Saturday, October 30, 2010

Autumn Leaves

I made a playlist of autumn music the other day. As I listened to it yesterday, I noticed how sad most of the songs were. Except for those few songs about harvest, songwriters conceive of autumn as an ending, a dying. This was across genres: folk, pop, rock—the classical pieces I picked were about the harvest, so I'll exclude them. If the song had autumn in the title, it was mournful.

I've always loved the fall, so this perspective came as a surprise to me. Growing up on a farm, the fall was a time of hard work, harvest bounty, and then in the late fall, the preparation for a time of lying fallow, of having a well-deserved rest. There was nothing sad about any of that. This is a time of culmination and celebration of the whole year's work! What could be more satisfying than picking the dozen butternut squash from the vines that spread across the side of my yard this summer?

You shall observe the festival of harvest, of the first fruits of your labor, of what you sow in the field. You shall observe the festival of ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labor. Exodus 23:16

My mother has always loved the autumn colors and would exclaim over the hillsides of quaking yellow-gold aspens and the reds of the brush oak beneath. It was sometimes tedious as a child, but now I too have that appreciation. At the end of my street the maple trees in the cemetery across the way have been a show for the past month, and my daughter has confessed to being distracted by the brilliant colors of a tree outside of one of her classroom windows. We have learned to appreciate and savor the beauty of the season.

So, I don't know whether the sad tone of these songs reflects our fears of maturity and culmination versus the excitement of youth and beginnings, or is a commentary on how distant we've become from the cycle of the seasons, but today I want to celebrate the crisp autumn air, the harvest of the work of our gardens and our lives, the beauty of each leaf as it just lets go and drifts to the next phase of its life. Carrie Newcomer's song, Leaves don't drop, (they just let go), says it well:

Leaves don't drop, they just let go,
And make a place for seeds to grow.
Every season brings a change;
A seed is what a tree contains;
To die and live is life's refrain.

Today, take the time to scuff through a pile of leaves, find some moments to let yourself rest and lie fallow and quiet, and eat some squash. May we find some leaf-like moments this autumn day where we just let go and make room for seeds to grow anew.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Value of Community and of Friendships

I've been missing from the blogosphere for a while. The past few months my energy has been absorbed mostly by my job and in some travel. I did preach a number of times during the summer, so did write some sermons, but somehow in the midst of all of that busy-ness (someone illustrated for me the other night that the Chinese symbols for busyness = kill/heart), I could not find words or energy to write.

I am in the search and call process, and have had some hopeful "nibbles," but the search process is long these days, and waiting has been very hard, particularly while juggling an extra full plate at work, and this has not been conducive to my reflective writing while in the midst of uncertainty.

Instead I have turned to writing music while waiting. Two of the recent pieces of music I've written are appropriate for Advent, that period in the Christian church year that is about waiting for the coming. I've adapted biblical texts, rather than write my own, and so it's the music that carries the emotional load of my uncertainty, restlessness, waiting or yearning, I've arranged the pieces for choir as well as in solo versions—who knows, maybe I'll have enough music to put out a CD sometime soon. I'll keep you posted.

But this inwardness and frankly, feeling stuck, has been a bit stifling. So when I got an invitation to attend an evening conference on Feminist Practical Theology Thursday night at Boston University, I decided to make that a priority in my week. The invitation was from someone who is now a PhD student at BU who is a good friend of the woman who was my fellow student pastor and with whom I had taken a class once. God knew I needed something and this nebulous link led me to it. There is a God, and God does speak in nudges. What a blessing to be in a community for the evening of feminist and womanist pastors and theologians, mostly women and some men.

The topic of the evening was "Practicing New Ways of Being in the Academy and the Church: Conversations with Emerging Feminist Practical Theologians." This evening was convened by Dr. Susan Abraham of Harvard University and Dr. Shelly Rambo of Boston University (who has a new book out that I am planning to buy and read: Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining) as a follow-up to a similar conversation last year, and coordinated by Ph.D. students Danielle Tumminio, Elizabeth Siw0-Okundi, and Xochitl Alvizo. My thanks to all of them!

Presenters addressed these questions:

How do we move in institutions where women's presence and authority is still challenged?

Rev. Jennifer Wegter-McNelly spoke of the little stones and pebbles that come our way in churches as women in leadership, and sometimes as rocks to the head and how that wears on us. She finds intentional ways of coping through feminist practical theology, by dealing with the systemic sin and through communal grace, looking to love people as God calls us to love, and overlooking the individual stones that they throw. There is no reward, she said, for being self-muting. Bring your whole self to the ministry. The most subversive and radical act you can do as a minister who is a woman is in being incarnational.

Dr. Courtney Goto spoke to our need to give intentional mentoring to other women, and mourned that she has now aged out of being mentored as a young woman of color, and is no longer invited to the international conferences where she so admirably met all of those diversity requirements. So now the institutions do not provide a way for her experience and confidence to be passed on in those settings. We must seek ways to pass along our learning and experience.

During the question period, I asked these two women how they were mentored now. Rev. Wegter-McNelly spoke of three groups of intentional colleagues in ministry that provide both fellowship and mentoring: a group of pastors in her denomination, a group of friends from seminary, and a group of women pastors from nearby churches of several denominations. Dr. Goto said that she gets mentoring from Asian-American religion academics in other places, not from other practical theologians, acknowledging the competition that sometimes exists in the same field or institution.

How do we build and maintain our church and academic friendships with other women?

Rev. Dr. Brita Gill-Austern and Rev. Dr. Sharon Thornton from Andover Newton Theological School celebrated their own friendship in their remarks. They asked us to consider the questions: why is friendship important and why embodied friendships nourish our spirituality? Friendship is an often neglected and under-emphasized spiritual practice. Spirituality requires that we strengthen the ways to give and receive love, and our capacity to love self and creation. Friendship gives us the opportunity to do that.

Brita Gill-Austern spoke of 6 practices of friendship:

1) Attentive presence to the other—if the translation of "I am that I am" might be "I am present", then God is present when and as we are present to one another.

2) Taking time—to stop to see takes time like having a friend takes time. Besides the necessity of spending time together to nourish friendship, this time might include a quick email, flowers, picking up lunch for someone, or holding your friends in thought and prayer. She showed a Chinese calligraphy hanging—the Chinese characters for busyness are "kill" "heart". If we are too busy for friends, our hearts shrivel.

3) Mirroring—friends help us form accurate reflections of ourselves.

4) Mutuality—mutual generosity and equality.

5) Forgiveness—in spite of not because of. Friendships are not perfect, so we must forgive one another to maintain them.

6) Being & doing justice in the world—we are drawn to their goodness and it enlivens and nourishes ours.

Sharon Thornton quoted Mary Hunt: "Women's friendships are the ultimate political act." She spoke of three friendships with women who have given her courage to be, competence to lead, and hope to continue. Friends provide a place to be vulnerable and vulnerability requires strength to open up. Friends give us at least three gifts: laughter as a thread to subvert, vision and space to be, and gratitude that counters cynicism.

Recommended reading on friendship: Fierce Tenderness by Mary Hunt and The Friendship of Women by Joan Chittister.

How do we write for diverse audiences in both academic writing and congregational sermons?

Rev. LaTrelle Easterling reminded us that in sermon preparation you are the instrument, and so you need to prepare yourself just like the flute or trumpet player would prepare her instrument: clean, oil, polish. First, be in prayer—hear God and the Spirit. Next, bring the gospel to the issues, not my issues to the gospel. Third, notice the everyday. Nothing is lost in the economy of God—all that you notice can work its way into a sermon. Your sermons should be portable and adaptable in their examples to different audiences, because the main points speak to the text.

Learnings from this gathered community:

Rev. Mary Elizabeth Moore, Dean of Boston University School of Theology listened throughout the evening and offered and asked for a summary of the practices that feminist practical theology offer.

She offered this metaphor. Practices are streams. Sometimes they rush joyfully, sometimes they slow and spread and go deeper, sometimes they take a while to find their way around obstacles, and sometimes they polish the pebbles and rocks that hit us and carry them downstream to become someone's treasures. We have heard about streams of tough vulnerability, beauty, laughter.

Loving the ordinary and unexpected.

Honoring the everyday sacred.

Loving and being loved by another so as to love all of God's creation.

Imagining what's not there yet!

Be intentional and create the friends and support you need.

Practice chins up defiance.

Being self-be who you are.

Uncertainty is okay as part of the process.

Toughening our beauty, beautify our toughness.

Telling vulnerable truth in full voice.

Nourish one another.

Speak your gratitude.

Recognize that writing is a lonely and communal process.

Celebrate community, especially across generations with the wisdom that each generation brings.

I celebrate the nourishment and blessing that this evening in community brought to me. Besides the presentations, I had the opportunity to spend some time and catch up with friends there and that was a great joy. I invite each of you in the coming week to spend some time holding your friends in thought and in deed and taking time for your friends as an intentional spiritual practice. The rewards will be self-evident.