Pain is my teacher

“Pain is my teacher.” Say what? I said, pain is my teacher, not my friend. There’s a difference. A few days ago I woke up with a sharp pain in my neck, running down my spine, preventing me to turn and bow my head properly. Yeah, prayer was almost impossible! So was humility.

This is not a post about S&M. I will leave that for later. I don’t like pain. Pain is not my friend. I fight pain. I try to kill it. Give me paracetamol and ibuprofen, and anything else I can throw at it, especially the strong, funky stuff.

I went to a massage therapist who asked me to sit with the pain and learn from it, as she was guiding me. Pain is an indicator, a signpost to many kinds of disfunction – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual – that I am not paying attention to. Pain invites me to pay attention and learn from it. Killing it is useful only because you need to function – I didn’t take time off work – but that is not enough.

That is so counterintuitive. Sit with the pain? Learn from it? Pay attention to it? No, no, kill it! Give me the big guns, kill it dead! And if we can’t kill it, distract from it. Right?

Well… no. The therapist’s invitation reminded me of several sermons I preached about the cross – namely about the requirement to pick up our cross daily if we are to follow Jesus. There is something about being a disciple that requires a different approach to pain.

I noticed my first reactions to that pain. I was angry and upset. “Why is this happening to me?” Notice I said it’s happening TO me, not that I did anything to cause it. No responsibility there. I rebelled against it, got angry with it, wanted it gone. I turned my pain into suffering, and not the good kind. I think we do that a lot with necessary pain: We turn it into unnecessary suffering by bitching and moaning about it, and refusing to take any responsibility for it or learn from it.

As part of the therapy, I was invited to sit with the pain, to pay attention to my body, to what it’s saying to me, to regain control over my muscles. That requires presence, and in this case it was painful. But only when I accepted the pain and began to pay attention did it begin to subside; not immediately, but soon after. When I realised, after paying attention, that I was doing all sorts of things that caused that pain, the pain began to make sense. On top of that, our bodies are depositories of emotion. Often we have to work very hard at being present to figure out the source of unaddressed pain. (Physical pain doesn’t always have a physical cause.)

Then I realised that a good minister, a good preacher will invite people to do the same with the pain that comes in their lives. They will teach and invite people to listen to their pain, to pay attention, to not run away from it or distract themselves from it. It is not enough to say to someone in pain that Jesus loves them. People may demand spiritual pain killers, and a minister may have to administer some of those. But that is not enough. They also need to be taught and lead sensitively in learning from their pain. Is this what Jesus meant by ‘the way of the cross’? I think it is, in an existential sense. We made the cross to be about setting ourselves up for being killed or victimised, as if we are actually looking for pain as an indicator of spirituality. That’s masochism, and not spirituality.

Pain is my teacher. Pain is not my friend. I’m not looking for it. But when it comes to me, it comes for a reason, to tell me something. “Have a seat, pain, let’s have some tea…”

The Energy Meter or What I’ve learned from Halo 4

Yes, Halo 4 is a video game on the XBox. I play it with my son Marcus, and we both enjoy shooting down aliens. The only problem is they shoot back, so we need to be careful that we give our characters time to ‘regenerate’ before they can return to battle. So if the energy bar on the top of the screen goes flashing red, we need to hide from the enemy, and give ourselves time to ‘recharge’ before we re-engage in the fight.

That made me think of how we could all use an Energy Meter on the top of our screens. Imagine one day waking up, and as you wake up you notice all kinds of readings and dials in your vision, as if you were wearing a high-tech helmet. Let’s imagine you wouldn’t freak out and wonder if you had been abducted by aliens. What kind of meters or dials would you want? If you watch Continuum, you’ll know what I’m talking about; same idea.

I would want an Energy Meter at the top of my screen with the following readings: -10….-5….0….+5….+10. Wouldn’t that be awesome? When your energy level is below zero, into the negative figures, you know you shouldn’t be around people, because you’re likely to be useless to them, if not downright toxic. You need time to recharge. Before engaging with others – co-workers, clients, and most of all, family members – check your reading! Is it below 0? Are you encountering people with negative or positive energy? If you can get away with it, hide until you get the reading above 0!

But what do you do when it’s in the negative? One thing you don’t do, if you can, is interact with others. You have to get it above zero. Just being aware of it and owning the reading is a huge step. Far too often we encounter people when we’re full of negative energy without even being aware of it, and we end up damaging relationships and people. Being aware helps a lot. But then, I am told, don’t do a ‘downer’ – “Oh, I’m so negative… boohoo’ – but rather say something like “I don’t have energy, I need to replenish my reserves”. It’s a normal thing that we get tired, and we need to manage our energy levels. Lots of things can help with that: taking a moment or two, prayer (done correctly), meditation, reading, closing your eyes, smelling and drinking good coffee or tea etc.

What did you find works for you? What do you do to get a more positive reading on your Energy Meter?

(Re)Thinking about leadership

Lately I’ve been thinking quite a lot about leadership. From the launch of iTunes U I’ve been watching lectures from several universities on the issue of organisational change and leadership. There seems to be a very strong wind of change blowing in the management world. The recent credit crunch and recession may have something to do with that rethinking. The paradigm seems to be shifting dramatically, at least in academic circles. Corporations and governments better change, or the economy will hit a brick wall within our life times. This seems to be generally accepted in economic circles. But it applies to all areas in my view…

When we think about what makes a leader, generally we think about a person who has a vision and is able to both communicate it clearly and get people to buy into it and implement it. Sounds familiar? That’s what I used to think about leadership. In many ways I still do at the instinct level; but now I think I am wrong. The emphasis is on vision building and planning. If you have a good plan, if you implement it well and stick to it, you will have success.

There’s a new thinking in management beginning to emerge. It has to do with how we imagine organisations in the first place. The ‘visionary leader’ makes sense only if we imagine organisations as wholes, as unitary entities. But they are only wholes in our imagination. All organisations, commercial or charitable, are made of people, and people are complicated. Rather than think about the whole and how we can get it to move in a certain direction, we need to take its complexity seriously. I wish I had known this when I started ministry.

Complexity is important because THAT is what we experience in organisations, and not the other (unitary) bit. What we experience in reality is the local interaction of people (or agents, as they’re called in the complexity sciences) and the ideas that emerge from these interactions.

For instance, think of the 10 billion (or so) neurons in the brain: There is no single neuron commanding all of them. Rather every single neuron interacts with 15,000 to 30,000 other neurons who do the same. Every single neuron thus interacts with only a fraction of the whole. What emerges out of all the local interactions is a ‘population wide pattern’. There’s a lot to say about that, but I’ll just leave it at that and look at the local interaction for now, which has been neglected to our peril.

If we apply this to organisations, the leader is the person who can best identify and articulate what is just emerging from that local interaction, and keep the conversation going.  He/she may have a vision, but that only serves as a conversation starter, and not as a governing principle or the end of conversation. A good leader will not kill the conversation by negotiating some kind of ‘shared values or vision’. This stifles growth and movement, ultimately leading to death. A good leader will keep the conversation going at all times, aware that nobody can anticipate with any certainty what the outcome of our actions will be. It assumes a complex world, it involves risk taking and ongoing conversation.

Does this make sense as we think of our leadership role in the church? (I’m not only referring to ministers. Leaders emerge in local interactions all the time, even if we don’t call them that. The implications for pastoral care and local ministries blow my mind!)

A thought for the New Year

For some reason, as I was looking ahead to the coming year, a thought came into my mind that faith is about risk-taking. And even further than that, faith requires us by its very nature to risk losing it. If we don’t want to take the risk of losing faith, then we don’t really have faith. God requires us to follow Jesus without offering any guarantees apart from eternal life (he doesn’t define that one either). That is an invitation to risk-taking. Show me a person who takes risks, and I will show you a person of great faith. Show me a person who never takes risks, and I will show you a person who has abandoned faith in favour of certainties. The church has never accomplished anything significant when it relied on certainties and refused to take risks. The church always moved forward when it took risks and followed the Holy Spirit into uncharted territories. That sounds like a good idea for the new year…

Resisting the picketing reflex

God hates fagsIt never ceases to amaze me how quickly some Christian groups resort to picketing whatever seems to offend their sense of orthodoxy. Whenever there is something going on in society that doesn’t fit with the orthodoxy of their faith, they feel directly and personally offended. One example of this is the play “Jesus, Queen of Heaven” by Jo Clifford, a transsexual woman. Read about it in this Herald article! Of course, one may argue that the play is bad quality art, as The Scotsman suggests, but that is not the issue I want to discuss here. The issue I wish to raise is how Christians react publicly when they feel their faith is questioned or even mocked by others.

Continue reading

Follow up – Lily Allen

Lily AllenDue to some interesting comments exchange in my previous post ‘Questions about God‘, I feel compelled to explore a few reasons why I thought Lily Allen’s song ‘Him’ posed interesting questions about God. Let me just start by stating clearly, for those who never heard of Lily Allen, that she’s not a Christian. At least I don’t think she is.

This being said, I have to declare from the outset my unashamed passion for listening carefully to what non-Christians have to say about God, and particularly about the Christian vision of God, without feeling the need to take out the sword and ‘defend the faith’. I think what non-Christians say about Christianity is very interesting and very useful for me as a Christian thinker. It is useful only if I manage to take their comments and questions seriously, without ruffling my feathers every time they say something even remotely un-orthodox. Continue reading

Here we go…

I really did not want to do this. I resisted with everything I had. I did not want a blog. Why have a blog? Why expose my fragile unfinished thoughts to a cruel and critical world? My thoughts are my babies – they’re tiny, naked and hungry. Why expose them to the elements so soon? Why spend hours responding to (potentially) silly comments? Why bother?

I was pushed into it. It’s not my fault. I was pressured. I will not point fingers, but they know who they are, and I’m fairly sure they will be sorry – if they even bother to read it, that is, which they may not. That would be so funny – for them – sad for me.

So here we go. What can you expect? Read this for a taste! You can also expect random thoughts, quotes, videos, photos, personal irritations, revolutionary ideas, creative bursts, chaotic ramblings, epiphanies, attempts at being funny, and all kinds of things. Hey, this could be fun, actually! 🙂