It’s Christmas Day and I could have better used the title Christmas mess-edge for this short piece. The story of Jesus Christ isn’t just a sweet and sentimental account of a baby boy born in Bethlehem 2000+ years ago. If it’s true, it’s about God entering the very real messiness of our lives and world and offering the potential to transform them into something completely new. Something beyond our wildest dreams, hopes or expectations. Something that stretches and transcends the boundaries of all human existence and experience.
I’ve known something about this notion of stretching boundaries over this past year, about extending the edges of my own experience. I bought a new bike in the spring, challenged myself to cycle over 1000 miles in 6 months and over 50 miles in a single ride. I had never done anything like that before and yet I did it. I also challenged myself to swim 1 mile 3 times in the same week. And I did it. It felt like I had crossed over an important physical and psychological line, achieving things that had previously felt impossible for me.
I wrote and had published my first article with the British Association for Counselling and Psychology (BACP). I’d written lots of articles for different publications before but this felt like the next step up in a professional field that sits close to my heart. The editor of Coaching Today invited me to write on spirituality and I jumped at the chance. To top it off, I did my first ever series of radio interviews on spirituality too. It was a great opportunity and a novel experience so sit in a recording studio and to share my beliefs openly on air.
And if that was the end of the story, there would be no need for a Jesus, at least for me. But it’s far from the end. I’ve struggled and failed on so many fronts. Sometimes, I haven’t even struggled when I have known I should. I’ve known deeply and personally what Francis Spufford aptly calls the universal ‘human propensity to f* things up’ (Unapologetic, 2013). At times, I’ve failed in relationships, made mistakes at work, fallen short of my own standards, spoken when I should have kept quiet and kept quiet when I should have spoken.
What’s more, one of my closest friends has fought courageously with terminal illness. I’ve felt hopeful and helpless, trying to offer support where I could yet knowing I can’t make it OK. I’ve yearned to take the anxiety away but known that I can’t. I’ve watched Syria in the news, the damage that human beings are able to inflict on each others’ lives, on whole countries and regions. I’ve felt impotent and confused. Not all the time, but enough to know that redeeming the world is something I can take part in yet, ultimately, lies well beyond me.
And so as I reflect on Christmas, I know what it is to be an aspiring yet fragile human being. I’ve felt exciting moments on the edge of success and have known what it is to screw up and need forgiveness. I have felt the amazing love of others, often undeserved yet tangible all the same. At that first nativity, I believe God himself entered the messy complexity of our lives and world with the most profound message of love and hope possible. Not just in words but in a life well-lived and a promise of presence and eternal life. Merry Christ-mas!
I had strange dreams about mirrors and reflections last night and woke early in the darkness. I lay there for a while, semi-conscious, daydreaming about the brightness of the moon and how it reflects the light of the sun. I prayed silently, instinctively, ‘Just as the moon reflects the light of the sun, may my life reflect the light of God’. Then I woke up.
I do think there’s something profound about mirrors and reflection as psychological, cultural and spiritual phenomena. The recent fantasy film, Snow White and the Huntsman created a vivid portrayal of a tormented queen returning repeatedly to seek reassurance in the mirror of legend: ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?’
The queen’s sense of self, security and value were based on the response from the mirror. It’s as if she didn’t really know who she was, how she was, without reference to its external perspective. According to psychodynamic and social psychological theories, our sense of self is affected by the responses we evoke and encounter in others.
Take, for instance, a young child who gazes into its mother’s face. If it sees consistent expressions of warmth, attentiveness, affection and happiness, it may well develop the sense that ‘I am loved’ and, thereby, ‘I am loveable.’ If on the other hand the child consistently sees looks of disapproval, it may develop a negative sense of self.
Psychodynamic theorists (e.g. Winnicott) call this process ‘mirroring’.Just as a person knows what they look like by glancing in a mirror, a child sees something of itself, learns something about itself, its relationships and its place in the world, by observing what is mirrored in the face of others. It’s a process that continues throughout our lives.
This phenomenon has deep existential implications. Corinne Taylor in her paper, You are the fairest of them all, comments on what may happen if a mother lacks connection with the child and fails to offer mirroring: ‘Perhaps a mother with a rigid face gives the baby the sense of never having being at all.’* Its very existence may feel negated.
Richard Rohr in his book, The Naked Now draws spiritual parallels, inviting us to consider what we see in God’s face, his gaze, as we gaze at him in prayer. It’s as if God is the ultimate, absolute parent figure in whose face we are able to gain a true sense of who we actually are. A distorted image of God will create a distorted image of self.
Projection is a related psychological process whereby we project aspects of ourselves (often aspects we feel uncomfortable with) onto other people or even onto God. I may be aware of and focus on characteristics of others that I’m not aware of or deny in myself, even though others may recognise them as typical of me.
If I grow in awareness of my projections, I can grow in awareness of myself by noticing what I notice in others. It’s another form of mirroring. As a leader and coach, I can draw important lessons too: what do others see in my face; do my responses help others develop a truer and more-loved sense of self; do I reflect the light of God?
I was leading a development seminar for leaders this week, introducing various schools of psychology and their application to coaching thinking and practice, when a colleague challenged me. ‘How does Christian spirituality fit with the models you are presenting?’ It was a great question. How to develop an effective, integrative and authentic coaching approach that is consistent with Christian beliefs and values and, at the same time, draws on the best of psychological theory and coaching practice. Let me call this ‘pastoral coaching’.
The reflective practice model I’ve developed in coaching over the years could be depicted as three interlocking circles: (a) theology and spirituality, (b) theory and research, (c) experience and practice. The coach enables the client to explore and respond to these domains. The theological dimension could be conceived of as what the client and others believe about God and, thereby, as an existential metaphysic, what he, she or they believe about everything else. Spirituality could be conceived as living out personal and shared beliefs.
The theory dimension is concerned with principles or conclusions drawn from experimentation, observation and critical reflection in relevant fields of thinking and practice. Research is concerned with on-going exploration, experimentation, analysis and learning. Experience is what happens when the client acts in the world. This could be conceived of in phenomenological or rational-scientific terms. Practice is about the client enacting decisions about behaviour, action and engagement in real-life relationships and situations.
I was influenced some years ago by Foskett & Lyall (Helping the Helpers, 1988) who wrote an excellent book on developing supervision in the pastoral care arena. Foskett was a psychotherapist, Lyall a university lecturer in practical theology. They proposed that Christian development tends to deal with issues from one of two perspectives: ‘applied theology’ which entails application of Biblical principles to practice or ‘theological reflection’which entails critical reflection on Biblical material in light of experience.
Green in Let's do Theology (1990) illustrates the former as the ‘Swedish Method’ of engaging with biblical material. It entails posing a number of questions, e.g. what things in the passage illuminate or inspire you; what things don’t you understand; what things in the passage surprise you; what things to you agree with and approve of; what are you turned off by, reject or question; can you name something like it from elsewhere in the Bible; can you name something like it from your own life and experience; what are you now prompted to do?
In contrast, Lyall in Pastoral Action and Theological Reflection (Spiritual Dimensions of Pastoral Care, 2000) illustrates the latter approach through a case study. In effect, he proposes starting with a real-life experience and posing questions to it, e.g. what are the components of the situation; who is involved; what policies or protocols applied; what ethical issues did it raise; how did the past influence the present; what did decisions taken reveal about wider social or systemic values and decisions; where were the signs of God’s grace?
The first approach starts with God and works out towards reflection and application; the second starts out with experience and works out towards reflection and God.
Green’s book expands the theological reflection method by drawing on Kolb’s learning cycle (1984) which combines experience, perception and reflection and cognition and behaviour, and applies it to pastoral contexts. In a later text, Graham, Walton & Ward published a new book (Theological Reflection, 2005) that explored a range of theological reflection methods including theology-in-action or praxis which insists that ‘proper theological reflection cannot be formed independently of practical engagement.’
It’s this praxis model that I find most compelling. Much of the Bible itself depicts God engaging actively with people and communities in the midst of the clarity, confusion, joy and struggle of normal life. If theology as an enterprise is about knowing God and not simply knowing about him, it’s difficult to see how it can be properly developed in the abstract or in an isolated classroom environment. The challenge is how to understand and relate to God authentically without superimposing our own assumptions onto him.
This is where the coaching task and agenda become significant. How to enable a person or team to make sense of complex, ambiguous experience in order to act with personal and professional integrity and to influence positive change. This is particularly important for leaders of organisations operating in fast-moving fluid environments. It’s easy to feel confused or paralysed, to lose one’s nerve, to feel draw into regressive behaviours or to sacrifice integrity for short-term expediency. Holistic coaching can play a role in helping leaders navigate turbulence and stay well.
So how does this work in practice? I may start with inviting a Christian client to share an issue. It could be an issue from the Bible or an issue from experience. I may pose questions for reflection, e.g. of all the issues we could have spoken about, what is it about this issue that feels pressing or significant for you at the moment (i.e. why this, why now); how are you feeling now as you talk about it; what would you like to move towards as a result of this conversation; what questions or issues is it raising for you; what role would you like me to play?
As the conversation progresses, I may pose more questions, moving around the theology and spirituality, theory and research and experience and practice model as a conceptual backdrop. Weeson in his article, Theological Reflection on Practice (The Foundations of Pastoral Studies & Practical Theology, 1986) offers a number of particularly helpful pointers for the theology and spirituality dimension that draw on his experience or mentoring students. Since this dimension is the main focus of this blog, I will quote him fully here:
"Where is God's activity to be found in the situation we are exploring? Is the client's understanding of God limited so that he or she looks for His activity only in the (say) institutional framework or charismatic (personal) experience? What characteristics of God dominate the client's thinking? Can the client relate events and encounters with people to a theology of creation, providence or redemption? Does the client show theological imagination in forging an understanding of God's activity that is both true to Christian beliefs and relevant to the context?
Is there a link between the experience encountered and some biblical character or situation? Can the client make connection with (say) a relevant issue which is addressed in a New Testament epistle or with the experiences of an Old Testament or a Gospel character? Are such links drawn with integrity and with due hermeneutic rigour or has the client a speculative tendency to make the Bible fit? How do proper connections throw light on an appropriate Christian strategy for engagement?
How is a particularly painful or baffling situation handled? Can the client face and deal with ambiguity and complexity? Is there an ability to work with a doctrine of God or an understanding of humanity that will make some sense of the complexity? Or does the client show a tendency to run back into tidy formulations? Can the client ultimately retain convictions and yet live with
areas of uncertainty? Can he or she handle this ambiguity in an encounter with a baffled person?
How has an event or encounter affected the level or pattern of the client's prayer life? Has the client learned how to incorporate an ambiguous situation into his or her intercession? Has an experience resulted in a deeper meditative understanding of God and His purposes? Has the context promoted some new biblical insights which have fed personal devotion?
What theological material demands further study as a result of the reflection on practice? Is there now an area (e.g. life and death, sin and salvation, justice and forgiveness, grace and truth, personal and corporate, freedom and responsibility, suffering and hope, holiness and incarnation, humility and leadership, discipline and love) where more work should be done? Has the client identified books, materials or people to help that further study?"
The challenge for the coach is how to help the client or client group develop and move forward without projecting the coach’s own theological and spiritual constructs onto the client or the client’s situation. This demands high levels of self-awareness, sensitivity, wisdom, discernment and skill. The coach needs to pay close attention to his or her own intuition (‘inner voice’), the voice of the client, the indirect voice of the client’s world or system through the client and, ultimately, the voice of God.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.