Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Intentional ambiguity and human sexuality

In that delightful mix called intercultural studies—for me, anthropology, theology and linguistics—I especially enjoy exploring cultural communication styles. Several years ago I was intrigued to discover that prominent among Hebrew communicational values, intentional ambiguity stands out. That explains a lot of the difficulty of some of the biblical passages. It seems that sometimes what is left out of a story is as important as the plot itself.
I remember wondering why God would then choose the Hebrew culture and language as a vehicle of revelation. Wouldn’t it be better to state things plainly, to clear up the mystery, to show us a straight path forward?
But the poet part of me smiled. Intentional ambiguity. Why not?
This Hebrew value reaches into the New Testament, although other languages and cultures also enter the picture. I hear Jesus asking the disciples, “Do you get it yet?” and then explaining the parables. I note scholars down through the ages debating the meanings and interpretations of certain passages. It continues today.
Thank God for the Spirit who reveals truth as we ask and seek.
And thanks be to Jesus who told his disciples that love would be a defining mark of the church (“By this shall all people know you are my disciples….”), not just correct doctrine.
Of course correct doctrine matters, and Jesus also said that it is the truth that sets us free. Naming our theological perspectives is an ongoing task of the church, one that needs the input of many cultures and languages. So we wrestle and wait, listening to each other and to Jesus, the living Word, as he unfolds to us the written word, the Bible.
I wonder sometimes if love is not the link between intentional ambiguity, doctrine and witness. I wonder if the lack of doctrinal clarity we often experience and sharply feel is not the context for the kind of love that shines in the darkness.
Right now we in Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends are wrestling with the profound questions of human sexuality. We are specifically asking what the Word/word is saying about committed same sex relationships. We are discovering among us widely differing  perspectives. This diversity is magnified even more in the greater family of Friends.
In our yearly meeting, I note the thread of belief in both the living and the written Word. It would be inaccurate to say we are divided between theological liberals and fundamentalists. We are all people who want to follow Jesus, adhere to the Bible and be light in the world. And this is where it gets interesting.
As I ponder the history of the Christian church, looking specifically at times of controversy, it seems that either of two scenarios is taking place. Sometimes surrounding cultural values dilute the message of truth and tempt the church to liberalism. But other times, it seems that the very Spirit of Christ (the living Word) is prodding us to new revelation, a fresh interpretation of the written word. What is happening now with the issue of human sexuality? That’s my question, and I don’t know.
Intentional ambiguity provides an opportunity for love.
Not all is ambiguous, of course. God’s intentions that we love each other and together seek the voice of Christ, these are clear. This is a time for waiting and listening. It is, as we say in English, the meantime. Let us, by the way we respect each other, make it “kind” time. Let us keep strong our hope in the Spirit of Jesus who leads us into all truth.  Let us take the time for that to happen.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Tribute to Arthur O. Roberts

Yesterday the faculty of George Fox University honored Arthur Roberts, Quaker professor, philosopher, prophet and poet. (I would add theologian, mentor and friend, but they don’t begin with “p.”) We ate together and listened to some inspiring testimonials. The event truly did honor Arthur.
A month ago, I was invited to write a poem for the occasion and then read it at the ceremony. This is something Arthur frequently did in his poet role. I accepted the task immediately, but with some inner shaking and quaking. Arthur is such a huge presence among us, and his influence in my own life has been profound. How could I capture anything significant in a single poem?
I discovered I couldn’t. But during a week of personal retreat on the Oregon coast, I took time to remember, reflect, and read again some of his poems, as well as favorite underlined passages in his other writings. A deep sense of gratitude bubbled up, as well ideas for many poems. I was able to write out some of them.
I chose to read aloud a poem that focuses on Arthur as professor, since this was an event sponsored by the faculty of the university. I was also compelled by the realization that it was exactly 50 years ago that I entered GFU as a freshman and took my first class from Dr. Roberts.
Here is what I read:

From Professor to Pastor
“I discovered that to teach is to endure some loneliness and that such loneliness comes to all who offer their gifts on the altar of God.”  (From Drawn by the Light: Autobiographical Reflections of Arthur O. Roberts, 1993, The Barclay Press, p. 158)
That first class some fifty years ago
was entitled Introduction to Philosophy
and proved to be my introduction to the world
of abstract thinking. A shy and concrete
country girl from Ramona, California,
I felt as overwhelmed by Roberts
as I did by Plato, Kant and Hume.
My greatest fear was that I’d be called on
to say something in class.
But I did my assignments,
waded through the reading, wrote
the essays, and halfway through the course
noticed that someone
had opened the windows, that light
was coming in, that the world had grown
bigger than I ever knew it to be.

At the end of my freshman year
I was chosen to be part
of a group of students
involved in Intensified Studies, IS.
Someone, somewhere thought I was smart
enough. Dr. Roberts himself was to be
our guide. We would read a book
every two weeks and come together
to discuss it. Two reactions bubbled
in my gut as I entered that second year:
pride and panic. Pride to be among
the elect and panic in knowing
I could not hide in so small a group.
Every two weeks I’d have to talk
in class. What would happen if they
discovered me to be inadequate?
What would happen if I did?

After four intensified sessions
I made an appointment with Dr. Roberts.
He had invited us to do so at any time.
I had to tell him that I was not stupid;
I was shy. I wasn’t sure if he, or anyone else,
knew the difference. I waited outside his office,
muscles tensed, wondering what to expect.
What I found, once inside,
was not a professor  but a pastor.
Encouraged forward in gentle conversation,
I forgot to be afraid. He told me he himself
had, on occasion, experienced loneliness,
felt shy. He said he never even
suspected me of stupidity. I believed him.
Before I left, he had one more thing
to say to me, and with this he got down
to the core of the matter.
Dr. Roberts told me that with
a little time and practice, he knew without
a doubt that I would learn how to talk with boys.
I left his office relieved on several accounts,
and affirmed not only as an intelligent person,
but also as a young woman and a disciple of Jesus.
It made all the difference.

Nancy, October 2013

Friday, October 11, 2013

When the ta fell off the toyo

It didn’t happen to us.
Not directly at least.
It was the guy ahead of us
as we were stopped at the intersection.
He advertised it shamelessly, for all to see.
I tried not to judge his negligence
(and the very use of that word
shows my lack of success),
but his example reminded me
of all the good intentions
and unfinished tasks
in my own reality.
It provoked reflection on the messiness
of life and brought mercy to the forefront
once again.
So—thank you to the driver
of that old Toyota.
May you find your missing ta
and, at some future date,
experience reconnection.

Hal is one of the funniest people I know. Usually it’s unintentional. He doesn’t tell jokes. This morning as he was driving me to the DMV so I could renew my (expired) driver’s license, he said, “Look at that! That guy’s ta has fallen off his toyo.”
“What did you just say?” I responded. If I didn’t know him any better I might have thought he was talking dirty. But he wasn’t. As soon as I figured it out and stopped laughing, I wrote the above poem. May it bring you great insight.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Spirituality in contexts of violence

In my blog last week, I shared one of my favorite practices, an imaginary prayer walk at the beach. (I imagine the beach, but really pray.) My blogging was simultaneous with the terrorist attacks in the Nairobi mall, the Pakistani Christian church, and a market place in Kigali near where my daughter-in-law shops for fruit and vegetables. Not to mention the ongoing horror in Syria.
A dear friend responded to my blog with a riveting question:   “I read the blog while Nairobi and Syria and Pakistan were in the news and I wondered what spirituality looked like for the Christians there, what spiritual disciplines they are practicing.” I wonder, too. I would guess they are probably not doing imaginary pray walks near the sea.
I am currently tutoring a doctoral candidate from El Salvador. Oscar pastors an evangelical church in a violent urban neighbor, and his research explores despair and hope, looking to describe a healthy spirituality in contexts of violence. He is just getting started with his investigation, but he’s lived in this reality all his life. I know I have much to learn from him.
As I continue to wonder about spiritual practices in the midst of ongoing violence, I’m drawn to the Psalms, especially the Psalms of lament. I note that in times of distress, people don’t “do spiritual exercises.” They experience God in ways that are urgent and raw. The verbs David uses in Psalm 143 include “cry for mercy, remember the days of long ago, meditate on all your works, consider what your hands have done, thirst.” He pleads to God to “answer me quickly, do not hide your face, show me the way, rescue me, teach me, silence my enemies, destroy my foes.”
While my beach prayer walk is a good thing as it helps me grow in intimacy with God, it is also good and necessary for me to remember those in situations where all they can do is cry out to God for mercy and rescue. How can I walk along side? Is there any way in which my spirituality connects to their despair? I sense that these connections are crucial and not mere exercises.
Several portions from Mathew’s Gospel spoke to me last week. (Yes, I was in the middle of another spiritual discipline, that of lectio divina.) This time I was consciously holding the violence in Africa in my heart as I read Jesus’ first sermon in Galilee, a quote from Isaiah that he applied to himself as he proclaimed that “the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” I wept as I held this passage. “Darkness” and “the land of the shadow of death” took on concrete geography, and I wondered where and how the light was appearing to people in Syria. And several days later I heard Jesus say to another group of people, “You are the light of the world.” I wondered how the suffering church in Pakistan, Kenya, and Afghanistan was experiencing hope and showing the light of hope to others. I wonder, weep, and pray, “Let it be.”
And I sense that my prayers and meditations are not enough. Not nearly enough.
Lord, show us the way.