“My Pastoral First Aid Kit”

“My Pastoral First Aid Kit”

A Sermon by Rev. John E. Gibbons

Delivered on Sunday, March 24, 2019

At The First Parish in Bedford



Opening Words

“Look Higher,” by Anne Bowman

Two travelers on their way to Japan were standing at the rail of the ship looking out upon the vast open sea. After but a few moments, one of the men turned about and walked away, disappointment written on his countenance. Throughout the day, the man returned to the deck rail, turned his back upon the scene, each time appearing more disconsolate than before. Finally the second traveler who had remained at the rail, felt compelled to ask his fellow traveler what it was which made him so downcast on what was evidently a pleasure trip. The man replied that he had been told that at this point of the voyage he would be able to see Mt. Fuji rising in the distance.

However, the haze over the water was apparently not going to lift, depriving him of a sight which he had so long anticipated. Taking him by the arm, his shipmate led the man back to the rail of the ship and said quietly, “Look higher.” The traveler, raising his eyes above the haze, saw in all its beauty and majesty, the great mountain peak.

A Time for All Ages

“It Could Always Be Worse” as told by Deborah Weiner, Interim Director of Religious Education

Narrator: Deb Weiner
Young Man:  John Gibbons
His Wife:  Megan Lynes
Rabbi:  Annie Gonzalez Milliken

Mother-in-Law:  Janet Welby

The House:  Karl Winkler, Dean Groves
Neighbors, Chickens, Cow, Mother in Law, Children (from the congregation)

Once, a long time ago in Russia, there was a village.  In the village there lived a young man (John) who had a little house. He was very…happy, but he was lonely and so he decided that he needed to have a wife.  So he met a young maidelh (Megan comes to chancel) and after time, they got married.

Khosn! (groom)

Kaleh! (bride)

(stamps foot) Mazel Tov!  (They put heads together and hold hands).

They were happy and lived in the little house.  Soon, the makheteniste came to live with them – the mother-in-law – (mother in law comes up to join them, peeking out from behind John and Megan) and the house was more crowded.  And then, there were children…kinderlach!  One, two, three, four kinderlach, all together in the little house (three children come up to join them, standing behind).

The man went to his Rabbi for advice.
MAN:  “Rebbe,” he said.  “It is so crowded in my house.  What should I do?”

RABBI:  “Have you some neighbors?”

MAN:  Yes, I have neighbors.

RABBI:  Well, go and bring the neighbors into the house.

(John shrugs and goes back to the house.  Neighbors come up on stage and get behind the children, peeking out).

Narrator:  Well, the neighbors did not help.  The neighbors were essen’ and fressen’ – they were eating the man and his wife out of house and home!

The man went back to the Rabbi.

MAN:  “Rabbi, It’s worse than before.  What should I do?”

RABBI:  “Do you have some chickens?”

MAN:  Yes, I have chickens.

RABBI:  “Well, go and bring the chickens into the house.”

(Chickens come up, squawking)

Narrator:  So the man brought the chickens into the house.  Now it was not only crowded and noisy, it was a mess- a hagdish!!!  The man went back to the Rabbi again.

MAN:  “Rabbi , it is worse than before.  It is noisy and smelly and crowded.  What should I do?”

RABBI:  “Hmmmm.  Do you have a cow?”

MAN (looking incredulous):  “Yes, I have a cow.”

RABBI:  “Ah, this will solve ALL your problems.  Bring the cow into the house.”

Narrator:  So the man went home and brought the cow (cow comes up onto chancel) into the house (mooing noises).  (Wife is scolding the man and making faces as if she will leave at any minute).  The man went back to the Rabbi one more time.

MAN:  “Rebbe, it is worse than ever.  I feel like I am going meshuggah…I am losing my mind!  Please, what can I do???”

Narrator:  The Rabbi thought for a moment and said:

RABBI:  “I think you should go home.  Send everyone back where they came from.  This will surely solve your problems.”

Narrator:  So the man went home.  He sent the cow back to the barn. (Cow leaves).  The chickens went back to their pen. (Chickens leave).

The neighbors went to their own homes : “Zey geyzunt!” (Neighbors leave)  — PAUSE

Narrator:  And so there was the man, his wife, the makheteniste – the mother-on-law – and the children, all together in the little house.  They looked around and the man said,

MAN:  “It’s so big.  It feels – like a palace!”

Narrator:  And so my friends, just remember:  when you think things are bad, they could always be…
(John, Annie, Megan and Deb say together):  WORSE!



“Burnout,”  from Friedman’s Fables, by Ed Friedman

Once upon a time there was a scavenger fish that lost its taste for shit. She was your normal, garden-variety scavenger and had never previously shown any signs of being different from the other members of her species. She lived in a normal-sized tank with the members of several schools and, from the very beginning of her association with this ecosystem, had functioned in perfect harmony with her environment. She never got in the way of the others and they reciprocated, allowing her to do her thing.

She always knew her place, the bottom, never let things pile up, never rose to the surface unless some debris had failed to settle, and, even as more and more fish were added to the tank, absolutely never, tired of taking crap from the others.

Daily she swam below, keeping the tank clean. Though, in truth, she was not out to keep it clean; the orderly environment was more the accidental result of the scavenger doing what came naturally. Nor, for that matter, did the others leave her alone because they understood how they benefited from her actions. In other words, to an outsider the scavenger might have appeared to be playing a role. This is a far different thing, however, from saying that she, or those who benefited from their association with her, ever thought in those terms. After all, one might just as well have said, “The others were there to give her something to do.” Yet, on the day she stopped eating shit, the effect on the entire tank was a tidal wave. Every aspect of this living environment seemed to be affected, and almost all at once.

The first to react were the guppies. Normally a sprightly crew that glided to and fro, often in threes and fours, they seemed, on this day, unable to “stay in school.” The males, in particular, normally a swaggering lot, with their multicolored tails swishing this way and that, had great difficulty staying aplumb, and rather than flaunting their customary well-attired air, appeared disheveled.

Another inhabitant of the tank that became noticeably disturbed was a small baby piranha. Its growth having been limited by the dimensions of this environment, the vicious instincts natural to its kind had never shown at all. On this day, however, ontology broke through to its progeny. The piranha went wild. With no teeth to speak of, though, it did not do much damage. Still, it began to behave in a way never seen before. Whereas previously it had moved about quite slowly, lackadaisically taking a morsel here and there, now it swam back and forth in an aggressive frenzy hitherto unknown to the entire network. It darted, stopped, looked around menacingly at nothing in particular, and tried to bare its little teeth in a threatening manner, only to turn again and home in on some other phantom object. If this “personality” change in the piranha seemed odd, however, at least it was in keeping with its kind; not so the changes that appeared in the angelfish.

Normally a haughty type that propelled themselves about with confidence and independence, they seemed on this day to be bewildered. It was as though they had been filleted of their internal guidance system. Usually their largess provided a buoyance that enabled them to remain motionless observers for long periods of time, but now one found itself unable to remain at rest, while two others became permanently motionless, huddling most uncharacteristically in a corner. A fourth began rolling its pancake body over on its side as if to try to float, and on several occasions, when it rolled a little too far over, began flying upside down.

No living part of the system was unaffected. A seahorse lost its familiar “s” curve and, after trying to squiggle like a worm, eventually gave up in frustration and coiled itself completely into a ball; some of the more luminescent types lost their capacity for illumination, and a particularly squat and dreary-looking thing that normally drudged along by itself suddenly became euphorically friendly. Skipping a ballet about the tank, it scared the others with its sudden efforts at closeness and, on one flirtatious occasion, made a leap so carefree it nearly threw itself out the window in the top.

For her part, the scavenger fish that had lost her taste for shit moved about, unmoved. If she sensed the changes, she showed no response at all. She kept circling in all her old patterns, but without her usual appetite; she seemed only to be going through the motions.

But the changes had not gone unnoticed to those outside the tank. One day, suddenly, as if taken by an unseen hand, the scavenger fish disappeared, plucked forth, never to return. And just as suddenly, plop, another of her same ilk took her place, whereupon the newcomer proceeded, immediately, to take up her job with diligence and relish.

Quickly, things returned to normal. The guppies regained their grace; the baby piranha again became docile; the angelfish found their gyroscopes; the seahorse uncoiled to a curve; luminescence returned to the environment once more; and the nameless squat and dreary one was once again squat and dreary. As for the previously resident scavenger, this fish out of water was cast in the refuse pile and the next morning eliminated by whoever in that system regularly took out the garbage.



Way back in September I said that, as a risk-taking congregation, we have done a pretty good job of afflicting the comfortable and that one of the things we want this year is to do a better job of comforting the afflicted.  Inasmuch as we all face diverse issues, I count all of us as among the afflicted.  This sermon, I hope, is a piece of that comforting: some pastoral care tips and tools you may find useful.

First, a disclaimer:  You know on Rt. 128 there’s a sign for the VA Hospital but underneath it there’s another sign that says, NO EMERGENCY SERVICES.  In other words, don’t bring your broken leg to us.  Or when you call your doctor’s office and you get a voicemail that says, “If this is an emergency, hang up and call 911.”  In other words, call somebody who actually might do you some good.

This morning I will share some of the things in my pastoral care first aid kit.  If you have a broken leg, don’t come to me.  If you’re having a real emergency, go to a real therapist (not to me).  I tell the couples I marry that a lifetime of free counseling comes with every wedding I perform.  It’s free because it isn’t very good but, if they want to talk, I’ll listen.  Listening is often more helpful than giving advice.  Especially if it’s me giving the advice.

Nonetheless, some people do come to me with whatever issues they may be having with their health, or marriage, or kids, or church, or God, or Trump, or me – well, people come to me with a lot of issues.  And I suppose I may know a thing or two because I’ve seen a thing or two.

Mostly I try to be a supportive listener, though I also refer people to real therapists.  I do, however, have a lens through which I often see things.  My lens is largely shaped by time I spent a number of years ago studying what is called “family systems therapy” with a renowned rabbi and therapist, the late Ed Friedman.  Friedman was a student of psychiatrist Murray Bowen who pioneered the systems approach.

I am not skilled at systems therapy.  My understanding is not comprehensive or integrated.  I have, however, amassed some possibly helpful nuggets or one-liners or stories which you may take with two grains of salt and call me or don’t call me in the morning!

Friedman, by the way, advised that ministers rarely are fired for incompetence or stupidity but likelier for acting like big-headed know-it-alls.  This is much like Ted Williams saying that “those who don’t think too well shouldn’t think too much.”

That advice has served me well all these years!

There are two foundations to this systemic approach.  The first has to do with horizons and the second with self-differentiation.

At the end of the Second World War there was the U.S.S. Cruiser Indianapolis that went down in the Pacific after delivering the atomic bomb in the Marianas.  It was torpedoed, sank quickly, and left 800 men in the water facing sharks, scorching sun, and no sustenance.   Some of the men gave up, swam away, and gave themselves to the sharks.  A survivor was asked why anyone would do this.  “Those guys who swam away,” he answered, “they didn’t have no future.”

One of the goals of systems therapy is to enlarge one’s horizons, to get people to look up and out and see oneself in a larger context and to have a future.  This is part of what Annie was preaching about last Sunday: to feel connected with something larger than oneself, whether a family, a community, or a congregation.  First Parish has a long, meaningful, and not-often read mission statement (it’s on our website) and it’s not coincidental that one of its lines was written while I was studying with Friedman.  First Parish exists, it says, that “we may face the challenges of existence within the context of belonging.”

One of the ways of enlarging horizons is by taking a systems – not an individualistic – approach.  With Friedman I learned to make genograms which are like family trees, but with additional notation that takes into account divorces, and estrangements, struggles with addiction, traumas and other issues that ripple, react, or repeat across the generations.

In my own family, for example, I observed issues with alcohol whereby a generation of teetotalers would be followed by a generation of drunks, followed by a generation of teetotalers.  Able to see the larger context, I became better able to choose my own behavior rather than simply reacting to the previous generation.  Diminishing unthinking reactivity is a prime goal of a systems approach.

Friedman distinguished hostile environments into Categories One and Two.  Category One are “fish out of water” situations that truly cannot be survived: being near ground zero in a nuclear explosion for example.  Category Two hazards are significantly more diverse, including (this is Friedman’s list) “plagues, epidemics, economic depressions, gas shortages, slavery, prejudiced communities, ‘Jewish mothers,’ traumatic experiences, ghettos, ship sinkings, miserable marriages, lousy bosses, some genetic defects, exposure to germs and viruses, and many cancer and heart conditions.”

In this large and diverse category, the reaction of the organism (that means you and me) is at least as significant as the presenting problem.

I’ll illustrate this in various ways, but it should also be said that in family systems work, the therapist likely does not work with the person who presents the problem.  Rather, the therapist works with the person or people in the system who are most able to adapt, modulate, or change their own behavior.

A parishioner once came to me and the problem was an out of control teenager.  Tearing his hair out, he begged, “How can I change Christina’s behavior?”  The best pastoral advice I ever gave consisted of two words, “Forget Christina!”  I actually was a bit more pungent in my words, but the point was that Christina was not going to change unless the adults changed their behavior by reacting less to Christina and becoming more self-differentiated.

To be self-differentiated is to say as calmly and clearly as possible, no matter what the dire hair-tearing circumstance, “Here I stand. This is my boundary. This is what I believe. This is what I will or won’t do.”  Self-differentiation reduces the anxiety, the inflammation, and is salutary to the entire system.  It’s like a wound: if you reduce the inflammation the body will heal itself.

“The children who do best,” Friedman taught, “are the ones whose parents are least invested in their children’s success for their own self-worth.”  Get it?

By contrast, in many families, it is the least self-differentiated (the most anxious, the craziest, the most problematic) person who wags the dog.  Says Friedman, “It is not the meek but the weak who are inheriting the earth.”  Self-differentiation takes away the gasoline and the matches.

Like Ted Williams advised, “When you’re in a slump, don’t swing harder.  Change your stance.”  When I’ve been in a slump (and there have been such times in the last year), I’ve swung harder, worked harder, tried harder.  And I’ll confirm that deepens the slump.  Now I’m trying to change my stance.

When people come to me with a problem I very often ask what they’re doing to support their own immune system, their own internal ability to differentiate, not get enmeshed and caught up in the drama and anxiety, and to self-regulate.  Whatever the problem.  “Put your oxygen mask on before trying to help someone else.”

It is typical for troubled relationships to be enmeshed, unable to let go, rigid and excessively reactive.  If a word, a tone of voice, a gesture, a raised eyebrow can set you off, that’s a sign of reactivity.  Another of my typical pieces of advice is to encourage “insensitivity training,” increasing one’s ability to stand the tumult, not by gritting one’s teeth and girding one’s loins, but by nurturing one’s own ability to be resilient.

“Most therapists,” Friedman said, “are too sensitive to be effective.  Emotional fusion with another is far more destructive than lack of concern or understanding.”

This by the way, is why I often said Megan and I were a good team.  I’d say, “She’s spiritual; I’m not.  She listens to people; I don’t.   She cares; and I don’t give a rat’s whatever…”  That’s magic!

Friedman is famous for advising  leaders – parents, ministers, anyone really – to be what he called a “non-anxious presence.”  You can be non-anxious by not caring, being apathetic, and checking out; and you can be an agitated, in your face, and over-wrought presence; but to be a non-anxious presence: that’s the trick, the sweet spot, the goal.

(Really, I am spiritual; I do listen; and I do care…just not too much!)

In a problematic relationship the goal is neither to care too much and glom onto the other person nor to isolate or cut off.  Don’t get enmeshed.  Don’t chase the other person.  The way you can tell the difference between the helper and the helped, Friedman used to say, “is the hunted look in the eyes of the helped.”  You can’t be heard by someone whose back is to you; only by someone coming toward you.  Don’t chase; don’t cut off.  Over and over, I advise, “Keep your door open.”

For Friedman, by the way, the goal of a therapy session was to give no advice at all, not even pungent two-word advice.  Ideally, he said, the therapist would do nothing but ask questions.

In any relationship (as a parent, a spouse, a friend) the goal is always to motivate, prod, stimulate, or tap into a person’s own inner self-differentiated resources of health and healing that they may adapt, modulate, or change themselves.

Several sermons ago I mentioned a family system technique called a “paradoxical intervention.”  You may recall the spouse who was having an affair and Friedman advised the jilted spouse to give their wayward partner romantic travel brochures and sweet encouragement to get away.  Whaaa?  Murray Bowen is reputed to have counseled a suicidal patient by taking out a prescription pad and asking, “How many pills will it take to do the job?”  Whaaa?  The alcoholic’s spouse might try compulsively refilling his or her half-filled glasses.  Whaaa?  The rabbi’s advice in the “It Could Always Be Worse” story was a paradoxical intervention.

There are a lot of corollaries that derive from this horizon-widening and self-differentiated approach.

Another thing about self-differentiation: One-to-one relationships are naturally anxiety-producing and thus there is a natural tendency to triangulate.  If ever you find yourself talking with one person and gossiping about a third person, it is likely that there is something unspoken or problematic in your relationship with the person you’re talking with.  Avoid triangles!

“Growth comes,” Friedman said, “not from lowering pain but from increasing one’s tolerance of it.”  There is the story of Chuck Yeager, the test pilot who, flying the experimental X-1, first broke the sound barrier.  A lot of pilots before him had tried but when their planes started to shake, rattle, and roll, they backed off and slowed down.  Yeager worked at increasing his tolerance of shaking, rattling, and rolling.  He sped up, pressed on, and on the other side of Mach 1 there was calm.

Now, if you work at being more self-differentiated there will be resistance; you may come rattled and you will rattle others because you and your system have become fond of your neuroses, averse to change, and you and others will want you the way you were. (like the scavenger fish who lost her taste for crap.)  Anyone who becomes more self-differentiated will encounter pushback and resistance.  You should be prepared and learn, for example, “to hear the sound of (fecal matter) hitting the fan as applause!”

As I was writing this sermon, I saw in the newspaper several applications of the approach I’m recommending.  A Scott Lehigh column in the Globe praised the candidacy of Elizabeth Warren for the clarity of her positions.  “…She has defined her candidacy in a way that let’s everyone know what she’s about,” he wrote, concluding,  “And that’s not a bad place to be at this stage in the campaign.”

The stuff hitting the fan will come later.

A review of feminist scholar Carol Gilligan’s latest book reports that Gilligan was asked what advice she’d give to young girls “who want to resist or protest, but don’t want to be labeled ‘nasty or angry’ women?”  Gilligan answered, “Well, you’re going to be labeled.  The question is, ‘What is your response?’”

A piece about comedian Amy Schumer described her openness about being married to a man with Asperger’s (that’s why she fell in love with him she said) and her health issues during pregnancy.  She said, “Being cool is powerful in this industry, but there’s nothing more powerful than not giving a (fecal matter, again).” Not caring too much.  That’s non-anxious presence.

Another article described a top chef named David McMillan who said, “As I started taking care of myself, the staff started mimicking me, McMillan wrote in a recent Bon Appetit piece headlined “My Restaurant Was the Greatest Show of Excess You’d Ever Seen, and It Almost Killed Me.”  “All of these young cooks who came to cook at Joe Beef, who look up to me…saw, well, David’s not drinking anymore, and he’s going to bed early, and he’s talking about what’s cool on Netflix.  Then my staff was going to bed early and watching Netflix.  My comptroller said staff drinking is down like crazy.”  Self-differentiation – endured – can be followed by systemic change.

Let’s wrap this up with a transcript of a therapy session between Friedman and Jill Johnson the mother of a 15-year old out-of-control son.  The child had been adopted; their interracial marriage had broken up.  Jill had followed every advice.  Parents should be loving and understanding; she was loving and understanding.  Parents should be sensitive; she was sensitive.  As things got worse, she read more advice books and tried different counselors.

Meanwhile the kid stole the family car, cut school, and with a winsome personality, hoodwinked girls at school as well as his counselors.  By the time Jill came to Friedman, she was frazzled, had lost a lot of weight, developed bronchitis and GI symptoms; she’d even considered suicide.  She opened by listing all the bad things her son had done, her efforts to improve him, and assured Friedman that she really was kind and sympathetic and sincerely anxious about what would become of him.

THERAPIST: Ms. Johnson, I am more worried about you than your son.

  1. J.: I don’t have time to think about me. He never gives me a moment’s peace.

THERAPIST: Look, I could give you a whole slew of techniques for trying to get control of this situation, but frankly they won’t work till you’re fed up. And I don’t think you’re fed up enough yet.

  1. J.: Tell me how to get there.

THERAPIST: You have to make your own life more important so you’ll know what you have been giving up.

  1. J.: I know you’re right but I have trouble keeping that in focus. Besides, all the counselors I have seen keep telling me I have to understand him.

THERAPIST: Well maybe you just haven’t been understanding enough.

  1. J.: I think I’ve been too understanding.

THERAPIST: Have you ever thought of giving him up for foster care?

  1. J.: Frankly, I have, but it seems so cruel. He’s already been rejected three times. But it’s killing me.

THERAPIST: At least you will leave a good name behind you. I’ll bet the eulogy will be glowing, and they can put some very nice epitaph on your tombstone. So it won’t really have been in vain. If there is another world you’ll probably get your reward there.

  1. J.: I don’t want to wait. I want it here.

THERAPIST: Then you need insensitivity training.

  1. J.: What kind of therapist are you?

THERAPIST: You know, every one of these uncontrollable kids I’ve ever seen that have their parents dripping with anxiety about whether they are going to destroy themselves … they’re like cats. They always land on their feet. The only destruction associated with them is what they leave in their trail.

  1. J.: That’s true; he does always survive.

THERAPIST: I had another situation like this, involving an unbelievably sassy 16-year-old who was threatening to run off to Florida when her parents finally started to take stands. Their perpetual fear was that she would wind up in white slavery. I saw her for a session alone. She was so brazen that I told her parents not to worry about that slavery stuff: she’d be cracking the whip in a week.

  1. J.: I have to tell you that several times I just wanted to smash him, turn him over to the authorities, or move away and just leave him. But every time I get to thinking that way, I remember what a dirty deal life has dealt him.

THERAPIST: Suppose his greatest need is not to have his needs satisfied?

  1. J.: I’d never thought of it that way.

THERAPIST: Is he winsome, you know, charming?

  1. J.: Boy, can he turn it on!

THERAPIST: What do you think would happen if you “rejected” him?

  1. J.: He’d make out, I guess.

THERAPIST: Well I don’t really mean reject him; what I am after is something he and frankly many counselors he would come into contact with afterward might perceive as rejection. Suppose you made your life come first, and gave him choices to adapt to you or live elsewhere? This would mean defining your position every chance you get about where you stood, what you were willing to do. In other words, focusing on you, rather than trying to change him. Where you have been walking on eggs, stomp on them.

  1. J.: I love it. That’s the way I used to be, but this thing has undercut my confidence.

– – – – – –

And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.


Closing Words

Remember my favorite knock-knock joke?