The Great Cloud of Unreliable Witnesses
Posted August 15, 2014 @ 9:37am | by Tripp
This morning, with the requisite fog covering Berkeley, I turned to Last Night’s Fun for some solace and inspiration. I have a lot to do today, e-mails to send, books to pack up in one office and take to another, reservations to make, recruitment kits to create, and a metric ton of introspection to accompany it all.
Once again I am plagued by missing the mark. We have a long and uncomfortable relationship.
Today’s reading comes from a chapter entitled “O’Dowd’s No. 9.” Where do the tunes come from?
“The tune becomes a family tree. It is a conversation piece, a modus operandi, a way of renegotiating lost time. Our knowledge os the past is changed each time we hear it; our present time, imbued with yesterday, comes out with bent dimensions. Slipping in and out of nodes of time, we find our circles sometimes intersect with others.”
Carson paints this picture of our relationship with time and other people through the experience of trying to play a tune, a “traditional” tune whose origins are necessarily suspect. This, for me, is a helpful analogy for liturgy, how it’s lived rather than how it’s recorded. Did John Chrysostom write the Orthodox liturgy? Scholars suggest that he did not, but it is so named nonetheless. Accretions, subtractions, omissions intentional or accidental, happenstance, deliberation, feud, council, committee meeting, some old person scolding the priest (“Bless me, Father, but that’s not how it goes...”), and even the seminary have had their say.
And it is no different for us Baptists. We too depend upon the lose connections of churchy sociality. Carson continues:
“Yet there is a wider circle we can only dimly comprehend, whose congregation is uncountable, whose brains and hands have shaped the tune in ways unknowable to us. We do not know how far or deep its palimpsets extend. We do not even know O’Dowd, or whether he made up the tune, or simply borrowed it and thought he made it up.”
The great cloud of witnesses is an unreliable one.
And yet, it is the most trustworthy.
More Fretting About the PhD
Posted August 11, 2014 @ 9:56am | by Tripp
Amma Syncletica said, "We ought to govern our souls with discretion and to remain in the community, neither following our own will nor seeking our own good. We are like exiles: we have been separated from the things of this world and have given ourselves in one faith to the one Father. We need nothing of what we have left behind. There we had reputation and plenty to eat; here we have little to eat and little of everything else."
The above is from Benedicta Ward's Daily Readings with The Desert Fathers. I try to turn to Amma Syncletica from time to time. Her's was a rigorous soul. The last line of this particular story always catches me up. I wrestle with my place in the world. It's an ongoing habit that I have failed to break over the years.
In spite of Jesus' admonition, I do worry for my life. I do. I fret. I'm good at it. I should have a doctorate in fretting rather than liturgics and ethnomusicology.
You want to fret? I'm your guy.
The more recent fretfulness has been focused on reputation and influence, "greatness," if you will. It's been couched in several different aspects of my life, but most recently it has been a question about getting this damn degree.
I call it the "damn degree" now. Why? Cussing has always made me feel better.
Also, hubris. I am awash in it.
"We need nothing of what we have left behind. There we had reputation and plenty to eat; here we have little to eat and little of everything else."
Lordy, but the economics of the academy have come off the rails, especially in the religious academy. I know many will disagree with me. I think that's a good thing. God forbid it that any one of us alone gets to say what is good, right, and true about what we do. That would be a disaster. But I keep thinking about Amma Syncletica and her understanding of the ascetic life and it's relationship to reputation or notoriety. Even if we are not called to the ascetic life, there is a good warning in her wisdom.
Why are you getting a PhD?
Why do you wish to serve in theological education?
What is your understanding of leadership and notoriety?
Because they are gonna come. Stand up in a pulpit in front of people and they come whether you like it or not. The classroom lectern is no different.
The PhD affords me the opportunity to teach in the seminary, in the college or university. I want to get up early and meet with students in a class room and discuss ideas, history, practices, the lives of the faithful so that we too might become more faithful. I want to help facilitate a conversation that can last a lifetime. For me, these are theological concerns and practices.
Temptation arises, of course, in the way this whole endeavor is structured. Who leads the conversation? Who holds power? Who is the "expert" in the room? Authority, hierarchy...there are some utilitarian realities that should be honored, but there is also an interpersonal dynamic at work that I still struggle with.
I want to be recognized without notoriety. I want to speak without bearing the weight of leadership.
I look at my heroes, the women and men who educated me. Sometimes I want to be like them. I do. But more truthfully, I want to help my students be like them. I don't care that much if I become like them.
I want more heroes. I don't want to be one.
Getting A PhD: I Am Any Idiot
Posted August 7, 2014 @ 12:33pm | by Tripp
The story goes something like this: I was at my college choir rehearsal. I must have been a Sophomore or Junior. For some reason we were all talking about education and what a BA is worth (this is circa 1990, the first of the more memorable recent recessions) and the choir director exclaimed, "Any idiot can get a Ph.D."
Well, you could have heard a pin drop. It was not the good news we hoped he would offer.
The good professor then spoke of the G.I. Bill and the boom in the college "marketplace." He spoke of how if one program turns you down, there's likely another somewhere which will help you get a PhD in something.
He benefitted from the Bill. His PhD was from Harvard. He listed all the good that had been done, but he cautioned us. "There might be too many colleges, too many PhD's. I know I sound like a terrible person, but that's the truth of it. There may be no more value to the PhD."
Here I am twenty-five years later and his soothsaying echoes through my mind and this recent article has me thinking about why one would get a PhD these days. Ryan Anderson writes:
When are we going to wake up and realize that it’s 2014 and our academic paradise is a smoldering ash heap, a sad leftover from thirty something years of complete and utter demolition? We no longer have a booming economy and tons of federal money going into the university system. The days of cheap, accessible higher ed are done and gone. And yet, we keep churning out graduate students as if they, too, are going to end up as university professors. As if each and every one of them will soon have their own hip little office full of books, dedicated students, and bright, starry-eyed careers ahead of them. It’s not happening. Paradise. In. Ashes.
The glut has devalued the ultimate product. What was a rarely seen honorific (if one believes the Golden Era hype) has been replaced with just another line on a resume.
"Any idiot," indeed. So, why do it? I cannot answer that question for you. Instead, let me offer a few idiotic reasons to do it.
1. You have no choice. I'm serious. Everytime I try to do something else I flounder because I keep trying to turn my other places of work into a college, university, or more specifically, a seminary. I'm hardwired for this thing. I cannot help myself. (Note: I also try to turn these same places into concert halls. It's a complicated problem.)
2. The PhD is still a credential you need to do some things. Though the institutional administrators are moving toward hiring faculty (mostly adjunct) who are seasoned practitioners, the truth is that a PhD is still considered a reasonable metric for knowledge. If you want to teach in a college, you may very well still need the terminal degree in your chosen field.
3. Making time to dive deeply into ways of knowing and thinking still matters. There are, of course, lots of ways to do this. But there are, at least at this writing, very few places, communities if you will, where one can gather with others to think, to ponder, postulate, wonder, and experiment. The academy is still such a place. The challenge is that it is one of many places for this work now. The academy does not hold a monopoly on the practice. I think this is also a good thing. It is imperative that the academy seek out partnerships.
4. Knowledge and wisdom are more important than money or fame. Yes, I said it. You will die poor. You will have to seek other means of earning income. Adjuncts are unionizing, but that's no guarantee of an improvement. No. You must hold the value of knowledge and/or wisdom above many other things. I encourage you to work out those details. Make your priorities. Think through the issue of justice and pay equity, but also remember that this is no way to get rich and, for the present, is not even a way to be comfortable. You must love knowledge for knowledge's sake.
Now, I am an idiot. I am seeking a PhD in a theological discipline. I may well be a special breed of idiot. And I am acutely aware of the ethical quandary of encouraging people to amass incredible debt by attending school. Please know that I am actively try to to help change this in my present position as Director of Admissions. My idocy multiplies by a magnitude...of something (h/t: Aaron Sorkin).
And, yet, I am still here. Why are you? What are your reasons for getting a PhD?
Holy Poverty and The Seminary
Posted July 29, 2014 @ 5:13pm | by Tripp
Paul said, "the foolishness of the cross" not "the stable middle class lifestyle," if you want my opinion on seminary education, the changing economy, and baptismal identity in general. We bear a responsibility to care for one another as Christians (and beyond) that we have abdicated to the persnickety "marketplace." It's time to talk about holy poverty again, I think.
I can hear my free church friends and colleagues now, "But we don't take a vow of poverty!" It's true. We don't. We remember this historical movement away from the monasteries and the cathedrals, the parish system and the state church. This is an issue of ecclesiology, no question. What I wonder, however, is if in our attempts to not fall into the traps of the past, we simply have settled on the marketplace as our model for ecclesiology. I assume we have.
My degree is a "professional degree" yet within its conceptual framework the notion that I am "professed" is easily lost. I am not called to earn, but to labor, to serve. My work is "worth" nothing. Instead, it is a response to a vocation that in many ways we all share. The wealth of the community affords me the opportunity to respond to that shared call in a particular way. I am not your employee. I am your pastor. I am poor. Any wealth I may posses comes directly from the pockets of others.
Seminaries are places for the formation of pastors, not employees. I am afraid, however, that we have lost the sense of that. Seminaries, once considered part of the Church, are now often perceived to be outside agencies or even adversaries of the congregations they were designed to serve. Communities once shared their wealth to establish institutions of learning (again, a kind of formation) so that they would have a place to send those in whom they perceived a call to the work called "pastor."
But that has changed. It has. There's no way around or even through it.
So, when I read about the fear of the loss of the middle class status of clergy, I am not surprised that some of us are shocked. Yet, we have been warned that this would happen. Even recently, a prominent pastor warned us about why we should seek this work.
So, if any of the following inform or narrate your impetus for pursuing professional ministry, I’d like to ask you to take a step back and reconsider your vocational choice:
— I work to live. My job is how I make money.
— I’ve got my diploma and I’m done with all those books forever!
— I’m hoping that being a pastor will make me popular/please (or shock) my parents/make me seem super holy.
— I’m a lone ranger. I’ve got this ministry gig down and I don’t need any help.
— I’m doing this because I need emotional affirmation and I’m too scared to go to therapy and figure out why.
— I love to talk but I hate to listen.
Indeed. Have we lost our middle class status? I wonder why we had it in the first place.
No seminarian should graduate with debt. This is true. I agree.
Holy poverty is not the same as economic destitution.
This should have nothing to do, however, with economic class. Instead, it should reflect the sense of responsibility we all share as Christians to provide servant leaders for the church. This is not about having a nice line of work. No. This is not even about the larger issue of economic justice. No, this is about whether or not individuals, congregations, and larger ecclesial bodies value ordained ministry any longer.
I am afraid that we have our answer.
This is the challenge seminaries face.
A Long, Strange, Academic Trip #occupycomps
Posted July 28, 2014 @ 10:39am | by Tripp
My glasses are in another room. It seems I need to get my eyes checked. I cannot wear my glasses for anything other than walking across campus or driving the car. If I need to read or work on the computer, well, then they become a painful distraction.
Lately, I have been struggling with content management. It’s a simple malaise, really. I’ve been posting crap online. Some of it has been here. Some of it has been on Facebookistan or Twitter. Either I am picking a fight or I am vapid. Neither will serve.
Merlin Mann’s post about better user-generated content keeps coming to mind. It’s not that trolls won’t come. It’s not that we sometimes bait them. This happens. It is simply the premise that we can do better. We don’t have to fall into the trap of creating more digital white noise. There’s enough of that going around. Instead, we could compose a symphony or play the internet’s version of the gamelan. We could improvise through various forms and patterns seemingly independent of one another but, in truth, all framing the same unheard tune.
That’s what I’m trying to do. I am trying to be better.
Of course, that takes more thoughtfulness than I have recently been willing to give.
So, here we go again. I am going to try to be more thoughtful in what I present. I will try not to take the bait when my friends and others post inflamatory stuff (intentionally so or not). I have too much to do and I am woefully behind.
This means that I have to write about what I need to write about. #occupycomps
None of you will read that stuff. It’s so damned silly. Truly, it is. But I have convinced myself that there are a dozen people on the planet remotely interested in what I am interested in. Most of them live here.
What a strange trip this academic life is. Strange.
On Global Weirding
Posted July 24, 2014 @ 9:49am | by Tripp
As surprising as this may be to some of you, July is not supposed to be a warm month in the Bay Area. July is supposed to be a rather cool month. "The coldest winter I ever spend was summer in San Francisco" is not only a little bit of pith; it's a meteorological truism. The marine layer rolls in from the Pacific in response to the hot and dry weather in the Central Valley and it just sits here. It's a natural refrigerator. A rainy one at that.
Not this year.
Don't get me wrong. We're not suddenly experiencing a sub-tropical heatwave. Not at all. But the Berkeleyites have been wilting. Many of the buildings aren't air conditioned. On July 4th, people watched fire works in their parkas and scarves. Today, people are wondering if they can convince their boss to let them wear shorts and tank tops to the office.
You would think the issue of office dress would vanish in the Silicon Valley. Alas. No. Office casual is giving way to summer swelter.
I am sitting here in the kitchen listening to the radio announcer proclaim highs in the 90's. Insane.
What? Is it October already?
Bearing Witness to Tragedy and Thanksgiving
Posted July 20, 2014 @ 9:31am | by Tripp
A fog sits upon the Berkeley hills. You would think that this is a daily occurrence, but it is not. The years of drought have taken their toll. But it is summer here and that means morning fog.
I can see the hilltops over the apex of the roof of the church building next door. Those who worship early have arrived. There is a small but steady stream of people walking into the chapel. The religious habits of Berkeleyites are a mystery to me even after three years of worshiping among them.
I am making breakfast. The aroma of coffee keeps me company as I listen to the radio. They are still talking about Gaza and Kiev. No one has the courage to ask if the world will go to war again. Perhaps it is simply a stupid question. Of course there will be no world war. There's nothing in it for the global powers. So, we will watch the Ukraine and Israel tear themselves or their neighbors apart.
Recently there was a story about Israelis sitting along hilltops watching the shelling. They were eating popcorn. So many were astonished at the callousness. There is nothing new to this, of course. People packed picnics to watch the siege of Petersburg in the American Civil War. And though I want to, I cannot pass judgment. I sit here in my California kitchen listening to the news and doing nothing. A vicarious life is the life we have crafted for ourselves.
It is the fruit of broadcast technology.
The most we can do is bear witness to the tragedy of others.
At best we remember.
Like my Berkeley neighbors, this morning I too will walk into the church. I will partake of the Lord's Supper, the Eucharist, thanksgiving for what God has done in the world. Even there, with a necessarily sacramental twist, I will bear witness to resurrection and reconciliation. I will partake with bread and wine, but even then it is witnessing.
We are participant observers, recipients of the grace we witness in memory and sign.
Waiting for The Music
Posted July 15, 2014 @ 5:14pm | by Tripp
I am waiting for the music to return, the sonorous graces of laughter and kitchen clinking, of bird call on the hillside.
I am waiting for the music to return, the precarious arrangement of hope and memory that uplifts and guides.
I am waiting for the music to return, the band, the orchestra, the seisiun, the jam, the people who make and craft sound.
Instead, I am stranded in an eschatological posture like pause on my mp3 player. The Wifi Spirit does not respond and even if I could connect, the playlist I have randomized is sore lacking. I miss the people who make these sounds. I miss their voices.
Have you ever sat in a small room as somebody made beautiful music? Maybe for you it's the singer-songwriter. Or maybe it's the saxophonist. Perhaps it's the kora. I'm not so certain it matters what, but more where and who. Have you ever been in a place where the music surrounds you and the musician stands close? Have you ever been graced with that attention?
I've been the recipient of such a gift. I've also tried again and again to offer it. I've stood in bar, sanctuary, nave, and concert hall. I've sounded my barbaric yawp until I was hoarse. I have strummed and plucked until I bled. I have listened for the sudden, astonished intake of breath and the breathless beer-spilling songster alike.
The attention that comes from being lost in the space, the time, the sound, in one another, grounds me like none other. I feel each breath. I lean into each sound. I hear the room, the hall, the cathedral, the space between us, and I hear all of us as we join one another in a symbol. I feel my own voice or the resonating instrument strapped to my chest. I listen for all of these. I breathe with all of these.
We craft a symbol in which we may all dwell a while, not transported, but graciously made aware of who we are and to whom we belong. "It is in the shelter of each other that the people live," so the old Irish proverb goes. "Ubuntu!" exclaims the bishop from South Africa. "We are one body in the One Lord," the editors of that hymnal remember for us.
"Ever-present" is the Lord God, the Almighty. Right here. With us. You. Me. He. She. We. Them.
Not "out there" or "far away" in some other place above and beyond this one, but so "further up and further in" as to feel elsewhere when all the while we are being awoken to what is always and ever right here, right now.
Right here, right now. Jesus Jones was right. . . on Earth as in Heaven.
We are building a sonic theology. Those who have ears, listen.
The Hills Stand Vigil
Posted July 11, 2014 @ 6:28am | by Tripp
There is no accounting for time and space
As the blue mist settles on the morning hillside
I imagine the hills of another place
Still bathed starlight and moonglow
The one whom I love is there
I am here as the hills stand vigil
summer in orkney springs
Posted July 9, 2014 @ 10:27pm | by Tripp
fireflies dance amid the trees along the hillside
all the while children chase across the field
as the sun sets becoming starlight in the night sky
friends are hand-in-hand talking through the day
while the the clatter of dishes in a sink interrupts
There Is No Solo PhD
Posted July 6, 2014 @ 5:58am | by Tripp
I never watch as much sports coverage as I do when I am at my father's house. ESPN is always on. Baseball is Daddy's present obsession. The season is hot and the Yankees are spotty. His blood pressure is high. There is no mistaking the cause. It is Sunday and I'm preparing to go to church, but it is clear to me that the religion here is baseball.
There is no sadness or shame in this realization. If I could stay home and watch the finals at Wimbledon, I would. But I am called to do other things today. I am off to Church of The Holy Comforter in Richmond, VA. Martha Buford is the music director there and an old friend. Then I am off to Shrinemont in Orkney Springs, VA to participate in Family Camp.
Yes, I am going to camp. Fortunately, this camp comes with wrap-around porches.
Listening As An Act of Love is the title of my five-day program. I am responsible for providing something for the adults each morning. I have been taking my PhD research and reworking it for different contexts. I've presented at a conference and written an essay. I've preached it. I've offered a 45-minute lecture. Now, let's see if it serves as a spiritual retreat. Of course, to do this right, I am calling on some help. Ana Hernandez will be with us on Tuesday. If I could call on more friends, I would.
These projects, I am learning, are never solo acts. And let's get real, no solo act is a solo act.
We never really work alone.
Listening and Sacrifice
Posted July 2, 2014 @ 7:56am | by Tripp
Listening as an act of love, not surprisingly, is often sacrificial.
To listen to someone who opposes you, who wishes you to diminish in some way, is a kind of sacrifice. This listening, as difficult as it is however, is no less necessary if we are going to find a to live together that reflects the deepest loves of our aspirations.
We propose arguments. We offer various logics. We rant and rage. But do we listen? Do we hear that person whom we disagree with? Do we hear ourselves as we rage? And do we hear the person when they say, "I hear you, but. . ."? Do we recognize that we have been heard, and still the person before us cannot join us in that song.
How do you face that kind of heartbreak?
There is this prevailing concept of "difference" that still haunts many of us. Perhaps we don't like the feeling of loneliness that comes with discovering someone is not like us. Perhaps we are so certain of our rightness/righteousness, of our way of being in the world, that we are simply unable to hear anyone who may walk through the world differently. We do not need to go to the polarities of society to find this dynamic at work. No, we can go to our closest kin, those most like us and still stumble over the difference, finding them insurmountable.
So often I find that the discourse around difference focuses only on the furthest polarities. So, of course we cannot imagine sacrifice. There is too much ground to cover between us. There is too much at stake. We cannot imagine serving one another in equanimity; the differences are too painful, the distinctions too great. This scenario, however, is quite rare.
The truth of life is that more of us are similar than radically different.
What does it mean to listen? And might that listening cause one of us to diminish while the other increases?
What does it mean to hear in such a way that makes room for another in our world view and allowing ourselves to expand and change in the process? How might this look in our own lives?
I am not you. You are not me. We have established this time and time again.
Nevertheless, are we still willing to listen, or has that time passed? Is it too late?
Is our love to be forever unrequited?