Getting Out of the Way

“What we teachers can finally give to our students is to show them that we are not what they are seeking, nor what they need. As we resist their desires, we can best enable them to reach for something different from what we have, or something else that might even be something more.”

Stephen H. Webb, “The Voice of Theology: Rethinking the Personal and the Objective in Christian Pedagogy” in Journal of the American Academy of Religion 65.4 (Fall 1997): 779.

I read this just a little while ago as I prepare for my class this afternoon on pedagogy. I am fascinated by the quote, by its almost shimmering quality, and by its implied critique of many pedagogical practices.

I read Webb’s article in the midst of several in the same issue of that journal, all reflecting in various ways on pedagogy in religious studies, especially interacting with various commitments of feminist pedagogy (or pedagogies, why should we ever refer to multiple things in the singular?). It’s evident to me that the authors were struggling with redefining concepts of personal versus public space: Is the classroom, and perhaps the religious studies (or humanities) classroom a personal or a public space?

The conclusion, for the most part, seemed to be that it is a unique merger of the two. And the pedagogical task, from feminist perspectives, seems to be to draw on that merger rather than seek to suppress it in favor of some “objective” ideal. Students will and must bring the fullness of their personal experiences to the subject in order for them to engage with it. At the same time, teachers must cultivate the space to allow for these personal experiences to be given voice. More, the teacher must be willing to share her own personal experience as one way of cultivating space.

She must be fully present, in other words. And yet, somehow, not there at all. This is how Webb’s quote shimmers for me.

Now I suddenly see teaching and liturgical leadership related in ways I never noticed before. Two things come to mind immediately.

The summer prior to entering seminary, I attended a conference as a ministry fellow of The Fund for Theological Education. The acclaimed preacher Barbara Brown Taylor spoke at the opening convocation, developing the idea of the preacher as icon–the window through which others are opened into the Divine. The icon is never the thing itself. And yet it matters, inasmuch as it reveals the thing itself. In order to live into becoming an icon, the preacher must be fully present. Fully there. And yet, somehow, not there at all.

While in seminary, I had the utmost privilege of being trained as a liturgical leader by Gordon Lathrop. I have no single quote that sums up what I learned from him in connection to this idea, but I know it has something to do with wearing the alb as a liturgical leader. Gordon describes the alb as being the baptismal garb that one wears on behalf of the baptized assembly. It is not a distinguishing mark, not one announcing status (as the academic robe worn by ministers in my own free-church tradition tends now to be). Rather, it is the ultimate equalizer. It is the clothing of “neither slave nor free, male nor female.” It is the alb that assists the liturgical leader in being fully present. And yet, somehow, not there at all.

Because there is someone wearing the alb, after all.

Gordon had us read Robert W. Hovda’s book Strong, Loving and Wise: Presiding in Liturgy. Here, Hovda reflects on the notion of presence and how it requires the spiritual art of being oneself. He writes: “At one time–a time this author remembers well–it was popularly considered desirable for the one presiding to be as anonymous as possible. The less oneself that showed through, the better. The ideal was pretty much an obliteration of self in liturgical celebration, if that isn’t putting it too crudely.”

Hovda acknowledges the impossibility (and futility and even costliness) of anonymity. “We can’t escape ourselves at any time, especially when we are exercising a function of leadership. Only the one who recognizes the futility of the effort to be anonymous and is without illusions will be effective in minimizing individual idiosyncracies and peculiarities for the sake of the social event.”

Finally, I’ll quote generously from Hovda’s conclusion regarding liturgical leadership and presence:

Part of one’s service to the assembly as presider is to be willing to present oneself to the whole group, consenting to be a focal point in the action being in constant communication with the other ministers and the entire assembly through eye contact, gesture, body posture and movement, as well as word. The self-centered person, the ecclesiastical prince, the person who is out for privileges and status is opaque in this role. If, however, the presider is close to and part of the lives of all in the faith comunity, one of the people, clearly the servant of all, there there is the possibility of being transparent to the presence and action of [the Divine]. But it is a transparency that is accomplished, not with an anonymous persona, but with oneself.

So, when one functions as a presider or other minister, it is the whole person, the real person, the true person, the full and complete person who functions. It is you God calls through the church. God wants no sacred alias, no pulpit tone, nor does the church.

It is rather a pardox, isn’t it? Being fully present in order to be tansparent to the presence and action of the Divine.

I am delighted with this connection that I see now between teaching and liturgical leadership. And even as I write this, I begin to suspect that the connections might be made all over the place. My spiritual director often told me it was his purpose to “get out of the way” when we met, in order for me to see my relationship with the Divine more clearly. And what of parenting? And being in love?

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