About Me

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

Thursday, 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!