Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Caught by a New Word

I’m not exactly how it came across my desk, but come across it did. “It” was the November, 2007, issue of Charisma. Charisma is a magazine that from its content reflects the life of the Pentecostal churches in the United States. I certainly found a number of the articles interesting.

The one that caught my attention, though, was “Hope for the Wounded Soul,” by Elizabeth Moll Stalcup. The article is about an approach to pastoral counseling called Theophostic Prayer Ministry. If I hadn’t been intrigued by another article on pastoral counseling, that word “Theophostic” certainly did.

You can read the article on line to get some sense of the history of this process. You can look at the TPM web site for detailed information, but in the article is a brief description of the process:

Typical TPM sessions begin by discussing the current situation, but the goal is not problem-solving as in traditional therapy, but rather helping the person connect with what he is feeling. After his current emotions are identified, the recipient is asked to let his mind connect with any memory that matches the present emotions.

Not all memories are traumatic. In fact, people often express surprise when they realize how much they have been negatively impacted by lies stemming from old, seemingly minor memories. The TPM facilitator is not to interpret the memory, express his opinion, diagnose the condition or make assumptions about what might have happened.

Instead, he encourages the person seeking healing to search his memories to determine his own beliefs. The facilitator asks questions such as, "What does that little girl believe is causing the pain?" "What do you believe will happen if you let yourself feel that?" to help the person identify what he believes in the memory.

After the core lie is identified, the facilitator asks the person if he is willing to hear what Jesus has to say. If he is, the facilitator will pray and ask Jesus to speak into the situation. Some people get mental pictures or words from God, while others just get a sense of what is true.

Now, when I read the description in the context of the article, I had a feeling I couldn’t shake that this was all somehow familiar. It took me a while, and then the connections began to come.

First, recognizing that feelings about current events may well reflect or be reinforced by similar feelings from past events is well established in counseling practice. A number of therapeutic practices include this sort of review for insight. Exploring the memory to understand the events, and especially the feelings involved, is common in many ways of supporting people.

In this case, the process begins to look a lot like an Ignation spiritual exercise. The counselor isn’t to tell the person how to interpret the event. Instead, the minister asks the person served how he or she remembers and interprets the event, and what feelings are involved. As the person served gets insight into the earlier experience, the minister invites the person to hear what Jesus might say to the person in or about that memory. This is much like the experience of entering into a story from the Gospels, imagining oneself in the story, to experience the feelings of the story and to hear what Jesus says in that story. (I’m not saying it is an Ignation exercise; only that they have some aspects in common.)

The hope is that the person served will hear a message from Jesus (whether in words or feelings) that will bring a new perspective to the memory, something that addresses the “core lie” that has held the person served in bondage to the memory. That sounds an awful lot like “reframing,” providing a new perspective on the situation that has provoked so much emotional energy.

So, I recognized that sense of familiarity. To help a person, a minister supports that person in finding insight on past events, supports that person in reflecting on those events in a manner similar to an Ignation exercise, with the hope that the experience will help the person reframe the past events and so better understand both past and current events. Again, I’m not saying that mine is an accurate description of Theophostic Prayer Ministry; only that those were the similarities or parallels that I saw in reading the articles.

At the same time, I would never suggest that Jesus couldn’t provide individuals with meaningful reframing. I’ve seen this sort of thing happen many times. As a chaplain, I’m quite inclined to see this as an act of God’s grace, whether explicitly labeled or not.

I don’t practice TPM, and I’m not endorsing it. There are certainly a number of web sites and publications arguing that in fact TPM is dangerous (try here or here) - although from my admittedly cursory review, they seem more concerned that it’s theologically dangerous than that it’s therapeutically dangerous. And, on the point of being therapeutically dangerous, it certainly seems as open to abuse as any other counseling modality.

But, how could I look at such a word as “theophostic,” and not want to see what it’s about?

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