Today, I want to tell you a bit more about my approach to pastoral care, maybe even try for a definition, and to give you an idea about why the perspectives I teach have led to my being invited by Friends Peace Teams to teach ministers and priests in the traumatized country of Rwanda. https://friendspeaceteams.org/teach-local-clergy-rwanda/
There’s an old joke, although sometimes it is said seriously, about how great it must be to be a minister or priest and only have to work that one hour on Sunday. It turns out that the joke is not really that funny. The worship service and the sermon may be the most visible part of the job, but so much more happens during the rest of the week.
What the clergy do during the rest of the time is called “pastoral care,” and it’s not primarily or obviously about religious beliefs or behaviors. Pastoral Care might be defined as how belief and religion play out in human relationships and community.
Very often people come into a religious congregation out of a sense of need. These seekers may be wounded by life, or they might not be able to get by economically. They may carry guilt or fear that springs from past behaviors or experiences. They may be preparing for major transitions in their lives, often including preparing for death. In my experience, many people cannot even identify what it is they seek. They may simply have questions about life that the values of the surrounding culture don’t address Their families or culture may be telling them that they should be feeling happy, grateful, or fulfilled. People often don’t feel safe enough to reveal something about themselves that they believe is socially unacceptable or that makes them look weak or foolish. It is the job of pastoral care to create the safe container that allows people talk about the heavy burdens, or merely the questions, that they carry.
Another way to look at pastoral care is by recognizing that our behavior says more about what we believe than what we say. When I was a prison chaplain, there was a chalk board next to my office desk. I had written on it the word, “praxis.” People coming into my office would often ask me about that word. Why had I written it there, and what did it mean? My answer was: “Oh, that’s just a reminder to me that I want what my words say I believe to be consistent with what my actions say I believe.”
Pastoral Care is primarily relational. It looks to what is happening in the relationships between and among people, between people and their surroundings, between a person’s visible self and the hidden self, between the individual and the community, and between the individual and/or community with the divine.
- It may be exercised in helping people meet practical needs,
- Or in helping people identify the sources of help.
- It may help to create an atmosphere where marginalized or isolated people can find a sense of belonging.
- It may offer experiences where people find meaning for their lives.
- It may offer people a way to discover the fun and not just the seriousness in religious activities.
- It may happen with no overt religious references at all.
- The list is endless.
Rwanda might be considered an extreme example of a traumatized community. Not only have the people been traumatized by violence, but without recognizing better options, they turn to “self-medicating by addictive substances and behaviors. The ministers and priests are on the front lines of what must be difficult work. They need tools, support, encouragement, and a healthy grounding to maintain balance in their vital work.
While I am glad to go there to teach and support them, our own communities are often traumatized as much. We could name weather events, shootings, wildfires, and many other crisis situations that traumatize us. But sometimes the traumatization is more subtle. It overwhelms us slowly and with subtlety. It has been argued by many that our radical American individuality isolates us from relationship, arbitrarily determining our value by how much we earn or how many times we “win.”
I have come to define trauma as “external circumstances overwhelming internal resources.”
Pastoral care helps strengthen internal resources, while at the same time, identifying and trying to address the culturally embedded external forces that weigh on us.
Welcome to the new web home for Entos Press and “Community of Promise: The Untold Story of Moses.” I have included e-book versions of the novel in epub and mobi formats as well as the physical books that have been available for sale all along.
You might have noticed that I have not published a blog post since last May. Most of my writing during the summer was on my next novel, “The Wisdom Weaver.” I’m about half-way through the first draft. During the Fall, I was teaching three sections of Psychology of Personal Growth at a local community college for three days a week. The other two days were taken up with my counseling practice. I also taught a course for ministers during three Saturdays, and went to Riverside Church in NYC to co-lead a weekend workshop about the intentional community where I live. There was just no time (or psychic space) to blog.
Anyway, I’m back and will make a good-faith effort to write meaningful posts on a regular basis. Thanks for your patience and for your future interest.
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
As I look at the political events and reactions from the last few days, it appears to me that fear and reactivity are, as always, narrowing people’s perspectives. I have certainly felt the pressure to narrow my own to fear and disgust. I can’t let myself stay there, though. Broadened perspective is necessary for us to move forward purposefully and ethically.
Healthy perspective comes not from our answers, but from the quality of the questions we ask. So a part of gaining perspective is working hard to get to the most useful questions. If we ask superficial questions, we will be left with a superficial understanding. For example, many Democrats are asking “What went wrong?” implying that some strategic mistake brought about this outcome, and if we only had not made the mistake, all would be well. This is a superficial question. Before going on, I confess to being horrified and terrified by a Trump presidency. I could easily be carried by those emotions to scream abuse at the other side. It would not be wise, however to allow those perfectly understandable emotions to get in the way of a deeper look into the situation affecting us all.
I am trying to unearth some broader questions that can be useful, perhaps even necessary, as we look for a way forward. Here is an example of how I try to identify a deeper question. I saw a meme a couple of weeks ago that equated Donald Trump’s political positions with the temptations that Satan offered to Jesus.
When I excavate that deeper question, I notice that Satan’s temptations are actually embedded in values that are generally accepted in our culture. I would suggest that it is not only Trump, but our entire political system, that tempts people with similar satanic promises. So what are these temptations, and what do they have to do with us? Simply described, the temptations include power, safety, comfort, and status. Wait a minute! Aren’t those exactly the values that we have been taught are the basis for healthy social functioning? Aren’t those the promises that come from most politicians?
It would be easy at this point to throw out this whole line of thinking because it seems to lead to ridiculous (anti-American?) conclusions. Any line of thinking can appear ridiculous if the question behind it is inadequate. My concern as not whether these are useful values. Clearly they can be. For me, a more useful question is about why and how power, safety, comfort, and status might function as temptations?
In the context of Christian theology, how do these four perfectly reasonable values serve to distract from the mission Jesus found himself called to? One way to frame an answer is for us to ask what it costs, in the broadest sense of that word, to achieve power, safety, comfort and status. For the sake of brevity, I am only going to deal with one of these: power. I make the assumption that the definition of power that our culture accepts is central to our difficulties. We believe that having power is the means by which we exercise freedom. We believe that the only way to feel safe is by having power over others. We believe that without power we can’t be comfortable, and we believe that the only real way we have to measure our status (or national greatness) is by how much power (money) we have to direct or influence others.
There are two features of the way our culture understands power that must be challenged:
- Power is a “zero-sum” commodity.
- And power is primarily understood as individuals or groups influencing or being influenced.
If there is a limit to the amount of power available, then any power gained by one individual or group must be taken from others. “Zero-sum” means that there is no change in the total amount. It follows, then, that any change in the distribution of power generates the two-sided coin of entitlement/fear. If your “side wins” you increase your sense entitlement and the other side becomes more afraid. If the other side wins, they get more entitlement and you get to be more afraid. From this perspective, absolutely nothing fundamental has changed. There has simply been a redistribution of entitlement and fear. It further follows that fear focusses on the danger emanating from the other side rather than the validity of one’s own beliefs.
Let me clarify that I am not addressing the relative validity of one set of political ideas over another (as in Democratic vs. Republican ideas). Hopefully, thoughtful people examine their belief systems and try to adopt healthy ones. Still, if our basic understanding of power remains unchanged, real transformative change is unlikely, if not impossible. Something about rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic comes to mind.
I think transformation is only possible if we adopt a different understanding of power that is not individualistic and is not primarily adversarial. We must also identify neo-liberalism as the primary economic model that infects our entire system, regardless of political ideology. Neo-liberalism claims that competition is one of its central features. We have been taught to believe that competition is fundamentally good. However, competition is necessarily adversarial, meaning that we must have, or even create, enemies, and that defeating our enemies is somehow noble. Much of our social prejudice and inequality is based in this largely unexamined belief about competition. For a useful articulation of neo-liberalism and its effects, reference this April 2016 article from The Guardian, “Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems.” I encourage you to read it.
In short, neo-liberalism normalizes and even morally sanitizes the tyranny at the hand of those who win the economic game over the relatively powerless. In reality, almost everyone loses, including the planet that supports us all. A tiny handful of people experience temporary success, but they too will be destroyed by the devastation this economic belief system inevitably visits on the planet. I believe the world situation is just as dire as I have described.
We do have access to some transformational models that can help us evaluate and develop a healthier way forward:
- I mentioned the temptations above. What Satan tempted Jesus with was not primarily power, safety, comfort, and status. The nature of the temptations was really about individual rights and ownership, which could serve to legitimized a grossly unjust system. Because Jesus was talented and was likely to be seen as special, Satan offered him entitlement to special treatment. Satan tempted him to exploit his individualistic rights and opportunities apart from the needs of the community (that Jesus later calls the Realm of God). We can argue that throughout his ministry Jesus challenged the existing understanding of the law so that people could not use it as an excuse for exercising individual rights in a way that exploited others and destroyed relationship. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Care for the needs of the least entitled among us. These teachings from Jesus challenge our notion of power, and we cannot act on any of them if power is primarily individualistic and adversarial. We have been taught to fear powerlessness, but scripture says that only love conquers fear.
- Bernard Loomer has redefined power as being more about the growth and development of relationship than either giving or receiving influence. Real power is about empowerment. Under empowerment, the amount of real power grows – not a zero-sum game. And empowerment is not fundamentally adversarial, except that it mitigates against people using their entitlement to exploit one another. Loomer’s essay, “Two Concepts of Power,” can be found here.
- Similar to #2, true feminism is not about “uppity women” taking the power that rightly belongs to men (zero-sum). True feminism is about the growth of empowerment, and it is designed to reduce the amount of fear-generating adversarial competition.
We can learn from and make use of all of these.
I have been disturbed by how much American Christianity has been infected by neo-liberal values. One explanation for this is that one’s definition of power largely determines ones image of God. One of the historically fundamental qualities of God is omnipotence – that God is all powerful. If, however, we see power as primarily relational as opposed to individualistic and adversarial, then how we understand the divine is radically transformed. If God’s power is the “power-over” variety, then obedience – for the two-fold purpose of staying out of divine trouble and being granted temporal power – is the only way to feel safe. Anyone else’s empowerment is then seen as immoral, treasonous, and subject to punishment. But if God’s power is understood as the “empowerment, power-with” variety, then healthy community is valued for generating true safety (read salvation) for all.
In our individual rights and entitlement-based culture, only the illusion of safety is possible because it is always built on a foundation of fear. As with many addictions, it promises what it cannot ultimately deliver and keeps the addict hooked on superficial wishful thinking in the process.
By challenging our neo-liberal economic foundations, we are more able to articulate a system that sees all people and all life as inextricably connected, truly in this together. The resulting compassion, empowerment, and mutuality can stimulate healthy community and create increased safety for us all.
This is how I see it. I welcome your comments.
Thinking, The Internet, Consensus, and Collective Consciousness
July 7, 2015
Recently I read an article that made reference to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s belief that technology would serve to connect people in a healthy way leading to a higher level of collective consciousness. The article got me thinking about how people tend to use the social media parts of the internet. Do Facebook, blogs and their comments, and Twitter connect people in a way that leads to a higher level of connectedness and consciousness?
Before we can answer that question, we need some sense of what a “higher consciousness” might look like. Here are a few factors to consider:
Higher consciousness gives us the means to recognize our connection with a living system – like with Gaia (the living earth) or even the Universe. This is by definition a spiritual connection that reminds us we are part of something larger than ourselves.
- Higher consciousness makes use of a diversity of people and ideas in a collaborative rather than competitive way.
- Higher consciousness accepts (perhaps avows) that life is fundamentally ambiguous. i.e. there can be no absolutely correct, one-sided answer to any of life’s questions.
- The goal of conversation and communication is to broaden perspective, not to argue about whose answer is correct. It is an additive process.
- Higher consciousness is neither monolithic nor totalitarian. Being of one mind does not mean that one set of beliefs is correct, thereby excluding all others.
- Higher consciousness allows us to address the purpose of life question in a collective way as well as in an individualistic way.
If we accept these principles and desire to evolve toward higher consciousness (a la Teilhard de Chardin), then how could we make use of our social media?
We would not vilify ideas—or the people who espouse them. Rather we would express respectful curiosity and invite elaboration.
- We would learn the difference between opinion and perspective. Much internet chatter takes the form of “My opinion must be correct and all other thoughts must be wrong (and the people who hold them are clearly stupid!) How about if we tried to learn and grow by saying, “This is how I see this issue, and here is the data that informs my perspective and the logic that leads me to my view.”
- Our ideas could be contributions to the learning process rather than being imposed on others.
- We would go to social media sites because we desire to learn more than to instruct.
- We would welcome new perspectives that broaden our views rather than insisting that our minds are already made up. New data and views would not then be seen as threats to our opinions.
- We would stop trying to discredit or eliminate those who see things differently, but we would be curious about how their views were formed.
- We would value convergence—coming together—to give us all broader perspectives, and we would understand that consensus comes from sharing perspectives, not discrediting competing ideas. Single minded agreement is not useful—sharing perspectives is.
- We would stop equating our ideas with our personhood, so conversations would not feel like fighting for our lives.
These thoughts come from my experience with a community consensus process. Our culture has taught me that I should be able to get my way if I am smart or forceful enough. Consensus teaches me that a community is capable of creating much healthier approaches to human problems—including mine. A consensus process can often identify and meet my needs better than if I just pursued my personal desires. Consensus does not merely select the best of the presented ideas or opinions; the process creates something new that no individual could have reached alone.
I would like to see the internet social media tools operate according to principles like these.
This is how I see it. What do you see from your perspective?
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
Community of Promise
- The ability to gather relevant information
- The ability to acknowledge and accommodate competing values
- The ability to see the scope of a particular position (e.g. regarding longevity and geography)
- Problem solving is not the equivalent of thinking.
- How wants and needs affect conclusions
- Opinions and logical conclusions are not the same
- How honest are thinkers about their self interest ?
- How does your given moral framework affect your conclusions?
- What are the underlying metaphors representing “truth,” and how do they affect the validity of conclusions
- Recognizing that we seldom have enough information to generate completely true conclusions
- New information should lead to modification of our conclusions.
- “My mind is made up, don’t confuse me with the facts”
- How emotionality (as distinguished from emotional experience) blocks the validity of conclusions
- What if I must be right?
- How credulous am I in collecting information?
- How much faith do I have in my conclusions even if they turn out to be uncomfortable (or “inconvenient”)?