Sunday, December 1, 2013

Ode to Joy: Reflection on Advent 2013


 I recently saw a video on youtube entitled “Money Well Spent” in which a girl drops a coin in the hat on the ground in front of a man holding a stand-up bass.  When she does the man begins to play there in the middle of a crowded plaza.  Shortly the man is joined by other musicians with a cello, violins, an oboe, and then others.  One by one at first and then in small groups, the cello player is eventually joined by a full orchestra and choir.  The tune played by the bass player alone is almost unidentifiable, but as the man is joined by the others, it not only becomes clear that the tune is Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, but the music begins to fill the plaza and more and more people begin to notice.  It is striking to me that the people in the plaza are just going about their day and doing what they would normally do.  They do not pay attention to the man with the cello, but they soon realize that something unusually amazing is going on and they begin to drift towards the music.  “Ode to Joy” is such a familiar piece that many people in the crowd begin to anticipate the notes as they come.  Children pretend to be directing the orchestra.  What was an ordinary day is now transformed by this amazing event in the plaza.
     I could not help but think of the approaching advent season as I reflected on the events in this video.  A couple thousand years ago as a group of shepherds were watching their sheep in the night, an angel of the Lord appeared to them to bring them great joy.  Soon that angel was joined by others in a great choir singing glory to God.  The shepherds were amazed. (Luke 2:8-20)  The coming of the messiah, Jesus, came to them in the quiet of the night as they were going about their normal routines and this unusually amazing event brought them great joy. 

     Advent is a time of “Preparation” in which we prepare our hearts for the coming of the Lord Jesus.  We reflect on the Jesus’ first coming in that stable many years ago and the joy of his humble birth, but we also anticipate the return of Jesus on earth when he will bring joy in gathering his followers home and will put the world as it should be.  During advent, we also prepare our hearts for fresh experience of Jesus’ birth in our own hearts.  We prepare to have the joy of our salvation renewed in our hearts.  In the ordinary quiet times of our lives, the joy of the Lord can surprise us if we look and listen.  With expectation, we are aware that we may encounter God in the most surprising places and people.  When we do have those encounters with God, we respond to the familiar tune that we have heard in our hearts so many times; the song of love, the song of peace, and the song of joy that we recognize as the tune of God at work in the world.  If we are not careful, we can walk right through the plaza and miss the amazing thing that is happening.  We say, we are too busy to stop and hear this music.  We may be too distracted to even notice that something wonderful is happening.  That is why in this season of Advent, we seek to open ourselves to a fresh experience of God – God’s love that breaks into our lives and brings us great joy…if we are paying attention. 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

What's Your Monkey?

What’s your monkey?  This question has become a regular topic of conversation at my house recently.  At first read you might think about the proverbial “monkey on your back”, but in this case, it is something more inspirational. In a recent conversation, my wife talked to co-worker (I’ll call her “Martha”) about her passion for a particular mission work in Eastern Europe.  Each year, Martha saves money and plans a trip to the area where she works with this mission.  This mission work is her passion and priority.  Her inspiration for this work came after an epiphany she had about passion and meaning in her life. Martha described how she had been unhappy in her job and with a boss that she was not particularly fond of.  She had been at home convalescing from a recent surgery and while watching T.V. one evening she saw a story on Dian Fossey.  Dian was a zoologist who was one of three women known as “Leaky’s Angels” who were recognized for their study of primates.  Jane Goodall studied and fought to preserve chimpanzies, Birutė Galdikas  studied orangutans, and Dian Fossey studied gorillas.  Dian was killed in 1985 by a still unknown assailant.  It is believed that she was killed because of her work to fight poaching of gorillas.  Martha noted the passion Dian had for her work and for the gorillas.  Dian had been so dedicated to her work that she had died for the cause.  Martha thought to herself,”am not going to let my job and my boss be the ‘monkey’ that I am willing to die for.”  She later was inspired by a story about the mission work in Eastern Europe and that has become her “monkey”.

My friend, Jim Bryson, was inspired to form a secondary school in Haiti known as the Joseph School.  Others I know are inspired to bring clean water to Malawi or to fight for the rights of women throughout the world.  Working in the nonprofit world, I have encountered those inspired by helping to save abused and abandoned animals and others who help with services for the homeless.  There are certainly some very important, but more mundane “Monkey’s” in the world like parenting.  I have met one or two people in my life that had no cause or issue for which they would sacrifice everything except their own financial gain or material success.  Most of the people I encounter are looking for ways to give back; ways to make a difference in the world.  The needs of the world can be overwhelming.  Our interests can be diverse.  It can be difficult to find that one “Monkey”.  Maybe we have more than one.  Perhaps there are different “monkeys” for different seasons in life. 

So, what is your monkey?  I have a couple.  What is that thing that you are passionate about?  What is it that you give your time, your money, and would even give your life for?  I wish I could tell you the secret to finding it if you have not already, but I think inspiration comes in a variety of ways.  If you are open, if you follow your interests and passions and if you try many things, you may find that thing that inspires your soul and ignites your passion.   If you found your “monkey”, share your story in the comments section.  I would love to hear it and you may inspire another.

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters
                                                                                                Colossians 3:23

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Black, The White, and the Gray

By some definitions, I almost fit into the baby boomer generation.  On some lists, I am one of the first GenX’ers.   That really doesn’t mean a whole lot to me, but it does mean that when it comes to television and movies, I have some wonderful memories.   I loved the “Brady Bunch” and the “Andy Griffith Show”.  I loved “Happy Days”, the “Mary Tyler-Moore Show”, the “Bob Newhart Show”, and Carol Burnett.  I watched the “Big Valley” and “Gunsmoke”.   I saw all the Disney movies at the theater – “Herbie”, “The Shaggy Dog”, and “The Computer that Wore Tennis Shoes”.  I also remember seeing “Star Wars” for the first time in the theater.  “Star Wars” has been described as “Western” set in space.  I can see that.  There are the good guys and the bad guys.   There were gun fights and a little romance.  One of the things that we loved about these shows is the clear distinction between the good and the bad guys.  Good guys wore white hats and bad guys wore black.  Luke and Leia wore white, Darth Vader wore black.  It was easy to identify those on the side of right (truth, freedom, goodness) and those on the side of wrong (deception, control, and pain).  We could cheer for victory of good over bad and we loved when the villain was ultimately defeated.

In recent months, I have been watching shows like “Justified” and “Banshee”.  In these shows, the main protagonist would wear more of a “gray” hat.  Raylan Givens in Justified is a Federal Marshall and while he is supposedly on the side of “good”, he is known for pushing the limits of legality to get the so called bad guys.  In the show, Raylan’s arch nemesis is Boyd Crowder, who is an unapologetic lawless opportunist who demonstrates anti-social traits, but somehow manages to win the support of the audience with his intellect, wit, and occasional demonstration of sensitivity (not to mention his distorted view of justice.)  In “Banshee”, the new sheriff in the fictional town of Banshee is known as “Lucas Hood”, but is in fact a violent ex-con who was recently released from 15 years in prison.  The local sheriff’s deputies often try to run the town “by the book”, but the new sheriff is often doing seemingly impulsive things that violate protocol, but provide a kind of vigilante sense of justice.  As the series progresses, we realize that Sheriff Hood has had to reap consequences for double-crossing a crime boss years ago, but has suffered so much that he now seems to function as much out of unconscious flashbacks of PTSD as from meditated action.  There are other “bad guys” in the show, but it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the actions of the “bad guys” from the actions of protagonist.

In this “post-modern” world where there are now very few absolute truths, the line between right and wrong has become blurry.  For those of us who prefer the clarity of black and white the gray of the post-modern hero can be frustrating or disorienting.  As I want to complain about how “gray” the world has become, I open my Bible.  I read story after story of the great biblical heroes that had moments of frailty, moments of weakness, and moments of devastation.  Just this past Sunday, my pastor preached about David, his life, and his legacy.  I recognize in David my own struggles.  Maybe not my exact struggles, but the humanity of seeking to follow God, but often falling short of my intentions.   I identify with the words of Paul in Romans 7:19 that the good I want to do I do not do and the evil I do not want to do, I find myself doing.

David is remembered as a man after God’s own heart and he has a great legacy.  However, he is not remembered without his faults.  He is remembered with them.  The existence of his faults does not wipe out his good.  Too often we look at people as all good or all bad.  We long for a day when people could be categorized into white hats and black hats, but the reality is that each of us has white hat and a black hat we can wear.  While it can be frustrating and disorienting at times, perhaps the post-modern ideas are not as foreign as I had once thought.   I would love for there to be clear-cut good and bad guys sometime and I think there is value in having true heroes that inspire us to be better versions of ourselves.  However, I realize that human beings in the real world are rarely so clearly defined.  We must live with the ambiguity.  We live with the mystery and seek to be our best and encourage the best in others.  We offer love and grace to one another in the struggle.  We should not be complacent with the gray, but we cannot avoid the human reality. 

Monday, February 18, 2013

Content vs. Process

When meeting new clients (and others), I encounter a variety of comments that reflect common misconceptions about psychotherapy.  One is that the focus of therapy is for me to evaluate the client and tell them what to do.  Many people start their therapy a bit defensive because they are fearful of my judgment or correction.  Some people have mocked the process of therapy by saying that therapists never tell you what to do and only “Listen”.  Others have said to me, “Why am I paying you to listen to me when I could just be talking to a friend or family member?”  The difficulty with all of these assessments is that they assume over-activity or inactivity on the part of therapist.  With the distortions of the therapeutic process portrayed in film and television, I cannot really blame people for these misconceptions.  Unfortunately, there are also a number of people in the world practicing some type of counseling who contribute to these stereotypes by their methods of practice.  The very terms we use for this type of care are also confusing – counseling, therapy, psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, etc.   In a previouspost, I commented on the technical differences in these various terms.  However, what makes the process of psychotherapy different from talking with a friend or other type of helper is the attention to the process of therapy.  Because this part of the relationship is often managed in subtle ways, people often perceive that the therapist is not doing much, but the reality that is that the process is rich with reflection.
Fundamentally, what makes any type of counseling or psychotherapy beneficial is the quality of the established relationship.  However, in the process of psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, and Pastoral Psychotherapy, the therapist is mindful of the dynamics of the relationship, monitors these things, and uses them (hopefully) for the client’s benefit.  These types of dynamics can exist in other relationships with friends, etc, but it is rare.  Psychotherapy is, by definition, a relationship between two (or more in the case of couple or family therapy) people for the benefit of one of them.  Everything the therapist does or says should be for the benefit of the client.  In order to do this, the therapist must be aware of many dynamics that are simultaneously at work in the counseling office.
When a person comes to therapy, the issues they wish to discuss and the struggles they have with these issues constitute the “content” of the session.   However, the forces that motivate a person’s behavior are also important.  The therapist should be reflecting on the selection of material presented and the content of the material.  After a particularly painful session of dealing with something like grief, a client may come in the next session and talk about more mundane or superficial issues.  The therapist’s job is to note the shift in tone and help bring to awareness the change.  When a client presents a memory of events, the therapist is focusing on how the person was affected and how they behaved in the events presented, but he or she is also focused on how the person seems to be feeling as they are presenting the material.  The therapist should not make assumptions about what the client felt, how they are feeling, or why they behaved in a certain way.  The job of therapist is to note that such feelings and motivations exist and to ask questions to raise the client’s awareness.  This is why it has become cliché for a therapist to ask questions like “How did you feel when that happened?”
Completely out of the awareness of the client (at least it should be) is the therapists’ reflections on another set of dynamics in the room – his or her own.  As the client is sharing, the therapist is also monitoring his or her own feelings about what is being shared.  He or she is monitoring the experience of the person and noting what they observe and hear.   The therapist is monitoring how his or her own story is connected to the client’s story.  The goal for the therapist is to be able to separate his or her own experiences from the experiences of the client.  In order to this effectively, the therapist should have done sufficient therapy for their own personal issues and to receive adequate supervision and/or consultation on their work.  The therapist becomes less effective when he or she assumes what the client will or should feel instead of allowing the client to discover what they actually feel.
While the therapist may provide some education on common dynamics of interaction or personal development, their primary goal is to allow the client to discover how he or she plays out these dynamics in their own life.  Any intervention or action on the part of the therapist should be in the service of this self-discovery or to help provide an environment that contrasts the clients’ previous hurtful experiences.  By observing the clients actions, monitoring feelings, and dealing with the dynamics of the client’s relationship with the therapist, the therapist creates the opportunity for growth and healing.  The client’s experience of the resulting relationship between therapist and client can then grow beyond the walls of the therapy office to the other parts of the client’s life.  The goal for the therapist is to create independence for the client and not to foster dependence.  Advice-giving and such activities, while helpful, only keep the client dependent on the counselor.  When the therapist helps the client discover his or her own ways of dealing with things, then they are able to apply that understanding to novel situations.  The experience of this growth within a therapeutic relationship is generally experienced by client and therapist as deeply meaningful.  In pastoral psychotherapy, this growth and self-reflection will often include reflections on faith, God, and spiritual development and the process of the therapy itself can be experienced as quite spiritual or holy. 
So, far from doing nothing or doing everything for a client, the therapist works with the content of the client’s issues while monitoring the internal and relational process of therapy.  The therapist should maintain a calm exterior, but should always be actively reflecting internally.  I have found this process personally, professionally, and spiritually enriching.   I know that the quality of a good friendship can accomplish similar purposes, but for me, there is no substitute for a meaningful therapeutic relationship.