Overcoming Nature

I watched the film Temple Grandin with my wife over the weekend.  My wife works with autistic children and their families, and had been looking forward to seeing this movie for some time.  Grandin is a PhD and expert in animal husbandry, as well as autisitc.

Part of the story revolves around how she seeks to revolutionize the cattle industry by reorganizing slaughterhouses to make them more amenable to cows actually behave, making the whole process more humane as well as efficient.  For example, rather than forcing cows into insecticidal dips with prods and slick  chutes, which occasionally result in drowning, Grandin’s model uses curves to lead the animals to a stepped platform, where the animals simply walk into the dip, swim through, and back out.  It’s all pretty amazing in how simple the design and process appears, yet how complex the behavior is that the process is built upon.

What else is interesting is her reason for doing so.  Most of us would think that her affinity for cattle and the desire to limit their suffering would have led her to denounce the whole industry, but that wasn’t the case.  She understands and respects the life that is present in each animal (in the film, after a cow is killed before her she asks “where did it go?”), but doesn’t have the deep emotional connection that we would expect due to her autism.  The reason she sees for treating the animals humanely is simple but deep: “Nature is cruel, but we don’t have to be.”

I thought about this in light of hospice care.  This same thinking guides a lot of our care and judgment regarding care for those we care for.  We see nature at it’s most cruel sometimes.  I recently had a patient whom I was close to pass away.  He had struggled with pulmonary fibrosis for several years, struggling to breathe continually and leashed to an oxygen tank.  He gradually grew weaker and more dependent, to the point where he could only walk short distances.  Then he had a serious stroke, taking most of whatever he had left.  He could talk, though slurred, and could understand, but was otherwise unable to move.  Even his head had to be propped up with a neck pillow.  It was tremendously sad to see the cruelty of nature at work here, and our job was to make sure that cruelty was dealt with as best we could.

The physical pain was manageable, but the psychological and spiritual pain was tremendous. I spent time with him the day he died in his home, holding his hand and praying for him along with our staff and his wife and daughter.  Some of his grief was directed at God, and I can’t say that I blame him.  You can’t go through an illness like that, or accompany someone along that road, without wondering why.

There are plenty of answers out there for sure: the fallen world, suffering as part of life, the stripping of everything to increase our dependence on God, the work of the devil, the work of God, and so on.  Yet I found Grandin’s insight to be one of the simplest and maybe truest at the moment.  Nature is cruel in many ways, and we can’t overlook or overcome that cruelty.  Sin and death are, at least for now, permanent fixtures in the world.  However part of realizing the kingdom of God in the here-and-now is to see that while these can’t be overcome, we don’t have to fatalistically succomb to it.  Jesus reminds us, over and over again, that he has “overcome the world”, and even though that cruelty is still there in the world, we can overcome it as well.  Nature is cruel, but we don’t have to be.

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Calling, Pt. II

At times it seems like the biggest question in life, taking a line from Kenny Rogers, is knowing when to hold ’em and knowing when to fold ’em.

I was driving today and turned on to one of our local Christian broadcasts, where the minister was extoling the virtues of perseverance.  He used the story of the calling of Matthias to the Twelve after Judas’ death as an example of sticking around and waiting for the fruit of your labor to be ripe for the picking.  He extended this to show how Christians need to keep going through rough times, to never give up, to endure at all costs.  “God rewards those who endure”, I think he said.

I can see this applying in some situations, but there are other examples where I think it leads to harm.  On the very same station later in the day I heard people (mostly wives) calling in to get advice on how to deal with unendurable situations.  I never heard the counselors say “just keep going and you’ll make it” once.  Granted, they never said “call it quits” either, but the call to change was apparent and clear.  Patient endurance does not always win and is not always good.

Christ does call us to endure through difficulty and hardship.  Indeed as followers we are expected to have hardship because of Christ, and we are frequently exhorted not to fall away because of that hardship.  Endurance does count for a lot, but it isn’t everything.  I think too often we can be short-sighted in our view, thinking that God called me to a certain path and that only by persevering and enduring on that path are we being faithful to God.  Changing course is not an option, for that can be seen as weakness.

However I think God’s paths are often much more open than we think.  For example, I may honestly and prayerfully believe that God has called me to be a missionary to India.  Say that in that process of preparing to go to India I run in to a million different problems: lack of financial support, inability to get a visa, health problems, lost tickets, lost paperwork…let your imagination run wild.  I can take all these things as obstacles that must be overcome on my path to becoming a missionary to India.  But what if there is another message in these obstacles?

Maybe I am not ready yet.  Maybe I’m not called to India.  Maybe I’m wrong.  If I am wrong, the worst thing I can do is push on to some goal that is simply my own invention.

However if I take the tack of “God called me to be a missionary”, then there is much more freedom in that calling.  You can be called to India, or China, or Minneapolis, or the homeless shelter.  And I think that this is more often how God presents our paths.  The narrower your perception of what you think God wants you to do, the less freedom you have to deviate from that, and the more fear you have of deviating from it as well.  You also stand more chance of persisting merely to persist, not because you feel that God is still in it.  If you widen your call and become flexible in it, God’s ability to use you also increases.

To take a page from Thomas Merton’s life again, he definitely felt called to the monastic life and to life as a hermit.  I think he felt called to Gethsemani.  Yet I also get the impression that the specifics of that call were merely circumstancial.  He could have been a hermit anywhere, and I don’t get the impression that there was something about where he was that was irrevocably tied to a particular call.  He was flexible and looked for what God was calling him to do that day, not projecting a certain path that extended for years down the line.  And reading his journals you can see that he struggled but also found that every day his calling was reinforced by his own experience and desire to simply be with God.

I think sometimes we try too hard to hold on to things that we were never meant to hold on to, losing track of the focus of the call to serve and live in God’s grace because we get so preoccupied with how that happens.

Timing

What a long trip it’s been!  Next week I’ll be finishing up my fourth unit of CPE – fourth consecutive unit I might add.  I’ve been spending my Tuesdays in CPE, getting up at 5:30am or worse, since last fall.  I said today that I felt like I was in a marathon with the end finally in sight.  The start was full of excitement but a lot of trips until I caught my pace.  Then I ran steady for a long time.  Then, this term, I hit my wall.  Now I feel like the “runner’s high” has kicked in as I finally realize the end is really in sight.

I am looking harder at not trying so hard.  I tend to feel that so much depends on me in order to keep up my own standards.  I’ve seen though that my own standards still can be unnecessarily high.  I felt very alone a few weeks ago, because I just couldn’t keep up with my own expectations and wanted someone to rescue me.  I was a fairly miserable person.  I realized that my priorities were so messed up – the things that I saw as important were really distracting me from the things that were important: my kids, my wife, personal time and so on.

I feel freer and happier.  How often are we our own worst enemies!

Calling

The term “calling” is a serious topic, both for ministers and the people who call on them.  It implies not simply a “hiring”, but an endowment of purpose beyond what the minister and the congregation have.  It brings in a third party, the Holy Spirit, who acts as the one who inspires and confirms the direction of this person to that place for those people.  It’s pretty strong stuff.  It often brings up a lot of reflection and anxiety on the part of clergy: “What am I called to do?”  “Is this my own desire or God’s?”  “How can I be sure?”

Perhaps the most troublesome is the question that occasionally comes up after a call to a position of ministry, “did I just mess up?”

After I graduated from seminary I was “called” to a position right away.  It seemed ideal – it was a church I knew, where I wanted to work, doing what I wanted to do.  It was like a gift was just dropped in my lap.  To confirm my call the senior pastor and dozens of others laid their hands on me and prayed over me.  It was  a spiritually and emotionally charged moment.  I felt like everything was right.

However very soon I discovered that everything was not right.  I immediately was bashing into other leaders in the church who didn’t want to hear what I had to say.  I felt marginalized.  I found myself not in agreement with how things were done but had no outlet within the church to hear me out.  After a while, it got so bad that my wife actually quit attending the church where I was an assistant pastor!  I remember thinking, “did I mess this up?”  I wondered if I had mistook God’s calling for my own desires.

Looking back at it now I can see that I was called to that place for that time, but that the calling wasn’t what I expected it to be.  I don’t think that God makes mistakes, nor do I think that this was somehow out of God’s plan.  I was called to be there, but I think it was to show me that I was called to do something other than what I intended.  God used me, and when that particular call was over He called me back out again to hospice ministry.  That doesn’t invalidate the prior call at all.  In fact, I don’t think I would be doing what I’m called to do now if I hadn’t been called into that mess.

I faced a similar paradigm shift last week.  I found myself really struggling, both in CPE and my job.  I felt stuck, frustrated, tired and emotionally drained.  When I started CPE over a year ago, someone asked how long I was going to do that.  I thought I could do it as long as I could foresee.  I didn’t see any changes on the horizon, and didn’t really see the need to change.  However as I began growing through CPE, I found myself getting worn out with the status quo at work.  I wasn’t “feeling it” anymore.  I still had passion for my work, just not passion for that part of my work.  Like I told the group, “I’m just tired of all the ___ dying.”  One member of the group later commented that it looked like I was in mourning.  Indeed I was!

With the help of my CPE supervisor and the group I was able to see that I really was just stuck in this corner, unable to turn left or right.  I needed to see that I had lost my passion and needed to refocus.  In the past my instinct was just to try harder and push through.  However there was no more pushing through.  I had to back out and try a different direction.  In doing so, I was able to see a new focus for ministry: the people I work with.  I’d already moved into much more of a managerial role, and needed to cut loose some of what I was holding on to.  When I did that, I found renewed energy and depth.

Had my calling been wrong?  Absolutely not.  God put me there for that purpose for that time.  And I could not be doing what I am doing now if I hadn’t been there.  My calling changed, and now I can even see that it is not a huge a change.  The hard part in making that adjustment was seeing that I needed to make it – I couldn’t try harder, it was done.

Grace, Part II

I wrote previously on grace, stating that I have a hard time believing in it.  That’s true, but still not quite accurate.  I believe in God’s grace – including his grace toward me.  It’s all encompassing and all surpassing.  However I think that, just as Jesus’ parable of the sower relates, that reception of grace is so often stolen away or starved by lack of nourishment.

The third chapter in Keller’s book deals with idolatry, the “sin beneath the sin”.  It’s common to see material things as idols (cars, home, money), as well as work, power, all those things.  Keller makes a wonderful point though, that an idol is anything that we pursue more than God’s grace.  And that thing that we pursue might not be something that we love, it might be something that we fear.  He notes that we are driven not just our dreams, but even more so by our nightmares.

And that gave me pause – there are many things that I love, but how many more things that I fear!  I’m the type of personality that tends to be anxious and depressed a good deal of the time.  In the Old Testament era especially, we see so many gods and goddesses around.  These gods were worshiped not for love but to either get something (based on fear of not getting something, like rain) or not get something (like plague).  The Israelites inevitably returned to the foreign gods not out of love or merely out of cultural blending, but I think out of fear.  The fear that God would hold back or punish.  So they kept their options open, just like I do.

But I don’t run to a wooden idol,  I run to the idol of myself – my own actions, my own work, my own need to do good and be good.  I don’t see this as pride, as one of my friends likes to call it.  It doesn’t feel prideful.  It feels afraid.

Perfect love casts out all fear…

and off to do a funeral!

Grace

In my church we’re doing a study of Timothy Keller’s book/DVD series “Gospel in Life: Grace Changes Everything”.  I’ve only just started but I’m hoping that this will be a strong influence in my walk right now, as grace is a major issue in my life.

I’ve had a very hard time really believing in God’s grace.  At first I wanted to say understanding God’s grace, but I rewrote that.  I think I understand it fine.  I don’t think that I apply it though.

I think that this is a major problem for a lot of Christians, and Keller identifies this as Christians being religious and Chrisitians being gospel to themselves and the world.  I think most of us can give the nuts and bolts of what grace is, quote the appropriate verses and authors, and make it sound as if we have it completely together.  Yet we understand grace but so often fail to live it and experience it.

I am having one difficulty with Keller though.  Maybe it’s not as much of a difficulty as it is something just not jiving with my own experience.  Keller often states that Christians tend to fall into moralism and works in order to credit their own salvation.  While this certainly can be true, this doesn’t ring true to me.  When I think about my own salvation and need for forgiveness, I do tend to fall sometimes on the need to make myself feel worthy of God’s grace.  But when I think about why I strive for approval, try to gain acceptance and feel worthy, it doesn’t feel as much about earning my salvation to me as it is about self-worth.  Perhaps my bigger issue with grace and accepting it as the free gift of God is how little I apparently cherish it.  I strive so much more for the approval of others that I ignore the free gift in front of me.

I see many areas in my life where I have sought that blessing – from family, from work, from achievements, from parents and so on.  And when I have that blessing it isn’t enough, because it still isn’t God’s blessing.  So why chase so much after approval and the blessing of others when God’s approval and blessing have already been given?

Know, Be, Do

The biggest part of CPE is the process itself.  It’s not a matter of learning something new and then showing that you’ve learned it, as in a typical classroom.  You are the classroom and you are the textbook.

In fact, CPE and chaplaincy depend very little on knowledge.  Rather it depends on wisdom, developed over time and only through experience.  Many enter in to CPE thinking that either it will be like a college class or a small-group devotional.  In my experience, that couldn’t be further from the truth.  The CPE group develops in a dymanic way, with each member of the group giving and taking with the ultimate goal of building pastoral identity and wisdom.  That wisdom is not gained easily though, not just through navel-gazing or drum-beating.

John Patton in Pastoral Care: The Essential Guide writes “Pastoral wisdom involves our knowing, being and doing.”  Sound profound?  Yeah, did to me to.  However it’s true, but here’s how I understand it.

Knowing involves not simply knowing a fact.  In pastoral care, this knowledge is not just knowledge of scripture or doctrine.  It is the knowledge of your self – strengths, weaknesses, history, pain, story, shames, successes and so on.  CPE involves a great deal of this self-identification, which is sometimes easy and sometimes hard.  I think lots of folks have experiences in CPE because they try hard to maintain false selves while the group or supervisor try even harder to tear that false self down.

Being involves accepting those things we are aware of through self-knowlege.  Too often self-awareness leads to self-rejection, I think.  The hard parts of my life are just a part of me as the good parts, yet I find I tried for so long to judge those hard parts as things to be set aside or avoided.  I reject negative parts of myself as not really me, but that only sets up a false knowledge of who I really am.  However when I accept my past and my self and my past without judgement I can use them both to work with others in the midst of their own story and pain, and also help them to see their own true self without judgement.  This is not saying that sin isn’t sin or that “I’m all good”.  It involves seeing myself as I truly am, not how I view myself or how I want others to view me – it is how God sees me.  And in Christ, God sees me without judgement.  I think that’s what grace is.

Doing is the acting upon that knowledge of who I really am, putting my self fully into interaction with others.  This is the essence of pastoral care, but it can only happen after the knowing and the being.

Anxiety

My fourth CPE unit started yesterday.  I was surprised how anxious and nervous I was, but then again I wasn’t.  Right now there is only myself and one other chaplain to cover about 160 patients over about 5 counties.  I am trying to see my own patients, schedule the patients covered by our missing chaplain between the two of us remaining, interview new prospects and fight to get them hired, go to meetings, do bereavement work, meetings etc.  It’s hard and busy on normal days.  It feels impossible now – like my foot is on the gas and I can’t take it off.  Plus we’ve had a lot of things break at the house, including my printer (which involved a great waste of time and money before getting a new one) and most notably my car.

While not yet broken, its creaking scares me, as does the $900 it will be to get it to pass inspection next month.  Therefore I’m getting a new one.  But as is my custom I have gone completely overboard with researching cars, trying to find the best fit of cost-reliability-age-likeability, which is impossible.  I’ve been frustrated in that when I find the “perfect” one it is either gone or not nearly as perfect as it initially presented itself to be.

All this anxiety and fear for no good reason.  And when I get anxious like this I don’t sleep well, don’t take care of myself, become even more tired and distracted, and withdraw from other people.  I find now, and have in the past, that anxiety for me causes as downward spiral where I’m afraid to get off the treadmill for fear of what will happen, yet I’m too tired to go on.

Again, Merton was helpful today (haven’t read him in weeks).  He mentions his own anger, striving for clarity and freedom from attachments and pride.  We never really get rid of these, and remembering that a solitary monk still struggles with them helps me not wallow in it.

I try and rely on God, knowing that more often than not when I’m open to His plans and prodding, being patient all the while, my anxiousness leaves me.  Even just stopping and writing helps

 

The Message vs. The Medium

Tucked into a relatively interesting email by The Gospel Coalition on the “death of postmodernism” was a piece promoting a New England church planting effort.  No big deal I thought, but then I read on:

Amusing Our Church to Death

The church-growth movement has bought into the entertainment paradigm with catastrophic results. The unfathomable riches of God’s wisdom in Christ just cannot be plumbed by video clips and sermons on loneliness. The Christian message—salvation for hell-deserving sinners through Christ’s death and resurrection by faith alone—has been subjugated to the entertainment paradigm and predictably distorted, truncated, and even lost altogether. As a result, the church has become increasingly ignorant of its faith and, not surprisingly, increasingly confused about its mission.

This gospel distortion has spread with mind-numbing speed, resulting in a near wholesale return to the liberal church mission of the early nineteenth century. Rob Bell now wants to “save Christians” from a heavenly fixation by having them focus on the here and now.

And many have done just that. Churches have allowed the medium to dilute the message to the detriment of the mission.

The Medium for the Message

Christianity is all about proclaiming the message of the gospel. So what is a fitting medium? The message actually contains the medium God has endorsed—the Word. In the beginning was the Word, and in these last times, God has spoken to us by that Word, his Son.

The Bible is the inscripturation of that Word. These 66 canonical books are the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. This we proclaim, as it was given and in its entirety. The message is the Word of the gospel, and that Word is the medium.

I see some problems with these arguments – glaring ones.  First off, I would agree that the church growth movement has some big warts at times.  Continue reading

Doctrine

I grew up so much in an religious environment where orthodoxy – not “O” like the church, but literally “saying the right thing” – was so important.  Knowledge of doctrine was pressed on us as much as knowlege of scripture.  Calvin may as well have been the 5th apostle.  And even when it came to scripture, we looked at it through the lens of doctrine.

I’m seeing now that I’m not nearly as focused or as interested in doctrine as I have been in the past.  That’s not to say that I’m not interested in doctrine, or that I think doctrine doesn’t matter.  But I do think that doctrine, arguments over doctrine, and pragmataic orthodoxy have had too much weight in the conservative churches.

Full disclosure for a minute: I grew up Presbyterian, first within the PCUSA but mostly within the Presbyterian Church in America, it’s stricter fundamentalist stepchild.  My pastor for most of that time would mention pornography and “filthy lucre” every sermon regardless of topic or scripture passage.  The youth group had a running bet on this.  The pastor read from King James only, even though the pew bibles were NIV.  The lecture we got on the evils of rock music included Dio and Iron Maiden but Neil Diamond.

Anyway my church focused so much on doctrine – on knowing what was right doctrine (i.e. Calvinism) and why other doctrines (i.e. Arminianism) were wrong – that I think the gospel got lost.  It started to become about comparing ourselves to other Christians and not being in error.

As I’ve become familiar with the breadth of experience in other Christian traditions, and come to understand some of the doctrines behind them, I’ve started to not really care so much about being right.  There’s a lot of “right” in my tradition, but there is also a lot of “right” in other traditions that can inform my own faith and walk.  In the same way, there are “wrongs” in some traditions, but I also need to look critically at my own beliefs as well and be willing to change.

Also, I’ve seen that focusing so much on being right can really stunt your walk.  After all, if you’re right, you only have to worry about maintaining the status quo, where you are.  But you don’t grow!  And if you’re not growing…