Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Treat The System, Not Just The Symptom!

Well, it's finished!

I am referring to my post-graduate program in Bowen Family Systems Theory at Rutgers University.  

I have yet to receive my actual clinical certificate, but the instructors affirmed on June 9th -- "well done, good and faithful student!'  

Frankly, I learned a lot in this 10-month learning adventure, most predominately, that most problems in life are not solved by adopting a 'cause and effect' mindset -- but a systems mindset.  [for a great introduction of Bowen Family System Theory, see: http://www.endowedparishes.org/download_file/view/1561/]

What's a systems mindset?  In short:  it's an outlook that affirms that life is fundamentally a series of many interlocking parts -- each affecting the other -- rather than one or two elements, events, people, circumstances -- operating in isolation from a whole. 

A readily available example is our human form and frame.  We are not just a nervous system -- but a nervous system -- connected to the:  circulatory system, digestive/excretory system, endocrine system, integumentary/exocrine system, lymphatic/immune system; muscular system; nervous system; renal/urinary system; reproductive system; respiratory system; skeletal system.  And all these physiological systems are not independent, but interdependent, all mutually-connected to the other.  

And so, you might think a season of stress is just affecting your nervous system, but in reality, it is affecting every other system in your body as well.   A popular maxim, often heard, says it well:  "I might just think I'm anxious, but my body is keeping score!"     

But our physiological system is only one of many systems in our lives.  In fact, virtually every part of our life is connected to a system -- that requires us to work at addressing the whole -- and not just one, isolated part.   Some examples follow:
  • Political Systems - Sure, we need to deal with wayward policies and officials.  But the real problem -- is the political system -- that rewards politicians for 'playing the game,' e.g. majoring in self preservation, not courageous decisions.  As Mark Stanford noted on Meet The Press on Sunday, "...the name of the game, is to stay in the game...'  And you stay in the game, by taking the path of least resistance, in regards to the dominant 'power in charge.' 
  • Church Systems - Sure, we need to address declining vitality, attendance and giving.  But the real problem -- is the church system -- that focuses more on safety and familiar practices -- than an outward focus, and the wisdom of next generations. As Tod Bolsinger has stressed in his book, Canoeing the Mountains, quoting Darrell Guder, "if Western societies have become post-Christian mission fields [and they have!]...traditional churches [must change their approach] and become missionary churches..." 
  • Social/Economic Systems -- Sure, we need to feed the hungry, provide shelter for the homeless, and give out medicine to the sick.  But the real problem is -- the social/economic system -- that still does not provide equal access to door-opening, self-empowering strategies, but fosters a 'hand-out,' 'feel-good' means of distribution, and a dependent response.  As Jeffery Sachs has observed, as a social/economic system: "...[we are] privately rich but socially poor. [We cater] to the pursuit of wealth but [pay] scant attention to those left behind..."
And so, overall, we need to call for systemic reform -- when encountering a problem.  In other words -- address the immediate symptom (e.g., repair the illegible church sign) -- but simultaneously -- work at correcting the over-arching framework and system of things (e.g. explore a new organizational structure and approach for your congregation).

But beyond this macro direction, a few micro steps for moving forward in treating the system, and not just the symptom, especially on a personal level.

Prescription (Rx) #1 - Stop Just Numbing The Pain.      

Sadly, a standard response to symptoms is to numb their pain.  For example, rather than adopting a new system of exercise and eating to help us feel better physically, we just continue to have an extra-large serving of double-dutch chocolate ice-cream every night, to take the edge off of our displeasure. 

But temporary, numbing measures are not God's best.  Rather than anesthetizing our physical and emotional challenges, we are called to act on those challenges -- systematically -- comprehensively -- implementing a new regiment of over-arching mastery.  In 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul compares such action to the action marking an effective athlete: 
“…Do you remember how, on a racing-track, every competitor runs, but only one wins the prize? … [Thus] every competitor...goes into serious training…[Like an athlete]…I am my body’s sternest master..."  (1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Phillips).
The current craze, however, is not to take our body captive -- but to numb our body's pain through symptomatic relief.   One of the most tragic expressions of this trend is the proliferation of pain-killers in our day, most prominently the rise of opioid use.  As CNN has reported:
"...Experts say the United States is in the throes of an opioid epidemic, as more than two million Americans have become dependent on or abused prescription pain pills and street drugs...The number of opioid prescriptions dispensed by doctors steadily increased from 112 million prescriptions in 1992 to a peak of 282 million in 2012..." https://www.cnn.com/2017/09/18/health/opioid-crisis-fast-facts/index.html   [and still over-prescribed, today].   
Sure, not all of us numb pain through opioid use.  But many of us use some pain-killer (e.g., food, alcohol, work, sex, shopping, etc.) to dull a symptom -- rather than -- dealing with the roots (e.g., systemic cause) of our discomfort and travail.  

Prescription (Rx) #2 - See Yourself Connected, Not Isolated, From Other People.  

Given the rise of an 'America First' emphasis, there's a mythology that somehow we can rise above the rest of the world.  But in reality, this is impossible, for the global system is deeply and intrinsically interconnected.   For example, at one time, we would refer to the Gross National Profit (GNP) alone -- but increasingly we must refer to the Gross World Profit (GWP) -- since for economies to truly grow, they must inter-relate with the economies of all. 

But not just economies; people must interrelate.  A well-known reminder is the  famed Walt Disney ride:  'It's a Small World After All.'  If you've ever ridden the ride, it's melody is probably still ricocheting (albeit annoyingly!!) in your head, along with its lyrics:   
"...It's a world of laughter, a world of tears It's a world of hopes and a world of fears There's so much that we share That it's time we're aware It's a small world after all (x5). There is just one moon and one golden sun - And a smile means friendship to everyone - Though the mountains divide - And the oceans are wide It's a small world after all (x5)..."
Sure, this repetitive song is maddening.  But did it ever occur to you, that the reason it keeps repeating its message (e.g. It's A Small World After All)  is because we are so resistant to the message?

I mean, after all, our country was founded with a Declaration of Independence and not a Declaration of Interdependence.   And so fundamentally, we are a band of 'lone rangers,' not partners on a journey.  But biblically we are partners; to be exact, we are the people of God (1 Peter 2:9-10), the Body of Christ (Romans 12:4-5 /1 Corinthians 12:12-31 / Ephesians 4:4).  

Paul's insistence that we are Body of Christ smacks fully of interdependence, hearkening back to the ultimate system's metaphor, human physiology.
"...As the human body, which has many parts, is a unity, and those parts, despite their multiplicity, constitute one single body, so it is with the body of Christ...Now the body is not one member but many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand I don’t belong to the body,” does that alter the fact that the foot is a part of the body?...The fact is there are many parts, but only one body...[so] that the body should work together as a whole with all the members in sympathetic relationship with one another... (1 Corinthians 12:12-26, J.B. Phillips).
I love the themes of that last phrase:  we're to -- work together -- as a whole -- in sympathetic relationship -- with one another.   Not bad antidote to our reflex tendency to 'go it alone,' in independent, solo fashion.  (for more detail on the crucial importance of relationships, see:  http://wwwpaulmundey.blogspot.com/2016/08/the-power-of-other_30.html 

Prescription (Rx) #3 - Be Willing To Do The Hard Work, For The Long Haul.

It's far easier to buy a bigger pair of pants and deal with a symptom (a protruding, sore wastline) than it is to alter your diet and start walking and deal with a system (a lifestyle).  But treating a symptom just results in enlarging your wardrobe -- not changing your health in a comprehensive way.

The problem:  real change is comprehensive, systemic change -- and real change -- because it is comprehensive/systemic -- is hard, hard, work!  Thus, we must encourage each other for the long haul, and avoid the quick fix.   For expedite actions often result in puny outcomes.   Angus J. MacQueen tells of a father who approached James Garfield, when Garfield was president of Hiram College, in Ohio.
"...[T]he father asked [Garfield] if the course of study [at Hiram] could be simplified so that his son might be able to “go through by a shorter route.” ”Certainly,” Garfield replied, “but it depends upon what you want to make of your boy. When God wants to make an oak tree, he takes a hundred years. When he wants to make a squash, he requires only two months…”
There’s nothing wrong with squash. But keeping with Garfield’s analogy, he reminds us that towering outcomes often require extended periods of concerted effort and hard work.

And so, do the hard work of comprehensive, systemic change.  Discipline yourself, then, for the long-haul, running with endurance the life/race God has set out for you -- traveling within the boundaries of God's glorious calling.  

 “...fixing [your] eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith…[Who] for the joy set before him...endured the cross, scorning its shame...Endure hardship [then] as discipline...[For] no discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.  Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. “Make level paths for your feet”... (Hebrews 12:1-2; 7; 11-12)
...And keep running...living -- a disciplined life of overall -- comprehensive -- systemic well-being!

For you are not an isolated 'part' -- but a connected creation -- designed -- for fullness of life -- and joy!

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

How To 'Move On'

I get stuck easily.

Translated:  it's hard for me to 'let go' -- and -- 'move on.'

I'm not alone.  Any number of people I've encountered recently, find themselves mired in an emotional 'swamp,' that's 'yucking up' their lives.

The 'swampy elements' vary.

  • Resentment. You got fired from your job and bitterness mushrooms, consuming you.
  • Worry. You got a cancer diagnosis and anxiety is 'out of control,' 'sucking' you dry.
  • Guilt. You got a 'horror story' (again) from your prodigal child, and sorrow stabs, piercing ''like a knife.'
  • Nostalgia.  You got another snub from your new neighbor, and homesickness soars, 'doing a number' on your heart. 

Realistically, we don't move easily out of such 'yuck.'  'Swampy stuff' is serious stuff, not easily traversed or traveled through.  

Yet, travel we must, because God is dynamic, not dormant; energetic, readily, 'on the move.'  

It follows:  if God is 'on the move', we must be on the move as well. The classic text is Isaiah 43: 
"Cease to dwell on days gone by and to brood over past history. Here and now I will do a new thing;  this moment it will break from the bud. Can you not perceive it? (Isaiah 43:18-20, New English Bible).
Well...will we perceive it?  More importantly, will we receive it?

A few moving tips, for progressing with life -- in spite of resentment, worry, guilt, nostalgia -- receiving, entering... God's new thing.

Moving Tip #1 -- Embrace The Depth And Complexity of Emotion

Frankly, I find that most Christ-followers greatly minimize, if not trivialize, the grip of emotion. Translated:  we greatly underestimate the power of our central nervous system to generate feelings, sensations, compulsions that run counter to rational thought and  faith.   

Any number of biblical figures demonstrate the depth of emotion, especially the 'deep weeds' of anguish and depression.  One prominent scriptural character is Jeremiah.  Known as the weeping prophet, Jeremiah struggled with feelings of insecurity and defeat resulting in profound loneliness and despair.  Jeremiah's words in Jeremiah 20 are illustrative:
"...Cursed be the day I was born! May the day my mother bore me not be blessed! Cursed be the man who brought my father the news, who made him very glad, saying,  “A child is born to you—a son!” ....May he hear wailing in the morning...For he did not kill me in the womb...Why did I ever come out of the womb to see trouble and sorrow and to end my days in shame?   Jeremiah 20:14-18
Though we can't be certain, there's a good chance Jeremiah is depressed in this text, reminding us that even avid followers of God can find themselves in the depths.  

We dare not minimize this possibility -- for minimizing emotional realities such as depression -- worsens depression, prompting persons to dive deeper into despair.

Though the causes of suicide are vastly complex, a common thread seems to be despairing emotion, such as depression, that is often downplayed, even ignored by persons surrounding sorrowful folk. But as William Styron, reminds us in his classic: Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, we must not downplay dark emotion, for it is incredibly powerful in it's force and pain.  

“What I had begun to discover is...that the grey drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain. But it is not an immediately identifiable pain, like that of a broken limb. It may be more accurate to say that despair...,comes to resemble...being imprisoned in a fiercely overheated room. And because no breeze stirs this cauldron...[and]...there is no escape from the smothering confinement...the victim begins to think ceaselessly of oblivion.”
Apparently more of us think of oblivion as high profile suicides (like those of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, recently) increase, along with the overall rate of suicide, up 30% since 1999.  https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/suicide-rates-are-30-percent-1999-cdc-says-n880926     

Though multiple steps are needed to address deep, despairing emotion, a first step is to recognize that even faithful people, Godly people, get down and depressed, and thus stuck.

Moving Tip #2 - Be Mindful, And Learn To H.A.L.T. 

The truth about despairing, dark emotion is that it grips us, pulling us down.  It is critical that after we recognize it's hold on us, that we consciously, intentionally take steps (no matter how small) to interrupt it's relentless pull on life. 

A first step is being mindful.  Being mindful (and the accompanying mindfulness movement             
(https://www.themindfulchristian.net) is just a fresh way to call us to exercise our volition, our choice, our response-ability, our will-power, and interrupt the thought process that is triggering our downward spiral.  For as scripture reminds us, as a man or woman thinks, so shall they be (Proverbs 23:7).  So, stop, halt, and arrest your thoughts. 

A key strategy is to learn, to "...be still and know that I am God..." (Psalm 46:10), which in the vivid language of The Amplified Bible is even more exacting: "...Let be and be still --  [cease striving] -- and know (recognize and understand) that I am God..." (Psalm 46  The Amplified Bible, Classic Edition, adapted).  

In other words:  halt (the literal meaning of yet another biblical pause: Sabbath) and comprehend a more hope-full reality -- even as hope-less 'reality' attempts to drag you down.   

Recently, Heather Funk Palacios, a passionate mental health advocate, listed a whole stream of hope-full, Godly reality, out of concern for the recent rash of suicide.
1) God’s still giving my lungs breath; 2) God’s still giving my heart beats; 3). I’m irreplaceable; 4) Pain’s now, but Joy’s comin’; 5) Someone is looking up to me cause I’m not giving up; 6) Jesus will always forgive me; 7) Jesus laid down is life for me—I live for Him; 8) I walk thru the valley I don’t live there; 9) I had a bad chapter but my story doesn’t have a bad ending; 10) Screwing up doesn’t mean giving up; 11) I’m the only version of me—I’m the only one who can be it; 12) I’m not alone, I have Jesus and the church; 13) When I am weak, He is strong, Yes, Jesus loves me.
And so I challenge you -- in some way (no matter how minute) to be mind-full of hope-full reality, when hope-less.

Addiction counselors believe this is especially important when hungry -- angry -- lonely -- or -- tired.  In fact, they advise their clients to wear a rubber bracelet embossed with the first letters of each of those detriments, spelling out the needed action: H.A.L.T.   Snap it, they advise, anytime you are tempted, ready, to 'give-in' to elements fueling despair!  If you can't locate an actual H.A.L.T bracelet -- just wear a rubber band, and snap it, any time, you're slipping low (e.g. hunger, angry, lonely, tired). Stop any slide into despair!

Moving Tip #3 - Begin To 'Let Go' Of The 'Yuck' Of Life. 


Not surprisingly, key to moving on is letting go.  Yes, letting go -- specifically -- of the swampy stuff: the resentment, worry, guilt, nostalgia (and more) that stifles and stalls life. 

There are obvious texts that prompt us to let go of unhealthy behavioral patterns.  For example, Ephesians 4:31 "Make a clean break with all cutting, backbiting, profane talk..." (Ephesians 4:31).  

But an overlooked text prompts us to to let go of unhealthy relational patterns. It's the parable often referred to as the parable of The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32).  But as Helmut Thielicke notes, this parable is best described as the parable of The Waiting Father.  For rather than running after his delinquent son, the father in Jesus' famed story -- lets go -- of the son (e.g. guilt, worry, etc.) -- and waits.  

For brilliantly, the father knows that letting go, strategically -- especially of people and responsibilities entrusted to our safekeeping -- is not irresponsibility -- but often the most responsible thing we can do; not only for our own spiritual/emotional health, but the spiritual/emotional health of others.  As Murray Bowen reflects:  "...over-functioning is just a irresponsible as under-functioning..."

A classic bit of anonymous prose, reflects this:  
"...To let go does not mean to stop caring, it means I can't do it for someone else. To let go is not to cut myself off, it's the realization I can't control another...To let go is not to be in the middle arranging all the outcomes, but to allow others to affect their destinies. To let go is not to be protective, it's to permit another to face reality. To let go is not to deny, but to accept. To let go is not to nag, scold or argue, but instead to search out my own shortcomings and correct them...To let go is to fear less and love more and to let go and to let God..."

 Moving Tip #4 -- Learn The Unforced Rhythms of Grace.  

Yes, let go and let God.  Certainly do your part -- but also know, strategically, when to let go of the varied elements of life -- at least for a spell or a season.

Now when it comes to the 'bad' stuff (bitterness, malice, resentment, etc.) it's relatively easy to identify what to jettison (though, we don't necessarily, follow through!).  But when it comes to the tamer stuff (guilt, worry, nostalgia) it's tough to discern what to hold, and what to 'fold,' into the hands of the Savior. 

I would advise 'folding,' giving over (at least, for a spell/season) anything that is wearing on your life -- fatiguing your life -- laboring your life -- haunting your life -- despairing life -- taking Jesus up on his invitation:  
"...Are you tired? Worn out? ... Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly...”  (Matthew 11:28-30, The Message, emphasis added).
For ultimately, we move-on in life -- when we keep company with Jesus -- keeping our most intense focus on Him -- and not -- the resentment, worry, guilt, nostalgia of life.

Paul says it so well in Philippians 3:

"...[For my determined purpose is] that I may know Him [that I may progressively become more deeply and intimately acquainted with Him, perceiving and recognizing and understanding the wonders of His Person more strongly and more clearly... I do not consider, brethren, that I have captured and made it my own [yet]; but one thing I do [it is my one aspiration]: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the [supreme and heavenly] prize to which God in Christ Jesus is calling us.... "  (Philippians 3:10; 13-14, The Amplified Bible, Classic Edition).

So, no matter where you are stuck -- press on -- no matter how fragile, how minute...

For God is pressing on, nevertheless -- eager for us to accompany Him -- into His adventurous future!