Friday, October 31, 2008

Then the Cemetery...

So, first we visited the beach. The next day we walked around my Mom's neighborhood. First we made our way to the local cemetery. Yes, I have a fascination with cemeteries. And this one was no exception. Nestled in a pine grove, the floor covered with a cushion of fallen needles, this cemetery meandered among the trees along a ridge on the edge of a local lake.

Age is all relative... growing up in California, we rarely found anything more than 100 years old. Traveling around Europe and the Middle East, I encountered stones and ruins thousands of years old. For the United States, this cemetery was quite old. The oldest tombstone I found was dated from 1732. Portions of my Mom's house are said to be from even earlier than that.

The Goodwin family had graves throughout the cemetery, including, most likely, those who owned the house before my parents. It is a bit difficult for me to understand. I didn't grow up in house that had "historic value." At least none that I knew of. My current home is only about 80 years old, but has some interesting stories behind it. Most likely the community I live in served as housing for those who worked at the tuberculosis sanitorium located across Pulaski.

Whenever I look at history, I am aware that there are stories that are not told, people who are forgotten or left behind. History is so often the story of those who are in power or those who won the day. Rarely is history told from the perspective of the average and the ordinary... or from those on the margins. So, I am always grateful for those signs, such as this tombstone, that hint at the rest of the story.

When I read the scriptures, I search for such signs. Stories of those who were lost or forgotten. I am aware that in many ways the Bible is just the tip of the iceberg, hints of a much deeper, wider, and more complex story. The world that Christ walked in was not just that of the stories written. So many stories were lost or forgotten. I am grateful that the Bible is full of at least some of the stories from the margins, that the parables were often so much about ordinary people and ordinary objects that were endowed with deep spiritual significance in the words of the Savior. May we see the world with similar eyes to that of our God.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Beach first...

While I had headed to the Northeast primarily to see family, I did have ulterior motives... the first being to see the fall leaves. But of course, being from California, we had to visit the beach first. I have to admit, I miss being near nature. I realize there are parks and things in Chicago, but it is just not the same. Part of it is the urban setting. Part of it is the culture. I have spent so much time in outdoor cultures... places where no matter what the season, people were outdoors hiking, boating, skiing, exploring. I find myself in a much more indoor culture these days... well, for the last 8 years. And a final part is being single... the outdoors are often not a safe place around here. A new walking trail was put in a few blocks from my house last summer and a month ago a woman was attacked in broad daylight.

So, whether off to see the fall leaves or the beach, I was excited to spend some time outdoors with my Mom. Our first hike was along the cliffs of York beach. I have always loved rocky beaches and York beach brought back memories of the rocky shores in Gloucester, Massachusetts. I used to drive out there to walk along the rock wall... most often during storms... to watch the waves crash and feel the power of the ocean while I was in seminary.

It was a beautiful fall day and the hike was a bit of an adventure. The path wound along the cliff and there were places where it had clearly washed away in previous years. As usual, I was fascinated by the rocks. I have been for years. I remember a small rock collection that my grandparents gave me for a Christmas present when I was in elementary school. The fascination stayed with me as I took geology classes in college.

Now, I tend to take pictures of rocks... you'll see one or two more in the days to come. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Visiting Mom

And now for a break in our regularly scheduled program... while I will continue to upload excerpts from my doctoral exams, I thought I would break up the high brow discourse with a few vacation photos and reflections on my recent trip to Maine. For those of you who don't know, my mom and stepdad moved back to his hometown in Maine a few years ago and bought a 200 year old (is that right?) farmhouse on a river complete with three story barn in the back.

I decided that I needed a vacation after all my studying for exams all summer and jumping right into teaching this fall. I am very thankful for fall breaks! It turns out that my stepdad was away all week and so my mom and I had time to ourselves. We ate out with friends of hers, wandered in cemeteries, through forest preserves, and on the beach, and she even helped me do a little sewing project.

I never know how my mom does it. She has a great garden in front of her house... well, in front and back of her house. There is a huge rhubarb patch on her front lawn, a flower garden along her back walkway, and a vegetable patch off to the side. She harvested all the pumpkins above (and one little watermelon) while I was there. I have not inherited any of her outdoor gardening ability and have none of her fortitude for the work that is required.

I remember as a kid how much I hated the gardening we had to do. Once a year we were required to weed the back hill. It was covered with ivy, pampas grass, and other plant life... and if I remember a bit of animal life as well. Oh, yes, and there was the front hill as well covered in juniper bushes. I think all three of us (my brother, sister and I) whined and complained for several weeks before the big day. Now mowing the lawn... that was a different story. I kind of enjoyed that. It was a small, manageable square of land. But I think that chore most often went to my brother. I don't know why we... I should say I... both my brother and sister are attempting landscaping and gardening at their homes... never took to outdoor gardening. I would like to... I have made a few attempts... but then something else always comes along. If only we could inherit all the good things that our parents try to pass down to us.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

A Confessional Practical Theology

John Swinton and Harriet Mowat have recently published a book on qualitative research methods that is grounded in a confessional approach. The aim of their practical theology is to create congregations committed to the faithful performance of the gospel. While they make significant use of socio-analytic methods in their work, they give primacy to theology. They claim that theology is constructed by God and therefore cannot be fundamentally challenged by humanly constructed knowledge. This is not to say that they have a completely naïve approach to theology. While they argue that there is one single unified gospel story, they see Christianity as the interpretation of that story in various cultures and contexts. Christianity itself is a historical/theological construct. They also operate from a hermeneutic of suspicion, acknowledging the sinfulness of humanity as contributing to the misuse of power in interpretation and the lack of self-reflection within communities that prevents us from seeing our own constructs.
What I appreciate about their method is their attempt to include God as a primary actor in the life of the congregation. God’s revelation is a primary discourse shaping the beliefs of the people. The Holy Spirit is central in the practices of the church. The congregation is called not to respond to human standards, but to faithfully perform the gospel. While it may be impossible to understand God’s revelation outside of human construction, it seems crucial to look for the ways that God might challenge the dominant oppressive discourses in our society and empower individuals to resist. My own commitments to feminism and liberation grow out of my understanding of the gospel. This allows me to understand each of these discourses as grounded in a deeper commitment to all humanity reflecting the image of God.
There is a danger in such methodology. When arguing for a foundational gospel truth, there is often the danger of silencing those discourses and experiences that seem to challenge such a truth. There can be an idealization of the church and a refusal to significantly address issues of suffering. This has certainly not been the case in Swinton’s work. His book Raging with Compassion seeks to address the problem of evil in the world. Rather than asking why evil exists or the relationship of evil to a good and benevolent God, Swinton asks how we can create congregations that are able to sustain faith in the face of evil. He does so not by denying evil exists but by seeking to increase the congregation’s capacity to bear suffering. This involves being able to sit in silence as well as embracing lament.
Swinton avoids one of the central issues often present in confessional practical theology, the suppression of challenging or painful voices and the voices of those on the margins. Yet, it does not seem that such an emphasis is grounded in his own methodology. What has caused him to focus on suffering and evil in his work? Much of his research has focused on those with mental and physical disabilities, seeking to create methodologies that honor them as human beings in the research process. Yet, it is unclear what drives this commitment. His methodology by focusing on a generalized idea of the gospel does not demand such an emphasis.
In addition, while focusing on those on the margins in the midst of suffering, I am unsure that I believe his response is sufficient. The main focus of Swinton’s book on evil is increasing a congregation’s capacity to bear pain. The emphasis is on sustaining faith. Rituals and worship become central in this approach. There is nothing, though, to call the congregation to change the structures that are contributing to evil in the first place. Both seem necessary to truly provide pastoral care. While Rebecca Chopp focuses on creating emancipatory structures, she often loses the faith aspect of the congregation. In my own practical theology, I hope to attempt to hold these two aspects together, focusing both on faith and action.
A final note on my own approach to practical theology. While my goal is to retain commitments to all three approaches, I recognize that my context will determine which approach I give priority too. In the midst of feminist and liberation circles, I often emphasize the confessional aspects of my faith seeking a way to acknowledge the role of a dynamic living God in the midst of theology and congregational practices. Within my own denomination, I tend to emphasize the feminist and liberation aspects. There is a danger in our denomination in using the confessional approach to avoid the socio-analytic work necessary to creating practices that are truly faithful to the gospel. In addition, I must present my feminist and liberation commitments in confessional language in order to be heard. I am making choices between discourses, drawing on what is liberating, making compromises, and choosing between pain and pleasure. I will need to constantly analyze power dynamics and my own choices in attempting to balance these approaches.