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.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

"Keeping Christmas": A Spiritual Practice

            “I will keep Christmas always, and strive to observe it all the year.” This is  Ebenezer Scrooge’s promise to the Ghost of Christmas Future, as we witness his conversion in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.  Our family Christmas ritual includes both church services and our yearly viewing of “The Muppet Christmas Carol,” a favorite from our children’s childhood,on Christmas Eve.   (We also find time each Christmas season to re-watch “Mr Magoo’s Christmas Carol,” a favorite from their parents’ generation).  So Scrooge is on my mind.  You could say this is a cultural rather than a specifically religious or theological practice but for me it is bound up with all that is wonderful, mysterious, full of a hidden and ever-growing joy in each year’s celebration of the Mystery of the Incarnation.
“Keeping Christmas,” I’m coming to see, is less about belief than about practice.  It is in fact a "spiritual practice":  something we do as a way of becoming more available to the mysterious dimension of life, the dimension where love and hope and compassion are active and transforming, and at work in the world.  

The idea of the limitless mystery of Love becoming a human being and living our lives with us is at the heart of Christian meditations in this season -- indeed, always.  But it is too big to explain or really grasp in any way :  the story of the baby in the manger, the shepherds hearing the overflowing song of the angels, the foreign wise men drawn to the birth of this Child -- these parts of the story make it more friendly and familiar.  And I think that is also what my Christmas practices do for me:  trimming the tree, shopping for gifts, baking cookies, inviting people in for parties, caroling.  All these are part of “keeping Christmas” in our family,  and the process of making them happen continues to be formative for me.  As we pull out the ornaments each year and put them on the tree, we remember, as a family, the stories behind them -- the ornaments bought on vacations, given as gifts from grandmothers, the ornaments that hung on my tree when I was growing up.  And I reflect on the blessings of the years.

            We hear a lot in the Christmas season about the way it has all been taken over by commercialism, or about all the stress that preparations cause those who feel responsible for doing everything perfectly.  Or the pressure to spend money we don’t have.  Or of how hard it is -- and it is -- in a time of grieving or loss. And none of this is untrue.  I myself faced a scary health crisis one year around Christmas time, and since then every  Christmas has become a celebration of what we DO have, whatever it is.  The “things” and the people become incarnational symbols, in their way, if we let them.  

             The practice of Gift-giving, for example, can  easily become about the stuff, and about getting what we want.  It is a real spiritual challenge not to be overwhelmed by this.  But gift-giving is redeemed for me when I think of it as a practice of abundance.   I usually try to do most of the shopping, strategizing and wrapping early in December, so that when we get to Christmas Eve it seems as if someone else might have brought all those presents -- and whether or not we spend a lot of money on the gifts, I like to see a lot of packages under the tree, thoughtful, sometimes homemade gifts - small things and big things, depending on what we are able to give.  But it's the "gift" part that is best for me.  Sometimes I think my favorite moment on Christmas Day is in the early morning, before everyone gets up, seeing an abundance of gifts under the lighted tree -- why not receive this as a symbol of the overflowing Love whose mysterious coming we are celebrating at this season?

            It is also a season to remember those in need, and our giving includes donations to charities we care about.  We find to our great delight that some of our friends, and even our children,  are making such donations in our names these days  and that is good.  Toys for the toy closet, food for the shelter.  These are also part of the practice of “Keeping Christmas” - practices to sustain "all the year long."

            Then there is hospitality.  “And let each heart prepare a home/where such a mighty guest may come,” goes a line from a favorite Advent hymn. Or “make your house fair as you are able, trim the hearth and set the table. .. . . Love the Guest is on the Way.”  It really is a joy to push the furniture against the walls and “stage” our modest suburban house for a big workplace Christmas potluck, with kids and families and caroling.   Seeing the house full of people, eating, visiting and even singing, is one of the great joys of the season for me, even though it IS a lot of work to prepare and clean up.  I do what I can to keep it simple, and the whole process becomes spiritual practice for me.

            And yes. Singing, definitely a spiritual practice for me as more or less a lifetime choir member.  What I like about Christmas caroling is that people can appreciate the spirit of it whether or not they “agree with the words.” Or at least I hope this is true for many people.  I myself just love Christmas carols -- know all the words, and find that singing carols at a Christmas party is a wonderful way to quietly bring together the sense of praise and wonder that I carry through the season, with the goodwill and fun that comes with singing together - whether it’s “O Come all Ye Faithful,” or “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,”  “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”  or “Deck the Halls”. It’s about practice, not about belief.  The singing, not the words.  But somehow the mystery and the wonder and the mutual welcome that are at the heart of the season do creep into these practice, and if we let them, they can change us, at least for a time.   

            Like any spiritual practice, “Keeping Christmas” only works if it is freely chosen.  If someone tells you how you have to do it it becomes a performance, not a practice.  The usual spiritual traps arise, especially for parents and hosts:   perfectionism, the need to do it better than other people, the preoccupation with what’s in it for me --  all these motives can get in the way and make the practice a chore and not a source of openness and joy.  But I have to say this year has been a good one for me, and when it is freely entered, the practice of Keeping Christmas can open up other ways of “finding God in all things,” which is what the spiritual life is about anyway.  It’s what the Mystery of the Incarnation is about, too - not a spirituality that goes apart from the world of stuff and busy-ness, but one that comes right into the midst of it all to make us fully alive.

            And so, as Tiny Tim would say, “God bless us, every one.”           

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Bible Reading Episcopalians - Who Knew?

 Also on Episcopal Cafe

“Who knew that Episcopalians read the Bible”? Twice in the last month, someone has said exactly these words to me, in contexts that now have me wondering. Both conversation partners were people who have been excited to find that you can read the Bible faithfully without taking it literally (indeed, a new book by Christian Smith that I’ve just started reading has suggested that “Biblicism” as we know it in American Protestant tradition actually undermines the enterprise of Evangelism -- but that’s for another post). One was a young adult raised in a progressive, pluralistic household, who is curious about the Bible, and has become more interested in reading Scripture because conversations with an online Episcopalian friend. The other was a priest raised in a deeply conservative Evangelical tradition, who told me he was drawn to the Episcopal Church partly through a “Disciples of Christ in Community” (DOCC) class. “I was raised to think that Episcopalians knew nothing about the Bible, he said, and here were people animatedly engaged in learning about Scripture: Who knew that Episcopalians were readers of the Bible?”
I wonder now whether some of the efforts in the 1980’s and 90’s to promote Bible Study among the laity -- the development of DOCC and EFM, the teachings of people like Verna Dozier and the adult Bible studies she designed -- are actually beginning to “take” among a critical mass of Episcopalians. Certainly it is true to our tradition to take Scripture seriously -- part of the “three-legged stool” of Scripture, Reason and Tradition, but taking a place of priority in many ways. At the consecration of Bishop Mariann Budde I noticed again that one of the things every ordained person must say publicly (in addition to accepting the “doctrine, discipline and worship of Christ as this church has received them”) is “I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary for salvation” (BCP, 538). And the next morning, in church, we offered this collect -- which comes around every year just at the end of the long season of Pentecost:

Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. (Proper 28, BCP p. 236)

“For our learning,” Verna Dozier emphasized: We read Scripture, the record of how men and women experienced the work of God, as our way of learning who God is calling us to be, in our time and place and lives. And each generation is invited to this practice of reading, marking learning, taking in Scripture. When I read recent books by former evangelicals promoting “new ways of reading Scripture” I find that I recognize the way that I have been taught to read Scripture, first in a fairly liberal Presbyterian church in the 1960’s, but then beginning in the 70’s, in Bible studies and conversations with fellow Episcopalians. In our effort to distinguish ourselves from literalist and fundamentalist approaches to Scripture and doctrine, we may well have ceded too much ground in the public conversation about and use of Scripture to guide and inform our account of ourselves. “Who knew?” What would it be like, if people knew Episcopalians as people who were faithful, creative, thoughtful and open-hearted readers of the Bible, and who do regard it as the Word of God for us, in each succeeding generation, using all the resources of reason and tradition to “hear read, mark learn and inwardly digest” what the Scriptures contain?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Gratefulness - on Thanksgiving Day

Everyone is home, and I am full of gratitude.
My children, in their twenties,  -- arrived yesterday, safely, flying in from long distances, but without undue traffic or airport delays.  I am so grateful for this .  They are home rarely and it always seems like a moment of miracle when they come in the door,  as they did together, yesterday evening.  This year I added a ridiculously "Norman-Rockwellish" touch to their arrival by making the apple pie while I waited for them to navigate the Dulles Toll Road and get home.  It was in the oven when they arrived and they responded immediately to the "smell of food"  as they came in the door, warming my own heart.    And that evening all four of us gathered around the dining room table for dinner-- as we only do now when they are home -- for a meal I had prepared and good conversation -- And I was so grateful for this chance to enjoy firsthand who they are growing up to be.

Last night after dinner, the "kids" dispersed to their rooms to do their own thing, my husband sat down to play Brahms and Chopin on the piano, as he does most evenings, and I stood at the kitchen window, listening, washing more dishes than I am used to washing -- one of the things I notice when everyone is home-- and just feeling overwhelmingly glad, that gladness washing over me as the water washed over the plates in the sink.  I am so grateful that once again,  another year, everyone is home, and whole, and here, for a time.

We have a lull this morning, again just hanging out, all adults together under the same roof.  This is something I always hoped for when they were growing up, that we could be comfortable and at home together, at least sometimes, once they became adults.  That was a blessing I had from my own family and I have hoped for it for us.  And here we are.  I don't have to cook today.  Later we will go to a friend's house for Thanksgiving dinner with long-time friends.  My contributions are pumpkin and apple pies, which I enjoyed preparing, these last few days, in anticipation of the feast.  Nice to have them all ready to go -- all we'll need to do is get dressed and drive to the feast this year.  (My turn will come at Christmas).

Gratefuless, says Brother David Steindl-Rast, is the heart of prayer.  I am full of gratitude today.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

My "Adventures in New Testament Greek" John 3:16

 Scott Cairns, one of my favorite poets,  has a series of poems he calls "Adventures in New Testament Greek." (you can read an example here).   The Young Adults Bible study group I lead is reading the gospel of John this year, and I have been having my own adventures in New Testament Greek as I prepare for our meetings and reread this so-very-rich gospel.  On my new ipad I have access now to the Greek text and a Greek-English study dictionary- and just enough New Testament Greek to be able to follow up on my literary instincts when I wonder "what was that word in the original." (I've basically had a semester of seminary level NT Greek -- a few years back -- see my post about that here).

There are a lot of important "key" words in the gospel of John -- including many that have become almost jargon for readers of the Bible and church people -- light and darkness, believing, being born again, seeing the light or not.  Staying with some of these words (and I may come back to this in future blog posts -stay tuned) has helped me as I reread this gospel deeply and prayerfully, letting it "speak" to me imaginatively, and paying attention to the words.  All of this is opening new doors for me.

A good example is the word "believe" --which has become kind of a slogan in fundamentalist circles   "John 3:16" gets held up on signs at football games as a kind of inside code or rallying cry for evangelicals and it IS, arguably, the heart of the gospel. But what does it mean.    "For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life." That "whosoever believeth" has too often been an entry into the perilous territory of "well, what happens to those who don't believe, or what happen to me if I stop believing --  and does that mean if I don't agree with you I'm going to hell. And how can anyone believe any of this" and . . . well, you know.  It's a rabbit hole.

But looking at the words more closely gets us to a very different, freer, understanding -- supporting what Sam Lloyd, former dean of Washington National  Cathedral, has called "a generous and open-hearted Christian faith."  Here's how this passage speaks to me, paying attention to the words.  To me the heart of this is the love part -- God loved the world the Greek verb there, "agapein" is about the kind of love that knits together families and communities (not so much a sacrificial, costly love that creates an obligation for us, though that's in the mix --  but "agape" is about passionate, faithful relationship, a love that reaches out and awakens our willing response and knits us together, creating community and mutuality).  So this is a God who wants to connect with us -- to be in relationship with the world - and Jesus, the "Son," -- especially in this gospel -- is all about that relationship.   He keeps inviting people to "come and see" for themselves. (See for example John 1:39 - more on this perhaps in a later post).

The word "believe," as in the King James "whosoever believeth," has tripped us up in fights about who is a "Bible believing Christian" and who isn't.   But if you look at the way the word is used throughout John it really seems  to a disposition of the heart quite different from "belief" in a set of propositions.  The Greek verb "pisteuo", translated "I believe" really means something closer to "I have faith in", "I trust"  -- related to the adjective "pistis" meaning faithful, loyal.  It's about a human relationship, not about assent to propositions.

So when I say I "believe" in the gospel, it's not about insisting that this or that event actually happened, historically, exactly and verifiably as described, or even about fussing over what Jesus did or did not "actually say."   (Actually John 3:16 is one of the passages where scholars disagree about whether these are meant to be the words of Jesus or an commentary by the evangelist -- but either way, they invite us into the good news if we want to pay attention).  Rather, it's about setting my heart to the truth that the stories point to.  When I come to something I stumble over on the literal level, rather than dispute about what's factual, I try to pay attention to what's true.  I ask "what is this saying to me?" what else is here?  why were we given this passage, this story?  This is a way of reading Scripture that takes the Bible very seriously, without taking it literally.  Indeed, to take the gospel of John literally, i.e., according to the "letter" of the King James version, as many fundamentalist traditions have done, is to miss a lot of the wisdom in this gospel.   In John, Jesus is all about inviting people to "come and see" for themselves -- to be in relationship with him, to walk alongside him, really, to imagine God as a human being who desires to be in a good and right relationship with us.   So I like better the versions that translate "to believe" so that it's "come to believe" or "come to have faith in" or even "come to know".  It's about experiencing a God who is engaged with our humanity and desires our transformation.  Reading the text of John with that in mind opens a lot of new doors.

Every translation of course is an interpretation, but here's my translation/interpretation/testimony about John 3:16, with my very elementary Greek and my experience of this gospel fully in play.   "The God of Scripture is a God who is so passionately engaged with the world, who so loves us, God's  chidlren and creatures, that God became one of us, fully sharing our whole human experience warts and all, so that in the process of coming to know Him, we might know what fullness of life really is, beginning now."  The more I read and reread this gospel, the more I come to see that it's about growing into relationship with God, in and through this life, and about an eternal life that is not in some far away place, but beginning here and now.   And the more I read the more my own faith is deepened -- and this is what "coming to believe" is all about.

The lens I'm bringing here is consistent with contemporary thinkers who say that Jesus is a "Wisdom teacher" -- (see for example Cynthia Bourgeault's The Wisdom Jesus) --  that is, his teaching invites a response of the heart and a transformation of life,  more than an assent to propositions.   The more I "get" this, the more excited I become about what I am learning, re-reading this gospel. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

November 1

November 1 - just getting around to writing and the day is almost over.  It has been lovely, increasingly muted fall weather today.  And it is a day I associate with a "turning" in the year.  In Celtic tradition, this day is Samhain, the beginning of the new year, celebrated as the harvest is complete, as the days begin to shorten visibly.  And indeed today, busy with office work most of the day, I barely got a walk in before nightfall, though it was quite lovely -- Rock Creek Park and the Georgetown Branch trail at twilight.  At this time of year,  when the dark comes, it seems darker. It is why the spookiness of "Halloween" feels right at this time of year.  Halloween is, of course, All Hallows Eve, and November 1 is All Saints Day - a festival that I've always particularly enjoyed since I've been an Episcopalian and so part of a liturgical church.  We won't celebrate the day until Sunday at my parish - but I've been aware today, and praying for the faithful departed in my life as I've thought of them, with gratitude. The influence and memory of those who have gone before me, and whose example has guided me spiritually, is very much on my mind this time of year.   It also happens, oddly, that November 1 was the birthday of David Jones, the poet and artist whose work and ideas have been so thoroughly formative for me).  A number of family members in my family and family of friends have just died in the past couple of weeks, and so that border between the worlds does seem thinner today, as we enter a time of year when the world feels like a "thin place," the trees growing barer, the leaves, thinning out, still lovely orange and red-gold,  and the sky often so dramatic late in the day.

I'm thinking about my friend Esther de Waal's reflections on  the Celtic cycle of celebrations -- November 1 for Samhain,  Feb 1, St. Bridget's Day,  May 1, May Day, and August 1, another Celtic harvest time-- and how they bring us into what she calls the "border country" of our lives, inviting us to be in tune with the rhythms of nature rather than the artificial rhythms of our "plugged in" lives.  (I think her reflections on this are in her little book called To Pause at the Threshold: Reflections on Living on the Border   .I've  been very aware, today, of what T.S. Eliot calls "time not our time" -- that passage of the seasons of nature and the church year (it will be Advent less than a month from now, I know), the holiday season (my children will be home for Thanksgiving in November, and beyond that Christmas and the other New Year.. . .)  And so the year is turning, and I with it.  I welcome the darkness, which is another country in its way, the thinning trees and opening sky,  the mystery of the passage of the time and the borderlands where we glimpse other dimensions of life, beyond the busy-ness and occupation  of our daily routine.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Rummage Sale Spirituality

(also on episcopal cafe)

I’ve never been a big fan of church fundraisers, but for various reasons I’ve spent the past few months helping organize a rummage sale at church. To my surprise, the process has been something of a spiritual practice for me and I think for others involved: A spiritual practice, i.e. something we do that helps us to be more open to the Holy Spirit at work in our common life, and to become more and more available to God.
Like many congregations, we had some history to challenge us in this area: for years, the women’s group of the founding congregation had run a monthly “opportunity shop” -- it dwindled in the late 1990’s when it became clear that there was not a sufficient critical mass of women in the new generation who could devote the huge amounts of during-the-day time required for the monthly sorting and pricing. If that was the only way to do a rummage sale, then the times for such events has simply passed. But after many years’ hiatus, some newer members had become established members, and wondered why we couldn’t have a rummage sale? Their experience of rummage sales came out of church experience in West Africa. A few of the “op shop” women were still willing to pass on some of their wisdom and to give generously of time-- a lot of daytime hours -- for this one event. So the challenge was to pass on the wisdom and still share ownership of new ways of doing this. It could not “belong” to just one small group, or it would be too much work. So we made it about participation: open to anyone: People could participate by coming to sort and price for an hour or two or by working on a Monday holiday, or by coming in the evening the night before the sale. There were still people who worked longer hours than others, but it was like the parable of the laborers in the vineyard: everyone who participated contributed something, and the rewards were the same for all. Meanwhile, energy grew around the emerging “rummage sale committee” and many of the women of the church -- now representing the many cultural backgrounds in our congregation -- began to offer time, cooking, ideas. Planning meetings started to happen - boisterous and disorganized by my own standards, but ultimately kind of fun.
Now, none of what we were doing looked particularly spiritual: the process involved organizational meetings, dickering over who was supposed to do publicity and how it should be done; navigating potential “turf wars,” and in our multicultural congregation, making sure we were really “hearing” each other, addressing perceived slights before they escalated, giving everyone a voice. We did pretty well -- not perfectly-- at this. There was tension sometimes, and there was also some hilarity: (I never knew how much the phrase “white elephant” belonged to my northern “yankee” tradition -- my Southern US and west African sisters were mystified by the term until I was able to show them how it applied to some of the more outrageous pieces of household junk we received!) Everyone will have feedback about what didn’t work, and I’ll chalk those up to “lessons learned” for another time. But my sense is that at the end of the event we all felt we had done something good together, and for the church. To quote some wise words of our friend the Rev. Rondesia Jarrett, “Everybody got fed. No one got hurt.” Not a bad mantra for any family event.

The other thing a rummage sale offers is what I’d call the “ministry of stuff.” Knowing it was happening allowed me to finally bite the bullet and clean out my closets and it has been great to lighten the load of stuff in my household. (the books, alas, will have to await another year). Some of what we sold included the possessions of people who had died-- a chance for widows and widowers to let go of those things and give them to the church. We spent hours and hours sorting through people’s stuff, a ministry in itself -- and deciding how to price and organize and present and publicize. There was potential controversy in all of these steps- - and it took a lot of good will for newcomers and old timers to work it out together. But we did. The process of pricing and sorting creates its own little women’s culture, where the things create stories: “Oh, that’s a dress I made of silk I bought in Japan in the 1970’s.” “Now there’s a clever gadget: I never thought of that before. . . “ etc. “Oh, I’m so glad you’re buying these plates: I really used to enjoy them when I did more entertaining!”
The day of the sale, people from the neighborhood came by, as well as people from all over the county who had seen our ad. A young adult woman from the neighborhood recalled Girl Scout meetings and community events from her childhood that happened in our building and shared a sense of “coming home.” Others remembered the “op shop” at our church building years before, and wondered if we were bringing it back. Meanwhile, Spanish-speaking members of the congregation came to shop and help interpret if necessary -- and reminded us that another year we should do a lot more advertising in Spanish because that’s who lives around here. All of this reminded us of where we are located in this community. I was glad of what some people saw when they came: - a multi-racial, cross-cultural community, working together and getting along. I hope there was a gospel word in just the way we were together.
When it was all over, the clothes went to a local clothes closet for the homeless, and the leftovers from the bake sale will go into lunch bags for the community shelter week: further reminders of how we are connected to our local community.
We made some money, too - a little over $1500 after expenses. I was glad of that and already reflecting on how to do better next time. But for me the experience was about working together in community. The fact that it was “for the church” was the bond: And in much of what we were doing here, we were learning how to be together, trying to be, truly the “church of Our Saviour” -- which is also the name of our parish. We may do better next time. But this time through, we worked together to make something good happen in our neighborhood, and we did it well. And I for one learned something about the nitty-gritty of loving one another, navigating interpersonal, intercultural challenges because deep down what draws us all here is the desire to be a part of a common life. Perhaps this will shape us. Perhaps our neighbors saw it, too. That is my hope and my prayer.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

We've started up a new season with the ecumenical Young Adult group I've been leading in Northern Virginia -- my second full year with them now.  (More info about this group, which we call "Pathfinders," is available on our new blog ).  Our study this year focuses on the gospel of John, and so a couple of days ago I sat down and read the whole gospel through, from beginning to end -- i.e. from "In the beginning was the Word" to "But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written."   It is a wonderful work of literature, full of layers of story and symbol, and reading it this way, suspending critical thought, without stopping to look at too many footnotes,  but just paying attention to the figure of Jesus and who he seems to be, was for me a profoundly prayerful experience.  Since the gospel starts out with the radical claim that Jesus is "the word made flesh," who "came to dwell among us" (John 1:14), the whole book can become a meditation on what in the world that can mean.  Every human interaction in the story has a double meaning: it is both a human interaction and a clue about what God is like, and an invitation to relationship.   This is the gospel where we learn about a God who wants us to love one another, who desires to be in relationship with us, who shows us the way to do that, as disciples in community.  And we learn about this through the way Jesus relates to people and what he says about himself.
               There are also some things in this gospel that can derail us if we don't have a little background/historical knowledge (notably the apparent anti-semitism, where the persecutors of Jesus are called "the Jews" -- this comes out of the historical situation -- the community this gospel was written for had just been kicked out of the temple for insisting that Jesus was divine, and the Messiah, the "word made flesh."  So there's definitely some sectarian conflict there and the people who kicked them out of the temple are called "the Jews" even though Jesus and his followers were themselves Jewish and the book is permeated with quotations and allusions about Hebrew Scripture).  So, some background is needed.   Aiding this effort, for me, is a fascinating study of the gospel of John by Sandra Schneiders, a distinguished New Testament scholar who proposes a reading of this gospel that is both spiritually oriented and grounded in scholarship.  I am loving it and finding it helpful -- and energizing to grapple with the gospel's presentation of a Jesus who is at once divine and human, very vividly, in the story.  Anyway - I do commend the practice (also recommended by Sondra Schneiders) of reading the whole gospel through, beginning to end.  It helped me see many things I hadn't noticed before, even in this very familiar text!
  I'll be posting on the young adults/pathfinders website over the course of the year my thoughts about our discussion of this fascinating gospel, and some of the thoughts and questions that come out of our discussion.  Please feel free to check out that page for more!  

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Grand Canyon

Two weeks ago I visited the Grand Canyon for the first time in my life, with the whole family. We took hundreds of photos and loved the whole experience. But I'm still trying to write about the experience of being there. Here's a start, expanded from my journal on September 16, 2011.

“Lofty mountain grandeur,” the old hymn sings . And my soul sings these words, or something beyond them, in this place. Standing and gazing on nature’s morning painting, we watch clouds and light change moment to moment, mountain to mountain., shifting the hues of standstone-red, juniper green, grey-white granite, deep gray schist, black basalt, all shaped and stacked with symmetry, as if by human hands, but really, by eons of natural force. No human hands. All of this was here long before there were human beings to breathe this air, to see and name this beauty. Yet we are here now, for this brief time, seeing, receiving, trying to name. I stand here, speechless, wordless, with my husband, my grown children - rooted in the love that holds us in this life, smelling juniper and sagebrush, waiting as the morning clouds, socked in below across the canyon, lift their veil and let us see what we are here to see -- depth and height, color in rock and stone, deep cliff and canyon wall. Extending vast, below us, farther than we can see. Between deep cliffs, we glimpse the Colorado, the river that has carved all this through eons and milenia, winding far, far below us. All unnameable and real and here, shaped out of earth, the earth beneath our feet, opening out. I am here, with those I love most in the world, here on the edge of the canyon, as the clouds lift into early morning sun, and the view expands. No words.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

A 9/11 recollection

The newly reported vulnerability of the Washington National Cathedral, in the aftermath of earthquake, hurricane and now a falling crane, has deepened for me my memories of the importance of that place for me in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. I don't usually do this but am reposting here an article I published 5 years ago in the issue of Weavings that focused on the theme of "security" in our spiritual lives

“Like a Child at Home”:

Seeking Safety in Post-9/11 Washington DC

(originally published in Weavings journal, Fall 2006)

Kathleen Henderson Staudt

On September 14, 2001, three days after the terrorist attacks, a National Prayer Service was held at Washington National Cathedral. I was present at the service because my daughter was in the choir. Even the youngest choristers, boys and girls, had welcomed the invitation to sing as “something they could do” for the country in this time of crisis. We parents were proud of them, but we were also afraid.

We felt close to the tragedy, that Friday after the attacks, and vulnerable as we watched our children being escorted to the choir room, under tight security. Usually a familiar “home” for our families, the Cathedral had become a fortress. Security guards were everywhere. There were bomb-sniffing dogs. We knew President Bush would be in attendance, and the Vice President hidden away somewhere for safety. The Vice President was safe in “an undisclosed location,” but our children would be in the same building with the President, the vulnerable target.

Chorister parents knew that if our children were going to be there, we had to be there, too. One mother requested, and the White House promptly agreed, that there should be one ticket per family for the service, so each child could have a parent there. We knew it was irrational: if disaster struck it was unlikely we would be much help, but we needed to be in the building. Our children seemed fearless, eager to sing. It was not their fear that drove us; it was our own.

Parents sat together in a block of seats in the north transept of the Cathedral. All kinds of famous people, former presidents, political and military leaders walked by us, but we were focused on the area behind the grille work where the choristers were gathering.

“There they are!” one of the mothers whispered as the children appeared, lining up before their first anthem.

“They’re the only children here!” another parent exclaimed.

It seemed the place was filled with military uniforms. I noted eerie parallels between the choristers’ procession into the nave, as they turned the corner in synchronized steps, and the disciplined marching of soldiers. They had a clear symbolic role to play in this service. They stood for the children of the nation, singing of hope and assurance in a time of vulnerability. But one of them was my child. .


Many heard the cathedral choristers’ anthems at that service as a voice of hope and encouragement amid the disorientation that followed the attacks. For me, their music stood against a palpable energy toward vengeance and war that grew as the service progressed. The President had requested a setting of the twenty-third psalm, and the version chosen was Isaac Watts’s paraphrase, “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need,” sung to a traditional folk melody. The unison singing of this hymn, by those clear treble voices, stays in my memory. The end of the final verse, in particular, reassured me on that day:

The sure provisions of my God attend me all my days

O may thy house be my abode, and all my work be praise

There would I find a settled rest, while others go and come

No more a stranger or a guest. But like a child at home.

These words carried an image of the security we all sought, a security we feared would elude us forever in the months that followed September 11,2001. We longed for the deep safety of dwelling where we live, in our own communities and in God’s presence. In Washington, we lived through heightened alerts and anthrax scares. In the charged atmosphere of the following year, we were losing that sense of safety and security.

Many local parents told stories of the urgency we felt about gathering our children home just after the attacks on September 11. But there was no guarantee that home was any safer than anywhere else. It had become a real possibility that we could be attacked right where we lived. There was no safety. School had been cancelled for my children that week, and I cancelled classes and appointments and stayed home with them in our suburban Maryland neighborhood. I needed to be a “mother hen,” gathering and sheltering those I loved, even if the gesture was futile. My spiritual director, acknowledging a cancelled appointment, affirmed my motives: “I’m glad you’re being a ‘mother hen,’ she said. Jesus was also a mother hen.”

She was thinking, of course, of the passage in the gospels where Jesus laments over Jerusalem and the people’s failure to hear his message:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate. (Matthew 23: 37 NRSV)

In those first days after the attacks, biblical images of desolation became real. Recalling Jesus’ words, it was consoling for me to reflect that the urge to gather my children, to make a home in a place of desolation, reflected a desire that lies close to the heart of God. I began to listen for words and watch for images that would help me to embrace that part of the divine personality which longs to draw us together, under the shadow of protecting wings.

That September began an academic year in which I became aware of my own increasingly frustrated desire for an actual place that would be a spiritual “home.” My professional life scatters me around the Washington beltway. I am adjunct faculty at three different institutions in the area. We adjunct faculty members are sometimes referred to as “beltway scholars,” (I like to call myself an “itinerant scholar/teacher”) because we are on the road so much. The deep and continuing urgency I felt about gathering my family home after September 11 had reminded me how widely dispersed my places of work, worship, home and ministry are. I felt more fragmented, that fall and winter, than I had before. Several days a week my drive took me past the blackened wall of the Pentagon, where repairs were going forward after the attacks. Students in my Virginia seminary class on Contemplative Writing struggled to write their way through the aftermath of the attacks, and our discussions were haunted by these events. Across town in College Park, Maryland, my college students were reeling not only from September 11 but also from a tornado that struck the campus two weeks later, killing two undergraduates. I myself felt spiritually homeless -- scattered around among my beltway destinations, and even among worshipping communities: at seminary chapel services one day, at Evensong at the Cathedral another, juggling between Sunday mornings at my home congregation in Maryland and Sunday mornings at the Cathedral on days when the girl choristers sang. Called to create places of safety for others, I found myself hollow and home-less inside. I sang wistfully, longingly, as I drove through town and around the beltway, the hymn the children had sung: where would I find “a settled rest, while others go and come?” I was always going and coming. Always visiting, adjunct, on the edges. Never entirely “at home.”

Whenever my adult life has brought a traumatic event or turning point, the Lent and Holy Week following that event have been times to enter more deeply into the mercy of God, bringing with me whatever I have experienced of loss or brokenness. The Ash Wednesday following September 11, 2001 began such a time for me, and left me with a new and lasting way of understanding where we find our rest, and what it means to be “at home” with God.

Not having a place of my own at the seminary where I was teaching, I asked to use a guest room for the day on Ash Wednesday, when the community traditionally shares in a silent retreat. I brought with me a small copy of Rublev’s famous icon of the Holy Trinity, hoping this small object from the prayer-space that I use at home might help me to create a space that felt like my own during the quiet of the retreat day. I set it on a purple cloth and lit a candle. In the time we were given for quiet, I spent some time resting and gazing.

Volumes have been written on the possible significance and interpretations of this famous icon, but I have never made a formal study of it. Rather, in keeping with the tradition of praying with icons, I spend some of my prayer-times simply gazing on the images, allowing them to be for me a “window” into the divine life, to offer clues to what God is like, and to open a connection. The icon depicts three angels, seated around a table whose shape also evokes an altar, or a tombstone. In the distance behind them is a tree—an oak tree, perhaps—and a house. The angels are resting, barefoot, around the table. There is a chalice in their midst. They carry staffs, as if they were travelers pausing to rest at this table. They evoke the three angels who visited Abraham, by the oaks of Mamre, to tell him that Sarah would bear him a child (Genesis 18). But the icon is called “Holy Trinity,” suggesting that the three figures together also reveal something about the Triune God. Looking deeply at them, noticing the way their heads incline toward one another, the ease and sense of relationship that comes out of their composition around the table, I am invited to see the mystery of a God who is known in relationship, and of the divine life as one of sharing and friendship, around a holy table. The wings of the angels form a kind of screen around the three figures. They offer assurance, safety, and a sense of being shielded and protected from whatever may lie outside of this holy gathering. They reminded me, that day, of the wings of the “mother hen” that I so cherished in Jesus’ analogy.

At the front of the altar-table in the icon, opening out toward the viewer, is an empty place at the table, and I understand, contemplating the icon, that I am invited to come and sit at this holy table. It is a place of rest and confidence, of safety and of a mysterious, powerful love that weaves between the figures at the table and draws me into itself, so that at prayer I am a part of the divine gathering that this iconic table represents. It is a beautiful invitation and I am aware of stillness, silence, and a lively and loving companionship, beyond words.

And because I am a word-person, a music-person, I remembered the words and music of Virgil Thompson’s hymn, and recalled those treble voices that had been icons of the divine presence and comfort, for me and for the nation, at the September prayer service,

There would I find a settled rest, while others go and come

No more a stranger, or a guest. But like a child at home. (text by Isaac Watts, Hymnal #662)

In that guest room, at a workplace where I “go and come,” in a community just a few miles from the Pentagon and still traumatized by the September attacks, I found in my time of contemplation a way of entering a more lasting and solid place of prayer, a place of security not tied to any outward location. I heard the divine invitation that is always offered to us: the invitation to be at home at the heart of the divine life.

As I reflect now on September 11, 2001, and the season that followed it in Washington, I hear the divine invitation in images from that time – all of them reflecting our deep spiritual yearning for “home.” There is the Cathedral, with its mission to be “a house of prayer for all people,” where we are always living in the tension between Holy Place and national monument. There is my family, gathered around the table evenings, reminding me of the place of gathering that is the table in Rublev’s icon. I serve at the head of this table, trying in my small way to live out the Divine Image of mother hen, both desiring and providing places of gathering and safety for those I love and care for. And when I come to resting places – in borrowed spaces at churches, at the seminary, in my own prayer corner at home - I gaze on Rublev’s icon, gradually becoming more aware of who God yearns to be for us in times of great turmoil. Together at the table, surrounded by angel wings, the figures on the icon remind me to return and experience the place within our hearts where we meet the One who gathers us in, the place where we are truly at home:

There would I find a settled rest, while others go and come.

No more a stranger, or a guest. But like a child at home.

“Just Pay Attention”: the Practice of Writing in Place

I'm going to try to write a little more often on this blog in the next few months (will try for weekly posts) - right now I want to do some reflecting on the connections, for me, between writing and the practice of prayer.

I just recently led a 2-day workshop on “Prayer, Poetry and Spiritual practice” at the Northeast Guild for Spiritual Formation in Seal Cove, Maine. While there I enjoyed the wonderful hospitality of the Alcyon Center retreat house. It was wonderful - people were so very receptive and deeply prayerful. And I loved sharing what I have learned over the years about the connections between prayer and what Annie Dillard has called the "writing life."

A kind of “core text” for a lot of us who teach about poetry and spirituality has become Mary Oliver’s poem “Praying,” included in her 2006 volume Thirst and now used widely, I've noticed in workshops where people are exploring means to pray, and how poetry might help with this. It’s a good place to start as I reflect on the role of poetry and contemplative in my own spiritual practice, both as a poet and as a spiritual guide and companion. Oliver’s poem begins

It doesn't have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together, , , , , ,

Here are two things that are important both in the life of prayer and in the writing life. It doesn't matter so much what we choose to write or pray about: often it's a matter of letting the world give itself to us: “Just//pay attention”: that’s the hardest part. To slow down long enough to let what is happening around us claim and deepen our attention. To “wake up” to life, as the Sufi poets invite us to do. And then to “patch/ a few words together,” not for self-promotion, but as a prayerful response to what we are noticing.

Mary Oliver’s practice of paying attention is tied closely to her daily walks, and a reader of her poetry knows this, as she observes the birds, the flowers, the beach, the pond around her home in Provincetown, MA (and now as she writes from a new place in Florida). A longtime reader of her poetry, I now feel as if I’ve been to the places that recur in her work - the pine woods, Blackwater Pond, the meadows and vacant lots where wildflower grow. For me, for the past five or six summers, as long as the weather is warm enough, my daily practice has been to start the day on my patio, and gradually I’m discovering deeper ways to be “at home” in this place where I have lived for over 23 years. The birds, the many colors of green that there are in the world, the sounds of birdsong and beltway, the breeze, the colors of the flowers in the patio pots. All of these things have more and more drawn and deepend my attention, leading me to a very deep gratitude. And gradually, as I’ve patched words together, a body of work is emerging - so that at other times of the day I’m writing and crafting a collection that I call my “Patio Poems.”

The practice is simply to “pay attention, then patch/ a few words together” in a contemplative journal entry, or sometimes in a poem, where the white spaces on the page, and the shimmering of the words tell me something more about what I am seeing and experiencing. This kind of writing becomes for me a way of entering into dialogue with the place I am in.

Paying attention and patching words together. This can indeed become a spiritual practice, opening, as Oliver says later in her poem, “a doorway into thanks”.

Friday, August 12, 2011

"Christian" Faith and Politics: Having the Conversation

also on episcopal cafe

Annie Dillard describes a visit she made once to a neighbor near her home in rural Virginia. Trained by Evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell to greet any stranger with a faith-challenge, the neighbor asks Dillard, “Do you believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour?” Dillard, a Roman Catholic, writer and mystic, relates, “She was stunned that I knew the Lord, and clearly uncertain whether we were referring to the same third party.”

I’ve thought of that encounter as I’ve heard the word “Christian” used in the media lately, especially reading about the rally led recently by Texas governor Rick Perry, strongly supported by the American Family Association and other “Christian” groups. Are we all talking about the same party when we say we are followers of Jesus, the Christ? Is it possible even to have that conversation? Absent any agreed-on source of authority, we are left with Christians of different political stripes hurling accusations at each other, saying, “Well, these people are not real Christians” (reminiscent of Muslims after 9/11 who insisted with deep plausibility, “This is not Islam”). I’ve done this myself.

Particularly distressing to me is seeing the practice of prayer co-opted as a political tool, by any side of the spectrum. Tilden Edwards, writing about Contemplative Prayer, warns against what he calls the “God and me” approach to faith, widespread in our culture, which sees God as “out there” and assumes that we can somehow direct or control God’s actions through prayer, to support our agendas. He connects this to what Parker Palmer names as the “functional Atheism” of our society -- the belief that really we control everything, and we invite God in when we choose, to bless or ratify the judgments we’ve already come to, thus claiming the moral high ground. If we’re honest, we have to admit that all of us do this sometimes. But it is a perilous thing, closing off the living God who desires to heal and transform us. Contemplatives everywhere will tell you that going into prayer begins with letting go of our most firmly held agendas, and being open to a deep and risky conversion of heart. How many Christians really have the courage to embrace a life of prayer that relinquishes our own agendas, and opens us to deep transformation? And what do we believe about the call of Christ in this kind of prayer? I have more questions than answers here, but perhaps the questions are the place to start.

It seems to me our first call as Christians, of whatever stripe, is to open ourselves in prayer to the possibility that our most beloved political agendas may be flawed, and that our political enemies are fellow human beings -- and to be available to the best ideas for meeting the urgent needs of “the least of these.” My own process, looking at our broken world, from a prayerful place, is to ask, what does the Scriptural tradition say about this? (Not a verse here or there but the whole arc of the Scriptural story of God’s call to covenant living). It’s worth asking: how has this tradition seen issues of social justice, the right use of resources, and the needs of the poor? ( It even helps to ask what do other monotheistic faiths -- say about what God desires for the social order? There is remarkable consistency here, across Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, about our obligations to the poor and to the care of creation). And how can a thinking person be guided by the tradition, knowing what we know from our best and most careful observation of social and economic realities? (Scripture-Reason-Tradition -- my Anglican orientation is obvious here). When I try to turn to Scripture without proof- texting, I remember God’s instructions to Israel to leave food in the fields for the gleaners, to observe a year of Jubilee when debts would be forgiven and slaves set free, to even the playing field and prevent the emergence of the super-rich. And I remember the huge gap fixed between the rich man and Lazarus, and the separation at Judgment day between those who did and did not recognize Christ in “the least of these.” And I am challenged more and more by the parables of Jesus that present a world radically different from the status quo.

This is not the time to surrender the label “Christian” to a particular right-wing or even left wing social agenda. It is a time to reflect openly, with our friends and in our writing and public discourse, on how we connect our politics and our faith, resisting labels and speaking out of a core of faith and prayer, and using whatever forum we have. To do this I think we have to assume, for the sake of connection, that we’re all talking about “the same third party” in our claim of faith in Christ. I ran across a delightfully unexpected example of this the other day in a quote from comedian Stephen Colbert posted on a blog I’ve just discovered called Dover Beach , Colbert writes: “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”

It’s a start: What Colbert is doing here, in his sharp way, is having the conversation as if we were all talking about the same third party, and without succumbing to either “God and me” or “us and them”, at least not in this moment. This is the challenge for all of us who are speaking and writing publicly, out of our professed Christian faith, in these times of pervasive social and economic suffering and injustice.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Christianity from the Outside - my Easter among the Humanists

also on episcopal cafe

Sometimes it’s useful to move outside of my church-activities “bubble” and pay attention to ways that Christian faith -- my tradition -- is perceived, described, characterized “from the outside,” by people who are not Christians.

Because of an illness in the family , I was away from my usual treasured liturgical observance of Holy Week and Easter. Also through family connections, I found myself at worship on Thursday and on Sunday with the Unitarians -- at First Parish in Concord, Massachussetts, a vibrant and welcoming and faithful community. There was a lot to like there -- celebrations of community, a commitment to spiritual practice and a desire to “make a difference in the world.” I recognized in this worshipping community attitudes that are shared widely in our culture -- that really, you don’t need religion - that only leads to dissension and controversy (2 blocks away from First Parish is “Tri-Con” -- Trinity Congregational -- 2 identical white clapboard buildings, testimony to theological splits in New England in the 19th century). In fact it almost seemed petty of me, sometimes, to be clinging to more traditional, even “orthodox” Christian belief. The awareness of this disconnect has stayed with me ever since Easter, and I’m still mulling it over. Not sure what it means.

Among the Humanist members of First Parish UU, the observances of Maundy Thursday and Easter were offered mainly in a spirit of education and respect --solidarity, even, with Christians (some members there would call themselves Christians; most would not). There was a respectful agenda for worship: “here’s what Christians do at this time of year -- let’s experience some of what that is like, through our own worship, and see how that helps us to deepen spiritually in our own way, and even if we don’t share their [somewhat archaic] beliefs.” So on Thursday evening there was a “Mermorial” communion service, reminiscent of the Presbyterian worship I grew up with. Communion is celebrated once a year in this congregation, and it’s an important yearly event there. As the story of the Last Supper was retold, the emphasis was on Jesus gathering his friends. Almost anyone can relate to this part of the story. The congregation was invited to reflect on themselves as a community and to view this act of eating and drinking as a celebration of their life and history together in that place. So the meal on Maundy Thursday was a celebration of community, and a remembering of who we are and where we have been. Jesus’ example was a human example: this is something that people do. Little to disagree with there. But something left me restless.

Meanwhile, the choir sang (beautifully) a sampling of classic liturgical music belonging to the day, music that deeply touched me: Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus” and Bach’s “O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded.” The story I deeply wanted to connect with and retell that night was carried in the music. There was really nothing here to object to, from a human point of view: here was an assembly of good people, celebrating their common life and honoring some of the religious ideas of their neighbors -- including mine. It felt fussy and theologically petty for me to reflect too much on what was missing for me here. But there was a lot missing. It was the part about God sharing our humanity, and suffering with us, and calling us to a radical, mutual love for one another, grounded in divine love, expressed quite starkly in our liturgies of foot washing. That was missing. Not to mention the entry into darkness, expressed in the stripping of the altar. I was seeing the stories and practices reinterpreted, through the lens of an enlightenment humanism. Something was definitely missing. A dimension of mystery -- and even of darkness.

Between hospital visits, I did treat myself to an Easter Vigil service at Trinity Episcopal in Concord - and it was a wonderful, familiar service, with people of all ages on board with the movement through darkness, to the lighting of the new fire and the declaration “The Lord is Risen indeed.” (If anyone from that parish reads this - I thank you!) I needed a chance to say that out loud, in public, with fellow believers, at Easter. At the hospital and around town, I was really moving in circles where that was an irrelevant idea. So I was grateful that the church was there for me, a visitor from out of town. And it was a gift to realize how deeply I desired to be part of that celebration - how real it was to me. The church felt like an island of mercy and welcome in the midst of a world that was mostly oblivious to the good news of Easter. That image has remained with me and I’m still pondering what it means to me.

Meanwhile, back at First Parish Easter Day dawned, a wonderfully sunny, springtime celebration on a gorgeous New England spring day, and the church was packed. I was curious about what an Easter Sunday service of worship would be without the proclamation of Resurrection. But the service started promisingly, for me, with the Easter gospel rom Mark as the call to worship, and the singing, with trumpets, of Wesley’s “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” (though not the version that mentions the Cross). The theme of the service was Jesus, and the children’s sermon a re-enactment of a parable of Jesus. And the adult sermon did invite people to think about resurrection as a metaphor that could have meaning in their lives, using imagery from the Christian tradtion, and also some great poetry (read the sermon here. It's a good one). At one point, the preacher alluded to the previous week's observances, including "Friday called Good, and I cannot imagine why. . . ", unless for the irony of it all, just as when we say “good-bye” and there is nothing good about the leave-taking at all."

Right there: I thought. That is what I’ve been missing -- and it may be a good way of naming what we as Christians are called to wrestle with, reflect on, embrace, and maybe explain better to the world-- the paradox at the heart of our faith. “Talk to a Christian,” I wanted to say to the preacher, “talk to a Christian about that -- rather than describing us as if we were confused, or being ironic -- see what that Christian might say to you about why we call that Friday Good. Because that is the heart of the matter -- the way of life that leads through the messy reality of human life, suffering, evil and death, and triumphs ultimately and transformatively. It’s a supernatural claim we make -- there’s no getting around it. We do call this Friday Good. I’m still working on my “elevator speech” about that question. And I'd challenge any Christians reading this, what's yours? How would explain to someone, in less than 5 minutes, why we call this Friday "good?"

All this was 3 months ago -- now we’re in a different liturgical season and a different place in church life, as I note in my previous post. But I’ve been reflecting ever since about this weird sense of being a “topic” in a world that does not widely embrace or understand our Christian message and practices. Why do we call this Friday good? Why was it so important to me to be able to move through the darkness, in the company of fellow believers, to proclaim out loud “The Lord is Risen indeed.”? It is about all those good humanist goals. -- trying to be good people, deepen spiritually, make a difference in the world, Yes. But there is more at the heart of Christian faith. How can I own and name that, from where I stand in faith, and in language the world can understand? That’s the challenge I’ve been pondering lately. No clear answers. Just pondering.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Long Green Season

also on episcopalcafe but I've revised the poem

Having been on an academic schedule my whole life, I find that when summer comes it has a liturgical feel. For academic professionals, summer is the time when we’re not teaching and meeting -- the time when we are free to do “our own work” of writing and creativity -- for many of us, the work that called us into academe to begin with. Sometimes it’s pressured, but ideally it’s at least in part “fallow time,” with space for contemplation. This year, with Pentecost so late, the feel of the summer season coincides quite well with the church year -- and I am sinking into it happily now, spending the early mornings on my patio, before the heat sets in, finding a little more “butt-in-the-chair” time for writing projects, getting in touch with the places in myself from which the best things come -- perhaps even with what Evelyn Underhill called “that deep place where the soul is at home with God.”

It has been a lush, green summer in Washington so far, and so I find the world around me, on my patio-mornings, in harmony with the green season at church -- the season after Pentecost which used to be called, quite appropriately I think -- “ordinary time” -- the longest season, and perhaps the most instructive, when we’re learning to live more deeply into the faith whose stories we’ve told from Advent through Pentecost.

Here’s a poem that came, one morning on the patio. It reflects how liturgically “right” this “green season” is for me this year. Hoping these words may help some of you also rejoice in the riches of this season.

Here on my patio
This July morning
After drenching, cleansing
Storms in the night,
I rest amid birdsong,
Surrounded in green

Green of the long
growing season
After-Pentecost at church

The season to put out leaves
Take in
Sunlight, nourishment
Put down deep roots
Bear maturing fruit

The long green growing season:
Ordinary time.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Mysticisim Revisited -- Evelyn Underhill Again

also on episcopal cafe

2011 marks the 100th anniversary of Evelyn Underhill’s groundbreaking book, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Human Spiritual Consciousness. This book has been remarkable in that it has appealed both to scholars and to seekers, and it has been continuously in print for 100 years -- a miracle in itself, as anyone familiar with publishing knows. Even though Mysticism is not my favorite among Underhill’s writings, I have welcomed the invitation this centennial year brings to read more widely in her work, and to appreciate again how vividly she speaks to our own time. (Most recently I’ve been involved in organizing a conference on her work, to be held at Washington National Cathedral June 3 and 4 -- more information about this here.)

is the product of the Edwardian era, when the more affluent classes, as well as clerics and academics, were interested in various aspects of the life of the spirit. Underhill herself was the author of several spiritual novels with neoplatonic world views, and spent some time with a spiritualist group known as the Golden Dawn. The interest in personal spiritual experience in her era mirrors the New Age spirituality of the 1980’s and 90’s, and also speaks to the popularity in our own time of being “spiritual but not religious.” To this audience, Underhill, largely self-educated in the area of religion, assembles here a comprehensive survey of the great Christian mystics, especially of the west, insisting at once upon their universality as “pioneers of the (human) race” and on the particularity of their Christian identity, rooted in the mystery of the Incarnation.

What is fascinating about Mysticism, and a thread through all of Underhill’s writing, is her simple insistence that spiritual experience is about God, and not (primarily) about our own internal psychology or makeup. A thoughtful and well-reasoned Christian apologist, she is unapologetic about insisting on the “reality” of God as the ground of mystical experience. In the 1920’s, following the upheaval of the Great War, she embraces to a decidedly “catholic” Anglican faith and moves into a remarkable career as a writer and lecturer on Christian spirituality, directing retreats, writing letters of directions and teaching “normal people” about the life of prayer in the modern world. Archbishop Michael Ramsey said of her that “ in the twenties and thirties there were few, if indeed, any, in the Church of England who did more to help people to grasp the priority of prayer in the Christian life and the place of the contemplative element within it.”(Preface to Christopher Armstrong’s Evelyn Underhill (1975, Eerdmans), pp. ix-x)

I find Underhill increasingly appealing as her work matures, from the Romantic celebrations of Mysticism to a focus on what her later work calls “the spiritual life,” preferring that term to “mysticism” when she discusses the life of prayer for ordinary people. Particularly infectious is her deepening appreciation for the ancient wisdom of the Christian tradition, which she sees forming the greatest of the western mystics. Increasingly, she finds their theological heritage she finds in eastern orthodoxy. Though my preferences vary when it comes to Underhill’s work, at the moment I am very much taken with the series of Lenten retreat addresses on the “Christian creed” which she published in 1937 under the title The School of Charity. I led a study course on this work recently and was surprised to find how fresh and wise it is, for contemporary Christians seeking clarity about our identity and practice in the postmodern world. It presents the Creed (mainly the Nicene Creed), not as a series of propositions to be debated or assented to, but as a series of themes for prayerful exploration and contemplation.

The heart of her argument in The School of Charity offers fresh and We are created by, and in the image of, a God who relates to the world as the “Artist-Lover” -- delighting in Creation and loving us and desiring us to grow into deeper and fuller companionship in the divine life. “We are Christians,” Underhill writes, bracingly, "and so we accept, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, the Christian account of [God’s] character. God is Love, or rather Charity; generous, out-flowing, self-giving love, Agape. When all the qualities which human thought attributes to Reality are set aside, this remains. Charity is the colour of the divine personality, the spectrum of Holiness. We believe that the tendency to give, to share, to cherish, is the mainspring of the universe, ultimate cause of all that is, and reveals the Nature of God: and therefore that when we are most generous we are most living and most real.” (10-11)

The Incarnation follows naturally from this fundamental character of God as generous love: it is out of compassion and love that God becomes one of us, taking on the “pattern” of a human life, and inviting us to make our own Christ’s life of loving service and availability, compassion, radical peacemaking, and ultimately radical self-offering. Rather than pursuing the theology of a “substitutionary” atonement(i.e. we have sinned and deserve to die, but Jesus dies in our place, thereby saving us frm God's wrath), Underhill invites us to marvel at the generosity of the divine self-offering, which enters the brokenness of our human experience to share and transform it.

And so the heart of our faith is the Incarnation; the Cross, the central symbol of that faith, is the inevitable outcome of the divine decision to share our human nature. In the Crucifixion, the extremes of human are suffering experienced in his own humanity by the One who loves us. The suffering that we experience in our lives is given meaning and hope by the profound generosity of self-offering Love - “caritas” - “Charity,” which is the heart of the divine life, the goal of our formation in the Christian life, the ground of human transformation.

“A Christian’s belief about reality,” she Underhill writes, “is a wonderful blend of confidence and experience. On one hand it asks great faith in the invisible world that enfolds us. On the other hand it includes and embraces the hardest facts of the actual life we know, and gives them a creative quality. It is a religion which leaves nothing out (p. 51).” In her chapter on the Spirit and the Church, she insists that however incongruous it may seem, the Holy Spirit’s mission of transforming a broken world happens through us, the Church, in our ordinary, practical lives. So she writes with wry awareness:

. . . . .All this seems terribly concrete to the enthusiast for “pure spirituality”: and when we think of pews and hassocks and the Parish Magazine, we tend to rebel against the yoke of official religion, with its suggestion of formalism and even frowstiness. It seems far too stiff and institutional, too unventilated, to represent the generous and life-giving dealings of the Divine Charity with men. The chorus which exclaimed with awe and delight, “I believe in one God! Thins out a good deal when it comes to saying, “I believe in one Church!. . . . Yet there it is; the Christian sequence is God-Christ-Spirit-Church-Eternal Life. No link in this chain can be knocked out, without breaking the current of love which passes from God through his creatures back again to God. The incarnation of the Holy in this world is social. We are each to contribute our bit to it, and each to depend on the whole.” (92)

Rereading these and other works by Evelyn Underhill has invited me to recognize agiain the excitement at the heart of Christian faith, and what it this faith says about the generosity of God. It makes me want to try try to live into this hope more fully. Hers is a “practical mysticism”-- an aliveness to the Reality of the Divine mystery that embodies itself in a way of life. Her work continues to hold wisdom for us in the Church today. It has been well worth a revisit in this centennial year of Mysticism.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Reconciliation in violent times-Eastertide musings

The rejoicing over Osama Bin Laden's death has me thinking again about how profoundly counter-cultural and radical the Christian message really is. Are we indeed called to "love our enemies" to this extent? Most of us find it very hard; but certainly it was as a Christian that I found myself troubled by the public rejoicing over the man's death. A number of emotions surfaced: compassion for those who had lost loved ones on 9/11, and for whom this event brought it all back -- some were relieved at having vengeance, some said it didn't change anything -- people my children's age were prominent among the celebrators - understandably relieved at having the enemy they have grown up with "gone." So I can't fault anyone for feeling the way they do at the man's death -- but at the same time I am praying that we will not be sucked into the folly of dancing on the grave of an enemy, as our enemies rejoiced after we were hit in September of 9/11. It leads nowhere.

I've been thinking lately about the gospel and empire (and may have more to say about this in further posts). A few months ago my husband and I were immersed in the HBO series "Rome" -- very instructive for seeing the world in which the gospel stories played out, and particularly repulsive and distressing was the way that conquered enemies were treated-- their bodies thrown out to be eaten by dogs, or paraded throug the streets in triumph, or left on crosses to die and then fall to the ground, to be left without burial rites. The Easter story, which we are living through now in our Christian liturgical observance, reminds us that it was both a political and a personal act of defiance for some of the most prominent citizens among Jesus' secret followers (Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus) to ask for his body -- the body of someone who had been crucified by the Romans--and to give him a decent burial: an assertion of humanity and compassion in the face of all-too familiar human brutality.

With that story alive in my memory I was very glad of the decision of those who killed our enemy to give him a prompt and respectful Muslim burial, even at the risk that it will make it more difficult to prove that it was really him we "got." I am praying that we will not be reduced to releasing gory photographs of the dead body though I don't have a lot of hope about that. But I was heartened by that expression of human decency -- that moment of not being Rome, dancing on the graves of our enemies, but acknowledging, in death, a common humanity. Hard to sustain, but it was a moment.

As I seek to live faithfully with the unfolding story in the news, two resources from my own branch of the Christian tradition are helpful to me. One is the collect for our enemies, in the Book of Common Prayer, posted on facebook by a number of my priest-friends, for which I'm grateful. It goes like this:
O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth: deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

We are so entangled, so complicit, in a violent culture that it is probably impossible to pray this prayer with perfect integrity, but saying the words is a start, whether we fully believe them or not. I'm grateful for a tradition that gives words to the prayers we should be praying - even when it's hard for us to do so.

I am also remembering my own post-9/11 experience, which I wrote about in the Fall 2006 issue of Weavings. My daughter at the time was a chorister at the Washington National Cathedral, and so was one of those who sang the anthem "My Shepherd will Supply my Need" at the nationally televised memorial service that was held at the Cathedral on September 14, 2011. What I remember about that service is that it started beautifully and humanly, as a gathering of remembrance and an honoring of the innocent victims of the attacks: and we have seen that same outpouring of remembrance, condolence and support with this announcement about Bin Laden's death. The anthem, based on the twenty-third psalm, reminded us that there is goodness that we can trust, even in the midst of violence and chaos. My memory is that this moment in the Cathedral service expressed the best in us at that service, which later degenerated, in my view, into a highly unsettling call for vengeance, following the president's speech, and the incongruous and deeply unsettling singing of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic"at the end of the service. But the choristers' singing is the moment I want to rest with now, so I'm glad one of them has posted it on youtube. I am hoping that we (especially we who seek to follow the Way of Christ) can hold fast to our fundamental conviction that compassion and love are stronger than violence and revenge, despite what the world seems to present. And learn to live that conviction.

That is the hope that the Easter season brings. The hope I hold to. May we have the courage to live out this hope, even in violent times.