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Friday, May 31, 2013

Put Out the Fire

Harriet Lerner has noted that the volume of gossip in an organization or community is the best raw measurement of the level of anxiety in that group.  Anxiety is corrosive to the health of any organization.  

I believe that staff and volunteer leaders in an organization have two responsibilities when it comes to gossip and anxiety.  First, we must find ways to refuse delivery when gossip is brought to our doorstep.  Second we must stop the transmission of anxiety through our offices and our roles and into the larger organization.

A church office, for example, is often regarded as "Gossip Central" in a congregation.  Those members with high needs to know will frequent the offices and ask all sorts of probing questions.  Or they will bring the latest juicy tidbit, hoping for ratification of their behavior and a ready platform for spreading the news.  As leaders in such a system, what are some of the helpful and hopeful ways to respond?

There is the obvious policy level of response.  A leader can announce publicly that gossip is not appropriate in the halls and offices of the congregation.  That announcement can be put in writing in the official communications of the congregation.  Leadership groups and program groups can develop ground rules that inhibit the sharing of gossip.

That's all well and good.  And the folks committed to this unhealthy sort of communication pattern will ignore all such official pronouncements.  The official policies will apply to all those terrible people who gossip.  I, on the other hand, am one of those people who really cares.  Thus, I must be exempt.

So, what can we do to deal with the community virus called gossip?

  • We can simply change the subject.  In particular, we might say something like, "That's all very interesting, but tell me--what's happening with you these days?"  That may actually lead to a productive conversation.  At the very least it will quiet those folks who have no interest in self-revelation.  After all, that's why those folks gossip--to have someone other than themselves to discuss!
  • We can challenge the source of the information.  How did you come by such information?    Is this information something you would be willing to share in court under oath and on pain of the charge of perjury?  If not, let's talk about the weather.
  • We can see if talk is cheap.  Have you taken the effort to actually talk firsthand to the relevant party?  If there is a problem or a need, are you willing to do something to make the situation better?  Do you believe that sharing a concern or a complaint or a critique is actually the same as doing something?  In fact, talking is talking.  Only doing is actually doing.
  • We can simply suggest that we don't engage in such conversation in this office.  Others are welcome to have these conversations, but we would prefer they happen elsewhere.
Of course, all these responses risk the possibility of offending the speaker.  Perhaps you think that's a problem.  If you do, then you are likely part of the gossip network already.  Gossiping is the offensive behavior.  Challenging it is not.

"So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.  How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!" (James 3:5).  Refusing delivery on gossip is the most active and effective thing an individual can do to reduce the anxiety in a system.  An organizational culture that focuses on building healthy communication patterns will go a long way toward being a more productive business or congregation.

Monday, May 27, 2013

By the way...

When you click on interesting ads on my blog site, I get a few bucks in my PayPal account.  That helps me to provide services to people who cannot afford the $75 to $150 per hour that mediators charge these days.  Thanks!

The Shame Shut-down

Difficult Conversations describes three dimensions of a "What Happened" conversation gone wrong:

  1. The Truth Assumption.
  2. The Intention Invention.
  3. The Blame Game.
The Blame Game is how we assign fault to one another rather than acknowledging our own contributions to the problem.  The Blame Game may be great fun and usually produces some short term emotional satisfaction.  It is, however, rarely productive in any real sense.  The authors continue:

"But in situations that give rise to difficult conversations, it is almost always true that what happened is the result of things both people did--or failed to do.  And punishment is rarely relevant or appropriate.  When competent, sensible people do something stupid, the smartest move is to try to figure out, first, what kept them from seeing it coming and, second, how to prevent the problem from happening again."
The authors miss a dimension of this conversation that is critical to both understanding and resolution.  Blame leads to shame.   When we blame another for a problem, we move from problem-solving to person-describing.  And the description is not flattering.  When we blame ourselves for a problem, we engage in all sorts of negative and even destructive self-talk.

The practical outcome of this "blame to shame" dynamic is that communication comes to a screeching halt.

I volunteer periodically as a mediator in Small Claims court.  In the great majority of cases, people have come to court because one or both parties simply stopped communicating.  Letters went unanswered.  Emails were ignored.  Text messages were deleted.  Finally, the county sheriff's office was used as a messenger service to get someone's attention.  Then we sit together in a courtroom and discover that the parties are talking together for the first time in months.

Why does this happen?  I believe that one of the parties has experienced what Brene Brown refers to as a "shame storm."  Shame shuts down our thinking capacity.  Shame closes off our willingness to take emotional risks.  Shame isolates us and makes us hopeless.

And shame gets many people into small claims court.

This creates some expensive issues.  Our local courts spend precious time and money chasing down these cases and often act as the collection agency for local merchants.  Business people spend time in court that could be spent earning a living.  Months go by with no action or response and interest charges accrue.  All of this is because we are often ashamed of our actions and can't find a way forward.

First, if you are having a conflict with someone and the conversation comes to an abrupt halt, change your assumption structure.  The odds are that you are dealing with someone who has been shut down by shame.  You may be dealing with someone who is out to take advantage of you.  But the odds, in my experience, favor the shame explanation.  You may be time and money ahead if you can find some way to reach out to the other party in a less threatening and judgemental way to offer one more chance to talk and work things out.  You can always go to court later if you need to do so.

Second, use a third party to work through the issues.  As a mediator I am still amazed at how simple some of the solutions can be when people talk to one another face to face.  That can be very difficult on your own, but a facilitator or mediator often can make the conversation happen quickly and with much less pain and conflict.

Do you have someone who has shut down and still owes you money or services?  Give me a call!

Gossiping Up the Ladder

In the last post I described the Ladder of Inference.  Now I want to talk about how we climb that ladder together.  Let's talk about Gossip.  Gossip is the social engine that propels us up the ladder of inference.

Why does gossip exist at all?  If it didn't work in some fashion, people wouldn't do it.  Gossip has had a social bonding function in small human communities.  Talking about one another in clan groups and villages was one way to bind us to one another.  This social bonding function in a small and socially transparent setting like a village can enforce behavioral accountability.  It can create deeper connections between people.  Gossip can be used by a small community to enforce social discipline on the members of that community.

In simple terms, don't do anything that you don't want your neighbors to discuss over dinner!

That social control function, however, gets quickly out of hand.  After all, gossip is only as good as the information that drives the gossip network.  Often, there is very little accurate information in the network.  Of course, this doesn't stop us from gossiping anyway.  We simply use the Ladder of Inference to fill in the gaps in our information.

Psychologists remind us over and over that we are pattern-seeking creatures.  We are driven to make meaning out of information whether it is there or not.  We will attribute motives and intentions whether they exist or not.  We will assess, analyze, and evaluate others all day long.  We will weigh and measure, dissect and dismember, judge and jeer--all with a bare minimum of real data about other people.

We want order.  We want meaning.  We want things to make some sense.  We want control.  And most of all, we want others to serve as dutiful players in the drama where we play the lead role.

Thus, we gossip.

I live as a somewhat public person, since I am an erstwhile parish pastor.  I have, over the years, grown accustomed to being the subject of gossip most of the time.  

I have grown accustomed to it, but not comfortable with it.  And I have had people draw outlandish conclusions about me based on something as simple as a series of sneezes in the pulpit.  I have received medical and psychological diagnoses from parishioners as they shook my hands after worship.  I have gotten concerned emails offering to help me with marital difficulties, personal maladies and social anxieties.

I have plenty of issues.  It's just that gossip almost always gets them wrong.

What is required for healthy community and communication?  Every healthy gossip network has heroes who challenge the accuracy of the information being conveyed.  Every healthy gossip network has leaders who will regularly say, "Are you sure that's right?  Have you talked to so and so about that matter?  If you're so terribly concerned, have you done anything to help?  Is this the sort of information you really need in order to live your own life?"

That sort of intervention takes tremendous courage, because it can land the intervener in the middle of another spate of innuendo and imaginative reconstruction of personal histories.  The heroes and leaders are what we need in our companies, our communities and our congregations.  Such folks move us back down the ladder and onto the solid ground of actual information.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Ladder of Inference

This is the primary construction tool of many difficult conversations--especially those that never progress beyond the "what happened" dimension of the conflict.  In an earlier post I discussed the assumptions we make about one another regarding internal states.  We assume that we can read the internal states of others based on external data.  And many times we are simply wrong.

We have all climbed the Ladder of Inference many times.  You can see how the process works.  

I think of an incident in my first call.  The congregation had received a nice bequest.  They used it for some capital improvements on the church building and the parsonage.  I was trying my best to give all the reasons why this was a good thing.  I was being my most encouraging self.  I said to a couple of council members, "And when you get the next pastor, this parsonage will be even more attractive than it is now."

In hindsight I giggle and wince at how naive I was in that statement.  Within days every member of that small congregation was convinced that I was taking a call to another church.  They had been prematurely abandoned before, so they had some reasons to make their way up the ladder of inference.  An observation always takes place within a context and a history.

On the other hand, I had given no other evidence of desiring to go anywhere else.  That being said, the rumor mill slammed into high gear.  The phone was hot from the constant ringing.  By the next Sunday I had to stand up and make an announcement that as far as I knew I was not going anywhere.  If anyone had different information, I would like to know so that I could prepare appropriately.

We all had a good laugh and got on with our lives.  Of course, other journeys up the ladder of inference are not so benign.  People have lost jobs and whole careers because someone drew inaccurate conclusions from limited data.

What are the antidotes?

  • Always test the data or the experience and ask yourself if your assessment reflects reality.  Check it out with a neutral third party whenever possible.
  • Check your assumptions at the door and try to look at the facts with an open mind.
  • When in doubt, check out your perceptions with the person in question.  Often your perceptions will not be right and might even be amusing.
  • Be humble enough to concede that once in awhile you might not get it quite right.
  • Resist the temptation to invent intentions.  Just ask what the other person intended.
  • Never take serious action without first testing that decision with someone who has no dog in the fight.
  • Always seek to go down the ladder rather than up.
Ladders are great for painters but bad for problem conversations.  Try to keep your feet firmly on the ground.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Look! It's Celebration Stuff!

My spouse has just gotten in some new inventory for her fair trade gift store.  There are open boxes scattered around the living room with treasures from a dozen different countries--a handmade footstool from India, windchimes from Asia, jewelry, cups and much more.  

It's like another Christmas when a new shipment arrives!


Our granddaughter was with us yesterday.  She looked in one of the open boxes.  It is filled with brightly colored shredded paper for packing the precious cargo.  Our granddaughter looked at the paper and said, "Oh, Grandma, where did you get all this beautiful celebration!  Look, it's celebrations stuff!" 

She wanted to have a party right then and there with the multi-colored confetti.

Feel free to envy the creativity of this response!  Do your best to be open to the immediate and to see all the possibilities of an experience.  It's not "supposed to be" confetti for a party.  It's just a bunch of expendable paper used for a quite mundane purpose.  But in the fresh eyes of a four-year-old, this is a celebration that should not be wasted or ignored.

What opportunity is right in front of you that you are not seeing?

Can you step back and take another look?

If you think first about having fun and only later about working, will you see things in a new light?

Is it time to have a celebration?

Oh, and here's a link to the new store's Facebook page:


And this is one of the new acquisitions...

Building a Bridge to the Other

Difficult Conversations refers to it as "The Intention Invention."  This is one of the chief roadblocks to having constructive conversations in the midst of conflict.  The authors write:
"The error we make in the realm of intentions is simple but profound: we assume we know the intentions of others when we don't.  Worse still, when we are unsure about someone's intentions, we too often decide they are bad."
For example, it's a busy Sunday morning between worship services.  A parishioner meets her pastor in the hall on the way to the restroom.  The parishioner greets the pastor warmly, but the pastor barely acknowledges the greeting.  The parishioner thinks, "Clearly, he doesn't like me."

The checker at the local big box store is surly and growly.  I come through the line and try to cheer him up with a bright "Good Morning!"  The only response is a gruff "Paper or plastic?"  I walk away thinking to myself that this is a bad person who might function better as a prison guard.

Your spouse is sitting thoughtfully and quietly on the couch.  She frowns and groans a bit.  You think to yourself (especially if you're a male), "Here it comes.  I wonder what I did wrong this time?  I'll bet it was because she had to ask me for the third time to take out the garbage before I did it.  It's going to be a long night..."

In the first case, the pastor had just learned of a sudden and unexpected death in the congregation.  In the second case, checker had just been reprimanded for being too slow and talking too much with customers.  In the third case, the spouse was having some intestinal cramps after a spicy Mexican dinner.

H. L. Mencken wrote, "For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong."  This is especially true in the area of intentions.  

Here's the problem.  The only brain I know from the inside is mine.  My mental model of the world is the only one I know firsthand.  I know how I respond to various inputs, and I approximate the world according to my experiences.  I use my insides to judge other people's outsides.  Difficult Conversations puts it this way: "The truth is, intentions are invisible.  We assume them from other people's behavior.  In other words, we make them up, we invent them."

This creative process leads to a deeper problem.  In psychological terms it's often called the Fundamental Attribution Error.  We explain our own actions in terms of our internal disposition.  Mostly, therefore, we give ourselves a free pass.  We explain the actions of others in terms of external effects.  Mostly, therefore, we criticize the bejeebers out of them.  We use two different standards to evaluate behavior, and we almost always come out feeling right.

We believe we're right because, in essence, we cheat.

One key to having difficult conversations is for each side to renounce this sort of cheating.  That key is to seek an empathic connection with the other--to try to see the situation as much as possible from "inside" the other person's perspective.  Mostly we cannot do that on our own.  In fact, one of the key tools for any mediator or conflict coach is to help to people (or two sides of any kind) to build that bridge of empathy.

Do you need some help in constructing that kind of bridge?

Friday, May 24, 2013

One of My Favorite Things

Engaging in a difficult conversation taxes all of our emotional and intellectual resources.  It is very hard brain work.  That is why, when we have mediation sessions, there is always some chocolate on the table.  We are using glucose at a furious rate in difficult conversations.  We often need to replenish our supply of blood sugar to be at our best in such conversations.

Patton, Stone, and company, provide masterful analysis of what goes into having a difficult conversation.  However, they do not address one of the critical elements that determines success or failure in such a conversation.  Are you a hopeful person?  Do you have an adequate capacity to envision a positive outcome?  Do you have current confidence in a better future?

I am reading Shane Lopez's new book, Making Hope Happen: Create the Future You Want for Yourself and Others.  I got the book in part because I am preaching this weekend on Romans 5:5--"and hope does not disappoint."  The book is a great resource for that little project, but it is much more as well.

Hope is an essential element for any positive outcome in difficult conversations.  In every parenting plan mediation I have facilitated, one or both of the parties has come in hopeless.  "I can tell you right now," they say, "that this is not going to work.  We've tried to resolve these issues for weeks (or months or years), and we have not gotten anywhere.  But I'm glad you'll at least try."

At first I tried to talk people out of such perspectives at the front end of the process.  I have learned, however, to simply accept the descriptions and move forward.  As we begin to make real progress in resolving issues, the atmosphere in the room changes.  Hope is contagious.  Hope is also cumulative.  It may be that hope increases exponentially once it takes off.  Often the parties are stunned by the success of their own work.

One of my favorite parts of facilitating any difficult conversation is the process of "option generation."  This is where hope becomes concrete.  One of my roles as a mediator is to keep that process going--sometimes with wild and crazy ideas that make people laugh out loud.  Of course, those silly ideas make the more realistic ideas looks so very much better (thus personal ego is a liability in most mediation processes).  Creating possible new pathways to the future when it seemed that every path was blocked--that's fun!  And that's hope.

This is a concrete application of an insight Lopez shares from his research: 
"Hope is not just a personal resource.  It's one of the most important ways we create our families, our communities, and our society.  Thanks to our big frontal lobes, we humans outstrip every other species in the size and complexity of our social networks.  And from the moment we're born (and in some cases, even before), our brains and minds are shaped by the bonds we form with those closest to us."  Making Hope Happen, page 45.
One of the implications here is that hope-building is usually a communal activity, not a solo act.  One of the main tasks of a facilitator is to create space and structure for hopeful solutions to seemingly intractable problems to arise in the midst of interactions.

That's one of my favorite things! 


You can interact with this material at http://shanelopez.com/.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

You May Be Right...Or Not

It's a conversation I've had many times as a consultant.  "But I'm right!" the conflictor protests.  "Doesn't that count for anything?"  Difficult Conversations tackles this issue up front.  
"The point is this: difficult conversations are almost never about getting the facts right.  They are about conflicting perceptions, interpretations and values.  They are not about what a contact states, they are about what a contract means...They are not about what is true, they are about what is important."
What are the realities that lead us to this "truth assumption," as Stone, Patton et al refer to it?

One reality is the "self-justification bias."  Self-justification "allows people to convince themselves that what they did was the best thing they could have done," write Caroll Tavris and Elliot Aronson in Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me).  They continue the description, "In fact, come to think of it, it was the right thing."  We often make decisions and choices in the heat of the moment.  We then seek out reasons to justify our choices after the fact.  Then we use the malleability of our memory to convince ourselves that we relied on those reasons from the beginning.  Thus, of course, we were right all along!

A second reality is the "confirmation bias."  This arises out of the self-justification bias.  This bias is an error in sorting information.  We will seek out and accept evidence that supports the position we have already adopted.  We will regard that evidence as obvious and authoritative.  We will reject evidence that contradicts or challenges the position we have adopted.  We will regard that evidence as foolish and suspect.  So we will build, at least in our minds, a stronger and stronger case for the proposition, "I'm right and you're wrong."

A third reality is the "endowment effect." This effect is the result of claiming anything--a car, a house, a spouse or an idea--as our own.  When I regard anything as mine, it immediately increases in value to me.  My house is always worth more to me than it can be worth to anyone seeking to buy it--unless I exercise tremendous mental discipline to see it otherwise.  Once I adopt an idea as my own, I am highly resistant to surrendering any part of that idea.

We experience reality from inside our own perceptions.  We cannot do otherwise.  We are incapable of seeing any idea or situation from "outside" as an "objective" observer.  The best we can do is seek to minimize the impact of our biased perceptions.  Tavris and Aronson write it this way.  
 "Self-justification not only minimizes our mistakes and bad decisions; it is also the reason that everyone can see a hypocrite in action except the hypocrite.  It allows us to create a distinction between our moral lapses and someone else's and to blur the discrepancy between our actions and our moral convictions."
In Difficult Conversations, Stone, Patton, et al suggest that we must move away from the "truth assumption."  This move "frees us to shift our purpose from proving we are right to understanding the perceptions, interpretations, and values of both sides."  Only rarely, however, are we able to make that perceptual move on our own.  Usually what is required is the outside perspective of a disinterested party to help us see our own part in the conflict.  This is the real role of a mediator, a conflict coach or other third party resource.

Billy Joel says it well: "You may be right; I may be crazy.  But it just may be a lunatic you're looking for..." Or perhaps you are looking for someone to help you move beyond the truth assumption and deal with the issues.




Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Handling Emotional Hand Grenades Safely

"Choosing not to deliver a difficult message is like hanging on to a hand grenade once you've pulled the pin."--Difficult Conversations

Of course, the first step in having any difficult conversation is deciding to engage in that conversation.  We can spend enormous amounts of energy, lose prodigious amounts of sleep, and tie ourselves in emotional knots trying to decide whether or not to have such a conversation.

When in doubt, decide to have the conversation with the person in question.  As one of my teachers used to say, "Confrontation stops pain."

But how do you make such a decision?  

Sometimes it is fairly clear that such a conversation has to happen.  Someone is hurting another person.  Someone is in danger of hurting themselves.  A problem exists that is shutting down the office or production or a meeting.  A difficult conversation is going to happen one way or another, so you might as well take charge of the process and initiate it.

That's the easy decision.

Most of the time, however, avoidance is really an option--at least in the short term.  You can duck into another room rather than face the other person.  You can communicate through brief and often tense emails and text messages.  You might even consider transferring to another department, shopping in another part of town or moving to a new neighborhood.

Those steps sometimes seem less painful than the conversation itself.

The majority of us cannot work ourselves up to having such a conversation without first processing it with someone.  Of course, we can seek out someone who will simply ratify our prejudices and work us into an even greater frenzy than before.  Those are allies, and they offer great comfort.  Allies also offer little help, however, unless you really want to feel worse.

It is far more helpful to speak with someone who can lead you to evaluate your position and then communicate in good faith.  This is someone who can hear the tone of your conversation as well as the content.  This is someone who can help you to see and to own your part of the conflict.  This is someone who can help you to acknowledge that responsibility without caving in to the villain status that the other conflictor wants you to adopt.

This is a conflict coach.

Some of us are fortunate enough to have such people among our friends and colleagues.  If so, count yourself one of the lucky ones.

If not, feel free to email me or give me a call.  We'll try to put the pin back in the hand grenade before anyone goes off.

Rehearsing Difficult Conversations

How can I have an honest confrontation that doesn't collapse within seconds into heated combat?  That is the primary question for most people with whom I work.  They may not even think of the question, but they come to a mediator, coach or counselor primarily because some relationship is not working.  There are problems, issues, and disagreements that make the conversations tense and the days long.

It's exhausting.

The risk, however, of an explosion is more than most people can tolerate.  We live in a hair-trigger society where the default response to confrontation is a meltdown--either into tears of pain or shouts of rage.  Even if those responses don't happen, we live with the anxiety that they will.

Every person who faces the prospect of confrontation should read the now-classic book, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most.  Stone, Patton, Fisher and Heen have developed a comprehensive guide for preparing to carry out such conversations.  I will spend some time in the next several posts on that book.

Why does this topic matter?  The authors put it this way.  "We believe a major reason change efforts so often fail is that successful implementation eventually requires people to have difficult conversations--and they are not prepared to manage them skillfully."  All of us are agents of change at some point in our lives--whether the change is in our friendships, our marriages, our parenting, our work, our church or our business.

The techniques in Difficult Conversations will be well worth the time reviewing.  However, one of the  reasons we are not prepared for such conversations is that we rarely take the time to practice them in advance.  This is where a conflict coach can be invaluable.  Role-playing the conversation toward a productive conclusion is an indispensable tool for successful resolutions.  But rarely do people take the time or energy to engage in such practice.

I walked through a difficult conversation a boss anticipated with an employee.  We worked through the conversation several times as I pretended to be the hurt, upset, angry, threatening and acquiescent employee--not all at once, of course!  At the end of the practice, the boss was much calmer and had lived through in advance how things might turn out.  This is really a form of neurolinguistic programming that opens up new brain pathways and make the adjustment to difficult input easier.

In simple terms, the boss dealt with anxiety in advance.  If you want to try out difficult conversation rehearsals, just give me a call!

My New Website

I continue to move forward with my private mediation, coaching and consulting practice.  Brenda and I have rented storefront space in Old Towne Bellevue, Nebraska.  In the front of the store will be "Beans, Books and Bull," our fair trade goods gift shop.  In the office I am completing will be my business, "Hennigs Consulting Services, Inc." (aka HCSI).  

My website for HCSI can be found at http://lrhennigs1.wix.com/hcsi-home.  I hope you'll visit the site when you get the opportunity.

I am linking my blog to the website, so I will focus more and more on resources for my practice.  Those resources will continue to include posts related to bereavement recovery, but not limited to those topics.

Thanks for reading so far...the adventure continues.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Ascension Day


“But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.”
Philippians 3:20-21 (NRSV)

Forty days after his resurrection, Jesus “ascended into heaven” (as we confess in the great creeds of the Church).  This year, Ascension Day is Thursday, May ninth.  The memory of Jesus’ ascension is found only in Luke’s gospel and the book of Acts, both written by the same theologian.  We Christians do not believe that when we say “Christ is risen” and Jesus “ascended into heaven” that we are somehow saying the same thing.  So why does the Ascension matter?
               First, we need to clarify what we are not saying.  We are not saying that Jesus leapt off the mountain and now lives somewhere in outer space, no matter what some simple Christian art might suggest.  We are not saying that now Jesus’ “spirit” lives with God in some non-material place or that now he lives only “in our hearts.”  We are not saying that Christians must believe that the universe is a flat, three-storied structure.  Those suggestions are cartoon caricatures of a mature Christian faith and understanding.
               Now we can address what we do confess about the Ascension of Jesus.  First, we have to think differently about the whole cosmos.  Heaven and earth are not, so to speak, two different floors—the “upstairs” and “downstairs” of the universe.  Instead, the Bible claims that heaven and earth are “two different dimensions of God’s good creation” (N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, page 111) and that these two dimensions interact continuously.
               Second, we proclaim that Jesus is now present in heaven in his fully embodied, resurrected state.  When Jesus ascended, he did not abandon the human existence he took on at birth.  The Incarnation is a permanent state, not a temporary stop on the journey.
               Third, we declare that from the heavenly dimension, the Risen Jesus can connect with any part of the earthly dimension at any time—or with all parts of the earthly dimension at once.  Time and space are different in the heavenly dimension of the cosmos.  Christians who don’t understand this make all sorts of mistakes.  One is the suggestion that Jesus cannot be both “at the right hand of God” and physically present in Holy Communion at the same time.  In fact, it is because Jesus sits on the seat of God’s power that Jesus is present to us in Holy Baptism, in Holy Communion, in the life of the Church, and in the faces of the poor (see Matthew 25:31-45).
               Fourth, therefore, we proclaim that the Ascension is the enthronement of Jesus Christ as Savior, Ruler and Lord of all things.  We don’t really need, for example, the Festival of Christ the King at the end of the church year (a festival invented by a portion of the Church in 1925).  On Ascension Day we celebrate the eternal rule of Jesus.  More than that, as the Church we live out that rule.  N. T. Wright puts it this way.  “The kingdom will come as the church, energized by the Spirit, goes out into the world, vulnerable, suffering, praising, praying, misunderstood, misjudged, vindicated, celebrating: always—as Paul puts it in one of his letters—bearing in the body the dying of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be displayed” (Surprised by Hope, page 112).
               The ancient Eucharistic proclamation captures it well: Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again!  Let us live each day in the power of the Risen and Ascended Christ, our Savior, Ruler and Lord!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

We Are the One-Percenters

What is the connection between the 2008 collapse of the financial system and a tragic loss of a loved one?  I have been reading several books on probability, prediction and prodigious failures.  Each book has made the same three points about the 2008 debacle:

  1. The experts confused precision with accuracy.  A probability calculated to four decimal points can still be dead wrong.
  2. The experts based their estimates on a limited period of previous prosperity rather than on a longer and more representative record.
  3. Experts and investors ignored the one percent--that rare event when the worst case scenario becomes reality.
The combination of these errors created an artificial financial bubble.  When the bubble burst, lives were devastated as trillions of dollars evaporated out of the economy in a few short months.

What does that have to do with tragic personal loss?  We live with personal varieties of the daily delusions and denials that produced the financial debacle.
  1. We often make quite precise plans for the future and rarely consider that we may be missing the target (or that there really is no objective "target" for our life plans).
  2. We look at the relatively tranquil, uneventful and pleasant life we have had so far.  And we assume--or even insist--that such a path is ordained to continue.
  3. We know that terrible things can happen to someone, somewhere, sometime   But such things don't happen to us.  The one percent of human experience doesn't happen to me.
And then it does.

Suddenly all the previous plans and predictions are beside the point.  We are the ones who lose a job, a home, a spouse, a child.  We are the ones who must remake an entire worldview to make room for catastrophe.  We are the ones who can never again be unconscious, oblivious, unfettered by the mutterings of mortality.

We are the one percenters.

The financial system has responded much like a bereaved person.  There has been a period of denying that anything really happened.  There have been the futile efforts to breathe life into corporate corpses.  There has been the emotional overreaction in the overly tight credit markets.  Just ask anyone who has tried to buy a house in the last three years.

Now there is a return to the oblivious state on the part of those who survived or were spared the suffering.  Did you notice that the Dow broke 15,000 on May 7th?

That willful unconsciousness in the market may produce a secondary financial bubble and subsequent contraction--perhaps even more painful than the current one.  Oblivious enthusiasm is bad for all but the very rich.

When it comes to loss and grief, I suspect a certain amount of mortality unconsciousness is necessary for people to get up each morning.  For those who have suffered losses, however, mortality unconsciousness ceased to be an option.  The reality of mortality changes how we approach life.  That awareness can trap us in a cycle of self-serving bitterness and hyperactive fear.  Or it can create the desire to live even more fully each day in this valley of the shadow.

Each day I strive to make the choice to live.  I'm not so sure about the economy...

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Abduction as Idolatry

Three Ohio women who had been missing for ten years escaped and were returned to their families in the past few days.  You can read the story here, among other places:


What is it about possessing another human being?  There is a pathological attraction to this possibility. The three men arrested in Cleveland are extreme examples of this pathology, but nearly all of us are driven to some small extent by this desire.  We may be possessive in relationships or in parenting, at work or at school.  Think about all of the love songs that use the imagery of possessing another--"You are MINE!"  And there is the equal and opposite fantasy about being possessed by someone.

What is this about?

In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis depicts the essence of the Demonic as the desire to consume another being.  He describes Hell as the realm of "eat or be eaten."  I'm not sure he has the imagery quite right.  You eat another, and then it's over.  You are then on to the next victim.  But possession, enslavement, absolute dominance--these are the gifts that keeps on giving.  The sick and twisted men who kept these poor three women for years were engaged in a cycle of possession and dominance that feeds a deep and sinful desire.

I believe this reflects our pathological desire to displace God and to become gods ourselves--at least in relation to some other human being.  In the Large Catechism, Martin Luther describes what it means to have a "god."  To have a god is to depend on that One for all things in life and in death.  It is the relationship of utter dependence rooted in complete trust.

If that is an adequate behavioral description of what it means to have a god, then the converse might be an adequate behavioral description of what it means to be a god.  To be or to feel like a god would be to exercise dominance and control over another human being.  Abduction and enslavement are not voluntary conditions of dependence and trust.  These are vile imitations of the real relationship.  But then, we are not made to be gods.  So our attempts to be divinely dominant can only end in disaster.

No human being deserves our utter dependence and complete trust.  Those gifts, when given, will always be used against us to enslave us.  This is the essence, for example, of the abuser/abused relationship.  We humans only rarely love one another purely for the benefit of the other.  So we must always seek to regulate our desires to own, control, dominate and ultimately abuse the other.  Only the one who can truly be called God could deserve such utter dependence and complete trust.

We who follow Jesus declare that we have seen and come to know the One who is deserving of our dependence and trust.  Jesus says that he came not to be served but rather to serve and to give his life so that all might live.  Only the God of utter self-giving can be trusted to have us and to hold us in love and hope.

Gracious God, create in us the trust in you that shields us from seeking to be or to worship little gods.  Amen.