Wednesday, January 1, 2014


... it starts when you say We, and know who you mean, and everyday you mean one more.    --  Marge Piercy*

I read these words recently in a book about teaching:  "The Courage to Teach:  Exploring The Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life," by Parker J. Palmer.  I've been thinking a lot about teaching lately, reviewing my successes and failures over the past few months, and thinking about the future.  Although, as the leader of our church's high school youth group, and one of the leaders of our adult faith formation classes, I'm not really sure if you can call what I do "teaching."  Perhaps a better word would be “facilitating.”

Whatever it's called, it's very different from teaching mathematics (which I did for 10 years).  There, I had professional training and a couple of degrees to prove I knew something about mathematics.  Here, I have no training and no degrees to prove that I know anything about God or Christianity or faith.  There, I was the expert and my students were the learners.  Here, I doubt if anyone is an expert -- we all have something insightful to share and we are all learning.  There I was paid for my work. Here, I volunteer my time. There, people were required to attend class.  Here, no one is required to attend class. Because this is so different from what I used to do, I'm learning a lot as I go.

On the positive side, I've facilitated some really fantastic discussions about faith: discussions in which everyone was encouraged to ask their questions and share their insights, in which different opinions, even challenging opinions, were heard and honored, and in which nearly everyone, including me, expressed their appreciation afterward.  On the negative side, attendance is decreasing.

Clearly, while some people like being able to share and hear diverse opinions about faith, others dislike it. For some, the variety of opinions brings clarity; for others, it brings confusion. For some, the lack of an expert telling them what to think is freeing; for others, it's frightening.

So what am I to do?  God is not actually a subject I can teach anyone about.

Let me clarify that... I don't believe God is a subject that can be taught, in the traditional sense.  Even if I had all the degrees in religious studies or ministry that would qualify me as an expert in some peoples' eyes, I wouldn't be able to help someone know God any better, or in any other way, than in this open-ended, somewhat messy, way.

In his book on teaching, Parker Palmer describes the traditional learning environment as one in which the object of knowledge is taught as a series of facts by a teacher (the “expert”) who is the mediator between that object of knowledge and the students (the “amateurs”).  In this model the teacher is at the center, and learning takes place in one direction only: from expert to amateur.  Although I've been in classes like this at various churches, I don't think you can really know God merely by listening to someone else talk about God, no matter how charismatic the teacher.  In addition, I know that when it comes to faith, different leaders, even pastors in the same denomination, can vary widely on how they understand God.  So what does being an "expert" theologian really mean? 

Palmer contrasts this traditional format with a communal learning environment in which the students (the “knowers”) circle around the subject.  The subject is at the center, and learning takes place as all knowers are invited to share their unique perspectives, ask questions, and/or seek to find greater understanding by listening attentively.  Palmer writes that in this communal way “we do not hold [the subject] at arm's length. We know it in and through relationship.... This relationship begins when we allow the subject to occupy the center of our attention.” (pg.102)   When it comes to understanding God, this way of active attention is the only way I have found to be effective.

I don't think you can really know God any other way.  You must seek God for yourself in order to find God.  For most of my life, God was a distant figure, very much in the background, hardly thought of except in moments of crisis when I prayed for help. It was only in my mid-thirties, when I began to put God at the center of my attention, that I truly began to discover God's immediate presence in my life.  One person in our adult class last Sunday put it another way:  "There are no atheists in foxholes," he said.  It's the same idea, although I know that you don't only meet God in foxholes.  For me, it was wanting to teach my young son about God that finally caused me to turn my attention to God, and to discover, like the prodigal son, that God was there waiting for me.

So, if we can find God on our own, someone might wonder....  Why do we need classes for learning about faith at all?

Well, I have discovered that part of paying attention to God means paying attention to other people and to the rest of God's creation.  God speaks to us in a multitude of ways.  This also means that God speaks to other people through us.  So we must share what we have learned with other people.  This receiving and giving requires a community.  The bigger and more diverse the community, the better.  Truly, to learn as much as possible, you need a world community.

That's why I love that quote from Marge Piercy so much.  It speaks to me about an increasingly inclusive community.  We know who we are, and we allow for the possibility of becoming more.  That is what I want for our high school youth, for our adult faith formation groups, for our church, and for every group that I am a part of:  to be a community in which everyone, even someone very different, can still be included as an equal member of the group.  Not to make them think or act like us, but to make "us" mean something a little more than it did before.  That means always broadening our concept of "we," and that means accepting differences as much as commonalities.

Not everyone can do this, however.  And that, as painful as it is, is something I have to learn to accept as well. 

May the peace
which passes understanding
be with you


* from The Low Road, ( excerpted on pg. 163 of "The Courage to Teach:  Exploring The Inner Landscape of A Teacher's Life"

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