Tom Cadman looks at life and faith through the lens of literature
Rumour has it the first words Adam uttered to Eve as they departed Eden were, “Honey, we’re living in a changing world.” Those words have since become a cliché, albeit a true one.
The Christian world in New Zealand has changed quite markedly since I began training for the ministry. In those years it was alive with ecumenism. The World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches, to which our family of churches belonged, were major players on the NZ church scene and throughout the world. So also were their opponents.
Among such opponents were American fundamentalist leaders Carl McIntire, founder of the international Council of Christian Churches, and John R. Rice, Texan evangelist and founder of the publication The Sword of the Lord. The influence of these men and their devotees was felt beyond the United States and down here in New Zealand.
Rice, like McIntire, published a raft of sermons and books expounding his anti-ecumenical, anti-liberal views. One book that did the rounds at our theological college was Rice’s Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives and Women Preachers. The title speaks for itself and Rice made plain neither he nor God had time for women preachers.
It’s a view I don’t share and one reason, among many, for that is Barbara Brown Taylor. She is a woman preacher. She publishes her sermons and writes of her understanding of God and the way God works in the world. Her sermons are a delight to read. Her capacity to put faith in the setting of our human situation and her refusal to draw lines of demarcation around the activity of the Almighty has not only guided my thinking but the way many others approach their Christian faith and life.
She is an Episcopal (Anglican) priest who served for 15 years in parish ministry, was voted one of the 12 most effective preachers in the English-speaking world and is now a professor of religion at Piedmont College in the US.
Her book Leaving Church received critical acclaim and in 2009 she wrote An Altar in the World – A Geography of Faith, in which she describes how she encounters God outside the walls of the Church.
The chapter titles alone make enticing reading, all listed under the title “The Practice of….” There she explores the themes of waking up to God, paying attention, wearing skin, walking on the Earth, getting lost, encountering others, living with purpose, saying no, carrying water, feeling pain, being present with God and pronouncing blessings.
The whole book is a stimulating journey into the meaning of incarnation – the God who became flesh.
Her handling of prayer, “The practice of being present to God-Prayer,” is an example of her incarnational theology and gives fresh insight into an area where many of us struggle. Her words resonate with my own experience:
”I am a failure at prayer. When people ask me about my prayer life, I feel like a bulimic must feel when people ask her about her favourite dish. My mind starts scrambling for ways to hide my problem. I start talking about other things I do that I hope will make me sound like a godly person. I try to say admiring things about prayer so that there can be no doubt about how important I think it is. I ask the other person to tell me about her prayer life hoping she will not notice that I have changed the subject.”
She struggled with the various ways in which prayer is traditionally divided – petition, intercession and so on – until she realised:
“Prayer is not a contest. The various categories of prayer were for sharpening my intention, not for winning God’s attention.”
This led her to see that prayer is the totality of human actions that make up love in which words may not be necessary at all for prayer to take place.
“The point of uttered prayers,” she writes, “ is to sharpen my hearing, not God’s.”
Her struggle with the nature and practice of prayer is closely allied to her claim that it is in the tangible and earthy she is most likely to be “utterly swamped by the presence of the Holy.”
Barbara Brown Taylor recognises that the constant danger of faith is it does not root itself in the real world. We divide our lives into two worlds, the material and the spiritual, forgetting that what God has joined in “the Word become flesh” we too easily separate without realising we have done it. Hence her recurring emphasis on the need to worship at altars in the world.
This year’s Gathering of our churches has the theme “incarnation.” Here’s one “woman preacher” who is neither a bossy wife nor has bobbed hair, whose book would make great background reading on that theme and provide a source of genuine inspiration for those who attend as well as for those of us who don’t.