Setting the Table — Orientation to the Artisanal Way

Do sausage makers eat their own sausage, I wonder? The image arises for me from the caution often cited: sausage-making is messy and ought not to be observed, at least if one wants to enjoy a nice sausage & pepper pasta. Bits and pieces of meat-flotsam and jetsam get stuffed into edible casings, are then brought into contact with heat of some kind—boiling, grilling, broiling, whatever—and then mustard or sauerkraut come alongside. Voilá, a tasty meal in many parts of the world. But do sausage-makers eat their own sausage? Knowing what they know about the messy processes of formation, can they really take delight in the fruits of their labors?

This is a deeply personal, near-literal question for me as a theological educator responsible for the formation/integration curriculum in a Christian seminary. I love what I do in the shaping of (and being shaped by) new generations of religious leaders. I believe in the tradition and training I have received and attempt to steward it faithfully in service of the church and world. Theological students are some of the most impassioned and risk-laden disciples (within the faith traditions I observe at least) who continue to offer themselves, often in some of the apparently foolhardy but potentially life-giving work for church and world. Seminary educators—faculty and staff—labor in their vineyards with persistence and commitment, engaging lives and minds in things at which society often scoffs. Most seminary education has to market itself as the gourmet deli counter, offering distinct slices of Boars’ Head meats—specialized theological disciplines that are the seasoned pastrami, delicate prosciutto, and oven-roasted turkey of life’s meaning(s). I love this deli-counter and have served at it for a long time now. The longer I’m vested in theological education, however, the more convinced I am that we in theological world(s) have been making sausage.

I think we’ve been doing an admirable if improvable job with modernity and postmodernity’s flotsam and jetsam we’ve inherited or received, but it still begs my own question. If sausage-making is the reality, messy as it is, can we develop a love for sausage? Many have demurred, for quite compelling reasons. I know most of these reasons from the inside after all, arguing them myself as reason to get out of the business altogether. But perhaps sausage is simply the way life is. Then what? The only answer I have for myself so far is an artisanal way–a centuries’ long heritage of wisdom-sharing reliant first upon relationship, served by the best local ingredients (whateverthey may be), brought together in wizened surrender to a shared delight open to all amidst life’s suffering.

This page is intended to “set the table,” of sorts, for upcoming posts on “formation” specific to this artisanal way. I am speaking largely to incoming and current students in seminary education, though I welcome words of wisdom and nonviolent communications from any and all who express interest in what I muse on here. The curriculum in which these students invest their hard-earned monies and time is not simply what I have to say, after all, [wise as it may be sometimes (impish smile)], but what we have to offer our communities-in-the-world amidst Spirit’s sanctifying use of it in particular lives.

Two dimensions involved here are of particular note. With all that I have received from classical theological education and more, I write here to offer what I have been given, to serve those committed to learning and leading lives of sacred wisdom. Seminary students today are faced with impossible requirements of religious profession, work, school, family. Then we ask them to create space for ’self-care’ or ‘balance,’ all while piling more and more requirements or responsibilities to ‘tradition the tradition’ well. In reality, rarely do they find time to pray, let alone face the internal work required to be a supple servant in Spirit’s tether. For years, I’ve followed accepted higher-ed practice and assigned books as required reading to prepare students the way I was prepared. I now think there’s a better way. Virtual teasers. Blog-post plenary lessons that come directly to their e-mail Inbox, that they can read on their own time or at their children’s sports events on an iPhone. These posts are intended to offer the very comforts and challenges fledgling religious leaders must receive, from a diverse array of literatures they may never have access to, nor time, or perhaps interest, to read in entirety.  Some academics will call this spoon-feeding and robbery of intellectual opportunity. Perhaps. But old wineskins rarely hold new wine well. I read that somewhere.

The second part of note here, in this sanctifying work of formation, is the necessary broadening outward of our communities of affiliation. Religious affiliation shapes religious leadership in unexpected ways. As the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey has confirmed, “[r]elatively few adults (14%) cite their religious views as the main influence in their political thinking.” ( Religious affiliation determined within practice and personal experience actually holds more sway in beliefs than previously suspected. In contrast to popular expectation that our actions come from our beliefs, the Survey confirms that community affiliation, not traditioned religious views or beliefs, “may be playing a more powerful, albeit indirect, role in shaping people’s thinking than most Americans recognize.” Considering formation of religious leaders and their communities today requires redress of the indirect impact of religious affiliation. We can no longer remain solely in our cul-de-sacs of denomination or tradition, no matter how fearful we may become of losing traditions. It’s killing others, us…literally.

Religious leaders also live their faith in public settings which are both internally and externally normed. Learning the ethos, history, practices, and skills of a tradition within most theological and rabbinic schools today shapes religious leaders for internal norms of a tradition’s specificity and historical identity(ies). Given the current captivity to polarizing discourse and attachment to encyclopedic-theological understandings (think Schleiermacher and Enlightenment university discourse), these institutions of religious leadership formation largely neglect the formation of religious leaders for external norms in the public realm. Religious leaders today have very little facility or training in compassionate interreligious encounter across traditional difference, which can (yes, counter-intuitively) deepen one’s own traditional roots through shared spiritual discipline and willing sacred encounter. Religious leadership requires a rootedness in a particular historical-religious tradition whence authority to lead is given but it also requires experience and skills for living into a willing vulnerability to encounter and be transformed by ‘otherness’ left implicit within one’s own religious affiliation.

How better to respond both in service and toward inward-outward affiliation than to set the table with the dishes I value, in a hospitable place of welcome conversation? If more show up here, perhaps we will wind up with some over-spicy combinations of things, but perhaps we’ll get a little closer and a little better at genuinely hospitable table fellowship for the good of the worlds we share.

Some of the ‘dishes’ I anticipate sharing come under the rubrics of spiritual autobiography writing, closely-contextual reasoning, and theological reflection. Along the way, we’ll also sample all kinds of topics from those in Christian spirituality, interreligious companionships, and religious leadership to scriptural studies, theological discipline, practical theology, and philosophical wisdom. Several of us are even tuning our tastes to the unexpected (and rather ambivalent, yet) flavors that technology and digital media add to our main courses of spiritual development. The posts will begin in earnest come autumn, beginning with a couple small plates to whet the appetite.

For now, I’ll conclude this orientation with an invitation to reconsider your own journey into life’s deeper and deeper significance(s). My own pathway represented in these musings began with irrepressible holy yearnings I could hardly articulate. I followed them into the settings that promised fulfillment and ordering of these yearnings for the good of the church and the world. The path has been true and the orderliness fundamental. But when so many leaders within faith communities go tharn, unresponsive, in the face of violent polarization and religious or political ideologies, then it is time to be grateful for what has been received, and move out. Move forward together into whatever may be yet uncertain, even unseen, but toward that which promises life, the common-good, heightened awareness of our overwhelming interconnections. Perhaps it’s getting time for religious traditions to grow up, come to terms with infinite regrets, and get on with the holy adventure of new life…all for all.

A signpost for this journey in my own bumbling language is an expressive delight able to companion the suffering of self and others. I know I’m on the right ground when I can sense a holy lightness deeply engaged in the relief of suffering and nonviolent resistance to harm. You can see it in bright eyes, tenacity of gentleness, much more. Buddhists may be best at it, though it’s an observable phenomenon rooted in sacred wisdom not constricted by philosophical or religious specificities. The specificities are required to get to the wisdom, I’ll argue, but they do not ultimately confine the reach of Wisdom. The pathway on which I have encountered this signpost is one of compassionate companionship(s)–deeply intimate, covenantal ways of being in human relationship (with creation) that seep and disrupt with divine surprise. There is a primary relational way of being here, and an artistic sense of being with people and problems. Artisanal was the closest descriptor that arrived–a heritage of wisdom passed down from one generation of artists to another, through living reason and modelled practice(s), necessarily localist in expression, compellingly-globally interconnected across cultures and traditions of specific human communities. Not universal, to be sure, but resonant, interconnected, understandable, lovable.

The artisanal way I will articulate, model, and foster in these posts is a whole lot more like sausage than I would like. In some cases, it requires not knowing at the start what flotsam and jetsam in one’s own life–or that of others–will become the meat of the matter. Rarely is it as tidy or clear-cut as the specialized theological disciplines we’ve been dining on for so long. But the various materials that have been provided from the start of this ‘way,’ though untidy or uncontrollable, are suggesting better promise and more hope than I’ve felt in this business, for myself, for a long time.

I take comfort in having arrived at this table with little responsibility, myself, for how we’ve all come to the table. I do take responsibility for what I bring. For now, it’s a firm and confirmed conviction that more of us have to bring unfinished, even uncooked, goods to the table…and open the invitation to any and all who might be hungry for the strange, new recipes to come. (That one’s for you, Mom.) I hope you’ll hear the invitation, survey the dishes on offer, perhaps even pull up a chair and bring some of your own. I don’t know if I’ll ever develop a love for sausage, literally or metaphorically, but there’s no time like the present to learn how to participate more fully in sacred wisdom and table fellowship, for the good of us all.


16 Comments so far
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This was superb. I’m coming with uncooked goods to the table…that’s the quote for the day.

Comment by Michael Poindexter

And of course, the real question we all ask of theological ideas is when is the good sausage actually cheap bologna?

Comment by Brian Boley

That’s funny Brian, but also is a good question. The wisdom to tell the difference whether we are involved in good sausage making or just cheap bologna.

Comment by Edward Marton

I appreciate the metaphor for the process of sausage making, and the enjoying that one does of the finished product. It seems to describe the odd and ends of ministry and it’s make up so well! Being a new pastor of a two point charge, I feel as though I’m definitely in the sausage making process…and although things look pretty messy right now, I trust that as my congregations and I continue in ministry together that we’ll end up with a nourshing and flavorful dish!

Comment by afi dobbins

In sausage making, as in all things, the key is balance.

Comment by Nilesmando

I think you get the point. Thanks for your insight.

Comment by Esther JUng

I agree that balance is essential. Have you thought about the consciousness of cleanliness and quality that goes into the work? How much emphasis do we place on quality service to our parishioners and community?

Comment by Marius Marton

The analogy from baked bread (first lecture) was appropriate to formation with an unquestionably pleasant result, but making sausage implies that even an unpleasant process (in our individual formations)can be necessary for an equally desired result. In fact, all of the ingredients, effort, and various applications of heat, contributed with desired intentionality, may bring about a most delightful and lovable entree.

Comment by David Griffith

Thank you for the sausage-making analogy. I do like sausage, probably because I don’t know how it’s made. Hopefully this process will result in my liking it more, even after getting more acquainted with the process.

Comment by Phyllis Lemon

The metaphor of susage making may more accurately reflect our journey than the metaphor of baking bread. When one makes suasage one will get their hands dirty, yes even bloody. Baking bread in essence is relatively clean. For us preparing to become learned ministers we must get blood on our hands. This is going to be the life we lead as we reach out to the world. Sometimes we will encounter the emesis, the putrid, the rotten, and yes the seemingly lifeless. How we respond to those instances may save the life of someone. Let’s get dirty!

Comment by Roger Cary

Such an insightful and true metaphor for deep and genuine theological study. During the course of my Ministerial Formation class last year, I was exposed firsthand to just how ugly genuine and meaningful theological study must be. As David and others have pointed out, it gets messy, but we must remember that in the end what is produced is actually delicious and provides sustenance to us personally and anyone else who partakes.

Comment by Joshua Ward

Having grown up literally watching my grandparents make sausage (they owned a custom butchering service) I will share that I was always fascinated by not only the ingredients but also the process by which the final product was produced. Perhaps that is why I sort of felt a certain sentiment of love and family as I read this. Your comments also caused me to reflect about how all of us are part of “the mess” but once God gets done-we’ve become a part of the delicious sausage!I’m thankful for the invitation to the table!

Comment by Susan Hartman

I love the analogy of sausage making as much as the bread making analogy. Sometimes the process will get messy and disgusting lol, but in the end it will be worth it. I am looking foward to being stretched in my faith like I have never been before. I am also looking foward to forming lasting friendships with those in my class. This was a great post. I am looking foward to reading more. I am also very much looking foward to this semester.

Comment by Michelle Wilkey

When we think about how we minister to others and help them to identify their sausage and listen to the mess and look at the mess that we find people in, it is refreshing to know that the artisan way will allow me to look at my own sausage and the processes that I use as well as strengths and gaps in those processes. It can only help us to be strong and improve on any weaknesses in our sausage and in the making of it.

Comment by Charlotte Edwards

Yesterday was indeed an experience I will never forget that answers the very questions posed in this article. I preached a sermon based on my own sorrow and grief. For years I was hiding my own emotions from parishioners in order to display a tough-reliable pastor. Not yesterday. I was crying and sharing my grief with them, and thus probably for the first time the sermon spoke to me as never before. Yes, I eat my own sausage.

Comment by Marius Marton

Marius I loved your comment. It is so great to find humble pastors. Pastors who will be open to their congregation and not put on a front. Thank you for sharing.

Michelle Wilkey

Comment by Michelle Wilkey

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