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, December 24, 2009

Love, the Guest is On the Way

I wrote this piece for episcopal cafe Sunday, and appropriately, they're running it today, Christmas Eve-- now, as I begin the final preparations for our quieter family Christmas celebration, I am aware, quietly, of the deep mystery of this celebration of the Incarnation -- it's something about Love coming among us, wanting to be with us, rejoicing when we find ways to be together, despite so many obstacles life offers. Without being able to put it into words I am learning something about this mystery, as I go about the practical, outward tasks of preparation. And I am grateful for this holy season.

Here's the piece:

For the past day I’ve been happily preparing for a party we’re giving for my husband’s co-workers, and humming as I go, the Advent hymn:

People look east, the time is near of the crowning of the year
Make your house fair, as you are able
Trim the hearth and set the table
People look east, and sing today
Love, the Guest is on the way

With two feet of snow on the ground, and our house on a cul de sac, it is now a little unclear when the party will actually happen – probably we’ll need to postpone it. But with the whole family home to chip in, and the house full of good smells and music, the time of preparation, surrounded by falling snow all day yesterday, has been a time of blessing – whenever the party may be. And out of it has come a Advent poem, which I’ll share here. Some readers of the cafĂ© already know that my new book of poems, Waving Back: Poems of Mothering Life, from Finishing Line Press, is now out and available on Amazon. This poem is in the same vein as many of those poems – but it’s brand new (and likely to be revised beyond this version). I offer it to all of you, on this snowy Advent IV in Washington, when we pray “that our Lord Jesus Christ at his coming may find in us a mansion prepared for himself.”

Make Your House Fair

Today I will clean clutter out of rooms
Push sofas up against the wall
Begin the preparations for a feast.

The Christmas tree will glow
We will pull out the outgrown toys
To please our youngest guests

And friends from all over the world
Will fill our modest house
Loading the long table
With food that they will bring

Tomorrow, for a time, we will all be in one place
Greeting one another, noticing together
That once again, the festive time has come.

The darkness of the year is not dispelled
It lingers at the windows,
Weighs on hearts
For some there is no consolation here

But for me,
The welcome task today is to create
In this, our house, a place of warmth and light
To grow cramped space into a gathering place
Where for a time
In glow of fellowship, and whatever we believe
Together, we may celebrate
The crowning of another year of life.

Kathleen Henderson Staudt
(copyright 2009)

Monday, November 30, 2009

also on episcopal cafe

By Kathleen Staudt

I have been teaching for years about the ministry of the laity, resonating with Verna Dozier’s writing about “the Church, the people of God” as opposed to “the Church, the Institution.” I have explored with people the implications of our baptismal covenant and more recently reflected deeply on the catechism’s account of the ministry of the laity: “to represent Christ and his church, to bear witness to him wherever we may be, and -- oh yes – almost an afterthought, “according to the gifts given us, to take our place in the life, worship and governance of the Church.” (BCP, p.855) The work of the Church, I’ve been telling people for almost a generation, is primarily in the world, carried out by “the church, the people of God.” The institutional church & its leaders sustain and nurture us in our ministries. That’s the idea, anyway.

And now I find I am taking my own place in the “life, worship and governance of the Church,” by serving as the Rector’s Warden in my congregation. I've thought of myself mainly as a "spiritual formation person.," a mission-minded Christian. So why am I spending all this time on budgets, finance, "maintenance?" As we put all these resources into maintaining and sustaining a building, staff, and program, I need, for my own sanity, to ask: What are we doing here? Here, in this place where the church building stands: on a busy thoroughfare leading into Washington DC, just inside the Capital beltway, on the edge of a suburban neighborhood.

Some insights about this came to me recently on “parish beautification day,” when some of us came over to church on a Saturday morning to do some deep cleaning and setting-to-rights in the aftermath of major work on our new HVAC system, the centerpiece of our capital campaign. My assigned job was to take a rag, a bucket, and some Murphy’s oil soap and wash down the tops of our solid oak pews. I had to empty the wash water every other pew because it was black with the soil from all those human hands, supporting themselves as they stood, sat and knelt at worship. I thought of Gerard Manly Hopkins’s poem, “God’s Grandeur,” where he says that “all is seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil, /and wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell.” Real people, bringing with them all the mess and muck of life, come here to worship and pray and be together at our lively worship services in this place, and we leave our marks. For a moment my job felt like the rite of foot-washing we are called to on Maundy Thursday, acknowledging the soiled humanness of all of us, our need to be washed in order to participate in Christ.

As I worked, together with my friends Quinton and Abdullah, washing floors and pews in various parts of the sanctuary, a woman came in the front door, which we had left open. She wondered if she could fill a bag of food from our food closet; she’d lost her job and this would help her to make ends meet this week. We welcomed her gave her a bag,, and showed her where the pantry was -- and reflected, among ourselves, at our own blessedness at having enough, right now, in these hard times, when so many people are struggling economically.

Indeed, it seems that many in the local community are turning to our presence on this corner in hopes of finding a place of help and welcome. More and more, in these difficult times, the rector reports that homeless people are coming to our door in search of food, warm clothing, access to social services. A community of homeless people is forming under the beltway overpass, just a quarter of a mile down the road. We are clearly being called to some deeper discernment about how we can best and most responsibly provide the right kind of help to our near neighbors in need. The church building, with its carving of Our Saviour, arms outstretched, over the front door, says to the world, “There is help here.” Somehow the building and the people alike are called to give solid form to that help.

“The church is not a building/ The church is not a steeple/ The church is not a resting-place/ The church is a people,” goes a song my children learned in Sunday school. But now it seems more complicated than that. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes somewhere that “the church of Jesus Christ takes up space in the world,” and our buildings and the way we use them is one way we do this. As I enter my 2nd year of a 3-year term in leadership, I am praying for clarity about how we are called to use what we have – in building, staff, and other resources—the nitty-gritty, institutional stuff that we support with our regular givings and thanks-givings – to be the presence of Christ on this corner, for those around us and for all who come through our doors.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

My book is out!

My new book of poems is out. If you ordered it you should receive it soon. It's also available on amazon (feel free to write a review if you are so inclined,once you've seen your copy) and from Finishing Line Books (order it from the publisher to support small press publishing!)

A lovely post on a spiritual practice for dark times

Just want to give a "shout out" and provide a link to what I think is a quite beautiful post on today's episcopal cafe by a former student. I love the way he describes the blessing that the practice of spiritual direction has been to so many of us -- and the way that his use of the traditional practice of the daily "examen" opens a way through times of darkness. Check it out!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Resources for Vocational Discernment - especially for Young Adults

I received a grant earlier this year from the Episcopal Evangelical Education Society (EES) to do some work with Young Adult groups around discernment -- helping people explore the meaning and purpose of their lives, using practices of prayer and guided questions and meditations about their lives. I'm trying to assemble these resources into a form that will work for people. I'd love it if readers of this blog -- especially the young adults, but everyone, really, could give me some feedback on these materials. I'm developing a new site at Discerning Your Way in Life -- a second "poetproph" page. With the help of a friend who leads the Young Adult Group at St. Mark's, Capitol Hill in DC, I've also put some of these resources up on a wetpaint site. You can find that here I have very mixed feelings about the platform, but would appreciate it if people could take a look and let me know what you think of some of the materials and interactive things (especially videos) collected there -- haven't figured out how to migrate the videos to a "blogspot" framework.

You can tell if you've followed these postings that the practice of discernment has been very important to me in my writing and teaching. Feedback would be very welcome if anyone feels like weighing in. How might I present/package/offer these materials in ways that would be useful to you?

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween Nostalgia, and All Saints Day

This is the first time I've been home for Halloween night in a number of years, and I'm feeling nostalgic. Perhaps this isn't surprising for someone who spent 20 years of her life with identity firmly fixed in "momdom." Today (raking up leaves into piles but realizing there were no small people to jump in them -- and haven't been for some time) I have been remembering my children's pre-teen years when Halloween was a BIG deal in our household and neighborhood. We spent weeks before the event planning what my son & daughter would be for Halloween and figuring out how to help them "be" that was one of my creative challenges -- (I was one of those moms who usually put together some kind of homemade costume). This was a particular challenge with my son who when he was in elementary school tended to want to go out as one of his imaginary friends, whom no one had ever seen. So I had to work with his instructions. My daughter would look forward exuberantly to the day, from the time she was very small, and our neighborhood -- and the neighborhoods of her friends, later on -- were very hospitable to trick-or-treaters. So it was a fun, family time. And since in those days all the neighborhood kids went to the same elementary school, it was a neighborhood time, too. It seemed as if it would always be that way though of course it was just 7 or 8 years of our lives, probably, all together. But it was a special time.

It also marked, for me, the beginning of "holiday season" -- when it was part of my role as the Mom to engineer the various special family traditions. That role persists, & I still love it, though now I'm observing it in less visible ways, e.g. by making the plane reservations for everyone to come home for Thanksgiving. And I'm recognizing that to the kids in the neighborhood our house is now one of the ones where people they don't really know live -- those slightly older people who appreciate visits from children. I'll need to leave the light on so they know they're welcome. It's fine being in this role -- but I'm remembering the other times, too, today.

And tomorrow is All Saints Sunday AND All Saints Day -- one of my favorite days of the church year. It was the celebration of All Saints, with its vision of a vast communion that extends through and beyond the boundaries of life and death, beginning where we are right now, that brought me into the Episcopal Church and its liturgical tradition, many years ago. (For a very good summary of what All Saints is all about read Peter Carey's post here). There have been years when I've been indifferent to Halloween, or even irritated or creeped out by some of the excesses in its celebrations -- but I always do look forward to the celebration of All Saints, the opportunity to renew my commitment to my Baptism and a vision for human life that is hopeful and strong beyond our wildest imaginings. (See last year's post for some more formal theological thoughts on All Saints Day) In the Celtic calendar, November 1 marks the turning of a new season, and it works that way for me, too. Moving into November, toward Thanks-giving and Christmas, I find myself anticipating good things, family, home-comings, reunions and various kinds of feasting. Our trick-or-treating days are long gone, but it is a turning-time for me, this weekend, this season, for various reasons, and one that I welcome.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Hearing the Words of the Greek New Testament

Also on episcopal cafe

Call me a nerd if you like, but this past August, my end-of-summer treat to myself was to sit in on the three week intensive course in New Testament Greek that the seminary offers to incoming students. Students required to take a Biblical language expressed some surprise that someone would choose this, but people who know me and my love of language and languages predicted: “You’ll get hooked.” And they were right.

Even now, with my time more limited by the regular semester, I am trying to show up once a week for the continuation of the introductory course. It’s an exercise in humility; my brain is getting pretty full-up with verb forms and noun endings and vocabulary, and I’ve got a generous colleague and student TA reading my often muddled papers and quizzes. But I’m also finding that it’s a return to “vacation mode” for me when I can spend a couple of hours drilling on my flashcards, and solving the intriguing word-puzzles posed by the Greek-English translation exercises, and the “aha” moments that come with translating passages from the Septuagint and the Greek New Testament.

The reward, for me, comes in moments of exquisite clarity, when a passage from Scripture, familiar in English, suddenly makes sense to me in its own language. It began with learning to read and pronounce the alphabet. Words which previously looked like hen scratches on the page began to sound, and sing. Our teacher wisely provided us with the Greek of the first chapter of John, mixed in with the course materials, not assigned, but just there for our perusal.. Within the first week, I found I could transcribe and read: “En arche eyn ho logos” I puzzled it out: ”En Arche” “En" for “In” “arche” like “archeologist. In the beginning. Then a little word – likely to be a form of “to be” and a word I recognized: “Logos” - Word – and there it was – with the sudden immediacy of poetry: “In the beginning was the Word”.

Naturally, I looked further down the page, wondering what John 1:14 would look like in Greek. I could just sound out: : “Kai ho logos sarx egeneto” (And the word was made flesh) “Sarx” – like sarcophagus. Flesh, mortality. I remembered Bible studies where someone told us that there are 2 words for “body” in Greek – “sarx” and “soma” – and this is the one that is the gritty, fleshly, mortal one: even the sound conveys it: “sarx” – the sound sharp and guttural next to the smoothness of “logos”. There it was: the poetry emerging from what was once looked to me like secret code: now the words were singing.

“It’s like being there,” a friend remarked to me, telling of her experience gaining fluency in Biblical languages and reading the texts. I doubt I’ll ever reach her level of fluency but I’m learning enough now to receive in a new way the poetry of the New Testament – in the language it was written in – and so in the word themselves, now new gifts to me.

All this has me reflecting further – in ways for which I there are no words – about a reality that we meet, by God’s grace, within our humanity. Reading Scripture, I am receiving in words the revelation of a God who has chosen to come to us in ways that meet our humanity--our language--our bodies. En arche eyn ho logos. . . Kai ho logos sarx egeneto. It gives me the shivers. It’s like being there

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Poem from my retreat last month

I have been meaning to post this -- a poem that I found last month when I was on retreat at Holy Cross Abbey. It is by one of the monks there, Fr. Mark Delery, with whom I had some good conversation. As I move into the business and swirl of fall and all its demands it is helping me to remember the centering experience of that lovely weekend of silence in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Here's his poem. Food for thought in quiet moments.

Dear one,
What have you
Come to the desert
To see? To hear?

Cistercian monks
Of former times were known
To write it thus:
“Tell them,”
They said,
“Tell them
What the wind
Says to the crags,
What the sea says
To the mountains

Tell them
That an immense goodness
Penetrates the world

Tell them
That God is not
What you think He is

He is a wine one drinks
a banquet shared
where each one gives
and receives

Tell them
That He is your loneliness
And your night,
Your wound
And your Joy

Tell them
His Voice alone
Can teach you
Your true name.”

(Originally published in Hallel 18:(1 (1933)

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Watching the Birds

also on episcopal cafe

My spiritual practice in the summer is to begin each day on my patio, in the cool of the early morning, sip my first cup of tea of the day, sometimes write in my journal, and watch what is going on in my back yard. We have a regular wildlife sanctuary this year, on our fifth-of-an-acre suburban lot. In the yard of the abandoned house next door (awaiting new construction), grass and shrubs have grown up, and a family of deer has taken up residence there. There’s now so much growing next door that they don’t even come into my yard any more. The rabbits, on the other hand, have eaten down just about whatever will grow – and yet there is something lovely, peaceful about them, browsing on the clover in the grass, in the early morning light. As I watch them, and the growing light, the sound of birdsong around me increases – cardinals, catbirds, crows and mourning doves, gradually drowning out the not-so-distant hum of cars on the capital beltway, half a mile away.

But what I most love is watching the birds on the feeder each morning. Though the English sparrows and grackles can be aggressive, a wonderful variety of birds visit each day, sometimes fighting over the black oil sunflower seeds, sometimes perched beside each other, simply being fed. Purple finches, goldfinches, house finches, cardinals, sparrows, downy and hairy woodpeckers, a flicker and occasionally a red-headed woodpecker, the occasional blue jay – and, this morning, hovering briefly over the bright pink and orange potted zinnias beside me, a tiny hummingbird!

I don’t get tired of watching them, even when they’re fighting over roosting spots or charging each other off with a flap of wings. Rather, I have the sense that I am being admitted into another world, watching them from my patio. They have their issues and their competitions but there is such a variety of species, colors, shapes among them – all birds, but abundant in their diversity. I find myself delighting in just seeing them all there together in all their variety – and I wonder, sometimes, how they see each other – across species and families yet within their bird-world. My feeling, watching them from the outside, is delight. They seem to be giving to another way of being, beyond my understanding. They invite me to watch and pay attention.

William Blake wrote somewhere, “How do you know, but every bird that cuts the airy way is an immense world of delight, closed by your senses five?” He’s on to something there. Watching the birds each morning is a contemplative practice, bringing me to the limit of what I can see and observe, fascinating me, offering a glimpse into a beauty, a mystery, I cannot name, and teaching me to sit still and pay attention. In this way it is a contemplative practice. It is one of the things that I love most about the summer months –this time to sit outdoors, before the air becomes too warm, to watch and wait for the birds to invite me into the mystery of prayer.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Invitation and Exclusion

Also on episcopalcafe

NB: Read information on my new book, "Waving Back", and pre-order information, here

Several weekends ago, I spent a refreshing and prayerful time on retreat at Holy Cross Abbey, a Cistercian monastery near the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. As one might expect in an atmosphere infused with the monastic tradition, I felt thoroughly welcomed and quieted, and was nourished by the opportunity offered to enter what T.S. Eliot called “time not our time. In the one conversation I had with a monk, I was reminded of the Cistercian devotion both to prayer and to the intellectual life, two parts of myself that I’ve been a long time in bringing together. (A favorite book title of mine, about the monastic tradition, is called The Love of Learning and the Desire for God. I think that does describe something important about my vocation).

Sure of the divine welcome in the place (and of creation’s welcome, among the meadow flowers, birds and mountain scenery), I became vividly aware on Sunday of the obstacles to welcome that still exist in a church that is still far from the unity for which Jesus prayed. As a Roman Catholic order, the Cistercians abide by a discipline that limits participation in Eucharist to Catholics. I knew this. I knew I could present myself for Eucharist and no one would speak or object, but I was interested in the way that the non-invitation to Eucharist was worded. “The Catholic bishops do not allow us to invite non-Catholic Christians to receive Eucharist. We ask that you respect the discipline of the Roman Catholic Church and join us in prayer for the unity of all Christians, for whom our Lord Jesus prayed on the night before he died.”

My own operative theology is scandalized at the idea of excluding anyone from Eucharist, believing that we go at Christ’s invitation, rather than at the invitation of a human community, however organized or faithful. And the careful wording of the placard I’ve just quoted suggested to me that whoever wrote it might even share the same operative theology. I’m certainly glad that the Episcopal Church has pushed back against any statement that would begin “The Anglican Communion does not allow us to invite. . . . " But there was also in this sad non-invitation a solid piece of truth-telling that I appreciated. I was grateful to the community for honestly naming the brokenness. It caused me to experience, as I have not before, what it is to be excluded from a rite that is our central expression of belonging. It was wrong. But it was true to how things are in the Church for whom Jesus prayed, and died.

So, I accepted, and learned from, the invitation to “join us in prayer for the unity of all Christians, for whom our Lord Jesus prayed on the night before he died.” As people lined up to receive the Body and Blood, I remained kneeling, praying fervently and deeply for the unity of a broken church, the whole church catholic, Anglican, orthodox, whatever our sad divisions may be. I heard in my heart snatches of hymns: “Bid thou our sad divisions cease/ And be thyself our king of peace. . . . . “ “By schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed.” It was a rich, full and genuine participation, in its way – a sharing in the broken heart of Christ, in the midst of the assembly. I wouldn’t want to make a habit of this way of prayer. But at least on this day, it was an unexpected gift.

Friday, August 14, 2009

"Waving Back": My New Book of Poems, is coming out!

My chapbook of poems, called Waving Back: Poems of Mothering Life, is available now for pre-order at the website of Finishing Line Press. The poems come out of the years when my children were growing and reflect my sense of the richness and challenges of that time of life -- the volume also includes a series of poems that came out of my experience with breast cancer in the midst of all this, in the 1990's. They tell a story of a time of life, one that I hope will speak to others' experiences.

Now begins the self-promotion that has to come with the appearance of a new book. The book is available for pre-order now, and will be out November 13, 2009 (in time for Christmas, I hope!). I'm hoping for several readings and booksigning opportunities in the DC area once the book is out and will keep people posted about that. But I'll be very grateful to friends and fans who are able to pre-order a copy, since the publisher decides how many copies to print based on the # of pre-orders. Just go to the website, scroll down the books (alphabetical by author's name) and you'll find it!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Enjoying August at Home

We aren't getting to the beach this year - which I'm sorry about even though it's because we took a great vacation earlier in the summer instead. Will have to rely on Wordsworth (see my post from last August) to remind me of what I need to remember.

Being at home in August, I can understand why most people around DC are at the beach or somewhere else if they can be. It gets pretty hot, and there's a lazy feeling. But I'm savoring this week, which amounts to my last week of really "open time" at home -- I start regular class meetings next week (will be studying NT Greek with the incoming seminarians - something I've always wanted to do and in that way a "vacation activity" still for me - but it will be hard work and a daily commute). I just want to post a few things about today - my favorite kind of summer day - so I'll remember the peace of this week.

I started the day on the patio watching the birds, as I do every summer morning when it's not raining. It becomes my contemplative prayer time, with that, a cup of tea, a journal, sometimes some reading. Then I came inside, got coffee & lunch together for my husband (a daily ritual), and settled down at the computer for my "butt in the chair" time working on the book I've been writing this summer (I'll be looking to readers of this blog to help me publicize it if I ever get a publisher interested -- working title is something like "Fully alive: Discernment for Discipleship in the 21st cantury" -- lots of themes that started on this blog, and workshops I've been doing, especially with young adults but the audience for the book spans generations I hope).
Anyway, I poked along at that - (yesterday was a really blank day as far as writing went -- couldn't get anything down so I just gave up and did other stuff around the house, feeling frustrated; it paid off b/c I woke up this morning with an idea about how to regroup and fix the chapter I was struggling over).

By about 11:00 I knew I couldn't spend any more time on the computer, and the writing wasn't really going anywhere. It was relatively cool today, so I went out for a walk, taking the printout of my whole MS with me. (It's still very rough but I think I have something down now for all 6 chapters - about 100 pages). I stopped off at my congresswoman, Donna Edwards's office to tell her how heartily I support the passage of Health Care, and her handling of the issue and her response to opposition (more about this in another post) To my astonishment, ran into her in the hallway and was able to say my piece to her, which was fun. Then went in and talked to a staffer. I really feel strongly about this issue. And it felt like "democracy in action" to be able to stop off at her office on a walk around my neighborhood near downtown Silver Spring.

I wound up at Starbuck's, where I bought a "for here" skim chai and spent a couple of hours with my MS and a pen, seeing what parts of the very rough draft work and what parts don't. Discouraging in spots, encouraging in others, but at least I had a little distance and could see what I have -- it is almost the end of the summer and this was to be my "summer project" so it's time for some stock-taking.

Anyway, after that pleasant "writer's time" in Starbuck's, I took a pleasant route back home, one that took me past my neighbors' well groomed yards and lawns. One thing I love about the DC area in August is the crepe myrtles, blooming everywhere, I don't have one in my yard but I love my neighbors' -- Walking through the neighborhood and the park, listening to the cicadas who are singing all day now that it's August (crickets mixed in, perhaps), I have been enjoying the summer day. The rich magentas of the crepe myrtles, the brilliant gold of black-eyed Susans in a sunny garden -- even the somewhat reassuring observation that like me, a lot of my neighbors have been pretty much defeated by the wild grape vines that grow over pretty much everything by this time of the summer. But it's familiar, it's home, it's been a comfortable day to be out enjoying the beauty of my neighborhood, and the fruits of my summer writing-mode - a part of the pattern of academic life that I love, and have never lost track of.

Again a familiarline from Wordsworth comes to mind, one I usually remember late in the summer, from "Tintern Abbey" where he reflects, revisiting a familiar landscape in summer "That in this moment there is light and food/for future years." Looking back I see I quoted this and other parts of that poem in last year's August blog! I guess there's always a certain wistfulness, mingled with the quiet joy of the time, that comes to me in these later weeks of the summer. I still have hours ahead of me now today, and a stack of reading to do - but glad to have the time to give it my full, luxurious attention without any plans or interruptions. Nice to have a little time for blogging, too!

May I remember the pleasant openness of this summer day as the fall routine heats up and this kind of open day for walking, writing and reflecting becomes rare indeed.

Friday, August 7, 2009

A Good Quote about Grace and the spirituality of time

Have been reading a wonderful book by my friend Bonnie Thurston, written 10 years ago, but I'm just running across it now. It's called To To Everything a Season: A Spirituality of Time and offers many wise words about spiritual practices around time and how our attitudes toward time and our obsession with "busy-ness" create spiritual problems for us. Here is a quote from the book, one of the best expressions I've found of a Christian theology of grace:

Nothing I “do” ultimately assures my value. My value as a human being is already secured by God as the source of my creation and by Jesus Christ as the source of my salvation. I may choose to engage in “good works” – benevolence, charity, whatever – as a grateful response to these gifts, but there is absolutely nothing I can do to earn them. The bottom line is I don’t have to do anything; I just have to be, that is, to accept God’s gift of life and respond by grateful living. Why is it that this Christian ontology is so hard to accept? Could it be because the nature of God is so foreign to us? We do not deeply, existentially, understand that God is Love, that God loves us because that is God’s nature, not because we are smart or pretty or productive or “worthy” of such love. Because human love so rarely comes to us unconditionally, many of us have decided that God’s love never could either. We are wrong in this assumption, as the cross of Jesus Christ so clearly demonstrates.
(Bonnie Thurston, A Spirituality of Time, pp. 75-6)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Sabbath and Giving - some musings on spiritual practice

It's one of those weeks when I feel as if I'm hearing connections between a lot of different messages, and in a bunch of roles. Some of it has to do with the connection between "church" and "spirituality," which I know a lot of people think of as pretty much separate. The other things we think of as really separate are money and spirituality, and (perhaps to a lesser degree) time management and spirituality. In the background is my current reading in Brian McLaren's good book Finding our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices -- which invites the kind of connection I've been trying to make between living daily life and engaging in spiritual practices as a way of "training" ourselves for the journey with God.

For me it's happening in a pretty traditional context, but opening some new doors.I've taken on leadership in "stewardship" at church (The word, I've been reminding myself and others, is not just church talk for "fundraising" -- it's about recognizing that we are "stewards" of what we have from God -- invited to work with God in relationship, managing and making good use of the time and money we are given).

Last night (same week so it's all been on my mind) I led a seminar for young adults about living faithfully with our time and our money. And we struggled over some Biblical passages about the practice of tithing - a practice I've been skeptical about because of the way that it can feel like a "bill" that I can't pay. So when I use the biblical word "tithe" I really mean "proportional giving" -- something I've tried to practice, both with money and with time.

We get hung up on the specificity of the 10% provision, but what jumps out at me when I look at passages like Deuteronmy 14:23ff (and into chapter 15) is the attitude toward life that this practice encouraged. For the ancient Israelites (when they were in faithful mode, which wasn't all the time), it was just a given that everything they had came from God -- and so they also took it as a given that when the harvest came in, they would take something off the top and make a feast-- basically just give it away, to remind themselves that what they had left over after the 10% would be enough, because God is a God of abundance. African members of my congregation have been helping me to see this: they are looking for ways of making public offerings in thanks-giving- and "giving back"/rendering thanks, with material contributions, to the God who blesses us. Their spirit around this is contagious, and I'm grateful for it. It's about "rendering" (giving back) to God a portion of what we have, in gratitude for the gift of abundant life.

The requirement that we aside a specific portion of what we have does also have to do with supporting the institutional gathered community. Deuteronomy offers the proviso that every 3 years, people set aside the top 10% for the support of the Levites, who run the religious establishment, because the Levites don't have resources of their own: hence the custom, observed to this day, that clergy are supported by the offerings of the people (except we've lost the grace of the "tithing" part along the way).

I was thinking that Jesus released us from the obligation of tithing by saying justice and mercy were more important, but again, when I looked back at that passage (Luke 11: 42)I saw that it's "both and" ("Woe to you, Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and hte love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. Hmmm. - I hadn't noticed that "without neglecting the others" before. Jesus, like his communty, assumes that people practice proportional giving. The Pharisees are overfocused on the details - but it looks like Jesus doesn't actually let us off the hook on the basic practice. At least that's what I'm pondering.

Paul, as he advises new Christian communities, doesn't dwell on the 10% part but he invites a practice of setting aside a portion of whatever one has, each week, and doing it joyfully and in gratitude. (1Cor 15:2-3 and 2 Cor 9: 1-14) Again it's seen as a response to what God has given, and not as an oblligation that we're shamed into fulfilling. But it does seem as if in the Biblical tradition, proportional giving is a part of the Christian way of life.

What's completely absent from all of this -- and this is disturbing for us in the 21st century -- is the consumerist idea that we give in payment for what we've received -- and withold our gifts if we don't like what's going on: as if we were "tipping" God for a job well done. No. The proportional giving/tithe tradition invites what is really a pretty radical spiritual practice with regard to "our"money: We set aside a portion to remind ourselves that we don't "need" all of it. Whatever is left is always enough, that God gives us what we need. The practice of proportional giving is profoundly counter-cultural in a consumerist society. But it can also be liberating. Something to ponder.

In all of these texts, the practice of tithing is seen in addition to giving to the poor -- not instead of. Again, it's just part of being a decent society that those who have give to help those who have not. The tithe part is different: it's an "off the top" gesture acknowledging God's abundance and supporting the community/institution of temple/church.

This all gets controversial when we come up against our issues with the institutional church and what it's doing with its resources- but it's worth noticing that both tithing AND giving to the poor are held up as spiritual practices that, followed faithfully, help us to recognize more clearly what God has given us. It leads us to look at our lives from a perspective of abundance, rather than scarcity. And invites us to make our lifestyle choices around what is left over after we have given a portion, as we are able. The calculation is going to be different, perhaps, in our time -- (I suggest just leaving taxes out of it and looking at take home pay or discretionary income as we begin to discern around tithing) but the question: "what do I have? how am I using it" comes into more vivid perspective with a practice of actual proportional giving "off the top" (and wherever we decide to give it).

Here's my insight today, though. The invitation to observe Sabbath is the same principle in relation to our time. God rests on the 7th day; most of us feel we are just too busy to take a full day of rest from our wok -- so this is perhaps the most disregarded commandment among western Christians. And if we can't take a full day then the whole concept of life being a rhythm of work & rest goes out the window (just like proportional giving goes out the window with the excuse that 10% is just too much to ask).

So this is what I'm pondering: Time:Sabbath = Tithe:Money. In both cases, the Scriptural and Spiritual traditions offer us practices that help us remind ourselves that all that we have is a gift from the One who made us, loves us, and desires abundance for us. Even if we have trouble even beginning to keep these disciplines, the fact that they're there may be seen as an invitation to let go of some of our anxiety about control, status, busy-ness, and see it from a "God's eye" perspective. How much time do I have? How much money do I have? What will it take for me to see that whatever it is (unless I am in abject poverty), it is enough. The bottom line in all of this is the words of Jesus in the sermon on the mount: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also (Matthew 6:23). It's an invitation to discernment around the nitty gritty of my everyday decisions: Where is my treasure? Where is my heart? What practices will help me see that God has given me all that I need?

When I get to this point I flip into hymn-humming mode and sing a favorite:
"Great is thy faithfulness. . . Morning by morning new mercies I see
All I have needed, thy hand hath provided.
Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Simply Poetry?

Also on episcopalcafe

I was caught up short by the title of Bishop John Bryson Chane’s column in the latest Washington Window: “Prayer without Action is Simply Poetry.” It raised the ire you might expect from a poet. “Simply poetry?” The phrase was clearly dismissive. It seemed as if the title meant something like “faith without works is dead” – and actually, in reading the article, I didn’t find much I disagreed with – of course we are called, as Christians, to address injustice in the world, to examine and refashion ways of life that are draining resources from the poor, to keep in mind the mandate of Matthew 25. The statistics the Bishop offers are horrifying, numbing, about the level of human suffering in the world. And of course addressing these things is part of how we are called as Christians.

But I think we need poetry as we respond to the gospel’s call to action in the world. Talking with college students about vocation over the past year or so, I have been struck by the way that many young adult Christians are intimidated, overwhelmed, by the whole notion of the call of Christians to heal a clearly broken world. The task seems too great for them and they don’t know where to begin, and how they can contribute. It seems like a lot of pressure, trying to identify a vocation that will save the world. In these conversations it seemed to me that some imagination, some poetry, needs to be brought into our preaching and teaching about the call of Christ to a ministry of healing and reconciliation amid the world’s brokenness. Poetry can help us imagine our way to the particular ways we are called to heal a broken world, “wherever we may be”

It seems to me that there is a great deal of “poetry” in our faith tradition and story – the act of imagination that story and poetry invites is a powerful source of the energy and spirit that propels us to love and serve the world. And the practice of prayer, of receptivity to God, requires imagination – is a kind of poetry. Modern prophets Bishop Desmond Tutu and Verna Dozier both invite believers to an act of imagination as we attend to the brokenness of the world. They speak of the “dream” of God – a poetic expression of our common awareness that the world is not what it is meant to be – and that we are called by our faith to participate in its transformation. Tutu writes, in lively, imaginative mode, drawing on the poetic language of our tradition:

"I have a dream," God says. "Please help Me to realize it. It is a dream of a world whose ugliness and squalor and poverty, its war and hostility, its greed and harsh competitiveness, its alienation and disharmony are changed into their glorious counterparts, when there will be more laughter, joy, and peace, where there will be justice and goodness and compassion and love and caring and sharing. I have a dream that swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, that my children will know that they are members of one family, the human family, God’s family, my family.” ( God Has a Dream, pp.19-20)

Verna Dozier
makes a similar point when she points to the poetry of the Biblical story, with it’s account of a God who loves us and calls us to return, and a Saviour who gives himself to that work and calls us to new life. It begins, as Bishop Chane implies out, with the ability to look squarely at the world’s brokenness and to see the huge chasm between the world as God desires it to be and the world as it is. But to address this without being overwhelmed, we need imagination, poetry and faith.

Dreaming with God requires ongoing discernment: we need to learn to look at the story God is telling about the world, known through Scripture and tradition, and also at the world as it is. Then we need to ask, “Where is my heart breaking; what is calling me here: what is my small piece of this great work of redemption and reconciliation that God is calling me to?” We need to be imaginative enough to “dream with God ” and to give ourselves to that dream.

No one of us can do it all. We can and should participate in large programs through our institutions; but each of us, as individuals and as congregations, need to look at the relationships, needs and communities around us and say “what is the dream of God for this situation, even if I can’t figure out how to realize it all by myself? What might be my piece of the work of reconciliation here?”

My point is, of course, it’s “both/and.” Prayer without action is passivity; Action without prayer can wind up being about more narrowly political and social agendas – it can lead us to miss the dream of God in the work we are called to do. Genuine prayer will lead us to action. But it is folly to dismiss either of these as “simply poetry.”

Walter Brueggemann
has named the poets as the “prophets” of our time. We are required, in reaching out to the world, to learn compassion through imagination, to name suffering and to speak truth to a corrupt social order. And activist poet Denise Levertov described imagination as “the perceptive organ by which it is possible. . . . to experience God.” We need poetry, the expression of imagination, to name the brokenness and imagine the healing, to help us to dream with God, and to ourselves keep humbly open to possibilities we may not have imagined. True poetry, like true prayer, will call us to action, powered by the energy of the imagination, which enables us to touch the heart of God. It teaches us, within whatever sphere of life we are called to encounter and name, to live into the dream of God.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Resurrection Faith, or "What is Jesus Doing?"

(also on episcopalcafe)

In his book on Resurrection, Rowan Williams points to the strangeness of the Risen Christ. Though we have stories of Resurrection encounters, the risen Jesus is always at first unrecognized. Some fundamental transformation has happened, and that transformation testifies to an altogether new relationship between humanity and God. Everything has changed.

This is something that I think is not widely understood about Christian spirituality: People know, we know, that we are called to “follow Jesus,” to try to live as he lived, and we are often judged by the degree to which we fall short of his example and his teaching – and that is fair enough. We ask “What would Jesus do?” to guide our ethical thinking. But in fact, when Christians reflect on our relationship to “Jesus,” it isn’t really the historical Jesus we’re talking about, or even, completely, the Jesus we meet in the gospels. It is, more mysteriously, the Risen Christ, who belongs at once to our flesh-and-blood experience and to the transcendent mystery of God – who brings together, once and for all, our humanity and the God who reaches out to us, loves us, desires the restoration of our lives and our world.

This is a tough thing to get our minds around but I think it is the heart of the gospel, the heart of what it means to be a Christian The resurrection proclaims the action of God in history and yet moves beyond history. – We proclaim it in our Easter liturgies without always noting the extraordinariness of what we are proclaiming. Listen to our words: “On this day the Lord has acted/We will rejoice and be glad in it” is the Easter psalm. Or in the words of Brian Wren’s hymn: in Brian Wren’s hymn “Christ is alive, let Christians Sing:”

Christ is alive, no longer bound to distant years in Palestine.
He comes to claim the here and now, and conquer every place and time.
(Hymnal #182)

For Rowan Williams, the Resurrection removes Jesus from being simply an object on whom we project our fantasies, our woundedness, our desires – because he is in some ways, utterly strange, unknowable, as God is . And yet he also invites us into relationship.

At Our Saviour, Silver Spring,we sing with gusto gospel hymns that actually teach us something quite profound about the relationship with the living God that Resurrection faith opens up to us. “I serve a risen Saviour, he’s in the world today,” we sing. “He lives! He lives! From him I’ll never part. You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart. “ (LEVAS,42) Or in another hymn that particularly moved me this year:

Because He lives, I can face tomorrow;
Because He lives, all fear is gone
Because I know He holds the future,
And life is worth the living just because He lives
.(LEVAS, 43)

These hymns are emotional rather than theological in focus, yet they help us experience the RESULT of Resurrection faith, the conviction that the world actually IS in God’s hands, that the redemption of the world has happened, is being fulfilled, and we are called to participate the work of transformation that continues.

So when we think of Christian faith and life, the question to ask is not just “What would Jesus do?” (i.e. how can I best follow the example of the Jesus I meet in the gospels) but “What is Jesus doing?” How is the life of the Risen Lord shaping my life, and the life of the communities I participate in, in the here and now?

Friday, April 24, 2009

Why Church? -- another thought from Evelyn Underhill

As I reread in Evelyn Underhill I find again how she addresses some of the questions I've been carrying now. Here, from her retreat, "Sanctity, the Perfection of Love" (in Ways of the Spirit) is a gentle but I think eloquent reason for why we need churches in some form. I've been thinking about this because of a conversation about "what needs to be thrown out" in the church, being carried on mostly by church-people, on various blogs and particularly at A Church for Starving Artists -- where there's a discussion of "things to toss" in the contemporary church. I haven't tried to respond on that blog because my response is complicated. But here's a quote from Underhill that makes the case for some presence of churches that are carrying on some kind of tradition into the next generation, in some accessible way.

No gardener who knkows his or her job ever gives seedlings rich soil, and God does not either. A step by step response to that which is given is the way to prepare for more. The simple food comes first, and there is lots of it to be found in religious institutions and traditions which modernists are too apt to despise. All the hoarded spiritual food of the race is there, all that it has found out about God. It is silly and arrogant not to accept it.

It is quite true that it is not the same thing as direct experience, just as jam is not the same thing as fresh fruit; still, it is made of fruit and will feed the soul and make it capable of more. Such variety of nourishment is better than fastidious concentration on one kind of food. We are a multiplicity in unity with mind, sense, heart and spirit -- all, possible channels of grace.

Maybe that's a question for churches -- how are we feeding mind, sense, heart and spirit -- and how are we becoming communities of prayer (another theme for Underhill) equipped to reach out to the world in love and charity. For her, it all goes together -- this might be a better measure for deciding what is/is not working in contemporary churches. And for reminding us what churches are for -- in a consumerist context that can confuse us about that.

Underhill also writes (In The Spiritual Life) - a quote I use often: "The Church is in the world to save the world. It is a tool of God for that purpose, not a comfortable religious club established in historic premises. . . . " In that she seems to "chime" with conversations about what needs to go in contemporary religious institutions -- but I appreciate the reminders she gives us of why we might want to have churches, from one generation to the next.

Food for thought -- whether or not we like jam!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Evelyn Underhill and "The Call of God"

Rereading Underhill's retreat "The Call of God" in Ways of the Spirit. This in preliminary preparation for the Underhill Day of Quiet, sponsored by the Evelyn Underhill Association, to be held on June 6. I like her reminder that it all begins in our awareness of ourselves as at once members of Christ, Children of God and Inheritors of the Kingdom of Heaven. These quotes from her reflection on our growth as "children" of a God who loves us and desires and invites our thriving. Underhill can sometimes sound stern but she has a bracing wisdom about the way that God works with our growing souls. A few quotes I'm pondering this morning:

We are trained through ordinary events and objects, not by peculiar religious experiences. It is better to stay where we are, be gentle and peaceful,and acknowledge that ordinary lilfe. Even the most homely incidents will serve the purposes of God. Our Lord is more likely to come to us in His garden clothes than in robes of glory (p. 231)

Spiritual growth is real growth toward the maturity of free creatures; it is not being brought up in an incubator. And holiness isn't a kind of white wash; it is a growth in freedom, love, and true being. In the process, we must learn to tread firmly and carefully and to lose our fear of spiritual darkness and our greed for spiritual sweets. (p. 231)

When we do not know what the will of God is, surely His will is that we should do our best and use common sense and initiative as we remain open to His strength and surrendered to His love. If we do, surely He will protect us in the ultimate consequences and as regards what really matteres which may not be at all the same as what we think matters. (232)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Spiritual Practices

I've had a number of occasions just lately when I've been asked to talk to groups about what have been called "disciplines" for a lively faith, for staying alert to God's presence in our lives. Listening to myself, and to the questions I hear, I am aware that we need to remember WHY we seek to practice things like prayer, scripture reading, hospitality, sabbath-keeping, service, etc. It is NOT in order to "make ourselves better people". It is to respond to the grace and goodness of God that has already come into our lives. When we say that a way of prayer "isn't working" for us -- we may mean that it makes us feel bad about ourselves, or that it isn't giving us a pleasant and welcome experience of God -- or perhaps that it is distracting us from other good things that we believe deserve or demand our time attention.

So I want to remind myself and others that spiritual practices, creating what the monastics call a "rule" of life -- is NOT for the purpose of "self-improvement." It's rather for the purpose of making us available to the God who loves us in a world where it's pretty easy to get distracted. I'm trying out some categories to think about when I or anyone else begins to reflect on their yearning for spiritual practices that will make us more open to God. And here are some of them:

1. SOME way of regularly "showing up" with God -- Evelyn Underhill calls for "a definite time set apart" sometime during the day -- just on waking or just on sleeping -- some people spend a large chunk of time reading Scripture or a set prayer ritual; others remember to greet the day with a prayer and end the day with reflection on "Where I've seen You/ Where I've missed you." Too many people, however, resist the concept of "showing up" regularly because there seems to be a "right" way of doing it that they can't do: I'd frame it differently then: What practices in your life enable you to "show up" regularly and intentionally for God, in more or less the same time & place, regularly (my link on this blog on "practical suggestions for daily prayer" can help with this but is not an exhaustive list.

2. SOME way of "practicing the presence of God" as we walk through our lives: many people practice a kind of walking/talking prayer, where they think of God while moving, enter a conversation. I hear many speak of times in the car or other times of solitude when they're aware of the presence of God. Watching for beauty in life, being aware of how God speaks to us through daily encounters -- these are all practices that help us toward the goal that Paul counsels, to "pray without ceasing" -- to live in such a way that prayer is a "natural" part of ongoing life. I think many people find this easier than the first practice ("showing up") - I think both are important if we are seeking to be more and more available to a God who is always reaching out to us in love.

A third practice -- and there are lots of ways to approach this -- is to be aware of where we find joy, and nourish those areas of life, and be aware when they're not being nourished. "Making and Moving" go in this category: Making things, exercising our creativity; Moving our bodies so that we are aware of the gifts of life and health. Attention to what is strong and good in our humanness leads us to prayers of thanksgiving to the One who made us. If we are losing track of joy, why is that? What's getting in the way.

A fourth practice, related to this: The Fourth Commandment ("Remember the Sabbath") -- God works for 6 days and rests on the 7th day. The commandment to remember the sabbath is really a reminder that finding balance in our lives between work and rest is an essential part of a lively spiritual life. If we are too tired because we're working too hard (or if we find ourselves "wasting time" because we're just burned out on work that isn't going anywhere -- it may be a sign that it's time to look at the balance between work, rest, and prayer in our lives.

The purpose of all of this is not to make us better but to help us become who we most fully are, so that we can be of use to the God who is in the process of transforming the world, and desires our participation in that work, as the people we are. "The joy of God is the human being fully alive" wrote the Church Father Irenaus of Lyons. Prayer and spiritual discipline are meant to move us toward fulness of life.

The challenge that comes with adopting a regular spiritual practice is it always brings us up against our own inadequacies - we feel guilty or frustrated because we don't "feel like praying" one day, or our efforts to turn to God are disrupted by distraction or the millions of other demands we have in our lives. And we give up because it makes us feel bad. We want to have a "spiritual life" next to all the other things we do in our lives -- but in reality, a spiritual life is lived out in the midst of everything else, and developing an intentional practice helps us to track that.

I've been reading in Evelyn Underhill's retreats - and was stopped by the place where she points out that almost always in Scripture, when someone experiences a true encounter with the living God their first reaction is "depart from me, for I am a sinful man" (Peter in Luke 5) or "Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips" (Isaiah 6) -- Maybe we avoid opening ourselves to the possibility of encountering the Living God in our lives because we fear that sense of inadequacy. But Underhill says that the point is to acknowledge that inadequacy and move on - because the next stage in the story is always God MAKING the person called worthy of and adequate to whatever they are called to do. I think sometimes dwelling on our failures at prayer and saying "I just can't do that" is really an avoidance of the relationship that's being invited, where we say "I don't seem to be able to do this - but God will help me if this is what I'm supposed to do."

Spiritual practices remind us of our connection with a mystery much larger than ourselves and invite us to get out of ourselves and pay attention to those around us and to the way God is working in our lives and communities. They remind us of two items of Good news: 1) that we are not God, and 2) that God is with us, and loves us, despite our inadequacies. When we feel inadequate or ashamed, we can ask for mercy - just say "I can't do this alone." And that mercy will come. I think many of us miss out on this experience of grace because we are afraid of "failing" at a regular spiritual practice. But the desire to pray is the thing to nourish -- everything else will follow from that.

Those are my still-developing thoughts on why spiritual practices are a good thing and a gift.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Beauty of the Burial Service - and Resurrection Faith

By Kathleen Staudt (also, in a slightly different version, on episcopal cafe)

A character in one of Mary Gordon’s novels, talking about what the various denominations believe, concludes wryly by saying, "and Episcopalians are not required to believe in anything but the beauty of the Burial Service.”

There's something to that, I discovered again this past Lenten season, when on 3 out of the 5 weekends in Lent I have had a funeral to attend. None were for close family members, but all were services I couldn’t miss. All used the same basic liturgy. All were beautiful and fitting. Two of the services had been carefully designed by friends as they were dying, enshrining something of themselves in eloquent readings and uncannily appropriate music. A third was bare-bones and beautiful, following the sudden death of a member of the church choir, who had been there singing with us the Sunday before. All three services somehow managed to bring together for us the life of an ordinary, beloved person and the quiet hope of Resurrection faith.

Funerals are always disorienting, coming as they do in the midst of life. But a funeral during Lent, if we are observing the season aright, is jarring in ways that go beyond words, and into the heart of our Resurrection faith. On the Sundays and other days in Lent, the cloth on and behind the altar is purple, as are the stoles the priests wear. Our local custom replaces the bronze altar cross with a simple wooden one; floral arrangements are replaced by budding branches or sparse greenery. We don't say "Alleluias." And we commit to whatever practices help us to be aware of our need for God's mercy and love, our desire to repent, return, be restored. Much is taken away, deliberately, during Lent, to make us available to transformation.

And then we arrive at a funeral in mid-Lent and find ourselves suddenly kicked out of Lent into Easter: "I am the Resurrection and the life, saith the Lord. . . . I know that my Redeemer liveth. . . whether we live, or whether we die, we are the Lord's.” There are flowers in the church and the altar hangings and vestments are white. The paschal candle burns, and we sing an Easter hymn. Lent or no Lent, “even at the grave, we make our song, ‘Alleluia.’” A funeral in Lent takes us to the unnameable heart of our faith, which is not about any one of us, our worthiness or unworthiness, but about the unfathomable grace and power of a Risen Saviour who calls us to himself, and gathers us together to receive the promise. But the way to this place of promise is through the loss and the grief that are a part of our human condition.

This year the liturgical seasons of Lent and Easter have grounded me in the spiritual journey, reminding me of the need simply to be in a "between-time" -- during Lent with glimpses of Easter, but only through the lens of grief and death, on this side of the Cross. I found it almost a relief, the Sunday after a Saturday funeral, to return to the sombre purple of Lent. I was back to a place I knew how to be in. It is a time we move through, each year, a pilgrimage- time, between the life we're used to and the mystery of transformation and life eternal. It is hard to find words for this, frustrating to me since I am a word-person; but the visual and liturgical cues of Lenten observance - and of our paradoxical, beautiful burial service, provide an experience of the mystery that I am cherishing this year.

I suppose what I am experience is the truth that we are ultimately and always an Easter people - but our whole life's journey and beyond is about figuring out what that means, and each Lenten season invites a new beginning in that direction. I felt closer to the mystery this year, because of these Lenten funerals. They have been disturbing, disorienting, paradoxical. But a blessing, nonetheless. A Holy Lent, which has made me more aware, now, of the mystery and blessing of Easter.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Eastertide - The Stone

At the end of her really good commentary on Mark, Bonnie Thurston writes in a way that has been speaking to me about the image of the stone that covers the mouth of the tomb. She writes: "In the accounts of the Garden of Resurrection in the gospels there is a great stone over the mouth of Jesus' tomb. Who will move it? The women know that they are unable to remove what separates them from the Lord. This is a great metaphor for the spiritual llife. We cannot, in our own strength, remove what separates us from God and the life God wants us to have in fullness. We cannot bring life from death. But God can and does. The technical word for this is "grace." (The Spiritual Landscape of Mark, p. 78)

And then I turn to the gospel appointed for today, John 20, 11-18 (but I am reading it all the way from 20:1) -- my favorite of the Easter gospel accounts, of Mary Magdalene, meeting, first an angel and then Jesus in the garden and not recognizing where she is or who she is speaking to until the moment when she does. (I've written about this elsewhere on this blog (see other posts tagged "Easter"). But now, in light of what Bonnie Thurston has written, I notice again the first verse of John 20: "

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.

An image of grace I now see: While it is still dark -- the stone is already removed. Before we even know how or what has happened. Something real has changed, by God's power and love. Coming to see what this means for me seems to be an invitation, this Eastertide.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Holy Saturday - a new poem

Martin Smith writes that "Poetry can lead us to the place of wonder, but it patrols the shoreline of what can be said, only making us more aare of the ocean of the unsayable" (Love Set Free, p. 66) Perhaps that is why what I was trying to say in my journal about this odd, rich, in-between day in the triduum came out as a poem. (See also my friend Kit Carlson's meditation on this day at Saints Alive -- good stuff).

But here's my poem: a first draft, no doubt, but it begins to say something.

Holy Saturday

Rain. Strong, steady April rain
Scatters waning cherry blossoms over the grass
Invites scarlet tulips, yellow daffodils
To stiffen, open, rise.

In churches that observe this day
Everything is grey
Crosses gone or covered, candles out
Waiting for the night, when New Fire flames
Baptized, Exultant, Singing.

Today, the waiting time.
Whatever happened during Lent
Is buried in the harrowed soil,
Puts down roots now, drinking in
The steady April rain.
Who knows what green will grow
From this quiet, rain-soaked day?

Kathleen Henderson Staudt
April 11, 2009

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday: "Making it Real" II

My "Lent book" for this year, Bonnie Thurston's The Spiritual Geography of Mark's Gospel, reminds me that because God suffered alone, no one, ever again, will suffer alone. I'd paraphrase it this way: from this side of the Cross (the Easter side), we know Christ is there in solidarity and love, with all human suffering, having suffered himself. Knowing this provides us with a way through suffering, though it is often hard to feel or see. But when we understand it the Cross becomes a healing image, a reflection of the divine compassion for the whole world, as expressed and lived out in the Incarnation and Passion. As a hymn-hummer, I find this summarized well in a middle stanza of Isaac Watts"s "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross":

See, from his side, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e'er such love and sorrow meet
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

It's a baroque, vivid image but it stays with me as an image of the divine love.
I think Bonnie's book also does a beautiful job of showing us both the vulnerability and the strength of the suffering Christ, and the paradoxical hope that we find in the mystery of the Cross, so central to Mark's gospel.

But today we are in the gospel of John - as we always are on Good Friday. And the focus is the Love of Christ for us, and the totality of his self-offering, expressed in the events of the Passion. The hymn that springs to my lips is "What Wondrous Love is this, O My Soul!" For Holy Week I've been rereading Martin Smith's wonderful meditations on the Passion according to St. John, Love Set Free. He shows how the Cross, in the fourth Gospel, becomes the moment of union between the divine and the human, when God's desire for us, and our desire for God, is consummated and made real. Ever since I first read Smith's meditations, I have found that the image of the Cross has become, for me, an image for the mystery of God's love, hidden, incomprehensible, and yet manifest in the real events of the Crucifixion, and in the Holy One's willing submission to this.

Martin Smith looks at the moment when Jesus, from the Cross, speaks to his mother and the Beloved Disciple and makes of them a new family. And for Smith, this is the moment when the Church begins, at the foot of the Cross. This moment was made real for me last night and this morning, after the Maundy Thursday service, when we held an all-night prayer vigil in the stripped-bare, darkened church (the only liturgical symbols the black-veiled crosses on the altars.

There were many gifts to me in this time of silent prayer, but perhaps the most impressive was the first hour, when a surprisingly large group gathered in the small chapel, where the altar of repose was (holding the Cross and the consecrated bread and wine being reserved for today's liturgy). There were probably 15-20 of us, and as is typical in our congregation we represented many backgrounds and cultures and languages -- the prayer vigils, held in silence, are impressively the place where the English speaking and Spanish speaking members of the congregation can be fully at prayer together. I thought of Martin Smith's observation about the Church being formed at the foot of the Cross and I was deeply moved by the way this gathering made that real: all of us in deep reverence, puzzled and yet drawn to the mystery of love that we had just re-enacted in the liturgy -- recognizing that every one of us is held in this love, safe in this love and open to prayer. Just the fact of our being there reminded me of a friend who once remarked that "Christianity begins at the foot of the Cross." In that place of shared suffering and growing compassion, we were together. It would be good for the Church at large, with all our truly silly divisions and quarrels, if we could remember this place where we begin, contemplating the mystery of a Love that is beyond our understanding, offered and raised up for our contemplation and deep gratitude.

By the time we get here, to Good Friday, we've done what we can do about our own sins and struggles - that was what Lent is for. Today is about Christ, and what he, in his love, has done for us. We are gathered to be present with Christ, as he desires to be present with us, and to give thanks for what has already been done, once and for all, to bring us back into union with his Love. For that is really all there is to say on Good Friday - a quiet "thank you" for the redemption that has already happened, whether we can feel it or not in the moment. And a waiting, in adoration, for the unimaginable part of the story, which comes next. We do this together. It doesn't make sense any other way.

The starkness of the Good Friday service in the Book of Common Prayer is appropriate for all of this, beginning as it does with a prayer that sums up where we are, praying at the foot of the Cross, aware of both horror and the ultimate promise that it holds:

Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
(BCP 2760

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Holy week pilgrimage: Making it Real I

Today I joined a small group from the church youth group on what was billed as a "mini-pilgrimage" to the National Holocaust Memorial in DC. I have never been before, and this year, Holy Week did seem an appropriate time for such a pilgrimage. Now I'm back to reflect just a little on the experience - hoping that the "blogging process" will help me put a shape to it.

It's spring break in DC and the place was really crowded with groups of young people. How was this a "pilgrimage?"was my first question to myself My working definition of the attitude to bring a pilgrim, rather than a tourist, comes from T.S. Eliot's great pilgrimage poem, "Little Gidding." Visiting the chapel where Nicholas Ferrar and his companions formed a religious community during the English Civil War, Eliot writes,
"You are not here to verify,/ instruct yourself, or inform curiosity or carry report. You are here to kneel/Where prayer has been valid."

That is, pilgrimage is about entering the experience and the place, and finding where God is there. (Not just learning the history - which in this case is numbingly awful) Walking through these exhibits "makes it real" - we're invited to remember the real people killed in the holocaust, their stories, their lives. The Memorial bears witness to the awful combination of state-sponsored genocide and a long history of ugly and widely accepted racist anti-semitism. On the face of it this does not seem to have much to do with the "valid prayer" of Eliot's pilgrimage vision. Indeed the question: "Where was God in all of this evil" reverberates inevitably as you walk through the vivid and beautifully constructed exhibits, the terrible images, the terrible stories of the Nazi era, those who were its victims and those who carried out the horribly named "final solution". In Holy Week, as we reflect on the Way of the Cross, it is both distressing and convicting to reflect how the same tradition that tells of the compassion and love of Jesus, going willingly to the Cross (in the fourth Gospel especially) has been retold in ways that furthered and deepened the anti-semitism that made so many Germans-- and Americans -- indifferent to the horror was happening to the Jews of Europe. It seems so utterly contrary to the message of the gospels to blame the "other" -- the Jews-- for the Cross. The only prayer that has been valid in this place and time in history seems to be that of the psalmist: "My God, my God, Why hast thou forsaken me?"

But of course that is also the prayer of Jesus - who is God Incarnate -- from the Cross. This realization also brings me deeper into the story we are telling in Holy Week. We dwell on the horrible details of Christ's Passion to remind ourselves what human beings are capable of; We try to imagine a God who willingly takes flesh and comes to a world where someone is capable of driving a nail into the hands and feet of a fellow human being -- and who suffers that, with a radical compassion of the One who suffers with us, longing for our wholeness despite what we do.

This is the mystery I've come up against, taking this pilgrimage today. If nothing else, it has forced me to bear witness to the suffering that goes on and how easy it is to become complicit in the infliction of suffering. This pilgrimage made it real, in an experiential way, forced me to see what we are capable of. The Cross does that, too -- and also tells us something about the love of God for us, and what kind of truth-telling and clarity of vision about ourselves that love demands of us.

I don't have words for what that "something" is -- but I am seeing, on the Eve of Maundy Thursday, that this was an appropriate pilgrimage for me to make, this Holy Week.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

More on Julian - Sin and the persistence of Love

Julian is really "speaking" to me again -- haven't read her in years but glad to be returning. And I like Frances Beer's modern translation (especially for devotional reading). In the 24th revelation of divine love she reflects back on her vision of the suffering Christ on the Cross, who for her has become the emblem of a divine Love that desires nothing but that we should thrive and love and be whole (my paraphrase but I don't think it misrepresents Julian). She has also been having an honest conversation with Christ about sin - how it separates us from His love, and how he is eager to remove that separation. This passage seems very wise both about divine love and human psychology:

Though the persons of the blessed trinity are all equal in property, love was showed most fully to me, because though it is closest to us all, we are blindest in our knowledge of it. Many men and women elieve that God is all mighty and may do all, and that he is all wisdom and can do all; but that he is all love and will do all -- there they stop. Such ignorance most hinders God's lovers, for when they begin to hate sin and to amend themselves according to the ordinances of holy church, a dread remains that stirs them to dwell upon themselves and their former sins. (my italics) Though this is a grievous blindness and weakness, we do not despise it becuase we think of it as humility. Yet if we recognized it, we would immediately reject it, as we would any other sin with which we are familiar, for it comes from the enemy and is opposed to truth.

Of all the properties of the blessed trinity, God wants us to feel the greatest confidence and pleasure in love, for love makes power and wisdom humble before us. Even as by his courteous love God forgets our sins as soon as we repent, so does he wish us to forget them, and all our sorrow, and all our doubtful dread.

Julian seems to know that a lot of our sense of captivity and separation from God (aka "sin") comes from dwelling on ourselves and our failings instead of trusting God's love. This is really hard to grasp but something about the way she puts it is speaking to me, in these last days of a Holy Lent.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Lenten Thoughts - Revisiting Julian of Norwich

I haven't posted much except for my Episcopal Cafe pieces. Part of my Lenten practice has been to try to delay the sign-on to the computer until after prayer time and some kind of morning movement - walking or workout. It is helping to restore some balance in my life -- it's so easy to get the feeling that I MUST be on email all the time because there are so many important demands on my time. It's good to find that there is time for other things. And surprising what a challenging Lenten discipline it has been. But it also means that blogging (which I wasn't doing much of before Lent either) has seemed like a luxury.

Some insights, though, to note as we round the bend past mid-Lent. Once again, I'm seeing that the whole story is about Love. Not a cheruby, greeting-card love but a strong, fierce love that will not let us go, and wills our wholeness even when we don't. And that love is somehow associated with the Cross, and that's the mystery I am contemplating for this season. I've been returning to Julian of Norwich, startled to find myself resonating in new ways with her vision of the Cross, which at other times I've experienced as somewhat bizarre. But on divine love she is incomparable She prays for three "wounds" -- two of them she asks only if God wills it (a vision of Christ's Passion, and an experience of mortal illness -- and of course she gets both of those things and sees them as gifts: this part of Julian is hard for most of us to grasp).

But I can relate to the third "wound" that she desires unconditionally -- that she insists on in all her prayers -- the wound of "an endless longing for God" -- a wound because this longing can sometimes be painful, but she knows that this is what connects us to the One who made us and loves us: our longing (and God's returning longing). So this passage from Julian, which I've read before, is even more striking for me today. From Frances Beers's translation of Julian of Norwich:
"At the same time as I saw this bodily sight, our lor dhowed me a spiritual vision of his matchless love. I saw that, for our benefit, he is all that is good and comforting and helpful to us. He is our clothing, who for love wraps and encloses us, embraces and encricles us, clings to us for tender love, that he may never leave us. In this vision I understood truly that he is everything that is good."

Monday, March 9, 2009

Coming Home to Lent

(also on Episcopal Cafe)

On the Sunday of the Transfiguration, February 22, I began my day in summer sunshine, sitting on a patio in Sidney, Australia watching the sailboats and ferry boats that were just beginning their day, and reading, for my morning devotion, the story of the Transfiguration. We spent those last 12 days of Epiphany “down under,” -- away from the awful brushfires though they were very much in our awareness all over Australia, a national tragedy—and mostly by the sea. For us it was a sojourn into summertime, a conference by the southern beaches (our reason for going) along the Great Ocean Road, and four days of pure vacation on a tropical island in the Great Barrier Reef, living alongside Creation at its liveliest – with nesting birds and turtles, and a whole colorful and unimagined world right under the surface of the water, off the beach, on a part of the reef that still seems healthy and beautiful. It was a time of reconnecting with my “summer self” – the me who spends time each morning in summer on the patio, writing poems and watching the birds, claiming that season as the time of regrouping and regeneration that the summer is for those of us who live by the academic calendar.

Even sitting there that Sunday morning I knew it might be hard to remember my “summer patio self” by the end of the day. Because the end of the day would be almost a day later. Before February 22 ended for us, we would be back in Washington, in freezing cold weather, and ready or not, called to jump back into the busy life of teaching and formation that is characteristic of my winter-time --- AND it would be Lent 3 days later!

Now, a week later, after a wonderful whirlwind weekend of teaching, barely recovered from jet lag, I look back on that time on the patio as a quiet example of what the Transfiguration story gives us: a lamp shining in the darkness, the letter of Peter calls it; a moment on the summer patio, sipping tea, resting in the quiet of a Sabbath morning on the harbor, reflecting on what it means to be invited into the presence of the living Christ and seeing, just for a moment, that it’s all true. I wonder if those disciples connected, just for a moment, with their own deepest selves, the part of themselves that was called out and loved – as he showed them, just for a moment, that ‘yes – it’s all true”; and they heard “This is my Son, the beloved” – before they headed back down the mountain to discover how much work there was to be done, how much the world needed healing, and dealt again with their own inadequacy to the task of healing and reconciliation that called them back down the mountain.

This Lent, the vastness and smallness of the world, revealed through the time of travel, offers a special gift to me: I am hoping that the memory of my “summer self,” sitting with Jesus on that patio down under, will stay with me this season, as I enter the swirl of activity that this season inevitably brings for someone engaged in retreat and formation work. Perhaps that time as my summer self is the “lamp shining in the darkness” that I’ve been given, this Lenten season.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Mourning Cathedral College

(Also on Episcopal Cafe)
By Kathleen Staudt

Like many people I have felt great sadness at the news that the Washington National Cathedral will be “suspending” programs at the Cathedral College beginning March 31, and until further notice. Sad, certainly, about beloved staff members who will be laid off. Two programs that I’m involved in with Esther de Waal, are still a “go” for the month of February – “Approaching God Through Poetry” from February 2-6, and a weekend conference on “Faith, Art and Poetry in a Post-Christian Age” February 27-1. I wouldn’t ordinarily “plug” these except that I think people may not realize that the conferences being offered before March 31 are still a go this year, and may offer a last chance for awhile (we hope not forever) to be in this very special place. But the closing of the College feels to me a bit like a death in the family – and it has me reflecting on what the place has meant to my own spiritual growth over the years.

The College has been a part of my inner spiritual landscape for many years. I first visited there on a Saturday in June, perhaps in 1995 or 1996, for a Quiet Day in honor of Evelyn Underhill, a yearly event that we have held at the College whenever we could reserve the space. We met in the book-lined library, with its black chairs and red cushions, worn but homey rugs, and those high casement windows, facing out on the “garth” at the center of the place, and the thick stone walls that turn out to be soaked with prayers. Especially as we shared communal silence, I was aware that this was sacred space. If you have been there when there aren’t many people around, you may know that feeling—walking into the foyer of the place, one experiences a resonant silence, and a sense of being at home.

I went often to the College for quiet during the years when my two children were attending Cathedral schools, working, with permission, as a kind of always-unofficial “fellow” on various writing projects. I would go there after teaching and before a late-evening carpool pickup, or in the early morning after dropping off my chorister for rehearsal, and spend a few hours in the gentle half-light coming in the windows from the garth, finding a creative energy in the awareness that this was a place where many people have come to find focus, to do one thing for awhile and refresh their ministry.

And over the years I’ve been involved in various programs, mostly locally directed, in the College. I remember gathering in the chapel one year at the end of an Evelyn Underhill day, in a violent thunderstorm, the rain beating on the roof, as we celebrated Eucharist with then-program director Fred Schmidt presiding, and experiencing the white linen, the candle-light, and the gathered community as a kind of stronghold. I remember a retreat for MTS students from Virginia seminary, held in the white-paneled, light-filled lounge, where we began to share stories of how we had experienced God’s call to discipleship, and found ourselves in tears of amazement at the affirmation and welcome that we were able to provide one another – a group of laity called to ministry in the world, in a place so often used for the nurture of clergy. We truly sensed the liveliness and vigor of the Holy Spirit working among us that day. And it wasn’t the first time I’d met Her there.

And I remember two years of regular meetings, in the shabby but lived-in seminar room, with a lively group of gifted spiritual companions, dreaming up together a new educational program on “The Art of Spiritual Companionship” – now in its second run at the Cathedral in 2008-9. I don’t know what will happen to this program, but the fellowship of those planning meetings, in that little room beside the chapel with its worn upholstered chairs and heavy wooden furniture, was charged and fruitful time.

Last year, I worked with Esther de Waal and Bonnie Thornton leading a week long program on “Approaching God through Poetry” with a lively group of more than 30 participants who were in residence for the week. All week we took in and shared the spiritual power of shared imagination, and of the beauty of the place, the silvery bronze light of February in Washington reflecting off the stone cloister around the garth, and illuminating our gatherings. Anyone who has been to the College for some time in residence can appreciate the fellowship that came in gathering for (very good) meals in the refectory, with high-vaulted gothic ceilings and portraits of previous wardens gazing down – and many will remember special insights that come out of those conversations, with a group of people who have stepped out of the swirl of life for a few days, into the sheltered calm of these massive stone walls. Upstairs where overnight guests stay, the rabbit warren of hallways and rooms gives a sense of secret blessings hidden away, and invites withdrawal into solitude with God. It is obvious, if you look closely, how huge the burden of deferred maintenance must be for this quirky old building. There have been leaks and peeling paint and cold radiators here and there for years. Still, living among those prayed-in corners and for a weekend retreat a few years ago taught me a lot about solitude with God – and in learning there I felt myself sustained by the prayers of generations.

At a plenary session during our poetry week last year, Esther de Waal and then-warden Howard Anderson were making connections between the sense of place that flows through Celtic tradition and the reverence for land and locality in Native American tradition. Alluding to our own indigenous tradition, and speaking of the College, Howard affirmed that “an Underground River flows beneath this place.” I have felt that energy, too, gathering with others or coming alone for prayer, learning and reflection, in the “thin place” that the Cathedral College has become for me. I have no inside information on the future, though clearly there are huge financial challenges. I’m told that there are task forces gathering to consider both the Cathedral’s vision for education and the future of the buildings, and I pray for their work. Yet even if the College must be closed soon (hard as that still is for me to imagine), I believe that the Underground River keeps flowing. You can’t stop it. It carries the wellspring of spiritual energy that has brought so many to the College for so many years. And I pray that we will see it springing up again, and bringing renewed life to this beloved and prayed-in place.