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.

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.