Monday, January 31, 2011

Taking Things Seriously - and Too Seriously

I love "AHA!" moments. It's a little like getting a late Christmas present or an unexpected birthday gift. Small epiphanies can occur at any time and show up anywhere. It's the "I coulda had a V-8" moment that leads the mind (and if lucky, the heart) into new thoughts and ways of thinking, new understandings and, quite possibly, actions.

In the book Uncommon Gratitude, written with Sr. Joan Chittister, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, wrote of Father Joe, a priest with a very uncommon gift. It seems that Father Joe could listen with full attention to whatever someone was saying to him, giving them the feeling that what they said and thought, even their very selves, were of tremendous interest and importance. Whatever was said was heard with the ears and heart of kindness, compassion and understanding. I got the feeling that Father Joe, to use an old metaphor, could take the old suit of ideas that someone brought out of the closet, shake it, dust it off, give it a bit of a press and return it to the person, the same suit but somehow made new and useful once again.  Archbishop Williams stated, "I've said that you would be taken seriously; at the same time, you would emphatically not be encouraged to take yourself seriously in the wrong way." *

What a tremendous gift to give to someone: undivided attention, more interested in what they say than what the response should be, acceptance of the person's position (whether or not there is a common agreement on the subject), and a response that honors the person yet sends them off considering a new spin on what they originally thought, headed in a new direction from the one in which they came. 

I guess I'm like a lot of people; I often take myself too seriously.  Maybe it is a defense mechanism because there's the old saw that if I don't take myself seriously, no one else will either. Maybe it's because when I hold the mirror up to myself I see little to lighten the soul and spirit. In any case, I've been fortunate (make that tremendously blessed) to have a few people around me at various times that took me seriously, offered a not always uncritical but usually very kind ear, and who could brush off the dust from my suit and refresh it before handing it back to me to put on.  Quite often, without saying so, they encourage me not to take myself so seriously and their unspoken cautions often draw me up short.

There are times, however, when I offer something to someone that I feel is serious and important only to be brushed aside.  I guess that's a sign that I'm taking myself (or my opinion or belief about something) too seriously. Sometimes it just seems more prudent to "Remain silent and be thought a fool than to open the mouth and remove all doubt." The trick is to know which to do when. And then there's the twist-- if I want to be listened to, I must cultivate the ability of active listening and offer that courtesy to others first.

Oh, how lovely it might be sometimes to have people hanging on my every word as if it were some special insight or words of wisdom, but dang it, that ain't how it is or how it will be.  Everybody wants to feel important, to be appreciated, to be respected, but it's not necessarily something that is part of the person's DNA or even the product of their upbringing. A lot of it comes from experience and only living gives that breadth of experience.

Ok, I'm never going to be taken as seriously as I'd like, and Lord knows I need to take myself less seriously most of the time.  So what now?  Am I willing to listen with more energy than I spend trying to formulate an answer before the other person has finished speaking?  Am I willing to prick the balloon of self-importance and occasional pomposity?  Am I willing to open myself and be more vulnerable so that someone else can be taken very seriously without patting myself on the back for my virtuousness in so doing?  Can I be serious without taking myself too seriously?

God knows ---- but I will have to find out.

 ( Chittister & Williams, Uncommon Gratitude, Kindle edition, loc. 749)

Monday, January 24, 2011

Theological Reflection

An integral part of EfM (Education for Ministry) is the theological reflection: taking a thought, an incident or event, a text, an artifact (movie, advertisement, cartoon, picture, painting, sculpture, etc) or a belief, and creating a discussion that includes not just what is immediately evident but what lies behind it, what draws it in, what it means theologically. It's a way of learning to think theologically, to see theological overtones and implications in ordinary things as well as in those weighty tomes and liturgical practices that often have the word "Theology" attached. Theological reflection is a process that goes on in a community setting although it can also be done as an individual.

Many books on TRs bring in three main areas of input: tradition, culture and personal experience/ belief. Each has a place and adds to the depth of the conversation.

The Tradition source is that which comes from the past—scripture, church doctrine, church practice, other religions and religious texts, custom, and history—and the present, how the church and the community think and act currently. Much of tradition is the result of the hashing out of what a community or church believes, how it expresses and practices that belief and how it arrived at that belief, position or practice. The Bible is one aspect of Christian tradition while religious stories of the saints, legends, religious mythology (meaning, for me, stories of faith that may or may not be historically factual but in which truth is indelibly present) and texts such as the Book of Common Prayer create tradition in the religious sense.

The Culture component is comprised of those things which are encountered in the world. Movies, videos, books, magazines and advertisements, normal accepted practices within a specific group, and what the culture holds as important are parts of this source. Another form of tradition plays a part here as well since much of what is exhibited in a culture is that which they have derived and maintained from the collective past. Culture is continually changing, morphing as new discoveries, expressions, attitudes, practices and methods are made even though some aspects from the cultural tradition may remain viable and visible.

Personal experience also plays a part in the TR. This is where the personal history, events, knowledge, belief and position of the individual join that of the community with whom the conversation of TR is taking place. Personal includes tradition and culture through which the individual has grown, moved and changed, and how those things have formed the individual engaging in the TR conversation with others, all of whom have their own stories, strengths, knowledge, traditional and cultural input.

I think, though, that TRs based solely on these three elements, tradition, culture and personal experience, while valuable, somewhat miss the boat. One can meditate on one's own, sitting and contemplating the theological meaning of a beautiful scene, an artifact of some sort or even one's own navel lint but it can remain simply an intellectual exercise rather than something deeper with greater insights into a wider range. Even conversations in community can be intellectually stimulating but abstract. Much of the theological stuff which we study in EfM and elsewhere are the products of individual thought and reflection but it has seeped through the words of the thinkers into the language and customary of the religious society in which they lived, taught and worshipped. Some subsequently get discarded, others modified, and some remain more or less intact, but all came from one person's thoughts, beliefs, experiences, tradition and cultural expressions through conversation or interaction in some form with others

Hence EfM, in its wisdom, creates a fourth element to theological reflection.

The Action quadrant takes the input from the other three quadrants and creates a result, something that grows out of the discussion into some sort of fruitful way. Not content to just discuss an idea or belief, the action portion asks penetrating questions: How to going to use the insights and ideas that have been discussed and experienced in the conversation? What can be done with this knowledge? What does this all mean to one's ministry and life? Where will the insights be applied and who or what is needed to support this endeavor? Yes, the other sections do have questions attached to them, but it is a fact-finding mission, one to show where one is at a given point in time, how one got there, where one got the ideas in the first place and from where the insights, beliefs, experiences and knowledge came. Action turns it around. Instead of putting information in, it encourages a looking-outward, a stepping stone to future action and faith.

Where did I come from? Where was I taught to think/believe this or that? Who or what influenced me? How did I come to this point in life and faith? Where do I go from here? What can I do to implement new insights I have gained through these conversations? Where do I fit into the ongoing work of building the kingdom and how can I contribute to its success? EfM's emphasis on TRs may not get me there but it won't be for lack of guidance, structure or discussion. It gives me the tools --- but it's up to me (with God's help) to do something with those tools.

And to think I used to think of TRs as wasted time when I'd rather have been discussing the texts. That's growth for you.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Another Goodbye

If you saw her you'd just see a little old lady, bent over with a hunched back, pushing a walker. Her skin was fair but very thin, bones visible under the frail wrapping. If you were the wondering kind, you'd wonder what stories she could tell, where she'd been, what her family was like, who loved her. 

If you got to know her, you'd find that fragile frame held a young person in an old body. Despite twitching limbs and eyes glazed by near-total blindness, her mind was sharp and her memory intact. Ask her about her life and she had a million stories to tell, funny ones, sad ones, gripping ones.  She'd lived long but had lived every minute to the hilt. She'd lived in far-off, exotic places, traveled widely and read even more widely than she'd traveled. She'd been a number of things: child, student, secretary, wife, mother, homemaker, florist, traveler, civic worker, avid gardener, tennis player, grandmother, great-grandmother and friend to people of all classes, from princes to domestic workers in many corners of the world.

There had been one man in her life, the man she'd married and with whom she'd shared 56 years of that marriage. They were partners in life and even after his death, his presence was with her. One of her sons told her of a visit to a place where she and her husband had lived not long after their marriage. "Wait until I tell Fred," she said. The son wondered how she was going to do that as his father had died some years before. I have no doubt Fred heard.

I met her because she wanted a job done that she couldn't do completely on her own and I'd had a bit of experience in that line. She had begun the project at least three or four years prior, dictating her stories onto tapes, lots of tapes.  Over the course of nearly two years, we talked at least once a week and as I would be reading back what I'd transcribed and stopped for breath, she'd take over and repeat the next part of the story, word for word as she'd dictated them years before. That used to make me laugh and mock-scold her, "Hey, I hadn't gotten to that yet!" and then she would laugh with me. The happiest day came when I could finally put the product of her years of work into her hands.  She laughed and waved her hands and feet in the air like an excited child. She'd completed her task and now others could read her stories, family stories, family traditions.  I was honored to have been a small part in making that possible.

I never underestimated her. She might have been frail and elderly but she had an almost indomitable will. Not many 89-year-old women with severe osteoporosis could survive a fall that broke bones in her neck and not only survive but within 3 months be as active and mobile as before the fall. She had finished one project but it was time to move on to the next -- planning her 90th birthday parties the next spring. And plan she did, down to the details.  She knew precisely what she wanted and that was how it was going to be.  Well, almost. I don't think she planned on one little detail.

Her friends had planned an 80th birthday party for her with exquisite decorations and fantastic food. Unfortunately she spent the day in the hospital and missed the party because of gall stones and  resulting pancreatitis. She will miss her 90th birthday party too, for a very different reason.  Still, I have a feeling that there will be a tiara and a martini laid out for her and that somewhere she will be laughing about it.

Well, Ginger, you've begun the sequel to your book and I'm sorry I can't help you write this one. I will miss you. You might not always have had an easy life but you lived it to the fullest. You never gave up and I don't think you ever really gave in. You're a perfect lesson in what it is to drink from the cup of life and drink deeply. The world's a little darker without you in it, but I have a feeling that somewhere in heaven there's a party going on with tiaras, martinis, a good band and Fred.

Somehow I think you've heard me say all this. Thanks for sharing your life and family with me. We will meet again, I'm counting on it.

May God bless you as God always has blessed and loved you. May you rest in peace and most assuredly rise in glory. I have a feeling God would hear about any deviation from that plan. And I say that with all affection -- and confidence. Goodnight, Ginger -- for a little while.