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.

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

“All shall be well”… Really??

This is the sermon I preached Sunday, with Luke 21:5-19 (read it here) as the Gospel lectionary text.

There are few things in life that we want to believe more than this:

All shall be well
And all shall be well
And all manner of thing shall be well.

Those lines come from Julian of Norwich in the 14th-century. It’s not her talking: it’s Jesus, as he has appeared to her in a vision.

Her vision is not cheap hope that crumbles at the first sign of pain or difficulty. It’s in the context of acknowledging the pain and sin in the world that Jesus says to Julian:

All shall be well
And all shall be well
And all manner of thing shall be well.

But do you know what her response was to these powerful words of comfort?

Ah, good Lord, how could all things be well, because of the great harm which has come through sin to your creatures?

“HOW could all things be well?”

The disciples were about to ask that question.

What about the disciples?

But first… they couldn’t help but admire this beautiful temple they worshiped in. They gawked at “the splendor of its stonework and memorial gifts,” Luke says (The Message).

The lectionary will circle back eventually to the story just before this passage—the poor widow with her two copper coins. She takes the standard of tithing 10% and multiplies that by 10, giving everything she has.

And somehow all the disciples want to talk about is who’s in the temple’s Platinum Donor’s Club. Hey, I know that guy! I talked to that family once! They’re a big deal around here!

They’re spiraling, and Jesus disrupts it: “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

It’s all going down, Jesus says, every… last… stone.

The disciples must get scared, because they snap out of their donor admiring, and ask, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?”

Jesus gives four:

ONE. Fake Jesuses. Verse 8: “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them.”

TWO. Wars and revolutions. Verse 9: “When you hear of wars and revolutions, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.”

THREE. Natural disasters. Verse 11: “There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.

The FOURTH sign is personal: being persecuted by others and betrayed by your own family. Verses 12, 16-17, “You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name.”

But then Jesus says, “… not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls” (18-19).

And, remarkably, Jesus says, “This will give you an opportunity to testify” (v. 13, NRSV). “This will result in your being witnesses to them” (NIV).

The disciples, apart from being scared, must have also been confused.

One commentary quite helpfully says, “The lack of chronological order in Jesus’ statements helps to discourage any attempts to work out in advance a timetable of events.”

The disciples couldn’t work out a timetable. They couldn’t know when their end was near; they could only know that God would be present with them no matter what happened and when.

What about us?

And that’s true for disciples of Jesus today, too.

Some scholars think this passage had both immediate fulfillment—the destruction of the temple, the persecution of the disciples, and a fulfillment that is yet to come—the so-called end times.

But just as the disciples couldn’t figure a timeline from Jesus’s words, neither can we. God doesn’t promise us we’ll know when the end is near. Elsewhere Jesus talks about the second coming as unexpected, so watch and wait for it. We’ll practice this watching and waiting in Advent.

So we hear this foretelling of wars and natural disasters, and we ask, “Surely it couldn’t get any worse than it is now? Surely this is it?”

It can get worse. Probably will.

It’s comical how many people have been so certain that the world would end on such-and-such a date.

And then, inevitably, when it doesn’t end, “Ah! I found an error in my calculations. It’ll be six months from now.”

This reality is perhaps best presented—and skewered—by the TV show Parks and Recreation. There’s a group in that show called “The Reasonabilists,” who are anything but what their name suggests. The Reasonabilists are an end-time cult that is waiting for Zorp the Surveyor to destroy the world.

Who is Zorp, you ask? A Parks & Rec fansite describes him as a “28-foot-tall lizard-god savior.” But the salvation he brought was a little different—he was to come to earth and melt everyone’s faces off with his “volcano mouth.”

Well, Zorp’s predicted time comes and goes, and the cult leader has to re-figure the numbers, only to stay up all night for the next time Zorp will come melt their faces off and thereby save the world.

Our temptation is more subtle… with every new war and every massive natural disaster, with every self-proclaimed Savior and persecution of Christians, we could begin to live in the same kind of fear the disciples surely feel.

But Jesus’s point is exactly the opposite.

No matter when such a time is, and no matter what it looks like, and now matter how bad it gets, the same God who accompanied the disciples—even to their deaths—promises to accompany us—even to our deaths.

Even in the scenario that verses 16 and 17 describe… even should your own family come to hate you, “Not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” They can take your body, but not your soul. No one can take God’s love away from you. So make up your minds, Jesus says, not to worry beforehand! (v. 14)

Paul picked up on this in Romans: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

————————-

Here’s a question to consider. You might give it some thought and prayer this week. When you walk into a difficult situation, what do you carry with you?

When you initiate a hard conversation, what do you have? When you face into a challenge you’d rather ignore, what resources do you have to face it? Maybe your family wouldn’t betray you to the death, but maybe you have to face some family dysfunction this Thanksgiving and Christmas.

What do you carry with you into all that?

However you answer that, we all have the promise of at least this resource: the words and wisdom of God. The words and wisdom of God.

Verse 15, spoken first to the disciples and surely extended to us in our time of need, has Jesus saying, “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

Those words, that wisdom… they come from the Holy Spirit, whom God has sent to dwell in the hearts of all who follow Jesus.

Well, indeed

I said that Julian of Norwich had replied to God, “Ah, good Lord, how could all things be well, because of the great harm which has come through sin to your creatures?”

That question feels right at home with this passage. It’s the kind of question the disciples would ask Jesus. It’s the kind of question WE want to ask Jesus when we hear something like this. Or when we just go about living our lives and watching the world around us. “How could all things be well,” O Lord?

Even after a vision of Jesus saying, “All shall be well,” that was what Julian asked—and a bunch of other questions like it.

And then, she got a response. She writes:

And so our good Lord answered to all the questions and doubts which I could raise, saying most comfortingly in this fashion: I will make all things well, I shall make all things well, I may make all things well and I can make all things well; and you will see that yourself, that all things will be well.

This is the same emphasis the Isaiah passage (65:17-18) gives us.

Behold, I will create / new heavens and a new earth. / The former things will not be remembered, / nor will they come to mind.

But be glad and rejoice forever / in what I will create, / for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight / and its people a joy.

I will create and all things shall be made new, God says. Not just because of some vague optimism that things just have to get better. “All shall be well” because our living and powerful God makes it so.

The 19th century poet Oscar Wilde is said to have taken Julian of Norwich’s lines—“All shall be well / And all shall be well / And all manner of thing shall be well”—he is said to have taken these lines and added to them:

And if it isn’t well, then it’s still not the end.

What God(s) Were the Pharisee and Tax Collector Praying to?

This post is the concluding portion of the sermon I preached Sunday, with Luke 18:9-14 (read it here) as the Gospel lectionary text.

Did you notice the Pharisee and the tax collector both start their prayer the same way? “God….”

They use the same word, the same way of addressing God, but you get the impression they are praying to two very different Gods.

We wonder: who must the Pharisee think God is, to be praying his way? And what does the tax collector think about the God to whom he prays?

Also, how does our own image of God shape our prayers?

For the Pharisee, there’s very little introspection. He’s critical of others and not himself. He mentions God, but it’s really only a quick appetizer before he can get to the main dish that is his own righteousness.

Maybe it’s as simple as: he’s just arrogant. His religiosity has gotten the best of him.

But imagine for a moment that the Pharisee is being sincere in his prayer. Sincerely wrong, yes, but what if he really means what he’s praying?

What kind of God would he have to have in mind to be praying like this?

It would be a God who just can’t stand all the ways we terrible humans mess everything up all the time.

It would be a God who LOVES when we get it right, and loves us more when we get it right more often.

It would be a God who doesn’t need a relational connection with us—just for us to check certain things off the list, and that’s enough.

It would be a God who wants us to jockey for position—who wants us to outdo each other in religious practices and spiritual disciplines, in fasting and giving and serving.

Then when we pray, if this is who God is, we’re just reporting back to our judge on all that we’ve done, desperately trying to find our place in God’s system of punishment and rewards.

The God of this Pharisee also seems to be a God who wants people to do it on their own. Because as the Pharisee is contrasting himself with others and listing his achievements, not once does he say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Not once does he ask, “God please help me as I fast… increase my generosity so I can give cheerfully.” Never does he invite God into his faith practice.

What kind of God is that?

Maybe one we’ve believed in, from time to time. Maybe that’s a God we’ve prayed to.

Who we believe God is will shape how we pray. And that means that we can listen to our own prayers, dig a little deeper, and ask ourselves, “Who do I really believe God is?”

The French thinker Montaigne was right on the money when he said, “Oh senseless man, who cannot possibly make a worm or a flea and yet will create Gods by the dozen!”

By contrast, who is the God the tax collector believes in?

It’s a God who listens.

It’s a God you can approach—even from far off—no matter what evil you’ve done.

A God you can confess to, and who will hear you, and will forgive you.

The tax collector believes first and foremost in a God who is merciful.

This is a God to whom you can tell the blunt truth about yourself. You can talk to God about your sin, bring it right into God’s presence.

1 John 1 says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

The tax collector believes in a God who receives us when we confess, arms open, just as the father did the prodigal son.

We don’t have to read our spiritual résumé to God. We don’t have to put other people down when we pray, to elevate ourselves. In fact, God’s presence calls for our humility. Prayer is not first about us, after all. Prayer is first about God.

God is so full of mercy, so ready to forgive—as the tax collector knew—that we simply can enter in, as we are, and say, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The tax collector is a model for us, not only in how to pray, but in how to think about God.

Of course, if we overheard the Pharisee’s prayer in real time, we’d be faced with a particularly cruel irony. We’d have to be careful not to say, “Lord, thank you that I am not like THAT arrogant Pharisee. Thank you, God, that I know who you are.”

Thomas Merton wrote:

There is something of this worm in the hearts of all religious [people]. As soon as they have done something which they know to be good in the eyes of God, they tend to take its reality to themselves and to make it their own. They tend to destroy their virtues by claiming them for themselves and clothing their own private illusion of themselves with values that belong to God.

New Seeds of Contemplation

In the end, the Pharisee’s idea of God and idea of himself were really not that different. He was so good, so giving, so upright, he didn’t even need God! He was basically his own God.

The tax collector knew he couldn’t survive another day without God’s mercy.

And whether we realize it or not—insulated as our lives can be—none of us can truly live another day without God’s mercy.

We need it, we crave it, we have to have it now, Lord Jesus, because we are sinners in need of Christ’s mercy.