Sunday, June 16, 2013

First Cup—Lectionary Sunday

Beware stories!

It’s no secret that I love a good story—in any form. Tuesday of this week, I sat with three good friends at The Horse Brass Pub in Portland, sharing stories. These are good friends; three of us are long time friends who know each other well—decades of friendship. One is a “newbie” but already more like a decades old friend. We are bound together by stories. Stories of our separate lives and our lives together. Stories of our children and marriages. Stories of our loves and fears. Stories of Warner Pacific—stories of its light and the darker stories as well. We know the stories well—many of them we can talk about in code; remember that old joke when someone shouts out a number and everyone laughs? Yet, we can still be surprised by those stories. It is not unusual to hear one of us say, “I’d forgotten that.” “I always wondered about that.” “Oh, I didn’t know….”

So, we sat around this table in The Horse Brass Pub and we laughed and grew serious and laughed again. We toasted one of us. We mentioned the names of other friends who were not at this table. We lamented and we celebrated and we laughed and we told stories.

We were at Horse Brass because one of us was just accepted into a doctoral program; he wanted to thank us for our part in the journey to date, and we wanted to celebrate him and this new chapter in his life. Two of the four have completed that doctoral journey and shared stories of their time and raised thoughtful questions—wisdom questions based on those stories. I might even say warning stories. Be careful stories. Don't forget your relationships and priority stories. Our stories and our mutual story gave us permission to speak thus to each other. In Palmer’s words, over the years we had entered “troth” with each other. We are covenanted within one of the oldest guilds—we are teachers—but more even than that we are bound to each other by our truthful stories—our personal stories to which we have each contributed: co-authors.

Another good old friend likes to talk about how we are all story-formed. We are who we are because of the stories we inhabit—and the stories that inhabit us.

This morning the lectionary contains two truthful stories about persons who broke their troth. They are, actually, like all biblical narratives, stories within stories: Nathan’s powerful story of theft and power and wealth and judgment that traps David and Jesus’ simple story of debt and forgiveness and hospitality that traps Simon in his deceit.

Beware stories!

Nathan tells David a story that angers David. It is a story of deceit; it is a story of the abuse of power—the rich owner of a great flock simply takes what doesn’t belong to him; he takes what is precious to another simply because he can. This story parallels the story of David’s own exercise of power through lust and deceit and treachery and murder. David can take what he wants and so David takes what he wants. “It’s good to be king.” In the other story, Jesus is a poorly treated guest in a house of power, the home of Simon the Pharisee. The ancient, simple rites of hospitality are not honored. A woman shows up and treats Jesus as Simon should have—out of her own narrative of disenfranchisement; like many the stories of many women in the Bible, it is a narrative of abusive power. But because Jesus tells it, it is also a story of redemption. Jesus tells a simple story of forgiveness and gratitude, highlighting and trapping Simon in his own abuse.

Speaking truth to power is the way the Quakers talk of this. More often than not such truth speaking is storytelling. Again and again, Jesus answers his accusers, those seeking to entrap him, with words like these: “There was a man who had two sons.” “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep….” “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins….” “A man was going down from Jerusalem….”

Each time, just as in the story David and Nathan and Bathsheba and Uriah, the stories of Jesus are simple and direct, not open to much interpretation, although open to wide application. There is edginess to these stories: “double-edged” stories.

They are stories of judgment. They are stories of redemption. They shut doors and they open doors. They are stories that open doors of possibilities—conversion. David sees that and confesses and is forgiven (although the consequences continue). Simon? Well, we don’t know Simon’s response, but for the woman, there is new hope. Is it too great a stretch to include her among those women who become Jesus’ disciples? I don’t think so. The younger son is welcomed home; we don’t know about the older brother. The lost sheep is back in the fold and the woman finds her coin. The man by the side of the road is cared for and, likely, restored to health.

And, of course, we, too, are in these stories. As we sat in The Horse Brass, our lives and stories are encompassed by these old, ever new, stories. They are also our stories; they are my stores. I am in these stories. The times I was tempted and yielded to the lust of petty power and self-promotion. The times I wanted and took what wasn’t mine to take—simply because I could. The times I hurt others in order to make myself appear greater or better—or just superior. The times I broke troth and was more David than Uriah and more Simon than the woman. But restoration is also part of these stories; judgment in scripture, I think, is nearly always about hope and redemption. Confession brings forgiveness. Forgiveness restores relationship. Relationship produces health and growth “so that I might live to God.”

The psalmist says,

Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did
Not hide my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my
Transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the
Guilt of my sin.

Thank God for the Story that forms us in ways that allow us to hope—that stories that somehow make it possible to say that it is not I “but Christ who lives in me.”

Beware stories—and be grateful.

Friday, June 14, 2013

First Cup—Poetry Friday

I am reflecting on birds, specifically sea birds, and

how, for the most part, with some lovely variations, they all look the same.
(A few browns ones stuck here and there in the midst of all
the black, gray and white plumage.)
Even so, large and small, pretty much the same.
I’ve noticed how, for the most part, they stay fairly close together,
allowing for some space and, for the most part,
seem to ignore the other birds around them;
perhaps, it is pretty congenial—
although this morning I watched one work hard and nasty
at staking out territory.

I notice that, for the most part, they are pretty quiet
—a few screeches—
unless something riles them; it stays pretty solemn.
They also don’t move out of the shallows—
running in and out according to the tide and surf,
not really going anywhere;
a few venture out in the deep, but not for long;
(The pelicans don’t hang around the others, spending
their time floating effortlessly just above the contours of the sea.)
For the most part, the gulls keep their asses dry.

Most impressive, to me, is
how these birds stand pretty much facing the land,
looking away from the dangerous beauty of the ocean behind them,
away from the deep.
Diagonal to the sun.

I have been reflecting on congregations this morning.

—amk 2013

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Second Cup—the journey continues....

Continuing to read Palmer’s Spirituality of Education. Continuing to think that this is one of the most important books I’ve ever read. Thinking today that I am getting more out of it this time than ever before. This morning I noted that a particular section of the book, titled “Education as Spiritual Formation,” is a chapter I’d never really read before. Oddly enough, it is the one section of the book that had no underlining. I’ve read this book more than a few times since 1989, which is the first time I read it. The rest of the book has been underlined in multiple colors of ink and pencil; yet, this one chapter, the chapter I now think of as the key, had nary a line marked. I guess I wasn’t ready to hear it;

but I hear it now.

This morning I read this:

“Our persistent attraction to objectivist teaching and learning is the saga of Adam and Eve in history, not myth. We want a kind of knowledge that eliminates mystery and puts us in charge of an object-world. Above all, we want to avoid a knowledge that calls for our own conversion. We want to know in ways that allow us to convert the world—but we do not want to be known in ways that require us to change as well.

“To learn is to face transformation. To learn the truth is to enter into relationships requiring us to respond as well as initiate, to give as well as to take. If we become vulnerable to the communal claims of truth, conversion would be required. Our knowledge of the atom would call us to the patient work of peacemaking, not mindless acts of war; our knowledge of nature would call us into careful nurturing, not careless exploitation, of the earth. But we find it safer to seek facts that keep us in power rather than truths that require us to submit. Objectivist education is a strategy for avoiding our own conversion. If we can keep reality ‘out there,’ we can avoid, for a while, the truth that lays the claim of community on our individual and collective lives.” (Palmer, 39-40)

As I read this, the story of Warner Pacific runs as a quiet motif just below my consciousness. I think this is the mission of WPC—a mission not always lived up to or, sometimes, not given anything but lip service. But “teaching to conversion” is exactly why WPC and its sister schools exist. At least, I think so.

More than a few times this year, as I teach, I find myself talking about this aloud. I find myself engaging (with some reluctance) that old Francis Schaeffer question, “How then shall we live?” This is, finally, what it is all about. Teaching and learning are, finally, about our answer to that question. During a recent evening class, we worked our way through the three questions of one of our texts—Why do I serve? Whom do I serve? How do I serve? Each of these questions is a “teaching to conversion” question. The students reported on their involvement with agencies that are working to address hunger in our neighborhood. That, too, is a teaching to conversion question. Even when I teach EN 200, Argument, I ask them to write about a pressing and difficult reality of their world—their urban world. We look into public school education in Portland; we consider the sex trafficking industry of SE Portland; we think about the value of public art—and then we ask, What does this teach me about who I am? Where I am? How I live?

I think that teaching that does not work out of, through, and toward these kinds of questions is something other than teaching.

(I think there is a great deal of “something else” going on in the world of education today. I think we’ve lost our way in a thickening and darkening wood of standardized testing, calculation of minutes in seat and minutes out of seat, and measurable learning outcomes, minutes to complete assignments— losing our way, our mission, and our purpose.)

All of the important questions and all of the tentative answers we float lead to this point of diverging roads (thanks, Robert Frost):

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

So, as I continue this journey with Palmer—a journey that requires me to think about who I am, what I am doing, and how I am doing it—I am living with these questions: How, then, shall I live? How, then, shall I teach? And I am hoping that my students and I will “somewhere ages and ages hence,” having taken the way “less traveled by,” will look back and know “that has made all the difference.”

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

First Cup—Lectionary Sunday

Lectionary readings: 1 Kings 17:8–24; Psalm 30; Galatians 1:11–24; Luke 7:11–17

God is for us—what does that statement mean?

Sunday’s readings suggest some answers: it means that a widow's dead son will live again (1 Kings and Luke). It means that the archest enemy will become the greatest friend (Galatians). It means that your deepest sorrows will be turned into greatest joy (Psalm).

The readings for today show God reviving a dead son, Jesus reviving a dead son, God retrofitting a fearsome foe, and the psalmist praises God for turning “mourning into dancing” and taking away his “sackcloth” and clothing him “with joy.”


Well, I can’t discount the texts, can I? Simply dismiss them as idealistic fantasies? Yes, I could actually. Many have dismissed the texts as fiction and walked away. Others have said, well, that was then and this is now; those things just don’t happen anymore. Others assert that it's all our fault; we don’t believe enough—or hard enough—or trust enough. My life, however, has not been what the texts seem to imply. A baby born to die. Parents who, after long and good lives of obedience and service to the church, slipped out of reality through dementia and Alzheimer’s to, at last, death. One of my most challenging experiences growing up was watching my pastor care for his wife as she lived on for years a victim of multiple sclerosis—caring for her with such profound love, meeting her every need, literally carrying her wherever she needed to go—even as he cared for children and served his church. I could go on, but don’t need to. It seems that life more often offers the opposite of what these passages seem to be saying.

What do I make of these? Frankly, I don’t know what to make of them. It is always a problem with scripture, I think. Holy texts are so demanding and difficult—no matter how hard we work at simplifying them in order to “explain them.” Yet, we are still stuck with these texts and this consistent, unyielding biblical perspective that God is exactly the kind of God Elijah obeyed, the psalmist sings, Paul confesses, and Jesus reveals.

We are still stuck with the deep, underlying conviction of this whole Holy Book: that the transcendent God of the universe loves us intimately and desires to be in loving relationship with us: God is love.

Is this where the word paradox raises its troublesome head—or is this only an easy way out: It is all mystery. In a sense, it makes it all easier, doesn’t it? It is true but it is also perhaps too dismissive: it’s a mystery. Ah.

Somewhere Merton wrote: “There is, in a word, nothing comfortable about the Bible—until we manage to get so used to it that we make it comfortable to ourselves…. Have we ceased to question the book and be questioned by it? Have we ceased to fight it? Then perhaps our reading is no longer serious.

“For most people, the understanding of the Bible is, and should be, a struggle: not merely to find meanings that can be looked up in books of reference, but to come to terms personally with the stark scandal and contradiction in the Bible itself….

“Let us not be too sure we know the Bible just because we have learned not to be astonished by it, just because we have learned not to have problems with it.”

I find these readings today, using Merton’s words, uncomfortable, scandalous, contradictory [paradoxical], and serious. Yet, I still don’t know what to do with these readings. I affirm that God is personal and actively at work; I know that in my own life, although more often than not God has not answered my prayers—with the exception of my ever more constant cry of “Lord have mercy”; “Christ have mercy”; Lord Jesus Christ have mercy.” To my knowledge, no one has been healed because I asked, in faith, for such healing; my experience is more the opposite. Certainly, no one has been brought back to life because I prayed so.

I do connect more with the Galatians passage because I do have some experience of mourning turned to gladness (and I am exceedingly grateful for that). I have seen enemies become friends. God has worked transformation in my own life—as trite as it sounds, I am a better (holier? godlier?) person than I was when I began my adult journey. I’ve had my Damascus Road experiences; in fact, I have to get knocked off my feet on a fairly regular basis. I know the redemptive power of friendships. Yet, as parent, as pilgrim, as spouse, as churchman, as educator, there are more unanswered prayers than answered. And, perhaps most scandalous of all, is my sense that the unanswered prayers are those I have prayed for others. That seems just wrong, doesn’t it?

Where does this leave me with these texts: I’m not walking away. I’m staying on my journey. My questions remain as serious as they ever were and perhaps more so. As Thielicke once said, I’m standing before the question. I might go so far as making a faith statement: that I live on my tiptoes, hoping that this God will one day make all things clear even as I now see “through a glass darkly.” I refuse to give up on the serious challenges of these texts. Simply because I’m still living, more often than not, in “A dark night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets.” I am still living “on the 12th floor of the Acme building, one man…still trying to find the answers to life’s persistent questions….”

Friday, June 7, 2013

Second Cup—the average student? Huh?

So, today, June 7, 2013, I’m sitting in my big rose chair and continuing to re-read Parker Palmer’s To Know As We are Known/a spirituality of education. I first read this book in 1989 and have read it a few times since—often at one of those junctures in my life when I’m wondering if it is time to hang up my spurs. As the one or two readers of my blog know by now, I’ve begun the seventh decade of my life and continue to experience a sense of living on the sidelines. With some consistency, I think, well, really, maybe I should just pack it in. So, I go back to the Palmer well to be reminded, again, of what really matters.

I’m reading Palmer’s conversation about teaching to truth—truth in the sense of “troth”—entering into a relationship of trust and faith in which mutual learning takes place. My soul deeply resonates with this; my whole being over the last decade or more has been shaped in the direction of community, mutuality, journey, relational connectivity as the contexts for learning. I’m pretty sure that Palmer and this book are what began the awakening in my life to something more than and greater than teaching to knowledge as fact. I’m moved by this writing and want to with even greater intentionality move in this direction.

At a break in reading, I check my email. There I find a message from the department chair. There is a Humanities Department meeting coming up. The agenda for this meeting is set by a call from the dean for the department to work on a new DOE requirement: “Time on task.” The task the department (and, consequently, each of us who teach) is to “think about their syllabi…to calculate the average time, the average student would need to complete assignments in a given week” (emphases are mine).

Oh my.

I’m not sure how to express the dismay this calls forth. I said to myself, “Self, really, is this what it all comes to? Is this really want it comes to—teaching as audit?” Maybe I would respond differently if I were reading something other than Palmer’s little book.

What in the hell is an average student? Isn’t that an oxymoron? Average implies that some will take X amount of time; others will take much less than X amount of time; while others will take much more than X amount of time. Maybe if I could find an average student (does that mean we teach to C?), I could give him/her the work, time him/her, and set my standard. Really?

Does this not raise questions about integrity? Is this necessary because teachers lack integrity? Because students lack integrity? Because our assignments lack purpose? Because we’ve been co-opted to a way of thinking and talking about education that sounds more like accounting and hoop-jumping than learning? Because we are really unwilling to make the deep change that Palmer calls for? Because we don’t know how to talk about learning, we talk about doing averages. Does this not raise questions about what we’re really about? (Echoes of Ken Robinson’s mantra about the assembly line nature of education are bouncing about in my mind.) Are we saying to a student that if he/she spends this amount of time on an assignment she/he will get an average grade?

Read these words from Palmer:

To know something or someone in truth is to enter troth with the known, to rejoin with new knowing what our minds have put asunder. To know in truth is to become betrothed, to engage the known with one’s whole self, an engagement one enters with attentiveness, care, and good will. To know in truth is to allow one’s self to be known as well, to be vulnerable to the challenges and changes any true relationship brings. To know in truth is to enter into the life of that which we know and to allow it to enter into ours. Truthful knowing weds the knower and the known; even in separation, the two become part of each other’s life and fate.
(Palmer, p. 31)

Take that—averagers!

Sunday, June 2, 2013

First Cup—Lectionary Sunday

Recently I was asked by a student to help him think about his 410 paper and how it might be developed into something more. I’m reading it now and it certainly suggests some interesting rabbit trails. Yesterday as I was walking around Sunrise Park near my house, I began ruminating on that provocative (even as it is often trivialized) phrase imago dei.

This phrase is multi-layered and inviting. Most often used to address human spirituality, in the Christian tradition it includes our creation, our soul, our connection with God. Grounded, I think, in the second creation account, it suggests that in our being we carry God’s image. One reading of that account tells us that God, first, created us out of the dust of the earth, molding us into our physical state; then, he breathed his breath into us and we became human.

The Lord God formed a human being from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, so that he became a living creature. (Genesis 2:7 REB)

Some commentaries say this differently: They use words like “person” and "personality" rather than living creature; I like these terms because, perhaps, they are more contemporary, although we abandon creature at some risk, I think. Also, I think they suggest the mystery that while we are all the same in our origin, we are also distinctly our own person. Another commentator, I remember, embraces the word “soul.” I like this old word because it helps to avoid Cartesian dualism, allowing us to think, as I believe we are meant to think, about Hebrew wholeness rather than Greek division.

The scriptures for today engage me in this context, inviting me to think about image of God in connected but different ways. If the Bible is, on some level, the record of God’s self-revelation, when we talk about imago dei we have to ask, well, who is this God whose image we bear?

So, the readings for today reveal to us some of God’s character:

In Kings, Elijah confronts the prophets of Baal and God is revealed as faithful, trustworthy, can be counted on, attentive, awake, saving. And Solomon prays to the unique God who is available to the “other,” that is, the foreigner.

In Psalms, God is great, deserving of glory and worship and reverence; God is king and judge.

In Galatians, if we understand that Jesus is God’s face, that is, the most complete revelation of God, in fact, God himself, then, God is the good news God.

In Luke, God is capable of being astonished (amazed, perhaps surprised) in a good way by human beings.

Then, somewhere, in this question is also the theo-ethical question, how is that image expressed in and through my life? I have to ask, if I am indeed an “image bearer,” in another metaphor, an icon, how does my life reveal God—how does my life distort God?

Am I faithful, trustworthy, attentive, awake, redemptive?
Am I open to and available to the other?
Do I reverence God?
Am I a good news (Gospel) person?
Am I amazed by the beauty of those around me and their capacity for good?

I am brought again and again back to this question, “How then shall I live?”