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.

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?

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Eastertide Thoughts on the Call to Discipleship

This also will be appearing on Episcopal Cafe this week - please feel free to check it out and comment there, too.

I have been trying to create ways to talk about vocation WITHOUT moving immediately to questions about “how am I supposed to make my living” and especially without moving immediately to the question “Is God calling me to the ordained ministry?” It is almost impossible to disentangle these questions these days in our culture, where identity and worth are so tied to our role in the consumer economy, let alone in the church, with vocation and discernment so strongly tied in people’s minds to questions about ordained ministry. But I insist on disentangling them. We have to find a way. I believe it is essential for us as a church to be focusing, not so much on resume lines or people’s roles in the institution as on the original call of each of us to “follow” Jesus , to practice ever more faithful and intentional discipleship. I’ll probably return to this theme in future posts. For now, here are some Eastertide musings on discipleship and how we experience the call of Jesus.

The gospel appointed for Friday in Easter week tells the wonderful story of the risen Jesus calling the disciples away from their fishing to come and have breakfast with him, on the beach by the sea of Tiberias. (John 21:1-11). Immediately after breakfast, as we know, he asks Peter repeatedly “Do you love me,” and offers him a new, pastoral ministry:”feed my lambs.” One of the things that has always struck me about the story in John is that Peter and his friends, doubtless disoriented in the aftermath of the Passion and reports of the Resurrection, return to the work that they know, the work that has identified them and sustained them economically, the work they were doing when they first met Jesus. And here as in the Lucan version of that story (Luke 5:1-12), Peter and the beloved disciple recognize the urgency of Jesus’ call by the way the fishermen’s work is transformed in His presence. They have been coming up empty. The stranger on the beach tells them to cast their nets on the right side of the boat, and suddenly there is abundance, and they recognize him – “It is the Lord”, and head for the beach to be with him.

The story of the calling of the fishermen in Mark and Matthew can also be read as a story about the call to discipleship as transformation, if we attend closely to the language. Jesus finds the disciples fishing by the side of the sea, and the narrative tells us “for they were fishermen.” He calls them and, in the NRSV, says “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” (Matthew 4:19; Mark 1:17). What is lost is the phrase I grew up with, in my Presbyterian Sunday school where we used the RSV: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” It isn’t all that clear what that means, “fishers of men,” and it doesn’t seem to be their reason for following them: there’s no new job description here. But Jesus is promising some kind of change that begins where they are. That’s the literal meaning of the Greek, I’m told: Follow me: and I will make you to become fishermen-of-people. They will be transformed into some new version of what they already are.

Dwelling a bit with these stories, in meditation, and especially with the post-Resurrection version of this call story in John, I think we can gain insight from remembering how the call of Jesus tends to come to us where we are. (“wherever we may be,” as the catechism says of the ministry of the laity (BCP 855)) When I talk about vocation with laity - people whose primary work is in the world rather than in the church as institution, I find they tend to think of vocation as being about something that’s coming in the future, or something that will require a radical shift from all that they know and are. But in fact, I have observed that most people experience the call to discipleship beginning where they are, and the transformation comes in stages, beginning with that desire simply to follow Jesus, for reasons we often can’t explain to ourselves. For many people, though we do find ourselves making changes in our lives, the call to discipleship emerges gradually, as we grow into what it means to be followers of Jesus .

This is something we emphasize in our language at worship, but most of us need to spend more time reflecting on what it means. I have been a scholar, a lover of literature, a teacher; I am a wife and a parent. Gradually, as I’ve grown in faith and deepened my spiritual practice, I’ve learned that all of this is “for Christ,” even though the content of what I teach and write, and the focus of my relationships, is not always explicitly religious. But the call of Christ has gradually changed me, has “made me to become” someone new, and it changes the way that I view the work I’ve been given in my profession and in my relationships. It seems that the transformation in me does touch the lives of others, often in ways I do not see.

So when I speak with people –especially laity-- about call and discipleship, I invite them to look at where they are in life right now, not what they wish they were doing or think they “should” be doing. Vocation is not about lines on a resume. Nor is it about office in the church. It is about identity, community, and spiritual practice. What is it, we ask, in your work, your gifts and abilities and yearnings right now, that makes you feel fully alive? Where is the abundance? Or where could the abundance be? That’s probably the part of you that is hearing Jesus’call to discipleship to being “made to become” a part of the new thing that God is doing.

It is true that sometimes people are in a place where they need to “leave their nets” immediately, and “do” something totally different. But usually, vocation is about an ongoing process of transformation, through the practices of discipleship that are summarized in Jesus’ command to follow him. I find this expressed most simply and poignantly in the Easter version of this call story, where the renewed call to “follow me” is preceded by a much more homely invitation: “come and have breakfast”(John 21:12).