The Shrewd Manager or Getting Unstuck

PROPER 20C – SEPTEMBER 18, 2016 – SAINT JOHN’S EPISCOPAL – MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE

shrewd-manager2

The manager was never sure who turned him in. But somehow the master got wind of his little “on the side” business deals and called him on the carpet. The boss said that an outside accountant was auditing the books and just as soon as the report came and he knew the bottom line of the manager ‘s malfeasance: he was out on his ear. Back in his office, the manager thought to himself, “Self, what will I do, I’m too puny to dig and too proud to beg.” Then it hit him. He would fix things so he would have a few friends when he needed references.

Now, let me pause in our story for an infomercial on stuckness. We have all experienced being stuck – when the way we have always done something no longer works. Paralysis strikes individuals, institutions and nations. What happens when things get stuck?

PEOPLE KEEP TRYING HARDER BUT WITH NO NEW RESULTS.

There is a treadmill effect of trying harder. No one changes perspective or direction; they just keep trying harder. A bird will see its reflection in the window and spend hours bouncing off the window in the vain attempt to get at the other bird. Trying harder will not get you unstuck.

PEOPLE KEEP TRYING TO FIND NEW ANSWERS TO OLD QUESTIONS INSTEAD OF CHANGING THE QUESTION. Questions are perceptions. How you phrase a question determines the range of possible solutions. For example, you put a person on the witness stand and say, “now answer yes or no, do you still beat your spouse.” If indeed you do not and have never beaten your wife or husband, the question won’t let you get at the truth.

WHAT ARE NEEDED NEW QUESTIONS.   Perhaps that is why the Gospels rarely show Jesus answering people’s questions.  He usually asked another question.

PEOPLE GET POLARIZED.  They only see utter black and pure white. Things are really great or just shy of a disaster. Not only are there extremes but also there are many options in between. Polarization keeps people from coming up with new possibilities.

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Stuck systems get un-stuck via adventure!

In 1492 Columbus sailed west, in order to arrive in the east. On his way to China, he bumped into the Americas. The moral of that story being, “What you find may be more valuable than what you were looking for.”

NOW BACK TO OUR STORY. THE MACHIAVELLIAN MANAGER GETS UNSTUCK.
1. He doesn’t keep doing the same thing, only harder. He does a new thing.
2. He does not look for new answers to old questions; he asks a new question.
3. He’s too puny dig and too proud to bet, but between those extremes are lots of options.

Since on one knows he is about to be fired he calls in the accounts receivable and says to the first, “How much do you owe my master?” The answer, “a hundred jugs of olive oil.” The manager said, “Take your bill, sit down quickly and make it fifty.” He has another account mark his hundred containers of wheat down to eighty. What is he doing?

shrewd-manager

In that culture, a manager did not earn a salary for running the estate, and so, when he agreed to lend on his master’s goods, he had been paid in kind, correspondingly increasing the amount of the bill. Fearing for his future the manager cuts his markup and reduces the receipts to their amount. While he had previously inflated the bills to enrich himself, now, he sacrifices his markups. By giving up what was ill-gotten, he made an investment in good will in the community without costing the master anything. At any rate, when he heard what the manager had done, the master commended him for his shrewdness or prudence. His adventure got him unstuck!

This parable is disturbing which is what a parable is supposed to do. A parable is designed to create distance and provokes thought. Parables challenge one’s sense of the proper hierarchy of things.

The manager is not praised in general but only for his “prudent actions.” The manager recognized the critical danger of the situation. He did not let things simply take their course, but boldly, resolutely and prudently moved to make a new life for himself. Jesus tells his listeners and us that we need to wake up and discern the real situation. Discern what is going on and take action.

In the past 15 years, stuckness has become a way of life. Since September 11, 2001, as a nation we feel stuck in a conflict that is disturbing, even terrifying. How do we function in a world of terror? People are stuck in their lives, marriages, careers, and families. Fear and paralysis are common. The challenge of this time demands wisdom and shrewdness.

There are two kinds of situations in life that I might call level I and level II.

1. A level I situation is one in which nothing we do will make a difference. The collapse of the Twin Towers of the Trade Center was a level I. If you were on the top floor of one of those buildings your personal maturity and wisdom made no difference to gravity.

2. A level II situation is one in which our response makes a crucial difference.

I trust you remember the old TV show MacGyver. Given the anxiety in the society, I’m not surprised a remake is about to launch on TV. In every episode, the hero, MacGyver, originally played by Richard Dean Anderson, now by Lucas Till, found himself in some scrape that appeared to be a level I situation. He would take a hairpin, the contents of his fountain pen and some aluminum foil and escape. The show was built on his response making all the difference. Most situations we encounter in life are level II. But all too often we go around mistaking level II for level I circumstances. Our response is crucial.

We must dig deep into our faith and find the resources to conquer fear. As our Lord once said, “Perfect (mature) love casts our fear.” As Christians, we believe that the worst things that happen to us are never the last things. For Jesus has overcome the world.

If we are shrewd, we recognize that our wealth cannot get us out of the last crisis. No, says Jesus, “read the signs and be shrewd. Don’t depend on money that is passing away. Rather rely on those things that do not pass away – love: God’s love for us and our love for each other. The resurrection of Jesus opens vast possibilities for because he overcame the ultimate level I situation: death.

Remember the way to get unstuck is an adventure. I believe that Jesus is saying something to us like, “Trust me. Come and follow me on the adventure of eternity. You may be scared, but you will not be bored. For I will never leave you or forsake you.” Our response here is crucial – will we accept the call of Jesus or not? It is up to us.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

What I hope Christians learn while following Jesus?

follow 2

For five years,  we at Saint John’s have lived in the rhythm and measurement of RenewalWorks.  (www.renewalworks.org )  The means, practices and resources we have created we file under the rubric: SOULWorks.  What now?  Last month,  I was pondering that question and began to list some skills, practices and states of being that grow from and promote a life of faith.

These are the consequences of forsaking egocontrol, taking up our cross and setting off behind Jesus.  By now he is a good ways down the road, and I doubt I will ever overtake him at the rate I slip and slide.  However, I’m convinced that I’m on the right way, narrow though it is,  as I meet people who carry crosses similar, though not identical to mine.

As a pilgrim what do I need to know, take with me and seek as I go along the way he leads me.  Below I list some suggests.

  • The supernatural is real
  • Nondual thinking
  • Thinking Systemically (Bowen Theory)
  • To follow Jesus is to serve
  • Difference between job and work
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  • Regardless of the event, first ask, “How is my functioning contributing to this situation?”
  • Suffering is the promise life always keeps
  • God knows the outcome. God does not choose the outcome.  That’s your job.
  • Judge not! I mean literally, suggest Judge not at all.

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  • Biblically literate
  • Journaling is essential if you seek to grow in soul.
  • More Orthopraxy not more Orthodoxy
  • Constant Prayer (literally)
  • Honesty is more important than religious talk
  • Tithing as a way of life.
  • Faith not certainty

In the days ahead,   I will reflect on these practices and resources for the journey.  Doubtless, there will others as get on down the road.

JWS

Deliver us, O Lord, From the Peril of Invincible Ignorance

Sometimes it's best not to know

“The unconscious comes to the aid of the conscious ego when it is grappling with a task that is beyond its capacity.” Anthony Stevens from Private Myths

What help could come our way if we were willing to pay attention to our dreams and visions. The resolute determination to avoid a meaningful connection between the inside and outside of our being almost rises to the level of what the Roman Church calls “Invincible ignorance” — the ultimately fatal decision to not accept the truth.

However, in the past year I have been in sustained conversations with men who are working with their dreams and I observe the amazing change in them as them as they take seriously this communication. I have observed one fellow getting “unstuck” in his career as he listened to the coaching of his sleeping dreams. He had never considered such work, but now calls me with reports of his nocturnal adventures.

I am more convinced than ever that soul work is the principal task of priests & deacons in parishes. It requires vigilance not to succumb to the tyranny of the immediate, losing focus on the essential task at hand. The institution of the church no doubt needs maintaining but only when that maintenance supports the Cure of Souls, as the ministry of the Church. So long as Church leaders, lay and clergy, keep that in mind the institution thrives and souls are augmented.

As Saint John writes in Third John chapter one verse two, “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.” (KJV)

Even as your soul prospers, what if our life reflected the health of our soul? Would it look like Dorian Gray’s portrait? Some of the problems of life do not depend on our personal functioning. Other people’s choices can make a difference in the prosperity or famine of one’s life. However much of our dis-ease comes from within and Jesus warned when he said that what defines comes from within not what sort of food that is eaten.

John Sewell 2010©

“Can’t Outsmart Dogma”

John StewardJon Stewart on whether he’s a “self-hating Jew” …

“Look, there’s a lot of reasons why I hate myself — being Jewish isn’t one of them,” Stewart told the reporter. “So when someone starts throwing that around, or throwing around you’re pro-terrorist, it’s more just disappointing than anything else. I’ve made a living for 16 years criticizing certain policies that I think are not good for America. That doesn’t make me anti-American. And if I do the same with Israel, that doesn’t make me anti-Israel.

You can’t outsmart dogma!

If there is something constructive in what they’re saying, hopefully I’m still open enough … to take it in and let it further inform my position. But I’m pretty impermeable to yelling. As soon as they go to, ‘Your real name is Leibowitz!’ that’s when I change the channel.”

— Josh Marshall (via Talking Points Memo)

This is the overwhelming issue facing any thinking person (mental activity is not proof of thinking).  How do you deal with the “dogma” of others without resorting to ideological dogma yourself?”   i ask myself that question daily (several times most days). Here my best hope lies in what my teacher Ed Friedman (Rabbi by the way) taught many through Family Systems (Bowen) Theory.  The best contribution a thinking person can do is focus on their own their own functioning, working to maintain a “non-anxious presence” in the face of the dogma of chronic anxiety.  How to “do” the non-anxious presence gig? 

Begin by reading and inwardly digesting Richard Rohr’s teaching on Non-dual thinking. It can be found on his website https://cac.org/  More about non-dual thinking soon. 

In hope, in spite of the facts.

JWS

Shift of Culture

“Just what is it you are trying to do here?” A good question, I get it in some variety regularly. What would this shift produce? What would we look like if our culture shifted?
1. The first and most importantly, each person takes maximum responsibility for his or her own soul.
2. The clergy and congregation understand that the clergy are not the paid Christians to go and do the ministry in the name of this community.

What are the consequences of these two shifts? Paradoxically the church would look like is goes now and at the same time be radically different in function, For one thing there would be fewer programs! Hearing this many will wonder if we are too lazy to do our jobs? I will confess that we do many things because they have been done that way in the past. I remember at least five years ago the staff here worked hard, came up with ideas (good ones), crafted programs, arranged dinner and provided offering so that everyone of every age group had a place to go and something to do when they got there.

After Labor Day we launched our creation and in only a matter of weeks we were down to a handful of souls. Guilt and shame rose up among us at staff meeting like a bad odor from the cellar. Finally, we did a non-scientific survey and what we overwhelmingly learned was that people were tired and children needed to be home. We pulled the plug. My colleagues (you know the professional Christians) and I felt guilty but we dealt with it privately. We have had no sustained education on Wednesday evening since and largely no one ever mentions it to me.

This is hard. The “professional Christians” – hereafter to known as PC (layers of irony, that) work hard producing programs, classes and groups. Do not misunderstand me – formation is essential. However, formation must be initiated by the laity. When the laity discerns the slow leak in their souls and wants to do something about it, we will not have offer programs, will people to come and nurse your resentment when they do not.

background checks

As hard as it is, the PC’s must lay down the professional sole-practitioner persona and become ordinary priests and deacons fulfilling our proper role (that we were ordained to do). Above all those of the white collars must know that, contrary to the wisdom of this age, they are not MBA’s in dog collars.

As hard as it is, laity must move beyond a sort of “fashionable ignorance” of the scriptures and the faith. At least in the South, Episcopalians live in a closed loop system of anxious, and reactive fundamentalism. Since many of us are converts, refugees from catastrophic certitude; even exposure to garden variety Christianity produces an allergic reaction. Like all allergies, of course, it is an overreaction and with proper soul work recovery is assured.

The last thing that people need is another thing to do at night. Families need to be together. But what about their souls; isn’t the decline of programs bad? If you are living in 1975 it is bad. When people take responsibly for the feeding and caring of their souls most of the education takes place in home, offices and vehicles.

It happens at 5:00am when a man rises an hour early to drink coffee and read his Bible in the Bible challenge. When he has a question he will call me and I will be my best to get him what he needs. That is very different than chasing him down the street begging him to come to class that addresses nothing he needs for his soul at this point and in this time.

Naturally,  this will not necessarily fill the pews.

Laws of Geometric Emotional Process

Definition – An emotional triangle is any three persons
or two persons and a part of a system with a ‘problem’

Emotional Triangle

Emotional Triangle

FIRST LAW OF TRIANGLES: YOU CAN’T GET THERE FROM HERE

It is not possible from the position of A to change the relationship of B and C.

SECOND LAW OF TRIANGLES: PROTOPLASM IS PERVERSE

Continued efforts to change the relationship of B and C from the position of A will be converted by homeostatic forces to their opposite intent (pushing them apart will make them ‘fall in love’, and trying to push them together will create polarized opposition).

twoperson_ruleTHIRD LAW OF TRIANGLES: YOU HAVE TO START FROM HERE 

Start From Here Change in B and C can only come from changing one’s own relationship with either or both, individually.

hqdefaultFOURTH LAW OF TRIANGLES: OVER FUNCTIONING = STRESS

If from the position of A you become responsible for the relationship of B and C, then you will wind up with the stress for their relationship, if not for the whole system. By “helping” (a synanom for controlling) B and C will not feel it.  It may be that they need to feel the anxiety to get unstuck.  

Bowen Theory – Notes from lecture by Rabbi Edwin Friedman

Come Home, stop, All is forgiven, stop.

I have a hunch that the only thing worse than being a orphan is having a family!  I know, that is a very dark thing to say… I also know from living my own life, observing as many as four generations of a family in a congregation and studying the dynamics of  Family Systems that all families are troubled.  Anxiety rising past the threshold  of tolerance  often produces “cut-off.”

Greg Spalenka
Greg Spalenka
“The concept of emotional cutoff describes people managing their unresolved emotional issues with parents, siblings, and other family members by reducing or totally cutting off emotional contact with them. Emotional contact can be reduced by people moving away from their families and rarely going home, or it can be reduced by people staying in physical contact with their families but avoiding sensitive issues. Relationships may look “better” if people cutoff to manage them, but the problems are dormant and not resolved.”
(Bowen Family Center http://www.thebowencenter.org/pages/conceptec.html)

Rabbi Edwin Friedman said many times, “People who are cut off, particularly from their family of origin do not heal.”  That being the case he said the bridging cutoff boosted the immune system.  He encouraged clergy to work to overcome cut-off in their own family in service to their own health as well the healing of  their people.

Luid de Morales

Luis de Morales

A useful question of Scripture is, “Where does my story intersect THE story?”  One of the ancient practices is the Cycle of the Liturgical Year.  The season preceding the Twelve Days of Christmas is Advent.  It is a time to watch and wait.  It is a time to be pregnant with Mary (and Elizabeth).  It is time to pay careful attention to dreams, the inner life, with Joseph. Above all we await the coming of the child Jesus, Emmanuel: God with us.

When Ralph Waldo Emerson was dying, the story goes, his aunt exhorted him to make peace with God to which he replied, “I was not aware that we had quarreled.”  His aunt’s response is, so far as I know, unreported. My answer to Ralph Waldo, is a quote from Isaiah the Prophet (9:2), “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.”

Jesus is the gate of heaven and sits in figure made from the overlap of two circles representing heaven and earth.

Jesus joins heaven and earth

Matthew the Evangelist picks up the melody, “The people which sat in darkness saw great light; and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up.’ (4:16). This is that for which we waited. Now Heaven is joined to Earth and Earth to Heaven.  I other words, in Jesus the cutoff between God and humanity is bridged.  This great universal theological truth is for the healing of our story, here – now – in real time.  The immune system of all creation is quickened that healing will break out among the nations and indeed the whole of creation. JWS

What did we learn at Thanksgiving that will get us Through Christmas?

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The Holy Days are coming, those occasions that by the rhythm of once a year but all our lives mark the seasons of living.  We live in a country that has the double whammy of Thanksgiving followed a month later by Christmas. We have double helpings of feasting and double visits from family. One raises our cholesterol and the other our anxiety. 

gI_SFPBookCover3Da.jpg I have learned that while the Holy Days are Holy they are not always happy.  In fact I am convinced, particularly this time of year,  that only orphans think that having a family would solve all their problems, the rest of us know better.  How to survive the Holy Days?  I suggest that you might want to read (or go back and read) Screamfree Parenting. “Ah,” you say, “It’s not my children that are the problem.”  To which I say, “Take out the word parent and put in living.”

Screamfree is a way of thinking that focuses on our own functioning rather than the functioning of others.  To prepare for the Holy Days, we might ask ourselves some of the following questions. On Thanksgiving and Christmas when families gather:

 Who will experience the most anxiety and who the least?

  • What amount of “space” is between me and the family? Am I stuck or cut-off?
  • How much energy is spent on the  “issues” of being together?
  • How do you stay “loose” in the family so that you can risk being an adult?
  • How can I plan ahead so that I know what I will do/be when the family member begins doing what he/she “always does.”
  • How can I define myself, sometimes by keeping my mouth shut?
  • How can I focus on the reasons that I love my family even while being with them?
  • Can I go into “research mode” and seek to learn from my family, resisting the temptation to give advice and fix them?

The country is anxious, states, cities, neighborhoods are anxious. How to do non-anxious-presencedeal with this anxiety during the most anxious time of the year?  As my teacher, Ed Friedman, used to say that, “consistency is only possible when we Focus on our own functioning.  Breathing in and breathing out is a good focus when anxiety rises. Getting more oxygen aids thinking and breathing may be the only thing that we can control. Stick to the facts not what we think they meant by the words they spoke. If things get more than we can take find an excuse to take a walk or visit a sick friend and then come back later. If you are out of town, hotel rooms are neutral.

Now I will see if I can take my own advice.  In addition to the national and religious holy days we also have the annual parish meeting on this coming Sunday, December 8th.  Please come and join us as we take council in this annual gathering of the parish. 

Let’s focus on the things that matter so that we are not distracted and miss them.

Peace, John+

Our God Makes Leaders Out Of Cowards And Elders Of The Deceitful

Recently I found a new title on Dove Booksellers, “Forsaken Firstborn” a study of how God seems to choose the “wrong” one rather than the one that should be the heir. We find this pattern in the Old Testament. God chooses Isaac over Ishmael. Jacob is chosen over Esau, his twin, even thought he is a stinker. Judah is chosen over his older brothers to be the father of the principal tribe of Israel. Joseph is chosen over his older brothers to be the one to deliver his family even though his brothers reject him. Jacob then blesses the younger of Joseph’s sons to be the chosen son.

Jacob Blessing his Grandsons - C V Vos

Jacob Blessing his Grandsons – C V Vos

As an oldest son I hope that senior birth order is not always the source of perdition and divine rejection. However this does seem to point to the spontaneous, creative and even, if I may say, playful nature of God who makes leaders out of cowards and elders of the deceitful. It gives me hope. Then a thought seized me that I had never thought before. Jesus, the first born, the beloved, was abandoned on the cross. Here the divine pattern is played out in a cosmic way. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” is the cry not just of Jesus but also of all the forsaken firstborn.

We are the descendents of Adam the firstborn yea even the forsaken firstborn alienated by sin. Jesus became for the forsaken firstborn. If that were the end of the story it would be a tragedy. But it is not the end of the tale. Jesus is not the forsaken firstborn he is the firstborn of those that sleep. His resurrection is for the forsaken firstborns and all those who have wasted their inheritance (and we all have) in the far country. The good news is that like Jacob the heel grabber who was reconciled with his forsaken older brother Esau, we too are reconciled by the death of Jesus who died as the forsaken firstborn, risen from the dead that we too might not be forsaken but have not only life in the age to come but life and that life full in this present time. Praise be to God who gives us the victory.