I created this blog as a way to process and record my experience as a seminary student. I also hope it will provide a platform for my friends and family to participate in the journey. Some of the entries are kind of long, but what can I say--I was in graduate school, they made us do that...


Friday, January 25, 2008

My Suitcase Full of Prayers

The first memory I can call to mind of personal prayer involves driving a car, so I must have been older than seventeen. I was driving up Holyoke St. in Spokane, WA. I remember leaning forward over the steering wheel and looking up and out the front windshield. I said, out loud I think, are you up there God? And then I said a prayer that I believe opened with, if you exist. I can’t remember what I was praying for. Yet, the memory of praying itself has never left me. It was an utterly surprising and out of character act. I must have been desperate for something.

Fast-forward to a post-conversion experience some five or so years later. I was in a small Bible study and the leader pulled me aside to inquire about my comfort level with praying. She wanted to know if she could call on me to open or close our study time. I said no and she understood. As a new Christian trying to do everything right, I starting listening to the way people prayed. I took mental notes and practiced in my head. Eventually I was ready and I offered to pray aloud for our small group.

These two experiences remind me of being a novice, an innocent, not yet immersed in analyzing any sort of theology. When I was seventeen, I truly had no idea what I thought of prayer, I just needed someone to trust. When I was twenty-three, I was slightly more aware of what prayer was supposed to be. As I sit here now at thirty—filled with memories of prayers, communion, baptism, church life, small groups, denominational understandings, rigorous religious study and personal reflection—I am amazed to think back to that first prayer, alone in my car. It is impossible to get inside the mind of my seventeen-year-old self, and as I try, I assault the memory with questions only my present day self would ask.

In my life I have been a non-religious, non-praying person. I have been a fundamentalist Christian who prayed for the souls of my lost family. I have been a liberal Christian who prayed for social justice with Quakers and Dominicans alike. And I have been a confused ex-Christian, unable to pray and in denial about the state of my faith. My mother always told me that people change a lot in their twenties, I had no idea how right she was. She’s never said anything about changing in your thirties, so I think I might be finally settling down into myself. At least as much as a person with a lot of questions and few answers can.

So what do I think of prayer now—as a somewhat settled, agnostic thirty-year-old with a suitcase full of jumbled prayer experiences? This is one of those big questions without very many answers. And of course, one cannot begin to think of prayer until one spends a good deal of time thinking about God. My persistent questions lately have been, who, what, or if, God is? I’ve been introduced to a few God’s over the years. Buddhist and pagan versions from my grandmother. Multiple Christian versions from multiple Christians. And the God=Energy version from a few of the new age hippies and nuns that I’ve known. I cannot discount the effect of these various God’s on my own peculiar understanding (or non-understanding) of God. I appreciate Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki’s understanding that our histories, memories, senses, and intellects intermingle to form what we know. In her book, In God’s Presence: Theological Reflections on Prayer she writes, “We bring a cumulative history to our knowing that shapes how and what we can know.” She also writes:

A God of presence renders suspect any so-called objective knowledge of God, and calls instead for an intersubjective knowledge of God. Such a knowledge will never be universal—it is too mingled with ourselves for that. And so it should be: It is the way of God’s working, and it can yield an adequate knowledge for our living.

I am struck by the concept of an adequate knowledge for our living. If I can’t know God (and I don’t think I can), is an adequate knowledge for my life still attainable? Maybe. Suchocki offers a metaphor of God as water—touching and filling all things in its path while simultaneously changing and being changed by all things it touches, albeit slowly and through continued contact. This feels comfortable to me. And while this metaphor doesn’t answer all my questions or satisfy all my intellectual wanderings, it does give me something to ponder with integrity. In Quaker terms, it speaks to my condition. Water makes up most of the earth and it makes up most of my body. I will die without enough of it, but I could also die with too much of it. I have power in some sense over a glass of water, but I will never have power over the tide. The absolute meaning of the previous two sentences is not entirely clear—they remind me of Zen meditation riddles—but somehow when I combine them with Suchocki’s metaphor of God as water, my adequate knowledge for living grows.

While my adequate knowledge grows, I am still left with questions too numerous to count and an overwhelming feeling that I will never be able to find a satisfactory explanation of God’s character. And yet, I continue on, past this first question, onto the question of prayer. What is it? What does it mean? Should I do it? And if so, how?

If I am to assume that prayer is praying to God, but I don’t understand God, how am I to understand prayer? According to the Encarta World English Dictionary, prayer is defined as:

1. a spoken or unspoken communication with God, a deity, or a saint.
2. the act or practice of making spoken or unspoken communication with God, a deity, or a saint
3. a religious service at which prayers are said (often used in the plural)
4. an earnest request for something
5. something that is wanted or hoped for very much
6. a slight chance or hope
7. a request contained in a petition

Four out of the seven entries make no mention of God, but the first entry (is that more important?) offers the common answer—prayer is communication with God. It makes it sound so simple. There it is, in plain English, in the dictionary. It must be true! So back I go to the question at the beginning of this paragraph. If prayer is praying to God, and I don’t understand God, can I understand prayer? Better yet, can I do it?

I could go in circles all day (and I do most of the time). But, at a certain point I sometimes find it helpful to go in search of experience. And this is how I ended up in a January intensive class called Prayer. For a week and a half I prayed for several hours a day—as part of my large class, as part of my small prayer group, and alone. I decided early on in the class that if I was going to get anything out of it, I had to submit to it. I had to give myself over to it completely. I had to surrender my constant analysis for ten days and just pray.

Because of my brief time in fundamentalism, I know how to pray. And by this I mean, I can fake it. I can stand in front of a room full of people and pray an acceptable, even eloquent prayer. This may sound offensive, but rest assured, I don’t use this skill. I bring it up simply to highlight a personal stumbling block. As I struggle to find and understand my own theology of prayer, I am not only plagued with intellectual questions, I am also constantly scrutinizing my level of sincerity. This is a personal flaw. I am not often able to relax into an experience, I am often watching from outside myself. So deciding to submit to the class not only meant pausing my analysis, it also meant giving myself permission to experience the praying—to allow myself to settle into it, to simply pray.

I missed the first day of class because of holiday travel, so my first experience of corporate prayer came immediately. I walked in and we all took out the book, Celtic Prayers from Iona written by J. Philip Newell. This book contains Monday-Saturday morning and evening prayers, each day with its own theme. That first day was a Thursday and the theme was Commitment to Christ. I thought, here we go. My lofty goals of submission were put to the test immediately. I took a deep breath and joined my classmates as we read the prayer Newell had laid out for us. And then that evening, around nine o’clock, I read the evening prayers to myself knowing my fellow students were doing the same thing all over the city. And the next morning, we prayed the Friday prayers together (on the theme of The Communion of Heaven and Earth) and again, Friday evening, we prayed the evening prayers alone—together. And as I participated in this ritual, I was able to see the blessing of it. I was able to feel the growing communion with and among my fellow classmates.

The last hour of each class was spent in our small groups. My group consisted of four people, two men, another woman, and me. I sort of knew two of them and had never met the third. We met daily in the “soft chair” room of ESR for silence, sharing, and prayer. I can say with all sincerity that this is one of my favorite forms of prayer. For eight months over the 2006-2007 school year, I met with three friends for what we lovingly called “Quatholics.” We called it this because the group consisted mostly of Catholics (the three other women), but we used Quaker process as our method. We met for two hours on the first Saturday of every month. We rotated through each of our homes and shared lunch together after our prayer time. Before we started to meet, we each wrote 3 queries—short questions about whatever we wanted, there was no set standard. We put our 12 slips of paper in a plastic bag and carried them from house to house each month. Our time began with silence and then the hostess would draw and read a query. For the first hour, we would take turns responding to the query out of the silence. There was no cross talk and we always left space between each person’s sharing. After everyone had shared, we naturally transitioned into the second hour in which we each shared whatever was on our hearts. Again, the sharing came out of the silence with plenty of space in-between and no cross talk. Someone always closed our time with vocal prayer. It was an incredibly sacred way of sharing with my friends. It is an amazing gift to truly listen to someone in quiet, without responses formulating in your head. It is also an amazing gift to be able to speak into quiet, knowing you are being heard—truly being listened to with no response coming. I treasured my eight sessions with the Quatholics, and so I was delighted to participate in a similar experience each day in class.

Having the small group as a central part of the class was helpful for multiple reasons. It was important to me first and foremost because as I just mentioned, I personally find this form of prayer (in Quaker terms, worship sharing) to be an incredibly worthwhile spiritual practice. In the context of the class, it served as a place to process our private prayer time in an intimate way. And it was a source of accountability to help maintain our commitment to pray everyday throughout the 10-day intensive.

While I was grateful to have a form of prayer I’m very familiar with, it was also helpful to practice a few types of prayer that were completely new to me. In the middle of the intensive we spent a full day of retreat together. During this time we practiced multiple forms of prayer I had never experienced before. Of these, I was most impacted by praying with icons. We had an icon of Jesus set up in the middle of the room that we quietly gazed at together for about 10 minutes. In some ways it felt similar to breath prayer, in which you sit quietly focusing on your breath or some mantra that follows your breath. With an icon, you focus on the image rather than your breath. I’m incredibly visual and so in some ways having an image in front of me was more effective than simply focusing on my breath. Having the image helped to quiet my brain’s chatter. I was able to contemplate the person of Jesus without words. This was extremely helpful for my always-questioning brain that struggles to figure out my relationship with this deeply influential man.

After using an icon, we prayed over personal photographs. We simply sat quietly and gazed at our chosen image. I used a recent snapshot of my sister and me. For about ten minutes I sat and looked down at my sister and after awhile, I put my fingers on her face. I found words welling up in me, prayers for her well-being and happiness. Without this exercise, I would not have sat down to intentionally pray for her this way, mostly because I wouldn’t have known how to start. Sitting there quietly with her image allowed me to simply sit with her—to think about her and to reflect non-verbally on my love for her. Words came easily as I continued to focus on the image. I was able not to judge my words or their structure, enabling me to simply offer intentions out into the world. It was a profound experience. I have always struggled with how to pray specifically for other people and I think this experience may have provided me with an answer. It also gives me a way to be with the people who I currently live so far away from.

In addition, it reminded me of an old project. For several years I have been creating a prayer board. In the summer of 2005 I constructed a triptych out of pine and hinges. I painted it with wild colors and large designs. Over the years I’ve repainted it, added text to it, sanded it, and repainted it again. I have changed its appearance so many times that I don’t remember all of its incarnations anymore. Unfortunately, the one thing I haven’t really done with my prayer board is pray. I suppose it could be argued that the creation of it has been an act of prayer, but I’m not convinced. I think I’ve used it as an excuse or a cover-up during the denial phase of losing my traditional faith. It gave me something to do—to concentrate on.

After praying with images and icons during our retreat, I decided to drag out my old prayer board and give it one more makeover. I painted the entire surface—except for the three squares of gold leaf on the center panel—red. A bright red that reminds me of the Buddhist Dharma center my grandmother took me to when I was in high school. On the right panel I affixed twelve photographs I’ve taken of the Pacific Ocean. They show the sun, the shells, the driftwood, the cliffs, the sand, and of course, the water. On the left panel I affixed twelve photographs I’ve taken of the Gingko tree in my front yard. They begin in the summer and tell the story of the tree losing its leaves and finally show bare branches covered in snow. The board is absolutely stunning and something tells me it’s complete. I set it up in my art room with the prayer bench my sister made me for Christmas one year. I gave it its own wall and de-cluttered the area around it. It is my greatest hope (dare I even say, my prayer) that I spend time regularly in front of it, in quiet, focusing on the images and my breath.

At this point in my reflection, I must admit another personal flaw. I am an over-planner. I love to plan things and so I sometimes (as in the case of creating and creating my prayer board instead of using it) plan things rather than do them. I know that it is possible to both plan and follow through because I’ve done it a lot in my life (thankfully I’m not completely flawed!). But at this moment, I admit to being nervous about my goal of becoming a person with a regular prayer life. I would love to fill this page with beautiful and lofty goals of daily discipline, but I’m afraid I would simply be falling into my own trap. Prayer doesn’t’ require planning. To practice breath prayer, I just need to sit and pay attention to my breath. To practice image prayer (I’m not sure if this is an official name anywhere, but it works for me), I just need to grab an image and sit down with it. I’m not trying to belittle these forms of prayer, on the contrary, I’m trying to explain that part of their beauty lies in their simplicity. The simplicity of these prayer forms is what draws me in. But I also struggle with it because it means I can’t make excuses, i.e., I’m going to be an avid pray-er in a month. Let me just get this supply list put together first.

In his book, Living Simply Through the Day: Spiritual Survival in a Complex Age, Tilden Edwards speaks to this problem. In the section When to Pray, Edwards encourages readers to pick a certain time for prayer and to stick to it, at least for a week. He is encouraging us to make prayer a daily habit similar to brushing our teeth. To compare prayer to brushing our teeth might seem irreverent to some, but I really appreciate the point he’s trying to make. Prayer can become as natural to us as brushing our teeth, something we do without thinking about. It is also helpful in this analogy to remember that we weren’t born with toothbrushes in our hands. We had to learn how to do it, practice it, and be reminded to do it before it became habit. Prayer too takes practice. Edwards also talks about being gentle with ourselves when we miss (or skip) a day. He tells us “to lightly ‘see’ the resistance, and get on with it ”

One of the clear messages of Living Simply Through the Day is that a daily prayer practice should be helpful—it should help make every aspect of our day prayerful. My Quaker sensibility is quite comfortable with this idea. I believe that everything can be sacramental if we pay attention. In all of my confusion about who, what, or if, God is, I confidently believe in the sacredness of life. Every tree, homework assignment, and personal interaction (the list could on and on) can remind us of our desire for the holy.

At this moment I am greatly encouraged by several things. I am thankful for Suchocki’s metaphor of God as water. I am thankful for Edwards’ instruction to see prayer as just another habit in our daily lives—opening us up to lives of attentiveness. And I am thankful for his permission not to judge myself when I fail.

Between reaching into the depths of my personal prayer experiences and participating recently in an active prayer life, I have learned a great lesson. I realize I don’t need a clearly defined theology of prayer before I pray. In fact, I may never pray if I don’t let go of this assumption (especially because I probably won’t ever have a clearly defined theology of prayer). I just need to pray. I need to remember that I have found ways of praying that I can practice with sincerity and integrity. I need to remember that maybe, just maybe, after spending a great deal of time in the practice of praying, I might discover a few things that I can know about prayer. I may find treasures to bolster my ‘adequate knowledge of God for my living.’ And at this thought, I say, please—please.

Monday, January 21, 2008

A reflection from a great book...

In the book, Living Simply Through the Day: Spiritual Survival in a Complex Age, Tilden Edwards begins his chapter entitled Praying with the question, what is prayer? He answers this question by saying that, “prayer is an opening to love” (75). He then tells a beautiful story about a sky burst—about sitting on the California coast and watching as the fog and clouds thinned and dissipated, allowing the always-present sun and open sky to be seen and felt. He says that, “prayer is a way of thinning the clouds that dull our vision” (77). I find great truth in this statement. I read this book as I traveled back and forth over break. And as I sat on the plane looking out the window at the clouds below me and the sun and blue skies all around me I realized I was on the other side of his vision from the beach. And I’m sure that as I pondered the top of the clouds—the only side available to me at that moment—someone else was staring up at the bottom of them, the only side currently available to them. This realization gave me comfort in my understanding that I can never fully see or grasp truth. The best I can do is search without ceasing and pray for moments of clearing in my limited vision.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Old Testament Final Project

Applied Project: Sermon on Judges 11:40 (Which I was privileged to share with Spokane Friends Church on December 30, 2007)

I would like to talk about the last verse of the eleventh chapter of the book of Judges. But first, I would like to give you a quick refresher on the first 39 verses where we learn the story of Jephthah the Gileadite. Jephthah was the child of a prostitute who was eventually run out of his father’s house and his hometown. He moved to the land of Tob where he lived as a thieving outlaw. But one day the elders of Gilead came to him in Tob and explained that the Ammonites were planning war against them. They asked him to return home and to lead them in their fight against the Ammonites. Jephthah’s first question for them—reasonably I think—was “Are you not the very ones who rejected me and drove me out of my father’s house? So why do you come to me now when you are in trouble?” (Judges 11:7) The desperate elders could not deny this accusation, but they knew they needed him. So they offered Jephthah the role as head over all of Gilead if he would come back home and save his people from the Ammonites. Jephthah accepted their offer and returned home with them where he was made head and commander over Gilead. He set out to explore the problem and over the course of 17 verses we learn all about the land disputes between the Gileadites and the Ammonites. Eventually Jephthah decides that it’s time to fight and embarks on a journey towards war. And for reasons that the text doesn’t tell us—Jephthah stopped and made a vow before heading into battle. Judges 11:30-31 read, “And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering.” Now, if you’re anything like me, this vow makes you cringe. I want to shake him, and ask him what the heck his problem is. Why on earth would anyone ever make such a horrible vow? He must have known of the victory celebrations after war. He must have known that all the women would be dancing and playing hand drums to celebrate his victorious return. And yet he vows, “whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me…shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering.” And in verse 34 we read, “then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing.” His daughter, his only daughter, his only child, runs out to meet him in celebration. Of course, all celebration stops when he sees her. For, he immediately realizes the stupid thing that he has done. His daughter, who is never named, asks that she be given two months to go and mourn with her friends, which she is granted. And Judges 11:39 reads “At the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to the vow he had made.”

I’ve just told you a horrible story and I don’t have any way to rosy it up. But I had to share the story of Jephthah and his daughter with you, so that together, we can understand the solemnity of the last verse of the eleventh chapter of Judges. It reads, “for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.” Every year they went out to mourn her, they created a public witness to the injustice that had taken place, they lamented the life that had been sacrificed. In her book Texts of Terror, Phyllis Trible offers these words:

Like the daughters of Israel, we remember and mourn the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite. In her death we are all diminished; by our memory she is forever hallowed…Her story, brief as it is, evokes the imagination, calling forth a reader’s response. Surely words of lament are a seemly offering, for did not the daughters of Israel mourn the daughter of Jephthah every year? (TOT 108)

Every year. Every year. Where did that custom go?

In The Inverse World of Mourning in the Hebrew Bible, Paul Kruger gives multiple examples of what mourning looked like in biblical times. Mourners would gash and beat their bodies, tear their clothes, stop eating, roll around in the dirt, sit on ashes and stop bathing. Beyond these examples of personal manifestations, there are also examples of corporate rituals. The prophet Jeremiah called for professional mourners. Jeremiah 9:17-18 read, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider, and call for the mourning women to come; send for the skilled women to come; let them quickly raise a dirge over us, so that our eyes may run down with tears, and our eyelids flow with water.” Verse 20 continues, “Hear, O women, the word of the Lord, and let your ears receive the word of his mouth; teach to your daughters a dirge, and each to her neighbor a lament.” Ezekiel 32:16 reads, “This is a lamentation; it shall be chanted. The women of the nations shall chant it. Over Egypt and all its hordes they shall chant it, says the Lord God.” The Psalms are filled with cries of lament and of course, we have the entire book of Lamentations. Mourning was an essential component of life for the Israelites. So Judges 11:40 isn’t surprising, “for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.” But again I ask, where did this custom go? Can you think of anything like it in our culture?

Americans live in constant contradiction. We are bombarded daily with news of war, poverty, hunger, disease, corruption and violence. Yet we’ve also been raised with the notion that in this country, with a lot of hard work, some positive thinking, and a little ingenuity, we can have success. We turn on the 5:00 news and we hear of unspeakable violence and trauma mixed in with 30-second snippets of perfect happiness. How are we supposed to balance all of these messages? Somehow, we seem to have a bizarre ability to hold them all together or at least compartmentalize them. We praise suffering people for being strong. But as I look around, I am often overcome with an underlying sense of powerlessness and grief, and I doubt I’m alone. I wonder what we’re losing by holding it all together? What is the cost of forgetting traditions like that of the daughters of Israel mourning the sacrifice of the daughter of Jephthah? According to the authors of the book Rachel’s Cry, “A clear consequence of banishing the many moods…of lament—among them, anguish, remorse, fury, protest, even hatred—is that we lose an essential resource in confronting the very emotions that terrify us.” (RC 14)

Now, in case you’re starting to worry that I’m about to ask you to run outside, tear your clothes, put dirt on your head and scream at the top of your lungs—relax—I’m not. But I am asking you to consider your relationship to mourning. Why are we scared of it? Are we afraid that if we allow ourselves to feel the suffering inside of us and around us that we will become paralyzed? Stuck in passive vulnerability? Do we think of the daughters of Israel and their ritual of annual remembering as the behavior of paralyzed, passive people? I know I don’t. I will concede, however, that they were vulnerable people. In their continued remembering, they allowed themselves to be vulnerable to their pain, year after year. I wonder what affect this communal vulnerability had on their community—and what affect it can continue to have on ours if we let it. In her book Precarious Life, Judith Butler says:

Perhaps…one mourns when one accepts that by the loss one undergoes one will be changed, possibly for ever. Perhaps mourning has to do with agreeing to undergo a transformation (perhaps one should say submitting to a transformation) the full result of which one cannot know in advance. (PL 21)

To think of mourning as submitting to transformation seems wildly powerful to me. There is no room for paralyzing passivity in transformation. No room for overwhelming fear that dictates our lives. Transformation requires action; it requires attention. How were the daughters of Israel transformed by their grief? And how were they and their community continually transformed in their action of remembering? What would happen if we allowed ourselves and each other to fully embrace grief, to fully mourn the suffering that we are surrounded by? Now, I understand that mourning doesn’t in and of itself create change; however, once we allow ourselves to grieve our personal and global losses, we can take notice of what we’ve lost. And when we pay attention to what we’ve lost, then we can begin to look at what’s left. What’s left of our relationships, our communities, and ourselves. Loss changes us, grief changes us. When, instead of banishing mourning to the far reaches of our minds and removing it from our discourse, we submit to its transforming power, when we allow ourselves to feel the pain, hurt, loss, anger, rage, confusion—then we can take stock of who we are and what we need to do. Do we need to repent, do we need to be grateful, do we need to protest? In our grief, we come to understand that we are vulnerable and that we always will be vulnerable. With this understanding, we can transform our fear into an understanding of our interdependence. We can learn to care for one another.

While I was a student at Whitworth College, I attended a lecture by James Waller about his book Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing. He said that while most of us will not commit horrendous acts of violence, we will become bystanders to it. This thought has haunted me ever since I heard it. I don’t know about you, but I do not want to stand by in the midst of horrible suffering. But everyday, I do stand by. And I do it because I’m scared.

Recently I came across a group called the Black Sash, a white women’s organization for human rights that ardently fought against apartheid and Afrikaner nationalism in South Africa for almost forty years:

The women of the Black Sash protested in various ways, but their ‘most visible and most reviled public activity was to stand silently in public places with black sashes across their chests, overtly lamenting injustice.’ When these public ‘stands’ were forbidden by the Riotous Assemblies Act, the women continued to stand—not in a group, but ten meters apart. (RC 92)

The Black Sash—born out of a conversation between six Johannesburg housewives at a tea party in 1955—was called by Nelson Mandela, the conscience of the white nation. We would be well served to remember those women and that tea party the next time we think of allowing fear to keep us from taking action. Big things start in small places.

The Black Sash was not only an integral part of the opposition against apartheid; they were also part of the inspiration for other peace movements such as Women in Black. Women in Black vigils were started in Israel in 1988 by women protesting against Israel’s Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, but have become a worldwide means of mobilization and a formula for action. The mission statement of Women in Black New York reads:

[We] stand in silent vigil to protest war, rape as a tool of war, ethnic cleansing and human rights abuses all over the world. We are silent because mere words cannot express the tragedy that wars and hatred bring. We refuse to add to the cacophony of empty statements that are spoken with the best intentions yet may be erased or go unheard under the sound of a passing ambulance or a bomb exploding nearby.

Our silence is visible. We invite women to stand with us, reflect about themselves and women who have been raped, tortured or killed in concentration camps, women who have disappeared, whose loved ones have disappeared or have been killed, whose homes have been demolished. We wear black as a symbol of sorrow for all victims of war, for the destruction of people, nature and the fabric of life. (WIB para 1,2)

Women in Black vigils help to bring the act of mourning into public consciousness, making it a difficult act to ignore. They are the modern day daughters of Israel mourning the daughter of Jephthah. The history of the Black Sash and the presence of Women in Black give me courage to fight the fear that keeps me a bystander. And they give me hope for our broken world.

According to the authors of Rachel’s Cry, “the wisdom tradition [of the Bible] knows that lived experience is sometimes like a broken vase whose shards cannot be easily reunited rather than like a puzzle whose pieces can be neatly fit into a unified design.” (RC 24) I love this quote. Every one of us has lived life, we have suffered, and we have witnessed suffering in the people close to us and, because of technology, in the people on the other side of the globe. What would happen if instead of trying to hold everything together like a perfect puzzle piece, we allowed ourselves to stop once and awhile and pay attention to suffering? In the words of Phyllis Trible, “Reflections themselves neither mandate nor manufacture change; yet by enabling insight, they may inspire repentance. In other words, sad stories may yield new beginnings.” (TOT 2) Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter is a horrifying and sad story, but I agree with Trible, it yielded a new beginning in the lives of the daughters of Israel who mourned her every year. So my question becomes, how can reflection inspire repentance and create space for change? I am not trying to tell you that you have to be sad all the time and that in your sorrow you will change the world. I’m asking each one of us, myself included, to pay attention, to not stand by in the midst of suffering. I don’t know what ‘not standing by’ means for each of us as individuals or for our church community as a whole. But I have the sense that if we allow ourselves time to mourn the injustice and suffering that surrounds us, we will be transformed. And in our transformation, we will find the courage to fight the fear that paralyzes us into being bystanders. In our transformation as individuals, this community will be transformed and who knows, maybe a little of that transformation can seep out into the larger world and create space for change.

Works Consulted
Billman, Kathleen D. and Daniel L. Migliore. Rachel’s Cry. Cleveland, OH: United
Church Press, 1999. (RC)

Butler, Judith. Precarious Life. New York: Verso, 2004. (PL)

Gerstein, Beth. “A Ritual Processed: A Look at Judges 11:40.” In Anti-Covenant.
Sheffield Academic Press, 1989.

Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Kruger, Paul. “The Inverse World of Mourning in the Hebrew Bible.” Biblische Notizen
124 (2005): 41-49.

Meyers, Carol, ed. Women in Scripture. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans
Publishing Company, 2001.

Spink, Kathryn. Black Sash. Great Britain: St Edmundsbury Press, 1991.

Trible, Phyllis. Texts of Terror. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984. (TOT)

Women in Black. 11 Nov. 2002. Date accessed 20 Nov. 2007.

My first semester classes

During my first semester (Fall 2007) I signed up for four classes:

  • Introduction to Old Testament History and Literature
  • Introduction to Pastoral Care and Counseling
  • Spiritual Preparation for Ministry
  • History of Christianity I

I ended up dropping the history class because of poor teaching--it was an adjunct teacher from the other seminary. They are in the process of hiring two new faculty members, so hopefully next year they'll have somebody great.

I absolutely adored my Old Testament class. During the first or second day, my teacher opened up the book and pointed to the page. She said, here is a book with pages in it. On those pages are words. This semester we are going to be focusing on those words. Along the way, we will find gaps in the information provided through the words on the page. We can do our best to theorize what those gaps mean, but we will always remember what we are doing...gap-filling. She said that most of what people argue about in religion is disagreements over their personal versions of gap-filling. Brilliant! I hadn't ever thought about it that way before and it has re-opened the bible for me.

Have you read the OT? There are some pretty crazy stories in there... As soon as this class was finished, I wanted to start all over again at the beginning. There is just way too much material to cover in one semester. Of course that's why we have upper division courses! My final project was a sermon on Judges 11:40 which I gave to Spokane Friends over break.

Pastoral Care was also great. I figured out that I am a problem solver and that I let my need to fix get in the way of my listening skills. I jump in way too fast with a solution, when what I should be doing is giving someone space to figure out their own solutions. Obviously there was way more to my new understandings and this class, but that is certainly one of the top things I came away with.

For one of my assignments in this class, I spent a day with the chaplain at the high security women's prison in Indianapolis. It was wild. I met with several inmates and was able to participate in a two-hour workshop with them. I was so thankful for my experience at the Women's Hearth. I never would have been brave enough to visit a prison without that experience behind me. I met a woman who has been locked up for 18 years and is serving two life terms. She was so kind and gentle, almost grandmotherly. I have no idea what on earth happened in her life 18 years ago, but I know that she spends her current days mentoring the other inmates. I told her that I could see how much she meant to the other women. She responded by telling me that every time a woman she's mentored is released, a small piece of her leaves with them and that this allows her to feel like a contributing member of society. She truly was remarkable.

One of things that hit me the hardest was the fact that all the inmates have to wear beige every day. Beige shoes, pants, shirts, everything. I can imagine that some of them long for color. After I left, I wanted to mail them all bright red shirts.

Spiritual Preparation for Ministry was sort of like group therapy. I think they want to make sure we're not insane and that we don't go insane as we adjust to life as seminarians. They also want to help us form a cohort with our fellow students. You can read my final reflection paper from this class in the previous post entitled first semester reflection paper.

For my January Intensive I took Prayer. It was excellent. I'm currently working on my final paper and will post it as soon as I finish.

There you go...a quick overview. It was a pretty good start. I only really freaked out a few times, but I'm still here, ready to give it another go. We'll see!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

First Semester Reflection Paper

What a semester this has been. What a decade this has been. Sometimes I wonder if my twenty-year-old self, my twenty-five year old self, and my thirty-year-old self would be friends. They would obviously have some historical similarities and be able to understand crazy family life, but would they be friends? Could they be friends? They are so different. Twenty and twenty-five would have hated each other, but I’m happy to report that my thirty year old self can deal with all three. I’ve certainly mellowed out. I’ve come to a place where I don’t need to change people. I’ve given up my fanaticism. So, here I am: a seminary student in Richmond, IN. I have good friends here. A nice house. My husband is able to teach at a university. Life is good. I have suffered some incredible internal struggles over the past 3 months, and yet, I’m happy. For some reason though, I find this calm happiness suspicious. It’s as if I can’t possibly be happy amidst personal confusion. It’s odd.
The personal confusion, of course, comes from my seven-year roller coaster ride with religion. So, why did I make the choice to come to seminary? I suppose because I find religion to be fascinating. And I’m still interested in faith. It’s what to have faith in that leaves me confused. I’ve come to a few conclusions about what I don’t have faith in that seem helpful. Here’s my working list: I don’t believe in an afterlife. Obviously, since I’ve never died or talked with anyone who’s died, I can’t be sure. But it doesn’t seem plausible to me. It seems to be a means of comfort for the living. And there is plenty of heaven and hell right here on earth. We don’t need to waste time worrying about them in the afterlife. I also don’t know how the universe got here, but I don’t think a creator God made it. Space is confusing and always leaves my head spinning. The universe is just too big and too old for my brain to understand. I also can’t wrap my mind around the idea of a personal God. The world gives me no indication that such a thing exists. And if it does, I’m not sure it’s worthy to be praised. And then of course, there’s Jesus—who I actually really like. When I was first becoming a Christian, I was embarrassed to even say his name out loud. It was a personal hurdle to learn to think of Jesus as someone to love and worship and depend on for salvation. While I’m no longer ashamed of him, I don’t think he was God. I don’t think he thought he was God. I think he was a world changing radical not unlike Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.; however, I do concede his message has probably brought about more change and has been more far reaching. I often wonder what Jesus would think of his legacy if he could see us today—and what he would tell me to have faith in.
One thing I do know is that I, along with almost every other human in history, feel a pull towards spirituality. Humanity seems to need divinity. Of course, from our place in the spacetime continuum, we can’t imagine life without the idea of divinity. So ultimately, our question becomes not whether or not religion is all made up, but rather, whether or not it’s useful. While I’ve witnessed several damaging and dangerous aspects of religion (we’ll have to save those thoughts and details for another paper), I appreciate the lofty goal that religion has of helping us to become better human beings:

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. (Colossians 3:12-15)

Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, love, peace, and gratitude. If this is what religion brings to people, then what do I care if it’s all made up? It would not be a waste of my life to strive after the attributes listed here in Colossians, but also found in Galatians, Philippians, and several other holy books. I view the Bible and other sacred scriptures as historical records of humanity’s search for truth and goodness in a scary, uncontrollable world. The scriptures can prove helpful for those of us currently searching the unknowable.
There are, of course, several other things that can aid in our lifelong, sometimes painful search for the mysterious. Journaling is a method that has helped people through the centuries. I have grand dreams of my steady, continuous journal, but so far, it hasn’t manifested. I have one journal that spans the last five years and contains entries that are sometimes entered daily and sometimes separated by over a year. I love to read back through it and I’m not sure why I can’t commit to it. Like so many other disciplines, it just seems difficult to maintain. Why? Why do we lose motivation for things that we love? This is one of my persistent questions. In our final class discussion in Spiritual Preparation for Ministry, we examined the following quote by Howard Thurman, “Don’t worry about what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and do that. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive.” I get a sense that truly knowing what makes us come alive has to come from a deep reservoir within, otherwise we run the risk of merely doing what makes us feel good.
What truthfully and authentically makes me come alive isn’t going to be obvious if I’m living a scattered life. So I ask, what are the basic disciplines I need in place before I even reach a grounded enough place to discern what makes me come alive? A good list begins with healthy food, lots of water, plenty of exercise, enough rest. A deeper list contains regular meditation and quiet time. Add in regular reading of challenging books, and regular reflection in a personal journal and you’re probably getting somewhere. This list, if completed with regularity, would not make me a super-human, but it would at least help to ground me. Which in turn, would allow me space to discover what truly makes me come alive.
Of course, we don’t live in a bubble. And one of the most helpful tools we have access to is other human beings. Finding people with similar questions and goals has proven an integral part of my journey. I now have friends in four cities across the country that can attest to where I’ve been. They have helped me and pushed me and challenged me. Without them, I doubt my journey would have brought me here. While I didn’t start using the term spiritual friend until a couple of years ago, when I look at the pictures on my wall, I see several people befitting of the title. I’ve participated in spiritual nurture groups, but this is the first time I’ve participated in intentional one-on-one spiritual friendships. I find it an amazing undertaking. Caring for someone’s spiritual life who in turn cares for my spiritual life, creates a bond between people not often found in the average friendship. My current spiritual friend and I meet at the Main Street Diner every Wednesday morning for an early breakfast. We end up staying for almost two hours, talking about everything. We listen to each other’s questions and struggle through ways of thinking, believing, and behaving. I find this kind of consistent, mutual sharing and listening to be one of the most stretching and growing experiences people can have.
Other people not only challenge us, they help hold us accountable. I’m not a person that lives well inside my head. I need people around to share ideas and questions with. This is one of the biggest reasons I am currently combining my spiritual search with my academic journey. For almost a year, I’ve been thinking about writing a devotional book. I know that sounds odd coming from someone who’s given up her traditional faith. But who says what a devotional has to be devoted to? And I think my current environment is the perfect one to undertake such a goal. I’m not in a vacuum. I’m surrounded by people also concerned with academics and spirituality. I’m surrounded by people that I can question and who question me. I’m surrounded by ideas that I find constantly interesting. The history of religion captivates me and I would like to write a book about how we ended up with the traditions we currently celebrate in America. How did we end up with the Easter bunny and the Easter egg? How about Santa Claus, the Christmas tree and Christmas presents? Why is turkey the food of choice on Thanksgiving? And what about the roots of New Year’s Eve, Halloween, and the Fourth of July? What roles have both paganism and consumerism played in the formation of our modern holidays? How do the very secular and the very religious celebrate the same traditions? I’m not after dense, academic prose, rather, I want the narratives. I want to share the stories of how we’ve ended up with what we have in an accessible, reflective way. Right now, I’m envisioning the book to be ordered like a calendar year with each holiday in order. Each section would contain history of how we came to the tradition that we have, personal stories of celebrating that tradition from several points of view, and space for the reader to reflect on their own traditions. My hope is that the book would help connect people to a more sacred and intentional way of viewing tradition in general. I want to notice and to help other people notice how we mark our days, months, and years.
This of course isn’t my only upcoming goal. I also hope to continue to focus on the basic disciplines of exercise and meditation. Both things that will help energize and calm my mind and body as I search for what makes me come alive. I look forward to an interesting and challenging semester in the spring. Not only because I have a great set of classes scheduled, but also because I won’t be a first semester student anymore. It will be a semester without the major transition bumps of my first. I have learned a lot in the past 3 months. I have figured out some important things about myself. And I feel ready to let a few things go. Whatever direction I travel in, I will be better served and better able to serve if I give up my constant need for self-definition. I rationally know that I do not need everyone I meet to know my “labels,” now it’s time to put that understanding into practice. I have also turned a corner in my approach to spirituality. Over the past year, I have let go of several beliefs and while I might always mourn the loss of some of them, I feel ready to start focusing on the positives of my faith, rather than the negatives.

Spiritual Preparation for Ministry has asked me to consider my spiritual practices and disciplines. In doing so, I have had to consider my faith under a microscope. While I no longer identify myself as a Christian, I am fully aware that I swim in Christian waters. If I am to have a spiritual life—and I hope to—it is inevitably going to be influenced by Christianity and Christians. At this point in my life, I am interested in pursuing spirituality in both academic and personal ways. So here I am, among the Quakers, pursuing my Master of Divinity degree. What a funny title—Master of Divinity.