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.

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