Conversing with courage

Last week I ‘enjoyed’ a conversation with someone I like and trust; it was a highly challenging conversation, for the potential was there for an acrimonious outcome.

The conversation was later carried on by e mail. In the course of our e mail exchange the other party reflected that they felt that they had been part of a ‘courageous conversation.’ ‘Courageous conversations’, he suggested, are capable of leading to creative and new solutions because, they involve all parties to the conversation being prepared to take risks. He also implied that passion is a prerequisite for the truly ‘courageous conversation,’ adding that passion is by definition relational. All parties in the ‘courageous conversation’  are required to care deeply about the issue being discussed. At the initial stage passivity is regarded as a negative, or a vice.   There does come a time when passivity is indeed a virtue, but perhaps, this should not be during the initial conversations.

Perhaps the journey from Gethsemane, to Golgotha and, into the resurrection can illustrate how ‘courageous conversations’ work.

In Gethsemane Jesus is initially highly passionate (hence the phrase the passion), he pleads with His father, ‘‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me,’ we are then told that ‘in his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground,’ (Luke 22, 42-45).

It is interesting to note that although Jesus’ overriding desire is for the cup to be taken away from him, he also recognizes where power and authority are located; ‘father if you are willing.’  Furthermore Jesus is prepared, in spite of his own fever pitch emotions (he was sweating blood) to trust in the the Father, the one with real power and authority.

For ‘courageous conversations’ to be effective we must also presumably recognize where power an authority lie, and trust in those with power and authority to have our best interests at heart, even though we may feel, like Jesus, ‘in anguish.’

In today’s world most  (C of E) clergy resist being called ‘father.’  the modern tendency is to prefer terms like pastor, minister, church leader etc. I am not arguing that clergy, or any other categories of leader, should refer to themselves as father, simply that we should remember that leaders always ask people to take a risk on their  judgement.

Judgement is, of course, theologically speaking the preserve of the Father. So when leaders  make judgments they are acting, hopefully, like a good father (very counter cultural, I know). Good fathers know that their offspring are capable of transformation beyond their initial vulnerabilities but, not without help.

Good fathers are also persuadable. They listen and take on board the passions and vulnerabilities brought to them. In the Old Testament, in particular, God is frequently shown to change his mind following the courageous protestations of Godly people.  But, he also asks His people to submit to the decision eventually made and, there is no guarantee that He will acquiesce; after all he didn’t to His own son in Gethsemane.

Good followers give leaders their vulnerabilities. Let’s hope they bless them. It is such trust in the use of his Father’s  authority and power that allows Jesus to move from passion to passivity; ‘My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done,’ (Matthew, 26, 42). Notice the intimacy of the language, ‘my Father,’ implies total unconditional trust. It is this level of total trust that permits Jesus to risk the cross. It is Jesus submission that permits the Father to make the most creative of all solutions, to the biggest of all problems, the resurrection. This solution would not have been possible if the outcome of the Gethsemane conversation had been some form of tepid compromise.

So far I have suggested that the following are essential requirements for a  ‘courageous conversation:’

  • the willingness to take risks
  • an understanding of where power and authority are located
  • the trustworthiness of those holding power and authority
  • the willingness to move from passion to passivity
  • an openness to a truly creative outcome
  • an ability to contain feelings of discomfort or anguish
  • a belief that good leaders bless and transform our vulnerabilities
  • a willingness by leaders to regard vulnerabilities as gifts (of course vulnerability should be sincerely offered and not offered as a form of manipulation)
  • faith that unexpected or unforeseen outcomes may arise later on (such as the resurrection, the ascension and Pentecost)

‘Courageous conversations’ also, I think, have porous boundaries, for, although, as in the case of my conversation, they appear to be focused on a single issue, they in reality provide an opportunity for ongoing reflection. ‘Courageous conversations’ are essential to what management theorists refer to as ‘open systems thinking.’

The discussion that I was part of last week was about a specific situation (one which was causing me plenty of anguish), the real fruit of the conversation turned out to be ongoing reflection on how Christians (or at least this Christian ) might be use two stories from scripture (the Road to Emmaus and Philip’s baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch) to discern their speed of response to pastoral situations.

To engage in ‘courageous conversations,’ involves transcending the ‘culture of nice’ which is so prevalent in ‘Godly communities.’  As Simon Walker (in The Undefended Life) points out in some Christian communities ‘to confront, or upset the apple cart is a cardinal sin. This ‘virtue’ has often been enshrined in norms of church behaviour. The church becomes a place where people are endlessly nice to each other.’ 

We should not, of course, escalate every single issues into one worthy of a ‘courageous conversation,’ but, we should be prepared for such conversations when the stakes are high. The recent synod debate in the Church of England over women bishops provides an unfortunate, and depressing, example of a high stake issue where the ‘debate’ on the floor was in reality a depressing exchange of rehearsed monologues, clothed in ‘niceness.’ No real courage was shown, no real conversation took place. As a result a truly creative outcome seems beyond reach.

Entering into a ‘courageous conversation,’ is in many ways to enter into a paradox; one where an initial view may be held with much conviction but, where all parties to the conversation must also continually ask themselves ‘what if I am wrong about this?’  This is, if you like, the ‘process ethic’ that sits at the heart of ‘courageous conversation.’ Participants also need to reflect on their conversational behaviour, whilst recognizing that whatever the outcome, at some stage all parties need to ‘let go and let God.’

The Rule of Benedict  provides a template for the management of ‘courageous conversations.’ Leaders are challenged to listen to the views of the entire community ‘because it often happens that the Lord makes the best course clear to one of the younger (junior) members of the community,’  (Chapter 3, Rule of Benedict) whilst (Chapter 63) ‘juniors in the community should show due respect for their seniors.’ Benedict also warns that the  ability of  ‘courageous conversations’ to produce high quality outcomes is contingent on the absence of politicking prior to the conversation: ‘Great care must be taken to avoid any tendency for one of the community to take the side of, or try to protect another………….such a thing must not happen in the monastery because it would provide a very serious scandal. Anyone who acts against this principle must be sharply deterred,’ (Chapter 69). For Benedict peers should be involved in all but the most insignificant decisions (the only type of the decision that should be the conversational preserve of the senior management team is the insignificant decision, i.e. those decisions which require little courage).

Finally Benedict understands that ultimately a decision must be made by those  possessing the power and authority to act in the communities best interests (and Benedict implies this means every member of the community should be benefit from the outcome of the conversation), ‘it is for the abbot or abbess in the end to make the decision and everyone else should obey what the superior judges to be best,’ (Chapter 3).

Ever the realist Benedict understands that any high stake decision is likely to leave some of those affected with adverse feelings. He urges those who feel hard done by to cease ‘murmuring’ for he regards constant low level descent as the most malignant form of cancer that a community can suffer from: ‘obedience must be given with good will, because God loves a cheerful giver. If obedience is given with a bad will and with murmuring not only in words but with bitterness of heart, then, even though the command may be externally fulfilled, it will not be accepted by God, for he can see the resentful murmuring of the heart. One who behaves in such as way not only fails to receive the reward of grace but actually incurs the punishment deserved by murmurers. Only repentance and reparation can save such a one from this punishment,’ (Chapter 5).

Last week, in reality, I fell below the standards required by those seeking to enter into ‘courageous conversations.’

Are you willing and equipped for courageous conversations?

To what extent do organisational processes and structures (truly, really) permit ‘courageous conversations’?

As a leader are you a loving judge?

As a follower do you offer leaders your trust, vulnerability and obedience?

Are you a murmur free zone?

We had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun? A reflection on theological college.

Terry Jacks wrote the early 1970’s pop song ‘We had joy we had fun, we had seasons in the sun……………..’

Go on,if your old enough, have a quick sing………….okay that’s enough!

And, so as I approach a new season in my life, leaving theological college and moving into curacy, how do I feel?

Well, very different to when I went to Cuddesdon. I am grateful to Cuddesdon, I have  learnt so much, experienced so much and, met many wonderful people. But has it been a season in the sun? Not exactly. It’s been more autumn, winter and, now spring.

Perhaps this is what two years of formation is meant to be?

I can now appreciate what it means to experience autumn. For at Cuddesdon a lot of the old certainties that got me through many of my previous experiences were stripped away and, core beliefs were placed under the theological microscope. I began to feel like a truculent fifth former! An internal battle raged as I searched for ‘the’ right answers. My tolerance for ambiguity was at an all time low.

Autumn  gave way to a winter of discontent –  a long and bleak midwinter; a period in which I felt I knew nothing and, to be frank, where a better future seemed out of reach. The stripping away seemed less severe, but, where, oh where,was the new growth?

But, now six weeks before leaving has it all been worth it, is it becoming a season in the sun, has, spring finally arrived?

Yes, yes, and, yes again!

In reverse order:

it has been worth it because it is my vocation and my calling.

Is it a season in the sun? Well, its starting to feel both more hopeful and, less confrontational  as I have learnt that to a very large extent my life is shaped simply through inhabiting a mystery in which I do not need to know whose right and whose wrong.

Has spring arrived? Yes, because I have been given glimpses of  my future and it has felt good.

1 Corinthians has become a huge encouragement. St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, 51-55, intrigues his audience by saying ‘now I am going to tell you a mystery‘ the passage ends with the ultimate expressions of Christian hope and victory, ‘death where is your victory, death where is your sting.’  Earlier in the letter (1 Corinthians 11, 23-29), in his own reflection on the Eucharist, Paul’s opening gambit is ‘this is the tradition I received from the Lord.’ (n.b. Paul’s only claim in relation to the Eucharist is that it is tradition received directly from the Lord, he is not remotely concerned with how or why it works – can we treat it in the same way?)

And so as I enter into a new season, I need to remind myself to enter fully into the ‘mystery of faith,’ handed down through a ‘tradition received from the Lord,’ and to spend far less time worrying about whose right and wrong. Can I, again with St. Paul, accept that ‘now I know in part,’ whilst hoping that ‘then I will Know in full,’ (1 Corinthians 13, 12).

I think that it is through this process that winter gives way to spring.

‘Confuzzled’ – just like Nicodemus.

In last weeks gospel readings for the Eucharist we were invited into the conversation, in John’s Gospel, between Jesus and Nicodemus, the subject of the conversation being  re-birth.

I always find these passages highly moving; the whole tone of the language is intimate, mysterious and, tender. I also relate to Nicodemus. Surely he is an iconic figure for middle class educated westerners?

He shows us how little we really know in spite of our education and upbringing. For, it is to the erudite and highly educated Nicodemus (he is a ‘sophisicat’) that Jesus reveals the eternal truth that we must be reborn ‘from above through water and spirit.’ (John 3, 5).

Nicodemus’ reply ‘how can this be so?’ (verse 10), is a very modern response?

He desires a rational scientific, cognitive, answer. But, he can’t have one! Because, he is being invited into a mystery, and a relationship, so deep that it is beyond cognitive explanation.

Just look for a second at how Jesus describes the concept of rebirth.

The language He uses describes, very precisely, but also very unscientifically,the idea that our relationship with God is immanent (reborn through water into a human-Divine relationship; as in baptism), whilst recognizing that re-birth also defies ,linguistic (try explaining spirit as a concept!), natural (how can we be born from above – the metaphor, by design, just doesn’t work)  and, empirical (how could anyone observe our re-birth?)  analysis.

Cognitively, linguistically, naturally, rationally and empirically, speaking the idea of re-birth is frankly nuts!

No wonder Nicodemus was as my daughters might say:

‘confuzzled!’

However, as Nicodemus came to learn  – and we are invited to replicate his journey-   ultimate truth is in reality contained within the ultimate mystery: our re-birth, made possible, through Jesus Christ.

I think that in seeking to apprehend (because we can’t comprehend – so please let’s stop trying) the concept of re-birth we can,like Nicodemus, in a strange way draw on the shortcomings of rational, cognitive,empirical ways of thinking. In doing so, we might reclaim the concept of being ‘born again,’ in a more holistic, patient and, loving manner. So here is my starter for ten:

  • Birth, therefore, rebirth involves a ‘Nicodemeum’ period of gestation. Nicodemus, by his exposure to Jesus and His community of disciples, was  first nourished in the womb before being re-born, at a later stage, into the community. Do we conceive our Churches as wombs?
  • Birth is not an event any of us can remember. I know that I was born on 30th May 1966 but, I can’t remember it! So we perhaps need to start reconsidering our language and the claims we make. We need to reflect on whether the theological concepts of conversion and re-birth are one off events, or processes (or combinations of the two).
  • Our own natural births were, in all probability, exclusively witnessed by our parents and midwives. It is they, not us, who are charged with validating our birth. So it is with our Christian re-birth; it is the Father and The Son (in his role as midwife; there’s a paradox!) who will validate our re-birth. Do we really have any legitimate, or empirical basis, to claim that we have been born again?
  • Birth is the event that instigates relationship with  parent and siblings. We are born into families and communities. The health and functionality of the child, and their relationships, is largely conditioned by the health, functionality and, maturity of the family into which we are born. Good parents know that their new born children require unconditional love and, that initially at least, the relationship is one of healthy dependency. How healthy are our families, communities and churches? Do we recognize that the re-born are, initially, dependent?  
  • New born babies have no concept of what it means to be a person! Being born, even re-born, therefore may be regarded as the journey into personhood. From the Christian perspective personhood implies being transformed, over time, into our own unique likeness of the many colored God. Such a personhood implies throwing off our false egos and, honoring our calling to be the person of God that only we can be. The development of personhood requires the stability of knowing that we are truly loved. Are we as individuals and as churches encouraging the growth into personhood? Do we acknowledge each and every person as a potential revelation of the Divine image? How comfortable are we in accepting the many colors of God? Is our love totally, unambiguously, without conditions?

Two final questions:

  1.  Are we prepared to fully re-enter the mystery of re-birth, accepting that mystery defies empirical and cognitive analysis?
  2. If we are, how will this modify our behavior and, impact the way we talk about being ‘born again?’

Turquoise is the color, Isaiah is the name…….

I know that I promised to offer a reflection this week on being ‘Born Again.’ And I will, by Friday – honest.

But, I have been struck by a particular reading from the Prophet Isaiah, one provided in Celtic Daily Prayer. 

I also apologize for the title of this blog; it was ‘inspired’ by the (long forgotten) 1970’s Chelsea Cup Final song: ‘Blue is the color, Chelsea is the name.’  

The particular verse is:

‘Oh afflicted city, lashed by storms and not comforted, I will build you with stones of turquoise, your foundations with sapphires,’ (Isaiah 54, 11).

So why have I been reflecting on this verse? Well two reasons:

Firstly, I seem to be surrounded by people who feel afflicted and, as the prophet says, ‘not comforted,’ (I include myself in this category).

Secondly, it is the sense of mystery, wonder and hope offered by the prophets use of the color turquoise. Turquoise is a celestial color.

The problem, or strength, of turquoise as a color and celestial as a word is that they are both incredibly difficult to define.

They are words which we can apprehend, but not comprehend (and this is a difficulty for the post Enlightenment mind). They are both ‘ish’ words. They relate to other words, but carry no concrete meaning of their own. Turquoise is both blueish and greenish. Celestial is heavenly.

Turquoise describes neither blue nor green, it takes the best of both and blends them into something far richer, deeper, mysterious and, perhaps even, divine. Turquoise is a color of ‘mixed origin’, coming from Turkey, it is a subtle blend of Asian and European.

Celestial doesn’t define heaven but simply provides us with a mysterious descriptor that reveals something of the quality of heaven and, therefore, God.

Both words are paradoxical in that they provide a snap shot of what is and may be, whilst, drawing us ever further into the ongoing mystery of that which will be.

They also both have a deeply iconic quality; if you feel ‘lashed by storms and not comforted,’ it may be worth visualizing yourself as being built with Isaiah’s ‘stones of turquoise,’  or, chewing on the word ‘celestial.’ 

In so doing you may be inviting God to make true the Isaiah prophecy in your own life; affliction and lack of comfort may give way to strength, depth and hope. You may begin to reflect something of the image of God to others who feel afflicted and despondent. 

Would you like to be described as turquoise and celestial? 

A prayer that I love:

 ‘Look down o Lord from your heavenly thrown, illuminate the darkness of this night with thy celestial brightness, and, from the children of light banish the deeds of darkness; through Jesus Christ our Lord,’ Amen.

Rubbed raw by Rohr (and Bonhoeffer)

Today the church (the C of E) remembers Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was killed by the Nazi regime three weeks before Hitler committed suicide.

Bonhoeffer chose the way of suffering for, as a budding academic with ecumenical and academic links to churches in the U.K. and U.S. he could have avoided being in Germany during World War Two, contenting himself with criticizing Hitler’s regime from the safety of an elite foreign university.

Instead Bonhoeffer became a director of the Confessing Church, training twenty-five potential priests in an underground seminary. Bonhoeffer did not hide his contempt for the National Socialist Party and their policies. Although his published works clearly established him as a thorn in the side of the state (The Cost of Discipleship is a must read), it was his affirmative action (helping Jews escape the country and,involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler) that led to his martyrdom. 

Celtic Daily Prayer, offers Matthew 7, 23-26 as one of its suggested Bonhoeffer readings: ‘Then He got into the boat and His disciples followed Him. Without warning a furious storm came up………..’ I think you know how the story ends.

It seems the point is this: they followed His lead and then the storms broke. Following Jesus might lead us, like Bonhoeffer, into choppy waters.

So what on earth has all of this to do with Richard Rohr?

Well, Rohr argues (in: Things Hidden Scripture as Spirituality. Breathing Under Water; Spirituality and the Twelve Steps. Immortal Diamond; The Search for our True Self) that Christian spirituality is distinguished through the willingness to embrace and be transformed by suffering. He goes even further arguing that:

‘Whatever happens to Jesus is what must and will happen to the soul: incarnation as embodied in the life of  ordinariness and hiddensess, initiation, trial, faith, death, surrender, resurrection and return to God,’  this is your destiny and mine, nothing we do, or achieve, will make the slightest difference. The only real question is whether ‘we share in it, either joyfully and trustfully (heaven), or unwillingly and resentfully (hell).’ (quotes from Things Hidden in Scripture).

Bonhoeffer, because he knew God (more importantly he knew that he was loved by God), knew that his pain and suffering, the Cost of (his) Discipleship, could and, would be blessed and transformed by God, for as Rohr also reflects, ‘Jesus does not define holiness as separation from evil (and by spending the war in the U.S. or U.S.A. Bonhoeffer could have separated himself from evil) as much as ‘an absorption and transformation of it, wherein I pay the price instead of always asking others to pay it.’ 

Christian spirituality isn’t just about feeling good and peaceful (although we are offered the peace of God), it is about living with, and being transformed by our experiences of both darkness and light. This is the message of the cross, this is the example set by Bonhoeffer. 

Are you absorbing pain and suffering and, offering them back to God for His transformation?

Next week ‘Getting even rawer with Rohr,’ including a reflection on being ‘born again.’