About Me

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

Friday, March 30, 2007

Faithfulness: musings as Lent winds down

Holy Week begins Sunday, with the observance of Palm Sunday. So Lent is winding down. I always begin the season of Lent hoping that I will learn something about myself and God, and that is part of the season's purpose - -repentance, turning from what has grown old, toward what is being made new, becoming aware of ourselves as beloved, forgiven children of God. So even if we come to this place not having been very "good" about whatever our Lenten discipline was, or having been too busy or stressed to notice the season the way we'd like to, or have in other years, there is still grace here just in the call to daily faithfulness. Moving into Holy Week, that's what I'm thinking about: faithfulness. Showing up for the rituals as they are available, and paying attention to the stories. Every year, the story of Jesus' Passion and Resurrection has something new to tell me, if I will listen. I am praying for the grace to listen, on the journey to the Cross and beyond. To figure out what it is that I need to bring to the Cross this year, and to bring it with quiet honesty, trusting in the mystery of love that this season is about.

"Faithfulness," says Evelyn Underhill, "is consecration in overalls." At some point --many points --we have said, "thy kingdom come," and offered ourselves as participants in God's dream. That is consecration. Faithfulness is the daily, practical doing of the work that lies before us on any given day, and attending to the divine presence in that work, even where it seems unlikely: in the uncongenial job or the ordinary task that I'd rather not do as well as in the surprising opportunities that present themselves, when least expected, to be the presence of God for someone who needs it. In the difficult choices and the routine tasks and assignments, which ask for the best we can offer (not perfection, necessarily, but the best we can offer), there are opportunities for faithfulness. And we begin again each day. Even with Lent winding down, there is still time to remember this.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Spiritual Practices and the Liturgies of Holy Week

The latest issue of the magazine Faith@Work is devoted to spiritual practices -- "practices to sustain call" as they put it, in their ongoing series on various aspects of the call to discipleship. (It's a good magazine for those who want to reflect in an interdenominational, broad-based spiritual context on how we connect faith and daily life - check it out!) Readers of this blog may find a number of these articles interesting and particularly one called "The Liturgies of Holy Week," part of a work in progress that has been published in pieces here and there, connecting personal story with reflections on faith and practice.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Mission, Money, and the Church

Front page news in today's New York Times: the unspoken reality is that the Episcopal Church is the largest donor to all the mission efforts -- feeding the poor, working to cure AIDS, supporting the needs of women and all the Milennium Development Goals and Anglican missions all over the world. That is, doing what we're called to do as followers of Christ who are among the privileged people of this world. Something we need to do more of, not less, certainly. The article is at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/20/us/20episcopal.html It speculates about what would happen to the Anglican Communion (which has been meeting to debate over whether to expel or discipline the American Episcopal church because of our agreement to the ordination of a gay bishop, among other matters of Biblical interpretation and practice). Several times in the article the point is made that no one in the Episcopal Church is suggesting such a cutoff, but the journalists still speculate on the "what if." It's kind of a tricky spin, and is likely to get misrepresented. The "what if" is coming from the journalists (("Money Looms" it says in the headline), not from the Episcopal church as a body.

The expectation in this world is always that people will use money as political leverage. What if we were to actively resist that temptation, as a church, recognizing the counter-cultural call of Christ? I hope that's the plan: to keep on giving to the worldwide mission of the Anglican communion and to keep clear of, and deflect, accusations that we're doing this in order to gain political influence. Mission should have nothing to do with politics or doctrinal disputes, from the Episcopal Church's point of view.

It seems to me this is an opportunity for us Episcopalians to offer a quiet witness to what is really important in our life of faith. I certainly hope we'll continue to resist any temptation to use our important work of mission -- something we're equipped for because of privilege and a large infrastructure in the world -- as any kind of political tool. So far, we are resisting that temptation. We need to persevere in this. If we are treated badly, we are treated badly, but that should not affect our commitment to mission. Surely the gospel is clear on this (especially Luke, which we're reading just now): Given a choice between ideas of ritual and doctrinal "purity" on the one hand and care for the poor, the excluded, the marginalized and oppressed on the other, we are to make the choice for caring. I hope we'll continue to keep ourselves focused on this mission-focus within the Anglican communion, especially during this time of division and fighting within the churches.

The article records one heartbreaking case where contributions from the Episcopal Church were refused by a church in Uganda because of issues with our doctrine and practice. And innocent people suffered for that. We must NOT respond in kind to this if it happens more. Mission is one of our important reasons to stay connected to the Anglican Communion on some terms if we can, unless and until we are actively rejected and our money (which is God's money, really) refused. It's an opportunity for Episcopalians to think about what we mean by discipleship, in our corporate life, and even when we're not treating each other very well. Let the world see us primarily serving those in need. Jesus said "as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me" (Matthew 25: 40). Let the world see us serving the needs of the world, following Jesus, rather than fighting among ourselves.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The call to receptivity

At the retreat I led this morning I used this quote from Brian McClaren

"The call to faith is the call to trust God and God’s dreams enough to realign our dreams with God’s, to dream our little dreams within God’s big dream. The call to receptivity is the call to continually receive God’s dreams—a process that seems to be a lifelong one. The call to baptism is the call to publicly identify with God’s dream and to disassociate with all competing isms or ideologies that claim to provide the ultimate dream (including nationalism, consumerism, hedonism, conservatism, liberalism, and so on). And the call to practice is the call to learn to live the way God dreams for us to live."
"McLaren, "Found in Translation" (Sojourners, March 2006)

"To dream our little dreams within God's big dream" -- I like that as an image for discerning the call on each of our lives. And receptivity: being able to receive the good gifts that God is always trying to give us. Something we tend to find difficult. That's what the retreat this morning focused on.

Receptivity: something we tend to find difficult. Here's a story that I like to use to give a sense of what we're doing at times of retreat and Sabbath -- in lives that seem mostly occupied with everything but God's love and presence:
My best friend was a seminarian where I teach, quite some time ago now. This is a friend with whom I go way back -- we met at women's Bible study, told our life stories pushing our kids on the swings, and worked out our dreams, theologies, anxieties and visions for life drinking coffee in each other's kitchens. We grew up together as adults -- that kind of friend. Anyway, at the seminary in those days there would be a mass of people flowing from morning chapel over to our mailboxes, and we would all follow the crowd. One September morning, both propelled by the same crowd, my friend and I ran into each other briefly and she greeted me with a gift bag in her hand. It was my birthday, and she had remembered. She started to ask if we could get together sometime that day so I could open her gift, but I got interrupted repeatedly - a student asking a question from class, a faculty colleague greeting me -- I kept getting pulled away. Finally, my friend placed herself in my path, looked me in the eye, and said, "Please tell me when I can have ten minutes of your time so that I can give you this present."
I heard the voice of God in the voice of my friend that day(actually, with this particular friend it's not just this instance: she's been the voice of God for me plenty of times), but in this story particularly, I hear the voice of God, saying to me and to all of us: "When can you find some time so I can give you this present?"
Receptivity. Making time to receive God's gifts. Themes to ponder, in this season of Lent.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

WIJD - Four Questions for Discerning Call

Charles Sheldon's novel In His Steps, a classic of the Social Gospel movement written at the turn of the century, told of a suburban mainline congregation where people decided to make no decisions in their daily and professional lives without first asking "What would Jesus do"? The question "What would Jesus Do" has become almost a cliche now in youth group and church circles. And it can work well as a way of focusing on discipleship. But I confess I grow impatient with it because so often it is a way of saying "What's the right thing to do in this situation? How can I be a better person here? Or how can I feel that I'm on Jesus's side and this other person is not?" There's a lot of danger of attributing to Jesus our own motives, a certain arrogance in reducing the challenge of the gospel to something that could be read as a daily instruction book. Even in Sheldon's novel, though much of what people are called to do leads to change in the social order, there is a certain middle-class complacency in most of the characters that I suspect the Jesus of the gospels would have a big problem with -- even though they do good works in his name.
But my main problem with "What would Jesus do" is that it misses the power of Christianity's central claim: If we proclaim a risen Lord who is still active in the world, through the Holy Spirit working in us, then the vocation question isn't "What would Jesus do" (i.e., what are the rules here: let's go to the gospel and see if we can find our instructions) but "What is Jesus doing? And how can I participate in that work?" (What do the gospels tell us about Jesus and the "kingdom of God" that we can see happening in our daily lives and in the world around us: where are the places of brokenness; where is there healing and transformation?) So for me it's not "WWJD"(What would Jesus do?) but WIJD: "What IS Jesus doing, and what is my piece of that work?"
How do we work that out, practically speaking? It will be different for each of us but the question is the same. I'm assuming in all of this that we're always grounded in Scripture, and how it has been read by faithful, thoughtful people past and present -- but then drawing on what we find in the whole gospel message, I encourage people to ask themselves four questions that can get to where God may be calling them at this particular moment, and in their particular place in the world. Here are the questions:

1. "What do you do" (station in life - what do you say at a cocktail party or when you're meeting someone socially for the first time? We're a society where a lot of our identity can be tied up in this question, and that is a distortion, sometimes, in discernment. So it's good to get it out there, for starters. )

2. What is your real work (If you're particularly blessed, this may be a part of what you "do") -- what is it that, when you're doing it, makes you feel most fully whole? What is the work your soul must have?

3. When you look around you at the world, what seems to be the most urgent work that God is trying to do in the world (What is Jesus doing). What makes you say, "This has GOT to change" -- or "Why isn't anyone doing anything about ____". What might be your part in this work? (This is a question that both individuals and communities can ask/should be asking)

4. What in your life prompts you to give thanks to God? How do you live out that thankfulness? How do you pray?

My working definition of "vocation" or "call" is what God is doing/what Jesus is doing (WJID) with the answers to those four questions in my life.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

On vocation or "call"

Two posts in one day, but after my perhaps rather stern reflections on discipleship in the previous post, I also want to celebrate the experience of feeling "called" to participate in the Dream of God, as I've been describing it (and for more, see "What I Believe" from January).

Here are two good quotes:

Frederick Buechner (from his book Wishful Thinking). "There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than Society, say, or the Superego, or Self-Interest. By and large a good rule for finding out is this: the kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you've presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing cigarette ads, the chances are you've missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you're bored or depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a), but probably aren't helping your patients much either. Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."

I also like the idea of call as God's invitation - to live, listen, experience deeply and so be available to the Dream. A student of mine included in a paper this meditation/poem by Oriah Mountain Dreamer called The Invitation, new to me. Worth checking out for any reflection on vocation and call.

So what do I mean by discipleship??

"Discipleship" implies a specifically Christian conversation about what kind of life our faith calls us to. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in typical head-on and challenging fashion, writes that "Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without the living Christ. It remains an abstract idea, a myth which has a place for the Fatherhood of God, but omits Christ as the living Son. And a Christianity of that kind is nothing more or less than the end of discipleship. In such a religion there is trust in God, but no following of Christ." (The Cost of Discipleship, p. 59)

So Christian discipleship is not just "faithful living," or even "trust in God" though it has lots in common with faithful living and religious practice in many faiths. Nor does it have ANYTHING to do with figuring out who is in and who is out. Rather, for Christians discipleship is or should be about participating in the work we believe the Living Christ -- Jesus, Risen and still with us in some mysterious way-- is doing in the world through our participation in his life, and through his relationship with us -- a spiritual experience that is difficult, finally, to put into words because we experience it in different ways -- but we name it as the work of the "Holy Spirit" of Jesus, or as the fruit of a "relationship" with Jesus. That witness to the ongoing presence of Jesus, the "Living Christ" - alive and active among us and within us, and calling us to follow him: That is the heart of specifically Christian spirituality, and the source of our energy for lives committed to the healing of a broken world, wherever we encounter that brokenness.

Of course the hardest part, sometimes, is to believe that God is doing any kind of work of reconciliation and healing in this brutal and broken world. That's why discipleship is ultimately about faith: "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asks his disciples (also in Luke 9) and Peter says "You are the Messiah, the Christ, the one who is to come." Christian discipleship, as Bonhoeffer says, hangs on this. It is not just about following wise teachings of a spiritual master in order to achieve enlightenment or save our souls or even change the political or social system. It is to assert that God continues to be active in the world, through the Risen Christ and those who follow him faithfully. That the power of suffering Love to transform and heal is still active in the world because you can't kill it, and we can be a part that ongoing, divine work because of who Jesus was and is.

So discipleship is not about following rules; it has little to do with human institutions. Rather, it is about patterning our lives on the life of Jesus, as we meet him in the gospels, and about trusting the mysterious power that Christians throughout the ages have experienced as the ongoing presence of the Risen Lord -- trusting that presence in whatever way seems to make sense for our particular condition and place in life. We don't all do it in the same way, but we find the path of our particular discipleship by asking: What is the dream of God for the place, relationships, situation where I find myself -- and how am I called to participate in the realization of that dream -- as who I am, and with the abilities and story and relationships that make me who I am? What is drawing my heart. And we continue on that path with greater joy and commitment as we find ourselves trying to answer faithfully Jesus' deeper question: Who do you say that I am?"

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Lear, Paton, Luke - and the Poem of God

For my teaching this week I'm reading three works that seem at the moment to cross-talk to each other in ways that I am finding fascinating. Revisiting Shakespeare's King Lear, Alan Paton's novel Cry the Beloved Country, about South Africa in the period just before apartheid was imposed, and the gospel of Luke. The poetry of Lear, with its repeated plays on "nothing" and deceit and disguise and bitter foolery, and utter brutality among people who are supposed to love and be loyal to each other, draws me into a world where everything is upside down, children desert parents, parents mistakenly banish children and pay dearly for it, and the only decent people, it seems, are also powerless and marginal: Edgar, Kent, the servants who try to prevent the brutality against Gloucester, Albany, in the end. And the effort, after the horror of Act V, to restore some kind of order, seems paltry in the face of so much evil and basic human duplicity, brutality and folly. It is a world all too recognizable. Now as then.

What I find fascinating as I reread it for the millionth time, is how I keep reaching between the lines for some kind of order, some sense of how things SHOULD be, and it is there: I suppose it is there, partly, in the poetry itself, which gives shape to this broken world without for a moment denying that it is broken. The poetry is so beautiful, what it says so terrible. This is great art and it carries some kind of hope just by naming what it names in such beautiful language.

The same is true in Cry, the Beloved Country, where the story is just gut-wrenching, couched in a world of racism and violence, and yet the people you come to know and follow are real, decent people who make contact with one another. And Paton's poetic language, especially his descriptions of the land, and the prophetic voice of the white social activist who has been murdered by the black protagonist's son, hold up a vision of human dignity that is glaringly absent from the social system he describes. The characters ask, "Is there mercy" - for the young murderer. And there is no mercy. And yet we know some greater mercy exists, somewhere, because they, and we, can imagine it. We reach for it, desire it, know it is something real, even when it is absent.

And all this against the background of my Lenten readings of the gospel of Luke, which tells of a broken world turned upside down, and of Jesus calling his disciples to embody a hope that seems impossible: a hope that reconciliation and healing are not only possible, but fundamental to what God wants for us. And that the power of God is somehow behind that hope. Somehow the stories of Jesus, with that recurring theme of the in-breaking of divine presence into the world, the proclamation and healing that happens wherever he is, show us how to embrace hope -- to believe that God desires a different life for us, that we know the shape of it, and that Jesus' ministry shows us the way to it, if we will follow. The cost of following is part of the story, and that is the mystery, and the beauty of it. I'm still looking for words for this.

My reading in these books is reminding me again that the life of faith rests on the assumption that there is another way, even if it's totally counter-cultural and counterintuitive, and even if it seems to have been almost totally forgotten, as in the final, paradoxically lyrical act of Lear. And that we are free to embrace and seek that way, and to participate in the divine project of transformation. The way things are is NOT the way that they are supposed to be. We acknowledge that, make it a part of ourselves, not by retreating from the world or rejecting the world or holding ourselves in some kind of utopian vision of purity, but by looking squarely at the brokenness of the world, wherever we find ourselves, and wading right into it, and somehow naming it, feeling it, shaping it into something --watching and listening for the deeper order, the poetry, that is always there.

I think I discover that deeper poetry in my own practice of writing -- writing what is, to uncover the deeper reality that sings through everything. This seems naive in the face of so much mess in the world. But I am glad of the spiritual and creative practices that keep inviting me back into that deeper reality, even through the worst of what we see & hear every day. Something about the poetry of Lear, Paton, and Luke -- all of whom write in ways that uncover a deeper hope while naming the worst of what is -- something about this poetic language, this grounded, awe-ful story-telling -- puts me in touch with the Poem of Creation --what the world was meant to be, and is still called to be: the dream of God. "The real, but faroff hymn/ That hails a new creation," as a favorite gospel song puts it. In beautiful language about terrible things, I hear the Poem of God.