Monday, December 20, 2010

(en)gendering dialogue

The latest post from the State of Formation project:

A colleague of mine recently shared a hard-to-find video relating the work of linguist Deborah Tannen to children's communication styles in same-sex pairs and groups. (If anyone discovers the link, let me know--I'll happily include it here!) While I have mixed feelings about any work that runs the risk of being interpreted as biological determinism, I had to laugh outloud as one little girl leaned in to the other and cried, "Same!" as they were comparing notes on their families. The boys at a similar age were engaged in classic one-upmanship behavior, declaring how far they could each hit a baseball until the final child had hit the ball all the way to God, while the girls were seeking to find points of similarity--even to the point of creating new details about their lives in order to connect.

I believe we human beings are a unique mix of feminine and masculine energies, the gift of both nature and nurture. In my experience, this mix of gendered elements, both fixed and continually shaped by environment, is key in how we approach dialogue--what draws us in, and what turns us away. As we State of Formation authors were introducing ourselves via short email messages to the group, I was a classic female Tannen subject. I'd scan messages for a point of connection and then send an email to say, in essence, "Same!" Whether it was to mention a shared institution, region of the world, experience, or to offer a resource that links the author's viewpoint to mine, I was looking to connect--it is where the path to dialogue begins for me, and I'm not terribly interested in projects or places where this step is skipped. If this is indeed my feminine energy leading the way, how about others? What gender-spirit brings you to dialogue? What are the essential experiences for your particular mix of feminine and masculine?

I'll readily admit to steering away from more controversial topics until I've established a relationship with someone, and I likely shy away from people who make clear their intention is to convince me of something or hold their views over mine. The "one over" stance is one I've held at many points in my life, both consciously and unconsciously, so I will not pretend this energy isn't in my make-up, but it's less and less dominant--and less and less useful for me, I've found. If I know what you think about when you're alone--what scares you when you think about those you love moving through an uncertain world--what generates pride in who you are and where you've come from, I can wade in to the conversation with comfort. Typically, any potential defense is set aside. I can be curious about how you think as you do, and the experiences that have shaped your ideas that are both like and unlike mine. We are in a relationship--the home of dialogue, for me. And, sometimes, if we enter that home in just the right way, or we share it for just the right amount of time, a miracle takes place--the relationship becomes what is real, and any conflicts or controversies that might have previously framed our coming together suddenly cease to matter. In essence, I find more I can say, "Same!" to than I find that sets us apart.

As I was contemplating this post, I was trying to uncover in my own mind what value there might be in the "one over" perspective in dialogue. If I am truly aiming to ask an authentic question about our gendered spirits, what are the gifts brought by the Tannen-defined masculine spirit in dialogue? I'm hoping you all will shine a light for me--this is a complementary question to my work in women's leadership and in dialogue--but know that a bright light already appeared as I remembered one of my many thoughtful Muslim classmates and a comment he made in one shared dialogue experience. "Let us outdo one another in acts of loving kindness," he said. "Same!" I say to that.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The path of no more resistance

I am honored and awestruck to be writing as a contributing scholar for the "State of Formation" project--link to be added once we're live! Here's my first post--the state of my formation!

For years I was both drawn toward and resistant to the notion of seminary. I was resistant because, in my mind, seminary was something that led absolutely and necessarily to ministry in the church (Christian church, that is)—an occupational fearzone for me after years in the “fish bowl” of church life as the child and grandchild of American Baptist pastors. I’d tell my husband that I was born doomed with pastoral gifts—I love public speaking, connecting every day experiences to spiritual questions, journeying with people through transitions, and I even know a few guitar chords. Occasionally I’d read through course descriptions for Introductory Hebrew or Christian Education at the nearest theological institution, but the inquiry would end as I shut down the computer, declaring emphatically, “There’s not a single course I’d choose to take!” Satisfied that no “inward sign of an external call” or “outward sign of an internal call” (however that is supposed to go…) had yet appeared, I’d move on, always taking with me a sense of both dread and possibility.

The dread was easy for me to identify and articulate. The ministry is not an easy life, and to this day I am highly suspicious of anyone who suggests otherwise. While I didn’t walk in my father’s ministerial shoes, and I’m not certain I ever will, I lived near enough to see the toll it can take to feel called by God to be present for people in their suffering. There’s a personal toll, there’s a family toll, and, for his generation, there were few mentors who modeled a way to set boundaries and care for one’s own fragile spirit.

The possibility I felt was more nebulous and hard to define. As much as I had lived the ugliness of church life (I am old and wise enough now to recognize that ugliness is a likely guest in every human community from time to time.), I also knew…and know…the gifts. I love being part of an experience of communal singing each week, and I participate with the gusto of my father’s father, my paternal grandfather. I have come to admire many gentle, humble men in the church—people like my mother’s father, my maternal grandfather. I have benefitted from the legacies of my grandmothers as well, and the wisdom of women has shaped my life personally, professionally, and spiritually. I now think of a shared experience of worship as the setting in which I reset my compass each week. I gaze on my husband with greater tenderness. I watch my children grow to be more fully themselves as they engage with a community of people pledged to care for them. Though my mother died nearly eighteen years ago, it can feel as though she is beside me in the pew, and when I hear a thought-provoking sermon, I hear in my mind the resonance of my father’s preaching voice and the well-considered silences that created space for questions to sink in.

As I write now, it is easy to contemplate the sense of possibility. I have developed an appreciative eye for what it is to claim a set of beliefs and practices within a community, and an even more appreciative eye for what it is to read about, write about, wrestle with, create for, criticize, and rest into a tradition that is explored in the company of “the other.” The dread that once sucked the air out of my lungs feels distant, a black and white photograph of a time when I naively believed a theological education would narrow the world instead of open it. The first step led to the next, and the next, and the next, and I am astonished all the time to see how different this experience is from what I imagined it would be. Where I expected separation, I have found integration; where I expected a single path, I have found many; where I expected a sentence to a life I didn’t want, I have found the privilege of the life that I am in and that is in me.

I’ll save the stories of those first few steps for another day, and close now with gratitude for the privilege of being on this journey. I am awed by each of the writers and the varied paths we have taken to this time and place, and eager to “meet” the readers who will give this dialogue meaning and purpose. Peace.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Room cleaning

The kids were away this week with Matt, and it was apparent when I returned from work the evening of their departure that they had left in a rush. Bedclothes were sitting next to unmade beds, toys were stretched from the closet toy bins to the window across the room. I sighed deeply, contemplating that I could teach them responsibility by leaving the room as is--"They will know when they get back that they should have taken care of this before they went away."

That word "should" caught in my heart a bit, though, and I realized just as quickly that I could teach them responsibility, or I could teach them mercy. In five minutes the toys were collected, beds made, and bedclothes deposited in the laundry basket. How like our lives....we create in our hearts a bit of a mess, and return home to find them miraculously clean. Thank God for forgiveness, grace, mercy....

Monday, March 29, 2010

What Wondrous Love is This

On the journey that is my life, I often look to the external structures to find a sense of Being. Am I my work? Is my sense of Being found in the day to day realities of a paycheck-earning position? Am I my marriage? Is "who I am" someone in relationship to one specific other? Am I the mother of my children? Do I find myself in the rises and falls of my patience with them each day?

My therapist and spiritual director has been subtly, gently, insistently encouraging me to look to inner experiences rather than outer realities for the wellspring of Being. It is quite possible that I understandably, but perhaps incorrectly, assume that experiences of inner resonance find their meaning in the details of the moment outside of me. If I lean in at night and smell the sweet scent of a child's freshly washed hair, I might be transported--or transformed--to the place of connection and wholeness. But it's not necessarily the hair or the scent that matters--it is the energy that springs forth within.

As I ride the most recent wave of questions about vocation (my most contemplated outer reality), this same therapist has suggested that I look to my day-to-day experiences of love and joy and awe....and watch what happens inside when I notice them. Do I cut off my breath--and thus the breath of the moment as well? Do the experiences lose their energy in comparison to another's? Do I share them or ponder them quietly? She asked for examples of love in my life--rapturous, glad to be alive love--that I might focus on and expand. A single image came to mind--I am at home, and I look out the window and unexpectedly catch sight of a bird flying across the yard....a common bird, a robin or bluejay. In brightest moments, perhaps a cardinal. As I described to her my image, I sighed with deep contentment.

Days later I arrived home later than usual from work, and Matt and the kids were already eating at the dining room table. I tossed my coat into the closet and dropped my keys in the drawer, rushing into the bathroom before joining my family for dinner. In the bathroom, I lifted the curtain for a quick glance at our backyard, and gasped as the brown and white feathered underside of a hawk passed right in front of me, momentarily taking my breath away. It lifted off from the ground as quickly as it landed, and settled on the branch of a tree on the edge of our yard. I called to the kids to come and see, and for minutes that stood beyond time, our entire family was gathered at east-facing windows watching the preening of our unexpected visitor. It flew from one tree to the next, and finally to the broken branch of a long-ago fallen tree before taking off for new feeding grounds.

Sacred scriptures have foretold this story in a hundred different verses, in a hundred different ways:

"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you." Matthew 7:7

"...For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord,
"Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future..." Jeremiah 29:11

"Lift up your eyes on high and see who has created these stars, The One who leads forth their host by number, He calls them all by name; Because of the greatness of His might and the strength of His power, Not one of them is missing." Isaiah 40:26

The source of Being--my being--is the Maker of Heaven and Earth, God, who intends far more for me than I imagine for myself.