Thursday, October 23, 2014

More with Us than against Us


This may be my shortest blog post ever, but I wanted to share a little gem of a story with you, which came from chapel yesterday.  Mark Oldenburg, our dean of the chapel and worship [and sometimes preaching] professor, was our preacher for our Wednesday Eucharist service.  I've mentioned him before in my blog because he is simply one of the finest preachers I've ever heard, hands down.  Anyway, in the course of his sermon, he referenced a biblical story I had totally forgotten even existed [And here let me just own up to the fact that I realize I should be way more embarrassed about how much I still don’t know about the Bible, but who has the time?!].  The story is from 2 Kings 6, and here's the situation:  the king of Aram has surrounded the city of Dothan with an army by night, and he is preparing to attack and kill Elisha in the morning.  Verses 15-17 then read:

"When an attendant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city.  His servant said, 'Alas, master!  What shall we do?'  [Elisha] replied, 'Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.'  Then Elisa prayed:  'O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see.'  So the LORD opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha."

The point was, of course, that God is always with us, in ways we don’t always see; and even when we feel surrounded and overwhelmed, God is there at work in our midst.

I was greatly encouraged by that word, and that promise.  Sometimes I feel very alone--surrounded, outnumbered and out of options.  And this image of God's presence--metaphorically expressed in a fiery army of blazing light--and the sure knowledge that God is always there, standing with and for me, with an army of strength and love, gives me such good courage and hope. 

I imagine some of you feel like that sometimes, too, so I wanted to share this story with you—and I hope it encourages you also.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Four Questions to ask the Dying

I'm a huge fan of Atul Gawande.  I first discovered him in The New Yorker, where he is a regular contributor, and then I read his books:  Complications, Better, and The Checklist Manifesto.  [I just saw he has a new one out, too:  Being Mortal:  Medicine and What Happens in the End--I just put that in my Amazon cart!].  He's a doctor and a professor--and a very accomplished one--but he also is a great writer, and he writes very compellingly about the place where the capabilities and possibilities of the medical profession and our expectations about that profession meet and break down.  He is painfully honest about what medicine and doctors can and can't do, and how hard it is for people to face those limitations--as well as their own.

I read this article by Gawande in The New York Times the other day, and I wanted to share it: The Best Possible Day.  In this piece, he talks about dying--how hard it is to discuss, how hard it is for the medical profession to face and accept, and how we aren't having the kinds of conversations about death and dying we need to be having:  as families, as a society, and as health care professionals.

In the course of the article, Gawande suggests four questions that can unlock "transformative possibilities" for both the patient and his/her family.  They are as follows:

(1) What is their understanding of their health or condition? (2) What are their goals if their health worsens? (3) What are their fears? and (4) What are the trade-offs they are willing to make and not willing to make?

He notes that asking these questions--and taking seriously the answers--enables the person to exercise agency and give voice to what matters most to her, and helps those who love her best care for and support her; and, in the end, give her as many of "the best possible days" as she is able to have.

I've been thinking about death more than I usually do because of the class I'm teaching, which is about salvation, but very broadly understood:  I see it as an arc that includes life, life after life, and also death:  what I mean is that I think death is a part of Christian salvation, not a break in the salvation experience--not an interruption to it.  So, as Christians, I would argue that we're called to think much more deeply and explicitly about what dying means for us, how we are called to die, and how we are called to walk with the dying and their families.  I'm particularly troubled by the "fight" metaphor that seems to characterize so much of the medical experience with serious illness: you have to "fight" it and not "surrender" or "give up;" you don't want to let it "win."  I think that mentality creates a lose/lose situation that minimalizes options and takes away individual freedom and creative choices that fall outside the "fight or give up" paradigm.

Death is a part of what it means to live, and all life is predicated on death in one way or another.  We can't avoid it, and while I'm not saying we have to embrace it, I do think we can accept it with more grace, love and hope than we typically do.  We sing of "sister death" in St. Francis' "Canticle of the Sun:"  what would it mean to take that metaphor more seriously?

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Receiving Gifts from Sinful People--The Case of John Howard Yoder

There is a small avalanche of magazines that comes into our home every month:  The New Yorker, InStyle, Smithsonian, Christian Century, The Week, Vanity Fair--and that's not even the whole list!  So, sometimes, as you might imagine, I get behind--way behind, which explains why it is only this week that I got around to reading The Christian Century from August 20th.  The cover story of that issue was about John Howard Yoder--and more specifically, the egregious sexual misconduct in which he engaged over decades.  [You can find a longer version of the authors' article here:  Scandalizing John Howard Yoder]

Most theologians have heard of this story by now--it isn't new--but the Mennonite Church is still dealing both with the accusations, and, even more importantly with the response--or should I say lack of response--the various individuals and institutions made to them.  Suffice it to say that, overall, it was tepid at best.  The article begins with this paragraph:  "Thirty years after John Howard Yoder was first accused of sexual misconduct and almost two decades after his death in 1997, the story of his abusive behavior remains painfully unresolved in the Mennonite communities in which he was for a decade regarded as the foremost theologian and chief representative of Anabaptist thought."

The issue raised in the article is not merely Yoder's reprehensible conduct--though that clearly comes through, but rather to wrestle with how we theologians who come after him, particularly those who seek to walk in his footsteps, can continue to use his theology, when he himself so clearly and systematically violated the stance for which he is best known--that is, Christian pacifism.  Listen to his own statement about violence [the authors quote him repeatedly in the course of the article, and quite damningly, too]:  "As soon as either verbal abuse or bodily coercion moves beyond that border line of loving enhancement of the dignity of person, we are being violent..."  They go on to note Yoder's own emphasis that in Latin "the verb 'to violate' is the same as the verb 'to rape':  it refers to the purity or integrity or self-determination of a woman [emphasis added by the authors]."  By Yoder's own theological standards, he violated in a spectacular way his own cherished tenets.

While Yoder is a very public example of the fallibility of human nature in general--and perhaps theologians in particular--he is not alone.  I have written here before about the challenges all Lutherans must face as they wrestle with Martin Luther's own terrible Anti-Jewish writings; and the theologies of both Paul Tillich and Martin Luther King Jr. have been compromised by their own sexual misconduct.  None of us are saints, and sadly, a call to professional ministry--whether in the church or in the academy--certainly doesn't change that.

Now, let me be clear that there is no question, of course, that individuals engaged in sexual misconduct--or misconduct of any kind--must be prepared to answer for, and accept appropriate discipline for, those violations.  Part of what makes the problem of the abusive Catholic priests so troubling is the apparent unwillingness of everyone involved to step up and take responsibility--and even more, the active attempts to cover and shield their crimes.  There is no excuse for that, ever.  However, the question still remains, what to do with the theology.  In Yoder's case, the man may be deeply flawed, but his theology is, in places, brilliant, and still offers a much-needed prophetic word today.  What are we to do?  

Here is where the authors are so helpful, as they remind us that, "It is undoubtedly difficult to know how to receive gifts from sinful people.  But ever since the church settled the Donatist controversy in the early fifth century, the church has agreed that such gifts can and should be received."  And this is not because of anything inherent in the person him or herself, but rather because of God's majesty, mercy, and astounding ability to bring life out of death, and light out of darkness.  They remind us that "God providentially uses the fallen for good"--and, like with Joseph, even when the intention is evil, God can bring good out of our very worst actions.  The authors say strongly that "Yoder's theology became a foothold for the devil;" and yet, "Against his best efforts, John Howard Yoder cannot escape God."  Yoder's work will endure not because of his own personal greatness, but because of the greatness of God. 

So, I pray, for us, too.  I would not want the validity or strength of anything I write, do or say to rest solely on my own character:  I'm Lutheran after all, and we know as well as anyone that no individual can bear that weight on her own.  Instead, I trust always in God's everlasting kindness to work through me in ways I could never envision or imagine, and bring good out of my worst moments.  I am a sinner, true, and can never be otherwise, but I hope that the gifts I offer still can be received in grace and used for good.  We're all counting on that, I think.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Leaving begins with "Yes"

So, if you're like me, you have been both moved and shaken by the stories that have come out in the wake of the Ray Rice scandal--particularly the powerful Tweets of women sharing both #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft.  Personally, I don't think it is for any of us to judge any woman, particularly for a decision to "stay," especially in light of the complex economic, emotional, physical and practical realities that are involved in ending any relationship, particularly an abusive one.  But I will say that I do think it is our job as a society to create a climate in which all women [and men] know they have both the permission and the possibility to get out of an abusive situation, including established and reliable safety nets through which that can actually happen.

This is especially critical for the church, I think:  was any other Christian mortified by the number of Tweets in the "Why I Stayed" category that included fears of religious condemnation, or the counsel from a pastor that divorce is a sin?  The church is doing something very, very wrong if it is conveying the message that an institution is more important to God than an individual, and obedience is more important than personal safety and well-being.

All of that was in my head, then, when I read about the new bill that just passed in California, forcing colleges to adopt new standards while investigating accusations of sexual assault.  This is the deal:  "Universities will now have to apply a rule of 'yes means yes', meaning that consent for sexual activity must be affirmative, conscious, and voluntary, and must be 'ongoing throughout sexual activity and can be revoked at any time'."  What I love about this is that it puts the burden of proof where it belongs, on the perpetrator and not on the victim:  too many raped and assaulted women have been humiliated by charges that they didn't say "No" convincingly enough, or strongly enough, often enough; or that because of what they were wearing or how they were acting their "No" wasn't believable.  Or, even more appalling, that the simple fact of intoxication meant "Yes."

Not surprisingly, men's rights groups "have expressed concern that the bill is confusing and impracticable."  Why wouldn't they be confused, since men have been led to believe that without a definitive "No" all women are fair game and must "want it." In its extreme form, it's the presumption that women are property, without rights of their own, available for the taking to whomever can force them into submission.  In actuality, it's not confusing at all and never has been:  if you don't get a clear "yes" from a woman, back off and leave her alone--and as soon as she hesitates or resists, hands off.  And if you are watching all this from the sidelines and you don't hear a clear "Yes," get involved.


Somehow, then, as I was putting all this together, I realized that in many ways, leaving and abusive relationship begins months or even years before the relationship starts, with being able to say "Yes":  "Yes" to one's own inherent value as a human being; "Yes" to one's own right to determine what happens to one's body in a relationship; "Yes" to determine for oneself one's future, and "Yes" to walk away from a situation where any of those "yeses" are compromised.  A society that demands respect for a woman's voice--and does not presume to act in the face of her silence--will go a long way to creating a climate where no one has to make that terrible choice of leaving or staying in the first place.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

"Bridge People"

Every year, the seminary begins with an opening convocation, and most years, the faculty chooses one of its own to deliver the convocation address.  The purpose of the address?  Oh, not much:  merely to set the tone and theme for the entire academic year.  No pressure, right?  Well, we've had lots of great addresses--we have an amazing faculty--but I have to say, this year's speaker knocked it out of the park.  The title of Mark Oldenburg's address was "Bridge People," and as I am confident it will be published in full in the Seminary Ridge Review in the coming year, I just want to make a few comments about it here, because it has really stayed with me; and, in my view, it gave us a wonderful image to shape our future work and conversations.

He began with a quote from his former Confessions professor, which was, more or less:  "If you can't see the relationship between any two things in the universe, you're in the wrong business."  The point, of course, is that God is deeply and passionately related to every single aspect of creation--and therefore, through God, everything is related to everything else.  The whole address was a vivid, beautiful celebration of relationships and relationality, where God cares about everything and everyone:  in Mark's image, every single page of the Sunday newspaper on God's lap--ads, comics, classified--gets lovingly attended to and read.

Therefore, one way of understanding our call to be stewards of the Word is to be "bridge people"--people who not only see connections, but who can be those connections, spanning chasms and connecting silos, bearing witness to the fact that no one is alone and no one is isolated.  We all are connected to God, but sometimes we need a bridge person to remind us; we all are connected to each other, but sometimes we need a bridge person to show us how.  The seminary could do much, much worse than be a place where people are trained to build--and to be--bridges; and to be itself a bridge between the church and the world, between humanity and the whole creation, between races, genders, and ages.

Finally, Mark reminded us that it isn't always easy to be a bridge:  it can be lonely with a foot in two different places, and no permanent home in either.  And, it can be hard to be a bridge:  bridges have to be flexible--they have to be able to move.  Chasms constantly are opening in new places, and new bridges have to be built.  

There was lots more, too--all of it great (especially the advice from Joseph Sittler to read novels!), and on the whole, an inspiring, challenging beginning to a new school year.  I think we are going to be talking about bridges for many months to come.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Thoughts on Wisdom and Knowledge on the Cusp of a New Academic Year



Here at Gettysburg seminary, presession for new students is tomorrow, and Wednesday the academic year officially begins. In many other places, school already is underway and the summer is officially over. Having spent the vast majority of my life following the rhythm of an academic rather than a calendar year, September always brings lots of excitement and enthusiasm, as well as some butterflies--a good thing, I think. I never want to have been at this so long that I become blase at the thought of meeting new students and engaging with them both in the classroom and beyond. It is an incredible gift to have this as my vocation and I never take it for granted.


So, this weekend, I have been thinking a lot about the "this" in that previous sentence: what am I doing, exactly--particularly when I teach? Here at the seminary, of course, we talk about "formation," and recognize that we are about much, much more than conveying information. Instead, we are concerned about the whole person: her growing into her sense of vocation; his deepening his understanding of God, self and the world--all for the sake of witnessing to God's passionate love for and presence with creation. But at the same time, there is much that we do here that I think also is relevant for secular education.
Two things I'd like to share that I have found helpful on this topic: one is brand-new, the other much older. 

 Here is the recent one, an article in The New York Times about "the mental virtues": The Mental Virtues.  In this piece, the author, David Brooks, cites a 2007 book, Intellectual Virtues by Robert C. Roberts and W. Jay Wood, which describes what they call "cerebral virtues." These are: love of learning; courage [both to hold unpopular views and also to take academic risks]; firmness [a moderate position between rigidity and timidity]; humility; autonomy; and generosity. I don't disagree with any of these, and I think they are particularly important for theological education, where religious zeal sometimes can lead to arrogance, intolerance and an inability to listen to anything that challenges one's own sacred views. 

But here was my favorite quote from the whole piece: "Montaigne once wrote that 'We can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but we can’t be wise with other men’s wisdom.'" That, to me, is really, really important, because it's a reminder that an academic course of study isn't primarily about mastering knowledge. I mean, of course, knowledge is important, and for all of us--new students and experienced ones--there is always much to learn. I'm grateful for that, and hope to always have the disposition of a learner. But, the larger question always should be, "To what end?" 

Ultimately, if we view knowledge as a gift from God--and certainly, given the fact that millions and millions of people around the world don't have the opportunity even for primary school education, let alone higher education, those of us who do have those opportunities should recognize that gift--then, like all gifts, it is meant to be used in the service of the neighbor and for the glory of God. Obviously, this is particularly true at a religious institution, but I think all education is meant to build up--not just oneself, but one's community--and indeed, the whole world. Education isn't meant to be collected and hoarded--shown off as one's private possession, but "given away" lavishly in service to the world. That's the "wisdom" piece, I think: the ability to process and integrate what one has learned with a larger understanding of one's vocation in the world, and one's place in the vast interrelated web that is the human [and non-human] community. As the brilliant, beautiful poet Mary Oliver asks, "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" It takes wisdom to answer that question.


Related to that--and in conclusion, let me close with the older piece: It is titled "Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God," by Simon Weil, and it comes from her book, Waiting for God. It is a moving exploration of the connections between study and prayer, and a reminder of why study always has been understood as a spiritual discipline. She begins the essay with this statement: "The key to a Christian conception of studies is the realization that prayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God. The quality of the attention counts for much in the quality of the prayer." And the gist of her overarching argument is that when we study--regardless of the subject or of our facility in it--we learn the discipline of paying attention--of patience and waiting. And it is in this overarching disposition of openness, which requires humility, a giving up of control, and putting oneself in the hands of God, where we see the last, best fruits of study--and this is true for all students, of all capacities. Giving attention to one's studies trains us to give attention to God--and to our neighbor. She writes, "The capacity to give one's attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing," but this indeed what is most required.  Indeed--giving attention to God also, I would say, is a rare and difficult thing--it is hard to be still, to be open, and give God fully one's time and one's presence.  

She concludes the essay with these words, "Academic work is one of those fields containing a pearl so precious that it is worth while to sell all of our possessions, keeping nothing for ourselves, in order to be able to acquire it." I couldn't agree more.








Sunday, August 24, 2014

I Love it When a Conference Comes Together






Remember "The A Team?"  I loved that show back in the 80s--and I even loved the remake with Liam Neeson.  If you know the show, you know the line, "I love it when a plan comes together"--it was George Peppard's signature phrase, and usually came as a triumphant declaration of success, in spit of all evidence to the contrary.

All that is really apropos of nothing, except that it is the phrase that keeps coming into my head now that I am home from Vienna after attending the 17th Congress of the International Association of Buddhist Studies.  And the reason, of course, is that the past week was just about as perfect as one could hope for:  great weather, great hotel, great food, great city, and a great, great conference.  I came back about as intellectually fulfilled and stimulated as one can be--without any of the accompanying exhaustion or annoyance that so often is part of the conference experience.

For me, I think part of the wealth of the experience was that even though I presented a paper [on the concept of God in "The Lotus Sutra"--using Wittgenstein's language theory to argue for it], mostly I was there as a listener.  With very, very few exceptions, the scholars in attendance were Buddhologists--many of the big names I have read were there, which is always fun [I love being an academic nerd]--and I was mostly out of my depth.  But what this meant was that I was freed up to be a listener:  I took copious notes and payed attention as intently as I was able.  I found it very liberating:  you know how sometimes when you are listening to someone else, you aren't really listening at all, but rather thinking about what you are going to say just as soon as you can break in, just to show how much you know?  Scholars tend to do that more often than we should, I think.  But not me, at least not this time:  what in the world was I going to ask Jan Nattier, who was talking so compellingly about the challenges with translating a translation, and the differences we see, for example, when translating a Chinese text [for which the original Sanskrit has been lost] into Tibetan [a primarily monosyllabic language] vs. Mongolian [an exuberantly polysyllabic language]?  Um, OK--whatever you say!  So, having immediately come to terms with my ignorance, I threw myself into the disposition of a listener and a learner--and boy, did I learn!

Here are just a few example:  John Powers had a great presentation on the physical marks of the Buddha's body, asking why they have been all but excluded in contemporary discussions of Buddhist practice, even though they are so central throughout various Buddhist texts as a key proof of the Buddha's identity, and the enlightenment of his followers.  [Turns out Buddhism has its own mind/body problems....].  Taka Oshikiri offered a very interesting presentation on the introduction and development of tea in Japan, including its role in monastic life [Zen monastic life in particular]; and I also met a lovely woman, Katarina Plank, who works in Gothenburg [near my Swedish relatives!], and she gave a very interesting talk about the construction of a Thai Buddhist temple in the north of Sweden, in Fredrika--including a bit about the larger Buddhist population in Sweden.  There were also two very interesting presentations about Buddhism in Sri Lanka, and the militant attitudes and actions of some of the Buddhist monks there--surprised?

I could go on and on, but I won't:  suffice it to say that every day was a great day, and I came away totally humbled and totally inspired.  I guess what I want to offer here to conclude the blog is how I was again reminded how vitally important it is to be in conversation with people different from yourself--and, obviously, how important it is for the church to be carrying on those conversations:  both as an institution and as individuals, particularly those individuals who are public ministers.  I mean, after my presentation, a Buddhist nun came up to me and asked me to explain how I can talk about compassion in light of all the wrathful ways God treats God's people in the Bible.  It's a fair question--and, of course, not a new one, but how it changes when it's being asked by a woman who has dedicated her whole life to Buddhism, standing gently before me in monastic robes with a shaved head.  

Even though I can count on one hand the number of times Christianity was even obliquely referenced [oh, one of those times was a reference to Bultmann & demythologizing:  did you know there were scholars working to "demythologize" Buddhism in Japan about 40 years before Bultmann?  I didn't!], I was thinking about my seminary context and my students the whole time, processing the all the ways my own understanding of Christianity, and my thoughts about Buddhist-Christian dialogue, were being challenged and changed.  There is just no way to replicated that experience without "the other"--and without putting yourself "under" their authority and wisdom.  It's a powerful, transformative experience that I wish for everyone.  The church and its members would be better for it.