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Thursday, February 21, 2013

The One Real Variable

The Omaha metro waits with baited breath for the onslaught of the next big winter storm.  Schools have cancelled as a precaution.  Jim Cantore is reporting from Lincoln.  People look out their windows every seven minutes and then check the weather channels in between.

We may well get a large amount of snow later in the day.  I am not complaining about the abundance of caution we witness.  I am, however, fascinated by the cultural event this has become--at least locally.  Computer models began to predict some sort of event six days ago.  The snowfall amounts have moved from over sixteen inches to six (or perhaps less).  

We have been mesmerized by the illusion of control that such modeling gives to us.

Supercomputers have certainly made it possible to account for many more variables in the algorithms of prediction.  However, no model can squeeze the randomness out of Reality.  In the run-up to the 2008 financial and housing meltdowns, sophisticated models predicted an ongoing upward trend in housing values and economic growth.  People and institutions made wildly irrational investments on the basis of such models.  There was no room for randomness and general human cussedness.

When the crash came, two responses ensued.  There was the honest shock of those who thought such a thing had now been predictively ruled out.  There was the dishonest hindsight of those who were sure they had seen it coming all along.  In the former case, folks at least had the good manners to admit they have been duped by their own wishful thinking.  In the latter case, experts had the bad manners to insist that their errors had actually been correct from a certain point of view.

We love predictability.  From it we can derive both power and security.  We tend to ascribe certainty to probability-based models.  That's a mistake on our part.  Of course, when the improbably thing happens we blame the forecasters for being bad at their jobs.  We are horrified at the thought that we might have been taken in once again by our own desires to make life safe and certain.

Whether it is a storm forecast, an economic model, or my expectations about my own life, we want things to be stable and reliable.  We don't want to do the hard work of taking unpredictable things into account.  We are offended, hurt, grieved, when such things take place.  It is however a part of our life that blizzards don't arrive as scheduled, markets crash without warning, and loved ones die when they aren't supposed to.  Not even supercomputers can squeeze the vagaries out of existence.

Nor can they account for the one new thing in all of Creation--the good news of Resurrection in Jesus Christ.  That is the variable for which there is no human accounting.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Practice, Practice, Practice

It's the old, old joke.  Customer asks a New York cabbie, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?"  The cabbie replies, "Practice, practice, practice!"  That's good advice for life, even if it's not all that helpful for getting around the Big Apple.

I continue to read and review The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg.  I find this book helpful and intriguing both as I think about the power of personal habits and the importance of organizational habits (what the experts would call "routines").  I have often thought about how some of my habits prior to Anne's death created ways for me to survive and even to flourish in the wake of that loss.

For example, I am a learner.  I love to study something right into the ground, to achieve mastery of some subject, and then sometimes to write a post or even a book about the topic.  That strength is expressed as a series of studious habits that give me pleasure and joy on a daily basis.  That strength allowed me to study my own bereavement and to come a a deeper understanding of what I was experiencing.  Those habits, I believe, made it possible for me to move forward more quickly than might otherwise have been possible.

So it seem to me that bereavement can be a crisis that identifies which habits will help us to survive and even flourish in the midst of our loss.  I think that more of a strengths-based approach to bereavement has been helpful to me in my loss and life.

On the other hand, the loss was a crisis that identified those areas where I needed to grow in order to survive and to flourish.  Managing anxiety was and continues to be an area where I need to work.  It is, in Duhigg's terms, an "inflection point"--a place where the pain is the greatest and where I am tempted to revert to unhelpful habits.  Duhigg notes that the way to deal with such challenges is to have a mental plan and to rehearse that plan before the pain recurs.

It took me a while to work that out.  When I feel anxious now, however, I go through a kind of a checklist.  Have I had enough to eat in the last few hours, or have I let my glucose level drop too far?  Have I gotten enough rest and exercise to make sure that I function well during the day?  Or have I neglected myself physically?  Have I jammed my schedule with far too many things and my brain with far too much caffeine as a way to compensate?  Or have I given myself enough space to do things well today?  Have I taken care of my emotions and my relationships and my prayers?  Or have I ignored my spirit and tried to simply tough it out?  Is there something on the calendar or in my head that reminds of some pain that I haven't acknowledged today?  Am I putting off something difficult that I simply need to do?

If I am feeling anxious, I have probably put myself in a tight spot in one of the ways described above.  These days I generally have a plan for how to deal with any of these cognitive, emotional or physical deficits.  I have rehearsed that plan in my head several times.  So these inflection points are not as challenging as they might otherwise be.  I have, in a sense, already lived through them and so they are not so surprising or taxing.

Duhigg describes this mental practice and personal follow through as creating willpower habit loops for ourselves.  He writes, "This is how willpower becomes a habit: by choosing a certain behavior ahead of time, and then following that routine when an inflection point arrives" (page 146).  I would "prescribe" this strategy for anyone dealing with the aftermath of loss and bereavement.  What plans can you make for how to deal with the struggles when they will inevitably come?  Practices those plans in your head.  Talk them through with someone you trust.  You will be more prepared to live through the emotional thunderstorms of grieving.

How might this apply to an organization such as a congregation?  I'm continuing to think about that and hope to put that into writing soon.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Remember the Dust

A variety of responses to the Imposition of Ashes yesterday...

As I moved toward a woman in a care center, I thought she was deep in meditation.  It turns out she had fallen asleep (can't say that I blame her).  I began to touch her forehead and she awoke with a start.  I began to apologize for startling her but she just smiled.

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.  What a way to spoil a nice nap!

Several folks came through the procession and received their crumbly ash crosses.  They responded with "Thank you."  I wonder how much of that was gratitude and how much was reflex.

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.  Thank you, I think.

A little guy came with Dad.  I made the mistake of trying to put the ashes on him first.  That was not going to happen in this lifetime.  He nearly ran down the aisle to escape.  Later, when he came forward with Dad for communion, he eyed me with suspicion and wanted nothing to do with the blessing.

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.  I'd like to back away as well.

There is nothing like an Ash Wednesday service to go hard on the newly-bereaved.  They don't need any more reminders of mortality, finitude, death and despair.  Thus the tears as they came through the line with courage to still take on yet one more memento mori.

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.  When someone has recently died, how can I remember anything else?

I'm always struck by the parents who bring their infants to be marked with the mortality muck.  It is a burden to think that this new bundle of joy stands under the shadow of death just like the rest of us.  Suddenly the reality of parenting as sacrificial ministry lands on them like an catapulted elephant.

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.  I wish I could forget that when I hold my little one.

I'm glad it's Thursday.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Stirring the Ashes, Ash Wednesday, 2013

2 Corinthians 5:16-6:2

I’ve taken a couple of canoe trips to the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota.  Campfire management is one of the most important tasks in that vast wilderness.  Campers must properly extinguish their campfires.  Failures in this task can result in criminal penalties.  Huge forest fires have been caused by people who didn’t take the time to get this right.

Putting out a campfire in the Boundary Waters Wilderness Canoe Area is a three-step process.  First, you pour lake water on the fire pit.  Second, you stir the ashes to find any remaining hot spots.  Third, you pour more water on those hot spots.  Repeat the process until you are sure the fire is completely out.

Stirring the ashes.  Looking for the hot spots.

That’s what we do on this Ash Wednesday.  We stir the ashes of our past.  Today, we hear some troubling words.  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  These are troubling words because it’s painful to stir the ashes of our past.  
It’s painful to uncover the pain, the grief, the anger, the shame and despair in our past.  But if we are to put out the fire, we must stir the ashes.

We stir the ashes around, and the hot spots re-appear.  Remember that you are dust.  But if that’s all we do, then the fires of our brokenness will just re-ignite.  The hot spots of our past will burn our broken spirits to the ground.

Think about the process for putting out the campfires.  

First, pour on the water.  You and I are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection.  We are joined to him in death and in life.  God has “reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given to us the ministry of reconciliation.”

Second, stir the ashes.  I can look with courage at the ashes of my past because I know that Jesus holds my past, present and future.  “For our sake,” Paul writes, “he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Third, pour on some more water.  “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see everything has become new.”  We keep setting new fires and creating new ashes.  But God’s love in Christ is new every morning.  We can be new creations in Christ every day.

So take some time in this Lenten season to stir the ashes of your past.  For many of us, it’s the pain of grief and loss.  For some of us, it is the anxiety of being alone.  For others it may be guilt and shame over past failures.  For still others the hot spots come from anger, hatred, and the desire for revenge.  Perhaps you wrestle with past sins or current fears.  Maybe the uncertainties of the economy or jobs or politics or war have overwhelmed your trust and hope.

Stirring the ashes of our past.  

That’s what we do this day.  The waters of baptism quench the deadly fire.  New growth can arise in place of those ashes.  So come and wear that cross of death.

Come wear that cross of death.  And know that Jesus washes it away with life.  Come wear that cross of death.  And know that Jesus turns it into the sign of your New Creation.  Come wear that cross of death.  And know that you are made into the very righteousness of God through Jesus Christ.

Stirring the ashes of our past.  It’s what we do this day.  

Making us new creations in Christ.  It’s what God does this day.  One of my favorite theologians puts it this way.  “We are dust and to dust we shall return.  But remember that God can do new things with dust.”

Thanks be to Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit’s power!  Amen.

Pastor Lowell R. Hennigs
Luther Memorial Church, Syracuse, NE
February 13, 2013

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Reframing Despair

What is the point?  What does my life mean?  What can my life mean?  I hear these questions from people inside and outside of the Church.  I try to point out that the first question is whether "Life" (the totality, not just my individual existence) has any point, meaning, direction or purpose.  Why bother to worry whether my particular life has "meaning" if Life in General is pointless?  And if Life in General has any point, meaning, direction or purpose, then I can rest a bit easier about the nature of my particular part of that Life in General.

I am re-reading N. T. Wright's great, great book, Surprised by Hope, to prepare for our Lenten adult class at Luther Memorial Church.  That was a life-changing and ministry-altering book the first time I read it.  It remains that powerful for me today.

After Wright tackles the historical challenges of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, he moves into the second part of the book, "God's Future Plan."  He notes that he could have gone directly to a discussion of our individual resurrection hopes.  That, however, would have been backwards and inside out.  He writes, 
"If we start with the future hope of the individual, there is always the risk that we will at least by implication understand that as the real center of everything and treat the hope of creation as mere embroidery around the edges.  That has happened often enough.  I am keen to rule it out by the structure of the argument, as well as through detailed exposition" (page 80).
 If I begin with a focus on my own existence, then I have no framework or resources to find meaning when that existence goes into the dumper.  If I suffer Radical Loss, if I am jolted out of the complacency of trouble-free existence, if I start to have Real Problems (the kind that most people in the world deal with on a daily basis) and if all I have is my own existence, then I will plunge into existential despair or take a long swim in the River of Denial.  That is the price of living life with myself as the Center of It All.  I have to keep it all together by myself.  And when it all falls apart, there is nowhere else to turn.

As a Christian, I seek the meaning and purpose of life in a Reality and Cause greater than myself.  I find that Reality and Cause expressed and enacted, as does Tom Wright, in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and the beginning of God's New Creation.  That is what makes it possible to survive the real challenges to individual meaning and purpose that existence presents.  Creation is being renewed moment by moment, even though I face  (as Paul puts it) slight momentary afflictions to the contrary.

When I stay connected to God's New Creation project, I can live through the storms and know that the rainbow waits on the other side.

See Wright's book at...

And/or take part in our class at LMC from 5:45 to 6:30 starting February 20th.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Victims and Offenders: One Event—Two Worlds

How can it be that two people will tell such different stories about an offense?  Part of the difference resides in the roles of “victim” and “offender.”  Tavris and Aronson describe it this way.

“When we construct narratives that ‘make sense,’ however, we do so in a self-serving way.  Perpetrators are motivated to reduce their moral culpability; victims are motivated to maximize their moral blamelessness.  Depending on which side of the wall we are on, we systematically distort our memories and account of the event to produce the maximum consonance between what happened and how we see ourselves.” (Tavris, 2007, p. 193)

They refer to a research report presented by Roy Baumeister and colleagues in 1990.  The data presented came from coding victim and offender stories for analysis.  The novel part of the study arose from the fact that these stories came from the same people rather than from separate groups of victims and offenders.  This matters because we can see from the data that victims are not inherently “good people” and offenders are not inherently “bad people.” 

Baumeister and company make the point this way.  “The motivations and biases [that account for differences in victim and offender stories] thus may be considered inherent in the roles.  In other words, our results do not indicate that victims and perpetrators are different kinds of people; rather, the same people see things differently depending on whether they participate as victims or perpetrators.  The biases are in the roles.” (Baumeister, 1990, p. 1000).

How do victims tell their grievance story?  Here is a brief summary of the results.  Victims
·        Tend to describe offense as incomprehensible and senseless: “To the victim, the transgression tends to appear as a random, inexplicable provocation, done for no apparent reason or out of sheer malice” (Baumeister, 1990, p. 1002).
  •         Are more likely to describe offense as the last in a series of related offenses
  •         Are more likely to describe negative outcomes or consequences
  •         Are more likely to describe “lasting negative consequences, continuing anger, and long-term relationship damage…” (Baumeister, 1990)
  •         Are unlikely to report expressions of regret and/or apologies by offender
  •         Are unlikely to have a positive outcome or happy ending
  •         Tend to place the event in a longer time frame and describe event as part of an ongoing experience of loss and grievance
  •         Rarely regard their own responses as excessive

Victims experience the offense as random, largely negative, and long-lasting in effects.  They experience their responses as measured, reasonable and justified.  In my experience as a mediator and conflict-resolution consultant, those who support the victims (parents, spouses, children, friends, advocates) tend to adopt the same story-telling perspective as the victims themselves.

How do offenders tell their perpetrator story?  Here is a brief summary of those results as well.  Offenders
  •         Tend to describe circumstances, motives and reasons that render the offense understandable and meaningful
  •         Are more likely to describe offense as a single and isolated incident
  •         Are more likely to deny negative outcomes or consequences
  •         Are more likely to report expressions of regret and/or apologies
  •         Are more likely to have a positive outcome or happy ending
  •         Tend to describe event as one-time and limited in duration and impact
  •         Are ready to bring early closure to the incident, to forget it and to move on as quickly as possible
  •         Sometimes regard victim responses as over-reactions and as excessively vindictive
  •         May tell their perpetrator story in such a way as to portray themselves as victims as well.

Offenders experience the offense as rooted in a context, often having a happy ending, and bracketed in duration and impact.  They often experience the responses of the victim as excessive, unreasonable and vindictive. Those who support the offenders (parents, spouses, children, friends, advocates) tend to adopt the same story-telling perspective as the offenders themselves.

In a psychological framework, victims and offenders inhabit different worlds.  These worlds are determined to a significant degree by the roles themselves.  “People define themselves in the stories from their lives,” Baumeister and his colleagues write, “and the stories they tell differ systematically depending on their roles as victims and perpetrators.  Identity is made from roles, and it is the roles that contain the biases that accounted for our findings, because our data were based on the same people in both roles” (Baumeister, 1990, p. 1004).

In addition, these residents of different worlds tend not to see the radically different narrative frameworks imposed on their stories by these roles.  “Victims and perpetrators may understand things differently, but they do not seem to acknowledge that they understand them differently” (Baumeister, 1990, p. 1000).  In my work as a mediator, I have the opportunity and the responsibility to bridge the gap between these two perceptual worlds.  That requires first of all an understanding what each party needs.  Deborah Brownyard and Dawn Swanson identify those varying needs.

What do victims need? (Brownyard, 2002, p. 2.4)
  •         Safety and security
  •         Ventilation and validation
  •         Prediction and preparation
  •         Education and information

 What do offenders need? (Brownyard, 2002, p. 3.4)
  •         To be held accountable
  •         To be responsible
  •         To see the real human costs of their actions
  •         To be given the opportunity to make things right
  •         To gain a sense of competency

As those basic needs are addressed, the opportunity to bridge the gap between worlds is created.  This is the genius of victim/offender dialogue as a mediation tool.  In that process, each party tells the story to the other, with the victim going first.  The bridge that is built when this process is successful is the bridge of empathy.  Each party enters the story of the other.  That is where the healing happens.