June 12, 2011 - Pentecost
This past week I worked for six long days and nights as a trainer in our diocese’s College for Congregational Development. We were a group of fifty-odd women and men—or is it fifty odd women and men?—both clergy and lay leaders from parishes in our own diocese as well as Spokane and New Westminster.
The College happens at Dumas Bay Centre in Federal Way, a modest and somewhat dated little building at the edge of a beautiful overlook of the Puget Sound. We fill the place with flipcharts and markers, with binders and handouts and all the flurry of stuff that we need to engage in a week of intense learning.
This year is the one in our two-year cycle in which we all worked on (to name just two things) personality typology and giving and receiving feedback. And already I wonder if I’ve lost you… What does my personality typology have to do with being a church leader? And what’s feedback? And the College can sometimes be like that—a little mystifying, a little daunting, a somewhat huge assortment of tasks and concepts.
But I think I can boil it down like this: we worked this week on increasing our understanding of ourselves, our behaviors, our preferences, and our understanding of one another. There we were, introverts and extraverts, strong thinkers and strong feelers, free spirits and closure-loving organizers, those who easily see the forest and those who see not only the trees, but the needles on the trees…there we were, jumbled together, and it didn’t take long for conflict to break out, and for many of us to see not only the other but ourselves in a brand new way.
For many, it was a rude awakening. An introvert finds out that her silence is deeply unsettling to others in her group. An extravert finds out that his exuberance is communicating anxiety to others. And then they all find out that their concern about the introvert’s silence is really something they have to work on…their frustration with the other is, well, it’s their own work they have to do.
And through all of this messy human stuff, I kept noticing something that seemed to be from another world: it was a little bird, a cute black-topped little junco, hopping and fluttering through the room. This bird learned that he would be rewarded if he flew through the open doors and windows, particularly just after lunch. He would dart to and fro, a little one-bird vacuum cleaner, picking up little crumbs. At first he would only appear once or twice a day, but by the end of the week he seemed to have taken up permanent residence with us.
And I must say I envied that little bird. That little free being has no need for flipcharts, for personality assessment tools, for skill-building that would allow him to receive painful feedback about himself. “Free as a bird,” goes the little cliché, but it’s a true cliché. Is there any way I can be just a little bit more like that bird? Quicker on my feet, more inventive, brave enough to enter a world of clumsy giants, and—most of all—less in need of so many things?
“The doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked,” begins our Gospel for today, “for fear of the Jews.” We encounter these disciples—our forbears in the faith—in a safehouse, a carefully locked room, and we see Jesus move into that room, and in my hearing he does so like a little junco, hopping to and fro in perfect freedom. “Peace be with you,” Jesus says, and he breathes onto them the Spirit. He begins the process of unlocking their hearts, freeing them from anxiety, their fear “of the Jews.”
But wait: who are these “Jews” that they fear? The disciples themselves were Jews, so it’s a mistake—and throughout history, a particularly tragic mistake—to read “the Jews” simplistically or literally. “The Jews” are the Other—the threatening Other. They are the introvert whose silence scares us, the extravert whose enthusiasm overwhelms us, the feeler whose deep passions throw us off balance, the careful thinker whose systematic methods leave us feeling cold. But it’s more than that: at the College, throughout the week we encountered the Other in deeper, scarier ways: the person of color whose culture clashed with our angular, boxy northern-European models and concepts; the woman who heard sexist language in one of our plenary sessions and stepped right into the fray and said so; the painful discussion we facilitated about multiculturalism that led to many angry tears.
On the Day of Pentecost, those who follow Christ learn that to do so means to be blown into the daunting presence of the Other. The wind of the Spirit not only strengthens the disciples, steadying their nerve and bringing them together as a community, but it enables them to speak the many languages of the Other, the many Others they (and we) encounter who do not share our language, our worldview, our assumptions and ways.
One of the ways that I steadied myself—took care of myself—during this past week of culture clashes and Spirit-led encounters with the Other was to take walks with my friend Alissa, a fellow trainer. We would get ourselves up and out on the walk by 7:00 a.m., and often we would just catch up on the life and times of each other—how her baby girl is doing, the latest news from home, the recent antics of our puppy dogs. But inevitably we’d connect about what we were experiencing in the College, and one day I was telling Alissa about the dynamics in my training group, my team of seven participants who were moving through the week together. One of the members of our team was a delightful person from another diocese, a sweet Latina with a giant heart. She was older than many of us in the group, and I told Alissa that she was like a “mama” for the group, the kind of person who, if you didn’t know better, inspires the desire to climb into her lap and hear bedtime stories.
As lovely as she was, and as wonderful as it was to see the group interact with her, I did have a concern: as the week unfolded, I noticed that no one challenged her in any way. She received nothing but warm, positive feedback from her Anglo companions. “It’s funny,” I told my friend. “Not even I have given her critical feedback.” “Too much white guilt in the room,” Alissa responded. She paused. And then she said, “Maybe you should ask yourself how fair that is to her, to come here and not receive the same full experience as everybody else.”
And this is one of the reasons why I love my friend—and, I suppose I should be honest, also fear her a little bit. Like that little hopping junco, like Jesus moving through a locked door with grace and poise, she confronts me—out of a place of warm friendship, but she confronts me—with a challenge to deepen my engagement with the Other, to deepen my understanding of my own blind spots, to deepen my own courage, my own willingness to take a risk, a risk of honest engagement with the Other. Our Latina learning companion was making many of the same mistakes that everyone else was making: not understanding the model we were using, getting off track, disengaging from the group when she felt tired, and so on. Can I be brave? Can I engage with her the same way I would with the white trainees in my group?
For that kind of bravery—the bravery to authentically encounter the Other—we need the Spirit. We need strength from outside of us. And we receive it, that wind, that fire, that unsettling yet steadying presence of the divine that moves through our locked doors with the breath of peace. The theologian Elizabeth Johnson speaks eloquently of the power of the Spirit, and I’ll close with her reflections:
“Jaded, discouraged, hurt, exhausted, worried, people have [a] human need for comfort, healing, and new enthusiasm for life that arises every day. Nonviolently but persistently the Spirit who dwells at the center of personal existence creates a clean heart, a new spirit, a heart of flesh and compassion instead of a stony heart. Like a washerwoman scrubbing away at bloody stains till the garment be like new, she works forgiveness and reconciliation in tortured hearts. Hers is the power of person-making among those diminished by pain who do not know their own dignity; hers the grace of conversion to turn from dead-end ways to walk the path of newness of life; hers the light of conscience; hers the power to shake up assured certainties and introduce the grace of the new question; hers the strength to foment discomfort among the unduly comfortable; hers the oil of comfort known in experiences that heal, refresh, and invigorate; hers the vigor that energizes the fire of active, outgoing love.”
Work cited: Elizabeth A. Johnson, “She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse.”