17 February 2010

Temporal Manifestation of an Eternal Quality

I have a fairly new friend in The Rev. Dr. Rob Voyle. Rob is originally from New Zealand and makes his home in the Portland, Oregon area with his wife Kim. Rob is an Episcopal Priest and holds a doctorate in Psychology...as does his wife. Together, they own and direct the Clergy Leadership Institute. Rob has taken the best of industrial and business psychology and applied it to the Church through a methodoloy known as Appreciative Inquiry.

While I had been introduced to the Appreciative Inquiry (henceforth called AI in this blog) a few years ago at General Convention (via Rob's exhibit booth), it was not until January 2009 that three of us from the Diocese of West Missouri attended the foundation AI course taught by Rob and Kim. In May, we attended the second level AI course. Our training is to help resource congregations in our diocese with leadership and development tools for future ministry. AI is a powerful set of tools and resources that I am coming to increasingly utilize.

One of the benefits of being part of the diocesan AI team is that we have a monthly conference call practicum with Rob. In the hour long conference, we present case studies and situations that reflect either our own work or the work of an anonymous diocesan entity and are coached by Rob on the application of AI technology and methodology. It is in the latest of these coaching sessions that Rob reflected what I have used as a title for this blog. "What is the temporal manifestation of an eternal quality...?

For the theologian and sacramental Christian, the answer to that question is "sacrament." The classic definition of a sacrament: "The outward and visible sign of and inward and spiritual Grace, given to us by Christ as a sure and certain means by which we receive that Grace." The ancient Celtic Christian would say: "The place at which heaven touches earth...a thin place." The First Nations (Native American) people would say: "Any time and place where Wakan-Tanka (God) erupts through creation..." In any definition, it is an incarnational moment. One of my confirmation students many years ago said it best: "It's when God puts on clothes.."

We are a spatial people. Our brains are geared to time and space orientation. Reality is measured by our place and by the moment of that placement. We rely upon what is around us to both locate us and direct us as we move about. It's automatic and instantaneous. No secret here. It simply happens. To further lock us into this definition of reality, we provide a deeper definition to the object of spatial relationship. E.g.: a tree is a tree. It is defined by shape, size, species and qualities (bark, leaves, wood, etc). However, a tree surgeon -- using special equipment -- can detect the movement of life-giving liquids through special vessels within the wood. Other life sounds can be detected as well. The tree has "voice." It's a spatial quality, but one not observable.

More striking is the nature of fauna...creature...reality. We can identify spatially an animal of a certain type and even describe its characteristics. What is not so readily apparent is the behavior it may exhibit or the motivations behind the behavior. For instance, on Sunday evening, I was sitting at a table in our parish hall, leading a class in a gifts of ministry exercise. I felt something move up my right leg rapidly. Thinking it was just the effects of my light myopathy, I simply rubbed the area below my knee. About 30 minutes later, I felt a burning/itching sensation on the inside of my knee. Later examination in my office showed a nasty welt that looked like a giant mosquito bite. At home, my wife identified it as a spider bite.

It just happened that my annual physical was scheduled for Monday morning. I showed my doc, who confirmed it. As he examined it, he reflected, "She was a cranky little booger." It is usually the female who bites, and she did leave a nice gift...one that put me on antibiotics and topical anti-coagulant. I never saw the spider, so my ability to identify species is impossible. The fang marks were unmistakable for those (like my doctor) who immediately identified it. The effects were also obvious. Whatever this angry Ichtomi (Lakota for spider...a trickster in myth) had as venom, my body was not dealing with especially well.

Thus, without seeing the creature, we can identify it by behavior. We can only guess what provoked a bite. It could well be that, when I brushed my leg, I hit the creature and literally made it mad. Does a spider have the capacity for anger? Or, is it just reflex to what appears to be a life-threatening gesture? That's the unseen quality.

Rabbi Edwin Friedman (Family Systems specialist and mentor, who died in 1996) once told a group of us: "Say your best friend, who is also one of your clergy colleagues, is elected bishop and suddenly changes his way of relating to you; what quality within him or you has shifted so that he/she no longer seems like your best friend?" The obvious outward manifestation is a change of professional position and physical location. The person, however, should be (by all measurable qualities) the same person you have known for all those years. Is there a new eternal quality...inward disposition....Grace...at work?

Thomas 'a Becket, before he became the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162, was King Henry II's Chancellor. They were very close personal friends as well. Upon accession to the See of Canterbury, Thomas undertook a more austere and ascetical lifestyle...becoming a strong advocate for the work of the Church. The relationship between Becket and Henry II took a very different course. In the end, responding to a frustrated gesture from Henry, four knights entered Canterbury Cathedral and killed Thomas 'a Becket at the foot of one of the chapel altars.

It would seem that Becket's encounter with what is holy in his life shifted his perception of reality. He suddenly began to see God at work in places not before noticed. In like manner, we have expectations of persons who occupy certain roles in our cultural environments. Our perception of reality...wherever it is formed...creates our inner landscape of identification. When someone or something functions outside those expectations, our reality is set askew. We can be almost literally thrown off-balance. (I have done this both in frustration and as a "shift technique" in my work as a priest...my goal being to have folks "expect the unexpected").

As I have spent time with the Lakota community, I have learned a great deal about incarnational reality....temporal manifestations of an eternal quality. It is the art of actually seeing instead of just looking and really listening instead of just hearing. In the practice of this art, a different frame of reality emerges. It's the same spatial material but now reflecting an eternal quality. Critics call this "panentheism." Such critique is not accurate. Panentheism expresses that all things are in God. Pantheism expresses that all things contain God. In Celtic and First Nations theology, God is immanent and can be reflected in any element of creation chosen for a temporal manifestation (outward sign).

The first principle of Biblical theology is that humans are created "Imago Dei"...in the image of God. In Hebrew, the breath (ruach) of God is breathed into this creature and we are filled with God's nature (nephesh). Without getting into the complexities of language, if our nature is allowed to be a complete part of our reality, we reflect Grace (God's abiding love). If we walk with this understanding, it is not a leap to see that, if creation emanates from the work of God, God can utilize what has been created to manifest Presence into spatial reality. Thus, I could see "cloud sign" as a response to prayer. A birch tree can reflect the connectedness between God and our moment of reality (in the Sundance). A spring can reflect healing Grace (Colman's well in the Burren of west Ireland). It can happen only once...or as many times as God choses to utilize the stuff of creation. THE place it is guaranteed to happen regularly is through us humans. We have been called forth for that purpose.

The season of Lent begins today. A good, practical way to address the above meanderings is: Does your heart follow your head? Or, does your head follow your heart? Or, do head and heart arrive at the same place together? The real loss is if the heart never shows up. A good discipline is to discover your heart (true self) and allow it to inform your head. Try it. Seriously, amazing things happen!


Fr. Fred+