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.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

"It's So Good to See you"

(also posted on episcopal cafe this month)

For my church’s 50th anniversary celebration we held a “homecoming” party recently, inviting back former clergy and active members who had moved away, for an evening of food, wine and mingling, a wonderful slide show of our history, a hymn-sing and some remarks from former clergy. The program for the evening was deliberately loose and simple. The point was to come together and to enjoy seeing one another again.

And the evening was full of the usual family-reunion exclamations: “How are you! Look at you! How you’ve grown! You haven’t changed! Wow! Here you are! Here we are! And, since this was across generations: “If only x (not here) could see us now! I really want you to meet x! It’s hard to believe you’ve never met, you’ve both been so important to me!” And of course, the greeting heard most commonly, that evening “It is so good to see you!”

“It is good to see you!” The experience of being together belongs to something that goes even deeper than the conversational details of questions like “How has your week been?” “What are the children up to?” “How’s work/what do you do for a living?” Even without specific personal information, there is something holy about the presence we are for each other when we gather for church. The familiar faces, and companions in worship, tell us something about who we are and what we belong to. I believe it is our way of expressing and experiencing a growing culture of ubuntu, that concept that has been held up as a model in our conversations about the Anglican Communion. Ubuntu is the awareness, essential to African culture, that “I am because we are.” In his book God Has a Dream, Archbishop Tutu writes, “The first law of our being is that we are set in a delicate network of interdependence with our fellow human beings and with the rest of God’s creation. . . ubuntu is “the essence of being human. It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and inextricably bound up in yours.” (God Has a Dream, p. 25)

“It is good to see you” It is good to be together, because each of us is shaped by what the other brings. Ubuntu, I have come to believe, is an experience, rather than a theological concept; I have learned most about it simply by worshiping with people from various parts of Africa, who make up a large proportion of our congregation now though we started life, 50 years ago, as a suburban “white-flight” congregation like many others in the suburban DC area. At our festival celebration, Bishop John Chane described our congregation today as “ the face of the Anglican Communion,” and this rings true. The welcome we gave each other at our homecoming weekend stretched across generations, cultures and races, reflecting the increasingly multicultural history of this congregation and of the larger church we belong to. It reminded me, repeatedly, about God’s dream for us and who we are called to be as church, both locally and internationally.

“It is so good to see you!” When we say the to each other on Sundays, or at a reunion, we are not just making conversation. “I see you” is in fact an African greeting. To see each other, gathered for church, is to see who we are in God’s presence. We sing together, with great enthusiasm and expressiveness; we gather at the altar, and we recognize in these experiences glimpses of who God calls us to be as a human family. Even though there is little we fully agree on, even though we have our conflicts, anxieties, financial issues and prejudices, there is at the heart of our common life an awareness that being together has shaped us, each of us and all of us, in our journey with God We are learning, slowly, that church is about welcoming one another and being transformed, sometimes radically, by each other’s experience. We are learning that what draws us together, in song and prayer, worship and common mission, is greater than the differences between us.

“This is what heaven will be like!” one old friend remarked, as more and more familiar faces appeared at the homecoming party. But even more moving for me was the simple joy of being together at this event. It offered a glimpse of how we live into the Dream of God in this life. At the hymn-sing, full of old favorites, we sang the truth about ourselves in God’s eyes: “O God, our help in ages past, Our hope for years to come,” we sang. “Come, we that love the Lord, and let our joys be known,” we sang -- “we’re marching through Emmanuel’s ground. . , to” the beautiful city of God.” We’re not there yet, but we are on the journey together, and we continue to grow from being together. It is good to celebrate that, each Sunday, as at our home-coming -- good to be together, Good to see everyone again!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

A Time to be Alive in

"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive," wrote Wordsworth about the early days of the French Revolution, "But to be young was very heaven!" I have thought of those lines a lot in the past 48 hours, since the announcement of Barack Obama's election. It is thrilling to me to see so many young people engaged in the political system again, and believing that maybe things can be changed. Not all young people, of course. I did bring all this up in my poetry class the day after the election. It wasn't so high energy, I guess because people were dog tired -- and I also sensed some bewilderment about why all the adults were saying they were supposed to see this as so "historic." For many of them there was a lot of excitement about this having been the very first time they voted! (And they WILL remember, I know, that this was their first vote (just as I remember that my first vote was for George McGovern - in Massachussetts, mind you). Their memory of this will be far more compelling than they think, whatever comes next, and definitely something to tell their children! Even if they don't know it now-- and of course I saw lots of young faces in Grant Park who already get it!)

I was even more very inspired by the experience of going door to door on Election Day morning, near Fredericksburg, Virginial, leaving door signs and "getting out the vote." Though most people were at work by mid-morning, at one stop I knocked on the door and was greeted with joy by an African American mother, with her 3 school aged children crowding to the door with her. "Yes!" she said WE voted already -- they came with me and helped me cast this vote! This is SO EXCITING!" and we shared the excitement together. I a 50something white woman, she a younger mom in her thirties. Later on I had a similar encounter with an African American dad. He pointed to his young daughters and said. "Yes. We voted already. And they voted too. We're just going to let their votes ripen until they're old enough to cast their own!" I made the rounds with a woman older than I who had come to Washington in the 60s with her husband to work in the Kennedy Administration -- an era I remember from being a teenager. The sense of new possibility and new participation in the political process is so thrilling. And when I woke up Wednesday morning and learned that Virginia had turned blue, I thought "I helped to do that." "Yes, we did!"

An acute reader will point out to me that Wordsworth's long poem, "The Prelude," goes on to recount the disillusionment that followed the French Revolution and of course he's taking a long view, but in the poem, the social disasters that followed did not wipe out the memory of that dawn of new things, and the new ideals, of liberty and equality, were here to stay despite what came later. We will have our challengesin the time ahead but the sense of hope and possibility, and the conviction that this is how things REALLY are supposed to be, remains - as it remains in the poet's lines, despite what comes after. Whatever may lie ahead, a new thing has happened now that cannot be turned back. "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive" - that's how I'm feeling today!

These People are Serious!

A Sermon preached at Brent House, the Episcopal Ministry at the University of Chicago. All Saints Sunday, November 3, 2008

When I was a graduate student at Yale in the late 1970’s, the Episcopal Church at Yale was a community that understood ourselves as grounded in liturgy. We were especially into processions: we had processions around the Old Campus at Yale, with its neo-gothic buildings, on Palm Sunday, at the Easter Vigil and – my very favorite – All Saints Day, always observed on Halloween night when the whole campus was showing up in Halloween costumes. On that night – in a tradition that started during “the revolution”- as Yale calls the student protests of the late 60’s—the ECY would process around campus, pausing to bless key places: the administration building, the library, gathering places. (During the revolution, I understand, they were exorcising these places, in a blend of liturgy and political protest, but by the time I was there we understood ourselves as bringing blessing – complete with vested priests and servers, a processional cross, incense and candles). Bagpipes accompanied our procession, and we chanted parts of the litany of the saints – with names we had contributed --as we paused for prayers). Following in our train were probably100 Yale students in Halloween costume, – in the fall night, with the neo-gothic buildings, this parade created a decidedly medieval, carnivalesque feeling for all involved. I particularly remember one time, when we stopped to offer our prayers of blessing, and I overheard one of the costumed Yale students turn to his friend, point toward us, and whisper – “You know, I think these people are serious!

In that moment I realized that we were functioning as the visible church of Christ on the campus: We were serious about what we were doing -- offering blessing, prayer, a presence oriented toward God, and having serious fun as we did so. I remember this incident when I reflect on my own calling, which seems to be to be a reasoned, creative Christian voice in the world – and to be a presence that somehow brings blessing. It tells me something about what it means to remember the saints and to “be a saint” in the settings where we find ourselves in our daily lives and communities.

The epistle to the Ephesians that we just heard read tells us something about our identity as “saints,” that is, as people who have been made holy by God’s love and grace, and by the fact that God has called us into the life of Christian discipleship.. Listen especially, to these words f
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints. . . .

What he’s talking about here is the gift we call “discernment” : the ability to recognize the shape of the new life we have been called into as Christians: And the way he puts it I love: “that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints”

What is the hope to which he has called us? (And no, I’m not giving a campaign speech for Barack Obama: the language of hope and transformation are at the heart of the gospel). The Beatitudes and woes, offered by Jesus in the sermon on the plain in Luke, are not merely new laws: “Do this, don’t do that, in order to be blessed.” Rather, they are descriptions of what it’s like to live in a world where we know our dependence on the love and care of God. The poor, the persecuted, the mourners, know this dependence far better than those who are able to rely on themselves for all their sense of security. The hope that Jesus brings is also promised in that other classic Lucan text, the Magnificat, when Mary sings:” He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty, he has put down the mighty from their seats and has exalted the humble and meek.”] The hope to which he has called us opens the eyes of our heart, enables us to see that the world looks different when we see it through God’s eyes. This may make us uncomfortable, call us to conversion – but what we “with the eyes of our heart” may give us clues about the growth and transformation each of us is called to, for the sake of the world we live in now.

The primary call of Christians is to be in the world as the loving, healing, reconciling presence of Christ. The prayer book says the ministry of the laity is “to represent Christ and his church, to bear witness to him wherever we may be and according to the gifts given us, to carry on Christ’s ministry of reconciliation in the world. We are called to represent Christ, and the hope that the gospel brings. -to be a blessing wherever we find ourselves. (In this way, the calling of Christians as the church carries on God’s original call to Abraham in Genesis: “you shall be a blessing. . . and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:2-3). )

This is why I am so interested in listening to and helping people tell their stories about vocation. Each person’s experience of call teaches the rest of us something about the work of transformation and reconciliation that God calls us to, as church, and as members of the Body of Christ. The central vocational question, I think, is not so much “What is God calling me to do with my life,” though that is a part of it, – but rather – What is the work that God is doing in the world as I see it, and what is my piece of that work? These are not questions about the future but questions about where we are right now. Where is the need for blessing, reconciliation, healing, in your circle of friends, in the systems and structures that affect your life; in what way might even the work of studying and writing papers be offered as part of God’s work in the world? What makes you, each day, aware that there is something more to life than just getting through the day, that there is a greater hope that we are called to live?

What does it mean to be a saint? I think it is partly to know that the way the world is is not the way it is supposed to be, and to pay attention to the ways large and small that we are called to participate in the new thing that God is doing. This, I take it is, why we read the Beatitudes on All Saints Day, and why we pause to recall the lives of those who have gone before us and who still mysteriously surround us, a cloud of witnesses that “the hope to which God has called us” can be embodied in our lives, right here, where we find ourselves now. To be a saint is to be blessed and to be a blessing, to inherit a promise and to live in hope. It is not to be a perfect person; rather, it is about being a part of something – part of a human community that persists, from generation to generation, oriented toward God’s desire for healing, transformation and reconciliation.

As the Yalie in the procession observed, we are serious about this. All Saints is a seriously joyful celebration of who God has called us to be, and of the hope that is in us, because of what God has done in Jesus. Each of us will find that God calls us to do this in our own unique way, and that is why the prayer in Ephesians is so compelling, and so appropriate on this day: I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give [us] a spirit of wisdom and revelation as [we] come to know him, so that, with the eyes of [our ]heart enlightened, [we] may know what is the hope to which he has called [us], what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints. . . .

Friday, October 31, 2008

All Saints Day and the Call of God

(also on episcopal cafe

Once again, teaching my class on the Call to Discipleship at Virginia Seminary’s Evening School, I am struck by the Reformers’ insight that vocation is actually where we experience the grace of God. Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are clear on this: Our calling is the expression of God’s grace in our lives; obedience to God’s call is our faithful response to that grace – not something we have to earn or even fully understand, not even something that makes us “better people,” though technically it is what makes us “saints.” This is hard to grasp but it is a beautiful mystery. Vocation is ultimately less about “what shall I do with my life” than it is about “how shall I respond to the relationship with God that I’m already in, perhaps without knowing it? The stirrings and restlessness that come with that experience of call are really already responses to God’s grace, active in us and in our world and relationships. This is what makes reflection on vocation something different from simply career counseling or self-awareness, even though our feelings and yearnings about work and our understanding of our identity help us in discernment. But vocation is the good news that God invites us to participate in the divine work of transformation in the world. So our honest questions about where our real work and our real heart’s desire lies are a form of prayer, really, “responding to God,” as the prayer book has it.

These thoughts about the grace of call and vocation seem particularly appropriate to me as All Saints Day approaches, a day that used to strike me as one of our most “Catholic” celebrations in the Episcopal Church. My first invitation into the Episcopal Church, many years ago, came in a children’s sermon offered by the Rev. Robert Denig (later bishop of Western Massachusetts) at St. John’s, Northampton MA, where he invited the children, whenever they hear the communion prayers, to “remember the company” – the company of heaven who surround us and have gone before us. Raised as a Presbyterian with the concept of the Priesthood of All Believers, I found it a natural and beautiful transition to embrace this idea of the mystical body of the church and to understand participation in the life of the church as a calling for all God’s people, rooted in baptism. “The saints of God are just folk like me,” we sing in that silly and beloved hymn, “And I mean to be one, too.” And the grace of God makes that possible – as Luther and all the saints have known and taught.

There are several different emphases in our celebrations of All Saints Day. Often we combine All Saints and All Souls, and/or the “dia de los muertos,” praying for the faithful departed and loved ones, and embracing the hope of eternal life that is implicit in the idea of the Communion of Saints. I suppose that’s the “catholic” dimension of our Anglican tradition. But it’s also appropriate that the BCP calls for baptisms to happen on All Saints Day, because that stresses the Reformers’ emphasis on God’s grace expressed in our baptismal identity and calling us, right from that moment onwards, to faithful discipleship and membership in Christ’s “eternal priesthood.” It seems to me to be a day when we celebrate the experience of vocation as the center of our relationship to God, regardless of the particular callings that we discern.

“They loved their Lord so dear. . . and His love made them strong.” What the “saints of the Church” know, and what they show us, is that God is active in human affairs and that we come to know God as we discern the divine invitation, always there, to participate in what God is already doing. Baptism begins a life of companionship with those who have known and know this, a life that goes on beyond the boundaries of life and death, but begins here and now, each moment that we say “yes” to this call to participation, to faithful discipleship empowered by grace. This opportunity for recommitment, together with the celebration of the Mystical Body, continue to make All Saints Day a highlight of the church year for me.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Prayer Vigil

I started my day today helping to lead a 12 hour prayer vigil that my church held today. Its announced purpose was to lay "a spiritual foundation" for our capital stewardship campaign which culminates tomorrow as we bring in our pledges for annual and capital fund. So one might have been cynical, perhaps, about whether this was "praying for money" or some kind of ploy. But what made it a profound experience was that the people who stepped forward to lead it are people in the congregation who are truly gifted in prayer, and take seriously the idea that we can bring all that we need to God. The design of the day was simple: People came to pray for an hour, sometime between 9-9, many signing up in advance, and there was a different leader for each hour. I had the 9AM shift so got to begin but the leaders of the team had already set everything up (including bringing some blankets and space heaters because the heat was off in the church, as it happened (the Heat and A/C system is the at the top of the the list for the capital campaign, so it was telling that the heat was off on this particular day!)

There were 5 of us: We began with a brief prayer, and then we each took a handful of prayer cards, filled out by members of the congregation over the past couple of weeks, and took them with us to places of our own choosing, around our very beautiful and nearly empty sanctuary. We prayed in silence, but the silence was rich and full, and held us together. Daylight, candlelight, and stained-glass light combined in the early morning, with the pale brick and sand-colored stone of our sanctuary to make it an experience bathed in light -- even the need to wrap shawls around ourselves against the cold reminded us that we were wrapped in the love of God, each of us praying from a different part of the church -- our own prayers of adoration and petition, as well as the prayers of our fellow parishioners. I was moved by many of the prayers on the cards -- most of them asking for guidance, deepened faithfulness, help with jobs and financial issues, healing. There is something powerful about being invited to bring another soul into prayer, and particularly in that familiar space where I'm used to worshipping -- the candles lit on the altar, the green altar linens of the current liturgical season, and a sense of love and connection between me and the others gathered at prayer - women I feel I know well, even though we know each other mainly from worshipping together on Sundays for many years, and from the meeting or two that we had together to prepare for this day.

In the silence I remembered something Evelyn Underhill wrote about intercessory prayer (in her wonderful little book of essays called "Life as Prayer" -- this is from the title essay: "One human spirit can, by its prayer and love, touch and change another human spirit; it can take a soul and lift it into the atmosphere of God. This happens, and the fact that it happens is one of the most wonderful things in the Christian life." I experienced this at the prayer vigil today, in that familiar place with these well beloved people, all of them, I believe, particularly gifted in intercessory prayer. I am glad to be reminded, and invited again, into this mysterious and very beautiful dimension of the Christian life. It was a holy time, this morning, for me, and I am grateful.

The Spiritual Advisor and the Public Square

Well, I've been pretty lame about keeping up this blog. Here's something I posted last month on Episcopal Cafe, in case anyone is still out there checking this, and missed it. It seems timely as election day approaches

I recently visited the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church (NYAPC) in Washington DC, and enjoyed a fascinating historic tour of the building, especially the “Lincoln Parlor.” Mary Todd Lincoln and the children were members of this church during the Lincoln Administration, and apparently the President relied on the pastor, the Rev. Phineas D. Gurley, as an informal spiritual advisor. On display in the Lincoln Parlor are photos of the Lincolns and the Lincoln cabinet, and, behind glass, an early draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. The story is that originally, Lincoln intended an arrangement that would have reimbursed the southern landowners for their slaves, essentially a government “purchase” of the slaves, to free them. In private conversations, the president’s spiritual advisor encouraged him to take a more morally consistent position, and the ultimate result was the Emancipation Proclamation as we have it.

Gurley was the preacher at the funeral of the Lincolns’ son Willie (as well as at Lincoln’s own funeral), and apparently met with the president to talk about “the state of his soul” and to listen. Apparently he did make some use of his relationship for what might be called “political” purposes: there are records of his recommending several people for influential political positions. But he seems to be someone whose judgment and integrity were generally held in high regard. He was also known as a preacher who did not preach politics. It appears that there was a relationship of genuine spiritual companionship between Gurley and the President, though they met relatively infrequently and Lincoln never joined Gurley’s church. The obvious spiritual depth of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, together with the story told at NYAPC about the Emancipation Proclamation, give us some sense of the “fruits” of that relationship, but its details were not a matter of public record when those conversations were going on. And , I believe strongly, this is as it should be, when it comes to spiritual advisors to the powerful and famous.

There’s a contrast here to the way that the religious advisors of the powerful have been covered—and, I suspect, manipulated nowadays, and it is dismaying to me. From my training and work as a spiritual director, I know that conversations about the “state of one’s soul” are about a work in progress, God’s work in progress. And there are good reasons why our code of ethics insists on the sacred confidentiality of such conversations. I would think that for a famous person, such a relationship would need to be a place of freedom and absolute confidentiality.

People sometimes quote their spiritual advisors (as Barack Obama does, for example, in his use of Jermiah Wright’s phrase “The audacity of hope”), and that is their prerogative, as well as their spiritual risk. But I grow uneasy –and suspicious– when spiritual advisors themselves take the public stand and talk about their pastoral relationships with candidates From this point of view Jeremiah Wright’s speech to the NAACP was profoundly distressing and obviously embarrassing to the candidate, whatever one might say about the theology of the black church and the value of the Reverend Wright’s ministry generally. I had the same problem with a New York Times front page article a few weeks ago featuring an interview with Sarah Palin’s pastor, who spoke of her worship and prayer practices and her request for Bible passages to guide her in her desire to be a faithful leader. Even apart from my personal objections to the theology and the political priorities expressed in this interview, I was troubled by the situation: What are we to think, when the pastors to the powerful give public interviews about those conversations. Are they doing it with the candidates’ permission? Or if not, whose agenda is being furthered?

It seems to me that revealing publicly the details of a spiritual conversation is a kind of sacrilege, a manipulation of holy things to further a personal or political agenda. There’s a commandment against that: You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain. It seems to me that public discourse about the theological positions of the candidates – and the pressure on them to explain their beliefs is our most blatant contemporary violation of that commandment. There is good reason why pastors and spiritual companions are enjoined to be very respectful of boundaries and confidentiality. In my view, if there is a genuine relationship of spiritual guidance and companionship, this kind of confidentiality should trump the public’s “right to know” about a powerful person’s associates and beliefs.

What a candidate says about him/herself is another matter – and may or may not be the fruit of good spiritual advice. But I have become profoundly suspicious of anything we hear publicly from a “spiritual advisor” about the state of a candidate’s or President’s soul. There’s a Buddhist saying that “those who know, do not speak, and those who speak, do not know.” This seems to me a good guide for processing media stories about the spiritual lives of the candidates, or of any public figures.

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt (Kathy) keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area, and teaches courses in literature, theology and writing at Virginia Theological Seminary and the University of Maryland, College Park.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

"Household" and "Mystery": The Words we Use about "being a church"

(A version of this was published this morning on episcopal cafe. And it does reflect my sense of "Episcopal/Anglican" identity, which has grown over the years, though I hope some of this will resonate for people in other Christian denominations and traditions).

“Good Morning, Church!” This greeting has become familiar in my congregation. Members who originally come from West Africa are accustomed to beginning announcements that way. And it’s catching on. “Good morning Church!” the lay leader says.

“Church.” That would be us. And we respond heartily “Good morning!”

I’ve been musing about my own sense of what it means to “be a Church,”and where it comes from. And I find that a lot of it comes from the words that we say at worship.

I came into the Episcopal Church in 1975, as the “new prayer book” (published officially in 1979) was just coming into use. Coming from a Reformed and Confessional (Presbyterian) tradition, I was drawn by the beauty of liturgy and what I understood us to be saying at worship about what it meant to “be Church.” What holds Anglicans together, I learned in confirmation class, is not set doctrine but common worship, though of course we are always in conversation about doctrine and tradition. That has been what I’ve understood about being Anglican, and that’s been my experience at worship. Some of the discussions at the recent Lambeth conference of Bishops, and the comments of the Archbishop of Canterbury, have confused me because it seems there are now voices in the Anglican Communion that want a more centralized understanding of church doctrine, and the Archbishop of Canterbury has even suggested that such a Covenant might make us "more like a church." This seems befuddling to me. I had thought there was consensus that as church we are not unified by doctrine or discipline sent from on high, but by our practice and worship. That’s what I take people to mean, discussing Lambeth, when they say we are “a communion, not a church.” But of course we are a church (as in “the Church, the people of God” to use Verna Dozier’s language). We’re not “not a church.” Clearly much remains to be discerned. And the Anglican Communion will continue exploring these matters, I hope in a spirit of mutual respect, across differences of culture and belief.

As is my habit, I go to back to the liturgy for help, to see what poetic images of "church" have rooted themselves into my imagination and memory. And here I find some metaphors that seem worth pondering in these times. They are from important prayers that I think are not always as familiar as they might be to people in congregations – and now might be a good time to revisit them in our corporate life in congregations.

The first comes from the baptism service, a passage that sometimes gets lost in actual practice, when the priest says “Let us welcome the newly baptized” and the congregation responds with applause. (I’ve seen this happen at a number of baptism services, in a number of congregations). But the words of welcome are Biblical, and important:

We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.” (BCP 308)

The “household” of God. Yes. A good image of the Anglican Communion right now, as well as of many a congregation. We live together, we share the same food, and we have conflicts and celebrations, upheavals and challenges. But we belong to the same household. The rest of the welcome prayer is a catechism in itself – worth spending years unpacking: Confess, proclaim, share. We live out a “priesthood” as Christians, a life that involves bearing the Holy into the world, and sharing it with others, as Bill Countryman has described so well in Living on the Borders of the Holy. We are carrying out into the world the transforming love that is expressed in the faith of Christ crucified and the good news of his Resurrection. Being church means being the presence of Christ in the world, or in another metaphor I like, from Robert Capon, to be the Church is to be “the hat on the Invisible Man” for the world.

The fullness of that calling is expressed in my favorite prayer in the book, which I often use when I teach workshops on discernment and discipleship:

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual ordering of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. (BCP 280, 291, 515, 528, 540)

This prayer is appointed for Good Friday, just after the solemn collects, and Holy Saturday, just before the baptism service. We also say it at ordinations. (Marshall Scott has a good discussion of this in an earlier post on the Daily Episcopalian). It’s worth pointing out and holding up this prayer in a time when we’re reflecting on “being Church” because people who don’t attend a lot of ordinations may not be aware of having heard it or offered it.

I love the poetry of this prayer: the suggestion that radical transformation – things cast down, raised up, grown old, made new—can be carried out “in tranquility.” That in itself is a prayer for a miracle! This prayer acknowledges that our life as Church is held in the Divine life. To acknowledge this requires humility, as we craft ways to be together as the “household of God.” That’s why I also love the prayer’s description of the Church as “that wonderful and sacred mystery.”

The scrappiness and challenge of a “household”, held in “that wonderful and sacred mystery.” Holding these two metaphors together may help keep us open and humble, in the lives of our churches generally. as we continue to discern together what it means to “be a Church.”

Monday, September 1, 2008

Ora, Labora

Labor Day: "Come, Labor On," we sang in church yesterday, (Episcopal Hymnal, #541) that ponderous Victorian hymn that my husband has aptly dubbed "the workaholic's anthem." Heavy on the Protestant Work ethic for sure -- but also good for this "back to work" season in the rhythm of academic life. It's a little corny to choose it for Labor Day, but I'm always glad when worship leaders do. "Come, Labor on," the best verse goes, "away with gloomy doubts and faithless fear/ No arm so weak but may do service here. By feeblest agents doth our God fulfill/His righteous will" (It's been changed to "may our God fulfill" in the 1982 hymnal, but I grew up with the "doth" in original version's declaration: God DOES use us. There's no "may" about it. Our work has meaning, if we attend in a spirit of discernment. And so getting back to the more the public side of my work is bathed in prayer for me. Quiet, practical prayer.

I am glad to be in a place in life where quite often, my work is my worship, even when its content is not at all explicitly spiritual. I've been praying my "to do" lists in my journals these last couple of days, not in a frenzied way, but just as a way to shift into the rhythm of a new time of year. Having this hymn turn up on the menu the Sunday of Labor Day weekend is part of that rhythm -- it happens quite often, in our liturgical tradition. I welcome the choice: it marks a season for me.

My contemplative side resists the lack of "sabbath" at the end of the hymn ("No time for rest, 'til glows the western sky") but I like it that the hymn tune is called "ora, labora:" Pray and work: Our work is our prayer. For me that's a reminder that all of the work I do has a creative dimension -- from the quite practical pedestrian writing I'm doing for some neighborhood political activism, to the talk I'm giving at a church next week, on "Literature and the Christian Life," to putting together a syllabus (at this time of year, one of my favorite art forms)for the class I will meet on Wednesday, to plugging appointments and meetings with colleagues into the calendar - another art form, rightly seen.

This year the semester starts right after Labor Day, so today, the first of September, does mark the turning from the summer to fall, even though there's another month - probably six weeks - when the garden will still be growing, and I've got chrysanthemums now in pots on the patio. There are projects that got done and projects that didn't in what seemed like such a luxurious expanse of time three months ago. Some things have borne fruit and some have not. Gardening has been great in process, but most of the tomatoes were lost to chipmunks or bacterial spot. I spent a lovely 2 hours late this afternoon pulling out weeds that I should have gotten to weeks ago - but it was better after a recent rain, and a few fall garden projects will still beckon, excuses to be outside when the weather cools - after the hurricane season! But it will be harder to get to them as other demands close in. Today I savored the hours I was able to just be outdoors on a beautiful late summer late afternoon, listening to the crickets as I worked.

Some stuff got done and some didn't. Some cupboards and closets got cleaned as planned, but a lot are still a jumble -- my office space is still cluttered and confused: getting to that will be part of my starting-up ritual this week. I finished some pieces of writing, had some rejected, others tentatively invited, and there are a few I still haven't finished. Two book reviews remain to be written. But I have a new "to do" list, and a new folder for each class, and a bookbag with only the books I need for class and no additinal papers & clutter. Yet. It's all beginning again.

I do grow a little wistful at this time of year, with my children grown and gone. It was exciting, each September, sharing with them the new teachers, new situations, new rites of passage, and in September so much seemed possible and new. And I miss that. And them. That sense of "Who are they now? How will they change and grow before my eyes this year? There's that sense of "new beginning" that the beginning of the school year always brings, and I still get it as a teacher, sharing the experience with my students. I am so grateful for this part of the academic year's rhythm: this yearly return to the sense that all kinds of new things are possible, and it is time to begin again. Busy-ness, to-do lists, a little overwhelming but also welcome as a new shapefor this time of life. I am refreshed and ready. I guess that means I've used the summer sabbath-time well.

Come, Labor on!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Tolstoy, Wordsworth, and My Summer Break

As we move into the last 10 days of August I'm looking back on my summer to see what has come out of it. The thing I love about the academic life is this long, fallow time in the summer. We do expect ourselves to be "productive" but there is also time to replenish and refresh, intellectually and spiritually. And I actually have been pretty "productive" -- writing and revising poems, sending 2 articles off for publication (one of them already came back, rejected, but never mind. . . ), reading and thinking. Even though there's still some summer left, I've turned a corner since we got back, last week, from our week at the beach -- which was its usual long, lazy blessed unscheduled time, during which I lost myself in several books -- One of them was Tolstoy's massive novel Anna Karenina, which turned out to be both that delightful opportunity to "lose myself" in another world that a big, fat, brilliantly constructed novel provides -- AND the occasion for some further spiritual musings.

Away from the seminary and other contexts where I am surrounded by people of faith and in frequent conversations about the spiritual life, in the summer I tend to be around family members and friends who are not particularly interested in things spiritual and theological and sometimes it feels lonely, sometimes oddly refreshing. I found myself interested in the character of Levin in Tolstoy's book, an alter ego of the author, who is trying throughout the novel to work out whether he can arrive at faith through reason, and to justify his innate sense of what makes for a "good life." In the end, to his delighted surprise, he finds that there is a goodness and love, outside of the "chain of causality" that he has always known, striven for, and that sometimes he experiences in a moment of deep lucidity and peace. It is the awareness of goodness and love that he shares, in a world riven by class divisions, with the peasants who work for him, and with his family, though they rarely engage in theological discussion. And arriving at this goodness he realizes to his surprise that the teachings of the Church provide the best ways of contemplating this goodness that is Reality. I appreciated this 19th century rendering of a thinking person's journey of faith, which spoke to me as well. Especially since my reading has included some further explorations of the "teachings of the Church."

Doing some theological reading for my own interest over the summer, I've found myself returning to discussions of the earliest teachings of the pre-Nicene church -- not lost with Nicea, certainly, but somehow buried, especially in Western Christianity, under institutionalization and dogmatism over the centuries -- the mysterious idea of a God who is real, who is, before anything else is, the source of our being, what we deeply know as the profoundly good and what we name somewhat inadequately as "love", known intimately and personally by the followers of Jesus in his lifetime, and alive in the ongoing resurrection life of his followers to this day, however unlikely that seems. The Trinitarian theology of the early church, emphasizing an image of God as a loving relationship among "persons" - as an image of the reality that humanity is made to experience and grow into: This has spoken to me in deep ways in the quiet "green moments" this summer has provided here and there -- The chances to interact with the beauty of nature - in my backyard and along the beach - the delight of long, rambling conversations with my grown children during their visits back home. The sense of connection, even in solitude, that has come at prayer - enhanced by journeys into other people's imaginative worlds, as I've had time to lose myself in fiction and good poetry. Even the additional time to reflect and pray over the brokenness of so much in the world around us, as I read the news. All this has been fruitful and renewing. And somehow connected to a deeper awareness of the call to grow into the loving Communion that is the heart of who God is. A wonderful mystery - easier to express in prayer & worship than in reasoned prose. But I've been grateful for the quiet openings that this summer sabbath time has provided.

I'm beginning now to look to September, to fiddle with syllabi -- sort of an "art form" for me -- and to put dates on the calendar and begin envisioning the shape of the semesters soon to begin at the various places I've taught. But I can say I have found in my summer-time what Wordsworth called "life and food/for future years".

That's from his long poem, Lines: composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey . . . usually referred to as "Tintern Abbey." Funny how I return to Wordsworth this August as I did last year (see last year's post drawing on his "Immortality Ode." ) Well, as long as I am here, let me quote some more from Tintern Abbey, where this reflective poet does capture well the nourishment that I have drawn from this year's long green season. And glad there's a bit more of it left.

Here's what Wordsworth writes about his experience in nature -- not unlike what Levin discovers in Anna Karenina, I realize. I guess I have never lost my affinity for the wisdom of these 19th century Romantics.

So yes, Here's a bit more Wordsworth for this August Day from about halfway through "Tintern Abbey" -

For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Church, the future and "Stability"

When I was growing up in Sunday School I remember learning a song that went "I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together. . . ." and "The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place. The church is a people."

I believe that. The church is not just a building; the church is a people.

But I also find that there are some strong reasons why I feel that we need to have churches that are both people and buildings, and even commit financial resources to them, as we're discerning the call to be Christ's presence in the world in the next generation. It's odd for me, probably for many in my "boomer" generation, to find ourselves stepping into the time of life when we become at once the "pillars" and the "old-timers" in leadership in our churches (Here I am on the vestry! And chairing the 50th anniversary committee!) - and the challenge is to be open to the change the Holy Spirit is always inviting, while also letting ourselves be shaped by the monastic virtue that the Benedictines called "stability."

My more fully formulated musings on this are posted on "Episcopal Cafe" today -- do go there and comment if you're so inclined. I'm kind of curious about how my musings on this strike people.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Postpartum creation

I'm in kind of a wierd "postpartum" mode, having spent the last month wrestling into shape an article that is a combination of personal memoir and reflection on the poet and artist David Jones, who was for so many years the focus of my labors, and is coming into my life again. I'm going to be part of a conference at Cathedral College in February on "Faith, Art and Poetry in a Post-Christian Culture" -- publicity going up soon, but it will be February 27-March 1 and the middle of the conference will focus on Jones's work and what he has to say about art as a sacramental activity, and about the challenges that face us as artists who work in a tradition that has shaped us profoundly but whose language is increasingly inaccessible to the world.

That wrestling-into-shape process touches something deep: It can seem like a cliche but giving shape to a creative piece - a poem or an essay is an intense kind of prayer that brings together the discipline of craftsmanship and a kind of passionate focus on this one thing, a desire for it to "come right," and days of bleakness when it just won't. And now that it's sent out, anxiety returns about whether what "came right" for me in the creative process will speak to anyone else. But the experience itself is an experience of prayer - while I was involved in the process, it was something I couldn't leave - (any more than a woman giving birth can really comply with the coaches who say "don't push!"). And something has come out of it, and shaped me in the process of its emergence.

I like to think that in giving myself to that creative process in writing, I am also opening myself to something like the creative Passion of the divine logos, "himself not made, maker of sequence and permutation in all things made" as Jones puts it. I am spent now, by that encounter -- curious to see what will come out of it, but knowing it will be awhile before I can see it. Not exactly exhausted, not burnt out, but fully "spent." It's frustrating because it means I can't really get started on something else. But that's also a part of the experience: When God was spent, after all the labor of Creation, he rested. That's what I need to do now.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Patio Thoughts - co-creation

I've been reading around this summer -- poetry, especially Mary Oliver, and some good writing about vocation and discernment by Sam Portaro and Sharon Daloz Parks. A theme that bubbles up through this reading is the idea of "co-creation" as a way of thinking about our call to faithfulness and discipleship. Portaro, in his new book called Transforming Vocation, uses the first chapter of Genesis, in which God creates the world and calls it "good" - and the making of the world seems to be an expression of who/what God is -- as a beginning for a theology of vocation. What we experience as intimations of the divine, whether subtle or overwhelming, at various times of life, are actually invitations to participate in God's ongoing creation: we "co-create" our lives, paying attention to who we are, what seems unique about each of us as individuals, and what draws us to care and desire to be part of something, to find and to create meaning in our lives and in our communities?

Phyllis Tickle entitles her recent memoir The Shaping of a Life. I like her title because it names the vocational task as a creative activty. My theology of vocation says that we are never doing that shaping alone - we are shaping and consenting to be shaped: that means being attentive to who we are, who we are related to, what challenges us, what kind of work feeds and delights us, what kind of brokenness we feel most deeply in the world. And all of this brought back to the One who made us and who mysteriously desires that we should grow into fulness (I keep returning to a saying of Irenaus of Antioch that I've seen translated "The glory of God is the human being fully alive." )In Latin it's "Gloria dei vivens homo.")

Fully alive: One of the things I've always liked about the academic schedule is that I get these these wonderful open summers, when there's lots of writing to be done but also contemplative time, time to grow and "be alive." When I sit on my patio, I write in my journal, but I also listen to the birdsong and look at what's around me - and at other times of the day, I spend time gardening. Here is an activity that's REALLY about co-creation. I'm an inexpert gardener, figuring it out as I go along, but it is a new and wonderful experience to me to find that small tasks I perform -- pulling out weeds, watering, or, yesterday, giving a big dose of "compost tea" -- made from our own yard trimmings and kitchen scraps -- to the tomato plants -- leads to new growth. Without analyzing it all intellectually, I find I learn about gardening by getting to know my plants, their preferences for sun and shade, and when they bloom or bear fruit, there is a sense of miracle about it -- I've put in some work, but what comes back is God's creation. I see that it's no accident that spiritual writers have often recommended gardening as a contemplative practice. That's what it's becoming for me.

And since especially during the academic year I'm in the business of "formation" -- teaching, spiritual direction, reflecting and teaching about vocation, I'm paying attention to the give-and-take involved in gardening: a lot of it is looking/listening/paying attention to what's needed, then doing a small thing to feed or direct new growth. But it's God who gives the growth. The real formation that is going on right now is happening in me, as I learn this in a more direct, intuitive way than I can express in words.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Summer Thoughts, from my patio reading- Teresa and Underhill

In the summer I spend a lot of time outdoors; my morning prayer time moves out onto the patio, where I love to admire the green-ness all around me, and listen to the birdsong, which tends to take precedence, in my attention, over the beltway noise. It's also a chance to return to a practice of "morning reading"in spirituality and theology, which tends to fall away during the academic year. I've been rereading Evelyn Underhill's The Mystics of the Church -- not her big book on Mysticism, but her smaller book, written in 1921, which focuses on the mainstream of mysticism in Christianity and shows how these people who pursue, according to their own temperaments, their yearning for God, wind up enriching the corporate life of the church. Underhill is great for debunking the general view of the mystic as someone lost in his/her own little world and would be deeply skeptical of contemporary claims that one can be "spiritual but not religious."

Underhill's reflections on Teresa of Avila, in her chapter on "Spanish Mysticism," shows me clearly how much Teresa was a spiritual mother/grandmother for Underhill. What she admires in this ardent, deeply emotional mystic is the way that Teresa grew into the mystic life -- recognizing (and teaching her spiritual sisters) that the fruit of the ecstatic spiritual union that she experienced is work, work for the spreading and deepening of God's will for the world. For Teresa that happened through her administrative work, reforming her order and founding new convents and teaching new groups of sisters. And in her writing, especially her Life, written at her directors' request, and her later classics, The Way of Perfection and The Interior Castle (clearly a favorite of Underhill's, who offers her own version in a little book called The House of the Soul). Underhill, living four centuries later, seems to have experienced this same call to channel profound experience of God's presence and call into an incredibly busy life of teaching, retreat work and writing. Though neither Underhill or Teresa had children to raise, I realize that I last read this chapter on Teresa when I was in the thick of childrearing, and found it encouraging to see how they both saw spiritual and practical life as connected and bearing fruit in ordinary experience. It is interesting to see this again, from a new stage of family life (when I actually have time to sit on the patio on a summer morning and read Evelyn Underhill!)

For both of these women, it wasn't ever about "how busy they were," though their lives were incredibly busy and drawn in many different directions, but about what God might want in the situations where they found themselves, and how their gifts for prayer and contemplation might be "for" God's purposes.

I have always been drawn to Underhill, because of her preaching and modeling of a "practical mysticism." It is interesting to see how she sees Teresa -- often caricatured as an ecstatic out of touch with life -- as the pattern of a healthily developing spiritual life, and as an example of how that life bears fruit, through discipline as well as through giftedness.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Sagrada Familia (Holy Family) Church - A Sermon in Stone

(Also posted on Episcopal Cafe)

In 1965 I visited Washington DC with my girl scout troop, and was taken on a tour of the Washington “National Cathedral, which was then a work in progress. I don’t actually have a visual memory of what we saw – except a sense that it was confusing and hard to picture. I was from a New England Presbyterian background where not much emphasis was placed on aesthetics, so at that time I didn’t see the point of putting so much energy and labor into a church building. But I remember hearing that it might be completed by the 1990’s, and thinking that sounded like ages away. I could not know then that by 1990, when the cathedral was completed, we would be living in Washington, and that later in the 1990’s that cathedral and its schools and choral program would become a central part of our family’s life, and the beauty of that space would be formative to my life of worship and prayer. I thought of this recently when I had the opportunity to visit the Sagrada Familia (Holy Family) temple in Barcelona this past month, and walked through a nave under construction, watching stonecutters at work on massive columns in a space still open to the sky.

Officially called the “Temple Expiatiri de la Sagrada Familia,” this fascinating building is a work in progress whose history and architecture embodies the vision of a generations of deeply committed Christians, both artists and donors, The project began in the late 1800’s, in an era of rising industrial prosperity and cultural burgeoning in Barcelona. (“Expiatory, ” I understand, means funded by the alms of the faithful: the project is entirely privately funded). The architect, Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) was a brilliantly original artist and a devout Roman Catholic with a deeply mystical sensibility and unique vision. He worked on this building over most of his career, making it the focus of his work during the last four or five years of his life. Gaudi died suddenly in 1926, run over by a streetcar, and work on the building was interrupted and thwarted again by upheavals in Spanish politics and the suppression of Catalonian culture at various times in the 20th century. But his plans and vision for the Sagrada familia were the focus of his life throughout a brilliant architectural career, and the artchitects of succeeding generations have taken up that vision, shaping it with their own voices and styles and with a continuing faithfulness.

Jacques Maritain said somewhere that if you want to be a Christian artist, you should be a Christian, live your faith, and then put all your energy into the perfection of your art work. The artists involved over generations in completing the Sagrada Familia have been faithful to the vision that Maritain describes . The result is a work with many distinct artistic voices, speaking of a common faith. It is something hard to put into words, but you experience it in the space, the stone carving and the architecture.

Over the century and more that it has been in progress, the Sagrada Familia temple has come to reflect a Christian vision uniquely suited to the 21st century, the century in which it is expected to be completed. The Nativity Façade depicts with great gentleness and humanity the story of the nativity and the mystery of Incarnation. It celebrates the virtues of faith, hope, and love in its 3 porticos. The stone carvings on this façade are lush and lavish and baroque, the human figures reflecting a gentle and beautiful humanity, amid depictions of nature – flowers, animals, and trees, which are Gaudi’s hallmark. Looking at this portal, which is now on the UN list of World landmarks, one experiences the connection between the Mystery of the Incarnation and our Creator-God’s love for the beautiful, material, bodily world where we live and the. Contrasted to this, the facade of the Passion, sculpted in the 1970’s by Josep Maria Subirachs, conveys the stories of Passion Week in carvings that are stark, linear and impressionistic, conveying the stripping-down of everything. The Resurrection portal and window bring this all together, and the projected towers that will top this building when it is finished will focus on the risen Jesus. So it is, as the guidebooks say, a “sermon in stone.” Like the medieval cathedrals, it re-tells the core of the Christian story. There are also details everywhere that speak to our time. We noticed a gargoyle on one capital in the cloister that depicted the devil handing a bomb to a terrorist! Elements of the creed and of church governance are also incorporated into the building, but the representations of the life of Christ, the focus on Jesus as the heart of the story, and the interweaving of all of this with natural imagery, remain striking to anyone who visits this building. In a post-Christian Europe, where people still appreciate beauty but are increasingly secular in orientation, this temple will preserve the story, and the artists’ belief in the truth of the story comes through, somehow, in the quality of their work.

Gaudi is known for the colorful ceramic tile work and the organic, non-linear shapes on his most famous buildings – especially the Casa Battlio, the Casa Mila and the Park Guell in Barcelona, and the turrets and roof ornaments of the Sagrada Familiia are among his most striking works in this medium. The colorful parts of the building are almost entirely reflections of natural objects – fruits, birds, trees. Inside the building, the huge, 5-part nave is now under construction. In keeping with Gaudi’s original vision, the huge columns that hold up the vaults of the nave are shaped like trees, and it really does feel as if one is walking through what one guidebook called a “mystical forest” inside that nave, -- which is still open to the sky but will one day be a high-vaulted space, illuminated by both natural light and stained glass.

This is the part that struck me as so contemporary. The Sagrada Familia tells the Christian story in a building that also celebrates the beauty and strength of the earth, and our connection to Creation. In the century that will have to address global warming and our stewardship of the earth, Gaudi’s vision is even more compelling than it was in his time – when natural images were a more or less standard part of the “modernista”/ art nouveau vision. I do not know if I will get to see the completed Temple of the Sagrada familia in my lifetime – it looks as if they still have years of work to do. But remembering my first visit to the National Cathedral, I believe it will be finished one day, and I’m glad that this vision is being carried forward, embodying in space and stone the faith of generations of Christian artists.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Julian of Norwich and World travel

There's a lot to be learned from traveling, both inwardly and outwardly, close to home and abroad -- besides caution about watching out for thieves (see previous post). And there were many insights from the recent traveling in Spain. The week before I had spent some time on retreat and had occasion to reread Julian of Norwich's famous writing about her vision, in which she saw "a small thing, the size of a hazel-nut" which turned out to represent "everything that is". The revelation was that God created, loves, and preserves or "keeps" that "small thing". On retreat, in a place filled with birdsong, green leaves and abundant rain, I was aware of all Creation as held and beloved in this way -- and of God as greater than, and outside of all that is. It's quite different from saying that God is "in things" or "in nature" -- rather it's that we, with all Creation, are held in God's love. To say that God "holds" all that is is also to acknowledge that what we know as the Love of God is beyond anything we can really conceive of or imagine, and yet that sense of being "kept" -- held, preserved -- abides, and connects beyond ourselves.

A transatlantic flight, with people from all over the world, speaking all different languages, is another occasion for reflecting on how we are held in the mystery of God's love, and how big the world is. Crammed together for 8 hours, in a cramped space made as hospitable as possible, we are human together. There is something sweet, endearing, about seeing people trying to get comfortable and sleep for awhile on an airplane, as lights are dimmed and meals are served in an effort to acknowledge some kind of circadian clock. I recognize in myself a very human vulnerability and need, shared with my fellow passengers, as I try to settle down to sleep, even as others are sitting up, watching movies or otherwise trying to distract themselves.

Then we get to the airport, awake but jet lagged, and are surrounded by activity and new spaces (we flew to Spain via Munich, with a fine view of farmland at the foot of the alps). The world is huge, there are so many people, all headed in different directions (and those I was observing are at the top of the economic order, able to afford this journey). And yet there is more - and we still do not exhaust "all that is," created, preserved and mysteriously loved by a God who is beyond it all, and yet , in Julian's vision, somehow cherishes all.

How far this journey was from anything Julian could have imagined from her cell, or from the simplicity of my retreat, and yet on this journey I saw the implications of her vision in a new way. I am grateful for this!

Here's the full passage from Julian of Norwich

And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut , lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, 'What may this be?' And it was answered generally thus,'It is all that is made.' I marvelled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nought for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.

In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that he loves it. And the third, that God keeps it. But what is this to me? Truly, the Creator, the Keeper, the Lover. For until I am substantially oned to him, I may never have full rest nor true bliss. That is to say, until I be so fastened to him that there is nothing that is made between my God and me.

This little thing that is made, I thought it might have fallen to nought for littleness. Of this we need to have knowledge that it is like to nought, all things that are made. For to love and have God that is unmade.

For this is the cause why we are not at ease in heart and soul, for we seek rest here, in this thing that is so little where there is no rest, and knowing not our God who is all mighty, all wise and all good. For he is true rest. God will be known, and he likes us to rest in him. For all that is beneath him cannot suffice us. And this is the cause why no soul is rested, until it is noughted of all that is made. And when he wills to be noughted for love, to have him who is all, then he is able to receive spiritual rest.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

"my house"

"Es su casa" -- "It is your house." The cab driver said this to me last week, in Barcelona, as we pulled up to the American embassy. The day before, my purse had been stolen in what we later learned was a pretty familiar scam in southern Europe -- We heard a noise in the back of our rented car, someone waved us to the side of the road and then came up to the window to tell me we had a flat tire. The purse must have been taken when my husband got out of the car to check the tire, which was not flat. We drove on, and I missed the purse only when we stopped for gas a few minutes later.

As anyone knows who has experienced it,it's a terribly vulnerable feeling - I lost pretty much everything that I was enjoying having with me for our trip - our camera and all the pictures on it, not downloaded, my Spanish dictionary and guidebooks, which helped me enjoy the adventure of exploring and coping in a language I know only moderately well (that's probably being generous), the purse itself. And of course my passport, identifying me as an American citizen and making me "legitimate" in the country. It was good I was traveling with my husband, who had some credit cards that we didn't have to cancel (all had been used immediately), and access to money. But I had nothing of my own. And I was on my own on this trip to the consulate.

Traveling always makes me aware of the arbitrariness of what I think of as necessary. There is some freedom in packing only what I need for the journey, and leaving all of my other "stuff" at home. There is gratitude in recognizing that we can afford the trip and even some setbacks. And I have a sense of adventure about exploring a new small town - before Barcelona we had started off on the Costa Brava, and figuring out how to buy water, find a cafe, make my way in a place where people's habits, money, daily routines are different from what I'm used to, and blending into that. I even enjoyed that sense of simplification that came with having "everything I could possibly need" tucked into that single bag that I carried with me at all times - passport, camera, ipod, cell phone. But now all of it was gone.

With it all gone, that sense of what I "need" calls for revision, even as I hustle, now that I'm home, to replace things -- credit cards stopped, cellphone replaced, other things I'm deciding to do without for awhile.

On this adventure, the first thing I absolutely "needed" was that passport, and it felt at the time like a really important sign of who I was in this strange city where I'd just been the victim of a crime. Without it, no one would know who I was or where I was from. And without it, I couldn't get home. "Home." That's what I needed - the assurance that I could indeed get home again.

I've never been so glad to see an American flag as I was when I saw the flag waving over the US consulate that day in Barcelona (And by that I don't mean that I am NOT glad to see American flags in general - this isn't about my patriotism -- but just that American flags aren't usually something I notice a lot). This consulate was "my house." ("su casa," the driver said). They spoke English -- they understood what it was like to lose that lifeline to home. They had heard of other people being victims of this same crime (In fact "flat tire scam" was on the checklist of ways one might have lost a passport. There was something perversely consoling about that). The kind woman behind the desk assured me, in perfect English, that they could get me a new passport that day and told me how. Then she said with genuine compassion, "It's really hard, losing your whole purse." And that's when I finally started to cry, almost 24 hours after the crime itself. And yes, she had a kleenex. And yes, it was OK to cry now. This was "my house."

Friday, May 9, 2008

A Disciple Making Church?

Also posted on Episcopal Cafe for 5-9-08

Over the altar at Virginia Seminary, where I teach, are the words from Mark 16:15. “Go into all the world and preach the gospel.” (“proclaim the good news to the whole creation” is how the NRSV has it.) These words have inspired generations of people called to the ordained ministry of word and sacrament. But as one of the people called to the ministry of teaching in and beyond the church, I find myself drawn, this ascensiontide, to Matthew’s version of the Great Commission, and I wonder what the church would look like if we spent more time reflecting on what Jesus might have meant here. In Matthew 28: 19-20, he says “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you . And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

A lot of the literature I’ve seen on stewardship and congregational development seems to focus on attracting more members to our congregations, through programs that meet perceived needs: it’s about “marketing” the church. Young adult ministries, I’ve noticed, focus some energy on encouraging vocations, but often that means raising up young people to be the next generation of ordained ministers in the church. But I have been wondering what we would look like as a church, as congregations and schools and communities, if we focused more energy, not so much on selling the church or attracting new members, but on “making disciples” of the people who come in our doors, and the seekers who inquire about us. What might this call to “make disciples of all nations” mean in our time and culture and in the current theological climate?

The term “discipleship” is probably associated, for some of us, with more evangelical and fundamentalist traditions and “making disciples” primarily with overseas mission, often associated with cultural conservatism. But I believe it’s a term that we in the Episcopal/Anglican tradition should be reclaiming, reframing, and considering in light of our tradition and the culture surrounding us. Brian McLaren, in A Generous Orthodoxy, moves in this direction as he seeks a very Anglican-sounding “generous third way” between Evangelicals’ preoccupation with a personal saviour and liberals’ with modern culture. He writes of how he muddled for some time over how to describe the mission of the Church, moving from the familiar language of Evangelicals in his description of the church. He tells how he started with formulaic language: the church’s mission is to make “more Christians and better Christians.” But on reflection he tweaked it further, moving to “To be and to make disciples of Jesus Christ” and then “To be and to make disciples of Jesus Christ, in authentic community, for the sake of the world.” I like his movement away from labels to the affirmation of discipleship as part of our communal identity and our work in the world. And I like the language of discipleship better than language about “the ministry of the laity” (much as I revere the work of Verna Dozier and others of her generation) because it gets us out of ecclesiastical categories back into Biblical language that describes the shared mission of everyone in the Church. How do we understand discipleship in our time? That’s the question we should be asking together, regardless of office or vocation within the structure of the Church.

The idea of discipleship also gets us back to the concept of our faith as something we practice – the great insight of Diana Butler Bass’s influential work. Jesus tells his followers to make disciples of all nations – i.e. not only the Jewish community that they know but ALSO all nations: this is for everyone. And it’s about observing what he commanded. Love your neighbor as yourself; pray; teach, heal, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, seek forgiveness and reconciliation; look at the world through the lens of one who can say “blessed are the poor/ blessed are the meek.” This is not about convincing people to be like-minded or to join-up, nor is it a self-help project, about “becoming a better person.” Rather, the idea of discipleship gets to the heart of who Jesus is or wants to be for us. It moves us beyond worrying about the shape of institutions and back to a focus on the mission that Jesus has promised to support, if we try to follow him: “I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

What would the Church look like if we thought of “disciple-making” as our core purpose, in adult formation programs, in seminary education, in worship. The language of the baptismal covenant and baptism service in the prayer book provides some good language for this, in our tradition – though somehow or other the “ministry of the baptized” has been relegated to a category that goes with “not called to ordained ministry,” in many discussions in seminaries and vocation/formation programs. (Sometimes implying a contrast between the ministry of the ordained and the ministry of the baptized, as if the ordained were not baptized!) But discipleship: that’s something we all share, whatever office we’re called to in the church – it’s something we can reflect on within our tradition and also across denominations. How might the vision of a “disciple-making church” transform and refocus our work, worship and teaching? A question to reflect on as we approach the Feast of Pentecost.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A Really good sermon, drawing on the Heaven book

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Faith and Writing Festival

I've just spent two very stimulating days at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was stimulating to be with a group of people who are serious about writing and rooted in faith - from across the spectrum of Christian belief and practice. Highlights for me (at least for this post - I may have more) were an interview with Mary Gordon about writing and life. I love her work,especially her novel Men and Angels and she was eloquent about being a writer, a practicing Catholic with honest reservations about the Vatican (and wise distinctions between "Catholicism" as a heritage and the Vatican as a power structure). One thing she said that resonated with me: about working most of the time in an academic community where people are not believers and regard people of faith with some suspicion, in part because of media portrayals of Christian extremism. She said, "If they know you're a Catholic they take 90 points off your IQ". She did name here something that I have been aware of; it's not that there's a need to talk about our faith all the time in secular settings, but there's an awareness of prejudice toward faith -- I find this exacerbated by recent bestsellers like Dawkins' The God Delusion and similar discussions. Not something she dwelt on, but it was good to have it named. She also spoke of how as we grow into genuine faith, and rootedness in our traditions, we get beyond the "bliss of exclusion" which so haunts faith communities: the need to say "we're right and they're wrong; we're in and they're out." There, too, she named something important.

Another highlight was an dialogue between Scott Cairns and Kathleen Norris. Both writers were born and raised in reformed, Protestant traditions and have embraced in some way what Scott reminds is the common ancient heritage of all Christians -- the practices of the early church. He has embraced this by being chrismated in the Greek Orthodox faith and he speaks warmly of their rituals. Kathleen is an oblate of a Benedictine order, though she has remained a Presbyterian. Both of them spoke of the need for Christians to embrace the practices of the faith: regular prayer, belonging to a community that worships and prays together. It seems simple but it is so important - only through the practices of prayer and worship are we transformed into who God has made us to be, and that is a lifelong journey, nourished by prayer. It was wonderful to be among people who agreed on some level that our writing comes out of those practices, whatever else it may be "about."

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Questions to Aid in Discernment

In keeping with the theology offered in my previous post about discernment and discipleship, I am beta testing” with communities of younger adults (18-27 year olds) a series of questions that I’ve found helpful in trying to get at the call to genuine, grounded discipleship for each of us – It may well be that they work for people beyond the church context, too, but I believe these, or related questions, are helpful for learning to listen for the presence of God, the “push” of the Holy Spirit, the call of Christ (whatever language works best with your experience of the holy). I’d appreciate feedback on these, especially from any folks in this age group or near it who may be lurking out there (though I think they also work for other age groups)!

1. (“PROFILE”) QUESTION: What is the identity I present, superficially, to the world, -- answers to questions like “What do you do?” “What is your major”?

2. (“PEOPLE”):
Where is my community? (Or where are my communities?) When I say “We,” who do I mean? Who are the important people and relationships in my life? What about faith community, spiritual companions? What group(s) of people sustain me, affirm and challenge me in ways that I value?

3. (“PURPOSE”):
What is the work or activity that makes me feel most whole and alive when I am engaged in it?

4. (“PASSION”)
What MUST CHANGE: When I look at the world, either the commuity/organizations close to me or the world at large, what is it that makes me passionately desire change, so much that I might even be willing to suffer in some way to see that change happen. Where do I say “Something has GOT to be done about this”?

How do I pray? What are my spiritual practices (the things that I do because of what I believe or because of my sense of spiritual identity?)

6: “PLAY”:
How do I take “Sabbath time” in my life – resting and relaxing for the sake of refreshing yourself and renewing energy. How do I play?

I would suggest, is what God is doing with the answers to ALL of these questions together. What insights come to you from the process of reflecting on these questions? What can you learn by discussing your answers to these questions with trusted friends?