Monday, October 29, 2007

You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts.
Paul to the Corinthian Jesus Community

I don’t know how I noticed it but I did. My wedding ring has a lot of tiny nicks and scratches in it. When it caught my attention recently, I was a little embarrassed. Then I thought about having this ring for twenty-five years and figured that a few scratches are a given when you wear a ring for that long. More than that, these scratches and nicks have probably been earned – doing work around the house, taking care of dogs (we now have two for the first time as a family), playing catch with children or teaching them how to ride a bike or hunting for bugs or leaves for their science projects. Rather than bemoan these marks, perhaps they should be celebrated.

Leaving marks – life leaves marks. About the same time I noticed the wear and tear on my ring, I was paging through Nicholas Wolterstorff’s book Lament for a Son. Wolterstorff is a theologian and philosopher who, in this book, writes about losing his twenty-five-year-old son to a mountain climbing accident. In a moving passage weaving images from the story of Jesus, Woterstorff writes about the impact of his son’s death. To believe in Christ’s rising and death’s dying is also to live with the power and the challenge to rise up now from all our dark graves of suffering love. If sympathy for the world’s wounds is not enlarged by our anguish, if love for those around us is not expanded, if gratitude for what is good does not flame up, if insight is not deepened, if commitment to what is important is not strengthened, if aching for a new day is not intensified, if hope is weakened and faith diminished, if from the experience of death comes nothing good, then death has won. Then death be proud. So I shall struggle to live with the reality of Christ’s rising and death’s dying. In my living, my son’s dying will not be the last word. But as I rise up, I bear the wounds of his death. My rising does not remove them. They mark me.

Life leaves marks, its deep sorrows, its immeasurable joys – like the scratches on my wedding ring, like the marks on the hands of Jesus.

Life leaves marks, but is this inevitable? Do we have any control over the marks left? The Bible often uses the image of a soft heart in a positive way, as does Paul in the text above, and when someone is resistant to the Spirit of God, that same Bible will sometimes refer to this as a hardening of the heart. Maybe it is inevitable that life will leave some marks on us, but there may always be the danger that we harden our hearts, that we close ourselves off, that we make ourselves nearly unmarkable.

A few years ago, I encountered another piece of writing that I return to with some frequency. Elizabeth Lesser, in her book The New American Spirituality writes: The opposite of happiness is a closed heart. Happiness is a heart so soft and so expansive that it can hold al of the emotions in a cradle of openness. A happy heart is one that is larger at all times than any one emotion. An open heart feels everything – including anger, grief, and pain – and absorbs it into a bigger and wiser experience of reality…. We may think that by closing the heart we’ll protect ourselves from feeling the pain of the world, but instead, we isolate ourselves even more from joy. From my own experience and from observing many others, I have come to believe that the opposite of happiness is a fearful, closed heart. Happiness is ours when we go through our anger, fear, and pain, all the way to our sadness, and then slowly let sadness develop into tenderness.

A soft heart, a heart on which letters may be written, a heart open to the grief and pain and sadness of the world, a markable heart – that seems something worth practicing, worth struggling for. But such a heart is not at its best merely a passive recipient of the marking of the world. Unlike a ring worn on a finger which is just there when the hand carelessly grabs at something or smashes itself hard against something, the soft heart may be a bit more like a canvas – open to be marked upon, but with possibilities for a creative shaping of those markings. Life leaves its marks, but to some extent, we are invited to be the artists of those lines – to give them a certain shape and contour. To be sure, sometimes our freedom to do this is limited. Sometimes the best we can do is keep our heart open to the painful markings inflicted on it. Even then, though, we have some ability to shape just how deep these markings may be and what other markings we will put along side of them.

“Look how he abused me, mistreated me, defeated me, robbed me.” Harbor such thoughts and you live in hate. “Look how he abused me, mistreated me, defeated me, robbed me.” Release such thoughts and live in love. Buddha, The Dhammapada. Maybe we never have complete control over what will mark our soft hearts, but we have some artistic ability to shape those markings.

If keeping and open and soft heart and being an artist of its markings has something to do with happiness, with the spiritual life, with the Christian spiritual life, then, so too, does paying attention to how we leave marks in the lives of others. I think I would like to give others a lot of good markings to work with as they create the art in their own soft hearts.

Having a soft heart, being an artist of the markings life leaves on such a heart, giving others good material for their own heart-art project – as we approach All Saint’s Day, might this have something to do with being a saint?

With Faith and With Feathers,


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Consider the belief that we are essentially selfish individuals seeking our separate advantages, and that our tireless attempts to manipulate one another constitute the prime engine for social advancement. So begins one of the best pieces I have read about leadership – “Leadership-Speak in Contemporary Society.” Its author is Douglas Ottati, a theologian, and it is the opening chapter of his book Hopeful Realism. I had never heard of Ottati before stumbling across the book, and if the title intrigued me, the subtitle convinced me this was someone I wanted to read – “reclaiming the poetry of theology.” Imagine my surprise when the first chapter was about leadership, a subject I continue to find important and fascinating.

Ottati calls it “leadership speak” when “talk about leadership relies on this rather uninspiring spirit.” Though uninspiring, Ottati successfully argues that this spirit is an animating spirit of our time - we find it in our sports, in our politics, in our economics. As you think about next year’s election, think about the sheer number of sports metaphors that get used about candidates and their campaigns. How often do we hear not about the substance of a candidate’s position, but how taking that position may affect the candidate’s standing in the poll – how they are doing in the horse race. Leadership-speak is pernicious because it is reductive. It artificially narrows the complexity, the confusion, and the dynamism of life by insisting on a single pattern for everything. For Ottati, “leadership-speak is bound up with a manager model, a bad mysticism, and a bad mythology.”

The manager model rests on a narrow sensibility. “Persons and things – including oneself – are regarded as resources or means to management objectives.” It is also narrow in that “it remains almost entirely technical and procedural… by itself it says little or nothing about the point of leadership and the world in which leaders lead.” For Ottati, this suggests both bad mysticism and bad mythology, and he desires to expand the conversation. Unlike reductive leadership-speak, truly interesting conversations about leadership will enlist a broader sensibility and a better mythology than those associated with the competitive leader-manager.

A better mysticism for conversations about leadership would arise from “some sense of the fullness of life and the world.” This deeper sense of the fullness of life includes a sense of human interconnectedness and imaginative attentiveness to the other. Persons are never simply resources in a larger strategic plan. A deeper sense of the fullness of life also “entails a perception… of the tearing of life’s precious fabric.” Focusing on goals and objectives ought never blind us to the pain and tragedy of life. A better mysticism, a more penetrating awareness, supports a felt sense of interconnectedness, a perception of the [tearing of life’s precious fabric], and an inkling of the good…. A better mysticism entails a kind of sacramental resonance with the intricate and delicate web of life, a touching on the mysteries of care and pain, of beauty, and of belonging to a wider universe. Ottati seems to be arguing that we run the risk of missing out on life’s beauty and tragedy if we become too captured by a narrow view of leadership as purely technical and strategic.

In addition to being informed by a better mysticism, interesting conversations about leadership also will be informed by a better mythology, a richer picture of human beings in the world, their possibilities and limits. Three related ideas make up this more adequate mythology. Human beings wield significant, but also limited powers in the world. We cannot make anything we want to have happen happen. “Persons, communities, and institutions are caught up in fragmentation and conflict.” Not everything is possible and sometimes among the best things we can do is minimize harm. Yet, in a world of fragmentation, misorientation, conflict, and destruction,… possibilities for good abound.

Informed by a better mysticism and a more proper attentiveness… we may suggest that truly humane leadership will picture the chief end of life more along the lines of a nourishing and common meal… than of a meticulously planned, executed, and evaluated management system. Moreover, informed by a better mythology, we may reject the notion that life is competition in favor of the more complicated view that life is limited freedom situated in the midst of interactive interdependencies, plagued by tendencies toward fragmentation and conflict, and yet blessed with possibilities for truer sensibility and community. We may therefore insist that, even as genuine leaders appreciate the importance of action and effort, they also remember that all things are not always possible, that persons and communities sometimes are caught in straits and circumstances beyond their own doing and undoing. We may note that genuine leadership often draws on an appropriate pessimism, a realistic sense that is not surprised by defeats and tragedies and terrors…. Nevertheless, we may also suggest that leadership is hopeful…. A good leader is often an optimist who ventures a creative act, who risks in order to make things better.

Last week I wrote about paradox, about the need to keep multiple ideas inside while still being able to function. I appreciate Ottati’s deep reflections on leadership, his more theologically informed conversation on it, because it opens me to the beauty and complexity of the world in which I try to lead. There is helpful paradox here. Setting goals is important. Reaching goals matters – but it is not all that matters. Paying attention along the way to those with whom we share life’s joys and sorrows also matters – taking time for a hug, a kind word, standing in awe while beauty emerges from some unfamiliar quarter, crying with a friend. Some things may not be possible, but we seem to discover that only as we try and reach toward seeming impossibility. Leading may have something to do with sketching a rich picture of the world, inviting others to add their colors – knowing that sometimes things will be a little ugly, yet keeping on in hope nonetheless.

For me, an important indicator of the quality of something I read is the depth of reflection it invites. Ottati’s article convinces me that there is a richer and more complicated world out there than some of the leadership literature can suggest. That I am pulled more deeply into the world’s complex beauty by what he writes, that I find myself asking about a more adequate mysticism and mythology for leadership and for life, is a gift given by his words.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, October 14, 2007

The task of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up”

It isn’t necessarily easy to get the knack of simultaneously trying to change a situation and opening compassionate awareness to it exactly as it is.
Kim Boykin, Zen for Christians

One of the great gifts of the spiritual life – the transformation of contradiction into paradox.
Parker Palmer, The Promise of Paradox

For those not necessarily into “churchy” stuff, the first couple of paragraphs may be a little slow, but I hope you’ll read anyway.

I often think about change and leadership these days. I am a pastor in a mainline/old-line denominational church and that denomination has been losing members for some time now. I was a judicatory person in my denomination for seven years prior to returning to pastoral ministry. We cannot continue to do what we’ve always been doing and expect different results. One area in which change seems needed is in the way pastors function. We need to figure out how to be transformational leaders, at least that’s what I often hear, and I believe it. There is wonderful literature on leadership available, along with a fair amount of drek. I particularly appreciate the work of Edwin Friedman, Ron Heifetz, Anthony Robinson, James MacGregor Burns (who I first encountered while doing Ph.D. work in Christian ethics and democratic political theory), Daniel Goleman (emotional and social intelligence), and work on appreciative inquiry. Next week I want to write about one of my favorite essays on leadership, written by a theologian!

But I am often struck by the decibel level of anxiety in many of the conversations I hear about leadership and change - - - ironic, especially when there is much to be said for leadership theories which extol a model of a leader as a non-anxious presence. Consultant Edgar Schein is convinced that change does not happen in organizations unless there is some measure of anxiety - - - enough anxiety to overcome the natural inertia of organizational life. But Schein goes on to say that the best strategy for transformative change is to lower learning anxiety rather than increasing anxiety about what may happen in the absence of change. Ron Heifetz argues that there is a productive range of distress in organizations and life - - - too much and people become immobilized or frantic, too little and the energy for change is gone.

Which brings me back to where I began. I recently finished Kim Boykin’s book Zen for Christians. I would recommend it if for no other reason than its telling of Boykin’s own compelling spiritual journey. One line from the book that grabbed my attention was the one about simultaneously working for change while being fully open in compassionate awareness. Both are needed in organizations and individuals. Being compassionately open to one’s life, or being compassionately open to the church as it is, matters. Ron Heifetz talks about the need for leaders to “get on the balcony,” to see what is going on. Appreciative Inquiry theory argues that in every organization something works. In my life I need a deep sense of radical acceptance, along with energy to make needed changes.

Pondering Boykin’s idea made me think of the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote. I came across it many years ago and wrote it down in my notebook of quotes - - - I started this before I even heard of Bartlett’s. Perhaps it’s not simply a first-rate intelligence that needs to be able to hold two ideas in the mind simultaneously while still being able to function. Maybe it is also a deep spirituality that allows that, a spirituality needed for leadership and for life.

Then I remembered the title of a book on my shelf, an early work by an author I have grown to appreciate profoundly – Parker Palmer - - - The Promise of Paradox. Maybe the ability to contain paradox is another way to talk about what Boykin and Fitzgerald point to. Maybe this gift of the spiritual life is required for transformative spiritual leadership. Maybe this gift is a necessary part of a mature Christian spirituality for our day and time.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, October 6, 2007

The power of film is indisputable…. There is something about movies… which succeeds in connecting to the human psyche in a deep way. Movies carry some sort of psychic charge that no other art form… can quite match.
Colin McGinn, The Power of Movies

The nexus of relationships that forms our existence… is given. We do not create these relationships; we experience them, being given with existence. And from this matrix come resources of grace that can carry us beyond the meanings of our own making, and alert us to goodness that is not of our own willing or defining.
Bernard Meland, “Culture as a Source for Theology”

This week I want to write about a movie, and I will get there soon. Think of this as a prologue to a film – and in our age of videos, dvds, t-vo, and i pods, you are, of course, capable of fast forwarding through this to get to the movie part. I hope you won’t - but you have the remote!

In her essay “Reflections on Cinema, Spirituality and Process” (in Handbook of Process Theology), Donna Bowman defines spirituality along two dimensions. The first is “discernment – a way of thinking deeply through matters of value and of finding meaning in the truth. The aim is to change one’s own practice, one’s own life, by the creative experience of applying deep spiritual knowledge.” The second dimension that comprises spirituality is “sacramental awareness.” “Here the spiritual consciousness seeks to attend to what presents itself in the moment, on its own terms and for its own sake, trusting that something valuable or sacred is therein revealed.” Bowman then goes on to argue that film has a “unique power” to aid spirituality so defined. Films invite us to think deeply about values, and sometimes cause us to reexamine some of our own, perhaps changing them. I know my views about the importance of overcoming racial injustice were formed in part by watching the made for television movie, Brian’s Song – about the Chicago Bears running backs Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo. I was probably in junior high school, but I still remember the emotional impact of that movie, even as I remember that Billy D. Williams played Gale Sayers, James Caan played Brian Piccolo and Jack Warden played George Halas. Films also invite us to a sacramental awareness, watching a film “we practice attention to the present moment and revel in its concreteness.”

Roll film! Last week I began something new at my church, a “theology and movie night.” I did not begin by reading quotes from Meland or Bowman or McGinn (I saved these for you, my friendly reader!). I simply shared a little about the movie and then showed it, leaving time for discussion afterwards. The movie I showed was The Station Agent (and, by the way, we purchased a license to show movies in the church and we don’t charge). It is a wonderful film, one I highly recommend.

The basic story of the film is that of a man, Fin, who inherits a train depot in a small town in New Jersey. Fin is a “little person” and he carries within him a lot of anger. He prefers a quiet life, one as regular as a train schedule. But his life will not be a quiet one, for into it come Joe and Olivia, each, in their own way dealing with the pain of life – Olivia trying to cope with the death of a son, Joe dealing with his father’s illness. The film is about the intersection of these three lives and it is filled with humor, love, tenderness, anger, prejudice and odd facts about trains. The movie carries a psychic charge - find it and watch it.

As I have been thinking about this film, I believe it is a film that deepens my spirituality. It is the kind of movie that invites paying close attention to detail, to the life before one’s eyes. It also invites deeper reflection on values and meaning. I was left pondering the delightful quirkiness of individual human beings, the inevitability of grief and anger in life, the importance of finding friends to help us get through.

Beyond that, however, I saw in this film grace. People come together in ways they don’t plan or expect, but they touch each other’s lives in ways that help create meaning and goodness that none would necessarily have created on their own.

And I wonder, can watching a film be itself grace? Watching The Station Agent brought resources of grace that continue to carry me beyond meanings of my own making. Watching it alerted me to goodness beyond my own willing and defining.

Maybe watching such a film in church is just the place for it. There was something sacramental about it, especially as we shared this film together.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Tuesday, October 2, 2007

It can be truly said that the pastoral task is so to minister to people who have lost the power of a right use of Christian language that this language can be restored to them with reality and with power.
Daniel Day Williams, The Minister and the Care of Souls, p. 49

I was supposed to teach a course on Dietrich Bonhoeffer this fall for my seminary alma mater, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, which is hoping to establish a satellite program of sorts in Duluth. This program has had some success, but not this time. My class was cancelled due to insufficient registration. One nice thing about this situation, I had an opportunity, in preparing for the class, to do some reading of and about Bonhoeffer.

I first encountered Dietrich Bonhoeffer early in my Christian life, at a time when my understanding of the Christian faith was different from what it is now, a time when I might have been theologically (though probably not politically) comfortable in some evangelical or Pentecostal congregations. I remember him from a book called Jesus Christ University (used copies are available through Amazon, and from what I can tell, the publisher, Logos has merged with another publisher or at least changed its name – I do some research for these musings!). That book quoted from Bonhoeffer’s book, The Cost of Discipleship which I bought and read, a number of years ago now. In his book, Bonhoeffer contrasts cheap grace and costly grace – the latter requiring a change of life, a following of Jesus. I will never forget the simple quote from Bonhoeffer in Jesus Christ University – “discipleship means joy.” For Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship, discipleship means joy, but it also means taking seriously the Sermon on the Mount and looking to it for direction for Christian discipleship. It is interesting that Bonhoeffer finds his way into the more conservative corners of Christianity. When a friend of mine, the manager of the local Christian radio station found out I was teaching the Bonhoeffer class he sent me some information about a Bonhoeffer radio program that was produced by Focus on the Family. The Bonhoeffer of The Cost of Discipleship may fit more comfortably within a more theologically conservative Christianity than the Bonhoeffer who would later write “the world that has come of age is more godless, and perhaps for that very reason nearer to God, than the world before its coming of age” (Letters and Papers From Prison).

But there are not two Bonhoeffers, only one, and what fascinated me in my most recent reading of Bonhoeffer and about his life (Renate Wind, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel) are the circumstances under which he wrote The Cost of Discipleship. At this time, Bonhoeffer was already in opposed to the Hitler government and to the acquiescence of the German Lutheran Church to that government. By the time of the book’s publication, Bonhoeffer’s permission to teach in German universities had been revoked and the Preacher’s Seminary he had founded as a part of an “opposition church” had been closed down. Yet Bonhoeffer, to the best of my recollection, writes nothing about Germany, Hitler, the Gestapo, in The Cost of Discipleship. Instead he writes about grace, costly grace, and he writes an extended treatment of the Sermon on the Mount. True, Bonhoeffer later wondered about some of this book and saw limitations in it. In a letter from prison in July 1944, he would write about this book, “Today I can see the dangers of that book, though I still stand by what I wrote.”

Yes, Bonhoeffer would later write about the need for the Christian cause to be a “silent and hidden affair,” “that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith,” and wonder about the need for a “religionless Christianity.” Yes, he would be executed for being a part of a conspiracy against Hitler. But Bonhoeffer got to this place through a deep examination of the language of faith. He sought to restore to it its reality and power, even if he found that he could not resuscitate some of it.

The task is the same for our day and time. At least the task is there for me – diving deep into the Christian faith, digging deeply into its language and symbols and texts to see how they might be real and powerful for the twenty-first century – for a world at war, for a world filled with hunger and poverty and oppression, with clashing cultures and religious violence, with populations exploding and genuine concern for what the human is doing to the planet itself. It is my job as a pastor, but it is also my vocation as a human being who calls himself a Christian. So I am reading through the New Testament this year and writing about it for others and for myself. I am discovering resources there that I had not thought and felt before. But another amazing thing about Bonhoeffer’s deep plunge into the language of Christian faith is that it was not parochial. At the same time that he was writing The Cost of Discipleship Bonhoeffer had hoped to travel to India to meet with Gandhi to learn about nonviolent resistance. One sometimes finds new depths in one’s own faith by engaging with others and with other faiths. My reading in Buddhism over the past year or so has been doing that for me too.

Maybe some of the traditional language of Christian will have to be set aside, or radically reinterpreted, if it is to have reality and power. But we should not give up so quickly, and only after we have grappled deeply with the language while engaging deeply with our world.

With Faith and With Feathers,