Sunday, September 16, 2007
Conversion From Critical to Post-Critical
I feel a little like an archaeologist exploring my own past. I make small discoveries- some things I can remember clearly, some things are vague echoes of a familiar past, and still others I have no recollection of. Artifacts, clothing, papers, and books. Lots of books.
I came across my small collection of books by Thomas Merton (1915-1968), a Catholic Trappist Monk, one of the twentieth century's most influential religious figures and a prolific writer. Of course, being Catholic, he is rather orthodox, even for a contemplative, and there was a long period in my life when I would have balked at the idea of my reading these books.
You see, these books belong to a searching time in my life, in my late-junior-high and early high school years. My field of vision was limited (?) to more traditional (orthodox, safe) Christian thinkers, and I thought myself very daring to be looking outside of my own denominational community for insight into God. And something about Merton's style, as well as his thoughts, provoked me. (Although Merton's most famous work is an auto-biographical confession, a la Augustine, I found his essays to be more compelling - a genre that still speaks to my heart today.)
Merton wrote of struggle, but it was always (to me) faithful struggle with theological issues, or with the nature or love or presence of God. Perhaps this was the beginning of my more skeptical years that would follow (and come to full blossom in college just four or five years thence), but what I yearned for was meaningful personal struggle. And what I imagined to be "meaningful" was reaching a preconceived end, a known result, to arrive where I wanted to be. (Looking back on Merton's writings now, I'm not so sure he would have approved of such a reading, but I was young, and Merton was forgiving.)
In those years I was beginning to doubt. I had doubts about the story I was told, the devotion I had seen around me, the certainty or truth of the things I was brought up to believe in. And though at the time I may have been adventurous in reading a Catholic, I would venture much further afield in the coming years.
My Merton books - underlined and annotated in the margins (I can still remember sitting alone under courtyard trees during lunch hours, poring over pages, meditating and wondering, yearning for insight and profundity, and feeling so out of place in the mundane and often punishing world of adolescence and high school) - represent the last and greatest genuine throes of my pre-critical years.
If personal religious development can be broken down into three stages or fields, perhaps pre-critical, critical and post-critical, might be good terms. (My thanks to Tony and Charmaine for this insight.) The "pre-critical" is a delightful naivete, a place of profound confidence in the symbols and language of religious expression. Belief in this "stage" is clear, and often literal, encountering power in the actual words or images. Someone in the "pre-critical" stage might consider those of the "critical" perspective as fallen from the faith, and even the "post-criticals" as suspect in their use of the same faithful language in strange ways.
The "critical" stage is one of rejection and vehement questioning. Nothing is sacred to the critical thinker. This perspective often expresses itself in an ardent materialism, seeing no other cause for religious feeling or fervor than psycho-physiological needs. The critical thinker considers both the pre-critical and post-critical as deluded (self-deluded?) and foolish, unable to see the natural causes for their so-called spirituality. Critical thinkers are also able to cut through the crap of theological flowery-ness and identify what is really at stake in religious discussions, and are therefore often less patient with religious expression that does not meet exacting standards for correctness, openness, ecumenism/interfaith/alternative interpretations, and admission of profound finitude. If there is subtle, underlying racism or sexism in a religious expression, criticals will find it, and point it out. If there is logical inconsistency, criticals will not let it slide. If there is fuzziness, criticals will keep pushing for clarification. Criticals are hyper-sensitive to the oppression latent in much religious language and devotion, and react allergically to it. Oftentimes, critical thinkers cannot long stand the religious company of pre-critical devotees; and just as often criticals do not see any difference in the language of pre- or post-critical thinkers. They feel they have identified the true meaning of words, and find those meanings unsatisfactory - and thus find no compulsion to explore the differences when others are using traditional language.
This "critical" stage was where I was at for the bulk of my religiously conscious life. As a young child I was clearly pre-critical. But as a youth and teenager, I was critical to the core. Even though I deeply felt a longing for connection, I found the old forms lacking and unsatisfactory, even hypocritical and false. I remembered that young boy under the trees with Merton, and longed for that ecstatic confidence and faith, but couldn't bring myself to descend into what I considered self-delusion. Criticals are, in many ways, just discovering a profound honesty with themselves, and exploring the terrifying implications of that. This exploration is tremendously important, and I wouldn't have denied myself the honest sojourn of critical thinking for the world. A key to the critical stage (perhaps both pre-critical and critical in turn) is that there is no expectation of going anywhere else - pre-critical naivete or critical rejection is the reality of one's life, so get used to it.
I long ago packed away my Merton books, and even left my philosophy books at home (though close to my heart), when I left for three years of Peace Corps service. I was spiritually "taking a break." I was tired of struggling, of resisting, of arguing inside myself or with others. I wanted a vacation from self-reflection. Honestly. So I told myself that for the two years (I thought then) of Peace Corps, I would focus on someone else, on something else, and put all the internal struggle aside. I'd let the silt settle, and see what patterns it makes in the riverbed. I figured leaving home, language and country would make such a departure easy, and it was, for the most part.
On about my third year in Peace Corps, I started to face the possibility of coming home, and picking up where I left off. Except that I wasn't where I had left off - or perhaps more accurately, I didn't want to pick up there. I didn't want to go back. It helped that when I did return to the States I didn't go to my hometown, or resume my old life in any way - I came to Seattle, new home, new friends, new job, new church group, new girlfriend - I could entirely recreate myself here. And I decided, for some reason, to go back to church.
Don't get me wrong - I didn't enjoy church those first couple times. It was terrible - all I remembered from my critical days. But something kept me coming back. There was something here that I wanted or needed to know. I entered a post-critical phase in my life.
(This is an on-going discussion in my life... so let me just post this too-long-already post and continue this discussion later.)
Friday, September 14, 2007
Local Efforts Continue to Address Homelessness
By JOHN IWASAKI, P-I REPORTER
While chatting with friends Wednesday morning at a coffee shop in Ballard, Carolyn Swanson mentioned that she was headed to a meeting to learn how local churches could host Tent City 3, the traveling homeless encampment now in North Seattle.
Because Scandinavians pride themselves on "pulling themselves up by their bootstraps," she said, her astonished friends fired back questions:
"You're going to do what?" "Why don't those people work?" "Isn't that great to live off the state?"
Homelessness is a complex issue, and those with a roof over their head often don't understand it, said Swanson, a member of the justice committee at Our Redeemer's Lutheran Church.
Representatives of 16 congregations met Wednesday at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral to gather information on homelessness and Tent City 3. The encampment will be moving from Haller Lake United Methodist Church to Riverton Park United Methodist Church in Tukwila on Sept. 22.
The larger question, not on the agenda at the St. Mark's meeting, is how to make homelessness a problem of the past. That daunting topic will be discussed Tuesday when an interfaith group holds its seventh-annual conference on "creating the political will to end homelessness."
Read the whole article at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
What is Most Important
"Despite all the (mounting) anxiety - I think both Christie and I are excited about the adventure of Europe. In many ways, it is a large unknown - to everyone, including ourselves. In some ways, things are just unknown to us - surely my supervisor and fellow ministers and the Europe church have some expectations and understanding, and I have no idea where or what those are. Hopefully, that will be somewhat corrected in the next few months (and it may be an act of mercy not to burden me with those until I am free of obligation to the Northwest).
But one of my goals should be to enjoy Europe. Make that an explicit goal of my first year, too.
The minister for Hungary wrote to me earlier this week asking to hear about any ideas I have for Europe - and I'm torn. I really do feel like I need to learn what the Europe church wants for itself. I don't want to go to Europe with a cadre of pre-conceived notions, but moreover, I can't, without being egregiously arrogant and misguided. I don't say this as "I shouldn't," but as "I am not capable of going over there with many preconceived ideas."
When I started my present position in the Seattle-area congregations, I tried really hard not to impose my vision and priorities onto the congregations. But the truth was that I had my own visions and priorities. They weren't set in stone, or overriding congregational identity and initiatives, or exclusive of other ideas, even. But I had some ideas going into this what I could do. After all, I had lived here for several years already and was at least somewhat familiar with the church here by virtue of language, nationality, culture, and so on. None of these commonalities exist for me in the Europe church. I am not able to go into Europe with even a skeleton plan of preconceived notions.
In some ways this is good, surely, since I will be able to genuinely throw myself into Europe for its own sake. At the same time, however, I worry about the perception of my leadership abilities if I enter in in total obedience to the local whim of the people. (Two things come to mind: Jesus would not, I believe, condone entering Europe "proudly" and full of myself, and would himself model "servant leadership;" and part of my leadership ability may be to discern the viable priorities and initiatives, find the fertile ground, in Europe, from all the potential options.)
And, too, all this is not entirely honest. We do have commonalities. In fact, these commonalities are not merely "cultural" or "linguistic" or "nationalistic" - they are necessarily deeper, more foundational, root convictions. We are grounded in the scriptures, in shared history, in commitment to community, peace, and the worth of all persons. So perhaps there is hope there. I am going without my familiar footing, but not without grounding altogether. It may be a strange shore, but we share the same anchors. Perhaps going to Europe will be a good exercise for me in letting go of the unessential, identifying and keeping hold of what is most important.
What is most important. A tall order indeed."
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Sunday At the Meaningful Movies
Christie and I own this film, and few things will better inform you or make you more mad - mad that our country, culture and economy is organized this way. The film brilliantly escorts the viewer through the development of our national arms-industry and its place in the political and popular life of our nation. It takes a brave and honest look at the history of American state-violence, and tries to make a fair and insightful analysis of our national psyche. This film, in short, is tremendously worth watching.
And what better way than for free, with other West Seattlites of like mind and concern? West Seattle Neighbors for Peace and Justice are fun folks, who thankfully haven't lost sight of either long-term dedication or a healthy sense of humor. If you haven't met anyone from this group yet, you really should. They're a hoot.
And there's free popcorn!
Monday, September 10, 2007
Growing the Church
The last two weeks I've been preoccupied with getting our house in shape to sell - all the yard and home projects I've neglected in my eagerness to work for the church have come back to taunt and chase me.
Another point of stress is that Christie and I run our home more like a farm - which looks different than a "yard." We don't water the lawn, letting it brown in late summer and die back naturally. We compost yard waste in big bales. We grow crops instead of flowers. Generally, the beauty of urban homesteading is a little rougher than the typical suburban well-manicured yard. In fact, if you're not used to it, it might look unkempt and ratty.
So once we made the decision to sell the house, I started pulling up crops and planting flowers, laying down bark mulch instead of the homegrown compost, and watering the lawn. The problem is, watering the lawn once the grass is already brown is too late. Once the crisis point has hit, it's the watering you've already done (or not done) that matters.
And watering only the brown patches leaves what still is green to wither and die - so you have to water both the living and the dying (or the birthed and potentially re-birth-able) equally, actually watering where you hope there will be grass soon.
Ministry within congregations, it occurred to me, is much the same. If we wait until crisis to start to minister to each other, show love, mobilize for issues we believe in, or begin mission work in our neighborhoods, then it's too late. The heat of the day and the summer will burn up most of your water and care. It is the watering and attention you've done prior to this that really sustains roots, that has already penetrated the soil and is at the source of people's strength. If we wait until congregations are dying to start mission work, it is an uphill battle, and the fruits of the labor may not be seen for a long time, while the water (and precious little at that) makes its way to the roots - and we need to keep watering. Whereas, if congregations sense a call to mission earlier, and begin to cultivate their spirituality and religious devotion to include a real-life care for the world, then when crises hit (and crises will come), the roots deep below will sustain them and weather the drought.
On a more personal level, when individuals are going through a crisis like the death of a loved one, oftentimes the words and efforts right then seem superficial and un-comforting. It is the understandings that have been deeply cultivated, the convictions that are already nurtured and healthy and rooted, that carry one through, or leave one wanting. It doesn't seem much different with larger organisms like congregations or denominations.
We've been starving our roots for too long, getting by with shallow waterings and quick fixes. We want our congregations to grow, but are unwilling to invite people, or unwilling to offer dynamic worship, or unconventional worship, or meaningful, insightful, exciting preaching, or whatever. We've been unable or unwilling to open our doors to homeless or poor or immigrants or other languages. We've clung to old forms of worship or congregational identity, when the world around us has changed dramatically. We've been hoping that having kids will grow our church - a strategy that worked in the 50's when the population of the US generally was growing. We are still conflicted about our history and heritage, embarrassed at times, ashamed at others, but sensing all the while that there is something precious and worthwhile buried under all the misgivings, and not having the language to talk about it without sounding retrograde.
Whatever it is, we need to stop watering shallowly. Gardeners all over will tell you: water more deeply and less often to conserve water and encourage healthy root growth.
We need to water where we want grass to grow, too. That means stretching ourselves, and risking the "waste" of some resources on land that is not yet in bloom, where roots have not visibly reached, trusting that the Spirit is at work there just as it is at work where the grass is greenest. This necessitates an economy of abundance, rather than scarcity - where we water deep and wide.
Honestly, I'm not sure many of our congregations are ready for that kind of commitment.
The thing is, there are other gardeners out there. If we don't reach people, something else will. And we'll have no one to blame for our desert lawn but ourselves.
Sunday, September 09, 2007
ode to the pacific northwest
This is what I love about the northwest, the dramatic, rough splendour of these mountains and the whole landscape. Towns humbly sit at the feet of these towering, rocky slopes. Even the clear-cut expanses do not and cannot touch the terrible peaks. Rivers wind their way to the flatter land that gives way to more majesty, the ocean, with more jagged peaks across the water.
It is this chaotic and dangerous landscape that my heart/soul/spirit calls "home", not the rolling hills and gentle expanse of the midwest, lovely as they are. The danger and the beauty and their juxtaposition terrify, thrill and humble me, all the while pulling deeply on my passion and desire..... so beautiful, so frightening, and so much like God. Hallelujah.
Thursday, September 06, 2007
Jesus was constantly in a state of celebration."
Quoted from Jesus, CEO, by Laurie Beth Jones
Tuesday, September 04, 2007
But is Jesus merely being "Miss Manners" here, recommending a strategy for being publicly recognized as both prestigious and humble (if falsely)? Or, rather, is it our own egos that want to take Jesus' words about not being proud and twist them into a strategy for feeding our pride even more?
I told a story about Apostle Susan Skoor's recent trip to the church in Tahiti. While there, she was showered with gifts and honor and adoration. One of the first dinners she attended was a church potluck after a service. In typical Community of Christ style, the room was laid out with connected seating tables and one long serving table heavily laden with food and goodies. Being polite, the Tahitian congregants invited Susan, as their guest, to go first. Susan, being polite, tried to take a little bit from every dish, so as not to offend or disappoint anyone, and took her plate to the table.
Now, in the States, potluck ceremony ends about at the end of the food line, and you just sit wherever you can find a place - usually next to someone who's already sitting, so you can converse with them over the meal. So that's what she did. Susan saw some people sitting at the end of the table, went over and sat next to them. At which point there rose a tense murmuring in the crowd. Whispers of concern and confusion, nervous glances and desperate looks bounced back and forth. Blissfully ignorant, Susan continued her attempts to banter politely in her struggling French.
The financial officer for French Polynesia, Steve - an American who grew up partially in Tahiti, who knows both cultures well enough to navigate between them - came over to Susan. "Now, Susan, this seat is fine because you chose it. But just so you know, they meant for you to sit over there." It was obvious, once Steve pointed it out. The tables were arranged in a large horseshoe, with the largest chair at the top of the bend, ornate and padded, and the table in front of it festooned with flowers and crowded with food.
"Should I move?" she asked.
"No. You've chosen this seat, and that's ok."
But obviously, it wasn't. You see, Tahitian society is still very classified - that is, there are "classes" still largely present, a social hierarchy of prestige and respectability. Membership in the community of Christ hasn't completely done away with this cultural characteristic, and it manifests itself even in church. Where you sit is in clear relation to how important you are in the society, how respectable and honorable you or your place is. And these people hadn't even gotten their food yet, so they were probably at the very end of the line and had just sat down to rest while everyone more important than they went by the food-table. These people weren't even prestigious enough to be in the food line yet. And here comes Susan, unknowing, making no distinction, seeing no difference, more self-conscious about her own linguistic performance in front of these people than their social status. It was a question she didn't even think to ask, a factor she didn't even know to consider.
There she sat, at the lowest end of the table, with persons who might have considered themselves the lowest people in the room. And wouldn't you know it - a miracle happened. Slowly, people began picking up and moving the flowers and overflowing dishes, the decorations and abundance reserved for the most important person in the room, toward her end of the table. When Susan sat in the "wrong" place, they began to reevaluate where their abundance was located, re-prioritize their table-setting, re-orient their best efforts and highest honors. And the glory and honor of that congregation moved from the center of the table to the edges, from the middle to the marginal, from the pinnacle to the periphery.
Isn't that incredible?! Don't you just wish it was always that easy? Just sit in the wrong place, unintentionally, and see for one moment a holy shift in a congregation's consciousness? Wouldn't you just die for such a chance?
Last Sunday was, of course, Communion Sunday - the monthly meal where we are invited to sit at the table of Christ. The theme was "Practice Radical Hospitality." And so I asked the congregation who in their neighborhoods and city are people that could be invited if we only extended Christ's hospitality without thought of gain for ourselves. The poor. The homeless. Migrant workers. Illegal immigrants. The mentally ill. Children. Those with emotional problems. Those of political parties with whom we ardently disagree. And so on. Most of those categories were responses of the congregation, when I asked them the rhetorical question. But the Spirit moves them to answer, and I told them the Spirit will hold them accountable for their knowledge.
Radical hospitality has been extended to all of us - poor sinners and unworthy disciples of Christ. How difficult is it for us to extend that same hospitality to those sitting at the edges of our tables or neighborhoods? How much are we called to sit with those who might benefit from a reorientation of society's priorities? How lucky are we that there are so many opportunities waiting for us already?
Actually, the party was in celebration of our brother- and sister-in-law's tenth anniversary. What better way to celebrate our own marriage than lifting up those who are successfully going before us, leading the way?
Here's to Flannel-in-laws, and love all around.