Sunday, February 6, 2011

It's the Journey, not the Presentation

From Grand Rapids, MI, USA
Art by John Howe
At 1:30 this morning, somewhere between Scherr and Greenland, West Virginia, I was beginning to feel lost. Suddenly, something towering and monolithic caught my eye as we pulled out of a patch of forest on the unpaved county road we'd stumbled onto. I stopped dead in my tracks - not worried about traffic at this hour, especially here - and looked up through the windshield. My groggy eyes traced the line up two thick concrete pillars, soaring like the legs of the colossus at Rhodes, or Frodo gazing upon Argonath for the first time. A chill ran down my spine. "What are those?!" I nervously asked my co-worker, Lora. In the back seat, two of our fellow travelers snoozed. We were in the middle of nowhere, miles from any major roads, and yet here was an unfinished four-lane highway overpass towering above us in the darkness. "What are they doing here?!" We drove on.

After having twisted our way through state and county roads in the puzzle-like corners of western Maryland and northern West Virginia, we had recently taken a turn off even those obscure - yet still at least paved - roads. We weren't quite sure when we had lost the trail from our Google Maps directions and were without a GPS device. Our snoozing companions in the back were blissfully oblivious to our situation. I felt level-headed yet was still tired because of the hour and the length of time I'd been driving. Plus I was running on fumes from the coffee that I'd picked up in Ohio, but which had run out a few hours back near Pittsburgh.

Eventually, we found our way back onto a highway whose number we recognized and whose direction was taking us toward home: south and east. So at 3:30 this morning Lora dropped me off at home, where I stumbled in, hastily tossed my things aside, clumsily got undressed, and quickly fell asleep. Our little adventure in West Virginia in the wee hours of the morning served as a great lesson for the  trip which had us out on those holler roads in the first place...

Such a cool logo...
The four of us travelers had been to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., for the 6th annual Faith & International Development Conference. This is a conference organized and put on by undergraduate students at Calvin, intended for fellow undergrads from Christian colleges across the U.S. who are studying or interested in the field of international development. Mennonite-affiliated groups, CJP and MCC, have had tables and people there for the past few years and helped sponsor this year. International development is an area of emphasis in the MA in Conflict Transformation program in which I'm studying at CJP. And while it's not something I've studied or practiced, there was an open spot for leading a breakout session at the conference, so I jumped at the opportunity to try and do some restorative theology with a group outside my EMU bubble. Here is what appeared on the conference literature:
Christian peace and development - Just what exactly are we called to change? - John Lennon once said "We all wanna change the world," but is this the aim of Christian social justice work? This presentation will explore radical cultural engagement in both the early church and within our current faith expressions.
For the week leading up to the conference and even the first day and a half of the conference, before my session on Saturday, I had all sorts of ideas rattling around inside my head for what I could say and how I could say it. I started to write a manuscript, then stopped. Then looked at it for a few days, not adding anything to it.

Then on Thursday night, the first night of the conference, I made the mistake of drinking coffee too late in the day (it was evening, actually). So with the ideas rattling around in my head and the coffee keeping my heart racing, there was no possibility for sleep. At 1 a.m. Friday morning, then, I threw on my exercise clothes and traipsed down the hall to the tiny exercise room at Calvin's hotel/conference center. After a mediocre midnight exercise and getting cleaned up, I finally wound down for the night/morning. On the fluid interface between waking consciousness and sleeping subconsciousness, the approach for the breakout session came to me: "Tell stories. No manuscript."

Grounded in Story
So over the course of the next day, I was especially attentive to the various plenary and breakout session discussions, making notes for how I could integrate what was being discussed from the field of international development and how theological inquiry might be of service. On Saturday at 10:30 a.m., an hour before my session started, I walked over to the classroom where I'd be presenting. Flipping on the computer, I then opened my notebook and jotted down a few notes before flipping open my Bible to Isaiah 42. Now, "Bible-dipping" is usually not a practice I encourage, but I can't argue with it sometimes being quite fruitful. The Scripture was exactly the kind of message that would ground my reflections:
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
     my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
     and he will bring justice to the nations...
“I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness;
     I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and will make you
     to be a covenant for the people
     and a light for the Gentiles,
to open eyes that are blind,
     to free captives from prison
     and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.
“I am the LORD; that is my name!
     I will not yield my glory to another...
One thing that sometimes worries me about Christians who work in various peacebuilding fields and are deeply concerned about justice and peace issues (as they well should be) is that doing justice can sometimes start to seem like a work of our own hands. So it's robust passages of Scripture such as this from Isaiah that help to remind us who we're working with and for. It's God who enlivens the gathered community in order to do justice and work at establishing peace.

At 11:30, four young women sat at the desks in the classroom. To be honest, it wasn't as large of a group as I'd hoped but small groups are good, too. Puts my nerves at ease a bit more. So I got started telling stories, and I started with prayer and then reading the biblical text from above. After that, this was my story outline:
  • The early church in Acts: Jesus is Lord, not Caesar; drawing on my engagement with Kavin Rowe's World Upside Down
  • The Anabaptists: Views of church history and power; drawing on my being an unapologetic neo-Anabaptist fanboy
  • Pentecostalism: Re-enchanting our social justice work; drawing on Jamie Smith's Thinking in Tongues
All four young women were all new to (neo-)Anabaptism, so they seemed intrigued by the views of history and engagement with the world. One young woman was from a Wesleyan/holiness-affiliated school, a tradition with input into subsequent Pentecostal/charismatic movements in the early 20th century. So the confluence of Early Church/Anabaptism/Pentecostalism seemed to capture their interest. I was also pleased that they were all young women. Who knows what these women will do vocationally as they complete their studies and move onward, but I'm hoping that the kernel of something new and interesting as it relates to theology and peacebuilding takes root and is nourished by their faith life in the church. Perhaps some of them may continue on in theological studies (long a white man's world).

In closing, this trip and the session I led was yet another reminder of how powerful stories are in their shaping/formational nature. The material I wanted to present was already in my head and it only started to flow out when I realized that I didn't need to write it all down on a sheet of paper to be read verbatim in the classroom. Imbibing stories deeply into our bodies, including our minds, is what gives us our lenses - a common metaphor for worldviewing - or perhaps also our gloves for worldworking. Despite the amount of cognitive energy I spent preparing for the breakout session, it became clear soon after arriving at the conference that the focal point shouldn't be something like the session itself, but rather the whole road leading to it and beyond it. Including those roads that get you lost in rural West Virginia at 1:30 in the morning.

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