It has been a tough year on my mentors. It has been a tough year on me. In the same week, I had one more mentor die and another choose hospice rather than chemo. Having your wisdom folk die is a bit like having a flood wash out a chunk of bottomland. The land is not gone, but you don’t have the pleasure of walking and listening to it any longer.
I met Darrell twenty-seven years ago. On Belinda and my first visit to the First Christian Church in Redding, California (FCC Redding), Darrell and Diane introduced themselves along with, Jim and Julie, Faith, Bernadine, and others. We returned the next Sunday, not so much because other twenty something’s were attending, there were none, but because folk who had fifteen to thirty years on us didn’t put on airs, made us welcome, were not afraid to say we want you at least in part because you are young. They were truth tellers.
Truth telling came early in our relationship with this community; it was but a few weeks when Darrell told a story, with Faith standing near, about the congregation. In the sixties (about twenty years earlier) folks reached a point where they wondered if they were any longer viable as a congregation. Being an autonomous, independent group, they did not find reason to access potential denominational wisdom and therefore did not have conversations with individuals who had visited other congregations feeling the same and who might have given helpful insight in considering their viability. As a result, one day, while the pastor and his family was off on vacation, the leadership called a congregational meeting where they voted to close their doors. You can imagine what this meant. The pastor and his family returned from vacation to no position, no income, no relationship. Here is the thing, no one had a problem with the pastor. But because of a lack of questioning and wondering and care for relationship, the pastor and his family were out on their keister.
The story mattered to Darrell because it was a story of a screw-up rather than perfection. Yet, it was not a story about how the congregation screwed-up, but about how he had. It wasn’t important that Darrell was or was not at the congregational vote, it was important that he was a member of a community that had damaged creation, and therefore, by association, had engaged in the damage as well. In other words, he, along with Faith, were saying, should you join, this will be your story as well.
Such was the wisdom of Darrell and the folk of the Redding congregation in the eighties. If you are known only for your good, you’re not known for much. It is the wholeness of the body, all of it, good and bad, gifts and screw-ups, which make it worthwhile to know you.
Darrell once mentioned that one reason he remained a Disciple (a member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) (Disciples)—the denomination of FCC Redding), was, “I don’t get pabulum.” His statement impressed me. One reason, I’d never hear that word used before, or since, to describe the church. A second is it does get to a core concept of Disciples. You hear Disciples claim it in many ways, but what I’ve heard most often is, “What I like about Disciples is that I am not asked to leave my intellect at the door.” In other words, one is free to argue with traditional interpretation of scripture, argue theology, wonder about such suggestions that the Bible is infallible, question authority, and do it all the while in community with support from community.
The pabulum Darrell spoke of, though, went beyond that of folk getting to bring their intellect to a worship service or bible study. He was saying too many pastors (Disciples or otherwise) preached and endorsed theology that is trite and of light thinking. In the context of theology, pabulum is that which gives just enough thought and just enough truth, to seem worthy of paying attention to. However, what the listener gets is something much less. Think of it this way. At the edge of a community is a field where wild peas grow. The field is common grounds and for generations people have gone to the field and picked peas when they have a need or want. Eaten out-of-hand the wild peas provide rich nutrition. A day comes when a patron buys the field, and fences it. Outside laborers arrive, pick peas, add water, and boil and mash them. Due to the process, the wild taste of the peas is lost. A third of their nutrition is boiled away. However, the patron gains a third more in bulk and a third more profit.
No one considers the profit the patron makes as unjust. For the community believe they now receive nutritional food without labor. The belief has just enough fact to seem truthful—the peas may be thirty percent less nutritious, but they do retain sixty percent of their nutrition—but the truth lacks veracity—the people no longer pick peas but they labor outside the wild pea field to obtain the resources to buy mush peas. Darrell had little time for this pabulum of mush peas. He recognized this as a preached theology that takes no risk, does not question conventional thinking, has people feel good about themselves without cause, does not urge people to labor, keeps the pastor position and pay safe, and is unjust.
I find Darrell’s concern as relevant today as it was thirty years ago. Too much of today’s theology is of pabulum rather than wild peas. The rich theology that arises from nature, attained from walking the landscape, revealed in the labor of searching and gathering of spring roots, summer fruit, and mystical flowers, is lost is the search of superiority and technological ease. Mush pea is a spoon-fed theology that keeps the pastor safe because the theology itself says no one can question either the theology or the pastor’s wisdom and authority without eternal retribution. In other words, the people are taught they have no need to labor theologically, because all they need to know has already been thought of on their behalf. This stripping of labor and identity neuters people’s relationship with God and damages community by causing comfort in times of challenge and charity rather than justice.
We would be wrong, though, to believe mush pea theology is their theology. Rather we are all in danger of accepting this theology, maybe we already are. For the pabulum pastor serves conservative, progressive, and in-between congregations alike. The people of the congregation believe they have arrived, that they are a step in front of others, and therefore, without need to wonder about how they engage evil. On the conservative end, the pabulum pastor has the congregation feel they stand on tried and true bedrock. They believe the voice and wisdom of the cloud of witnesses could not be and were not wrong in all that was spoken and written. The progressive pabulum pastor has folk believe they have arrived in their change. They believe the cloud of witnesses matter; however, those events which conservatives might consider miracle are based in the naïveté of the cloud, or at best, the cloud nailing-it by speaking in metaphor. What both miss is what is natural and normal. Such neutered theology, conservative or progressive, supports unquestioning a system that maintains power and resources on the patron’s behalf.
Non-questioning equates to weak justice. Rather than railing against systemic structures whose construction favors a few, the pabulum pastor preaches arguments shoring it up. For instance, mush pea theology supports or at least does not dissuade what is termed Prosperity Gospel. As a mush pea theology, the prosperity gospel argues all folk can become wealthy if only they believe in God and try hard enough. This theology hinders justice by convincing folk who are “in-between” wealth and poverty that they will one day become wealthy. Such belief allows the “in-between’s” to live quiet lives, without protest, and provide charity rather than justice to the poor. Mush pea theology allows the poor to wither and die.
To hold the masher at arm length, to shut-off the spigot of gluttony, to stand in the wild field and speak truth to the patron, is to support and engage in a theological education that strives for more than the intellect too often left at narthex door. This is an education where the elder’s wisdom guides subsequent generations to recognize and hone their created nature. Honing created nature is to engage in virtuous education. Virtuous education honors the wholeness of community where teacher and student alike learn from the act of education—the teacher gains from the act of teaching and the student gains from the act of listening. The whole of community is enhanced for not only do individuals learn to appreciate their own thought, value their own opinion, and become comfortable with their questions, but they begin to value the word of their for- bearers and celebrate the voice of their future. Virtuous education is community based and as such is much more than an education of intellect and reason. This more is a Disciples desire Darrel held dear—education that engages both head and heart. An education that goes beyond the rational and engages emotion, spirituality, and mystery, is an education that might be called virtuous.
Darrel and I stood on his homes roof. It was a typical late spring morning in Redding. We had been stripping shingles off the roof and were soaked in sweat by 8am. We took a break, drank some water, and watched the neighborhood come to life. While watching neighbors back out of driveways and enjoying the cool shade of the walnut tree overhead, Darrell told a story from last weekend. He had gone to a regional denominational meeting that had something to do with regional finances, I think. As the meeting began, the leader asked folk to take a piece of paper, a handful of crayons, and draw their vision of the meeting. This didn’t stand so well with Darrel, How could someone ask a group of people, who had given of their time, traveled from all over Northern California, whose time was limited to get the Regions work done, to play with crayons? I found Darrell’s energy surprising—probably why I remember the morning.
The Arts mattered to Darrell, and partly because of that, they matter to me. I don’t find a definitive definition for the Arts, but what they are not, I think, are entertainment. For instance, there are movies that entertain: they amuse, divert attention, and provide pleasure. However, artful movies provide something more akin to engaged enjoyment. These movies might provide pleasure and they might amuse, but they do not divert. Instead, the artful movie engages the aesthetic sensibilities of the observer. The observer is not entertained but moved to find enjoyment in laboring questions or laboring wonderment, whichever the case the movie demands. The Arts, be it sculpture, ballet, opera, painting, etc., moves one to bring their whole-selves into broad creational experience engaging the philosophical, the sociological, the rational and the theological. The Arts call for embodied life-long engagement that searches for meaning at the interconnecting points of life. As such, the Arts allow us to find pleasure in watching the dance, but the artful dance moves us beyond pleasure to heart, where we engage the philosophical conversation, imagine social justice, and question the financial model.
When raised by a society that places high value on reasoning, it is hard for us to imagine beyond society’s rational matrixes and allow a hearing of the heart. Yet reasoning and rationality are meaningless without the emotions and the spirituality that comes with the heart. More times than not, we need to take a moment and pull out the crayons, paper, and imagination before engaging the rational (e.g., finances). Knowing the need for heart is one thing, living the un-rational though is another. Therefore, to engage in virtuous education is to create place where we endeavor for balance between head and heart, and harmony between the rational and mysterious. In a place of such harmony, wild pea theology will thrive, and folk will experience what previous generations dreamed.
Virtuous education and wild pea theology are no more than thoughts, wonders, and what-ifs. There is truth to both and a good bit of hmmm, really? Whether they exist as absolutes or speculations are not as important as their roots. The need for elders and mentors is unrestrained.
Mentors, elders, and wisdom folk don’t just happen. Mentors and elders become real when folk with age and wisdom recognize they have a word to give and give it. Mentors and elders become real when folk without age know there is wisdom with age and seek it. I think both are created within us. We are at our best when we are mentor and mentee. I’ve been lucky. I’ve had and have many mentors—some older, some younger (age is relative). I would not think and wonder as I do if it were not for Darrell, his thoughts, and his wonders. It isn’t important that he got all his thoughts and wonderments right (rather, that is what made his life rich), but it is important to know his thoughts and wonderments helped me to imagine life and creation. That, I think, is a virtuous education and a theology of wild peas.
© David B. Bell 2013