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.


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.

A Glimpse In…from the Academic Outside
November 7, 2011, 12:18 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

All’s been ‘quiet’ here on the Artisanal Front, as the writing energies flowed in an unexpected direction…toward the church. How about that. So, for conversation and consideration, on your leadership-development path, I offer “an open letter” to a branch of the Body of Christ. It’s length means that this represents a couple weeks’ worth of posting. (Not to worry–I noticed and will continue to honor that in your schedule.) Given the commonalities in this Body, across denomination and tradition, I suspect there might be some good food for thought for your own context, your own discipleship. May it be so.


The Rev. Lisa M. Hess, PhD

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.

Literature, Stories, and ‘Magicians’
October 9, 2011, 10:00 pm
Filed under: identity, Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

Sometimes those who ‘authorize’ transformation are authors themselves. Let me share a story of one of my own…

I have been frightened of ‘literature’ since I was fifteen. The word conjures up images of poetry recitation and the public humiliation of my 9th-grade self, by the teacher, no less. ‘Literature’ unearths self-induced fears of incompetence and artistic ignorance. In my experience, the classics of English or American literature tend to be those poems, novels, and short stories whose metaphors I rarely perceive correctly, whose prose lacks the drive of today’s more familiar, media-saturated plots & pacing, and whose overall contribution to human culture continues to be a point of debate between specialists. Call something a classic of literature—English, American, Turkish, whatever—and I’m sure to find a way to avoid reading it. Until I ‘met’ my magician, Azar Nafisi.

Nafisi is an Iranian-born, university professor specializing in Western (& Persian) literature and now Iranian politics. She’s most well-known for her “memoir in books,” Reading Lolita in Tehran (RandomHouse, 2003), which shares truths and fiction across several years of her life in Iran, before-during-and-after the Revolution. As of 2008, Nafisi became an American citizen and now teaches and writes as a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. I call her my ‘magician’ relying upon her own sense of the word, with reference to an elusive fellow she first names Professor R, then ‘her magician’ forever afterward.

‘He’ was a fine arts/drama professor and writer who resigned his teaching-post in protest of Revolutionary curricular reform. He was elusive figure, welcoming her every week or so for tea and chocolates, but always aloof, unpredictable, challenging. For Nafisi, he was this kind of companion who welcomed, accompanied and challenged her very best self as teacher, artist, and writer. She didn’t always know he was shaping her, nor was she aware of how she was inviting and shaping him. They simply met to talk about their lives, ideas…and drink tea, eat chocolates. I have been blessed with several figures in my life who remind me of Professor R and Azar Nafisi. For our purposes, her magic has been to open my eyes and mind to ‘literature’ and its unsuspecting power to transform our minds, ears, spirits.

Apparent in the very title, Reading Lolita in Tehran posits from the start that context matters, even changes the work of literature, for any reading of a so-called ‘classic.’ Tehran marks the place on the planet where a novella is being read. Gone is Nabokov’s ‘classic’ as a reified, objective thing, guarded and legitimated by experts and those allowed within their coteries. Nabokov’s Lolita, in this case, has also become Nafisi’s Lolita, hers and her students’ Lolita, the reading(s) of Nabokov’s text within a poignant setting of Tehran, Iran, amidst the Revolution and afterwards.  In other words, every ‘classic’ needs its reader to exist anew, off the shelf, as a continuing ‘voice’ in the project of a vibrant humanity. For the first time, I heard that ‘literature’ could need me and my imagination if it wanted to say what it had to say.

Nafisi’s chosen genre of writing—memoir—complements the first observation about context. Organized around works and themes of four different authors or characters—Nabokov, Gatsby, James, and Austen—Reading Lolita in Tehran illustrates on every page the intimate learning possible when literature breathes life into a person’s narrative or story. No longer is literature an aloof voice of ages past with its imagery and artistry impossible to decipher correctly. Literature becomes the intimate marriage of an author’s and characters’ voices-in-situation, experienced by a reader in her communities, and then—if one does the reflective work—given transformative significance hospitable to others beyond the specific author.

Nafisi has done the reflective work, and with her tutelage, I began to see symbols, themes, images within her chosen classics come to life in my own narrative. I devoured Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby while reading Nafisi’s volume. It made portions of my narrative come to mind, newly sensitized to implications and connections with my own steeped history of a decade ago, in an institution of material privilege and relational poverty. I’m learning to listen in ‘literature’ for legitimate touchstones between author’s/characters/situations and my own life.

I suspect many more learnings could be articulated, if time were taken for such things. For now, this page-prose offers a bit of one of my own ‘authorizers.’ Nafisi’s ‘magic’ of renewal and recovery in my spirit was no mean feat, given my long ambivalence and avoidance of anything internally or externally professed as a classic of literature. As she notes herself, though, such magic is never solely the magician’s, but signals an avid learner open to being evoked or conjured anew. “Does every magician, every genuine one,” she asks, “…evoke the hidden conjurer in us all, bringing out the magical possibilities and potentials we did not know existed?” (p. 337).

I tender my heartfelt thanksgiving here for the voice and vocation of Azar Nafisi, an author whose voice challenges my own, and a teacher who showed it is possible to teach transformative living amidst the delights and discomforts of ‘literature.’ I also smile with appreciation for the wisdom to receive her teaching and the challenge for my narrative & writing.  Perhaps even my 9th-grade self will have new learnings to share in the days, months, and years to come.

Will yours, as you read and listen to the ‘classics,’ in print and those living in your journey?

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.