No Fait Accompli

Last Friday I made my annual pilgrimage to OUF, the Ontario University Fair.  It is the largest university fair in our area with thousands of students descending on the Toronto Convention Centre to scope out options for universities, or more often, to make decisions regarding which Open Houses to attend.  It is a bit of a chaotic affair, with most students generally uncertain as to which program they want, while a very few know exactly what they want.  Not too many are hunting for theology programs (although it does happen!). Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, where I work, is a federated school of Wilfrid Laurier University and I am there representing both institutions.   I mostly ferry students from the edge of the Laurier carpet to another professor or student ambassador after discerning specific or general areas of interest.  I rather enjoy the day.  I get to meet excited and nervous students, connect with colleagues from the campus that I do not normally see, and bookend the event with a train ride.

 

Every year, the event sets my mind to the topic of education.  Universities are funny places, where most of the people who teach have little to no formal education in education.  Our university works hard to provide opportunity to sharpen skills, with special sessions, regular workshops, and staff who meet with faculties to develop their pedagogy.  At the same time, there is a recurring perceived conflict between research and education in upper education.  Some see teaching as a distraction from pure research, some see the two to be mutually informative, and some are really rather happy to have a career where the focus is on curriculum.

 

I remember hearing , some years ago, a professor make the observation that his vision of teaching changed as he realized that he was not teaching a subject matter but students. This seems sound, so long as the subject matter isn’t lost in the mix.  Our university, with its “inspiring lives” tagline invites me and my peers to imagine that inspiration is purported to be at the core of our mission, whether our focus is on research, or teaching, or both.

 

Of course, theologians know this word well in relation to scripture, and the claims that the Bible is somehow “inspired” or God-breathed.  In light of that, it might be a bit ambitious for us to imagine that we can inspire anyone.  Still, I think the word appropriate when pronounced with the proviso that inspiration is something that happens unawares.  As both professor and writer, I generally have no idea what will take off among my various audiences.  The best laid plans for a lecture run astray and seemingly unsatisfactory prose sings unexpectedly. Inspiration happens even though – or perhaps because – we do not have God at our beck and call.  The Spirit works in strange ways that sometimes and somehow echoes through what we do, bouncing back to teachers and authors who have ears to hear and eyes to see.

 

At the end of the day, education is sketched in mystery.  It seems like the stars have to align for those “magic” moments to occur.  And yet, they happen.  I ache for those moments, and so gladly travel to OUF, to look for the face of this student or that, who is passionate about learning and is joyfully curious about the allure of trails unknown; places where we discover whom we are, and that we will never be a fait accompli.

Pictographs at Superior

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No, these images cannot be
described – neither
poetry nor prose can
circumscribe these etchings
on stone, cyphers of tenacity
sketched on rock, scars of strength
anchored across
grandfathers’
cheeks.  My cheeks
now moistened as I feel
this place dripping divine: mine
the gain as  I lay down any sense
of superiority,
of expertise,
of being high priest.

No, none of these
obtain because here I am
a drop of water crashing against rock;
a tear salting skin-on-fire;
a dropping of the guard into the
truth that being a drop is more
than enough.

Fish Bowl Theology

Yesterday afternoon I returned from our annual orientation retreat for the school where I work. It is an especially rich affair, with the opportunity to put face to the names we have seen on application forms.  Everyone is appropriately nervous and a particular kind of energy hangs in the air.  And as people get to know people you can feel bridges being built.  It is a kind of engineering of the personal and communal, I think.

 

One of the things we did for the retreat last year on the Saturday night, and replicated this year, was an event called the fish bowl.  I first encountered it some years ago at a clergy retreat.  In sum, it involves a group of three or four – or more, I suppose but would not recommend it – folks sitting in a circle discussing a topic.  The larger group sits around the smaller group, and listens in on the chat, rather like many of us look in on a fishbowl – without intervening but observing carefully what transpires.  Last year it was suggested by one of our newer faculty members.  She brought it forward as a way to allow student to catch faculty in motion in response to some fairly common questions around the role of theology in the curriculum of students aiming to be psychotherapists.  It involved a group of four of us, two biblical scholars, a professor in the area of spiritual care and psychotherapy, and myself – a systematic and historical theologian.

 

My experience this year was a little nerve wracking, rather like last year’s.  I entered the circle feeling like I was, well, a fish in a bowl.  The moderator got the questions going.  As we talked in response, I found myself glancing at fish bowl observers, wondering how this comment landed or if that quotation flew.  I found myself distracted – in a fashion – by the context but soon enough the content took over.  One of my colleagues posed a point I disagreed with, and so I intervened in service of clarification.  Another raised an issue I was inspired to riff on for a bit.  I got drawn into the conversation, and soon I discovered that I was utterly unaware of those observing us.  I was in the moment, and if felt glorious.

 

Eventually, though, the timer called us out of the bubble-bowl that had established itself and we began to entertain queries from the curious cats looking at and listening in on us.  These included both requests for clarification about challenging ideas as well as expansions on ideas expressed.  It was all rather invigorating and one of the students mentioned to a faculty member that she came to the event weary but found herself energized.

 

In retrospect, we noted that the students had an opportunity to catch a snapshot of a film, a sliver of a long conversation that has been going on between faculty in manner that I would describe as healthy, good-natured and yet marvellously taxing.  We have been at this for a time, and all of us have changed in varying ways, as is wont for those who listen and speak with a measure of charity and a double measure of self-critique.  A kind of grace attended the event – a grace that left us strangely invigorated and yet exhausted at the same time.  I can only hope and pray that those looking on experienced something of this, taking from the fish bowl what they needed.

On our Way to Wawa

A certain Zen attends this most
non-pedestrian of affairs.
I am behind the wheel –
this circle, this eternity –
that unveils the truth
it is: what goes round is first
found in You, Point
of departure,
of arrival,
of travel.

This, my peregrination to points
last seen two decades ago, may
or may not be pilgrimage.
How am I to know? My
not-knowing is a hard truth.

But this too is true:
I cannot
take a step,
drive a kilometre,
sail a nautical mile or
traverse the continent without You
upending each ending and
bending each first.

Around the Corner Time

The end of August marks a kind of turning point for me, for colleagues, and for our students and their families.  It is a kind of time that might be named a “cusp time” or perhaps an “around the corner time” as per my blog title.  In my world, professors begin to turn their attention from summer research and writing projects to syllabi and committee responsibilities, but more importantly we begin to think about the students that will soon grace our days and classrooms.  They are beginning to show up, now in a hallway, now in an office.  And even the presence of those not yet here is palpable.

 

These are the days in which I think I have one of the best jobs in the world: I get to walk with young, and not so young, adventurers in learning.  Their eager emails tell me that they have great expectations, and they have every right to look forward with longing for the changes, challenges and expansion that come with learning.  Education is aptly named in that its Latin roots mean to lead out.  Education is a process whereby we are led out of our sometimes sheltered lives into a vision of a world hungry for peace, and daily bread, and freedom to believe according to your conscience.  Education is a profound responsibility, both for teacher and learner who together learn that they are both even while we cannot escape the truth that we each have particular responsibilities.

 

The adventure is around the corner.

 

It never ceases to amaze me that what is around the corner cannot remain there.  Rather like the cross and resurrection cast a particular frame, or perhaps light on the life of Jesus, portentous events never quite stay “around the corner” even while they have not yet quite arrived.  The hallways bustle even while they are yet empty.  There is a presence that marks this time.  “Haunted” is not quite the right word, but it catches the “paranormal” sense of this pregnant time.

 

I remember well the excitement with which I anticipated school as a youngster.  The freedom of the summer slowly gave way to the expectation of the fall.  These two “season feelings” were so very different, and yet each important and mutually informative.  These “around the corner” times are times of opening: petal to sun, child to chum and mind to mystery.

Deep calls me deep

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Lake Superior, near the Pictographs

 

This silver on blue – sun
kissing inland sea –
undoes me. My breath is
taken away like
air by flame and
I am oddly afloat.
What is this lake
doing?
It works
me profoundly:
deep calls me deep and
I feel its swells in
portending and subterranean
ways – waves of watching wash
me free from not-seeing
this sea, this greatest lake
that measures me:
I am found
wanting
more of it,
of its Maker.

Stars tell tales

Friends, I am back now from a vacation inspired hiatus from this little blog. I am looking forward to catching up on what you have written and another year of writing!

Allen

Stars tell tales, but
few have ears to hear
such light, to see
such songs aside from
mystics and children and the odd poet,
too, who can turn light to sound and
sound to light to delight us
plebeians. These draw us
out and speak in us
the spark that
begins the burn.

Embers echo stars.
They twinkle sagas of
births and deaths;
of dragons and elves.

The chronicles of trees and my kind, too,
are not so very different:
tears, sap
sap, blood
blood, leaf
leaf, skin
skin, bark
bark, voice
voice, root
root, foot
foot and trunk both
drunk in the Mystery.