‘Grace and gratitude’ at Big Tent — Q&A with theologian Martha Moore-Keish

Seminary professor and author to present two workshops at Big Tent 2015

June 16, 2015

Martha Moore-Keish

Martha Moore-Keish —Coenraad Brand, Columbia Theological Seminary

LOUISVILLE

Not only is Martha Moore-Keish an acclaimed theologian, she is also a poet.

As the author of such noted books as “Christian Prayer for Today”and associate professor for Theology at Columbia Theological Seminary, she interprets, in language rich with poetic refrain, the Presbyterian emphasis on grace and gratitude. This theme will be lifted up by the Theology, Worship, and Education ministry area in a series of workshops at Big Tent.

“God’s action always precedes our own, underlies our own, guides our own,” she says, “if we open ourselves up to it. And that action is ultimately benevolent—is good, is loving, is gracious—so that when we begin with an emphasis on God’s grace, we proclaim that even when things seem absolutely to the contrary, ultimately the power of the universe tends to our good and that we seek in our lives to align ourselves with that gracious power.”

Moore-Keish says, in contrast with other Christian traditions that hold that human action comes first—“that we have to do something in order to earn our salvation”—the unique nature of the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition is the principle of “God always claims and loves us first.”

“By emphasizing grace as the first word, that means our action is always responsive, is always thankful, and follows what it is that God has first done for us,” she says. “It’s a way of claiming and proclaiming that God’s action is that which is for our good, and that therefore we then seek to mirror that, to reflect that, and to respond in gratitude.”

Moore-Keish’s two workshops, “Grace and Gratitude in the Worshiping Community” and “Grace and Gratitude: Following Jesus”—designed to address the movement of grace and gratitude in worship and in everyday life—will be held on Friday, July 31, 4:30 p.m.–5:30 p.m., and Saturday, August 1, 11:00 a.m.–12:00 noon.

Moore-Keish spoke with Presbyterian News Service last week from her office in Decatur, Ga.

Why is "grace and gratitude" key to our understanding of what it means to be Presbyterian?

Because it emphasizes God's loving action as the first word, and our action as always the second, dependent on what God has always already done for us. By emphasizing grace, we remove any illusion that we earn or deserve God's care of us, and we continually receive the good news that the One who created heaven and earth and cares for each chipmunk and dandelion also cares for us—even on our worst days.  It also frames our own actions in the world in terms of thankfulness, not guilt or obligation.

How does this "Presbyterian accent on the gospel" resonate with your personally? With today's seminarians?

I find this accent on grace enormously reassuring, since I am deeply aware of how much I fail to love others as I should. To hear the words "you are forgiven," just never gets old.  I also think the accent on gratitude is vitally important in seminary teaching today, to remind us that human activity flows as a response to God's grace, not as the prerequisite for God's grace. It challenges every insidious suggestion—so common in contemporary American culture—that independent human accomplishment is the basis of salvation.

What inspired your interest in worship, particularly the theology and practice of the sacraments?

To be honest, I came to this interest from a deep engagement with other religious traditions, especially the year after college that I lived and studied in India. During that year of traveling and studying popular devotional Hinduism, I was intrigued by the embodied ritual traditions that permeated people's lives. I returned to my own Protestant Reformed Christian tradition with a conviction that we too are formed by our ritual traditions, but that we rarely notice how they shape and form us, and that we could deepen our own devotion to God through deeper attention to the visual, tactile, and other sensory dimensions of our faith.

What does gratitude look like in worship? In everyday life?

It looks like any gesture or expression that follows the recognition of gift: receiving elements of bread and wine and saying "Amen" with a smile to the one who serves; spontaneous weeping during the singing of an "Alleluia" after the declaration of forgiveness; a whispered "thank you" or even a shout of praise during prayer. Gratitude also looks like the congregation leaving worship to go and serve meals, build houses, lobby the legislature, or tie shoelaces of preschoolers. All of that is gratitude.

Why should the shaping and design of worship be of interest to every Presbyterian, not just the pastor, session, or worship committee?

Because worship is, for most of us, the most common way that we shape faith. If we take an interest in shaping worship, and in engaging all people fully in worship, we have a better chance of deepening Christian faith.

What do you hope Big Tent participants will gain by attending your workshops?

I hope participants will gain or deepen their appreciation for this basic Reformed movement of grace and gratitude as a "heartbeat of faith.” I hope too that they will begin to make connections between this overarching theme and the particular manifestations of it in ordinary worship in a variety of living congregations. Finally, especially in the second workshop, I hope they will begin to see connections between grace and gratitude in worship and regular old lives of discipleship.

Where do you see the PC(USA) on the cutting edge of liturgical renewal and reform?

Our new hymnal, Glory to God, is one example of an extraordinary collection of contemporary and classic congregational song that can draw people into singing the faith in words from around the world and across time. This is a gift not only to the PC(USA), but to the wider ecumenical world as well. Also, I think our efforts at sacramental renewal through resources like "Invitation to Christ" are helping many Christians to think about how baptism and the Lord's Supper are deeply related as both gift and call.

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Those interested in participating at Big Tent this summer can register at https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/big-tent/.