Sunday, October 28, 2018

When the Homework Hits Home

Sometimes, I scare myself.

With our usual Old Testament professor in the Holy Land, the Academic Dean Melody Knowles was filling in as our lecturer. Her assignment was for us to write a psalm of lament for a community (thus assuring people would write on broader topics).  After much thought and prayer on where to go with this assignment, I decided to write on a topic that has driven much of my recent political action:  the wide availability of guns and the wanton killing of people in various otherwise innocuous settings.

And then, it happened again on Saturday. This time at a synagogue right before morning Shabbat services at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Just hearing the names and ages of those killed told a story to me. My wife is Jewish and routinely attends the Saturday morning service at her temple. The congregation is usually some of the stalwarts and most committed members of that Jewish community, the ones who volunteer to lead in any number of ways. Saturday is also the day when major ceremonies such as bar and bat mitzvahs take place. At Tree of Life, a baby and his family would be celebrating the bris, the time of circumcision. And so at this time of happiness, a man armed with an assault rifle and Glock pistols came into the sanctuary, shouted about killing Jews, and proceeded to do so. Eleven died at the scene...others were wounded.

And we are back to another round of a local community in mourning, the communities around that community offering love and support as they mourn, and a nation reeling from its own negligence to address gun violence.

So, with that....hear is the psalm that I wrote and posted for my class on Friday morning:

A Psalm Lamenting Gun Violence


1 O God, where are you?
        Why do you not answer?

2 Do you not see the body counts rising,
        or hear the mourners’ scream?

3 The tears of fathers and mothers
            Soak cheeks and inflame throats.

4 Does this blood cry out to you?
            Will these lives cut short touch you?

5 The opponents say not to talk of the horror.
            They reprimand us, saying “Too soon!”

6 Answer, Lord! Is it too soon?
            or is it too late?
           
7 Are we left to offer thoughts and prayers
to an empty void?

8 You are the God who hears our prayers
            and you know our thoughts both in our hearts and minds.

9 You wipe away the tears from the eyes;
            you do not take pleasure in violent deaths.

10 You alone hear the hoarse cries for help.

            Lord, come quickly to save us.



Saturday, October 27, 2018

"Welcome Home": Remembering Matthew Shepherd

Matthew Shepherd's remains have finally found eternal rest at the Washington National Cathedral, twenty years since a brutal murder in a Wyoming field sent his soul home to God.

I will never forget where I was when I learned the news of the attack on Matthew Shepherd. I was sitting at the traffic light at Magnolia Drive heading east on Apalachee Parkway. I was listening to NPR at the top of the hour and the news anchor announced that there had been a murder in Wyoming. A young man had been brutally killed, tied to a fence to die. His crime deserving of this gruesome death: he was a gay man.

And I wept. Twenty years later, I still weep.

Words cannot adequately capture all the emotions swirling inside me as I came to honor his life and the legacy that rose up out that act of senseless violence. To see Bishop Gene Robinson carrying Shepherd's ashes in the procession had multiple levels of powerful meaning. I found myself brought back in time to 1998. Gene Robinson was still Canon to the Ordinary in New Hampshire. It would be another five years later that he would be elected the ninth bishop of New Hampshire and my otherwise sweet and somewhat mild-mannered Episcopal diocese of my childhood would be attacked from all corners of the Anglican Communion, and +Gene would receive hundreds of death threats and have to put on a bulletproof vest every time he presided. Bishop Gene shared that on the day of his consecration in November, 2003, he received a note of encouragement from Judy Shepherd, the mother of Matthew. A connection was made. 

In 1998, I had already gone into exile from the Episcopal Church in Tallahassee. The traditional welcome signs had already disappeared at St. John's in downtown Tallahassee. In their place, an eagle that looked straight out of the Third Reich adored the corners of the church. It was truth-in-advertising: not everyone was welcome and the LGBTQ community most certainly was not. I was covering the Florida legislature where I regularly had to deal with lawmakers who had no problem telling gay teenagers visiting their offices that they were going to Hell, or looking this particular reporter in the eyes and gleefully talking of their latest piece of legislation that would attack the gay community. These were the years when I really should have been able to turn to the church.

Fast-forward to sitting in Washington National Cathedral today and being twenty years beyond that time. And all the things that have happened in between. There are far more people willing to be out and visible as LGBTQ and there are more straight people who are OK with the likes of me. Hard-earned rights such as marriage equality have been won, and lots of Fortune 500 companies were ahead of the government on recognizing the partners of their LGBTQ employees. In the Episcopal Church, there has been a sea change in the number of outwardly-queer clergy in the church, and there have been changes in the canons to live into the words spoken by former Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning: "in our church there will be no outcasts."

But progress doesn't happen without more struggle. I couldn't help but remember that Matthew Shepherd's death would be followed by one of the most deadly mass shootings in the history of the country at an Orlando gay night club on "Latin Night." And as Bishop Robinson mentioned in the sermon, Matthew Shepherd's murder was preceded that year by another grisly hate crime involving the dragging death of a black man, James Byrd, in Texas. Even though Matthew Shepherd felt welcomed and included in his Episcopal Church, not all Episcopal Churches or dioceses are equally welcoming.

I have quoted before the words from Judaism's Pirkei Avot that "it is not our duty to complete the work but neither are we excused from doing it." We owe it to the generations growing up today to break up the boulders of prejudice and hatred that keep blocking our forward progress. Those boulders are becoming larger and more formidable in today's Trump-inspired climate of trash talking and viciousness toward "the other." But that means it's time to switch out the pick ax for the heavy machinery. And we need to be willing to do it. As Bishop Robinson says that begins with the fundamental act of voting.

Matthew Shepherd's remains have now been laid to rest in a safe and public place. It is too bad his life could not be kept safe in public spaces in Wyoming 20 years ago. Let us not allow his death to be an ending but a beginning for some and a recommitment from others to equal justice for all, no matter "whose arms they're wrapped up in."* Today was a beautiful homecoming for the entire Shepherd family. May God continue to stay with them and make Love's presence known.

****
*paraphrase of Randi Driscoll's lyrics, "What Matters" sung as a prelude at the service.




Thursday, September 27, 2018

Uncovering the Truth

Today, the nation is standing by as we watch and listen to an ugly, painful, personal account of when privilege thinks it can do whatever it wants whenever it wants to whomever it wants.

I am, of course, talking about the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford as she recounts what happened to her many years ago when she was attending a party at a private high school in Washington, DC. Dr. Ford has stated that an inebriated 17-year-old white boy named Brett Kavanaugh attempted to rape her when she was a teenager. Kavanaugh is a nominee for a lifetime Supreme Court appointment. A lifetime appointment. A lifetime of making decisions that will affect the lives of all of us in this country, and especially the women of this country.

Dr. Ford is not the only woman who has accused Kavanaugh of attempted or actual rape. Two others, Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick, also say Kavanaugh attacked them during roughly the same period. The Republicans and the man who calls himself the President of the United States have refused to honor the request of the women to have the FBI investigate their stories. An odd decision if they want to clear the name of the man...their man...accused of these assaults. They also have refused to subpoena Kavanaugh's friend, Mark Judge, who was also present during the alleged assault of Dr. Ford at that prep school party. Judge apparently wrote a book, a fiction, in which one of the characters had a name remarkably similar to Kavanaugh was known as a drunkard who liked to put notches in his belt in his conquests of girls.

Instead, the Republicans have hired a female prosecutor with an expertise in sex crimes to be the primary interrogator of Dr. Ford.

While I don't know any of these women or Brett Kavanaugh, I know this culture of prep school in the 1980s. Male power, privilege, and entitlement were a toxic cocktail that existed unchecked and unchallenged in these places. Dr. Ford's story...and those of the other women...ring so true that in a strange way, I find myself shaken at a personal level. There were incidents very similar to these types of assaults that happened on my campus and the typical reaction from the school was to keep it all under wraps, with no police involvement, and punishment meted out by the school's Discipline Committee. In my Freshman year, there were members of the hockey team expelled for a violent sexual assault on a female student. It was a terrible and scary event, and I attempted to use it as a way of convincing my parents to please withdraw me from the school. After a weekend of discussion and tears, my parents convinced me that it was better for me to stay at the school. And so I did. And I still want the T-shirt that says, "I survived a New England prep school."

Listening to Dr. Ford, she sounds like women I have heard tell their stories of what happened to them in sexual assaults. Their voices are tense. They sound small. It is hard to listen to them. And yet their voices must be heard.

I believe her.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

More Than Expected

Portrait of President Barack Obama.

On Friday afternoon, I needed out of here.

Introverts need time alone to recharge and be ready to do the next extroverted thing on the agenda. And my off-the-scale introversion has been tested mightily in this new seminary environment. So I looked up the bus and Metro schedule, grabbed my SmarTrip card, and headed into Washington, DC, to the National Portrait Gallery...one of the items on my "to do" list for this time in Alexandria.

And I was blown away. 

It wasn't just observing the work of artists who, in some cases, did some very interesting brush strokes to create a person's likeness (the Bill Clinton portrait was a psychedelic experience!). But as I moved along the wall and took in the story of the presidents we have had in this country, I was catching glimpses of just how complicated, messy, unjust, and painful the struggle has been to keep together a country like ours. Truthfully, we invaded a land that was already occupied...not unlike some of stories from the Hebrew Scriptures...and set up camp and pushed others off into a wilderness that we would then claim another century later. And we did this on the backs of others brought here against their will. Some were not so keen on that idea of slavery, and then they met with fierce opposition that disrupted their presidencies. And then there were wars. And economic depressions. And corruption and largess. 

But then there was a video playing in an alcove. It was clips of speeches saved by the History channel. And there were the accomplishments: the ADA. The reunification of East and West Germany. And....marriage equality.

To stop and listen to Barack Obama's speech before a crowd of weeping LGBTQ+ activists and couples holding rainbow flags brought me back instantly to the rush of feelings I experienced both when the noxious Amendment Two passed in Florida...on the same night that Florida helped to elect Barack Obama as our president in 2008...to the incredible sense of a weight lifted from my shoulders when we were able to get our marriage license on January 6, 2015. I wept as I contemplated how even the presidents I did not admire still managed to perform the role of leader...and for more than just their own kind.

As Reagan bellowed, "Mr. Gorbachev: tear down this wall!" another museum visitor looked at me and shook his head.

"And now Trump wants to build walls."

Once upon a time, we did have presidents of the United States.

There was a line to see the portrait of Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley. The artwork felt so vibrant and full of life with all the green foliage surrounding the seated Obama looking out at the viewer. But even more than the portrait itself was the excitement of those lining up to have a posed picture with the portrait. All ages and mostly African-Americans wanting to be standing just at his feet...make sure to get my good side poses...young children with their parents looking wide-eyed and in awe of a man who looked more like them than I do.

"He served TWO terms?" I heard them ask. "Did anyone else get to serve two terms?"

It was sweet to watch and to listen, and even the Smithsonian worker was grinning as she kept an eye on the line.


First Lady Michelle Obama's portrait resides on the next floor up and she is in a room with artists' portraits, Broadway and pop music stars, and another Wiley portrait of Notorious B.I.G. There was no line for Mrs. Obama's portrait, and so my moment with this painting felt more private. I examined the ease of her pose, the grace of her dress, and I gave thanks for her strength and composure and her endurance of eight years of public life in the face of some extremely hateful and racist commentary on her and her husband. And I cried once again.

Once upon a time, we did have First Ladies who cared.

The rest of my tour took me past legends of classical and jazz music, sports, and movies. The bust of Chuck Jones, Warner Brothers animator, delighted me. All his characters surrounded him helping to chisel away at his features.

As I left I gave thanks not only for the opportunity to have access to such a treasure of art work, but for the experience of moving through history and realizing that we have faced and been through so much as a people...and we still press on...even when it seemed like an impossible task. And I was reminded of what I remember reading in a Henri Nouwen book that, to put it into my own words, we minister out of our own brokenness and wounded souls. Those wounds, like the wounds inflicted on Jesus' body on the cross, are our place of healing that we bring to the world we encounter.

Thanks be to God for the artists who helped me to have that learning experience.






Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Endings and Beginnings

The remains of Immanuel Chapel and the new Immanuel Chapel at dusk.

Welcome to three years of intense community-living.
OK, that's not what they said, but that was my sense at the end of today's first day of orientation at Virginia Theological Seminary. 
This has been a very long, strange trip to get to this point. And I had a very long drive with Isabelle, made longer by rainstorms and insane amounts of traffic on I-95, to reflect on where I have been, what I was leaving, and....
What the hell am I doing?!?!?!?
I had a happy life with a cat who had become very attached to me. My spouse and I have been through many ups and downs and twists and turns together for more than 27 years. I have friends, some very close to me. I had a massage practice with wonderful clients and participated in all the antics of the Mickee Faust Club. 
And yet....here I am. 
It made me think about all those stories in the Gospels about the calling of the various disciples. The way the evangelists tell it, Peter and Andrew and James and John and Matthew and all the others caught sight of Jesus, heard "Follow me," and just dropped their lives and went on their way after this itinerant rabbi who was preaching a radical old idea of love God and love your self and your neighbors with no asterisk or black out dates. I wondered, "Really? Did these guys just so easily and willingly drop their lives to follow Jesus?! Didn't they think this was a bit wild? Did our chroniclers of Jesus' life and miracles clean these stories to avoid the messiness of human attachment and emotion?"
After my own experience, I am convinced that if we wanted to do some midrash on these stories, we'd find that it wasn't so easy for them either. In fact, we get hints of that, dropped here and there in the Gospels, where these followers of Christ express frustration with their decision to leave behind everything. In Matthew's Gospel, right after Jesus informs the rich man that to "be perfect" he needs to sell all of his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus, Peter basically says, "We sold everything. We have nothing. What about us?" Later, in that same Gospel, the disciples get testy with each other about who is the greatest apostle of them all. It is the attachment to things, to comforts, that seem to needle at the apostles in ways that I, as one who is going through that process of endings and beginnings, can relate. Even if our evangelists don't outright tell us things, my sense is that the women who followed Jesus and the men who get the credit for being "the twelve" had parts of them that were pained in all of this, and had hoped for something not as a difficult. Even the greatest of saints can get the blues.
With that in mind, I guess I'm in good company. Certainly in the first few days of meeting my new classmates, I can sense that I am not the only one who is experiencing the pain of separating from all that was familiar to embark on something as countercultural as devoting your life to love and serve for the purpose of extending God's Love to a world that isn't fair, isn't just, and can be unbelievably mean. 
Will somebody help my cat understand that?

Friday, June 29, 2018

Our Civil War

photo credit: Washington Times
Make no mistake about it: we are a country at war. Not with some foreign power trying to invade us, although one might make an argument that the Russian interference in our election is evidence that we are under an external threat. No, we are at war with ourselves. And unlike the First Civil War, this one has no geographic boundaries, no Missouri Compromise, and it's not based on economies and slavery. It is ideology and our identity as Americans. 

This week's news is a prime example of just how deep this divide has become. On the one hand, we have the supporters of the president who are rejoicing at U.S. Supreme Court rulings that uphold a travel ban on people from Venezuela, North Korea, Yemen, Syria, Iran, Libya, and Somalia. They are anxiously awaiting the opportunity for the president to nominate another hard-line conservative justice to the U.S. Supreme Court, in the hopes that they might finally overturn the Roe v. Wade abortion ruling, and strip away marriage rights for the lesbians and gays like me, and continue to undermine the Voting Rights Act, which has protected the rights and ballot access to minorities since the 1960s. While there was much rejoicing from Trump voters, those of us on the other side of the political spectrum have been grumbling and growing more and more depressed as we view these same events with alarm and fear of seeing the basic principles of  justice and equality being eroded in our country.

And then there is the flap over the harassment of the president's minions at DC-area restaurants and the dismissal of his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, from a farm-to-table eatery in Lexington, Virginia. The self-described conservatives complained that these acts were attacks on people out to enjoy a meal. Almost immediately, media outlets were impaneling focus groups and pundits to talk about civility. I can't help but find it ironic that when the leader of the free world refers to African nations as "shithole countries" and has used his Twitter account to attack individual Americans, there were no panels on TV and radio to hash out what it means to be civil. Negative reaction? Yes. But a whole discourse on civility. No. That's just "Trump being Trump." 

This, to me, is reminiscent of the complaints about NFL football players kneeling in protest about police violence. We, the white fandom of the NFL, become offended by their act of defiance as they use their public status to demand justice for black people who feel under threat of being shot by the police.  We are offended by this and say they must stand for an anthem and a flag that represents a nation where they don't feel safe and if they don't do it, our president says they should be deported. Where is the white outrage over police shootings? Where is it over the assault on the free speech rights of football players who are kneeling for those who cannot stand up for themselves? And, again, why no panel and whole hour-long programs on civility when the offensive speech is the president's?

Yesterday, one of my more politically conservative clients was bemoaning the fact that we can't have disagreements with each other any more without it becoming a personal attack, or a food fight. I agree with her. I don't like where all this has gone. I don't like that business owners are called in to ask a person to leave a restaurant because the wait and cook staff are uncomfortable at this person's presence...or that a Colorado baker maintains his religious beliefs prevent him from baking a wedding cake for a gay couple. The increasing tribalism in America is definitely undermining our ability to be civil with one another to the point where we can't even do commerce with one another. And I would like it to stop. I am sure most of us would because it doesn't feel good to be angry at everyone and everything all the time. 

I also want us to stop separating children from their asylum-seeking parents at the border. I would like for us to come up with an immigration bill that recognizes those currently in the country while establishing a saner way for people to seek naturalization status that doesn't take years. I want us to recognize our culpability in the destabilization of these countries in Central America that make innocent people want to flee and come here. I want us to quit using religion to justify treating people like me as second-class citizens. I want a country where citizens in school, work, church, the mall, the movies, concerts, don't have to fear getting shot. I want us to become innovative about energy, and lessen our carbon footprint so that we can slow the destruction of the planet. I want us to go back to the days where those elected to represent us could talk with each other, reason, disagree, and compromise. And I want a president who believes in the United States and realizes that the president often sets the tone and the mood of the country. I believe the political left and the political right would be more civil with each other if those in positions of leadership would follow the wisdom contained in this prayer from the Episcopal Church's baptismal covenant:

"Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons loving your neighbor as yourself? I will with God's help."

We are at war. God, have mercy on us.







Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Bible: A Book, Not a Baton


A child cries as mom is frisked at border in Texas photo by the Independent.co.uk

Late Thursday night, I saw on Facebook that a friend had tagged me in a post. In it, we were to play a game of quoting the Bible to defend a position. I was puzzled by this, having missed the news in favor of earning a living and rehearsing with my theater company. Luckily, she had included a video clip of Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions smirking and quoting the first few lines from The Letter to the Romans, Chapter 13: 

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.--Romans 13:1


This was to justify the administration's policy of separating children from their parents as they cross from Mexico into Texas in search of a better life in the United States free from the gang violence that forced them to flee. Those gangs, by the way, such as MS-13? They began in the Latinx communities in Los Angeles. We deported the gang members back to their countries of origin, and those gang members took their well-honed gang terror to their native lands thus creating this exodus of people running to the U.S. border for safety. Once upon a time, we promised hope to all those "tired and huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Apparently with this administration, hope has an asterisk.

As I pointed out to my friend, and therefore all her friends, the practice of proof texting the Bible (lifting a passage out of context to make a political, social, economic, etc. point) is a really bad idea, especially if you aren't someone who has spent the time studying Scripture and wrestling with its contents. There are those who do that. You can usually find them at seminaries or on college campuses...and--dear me--even sometimes in the pulpit! And what most knowledgeable people will tell you is that the Bible is chock full of passages that are mysteriously slipped in that seemingly have no place; thus making it quite possible that another party added these lines into the script after the fact because that party had a score to settle or some other self-interested idea.  In fact, this line to support the authority of government as "God given" is noted in the Harper-Collins Study Bible as very likely one of those add-ons. Why would Paul stick that in after he just finished a whole statement where he made the case for what makes a good Christian, which comes down to "love God and love your neighbor as yourself"? 

It's fascinating, and very infuriating, that the hacks of this administration will quote Scripture for every part of the Bible except the Gospels. Perhaps they might want to check out what Jesus, who is the Christ where we get the word “Christian,” had to say about how we are to treat the poor, the children, the widows, the prisoners:

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’ 

Of course, that is a bit wordy, and doesn’t make for a neat 10-second sound bite. It also seems to fly in the face of what this administration believes.

Maybe I should break this down into something a little easier to comprehend: the policy of separating children from their parents and telling mothers that they are taking their kids “to the showers” (history buffs, does that make your skin crawl?!?!) is abhorrent, evil, and un-Christian. It would be “better for us to have a great millstone tied around our necks and be drowned” than to continue with this way of treating traumatized and frightened people coming into our country. (Matthew 18:6)

What would Jesus do? Not what we’re doing!