Showing up & being present in our differences

My blog will keep going, but my reflection series from my “Adults and Lifelong Learning” class is done! This post is a little long, but stay with me! It’s been so fun to learn, laugh, and reflect with Prof. Mary Hess this Spring as I complete my Master of Divinity degree. What’s next? I’ll give an update when I have a clear update, ha! … serenity prayer, anyone?

This class has been a significant place of learning in my brain and heart, so thank you Mary! Thanks to Timothy, my spouse, for our conversations that often have been the impetus for many of my blog writings, and bigger life thinking – we’re shaping our story together, Timothy, and my gratefulness is too deep for one sentence (and I thought you were the one who uses run-on sentences). Thanks too to YOU, my friends and family in learning and leading, here in Minnesota, in Washington, in between, and in farther off places than that! Stay in the arena and keep asking questions and leading out a place of hope and passion. I can’t think of a better quote to sum up my hope, and for us, as big-hearted, broken, beautiful people:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly. – Teddy Roosevelt.

I shamelessly pulled this from Brene Brown‘s TED talk, and this quote inspires me to push myself out of my comfort zone, and I think for her too. I think I can safely say that if you read my blog with any regularity, you saw that coming. Oh Dr. Brown. I cherish your email reply to me, even though it was only 12 words long: “Hi Allison, Check out Grounded Theory by Glaser and Strauss. Thanks, Brené.” Yes, she put an accent mark above the “e”. I literally just sighed. Some day we will change the world together, Brené, some day.

Anyway, as Mary and I were batting around possible topics for this final reflection, she suggested looking at a parable through the lens of what I’ve been learning about how people make meaning an all sorts of varied and different ways.

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We literally were sitting like this (not really) when we dreamed up this post. But this is Mary & me!

I said parables are cool, but what about the experience of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well? Talk about two worlds smashing together. A male, a Jewish religious leader in an authoritative position. A woman, unaccompanied, who has been married five times, from Samaria. Running into each other at a well during the hottest part of the day in the Middle East. In the spirit of the Major League Baseball season starting, this is a pickle.

Just so you know, this isn’t an attempt to put a Jesus-bandaid on lifelong learning. I could quote the Bible with glowing images of our beautiful creation, or little smiling children running to Jesus. But I don’t think Scripture was meant to be cherry-picked in order to support a point. At least, I don’t think that gives Scripture enough credit, or really, it’s own voice.

The Samaritan woman at the well is important to consider as we wrap up this class on how people learn and make meaning, because it shows our insatiable desire to be known by our people and by God (and yes, I’m using the Bible to make a point, but as a wider, frequent theme of the Bible I’m going to say it’s ok). This is not a Bible study or a one-size-fits-all reflection. I want to show that there are a lot (a bajillion?) of points of views on the Bible, and as people in the buzz of spiritual questions/reflection, our task is to be empathetic with each other’s ways of making meaning, no matter how well thought out, complex, or black and white they might be. Why? Because your neighbor wants to be loved (spoiler alert: and is worthy of love), just as much as you are.

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The Northern Lights, in a diversity of color like our diversity of reflections on the Bible.

Curiously enough, this is the space and complexity that Jesus finds himself in when he runs into this woman at a well thousands of years ago. Jesus and the Samaritan woman aren’t just neighbors from different sides of town (80-90+% of US citizens live in urban spaces, think about how hard it is to wrap our heads around this?). They are from different nomad, rural traditions and cultures – Jesus, a Jew from Bethlehem, and this woman from Samaria who the writer of John shares little about. These are cultures with deeply embedded communities and practices, and histories that root them not only in centuries but in millennia.

As much as I am scared for them as a former camp counselor (for legal reasons, rule of three), I’m scared for them if their people, or their neighbors, or their family comes and finds them: a woman and a man from differing and clashing cultures speaking alone. Jesus’ crucifixion (and this woman’s almost-sure stoning to death) could have come quicker than we know them to be. I know, the Bible’s gross, but who are we kidding, isn’t our world now, today?

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In case you print this out, have fun coloring this inaccurate portrayal of the Samaritan woman! Ok that’s my sass, now we can move on.

This is a text that comes up in a lectionary (a widely published rotation of Bible passages assigned for each Sunday) that somewhere around 4 million+ ELCA Lutherans and other Christians hear every three years. Many of those people hear in the sermon that the point of this story in the 4th chapter of John is that Jesus saves, even adulterous women.

I don’t want to belittle this perspective, but with some deeper digging into this Scriptural text, I realized that this woman was a survivor of a system that punished women. This kind of thinking that men are good and women are bad is the black and white thinking we find in 3rd order thinking (according to Robert Kegan, the author of In Over our Heads which has informed my learning this semester). Just to refresh our thinking, here’s what 1-5 orders of thinking/consciousness means:

To be clear I’m not saying that those in a more 3rd order of thinking are sexist. Not at all. I am saying that having a 3rd order frame of mind, and perpetuating systems that function in 3rd order frames, provides a fertile environment for victimization, “us vs. them,” and over all “othering.”  I think the frequent sermon on this text screams that our church, its cultures, communities, leaders, and conversations, are often functioning in a 3rd order space. There is only room for the conclusion that Jesus is the ultimate good, and therefore this woman is the ultimate bad that Jesus was merciful enough to pardon and save.

We have to remember that the point of this model is to provoke empathy in each of us for those using the same frame as us, and for people who are at different frames. Me saying, although I am tempted to, “The conclusion that ‘The Samaritan woman has committed adultery and is therefore only just barely save-able by Jesus, and bless her heart she is’ is stupid and I’m never coming back when this preacher is preaching again,” is not empathetic nor pushing us toward being in community like God calls us to be.

So what do we do? What do we do when we go to a church, for the 1000th time or the 1st time, and hear a sermon that is close-minded and so black and white that we couldn’t even stay to the end of the service?

Do we shake the pastor’s hand at the end and say “Good sermon” or “That was a terrible sermon! How about you try living as a first-century woman who is only valued for her slave labor and ability to give birth as she gets shuffled from brother to brother”? Or, do we come back next Sunday, say nothing, and instead connect with your friend back home via Facebook Messanger, only using Pusheen emoticons?

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If you were wondering, yes, this was a very intense conversation.

Honestly I don’t like any of these options. They scream anger, passivity, insecurity, and isolation. This isn’t what Jesus wanted for his followers 2,000 years later, this isn’t what Kegan would want as people use his model to examine how we make meaning, and this isn’t what I want as someone who doesn’t know what the future holds but knows that we are made our fullest selves together, working toward one mission, not apart in isolation.

Hey, do you have time for coffee? I’m often free Monday mornings, Tuesday afternoons…

We meet at Starbucks (of course), and instead of undercutting their sermon with historical critical analysis, cultural appropriation, and gender dynamics in first-century Palestine, I ask:

Where are you from? … Does your family still live there? … How did you meet him/her? (if relevant) … What brought you to where you work/study/lead/learn now? … Wait, how did you get from there to here? … This might be an odd question, but why is that important to you?

My point is that we have to listen to each other’s stories. I wonder if a significant percentage of pastors and people-oriented roles have experienced hurt in one way or another in their life. This is why they serve, which is beautiful. But it’s also why they sometimes find comfort in 3rd order thinking, in black and white paradigms, because their structured thinking gives them comfort. It gives safety.

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I’m learning that the biggest way that I can change someone’s hurtful, harmful, or dark behavior, theology, mind, or way of thinking is not through teaching, nor sermon-ing. It’s by example. It’s by showing up. It’s doing little things when I think no one is watching. It’s preaching when I don’t think anyone is listening (accentuated by a little girl last year asking me after a service, “Who made God?” and I had no answer); it’s recycling when I could have just dumped it in the trash; it’s writing when I think no one is reading, it’s dancing when I think no one is watching, it’s caring for my body and eating/buying healthy when I think no one is paying attention, it’s caring for and filling with pride for my spouse, one of my most cherished vocations, when I it feels like too few people care what lies in his future.

Lecturing someone who has preached from a 3rd order frame of mind about the “adulterous” Samaritan woman will probably not make a huge impact. It might. But I think what’s more impactful, in lifelong friendship, in lifelong collegeial relationships, in lifelong communities (we’re just a small portion of the church!), in lifelong learning, is showing a different frame of mind, not lecturing about a different frame of mind.

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Growing into a 4th order frame of mind looks like venturing into the unknown with questions, wonderings, and possibilities.

This looks like me offering my historical/cultural analysis in my own leading, designing learning experiences, and preaching, and going back to school to get the credential that shows my church my value and leadership. Yes, there is a tinge of hurt in that last sentence, that it’s only through ordination that I am entrusted with leading in sermon-ing, and leading a community in experiencing communion and baptism, and leading in other ways… so far. Times might change. Systems might change. Expectations might change. It’s through showing up for coffee and modeling a different kind of meaning-making that might be prompt perhaps the most significant learning of all.

For reference and varying views on the Samaritan woman:
John by Karoline Lewis, Fortress Press: 2014. The Women’s Bible Commentary by Carol Newsom and Sharon Ringe, Westminster/John Knox Press: 1992. John by Gerard S. Sloyan, John Knox Press, 1988.
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