12 June 2012


"The Glory of God is Man Fully Alive..."
                      -- St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, ca. 180CE

For over a week now, I have been walking around with paradox.  Think about that statement.  In itself, it is paradoxical.  The English treatment of that word renders the meaning:  self-contradictory, absurd or contradictory, or having contradictory properties (OED, American Ed., 1997).  My journey with this word began when, in a conversation, the person with whom I was having coffee suggested that I was attempting to live a paradoxical life.  Ultimately, that sent me on a journey into the origins of the word "paradox" and how it might be true or false regarding the suggestion that my life was a study in contradiction.

As an aside I might mention that I have already given my "two cents worth"  regarding making judgments based upon impressions, relationships or simple observation.  It's a couple of blog posts in back of this ("Of Corners and Markets," 26 May 2012).

Where I did my seminary graduate studies, one could not get through seminary (or the New Testament and theology courses) without a working knowledge of Koine Greek.  This is a hybrid of Classical Greek and was the "street language" of the first century Mediterranean world.  It became the official language of the early Church, because the Disciples spoke it.  Jesus spoke it.  And, it carried all of the early thoughts ideas of this emerging community of faith.  The other language of the day for the Hebrew peoples was Aramaic...a hybrid of classical Hebrew.  Funny how  a language will morph over time.  What was once a more relaxed colloquial speech becomes the official language of several cultures.  This is certainly true of modern American English.  It is a hybrid of the English spoken a scant 300 years ago.

Armed with the core reference books of my craft (theology), I began an exploration of the word "paradox."  It led to an interesting conclusion.  The term "para" means to be "beside" or, in some cases, "to proceed from the side of."  It can also suggest to be "along with...."  Hence, we get words like "paramedic."  It is a medical professional who is along side of a medical doctor.  Their skills reflect the deeper skills of the doctor who may later treat the patient.   Paratroopers have special equipment "along with" their other special gear to jump from  aircraft.  It can go on.  Have fun with the multi-volume OED...paying special attention to the origin of the words that begin with "para."

Then there is the root word in the word "paradox."   It is the Geek word, "doxa."  This term has an origin in Hebrew, which is the word "kabod" (sans the jots and tittles that my computer keyboard is not equipped to generate).  The Hebrew word means the "weight and heaviness of importance."  It is a reflection of a man's inner worth and character that calls forth respect.  The Hebrew language is theocentric; therefore, the inner character is the Imago Dei....the Glory of God (or, in simpler theological terms....that which is created in the image of God).

The New Testament used the Greek rendering of  "kabod," which is "doxa."  Something that glorifies God is the "Glory of God" reflected in that thing or being.  It literally comes from the side of or comes along with it.

Putting the two words together, the fundamental meaning of "paradox"  can be the "glory that emerges from or is alongside" a person.  Observing some folks on a daily basis, that truth could present itself as a contradiction to the action being exhibited.  It could also be easily mistaken as a reflection of a truth that is actually a misrepresentation.  So, an abusive individual could claim that he/she was administering "God's justice," or being "God's agent."  In fact, what is emerging is their own false echo from a dysfunctional behavioral source.

Sounds confusing perhaps, but this is important in light of what we see in contemporary culture.  Just today, a friend gave an account on Facebook of a father at a kids soccer camp berating his elementary age daughter for her mistakes in playing the game.  It was abusive enough that my friend was quite distressed at the behavior.  I will bet that, should the father be confronted, he would swear he was using "God-given tools of parenting" to bring out the best in his daughter.  I must confess with some guilt that I suggested that my friend kick the father where it would hurt the worst.  He reflected the current meaning of paradox rather than its root meaning of "reflecting God's Glory."

Back to the coffee shop conversation with my new friend.  The paradox he described me living has to do with being a priest retired from engaged ministry (i.e. I have no employed position) and living a rather relaxed life of a coastal dweller in shorts and knit shirts.  That relaxed lifestyle also includes exploring other areas of interest and not revealing my actual vocation.   Most of our conversation that day had dealt with marine biology, politics and the archaeological sites of Native Americans along the Florida West Coast.  Not once did I "get spiritual" in our conversation (his words).  That led to the statement of paradox.  My lifestyle and interests appeared to this person as contradictory to his image of a retired clergy person.

My response to that?  I have always been interested in biology and life sciences.  I was majoring in zoology before I began to discern a possible vocation as a priest.  I also have always been interested in the anthropological elements of history...human culture.  I am profoundly interested in the First Nations that occupied this land prior to it being taken from them.  That leads to politics....the sustaining of ordered community and culture (the "ordering of polis"....the city/community/state...there's that Greek again).

Because I am a theologian by training and trade, my job has (for the past 35 years) been to discern God among us in the happenings of everyday human life.  That was the point that Irenaeus was making in his second century writings (quoted at the lead of this posting).  To be fully alive, we humans must live from our core...the center of our being.  This is the Imago....the Glory...of God.  It is that image that shapes our actions and our relationships.  And, yes, it is usually a far cry from what we actually see.  Most often, we are not living from that core but from an idea or behavior we have been taught or have invented for ourselves as a way to mask fear or feelings of inadequacy.  The abusively bullying father is fearful and objectifies that in pushing and berating his daughter's soccer skills.

True paradox is to have our ultimate nature "alongside" us.  As Paul told the Ephesians, "Walk in love as Christ loved us..."  To walk in love is to have the reflection of that love....Divine Glory...around us, or with us. It is that which drives the purest motives.  What would that look like to the daughter on the soccer field?  Her dad might encourage her by building her up and reflecting appropriate pride in what she is able to accomplish at her level of skills.  It would also be the recognition that soccer may be something his daughter loves and enjoys but is not her ultimate passion.  It could also be the humility to stand aside and let the camp personnel and coaching staff work with her and the other participants.

I did not become a zoologist or an anthropologist.  I never contemplated politics.  It is only my interest as a responsible citizen (more on the moral constructs of that at another time).  I maintain a love for those disciplines and have continued to study both over the years...along with history, genetics, some physics and specialized psychological disciplines.  In all of that, I see God erupting in surprising and wonderful ways.  I see it among people of many backgrounds.  Those "aha" moments of my craft drive my passion in life.

So, I am not living a paradox in the current meaning of the term.  There are no contradictions.  I am experiencing and expressing deep love for and investment in what God has given me throughout life and ordering them in my current stage of the journey.  Embracing and appreciating the moment.  This moment is what we know we have.  To be fully alive in this moment is the Grand Paradox....The Glory of God!

Blessings and Namaste,


01 June 2012

Kindness & Indifference

“There is no right or wrong in the trivialities of everyday life.”
                                            --Dr. Abraham Low, MD, Psychiatrist

“One man’s meat is another man’s poison.”
                                            --Old Saying, Source Unknown

I have never been really sure how it works, but I do know it has been a regular source of both pain and frustration throughout the 34 years of parish ministry since ordination.   As a parish priest, one of my great joys was doing the pastoral work of being with the sick and suffering and doing pastoral counseling & spiritual direction.  In doing this work, I have endeavored to be both present and deeply attentive to the persons in my care.  How is it that one person can emerge from that experience deeply grateful for the time, kindness experienced, and what was accomplished.  Then, another person, under similar circumstances will express frustration with “our priest’s indifference and distance.”  

Over the years, I have tried to come at this dilemma from a variety of places.  The most obvious is to ask the question:  What am I doing wrong?  That question is deadly insomuch as the questioner is assuming that something is wrong, and that the person providing the information wants the questioner to be like the accuser believes he/she should be.  In fact, unless one is simply without the needed skills, there is no wrong being done.

Some days may be less effective than others.  A headache, or not feeling well, can surely be a distraction to the important craft of attending to the pain or problems of another.  The sheer weight of parochial responsibility is enough to be an occasional distraction.  Such things do happen.  My first year as Rector of my last parish was accomplished "solo."  I was the only priest on staff for a very large parish for fifteen months.  I remember a funeral at which I officiated being so tired and distracted by two other crises, that -- even by my own internal observation -- I was less than adequate.  The family was right to be critical in their assessment of my leadership in that situation.  I personally do not know a priest for whom this has not happened at least once.  Fortunately, I was able to call an Associate, spread things out a bit and get a bit more sleep at nights.

Another approach to the issue is simply the personality of the priest.  Most parishioners do expect their priest to be "on" and available at most any time of the day/night.  It isn't a fair expectation.  Without balance of family, work and rest, nothing can be done well.  Taking a (required) regular day away from work each week has been critiqued as "Father doesn't care enough to be there when I went to the office looking for him/her."  When one tries to be available at all times, very unhealthy things can happen in a family or to the health of the priest in question.

In terms of personality, the greatest percentage of clergy in the Episcopal Church are introverts.  From the work of Dr. Carl Jung, a team created the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator in the late 1940s.  This instrument has been revised a number of times and is considered one of the best tools for helping individuals assess their personality types.  The research revealed that their are four scales:  Extrovert-Introvert; Sensing-Intuiting; Thinking-Feeling; Judging-Perceiving.  The combinations of the four scales means their are a total of sixteen personality types.  Each one is unique and none of the types are better than the other.  It is simply the way we are "hardwired."

I was a trained Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) consultant for a number of years (it got too expensive to be re-certified each year, so I dropped it and used a less technical instrument called the Kiersey Sorter for the balance of my parochial career).  I have taken the MBTI a total of 26 times over the past 35 years.  It has not changed but a fraction of percentage points.  My Type is INFP.  [Introvert-iNtuitive-Feeling-Perceiving]. It is a good type for folks who are counselors, therapists, teachers, philosophers, contemplatives or researchers. 

Each of the scales run from 0 in the center of the scale to 49 on either end.  When one does the statistical analysis  required with the full MBTI, each type has a number associated with it. Zero means one is comfortable in either direction.  Zero is extremely rare.  One shades to one side or the other.  The higher one goes on either end of the scale, the more one manifests the description of that type.  I am an introvert, and I have tested from 39-42 on the Introvert side of the scale....that is a major Introvert!

MBTI scales are actually measures of energy.  For me to be extroverted requires a great deal of energy.  I can do it and maintain that posture for a good long while.  I am practiced at it.  But, there is a price to be paid...fatigue.  After a typical Sunday morning (sociologists tell us that a priest working on a Sunday morning from about 7am to 12:30pm is the same as a nine hour weekday period of work), I would go home and take a two hour nap.  It is the only day of the week I would nap....unless I had been up much of the night before with a pastoral emergency.

Earlier I mentioned that most priests are introverts.  This particular type (especially the combined Introvert-iNtuitive...IN), is well suited for the kind of disciplines associated with meditation, contemplative prayer and doing the work of theology.  To be connected with the divine at that level, one must be comfortable with one's right brain. You can go online and search "left brain-right brain" to get a more complete physiological and psychological discussion of how the two hemispheres of our brains function.  Suffice it to say here, the right brain is the intuitive, wholistic, synthesizing and subjective area.  The left brain is the sequential, rational, analytical, and objective area.  Again neither of these are right or wrong.  If there was a right or wrong here, we would only need half our brain.  Anyone want to let go of one side or the other?  [Just kidding here, but some people can get possessive of their particular definitions].  We do, however, generally favor one side or the other.  In our culture, we are more left brained.  That has been very true since about the time of the writings of the rationalist philosophers and  since the middle of last century (after World War II) in our generations of American culture.  

Personality type doesn't explain everything, but it is a huge help in understanding function.  A priest who is Introverted and intuitive "reads between the lines" very quickly in a situation -- seeing both the reality and the possibility involved in another's critical events.  For me, I can listen to another person's "story" and get a strong sense of what is underneath the objectified pain, anger or hurt.  That's the intuitive person's gift.

That is NOT to say that extroverted priests are not good at their craft.  They are excellent.  My very best friend and colleague, Paul (died three years ago), was extroverted and intuitive.  He could read a situation but had to use different tools to extrapolate the data.  He gathered energy from his external environment.  I would go deep inside in those moments.  Paul was a wonderful, delightful and highly skilled priest.  We were great friends.  We also talked to each other a lot during difficult moments -- giving to each other the gifts of our types that were lacking.  We had an ongoing, mutual consultation.  Example:  One time, I was hurting deeply over a painful situation in which I was being told that I was indifferent. When Paul listened to the details, his immediate response was, "forget about it, they'll get over it."  Because he also used analytical logic to deal with issues, he would not see himself as being the problem.  Sometimes, however, when he was in a situation, I would be telling him that he needed to exercise a bit more sensitivity and insight to get behind the problem.  That is always a risky journey.  The work I would do to gain appropriate professional distance and he would do to become more insightful left us both exhausted at the end of our situations.

An extroverted parishioner wants immediate answers that are logical, externally validating, and is reflected in the appropriate demeanor of the attending priest.  This last evaluation means that the parishioner usually projects the pain on the priest who (in the parishioner's eyes) must reflect back a similar degree of pain or indignation.  An introverted priest will listen carefully (while using spiritual tools to go underneath) and name the pain underneath.  I remember a parishioner some years ago, who expressed great anger and indignation regarding something that had been done during a liturgy.  As the parishioner completed the diatribe, I simply asked, "of what are you really afraid?"  I wasn't being "flip" or indifferent.  Deep-seated fear literally jumped out at me as I quietly and carefully listened (while others were leaving the church and not getting a hug or handshake from their rector..that's another issue).

My hope in retirement is to be a vessel for helping relationships achieve more understanding.  By standing outside the vortex of daily pastoral ministry, it is easier to see both ends of the spectrum and provide the kind of guidance that will provide insight to the extrovert and boundaries for the introvert.  

I haven't reflected on the parochial problem of ownership.  This is huge and is not limited to any denomination.   Even with the protection of the canons of the Episcopal and Roman Catholic traditions, this causes great pain.  Next time.

Love and Blessings,