Thursday, March 15, 2007

How Do You Study for That?

Study is this Sunday’s holy habit or path to spiritual wholeness, the subject of today’s Lenten lunch where the soups are world-class (not to mention free) and where there’s a place set for you. Stuart Crampton and Bill Wootters will lead the conversation today, but they don’t want you thinking that you’ll be studying physics, and to demonstrate that they’ve recruited an intergenerational team of people with wide interests— I don’t spot another physicist among them. Stuart told us last week at lunch that this team will get people considering the role of imagination… so come and see!

A quick revisiting of today’s Bible portions may stir and require our imagination. Moses hears his calling to use his shepherd’s crook to lead not a flock of sheep but a nation, his own Hebrew people enslaved in Egypt, and this divine call comes to him out of a burning bush. God’s voice is not heard until first God has captured Moses’ attention through his eyeballs: the God of nature appears in that mountain wilderness in a quirky way that draws Moses’ eye, reels him in like a fish caught on the hook of amazement, then nets him by name, “Moses, Moses!”

The story begun in that high desert will have a very long shelf life indeed. It will become the story of exodus, God empowering Moses to give birth to the chosen people, Israel, leading them through the long and painful labor of their escape, midwifing them through the waters of partition, the birth canal of the Red Sea. Still we use this story, each Easter Eve, to describe our own precious freedom, and we hear the Gospels tell how Jesus Christ is our Moses leading us out of bondage, and how he is more, he is also the Passover lamb.

And in our second reading today St. Paul rolls the Moses story out more lavishly, as only a rabbi can do, though there’s also a touch of the Baptist preacher in him: “Brothers and sisters, be aware that when our ancestors followed Moses through the sea, that was like baptism for them; and when in the wild they ate manna from heaven, that was a sacramental meal made complete by the water their parched lips longed for. And do you remember where that water came from? How Moses struck the rock with his staff and there it flowed? And do you know that our fathers, telling this story, claim that that rock followed our ancestors through all their forty years of wandering (for they never died of thirst)—and I tell you, that rock was Christ!”

Let it never be said that St. Paul lacked imagination. And it was shaped by the holy texts of Israel, their stories, their images, their questions and answers. Christ the water-spouting rock is echoed in John’s Gospel, where our Lord goes to Jerusalem to observe a great festival, and on its last day he cries out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’ Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive…”

Now let’s talk about study. Let’s think of it as what a thirsty person does with his or her thirst. Let’s consider study as a movement of mind in search of spirit, like the traveling of Moses’ eye to that burning bush, or as movement of more than mind, of the whole sensing-intuiting-feeling-thinking capacity of a person in response to the Spirit of God that is ever seeking our attention, our whole attention.

In the Foundations course now underway here, we practice a simple pattern by which a portion of the Bible may be heard and responded to. This simple model comes from the ancient lectio divina, a Godly way of reading, and it was popularized in the 20th century in Latin American and South African churches as a way for members of house churches to nurture one another without requiring the presence of a seminary-trained leader.

A portion of scripture is chosen—today’s Gospel would make a dandy candidate—and is read aloud, slowly, clearly. An appointed leader may offer brief comments to make clearer the original context, the setting, of the passage. Here in Luke, for instance, there’s disturbing news about Pontius Pilate’s latest political violence (who among us doesn’t find each morning’s headlines painful to read?), and this passage wonders aloud why, why do people have to suffer? And how do we relate our own struggle to theirs so as to see ourselves as one human family?

Then the passage is read aloud a second time, if possible by a person of the opposite sex from the first reader. Sometimes a different translation is used, this second time around, to increase the possibility that more of us will be reached by more of God.

Now, what I haven’t told you is the basic task. From the start, each participant knows that the task is to pay attention to the whole passage, but to notice what word or image or verse especially catches his attention. Each person then works with her own little spark, considers what she’s hearing in that micro-gift and, in a house church setting, may answer the question, “What is this word or image or verse calling me, in Christ, to do during the coming week?” Sharing the results, each person in the circle asks for the prayers of everyone to support that action in the coming week. (Or, if you’re using this pattern on your own, the word that has caught your inner ear may be used to move into meditation, a time of silent prayer.)

This pattern of nurture or formation is similar to another model of study known to some of you, Education for Ministry, a four-year program of theological education-at-a-distance connected to the School of Theology of the University of the South, an Episcopal school. Go to EfM’s Website and you’ll find the question, “What can you expect from EfM?” And the answer: “You will find that EfM teaches you how to think theologically, deepens your faith and your understanding of our Christian heritage, and provides you with a new confidence to be Christ’s minister.”

That addresses the question, “Why study?” And so does another Anglican initiative that gets its own acronym, TEAC, Theological Education for the Anglican Communion. This is a project of the Primates of the Anglican Communion, who express the conviction “that all Anglican Christians should be theologically alert and sensitive to the call of God…” They believe that there is a distinctive Anglican approach to theological study which includes a “respect for exploration and experiment” that honors “each local context and, at the same time, calls us together into communion and mutual accountability.” Their project is to develop common standards of theological education worldwide, while valuing “the uniqueness of the work of the Holy Spirit in each place.”

Let’s hope that the Anglican primates come to see how the sword of the Spirit cuts both ways. Let’s hope that their advancing the cause of study will make learners of us all, and open everyone, including the most tradition-bound of the primates, to that “uniqueness of the work of the Holy Spirit in each place.”

The aim of the TEAC Working Group is summed up in a quotation from the Letter to the Ephesians: “…to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ…”

There’s the astonishing ultimate purpose of study, as it is of the other holy habits, worship, Sabbath time, prayer, and giving—the breathtaking purpose put to every cluster of parents and Godparents at every baptism: “Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?”

What kind of study does that take? It may be better to ask, “How does he teach?” He teaches by parables, those annoyingly subversive stories like today’s in Luke, the fig tree that hasn’t yet yielded fruit. At the least, this story reminds us that it is by our fruit that we are known. And as parables do, this one requires imagination, enough to reconsider your own life and how fruit-bearing it is. What expectations do you have of yourself? What expectations does God have of you? And how patient is your own stewarding of your life, your manuring of your own fig tree?

Is it too wacky to think of study as the manuring of our garden, the absorbing of what is passed down to us?

In his classic little book, Will Our Children Have Faith?, John Westerhoff uses the ancient Greek word catechesis to embrace all forms of study, including formation, education, and instruction or training. In that Greek word is a root that means “echo” or “sound through”, suggesting imitation of what has been passed by mouth from generation to generation.

Instruction or training, he says, could make it possible for a person to know all about Christianity and the Christian life, but have no desire to live it.

Education, he says, could sharpen a person’s critical reflection on the Christian life and faith in the light of scripture, tradition, and reason—but leave a person uncommitted.

Formation is what shapes a person’s faith, consciousness, and character. It is an intentional engagement by which the Christian community’s culture (its way of life), worldview, and values are transmitted from one generation to another. Even formation isn’t enough, he says.

Catechesis, the Church’s responsibility, requires all three essential styles of study. And it requires the Spirit of God.

Whew! We’d better get cracking. And imaginative, if it is to be passed from generation to generation… by us.