About Me

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I work as a teacher, poet and spiritual director at a number of institutions in the DC area. My teaching focuses in various ways on writing, poetry, Spirituality and Christian vocation and ministry - especially from the point of view of the laity. I also offer classes and retreats encouraging people to explore their inner lives, engage their creativity and reflect on their beliefs about God, vocation, and how we can discern and pursue new ways to transform our broken world. I enjoy speaking of faith in the secular academy as well as reminding those preparing for ministry in the Church that our primary purpose is to love and serve the world beyond the church's doors. I love helping people to grow in faith and to find their own voices, and I also love encouraging them to use their minds. I see no contradiction between these impulses, believing as I do that faith, reason and creativity work together.

Friday, May 18, 2007

The Church's One Foundation - and 21st Century Church

The opening hymn at the seminary commencement yesterday was "The Church's One Foundation." I remember as a child singing this hymn beside my staunchly Presbyterian dad, and marveling at how he also sang along with gusto the opening verse "From heaven He came and sought her, to be His holy bride. With his own blood He bought her, and for her life He died." I was already a bit of a closet mystic even then, and I loved that intimate image for Christ's love for the Church - and the awareness that "The Church" included all of us, all denominations, all the people of God. It may have been a first glimmer of what I now deeply believe: that life in the Church, the Body of Christ, the people of God, is not an individualistic thing, but a mystery that connects the human and the divine and teaches us to be the presence of Christ in the world. The verse of that hymn that I most love, and pray as I sing, is particularly appropriate these days:

Though with a scornful wonder, men see her sore oppressed
By schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed,
Yet saints their watch are keeping. Their cry goes up, "How long."
And soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.

So much publicity about the church is about us fighting among ourselves over matters of doctrine -- the Episcopal Church possibly breaking up, the Anglican Communion unhappy with the American church and likely to dissociate from us. Scuffles between denominations about this and that. But the commencement gave me hope for the future of the institutional church we know , as it always does.This year especially I know a lot of the graduates and they are good, dedicated people with fresh energy and real, practical prayerfulness. They will be facing changes in the next generation, but they have the gifts and energy to lead us to something new, if we can keep track of what's really most important. And the seminary commencement always does celebrate, for me, the church gathered, doing the best we can for the gospel, as well as my own ministry of teaching and spiritual companionship, so woven into the life of that institution. But the awareness of schism and distress on the horizon in the church was also hanging in the air, and I was glad this hymn-prayer was chosen, to ground us.

Meanwhile, I was just back from a conference at the Washington National Cathedral this past weekend weekend about Church for the 21st century. It featured many excellent speakers,, including Diana Butler Bass, Michael Battle, Tony Jones of the Emergent Church movement, Marcus Borg, Barbara Brown Taylor, Phyllis Tickle. Quite a feast -- and a wonderful Eucharistic feast liturgy, too, one of our nights together. I've been teaching for years what was at the center of the conference: that the Church is about the people of God, living into their call to be disciples of Jesus -- especially in practices of faith such as discernment, hospitality, social justice -- the church is not about institutional survival but about forming people to become a presence that serves our call to be a community of reconciliation. Especially in the broken world in which we live. We talked a lot about the survival of the mainline denominations and the new vitality which comes from (!) actually practicing our faith. That commitment to faithful practice, together with the focus on forming disciples, was the most exciting part of the conference, for me.

I particularly appreciated the way Michael Battle held up the work of reconciliation and the African concept of "ubuntu" -- "I am because we are, we depend on one another" -- as reflecting the heart of the gospel call as early Christians understood it, an understanding that Western individualism has distorted. I was intrigued by the way he uses a relational theology of the Trinity, a relationship between persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) to reflect on the identity of the Church as a reflection of the image of God as community - always one, always in relationship, a mystery of unity-in-diversity that is at the heart of our faith. And he also argued that the Church is the way that the world sees the activity of God, the Holy Spirit, in human life and history. His presentation particularly spoke to me, the last day of the conference, pulling together a lot of what we'd heard about spiritual practice and giving it theological grounding.

I hope that in the midst of the fights over property, polity, doctrine and "who's in, who's out," we can keep track of that call to be a community of reconciliation, and remember that the Church, the people of God called by grace, extends throughout time and history and has hit major times of conflict before. Let's hope it's true, what the hymn says, that there is a whole network of prayer that will carry us through these troubled times, and keep us faithful to what is really essential, whatever changes may be coming in the institutions we have come to know.
. . . saints their watch are keeping. Their cry goes up, "How long?"
And soon the night of weeping will be the morn of song.


  1. KS, A lovely and lucid summary of the marvelous conference. The Holy Spirit as being alive in our world was particularily enlivening. RevRobHOW DO WE REINVIGORATE ST. DUNSTAN’S EPISCOPAL CHURCH?
    Notes from the Cathedral Conference on the Church in the Year 2001, by Rev. Robert Hundley
    ps the ff per my perigrinations:
    Some of us might think that the way to grow the church is to get more Children and Youth involved in our programs. It seems unlikely. Would you abandon the parental roles with the sexuality of our children, telling them to tell us what they want to do? No. We have to be involved, in conversation, giving advice, listening, highlighting the joys and the difficulties. When we fail to give direction and counsel is when children and youth experience hardship.

    In the Cathedral Conference last week several things were clearly agreed on. If you want to reinvigorate your church to way to do it is in WORSHIP. The key elements seemed to move from a set of fearful people unwilling to take chances, to become a church capable of exuberance, where the congregation accepts surprise and celebration. In a declining church Worship has become a dirge, a somber and sad experience. In the church coming alive the church is a place where dreary self-attention has been shifted to a church willing to be honest about the real concerns of the world, such as the prison population, AIDS, racism, women’s rights, the environment, world hunger.

    On of the foremost barriers to church growth is the past authoritarian style of the church.

    In our Protestant Episcopal tradition neither the Priest nor the institutional structure is necessary for us to have a relationship to the presence of Jesus Christ. As Tom Stoppard says, "It makes me happy to be alive. Everything is beginning again. Everything you thought you knew is wrong." Canon Howard Anderson suggested the church have a giant Rummage Sale, to clear out the unnecessary and the sad/dreary stuff of Worship, so that the church can break out of its present forms and find a new Center. Mainline churches are in denial, watching their numbers fall while attempting to hold on to the Authority model. Now "Wickepedia," or Field Theory, invites the congregation to shape worship, to involve each person, to play, in shaping the Human, the Holy. The writings of J.K. Rowling and Tolkien have moved us toward a new mostasticism, opening to Buddhism, and Islam is moving us toward a new listening to God/Allah, in which the church accomodates itself to the Sadducees, the religious authorities, is crumbling. My Space, U Tube, Face Book, nano-technology which is global, is creating new forms of religious experience. Even if you were interested in religious questions, or seek a religious dialogue, why go to church?

    On way essential for the church, said Dean Sam Lloyd (who also has a PhD in literature from Uva), is HOSPITALITY. He used the example of "Hotel Rhuanda," where the manager gave shelter to those being murdered, Hutus killing Tutsis (300,000 dead in just days, aided in some instances by the church). Rather that permitting ethnic and religious violence to go unchallenged, when people name their babies Jihad, we adults must teach our children to love, so that the hatred and revenge of war will be replaced by another way. We in the Episcopal Church, too, are pushing Hospitality aside to insist on a version of Canon Law and ancient discipline which requires the "faithfulness fo God’s Word." Such a move is in the direction of Tribalism, and polarization. In a Hope filled church and world there is a Christ filled space for Others, where the rage can be let go so that there is room to repair our souls, to make us whole again through Reconciliation. Alexander Solzendzian (sp?) Says "the line between good and evil runs through the heart of every person." Look at how the Amish responded to the dreadful murders of the 5 children in their midst, forgiving the murderer and caring for his widow. Hannah Adrendt, one of the best minds of the 20th Century, asserts that it was Jesus who discovered Reconciliation, such as the story of the Prodigal Son. In St. Paul we are called to a New Creation, where everything is new in Christ, a way of reconciliation in Christ, so that we will be Ambassadors of Reconciliation for Christ. This is an act of God, not our action; the work begins with the victim, finding a new way of healing. Portia tells us in the MERCHANT OF VENICE that we must render acts of mercy. Martin Luther King, Jr. invokes non-violence, the recovery of the sacred community, where each person is beloved, each experience the reservoir of Grace that comes from God. Here racial reconciliation is possible. Archbishop Desmond Tutu adds, "There is no future without Faith, without Forgetting." South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with Nelson Mandala’s leadership, and Tut’s, has been guided by the religious traditions to restore care and to unify the people through Truth. One clergy-person locked the doors of the church after the service and refused to allow anyone to leave until they were honest and until they were reconciled. The Episcopal Church in general needs to do the same: make space for the Other; God delights in the differences between people; be in touch with your own sin; be reconciled in Christ, where you will find new life. Be less arrogant. Be experimental. Be eccentric. Let go of your hatred. Be reborn.

    Marcus Borg, who was my seminary classmate at Union (NYC) began by emphasizing

    the need for ADULT THEOLOGICAL RE-EDUCATION in the local parish. It is the adults who have wandered away and need to find a way back into the church. If your theological education is in a "nutshell," that is where it belongs. The theological task is to know what it is to which you can give your heart; the heart of Christianity is the "Credo," my beloved. This is the Blessing that is poured out from the parent to the child, the breath of life passed from generation to generation, as much from adult behavior as from our words. We once thought Faith was a set of Beliefs, such as the Afterlife, and these beliefs were handed on. The followers of Christ today need to find Jesus as a Way, as a Path to full humanity (Acts 9:1). Our Bible, as Martin Luther said, is "the Manger in which we find Christ." This Manger is a recollection written by humans and codified in a historical process. As a Cleric said: "The Bible is True, and some of it happened." But Jesus transcends the Bible, breaks in with new insights and breaks out of old formulations. Jesus trumps Caesar, and Jesus is Lord where the Kingdom of God is enthroned, not Kings, Queens, Presidents. In the Path and Way of Jesus adults can learn to overcome the anxiety about following a set of beliefs, and grow and deepen our Trust in God. Faith is an intentional process of knowing God thru Jesus, through loving. Up until the age of 40 we are ego oriented, concerned about ourselves; after the age of 40 we can experience a new Spiritual quest. As Augustine said, "Oh God, from whom we have turned, let us turn to you and abide forever."

    Diana Butler Bass, PhD in American Religious History, asserted boldly that it is simply not the case that Progressive Protestant churches cannot grow. They do grow and she has chronicled their journey. The Riverside Church is falling apart and the NYT takes it for a metaphor about the entire Mainline church. "Bye, Bye Miss Anglican Pie; took your Miter to the Thames but the river was dry." Some clergy respond with depression, saying that’s just the way it goes and they will serve the Eurcharist until the last person leaves the church. On the other hand there are churches that have opened the windows and allowed the Holy Spirit to enter the church, with dancing, with drums, with a passion for Justice and care. Maybe there are "Pentacostal Liberals." In the church Rummage Sale the new spirit is bring in new things from the ancient past, such as the Minorah, such as Gregory of Nessa, making the church new again, reconstituting Christian practices. It is a congregational style that is setting out to make the Christian experience deeper (as Gordon and Bev Cosby has done with Church of the Savior and Pilgrim), more Christian, growing their Faith. It cannot be achieve with a Program (a formula without depth) to fit the needs of the church. The faith process will bring new vitality to the teaching and the sharing of the church, becoming a new practice, a new way of doing our religious witness. "The way it has been done" is not sufficient. The transformation of the church requires that the church be turned inside out, reconstituting our devotional life, meet the needs of the people, awakening moral healing and forgiveness, ethical practices, a commitment to justice. The Preaching in the church will have a connection to the Biblical tradition, cannot be merely about politics, the relevant and new, and will reconnect the congregation to the present needs while knitting social justice into the fabric of our shared Biblical stories. Out of the broken stained glass in the Reformation there were those who picked up the broken pieces and created a new art with the broken old glass. This is our task, where John Wesley, Bonhoeffer, Hildegaard von Bingen, Martin Luther, Bono come together in a new vitality of sacred dance. And the Youth will join in when they are not patronized or marginalized, but when they are seen as a resource of the church that is needed. One of the most difficult transitions is to go from a church that pushes Children and Youth out of Worship and become a church that includes everyone in worship, so that the preacher, the music is designed to communicate to all ages. What works for many revitalizing congregations in worship is: 8am Service; 9am Service; 10am Sunday School for all; 11am Service. Sunday School cannot be the only portal through which Children can enter the church. As we expand and deepen our Worship the children can find many ways into the worshiping community. Accepting Tradition, reshaping Practice, intending Faith, brings Vitality. If the church wants to achieve Vitality, it will have to sacrifice Comfort, where we learn to have a faith that can let go without too great a fear, in order to accept something new. It will take between 6 to 8 years for a church to achieve a new worship where everyone will meet with a vocabulary for all. In such a worship environment we can try on new theologies, to see where they fit. In worship we do our best to extend God’s invitation. We all need one another, and we need a vision of the church that embraces a worship across generational lines, said Rev. Devon Anderson, the cleric in a revitalized Minneapolis Episcopal congregation that grew from a church dying with 70-100 in church to a church with hundreds in each of the 3 services. She went on to say that waiting for Jesus was waiting for surprise. It requires flexibility. Before 1911 there was no such thing as Sunday School. To achieve the renewal the church created worship teams for each season of the 4 in the church year (only 4 meetings). Before people came that had to read all of the lectionary readings for that season, and then come prepared to discuss how these Biblical scriptures spoke to them. (Walter Wink’s approach to the study of the Bible.) Then the hymns, prayers, and elements of worship became organic. Authority, top down ministry, will not work. The people must be invested in the liturgical leadership, giving leadership. And the most truculent and churlish must be put at the center of the discussion, helping to make even the worst element of worship new. For example, the Communion/Eucharist is not a dirge and should be a celebration. Worship is a rain-forest, with lots of voices, including young children, where there is lots going on, and your life is unified, as Thomas Merton said. Good worship will prepare you for your private devotions, where connections can be made. One feature Devon added was the 5 minute rule, where everyone in the church must talk with someone they do not know for at least 5 minutes every Sunday morning. Hospitality is not an option. The new person is needed, to change us, to inform us, to share their gifts. The Peace then becomes just as important as the Eucharist. Related to the Hospitality theme is the integration of Necrology into the Peace, by bringing pictures of those who have died. Remember, too, that the children are short and cannot participate in the service when they cannot see, so they will need to be brought to the front–here God’s Play becomes an event for the entire congregation. Another variation Devon used was to have the Sunday School teachers face the children and the congregation, and then have questions asked of the teachers, and then have the teachers kneel during the Commissioning, giving Youth authority. The children are thoroughly involved in the service, having a leadership role in a Good-bye service for Jesus on Good Friday, with a labyrinth, and distributing the elements of Bread and Wine in the Easter Vigil service, among many other examples.

    The Way Luthern Church in Seattle revitalized itself by taking Adult Christian Education very seriously, and having a Mentor in the Faith for each prospective member of the church. Every Sunday evening there was a meal with Bible Study, and the only curriculum was the lectionary readings for the day. The discussion about about how the passage spoke to each person’s life. Suddenly the level of listening and awareness in relation to the sermon was enhanced. This care and attention to the "new-bies" has had a transformational role. They also invited the homeless to worship with them, realizing that following Jesus requires such openness.

    Rev. Michael Battle, resident theologian for the Diocese of LA, warned us that it was not necessary to become British to be an Episcopalian. The traditional Western world-view has emphasized the individual without setting the individual in the context of the community. We were taught to have a PERSONAL relationship with Jesus, to believe in Personal Salvation. But the Early Christians were interested primarily in whether the irresistible love of God made known in the ministry of Jesus Christ would be able to overcome evil. Nothing about the personal. Such a egoist focus results in a Tribalism. The anger of Jesus, Michael says, is focused on those who were hypocrites, those who were duplicitous, saying one thing and doing another. In an atmosphere of secrets and lies, no one in the congregation prays for their own hurt, for their own sin. In our superficial prayers the Pastor, the Good Shepard, allows the flock, the congregation, to hood-wink themselves We are like a senile congregation praying to a senile god, whom we pretend does not already know things for which we pray. It is hard to be honest. A Russian Orthodox theologian, Vladimir Laski, asks: "How is it possible to imagine that you could be in Heaven when some are in Hell?" Where is the human bond that enables us to realize that the individual, even though a sinner, is bound to the human community and must be restored, reconstituted? The South African concept of "Ubantu" can help to church to find its way to the human bond, buy understanding that we are only a self because of the gifts, the blessings, the reflections of the community. In Acts 2 we are told that the Church should reflect the Spirit, and the Spirit will make us One, with many gifts in one body. The real blasphemy is when the church is not the church, when the people in the church cut off and truncate the Spirit. When the Spirit is in the church the church will DANCE. We can move from Sunday morning as the most segregated time in America, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, to the awareness that diversity in the community part of the reciprocity of the Spirit, the Holy Spirit making us One. Here the desire to be "nice" can be replaced with honesty and the courage to face the slave trade, prisons, the Western church’s unilateral approach. Michael comments: "God has a great sense of humor, sending an African Archbishop to establish missionaries to America." God does not require sacrifice or the splintering into 27,000 denominations, with the attendant Sadduccees, Priests, and bureaucracy of the church. God requires a broken heart. a willingness to address the need for truth and the courage to faithfully speak God’s healing Word in a broken world.

  2. I just happened across your blog after doing a search on "Michael Battle +Russian Theologian". How fortuitous! Your entry and the comment below were excellent and I have bookmarked your blog for regular reading.

    I'm a beginning seminary student at Fuller in Pasadena. I just attended a Violence and Religion seminar at my church - All Saints Episcopal Church - in which Michael was one of the main presenters. My wife and I also visited his new church - Church of our Savior in San Gabriel. A wonderful man.

    Thanks for being out there with your thoughts. I'm not sure where I'm going with my journey into seminary school but I do feel called to it.

    Kind Regards,

    Patrick Briggs,
    Pasadena, CA