Richard B. Steele, PhD
Professor of Moral and Historical Theology
Associate Dean of Graduate Theological Studies
School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University
February 26, 2017
At the time of this story, I was a United Methodist pastor in a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I was sitting in my church office when the phone rang. The caller explained that her daughter, Karen, had recently gotten engaged, and asked if I would perform the wedding. “We belong to another Methodist Church,” she said, “but yours is closer to the site of the reception.” Then she added that Karen, who lived in Florida, wouldn’t be coming home until a week before the wedding. That ruled out any pre-marital counseling. By now I was getting leery of this situation, but the mother assured me that the pastor of her church, my colleague in ministry, was okay with this plan, that the couple would be getting premarital counseling at their church in Florida, and that a professional wedding consultant would handle all the local arrangements. So I somewhat reluctantly I agreed. Fortunately, the preparations went quite smoothly over the next few months, and the bride-to-be called me several times from Florida to extend the proper courtesies and make sure everything was lined up. My worries were over—or so I thought.
A week before the wedding, Karen flew home as planned, and came over to the church to tour the facility and choreograph the service. She was as pleasant as could be, breezily going over the last-minute details and readily agreeing to all my ground rules and suggestions. Without suspecting that anything could be wrong, I asked if she had a few minutes to tell me about herself and her fiancé, so that I could “personalize” the wedding sermon for them. At that, Karen suddenly burst into tears. “I’m not sure I want to go through with this,” she blurted out between sobs. I then said exactly what ministers are taught to say in such cases. I said, “Hmmm.” The ensuing conversation took well over an hour.
I learned that Karen had led a very glamorous life. She was a professional water-skier at Sea World, had once taken a jungle safari in Thailand on an elephant, and another time had gone hang-gliding off a cliff in Rio de Janeiro. She was, to put it mildly, an adventurous young woman. Then she met Jim, who was a medical student at the time. He was a dashing guy in his own way, but now that he had finished school, he wanted to settle down, get married, and set up his practice. That’s what had Karen worried.
“His idea of marriage,” she said, “is a house with a picket fence, a mortgage, and a dog in the back yard.”
“And you don’t want that?” I asked.
“That’s just the problem,” she said firmly, “part of me does want that.”
“Still, it sounds pretty tame compared to hang-gliding and bush-whacking.”
Karen nodded. “Yes, and I’m not sure I’m ready to give all that up.” And then, after a pause, she added, “O God, listen to me! I sound so vain. I’m ashamed of myself.”
That’s when the lights went on in my head. “Karen,” I said, “I don’t think your problem is with Jim at all. It’s with yourself. But it’s not vanity. It’s that you think of yourself as an adventurous woman, but you don’t think of marriage as an adventure. So getting married, even to a guy you love, means being untrue to yourself.”
Psychotherapists call what I had just done with Karen “reframing.” One popular website defines the technique as follows: “Developing a new conceptual or emotional outlook relating to situations experienced, and putting it into another frame which follows the facts or evidence equally well, changing its whole definition. Reconstruction of a subject’s experiential view to impart a more positive view of it. Method for changing self-defeating thought processes by consciously inserting more positive ones.”(2)
In that instance, the reframing technique worked like a charm. All Karen needed then was to begin thinking of marriage as her next adventure, and one that was far greater, if somewhat less glamorous, than any she had ever attempted. Her doubts vanished, and when the wedding day came, she was as radiant a bride, and he as dapper a groom, as I have ever tied the knot for. A couple weeks later, after they returned from their honeymoon, Karen sent me a letter:
Dear Reverend Steele: I just can’t thank you enough for helping me find peace, finally, after all the emotional struggling I was going through. While it isn’t necessarily an easy thing for me, I feel so much better knowing that my struggles weren’t based on whether Jim and I are right for each other, but more so on my passage from my unique, “glamorous,” out-of-the-ordinary adventurous twenties (which I’m a little tired of anyway) into my thirties as a married woman living out the same “adventures” that many before me have. Just having a handle on the source makes me better equipped to accept, learn from, and enjoy all the wonderful experiences ahead of me. Thank you from the bottom of my adventur¬ous heart for helping make that clear to me.
She ended by thanking me for the sermon I preached at the wedding. I wrote back:
Dear Karen: Thank you very much for your beautiful letter. I have read it several times, and it makes me smile from ear to ear. I’m so glad that our conversation was fruitful. But while I appreciate your kind comments about my “insightful perspective,” I say without any false modesty that it was really you who had all the insights. I just asked nosey questions—but the right ones, apparently. The breakthrough came when you realized how “vain” you sounded when describing your “glamorous” young adult life, at which point I simply suggested that vanity was an unnecessarily demeaning self-description, and that a better way to think of your emotional state was one of reluctance to let go of one stage of life and move into another. You immediately saw the validity of that suggestion, and you had the courage to take the next step in the “adventure” of life. Voila—inner peace! I’m glad that I could help you with one of the more difficult steps in the journey, but I assure you that all the credit for the self-awareness and courage necessary for that step goes to you. I’m also glad that you and your guests enjoyed the wedding sermon. But again, I simply took the things that you and your family had told me during the previous two days and framed them into a coherent narrative via an organizing theme—your theme, adventure.
The moral of the story is that pastors are called to be interpreters—not just of sacred texts, but also of human experiences.(3) But skillful interpretation is not just whimsical inventiveness. In the preparation of a sermon or Bible study lesson, the pastor must do her homework. She must first attend—carefully and prayerfully—to what the Scripture actually says in its literary, historical and canonical context. Only then can she venture to say—creatively and constructively—what the Scripture means to the people of God. So, too, in caring for a hurting soul, the pastor must first listen—carefully and prayerfully—to the details of his story, as set within its familial and social contexts. Only then can she venture to say—creatively and constructively—how the framework within which he has hitherto understood his story might be adjusted.(4) In Karen’s case, there was nothing wrong either with her lifelong love of adventure or with her new love for Jim. But she saw no connection between them. True, she was tired of jet-setting and wanted the security and stability of marriage. But she didn’t see how the “adventure story” of her youth could continue into her adulthood. Once she came to see that marriage could be a new chapter in the ongoing thriller of her life, that the grand theme of her life could find a new form of expression, she felt inner peace.
(1) This story is adapted from Richard B. Steele, “The Passion and the Passions,” in “Heart Religion” in the Methodist Tradition and Related Movements, ed. Richard B. Steele (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2001), pp. 258-260.
(2) “What is Reframing,” Psychology Dictionary , accessed 26 February, 2017. For an extended discussion of how this technique can be used by pastors, see Donald Capps, Reframing: A New Method of Pastoral Care (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990).
(3) See Anton T. Boison, The Exploration of the Inner World: A Study of Mental Disorder and Religious Experience (New York: Willett, Clark and Company, 1936) and Charles V. Gerkin, The Living Human Document: Re-visioning Pastoral Counseling in a Hermeneutical Mode (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1984). It was Boison, one of the founders of the clinical pastoral counseling movement, who developed the idea that seminarians should be trained to “read human documents.” The term itself, however, seems to go back to the American pragmatist philosopher, William James, as noted by Robert C. Dykstra, ed., Images of Pastoral Care: Class Readings (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2005), 229, n4. Dykstra’s book includes useful excerpts from the works by Capps, Boison and Gerkin cited above (as well as many others).
(4) I use the term “adjust” advisedly. When a person is causing and/or suffering from violence or manipulation, such as domestic abuse, what is needed is not an adjustment of his or her attitude toward the situation, but decisive action to correct or escape it.