"The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God." -St Irenaeus of Lyon

Posts tagged “practical theology

What is “Vulnerability” All About Anyway?

As an academic who regularly conceptualises about poverty and vulnerability, I get into a lot of back and forth arguments with people about the nature of poverty and vulnerability. Everyone thinks they know something about both of these concepts. To some extent, everyone does know something about both concepts. But it’s tricky when we try to generalise from our own experiences. What follows is one of my more readable syntheses on the nature of vulnerability. Should you want full citations, I’m happy to provide. One core citation is Paul Farmer’s Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights and a New War on the Poor. Strongly recommended.

I want to ask the reader to think about vulnerability and deliberately invite the reader to think of an infant known personally by the reader at some point in the reader’s life.  At the most basic level, what does an infant need?

When I did the exercise above, my one word answer was “care.” My friends welcome new babies into this world constantly. Almost everyone my age has direct, full-time responsibility for an infant. Conveniently, I do not have children of my own so I can stay out of the “fog of war” of the daily parental struggles associated with caring for children and notice some themes across the experience. In caring for infants, fears regularly collide with hopes. Parents want their kids to be healthy, happy, successful, and cultivate a broad sense of being able to have fun living life. Almost without fail, parents rejoice when these desires seem to be “on track” and mourn in seasons where these desires seem to be little more than pipedreams on a rainy day.

Measuring these conceptual insights against the literature, many people have written about analyzing failures to be healthy, be happy, and develop capabilities for life. Some physicians like Farmer recognize that “to be healthy” requires a lot more than simply bodily integrity. To Farmer(2004), “health” involves a holistic sense wellness that enables the poor people to realise their social and economic rights. To use Farmer’s criteria of discerning decisions that most prefer the poor, I demand evidence that the poor describe their poverty in terms of health and/or wellness. A major project conducted by the World Bank to ask people about their poverty indicates strongly that the poor view their principal challenges in life related to failures to achieve wellness. Building from the voices of the poor, advocates for the poor assert that wellness has dimensions of material wellbeing, bodily wellbeing, social wellbeing, and security while permitting freedom of choice and action (Narayan et al., 2001). Further, development scholars (Gough and McGregor, 2007) have begun the arduous task of synthesizing a vast volume of work across a range of scholarly disciplines to advance a more rough-and-ready wellbeing framework for use in development policies.

Thinking about caring for infants, I observe people differ. After all, no two infants are exactly the same. Even when infants live in the same family, their caregivers quickly realize that each infant represents a unique person and needs a different approach to care.[1] When theorising about the nature of individual care, Sen identifies at least five categories that change the basket of the goods and services needed by individual persons for human flourishing: 1) personal heterogeneities like age, gender, or disability, 2) environmental diversities largely presented as climatic regimes, 3) social climate concerning the overall quality of common public goods, 4) relational perspectives as to how one navigates various norms and customs in communities, and 5) intra-household patterns of distribution related to providing care (Sen, 1999, 70-71). Using Sen’s analysis (1999) encourages thinking about people as individuals, acknowledging that certain decisions, such as allocating resources within a household (1983), may be nearly impossible for an outsider to see.[2]

[1] The observation of no two infants having identically the same needs holds true even amongst the identical twins I have met.

[2] Sen’s framework can be misused, particularly when applied to the identification of vulnerable groups and in no way should be understood as the only framework to discuss wellbeing at an individual level. Sen’s conceptualisation around entitlement theory and development as freedom represent watershed moments in the intellectual history of analysing poverty and vulnerability.



The Double Whammy of Welcome

As I interact with the world around me, I see that “Welcome” is a contested concept. Generally, we begin with the operating assumption that few things are more important than to be perceived as welcoming. With the world vastly estranged from one another, pursuing reconciliation means being a people of welcome.

But the double whammy of welcome is that we often expect people to come to us. That is to say, we posit ourselves as being the welcoming rather than the welcomed. Being the welcomed can be challenging and hard. Being the welcomed requires taking a moment to pause and see what’s going on.

For instance, monasteries in the Christian tradition tend to focus on practising hospitality. They have a sacred duty to welcome the stranger without expectation of return. But when one goes to a monastery and receives their welcome, one has an opportunity to learn to be a guest. And I love being welcomed by a monastery. Yet, the more I receive the welcome of the monastery, the more I want to be accepting as much hospitality from them as I can. I want to express authentic appreciation for the food they serve me, I want to breathe deeply in the space of silence and receive the silence in joy, I want to join them in their life of prayer (even as that means crawling out of bed before sunrise for at 0300 or 0500). I  hope they forgive me for being sleepy while they pray and can see my intention of engaging with them in their life.

But if I were to say that monastics would be more welcoming if they did not choose to pray at O-Dark-Thirty, then I think I have violated the sacred trust that makes hospitality possible. It is true that I do not have to go join the monastics at prayer, although I have gone to visit monasteries that make an explicit request at the outset that travellers to the monastery make every reasonable effort to attend the prayer services. With the plethora of options afforded to me as a traveller in the modern world, I am not exactly forced ever to accept the hospitality of a monastic.

Receiving the welcome of others often requires surrendering aspects of one’s own preferences. When a vegetarian friend offers to make me dinner while I have a meat craving, I have a choice: I can forgo temporarily my desire for meat to accept freely my friend’s hospitality or I can constrict the available options for my vegetarian friend’s hospitality to the point where my friend is forced to accept my hospitality. I can even go so far as to assert my meat craving, my desire to cook meat (and only meat), and reach the conclusion that I simply must pass on my friend’s invitation for dinner all together.

As an ideal, “You are welcome here” sounds absolutely amazing. I’m welcome! I’m welcome! I’m welcome! But to be welcome, I’m required to receive something. Being welcomed requires joining myself, at least temporarily, to another’s experience. Being welcomed means turning off the intrinsic complainer to accept the gift for what it is.

So, on the balance, being welcoming requires creating space to accommodate people. Sometimes it is physical space. My current living space means it’s really hard for me to welcome more than one person… and even that’s awkward because the table in my kitchen doesn’t sit two comfortably. To welcome someone to sit around my table, I honestly have to bring my table into my bedroom.

Yet, being welcoming requires having something to offer. The hard part of being welcoming is that someone might absolutely refuse what you’re offering. People might have good reasons to refuse what it is that you’re offering, but ultimately you need a space to be yourself. Someone might choose not to receive the hospitality of a monastic community because they experience difficulty breathing in a desert climate. Placing a monastery in the desert does not mean that the monastery is unwelcoming; it means that the monastery invites guests into the desert. If I extend hospitality to another person by offering them a meal, I am constrained by my cooking abilities and my budget. But to extend someone the hospitality of a shared meal, what I have to offer is my shared food. My friend might need to refuse for a health reason (like they will puff up like a balloon if they eat shrimp), but I cannot be faulted for trying to offer my friend shrimp.

Life happens at the pragmatic interface. Extending a welcome really does not mean much without some authentic giving. If all we give is a statement of “Everyone is welcome” then we wind up with a collection of people who can receive that statement. It sounds great. It really does not help people understand what welcome means. I could say “Everyone is fantastic.” Without some effort to say what I mean in word and deed when I say “fantastic,” the phrase will ring empty. From my vantage point, welcoming requires providing some translation.

I’ve also discovered that welcoming sustains itself when otherwise autonomous folks decide to stick around to be welcoming. One of the reasons why monasteries can be welcoming places is that they have monastics do to the welcoming. Those people at the core of any group focusing on extending “welcome” need to have a sharp vision of what that welcome looks like. Does it mean that the group stays in one geographic place so others can come? Does it mean that the group travels together to go towards others? What is the rhythm of life associated with being welcoming? Welcoming is nearly worthless without some concrete reality.

In the English language, it is customary to say “You’re welcome” after someone says “Thank you.” It’s one of the first things parents tend to teach their kids. To say “Thank you” one needs to express gratitude. Welcoming, giving, receiving, and gratitude get lumped together in a package. In teaching please, thank you, and you’re welcome, elders invite the younger to become people who can give and receive hospitality. Giving and receiving hospitality involves a growth trajectory. We can (and we do) grow and change in how we receive hospitality from people.

The double whammy of welcome is that to welcome we need to be in relationships characterized by giving and receiving. Giving and receiving involves concrete whats that can absolutely be refused. If we actively refuse someone’s hospitality, it strikes me as a categorical error to say that person is not welcoming. Generally, I think we use the phrase not welcoming as a way to go after someone for not accommodating us. Seeking accommodation is a different space than seeking hospitality. But I think people often confuse the two, demanding that a host give the guest something the host is unable to give.

If all I have in my house is lemonade, I’m not going to be able to accommodate your desire for Diet Coke. If you can accept my hospitality, I’m happy to share my lemonade. But I have lemonade to offer.

Why We Pray Together

Some of my friends on Twitter have noticed a new hashtag that has appeared on my feed: #ourfather

It’s my attempt to share a basic commitment to pray with a friend. We’ve set out to pray the Lord’s Prayer three times daily, recognising that this prayer forms the basis of the Christian life. The observance comes from the commands of the Didache, an ancient Christian document.

Neither pray as the hypocrites; but as the Lord commanded in His Gospel, thus pray: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, as in heaven, so on earth. Give us today our daily bread, and forgive us our debt as we also forgive our debtors. And bring us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one; for Yours is the power and the glory for ever. Thrice in the day thus pray.

Additionally, this prayer is fundamentally a corporate prayer that joins us together with all of God’s children on earth. When we pray “Give us this day our daily bread” we pray just as much for our own material needs as we do for those who starve. As a student studying poverty, the global relevance of this prayer means a lot to me.

This morning, I came across a fantastic set of intercessions that I wanted to share:

Almighty Father, the heavens cannot hold Your greatness: yet through Your Son we have learned to say, “Father, may Your kingdom come!”

We praise You as Your children; may Your name be kept holy in the hearts of all mankind. Father, may Your kingdom come!

Help us to live in the hope of heaven today: make us ready to do Your will on earth. Father, may Your kingdom come!

Give us this day the courage to forgive others: as You forgive us our trespasses. Father, may Your kingdom come!

Father, be with us in all our trials: do not allow us to fall away from You. Father, may Your kingdom come!

I’m always amazed at how God takes a small commitment and multiplies it. As we prepare to begin the Lenten season, I hope you connect with others that encourage your faith. If you’re on Twitter, you are free to join into our small effort of saying the Lord’s Prayer three times a day.

Taking Care of Business

For the last several months, I have been organizing my blog around culture, education, engineering and theology.  The themes give me a wide space to play in, but I have been learning so much about culture.  I think it is time to expand my official category list to include development.  Development as I will be using it depends on leveraging various resources to create positive change in communities.  In many ways, development focuses on poverty reduction and alleviation.

When thinking about poverty, we have some common ideas about where poverty comes from and what we can do to reduce its effects.  Arguably, poverty looks different when you have rampant unemployment.  When people want to work but cannot find work, we have a huge problem.  This problem can manifest itself culturally, but more often we recognize unemployment as an economic issue.  Additionally, unemployment leads to rises in poverty.

The question then becomes “What is the ideal state for a nation’s economy?”  Certainly, we would find ourselves in a bit of a bind if absolutely everyone was employed at all times because industries could not expand very easily.  Yet, equally we find ourselves in a straight-jacket when people who want to work cannot find work.  Roughly speaking, we can divide the economy into two sectors that employ people: the private sector and the public sector.  When a country faces high unemployment because the private sector shrinks for any myriad of reasons, the unemployed have two options.

One option involves becoming a job creator.  Essentially, people can leverage their creative talents to try to create opportunities for themselves.  A small group of people can get together to pool resources, finding a small business.  These ventures require a substantial portion of risk.  In some economies, particularly in countries where the average age of the population is very young and the private sector is comparatively small, becoming a job creator is a fairly reasonable path.  A young entrepreneur can fill a void in her or his community.

Another option involves expanding the public sector.  The government coordinates this expansion with the fairly expressed goal of leveraging the human capital of its population towards national development goals.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt enacted policies to do just that when he enacted the New Deal, putting millions of people back to work.  Our state parks generally came from these efforts.  While many assign World War II the agent of economic turn-around, the observation about working towards national development goals still holds firm.  In the case of WWII, our national development goals concerned national security.  Personally, I would not say that the government-led expansion of the public sector has to involve choice jobs that appeal to everyone.  Yet, I do think focusing on jobs that put the unemployed into work at a reasonable wage makes a fair deal of sense.  Expanding in some public sectors, like education and the military, could create shifting national development goals.

Work plays a pivotal role in a person’s ability to function.  Without work, many of us find ourselves without any means of supporting ourselves.  Even the simple human act of eating becomes a question.  Depending on where we live, we do not generally have the option of putting ourselves to work through farming to solve the dilemma of putting food on our table.

I am struck by the connection between work and human flourishing.  One could say that we have been designed to work.  We have a deposit of gifts that allows us to participate meaningfully in the world around us while eating the fruits of our labor.  Our work adds value overall to our society, and not simply in the economic sense.  We become co-creators with our fellow human beings.  Who knows what we are capable of?

Where Faith Dwells

There are times when the lectionary throws the Gospel straight at you.  Today was one of those days, as the Gospel reading featured the parable of the sower.  Just yesterday, I reflected on the ancient deposit of faith reflected in the ancient stones of Canterbury Cathedral.  Today, I was reminded that the Gospel does not take root in a rock.

We can get into a problem when we reduce the Gospel to the things of the Church rather than constantly exhorting the Church to be shaped to the Gospel.  We get lost in our church-ness.  We divorce action from meaning.  We confuse preferences with truth.  We start seeking conformity rather than conversion.  And we mask and obscure the faith.

The thing about the Gospel is that it takes root in human hearts, the site of probably the most stubborn field to plant.  We really can only plant the Gospel by constantly exhorting Christ to sow His seed and by seeking our own repentance.  If our hearts are hard and closed to His work, then how could we expect to see His work fully elsewhere?

If these stones could talk

I sincerely enjoy traveling.  When living in a new place, you are almost expected to get out and take a look around, boldly going where [nearly every] tourist has gone before.  Yet, being a tourist is so much better when you can stay with friends.  You can almost pass for a local [until you open your mouth, consult a sign, or really just set foot outside of your accommodation].  Last weekend, I spent some quality time wandering around Canterbury.

If you are me, Canterbury leaves little to be desired for a weekend jaunt.  You have random old architecture, key places of historic interest, a juxtaposition of the ancient and modern that serves as a form of true comedy, and a testimony regarding the Christian tradition of England.  Particularly as I am trying to find my feet in England, it seemed wholly appropriate to spend some time experiencing English Christianity, Cathedral-style.

The picture that accompanies this post is a quick shot of the iconography in St. Gabriel’s chapel off of the main crypt church.  [Seriously, one thing that I have never particularly understood about Roman Catholic and Anglican church buildings is this tendency to throw up altars everywhere and have the church within the church (within the church).]  Wandering around, I found this chapel dedicated to the genesis of the Gospel and these fabulous murals declaring the story of the faith.

I had the distinct pleasure of attending two Evensong services and one Matins service at the Cathedral.  [Additionally, the Cathedral grounds have an access fee unless you are accessing the Cathedral for religious purposes.]  The second Evensong service had no truly special features and featured an absolutely phenomenal choir, which left me for a second asking the question whether I was in heaven or on earth.  The Evensong expression is fairly uniquely English in form.  To experience the service in a choral arrangement was a true gift.

Yet, in the same vein, aspects of the Christian tradition have gotten muddled to the point of comedy.  My friend Aideen, who was kind enough to host me, pointed me to this clip immediately before I attended the Matins service.    I was off in my expectations of the Matins service: I had hoped that it would be a clear telling of the Resurrection as is the liturgical practice of the Orthodox Church, yet the service matched the more standard plain form of a service with some hymns, two readings, and a sermon.  Needless to say, when the preacher whipped out his Blackberry at the outset of his sermon all I could think about was the colors of the season.  The homily left much to be desired, most notably a clear proclamation of the Gospel.  As the second reading was a rather obscure passage from a New Testament letter, the service contained nothing explicitly connected to Gospel.  But the point remains that I found myself in a place seemingly hinged on the promise that even if we did not proclaim God’s story in the time and place, the very rocks would cry out.

One image that I’m working with while I am here is trying to image pushing my ear literally against these stones.  After all, these stones contain a permanency of faith at which I can only marvel.  Depending on where you go, the stones tell a rather tortured history.  The icons I found in the chapel of the Annunciation speak to this story.  They are chipped, faded, and otherwise falling into disrepair.  Yet, despite all odds, they remain.

Sizing Up the Hill

I moved somewhere shockingly full of hills.  My friend’s car even struggled a bit on the hill when he helped me move into my flat.  Try as I might, I cannot escape the hills.  To the bus station? There’s a steep hill.  To the train station? There’s a steeper hill.  The nice thing about hills is that they have two variant modes of travel: up and down.

But the way up these hills is hard.  I haven’t even attempted the steeper hill until I get a bit more in shape.  And the steep hill already elicits colorful language.

For the most part, I’m glad for these hills.  They do manage to change my behavior, particularly when I have to think about carrying groceries up the hill, and tone my body, especially because I’m already feeling things in my legs.  They will be legs of steel by the time it is time to leave.

Yet I wonder how I could adequately describe this hill to my friends who haven’t yet experienced it.    Hills are hard to photograph.  It looks like you’re taking a picture of a road.  Or it looks like a very scenic shot of whatever is down the hill.  I am half-tempted to produce something like a sea-level height chart or chart the flow rate of rainwater to showcase its contour.  But mostly, I really want my friends who think I’m making a mountain of a molehill to see the hill.  And I want them to try to walk up it with me.

And lately I’ve been thinking about my hill obsession.  I also have a particular fondness for the Ladder of Divine Ascent.  St John Climacus is one of the more severe saints in the cloud of witnesses as he really calls for a full-bodied asceticism.  But I wonder if the same energy that fuels my desire to describe these hills is somewhat akin to St John’s energy to describe life in Christ.  What if the various steps of the Ladder are simply St John’s attempt to describe the contours of Christian life?