Of Leaves and Letters

Aside from some time spent at Open House at Wilfrid Laurier University, yesterday was spent marking papers and raking leaves. The word leaf, of course, can reference both that thing that falls from the tree and a sheet of paper once a part of essays. These days, as you may well imagine, marking students’ work doesn’t involve much by the way of leafing through paper, but is done on computer – at least that’s how I do it. This method has much to commend it: fewer trees fall, the essays run through turnitin and so I know if there are academic integrity issues from the get go, and finally students don’t have to try to read my horrendous penmanship. I am able to type comments on the essay in comment boxes, and the system nicely allows me to preload comments such as “Please use ‘quotation’ here since ‘quote’ is a verb.”

Most professors do not count marking as their favourite task. I’d agree with that but neither is it the worst. Marking is one of those things that runs a gamut of experiences. It can be frustrating and tedious; it can be really quite exciting; it can be heart-breaking and sometimes moving to the point of bringing me to tears. As you may guess, I am not marking math – although calculus instructors may arrive at tears from time to time as well! I teach theology at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary at WLU, and so sometimes mark reflection papers in which students integrate their life experience with theological themes. I count it an honour to see something of students’ faith lives from time to time. I find it quite humbling to have them relate their doubts, and express their joys, and narrate their varied and rich experiences with God. Of course, giving these kind of papers a grade is rather odd, but that is my job and so I do it as best as I am able.

I read some stellar papers today, and had some very moving experiences with some of them. But even so, it can be hard work and upon hearing that we were having leaf pickup on Monday I decided it was wise to take a break around noon and rake some leaves from the front yard – awash in colours – to the curb. The silver maple in our front yard is a world onto itself in size and more, and every year we harvest some of its joys and sorrows. I lay down a tarp and rake these tales onto the tarp and drag it to curb where I dump the leaves for the city. I then repeat this many times over. As I do so I think. And this thinking usually takes me deeper into me. I recall the past summer season; I recall past falls; today I thought about my parents. They have been gone some years now, but sometimes I think I feel them to be closer with each passing year. Perhaps that is because with every year I am one step nearer them.

I’m not certain why I thought of them today. We didn’t rake many leaves on the farm – or at least I didn’t. Maybe it was that movement from labouring in the soul to labouring near soil that opened up something. Maybe it was the fecund smell of dirt under the colourful quilt on the ground that took me to the farm. Maybe it was our proximity to All Saints Day. Maybe it was the realization that our days are not only as grass – as per the psalmist – but also as leaves. Not only do we fall not far from the tree, but we write, or paint, or sketch the life we are on the leaf we are. These are days with many such memory aids. These are the days when winter calls to fall, and I bow to both.

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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.

Grounded in Gratitude

How do you thank a class,
soil for my soul?
Fecund with curiosity
they press me into life and
push me into passion.

How do you teach those
who teach me what I know
and so render me prostrate
before the One who alone knows me,
who sows me into the classroom?

How do you learn, save by rising
like a green blade,
striving for sun and
soaking in spring rain.

Eternal Springs Hope

Last Wednesday evening my GC 101 (Christianity and Global Citizenship) class went to hear two speakers dialogue on the topic of Truth and Reconciliation after TRC.  The TRC is a commission established by the government of Canada to address the horrid legacy of Indian Residential School system and began shortly after the formal apology by the Canadian government in 2008.  The commission’s mandate was extended but will soon be complete.  Many of us are asking “What next?”  The dialogue was a propos to the topic of the class that day: Where do we find hope?

I had helped organize the dialogue, and so had some hosting responsibilities after the dialogue proper.  Consequently I had one of my colleagues take over my class until the point came when I would be able to get back.  It took twenty minutes or so and she had, in the interim, written the word “Hope” on the blackboard, and then invited students to come to the board and write words to respond to the theme of hope.  You can see the results:

IMG_20141119_210256IMG_20141119_210240

When I came into the class she told me it was now up to me to make some poetry with these words, so here it goes:

How can we sing hope?

Where will we find strength to suffice?

Whence reassurance and solace for our spirit?


How can faith forge a future?

Is it possible apart from forgiveness and its revelation of revolution:

a refusal to render eye for eye?  A freedom to

love the neighbor no matter what,

no matter where?


How can we love?

Love’s continuities, love’s capabilities, love reliabilities

escape me.  I fail to love even me.  I am undone

and so only won by the One whose

promise, whose

plan place me

in the divine palm.


And there, there in the nail scars

God’s trust in me thrusts even me

into love divine,

into faith fleet of foot

into holy hope.

Surfacing Tensions

I went to a Mechanical Engineering Class last Thursday on the topic of Surface Tension.  Let me assure you that quite a few tensions surfaced in this experience!

It was teaching day at my university, and professors were given the opportunity to sit in on mini-lectures from a variety of disciplines.  Since my two eldest daughters are in Mechanical Engineering programs, I thought it would be interesting to find out what they find out in their day to day existence.  I quickly learned that they inhabit a different world than I – which was part of my purpose in attending this lecture.

It is good to be a student again, especially a student far afield from areas of ease.  It is good to be uncomfortable: to have that feeling of your feet coming out from underneath as you are carpet bombed with facts, with ideas, with a way of thinking that is not yet habitual.  It is good to be intrigued by a world of possibilities that you have not yet imagined.  It is good to learn, complete with all of the joy, worry, and sense of possibility that learning entails.

It all made me think about my own teaching: what do students experience in my class?  Are they afraid? Intrigued? Bored? Excited?  I suspect they  are all of the above at different times.  But I am mindful that I don’t only address learners in my classroom, but in my writing too.  I wonder: How do readers hear me from the lectern of my letters?  I hope to make people hungry with my writing.  I want to feed them with a famishment for more because the world we write is a wonder. This is what my favourite authors have furnished for me.  All who write and teach do so in an effort to echo what we have experienced in those who inspire us.

Who has inspired and so invited you into the marvel of the novel, the essay, the short story, the poem, the homily, the hymn?