About Me

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

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Poetry of Handel's Messiah

Also on episcopal cafe (with some discussion)

This shopping season, I’ve already received two videos of “flash mobs” singing Handel’s Hallelujah chorus in unexpected public places – a mall food court, at Macy’s in Philadelphia, to the accompaniment of the Wanamaker organ. (See them here and here.) In these videos no one seems to be offended by “Christian” content – there is wonder and delight in the music – in both cases performed by very able singers! Something hopeful and exciting has burst in on the mundane, and people seem to appreciate it. I think that these videos capture not only the fun of this kind of guerilla culture-event, but also the hopefulness that is carried in the words and music of that particular piece. And it has got me thinking of how important Handel’s Messiah as a whole has been to my own formation over the years.

A recording of Messiah was the first “adult” Christmas present I remember receiving. I was 16, and had sung a few choruses from Messiah in high school chorus. My parents gave me the Robert Shaw Chorale’s performance, my very own – probably the first classical album I owned, too. I cried when I opened it. I hadn’t realized how much I really wanted to be able to listen to this music.

Why did I like the Messiah so much as a young person? I think I was responding to the way that it uses the poetry of Scripture to tell a profound story, without insisting on belief or professions of faith. It was a time of my life when I was beginning to ask what it meant to be a Christian in a world where not everyone was Christian, and especially what it meant to be a thinking person who embraced Christian belief, and with it Christian hope?

I already knew the Bible pretty well from my Presbyterian Sunday school upbringing , and I was also a universalist (still am) in my thinking about the salvation on offer to us from a God whose mercy surpasses ours. . To me Messiah, performed in all kinds of secular contexts in the Easter and Christmas seasons, seemed to present Christian faith in a broad, nondenominational but deeply committed way. I still look forward to hearing the whole thing performed at least once a year. Familiar as it is, it is also poetic theology at its best. The music carries and interprets the words, and all the words are from the Bible. The text and music work together, revealing the radical hope that is the underlying thread of the Biblical story. And perhaps most strikingly, in this oratorio that tells the story of Jesus, the majority (not all, but the majority) of the texts are taken, not from the gospels but from Hebrew Scripture.

The librettist of Messiah was a Balliol educated Shakespeare scholar named Charles Jennens (1707-1773). He was a staunch Protestant but a “non-juror – i.e. he refused to recognize the Hanoverian dynasty that was ruling England. He was a huge admirer of Handel, and evidently a devout man, steeped in Scripture and in the poetry of the Book of Common Prayer. Disillusioned with the earthly king, he seems to have placed his hope in the promise of God’s kingdom coming on earth. (and so in words most of us can sing: the text from Revelation: “the kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our God, and of his Christ. And he shall reign forever and ever.”)

As a poetic text, the libretto of Messiah is both lyrical and distinctively “Anglican” in feel; like the Book of Common Prayer it stitches together pieces of Scripture in a way that creates a theologically grounded narrative. But this isn’t simply Christian triumphalism: these same Blblical texts, in their original context in Hebrew Scripture, invite us to a way of reading the whole of “salvation history” as told in Hebrew Scripture as an essential part of our ongoing story as Christians.

Within Hebrew Scripture (the “Old Testament”) the overall story is of a God who desires to redeem his people, and does so by calling them out to be a “chosen people”, bound by covenant and formed by joyful obedience to the law. In various ways, and at various points in history, they disobey, fall away from the promise, and terrible, hideous things happen. Sometimes they heed the call to return, but in the era of Assyrian and Babylonian invasions, 722- 520 BCE, the story is of their repeated failures to the messengers of God, the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah especially, who warn them that the failure of rulers and people to live faithfully will ultimately result in disaster. The destruction of Jerusalem, and the exile in Babylon are understood as God’s righteous punishment of Israel, and the ultimate return from Babylon and rebuilding of the temple is seen as evidence of God’s abiding mercy and love for God’s people.

Underlying all of this is the theology of a Creator-God, a God of both Justice and Mercy, reliable and intimately engaged with history. The prophetic voice known as 2nd Isaiah (which begins at Chapter 40 of the book of Isaiah) dates from the time when exile is ending and those exiled from Judah are being called to return. Speaking to the remnant of Jerusalem, those who have stayed behind, the prophet predicts that there will be a path through the wilderness, leading back to Jerusalem, and the glory of the Lord will be restored to its rightful place in the Temple: “Comfort ye, my people.” He says on God’s behalf . . . “Prepare ye the way of the Lord. . . every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed (see Isaiah 40: 1-11). By beginning the whole oratorio with this text, Jennens/Handel remind us how central to all of Scripture is the story of Exile and Return – the recurring plot of a God who ultimately desires healing and restoration, despite human perversity. And following ancient Christian tradition, they imply that the coming of Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of this prophecy.

The other theme from Hebrew Scripture, perhaps more alive for those in the 18th century than for us now, is the prophecy that the restoration of Jerusalem will involve the restoration of a thoroughly righteous king in the Davidic line: the Messiah. This is a tradition that viewed the reign of David as a golden age, when the king and people were faithful to God and lived in security and prosperity. They look forward to a ruler chosen by God and in intimate connection with God, who will preach peace. So the longing for Messiah joins with the postexilic theme that the chosen people are chosen to become a “light to the nations” – a beacon to all and a manifestation of God’s will for the world.

There are also apocalyptic themes but again couched in Messianic hope. Despite assaults by surrounding nations, despite world politics, as long as Jerusalem remains faithful to God, she will be preserved and will become ultimately the city of God, the place where God’s glory dwells. (In the later chapters of Isaiah and in postexilic prophets (Haggaie, Zephaniah, Micah), there is the expectation that after great trial, God’s kingdom will be restored, the temple purified, and the Anointed one will come.

So that’s the framework, the story as told in Hebrew Scripture. And I think Handel’s Messiah is sensitive to that poetry of exile, return, and ultimate hope.

While our Jewish neighbors are still waiting, we believe that Messiah has come, and that the era of the reign of God has begun, despite persistent human efforts to thwart it. We are waiting for the fulfillment of this (A Jewish friend once remarked, wisely, that the season of Advent is the time when the spirit of Jewish and Christian tradition are most closely connected—paradoxical as this seems.) What does it mean to believe, claim, proclaim this? I think that is the theological question that Handel’s Messiah is raising and exploring, for an audience that is mostly Anglican, highly educated, and wary of superstition and doctrine. So, arguably, he is somposing for a “modern” even secular, audience. Messiah carefully resists two common traps in Christian readings of the Old Testament throught the New. First, it is not dispensationalist (i.e. between the “old dispensation” ruled by an angry Old Testament God, and the “new dispensation” of grace and mercy, ruled by Jesus and excluding the Jews) No: Messiah presents the whole of Scripture as telling a continuous story of the divine mercy that longs to lead people out of darkness into light, out of death into life, to a final, confident Amen.

This is also not a piece that preaches Christian triumphalism: Many people listen to Messiah, whether they believe in the Christian story or not, and respond to the message of radical hope it carries. The emphasis of the story is apocalyptic, proclaiming the triumph of God and– a sense of the “fullness of time” -but it does not exalt a cultural and political Christianity trampling down more primitive faiths or knocking down the idols; it is not Constantinian or triumphalist. Rather, with a calm that belongs to the Age of Reason it demonstrates how the text of the Bible presents prophecy that is fulfilled in good time. It looks ahead to the reign of God – not to a human empire, but a time when human sinfulness is overcome and the reign of God is established (where Christ is, in the word’s of Revelation: “King of king and Lord of Lords) And he shall reign forever and ever.” Whether you believe it or not, it is a compelling story.

As for literary form, the basic approach in Messiah is juxtaposition: this is how we construct lyric poetry, as opposed to narrative or didactic poetry. Jennens had a narrative in mind – the story of salvation history. But he tells it by juxtaposing texts from Scripture. Isn’t this also how we do theology in our Anglican liturgical practice? Many of our most beloved services work through juxtaposition of Scriptural texts. Think of the readings at the Easter Vigil, or the beginning of the burial service, or , from the 20th century, the telling of the “whole story” in the service of Nine Lessons and Carols.

When we get New Testament texts in the first section of Messiah, they are usually juxtaposed to Old Testament texts, illuminating, interpreting them. So we have, for example, Isaiah 40: 11: “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd” alongside Jesus’ words: “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden. . . “ Each text interprets and validates the other. We have Jesus bringing in the New Covenant of grace – the theology is not explicit but it is expressed in the music, in the joyful chorus: “His yoke is easy, his burthen is light.”

Handel and Jennens could assume that their audience knew the Passion story, But whether you know the story or not, the poetry of the juxtaposed Scriptural passages carries it. The piece is not interested in any questions about personal belief or salvation or “who’s in and who’s out” . Rather it is interested in what “Kingdom of God” might look like –the fulfillment that has been promised all along. That is the focus of Parts 2 and 3 of Messiah, summed up for many in the music of the Hallelujah chorus -- very positive, focusing on coming of God’s kingdom on earth. The emphasis here is not on individual guilt or repentance, but more on divine suffering and victory for the sake of “us” – a universal human restoration. So the Passion story sings out as the fulfillment of the Chosen One’s calling using the prophet Isaiah’s descriptions of the Suffering Servant (He was despised and rejected. . . a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief”). Salvation has come. It is for all. And it has all been done for us. “I know that my Redeemer Liveth” – the Easter section begins – using a text from the book of Job. And it ends by giving life to the cryptic words from Revelation: Worthy is the Lamb that was slain,” and the singing of an endless and cosmic chorus of Amen.

But the texts that stay with us most through the haunting familiar music of Messiah are from Second Isaiah . They tell of the hope of God’s people in the time of exile, as they awaited deliverance from exile and the return of a good king in the line of David. It is the hope we proclaim as Christians, believing that Messiah has come. It is ultimately, for the librettist of Messiah, a paradoxical, universal hope for all humanity: – rooted in ancient prophecies of exile and return: “Comfort ye, my people. . . . The People that walked in darkness have seen a great light”. . for unto us a child is born, . . . and the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Reflections on Benedictine Values and Church Life

also on episcopal cafe

Since I’m currently serving as Rector’s Warden/Senior warden at my home parish, I am very aware of November/December as “budget season” and of course these are challenging times for churches, with high anxiety around financial matters. From a spiritual point of view, this time of year raises for me deep questions about the way we do church, whether it’s sustainable, faithful to the gospel and how we measure that. So much of what we receive from congregational development experts seems aimed at figuring out what people need and giving it to them, attracting more members to sustain what we have built evangelism as marketing (which it is to some degree) – but a model very much attuned to the culture around us.

And at the same time I’m rereading Esther de Waal’s writings about monastic spirituality for our time, and remembering that monasticism began with people who felt that the values of the church and the values of the surrounding culture were getting blended together to a point of great confusion. When Benedict established his rule in the fifth century, he was building what I think turns out to be an abiding “counter cultural” tradition of Christian living, preserving what he understood to be the central values of the gospel.

These values are not really developed in response or reaction to the culture; they simply offer themselves as guides. And so as I prepared for the November vestry meeting, I spent some time reflecting on the three vows that monks take, the vows of “Obedience”, “Stability” and “Conversatio” or “conversion of heart.” Unpacking these ideas has been helpful to me – and was helpful to the vestry, meeting about the budget in November. So I thought I’d share some thoughts about them here.

First, “Obedience,” which de Waal reminds us comes from the the Latin for “to listen.” Looking at parish life and our own lives, how do we listen for God’s guidance/ What practices orient us toward discernment rather than simply the pushing and defending of competing agendas. Where in our common life are there opportunities for study and prayer together, especially for leaders? How do we pay attention to Scripture? Listening to each other – giving each person around the table an opportunity and invitation to speak, practicing “appreciative inquiry” and other ways of discernment that help us hear one another: all of these practices, I think, fulfill the spirit of the vow of obedience. We can move toward healing if we also pay attention to the ways in which we are “not listening” in our pairhs life – to the neighborhood around us – to the needs of the world at the moment (not so much for marketing purposes as for mission and ministry). We need to pray for a deepening ability to listen. A symbol for this kind of obedience might be the Rublev icon, with what one writer has called the “listening eyes” of its three figures attentive each to the other – or another image might be building blocks, shared by a community of leaders. In her book Seeking God, Esther de Waal writes:

The Christian and monastic model for discerning God’s will in a given situation is not that of finding the solution of a crossword puzzle . . . where the answer must be exactly right, fitted to some preconceived plan. A better model is that we are given building blocks and have to see what can be done with them, using in the task all our intelligence, sensitivity and love (p. 49)

Not a solution, but a process of listening: putting gifts and ideas together and seeing what new thing comes out of that process. I like this as a model for a leadership team. Even a vestry!

The second vow, which I find fascinating despite the challenging term, is “Stability.”(Perhaps a better word for us would be “commitment” – but let’s hold the two together). – in our “cafeteria-Christianity” culture, this is the value that calls us to seek ways of staying together: not by silencing difference but by hearing and receiving the diversity of our views. . It is the vow a monk makes to stay with the same community –and let himself be formed by its challenges. The call to stability is of course a great challenge in the Anglican Communion just now but it helps me to name it in that way – not a call to “unity at any cost” where a dominant voice “wins” – it’s not a call to put up with abuse -- but it is a call to stay at the table, stay in conversation stay in relationship– not to leave—or at least not to consider leaving and going elsewhere as our first option. In parishes, “stability is a deeper value than giving everyone what they want or keeping things the same. it is an invitation to commit to being together and worshipping God in this place, to stay on rather than move on, when leadership changes. It is the value that fuels sustainable stewardship, care for one another in crisis and in conflict. It requires faith and endurance. I’d like to see leaders in congregations reflecting more on what stability looks like for them – what the challenges are, what the obstacles and rewards. The symbol we have for the value of stability is the symbol of our faith: the Cross, which tells of endurance through suffering, for the sake of the whole Body. Joan Chittister says this about the Cross and stability:

The cross is not a dark aspect of religion. It is, on the contrary, the one hope we have that our own lives can move through difficulty to triumph. It’s the one thing that enables us to hang on and not give up when hanging on seems impossible and giving up seems imperative. . . . The cross says that we can rise if we can only endure (Wisdom from the Daily, p. 148)

The call to stability might sound like a call to stuck-ness or to doormat-like acquiescence if it were not balanced by the third vow of conversatio or openness to change – the most famously challenging value for congregations. The symbols or this are the water of Baptism and the fire of the Holy Spirit. Ours is a faith that is about transformation, and as leaders we serve people best when we lead them toward this kind of openness. I like what de Esther de Waal writes about this in Seeking God:

If the vow of stability is the recognition of God’s complete faithfulness and dependability then the vow of conversatio is a recognition of God’s unpredictability, which confronts our own love of cosiness or safety. It means that we have to live provisionally, ready to respond to the new whenever and however that might appear. There is no security here, no clinging to past certainties. Rater, we must expect to see our chosen idols successively broken. It means a constant letting go. (Seeking God, p. 70)

Meditating on these vows has kept me going in this “budget-season,” and as our parish’s annual meeting, always in Advent, approaches. The reason to be in the church is to be shaped into a counter-cultural community – and I think it is a wonderfully creative challenge to look at our life together in the light of these Benedictine values of listening, stability/commitment and openness to change.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Of Sacred Space, Loss and Liturgy

also on Episcopal Cafe

On October 22, a fire destroyed most of the chapel at Virginia Theological Seminary, where I teach. Built in 1871, the chapel has been a sacred space to many generations of seminarians and clergy in the Episcopal Church. Despite heroic efforts by the firefighters who were on the scene immediately, the chapel burned in about 40 minutes, as the community watched in awed disbelief. No one was hurt; no other buildings were burned. But it was a deeply traumatic loss. And in the week since then we have been very aware of what sacred space has come to mean in our lives.

Exactly a week before the chapel fire, I was traveling in Wales and reflecting deeply on this theme of place and sacred space. I spent that Friday at a beautiful, remote place called Capel y ffin (the chapel at the end of the road – aptly named) which was once home to a community of Catholic artists and craftsmen, led by the English sculptor Eric Gill. Capel y ffin was a formative place for the artist and poet David Jones, whose work has been important to me for many years. (Read more about Jones and his work here) Jones wrote of the “strong hill-rhythms” of the countryside here, which was formative for his artistic and poetic vision. His paintings capture well the rounded hills and pastures (the “landscape plotted and pieced, fold, fallow and plow” – as the Welsh poet Hopkins wrote) and the curious “aliveness” of the landscape that one experiences in this place.

In this region of Wales – near the black hills – I was also impressed by the ancient stone churches – some of them a millennium old – at sites with strange place names like “Partrishow” and “Clydwch”. The sites would include, typically, a tiny grey-stone church, with old wood interior, silent yet filled with echoes of centuries of prayer. Beside the church, there is typically an ancient (and sometimes still active) cemetery, together with a stream and a holy well, whose sacredness dates back to pre-Christian times and is often incorporated somehow into the story of the saint of the place – for each one of these places has a story attached to it. There is a sense that these churches and tombstones and celtic crosses mark a holiness beyond what can be contained. Inevitably, here, I thought of lines from a David Jones poem where he celebrates:

The adaptations, the fusions,
the transmogrifications
but always
the inward continuities
of the site
of place (The Anathemata, p. 90)

Having been so recently immersed in this awareness of sacred place, I was available to the depth of grieving the VTS community was experiencing at the loss of the of course much newer “historic” chapel. In particular, I have been watching and listening during this past week as students and alumni (a few of them in purple shirts) visited the campus and simply stood, gazing, in sad homage, at the charred beams where the chapel ceiling once was, open to the sky below the cross that still stands on the front of the chapel. Soon, the conversations around the seminary will turn to what was not destroyed and what can be restored and carried forward. We know that “the Church is not a building. . . .the church is a people” – but this grieving-time has invited more reflection, for me, on what places mean to us, in a sacramental tradition.

We remember sacred places, often, because of what happened here. Every one of the Welsh churches I saw was sacred to a saint who had a story. And as I have spoken with grieving members of the community, I have heard stories. People remember the events that happened in the chapel: a classmate buried, an ordination, a profoundly memorable liturgy or sermon, the daily round of prayer that is part of community life and forms us.

Liturgy itself is an important part of what sanctifies places for us. At my own church on the Sunday after the fire, I found myself experiencing those “flashbacks” that we get when we are grieving, where one thing recalls another. We sang the hymn “Great is thy Faithfulness” on Sunday, and I recalled, with quick tears, that that was the last hymn that I sang in the seminary chapel, at Morning Prayer the day before the fire. Receiving the chalice from our seminarian, who is a VTS student, I recalled receiving the chalice from his hand a few weeks before, at a noon Eucharist in the chapel, with its scent of old wood, faint mustiness and beeswax, and midday light filtered through the “great commission” stained glass window, now gone. Receiving the presence of Christ in one place, I was remembering another place where I have met Christ, and been shaped and formed by that experience. It reminded me of the paradox that the presence of Christ is not confined to any particular place, and yet meets us where we are, in the world: and that involves place.

The first community Eucharist, the Monday after the fire, was held in the light-filled Georgian sanctuary at Immanuel Church on the Hill, across Seminary Road. The space recalled for me the New England Presbyterian church where I grew up. It could not have been more different from the Victorian feel of the old chapel. What was most consoling in that service, for many, was what we did together there. Dean Ian Markham named in his sermon what I was feeling from the opening sentences. The words of the Eucharistic liturgy, the familiar faces of the community, the celebration – our actions together – actions and prayers we had offered in other places – were what sanctified this gathering place for us, despite undeniable loss. This is true for any space where we gather in for worship – especially for Eucharist. And yet we are people of flesh and blood, and our lives are shaped by what we can sense, touch, feel, smell, and by our receptiveness to beauty. The places that shape us are not themselves sacred, and yet, they form us, open us, make us ready and able to receive the gift of God – body and blood, as people of flesh and blood, standing where we are.

And this took me back to David Jones, whose long poem The Anathemata revolves around the celebration of a mass in a London chapel, during the blitz. The celebration is the pivotal point of a long meditation on what holds us together, as Christians, when much that is recognizable in the surrounding civilization is crumbling away. Jones’s poem connects this particular Eucharistic celebration to the place and the time of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion, which happened at a particular time and place, and to gatherings of Christians at the altar down through history. In the poet’s vision, the priest at the altar, blends into Christ presiding over the Last Supper and fulfilling the story in the mystery of the Cross. Contemplating the priest at mass, “Here in this place,” “at a time’s turn,” the poet concludes:

He does what is done in many places
what he does other,
he does after the mode
of what has always been done.
What did he do other,
recumbent at the garnished supper
What did he do yet other
riding the Axile Tree? (The Anathemata, p. 242)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Summarizing the Faith

This is also on episcopal cafe, where the discussion links to other people's personal summaries of Christian faith -- please feel free to add yours here.

Verna Dozier
is known for saying that every Christian should be able to tell the story of the faith in 10 minutes or less. Sometimes people call that out of us. Recently more than one friend has asked me some version of the question “What does the Crucifixion mean? The question was asked in an email (I can’t actually remember from whom, now – and I never answered it.) Stumbling in prose, but haunted by the question, thought I’d lean imaginatively into the question, see what would come out in verse – with line-breaks providing space to ponder. I’m not really sure about the quality of what follows as “great poetry,” but it does offer a crack at the that question, one which perhaps other Café readers have been asked at one time or another. Here’s my try at a response.

Stumbling Credo
(lines written in response to a friend who asked me, as if she thought I would know, “What does the Crucifixion mean, anyway?”)

The world is broken: there’s no doubt
About that part. People are cruel and violent
And the ones who are in power
Religious or imperial – they know
Their power rests on privilege, and fear

And yet there is, beneath it all, a love that is for all
That calls us home to ancient faithfulness
And gives the dispossessed a voice, a place, a grounded life.
It seems such love cannot prevail, when those in power
Who profit from the broken world, create a reign of fear.

But when that love, which has a human face
Cannot endure to see how people harm each other
He comes to be among us, shares the fate
Of those the most oppressed and says –
You are all God’s people: rich and poor, in and out
You are all so greatly beloved.

So stop this now. Repent, he says to all
Change your way of life. Love one another, and resist
The rule of those who lord it over others. Refuse to fear.

Such love, it seems, cannot survive
In this broken world
Where love incarnate comes to live among us
So his own leaders work together with
The rulers of the age. Call him a traitor
Kill and torture him,
And crucify: the punishment of traitors.

They can crucify the man, but they cannot kill
The love he bears and is, nor can anything
Blot out this love,
The Love that has has suffered
The worst that power and rage could then inflict.
The suffering is real. The love persists, And so
He rises from the dead, to say
Look: you canot kill it.

He comes back to his closest friends, and says again
I am the way – follow me, and I will set you free
In this world, love is bound to suffer
But bear it, and love will teach you to live
Together, be my people – my friends, and I
Will do great things for you.

Do not be afraid: Sin will not stand. The victory
Has already been won.
It is possible to live another way: follow me.
Do not be afraid
The work I brought is already begun
There is a way, it is still real
The promise that this broken world can be made whole
Available to love.
There is still a Way.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Poets and the Mary Story I: "Her Fiat is our Fortune"

“Her Fiat is our Fortune”: the Mary Story
(also on Episcopal Cafe)

There was a lively and sometimes very scholarly two-part discussion a month or so ago on Episcopal Café about the Virgin Birth, whether and why we should or should not believe in Mary’s perpetual virginity, what doing so says about ideas about women, the role of the creeds, etc., etc . I found as I read that I not really inclined to weigh in because I didn’t care that much about what seemed to be at stake. It may be that it’s a gender thing: one commentator in the fray did notice that not many women were weighing in on the whole question of Mary’s virginity or not, perpetual or temporary or whatever – and I have to admit that it doesn’t seem to be that important a question to me, at least in the terms in which it was being posed, as a question of doctrine).

But this doesn't mean that I don't mean what I say, saying in the creed that Jesus was "incarnate of the holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary" -- that mystery, about incarnation, is at the heart of my faith -- and in fact as readers of this blog may know I really like the story of Mary, especially the annunciation as told in the first chapter of the gospel of Luke-- I find it “makes sense of things” in my faith the way that profoundly true stories do, and in a way that make quarrels like the one about the nature & duration of Mary’s physical virginity (or not) seem beside the point, for me. I think this reaction comes out of my instincts as a reader of great imaginative literature and my vocation as a poet.

My own reading of the story of the Annunciation, in particular, has been shaped by the way that a number of 20th century poets, male and female, have read that story – seeing it as a story about how the Incarnation happened, and about miraculous and world-changing cooperation between a human being and God. And also in how the story is told in Scripture – especially in Luke’s gospel.

The story in Luke, skillfully put together, begins with a familiar pattern that we know from Hebrew Scripture: A barren woman, Elizabeth, finds that she is with child, in her old age. This tells us that we are reading a story that is in a continuous tradition with stories of God’s grace and favor to those who are marginalized So, in Luke, we start with the story of a barren woman conceiving, just when everyone thought God had stopped acting. The father, Zechariah, doesn’t believe the angel’s promise, and he’s struck dumb until that promise is fulfilled. So we have a story about the usual way that God’s promise works in the lives of the people. . (To me it misses the point to say that this business of God blessing barren women overvalues childbearing as a sign of female worth: the stories have been abused in this way, certainly, but that’s not what it’s about in Hebrew Scripture. Rather, in a story about the survival of God’s people, both naturally and spiritually, the whole barren-woman-made-mother motif is about the one who was rejected being blessed and made whole and honored by God. When his motif turns up, it’s a signal that God is working in this part of the story: NOT a normative statement about how a society should be organized).

Anyway – we get the story of Elizabeth, and a famliar motif to anyone who knows Hebrew Scripture: and then the stakes are raised.

Side by side with this story, we have the story of Mary, encountering the angel Gabriel with the extraordinary news that she will bear a child. This is extraordinary because she is a virgin/has no husband/has not known a man (pick your translation). Her status as a virgin means that she still “owns” her own body – she doesn’t belong to any man, so in that sense she is free to respond to God’s request. Now, Luke’s Greek readers were used to stories of human women conceiving by gods (the rape of Leda, by Zeus disguised as a swan, comes to mind) – but in those stories it usually happens without the woman’s consent. So you could say it’s a motif familiar to the Greeks, but here it’s told in a very Hebrew way – where the body matters. The story has to be told this way, and it works. (the issues of female purity that the tradition has brought to the reading do not seem to me to be IN the story here.) Mary doesn’t question the promise; she just wonders about the logistics: “How can this be, as I am a virgin?” In that, Luke’s telling of the story contrasts her with Zechariah, who asked for proof, and was silenced for doing so. Mary just wants to know what will happen to her, which seems to be a fair question, and the angel gives her an answer. And Mary gives her consent. That is the heart of the story.

And we know, in the story that follows – written for its audience of Greeks and Jews – that in a wonderfully earthy, Hebrew way, this Jesus whom we read about, empowered by the Holy Spirit, is actually “the Son of God” born of a woman, in the flesh. (I’ve always appreciated, in fact, the human homeliness of the Church’s wisdom in appointing March 25 as Feast of the Annuciation – 9 months before December 25, which was settled on as the Feast of the Nativity.) Aesthetically, imaginatively, theologically, and spiritually, the story “works” this way, and challenges us to consider at every turn that the Jesus we meet here is the hero of a story about how God is active (and now incarnate) in human affairs, both within and beyond Israel. He is God-with-us and “one of us” in a way that is really almost shocking, if you think about it. The story insists that we think about it.

The poet David Jones (about whom you can read more here), writes in the mid-twentieth century and re-tells the marystory in the context of salvation history, offers a reading of it that has shaped my thinking about both Annunciation and Incarnation (and in Jones it’s all connected to the Eucharist – but that’s probably for another post). Anyway, at one point in his long poem The Anathemata, the narrative voice the poem calculates the date of the Passion by looking back to the Annunciation:

Thirty four years and twenty-one days
since that germinal March
and terminal day
(no drought that year)
since his Leda
said to his messenger . . .
(his bright talaria on)
fiat mihi
(The Anathemata p. 189)

In the poet’s retelling of the story, Mary is God’s “Leda” (the woman in Greek mythology raped by Zeus, in the guise of a swan), but this event is not a rape: Mary’s consent is the important thing: she says “fiat mihi”: “let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Elsewhere in Jones’s long poem a lively female narrator says of Mary “ her fiat is our fortune” (p. 128) -- and in a note to this passage Jones acknowledges being inspired by the doctrine that “The Eternally Begotten could not have become begotten on a creature except by a creature’s pliant will” (Ana p. 128). In both poem and commentary, Jones, a Roman Catholic, is emphasizing an aspect of the cult of Mary more familiar in the eastern church, where Mary is celebrated as the human “God-bearer,” the Theotokos.

In this strain of the Christian tradition it’s not really about whether she’s a virgin or not,: it’s about her humanity, which happens to be a female humanity, and needs to be, for God’s purposes in this part of the story: it’s about a free human being consenting to be fully used, body and soul, for God’s purposes. “Her fiat is our fortune.” The poet puts it well. This is the kind of insight that has shaped my habit of going to the poets for insight into the deep spiritual and theological questions that challenge us, both in doctrine and in Scripture.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Anchored in God

I haven't posted much lately, I see -- even forgot to put up my latest summer post from Episcopal Cafe -- Here it is, to get me re-started, and perhaps motivate me to write something else that's been "brewing"

also on episcopal cafe

In several different contexts over the past month, I’ve been brought up short again by this quotation from Evelyn Underhill’s The Spiritual Life. She writes: “a spiritual life is simply a life in which all that we do comes from the centre, where we are anchored in God.” It came up at the annual Quiet Day in honor of Evelyn Underhill, at Washington National Cathedral, and at a conference I was leading on Poetry and the Journey toward God, where we listened for the ways that poems can be an invitation, an opening, a first step into prayer-- into what Mary Oliver calls “a silence in which/ another voice may speak.” Underhill invites readers to think about people they’ve known either personally or through the tradition who reflected this confidence -- insisting that this life from the center is available to “normal people”; it is not some kind of superhuman spiritual achievement.

That same image of the anchor comes up in a spiritual we sing sometimes at my home parish, a hymn by Mother Jones that says what we all know about what we need -- particularly timely nowadays:
“In times likes these, we need a Saviour;
in times like these, we need an anchor
I’m very sure, I’m very sure
My anchor holds, upon the so-lid-rock.

(If you know the tune you’ll recognize how the tune and the meter leave us “anchored” in the rock, who is Jesus).

The anchor image is a good one, actually, because it suggests that even though we may drift, we ultimately know where we are, and there is a place we can get back to. And the spiritual life, considered as an integral part of our journey of faith and mission, is about grounding all that we do in the love and power of a reality beyond our inventions, prejudices, even righteous political positions , and a justice and mercy beyond our own making. Perhaps a fruitful direction for meditation is this: what causes me to drift away from where I am anchored? And what brings me up short, and pulls me back? This anchor image reflects a solidity of faith that many of us yearn for in ourselves and in our leaders. How do we get back to that, individually and collectively? And what sets us adrift?

So often our discussions of church life, governance, mission, and denominational politics seem to lose track of this kind of vision -- to reflect more familiar cultural values of marketing, institutional survival, or for leaders, personal mental health and self-care. Somewhere recently (Was it on the Café? I can’t remember.) I even ran across some discussion about how church leaders and clergy find they may not believe in God any more, and that’s just how it is (though we can be reassured that even if clergy have a crisis of faith this does not affect the validity of the sacraments). I’ve been musing about how often, in the privacy of a spiritual direction conversation, people have been relieved but surprised when I’ve raised the question: “so where is God in all this?” Something makes us forget to ask this question, whatever image that word “God” carries for us. It has become almost a commonplace that spiritual burnout is an inevitable outcome of ministry -- but I keep asking myself, why do we settle for this? Don’t we believe that there is something on offer in the life of faith? Some centering point that can draw us back to what is most real to us? At some point in most of our lives, someone’s centered faith helped bring us into the life of the church to begin with. So why is it so hard to keep track of that “centre, where we are anchored in God?”

I’m just raising the question, today. I suppose (and hope) that for many readers this will all seem obvious, perhaps not worth mentioning, but I’ve been brought up short by that quote from Underhill, and that “anchor” image, enough times lately to wonder whether there is something there worthy of continued meditation. Since genuine faith is usually “caught” rather than “taught,” I am wondering what the church would look like if more of us in leadership paid closer attention to where our faith is “anchored, ” and to what it takes for us, in our own particular lives, to relocate and find our center, in a quiet, undramatic, and “normal” way. The answers will be different for each person, but I think they’re good questions, and they’ve been helpful to my own meditations over this past month.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Covenant, Communion, Personhood, Wholeness - some thoughts to pursue

These are some somewhat rambling reflections, published recently on episcopal cafe (where there is a comment thread), and coming out of some of my recent reading.

First - I think of the prayer we offer in most Episcopal churches as part of our weekly "prayers of the people" intercessions:

Father, we pray for your holy catholic church
That we all may be one.

We say this most Sundays, gathered around the altar in whatever local congregation we belong to. I’ve been thinking lately about this prayer as one of the many in our liturgy that both holds up a vision and confesses our very deep brokenness. And it has resonated particularly over the past few weeks when for various reasons I’ve been reading, side by side, Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas’s classic Being as Communion and Parker Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. Because I’m a word-person I’ve been playing with the consonance in the language between these two writers -- Orthodox theologian and Quaker retreat leader-- and finding a dissonance -- perhaps a fruitful one -- with some of the language about “covenant” that have come up lately on Episcopal Café. As a church and in our personal relationships, we are often living divided lives. Both these writers remind us, in different ways, that ours is a God who calls us to wholeness and unity. So what does that mean? My thoughts about this are still a little unformed but I’m hoping that putting them out there, partly in response to things I’ve been reading lately on the café, may elicit some discussion that will help me think more clearly.

So here goes.

Theologically and spiritually, in conversations about “covenant” and “communion,” I have been wondering whether we’re missing the point, or forgetting what these words mean because of the way their meaning is being distorted or manipulated in the political discussions within the Anglican Commuinon.

Just to remind ourselves of what we know: “Covenant” in Hebrew Scripture is about the relationship between God and God’s people -- “you will be my people and I will be your God” -- bad things happen when the covenant is broken, but ultimately it is God’s desire to restore it. “Again and again, you call us to return,” we say in our Eucharistic prayer, acknowledging this part of the story.

The “new covenant” established in the Eucharist is also about relationship between ourselves and Christ, and again, it comes from God’s side. We live in brokenness, all the time, in relations to these covenants -- we fail to live up to them. But I don’t think that our tradition can deny that the call to live into a covenant relationship with God is fundamental to our identity as Christians, however we express that identity. And so how to live into a covenant with God that demands something of us as a human community and as separate persons within that community is a worthwhile topic for theological reflection.

Living in covenanted relatinship with others is part of our human effort to imitate and reflect back the faithfulness of God. Zizioulas takes it further: he says that since our God is a unity of “persons in communion,” we live into our identity as persons made in the divine image through our relationships with one another. This is what it means to be made in the divine image; to the extent that we violate and distort human relationships, or seek dominance over one another, we are dimming the divine image in ourselves; this is called “sin.” In this view, Jesus’ command to “love one another as I have loved you” becomes primary, and love becomes a way of being to which we are continually called home. The Eucharist draws us together as a church to remind us of this.

A covenant IS different from a contract because it rests not on defending the interests of individuals but on setting terms that will preserve the relationship, through mutual consent. Our growing cynicism about the language about “bonds of mutual affection” in the Anglican Covenant debate is distressing to me because that language does express an ideal we are called to live into, with God’s help and despite our human brokenness.

I welcomed with interest the discussion on Episcopal Café about the covenant of marriage, and how it compares with the monastic life, in a discussion that I think was meant to get us thinking about the manner of life we are called to as Christians in relation to one another. Objections can legitimately be raised that it is seems exclusive to focus only on marriage and monasticism as models for covenanted relationship -- but I would like to see us have the conversation about what it means to live in covenanted relationship -- what does Christian marriage mean in an era of sexual freedom and gender equality? For those who can agree that marriage is not dependent on gender, can we have this discussion now? Surely people who have been denied the opportunity to marry have important thoughts to contribute to a discussion of what Christian marriage means. And through that discussion we might come to a fresh theological consideration of other relationships to which we give ourselves in love and commitment.

The point, in the marriage conversation, is that we’ve so lost track of covenant language that we can’t even talk about what we aspire to in our theology of Christian marriage (“in it is represented the union of Christ and the Church” we say in the liturgical prayer: what do we mean by that? Or do we avoid the whole conversation because it’s couched in sexist language? Or can we talk about how we’d translate the idea into language we can embrace? Can we peel of the layers of abuse/oppression in these words and get to some kind of understanding of the nature of the relationship with God that these words, this image of Spiritual Marriage holds? Or do we throw it out altogether, and if we do, what happens to the Biblical challenge to live in covenant with a God who is passionately engaged with us and who exhorts us to love one another?

If I were to announce in a contemporary assembly that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, there is no male and female but all are one in Christ “-- would people be offended by not being mentioned in the list? ((why did he leave out black or white, gay or straight, old or young, married or unmarried, east or west, north or south -- is he snubbing some group or other by exclusion? I exaggerate, but among liberals I think this can be a common distraction in our conversations - we focus on who seems to be excluded and sometimes miss the point) -- Paul of course is saying that there is a greater wholeness to which we are called, in which we find the fulness of our identity as human persons made in the image of God? Isn’t the point is that there are NO divisions in the divine life of Christ? And isn’t the invitation to hold up that vision, even amid our brokenness, and to admit that we all contribute to that brokenness, by those we exclude or allow to be excluded?

Similarly, even if few of us make profession to a monastic community, what are the expectations of monasticism that can help us in our human relationships? Joan Chittister suggests, for example, that “Benedictine spirituality is about caring for the people you live with and loving the people you don’t and loving God more than yourself. Benedictine spirituality depends on listening for the voice of God everywhere in life, especially in one another and here.” Is this an ideal we would like to retain as part of our identity as Christians and as Anglicans? How might it translate into our everyday situations. Why is it so difficult for us to have this kind of conversation?

I’m wondering what happens if we try on the Eastern Orthodox language and think of our particular selves in terms of “personhood” rather than in terms of “individuality.” It would be countercultural for us, in the post-enlightenment, individualistic west -- but it seems to me that this might help us to look more closely at the formative effect of our relationships in the Christian life -- how we shape and are shaped by one another, growing into the divine image, without denying the dignity of each and every human being. It seems to me that this may be what Parker Palmer is getting at when he invites people to live “undivided lives.”

None of this helps with what should be done about the Anglican Communion, the “Covenant,” etc. I don’t know where that will go; but I hope that our frustration over the politics and the difficulties of cross-cultural conversation (sketched out beautifully in Marshall Scott’s recent post on the café) will not lead us to become cynical about the abiding call to unity in Christ, or to fear serious discussion about what is radical, counter cultural and hard about the call to love one another, to live into covenanted relationships, and to recognize our deep identity in communion with persons very different from ourselves.

To desire unity in Christ is to come face to face with our brokenness; but isn’t that unity what we are called to as persons made in the image of God and called to be in communion with one another? The Covenant, the dream, of a God who desires relationship with us, is still the invitation we are called to hear. The brokenness is real, but so is the promise.

Reflecting on all of this (with apologies if it seems very disparate) I am led back to Verna Dozier’s wisdom, who sums it up when she writes: “We have all failed the dream of God. The terribly patient God still waits.”

Friday, April 30, 2010

Reading: "Fuel for the Fire" of Prayer

I haven't been writing much because I've been reading - and trying to read in a different way than I've been accustomed to: following the advice of Abbot Hugh Gilbert, OSB (in an interview with Phillip Zaleski in the anthology The Inner Journey: Views form the Christian Tradition)
Abbot Hugh says this about reading in Benedictine practice

Reading is the food of prayer. Or perhaps one can say that reading is fuel for the fire. Prayer is the flame, but you won’t have fire if you don’t have fuel. If the monk is not feeding himself with the word of God, if he is not putting the logs of the word of God into the hearth of his heart, there won’t be prayer. The fire will just die out in one way or another.
. . . .
If people come from an academic background, they have to learn to read in a less acquisitive way. Not read just to make notes and gain information and write an essay about it in the end. But to read for reading’s sake, as it were, to read with an eye to meeting God.

"To read with an eye to meeting God." I've been reading, just lately, two books that speak to each other interestingly -- at least in my imagination -- about God and the experience of the Divine Life. The first is John Zizioulas's classic, Being as Communion. It develops the Eastern Orthodox idea of God as a "communion of persons" - a being defined by communion -- and suggests that what we mean when we say we are created in the divine image is that we are made to be persons in communion: that is our eternal identity. I am who I am, who God has made me to be, and the journey of Christian faith is to grow more and more into that person, and to understand more and more how I am connected to other persons, in the "communion" (koinonia) that is the true divine life. He makes the distinction between being "individuals in community" -- a consumerist model -- occupied with what we can get out of the community -- and being "persons in communion" -- gradually discovering our divine identity through our connection with other human beings, all of us made in the image of God. Zizioulas says the Church lives this image of the divine life most fully at the Eucharist. I'm not expressing this very well, but it seems to me to be a compelling idea -- one I'd heard about but have enjoyed mulling over more fully, wading through the often quite technical systematic theology that Zizioulas presents.

I've been reading other things too - most recently Parker Palmer's wonderfully titled book A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life: Welcoming the Soul and Weaving Community in a Wounded World. -- which I think speaks to some of the same things as Zizioulas, in another mode -- but will write more about this in another post. I'm not sure I fully understand everything I've read in Zizioulas -- couldn't write a term paper or a theological essay on him yet -- but the experience of reading & pondering this work has been rich and prayerful. "Fuel for the fire" of prayer indeed! I want to read around more in the spirituality and practice of the very earliest church fathers.

Perhaps I'll write more soon about what I've been reading. But that's enough for now.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Faith and Writing

I'm just back from the biannual Festival of Faith and Writing held at Calvin College. It's the second time I've been and I hope to make a habit of it. Will probably be processing for awhile the things I heard, and I hope that may prompt more frequent blog posts in the next couple of weeks.

It was wonderful to be around people who understand that writing is a vocation, whether or not one is widely published. And we heard from some lovely people who are published writers -- Scott Cairns, Thomas Lynch, Parker Palmer -- many others (those are the three who signed books for me). I am reminded that we write because it is a calling - and that writing well is part of how we worship -- attention to the craft a kind of contemplative activity. It makes me look forward to the summer months when I have more time to truly attend to that crafting. It also reminded me that a love of reading is something that writers share - nice to be among people who shared that passion.

What I'm chewing over right now -- perhaps following on some of the reading I've been doing in orthodox spirituality, and some of my Holy Week blogging -- is the keynote speech given by poet Scott Cairns. Scott was raised in a strict Calvinist tradition but is now a very joyful Eastern Orthodox Christian, and he is perhaps unique in his ability to bring alive to people what is richest in orthodox doctrine - and as he often says, the common heritage of all Christians. A couple of things he said in his opening remarks stay with me: first, just generally, the clear sense he had that all of us abide in communion with the great Mystery that we call the Love of God. Jokingly, he brought greetings from his Orthodox priest to the Calvinists -- "tell them,"he said, "that they are not as bad as they think they are" -- a wonderful summary of the difference between Orthodoxy, which sees us as made in the image of God, and our sinfulness as our tendency to dull or violate that abiding image of God in us. So there is no sense of original sin or "total depravity" of human beings, which is so important to some forms of Calvinism, and notorious in popular accounts of Christianity in this country (the sense that we are hopelessly fallen and bad and can only hope for redemption through the mercy of God) -- of course there's no denial, in either tradition, of the reliability of God's mercy or the sinfulness of humanity, but for me the language of Orthodoxy (also used by many Anglicans and by many Christians these days _ is a much more generous and hopeful understanding of our brokenness and of our call to be whole and human and in communion with God, in the orthodox way of thinking about sin and redemption. I appreciated that. Scott also invited us to reflect on whether we follow the way of faith as servants, hoping for a reward, or as slaves, fearful of punishment, or as lovers, who simply long to be near the beloved, and are formed by our love. Obviously the invitation, he would say, is to the last - to live into our identities as persons made in the image of God, and to understand ourselves as a whole community living within the divine life, and growing more and more into fulness of life.

Some of this is my language, brought in from my reading of orthodox theologian John Zizioulas, of whom more later -- but it seemed to me that Scott was speaking my language, and his poetry does, too -- in a kind of pithy, down-to-earth way that is very aware of human brokenness, hypocrisy, and sinfulness but radiates the experience of the divine mercy. Here's the end of one of his poems, "Adventures in New Testament Greek, Metanoia (metanoia, in Greek, is usually translated "repentance" - but it means "turning around," implies a total change of life, a turning toward God -- I love these lines:

The heart's metanoia
on the other hand, turns
without regret, turns not
so much away, as toward

as if the slow pilgrim
has been surprised to find
that sin is not so bad
as it is a waste of time. (from his volume Compass of Affection, p. 93)

Friday, April 2, 2010

Good Friday Thoughts

The Maundy Thursday sermon last night (preached by our assistant rector, Peter Schell (you can see videos of his preaching at the Church of Our Saviour homepage – though not this sermon) has given me a good image to take through this Holy Week observance. He spoke quite simply about how Jesus, in giving his disciples the Eucharist, was giving them a “point of reference” – a landmark to return to when we lose our way. When we feel lost, or headed in the wrong direction, that point of reference, he said, will always reorient us, and help us “find our way home.” It is a gift of love to us.

For me, the whole observance of the Triduum: Maundy Thursday-Good Friday-Great Vigil of Easter and Easter Day – has become such a point of reference in life. Each year, the return to the Cross is a time to re-orient my life toward what is truly real: the mysterious love of God for a broken world – the reality of a way of life offered to us, different from the one we usually choose, a way that leads straight through the brokenness of the world, into the fullness of life that God desires and intends for us and all creation.

And so each year Good Friday invites me to re-orient my life, toward the “home” that is prepared for all of us, beginning right where we are, at the heart of the Divine Life. I bring to the Cross – that mysterious symbol of love and suffering “made holy” (see my previous post) – whatever is most broken in my own life – and I ask what it might mean, in light of the central mystery of our faith.

This year I have a sense of urgency about how true this all feels: the urgency of a love that is always calling to us across whatever obstacles we put in the way – the agony of that love when it is rejected and not heard – and yet its persistence, in a deeply personal and yet mysterious way, in and through the darkest moments of our human experience. I cannot get to it in words, though there is a poem coming, perhaps – in the voice of Christ, beginning “walk with me” –(stay tuned). I’m trying to listen -- there’s an invitation, here at the Cross, to experience the divine desire to share in our human brokenness and to show us a way through that is beyond anything we can find on our own: a way through to life. I am convinced that this is what God offers – and for me Good Friday is a day when it all seems vividly, heartbreakingly true. I am grateful for this.

And yet I also know it is a mystery beyond what anyone can grasp or understand. Each year, in the process of finding our way again, we come up against this. Evelyn Underhill writes “I suppose no soul of any sensitiveness can live through Holy Week without an awed and grateful sense of being incorporated in a mystery of self-giving love which yet remains beyond our grasp.” I see what she means.

At Our Saviour on Maundy Thursday, when the altar is stripped bare, the crosses in the church are also veiled in black. Over the years, that black-veiled Cross has become a powerful invitation to me to simply be in the mystery. I realize that this is a local custom – many churches do it but many don't -- it isn’t observed everywhere. But that solid symbol of hope shrouded in mystery – life hidden in death and brokenness – that black-veiled cross is the symbol, for me, of the mystery to which our lives are oriented. It is the point of reference that I return to each year, to reorient my life, and find my way home. I look forward to spending some quiet time today, in between actual services, simply resting in the presence of that Mystery.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

"Sacrifice" - Some thoughts for Holy Week

Also on episcopal cafe

On most days in Lent this year my prayers have included Psalm 51, the penitential psalm, and various parts of it have been resonating for me. Some fresh insight seems to be coming as I pause over the verses late in the psalm:

Had you desired it, I would have offered sacrifice,
But you take no delight in burnt offerings
The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit
A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Ps 51: 17-18)

I haven’t been sure what I meant, praying this psalm, by “sacrifice,” but an article I’ve run across just lately by Orthodox theologican Andrew Schmemann has opened this up to me in ways that will probably carry my meditations through much of the rest of Lent. Here are some directions that meditation is taking.

Schmemann resists the western notion of sacrifice as a legalistic “satisfaction” of an unpaid debt – something offered to make up for sins or to earn forgiveness – or to satisfy the anger of a sinned-against God. Instead he insists that “sacrifice” is “an ontology” – a way of being. The word literally means “to make holy.” When the people of Israel went up to Jerusalem and offered sacrifices they were responding to the holiness of God by offering back something from their own flocks, thus making holy the things from their daily lives; when they feasted on the meat of animals offered as “burnt offerings,” they saw themselves as sharing in a meal with the God to whom the sacrifice was offered, and so they, and their offerings, were “made holy.” And so the sacrifice also was one way that they responded to and renewed the Covenant – assented to God’s desire that ‘you will be my people and I will be your God” – the sacrifice is reciprocal, mutual. God was often delighted (though in the psalm the sacrifice demanded goes beyond burnt offering and into the human heart). Sin offerings work the same way: because we were made to be holy people, by a God who longs for us, acts of repentance or turning back to God, become celebrations of a feast of reconciliation – the feast ordered up by the prodigal son’s father because his the beloved has returned home. (I now see even more clearly why this image of the prodigal son figures so prominently in one of our rites for the Sacrament of Reconciliation (BCP p.450))

“Where there is no sacrifice there is no life,” Schmemann writes. “Sacrifice is rooted in the recognition of life as love: a giving up, not because I want more for myself, or to satisfy an objective justice, but because it is the only way of reaching the fulness that is possible for me.”

As we are made holly, through God’s loving invitation, we want more and more to offer ourselves, and all that we we have – and so Schmemann wisely suggests the opposite of sacrifice is ‘consumerism” – the belief that we own what we have and have control over it and need to own more and more. An ethic of sacrifice recognizes that growth toward God always requires a letting go and a receiving, a mutuality that is part of the divine nature, part of what we share in because we were made in the image of God.

Of course the divine invitation to a life of sacrifice – a life energized by the desire for greater communion with God – can be distorted by all kinds of power dynamics. Women for generations have been familiar with the expectation of “self-sacrifice” often before any mature sense of self has been built or affirmed, and this can be profoundly wounding—one of the sadder results of an authoritarian reading of the notion of “sacrifice.” But this is exactly to the notion of sacrifice that Schmemann refjects – “a legal transaction. . . a duty of the creation to the Creator, like an income tax”( Schmemann, p.142) -- the notion that our giving of self is a transaction, a condition that wins us the love we long for.

That is not how God works: the process of being “made holy” is one that invites a constant, willing giving over, giving up, of parts of ourselves we thought we controlled; and it also invites a practice of receiving with gratitude – a practice that we lose very easily! Because our deepest identity is that we are made by God and beloved by God, the process of sacrifice is ultimately a life-giving and freeing one: “Unless the grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains but a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24) – Jesus is talking here about his own sacrifice and how it gives life. There is much more here for further meditation.

Repentance, sacrifice, being made holy, bearing much fruit – it is all part of the same process, a way of being that Schmemann calls “sacrificial living.” To return to the psalm: a “troubled spirit,” the sense of separation that comes when I truly examine my conscience in relation to the faithfulness of God, is a gift that “makes holy” – a returning to the One who loves me. If it hurts to look honestly at myself, I can rely on God to receive what I bring – a heart made a little bit more sincere by self-examination. Another small step toward the trust-filled returning, the self-offering that gives life.

I hadn’t realized before reading this Schmemann piece how much this psalm of contrition is also a psalm of celebration – an invitation to deeper connection, through deeper honesty, with the One who made us and calls us. For Schmemann the idea of sacrifice (making holy) is integrally connected to worship and to Eucharist and here too is much more food for meditation. But perhaps it is enough for now to observe that the same psalm contains these familiar words of worship:

“Open my lips, O God
And my mouth shall show forth your praise.” (Ps 51:16)

*note - for further reading, the Schmemann piece is collected in a really good anthology put out by the Parabola Magazine it's called "The Energy of Life: Sacrifice and Worship,” from Parabola 3:2. Reprinted in Lorraine Kisley, ed. The Inner Journey: Views from the Christian Tradition, p.143ff

Sunday, March 14, 2010

New Online Journal Devoted to the Work of David Jones

I'm delighted to announce the appearance of a special issue of the online journal Flashpoint, a journal of modernist literature, completely devoted to the work of the British artist and poet David Jones. I helped to edit this special issue, which includes most of the talks that were given last year about this time, at a conference that the Cathedral College of Washington National Cathedral sponsored entitled: "David Jones: Faith, Art and Poetry in a Post-Christian World". Jones has been a focus of my scholarly work for many years. My book on his work, At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetry was published in 1994. Returning to his work after many years I find that Jones's poetry, which is demanding and highly allusive, and his poetics - which are based in a sacramental Christianity -- were very influential for me, and I reflect on this in my own paper in this new online collection, called "The Sagging End and Chapter's Close: Revisiting a Long Conversation with David Jones's Poetry" -- might be of interest to some readers of this blog. My introduction to the special issue provides a map through the various papers, and I hope gives some feeling for the conference itself - there's more about the conference at a blog I set up last year for David Jones enthusiasts at DavidJonesArtistandpoet

Friday, February 26, 2010

Mourning - Another part of "Mothering Life"

I've written quite a lot of poetry about "mothering life" and its blessings. But these past few weeks I have been experiencing a painful side of it all. A young friend and neighbor -- whom I've known his whole life through our babysitting co-op years ago -- died a few days ago. He was 20. He was also a gifted poet, and I had the privilege of working with him and his family on pulling together a chapbook of his poems, which is now the March Book of the Month at Finishing Line Press . But today I am writing my own poem of grieving, shared with a whole community of stricken friends and neighbors, who loved this young man and his family. Here it is.

Broken Sonnet

The time was very brief when we could keep
Them safe, secure and happy, meet their needs.
We shared the work, the joy of raising them.
Now they are gone, or going, into a world
We can’t protect them from, where hard things happen
And this is part of life, we say. But No: Not This.

The little boy whom we remember, blonde, playful and earnest
Grows into strong young manhood, is a friend
And poet. Stricken with a tumor on a Christmas Eve, he lives
A whole life in his twentieth year, writes poetry
That speaks out of a wisdom beyond years
And dies, leaving us all
Speechless with grief, hearts aching for the tears
Of our friends, his parents, their empty arms.

--Kathy Staudt
February 26, 2010

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Snowbound:Some Spiritual Lessons

(Also on episcopal cafe)

Except for a brief grocery run between storms, I was “snowbound” for nearly a week, from February 9-13, with the two huge storms falling on the DC area. It took 2 days for our suburban cul-de-sac to be plowed at all – and then the second blizzard came. Unlike many in the area we have had our power on the whole time, so we were not materially deprived, apart from cabin fever. It was just a long stretch of time at being at home, mostly it’s been an experience of just being “stopped.”

At first we celebrated this time as an “enforced Sabbath,” something that is welcome in the workaholic culture of the DC area, when the weather conditions and the slowness of the cleanup process simply force us to let go of whatever important things we were doing. And for a day or so, yes, it was a welcome “sabbath time.” But after that a more insidious inertia set in.

Indeed, I have been wondering whether an “enforced Sabbath” is kind of a contradiction in terms. Sabbath is supposed to be a regular spiritual practice, a part of our routine – a way that we simply let go of busy-ness to acknowledge that God is Lord of all of our time and work, and that our work is not our own, but God’s. It strikes me that perhaps a more regular practice of genuine Sabbath would have been a good preparation for the spiritual challenge this snowstorm posed for me. For what I felt most of the time was a deep restlessness, a sense of being unhooked from any reliable routine or pattern, and so an inability to settle to much of anything – even settling down to read a good book, as I’d longed to do, and had time to do, or to write, or pray, or do anything much more than responding to what came: answering email, gmail chatting, facebook, grading the occasional paper.

By the end of the week I was snowbound both outwardly and internally. Unmotivated. Stuck. It is a place in life I recognize, and perhaps it has left me with a useful image, a new spiritual metaphor to remember when I do not have control over the way forward, and the place I’m in seems crowded, enclosed, confused, with too many competing demands. Outwardly, I kept busy, apparently “doing things.” Since I work at home, the work was all there, looking at me, and I picked my way through it, in an unmotivated way. But any substantive or creative writing was just blocked. With the rhythm of days flattened out, I lost the internal rhythm of prayer, study, work and rest that would normally steady and settle me. The computer was too alluring – a way of staying connected with people, emails and facebook posts that make me feel needed, important, not buried at the end of a suburban cul de sac. My spouse was at home, also working, we broke for meals together, and I did find that losing myself in the creative art of cooking does help to redeem a snowy day -- but even that grew old after 5 days.

Inwardly, my response to this snowstorm and the break in our routine was beginning to feel more like the kind of “stopping” of life that comes with illness, or grieving, or other unexpected interruptions. Times when we are “brought up short” – as theologian Richard Osmer puts it – where we come up against a break in our regular expectations of life and are not sure what to make of it. Sometimes such times turn out to be places of grace- but they sure don't feel that way when we're in them!

Then there was the shoveling out: my way to freedom, once the roads were clear, thwarted by my own bad choices: I had parked the car in the driveway after the first storm, to save the effort of shoveling our whole driveway, which slopes uphill from the garage. But the second snowstorm buried the car under a snowdrift – so the work of digging it out doubled. In the end I needed to dig the whole driveway, roll the car back into the garage, and begin again. No work saved, hard to see how long it would take me – and no help in sight. The neighbor who had helped me after the first storm was tapped out; my spouse was laid up with bronchitis. My car would be free only when I could get it out.

The task itself was clear enough, but discouraging. I would dig away at the snow but there was nowhere to go with it – the piles blew back at me, and though I’m in decent shape it grew tiring, heaving each shovelful to the top of the growing snowpiles along the driveway. Gradually I’d begin to see patches of pavement, mingled with ice -- but I’d think: “this will take hours – maybe won’t be done by dark today. I don’t know how long my strength will last.” All I could do was to keep filling the shovels full, piling snow high on the already deeply covered lawn behind me. An unrewarding task for long stretches, but obviously the only way out.

Gradually, shovelful by shovelful, I began to break through to a way out.. It was fine as long as I could focus on the single task: lifting the next shovelful, moving the snow, pausing to admire the brilliant sky and the sparkling icicles around me. When I started to obsess about how long it would be before I was dug out, and whether it would be today or tomorrow, discouragement quickly overwhelmed.. There was no way of knowing how soon my efforts would pay off. I simply had to keep on. Knowing it would be done eventually. Not knowing when, or how long I could last, this shift, before taking a break.

But I can't say I did it all myself Help came, finally, when I was about ready to admit defeat for the day – from someone with fresh arms and a fresh approach. He moved the last few shovelfuls and backed the car out for me, up and over the icy hill, and finally, I was free.

I’m appreciating some spiritual insights from this experience of being snowbound. It may be reaching a bit, but the metaphor works for me, I shall try to remember all of this next time I am aware of being spiritually “snowbound” – in that place of interior “stuckness” that is all too familiar for me.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Missing Church: Meditations on a Snowy Sunday (Epiphany 7)

I am a Sunday church-goer. Statistics tell us that may mean I’m part of a waning group – I keep hoping that’s not so. But for me it’s simply true: my life is grounded in the rhythm that includes showing up with other Christians, on a Sunday morning, to worship God, to hear the Word, to be together in the mystery, as it is for us that week. Since I’m also a “professional Christian” for part of my life – often teaching & traveling on Sunday mornings, I don’t always get to worship at my preferred place, the 10:30 service at Our Saviour, Silver Spring. But I usually get to church somewhere, sometime on Sunday, when I can. Sunday worship is part of the deep shape of my life. If I miss it or it is disrupted for long I begin to feel un-whole.

Sunday worship didn’t happen for me last week because I was traveling (I offered my morning prayers along the beach of Monterey Bay and felt connected with God, but the communal piece was still missing—and couldn’t be scheduled). This week it won’t happen, either, because we are buried under 2 feet of snow, and it’s unlikely our cul-de sac will be plowed out for the next 24 hours.

But one great gift of Anglican/Episcopalian tradition is the book of “common prayer,” and so this morning I have spent some time slowly and deliberately reading the service of Morning Prayer, using the lessons appointed for Sunday Eucharist by the Revised Common Lectionary, remembering that even though I am alone, here in this sunlit-snowlit place that is my study, there are members of the church at prayer at this time, today, somewhere – many of them reading and listening to these same words. This is a comfort to me, and a connection. It is said that 'When one member of the church is at prayer, the whole church is at prayer." I hope this is true.

This weekend would have been a retreat weekend for the vestry of our church – and I’m the Rector’s Warden – the senior lay leader for the church – so our worship, with these lessons, would have been a Eucharist with this small group, discerning together what our common call to leadership in the church might mean for the coming year. I am impressed by how appropriate the lessons appointed for today, the 7th Sunday in Epipihany, are for those of us called to leadership – and so I’m dwelling with them, and putting up a few thoughts that have been particularly vivid in this quiet worship time, and that I want to remember after the snow clears and I’m back into the busy-ness & complexity of life & leadership.

The first lesson is that wild passage from Isaiah 6: 1-8. The story of how the prophet Isaiah, praying alone in the temple, has an overwhelming vision of the holy – so overwhelming it makes him completely aware of his own unworthiness, as a mere mortal, to have anything to do with God. (“Woe is me,” he says, “for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips.”) But the point of the story is that God calls him and makes him worthy: it’s a strong, shocking image: the angel puts a burning coal to the prophet’s mouth, in his vision, and says, essentially: “God has made your lips pure. No excuses now.” The next word from God is the naming of a need –“Who will go for us?” And the prophet, made whole and inspired, says “here am I , send me.” Not really knowing what he’s getting into – but face to face with the power, beauty, and ultimate trustworthiness of a God who seems to want to be in touch with humanity, and to use this particular human being for some purpose. “Here am I, send me!” seems the only answer.

Not all of us identify with that story just because it is SO dramatic and supertnatural: for Isaiah it is the source of his conviction, what makes it possible for him to proclaim an unpopular message that will not be heard in his generation. He agrees to play his part in an unfolding story whose redemptive ending he will not live to see. Kind of grim. But there is joy and conviction in his willingness to say “Here am I, send me.” That’s what stays with me. What might that spirit of joyful obedience look like, for me? Something to ponder.

Then there’s the beginning of 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul bears witness to the Resurrection as the core event that defines all of our faith as Christians – how Christ Jesus appeared to the disciples, to James, to the apostles, and last of all to him. That witness, placed next to the Isaiah story, sounds to me like profoundly good news: Though the Isaiah story seems to me just, well, crazy, I can think of moments in my life when I have felt sure of the presence of the Risen Lord, as an invisible but active, joyful, personal love, calling me to embrace and affirm life even in the face of great suffering and loss. Many Christians can point to these experiences in their own lives. Or they have been brought to a place of hope by hearing others’ stories of Resurrection faith. Or by the conviction and joy at the heart of an Easter celebration. Our connection to the Risen Lord as we’ve experienced it (sometimes we don’t call it that) may be the equivalent, in our lives, to Isaiah’s vision. It is what makes us able to say, in some way – as any of us who are involved in leadership have said – “Here am I. send me.” I wonder if we should be sharing, more intentionally, these stories of Resurrection faith?

And then we come to Luke 5:1-1l. My favorite among the stories of the call of the fishermen that we run into in all of the gospels. Jesus singles out Peter, and asks to use his boat as a place to teach from. So Peter sits beside him in the boat, presumably listening to what he is preaching – the good news of God’s love for all, and especially for the poor and the marginalized (a big theme in Luke/Acts, especially). After this Jesus tells him, “Put out into deeper water and let down your nets.” And Peter’s response is like the one I’ve given a lot lately, in moments of distress over the struggles of the church, especially – “Lord, we’ve tried that already, a million times. It’s not going to work.” Jesus is persistent, and Peter replies, faithfully, “If you say so,” -- and he puts down the nets and finds an abundance previously unimagined. What is the equivalent, for us in leadership today, of that invitation to “put out into deeper water and cast down your nets.?” Where are we resisting invitations to find abundance?

These are my meditations coming out of my “Sunday time” – not the same as it would have been, in church with others, singing and listening – but a time of worship and listening nonetheless.

After the lessons, the service of Morning Prayer takes us into the prayers – and includes a “collect for Sundays” – which I almost never use because I’m usually at a Eucharist on Sunday morning, rather than at morning prayer (two distinct services in the prayer book). But this does express well the simple blessing of Sunday church, as a practice that shapes my week -- what I’m missing today, and what I’ve partly reclaimed, in this time of solitary “common prayer” this morning:

O God, you make us glad with the weekly remembrance of the glorious resurrection of your Son our Lord: Give us this day such blessing through our worship of you, that the week to be come may be spent in your favor; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.