God’s words falling into us

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In his book A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer relates an old Hasidic tale that examines the tension between the limitations within our current reality and the possibility of our hearts opening into a new reality.

He writes:

The pupil comes to the rebbe and asks, “Why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The rebbe answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks, and the words fall in.”

I find this to be so true in my life. How often there come moments where God mysteriously opens my heart to receive transformationally in new ways truths of His word that I have known intellectually for quite some time.

It is valuable to store up God’s words in our heart, but sometimes, they may merely rest on top of our hearts. May God give us grace to have hearts open to His word in such a way that His word comes into the deep places of our souls, transforming us into the fellowship of the burning heart. We may say, as the disciples did after their walk with the risen Christ along the Emmaus road, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32).

Shadow-Casting Monsters: Parker Palmer on dealing with our souls, part 3

parker-palmer-header-520x280Bringing my reflections on Parker Palmer’s five ‘shadow-casting monsters’ from his book Let Your Life Speak, I want to bring our attention to the fourth and fifth of that list today.

Shadow-Casting Monsters #4:
4. “Fear, especially our fear of the natural chaos of life” (89).

Don’t we fear the chaos of things? Having participated in church planting in various forms over the past ten years, as well as also following up a founding pastor of thirty years at an established church, I have experienced many different forms of the chaos of life. Yet, it has also been in the midst of that chaos that I have seen some of the most exciting and creative things occur. What would have happened if we had rejected the new and exciting because of our overwhelming fear of chaos? Nothing. Nothing would have happened. How completely sad. Palmer goes on to say: “The insight we receive on the inner journey is that chaos is the precondition to creativity: as every creation myth has it, life itself emerged from the void” (89).

5. “The denial of death itself” (90).

Here’s two more insights from Palmer on this one:

We also live in denial of the fact that all things must die in due course. (90)

The best leaders in every setting reward people for taking worthwhile risks even if they are likely to fail. These leaders know that the death of an initiative – if it was tested for good reasons – is always a source of new learning. (90)

This fifth shadow-casting monster reflects perhaps one of the most important things I have learned in the past three years. There are life cycles in our lives, in the seasons, in our work, and in ministry leadership. There is a time to live and there is a time to die, as the writer of Ecclesiastes says.

How often we, as leaders, become a stultifying force in our organizations when we fear the natural way of death. I have seen and experienced the waste that happens when an initiative that needs to die is kept alive because of tradition or some sense wrong ownership. It is no longer fruitful. It is no longer risky and life-giving. God forgive us for doing this in the church.

May we be leaders who face the shadow-casting monsters in our lives, organizations, and ministries so that God’s best for us and others is realized as we work with Him, and not against Him.

Shadow-Casting Monsters: Parker Palmer on dealing with our souls, part 2

parker-palmer-header-520x280Continuing my reflections on Parker Palmer’s five ‘shadow-casting monsters’ in the life of a leader from his book Let Your Life Speak, I turn now to numbers three, which is: “‘Functional atheism’, the belief that the ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us” (88).

Here’s a bit more from Palmer on this one:

This is the unconscious, unexamined conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we are the ones who must make it happen – a conviction held even by people who talk a good game about God. (88)

What do you think about this one? After working within a few different churches in the evangelical tradition, I’m tempted to wonder if this is one of the most pervasive of Palmer’s monsters in that church tradition at present. I find it in myself, too.

Let me stop to ask some tough questions:

  • do I think I own my leadership tasks more than God does?
  • do I feel the need to shoulder everything on my own, or do I submit myself to God and His ways (‘not my will, but Your will be done’)?
  • am I considering what is mine to do and what is not mine to do, or do I try to do everything?
  • do I even think about God in all of this?

For those who are able to master this monster, Palmer writes these words:

We learn that we need not carry the whole load but can share it with others, liberating us and empowering them. We learn that sometimes we are free to lay the load down altogether. The great community asks us to do only what we are able and trust the rest to other hands. (89)

I’d love to hear some feedback and comments on this.

Shadow-Casting Monsters: Parker Palmer on dealing with our souls, part 1

parker-palmer-header-520x280Awhile back, I read through Parker Palmer‘s brief book Let Your Life Speak. This is an outstanding book on life and leadership. Palmer has worked quite a bit with educators and as an advocate for peace in our world today. He comes from a Quaker background.

To set the tone of what he is trying to accomplish in this book, slowly read through the following quotation in the book:

It is so much easier to deal with the external world, to spend our lives manipulating material and institutions and other people instead of dealing with our own souls. (82)

Immediately after this important statement, Palmer outlines five ‘shadow-casting monsters’ in the life of a leader. I wanted to outline three of those here today, with particular attention to the first one.

Shadow-Casting Monsters #1-2:
1. “Insecurity about identity and worth” (86).
2. “The belief that the universe is a battleground, hostile to human interests” (87).

In pondering the first of Palmer’s leadership monsters, I was challenged to look into myself. Am I leading out of insecurity or lack of worth? Am I trying to get a sense of value and meaning in my life through those I am leading? Am I controlling or manipulating others in order to create a sense of value in my own self? Our shadow-side stretches out to satisfy our own selves through what we do. This is not true leadership or ministry.

Further in on this first monster, Palmer writes these words that every leader should consider deeply:

These leaders possess a gift available to all who take an inner journey: the knowledge that identity does not depend on the role we play or the power it gives us over others. It depends only on the simply fact that we are children of God, valued in and for ourselves. When a leader is grounded in that knowledge, what happens in the family, the office, the classroom, the hospital can be life-giving for all concerned. (87)

The alternative to such a grounded living? Flipping Palmer’s words on their head, it would be giving death to those around us.

Burnout (Palmer, Let Your Life Speak 5)

We talk a lot about burnout, but in Let Your Life Speak Parker Palmer does a good job of diagnosing the root cause of burnout in our vocation.

One sign that I am violating my own nature in the name of nobility is a condition called burnout. Though usually regarded as the result of trying to give too much, burnout in my experience results from trying to give what I do not possess – the ultimate in giving too little! Burnout is a state of emptiness, to be sure, but it does not result from giving all I have: it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place. (p. 49)

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Exceeding Our Limits (Palmer, Let Your Life Speak 4)

Here, Parker Palmer offers poignant insight into the challenge of exceeding our limits when we have noble goals in our work.

If I try to be or do something noble that has nothing to do with who I am, I may look good to others and to myself for a while. But the fact that I am exceeding my limits will eventually have consequences. I will distort myself, the other, and our relationship – and may end up doing more damage than if I had never set out to do this particular ‘good’. (Let Your Life Speak, p. 47)

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Needing Limits (Palmer, Let Your Life Speak 3)

Later in Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer addresses our own need for limits and the temptation toward burn-out for those who really care about their work.

If you are like me and don’t readily admit your limits, embarrassment may be the only way to get your attention. I go on full alert only when I am blocked or get derailed or flat-out fail. Then, finally, I may be forced to face my nature and find out whether I can make something of both my gifts and my limitations. (p. 42)

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