Each month, one of our counselors pens a "Counselor's Corner" column for the Westminster News. Past columns are posted here. Feel free to take a look and even pass them along!
What grounds you?- Margaret Mccray, November 2018
The heavy anchors the light; equanimity masters restlessness. The sage traveling all day stays close to his supplies in protected encampments, calm amid the noise, undisturbed, finds his place. Should a lord of ten thousand chariots treat himself more lightly than he treats the whole world? Too light: you lose your foundation. Too restless: you lose your mastery. from Walking the Way, by Robert Meikyo Rosenbaum
This is verse 26 of the Tao Te Ching, a Chinese text written around 500 B.C. —a source of wisdom for both Taoists and Buddhists. I have recently been using it as a daily meditation from a commentary written by a Buddhist friend.
These words speak to me of the patience and serenity I need in our current polarized and uncertain world. Like the sage, I want to stay close to my “supplies” of faith, friends, healthy habits, music, the natural world, and sacred wisdom. I am better able to make good decisions, discern my needs, listen and respond to the needs of others, to act when I must, and calm my anxiety over things that are out of my control.
Here is a grounding Buddhist Lovingkindness Prayer: May I be at ease in my body, feeling the ground beneath me... May I be attentive and gentle toward my own discomfort and suffering... May I be attentive and grateful for my own joy and well-being.... May I move toward others freely and with openness... May I receive others with sympathy and understanding.
You have to let your heart break- Laurel Severns Guntzel, October 2018
One of the questions I am often asked about being a psychotherapist is how I can stand to hear about people’s problems all day without feeling like I am carrying their burdens. This is an important question for anyone who has a healthy dose of empathy, whether a therapist or not. There is so much pain and heartache in the world that it can be easy to get flooded with the emotional weight of it all.
Early in my professional training, I worked with adults with serious and persistent mental illness. Many of my clients had experienced horrific events in their lives that shook me to my core. During my one-to-one meetings with Cara, my clinical supervisor, I frequently broke down in tears. Cara welcomed this. “You have to let your heart break,” she told me.
I found this oddly comforting. Because of societal norms, most of us go through our lives “managing”—that is, overriding our feelings, being polite, and trying to meet expectations. When we do this for too long, things go badly. We become anxious, addicted, explosive, or numb.
By making room for my heart to break, I found that I became more resilient. My heart pieced itself back together sooner or later, and each time it felt a little more enriched. My emotional capacity increased not only for pain, but also for joy and wonder.
Over time, I came to think of this process as metabolizing my feelings—by neither repressing nor clinging to my emotions, they run their natural course. I am less avoidant of unpleasant feelings and more curious about the wisdom they have to offer. It has become not only how I sustain myself in my work but also one of the most important principles I teach my clients.
How Awareness Can Increase Gratitude - Peter Bruhn, September 2018
“But Dad, why can’t we have another dog? I’ll take it out and play with it!” I reply, “Hon, you already have a dog who would love to be taken out and played with by you.” “Yeah...but we really need an overlap dog because Caspian is getting older.” “He’s only six. He should live until he’s 15.”
Sound familiar? The exciting novelty of a new pet, car, clothing item, or even relationship seems destined to wear off. Certainly we can all relate to it, and have been experiencing it all our lives. Toss in a need for immediate gratification, and it’s no surprise that we can feel almost chronically dissatisfied with many aspects of our lives. We find ourselves thinking that a latest upgrade will bring us greater fulfillment and/or happiness. But of course, once this is obtained we either find another aspect of our lives that isn’t up to par, or the increase in feel good chemicals in our brains returns to baseline and we find ourselves feeling the same again.
Do things that were at one time special actually stop being special, or does our awareness fade, and we begin taking them for granted? It works at both ends, really. Initially, being aware of this phenomenon the next time your mind goes down the “if only I had (fill in the blank) I’d be happy” path can be very useful. You can recognize this tendency, and step out of the pattern. At the other end, what would happen if you increased gratitude for what you already have?
Challenge yourself to take an inventory of things that are being taken for granted, or are just not being seen anymore. Perhaps you’ll notice that you have so much more than you realize.
An Opportunity - Sherri Dunham, August 2018
The other day I was attempting to play tennis, something which I am very new at, and I couldn’t believe how much I still expect myself to be excellent right out of the gate. As the negative judgements flooded in, I could see just how much work I have yet to do with giving myself love and compassion as I teach my clients to give themselves. It’s so easy to give others the same compassion that we deserve to give to our self.
Playing tennis is just the latest opportunity for old patterns of my mind to come to light: to watch the old tapes of judgement that were created in childhood (so that I could try to meet my parents’ needs for me to be good, right, and perfect), and then to feel with compassion the subsequent fear and shame that surfaces in my body. Neither tennis nor my reactive mind is the enemy, but together they are showing me where an old wound still needs healing.
What is the opportunity in your life right now to see what old tapes are playing and what wounds still need healing in you? In what part of your life are you struggling to have compassion for yourself or another? First recognize the triggering event, whether it be your performance, another person, a place or thing. Then, inspect the negative beliefs about yourself (or the other) that arise. Are you afraid you’re not good enough or that you are a failure? Or, are you labeling yourself or someone else as bad? Try to be curious about your automatic reactions without labeling them as right or wrong. Then connect and sink into your underlying hurt or fear with love and compassion.
You don’t get to choose your automatic reactions because you didn’t get to choose how your mind was conditioned. But with awareness, you get to choose how you respond to your pain and suffering. Please remember that you are always deserving of your own love and compassion, no matter what.
Aging successfully - Susan Thornton, July 2018
We all age, and I’ll speak frankly: I find dealing with my aging challenging, humbling, humorous, frightening, and liberating... and more. I’m often in settings in which age-ism is challenged. I am privileged in this. I took part in a course on “Aging Successfully,” offered at my church as part of a possibility of developing intentional senior co-housing. We shared stories of being seen as “the other” or diminished by someone because of being older, but of going forward as able. I imagine many reading this have experienced a different model of aging with “older persons” within Westminster. We need to have nourishing relationships/ community and envision new models and ways.
I recently read the book Living an Examined Life: Wisdom for the Second Half of the Journey, which addressed my aging process from a different angle. “Where do you need to grow up?” is the question asked by James Hollis, PhD, a Jungian analyst. Hollis envisions a person as an animal that seeks meaning and creates meaning and suffers deeply when disconnected from meaning. He offers a path toward taking care of unfinished business and living meaningfully.
Hollis shares generously and humbly as he builds upon his earlier experience and work. For Hollis, to “grow up” is to examine our choices by “listening to the voice that arises from the soul.” He notes that our choices have been profoundly shaped by unconscious influences, cultural practices, religious traditions and community practices, leading to a loss of meaning. His wisdom: “We serve life when we step forward and begin to take on responsibility...to choose a life that makes sense to us.” That can be true with my aging, and yours, with wherever we are in our lives.
Conflict in an Either-or world - Judy Landt, June 2018
I am writing this a week after Easter as winter prolongs its stay with snow and cold. But with any luck as you read this, our perennial beds and lilacs, tulips, and trees are bursting in resurrection splendor. Life conquers what looked like death. I remember Lent and Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman reminding us that it took a new generation to recognize and appreciate a new Promised Land. Hope is the long view, God’s view. We journey toward the reality of what we cannot yet see.
I heard a teenager address a crowd of thousands of other teens, acting on her hope for herself, her generation, and generations to follow that our laws and fears about gun violence will find a new normal of sanity and respect for the sacredness of human life. We have been watching a wave of anger, pain, and courage sweep through our nation in the #MeToo movement. Women and men are finding their individual and collective voices, telling their experience of abuse by the powerful and privileged.
The ancient rhythms of death and life, fear and hope, sweep through history, and live within us in the stories we tell and the lives we live. Within that broad sweep is the present reality of each precious moment. Every minute we make our choice to be on the side of life or death, hope or despair, peace or war compassion or exploitation. Our choice is the difference. Each of us moves all of us in one direction or another. We are our sister’s keeper.
Deliver us from evil. Thy kin-dom come.
What do you choose? - Margaret Mccray, May 2018
Conflict and divisions between people are as old as humanity. Most of Paul’s letters were written to churches experiencing some type of conflict. First century folks disagreed about whether one could become a Christian without being a Jew first, whether to eat meat sacrificed to idols, and much more. Today, disagreements about values and beliefs seem to have become more personal. We judge one another morally based on where we stand politically. Increasingly, we seem to believe our political opponents are driven by bad motives, rather than legitimate differences of opinion. When we surround ourselves only with those who share our opinions, there are limited opportunities to practice the skills of constructive disagreement with those who see things differently. It’s no surprise that when we do engage in disagreement, it often doesn’t end well.
As a mediator who works with people in conflict, it is my observation that people are becoming more convinced of their own rightness, less open to understanding the viewpoints of others, more easily offended, and less willing to seek common ground or make compromises.
As followers of Christ, we can work for good in these challenging times. Values such as justice for the poor and hospitality for the stranger are grounded in Scripture, but reasonable minds can differ as to what sorts of policies and practices most effectively implement these values. So let’s practice humility when we disagree, listening carefully and remaining open to the views of others. Let’s stand against all kinds of name calling, stereotyping, and personal attacks. Above all, let’s model our conviction that every human being is a child of God, entitled to be treated with dignity, courtesy, and respect.
To Steer one's own ship - Laurel Severns Guntzel, April 2018
Happiness, joy, exuberance... most of us seek and value these pleasant emotions. It feels good to feel good! However, in the pursuit of happiness, many of us forget how to relate constructively to less pleasant emotions. We may grit our teeth and smile through our anger, betraying our true needs. We might dissociate and “numb out” when we feel sad, turning to alcohol or food or social media. We may perpetuate our difficult emotions by over-identifying with them: I feel embarrassed, so I must be an idiot. Or I feel anxious, so clearly everything is falling apart. Happiness feels far away. Eventually we might notice that it is affecting our relationships and functioning, and we feel weighed down by life. Ironically, these unpleasant emotions start to steer the ship of our lives.
The philosophy behind Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) holds that difficult thoughts, memories, and emotions do not need to be squelched or rationalized in order to be managed. It also suggests that something as fleeting as “happiness” should not be our ultimate goal. We accept that difficult experiences are a normal feature of being human. We make room for them in our inner landscape and learn to tolerate them as they come...and let them go if they are ready to dissipate, rather than hardening them into part of our identity.
Through mindfulness and getting clear on our values—articulating to ourselves what we want our lives to be about—we recover our true selves and reorient our lives to a new North Star. We simultaneously accept and unhook from unhelpful thoughts, memories, and emotions, while steering our ship in the direction of what makes life meaningful. That anxiety or depression or chronic pain, if it sticks around, can come along for the ride. But it is no longer behind the captain’s wheel.
Connection versus control - Sherri dunham, March 2018
Recently, I have been trying to help my young son address bullying behavior from older children. It breaks my heart to imagine him being the target of another child’s need for power and control. It also breaks my heart to realize how many children need to prey on smaller children in order to feel a sense of power and control. Adults are not so different. The patterns of manipulation and control simply begin in childhood and, without intervention, become more ingrained and perfected as we enter into adulthood.
Psychologist Dr. Laura Markham,PhD, of Ahaparenting.com teaches parents how to effectively address their children’s needs through connection versus control. In the case of bullying, Dr. Laura reminded me that the best way to help my son deal with bullying behavior is to help him not be a target in the first place. That means I need to do a better job of connecting rather than controlling so that he doesn’t feel the need to succumb to the pressures of others. How we treat our children is how they expect to be treated by others in childhood and adulthood.
Recognizing our methods of gaining power and control over others, including our children, can be elusive: we compliment people to make them feel good; we threaten our children with negative consequences unless they listen to us; we say “yes” when we mean “no”; we give gifts and expect appreciation. This isn’t our fault; we’re just doing what we learned in childhood to feel safe and loved in our environment and we’re doing what was modeled to us. The good news is that by compassionately connecting with our own feelings (usually fear and pain) and recognizing our underlying motivations (to feel less fear and pain), we can consciously seek connection versus control and build the bonds of trust and love.
Embrace the new year...and yourself - Peter Bruhn, January 2018
New Year’s resolutions can be tricky business. Of course there are always things we want to change about ourselves, and rarely do we take time to appreciate our positive qualities. Self-dissatisfaction can be a chronic problem for many. We move through life putting up with particular aspects of ourselves, with a yearly opportunity to set things right, start anew, or at least make a few adjustments to improve ourselves. Problem is, this often doesn’t work. We frequently set goals that are too lofty, or overestimate the impact the change will have on our lives. Or we simply lose interest. And failing just sets us up to be more disappointed with ourselves.
So instead of striving to improve yourself this year, perhaps try something different for a change. Actively acknowledge your gifts, your strengths, the aspects of you that make you special and unique, and even aspects of you that you’d like to improve. In other words, accept and appreciate yourself. The Humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers was keenly aware of the power of self-acceptance. He famously said, “The curious paradox is, if I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
So if your tendency is to believe it’s only okay to be you if certain parts of yourself are removed or changed, then consider making this shift in how you view yourself. If we’re constantly unhappy with ourselves, engaged in an internal struggle, the chances of something positive occurring are relatively low. And isn’t that what typically happens when we’re fighting with anyone? Doesn’t it often result in a stalemate or resentment, making desired change even more difficult to accomplish?
As you embrace the New Year, I encourage you to embrace yourself as well. Extending kindness and acceptance inwardly may actually lead to a healthier relationship with you.
Whose Life are you living? - Sherri Dunham , October 2017
From infancy, we’re attuned to what it takes to survive in our family. The majority of us were raised by parents who did their absolute best but still fell short of completely meeting our emotional needs. Never feeling quite good enough, we learned to compromise ourselves, to be what our parents needed or wanted us to be, with the hopes of finally gaining the love and approval we painfully longed for. Unconsciously, we end up carrying these patterns into adulthood, into jobs and relationships, and we live a life that we think we should be living. As James Hollis, the author of Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life, states, “...virtually all of us lack a deep sense of permission to lead our own lives.”
As children, many of us learned that it’s not okay to be angry or cranky, or that there’s no need to be sad or afraid. If we learned that the wide range of our feelings, the voice of the True Self, is not okay or manageable, then we’ll try to control and deny it in others just as we do in ourselves. In his aforementioned book, Hollis referenced the following quote from Jesus in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
Beginning to honor and live in accordance with the True Self can feel terrifying, even life threatening. This is not because you are actually in danger, but because you are remembering the terror you felt as a child if you did not meet your parents’ needs. As an adult, what was once essential for survival is now suffocating. The True Self demands to be seen, heard, and understood by you for the survival of your life. Otherwise, whose life are you living?
Peter Bruhn, JUne 2017
No one is immune to life’s challenges, disappointments, and emotional pain. Suffering is an inevitable part of existence. The good news is that we all have an inner resilience that is often unrealized and underutilized. With proper assistance, this resilience can be identified and harnessed, resulting in greater empowerment to successfully navigate our way through turbulent times. A strong step in the right direction is practicing basic self-care. Sometimes it’s the simple things that, when accumulated, result in significant changes for the better. Proper nutrition, adequate sleep, connection with others, spiritual practice, time in nature, and regular physical activity can all have a positive impact on one’s life. We see the impact the absence of these things has on our lives when we’re not practicing them. If you think back to the last time you were irritable, sluggish, or unfocused, perhaps you can trace it to neglect in one of these basic self-care areas. We typically know we’re not at our best when we’re overly tired, feeding ourselves with convenient junk food, or feeling disconnected from others. Yet often self-care is the first thing that is compromised when we’re emotionally spread thin. We may cut corners on sleep or nutrition, or tell our friends we just don’t have time for coffee or a walk. We may tell ourselves that this is only temporary, until things simmer down in our lives. The truth is, for many of us, life’s demands can seem relentless and waiting for conditions in our lives to be “right” before we pay attention to ourselves will most likely keep us in a perpetual state of depletion. Give yourself permission to slow down and pay attention to your needs, your care, your well-being. Not only will you benefit from it, but chances are others in your life will, too.
Susan Thornton, May 2016
In preparing for summer, I invite you to hear a story, “The Temple Bells”, by Fr. Anthony De Mello, in The Song of the Bird. “ The temple was built on an island and it held a thousand bells. Bells big and small, fashioned by the finest craftsmen in the world. When the wind blew or a storm raged, all the bells would peal out in a symphony that would send the heart of the hearer into raptures. But over the centuries the island sank into the sea and, with it, the temple bells. An ancient legend said that the bells continued to peal out, ceaselessly, and could be heard by anyone who would listen. Inspired by this, a young man traveled thousands of miles, determined to hear those bells. He sat for days on the shore, facing the vanished island, and listened with all his might. All he could hear was the sound of the sea. He made every effort to block it out, to no avail. The sound of the sea seemed to flood the world. He kept at his task for weeks. …Finally he decided to give up the attempt. Perhaps he was not destined to hear the bells. Perhaps the legend was not true. It was his final day, and he went to the shore to say goodbye to the sea and the sky and the wind and the coconut trees. He lay on the sand, and for the first time, listened to the sound of the sea. Soon he was so lost in the sound that he was barely conscious of himself, so deep was the silence that the sound produced. In the depth of that silence, he heard it! The tinkle of a tiny bell followed by another, and another and another… and soon every one of the thousand temple bells was pealing out in harmony, and his heart was rapt in joyous ecstasy.” “Do you wish to hear the temple bells? Listen to the sound of the sea. Do you wish to catch a glimpse of God? Look intently at creation. ” May your summertime hold many such moments of awe, wonder and mystery.
Where are we? - Margaret Mccray, May 2016
All of us who call Westminster home are feeling the pull into a vortex of change. No longer an idea or an event on the horizon, Open Doors Open Futures is now a groundbreaking, a loss of parking, a change in meeting venues, and, for the counseling center, a temporary two-year sojourn out of the building. This is our new reality! A recent short article in the New York Times (“Don’t Let Them Tell You You’re Not the Center of the Universe”) gives us a helpful scientific/theological understanding of this new reality. The universe began, in theological language, when God said, “Let there be light.” In 21st century scientific language it began much the same way, when a grapefruit size ball of energy exploded into time. Every particle, including each of us, became a “cone of light” traveling at the speed of light, moving constantly into time that is always out ahead us. Creation stories are foundational to any understanding of who we are: our ‘birthday’ story of where and what happened on that day, or the day we were welcomed into the home that would become our family; the story of the establishment of our native land; or our genealogy. As Christians and Jews we share a story of “In the beginning…” As members of the 21st century, we share a story of “a ball of energy,” a story that unfolds as our scientific knowledge increases. These creation stories do not compete for truth. They are all true in their context. Each has meaning for who we are and how we came to be. The transition from not being there to being there happens every nanosecond of our lives. Our faith knows this: “Look I am doing a new thing. Do you not perceive it?” “A new commandment I give you.” “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth.” “From this time forth and forevermore.” We are never, therefore, not in “creative time.” Our faith and hope, dreams, and courage carry us into the future. Thanks be to God who is doing a new thing. We are a cone of light, traveling together. Do you feel it?
The Butterfly Pin - Mary Keen, April 2016
The beautiful butterfly pin is simple, yet elegant, with bright luminescent blues and purples that dance when light catches the butterfly’s wings. The pin was given as a gift, with strings attached: When wearing it, if someone comments on the pin’s beauty and expresses an appreciation for it, the person wearing the pin is to take it off and give it to the admirer. And so the butterfly pin flew from person to person, sharing its simple elegant beauty, leaving one morning pinned securely to someone’s suit jacket, perhaps coming home pinned to someone else’s sweater. My friend was one such admirer. When she was purchasing clothing at a store, the woman totaling up her purchase was wearing the pin. My friend commented on the pin’s attractiveness. The sales associate thanked her, removed the pin from her blouse, and gave it to my friend with the instructions. Surprised by the generous exchange, my friend received the gift with the honor and joy that was intended. She left the store with the butterfly pinned to her jacket. The blue and purple wings reminded her of the generous, out-of-the-ordinary experience she’d had. She waited each day for someone to comment, someone to notice, someone to admire the simple pin. Her anticipation of being able to surprise someone else with the gift made the pin more beautiful to her. After a week, she stopped in for coffee on her way to a meeting. As she placed her order, she heard the beautiful words, “What a stunning pin! I love how the colors seem to dance from the light.” She joyfully thanked the barista, placed her purse on the counter, unfastened the pin from her clothing and placed it in the barista’s hands, and said, “Wear it, appreciate it, but then give it away...” sharing the pin’s conditions with the surprised stranger on the other side of the counter. I never saw the pin, but I’ve often heard the story from my friend. She wonders where the butterfly is now, who is lucky enough to wear it for a time, and how this simple piece of jewelry is bringing surprised joy to each person who receives it, wears it and gives it away. So many of our possessions cling to us like barnacles, weighing us down. How different it might be if we lightened and brightened our life by giving away what may be most precious to us.
Light Brimming Everywhere - Margaret McCray, January 2016
During Advent and Christmas I spent time with two excellent books: All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, and a new book of essays by Marilynne Robinson, The Givenness of Things. In a nutshell, I am in awe, dumbstruck by the images of light brimming over in the words and ideas of both these authors. Robinson brings the light of her formidable, fearless intellect to the task of parsing the evolution of Christian theology (most notably that of John Calvin), and its effect over centuries of secular thought, literature, and politics. Her hopes and concerns for the future of all faith traditions, religious practice, and civil discourse call us to action, and beg for our deep commitment to preserving the benevolence, love, and peace with which Christianity in particular has graced our understanding of what it is to be human. “...there are always as good grounds for optimism as for pessimism.... We still have every potential for good we have ever had, and the same presumptive claim to respect, our own respect and one another’s. We are still creatures of singular interest and value, agile of soul as we have always been and as we will continue to be even despite our errors and depredations, for as long as we abide on this earth. To value one another is our great-est safety, and to indulge in fear and contempt is our gravest error.” (Givenness p.29). All the Light We Cannot See tells a story that is a monumental testament to just such valuation of one another, expressed in acts of self-sacrifice, out of respect for the mysteries of the created order of nature, and steeped in the beauty of human justice and love for the stranger and the outcast. “The brain is locked in total darkness, of course, children, says the voice. It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?” Light that shines in the darkness; light that darkness births within us; light that emanates from the heart, the mind, the soul; light we cannot see but for the love, hope and peace it awakens around us. Rejoice, for the light has come.
Living into Trust, Hope, and Faith - Mary keen, DEcember 2015
I’ve been hearing fearful words from my neighbors lately. “Don’t go to the Mall of America. ISIS is going to bomb it.” “Those Syrian refugees better not come here.” “Why don’t they go where they are wanted?” Fear can crystalize into hate. Parker Palmer reminds us we have other words to live into… trust, hope, faith. Rather than living on the fault lines of fear, can we not live on the firm foundations of faith? During Advent we hear the promises of our faith: “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.” (Luke 3:5)
We have places of fear inside of us, but we have other places as well—places with names like trust and hope and faith. We can choose to lead from one of those places, to stand on ground that is not riddled with the fault lines of fear, to move toward others from a place of promise instead of anxiety… now we stand on ground that will support us, ground from which we can lead others toward a… more hopeful, more faithful way of being in the world. Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak
These are the promises on which our faith in Christ is grounded. These are not fault lines of fear, but solid, holy ground of hope. Thomas H. Troeger wrote View the Present from the Promise, an advent hymn that challenges us to release our fears for the future and focus on the promise already here in Jesus Christ. View the present through the promise… Trust despite the deepening darkness… Lift the world above its grieving through your watching and believing in the hope past hope’s conceiving: Christ will come again. Probe the present with the promise,… Let your daily actions witness,… Let your loving and your giving and your justice and forgiving be a sign to all the living: Christ will come again. Match the present to the promise,… Make this hope your guiding premise… Pattern all your calculating and the world you are creating to the advent you are waiting: Christ will come again.
Point of view: understanding what is ahead - Margaret Mccray, november 2015
Being an early baby boomer, loving the profession I’ve practiced for 34 years, and feeling the annoying reminders that I am indeed 68 years old, I’ve been thinking about “point of view,” or a person’s unique ability to see, apprehend, and understand what is in front of her or him. This past week I spent two days sitting in a room with 90 other marriage and family counselors, watching a well-known therapist meet with a number of troubled couples, some with profoundly entrenched habits, addictions, and patterns of dysfunction. Each of these individuals was stuck in her or his own point of view. The therapist gave an impressive demonstration of pulling each member of the couple out of their stuck point of view, to a place of empathy for the other, insight about themselves, and a new perspective on their relationship. For two days we watched and felt the drama as each couple broke down the protective barriers they had put up against the other, barriers that blocked their ability to see beyond their own desperate assumptions and short-sighted conclusions. The even harder work will be in the days and weeks ahead, resisting the urge to go back to a comfortable, familiar point of view that perpetuates the status quo and denies the reality that new ways of seeing and knowing can be life-giving. In a recent column in the New York Times, David Brooks makes the provocative statement that “We are the only animals who are naturally unfinished. We have to bring ourselves to fulfillment, to integration, to coherence.” Brooks is suggesting that to fulfill our human potential we must engage in a process of decision, movement, and effort that leads us toward who we are capable of becoming. We are not created for stagnation. Watch infants. They engage in astounding demonstrations of becoming. An infant, from the moment of birth, is fully engaged in curiosity, mastery, and growth. Every fiber of her being is eager to shift, refocus, see a new perspective, try new things, and come to different conclusions. This is what it means to be human. Sadly, as we get older we can easily settle into a truncated version of ourselves and give up on finding the fullness of who we might finally become. Who are you beyond your current point of view? What is daring you right now to consider, to risk, to see differently? The task of finishing is a lifelong, sacred task endowed by our Creator. A commitment to being fully alive blesses us, those around us, and the space between us. Dare we pass up the possibilities?
the strength of three - mary keen, august 2015
The science of ropes, cables, cords, or yarn is a physics of three. Three strands of material, whether it be hemp, copper, rayon or cotton, woven tightly together, gives sufficient strength and flexibility for a specific task. One strand easily frays. Two strands are better, but easily unwind. Three strands, according to my limited web-based research, is the best. More than three, the rope becomes thicker, but not necessarily stronger. A three-stranded cord provides a superior strength for its intended purpose, because all the fibers, tightly twisted, touch each other. This contact then distributes the tension or weight equally, thus making the rope stronger. The writer of Ecclesiastes knew something about ropes and human relationship. “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.” Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 (NRSV)
These verses are sometimes read during wedding ceremonies, reminding the couple that their partnership can withstand the pressures of life, as they support each other on their journey together. Verse 12 is often interpreted to mean that a third entity will make their relationship even stronger. This third part being The Holy. Acknowledging and welcoming the spiritual in any human relationship will strengthen the bond. When someone is committed to another, the reasons vary. Yet the reasons, practical or impractical, are insufficient to understand the connection and commitment to another. There is a third strand woven into the mix. A strand that is spiritual, holy, sacred. A strand that is mysterious and mystical. The strand that gives the cord of connection a superior strength, not easily broken. Victor Hugo spoke of this sacred strength in relationships. In Les Miserables, Val Jean, Fantine, and Eponine sing together, “to love another person is to see the face of God.” This “face of God”is the third strand that can transform the world.
challenges and changes - margaret mccray, june 2015
The Westminster Counseling Center was established by the church over a quarter century ago. For business and liability reasons, in 1987 it became a separate non-profit organization. The church, partnering with the Center since the beginning, has generously provided space and a yearly benevolence allowance that have been crucial to the growth of this ministry of healing. On an annual basis, the Counseling Center provides up to 2200 hours of mental health counseling. It is a community resource: 75% of our clients come from outside the Westminster congregation. Our mission of providing affordable mental health services has meant that we must subsidize as many as half the clients we serve. Even with the Affordable Care Act and “mental health parity” many families are still unable to pay their high deductibles. The Counseling Center provides at least $20,000 in subsidized fees each year, through a sliding scale fee system. The Counseling Center has reached a critical point in its future sustainability. It cannot continue to meet costs of operation with the current level of income from client fees, the church’s benevolence, and financial gifts. Beginning in 2008, the reserve balance we had been able to maintain for years began to tip slowly in a downward direction. That trend has continued. Each year the Counseling Center receives grants from family foundations and individuals, many in this congregation. While generous and very much appreciated, these gifts have not been sufficient to keep us financially healthy. Our Board of Directors has determined that the next couple of years will be crucial to the future of the Center. The Counseling Center faces several challenges and changes and, also, sees opportunities for growth. In response, the Board has revisited the administrative structure and has determined the Center needs a full-time Executive Director who is able to focus all her or his efforts on administrative tasks, marketing, and funds development in order to build the foundations of a sustainable business model. The church has offered to help us pay a portion of the salary of this new position for the first year. I will maintain my role as counselor and Clinical Director. The population growth projected for the downtown area, and the number of congregations who have yet to appreciate fully our services, present a great opportunity for marketing the Center to a wider community. The Board anticipates the client base for the Center will grow with the increase in the downtown residential population. In addition, the Counseling Center has opened its first satellite office at Oak Grove Presbyterian Church in Bloomington. There are plans for other locations, allowing us to reach new clients. In 2016 we will be temporarily moving out of Westminster for the two years of construction for Open Doors Open Futures. This move, while challenging, is an opportunity to further our efforts to reach more broadly into the community. We look forward to returning to wonderful new space at the completion of the Westminster project, and to continuing our partnership with the church. We ask your prayers, financial support, and understanding as we put our efforts into maintaining, growing, and spreading the healing gifts of the Spirit, which are God’s presence within, between and among us. For this and all God’s goodness we give thanks.
susan thornton, may 2015
I know in my bones that I have become a Minnesotan when April and May arrive. Heavy clothes are packed away. Warmth and sunlight invite me to spend my days outdoors. Mother’s Day, fishing opener, and graduations follow. Gardens will ask for daily care. In church are stories of Jesus’ appearances filled with the “already and not yet” of God’s realm on earth, as the Eastertide season mirrors our experiences of newness. Beauty seems to be seeking out you and me. And yet this can be a troubling or difficult time for people for whom spring’s loveliness and possibilities seem lost. Many of us, to greater or lesser degree, have been there at one time. John O’Donohue, the late beloved Celtic philosopher, envisions that condition in Beauty: The Invisible Embrace. He imagines a house closed up for a long time, the dust settled everywhere, and the light sealed out. If one has become stuck in a narrow or predictable way of seeing, the rooms of our minds can become like that. Then the “windows of the mind become blinded,” and “the air within becomes stale, and life lessons and the outside world loses its invitation and challenge. When no fresh light can come into the mind, the colour and beauty fade from life.” Sometimes the person is yearning for something glimpsed, or a time past, a world in which “beauty is visible and shines forth for them.” O’Donohue asserts: “Each person is the sole inhabitant of their own inner world; no one else can get in there to configure how things are seen. Each of us is responsible for how we see, and how we see determines what we see. Seeing is not merely a physical act; the heart of vision is shaped by the state of the soul.” I think a person who has sought counseling has made a courageous choice to take action, to be responsible, by inviting another to companion them in their “seeing.” And the work we do together is work of the soul. It involves the skills of pastoral psychotherapy, the commitment to see the process through, to trust in the process, held in the embrace of God.
got mindset? - david macnaughton, april 2015
As a young boy, one of the messages I received from my piano teacher was that I had talent and some natural ability to play the piano. I liked playing the piano, especially in concerts, and performing in front of people. I had a harder time with practicing. Of course, I couldn’t get away with not practicing at all, but somehow in my mind I would practice just enough to get by and rest on natural ability to carry the day. What made practicing so arduous and unpleasant? Well, it was the fact that I couldn’t play the piece as well as my piano teacher. I wasn’t able to play the piece the way it should be played. I didn’t like making mistakes because that would only prove that I wasn’t a good piano player. Carol Dweck, a leading researcher in the field of social psychology (author of Mindset), would suggest that I had a fixed mindset. If you have a fixed mindset, you believe that your talents and abilities are set in stone: either you have them or you don’t. You must prove yourself over and over, trying to look smart and talented at all cost. If on the other hand I had had a growth mindset, I could have viewed my mistakes and challenges at piano playing as an opportunity to learn and develop. These two mindsets have a powerful impact not only on individual achievement but also on our relationships. Sometimes couples believe that they are “naturally compatible” and that their relationship should be successful automatically, and if they need to work at it, there’s something seriously wrong with their relationship and they shouldn’t be together. Part of this fixed mindset approach to relationships includes the belief that since we are “one” my partner should know what I think, feel, and need, and that I should know what my partner thinks, feels, and needs. Mind reading is not possible; rather, healthy communication moves the relationship forward and allows each to get to know the other. Another problem with the fixed mindset as applied to relationships is the belief that if there are problems in the relationship, then it is a sign of deep-seated character flaws. With a fixed mindset, conflict means that someone must be to blame; it’s either your partner or yourself who is to blame, and most people with a fixed mindset would rather blame their partners. Not only is this blaming not useful but it also causes hurt and damage when it is used as a weapon to point out character flaws. It quickly gets personal, and because the couple sees the problem lying with fixed traits, it can’t be solved. In a relationship, the growth mindset allows you to rise above the blame, understand the problems, and try to solve them together. Dr. Dweck cites psychologist Dan Wile in saying that “choosing a partner is choosing a set of problems. There are no problem-free candidates. The trick is to acknowledge each other’s limitations, and build from there.” It is also important to know that in all our relationships—whether with our colleagues, bosses, friends, neighbors, and family—we can change and be adaptable and move forward, with some work involved, from a fixed to a growth state of mind.
everyday evolution - margaret mccray, february 2015
Life is constantly evolving, changing in increments we barely notice, or sometimes with a speed that literally leaves us breathless and spinning. Today the counseling center is spinning… Our newest therapist, Ben Thompson, about whom we were very excited and had begun to feel he was “one of us,” sent me an email last week with his own story of rapid evolution. Ben was excited to be a part-time therapist at the Counseling Center while also serving a nearly full-time position with an inpatient residential mental health program. Suddenly an unexpected vacancy in a directorship opened up in his health care division and he was asked to take the position. He felt he could not turn down the experience and professional opportunity it afforded him, but it meant he would not be able to meet the expectations of a position with us. So in a matter of less than a month, we both experienced a double dose of unexpected evolution. In the midst of the spinning, Ben moved forward and we seemed to move back. Yet we never go back to square one. Every step in a new direction brings about something new. All of us live in this paradigm of change, change we may choose and change that chooses us. In today’s world we are confronted with threats or opportunities that are evolving over a staggering number of issues: religion and religious warfare, sexuality, race, socio-economics, climate, care of our planet, to name only a few. And each of us must also face our own private issues as well, all of which require courageous soul-searching. Jesus preached and lived change. He was not constrained by “the way things are.” He challenges us to be thoughtful, passionate, and compassionate agents of change. And he reassures us that whether we are agents or recipients of change; whether the evolution of change brings fear, grief, confusion or joy, we are never alone. In such times, I often go to Thomas Merton’s much loved prayer:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end… I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost… for you are ever with me and will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Whether step by step or in a whirlwind, God works within us to bring about the blessed “new thing” (Is 43:19) by which we and our world are made new. Perils or promotions, evolution is a gift of God.
An open hearted life - david macnaughton, november 7
Holidays and rituals in many religious traditions provide opportunities to revisit important historical events that are symbolic of our own journey of faith. As a Jew, the holiday cycle continuously reminds me of the experience of the Exodus. The Jewish calendar is anchored by two markings of the Exodus—first Passover and, six months later, Sukkot. Sukkot is named after the booths in which Jews are supposed to dwell during this week-long celebration following Yom Kippur. According to Rabbinic tradition, these flimsy sukkot represent the huts in which the Israelites dwelt during their 40 years of wandering in the desert. Sukkot also is a time of celebration and rejoicing. Jews are commanded to eat and drink in the sukkah with guests and relish life to the fullest in celebrating the harvest. While Passover marks the great event of liberation, Sukkot celebrates the longer way of liberation--the march across a barren desert to freedom and the Promised Land. So Sukkot asks us to remember what happened after the initial redemption, and commemorates the maturation of the Israelites, achieved not in crossing the Red Sea but in walking the long way to freedom. According to Rabbi Irving Greenberg, the rules for constructing the temporary sukkah have much to teach us about life: “Human beings instinctively strive to build solid walls of security. People shut out life; they heap up treasures and power and status symbols in the hope of excluding death and disaster and even the unexpected. People end up sacrificing values and even loved ones to obtain the tangible sources of security. The sukkah urges people to give up this pseudo-safety.” Thus, Sukkot can teach us that selfprotection has a value but also has limits. Rather than building thick walls that may protect us from hurt but end up cutting us off from life, we can accept our vulnerability and live more open-heartedly. Westminster Counseling Center is unique in having many faith perspectives represented on its staff, and we welcome the opportunity to accompany people of all backgrounds on their faith and life journeys.
Grand CAnyon - mary keen, september 19
Visiting the Grand Canyon on a dreary, wet August day doesn’t make sense, but this was the destination. We didn’t know Arizona has a monsoon season. I’ve seen photos of the grand vista’s red-orange hues, glowing in the dawn’s light. No such vista today. Rain drizzled, clouds thickened to pea soup, the temperature dropped to invite jackets. My husband and I decided to don rain–ready hiking gear and brave one short hike. We walked with a few other prepared travelers to an outcrop into the canyon. Fog settled in. Rain sopped our shoes.
The sight at the “end” of the trail on a clear day would have been breathtaking. Today, the clouds were our companions. We waited, camera phones ready for that break in the thick white
to capture a glimpse of the mysterious shrouded vista. We waited and waited.
The fog seemed to boil from a caldron and thicken like rue. Surrounded by the fog’s veil, unable to see each other, unable to see my phone poised ready for the snap, an eerie unsettledness seeped into my soul. My feet were on solid ground even though I couldn’t see them.
As quickly as the clouds came, the veil lifted. A gust of wind swept the thick curtain into the heavens like a Broadway play’s opening performance. The mysterious vista appeared. And grand it was. Warm tears of awe swept hot on my cool cheeks. I lost my breath as I grabbed the handrail. As if in a dream, the clouds swept around us again. The glory was gone. No picture could have captured the surprise Presence I felt when the grand vista appeared. When the clouds returned, I was grateful for the glimpse of glory. The Vista is always present, even when thick clouds prevent our seeing.
what more can we do? - margaret mccray, august 6
In this summer of 2014 when war and devastation, death and inescapable fear fill the lives of so many people on our small planet, I feel overwhelmed by my sorrow and lack of agency. The gnaw of guilt that my life is relatively safe, and a deeper fear that I am not immune to the powers of hate and evil, all this grips me as I read and watch the news unfold.
Yes, we pray for our sisters and brothers in the Ukraine, in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Palestine, Israel, Central America, Somalia, Nigeria, Cameroon, North Minneapolis…. and the list goes on and on. What more can we say? What more can do we do?
Yet, is not our most potent means of agency what we say and do in the midst of our daily lives as we encounter family, friends and strangers?
This poem is one of my favorites, by Naomi Shibab Nye, a woman of Palestinian descent.
Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand, what you counted and carefully saved, all this must go so you know how desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride thinking the bus will never stop, the passengers eating maize and chicken will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness, you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you, how he too was someone who journeyed through the night with plans and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. You must wake up with sorrow. You must speak to it till your voice catches the thread of all sorrows and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore, only kindness that ties your shoes and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread, only kindness that raises its head from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for, and then goes with you everywhere like a shadow or a friend.
If you read each line of this poem and ponder its meaning you will find it hard not to be moved by what you feel and fear. We must not protect ourselves from the realities of grief and terror that face strangers half a world away. We must learn the tender gravity of kindness. We must see how these strangers could be us, how only kindness makes sense anymore: toward all children, toward the one we sleep with, toward our families, our friends, strangers, those over the fence, those across the street, across the counter, in the car ahead of us, those in the seat or table next to us, to those who disagree with us, to those who would hurt us, to the earth under us and the sky above us, to all that shares this world with us.
May kindness go with you everywhere like a shadow or a friend.
Marriage - Margaret McCray, August 9
The advent of same-sex marriage in Minnesota has occasioned stories of the long relationships of gay and lesbian couples who are now free to give their love and commitment a legal and public recognition. Their stories invite us all to look at our own intimate relationships. What follows is an excerpt from one of my favorite descriptions of committed love, from a French philosopher, Andre Comte-Sponville, in A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues. His positive descriptions do not deny the ups and downs, joys and sorrows that accompany any relationship, but they speak of the underlying strength of love and commitment to another human being that is the very definition of marriage.
What of those successful couples, the kind we tend to envy for the happiness and love they seem to have managed to preserve even with the passing years? They are anything but love-birds, they will tell you, and were you to compare them to Tristan and Isolde they would laugh at you. The “secret” of their success is simply that they have continued to desire each other; and if they have been living together for years, their desire is definitely capacity rather than want, pleasure rather than passion; they have managed to transform the passion and ardor they had in the beginning into joy, gentleness, gratitude, lucidity, and trust, into happiness in being together – in other words into philia - friendship in its strongest and noblest sense.
Tenderness is one of its dimensions, but it has others: complicity, loyalty and humor, an intimacy of body and mind, pleasure visited and revisited again and again. There is a closeness and mutual respect, the attentiveness of two solitudes, each inhabited and sustained by the other; there is also that buoyant and simple joy, the familiarity, matter-of-factness, and sense of peace; the glint in the eye, the heedful silence; the strength, openness and fragility of being two. And oneness? They have long sense rejected the idea of becoming one, if they ever believed it at all. They love their duet far too much, with its harmonics, counterpoint, and occasional dissonances, to want to transform it into an impossible monologue. Their love has become wise love, and one would have to be crazy to think they have lost something in the process, that their love has diminished or become banal when on the contrary it is deeper and more loving and more truthful, the genuine exception in emotional life.
One’s best friend is the person one loves the most, yet without suffering or yearning, without the sense of lack, the feeling of want; he or she is the person we know best and who knows us the best, the person whom we can rely on and with whom we share memories, projects, hopes and fears, our fortunes good and bad. Isn’t it clear that this description is precisely that of two people in a couple, married or not, who have been together for some time – provided their bond is not one of mutual self-interest or convenience but one of intimacy and love and strength and truth? Montaigne has a nice term for this state. He calls it “marital friendship.” A couple, when happy (when more or less happy, for happiness is never absolute), is a place of truth, of life shared, of trust, of peaceful and gentle intimacy, reciprocal joys, gratitude, fidelity, generosity, humor and love.
I rejoice that we have this moment in our history where we have chosen to add to the married couples in our midst. May the state of marriage be enriched by the examples of our GLBTQ community.
Endings - Ross Aalgaard, June 25
Recently, I have been spending a lot of time thinking about endings. I am not a big fan of endings. I have a confession to make; I seldom finish a book. This is due to a few reasons, one being that I don’t like when a good book ends. So, by getting the gist of the book and putting it down, I really never have to feel that it's over.
I’m also the kind of person that has trouble understanding when a relationship ends. Since I have trouble letting go, I often am accused of being a bit clingy. However, I value my relationships so much that I try in every way not to let them end. Over the years, I have matured a bit and realize that some friendships are different than others. Therefore, it is better to let some of them go. Still, endings can be hard for me. Endings are not anathema to me, however. In fact, one of the benefits of endings is that they often lead to new beginnings.
This happens each time the seasons change. It’s one of the reasons I love Minnesota, because if I get tired of the snow, I can always count on spring to come at some point and leave the snow behind. I have found a great deal of pleasure when one of life's journeys ends and another one emerges. This seems to be one of those times. I was overjoyed to begin working as a pastoral counselor at Westminster Counseling Center in September 2009. It was a long-time dream come true. I was fairly sure I would retire from here. But life often brings us experiences that change our direction. I was accepted into a Doctor of Social Work (DSW) degree program at the University of Tennessee. In addition, I had the opportunity to lecture in numerous college classes and, finally, was able to adjunct teach in the social work graduate program at the University of St. Thomas last fall. This re-ignited a desire within me to teach. So, over the last few months, I started applying for social work faculty positions. In May, I was offered an appointment as a fixed-term assistant professor of social work at Minnesota State University, Mankato, which I accepted. This means that I am ending my time at Westminster Counseling Center and beginning a new journey as an instructor in higher education. It is difficult to give up one of my passions for a new one, but I see this as a great opportunity and look forward to seeing what the future holds. I appreciate the opportunity I had to serve here. Thank you for welcoming me so warmly. My last day here will be Thursday, August 15.
"Scave": a word sandwich - mary keen, may 28
Five-year-old Jack, the main character in Emma Donoghue’s book Room, had fun making word sandwiches. He and his mother would put two words together make a new word to better describe an object or an experience. Jack’s favorite was “scave.” “Scared is what you’re feeling, but brave is what you’re doing.” Scared + Brave = Scave. Many events weave into Jack’s life where he needs to be “scave.” Afraid, while he’s eating something he doesn’t like, like green beans. Terrified, while pretending he’s dead to save his mother.
Jack’s ability to be “scave” transforms his life from a one room of confinement to a world of infinite freedom and discovery. His “scave-ness” also inspires his mother to live into her own sense of purpose. (Read the book! I don’t want to give the story away!)
Scave is a good word! Often life presents situations that incite fear and yet require acting with courage, bravery and confidence.
Hearing the diagnosis of cancer… we need to be scave!
Calming our children while the tornado sirens are blaring…we need to be scave!
Moving to a new job in a new city…we need our scave-ness!
Imagining all the “what-if’s” that could haunt our reality…scave-ness would be nice!
Fear can paralyze us. We fear what we do not know – yet we often respond as if what we fear, will happen. Fear can manifest in anxiety. Anxiety feeds our fears. The spinning circle of paralysis starts and for some it is difficult to stop. I’d word-sandwich that “featy.” Fear + anxiety = featy. To stop our “featy” we need to be “SCAVE”! Scared, but brave to face our fears.
The result: peace + release = realpeace.
ordinary time - stephen palmer, april 23
Theologian and Anglican Bishop Nicholas Wright suggests that as Christians we can allow ourselves to focus too much on the beginning and the ends of the gospel stories and miss “the bits in the middle.” At a time of year when we have just experienced the depths and intense emotions of Lent, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Jesus’ death, and resurrection, I’ve been thinking a bit about what he means. If I understand him correctly, he is suggesting that the miraculous events of Jesus’ birth (which encourages us to focus on his divine origins) and the central place of his passion, death, and resurrection (which encourage us to focus on the salvation he brings us) can cause us to miss the many stories of what Jesus was up to the rest of the time. In the church I grew up in, we called this “Ordinary Time” as opposed to the Christmas or Easter seasons. I appreciate Wright’s suggestion that bringing a fresh perspective to this “rest of the story” can help us make the best sense of the beginning and end of the gospels.
Wright proposes that we re-consider the fact that Jesus’ mission was about bringing in the Kingdom of God. He was the definitive event of God breaking into the world to make things right, to heal and set free, to teach truth and to bring hope to all our human endeavors, to make things whole and good by healing the world. This is the implication of the stories of Jesus’ birth and death, but we can learn something important from the bits in the middle—that the implications of this saving birth and death are for our everyday lives, our real relationships, our social order, our deepest needs and hungers. Salvation is played out in moment after moment of healing in the world, rooted in the power of God active in our lives.
For me, this is played out each day in the counseling work I have the privilege to participate in. I think it’s so helpful for people to remember that each of their struggles— to build a better marriage, to re-connect with an angry teen, to overcome the depression that has plagued them for so long, or to face down anxiety once again—is a participation in the redemptive work of Jesus, a way to contribute to and participate in the Kingdom of God. As we move slowly but surely from the starkness of winter into the warmth and color of spring, be open to enjoying Ordinary Time with all its opportunities to see God at work—and cooperate.
our numbered days - margaret mccray, april 23
“The forever in our numbered days” is a quote I found some time ago in a young person’s novel my granddaughter was reading. I don’t remember what it meant in the novel, but for me, when I found it again recently, it describes what the forty days of Lent are meant to show us.
Like Jesus in the wilderness, we are confronted every day with the temptations of our self-important, hurrying lives. We worry about what we will eat and wear, how we will impress others, how we will win, get ahead, be in charge. Jesus refused to identify himself with these distractions of worry, self-indulgence and vanity. His forty days of prayer and meditation in the wilderness strengthened within him the assurance that faith in the love and providence of God unburdens us from the weight of worry, striving, wanting, clinging, and resenting. Jesus resisted the taunts and temptations of Satan because he was able to act, not react. Reactions are fueled by fear and result in judgment, resentment, envy and defense. Actions come from that “forever” place grounded in love, justice, patience and joy.
Action, instead of reaction, is enabled when we “come to ourselves” as did the prodigal son, the woman at the well, the healed leper who returned to thank Jesus, and Peter when he saw the risen Christ on the lakeshore. Each of them, when they encountered the “forever,” stepped out of the distractions and routines of their numbered days and saw a new truth, a new reality that awakened their ability to see and do and be as God would call them to be. Each of them found the eternal in the midst of the now.
When we stop worrying about our future, regretting our past, judging others, wanting things, needing recognition, all those distractions of our numbered days, we are open to seeing the truth and beauty of the “forever”, that which is both within and beyond us, that which is knit in our bones and contained in the stars. That which is and of God.
May our Lenten journeys be so blessed.
lenten reflections - ross aalgaard, february 8
I have often wondered why Christmas and its preparation period known as Advent is such an extravagant occasion but the same isn’t true for another high church holiday: Lent, Holy Week, and Easter seem to be overlooked, squeezed in, or tacked onto our lives in our busy culture. For me, I find my spiritual life far more nurtured and attentive during this time of year than I do in the hubbub of the activities that ariseat the end of each year in the darkness of winter. Even though there are far fewer messages of support about the spring celebration of victory in suffering and resurrection, may we make every effort to approach the Lenten Season with a desire for faith renewal and spiritual nourishment. These words from Ann Weems are helpful in giving us understanding and encouraging us in a way to approach Lent.
Lenten Poem by Ann Weems
Lent is a time to take time to let the power of our faith story take hold of us, a time to let the events get up and walk around in us, a time to intensify our living unto Christ, a time to hover over the thoughts of our hearts, a time to place our feet in the streets of Jerusalem or to walk along the sea and listen to his Word, a time to touch his robe and feel the healing surge through us, a time to ponder and a time to wonder…
Lent is a time to allow a fresh new taste of God! Perhaps we’re afraid to have time to think, for thoughts come unbidden. Perhaps we’re afraid to face our future knowing our past. Give us courage, O God, to hear your Word and to read our living into it. Give us the trust to know we’re forgiven and give us the faith to take up our lives and walk.
May you use this Lenten period as a time to overcome your fears and renew your life. If you are having trouble with finding courage, forgiveness, or faith, consider making an appointment with one of the pastoral counselors at the counseling center. We’ll be happy to journey with you as you walk life’s path. In this Season of Lent, may the peace of Christ be with you! Amen.
when the song of the angels is stilled - mary keen, january 11
When the song of the angels is stilled, When the star in the sky is gone, When the kings and the princes are home, When the shepherds are back with their flocks, The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among brothers, To make music in the heart.
From The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations, by Howard Thurman
Thurman's poem is a favorite of mine. So often when January comes, we're tired. We're weary of tacky Christmas songs, returning unwanted gifts, vacuuming pine needles (real or artificial), putting away the decorations and finishing off the last of the fudge. We're ready for an hour with a good book or a nap on a snowy cold January afternoon.
Thurman reminds us, however, our work is just beginning. The Christ has come. The Angels sang, the shepherds adored, the Magi knelt and Mary pondered. Our work begins. Living with the Christ Child in our hearts can bring a fire in our belly igniting the world with God's love, one spark at a time. This Christ Child, so easily cradled in our arms, grew to be a force that stretched out His arms on the cross for the world. How do we stretch out our arms in response?
Do we know someone who is lost? How can we point their way to Christ? Do we know someone who is broken, how can we be instruments of God's healing? Are there hungry nearby? How can we bring them daily bread? Who might be living in chains? What can we do to release a link or two? What does it mean to be nation-building? How can our prayers of peace transform into action? How can we live peaceably with each other, the neighbor across the street or the stranger across the world?
Seriously asking ourselves these questions gives God through Christ an opportunity to make music in our hearts. The Spirit of Christ sings within and the work of Christ begins. In this time of dark, long nights the spark of Christ Jesus can be flamed into powerful refining fire.
Reducing holiday stress - ross aalgaard, december 7
As we enter this holiday season, with Thanksgiving Day kicking things off and reaching into the New Year, we experience many delightful things. There are great foods, concerts, lights, decorations, and celebrations. There are times of renewal, memories, insight, reflection, and change. However, the holidays do not always bring positivity. In fact, many people have increased stress due to having so much on the schedule, too much on one’s plate (both literally and figuratively), trying to meet expectations or not having expectations met, being lonely, feeling lost, or just experiencing too much excess. Stress can be a major problem during the holidays.
Much has been said about stress and how it can affect our lives. Although stress is encountered daily, it really is not a friend of ours. So, here are some ideas for you to consider to help reduce your stress levels over the 2012 Holiday Season.
Find quiet time for yourself. There is a lot of activity and excitement during the holidays. It’s difficult for us to find the time for ourselves. However, it is essential for you to make time to relax and be still. I have to admit one of my most precious times during the holidays is the time that I silently sit in the living room with only the Christmas tree lights on. It’s a time for me to be still, reflect, and just breathe. It makes a difference. Find a way for you to have a quiet time for yourself.
Don’t forget to get your sleep. Sometimes the excitement motivates us so much and we never want it to end. However, it’s very important that you get your regular amount of sleep. If you are getting your proper sleep it will help reduce your stress. When you’re tired, sleep. For your own good do what you can to get adequate sleep during the holidays.
Remember to get your proper nutrition. Don’t misunderstand; I’m not saying to pass by the goodies and candies that are available this time of year. However, try not to make a meal of them or indulge to excess on them. Rather, enjoy the treats and also make sure to get well balanced meals. Food is your fuel. You want all your body parts running properly without clogging up, so make sure you are giving yourself a proper diet at a time when this is often overlooked. You’ll be glad you did.
Lastly, if you need help, ask for it. Too often we approach life with the idea that we must do it ourselves or that we have to do it alone. Instead, how about asking for help if you need it? For example, during those times you are running around the kitchen alone trying to make sure everything is perfect, ask someone to come help. Or, if you’re starting to feel overwhelmed or blue, come and talk to someone at the Counseling Center. It really helps to get some help when you need it. It will make for a better holiday.
god in community - margaret mccray, november 2
Westminster Counseling Center was blessed beyond measure as we marked 25 years as a pastoral counseling center with a celebration on October 4. We thank God for these blessings, knowing that they come by way of the hands and hearts of many, many people at Westminster Presbyterian Church. Gifts of service, gifts of planning, gifts of material and financial resources, gifts of talent, gifts of good will, gifts of energy and hard work, gifts of love and encouragement: They all made for an anniversary that was more than anyone had envisioned.
Starla Krause and her crew cooked a delicious meal. The Deacons set the tables, served dinner, and handled cleanup. The custodial staff set up the Great Hall and the Heller Commons. John Heefner gave of his artistic imagination, turning the Great Hall into a stunning dining room. Cantus sang. Tom Northenscold took photos. Ruth Lane's marketing firm, AllOut Marketing, designed high quality invitations, posters, and presentation materials. Our anniversary committee—Monica Westerlund (chair), Nancy Ulvestad, Ruth Lane, Lori Churchill, and Plymouth Church's Sarah Truesdell—spent hours planning it. Lori Churchill, the counseling center's business manager, spent hours on the phone, on the computer, and on her feet. Donors gave of their finances so we could reach our $50,000 goal, which will be used to subsidize our sliding fee scale.
Rev. Patricia Lull and Rev. Jim Gertmenian gave of their wisdom and personal support in their addresses to the gathering. In the words of Jim Gertmenian: "Westminster Counseling Center exists not unto itself but as part of a beautiful web of pastors, donors, grantors, board members, congregations, former staff, current staff, and clients of which all of you are representative tonight. It is, in my view, how God has intended us to live—intimately connected, broadly compassionate, and deeply committed to one another's well-being. And if, in fact, that is what God intends, then the community that gathers around the work of the Counseling Center, is a gift of God."
In this stewardship season we feel we have been "Growing Together" with you as we worship a generous, loving God who calls us into a community that is ever ready to serve those in need.
return to westminster counseling center - steve palmer, october 5
I’m happy to be back at Westminster Counseling Center and wanted to take this chance to (re) introduce myself. I was on the staff here about four years ago, but took some time to be at another practice that worked a bit better with my family’s needs at the time. While I enjoyed that work, there is something special about this place that kept me wanting to return. I’m thrilled to be here.
I’ve been working as a therapist, and in a variety of ministry-related positions, for fourteen years or so. And I really love my job. It is a fascinating and endlessly varied vocation to meet people just where they are—with their strengths, challenges, fears, needs and questions—and try to bring some support, encouragement, insight, or resources to help them out. It’s such an honor to work with people to find solutions and growth. I have really enjoyed exploring the fields of psychology, philosophy, and theology and exploring the many great ideas that help us live well. But having six kids forces me back to practical thinking day after day in my own life! It’s a good balance, I think.
I believe in a client-centered approach to therapy. That means I work with clients to set goals that make sense to them, and then try to find the right therapy resources to help them meet those goals. So if someone wants or needs a practical solution to a right now problem, we start there. If someone else just wants a place to talk and think their concerns through, without being sure what they want or need yet, we start there.
Please feel free to be in touch with any questions you may have about psychotherapy and the way I work. I’m always happy to help you consider options for addressing your specific situation. You can learn more about me and my work on this web site.
disappointment - mary keen, october 5
She was so looking forward to the outing with her Granddad. An afternoon at the park, followed by a visit to her favorite ice cream shop. Her anticipation was met with splendid splashes in the park's fountain. Granddad's swift swing pushes made her think she would touch the sky. In a leisurely walk through the woods they heard a cardinal, examined a mushroom, and smelled a wild rose. The time with Granddad was more fun than she hoped. However, the afternoon was ruined when she left the ice cream shop holding a sugar cone precariously topped with a scoop of her favorite chocolate mint ice cream. Somehow the minty chocolate dessert slipped from the cone and landed splat on the sidewalk. She hadn't remembered crying so hard and so long ever in her life. Granddad tried with great effort to comfort her, even offered to buy her another cone. Nothing he said or did eased her deep disappointment. Even another cone would not melt the distress or quiet her wails.
As a grown woman, she still experiences disappointment. The familiar ache, the pit in her stomach, the twinge of sorrow or dissatisfaction takes her back to the memory of the green minty mess melting on the sidewalk. Today, triggers of her disappointments have greater implications than lost ice cream. The loss of a job, the choices of her children, the results of an election, the decision of her church, the snub from a friend. Each time she is disappointed she wants to wail with deep sorrow like she did that afternoon with her Granddad. She doesn't. She's acquired more effective skills through the years.
Mantras like: "It could be worse," "There is always next year," "Let go and let God," keep her tears at bay. Though trite, the mantras give her perspective.
Lately, when disappointment enters her soul and the melting ice cream peeks from her memory, she reaches through her watery tears to her Granddad. His gentle embrace, his sweet words of understanding, his offer of resolution, his presence in her experience come to mind. The melting ice cream fades as Granddad's face becomes visible. For whatever reason, those sincere gestures didn't make a difference for her on that disappointing afternoon. But today, as she remembers, Granddad's consoling presence is vivid.
She remembers him cleaning up the melting mess, taking her hand as she stood frozen in disappointment, picking her up at the end of block and carrying her to the car. All the while, she's crying into his shoulder, dampening his chambray shirt.
Granddad modeled for her a life plan to cope with disappointment. Clean up the mess and walk away. Hold on to what is important: the connections we have with people we love, accept what is at the time, but hold on to the hope of another delicious ice cream cone. Chocolate mint.
Perhaps it wasn't so much the missed ice cream that fueled the soul sobbing tears that day, but rather the end of a delicious day with Granddad.
"There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love." - Martin Luther King
how can our gratitude not spill over - margaret mccray, september 14
I love how daily realities of life can coalesce at times into a meaning larger than any one of them alone. This past week I have been immersed in plans for celebrating our 25 years as a counseling center. Also a friend sent me a book about gratitude. Finally, and most profoundly, I learned of the death of Hank Andersen, father of our senior pastor and a man well-loved by many in this congregation.
These events intersected in such a way that I am once again deeply aware of how we are not separate, one from another. The uniqueness of each individual is not obscured by the reality that we are all connected to everything and everyone. We are living, breathing beings on a living, breathing planet in a living, breathing universe. Each breath we take and every decision we make has reverberations far beyond us.
As I research the history of the Counseling Center I am aware that the seeds of who we are now were conceived, planted and nourished by the gifts of compassion, time, expertise, and finances of many individuals and families. Our gratitude is to them, and to those who have trusted us and granted us entrance into their most intimate feelings and relationships. The counseling center has been given in a measure at least as great if not greater than it has given back. How can our gratitude not spill over?
The book given to me by a friend, Giving Thanks by M J Ryan, says that "in the moments we are awake to the wonder of simply being alive, gratitude flows, no matter our circumstances." Those who have read the writings of Anne Frank and Etty Hillesum know how eloquently they expressed their gratitude for moments of joy, literally in the midst of the Holocaust.
Tim Hart-Andersen shared that in his father's last hours he "rose above the Alzheimer's" to participate with his loved ones in recalling the joys of their life together. Simply being alive to the wonders of what we have in this moment gives rise to a gratitude that connects us to the beauty that so abundantly surrounds us.
There are many things we may want and even long for, but do we give thanks for what we already have? Do we even notice what is ours right now, most of it absolutely free of charge? Take time to notice and give thanks.
the power of music - mary keen, august 10
How would one define music? Wikipedia isn’t even clear. Rather than spend time trying to define it, I will just acknowledge that it is. Music is a part of our lives from the moment we open our eyes to the second we drift into dreamy sleep.
In her book The Power of Music, Elena Mannes states that humans are hard-wired for music and that scientists have discovered that music stimulates more parts of the human brain than any other human function. From this theory, she believes that music will grow in importance in health care, perhaps helping people deal with Parkinson’s disease or stroke. Because music is often associated with memories, people who deal with Alzheimer’s disease may find music as a healing spark of meaning through remembering.
A piece of music can bring someone to tears, send shivers down the spine, create awe and wonder beyond the musical moment. Daniel Bernard Roumain, a young cross-genre violinist, states “You know when someone says that a piece of music ‘touched me’ or ‘moved me,’ it’s very literal. The sound…enters your ear canal and it’s moving your eardrum. That’s a very intimate act.” Even people who do not hear can experience music through the vibrations, using the same part of the brain that processes music. Who hasn’t been at a stop light and sensed the bass keeping rhythm in the car next to us. We can feel music with our whole being.
Thomas H. Troeger, a professor at Iliff School of Theology and contemporary hymn writer wrote these words for the dedication of a pipe organ:
Articulate with measured sound the song that fills all things for even atoms dance around and solid matter sings
Let healing harmonies release the hurts the heart complies that God through music may increase the grace that reconciles.
Thomas H. Troeger, Borrowed Light: Hymn Texts, Prayers and Poems
Troeger’s words poetically describe the mysterious healing power of music. Harmonious sound can lift us from dark moods. Familiar songs remind us of precious memories. Sharp notes can jar us to pay attention. Tunes that won’t leave our minds can ease an anxious moment. Unfamiliar music can pique our interest. Peppy numbers improve our attitude as we tap our toes to the tempo.
Music is in us. Music is a means for us to heal, to be whole, to be inspired.
poems, blessings, and invitations - leta herrington, june 15
It's been a bit (perhaps more than a bit) of a standing joke among my colleagues that I have a tough time writing these newsletter articles. This one—being the last I write prior to my move to Colorado (next week!)—is no exception. That said, it is with regret in parting with Westminster, my great colleagues, and the many folk I've been privileged enough to journey with over the past eight years, as well as with relief that I won't be writing another newsletter article any time soon (I checked the small print in my job description in Colorado), that I'd like to pass along what I think are two beautiful poems, blessings, invitations...
The first by Kaylin Haught:
I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic and she said yes I asked her if it was okay to be short and she said it sure is I asked her if I could wear nail polish or not wear nail polish and she said honey she calls me that sometimes she said you can do just exactly what you want to Thanks God I said And is it even okay if I don't paragraph my letters Sweetcakes God said who knows where she picked that up what I'm telling you is Yes Yes Yes
And the second by Jane Kenyon:
I am the blossom pressed in a book, found again after two hundred years... I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper... When the young girl who starves sits down to a table she will sit beside me... I am food on the prisoner's plate... I am water rushing to the wellhead, filling the pitcher until it spills... I am the patient gardener of the dry and weedy garden... I am the stone step, the latch, and the working hinge... I am the heart contracted by joy... the longest hair, white before the rest... I am there in the basket of fruit presented to the widow... I am the musk rose opening unattended, the fern on the boggy summit... I am the one whose love overcomes you, already with you when you think to call my name...
My prayer for you is my prayer for me...that we think to call frequently...and dare to say Yes (to life) always! With gratitude, Leta
the one that sings - margaret mccray, may 11
Nearly every day I sit in conversation with someone who tells me a story of circumstances or realizations that are impeding their ability to move forward, or to even cope with the present.
This is the path we trod, again and again. Sometimes the journey begins and ends in minutes, even seconds, as an epiphany. Often, it takes longer...weeks, months, years. If we pay attention, if we do not distract ourselves with addictions, denials, rationalizations, self-absorption, and material pursuits, each journey rewards us with a new measure of serenity, wisdom and compassion.
Wendell Berry says all this and more, as only he profoundly can:
"It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work, and that when we no longer know which way to go we have come to our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings."
"Poetry and Marriage" in Standing by Words
Couples, families, congregations, communities, organizations.... they all face this journey. When the impediments to our usual being and doing overwhelm us, we must take notice, perhaps change course. The work of discernment and change is the journey, a journey that employs our hearts and minds with a sense of meaningful purpose, and evokes our singing. Westminster Counseling Center is on just such a journey, brought about by several circumstances, or impediments, we cannot ignore.
First, the changes in health care laws mandate that we upgrade our record-keeping and insurance procedures. This upgrade will be a positive addition to our quality of care. The process however is expensive, and consumes valuable time and resources.
Second, the economy has deeply affected us all, not least the center's clients. They experience anxiety, depression, and relationship crises due to financial loss and quality of life concerns. They have less to spend so our sliding fee scale is ever more necessary. We have paid the price in deficit budgets for three years. Gifts and grants have been a blessing, but the Board of Directors had to make the painful decision this year to limit the number of sessions we can offer at reduced fees.
Finally, and sadly, we are grieving the departure of Leta Herrington who has been on our staff since 2004. Leta has accepted an offer to become chaplain and counselor at the University of Colorado Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center in Aurora. She will be missed as colleague, friend, and trusted counselor by many of us. Even as we grieve her leaving and wish her well, we must be on the journey of finding a new partner to join us in our ministry of healing mind and spirit.
The impediments in our stream challenge us to respond with creativity and cooperation, yet with the comforting awareness that as we make our way downstream, we are not, ever, alone. Thanks be to each of you who have privileged us by reading our story. Thanks be to you who have chosen to journey with us. Thanks be to God. We are singing.
being human in relationships - ross aalgaard, april 13
Humans are communal beings. This is one of the reasons that we choose to settle within cities, form groups, and are part of families. Because of this characteristic, we also choose to enter into significant, long-term, committed relationships. Even though these relationships are something we desire and find necessary, they are sometimes very difficult for us and often lead to frustration. It is common for partners to forget one's own humanness when relating to one's significant other. Rather than living within our humanity, we often attempt to play God. This makes a relationship tough. Here are three suggestions to help you live humanly in your significant relationship:
First, don't try to control your partner; rather, recognize you can only control yourself. Often we take on God's attribute of omnipotence when it comes to our relationship. Recently, I was told, "I have worked 30 years trying to change him and it hasn't worked." I commended her for realizing she cannot change someone else; her next step is to realize that she can only control change within herself.
Second, don't believe you are a mind reader; ask your partner what she thinks or feels. God's attribute of omniscience is unrealistic in human relationship. I've heard it said, "I didn't tell you about the incident because I knew what you would say." What people think or feel are experiences within - not something obvious to those around them. This includes your partner. Remember you cannot know what your partner is thinking or feeling unless you ask. Also, your partner does not know what you are thinking or feeling unless you tell her/him. Listen to each other and be willing to ask and answer one another's questions. This is how humans relate.
Finally,don't demand constant attention; accept you cannot always be present. Omnipresence is an attribute of God. The fairytales we grew up with told us, "They lived happily ever after." This was shown as the two people in love rode off into the sunset. We knew it meant they were together forever. Being in each other's lives does not require losing one's individuality. It is important to be two strong people in love who can stand on your own and yet lean into each other as you share life together. This gives you freedom in relationship.
time's truth - mary keen, march 2
the 99% at christmas - leta herrington, january 6
Norman Rockwell painted a Christmas that has since captured the imaginations and expectations of many...winding staircases, beautiful décor, tables adorned in linen, candles, silver and touting a beautiful golden turkey along with all its trimmings, shining faces of a large extended family in spotless festive garb, smiling in obvious delight to be in each other's company for the holidays.
We are the 99 percent - we whose Christmases don't begin to resemble what Norman Rockwell once depicted, but have assumed that everyone else's are that way. The holidays of the 99 percent include loading in and out of the car going from one gathering to the next, or perhaps having no gathering at all; delight in seeing beloved relatives we only get to see at the holidays along with relatives we're delighted we only have to endure once a year during the holidays, a welcomed day off work or a day we wished we had off work, eyes spilling over with excitement, boredom, exhaustion; a favorite dish or perhaps a dish that makes us grateful to have a dog underfoot; an unexpected phone call, gift or hug; tables with food and spills, yummy smells and those that have us running to open a window, a gleeful squeal, an empty chair, children laughing, playing and fussing, they amuse and whine, acting out our delight and our dismay, our wonders and realities.
We are the 99 percent...we experience Christmas in all its beauty and challenges. Perhaps this Christmas we heard again about the star that led the wise men through the wilderness that helped them to find that for which they were seeking. Perhaps we are reminded of our own star - the star that offers to guide us from within. It is a star that shines brightly beckoning us forward and at times wanes dimly encouraging us to question what we are doing or where we are going. Our invitation is to follow where it leads with the promise - not of a Norman Rockwell Christmas -but of a life with tables of food, spills, laughter, and fussing and, if we're receptive, an abiding sense of peace.