Monday, October 26, 2009

Let Your Life Speak...A Parker Palmer book study

We just finished the first session of our parish book study on Parker Palmer's "Let Your Life Speak." Not a massive opus, by any stretch of the imagination, but one of those books that has generated more conversations than most in life and ministry. I first came across it years ago when a men's ministry I was serving used it as a retreat/discussion starter. This time around, I saw its use as both timely and relevant to the parish I am serving as interim. Palmer, in his musings on the intense, personal voyage he undertook in his path to maturity do a great deal of work for us in Matawan on framing the issues any community and individual face when change-real change-looms in life.

There are a number of writers in the genre I would tentatively identify under an umbrella of being discernment authors. Henri Nouwen is another. Barbara Brown-Taylor still another. Put Barabara Crafton in there...I am sure you can add even more. Some like Annie Lamott. Others hearken back to Erma Bombeck. Still others on the fringe might add in Andy Rooney and Art Buchwald, just to spice things up. What makes them "discernment authors" is not that they are wiser than most, or that they can make a claim that they have something we don't, like a direct line to the Creator and/or have a better sense than we do of what the Creator's strategic plan for all creation might have in mind for us.

Their skill lies chiefly in being willing to put their own stuff out there for us to see. They wear their ruminations, struggles, issues, failures and successes on their proverbial sleeves for the world to see and reflect upon. In fact, the more screwy (that's a theological term) their own personal path, the more prickly their own storied personalities are, the better the resource they are for us as we seek to enter into our own discernment. That is a VERY good thing, indeed. It gets our juices flowing. Their humor, morbidity and skill in pulling words together set a table for us at which we seek to sup on wisdom. That and their established reputations and relationships with publishers, means that the dishes we are hoping to prepare actually have recipies that we can choose to follow, or ignore, in the preparation of our own feasting on wisdom and grace in God's will for us in our lives.

Palmer's book did a great deal for us yesterday morning. Those gathering in Trinity's vestry for the discussion brought significant gifts, and wonderful personal testimony to the table, and Palmer's efforts to frame some of the questions for us offered great, fertile grist for the mill. The consensus? In all mercy and with great props to the author who was willing to put himself out there, the consensus was that Palmer is more than a little pedantic. I think the direct quote was that he exhibits the character of a "depressed, self-serving" person and is more than a little over-involved with himself. Good. That is a good thing.

It means that he is willing to share his darkest bits and pieces with us. Most of his book is taken up not so much with the good that has come to him in life as the result of letting his life speak. His life, he offers, is a testament of what happens when things DON'T go well, at all. He bounced from career to career, from academic discipline to academic discipline. He took wrong turns, and often painted himself into a corner. He suffered two severe bouts of clinical depression that nearly ruined him, and not just his own self...that depression threatened to take others with it in his descent into that valley of the shadow of death.

From that self-involvement we wind up receiving many gifts of insight. Near the top of the list was Palmer's invitation to us that we, like him, come to terms with our strengths and limitations...and see them as leading indicators (my words) toward how we might make choices in life that best serve ourselves and our neighbors. Particularly beneficial was his willingness to share the insights he gained from a conversation with a fellow Quaker, Ruth. She offered up, when asked, that for her part she has learned more about life from seeing ways closing behind her. That is in contrast to a Quaker concept of seeking "way opening" before us as we discern what happens next to us in life. So, "way closing" and being willing to both acknowledge that reality (the proverbial door slamming shut behind us in life) while at the same time being willing to turn around and see what possibilities lie before us, helps, rather than hinders, us in our search for seeing beyond now and into the possibilities of the future paths we may take in life.

Another positive experience in out discussion came over the raised topic of "shadow-casting monsters in leadership." Palmer offers up that a significant portion of discernment is resolved in coming to terms with the fact that all of us-whatever our roles in life and community-are leaders in our own right. That role of leadership needs to be addressed before we can move on in discernment, and he identifies five powerful agents of destruction, distraction and delusion that pull us away from being able to adhere to a right-ordered path. They are:
  1. Insecurity about identity
  2. Persisting in seeing the universe as a battleground
  3. Insisting on living in a form of "functional Atheism"
  4. Fear
  5. Denial of Death
The discussion was drawing to a close as we took on these shadow monsters. What caught my eye were the solemn nods around the table as these five were named. We had all seen these traits in others, and in ourselves. Palmer's short chapter on leadership was the first occassion I had of seeing them named and listed together in one place for the world to see.

The Church, and a life of discernment based-founded, really-on faith should be able to challenge these 5 powerful adversaries. Yet, I have seen the Church derailed again and again by their presence in part or as a whole gestalt of personal and institutional paralysis. For parishes, the shadows are not so much named as found in standard responses to the challenge of change...and I confess that too often I have found these words coming out of my mouth and heart as well as witnessing them coming from others near me in my role as a rector or associate rector:
  1. Is that REALLY what we want to be seen as? Do we REALLY need to commit to "X" in order to be us?
  2. Listen, I was here before you, and I will be here after you!
  3. Yeah, yeah, yeah...that might be how we want the church to function, but this is the real world. Let's get to the bottom line, quit horsing around and put things in order. Church is just another business and we need to do our bit to take care of our share holders.
  4. (my own personal offering, too many times in my ministry) That just won't work. I don't see how we can make it work. Why risk what we have right now?
  5. This church has been here for nearly x-years. It will be here long after we go; and it has been through times like this before. If we keep doing what we are doing, it will all work out. It has before!
Discernment leads to change. It leads to transformation in life and it leads to us being different at the other end of its process. We can't linger too long, enmeshed in our own stuff...and yet, as Palmer reminds us, we also can't engage in the delusion of knowing that what really is can be altered by what we would have it be.

Palmer has, again, challenged his readers to begin again the hard work of looking into their own life in vocation, by his witness to his own process and patterns of discernment. For individuals and communities, that is what we really are called to as we seek to follow Christ.

A final note...though Palmer's book is a wonderful testimony to faith and discernment, it was the consensus around the table that he fails to involve Jesus as a player in his journey. That fact, and a concurrent acknowledgment in our first group, that all discernment begins and ends in Jesus' presence in our lives, both opened and closed our conversation.

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