François Fénelon on Not Knowing What to Pray

Quite some time ago I purchased this little book by François Fénelon from a used theological bookstore:

 

Meditations and Devotions by François Fénelon (book cover)

 

The first section of the book has meditations on some sentences of Scripture. Here is one I appreciated reading yesterday:

 

Image from text is reproduced below

 

Here is the text from the image above:

Teach us to pray.–ST. LUKE 11:1.

LORD, I know not what to ask of Thee. Thou only knowest what I need. Thou lovest me better than I know how to love myself. O Father, give to Thy child what he knows not how to ask. I dare not ask either crosses or consolations. I stand before Thee. I open my heart to Thee. Behold my needs that I know not of; behold and do Thou according to Thy mercy. Smite me or heal me, depress me or lift me up: I adore all Thy purposes without knowing them. I am silent. I offer myself to Thee. I yield to Thee. I no longer have any desire but to do Thy Will. Teach me to pray. Pray Thou Thyself in me.

 

Mental Toughness: A Review

First, a three-sentence review of the idea of “mental toughness”:

  1. I want it, I work toward it, and I want my kids to have it—especially given the global and local challenges facing us in 2022.
  2. As a practicing Christian, I wonder what “mental toughness” looks like in light of 2 Corinthians 12:9: “And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.’”
  3. Those lines come from the Apostle Paul, who was as mentally tough a person as I know of, and yet he rejoiced in his weakness, because—perhaps counterintuitively—his weakness was the site of God’s strength made perfect.

Even with that re-framing in mind, “mental toughness” is a desideratum for me. So I read in its entirety HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Mental Toughness, from Harvard Business Review Press. At 160 pages—and with compact trim size—it’s one of the shorter volumes in the 10 Must Reads series, but it’s full of powerful and inspiring ideas.

Here’s the list of 10 (actually 11, counting the “bonus” article) articles in the book:

  1. “How the Best of the Best Get Better and Better,” by Graham Jones
  2. “Crucibles of Leadership,” by Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas
  3. “Building Resilience,” by Martin E.P. Seligman
  4. “Cognitive Fitness,” by Roderick Gilkey and Clint Kilts
  5. “The Making of a Corporate Athlete,” by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz
  6. “Stress Can Be a Good Thing If You Know How to Use It,” by Alla Crum and Thomas Crum
  7. “How to Bounce Back from Adversity,” by Joshua D. Margolis and Paul G. Stoltz
  8. “Rebounding from Career Setbacks,” by Mitchell Lee Marks, Philip Mirvis, and Ron Ashkenas
  9. “Realizing What You’re Made Of,” by Glenn E. Mangurian
  10. “Extreme Negotiations,” by Jeff Weiss, Aram Donigian, and Jonathan Hughes
  11. “Post-Traumatic Growth and Building Resilience,” by Martin Seligman and Sarah Green Carmichael

Every article has good ideas worthy of implementation. And across the 160 pages there are a handful of ideas I could probably do without. Here are some highlights:

  • In Martin Seligman’s “Building Resilience,” he talks about “post-traumatic growth” (my emphasis), a phrase I’d never heard before reading this book. He mentions post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and then asks: what about the growth that can ensue after traumatic events? The best sentence in the whole book describes people who have post-traumatic growth: “They, too, first experience depression and anxiety, often exhibiting full-blown PTSD, but within a year they are better off than they were before the trauma” (29). Better off than they were before the trauma!

  • Similarly, “Crucibles of Leadership” (Bennis and Thomas) is encouraging, as it tells stories of leaders who “emerged from the crucible stronger and more sure of themselves and their purpose” (11).

  • “Cognitive Fitness” (Gilkey and Kilts) offers a two-page spread (48-49) titled, “Exercising Your Brain: A Personal Program.” Many of the ideas they offer are common sense but easy to forget (“ready funny books,” “play games,” “try new technologies,” “learn a new language or instrument,” etc.).

  • “Stress Can Be Good Thing If You Know How to Use It” (Crum and Crum) was such a good article, I emailed a link to it (with my own reflection) to my church’s elders right away. Best line: “[W]hat did you expect—that climbing Everest would be a walk in the park?” (73) The authors recommend “reframing anxiety as excitement” (74).

  • Scattered throughout some articles are pep-talky ideas I’m ambivalent about. On the first page of the first article (“How the Best of the Best Get Better and Better”), for example, there is, “[I]n sports as in business, the main obstacle to achieving ‘the impossible’ may be a self-limiting mind-set” (1). Yeah, may be. But for some things “mind over matter” may itself be a limiting approach, since it may fail to take into account external factors.

  • “How to Bounce Back from Adversity” (Margolis and Stoltz) is excellent, although I disagree with the authors’ conclusion that when analyzing setbacks, we need to stop thinking about their causes and focus instead on our response. Why not both? Interestingly, another article (“Rebounding from Career Setbacks”) has a section called “Figure Out Why You Lost” (90). On the upside, Margolis and Stoltz’s “resilience regimen” offers a series of practical and empowering questions that almost ensure forward movement. For example:

       “Visualizing: What do I want life to look like on the other side of this adversity?

       “Specifying: What can I do in the next few minutes, or hours, to move in that direction?

       “Collaborating: What sequence of steps can we put together as a team, and what processes can we develop and adopt, to see us through to the other side of this hardship?” (86)

  • Glenn E. Mangurian’s “Realizing What You’re Made Of” is the most inspirational of the articles. It begins with the provocative (ridiculous?) claim: “Those who have survived a traumatic, life-altering event often convey a curious sentiment: They wouldn’t have it any other way” (97). He then talks about working through (and with, not against) his own experience of paralysis. It’s a moving read. “In my new life,” he says, “I am able to use all of my assets, including my paralysis, to be a new kind of leader” (106).

  • There is some overlap between this and other published HBR collections. As HBR continues to publish its 10 Must Read series, and multiple other best-of collections, they’ll want to keep an eye on not overusing certain articles.

I’ll refer back to this volume again, and it took me about a year to work through it, because I kept savoring/procrastinating working through the ideas and exercises.

Find the book here, and thanks to HBR Press for sending the review copy, which did not (at least not consciously) affect how I reviewed the book.

Treasure Trove of a Website for Bible Translation (or just richer Bible reading)

 

I just learned about this fascinating Website intended for Bible translators, which is also useful for preachers or anyone who wants to better understand the Bible. It’s called TIPs, which stands for “Translation Insights and Perspectives.” Here’s the site description:

God’s communication with humanity was intended from the beginning for “every nation, tribe, and language.” While all languages are equally competent in expressing the message of the Bible, each language has particular and sometimes unique capacities to communicate certain biblical messages in exceptionally enriching ways that other languages cannot. The Translation Insights and Perspectives (TIPs) tool collects these outstanding translation insights in the form of stories so they can be made available to everyone in the church as well as researchers and other interested parties.

There’s a great explainer video here.

You can search the site by word or phrase or even language.

Here’s just one of many insights at the TIPs site. Revelation 3:20 says, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me” (NIV). Searching the TIPs site yields this translation anecdote:

For the translation of this verse into Maasina Fulfulde Doug Higby tells this story:

“[We] had the word for ‘door’ and also a word for knocking or ‘hitting’ a door. But as I thought about it, Jesus was coming to visit! The Fulani don’t even have doors on their traditional huts, and they certainly don’t bang on the reed coverings used to keep the dust out of the doorway. If Jesus came, he would go to the entrance of the courtyard and say, ‘Salaam Alaikum.’ This would announce his presence in the same way that knocking on a door would in Western contexts. But I was concerned… the Greek text says ‘door’ and I wanted to be faithful to the original. Yet, I felt the Fulani customary greeting was exactly what Jesus would do in this context, so I continued. To my great surprise, the next part of the verse went: ‘Anyone who hears my voice and opens the door…’ Voice?! Who said anything about Jesus speaking, I thought he was knocking… So now the Fulani greeting makes even more sense with the cultural version which goes like this: ‘I stand at the entrance (to your courtyard) and greet (in peace). Whoever hears my voice and lets me in, I will enter and eat together with him.’ (Hettina, miɗo nii darii e damal miɗo salmina. Neɗɗo fuu nanɗo daande am so udditi, mi naatan galle mum, mi ɲaamda e mum.).”

You can access the site here.

Reflection on stress, pain, growth, and… God

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash


In a recent chapter of Uproar that our church’s elders read together, Peter Steinke writes, “Distress is not always an obstacle to learning. Pain can be a teacher. Real learning begins when the threat of pain emerges.”

There is the idea that our call in the church is not to shield people from pain1 but to walk with them through it.2 You may seen this described as a “ministry of presence,” “accompaniment,” or just “sitting in the mud” with someone. If we can’t make the hard stuff go away, at least we can be there.

In a similar way, an author and leadership consultant, Jack Shitama, writes:

A big mistake we make is to think we can relieve other people of their emotional pain. This does them no favors. In life, pain is an opportunity for growth. The best thing you can do for a friend is stay connected to them, go alongside them, while they deal with their own pain. They will be stronger for it.

Theologically, it helps me to remember that pain by itself does not make us stronger, but inviting the presence and power of God into our pain can transform it and actually strengthen us: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Then, with God’s help, we can ask how pain might become an opportunity to grow. We can ask how we might channel anxiety to motivate positive change.

I read an article recently called, “Stress Can Be a Good Thing If You Know How to Use It.” You can read it here. The article is good as is—I would just add that reading it as a Christian, we can also say: Stress Can Be a Good Thing (Or Turned Into a Good Thing), If We Give it to God and Allow God to Use It!

 


  1. as if that’s even possible!
  2. BUT… If the pain is coming from, for example, an oppressor or system of oppression, we ought to consider how we might actively stand against the source of pain.

Review: Prof. Dana M. Harris’s Greek textbook, workbook, and video lectures in Accordance

A new integrated trio of Koine Greek resources just came out in Accordance. I review them in the was-going-to-be-short-but-ended-up-longer video below. Product page links follow.

Curious to hear, especially from Greek-teaching types, if you’ve used this still newish resource from Dr. Harris, and just generally what you find helpful in teaching Greek in classroom settings.


An Introduction to Biblical Greek Grammar: Elementary Syntax and Linguistics (LINK)

An Introduction to Biblical Greek Workbook: Elementary Syntax and Linguistics (LINK)

An Introduction to Biblical Greek Video Lectures: Elementary Syntax and Linguistics (LINK)

I’ve just had this resource for a week, so I feel like I’ve barely plumbed its depths. I am planning to offer a short, four (or so)-week Greek course through Accordance soon, and I expect to be drawing lots of inspiration from Dr. Harris’s resources.

Update: for an even better review, see Brian W. Davidson’s post here.


Disclosure: Accordance set me up with volumes to review. And I lead Webinars for Accordance. That did not influence the objectivity of this post.

Uproar: Why the Yankees Can’t Buy Their Way to a World Series

Credit: AP

A “system” is a process with its distinct yet interrelated parts. An organism or institution may consist of multiple systems. For example, various interlocking systems (nervous, skeletal, respiratory) make up the one human body. The human body is its own unified system with all these smaller systems working together. The church is a system full of complex humans—a system full of systems, you might say.

The Bible uses systems imagery in Romans 12: “For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”

In a healthy human body, all the systems do their part and work together as one. In a healthy church, all the “systems” (interrelationships) work together toward unity in Christ. Peter Steinke says, “Health is a continuous process, the ongoing interplay a of multiple forces and conditions.”

This is why, for example, the New York Yankees can’t just buy their way to a World Series. They could have all the best players, on all the most expensive contracts, but if they don’t work well together as a team (“one body”), they won’t win. The Red Sox (or the Tampa Bay Rays!) will beat them every time. It’s not just about all the parts, but how the parts connect and work together as one.

Because you and your leadership do not exist in isolation, what you model as a Christian leader can ripple through the whole congregation (system). This is true of attendees who are not leaders, too. Think, for example, about how “contagious” giving can be, and how matching gifts can enact a process where people are inspired to give.

The downside to a system like the church, where patterns can be contagious, is anxiety. Anxiety is about as catchy as the omicron variant of COVID. Because the church is one body—interconnected with various systems and processes that affect each other—anxiety in one part of the church spreads and affects what is happening in another part of the church. For example, if there’s anxiety about a budget-setting process, that can spread into other parts of the church, like how we relate to each other in small groups. Or a parishioner might lose a loved one and direct the anger outward at a church leader or other member. Or this classic example: Bob has had a stressful day at work, because his boss yelled at him (because his boss fought with a spouse before work), so Bob comes home and kicks the dog. The dog isn’t legally employable, and yet the anxiety from Bob’s workplace (and Bob’s boss’s marriage) has spread to the poor pooch. Steinke refers to this as “shifting the burden” or “blame displacement,” also known as scapegoating. Systems crave stability, and sometimes the drive to release anxiety causes members to act in reactive and unhealthy ways. Anxiety is normal. It just needs to be regulated.

In his book Uproar: Calm Leadership in Anxious Times, Peter Steinke calls leaders to be a non-anxious presence: “To be a non-anxious presence,” he says, “means to acknowledge anxiety but not let it be the driver of behavior.” “Non-anxious” is the ideal, but a bit of a misnomer. Everybody has some anxiety. But good leaders strive—with God’s help!—to be at least a less-anxious presence.

Uproar, Introduction

In an “emotional system,” the emotional temperature comes from the people, and from the relationships people have, and from the culture and processes that are embedded there. An emotional system can be a congregation, a non-profit, a medical practice, a denomination, a family, or a small group.

Steinke lists some key ways that “leaders impact a system.” Then he says, “The overall health and functioning of any organization depends primarily on one or several people at the top who can exercise the above characteristics well.” He says, “Any social system—a family, workplace, or even a whole society—improves when people function less and less in reactive ways and more and more on the basis of values and beliefs sustained by clear goals.”

Uproar, chapter 1: “Living Nowhere between Two Somewheres”

Steinke writes:

Living nowhere between two somewheres has been called “the liminal experience,” the “neutral zone,” and the “transition space.” My own term is “Uproar.” Uproar is a time of dislocation; everything is “up in the air” or “at loose ends.”

We live in anxious times. And anxiety wishes to resolve itself, to be relieved. We don’t always pursue this in healthy ways. Sometimes we look for (or try to be) “rescuers,” placing unreasonable expectations on our leaders. But:

If the leader becomes anxious and forfeits calm reflection, the system is essentially leaderless. Anxiety tumbles down like loose rock dislodged from a high position. In a time of Uproar, the leader cannot be as anxious as everyone else.

The non-anxious leader should be differentiated, having a clear sense of self. They are neither overly close to others (emotionally “fused”) nor too emotionally distant (“cutoff”). Many people have stories about family members who were co-dependent or overly distant. The church is not immune to this dynamic.

Well-differentiated leaders know who they are. They find their identity in Jesus, and are not afraid to let other people be who they are, even when they disagree. Differentiated leaders do not change themselves to match other people, nor do they automatically withdraw from people or coerce them when there is disagreement.

Steinke:

What does this mean for leadership functioning? Either the leader becomes unengaged with others (acts rigidly, dominates, withdraws, becomes overly dogmatic) or too close (panders, seeks consensus, shifts with the wind for the sake of harmony). …In highly anxious times, people tend to tilt toward one or the other extreme in order to survive.

I’d sum it up like this:

  • Well-differentiated leaders know who they are
  • We find our identity in Jesus, and are not afraid to disagree
  • Differentiated leaders do not change themselves to match other people
  • Differentiated leaders do not withdraw from people or coerce them when there is disagreement.

We can pray that God’s peace would empower us to be a loving, non-anxious presence in our congregations.

Uproar: Calm Leadership in Anxious Times


At the church I pastor, our elders have been reading through a powerful book called Uproar: Calm Leadership in Anxious Times. It’s the final book written by Peter Steinke, whose books I’ve interacted with here and here.

Why am I leading our leaders through Uproar? Among other reasons, because anxiety confronts us at multiple levels:

  • our own individual insecurities that we don’t measure up or aren’t doing enough
  • anxieties that unwanted patterns from our family of origin will just repeat themselves in other settings
  • congregational anxieties: building space, attendance, an aging congregation, the absence of younger/newer folks, still not seeing some of our folks who attended before the pandemic
  • societal anxieties: take your pick! COVID-19, racism, inflation, Putin/Ukraine, social media, violent rhetoric from public officials

Steinke uses family systems theory to help us know how to be a non-anxious (or less anxious) presence in the midst of all these multiple anxieties. Understanding how to respond maturely and faithfully to anxiety will make us more effective leaders, not to mention better and fuller versions of ourselves.

On a personal level, family systems theory and the practice of a non-anxious presence have been powerful helps for me in pastoral ministry the past few years. I want to share with my fellow leaders what I’ve learned on my own leadership journey.

And I’d like to share those lessons, too, here at Words on the Word.

Our church’s leadership is five chapters in to Uproar, and even though it’s less church-specific than Steinke’s other works, we’ve been finding powerful applications—in a congregational setting and beyond. In the midst of life’s anxieties, family systems theory and especially the idea of being a non-anxious presence can help us build individual and organizational capacity. This is true whether we’re in conflict situations right now, or even if any of our life spheres are relatively conflict-free. In fact, it’s in conflict-free times that conversations about reducing anxiety can be most powerful—certainly easier. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

I didn’t set out to do it at first, but I’m creating short study guides for the chapters we discuss, and I’ll post adaptations of those here in coming weeks. In the meantime, check out Uproar here or at your local library. Below is its full Table of Contents. Let me know in the comments if you have read or are reading this book.

Full Table of Contents

INTRODUCTION

PART I: THE NEW CONTEXT

1 Living Nowhere between Two Somewheres
2 Anxious Times
3 Societal Emotional Process

PART I: THE LEADER’S PRESENCE

4 Heads Up!
5 The Non-anxious Presence
6 Impacting the Emotional System

PART III: THE LEADER’S FUNCTIONING

7 The Balancing Act
8 At the Edge
9 The People of the Charm

PART IV: THE LEADER’S CHALLENGE

10 Rocking the Emotional Boat
11 We versus They
12 Staying Calm and Courageous, No Matter What

POSTSCRIPT

God of the Ship of Theseus: A Thought Experiment for Church Identity

The other night I was gazing upon the city skyline, and I counted about a dozen different cranes rising over the buildings.

I started wondering: if every brick and every slat of every building in Boston were eventually replaced, would it still be Boston?

In philosophy, there is a similar thought experiment: “The Ship of Theseus.”

To explain the Ship of Theseus, I give you Marvel Comics’ final episode of the show WandaVision, where the superhero Vision is confronted with essentially a clone of himself. They are trying to figure out which is the true Vision, so they turn to the Ship of Theseus.

 

 

The Ship of Theseus in an artifact in a museum. Over time its planks of wood rot and are replaced with new planks. When no original plank remains, is it still the Ship of Theseus?

Secondly, if those removed planks are restored and reassembled, free of the rot, is that the Ship of Theseus?”

One of the two superheroes named Vision replies, “Neither is the true ship. Both are the true ship.”

This thought experiment applies to churches, too. The congregation I pastor is only a little bit over 50 years old, and we still have some of the original planks and bricks of the church. Not the building anymore, sadly, but the people!

50 more years from now, when this church has its 100th anniversary, and no original plank remains, will it still be South End Neighborhood Church?

Yes. South End Church 50 years ago, South End Church today, and South End Church 50 years into the future—it’s all the real South End Church, no matter how much the parts and the people change.

Our task, then, in the presence of God, is to ask and prayerfully discern: what makes us us? What are the consistent ties that bind us together, past, present, and future?

And if we’re a ship, where are we going? Where is God leading us?


I keep hearing commentators make a big deal (as they should) about how this is the Boston Celtics’ 22nd NBA Finals appearance. The first few times I heard that stat, it was jarring. There is literally nobody on the team for whom that statement is true. Even Al Horford, their veteran, hasn’t been to an NBA Finals before.

But of course the team has. And there is something in the ethos, the DNA, the blood of this organization that serves as a through line, making the Celtics still the Celtics, even though none of the same people from the last Finals-making team are there now.

Organizations and churches and cities—like the ship of Theseus—have a culture, what some refer to as a thisness.

Those of us who steward these organizations in the present moment have the great privilege of discerning together just what that culture is—what is worth preserving, and what is worth culling, all in favor of living out our deepest identity and calling.

 

Writing Seeking Understanding

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

I’ve read a few book prefaces recently that have quoted Toni Morrison’s inspiring advice: “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

It seems to me that one barrier to writers’ practice of this good advice is a concern that they lack the expertise to write the book they want to see in the world.

In his Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, Oliver Burkeman helpfully writes:

It’s alarming to face the prospect that you might never truly feel as though you know what you’re doing, in work, marriage, parenting, or anything else. But it’s liberating, too, because it removes a central reason for feeling self-conscious or inhibited about your performance in those domains in the present moment: if the feeling of total authority is never going to arrive, you might as well not wait any longer to give such activities your all—to put bold plans into practice, to stop erring on the side of caution. It is even more liberating to reflect that everyone else is in the same boat, whether they’re aware of it or not.

So why not start writing that book, or song, or painting that piece you can all but already see? Why not tackle that project that feels ambitious because it is, but also feels ambitious because our standards for it are unreasonably high?

Hannah Arendt offered a useful way for writers to think of themselves. In her 1964 interview with Günter Gaus, in response to his question about her desire to “achieve extensive influence” through her work, she responds:

What is important for me is to understand. For me, writing is a matter of seeking this understanding, part of the process of understanding…. What is important to me is the thought process itself. As long as I have succeeded in thinking something through, I am personally quite satisfied. If I then succeed in expressing my thought process adequately in writing, that satisfies me also.

She goes on:

Do I imagine myself being influential? No. I want to understand. And if others understand—in the same sense that I have understood—that gives me a sense of satisfaction, like feeling at home.

Writing as an ongoing “process of understanding” helps relieve some of the pressure of it, and it helps keep writers—and creators of other kinds—humble. Writers are “questing,” as a writing coach once told me. Good writers invite readers to come along with them and learn together.

Now Reading: Hannah Arendt

I am feeling compelled to finally read The Origins of Totalitarianism, the 1951 work of Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt. In it she explores Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. She wants to come to some kind of understanding—should it be possible—of horrific evil, and of how totalitarian regimes can come to be in the first place.

In the words of an acquaintance, my strong desire to read Arendt feels both “ominous and important.” Am I reading it in preparation for the 2024 presidential election and all that may follow? I hope not—but I will anyway. Or am I reading it to (still) try to wrap my head around how so many folks in the U.S. voted in 2016 for a man who praises Vladimir Putin and himself had (has) dictatorial aspirations? Or do I feel it necessary to read this because of the ways in which anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and racism persist, decades after Nazi Germany?

All of the above.

Here are just a few quotations from The Origins of Totalitarianism:

The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.

Another:

Practically speaking, the totalitarian ruler proceeds like a man who persistently insults another man until everybody knows that the latter is his enemy, so that he can, with some plausibility, go and kill him in self-defense.”

(This is exactly what Putin is doing in Ukraine—claiming self-defense as he launches unprovoked attacks—and also descriptive of Trump’s unprovoked verbal abuse toward others, whom he then labels enemies/rivals.)

And this sobering line:

The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.

Let me know in the comments if you’ve read Arendt or anything else on totalitarianism.