Featured Reviews, VOLUME 4

Featured: THE HEARTBEAT OF GOD – Katharine Jefferts Schori [Vol. 4, #1.75]

Interrupting Despair

A review of
The Heartbeat of God:
Finding the Sacred in the Middle of Everything.

By Katharine Jefferts Schori

Reviewed by
Margaret D’Anieri.

The Heartbeat of God:
Finding the Sacred in the Middle of Everything.

By Katharine Jefferts Schori
Hardback: Skylight Paths, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

THE HEARTBEAT OF GOD - SchoriHunger, homelessness, financial inequity, structural injustice, climate change, immigration reform, racism, the AIDS epidemic, the Gulf oil spill, the earthquake in Haiti, equitable health care and education. The list of problems in the world can tire me out.

Katharine Jefferts Schori is the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the US, one of 38 primates in the worldwide Anglican Communion, and the first woman to hold such a position. Her work brings her around the country and around the world, and so she has seen firsthand the devastation of the AIDS epidemic in Africa, the destruction in Haiti, as well as the other ongoing issues in the world included in the list above. The focus of her leadership, in addition to the ongoing controversies within the Anglican Communion, has been on the role of the church in the world, including support of the United Nations Millenium Development Goals.

The Heartbeat of God links the church to the world in the context of Scripture and Christian identity. For those who wonder why the church should care about the world in which we live, this book makes those linkages in clear and sometimes provocative ways.  A chapter about what women have to do to survive is put in the context of the story of the widow giving her mite at the temple (Mark 12:41-44). Jefferts Schori writes:

Jesus doesn’t praise her. He simply notes that she’s giving the last of what she has. His comments are a critique of a religious system that keeps widows poor by depriving them of economic possibilities and any real hope.

Jefferts Schori connects this situation with present day victims of human trafficking and women who are constrained in their life choices:

The sin in these stories … is really about removing creative possibility from others, denying them their God-given ability to make choices, to exercise their free will. That is what is most essential about being created in the image of  God – sharing in God’s creativity … Many young people today are being raised in a system that says they have value only for the ways in which they can be used – by tricks on the corner or by athletic teams or by the military.

She continues, “But the freedom we have in Jesus is about hope.” This is the overarching theme of the book: that Christians are to “bring hope, birth hope, sing hope.” She defines mission as “an interruption of the world’s way of seeing reality as grim and pretty hopeless, of assuming that violence is just the way the world is, and anonymity is the best way to get along.”

It’s a theme that can get lost in the compassion fatigue that comes with reading this book from front to back, even though there are plenty of examples of good work being done. It might be more effective if read a section at a time, perhaps in conversation with a group’s discernment about its call to ministry in the world, aided by the reflection questions at the end of each chapter. And it’s not entirely clear who the intended audience is: the references are primarily to the Episcopal Church, some of which only make sense to those familiar with Episcopal Church polity and context. The occasional repetition of themes and phrases suggests that the chapters are some combination of sermon material and other writings.

One of the things that is repeated, and bears repeating, is that we need to listen and not just assume what’s needed. Jefferts Schori puts this in terms attributed to the Franciscans: “Show up, pay attention, tell the truth, and leave the rest up to God.”

“We can’t love God without spending time and attending to the evidence of God around us and within us, and we can’t love anybody else without that.”

This is a vision grounded in Jefferts Schori’s understanding of who Jesus is:

For Christians our faith begins with the reality of incarnation – not as a son of Caesar, in political and military power, but as a babe born to a poor and homeless couple on the run… The reality of incarnation begins in humility and smallness and ends by changing the order of the cosmos.

The man from Galilee with whom Christians try to walk shows us something essential about being a child of God – and an adult of God – deeply involved in the dailiness of human life. He worked with his hands. He engaged anyone who wanted to engage or encounter him, including the religious leaders of his time, the Pharisees; the local Roman leader, Pilate; the sick and outcast.

It’s also a vision grounded in her understanding of who Christians are:

The people and communities who feed the hungry and house the homeless and welcome the hurting and heal the sick are doing that work because someone challenged them to love others the way they’ve been loved. Those people of faith are loving their neighbors because that’s what Jesus did. They aren’t loving their neighbors because somebody told them what wretched people they were. The Christians who show the world what love looks like don’t do it out of fear.

The converse suggests that to the extent that we are not about mission, it is because we are fearful and filled with guilt. That may be true – certainly the church traffics in guilt as much as those advertising diet plans and exercise machines on New Year’s Day – but there is also the reality of overwhelming suffering and what’s often perceived as a lack of accountability. The first anniversary of the Haiti earthquake is this week. Many, many people contributed funds, and there’s little evidence of relief. The Episcopal Church is working to rebuild the cathedral in Port au Prince; is this the best use of funds when people are literally living in the streets?

Engaging people in mission does need to draw people out of fear and guilt and into an understanding of what it means to be beloved of God. But in my experience, engagement also requires connection and relationship as well as a sense of good stewardship. That relationship may be virtual, but it requires someone to tell the story in a compelling way (Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times is one example).

A product of our individualistic culture is an individualistic Christianity (an oxymoron, but a truth for many) that is focused on individual salvation (an oxymoron as well) that is solely about “getting into heaven”. There is a growing movement of people who understand our relatedness as essential to our faith; who are helping us return to a more Hebraic understanding of what it means to part of a faith community and part of the human community, and Katharine Jefferts Schori is one of them. She gives us an example of what it means to show up, pay attention, and tell the truth, both in this book and what I know of her other activities, and in those ways she is herself a bringer of hope.


Margaret D’Anieri is the rector of St. Paul Episcopal Church in Norwalk, Ohio.


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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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