Friday, February 20, 2009

Who owns it? (of chimps, stimulus and CPE)

When you say something -- or write or draw something -- you may know what you mean to express, but the reader (or receiver) may hear something else entirely. Who gets to determine what your message means? The original owner (the speaker/writer), or the new owner (the receiver)?

This may sound like a question only an academic could love, but it's actually a very important one that comes up all the time in practical ways and it's one that has special relevance to the world of pastoral education. There is a very sharp controversy in the media right now that illustrates well this "who owns it" question. The New York post published a cartoon showing two police officers standing over a dead chimpanzee on the ground with two holes in its chest. One officer is holding a smoking gun. The other says to him, "they'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill".

What did people receive when they saw this cartoon? Well a lot of people heard that the chimpanzee represented president Obama (who is, after all, the ultimate author of the stimulus bill meant to revive our ailing economy). And that message is offensive because it resonates with deeply painful stereotypes about African-Americans.

In my view, however, it's pretty clear that the artist intended no such thing. He did not intend the chimpanzee to represent Obama; he intended it to represent Washington as a whole (after all, the stimulus bill we ended up with was not really authored by Obama -- it was authored by a series of committees in the House and Senate who negotiated endlessly over its final form).

But, so what? Does the fact that the author didn't intend to say something hurtful make the hurt some people felt just disappear? Certainly not. Once it left his pen (or whatever he drew it with), the author no longer owned the message. His cartoon was indeed hurtful and offensive and he should unreservedly apologize about it.

In the world of pastoral education and pastoral care we transmit messages all the time. We ask our student chaplains to take the risk of offering feedback and critique to one another. These transmissions are not always received as the author intended them to be. Sometimes both the transmitter and the receiver end up feeling deeply hurt. Communication fails.

The path to a better way starts with realizing that neither the transmitter or the receiver really owns the message. The construction of what a message really means -- and this is the insight we get from Social Constructivism and similar approaches -- is something that is co-constructed by transmitters and receivers. So, the better path starts with embracing the fact that you need to co-construct the meaning of what you want to say -- the feedback you want to give -- with the person you are talking to. You have to invite them into the feedback giving process. You have to ask their permission every step of the way. "Is it alright if I talk to you about this?" "Have you ever thought about this?" "Ok, I hear what you're saying about that, but would you be open to my perspective on that situation?"

I call this the forging of Shared Meaning. Or you could call it contracting, conventing, or -- to use the appropriate Hebrew word -- the cutting of a brit.

If we realize that feedback is really a Holy process that involves a shared dialogue of back-and-forth between its participants, we can get closer to truly communicating with one another -- and with the people in need we are hoping to offer some healing and comfort to.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Recovery time

With bike riding, they say that the thing that declines most as you get older (47-year-of-age I am) is not how fast or how far you can go in a single day -- it's how much time it takes you to recover after a ride. So, after two days of riding at the beginning of the week left my legs feeling like rubber, I was wondering if I would feel recovered today.

I'm happy to say that on a two-hour mid-day ride (with about 900-feet of climb), today, I felt pretty strong. (I was able to take a "long lunch" today because I had went into work early for some meetings, etc., and I have to stay until 9pm tonight to teach my class.)

The ride itself was what has become my favorite standard route -- going up into the hills to the south of here. A beautiful place in any season, but sometimes I love winter best. . . It was, however, a shock to me (when I left it was sunny and almost spring like) when I found snow falling upon me from grey -- and windy! -- skies! It was warm enough that it wasn't sticking, though.

It was fun!

Monday, February 16, 2009

To Columbia and back

With a 300-mile bike ride in Israel only about nine weeks away, training has -- despite the snow on the ground here in PA! -- been much on my mind these days. They say you need to work yourself up to not _just_ doing long, challenging rides in preparation for a tour, but also to getting to the point where you can do two hard days in a row. This is not just a challenging thing for me to do because of weather and the physical challenge -- but also, because of my commitment to Shabbat, Sunday is the only weekend day I have for riding.

So, I decided to take a vacation day this week and make a a two-day mini-tour from here in Reading to Columbia, Pa., on the banks of the mighty Susquehanna river, which had me crossing the entire length of Lancaster County. It was a challenging and beautiful ride in temps that were a bit below freezing in the mornings and late afternoons, and a bit above freezing in the middle of the day.

Lancaster is known for its cycling , both for the beauty of its rolling hills, and for the influence of the Pennsylvania Dutch, both the Amish and the Mennonites , on its culture and landscape. Sunday morning they were out in force -- mostly in their traditional black horse and buggies, but some also on bicycles -- on their way to and from church.

Here's the route I took on the way there (about 55 miles):

View Larger Map

I took a shorter trip on the way back, today -- about 37 miles. But the riding in the cold was just as challenging, today, as it was on Sunday. I spent a lot of time zipping and unzipping my jackets, trying to keep myself just cold enough so that I would not sweat too much -- if you let your clothes get all wet, there's no way to keep warm on the downhills.

I feel pretty good now. Some parts of my body are clearly still warming up -- and my legs are quite sore! But, I feel like I could ride even further if I had to, a good feeling for someone planning on a long tour!

PS If you'd like to sponsor me and Minna on the tour, click here!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Still broken

A year and a half ago in Dallas, there was a report before the leadership of the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education calling for a major restructuring in how the supervisors and and educators of chaplains are certified. In effect, the report said the certification process was broken. But the leadership rejected the report. Their main evidence for this position? That they had approved 87% of the people who went up for certification at the meeting.

Well, here we are not so many months later and I hear that at the latest ACPE convention only 10 out of 15 (67%) who went up for associate and only 6 out of 10 (60%) who went up for full were approved.

The idea that these kinds of numbers are acceptable in this day and age reflects a series of antiquated attitudes that threaten the very future of education in pastoral care. It is long past time for the ACPE leadership to wake up and face up to the fact the certification and education process for supervisors/educators has to be reformed to look something like what the rest of the world does, today. There was a time -- many decades ago now -- when people who went to medical or law school entered with the knowledge that they might "wash out" of the program. Those days are long past. Today's students -- who often go into deep debt in search of their education -- need a more predictable process. They need to know if they're going to be likely to finish, and they need to know how long that will take. Otherwise, quality talent will just not bother with seeking to become educators in pastoral care.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The view from Orlando -- the struggle to preserve identity in the age of Obama

Barack Obama may have been many miles away, but his presence was very much felt at the Racial Ethnic Multicultural network (REM) meeting of chaplains in Orlando over the last couple of days. Obama's election has certainly given much hope to African-Americans and other ethnic minorities. But it has also posed challenges -- if an African-American can rise to the highest office in the land, does that mean America is past racism, and that therefore there is no longer a need to discuss racial discrimination and how it can be corrected? Have we become a color-blind society?

The conference's keynote speaker -- Stacey Floyd-Thomas, an African-American college professor and feminist whose passion reminds me a bit of my hero bell hooks -- addressed this "color blind" issue. "I don't want to get past race; I want to get past racism," she said. "My race isn't the problem, your problem with it is."

This was my second REM conference, and it was again a prviledge to be a part of it. Although I am most certainly a member of a minority group myself as a Jewish person in the world of interfaith chaplaincy, REM has a predominantly African-American feel to it, and so I feel a bit more like a guest than a participant (I especially felt like a non-participant when the keynote speaker began her morning talk with a prayer in the name of Jesus!).

But I am most happy to be a guest here. The incredible passion and thirst for justice that can come from Amerca's black preachers -- the passion that once all of America knew in the presence of the great Martin Luthur King -- is something that I almost never have a chance to see in my current life. Here at REM, however, I got to see some of it still burning bright. Floyd-Thomas' expression of deep pride in being a black woman was just one part of that.

There is another side, however. At one workshop for people, like myself, who are training for certification as chaplaincy supervisors, the issue of privilege came up. What happens when I start to become one of the priviledged, one of the particpants, asked. Am I going to no longer be recognized as "belonging here," she continued.

In reaction, another participant shared a story about coming to the neighborhood where he grew up and where his mother still lived. He overheard a conversation between two workers in a passing garbage truck. They were questioning what he was doing in the neighborhood because he didn't look like he belonged there.

I certainly do not think racism in America is over, but these accounts tell an important story -- many African Americans, like Barack Obama, have managed to lift the worst of the chains of racism off of themselves. They have become more privileged than oppressed.

For Jews, this transition to become more privileged than oppressed has brought great challenges along with its blessing. Oppression -- for all its evils, none of which I would wish back -- guaranteed that a Jewish person could never forget for a moment that he or she was a Jew. It guaranteed that Jews would continue to identify as Jews. And it guaranteed that Jews would create and maintain their own distinct and unique culture amid the American melting pot.

With the lifting of the worst of the oppression, Jews who are interested in the survival of a Jewish culture and identity in this country have had to work hard to find new ways of preserving that precious identity.

REM reminded me once again that African-Americans -- especially in the traditions of their churches -- have their own great, distinct and unique identity. It is my prayer that they will find new ways to maintain it, just as they find new ways to reach for the rungs of opportunity that have been appearing before them.