Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Blessed are the Depressed

My sister has Prader-Willi Syndrome (PWS), a disorder of chromosome-15. Dinah is mentally and physically handicapped. While the life expectancy of someone with PWS continues to increase, many die in adolescence. Dinah just celebrated her sixtieth birthday as the oldest person with PWS in Arizona.

When our mother died in 2012, I drove the 150 desert miles from Phoenix to Tucson to give her the terrible news. When I told her our mom died, I thought her wailing would shatter the windows of heaven. I prayed her screams would drive God to cower in the corner. A few hours later we drove home together in silence. Within three days, Dinah and I would stand at the foot of mom’s grave and throw dirt on her casket.

Three months after the funeral, Dinah and I were having lunch. Despite her low IQ and difficultly speaking, she has the wisdom of a crone. She also has the connection with God of that of a mystical saint. A few people have dared ask if she really understands that our mother has died. I try not to bite back in anger when I’m thrown that ridiculous question.

Admittedly, though, even after our sixty years together, my conversations with Dinah can appear like a combination of playing 50 questions and charades. She starts by naming our children. I tell her every obscure detail I can think of. She’s always most interested in our grandchildren and our dog, Jesus. On the day of our lunch she worked her best to tell her stories, stringing three or four words together, followed by silence. Then she would say another word or two. I ask a question. More silence. Often, no matter how hard I try I don’t understand what she’s trying to tell me. At those times she usually says, “You no hear me.” Then she ponders her next words. She usually gives me a couple of attempts before she gets frustrated and says, “No mind.” She moves on. I miss my mom the most then because she understood Dinah the best.

Lunch finally arrived at our table. Dinah is always very intent on eating, part of being PWS. There is very little conversation during the meal. That day I idly offered a few rambling stories. When the plates were taken away. She resumed her questions about the family and the dog. Somewhere in the little strands of conversation she told me she had washed her hair that day.

“Do you wash your hair every day,” I asked.
She nodded an affirmative yes, as if to say, “You idiot, don’t you?”
I smiled the sheepish grin of an older brother who has just stepped into a little sister storm. I tried to recover. “Do you blow dry and style your own hair. It looks nice.”
“No, Joey,” she said making reference to her beloved caregiver.
“You have beautiful silver hair Dinah,” I said in truth.
She said without hesitation, “My momma’s hair.”
I wanted to cry, but I held my emotions below the surface. Silence was the best I could afford.
After a few minutes she said, “Momma no more.”

We sat there for five minutes in pristine silence. It was at if the entire restaurant, the outside world, and God herself had stopped breathing in communal grief waiting to hear what Dinah would say next. Then she shook her head as if to drive the thought of her dead mother out of mind. She looked at me and changed the subject back to the dog.
Driving away from her apartment hours later, I wondered why she said momma no more instead of my momma gone, or bye-bye momma, which she said at the viewing before the funeral. I have heard a few people tell her mom is with God in heaven, but she didn’t say any of those things. No. Just, “Momma no more.”

Was she giving testimony to the cold hard existential reality of death? Or was she making a comment about the loneliness we experience as sister and brother without our mom? Or does she know something about the afterlife? Can she see the other side, or the lack of it?

Listening to my sister is like doing dream work. The conversation is full of odd images, strange messages, and unfamiliar characters. What did that word mean? Did her lifted eyebrow have a hidden meaning? I couldn’t figure out exactly what she was saying. Was that about her friend at work or a neighbor? Maybe she was making a connection to some larger meaning about life? Listening to Dinah is like hearing the collective unconscious deliver some hidden message of archetypal importance.

I can’t always understand what she is trying to tell me. I can only do the hard work of listening and continuing to process and reflect, hoping I will uncover some koan. It’s impossible to know what she knows or feel what she feels. I can only know what I feel when I listen to her. The silence between her words has been transformative in my life.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

The divorce rate for parents with a PWS child is eighty-percent. Siblings of a PWS person are most likely to be estranged from their brother or sister. People with Prader-Willi Syndrome, their parents, and their siblings are all usual candidates for chronic and severe depression. My family beat the odds on two-out-of-three of those statistics. My parents maintained a loving relationship for sixty-four years. My sister and I are extremely close. But, my sister, my mother, and I have suffered from life-long chronic and at times severe depression. It took me fifty years to admit that, seek help, and then have the courage to say that publically. My family has been poor in spirit. And we have suffered grief.

Grief results from loss. Typically we think of grief being associated with loss from the death of a loved one. My mom, however, suffered depression from the loss of “what she had hoped for and what might have been.” She suffered as well from the simple and complex daily life of living with a mentally and physically handicapped child. Depression can be the result of grief, though not always. Sometimes depression just is—there is no cause—it just exists in someone’s life. Depression is not cured—it is only managed.

One of the tragedies that exist in our world today is that depression and all other forms of mental illness are typically hidden and rarely talked about. It’s okay to admit that I have some physical illness. People even offer to pray for us.

But what about mental illness—it’s not something we are typically willing to share with others. And usually if we do, people feel awkward around us when we talk about it. So what do we do when our family or friend tells us they are suffering from depression or some other form of mental illness?

First, be present by listening to them. Truly listen. And don’t offer any advice, like, “Just turn it over to God and everything will be okay.” That is not helpful. The most frustrating thing in the world for me is when my sister says, “You no hear me.” But, honestly, I feel equally as frustrated when I’m trying to explain to someone what it feels like to be depressed and I know they just can’t or won’t listen. I probably should start saying to them, “You no hear me.”

The second thing you do is to take their illness seriously. People who are depressed or suffer from other mental illness need support and care. Tell them you will pray that they will find the help they need so that they will have relief from their suffering.

It’s strange to think that Jesus said, blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Being poor in spirit doesn’t feel very heaven-like. But, when someone really listens and is present—that person feels like they are being God for me. I feel blessed when they listen. Maybe that’s what Jesus meant?

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Does the Church have Evolutionary Purpose?

I started my career in professional baseball player as a catcher. Wasn’t too long though I became a utility player. Over the five years I played I logged at least an inning at every position. Being a “Jack-of-all-trades” also made me a “Master-of-none.” Labels are hard to shake.

When I started my new job a few weeks ago, someone from the diocese office sent me an email asking me to proof my new business cards. I’m not accustomed to having business cards—haven’t used one in ten years. When I saw my title on the card as “Canon” I laughed. I know I’m the Canon Theologian, I just didn’t expect it to show up on a business card. I had to look up what the title “Canon” meant on the Episcopal Church website. Fortunately, the title is honorary. I was afraid it was going to say, “Someone who shoots off their mouth very loudly.” I promise I’ll do my best to stay away from such a thing.

I’m uncomfortable with labels. I know my Myers-Briggs type and my Enneagram number. The type and number is important—I just don’t want to be pigeon holed. I think I’m more interested in the shadow side of the Myers-Briggs and wing and stress number of the Enneagram for reasons that make my type and number too obvious. While these types of labels can be valuable for self-reflection, they can also be dangerous.

James Fowler’s faith stage development and Ken Wilbur’s integral spirituality (spiral dynamics) are helpful when thinking about personal progression. However, it does seem rather presumptive to self-identify as being at the highest level in either model. Ten years ago, I wondered though, if an organization could be identified with a label using Fowler or Wilbur’s model. Recently, I read Frederic Laloux’s excellent book Reinventing Organizations where he has adopted spiral dynamics as a way of identifying the evolution of an organization.

Laloux has borrowed the color scheme of spiral dynamics as a means of measuring the higher consciousness development of for-profit businesses and non-profit organizations. Red is a tribal organization where the leader’s power is absolute. In Amber organizations there are more formal roles, but the power of leadership is still held at the top of the pyramid. At the Orange level the business or group is after growth and innovation, management by objectives; still leadership is pretty much top down. Green organizations follow the classic pyramid structure as well but use culture and empowerment to motivate the employees. They typically call themselves a family and their employees partners. At the height of the spiral are Teal organizations. These highly evolved businesses and non-profits are guided by three principles—self-management, wholeness, and evolutionary purpose.

In Teal organizations, 1) the employees have real decision-making power, self-management. The owners and CEO are no more powerful than the employees. 2) Everyone is encouraged to bring his or her whole self to work, wholeness. And 3) the purpose of the company will be expected to change over time, evolutionary purpose. The company must be agile (to use another business term) in management, operation, and vision. Teal organizations have self-management, wholeness, and evolutionary purpose.

Laloux is a researcher, not a businessman. I think his work could be important for the church for three reasons. 1) He included non-profits in his examination of sixteen companies. 2) In his work he included the Roman Catholic Church as an example. 3) In Teal organizations, he recognized that employees who were allowed to bring all of them selves (wholeness) including their spirituality to work, contributed more fully at work, home, and in the community.

So where did Laloux place the Church on the spiral? He included the Church, the military, most governmental agencies, and public schools in the Amber level. That’s top down command and control where stability is valued as the most important commodity in order to preserve the past so that it may be repeated in the future.

So what does all this color stuff really mean? The Rev. Gae Chalker, rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, recommended I check out Laloux on YouTube. She has hopes that Laloux might be offering something very powerful for the church. I watched the YouTube for ninety-minutes. Laloux is an excellent speaker who described his research using understandable examples. I bought the book because in it he gave the recipe for taking an existing organization, like a church, to the Teal level.

Not surprisingly, the ingredients needed to take an organization to the Teal level are simple—yet rare to find. First, the leader must him or herself be at the Teal level in their personal life and then must be willing to take the risk to lead their organization to the next level. Second, the owners of the organization (board, vestry) must be willing to step back and let the CEO and the employees (church members) lead through self-management; while bringing their whole self to work (church), and allowing for an evolving purpose (something not imagined yet). In other words, the CEO and owners must let go of their control and power.

Is this possible? Laloux is hopeful because he believes that Teal is the next stage of human consciousness. He believes the old ways will naturally die and a new model will evolve. He suggests this is already happening and sites the global economy as an example.

Are all these labels useful? Could be, as long I, we, and the church are not checking our navels for labels. Self-reflection is valuable if it produces action. When the synthesis of contemplation and action are achieved we might recognize a resurrection happening in our midst. I pray I will live long enough to see the church with the beginnings of a teal hue.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Words are the Same but the Meaning Keeps Changing

My granddad was a great storyteller. Most of his life he was a truck driver, often hauling cattle from Elk City, Oklahoma to Cozad, Nebraska. During the summers our family would visit my granddad and I’d get to ride along with him on his 24-hour turn around trips. On those trips he would tell me stories about his dad, his brother, my grandmother, who died before I was born, and my mom—story after story. He repeated those stories over and over again. While he died twenty-five years ago, I can still repeat almost every one of those stories word for word.

My granddad used to tell me, “With age comes freedom.” When I was nine, I thought that meant that I was old enough to have the freedom to ride along with him in his eighteen-wheeler. Then when I was a teenager I thought it meant that soon enough I would be old enough to drive his truck. Later I thought he was telling me I was old enough to get married. With every transition in life, I thought, the phrase, “With age comes freedom,” was about that particular place in my life. Now at sixty-one, with age comes freedom, is taking on a whole new meaning. The phrase changes meaning with time.

There’s a sentence in the bible that has had that same long-term resonance in my life. In John 3:30, John the Baptist says, “Jesus must increase and I must decrease.” I’ve been using that sentence as a prayer for thirty-seven years. For the last ten years as an Episcopal priest, I’ve prayed that prayer before I preach every sermon.

The sentence found me in 1978. I had taken a youth group to a Baptist camp in New Mexico. A young seminarian was the preacher for the week. He was very dynamic and he quoted that verse before every sermon. Southern Baptist’ rarely open their sermons with a sentence of prayer. So this young man was doing something very unique. Shortly after that camp I became the interim pastor for our church. I was twenty-five years old. I started using that sentence to open my sermons. I used the prayer so much that a friend of ours made a crossstitch of the verse as a gift. It has been hanging in every office I’ve had since.

But, what that verse meant to me thirty-seven years ago is much different than today. Then, it meant that I needed to be a better Christian. What I knew about being a Christian then really didn’t have much connection to who Jesus really was. Being a Christian was learning and following the rules and knowing all the right answers according to the church. It was, however, the Jesus I had grown up with—and that’s all okay. That’s just where I was 40 years ago.

My journey of trying to live into John the Baptist’ statement, “Jesus must increase and I must decrease,” has taken me down many roads. Over the years I’ve prayed that prayer, so many times, it’s been like placing a rough stone in a river. Rushing water smoothing the jagged stone of my soul in the river of prayer. My soul stone is still in that river. A lot more work needs to be done.

What’s happened over the years is that I have been shaped by the rushing water of prayer, scripture, and writer’s like Marcus Borg, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Walter Brueggemann, Stanley Hauerwas, Miguel Da Le Torre, Barbara Brown Taylor, Mary Oliver, Carl Jung, and a host of others. I’ve also been shaped by the ministry of presence of Tom Wiles, Glenn Hinson, Rebecca McClain, Veronica Ritson, and scores of others. In every one of these people I could recognize that they saw themselves as moving to the backstage while Jesus was moving front and center in their life. The Jesus they saw was a Jesus I had not imagined existed—a living Jesus Christ who was no longer trapped in the confines of the New Testament. They sought a Jesus Christ who is bigger than the bible, the church, and Christianity itself.

Fifteen years ago I went to a retreat led by one of the great Baptist’s of our time, Glenn Hinson. In my opinion he’s great because the fundamentalist fired him and he survived to teach again. He had been terminated from his professorship at a Baptist seminary because he was too liberal. One of his mistakes had been befriending Thomas Merton. Hinson took his young Baptist seminarians to meet Merton. Yep, that’ll get you fired. Anyway, Hinson introduced me to the idea of walking and praying every morning. When he first suggested it to me, I asked him what in the world I could talk to Jesus about for an hour. Hinson said to just tell Jesus what was going on in my life. He must have seen the horror on my face so he suggested I simply repeat a prayer as I walked. “You mean like, Jesus must increase and I must decrease.” Absolutely, he said. And that’s where the idea began that pilgrimage is a shaping force in the formation of soul. Pilgrimage as a way of life.
I’ve walked across Ireland, almost 400 miles of soul shaping, one step at a time. I’ve taken several walking pilgrimages in Ireland—this past summer with a singing choir group. Each journey has had a profound impact on my life. I have gone on pilgrimage to find wisdom, to have a mystical experience, to embrace the dangers of the four elements, to understand the fullest experience of the world, to have a total experience of the mystical, to gain spiritual knowledge, and engage in the sacred magic of Jesus. I want to not only be a follower of Jesus I want to be like Jesus. Jesus must increase and I must decrease.

That sounds so simple—but the meaning keeps changing with age.

In the Gospel of Thomas Jesus said, “Divine Reality exists inside and all around you. Only when you have come to know your true Self will you be fully known—realizing at last that you are a child of the Living One.”

What I think Jesus meant was that I have to know my Self fully in order to be fully like Jesus. If I want Jesus to increase in my life I need the 360-degree of self-awareness. Jesus went through the process of discovering his true Self. He was laying out a mystical pilgrimage so that we could follow him and know our true Self as well. For Jesus to increase, and for me to decrease, I must be more like him and less like me—but to be more like him, I must be my true Self and more like me. That statement is so paradoxical it has to be true.

Jesus must increase and I must decrease. To be more like Jesus, I must decrease so much so that my true self will emerge from the realm of the union of the conscious and the unconscious. That’s what I’ll be working on the rest of my life.

When I walked the Wicklow Way this summer I prayed the prayer, “Jesus must increase, and I must decrease, keep vigil with the mystery. That phrase has been shaping my soul for the last two months, like it has for the last forty years—and the meaning keeps changing, even over the last two months. The phrase continues to trouble my soul. The more trouble it causes in my soul the more likelihood I will experience the mystery, the knowledge, and the sacred magic of Jesus. The more likely Jesus will increase and I will decrease.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Strange Glory - A New Book with Fresh Revelations about Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Charles Marsh
A Book Review by Gil Stafford

Twenty years ago Ray Anderson introduced me to the enigmatic Dietrich Bonhoeffer. My seminary professor taught me that to understand Bonhoeffer I had to read across the span of his short life and compact theological career. To read Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship outside the context of Life Together is to see someone who is, yes disciplined in the faith, but without community. But, to read either without daring to wade into the challenging waters of his Ethics is to miss the opportunity to be witness to his evolutionary theology. Still, to read Letters and Papers in Prison, as did the “God is Dead” contingent of the 60’s without the backdrop of Bonhoeffer’s entire work is to give it a disservice that would lead one to unsound theological conclusions.

Anderson’s enthusiasm and guidance led me to write a dissertation five years later using Bonhoefferian Christocentric theology. Bonhoeffer’s post-modern, post-church, post-Christian theology has much to say to our world. In him, I found Christ in the face of the other. This was, as still is, my model for leadership. My interest in the life and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer has continued. Admittedly, however, after writing a dissertation, I had little interest in reading yet another biography of Bonhoeffer, especially after having consumed the thousand pages of Eberhard Bethge’s definitive Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography; Theologian, Christian, Man for His Times. Bethge was after all, Bonhoeffer’s best friend and confidant. Who could add anything to Bethge’s twenty-year commitment to the biography? Actually, no one really dared until five years ago. But upon a quick glance, I surmised those two authors had little new to offer.

What then, enticed me to read Charles Marsh’s Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer? The reviews said Marsh had access to primary documents that few scholars had seen before. Marsh also had committed to writing his book without the use of any secondary reference material. The lure of something new was too much to resist.

Marsh’s non-fiction narrative reads like a novel. His access to new information, creative style, and provocative insights make Marsh’s book worth the investment of time to read. Whether you are interested in Bonhoeffer, the life of a provocative Christian, a theology for a new age, World War II, or biographies, I recommend this very approachable, yet erudite and extensively referenced work.

Marsh is Director of The Project on Lived Theology, which “explores the social consequences of theological commitment.” The website http://www.livedtheology.org/ is intriguing. Marsh calls “lived theology,” unleashed theology—a theology that is removed from academic restraints, grounded in the life of community, translated into the world, messy. The effects of Bonhoeffer on Marsh are obvious. I look forward to Marsh’s work with more in depth, especially with its implications on my own new endeavor as Canon Theologian for the Diocese of Arizona.

Given all that, however, I wonder if Marsh didn’t overreached his felt importance of theology in his book on Bonhoeffer. In his analysis of the German Christian Church’s theological impact on Adolf Hitler and Nazism, he states that “Theology has always mattered: the heretical turn of the German Christians can be directly connected with the catastrophe that followed.” This causes me to pause. Even Marsh’s later analysis of Hitler seems to contradict his provocative statement on the power of theology in the German modern world. What importance does theology play with those who do not have ears to hear? While I agree that theology matters, the question is to whom? And if not to everyone, does theology that is misguided then, drive an entire national scheme into evil? What does Marsh think that has to say about the pluralistic world in which we now live?

Regarding Bonhoeffer as a man, Marsh presents him stripped of the “mythology” and “hagiography” that has built up around the theologian. The author paints Bonhoeffer as spoiled, privileged, pretentious, yet artistic, athletic, and brilliant—a young man who seems to be in constant search of a meaningful relationship with God, community, and the other. Aside from his twin sister, Marsh says Dietrich was a lonely man. Bonhoffer’s longing for a personal intimate relationship, Marsh concludes, was eventually realized in his “soul mate,” Eberhard Bethge. Was Bonhoeffer gay? Marsh never uses the word. He leaves what he considers to be the obvious conclusion up to the reader.

Marsh’s “new” revelation that Bonhoeffer might have been gay will probably throw Dietrich under the conservative’s bus. For years, however, in Bonhoeffer circles, the thought that he was queer was readily accepted. But, I must give Marsh the credit for having the courage to print such a likely notion. I think, though, with the access Marsh had to fresh primary documents, letter, and papers, he missed a real opportunity to explore Bonhoeffer’s inner world. For Dietrich, this realm of self-discovery was where he would connect in an intimate relationship with the divine, nature, humanity, and his own personhood. Regardless of Bonhoeffer or Bethge’s sexuality (which Marsh assures the reader Bethge was not gay and the two never sexually consummated their relationship)—I am interested in what might be learned from the “soul mate” relationship between these two men. A model of an intimate soul mate relationship between two men seems to be absent in the twenty-first century. Marsh could have explored Bonhoeffer’s thoughts and ideas in order to develop a theology for intimate love between two men that might not include sex.

Instead of looking into the soul of Bonhoeffer, Marsh seems to be annoyed by his apparent “immaturity.” At twenty-one, with two doctorates, Marsh expected Bonhoeffer to be a wise old soul. Dietrich’s father, who was a neurologist and empirical psychiatrist, disdained Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis. This, Marsh says, influenced Bonhoeffer’s apparent unwillingness to do any interior self-reflection. Interestingly though, while Marsh constantly cites Bethge’s biography, he decided not to mention Eberhard’s statement that Bonhoeffer had a copy of C.G. Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul. Given Jung’s last chapter of that book, I have to wonder what effect it might have had on Dietrich. I also wonder if Marsh missed an opportunity to explore Bonhoeffer’s psyche in deeper light. In Modern Man, Jung is clear to point out that anyone in the first half of life (Bonhoeffer was executed at thirty-nine) is not ready to make non-individuated life choices. Then, as conflict arises, individuation begins. At those many moments of tremendous stress we see Bonhoeffer making dramatic shifts in his worldview and maturation. Being that Marsh is so willing to make constant analysis of Bonhoeffer’s personality, I wish he had used Jung’s book to provide a well-informed reference point for a look into Bonhoeffer’s psyche.

All that said, the proof of Marsh’s work for my own life is found in my desire to sit down with him and have a long conversation about Bonhoeffer. The author has opened a new page in a fresh journal for my return to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man who has had a profound impact in my own theological work in this “world come of age,” a world that is still moving towards, “a religionless Christianity.”

In this new era in which we live, Bonhoeffer has much to say about the Christian life, theological education, and the church. Each must be agile (to use a new business term), pragmatic (in the world), and relevant (for the world). And finally, the Christian who dares to live a radical life in our murky era must always ask him and her self Bonhoeffer’s most relevant question, “Who is Jesus Christ for us, today?” Marsh did an excellent work in confronting us once again with that profound and haunting question.