Paradigms and Paradoxes

2015 arrived in Northern Indiana filled with wonder.  Astonishingly, no snow can be seen in the field outside my window.  Strange and wondrous.  We who live in and around Chicago saw December 2014 come and go with no measurable snowfall.  “First time since 1912” we are told.  It shatters expectations.  As much as many wanted a white Christmas, this anomaly was just fine with me.

If you live in a place like La Porte county Indiana, you expect snow – and lots of it by now.  We “enjoy” that lake effect snow and perhaps rival Buffalo in our expectation that each year we will see whiteness in abundance by now.  “December” and “snow” fit together for us on any analogy test.  None came in December 2014.  Maybe it is climate change.  Maybe sheer luck.  Maybe it was that new snow blower I purchased.  What has held back the “gifts” of winter?  Maybe a new snow blower is like carrying an umbrella when rain is in the forecast. I know it is superstitious and I can’t afford to buy a new snow blower every year!  Fortunately, I like winter.

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A month from now this will all have changed.  We will again experience (and, yes, enjoy) the haunting beauty of winter days.  We will again live with “what we have come to expect as normal.”  So, snow will arrive.  In fact, it may make its entrance tomorrow — if the weather channel is to be believed.  For now, however, it is a welcome break with the expected.  It is not Arizona or Florida weather but it is a nice surprise.  (Although some of us are already worried about what this may mean for the water level of Lake Michigan.  Last winter’s heavy snows and ice coverage turned around a decade long drop in the lake threatening the operation of many harbors.)

Snow, or the lack of it, in our neck-of-the-woods is a nice symbolic image for this entry on Paradigms and Paradoxes.  Over my years as pastor, teacher, administrator and student I came to value these two elements of analysis — paradigms and paradoxes.  They inform little thought experiments; more importantly, they help me as I seek to live faithfully as a Christian.  They assist as I seek understanding of others and, hopefully, how to better understand myself.

More to come.  For now let me suggest a framework (paradigm) is related to assumed structure we bring to the world – like snow in La Porte County in December.  Some theologians speak of a master narrative or meta-narrative that serves as a scaffolding or primary storyline behind a person’s thought and action.  It is variously referred to by scholars as paradigm, gestalt, template or matrix.  Most recently Nancy Ammerman identifies the resilience and dimensionality of frameworks or paradigms in her fine work Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes, Finding Religion in Everyday Life. 

The other element?  Paradox?  It is Parker Palmer who first opened my thinking to the power of contradiction or, better, paradox.  An early and little known work by Parker The Promise of Paradox.  It proved to be critical to my own faith and work in ministry.  Like Jonah in the belly of a whale, Palmer draws on the work of Thomas Merton to write about the value of facing alternative, even oppositional views of life and work.

Paradox assumes the power of paradigms — like the paradox of no snow in December.  Paradigms may be challenged and made pliable (more human and humane).  This is often referred to as a “paradigm shift.”   Such a transition incorporates contradictions or conundrums and may lead to more textured and richer insights into our world.  All of this leads to my an ongoing interest in and value placed on transformation and conversion.

Okay.  A pretty cerebral start, I know.  Stick with me, we are going to have fun here.  There will be silliness and lots of whimsy.  And there will be seriousness — especially in thinking about society, politics, the church and ministry.

Oh yes, about the title of this blog Hands of the Strong.  It is something I learned from a mentor years ago, Robert K. Greenleaf when he spoke of the core value of “strengthening the hands of the strong.”  What he meant by this was both paradoxical and paradigmatic. 

Coming up soon will be reflections on ministry derived from two movies in 2014.  Each provides remarkable fodder for insights on being a pastor or a lay person engaged in congregational ministry.  The first, Calvary, tells the story of an Irish Catholic priest, Father James (Brenden Gleeson), as he faces the challenges of parish life and of his own past personal demons.  The second is the documentary film The Overnighters about a Lutheran pastor (Jay Reinke) who seeks to provide shelter for homeless folks drawn to North Dakota to find work in the booming oil industry.   Both movies are filled with ample material for reflection on the frameworks and paradoxes that shape life and ministry in our time.

Stay tuned…