Friends vs. Strangers

Photo Thanks to Kevin Curtis

Photo Thanks to Kevin Curtis

In a day I spend time working with three people: participants in mission at church; patients in a hospital setting, usually in medically intensive situations; and students preparing for continued ministry. All of those people are experiencing some thing in life that is calling out to them, emerging within them.

In the church, we are hearing and speaking to one another around an old and almost common event, reflecting upon the life of Jesus and what that life means now. In the hospital we are generally responding to the crisis of the medical moment and the myriad of ways hospitalization matters to people. In the learning environment (and I’m in three of them in one way or another), we are inspecting the materials available to us for preparation, refinement, and formation.

All those settings are identity shaping settings. In each place, we question—and I do this as a leader or caregiver or teacher—what’s happening and how those happenings turn us into the people we are. Jaco Hamman said, “Many of us live most of the time as strangers to ourselves” (From Becoming a Pastor: Forming Self and Soul for Ministry, p. 10).

When I read Hamman’s words, they struck me because they were a reminder that most of the time, we can be distant from our selves, strangers to ourselves. We can be strangers to the things that shape us and to who we are as shaped, identified people.

How do we get to know who we are? Where are the places in life that reveal, construct, critique, reform, affirm, and embolden identity? I’m paying attention to how my working worlds are more than places I go; there are places I’m made. The same is true for home and circles of friendship. Those are the contexts where identity happens. When we sit in those places with open eyes, we get closer to ourselves. We become friends to ourselves.

Supervision Helps

She needed to turn aside and name what was unexamined and unfinished in her own life story as she continued in ministry to this woman. Were she simply to react to her as she had to her mother, she would have seen clearly neither her own story nor that of the patient, who was different from her mother in important ways. These parallels can be named and examined or referred for therapeutic work. Particular themes of grief or abandonment or abuse may provoke anxiety in the minister who has these themes as parts of his or her own history. Supervision helps the minister to learn to walk between the perils of overidentification and detached aloofness. Ministry in depth will always raise themes for the sensitive and reflective minister that are in need of attention in his or her own story. Recognizing these themes and remaining responsible in pastoral relationship are the goals of supervision that looks at life stories of parishioner and pastor.

(From Steere’s The Supervision of Pastoral Care, pg. 122)

Something I’m Thinking About

Photo Thanks to Tim Swaan

Photo Thanks to Tim Swaan

As I see one semester end (at seminary) and one unit end (in CPE) and one year end (at the church), I’m reading over a book that will likely find its way into one of my theory papers. It’s a book Dr. Scottie May introduced me to in grad school.

Parker Palmer is such a helpful teacher and guide. Here’s a taste about education but that can be said of preaching, speaking, parenting, and any other way of learning/educating:

If you want to understand our controlling conception of knowledge, do not ask for our best epistemological theories. Instead, observe the way we teach and look for the theory of knowledge implicit in those practices. That is the epistemology our students learn–no matter what our best contemporary theories may have to say.

…If this is the case, then as a teacher I can no longer take the easy way out, insisting that I am only responsible for conveying the facts of sociology or theology or whatever the subject may be. Instead, I must take responsibility for my mediator role, for the way my mode of teaching exerts a slow but steady formulative pressure on my students’ sense of self and world. I teach more than a body of knowledge or a set of skills. I teach a mode of relationship between the knower and the known, a way of being in the world. That way, reinforced in course after course, will remain with my students long after the facts have faded from their minds.

(From To Know As We Are Known, pg. 29, 30)

Living the Intersection

I appreciate that my training in clinical pastoral education is giving me reason to enter into a beautiful reading list. I’m covering by necessity pastoral arts, theology, history, and supervision. I’m spending my time becoming a better minister, a slower thinker, a deeper educator of servants, and hopefully a person more responsive to these gifts in a clinical encounter, whatever form it takes.

As I’ve mentioned on my blog, I’m reading, and in an effort to “keep more of what I’m reading,” this review is, in part, in order for me to see again some of the words of the writers I’m encountering. This book, Living the Intersection: Womanism and Afrocentrism in Theology is a book on theology, particularly womanist theology in contradistinction to afrocentricism.

The contributors draw upon their reading of Molefi Asante’s use of Afrocentrism. His conceptualization is widely read and has been a persistent critique to Christianity and Islam with regard to black people. The description of the concept is in the book, so I won’t completely summarize their rendering of Asante. Still, one of Asante’s basic assertions according to the editor of Living the Intersection is the mistaken notion that Christianity is a historically acceptable religious option for African Americans. His basic critique is the mismatchedness of the Christian faith and the better natural fit of, presumably, African Traditional Religions. His notion of Afrocentrism is in conversation in this book with thinkers from the womanist theological posture.

Womanist is a term from Alice Walker who in the novel The Temple of My Familiar “has taken some of her womanist ideas and tried to run them through narratively.” As Gilkes says in the collection, Walker gives writers a rich term to capture her own artistic attempts to debate humanity and reject racism in order to push “for a larger, relational, humanist vision.” Walker used a word (i.e., womanist) started something. Note that she was moving toward a vision. I think that’s an evocative theological motive: vision.

Photo Thanks to Esther Kang

Photo Thanks to Esther Kang

To be fair, most will tie Alice Walker’s literary genius to the conceptual offerings of others before her. Living the Intersection does the same. Deborah E. McDowell does this in her chapter on “Slavery as a Sacred Text.” McDowell reminds us of the tenuous relationship between black people and already-determined-and-already-decided-principles-of-somebody-else’s-interpretation, saying, that “Scripture is not sacred as an untamperable given; it is rather a set of texts to be questioned, negotiated with, and variously interpreted” (p. 82). Womanist interpretation is tied to the experience of a slave being told what to think and how long to think it relative to being “free in Christ.”

Youtha C. Hardman-Cromwell connects womanism to the wealth of poetic contributions written by black women. She decorates her chapter with pieces from Alice Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Maya Angelou among others. She’s doing what the biblical psalmists did: pointing to the poetic, musical expression of a sister in order to underline some truth about life and God. Womanist theology comes out of poetry.

Given their nod to the historical connections leading to womanism, the contributors in Living the Intersection give much respect to Walker for snatching up the spirit of such fruitful work in Walker’s careful word choice. Edited by Cheryl J. Sanders, these writers are connecting language with spirituality and theological reflection in order to pursue a vision of beauty and wholeness. “We are here because we believe we have a story to tell to the nation, and our experience has something special to say to the world.” (p. 22) I wish that was on a t-shirt worn by all the people I love: I have something special to say to the world.

Living the Intersection is an anchoring text for those interested in listening to tones and songs of black women teaching foundational theology for the purpose of telling a story of faith which changes lives and builds people. This book, among those I’m reading as I study in CPE supervisory education, is about how we understand God, how we understand the lived experience of black women, and how we take cues from those two understandings for life.

Theology is God talk, language we use to express who we think God to be. It is necessarily risky. After all, theology is language about God. It relates to us, to those God has made, but it starts in relation to the One for whom words could forever be written and read. Eventually that linguistic effort ends in wholeness. Kelly Brown Douglas in the book delineates that wholeness is about triumph over oppression “so that the individual is whole even as she or he struggles for the community’s wholeness.” And “wholeness for a community indicates that it is not divided against itself and that is free, liberated from oppression.” (p. 68)

Photo Thanks to Esther Kang

Photo Thanks to Esther Kang

As students, we draw from our various sources to unearth, examine, and interrogate the ingredients of faith, to critique forms of faith, to inspire better uses and practices of faith. In the language of Sanders, our work is about the “survival and wholeness of an entire people” and about the “affirmation, assertiveness, and actualization of women.” The book says enough times for the reader to get that the affirmation of women is never akin to the diminution of men. There is a holistic vision that womanist theologians are pushing us toward, one that names the general and boldly wrong unnamededness of women. Encouraging the regular procurement of black women’s identity from themselves (Hardman-Cromwell), we are “moving the black community toward wholeness” (Douglas).

In this book, womanism stands next to afrocentrism, and the sister theologians–from a decidedly black, feminist, ethical, theological, and literary sphere–offer us an introduction to the foundational elements of womanism as a way of doing theology.

Doing theology is important. I can’t recall what I first meant when I started using that phrase, just after my seminary days. When I use the phrase now, I intend to mean that theology is immediately and always practiced. It is reflection with a purpose. It is considered and expressed language that is Spirit-empowered, generative, constructive, and prophetic. Theology is ethical because it meets the practice of our lives; it tutors us, trains us to be. We don’t simply write theology. We do it. We live it.

This beautiful book is full of my sisters and aunts and mothers, and they are all writing me into becoming…

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)

 

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.