Friday, March 7, 2014

Dealing With Our Shadows During Lent

I sent the following out in my weekly e-mail to members and regular attendees at the church where I serve as minister:

A book that changed my life for the better is Parker Palmer's  Let Your Life Speak: Listening to the Voice of Vocation.  It is a small book, but the sort of reading that is so provocative one must stop every few pages in order to reflect on the significance of the words in it.  I have loaned my copy out to a good number of church members here and at my previous churches.  I know of no better resource to give someone who is struggling to discover who God is calling her or him to be in terms of profession, vocation or identity.

I have worked from Palmer's small but rich book in sermons and took from him when I gave my Ash Wednesday homily.  As we begin the Lenten season together as a faith community, I think it is worth sharing more of what Palmer has to say.  What follows comes from chapter five of Let Your LIfe Speak.  You can read an excerpt of the book on-line here.

Palmer notes that because we are meant to exist within community, each of us is at some time or other a leader, whether we think of ourselves as one or not.  By simply doing what we are meant to do in life, we inevitably lead in one way or another.  Modesty and cynicism, Palmer writes, cause us to dismiss our leadership abilities, but each of us is a leader sometime.

(Sounds like a Congregational Church to me!)

Yet, often we use our influence over others in negative and unhealthy ways.  We lead others directly and indirectly--often without even realizing we are doing it--into situations that rob whatever community we are in of vitality and life.  Palmer (borrowing from Jung, I think) labels these as our "shadows."  A true spiritual journey doesn't avoid the shadows inside of us.  Instead it faces them in order to move beyond them.  Palmer lists five shadows that block us from using our influence--our leadership--to spread light and life to others.  

The first shadow is insecurity about our identity.  Palmer writes, "When we are insecure about our own identities, we create settings that deprive other people of their identities as a way of buttressing our own."  This happens in families, workplaces, churches and in politics.  Putting down someone else is an easy and cheap way to make ourselves feel better about who we are.  Of course, that feeling is short-lived and this shadow must continually be fed by demeaning others.

The second shadow according to Palmer is "the belief that the universe is a battleground, hostile to human interests."  He notes how often our businesses use militaristic metaphors ("do or die," etc.) that spread the idea that in order for us to succeed someone else must lose.  This shadow views the world as a limited economy where there is never enough for everyone and if you wish to live you must take what you need from others.  The truth of the Gospel, however, is that this endless cycle of taking is fruitless and that God's universe was made with more than enough for all to have what they need--if we learn to resist this shadow.

The third of the shadows Palmer lists is "'functional atheism,' the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us. This is the unconscious, unexamined conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we are the ones who must make it happen-a conviction held even by people who talk a good game about God."  This shadow is what drives us to control others in an attempt to control everything around us.  It tells us not to trust that others also have roles to play in the community.  It is the voice that whispers in our ears that nobody else can do it as well as we can.  When we are under the power of this shadow, we give lip-service to trusting God, but really we trust no one and nothing.  This shadow drives us to burnout and depression, because ultimately it is all not up to one person--no matter what "it" is. 

The fourth shadow is "fear, especially our fear of the natural chaos of life."  When driven by this shadow we try to regulate and control everything leaving no time for randomness, coincidence, serendipity or the Spirit of God.  "In families and churches and corporations, this shadow is projected as rigidity of rules and procedures, creating an ethos that is imprisoning rather than empowering."  Genesis teaches that God creates out of chaos.  When we allow for the messiness of life, out of that messiness can come new ideas, innovations and improvements.

The final one of Palmer's shadows is "the denial of death itself."  Everything has its time and will end in due course, but we often refuse to acknowledge this fact of life..  "Leaders who participate in this denial often demand that the people around them keep resuscitating things that are no longer alive. Projects and programs that should have been unplugged long ago are kept on life-support to accommodate the insecurities of a leader who does not want anything to die on his or her watch." 

Churches are especially prone to existing in this final shadow.  Despite our claims to believe in God's power of resurrection, we refuse to let go of programs and activities that have long outlasted their usefulness or purpose.  It is only when we allow things to die that need to end, we can devote our energy to where God is leading us next.  This is not a mere love of novelty or chasing the latest fad but rather a trust that God is leading us forward to new life.

It is no different in our personal lives.  We remain in ruts that provide comfort because of their familiarity but ultimately leave us trapped by our fear of the unknown.  We remain in relationships that are unhealthy and even abusive, because we are afraid of what comes next.  Not only is each of us going to die some day, but in order to experience life now, we must acknowledge that change is an inevitable part of our existence.  We cannot be open to the joy of new beginnings without allowing ourselves to experience endings.  Some endings bring grief, but others can bring us joy, provided that we have the courage to make room in our lives for them.

The word "Lent" originally meant "Springtime."  So, in this season where we experience the wonder of new life occurring in the natural world around us, may we together experience new life as a community of faith. 

Grace and Peace,

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