Culture Shock 101 at the Table

I have been thinking about ‘culture shock’ lately. Not the real kind, by which I mean the “travel, adjustment, return home” variety that many students experience after a lengthy “study-abroad” experience. Or that a military service-person knows who trains at home, is deployed to Afghanistan and ‘adjusts’ to survive, then returns home again. Both of those are noteworthy, marked with an intensity that does not match my meaning here.

No, the ‘culture shock’ I have been thinking about comes within environments of higher education in which one leaves a ‘home’ environment of some kind, voluntarily enters a different-but-related community committed to learning and critical exploration, then returns back to the home environment in which some kind of sense-making has to occur. During a recent campus lunch with students, I landed in a conversation with several levels of what could only be described as ‘culture shock.’ The remarkable thing—the element that seems worth musing about here—is that it was clearly a shared culture shock.

So here I’m going to share a secret: faculty experience culture-shock with students just as students experience culture-shock with faculty or institutional learning environments. Let me tell you one of my own favorite stories of culture shock. A couple of you will know this already, as I shared it at lunch, but your body-language of surprise and bemusement taught me it might be worth sharing more broadly.

About five years ago, I was teaching an introductory-level course on spiritual disciplines and educational ministries. One element of the course was exploration and commitment to a particular spiritual discipline of choice—either student chosen practice or, strangely-said but recognizable, practice-chosen student. A discipline, in other words, that seemed to make a claim on a student’s learning somehow. Each student was to identify a discipline to which s/he would commit, then weekly, ‘accountability groups’ of that practice would check-in with one another, to reflect on the practice and the learnings.

As faculty, it was my responsibility to sculpt the definition of discipline wide enough to include aspects of classical Christian disciplines most students hadn’t considered as ‘disciplines’ before—hospitality, contemplative practices, generosity, manual labor/work/service, artistic expression, etc.—and narrow enough that purely scriptural-centered disciplines could be chosen as well, such as devotional-reading, praying the psalms, etc. Some of our community require highly structured disciplines within highly literal nuances of the Word; others of our community are urged by Spirit to risk less-structured disciplines with more flexibility, different nuance and dimensions. As faculty, it’s my job to create space for all to learn.

Imagine my surprise when a student from West Virginia announced his spiritual discipline would be hunting. This may not surprise some of you at all. Me? I was horrified. Talk about culture shock. I could not have imagined that any Christian would choose an activity that required taking life in God’s creation. I was also horrified because when I reviewed my hand-written definition of a spiritual discipline there on the dry-erase board, I had not specified: and does not do harm or does not take life. [And remember, for those who may not, my own, more recent Christian tradition is Brethren, peace-church ancestry. Roots still in Nicene confession, but through the River-Brethren faithful…] Ultimately, the student’s request/announcement had to stand. I had established the boundaries and what he said was clearly within them. Culture-shock.

What do I remember of the feeling of this experience? As I’ve said: horror, but one that went both ways. I felt an incredible, negative energy directed outward toward the student who named the practice and inward, toward myself for not articulating more clearly an important distinction I still hold true (i.e. that spiritual discipline is about life-giving commitment to a practice in which Spirit shapes our hearts, minds, souls toward the image of God, the Christ, within each of us). This negative energy could be described as sadness, a bit of anger, disbelief, desire for distance, etc. I also felt guilty. Not only the ‘easy’ kind, meaning: I had crafted a learning environment found wanting, in my own view. But also a complicated kind: I was now participating in a conversation and learning situation that went against my own convictions. I felt in a bind, one I had both chosen and not chosen.

The class took its course over the next three months, with the student committed to his practice and with me listening alongside, feeling a bit helpless and not a little divided. It was uncomfortable, probably for both of us. By the end of the course, however, the student admitted with a smile that his practice was not about the hunting at all. It was the only time he and his son had together all week. It was the only time they could share the quiet beauty of nature and talk about God as father and son, amidst lives overrun with responsibility and challenge. I remember feeling relief, but also a kind of wonder and appreciation of the student and his articulate experience. I knew and felt more of a glimpse into his world, because of this experience and because he had let me see it, know it. For my part, I can say that this was probably one of the most significant events in my own professional development, one which has grown me the most, expanded my heart and mind the most, not to mention my capacity for carrying two contradictory positions in my spirit at the same time. My definition of spiritual discipline now clarifies “must do no harm; must not take life” whenever I make use of this curriculum, but I’m wiser and thankful for the unwelcome ambivalence of culture-shock received. I didn’t change my belief, in other words, but I learned a lot about a lot of things—different norms for communities equally Christian and faithful, my own teaching vocation, role in the classroom, dynamics of Spirit-led teaching (discomfort, sustenance of the discomfort, a-ha moment when a larger frame appears, articulation or interpretation of this larger frame of reference…),different ways of being with another faithful while not sharing worlds, etc.

So what am I trying to say here? I’m not sure all I’m saying, but at least this: one of the most significant challenges for any learning community rooted in an orthodox Christian confessional tradition and committed to Spirit-led renewal is keeping as many voices that want to be at the table at the table. Just like any good family drama, heated disagreements without tempered humility and grace result in blusters of indignation, pushing back from the table and storming away, perchance with slammed doors. Sometimes such distance is necessary to regain perspective, to blow off a little steam. But then lament and grief also become necessary: a voice has left the conversation that requires as many voices as God desires—which is all of them. Had I slammed down the rules in my own conviction, the student would not have articulated the heart of his own practice, nor would I have learned to trust Spirit’s tether in the teaching of us both. The task was one of sustenance and listening, not proclamation and posturing.

The felt-challenges of staying at the table, however, are most usually refused in today’s political-ecclesial climate. Most of us are not trained nor desire to sustain the felt-ambivalence of learning with those whose life or ideas or beliefs or presence contradicts something deeply held within our own. Rarely is the experience of such costly-but-natural-discomfort named either. Rarely are we encouraged to sustain the feeling of discomfort or guilt or risk for participating in something perceivedly against our own dearly held beliefs or against our own home community norms.

But until more of us learn how to carry that weight—yes, that cross—then we’ll just have more and more of what a dying church already has. Until more of us surrender to God’s sovereignty and learn to listen unreservedly and with sustained grace, we’ll continue to ‘feed’ tribalizing factions who profess Christ with their lips but refuse to welcome the least of these as Him to their tables. On the other hand, the better we get at rooting our faith in Nicene confessional tradition, moving in Spirit-led directions, the more culture-shock we will face. The better we get at bearing up under this increasing weight, with grace and humility, the stronger and more worthwhile our conversation will be, the more we’ll know how to share this complicated but expansive Feast with all who hunger.

Yes, food for thought. Blessings upon you and yours, no matter where you live, or what your community’s norms are about hunting. 🙂 I welcome you to the uncomfortable but life-giving learning Spirit brings for all who yearn to be at the Table.


Sanctuaries and Stumbling Blocks

God is both sanctuary and stumbling stone, the Lord is a rock that brings Israel down, the Lord is a trap and snare for the people. (Isaiah 8:14).

Richard Rohr always seems to soothe and discomfort, both at the same time. He opens a chapter of his Falling Upward with this scripture, then simply observes, “Sooner or later, if you are on any classic ‘spiritual schedule,’ some event, person, death, idea, or relationship will enter your life that you simply cannot deal with, using your present skill set, your acquired knowledge, or your strong willpower.” (p. 65). This is an obvious statement, of course, but in the context of a life of service, it does take on some undesirable if then desirable realities.

Unless this is not an obvious statement, I suppose. For many of us, failure at faith has been deemed as “lack” of faith. A personal failing. A weakness of spirit. A moral negligence even. But any classical “spiritual path,” in this case an orthodox Christian one, requires this failure, this hard-wall slam into the limitations of human finitude. We always hope the ‘slam’ will be the least painful possible, but ‘slam’ is really the only word that gets at the experience. The word I often use is ‘fracture,’ but the sense of difficulty, painful awakening, brokenness that is necessary for new awareness remains the same. Vulnerability in the face of righteousness of God is the only pathway to wholeness. We so often fear the vulnerability in the assumed righteousness of “others” or “them,” however, that sometimes we resist any vulnerability at all. Then we die, either spiritually or emotionally, because without growth and change, there’s no life.

So the failing, the stumbling stone, instigates the necessary discomfort, what Rohr calls “necessary suffering.” Whether we call this (as Rohr does) the groaning of creation, along with Paul (Romans 8:22), or the hating of family along with the Gospel voice of Luke (Luke 14), a travail or separation lies at the heart of spiritual formation unto maturity. We want the ego truths of our notion of good news, an easy intimacy of home, the thrill of the mountain top. We face the challenges of community or the dysfunction of denomination with an ego’s sense of injustice, lack of vision of ‘others’ or Them. Yet if we hear Isaiah’s words, that God is both sanctuary and stumbling stone, then we must also hear and surrender to all these things as somehow within the provision of God, a “necessary suffering,” however it may be redressed in our actions along the way.

Take the church we have been taught to hold in holy awe…and (for some of us) in proactive disdain. Organized religion takes it on the chin every day in the news, in the hearts of frustrated (and wounded) ex-religionists (ex-Catholics, ex-Baptists, ex-denominationalists, secular Jews, non-observant “fill in the blank”). The largest category of statistical community in this respect to religion is the “nones,” those who may understand themselves as spiritual but not religious. My own path could be described as a love-hate relationship with the institutional church that professes the Gospel and distracts itself with arguments about sanctuary carpeting, that proclaims the Kingdom is at hand and bickers amongst itself about ideological stands deemed either about “purity” or “justice.” Many of us participate in communities whose identity is to be “purer than they are,” or “more filled with the Spirit” than where we were before. Or perhaps our token of truth says Our community enacts justice while They are only about words or worship or care of themselves. Protestants are by and large the most concerned with the authority of the Word and unity of faith, yet we fracture our Communion, split to avoid this “hypocrisy,” more than any others on the planet.

I’m beginning to smile with Rohr about now, however. You can almost hear his wry smile and gentle laughter: “Before the truth ‘sets you free,’ it tends to make you miserable.” (p. 74). What if the most hypocritical “burr” of the institutional church is actually the necessary suffering by which we are forced to grow up in faith? What if the institutional church is the brilliant seed of “necessary suffering” which we refuse to allow ever to blossom every time we “leave” to be more “fill in the blank” than “them”? Rohr describes it in this way: “The pedestrian and everyday church has remained a cauldron of transformation for me by holding me inside both the dark and the light side of almost everything, and by teaching me nondualistic thinking to survive. It has also shown me that neither I nor the churches themselves really live much of the real Gospel—at least enough to actually change our present lifestyles! It is just too big a message. … the church is both my greatest intellectual and moral problem and my most consoling home. She is both pathetic whore and frequent bride.” (76-78; and if you’re startled or offended by the language, read Hosea; it’s canonical-scriptural).

Regardless of what I think, however, perhaps this is timely for the start of a new learning path, a seminary degree program, a calling into certification where the institutional body says it wants one thing while its actions suggest another. Or perhaps one could even imagine a covenantal peer-group in this light too—a space of sanctuary at times, but then also a stumbling block of wasted time, irritating colleagues, over-emotional peers or under-emotional and distant ones “who are supposed to care.” However we experience this “classical spiritual path,” it seems to be a rhythm of sanctuary spaces and stumbling blocks. Both of which Isaiah suggests are divinely intended.

Rohr concludes with a word of reminder, and of hope. For reasons unbeknownst to many, “It seems that in the spiritual world, we do not really find something until we first lose it, ignore it, miss it, long for it, choose it, and personally find it again—but now on a new level.” (p. 67). If you’re not losing something, then you’ll never find it again at the next level. And however we may rail against the community in which we practice, or the Body in which we serve, we are also given the full assurance of the good news. As Rohr says, alongside the church that is both whore and bride, “The Gospel itself is my full wedding partner. It always tells me the truth, and loves me through things till I arrive somewhere new and good and much more spacious.” (p. 81). Just because the truth may make you miserable at the outset does not mean it’s not true or God is not trustworthy. The truth will always love you through the stumbling block and though we may struggle to conceive it, believe it, God’s Truth is always more spacious on the other side than within our tightly-grasped, ego-driven truths.

But do be warned. If you insist upon only the sanctuary, it will simply become your stumbling block. You will always be a child of God, of course, but you can never determine in the end the nature of the path other than this “necessary suffering.” The world will simply pass you by as other journey-folks build the Kingdom all around you.

Renewal and Delight — a Prayer
September 6, 2011, 9:35 am
Filed under: church renewal, delight | Tags: , , , ,

Why are you here, and where precisely is here? If you are beginning (or continuing) a pursuit of a degree in higher theological education, you will hear this question in a particular way. Perhaps something like: What led you to pursue the degree? Why did you choose this particular institution? What role did (or does) the Spirit of God play in that learning, leadings, and choice? If you do not have that context or path in your mind as you hear the opening question, you may hear it with a much larger existential pull, I would suspect. What purpose do you identify in your life, in your day-to-day activities and in the largest frame possible—earth, the universe, the cosmos—and how do you conceive of that frame, that here? What if you cannot sense any purpose at all? What then? In either case, answering such a question can overwhelm or irritate each who listen to it, especially if a) we don’t have a clear sense of the answer or b) the answer seems to change over time.

So comes the cliché many of us try to resist for fear of a relativism or irresponsibility in what we value most: context is everything. Context determines how you hear speech. It shapes your body (appearance, choices of food, even comfort levels), your mind (habits of your community and history of family narratives), and even what we might call your spirit or your soul (hopes, dreams, imagination-visions of what is possible).  Then we hear, whether as protest from the deepest places of our spirit or from the communities in which we share faith: context is not everything. Nothing is impossible for God, especially with those who love God in Mind (Romans). We have inherited deeply rooted truths, Truths, both specific and shaping, particular and reliable. This Truth is not human-made nor negotiable, not within our grasp nor conceivable by (our) small minds. “Lord, Your thoughts are not our thoughts…” an apostle said once. Given the many ‘worlds’ we now inhabit—geographical, institutional, virtual, and more—our ‘being’ or our ‘loving’ (to honor Jean-Luc Marion’s wisdom) is shaped so intimately by things of which we are barely aware, let alone conscious.

In this largest of frames and broadest of questions, I invite you to reflect briefly on what “renewal of the church” means in your own response to the questions of purpose and context.

[I mean it…take some time to listen to your breathing, ask yourself what ‘renewal’ means in your context…]

For those matriculating into the educational setting and ministry at United Seminary, “renewal of the church” that is “Spirit-led” has guided communal formation and institutional growth for several years now. Each of us laboring in this vineyard will have an interpretation or ‘take’ on the momentum that has been built—Built—in these things, the ‘why’, ‘how’, and ‘where’ of it all. Here you’ll glimpse dimensions of the response, character, interpretation I have received of these things. I do not claim it to be the way, or even a necessary meaning of renewal. I do profess its significance to be heard. If we’ve learned anything from the Spirit today, as in yesterday, it is her utter pragmatic and intimate knowledge of the difference in approach and need, in each of us, for what precisely and only the Spirit can give, available to each and all willing to open his/her heart-mind-body-spirit.

Any renewal of the church that is Spirit-led has, in its participants and its recipients, an ultimate signature of an expressive delight able to companion the suffering of self and others. Some of us call it a ‘kingdom’ quality. Others prefer the term “reign” to describe Spirit’s fruits received, harvested. Jewish brothers and sisters may name these fruits in the World to Come, result of tikkun olam or ‘the repair of the world.’ This is not to say all these terms mean the same thing or that each of us—or even each religious tradition—is all about the same thing. We’re not, and they’re not. See S. Mark Heim’s work (particularly Salvations) if you’d like to pursue that further. But in a phenomenal sense, in what can be observable and articulated in the realms of lived experience shared across irreconcilable difference, there are fruits by which we know the Spirit. There is a quality and character of being fully human invited within each and all of us. I call it an expressive delight able to companion the suffering of self and others, a descriptor of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians) that fulfill and extend human life, human capacity to be fully human, what God intended each of us to be in our particularity and to live together in our community(ies).

The tricky part, of course, is living into what is already given, right within us, right in front of you, even in the face of injustice, poverty, systemic sin or evil. Perhaps especially in the face of those things. For this delight is not a head-in-the-sand escapism from all that the world requires of us. Nor is it a communal lament and rage against what they have done to them about which we engage activism for us or ours. Nor is it even an insisted, persisted grasping of the Truth you know to be True and about which they or others seem to remain forever ignorant. No.

An expressive delight does just what it says: express itself. It flows out of you from the abundance of Spirit, rooted in your spirit’s life received in such Spirit. It is not achieved nor earned nor enacted nor learned. It is received, allowed, surrendered, released. And nothing will be as difficult or as demanding of you as learning this simple task, again and again: play your part, however small, and risk big, however foolhardy. Do the work in front of you. Listen for those voices silenced within your own body, your own home, your own faith community. Whatever you fear most? That’s the first confessional step toward sanctification, receiving your redemption in your flesh to offer as gift for us all.

These postings offer breadcrumbs that come to me for this time in shared communal life, from my own receivings of answers and unknowing in Spirit’s tether. For now, I’ll encourage you to listen in regular rotation to the facets or dimensions I know to be significant for a life of expressive delight:

  • When was the last time you were in your own body, not for satiation of some hunger-need-desire, but simply within, listening for Spirit’s touch in felt-sensation?
  • Of what does your prayer-life consist, at this moment? Solitary? Silent? Scriptural? Shared? Who knows, really knows, the struggles you are having in your own discipleship? God, of course, but who else here, to listen alongside you, challenge you, open you anew to who God is, the One-in-Three Whom you’ve not met yet?
  • About what are you curious these days? How open-ended is this curiosity? Does your faith require strict boundaries about even which voices you allow yourself to hear…or are you willing to listen to anyone who talks/rages/laments/opines with you, trusting that God will always be bigger than your fears, your doubts, your faith that will be broken open again and again or else be dead on the vine?
  • How goes the command to love your enemies? Those whose politics make your blood boil and whose faith or doctrinal belief you know is wrong? Do you feel devotion and self-sacrificial love for them?
  • When you come up against your own finitude—when you simply cannot love your enemies or you cannot seem to continue with loving the work and persons right in front of you—then how do you let yourself be led, to return yourself to the Holy Well, to the One who can do all those things if you but set your boundaries, rest in your own limitation, receive nurture in what you need? How do you relinquish control?

Renewal means many things to many people. The invitation here is to remember your own goodness as a creation of God ever being renewed, re-created, in Spirit’s time. Fallen, sinful, yes, but faithful when in your body, persistent with practice-rhythms of elation and dryness, curious and openhearted, loving, and limited. Attentive to these things, you may be startled sooner than you think with an abundance that flows out of you, strengthening your capacity to companion suffering within yourself and within the paths and practices of those next to you.

That is my prayer for us all: a life of devotion, worthy of the One who offers it to all those who receive it. That also happens to be my answer to the question of renewal of the church, Spirit-led: a prayer.