Sunday, January 16, 2022

Tell This Story...

“Next time someone asks you for your story of race, tell this one.”

These words have simmered in me for weeks now. Many aspects of a mid-December Fire&Water retreat have simmered in me, held in a patience-of-spirit to let them cook for a while. Sort themselves into wheat and chaff? Distill the unnecessary away from the necessary? Come to a sense of seasoning and slow-cooked flavors? I dunno, to be honest. This morning, these words converge with awareness of the weekend, the increasing yearning I feel each year to participate actively somehow in the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorialization, beyond a white-woman’s nod of respect and thanksgiving. 

It’s not insignificant that a F&W friend’s interest in a previous post emerged this week, with resonances for her own writing/leadership work. A couple others have also now expressed interest in the intersections of Christian theology and white supremacy, to which I bring the work of Willie James Jennings and The Christian Imagination. My naming this is clearly not an original observation, by any means...that there is a connection deep in the roots of the Christianity in the USA historically AND right now. I have tended to observe from the sidelines, however, quite distrustful of the politicizing and the woundedness with which Americans in popular discourse engage 1) even the suggestion that Christian theology has, at its roots, a formative force in shaping white supremacy, and 2) race-reconciliation conversations in the cyberspace/social media worlds. I don’t engage in things I cannot digest healthily, and the toxicity and volume in media-discourse here are simply too overwhelming for healthy digestion, no matter your skin color.

So…this is not a “post” on “race,” though it is. It is not even a peg in the argument that Christian theology helped create the toxic brew that IS white supremacy, though I know it has. But these words are a heart-felt response to the request and/or invitation of a new F&W friend to “tell the story” I first learned to be one of “race” on Saturday evening, December 11th, about 11:30 p.m. in a fire-placed living room, with a lively game of Spades going on with other friends in the kitchen.

The antecedents that make this storytelling possible are too numerous to really recount here, but each contributed to one of the most honest discussions exploring being human together, across-amidst race in the USA, that I have ever had in a room with four white faces and four black faces. We were sitting in the living room, couches and comfy chairs, having played several rounds of a two-team game of #CultureTags. We had spent days tending a communal fire outside, including amidst a tornado watch and severe thunderstorms that required us to “place a tent-top” over it for it to survive the onslaught of the waters. Yet eight of us (to my recollection) sat in the living room, just talking. No agenda. No place we were trying to get to…

One of the white women in the group made an observation from her own work in anti-racist, now more integrative, reconciliatory work. She may have asked a question of us all which I’ve now forgotten. (As this is my re-telling, I’ll name how I’ve come to hold this…which differs from “what actually happened” and “who said what,” just to be clear. I’m renown for poor memory about specifics like that). She comes from an Italian lineage, with awareness of the stories of European ancestry. She used a phrase “left out in the cold.” She spoke of her own awareness of an ancestral wound in her own line: you abide by and conform to the group’s norms, or literally, you can be left out in the cold to die.

European ancestry, collective from before memory, dealt with cold-climate and the threats to survival by which such cold confronted the group’s survival. Unaware of anything special to come, we began to muse about this tension between “aligning with the community to survive” and “leading the community in new directions” of deeper evolution, more compassionate human being, greater awareness and consciousness.

Another strand for me, seemingly unrelated, emerged when I shared my own befuddlement at the lack of judgment or anger, even rage, against the elders of these new friends, African American men and women who have faced crises and challenges I cannot begin to imagine. Things that I see as physical or emotional abandonment, even abuse. The vice-grip of poverty with addictions that result in persistent poverty, overcome only in faith and a tenacious will, communal wisdom. How can they not be enraged, furious, even accusatory of their parents, their elders?

This question arose in me because of my own story, of course. While I know my parents provided for me beyond reproach–materially, physically, in all the ways that can be seen and communally lauded–I yet reached adulthood as a deeply dissociated, disembodied little girl in a masculinized shell of a body, traumatized by shame and guilt given fuel within Protestant Puritan Christianity.

I was unable to name my desires as sacred, unable to imagine my own story mattered or could be seen as beautiful. That I could be loved for who I am more than what I have accomplished, what I do. That I am loveable as I am, regardless of whether my family is proud of me. The little girl I was, the full-throated fierce woman I am now, only came together amidst years–and I mean years–of re-mothering (by two anam cara spirit-friends and countless circles of women) until I learned how to hold myself in that Love.  This journey to myself as a conscious feminine woman who knows she has value beyond any of the giftings and failings of her family has taken decades. You can pray for my folks, my family...because it has also been one of seemingly unending anger and rage–anger at my parents for their refusals to learn their own emotional selves, work (though that is clearly not their first value/choice in this lifetime, which must be honored); at my family line for preferring our own myth of specialness instead of reality, a Hess-ness that can overshadow wounds and gifts alike; my religious tradition for choosing persistent ignorance and refusals to see a historical tradition canNOT be more important than one person wounded and in the corner, silenced and dying. I am a lava-eruption of anger when it gets nicked just right…[...and blessedly, the souls of my folks chose this way to be in my own life so that I would do this soul-work's all precisely as it needed to be...]

…and yet... I named this decades-long experience of anger/rage in my own story…and how I am most befuddled how it is not the experience of those who have so much more to be furious about than I do from their elders. 

There were other voices, other stories, that wove into this tension…but whatever all the strands were here converged into a braided strand that snapped the white faces in the room to attention in some way, to exchanged glances and eyes meeting eyes with recognition. Something about our shared European-ancestral lines where you align and conform or you are left out in the cold to die and (for me) this weight of rage & judgment that I carry today snapped some energy into the room.

The black faces in the room SAW us, saw us white folks seeing something in one another that we all recognized but which was foreign to each of them as black. Each of us would describe this differently, of course, but this is what has been cooking in me…

Judgment and rage against one’s own elders was incomprehensible for all the black people in the room. Again and again, I heard brothers and sisters of African-American descent speak their unconditional love and respect of their elders, not because they had earned it per se (though many obviously had and many obviously had not) but because they knew their elders’ love for them was unconditional. It was never even a question for them, to question, to ever consider as conceivable that "love" could be conditional. The four black voices in the room had spoken of the unconditional love they knew in their families. Their elders were doing the best they could do, in unimaginable and overwhelmingly difficult circumstances in Jim-Crow, civil-rights-era advocacy and plain living in hostile society(ies). Regardless of any failings–physical or emotional abandonment, neglect in back-breaking poverty, cycles of addiction and more–these four black human beings knew their love shared in family was unconditional. There was sadness, outrage at injustice, so much necessary to grieve, but no judgment or rage against their elders.

This is probably what poked my own disbelief and befuddlement, because I do not know that. I don't know what unconditional love feels like, as mixed up as it is with performances of all kinds. All of the four white people in the room said they didn't know that either, within their own families. And the four black voices spoke with shock and disbelief… Surely we cannot have meant that? each asked in his/her own way. One white person after another told the story of having to perform so to be seen by their family, by the larger community as worthy, as loveable. One was from elementary school, required to behave a certain way or be shunned by her own mother, by her friends. Mine was from kindergarten and early elementary school. Another named how it plays out now in herself amidst her own family, being a mother and a wife and another as a religious leader. We might call it the overwhelming poverty of the performative that drenches white communities, continuously remaining unconscious of the need to perform in order to be worthy, to have value, in society’s or family’s eyes. Continuously needing to remain unconscious of this lack, this emptiness, with few to no collective-communal skills to actually face the unbearable shame, shaming, that will surely mean a dying of some kind.

I want to return for a moment too, to the black shock and disbelief. Four black voices spoke with shock and disbelief…Surely we cannot have meant that? We really don’t know that our family loves us unconditionally? I can still see my new friend’s face, trying to comprehend or put it together inside herself. And I saw a wave of empathy and sadness cross her face, her entire body. She sat back finally, and threw her hands up in the air. “If I had known that, I would have dealt with the white-woman boss in my previous job totally differently,” she said. “I cannot imagine…” she trailed off. There was an overwhelming sadness in me that I finally had access to…I could feel my own sadness as my own…and it was seen by someone I respect and yet do not know well. I grieved a little that night--welcomed this sadness, knowing that it was seen.

The eight of us sat in stunned disbelief, silence, even wonder, looking at one another, unsure of what had just happened. Earlier that week, we had been held in a tightly facilitated “tell your story of race” session, so my new friend of African descent said to me, “Next time someone asks you your own story of race, tell this one.” This is one of my stories of race, whether politicized and civic debates on race and anti-racist work agree. Many of these voices would say it's not their white story or their black story. I'm not invested in those back-and-forths, here.

My own story would not be complete without deep belly gratitude for my own family that after fracturing, even shunning me for a time, did return to a reconciling relationship for us, though we are really care-full and tender now with one another. The fact remains that we do not know unconditional love in our family, nor are we particularly emotionally adept with our frailties, shadows, broken-places. We sever, judge, try to rationalize it all, then perhaps come back into overt emotional connection. (I have learned that we're always emotionally connected, even if we have utterly no contact for long periods, so by overt I mean "intentional" and "practiced again." Connection-in-aversion is simply deep-attachment, but negative or painful, suffering, as Buddhists might say).

With utter faithfulness and a genuinely deep heart, my father continues his struggles to receive love and know that he matters regardless of whether he does anything at all. I would say the same for my mother, though her own physical challenges have meant that she’s more practiced being just as she is, without obsessions over accomplishment. I don’t know my sister well enough to know where she would fall in this tension, but I’d guess she’s still imprisoned with it in some fashion, giving it intensely Conservative-Christian language. But maybe not. Her religious choices have meant she’s at a further periphery from the highly elitist, overly-intellectual norms of my extended Hess-ness family, whom I love and adore, and who do NOT know unconditional love very easily, if at all. My beloved husband is completely enthralled to this work-for-love-and-approval wound/reality, as he is a practicing pastor in a suburban, largely white congregation.

Remember: this is my retelling of my story–my own family would disagree, I’m sure, even refuse and want to push it away. I learned from my earliest years that achievement was more important than my little girl’s heart and embodied experiences, stories. Not out of malice or neglect from my folks, but because to succeed in our largely white, homogenous community meant achieving in school, achieving in music, becoming an establishment figure with great success in a sacred vocation. The woundedness in my folks and therefore in me here is this damning separation/being separated from unconditional love that other human beings on our planet actually DO know. I don’t know HOW they can know this–it is not my experience–but clearly, it is an act of Godde to KNOW it. Other white people won't have this story of race, but perhaps more of us will than can admit it openly...because to admit it means unconformity to their own white families, and a deep, vagrus-nerve fear of being left out in the cold.

And this is only my retelling of an event that changed my life because of commitment in Fire&Water, and the commitment of those who continue to walk together, complicated human beings on a sacred journey toward deeper healing, forgiveness, maybe even reconciliation some day (that I doubt any of us will live long enough to see, truly, fully, but no matter…). I would name you by name, but hereby honor your privacy and intimacy until/or unless you ask me to name more. I do welcome the other lenses on this story, which is not just my own anymore.

This is one of my own race stories then, emergent because it could unfold gently, after deep-belly laughter, with softened hearts and empathy across difference. Thank you, friend, for requesting me to tell it.

I bow to the imagined, unbearable challenge that empathy can be, perhaps always is here in our fragmented and polarized world, but again, with Godde, nothing is impossible.

Trust the divine order of things, I hear (QR). Once you’ve already surrendered, all of this becomes available. To me. To You. To Us.

We ARE one another; we belong to one another.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

We Have Returned...

 …even though we never physically left our homes.

As in my previous post, I want to offer in the same-immediacy-writing commitment a glimpse of where I am now sitting, how I am now sitting, and the hope I feel while being here in this fragmented and polarizing era we find ourselves in, in reconsidering citizenship. I honor that it will be, at some level, incomprehensible or easy-to-dismiss from outside the experience. I honor that only a percentage of the 24 students who engaged in this trip will share in what I have to say here. Large percentage? Small percentage? I don’t know. The post-immersion surveys are not all in yet, and even they will be shaped by the ‘authority-sensibilities’ that are inescapable in higher education today. Or in our collective systems. Many of us do not feel free to name our experience bluntly or openly; many of us do not have the skills or language to even name our own experience underneath the shoulds and should-nots of our own particular tribalisms. 

I am bowing to all of that, so to point to what is possible when religious leaders risk into the unknown, and “go out on a limb” for sacred callings in the world. These are the kinds of leaders we need today. Other friends will say wise and soulful, which is also true here for me. I learned a lot about religious leadership guided by the Land of Israel/Palestinian Territories, as rooted in human beings deeply listening to the land, and to one another, made possible by the Stand and See initiative of CLAL, the Center for Learning and Leadership with whom I have been in various collaborations over the years. [Shout out here to spirit-friend Brad Hirschfield, btw (here below). The world is a better place because you're in it].

Personally, I am relieved to be on this side of the leadership-innovation risk and space-holding. I’m exhausted, with that good kind of post-workout or post-pilgrimage sense of home-coming. These 8-days crafted an intensive-immersion-experience for a faithful learning community, beginning in prayer and being intentional about prayer-postures throughout the 6 hours (or so) we were engaged with the Land and one another on Zoom. That’s at least 45 hours of Zoom in 8 days (as Sunday was optional and brief). It was a huge risk for CLAL, to be honest, to lean into the innovative idea in the first place. It was a huge risk for me as a practical theology professor, unable to feel her way into what it might be, yet trusting the passion and vision of her spirit friends. [Second shout-out here then to Irwin Kula (pictured below), who wove me into CLAL's wisdom back in 2007, supporting my own work then, and continuing to encourage and confirm what rises in me today.]

From this side, I can see the familiar obstacles at the beginning of any pilgrimage–unmet expectations, frustrations, sadnesses, grief, anger, even crankiness. Normally, this plays out in airline frustrations, missed planes, lost luggage, fear of community members yet unknown, fear of the experience to come. This time, these obstacles played out in my own emotional weather, noted in the previous posting–uncertainty, self-doubt, sadness, grief, empathy, weariness. I’m often an ‘emotional kidney’ for these experiences, and I was in this virtual pilgrimage too.

And then there were the familiar concluding waves of emotion and expression at the conclusion of any pilgrimage–deep gratitude, softening of eyes toward one another, closing-thought Torah/teachings, sadness, tears, lingering, acclamations of coming back together, and in this instance, of traveling to the Land in person, now more convicted of its lessons and opportunities available to all persons of faith, especially those of The Book (Jews, Christians, Muslims). Many of us lingered on screen, in that ancient, rabbinic-interpreted sacred-communal-time of wanting to linger with one another as one. I felt the loss of the energetic web I’d been holding the entire time, both with a sense of sadness, and with joy–grief, in other words. Relieved and sad/happy.

We were a large pilgrimage group for a Zoom platform event–made necessary by Covid and a bit of a back-log of students requiring immersion experiences to conclude their degree sequence. So the level of engagement with some could be perceived as almost nonexistent. How much were they taking in, while multitasking and being about their ministry or family lives? How much could they engage from their own overwhelm of weariness and covid-era pastoring? No way to really know, except require screens be ‘on’. And I do empathize with the challenges, even as I note that this virtual option could be argued in old-school habits of mind to underserve those who for whatever reason cannot make the spaces in their lives so to fully engage in voice and focused attention. 

Except we saw the level of engagement deepen and increase with more and more of the whole. And those who I expected would not engage for whatever reason, surprised me by engaging fully. The duration of the immersion meant there was a deepening more and more, witnessed in both those who regularly spoke but also in those who, in the words of Rabbi Brad, will now not unsee what they’ve seen, nor unhear what they’ve heard. This option complicates the faculty perception of engagement–no way to know how/what students are taking in–AND it provides a means for all of us, each of us, to be in a more diverse learning community, outside our denominational/traditional tribalisms of attention and welcome. 

Part of the deepening happened because The Land was speaking to participants of deep faith and passion for their faith, in their own tradition(s). [Here we were at Magdala, led by guide Sakher Rizkallah Peter.] By Day Three, I heard participants speaking of the land as if we were physically there, and I heard the leadership-team–including the two guides actually rooted IN the land, ON the land, as they taught–doing that too. The Land began to invite participants to see and hear their own scriptures in a rooted, physically concrete fashion. The theological traditions of the participants began their dance in the learning community–interpretations and questions, inquiries–but with a third presence which brought us all into an equanimity with one another: the Land and its irrepressible realities analyzed and estimated with archaeological insight, actual artifacts, and historical narratives at play across traditions. The Land requires us to be in our deeply impassioned and human listening with one another, while more of us are looking in the same direction at the particular artifact. We don’t get completely lost in presumed facts or ideologies, though both of those realities dance their tunes in us while listening to the Land. This Land becomes Holy here by confronting and inviting us, simultaneously, to be rooted and grounded in the world while drawn forward in faith for the World to Come.

The learning community was also held and discussions guided by three Jews (of differing streams) within CLAL's team--two of them ordained rabbis (shout-out to Rabbi Joshua Stanton–and two Protestant ordained Christian teaching-elders (pastors, in Presbyterian-speak--Rev. Dr. Brian Maguire and myself), also companioned each day by a tour-guide on the ground–one Jewish (Gary Kamen) and the other Palestinian Christian (Sakher Rizkalla Peter). When the live-feed was too fuzzy for good-seeing, there were back-up images and videos to rely on, ably provided by a savvy administrator of CLAL (Shout-out to Shelli Aderman here!). Shabbat-night in Jerusalem was a discussion and reflection-exercise guided by the live-cam image of the Western Wall. Each of us got to write a prayer that an Orthodox Jew would print out (sight unseen) and place into the wall for us (electronic website and global ministry offering). Some of the “sites visited” were GoPro camera-videoed and then stewarded by the tour-guide. All had images which could be seen while discussion and questions emerged.

Live-Zoom chats were held with a variety of voices–a Father Nael who is a Palestinian-Arab-Israeli-Christian and Anglican priest in Nazareth (pictured to the right), an activist in Jerusalem tending to political and civic challenges in social justice (Rabbi Noa Sattah, pictured below), two Israeli settlers with a religious calling to live on the land, and Haviva Ner David, a kibbutz-located interspiritualist and Jewish woman–ordained Orthodox rabbi (yes!) and spiritual companion whose ministry is centered in bread, bathing and brightening, within rituals alongside/within a non-denominational mikveh in Israel. And of course, there were more voices missing than were present. It’s easy to take a legal-political habit of mind and critique how this pilgrimage framed the politics of peace and righteous unrest. I'm not neglecting that reality, but I'm also not letting it guide my experience coming into speech here.

One of my most significant learnings that I want my future students to trust me when I say...? Students are able to BE in their own traditions, honored and heart-felt, while also learning alongside and from Jews and Christians learning-teaching-together, alongside Israelis, Palestinians, Americans learning-teaching-listening together. It’s always more complicated than we try to make it inside ourselves, where we will always flatten and divide, so to hold onto our own worldviews. We Christians have inherited a schismatic and textually dualistic way of being in the world--always either/or, rarely both/and while holding the ambiguity. The difficulty is in how we see/expect/assume AND atrophied emotional muscles to surrender into the sovereignty of Godde. Our charism/yearning to connect with all the world so easily translates to complete mis-seeing of others, and a projection outward/onto them of what needs only to be welcomed inward to be assured--blessedly assured.

As I teased my rabbi friend: I love teaching-learning with him because his Torah, his rabbinic heart and spirit, are so very Christlike--a term important to me, if potentially painful for him (but not in this case, as we talked about it). He is impassioned, curious, inviting, honoring, listening, challenging, traditionally rooted and even verbosely-obstinate for the wisdom of tradition(s). I recognize in him an energy of Wisdom I have known in my Christian journey, a recognizable sacred presence I have come to trust in my journey with the Risen One. It's a 'felt-sense' thing that sacred leaders like myself become willing to trust and learn to intuit, name when they have to, more often leave unnamed in the intimate smile of divine and human coming to Life in the world.

Another participant from a Stand and See journey that my husband (Brian Maguire) helped lead named it well: Sitting and learning with a rabbi who is often more Christian than the Christians on the trip was disorienting and marvelous.

Because Rabbi Brad is who he is, he’s made completely uncomfortable by this description, and it IS uncomfortable in its Christian the first faltering attempts of the 1960's Vatican to name others whose wisdom contributed to the world anonymous Christians. Makes me shudder today. Its these old Christian habits of mind there that make it so important for Christians to hear: Some deeply rooted traditional folks living out of their own traditions can mirror Godde* to us in ways that we Christians cannot, for one another, for ourselves. And vice versa. We need one another; we belong to one another.

There is a personal charism and willingness to trust in the Good News, in a more compassionate future, in the World to Come, in the Kingdom of Godde, that lives a religious leadership in the world that Christians can recognize for themselves as Christian but which need not be named only in Christianity.

[For those of us who have invested in this work for decades, that is obvious and seems naive to have to name aloud. Like the underlying contrast of assumptions: You mean wisdom can be in other traditions beyond my own?! That’s what’s underlying some of this… So many Christians who come into my classroom simply assume that encountering another human being will somehow make them unfaithful in their own faith. So we/they divide and conquer, and miss the scandalous grace of Godde beyond our/their ken.] 

This virtual pilgrimage to the Holy Land got underneath how deeply religious tribalisms keep us a part from one another. We learned in a multitraditional community to be better and wiser in our own traditions. More of us–because certainly there were participants who just endured, so to not be changed–can now see we can honor Wisdom where’er she be found, not only in our own tribe.

Which then opens the gate a bit toward softer hearts, more curious spirits, deepened minds.

But these Christian seminary students were also privy to the overwhelming demands of living a risked leadership life into public, into the unknown. They saw me unsure, uncertain, and challenged by my own decision to trust this rabbinic friend and his utter commitment to innovation during COVID. They saw the fruits that can come when they lean into the discomforts and unknowing, requiring us all to learn together, vulnerably, in public. Religious leaders need to develop spiritual muscles of this kind--a willingness to be foolish and make possible errors in public--instead of looking solely to how their traditions have been interpreted in the historic past, or even present, historically confined.

We have now returned to our world as it is, to our lives as they will now unfold, and as is true with any physically-traveled pilgrimage, I am changed. Many of us have been changed. Thanks be to Godde.*

* I use ‘Godde’ as a spelling of ‘God’ that startles in its difference from expectation. It’s a middle ground way to honor both the masculine and feminine Divine, God/Goddess, while recognizing that the Feminine is largely eclipsed by patriarchal traditions and a toxic masculine in the word “God.” 

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Pilgrimage Learnings...a Preliminary Glimpse to Counter Today

To muse or not to muse?  And will these words open into the reconsidering citizenship of this blog-space? I hope so. This is my offering for today, January 6th, in the United States of America, 2022. Experimenting with wise-soulful leadership in public, in some contrast to the uncivil-civic spaces we'll see today.

First, context of writing and pilgrimage: I’m learning more and more in my later years that sitting-with-something, refusing to write about it for a good long while, can ultimately bear fruit that is inaccessible while in the midst of the experience. I’ve been quiet on this blog-space for some of these reasons.

Yet there is something to be said for writing while
in the midst too. The fruit of immediacy, vulnerability, glimpses on the way come with a willingness to write and be seen in the overwhelm or even incomprehensibility of an experience. The origins of this blog-project were mostly in-the-midst writings, after all. The waiting-to-write offers any reader the gifts of patience, integration, digestion over time, hopefully with fewer hiccups or burps or such metaphorical bodily discomforts. These words are in the categories of immediacy, amidst only the first two days of a 7-day pilgrimage, virtual platform, synchronous with both live and video “sites” being seen. Thirty of us are gathering each morning, 8 a.m. to about 2 p.m., for a Virtual Pilgrimage to the Holy Land (Israel/Palestinian Territories), guided by tour guides on the ground there (or in their own living rooms), and a teaching team of two Christian pastors/professors and two rabbis, plus a savvy administrator with her own direct and indirect contributions.

So much changes in just a day, for one thing. I wrestled last night, with Zoom-fatigue of course, but also with a roiling-wondering whether my institution’s students could really BE PRESENT amidst the pressures and demands I know are a part of their lives. Did I make a mistake in proceeding with this Intensive Immersion Experience so to deliver on our seminary’s curricular commitments? Should I have simply let it all go? Today, 24 hours later, I’m deeply moved and smiling with how so many of them showed up today–a bit of fire, a bit of push-back, a bit of reorientation and engagement which is what the leadership team is desiring but cannot do alone.

Today, I’m beginning to see how this Immersion Experience–even virtually–is an excellent capstone-like experience, necessary to place all the scriptural, historical, theological, practical disciplines into a living-learning-lab. Yes, it’s messy. Yes, it’s hopelessly/hopefully power-structured and shaped by higher-education-norms of professor/student. I don’t know what Day 7 will feel like, beyond an assured relief to have been faithful to it all, but I’m convinced today that this is a priceless opportunity for our Christian-pastoral students to learn with new voices, pluralist-valuing voices, that our students don’t get from ‘us faculty’ in one traditionally-identified institution. 

Last night’s fatigue and worry were real, though, and my heart still aches for our students. Working several jobs. Tending family members young and older. Serving their churches. Being a student in a Masters’ degree program at an accredited UMC seminary. Now being physically sick in a COVID era. My heart aches with what is…and…we each get to play our part in the drama of deepening and accountability. My faculty colleagues and I wrestle regularly with the realities of theological education for preparation of religious leaders today, so much in contrast to our own experiences in more establishment times and institutions. We know seminary with more residential and physical-communal norms. And spacious time for exploratory reading, research and writing (though we always blamed scarcity amidst abundance). Lunch and dinnertime conversations in dining halls, with faculty and administrators dipping in to be part of the community that shapes a faith-filled leader. Regular in-person communal worship within traditional or historical liturgical practice(s).

Online education and the realities of the theological education market mean higher theological education today is a vastly different animal–no judgment of better or worse, just naming what is. We faculty regularly act out our own grief at how little contact we get to have with online students–refusals of emails, messages, etc. We learn to place our attentions where our own needs for connection through discipline can be met. (It’s not ideal, of course, particularly for our students, but it is understandable as a torrent of grief amidst so much change into online settings). So, our students are stretched beyond capacity and we faculty do our best to create spaces for formation with integrity. And we both are getting it all done anyway. As several students demonstrated today. It made holding the spaces more challenging and plans were changed on the fly…as they needed to be.  As they always are in pilgrimages that happen after overseas travel.

So I sit here this afternoon in a bit of weary astonishment, feeling SO DIFFERENT than I did last night. Much more hopeful. Much more curious about students who shine easily in online environments, and those who don’t shine there but DO shine in this synchronous, interpersonal environment. A truism, clearly, but we can only see what we can see in online teaching. We miss so very much. And yes, students who learn in these environments are missing so very much of us, and a more traditional way of being shaped in Christian faith leadership. 

It is what it is. I didn’t create this social field. I’m certainly not in charge, but only a steward, trusting in the divine order of things. In that light, then, what am I learning in the divine order of things?

This is worth doing, and learning how to do again and again. The Virtual Pilgrimage makes available that which otherwise would not have been offered, to a student body needing more and more voices to help shape their best selves in Christian leadership. I cannot begin to describe the overwhelming awareness of not being alone that kept me in tears for much of yesterday morning. More about that below, but even a virtual pilgrimage IS a community on the way, in prayer, learning to listen to and with one another, amidst all obstacles before us.

The grief amongst and in us is overwhelming, or perhaps simply more obviously visible here. There is no escape from it–grief at so many losses of not being there, of not walking where Jesus walked, of needing to complete the holy journey of seminary-formation in a virtual format that wearies and silences amidst intentions to empower and give new voice. All this on top of the covid-weariness of losses–loved ones, jobs, security, abilities to plan, to travel, to pursue dreams without assessing vaccination statuses of those involved (😜😜😜)…so very much more. The grief in the group is palpable, and easy to ‘nick’ in those with the most fire or capacity to speak their experience into the space. Blessedly, many are beginning to name their questions, their experiences, and take control of their own learning curves with the abundance(s) here. But we are grieving a LOT without much mention of it, or practices/tools in this kind of venture to address/resolve it healthily.

[By which I mean…it’s more damaging to invite open-ended expressions of grief when the only spaces available for it are ‘end of site’ conversations, in a Zoom room. Speaking within the much larger educational ecology, higher education in general is not crafted to address or resolve grief in healthy ways, which means our civic spaces are uncivil, our religious spaces are polarized, and our discourse/media are angry/rageful with no redress, resolution. Healthy ways to grieve are immediate to the moment, responsive, communal, witnessed, tender and vulnerable, unknowing without tidying…letting be…until the one grieving is done, ready to move on. Higher ed doesn’t DO that kind of thing. Women’s circles can, but not always. Women’s ‘circles’ in religious traditions have often lost that holding wisdom too… Writing today may simply be to name that openly, so to honor it, as best I/we can.]

So even though we are drenched in grief, with little immediate recourse beyond this naming of it, I’m still utterly convinced of the gifting of this, for this student body, even if only a portion of them decide to engage actively. Frustrating for us as leaders, sure, but it’s not about us or even that personal. Forcing engagement is damaging, dishonoring of defense mechanisms some online students require for themselves. We teacher-elders get to work with whomever shows up, and they are enough. I’m thrilled with who and how these are showing up.

And even if that weren’t true, the gifts for me are emerging with greater clarity. The organization of theological disciplines in my home institution means that I’m “the one” slated to invite deepening or broadening of perspectives beyond a doctrinal/traditional lens into religious pluralism. No one else does interreligious-learning, in other words, though there are other faculty who address intercultural learning within preaching, and others with a missional or evangelizing frame of reference. Some of “us” shape it more and more toward proselytizing, with an increasingly global Pentecostal or Charismatic rigidity (in my experience/naming of this behavior/approach; his/her words would probably be different). That is not my charism, nor calling, though I respect it in my devotion to my sister (longer story there) and my commitment to intellectual virtue. However we might name this "rigidity-I-experience-here", with each colleague granted irrepressible dignity and legitimacy, I have felt so very alone in this work, and been completely  unaware of how alone I do feel. Organizing ourselves institutionally this way means it’s easy for students to dismiss and disregard it, projecting their discomforts and judgments onto me–a woman, a non-Methodist, a “liberal” (whatever that may mean anymore, which I am not in most traditional uses of that word), etc.  When there is only one faculty person “responsible for that part of the curriculum,” it’s easy to disregard, isolate, and dismiss. Even scapegoat in some institutional cultures, though that’s not a worry for me in mine. [I'm heading into my crone years, after all, and it's pretty common for older women to be disregarded, period. That I have the voice I do honors my institution and me both. I've found great freedom in this periphery, btw.] To be fair, we're actually a small faculty, really doing an incredible breadth and depth with all we have...AND...our institutional organization can underserve students in how to be better Christian leaders, with more savvy wisdom about a world needing more compassion and less suffering.

Sitting within a collaborative teaching team, with Christian and Jewish voices pitching into a complicated world’s invitations/demands for less-suffering and more-grace, I do not feel alone. There is value to this work, and even a greater moral force than I usually remember in a faculty meeting often necessarily focused upon solely Christian-shaped things, sometimes slipping into scarcity worries and decline, renewal. Sitting within a collaborative teaching team, learning and loving alongside familiar and new spirit-friends, I’m newly aware of an institutional and collegial ‘problem’ here I might address, redress, in some collegial discernment ways. Slowly. ... When you trust in the divine order of things, when you surrender to being where you are, where Spirit has planted you (and not pining for where you thought you should/would be), the impossible does become possible. 

And besides, I don’t think I’d ever have learned that the dissonance and discomfort of students and faculty colleagues, projected onto me, is not about me anyway. There is incredible freedom in knowing the whole dynamic is so scripted by our overculture, Christian tribalisms, refusals to be seen precisely as we are–flawed, fragile, frail, vulnerable. When any human being feels dissonance or discomfort, it is second-nature now to project that onto a convenient ‘other’ instead of asking ‘why is this happening for me now?’ or ‘what is my own energy about, such that it rises so fiercely?’ There are few 'containers' for such reflection, so I’m often that convenient person. And that’s a faithful role for all of us still on the journey. Staying here, in this institution, has allowed me to learn that such disregard, even injury, is not personal. It can hurt me, yes, but as a new friend has taught me: I can come to see another’s disregard of me as their own defensiveness, their own dissociated humanity, which is true of all of us. We all disregard that which we cannot perceive, digest, control, etc. 

This friend also taught me: I am God's favorite, after all.. (appropriate pause...) ...And so are you. (thanks, LaTanya Jackson Wilson 😆) I am an irreplaceable spark of the divine...God's favorite...and so is each one of us.

This journey of spirit-friendship and pilgrimage, virtual or not, has convinced me we are all interconnected, interdependent. Covid is showing us more and more how true that is.

To conclude for now, then: the lively ones in this seminary community do learn to engage and grow with the discomfort, to stay with that which they disagree, to even learn to love those with whom they vehemently disagree. There is always at least 2-3 (sometimes more) in each semester class, so I celebrate the sacred Work they/we get to do together. We get to support and nuance, deepen, invite each other, even in top-down higher ed structures that inhibit us. Those students who cannot engage will continue to not-engage, no matter what I/we may do anyway. Defenses are there for a reason, and I/we need to respect that. Said with an impish smile: each of us gets to be a thorn in the side of the other, until we’re ready to collegially but personally do-our-own-work-inside-ourselves...then pull it out and heal together

Thoughts on the journey…a deep belly gratitude for all Spirit has done in these days, and will continue to do with open-hearted, curious human beings, wearied and grieving but also showing up to stretch and discover.

Retracing the Steps of Freedom...Getting the Poisoned Arrow Out

This past week danced with the theme of reconsidering citizenship . A friend and colleague, Dr. C. Anthony Hunt , and I co-led an immersion-...