Breathing Exercises

Refuge and Prospect

Posts Tagged ‘plans

Open Water

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About two months have passed since our small group of adventurers began to meet to discover what God might do with a community in this time and place. I’ve described the feeling as like being on a ship that’s just left the harbor for the open sea … and most of us have been on land for a while … and we aren’t used to working on a ship together, let alone this ship … and it’s … choppy. So I’ve been feeling a little woozy. I’ll own that: I might be the only one. In fact, I know that I in particular have had reason to feel a bit off-balance.

A couple of weeks ago, I told my ship-mates that I was feeling a little at odds, sort of in limbo, like I’ve had one foot each in two worlds. Here’s what I began to understand. When I committed to this journey, I had a pretty strong conviction that I wanted to share leadership, to trust the community to discern direction together, to hear from God together, and to move together. But as we started out, I had some items on my agenda, if you know what I mean, and so I asked for permission to lead the first bunch of meetings. We were going to meet every other week for a season, and, even though I knew I wanted to share the planning, we easily settled into a kind of rhythm, one that anyone who’s ever been in a church group would recognize. I was planning and running the meetings. I was becoming the executive-pastor-leader-administrator-visionary etc. etc. You get the picture.

But here’s the thing: I think that might have been fine, if that’s what I’d set out to do, or if that was the thing that I had felt God nudging me towards. But it wasn’t. And so there I was, doing what I’d seen modeled, doing what I had learned, doing what is pretty normal in churches (and might be really fine and good if that’s what God and the community have chosen), but I felt no blessing. Another word for the thing I wasn’t feeling is anointing. Both these words are used in churches to describe that thing that comes from God when we are in the sweet-spot, oriented, aligned, in-sync, flowing and grooving. I wasn’t so much feeling any of these things.

I also have a feeling that it had become hard to hold on to other convictions because I was outside of that sweet spot. Thankfully, when I raised the issue during one of our gatherings, others were not so clouded and were able to speak clearly from their perspective, bringing certain commitments back into focus. The good conversation that followed led to a course correction that I am very thankful for, and that I think will save us from going way off the path later.

We’ve decided to meet every week now, alternating our weekly content between talking (about what we want, and what we are doing, and will do) and practicing (the life rhythms and liturgies that help us grow in strength and knowledge). I don’t have to bear the weight of every decision, and I don’t have to take time away from our liturgical practices. And I get to take my place as one member of the crew again: yes, one who holds a shepherding role, but who nevertheless doesn’t have to do everything himself to keep the ship moving. Ahh.

So there’s this big sea out in front of us. What direction will we sail? How will we handle the big waves when they come? How long until we get to feel like we know what we’re doing … and will that be the day we get humbled by some great white whale? I’m actually excited by all these questions, and happy to be on this ship, at the edge of this sea, with these people.


Written by dmaddalena

2011/04/20 at 4:51 pm

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Mission … Accomplished

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I have a well-known disregard for vision statements and mission statements. When the senior pastor at the church where I recently worked decided that we needed a mission statement, I understood his reasons, but I didn’t want to be on the committee, didn’t want to make a mission statement, and tried to get out of the discussion. No luck. The pastor put me on the team, said I needed to be there.

There was plenty of good conversation, and a measure of inspiration. We listened well, to each other and also for God’s still small voice, and came up with a reasonable mission statement for our community at the time. (Regarding definitions, vision statements are different from mission statements and also from values and objectives … but I’m not always sure how, because I’ve heard all these things described in too many different and overlapping ways, so don’t look to me for clarifying definitions.)

But when, after several months of meetings, we got to the point of crafting the actual Mission Statement, I got restless. What I would have liked at that point was for each of the team members to craft a statement that expressed the things that we’d discovered, but in their own words. There would have been a messy beauty (to my eyes!) in bringing ten versions of the Mission to our church. They all would have expressed the essential things, but in a diversity of ways that would have been electrifying to the diverse population that our team represented. I know that that isn’t how it works (nor did it then), but I think it might have been a powerful experiment.

he got vision

Clipart classic: I have vision! See my binoculars and bowler hat! I'm in the water!

Fast forward to today. As I do all the normal thinking about the new project I’m a part of, every week brings another moment when someone is asking about The Vision. I struggle to answer, explaining that my conviction is that vision for our project has to come out of the shared life of the community and in shared communion with God, not from one guy. But even on the day when our shared life begins to produce shared perspective (I won’t say ‘vision’ here), I will not be the one advocating for short memorable statements. I know some good organizations (and good people) are served by short, meaningful statements, and this new community may one day find a value in them that I can’t yet see.

What bothers me so much about vision and mission statements? I know they have a value to much of the population. I know “Vision” is important – clarity of foresight, ability to articulate intent, etc. But my suspicion has always been that vision/mission statements are a product of an impatient, technology-obsessed culture. Here’s my cheap theory: vision/mission statements are like videos of a family vacation. Huh, how exactly is that?, you say.

Consider the vacation video. Ask a parent about their recent vacation, and if their answer is to show you a video of their family walking around the Famous Place, then I’m willing to bet that the person who held the camera will have very little actual memory of the moment, and neither will you after 5 minutes. Oh, you’ll see some stuff, but you will not be impressed. That’s a fact. The video captured it, but the videographer probably didn’t experience it, and neither will you. Every beautiful or important place on earth has its pilgrims and some of these are determined to experience the grandeur through a tiny LCD screen.

If on the other hand, you ask someone about their vacation and their response is to tell you stories of what it was like to walk through the Famous Place, to touch the stone, to breath the air, to sip the popular local beverage on the square, then you will be much more moved by the experience, even if their memory is less precise than the images a camera could capture.

A vision/mission statement is accurate and packaged for quick delivery (in, I suppose, the proverbial elevator). They are precise in the same way a picture is, and, like a picture, prove you’ve actually made a journey, of one kind or another. But sharing a short, packaged statement, like sharing a video or slide show, can’t really bring a person along quite like the story you could tell about what it’s like to breath the air in the place you’ve been, or in the place you dream of going.

Wouldn’t having both be beneficial? The story of the journey and the technically precise record of it to refer to forever? Maybe. But like the videographer’s vacation, how well can you tell a story about a place if you were focused on capturing the perfect image (or expression) of it?

I have heard that literacy has done irreparable damage in societies that once relied on oral history. … Sure the ability to write things down preserved some of their stories forever and made them easier to share, but it also released people from having to remember them. The result? The end of memory, in one sense: people lose the ability to remember. I think photography and videography has the same effect … why pay attention to your surroundings when you can just capture an image? And how could you pay attention anyways when you’re concerned with the technical aspects of operating your device?

Is it possible that mission statements have a similar effect? Can a short, precise, intentional statement release people from the need to remember, to think, even to dream? The real danger is that they also reduce our ability to remember, to think, or to dream.

I recently spent a couple hours with a friend over a pint of a popular local beverage, talking about work, his and mine. He’s a CEO who’s logged plenty of time in front of venture capitalists who, I imagine, don’t have time for stories–they want to hear clear vision expressed succinctly. This friend of mine asked me The Question, and I tried to explain what I dream about, where I expect vision to arise from, and why I was reticent to boil down what-I-saw-when-I-looked-ahead into a single sentence. Then I half-heartedly admitted I could probably generate a pithy statement that summed up all I had said, and gave it a shot. His response was a bit of a surprise to me: he said that the pithy version “did absolutely nothing for him”, but that he was moved deeply by the story I told about the process.

Maybe in a setting where a group of people is motivated by progress, profit, and growth, you need to communicate with a kind of hyper efficiency. But when a group is motivated by a dream of shared stories about God, relationships, and love, room has to be made for a kind of inefficiency … where we listen to, and respect, the perspectives of many people who’ve wrestled with God. I’m not ruling out that a good short statement can sum up an idea, just as a great image can capture a moment. But even as we come closer to knowing who we are and what we’re here for, I will always want to hear people reflect on those things by telling the story in their own words, not by reciting an easily memorized phrase divined by a few people.

Richard Avedon, the great portrait photographer, once said that every photograph is fiction … a frozen moment of a life abruptly stolen out of it’s vital context. Killed, in essence. His photos were haunting and beautiful. But they were no longer about the people who’d given their images to the camera. They had gone on living and were no longer bound to the two dimensional image that had been captured. I think mission statements are like that: if you sell a piece of plastic, maybe you can sum that story up in a few words. But if your business is life, be careful lest you kill the thing you’re observing through the violence of capturing it.

Written by dmaddalena

2011/04/02 at 11:10 pm

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Somebody Messing With My Zen

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I have a little rock garden out in front of my house, and I love the picture of solidity contrasted with flow that a good rock garden is. This kind of dry garden is popularly called a Zen rock garden because we learn them from Zen Buddhists, who see them as an aid to meditation, or entering into a calm reflective state (which is pretty close to a root definition of Zen). I’m not a Zen Buddhist, but I love rock gardens, in the same way I love how any work of art reflects something about nature, and ultimately, about God, who is the maker of all.

When I decided to pour a bunch of sand from the California coast into a large wooden platter and arrange some rocks inside, I was excited to search out the formal rules of arrangement. I wasn’t interested in becoming an expert, or in slavishly conforming to Zen principles, but I wanted to understand. I learned about the implied flow of water that is created by the arrangement of rocks in sand, as if they were rocks in a river. Another way of thinking about this flow is as a kind of life energy: the chinese word for this energy is ‘Chi’, which is literally translated as ‘air’ or ‘breath’. In Christianity, the source of this energy is the Spirit of God, whose primary names in Hebrew and Greek are the words for ‘wind’ or ‘breath’, and who ‘moved over the face of the waters’ in the beginning.

The first humans were brought to a special kind of life (one not shared with animals) by God’s breathing into our dusty shells. As I looked at some examples of famous rock gardens, I saw how there was an attempt to invite this flow to move in favorable directions. I don’t believe that properly arranged rocks will cause the Holy Spirit to land on a bullseye in my home or my heart, but as a piece of art that communicates my desire to make the way straight for God to wash over me, I love the visual aid of rocks arranged in this way–they help me consider the landscape of my life.

So I carefully arranged my rocks to create a picture of ‘flow’ in that little bit of theater on my porch. Very satisfying.

Recently, we’ve been having a group of people over to our house to practice Christian community. Just as with me and my little rock garden, we are in the learning stage, we’re just beginning to look at some of the ‘formal rules’, considering examples, and trying our hand at arranging the pieces. We’ve only met a few times, but I’ve been noticing that at the end of our meetings, someone has been hanging around on my porch and messing with my rock garden, and they’re totally breaking all the rules. After the first meeting, my rocks, carefully arranged in a sort of inverted triangle on smooth sand, had now been unceremoniously lined up straight across the platter, in the middle of the sand, which had been churned up by digging. Yikes! My flow has been interrupted! The following week it was changed again, the rocks no longer in a line, but spread out, and the sand marked with finger holes. Who’s bright idea was it to make rock gardens look so much like sandboxes?

Serene source of meditative calm? ... Sandbox? ... Or both?

What will I do? I could fix the rocks each week. I could hang a sign that says You Are Beginning to Damage My Calm. I could hide the rock garden in my closet and not let anyone else see it, let alone touch it. But I don’t want to do that, not even remotely. I think I like that the rock garden is more like a sandbox than a precious work of art. And anyway, it’s just a rock garden and it’s not like someone is rearranging the pictures on my bedroom walls after using the bathroom.

Here’s what I know: when we invite people over to our home and into our lives, things don’t stay neatly arranged. I can’t hope to maintain the arrangement of the rocks, or the chairs, and certainly not the social landscape of all the members of my family or my community. We are making a place where it’s safe to say what we think, and it’s not always going to be clean or well ordered. If I wanted to keep my garden neat, I would have to stop inviting people over, or hide my garden. If I do invite people over, house rules will be broken and sand will be spilled. But the life of community, when we make room for it, is like the rock garden: an ever-shifting picture of the move of the spirit within the person who currently has their fingers in the sand. It’s not always going to follow the rules, but there will be beauty.

Written by dmaddalena

2011/03/12 at 1:54 am

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Home Birth

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My daughter was born at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Beverly Hills, though, honestly, I can’t remember why: we lived a couple hours away in Pasadena. The hospital was far away by measure of miles, and it was a long way from where we were philosophically: 3 years later, our son was born at our home in Redwood City while our daughter slept in the next room. When I think about the new thing that was born on Saturday night in my home in Los Altos, it was way more Redwood City than Beverly Hills. Of all the ways that comment could be interpreted, none would be bad.

When babies are born in hospitals, almost every potential problem is considered and planned for–the long history and vast community of medicine has had it’s influence on the array of machines and policies that a mother is plugged into. It’s what doctors are trained (and paid) for. But patients can be forgiven for concluding that all this technology is applied primarily so that, should anything go wrong, there can be no questioning the doctors, because they provided the Standard of Care. This is not a criticism of doctors and nurses, who are amazing, no question, but it is a criticism of a wider system that seems to function at such times according to a cover-your-backside ethic.

So when our daughter was being born, the doctor’s first (angry) words upon entering the delivery room were, “Why does this woman not have an IV?”. Answer: we’d refused it on principle–we didn’t want interventions that weren’t expressly called for (note that we wouldn’t have refused any care if child or mother were at risk). But our posture was a problem for this doctor, who was thereafter set in opposition to us, because he knew that if we were refusing the standard of care, he would have to go slightly off his map, which clearly made him uncomfortable. And this wasn’t the only conflict we had with him: there were other moments when we would have preferred to focus on the Awesome Miracle instead of trying to argue the reasoning of our decisions. The only way to avoid conflict in such a setting seems to be to do what’s expected. Maybe our experience doesn’t represent what happens in hospitals today. Here’s hoping.

That’s not sanitary! But it’s awesome.

When babies are born at home, you quickly learn (if you are talking to a good midwife) that pregnancy is not a disease, and childbirth is not a health emergency, so why plan to spend this particular day in the hospital? Women are, in fact, biologically capable of giving birth, and they do a good job of it. If anyone is asking, my vote is to let them keep doing it. It looks painful enough, and I think it would be worse for me. But while pain hurts, it’s not always an emergency. I can hear a mother-in-labor asking, in between contractions, how exactly would I, a man define emergency? How about, a great deal of pain that you did NOT expect. I hope that’s helpful.

To the degree that Something New came into existence this last saturday night, it was definitely a home birth. I lead the meeting, and I did not … 1) follow a map, 2) conduct surveys, or 3)  design a meeting that would offend nobody. If had done that, and someone went ahead and got offended anyways, I could always say that I provided the standard of care, did it by the book — you can ask no more of me. But I didn’t do that. I am naturally wary of standardized systems anyways, so it wasn’t hard to look for a different way. But I still had to resist the temptation to put safeguards in place and follow well-warn routes.

What I did do was trust that coming together in community is something that people are are made for; that community isn’t a problem that needs solving–it’s a miracle that needs a space to happen in. So that’s pretty much what we did: we prepared a space for community to happen. Then we did our breathing exercises.

True, things sometimes go wrong and you need the help of a specialist … the midwife who attended the birth of our son had been an E.R. nurse. That was nice. But we never heard a thing from her about the problems she’d witnessed in delivery rooms or birth-crises that she’d dealt with. I was glad to know she had experience and the training to recognize trouble and respond. But we didn’t need her to prepare us for the worst: we knew childbirth would be painful and that there is always some risk to the mother and child. But that story gets enough air time: whenever childbirth is depicted on the TV, it’s a terrible crisis. If anything, we needed to be reminded that what what we were doing was God’s idea in the first place and a natural thing. Our midwife never said, “You need to have an I.V. because we might need to quickly administer drugs if you’re in too much pain or if something goes horribly wrong.”

She did say, “You’re going to do great.”

We felt confident that between the three of us, we would be able to meet any challenge. Anghelika did experience some serious pain when Timo was born, but she’d decided that her help would be … us. We helped her breath, talked to her when it seemed right to, and when it hurt, she squeezed my hand. I remember that part. Clearly.

So, back to Saturday night. I can already see that God took advantage of the space we made for this miracle … I see blessings I would never have been able to plan for, had I tried to. As with our Redwood City delivery, there was a little anxiety: I found myself briefly worrying that our choice to give birth at home might have put this brand-new life in danger. But ultimately, as with the birth of our boy, I was blessed to see a miracle take place without great constructions of watch-out-for-the-piano safety nets and just-in-case insurance policies.

For the record, a midwife is a very good idea when considering home birth. We have our ‘midwives’ for this new thing. They are sharing our joy and, yes, keeping their eyes on the horizon for signs of trouble. But they haven’t put us in a hospital room of their own design. They’re content to watch the process unfold in our living room. I’m thankful for that. Instead of a fear of what-could-go-wrong, what I feel the most is the freedom to be an awestruck witness, and an excited parent.

Written by dmaddalena

2011/02/24 at 9:25 pm

The 18-Year Plan

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When a new church is coming into existence, those with experience like to speak in terms of the Two-Year Plan. As in: population growth to a certain number within two years; income of a certain amount within two years; and established ministries of a certain kind and number within two years. I know that this way of thinking is very helpful for some, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with it.

Yet, as crazy as it may sound, I prefer to think in terms of an 18-year plan. If a church is a body and can be thought to have a growth cycle like any complex organism, then rushing growth can have an adverse effect, as it might on a human body. The metaphor of a body is very helpful for me: it requires that we think organically instead of mechanically. What parent would write a two-year plan for their newborn? That is, what parent would do that without the influence of family doctors who are compelled to compare every child to every other in order to insure against a malpractice lawsuit. (Medicine is an amazing blessing, but doctors have been responsible for more anxiety than any other force I know of, in the life of the new parents, because they can see further into the human body than ever before and feel compelled to point out every thing they see, whether they understand it or not, and compare it to what they currently understand to be a normal standard. When you insist on a standard of normality, there is only ever 1% of the population that is normal. This is, for me, a picture of a culture oddly reluctant to let things grow at a natural pace, and we see this in many aspects of our culture, including the making of new churches.)

So, here’s the idea: 18 years to a mature, wise, functional, integrated body that is ready to live in the world without a lot of instruction, and make it’s way with influence. That’s pretty close to the plan I have for my kids: I hope that when they reach 18 that I will be more loved by them, but less needed — that they will be moving through the world as adults; still with much to learn, but knowing who they are and moving and acting with confidence. Just like with people (who are pretty awesome and smart), I think it’s possible that a new church (which is made up of many people, so also awesome, but also more complex) might take that long to get it right. Even if my crazy idea gets measured in dog years and it passes much quicker than I thought, I’m in it for the long haul. I have no interest in slowing down the work of God, not at all. Neither do I want to treat the church like a child when it is called to maturity. But as an antidote to the quick-to-market approach of our commodity culture, how about not speeding it up for a change? How about not despising childlikeness or a non-standard development curve? Along the way, I think I will enjoy this young, growing community as much as I enjoy my more-amazing-every-day kids. Much will be accomplished at every stage. There are few limits: I expect to be surprised.

But I do think the first year or two of a community should be simple, and nurturing.  No worrying about the chart on the doctor’s wall (Oh No! Junior’s in the 49th percentile for walking! He’s behind!), no rushing to educate, or develop programs, as with parents who stress about their kids’ academic progress and prospects (If we don’t get her onto the waiting list at the local pre(p)-school, she’ll never get into a good university!).

If the community is a body that is unique in the world, led by Jesus in a specific time and place, then he will reveal the work and the way that we have in front of us, and will guide us according to our own rhythms of growth. We will walk when we’re ready. And if we’re allowed to walk when we’re ready, we’ll walk far, I think.

Written by dmaddalena

2011/01/04 at 3:03 pm

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