Shape Shifting Conventions

This last weekend was spent in the Delta Hotel in Toronto for the last biennial Synod Assembly for the Eastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, of which I am a member. This is the last because our church will be moving to triennial conventions after this. One member told me that these events used to be annual up to the 80s. Things change, and I have noted many changes in the nature of these events.

I remember going to my first church convention while I was on my internship, in Alberta, in the late 1980s. I recall sitting beside my mother-in-law’s cousin Ralph Jorgensen, since we sat alphabetically – in rows. I also recall being numbed by a barrage of changes to by-laws and such, and reports being read out loud, even while they had been distributed by mail in advance. Business filled out most of the events, and worship was clearly demarcated from the business sections, all taking place in ordered pews with worship rather like what one experienced at church most Sundays.

These days we sit at tables in circles and Julio Romero was by my side – so the naming was clearly random in character. I had been invited to lead some bible studies, along with my colleague Mary (Joy) Philip. Three sessions were allotted for this, as well as some learning events around inter-religious dialogue (involving a panel with a Muslim, a Buddhist, and a Sikh), in addition to the learnings around racism and poverty. The racism event involved some truth telling by delegates, and an interactive experiential learning event – in a addition to one of the bible studies germane to the topic. The presentation on poverty involved a presentation by Raffi Aaron, a Jewish activist from Toronto. Worship was antiphonal in style and involved some global music, as well as some traditional hymns. We still did business, but it was peppered with prayers and song. Things are so very different from what they once were. Reports are distributed electronically well in advance, and there is a consent agenda to deal with issues that really do not demand much attention.

The other night, over a beer, a few of us were discussing these changes, and noted that the renewed focus on learning and worship reframed how business sessions were experienced. During the presentation of the budget, reference was made by speakers to themes presented in the bible study and worship. A kind of synergy, I think, shaped our time together. As I think over the 30 years, or so, of Synod assemblies I have attended I like the trajectory of the event. The arc of meeting is moving, I think, in a direction that allows a kind of attentiveness to tradition and experience, to text and context, to the past and future.

I recall seeing, some years ago, a photo from a Synod Convention held in South-western Ontario in the 1930s. Everyone was male, in suits and ties, and sitting in rows in a room without air conditioning. We have come a long way, but I think it important not to dismiss the experience of our ancestors. They did, in their time, what seemed right while we respond to our culture, context, and needs. But in either event, the commitment to spending time together in an effort to discern where God calls communities of faith remains a perdurable character, and one to be celebrated.

I sometimes grumble a little before these events – in that they are a big investment of time – and I usually come home a bit exhausted. But I always, always, look back on them and recall some profound Gospel moments. The opportunity to meet new friends and re-connect with distant colleagues and former students is so very important. As I imagine the next 10 years or so of my career, I know that such events will continue to be a part of my duty and delight, and I look forward to seeing how they shape shift in response to our ever-changing context.

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Not Alone in This

This last week our school had an accreditation visit. Accreditation has long been a fact of life at many institutions. It involved, for us, a good dearl of tension, stress, anxiety, etc. The visit went reasonably well, I think, and we await a formal report in coming weeks. All of us, faculty and staff both, are breathing a little easier now that the visit is behind us, after months of report writing, copious editing, a good bit of pondering and a bit of hand wringing. The evaluation team came and queried and left, and now it is all done.

But what really happened?

The experience – for me – finally wasn’t about accrediting the institution and its programs, nor the never-ending obsession with outcomes, and goals, and measurement that has become the way of institutional life – although it was about these. The experience, rather, gave me the opportunity to understand anew how we work as a team, revealed in a rich way in our being together last week. The phenomenon of the visit set my colleagues in relief even while the quantifying means of evaluation could not measure the quality of our community.

How do you measure the hallway conversations that result in new ideas and new directions for scholarship? How do you quantify the kind of encouragement that comes from two colleagues who decide (voluntarily) to join me in an impromptu, and unscheduled, meeting with evaluators who want more information? How do you count the cohesion formed around cups of coffee enjoyed first thing each morning? What would a score card for worship look like?

Of course, you cannot measure these. To be fair to the evaluating visitors, they know this. They know this because they work in institutions like ours, institutions that have spirits not subject to the canons of outcome driven evaluations. Please do not misunderstand me, there is value for institutions in setting goals that are linked to outcomes that need concrete ways for determining success. But somehow, an assessment of an institution that does not look to the soul stories that sustain people fails. Assessment, I think needs to be assessed, and metrics need to be set against the canon of meaning.

I learned much this last week. I learned that I am remarkable blessed to work with people who care, and whose care is concrete in commitments to one another. I learned, anew, that learning is a mystery, and happens in ways that are not simply subject to the machination of planning, even while planning is a necessary part of learning and the institutions that support it. I learned, again, that grace comes despite our expectations of worst case scenarios and cynicism about processes that sometimes seem labourious and incursive.

I learned that I am not alone in this work. This is no small mercy, and I thank God for it.

The Bridge Called September

There is a view from
the bridge called September
by which one can see
a road, calling
wayfarers to
turn onto it and so into
themselves:
curious,
brave and
trembling on holy ground.

Many have stepped
onto this path –
some singing,
some swearing,
most sweating –
but all who enter there
never see the world
the same again.

Some of us are given
the grace to walk for a time with
those on this journey. Do
not think I take it
for granted.

With each step of each pilgrim

my heart races and

my soul soars and

my mind burns at a hint of a future.

Righteous Eire

Here in Eire, poetry
floats in the Guinness
and
is baked in the scones.

Ever emerald green and firm fences
edging the roads
make of me a verse
and yet I’m
not quite there:
sorting through the
grammar of bog and mountain,
coast and cill
working on the
vocabulary of
penny flute and dancing with a broom.

But this island is patient,
schooled in hedges.

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.

Do You Feel the Love?

I just started following the very wise and quotable author, Eugene Peterson, on Twitter. When I was a parish pastor, I found his words to be balm for my soul. He reminded me regularly to say no to distractions that kept the main thing from being the main thing. He spoke eloquently of the pastoral arts as arts – not sciences demanding fool-proof methods. Ministry means instinct and intuition formed by prayer more than data and its distractions. He called me again and again into community. I am happy to make his acquaintance, again.

I look forward to seeing how he makes use of Twitter. I use Twitter in a course I teach this semester. I have my students share experiences and information gleaned from a community service learning module that is a core component of the course. (If you are interested in finding out a bit about their experience, check out #gc102csl). Consequently, I have been observing the perils and possibilities of this mode of communication. Many scoff at the 140 character restriction, preferring the endless ream of characters available on other social media. But I think Twitter has possibility if you work with the idea that it serves to communicate aphorisms and such, or links for further reading. I tell my students that this assigned use of Twitter serves two purposes; first, it challenges them to think about how they might communicate for the sake of the agency where they work. Second, it charges them with the responsibility of intentionally communicating themselves into the social-media-sphere. Many people – especially young people – are unaware that potential employers search your social media self before considering you as an employee. In sum, those who turn to social media develop a public persona. We need to take responsibility for that. This brings me back to Peterson.

When I checked out Peterson’s home page on Twitter, I noticed that he has something like 10.4 K followers, and follows no one. I imagine the Pope and other notable figures have comparable statistics. But this leaves me asking: is this the real purpose of social media? To launch ideas in one direction alone? Of course, for all I know, Peterson may well have another handle wherein he engages others online, but the optics are odd, all the same. It is problematic to have “followers” while following no-one.

Having said that, I am also well aware of the burden of following people who tweet their every thought, meeting, encounter, and scratch. I find myself buried in posts that burden my brain. But I still feel some degree of responsibility for reciprocity. If you follow me, I need to think seriously about following you. Of course, that need not equate to a requirement to do this; but at least the thought should cross my mind – or, to but it differently, my mind should be crossed by thought of following you. I need to live into the yoke that is both a burden and a buoy by attending to concrete relationships. People mock social media, and I can appreciate that, but at the end of the day it is another way to communicate, and modes of communication always enable both love and its obverse possibility. I’m hoping you feel the love.

More than Parchment

This last Friday, our school celebrated Convocation.  Students, who have spent two  three, four, perhaps more years with us made their way across the stage, newly hooded and eager to shake the hand of the university President, our seminary’s Principal Dean and then to hold in their hand a piece of parchment.  Now they will be Masters of Divinity, Masters of Arts in Theology, and Doctors of Ministry.  As I stood to congratulate them as they wound their way from the stage back to their seats, I could sense both excitement and a bit of trepidation.  Endings are odd events.  A sense of completion and satisfaction attends them as well as uncertainty and that anomie that accompanies a future not yet crystalized.

 

Convocation is not only an emotionally charged event for the students; staff and faculty too have mixed feelings.  We are so very proud of the hard work that has enabled our graduates to achieve a goal that will hopefully open new doors for them.  But with them, we also experience a little bit of sadness.  Many of these students have shared themselves in hallway conversations and class papers.  While writing on topics of theology, more than a few have poured out their hearts, making me aware of their experiences, their passions, their hopes and fears.  They have shared themselves with me.  I am changed by my students.  I am not being polite in saying this.  I really do feel myself shaped by the encounters that make up my experience as a teacher.  I suppose, I too, share something of myself with them along with the facts about history, theological vistas, and hopefully some passion for our subject matter.  Something happens in this interchange that really includes a change in me.  I am forever being prodded, challenged and stretched.  Many of them have experiences that are foreign to me.  Many of them have interests that are embryonic in me.  They all bring something to the table, and I am the better for it.  So I lament their walk across that stage even as I celebrate it.

 

Students really are in some ways like a book.  They need to be read with both a lot respect and a little bit of appreciative criticism.  Sometimes they want to generalize their experiences, and sometimes they discount their experiences; sometimes they can’t get out of their heads, and sometimes they really don’t want to get into them.  Of course, all of this is true of me as well.  But if I am willing to encounter them with the supposition that they have something to offer me, I will never be disappointed.  I might not like what I learn, but I always learn from them.  Hopefully, I’m able to return the favor.  So in this season of convocation, I’m mindful that two words hide in this synonym for graduation.  “Vocation” is rooted in the Latin word for call (vocare) and the Latin preposition con means “with.”  To convocate is to be “called with.”  No-one convocates on their own because we are all called to learn with others and to teach with others.  Knowledge is only knowledge in its being a shared phenomenon.  I thank God for my students, my teachers, and this gift called learning.  The parchment is important, but what really matters never ends.  Learning feeds that hunger that paradoxically feeds humanity.