Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Tell the Truth and Bridge These Gaps

I was tired.  I had lots of other things I wanted to do with my Monday afternoon.  But when I got word that the Dream Defenders were organizing a march and protest in memory of Michael Brown, the 18 year-old gunned down in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 2nd, I decided that I needed to go and march with them.  Go and be part of the demonstration of determination that we are not going to accept having a country where unarmed people get shot down in the street.  Be a body for justice and peace in my absolute commitment that we must strive to respect the dignity of every human being.

Most importantly, I wanted to be there to listen in the indaba way of listening; namely, I don't speak and I don't attempt to formulate a response.  Instead, I listen, pay attention, and yield "the floor" to hear what is going on inside the speaker.    

What I heard from some of the young people who spoke was they are fed up.  They see themselves in Michael Brown's shoes because, for them, he is their brother, their son, their uncle.  Maybe not by blood, but by body type and skin color.  And they are frustrated that justice doesn't seem to come in these instances where police officers shoot and kill black men and women.  They are upset with the lack of understanding that Michael Brown's killing is symbolic of things greater, a pervasive problem in this country that never seems to get addressed. They don't want armored tanks rolling through the streets to patrol neighborhoods.  And they want to cry.

So do I.

I join in the frustration with how things were handled in Ferguson, and I recognize that what's happening there is harkening back to decades past in this country that just seem to keep coming back around, with a different focal point and different names of players involved.  But it is still the sin of us vs. them, which sometimes is a race thing, a gender thing, a sexual orientation thing, a religion thing, or a nationality thing... and even sometimes more than just one of those "things."   

When will we drop the divisions?  Perhaps when we all see Michael Brown as our brother, our son, our uncle.  Do white parents worry about their sons in the same ways that black parents do?  Probably not.  They probably don't have to worry that a police officer in pursuit of their son will shoot him six times.  They probably don't even consider that as a possibility.  The goal shouldn't be getting white parents to live with those same fears; the goal should be to move our collective consciousness to a place where NO parent should have to have this fear.

So, how do we do that?  I think it begins with those of us who are white being willing to not only listen and hear what are the complaints of our fellow brothers and sisters of color, but to acknowledge that is within our power to facilitate change to the system.  Changing a system that's been churning and chugging along this way for more than 400 years is not going to happen overnight.  We have to open an honest and frank dialogue about race, and in doing so, I think we need to reject the attempts to label "all white people are like this" or "all black people are like this" and acknowledge that all people are a mixed-up combination of lots of things, and it doesn't help to use a broad brush to characterize one group as being a monolithic community.   I think our police, especially, need to take a step back and assess how they are interacting with the community they are charged to protect and serve. It's a sad day when our police feel they must drive around in armored vehicles.  Is that necessary?  When the Missouri state troopers mixed in with the protestors and talked to the crowds, and even marched along with them, there was a night of calm in Ferguson.  Perhaps the police in every community in this country would do well to have their top brass meet with communities, and again, listen to what they are saying, and make changes to repair the broken trust that seems to exist.

As a former journalist, I think we need to hold our news media accountable for their part.  Language is a powerful tool.  So are the images shown on TV "news."  Being the public's eyewitness is an enormous responsibility, and it must be exercised with care and wisdom.  Don't call people protesting a killing in their neighborhood "a mob."  That leads one to think that they're hooligans.  Don't just show the few that are commiting crimes and repeat those images over and over while not giving equal time and footage, and perhaps more so, to the vast majority who are simply demanding justice in a peaceful protest.  We depend upon journalists to give us an honest, reasoned reflection of the day's events.  Take that charge seriously, please!

I long for a day when we can really be more "we" and not so much "us" vs. "them."  I pray for an end to our divisions.  I pray for us to recognize the needs in our own communities and understand that we are all connected.  I ask for God's grace that I may live and love and work for a more just society. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The More Things Change... The More They Don't

The above photo is not from Alabama in the 1960s.  Instead, it is from a few days ago in Ferguson, Missouri, the sight of another incident of an unarmed black teenager getting shot to death, this time by a uniformed police officer.  The details of what exactly happened last Saturday afternoon that led to this shooting are sketchy at best.  The one thing that is not up for debate: an 18-year-old boy named Michael Brown, on his way to see his grandmother, was gunned down in the street even though he had no weapon.  And a community, and a nation, are rightly outraged.  A crowd began forming to protest, chanting "Don't Shoot!" with their arms raised over their heads as apparently Michael had done.  No doubt someone in Michael's family had taught him as a young black male put your arms up so the cops will see you are unarmed.  This is the real world for our African-American children in this country: their families teach them how to respond when stopped by the police.  It's right there along side how to ride a bicycle because it is such a common day occurence.   In Michael's case, not even his training to raise up his arms could protect him from getting shot to death.

The situation has been tense with barking police dogs, armored SWAT teams, and officers in riot gear.  There have been some blow-outs with protestors getting shot by rubber bullets and one night the news was filled with images of looting.  The Missouri Highway Patrol has been called in to take over the policing duties in Ferguson.  Meanwhile, the officer who shot Michael Brown remains anonymous.  There is fear that someone might retaliate by killing him.      

This evening, my friend the Very Rev. Mike Kinman was one of the adults marching with the youth of Ferguson and the greater St. Louis area.  Happily he reported on Facebook that the youth were leading, and the police, this time the state troopers, had actually come together with the protestors and were talking with people.  Even though the crowd had swelled to 2,000, everyone was respecting each other, and the march to the police headquarters was proceeding peacefully.  Mike's description is reminiscent of a story told about the man who is today's "Saint of the Day" in the Episcopal Church calendar: my New Hampshire hero Jonathan Myrick Daniels.

The above photo IS from Alabama in the 1960s.  Jonathan Daniels was a seminarian from the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge, MA, who went South and stayed to work in the civil rights movement there.  Daniels marched, he tutored black children, and was known for making some of the good white Episcopalians of Alabama uncomfortable when he would bring African-Americans along with him to church.  What made me think of my friend's description of things in Ferguson tonight was this account from Daniels' diary, a story that is one of my favorites about this hot-headed Yankee:
After a week-long, rain-soaked vigil, we still stood face to face with the Selma police. I stood, for a change, in the front rank, ankle-deep in an enormous puddle. To my immediate right were high school students, for the most part, and further to the right were a swarm of clergymen. My end of the line surged forward at one point, led by a militant Episcopal priest whose temper (as usual) was at combustion-point. Thus I found myself only inches from a young policeman. The air crackled with tension and open hostility. Emma Jean, a sophomore in the Negro high school, called my name from behind. I reached back for her hand to bring her up to the front rank, but she did not see. Again she asked me to come back. My determination had become infectiously savage, and I insisted that she come forward--I would not retreat! Again I reached for her hand and pulled her forward. The young policeman spoke: "You're dragging her through the puddle. You ought to be ashamed for treating a girl like that." Flushing--I had forgotten the puddle--I snarled something at him about whose-fault-it-really-was, that managed to be both defensive and self-righteous. We matched baleful glances and then both looked away. And then came a moment of shattering internal quiet, in which I felt shame, indeed, and a kind of reluctant love for the young policeman. I apologized to Emma Jean. And then it occurred to me to apologize to him and to thank him. Though he looked away in contempt--I was not altogether sure I blamed him--I had received a blessing I would not forget. Before long the kids were singing, "I love ---." One of my friends asked [the young policeman] for his name. His name was Charlie. When we sang for him, he blushed and then smiled in a truly sacramental mixture of embarrassment and pleasure and shyness. Soon the young policeman looked relaxed, we all lit cigarettes (in a couple of instances, from a common match, and small groups of kids and policemen clustered to joke or talk cautiously about the situation. It was thus a shock later to look across the rank at the clergymen and their opposites, who glared across a still unbroken "Wall" in what appeared to be silent hatred. Had I been freely arranging the order for Evening Prayer that night, I think I might have followed the General Confession directly with the General Thanksgiving--or perhaps the Te Deum.

Daniels also was gunned down, on the front porch of a store in Hayneville, AL, on August 20, 1965.   He took the bullet meant for a young black teenager named Ruby Sales.  The person who shot him was a special deputy named Tom Coleman.   Coleman was tried for manslaughter and acquitted by an all-white jury.  Daniels death, protecting an unarmed African-American girl, raised the sin of racism and the need for the church's involvement in social justice to a new height.  Clearly, looking at today's world where unarmed black men are getting killed by the police, and there seems to be a shocking lack of the respect for the dignity of every human being, the church needs to stand with the oppressed and demand better of those who are charged with protecting and serving all the public.

And so we pray...

O God of justice and compassion, who put down the proud and the mighty from their place, and lift up the poor and afflicted: We give you thanks for your faithful witness Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who, in the midst of injustice and  violence, risked and gave his life for another; and we pray that we, following his example, may make no peace with oppression; through Jesus Christ the just one: who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  

And we add: 
God make speed to save us.
Lord make haste to help us.  

Hanging on for Hope

Monday night in America, the laughter left and the tears rolled in.

Robin Williams, the much loved comedian and actor of enormous talent, was dead.  The news hit social media sites and spread quickly with photos, film clips, and the repetition of "No!" or "Say it ain't so!"  A person, an entertainer, who gave us so much to laugh about, to think on, and to find joy in life is not the type of person you ever expect to die.  At least not so suddenly.  And then the added shock: he died because he killed himself.  Now his demise becomes even more complicated for those who knew his on-screen, zany, fun-filled, wise and wonderful personas, and all the amazingly compassionate ways in which he used his fame to work for a better world.  How could someone who is like Robin Williams commit suicide?

I've read the postings and the articles that have pointed to his battles with depression, and his struggles to remain sober and stay off alcohol and cocaine.  He apparently had checked himself into a rehab program when his latest TV series was canceled.  From all accounts, he struggled with addiction, sometimes winning and sometimes losing.  The depression seemed to go hand-in-hand with that.

I was deeply saddened by Williams' death, and his actions that led to his death.  I didn't know Robin Williams, and never had a personal encounter with him on a set, on a street, or anywhere.  But when someone commits suicide, and we learn of their wrestling matches with the demon of depression, it strikes a cord in me.  I may not have known him, but I know that fight.  I, too, was once suicidal.  And so I have an uncomfortable knowledge of what that level of depression looks like.  It is darker than a moonless night.  And it is physical.  I remember the time my mother found me in my parents bedroom, clinging and clawing at the sheets on the bed.  The sensation in my body was that I was slipping away into an abyss as my brain pounded me with messages about my worthlessness.  It was bad enough to have boys on my prep school campus bullying me; to have my brain join in the taunting was cruel and unusal punishment.  My mom recalled that day, too, and her realization of how terrifying things were for me.  Luckily, I had a ray of hope. 

The day that I came closest to actually killing myself, my prep school chaplain intervened.  Her class had ended, and I was supposed to be on my way out the door to Noyes Library for my second year German class.  Instead, I stayed in my seat, eyes locked on the table.  Darkness was descending in my head.  I had spent the last twenty minutes or so figuring out what I could do to end my suffering.  Fortunately, I had forgotten the small pocketknife I sometimes carried, so I could not cut myself.  Instead, I was ready to walk to a footbridge on campus, and jump.  But I couldn't move.  I was frozen in place and I felt heavy.  And I stared and stared at the table.  Ms. Cleghorn inquired as to why I wasn't leaving.

"Talk me out of suicide."

That's all that came out of my mouth.  We'd just sat through a presentation by our headmaster who had told us about how his brother had committed suicide.  And the sickness in my head had already twisted his story around to attack me and tell me that this is what I had already done to my family and my friends.  I had already left them with this heartache...even though I was still alive.  But my brain had already judged me guilty and was piling on the message that I was of no use to anyone.

Ms. Cleghorn didn't say anything immediately.  I felt panic rising inside.  She had made me promise her when she first became my advisor, and I told her that I was struggling with suicidal tendancies, that I needed to come to her first if I ever wanted to kill myself.   She was my hope.  She broke her silence and spoke in words that I don't rightly recall any more.  But her anchor was in God; hence her grace-filled words began to break through the darkness.  Time was suspended.  My ears had a ringing sound.  But I do remember, in the course of all of this, she told me we would get me to someone who would give me more help.  That happened.  I began seeing a psychiatrist outside of Boston.  I was put on medication.

Then another medication.

Then a third and final medication to deal with chemical imbalance in my brain.

I had so many blood tests that, to this day, I look away at the sight of a needle.  The medication stabilized my moods and kept me from teetering on the egde of self-destruction.  I stopped having the nightly dreams of the sensation of hanging myself.  I survived one of the most horrible times of my teenage years.  I'm lucky.

Every time I hear of a completed suicide, my heart sinks.  I know that the person who killed him or herself did not do this act as any kind of deliberate offense to anyone because I have been in that sinking pit of depression which feeds all the wrong messages to the person.  They wrongly have concluded that somehow their existence is the problem.  Without someone who is able to pierce through that darkness, it is a mighty struggle to hang on for hope.

If there's anything I feel we can take away from the death of Robin Williams it's the realization that even those who seem to be having fun and are making us laugh are just as likely to be dreading the day as they are ready to seize it.  We may be called upon at some point to be the one who helps to guide the depressed person out of darkness and into light.  All the more reason for us to act and move from a place of compassion rather than malice because we have no idea what tricks the brain may be playing on the other person to make them believe they are unworthy of Love.

I'm so sorry that Robin Williams was unable to find that Hope which I feel certain has found him and invited him to have a seat at the table, even with tears in the eyes.  May his family and all of us who will miss him be blessed with the memories that he made for us, both on and off-screen.

"All-knowing and eternal God, come to our help as we mourn for Robin, dead by his own hand.  We know only in part, we love imperfectly, and we fail to ease one another's pain as you intend.  But you are the God whose property is always to have mercy, and so we put our trust in you and ask the courage to go on; through our Savior Christ, who suffered for us, and whom you raised to new life.  Amen."--EOW 3, pg.55

(If you or someone close to you is thinking suicide, talk to someone first.  Please call 1-800-273-TALK(8255) and let another person guide you out of the dark.) 


Sunday, August 10, 2014

What A World is This

I rarely check my Twitter account.  But as I sat in my hot car waiting in line at the bank to make a deposit, I figured I would pop in and see what was there.

And I was horrified.

There was an account from the Rev. Canon Andrew White, nicknamed "The Vicar of Baghdad," about a five year-old boy from the Iraqi Christian village Qaraqosh.  The militant Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had attacked the village.  They cut this little boy in two:

"I’m almost in tears because I’ve just had somebody in my room whose little child was cut in half,” he said. “I baptized his child in my church in Baghdad. This little boy, they named him after me – he was called Andrew.”

I cannot even begin to imagine the terror that the religious minorities are experiencing in Iraq as this intrafaith genocide continues its crusade, killing hundreds and sending people fleeing for their lives into the mountains where they are without food and water.  And so, there in my car, I offered up a very simple prayer: "O God, help them!"  I am afraid for the Kurds, for the Yazidis, for the Christians, and for anyone else ISIS has determined isn't one of "their kind" of Muslim.  They claim they want an Islamic state; what I think they really want is wanton death and terror.  

Some friends on Facebook are grumbling that President Obama has sent U.S. fighter planes to drop bombs on ISIS hold outs, and humanitarian aid for refugees in the mountains.  And even though my own sentiments lean strongly toward pacificism, this situation is so alarming that I don't think the world should sit back and let the Iraqis figure this out.  The United States, with its flawed decision to invade Iraq back in 2003 and execute Saddam Hussein, has contributed to the uproar that now exists there. We are now, whether we like it or not, linked to this situation and owe it to the people to offer protection and drive back the forces that mean to destroy so many.

Speaking of Facebook, that supposed social media escape app, instead has been slamming more reality of this world in the face of many here in Tallahassee, or at least amongst my friends.  Many have posted about the 63-year-old grandmother who had "a surprise" for her grandsons.  She took the younger of the two boys into the bathroom, locked the door, and stabbed this six year-old to death as he screamed, pleading for his life.  His older brother, unable to get the door open, called his dad, and hid as grandma emerged, looking for him.  The stories coming out after the fact are heartbreaking.  A planned birthday outing for this young boy now needing to be canceled in favor of a funeral; a couple, planning to wed in November, shaken; and an older brother who was devoted to his younger sibling left with the awful memory of a Tuesday morning horror show.

One child cut in half.  One child stabbed to death.  And my cry goes up: "My God! My God!"

The overwhelming cruelty that seems rampant in the world is tough to take in, even from the remote comfort of a Twitter feed or Facebook timeline.  It is depressing and disheartening.  How can human beings commit such cruel and evil acts on each other, especially against children?  

And then we enter into the Gospel of Matthew, and the story of the disciples get tossed around in their boat and Jesus comes walking toward them on the sea, and calms the turbulent waters.  At first they don't believe it's him, and they think he's a ghost.  He tells them, "Take heart; it is I.  Do not be afraid!"  Peter shouts out to him from inside the boat, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you."  With no hesitation, Jesus says, "Come!" And Peter, obediently, gets out of the boat and starts walking toward Jesus.  Until a big gust of wind comes along.  That's when Peter becomes more aware of the wind, and the water under his feet, then Jesus.  And he starts to sink.  But as he starts to go under, Peter calls out to Christ to save him.  And, again, without any hesitation, Jesus lifts Peter out of the waters before they overwhelm him.  

The simple reading of this would be that when we call on Christ, he will save us.  That's true.  All who truly turn to Jesus Christ and really give their attention and intentions to God will come in contact with the grace that is beyond our logical understanding.  There is a kind of peace in that moment that can't be explained, but can be experienced.   But is this any consolation to us in a world where the waves of chaos regularly crash through our TV screens and internet connections?  Or to the grieving parents of slain children?  

Perhaps another way of seeing this moment with Peter is to understand that Christ never lost sight of Peter.  Jesus left the mountain top and ventured out onto the waters of chaos to meet and rejoin his disciples being tossed about in their boat.  And when they react to him with fear, he assures them and repeats the most consistent mantra throughout the Bible: Do. Not. Be. Afraid.   Jesus doesn't abandon his followers; he searches for them.  He pays attention to them.  And when the waves are battering them, he goes to them... even before they start crying for help.

Christ has not abandoned the people of Iraq or anywhere else.  None of the ways we humans call upon God in our darkest hours and greatest moments of need are ignored like a blinking message light on an answering machine.  Because we are still seen, still known, and the Holy still seeks to find and be found.  So, we pray.

O God make speed to save us.
O Lord make haste to help us.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Being Transfigured

Happy Transfiguration Day!  

I know: not a big day on the calendar.  The mail still was delivered, the banks were open, and no stores were running any sales (although this would be a great day for a laundromat to proclaim that they can get your whites radiantly clean!)

Even for the church, this isn't a day special enough to transfer its celebration to the nearest Sunday.  But this is a really big day, even if its not tied to a special season or grand occasion.  Because what sets this day apart, amidst our "ordinary" time, is the pulling back, momentarily, of the veil to show Jesus standing between the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah), his clothes a dazzingly white, and the cloud comes down on the mountain and announces to Peter, John and James: "This is my Son, the Beloved.  Listen to him!"  Jesus himself, the man, has not changed in his outward appearance.  But Jesus, as well as his friends who witnessed this incredible event, have been transfigured by what's happened.  Or more plainly stated, they've been transformed and changed.  The disciples have seen that Jesus is completely at One with God.  Jesus, from here on out in the Gospels, understands that he must go to Jerusalem to complete the work that he's been given to do.

The longer I keep on this journey, the more I realize that the transforming nature of contact with the Holy is not just a one-off; each moment, each encounter, each experience of the Presence of that power shapes and changes us.  We don't come in contact with the Holy and stay the same.

I think back on Holy Week 2013 in which I had two very profound moments in which I engaged in actively ministering to another.  There was the woman who was anguished because she said her husband was in a county jail and accused of a crime he didn't commit.  She was with a few others protesting for his release in front of the state Capitol building where our PFLAG group was about to have a rally. I wanted her to know that she was welcome to stay there, but we had booked the space and would be occupying the area by the steps.  This woman opened up to me, tears in her eyes, as she poured out her story.  In the back of my mind, I knew I needed to keep working on getting things set up for our rally.  But in front of me was a woman who was hurting and burdenened.  I listened patiently and, for this moment, went into that pain with her, acknowledging her hurt and frustration at the system.  She brought up God, and I assured her that God had not forgotten her or her husband.  We hugged and she and her friends moved on.   That same week, I intervened to stop a sheriff's deputy from arresting a tall African-American man named Moses for the crime of praying in Carter Chapel at St. John's during the Maundy Thursday vigil.   A part of me had wanted to move on and not get involved in this.  But the better part of me forced me out of my silence to not only speak up and get the officer to see reason, but also go so far as to say, "I will vouch for this man."  

Sandwiched between these two events was my mom's massive stroke, and that feeling of fear and helplessness, and reliance on the kindness of strangers... and my rector... to minister to me at a time of great need.    Each of these moments transformed me and served as the reminder of what we heard today in 2 Corinthians at Morning Prayer:

 "(S)ince it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practise cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ."

It's up to us to allow our compassionate selves to shine, and be willing to get involved when it is necessary and when it is truly the need for us to reflect the glory of God to one another.

May we all be so moved and transfigured in our beings!

Friday, August 1, 2014

Holy Week in July

You've heard of sales advertising Christmas in July, right?  Well, when you read the daily morning office in the Episcopal Church, it's Holy Week in July! 

For the past couple of weeks, the Scriptures have been the telling of the Passion Gospel according to Matthew.  It's always a little strange to be in the midst of what we call "ordinary time" and then have readings from the "anything but ordinary" story that's told in the moment of Christ's willingness to lay down everything, including his life, to follow God's will.  But I think it's important during these summer months in the South that feel like central casting's idea of Hell that we have this reminder that "ordinary time" is the terminology of the church; nothing in the journey with God is really "ordinary."  Christ's act of love, an act that we are to emulate by loving in His same extravagant way, doesn't take a summer vacation.

What struck me as interesting in this visit with the Passion narrative was my encounter with the part where Jesus is brought before Caiphus the High Priest.  This is a role I've read twice before on Palm Sunday, each time making sure that my reading doesn't trip over into melodrama, but does convey the anger and the accusatory tone that is in the text.  Lectors in church are normally encouraged to remain passionless as they read which bleeds over into the Palm Sunday reading of the Passion.  But I find that to be a terrible mistake.  This moment is tense, and intense, and to read it like it's a dinner menu doesn't give the listeners a chance to be immersed in this story.

And that's exactly what happened to me last week as I read aloud Caiphus' quizzing of Christ, "Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God?"   As I said, I have read those words again and again.  But as they left my lips this time, I could hear in my own voice that I have been just as defiant and demanding of God.  My 2014 has felt weighted down with grief from death upon death of my mother and friends and colleagues.  I have experienced loss of some clients with my move to a new location.  I have grieved the separation from my community at St. John's (necessary as it was), and the constant questions that come around when people want to know why I am not attending church there any more.  I have wrestled with pain at my elbow, a difficulty for one working in a profession that requires physical strength that puts stress on my joints, and a reminder that my body needs care, too.   As I read those words aloud, I could hear behind my reading my own demand:

"If you are the Messiah, then what the fuck, man?!  Why do I feel so alone?  Where are you?!?! What are you doing to me?!"   

This isn't what Caiphus was driving at exactly, but it was the underlying attitude I heard in my voice.  In this moment, during this "ordinary time," I realized that I was pissed off.  

These are the kinds of conversations that I can really only have with God.  Any time a human being, be it a friend who is ordained or not, attempts to help me discern these questions, they invaribly fail.  Not because they don't mean well, but because there is no tidy solution and easy answer.  And, even more importantly, this is my complaint, my wrestling match, my moment to duke it out with God, and there is no room for another who has her or his own gym bag filled with complaints to work out with the Holy Spirit.  At a time like this, I find it simpler to get away from others and engage God myself, without human interference.   I have done this before.  This is what the trips to the labyrinth in Gainesville were all about.  Or the trips to the base of Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire.  But, without the benefit of either of those two thin places,  I just needed to sit in prayer.  My spiritual director sent me a Mary Oliver poem.  It gave me something to ponder:

"What do you want me to do with this one wild and precious life?"

The answers have been coming in a cavalcade of dinosaurs, my symbolism of God's call on my life.  For those who don't know the story, my mentor and friend, Mtr. Lee Shafer, dared me to ask God for a sign of whether I'm called to the sacramental priesthood.  She pointed to a gecko running along the steps of St. John's.

"You could ask God to show you a lizard," she said.

"No, I won't.  There are too many of them around."

Sitting in my car in the parking lot and pondering what I might ask for, I arrived at what I thought would be the fail safe image.

"If you want me to be a priest in the church, show me a dinosaur!"  Ha! I knew that was impossible.

But then, what is the line, "for nothing is impossible with God"?   Two to three days after I put that out there, I was sitting in a booth at a local restaurant, staring at one of the TVs.  At a commercial break, a huge T-Rex filled the screen, announcing that "the dinosaurs were coming to the Leon County Civic Center!"   I took a sharp in-take of breath.  No one around me knew what was going on, but as I watched many more dinosaurs wander around on the TV screen, I thought, "No!! You can't be serious?!" 

Very serious.  Dinosaurs have cropped up in conversations, and at many different times and occasions when I am engaged in what might be called "theological reflection."  Even on my first visit to Sewanee with Lee and her husband, during a "Law and Order" fest on the TV, a commercial break featured a T-Rex running across the screen.  I bolted straight upright in my chair.

"Nooo!!  NO!!!!" 

And Mtr. Lee just laughed and laughed.

"You saw a dinosaur!" she chuckled, "and it was at Sewanee!" 

And they're back.  Even more than just the presence of the dinosaurs has been my sense of what it is to be a Presence to people in crisis.  Friends just as wracked with doubt and grief as me have been turning to me recently, and I can feel my self being lifted up out of the way to find the right balance between words, and actions, and listening deeply to what they're saying.  The theologian Henri Nouwen makes the case that Christian leadership, and the ministry needed today, is for leaders who are willing to enter into the suffering of another.  The one who is capable of serving another is the person who is sitting among those at the gate, carefully binding up her own wounds as she prepares to offer that service of binding to someone else.  

"The spirit of The Lord is upon me," says the prophet Isaiah.  I feel those words.

Which then brings us back to the readings for the daily office and the constant reminder that Jesus came not to be served, but to serve.  His is the blueprint for our lives if we are willing to drink from that cup, and accept that we have been baptized both into his death and resurrection.  

Who says this is ordinary time? 


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Mary, Martha, Lazarus and the Philadelphia Eleven

On this day the Lord has acted;We will rejoice and be glad in it! (Ps. 118:24)

I imagine these words are on the lips of many in the Episcopal Church today as we commemorate this date in history, forty years ago, when three male bishops from the United States, joined by the bishop of Costa Rica, laid hands on eleven women and ordained them into the sacred order of priests.  It was the first time the church had allowed women to be part of the sacramental priesthood since a bishop in Asia made Florence Li Tim-Oi a priest in the 1940s.  The Anglican Communion quashed her ability to function as a priest, but Rev. Li Tim-Oi never renounced her orders.

This act, denounced at the time as "irregular," is now quite common throughout the Episcopal Church.  The Church's General Convention in 1976 agreed it was time to recognize not only the Philadelphia Eleven, and the Washington Four that followed the next year; it was time for the Church to get on with accepting that God calls whoever God wants into the role of a sacramental priest, most especially the least likely characters.  At that time, it was women.  In recent times, it is members of the lesbian and gay and transgender communities.

To read a wonderful, personal reflection on this historic event, I direct you to "Telling Secrets" to read Elizabeth Kaeton's sermon from this past Sunday.

I was too young to have a definitive memory of this momentous occasion in the church.  I hadn't quite reached first grade yet.  But I do remember that not too long afterwards, sometime around 1979, Christ Church in Exeter called the Rev. Fran Potter to be our deacon.  And I was in awe to see a woman standing in the front of the church in an alb.  I remember secretly praying at her inaugural service that everything would go well for her.  I realized there were rumblings among some of the older members that we were participating in some "experiment" by having a female deacon.  But it was an experiment that said to me, and likely every girl sitting in the pews on Sundays, "The kingdom of heaven includes you, too!"   I now had a sister-in-Christ-and-in-arms in my own effort to bust the gender norms of the church.  I had already wrecked the convention of casting girls as angels and boys as shepherds in the Christmas pageant.

"I want to play a shepherd," I told the pageant director.

"But, Susie, little girls are angels.  Little boys are shepherds."

"Well, then, I want to be a shepherdess!"

Worn out from arguing with a child, I was allowed to don a robe and a head dress and played a shepherdess.  I knew I could do it.  They were supposed to be afraid of the angel Gabriel, and I could shiver and quiver better than any of the boys.

That same time of the arrival of Deacon Potter, I pressed to become an acolyte.  Our rector insisted that I had to be confirmed first.

"Why?" I demanded.

(This didn't go over well.  Children were never to ask the rector questions).  He kept giving me excuses and pats on the head, and telling me I'd have to wait.  But I kept saying that I wanted to do this now, and that I shouldn't have to wait until I was confirmed.

And, just like my insistence years earlier that I wanted to be a shepherd, my rector agreed to let me be trained to be an acolyte.  It was only later, when I had left and gone to college after serving for seven years along side the priests at Christ Church, that my rector confided to my mother that allowing me to be an acolyte at that time was one of his best decisions.  He was taking a lot of flack from people about women in the priesthood, women serving at the altar, women being front and center as part of the sacramental life of the church.

"Well, what about Judge Gage's daughter?" he would ask.  "Should she be allowed to assist with the setting of the Lord's Table?"

That would usually end the discussion because most of the older and more staid members of our congregation loved to watch me at the altar, lighting or extinguishing the candles, bringing the cruets of wine and water to the priest.  I made these members feel as if they were in a cathedral in a big city instead of our little low Protestant Episcopal Church on Pine Street.  I was one of these kids who didn't shuffle my feet as I walked.  I was precise and reverent.  If only they knew that I was cracking jokes as I handed the elements to the priest as the altar was being set!

What they did know was that I was acceptable... even as a girl with long hair... as someone who was performing a sacramental role in the service.  And if they could agree that "Judge Gage's daughter was OK," they very quickly understood that anybody's daughter was truly God's daughter... especially the ones who had been ordained.  Without knowing it, I had helped the rector make the case for women priests to the reticent and grumpy ones in our congregation.

I titled this entry "Mary, Martha, Lazarus and the Philadelphia Eleven."  Today, in the church calendar, the "official" saints of the day are the two sisters and their brother from Bethany.  One could celebrate their day with their readings... or one could use alternate readings set out for this anniversary of the first eleven women ordained in the Episcopal Church.  Interestingly, the Gospel lesson pulled for that recognition is from Luke 10, the story of Mary sitting at Jesus' feet as Martha rushes around and finally demands that Jesus tell Mary to get up and help her in the kitchen.  Jesus gently reminds Martha that "Mary has chosen the better part."  This is often seen as Jesus lending weight and credence to those who engage with Him in a contemplative, rather than an active, prayer life.  But, as I have said in other postings, I think we have to be careful to not put too much emphasis on one form of prayer or the other being "better than."

We need both Mary energy and Martha energy in our lives.  And we need Lazarus, too, who is absent from this particular reading, but probably was in the background allowing Luke to give women center stage in a gospel story.  I think this story is a good one to use with the remembrance of the courageous act done out of obedience to Love back in 1974.  Certainly the women who took part had spent many hours figuratively sitting at the foot of the Savior and inquiring much of what they should do with the inner stirrings of their hearts.  And finally it took taking an action to answer the call, an action which required the aid of men willing to defy the orders of then Presiding Bishop John Allin not to do it, to make this happen and move the church forward.  Fitting that the collect for Mary, Martha, and Lazarus reads:

Generous God, whose Son Jesus Christ enjoyed the friendship and hospitality of Mary, Martha and Lazarus of Bethany: Open our hearts to love you, our ears to hear you, and our hands to welcome and serve you in others, through Jesus Christ our risen Lord; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

What those women did in 1974 was to be the visible sign to all of the generous nature of God, and to open more hearts, ears and hands to enter into the service of Christ to the world.  Let us rejoice and be glad in it!