Minding our metaphors

Jason Mahn (Augustana College) has a new piece in the Christian Century that explores the American reliance upon war metaphors in times of crisis, including this current pandemic. It brought to mind the classic, still powerful book Metaphors We Live By (1980, with a new afterword in 2003) in which the authors (George Lakoff and Mark Johnson) show how metaphors are not merely rhetorical flourish but reveal and even cement how we think about the world. For example, consider how our language about arguments is saturated with war images (“she shot down and destroyed my argument”), how time becomes associated through language with money, and the various ways in which we describe our minds using the terms of machines. (These examples are mentioned in this short helpful overview). It’s one of those books that subtly changes how you think and potentially how you speak.

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Grief as the Garden of Compassion

The profound connection between grief and compassion can easily be forgotten, especially when we grow impatient with the long fingers of grief’s grasp (on ourselves, or others). I was reminded of their connection by Colleen Dunne, the Director of Campus Ministry at Saint Martin’s University in Washington State, who participated in a recent Zoom conversation among NetVUE campus ministers and afterward shared a piece she had written for her campus community. It begins with a quotation from Rumi:

Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom.

Jalalu’ddin Rumi
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Vocational Discernment Is Not a Luxury

Like many people, I find that in this time of pandemic crisis information helps me to feel calmer and more able to cope with the stress of the unknown. While the facts and figures provide a necessary base of knowledge, I find myself most drawn to pieces that offer experiences of and reflections upon how people are making meaning in the midst of the staggering numbers of infections and deaths and the economic disaster that has been a result of this public health emergency. I search for these reflections as a lifeline to hope and for the things they teach about courage, commitment and calling.

One of the most moving pieces I have read highlights the experience of vocational commitment of hospital chaplains who work in New York City area hospitals in the center of the pandemic storm. I was particularly struck when, after detailing the rigors and extreme challenges of chaplains’ work right now, the author comments, “If anything can shake a person’s faith, it seems an indiscriminate epidemic like this would be just the ticket. Why does a person in one bed die while the person in the next bed recovers? And yet not one chaplain I spoke to said this outbreak had done anything to diminish his or her faith or sense of purpose.”

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Life in the Resurrection Zone: Vocation in the midst of pandemic

For most of us right now, there’s one question and one question only. Appropriate to vocation, it’s a Big Question: When will things get back to normal? 

When will we be able to gather in classrooms and places of worship again?  When will restaurants open again for more than take-out? When can we lose the masks, the hand sanitizer, the sand-papery hands? When will we be able to hold open doors, to shake hands, hug our loved ones? When will things get back to normal? Pay attention to that Big Question, as we move through these final weeks of the semester. The Resurrection Zone offers some surprising responses.

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Vocation in a Time of Coronavirus: Reflections from C.S. Lewis’ “Learning in Wartime”

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963)

Early on in the COVID-19 outbreak, after an entire day spent reading anxiety-inducing articles and watching real-time maps of the spread, after loading up on quarantine supplies, and unable to banish a storm of doomsday hypothetical scenarios from my head, a passage from a C.S. Lewis’ sermon, “Learning in Wartime,” flashed through my mind:

The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice… We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal… We think of the streets of Warsaw and contrast the deaths there suffered with an abstraction called Life. But there is no question of death or life for any of us; only a question of this death or of that—of a machine gun bullet now or a cancer forty years later. What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent; 100 per cent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased… Yet war does do something to death. It forces us to remember it. The only reason why the cancer at sixty or the paralysis at seventy-five do not bother us is that we forget them. War makes death real to us: and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right.

C.S. Lewis, “Learning in Wartime” (1939).

That night I read the entire piece and found myself greatly fortified by it’s cool reason in the face of fear and anxiety—it reminded me of Wendell Berry’s remark that when you’re scared the best thing to do is try to make sense out of what’s scaring you—and the perspective it gave me on life and vocation in times of crisis, fear, and danger. Within a week, all on-campus classes and activities were canceled, we converted to an online format, and, when I had to assign the first reading for my senior Humanities and Vocation seminar, I chose “Learning in Wartime.” The response from my seniors was astounding. It was, in fact, the single best response I have ever gotten from students to a reading on the topic of vocation. They seemed in particular to resonate with three aspects of the sermon.

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An Easter Meditation on Calling

Take away Easter, and hope dies. Take away Easter, and darkness prevails. Take away Easter, and all the sorrow and suffering, all the grief and affliction, all the tears and travail, stand forever unanswered. Take away Easter, and death wins, because if God cannot free Jesus from the tomb, how can there be lasting life—unassailable life—for anyone?

Over the past few months, the world has been shrouded in death. The plague unleashed by COVID-19 has ignited so much fear, so much anxiety and stress and uncertainty, that it is easy to feel that death is winning. How can it not be when each day brings more images of graves hurriedly dug so that more bodies can fill them? How can it not be when people who were thrown suddenly out of work wonder how they can pay their bills and feed their families? How can it not be when a virus not only squeezes every breath of life from a person, but assures that they will die alone?

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Neighboring and Sheltering in Place

I’m writing this the morning of the fourth Sunday of Lent. The gospel lesson is the story of the man born blind, whom an un-beckoned Jesus hastens to heal as the disciples debate over who is to blame for his condition. My family will have “family church” at 10:30 this morning over chorizo egg bake, which I promised to the boys last night.

My state is one of the first five to receive an executive order to “stay at home.” The governor didn’t use the term, “shelter in place,” given that the phrase conjures frightening images of active shooters and classroom lockdowns in many people’s minds. For me, to shelter seems much more accurate to the purposeful action asked of us. Deriving from the word shield, to shelter is to take guard—and more so, to protect those who need guarding, as in providing lodging for the homeless poor or taking in stray animals. My having put egg bake in the oven and my spouse’s designing word games for the kids and our family bike rides each makes shelter for our family.

The difficulty is how to shield those who are not already under our roof. Whom else will I be summoned to shelter? What can hospitality look like across property lines or at distances of six feet? These may turn out to be my versions of the lawyer’s question to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

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Called to a Pedagogy of the Cross

“Lebenskreuz,” or “Cross of Life,” depicting the Seven Acts of Mercy found in Matthew 25:35-40. Wartburg College campus.

“These are the days of maximum grace.”

This is what I found myself telling my students repeatedly over the past four weeks. As our life together turned upside down and inside out because of the coronavirus pandemic, deadlines faded away, boundaries dissolved, campus became a ghost town, home became school, and we all experienced repeated seismic shocks.

The last day I was in a classroom with students was Friday, March 13. Rather than being unlucky, the day was a gift—to be in a room with them (the last time for how long?!), talking in-person about the online move I anticipated us making. One student came late to class still nursing tears over an injury suffered during what would become the last athletic practice of a college career, freshly stung with the news of cancelled spring sports seasons. Another student in another class wrote a note on the back of a reading quiz, where normally I encourage doodles and puppy cartoons as they wait for others to finish, saying plainly “just let us leave Wartburg please.” These were the days where the situation changed daily, sometimes even hourly. Administrators struggled to keep up with the current best advice from elected officials and public health experts, because what was “best advice” kept changing.

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Vocation matters in this time of pandemic

We find ourselves in a time of rapid change, fear, and great uncertainty, and each passing week seems to bring a new set of circumstances. Whatever your campus role, you are no doubt engaged in a kind of triage in order to hold your campus community together and finalizing plans for a new academic year.

Here is a short list of pieces from Vocation Matters that directly or indirectly address themes relevant to this time of crisis:

Relevant pieces written prior to 2020:

As short, publicly accessible writings, please share these pieces with your colleagues and friends. You might consider using them as the starting point for a discussion among students, faculty and staff, or other members of your campus community.

If you find a particular post insightful or thought-provoking, please use the comments section to let the author know, and to encourage a wider conversation about how these thoughts have a new resonance.

Last updated on July 30, 2020.

Form and Formation I: Narrative Expectations

In all of my literature courses that include British modernism, that first short story on the reading list inevitably prompts the question, “where’s the rest of it?” James Joyce, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf—all rejected previous narrative forms and instead structured their early twentieth-century fiction around heightened “moments of being,” to use Woolf’s term, or “epiphanies,” to use Joyce’s. Because nineteenth-century narrative form still dominates our expectations, however, modernist fiction can seem plotless and pointless to students. We want a narrator who guides and interprets for us and we expect rising and falling action, hinged by conflict.

But is realist fiction actually realistic? Does it reflect our lived experiences, or does the modernist innovation of the literary epiphany—those heightened moments of significance around which narratives are structured—offer us a different realism? If fictions provide insight into the human condition and stimulate the moral imagination, then a modernist disruption of our narrative expectations can offer students a different, possibly more “real” narrative understanding of their own lives.   

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