad, who only heated up food in the microwave (translation: he did not cook), started buying the ingredients in advance so my husband could begin making Souper Potatoes the instant he walked in the door. During the weekend, my husband churned out 2-3 big pans of the stuff and then froze them in individual packets for my Dad to eat for the next month.

On one weekend, my Dad declared to my husband that he wanted to help.

This created no small dilemma . . . It was evident to my husband that it would be easier if he did the task himself. After all, here was a man who did not know the difference between a rubber spatula and a plastic turnover (a colloquial distinction made in the region) . . .  a man who did not abide by the axiom “cleanliness is next to godliness” . . . What was he to do? How could this son-in-law provide a way for his elderly father-in-law to participate in the making of the dearly loved and revered recipe for Souper Potatoes? How could he communicate his care and love for his wife’s 80-something-year-old father through participation? This necessitated his son-in-law to be quick on his feet as he needed a plan in the next few seconds. My Dad’s task? Stir the ingredients until they were thoroughly mixed. And, let me tell you . . . my Dad did it with great gusto! He no longer was sitting idly by and watching someone else do all the work. He was participating with his son-in-law in making something that my father loved to eat. On top of that, Dad took it upon himself to fulfill the role of cheerleader . . . pushing his son-in-law to work faster and faster and faster! You see, Dad lived by the philosophy: There IS a reward for speed. And he decided it was his duty to instill this philosophy in my husband . . . at least when it came to making Souper Potatoes.

Many of us have been placed in similar situations in which my husband found himself that day.

Sometimes we are assigned to complete a school assignment in a group, an assignment we may find much easier to tackle on our own. Or maybe your boss insists that you train an assistant and use a certain project as training ground. Or maybe a friend wants to return a favor and offers to assist you on a task that you had planned to do by yourself. If you have children or grandchildren, you may be in the middle of a job when you hear a little voice, “I wanna help.” No matter the scenario, the thought flashes through your mind, “It would be so much easier to do it myself.” In a nanosecond you sense the tension: efficiency vs. relationship.

 That is what it boils down to, isn’t it? Efficiency vs. relationship? Time vs. presence? The task vs. the other?

In a time-oriented culture, it is challenging for us to choose relationship over easy. The person over the project. And yet, that is what participation does . . . participation communicates value . . . significance . . . love.

As a Christ-follower who is also ordained, I struggle with the emphasis that is placed on getting results in ministry.

That is, I frequently experience my tradition as stressing outcomes. This became apparent to me in attending my denomination’s national meetings a number of years ago. I sat through one seminar that informed me that the minister needs to pray for a revival—that is how your church will grow. Another seminar instructed me: it is all about preaching—your church will increase when it has good preaching. And still a third seminar told me that it boils down to leadership—you have to be a good leader! I remember my head just spinning as three “successful” pastors, whose churches had increased in numbers, advised me to use three distinct methods on how their churches multiplied. What were my husband and I to do? I remember sharing this dilemma with another, much wiser, minister who said, “This is simply what these three pastors happened to be doing when the Holy Spirit moved in their churches.”

And the light bulb came on.

A number of years later I came to understand this theologically as participation.

Approximately, ten years ago, I took a class during my Master’s program, which was taught by pentecostal Graham Buxton, called “Participation in the Ministry of Christ.” Since that intense week-long class, this concept has continued to simmer within me, which has enabled the rich taste of this theology to be savored. If the truth be told, I have needed this time for the deep essence of such a rich theological concept to be fully relished. I confess that I have in the past settled for the wearisome flavors of my culture’s emphases on pragmatics, outcomes, and speed to dictate my appetite. But I did not find these flavors to be robust in nature, and instead they fell short of generating satisfaction within my being. While they drove me to consume them, they were like empty calories from a fast-food restaurant in that while they may be appealing initially, they failed to create a long-lasting fulfillment.

I discovered that as I began to drink of this full-bodied theological concept of participation, I experienced freedom, strength, and joy that was accompanied by a deep longing for more. It is an interesting blend of fulfillment and longing. It is like being satisfied while wanting more. Maybe a more appropriate way to say it is: because it fully satisfies, it generates a zest for more.

Participation’s basic foundation is summarized in the words of Ray Anderson:

All ministry is God’s ministry.

Throughout the scriptures we observe God ministering to humanity. We see it in Genesis 3:21 as God gives clothes to Adam and Eve. We observe it later in Genesis when God chooses Abram and eventually informs him that he is to be called Abraham who will be the father of many nations. From the seed of this man comes a nation, Israel, who is called upon to minister to the world. In essence, this is how we know God: through God’s acts of ministry. In the Hebrew scriptures, God ministers to the world through Israel, and it is through these acts of ministry, which both reveal God and reconcile the world to God, that we know who God is. In the New Testament, particularly the Gospel of John, we see that God continues to minister to the world in the person of Jesus Christ. John 3:16 is clear: God loves the world, so God gives the Son to minister to the world. After the Son ascends to the Father, the Spirit is sent and continues the ministry of Jesus Christ in the world. This ministry involves the Spirit grieving and groaning with all creation as creation longs for the day when God will be all in all, and all will be reconciled to God.

The point is: God instigates ministry to the world, not humanity.

Humans would not know God unless God ministered to us; thus, the very idea of ministry is God’s, which is why Anderson says that all ministry is God’s ministry.

In many ways, participation is about relationship, not outcome.

God could minister to the world through only God’s self, which is particularly seen in the person of Jesus Christ. God is all powerful and all knowing; therefore, God does not need humans. God is a relational god who is complete relationally in God’s self. The concept of the perichoresis bears this out.

The perichoresis emphasizes both the unity and the diversity of the triune Godhead. God is one while also being three distinct persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; thus, God is both one and three. This unity and diversity reveal the relationality of the triune Godhead and reminds us that one cannot explain the Trinity as a solitary subject neither can one refer to it as three divine persons. Instead, as Jürgen Moltmann points out, the Three dwell in each other, and each one shares one’s personhood, consciousness, and will with the others; this sharing also forms their shared nature, consciousness, and will.[1] Miroslov Volf explains, “The one divine person is not only itself, but rather carries within itself also the other divine persons, and only in this indwelling of the other persons within it is it the person it really is. . . . In a certain sense, each divine person is the other persons, though is such in its own way . . . .”[2] Now, God desires humans to participate in this relational love, and to this end, God is ministering to the world in the power of the Spirit. Buxton comments that since Christians are participating in this life, they are invited to join the “Father, Son, and Spirit [who are] united in their longing to see all humanity forever caught up in the joy of divine love.”[3] We are invited to participate with the three-in-one in their ministry in the world, “dancing with God in a world that has lost its way.”[4] God’s relational love for humanity, then, includes humanity participating with God in the ministry to the world.

Participation is about the relationship.

The contrast of participation being about the relationship, not the project, may be recognized in the type of slogan around which my tradition rallied. The slogan was: ‘Til He Comes. The teaching was that Jesus will not return until every nation and tribe had heard the Gospel; thus, we must hurry to proclaim the Gospel to every living creature so that we can speed up Jesus’ return. Translation: It is up to us. Did you notice how this centers on project, outcome, and pragmatics? Under this understanding all ministry becomes human ministry. It is as if Jesus ascended and sent the Spirit to us and said, “Okay. It is up to you. Time is of the essence.” This means, Jesus is waiting until we complete the assignment at hand and then, and only then, will he return. So, we work and work and work, trying to accomplish this task that we have been assigned.

Participation, however, is about relationship.

Because the triune God longs for relationship with humanity, God’s Spirit is already moving in the world, ministering to the world. What does this mean for Christ-followers? It means inquiring: What is the Spirit doing and how can I participate in it? It means, I am not alone, but I am working alongside the Spirit who is already ministering to the world that God loves. In Anderson’s words, God’s ministry “precedes and determines the church.”[5] My purpose moves from solely focused on what I am to do well so that I get results to knowing Christ who is ministering in the world through the power and presence of the Spirit and joining in that ministry.

In short, it is not all about me; it is all about Christ.

Holy Spirit, help me to see how you are already ministering to those around me and in me so that I may join you, partaking through ministry in your relational love.

 

 

[1] Jürgen Moltmann, Experiences in Theology:  Ways and Forms of Christian Theology, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2000), 322.

[2] Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998), 209.

[3] Graham Buxton, Dancing in the Dark: The Privilege of Participating in the Ministry of Christ (Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster Press, 2001), 20.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Anderson, The Shape of Practical Theology: Empowering Ministry with Theological Praxis (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press), 62.