Quotes & Small Group

My Monday night group is discussing Kelly Brown Douglas’s Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. The book is an indispensable theological response to black people’s corporate experience of violence and brutality, while also offering a historical narrative out of which such injustices emerge.

Our small group discussion has so far taken us through United States of American history as it relates to race, strong and illuminating conversations about how easy it is to be black and to not see one’s self spoken of or spoken to in the scriptures, detailed discussions about education and youth and poverty, and quiet but pronounced conversion happening among us.

Photo Thanks to Aaron Burden

Photo Thanks to Aaron Burden

Today’s chapter is “A Father’s Faith” and here are some of the quotes that I’m turning over in anticipation of seeing my friends this evening:

Faith is a response to God. Faith is possible only if God has acted and has initiated a relationship with human beings. Faith is the human response to God’s invitation to be in a relationship. Black faith represents a resounding yes to God’s offer. (p. 139)

Spirituals, essentially, reveal the foundation for a faith that will sustain black people through the paradox of being faithful in a society defined by the Anglo-Saxon myth. (p. 141)

According to the enslaved authors of the spirituals, the freedom of God concerned the very nature of God’s presence in their lives as well as God’s very nature. Theologically speaking, the freedom of God as expressed in the spirituals bore witness both to the economy of God (God’s movement in human history) and the aseity of God (who God is in God’s self). The spiritual’s testimony concerning the freedom of God suggested at least two interrelated things. First, God was by nature free, therefore, complete in God’s self and dependent on no other being or power for existence. Second, God’s movement in human history reflected God’s freedom. (p. 143)

…This African principle maintains that everything the Great High God creates has sacred value because it is intrinsically connected to God. It is the belief that undergirds an African worldview that all reality is sacred. (p. 150)

The freedom of God that the enslaved experienced became the adjudicating principle of their very faith claims. This has implications for the black faith tradition. (p. 162)

…Thus, if the norm of black faith is an understanding of a God who is freedom, then that also means there are certain stories within the Bible that cannot be given authority. If black faith means refusing to capitulate to or compromise with any situation that violates the very freedom of God, then this principle must be maintained even when it comes to the Bible. Therefore no story that compromises the freedom of God, and thus the freedom of those whom God created, can be given authority in the black faith tradition. (p. 163)

As for the black faithful, the best response is indeed a response of faith, which means being relentless in the fight to dismantle this culture of death. (p. 166)


Even Me

The other day, as I was walking through an alley from the office to the hospital, this song came up through me. I heard it in the way we used to sing it in the Soul Children. I was having trouble that morning, pressed against myself in some painful ways. I tried to pray. I needed to try since I was going to pray with and for others.

My prayers didn’t work and I took deep breath as I walked and smelled garbage and donuts and saw the hospital where I was suppose to bring grace to others. I remembered a concert where we sang this song; we sang it during my audition for the choir all those years ago. It felt in those moments like the first song I learned with a real choir.

The prayerful words stayed with me as I walked to the hospital and were my meditation as I was reaching for the One who felt too distant for what I was facing. I hope this song takes on meaning for you. Though she has back up, Yolanda Adams is her own choir with this rendition. I’m so thankful that she’s put this prayer and music to voice.


Lessons from Exile

by Leeroy2Having been outside the mainstream for years, African American churches have learned valuable lessons that have given special meaning to spiritual practices and ideas. White Christians may be familiar with them in theory, but to know them from the underside, from the outside, and from the margins is an exercise in growing in new grace.

Silence is the anchor of speech

It’s easy for Christians to speak. We fill our ears, speak truths, and proclaim the gospel. We have good reason for our proclamation. But we hear less. It’s harder to be silent.

Silence is a corrective. For black and brown people, silence is a deepening, strengthening, and centering discipline. It is a discipline that was learned as black folks were taken from West African shores, unable to communicate in their native tongues, and pushed to find a way of hearing themselves, hearing their God, and, eventually, speaking about their pain.

It is learned still when life in the United States is unfair and unjust and when the rules for black and brown people are set to maintain injustice. In her book Joy Unspeakable, Barbara Holmes says that silence and contemplation bolster the interior life of a community, and ultimately sustains it.

Silence doesn’t remove the power of speech. It anchors it. The quiet is constructive because it narrows the focus on what needs to be said. It opens us to seeing what is real. It enables us to say what is wrong and, of course, what is right.

When we’re quiet, we have an opportunity to confront the pain of another. We learn to openly and realistically face our losses. We hear, reflect, and see what has set us apart from our Christian relatives.

The black church is instructed by the presence of God through other folks and notices in the silence those who are as concerned about speaking truth as we are.

I’m thankful to the folks at Leadership Journal for publishing my piece and for David Swanson’s earlier framing and partner essay. Read the full piece here.

The Reflective Practitioner

An epistemology is a way that we know. It is about how we know what we know. The Reflective Practitioner focuses on the ways in which professionals of varied sorts know and do. Schon is offering an alternative to the “traditional epistemology of practice.”

It’s worth pointing out that the language is a little distant, the examples stiff; the book was published in 1983. Still, his broad attempt to get “professionals” to think about how they think and how they perform is critical for anyone who wants to work well. His book opens by naming the “wavering confidence in professional expertise,” a seemingly dated observation now where the world is nearly if not entirely postmodern, where most work circles are touched, shaped, and impacted by millenials who always and already suspect things like professionalism however defined.

He puts forward reflective practice where professionals are aware of their “frames” for problems, their particular ways of viewing problems and, eventually, their unique theories (i.e., ways of seeing) for addressing those problems. A lot of what he says assumes that you can solve problems without knowing how you’re solving them. Your epistemological structures would be, in a word, weak. You’d be less reflective. He wants to suggest that there’s merit and strength in learning about our theories, in becoming aware of them, and in our making them public and, therefore, open to criticism.

He advocates for professionals turning their knowledge-in-practice into a public display of that practice. Knowledge that people go get in schools and specialized training programs, for him, becomes subject to inspection. Professionals become accountable in their openness to the public. They become more capable of expressing their “artful competence,” transitioning from not knowing how they do their work to examining how much they know, how they solve problems, and how they know what they’re doing.

Re-reading my sentence, I’m struck by the heady nature of those words. The book is somewhat heady; he explains the influence of “positivism” for example, a word that makes me question my own intellectual capacities. But the examples are concrete and helpful. His goal is entirely practical. The subtitle is “How Professionals Think in Action.”

He writes about action and response, thinking through a theory of response, a knowing-in-practice, which seems different from knowledge. He says that “A practitioner’s reflection can serve as a corrective to overlearning” (p. 61), and he works throughout the book to illuminate the gifts of appreciation, action, and re-appreciation, concepts that are at the bottom of clinical pastoral education, an environment I’m swimming in currently. I can definitely see why it’s a recommended text for the supervisory education students.

Photo Thanks to Szolkin

Photo Thanks to Szolkin

Back to the emphasis on practice–in CPE language, it’s action-reflection-action, Schon points to use of self in our work. One quote captures how Schon says our experience is worth our using in our work (p. 140):

It is our capacity to see unfamiliar situations as familiar ones, and to do in the former as we have done in the latter, that enables us to bring our past experience to bear on the unique case…

He lifts up the powerful way we inspect the “materials of a situation” and use the examples of others in order to grow, “thinking from exemplars.” He’s all about having reflective conversation with the situations we find ourselves in, a particularly striking way with words.

For those interested in language, he talks about the idea of generative metaphors and how they generate new perceptions, explanations, and inventions. He is pressing his reader to reflect. For those who “cannot easily make his assumptions public or subject” to public testing, he says, that that person’s “sense of vulnerability discourages reflection” (p. 229).

I kept thinking that I want to be the kind of person whose vulnerability doesn’t discourage me. I identified with him there, the resistance, the pain, the problem of vulnerability. I kept hearing the words of my clinical supervisor and my readiness committee as we discussed fragility which has been a guiding and problematic metaphor for my ministry lately.

Even while he presses his reader, his approach is invitational. He’s writing as a scholar and consultant more than an evangelist of his theory. He says that “An individual is more likely to feel internally committed to a freely made decision.” In his writing you sense his conviction to what he says and you sense softness.

Finally, he writes about theory, something I know I’ll come to appreciate in upcoming months as I think, draft, present, and revise my theories on theology, education, and personality. He says that “an overarching theory does not give a rule that can be applied to predict or control a particular event, but it supplies language from which to develop particular interpretations” (p. 273). I think about these words in terms of educational theory and teaching but also in terms of how we engage in the work of the church. How much of what we say is about giving a rule for predictive or controlling purposes? How much is about supplying people with language from which they can develop interpretations which may or may not mirror our own?

He says that bureaucracies and stable organizations resist reflective practice. My spiritual director said something like that to me years ago. We were talking about contemplation but the same principle applies. For Schon, reflection-in-action threatens stable systems. In church language that means that contemplatives and prophets are always on the periphery, usually subject to soul-torn isolation, and generally fighting against some solid resistance. “The freedom to reflect, invent, and differentiate would disrupt the institutional order of space and time” (p. 333). And it’s true; the order a system needs is completely threatened when the people in those systems consider.




Thinking About Atheism

Photo Thanks to Leeroy

Photo Thanks to Leeroy

I got a phone call the other day from someone I care about. She was concerned because another person we care about said that she was “thinking about becoming an atheist.”

Now, I want to say that I’m unqualified to talk personally about atheism. But I am qualified to talk about faith. I am suited to talk about how, perhaps, a person of faith loses that faith.

When I talked with those lovely people I mentioned, it became clear that what was at stake was not the loss of faith per se but the loss of a particular kind of faith. There is faith in the sense of what community I’m a part of; faith in the sense of doctrines that I profess; faith in the sense of the meeting between me and the Divine. Faith can be understood in different ways. Securing one’s understanding by the word is vital before we even know what faith we’re talking about.

Further, sometimes faith is worth losing. Sometimes faith is worth leaving. It depends on what one’s faith is. If it the unexamined doctrine that makes me feel unloved by God, isn’t it worth leaving? If it is the way in which a text is read by one community and always used over and against another community, isn’t it worth distancing oneself from? If it is the relative ease I feel by a community when we, together, join against some other community in opposition to that people’s God-made-ness, isn’t it worth losing?

I found myself affirming this woman and how she was thinking about “atheism.” In fact, she wasn’t thinking about atheism in a philosophical sense. She was thinking about leaving the tightened faith that was handed on to her; she was, in a sense, leaving the representations of the Christianity she found death-giving. She was, to my way of thinking, considering a better faith. Not no faith. Not no God. A different God.

Of course, I think differently about these things than those who preach and teach this woman. I’m the person in the room on the edge. I’m the person considering how the underside is represented, blessed, or undone by whose being quoted in the preacher’s sermons. I’m still the kid who got kicked out of Sunday school because I knew all the teacher was saying, was bored, and was asking different unanswered questions. I’m the person who is uncomfortably comfortable on a weird psychic boundary because making a theological home has always been a work-in-progress.

Thinking about atheism may just be thinking about a deeper understanding of the me and God relationship. It may be utter contemplation. It may be worth affirming and encouraging as a person is truly on the road toward a holiness that can only be beautiful. It may be worth celebrating.

Avoiding vs. Noticing

Thanks to Grzegorz Meleczev

Thanks to Grzegorz Meleczev

We work to avoid seeing things. Sometimes a vision is unconscious. Sometimes it’s ignored.

I’m working through a book call The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. I came across words in the book that made me write those sentences.

The book is a slightly dated presentation of how various professionals spot and address problems. There is material about reflection and its role in problem solving. There’s a lot about theory, and I’ll probably shape my reading into a review to keep notes and annotations. There is a fair amount of material in the book about issues.

The book deals with work places and working environments, but it has easy applications for individuals. Whether problems in ourselves or issues in the people we love, it’s hard to see the truth. So we avoid the truth. We avoid what’s present, what’s real. And that takes work.

Reality is in front of us. It is clear, transparent, and visible. And upon seeing clear and visible reality, we cower. Certainly this isn’t automatic. There are clear realities we love. But for the real things we don’t love, we cringe from them.

We feel fear. We start the process of muddying what’s clean and transparent. Then, it becomes easier to not see. As much work as it takes from us, we’d rather create another vision, a manufactured image of ourselves or our significant others than we would notice what’s true.

It takes courage to look at reality, your own or another’s, and say “yes” to what’s there.