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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.

Friday, August 28, 2015

So, What are You Teaching?I Deuteronomy


            This fall I’m feeling a little “off” the usual academic schedule.  My online teaching at Wesley
(Poetry for Spiritual Formation – more on that soon) begins in October so I’m not starting the semester in step with everyone else.   So when people ask me “are you teaching this fall,” the answer is, well, yes – but not in the usual academic way, with a course starting next week and running through December.  Rather, I have several really interesting teaching “gigs” that intersect with each other, as well as some writing projects.  I thought maybe picking up this blog again, after quite awhile “off”, might help me see the connections among these various interesting gigs and so I’ll try to post on some of the different topics I’m  teaching

            Starting with this week when I’ll be meeting up again with the Pathfinders Young AdultsBible study in Northern Virginia.  We also call ourselves a “progressive Christian young adults group”.  After a summer reading through my colleagueStephen Cook’s book on Deuteronomy, I’m looking forward to struggling through parts of it with this group of curious, critical, committed young adults that I’ve been working with and loving for 7 years now – especially as this will be my last semester with them.

            So – Deuteronomy:  Steve’s book has taught me to pay attention to this as a book of the Bible that explores how to live life as the people of God, whose identity and purpose is defined by a covenant. A covenant with a God who loves humankind and desires our thriving.   

            It comes from an intensely tribal, patriarchal, culture, in a violent time in human history ( has there ever been a non-violent time in human history?)  So reading it for the “plain sense” of Scripture can get us into some very dark places, where we can be using Scripture to justify imperialism and oppressions and power trips of all kinds – and it has certainly been used this way.

            But read in its context,  this book can come to life as an invitation to live another way – to ask what it takes to form a society where people are respected, the poor and marginalized are cared for,  wealth is managed with an eye to fairness and abundance is shared and celebrated.  It is also a society where people desire to live as God would have them live, guided by the ten commandments – so most of the book is an extensive gloss on those commandments.  Some of the particulars get a little crazy – dietary laws and descriptions of sexual “abominations” – but as I read through the larger lens of “how to be the people of God.” Faithfulness to God, fairness to fellow human beings, family, neighbor – and especially avoiding “covetousness” – the wanting of what is not ours that leads to violence and domination.

            We will definitely be looking at the parts of this book that make us ask “really? This is God saying this? It sure seems awful?”  - but we will also be looking through the “people of God” lens, to see what we can learn by trying to read these rich speeches of Moses in our own cultural context . When we do I think we will see how “counter-cultural” the life of God’s people has always been in Scripture.

            Reading this troubling and challenging book of the Bible over the summer, I found that sometimes I got to the core of what it was saying to me by writing a poem. Here’s the poem that came out of reading the first 8 chapters of Deuteronomy: a place I will begin with this fall teaching:

I keep forgetting how
It is all a love story
A God in love with a people
Wooing and cajoling them
Can’t you see, the Moses-story says
This is the Way
Follow here. It is the path of life
There is a way that human life can be
Can’t you see?
We are still a stubborn people
Still beloved. Still free



Singleness of heart
Of soul, of mind and strength
Of each of us in all: being
God’s people – not erased
In our particularity
But drawn together ,one
In the one who loves
Heart-soul-mind-strength
Sees as one
The beauty in each one
Draws us together
Without loss of each-ness
Into one beloved One.    (c)Kathleen Henderson Staudt 2016

   

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Practice of Discernment (again)

It has been awhile since I updated this blog - will try to do better this summer (2015) by including some musings on topics that are coming up in my teaching and retreat work over this next few months.
One of these will be a workshop on discernment for the Doctor of Ministry program at Virginia Theological Seminary.  Here's a post that can be a resource for folks in that class as well as for other readers.


This post also appeared in "Toast" - the Young Adult Ministry blog for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington

“I have come that they might have life,” Jesus says, and that they might have it abundantly”(John 10:10) .  How can I tell whether a new idea or opportunity that is attracting is in tune with who God made me to be?  What do I do with this feeling of restlessness I’ve been having lately? Where is God in this difficult situation?  What am I supposed to do now?  All these questions are rooted in the deeper question: what is God’s dream for my life? The  Christian practice of “discernment” helps us keep track of that call to abundant  life, both for ourselves and the world around us. Here are three core approaches:


Checking in with God – the “examen” One way of practicing  daily discernment is a simple practice of checking in with God each day – 5 minutes, just beginning with a few deep breaths, to rest in God’s presence and love, and then ask God “Where did I meet you today?”  and “Where did I miss you” – these questions frame the Ignatian practice of the daily “examen.”  They help us remember that God is always present in our lives, and invite us to pay attention.

Spiritual Friendships :  Discernment is not a solitary practice: We all need companions, whether a formal “spiritual director”  or a good friend, who can help us step back and ask “where is God in this situation?”  Who is that person in your life?

Discernment in community:  The clearness committee, practice from the Quaker tradition, inviting a group of faithful people to come together and listen for God’s leadings, asking open-ended, non-judgmental questions, without giving advice, can help us listen for God’s will in a life-decision.


More resources on discernment can be found on my website, “Discerning Your Way in Life  http://poetproph-discerningyourway.blogspot.com/

Monday, September 15, 2014

Reading Scripture Creatively

(Also on episcopal cafe Sept 10 2014)
A good deal of my teaching this fall turns out to require some open reflection on the way that I read the Bible . I keep discovering that my habitual way of reading Scripture is not obvious to everyone, though it comes naturally to me as a reader of literature and poetry ( It is probably no accident that some other thinkers about the contemporary church and the Bible – including Verna Dozier and Brian McLaren and probably others, started life as English teachers – and that is also my background, training, just my way of reading Marcus Borg gets us to this approach when he writes about taking the Bible “seriously but not literally.”
220px-Bible.malmesbury.arp.jpgTaking Scripture seriously, not literally, means that I am always coming to a Biblical text, in daily meditations or in small group, with the assumption that there is something that I can learn about God by engaging with this text, simply because, as Scripture, it contains the record of someone’s experience of God, or of what it means to think of ourselves as in some sense “God’s people.” So I’m always trying to read the text in some ways “faithfully,” even when I don’t completely accept or believe – indeed even when I might be appalled by -- the ‘plain sense’ of what I’m reading. This assumption that the text has something to teach us is the difference between approaching a Biblical text simply as a “message” to accept or reject and approaching it as “Scripture,” a text that has been given to us, as the prayer book says, “for our learning.” So – here are some questions I’ll bring to a text of Scripture that I’m reading for a class or for my personal meditation. 
1. What kind of text is this? Is it poetry, or history, or folk story, or is it a parable or lesson to be learned? The Bible contains a lot of different kinds of texts and reading it faithfully requires having a sense of where we are. It makes a big difference, for example, whether we read the opening of Genesis as a poetic text (which it is closest to being) or as a scientific treatise (which it can’t be because they didn’t write them back then).
2. What do I know about the context that gave rise to this text, what it might have said to the people who first heard or wrote it down. What comes right before it in the text? What questions was it answering for people then? How do those questions compare to my own questions? Are they the same?
3. What do I know about this text in relation to other parts of the Bible? Sometimes this can give us some good insights: talking about a passage in a group can be a great source of wisdom around this question
4. What do I know about how this text has traditionally been read? What questions did that tradition bring to the text? Are there insights to be gained by looking at different translations of the same text (often these are clues to interpretive decisions). What questions does this raise for me? All of which leads to. . .
5. What question am I bringing to this text? Where is it speaking to me or challenging me? Identifying these questions can become a good signal to pause for prayer and “listen” to what the text might be saying – what words or phrases jump out or speak to me? What is the process of reading this text telling me about my own search for deeper understanding of the mystery of life with God?
6. How might I pray with this text? After a time of meditation, alone or in a group, I might ask: what am I learning from this passage of Scripture today? About myself? About God? About being part of “God’s people”?

What this kind of approach avoids is simply reading into the text whatever we bring to it, or getting hung up on what we don’t like about a particular text of Scripture and so dismissing it . – It allows us to step back and let the text “speak” first and acknowledge that any act of reading is an entry into a kind of relationship. I like it that the Rabbinic tradition of interpretation or midrash has known this for a long time: that the act of reading Scripture, and especially wrestling with the parts that we don’t understand or like, and trying to make new sense of them, is always a religious activity – a process of drawing nearer to the Mystery regardless of whether we can get an interpretation fully “right” . It is a gift to read the Bible as Scripture in this sense -- as inviting a process of learning, as something organic and “still speaking” --rather than as something fixed and rigid. The approach that these questions sketch out helps us to experience Scripture as “word of God” – as a way we’ve been given to respond to the generosity of a God who for some mysterious reason keeps on trying to get through to us.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Why I Believe in God and Not in Santa Claus

(also on episcopal cafe)
"MerryOldSanta" by Thomas Nast - Edited version of Image:1881 0101 tnast santa 200.jpg.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.



            A piece by T.M. Luhrmann in a recent issue of the Sunday NY Times pointed out that we often clarify our faith commitments by identifying the things that we really don’t  believe.  That is why arguments between “heresies” and “orthodoxies” can be clarifying (so long, I would say, as they don’t involve politics and violence as they so often have in history).   I’ve been doing a lot of reflection lately about what it means to be what I consider to be a reasonable person who is also a person of committed Christian faith – something a lot of people around me seem to find anomalous.    Maybe it will help to try to explain a little about what I don’t believe.  Perhaps the best place to start is to say that I believe in God, and I pray regularly and joyfully, but I don’t believe in Santa Claus.  Nor do I believe in a God who is anything like Santa Claus.  Here are some things, following from that, that I don’t believe:
  •  I don't believe that God is always “making a list and checking it twice,” judging us for every mistake and misstep and condemning us for things that our social group would also condemn us for (not being a good person, however that is defined.).  I do believe in a God that in some mysterious way desires our thriving and calls us to be our best selves.  That’s a different kind of relationship than the Big Brother God who is always watching to see if we have slipped up and expects us to be sorry all the time.
  • I don’t believe that God gives us what we want if only we’re good enough, pray the right way, find the right words.  The whole question of why good and bad things happen is, to me, a mystery.  I believe that God is in it but I don’t understand it.  It is at best magical thinking – left over from childhood – to believe that I can somehow by my good behavior force the universe to do things the way I want them to be done.  On the other hand, I do believe that the resources of Scripture and religious traditions and practice give us some clues about how to seek the will of God in some situations, and align ourselves with that – that is behind my own practice of intercessory prayer, a mysterious practice which in my experience does sometimes seem to bear fruit in a powerful way. But I don’t pretend to understand how.
  • I don’t believe that when bad things happen it is because I or someone else has been bad and deserves punishment.  That seems to me like a very magical and limited idea – that I  can control the universe by my behavior.  On the other hand, the religious tradition I have embraced does include many stories of actions that have bad consequences.    Usually the stories wind up being stories about the divine mercy – God ultimately returning and restoring the balance that human beings have upset.   That story gives me hope
  • I don’t believe that the Bible is in any sense the literal, dictated word of God, though I do believe that it is “Scripture’ in the sense of giving us a privileged and genuine record of human experiences of God that still has much to teach us today.  I wish more people knew more about the context and background of the Biblical stories.  In my experience, the more I know, the more the stories speak of the mystery of a God – the God of all the Abrahamic traditions – who keeps trying to get through to us,  who has some kind of stake in human history and human moral life, and keeps on inviting human beings to grow into their fullest and best selves, despite mighty resistance and ugliness that often comes from the human side.  ( The Bible contains poems and histories and, mostly stories.  The stories give shape to something that is beyond story and history, but they are a way into the mystery, for me.
  • I don’t believe that people who don’t believe in Christianity – my version or anyone else’s – are going to hell.  A lot of Scripture comes out of tribal contexts, and there is a lot of “us and them” language running through it, but if you look at the overarching Biblical story,  it is about a God who desires to gather everyone in.  (The best human language we have for this speaks of a God who loves us - an idea that opens up all kinds of invitations to meditation and prayer and joyful, faithful living ).  At least that’s how I read it, and it's how many other wise people in the tradition have read it, in different generations.    “Us v them,”  “Who’s in and who’s out” doesn’t make sense to me as a way of understanding the human relationship to God.  

  Lately I think  the fear of being heard as exclusive or literalistic has sometimes kept people within the Christian tradition from reading the Bible thoughtfully and from embracing the unique and exciting ideas that Christianity brings to the table in the conversation among world religions.   I wish we could reflect more about the particular and positive things that Christian faith has to offer, rather than ceding ground to some of these other ways of thinking about God. I long for a deepening of Christian faith among people who have been drawn to it and raised in it,  and for honest and thoughtful listening across faith traditions.


I often say to my seminary classes “If there’s anything to what we say we believe, none of us has got it right. “   If there is a God, especially if there is a God who entered history as a human being to show us the way to a greater wholeness, as Christianity claims,  then the whole story is ‘way bigger than anything we can grasp or control or understand.  But the invitation to live into the story is there. As are the resources of Scripture and tradition.  I am grateful for this.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Street Theater and Gospel Presence

  also on episcopal cafe    
My Lenten season this year began and ended with participation in displays of religion out in the streets.  This is not my usual mode:  I tend to be introverted, to value careful, one-on-one or small group conversations about faith as well as prayer and public worship .  But when my parish decided to participate in the “Ashes to Go” movement to begin Lent, I decided to take a shift as a lay minister, offering “Drive –through Ashes” in front of our parish church which stands at the edge of a busy intersection.  It seemed hokey – we held our “Ashes to Go” sign and waved it and to my amazement people pulled up to receive ashes.    Mothers driving carpools (one came back three times so that each of her kids could receive ashes), people on cell phones, interrupting their calls just long enough to “receive a blessing.”  People parking, getting out of their cars, and bowing their heads so that I could say the words “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,”  and adding a prayer of blessing Why would people pull over to hear those apparently grim words?  And yet over 150 people did that day.  I’ve been mulling it over the whole 40 days – remembering the quiet, calm radiance on people’s faces as they heard those words about their mortality.    But then I heard one of the people say into a cell phone.” Wait a minute:  I have to stop and get my blessing.”   And I realized that was what it was:  people were experiencing our presence on that street corner as in some way a blessing – they may have been former churchgoers or unchurched, though probably with some kind of tradition of Ash Wednesday in their lives.  Perhaps it was heard as blessing to have another human being say to you , “remember you are dust” – as we all are.  And that’s OK: we don’t have to be more than human.  We are who we are.  And we are blessed.
            Now I realize that for those of us committed to the life of the church Ash Wednesday means much more:  that commitment to a season of penitence and self-examination is also profoundly an “insider” experience – perhaps not the first service you would take a seeker to visit.  If we are already committed to the church, we are probably embracing the Lenten season as in some sense a blessing, if a hard one – as we do the rounds and cycles of the seasons that are the gift of the church year, and we each have our own ongoing struggles on the journey of faith.    But for those outside, there was something about our presence, our availability to them,  on Ash Wednesday, as Lent began, that seemed to speak.   Somehow our presence communicated that they were welcome as they are.  That we didn’t expect them to sign up or join. That God’s blessing is available,  and that we were hoping it could come to them through us.

            I ended Lent in Paris, where we happened to be traveling on  Palm Sunday weekend, and I was delighted to join the procession of the American Episcopal Cathedral up the Avenue Georges V, near the Champs Elysees and in sight of the Eiffel tower.  It was a lively, vibrant congregation from what I could observe – a number of younger adults, young families – most of them American or British expats. I felt thoroughly at home.  We went up the street with red-veiled crosses,  vestments and palms to the accompaniment of African drums.  This was in Paris, where people are mostly pretty amazed that anyone practices any religion any more – probably we were seen as an American expat curiosity, but there were cameras, and delight, and a sense of holiday as we went by – again, in our way, we were a blessing to people’s Sunday morning in Paris, as we moved into our own more serious observance of Passiontide. 

            As I watched people in cafes snapping pictures of us I thought about what these public ceremonies might say about our continuing presence as Christians in an increasingly “post-Christian” culture.    Is there a call to be in the midst of a world that is no longer culturally Christian, and claim that original call to Abraham, the call to “be a blessing” to the world, by our presence and our practice, and to cultivate a way of living that might “preach” in its own way?  For us on Ash Wednesday, and on Palm Sunday, it was theater, and it wasn’t:  we were out in the streets because of the importance of the season and the observance to us, and because of a desire to share, not so much the doctrine of it, as the blessing of it  (One friend with whom I talked this over recalled the Celtic priests whose practice was to simply bless everything that they encountered in the pagan cultures they encountered: blessing wells and fountains, animals and families – whoever asked for a blessing – because that was what they did, as Christians). 


            As we walked up the Avenue Georges VI I also had a flashback to an earlier  “street theater” experience from my young adulthood – the All Saints Day processions around the Yale campus in the late 1970s, when Rick Fabian and Don Schell, well known now for such fresh liturgical expressions, were chaplains at the Episcopal Church at Yale.  On Halloween night the community would process around campus blessing various buildings and spots, following ancient liturgical forms, chanting, with incense and vestments.  Members of the Yale community were following in our train, in Halloween costumes and to the tune of bagpipes, and it all had very much the feel of a medieval street festival in the heart of Christendom and yet this was a very decidedly post-Christian campus community, and I expect very few of those following thought that we were anything but part of the show.  But at one point in the procession, as we paused for prayer,  I overheard one onlooker, observing us at prayer, say to his friend in some amazement:  “You know, I think these people are serious!”   


            And what if we are serious?  A serious blessing.  In all three of these examples, there was a sense of tremendous joy, presence and simple blessing.   The church succeeded in simply being present in the world, and visible to those who might wonder what it might be like to be as “serious’ and joyful as we were about the blessing we carried.    I believe that in our post-Christian era we’re likely to see more of these public liturgical expressions of faithfulness in community – and maybe it will invite folks to seek a blessing, and to wonder what it would be like to part of a community so joyful and so “serious” about our public presence and prayers   It’s a hope, at least:  appropriate for us in this season as in the one just past, as we aspire to be an “Easter people”.