About Me

My photo
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.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Christmastide musings

I love Christmastide - the 12 days of Christmas, when things calm down a bit around the house, the season of preparation is over, presents have been opened, returned, re-gifted, enjoyed -- some who have come for the holidays have gone home, others are still here. But for the Mom of the house, much as I love -- and I do love it-- the season of preparation and the celebrations of Christmas, there is a quiet, deepening restfulness about this time of year. I usually make a point of spending time on the couch by the Christmas tree with a good, light-read book. And sometimes I also find it's a time when I can sink in a little more fully to the mystery of this season -- the claim that it's about God becoming human, out of love. This year I've had time and space to let that sink in and I have to say it's not totally what's you might call a "Christmasy" experience -- but I think it speaks to the depths of what we celebrate in this season, and "ponder in our hearts."

An idosyncracy in my Christmas-decorating practice takes on more meaning for me when I have this Christmastide-time to ponder it. Years ago, when I needed some "straw" for the manger scene, I decided that the closest thing at hand for making it was a dried out palm frond from the previous year's Palm Sunday. So in the creche on our mantlepiece, the straw around the manger is made of palms from Passiontide. I like this symbolic connection. It points to the part of this whole mystery of Incarnation that is beyond words: the manger and the Cross as parts of the same story, and it reminds me, as I take my sabbath time in the living room, surrounded by decorations, of the invitation to ponder what difference it makes to me, to us, to the world, our claim that God became human, became poor, eventually suffered and died, all out of a deep and mysterious love that is at the heart of everything. There is beauty there and harshness. And it's all in the same story. You can't have one without the other.

This year I've also been paying attention to liturgical observances for each of the 12 days of Christmas, and it's interesting to me that they're pretty grim. The day after Christmas honors St. Stephen, deacon and martyr. The 28th of December is the feast of the Holy Innocents, a recollection of Herod's slaughter of Hebrew children, in his pursuit of the baby Jesus -- a story that is all too close to home in these times of genocide, famine and refugees. And today, the feast of Thomas a Becket, commemorates a politically motivated murder in Canterbury Cathedral. In honor of today, I made some of my on-the-couch reading a little heavier and rereadT.S. Eliot's verse drama"Murder in the Cathedral." A passage from that play is sticking with me, because oddly, though it's not what you might call "Christmasy", it gets to the heart of Christmastide, and this whole mystery of Incarnation that we celebrate. I'm putting it out there because it "speaks" in its own way in a way I can't paraphrase. The chorus speaks at the beginning of Act II, looking ahead to the coming martyrdom of Thomas, in Canterbury Cathedral on December 29, 1170

What, at the time of the birth of Our Lord, at Christmastide,
Is there not peace upon earth, goodwill among men?
The peace of this world is always uncertain, unless men keep the peace of God
And war among men defiles this world, but death in the Lord renews it,
And the world must be cleaned in the winter, or we shall have only
A sour spring, a parched summer, an empty harvest.
Between Christmas and Easter what work shall be done?

Back to Lessons and Carols in church tomorrow, and that's good too -- but I'm glad of today's reminder of the depth of what we are proclaiming as we sing "Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing. O come, let us adore him." Much to ponder here.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

On the Way to Bethlehem

As we move very quickly from Advent IV (“Purify our conscience, O Lord, by thy daily visitation, that our Lord Jesus Christ may find in us a mansion prepared for himself “) it is hard to feel “ready” for Christmas. But the Incarnation is never something we are “ready” for. After trying unsuccessfully to put some thoughts about this into prose, I went back to a poem I published a few years ago, and found that the poetry says this better. The poem was originally from my book, Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture (Edwin Mellen Poetry Press, 2003). Here is a slightly revised version

On the Way to Bethlehem

The timing could not be worse
But it’s the law. My husband has to go,
Even though I’m well along.
You are lively within me, moving and kicking me.
Your kicking hurts. It wakes me in the night,
Reminds me, as I walk
More and more laboriously,
You are coming soon.

I suppose we are safe enough
After all, it was an angel who came.
Looking back, I have never doubted that.
My husband has been tender, despite my disgrace.
He is sure, too, about the angel.
So I suppose we have no cause to worry.
It’s only my aching back
The sharp pains from your tiny feet,
The smell and press of crowds, and all the delays.

The only thing that matters now, is bearing you safely
Into this messy world
And now even that I cannot control.
I did what I could do, but it’s all left behind.
At home, we had a place prepared for you.
I longed to see you soon.
Then I hoped you would come later, after our return
But now I know for sure that you will be coming
To a place we did not know.

I catch my breath at a sudden squeeze of pain.
My body recognizes the agony,
Already begun.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Redeemer and Judge - Advent Musings

I was listening, this afternoon, to the service of 9 Lessons and Carols for Advent Sunday, a lesser-known choral service that is very rich and beautiful. I don' t know how many times I've heard or sung it. But this time what is really giving me pause is the closing collect of the service (which I must have heard many, many times in my life but I'm noticing it this year. That happens: one of the riches of a liturgical tradition.) The prayer goes:

O God, who makest us glad with the yearly expectation of thy coming, Grant that we, who with joy receive thy only-begotten Son as our Redeemer, may without fear behold him when he shall come to be our Judge, even thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.

Redeemer and Judge together -- we've been talking about that in my "Ideas of God" class, but now I'm pondering. What might that mean to "behold him without fear when he shall come to be our Judge?" It seems to be connected, in this prayer, to the joy with which we greet our Redeemer. Surely the fearlessness before our Judge would not come from having made ourselves perfect or gotten it all right. No. It can't be that. Because if we were perfect all by ourselves why would we be so joyful about having a Redeemer?Some more demanding spiritual realism is called for here.

This makes me think of something I often say when I teach Flannery O'Connor's haunting short story, "Revelation," in seminary classes. I sometimes say to students that it's partly about how the experience of knowing oneself to be "under Judgment" turns out to be a radical experience of grace, because it brings us into greater honesty before God, and perhaps makes it more possible for us to cooperate with God in the redeeming and purging/purifying work that needs to be done on us, work that we can't even see needs to be done. The protagonist of O'Connor's story, Ruby Turpin, sees this grace for a moment. To us, the readers of the story, she is deeply, obviously unattractive and self-deceived, but she doesn't see this. She spends most of the story congratulating herself on being one of the good people, someone who knows how you're supposed to live, someone who is better than most. At the end of the story she is given a revelation: a vision of all the people of the world going into heaven, with most of those she thought of as her "inferiors" going in ahead of her. The people like herself, she observes, are marching at the end of the procession "with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away." ("Revelation," by Flannery O'Connor, as published in Peter Hawkins & Paula Carlson's anthology, Listening For God:Contemporary Literature and the Life of Faith (Augsburg Fortress, 1994, vol. 1, p. 35)

"Even their virtues were being burned away." That's got something to do with this strange theme, in the prayer, about welcoming our Redeemer and beholding our Judge without fear. We don't even know ourselves, but the good news is that God does -- sees us and this broken world as we are and gives us exactly what we need to be whole: a Redeemer. AND a Judge. And the grace to greet him joyfully and without fear.

I think it was Teresa of Avila who defined humility as total and complete realism about ourselves, in God's presence God. I think that is what this prayer is about.

Humility. "Even their virtues were being burned away." I'm going to ponder this for awhile, this Advent. It seems to be one of those prayers that could lead to new insight if I listen afresh. . . .

Friday, November 30, 2007

On Rushing the Season

For the last few years, since my oldest son first went off to college, we've formed the habit of putting up the Christmas tree on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Part of the impetus is that my church (the Church of Our Saviour, Hillandale) sells Christmas trees as an annual fundraiser and that weekend is when the tree lot goes up outside the church. But mainly, now, it's a practical matter. Putting up the ornaments (some of them several generations old) has been a family affair since the kids were little, and it seems important to do this when we're all together. Having the tree up after our children have returned to college and grad school gives me and my husband a wonderful reminder that they'll be home again soon.

I'm also a great lover of the Advent season. I know it is not about preparing for Christmas, but about "keeping awake" because we do not know when the mystery of acopalypse and the inbreaking of Reality into our lives will come. I am a proponent of finding quiet amid the busy-ness of the holiday season, and remembering that there is a deeper expectation in the Church's celebrations than in the commercialism that surrounds us. So it seems in some ways contradictory to have that tree up already -- even before the Advent wreath comes out, this year! But that decorated tree, standing in the corner of our living room on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, carries a lot of spiritual meaning for me. It isn't about commercialism or Christmas shopping or Macy's or anything like that. I just want to reflect on what it IS about, and what it has to do with Advent.

Partly, it's about celebrating abundance and blessing. Years ago, when my children were 2 and 5, I was just coming off of surgery for breast cancer when we put up the tree. Ever since then, when that tree goes up again, I've felt a deeper joy at the miracle of being alive and healthy, and watching these children grow. Now that they are young adults, coming and going, it is a rich wonder to me when we can be together. It may eventuallly be a rare occurence, but this year they will be back again in three weeks. The trimming of the tree is a ritual that, for me, celebrates that wonder. I don't say that's what it is for them -- but that's what it is for me. As we engage in our yearly silliness, making fun of some of the ornaments, remembering what they evoke, I also feel and celebrate a strong sense of our dependence on the grace that has brought us safe this far, and the abundance of our life together thus far. We put up the ornaments that generations of my family have hung (some of them were on my mother's tree when she was a child; some were handmade by my children - many have histories from family vacations and Christmases past). There is something here that mirrors my experience of the faithfulness of God -- and the stories I love of Israel's experience of the faithfulness of God, even through times of loss and struggle and suffering -- and the constancy of God's promise. Here we are again, another year. "It might have been otherwise," as Jane Kenyon says in her wonderful poem. We know it can be. But this year, again, we find ourselves in a place of promises fulfilled.

I also just really like a nicely decorated Christmas tree, and that Fraser fir from the treelot of Our Saviour, with the twinkling lights my husband insists on, is just lovely to look at, and good to have standing there, in the corner of our living room, for a month of the year. It reminds me that "Christmas comes." Even before I do anything much about it (though it also helps, putting up the tree early, to motivate me to get a lot of my Christmas shopping done even before Advent begins, so that my inward observance of that season of expectation is less distracted) It doesn't really depend on whatever preparations or purchases I make; no matter what I do or don't do - and despite all the cultural messages to parents and consumers -- Christmas comes. The mystery of the Incarnation happened. It changed everything, and our celebration returns. It comes with the turning of the year, the lengthening of the days, the light that shines in darkness. All that solstice-symbolism works for me as another poetic image for the ineffable, mysterious, real promise that God desires to be with us, that one of the places we meet that desire is in human relationships at their best and fullest.

In a way, then, the Christmas tree ecomes part of my Advent celebration; not so much as a reminder that Christmas is coming, but as a quiet, glowing symbol of the promise of abundance to come, even in the midst of darkness, confusion, busy-ness -- an "already and not yet" that is at the heart of the Advent season and of the Christian life.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Language God Speaks - Musings on an Interfaith Conversation

Also on Episcopal Cafe, November 14 2007

I’m teaching an Honors seminar at the University of Maryland this semester called “Ideas of God in Scripture and Literature,” and we spend the first six weeks or so on Scripture and interpretive traditions in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I brought in a Muslim colleague and a Jewish rabbi, on separate days, to speak to the class on the idea of God in the Qu’ran and on the Rabbinic interpretive tradition, or midrash.

Describing the rabbis’ attention to the Hebrew text, ever “jot and tittle” of it in their often creative interpretations, the Rabbi told the students “the conceit is that God speaks Hebrew,” so the words of the Hebrew text are themselves sacred. At the previous class, the students had heard from my Muslim colleague that in effect God speaks Arabic, since Muslims regard the text of the Qu’ran as literally God’s words, dictated to the Prophet Muhammad. In conversations with these colleagues and my students we also explored the idea that each monotheistic tradition reveres a means of revelation – a way that the transcendent, distant God has made godself available to human perceptions: for the Jews, it is through Torah. For the Muslims, it is through the Qu’ran; For Christians, it is through a human being, Jesus, the Word of God incarnate. Whenever I engage in these interfaith conversations (as I do each time I teach the course), I find myself believing, and joyfully, that deep down, it is all the same revelation, that God just keeps trying to get through to us, calling us home.

Each time the class comes to this interfaith conversation, I gain new insights. This year it has been about this question of the language God “speaks.” If the Jews say that God speaks Hebrew, and the Muslims that God speaks Arabic, what language do we Christians say that God speaks? Our revelation is not so much through a text as through a human being, Jesus, (and, however unlikely this seems sometimes, through his body, the Church visible and invisible). What is the human language that translates this revelation? What is the language God speaks, for us?

After some reflection, I decided that the language God speaks, in Christianity, is the language of Pentecost: the gospel is proclaimed in all the languages, through all the cultural frameworks, of the world. As people learn to read Scripture for themselves, in translation, this is magnified, as each reader brings his/her own life experience and point of view to the reading of the story of the gospel. But we read the gospel story, revealed in Scripture, each in our own language, in order to come to know and follow the Living Christ.. That has made the interpretation of the gospel both challenging and lively as Christianity has spread across classes and cultures, some core of it always surviving, miraculously it sometimes seems.

The Rabbinic tradition of midrash holds that every new interpretation of Scripture, if it is faithful and connected to the text, adds to the sum of human knowledge of the divine revelation – even when the new insight contradicts the insight of other rabbis. Without admitting it, I think Christians at our best also adopt that attitude: Brian McLaren, in A Generous Orthodoxy, speaks of 21st century Christianity as a potluck supper to which each tradition brings something valuable, and the point is that we share the feast together. I would add, we share it in the company of the same Host. Not that truth isn’t important; of course it is. But since none of us will ever completely grasp the mystery of God and God’s love for us, isn’t the most important thing the lively and engaged pursuit of understanding, and of genuine Christian discipleship, in fellowship with one another?

I don’t think this is the vision that my Honors students have of Christianity. They see us as being mainly occupied with who’s in and who’s out, who is going to Heaven and who is going to Hell. And that is the underside of the language of our faith: that we have heard the gospel in so many different languages, we scramble to find some kind of of ordering principle that will distinguish “us” from “them”, “myself” from the “other.”

But, good Anglican that I am, I believe that there is a “both/and” that is the bottom line in our faith, the one we should be claiming in the 21st century. We quote Galatians 3:28 in the service of many agendas, but it continues to hold out a vision for us of who we are called to be. When will the world see Christians living as if this were truly our core belief: that God speaks the language of every people and every nation, and that differences, though real, are not the bottom line? ”There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:28-29)

Thursday, November 1, 2007

In the Boat with Jesus

I've been reflecting for awhile on the story of the call to the fishermen as told at the beginning of Luke 5, and yesterday, leading a day retreat on Discernment ("Praying God's Dream for your Life" at the Dominican Retreat House), I shared some of these reflections with the group, and promised I'd post a few thoughts here. In Mark and Matthew, Jesus just calls the fisherman "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men" - as the old RSV had it-- and they leave everything and follow him. They are transformed from what they were -- "fishermen" -- to a new kind of "fisher" , carrying out Jesus's work with him. In Luke, the story is more complicated and the complications are important. First, Jesus is looking for a place to preach to the crowds who have gathered on the lakeshore. The fishermen are rinsing their nets after a night's work. He gets into a boat, Simon (Peter)'s, and asks Simon to row him out into the water, and from there he teaches the people

This is one part I have been dwelling with, in my imagination: What was it like for Simon Peter to be sitting there in the boat listening to Jesus' teaching? He must have heard something that impressed him, judging from his part of the conversation that follows. After Jesus is done teaching, he turns to Simon and says "put out into the deeper water and let down your nets for a catch." Simon argues -- "we've been fishing all night and caught nothing, but if you say so, I will let down the nets. " What results is unexpected, overwhelming/overflowing abundance -- a greater catch of fish than they could have imagined. And the call "from now on you'll be catching people" - making disciples, perhaps, with the same abundance as you have just now been fishing. Simon Peter and his companions go ashore, and leave everything and follow him. It is a story about listening, about obedience in the sense of a simultaneous hearing and obeying, a kind of intuitive response to the divine inspiration. It is also about abundance, and the awe that comes with recognizing we are on holy ground in our lives.

What stays with me, meditating on this text, is how that relationship between Jesus and Simon Peter grows as they're sitting together in the boat. The story is about Jesus coming to him where he is, in his workplace, the place where he is to be found most days, and calling him in and through his work, to something new. My experience is that this is how the call to deepening discipleship happens, usually -- it is not always so much a sudden change or leaving of everything, as it is experiencing the presence of Jesus in the place where we are -- with us in the boat . He may be asking help, perhaps, with his work of teaching and healing, and by his very presence he directs us to new depths, new discoveries, and always bringing the kind of abundance that can be frightening (Peter's response is "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" I invited people on the retreat to reflect on what it is like to have Jesus "in your boat with you?" What are those deep waters for us? What is it that we resist, saying "we've tried that already; it will never work" "but if you say so . . . ." What experience of abundance does that bring? Can we hear Him calling us by name and saying, "Don't be afraid?"
It doesn' t translate as well into a blog, but there are rich imaginative invitations in this story, and it was good to share them in a retreat setting.

Reflecting on Jesus in the boat with Peter also reminded me of the story in Matthew 14 when Jesus comes walking across the water in stormy seas, and Peter says, "Lord, if it is you, bid me come and I will come." ("If you say so . . . ") Once again, there's this instinctive obedience, which brings surprising results, at least for a short time -- he walks to Jesus across the water. My poem, "Peter in the Boat" reflects on this story as another one about the experience of desiring to be faithful to the call of Christ, even when we aren't sure of ourselves -- by keeping the connection with him -- the "if you say so" that overcomes our resistance. Here's the poem.

Peter, Back in the Boat

It was the joy that drew me: the joy in your eyes,
When I said, "if it is you, bid me come across the water."
That must have been what made me think I could step out
Walking over waves I had not expected.
I forgot
The pounding of the storm, the walls of water
Drawn by your eyes, your outstretched arm.

Only when I looked away, the waves came over me.
Now, fished out, dried off, back in the boat
Here, with our friends, and work to do,
I remember
The joy in your eyes.

From Kathleen Henderson Staudt, Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture (2003 Edwin Mellen poetry press, p.41)

Sunday, October 14, 2007

"Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts."

Thanks to my friend Peter Carey reminding me of this quote (From Wendell Berry's poem, Manifesto: the Mad Farmer Liberation Front, and for his sermon on the prophet Habakkuk posted on his blog. It helps me with the call to engage where we can in the work of reconciliation, in living the "dream of God," as Verna Dozier has called it. I especially like Peter's conclusion: So be joyful, even though you have considered all the facts. And be hopeful, even though hopelessness may surround you. I definitely resonate with that approach to life, and the poem, too, coming from Romero, reminds me that this view of life does not represent a philosophy of disengagement, but of faithfulness.

Here it is: one of those poems that leads us into prayer:

A Future Not Our Own

It helps, now and then, to step back
And take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
It is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
The magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
Which is another way of saying
The kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God's grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Ramblings on Revelation

In my class on Ideas of God in Scripture and Literature, we've been reading the Bible and looking at the Rabbinic tradition of midrash, and now we're reading and listening to parts of the Qu'ran, using Michael Sells's really helpful introduction, Approaching the Qu'ran. I've been teaching about the Bible and ways that we read the Bible -- especially the Old Testament - in a lot of other venues, and there is something awe-inspiring, deeply quieting that comes to me as I reflect on these traditions. Each time I return to it I am impressed at how one can read the story of the Bible as a story of exile and return, people turning away and God calling us home, grieving, sometimes angry, and justly so - but always, as I read it, it is a story of mercy, of a God who connects with human beings in order to call us to a deeper wholeness that was intended for us, and that we keep choosing against. (See my entry last January, "What I Believe" at the beginning of this blog) I see this story in the Incarnation, in Jesus weeping over Jerusalem and casting out demons and sending out his disciples, in Paul, in Romans and Galatians, struggling over how to imagine and create, in flesh and blood and history going forward, an inclusive community faithful to God's calling, as we're still trying to do in the Church 2000+ years later. It's there in the Qu'ran, too, from the little I've been able to discern. In the haunting chants of the Qu'ran that we listened to, included with Michael Sells's book, there is a divine yearning, a plaintive divine voice, grieving over our sinfulness, our forgetfulness, our willful choices and "reminding" us that there is a better way, though also, in the Qu'ran, with very stern reminders of a definite and final day of reckoning.

I have come to believe that Torah, Jesus as Incarnate Word, and Qu'ran are all expressions of the same revelation. I was excited, in fact, to find that in the Rabbinic Midrash, in a famous passage from Genesis Rabbah, the rabbis, in conversation with each other and with the text, include that the voice that speaks in Wisdom, saying "I was with you before Creation" is actually the voice of Torah -- that God created with Torah as the blueprint for Creation. That reminds me of our Christian understanding of Jesus as the pre-existent Logos in John, who "was in the beginning with God, ;all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made." And Muslim scholars, too, speak of "Qu'ran" as both the text we have, divinely inspired, and the revelation beyond all language that is embodied in the text. (This isn't an original idea with me - I've encountered it before, notably in an interesting scholarly book by Bruce Chilton and Jacob Neusner called God in the World - and elsewhere. But it's been a matter of the heart with me these last couple of weeks, a deeply exciting discovery of what seems to me to be the the profound truth of faith.

In other words, I have been keenly aware, deeply convinced, that it's all the same revelation. That God just keeps trying to get through to us. And each tradition provides us with a way to listen and learn and be transformed inwardly in the process. This kind of interfaith inquiry and meditation actually strengthens my Christian faith and my sense of rootedness in the gospel story and also makes me curious and interested in meditating further on the mystery of the God who loves us and calls us home-- both in the gospel stories and in the idea of the relational Trinity. Probably by some definitions this universalism is heretical. You out there who have more systematic theology than I do (you know who you are) -- feel free to weigh in. But there it is.

For me, though, this is more of a mystical/intuitive theological insight than a systematic one. I find it freeing and rich. It has been a gift to me, and one I continue to enjoy, and want to share!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Voices of Breast Cancer

I'm honored that my short essay "God's Wounds" is included in a new book, Voices of Breast Cancer. The essay is quite personal and may be hard to read for people who know me well (TMI?) -- I'm guessing it may speak more clearly to people who don't know me. Anyway, I'm glad it is included here. The book is one of a series published by The Healing Project, a foundation established by Deborah LaChance, a cancer survivor who knows the healing value of people sharing stories (The series also includes a Voices of Lung Cancer and Voices of Alzheimers.) I just got my copy of this book. Dipping into it, I am reminded of the true healing power of people telling their stories, something I experienced when I led and was part of a cancer support group at my church, over a period of about 7 years. This book captures that mix of voices speaking honestly about an experience that is both shared and unique to each woman. Each voice is distinct, each woman writing claiming her story in a way that adds to our collective experience of dealing with this disease, and with the mysteries of bodily life on the edge of our mortality, and the intensities of fear and celebration that that can lead to.
The essays are short, arranged by different moments in what I've called "The Cancer Journey," from "Finding Out" to recognizing that "I've Changed" to various ways of thinking about what it means to be a "survivor." There are also brief sidebars about medical and treatment choices. I hope people who have experienced or who know someone who has experienced breast cancer will check this out and spread the word.

The book will be officially "launched" on October 16, which is very close to being the 17th anniversary of my first appointment with the surgeon after my diagnosis. 17 years of life and health, which I recognize and celebrate as a gift. I hope people who have been through this experience or who are working or praying with someone who has, will get hold of this book and pass it on.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

What is the Church for?

(also posted September 25 on Episcopal Cafe)

What is the church for? In a 1938 lecture series on the BBC, collected in her book The Spiritual Life, the British writer and retreat leader Evelyn Underhill answered the question in a way that has challenged the church for the past century.

The Church is in the world to save the world. It is a tool of God for that purpose; not a comfortable religious club established in fine historical premises. Every one of its members is required, in one way or another, to cooperate with the Spirit in working for that great end: and much of this work will be done in secret and invisible ways,. We are transmitters as well as receivers. Our contemplation and our action, our humble self-opening to God, keeping ourselves sensitive to his music and light, and our generous self-opening to our our fellow creatures, keeping ourselves sensitive to their needs, ought to form one life, mediating between God and His world, and bringing the saving power of the Eternal into time.

Underhill appropriately focuses on the church’s mission in and for the world; to her mostly Church of England audience, she is challenging the image of the Church that became comfortable during the long centuries of what Loren Mead has labeled the “Christendom” paradigm, when most people were nominal Christians, even churchgoers, and the mission of the Church was seen as being overseas, far away and directed toward people distinctly “other” than the people in the pews. Mission was supported by the institution, or pursued by volunteers overseas, in the name of church-based organizations; for the people in the pews, church attendance was a regular social obligation, to be taken with more or less seriousness depending on one’s particular spiritual needs and dispositions: to be part of a church was to support “a comfortable religious club.”

But Underhill recognizes that the institutional model, the “comfortable religious club” is not a true embodiment of what the Church is called to be. Rather, each of us has a part to play in the mysterious work of God in the world, the Spirit’s work to restore, reconcile and heal. Her work focuses on the spiritual practices of the individual as guaranteeing the health of the “cells” in the Body of Christ on earth. For her, ordinary Christians, each of us pursuing the work that has been given us, are the ones who carry out the saving work of the Church, “bringing the saving power of the eternal into time.” In this short paragraph she lays out a theology of the ministry of all God’s people – the laos – in the world.

Underhill’s image of the Church in the world invites what I might call a “poetic” way of looking at the church, the people of God – seeing the Church as a kind of work of art that communicates something to the world. It might seem that our disputes in the Anglican community about whom we may ordain and who decides how we should read Scripture have little to do with the ministry of the people in and for the world, but actually, poetically, they are important. Because we are an ordered church, our disputes about who we are and how we serve the world have focused, for the past 50 years, on whom we ordain. This may be appropriate to some extent since the ordained leaders of the Church do function as “metonymies” for our corporate identity – they are the parts standing for a whole. So if we claim to be an inclusive community, living and proclaiming the gospel in and for the world around us, it makes sense poetically that our visible leaders should reflect the diversity of the world we live in and the world we serve. If the world looks at us as a corporate body and sees inclusiveness in our leadership and our practice, then we are communicating something about the hospitality of God. If they see us finding ways to stay together in Christ while holding a diversity of views, that is a revolutionary witness for our deeply polarized times. On the other hand, if all that the world sees is fighting and schism and mutual recrimination, then we are losing track of our real identity and purpose.

I turn to Underhill’s description of the purpose of the church in my prayers for the Episcopal Church and the Anglican communion at this time, remembering that we are part of something much bigger that we believe God is trying to do through us, the people of God, in the world. I take comfort, too, from a beloved hymn we sing pretty often these days, and appropriately so – not least because its title reminds us of who we are: “The Church’s One Foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord”. I was particularly glad that it was part of the Commencement liturgy at Virginia Seminary last June - and posted about it at the time. But here it is again.

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 will be the morn of song. (Hymnal 525)

These words remind us that our tradition’s vision of the church as a “mystical body” is meant to give strength and energy to us as we try to live up to being the “Church visible" -the Communion of Saints “in the world to save the world, a tool of God for that purpose.” This vision does not deny that we have struggles and divisions. But both Underhill’s writing and the hymn call us back to awareness of our greater purpose and calling. It is a vision that sometimes seems improbable, but it is one that we are called to return to and refashion in our own generation, as faithfully as we can.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Christianity from the Outside

I'm teaching a college seminar called "Ideas of God in Scripture and Literature" in which an important discipline for me is to try to get some distance and come fresh to the texts of Hebrew Scripture, the New Testament and Qu'ran before we launch into analysis of some literary works. Today we did a class exercise giving an overview of monotheistic traditions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and students were asked to report on a tradition unfamiliar to them, based on some readings, and say what they learned. It was interesting to me (because it was in the reading, but students didn't pick up on it) that the thing that was left off the list of important things to know about Christianity was the centrality of Jesus for Christians, and the identification of Jesus's message with God's love for all humanity.
What stood out for them instead were the various conflicts -- the Council of Nicaea, the different ways of understanding atonement, the branches of Christianity -orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism and the sectarian groups within Protestantism. There's a lot to explore in our tradition, a lot of conversation with the mystery. But it is distressing that we are known mainly for our controversies (The other question that came up was "concupiscience" and the whole idea, starting with St. Augustine, that original sin is connected to the sexual act - that sex is bad (therefore Mary had to be a virgin so Jesus could be born of someone pure) -- an idea that just makes no sense to me given Scripture's affirmation of the goodness of creation and bodily life. It's pretty sad that this is what we're known for. (I won't even go into the fights in my own denomination about whether we can stay together while disagreeing about human sexuality).

Judaism and Islam, on the other hand, were identified largely according to their practices, in student reporting-back. It makes me think: what practices identify us, as Christians? how clear it is it that we live in a certain way, or engage in certain practices, because we are followers of Jesus and we are responding in joy to his call? Doctrine is interesting and endlessly discussable and debatable. I love that debate and discussion. But what this post-Christendom world mainly knows about practicing Christians is that they're the ones who say, "Believe what I believe or you're going to hell - I have the truth and you don't." And that we fight a lot over whose beliefs are right, who's in and who's out. ( In contrast to the New Testament's focus on who's in, especially in Paul's letters (See Galatians 3:28). What practices come out of, and demonstrate, our living faith in a Risen Lord? What do we do because we are followers of Jesus, and how does that reflect the joy we find in responding to His call? Who is Jesus for us? How is all this good news?

These are real questions that the world has about us, as Christians. The early Church father Tertullian wrote of those who saw the early Christian communities as practicing a countercultural way of life and exclaimed, "See how they love one another!" Does anyone say that about us now, distinguishing us from the world around us?
Something to ponder.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Remembering Verna Dozier

I have a post this morning on http://www.episcopalcafe.com/daily/people/encountering_verna.php remembering Verna Dozier, an important writer and role model for me, who died a year ago this weekend. Please check it out.
I highly recommend her book, The Dream of God: A Call to Return, which I consider a classic. Also quite wonderful for a sense of her prophetic voice and personality is Confronted by God: The Essential Verna Dozier, edited by Cynthia Shattuck

Here's what I posted on Episcopal Cafe:

Encountering Verna

Verna Dozier, writer and educator, died one year ago this weekend. The Café offers this remembrance.

By Kathleen Henderson Staudt

Late last summer, I was at the beach with my family, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Checking my email one day in the last week of August, I saw a note from Virginia Seminary asking our prayers for Verna Dozier, former faculty member there and beloved local prophet in Washington DC. She was the author of The Dream of God and The Calling of the Laity, and known as a prophetic voice in the church, calling “the church, the people of God” to claim as our own the work of reconciliation in the world, the work to which our Christian faith calls us.

That last week in August, 2006, Verna was coming to the end of a long illness and nearing her death, and the email asked for our prayers for her peaceful passing. As I absorbed this news, a surprising prayer welled up in me: recalling the story of the prophet Elisha, inheriting the mantle of Elijah. I prayed, “Please, let a portion of Verna’s spirit rest on me, and let the message she carried be continued in me, and in Your church.”

The next day, I was walking on the beach, my favorite prayer-place on these summer vacations. A passing hurricane had whipped up a strong sea-surge, covering the beach and creating dramatic waves, and an offshore wind now stirred the sea oats and dune grasses so that they bent deeply toward the churning ocean. The power of the wind that day reminded me of the power and prophetic energy I had experienced, reading Verna’s works, and being in her presence, and I prayed for her as I walked. Later I learned that she had passed from this life on that day, September 1, 2006. That spontaneous, prayerful connection with her, in those last days of her life, has led me to reflect more deeply on how Verna Dozier’s prophetic spirit and message have shaped my own understanding and experience of the call to Christian discipleship in this hurting and broken world.

I first encountered Verna Dozier’s writing in the mid 1990's, in an adult forum at the Church of Our Saviour, Hillandale in Silver Spring, Md. Bernice Harris Shook, an active participant in that forum, remembered having Verna Dozier as a teacher when she was a student in the DC public schools. This work in the church, including teaching at VTS as adjunct faculty, came only after Verna retired from her career as a school teacher. She would bristle when people referred to her post-retirement work of teaching in the church and ask "when did you begin your ministry?" Her work as an educator, she insisted, was just as much her ministry. That attracted me because at the time I was struggling to connect my growing inner life of prayer with my work and identity as a parent and a teacher, both in and beyond the church. I was convinced that my Christian faith was supposed to make a difference in the way I lived my life, and Verna’s work gave me language and a theological grounding for this conviction.

She herself grew up reading the Bible -- the Bible and Shakespeare were the only books in her household. A lover of literature, she understood the stories of Scripture as containing truths that are greater than factual truth, as telling the continuing story of humanity's relationship with God. That too spoke to my heart, as a poet and lover of literature. When she taught workshops, Verna would insist that every Christian should be able to re-tell the story of the Bible in 10 minutes, as a way of "making it our own." She read Scripture as the story of the “dream of God” -- God’s desire to be in relationship with us, and to see us in loving relationship with one another. From Adam and Eve, through the people of Israel, and the early disciples around Jesus, the story of Scripture records a God who is continually calling us to return.The church of our own time, she argued, still beset by the heritage of Constantine, has lost its understanding of “ministry” to a broken world as the work of all God’s people, focusing too much on the ministry of the clergy, the servants of the institution. The church, the people of God, she argued, is again being called to return to its original purpose – to love and serve the world that God loves. The prophetic energy of Verna’s message about the calling of the laity comes through clearly in her writing. I encountered that energy in person on the first of two occasions when I met her.

It was early Lent of 1996, and both of us had been invited to a party given by Martha Horne, then dean of Virginia seminary. I was wandering around when I spotted Verna Dozier sitting in a wing chair at the edge of the room, a frail figure, watching the proceedings quietly. I went to her and introduced myself, “gushing” like the fan I was about how much her writing had helped me to understand and claim my ministry as a lay person and a teacher in the church. She talked with me a bit about my story and my work, and then fixed me with her compelling, prophetic gaze, pointed her finger at me and wagged it sternly as she said to me, “Now: don’t you go and get ordained: Jesus was not ordained. Jesus was a teacher.”

I had sat down on the floor in order to hear Verna over the ambient noise, and so I was literally sitting at her feet as she said these words, and I have always remembered them as the message I received, sitting at the feet of the Teacher. They helped me tremendously in my efforts during those early years to name and claim a vocation as writer and teacher for which we didn’t have clear categories.

Verna’s was a well known voice in the Diocese of Washington. Her message is inspiring to lay people who hear and read it, but it is still not widely known, and my experience is that few people outside the Diocese of Washington have been aware of Verna’s prophetic message. Part of this is may be because her anti-institutional message is ultimately threatening to the structures of the church that could help to spread the message about the authority of the laity and our call to a mission of reconciliation within the “kingdoms of this world.” The closing paragraphs of The Dream of God still resonate today, for those of us who care about the mission of the church, the people of God, in this aching and broken world. Here’s what she writes:

The people of God are called to a possibility other than the kingdoms of the world. They must be ambassadors—again, St. Paul’s word—to every part of life. They witness to another way that governments can relate to one another, that money can be earned and spent, that doctors and care-givers and engineers and lawyers and teachers can serve their constituencies, that wordsmiths and musicians and artists and philosophers can give us new visions of the human condition. That is the ministry of the laity.

All of them need the support system of the institutional church. There must be those resting places where the story is treasured and passed on in liturgy and education. There must be those islands of refuge where the wounded find healing; the confused, light; the fearful, courage, the lonely, community; the alienated, acceptance; the strong, gratitude. Maintaining such institutions is the ministry of the clergy.

We have all failed the dream of God. The terribly patient God still waits.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

At the beach this week - the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where we've been coming for years, ever since our children (now young adults) were small. It is where I draw energy for the rest of the year. This year I'm reading the mystic writer Thomas Traherne, who speaks of knowing, in early childhood, that the world is alive with mystery and the presence of God, and then losing that as he is educated in the ways of the world, with its focus on things and status. What I read in him reminds me of William Wordsworth, whose "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Early Youth" sounds the same theme -- at perhaps excessive length. But always at the beach I find myself reciting by heart a passage that comes toward the end of the Immortality Ode. It's great poetry --and speaks to what I carry with me, year to year, from this week of walking along the waves, and just being on vacation in a beautiful place.

Hence, in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we be,
Our souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither.
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling ever more.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

The "Faith at Work Movement"

I've been reading a fascinating new book by David Miller, of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture (which I also hadn't heard of before). The book is called God at Work:The History and Promise of the Faith at Work Movement and it argues that the "Faith at Work" movement is a social movement in American Christianity that has been with us for a long time. Reading this book is heartening to me because for so many years I have been paying attention -- and trying to draw people's attention --to what I see as a central theme of Christianity -- the call to live out our faith in our everyday lives. I've been teaching classes at Virginia Seminary for years about the ministry of "all God's people" (also phrased as "the ministry of the baptized" and "the ministry of the laity" -- that is Christian "ministry" - teaching that Christian discipleship or "ministry" is not just a profession limited to the ordained. It is the work of all of us: what the church is "for" (see my July 13 post on "The Purpose of the Church," with my favorite quote from Evelyn Underhill)

Miller's is a scholarly book, well documented, rooted in a lot of social science and historical research and I have found it fascinating. He traces three "waves" in the faith at work social movement: the "Social Gospel Era" (1890s-1945), the "Ministry of the Laity Era" (c1946-1985), of which I am a product -- an era where churches were paying a little more attention institutionally to ministry in daily life, and the mission of the church in the world, and not to institutional survival only; and the "Faith at Work Movement" which extends from the the late 80's into our own time and is sadly, less connected to the churches because the churches have not seemed all that interested, and so people seeking spiritual support for their ministry in the world have sough it elsewhere. He reflects (at least this is what I'm getting from this) that though the connecting of Christian faith, daily life, and the search for peace and justice in the social order has always been a major part of mainline Christianity in this country, seminaries and denominations still haven't claimed it as a focus: they remain more focused on institutional survival and traditional theological formation of people for the ordained ministry. Instead, the "faith at work" movement is emerging both as an array of grassroots movements of laypeople in the workplace, and institutionally within the business world, with companies and business schools looking for ways to provide spiritual nurture in the workplace and to meet the religious needs of employees. It seems to me he points to a tremendous missed opportunity for congregations and churches.

David Miller does two terrific things here, in my view. First, he identifies as a social movement a theological conversation that many very faithful people in the pews do not realize is going on. I cannot tell you how often I've met people who say "I feel that God is calling me in some new way, and I really don't think it's ordained ministry. But that seems to be the only kind of ministry the church thinks is important. Are there other people like me?" Miller does us a big service by demonstrating that this is a real conversation that has taken different forms over the generations but is a central part of our Christian tradition and has had a number of compelling expression in American Protestant traditions for generations -- even when the denominations haven't embraced this movement, the people in the pews are doing so, either with or without the church's help.

I'd like to invite more people into this conversation and am hoping to do some more formal writing about it myself. It's what I teach every fall in my class at Virginia Theological Seminary called "Christian Vocation: Discerning the Work of the Church," as well as every few years in the Evening School at Virginia Seminary and it's a conversation I am having with people all the time, as individuals try to sort out their own call to Christian discipleship and what difference that is supposed to make to the world. I am grateful to David Miller for writing this book and for naming this as an ongoing and serious conversation both within and beyond the churches.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Celebrating the Church of Our Saviour

Check out "Why I am an Anglican" , a post to the Episcopal cafe blog. It celebrates my home congregation, the Episcopal Church of Our Saviour, Hillandale in Silver Spring. The author is my friend Kit Carlson, a former member of the congregation and now an Episcopal priest. She visited us in Silver Spring recently and her post celebrates much of what I have loved about being part of the congregation at Our Saviour -- for over 17 years now!

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Purpose of the Church

I've been doing a lot of summer reading and writing, especially musing on what difference "the church" -- the Church as God's people and the Church as institution -- is supposed to make in the world, and also about what difference growing up in a church has made to my life and vocation personally.
Publicity around the Pope declaring that the Roman Catholic Church is the only true church leaves me disheartened since it says to the world at large that the Church in general is mainly about who decides who is in and who is out. On the other hand I've just finished reading Graham Standish's book, Becoming a Blessed Church, which suggests that the way for people in a congregation to live faithfully is to learn to be prayerful and discerning about listening for what God wants, both in their individual vocations and in the congregation's vocations. He talks about the difference between a "functional", "program" oriented approach to the life of a congregation (so common in mainline Protestant churches) and a spiritually grounded approach that puts God first. I recommend this book and also his wonderful little book Humble Leadership -- an important spiritual resource for anyone in leadership, in the church or in the secular world. It was my morning spiritual reading for the last week or so and an excellent way into prayer.

Isn't it odd that this should be news? That our lives in churches ought to be and can be grounded in God's guidance and the life of prayer? Have we in mainline churches become so focused on institutional survival that we are forgetting the deeper call to Christian discipleship that the church is supposed to be there to support, serve, deepen, foster, for the healing of the world?

Have also been reading about healing ministry in the Church and was interested to note that the ideas of "healing"/ making whole and "salvation" - restoring to God's purpose -- have gotten conflated in Christian tradition. So "salvation" comes to be about who gets into heaven and who doesn't, when the root of the word is "salus"/ more like health - wholeness. The dream of God is for the healing of a broken world, the restoration of right relation between Creation and a loving God. The Jewish call to "tikkun" -- the healing of Creation -- also names this well. Our language about salvation in terms of "who's in and who's out" has taken us off the track, I believe, of what God's desire to "save" us really means.

This takes me back to my favorite quotation from Evelyn Underhill's The Spiritual Life, where she uses the phrase "to save the world" in a context that clearly is about healing a broken Creation rather than about somehow winning souls that are lost. Here's what she writes, in a radio broadcast on the BBC in 1936.

The Church is in the world to save the world. It is a tool of God for that purpose; not a comfortable religious club established in fine historical premises. Every one of its members is required, in one way or another, to cooperate with the Spirit in working for that great end: and much of this work will be done in secret and invisible ways,. We are transmitters as well as receivers. Our contamplation and our action, our humble self-opening to God, keeping ourselves asensitive to his music and light, and our generous self-opening to our our fellow creatures, keeping ourselves sensitive to their needs, ought to form one life, mediating between God and His world, and bringing the saving power of the Eternal into time.

I go back to this quote when I need to re-center my understanding of the Christian life and the purpose of the Church.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Reading God's Novel - the latest Faith@Work

I was pleased to see another bit of writing I've done about discernment and vocation in the latest issue of Faith @ Work magazine . I've linked to the .pdf version (see p. 5) because the print version also includes a poem with the writing, which is not included in the online text of the article.

This particular issue is full of good insights on call and self-knowledge, including some good excerpts from by Elizabeth O'Connor and Parker Palmer, classic writers on the experience of vocation.

You can also find an online version of the journal on the website of Faith at Work.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Faith and Politics

Haven't posted in awhile -- end of the academic year, travel, a college graduation. Last Friday, driving south on the Jersey turnpike, my son & I stopped for dinner and heard part of the Sojourners' Presidential Forum on Faith, Values and Poverty. This broadcast was strongly supported by Sojourners/Call to Renewal as a corrective to the perception that all Christians support a conservative social agenda, and I supported this idea, especially since the promise was that it was a chance for Christians to challenge the candidates to describe their approaches to eradicating poverty and seeking peace, these being fundamental gospel values. Looking back at the youtube clip, where Jim Wallis is interviewing the candidates, I am encouraged by the focus on poverty and policy. But going back to the Jersey turnpike - when the TV was on in the background, what troubled me about the part we happened to hear was that people were asking the candidates to describe their personal theologies and spiritual practices, and their responses rang false in those conversations. It is true that as Christians we are called always to be "ready to give an account of the hope that is in us" (1 Peter 3:15). But a political forum, where people are trying to speak to a constuency and get elected, tends to debase the conversation, and the theology sounds shallow and in need of more explanation. Much better were the parts I've watched since then where candidates spoke directly to the issues.

I find I'm uncomfortable about too much focus on the personal beliefs of leaders. To ask about these beliefs in a Christian context is to have what winds up being a narrowly Christian theological conversation, one that excludes people of other faiths or of no faith. It is more likely to make people hostile and suspicious than it is to invite them in to what should be seen as an agenda that is for everyone. My own approach to political issues does come out of my faith, but I suspect we get to peace and justice by many routes, and I am worried about a shallow "orthodoxy" or perceived litmus test about belief becoming part of our political discourse.

Here's the challenge for us as Christians and as citizens: to call the country to account on issues affecting peace and justice, especially poverty and the growing income gap -- and to do this, as we do, in the name of Christ, but to resist the tempation to insist that everyone do it that way: the important thing is the actual approach to the call to bring "good news to the poor" through practical public policy, and, when that isn't working, also through the kind of healing activity that churches and congregations can offer. Both. In one place in the gospels, Jesus says "Whoever is not against us is for us" (Mark 9:38-41) -- that's when someone is casting out demons in his name, even though he's not one of the disciples. (This passage is worth remembering, especially since President Bush famously declared "whoever is not with us is against us". He was both paraphrasing and quoting out of context another passage --Matthew 12:30-- when Jesus, responding to challenges to his spiritual authority (people have been suggesting that he himself is casting out demons in the name of Beelzebub, the devil), says "he who is not with me is against me and he who does not gather with me scatters." The context is really different from the way the President applied it to national policy and the "war on terror.")

But in the Mark passage, Jesus says that no one who has done a good work in his name will be able to speak ill of him afterwards. The disciples want to rebuke the exorcist because he hasn't joined their group in their way (doesn't perhaps meet their definition of orthodoxy) but Jesus sees him as making common cause with the healing of the people. That's where we need to be, I think, as Christians involved in politics, and especially for those of us who self-identify as "progressive" Christians entering the public conversation more boldly. We need to look, not at the orthodoxy of the candidates' beliefs or the language they use to express their faith (something it's always hard to find adequate language for, if we're honest), but at the fruits of their faith and moral position, however expressed, in the way they think and speak about policy. And in their actions.

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.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Physics and God - the "Theory of Everything"

In the interdisciplinary course that I'm teaching we're doing a unit on theoretical physics & string theory. A student raised the question of whether there is a religious dimension to physicists' search for a "theory of everything." And it got me thinking about what people mean when they suggest that theoretical physics is somehow bringing us to greater knowledge of "God." So here are some theological musings about that.

I've often noticed that there are similar patterns of thought, especially on the intuitive side, between theoretical physics and theology. Stephen Hawking famously said that if we could arrive at a "theory of everything" -- i.e. a theory that unified the equations of quantum physics and general relativity and made sense of the four forces in nature, we would "know the mind of God" The idea of God as the ultimate explanation for everything, the reality beyond what we understand that "makes sense" of things seems to be what Hawking is assuming. This is an idea of God that comes largely from Greek philosophy, and actually has been associated, in
classical thinking, with the mathematical order of things. It is not the "personal" Creator-God that we meet in Biblical tradition (see my post in January under "What I Believe" for more on this) and I think we get confused when we try to conflate the two. It's interesting that Einstein seemed to be pretty committed to an idea of God that predicted ultimate order in the universe -- that was why he struggled over quantum theory and uncertainty ("God does not throw dice," I think he was quoted as saying).

But most often when we get into discussions of God in the "Science and Religion" area we are talking about "The God of the gaps" -- God understood as the explanation for the things
for which we don't have other explanations based on observable "fact". The problem with the "God of the gaps," for a believer as much as for anyone, is that it suggests that the more we learn about nature the less we will need a concept of God. That leads to what I see as a rather dangerous argument about whether it's somehow faithless to pursue knowledge because if we find out too much we won't need God any more, and it also strikes me as a somewhat limited idea of God if you're also looking at the long traditions of human religious experience and Biblical theology. But it is an idea of God that's been out there throughout the modern period.
(The link above takes you to a good article about the "God of the Gaps" and intelligent design by physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in NYC).

When Hawking talks about "knowing the mind of God" by unifying all the theories, it seems to me it's "God" in the sense of "the dimension of reality that makes sense of everything." It's almost a Platonic idea -- or perhaps Aristotelian. There's a sense of wonder and appreciation of order that goes with this idea of God -- and it is connected to enlightenment theologies: Deism: the idea of God as the "divine watchmaker" who sets the world in motion and then withdraws, or the idea of an "intelligent designer" of the universe-- which is a theological, not in any way I can discern a "scientific" idea. What's missing from these ideas of God is any kind of moral dimension or sense of relationship or accountability between the divine and the
human. It's God as a philosophical concept, but not connected with human communities or religious experience or scriptural story.

It is interesting, though, that Muslim scientists in the middle ages, who also were reading Greek philosophy, saw mathematics as a way of understanding and contemplating the ultimate order of God's Creation - so they did make that relational connection with God through mathematics. I think modern western science is so focused on human control of nature that that idea -- of mathematics as a kind of means of mystical contemplation -- is pretty alien to western thinking. (Karen Armstrong''s chapters on "The God of the Philosophers" and "The
God of the Mystics" in A History of God are pretty interesting on this, especially her discussion of the philosopher-mystic Al Ghazali).

Some of the religious wonder that comes with the Enlightenment/Greek idea of God as ultimate order shows in a poem, "The Spacious Firmament on High", written by Addison & Steele in the 18th century. I use this stanza as a way of reminding myself of the experiential dimension of this Enlightenment idea of a God who is behind the order of nature, but not particularly connected with human conduct, morality or experience. The last stanza, speaking of the stars and the moon (and taking an oddly non-Copernican view of the universe, since the image is of the planets orbiting the earth) - particularly helps with this:
The poem goes

"What though in solemn silence, all move round this dark terrestrial ball
What though no real voice nor sound amid their radiant orbs be found,
In Reason's ear they all rejoice, and utter forth a glorious voice
Forever singing as they shine, the hand that made us is Divine."

You could conceivably extend that theology to string theory, if indeed it is the "theory of evertything" (which is of course widely debated and debatable) -- and if you did you'd be right in tune with this "Modern" i.e. "Enlightenment" theology, which seems to me to rest more on Plato and Aristotle rather than Biblical religion. I think we would have less of a problem with
fundamentalism if we sorted this out better, but that's another topic.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The Heart of Christianity

Beginning to read Marcus Borg's The Heart of Christianity -- a book that's been around for a couple of years, and I probably should have read it before now, though as I expected, much of what he says, what people have found exciting about the "emergent church" movement, has been a part of my experience of the faith from childhood. He articulates very well the way of seeing Christian faith that has always made sense to me, and that is now claimed by the "emergent church" movement. What I most like about the argument is how he sorts out 2 ways of looking at Christianity which have often been in conflict, but which also coexist in our time. These approaches share in common a deep commitment to the reality of God and the centrality of Jesus, but they understand "truth" in very different ways. One way, (which was never that much of an issue to me, but I understand how it has stopped many people) is the view of Christianity as being mainly about right belief, for the sake of getting into heaven in the next life. This goes with Biblical "literalism", which insists that what is in the Bible is all "factual." And with a lot of fearfulness about getting it wrong and so not getting into heaven.

My poet's heart is delighted when Borg points out what seems self-evident to me: that stories/myths/metaphors can be deeply, fundamentally "true" without being "factual." And that the practices of prayer, worship, compassion etc. put us in touch with the sacred mysteries of life in ways that intellect cannot fully do (though of course I also believe that the intellect is a great gift and delight and meant to be used!). That's why I encourage people to look at what the stories in Scripture are ABOUT, where they take us imaginatively, what they tell us about the deep truth of the Divine, which is beyond all language. It doesn't matter that much whether they "happened" in exactly, literally, the way the story tells (e.g. whether God really made the world in 7 days, or Jesus walked on water, or was born in a manger, or even rose from the dead -- though I have to say on that one (you can probably tell from my Easter poems in previous posts -- that I personally believe that he did, pretty much as the stories are told. But I don't think that's the only way to see those stories and embrace the truth of the Resurrection; the truth is still well beyond what the stories tell us, as is the mystery of the ongoing presence of the Risen Lord, so central to the Christian experience of prayer and practice).

I also like the way Borg emphasizes that the "emerging" view of Christianity (though I'd maintain it isn't "new" and he'd probably agree) does not insist that belief in Jesus is the ONLY way to truth. Rather, for Christians, it is the way we have been given. This doesn't exclude the possibility of other paths, at all. But it does free us to live within our own cultural frame: to probe, deepen, explore the relationship with the Divine that we are offered in the person of Jesus, who lived, taught, suffered, died, and as we insist, is alive among us still in some way that is "true" -- whether you can take a picture of it or "prove" it factually or not. We are free to explore our relationship with Jesus without fussing about who is in and who is out, which is the great trap, in my view, of all religion. The Christian tradition is based on the witness of people for whom these stories have been true and life-transforming. That transformation, in this life, is the invitation of the Gospel. And it's an open invitation. The promise of "eternal life" beyond this life is a part of the mystery, and it is a hope we hold as Christians. But the spiritual path unfolds in this life.

The story of Scripture is about repeated calls to return to the way of peace, justice, compassion and love, and often this means turning away from idolatry, greed, fear and all that causes us to make gods of our own narrow self-interest. It is an exciting journey, and to me it has always seemed like the heart of Christianity. I'm glad that Borg's work seems to be speaking to so many people who have been turned off by a narrow, exclusivist, literalist Christianity -- a version that, as he points out, belongs to the "modern" period -- coming with the Enlightenment's understanding of truth as "factual/verifiable" -- and missing what wisdom traditions throughout human history have recognized as the truth of the imagination, (this is actually the language of the English Romantic poets - Keats, I think, or Coleridge), or the truth of the "heart," the intuitive knowledge that takes us to the deeper mysteries of life, death, hope and transformation.

We are meant to look at the brokenness in the world and say, in huge grief and distress, "This is not the way it is supposed to be!" And through the power of God's Spirit, working among us, we are called to be part of a transformation toward the good things a loving God always intends for us and for all of Creation.

This is how I've come to see the "heart of Christianity."

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


This book is just out - and is full of quite wonderful essays by writers invited to write about how they imagine heaven. I'm honored to have my essay, "Remembering the Company," included in it. Check out Liz Bulkley's interview with the editor, Roger Ferlo, on NPR's Front Porch

Easter story meditation - the Angel in the Garden

Sometimes we come to understand these amazing, mysterious stories best through the gift of imagination. Here is a meditation that came to me as I was reflecting and praying on the Easter story as told in John 20: 11-18, the same story the poems address (see previous post). It came to me to look at the story from the point of view of one of the angels in the tomb. Here is a meditation/midrash on this passage, in the angel's voice, imagining what the angel sees:

In this garden, heaven and earth are joined. But the woman cannot see this. She has loved, she is grieving, the one she has loved seems to have disappeared. She is desperate with grief. She cannot see -- her eyes and heart are not accustomed to the mystery of the garden - that He is here, talking to her. She will see it soon but she has not seen it yet.

I try to awaken her to the new reality -- thinking that if she sees an angel of light -- 2 of us, really, at the head and foot of where the body was -- she will wake up. Woman, why are you weeping? I ask her: the question they all will hear, stepping into this garden, this tear in the fabric of place and time -- where what they called "heaven" is manifest in what they called earth -- and they see what angels see, but know it as something like what they have known in life as "flesh" -- sensing, perceiving, touching, loving.

That's what it takes for her: she needs to hear His voice -- so when she cannot hear it from the angels, He calls to her himself, in the same words: Woman, why are you weeping? he says -- that divine invitation: Come to the garden, let me wipe away your tears.

Still she does not see where she is or who she's speaking to: she thinks she's still by the side of the tomb and so she is. She does not know that death as she understood it has been transformed. Here at the heart of life, she is still weeping, and the One she weeps for stands beside her, loving her -- and finally, calling her by name: Mary.

That's what it takes to wake her up to the new life that is blooming here -- in the garden that is and is not the place she thought she was in. He calls her by name, and finally she recognizes him and touches this mysterious, transformed flesh that shall be hers as well -- in this foretaste and fulfillment of beatitude -- the fullness of life that He intends for all. He sends her out to tell them that it has all been fulfilled. It has all begun.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Easter Poems

Here are three poems that I think of as the "Easter sequence" from Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture by Kathleen Henderson Staudt (Edwin Mellen Press, 2003). Each one has an epigraph from the Easter story told in the gospel of John


But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? " She said to them, "Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him."
John 20: 11-13


Mary Magdalene at the Tomb

The empty tomb
A vision of angels
But he is not here.
There is no one to ask:
Where have they laid him?
Where is he now?

The men who came with me have believed and gone away
Remembering his words.
The empty tomb
Enough for them.
They think they understand, have heard and seen
A vision of angels
But he is not here.
I came to touch, anoint with tears, one last time;
There is no one to ask:
Have you seen my Beloved?
Where have they laid him?
Where is he now?

What could console me?
Even if I saw,
in the empy tomb
A vision of angels,
They only show me what already I know:
He is not here.
There is no one to ask:
Have you seen my Beloved?
Who can tell me?
Where have they laid him?
Where is he now?


Saying this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." Jesus said to her, "Mary." She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabboni!" (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, "Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father;
John 20:14-17


The Embrace in the Garden

How can you say, "Don't try to hold me?"

Wrenched from my weeping
Into your unreasonable joy
I heard you speak my name
Knew it was you
You, and more than you, more than I can grasp

But now, my cheek against your cheek,
Your hand stroking my hair,
I whisper the name I have always used for you

You whisper, delighted, of going and telling
But how could I not want to hold you here
Cheek against cheek,
Nail-scarred hands upon hair?


Jesus said to her, "Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, "I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God."
Mary Magdalene went and said to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
John 20:17


Going and Telling

Go. Tell my friends. I am giving you the words. Tell them.
All is accomplished. The new story has begun.
The body that holds you now
Alive and warm, is as real
As the body you saw mutilated,
Mocked, betrayed, brutalized.

Even though jeers drowned out the message
Of justice for the poor,
Release for the oppressed,
Unimagined forbearance,
Even though
It seems as though the promise I brought
Was pounded down
With the nails
They drove into these hands
Go and tell them:
They cannot kill it.

Step back. Take these wounded hands.
Clasp them in your own.
Gaze back at me, and see
The dancing in my eyes.
Now go.
Go and tell them
This life you are holding
Nothing can kill it.
Go. Go and tell them
You will see me