…a review by Jim Burklo of
WE ALL BREATHE
– a book of poems by Gretta Vosper
As I review my involvement in the progressive Christian movement over the last decade and a half, I face a seeming contradiction. On the one hand, I’m amazed that a small number of devoted people, with very limited resources, succeeded in establishing a public identity for theologically and socially progressive Christianity. At least some people in the wider world have an awareness that an alternative form of the faith exists. On the other hand, we’re very far from transforming the public’s image of Christianity from a narrow, backward-looking religion into a justice-and peace-centered faith that is compatible with science and common sense.
We’ve done a pretty good job of blowing holes in the battleship of triumphal, oppressive orthodoxy. That ship is sinking. But have we built a better boat to sail the sea of the soul?
For that task, poets are needed to do the heavy lifting. If we can’t sing a progressive faith, how can it float our spiritual boats? We need hymns, prayers, images, and poetry as the pitch to hold our minds, bodies, and souls together. We need new and artful words for worship that urge us on toward positive personal, social, and environmental change.
Gretta Vosper is a boatwright helping progressive Christianity set sail. The pastor of West Hill United Church in Toronto, Canada, she is the author of a recent collection of poems, WE ALL BREATHE (available at the “store” at progressivechristianity.org). Each is a mirror in which personal and collective spiritual experience is reflected. Each is written in the first person plural, and most end with an “amen”. They have the cadence, content, and feel of “pastoral prayers” in worship – yet they make no mention of God, Jesus, or theological terms.
The poems are written in the voice of a community of people talking to themselves. The great Spanish poet, Antonio Machado, wrote that “one who talks to himself hopes to talk to God sometime”. Talking to ourselves and talking to God may be one and the same thing, if there is honesty in the utterance. Whether or not one believes in God, there’s something divine in the act of prayer itself.
In the past month, I’ve been part of a lively email conversation among progressive Christian leaders around the world who engaged in the “Evolving Statements of Faith” project of ProgressiveChristianity.org . Many in our discussion who are from Australia, New Zealand, and Canada – Gretta included – have given up on God because they think the word and the concept has too much negative baggage. The Americans in the group tend to continue to embrace God with a theology that abandons supernaturalism. (I can’t explain this difference between American and British Commonwealth religious radicals – if anyone can, please let me know!) Gretta and her church are on a journey together, taking with them what they find to be good from Christian tradition and leaving the rest behind. (Have a look at the church’s intriguing vision statement.) Some might say that she and her church have left Christianity completely, but I think strong echoes of the faith can still be heard.
Her poetry rings true regardless of where one lives on theistic spectrum. I hope her prayerful poems will find wide use in all sorts of churches and in the personal meditations of all kinds of people:
Inspired by the hands of hope
working, healing, holding, sustaining,
we gather this day to embrace
the task that is ours.
May our hearts
be strong for the work we find.
May our minds be open to the challenges
it will provide us.
May our bodies
be ready when the call comes
so that no one is ever left behind.
On this promise we stand
as those who see this world too clearly
and yet would see it
no other way.
Website: JIMBURKLO.COM Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California