artisanalway


One Word at a Time
April 29, 2012, 10:38 am
Filed under: interdependence, practice, vulnerability | Tags: , ,

What is help?

Sometimes I find myself fascinated by a word, spending time with it like I might with a good friend. Open, attentive, present, curious. It’s remarkable how difficult such a simple act of presence is today. We hang our lives on an overwhelm of words, after all. News reports, mundane communications for lunch or direction and more. Rarely do we devote our attention to just one word at a time. Rarely do we companion it with invitation, inquiry, a blessing of breath, full presence and attention offered without expectation of return. How often are you curious for what might be learned today, in contrast to what you expected yesterday, from one word?

Sitting with the word help, I’m struck by how common yet opaque it is. Helping is something we do every day. I help Dad around the house. She helped him put groceries into the Subaru. We helped a young man pay his rent. They helped students learn calculus for the AP exam. Here help seems to be something someone offers another who needs it. Notice already how a non-noun like ‘something’ is required? Nouns become synonyms for help, things like houseworkeffortmoney, or services of some kind.

Yet help is just as opaque as it is common. Think about those things offered as help that are not received, or able to be received, for some reason. I helped the older woman across the street before she hit me with her cane, saying, “Leave me be! I am fine.” Effort refused, perchance because it was misdirected. He provided answers to help them pass the test. Services of teaching offered here…or cheating that serves no one, in the end? She gave a $20 bill to the woman dressed in rags with her two children. Help or being had? Do we ever truly know? At the very least, help seems to accompany need, whether it is rightly perceived or even received.

Perception and reception are what draw me to the word today. How do we do the first thing for help–determine a need–then identify healthy response(s) to that need, and then either extend or receive such help? What is the responsibility of the one who needs and the one who helps? And of course, the ever-present power-differential: who is helping whom in this connection or interaction? Much like service, you see, help is consistently misunderstood in both perception and reception. The strong help the weak. The full help the empty. The wise help the ignorant. Here, the ‘more’ powerful (or provided, or smart, or…) offer assistance to the ‘less’ powerful (or…). Receptivity is the task of the one who needs, in this perception.

This way of looking at things falters in the face of need as gift or seed for transformation. Just because we don’t like to needto be needy, does not preclude the fact that our needs are strong signs of invitation to self-awareness, connection, learning. Without need, we stay just as we are. Without need, we do not extend ourselves. With need, we yearn for, we reach outside ourselves for… What better evolutionary schematic could there be for change, for learning, for new interactions and more life? If we consider a need to be a strong sign of invitation, to be a gift or seed of new life, then the task(s) of perception and reception in help change.

By naming a need, I join generations of the human race. I become both more than I was—by identifying my particular need-invitation and helping-path—and I connect myself to all those who have come before, all those living. Knowing this need in its specificity allows me to welcome all that may help and invites me to disregard the rest. Strangely, allowing the need, identifying it, puts me in a place to help myself, the only one who truly knows all dimensions of need and the best-path or prospect of help. Knowing my need makes me strong, when I act gently, slowly meeting it, face to face, with a smile.

The unavoidable counterpart here, of course, is that true help comes only with accurate perception and reception, a healthy willingness to discern and receive what the world offers. Both of these things are exceedingly difficult to do well for human beings who only know about 15% of their own brain functioning. [Neurologists estimate that human beings, by and large, live most of their lives dependent upon only 15% of their grey matter.] To respond to the opening inquiry, true help in this sense means that which meets a need toward life, toward wholeness, toward greater connection with self, other, world. Help is that which connects the ‘strong’ to the ‘weak’, the ‘empty’ to the ‘full’, teaching them both of distinct needs and meeting them both in healthy fulfillment of those needs.

Or at least so I surmise from help received this weekend. Unbeknownst to me, a need grew in me I can now see was a heavy feeling of isolation, an overwhelm by a burden I had willingly accepted. I had chosen to make a sacrifice, of sorts, though one unperceived by everyone around me. I had not needed anyone to know, as I didn’t choose the path for recognition (at least in my best self). As it grew heavier than I could sustain, I reached out in need. Help came, unexpected but shared in a smiling strength from afar. My loneliness was met, driven by need known and unknown. The burden became lighter, then moved to completion and release. It didn’t take much–a text-touch, a bit of wisdom-sharing–but I had to discern the need within me, seek the right responder and response, and receive whatever might come (or not come) in trust that I had done all I could on my own behalf. Help was both my action of reaching out and the response willingly received.

In the end, help is many things to many people. True help comes when entering into one’s own need and acting gently, slowly, to open to it, to its attraction of the right or healthy response. Only in such a way do we become fully who we already are, newly strengthened for life. The irony is what suggests its truth: one’s need is the hidden gift of strength. When tended in this fashion, need and help become one, interdependent, a new way of being together in and for the world. Not a burden taken or received. Not an ‘ought’ met in obligation.

A deep breath inhaled then shared outward, for good.

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Obedience in the Light of Love
April 25, 2012, 10:58 am
Filed under: Uncategorized


In 1928, a young Ruth Berger, my grandmother, took the word ‘obedience’ out of her Brethren wedding vows. I know little about the service except it was a double wedding with Ruth and Ben alongside her sister and fiancé. Nonetheless, I have had a strange relationship with obedience ever since. 

Here is Grandma Ruth, who became Ruth Berger Hess upon her wedding.  

My father sent the picture to me because a ministry student asked whether I might be related to the Mrs. Hess who had taken her sister and her under the wing in a rough time. As she spoke the details of her Mrs. Hess—guidance counselor, son was a doctor, Northmont High—it became clear her Mrs. Hess was indeed my Grandma Ruth. We both laughed, enjoying the unexpected connection. The picture is for her, but I startled to see it again myself, newly aware of a deep yearning to know her like I never did, never could have. 

The corsage Mrs. Hess/Grandma is wearing signals that it’s Mother’s Day. Look closely and you’ll see four baby roses, one for each son born and borne. Her hair had gone gray fairly early in life, usually ascribed to these four. Boys, not roses. Her glasses were vintage 1980’s and if the composition allowed it, you’d see one hip slightly higher than the other. Scoliosis, we learned through various family inheritances of this diagnosis. Her eyes danced—one blue, one brown—even when she was severe. The “Little Red Riding Hood” doll she made for me when I was five mirrored these eyes. I still have it.

 I find myself wondering today whether she would be pleased with her granddaughter who yearns and writes. You see, we wounded one another when I was young. Without intention, of course, but I’m not sure we ever quite recovered. I remember it fairly clearly, which is unusual for me. Junior high was my world, and I wanted to spend time with friends on a Sunday evening. A Sabbath evening, I should say, for Grandma’s thinking. Mom and Dad were away on a business trip and she was shepherding the homestead. We loved it when she could. On this particular evening, Grandma refused my desire. “No, you cannot go. It’s Sunday,” she probably said.

Not prepared was she for the will of a confined adolescent girl more like her than she knew. Tempers flared. I probably slammed a door or two, perhaps even saying things I would regret, if I remembered saying them. The evening passed in an angry silence. Whatever else transpired in this desire to be with friends whose names I cannot recall today, my grandmother and I were wounded that night. A natural course of events between generations, of course, but painful and poignant all the same. I discovered years later from my father that she was wary of me from that point on. She feared her granddaughter didn’t love her, though I had obeyed. 

Love and obey. This is the combination historically spoken in wedding vows of old. This is the coupling Grandma Ruth uncoupled, with good reason. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians speaks of the wife’s obedience to the husband, “as the church is obedient to Christ,” or some such line. In most Pauline references, the task of the man’s obedience is often left implicit, unspoken, though it’s almost always written there too. Such texts have torqued relations for centuries, as men dehumanize themselves in the domination of women, and women dehumanize themselves in relinquishment of their own agency in relation to men. My grandmother reasserted her own agency. My grandfather was receptive to her—and his own—humanity. Yet she struggled to see them together all the same. Perhaps both my grandmother’s and my generation have steeped long enough in love as it was thought to be, avowed against  obedience as it has been. Perhaps love and obey can come alongside one another, when properly Referenced. 

Thomas Kelly’s essay “A Holy Obedience” marks the first life-giving words I received for obedience that is holy, what he calls “a life of absolute and complete and holy obedience to the voice of the Shepherd” whose accent falls completely upon God as initiator, aggressor, seeker, stirrer into life, ground, and giver of power (to us) to become children of God. (Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, p. 26). Holy obedience to the voice of the Shepherd. In a culture and overculture of multiple, conflicting voices, how is one to know this voice of the Shepherd? Especially if one is not Christian? 

Kelly notes that this voice offers a “serious, concrete program of life,” for one, wholly different from “mild, conventional religion.” He calls that “the first half.” Obedience that is holy, on the other hand, is the other half, the second half (as Meister Eckhart would and did say). It is observable in an insatiable God-hunger that drives one into a “passionate quest for the real whole-wheat Bread of Life.” (p. 28). It marks a life whose joys are ravishing, whose peace is profound, whose humility is deepest, whose power is world-shaking, whose love is enveloping, whose simplicity is that of a trusting child (p. 28). States of consciousness will fluctuate. Visions will fade. But this holy and listening and alert obedience will remain as “core and kernel of a God-intoxicated life, as the abiding pattern of sober, work-aday living.” (p. 32). Perhaps this arrives as a passive receptivity for some. 

Most of us, however, (says Kelly) must follow an active path to this obedience, wrestling “like Jacob of old… whose will was subjected bit by bit, piecemeal and progressively, to the divine Will.” (p. 32). The first step to this obedience of the second half comes, perhaps, in the “flaming vision of the wonder of such a life,” or in meditation on the life and death of Jesus, or through “a flash of illumination” or, in George Fox’s language, “a great opening.” However it comes, it comes as an “invading, urging, inviting, persuading work of the Eternal One,” wholly unaccountable to modern psychology. However the active path arrives, the second step to holy obedience becomes just this: “Begin where you are. Obey now. … Live this present moment, this present hour, in utter, utter submission and openness toward [God].” A third step then: “when you slip and stumble and forget God for an hour, and assert your old proud self…don’t spend too much time in anguished regrets and self-accusations but begin again, just where you are” (p. 34). Knowing well the American ear, he refines the way with yet a fourth step, “Don’t grit your teeth and clench your fists and say, “I will! I will!” Relax. Take hands off. … Learn to live in the passive voice—a hard saying for Americans—and let life be willed through you” (p. 34). 

Most of my life, I’ve gotten stuck on the popular collusion of God and religion. Loving and obeying God meant obeying a religious institution, or a community’s fundamentals whose norms spelled out what I knew in my own experience to be lifeless. Or at least not life-giving to me. Simultaneously, I have recognized what Gerald May spoke in his Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology: we yearn to surrender ourselves to something or someone larger than we are. Whether we find healthy or unhealthy ways to deal with this yearning remains a regular contemporary challenge. Material prosperity found yet empty, addictions, serial relationships, and more show a quest, a search for something of meaning or release. 

In my own life, I learned surrender in both a beautiful and painful way. I had found a teacher, I thought, and covenanted my surrender to her teaching. What life I received! What energy, drive, direction, and significance. Heady spiritual stuff, to be sure. Until she became human, just as she was, as she ought to be. I had surrendered with inaccurate reference. Beautiful. Painful. But I received a glimpse of the life that is possible when surrender—even submission—arrives with the only Referent healthily chosen. 

Kelly refers to this One as the Hound of Heaven. The One who never lets us go. The One whose love infuses all until light is all within all. He describes “a holy blindedness, like the blindedness of the one who looks steadily into the sun. For wherever he turns his eyes on earth, there he sees only the sun” (p. 36-7). This One does work in the church, in the religious institutions of historical traditions. This One also invites us into lives of devotion outside of these bounds too. I dare say I sense such Spirit in lives of atheists too, though I could never ascribe my language to their non-theist experience without misunderstanding and anachronism. 

In this Referent, love and obedience do go together. They promise a liveliness in life unmatched by any substitute. How did Kelly say it? “A life whose joys are ravishing, whose peace is profound, whose humility is deepest, whose power is world-shaking, whose love is enveloping, whose simplicity is that of a trusting child (p. 28). Part of me thinks my grandmother knew that well. In her final years, alone but divinely companioned, she knew this Referent as she cooked dinner, cared for friends and family, told her stories again and again. Her language had grown rigid, untenable to one of her loving granddaughters, but I know she knew. 

Perhaps someday I’ll learn more about Mrs. Hess as others knew her, but for now, I think Grandma Ruth would be pleased with the granddaughter who yearns and writes. We know so many of the same people after all, but especially, we know the One who pairs love and obedience into a freedom beyond reckoning. Regardless of worldly matters so often considered, each of us would see only the sun were we to gaze upon one another today.



Loving and Leaving the Intersection

Today marks the day of one of the most ambivalent Christian habits of mind: a sacrificial dying for the sake of a received living. Not very eloquently written, perhaps, but each word and grammatical choice is significant. Ambivalent traditionally refers to an emotional state from being pulled in two directions, or a lack of expressiveness from feeling two contradictory emotions at the same time. It may look like one doesn’t care at all, but in the etymological sense, one may be aware and devoted infinitely in opposite directions. Here, I use all that to describe the bi-directional day of death that purports to be about life. This day, of all days, creates ways of thinking within my tradition that, without awareness, urge us to err boldly in one direction or the other. Some revel in the violence of this day, and glorify a gory and excruciating death. Others disregard the violence of the death completely, bypassing any remembrance in order to rush onwards to Easter. The task, I find, is to maintain an ambivalent habit of mind: be infinitely aware of and be with the death while simultaneously, infinitely, looking for life.

Adjectives and gerunds are required, at least as I stand within Mother Church. ‘Sacrificial’ always seems to be required, probably thanks to Paul. Today is the day that sacrifice, however it may be (mis)understood, is glorified. ‘Received’ is offered in light of one of the main interpretations of this Christian day of atonement: a sinless life was offered up, to be received by God as payment or substitutionary punishment for sin. Life for us, not death, is to be received as gift. The gerunds remind us that while we prefer nouns, God does not. This day is about all the dimensions of dying, intimately related to all those of living. Not death, or life, like some word could actually represent the ‘suchness’ of either.

An earlier engagement with kashrut in devotion to an ‘other’ was (partially) about how liturgy impacts the way we think, the way we see the world through ir/religious lenses implicitly chosen or imposed. Not surprisingly, I wrestle the most with Good Friday liturgies. If your Good Friday is all about the violence of Jesus’ death, why? If you avoid any of the implications from Good Friday’s liturgy, why? How do your answers show you your mind?

For myself, the day has gotten increasingly heavy these last years—both chock full of intimate insights into my own Teacher, Lord, and largely void of any shared meaning with my own tradition or worshipping community. I hate that Christian tradition(s)—perhaps seen in most stark relief in Gibson’s The Passion—glorify Jesus’ death, revel in the violence, instigate stringently ascetic practices of repentance like physical self-flagellation. I have become sensately aware of how this propensity to glorify violence exacts violence on the world, Mother Earth, the ‘other’ or ‘scapegoat’ whom the community exiles or executes (thinking of work of Rene Girard here). I stopped participating in the litanies shared by the community a couple years back. Just couldn’t say the words, though I felt I needed to be at the service and be shaped by the community on this day. I continue to ask myself, “If I avoid Jesus’ death and its implications, why?”

Yet this day, the Good Friday liturgy, has taught me my Teacher as well. I resisted the litany last year, feeling distanced from the glorification of violence and the propensity to worship Jesus himself—a phenomenon I do not believe he ever desired, or desires now. Instead, I found myself listening within for how the disciples experienced the humiliating death of their teacher, their rabbi, their Lord. What would it be like to see one for whom devotion flowed out of you like a living spring, dying on a cross? In a flash, I saw faces of my own beloved intimates—a Buddhist lama, a rabbi, another rabbi, a woman. One after another, and the tears flowed. “The inanity of it all, the senselessness of death,” I thought. “If I only didn’t know the one who was dying, perhaps.” Then the ton of bricks fell: What would our world be like if we could so mourn the death of one we had never known, or those we do not like, such that our lives became intimately intertwined with theirs, such that they could feel and know undying devotion for them at their very last breath? That was worth bearing the felt-distance with my community in a liturgy I can no longer speak. That is the question that has been with me, taught me, all year. To feel and know devotion for another who is dying, to have that love cross the chasm between who we know and who we don’t, who we find easy to love and those we don’t. In a strange way, the faces of those dying began to smile back at me.

So I continue to receive nourishment from and stand within Mother Church. Much like my grandfather, Benjamin Musser Hess, I cannot speak truthfully all that Mother Church offers. (He would say the Apostles’ Creed, omitting the phrases he could not speak truthfully while offering thanksgiving for the Church that continued to profess all of them around him). I do not pretend clarity about dying that is righteous and that which is senseless, or, for that matter, life that is righteous and that which is not. I receive both her milk, as the infant in Christ I will always be (Hebrews 5), alongside the solid food that the raven brings, necessary to sustain life on the peripheries of community life I can no longer share (I Kings). What I have learned for this day, what I share with you amidst seeing it with my own eyes, is that Good Friday is not to be a glorification of the death of Jesus, nor about his life sacrificially given for the sins of many.  It marks a renewing, covenantally-driven way to live an old lifeline into human relationship.

“You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk,” it is taught. A scripturally authoritative text for many, commonly associated with the so-called ‘legalistic’ practice of separating meat and milk dishes in kitchen and at table. If you immerse yourself inside it, however, you see and can know in your bones the everpresent mindfulness of a lifeline humans are commanded to cherish, to observe. A lifeline through which one becomes most fully human in relation with the Holy. One side, mother’s milk, honors the nourishment that comes from our forbears, all those who have fed and sustained us in body and spirit. The other side, the meat, honors the life given up for our nourishment, and that of others. Both sides are ever cognizant of death, but in such a way to honor life. Without nourishment, we die. With meat, some creatures die for others. With nourishment, we live. With meat, we remember the life of others.

So I ask my fellow Christians: If Good Friday is all about glorifying Jesus’ death for you, how is that not boiling a calf in Mother’s milk? Or lamb, in this case? How is that not succumbing to a felt-imposed choice between life or death when the fully human task is to welcome both, to know one cannot be truly cherished without the other? Death is not punishment deferred onto another, or something to be avoided, but simply one ‘figure’ to life’s ‘ground,’ both of whose whole reality is held in the Oneness of God. (Thank you, Tanya). For me, as this Lenten season concludes, the cross has become a reality not about death into new life or a glorification of Jesus’ death connected to the depth of my sin (however deep it may be). Neither does it require that an absolute commitment to life avoid or overshadow the ever-present reality of death, or the particular significance of this death.

The cross, here, today, marks an ambivalent lifeline demonstrative of devotion. Its bi-directionality—vertical and horizontal—is to connect heaven and earth just as much as it is to connect each of us to one another. We Christians tend to focus on the intersection, the place where we see our teacher and Lord, the only place where we think you can focus. But it may be time for us to breathe awareness into the lines instead, to be with the death while looking for life, to receive the living as we honor the dying. It may be time to see the figure/ground or either/or way we have traditionally entered into Good Friday, and sit instead with an inexplicable lifeline that arises in all directions underneath and around it. Not as proof of or sole movement to a particular one’s Resurrected Life, but as invitation to lives of devotion for the known and the stranger, our intimates and irritants.

May the cross, this day, bring in you the milk of loving-kindness through which tradition nourishes life, and the meat of humility that comes with the reality that others die—everyday—so that you may live.

 



Spiritual Practice…For Times Like These
March 24, 2012, 11:24 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

“A spiritual practice for times like these,” reads the introductory sub-title in a book I’ve been steeping in, again. It’s entitled The Seven Whispers: Listening to the Voice of Spirit, written by Christina Baldwin back in 2002. Just that much suggests “times like these” means “post-9-11,” at least. Listening to the voice of Spirit seems a good description of a spiritual practice, in one sense. Practices come in all shapes and sizes, fit for persons of similarly varying temperaments and proclivities. Many engaged activities intend a deeper awareness, an awakening to voices within us deeper than the incessant ego-drives we live with every day. Drives that have us constantly comparing ourselves with others, assessing the love or intentions of others, judging behaviors as fit or unfit, etc. So a spiritual practice that frees us from ego-voices through listening to the voice of Spirit—defined for now as Person of the Triune God, a life-giving Force for good within and beyond us and nature—seems attractive, even compelling. But “seven whispers”? How are they a practice? Speaking them daily? Leaning on them in times dry and ecstatic? Thinking of them while engaging other activities like meditation, prayer, service, and the like?

I don’t know the answer to such questions for others, but for myself, I do know that the seven whispers of Christina Baldwin offer one of the most fruitful and rigorous ways to pray I’ve ever received. Speaking as a life-long Presbyterian, though now a wisdom-walker with more adjectives than I care to name, the seven whispers enter into then depart my life with a regularity that suggests tenable wisdom, durable practice, consistency of purpose. So I offer them (and her work) for a bit of invitation during this next season of life, whether one understands it as Lent or preparation for Easter or Passover or simply “what’s next.”

The whispers go like this:

  • Maintain peace of mind.
  • Move at the pace of guidance.
  • Practice certainty of purpose.
  • Surrender to surprise.
  • Ask for what you need and offer what you can.
  • Love the folks in front of you.
  • Return to the world.

 Seven imperative verbs—action-oriented invitations. Short sentences for memory’s sake. Each of them a practice unto itself, to be sure, but taken together, a holistic, ecumenical or inter-traditional path of listening.

Baldwin offers the narrative in which the whispers arrived, were given to her, in the book by this name. Each chapter offers prose, stories, questions to deepen one’s understanding of the whisper in question. Her writing style is familiar, but encouraging; revealing but bounded. Just what a good spiritual teacher offers, in other words.

For myself, I sometimes ruminate or mediate on only the verbs. Maintain. Move. Practice. Surrender. Ask & Offer. Love. Return. These speak a rootedness or groundedness in what has been given before, where one has been planted before. Maintain. But anything not moving or changing is dying or dead, so movement is necessary, unavoidable. Practice. Nothing grows or strengthens without consistent intention, activity, mistakes and missteps, then recovery and balance. Practice. Then the age-old resistant one: surrender. Not as imposed obedience. Not as power-over. But welcomed-within. Liberation from being in charge or having to know it all. Freedom to be who one is, without qualification or clarification. Surrender. The final three, thankfully, complete what is essentially a relational process from the very beginning with overt relational imperatives: ask, offer; love; return. Few of us learn easily to ask for what we need. More of us offer ourselves, but few offer only what we can, healthily and from abundance. More likely it’s offering what they need, regardless of whether one actually can do so from abundance, and asking for what one (in a starved imagination) think one might deserve, which is always less than Grace desires. Then love. Not out of need, but out of delight. And return, knowing that when one’s own needs are stewarded, it’s so giddy to return to the world, one can hardly stand it.

So, a spiritual practice for times like these. Begin the day with the whispers, even if you can’t remember them all. At the midday, repeat the imperative verbs, and listen for what Spirit might invite you to hear. And ask what Baldwin asked of God, to discern her own contribution for the world:

 What is it that you want me to do? How do I need to change in order to do it?

 Amen, Amen, Amen…and a little woman. 



Mindful Reading
February 13, 2012, 8:00 am
Filed under: practice | Tags: , ,


When you read, whom or what do you have in mind? This question startled me today, while working out with a friend. I need to do a bit of study—what we would call hermeneutical study, in the biz—into literary criticism, various interpretive strategies over the years, but something in the question struck me with new force I had not felt before.

A picture of a favorite text appeared into my dumb-phone this week, with delight. As I considered the text, I realized it really was well-suited to the friend who had sent the pic. I picked out the volume from my shelf and browsed it again, with someone new in mind. I saw things I remembered, things I had forgotten, but each one felt different with the potential of a new reader I’m getting to know better. 

Then another favorite essay came back into mind and recall, mentioned in an earlier posting here. Thomas Kelly’s A Testament of Devotion, specifically the chapter-essay on “Holy Obedience.” I had re-read bits and pieces, in search of precise specifics of earlier thoughts, musings. When a friend wrote a bit about life’s difficulties and commitments these days, the prayer that flowed into prose back to him had Kelly’s language in it. When the friend wrote back for clarity, I mentioned the essay and offered it to his attention. I re-read the piece again, this time closely, with him—an Orthodox Jew—in mind. The experience of it, the things heard and seen, were recognizable but different too. 

When you read, whom or what do you have in mind? 

In one sense, this is a basic college-prep inquiry. How do you assess the text and its legitimacy for what your needs are—information, conceptualizing a problem in various ways, relaxation, beauty, self-improvement… The list could easily go on. In another sense, though, I find it a newly fascinating question. First, is what you have in mind a whom or a what? Do you think it makes a difference? Second, for the “whom” responses, how big or small is your “whom”? 

Think about reading scripture, for instance. I’m thinking about “in your own history or tradition,” but it could be scripture read as holy text of another tradition too. Do you have yourself in mind, searching desperately for a word from God? The famous “I just opened the bible and this page spoke a specific Word to me” approach to understanding life’s challenges and human responses to them? Nothing drives a religious leader more batty these days than this grasping for the metaphysical proof of worth. Or the pinning of God down into evidential proofs of care. At least it infuriates one religious leader I know and love dearly. 

Perhaps one reads the text a bit more critically, engaging what scholars call “exegesis” to determine—as best we can—the historical, textual-critical, form-critical, archaeological contributions to understanding the text within original context, original intent of the author, etc. In this sense, what is in mind is “what was happening” or “what was intended” or a critical-realist sense of truth-claims. (At best, in my view). But now I hear mentor-teacher Fred Craddock in my head: “Lots of folks say we can’t get back to intention or what really happened. I don’t know about a lot, but whether I can find the intention or not, I know that the author had one.” In this context, it seems Craddock, like he always does, is attempting to bring the critical apparatus back to the person of the author, the web of relations in which he (most likely) wrote, the impassioned connection between the experience of God and the distanced-form of a text describing (probable) events of “long ago.” 

Both of these senses of “mindful reading” feel different from the kind of reading posed to me these last couple days, mentioned above. The first has only self-reference, reading for what the reading offers you. The second has a distance to it, whether historical or objectifying of other events and persons. Reading with particular persons in mind feels different from both those options to me. 

I remember when I was in high school my father would “assign” me readings he enjoyed from C.S. Lewis or George McDonald, then we would go out for breakfast “to talk about them.” I was just beginning my theological education, though neither of us knew that’s what was happening. I loved those breakfasts, and the texts were good too. I didn’t think about it much, but part of what drew me to those readings was his own passion, his own “being-shaped” by them. They were ways to get to know my father a little better. Reading something another has read, has valued, does bring an intimacy into the experience of reading. 

And therefore one does have to be intentional about reading “because the other’s enjoyment requires it” and welcoming their enjoyment while still reading “for what feeds you too,” “that you enjoy for yourself too.” Intimacy is always the dance between deep connection of selves separate enough to be connected and selves so enmeshed that one can’t tell who likes what and for what reason. Learning to say “Nope, that’s not for me” can be just as valuable as saying “This feeds me too,” in this sense. 

The point drawing me forward here, however, has to do with reading considered religious in some way—scriptural reading, whether formal or not; lectio divina, or reading of smaller texts with prayerful intention and listening; textual reading for theological formation, engaged by students pursuing graduate degrees in higher education. If we experience the text differently, depending upon whom or what we have in mind, ought we not to name and claim that at the front? Ought we not to hold in a sense of mindfulness those for whom the text might be read this time? Ought we to listen for whether we’re only considering “our own,” however we may classify that phrase, “ourselves,” as we struggle against life’s inanities, our “intimate others” whom God or Providence or Grace has brought into our lives for reasons of mutual encouragement? 

I think I may have a new “thought project” to consider when I’m finished procrastinating here away from the one I’m supposed to be working on today. I invite you to engage your practice—whatever that is, whether mindfulness, prayer, mitzvot, service, etc.—and welcome the reading texts that shepherd you along your way, choosing a person or two to have in mind while you read. Allow yourself to be interdependent with him/her/them for receiving what that text’s nurture is for you this day. See if there are easier or harder persons to choose to keep in mind. Be gentle with yourself too. Choose the easy ones first. But as your capacity deepens, choose the neutral ones whom you have little affection or aversion for. Then every once in a while, choose the one(s) who drive you batty, and allow them to teach you new things about texts you never read before, or things you never saw in the texts you know well. To be honest, I’m “vamping” here on the Buddhist practice of Tonglen; credit where credit is due. But I’ve never considered it within the highly scripturally-focused environments in which I serve. 

Whom or what did you have in mind as you read this piece?




Assessment Together and Alone — Alone Together?
December 7, 2011, 8:47 pm
Filed under: life of Spirit, practice, renewal | Tags: , , ,

Earlier this semester, I received a newspaper clipping from one of you about the challenges of technology entering into human life, relationships, potential. The New York Times’ Sunday Review featured an analytical essay on the increasing “digital divide” appearing in our civic and material culture(s). We are approaching the end of a semester here, with its invitations to listen and reflect, evaluate and learn what we’ve been learning in texts, contexts, and subtexts. It’s time for a bit of musing, I think, with Sherry Turkle’s (relatively) new book as springboard, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other (NY: Basic Books, 2010). How have these three or four months of intentional formation in MINgroup processes, service-learning, and accompanying coursework shaped your spirit, your habits of mind, your body-awareness(es)?

A psychoanalyst who has taught at MIT for over 25 years, Sherry Turkle begins her third-book-in-a-series with a propositional statement: “Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies.” This text offers an ethnographic and clinical study of the evolution of an unfolding “robotic moment”—a ripeness for meeting human needs through technological devices and artificial intelligence(s)—and the manner in which ever-connectivity (via the Web, the Net, social-networking, etc.) is shaping our habits of mind and capacities for personhood, identity, intimate relationship. Alone Together is her third in a series of texts, following The Second Self, which traces the subjective side of personal computing, and then Life on the Screen, tracing how people forge new identities in online spaces. She’s always been inordinately interested in how computers have shaped being human, and she used to be optimistic about their capacity to allow human-self explorations and (mostly) healthy development. She’s decidedly less optimistic in this volume, with a weary recognition of the ever-human paradox: our seemingly insatiable yearning for intimacy and almost in the same breath, our fear of it, our avoidance of it, our increased defenses against it. In summary, she observes that “in the company of the robotic, people are alone, yet feel connected: in solitude, new intimacies,” and “We are increasingly connected to each other but oddly more alone: in intimacy, new solitudes” (p. 18-19).

To be clear, this is not a piece bemoaning the loss of communities because of technology, nor is it a diatribe against technological evolutions in our midst. As leaders in religious communities and students, some of whom have chosen online-learning environments in which to complete coursework, you need to reflect critically on how you are being shaped, in texts and contexts, but also in assumptions and subtexts of your choices. So this is a piece in which I urge you to think carefully about how your habits of mind are being shaped in context, in your engagement of technological innovation, in your spiritual practice(s) as you share in a common life with your MINgroup, your faith community. You are venturing into worlds unforeseen and unbeknownst to your professors and all must listen carefully to Spirit’s leadings for how we bring our gifts to the world’s table.

So what do these phrases stir up in your awareness: in solitude, new intimacies; in intimacy, new solitudes? As you engage texts in your multiple contexts—home, church, work, coffee shop, school—how do you feel? I can imagine many saying immediately, “Stressed.” Yes. But underneath that. Underneath the sensations of duty, responsibility, deadlines, what awarenesses bubble up, when you sit for a period of 10 minutes doing nothing? New intimacies? New ways of being known by folks you could not have predicted or chosen yourself? And solitudes? Do you have any of those? What are they like? In what ways do you feel alone that you have not before?

Turkle’s work explores the early and late stages of human life in which robots have emerged, for good or ill. The young who have played with Tamagotchi ‘bots’ or little digital toys that mimic human connection since they were toddlers. The elderly who have staved off loneliness or separation from family with a ‘sociable robot’—well marketed in Japan—created for its ostensibly positive effects on the ill, elderly, and emotionally troubled (p. 8-9). In each case, human beings facing self-differentiation or separation from familiar relationships feel connected by sociable robots able to mimic human-emotive response to fear, loneliness, pain. Alone, they yet feel “companioned.” How well do you sustain your own sense of loneliness, if/when it comes? Do you know it can be a gift of new leadings of Spirit? Thomas Merton’s classic comes to mind: Dialogues with Silence. Pick it up. Sit with it. Notice your impatience with its poetic prose and incredibly slow pacing.

Turkle also challenges us to hear how we often choose against non-technological contact—the e-mail over the phone call, the text over the e-mail. As we are encouraged to be more and more efficient in our work, by use of technology, so we feel encouraged to become efficient in our relationships. But is that the life-giving, delight-full direction? In many instances, Turkle learned of those whose virtual lives were more fulfilling or more robust than “RL,” “real life.” Detaching from virtual worlds in which their self-image could be “just so,” these folks grew depressed or fidgety to “be back to who they were/are” in virtual times/space. What happens to complexity of human relationship amidst these options? What if someone in your RL betrays you, or misleads you? Do you maintain connection to work it out, thereby living into a redeemed form of new life made available to us in Christ, made possible when we forgive and are forgiven? Or do we move our energies to ever more connectivity yet little RL discomforts of such inconvenient but deepening human intimacies? Do we move to expect more of technology to meet our intimacy-needs, expecting less and less of those in our “real” circles? And how does this play into MINgroups who meet twice a year, face-to-face, but connect only online the rest of the time? When you have a disagreement, do you let it slide, moving to Facebook to make your point to those who agree with you?

These are the kinds of questions we need to constantly assess for ourselves, with our measured use of technological advancements and the increased potential with connective-media. The opportunities are here for sharing our traditions’ resources for a fully human life, known in delight, with ever-more and potentially diverse persons beyond our geographical contexts. But every step forward in technological exploration may need three or four steps backward to reassess, to reflect on how we are coming to think, to see, to perceive the world around us. Turkle’s concerns center on our ripeness for choosing robots who make us feel good over “RL” that shapes us with discomfort, reality’s difficulties, as well as intense delight and possibility. My concerns mirror hers, but I know the depth of wisdom available in our tradition. What costs must we pay to serve faithfully and fully in a world becoming as it is, without any chance of controlling it, governing it? What gifts and graces do we yearn to offer, as well as what responsibility do we have to bring the Light of the World into these challenging times, concerns, pressures into human being and life?

So take some time this week, this holiday season, to disconnect. See if you can go for 2-3 days without any technological connectivity. See how your mind and spirit respond. How do your relationships change, if at all? Then return to the connectivity with intention for Spirit-listening. How does your prayer life, your practice life, change, challenge, thrive? As always: what are you learning, in Spirit’s tether, in these things?



Chancing Chant
December 3, 2011, 4:36 pm
Filed under: life of Spirit, practice | Tags: , , ,

Chanting scripture has changed my prayer life.

Nearly two decades of my work has been about the power of music in its performative mode, yet it always surprises me when music teaches me something new in this mode (by which I mean in its relational, embodied, and multidimensional manner in which insight, unexpectedly, arrives). On the one hand, such things make a scholar feel silly. We, too, get seduced into the shackles of expertise. We lapse into presumption of knowing all about our subject of inquiry that we can forget there’s always more to learn. Especially in what Jean-Luc Marion would call theology, as opposed to theology—apophatic nod to God in the first, cataphatic nod to God in the second. (Yes, I want you to look up those words).

On the other hand, these things give more credence and faith in what we already know, at least if what we’ve written/learned is true. If it’s true, in other words, it will continue to lead into new learnings. And so, in this case, I’m pleased to be surprised once again. My basic argument has been that music will forever extend the boundaries of theological knowledge, theological discipline, precisely because its manner of teaching/learning is performative—primarily relational, embodied in oral-aural form, multidimensional in self and community, so never to be written entirely in stone where it would become simply a fossil. Therefore, if theologically-curious folks are really interested in knowing more about what Spirit is about, they should do so in the performative mode of music. It will confirm and refine any theological knowledge you think you have.

But…what’s all this about, you ask, 2-3 paragraphs in? This is a scholar’s befuddlement, sharing that chanting scripture has altered my prayer life for good.

A bit of backdrop, to set the stage. While attending the American Academy of Religion meeting in San Francisco, I took Sunday morning “off” as Christian Sabbath, identifying a Eucharist service I could attend on the early side of the morning. Two public busses and a bit of a walk later, I found myself in a community of dancing saints—those living and stewarding a liturgy of Word and Sacrament, those ‘written’ or painted on the rotunda of the church building showing ways of loving God in loving neighbor, the world over. It was a blessed morning—though also a bit of a pain the derriere, which I won’t go into—the conclusion of which was being invited into the community’s practice of weekday morning prayer. I received the prayer book, a book of musical liturgical offerings, an anointing of hands & spirit to then be on my way.  It seemed such an extraordinary invitation that I actually accepted it. What a preposterous idea—to pray at 11 a.m. most weekday mornings with a community in whose worship I had been nourished one Sunday morning in November. So be it.

The liturgy is a familiar one, at least for a Presbyterian who had been shaped as a closet-Episcopalian for nearly ten years: opening sentences, opening song, contemplative silence, sung Psalms, silence, canticle, scripture, prayers, closing song, closing sentences and benediction. The Gospel reading comes with attention to the Daily Lectionary, revised standard version (I think we call it). Whatever text for the day now arrives into my e-mail Inbox from www.dailylectionary.org. Convenient, for all kinds of reasons. What is unfamiliar is the chanting.

This community’s worship practice might best be described—granting I only know a glimpse/sensation of it—as ecumenical-intertraditional, Eastern orthodoxy in contemporary voice. Incense was ‘lit’ at the sacristy. Bells open and close times of silence. Vestments—though they presented with a sense of Ti-Die hippiedom—distinguish leaders. Actual ordained clergy are difficult to identify. An open-hearted community of lay leadership this is. The life of the liturgy, as I experienced it, came through what they call “paperless music,” intoned and led singing in which pitch is determined on the spot and everyone really does sing. Those who are obviously musical, in strong voice, and those whose gifting does not seem to include musicality, also in strong voice. Because it is for praise of God, not aesthetic limitation. “Paperless music” places the performative aspect of music, shared, before all else. Just like I have written. Just like I learned in my own journey of theological formation. This community allows its liturgy to be shaped primarily by the performative, by the participation of its Friends.

So weekday mornings has found me in a quiet space with some privacy, entering into this liturgical practice, feeling silly while I sing the opening sentences (both parts), sing the O-Antiphon of the week, sing the Psalms. I’ve even experimented with chanting the Gospel, as invited by the order of worship to do so. You know what I’m learning? The ancient ones of our Christian tradition were on to something mysterious, wise, counter-intuitive to us today.

The liturgy itself invites the leader to sing in telling places. When asking us to pray for our enemies. When inviting us to forgive as we’ve been forgiven. Places of highest vulnerability, deep woundedness, spiritual resistance. We sing, with shaky voices out of tune, perhaps out of synch with what God really intends. We offer voices into vulnerable space.

Chanting the Psalms has been the most remarkable for me, however. As long as I can remember, I have felt dissonance in reading the Psalms. Sometimes the poetry seemed flattened in the tools (historical-critical, exegetical) I was asked to bring to them. Sometimes the language refused to be flattened and was simply violent, full of lament, raw. Difficult to let in during a devotional period of listening. Following this liturgical practice, I began to realize I’m finally opening to the Psalms as they were intended, perhaps Intended. Songs. To be sung. Companioned by others. And it’s changed how I receive scripture as well.

I’ve increasingly wrestled over the years with how to read my own Scriptures, mostly because they seem so abused, so often, that I hesitate to join my efforts into the abuse. I can only take about 1-2 sentences at a time when most of my communities require whole chunks, pericopes (pah-RICK-oh-peez) we call them, in which historical legitimacy or validity may be argued. I’ve been choking for years on that much Word, eaten that quickly. And the Psalms in particular. They are simply too vivid to read quickly, within liturgy or for my own sustenance.

Except when they are sung, I’m learning. I’ve sung eight days’ worth of Psalms, learning the chant-style of this practice community, and the Psalms are going in. I feel them. I sense them. I don’t understand them but I am nourished by them. Eight days. Only eight days and I found myself weeping this morning, encountering my own scripture for the first time in a long time. It’s like it was an old friend, finally finding the window my soul had been scraping at for years.

So what if chanting scripture is not some Catholic or Orthodox practice we Protestants needed to excise in order to be true to sola scriptura, sola fides, sola gratis, but an ancient wisdom with shaping force for spiritual maturity and path to new life? What if the Wisdom of God, playing in the face of the Creator for as long as there’s been Life, comes into embodied form in us when we offer our voices in prayer, praise, and word in this fashion? Is it worth it to you to feel silly, feeling you can’t sing, yet chant Holy Writ until it nourishes you past your mind, your theology, into Wisdom somehow intimately inside you?

I dare you. 🙂 Chanting will change your prayer life, for good.