Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Review of Barbara Brown Taylor's "Leaving Church"

After just two days, I finished reading Barbara Brown Taylor's latest book, Leaving Church, and I was so amazed and overwhelmed by what it contained that I felt I should make an attempt at a review. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I had read a review which included the statement that this book should be required reading for someone considering the ordained ministry. With the reading done, I can say that I agree wholeheartedly with that thought -- but I would take it a step further and say that it should be required reading for anyone who is in the midst of their own spiritual journey. Already, my copy is marked by many of those colored page markers, and I know that every subsequent reading is only going to provide me with the opportunity for more underlining, more highlighting, and more reflection.

The book appealed to me on many different levels, and unfortunately there wouldn't be any way that I could possibly try and cover them all -- it truthfully is something that is best discovered by taking the time to read it yourself. However, I do want to try and touch on some of the ideas and thoughts that jumped out at me. On one of the most basic levels, the story appealed to me because the church where she was rector -- Grace-Calvary Episcopal Church in Clarkesville, Georgia -- reminds me in so many ways of the small country church in Virginia I attended in my teen years. Several important components were there: a small and tightly-knit congregation -- in fact, more of a loving family than a mere congregation; a historic old building; and a rich history and presence in the community. More than that, though, Rev. Taylor's description of her time there -- from her first Sunday to her last -- displayed vividly that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were all present and constantly moving through the church and the lives of those who attended.

As someone who has only recently been introduced to Rev. Taylor's work, I approached the book with an enthusiasm based solely on the positive comments that many others have made to me about her writing. However, nothing could have adequately prepared me for the powerful emotions I felt from the first page to the last. I could relate on such a deep level with so many of the emotions she experienced and feelings she felt, particularly as she completed seminary and came to the realization that the ordained ministry was for her. Reading about her experiences brought even more focus and clarity to the call I am feeling now: my desire to share my gifts and talents with a vibrant, growing, changing faith community; my desire to be a companion, a teacher, a friend, and a support for a congregation of people engaged in their own journeys, great and small; and my desire to come into a closer relationship with God, a deeper understanding of the life of Christ, and a greater awareness of the power and beauty of the spirit.

There are several sections where she discusses her great love of the outdoors -- remembering her childhood experiences and, later, relating the extreme pull to the property that she and her husband Ed bought outside Clarkesville and where they made their home. For three very important years of my early life, I lived on a 200-acre farm, and I cannot think of any time in my life where I was happier than having the freedom to explore the woods, wander the fields, and just enjoy the solitude and the sights and sounds of nature. I didn't realize it at the time, but it is impossible to get a full sense of God's presence in the world unless you are out in the world and experiencing every bit of it (sucking the marrow from life, as I believe the line from "Dead Poets' Society" went).

At its very core, though, the true power of the book -- aside from the power of the Spirit -- comes from the power of her words. Again, it would take a thorough reading to understand both the meaning and the context of what she has to say, but here are just a few examples of the beautiful, powerful, instructional, and loving words of Rev. Taylor:

"I did truly love helping people. It was not only chief among the reasons I had decided to seek ordination; it was also, I believed, why I had been born. To help lift a burden, to help light a path, to help heal a hurt, to help seek a truth -- these struck me as the sorts of things that human beings were created to do for one another...." (p. 47)

"I know that the Bible is a special kind of book, but I find it as seductive as any other. If I am not careful, I can begin to mistake the words on the page for the realities they describe. I can begin to love the dried ink marks on the page more than I love the encounters that gave rise to them." (p. 107)

"Those who became ordained were not presented with Moses or Miriam as our models, so that we could imagine ourselves as flawed human beings still willing to lead people through the wilderness. We were not presented with Peter or Mary Magdalene as our models, so that we could imagine ourselves as imperfect disciples still able to serve at our Lord's right hand. Instead, we were called to fill in for Jesus at the communion table, standing where he once stood and saying what he once said. We were called to preach his gospel and feed his sheep." (p. 150)

I really feel that this book is a love letter in the truest sense of the word: a love letter to her husband, Ed; a love letter to her parishes in Atlanta and Clarkesville; a love letter to her students at Piedmont College. Above all else, though, I think it is a love letter to God -- the God who was patient through her own faith journey and her joyful acceptance of the Episcopal Church, the God who nurtured her through seminary and the ordination process, the God who guided her through many years of active ministry, and the God who held her hand and put an arm around her shoulders as she came to grips with the difficult decision to leave the smaller church and live more fully in the larger, more universal church.

Buy this book, read this book, and share this book!! You will be blessed beyond measure, be taught by an extremely talented and wonderful writer and minister, and be moved to the point where you yourself feel like you have taken the journey with Rev. Taylor and have come out the other side having grown and become a stronger and more aware Christian -- both self-aware and aware of the power moving through the world.

Friday, June 23, 2006

A post-Father's Day Gift

I got a late Father's Day gift yesterday when my wife and I finally got confirmation that little one number 2 is on its way! Everything with the sonogram looked good, and we were even amazed to be able to see the little heart beating away! My daughter still doesn't quite know what to make of everything -- in fact, when I had her look at the monitor to watch the sonogram and asked her what she saw, she replied, "Dinosaur!" and then looked at me, held her hands up like little claws, and growled.

There's no doubt in my mind that she'll make a great big sister to our new son or daughter, and it will be so much fun watching her grow and help care for someone even smaller than her. Naturally, since she's been an only child for nearly three years, there will undoubtedly be some jealousy issues that she will have to overcome -- but we're going to try really hard to make sure she knows that she's loved just as much as she always was, and even more so with the love that she'll get from her sibling.

I also think this is going to be a great challenge for us in the way we handle this. I think my wife and I had finally just gotten a handle on how to raise one child, and we were doing pretty well with that. Now, of course, we'll have to try and double what we've learned (and what we still don't know) for two kids. Coming from a family of four kids, it's a safe bet that my mother and father will be called on quite a bit for advice!


As John McLaughlin would say, "Issue Two!" As someone who is actively going through the discernment process right now, I am always looking for good books by and about people who have entered the ministry and who have stories and lessons to share about their own experiences. While perusing the Episcopal Bookstore website, I saw that Barbara Brown Taylor has a new book out -- Leaving Church. It's gotten some remarkable reviews, and is recommended as something that anyone considering the priesthood should consider reading.

I've picked up a copy and have started reading it, and I already can say that I would recommend it to anyone and everyone interested in a good, meaningful religious memoir. Not being too familiar with her writing, I didn't know what to expect. But if the remainder of the book is a tenth as good as the opening, then it will be a remarkable book indeed. And for those who may not know it, she was named one of the twelve most outstanding preachers in the world today by Baylor University. I can see why!

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Episcopal Church - A Historic Time

Once again, the Episcopal church is breaking new ground, this time with the election of the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, bishop of Nevada, as its 26th presiding bishop. It's remarkable how far the role of women in the church has progressed in the past three decades; Jack Spong did a fine job in his autobiography of outlining the process through several general conventions of finally permitting women to seek positions in the ordained priesthood. Then -- as now -- there are many individuals who think that women shouldn't be allowed to don clerical attire and preach from the pulpit, let alone be the highest official of the denomination in the United States.

I know the months ahead will be difficult as those groups who were having a difficult time coming to terms with either the confirmation of Gene Robinson's bishopric in New Hampshire or the increasing role of women in the church grapple with this latest event. Already, within minutes of the announcement of Bishop Schori's election, several diocesan representatives labeled her choice a grave mistake and one that will further damage the church internally and in its relationship with the mother church in England.

The difficult decisions aren't over just yet, and more will be made during the final days of General Convention that will also have a tremendous impact on the future of the church. The one I am watching most closely is the resolution introduced (and being strongly supported by the Archbishop of Canterbury) which, if passed, would require the church to formally issue a statement of regret over their actions of three years ago. In my mind, we have done nothing to regret -- and a move to disavow decisions already made would take the church back further than just the 2003 General Convention.

But with Bishop Schori, I am particularly excited about what her election means for my daughter's life in the church in the years ahead. More and more during the course of my life, I have watched as women have taken more important leadership roles in the life of individual parishes, dioceses, and the national church. I never want my little one to grow up thinking that she can't do anything simply because of her sex, and I know my wife and I will make sure she knows all about the women who have succeeded in business, industry, politics, education, and any number of other areas.

More important than any of those areas, however, she will know that she has a place where she can do whatever she wants in the church: member of the vestry, committee chairperson, convention delegate, deacon, priest, bishop -- and yes, even the presiding bishop.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Father's Day at Shrine Mont

A very happy Father's Day to all of the father's out there today! My celebration comes on the heels of a very relaxing and very rejuvenating three-day weekend at the retreat center for the Episcopal diocese of Virginia, Shrine Mont. After trying for two years to make what is an annual parish weekend for our church, we finally made it (three times a charm!) into the foothills of the Shenandoah Valley for a refreshing time with old and new friends alike.

No phones, no blackberries, no computers (a tribute, perhaps, to "Gilligan's Island" -- "no phone, no light, no motor car"?). As someone who depends on each of those every day (more than I should, in fact), I can honstly admit that I didn't miss a minute of the technology that makes the world go 'round. The only sounds we heard during the weekend were the sounds of singing, children playing, laughter, great conversation, and wonderful communal prayer. Good mountain air does wonders for the body, and the quiet does wonders for the soul -- so everyone in my family came back to the routine of our lives greatly regenerated.

The homily at our closing Eucharist this morning included the admonition that we should take a small part of our weekend back into the world as a seed to plant and nurture, and in so doing bring our witness more actively into our everyday lives. There were so many incidents great and small that would certainly provide good seeds, and I'm sure the community as a whole will be greatly enriched for what each of us at Shrine Mont carried away with us.

For me, one seed would be the love shared by the community of our church at this retreat (a love that abounds always), and which can and should be shared with others. Another seed would be the value and enjoyment of the special, quiet moments that I spent with my family and with our friends.

However, my most special seed would be the thrill of sitting by the lake with my little girl on our first night there, listening to nothing but the sounds of nature, her questions about what we were hearing coming out of the darkness, and her laughter and joy at just being there.

I can't think of any greater Father's Day gift than that.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Episcopal General Convention - Some Challenges

The triennial convention of the Episcopal Church is underway, and once again the consecration of Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire -- something that happened several years ago -- is still very much at the forefront of the debate.

Larry King is even at this moment devoting an entire broadcast to the debate between hardline traditionalists from the Catholic, Baptist, and Episcopal churches and those who are being placed in the spotlight because of their sexual identities. It's the sort of debate I would expect, although I have to say it is the first time I've heard Bishop Robinson speak, and I am very impressed with the grace he is displaying under all of this pressure. In fact, his answer to King's question about whether Jesus would accept him today was tremendous; he reminded viewers that Jesus spent his entire ministry spending time with those who had been marginalized and pushed to the fringes of society, and in violating ancient Jewish law so often that it brought him into conflict with the authorities and put him in an extremely dangerous position.

One thing I'm intrigued by was Andrew Sullivan (columnist for Time magazine) pointing out to Father Michael Manning that, if you adhere strictly to Old Testament law, then he should -- by virtue of being a homosexual -- be put to death. Father Manning's response was that the death of Jesus atoned for all sins, but he didn't address Sullivan's comment. It also seemed that, in the way he couched his answer -- and I wish I had written it down -- he seemed to wave off the importance of the Old Testament. By doing this, isn't he somehow discounting the importance of our Jewish heritage? I agree that the life and death of Jesus is important to Christians because it is viewed -- the resurrection, particularly -- as the moment where sin and death were conquered. Shouldn't we remember our Jewish heritage before making comments that cast aside the law and the prophets?

And I would hardly think that -- as one of the other guests attested -- 35,000 people each year are saying "no" to Gene Robinson and "no" to the episcopacy of Frank Griswold. How can it be a condemnation of the presiding bishop when Robinson's election as bishop in New Hampshire was done by a sizeable majority in the House of Bishops?

My mother told me a story recently about a couple at the church where she works who said that they were leaving the Episcopal Church because of Robinson's election. However, the very next Sunday, there they were, back in their pew. A lady sitting near them leaned over and asked quite simply, "So, has anything changed here? Is anything different here because of Gene Robinson?"

I think that's a powerful statement, and one that many people should take to heart. Shouldn't we as Episcopalians be concerned first with our relationship with God and Jesus, second with our relationship with our families, and third with the health of our home parish? Shouldn't we worry about about our own household before we worry about someone else's household?

My wife and I have had a big difference of opinion on the Robinson ordination, and she has fallen on the side of the opponents. We haven't had a very deep discussion on it to this point, and the silence between us seems in my mind just an agreement to disagree on the issue. However, in our adult class this past Sunday, one of our fellow parishioners, Dr. Bob McCann, discussed the background and motivation for writing his new book, Justice for Gays and Lesbians. There is so much more to Gene Robinson's background that people either don't know or haven't discussed, and it's one of the reasons I look forward to reading this book.

As Jack Spong has said so often, and as Gene Robinson just concluded, "There is a sign hanging outside of the Episcopal Church that says, 'The Episcopal Church welcomes you.' It doesn't say, 'The Episcopal Church welcomes some of you, or welcomes you if.....'"

I am proud to be an Episcopalian, and I am proud of what my church has done over the years. My wish at this point is that we don't reverse course; I fear that doing so will alienate far more people than it will to keep a minority happy.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Reconnecting With Lost Friends

It's always a wonderful thing to reconnect with an old friend. I know that, for every person who becomes separated from someone important to them, there's a reason that that separation occurred. For me, it was separation from a good friend from high school and early college years -- and it was because of my irresponsibility and lack of consideration of how my actions would affect others that the separation occurred.

Twelve years later, we've again gotten in touch, although this happiness for me resulted from the tragedy of a death in his family. I had actually thought off and on over the years about contacting him to see how his life was going and to apologize, but I never did. Now, in the midst of his grief, he contacted me to thank me for what my family had done around the time of the funeral -- and we ended up e-mailing back and forth in a way that seemed like we had just talked last week, rather than more than a decade ago.

I finally did take the opportunity to apologize for what I had done those many years ago, and was told that he had never carried a grudge about it. So this weight that I had been carrying around all these years was self-imposed, and it was a burden that I never needed to have in the first place. I've always been amazed at how people can carry weight around with them for months, years -- their entire lives -- and not feel that they can shed that burden; now that I've been given this new opportunity to look back at a big phase of my life, I can see that I was doing the very same thing.

I'm now hopeful that this friendship will get back on track, and we can catch up on everything we've missed over the years. I'm still amazed at the large blessing that came from just a simple "thank you" e-mail; as someone close to me told me, "He may have thought he was just making contact, but God had another plan."

This person went further in commenting earlier on this blog, "You will, of course, make mistakes in your journey. God knows I have and will continue to make them no doubt. But that's the way of a journey - mistakes will happen. You can't change the past - you make amends when you can, but you can't dwell there in the past."

And finally, a passage from Romans (8:28): "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose."