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The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA

They’re falling all around us. It started slowly, as the cherry trees silently let go of their small, yellow leaves. Then came the sassafras, shyly releasing their leaves to add a light orange tint to the ground. Maples are never shy. They announce their presence with a blaze of bright orange, red, and yellow leaves, and then slowly relinquishing them. It’s as if they are shouting to the world, “Look at me, I’m letting go!”

The oaks? Don’t get me started on oaks. When they let go of their leaves they wait until it’s freezing outside, after turning an ugly brown. And once down, their leaves refuse to decompose. They need the help of rakes and leaf blowers. Still, they let go. They don’t hold onto leaves from the past. They let go so that once winter passes they can start anew.

I’ve often thought that those who are wisest often study nature. Jesus certainly tapped into nature wisdom with his parables, comparing the healthy life with scattered seed, the growth and harvesting of grapes, the growth of a fig tree, the harvesting of wheat, and more. You find similar wisdom in Native American spirituality, Daoism, and Buddhism.

So what can falling leaves teach us? They teach us the importance of letting go. I’ve mentioned this before in previous messages—that a significant barrier to mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual health is holding on to what we need to let go of. We all do it. We have experiences, sometimes horrific, from our past that we ruminate over continually. It can be as terrible as abuse, or as mundane as a demeaning and deflating comment we made to a co-worker years before.

Unfortunately, the longer we cling to detrimental experiences from the past, the more it keeps us from living in the present and growing in the future.

The healthiest people I know are the ones who are more like the cherries and sassafras. They let go of the past quietly and gently. They understand the need to silently forgive others and ourselves on an ongoing basis. They’re the ones who always move forward, even if they’ve been hurt terribly.

Others are more like maples. They know they need to let go, and so they bring others into the process. They find people to talk about it so they can release it. They engage friends, acquaintances, and sometimes enemies, in conversations and even rituals that allow them to let go. They make more of a show of it, but their ability to talk it out and let it go can be quite beautiful and healing.

Some are like oaks. They’ve clung to their pain much longer, and sometimes when they finally do let it go, it’s not always healthy to others. They are like those who seek out therapy. They need help in not only letting go but of making sure that when they do it doesn’t kill all that’s around them. Still, they let go and once they do are prepared to grow even stronger.

Letting go isn’t the same as repressing or denying. Those are unhealthy responses. When we do either we still cling to pain and the struggle. When we repress, we pretend we’re letting go, but really we push the pain down, allowing it to become a sepsis that infects our psyches. When we deny we pretend the pain isn’t there, which spreads rot by doing nothing to heal it. Letting go literally means letting go of what was so that we can be prepared to live for what can be.

At Samaritan we help people let go—let go of pain, trauma, what others have done to us, what we have done to others, events we had no control over, those that we shouldn’t have had control over, and so much more.

Are there simple ways to let go? It’s never simple nor easy, but there are ways, which include self-work, therapy, spiritual direction, and/or coaching.

The first thing to remember is that venting isn’t really letting go. A generation ago therapists thought that venting and letting things out cathartically were keys to relinquishing pain and trauma. Then researchers explored the effectiveness of cathartic therapies and found that those who vent regularly actually imprint the pain deeper into themselves. They might feel temporary relief, but the problems linger longer because the emotional venting makes the pain more visceral. The venter hasn’t actually let the pain go. Instead, the vent becomes like an addiction, causing the person to find more people to vent to. And when they do, they often suck the life out of the other who is stuck listening to an emotional rant. There’s a difference between venting and talking about the pain with a therapist committed to healing. The therapist, by allowing me to talk about my pain in a focused and reflective way, helps me explore alternative ways of recounting and remembering the pain, while helping me adopt new ways of thinking about it so I can move forward.

A second way of letting go is actively looking for ways to understand, and maybe even forgive, the purveyors of our pain. For example, there are things in my life that I still cringe over because I caused pain in another. I can try to repress or deny what I’ve done, but it’s all still there and I still cringe—sometimes obsessively. I’ve found that understanding myself at that age, what my thinking was, how immature and selfish I was, helps me to let go. And what really helps has been times when I’ve gotten in touch with someone from my past and asked for forgiveness. Most of the time, if I’m able to share how immature and self-focused I was, and how sorry I am now, the person does forgive me.

Finally, letting go can simply be a matter of being aware that this pain, experience, memory, or struggle is in the past, and that I need to move toward the future. In these cases, prayer can help. I can’t change what happened, but I can take it to God in prayer and ask God to help me release it so that I can keep it from making my present and future life toxic.

The key is that just as trees are now letting go of what’s dying on their branches, we need to think about how to let go of experiences that are dead and in the past. This creates the soil that eventually can lead to new life for us.

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By The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA, Executive Director

Have you ever wondered why we’re so enamored with the Olympics? Every four years we’ll intensely watch sporting events that we’d completely ignore in the intervening years. Why? Personally, I think it’s because they inspire us with stories of tragedy turned to triumph, while periodically showing hubris turned to humility.

In my life I’ve witnessed many truly great, inspiring Olympic moments. I remember the unknown Bruce Jenner’s great decathlon gold medal in 1976. I remember young, graceful teen Nadia Comăneci’s surprising gold medals for gymnastics in 1976, as well as tiny teen Olga Korbut’s in 1972 and 1976. I remember baseball cap-clad David Wottle’s amazing gold medal win in the 1972 800-meter race, coming from a far distant last place to win by a nose over the final 100 meters. I remember Rulon Gardner’s cartwheels following his 2000 David-like Greco-Roman wrestling gold-medal win over the three-time Olympic champion Russian goliath. Still, I don’t think I’ve seen anything like the performances and stories of this year’s Olympics in Japan.

It’s not the races, performances, feats, or wins that have amazed me. What’s inspired me is how so many athletes’ have displayed champion mental wellness. Having spent my life helping people become healthier in spirit, mind, and body, I’m grateful for the mental health being displayed in the Olympics. At the same time, I’ve also been disturbed by the backlash against those displaying it, with some calling them weak while crabbing that back in their day athletes would push through their problems.

I began paying attention closer attention to these Olympics when Simone Biles, considered the greatest gymnast in the world, and perhaps the greatest American gymnast ever, pulled out of the team competition ostensibly because of mental health concerns. She didn’t feel mentally fit to compete, emphasizing that to do so in her present mindset could lead to serious injury or even death. Still, people have their opinions. Many have criticized her for being selfish, for letting the team down, for not being stronger mentally, and for putting her mental health needs above winning a gold medal. Those comments all grate on my nerves because, as a person committed to mental and life wellness, criticizing someone for prioritizing mental health,… well,… it just grates on my nerves.

In following the Simone Biles story I’ve been noticing some other great feats of mental wellness that should inspire us to prioritize our own and others’ mental health even more. For example, I read about how high jumpers Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy and Mutaz Barshim of Qatar tied after failing three times each to clear the height of 7’10”. Rather than competing in a jump-off, which is typical, they decided to share the gold medal. Having forged a friendship forged through years of international competition, they cherished the idea of sharing their accomplishment with each other.

Later, during an 800-meter race, runners Isaiah Jewett of the U.S. and Nijel Amos of Botswana became entangled with each other, falling to the ground in a tangle of legs and arms. Instead of angrily accusing the other of interference, they helped each other up and finished the race with arms around each other.

At the end of the women’s triathlon, Belgium’s Claire Michel fell to the ground sobbing because she finished dead last. Norwegian Lotte Miller, who placed 24th, walked over and consoled her, reminding Michel that she was an Olympian, that she had still finished the race after 20 others dropped out, and that she needed to cherish where she was and what she had accomplished. She was an inspiration, not a failure.

These athletes remarkably demonstrated not only mental health, but spiritual, emotional, physical, and relational wellness as well. We’ve all come through the pandemic with different levels of personal health. Certainly, many have felt crushed by the past year, and at Samaritan we’ve been privileged to help some of them restore their lives. Others have emerged from the pandemic clearly embracing what deeply matters in life. They’ve learned that what matters isn’t necessarily winning or accumulating or succeeding. It’s living lives that are spiritually, mentally, physically, and relationally fit and balanced.

I’m struck by several things Simone Biles said in receiving the bronze medal after returning to compete in the balance beam competition: “My mental and physical health is above all medals that I could ever win.” What a tremendous insight for one so young. She’s right! Too many athletes have been champions in sport only to later fail at life. A little later she offered a reminder of what matters as we cheer our athletes on: “We’re not just entertainment. We’re humans.” What a powerful statement about life. In other words, we can’t truly win if we’re not seeking to be mentally well?

At Samaritan, we’re not just here to help people overcome deep mental and spiritual wounds. We’re also here to help people grow in wellness. Be blessed!

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By: The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA

One pastor said, “When can we go back to normal? That’s all they keep asking. How the heck do we get back to normal after the past year?” Another said, “I’m supposed to love them. How do I love them after all the crap they’ve put me through this past year?” Still another commented, “I don’t even know where to start. I’ll bet we lost at least 30% of our members during the pandemic. And everyone thinks it’s up to me to get them back.”

These are statements I’ve heard over the past two months from pastors I work with. They’re under tremendous pressure to get back to normal,… but what if normal doesn’t exist anymore? As one said recently, “I thought I’d be ecstatic once everyone was vaccinated because we could get back to in-person worship. It’s even worse now! At least during the pandemic they mostly got along. Now they’re at each other’s throats. Some just want to get rid of all the technology and go back to the way it was. Others love it and want to increase it. Some want to pretend the pandemic’s over, while others want proof of vaccination. I hate it!”

Church members and pastors suffer from both fatigue and a yearning to get back to normal. But there is no normal to get back to. Normal died during the pandemic as churches scrambled to meet new realities: How do we record our services? Do we need a camera or can we use our phones? Do we live stream on Facebook or YouTube or a streaming service, or upload recordings to YouTube? How do we create an engaging service for distracted, bathrobe clothed people watching in their kitchens while eating breakfast?

No church remains like it was at the beginning of 2020. We have more technology and fewer members. The good news is that churches have been amazingly adaptive. The bad is that they’ve been despairingly conflicted. As a clergy coach and guide, most of my work now is helping them sort through options as they try to move the church forward.

I’ve been offering a very clear response: you can’t go back. You can only build back. It’s as though we’ve all been devastated by a hurricane, an earthquake, or a condo collapse. Relationships have been frayed, worship services have been disrupted, education has been decimated, trust in authority and each other has eroded. Our post-pandemic world is mentally and spiritually like a war zone after a truce. Where to start? What do we do?

I’ll share some of the guidance I’ve been giving pastors:

  • Emphasize building back rather than returning to normal. Share with leaders and members that the church’s recovery is much like rebuilding after a hurricane, earthquake, or collapse. Get them thinking about how to rebuild intentionally.

  • Talk about building back better. In building back after a disaster, few restore things to what they were. Most try to make improvements Almost all churches now have an upgraded digital presence both through video and websites. Lead your church to become a hybrid church that holds onto what was good while embracing what can better.

  • Start small and basic. The tendency after a disaster is to get back to the same level of activity, but the reality is that that capability is gone. We need to start where we are, not where we were. Don’t be in a hurry to return, especially to what wasn’t working, but do think about what can be done. Start small and build up. This is a chance to rethink things and do them better.

  • Reconsider the pastor’s position description. I’ve been encouraging all pastors to talk with their boards, councils, sessions, or vestries about rethinking their roles as pastors. For the past 50 years more and more has been piled onto the pastor’s plate. Originally pastors focused on preaching, teaching, and worship. Then they became responsible for visiting. Then they became the main evangelizers. Soon they were responsible for developing small discipleship group programs. They became more and more like a corporate CEO or organizational executive director. They’ve been tasked with leading the congregation to become more missional. The pandemic has forced them to become technology wizzes. In the process no one’s advocated for taking things off the pastor’s plate. Most pastors are past the breaking point. So, whether it starts with a personnel committee, a task force, or the board, it’s time to talk about what needs to be taken off the pastor’s plate and shared with the congregation. This reflects a reality I faced 25 years ago: I realized that I could focus on visiting or on leading, but I couldn’t do both. We re-envisioned my position so that the laity did more visiting, which allowed me to focus on leading. We did it again 10 years later to allow me to spend more time writing books and speaking across the country as part of a mission of our church. The key is having honest conversations about what is realistic for pastors, and engaging in a process to restore pastors to what’s realistic.

  • Talk with members about the need to move forward. Whether it’s through newsletters, videos, a congregational letter, or sermons, let the congregation know that this pandemic wasn’t the first time the church faced an upheaval. Christianity is a religion that’s thrived through so many catastrophes and upheavals (think of the early church growing despite persecutions, attacks from barbarian tribes, the Renaissance, and the Reformation). Remind them that God doesn’t call people backward, but always calls them forward.


The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA

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