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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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.



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.



Authoring Lives and Authorizing
October 3, 2011, 8:48 am
Filed under: practice, providence, renewal | Tags: , , , , ,

As you return to your familiar pathways this week—whether musing about some time away last week or ‘simply’ a weekend of Sabbath and service—I find myself asking you to think about how you authorize teachers in your path. To whom do you grant authority in your life? Religious folks may respond, almost immediately, “God,” with all the implicit and explicit difficulties/delights that entails. We meet God in Scripture, certainly, but also make scripture an idol for our desperate clarities. Secularists, or at least less-religiously-minded folks may respond with “Reason or Logic,” with similar difficulties/delights but vastly different expressions. Rationality, whether we want to see it or not, has purely culturally determined facets or orders that do not translate into other cultural settings. Anyone who has ever tried to understand Japanese advertisements in English will know my point.

Here I want to have the question move into our relationships of teaching/learning and spiritual maturity within (or outside of) traditions/philosophies. How do you authorize those who are teaching you, will teach you? Those whom you grant particular voice in your thinking? How do you decide their voice is the one of hundreds today that deserves attention and value?Integration students will be attending to this specifically in these next weeks, but it’s important at every stage of our journey, I think. Later I may urge reflection more deeply with institutional dimensions too, but as you author your lives, how do you authorize those who teach you, who companion your learning?

Authority is a slippery thing, you see. I remember a student of mine asked in a seminary class on the East Coast, “When do I have or get authority as a pastor?” I don’t remember precisely what I said. I probably evaded the question first, broadening it outward for class response. My recollection goes something like this, for what came out of my mouth, “Authority is a funny thing in congregations, for pastors. As soon as you grab it, you’ve lost it. As soon as you believe you’ve lost it, you may find it’s been given.” There’s something deep at play with authority, in my mind. It’s a primarily relational phenomenon—it must be given, not grasped. But there are behaviors and characteristics of a person to whom congregations will give authority, (which I will define arbitrarily-summarily for now as) a responsibility and voice accorded to those who lead or teach, who ultimately encourage the authoring of others’ lives in love, knowledge, and contribution.

One of the figures in my own path whom I have granted inordinate authority is Julia Cameron, whom I’ve never met. She is author, artist, mother, playwright, composer, and more. Her Artist’s Way: a Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity has become a classic in the art/self-help world, confirmed in the variety of spin-off products the market can get persons hungry for more of her work to buy. As one who usually evades what I call “market tchotchke”—items or books that sit on one’s shelf and collect dust—I’ve even purchased more Cameron products than I care to admit. Her work, what she has contributed to my life, holds great authority for me, my profession, my life.

When I was floundering in doctoral training, in search of “a creative dissertation proposal,” I found her book in the bookstore section subtitled, “creativity.” Yes, a type-A person would go to a bookstore to find a book under the label “creativity” to learn how to do it for a dissertation. I was finally out of a relationship that had been a whole lot of work and very little fun. I was completing another unit of some pastoral training as a Hospice chaplain. I was completing, had completed, my comprehensive exams at great personal-mental cost to me and those around me. I was reconnecting with an old college friend, who was to become my fiancé now husband, but neither of us had any remote intention in that direction yet. The Artist’s Way practices began, for work-product: morning pages, artist dates, magazine collages, fairy-tale writing, and more. A world of serendipity—what Presbyterians might call ‘providence’—unfolded before my very eyes (and ears, nose, fingers, mouth, even my mind). An awakening was underway from which I (and my life), thank God, would never recover.

One year later, I had my successful dissertation proposal. More importantly, I had a vibrant life of curiosity, new love, self-confidence (or at least self-commitment), and good work to do. My path within Cameron’s vision, work, and proscribed practices has waxed and waned as I’ve learned more about who I am as an artist, how I become attached to practices as the point, not a path. But anything Cameron will catch my attention with a special authority. “Listen!” I seem to hear in my mind when her work appears in my view-finder, my search-engine box, my Amazon “recommendations.”

So imagine my surprise when I read her autobiography on a plane-ride toward vacation-time with my husband in the San Juan Islands, and I learned I did not like Julia Cameron. The book showed me a woman who has lived a life of audacity, yes, but also privilege and traditionally baby-boomer values. Connections to a well-monied family in NYC, jet-setting life between New Mexico and the Upper West Side, NYC. Pursuit of her artistic path in locations across the globe, so detached from anything I know as real or connected to community life in my own path. All of a sudden, her mantra for my life, “Leap and the net will appear,” became empty. “Isn’t it easy to leap when you have your child’s grandparents’ money buffering a fall, assuring a net?” I thought to myself. How does such a life of at least two homes, various locations, accord with resources enough for all? And where is the life of the community, the common good in this path?

Such questions, such judgments—as that is what they are—are not really fair, of course. It’s never easy to leap into what is one’s calling, and others’ money may or may not be the net it seems to be from the outside. As a matter of fact, the judgment of family-others may make the leap even harder. And none of us in North American abundance can throw the first stone at any other of us. I live an extraordinary life of privilege myself, with more than I need to do what I still struggle to do. The resistance I have to baby-boomers is my own generational-learning-curve—how do we honor the contributions of the previous generation when boomers are the ones against whom we must differentiate ourselves, to work for the world within institutions they have deconstructed for all of us?

Such content of my awareness is not nearly as important or interesting as the fact that the awareness arose. A teacher in whom I had placed extraordinary authority for my path had become more of the frail and real person she actually is. Instead of this authority figure with an aura, of a sort, she became a human being, just like the rest of us. Liking her or not does not really matter in the end. All of the negativity that arose could even arguably be seen as liberating, the next necessary step on the path to seeing my own pattern of authorizing, a next step toward learning to trust my own voice and intuition as it is. Not transferred onto someone else, but as something holy and mysterious that arises at odd moments from within my own being, body, spirit when what I have to offer speaks truly to another, to others. Cameron contributed an extraordinary wisdom to my own path, not only because of her ability to “leap” and “articulate for others,” but also because something in me authorized her to teach me, to lead my actions. She has had authority in my life because I gave it to her. Something in me surrendered to something she had to say, wisdom she was to offer for the good of all, including me.

I don’t know why we seem to need authority figures to discover our own voices, our own teachings (mishna, some of my friends would call it) that we are to offer the world. I don’t know when the moment was that I decided her voice and pathway was to be so significant for my own. I do know that authority is something that Cameron earned in her audacious and fully human offerings. She has walked the walk more than most teachers I have had. I do know that authority was something that I needed to give her were I ever to mature enough in my own self to begin to trust my voice, my gifts to offer the world. I will always be grateful to her, though I doubt I will ever meet her face to face. (She’s an introvert, after all, and struggles with public contact. Learned in the autobiography!) I am speechlessly grateful to have had my illusions broken open here too. But this has taught me that authorizing another can be risky, painful, even hurtful for the one(s) we authorize. Perhaps that is simply how it always is. Growth requires deep connection and then the pain of departure or recognition of frail humanity which is never ‘enough’ in sacred desire.

It seems to come down to the rather staid cliché that no one is ever an island, or each of us needs others—at least an other—if we are to learn most deeply who we are, what we have to offer. Only by the act of surrender to this other do we gain the life we are to live. And that’s the tricky thing…being wise about that “other” is such a crucial decision. Julia Cameron was a safe bet, and I recommend her work to you as teacher, as companion for the path. But more importantly, I encourage you to consider what your pattern is of authorizing others whose voices you value, will listen to. It’s an intimate decision. It requires an act of risk, to trust. But it’s one of those choiceless choices. You will not grow in the ways that matter without it.