Meet Rhonda Mawhood Lee, author of “Indissoluble.”
Rhonda Mawhood Lee is a priest, writer, and spiritual director. She currently serves as a canon to the bishop of North Carolina.
Q & A with Rhonda Mawhood Lee
Q: What are your two favorite hymns?
A: Many hymns move me to tears. I’m just that way; my emotions sit very close to the surface in liturgy, and they most often emerge in tears. That being said, my two favorites are “Be Thou My Vision” and “Humbly I Adore Thee.” I want both of these to be sung at my funeral (many years from now, I hope). Both have, I think, beautiful, simple melodies, and both speak to the reality that Christian discipleship is a journey of trust and hope. “Be Thou My Vision” expresses my hope to live each day with the vision of God and the divine Kingdom before me. When I inevitably fail miserably, the hymn’s words are once again my prayer: “All else be nought to me, save that Thou art.” “Humbly I Adore Thee” expresses, for me, that Jesus Christ is the source of any true hope I have, and that I encounter that living hope in the Eucharist: “what the Truth has spoken, that for truth I hold.” And it expresses my ultimate hope, to live in the pure presence of God: “face to face thy splendor, I at last shall see, in the glorious vision, blessed Lord, of thee.” Sadly, in my experience “Humbly I Adore Thee” isn’t sung very often in church. Now that I rarely choose hymns (as a diocesan staff member rather than a parish priest), I count myself lucky if I get to sing it on Maundy Thursday.
Q: You speak English, French, and Spanish. Can you share an experience of grace or beauty you’ve had in a multilingual worship service?
A: I love multilingual worship when it reflects the cultural backgrounds and languages of the people gathered. One of the wonderful things about a liturgical church is that, once someone knows the structure of the liturgy, even if they don’t understand every word of the service, they can easily keep track of where they are. And sometimes members of the congregation help each other out in a pinch. One of my favorite moments in a Eucharist came at the ordination of the current bishop of North Carolina, Sam Rodman. The fraction anthem was in Spanish, which the American Sign Language interpreter didn’t understand. So from my place in the second row, I whispered an English translation to my fellow canon, who signed it to the interpreter, who relayed it to the congregation. It was a lovely little Pentecost moment.
Q: You write about baptism in your essay. As a priest, when you prepare someone for baptism, is there anything in particular you tell people or ask them to think about?
A: I don’t often prepare people for baptism in my current role as a canon on a diocesan staff. That’s one of just a couple of things I regret about this work (my other big regret is that I rarely get to work with children anymore). But I do preach often about baptism, and I talk about the same things I emphasized when I did baptismal preparation in parishes. First, that through baptism we become members of Jesus Christ’s body in communion with everyone else who has ever been, and will ever be, baptized. The second follows from that: being a Christian is a team sport, a community practice. So participate in the community of the baptized, praying and worshipping together, giving and accepting encouragement, supporting others and letting the community support you.
Q: What is your favorite worship service or part of the Book of Common Prayer?
A: My favorite service is the Great Vigil of Easter—when it is done well. If the service is held too early in the evening, so that the church isn’t really dark, the liturgy loses some of its mystery (not to mention, scriptural and theological resonance); and if only the minimum number of readings are included, we lose the sense of how mysterious, and sometimes boring, it can be to sit and wait for God to do something new. And the church has missed a great opportunity to move and form long-standing members and newcomers alike. But done with care, preparation, and simplicity, following the Prayer Book’s instructions, the Vigil is just gorgeous. Kindling the new fire, processing the paschal candle through the dark church, the Exsultet, the readings that tell the long and ancient story of God’s care for us, the alleluias: this service fills me with awe, joy and hope, every time.
Q: What writing project are you working on now?
A: I am currently working on a memoir-family history that places my own life experiences in conversation with ancestors whom I knew, and those whose lives I have researched. How did they create and care for—and sometimes, abandon—families in the midst of extreme poverty? How did the white supremacist policies of the British Empire benefit them? How was mental illness and a propensity to suicide passed on, in part, through experiences of loss and the lack of time and space to grieve those losses? These are all questions I explore in this book in progress.
Read more of Rhonda’s writing in the online magazine, Faith & Leadership
Check out her book, Through with Kings and Armies: The Marriage of George and Jean Edwards.