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, 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)