Friday, October 16, 2009

Community, Distractions, Disconnections

Recently my teaching colleague Steve Fettke spoke to a group of us on faculty about the need and the opportunity for faculty here to create a teaching and learning community and for there to be a sense of welcome into that community. I thought what he said and my reflections in response could be relevant to our community life in Living Stones.

Steve quoted Parker Palmer in The Courage to Teach (10th anniv. ed.) telling us that we should be “creating a space centered on the great thing called teaching and learning around which a community of truth can gather” (166). And I felt like I heard the Spirit whisper to me that these words from John 24 apply: “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth." Yes, I thought, my worship in spirit and truth, includes my teaching and being part of my faculty community.

But I considered how powerful are the realities that create disconnects and distances among us. Different personalities, different spiritual styles, different politics, different disciplines, different family situations, etc. Yes, these are incredibly powerful. Usually in contemporary settings—whether secular or Christian—they are dominant. Why would we try to resist them? Who really cares anyway? It’s an uphill battle. It would be easier to let these external factors keep us distracted and disconnected from one another.

But please forgive me for that cynicism because I hear God saying that he cares—and I remember, for a brief time anyway, that my calling is to be faithful—and let him deal with the success issues in his way and in his time.

In Chapter 1 Palmer says, “Small wonder, then, that teaching tugs at the heart, opens the heart, even breaks the heart—and the more one loves teaching, the more heartbreaking it can be. The courage to teach is courage to keep one's heart opened in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able so that the teacher and students and subject can be woven into the fabric of community that learning, and living, require” (11-12). I think all of us have experienced what Palmer is talking about here. This is part of what happens in any setting in which we seek to be truly open and vulnerable to God and other people.

But Palmer also gives us news of the freedom and joy of becoming our true selves in God. He offers us a vision of depth, truth, and connectedness that come “from the teacher’s inner life…as I reclaim my identity and integrity, remembering my selfhood and my sense of vocation. Then teaching can come from the depths of my own truth—and the truth that is within my students has a chance to respond in kind” (34).

I want this for myself—as a teacher in my classroom, certainly—but also as I seek to be a good brother in the Lord, to relate faithfully and consistently to my brothers and sisters in genuine spiritual community. Amen.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Spiritual Experimentation

I'm convinced that our lives offer profound opportunities for experimentation. There is some truth in the cliche, "There are no unsuccessful experiments." The value of an experiment is not "success" or being proved right, but is instead the process itself. In the spiritual life, we're always in the process of self-discovery, which requires a willingness to question even our sense of ourselves. By God's grace, we certainly hold onto what is most important, but life nonetheless takes us places we might have never thought we would go. To grow obviously requires change. Thus, something we thought was extremely important may eventually need to be cast aside, but its value as an experiment, as a creative act or venture, nonetheless remains. This can be extremely painful, but a recognition of the experimental qualities of life can be helpful. Perhaps this is some of what the great spiritual masters have in mind when they talk about detachment.

In Western culture, we value being firmly convinced of our own truths; to be caught in a self-contradiction is considered the greatest of evils or shortcomings. Witness what happens to a politician who contradicts him- or herself. Foucault (not necessarily a spiritual role-model) had a much more interesting conception of his life's work: he only engaged in studies that would profoundly force him to re-evaluate his position about a given issue throughout. If he had finished the work without changing (i.e., contradicting himself, in some sense), he would have thought the experiment not radical enough. I think this is in general a helpful assessment. While I'm not advocating some sort of libertine freedom to do whatever we want in the name of experimentation, I think finding our true selves in God requires a willingness to change, to contradict ourselves perhaps, to make mistakes but learn from them--to experiment.

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