Friday, March 21, 2014

Spiritual maturity and the alarm system at CCC

At the "Healthy Congregations" Workshop at Christ Church Cranbrook we learned about "self-differentiation", the process by which healthy individuals and groups define themselves, connect to others, and regulate their own anxiety. This is much like what the third chapter of Ephesians calls "the full stature of Christ," which, according to our baptismal liturgy, is the goal and norm of Christian discipleship. This kind of spiritual maturity contrasts to what that same chapter of Ephesians describes as childishness that is "tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming." At "Healthy Congregations" such immature behavior was described less judgementally, as not so much "trickery and scheming" as the natural response of the brain to danger, real or imagined. Anxiety, particularly when it is chronic, provokes exaggerated responses that are out of proportion to the actual threat, and include behavior such as blaming, herding together, and "fight/flight."
In my experience, it is rare for church people to engage in behavior that is downright evil. Most often,  we just try to make everyone feel better by doing dumb stuff. In any case, the best way to deal with it is to cultivate the "full stature of Christ." In other words, "grow up."
      This process is made abundantly clear to me every time I am responsible for disarming the alarm system at Christ Church Cranbrook. There is something about that system that makes me feel like a ten-year old. It is a case of chronic anxiety originating in childhood feelings of being an intruder, a trespasser, and an outsider, and has little or nothing to do with the fact that, as soon as the door into the church opens, the alarm begins to growl like a junk yard dog. Domesticating an alarm is an adult skill that only becomes an obstacle when chronic anxiety kicks in to exaggerate the threat. 
    That said, the gospel also says that “ unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." I am not sure the Letter to the Ephesians fully expresses the paradox of Christian discipleship, that is, that only a mature adult can fully appreciate childhood, only a prisoner can fully appreciate freedom, and only the dead can fully live. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Notes on "Healthy Congregations" workshop presented by Richard Blackburn of the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center at Christ Church Cranbrook, March 9, 2014.

No matter how hard we try, human beings are drawn backwards into unconscious, habitual, instinctual patterns of behavior in response to increasing anxiety. We are hard-wired for this. Quite often it is the most immature, complaining, over dependent people who set the agenda in congregations. Whenever anxiety seems out of proportion to the reality of the situation, it is an indication of a historical pattern of chronic anxiety.

Every person must learn to balance the internal pressures of togetherness and individuality. SELF DIFFERENTIATION is the term for the process by which leaders DEFINE SELF, STaY CoNNECTED with anxious group members, and REGULATE REACTIVITY (their own, that is). Leaders ought not to focus on the reactivity of OTHERS, or on diagnosing others' behavior, but on their own responses. Leaders should ANTICIPATE resistance, indeed, WELCOmE it as an opportunity to build the group's psychic immune system.

Brain stem is most un-evolved portion of the brain, and the area where "reptilian" responses form to real or perceived threats. Such responses include "fight/flight." Limbic part of brain is mammalian- where playfulness originates... Neo-Cortex is where problem-solving and visioning take place. Don't expect very anxious people to engage in those activities. DO NOT demonize or patronize anxious people. It is natural and inevitable that human beings regress under threat. To be a relatively non-anxious presence, however, requires self-awareness and spiritual maturity.

Self differentiation allows leaders to stay in touch with the principles, values, and goals of the organization they serve, and not be distracted by anxiety-driven resistance. When anxious people no longer have the power to dominate the agenda, they will often stop their resistance and accommodate to a new situation, especially if they have been treated fairly and with respect. Even if they choose to leave, it is important to stay connected with them to the extent they will permit.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Sermon on "Be perfect" at Christ Church Cranbrook on February 23, 2014

May God’s living spirit be present with you and with me also as we seek to open our hearts to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
                        The Gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t always sound like good news at first, but it always is because along with the very high expectations that it sets before us it always combines with that an extravagant mercy, a prodigal forgiveness, and a love that will not let us go.
 I don’t know about you, but this morning when we come to the end of this gospel reading and we hear Jesus saying, “Be perfect, just like God is,” I don’t automatically think, “Oh, great!” Kind of disconcerting. At which times it’s sometimes helpful to know enough New Testament Greek so I can look up some of the nuances and meanings for these words. It turns out that the word “perfect” in the Gospel comes from the Greek word “téleios”. It has a little different connotation than what the “perfect” does in English. “Téleios” is not a state of being; it’s more of a process. It’s not something static and frozen, it’s dynamic. When the word téleios” is used in translating Hebrew words from the Old Testament, it translates a Hebrew word meaning “totality” or “fullness” or “completeness”. And it has that dynamic connotation so that no matter how much progress is made there’s still yet more to be disclosed.
                        So a “perfect” disciple of Jesus Christ is not one who has achieved some standard of perfection, but one who takes the next step in their discipleship. One who takes the opportunity to practice because that’s what discipleship is. It’s an apprenticeship. It’s practice. So what the gospel calls us to is a restless perfection. It’s an unfinished story and a work in progress. The Bible is like that, both the Old Testament and New; It’s an unfinished project. The book of Leviticus comes down to us from about – it was written or assembled maybe 24-2500 years ago. If you’re familiar with it, you’ll know that it contains some laws and rules that not only seem irrelevant to us, but are actually abhorrent. But it also has some powerful admonishments that are not limited to any one historical or cultural context, but rather have a kind of ongoing validity. They still speak with the same kind of authority that they always did. They’re the basis for any kind of ethical system that seeks to counteract, just a kind of ruthless biological determinism that says, “Only the strong survive.” Like these lines: “Do not reap to the edges of the field or gather the grain that falls on the ground when you’re harvesting, but leave them for the poor and the aliens. Leave them for the landless people that have no way to raise food. Leave them for the strangers that are passing through. They probably didn’t have a McDonald’s in those days. Leave them there. Leave them there. You know what that reminds me of? Old Testament food stamps. [0:05:00] You don’t leave folks to starve. You don’t do it. Fundamental. The only trouble with that – {some applause from the congregation} I love the support. I love preaching to congregations that give you a lot of support. The only trouble with that is you really have to open it up to the opposite which would be the “Boo! Boo!” I really appreciate the support because it’s inspiring.
                        Do not reap to the edges of the field. Do not put a stumbling block in the way of the blind. Never mock the deaf. That’s basic. That’s where all of our ethics come from. If we don’t start from that place, there’s nowhere else left to go except some kind of ruthless Darwinian concept. [Such as] “You don’t want to pass on those undesirable traits of being dependent and needy. Let those genes die out, we’ll pass on the strong, competitive genes that say we all take care of ourselves and don’t have to rely on picking somebody’s bare grain from out in the field there”. Well, the Bible says in the Old Testament and New, we are to provide and advocate for the weak and the vulnerable. The leadership in the Old Testament, the kings and rulers and so on were judged not on the battles they won or the expansions of boundaries of their little kingdom. They were judged on how well they cared for the widows and orphans. How well they advocated for the vulnerable and the helpless. This was the way that they were judged in the Old Testament times. You know what? It still is. I say that but I don’t know about you but it’s a struggle for me to maintain a commitment to those kind of values.
                        When I look around me in the world, I see profound discouragement. I see all kinds of reasons to get depressed and discouraged. There’s so much conflict, so much violence, so much injustice, so much hard-heartedness, meanness and suffering and the efforts that are made to try to make things better either seem awkward and fumbling and inept or they seem to make things worse. So we suffer from, I don’t know, sometimes it’s called compassion fatigue, cynicism. To me, it’s just a kind of spiritual weariness. I don’t even like to listen to what’s on the news or [addressing TV news Reporter Guy Garden who was serving as a Eucharistic Minister]… except when you’re doing it then I like it… I say, “Oh, look.” I didn’t know you were going to - you know, I saw you this morning, I thought, “Hmm.” [laughing] But I’m not just being nice. I mean, I’m serious… And that’s part of what ministers to it. You know, that’s one of the reasons we come to church, to combat that tendency in ourselves, that weariness, that emptiness, and that sense of hopelessness and despair. We come to church to be inspired and to rally ourselves, to remember, you know, these profound, deep values that come to us from the past and are still true.
                        And I must, I will say that in the time that I’ve been here at Christ Church Cranbrook that one of my great sources of inspiration in that regard has been the ministry exercised by the Reverend Beth Taylor. Beth, you not only have a passionate commitment to this thing but you have this really sharp expertise that enables us to put it into practice in concrete ways - and that is such a gift - so that it works against that tendency to feel despair. It encourages us to take the next step in our discipleship. Now, I think most of you will know, but at the other congregations, there were a few people that somehow hadn’t gotten the news that [0:10:00] Pastor Beth has been called to be rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Royal Oak. Now if you know anything about that particular church, you know that it has a long-standing commitment to hands-on practical ministry to the people who need it the most. They’ve been doing that for a long time and they’re really good at it. And I can’t imagine anyone who’s better suited to provide the kind of leadership they need, both because of your background, Beth, and your expertise, but mostly because of your articulate passion for the gospel of Jesus Christ. That will be your greatest gift to them and what I [will] miss about you the most. Now, of course it is a loss for us. We seem to have those around here. Things go on much longer I’ll be the old guy [on the CCC staff] [Addressing Pastor Joyce Matthews]. Joyce, don’t go anywhere.
                        You know, it’s understandable to feel sad. You may feel actually kind of abandoned. You may feel that. And if you do, if you have a trace of that, think about how it was for Jesus’ disciples, that original group. Think about how it was for them. They’re with Jesus and He says all these, you know, nice night light coffee hour conversations, “Turn the other cheek, give away out your cloak and your coat, give to anybody that begs from you. Oh, and if you have any enemies, love them. That’s all you have to do. And by the way, I’m going to Jerusalem, I’m probably going to get crucified. I’ll be gone and you’ll be on your own to do all this, but don’t worry, you’re going to be just fine.” And you know what? The amazing thing, they were. They were just fine. They were not just fine, they were perfect. And I know that’s true because here we are. It’s been 2000 years. We’re still here. That’s how their discipleship worked out for them. Now, did they always turn the other cheek? Did they always forgive anybody that offended them? Did they always give to every beggar that asked for something from them? Did they always give away their extra stuff whenever they had the opportunity? Did they always do that? I doubt it. Because I think they were just like us. And what they did was take the next step.
                        Now one thing in the gospels you need to watch out for - whenever Jesus says, “But I say to you,” watch out because He’s about to lay something on us. Something that sounds way too hard, way too extreme, way too radical that turns out to be good news. That’s because our discipleship is a restless perfection. It’s an unfinished story and a work in progress. We’re not ready for Jesus, either. We’re not ready to have Pastor Beth leave. “But I say to you,” says Jesus, “you’re going to get ready.” And in the meantime, practice your discipleship. Take the next step. This morning, that is quite literally true because you being asked to take the next few steps over there into the Guild Hall and learn what those next steps might possibly take for you at the Ministry and Muffins event where you can learn about all these different opportunities for ministry we have at Christ Church, a bewildering plethora of opportunities. And while I’m on the subject of things that are taking place, if you have not signed up for the Healthy Congregations workshop, I very much hope that you will.
                        I had the opportunity to work with the group [0:15:00] that’s putting this on for us. They have very high professional caliber and also and a very strong gospel commitment. I can’t think of anything that would contribute more to the health and well-being of this church than that event and also, especially since we are getting close to the point where we’d be calling a new rector, especially because of that. It would be a great benefit to our discipleship. If you haven’t signed up I hope you will. I know there’s a cost for it but if that were a burden to anybody I’m sure there’s a way could be found for you to attend.
                        Now, maybe you’re sitting there thinking, “I am already as perfect as I need to be.” And if you’re in that category, great, you know. I’m not worried about you. You’re fine. You’re already perfect. But I say to you, or rather, but Jesus says to you and to me, this is a restless perfection. It’s an unfinished story and a work in progress. We need to practice our discipleship to take the next step and to rehearse for that day when we find ourselves with no cheek left to turn, no enemy left to try to love, no second mile to walk and no cloak left to give away. And that kind of, you know, drastic scenario, like I say it may not sound like good news at first but it is. And that’s because even though the gospel sets out these very high drastic kind of expectations of us, it is accompanied by an extravagant mercy, a prodigal forgiveness, and a love that simply will not let us go. Amen. [0:17:30]