Meaning Making is a Super Power!

“Each of us is questioned by life; and each of us can only answer to life by answering for our own life.” Viktor E. Frankl , Man’s Search for Meaning

Talk about “meaning making.” Dr. Viktor Frankl was a Holocaust survivor who came to understand that all of life—including life in a concentration camp—puts forth the possibility for life to be made whole. In many ways, this wholeness emerges in responses to our choices, even if our choices are limited by circumstances (like suffering imprisonment, losing every loved one in your life, or other unspeakable harm).

In such a case then, one’s choice is the option to grow and be something more than who s/he is today or to stay focused on current ways of being and knowing in order to survive. No one can stop us from new growth, unless we give our permission. No one can stop us from making meaning in our lives unless we allow them to do so.

  • Failures of the past or present, rather than stealing meaning, create NEW meaning as we use our new information to discern the path that is laying itself before us in this new moment.
  • Wounds that we bear, rather than create victims; create heroes with hearts of strength who choose to forge ahead despite all odds.
  • Challenges we face encourage us to remember that we can’t do it alone—we need help. Even as we step toward new horizons of meaning, we are walking with others as they do the same.

THIS is the privilege of being a pastoral counselor: Even as we seek to make meaning in our own lives, we are graced with the privilege of accompanying others as they make meaning in theirs. In this process, my life is changed. In this process, the lives of others are changed. In this process, our lives together are changed.

And therein the world is changed.

Now there’s a super power I can get behind. My life’s journey isn’t about questioning what is happening to me. Rather, life itself is questioning me about how I plan to engage my existence.

I’d love to hear about your super power. Whether it is invisibility, flying, million dollar metal suits, or “meaning making,” what are your super power’s effects on the adventures of your life?

Time to Pull up My Big Girl Panties: Reflecting on Grief and Strength

“Time to Pull Up My Big Girl Panties”

 Yep—that’s what she said.  That’s exactly what she said. 

Who said it?

Dr. Kari O’Grady—a well respected pastoral counselor and scholar in the discipline of trauma and religious coping. 

What is she referring to?

She was quoting a former student and colleague in the Pastoral Counseling and Spiritual Care (PCSC) Department at Loyola University Maryland.

This is where Dr. O’Grady’s turn of phrase becomes meaningful—almost beyond words. 

Dr. O’Grady was quoting the Rev. Dr. Mary-Marguerite Kohn, an affiliate PCSC professor and graduate of Loyola during a eulogy. Only days before, Mary-Marguerite was in the church office with the administrative assistant of her parish when a participant in their ministry to the homeless fatally shot both women.  He fled the scene and killed himself.

Dr. Mary-Marguerite Kohn

In the moment that Dr. O’Grady repeated the proclamation that it was “time to pull up her big girl panties” she was making a double entendre.  In the context of Rev. Kohn’s funeral, Dr. O’Grady was honoring the life spirit of a former student and colleague who chose hope over despair and who chose courage and compassion in the midst of fear and loss.

She was quoting Mary-Marguerite’s conviction to begin a new path upon receiving her doctorate only three years before.  It was one of those miraculous moments the heart stumbles on at a funeral…when a sense of being embraced by the spirit of life and love of the newly departed envelops the bereaved in the midst of their shock and sense of loss.

It could easily be a reminder of all that the PCSC Department at Loyola has experienced recently.  Almost unbearably, Mary-Marguerite is the third PCSC faculty member at Loyola to die three years—and the third to die an untimely and tragic death.

First, Dr. Kelly Murray and her 7 year old daughter were killed by a falling tree while idling at an intersection in their family vehicle during a storm in 2009; and then, a little over a year later, the department chair, Dr. Joseph Ciarrocchi died from multiple myeloma. 

All three of these folks lived lives filled with meaning and compassion which touched the hearts and lives of many, many people.  (Their obituaries are linked below.)  And all three were colleagues and friends of Dr. O’Grady and the members of the PCSC department.  Until Rev. Kohn’s death, I did not know the upheaval that the department had already experienced.

In that moment I learned the words in the Loyola online catalog describing the Pastoral Counseling program as holistic and integrated are not just there to describe positive sounding academic endeavors in the abstract.  They are accurate descriptors of the program.  They describe not only the courses but also the clinical education, the professors’ interweaving clinical work with quality teaching, the structure of individual courses, and the meaningful faculty and staff relationships with students.

We PCSC students are being challenged to learn, grow and transform our lives in the same way that we hope to accompany others on a path of meaning making and healing. 

This is precisely what Dr. O’Grady was doing for those of us in the congregation at Mary-Marguerite Kohn’s funeral…encouraging us to “pull up our big girl panties” and receive our own sadness, loss, fears, and wounds.  Because…as she well knows… the only way through hurt to healing, is through the hurt with compassion for self and others.  And the encouragement she gave to us to gird our hearts and move forward, just as she was doing for herself, was the most profound teaching moment and modeling of lifelong learning healing I have experienced as I continue to seek to understand the call to be a “pastoral counselor.”

Grace and Peace be with you—and everyone whose lives you touched…

Dr. Kelly Murray:

Dr. Joseph Ciarrocchi:
Dr. Joseph Ciarrocchi

Rev. Dr. Mary-Marguerite Kohn:

Lwamondo to Loyola

“There are two great tragedies in life.
One is to not get your heart’s desire.
The other is to get it.”

       –George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman


The road to Lwamondo Mountain

My best friend Mukondi showing me how to don traditional Venda dress

Lwamondo Mountain

In April of 2002, I landed in Johannesburg, South Africa to begin my first call as an assistant Lutheran pastor in a parish of eight congregations.  I was met there by two parish leaders, friends who I had previously met when they traveled to California.  They were both instrumental in forming the partnership that had created my call.  Even though I had just traveled a total of 20 hours on two plane trips; we still had 7 hours to drive to Lwamondo Parish, located in the most northeastern province of South Africa.

 I was so excited as we left Jo’burg—my deepest dreams were coming true.  The list of unparalleled life experiences I was having was long and poignant: 

 –It was my first call as a pastor.

 –My future supervisor was one of the first Tshivenda women to be ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of South Africa (ELCSA).  [With my arrival, Lwamondo became the first ELCSA parish to be served by two women pastors.] 

 –To add to that, I was told that I was the first white person to move to the former Republic of Venda since the dismantling of the Group Areas Act in 1991.  [I subsequently found out that two sons of German Lutheran missionaries had returned to Venda years before I did; but in people’s minds, they were returning home and that was a different kind of event.]

–I was placed in a first grade class to learn to speak Tshivenda and became quite a celebrity.

 –Every day I met people who had contributed in significant ways to the dismantling of Apartheid and were now making contributions to the young democracy.

 –When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission submitted its report to the government, a mentor who had been personally invited to the worship celebration by Archbishop Desmond Tutu invited me to join him and his family for the service.  Not only did I get to hear the bishop preach, but I was introduced to him after the service.  (He’s very sparkly in a non-Twilight sort of way.)

There were many other wonderful adventures of life and faith that followed which would cover a lot more space, but for the present reflections, I’ll turn to the topic of how my South African adventure guided me to Loyola.  To tell you the truth, sometimes I still find myself amazed at the unexpected paths my road has taken.

Just when I thought I might spend the rest of my life in SA, circumstances crashed in on the congregational partnership supporting my ministry and I found myself back in the US—wondering how to make meaning of the loss of my dream from a spiritual perspective.  I joined a spiritual direction group at a Franciscan monastery and after months of inner turmoil and partial healing, I came to find out that among my fellow seekers, one is a pastoral counselor, one is a supervisor of chaplains at a major hospital, and one is a professor of neuroscience.  And we were all seeking to find meaning together.

 It was in our group processing that they described Loyola’s unique program (they all knew about it and I didn’t) and it was then that they encouraged me to think about it.  With trepidation and many doubts, I started the exploration and here I am, thanks to many helpers along the way.  Looking back, there were so many things that showed me this was a possibility that has always been there—but just beyond the horizon.  The shadows of the loss of my dream were eclipsing my sense of hope in an unknown future.

 But with every classroom I step into, and every time a professor or colleague mentions the uniqueness of pastoral counseling, or which each new insight and learning opportunity—I am learning that dreams can be realized and then lost—and then transformed into something new and unexpected.  So here I am again—living a dream come true like I did in South Africa.  And here I am again, amazed at what hope and resiliency do to the human spirit.  And best of all, like my arrival to South Africa, I am on a path to an unknown horizon and all around me are fellow travelers who inspire   me to trust in healing, hope and the power of compassion. 

George Bernard Shaw is right, it is devastating to lose a dream.  I just hope he was able to learn like I have, that we are not limited to only one—that new life, like healing, can emerge at any time.