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Category Archives: musing

Reflections and analysis of Pastor Church fires.

I’ve started a kind of home page for my thoughts and reflections about the increasing number of struggles between pastors and congregations and the increase in bad endings.

Capture of Art 17 stats by decade to end of 2014

It will likely be a page that is in constant flux, as I have new thoughts or time to flesh out old ones.

Here’s a link: https://pastorpete.wordpress.com/peteillogical-reflections/observed-common-elements-of-hard-pastor-church-separations/

 

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How Chronic Anxiety derails the church from her purpose

Just read some good stuff in the last few days, and it is so relevant I just had to write it up and share it. In fact, I would say it is essential knowledge for church leaders. If what is described here is active in your congregation, it will help you understand, and both be compassionate and firm with the problem, or even to nudge you to seek help addressing it.

IMPORTANT INFORMATION ABOUT HOW ANXIETY IMPEDES RELATIONSHIPS IN CHURCHES

and so then interferes with doing God’s work as well.

One of the books I am currently reading explains how a negative emotional dynamic in churches works. It has to do with unhealthy anxiety. Everything I read here fits both my experience and my theories about unresolved trauma in the CRC in Canada. By the way, I will start mentioning that the theory is not a blaming theory, in fact it is quite sympathetic. People at that time did not know what was happening, and they did not know how to deal with it.

By the point in the book these quotes are found, the author has explained there are two kinds of anxiety. Short term, or acute, and chronic, which is always there. Chimes or alarm bells are always going off for the chronically anxious. I will add that they seem to need to be fearful. He has also explained, simplistically put, that there are three areas of brain activity that regulate our behaviour, one is the part we have that is most in common with primitive, reptilian animals, it governs basic functions that keep us alive—survival processes. The next, more advanced part of the brain is the part that deals with playing, nurturing, bonding, and emotional expression –relational processes (my term). The most advanced section of the human brain’s processing centres, consisting of about 85% of the brain matter, deals with analysis, concepts, symbols, reflection, observation and insights. The author refers to it as the “Thinking Cap.” Stress, or anxiety, tends to cut out the second and third level and have the lower one dominate.

In this section the author is talking about Jesus’ parable of the lost son, using the runaway as an example of acute anxiety, and the homeboy as an example of chronic.

Here is the quote:

“Acutely anxious people regain their perspective. There is a return to the Thinking Cap. They have the capacity to control their reactivity. But the chronically anxious have immense difficulty keeping their hands off their own chimes. They are not self-regulating. And they are not imaginative. Note how the father appeals to his oldest son’s thinking capacity: “It is fitting to rejoice and give thanks. After all, my son—your brother—was lost and is found. Son, everything I have is yours.” There is no response.

“Typical of chronically anxious people, the older son resorts to either/or, yes/no, or black/white thinking. It was either “favor me” or “favor your other son;” it was all these years of obedience versus the irresponsible behavior of the other son. Anxiety-driven reactivity inhibits the use of the Thinking Cap. With little capacity for discernment, the chronically anxious reduce everything to all or nothing. Lines are drawn. It is no wonder, then, that they overfocus on others and their weaknesses. They blame or falsely criticize. The older son, for example, diagnoses his brother—reckless, careless, foolish. By overfocusing on the riotous brother, he is no longer responsible for his own reactive position nor responsive to his brother. To the older brother, the trouble is external to himself. Obviously, the brother cannot think systemically. For when you see yourself as part of all relational transactions, you look in both directions. You understand that in emotional systems everything is mutually influenced.

“The parable of Jesus also clues us to another characteristic of chronic anxiety. There is willfulness. “If it’s not done my way, I’ll show you.” Thus the older son refuses to join the festive party. If the chronically anxious cannot diminish or eradicate their pain by blaming, they’ll rid themselves of it nonetheless through other means. “I’ll make you suffer yet.” If differences cannot be tolerated, they are likely to be persecuted.

“It is the chronically anxious individuals in the church family who are apt to conduct a “search and destroy mission.” They will not hesitate to impose their wills on others. They make hostages of their gifts, attendance, and participation. They employ their stewardship as brinkmanship. Their ultimate threat is to run away from home—transferring or terminating their membership if an action is not rescinded, a person is not removed, or a demand is not satisfied. These tactics are effective in church families that place a premium on peace and harmony. They will exchange integrity for tranquillity. They cannot free themselves from the bondage of others.

“Basically, chronically anxious people have a low threshold for pain. This is why they are in the forefront of the effort to secure immediate relief. They hanker for answers and comfort. Threatened, they make demands, spread rumors, exaggerate circumstances, claim injustice-whatever it takes to lessen their anxiety. Governed by instinct rather than insight, they cannot be stopped by reasoning or appeasing. Mistakenly, those who must deal with them think being “nice” to the chronically anxious will earn cooperation in return. Or that being reasonable will get the reactive forces to follow suit. But the reptilian brain does not respond to nice behavior, clear thought, or sugar and roses. Under the siege of the Automatic Pilot, thoughtful and careful approaches are ignored. For this reason, too, difference itself is not the cause of the friction. Differences are problematic in proportion to the automatic processes. With the chronically anxious, the contentious issue is not at the basis of their reactivity. Even if the issue changes, their chimes are still ringing. They keep adding emotional fuel to the fire.”

–Pg 24-25 How your Church Works

“At times a system becomes aware of the anxiety-generating forces, yet refuses to use its strengths and resources to deal with the agitation. Sweeping the anxious reactivity under the rug, the system proceeds as usual. But “benign neglect” only reinforces malignant processes. Moreover, ignoring is as reactive as placating or attacking. VICIOUS CIRCLES CAN ONLY BE DISABLED THROUGH EXPOSURE. They are enabled by secrecy and avoidance.

“The church family’s relationships are no exception to anxiety. It was as true in the early church as it is in the contemporary church.”

–Pg 27 “How your Church Works; Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems” by Peter Steinke

 

 
 

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What is tugging at my desire to learn more these days

Pardon me for just jotting stuff that seems random, but I’m starting to recognize a kind of loop of interests I keep cycling through, and I’m wondering if writing them out will help me define an uber-interest within the loop.

They all have to do with congregational health, which should be no surprise, since I work as and consider it my calling to be a Specialized Transitional Minister.

When I first did some reading on the distinction between Adaptive Change and Technical Change, I saw something vividly valid w.r.t. church vitality. I saw that we tend as individuals (The Flesh) and institutions to naturally move toward the stasis and predictability and comfort of Technical maintenance. It was clear that after a time of that, as the world around the church changes, a time comes where that approach begins to limit gospel sharing effectiveness. The only way to cycle out of that seems, historically, to require significant upheaval, and in worst cases Death of churches so room can be made for something newly speaking gospel to the culture. One question related to this is: Can Adaptive movement be made part of the ‘makeup’ or DNA of the church? That way the upheaval comes in smaller waves. There is another question that I will get back to.

I next began to learn to pay attention to organizational anxiety. I began to see how a pocket of anxiety can spread, and how it can paralyze an organization or institution, keeping it from making sensible or well discerned decisions. It can keep a church from being healthy, it can spread negativity, create fear of any proposal that moves toward the Adaptive. And it seems that often the people in it do not see what is happening. The right dose of anxiety however, at the right time, can also motivate toward the Adaptive. Attention to that systemic dynamic became part of my reflecting on church health.

Most of my life I’ve had opportunity to observe my own Immigrant subculture. This was enhanced by a move to Europe as an 8 year old child, and then a return to Canada a few years later. A theme that kept surfacing, sometimes in very difficult ways, was the wounding done by our love for what we considered to be reason and good doctrinal answers. This cerebral emphasis on the expression of our faith by way of knowledge of doctrine carried with it a pervasive suspicion of emotion and testimonial experience. Over time, in my adult years, as I learned about this through reading and hearing people’s stories, and worked to sort out parts of my own upbringing, I came to see that aside from what I just stated, WWII had severely traumatized many in my parents generation. This deepened how far emotions were pressed down. Some – based on my own amateur assessment – would probably have qualified as having Post Traumatic Stress Disorders. But such diagnoses did not exist in that day, and people were pressed to ‘soldier on, in faith.’ Those who immigrated to new lands often seem to have had their own family drama reasons for choosing to do so. For eg. they may have been the least favoured child or the black sheep. The immigration itself was massively traumatic on its own for many. The demands of a hardscrabble existence on first arriving here were extremely taxing. And few – if any – had places (or times) where they could ‘process’ those feelings. Working at an addiction treatment center I learned a new piece, namely that a serious childhood or early adolescent trauma that no one helped a person work through would stunt emotional development in individuals. I came to recognize that many who were working to come out of active addiction had such traumas, and were emotionally still eight or twelve years old. Putting this together with the Immigrant experience, I began to formulate an “Unresolved Trauma” theory regarding the Immigrant generation and my own, second generation. It appears to have been helpful to leaders in ‘troubled’ congregations to learn that the 70 year old who is upset about a change might just be reacting to it out of unhealed past trauma, and with behaviour we would expect from an eight year old.

Another strand in this loop of thought is a more recent concern to research whether the perception that ‘hard separations’ (Mainly Article 17 of our Church Order) between pastors and congregations are dramatically increasing in the last decades. Preliminary digging in the data confirms this. I  have a deep interest in both exploring if there are common causes or mitigating factors in these, aiming to find early preventative alarm systems that can be put in place but also in finding healing from the often deeply painful impact on all involved. This in itself would be a lifelong endeavor.

Now, those being givens, when my mind automatically fingers it way through them like prayer beads, I now and then get a sense of a ‘string’ that is holding all those beads together. Yet I can never quite name it. I just keep coming up with questions and theories, not much by way of answers. So, for example, is the unresolved emotional factor what creates much of the anxiety in congregations? Is the radical change of immigration and fear of yet more change a primary force in not allowing our congregations to make necessary Adaptive changes? Are those two – emotional immaturity in senior members and their fear of change – a major contributor to the hard separations? And so on.

Theologically I also believe there is a link between Adaptive Change and what the Bible refers to as a “New Heart.” I also refer to it as Deep Change. I feel a need to do further Theological exploration of that, in which some of the secular writing on the subject can be shown to effectively interlace with God putting a New Heart within us and the Spirit directing us into risk.

So, there, I did it. I jotted out what loops in my mind.

 

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What aspects of CRC culture might be keeping us from thriving?

I define culture as the actions by which we live out and express our values. As I’ve written elsewhere, we often have a hypocrisy of values, i.e. those we profess publicly are not those we actually live out. When I say values are the basis of culture I am talking about these unstated values. They actually have more influence and power. I have no idea if that is an acceptable definition of culture or near what the Task Force Reviewing Structure and Culture means by culture.

On various media platforms an ‘outside of official channels’ discussion is ongoing about this and related subjects like leadership and how our organizational structure possibly limits us. and even making leadership afraid to speak up. I have linked to two blog posts in the statements above that will give you some idea of the discussion.

All of this has me thinking about many things, and thoughts are coming faster than I can capture. But I find myself returning to a question that I think my experience qualifies me to begin to address. That question is: What aspects of our “culture”  in the CRC might be contributing to a failure to thrive?

I refer to — and depend on — experience as a son of a CRC pastor, as a person who lived in the Netherlands for 3 years just before my teens, as a person growing up (or trying to) in the CRC in Canada in the 70’s and early 80’s, as a King’s in Edmonton and CTS educated pastor who served two churches as a called pastor, and now as a Specialized Transitional Minister on his second contract. A myriad of other experiences, many very difficult, some very educational (working at an addiction treatment center) add to the mix.

I am skipping all kinds of caveats and disclaimers (why do I feel they are needed in the first place? could that be an element of culture?) to simply and concisely as I can share some observations from the pulpit and pew level. I don’t have a lot of interest or experience ‘higher’ up the organizational and institutional ladder.

As an immigrant-based denomination, I see us as having the following never-overtly-stated cultural values but with plenty of actions demonstrating they exist (see first link above). I’ve tried to put them in order of effect, starting with the biggies:
Preservationist – we have grown up with the implicit and explicit value and practice of maintaining something from the past.
Oppositionalist – we are used to being always on guard (defensive) against what we fought about before or against new threats (aggressive). (To me, the external architecture of the Seminary side of Chapel at Calvin College symbolizes this well. It looks like a Fort, with slots for archers or gunners and everything).
1-calvin-chapel-570x350
Relationally challenged: Poor interpersonal and relational boundaries – we don’t know how to disagree and live well together. (These will be made more clear further in the list as contributing factors are named)
Comfort seeking, not in Heidelberg Q & A 1 style, but originally in the familiar practices from ‘back home’ and then in other things. Ironically, we sometimes find comfort in reciting Q & A 1 just because “we know it was important” at one time. So too with Forms and other rituals.
Suspicious of emotion, relying on the brain as an unfallen part of man.
Fake rationalists Under a veneer cloak of reason or rationality, emotion actually runs the debate in many council rooms. So does broken or strained relationships. Another word for it is anxiety or fear.
Low Emotional IQ, in fact deeply emotionally or psychologically wounded. Especially in Canada, many of the immigrant generation were suffering unhealed deep trauma when they came to North America. In a hardscrabble initial existence, and in a religious culture that suspected emotion, emotional and personal and spiritual growth were luxuries no one had time or use for. So, in many cases, the generation now dying off were quite immature and broken. Studies show that my generation, without strong intervention and active engagement in addressing that, can be a bigger mess than the one before.
No longer principled in making choices – as practices derived from principled choice were defended and protected, their meaning was lost, we became living museums re-enacting empty rituals
That is just a start. I realize there are positive ones as well, but I’m looking for the ones that lead to a lack of flourishing.
I welcome feedback or further input.

 

 

Coach or Prophet? What do churches in discernment need?

This week I attended a training session for those learning to serve as coaches to churches discerning God’s leading for future direction. The time was good and worthwhile. Coaches do not become the pastor. They work from the sidelines.  We have some great tools and material being developed that will help churches be reflective by prayerfully looking into the mirror of data-derived charts and self-told narrative as they dream about what they might become. For this post I plan to stay with the metaphor of a person/congregation looking in the mirror to see what they can see, and to dream what they can be.

Those few days of presentation and interaction have seriously stirred in me the question I have made the title for this post. For me, to work out a question, I either need to talk it through – which my dog is not interested in – or write.So here goes my first thought-dump on the topic.

The biblical narrative that well images and parallels the congregational discernment process is the “time in the wilderness.” The Exodus account is a great descriptor that is used in the training. Leaving bondage that came out of past flight to safety, deliberately crossing a dangerous threshold safely to enter a no man’s land of uncertainty and testing, learning new rules of engaging God and other, then deliberately crossing another threshold to enter the future that has been collectively discerned, all as Israel did, is a wonderful narrative map for the journey. As a Specialized Transitional Minister I’ve even likened my role to that of Moses (and John the Baptizer). I will say to a congregation “I’m here to walk you through the journey, to be your navigator in helping you figure out where you discern God is promising you a better life, but I can’t enter that life with you.” I’m even preaching through Exodus as a guide to “Transitions.” But here’s my difficulty. As I relive Exodus, I don’t see the biblical Moses “coaching” a whole lot. Moses is not known as a coach. He’s known as a prophet, even as John is supposedly the last of such prophets.

So, bluntly put, the coaching approach may be too kind. It feels like yet another current cultural ethos we’ve enthusiastically embraced, leaving out the more chaffing role of one who speaks harder truth out of love, who speaks or applies denial-shriveling discernments God has revealed.

When congregational politics ends up ignoring the coached process’s results and having the gang return to Egypt — to the good food and predictability of life there while confined — instead of facing the uncertainty of new territory, is that maybe because a prophet did not speak?

When I look in the mirror, there is tons of delusion and denial and headgaming going on in how I interpret what I see. Same with a congregation. I have learned that I need people around me yet somehow ‘outside of me’ who will — in the direct way of a prophet, for I don’t hear coaching hints well — help me see through the fog I create for myself. Is that not also true for congregations?

This snippet from Dr. David Schnarch crossed my screen earlier today, and I’ve bolded part of it:

“Conventional wisdom in couples therapy says troubled couples have to get more securely attached before they can differentiate. But repeatedly I see troubled couples differentiate first—which leads to stabler marriages. I believe couples have to stop manipulating their stories and tampering with facts to keep their relationship together. Far from being impossible or improbable, this is the way relationships really work. Realizing this yields a different kind of experience in therapy—not one of safety and hovering support, but one in which higher anxiety and pressure and faster pace of change emerge, as people realize their full capacity to meet the adult challenges of life.”

I read him speaking about the very same thing I am trying to sort out. What he describes as needed and more effective is similar to how I see a prophet playing a role.

In the end, for now, I’m not done with this. I have resolved my own dilemma somewhat by deciding to pay more attention to how Prophetic truth might be spoken in love, not “at” people as blunt commands or propositions, but as couched coaching: inquisitive questions and indirect revealing narrative (Eugene Peterson’s “Telling it Slant), like Nathan the prophet did with David.

 

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A good thought-provoking read… if you are into cultural analysis

Pastor Paul VanderKlay likes to think about big picture things relating to world trends and church trends, just like I do. He recently posted this series of articles. If you are into this kind of thing, dive in. If not, please don’t. And, I’m not tracking what you do, unlike some too invasively voyeuristic social media.

http://paulvanderklay.wordpress.com/2012/05/18/the-post-modern-logic-behind-emergent-calvinism/

At the point of posting this, only three were up, and I appreciated the third the most.

 
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Posted by on May 19, 2012 in musing, Uncategorized

 

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Body Ritual among the Nacirema

I still vividly remember the thrill of reading this anthropological study (originally written in 1956) for the first time back as a “mature” student at King’s. I’d re-searched for it before, wanting to read it again, and today found it!

Here you go:

Most cultures exhibit a particular configuration or style. A single value or pattern of perceiving the world often leaves its stamp on several institutions in the society. Examples are “machismo” in Spanish-influenced cultures, “face” in Japanese culture, and “pollution by females” in some highland New Guinea cultures. Here Horace Miner demonstrates that “attitudes about the body” have a pervasive influence on many institutions in Nacirema society.


The anthropologist has become so familiar with the diversity of ways in which different people behave in similar situations that he is not apt to be surprised by even the most exotic customs. In fact, if all of the logically possible combinations of behavior have not been found somewhere in the world, he is apt to suspect that they must be present in some yet undescribed tribe. The point has, in fact, been expressed with respect to clan organization by Murdock[1] . In this light, the magical beliefs and practices of the Nacirema present such unusual aspects that it seems desirable to describe them as an example of the extremes to which human behavior can go.

Professor Linton[2] first brought the ritual of the Nacirema to the attention of anthropologists twenty years ago, but the culture of this people is still very poorly understood. They are a North American group living in the territory between the Canadian Cree, the Yaqui and Tarahumare of Mexico, and the Carib and Arawak of the Antilles. Little is known of their origin, although tradition states that they came from the east. According to Nacirema mythology, their nation was originated by a culture hero, Notgnihsaw, who is otherwise known for two great feats of strength—the throwing of a piece of wampum across the river Pa-To-Mac and the chopping down of a cherry tree in which the Spirit of Truth resided.

Nacirema culture is characterized by a highly developed market economy which has evolved in a rich natural habitat. While much of the people’s time is devoted to economic pursuits, a large part of the fruits of these labors and a considerable portion of the day are spent in ritual activity. The focus of this activity is the human body, the appearance and health of which loom as a dominant concern in the ethos of the people. While such a concern is certainly not unusual, its ceremonial aspects and associated philosophy are unique.

The fundamental belief underlying the whole system appears to be that the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is to debility and disease. Incarcerated in such a body, man’s only hope is to avert these characteristics through the use of ritual and ceremony. Every household has one or more shrines devoted to this purpose. The more powerful individuals in the society have several shrines in their houses and, in fact, the opulence of a house is often referred to in terms of the number of such ritual centers it possesses. Most houses are of wattle and daub construction, but the shrine rooms of the more wealthy are walled with stone. Poorer families imitate the rich by applying pottery plaques to their shrine walls.

While each family has at least one such shrine, the rituals associated with it are not family ceremonies but are private and secret. The rites are normally only discussed with children, and then only during the period when they are being initiated into these mysteries. I was able, however, to establish sufficient rapport with the natives to examine these shrines and to have the rituals described to me.

The focal point of the shrine is a box or chest which is built into the wall. In this chest are kept the many charms and magical potions without which no native believes he could live. These preparations are secured from a variety of specialized practitioners. The most powerful of these are the medicine men, whose assistance must be rewarded with substantial gifts. However, the medicine men do not provide the curative potions for their clients, but decide what the ingredients should be and then write them down in an ancient and secret language. This writing is understood only by the medicine men and by the herbalists who, for another gift, provide the required charm.

The charm is not disposed of after it has served its purpose, but is placed in the charmbox of the household shrine. As these magical materials are specific for certain ills, and the real or imagined maladies of the people are many, the charm-box is usually full to overflowing. The magical packets are so numerous that people forget what their purposes were and fear to use them again. While the natives are very vague on this point, we can only assume that the idea in retaining all the old magical materials is that their presence in the charm-box, before which the body rituals are conducted, will in some way protect the worshiper.

Beneath the charm-box is a small font. Each day every member of the family, in succession, enters the shrine room, bows his head before the charm-box, mingles different sorts of holy water in the font, and proceeds with a brief rite of ablution[3]. The holy waters are secured from the Water Temple of the community, where the priests conduct elaborate ceremonies to make the liquid ritually pure.

In the hierarchy of magical practitioners, and below the medicine men in prestige, are specialists whose designation is best translated as “holy-mouth-men.” The Nacirema have an almost pathological horror of and fascination with the mouth, the condition of which is believed to have a supernatural influence on all social relationships. Were it not for the rituals of the mouth, they believe that their teeth would fall out, their gums bleed, their jaws shrink, their friends desert them, and their lovers reject them. They also believe that a strong relationship exists between oral and moral characteristics. For example, there is a ritual ablution of the mouth for children which is supposed to improve their moral fiber.

The daily body ritual performed by everyone includes a mouth-rite. Despite the fact that these people are so punctilious[4] about care of the mouth, this rite involves a practice which strikes the uninitiated stranger as revolting. It was reported to me that the ritual consists of inserting a small bundle of hog hairs into the mouth, along with certain magical powders, and then moving the bundle in a highly formalized series of gestures[5].

In addition to the private mouth-rite, the people seek out a holy-mouth-man once or twice a year. These practitioners have an impressive set of paraphernalia, consisting of a variety of augers, awls, probes, and prods. The use of these items in the exorcism of the evils of the mouth involves almost unbelievable ritual torture of the client. The holy-mouth-man opens the client’s mouth and, using the above mentioned tools, enlarges any holes which decay may have created in the teeth. Magical materials are put into these holes. If there are no naturally occurring holes in the teeth, large sections of one or more teeth are gouged out so that the supernatural substance can be applied. In the client’s view, the purpose of these ministrations[6] is to arrest decay and to draw friends. The extremely sacred and traditional character of the rite is evident in the fact that the natives return to the holy-mouth-men year after year, despite the fact that their teeth continue to decay.

It is to be hoped that, when a thorough study of the Nacirema is made, there will be careful inquiry into the personality structure of these people. One has but to watch the gleam in the eye of a holy-mouth-man, as he jabs an awl into an exposed nerve, to suspect that a certain amount of sadism is involved. If this can be established, a very interesting pattern emerges, for most of the population shows definite masochistic tendencies. It was to these that Professor Linton referred in discussing a distinctive part of the daily body ritual which is performed only by men. This part of the rite includes scraping and lacerating the surface of the face with a sharp instrument. Special women’s rites are performed only four times during each lunar month, but what they lack in frequency is made up in barbarity. As part of this ceremony, women bake their heads in small ovens for about an hour. The theoretically interesting point is that what seems to be a preponderantly masochistic people have developed sadistic specialists.

The medicine men have an imposing temple, or latipso, in every community of any size. The more elaborate ceremonies required to treat very sick patients can only be performed at this temple. These ceremonies involve not only the thaumaturge[7] but a permanent group of vestal maidens who move sedately about the temple chambers in distinctive costume and headdress.

The latipso ceremonies are so harsh that it is phenomenal that a fair proportion of the really sick natives who enter the temple ever recover. Small children whose indoctrination is still incomplete have been known to resist attempts to take them to the temple because “that is where you go to die.” Despite this fact, sick adults are not only willing but eager to undergo the protracted ritual purification, if they can afford to do so. No matter how ill the supplicant or how grave the emergency, the guardians of many temples will not admit a client if he cannot give a rich gift to the custodian. Even after one has gained and survived the ceremonies, the guardians will not permit the neophyte to leave until he makes still another gift.

The supplicant entering the temple is first stripped of all his or her clothes. In everyday life the Nacirema avoids exposure of his body and its natural functions. Bathing and excretory acts are performed only in the secrecy of the household shrine, where they are ritualized as part of the body-rites. Psychological shock results from the fact that body secrecy is suddenly lost upon entry into the latipso. A man, whose own wife has never seen him in an excretory act, suddenly finds himself naked and assisted by a vestal maiden while he performs his natural functions into a sacred vessel. This sort of ceremonial treatment is necessitated by the fact that the excreta are used by a diviner to ascertain the course and nature of the client’s sickness. Female clients, on the other hand, find their naked bodies are subjected to the scrutiny, manipulation and prodding of the medicine men.

Few supplicants in the temple are well enough to do anything but lie on their hard beds. The daily ceremonies, like the rites of the holy-mouth-men, involve discomfort and torture. With ritual precision, the vestals awaken their miserable charges each dawn and roll them about on their beds of pain while performing ablutions, in the formal movements of which the maidens are highly trained. At other times they insert magic wands in the supplicant’s mouth or force him to eat substances which are supposed to be healing. From time to time the medicine men come to their clients and jab magically treated needles into their flesh. The fact that these temple ceremonies may not cure, and may even kill the neophyte, in no way decreases the people’s faith in the medicine men.

There remains one other kind of practitioner, known as a “listener.” This witchdoctor has the power to exorcise the devils that lodge in the heads of people who have been bewitched. The Nacirema believe that parents bewitch their own children. Mothers are particularly suspected of putting a curse on children while teaching them the secret body rituals. The counter-magic of the witchdoctor is unusual in its lack of ritual. The patient simply tells the “listener” all his troubles and fears, beginning with the earliest difficulties he can remember. The memory displayed by the Nacirema in these exorcism sessions is truly remarkable. It is not uncommon for the patient to bemoan the rejection he felt upon being weaned as a babe, and a few individuals even see their troubles going back to the traumatic effects of their own birth.

In conclusion, mention must be made of certain practices which have their base in native esthetics but which depend upon the pervasive aversion to the natural body and its functions. There are ritual fasts to make fat people thin and ceremonial feasts to make thin people fat. Still other rites are used to make women’s breasts larger if they are small, and smaller if they are large. General dissatisfaction with breast shape is symbolized in the fact that the ideal form is virtually outside the range of human variation. A few women afflicted with almost inhuman hyper-mammary development are so idolized that they make a handsome living by simply going from village to village and permitting the natives to stare at them for a fee.

Reference has already been made to the fact that excretory functions are ritualized, routinized, and relegated to secrecy. Natural reproductive functions are similarly distorted. Intercourse is taboo as a topic and scheduled as an act. Efforts are made to avoid pregnancy by the use of magical materials or by limiting intercourse to certain phases of the moon. Conception is actually very infrequent. When pregnant, women dress so as to hide their condition. Parturition takes place in secret, without friends or relatives to assist, and the majority of women do not nurse their infants.

Our review of the ritual life of the Nacirema has certainly shown them to be a magic-ridden people. It is hard to understand how they have managed to exist so long under the burdens which they have imposed upon themselves. But even such exotic customs as these take on real meaning when they are viewed with the insight provided by Malinowski[8] when he wrote:

Looking from far and above, from our high places of safety in the developed civilization, it is easy to see all the crudity and irrelevance of magic. But without its power and guidance early man could not have mastered his practical difficulties as he has done, nor could man have advanced to the higher stages of civilization.[9]

[edit] Footnotes are added by Dowell as modified by Chase

  1. Murdock, George P. 1949. Social Structure. NY: The Macmillan Co., page 71. George Peter Murdock (1897-1996 [?]) is a famous ethnographer.
  2. Linton, Ralph. 1936. The Study of Man. NY: D. Appleton-Century Co. page 326. Ralph Linton (1893-1953) is best known for studies of enculturation (maintaining that all culture is learned rather than inherited; the process by which a society’s culture is transmitted from one generation to the next), claiming culture is humanity’s “social heredity.”
  3. A washing or cleansing of the body or a part of the body. From the Latin abluere, to wash away
  4. Marked by precise observance of the finer points of etiquette and formal conduct.
  5. It is worthy of note that since Prof. Miner’s original research was conducted, the Nacirema have almost universally abandoned the natural bristles of their private mouth-rite in favor of oil-based polymerized synthetics. Additionally, the powders associated with this ritual have generally been semi-liquefied. Other updates to the Nacirema culture shall be eschewed in this document for the sake of parsimony.
  6. Tending to religious or other important functions
  7. A miracle-worker.
  8. Malinowski, Bronislaw. Magic, Science, and Religion. Glencoe: The Free Press, page 70. Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) is a famous cultural anthropologist best known for his argument that people everywhere share common biological and psychological needs and that the function of all cultural institutions is to fulfill such needs; the nature of the institution is determined by its function.
  9. Did you get it?

From: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Body_Ritual_among_the_Nacirema

In many ways it is now my job to come into supposedly “familiar” cultures and make the same kinds of observations. What is “normal” to the churches I serve can be reflected back to them in a similar way.

 
 

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Something got me thinking (again)

The writings of Lesslie Newbigin – when I encountered them at Seminary in the early 90’s – were, like the talks I’d heard by Tony Campolo in the late 80’s, something that resonated harmoniously in my inner being. They harmonized confusing notes that were bouncing around there. When Brian McLaren first started publishing, I read almost everything he wrote up to about the year 2002, and his questions and provocations too resonated with some of mine. But I saw also that to run with his thinking would be dangerous. So, due to that awareness and a number of other things, I stopped reading him.

Saturday, browsing the qideas website in a time of work avoidance (or, to say it justifyingly: Waiting for my sermon to ripen in my brain before writing it out) I took in two things in sequence, and saw a strong connection.

First, I read a great article by Micheal Goheen on Newbegin:

http://www.qideas.org/blog/the-lasting-legacy-of-lesslie-newbigin.aspx

in which he wrote:

the mission of God’s people is undermined when it is compromised by cultural idolatry. Newbigin believed that this is exactly what happened to the Western church; it is an “advanced case of syncretism.” A missionary encounter requires that the church embody its comprehensive story over against the cultural story. This encounter is eclipsed when the church allows its story to be accommodated into the cultural story. Thus, it is necessary to analyze Western culture and understand its religious foundation.

Newbigin wrote that “incomparably the most urgent missionary task for the next few decades is . . . to probe behind the unquestioned assumptions of modernity and uncover the hidden credo which supports them.” He quotes a Chinese proverb: “If you want to know about water don’t ask a fish.” Western Christians are unaware of the religious beliefs of their culture because they are swimming in it all the time. They are too easily seduced by the myths of a Christian culture or of a neutral secular or pluralistic culture. Western culture, however, is neither Christian nor neutral—it is shaped by a false religious credo.

And then I watched this video of Brian McLaren being asked some tough direct questions and struggling to explain that he’s trying to examine the (Greco-Roman)”Christianity from outside of it’s regular paradigm and so has difficulty answering questions that come from within that paradigm. And I thought: He’s doing what Newbigin said. He’s trying to step out of the water of G-R Christianity (I enjoy the fact that the initials are going to bring something else to mind) and is trying to swim in a Jesus stream instead.

http://www.qideas.org/video/conversations-on-being-a-heretic.aspx

I have some sympathy and admiration for him doing that. I think it is essential that we have people willing and able to do that in Christendom.

 

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Valuing Others Above Yourself

So I’m pushing my way through an article in my hard copy of CT, you know, one of those articles where you decide “I should read this because it looks important.” But the words were not getting traction in either my brain or my heart like a story I would later read in The Banner or a first person reflection in the same.
My eyes are persistently plowing through the words as little is registering — I dissociate whenever I get a feeling someone has picked a classic Christian truth or Truth that needs defending and their strident yet lamenting tone implies they are the guardians, I hope you know the type – well in process of that, a phrase catches in my awareness. I’ve missed the context, so all I’m aware of is the phrase: “
Faithfulness to the mission of Jesus means emulating his humility by valuing others above ourselves. This is the Way of Jesus.”
Instantly I’m engaged. In a second instant I both agree and disagree. I stumble over several small things, and one big one that I do a lot of thinking on, and which I have not resolved yet. My first hesitation bumble is over the possibility of emulating humility. I don’t think it is a possibility. If I’m aware that I’m emulating humility or humble sample actions, to me it means I’m mentally in a pride place. But that’s the smaller issue.
Valuing others above myself like Jesus did is the biggie. Although I believe I know what the author intends and have some sympathy with it, and although I know it has been a strong teaching in the last couple of centuries in the Christian church, the statement leaves a grand void that gives me a sense that if I step out into living that teaching, there will be no ground beneath my feet.
Here’s my struggle: Where is valuing yourself in this? Think on that. Deeply. Is it presumed that I value myself? How do I value myself? I have seen too many who act the valuing others above themselves well, but closer acquaintance points to the fundamental fact they do not value themselves. They have no self identity of strength. In fact they create identity by servility, as it is a Biblically recommended way to be. Do you catch my dilemma?
Whenever I encounter that issue, I am brought back to a key statement from Christian scripture, taken from the Old and quoted in the New Testaments. In my own words it is “Love God with all you are and have, and, love your neighbour as yourself. That tagalong – seeming afterthought – statement clearly implies love for self. It does not just imply it, it states it in a way that makes it foundational to all that comes before it.
So now I know I’ve got part of my brain working on the question again. It is still not resolved. I still don’t know how to value others above myself like Jesus did. Mainly, that is because I don’t know how to value myself in an healthy way. I’ll keep thinking on it.

 

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Twist of faith

The last Saturday of November started out as one of those kinda aimless days. I had a bit of work-work to do and I had some house work also. Deep down I was an unhappy camper for reasons I can’t always get at. I just know what I feel, not why.

Earlier, I had come to the awareness I am content with my work situation, but I am not fulfilled in it.

In conversing with God about this the way I do, I made pretty clear I was discouraged, and I desperately needed something to strengthen my confidence and hope for the future. And just in case the wireless heaven-line was busy that first time, I repeated it. “Hello: I need a new sign of hope.” It was said in various ways with various levels of lament or gate-of-heaven smashing defiance. A few requests found the happy humbler middle.

I went about my day, tugging my proverbial bootstraps as if by moving the boots I was motivating me.

It worked. I got busy and my request for new hope – for a sign from God – became a vague darkness in the back of my mind and depths of my heart. I remained alert for signals, looking for them to come in ways I expected: an email from a church inquiring further about hiring me; or a phone call from the bank saying there’d been an error in calculations for all my life and they had $10,000 for me… that kind of thing. Nada. None of that happened. I was watching carefully, remember!

During the week I had written a report to the board in of the camp I live and work in, a report in which among the good things I had to share I had mentioned two things I was dissatisfied with, two things that frustrated me in my work. One was an extremely slow desk computer, the other was a lack of a reversible drill, either corded or cordless to make some of my repair tasks more efficient. Numerous times I had done repetitive screw turning by hand. Reporting these irritants was more about venting and getting things known. It was done without serious expectation of change. Maybe it was even a precursor to the glum feelings Saturday morning. It likely had some self-pity in it. I’m good at that (He said with insecurity-covering-ego-pride, another thing he’s good at).

Well, I need to tell you that it wasn’t until this morning, the day of writing this, Sunday, when I picked something up from where I had set it down yesterday that I realized very unusual, non-coincidental, sign-like things had happened, and I missed them completely, even though I was part of it. I made no connection in the moment.

Saturday a lady came to the camp to do some cleaning as a volunteer. As I went over to check if there was anything she needed and to describe what I’d done to prepare for her arrival, she opened her trunk and said “could you use a cordless drill? And I have a cordless screwdriver here too. Here, take them. I don’t have a use for them.” And so I picked them up, duly thanked her dully and started walking toward the camp workshop to put them away. She said: “No no no, keep them in your house, use them for yourself” and so, my steps a little lighter with a load that was now mine, I dropped them off in my back room and went back out into the dull weather to do some things.

Later, the two guys from the camp board who do the property work came. They said “We’re here to see if we can speed up your computer with new memory chips and a cleanup, and Pete, we brought you a cordless drill” to which I replied “I already got one” and I fetched it and enjoyed seeing their tool envy. I can’t remember ever having others envy tools I had. But still, I was nonchalant in the bigger picture sense of things. No lights were going on for me.

Nothing registered until Sunday, when I pulled the cordless drill out of it’s neatly compartmentalized box with bits and attachments each with their own cubby, and I realized it had two batteries with the charger, it was a 14.4 volt Mastercraft (newer units, I knew, had voltages in the teens, older ones were below 10), a nice darker blue colour that I like with bright yellow buttons, it had an adjustable clutch for if you were either drilling or driving screws, it was not only reversible but had two speeds and, most significant, it looked like it had probably been used once on a Sunday afternoon it was so clean and unscathed. And I held it in my hand, and felt the heft and balance of it and imagined the torque and whine of it, and the ability to reverse and to adjust the clutch… and I realized something unique had indeed happened the day before.

For this lady to show up with a drill, particularly not knowing anything of my whine in my report, and then for those guys to arrive ready to address my concerns when I didn’t expect it, well I had to admit it was notable or remarkable at the very least, and worth a silent restrained-Reformed “thank you Lord” (Hallelujahs are too charismatic in such situations, as is Holy Celebration Dance). And for it all to happen that same day, within hours of my lament! Quite something. I’m not sure how to interpret the sign though. I’m reluctant to give it too much meaning. I’m watching my email still, and waiting for the bank to call…

Somewhere in me I know my problem is that I’m missing the billboard message. I’m missing it because I’m not liking it. It doesn’t fit my plan, my agenda, my hopes and aspirations. God seems, at least at the time of writing, to be reinforcing me where I am with hope signals on request. My problem is my agenda is not the same as Gods.
Who’s going to change agenda’s first?
Stay tuned. The batteries are charging. Will a green light go on for Pete, or will it stay red?

 

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