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.

“I’m not really a scholar”–the Late J. Alec Motyer

I realize that–without really meaning to–I’ve developed an affinity for Anglican priest-scholar types. To name just a few: R.T. France, Fleming Rutledge, N.T. Wright.

Add to that list the late J. Alec Motyer. I can hardly imagine studying Isaiah without Motyer’s work. And his commentary on Zephaniah is a model of scholarship that praises God.

I recently came across this great quote from him:

I’m not really a scholar. I’m just a man who loves the Word of God.

J. Alec Motyer

I’m not sure I’m in danger of being called a scholar. All the same, his words resonate deeply with me, as what I aspire to.

Praying “Thanks in Advance”

“Thanks in advance” is a funny phrase.

“Thanks in advance” is what you say when you thank someone for something they haven’t done yet.

You: “Hey, here’s 10 bucks.”
Me: “Thanks; I’ll pay you back.”
You: “Okay, thanks in advance.”

Or, I might say to my spouse, “Honey, I have had A DAY. Thanks in advance for doing the dishes and putting the kids to bed while I watch random YouTube videos.”

Psalm 100:5 says, “For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.”

The Psalmist models a prayer that looks ahead with confidence, knowing that we will see God’s “steadfast love” and “faithfulness to all generations.”

For his love and faithfulness we can give thanks in advance, because their existence in the future is guaranteed.

Mark Twain is supposed to have said: “I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” I guess a lot of it was in his head. We worry!

Another writer says that “Anxiety is experiencing failure in advance.”

If we spend time worrying about the future, why can’t we spend time giving God thanks for the future? If we let ourselves experience failure in advance, why not let ourselves experience something much more certain in advance, namely, God’s steadfast love and faithfulness?

Even Job can say with confidence, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God” (Job 19:25-26).

Our prayers, then, can include the envisioned experience of God’s future faithfulness. So we can say with confidence, “Lord, thanks in advance!”