Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Theft and Loss in Holy Week

Well, I don't know about anyone else, but my Holy Week started off with my bicycle getting stolen from our carport, and the reality as I filed my tax extension that my business hit a big bump in the road this past year resulting in a loss of income.  The two are not necessarily related, except that they are.  I had been intending to sell my bike to recover some of the income I lost traveling to and from New Hampshire.  It was in good enough condition that I could ask a good price for it.  Now it's gone.

The theft happened while I was at St. John's leading Morning Prayer.  As I pulled into our driveway, I noticed my partner's motorcycle helmet and my bike helmet on the pavement of the carport.  I thought, "That's strange."  Then I realized that the bicycle, which had been holding these two items, was not there.  I ran into the house to ask my partner if someone had come to pick up the bike, or borrow it, or something.  "No?"  And so, a call to the police, a report filed.  And I was told I'm not likely to get it back.  Ever.

I was angry, not just about the theft, but that I had so stupidly left the bike unlocked (they also took the lock with them).  I was hurt that someone would just come up into our carport and take what was not theirs.  And I was frustrated that this happened just as I was making arrangements to put it up for sale.   My partner suggested that maybe a homeless person took the bike, and perhaps whoever stole it really needed it more than I did.  If that were the case, I might feel a little differently.  But it is just as likely that it was stolen for the purposes of a joy ride, and a trip to the pawn shop, so the thief might get a few bucks.

Theft and loss.  Those were the words that bubbled up to the surface for me as I lay in bed contemplating the state of my mind.   And so imagine how I felt as I listened attentively to the collect for the Wednesday in Holy Week this morning:

O Lord God, whose blessed Son our Savior gave his back to
the smiters and hid not his face from shame: Give us grace
to take joyfully the sufferings of the present time, in full
assurance of the glory that shall be revealed; through the same
Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with
thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

I thought about that line of taking "joyfully the sufferings of the present time..."  and lined that up against my past 48 hours.  I can't say that I take any joy in "the sufferings of the present time" at all.  This prayer sounded to me almost like those martyrs of the early church who earnestly believed that they had to endure a gruesome death in order to achieve glory, a mentality that, in my 21st century ears, sounds an awful lot like the mindset of a religious zealot turned suicide bomber.

I then thought about this idea of Jesus being beaten and whether he really "joyfully" accepted those sufferings.  I somehow doubt it.  I believe that Jesus felt the injury, and while we don't know from Scripture if he cried, or shouted, or had any emotional response to being abused so badly.  I believe that each strike to his back could be seen in his face, even though he did not hide his face in shame.  How terrible to think that his hurt was so visible, and yet his abusers continued to beat him.  Those who are abusers, sometimes, seem to lose track of the humanity of those they are injuring.

So, what could be meant in "taking joy in the sufferings of the present time?"  I'm going out on a limb here, but I'm thinking that "joy," in this particular context,  is not meant to be "happy" or "light-hearted" or even having any kind of enjoyment and pleasure in what's happening at all.  "Joy," I'm thinking, may be a notion of letting go of fear or trepidation in times of trouble and sorrow, and recognizing that there is some truth in the old adage, "This too shall pass."  This collect has its roots in much of Isaiah 53 and the feelings of being "cut off" during the Babylonian exile.  But the prophet  notes that the suffering of Israel was not in vain and, despite what they may have thought, God has not abandoned them but is redeeming them even in the midst of their woe.  This, I'm thinking, is where "joy" might enter the picture. 

Put this along side my feelings of "theft" and "loss."  There is no pleasure in my bike getting stolen or the economic vagaries of being a self-employed massage therapist.  But to dwell in the hurt or anger or fear or trepidation will not get me anywhere.  A bike is a thing.  And my business goes through cycles of economic downturns and upswings.  But "theft" and "loss" go deeper for me at this time than either of those two things combined.  As I contemplated "theft" and "loss" I found that it took me back to my grief.  I have had to grieve the death of my mother, changes in some friendships, and the continuing sadness of leaving a church family.  Examining those things has pointed out to me how my grief, or more accurately, my hurt and my anger has been cutting me off from God.  How can I be reconciled to God when I am wallowing in the sufferings instead of  letting go?  I can shed tears, but I shouldn't drown in them.

Certainly, Christ is aware of the theft and loss that happens in life.  He knows about death, and he has been in that dark place of grief.  But Christ's life and death also point to his resurrection and ascension.  I'm counting on Him to be the reminder to me that the meanness of the world will hurt me, but it will not break me.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Pesach Meets Monday in Holy Week 2014

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. 22The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. 23The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. 24At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. 25He clogged* their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, ‘Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.’

The Pursuers DrownedThen the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.’ 27So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 28The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. 29But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. (Exodus 14:21-29)

At tables in Jewish homes this evening, families and friends are gathered to remember the deliverance of the Israelites out of the bondage of slavery in Egypt.  There will be ritual remembrances of having to leave quickly before their bread could rise, dipping parsley into salt water, a symbol of the tears shed by the Israelites and eating bitter herbs to recall the hardships endured under the Pharaoh who did not know their ancestor Joseph.

Did the escape from Egypt happen exactly as outlined in the Book of Exodus?  Not likely.  But Jews still tell this story because it isn’t so important whether it literally happened.  Its ultimate lesson is still the same: oppressed people will be made free and those who wield power unjustly will be toppled.  

We incorporate the Exodus story into our Easter Vigil as a reminder that we, too, were part of that history.  And while our stories diverged and traveled in different parallel paths, we both are striving to live our lives in the freedom that comes from the justice and mercy of God.  

The life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ is the Christian’s deliverance from a different kind of slavery.  Not one in which we are fleeing a tyrant who forced hard labor of making bricks with less straw and longer work hours.  In Christ, we are graced with a freedom of our hearts, minds and bodies which can become enslaved to many other “gods”: money, status, power, or a belief that God’s love has limits. 

At the table, on this first night of Passover, the question is always posed to the youngest at the table,“How is this night different than other nights?”  This is how they begin the examination of their struggle for freedom from Pharoah, and recognizing that even in today’s world, they must still commit to the work of liberation for all.  We, in Christianity, might ask ourselves this same question, “How is this Week different than other weeks?” as we embark on this journey toward the cross of Good Friday, and the hope of the Resurrection on Sunday. 

“How will this Holy Week change me?” 

“How am I still living as a slave to old habits, patterns of thought, beliefs that no longer serve as helpful in my coming to know God through Christ?”

“How do my actions present a stumbling block to others in knowing God?” 

“How can I allow myself to experience spiritual freedom that comes through Christ?”

Almighty God, whose dear Son went not up to joy but
first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he
was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way
of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and
peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives
and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever
and ever. Amen.
(this was the closing worship reflection I offered at the Education for Ministry group this evening.)

Sunday, April 13, 2014

My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
and are so far from my cry,
and my words of distress?--Psalm 22:1

Today, we begin the sobering walk toward Good Friday.  Of course, in Episcopal Churches across the country, we plowed right through the week in a span of 20 minutes.  A celebratory walk inside the church with palms and singing, "Hosanna! Hosanna!" goes quickly depressive when we launch into the Passion Gospel reading in which we crucify Christ.  I have already made my thoughts known on this one in past entries, and my theological viewpoint hasn't changed: I don't care if it's convenient for people to get Good Friday on Palm Sunday, so they don't have to come back to church at the end of the week.  If the chuch can't communicate to its people why this is an important set of Holy Days, and important enough for them to come back one extra time, then the church is undermining its own relevance.

That gripe aside, when I thought of the reading today, and I thought about Jesus dying in a most grusome and agonizing way, I thought those words of the start of Psalm 22: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

I suppose Jesus could have been lifing those words upward toward God, the Father who sent him.  He could be lodging his complaint against the Almighty for leaving him to this fate.  He could be feeling quite alone in this time.

I also wondered if those words are directed to his disciples.  They beat feet when they realized that the authorities were coming for Jesus rather than face guilt-by-association and wind up nailed to a tree, too.  

And then I thought how these words of Jesus and the psalmist not only speak for us (afterall, how many times has anyone of us felt abandoned at a time of need?); these words speak to us.  They level a certain accusation at us for our own behavior and the ways that we, who profess to love and follow Christ, veer off the path to follow any number of other desires.  To actually follow Christ requires an emptying of our self, not something that is encouraged or rewarded in the larger society... and not practiced very often even in the church.  This walk toward the cross is a painful reminder for me of how I can forsake Christ simply by not remembering his commandment to love as he has loved, and by failing to pay attention to the least among us.

My God, My God, I don't know why I have forsaken you.  Forgive me for when I have failed to follow you and your path and recognize your presence which is nearer than I think.   May I spend this week paying attention to what it is you ask of me, and striving to follow you, even to the cross.  Because the cross is never the end of the story but the beginning of something new.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Love is All Around: Pride Interfaith 2014

It's the second week of April; must be time for LGBTQ Pride! 

Yes, I know. Pride is supposed to happen in June, perhaps in October to coincide with National Coming Out Day.  But Tallahassee's organizers decided a while ago that they wanted to grab the "early bird" designation in deference to the students at FSU, FAMU and TCC, as well as holding our celebration when it isn't the sweltering sauna of Tallahassee summer.  And so, we are all geared up for Pride, and it's theme of "Feel the Love."

One of the hallmarks for our local pride celebration is the annual interfaith service, dubbed "Colors of Faith."  Representatives from various traditions come together to craft a liturgy, and lead a celebration of the Spirit for the community.  This year, our combined efforts came from the Unitarian Universalist Church (who hosted), Gentle Shepherd MCC, United Church of Christ, Red Hills Pagan Council, Temple Israel, Unity Eastside and the Episcopal Church.  The program was mostly music mixed in with readings and stories of our history as LGBTQ people who have faced many obstacles in our path toward acceptance as part of the human family.  While we acknowledge that many have suffered from difficulties encountered with families, friends, even our houses of worship, what this service provides is a sacred space where no matter who you are or what your individual story may be, you are invited in to meet the Holy.  And for those most deeply wounded by their faith family, this may be the one chance to feel truly embraced in the arms of Love.

For our Episcopal part, we offered up a reading our Bishop Gene Robinson's book, "God Believes in Love: Straight Talk about Gay Marriage."  We didn't get into the marriage equality issue.  Instead, the excerpt discusses the nature of God in the work of creation and how that fits with the spiritual selves of LGBTQ people:

“In creation, God does an amazing thing.  God creates humankind and gives us free will.  We are free to love God back—or not.  This is an astoundingly vulnerable action on God’s part: to create humankind, to desire a relationship with us, indeed (if Scripture is to be believed) craving a relationship with us, and at the same time giving us the freedom to be in relationship or not.  Just think of human parents, and how we desire a good, right, and loving relationship with our own children—and how vulnerable and sad we feel when it doesn’t happen.  So too God has made God’s self  vulnerable in creating us free.  In doing so, God is disclosing who and what is at the center of all that is…..

It seems to me then that vulnerability and self-disclosure are at the heart of what we understand about the nature of God.  And the reason I believe gay and lesbian people are spiritual people is that we too have participated in vulnerability and self-disclosure, especially in the process of coming-out.  When someone shares with you who they really, really are, it is a special offering. To do so when it risks rejection is a profound, holy gift.

Someone who comes out as gay puts himself in a very vulnerable position, not knowing how that new knowledge will affect relationships.  It may destroy a friendship.  It may cause a parent to throw her own child out onto the streets.  It may cause a child to reject her gay dad.  But it is an act of self-disclosure that makes true relationship possible.  This kind of vulnerability and self-disclosure  I would label “of God”  That is, it participates in the very deepest understanding of what we know about God.”—pp107-109

To punctuate this passage, we used these lines from the First Letter of John:

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also."

Songs of praise of love, and the earth, Adonai  God were also all part of the celebration.  The best part: we didn't waste time with introducing ourselves and saying who we were and how wonderfully open and affirming our congregations are, etc. etc.   We don't need to say these things.  We just need to be with one another.  Interfaith work reflects true faith when we can find our common language to work side by side for Love.  It felt good to see that come together in our service this year.


Sunday, April 6, 2014

Reconciliation and Remembering

Today was not an easy day.  The readings for this Sunday included the death and raising from the dead of Lazarus and the valley of the dry bones from Ezekiel.  OK, neither of those are inherently tough readings, and actually they embody much hope in the redeeming works of God.  I should be left with a sense that God will reconcile and remember us always.  He will bring us to new life and lift us up out of the pit.  I've written about that take on the raising of Lazarus in a reflection on the words to "unbind him."

But today, as I listened to that Gospel lesson, the one I identified with the most in the story was Martha.  Her grief touched my own, and I reflected upon her situation.  Her brother is dead.  He'd fallen ill and she had really believed that if Jesus had arrived a few days earlier, all this would have been just a bad dream.  But things didn't work out that way.  I heard in Martha those opening words of our psalm from this morning:

"Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice; let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication."

This is how I have felt over the past two months.  Out of the depths, I have called out to God: "Hear my voice!"  I have had moments of thinking that I wanted to tell my mom something, or get her input on an idea.  And that's when I am reminded that she's gone, and she's been gone to me, in that way, since March 27, 2013.  There wasn't a whole lot that she could offer me over the phone any more, and "So so so" didn't mean much without being able to see her facial expression.  But death puts an end to even the opportunity to have her smile and pat my hand.

Another part of the Gospel story also rang true to my own experience.  Martha went out to meet Jesus.  Last week, after the blind man was tossed out of his synagogue, Jesus went to meet him, an illustration of how Jesus will seek after us.  Today, however, Jesus hasn't quite arrived to the house and Martha has gone to him.   She wails to him her fervent cry of "Why? Why did this happen? Why did you delay? Where the hell were you when he needed you?!?!"  

I have been in this space, too.  I have found that I have actively sought out Christ to complain about everything from my sorrow at my mom's death to a constant plea of "Help Me!" every time I encounter another person who hasn't heard that she's dead and they innocently ask, "How's your mother?"  As I have mentioned before, Jesus seems to be the only one who totally gets the pain and the anguish in my heart.  He is the only one who knows how to sit shiva with those who weep and mourn.  And, just as with Martha, he is the one who is reminding me, "I am resurrection and I am life."  Yesterday in Morning Prayer, we read the story of Exodus with Moses and the burning bush.  We know that the name of God, as told to Moses, is "I am."  So, it seems to me, that God is resurrection; God is life.  Belief in God by believing that Jesus speaks as one who is completely at one with the One serves not only to unbind Lazarus; it will free Martha, her sister Mary, and me, as well.

Lord, I believe. Help me with my unbelief.


Saturday, April 5, 2014

A Different Kind of Lent Madness

Many people are familiar with the silly saintly game Lent Madness (if you're not, click on the graphic in the right-hand column of this blog).  Developed by two Episcopal priests, it pits those who are listed in the book Holy Women, Holy Men against each other in a battle similar to the NCAA Basketball tournament.  It's a game where there is no rhyme nor reason to how a certain saint gets to move on beyond the mood of the elect electorate.  Most play for fun.  But there are those who take it extremely seriously.  So seriously, that when J.S. Bach lost to the 20th Century social reformer Anna Cooper, dozens of people were declaring the death of all church music.  Hyperbole abounds sometimes.

And then there is another kind of madness with its own hyperbole making headlines this Lent.  Once more, the man occupying the office of Archbishop of Canterbury has made public statements that leave many of us shaking our heads and allowing them to drop forward into our hands as we attempt to fathom how one charged with leading a faith community could be so willing to serve up LGBTQ Christians as the reason for mass sectarian violence in Africa and Asia.  In a radio interview in England, Archbishop Justin Welby answered a question in regards to the gay marriage issue for the Church of England for a member of the CoE clergy.  The portion of the interview can be seen HERE.  The priest was asking why it wasn't alright to let clergy make a local decision in regards to marriage equality in their church in the same way it is left to them to make decisions about someone re-marrying after a divorce.  And this is when ++Welby decided to bring up Africa.

"I've stood by graveside in Africa of a group of people who were attacked because of something that happened far, far away in America.  And they were attacked because of that and a lot of them are being killed.  And I was in the South Sudan a few weeks ago and the church leaders there were saying, 'Please don't change what you're doing because we couldn't accept your help.  And we need your help desperately.' "

So, in other words: Every time a gay person gets married in the west, another dozen or so Christians in Africa are killed in a guilt-by-association scenario.  


I don't doubt that homophobia, which has received both overt and tacit support from Anglican and other "christian" leaders in Africa, may have motivated some of the violence at times on that continent.  But violence between Muslims and Christians has been happening for centuries (ever heard of something called the Crusades?).  The layers of distrust and hatred between the cousin religions has many causes, and is a tangled web of tension over land rights, concepts of God, as well as the souls of the people.  To reduce the violence against Christians to a tired and sin-filled accusation that it's all the fault of the allies and LGBTQ faithful in the Anglican and Episcopal Churches in North America is absurd and insulting.  And even as the Archbishop is using this pretzel logic for continuing a policy of treating the LGBT faithful in England as the "half-assed baptized," he has failed to acknowledge that there are plenty of LGBTQ Christians in Africa who live in fear of harassment, imprisonment and even death.  He notes that whatever is said in England has consequences elsewhere in the Communion.  So does the lack of speech and the failure to hold other Anglicans accountable for their persecution of the gay population.  Silence on these matters does not help to build the Body of Christ.

Interesting that on the day that this news of the Archbishop's radio remarks was getting splashed all over the internet, the Episcopal Church was paying tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. on the 46th anniversary of his assisination.  What a contrast in understanding what it means to stand in the name of Love.  King, killed when he was in Memphis for an action in support of the underpaid sanitary workers, spoke to the world of the need for all people to join in the words of the spiritual, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God, Almighty, we're free at last!"  Freedom, for King, was becoming more than just about race alone: it was the economic freedom, too.  Had King not been killed, had he lived into his old age, the trajectory of his life, I believe, would have led him to call upon the religious leaders such as the Archbishop of Canterbury to embrace mercy and justice toward the LGBTQ people, especially in Africa, instead of kowtowing to cowardice and bigotry.

This is Lent.  The Archbishop's comments are shear madness. One can only hope that he will one day realize that his ill-thought comments and refusal to stand with LGBTQ people have created new victims in Africa and elsewhere.  Epic fail.


Monday, March 31, 2014

Impressions on a Sunday

Sunday's sermon at St. Thomas was different than the normal fare.  Instead of the usual exegesis of a Scriptural passage with a look at how such Scripture is relevant to us in 21st Century USA, Fr. Varas decided to keep it simple: talk briefly about the Gospel of John, the language of John's Gospel and then invite us to listen, again, to this very lengthy passage in which we hear the story of Jesus giving the blind man his sight.  

I have written a couple of times on the blind man receiving his sight, and the ridiculousness that ensues from there with people unwilling to believe that this is the same formerly blind beggar.  The Pharisees demand to know who gave him his sight and how did this happen.  He tells them the whole story of how Jesus spat on the ground, made mud, spread it over his eyes, and then told him to go wash off the mud at the River Siloam (which means "Sent").  The Pharisees demand that his parents tell them the REAL truth about what happened to their son.  Even they say, "I don't know.  He was blind, and now he sees.  His old enough to answer for himself."  Again the Pharisees badger this guy, and when he asks them, "Do you want to become his disciples?" well.... it starts to get ugly:

Then they reviled him, saying, "You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from." The man answered, "Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will.  Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing."  They answered him, "You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?" And they drove him out. 

To put some historical context on this: the Johannine community, to whom this Gospel was written, were primed to be sensative to this idea that the disciples of Moses would drive out a man who professed that Jesus did Godly works.  This was the tension occuring at the time, 100CE, when this Gospel was written.   What was interesting is that in the next passage, Jesus goes to find the blind man who had been turned out for professing what Jesus had done for him:

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, "Do you believe in the Son of Man?" He answered, "And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him." Jesus said to him, "You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he." He said, "Lord, I believe." And he worshiped him. Jesus said, "I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind."  Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, "Surely we are not blind, are we?" Jesus said to them, "If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, "We see,' your sin remains. 

Thinking on this passage in my own life, it comes at a time of discernment and when I am attempting to follow a call which I think is a call to ordained priesthood.   And I think about what that has cost me so far: it has strained some friendships, and it has resulted in me having to leave behind the church community where many had discerned my call before I even uttered a word about it to anyone.  Heck, the church's discernment committee is made up of many people I have been with in Education for Ministry.  And yet, because of prejudice against openly-gay and partnered people entering "the process," I have been forced to leave.   All of this at a time when, in EfM, we've been reading a book called, "Living on the Border of the Holy," which is about reclaiming the power of priesthood among the laity.  The book also highlights many of the dysfunctions and pitfalls that ordained priests of today find themselves having to struggle with as they live out their own priesthood.  So much of the book talked about the sin of excluding those who are openly-gay and partnered to the ordained, or as the author preferred, the "sacramental" priesthood.  Reading that was like somebody tore the scab off my wound as I replayed some of the discussion I had with the bishop of Florida in Jacksonville.

A line from the First Samuel reading captured a core belief that I have about God:

"...the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart."

I can only hope that one day the "mortals" who are blind will see as God does: looking and studying the heart, and not my flattop or what I might do in the bedroom.