Susan Phillips is a child of God, called and blessed, convicted and forgiven, mama, spouse, pastor, servant, trying to be a disciple.
Susan attended Grinnell College, Candler School of Theology - Emory University, Hebrew University and served UMC and PCUSA churches in Iowa.
She has pastored First Presbyterian Church in Shawano, WI since 1999. She is a worship designer and workshop leader for emergent church conversations, sacred dance and worship media. Her daily spiritual disciplines include parenting two daughters, interfaith dialogue with her spouse, Simon Levin, and talking to strangers. Their lives are filled with art and community building.
Her story as published in Presbyterian News Service: A Matter of Gifts
Dramatic presentation of Hagar and Ishmael story (Genesis 21) at Lakes and Prairies Synod School, 2011, with Heather Anderson and Asa Stanfield. -- photo, Simon Levin
Susan's journey began in Springfield, MO in the Ozarks, where her parents encouraged her independence. She grew through music, sports, academics, youth mission and ministry. As a college student, she joined the Council of Churches Summer Mission Team, worked in a non-profit AODA rehab center and preaching through a time of deep doubt and searching.
Despite applications to other kinds of jobs, G-d seemed to push church jobs into Susan's path. After graduating from Grinnell College, she spent a year as a Mission Volunteer with the PCUSA at Stony Point Center, in New York working on global education programs. After two years diving deep into intercity ministry, peace and justice work, and working with adults with disabilities in Macon, GA, she attended Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta and Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
A return to Iowa brought opportunities to dance and explore arts in worship and spiritual formation while Susan served a UMC church in Iowa City and a PCUSA church in Cedar Rapids while her spouse, Simon Levin completed his MFA in Ceramics. Preaching and worship planning became regular spaces for creative community expression. From these supportive and encouraging communities, she threw open the doors to a pastoral call which led her and Simon to Shawano, WI in 1999. In this community at First Presbyterian Church that she grew and learned about shared leadership, interactive worship, and the possibility of installation art in sacred spaces.
In July, 2017, Susan began a new exciting ministry at First Presbyterian Church in Springfield, IL. This congregation is rooted and reaching. It is rooted in its history as “Lincoln’s Church” with traditions of community service, classical music, and social justice. It’s ministry partnerships with the Cuban church and More Light Presbyterians and the Covenant Network reflect the community reaching and stretching out toward cousins and kin, near and far.
The journey continues...
I was a teenager the first time I saw someone dance in worship. She was a kindergarten teacher, a former nun and I was mesmerized. I knew in that moment that I wanted to dance before G-d!
Nancy taught me her choreography for The Lord's Prayer and after that I was on my own. I hadn't taken a dance class since I was six, but I had been enacting, interpreting lyrics and music in my living room at home ever since I could reach the record player (ask your parents or grandparents to explain what that was). I began creating choreography for songs I like to sing at church. Then others began asking me to teach them. How does one teach what you haven't studied? This was one of my early lessons in trusting my instincts and celebrating spiritual gifts.
I now teach sacred dance classes.
In 2000, I began realizing that even after explaining the biblical history of dance as worship and my experience of dance as prayer, folks sitting in pews still understood it primarily as performance (this is true of other art forms in worship, e.g. music). So, I began using liturgy that incorporated movement, simple movements, as part of the congregation's prayer life rather than using only solo or troupe work. As a community of faith, I think this choice has helped us understand ourselves - body, mind and spirit - and G-d as incarnate, enfleshed. As we reclaim our bodies as hands and feet of Jesus in the world able to move, touch, dance, we discover our bodies redeemed for sacred purpose.
Parenting is a spiritual discipline through which I have been drawn most closely to the Holy One. Becoming a parent was an intentional choice that we celebrated. I simply had no idea how powerfully my children would form my spirit, shape my growth, and reveal the Divine to me. My daughters need me every day and deserve the very best I have to give. It is for their futures that I am more deeply committed to work for a better, more peaceful world. For their sakes I choose my language about people, G-d, justice, right and wrong, love, care, power, responsibility and respect very carefully. Like many parents these days, Simon and I have not discovered an optimal balance between vocation and family; we share childcare full time and each work full time. I need to share Sabbath renewal with my family.
Reflecting on how being a parent and family member, shapes my spirituality, faith commitments and worship experiences is a spiritual discipline. Most books that I see about faith and parenting are about spiritual formation of children – how to raise faithful kids. It has become clear that parenting has profoundly shaped me by what my children have taught me, transformed by the vital accountability in which they hold me, lifted up by their wonder and joy at discovering their place in G-d’s world.
Much to the surprise of some of my seminary classmates, and maybe to myself, I spent a third of my coursework in Bible. I loved digging in and rediscovering stories I knew, but heard in a new way. I laughed out loud to look at the Hebrew text and realize the plays on words, the linguistic jokes, the poetry of the prose. My Greek was never as good as my Hebrew.
Because I'm a glutton for punishment, I applied and was accepted into the Honors Thesis program which allowed me curricular time and space to explore a topic of my own interest. I initially wanted to examine Biblical models for peacemaking between communities in the Hebrew texts. I realized fairly soon, that my goal was more hopeful and idealistic than accounts of Israelites' neighborly relations revealed. I shifted my focus and began looking at more isolated relationships of outsiders within Israel, specifically Rahab, Ruth and Tamar. Elsewhere in this site, you can find the midrash I wrote from three characters' perspectives of the Rahab story in the book of Joshua.
When I teach Confirmation classes, I don't ask students to memorize passages. I would rather they learn how to read, listen and discern the meaning of the passage in their life of faith with G-d, than simply recite chapter and verse. I like to start classes at the beginning and explore oral tradition: what do you remember about the Bible's story? What do you know about Jesus' life? I also like to show students Hebrew and Greek texts and let them see how different original languages look next to English translations.
I also love how human the stories of Scripture are. These are saints, not Saints. They are selfish, petty, greedy, annoying, murderous, fearful, struggling, faithful, failing, wandering folks -- just like us. When we read the Bible well (attentively, openly, inquisitively) we begin to see reflections of ourselves -- our best and worst selves -- and can begin to hear G-d's still small voice, feel the Spirit's movement in our lives, and follow where the Holy leads.
Let us listen to the Word of G-d for the people of G-d.
We are made of clay, earth, dust to which we will return. We are made by God in the image of God, yet we do not all look alike. As each of us is similar, yet different, the clay pieces Simon makes are each unique though made of the same materials and processes. No two pieces are identical, each one tells its own story of its making and firing. He does not glaze the exteriors but leaves them exposed where the touch of the maker is revealed in fingerprints and tool marks. The colors on each piece are not applied, but evoked from within the clay body by the touch of the flame, as our gifts are evoked by the movement of the Spirit in our lives. The bowls, plates and pitchers he makes which are used for celebrating the sacrament of Holy Communion are not fancy, decorative pieces that might be made for royalty, but subtle earthen vessels that might be used by carpenters and fishermen. First century cups were not the stemware we often see in worship today. The bowl Jesus shared would most likely have been simple and in the breaking of bread, the simple is revealed as sacred.
Simon's work is made of clay formulated in Minneapolis at Continental Clay. He uses primarily a high iron, dark colored stoneware and a light colored porcelain that flashes brighter colors in response to the fire. As we are different colors, so is the clay. We fire entirely with scrap wood from the forests and industries from the great north woods. This environmentally responsible choice is a reflection of our care for creation. The artwork he makes speaks of its origins in the earth, the forests, in the hand of the maker, and its experience of the refiner's fire. The work speaks of identity not simply as the piece it is: cup, bowl, pitcher, but of its identity through relationship, one with another and through its mission in service: bearing the gifts of God for the people of God. You can see more of Simon's work and learn about our new pottery in Pawnee, IL.
Perichoresis is the fancy word describing how G-d, as trinity, is community. The three-in-one relationship is a lovely model of interdependency.
We are called into relationship by G-d with one another. We are called into faithful relationship, loving relationship, redeeming relationship with one another. These relationships are expressions of community that lift each one up, bind up broken hearts, accompany those who grieve, weep with those in pain, seek justice where it is lacking and celebrate the gifts G-d has scattered with wild abandon in our midst.
I find these expressions of community to be transforming. At their best, they are safe spaces, sanctuaries for folks to be vulnerable one with another. At their best, healing happens, faith is deepened, peace is made, reconciliation finds its way home.
Of course, not every community is transforming or safe or home.