Apr 18 2012

An Inside Out Faith

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By Randall Westfall

If I were to ask you to make a list of things that you loved to do as a child, what would be on your list? For me that list includes (but is not limited to): running barefoot, building forts, catching things, building campfires, climbing, getting dirty, telling stories, imitating animals, hiding, exploring, and a ton of other pastimes that would take up more time than I have been allotted here.

If you were to ask a child today what their favorite activities are, you’d likely get a different list of activities. Though overlap may occur, I suspect that most would involve a screen or an outlet as many have replaced formative experiences outdoors with informative experiences indoors. It’s even changing our vernacular as dictionaries are doing away with words like heron, dandelion, and blackberry in favor of iPod, broadband, and ironically Blackberry.1

In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv coined the term nature-deficit disorder (NDD) to illustrate the significant psychological, physical, and cognitive costs that alienation from nature has on children today.2 NDD isn’t an actual clinical disorder as much as it gives voice to what many of us were already thinking by addressing our intuitive understanding that nature is not only good for our children but essential to their healthy development.

Children today spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors and less than 25 minutes a week outdoors.3 A trend that is leading to epidemics in childhood obesity, depression, ADHD, Asperger’s and more.4 Why is this happening? Studies are showing that there are: a) more demands on children’s time, b) parental fears of “stranger danger,” c) more sedentary lifestyles, d) urbanization of America and e) an increased use in electronic media (up to 44 hours a week).5 These “digital natives” are experiencing the world in a radically different way than their ancestors did and it has consequences on their spiritual development.

Throughout history, our ancestors encountered God primarily through two means: nature and storytelling. Nature was experienced through the senses (body) and the heart, and stories informed the intellect (mind) and the heart. Over time, our stories evolved from oral narratives, to being captured in written form. In the past 25 years, as technology has expanded its reach and outdoor experience has degenerated, we find ourselves processing our experiences more through our mind and less through our body. In fact, we are witnessing the beginnings of what some scientists are calling a “transhuman” era6 where we are no longer multi-sensory beings; rather we become one-dimensional as our experiences are increasingly filtered through some type of technological medium.

This is all a part of NDD, and it is affecting our spiritual landscape. In ages past, a child’s spiritual life was assumed, largely in part because of the way they interacted with the natural world around them. As we become less engaged with the outdoors, we can no longer make assumptions regarding spiritual development. Children are trading in outdoor experiences for a virtual house arrest in which they live through external, digital devices. Being outdoors has shaped who we are for centuries, yet in the span of a generation; children who are “nature-smart” are becoming an endangered species.

Could it be that we are actually doing more harm than good living in a “Take only pictures; leave only footprints” culture, as our efforts to protect and preserve nature are also creating barriers to interacting with it. When it comes to nature, we have adopted a “museum” approach whereby children are taught to look but don’t touch. Other adages like stay on the trail, don’t wander, may be inadvertently projecting our fears that when interacting with nature someone will get hurt, be it either human or the landscape. If you can’t interact with something, it isn’t long before you lose interest. And if enough time passes, we dishonor God by basically declaring that “what you have made no longer interests me.” We’re encouraging children to “play it safe” in controlled environments, hyper-stimulated by electronic media. If they aren’t hyper-stimulated, they either become anxious or disengage. NDD keeps our appreciation for nature so long as we don’t interact with it. Imagine the same being said for our faith? I appreciate God, but I don’t interact with God. What do spiritual disciplines look like to that person?

The paradox of faith is that the God who dwells on the inside often must be encountered outside. When we lose the appeal to explore outer landscapes, then what metaphors will navigate the journey for our inner landscape? Faith has become inside out and it isn’t until we realize our connection with nature; then the Mystery at work in the depths of our souls and the Mystery in the natural world are parts of the same reality.7  Author John Lionberger believes that “Being outdoors has the power to join two extreme states of awareness, consciousness and acuity, which lead to peak experiences the recipient finds deeply spiritual.8 In my time in outdoor ministry, I’ve observed that children who have a connection with nature are more aware of their relationship with God than those who spend little or no time outdoors.

This is not about doing away with our iStuff, rather we must learn to find a balance between the digital and the natural. What if for every text or email sent, we spent those moments sitting and listening for what the robins and towhees were saying to us? Or instead of recognizing the thousands of corporate logos we see on commercials, we take the time and familiarize ourselves with the wood sorrel, plantain, and nettle in our own backyard? Or every video game spent trying to get to the next level; we spent an equal amount of time following a set of raccoon tracks to discover hidden levels of its life?

How will we prevent NDD from being passed on to future generations? It’s time for us to start embodying those childhood passions we listed above, as spiritual disciplines to feed the fire of faith just as we do with devotions, bible study, prayer and worship. Only then can we become fully awakened, fully alive, and experience the abundant life that Jesus wants us to step into. Our eyes, ears, noses, taste buds, bodies, hearts, and even brains were created in such a way that it is vital for us to engage creation, in doing so we always encounter the Creator.

Randall Westfall is the director at Camp Brethren Heights and founder of Ancient Paths Outdoor School in west-central Michigan.He is a graduate of Wilderness Awareness School near Seattle, with certifications in Naturalist Studies, Wildlife Tracking, Edible/Medicinal Plant Studies, Bird Language, Art of Mentoring and Wilderness Survival. He spent just as much time immersed in nature as he did sitting at his computer writing this article.

 

  1. Morris, Charles. National Catholic Reporter. 18 November 2011.  []
  2. Richard Louv. Last Child in the Woods. Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2005. []
  3. Play Again. Dir. Tonje Hessen Schei. 2010. []
  4. Ibid. []
  5. Ibid. []
  6. Richard Louv. The Nature Principle. Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2011. []
  7. Robert M. Hamma. Earth’s Echo. Notre Dame: Sorin Books, 2002. []
  8. John Lionberger. Renewal in the Wilderness. Woodstock: Skylight Paths, 2007. []
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Feb 7 2012

Leaders Living Integrated Lives

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In 2008 the Church of the Brethren hosted a gathering of Young Adults as part of the continuing conversations about ministerial leadership. The goal of the gathering was to discuss the emerging realities for the church as the denomination discerned the needs for a new system of calling ministers. Each of the sessions began with prepared presentations and a series of questions for those gathered to discuss around their tables. After the event, a Minute was prepared from the conversations. Brethren Life and Thought will publish a number of the presentations here over the course of several weeks.

 

The following presentation was prepared and offered by Anna Lisa Gross.


Narrative and identity

In postmodernity, narrative and identity are key. Narrative is the method of truth-seeking, meaning-making – and just like so many movements that we’re experiencing, this is not new, as the Old Testament and parables show. So, narrative is the method of meaning-making. Identity is the way of moving through the world, the foundation for our living. No one can speak with authority outside their own social location (class, gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, language, ability, age, education, et cetera), and identity is increasingly about social location more than any one specific role that we play in our lives. I can’t speak with authority on being a mother, or having disabilities, or being a gay man because they are outside my social location. This is one of many reasons that leadership needs to be representative of the full spectrum of humanity, so we can hear the real narratives of real people, rooted in their own identities, especially as the Church of the Brethren and the culture are increasingly asking for multicultural conversation. But first, we need to talk and reflect deeply about our own ethnic identities before we can hope to build strong multiethnic relationships and we need to talk and reflect deeply about our own sexuality before we can make proclamations about someone else’s, et cetera.

Integration and boundaries

How many of you have an email address?

  • How many of you have a single email address that you use for work, for family, for school friends, for community involvement?
  • How many of you have a separate address for many of these aspects of your lives?
  • How many of you use Gmail, or another program that pulls all of your email accounts into one inbox?

Technology allows for and encourages integrated lives. We are available 24/7, as we’ve already talked about, to our work, our family, our friends, our community involvement, and each of these aspects of our lives can show up when we’re trying to focus on another. Technology will only increasingly affect culture in this way. Is that good or bad? Who knows? Perhaps we won’t know until we’re able to look back on this time. For now, what feels right for you?

How can the church, especially congregations, support leaders whose lives are integrated in these ways? We’ve moved from a model of leadership that had few boundaries, to one obsessed with boundaries, to this time of integration. Take for example, Ed. Ed IS a pastor, he claims this as his identity, his fundamental way of interacting with the world – no boundaries between work identity and home identity, because work is everything. Or, Sue. Sue is a minster, Sue is a friend, a daughter, a writer, etc. She has clear boundaries between each role, and seeks self-care (sometimes by switching to a different role that is more comfortable). Or, Alex. Alex is Alex. Alex ministers, is married, studies, serves on boards, but Alex is Alex.

I am part of this emerging model, and because that is my perspective, it’s easy to prefer it. But certainly there are strengths and weaknesses of each model. And certainly these movements are not determined only by generation: personality and culture matter, too.

Ed’s model of no boundaries could invite integrity – he’s a pastor everywhere he goes, so he probably wants people to see him fulfilling that role with integrity – and we know we have high standards for pastors’ morality. But many leaders in this model desperately need time to let down their guard and live into their flaws. In fact, the more we try to show a public, flawless face, the stronger our faults can be in our lives. For many pastors and other leaders, this has meant that a secret life emerges, where those with less power – often their children or spouse or others, suffer.

Sue’s model of clear divisions between roles could invite secrets – a part of her home life that she doesn’t share with her workplace, for example. And I’m not talking here about specifics – I don’t mean to suggest that anyone give all the details of their sex lives to their congregation, but that ministers be comfortable acknowledging that they’re even dating – and I know pastors who will NOT share this information with their churches. But the element of self-care can allow for healthier home life, work life, and greater longevity in all of these roles. Intentionally choosing a place in life to be a flawed person can mean that faults are lived into, rather than taking on a life of their own.

In Alex’s emerging model, all of who we are is present in all of what we do. In a counseling session, Sue may find that a parishioner’s struggle with her mother is triggering Sue’s own painful relationship with her mother, but because she is in “pastor” role, she shuts that door to focus on the parishioner. But Alex might think, “wow, I feel strong emotions rising that are about my own relationship with my mother, not about this woman’s story. What does this emotion teach me, and what are the differences between our stories that I need to remain aware of?”

Our struggles, failures, and doubts must be able to enter our lives in all aspects, including our leadership in the church. Have you heard these things during joys and concerns time?

  •  I’m drowning in credit card debt.
  • I’m ashamed of my sexual desires.
  • I can’t pray.

How can leaders model this vulnerability? Are there things we do NOT want ministers to be vulnerable and honest about? Should any of these things preclude someone from church leadership? I don’t think so – in fact, I think leaders who can hold these struggles in tension with their faith and commitment are particularly strong. Leaders in the church should not be morally perfect people – even if we could agree on what that would mean, it’s impossible. Leaders in the church should be as imperfect as anyone else, but willing to share vulnerably their imperfections. The very stories of their struggles – and their successes over struggles – are valuable testimonials.

And leadership is more than just airtime – we must lead with listening, and lead even when no one can see what we’re doing. How do we honor the vulnerability of others? How do we facilitate communities that honor each others’ vulnerability?

I said earlier that, beginning in our own narratives and identities, we need to talk deeply about our own sexualities, for example, before we make proclamations about other’s sexualities. This summer, Annual Conference passed revisions to the Ministerial Ethics Paper that specified that ministers should not have sex outside of marriage. I know many of you here, and I know that most of you, including myself, have had sex before and/or outside of marriage. So how can we pass a paper saying that ministers should not have sex before marriage, without acknowledging how many of us have and exploring why?

Those of us who are now married may be able to more easily vote for a paper with this language. Even if we did have sex before marriage, or even if we’re having sex outside of our current marriage, we’re much safer in the eyes of the church. But married people passing such a ruling has significant implications for single people, and people in committed relationships not generally accepted by the church (most obvious of which are same-sex relationships).

So this brings up privilege. It is just a fact that some identities give us more privilege than others. When we speak out of our privileged identities, for example, when I speak as a white person, I need to be particularly intentional about language and power. And I believe that Matt used his own male privilege very well earlier, pointing out to other men that the talking space was being dominated by men. Matt, as a man, can do this without eliciting the backlash that a woman might – you know, being called a feminist, or something. Matt can be called a feminist without it threatening his social influence.

Back to Alex’s model – living integrated lives means that self-care takes a very different form. We don’t necessarily find healing by switching roles, because our core self is involved in all aspects of our lives, and our core self is what needs rejuvenation. So we don’t shut the door on work to relax. Instead, we try to make work better. We don’t settle for poorly facilitated meetings, knowing we can go home, turn on the TV and forget about it – we strive for better facilitation. We don’t lose ourselves in an 80-hour work week to avoid the problems we’re having with our spouse – we know the problems we have at home affect who we are at work, and must be addressed directly. Similarly, we’re resisting the current over-mobility of our culture – moving around the world for school and jobs. Instead we’re seeking a deep relationship with a specific location, and technology can aid us in this. Of course, telecommuting and similar technology is still not available to all – we can’t assume it’s a common ground.

This model really is emerging – many of us in this room are still in Sue’s model, some, perhaps, in Ed’s, perhaps a combination of two or three. But I believe that most people 20 and younger are living primarily in Alex’s model. Facebook can be an example, here, as well. There is serious concern about what of our personal lives might end up on Facebook and affect our current or future employment. But the teenagers I know with Facebook accounts are not concerned about a picture of them with a beer affecting their future work opportunities. This may be youthful ignorance or short-sightedness. It may be a desire for complete authenticity. It surely is a combination of both. And this integration will only increase as the technology that fuels it advances, and as people relish their integrated lives.

What do you want as a leader in the church? To keep parts of your life fully private? To live a life that can’t be criticized? To live in a community that sees all of who you are, accepts you fully, and joins you on an authentic journey toward wholeness?

What narrative do you tell with authority that the world needs to hear?

How is your life boundaried? How is your life integrated?

 

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