The teacher’s way of wisdom and innovation

By Donald Schell

With my first step on the Aikido dojo’s practice mat twenty-eight years ago, I knew I was declaring my willingness to become a teacher. That is, I knew that by investing patience and regular practice from that day forward, I would earn a black belt, and a black belt signifies a teacher. And “teacher” means continuing to learn, as my first teacher said, ‘When you earn your black belt, you will be ready to begin learning.’ The Aikido saying echoes Suzuki Roshi’s wisdom in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

For twenty-nine of my thirty-eight years as an Episcopal priest, weekday church work has followed dawn practice in an aikido dojo, throwing and being thrown in a playful, energetic, sometimes frightening, always enlivening moving meditation. Gently and persistently Aikido has shown me something I didn’t see before in the Gospels and in the work of our church – our Christian tradition asks you and me to become rabbis in Jesus’ mold, teachers of teachers in training.

Eastern teacher traditions (like Ai-ki-do and Zen-do and others that call themselves a way, that is a ‘-Do’ or ‘Tao’) often speak of the process of passing on the practice as ‘transmission.’ In Christian practice, more typically we speak of ‘tradition.’ Both words point to ongoing creative engagement between beginners and more seasoned practitioners, and between older and younger generations.

Processes of ‘transmission’ or ‘tradition’ teach by demonstration – seeing and imitation, specifically mindful imitation, and reflective learning. What I see now in the Gospels is how Jesus’ tradition-ing brings the wisdom of our remembered and still living past into direct dynamic encounter with the passion and fresh demands of the present moment. Both past and present are changed in that encounter.

Last winter here in the Café I wrote about the false dichotomy our church falls into whenever we use ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ as polar opposites. I return to that theme a year later because I feel daily how that false dichotomy impoverishes us, fractures inter-generational learning and works to separate wisdom (the humble, ‘I wonder’ version of experience) from fresh energy and insight.

In ongoing extensive research on what he first named ‘communities of practice,’ Etienne Wenger reports that traditional crafts and trades KNEW crucial innovation was likeliest to happen in the daily interchange between senior apprentices and their supervising journeymen. Where a craft or trade actually has such a person as a ‘master,’ that person isn’t the one we should look to for noticing, blessing, and developing the accidental discoveries that learners are making.

Wenger’s observation is similar to Suzuki Roshi honoring the gift of ‘beginner’s mind,’ but Wenger’s slightly different framing should challenge the church uncomfortably. A culture of experts and novices or professionals and amateurs encourages neither tradition nor innovation. In vibrant communities of practice, tradition, or the transmission of knowledge, is a creative act. Consider what the word ‘lay’ or ‘laity’ means outside church talk – “Amateur, inept, or inexpert, not professional.” How did we do that? How can church thrive unless tradition and innovation feed each other? And who needs to share authority in that interchange?

Let’s put the dilemma differently: Jesus our teacher models for us that the real master, like an advanced journeyman, continues to learn and delights to engage with other learners. The most advanced learner makes the best teacher because that learner, whether called ‘black belt,’ journeyman, master, rabbi, teacher, or presbyter/elder, while confident of experience, also knows that she or he will always have more to learn. And the most advanced learner understands most deeply that ‘misunderstandings’ and ‘mistakes’ of the stumbling apprentice may fall into something new, fresh or essential to the work.

Aikido helped me see how Jesus (in the synoptic Gospels) invites his disciples and listeners to join him in an inquiry. Jesus presents himself and teaches as a journeyman teaching advanced apprentices. The Gospels show him learning alongside learners and his listeners into inquiry with him.

Imposing a ‘know it all’ Jesus on the Gospels numbs our ear to his real questions.

When our Teacher of teachers in training asks, ‘What parent among you, if your child asked for bread, would give that child a stone?’ he asks a real question with more than one possible answer. Our Teacher asking this question knows that some parents make frightening and damaging choices. His next question pushes on toward the threat asking, ‘what parent among you, if your child asked for an egg would offer a scorpion?’

Yes, there’s something dreadfully wrong when the parent hands a child a scorpion, but it does happen. When some flinch to call God ‘father’ (or ‘mother’) from dark memories of a dangerous, abusing parent, can we help them see and hear our Teacher’s courageous reflection on mixed experience pushes us to specifics. God isn’t simply ‘father’ or simply ‘mother.’ We have to ask ‘what kind of mother/father?’

The Teacher pushes our inquiry onward. ‘Abba,’ Jesus’ name for God our father, is far more specific than a conventional distillation of cultural norms of ‘appropriate’ parental behavior in his or any other time. The forgiving father in the parable of the prodigal son models unrestrained loving mercy that breaks the bounds of culturally endorsed patriarchal dignity. These parables, the pair of sayings about hungry children asking for food, and the story of the wayward, wanton child coming home, touch something deeper than pretending ‘we’re all always good parents,’ and wiser and more loving than ‘remember to act appropriately.’ Teaching traditions, the traditions that engage beginning learners with more advanced learners (and Jesus does cast himself as a learner) create new, fresh authority for even recent beginners, the authority of actual experience, real questions, and struggling to make sense of the contradictions we know in life.

‘Because I’m the rector,’ that killing refrain of tightly-held authority has no place in a teacher tradition. Yes, sometimes canons and good sense demand that a bishop or a rector or music director or Sunday School teacher or senior warden or other designated leader make a decision to mark the end of a conversation, declare a consensus or hark back to an essential, central principle or practice. BUT whenever any of us refuses to offer a clue of why it was time for us to resolve so we can act together we turn from learning (and discernment) to magisterial rule. Teacher traditions must sometimes trust leaders to distill vision and resolve community conflict, but teacher traditions keep looking for learning moments even in those times of resolution.

At 63, I’m very, very grateful for my thirty-eight years of work as a presbyter in our church, and the signs of life in our church feel me with hope and joy. But my heart breaks for clergy and lay friends of my generation who wonder how they’ve spent their life, what difference their work in the church has made, and lament a “dying church.” Of course our church is dying. Things what had grown old are being made new. Depressed pessimism, as though the Spirit were ready to abandon the church, is the older generation’s side of the crisis of 21st century Christianity’s traditioning.

Christian faith and practice have a future, possibly even a rich future. But boomers’ habits of leadership have broken the natural flow that gives real authority and autonomy to a next generation. Interestingly the ‘contemporary’ half of the contemporary/traditional dichotomy seems as much a baby-boomer artifact as the ‘traditional’ half. Neither one is what it says.

Our church (yes our ‘dying mainline’ Episcopal church) has great young leaders, lay and ordained bringing fresh vision and passion to building Christian community, to loving Jesus, to serving and learning in his name to give simple and abundant thanks that the Spirit is certainly at work.

Our present moment (like all present moments) asks of us wisdom that continues to learn and passion that is eager to do work, seasoned, grateful elders and passionate younger leaders listening to one another, working together to synthesize what we have learned and know, what we are asking, and what the Spirit is asking of us now.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is

President of All Saints Company.

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