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.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A Really good sermon, drawing on the Heaven book

I don't do this often, but I'm going to post, verbatim, a really good sermon that my sister, the Rev. MJ Pattison, preached this past Sunday at Hamilton Union Presbyterian Church in Guilderland, NY. She draws on the Heaven book, which is nice - but more important, she speaks to some of our most haunting questions - about the reliability of God's love, and about the unknown beyond this life. It's called "Many Mansions," and her text is John 14: 1-7. I've modified it a little to take out some personal stuff but this is the heart of it:

Many Rooms
John 14: 1-7
April 20th, 2008 – The Rev. Mary Jo Pattison
[I want to begin with by introducing you to our former neighbor] Brady, who at about six years old, was the Instigator of one of the most difficult theological conversations I ever had with someone. And I thought of it again this week, because it revolved around this morning’s passage from the Gospel of John.
When Brady was six, his grandfather was diagnosed with an aggressive Cancer.
At a certain point it was clear that treatments were no longer effective and that his grandfather would not live very much longer. Brady, a generally happy, focused kid, became very anxious and began having trouble sleeping. He was very worried about what was going to happen to his grandfather after he died--where was he going and what would it be like? His parents, our good friends Joyce and Dave, were what I would describe as thoughtful and very honest theists- but not regular church attendees. They did not feel that they could help him very much with his questions, so they turned to the “professionals” who lived down the street. Since we were “in the business,” so to speak, Joyce asked me if I would have a conversation with Brady about the afterlife.
I was terrified. Brady has always been a very bright kid. He would smell out platitudes in a heartbeat. Clouds and Angels and “a better place” wouldn’t cut it for him. What could I say that would reassure him? To be honest, I had given very little thought to this particular topic myself, having spent most of my time thinking theologically about the role of faith in this world--feeding the hungry, clothing the naked-- that sort of thing. I didn’t really even know where to turn to kind of “bone up” on eschatology – the seminary word for the end times and what comes next.
And there is a reason why this part of my theological education got short shrift.
I will digress for a moment to say for Christmas, my sister gave me a book titled simply “Heaven”. It consists of 25 short essays contributed by a number of distinguished religious thinkers, poets and scholars who are not ordinarily associated with this particular topic. The editor, Roger Ferlo, in his introduction notes that although this is a compelling topic for ordinary people, it is a topic largely ignored by more serious religious thinkers. The book is his attempt to break the silence in more mainline and progressive theological circles. “This pastoral emphasis on matters of this world rather than the world to come is understandable, considering the social injustices that surround us and the emotional injuries so often inflicted by fiery preaching about heaven and hell,” Ferlo writes. “Fearing the worst,” he notes, [Theologians] avoid the topic of the afterlife and end up marginalizing the subject of eternity, leaving thoughts of heaven to popular fiction and talk shows –or to the punishing rhetoric of pulpit pounding evangelists.” ( Ferlo, 2007, p. 2-3).
So anyway, the next Saturday morning I made my way up the street to Brady’s house for “the conversation”. We sat in his small living room, surrounded by the props of an engaged family, baseball bats, soccer balls, school books, the dog crate, and everyone kind of melted way to other places. I began awkwardly. “Your mother tells me that you have been feeling worried about your grandfather.” His beautiful dark eyes immediately filled with tears, and he said with a child’s peculiar anguish “What will happen to him? Where is he going and what will it be like when he gets there?” His question was remarkably similar to the disciple Thomas, when he asked in this morning’s lesson “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” And as a result, this was the passage that God gave me to talk about. I told Brady that I didn’t know- because I don’t--And honesty is always the best approach because children have a real nose for smelling out phonies. But I told him there was a place in the Bible where Jesus’ disciples asked the very same questions he was asking, that Jesus told him about a House with many rooms- in fact one version of the story in the King James version said that it was a House with “many mansions,” and I like that even better- Houses within houses- rooms upon rooms- enough room for everybody. And Jesus promised his disciples that he would go ahead of us to make the beds and put flowers in the vases and dinner in the oven, making it comfortable and familiar and home. I babbled- but he listened. And when I was finished I asked with genuine trepidation - Does that help at all?
He looked at me solemnly and he didn’t say “yes thank you so much pastor”. But after a while he said, “so it’s like my house- only bigger?”
Yes, I said. That sounds exactly right to me.
Now I don’t know if this conversation was all that much help to Brady- His mother did report that the nightmares subsided and he was sleeping better at night- but I will say that the conversation really helped ME. Ever since then, whenever I have imagined heaven, I have imagined Brady’s Yellow and Brown house at 25 Nelson street- with its small rooms filled with constructive, active, wonderful, family life-- only bigger- with room for everyone. And it still seems right to me.
But even more important than individual mental pictures we all have of the Father’s house of many rooms, what Jesus says in the very next verse is even more important to me.
“If it were not so , Would have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?.”
If it were not so, would I have told you?”
This incredulous question reminds us of the essential reliability of Jesus. Here is a One who tells the truth, even when the truth is terrible and we don’t want to hear it- “My house shall be called a house of prayer but you are making it a den of robbers”. “One of you will betray me.” “Truly I tell you, before the cock crows you will have denied me three times”.
If he can be truthful in those situations, than he is reliable in this one. Jesus has demonstrated that he will follow through on what he says. In all things, when the news is good and when it is bad, the Lord speaks with clarity and honesty, out of profound and unconditional love for us all. The phrase reminds me of the fall- back position of parents everywhere and the bane of children who ask “why can’t I”? “Because I said so” replies the mom. It’s a phrase we pretend to hate, but is actually deeply reassuring because contained in it is the knowledge that someone has our back- and is looking out for us when we, in our immaturity or flawed humanity cannot make all the right choices. And IF something is NOT so. If there is no heaven, no after life no nothing then he will NOT tell us it is so. But it is so, and furthermore, he will go ahead of us he will make the way.
This brings us to the final and most controversial part of this passage. Thomas says “ We do not know where you are going , How can we know the way? And Jesus says to Thomas
“I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.” John 14:6 is one of the passages that Many Christians understand as confirming the exclusivity of Christianity as the only way to God. But as a deeply committed Christian, and in all humility, I need to say that I do not believe that is what Jesus meant. Not only does such exclusivity limit the reach of Christian Grace, which recognizes the power of God to redeem us regardless of our own acts, it also defies reason. . In his book The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg writes “Does it make sense that [God]- “the More”- whom we speak of as creator of the whole universe, has chosen to be known only in one religious tradition, which just fortunately happens to be our own?” (p. 220) Instead, I understand the passage not to be saying that believing in Jesus is the only way to God but rather that the WAY of Jesus is the way to God. Marcus Borg says, “the path of dying to an old identity [that] way of being in order to be born into a new identify and new way of being is at the heart of Christianity and other religions. For us as disciples, Jesus is the way.” This exclusivity, Borg writes, is rooted in the fact that biblical language is the language of devotion- of gratitude and of love. As is often the case, human relationships provide a good analogy. We often will say to someone we love “You are the most beautiful person in the world”. Is that literally true? Of course not. it is “the Poetry of devotion and the hyperbole of the heart. It is not doctrine... We can indeed sing out love songs to Jesus with wild abandon without needing to demean other faiths and other paths to God.” (Borg 222)
And so for now, we are called to follow the way of Jesus. As William Sloan Coffin wrote “The one true freedom in life is to come to terms with death, and as early as possible. For death is an event that embraces all of our lives. And the only way to have a good death is to lead good life. Full of curiosity, generosity and compassion and then, there is no need at the close of the day to rage against the dying of the Light. We can go gentle into that goodnight. “

We have the freedom to live in this world confident of the next without having to know exactly what awaits us because Jesus is reliable, and Jesus said
“In my father’s house there are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go to prepare a place for you I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

Referenced in the sermon
Borg, Marcus J, (2003 ) The Heart of Christianity, San Francisco, Harper Collins.
Coffin, William Sloan, (2004) Credo . Louisville, John Knox Press.
Ferlo, Roger, ed. (2007 ) Heaven. New York, Seabury Books.

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