artisanalway


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.

 

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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.



Being a Christian…in Your Time of Life
November 26, 2011, 10:25 am
Filed under: identity, life of Spirit | Tags: , , , , ,

“You cannot be a Christian alone.” I have heard this numerous times, doubting it only half of them. When I was growing up, fiercely differentiating from my family and previous shells of identity, I heard it from those grieving my growth. I could no longer grow toward spiritual maturity as I was—I needed to find out what Christian meant “alone” or “apart from them”—so I insisted I had to be Christian “on my own.” After college, I heard it from my new pastor in Pasadena, observant of my struggle to be shaped by a congregation in exchange for the nourishment such community was providing. I recognized that my wilderness years in college of “being on my own” with respect to faith community were just that—wilderness years—but I struggled to understand new directions within an aging congregation. I was being nourished, blessedly so, but felt both inadequate and a bit confused.

In graduate school, I heard it as rationale for common worship, for deepening of faith identity as a Reformed-Presbyterian Christian in a rapidly changing church and world. “You don’t know what Christian means, except for when and how other Christians show you,” I learned. Most recently, I heard it from an author and “friend of God” I met recently at Table. She runs a food pantry out of her church in a large American city, a way of being at Table in which she learns regularly that you need other people to be Christian. She describes them as she encounters them: “the wrong people” whom we must embrace. Outcasts. Those who do not fit “our” norms. In her gentle, sardonic style, she quips, “The thing that sucks about being a Christian is that God actually lives in other people.” (Sara Miles, Jesus Freak, xvii). “You cannot be a Christian alone, by yourself, on your own.”

For the first time in a long time, however, I find myself asking questions of this truism again. What does it mean, exactly? Does it mean “without other Christians”? Does it mean “without other people?” Or does it mean simply what it says, “not alone, by yourself, on your own?” If it’s the latter, you see, it opens up all of nature, Creation. You can be surrounded by the natural world and “feel companioned,” potentially in the power of the Spirit of Christ, the uncreated Word of Creation, unconstrained by other human beings at all. What exactly does the truism hold to be true?

Listening to scripture, tradition, their interwoven voices within my own tapestry of faith, I’m beginning to think one’s “time of life” or “stage of development” figures in greatly here. [Note of aside: I prefer “time of life” because it has a little less sociological or psychological undertow to it. “Stage of development” brings its ordering obsessions to bear on something that is gift and gift alone. Faith is the gift, and assessing the perceivable quality of your gift in contrast to others’ gifts remains suspect for good reason in all kinds of cultures. Gentle nod with respect to James Fowler (Stages of Faith), but assessing where you are on his ladder of stages seems less important than simply being thankful you’re on the ladder at all. Assessment may even push you right off the ladder without awareness that you’ve fallen.] I think the truism in my attention here speaks to all the meanings I’ve suggested, depending upon Spirit’s intention and direction along the way. Allow me a bit of leeway to say more, albeit with some contexts outside of specifically Christian discourse.

A friend of mine from some time past felt a pull to explore Buddhist tradition(s). She is Christian and her husband is Buddhist. Her embodied experience offered her sensations and images leading her in this direction, from the inside. From the outside, where I could observe and listen, it looked like this invitation was one to strengthen their marriage, to offer avenues of open-hearted conversation about religious-philosophical traditions that were completely absent in their home, up to that point. The invitation seemed to feed a hunger within both of them, in other words. So, as her spiritual companion in Christian community, I began to listen and pray for guidance on how to be in support of Spirit’s intention. I became curious about what Buddhist communities were right here in town. I began to do a little research. Lo and behold, I discovered a Buddhist center less than 10 miles from home. Had never known it was there! Essays from the Journal of Buddhist-Christian Studies found their way to my Inbox, so I shared them. I shared what I was receiving, and suggested we visit the Buddhist center. “If you want to know about Buddhism,” I reasoned, “You need other Buddhists to show you what and how Buddhists do what they do. You cannot be Buddhist alone,” I heard myself say. Her husband practiced in such a way as to disagree with that argument, but then her interest in the Center drew him into the Center. His path deepened as their conversations deepened. He became a leading contributing member at the Center, strengthening their community and practice, strengthening his own. He arguably became a better Buddhist, whatever that might mean, because of being around other Buddhists.

So was that a Christian overlay or imposition onto another tradition or does the truth within our truism figure into spiritual practice, regardless of tradition? As I prayed and listened to that question, I began to find all kinds of Buddhist texts on spiritual friendship, “friends on the path,” as the “whole of the spiritual life.” (Thich Nhat Hanh, Friends on the Path: Living Spiritual Communities, Parallax Press, 2002; Subhuti, with Subhamati, Buddhism and Friendship, Windhorse, 2004). It seems within multiple lineages of Buddhist teachings, one cannot be Buddhist on one’s own. It seems to be a Buddhist truism too, though in contrast to many Western practitioners of the teachings.

Therefore, part of the wisdom does seem to be that beginning a spiritual path requires living with “its tradition and practitioners,” to know all that it may entail. Particularly as one is beginning, it is crucial to be around others on that precise, same, traditional-path. To jump back into my own circles, then, one needs other Christians to know what being Christian looks like, how to access traditional resources, how to be held accountable to a tradition’s wisdom and truth. When I was learning what it meant to be faithful, my parents and my congregation were teaching me what it meant to be Christian in a Reformed-Presbyterian fashion, albeit with a bit of Baptist and Brethren nuances in the mix. (My parents’ communities before we became Presbyterian). My friend’s invitation to begin exploring Buddhist traditions-practices required being with other Buddhists. The location also strengthened a long-duration Buddhist: her husband.

But what if you’re on the other end of the path, in your eighties, with decades of lived experience in a particular tradition? I’m thinking of my grandmother who was raised Brethren, became Evangelical-United-Brethren, then became United Methodist. She raised four boys in a local congregational setting, accompanying the choir her husband (my grandfather) directed, and taught in Sunday School. She was a staunch leader in the congregation and lived her Scripturally-inerrant faith to the end. After more than fifty years of marriage, her husband died and her sons with their families lived in locations across the country. She thrived in her retirement community but lived alone. I learned after her death that most evenings, she would spend evenings “alone” but very much in God’s presence. She spoke with God, cooked with God, laughed with God, cried with God. God was her Beloved, though she was ostensibly alone. Clearly, given her decades of church-association, she was still within the circle of Christians. But by that time, she didn’t need other Christians to be Christian, herself. Shaped so long in the discipleship way of Jesus Christ, she could be Christian alone. I find myself asking, therefore: If you’ve steeped in decades of Christian tradition, been shaped by other Christians for most of your life, can one be a Christian living as a hermit in nature? Can you spend most of your time alone, even be asked by Spirit to live a solitary life, in order to be most faithful in your life as a Christian? The Desert Fathers and Mothers would say yes. So would Thomas Merton. Being alone yet not alone at all…when the time of life is ripe so to do.

The middle of the path, at least as I’ve been given to know it, may also mean one cannot be a Christian without other people, people who are not Christian at all. Or even worse, those who are Christian but not in a manner you find legitimate yourself. So how does that work, then? People who are not Christian, who do not practice or believe Christian things that you find essential…they are shaping you into a better Christian? That proposition goes against the grain of most Christian propositions, as we hear them in smaller community-life and global media. We need non-Christians to know our own Christianity?

Two lenses may help flesh this out a bit. The food pantry of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church offers a good glimpse. Sara Miles experienced a radical conversion into Christian discipleship by receiving the sacrament of communion. Such polite talk for how she experienced it, describes it herself. She might say: she ate Jesus, found Jesus inside of her, and became more like him, almost against her will. She was hungry, wanted to be fed, wanted the water of baptism in the end. A year after her conversion, she became baptized, the same weekend she began to gather the poor, the homeless, the hungry to the Table of the food pantry. Her stories tell the age-old collision of Jesus’ people—these outcasts—colliding with the nice congregational membership of a class-conscious artsy community intent upon liturgical reform of the Episcopal Church USA. In various ways, she learned—again and again, as she continues to learn—she needs these other people, those not recognized by her own precious worshipping community, to be Christian. I almost wrote “to be radically Christian,” but really, is there any other kind? You cannot be Christian without other people.

My stories are different, as some of you already know. Finding myself a “bride of Christ,” confronted with learning what in the world that might actually mean, I’ve discovered that I cannot be Christian without being in compassionate companionship with Tibetan Buddhists, Modern Orthodox Jews, Ultra-Orthodox Jews, perhaps now even Muslims and perceived-pagans of contemplative practice. I have been returned again and again to Christ, to see him anew and be shaped in my prayer life anew, only as these others live their tradition’s wisdom, ask me questions of mine. As paradoxical as it may sound, I cannot be Christian without these other people.

So in answer to my queries: I do believe it is impossible to be Christian alone, but with the Spirit, nothing is impossible. For those who love God. Some of us need to be pushed outside of Christian communion, to serve the common good. Others of us resist being outside, to our own detriment, captivated in our own fears. Others of us need Christians to show us the way, deepen our path. Even others of us find ourselves completely alone for a time, only to discover that we’re not remotely alone. All has simply been cleared away for Spirit to get a clean swipe at us, to shape us anew in ways we could never have expected, or hoped.

So with an impish smile, I’ll leave you alone now. Go be a friend of God, go be Christian, in your learning, in your response, in all you do.



Home is Becoming Complicated
November 21, 2011, 12:18 pm
Filed under: life of Spirit, renewal | Tags:

Home is becoming complicated, abundantly so. When you hear “home,” what comes to mind for you–images, words, smells, memories…? Take a moment, breathe all the way into your shoes and release the breath back into the world, truly listening for what you receive upon the word “home” in your ears. Say it aloud, if it helps get you out of your task-busy mind.

Home.

No place like home? All places could be home?

What? What do you hear?

Part of this “way” into which these assignments, readings, postings are all inviting you could arguably be described as living accountably at home, no matter where you are or what your path of service comes to be. What would that be like for you, to no longer know alienation, isolation, loneliness that addicts you? This is not some magic pill that erases suffering, nor is it an easy path of mind-ease and clarity…but I’m continually surprised by the number of Homes it offers. God really is around every corner, even in the painful corners in which we attempt to confine Spirit in paradoxes like theodicy or radical evil. How is that possible? I find myself asking.

Certainly not by our efforts, except for those intentional practices of letting go, of being receptive, moment to moment. Those ways in which we live into the callings we’ve been given AND practice willingness to release our assurances, again and again. Artisanal Theology talks about this as knowing with utter uncertainty before moving into unknowing and resting in God’s complete inaccessibility. I avoid the word “mystery” because i think it can be a cover-up word for anything we don’t want to know about God, but mystery does get at some of this.

Let me make some of this more concrete. I find myself far away from home. I’ve been immersed in conversations and interactions that seem remote from what I know to be lively in sacred practice–contemplative listening, practicing presence, embodied discernment of action and wisdom. My companions here–as they ARE companions of intellectual virtue and more–do not pursue these things, to my knowledge. I’ve not been home for a several days.

Except a 90-minute reunion with a contemplative kindred-spirit. Then another. Then 10 minutes with Juan of stand-up comedy and taxi-cab practice. Then dancing to a central table of Holy Eucharist with fellow Christians and all our saints above us. The Invitation so far from home has been so strongly felt, I startled to find myself a new member of a prayer community, complete with morning prayer book and compilation of “paperless musical” offerings. Far away from home, and I’ve not felt this at Home in a long time, amongst my own.

So home has deepened, broadened, and grown more complicated. Along an artisanal way of Spirit, this home is around every corner, rooted in persons faithful and listening. Those willing to wake up to the immediate moment and know God’s surprise awaits. Sometimes the surprise stings, like when we become aware of a wound or have to stretch our faith over the chasms of doubt. But always the invitation to Home, to that other side of struggle, remains. In dryness and overflow, in doubt and devotion.

Home can get complicated. Blessedly so. Thanks be to God.



Spiritual Strength-Training
October 26, 2011, 11:26 am
Filed under: body, life of Spirit, practice | Tags: , ,

The fruits of strength-training demonstrate the integrity and character of the discipline engaged. Such is my current hypothesis, at least, with potential ramifications for how we reflect critically on spiritual strength-training. What are the fruits of your daily life right now? In what emotions, awarenesses, mind-habits are you steeping today? When someone maligns you in speech or action, do you retaliate or worse, begin plans for revenge rooted in a bitterness of the injustice of it all? When you hear of injustice, do you rise up in anger? When a colleague betrays you, how do you navigate the hurt, the pain of it? When a colleague invades your privacy, threatens you in passive-aggressive body-language, how do you respond?

These questions arise because I learned something important this morning at the gym. I have been on an “intentional bodywork” path for about nine months, though I re-discovered ‘contemplative running’ for myself about five years ago. [‘Contemplative’ in this context simply means ‘a quieting pace,’ ‘even an intensely slow one.’ 🙂 ] As a portion of my regular self-care plan and as an academic’s ‘re-learning’ tool, this has meant working with a personal trainer. Original goals were simply re-dress of nutrition habits and stream-lining physical fitness, with particular attention to core-strength. Discovering I actually have core muscles, for instance. I didn’t really think on it until this morning, but even with an intensified fitness regime, I’ve not sustained any injuries of note and I have much deeper awareness of body-sense, sometimes what I call ‘felt-sense’ in all areas of my life. Two dimensions of this awareness beg further attention: 1) strength-training with a guide who knows what she’s doing clarifies the path and allows mutual negotiation of obstacles (internal and external) and 2) strength-training, like everything else, has an integrity and character of its own, known by its fruits.

When I re-discovered a love of running, I established my own fitness goals and challenges in terms of races, each of longer duration than the last. I checked in, from time to time, with someone at the local Y. I lost weight and aligned other habits to my new addiction, running and the adrenalin rush that would come after about mile 2. Life was good, and I was pleased with the fruits of appearance and felt-health. About every 3-4 months, however, there would be an inconvenient injury of some kind—pain in the hip, knee-pain, arch-pain. But “no pain, no gain,” right? So I kept on. Eventually the arch issue made running impossible and I was stymied on how to be in my body anymore. My practices had provided fruits my mind enjoyed tremendously, but my body was also complaining to the point of making practice impossible. I would start a run and at some unexpected moment, a shooting pain would travel up my leg, halting all movement. I began to wonder if there were a different way to learn bodywork, body-movement.

Strength-training with a guide challenged my autonomy, not to mention my pride. Each of us knows best our own body, our own path, right? How could someone else, especially someone known only in a professional sense, know our bodies better or differently than we do? There’s a partial truth there, of course. Each of us has a particular relationship with our own body, what one author calls “the joyous consort” with whom we come into this life. But like other specialized areas of human inquiry and knowledge, bodywork draws its own experts—professional athletes, trainers, sports-medicine specialists, etc. Those whose gifts and graces are awareness and skill-development in physical movement, strength-training, wholistic living from view of or primacy in body. In a very real way, my trainer-friend knows my body’s mechanics better than I ever will. I’ve discovered a great freedom in finding out what she knows and can teach me about how I uniquely move through the world, which muscle groups I can ‘fire’ to accomplish various tasks, how best to strengthen my embodied relationship with the world in which I yearn to contribute. Simply put, however, I’ve not sustained any injuries of note for months. The path continues to unfold, with obstacles negotiated in mutual consultation with a guide who knows about such things.

The insight or awareness this morning: there are learned ways to move, to sustain weight, and then there are the intended or natural ways to move that proffer a sense of flow or weightlessness. Even when I think I’m moving naturally, my guide gently sculpts the movement back into form, healthy biomechanics. And often I can feel the difference, though I didn’t know how to get there on my own. Those involved with Chi-LivingChi-Running or Chi-Walking—speak of this too. When we are children, we learn how to walk and then run well attuned to natural ways of movement, what our body does naturally. Children can run for hours, not only because they are young and have lots of growing energy. They move naturally, without years of confined movement, poor-posture, constrained ways of being determined by societal norms of attractiveness, etc. As adults, we forget how to move in ways natural to our being, in other words. If we become conscious of the difference—which many of us never do, avoiding it for reasons of shame, guilt, apathy, whatever—but if we become conscious of this difference, we can spend years (perhaps) trying to re-learn a natural way of being in our own skins. Re-learning what was intended from the beginning.

This naturally led me toward the integrity and character of the practice of strength-training, asking not only the questions of ‘how’ or discipline of practice but also those of ‘toward what end’? Gyms are full of many of us who yearn to be seen—in fitness, with attractive physique, with desire—but gyms can also be thought of as a playground, a space in which to move like we did when we were kids. There are things to climb, balls to throw, games to play, by oneself or with others. Gyms can be environments of exploration, learning that extends inward and outward, both. So what are the fruits that come into your life from such explorations? Do you feel playful and rooted to the goodness of life when you leave the gym? If not, why not? Or perhaps you play outside instead. After your times of working out, how do you feel?

Ultimately, though, I’m interested here in the potential learnings and fruits for spiritual strength-training. Each of us receives learned ways of spiritual practice, offered to us by our communities of belonging as the ways of being faithful. But are those the way your own spirit yearns to move, to breathe, to connect? What are the fruits of that training? Have you sustained injuries within such training, and if so, ought you to seek a guide who may align your own spirit’s movement with that of Spirit, whose fruits allow healing and minimizing of life-halting injuries? Does your way of practice result in open-hearted fruits of the Spirit, grounding you in a peaceableness and joy, even in the face of communal anxieties and fearfulness? When life wounds you—as it always will, you can’t avoid it—does your training strengthen your spirit to sustain and heal?

If nothing else resonates for you in these musings, I leave you with simply a confession of gratitude for what can be received along a wisdom-way, what we need to remind one another is true: there are Spirit-intended ways we move and breathe and have our being, and sometimes they match our learned ways, but often they do not. Being companioned by a guide who knows spirit-movement can make a big difference in re-learning what was intended to come naturally. So perhaps that person will be a spiritual director, or a prayer-partner, or a coach. Whomever. Pray for him/her to come into your life, and I promise you’ll be surprised who appears. This is also not an ego-command to behave morally or with Methodist perfection. This is a witness to who God is when we step into the river of Spirit intended from the beginning. You don’t try to do any of this…it flows, when the strength-training is true. When we move, breathe, and have our being in this way, this Way, then peaceableness—even joy—meets injury with patience, betrayal with mercy, injustice with gentling fierceness.

I wish that strength-training, with guidance, for you, for each of us, for all of us. As the child of God you are, receive a blessing in the words of one who has become a guide for me:

May it be so for you,

May it be so for me,

May it be so for all of us.

Amen, Amen, and Amen….and a little woman.



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.