Thursday, February 27, 2014

Your Story ...

In Kurt Vonnegut's book Breakfast of Champions there is a scene near the end in which he, Vonnegut, puts himself into the story and has a conversation with one of his most famous recurring characters, Kilgore Trout.  It's not often that the author of a book is a character in the on-going story of the book she or he is writing at that moment.  More often than not the author "speaks" through one or more of the characters, or is present in a story about her or his own past.  But the present presence of the author?  An author who explicitly and self-consciously rewrites the action of the book because of the action of the book?  Well, that's a little unusual.  Maybe only Vonnegut could pull that off.

I've recently been listening to a CD of Dr. Brené Brown.  She's the social scientist whose TED talk on vulnerability took the internet by storm.  In the material I'm listening to she's talking about shame -- what it is and how to become more "shame resilient."  She's saying a lot of fascinating things, and this morning this phrase jumped out at me:

"When you own your story you get to write the ending."

Let that sink in for a minute.  Let that sink in for a minute and see both if that makes sense, and whether or not you're living like that.

I'm not.  At least, not a lot of the time.  A lot of the time -- maybe even most of the time -- I live as if I'm a character in a story and things are happening to me.  The choices I make seem almost inevitable or, at least, severely limited by the circumstances around me.  "I would do this, if only that were different ..."  "If only this situation changed I could do ..."  Sound at all familiar?

And yet, when I meet with people for Pastoral Counseling I am clear that they are not bound by a story
someone/something else is composing.  I often say to people that the events of their lives are like chapters in a book, and a book that's part of an ongoing series.  This particular thing that they are dealing with is not the end of the story -- the end of a chapter, perhaps; the end of one of the books, maybe; but the story goes on and we have no idea how it will end up.  There are lots of times that things look pretty grim for Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen, but the next chapter, or the next book, can make things look very different.

And so ... "when you own your story you get to write the ending."  We are more like Vonnegut than Trout.  To me, that's good news.

So it goes ...


Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Change ...

I've been listening to the news out of Egypt lately with such sadness.  I can remember the excitement, the hope, the optimism generated by the initial revolution.  Such possibilities!  And so hard to believe that dreams too dear to dream were apparently on the verge of coming true.

But they haven't.  Some have said that the current chaos is worse even then what was before.  Of course, it's said that the Israelites told Moses that they'd rather go back to their bondage than remain in the discomfort of their freedom.  Change is hard.  And messy.

Yesterday, while listening to the news I found myself remembering the excitement, the hope, the optimism generated by Barack Obama's initial run for the Presidency.  Here, too, was the apparent actualization of dreams many had dared not utter.   And here, too, reality has not actualized the hype.

In their book Changing for Good:  a revolutionary six-stage program for overcoming bad habits and moving your life positively forward, Ph.D.s James O. Prochaska, John C. Norcross, and Carlo C. DiClemente describe six stages through which we must move if change is going to be real and lasting.
  1. First, there's Precontemplation.  This is the stage in which you still think the people or situations
    around you are to blame.  You recognize that there's some kind of problem, but you see the cause outside of yourself.
  2. Then there's Contemplation.  Here you've begun to recognize that the cause of your problem is something you're doing or not doing, yet you're not quite ready to do something concrete about it yet.
  3. Next comes Preparation.  First you recognized that things weren't right, but it was someone else's fault.  Then you began to realize your own accountability, yet weren't ready yet to take the steps necessary to change things.  Now, while you're still not ready to make the change, you're finally ready to get ready to make it.
  4. Obviously, Action would come next.  You begin to put into action the plan you developed during the preparation phase.  (And which you might have begun thinking about during the stage of contemplation.)
  5. Then there comes Maintenance.  Here the struggle of changes becomes the struggle to keep from sliding back.
  6. Finally, there is Termination.  At this point the change has so rooted itself in you that it's no longer new, it's no longer even really change.  It is, to use a bit of cliche, "the new normal."

Changing for Good does an excellent job of explaining these stages -- including their challenges -- and helping the reader to discern where she or he is in the cycle and how to move forward.  One person, one vote, we Spring of Action is not enough.  Lasting change is a process -- whether for an individual, a society, or the world.

In Gassho,


Friday, February 21, 2014

What's Up With The Tree Thing?

I am, you might say, some have said, obsessed with the shapes of bare-branched trees.  My FaceBook photo album "Trees & Clouds" has over 200 images in it, and that isn't the entirety of my bare-branched oeuvre.  It is, I suppose, not an unreasonable question to ask, "Why?"

I will confess that I'm not entirely sure why.  (That may be true of most people's obsessions, I don't know.)  I have a few theories, though.

The twists and turns of a trees branches is such a universal pattern.  You can see it in the dried riverbed along the Colorado river.  You can see it in a living bay (this one's the Chesapeake).  It's recognizable in a bolt of lighting, and the blood vessels in a human lung.  It's even been found on the surface of Mars!

It's universality is certainly intriguing yet I am equally captivated, and perhaps even more so, by the seemingly infinite variety of its particular manifestations.  Just take a walk around a tree looking up into it's branches.  It's sinuous shapes morph and move with just about each step you take.  No two vantage point provide the same view.  And even if you were to stay in one place, looking at exactly the same spot on the same tree, differences in lighting throughout the day and the ever-changing background of sky would give you a never repeating display.  Not only do a tree's branches resemble the snaking of a river, its every changing presentation echoes the river's flow.

There's something else, too, I think.  Within some of the Buddhist traditions there is an image used to explain the concept of our interconnectedness.  Look at the waves on the water.  Each wave appears to be separate, distinct, and each wave breaks on the shore in turn, alone and individual, if you will.  Yet each of the waves, all of the waves, are also nothing but ocean.

I look at a tree.  The single trunk branches off into big limbs, which become medium-sized branches, which become little twigs.  Eventually there will be seemingly individual leaves and fruit.  Yet where does the trunk cease and the leaf begin?  As much as the separation and individuality is obvious and, in some ways, a useful perspective, isn't the whole thing just, "tree"?

The great 17th century Christian mystic Brother Lawrence reported that it was seeing a barren tree in wintertime that sparked his spiritual awakening.  Here's how his biographer describes the experience:

"... in the winter, seeing a tree stripped of its leaves, and considering that within a little time, the leaves would be renewed, and after that the flowers and fruit appear, he received a high view of the Providence and Power of GOD, which has never since been effaced from his soul."
Lawrence was 18 years old at this time, and he continued his monastic (and mystic) existence until he was in his late 80s.  It wasn't this encounter with a bare tree alone that sustained him all that time, of course, but it is clear that neither did he ever foret it.

And I've wondered whether the tree could be an image for God.  In contemplating the interconnectedness of twig and trunk I have wondered what the trunk might be.  Or, to be more precise, I've wondered what the "tree-ness" of the tree is, what constitutes its essential being.  The answer, for me, is that this would be a good use of the word "God" -- to borrow a phrase from old Ben Kenobi, God "surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the [universe] together."

So I photograph tree branches.  I could find worse things to obsess about.

Pax tecum,


Thursday, February 20, 2014

It's Been a While ...

There are a whole lot of sayings about the apparently very human propensity to fail to keep up with our commitments:

"The road to hell is paved with good intentions."

"Never put off until tomorrow what you should have done two weeks ago."

It's even in the Bible:

"I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do ..."  (Romans 7:15)

My last posting here was on December 10th.  The one before that -- about a week earlier.  And before that?  Almost another month.  This despite my intention to write at least a little something every day.

I'm a busy guy.  Why would I want to write a blog post every day?  Narcissism?  A need to be noticed and affirmed?  Is it, in the words of shame researcher Bréne Brown, "the shame-based fear of being ordinary"?
I don't think so.  At least not entirely.  (I always leave open the possibility -- even the probability -- that I have motivations I'm not aware of and wouldn't like if I were.)  I think that there are some very good reasons for me, as a working pastor, to be a regular blogger, and maybe it'd help me to remind myself of them.

One of my collegial friends, the Rev. Scott Wells, in explaining on his blog -- Boy In The Bands -- why he does it makes reference to an old-time Southern Universalist (he thinks it was John C. Burruss) who "wrote and edited his newspaper because the printed word would go where 'the living evangel' could not go, and it would survive after he was long dead."  (Thanks for this, Scott.)

I am a preacher and a teacher by trade, vocation, and inclination.  Blogging provides a pulpit with a sanctuary that stretches as far and wide as the internet itself.  I know that all those "pews" will never be filled, but that's true in our brick and mortar sanctuaries as well.  And even if I simply look at the specific congregation I currently serve -- the wonderful Thomas Jefferson MemorialChurch - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia -- I believe that my blogging serves them.  Not all of our members can come to Sunday services each week, and not everyone can attend our faith development programs, or take place in one of our Covenant Groups, yet I dare say that all of us are looking for something to chew on during the week.  To reflect on.  To meditate on.  And, yes, to think about.  I have no delusions that I am some fount of wisdom, yet I know that I have something to say and as a preacher and teacher for this congregation blogging provides a forum for me to reach out to people both more frequently and more effectively.

And why try to post daily?  I once knew a painter who, when she'd finished with a canvass would immediately start to paint a new image over the one she'd just completed.  And when that one was done she'd begin a third.  There were sometimes five or six images beneath whatever she called her "final" piece, the one that would remain on top when she finally set the canvass aside and began on a new one.  I asked her once why she did this and she said, "I have so many images in my head and I just have to get them out."  So, too, the thoughts, reflections, and observations in mine.

At the same time, too, there's the discipline of it.  Besides, or along with, my being a preacher and teacher, I'm a writer.  And writer's write.  The only way -- really, the only way -- to hone one's craft is to write.  A lot.  And many of the writers I most admire have said that that means at least some writing every day.  So yes, I write a sermon most every week, and a bulletin article and a report to the Board each month, but the discipline of daily writing?  That's where the blog can came in.

Will I do this?  Live into this intention to blog each day?  (Or, at least, each week day?)  I don't know.  We'll see.  At least I hope to be back before March.

Pax tecum,