I met Deacon Nancy Rosenblum during the Season of Lent this year and was delighted by her style, intellectualism and warmth. The idea of doing interviews with people I admire took hold of me a few weeks ago. I thought she would be a great candidate for depth of insight. I love learning how someone grows in their faith, and hope that you are inspired by her faith journey.
Deacon Rosenblum invited me to her lovely home and she and her husband were gracious hosts. The insights below were culled from our conversation.
We touched on more than what is below, but I found these insights particularly moving.
Faith Journey Beginnings
Nancy Rosenblum was raised in the fundamentalist faith- Plymouth Brethren.* Her upbringing involved reading the Bible everyday as a family (except for the pesky Song of Solomon). She rebelled earlier than most of us do and went through periods of atheism and existentialism, but felt drawn back to the church in college. Luckily, she met several anti-war activist-priests and began worshipping in the Episcopal church at age 19.
The qualities that Nancy was drawn by were the fine music and dignified worship of the church. But more importantly that she could “be a thinking person and still be a Christian.” This was a sharp contrast to her upbringing, where scientific method was disavowed. In the Episcopal Church there are shared experiences in the form of worship and reading of the Book of Common Prayer, but no dogma. Intellectual freedom has been a key hallmark of the Anglican tradition and one that Deacon Rosenblum embraced.
Her mentors, including the Reverend Ralph Carmichael, who studied under Paul Tillich, encouraged her in the areas of witness to civil rights and other important issues.
As Nancy Rosenblum’s faith deepened, she found the ‘middle way’ of Episcopalianism (between Catholicism and Protestantism) a draw, and liked that worship is Bible centered. Having grown up with the Bible in her childhood, Nancy knows that the Bible provides “riches.” The Episcopal approach of studying the Bible as literature and translation provides solace and inspiration.
Her path to becoming a Deacon was indeed part of “going further” in faith. Deacon Nancy takes interest in the practical application of religion, in acting as a facilitator to lay people:
Your faith is lived out in your life
In her professional life, Deacon Nancy was in personnel and labor relations, and many of the skills in that profession carried over into the diocanate: helping and solving problems.
Deacon Rosenblum was Deacon at St. Paul’s in Troy and St. Paul’s in Albany. As a member of St. Paul’s in Troy, I can attest to the fondness that the congregation still has for her and the impact she made on the parish.
One of the most moving parts of my conversation was Nancy’s reminder that we need to study the Bible in order to understand these rich stories. For instance, when Christ asks Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15 NRSV) he is using the Greek agape, that all-encompassing love, while Peter responds using phileo, which is brotherly love. Knowing the correct translation, and that Jesus is asking for Peter to give him all encompassing love, really deepens our understanding. I love this knowledge!!
Deacon Rosenblum’s husband is Jewish, and many of her friends are of different faiths. She has studied Buddhism and sees the commonalities of Buddhism and Christianity in ethics and the right treatment of your fellow human. In her college years, she visited a great many churches and become more respectful of each of these faith practices.
Indeed, Deacon Rosenblum is amazed that people are afraid their faith will be weakened by studying other religions. Spirituality is strengthened by finding commonalities. Knowing a different worldview helps you examine your faith more closely. For instance, in the West we emphasize individual identity, while in the East the goal is to lose your identity and merge into a greater one. In Hinduism, there is a great emphasis on expressing love and giving yourself over to it.
Changes in the Church
Deacon Rosenblum feels very strongly that the future of the church is in embracing technology, electronic media. Ignoring that is “like the Catholic Church ignoring Gutenberg.”
That said, she emphasized the idea of witness from Christian leaders on the issues that affect us. For instance, speaking up on racism and anti-Semitism, which seem more prevalent now in our political climate, but is often covered up and not brought into light.
The Episcopal Church is, as a whole, more progressive than other Christian denominations, but in our own Diocese under Bishop Ball, we had a history of true racial integration, speaking out on Civil Rights, and against the Vietnam War. That kind of leadership is still called for, though issues have changed.
Witness to these broader questions puts into action how to ‘love your neighbor.’ The Christian religion is a scandal because it goes against the culture- both then when Christianity was born, and now.
The Deacon and I spoke about abortion- an issue that divides people and especially Christians. There is a third approach that could unite more of us: “If you really want to stop abortion, show understanding and respect. Provide support for the reasons why people have abortions.” We spoke of the real family values that underlie helping families provide the means to support their children. I think we can all agree that this is common ground on left and right.
What Religion Can Do
Religion is a discipline- we go to church, we pray, even when we don’t want to, and this allows us to grow in love and the ability to show love. In our culture, our ability to show love is very limited. Religion can teach us respect and understanding people, but also demonstrating love. And while it is entirely possible to be an ethical atheist, moral instruction and values are something that religion is fundamentally concerned with. Deacon Nancy critiques those who see morality as purely a conversation about sexual morality, and sees morality in a wider social context.
If you want to grow in faith, the best way is to “become friends with someone who has strong faith.” Deacon Nancy reminded me, this is how the Christian faith grew. It is commitment and work- “don’t back off when it gets tough.'”
While organized religion is prey to many of the same things as any institution, a lot of good has been done though the work of religious people (e.g. civil rights leadership). As Deacon Nancy puts it, “When it goes wrong, it does great harm. When it brings you closer to God, it does wonderful things.”
One great benefit is the education and development of spiritual teachers, and in Christianity it allows for interchange of ideas, relationships.
Since Deacon Nancy Rosneblum is a reader, I would be remiss not to share some of her favorite authors , publishing houses and books:
- Dorothy Sayers (yes, the famous mystery writer!) was a witty Christian writer and provides an amazing women’s perspective
- Rowan Williams, Retired Archbishop of Canterbury
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer
- The Magazine The Christian Century
- Evelyn Underhill (I can arrest that “Practical Mysticism” is an amazing book)
- Readings from “All Shall Be Well”- a book for Lent and Easter
- Readings from “Watch for the Light,” about Advent and Christmas
- Publishers: Orbis Books, and Plough Publishing
In closing- Deacon Nancy Rosenblum on love
When I asked her if there was a central spiritual theme to her life, Deacon Rosenblum humbly said:
I don’t think of myself as a great exemplar of spiritual life but the central theme would have to be striving to follow what our Lord asked us: to love God, and love our neighbor as ourselves, and increase the real presence of love in your life.
She went on to say that this is not sentimentality- truly loving our fellow human beings is hard because it’s hard to love ourselves. But Jesus, in the Gospels, says time and time again, how loved we are. It is the grandest message of the Gospels.
“If you do accept, repent, that love can empower you do to things, even things you don’t want to do.”
I hope we each can increase the presence of love on our faith journey.
*Fun Fact: Plymouth Brethren is the faith Garrison Keillor was raised in and he adapted as the Sanctified Brethren in his radio show.
For more: https://christandpopculture.com/bidding-farewell-garrison-keillors-church/