Inspiration from Chautauqua

Some of you may be thinking, now how on earth does one pronounce Chautauqua? and others of you may be thinking, does she mean the Chautauqua Institute? Well – Shah-TAH-qua is how you pronounce it and yes, I do mean the Institute.

A bit of background information. I hadn’t planned on going. I was perfectly content being Bridezilla in Buffalo (wedding in T-minus 13 days) when a colleague came down with Pneumonia and I was called. Could I take the week as Episcopal Chaplain? The Vicar knew I was interested, at least in theory. Even the week minus Sunday (as I had prior engagements)? So I agreed. And I preached daily, plus led a bible study and attempted to be social during the Tea and was available for pastoral crises and for this I got a room, a parking pass, two gate passes and a continental breakfast every day. It’s not a bad way to vacation if you can do it, though two weeks before your wedding isn’t a great time to vacation. It is, however, an excellent time to go on retreat.

I emailed my Spiritual Director and told her the plan, asking for any words of wisdom to take with me. “Be open to God,” she said. Well that was helpful. I could have come up with that on my own, thanks. (The point, of course, is that I could, but I wouldn’t have. So despite my snark, it was quite helpful.)

So I retreated all by myself. My beloved couldn’t take time off from work, and certainly not with three days notice, so I loaded up the Tardis and drove 75 minutes south. It took me two days to shed the angst and anger and stress I was carrying around and once I did?


Well, relatively speaking.

This week, Week 1 of Chautauqua’s ten week season, Alan Jones was the Chaplain of the Institute and John Shelby Spong was the Interfaith Lecturer for the week. They each played a beautiful and melodic counterpoint, Dean Emeritus Jones a gentle but persistent call to true humanity (like the bell that won’t stop ringing), to Anglican Orthodoxy, the unity in spite of differences, and Bishop Spong a horn cutting through the fog of biblical literalism, telling and retelling the stories of scripture in light of hard hitting and insightful research, most of which has been available to scholars for the past 200 years.

And me? Well, in those first two days all I could be was stressed out and intimidated – what could I possibly say in my three minute sermon (well, it was supposed to be three minutes. I can’t seem to bring myself to preach for only three minutes. Sue me.) at 7:45 in the morning that could possibly compare to these? And then I woke up – I woke up in so many ways. Some of them very private and intense, some of them far reaching and I’ll go into those in later blog posts, but I also woke up to my role. I was chaplain. It was my job to attend to the spiritual needs of the souls in my cure for the week, those staying in the Episcopal Cottage, those attending morning chapel. And so I did. And as I listened to them outside of chapel it became quite clear to me what I need to say inside of chapel.

Who will replace Bishop Spong? they asked. He is in his eighties, after all.

No one will replace Bishop Spong, and no one needs to, I said. His role is to do the research, to write the books, to tell YOU about it. Now it’s your turn. If you simply read the book and say, YEAH! and then put it on the shelf and do nothing more, not let it speak to your life, not let it transform you, then he may as well have never written. If you simply attend every lecture of his you can and deeply enjoy them and not let them change you when you go home, he may as well have never spoken, never lectured at all.

Ring the bells that still can ring, there is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.

And so I helped them with the missing links – how do we bring this home?  How do we study this by ourselves if our priest or pastor doesn’t want to help us? How do we build networks of people, of communities to be supportive as we try to be open to the spirit? How do we prepare ourselves to let the crack widen and the light to stream in, to follow where the Holy Spirit leads?

So I preached on change, unity, community, martyrdom and more and I could see the difference.  I was told by previous chaplains that the bible study is pro forma. A few people may attend out of politeness. No one came this week out of politeness. We looked at the three different versions of the ten commandments that Bishop Spong had mentioned. We read them. We compared them. We marveled over the words and the themes, the similarities and the differences. We ran out of time because we all also wanted to go hear Alan Jones preach…

[…and I can hear them clapping right now, from the porch of the Episcopal Cottage. Dame Julie Andrews must have just taken the stage in the Amphitheater. Alas, if I hadn’t lost my gate pass, I’d be there instead of writing this blog post. Ah well. Moving on.]

We are the boat, we are the sea. I sail in you, you sail in me.

There is more to say. There is always more to say. And sometimes it is left unsaid quite intentionally because words can only convey so much and sometimes they fall entirely flat. So I invite you, instead of reading ten more paragraphs, to go and find a flower or a tree or a sunset or a sunrise or something quite naturally beautiful and entrancing and stare at it. Let your mind fall silent and mute. Lose track of time and allow whatever you’re staring at to speak to you in the silence. Do that and you will have shared with me in some of my experiences this week.


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