Thirty-five years ago, I discovered Paulo Freire and his seminal work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I was teaching adults to read in Southeast Washington DC and on Capitol Hill, when a literacy mentor suggested his book, and Freire’s insights turned everything we were doing inside out. We threw out our brand new workbooks and replaced them with the words the students wanted and needed to read: instructions for the safe operation of heavy equipment, ingredient lists for the cleaning products they used, and the Bible(!). The shift in the class dynamic was striking: rather than snoozing through a lesson at the end of the work day, the students asked to meet first thing in the morning, and they were there before I arrived, poring over the texts they longed to understand.
We started each class with a paragraph from the gospel of John, and then split up into groups determined by job. The janitors might put together a shop vac or change the pads on a floor polisher, and the cleaning crew talked through what chemicals shouldn’t be mixed on a surface. Each day the learners brought with them whatever they needed to de-code. And at lunch they asked for more time with the gospel.
I’ve gone back to Freire lately, this time reading a transcript of a lecture he delivered in Sweden in 1988. He was speaking to a conference of social workers, but he could have been talking to anyone who believes in the world as it could be. Do you dream of a society without injustice? How can we bring it into being?
He speaks honestly about how often our rhetoric is divorced from action. “It is much easier to talk than to do,” he says. Yet he calls for a convergence between what is said and what is done as a measure of personal and systemic integrity. How can one call on love as a virtue, he suggests, and not engage in practical actions of love?
Second, Freire admonishes us to develop a permanent curiosity toward oneself and in those with whom we work or otherwise engage. Orient your relationships around questions and have the humility to accept how little you know about the other person and what makes her tick. Ask her how she is, what she cares about, what makes her hurt or angry. Balance your search for competence in what you do with your commitment to be in relationship with those you serve.
Develop your tolerance of difference in others, so that you can see beyond it to what you have in common. A commitment to grow in ease with difference leaves you with more energy to fight for change, Freire argues. Further, be patiently impatient or impatiently patient with how things are. Being only patient risks a corrosive complacency and accepting that things cannot change. On the other hand, impatience can often alienate the very partners you need to help shift the status quo. Hold them in tension, he advises.
Lasting change comes not by changing someone’s mind, but through engaging and mobilizing hearts, including our own. Consider this: those who make change are the ones who have been changed themselves. Society is transformed when we transform.
If you call on love as a virtue, what are the practical actions of love you engage in?
I don’t know if you are aware, but the August energy…yes—energy, not weather, was already being intuited as a grey, murky, and sticky one; given to potential tumult in relationships, communications, and general feelings of destabilization. Certainly with all that is happening in Afghanistan and Haiti, not to mention the rising variant COVID cases around us, there is plenty of evidence to support those intuitions. I certainly feel I have been confronted with that grey gloomy stuff since the beginning of the month and maybe you have too.
I have learned several really good techniques to stay centered, focused, and grounded and thought I would share them here with you.
- JUST BREATHE. No, really. Slow, deep breathing are really important to both your body and psyche right now. When you feel your emotions going into overdrive, go off alone (outside is best), sit with your feet on the ground, back straight, cross your hands, place them on the center of your chest near your heart and BREATHE DEEPLY. Inhale to a count of 3, hold, exhale to a count of 3. Repeat at least 4 times or more until you feel yourself shift inside. You will definitely feel a “shift” within. Remember the Scripture, “BE STILL and KNOW THAT I AM GOD.” (Psalm 46.10)
- “LET GO, LET GOD.” Use this phrase as a mantra when you find yourself unable to accept what you may perceive as the “unacceptable.” For example, on the road to an appointment and finding more traffic than you expected you suddenly realize you will be late, just let go of the worry, judgment, and mind chatter that forms the drama around being late. Choose to let it go into the mystery of GOD so that you can remain present in the NOW. This one always prevents me from moving off into some storyline in my head that is not in the least helpful to my mind or my blood pressure! Scriptural reference: “You shall keep them in perfect Peace, whose mind remains on you.” (cf. Is 26.:3) GOD’s Presence is NOW.
- Find SOLITUDE in nature. This means no earbuds or others talking with you. It means paying attention to the rhythm of nature around you—the call of birds, the flutter of leaves, the scampering of a squirrel or rabbit, the passing clouds in the sky. Mother Nature herself is the great healer if we will allow her to be. Even sitting on the patio and watching birds come and go is healing. Anything that disconnects us from our usual mind chatter is satisfactory. Sorry, but this isn’t the time to read that book either. My Scriptural reference here is Psalm 19: 1-6.
These are my favorite ways to help me move quickly into a more balanced, energetic state of being. They have done wonders so far this month. So, what about you? Especially those of you who are more kinetically-informed than I am. What do y’all do to stay focused, centered, and grounded these days? Let me hear from you!
What’s the most impactful book you’ve read this summer? For me it is the debut novel of Ocean Vuong titled On Earth We are Briefly Gorgeous. The work is autobiographical, written as a letter to the protagonist’s mother, and it traces the trauma his family has experienced, first in Vietnam, and then in the United States. The narrator invites us to experience his most intimate moments of processing pain and claiming strength, seeking to understand his mother and her mother, as well as himself, and the choices they have made to survive. It is a story of physical and emotional discovery, how the body remembers, and keeps the score.
For me, the narrative was an invitation to walk around in shoes quite different from my own, and to realize how much we have in common. Heller McAlpin writes, “The son knows that chances are slim that his mother, whose grasp of English is limited, will actually read his confessional missive. (The story) is more about processing and articulating difficult memories than about direct communication. Grappling with the limits of language, he is “trying to break free” by writing. The result is a fractured narrative of a fractured family, torn by harrowing experiences — those of the mother and grandmother in Vietnam, and of the boy they raised together in Hartford, Conn., in the 1990s. Abused by his loving but mentally ill mother and tormented by schoolmates, the narrator, Little Dog, eventually finds solace in his first love affair, a tragic relationship with a rough American teenager ravaged by drugs. His true salvation, however, comes mostly in reading and writing, which cracks open his understanding of his family’s history.” (NPR interview with the author)
On the face of it, the author’s experiences and mine couldn’t be more divergent. And yet our work as sons is much the same: Listening deeply to the members of our family systems (what is/was said and not said), honoring other’s pain and then distancing ourselves from it, if need be, acknowledging our personal struggles and strengths, and forgiving each other for being human, all of which is prelude to healing. Writing our narrative sets us free.
Not everyone needs to read someone else’s work to accomplish this task, but it helps. You might consider D. Watkins The Cook Up, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Ernest Hemingway’s A Separate Peace, the poetry of Mary Oliver, the healing stories of Jesus, or the Book of Genesis. Each one presents an individual navigating family and self-discovery, love and loss, surviving and thriving.
Keep a journal, or make mental notes, and move from reaction to response. We will never make the world a better place, or heal ourselves, if we are stuck in patterns of reactivity. Do the hard work of identifying other’s pain and your own. Then consider how you are more than your struggles. Practice gratitude: every day discover three things that you are thankful for, and see the world through that set of lenses, instead of only how you (or others or the world) can’t measure up.
Love you a lot,
The Transfiguration, Kelly Latimore
This Friday, August 6th, we mark the Feast of the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-32, Matthew 17:1-13). Luke recounts how Peter, John, and James go with Jesus up a mountain to pray. Jesus is transfigured: his clothes become dazzling white and Moses and Elijah appear, talking with him about his earthly departure in Jerusalem. The disciples (though sleepy) witness the majesty of the moment. Peter wants to stay on the mountain, suggesting that they build three dwellings, one for each of the holy men. But as Peter speaks, a voice comes from above: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Then Peter, John, and James are alone with Jesus on the mountain again.
The Transfiguration is often interpreted as a taste of what is to come: the transfigured Christ foreshadows the Risen and Ascended Christ (Holy Women, Holy Men). I think it also speaks to our human desire to build houses for God – our good intention as well as our desire for control.
Glitch Transfiguration, Kelly Latimore (and Elliot)
The iconographer Kelly Latimore posted the above image to his website last month (the original is at the top of this post). “Glitch Transfiguration” was created accidentally with his nephew but it captured something important in the process. He writes,
“Like Peter in Matthew 17, we are often tempted to try and create our own transfigurations. Create our booths. Although we often mean well using grand displays of music, liturgy, and art to bring “The divine down to earth”…what we are trying to contain is always right in front of us. It is divine that Jesus doubled down being human – wounds and all. Peter fails to see that Jesus cannot be confined to one location. He can’t tie down and domesticate the wild spirit of God’s Kingdom. We are being called to follow Jesus to Jerusalem, into the unknown. The light we think we hold has already been reflecting and scattering in all directions…”
I know that I, like Peter, often want to corral or curate experiences of God. It’s laughable, because obviously I can’t…but I still try. “Be here, God! In this sermon!” Or, “Be here, Jesus! In this service project! In this curriculum! Don’t you see how well organized it is? Don’t you see all the preparation I’ve done so that you can be present?” And my desire for God becomes a desire that everything goes according to (my) plan, without a glitch. Look at this nice booth – stay right here in it!
Like I said, laughable. God is always present, everywhere – it has nothing to do with me (or anyone). The desire to make God’s presence known isn’t a bad one: it’s part of living sacramentally, of striving to be outward and visible signs of God’s inward and spiritual grace. (And, when we fail, trying again, because our failure has nothing to do with the reality of God all around us.) It’s a balance, always: between wanting things to go a certain way (often inflected by pride but hopefully guided by prayer and preparation!); of being guided and led by the wisdom of tradition and community; and of the wildness of Holy Spirit, constantly reminding us that God is much, much bigger than we could ever imagine, that Jesus is never tied to a certain time or place, and that the Spirit is thoroughly capable of working in and through our glitches, too.
As we move into August and approach the start of a new program year, here is a prayer to attend our preparation and the holy glitches that will occur:
God, you transfigured Jesus on the holy mountain, revealing your Son to his friends. Mercifully grant us deliverance from the distraction of our own desire, from the disquietude of this world, so that we may behold Christ in his beauty all around us. With your Spirit direct our attention to your works, so that we may seek you, and the knowledge and love of you, in all that we do and are. Amen.
Both icons are by Kelly Latimore. You can see more of his work on his website: https://kellylatimoreicons.com/