The church I serve, like many, has started the tradition of choosing “star words” around epiphany. I star word is a word intended to guide and anchor you throughout the year. There’s nothing magical about it. It’s just supposed to give you a place to focus your intentions.
Last year my word was “vitality”.
Andrew Solomon in his wonderful TED talk about depression, described it as a loss of vitality. That completely resonates with my experience. So when I received “vitality” as my star word, during my interview no less, I received it as a gift. 2017 certainly had its moments where I felt filled to the brim with vitality, but in those moments where I didn’t feel so full of life, I used the word to remind me of where I wanted to be and to what I was hoping to return.
This past Sunday, we chose our new star words. The word I chose was “understanding”.
I had some time in the car to think about what “understanding” means to me and how I might make it a focus of my year. There’s two ways that the word tends to be used: first understanding as knowledge. Understanding in this sense has always been important to me. I relish having a deep understanding of those topics on which I am passionate. It is interesting that this word would come up in a year that I will hopefully be going back to school for a bit (more on that at a later time).
Of course, there is the second understanding of… understanding… and that is as empathy or compassion. A portion of the famous prayer of St. Francis comes to mind:
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love
So much of the last few years has been about my desire to be understood (and to understand myself) and in the process, I have likely not sought to understand as much as I should. This seems to me to be the greater challenge.
These two concepts overlap for me at the place of inquiry. To gain better understanding of a subject or of a person is to ask the right questions.
I’ve been struggling lately with my writing. There are so many things to read, so many “hot takes” on subjects and I struggle with wondering what value my voice adds to the cacophony of thinkpieces and commentaries produced from by much wiser people than myself. Or if not wiser, than at least funnier.
What I believe I may have to contribute in this season of my life is asking the right questions, not giving the right answers, the assumption that there are “right” answers being the source of so many of our problems these days.
In thinking about this word, I also couldn’t help but think of the primary text from my theology classes. Daniel Migliore derived the title of his text from Anselm who rifted on Augustine:
“This definition, with numerous variations, has a long and rich tradition. In the writings of Augustine it takes the form, “I believe in order that I may understand.” According to Augustine, knowledge of God not only presupposed faith, but faith also restlessly seeks deeper understanding. Christians want to understand what they believe, what they can hope for, and what they ought to love. Writing in a different era, Anselm, who is credited with coining the phrase “faith seeking understanding,” agrees with Augustine that believers inquire “not for the sake of attaining to faith by means of reason but that they may be gladdened by understanding and meditating on those things that they believe.” For Anselm, faith seeks understanding, and understanding brings joy. […] Standing in the tradition of Augustine and Anselm, Karl Barth contends that theology has the task of reconsidering the faith and practice of the community, ‘testing and rethinking it in the light of its enduring foundation, object, and content… What distinguishes theology from blind assent is just its special character as ‘faith seeking understanding’.”
(Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology)
The work of theology, a work I feel I have somewhat neglected in recent years, is faith seeking understanding, not for the sake of power over others, but for the sake of building up community and finding joy in the Divine Life that we all share. In doing ministry, I think so many of us get caught up in tasks of budgets and maintenance that we forget that our work is primarily theological in nature. When we do own that part of our call, we sometimes see that our responsibility is to give answers. But theology is faith seeking understanding, not faith with understanding. It’s the seeking, the journeying, the quest that should energize us. I’ll admit, when I think of trying to come up with answers to the issues that surround me, I get overwhelmed and exhausted. But when I ask myself whether or not I am asking the right questions, then I find myself focused and alive.
Like Common and Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) said, “It’s the questions, y’all”.
Reorienting my writing around questions is part of the equation. Finding the right questions to ask to seek a better understanding of my neighbor is another piece. I also know, that for me, teaching is a part of understanding as well. I fully believe that you don’t know something unless you can teach it to someone else. And you really don’t know it unless you can teach it to a six year old. When our church did a recent spiritual gift inventory, I was reminded that teaching has always emerged as one of my primary gifts.
So how do I teach emphasizing questions over answers? Good question…
More importantly, how do I teach in a way that allows me to gain empathy and compassion for the people around me? Even better question!
As I have sat with this word for a couple of days, I can’t shake Elvis Costello’s song from a head, a song that come along with its own set of probing questions:
As I walk through
This wicked world
Searchin’ for light in the darkness of insanity.
I ask myself
Is all hope lost?
Is there only pain and hatred, and misery?
And each time I feel like this inside,
There’s one thing I wanna know:
What’s so funny ’bout peace love & understanding? Ohhhh
What’s so funny ’bout peace love & understanding?