Is being prophetic killing the church? Can being apostolic save it?
by The Rev. Dr. Graham Standish
Originally published in The Presbyterian Outlook: May 12, 2022
As a spiritual director, coach, and therapist working primarily with pastors, I’ve found the present struggles of so many pastors to be heart-wrenching. Pastoral ministry has become incredibly hard, especially as we emerge from the pandemic, but our situation is not completely new. The terrain surrounding pastoral ministry has gotten more and more formidable over the course of two generations as the culture has swung dramatically away from the church. With most churches willing to only glacially adapt, and too few pastors with training and insight into organizational transformation, ministry has become a deeply painful vocation. But some of that pain may be self-inflicted.
A coaching session I had with a pastor several years ago captured this dilemma. She was smarting over the backlash to her recent sermon on the need to stop being a social club and to start being a mission center.
I responded, “You were just being prophetic, right?” “Yeah,” she said. “I was calling them to do more.” I replied, “Hmmm, so you were being a prophet, yet you’re surprised that they treated you like a prophet? Isn’t this why most prophets lived in the desert? They had to hide from everyone trying to kill them for their prophecies.” She stopped, looked at me for a moment, buried her head in her hands, and laughed: “Oh Gawd. So what am I supposed to do?”
Why do we model our ministry after prophets? It’s not like ancient Jewish prophecies prevented the Assyrian conquest or the Babylonian exile. They rarely led to change. Why do we think being prophetic should work better today? A half-century of decline says otherwise.
Most pastors were trained to be prophetic by tenured seminary professors who have typically never led congregational transformation. I believe the Bible offers us a much better example of ministry in Acts: the apostolic model. What’s the difference between the two? [see information below on our spring workshop on Apostolic Church Transformation]
Prophetic preaching and leadership, grounded in bold, critical truth-telling, often delivers messages and directives like a bomb. Meanwhile the apostolic speaks truth, but it does so through “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23), which is more effective at inspiring transformative living, being and doing.
Prophetic preaching has its time and place. When done well, as in Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, it poetically points out the evils of the world while inspiring people to follow God’s call to transform it. But it only rarely has a major impact, and usually only through the voices of a genuine prophet (who often is abused or killed for his or her prophecies).
The apostolic approach is deeply relational, establishing communities of diverse people working and eating together, praying for one other, worshiping, and serving together. Transformational truth arises out of the relationships with each other and God. As the Mennonite historian Alan Kreider wrote in The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, “The sources rarely indicate that the early Christians grew in number because they won arguments; instead they grew because their habitual behavior (rooted in patience) was distinctive and intriguing. Their habitus … enabled them to address intractable problems that ordinary people faced in ways that offered hope.”
Rather than dropping an explosive prophecy and then, like Elijah, fleeing the wrath of those who can’t handle the truth, the apostle becomes part of a community — learning its language, rituals, families, food, experiences and establishing deep relationships. The apostolic recognizes a deep truth: people who feel loved by us are much more willing to be transformed by us. It’s why, despite times of persecution, people joined the early Christian church. Aware of the danger, they still wanted to become like Christians.
To me, the apostolic approach is summed up in Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:22-23: “I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.”
To be apostolic means seeing people as “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). It wants to gather them together “as a hen gathers her brood under her wings” (Luke 13:34). It’s firm but gentle, truthful yet understanding, principled and healing.
What does apostolic leadership look like? It’s leadership seeking to transform people morally, spiritually, psychologically and relationally through worship, education, groups, relationships and outreach. It often encourages and challenges but rarely berates. It nurtures a deep awareness and sense of God’s immediate presence and personal call. It believes that encountering and experiencing God will transform people and transformed people act differently.
The emphasis on spiritual transformation becomes the foundation for everything else — worship, ministry, mission, care for the building, child and adult education, stewardship, pastoral care and preaching.
Going back to the pastor I worked with, I encouraged her to stop trying to drop truth bombs and instead focus on the relationships. Preach and teach and organize and lead in a way that fosters personal transformation through awareness of God’s presence and call in their midst. Challenge them but do so in a way that’s invitational and encouraging rather than critical and blaming. Let God be responsible for delivering the personal prophetic message that calls on them to transform the world in their own unique ways. In my experience, leading people to listen for and follow God is what leads to the creative transformation of the world. In essence, lead them to be transformed by God and let God call them to transformational acts. In my experience, this works.
I had to take a long walk to clear my head and decide. I was struggling. I knew what I wanted to do, but what did God want for me? The question? Should I stay with the church where I’d been pastor of for 22 years, or lead Samaritan and re-enter a field I hadn’t worked in for 25 years?
The offer to become Samaritan’s next executive director felt like an intrusion. “Why me? Why now?” It was hard to think as the skirmishing parts of me provided conflicting answers: “It will be good for you to do something different” said one. “You’ll end up failing. You’re a success now. Why take a chance?” said another. A third chimed in: “Think of everyone you’ll disappoint if you go.” Then came a different response: “You’ve done enough here. It’s time for you to make your mark somewhere else.” More scrambled to be heard: “You’re this close to retirement. Stay where you are and enjoy the next seven years.” “No, no,… you’re fading into irrelevance. Go there and make a difference.” “What difference can you make. You stink!’ “Don’t listen to that. You’ve been wanting to do more to help struggling pastors for years. This will allow you to do that.”
It was like I was sitting in the corner of a board meeting as all the committee chairs screamed at each other. So, I took a long prayer walk to put those voices aside and listen to what God wanted. It wasn’t easy calming them down. During the first 15 minutes of the walk, it was as though the whole board in my head was following me and still shouting. Then the words of Proverbs 3:5-6 floated through my mind: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge God, and God will make straight your paths.”
Over the course of the next hour, I was slowly able to sense something deeper—a different voice was emerging. It wasn’t a Charlton Heston-like voice saying, “Go There!” God’s voice is rarely like that. Instead, it was a growing sense of peace around the possibility of going to Samaritan, along with a sense “If I go, I could do this, and this, and this…” In other words, hope and possibility slowly replaced fear of failure and change as all the other voices calmed down.
It wasn’t really a voice. It was something resonating both within me and around me, which included the beauty of the day. It was as if God was saying through nature, “Look at everything around you. It’s all okay. You’ll be OK.
When I talked with my wife afterwards, she said that she felt like it was the right time, noting that coinciding events—our daughters heading to college, the church needing younger leadership, and my need for a new challenge—were coalescing. I had also asked three other people to discern with me—one with a vested interest in my staying, another who would be objective, and a third who had been a therapist at Samaritan. All three sensed I was called to go to Samaritan.
I followed a discernment process I had developed over years of my intensive study in spirituality and discernment. Let me share some of these principles with you. Discernment begins by answering a simple yet scary question: do I really want to hear what God wants, or do I merely want God’s blessing for what I want? If we only want a blessing, then discernment isn’t possible. Many people who believe they are discerning are really just seek blessing, and in the absence of God’s blessing they’ll manufacture their own. True discernment means recognizing how easily we can substitute our own inner goals, plans, and desires for God’s. The really hard work is letting go of what we want and being okay with whatever happens.
True discernment has to be humbly rooted in a connection with God that is always moving toward falling in love with God. The more we actually love God, the easier it is to hear God. Most of us don’t deeply love God, though. We either like God or try to live with God. The more we feel a sense of love, the more we have a sense that God is going to take care of us no matter what, which makes it easier to discern.
Discernment also has to be rooted in a prayerful approach to life. If we want to hear God’s guidance, but never really connect with God through prayer, study, and service, it’s hard to know what is and what isn’t God. Pushing God to the margins and then suddenly deciding to listen makes hearing hard. It’s a reason so many glibly say there is no God. If I’ve done little to experience God, it’s easy for me to deny God.
What are the steps of discernment? First, we need to ask God for specific guidance. Don’t be general. Next, we need to center ourselves by calming our minds, disengaging from emotional attachments, and becoming open to whatever God might say. Whenever I hear someone say with complete certainty that she or he has discerned what God wants, I’m always suspicious that I’m with someone who has sought God’s blessing rather than guidance. Third, we sift through possibilities by a) considering all possibilities and rejecting those that don’t “seem” right; b) clarifying what options “seem” like the best ones; c) prayerfully and humbly asking if the best options are really God’s options; d) listening without ego, pride, or emotion to the deepest or best option; and e) putting our decision into action, all the while being willing to subject it to re-sifting.
So how do we hear what God wants? God doesn’t use one, simple, human-like voice. God speaks through many avenues: whispering thoughts, heart-felt inspirations, comments from others, scripture, television, film, literature, art, coincidental circumstances and experiences, stories and metaphors,… and sometimes but rarely, signs.
Finally, how do we know if an answer is of God? Generally, a sense of peace and calm will follow, along with a conviction that this is “right.” When we’ve discerned well, coincidences/God-incidences often occur, suggesting that the present course is the right one.
Discernment’s a difficult practice, but it is possible if we’re willing to do the hard work. And if we do that work, we’ll find what I’ve found—God leads us to wonderful places, such as leading me to Samaritan!
The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA
Finding Balance When the Scales Are Tipping Over
Back in 2001, as I was writing what would become my third book, Discovering the Narrow Path, I did an exercise exploring how Jesus lived his life. In my mind he lived an incredibly busy life. Wasn’t he constantly preaching to thousands, healing hundreds, teaching scores, walking from here to there, eating with friends and foes? He was a man in demand!
While writing a chapter on “Walking the Balanced Path,” I traced how busy he actually was. I created two columns: one for activity, the other for rest and reflection. What I found surprised me. It wasn’t all busyness. His life was incredibly balanced. He was very active, yet he also constantly took time to balance it with rest, reflection, and restoration. Sometimes his balancing acts could be harsh, such his forty days in the desert. Sometimes he went to the top of a mountain. Sometimes he sat by the lake. Sometimes he went on a retreat with his disciples to a cool, wooded place. Sometimes they all spent time together eating and talking, or eating with family and celebrating weddings. He demonstrated that life best lived is a life that’s balanced.
We struggle to live a balanced life amidst our culture of imbalance. We constantly feel the need to appease the gods of hurry, acquire, do, gratify, stimulate, accomplish, achieve, be noticed, obtain, and attain. Slowing down can feel not only unimaginable, but as though we’re violating some unwritten code that we must be active and available 24/7, 365.
What makes it worse is that whenever our lives become unbalanced, we often do things that create even more imbalance, despite our belief that we’re making our lives more balanced. It’s like our lives are lived on great balancing scales where we place all of activities, obligations, responsibilities, expectations, and commitments on one scale, and all our relationships, recreation, passions, and pursuits on the other. We become unbalanced when we feel overwhelmed on the activities and commitments scale and start overloading the recreation and passion scale to balance it out. We feel burned out with work, so we spend even more time trying to play. The more we load onto all the scales, the more out lives start to sag from the sheer weight of it all. The weight of everything can bend and break our scales. Balance is as much about what we remove as it is what we take on.
A healthy life places wisdom at the fulcrum. It not only recognizes the need for balance on all scales but understands that too much of everything can break the scales. So what does a balanced life look like? It’s hard to describe mainly because even the rigid pursuit of balance can put us out of balance. The life of balance is one that recognizes the need to be healthy and whole in all aspects of life: physically, mentally, relationally, socially, and spiritually. Take one concern out and balance becomes a bit harder to achieve. Here are some thoughts:
Physically, achieving balance isn’t easy because our bodies don’t always cooperate, but there is a simple rule of thumb: 8 hours at work; 8 hours in relationship, recreation, exercise, and reflection; 8 hours rest. Physical balance also means eating a balanced diet with plenty of healthy foods. I’m always amazed at how many mental and spiritual health issues can be traced to overwork, too little sleep, too much junk food, too little exercise. They don’t cause the mental and spiritual health issues, but they can play a significant role in exacerbating them. We’ve actually established a partnership with Red Apple Nutrition in Wexford, PA (https://redapplenutrition.com) to address these issues, and encourage you to visit them or talk to your therapist about potentially working with them.
Mentally, achieving balance means doing things that keep our emotions healthy and our minds sharp. Counseling can certainly be part of this as therapists help us reflect on our lives and discover how unbalanced thinking and feeling can create problems. So does reading, taking classes, and doing anything that helps us grow. Those who self-reflect and learn often find their lives becoming more balanced. When we become more open to always growing mentally, emotionally, and experientially, it makes us healthier and more balanced.
Relationally, achieving balance means always working on forming better relationships with others. There are no perfect relationships, nor are there perfect ways of relating with others. There will always be awkwardness, conflict, and confusion in them, but if we strive to be more balanced in our relationships by emphasizing love, compassion, kindness, consideration, support, and especially flexibility, we find that our relationships become more balanced.
Socially, achieving balance means being engaged socially in a way that restores us, but also taking time for ourselves. During this pandemic it is VERY difficult to bring this into balance. Yet it’s important to strive for it as best we can.
Spiritually, achieving balance means taking time out of activity for stillness, prayer, reflection, reading, worship, being active in activities that care for others, and more. It means not just being committed to work. It means being committed to the kind of balance Jesus had, which means taking time to make a difference, and then making time for personal, reflective work that makes a difference with our souls.
There’s so much more that I could say about seeking and forming a life of balance. The key though, is trying to strive for it. If you do, you’ll find a way.
The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA
What Did We Expect?
Are our expectations sabotaging ourselves and our ministry?
She was disappointed and deflated as she reflected on three years of pastoring her church: “This isn’t what I thought ministry would be like.” Trying to be as gentle as possible, I asked, “What did you expect?” “I don’t know,” she replied, “I just thought they’d be more interested in mission and growing the church. I didn’t expect them to be so,… so,…” her words drifted off. I offered suggestions: “resistant, grouchy, irritating, childish, stupid, . . . poopy?” “All of them,” she answered.
Working with pastors of struggling churches, I’ve been increasingly asking them what they expected. How does it differ from what they’re facing? What’s clear is that many are disappointed with their churches for not meeting their expectations. Thus the question: are our expectations realistic?
All of us pastors come into church ministry expecting certain things. We expect that because we’re called by God into ministry, we should be successful. We expect that the churches we serve want to grow. We expect that church members will become passionate about whatever we’re passionate about. We expect that they called us to be their pastors because they wanted us to help them become what they want to become.
Also, our seminary training has taught us to have lofty expectations. We’ve been trained to expect our churches to be missional, spiritual, biblical, welcoming, and thriving—or at least to respond to our attempts to make them so. We expect to go to a church that’s been declining and struggling for years, and (with a little bit of leadership and tinkering) help them become growing, thriving congregations. Is this realistic or just overly idealistic?
Lessons on Reality
The other fields I’ve been trained in have grounded me in a reality that can lead to possibility. As a therapist I’ve learned to keep my expectations for my clients limited to what is actually possible, rather than on what I may want for them. In other words, I may want my clients to become fully thriving, happy, and productive people, yet the best I may be able to do is to help them= manage their depression, cope with truly terrible situations, and reduce their anxieties to manageable levels.
From the field of spirituality, I’ve learned that joy and gratitude are found in accepting what is and how God is in it, rather than lamenting what isn’t and wondering where God disappeared to. The more we idolize our expectations, and obsess about our disappointments over how they've failed to meet our expectations, the harder it is to find God’s presence in our ministries.
Recently I’ve been asking the same questions over and over with pastors: “Is the problem them or your expectations of them? Are your expectations realistic or overly idealistic?” In essence, is their ministry a response to God’s call in that particular context, or a response to their need to be seen as “successful.” One pastor responded, “Well,... I have to show tangible results so people won't think I’m a failure.” The problem is that her focus on being a productive success has gotten in the way of her being the pastor God’s called her to be.
Starting Where They Are
Throughout my career I’ve been cultivating an approach to ministry that starts with where churches actually are rather than where I wish they would be. Grounded in my counseling and spiritual direction training, I’ve learned to start with an acceptance of reality in order to focus on what they can do rather than what I would like them to do.
For instance, in mission can they do better or is what they’re doing as good as they can do for right now? If all they can do is raise funds for mission, how do I appreciate and cultivate that while slowly developing small opportunities for hands-on mission—food bank collections, coat drives, Meals-on-Wheels, trash-and-treasure sales, and more—that will train them for larger mission later? I’ve tried to help them feel good about what they are doing, rather than criticizing them either publicly or privately for not doing enough. In the process I've slowly helped them become open to other ideas—a weekly worship service in a local retirement center, setting up a $5000 fund to help people in dire or emergency situations, changing the church’s coffee hour coffee to an equal exchange brand.
I’ve lived by a motto: “One small step for the pastor may be too giant a leap for the congregation.” In other words, we often expect them to be more flexible, adaptable, energetic, passionate, insightful, and committed than they actually are. When don't meet our expectations, we become hurt, disappointed, frustrated, and even angry, which starts us down a path of leadership decline. At this point our ministry begins to diminish because we lose our energy and drive for lovingly leading them.
We’re in a period where perhaps 70%-80% of our churches are in decline. That’s our reality. Do we start ministering to churches where they realistically are, or do we start with what we idealistically want them to be despite their long-term decline. In my career I’ve helped two churches grow after declines—one after a slow, 25-year decline, the other after a precipitous 85% decline over 5 years. In both cases we stayed grounded in where they actually were and helped them grow incrementally by making sure our expectations were rooted in what was realistic rather than idealistic. We focused on what they could do rather that what we felt they should do, and then built upon that.
For many pastors, the Covid-19 pandemic has helped them become grounded more in reality since pursuing the idealistic isn’t really possible. It is teaching them to temper their expectations and serve God by doing what’s possible.
The realistic foundation of ministering to a church is to start with loving them as they are, and then encouraging them to take faltering steps forward that by slowly build confidence, hope, and possibility.
Are You Guided by Good Guidance?
“The criticism will continue until morale improves!” I swear some people live by that creed. They certainly are good at criticizing others, whether invited to or not. Unfortunately, unwelcome criticism is a reality in life. We’ve all been there. A family member, a friend, a coworker, a customer, a parishioner decides to tell us in no uncertain terms what’s our problem, and we have no idea what to do with their criticism. Is it really supposed to change us? Like an ugly sweater given to us on Christmas morn, it’s hard to know what to do with others’ gifts of critiques.
Serving as a leader and a pastor I learned to get used to receiving criticism. Regardless of what I might do, there was always someone willing to offer me “helpful guidance” on how to do my job better. Sometimes that “helpful guidance” came from more than one person, each one offering a completely opposite critique.
I remember one particular Sunday when a young adult member of the church said to me while shaking my hand after the worship, “You know, contemporary music is the wave of the future. We need to go to all contemporary.” Three persons later an older man leaned in and said to me, “Is the organ broken? I don’t come here to hear that modern crap. I come here to hear God’s music played on the organ.”
What do we do when we get such conflicted, critical guidance from people? How do we sift through it all to make good decisions? Whether it’s suggestions on how to run an organization, a church, or our lives, it can be hard to sift through all the options before us when we don’t know what to do. Clearly, we’re not going to go to our critics for guidance, but who do we turn to?
So often in life people don’t know what to do when it comes to making significant changes in their lives. It’s so easy for us to become paralyzed by conflicting possibilities. These are the times when it’s really important not only to seek guidance from others, but to seek good guidance from others. Aren’t they both the same? No. Knowing who to get guidance from is a crucial part of learning how to navigate life.
Years ago, I had an idea to create a group called Messed Up Anonymous, which would gather together people living “messed up” lives. I realized the one struggle with this idea: messed up people generally wouldn’t become part of a group like this because people who live messed up lives don’t tend to seek good guidance from good people. They tend to seek messed up guidance from messed up people.
In fact, I’ve noticed that those who navigate life really well tend to have a wise group of friends and mentors they turn to when life and work are confusing. Those who navigate poorly tend to seek guidance from people just like them. Personally, I’ve always had several people—whether friends, certain co-workers, or those with experience—who I’ve turned to when I’m not sure what to do. They may not tell me what to do unless there’s a clear and obvious path, but they’re good at pointing out things that help me sift through and discover the path I was too confused to find on my own.
What causes so many people to struggle in life is that they often think they have to figure everything out on their own. In other words, their own counsel they keep, and that counsel often isn’t very good. Still, living a good life requires getting good guidance, so here are some tips on seeking good guidance from others:
Don’t settle for the same old same old—too often people seek guidance from those they know because that’s who’s available, but are they the ones with the best guidance? There are many people out there with deep wisdom who feel called in life to help others. Sometimes they’re professional therapists, spiritual directors, or coaches. They may be pastors or teachers. Even more, they may be people in our communities, neighborhoods, and families. These are people who want to help, but they can only help us if we seek them out.
Choosing people with discerning wisdom—There are many, many, many people who either have conventional wisdom or convenient wisdom. What’s the difference? Conventional wisdom is the kind of wisdom we can get anywhere (the answer is making more money, buying a new car or new clothes, taking a shortcut, etc…). Convenient wisdom is grasping at any answer as long as it makes us immediately feel better. Discerning wisdom is wisdom that is more grounded and insightful. Choosing people with discerning wisdom leads to sometimes unconventional and inconvenient answers that make our lives better.
Be persistent in seeking perspective—One reason we get trapped in life ruts is that we resist seeing life from other perspectives. The best people at giving us good guidance often push us to look at our problems from another point of view. That’s difficult for most of us because we often crave answers that keep us from having to change. Yet it’s the resistance to change that creates the conditions for that same persistent conflict and confusion. Seeking good guidance means seeking out people whose life perspectives may be different from ours, whether that’s political, religious, or experiential perspectives. People of great wisdom often see the world differently and help us gain perspective.
Samaritan exists to offer good guidance to people struggling in life. We offer therapists with expertise in personal struggles, questions of meaning and purpose, relationship issues, spiritual issues, life issues, and church issues. We provide new perspectives and wisdom.
Life gets better when we seek good guidance!
The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA
Fining Peace in an Age of Pandemic and Protest
“How the heck do I get out of this?!” The Facebook spat was raging, and I didn’t want to be part of it anymore. How’d I let this happen? I’d already violated my personal policy of avoiding other people’s posts, especially political, inflammatory ones. Now I was engaging in a political argument that I knew I couldn’t win—not because I was wrong but because NO ONE ever concedes defeat on Facebook.
What made it worse was that a colleague who clearly doesn’t like me responded by attacking my personality, my career, and everything about me. No matter what my responses were, his responses got more personal.
My sense of inner peace was gone, and I was complicit in it. Eventually I apologized for causing the problem, which allowed the tempest in a teapot to cool to tepid. Slowly a sense of peace returned, as did my no-Facebook-spats policy.
It would be easy to say that my colleague disrupted my peace by attacking me personally, but really, I had disrupted my own peace. Striving to live out of a peaceful center has been a significant discipline for me. When I posted my initial FB response, it wasn’t coming out of that center.
Dorotheos of Gaza, a 6th century monk, wrote about finding peace in a way that gets to the heart of our personal and national struggles, saying, “The root cause of all these disturbances, if we are to investigate it accurately, is that we do not accuse ourselves; hence we have all these commotions and never find rest.... Don’t you see that this is why we make no progress, why we find that we have not been helped towards it? We remain all the time against one another, grinding one another down. Because each considers himself right and excuses himself, as I was saying, all the while keeping none of the Commandments yet expecting his neighbor to keep the lot!”
We say we want to be at peace with others, but unfortunately what we really want is to forge a peace by convincing others to agree with us and become more like us. We want peace that comes through winning, even though winners rarely create lasting peace. Winning often creates resentment, which plants the seeds for weeds that strangle lasting peace.
What made the U.S. reaction to our enemies after World War II so remarkable was that instead of inflicting punishment upon Germany and Japan, we helped them rebuild. We lifted them up and it created a deep, long-lasting peace. That peace started with our transforming how we responded to our enemies. We didn’t beat them down with punishment, as was typical of victors, we responded by lifting them up. Our leaders had a sense of social and spiritual maturity that allowed the wounds of war to heal rather than fester.
Deeper peace comes from transforming conflict, and it almost always starts from within. Disagreements will happen. Conflict will occur. It’s how we engage in conflict that determines whether or not we will move in a peaceful direction. So much of therapy, coaching, and spiritual direction is about helping us transform our responses to conflict so that we can form a deeper sense of peace within. It’s the pursuit of inner peace that eventually leads to outer peace.
So, what are some steps towards living a more peaceful life? Here are three:
1. Peace grows out of a self-awareness that leads to self-transformation. Whether we seek inner peace, familial peace, national peace, or international peace, it begins by becoming honestly aware of how we contribute to ongoing conflicts. For some this can mean honestly admitting how we’ve sought superiority, and then intentionally working on forging a more conciliatory way. Jesus taught this in his parable of the righteous Pharisee and the humble tax collector. The Pharisee arrogantly proclaimed his superiority, while the wealthy tax collector humbly sought to make amends (Luke 18:9-14). For others it may mean admitting to living fearfully and working to become more assertive and caring at the same time. This may mean turning the other cheek—refusing to back down while also refusing to dominate. One of my favorite spiritual writers, a Serbian Orthodox monk named Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, once said, “Our starting point is always wrong. Instead of beginning with ourselves, we always want to change others first and ourselves last. If everyone were to begin first with themselves, then there would be peace all around!”
2. Peace means becoming like a tuning fork. What does it mean to become like a tuning fork? Simply put, when you hit a well-calibrated tuning fork it emits one, beautiful note that can then tunes instruments. Inner peace is like that. When we become intentional about living attuned to a chord of peace, no matter what hits us in life, we return to that chord. This has to be an intentional choice to live spiritually centered—to tap into a holy, divine source of peace so that it resonates throughout our lives.
3. Peace means striking a balance of this AND that, rather than this OR that. A factor in almost all conflict is our penchant for always demanding that others choose this way over that way, this life over that life, this belief over that belief, this value over that value. In essence, it’s a statement that you’re either with me OR against me. True peace forms when we find a way to be both this AND that—allowing us to strike a balance between my way and your way, my life and your life, my belief and your belief, my value and your value. This is hard to do because our natural desire to be right, while declaring the other wrong, leads us to look for differences rather than commonalities. But true peace begins with finding ways to make us both right rather than one right and one wrong.
Ultimately, finding peace begins within rather than without. It begins with making a decision to forge peace within ourselves that can then radiate outward. We at Samaritan are here to help people begin that journey.
The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA
Bearing with One Another Is the Path to Healing One Another
Recently I’ve been thinking about how much of the work our therapists do on a daily basis contrasts with so much of what’s taking place in our country today. Clearly, as a country we’re divided. Clearly, we have a hard time hearing each other. Clearly, we demand that others change their behaviors without necessarily changing ours. Clearly, we’re having a hard time bearing with one another.
Reflecting on all of this, I think about our therapists and their work. Hour-to-hour they sit face-to-face with people, listening to their pain and anguish. As they listen, they patiently and compassionately help their clients move toward healing. They’ll sit with a divided couple or family and instead of choosing sides, they choose to help them bear with one other. They’ll listen to the struggles of their clients and help them find a way that heals the divide. How remarkable in a world unraveling with conflict and discord.
The help and healing they offer isn’t always the help and healing sought. For some couples it may be healing the marriage and building a better one. With others it may be helping them separate in a way that’s healing for them and their children. For some it may be helping them find a way to live better in their situations. With others it may be helping them find an alternative situation. Whichever it is, they patiently listen and guide, always with healing in mind.
Our therapists help people bear with one another by bearing with them. Our work is to heal people so that they have the strength not only to bear their own pain but to bear with one another as they learn to grow out of fearing their own pain to learning to bear one another’s pain.
The Healing Power of Bearing
I think about the story one of our therapists told me. She mentioned a client who had been bearing intense anger toward her family because of past family trauma. Our therapist challenged her client to consider letting go of her resentment and to work toward forgiveness and reconciliation. It took a year, but the client finally tried it and found it began healing the wounds that for years had been left open to fester. The client had learned to bear with her family rather than rejecting it.
If you’ve been reading our monthly newsletter you know that I’ve been doing this yearlong series on living a fruitful life. Each month I’ve highlighted a particular quality that makes our lives better. In this time of division, I can’t think of a more important quality for each of us to nurture in our lives than learning to bear with one another.
The term comes from the apostle Paul, who said in his letter to the Ephesians that he begs us “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:1-3). Paul was emphasizing a quality that’s so hard for us to live by, but so essential to living. And he prefaced it by saying that to bear with one another we need to live with humility, gentleness, and patience. When instead we’re self-focused, harsh, and impatient, we create division and conflict because then we compete with and disregard one another.
Overcoming the Divide
We live in divisive times unlike any other since at least the 1960s. People easily find reasons to split from one another, while finding fewer reasons to bear with one another. We constantly see people of different social and political beliefs showing a lack of concern for each other. We see people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds finding reasons to be biased against each other. We see people of different social and economic backgrounds being opposed to each other. At every level of life, people increasingly criticize, ostracize, polemicize, and brutalize each other.
We don’t have much control over how others relate to us, but we have control over how we relate to all of them. To bear with one another, we have to be willing to do things that are against our natural instincts. Jesus taught that if someone strikes us on one cheek, we’re to offer the other. If someone seeks to take something from us, we’re to give them even more. If someone begs from us, we’re to give to them what we have.
We can always debate what it truly means to turn the other cheek or give to another, but the spirit of what Jesus taught is fairly clear: bearing with one another means being willing to sacrifice what I want for what another needs. So, when in a divisive argument with another, I have to be willing to sacrifice the need to win the fight in order to listen to and validate and the other. When I see someone in need, I need to be willing to sacrifice something of what I have.
Bearing with another person means looking for how I can build the other up, and in the process build myself up. It literally means looking for ways to help people keep standing—to let go of my concern mostly for myself, and to look for how I can lift another up.
One word of caution: to bear with one another does not mean letting others manipulate or abuse us. There are people who will prey on our compassion. If another takes advantage of our attempts to boost them by asking for more and more and more, or by causing us to feel guilty for not doing more, it’s okay to walk away.
A friend told me once that there are two kinds of people in the world: givers and takers. To bear with one another is to be a giver. But when we face a taker who only takes and drains us dry, bearing with the other may mean letting her or him fall without our help.
The key is that when we are bearing with one another we are doing what we can to keep them standing, and in the process keep ourselves standing, too.
The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA
Is Gratitude the Key to Happiness?
Have you ever been in the presence of someone who lives in a truly grateful way? I mean someone who is grateful to be alive, grateful for the people in her or his life, and grateful for God’s presence, and sees the world around her or him with appreciation and joy?
I’ve had the privilege of meeting quite a number of these people as a pastor, spiritual director, therapist, and more. What makes them special is that when we’re around them, they have the ability to make us feel good about our own lives.
I had a simple realization years ago about the difference between hopeful and cynical people: cynical, pessimistic people suck energy out of us. Grateful, appreciative people give energy to us. You’ve experienced this. Think about times when you’ve had to listen to someone crab about his or her life—about politics, religion, people, bosses, spouses, teachers, his or her lot in life. You get trapped listening to them as they gain more and more energy from their growing anger, while you become more and more drained. Now think about the times you’ve spent with someone who is truly grateful, joyful, and positive. You feel more energized, more hopeful, more… possible. Gratitude gives energy. Cynicism sucks energy.
When I think about living a grateful life, I think about Sallie, a woman whose funeral I did years ago when I was her pastor. I had visited her often as her health declined over a ten-year period. Even in declining health she was an absolute joy to be around. Her arthritis and other ailments made it very hard for her to get around. Still, no matter how bad things got for her, she never complained. Even in the last years of her life, as macular degeneration took away her ability to read (her living room was stacked with cherished devotional books and magazines), she still had hope. She once told me that even though she couldn’t read, she still took comfort from all that she had learned from them.
Sallie was a bright light. Whenever I visited her, I tried to bring her some sense of comfort, but in reality she gave me more comfort and joy than I think I ever brought her. I often drove home feeling as though I had been in the presence of a great sage.
Her outlook on life was rooted in a deep sense of gratitude. She was grateful for her life. She was grateful for her children. She was grateful for her husband who had died so many years earlier. Sallie lived a life of gratitude even in the midst of difficulty.
I don’t want to give the impression that people like Sallie are perfect and live pain-free. They aren’t and they don’t. They make mistakes, parts of their lives can be messed up, and they struggle just like everyone else does. It’s just that people like Sallie choose to react differently to the struggles of the world than most of us. They can go through severe struggles, but they grow from them each time and they find meaning and purpose in them.
I look around and I see a world filled with miserable people. They’re not necessarily miserable because of the conditions of their lives, although their conditions often contribute to their misery. I see an attitude of misery reflected in the darkness of present movies, television, and novels nowadays. I see it on social media as people argue, complain, criticize, and crab about everything, especially during this pandemic. I see it in parents who constantly criticize their children, only seeing what’s wrong with them, what they don’t do, and how disappointed they are in them. I see this same dynamic in too many marriages, where over time it becomes easier to be critical of our spouses than complimentary. Life wears us down, as do relationships. Still, cynicism is a relationship killer. Good marriages, parenting, and lives are built on laughter, smiles, appreciation, and gratitude. Bad marriages are built on indifference, cynicism, and criticism.
The struggle of life is to see it with appreciative eyes rather than depreciative ones. Depreciative people diminish life by only seeing what’s wrong in the world around them. They’ll justify their cynicism and negativity by saying that we live in a hard world, and that they’re just being realistic. The reality is that they aren’t living in a cold, hard world. They’re just choosing to make it cold and hard.
Parts of life can be cold, ugly, and hard, but it still is wonderful, beautiful, joyful, and hopeful. Many people truly live in horrific, terrible conditions. At Samaritan we do our best to help these people make choices to transform them and their conditions. It’s hard work. Part of what we also do is help people see with different eyes, helping them to see what’s right, not just what’s wrong; what’s good, not just what’s bad; what’s they can do, not just what they can’t; what’s light, not just what’s dark; what’s possible, not just what’s impossible.
In my life I constantly return to what a great spiritual writer, David Steindl-Rast, says in his book Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer: “What counts on your path to fulfillment is that we remember the great truth that moments of surprise want to teach us: everything is gratuitous, everything is gift. The degree to which we are awake to this truth is the measure of our gratefulness. And gratefulness is the measure of our aliveness… In moments when we are truly alive, we experience life as a gift. We also experience life as surprise.”
The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA
Do We Have Wisdom?
One question has persistently weighed on me throughout the COVID-19 crisis: what’s the wise thing to do? I’ve been grappling with this both individually and as executive director of Samaritan.
“What’s the wisest way” has been a significant theme throughout most of my adult life. Often, when seeking it, answers pop into my head in the form of stories. Recently one particular story, an ancient Arabic tale, has continually popped up in my head:
Once upon a time a caravan traveled slowly through the desert on its way to Damascus. Suddenly a rider on a dark horse sped by them from behind. The caravan chief, recognizing the rider as the Angel of Pestilence, shouted out: “Angel, where are you speeding to in such a hurry?” The angel shouted back, “I’m on my way to Damascus. I mean to take a thousand lives.”
Upon arriving weeks later, the chief learned that 50,000 people had died. Years later, the chief saw the angel again on the road. He asked the angel, “You said that you were only going to take a thousand lives in Damascus. Why did you take 50,000?” The angel responded, “I took only a thousand. Fear took the rest.”
It's a gruesome story, but the ending offers wisdom: fear took the rest. Fear, anxiety, and selfishness are wisdom’s enemy because they constrict our thinking. They lead us to do foolish things by limiting our ability to think broadly and deeply. We get caught up pursuing what feels good or numbs my pain. Or what will make me money? What will get people off my back? What will keep me safe? What will allow me to survive? What will get others’ approval?
All of these questions are valid, but not when isolated from all other concerns. Wisdom expands our thinking. It not only moves us beyond mere fear, but also beyond mere ambition, anger, selfishness, frustration, short-sidedness, and more.
Wisdom is incredibly difficult to define precisely because at its core it seeks balance rather than certainty. Wise thinking strikes a balance between all sorts of thinking. It values logic and rationality, but it doesn’t idolize it. People who strive only for logic often lack wisdom because they’ve constrained their thinking to merely one source of guidance.
A way of thinking about wisdom is that it’s like someone guiding a round table of experts from different fields of knowledge. Each one offers options while still listening to others. At the end, they’re guided to reach a consensus integrating all of their concerns—sometimes equally, sometimes unequally. Good therapists help us find wisdom by guiding us to explore these other perspectives and to integrate them into better decisions.
When we seek wisdom, we are still guided by logic, but also by emotion, intuition, tradition, possibility, social concern, social norms, convention, creativity, experience, and spirituality. Wisdom brings all of these together in a balanced way that lights our path forward. Thoughtfully listening to all of these insights is what makes finding wisdom so difficult.
Sometimes the wise way may be the simplest. If we’re in an abusive situation, seeking safety is the wisest way. Once we’re safe we can expand our thinking as we piece our future together. Sometimes the best way is the one that integrates many sides. In the face of this virus crisis, we have to listen to many voices—the one of safety, the one of generosity, the one of calm, the one of family, the one of community, and many others.
A central component of deep wisdom is thinking spiritually. Spiritual thinking isn’t necessarily theological or religious thinking, although they are part of it. Thinking spiritually seeks something greater—something beyond and transcendent. It seeks God’s guidance through prayer, reflection, and openness to a greater guidance. The biblical book of Proverbs describes wisdom as a holy female presence who seeks the greater way by opening us to God’s guidance. She leads the roundtable I described above:
Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? (Proverbs 8:1). Give instruction to the wise, and they will become wiser still; teach the righteous and they will gain in learning. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight (9:9-10).
When we’re in crisis it’s really difficult to act wisely because fear, anxiety, survival instinct, and shortcut thinking dominate. The COVID-19 crisis is a great example. How do we get through this crisis wisely individually and nationally? It requires integrating a lot of different ways of thinking. What does medical science say will slow and stop the virus? What does history teach us about the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918? What keeps the economy going? What’s the impact of isolation? What’s best long-term while keeping in mind the short-term? Wisdom integrates and balances all of these, seeking what’s best in a truly bad situation.
Many people have responded through fear rather than wisdom—hoarding sanitizers and toilet paper, ignoring guidelines for adopting safe practices, thinking only about themselves, and more. They’re rooted in fearful, selfish, and sometimes survival-level thinking.
Wisdom, instead, asks, what’s best for you and me and all of us? What will keep us all safe? How can we come together through this crisis? How do I look for what’s good in the midst of the darkness? How do I get through this in a way that’s balanced and healthy?
My prayer for you is that you discover the way of wisdom not only in this time of crisis, but throughout your life. And we’re here for you throughout this.
Blessings, The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA
How Do We Deal with Dissenters?
The session was in the midst of a future-changing discussion. Our “Future of Worship” task force had given them their final proposal after spending 15 months discerning how to adapt our worship to a changing world. They had studied different kinds of worship and had visited at least 10 different vibrant churches, ranging from traditional to contemporary to emergent to quirky.
They addressed questions such as: should we have a choir, should they wear robes; should they sit with the congregation or in the chancel; should we have art on the walls; should we enhance the lighting with light-scaping; should we pay for separate, dedicated visual and audio staff for Sunday mornings; should we create a third worship service; and should we create a worship band?
The last one was the stickiest topic. They weren’t proposing that we create a contemporary band. Our talented musicians already played traditional, contemporary, gospel, jazz, blues, R&B and more on keyboards. They wanted to enhance our music by adding a percussionist, a bassist, and a guitar player. The sticky point was the percussionist.
I’m not sure why, but adding percussionists or drummers always creates church friction. Still, the task force was adamant that it would enhance the quality of our music and be more inviting to younger worshippers. One elder was adamantly against it: “I just don’t like drums. In fact, I don’t like that we’ve slowly moved away from the organ. I love the organ. I hate drums. I’m really against this. Plus, as the co-chair of the finance committee, we simply can’t afford the extra $5000 per year it would cost us for a percussionist.”
Other elders quickly countered with their forceful arguments: “This is about the next generation, not our generation!” ”Maybe we can’t afford it, but can we afford not to do it if it means losing younger people?” They weren’t swaying her. She wasn’t thinking about younger generations. She was thinking about her own preferences and of those members like her.
To Forge Ahead or Not—That’s the Question
What do we do? Most of the session was ready to forge ahead anyway, but some were with her. What made it more fraught was that we used a discernment and consensus process for decision-making, with elders prayerfully asking what they sensed God wanted. Whenever we didn’t get consensus we always postponed for more prayer. Still, it was final budget time. We really couldn’t postpone.
Even if we went by majority rules, moving forward with an elder adamantly against it can be filled with peril. What if discontent spreads like a virus? We were caught in the dilemma of dissent: go forward and be sabotaged, do nothing and sabotage growth. I had to decide quickly how to keep the proposal on the table without creating more dissent and conflict.
That’s when I employed my holy triad. I emotionally detached from what I wanted and sought to validate, elucidate, and integrate.
Can Christ Speak though All?
One thing about using a more spiritual way of making decisions (you can find out much more about this through my book, Becoming a Blessed Church) is that you have to listen for God’s voice and guidance in both those who consent and those who dissent. God doesn’t just speak through one. God speaks through all, but often our Roberts’ Rules training leads us to believe we have to choose only this or that, not this and that. That’s where validating, elucidating, and integrating comes in. They help reveal God’s deeper voice.
The elders were getting frustrated with her, but I stopped them: “Hold on, she’s making some really good points. We’re ready to jump in full force, but maybe she’s right. Would it be better to have an adjustment period? Also, she’s probably right that with the other increases in our budget, $5000 is a lot to absorb. What if we tried a hybrid? What if we didn’t start this till June of next year, which would cost us only $2400? And what if we had guest percussionists periodically in the preceding 6 months, including Christmas Eve, so people could see and hear what it would be like?” I then turned to her and asked what she thought. She said, “If we’re willing to make it cost less, and allow me to hear what it’s like, I would feel much better. I think I could come on board.”
The Holy Triad
I validated, elucidated, and integrated. The first thing I did was to validate her. She was feeling the brunt of people dismissing her, and it was hardening her position. So I said, “Hold on, she’s making some really good points. We’re ready to jump in full force, but maybe she’s right.”
I then moved onto elucidating. I engaged the session in a discussion of her ideas and what we could do with them. We explored her thoughts more deeply and positively, which also continued to validate her.
Finally, we integrated. We looked for a way to create a hybrid of her ideas with what was already on the table: “Would it be better to have an adjustment period? Also, she’s probably right that with the other increases in our budget, $5000 is a lot to absorb. What if we tried a hybrid? What if we didn’t start this till June of next year, which would cost us only $2400? And what if we had guest percussionists periodically in the preceding 6 months, including Christmas Eve, so people could see and hear what it would be like?”
Unfortunately, in our modern church world, we’re so tied into debate rather than dialogue that we’re used to living with winners and losers, which erodes unity and community. It reminds me of something a pastor said to me while advocating his position on some perpetually divisive, denominational issue: “God is either for it or against it! God can’t be for both.” My response was, “Why not. If Christ is in all of us, why can’t Christ be calling us to integrate both sides and create something new?”
The key to creating a more creative church often starts with leadership that’s willing to look at all sides and validate, elucidate, and integrate.
The Rev. Dr. N. Graham Standish, is executive director of Samaritan Counseling, Guidance, Consulting in Sewickley, PA, and directs their Caring for Clergy and Congregations program. He is the author of seven books on spirituality and congregational transformation, with a new one, …And the Church Actually Changed, being published this spring (www.ngrahamstandish.org).
Why Is Forgiving So Hard?
“I can NEVER forgive him for that!” “I will NEVER forgive her for what she did!”
Forgiving others can be incredibly hard. It may be the hardest spiritual, psychological, and life practice of all. Why? Because it’s hard to let go of deep hurt. Holding grudges and feeling angry toward others who have hurt us is easy because they have their own energy and power that can seduce and consume us. When we’ve been hurt deeply by others, the anger we feel can woo us, causing us to live in our past as we cling to our pain. We imagine what revenge might look like, what we should have said or done, what we’d say if we ever saw our tormentors again, and what we’d like to have happen to them. Our pain and frustration, if not dealt with and healed, can increase and deepen over time, infecting our souls, and eventually darkening every corner of our lives.
Our struggle to forgive doesn’t only apply to other people. We can struggle to forgive ourselves. And we can struggle to forgive God, too. So many people feel they cannot forgive God because if God truly was good, God should have protected us. Many others cannot forgive themselves because they mistakenly think they were complicit in their own pain, or because of the mistakes they’ve have made in the past that have hurt other people. Whether it’s with ourselves or God or others, the unwillingness to forgive can become toxic and destructive to our lives.
What makes forgiving others, ourselves, and God so difficult is that to do so we have to transform our anger, grief, bitterness, and pain into something healthier, despite the overwhelming emotions that want to cling to the pain. Forgiving means letting go and transforming, even if it doesn’t mean forgetting. Forgiving isn’t repression or denial. Instead it confronts pain honestly and openly, and then says, “I want to live another way. I want to live without this pain. I want to regain control over my life.”
When we add a spiritual component to forgiving, we give the pain to God (even the pain we blame God for) so that God’s Spirit can begin to heal us and forgive through us. True forgiveness—a forgiveness of body, mind, and spirit—is never something we do by ourselves. It’s an invitation for God to forgive through us. We can try to forgive by our own efforts, and sometimes we are successful, but forgiving by our own power can fail forgive at the deepest levels of our being.
The deepest forgiveness is rooted in faith and prayer. An example of this (one that family members, friends, and former parishioners have heard me cite perhaps too many times) comes from Corrie ten Boom, who survived the horrors of the Ravensbrük concentration camp during World War II. After the war, she lectured across Germany on how God had forgiven them for the evil they had done, and so had she.
At the end of one particular lecture, she was approached by a man she recognized as one of the most brutal guards from the Ravensbrük. He approached her, asking for her personal forgiveness as he held out his hand. Corrie froze in fear. She knew she should forgive, but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t do it. Her pain and anger was too raw and too deep.
She didn’t know what to do. He stood there waiting. He wouldn’t leave. Finally, she prayed fervently for God to forgive through her. As she did, she felt the power of God’s love flowing through her, lifting her arm, and flowing through her into the man as she clasped his hand. She was able to forgive, not because of her own efforts, but because she tapped into a greater source of love and forgiveness. God forgave through her. This is the deepest nature of forgiveness.
It can be agonizing to forgive others, especially when they have deeply hurt us. But there is help, and we are here to help. Please visit our website to see our weekly video series this month that explores forgiving further and offers tips on how to forgive.
Does a Lack of Humility Hurt Us?
When was the last time you heard anyone say that the secret to life is becoming humble? Ever? Never? Other than when I read the Bible or older Christian spiritual writings, I’ve almost never heard humility emphasized. Why?
I think it’s because we live in an Age of EGO. Everyone’s searching for importance and relevance and notice. As I write this the Grammy’s were just handed out and the Oscars are coming. Both events celebrate the truly important people, the truly beautiful people, the truly relevant people, the truly happy people. Except there’s one problem. Have you noticed years later how many of those feted in years past have told us of their profound unhappiness, their alcohol and drug dependence, and the therapy when they were at their most popular? They were discovering how toxic living in the land of EGO can be.
We live in an era of “LOOK AT ME!” Instagram, FaceBook, Twitter, YouTube and all the rest are great ways for people to stay connected, but they also entice us supersize our sense of self-importance. It’s as if people think that they’ll suddenly feel better about themselves if they just gain more likes, loves, and wows. Social media plays into the Age of EGO by enticing us to desperately search for validation in the adulation of others.
Humility is the ancient and age-old answer to our struggle for relevance, but modern people have the wrong idea about what humility is. Humility is NOT weakness. In fact, some of history’s strongest people have had true humility: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. Christianity’s spiritual tradition has so many: Mary, St. Patrick, St. Francis, Teresa of Avilla, Evelyn Underhill, Catherine Marshall, Thomas Kelly, and so many, many more. They had the humility to serve rather than to be served, to validate others rather than to seek their own validation, and often at great personal expense.
What is humility? It’s groundedness. It means being rooted in something solid and nourishing. The word humility is grounded in a word that means “ground”: humus. Humus is literally “ground” or “dirt.” To be truly human means to be grounded—to be rooted in our earthiness. At the same time, to be humble means to simultaneously become openly available to God’s light. We’re grounded and open to a higher power who will help us move beyond what we are to what we can be.
Don’t confuse humiliation with humility. People who are humiliated by others aren’t being led down a path to humility. They’re being ground into the dirt by others who want to feel powerful. Humiliation is what the abusive spouse or parent offers, or what the narcissistic boss or leader does to grind down others. These abusers and narcissists are wounded, but they don’t know how to find worth in themselves. Instead they grind others down hoping that it will make them seem important. They aren’t open to a higher power. Instead they are trapped by their fears of losing power.
Years ago, when I was asked to speak about spirituality to a women’s shelter, one woman told me that her husband said that he did what he did to keep her humble. I told her that he did it to humiliate her, and that her real humility was having the strength to no longer take the humiliation. Her humility was in seeking a better life for herself with the help of the shelter because in humility she was listening to God who was calling her to a better, happier life.
When we yearn for a humbler life, we try to live in a way that’s both grounded and inspired at the same time. Humble people know that life can be a struggle, but they also know that it is full of beauty and of God’s presence. They live grounded in reality while being inspired by possibility.
Striving to foster a deeper humility takes work. From a mental perspective it means working hard to ground ourselves in things that matter—healthy relationships at home and with friends (which might mean choosing new friends); healthy lifestyles in what we eat and drink and do; healthy thinking, where we don’t think too much of ourselves, think more about others, but don’t let others take advantage of us; and healthy caring where we are willing to be compassionate, kind, and generous without allowing ourselves to be manipulated.
Striving to foster a deeper humility takes spiritual work. It means trying to live an inspired life where we aspire to a live according to a deeper sense of purpose and meaning, while being open to God, the Divine, Christ, the Spirit, the Holy, or whatever we choose to call it, as we find presence, guidance and love.
I’ll close with what I consider the greatest prayer on humility by the spiritual writer, Thomas Merton from his book, Thoughts in Solitude:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Are We Cultivating Compassion?
You may think you have a pretty good idea what compassion is, but do you really? What is compassion? Is it simply being nice to others? Or being sympathetic and maybe empathetic? Or being willing to help others in need? My guess is that these definitions are pretty close to yours. They’re good definitions, but they only capture part of what it means to be compassionate. Compassion is deeper than these definitions.
So what is compassion? Whenever I try to more deeply understand an idea, I often start by looking at the root of the word. I’ve found that ancient people, when creating a word, often do so with a deep wisdom. The word “compassion” literally means to “suffer with” another person. The core word, “passion,” literally means “to suffer.” Whenever we have passion for something, we suffer inside until we’re able to do it, or get it, or accomplish it. Compassion’s prefix, “com,” gives the word breadth to match its depth. “Com” means “with, which means that when we have compassion, we suffer with another.
The idea of willingly suffering with another is scary, especially if our compassion level is kind of low. Most 21st century people want to fix other people’s problems, but fixing doesn’t heal. People aren’t problems to be fixed. They’re souls who need to be cared about. It’s really hard to sit idly by and do nothing but share their pain. We want to find solutions to their dilemmas. So, we give them advice on how to find a better doctor, counselor, or treatment. We try to tell them what to do or how to find answers. While these things can be, and often are, helpful, true compassion still means being willing to stay with another in his or her suffering, even if we can’t do anything to relieve that suffering.
For example, do you know how, when visiting a family in a funeral home or a person in a hospital, you’ll think, “I don’t know what to say”? In fact, there really is nothing you can say to make things better (although there are insensitive things you can say that might make things worse). What’s important when visiting is simply being there and letting the person know you are “suffering with” her or him. Your compassion in being there is healing.
To be truly compassionate does render us helpless. We won’t necessarily know what to do. Often all we can do is to listen patiently to the struggles of another, even if we don’t know how to alleviate it. We do small acts of love and kindness, even if we know it’s inadequate to help them. Our hearts break when their hearts break, we struggle as they struggle, and we sit in life’s darkness with them, hoping that somehow our mere presence might shed a bit of God’s light upon them.
We cannot be compassionate with others, we cannot “suffer” with others, unless we’re also willing to tap into our own suffering. I’ve learned this in my work as a pastor and therapist. Generally, the ones who are best at helping others heal are those who have needed healing themselves. A secret most people don’t know is that the best therapists are often the ones with deepest stories of suffering and healing. It allows them to be compassionate with others because they’re able to intuitively understand the pain others are going through, but their training has allowed them to suffer with another without taking that person’s suffering onto themselves.
Part of becoming healthier mentally, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually means developing a greater sense of compassion with others so that we can become more compassionate towards ourselves. The more we care about someone else’s plight, the more we’re able to acknowledge our own plight and work on our own pain. If you look around in life, you’ll notice that the most destructive people are those who have little or no compassion, but those who bless life the most are those with the most compassion.
We are rooted in the Good Samaritan story. He was compassionate to a stranger who was clearly wounded, yet he was willing to be compassionate. His compassion allowed God’s grace and healing power to flow through him. Our compassion allows God’s grace to flow into the world through us.
God works through our compassion. True compassion simply creates the conditions for God’s grace to enter a person’s life as it flows in and through us. We do what we can and patiently (which also means “to suffer” wait for God to work through us and others.
It's this kind of compassionate, healing care that our therapists, coaches, and spiritual directors offer because we are Samaritans grounded in compassion.
The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA
Overcoming the "Fade Factor"
Why does the Christmas spirit always fade away after Christmas? Why can’t we hold onto the joy, the love, the light of Christmas once it’s over? Does the Christmas season always have to give way to the January doldrums? It’s not just Christmas that fades. All great things seem to fade away over time.
I gained insight into this phenomenon back when I was an associate pastor starting out in ministry. Our board had its yearly retreat, and it was wonderful. It stands out in my mind because I had such low expectations. I don’t really like going on retreats. They tend to wear me out rather than re-energizing me. I have a hard time sleeping in a strange bed, I eat too much of the plentiful sweets and get sugar hangovers, and I get jumpy from sitting all day.
This retreat was different. We came away with so many great ideas for the future of the church. I left feeling like I had just stepped off the mountaintop after seeing the Promised Land. Then the months passed. Six months later I had trouble recalling what any of our great ideas were. What had we done to institute our great ideas? Nothing! We let our great ideas fade away.
For me that became a touchstone experience. I realized then that even when we work on improving and enhancing our lives, we often let what’s helpful fade away. Churches do it, companies do it, families do it, people do it. I’ve even given it a name: the fade factor.
The fade factor often frustrates therapists. They’ll work with their clients and have a breakthrough session, but the breakthrough often fades as the person is immersed in the same situation that may have provoked the need for counseling in the first place.
My wife, when she was a drug and alcohol therapist, lamented this fade. She talked about an alcoholic client she worked with who would do great in therapy, but then go right back to working in the family bar and spending time with his over-indulgent friends. The insights he gained into his addiction faded away and he started drinking again.
We have an amazing marital therapy program started by one of our South Hills therapists, Kris Drucis, that attempts to overcome this fade factor. It’s called a marital intensive, where a couple meets with her over four hours on one day—as a couple, each individually, and then as a couple again. The focus is on coming up with a concrete plan together that overcomes the fade factor. And it’s been a blessing for many couples who’ve been able to avoid the fade as they’ve charted their future.
Still, whether it’s working with individuals, couples, groups, pastors, or just engaging in self-help, the fade factor is a… factor. So how do we overcome it when we’re trying to improve our lives? Here are three insights I hope won’t fade away after you read this:
#1 Simplify the Insights: Most of our great insights are actually simple insights that lead to profound change. The problem with many great insights is that they never get said in a simple in a way that allows us to hold onto it. For example, how might we hold onto the Christmas spirit after Christmas? By simplifying it to a phrase we can use throughout January, February, March… What if we developed a lingering phrase such as, “Be the Christmas spirit here today,” or “Look for light instead of gloom,” or “Live joyfully.”
If I were to simplify possible therapy insights, it might be, “I am not my anger,” or “Don’t let what was done to me control me,” or “Just because I feel anxious doesn’t mean I have to be anxious,” or “Just because someone says something offensive doesn’t mean I have to be offended” (this last one is a personal phrase of mine).
#2 Go from Baby Steps to Big Steps: Too often significant change seems like a monumental task. It doesn’t have to be, but to get there we have to be willing to be like a child learning to walk. It’s okay to stumble, it’s okay to fall, it’s okay to not do it well right away. Keep doing it anyway. That’s how children learn to walk. Toddlers fall. They get up. They walk again. When making significant changes, whether to our personality, behavior, or even a church, we have to be willing to take baby steps that turn into toddler steps that turn into child steps that turn into teenage steps that turn into adult steps. It’s okay for growth to take time. Almost any unhelpful attitude or behavior is one that’s taken time to develop, so let our new insights take their time turning into new behaviors and ways of living.
#3 Do a Review: I always find that reviewing my life is helpful. It’s especially helpful when we’re adopting a new behavior, attitude, or approach. Look back and see the progress we’ve made, or review what’s gotten in the way and start again. The interesting thing about growth is that we often don’t see it as it’s happening. We see it as we look back. So take regular times—once a day, once a week, once a month, once a quarter—to review. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to review these things as you go to bed. Reflect on how you did with what you’re working on each evening, and then reflect on how you might do better tomorrow.
We don’t have to let the fade factor be a factor. But it does take intention, work, and time. The same is true this Christmas. It doesn’t have to fade on December 26th.
What Do Falling Leavers Teach Us about Transforming Life?
There’s a lot that falling leaves can teach us about life, if we’re willing to learn. I’ve tried to learn.
I feel like Autumn is both the saddest and the most beautiful time of year. It’s so sad because I know what’s coming—cold, ice, snow, wind, darkness. But it also has an incredible beauty as the leaves change colors and feather to the ground. Meanwhile I can get trapped in conflicting thoughts: should I grovel in the sadness of what’s lost or revel in the beauty of what will eventually come?
I’ve chosen to revel in the beauty, even if on some days that can be hard. The sadness of a passing summer is still there, especially since winter’s been tough on me ever since I gave up playing ice hockey 22 years ago. I enjoy fires, Christmas, comfort food, and beautiful snowy mornings, but they feel fleeting. For the most part I spend winter wishing Spring would hurry up.
There’s a wisdom to the beauty of falling leaves, if we’re willing to pay attention to what they can teach us.
Leaves are like our past—whether joyful or painful. They give life to the tree, regardless of their condition. They may have been green and growing, or they might have been chewed and scarred. Whichever they are, come Autumn, they fall. And they continue to give life even while decaying on the ground. They nourish the next spring’s growth.
We live in a culture that is so deeply pain-averse that we can’t see the beauty that comes from letting our past pain nourish a hopeful future. When we look at the struggles of the past, we often only see our pain and not how that pain can nurture future beauty, . . . if we’re willing to let it.
What can make finding the beauty hard is the lingering stigma still regarding mental illness and counseling. There’s still a sense that struggling with emotional, mental, or relational issues are signs that we’ve been weak and unwilling or unable to depend upon ourselves. What they don’t realize is that being willing to courageously face our past and present can create rich soil for wonderful future growth.
Life isn’t about living in eternal spring and summer. No matter who we are, we are going to experience periods of Autumn and Winter. We all have periods where something from our past has to die and to lie fallow for a while so that something new can grow.
This is the work we do at Samaritan. It may be helping someone who was abused realize that the abuse she experienced wasn’t her fault, and that facing it can be like letting a scarred leaf fall to the ground and nourish new growth. Letting it go and moving forward can lead to a beautiful life filled with greater compassion, depth, and love—if we’re willing to work with someone who can help us get there. But like winter, the process can be long.
Our work may be in helping someone learn how to let go of anxiety in order to face the world with greater courage and confidence. It may be helping someone who has had difficulty making friends learn how to become more authentic and forge friendships with people who make his life better.
Whatever the issue is, there’s a courage to counseling. It’s the courage to say, “I want to let go of what was so that I can nourish a spring-like future of possibility.” I’ve seen so many people change their lives through counseling, spiritual direction, and coaching, and it’s incredible to witness. These are people who recognize that the pain of their lives can actually give them insight into a greater way of living. But we can’t do it alone.
I’ll give you an interesting final insight that most people don’t know about therapists. Almost all of them once were like the chewed, scarred, and gnarled leaves that cling to trees. Most therapists have lived through pain themselves and had the courage to work on their own pain and now do the beautiful work of helping others through their pain. Almost all have a story to tell of having had to face their own past or present struggles, while making the choice to forge a more beautiful life. What makes them special is that they’ve turned their own pain, their own past, their own falling leaves, into nourishment to help others to heal their lives.
What do falling leaves teach us about transforming our lives? They teach us that when we cling to pain like Autumn leaves to a tree, we cling to something that we’re eventually meant to let go of. It’s only in letting go through the help of others that we can nourish something new. And Samaritan’s here to help.
The Rev. Dr. N. Graham Standish, Ph.D., M.S.W., M.Div., M.A.
Do We Have a Set Mindset or a Growth Mindset?
One of the great things about being a therapist, a spiritual director, and a clergy coach is working with clients who help me gain great insight through their insights. Recently, I had a client in a session say to me, “I think my struggle is that I have as set mindset, not a growth mindset, and it keeps me stuck in ways that make me unhappy.”
Wow! What a profound thought. I told him so. This wasn’t just a great insight for his life. It’s a profound thought for all of life. How often do we have “set” mindsets that keep us from growing?
It occurred to me that the work all of us do at Samaritan is intended to help people move from a set mindset to a growth mindset. We help people let go of past pains that overwhelm them and keep them from thriving. We help them develop new thinking and behaving patterns to replace those that have inhibited them. We help people let go of spiritual blinders that restrict them, and open them to spiritual awareness that offers avenues for thriving.
The reality of life is that growth and transformation are constant, no matter how much we may resist them. Even when we think we’re finding ways to be stable, our bodies are being transformed cell-by-cell as we age. We may seek constancy, but life won’t let us be constant. That doesn’t mean that nothing’s ever stable. What it does mean is that life challenges us to embrace growth.
Right now we’re all going through that transformation. For instance, if we have children, they’re starting up school again at a different grade level. They’ve grown enough to move up. Churches are starting up their church years again as they try to lead members through spiritual transformation. Vacations are over and people are coming back to their jobs trying to help their companies, organizations, or the people they serve grow.
The struggle is that so many people don’t want growth. There are reasons why. For many growth is scary and anxiety-producing: what if we don’t like the changes that come with growth? What if it leads us to bad experiences? For others growth is frustrating because we don’t have the skills to do new things, and our lack skills frustrate us. Still others are overwhelmed by the constant changes of life around them and seek stability as a fort to fend off the discomfort of change.
Regardless of the reasons for having a set mindset, the reality is that life is about growth. We’re either growing or dying. Try to keep a plant from growing and it will die. Try to keep a child from growing and she or he will become despondent and lethargic. Try to keep ourselves from growing and we become isolated, self-protective, and cynical.
We’re here to help people grow. We are here to help individual, couples, families, pastors, and churches find ways to grow that lead to greater healing and health. As you go through this month of transformation, let us help you. And if you are a person who has a heart for helping others, we hope you’ll continue to support us in our work of healing and hope.
The Rev. Dr. N. Graham Standish, Ph.D., M.S.W., M.Div., M.A.
Don't Just Inform ... Form
Are We Stuck in Informational Churches?
“Yes! This is what’s missing in the church. This is what I’ve been seeking.”
It was my first year of doctoral studies in spirituality. I was immersed in the spiritual classics course, a three-semester deep dive into the writings of Christian spiritual masters throughout history.
Their insights were transformative, opening me to insights into the Christian life I hadn’t found in my seminary studies. What truly transformed my thinking was Thomas Kelly’s book, A Testament of Devotion. It opened up a whole new way of understanding the spiritual life. But it wasn’t just the book that impacted me. It was how we read it. I already knew how to read books in a typical, academic way — with an eye toward grasping the information. We read Kelly’s book differently. We read it formatively.
Formation vs. information
We’ve all been trained to read informatively. Years of schooling have drilled us to read relatively quickly in order to get the information into us so we can regurgitate it on an exam or in a paper. Years of reading news and gossip has similarly trained us to read quickly and informatively.
Formative reading (also called spiritual reading) is different. It’s intentionally slow, prayerful and reflective, allowing what we read to deeply shape our lives (for a free, downloadable resource on formative/spiritual reading and how to create small groups based on spiritual reading, go to www.ngrahamstandish.org).
Kelly’s book formed me. His emphasis on God’s presence within, of God’s grace working around us everywhere, and of God actively creating a blessed, grace-filled core in every church captured my imagination. The practice of formative reading also helped me realize that our churches had become informative rather than formative. It gave me insight into why so many people have walked away from Christianity: they want spiritual formation, not just religious information.
Formative vs. informative churches
How has mainline Christianity become informative? We’ve emphasized teaching theological information about Christian beliefs in our classes and sermons. We teach the context and history around a passage. We tell people what the biblical characters did and said and taught. We give people religious facts and history. All of this is important stuff, but this information by itself won’t deeply form people’s lives. It offers good information about God and life, rather than formation that connects us with God and helps us live deeply loving lives.
Learning to read formatively taught me how to pastor formatively. It taught me that everything we do in a church has the power to shape and form people spiritually. Everything from preaching to teaching to meetings to ministry to mission can nurture a deeper spiritual life that leads to a deeper life of service. It helped me realize that ministry and mission flow out of the spiritual life as spiritually mature Christians naturally become more ministry- and mission-minded.
How to create formative churches
What are examples of a more formative approach? One example is committee meetings. Generally, churches view committee meetings as a necessary evil. When we approach them formatively, though, they can become a primary way people can learn to pray and discern together while forming deeper relationships. In my previous church we used meeting times as mini-small groups to teach people how to listen for God together (resources can be found at www.ngrahamstandish.org).
Another example is preaching. I make sure in my sermons that I pragmatically teach people how to become awake and aware to God in every present moment, and how to hear and respond to God’ calling us to serve.
In teaching, I focus on what will help people form a deeper relationship with God that leads to deeper lives. Often, when leading conferences and talking about a more formative approach, I’ll ask pastors and others what they would include in a class on Jesus. They say they would talk about Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection. They’d talk about where he went, what he did, and share the parables he taught. That’s all good information. But it’s still an informational approach. I’ll then ask them what a Pentecostal might teach. Usually, they respond with, “How to experience Christ in their lives.” That’s the difference in a nutshell. Informational teaching gives us a history. Formational teaching helps us become part of the ongoing story. Formative teaching still uses information, but in a way that serves formation.
To be formative means to be deeply spiritual, but even more it addresses the complaints of so many who’ve walked away from church, which is that we’ve become religious and not spiritual. They’re seeking formation. They’re seeking churches that can more deeply shape their lives, helping them live in meaningful and purposeful ways. As Presbyterians we’ve been part of a tradition that’s become increasingly informative. My experience is that as we become more spiritually formative, we discover people who become interested in discovering us.
Are We Seeking Happiness or Joy?
So, what makes people truly happy? I’m sure you’ve wondered. As Americans, we’re raised to embrace right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. At some level, though, we’ve all wondered what pursuits actually lead to happiness?
What do you think brings about happiness? For many it’s achieving the American Dream. In past ages it was a simpler dream: having a house, a family, a car. Now it’s a dream to achieve so much more. In our bling-driven world we now typically define happiness in terms of big possessions and opportunities: how big is our house? How much financial security do we have? What kind of car do we drive? Do we have the freedom to be in charge of our lives?
Despite the promises of this dream, research has been consistently showing that these big achievements don’t bring about real happiness. Boston College did a research project in 2011 studying happiness among the super-wealthy (“Does Great Wealth Bring Fulfillment?” by Graeme Wood, The Atlantic, April 2011). They defined the super-wealthy as possessing more than $25 million in assets. These researchers found that the super-wealthy are a rather unhappy lot. Why? The more they had the more insecure they felt. They consistently complained of their deep anxieties about love, work, and family. They were also dissatisfied with their fortunes. Most of them don’t consider themselves to be wealthy, and on average they say that they would require about ¼ more wealth to feel secure. It’s elusive, though, because if they gained that ¼, they would want ¼ more to feel secure. In other words, they never feel secure. One respondent, who is the heir to a large fortune, said that despite his Christian faith, and his desire to love God, family, and friends, he still wouldn’t feel financially secure until he had at least $1 billion in the bank. Mind-boggling!
I don’t write this to criticize. I write this to point out that what brings us true happiness isn’t what we often think will. How can these people, blessed with so much, feel so insecure and unhappy? A lot of their insecurity and unhappiness stems from the fact that with great wealth comes great loneliness. When you have this much, who can relate to you? Who can you trust? Who is genuine and who isn’t? What really gives us a sense that our lives have purpose and meaning? Interestingly, the only thing that really seems to bring them happiness is giving their wealth away, which can simultaneously increase their sense of insecurity.
This isn’t a secret plea for greater contributions. This is a recognition that perhaps we all struggle to be happy because we all too often pursue what’s fleeting. We don’t pursue the deeper kind of life that helps us find JOY. The great spiritual writer, Richard Foster, talks about this. He says, “Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.”
Forming this kind of depth is difficult because it means seeking more in life than just the “stuff” that gives us fleeting happiness. Foster is talking about depth that brings about real joy. Joy is different from happiness. Joy is a state of being that allows us to find hope in the midst of tragedy, comfort in the midst of mourning, laughter in the midst of struggle, and light in the midst of darkness. It comes from seeking a deeper psychological and spiritual maturity that moves us out of a world of competitiveness and status, and into a life of compassion and generosity. Joy comes when our lives become about more than ourselves. It comes when we’re able to open up to a life that transcends mere happiness.
There’s nothing wrong with pursuing happiness, but if happiness is rooted in the pursuit of accumulating fleeting things, then happiness becomes more elusive. At Samaritan we try to help people move to deeper ways of living that bring about a greater lightness and joy—in our minds, our spirits, our relationships, and throughout our lives.
Let us be a part of your finding JOY in life, whether it’s through the counseling, coaching, spiritual direction we offer, or through your support of the others we help.
The Rev. Dr. N. Graham Standish, Ph.D., M.S.W., M.Div., M.A.
One of the greatest insights I’ve ever been given is a simple formula: from-through-to. It explains so much about life.
This simple idea has carried me through many, many difficult transitions. It’s helped me be stable during unstable times. It’s kept me going forward when all I wanted to do was to go back. It’s allowed me to persevere when my fears were screaming for me to give up.
The formula came from a spiritual mentor, Adrian van Kaam. His simple formula is the tip of a brilliant iceberg that explains much of life that remains below the surface. It reveals the reality that we’re always in the process of changing and transforming. We’re always in transition. At their best these transitions are positive, but often they’re not. Too often they’re experiences we don’t want—death, divorce, unemployment, disability, disease. From-through-to reminds us that we always have a choice: will we move through transitions in a positive, appreciative, life-enhancing way, or in a cynical, depreciative, life-sapping way?
So what is from-through-to? It’s a short way of saying that we are ALWAYS moving from a particular way of being, through a time of transition, to a new way of being. Van Kaam offers a more technical way of saying this: formation-transformation-reformation. It’s the same concept. Whether we like it or not we are always undergoing some sort of transformation that leads to a reformation of life. The question is how we’ll go through the process: with a sense of possibility or dismay?
We start dating someone. We get married. We have kids. Our kids start walking. They get potty trained. They go to school. They graduate. They move back in and out several times. We get older. We lose weight. We gain it back. We get a promotion or a demotion or become unemployed or re-employed. Someone close to us dies. Our marriage ends. New relationships begin. We develop a condition. A close friendship ends. A new one begins. We enter a time of profound loneliness. We enter a time of profound busyness. We’re constantly changing and transitioning.
The struggle in any transition is the through time—the period of transformation. Before a transition, we feel stable. We feel like we know what’s going on. We have some level of confidence about our lives. When we go through transitions and transformations, that crumbles to one extent or another. If the transition is a negative one, we can lose our whole sense of self. Even if the transition is positive, there’s still a time discontinuity and uncertainty as we push forward trying to figure out what to do.
I’m not talking theoretically. I’ve experienced all of this over the past two years of making a transition from senior pastor of a church to executive director of Samaritan. The move has been positive, but that doesn’t mean easy. Whenever we go through a period of transformation there’s always a sense of grief for what we’ve left behind married to an uncertainty about whether we’re up to the challenges ahead.
The biggest issue during times of transformation is that we get stuck in through. We want to go back but we know we can’t. We want to go forward and be done with it, but it takes time. And we’re not sure we’ll really want the new to—the new reformation that’s possible at the end. The period of through is a profoundly anxious, uncomfortable, and exhausting time.
So how does from-through-to help? It’s an acknowledgment that we are always undergoing transformation and reformation. We’re always transitioning. Absolute stability never exists. Transformation and reformation is the real state of life.
The profound question at the heart of the formula is this: am I willing to embrace ongoing transformation and reformation? When we go through periods of transformation and reformation, going it alone causes us to struggle more and to actually stay longer in the through periods. Healthy transformations require the help of others. Whenever I’ve gone through profound transformations, that’s when I’ve talked the most with others about what’s going on within and around me. I ask for their insights, their impressions, their prayers. I talk with my wife, friends, mentors, and sometimes those with professional skills and abilities.
We have a mission to help people navigate the constant process of from-through-to, whether they be negative or positive transformations, through our counseling, clergy coaching, or spiritual direction.
The key thing to remember is that we’re always undergoing a process of from-through-to. We can’t stop it, but we can find ways to embrace it so that we gain the wisdom to move through the process in ways that always make life better.
The Rev. Dr. N. Graham Standish, Ph.D., M.S.W., M.Div., M.A.
Can Memories Be Healed?
Memorial Day’s almost here and for many of us that’s when summer really begins. Its purpose, though, is to remember all who’ve died protecting us from harm. Reflecting on that got me thinking about all those who didn’t die, and who are now haunted by traumatic memories.
So many people are haunted by memories from past traumatic events, both veterans of war and those in other walks of life. We see these people on a regular basis at Samaritan. Trauma can come from so many experiences. Over the past twenty years we’ve become intimately aware of how P.T.S.D. (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) from military conflict can tear apart lives. But so does P.T.S.D. from catastrophic natural disasters, automobile accidents, the aftermath of domestic violence, surviving rape or assault, and more.
In our work we hear painful stories from people who’ve silently suffered childhood neglect and abuse and can’t quite move beyond them. For some these memories cause them to become hypersensitive and cautious. Others become hyper-vigilant and aggressive. In my work with pastors, I’m so aware of how many hold onto traumatic memories from past church conflicts. They try to serve with energy, creativity, and love, but have lingering fears that they’ll be criticized and attacked if they try. How do we unshackle ourselves from memories that weigh us down?
Our therapists help our clients heal from their memories. They help them build the courage to face past pains, gain insights into what caused them, and to discover new ways of dealing with them. But is there more?
One reason we integrate the spiritual into therapy is that we there is more than just emotional healing. The Christian and other spiritual traditions teach that when we integrate a spiritual perspective, we not only can heal memories, but we can even change the past. We can’t change what happened, but we can change how we see what happened. We can see the past in new ways that allow us to change the extent to which we’ll let trauma further damage our lives.
Forgiving others is a significant part of this healing. Forgiving isn’t forgetting. It’s relinquishing. When we forgive, we let the burden of our trauma go. We change the meaning of what happened. The word “forgive” literally means to “give completely.” We completely give away the burden of what someone has done to us. We know what happened and we learn from it, but we give away its emotional power to continue hurting us. In effect, we give ourselves the gift of giving away the pain, the weight, the struggle. We say, “I know you did this to me, but I’m no longer going to allow what you did define who I am. What you did may stay with me, but I’m giving the pain back to you.”
I’ve heard people say that we can’t forgive unless the other repents, but that just allows her or him to retain control over our lives. True forgiveness lets go of the pain, allowing us to start afresh—to become more energetic and creative. Even more, it creates space for spiritual healing by giving us the courage to trust again—to trust others, ourselves, and God.
Too many people spend too much of their lives reliving their painful memories, trying to protect themselves from further pain. These memories can be healed. Therapy and spirituality both help us recognize that trauma has two shackles holding us back—the shackle of the initial trauma, and the shackle of anxiety and anger arising from our memories of the trauma. The second is the strongest.
Therapy allows us to begin loosening the bonds of the initial trauma by making us aware that those who hurt us were enslaved by their own pain. It helps us become aware that our shackles aren’t locked, and that we can uncuff ourselves and walk free.
The spiritual step of forgiving allows us to release the shackle of anxiety that’s bound up in our memories of the trauma. We are no longer bound by those who hurt us. We let God in enough to free us because we’re no longer holding onto pain. This finally allows our memories to heal—to become simply events that took place, but that no longer have the power to hurts us anymore.
At Samaritan all of us live to help others heal. As we remember those who gave up their lives to protect us from those might hurt us, it’s also important to remember that we are here and ready to help let go of memories that still hurt.
The Rev. Dr. N. Graham Standish, Ph.D., M.S.W., M.Div., M.A.
Can Easter Really Be Pain-Free?
What experiences have you had that have left you pondering them for years afterwards? All of us have had them. They’re those moments that have changed our whole perception of the world. They force us to grow.
I had one of these experiences in the early 1990s. I was privileged to have studied with students from all across the U.S. and the world as part of my Ph.D. program. We were pastors, priests, friars and nuns from all different traditions. We represented a whole range of faith traditions: Methodist, Episcopal, Assemblies of God, Lutheran, Disciples of Christ, Baptist, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Presbyterian, and more. We came from across the U.S., Canada, Australia, Taiwan, Ireland, Malawi, Ghana, Kenya, the Philippines,… and those are just the places I remember.
Some of my most profound memories came from discussions we had over bagged lunches in the student lounge. We explored so many topics from such a variety of perspectives that it stretched our brains … sometimes painfully so.
One day during Lent of 1993, several of us Protestant pastors were lamenting over lunch about our favorite Lenten lament: “Why are our churches overflowing on Easter Sunday but mostly empty on Good Friday? Don’t people know how important Good Friday is?” Father Anthony, a Roman Catholic priest from Kenya, gave us a puzzling look and asked, “You get people in your churches on Easter? We’re filled to overflowing on Good Friday. We have to beg them to come on Easter.”
“What? You’re full on Good Friday and empty on Easter? That doesn’t make sense,” we replied. He became our teacher in that moment as we peppered him to explain why. Always a deeply thoughtful man, Father Anthony offered an explanation that I still think about 25 years later: “I think in America you’re all so afraid of pain and suffering that you only want a Jesus who is pain-free and happy. In Africa we know suffering and pain every day, so we want a Jesus who suffers with us. We have a harder time embracing a Jesus who is no longer suffering and who tells us that there is hope.”
I can’t speak about Africa, but he was right about America. We see pain as the enemy. In his culture they see pain as the reality. In fact, that reality has been the reality of life for almost all of human existence.
My experience as a pastor bore out what we discussed that day. Our church was never more than half full on Good Friday and was always overflowing on Easter Sunday. Pondering Father Anthony’s wisdom ever since, it’s made me realize that perhaps we can become so afraid of pain that we prevent the possibility of healing because deep healing often entails pain. Without Good Friday there really is no Easter.
Pain can be a pathway to joy when it opens us up to healing. Clearly pain that comes from a deep injury needs to be relieved in order for healing to take place; yet more often for deeper healing we have endure pain. As the Bible has repeatedly pointed out, endurance often leads to deeper healing and an even deeper wisdom. Think about the wisest people you know. How many have also endured great pain?
Can our avoidance of pain lead us to greater pain? Can we become so pain-avoidant that we keep ourselves from finally becoming healed? Perhaps it’s a paradox: to be healed of pain we may have to suffer more pain.
The opioid crisis captures this paradox. Caring and healing doctors prescribe narcotic painkillers to reduce or eliminate the pain of injury or surgery. But that protection from suffering may cause greater suffering. To the surprise of many on these painkillers, the relief they get from physical pain also seems to reduce the psychological and emotional pain that comes from living everyday life. And so the addiction stars, but it also spreads, creating painful situations for family, friends, and coworkers. The addict’s attempt to relieve pain spreads more pain, causing the addict to become isolated and depend more and more upon the substance to relieve the now growing pain of fraying relationships and a more troubled life. It’s not just opioid addictions that do this. So do alcohol, gambling, porn, food, sex, work, shopping, and other addictions. They are attempts to relieve pain that increase pain, which we then feel we need more relief from. It’s a downward, painful spiral.
Pain avoidance isn’t relegated merely to realm of addiction. Most people considering counseling are scared of it because they know that digging into themselves will be painful. They understand something basic about our therapists, coaches, and spiritual directors: we help people heal by helping them face their pain. It’s part of the process of becoming healed. There is pain in counseling, but there is also incredible healing, just as there was great suffering on Good Friday but incredible healing on Easter Sunday. Facing our suffering opens us to healing and wholeness.
Father Anthony faced a situation where his people identified with suffering but were skeptical of hope and healing. Often in our country people only want hope, with or without healing. Samaritan is a place of both hope and healing that helps people face their suffering. We help people and pastors who are having Good Friday life experiences find their own personal Easters.
The key wisdom is this: In life there will be pain and suffering. But there is also hope, healing, joy, and celebration. The key is being willing to go through Good Friday to get there.
The Rev. Dr. N. Graham Standish, Ph.D., M.S.W., M.Div., M.A.
February 26, 2019
Can We Be Spiritual without Community?
Back in 1983 I never imagined the course my life would take from a self-reliant, “spiritual but not religious” young adult therapist, to church member, seminary student, pastor, and now executive director of a faith-based counseling center. My 24-year-old self would have been shocked.
Way back then I believed that church was harmful and got in the way of being spiritually healthy. I had a strong faith in God, but I was suspicious of the church. I was a product of the growing 1980s belief that church was for the weak-minded who cared more about rituals than about God. I clearly remember saying to a friend, “Christianity only gets in our way. It keeps us from discovering who God really is.” I was way ahead of my time since so many people today think this way. I was wrong, but I was ahead of my time.
Why was I wrong? I discovered that this highly individualistic view of spirituality actually pulls us away from God. In my early 20s a long period of unemployment led me to reassess my life’s purpose, my relationship with God, and how to live a deeper life. The experience showed me that my spirituality was based on my ego—on my need to control the journey and to choose only those beliefs and spiritual practices I liked. As I spun into spiritual despondency, wondering where God was in my persistent joblessness, I felt so alone. My Grahamian faith was failing. So I swallowed my ego and joined the church.
In joining a church I had to admit that all that independence, all that spiritual self-reliance, was keeping me insulated from what God wanted. I needed others. I needed a church. What a defeat! What an epiphany!
Joining the church, going to seminary, getting a counseling degree, eventually becoming a pastor, and getting a doctorate in spiritual formation led me to understand human and spiritual growth from deeper and broader perspectives. Because of my experiences, I spent a lot of time exploring the contrast between a self-reliant and a communal spirituality.
What’s wrong with spiritual self-reliance? First of all, when we’re spiritually self-reliant we tend to see ourselves as the center of spiritual wisdom: “I know best what’s right and what’s spiritual!” We craft a spirituality to fit our wisdom, which often is limited by our unwillingness to pursue venues of deeper wisdom. Like eating at a Sunday buffet, we adopt all sorts of spiritual beliefs and practices culled from different religions, but how do we tell if what we’re culling is healthy or just tastes good? Being part of a spiritual community pushes us to grow by pushing us to grapple with people, practices, and prudence we might otherwise avoid.
When we craft our own spirituality, do we make the path too easy? Do we only engage in appealing practices and beliefs, even if they make us psychologically, relationally, and spiritually sick? Do we end up moving further away from God than we thought we were, while thinking we’re moving closer to God? When we choose a spiritually self-reliant path, we often end up creating God and religion in our own image. Is that healthy?
As we cull insights from all different faiths into our own mix what’s the one insight we generally don’t mix in, the one insight that’s universally common and essential to all spiritual traditions? Being part of a spiritual community. There’s no spiritual tradition that emphasizes the individual over the communal. None. Individualism is part of our American tradition, but it’s foreign to Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, shamanistic tribal religions, Christianity, and even AA. All of them stress that to grow closer to God, or whatever they understand God to be, we have to grow closer to each other. Why? Because a connection with the Holy means connection with each other.
Our individualism causes us a lot of psychological and spiritual harm. It’s led to a lack of commitment in relationships, marriages, parenting, workplaces, society, and so many other areas of life. It also leads to divisiveness because each of us believes our own truth is THE TRUTH, and we become less willing to humbly consider other points of view.
Worldwide studies have shown that the U.S., along with France, have the highest rates of depression and anxiety in the world. We’re also the two most individualistic countries in the world. The lowest rates of depression tend to come from lower income countries that emphasize community much more than we do. We have more money, possessions, opportunities than anywhere else, but we are also more depressed.
What do we do about all of this? Find some sort of spiritual community that can help us discover God. I’m not advocating for any particular community. If you aren’t part of one already, search for one. Ask God to help you find the community that’s right for you.
I believe in church communities because they push us to move beyond selfishness, self-focus, and self-reliance. Churches can be incredibly irritating, restricting, and imperfect because they’re filled with people, and people are irritating. Yet they also move us more into God’s love by pushing us to connect with people we normally might ignore.
I had a revelation early on in my ministry at Calvin Presbyterian Church. I was sitting in a board meeting and a thought popped up in my head as I looked around: “These are the coolest people on earth. They’re working so well together and caring so much about each other. They’re just so cool! And they’re NOT the kind of people I would normally hang out with.” Churches create communities where we interact with, care about, and work with people we would never bother to get to know on our own—the kind of people God wants us to love. As flawed as they are, they help us become healthier spiritually.
The Rev. Dr. N. Graham Standish, Ph.D., M.S.W., M.Div., M.A.
January 25, 2019
Is a Resolution Really a Solution?
Now that we’re almost a month into 2019, how are your resolutions going? Did you make any? Have they worked? I’ve often been a New Year’s Resolution kind of guy. Every Christmas I secretly vow to make some sort of change. It’s usually in reaction to the frustrating toxicity of everything I’ve eaten and drunk throughout December.
I’ve been incredibly successful each year with my resolutions,… as long as you consider it successful to have a resolution last a week and only have a 10% success rate at that. In other words my resolutions almost always fail.
I’m not alone. Most New Year’s resolutions have a pretty high failure rate. Why? Because the same conditions that were there before the end of the year are still there at the beginning of the next year. We still eat the same foods, live in the same family, have the same job, are tempted by the same temptations, and face the same situations.
Does the difficulty of changing everything mean that we’re all doomed to failure? No. It simply means that beginning-of-the-year changes often are. They fail because they take place once a year in a limited context. Real change and transformation is ongoing and more comprehensive.
While doing my doctoral studies in spiritual formation, I was taught an idea that has had a profound impact on me ever since. We are always undergoing transformation. The healthy person embraces it.
We are always undergoing transformation. You already know this is true. Do you still look the same as you did as a child, a teen, a young adult? Do you think the same as you did then? We are always changing, but do we embrace it? Many people spend their lives resisting change as they cling to their youth, their image, their situations, their past accomplishments. They try so hard to hold onto what’s passing that they don’t embrace what’s coming.
People who embrace transformation actually live better lives. Yes, as you get older it’s hard to stay thinner. Yes, as you get older it can be hard to have the same energy. But those aren’t impediments. They’re invitations to become healthier. They’re also invitations to become wiser because we don’t root our lives in the shallower, skin-deep aspects of life. We become empowered to move into the deeper ways of living.
The Quaker spiritual writer, Richard Foster, in his book, Celebration of Discipline, wrote, “Superficiality is the cures of our age…The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.” Embracing change means embracing the dive into depth. Another spiritual sage, Adrian van Kaam, once said that as our bodies begin to decline it opens the door to becoming more mature psychologically. And as our psychological abilities plateau it opens the door to becoming more mature spiritually. Those fading phases also reveal open pathways.
I’ve personally experienced this in my own ongoing transformation. Those of you who knew me in my teen years growing up in Sewickley may have remembered me as a jock with poor grades (I finished in the lower ¼ of my graduating class). Those who knew me in college knew me as an athlete who hung out with non-athletes and had decent grades. Those who knew me in graduate school didn’t know much at all about me athletically, and simply considered me to be a really good student with a different way of thinking—as a person interested in a whole variety of topics.
Many who knew me in my junior high days knew me as a kid who always got into a lot of trouble. Most who’ve known me later have known me as a person who always tries to help people in trouble. Those who knew me as a pastor and therapist don’t believe me when I tell them what I was like in high school and junior high. Those who knew me back then have a hard time believing I became a pastor and a therapist (some have even laughed at the thought). Even my changing vocations in my late 50s from pastor of a healthy, growing church to becoming executive director was an embrace of change. It required me to embrace growth by learning from the wisdom of Samaritan’s incredible leadership staff, but also the insights of executive directors in our association from across the country.
These were all intentional transformations that took place over a long time because I was purposeful about them. I wanted to become a good student. I wanted to help people. I wanted to change who I was. And I worked on it year after year after year after year, through reading, self-reflection, praying, talking with others who had wisdom, working with spiritual directors and counseling supervisors and pastoral mentors. I didn’t just wait until New Year’s Day. I made it my life-goal to become someone intentionally better.
So, what’s the secret to successful New Year’s resolutions? Don’t make them at New Year’s. Make them lifelong. Be intentional about them. Imagine what you want to become, regardless of your age, and devote yourself to it. Change your inside, but also change your outside situation if necessary.
The key is to be intentional, persistent, determined, courageous, and do it with and through others help. And to seek and follow God’s guidance in this. This is what Samaritan embraces. We are a place for people who have the determination and courage to change, and a place for those generous souls who love to help others make those changes.
The Rev. Dr. N. Graham Standish, Ph.D., M.S.W., M.Div., M.A.
December 10, 2018
The Advent Answer to
Why do people get so stressed and even depressed this time of year? Isn’t the answer obvious? The Christmas season’s gotten so demanding and hectic that it’s impossible to be less stressed. But I have another answer. We’re so stressed because we’ve forgotten to stress Advent.
So many people today think the Christmas season begins right after Black Friday ends. That’s when they start putting up their Christmas decorations, start listening to Christmas music, begin going to all sorts of Christmas parties, and ramp up their level of stress. The season of Advent suggests that we slow down and take time each week to focus on forming a greater sense of hope, peace, joy, and love. Each week is intentionally leading us to center.
Why have so many forgotten Advent, and why do I think Advent, or at least the idea of Advent, is so important to living a balanced life, especially this time of year? I think a lot of it has to do with the drive of our culture to live superficially and to avoid going deeper. And Advent calls us to go deeper.
Most people don’t realize that the Christian year has two cycles that repeat themselves, and that they are meant to keep our lives in balance. We’re familiar with the Lent/Easter/After Easter time. But are we as familiar with the Advent/Christmas/After Christmas time?
These seasonal cycles are meant to maintain spiritual, mental, and even physical health. They present a balance where we spend a season in intentional reflection and prayer. This is followed by a season of celebrating and being deeply aware of God’s presence. And that is followed by a season of spiritual and life growth. It’s much like the cycle of planting to harvesting from spring through fall. The fields are ploughed to prepare for growth. We celebrate the shoots emerging from the dark soil as they stretch toward the sun. We then settle in for a time of growth until the harvest.
Advent was originally intended to be a time of self-reflective prayer and spiritual preparation. We weren’t meant to rush into the celebration of Christmas. We were meant to prepare for it. Christmas itself begins on Christmas day, and is meant to be a 12-day celebration where we discover God’s presence all through our lives. The season between Christmas and Lent is meant to be a time of growing and harvesting what’s come from our preparation and celebration.
So what does Advent have to do with mental and spiritual health? Both take intention. If we want to be mentally or spiritually healthy, we have to work on them. Health doesn’t come automatically. We need to take time to work on ourselves. Clearly counseling, as well as spiritual direction, can be part of this. It takes courage to work intentionally on ourselves because many people are scared to do inner work and then change. But the yield from doing so can be incredible.
You may be reading this late into the Advent season, but you can still use the season for growth. Don’t just give yourself over to the hectic pace of how everyone else sees Christmas:
Take and make time for yourself to slow down in its midst, and include prayer and reflection in this slowing down.
Take time to look inside and at your life and consider how you want to change in healthy ways.
Find people to talk with about issues you’re struggling with.
And remember that we at Samaritan are here to help in so many ways.
The Rev. Dr. N. Graham Standish, Ph.D., M.S.W., M.Div., M.A.
November 15, 2018
Generosity Grows Generosity
I learned a lot from my father. Some of you knew him and knew what a tremendous man he was. He had many great qualities, but among the greatest was his generosity. I don’t think there were many causes that he wasn’t willing to contribute to if asked, yet he also kept most of his giving unseen in the background. He contributed to churches, charities, colleges, seminaries, and people in need. To me he embodied generosity. He saw giving as a central part of his life’s purpose.
Sitting at the kitchen table one night as we tried our best to solve the world’s problems (something we never quite accomplished but had great fun trying), I asked him why he gave so much. His answer gave me a life lesson: “Graham, I don’t give because I have to. I give because I’ve been given so much. I don’t deserve any of what I’ve been given, but God has blessed me so much that I can’t even comprehend it. I’ve been given you, this family, my friends, my career, my community, and so much more. And I don’t know how to really say ‘thank you’ to God for all of it. So I give as a way of saying thank you to God for blessing me so much. I give back to God just a little bit of what God has given me. I just hope it helps bless other people as much as God’s blessed me.”
This lesson has stayed with me. I’m in a generosity vocation. I was as a pastor and now am as executive director of Samaritan. Our vocation is giving. We’re a center that hires people to give their time, efforts, training, wisdom, and their lives to help others heal. They’re called to make giving their living because it’s their calling.
We often think of giving in monetary terms, but I’ve learned to think of it in generosity terms. We’re called by God to be generous, and when we are we actually multiply blessings in the world. Our generosity grows generosity.
One of my favorite passages on generosity in the Bible is Luke 6:38—“Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” In other words, as we give we get even more. I learned that lesson from my father, and I’ve experienced it’s truth in my life. I’m blessed in so many, many ways, and so I try to live my father’s example by giving back to grow God’s blessings in the world.
I also think a lot about something the Quaker writer and spiritual guide, Richard Foster, said in his book, Freedom of Simplicity: “There are those who are called to the ministry of money. The gift of giving is a vital and valid spiritual gift, and essential to it is the task of using money for the common good.” I feel called both to a ministry of effort and a ministry of money.
I’m blessed to have a vocation of giving. And I’m also blessed to be able to give both time and contributions to Samaritan, as well as to other charities, as part of my own calling.
As we get ready to enter the Advent season, a season of preparing for the gift of Christ’s presence and light, I encourage you to ask God how you are called to live a life of generosity that reaps a huge harvest of generosity in the world. Your generosity is a gift that brings healing, hope, and blessings into the world.
When you give to Samaritan or to any other compassionate cause, you are giving back to God, you are growing generosity and blessing in the world, and you bring light into the world.
October 29, 2018
Healing Fruit from
the Tree of Life
It’s incredibly hard to know how to respond to the tragic events from Saturday’s Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Squirrel Hill. The word “tragic” can’t capture our feelings. It’s demoralizing. It’s even harder if you have a healer’s heart.
How do we help people heal when it feels like acts of devastating hatred are spreading?
At the Pitt football game on Saturday they had a moment of silence for the victims, and I couldn’t stop stinging tears from welling up. It’s so frustrating to feel powerless in the face of such spreading hatred and violence.
I’ve been a healer for most of my life. Early in my career I was as a therapist in a psychiatric hospital with children and teens, trying to help them heal from the pain of broken families and lives. As a pastor, I saw being a healer as my primary role. I hoped to help heal people spiritually, mentally, and physically. Healing prayer was always a major part of my ministry.
Now as executive director of Samaritan I lead an incredible team of healers who wade into the deep pain of people’s lives to help them heal from hidden wounds. Our therapists and staff are just as devastated as you and I are. They’ve committed their lives to healing, and most of them are more skilled at it than
I’ve been struggling all weekend with what to say and how to respond to our wounds, especially from Samaritan’s perspective. I have some thoughts I want to share with you:
1. How do we respond to Saturday’s shooting? By being healers. I always gain strength from Samaritan’s DNA, which is the Good Samaritan story. The Samaritan cared for the wounded man regardless of the possible conse-quences. He tended to a man’s wounds in a dangerous place where he could have been assaulted. He then took him to safety, taking it upon himself to pay for his care. Whatever our feelings are, it’s important to find ways to be healers who help healing grow.
2. We all are the antidote to hate. Hate is a toxin, and acts of hate tend to spread hate like a virus. Holding onto hate, resentment, and anger poisons our minds and souls. We can be an antidote and a vaccine that spreads healing. When you feel the toxicity of hate overwhelming you, look for opportunities to spread kindness and compassion.
3. Look to what you can do to make things better rather than railing against what you can’t do. Look to what transforms bitter feelings into something better.
4. Remember that Samaritan is here for you as you struggle to find healing.
Our therapists are healers who are trained to help people heal from wounds. And make no mistake, all of us have been wounded by what seems to be a constant flow of hate-inspired violence in this country. Our therapists struggle with this just as you do, yet they are also trained to help people heal from these wounds, and even wounds that may be coming in the future.
5. Look for what’s right in the world, not just what’s wrong. I recently read an account from someone who said he had an angel experience. He asked the angel how God could allow so much bad to happen. The angel gently said to him, “We see things from a different perspective. We see the world’s evil, but we know that all the evil acts in the world are only this much.” The angel’s finger and thumb were held in a pinch several centimeters apart. “We see all the world’s small self-sacrificing acts of kindness, compassion, and love happening in every moment of every day all around the world, and they are this much.” With that the angel’s arms spread out wide, stretching even further than arms should. What do I take from this? Whether or not you believe in angels, the comment is true. Look at the outpouring of kindness, compassion, and love in the wake of Saturday’s shooting. This is how the hatred will be overcome, and you are part of that angel-arms-wide-apart response.
However else you are called to respond, I want to encourage you to respond to the shootings with faith, hope, kindness, compassion, and love. Join us in being healers. And if you need help with this know that we are a place of healing
Dr. Standish has written publicly about overcoming our culture’s divisions in
the past. Please read his article on overcoming our divisions in his August 2017 op-ed in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Hitting Bullies with Our Cheeks
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount has been foundational to me. It has such deep wisdom and insight, yet it also contains so much to struggle over. As great as it is, so much of what it tells us to do seems so,… so,… so unrealistic.
How are we blessed when we are in mourning, meek, act as peacemakers, or are falsely accused? How are we supposed to love enemies and pray for those who persecute us? Are we not supposed to save and invest money, which could be seen as storing for ourselves treasures on earth? How are we supposed to go through life with all its worries and not worry? And how in the world are we supposed to live without judging? Wouldn’t that just make us victims of cons? So much of the Sermon on the Mount seems so unrealistic because it runs counter to human wisdom, yet it also provides a challenge on how to live better lives.
Perhaps the most difficult teaching to follow is to not resist the evildoer, but “if anyone strikes us on the right cheek, turn your other also…” (Matthew 5:39). Yikes! So we’re just supposed to give in? Not necessarily.
I preached a sermon on turning the other cheek years ago. Afterwards a concerned parent asked if I was suggesting that her son, who had been bullied, should just let himself be bullied. I reminded her that this wasn’t what I said, but that what I did say was still difficult. I shared with some of my own personal experiences.
When I was in 6th grade a classmate was pushing me around and was clearly trying to bully me. In one particular time during recess he tried to hit me. I managed to grab his wrist and refused to let go. Then I grabbed the other and refused to let go. He fell on top of me and screamed for me to let go of his wrists. I said, “No matter what you do I’m not going to fight you, and I’m also not going to give into you.”
This wasn’t just a spontaneous idea. I had been influenced by what I knew of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. Both had taught that we need to stand up to unjust bullies, while refusing to fight them because fighting gives them power. So does running away. The key was being willing to stand up to them without either becoming either violent like them or scared like they want us to be.
Funny thing is that over the years I tried this same approach and the response each time was the same: they were bewildered and then left me alone. That included a college drunk my freshman year who wanted to hit me for some reason I can’t remember.
So, what I said to the boy’s mother was that she had to teach her son what she thought was the right way to respond to bullying, which very well could mean ignoring Jesus’ teaching. But I also suggested remembering that Jesus taught us to neither fight nor flee, but to force the bully to respect us by standing up to him or her. The very real danger in this approach is that it can lead to physical and emotional harm. But so can fighting or fleeing. The power bullies have is that they trap us and force us into no-win situations.
October is National Bullying Prevention Month, and I can’t help but think of my experiences with bullies growing up. We didn’t have the same kinds of awareness of bullying that people do now, nor were we faced with the methods of bullying today that have expanded to the internet, social media, and texting.
Looking back at my life, I remember certain things that really helped me, which might possibly help children, teens, and even adults today:
1. Read the rest of this newsletter. Our staff members are offering great
insights on what to do.
2. Create circles of friendship and don’t isolate. Bullies always gain power
when we are alone, and especially when we isolate. Friends and family help us through this by creating circles that either intervene for us or guide us through it. Those most exposed to bullies, whether schoolyard bullies or abusive spouses, are often those who allow themselves to become isolated. So keep your friends no matter what, and make
3. Be a part of a community of faith where people are committed to caring.
People who are bullied often think people don’t care. It’s easy to feel that way when we’re isolated. I still remember something our youth director at my previous church said to me: “One of the amazing things about our youth group is that they protect each other at school.” I’ve also heard from adults who have been bullied by bosses and have said that talking to other church members or the pastor about it has helped them either deal with it, address it in their workplaces, or find other jobs.
4. Don’t let others force you to become who you aren’t. That’s what
dominant people want. They want us to become small so that they can feel big. Don’t let them. Even if you’re helpless in your situation, don’t let how others treat you turn you into someone you aren’t.
5. Talk to someone who can help. If you feel bullied talk to school officials,
pastors, counselors, friends, or anyone who can offer even small help. What makes bullying more powerful is our isolation and silence, so seek the help of others. And keep trying.
The Rev. Graham Standish, Ph.D., M.S.W., M.Div., M.A.
The Seasons ARE Life!
Have you ever reflected on how much wisdom the four seasons teach? They’ve been a source of wisdom for age upon age, and they can teach us how to become mentally and spiritually healthier.
The Bible clearly sees the seasons as a source of wisdom. The writer of Ecclesiastes said, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” He knew that the seasons were a metaphor for life, for life is never constant and always changing. These changes can sometimes promise renewal like spring, be full of growth like summer, offer beautiful maturity like fall, or lie fallow like winter.
Throughout my life I’ve always loved one season more than others. As a teen I loved winter for two reasons: snow days and hockey. Winter meant possibly staying home from school without being sick. I also meant playing hockey! The best was when I could spend a snow day on a local pond playing hockey. Then I quit playing hockey, graduated from high school, and began to hate winter. Too c-c-c-c-cold and no snow days.
So summer became my favorite season. It meant being outside, playing, beaches, lakes, and warmth.
As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to love all seasons (although winter does require short trips south for a break). I’ve recognized that each season lets go of what needs to pass, and opens us to what needs to change. Every season has its own purpose and wisdom.
The seasons can teach us how to nurture mental and spiritual health. One of the struggles many in counseling can have is letting go of the past. So many of us have had winter-like, painful experiences that we can’t let go. We think about them over and over again (the wonderful psychological term for this is “perseverate”—to get stuck obsessively thinking about past struggles over and over again). We hate the pain of these memories, but we can’t let them go. It’s like being in spring but obsessing about how awful winter was. Therapy tries to help us let the winter-experiences go so we can move into spring, summer, or even fall.
Deep spiritual wisdom tries to do the same thing. The Christian mystical, spiritual tradition encourages people to let go of the past in order to live in the present. It teaches us to know that the past happened and is gone. There’s an old story about this.
Two monks, who had taken vows to never touch or speak to a woman, were on a pilgrimage. They came to a river and found a woman weeping. The first monk asked her, “Why are you crying?” She said, “I’m traveling to my family and I can’t swim across this river.” The monk said, “I’ll carry you.” As they reached the other bank, she thanked him and skipped down the trail toward her family’s village.
The two monks proceeded along another path, but the second monk was clearly angry at the first. Miles later he exploded in anger: “Brother, you took a vow never to speak to or touch a woman. How could you have done this? You have corrupted everything we stand for?” The first monk replied, “Dear brother, I saw a person in distress and love told me to help her. So I did. I left her back by the river. Why are you still carrying her in your mind?” Therapy and spiritual direction can help us leave our burdens in the past.
We also can worry too much about the future. Jesus says, “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” Anxiety about the future is like spending all spring worrying about whether or not our flowers will grow, our grass will turn brown, hornets will build nests close to our houses, vacations will be fun and renewing, or pests will kill our trees. Worry kills our ability to love new leaves, blossoming flowers, and the songs of the birds. It’s okay to prepare for the coming seasons, but we need to live where we are and find meaning where we are. Therapy and spiritual direction help us let go of anxiety so we can enjoy now.
Each season of life has its own meaning and its own wisdom. Winter snow replenishes soil and aquafers. Spring allows roots to spread and buds to blossom. Summer allows roots to deepen and fruit to ripen. Fall means sharing the harvest as fallen leaves return nutrients to the soil.
Our lives are a constant cycle of seasons, and Samaritan can help people through that cycle. Perhaps we hate the winter-like pain of our lives. Still, times of shivering struggle can prepare us to grow. Perhaps we hate the slow pace of spring-like change. Still, taking our time allows growth to take root and spread. Perhaps we only want summer-like pleasantness without summer heat and dryness. Still, even dry times allow us to sink deeper roots into wisdom that prepares the way for a more fruitful life. Perhaps we don’t like letting old ways drop like autumn leaves. Still, dropping them can nourish future growth as the cycle continues.
We’ve been created to live lives that constantly change, transition, and transform. And we at Samaritan are here to help people through these seasons.
The Rev. Graham Standish, Ph.D., M.S.W., M.Div., M.A.