Oh Yeah, Listen First.

Teaching Interreligious Dialogue here in seminary, I decided to write my own book because I did not care much for the books that already exist in that topic. I was planning to give my latest group of students a “beta” version of the book to review. However, in a rare burst of energy I finished the book during Christmas break and published it online. (It is available HERE.)

Anyway, I still wanted comments from my students. I got some good ones back. Some small grammar problems were identified that I missed (isn’t that always the way it is?). My illustrations were useful but not aesthetically pleasing (as one of the few people on earth to have ever failed a 6th grade Art class, I am clearly “aesthetically-challenged”). They recommended that I add more examples (Yup. Good point). And they noted I should work more on some aspects of my discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Absolutely.  But I got one comment from the quietest student in my class. She mentioned that I should add a chapter on listening.

Of course!! Why did I not add a chapter on listening? In all my stuff on pastoral care, I emphasize listening. Lately, when I was leading a graduate level seminar on counseling, the group facilitator asked me what was the single most important skill that the students need to learn. I said it was to listen— since pastors do not like to listen.

Our training materials at our counseling center discuss issues of active listening, empathetic listening, head-level versus heart-level listening, as well as techniques to draw out more from others.

Even in the Dialogue book, I emphasize the idea that as one of the two in dialogue, one should should seek to listen more and talk less, especially in the stage where one is seeking to gain understanding and insight of the other.

So why did I not add a chapter on listening? I don’t know… perhaps it was because that topic was already in our pastoral care book. But that is hardly an excuse. Interreligious dialogue is one of a couple of major topics where Missions and Pastoral Care intersect (another is Missionary Member Care). The fact that listening was covered in our Pastoral Care book in no way suggests that it is not highly important in Interreligious Dialogue.

And let’s be honest. Most all of us are horrible at listening. We tend to hear, but not listen. This is even more true in interreligious dialogue where there is the temptation to think in apologetics mode— where the time alotted to the other in talking is used by oneself more in coming up with ways to undermine the other’s point, or to come up with a very persuasive statement— not to listening intently and respectfully.

Hopefully next year I can come up with a Rev. A to the book. At that time I will most definitely add a chapter on listening. Better figures?  Not so sure about that, but we shall see.

Nostalgic Christianity and the Ambiguity of History

nostalgiaOver the years I have been fascinated by those Christians who regularly point back longingly to a time in history that they identify as ideal or idyllic— especially from a Christian perspective. Some look back to the 1950s. Some look back to the early years of their own faith tradition (whatever period that may be) with the pillars of their faith. Some American Christians point back to the “founding fathers of the US, or to the time of the Puritans. Many go back to the first century church.

I have always wondered why. Even a casual student of pretty much any period of history would find a lot that Christians would (or should) feel ambivalent or even uncomfortable about. One of the challenges I have in teaching missions is that in so many periods in missions history, it is hard to find things that are commendable. But they are there. There is beauty in times of ugliness, and ugliness in times of beauty.

But I do wonder what makes people want to view the past in an idealized manner? Consider this verse,

Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?” For it is not wise to ask such questions.   Ecclesiastes 7:10

One would think that Christians would avoid expressing nostalgia if for no other reason than to avoid being declared unwise. But the fact that nostalgia was an issues over 2000 years ago suggests that it is an issue of humanity, not simply of our times.

A present belief is that nostalgia becomes more pervasive in times of uncertainty and anxiety. In these times, the world seems dangerous or at least uncomfortable. A response to that is to embrace a form of exoticism (temporal exoticism, if you will). Exoticism is the belief that some other culture or place is kind of awesome, while our own place or culture stinks. Exoticism is built off of ignorance. Distance obscures unpleasant details. While it has been said, “Once they’ve seen Paris, it is hard to get them back on the farm,” it is probably more true that “Once they have embraced an idealized vision of Paris, it is hard to keep them from leaving the farm.”  For “Temporal Exoticism” the far off place is far off because of time, not space.

For Christians, what are some things that can lead to nostalgia? A few thoughts.

  1.  A feeling of lack of control or power.  When we have power, or the perception of power or control, we tend to be less anxious.  This may not be a universal thing. The feudal system placed people in a position of no political or economic power, yet anxiety most likely came from uncertainties about illness and weather, not the fact that their daily existence was in the hands of the lord of the land. But in the present era in the West, where autonomy is given great priority, lack of control can be highly stressful. (It is strange that Christians feel this sort of lack so acutely when Christianity was built on the presumption of having little to no political or economic power.) People who feel this as a stressor look back to a time that is more triumphalistic or where their own worldview was seen as universally appreciated.
  2. Pluralistic communities. For many people it is stressful to be around people of other cultures or faiths. Living in a culture that is almost entirely unlike the culture I was raised in, I struggle to understand this. However, I met people from my home culture who now live in the culture I presently dwell in who seem to live in a state of continuous trauma. They look fondly back to the time before easy transportation when monocultures were prevalent. It seemed safer back then. But was it?
  3. Progressives. The term “progressive” is so loosely used for so many situations that it is pretty close to meaningless. But I suppose that gives me the right to appropriate the term. In this case, I am using it to refer to those who tend to judge the past based on present ethical perspectives. As such, they often disrespect the same periods of time that are embraced by the nostalgic Christians. Nostalgia may be a way to reduce stress by creating a somewhat false narrative, but when others try to crush that vision, the result is an increase in stress. This increase in stress can lead some to “double-down” on the fantasy.

The reality, however, is that history is messy. Consider, for example, a church of which I have a connection. It is a fairly old church and when one looks at the earliest church rolls, one finds that there were slaves who were members of the church. One can look at that with horror— Christians who went to church and yet “owned” other human beings. Such horror is quite understanable. Of course, if someone else looked at the same situation, they may say, “Isn’t it wonderful that these Christian slaveowners  cared about their slaves enough to be concerned about their immortal souls! Oh yeah, and isn’t it nice that these slaveowners recognize that their slaves have immortal souls!” I think you may see how the ambiguity of the situation can be difficult for people to wrestle with so they embrace a one-sided perspective. Shortly after the American Civil War, the slaves associated with that church were emancipated. They formed their own separate church… which still exists to this day. Should one feel good that former slaves now have self-determination in terms of religion, or should one feel bad that a church could only be racially integrated when there was legally mandated “caste” system in place?

I hope I don’t have to point out the ambiguities of the 1950s in America or of colonial expansion of Christian nations. Some unambiguously bad things like the Crusades also become a bit more murky when one realizes that it was an evil response to past evils of others. Pretty poor excuse, but an excuse nonetheless.

I think we grow as people when we address the ambiguities. It is okay to look at King David in the Bible as a great hero of the faith, but it is also okay to look at him as a self-righteous self-serving monster. But maybe better than either of these is that King David was a man who (truthfully) did many many bad things, (it is kind of awesome that the Bible portrays a man of faith who was an adulterer, a horrible father, a mercenary, and a racketeer) and yet when challenged in his failings was able to humble himself and seek forgiveness. Not many kings outside of fairy tales do that. The ambiguous human is best I think. Heroes and monsters are caricatures. We learn better from humans than we do from caricatures.

Nostalgia is sometimes identified in two forms:  restorative and reflective. In restorative nostalgia, there is the desire to return to a time—- a time that did not truly exist. Reflective nostalgia may be more benign… perhaps even beneficial. To have a time that one can reflectively look back with pleasure does not necessarily have to be done “with rose-colored glasses.” For example, one may look back fondly on one’s time in high school… while still being well aware that there were aspects of high school (puberty, bullying, social awkwardness, and fears regarding the future) that one remembers vividly.

Perhaps, if one seeks to find value in nostalgia, it can be done reflectively… enjoying some aspects on the longing, while still embracing realistically that one can never truly go back (and that returning to the past would, in fact, be a very bad thing).

The Question of Prisoner #109104

For fun, I guess, I Googled “Prisoner 109104.” Somehow the first word, ‘prisoner’ was ignored and the focus was on the number. The various iterations came up with the top search results being that earlier this year the the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the New Orleans Pelicans by the score of 109 to 104. 

I was hoping to find a result

pointing to Viktor Frankl. He was a psychologist who lived from 1905-1997. He was a prisoner in the German concentration camp system (he was moved around a few times) until he was liberated by Allied forces in 1945 (most of his family, including his wife, were not so fortunate). He served as a physician and as a specialist in “psychohygiene” to help prisoners deal with their shock and grief.

After the war he wrote of his experiences. In his time in one of the more horrible and unjust settings one could imagine, he noted those prisoners who thrived and those who faded. He recognized that people who felt they had something to live for did better than those who did not. Out of this came his most famous book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.”

In his later psychological work, Frankl was known to often ask his clients an interesting question. The question was:

WHY DO YOU NOT COMMIT SUICIDE?

That sounds a bit harsh, and arguably it may be a bit too direct to be appropriate for most. However, written text fails in that it misses the context of the question, the body language, and voice intonation. It also does not take into account that it was spoken by a man who lived in a place with seemingly NO HOPE, and yet did not succomb to that hopelessness.

It is a good question. I went through a time of deep sadness many years ago, perhaps even (undiagnosed) clinical depression, where I thought about ending my life. Why did I not? As a Christian it might be tempting to say that it was because of God. If I was from a different religious tradition within Christianity, I may have thought not to end things because of fear of hellfire. But I did not, because I did not believe that. If God damned us for wasting the gift of life, all of us could be found guilty to a greater or lesser extent. Much of our lives are wasted.  God’s forgiveness to those who trust in Him is beyond our imagining.

It was that same trust that meant that I knew God’s love to be with me even if I disappointed Him. God WAS the reason that I knew that my time of sadness would eventually pass. I was not in free-fall without a safety net to catch me. So God was part of the reason that I kept going… but was not the only reason, and maybe not even the main reason.

What kept me enduring was family. I knew that there was nothing I could say and nothing I could write that would make this okay with my parents. (This was before I was married.) To take my life would have been a monstrous evil– burden– to place on them. I could not do that.

Some say suicide is selfish. In a way it is— but it is also a failure to recognize a greater meaning or purpose that transcends the momentare feelings of hopelessness.

I suppose that is part of the reason I love the book of Ecclesiastes. It honestly addresses the issues of meaning and hopelessness. I have heard many say that Ecclesiastes has two sections— a Wrong View section (most of the book) and a Right View section (the very end of the book). It sometimes makes me wonder if these people have actually read the book. It honestly addresses the mistaken purposes or hopes that people base their lives on, whether it be on popularity, power, pleasure, wealth or other things. Addressing the vain-ness of these pursuits is thoroughly accurate. They are indeed chasing after the wind.

Integrated into the entire sermon, not just the final two verses, are two answers that the writer wants us to take away from it:

      1.  Fear God (and in so doing keep His commandments)

       2.  Find joys in the seemingly meaningless thing that constitutes one’s life.

We live in a time when more and more people question having a purpose in life worth living for. According to Befrienders Worldwide (https://www.befrienders.org/suicide-statistics), suicide rates have increased 60% over the last 45 years. Considering that world population has also increased greatly during the same period, there is clearly a huge increase in actual suicides. The World Health Organization estimates that by 2020, a suicide will occur once every 20 seconds. Since there is about 20 attempted suicides for each “successful” one, I guess that means that by 2020 there will be approximately one suicide attempt every second (nearing 100,000 attempts a day, and over 30,000,000 per year). 

As Christians, the hope and purpose that we have for the people of the world is NOT cool and uplifting songs. It is not Christian self-help. We have revelation of God (our Creator, our Designer) of both His benevolent intent for us eternally, and His desire to give us both joy and meaning now. We also have socialization— family— of a community of faith that contrasts the growing alienation in the world. We, as the church, should not underestimate this.

I would not be as blunt as Viktor Frankl in asking “Why do you not commit suicide?” but it is still a good question.

 

PTSD and the Bible

This is a bit off-track as far as topics I normally put on this blog, but I have never sought to define appropriate topics too narrowly.

Years ago, I wrote a little article for our counseling center’s journal entitled, “Divine Intervention: The Flight of Elijah in Dialogue with Crisis Care.” You can see the article HERE.

I noted the story of God’s dealing with Elijah in his escape from Samaria to Mount Horeb. I noted the similarity between God’s response and the three step process used in crisis care, especially the NOVA system (Safety & Security, Validation & Ventilation, and Planning & Preparation).  But part of the paper was also suggesting that Elijah’s flight was not an act of faithlessness, or of weakness. Rather it was a stress-overload, such as in burnout. (I don’t feel the need to justify people’s actions in the Bible. Many “heroes of the faith” act in ways quite sinful or foolish. I don’t however, see that being true of Elijah in this case. Elisha, the youths, and the bear— well, think that is a different matter.)

Recently, Fr. Ernesto Obregon wrote an article. Actually it is part of a doctoral course project. He quoted me quite a bit in it (which is always nice… at least when it is done in a positive way). His thesis is related, but a bit different. He is looking at the diagnosis of PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder). He suggested that the story of Elijah here could be seen as an account of PTSD.

In a sense, it doesn’t matter. However, PTSD has only being a formal diagnosis since 1980, and earlier iterations (Battle Fatigue or Shell Shock) only go back to around 1915). As such, the question can come up as to whether it is a valid condition to speak of at all.

Some Christians question any condition that is not specifically noted in the Bible. This may not make a lot of sense (does one have to find reference to cell phones in the Bible before believing they exist?). Regardless though, being able to identify the condition in antiquity places the condition more firmly as a part of the human condition, rather than simply as a culthural phenomenon.

Anyway, it is an interesting read, I think.  You can read it HERE

(Don’t be thrown off by his referencing the book of Third Kings (III Kings). He comes from the tradition of Orthodox Christianity.)

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Thoughts on Joshua 24:31

I was listening to a Carey Nieuwhof podcast (CNLP 134) interviewing Carl George and Warren Bird. One statement struck me and then I lost the train of the interview as I mulled on that. My internal monologue/dialogue tends to be louder than my laptop speakers.

They were talking about how many church leaders take seriously training up the next generation of leaders. However, relatively few take seriously training leaders to train up the successive generation of leaders.

I have seen a great amount of this problem.  Consider the following diagram:

Leaders

George and Bird noted II Timothy 2:22, and that the goal of training and leading is not simply to develop the next generation, but to develop the next generation TO develop the generation afterwards.

Even the first step is difficult to focus on. In the figure above, the left side feels right. We have seen many examples of this in the Bible. Jethro had to pressure Moses to develop leaders. The book of Judges appears to be a big collection of leaders who led without developing the next generation. Eli would have developed no one if God did not intervene with Samuel. Samuel would have developed no one unless God (or was it the people?) intervened with Saul. Elijah would have developed no one if God did not intervene with Elisha.

But some embrace the right side of the figure above and DO develop leaders. But often they develop a different kind of leader. The type of leader they develop is not trained to develop leaders. When I was listening to the podcast the first thing I thought of was the end of the book of Joshua.

Israel served the Lord throught the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had experienced everything the Lord had done through Israel.  Joshua 24:31

Now I am not sure how to interpret the passage. Were these elders of the same generation as Joshua (or, I guess, slightly younger)? Were they his colleagues or trainees? Regardless, soon after Joshua died, the leadership broke down. Moses trained up Joshua and Caleb, but soon after those two died, things began to fall apart and we are into the cycle of Judges where everyone did “what was right in their own eyes.”

The leadership of Moses and MAYBE Joshua followed the pattern of the upper right figure. What was not done was the figure below.

Leaders 2

How does this happen? I can think of two ways.

First, they train but don’t empower those they train to train others. I am part of the CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) movement in the Philippines. People in this movement are trained and certified to supervise and train others. However, in the Philippines the desire generally has been to train pastoral counselors or clinical chaplain, but not so much to train others to train others. Often those that wanted to be trained from the third generation still had to go back to the first generation. It is not surprising that the CPE movement in the Philippines has been “sputtery.” It has struggled because the training often did not include the empowerment and certification to train others. The power of certification was often held by the originally certified.  Ordination in church can do the same thing. Ordained ministers train up unordained ministers but those unordained ministers are never ordained or empowered to do certain things. Thus, there is no repeatable process to succeeding generations. When the first generation is gone, there is no one to slip into the role… and they have to look for a 23 year old fresh out of seminary to take over the role. This is not a good system.

Second, they may train but for a different role. I have seen this also in the Philippines. Missionaries came to the Philippines to train up Filipino leaders. However, the roles they generally were trained for was not missions or higher level teaching. They were taught to pastor, lead worship, or plant churches. As important as these roles were, by not training Filipinos to be missionaries or seminary professors, the people became dependent on the missionaries. The problem is that while the church may endure, missionaries come and go, and sometimes just go. I have seen many a missionary refuse to leave a role because he believes he is indispensible. It may be true he is, but if he is, it is because he created the system to maintain his indispensibility. (It is quite possible that I have been guilty of this myself.)

Leaders need to do more than train up leaders. They need to empower these leaders to train up other leaders.

We can do better than in Joshua 24:31. We should do better than training up a generation to be faithful as long as they can remember us. We need to train up generations that have never heard of us.

“Footprints” Thoughts

One of the great inspiring messages is “Footprints.” It’s author is unknown, but frankly that added to its popularity since it lacks any copyright issues. There are some claims as to who first wrote it. Some thoughts on the authorship and inspiration of it can be found at https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/evangelical-history/where-did-the-footprints-poem-come-from/

I always liked the story and can recall having one of

https://s3.amazonaws.com/tgc-web/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/27130053/footprints.jpg

those wallhangers with the story on it. But writing a sermon recently I began thinking about it more, and had reason to disagree with the story… just a bit. That being said, I am not trying to say, “It is wrong.” Rather, I am saying that perhaps the imagery can be a bit misinforming in some ways.

On a positive side, the story utilizes the image of walking and walking with Christ as a metaphor for the Christian life. I feel that is a strong metaphor. I did several posts a few years back on the use of “Walking With” as a metaphor. You can look at these if you want

Walking With. Part 1

Walking With. Part 2

Walking With. Part 3

Walking With. Part 4

Walking With. Part 5

Walking With. Part 6

So why would I have any problems with Footprints then? There are three (somewhat) minor issues.

Issue One. Task-Focus versus Person-Focus. In the imagery, Jesus carries the writer during difficult times. To me the image is one of being task-focused. The person goes through a time that he can’t continue, and Jesus carries him. To stay with the person in a difficult time suggests person-focused. To keep moving by carrying the person suggests a bit of greater interest in keeping to the task than to the person. But I believe that Jesus is more committed to us as people, than to the tasks we do.

Issue Two. Dependency. In some manner we are to be dependent on God. But generally speaking, God seeks us to mature, and that maturity comes through the trials. Peter notes that we go through suffering. James notes that we develop perseverence through the testing of our faith. The image of the story suggests more of a coddling. Kelly O’Donnell (in “Doing Member Care Well”) has noted that Jesus Christ in His handling His disciples maintained a balance that could best be described as in the region of Comforter and Challenger, while avoiding the extremes of Coddler and Condemner. Carrying to me suggests coddling.

coddling

Issue Three. Example. As I noted in my sermon (HERE). Jesus is our model for ministry. God did not create us with great power. He gave us the ability to be present with others in their struggles. We can’t carry people through their times of pain and struggles. We can suffer with the suffering. We hurt with the hurting. We can struggle with the struggling. We can take none of these things away. We can embrace a ministry of presence. We can bear the burdens of another, but only with mutuality, where others also bear our burdens.

Of these three issues, the only one that I consider strong is the third one. The first two are picky. However, if we want to understand what we are to do, following the example of Jesus, we need to understand that Footprints does not give us a good understanding of that role. It does, however, give a good image of the Christian life.

Here is another perspective (thanks to Chaplain Sal for sharing…