Wednesday, April 20, 2011

What I have learned: an integrated reflection

Self care as an act of self love through prayer

Spirituality for the Contemporary World has provided me the opportunity for reflection and the opportunity to gain key insights.

Ministry begins with me! That may sound like egocentrism, but it is really the very deep realization that to exercise a non-anxious presence and to care for others one must exercise care of oneself. I learned the importance of self-care at the end of my first semester seminary. When I realized that leaving a very unhealthy situation where I was placed in jeopardy was the very best thing I could for myself was to establish a boundary and leave the situation. I found myself in a new city with not many resources or at least where to find them. Fifteen months later I am beginning to see the value of this experience and how I am growing from it. What is the probability I might find myself in a new place in ministry and a bomb might be thrown my way? How do I center myself so I can take care of myself? So self-care comes first before you can take care of anyone else. This course has helped reinforce the insight.
In the past few months I have been seeing a certified pastoral care counselor. This relationship is now evolving into a relationship of life coach. My pastoral care counselor/life coach is a UU Buddhist. I surmised that his theology and spiritual practice grounded in Buddhism could help me as a Christian. He has helped me identify patterns in my behavior that I was not able to identify on my own. He has helped me see how I construct the world.
One insight my counselor/coach has reinforced that self awareness and the ability to present oneself begins with prayer. He suggested that I do centering prayer. I have tried Centering Prayer many times but fall victim to my monkey mind. He said that’s the point—your mind is always going to wander. You only can let go of the “monkey mind” through practice. By persisting in the practice of meditation, the process of meditation, however, can lead to insights.
As Marjorie Thompson points out “contemplative prayer has the quality of inner Sabbath.” Thompson additionally lends the insight that contemplative prayer “words fall away, and the most palpable reality is being present to the lover of our souls.” Being present to God, ourselves and others is greatly enhanced by the act of contemplation. This act of self care is also an act of self love.


I often view fasting from food as a spiritual discipline and a practice I have tried to be more intentional about during Lent, especially. However, Thompson also points out in Soul Feast that we need to fast from the excesses of a consumerist society. Even our most intimate relationships have often suffered from this consumer mentality: “enjoy while useful, but discard when no longer satisfying.” Fasting from so many things we consume can be freeing. I have quit smoking various times throughout seminary and feel the need for a once-and-for-all. I am going on Chantex, a drug that has proven successful in helping people quit smoking. I have tried many things in the past: hypnosis therapy, energy work with a treatment for addiction, Wellbutrin, cold turkey, the patch. Studies show that it takes 7 to 8 times to quit smoking successfully. I think prayer will also be helpful.

Ethics and Spiritual Care
In reading Lebacqz and Driskill'’s book, the idea of pastoral neglect on a myriad of issues from money, stewardship, feminist theology, and social justice suggest there is a whole lot of neglect. I find it interesting that when I was open to receiving the Spirit for the first time I was led to a spiritual community that did not neglect any of these issues but did engaged them and engaged them all well. There were testimonials from parishioners on how they practiced a healthy spiritual discipline of systematic giving and one parishioner in particular said that the first bill she paid every month was her pledge to the church.
While the skeptics might argue the church was just looking out for its treasury, I actually read these testimonials and they helped shaped my spiritual practice of giving. My priest suggested that to head anxiety off at the pass that we should make a practice of giving a gift whenever we feel anxious. I had a discussion about stewardship with my peers in the refectory recently and I am not sure my peers agreed for the need to talk about stewardship as a spiritual discipline. If Lebacqz and Driskill’s fin. dings are accurate, then only 25% of parishioners pray about their finances.

This church also delivered sermons from a feminist framework where I heard sermons about women for the first time. The male priests publicly stated that ordaining women to the priesthood was healthy. The church had three significant social justice ministries—refugees, clothing store for children, and a residential addiction/recovery program. This church is extremely healthy and attracts people and engages them in ministry because of its intentionality in living out its mission.

Now that I am in seminary and have seen how some other churches function, I know that my first church was and is exceptional. Many churches are in some state of neglect on any one issue or range of issues on the spectrum of money, feminist (and what about GLBT issues) and social justice. I wonder if this neglect is a function of only having so much time to do everything and just the average level of dysfunction you will find in most churches. You have to walk before you can run and nurturing a church into a state of health can take several years.

A key learning that I gleaned this semester was that we need to care for people in a diversity of social locations and situations in many churches. We may be confronted with caring for parishioners who se moral values and ethics are so different than our own. Providing pastoral care first and foremost means that people must feel loved and that they are treated with respect and dignity and seeking care. It is important to be able to withhold our personal feelings while being able to extend quality pastoral care to those who need it. Being at EDS has taught me to be more aware of the needs of those who are transgendered and the special gifts and life experiences they bring to a congregation. I have been exposed to issues around polyamory. But irrespective of my views how would I counsel a couple who wanted to enter into this sort of arrangement. I do not think that my role would be to provide advice but help the couple define their own theology around marriage, love, and sex to equip them to make their own decisions within the context of their values and to ensure that their most intimate relationships reflect the values of marriage: fidelity, trust, honesty, mutuality, reciprocity, and commitment.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A working definition of abuse in parish ministry

I appreciated the care and with which Lebacqz and Driskill approached the topic of spiritual abuse. They took time in critiquing various theories/theologies about what constitutes abuse by clergy. I also appreciated that they took the time to differentiate between what constitutes actual abuse and incorporated intention, judgment, and skill into their model of professional ethics. In light of what the guest clergy presenter shared with us in class, I am not certain the word ‘abuse’ would in fact apply to all the examples that were shared. In the first example, the use of the creation story where Eve is portrayed as the cause and source of the fall of humanity cannot be construed as abusive in and of itself according to the authors’ definition of abuse. The text is certainly misogynistic and I understand why a woman would feel that its reading in church was oppressive, especially if there was no sermon on the text to explicate its meaning and relevance in a post-modern context. Based on what we heard, there was no intention to harm on the part of the pastor. The guest presenter struck me as someone who has been trained in feminist theology and has gained heightened sensitivity about how the biblical text can be interpreted offensively and also impressed me someone who seemed like a caring and sensitive pastor. Further, the guest presenter has ongoing contact with this parishioner even after she left the church. This tells me there was a healthy relationship to the extent the parishioner must not have felt harmed by the pastor, but the scriptural passage brought up something in the parishioner’s psyche. Certainly, a sermon on this text addressing the problematic nature of text might have in fact been liberative for this parishioner. The guest presenter certainly demonstrated ‘regret’ just by labeling this incident as ‘abusive.’ This in my estimation was an oversight, an error in judgment that any male (or female untrained in feminist biblical interpretation) pastor could have made. He did indeed have the benefit of this training, which I suspect must have come out in some way for this parishioner to feel comfortable to have an ongoing conversation and still be in right relationship. I also say this as someone who has received quality and sensitive pastoral care from white, male, heterosexual clergy about the damage I sustained growing up Roman Catholic, around gender identity. This incident just reinforces for me the ongoing need and awareness to be intentional in all aspects of ministry, including liturgy. I’m curious if he had given a sermon on the text if a woman of an older generation and of a more conservative social location might have been offended by a feminist reading? How would that reaction be handled, certainly it is difficult to explain injustice and misogynistic nature of the biblical text if they do not understand institutionalized sexism and patriarchy? But this also seeks to reinforce that we cannot anticipate how people are going to respond. Just that we use care, express concern and exercise sensitivity when parishioners show discomfort, reflect on the situation and grow from it. I very much appreciated the sensitivity and concern the guest clergy presenter showed around the well being of his parishioners. How we define spiritual abuse incorporates many dimensions, especially the work of the Linns family systems and a process of shaming that can give rise to abuse. Lebacqz and Driskill cite that shaming can in fact be constitutive of abuse, but the situation is highly contextual as they indicated shame can be a positive corrective if done in a healthy, corrective way. The example cited by Lebacqz and Driskill was the need to confront (I do not use that term in a negative sense) a parishioner who came in seeking guidance about an extramarital affair. If the pastor did not sense regret on the part of the parishioner and a desire for continued involvement in the affair, the clergy providing gentle correction would not constitute abuse. But what if the standard were polyamory? I personally see marriage defined by values of monogamy and hold this as an important value. I do not discount that polyamorous relationships can be loving and nurturing—an ethic of friends, but I do not understand the desire for multiple partnerships. As the clergy presenter pointed out, he ran into counseling situations where he had to address a situation of couple who wanted to enter into a polyamorous relationship. He said that he did not understand it, but he had to preserve the dignity of the people who came to him for advice. He also could not project his value – monogamy—into the discussion lest they come away feeling less than loved. I think a discussion of monogamy and what commitment means is also appropriate. How does the church understand it? I mean did the parishioners who came to him take marriage vows that required monogamy, were these vows made in a church? Certainly, people who are in a marriage should have the right to recast their vows and I’m not sure how the community would view this. If the other party did not view a third party in the relationship as being unfaithful, how might God view the relationship? Is this then sinful or holy? Certainly, for someone to walk away feeling personally judged or shamed is inappropriate. But I’m not sure walking away thinking the clergy has fully blessed their relationship is fully appropriate either. But Lebacqz and Driskill rightly suggest to the people receive assurance their always loved by God. These are really good situations to talk about in a case study mode since it forces you to be intentional in developing a theological and ethical framework.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Fasting as Tool, Not Penitence

As Marjorie Thompson illustrates, we often do not talk about the spiritual discipline of fasting in Protestant churches. I grew up with the notion of forced abstinence from meat and fasting on Ash Wednesday. I rejected this practice at a young age because I was not given choice in the matter. However, as I reoriented my spiritual practices among my own choices, I have reclaimed this practice occasionally, now better understanding both its value and purpose. I think fasting is kind of like the sacrament of reconciliation.

For me fasting is something I try to do in Lent although it is something that can be done all year round. I think it creates a space for God that I might not otherwise have. I’m trying to fast one day a week, although I sometimes deviate from this practice. I don’t know that fasting helps us enter into the presence of God but it makes me conscious of what I am doing. I am more reflective of what I am doing throughout the day and I plan my eating: bagel for breakfast, soup for lunch and apple and cheese for dinner. The fast is not eating at all but a reduction in what I would normally eat. By focusing on less consumption, my body is freed up to belong more to me and more to the Spirit.

I would say that offerings in the refectory make fasting easier, but last night they offered turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. I felt like it was a feast during the middle of Lent! But today I am more conscious that I need to scale back, being more careful with my intention.

“A life that recognizes no limits cannot recognize the sovereignty of God” writes Thompson. What exactly does that mean? And what does that mean in relation to the spiritual practice of fasting. To say our (and sometime mine specifically) lives seem out of control, and perhaps spiraling if I chose to deal with feelings through comfort food. I do not like the language about sovereignty, as it suggests imperialistic imagery. I would prefer language that God is at center, something theocentric. So fasting is a discipline that reminds me God is at the center of my spiritual life, not me. Thompson goes on to say that when create things become things unto themselves they can become life-denying as opposed to life-giving, where grace can shine through. So fasting is really just a way to kick my butt into gear and remind me that I’m also not alone, my feelings, however, bad do not have to consume me. There is something else out there.

So really fasting is just a tool like any other spiritual discipline, it’s been tested time and again in many different traditions. I have an acquaintance who is exploring Native American spiritual practices and went on a vision quest in California. As part of her experience, she fasted in order to gain the clarity of needed to receive the message from the universe. Fasting for me in my own context then is a tool for clarity (discernment) and receptivity.

Those seem to be desired outcomes—if more of us thought of fasting as tool rather than penitence to enhance our clarity and receptivity to God’s message, maybe more of us Protestants would try it.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Peace Treaty

I find that there are so many components to practicing love and compassion. At the core of this practice and cultivation is the notion of being in right relationship with others, which in turn expresses being in right relationship with God.

In Teachings of Love Thich Nhat Hanh provides a very practical tool for the practice of love, compassion, and being in right relationship with those around us. The Peace Treaty provides a relational, behavioral, and therapeutic framework on how to live in right relationship so that people may live long and happily together, develop and deepen understanding and to observe and practice compassion and reconciliation.

I suspect the Peace Treaty could be most helpful in a church setting, especially where there may be a history of trauma or ruptured relationships due to enduring interpersonal conflicts. I think some spiritual that have been communities are crying out for practices that express love, compassion, justice, nurturing, and gentleness. Churches go in cycles of periods of health, decline, and ill health. Some might say that the pattern of common life traces the cycle of birth, life, death and resurrection. That no practical way exists to defy that cyclical pattern. On the other hand, the Peace Treaty could also be a proactive tool to help ensure ongoing health. How can we diminish suffering? How can we increase periods of joy and spontanaeity in community? How can we achieve a better balance of emotional health in groups and in communities?

The Peace Treaty offers one way to achieve and maintain spiritual, emotional and psychogical health. It is only a tool and it success depend on its disciplined use.

The anecdote of the Vietnam veteran who witnessed the death of the young woman in Vietnam moved me. He kept the hammock she slept in as a way to hold on to his suffering. The question is how might he let go of his suffering. And what if the trauma happened to a group within a community? The Peace Treaty would not work in this situation given the depth of the pain and intensity of the trauma. Other tools would be needed to help work through this trauma so that those suffering can let go of their suffering. Ritual, litury, and therapy would be likely methods to help ease the suffering of those traumatized.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Spiritual Typology: The Cathedral or the Bazaar

Pui Lan asked us to consider our rule of life this week. What rule, I don’t have a rule governing my life? Should I? I know the answer to that or at least how the church expects me to answer that question. But really there are no rules, just practices that help us to discover and experience the numinous.

I had a course in Spiritual Disciplines three years ago -- my very first course in seminary at Wesley Seminary in Washington, D.C. I had developed an elaborate but also mischievous rule for my spiritual life. I included far flung spiritual practices such as incorporating the Native American medicine wheel and poetry writing to saying confession.

My first spiritual director (who I met with for about four months in early 2007, and our relationship ended about six months before I started my course at Wesley) would probably have rolled her eyes at my experiential spirituality. When I revealed to her that I spent Good Friday at a synagogue rather that in a church, she responded in a rather judgmental tone “That’s interesting.” The spiritual discipline of spiritual direction was not quite I was expecting.

I remember Sue handing me this huge book that she suggested that I order—it was the daily office. I have tried the office but it’s just too bulky and awkward much like the book that Sue handed me. Do I have to read and meditate on Christian scripture to be close to God? What I am seeking is to borrow from scripture but to see God all around me in different traditions, different media, be it a spiritual type song by Sting, a poem by Thomas Merton or Mary Oliver, or Tai Chi exercises?

I appreciate the metaphors for contemporary spirituality that Pui Lan developed in her article: cathedral spirituality and bazaar spirituality. As Pui Lan defines it, cathedral spirituality is for those who desire or need a spirituality that inhabits sacred spaces. Post-modern spiritual seekers are predisposed towards a bazaar spirituality which offers the exotic and the adventuresome.

My spirituality is both since I need the familiarity of sacraments (generally just the Eucharist) but also the need for creativity that the bazaar spirituality offers. I sometimes like to combine the two in creating new liturgies, but that also demands time and extra time, while in seminary, is often in short supply.

With only six weeks into the new year, I am trying to re-establish the practice of spiritual direction and am seeking out a spiritual director. I have actually scheduled appointments! I am also for the first time in my life (ironically as a Protestant) seeking to try on the rite of reconciliation. (“confession”) on a quarterly basis. I figure if I don’t like that I can discontinue it, but I think a commitment to a spiritual practice needs to be for the year, three or four times. Who knows what might happen? I consider these spiritual practices and disciplines are probably more characteristic of cathedral spirituality.

I may go back to the bazaar spirituality of my old rule of life that encouraged me to use the medicine wheel to gauge my spiritual and emotional state. In the meantime, however…..

A simple and rich exercise for me is to read an adapted daily office comprised of stories, poems, prayers, and parables written by Thomas Merton that were woven together by a Roman Catholic nun. I change the masculine dominant language to include feminine visions of the divine. I love to read the office late at night (there are four different services for each day of the week) to candle light. This is a lasting and formational spiritual practice for me. I sometimes include different genres of multicultural music as “music for meditation.” The Merton office is the most fulfilling spiritual practice I have tried on in the past year.

Monday Night Hymn

In my ending is my meaning
Says the season.
No clock:
Only the heart’s blood
Only the word.

O lamp
Weak friend
In the knowing night!

O tongue of flame
Under the heart
Speak softly:
For love is black
Says the season.

Kissed with flame!
See! See!
My love is darkness!

Only in the void
Are all ways one:

Only in the night
Are all the lost

In my ending is my meaning.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The spiritual journey against the spiritual landscape

My theology professor, Kwok Pui Lan, who is a constructive theologian, asked us to bring a picture that symbolizes our spiritual landscape. I came to class unprepared, but thankfully my discussion partner Elizabeth had an i-phone. On the fly, I recalled the a sermon I wrote last semester on the biblical text of Jacob wrestling with the angel. It is a very rich and robust metaphor for the simultaneous struggle and embrace of God on our spiritual journey. My sermon spoke about this metaphor from the vantage of several works of art depicting this text. Jakob und der Engel by Rembrandt is one of my favorite artistic renderings of Jacob wrestling with the angel. In Rembrandt's depiction, it's not quite clear if the angel holds Jacob in a loving embrace or if Jacob is wrestling with the angel. I would surmise that for many of us it's a both/and kind of spiritual journey. Therein lies the paradox. The text of my sermon on this text follows.

In the passage from the Hebrew scriptures this morning we are introduced to the image of Jacob wrestling with an angel. This image has been iconic throughout history and has permeated our cultural imagination. Dutch painter Rembrandt created a painting that both shows Jacob wrestling with the angel and the angel cradling Jacob in his arm depending on how you view the painting. It appears as if the angel locks Jacob in a bear hug in Jacob Epstein’s sculpture. Each of these interpretations of the biblical text is unique, but each artistic rendering speaks to Jacob’s spiritual struggle.

Why has the story about Jacob wrestling with the angel influenced and captivated so many different artists throughout history?
I believe that Jacob’s struggle speaks to us at the core of our souls. Jacob , you see, is on a journey of reconciliation and transformation. For Jacob, wrestling with the angel is wrestling with God. Wrestling with God helps prepare Jacob to meet his brother Esau and to reconcile with him. This journey results in a shift in Jacob’s identity and his experience of love. Jacob grows and becomes another person on his journey.
Jacob’s journey of struggle, wrestling with God and ultimately transformation reminds me in ways of my own journey.
Nine years ago my father died suddenly while I was out of the country on a business trip. My father and I had had an argument before I left on my trip, and I did not have the opportunity to speak to him before he died. I struggled and wrestled with his death and did not find much comfort in faith as I chalked up religion and spirituality best left for others. This was my way of wrestling with God over what happened to me.
As an outlet for my grief, I plunged myself into the study of my family history. My father , before he died, had developed an interest in his family tree. This study started me on a fascinating journey. When I first started exploring, I only knew the country where my family was from and the name of my great grandparents. This search for my roots took me to Wisconsin, upstate New York, Montreal and finally northern Ireland. Along the way I became acquainted with members of my extended family who I did not know well or at all. I heard a lot of stories that shaped the lives of the people I was researching and this brought them to life for me. This journey concluded with a trip accompanied by 15 distant relatives to northern Ireland to visit our ancestral home near Belfast.
On this journey that started with some really deep wrestling I experienced wholeness and my life was transformed. I did not experience a dramatic name change like Jacob, but my identity was shaped in other ways. In coming to terms with my grief and acceptance over how I lost my father, I grew emotionally and intellectually, I deepened my identity and my grief was transformed. I found myself connected with a larger family, many other people who I could love and many others who could also love me. My journey, I do not think, is so different from Jacob’s.
Jacob is on journey through Canaan to the land of Seir to meet up with his twin brother Esau. You may recall that Esau was the first born, but his twin brother Jacob had his hand wrapped around Esau’s heel while following him out of the womb. Jacob is often portrayed as a trickster. He tricked Esau out of his blessing as the first born son. He must reconcile himself to his brother and therefore reconcile himself to God.
In Rembrandt’s depiction of Jacob wrestling with the angel it looks as if the angel is cradling Jacob in his arms. In Jacob Epstein’s sculpture it looks as if the angel has Jacob locked in a bear hug. Could wrestling with God also be a metaphor for God’s love for us? To wrestle with God can be a way for us to love God and God to love us?
God recognizes Jacob’s wrestling, his struggle and marks his transformation on his journey by giving him a new name. A common motif in the Bible is a marker of a new identity for those who experience transformation. Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah and Saul becomes Paul. And Jacob becomes Israel.
Our journey with God is not an easy path: it can involve strong emotions, fighting, conflict, and wrestling. Our struggle too marks our journey. However, as we move along in the journey something is borne of our wrestling. Our wrestling with God occurs within the context of God’s love for us. God expects that we will grow on this journey, that our journey will yield new insights, perceptions, even new identities and the formation of new relationships. The wrestling can ultimately transform us just as Jacob’s wrestling with the angel transformed him and prepared him for his reconciliation with Esau.
Esau could be bitter and angry at his brother’s deception and stealing his birthright as first born son of Isaac and Rebecca. Instead in chapter 33 of Genesis, we see Esau embrace his brother Jacob. Jacob is met with love from Esau. Indeed, Jacob’s wrestling with the angel did result in a double blessing. In antiquity, it was believed that one could not look at God without risking death. Jacob feels blessed because he has faced God in wrestling with the angel. His confrontation with the angel should have led to his death – but it did not.
When my father died, I was angry and confused, but my journey was transformative. I was a different person with a different identity at the end of my journey much like Jacob when he meets Esau. This identity was borne out of both struggle and love.
Our spiritual journey will be marked by struggle, conflict and even pain, but on the other side of the dark night, in our darkest nights, we may wrestle with God, all the while knowing we are deeply and wholly loved. Our wrestling can ultimately bear a blessing for us as our wrestling with angels allows us to grow, to be loved , and to transform us into the people of God.
Jacob experienced God’s love through his physical and spiritual wrestling ….Esau extended love to his brother Jacob, just as God can paradoxically hold us in an intimate embrace as we wrestle with him. As we struggle with God, at the same time God also lovingly and tenderly cradles us in his arms.

Monday, January 31, 2011

My First Post...

I recently spent three weeks on the Arizona-Mexico Border. It was an edgy experience in close quarters with a group of other seminarians from Andover Newton. It wasn't always "fun" but it was intense and rewarding. Being in community this way was exactly what I needed and I'm so glad that I made this joureny. And it was nice to have someone else from EDS with me (shout out to Sarah)! Towards the end I was bitchy and a little too forthright. I think I shocked the Borderlinks guide at the end. But at the end I didn't have the reservoir of patience to deal with a bunch of high school students and needed to extract myself. Perhaps I shouldn't have been so honest in naming my limitations. Ten days in intense group time with reflections that went on forever (was I the only person who felt this) but ended with a really nice group worship experience but that was also long.

After the Borderlinks delegation ended, I spent time with the congregations of St. Stephen's and San Esteban in Douglas, AZ and St. John's in Bisbee. At San Esteban, I led a sermon discussion in Spanish (although I might say 'roto') and even led them in my poorly translated Angelus (for non-Anglican insiders that's the Hail Mary). So this experience was spirituality but was not about my personal spirituality since Mary is not central in my spiritual path, except to name that I don't like that her sexual status is her main identifier. I don't think sound scholarship supports that she was in fact a virgin, and I don't believe that God has to defy rules of biology and nature to make him known to us. However, I deeply respect that Mary or the Virgen de Guadelupe is a powerful and real spiritual icon for many Latins. Mary is a very powerful part of the spiritual journey for many and I welcome those for whom she matters greatly into the Episcopal Church with their symbols, customs, and culture. The great thing about Anglicanism is that it's very expanive. When we welcome ourselves to the other, that also means we have to be welcomed by their embrace, that we can respect and honor their spirituality without asking that they conform to the dominant majority. So that's what I have to say about my recent learnings on spirituality and feeling close to the almighty