Going plural…

I had never heard the phrase, until about a month ago.  And why would I?  Apparently it is a phrase that comes out of the Peter Drucker school of management theory — not exactly my specialty.  There is even a consultancy manual to guide the executive towards diversification.  The friend who used the phrase in relationship to my life and the many and varied ways I am drawn in my life, said that they first heard it while travelling in Africa and believed it to be a cultural term, not a business one.  In my dreams, my research led me to anthropological tracts about the glorious of a natural, unsegmented life and the evils of the western emphasis on specialization.  I like my made-up definition better, of course, but the truth of it is, though, that hearing those two words lifted the weight of the world from my shoulders and gave me permission, well, to be me.

You see, when you graduate from seminary, everyone expects you to seek ordination.  Otherwise, why did you go to seminary?

And if you have devoted your life to making music and performing, surely you must be all about your singing career, right?

And if you happen to be a somewhat appealing writer, why aren’t you focusing on that career?  Or your call to live into the storyteller’s art?

And what about that call to listen and to teach?  Why aren’t you focusing on growing your practice as a spiritual director?  Why are you still singing?  Why do you spend so much time at the library?

And the ultimate question — why don’t you just grow up and choose something to do?

Why? Why? Why?  These are just a few of the questions that I meet on a regular basis, from people who know me just a little and from people who know me well — because, well, going plural is just not the done thing in our culture, not a willing done thing, anyway.

I used to believe that in that moment when I finally heard God’s voice clearly , well, my calling would be one thing, right?  A solid path, a single way — something clear and, well, direct.  I could not have been more wrong.  And I could not have spent more hours and days tied in knots, thinking that I didn’t yet know my next step because, well, it was a single thing.

There are many threads to my life — and sometimes they get, well, a little tangled.  And I know that to many people, I look unfocused.  And, I spend way to much time crying because I believe their analysis.

I’m changing that.  I choose to believe God’s analysis instead — yes, people, I’m going plural.  I’m stopping the quest for a tent big enough to hold all of these section-top-fabric-1things and tie them together into a single cloth — I realize now that I am that clothe.  I am the woven creation and on the best days, love operates the shuttle.

So, world, I am putting myself on notice.  This is the last day I complain about being splintered, about being pulled in too many directions.  This is the last day that I let that perception immobilize me.  The loom is dressed.  Let the weaving begin.

I’m going plural in a big, big way.  Many colors, many threads — who knows what the final clothe will be like?

Let’s talk about….questions

Ever since I can remember,  I have been chasing my ideas about life with a single solitary question.  That question? The question is this: where did that (that being anything peeking my curiosity) come from (I know, I just ended a sentence with a preposition, sorry).  One of my earliest memories is of the day I followed my then-beagle companion Toby into the dog house because I wondered where shesusan&toby2 was when she went through that little hole.  My father’s reaction was not one of amusement. It was one of the few times I remember being punished as a small child. Well, maybe the punishment came because once inside the dog house I tried to hide there and lied in response to his question, “are you in that doghouse”, but clearly the threat of punishment was not enough to halt me in my quest to understand what was behind the mysterious opening.

That may be the first memory of my questioning spirit,  but, with the gift of reflection (or might I say, hindsight), I  can see so many ways that this question and my search for the answer has defined my journey.  The thread is so easy to follow.  For example, I entered college as a history major focused on the Elizabethan period of British history and, through the continual study of the antecedents of each historical age (that is, the Renaissance influences on the Reformation, the medieval influences on the Renaissance, and so forth) , I graduated with a Masters in  Ancient Near Eastern history and wrote a thesis on the 18th Dynasty of Egypt– instead of a specialization in all things Elizabethan. For example.

This trend of thread-following continued and continues to this very day. Years of participating in faith communities of various flavors eventually led me to study at a seminary outside any of those traditions.  I was on a quest to understand the foundations (the orthodox position, as it were) of the faith around which I form my very existence.  That path of inquiry has led me deeper and deeper into the study of the Jewish culture that formed the original context of that faith and that, for me, still lives and breathes through everything we do and believe.  I am unable to separate what is now from the context of its formation.

Clearly, I ask a lot of questions.  I question authority (of all kinds, basically, I’m against it in principle unless the right to it is clearly earned).  I question the meaning of what most would consider basic words, words about which most assume we English speakers all share a commonality of understanding.

And lately, I have many more questions than answers about the building blocks of my life and so, it seems that it is time to embark on an organized program of sorting and definition — particularly about the words we use.  You see, how we understand these important words, how we define the concepts that form our lives — these ideas are the foundation around  which we form relationships and participate in social groupings.  These are the tools by which we make meaning in our lives, and making meaning is our primary drive as human beings (once we have satisfied the need for food, water, shelter, and a modicum of safety).  The way we think (our ideology) and the way we arrange ourselves (our social structure) reinforce each other; if one is broken or damaged, then, so is the other.

New Testament scholar Timothy Luke Johnson refers to this phenomenon  in sociological terms as our “symbolic world”.  Our symbolic world, according to Johnson,  is “a system shared meaning that enables us to live together as a group. A symbolic world is not imaginary; it includes more than specialized concepts and involves, in particular, “the fundamental perceptions that ground a community’s existence and that therefore do not need to be debated or justified.  These symbols pervade every level of the group’s life.  They effect the spatial and temporal arrangements and the rituals that mark them. …The symbolic world shared by a group can be discerned from the things that go without saying, the references implied by phrases such as “an so forth,” or even by gestures (pg. 11, The Writings of the New Testament).

There are many ideas here that strike me as important to my ability to understand my own ideology and my own sense of social structure.  First,  clearly there are a lot of inside jokes in a symbolic world, and therefore, there seems to be much in this idea of symbolic world that creates an “us” and “them” structure. There are insiders and outsiders.  Second, shared beliefs not only generate social structures but they also create expectations, often unrealistic and unattainable. Third, I am struck by Johnson’s statement that there is such intense social agreement in the symbolic world that some things just “do not need to be debated or justified.”  What happens, though, when someone in the symbolic world group does begin to debate the foundational assumptions and agreements? What happens when a member begins to question the ideology or the structure itself? Is change possible?  Are those who question automatically shunned or excommunicated (look at what happened to Michael Gungor)?  Does anyone even listen when they ask a question?

I am not simply going down a philosophical rabbit hole for the sake of the idea.   I think that Johnson’s definition gets to the root of our ongoing discussions about the life or death of the church, the development of the “nones” and now even the “dones“. Clearly, by Johnson’s definition, the institutional church is a symbolic world that reached its modern zenith of cultural consensus in the America of the 20th century (one could argue for other “zenith” periods, such as the high period of the Middle Ages and even the Reformation when, although fractured within itself, church was the dominant social structure) and that now faces voices from both the inside and the outside that question that shared belief system.  What happens to those of us who dare to ask questions like what is really meant by the word “church”, by the word “community”, and by the label “dying”?  What if that symbolic world, intolerant of debate and questioning, is driving away those that might lead our understanding of faith into a new world — just because they refuse to conform to the requirements of a symbolic world that should be, let’s face it, at the very least changed and in all likelihood, gone?

I am still struggling with these words, church and community, and I will write more about those struggles as I have more ideas become clear.  I am clear on one thing, however — my own symbolic world is broken.  I am willing to consider the possibility that death may be necessary for the life of my faith — we are, after all, a resurrection people.

What if it is, in the words of the poem attributed to St. Francis of Assisi,  in the dying that our faith will be born to eternal life, born to the presence of the Kingdom of God on earth? What if the death of the “church” is just the process of kicking down a man-made space that is now too small to contain the life and spirit of that God on earth?  What if the death that we experience of our beloved institution is just the process by which we throw off another layer of something that separates us from that Kingdom?  What if our truth is the same as that of Obi- Wan Kenobi, who wisely said to the evil Darth Vader:  ” If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”

As I said, I have more questions than answers, but I will continue to ask them both silently and out loud because, well, that is who I am.  Maybe there is a symbolic world somewhere for those of us who ask too many questions….

Who are you, anyway? The beginning of a thought…

Lately, my thoughts are consumed with the idea of identity.  Perhaps it is a mid-life crisis brought on by my recent birthday; perhaps it is simply that I sit at one of those crossroads in life where my choices would be best served by a good solid dose of self-knowledge.  Or, maybe it is the season — this season of holy reflection that was the time when I decided to take yet another ecumenical change of dance steps and become a member of a Baptist community.  Whatever the reason for the feeling, the feeling is palpable and will not be denied — it is time to seriously ponder the idea of identity, personal and corporate.

Of course, I am beginning my quest with a book.  I am just beginning the book Rethinking Christian Identity:  Doctrine and Discipleship (2012) by Medi Ann Volpe and my framework for this discussion has already exploded.  She groups her discussion for the Christian in three categories — that of self-identity, community identity, and the group of identifiable beliefs and practices that are called Christian.  This is a schema that pretty much covers what I want to talk about as well.  And so, over the next few weeks, I hope you will join me as I walk through my own process of thinking about my identity as a member of the body of Christ.

To get us started, however, I wanted to revisit something that I wrote during Advent of 2013.  Yes,  I know it is Lent, not Advent, and that the Passion week beckons us onward in our journey.  And yet, there is no more important time to stop and ponder our identity as disciples.  This is the time in the story when disciples were made — it was one thing to follow a living, teaching, visible Jesus; now those who physically walked beside Him would be called to a very different identity, an identity as believers, as teachers themselves, as the faithful who carried on a work without his physical presence.

So, to begin, I offer this small reflection on John 1:19-23 from December 2013:

One evening in Church History class the lecture began with this question:  who are you?  It was a good opening; it made me start, it made me pay attention.  It was not the words I expected in that place at that time.  And it was a great question with which to frame the discussion of the early whoareyou2Christian persecutions that followed.  I did not at that time realize the ways in which that question would echo forward through my life.   I certainly did not then nor do I now have as clear an answer as our Gospel reports that John the Baptist offered when asked the same question:

John 1:19-23

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’

He said,
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord” ’,
as the prophet Isaiah said.

I come from the generation that identified and labelled the terms “identity crisis” and “midlife crisis”, both psychological terms for the kind of inquisitive searching started with the simple question “Who are you?”  But John knew who he was…he was there to be the voice of the prophet from Isaiah 40:3, Malachi 3:1, and Psalm 68:4.

If I were to go back to the beginning of this devotional process to state my theme for the writing of these days, I would change my theme to “living as disciples,” because that is where each text so far has taken me.  Maybe it is in the text, maybe it is just in me; but again in our reading I hear a call to stop waiting and to acknowledge that I, like John, have life and breath because I am “the voice of one crying in the wilderness.”   It is the great answer to the question of a generation, “Who am I?”


Other people’s theology…

Reading and commenting on someone else’s writing is not always the easiest thing.  But as eternal students of faith, we often face the task of picking up a book or an article, reading it quickly,  analyzing its usefulness, and incorporating the pieces of that message we need for a project or that we need simply to stimulate our own thinking and theological pondering.  And so, in this next writing reflection, I have chosen to read and comment on  Chapter Three of our text, We Are Theologians:  Strengthening the People of God, by Frederica Harris Thompsett.

I picked this chapter, titled “All Can Be Theologians”, because the idea resonated strongly with my own faith worldview.  One of the things that I admired about the Anglican tradition (long before I considered studying at VTS) was the tradition of  what I would describe as lay theologians, most specifically, female lay theologians.  Over the years, I was repeatedly drawn to the works of Evelyn Underhill, Diana Butler Bass (who might not think of herself as a theologian, but who definitely IS one), Phyllis Tickle and more.  And I marveled at a tradition which from the outside looked so formal and hierarchical  but that on the inside supported the work and writing of its lay membership (even when that lay membership was female).

Theology is one of those words that I am somewhat suspicious of, in general, but Thompsett makes a great case from the very beginning that my suspicion is wrongly placed.  Her working definition of the word theology is simple and comforting:  theology “is a people’s understanding of God, humanity, and the world (pg. 55)”.  And with that definition in mind, I totally agree with her basic premise that not only is it possible for us all to be theologians, we as people of faith are obligated to take up the careful study of the theology that guides our lives.  We must understand it to live it;  we must understand it to communicate it to others around us.  And as Thompsett writes, without an understanding of why we worship as we do or why we believe as we do, our religious and faith identities are incomplete.  She may write of the importance of the church’s theology and I from my Baptist perspective may be more concerned with my individual theology, but the importance of the work and the understanding of that work is the same.

In the next pages of the chapter, Thompsett reviews the theological characteristics that make up the Anglican faith perspective, and in the midst of this discussion, I came to understand many of the reasons that I am comfortable studying in an Episcopal Seminary even though I do not feel drawn to worship as a full member of the Episcopal Church.   And that comfort stems from qualities that the Episcopal church (if Thompsett is accurate in her description) embraces on a corporate level that are similar to my own beliefs at the personal level:  the necessity for reasoned study of the Scripture, the rejection of the doctrine of infallibility, a resistance to the imposition of doctrinal belief (except at the most fundamental level of the Creeds), the belief that it is baptism not ordination that invites us all into ministry and worship, a deep belief in the goodness of God’s creation, and, springing from that understanding of creation, a deep respect for all life. Thompsett makes it clear that Anglican theologians value not only human nature, but also human experience as they work together to expand their understanding of God through theology — again, as she defined it–the people’s understanding of God, of humanity, and the world, and how those things all work together as part of God’s great creation.

Reading Thompsett’s chapter gave me words for the commonality of faith that I have come to feel during these first few months of study among my Episcopal friends and truly helped me to understand the affinity I feel for the teaching I have experienced and the people of great faith I have had the chance to meet.   I may not be ready for deep discussions of the theology of the Atonement and the Incarnation on my own, but I have a much better understanding of the foundation of the great tradition that has so gratefully welcomed me to study along side them.

What I thought at first was “other people’s theology” turns out to be not so very far from my own.