Sunday, October 26, 2014

EDAT: Loving the Neighbor and the Neighborhood

Last year, I wrote about a mission with a dream to transform an urban neighborhood in Thomasville, GA, with a simple, yet intensive effort, to build a community garden and refurbish a church vicarage into a community center.  

That dream is now a beautiful blessed space, and it is thriving. It is attracting the interest of the neighborhood on Oak Street as well as local city government officials and agencies that are anxious to see it succeed on the grounds of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church. 

EDAT, or the Episcopal Development Agency of Thomasville, has had many minds at work in the past couple of years, coming from the three Episcopal Churches in the city to commit to working jointly to make this dream a reality. Three members from All Saints, Good Shepherd, and St. Thomas formed the initial board of directors. They quickly realized they needed to gain a couple more people from outside of the church communities to serve on the board. In July, they hired Keith Jenkins, a native Georgian with community organizing in his bones, to be the executive director. Keith took to the neighborhood around Oak Street, talking to the residents and getting them excited to come work in the garden. 

The garden has done quite well. In fact, amazingly well! This winter, Good Shepherd was using greens grown on the premises in their food ministry program. Neighbors were excited to pick okra off of plants that were growing taller than anything they'd ever seen. Children in the neighborhood learned how to pickle vegetables. 

As Keith talked to folks, he learned what it is they're hoping to get out of this project: programs about health care, healthy living, and job creation opportunities. Social service groups have come in to set up after-school tutoring, a necessary support so the next generation will be ready to become the job creators in the community. Habitat for Humanity stepped in to refurbish the vicarage, sanding and refinishing the floors, repairing the walls, repainting the structure. 

And the neighbors watched this transformation. There were some who wanted to get involved, to also help out. This was their community center, their garden, their little corner of Thomasville.

The gospel lesson for today was another episode of the authorities in Jesus' day playing a game of "gotcha." The game is not too dissimilar to the shouting matches that pass as political discourse in the country today. The question before Jesus was for him to say what is the greatest commandment. And Jesus, good Jewish man that he was, quoted the Shema, "Love God with all your heart, with all your strength and with all your mind". And love your neighbor likewise. Jesus goes on to assert that all the other 612 laws found in Torah are all linked to that simple, yet challenging task, to love God and love your neighbor. The EDAT project is an embodiment... the incarnation... of that simple command. It is born from a place of love grounded in God that then reaches out to neighbors to make something good happen. All are welcome into this Love that has built bonds between people from different worlds in Thomasville. 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

You Can't Hide Your Light: National Coming Out Day 2014

‘No one after lighting a lamp hides it under a jar, or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a lampstand, so that those who enter may see the light. For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light. --Luke 8:16-17

Let these two sentences sink in for a minute. Today is National Coming Out Day, and when I read these words out of Luke's gospel, I smiled broadly and thought, "Yes!" This is the truth of what it is for a person who comes out. The moment that a person ignites the spark and puts it to the candle of their inner truth, there's no way to hide it. And why would they? The realization that one is gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender is a bigger personal shift than most people understand. There's the whole process an individual goes through to figure out why he or she doesn't feel "right." Society, and all its various cultural institutions, are geared toward being heterosexual. So, if you're not that, then you tend to feel "weird" and out-of-place. And, for many, they don't know what "it" is that makes them feel so ill-at-ease. Once they discover what "it" is, it's as if all of their life finally starts to make sense and fall into place. Lack of confidence gets replaced with a sense of worth that they were hitherto unable to wrap their minds around. And, just like that light that cannot be hidden, the understanding and appreciation of who they really are shines through and cannot be, nor should it be, covered up and hidden.

There was a wonderful story shared as a meme by PFLAG National on Facebook today.

This, to me, is the way that God working through us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Whoever was the actor or actress in that Mickey Mouse costume that day responded in the way that I believe Christ calls us to respond to someone so young and searching for the candle to light in her darkness of self-doubt and worry that the world will turn against her. Whether that person playing Mickey is a Christian or not, their response was the act of Christian charity that all of us who do call ourselves Christian would be well-advised to follow. And for all we know, given the high number of LGBTQI people in the entertainment industry, that Mickey Mouse may have been having a personal moment of realizing that he or she was able to either keep that flame burning or snuff it out. 

Not all people feel safe coming out, and that is the reality and one of the many shames still facing us in this nation and the world. For those of us who are safer in being authentically who we are, it is incumbant on us to keep pass the light to others and burning up fear to blaze a new path and a new way so that all people can come out.

Whoever you are, and however you identify, don't be afraid to let that light and spark of inner truth and power of yourself shine through. You are the light of the world. And the world will be much darker if you continue to hide your light.  

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A General Observation

I have read a number of statements, articles, and opinions on the mass firing (or maybe firing) of eight professors at General Theological Seminary in New York City.

I watched, sometimes more attentively at times than others, the two-and-a-half hour webcast last Thursday of The Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC) presentation with questions and answers. OK, so it was more questions and re-statements than answers that didn't necessarily address the questions, but I sat by the laptop anyway and listened to what was being said, while following the Twitter chatter about the event on my iPad. Yes, I was that church geeky!

On Sunday, my ears were attuned to the Gospel of Matthew, and the parable of the wicked tenants who were living quite well in the vineyard of their landowner, and beating and stoning those sent to collect for the landowner and finally killing the landowner's own son.  The landowner doesn't obiliterate these tenants for their bad behavior and misdeeds; instead, he gives this rich vineyard to others who will tend to it and return to the landowner what is rightfully his.

And perhaps it is this teaching of Jesus that the church, in its efforts to strive to be "nimble," should really be contemplating in the wake of what is occuring during these times of hand-wringing and reimaging. Perhaps it is time to change the way things have always been done and look to different leaders, and not always cut from the same cloth as the last set of leaders. Maybe, just maybe, the church needs to follow God, and not the other way around as it so often seems to feel.

I am talking about seminary and the call to the priesthood.  It was about this time last year that I went to Jacksonville with my then rector to see the bishop. I had expressed to my mentor some years earlier that I felt called to the priesthood. She told me, "That ain't gonna happen here," because I am a lesbian and I have a partner. I attempted to avoid this bothersome gut feeling, but to no avail. And so, at the urging of my spiritual director, I told my rector I felt called. "I don't think that will happen, but let me check with the bishop." Check-in occured, answer was "no way," and I went away figuring that would be the end of the discussion. It was not. The inner gut nagging got worse. The reality was hitting me that I would have to leave. I told this to my rector who, again, made a pitch to the bishop to please talk to me. I was granted an audience with the bishop on October 7, 2013. And it ended as all had predicted: the bishop acknowledged that I was a sister-in-Christ, but due to my status as a partnered lesbian, he was bound by the canons of the diocese not to ordain me. Never mind that the larger church has said sexual orientation cannot be used as a barrier to the sacramental priesthood. As with so many things, what happens at General Convention pretty much stays at General Convention because each bishop is allowed to adapt and adopt the approved resolutions to his or her particular context. Read: if the bishop doesn't like what happened, he or she can simply ignore it and keep things as they are. Some bishops are willing to wrestle with the outcomes of GC and will take the time between these triennial gatherings to see how, or if, a major change made at General Convention will work in their context. And some are content to simply say, "No." In the case of the LGBTQI faithful,  they'd rather figuratively beat, stone or kill those whom the landowner has sent than to give up any portion of the vineyard's profits to the landowner. And we know what Jesus says is the outcome of that situation.

One of the few moments during the TREC webcast that elicited a cheer from me was when Bishop Sean Rowe, who is the bishop of two dioceses in Pennsylvania, and has, by his own description, spent more than half of his young adult life as a leader in the church acknowledged that there has been an idolization of youth in the church, and that we need to value and acknowledge all the people God has brought to the church. In that statement, I heard the affirmation that there is no age limit, no sexual orientation, no status of any kind that should be the measure of greater or lesser worth to the church. This not only is for the laity; this is also for the ordained. It is the prejudices and the barriers of human origin that bar the fullness that some can achieve in the church. One of my biggest complaints about seminary education is that it is too expensive, especially for the salaries that are offered by most churches for a priest who is still a little bit wet behind the ears. The 19th century model that says the only way to properly form a priest is to have that person go to seminary for three years, uprooting themselves and perhaps their family for three years, and then hope there will be a church who will call you is really not practical in the 21st century of shrinking church and personal budgets. In some places, there is encouragement that priests be bivocational; meaning serve as a priest while holding down another job that helps pay the bills. Many churches these days cannot afford full-time clergy. I certainly get that. And if I am ever ordained, I have no intention of giving up my massage therapy license. But will a congregation accept and understand that their bivocational priest cannot be a full-time rector and able to be at their doorstep or hospital bed  immediately when a crisis hits?

The question being asked repeatedly during the webcast was, "What are we willing to sacrifice?" New ways of formation for priests, and new paradigms for the practical workings of the vocation? Good questions to ponder.


Friday, October 3, 2014

An Open Letter to Our Mayor-elect

This is the letter that I am sending in light of this week's incident where a 62 year-old woman was shot with a taser in her neighborhood. I applaud the swift suspension of Officer Mahan. But it cannot stop there.

Dear Mayor-elect Gillum,
Congratulations on your election as mayor. I still remember you as a student body leader at FAMU back in my days as a reporter. I was impressed with your leadership then, and was thankful that you stayed in Tallahassee, and did not take your talents elsewhere. This city needs a generation that can take us to the next level.
It’s those calm and thoughtful leadership skills that I am asking you to tap into now at this critical time. I was horrified to read that a Tallahassee police officer used a taser on a citizen who was making an inquiry about things happening on her street in her neighborhood. To then see the video wasdisturbing. Ms. Young was walking away from Officer Mahan. How could this possibly justify use of a taser?
I understand that TPD had stepped up patrols along Dunn Street due to complaints from the neighbors about open-air drug dealing. I am glad for that neighborhood that TPD took their request to heart to make themselves more of a presence. However, arresting people because they are standing around, or walking in the street in a place with no sidewalks, and then tasing a citizen in front of all her neighbors is not the kind of presence that I believe that neighborhood wanted, nor should they be afforded that kind of treatment. Increasingly, it seems that there are gaps in the understanding and awareness of how to police without use of force, not just with our police department, but elsewhere (please see Ferguson, MO). There is a disconnect between the police and the neighborhoods and this is leading to more violence and less safety and a destruction of trust. Do we need a citizens’ advisory board for the police, too?
What Officer Mahan did was unacceptable in a society that should be respecting the dignity of every human being. And given the record of “internal investigations” by the police department, I am afraid he will not be adequately punished for what he did. I hope our state attorney will prosecute him for assault.
In the meantime, I hope that as you assume your new role as the leader of our city commission, you will set a course for Tallahassee to move in a direction away from brute force and toward mutual respect. Our institutions—politics, religion, law enforcement—are rapidly losing the faith of the people. It will take smart and compassionate leaders to turn that around. I wish you well in your effort to steer this ship to safer waters.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

When Will The Angel Save Us From Destruction: a Rosh Hashanah Reflection

It is the tradition on Rosh Hashanah to hear the chanting of the Torah portion from Genesis which is that terrifying moment when Abraham takes Isaac up the mountain and lays him on an altar to sacrifice him only to have the intervention from an angel of The Lord to stop him from plunging a knife into his only son. I knew this was the reading we'd hear. I've been hearing it every year that I have attended this service with my partner. So, it should be no surprise that when I woke up this morning, I was thinking about this very complex and troubling story.  And I was thinking about this world, the events happening at a global and local level with politics, wars, sports.  A responsive prayer at the beginning of the service summed up my thinking:

When will redemption come?
When we master the violence that fills our world.
When we look upon others as we would have them look upon us.
When we grant to every person the rights we claim for ourselves.

Which brings me back to seeing the story of Abraham and Isaac in light of today's world.  It's not uncommon for the generation that comes before to look at the ones coming up behind them with a bit of disdain and dismissiveness. Even as the older grumbles that the younger is lazy or immature or reckless, they also look to the younger to fix the problems the older generation is currently immersed in creating.  I thought it was rich when I was a senior in prep school that my sociology teacher lectured us about the proliferation of nuclear weapons and that it was up to us, the ones on the cusp of gaining the right to vote, to save the country and the world from this threat.  Outspoken student that I was, I approached her after class and told her that since I had no right, at that time, to vote perhaps it was really up to her generation to not saddle mine with this problem. The older generation posseses the power in the moment and has the knowledge that the younger generation does not. Why wait for the younger generation to come of age and then expect them to fix the mess?

This is where I see the intersection with the story of Abraham and Isaac. The story in Genesis begins with God putting Abraham to the test:

"He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’ So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt-offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.’Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ He said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’ Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together."

 Abraham knows what has been asked of him, a terrible and terrifying reality that he's been asked to kill his son. He lays the burden of carrying the wood on Isaac.  Isaac, a simple young man, asks a straight forward question, "If there's going to be a sacrifice, where's the lamb?" And Abraham, rather than giving him the hard truth, gave him an answer to hold off any further questions.  And they kept walking together.  The truth may have been more than Abraham could handle himself. The truth may have been so disturbing that he couldn't say anything more than what he said.  And the truth is, as it will turn out later in the story, that he wasn't lying: God would eventually provide the lamb.  But not before Abraham had bound poor Isaac and stood over him with a knife.  

Abraham represents the older generation or, more accurately, the baby boomers and the Gen-Xers who are holding the positions of authority and are the ones "in charge" of our worldly affairs at the moment. Isaac are those who are coming up behind us from the 20-somethings all the way down to the infants and yet to be born. Like Abraham, we presently face many tests: 
Are we going to get serious about climate change and our dependence on fossil fuels?  
Are we going to think it is acceptable to beat women? 
How about the shooting of unarmed black men and women?  
Will we scream at immigrant children on buses? 
Will we refuse to pay people a living wage?
Will our universities go to the highest bidder?
Or allow gangs of people to gang up on gay people walking at night? 
How long can we stand politicians who refuse to fulfill their duties to lead and hold our government hostage? 
Will we drop bombs on ISIS or start fighting another war? 
Can there ever be peace in the Middle East?  

These are just some of the questions that we Abrahams have before us in the perpetual journey of discerning how to choose life over death.  Our decisions are in our hands in the same way that the knife was in Abraham's.  And we, like Abraham, are standing with these questions, these important questions, that will determine the future and fate of our Isaac generations.  We are holding that knife and there are some who seemingly are ready to make the sacrifice of our future generations while daring to praise God as they do it. There are also some of us who are listening for the voice of the angel to tell us to put the knife down, and find that God is providing, through the voices of scientists and climatologists and peace makers and lovers of justice and men and women of many colors, orientations, creeds, who are saying, "Don't sacrifice the future! Listen!"  We have voices of angels calling to us to take on these difficult and seemingly impossible tasks of doing what is right for our world now, and not slough it off onto the next generation. Because to slough it off may be like plunging the knife into Isaac's chest.

When will redemption come?

When we listen for that voice that says, "This is the way. Walk in it."

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Keep On Marching for Mother Earth

In London, and a few hours later in New York, and at several different times throughout the day today, people took to the streets for the People's Climate March.  There is a summit at the United Nations on Tuesday where world leaders will give one day to address a problem that is plaguing us every day: greenhouse gas emissions and the gradual warming of "this fragile Earth our island home." There isn't likely to be any policy made at this summit, but it is designed to renew momentum for real change and adopting strategies to cut the carbon dioxide, methane, and CFCs that are turning this place into a cosmic convection oven.

There was no organized demonstration in Tallahassee, so I walked down to Cascades Park to take this picture at sunrise, which was roughly the time people would be stepping off for the march in London.  At this hour of the day, when the rest of the city is sleeping off its FSU football hangover, you can hear the birds and you can get into a rhythm of quiet contemplation... until the train shows up.

A perfect metaphor, I think, for this whole issue of climate change.  In the balance hangs the beauty of our planet, the water that sustains us, the trees and plants which help to keep us breathing. But all of that is danger of getting run over by our continued greed and the need for more energy which, right now, means more fossil fuels.  And as the train whistle grew louder, drowning out the sounds of nature, it was a reminder that our man-made needs collide with preseving our Earth.

I have heard several people around here express their despair over the situation with climate change.  One of my friends is a scientist who, after asking a few times for a meeting with the Governor of Florida, finally got one... after the Governor's opponent met with him and other scientists first.  The Governor sat quietly through the meeting with the five professors from campuses in the Sunshine State who were impressing upon Governor Rick Scott to take action now to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases being released, and the very real danger that the rise of ocean waters will result in Florida slowly disappearing. Imagine the tourism slogans then: Come to Miami, the New Atlantis!

During the whole meeting, Scott just sat there with a weak grin plastered on his face.  Apparently, the only question he asked was about job creation. Not about solar energy, or beach erosion; job creation.  And this is when I think I can hear the earth sighing beneath the weight of inaction.

I hope that the world leaders took notice of those who were demonstrating, and finally do begin in earnest to address this issue in time for some action to happen in 2015. The planet is counting on it.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Gospel of Jesus and the NFL

Are you ready for some football?

I would say, "Yes," but it seems football wasn't ready for the scrutiny it came under in how it handles players who are out-of-control when they are off-the-field.

This past week, there was the explosion and revulsion over the video from inside the elevator at a hotel where Ray Rice, now formerly of the Baltimore Ravens, decked his then-girlfriend, now wife, Janay, knocking her out cold. Rice was then seen hauling her limp body out of the elevator as if she were a heavy sack of potatoes.  There were reports of at least two other players in the NFL who also beat their significant others. And then the news that Minnesota Vikings star, Adrian Peterson, used a switch to discipline his toddler which left bloody scars on the child.  Ray Rice was fired by the Ravens and indefinitely suspended from the NFL; the other two players were allowed on the field this past Sunday, and Adrian Peterson, while he was benched in Sunday's loss to the Patriots because he was indicted in the child abuse case, will be back on the field this Sunday.

And that's business in the NFL. The Players Association union is appealing Ray Rice's indefinite suspension. My guess is that it will be overturned and he'll be allowed to play for another team.

Meanwhile, Janay Rice was pretty ticked about all the attention and the scrutiny directed at her husband after TMZ released the video from inside the elevator, and ordered everyone to back off. 

One man did not back off. Sportscaster James Brown of CBS took last Thursday's opening game between the Ravens and the Steelers as a "moment of personal privilege" to raise the bar for men in America:

I appreciate Brown's remarks, especially in light of the teaching of Jesus in last Sunday's Gospel about forgiveness coming on the heals of the equally difficult teaching about making peace with the person who has wronged you in some way from the week before. 

In Sunday's Gospel, Jesus is asked how often one must forgive someone who has done wrong. Is it seven times? No, Jesus says. More like seventy-seven times... or as the text might have actually read: 7x7.  The point is that seven, in the Scriptures, is a number of perfection and so your willingness to forgive must be absolute perfection just in the same way that God's forgiveness of us is absolute perfection. The week before, we heard that if you are in a bitter disagreement with another person, go to that person and have a discussion and strive to work things out.  A one-to-one conversation has to be the first step before something between two people becomes a public matter.

How does that fit with what is happening with Ray Rice et. al in the NFL? One could say that Janay is correct: we, the public, have no place in the matters that are between them, and she doesn't want our presence. I can respect that she is feeling exposed to a harsh light because she and her husband are in a harsher light called, "the public eye." And that's the fact. When someone who is a public figure does something criminal, then that public figure can expect that he or she is going to suffer a more intense scrutiny than someone totally unknown to a wider audience.  Is it fair? Probably not. But it is reality. And when someone of the stature of Ray Rice or any other football player knocks the daylights out of his companion, especially female companion, we have moved from that stage of this being just between folks to being between the folks, the team and the public. When somebody famous commits that act of violence that goes viral because the video got posted to social media... then those who were previously willing to look the other way can't' do so without causing more of a furor. His two-game suspension, if it hadn't already felt appallingly trivial, now was unacceptable. Must it hang around his neck forever?  No, not if he goes to counseling and begins getting to the root of why he thinks it's OK to knock out his now-wife. And his wife also needs counseling, clearly. In one of the defenses of Ray Rice's behavior, some people noted, "She hit him first!" And she should not have hit him. Why does she think that's the appropriate way to deal with her emotions? And if she accepts that Ray Rice is within his right to hit her, she's got some issues to work through with a therapist.

Forgiveness of these misdeeds by the NFL, the individual players and others, is always there. But the first move must also be made to acknowledge that a trust has been broken, and a criminal act committed. And there needs to be a rethinking of one's ways. Perhaps this public embarrassment will lead to true repentence and amendment of life for the NFL... and all its associated players.  And perhaps this will bring to light the need for us in this society to rethink our willingness to look away when it comes to domestic violence.