Two New Books by Women in Church Leadership Positions

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The Heartbeat of God: Finding the Sacred in the Middle of Everything
by Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori
Woodstock, VT: SkyLight Paths, 2011. 213 pages.

Living into Hope: A Call to Spiritual Action for Such a Time as This
by Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell
Woodstock, VT: SkyLight Paths, 2010. 180 pages.

A Review Essay by Kendra Weddle Irons

Epiphany was celebrated by Christians around the world in early January. The magi in their regal robes, the brightly shining star in the sky, the ominous presence of King Herod lingering over the otherwise peaceful scene—all of these images combine on this day, inviting us to imagine a world where a lowly baby changes everything.

I revel in this part of the Christian calendar: the anticipation of Advent building week after week as new candles are lit, the arrival of the long-awaited Christ-child, the slowly-dawning realization of Christ-with-us, the full-blown radical Epiphany of Christ’s way.

And yet, I feel the tension it creates in me, too. My head, for several years now, has understood at least some of the implications of this baby-king story. There are two kings: Herod represents the imperial power of what Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan calls the domination system. On the other hand, the infant Jesus calls forth another kind of journey because he is an entirely different kind of king. This path, “the way” of Jesus, is fraught with danger and struggle and challenge because it is the path of anti-domination, the way of peace, of compassion.

And so, while I think I understand at a cognitive level part of the radical story of Epiphany, it is difficult—impossible, really—to figure out what specific action Epiphany calls forth from me as a follower of this Jesus way. Fortunately, during this early part of the Christian year, I have read two extraordinarily insightful books, both centered on living prophetic and compassionate lives in the midst of our busy and challenging times.

How the Two Books Complement Each Other

Katharine Jefferts Schori’s The Heartbeat of God: Finding the Sacred in the Middle of Everything and Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell’s Living into Hope: A Call to Spiritual Action for Such a Time as This are two timely books, each peppered with wisdom and perspective born of reflective and courageous living.

The former appealed to me because of  Schori’s  head-on analysis of today’s ethical issues. Her justice-centered prose reminded me of a workshop I once attended where Sr. Joan Chittister spoke with an authority and clear discernment rarely offered. It is no accident, to be sure, that Chittister wrote the foreword for Schori’s apt study.

The second one I appreciated for its integration of a very thorough study guide. More than most, this work can easily be used for church study groups and is clearly designed to propel people from inside the church walls to the world in need of transformative peace and justice.

The Heartbeat of God 
by Katharine Jefferts Schori

Click here to purchase this book from amazon.com (EEWC-CFT will receive a portion of the purchase price).Schori, the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, is nothing short of prophetic. Beginning with her declaration that “this [Christian] ethic of care for the least among us applies to all the major issues facing us everywhere: local, national, and international economic practices; ecological and climatic concerns; and the structure of the global market” (xiii-xiv), Schori awakens any slumbering notion that we are independent individuals. Rather, she boldly identifies and clarifies the multifarious ways in which we are all neighbors. And, as neighbors, we are called to care for each other.

Of course, such an ominous beginning, tracing the exhausting list of world challenges, could immediately move one to quickly dispatch such a book to the bottom of the “need to read” pile, or better yet, to the “give away” pile. Life is, after all, fleeting.

Schori, I imagine, realized this temptation and so ends her introduction with the upbeat notion that, should we wish to listen, we might hear God’s voice in the midst of this life—problems and all. And, we even might experience metanoia, a new mind and a new heart, when we listen to the heartbeat of God beckoning us to be agents of change.

Centering her message on the idea of connection, Schori invites reflection on five major themes: “connecting with the margins,” “connecting faith with public life,” “connecting with creation,” “connecting with the heart of God,” and “healing broken connections.”

In each case, Schori’s discernment is keen, grounded in the daily realities of systems gone awry, and her encouragement is to concrete action, often spurred with on-the-ground success stories of church communities welcoming strangers and meeting their needs.

Katharine Jefferts SchoriTaking the reader to Micah’s famous passage about doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God (Michah 6:8), Schori summarizes the whole of Christian living in terms of  humbly bringing the good news of justice to those in need. And here we are reminded that in order to hear the voices crying in the wilderness, we must learn to listen. We cannot anticipate and address the needs of others unless we hear them. To act without knowledge is to arrogantly assume we know the mind of God.

Further, Schori appears to be serious in her claim that the sacred is found in everything because she moves into the field of politics, noting that our faith has to inform our public actions: how we vote, how we use resources, how we view civil rights, etc. Moving beyond vague references or light suggestions, Schori includes topics such as HIV/Aids, global warming, the plight of Native Americans, the poor around the world and in our midst, even one chapter specifically on immigration and one on the disaster on the Gulf Coast. With timely acumen, Schori demonstrates how the church should be interrupting “business as usual,” or, as Dr. Martin Luther King urged:  serving as a thermostat rather than a thermometer (137).

Throughout her narrative, Schori adeptly weaves together Scripture, personal experience, insights from current events and wisdom from others. I especially appreciated the sage advice of an Episcopal Deacon who is also Native American. Regarding decisions, he apparently urges people to keep in mind the perspective of those who came seven generations before and those who will come seven generations after (150). Too, Schori’s image of a movable feast, sharing the hospitality of Jesus around the world, is a powerful one—a call of compassion, not judgment, for finding God in all places, even in dissent.

Living into Hope 
by Joan Brown Campbell

Almost as if it were written in tandem with Schori, Joan Brown Campbell invites her readers to embrace hope, even in “such a time as this.” In fact, she writes, “Life has taught me that hope is born in the eye of the storm. Hope is not happiness. Rather it is the fulfillment that comes from a life that takes risks and loves deeply and falls and soars and falls and rises again” (xx). In short, the hope she beckons us to embrace is the miracle of transformative challenge.

Joan Brown CampbellCampbell is the current director of religion at the Chautauqua Institution and served formerly as the executive director of the U.S. office of the World Council of Churches and as general secretary of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, in addition to service in numerous other leadership positions.

Written in three brief parts, Campbell’s book begins with the importance of love and unity, a thematic parallel to Schori’s “connections.” Drawing on her experience in the civil rights movement, Brown acknowledges the deep divisions dividing America: race, religion, gender, economics, ideology, etc. Yet, beyond our differences, she claims, we are one. “We are all in this together,” she writes. “Unity matters—and it matters more as the world grows closer and as our neighborhood becomes larger and larger”(21). Echoing the key insight of Schori, Brown notes, “Our challenge today is to come to grips with the interdependence of the world community”(21).

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who willingly left the flock unattended to seek the one lost sheep, is calling us, Campbell asserts, to work together, to overcome our fears of control and distinction, and to hear in others the divine note of love. Once we embrace the reality of unity, with all of the difficult work it entails, then we are ready to seek reconciliation and renewal—part two of her book.

Click here to purchase this book from amazon.com EEWC-CFT will receive a portion of the purchase price).In this second part, Campbell, who was an active participant in the civil rights movement, remarks that the most urgent question for the church in America today is whether or not we will be the people we are called to be. In this context, and here she is abundantly clear, Campbell reminds the reader of September 11 and the choice the United States made in response to that event. “…We chose vengeance;” she says, “we chose to show the world that those who took American lives would pay with their own lives” (71). Rather than opt for peace, we acted out of fear. And, since we are perceived as a “Christian nation,” Campbell claims the world is watching to see if we will move out of this fear-motivated perspective and instead seek peace and justice and well-being for all.

Part three is dedicated to “faith in action.” One of the themes Campbell addresses in this section is a shared Jesus. Drawing again on the story of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, Campbell notes that this is “not a parochial Jesus but an embracing Jesus, large and inclusive” (91).

While this inclusiveness sounds well and good, Campbell admits it is a sometimes difficult thing to respect the passion and faith of others. Here, Campbell takes the opportunity to address the Charter of Compassion begun by Karen Armstrong when she was awarded the TED prize in 2008. Armstrong’s assertion, one that Campbell acknowledges, is that the goal of all of the enduring religious traditions is compassion. Or, as Campbell notes, “…Religion encourages a way of life steeped in renewal, redemption, and rebirth, which in turn provides the freedom to care, to risk, and to commit” (102).

What I like most about Campbell’s book is how her thematic framework weaves seamlessly into the discussion guide written by Jenifer Gamber and Mariclair Partee. The study guide is at once eminently timely and useful. Each theme is explored with Scripture references (and a suggestion to use the process of lectio divina), a list of discussion questions, a guide for prayer that includes opening and closing prayers, an interactive activity, and finally some closing thoughts. If I were leading a group study this year, I’d choose without hesitation Living into Hope.

Too, I appreciate the prayers Campbell includes throughout her narrative. Since her book is brief, there is a tendency to read it too quickly, to take it all in at once. I found her prayers slowed me, encouraging me to linger over each theme.

As I write this review, television and radio pundits, not to mention bloggers, tweeters, and others quick to voice opinions through the Internet have been scurrying to their respective posts this week to offer analysis and opinions about the horrendous violence in Tucson, Arizona. Even in the midst of this tragedy, the political gulf separating the country is as wide as ever.

While pondering the effects of this event, it occurred to me that both Schori and Campbell would encourage others to see in this recent news the opportunity for wise living. They would, I think, begin by reminding us of how connected we are, that the horror in Arizona is experienced beyond that state’s borders. Further, rather than exchanging reactionary accusations, we should stop and listen. Listen to our neighbor, to the estranged, to those hurting, even to those with whom we most vigorously disagree. And, then, only with a clear goal of compassion and justice, we should enter the fray—not to pontificate anyone’s rightness or wrongness—but to offer mercy and wisdom for living together in a hopeful hope-filled land.

The wise ones have found the Christ-child who changes everything, including the way home. Now, Epiphany is ours to live!

Lord God, your holy scriptures sing with your kingdom vision,
Where weak hands are strengthened,
feeble knees made firm,
fearful hearts made strong,
the eyes of the blind opened
and the ears of the deaf
unstopped.
When we fail to reach for this vision
of a better world for all
your creation,
forgive us for breaking your heart.
Lord, have mercy.” (Campbell, 58)

©2011 by Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus. Originally published in the Winter (January–March) 2011 issue of Christian Feminism Today, Volume 34, number 4.

 

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Kendra Weddle Irons
Kendra Weddle Irons teaches religion at Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth, Texas. Her first book, Preaching on the Plains: Methodist Women Preachers in Kansas, 1920-1956, was published in 2007 by University Press of America. Her second book, written with Melanie Springer Mock, If Eve Only Knew: Freeing Yourself from Biblical Womanhood and Becoming All God Means for You to Be was published in 2015. Kendra is a former coordinator of the EEWC-Christian Feminism Today Executive Council.

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