BISHOP CHANG: Identity, container, attending, authentic engagement, relationships, rewards that we have heard during this day. We now come to that point in our pilgrimage as learners to find faith and to begin naming questions in our communities. As an Asian American, it is often very difficult to ask questions in public. I was brought up in a family culture where you never asked questions, you just obeyed. And so asking questions could only be done after great reflection and when I had a sense of trust for the community in which I was to ask that question. I would hope that we have begun to establish environments of trust where questions that are soul-searching can be asked of each other and of ourselves. Does the integrity of our community life allow us to name the questions of pain and grief, questions of frivolity, questions of our future, questions asked amongst the tensions of the desolation of Jeremiah and the consolation of Isaiah?
For example, I trust this community well enough so I can ask this question: Have you ever thought of what Joseph did with the gold? Have you ever thought of what Joseph did with the gold from the Wise Men?
And yet at the same time I can share another question with you, a question that I didn't ask until I was over 50 years of age and I asked the question to my mother and I asked my mother one day and I said, "Mom, why didn't Dad come to say goodbye to me when I left Honolulu to fly to California and go to seminary? Neither did he come to the airport when I moved to New York to be part of the presiding bishop's staff." Twenty-plus years took place before I had the courage to ask that question. And the response from my mother was, "Your dad never wanted you to go to seminary." If I had not asked the question, the answer would not have been given to me.
And so I hope that each of you as we continue our conversations will begin to name the questions that you have as individuals and as a community. Our next keynoter will help us to name those questions. My introduction to the next speaker was through a book of his that I did read -- The Active Life was part of my sabbatical reading last year. And so as a person who is a master teacher and writer, we welcome you into this community to name the questions that we must face. Welcome.
PARKER PALMER: I'd like to read a poem. The poem is called "Shoulders" and it's by Naomi Shihab Nye, a wonderful poet who is Palestinian-American.
A man crosses the street in rain, stepping gently, looking two times north and south.
Because his son is asleep on his shoulder, no car must splash him, no car drive too near to his shadow.
This man carries the world's most sensitive cargo, but he's not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say, "Fragile, handle with care."
His ears fill up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy's dream deep inside him.
We're not going to be able to live in this world if we're not willing to do what he's doing with one another.
The road will only be wide, the rain will never stop falling.
That poem came to me very profoundly when I was invited to speak with you and share with you this day about a question, will our faith have children? I can't think of a topic more important than the one you're lifting up at this conference and I have at least two reasons for that. First, our children deserve our full attention as precious souls, as ends in themselves, holding them on our shoulders so we can hear the hum of a boy's and a girl's dream inside us. This is a kind of attention that this society has not been giving its children for a long, long time, and it's wrong, it's evil, and we are paying a terrible price for it. Pay attention to our children as ends in themselves, not as leaders of the next generation or as economic assets for the future or as people who can take command in the world situation, but simply because they are precious in and of themselves. Children know that they are not being treated this way and they find it hurtful and it fills them with fear.
Secondly, all of our adult problems can be illumined and even made right if we take children seriously. I'm thinking of two problems in particular. One is our tendency to live by lies and illusions, to forget about telling the truth, and the second is our tendency to try to solve all our problems with violence, and we are surrounded by both of these things today at Enron and at Worldcom and at Global Crossing and at Arthur Andersen and at the FBI and in virtually all of our major institutions lying has become the order of the day. And I think that the fable for our times is The Emperor's New Clothes. I think it is the little child by the side of the road who says, "The king is naked," that we so desperately need today and I found a wonderful reference where Thomas Merton wrote about this. He said, did Merton, "Have you and I forgotten that our vocation as innocent bystanders and the very condition of our terrible innocence is to do what the child did and keep on saying that the king is naked at the cost of being condemned as criminals? Remember the child in the tale was the only one innocent and because of his innocence the fault of the others was kept from being criminal and was nothing worse than foolishness. If the child had not been there, they would all have been madmen or criminals. It was the child's cry that saved them." Those words, written in 1961, sound very contemporary to me.
And on war-making, on this tendency to solve all of our problems with violence, we have that great verse from Isaiah. I'm sure it's been read here already. "There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse and the branch shall grow out of his roots and the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the kid and the calf and a lion and the fatling together and a little child shall lead them. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, for the Earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea." Here's another poem that I think is scriptural as well, "A Child's Dream of Peace."
A window appears between two armies on a battlefield.
Instead of seeing their enemies in the window, the soldiers see themselves as children, they stop fighting and go home and sleep.
When they wake up, the land is well again.
That poem was written by Cameron C. Penny, a fourth grader in Grosse Point Ark, Michigan. "A little child shall lead them."
So your topic is important and I wanted to share those images and the feeling in those words just to say why I think it's so important. Now I'm a Quaker. There's a lot I don't know about the Episcopal Church, although I was years ago when I was a graduate student in Berkeley in the '60s, I taught Sunday school at the Church of the Good Shepherd down by the bay, a wonderful little mission church. Some of you know that church? I see some nodding heads. A fabulous place. I have stories to tell from the Church of the Good Shepherd that will fill the rest of this hour. I saw a women excommunicated at the coffee hour one time. It was a kind of contentious coffee hour, but … But for years, I have made my home with the Quaker community, Quakers with whom the Anglicans had some famous troubles four or five hundred years ago. We can work through that, I'm sure, at this conference. So as a check against my own Quaker ignorance in preparing for this conference, because I really would like to try to serve you well, I made a number of phone calls to Episcopal friends of mine around the country, lay people and priests, and I asked them to talk to me about the situation in the church with regards to children. I wanted counsel and insight on these important questions. The first thing I can tell you is that every person I spoke with had a good story to tell about adults in his or her church who really care about kids. And that is what is most critical. I recently heard an expert on childhood interviewed on NPR. He had done a piece of scholarly research which I found mildly interesting, but at the end of the interview I found it enormously interesting when the interviewer said, "If you had to sum it all up, what is the one thing that every child in this country most needs?" And this guy, cutting through all of the academic jargon, said, "That's easy. Every kid in this country needs some adult who's simply wild crazy about them." If we can find that child in our own lives, if we can go home and encourage every adult we know to find a child to be wild crazy about, we would have done a great thing on this weekend. That's exactly what every child needs.
I have a kid that I'm wild crazy about. She's my granddaughter. She's 12 years old. Her name is Heather, and I called her just last night, in fact, and said, "I'm giving this talk tomorrow. What do you think kids most need?" And she said, "Love." Instantly, she said, "Love." I said, "Oh, that's wonderful, Heather. I'll share that with the group." And then she said, "And they also need a toothbrush." I said, "Well, why?" She said, "Well, at least the kids in my school do. They have really bad breath." So I thought I'd share that, too. There's theology and then there's practicality. I got such a kick out of it. I laughed so hard and I called her back and I said, "You know, I'm gonna tell that tomorrow." She said, "What if they don't like it? What if they boo?" I said, "I'll give 'em your phone number, but" ... and I'll be glad to report that you laughed. So every person I talked to, lay and clergy alike, had a good story to tell about adults in the church caring about children.
But every person I spoke with had another story to tell as well. I would call it the "shadow story,” the shadow side of the church when it comes to our caring for children. And I found it credible because the story I heard is not unique to the Episcopal Church, but reminiscent of experiences that I've had across the board in church settings. I've always found it healthy, if painful, that is, to lift up and look at our shadows, both as individuals like myself, I've even tried to do that in some of my writing, and as institutions. So I want to offer a brief sketch of the shadow story I heard. Please remember I am only the messenger. It has these four or five elements to it.
Well, let me try to answer that question by putting what I want to say in different words, "turning a corner.” As I talked to these half-dozen friends of mine, it came to me that what they were saying to me really was this. There is no way to assure that our faith will have children until we can say that our faith has adults. There's no way to assure that our faith will have children until we can assure -- until we can say with assurance that our faith has adults. I don't mean does our faith have an adult audience. "Audience" is the whole problem. And children don't want to be in the audience. That's one of their challenges to our lives. One of the people I talked to told me a terrific story. She taught the story of David and Goliath with a bunch of squirrelly middle school boys that she loves very dearly. And she did this teaching by bringing to church school a bunch of cloth and had them make slingshots in the first half-hour, which they then took outside into the churchyard. She had a target up on a tree about the place where Goliath's temple would have been, and she said, "Here's some rocks. Let's see if we can hit that sucker." The boys loved it. I would have gone to church a lot as a kid if I got to do … we got candy, which was good enough, but flinging some rocks would have been great. And she said it was astonishing how deeply engaged they got with the story through this kind of experiential immersion in the drama that the story is about and in the skillfulness for this story to have some kind of authenticity and integrity and how they were brought into deeper reaches beyond the slinging of rocks by this bodily engagement with the text. They don't want to be audience, they want to be part of the action. So the question isn't “Does our faith have an adult audience,” the question is, “Does our faith have adult participants who are on a journey together and, therefore, have a journey to share with our children?”
I guess one of the few simple truths that I really know at age 64 is that we cannot give our children or anyone else something we ourselves do not have. Thomas Merton said, "We are called as Christians to give our heart away, but first we have to have our hearts in our own possession." And there are so many people who, for a variety of complex and difficult reasons, do not possess their own hearts. Why do we adults not pay attention to children? Because we so often feel that no one is paying attention to us. I have yet to talk to an adult in a situation of vulnerability where one of the deepest pains is, "Nobody really sees me. Nobody really knows who I am. Nobody really appreciates or understands the contribution I'm trying to make in the world." Why do we not listen to children? Because we don't feel that anyone listens to us. I hope it's been lifted up at this conference -- if it hasn't, I'm sure it will be later -- that for me at least the most important finding of the process that led to the making of this wonderful video is that every one of the people who was invited to answer these honest, open questions said, "Nobody has ever asked me questions like this before. In fact, nobody has ever asked me an honest open question." Just watch it. Watch the next week of your own life, the next months, the next year and find out how often somebody asks you an honest open question that has no other intent than to allow you to tell some part of the truth of your life. It's a rare experience. And if we aren't in a faith community where we're doing that for each other, how in Heaven's name will we do that for children? We won't even know what it is. Why do we give children answers to questions they aren't even asking? -- which is the constant story of the church in so many cases, to answer questions nobody's asking. I think it is because we adults are so deformed and wounded by living in a culture where everybody is throwing answers at us, what passes for journalism in our society is no longer an inquiry into the state of affairs; it's the constant bombardment of answers and images and ways we're supposed to be thinking about things. In every major institution, from politicians to media, entertainment, the schools and our churches, we have answers thrown at us all the time. And there's a deep loneliness around this.
So I want to focus the rest of my remarks on some thoughts about deepening the adult faith community in service of the young, deepening the adult faith community in service of the young. I know there are important questions at the heart of this conference regarding direct service to children. For example, people who know these things wonderfully well who can talk to us about pedagogies that connect with the way children learn, that take them out of the audience role into active participation. Bless the people who are working on those things and we need to learn from them. I simply want to offer a different angle of vision. I want to suggest that if we put our sole focus on what we can do for kids, it may be a very clever way of avoiding looking at our adult selves in the mirror and seeing that we are incapable of providing children with the reassuring and renewing community of elders that every child needs. If we could look in the mirror and see that, we might want to do something about it and the doing of something about it would, I believe, serve our children. So the question I want to pursue is this. What should be going on in the church that will help create an adult community of faithful spiritual seekers who can invite children and young people to join them on that journey? It's the only way I know how to even approach the question on which this conference is based. I want to focus for a while on the spiritual formation of adults for the sake of the young.
What do I mean by "spiritual formation?" Well, there are many ways to come to that question. Here's the way I'll try to work with it this afternoon. By "spiritual formation,” I mean any way we have of creating communal spaces that are safe enough for the soul to come forth from within and give shape to our external lives. Communal spaces that are safe enough for the soul to come forth from within and give shape to our external lives. I have to tell you from the outset I don't think we're born into this world deformed. I think we come here with what Quakers call "that of God in every person.” Do we have within us voices of darkness and distortion? Of course we do. Are they the most fundamental ontological piece of who we are? No. It is the evidence of my own experience that the most truest and most fundamental piece of who we are is that of God in every person, and spiritual formation is not about trying to press the distorted human self into a form approved by some theology or doctrine; it is about creating spaces where that of God within us can be remembered and recalled and speak its voice and help us take our true form, help us resume and renew our true form. Now this talk about creating communal spaces may seem a little odd or a little esoteric, but let me suggest that what a society is all about is creating spaces in which different kinds of things get done. We seem to know a lot, for example, about how to create spaces that invite the intellect to show up. The university does that all the time, a place where the mind can argue its points and parse its logic and pursue its objectives. We know how to create spaces that invite the emotions to show up. Therapy groups do that. That's a communal space where people can grieve and celebrate joy. We know how to create spaces that invite the will to show up. This is called a committee. That is a space intended to -- to consolidate those energies to get a job done. And we certainly know how to create spaces that invite the ego to show up. That's goes without saying. But I don't think we know much about how to create spaces that welcome the soul. The kind of space that welcomes the soul is the kind of space that a good pastoral counselor creates, or a good spiritual guide creates with the individual he or she is sitting with.
I've been the fortunate beneficiary of some good pastoral counseling. It's what helped me through two devastating bouts of clinical depression, some good spiritually-based therapy. And let me say something. As valuable as that one-on-one space can be, we deliver a terrible message about the church community when we say, in effect, the only safe space to take the deepest issues of your lives is into the privacy of the pastor's study because out here with the rest of us, it's dangerous to tell who you really are. I've talked with too many people in the 30 years I've been traveling this country who say, "The church is the least safe space of all to take my deepest problems. If my marriage is coming apart, if a kid is going off the track, if I'm losing a job, this is the last place I can come to just flat-out tell the truth. I can go to the pastor's study, but I can't take it to the community." If we're serious about creating adults who can share a faith journey with the young, we have to be serious about taking that space out of the pastor's study, into the community at large and helping people learn how to come together in ways that make it safe for the soul, in ways that allow that of God within us to speak its voice and make its claim on our lives. I've been working with spiritual formation in community for nearly 30 years and I have to tell you that in my experience it's easier to create safe spaces for the soul outside the church than it is inside the church. I say this as a person committed to the life of the church. The body of Christ is a piece without which I would not be alive. I don't hate the church; I love the church. But there is something so profoundly unsafe in the church. I don't know exactly what it is, maybe because so many lay people cling to the audience role wanting clergy to "do religion" for them, maybe because there's an implicit judgmentalism in Christian culture, a perfectionist counsel in relation to which everybody feels inadequate. You know, I've often said the university is a terrible place because nobody's smart enough to be there. Maybe the church is a place where nobody's good enough to be there, the way we distort its image and the experience. I've never given up on creating these spaces inside the church, but I need to report to you on my experiences outside the church because that's where most of them have been. And I hope we can find ways of bringing more of them into this community that we love so much.
For nearly a decade I've been involved with a program called the Teacher Formation Program, which is now at work in some 30 cities around the country. It's a program in which 25 public school teachers, these amazing people who talk about serving the young, are out there doing it every day, "culture heroes" I call them, asked to solve all the problems that no one else in this society knows how to solve and then being beat up on a daily basis for their alleged inadequacy in doing so while the discourse about public education in this country is dominated by the people who know the least about it. You probably never saw an angry Quaker before, but you're going to! But here he is. I've thought seriously about this, if you, among other things, if you want to support the young, find those public school teachers in your congregation and give them a journey in spiritual formation to help sustain this heroic work they're doing in our public schools.
So we take 25 public school teachers who covenant together to take a two-year journey through a series of eight retreats. It's not a one-stop mountaintop experience; it's eight retreats of three or four days each over a two -year period. We're at work in 30 cities. A third of our participants are people of color. We've been doing it for ten years and not yet has one of those two-year groups stopped meeting because the community becomes so powerful and supportive for them that they keep it going on their own without our financing and without our facilitation. And what is the purpose of this community? Its purpose is solely and simply to help teachers reclaim their souls and rejoin them to their roles, to help public school teachers reclaim their souls and rejoin them to their role, and amazing things happen when people are on that journey in community. It's a unique form of community; its purpose is not to get a job done, not to do cheerleading, not to do booster work to convince people to be teachers or better teachers; it's a form of community that exists simply to support people in an inner journey and touching that of God within themselves.
What kind of space does it take to do that work? What kind of space does it take to welcome the soul? Well, I think the answer hinges a lot of how we understand the soul itself. I will simply share with you the image that has become powerful for me. And it became especially powerful for me in my journey with clinical depression. I think the human soul is very much like a wild animal in two respects. One is it's very tough, it's very resilient, it knows how to survive in hard places, it knows how to subsist on hardly any food or water or light. It can live way back in the woods and somehow manage to make it. That, as closely as I can image it, was my experience in the midst of my devastating depression when all of the faculties I had depended upon were dead and gone. My intellect was laughably useless. My emotions were dead. My ego was shattered. My will was nonexistent to the point that daily I thought that this might be the day to end it all for months at a time. But from time to time way back in the woods I could sense this wild creature surviving, this soul, this true self, that of God in me, and it helped carry me through. If God is no more than that, I will not only settle for it; I will be deeply grateful.
So the soul is tough and resilient, but it is also exactly like a wild animal, especially shy and if we want to see a wild animal, we know that the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods insisting that it come out, yelling and screaming for this thing to make an appearance. We know that that will drive the soul deeper into hiding. And I think a lot of our institutional life is like crashing through the woods demanding that this thing show up. I call them "share or die" events which have no respect for the shyness of the soul because the people doing them don't get it. They don't know their own souls. What do you do to see a wild animal? It's really very simple. You walk quietly into the woods. You sit at the base of a tree for an hour or two. You breathe with the Earth and pretty soon this thing you seek may put in an appearance. You may not catch more than just a glimpse of it out of the corner of your eye, but you will never forget it for the rest of your life. You won't try to improve upon it. You won't try to mess with it. You won't ask it to move over there so you can get a better picture. You will simply relish the experience of having been in the presence of something precious and wild. That's what it's like in our teacher formation groups. We learn to walk quietly into the woods with each other over a two-year period, sit at the base of a tree, breathe with the Earth, and wait for this precious piece of human ontology to show up and teach whatever it has to teach.
I want to say a few things about how that happens. While we don't have many communities of the sort I've just described, the experience I've just described with 25 people I daresay is a pretty rare one in our society, we do have one-on-one relationships where we know something about the thing I've just described. And I invite you to think about two such relationships other than pastoral counseling or therapy or spiritual guidance. I invite you to think about a person in your life, a grandparent, a parent, a friend and neighbor, maybe a child or someone younger than you who has helped you come into some part of the truth of who you are, someone about whom you would tell a story, "This person held me in a way that allowed me to become a significant part of myself, my true self." I've asked a lot of people to tell that story to me, and I've already heard in those stories two critical dimensions. One is this: "That person gave me unconditional love. I didn't have to do anything different or be anything different to be ultimately worthy in this person's eyes. This person valued me as I was." The therapist who gave me the most help recovering from depression, I finally realized that part of the gift he gave me is that he was not wedded to me getting well. Do you know what I mean? I went to another therapist who, I guess, it would have been a feather in his cap if he'd made me well, right? And I kept feeling the pressure, like, "Do this for me that I could put it on my resumé," you know, 'I helped Parker Palmer get well." Doesn't work that way. This person was really just accepting my journey as it was, and it was that unconditional holding with no strings attached that allowed me to take a journey toward wholeness.
A second feature of these relationships I've already hinted at -- in that unconditional love you become surrounded by a force field of energy that makes you want to grow from the inside out, rather than feeling that you are being compelled to grow through someone else's outside-in pressure. Unconditional love doesn't put you to sleep, doesn't say, "Oh, well, heck, I can just be and do anything I want." It's precisely the condition under which you're able to take the risks of growing because growing is always risky. And it's in this force field that you start to know that "Whatever happens, however -- if the risk doesn't pan out, I'm still going to be loved. So I can take the risk." So that's what it's like to sit in these teacher formation groups, to sit in what I've come to call a "circle of trust,” a circle of trust.
Here's a second analogue that many people in this room will be familiar with. Some of us know what it's like to sit at the bedside of a dying person. And as I say that phrase, some of us will be taken back to one of the most powerful experiences of our lives. I've talked with a lot of people who've had that experience and I've heard in what they said two things. One is that this was the moment in which they finally understood that what they were looking at was not a problem for which they had a solution, not a brokenness for which they had a fix. And they realized that this tendency they've had all their lives to sit with other people for a few minutes and then start offering fixes and advices had to be given up here. They had to find a different way of being in that room than as a fixer because this was a life situation to which there was no solution in the conventional sense of that word. A second thing they've understood is that this was a situation in which it would have been profoundly disrespectful to avert one's eyes from something that is too problematic, too painful, too ugly, too insoluble to bear. They had to hold that person in their steady gaze and in doing so started to learn something that hardly can be put into words. What's a way of summing up this lesson? They learned to be present to another person in a way that was neither invasive nor evasive. And they started reflecting on how often in their relationships they were one or the other of those things, how often in community we try to invade the other's interiority. "Here, let me give you the faith answer to that problem. Let me give you the theological fix," or simply turn away from that which is too ugly, too problematic, too difficult to keep our eyes on. What is it like to sit with another person in a way that's neither invasive nor evasive? It's healing, it's empowering, it's transforming for everyone involved. I at least have no reports from the other side about what it's like for the dying person to be held in that relationship, but I can tell you this with great certainty. As I'm drawing my last breath, I would like to be in the presence of somebody who's holding me exactly that way, not in the presence of someone who's madly running around trying to fix the machinery I'm hooked to and not in the presence of somebody who's walking out the door because this is just too hard to handle. I believe that if I were held in that way, it would encourage me to think that I have within me what is needed to make that journey. And that is what we do for each other when we sit in a circle of trust.
When we gather our teachers for the first night, we lay out a couple of ground rules. We say, "We're about to embark on a two-year journey. You're going to be spending over a month of time together cumulatively. And the first thing you need to know, as I've said, this is not a share-or-die event, which is to say that if there's ever an invitation extended here, and these are all invitations, not commands, that your soul doesn't respond to, then you now, with our support, do whatever you need to do. Take a walk, take a nap, write in your journal. If you want to be in a small group, but the question that we've asked is not the right one for you, go to the small group, invent your own question and answer it. Your soul is free here because your soul knows better than we do what you need. This is not a share-or-die event." And the second ground rule is that for two years we will prohibit any effects to fix, save, advise, or set each other straight. No fixing, no saving, no advising, no setting each other straight.
It never fails whenever I've started a two-year group, somebody pipes up at that point and says, "Well, what in Heaven's name are we going to do for two years then because you've just robbed us of the only things we know how to do?" And so in place of fixing, saving, advising, and setting each other straight, these behaviors that drive the shy soul back into the woods and, instead, bring out the intellect, the ego, the will, the emotions, especially the intellect and the ego -- instead of doing that, we're going to learn how to be present in a couple of other ways. We're going to learn what it means to speak our own truth from our own center to the center of the circle, not to another person in the circle. I am not going to throw my truth at you by way of rebuttal or refutation; I'm going to speak from my truth to the center of the circle and simply let the circle hold it there. If you want to respond to me, you may not respond by challenging me or telling me that I'm wrong, but you may, if you learn how to do it, ask me an honest open question.
Now this is probably one of the hardest spiritual disciplines I know, to ask people honest, open questions, questions that don't have an agenda behind them, questions that are not speeches or advices in disguise. "Have you thought about seeing a therapist" is not an honest open question. Or "Can't you see it's your mother's fault" either. But if I ask you, "Has anything like this ever happened before in your life," and if you tell a story about that prior experience and I ask you, "What did you learn from that experience that might have some usefulness now," these are questions that keep the field open, questions that I ask without possibly being able to sit here thinking, "I know the right answer to this question and I sure hope you give it to me." Questions that aren't set up, questions that drew from the people in the video the kinds of deep truths that open honest questions always draw.
There's a Quaker process that I've written about. Some of you, I think, have even probably worked with it, called the Clearness Committee. Quakers, you know, had to invent a lot of social structures because they created a church without benefit of clergy. And so a lot of things that would normally be done in the office of the clergyperson, like counseling around issues and problems, Quakers had to find a way to do that in community, always honoring the inner teacher of the individual and at the same time honoring the power of community to help us sort out this very complex thing called the inner life. See, in spiritual formation you have to hold together the inner journey with the power of community. I get very amused when people say, you know, "The world's so confusing I have to go inward to get clarity." Well, when I go inward, I find at least as much confusion as there is out there in the world. It's more confusing than New York City. At least in New York City you can get a street map and maybe a taxi driver who knows where he's going. But the equivalent doesn't exist on the inner journey. But if I sit in community in a way that I can put my truth in the center of the circle, hear other people tell their truth, hold these gently without fixing, advising, saving, or setting people straight, ask honest open questions, receive honest open questions, we do over a period of time what I call "weaving a tapestry of truth" in which people do the most remarkable learning and the most remarkable growing, the most remarkable self-correcting.
There's another we do. I'm just listing a few of the most important. We put in the center of the circle significant texts. I call them "third things,” a poem, a teaching story, perhaps from the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament that has a voice -- this is why it's a third thing -- that is as real and as worthy of respect as the voice of the facilitator or the voice of a participant, and we learn to hold that text in a way that tries to listen to its voice and tries to help to allow its voice to clarify our own voices. Emily Dickinson has this great line, "Tell the truth, but tell it slant." I've always loved that line because it's very respectful of the shy soul which Emily Dickinson knew a lot about. "Tell the truth, but tell it slant." So when you put a poem or a teaching story in the center of the circle, people can talk about the deepest things without ever having to talk about themselves. We all know it's about us, but we can attribute it to the poem. How many human potential groups have I been in where somebody just runs head-long into the question, "Who are you? Get it out. Tell it. Put it on the table. Name your identity." You know, "Get out, take that mask off." And the shy soul just skitters back into the woods and we end up playing games. But here, put a poem by May Sarton in the center of the circle. Now I become myself. It's taken time, many years and places. I have been dissolved and shaken, worn other people's faces, run madly as if time were there crying a warning, "Hurry, you will be dead before what?" And it goes on. People hear that poem and they can talk about these complex issues of identity and selfhood without ever having to talk directly about themselves. People are sitting there thinking about the masks they've worn, the other people's faces that they've tried to put on. They're sitting and thinking about the experiences that have dissolved and shaken them. They're asking the question, "What is it that I'm running from," as if "I will be dead before what?" And a whole new level of discourse sets in.
Let me tell you this story. We work with public school teachers in one of the arenas of our country -- namely public education -- that is most fearful about breaching the rightful separation between church and state. This is a hot button issue in public education, as you well know. I've often said, "I'm a Quaker whose spiritual forebears were hanged on Boston Common by people who weren't altogether clear about the separation of church and state, so I don't have any illusions about the good old days. And I have no desire to go back there." Nor do I have any patience for those who would use that, a misinterpretation of that constitutional prohibition to keep students and teachers from addressing the deepest questions of meaning in our lives. After Columbine, how in the world can we use the separation of church and state to keep teachers and students from addressing the deepest issues in our lives? It's evil so to do. Well, here we are doing spiritual formation ... here we are doing spiritual formation in this highly contested arena and when we gather this way with this profound respectfulness for each soul in the circle, with this capacity to ask honest open questions without fixing, advising, or saving or setting straight, you know what? We can put the healing of Bartimaeus as the text in the center of the circle, have the richest possible discussion about it among all these public school teachers who are trying to figure out how to get out of the dusty roadside and cry out all the more when they're told to shut up, who take power and inspiration from that New Testament tale about a man seeking healing from Jesus, and they and Jews and Buddhists and Hindus and Christians and none of the above, and in ten years across 30 places in this country we have never had a peep about the violation of church and state. We can take texts of deep significance and raise issues of deep meaning and do it in a way that invites people to speak and listen without either giving or taking offense. And that is something that smart people will tell you isn't possible anymore, and I'm here to tell you they're wrong because I've seen it with my own eyes.
We frame, and I come to the end now of my comments about this program, but I think it would interest you to know how we've framed this two-year journey. We frame it by using, in each of these eight retreats over a two-year period, the metaphors of the changing seasons. And I will tell you that I had this wonderful moment about a year into the development of this program back in the early '90s, I was going into the second year of the cycle of fall, winter, spring, summer and the themes associated with them and I woke up one morning saying, "My gosh, Parker, you've reinvented the liturgical year." And then I thought, "Well, bucko, where do you think they got it in the first place?" The cycle of the seasons is a set of metaphors that can hold enormous religious and non-religious diversity in a deeply respectful way I think because we are all creatures imbedded in nature and we all know in our lives what it's like to move through that cycle of the seasons. Let me tell you quickly some of the metaphors we use.
The fall is when nature is planting her seeds and so our theme often in the fall is the Seed of True Self, it’s a phrase Merton used. What was planted on earth when you were born? What bundle of potentialities was in the seed of life that you were given at birth? And are you still in touch with that seed, or have you, as many adults have done, moved so far away from that original giftedness that you hardly know who you are anymore? You're not operating out of your most powerful potentials. We have so many burned-out teachers and when they start to tell those autobiographical stories from early childhood around questions like, "When did you first know you wanted to be a teacher," it's a wonderful question and the stories that come are amazing. In Baltimore inner city schools I'll never forget the woman who said, "Well, I knew I wanted to be a teacher when I was five years old. I sat my three year-old brother down in the corner of the basement and behind a desk, I gave him his lessons. If he refused to do his lessons, I complained to the principal, who's my mother. And this recovery of the fact that I was planted on this Earth with this gift and desire to teach is a power renewal of the vocation that has now become so hemmed about by discouragement, with high stakes testing and political pressures of the most vicious sort. So the seed of true self and the recovery of original giftedness is one of the themes we work with in the fall.
In the winter, that seed that was planted with such promise at birth seems now to be frozen under, dead, and gone. The winter is the season that so many of our teachers identify most closely with. But if you live in the upper Midwest, the snow is coming and you all know this, you learn that which you look out your window, things just seem dead and gone, but they really aren't. They're underground, dormant, awaiting, a lot of them, a new birth. Some have died, yes, but a lot of it is waiting expectantly for a season yet to come. And for adults to start sorting out what is dormant in their lives as well as what's dead and gone is a powerful exercise of a spiritual sort. You know, we adults are supposed to be completely realized and fulfilled. We aren't supposed to have any dormancy left in us. But it ain't so, is it? And when adults start to get in touch with that which is dormant within them, they are so much better able to see dormancy in the young. As I like to say, what is a teenager except a bundle of dormancies? But the stories of great teaching that we all are so familiar with seem to have one common element in them. "This person saw something in me that I didn't see in myself." This person had an eye for my dormancy. And by working with this theme, we help teachers see more clearly in the young people they're so bravely serving.
The spring is that season when we're surprised every year by the fact that out of death comes new life. How much closer can we get to the heart of the liturgical reality than that? We call it the "flowering of paradox,” a paradox, the darkness and light, death and life, go hand in hand. It's not either/or. And we talk about all the paradoxes that the teacher has to hold in the act of good teaching.
And then the summer, the summer, the season of abundance and harvest, and so we look at all that has grown up in our lives since we were planted here on Earth and we ask the adult question, "Whom is this meant to feed, the harvest of my own giftedness? To whom am I meant to offer it in the world?" You have within your easy reach a liturgical cycle that takes you to those same places. I don't know whether these images help lift that up or freshen up in some way. If they do, I'll be glad, but I will tell you that in the secular world misnamed because it's God's world at least as much as the church's, in that world out there those themes host the most amazing conversations of inner searching in community that I have ever been privileged to participate in. This is the way I think we can be on a journey together as adults. This is one way I think we can serve the young and, if I may, I will, because I'm reminded by this beautiful young child in the aisle, of children and young people and a story, I will close with a story.
This is a story of a teacher in my very first teacher formation group. His name was Mark Bond, and I want to tell it to you because he may remind you of some people in your parishes. He's about six-six, taller than I am, probably 20 pounds heavier, big guy, and a shop teacher in central Michigan. I'm using his real name because he tells this story on himself and I'm happy to tell it on him, too. He came in to the circle that first night for this two-year journey and I can't do a full act here, because the equipment isn't quite right, I really need lower chair. Imagine this chair to be quite low. Mark is the guy who's sitting in the circle and I'll probably tip over here, but that's all right, like this, all night long. He held that posture the next day and into the third day, never saying a word, looking utterly withdrawn, distracted, bored, alienated. And in the middle of the third day he came up to me during a break and he said, "Can we talk?" And I said, "Sure. That'd be fine." He says, "Well, I got to -- let's go outside. I don't want anybody else to hear this." "Okay." We got outside and he looked at me and he said, "What the hell is going on in there?" This remind you of anybody in your parish? So I said, "Well, you know, Mark, we've been working on honest open questions. Is that one? I mean, you know ... “ he says, "Yeah, it's an honest open question." I said, "Well, good, but the nature of those is I can't answer them for you." "Thanks a lot. That's a big help." "Well, I really can't. The answer is up to you." He says, "Well, I don't get it. I can't figure out what everybody's talking about and I don't know whether to stay or go." I said, "Well, all I can tell you is if you'd like to stay, you're just welcome to stay. If you'd like to go, you're welcome to go. If you want to go and then come back later, you're welcome to do that. It's up to your soul." "Big help you are, Parker." Mark came back the next time, the next time, the next time, the next time, the next time and the next time. Six out of eight retreats, repeated that posture, never said a word through those retreats. That's a year-and-a-half. That's a long time. And in each of those retreats he took me out for the same conversation! So, you know, I kinda learned how to deal with it as time went on. But I got the message. He kept coming back, right? So on the seventh retreat, we're now in the spring of the second year, we commenced the opening circle and Mark is sittin' right on the edge of his chair, leaning into the circle. Well, I'm real intuitive facilitator, so I said, "Yes, Mark," you know? He says, "I got it." "Oh, wonderful. What'd you get?" I thought maybe he had a bacteria or something. I didn't know. So he said, "Well, let me tell you a story. He says, “For the last two years my principal has been on my back,” and now he's started to hear what had been goin' on in his life back home. This wasn't about us. This was about Mark. "For two years my principal has been on my case and he's been insisting that I go to the summer workshop on the hi-tech methods of teaching shop. And I've been telling him to go jump in the lake. I've been telling him that I've been teaching shop for 25 years and this hi-tech thing is just a fad, it's gonna go away, and even if it isn't a fad, my students don't need that right now. They need the hands-on experience. They can get the hi-tech stuff later. The workshop will be a waste of time and money and I'm not going. Two years in a row that's happened. And tension between me and my principal has gotten really severe. It's a small school. I'm kind of a faculty leader, so the people are taking sides. It got to be pretty awful." So he says, "A few weeks ago" -- we're now in the third year of this drama -- "my principal called me in again and he says, 'Mark, this time I really mean it. You've got to go to the hi-tech workshop this summer." And Mark said, "I said to him, 'No, I'm not going." But he said, "At least now I can be honest with you about why." He said, "I've been" -- Mark said, "I've been sittin' with this group of teachers who've been talking about their inner lives and I guess I've figured out I have one, too. So I've been thinking about my inner life and I've realized that why I don't want to go to this workshop, I've just been blowin' smoke about that for the last couple of years. The real reason I don't want to go is I'm afraid. I'm afraid I won't understand a word they're saying. I'm afraid that I'll come home from that feeling like I've done it the wrong way for 25 years. I feel like the fear is that if I go to this workshop, I'll come home convicted that I'm over the hill. I'm not going to go, but at least I can be honest with you about why." And he said, "There was a long silence and my principal finally looked up and said, "You know what, Mark? I'm afraid, too. Let's go together."
And we were just all, you know, on the edge of tears for a couple of reasons. One is, if that story could be repeated 10-12 times a week in different institutions around the country, we'd soon have a revolution on our hands. It's a story about the power of truth telling, about the power of owning your own reality and about the power of that to bring us into real relationship with each other. He and his principal went together and he's a transformed man. You can see him on a video we produced about the Teacher Formation Program where he appears saying, "Bottom line for me is I'm no longer in despair." But the second and final piece of that story is this. That group of people, those 24 other teachers, please think about them for a moment with appreciation and respect. For two years, for a year-and-a-half at least, into two years, they held Mark Bond in a way that was neither invasive, nor evasive. They held him in a space where he could do inner work at his own pace, in his own level, and toward his own identity and integrity. If that's not spiritual formation, I don't know what is. If that's not the action of God in our lives, I don't know what is. Nobody in that group said, "Come on, man. Get with it! Either speak up here or give that chair to a real person who could use it." Nobody in that group said, "Hey, man, I took Psychology 101. You know what? You're afraid." You know, which any idiot could do and a lot of idiots do do. But that community of people had a practice that held that man in a space of profound respect as if they were sitting at the bedside of a dying person, practice the presence, and it has profound consequences in his life, the life of his school, and the life of his students.
I sometimes think, "You know what? We're all dying all the time anyway. Why not learn to be present this way to each other before the last few hours?"
Thank you very much.
BISHOP CHANG: On page 130 of Parker Palmer's book, The Active Life, he has these words. "Community is the context in which abundance can replace scarcity.” This afternoon you have come among us to share God's outrageous generosity with us by opening up to us the possibilities of circles of conversation and trust. I hope that we as a community may hear those words and unashamedly share our abundance with each other in our time together.