What You Should Not Say

Do not tell me

there will be a blessing

in the breaking,

that it will ever

be a grace

to wake into this life

so altered,

this world

so without.

Do not tell me

of the blessing

that will come

in the absence.

Do not tell me

that what does not

kill me

will make me strong

or that God will not

send me more than I

can bear.

Do not tell me

this will make me

more compassionate,

more loving,

more holy.

Do not tell me

this will make me

more grateful for what

I had.

Do not tell me

I was lucky.

Do not even tell me

there will be a blessing.

Give me instead

the blessing

of breathing with me.

Give me instead

the blessing

of sitting with me

when you cannot think

of what to say.

Give me instead

the blessing

of asking about him–

how we met

or what I loved most

about the life

we have shared;

ask for a story

or tell me one

because a story is, finally,

the only place on earth

he lives now.

If you could know

what grace lives

in such a blessing,

you would never cease

to offer it.

If you could glimpse

the solace and sweetness

that abide there,

you would never wonder

if there was a blessing

you could give

that would be better

than this–

the blessing of

your own heart

opened

and beating

with mine.

This is from Jan Richardson’s latest book, The Cure for Sorrow, a collection of blessings she wrote after the unexpected death of her husband. I’m thinking through an upcoming summer unit with new chaplain interns, thinking through a writing prompt friends gave me, and considering the integration of loss, of words, of self and of care. I commend the book to you if you consider such things yourself.

New Names

I was listening to someone speak about a passage in the Hebrew Bible, in the earlier part of Genesis that describes how God changed Jacob’s name. The speaker did not say this but it came to me–and I’ve likely heard this before in someone’s sermon–that God was offering Jacob a wonderful gift in that passage.

When the angel of God inquired about the man’s name, the answer was “My name is Jacob.” Of course that’s what he said. The angel or God, whichever you choose, then, told Jacob that his name wasn’t Jacob but Israel.

In a sense, God changed Jacob’s name. It was the only name Jacob knew to that point. In another way, God gave Jacob his real name, the name he always had, the name Jacob wasn’t aware of, the name Jacob hadn’t been used to using.

And I ask, Was it God or Jacob who needed to know the new name? It wasn’t God, right? Hadn’t God already had a name for Jacob who was known by some other title?

God gave Jacob the name he always had but had not been called. Rather than call him a con, God called the man royal. The naming was a true naming and a truer knowing of who Jacob was (i.e., Israel).

Perhaps it’s worth holding onto the truth that God knows who you are and calls you who you are. It may not be in fashion and it may not be common speech, your name, and it can still be true. In other words, even if others call you something else, you can take your real name as truth.

Maybe you did earn the other, more common label. Maybe that name, Jacob say, fits. And still, the Divine comes to say something about you that fits better. God names you Israel. Try that on.

Telling Others What You Hear

I started graduate school last fall in a program that prepares scholars to teach in pastoral care, pastoral counseling, and pastoral psychotherapy. I’m not in the clinical track, though it’s set up in order to deepen students’ clinical skills. I knew when I started school that I was also continuing in my work as a supervisor in ACPE. I knew I was meeting committee (in November of 2017) and again (in November of 2018). I knew of some of the feedback throughout my supervisory education process and that it’d be with me still when I started school. I knew because of these specific “events” that I’d re-enter individual therapy.

My committee in November gave me 2 recommendations that I wanted to take into therapy. I was also in the midst of an important departure from ending 16 years of congregational ministry, which meant a significant role loss; that was something I wanted to use therapy to reflect upon. I would add individual therapy to my list of venues of growth.

I started in January, and it felt familiar to me, and good. Don’t worry. I will not expose my experiences in therapy on this blog! But I will say one specific thing. Consider sharing what you get from your venues of growth with people who will help you grow, heal, deepen, and live.

If you keep what you learn to yourself or if you keep it within that venue, it won’t go far. It won’t spread. And it will be limited in how it reemerges in your ears. You won’t see it or hear it in the words and faces of others. In other words, you’ll forget about it. You’ll lose touch with it. You’ll restrict your possibilities to use what you get.

I’m using therapy as a venue of growth, but I’m adding it to supervisory education, spiritual direction, collegial conversation, and so on. Your venue may not be therapy for your venue to be therapeutic.

I used to tell people during pastoral care conversations at church that they should consider what to share with small group members or relatives. Those were the people who would come alongside my conversation partners, who would help them live toward what they discovered in worship, in prayer, and in spiritual conversations.

If you could do it all yourself, then the counsel would fall flat. But you can’t do it all by yourself. You never could. So when your pastor tells you something meaningful, share that with your cousin who texts you a million times a week. She can bring it up, ask you how it’s going using what your pastor said. You get the idea?

I started. I occasionally tell very close people what happens in my therapy. It’s a way of sharing my experience. It’s a way for me to keep using, speaking about, and practicing self-discovery on the way toward living. If it wasn’t helpful, I wouldn’t be in therapy. And if it is helpful, I need to keep it going. Sharing what I hear with others, helps me keep it going. What will help you keep your growth going?

Reading Broken Yet Beloved

I had an idea that I’d occasionally review some of the books I’ve read while in this course of study at Garrett-Evangelical. It hasn’t worked out the way I wanted. Revision is the issue.

I’ve probably read a book or two a week since September for my courses (that’s on the low side), but the writings for that educational venue don’t feel like my exact tone for this blog. Revising book reviews that I’ve worked on while in classes is a project I haven’t had luxury to add to the task list.

Nonetheless, I’m going to attempt a middle-of-my-roads review, one that isn’t strictly academic but that will still allow me to look over some of the materials of my book learnin. And I probably won’t review books from my classes necessarily but books I’m reading on the fringes since those allow me to dabble outside the strict disciplinary discussions of hermeneutics, pedagogy, and theology. I’m still experiencing the readings as more complicated to translate into this medium. So I’ll pick and choose. That said, here’s the first of what I’ll attempt to do every month or so.

Sharon Thornton wrote Broken Yet Beloved: A Pastoral Theology of the Cross as a way to offer a pastoral theological work that goes against the grain of a focused theology of glory. She wanted to offer another view, another window into how the Christian tradition could be understood and how one of its primary symbols (i.e., the cross) could be appropriated for healing of the individual and the social. Perching against a theology of glory, her book delves into a view of the cross and its corresponding expression not of glory but of suffering. As she begins the book, Thornton summarizes the many theological spheres in which this kind of theological review has been done. She lifts up the spectrum of theological artistry in the African American, Asian American, Feminist, Liberation and Womanist Theologies.

I’m grateful that she does this in her effort to expand on how, presumably, other theological fields can incorporate what these other diverse communities have incorporated, learned from and lived in relation to the cross. It’s not hard to feel Thornton. Indeed, I found myself stalled by the strong ways she worked around what for me are the edges of pastoral theology. Thinking of my own experience, I felt her but also found myself grateful that our worlds were so different. I was already with her around how important and immediately-and-inherently-implanted into the work of pastoral theologians these diverse expressions are in my own worldview. Since the publication of her book, the field has reflected the commitment that Thornton voiced. Again, I’m grateful for her record of how the field has traveled across the roads of theological exclusion and inching openness versus the hospitality that I’ve come up with as a pastor and, now, an emerging scholar.

Among the threads to her focus on suffering—and the natural descriptors that relate to suffering like poor and marginalized and people of color and children—is a basic theme of how an individualistic root sits at the core of United States of American theology in churches and pastoral care. She pulls Ahlstrom’s term, root systems to discuss the “rampant anarchic economic individualism and racism as this country’s root systems (28). One tie she makes to the individualistic thread is how the world around us communicates value before God based upon the individual’s progress in society and production in an economy. Another is the influence of this focus on individualized forms of pastoral counseling and how it doesn’t traditionally include in its healing work the social analysis that Thornton is working to put forward as part of quality spiritual care. She lifts up several effects of an individualized focus and discusses critically myths at the core of an individual psychotherapeutic worldview. Among them are the myth of individual autonomy, the myth of diagnosis, the myth of insight, the myth of self-realization, the myth of science, and the myth of functionalism.

Thornton draws upon feminist, womanist, and systematic theologians from the last several decades to illuminate the movement within pastoral theology and to become more relational, more forthright about the interaction between the individual and the society, and how mutuality exists as a key motif for human communities. She describes these as a “welcome corrective that is beginning to impact pastoral theology and new vision of community.” (33). Thornton goes on in the book to describe this new vision, and she places suffering at the center of what she sees. Persons are simply unable to realize themselves or to grow without being in relation to what Thornton calls a public renewal. Without such renewal, each of these myths lead to “a disposition that fosters a kind of shortsightedness that does little to encourage us to look for hope and inspiration beyond our own private worlds.” (36).

Her comment points in the direction of Thornton’s findings about the myths. They either discredit faith at an essential level or force an artificial split between individuals and social context. In her criticism, Thornton reaches for dialogue between multiple disciplines. She says, “Pastoral theology must remain close to its source and engaged in addressing the face-to-face needs of the people.” (42) and in remaining close, she argues for shaping, interpreting, and practicing care that generates from the “perspective of those seeking relief” rather than from the caregiver’s perspective. In her largely historical review of what thoughtful practitioners developed in terms of pastoral theology, Thornton doesn’t jettison previous conceptualizations of theology and practice. Rather, she situates them as persons in dialogue, in their own way, and “trying to salvage a world that had been unprecedentedly damaged…” (43) Their world was damaged beyond repair, fragmented, and witness to the untamable aspects of life. (43) With this fragmentation came a corresponding deep fracturing of the relationship between theology and psychology.

In placing suffering in the center of a new vision, Thornton says we have access to true holiness that “can renew our lives and restore meaning to our days.” (46). She discusses how pastoral theology has been opening to suffering by acknowledging loss and the despair of the human heart and not only focusing on individual growth and insight. Drawing upon Hall’s conception of cynicism, she shows the difference between cynicism and optimism and how those two eclipse the holy “as God becomes seen as ineffective and untrustworthy, or simply absent” eventually for the cynic (48) and “separate and apart from all opposing and harsh realities” for the optimist (49). Thornton suggests a corresponding eclipse of self and longing within humanity that is being expressed through pastoral theological work. She points to the reclamation of pastoral theology (when an initial claim has first been made). “Too often the past has been arbitrarily chosen and not “critically retrieved” as a resource for current pastoral practices.

We cannot simply appropriate traditions or knowledge from one context and transfer them to another without examining their inherited worldviews and cultural biases.” (56). This critical observation about the pastoral theological task opens the way for Thornton to address her political theology of the cross, her critique of atonement theories (particularly Anselm’s substitutionary redemption and Abelard’s moral influence theory) and the “thin tradition,” her withdrawal upon Hall’s term to discuss hope and despair. In this presentation she asserts a historical and cultural survey of the cross and her summary is helpful for the person distant from how crucifixion was understood by Jews and Romans and Christians. Throughout her work is a theme around the communal understanding, use, and appropriation of suffering (and the cross) as opposed to interpretations for the individual soul.

In terms of appreciative critique, I found that Thornton acknowledged the work of Womanist Theology and Feminist Theology but she did not ground her project in these theological streams. I wondered why because her work sat well in both those streams. Thornton chose a few primary theological interlocutors, a choice every scholar makes, and her selection was wise and understandable even if it was directed away from the important contributions of Womanist theologians in favor of Feminist theologians (primarily Soelle). Thornton articulated a desire for pastoral theology to “attend to race, class, and economic factors in every aspect of our discipline” (29) but said so without accepting how she was working in her own discipline the way many others have fruitfully done in those two particular theological communities.

I think that Thornton has conversation partners in those places that she did not use. I was finished with her book before I started Sisters in the Wilderness (by Delores Williams), and Williams would have been working through her projects around the same times as Thornton. They seem to be sister-friends in thought, and I wonder if Thornton lost an opportunity there.