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Spiritual Life: Will 'paddling our canoe' harder help in COVID-19?

Rev. Janet Griffin, Tri-City Herald on

Published in Religious News

"It's not going to do you any good to paddle harder." This piece of advice stays with me as I think about how to go forward when the coronavirus has changed so much of the world I knew.

I'm urged to pause in my paddling, and pay attention to the reality unfolding before me with its new needs and opportunities.

Tod Bolsinger, a professor and leadership formation expert at Fuller Seminary, has written a book about adapting to a changing world. "Canoeing the Mountains" looks at the Lewis and Clark expedition, a saga much-beloved in the Pacific Northwest where I live, as a great example of leadership adaptation.

Lewis and Clark believed that they could find a river route to the Pacific Ocean. Their paddling plan worked until they got to the Rockies. The Rockies are so much bigger than the modest mountains of their experience, and all there is behind the first mountain is the next one ... and the next one. Paddling harder would not work!

The wise warning joins in my heart with a favorite prayer: "Glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine." I would gladly settle for what I can "ask or imagine", but the present reality is nothing like what I would have asked for or imagined. The ways to respond that I have experience with, have trained for, feel competent in, are greatly challenged.

If harder paddling won't work, what will?

Bolsinger says that what kept the expedition going forward was the core value of gaining knowledge. When the mission to map a river route to the Pacific ran into the Rockies, they had a deeper value of gaining knowledge of whatever lay beyond the mountains.

If my core value is to be an effective and competent minister with what I already know and the ministry tools I know how to use, I'm in trouble. I can paddle as hard as I can, but my canoe is now an impediment not an asset.

If my core value is to serve the common good, in whatever ways God reveals this to me, whatever opportunities emerge, then I need to leave my "competency comfort zone" and listen to new voices and learn new ways to be of service. This is so much more life-changing than just learning how to have church board meetings on Zoom!

 

Bolsinger credits much of the success of Lewis and Clark's expedition to their willingness to listen and learn from Sacagawea, to let this young Native American woman, a totally marginalized person in the white man's culture, guide them. They might feel lost in the new territory they needed to cross, but she was on familiar ground.

In my Christian faith tradition, the stories of God working to bring healing and hope are often told from the lives of marginalized people: women, children, strangers, the poor, the sick and those with disabilities. These people live in the challenging territory our canoes cannot glide through. Their wisdom, experience, and power are God's traditional teachers and guides, and vessels of God's healing grace for us all.

If I will let go of what I ask for, what I think is important (and comfortable for me?), if I will clear my vision of the limits of what I can imagine, I just might let God work through me in ways that heal and rebuild the world according to God's plan, not mine.

But I believe that "working in me" really means what the prayers says: "working in US"! It's listening and learning from those who must be a powerful part of the "us" that is my first faithful step toward giving up my paddle.

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