February 7, 2016 Non-Anxious Presence

                                                                                                                                                ~   Sermon by Art McDonald


Back in Pittsburgh a funeral director, Bernie O’Brien, would call me to perform memorial services or burials of people who fell through the religious cracks, i.e., had no religion or had faded from any church participation. One time he had an unusual request: a family of four middle-aged adults, raised Catholic, wanted a dual burial for their parents; the mother had died the previous year and was cremated and the father had died recently. They wanted both sets of ashes buried with a ritual. The complication was that the four siblings were in deep conflict over how to do the ritual and who would lead it. Seems that two of the siblings were very angry at the Catholic Church, as was their now deceased father, and wanted nothing to do with a Catholic priest offering prayers for their dad. Meanwhile the other two were perfectly happy with their inherited tradition and wanted a Catholic priest to pray over their mother’s ashes, thus satisfying her wishes. They were deadlocked, so Bernie suggested to them that two ministers preside, one for mom, a Catholic priest, and one for dad, yours truly. It was a brilliant resolution, acceptable to all. Only problem was on the day of the burial the Catholic priest was a no show; we were ready to go to the cemetery and Bernie couldn’t find the priest. So he said to me, Art, you used to be a priest, I’ll call the family and explain the situation and say that you could do separate prayers for each parent given your background. Somewhat surprisingly, despite their familial conflict, they all agreed. On the way to the cemetery Bernie and I joked how unique this situation was and this family was actually getting a 2 for 1 special deal. Despite the tension, and not really knowing how it would all come out, the parents were buried to words of eternal rest and peace!

I was thinking about family conflicts recently and how we all try to deal with them in a recent conversation with a friend. Seems that this friend was trying to figure out how to be a positive presence as parent with adult children who in various ways were experiencing conflict in their personal lives but also, to a degree, with one another. After listening a bit, I suggested a posture I had read about many years ago and tried to implement both in my own family and in my role as minister/leader in over 30 years in three churches. I suggested to my friend to try to be a “non-anxious presence” in the midst of the turmoil. For whatever reason, the idea caught my friend’s attention and the friend asked for further elaboration. In some miraculous way, it seemed helpful.

I learned the term and the practice of “non-anxious presence” by reading a book, very popular in seminary circles, entitled GENERATION to GENERATION: Family Process in Church and Synagogue,” written by a Rabbi, Edwin Friedman. I often think of such expressions as what I call, somewhat dismissively and negatively, as “psycho-babble,” one more expression from our overly therapeutic culture, with very little real depth or relationship to deep values. But this one, I have discovered, is actually brilliant. It’s basically about how to be a leader in a religious congregation and how to deal with difficult issues and, at times, conflict. But, I suggest, it can also be helpful beyond the congregation, in our families of origin or choice, and in our community work as well, i.e., in all of life.

For those schooled in psychology or sociology or ministry, the insight and the perspective of this author comes from a theory or model of thinking called “Systems Thinking,” that is, individuals are all part of bigger systems, families, congregations, work environments, social and community groups, and we all have a particular place or role and a relationship to others in each of these systems. So the question becomes: what is our role or relationship in any particular system and how does individual behavior affect the whole, or is a reaction to the whole, the system. Rather than focus on individual behavior, no matter how aberrant, and complain about that troubled person, it makes us consider whether that person may simply be reacting to an issue with the whole. For my friend the issue was trying to figure out how to be a helpful parent in a family system. And, more specifically, how to become self-aware in that system, and to differentiate oneself by being clear and direct about who you are and take responsibility for how you have defined yourself. Use I statements not you or they statements but still remain very connected to the group. And stay out of triangles; speak directly. And when conflict arises, almost inevitably in any system, family or otherwise, especially an anxious one, how to make a positive contribution by being a “non-anxious presence,” that is, not over-react to conflict and send the message that we’ll work this out.

This makes sense to me because I’ve done some work on my own family of origin system, actually long before I read Friedman’s book. As the youngest of five in a family system seriously impacted by alcoholism, I learned that typically the children of such an environment often respond very differently to the tension and conflict around alcoholic behavior; one or two, typically the oldest, become overachievers and are very duty-bound, one or two act out and display aberrant behavior, one or two hide-out or get lost, and, often, one uses humor and laughter to break the tension; becomes playful, acts the clown. I was the clown; joking, being silly, making people laugh. The others became very serious, disappeared or acted out inappropriately. This particular role came in handy as an adult when my mother, suffering from the aging process and some dementia, was placed in a nursing home. Melanie and I were still in Pittsburgh and my oldest brother called and asked if I would fly in to be part of the process of bringing mom to the home. Mom was unhappy about this and my siblings were pretty guilty but saw no other good option. It was a very tense scene and my brother was tight as a drum. He figured I would be able to relieve the tension by playfulness and upbeat communication, trying to focus on the positive sides of the transition; new relationships, good nursing care, activities and, of course, a Friday evening happy hour! It was challenging but we accomplished the transition with the help of the nursing staff. We even got mom to chuckle a few times. In retrospect, my attempts at humor and playfulness and positive reinforcement and, yes, “non-anxious presence,” despite my inner worries, seemed to help make the transition as smooth as it could be. “Playfulness,” “earthiness,” even being a bit “crazy or devilish,”writes Friedman, are key components in containing anxiety, helping to transform difficult situations. The system survived.

And, as I mentioned earlier, system thinking can be applied to other groups, congregations, community groups, and even the wider society to help explain conflicts, tensions, frayed relationships. If you accept what one candidate for President keeps repeating, “the system is rigged,” referring to the vast economic inequality in this country and beyond, you then might look at the aberrant behavior of some parts of the system, e.g., the poor or jobless or underemployed, especially those who resort to crime and law breaking, and conclude that we should be looking less at individual behavior and dysfunction as character flaws, but rather as individuals reacting negatively to a flawed, unjust system. Thinking according to systems might suggest policy initiatives to correct the system rather than simply incarcerate individual, aberrant behavior.

So, in the various “systems” we belong to, family, congregation, work, social and community networks, what kind of presence do we have? What kind of presence do we desire? What kind of presence we have really matters, writes theologian John O’Donohue. Discussing “anxious presence,” he goes on: “There are anxious times in every life…(but) some people make a habit of anxiousness…permanent worry…It is so difficult for such people to find any inner distance from their anxiousness. To them, it is serious and ultimate. There is no humor or any sense of irony…It is lovely to see a person liberate himself from this. Somehow it dawns on a person that it is not a condition at all, rather this anxiousness is something he does to himself. With this recognition already a huge breakthrough is achieved…and gradually the occasional smile begins to transform the anxious countenance. And laughter may not be far away.” O’Donohue speaks of how one can be transformed by this realization. “Non-Anxious Presence” can also transform a situation as we are all in relationships, in systems, and our anxieties influence others, as does our moments of “non-anxious presence.” Even better, he goes on, how about having a “presence” that “is encouraging. One of the most beautiful gifts in the world is the gift of encouragement,” encouraging each person to exercise his or her unique gifts. Let me suggest that the gift of “non-anxious presence” allows for the possibility of others offering their gifts and their best selves to emerge.

The great medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich, had as a mantra, “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” In a similar vein, the contemporary Catholic spiritual writer, Richard Rohr, once said when asked: what’s the most important message a priest, pastor can offer the congregation, he replied: “It’s OK.” Too simple? Try it; believe it; live it. One of my ministry mentors back in my priestly, Dominican life simply called what he did “a ministry of presence,” available, listening, comforting, encouraging, believing. His was a decidedly “non-anxious presence.” When I visited him in the nursing home a few weeks before he died at age 59, suffering from multiple sclerosis, I asked how he was doing and if he had fears. He smiled and said he was ready and anxious to experience the next phase of the journey; maybe even see his parents, a decidedly “non-anxious” approach to death, I would say.

Here at First UU Essex, one of our important ministries is outreach to the GLBT and Q community; we call it PFLAG – Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, but also bisexual, transgender and queer folks. We have a core group of church members and a few outsiders who are part of the ongoing ministry. We welcome and support mostly parents who come whose children have recently come out and who are, at times, experiencing great concern, anxiety, sometimes anger or confusion, unable to yet accept the changes they face. And the group has a beautifully “non-anxious presence” which allows parents and friends to express their concerns and with a gentle hand acknowledges the worries, the fears, the anxieties and offers a beautifully positive and reassuring response that “it’s ok,” “all shall be well,” as these parents and friends go through the transition to greater understanding and acceptance; possibly even encouragement! What a gift of ministry this is. What a powerful Presence.

I was at Beverly UU last week, as Kelli, their minister, was here in Essex. After my sermon one member came up and complimented me, at the same time said he was an atheist, and explained why. I said you are not alone in UU circles. I know belief in God, however one might understand the notion, or the reality, is difficult for many; I get that, and I hope I accept that “non-anxiously”; you all will let me know, I’m sure! Myself, I am a believer, a Theist if you will (actually a panentheist, but that’s for another day), and when asked to describe that experience, because it isn’t an idea for me, but an experience, I simply say: I experience God as a Presence –as one of my favorite theologians has written, “my life is a journey in time with God as my companion.” Our favorite folk singer at the Coffee House, Mainer or Maniac Dave Mallet, who has been here every year since the Coffee House began over 20 years ago, though not a theologian, wrote this remarkable song a few years back that amazingly articulated the way I would see or experience the Presence of God. The lyrics, in shortened form, go something like this: “God within me is talking, laughing, singing, and saying, don’t cry, don’t cry, the world is a faulty creation, full of confusion, a work still in progress, and I (God) see no room for intervention or intrusion, and I’d probably just get in the way, besides I’m trying to work on rhyme, but still there is great beauty if you can only open yourself to it; Oh what a beautiful, oh what a beautiful place.” A Presence I experience, on a journey, accompanying me, us, a “non-anxious presence,” if you will, sad for the pain, happy for the beauty, always talking, laughing, singing, if we’re listening; don’t cry, don’t cry.” ‘It’s ok. All shall be well.”

At the cemetery that day in Pittsburgh with four adult children burying the ashes of their two parents, two practicing Catholics, two angry, lapsed Catholics, I was waiting for an explosion at any time and carefully weighed my words and prayers. I even playfully shared with them that they were getting a 2 for 1 special cemetery ritual, my own Catholicism in remission, and my newly adopted Unitarian Universalist expression. The explosion never happened and they were all grateful for my role and presence. Dodged another bullet; never showed my anxiety; worked on my “non-anxious presence.” It was a miracle of sorts; life can be. Only problem was my funeral director friend, Bernie, took too literally our joke about a 2 for 1 special and never offered to increase the usual honorarium. I received compliments, affirmation and gratitude. Bernie got a bargain!