Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sharing the Burden

As I looked over the readings for this Sunday at St. John's, I was struck with what seemed to be an overall theme of "Sharing the Burden." Not a bad theme to have as we approach the beginning of the stewardship campaign season.

We don't follow the Track One readings, so our First Lesson is taken from Numbers. As is the case most of the time, the people of Israel are complaining bitterly about their situation out in the desert. So much so that Moses turns to God and utters a prayer that the author Anne Lamott might say is the, "Help! Help! Help!" prayer. God, hearing Moses' complaint, tells Moses to gather up 70 elders and He will "take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself."

For Moses, this must have been a huge relief! He will have help, even if it ends up being temporary, but it gives him some room to breathe and to rekindle his own spirit as he attempts to lead a people who are constantly complaining and questioning everything he does. In a moment of humor in the story, there are two, Eldad and Medad, who were not part of the tent meeting with the seventy, but are nonetheless sharing in the burden. There is an outcry from "the chosen" for Moses to tell these two to stop what they're doing. Moses basically tells the complainers, "Oy! What would it be if more of you would have been so willing?!"

This is a nice link to the Gospel of Mark for this morning. John comes running to Jesus to tell him that someone who isn't one of the twelve is casting out demons in the name of Christ. Jesus responds to this by saying that they should leave that guy alone and let him continue to do this work in his name. Because whoever is "for us is not against us." Jesus talks about offering a cup of water to one bearing the name of Christ. Such a person will not lose his or her reward. Like Moses, I can hear Jesus muttering, "Oy! If only everyone were to catch on to this work!"

Anyone who has ever had to serve in a leadership role, paid or voluntary, has probably experienced this same headache. They're in a leadership position and yet the "led" spend more time kvetching and complaining or thinking that they can do the job better. It's not easy being the one at the top of an organization or a group. And the temptation is there to think that you must do it all yourself. Get your ego involved, and not only must you do it all yourself, you are the ONLY one who can do it all.

I mentioned stewardship at the beginning of this post. Think of what stewardship is: taking care of others, taking care of the land and the waterways, taking care of animals, taking care of our finances. If there is ever a time for us to realize that we all need a little help from time to time, this would be it. In churches, like in other institutions, there are people who step up to do jobs, and then there are a lot of other people who hang back and either watch these few doing the heavy-lifting or criticize what the few are doing to keep things happening or sometimes they'll do both. There are many who forget that when a rector is put in charge of the parish, the new ministry we are celebrating is NOT about the person with the collar; it's about the combination of that person's God-given gifts and talents getting merged into the God-given gifts and talents of that congregation. And from there, a new ministry and stewardship of God's creation...all of it... can occur. Just like Moses, and even the man Jesus, to do the work of God requires a shared burden. It calls for all kinds of people with various skill levels to offer up themselves to carry out those things which "ought to be done."

Sadly, stewardship campaigns often devolve into cries for more money. And, while money does make this world go round, that should not be the sole concern. Stewardship is about connection and realizing the interconnectedness that requires each of us to share in the upkeep of what's around us. No one person or group of people can do it alone. It takes all of us participating to make stewardship less of a burden and more of a joy.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

St. Michael and All Angels and GOTV

St. Michael by Guido Reni

Everlasting God, you have ordained and constituted in a
wonderful order the ministries of angels and mortals:
Mercifully grant that, as your holy angels always serve and
worship you in heaven, so by your appointment they may
help and defend us here on earth; through Jesus Christ our
Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one
God, for ever and ever. Amen.

...and in keeping with this collect, there are folks with the League of Women Voters outside St. Michael's and All Angels Episcopal Church today getting out voter registration information and pamphlets to decipher the eleven constitutional amendments on the ballot.   This would be the work of "helping and defending" the voting rights of those of us on earth, especially the students attending the historically black college, Florida A&M, which is only a few blocks to the west of the church.   Good work, folks!



Sign of the Times

This week, the Crown Nominations Commission in England has been engaged in three days of top secret deliberations to choose the next Archbishop of Canterbury. Church wonks on this side of the pond have been waiting patiently, and playing
an interactive game at the British newspaper, The Guardian, that allows the reader to choose an ABC based on their likes and dislikes. (I was knocked out of the game early when I said I wanted a woman.)

After three days, we still have no answer on who will succeed Rowan Williams, who is retiring at the end of December to return to academic life. The Anglican Communion Office released the following statement:

"This week's meeting of the Crown Nominations Commission (CNC) has been accompanied by much speculation about possible candidates and the likely timing of an announcement of the name of who will succeed Dr Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury when he steps down to become Master of Magdalene College.

The CNC is an elected, prayerful body. Its meetings are necessarily confidential to enable members to fulfil their important responsibilities for discerning who should undertake this major national and international role. Previous official briefings have indicated that an announcement is expected during the autumn and that remains the case; the work of the Commission continues. There will be no comment on any speculation about candidates or about the CNC's deliberations. Dr Williams remains in office until the end of December."

Some are saying the group has "failed" to make a decision. Others are saying that the candidate, who must receive the blessing of the Queen, also must be put through medical tests and so forth before an announcement will be made. In another report, a church source told "The Telegraph" that the above statement was a way of saying, "Back off!" And would you believe that the bookies are running odds on the various candidates?

I am disappointed not to see Mad Priest's name on the list. I might then actually care who is the next ABC.

And that's the real crux of the thing. I don't care. While the CNC and the Church of England may believe that the ABC is an important and pivotal player in international church affairs, I fail to see why I should give a crap at this point. The current Archbishop has been such a disappointment and so often catered to the cowardly and the cruelty of the homophobes in the Church that not only have I lost all respect for him, I don't have a lot of respect for the office. The world of the 21st century is not the the world of the 18th century, when we in the States desperately needed approval from the Church of England in order to set up shop in the colonies. Even then, England refused to be of service, and our bishops came through the Scottish Episcopal Church. To this day, Scotland has been much more hospitable to the progressive stands taken by The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church in Canada.

So, while I will be interested to see who is chosen, I have learned not to get too excited about the whole thing. The ABC really is a figurehead who has very little influence on the lives of Episcopalians in the United States. He attempts to assert control, but that's folly when dealing with the movement of the Spirit. We have moved many light years ahead of the Church of England on matters of sexuality and social justice. Whoever is chosen as the next ABC should really put their efforts into the Church of England and playing "catch up" rather than trying to shackle the rest of us to a bygone era.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Love? Maybe Get to Know Me First

This is one side of a church sign I saw as I drove along the roads of SW Georgia last week.  And when I showed it to my Jewish partner, I got the response I expected.

"Ummm, yeah.  We wish you wouldn't love us so much!"

It is a bit daunting to see a Baptist church with the message that they love Israel.  The "love" some Christians are extending these days is zealous.  They want the Jews to return to Jerusalem so that the second coming of Christ can occur.  And they want to be ready when that happens because... well... that's when the Rapture will occur and they'll be on their way to heaven while many of us will be left behind.  Now, I don't know that Hickory Head Baptist Church is preaching that type of message.  But given that the other side of their sign said, "America Repent or Perish", I have a feeling I'm not too far off in believing that they have a plan for when Jesus will come back... and the Jews have a special mission to get back to Jerusalem so this can happen.

What a message to ponder on the Day of Atonement.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Who's the Greatest of Them All?

He asked them, "What were you arguing about on the way?"  But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.  He sat down, called the twelve and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."--Mark 9: 33b-37

I love the Jesus in Mark's gospel.   He has no time for any nonsense because he is a man on a mission.  Either get on board now, or get out of his way!

And here, in this passage, I hear a Jesus who has no patience for petty foolishness (of which the disciples supply plenty of in this gospel story).   In the opening part of this Scripture, Jesus has again told the disciples what is coming for him.  There is going to be betrayl.  There is going to be death.  There is going to be resurrection.  They don't get it, and so instead they commence into a selfish and egotistical argument with each other about who is the biggest Jesus fan.  Who put on the most face paint.  Who came up with the most clever slogan for their sign in the stands.  Who did the best fish at the tailgate.  Me. Me. Me.  It's all about me.

Which is where our steel-toed sandal-wearin' Jesus steps in, kicks them in the butts, and reminds them that if you want to be the greatest, you better start washing the dirty feet of your fellow disciples after a long day of wandering about the sandy streets of First Century Palestine.  This mission is not about being the number one fan.  Jesus doesn't need cheerleaders; he needs people who are willing to feed the hungry, clothe naked, visit the prisoner.  In other words, he wants people who aren't looking for recognition for themselves, but are willing to put their own selfish ambitions aside to help somebody else.

There's a counter-cultural message if I ever heard one!

It's also a message that I don't think sits well with a lot of people who still follow Jesus some 2,000+ years later.  Because so often, the very things that would answer the question, "What Would Jesus Do?" would take us so far out of our comfort zones that we regularly balk at the idea.  How willing are we really to consider what our personal consumption does to people in other countries?  Do we not think about how when we vote on constitutional amendments to provide yet-another tax break to someone on their homestead, we will necessarily shift a greater tax burden on to other people to make up for that lost revenue?  Are we willing to pay a little more to shop locally-owned or are we going to buy the cheaper stuff sold by chain stores?  And most importantly, are we willing to love our selves in the same way we love our neighbor which should be a reflection of the love we show God, the God who loved us first?

I am intentionally turning the commandment about love around.  I think sometimes we fall short of loving our selves.  We see every flaw, every misdeed, every moment we've failed to live up to our own expectations and we see them as if they were in neon lights flashing off a billboard.  With all those things stacked up as evidence that we are less-than-perfect, we turn our self-loathing outward, lashing out at other people and at God to deflect away from our own feelings of inadequecy.  We cover up our self-hatred by trying to buy our way into a happier state, filling our lives with "things" and people and possessions that are supposed to make us feel better.  Really they don't.  And this, for me, gets back to God.  God loves us.  God's only true response to us is love.  God loves us in our perfect imperfection.  Just as Jesus tells his disciples, if you want to be first, you better prepare to be last... God doesn't expect us to be scrubbed up and looking snappy. God loves us as is.  If we can internalize that, we can begin to live our lives in the knowledge and the deep-seated belief that we are loved so completely.  Then, we can truly love our neighbors in the same way we love our selves.

Jesus puts a child before the disciples and tells them one must enter the kingdom of God like a child.  Like a child, we come to God with no authority, no rank, but a desire to have someone hold us and care for us.   Love us through and through.  Again--this is counter-cultural stuff not only for the times of Jesus, but for us today.  Surrendering our ambitions and ego to love?  Hard stuff.  But worth it.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Assumptions We Make

One of the things that I think I have had to fight against the most is the tendency for people to want to label me and put me in a box that makes sense to them.   When I was in prep school, I caused a bit of a meltdown for some people when I quit the soccer team and instead went in the direction of theater.  A jock could not be an artist and vice-versa.   When I still played basketball and became a co-captain of the varsity team, I had teachers asking me when the tickets for the winter musical would go on sale.  "I believe that will happen in another two weeks," I would helpfully respond.  "Oh, and by the way, I am not involved in the musical.  I'm playing basketball."  They'd fall all over themselves to apologize, which seemed strange to me as well, but I knew what the issue was.  I wasn't fitting into a pre-determined box.   Who knew a New England prep school could be so tied in to a predestination-like mindset, eh?

For two nights now, I have been the presenter at Tallahassee Little Theatre in some pre-show talks before their performance of the play, "Next Fall."   The story line involves a gay couple, one who is Christian and the other is agnostic to atheist.   They live in New York City in a cramped apartment with Mapplethorpe knock-offs on the bedroom walls.  The Christian isn't out to his parents (who happen to live in Tallahassee), and is terrified to tell them he's gay.  Meanwhile, he is driving his lover nuts because he does things like prays after sex.  The play drove ME nuts, too.  Mostly because I found the Christian character's behaviors so unbelievable and totally not in keeping with a gay liberation theology.  Instead, the Christian became a characterization of what it is to be a gay follower of Christ and I believe feeds into the stereotype that we are all self-hating queers.  As such, I specifically geared my remarks, which were to promote our local PFLAG chapter, toward a simple theme:  Love is unconditional, and do not make assumptions about people based upon labels.  Just because someone is Republican or wears a crucifix does not automatically make them an enemy of the LGBT community. 

I used my own parents as the example.   I told the audiences of roughly a dozen people each night that if they were to look at my parents histories and biographies on paper, they would never peg them for parents that would love and accept their gay child.  Both of them were hard-core Republicans, met on the Dwight Eisenhower campaign, my mom gave birth to me while working on George Romney's campaign for President in 1968, my dad was telling us to say, "I hate rats; I love cats; I hate dirty Democrats."   My family was all for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 (I was not).  And there was never a kind word offered about LGB people in the whole time that I was growing up.  Not at home.  Not at the church.  Not on television.  So coming out to my parents was a terrifying experience because I had no expectation that I was going to be loved. 

And I was wrong.

Not only did my parents love me.  My coming out introduced my mother to PFLAG which became a new home for her, and it propelled her to do things like confront the issue of gay rights in her Episcopal Church, and to stand in front of larger-than-life politicians like Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kansas, and say, "Bob, I want to know what you're going to do about gay rights and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act." (Dole stammered out an answer,sotte voce, that he didn't discriminate blah blah blah).

I also shared my coming out to my dad story, in which my father, upon hearing me say I was a lesbian, paused, thought and then said, "Well....who's to say Jesus Christ wasn't gay."  (Take that everyone who wants Jesus to have a wife!) 

My point in sharing these stories with my theater-going audiences was to remind them that there is the potential for anyone to be an ally for LGBT rights.  And the biggest mistake that we in the gay community sometimes make is to make assumptions such as, "This person is a Christian; they are against me."  If the person really is a Christian, she should be our greatest ally and advocate.  All of Christ's teachings are about love, and putting love into action.  He was about being with the marginalized of his society, touching the lepers who were seen as the unclean, and talking with women which was simply not done.  And it was because Jesus understood the burdens of oppression and what it meant to be denied love that his life, witness, death and resurrection stir the hearts of many who have experienced that same sting of rejection by the majority.  Those who really "get it" are the ones who stand with the LGBT community today and join in our fight for justice.

There is that old saying, "When you assume, you make an "ass" out of "u" and "me."  Something to remember as we look for new allies in the fight for equal rights for all.


Monday, September 17, 2012

Complete Presence: Here I Am

It is the tradition in most Jewish synagogues to read the story from Genesis 22, the binding of Isaac and the very close call of human sacrifice.  In the text, God is supposedly putting Abraham to the test by telling him to go to Moriah and offer his son, his most loved one, Isaac, as a burnt offering to God.  For three days, Abraham and Isaac trudge on toward this show down on a moutain top.

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill- his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt-offering instead of his son.So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’ The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven,and said, ‘By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son,I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies,and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.’So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham lived at Beer-sheba. --Genesis 22:9-19

This passage from Genesis is among the most studied and debated texts from the Torah.  It raises questions about God and the man, Abraham.   What kind of God would put someone to the test and require such an extreme sacrifice? 

Did Abraham argue with God?  Why didn’t he put up a protest in the same way he did when making a plea on behalf of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah?

And what about Isaac—a 37-year-old man at the time?  Did he not panic when he found himself tied to the altar with his father holding a knife over his chest?

 The recurring phrase in the story, called the Akedah (‘the binding’) is the response, “Here I am”, an answer of complete presence.  As Abraham and Isaac journey for three days to Mount Moriah where this ultimate test of Abraham’s faith is to happen, one wonders what all that must have been weighing on the mind of the man asked to sacrifice the son whom he loves. From the way the story reads, Isaac was oblivious to what was about to occur, asking very simple questions about the lack of a lamb.  He had no clue that he was to be sacrificial lamb. 

 From a Christian perspective, the parallels to the Jesus story are unmistakable. A God who so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son so that all may not perish but have everlasting life, brought his son into the world not to condemn people or level a harsh judgment, but to bind us closer to the source of our being and the creator and sustainer of all things.   Even in his moment of trial, Jesus comes to realize that he can not let the cup pass him by, but must drink of it.  Unlike Isaac, he knew all-too-well that he was to be the sacrifice.  But his complete trust in God led him to that place of complete presence, a statement to God and to us of, “Here I am.” 

 In the end, Abraham does not need to sacrifice his son, Isaac, because the real sacrifice was his will.  Having shown that he would lay down his own will to do what he believed was God’s will the covenant with Abraham was made complete.  And Isaac, though the heir of Abraham's line, never speaks to his father again.

 Our own lives are full of choices, sometimes seemingly difficult choices between two poles that appear to pull us in two very different directions.  It is in that place, that middle point of tension, where it is sometimes best to stay still.  In this still place, God meets us amidst our struggle and waits with us as we weigh our decisions.   All that is asked of us in those moments is complete presence of “Here I am” and not to shrink away.

This was the lead in to the presentation of my spiritual autobiography this evening at EfM.  Up until now, I have not really shared out loud with anyone, especially this group, that I am discerning a call to ordained ministry.  And it really is just discernment.  Very slow, patient, toe-dipping-in-the-water discernment.  I find myself constantly standing between those two poles of action or inaction.  I admitted that my mentor, as she was leaving St. John's, told me that I needed to find a spiritual director which was advice that I ignored.  About nine months later, I flew to New Hampshire and met with Bishop Gene Robinson, who also told me to get a spiritual director.  And I ignored him, too.  And it wasn't until one Friday, almost a year later, that Fr. Lee Graham was reading from the Gospel of John:

Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’--John 21:18-19 

I felt my whole being shaking as these words drove themselves deeply into my heart.  I checked my calendar and cleared an afternoon the next week to go down to my massage school in Gainesville where I could walk the labyrinth.  I needed that meditative space to grapple with what had happened in hearing Christ's words to Peter out on the beach and what did those words mean to me. 

I remember that my walk through the labyrinth that time was marked with the discomfort of having the ants biting my bare feet when I reached the altar in the center.  It was as if I wasn't going to be allowed to hang out in that safe place for very long at all.  And as I emerged from the labyrinth, the message I was receiving was clear and unmistakable: I needed to follow the advice I'd been given and get a spiritual director.

That is where I'm at today.  I am working with a priest north of the border in Southwest Georgia.  At this time, the destination isn't as important as paying attention and being in a place of complete presence as I journey with God.  I am already aware that my path isn't an easy one (that whole partnered lesbian thing just seems to trip up so many people).  But if the command and my desire are to follow Christ, then I have made a choice.

Here I am.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Lift High The Cross

Well, this has been a tiresome week for me.  Getting knocked on my butt by an illness made getting back into the swing of things, especially giving massage therapy, a real challenge.  Every night I was coming home thinking how wonderful it would be to crawl under the covers and get a good night's sleep.  And every night I realized, "Damn, my day isn't over!"  If it wasn't rehearsal for Faust, it was PFLAG, and tonight it was going to see a play that I had agreed to do a couple of pre-show talks about love in families as the official spokesperson for PFLAG-Tallahasssee.

And amidst all of that, I am getting myself psyched up to present my spiritual autobiography at my EfM group on Monday night.  You'd think by now this would be old hat.  I've already done my SA at least four times for EfM, and twice for two different spiritual directors.  And some of it is "old hat" that way.  But what's not that old is that each time I do this exercise, I am struck by the fact that I am starting from a different place in my head as the beginning point.  This time around, it's getting influenced a lot by some of the things I have been exploring in myself during these days of lying in bed with a fever.  Illness kept me separated from my spiritual community.  And that separation has made me think about why I am going to church at all.

Perfect timing for a holiday such as Holy Cross Day and my re-entry into the practice of worship at the noon day service at St. John's.

The rector was serving as the celebrant for the service.  And in a moment of spontanity, he asked me if I thought it would be a good idea to get the retired organist, who doubles as the altar guild at the service, to play "Lift High the Cross."  Needless to say, as one who readily acknowledges the presence of hymns in my spiritual journey, I wasn't about to refuse the opportunity to jazz up the service with one of the old standards.  And so Roger slipped on his piano playing shoes, and our mighty congregation of five sang our hearts out:

Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim
Til all the world adore his sacred name.

As we sang, I reflected on my morning of massage.  I remember noting that the sunlight entering the room at one point had formed a cross-like pattern beside the table.  I hadn't remembered that it was Holy Cross Day, but seeing this sunlit-formed image in my room instantly gave me a sense of being re-membered into the body of Christ, and that feeling of taking the gift of Love granted through Christ and sharing it in the session with my client.  The cross serves as that visual reminder that focuses my intention, and connects me to the ancient practice of the laying on of hands.  The director of my massage school used to call us "the royal priesthood of the church of the phalanges."  He'd make us wave our hands and wiggle our fingers as if we were holy-roller Baptists.  And as much as he may have been joking about it, I believe that our director was making a serious point.  We are practioners of something truly sacred and in the line of Christ and other figures throughout Christian and other religious history where our hands are the vehichles for change and healing in the body.  This is not a practice to be taken lightly.

What does this have to do with the spiritual autobiography?  Along with the prominent role the hymns play in my story of this journey, attending massage school is a pivotal piece.  It was the place where I began to really reconnect and deepen my relationship with God.  And it was done outside, in a labyrinth cut into the grass; not in a pew inside a church.  The back area of the Florida School of Massage served as my cathedral and my communion took place at the center of that labyrinth. You'd think such an experience might make me a pagan.  But it did not.  Instead, it opened me up to hearing the God-language as depicted in Christ's words in the scriptures.  Familiar passages such as from John, with the lines about, "In my father's house there are many rooms," took on greater meaning as I contemplated the anatomical structure of the heart with its many chambers, and how walking a labyrinth was a way to get to the center of this heart, this symbol I had in my head for God.  I think without the experience of the labyrinth as a side benefit of my massage therapy training, I'm not sure if this current journey would have begun.  Or at the most, I don't think I would have been ready to meet and be met by God in the way that I have.

God is still working God's purpose out for me.  Clearly, the cross is part of that purpose.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

No Church For Me

Today, I am not in church.

That wouldn't seem like much of a much except this is the first time since November 4, 2007, that I haven't been in church on a Sunday.  A week of being flat on my back, thermometer pushing 102-degrees, and my nasal cavity feeling as if someone had packed it with cotton balls has kept me at home.  I am sad about missing church this Sunday with the music and prayers and participating in the Eucharist. Yet I know it is better for my health...not to mention the health of others... that I stay away and have communion with God in a different way.

My morning has been spent prepping for tomorrow night's gathering of our Education for Ministry group.  With my co-mentor out-of-commission for these first few weeks, the responsibility of leading this crew of curious learners has fallen squarely on my shoulders.  I was considering the lesson that EfM instructs to happen with people in Year Two.  They are to view a performance, or read aloud themselves, the entire Gospel of Mark.   For the past few years, we haven't done this exercise in our group.  But given that I have been pretty well wiped out this past week, I thought, "Tomorrow would be a perfect time to do this!"   It takes some preparation load off my head, and it gives us an activity that we can do as a whole group.

And it incorporates an important piece into what makes us who we are as Christians: the telling of our story.  

As I was reading the Gospel of Mark this morning, I was struck once more with its all-action, "Jesus on the move" narrative style.  This is the Jesus who has no time to waste.  He's on a mission, he's single-minded, and he's going forward with it.  His disciples serve almost like the comic relief of this particular play.  They've dropped everything to follow around after him like groupies.  He lets them in on his mission plans, but they don't really seem to "get it".   He doesn't let their slowness get in his way.  He doesn't let naysayers and doubters dissuade him either.  And he gets into it with the Syrophoenician woman... which happened to be the gospel lesson assigned for this morning's service.  She is one of my favorite characters: an outsider, a woman who hears of Jesus' healing powers and wants him to aid her sick daughter only to have Jesus use the slur "dog" in his rebuke of her request.  Undaunted, the woman tells Jesus that she may be a "dog", but even the dogs eat of the crumbs falling from Israel's table.  Such a gutsy and gritty woman is rewarded... a signal to those listening to this story that even the supposedly UNchosen are still worthy of the grace that comes from God. 

It's pretty easy to dismiss the gospels and much of anything we read in Scripture as tales that have no bearing on 21st century life.   But what if we actually see in these stories reflections of our own lives?  What if we see the Syrophoenician woman as being like us at those times when we've gone to higher authority to plead our case for justice, and when told to get lost, instead demand that we be found?  What if we acknowledge that, when it comes to Christ, we can be just as clueless as his disciples in saying we "get it" about God being all about Love, and about us taking care of one another... only to fail to live into that standard in how we interact with people and the planet?  In other words, what if we plugged ourselves into these stories to see how alive they are and acknowledge them as a running commentary on the human condition rather than concrete factoids of history? 

In making this type of connection, I think it brings meaning to the reason we have churches at all.  I mean, why in the world would I feel the need and desire to give up my Sunday morning for church but for the fact that I have come to value my place in the story of Christ.  Is there a character that is exactly me in the gospels?  Sometimes, I see myself in more than one character.  Often times, I find myself smiling in recognition of things happening in the stories that are reminiscent of stuff from my own experience.  I feel like I'm part of something greater than myself.  And standing along side others, singing and praying with them, sharing in the Eucharisitic feast, it gives me that sense of "We're all in this together."  Not just those in the church, but the larger community, too.  We ALL are in this together.

I'll be happy to rejoin my congregation next Sunday.   Being absent has made me appreciate the meaning of that commitment. 


Sunday, September 2, 2012

For All the Saints: R.I.P. Louise Emerson Brooks

There are so many people who have labored in the movement of bringing equality to God's LGBT children particularly in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.  Rev. Susan Russell (left) and her wife, Louise Emerson Brooks, are just two of those champions.  Today, Louise ascended into  God's realm beyond the earth to be among the departed saints.  She had been undergoing chemotherapy for stage four renal cancer.  And this past week, she underwent surgery for what had been hoped would be a life-saving operation.  Many followed the updates from Rev. Susan on Facebook.  Some were tense.  Some were more hopeful.  And then back into another cycle of tense-to-hope-to-tense-to-hope.  In the end, there was only so much fight left in a body that had undergone a 15-hour surgery with spikes in her overall post-op condition. 
I have never met either Rev. Susan or Louise.  But in this world of blogging and Facebook, there are many who I have never met, and yet feel I share a common bond in Christ as well as bits and bytes with them.  And Louise had touched my life through her amazing work with the group, Integrity USA, specifically the Voices of Witness video series.  I have used the video about Africa to educate people in Tallahassee about why they need to care what is happening to the LGBT community on a continent half-way around the world.  And the latest offering, Voices of Witness: Out of the Box about the transgender Christian community, is an outstanding tool for any church wishing to explore the need for widening the circle of inclusion.
R.I.P. Louise Emerson Brooks.  Alleluia and may light perpetual shine upon you as you enter eternal rest.  

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Be Not Afraid

I was thinking that I would write an entry about the conclusion (thanks be to God!) of the Republican Convention in Tampa. But given that I purposely avoided much of it, and there are many others out there doing the analysis of who exactly was sitting in that empty chair that Clint Eastwood was addressing, I thought I would stick to commenting on something more interesting, and hopeful, for the future dialogue in this country.

Straight for Equality, the LGBT ally project of PFLAG, has published a short booklet called, "Be Not is on the way." The publication is meant to help those who are friends and family members of LGBT people open a dialogue about gay people and equality issues within their faith communities. I received my package of 25 of these booklets yesterday, and read through the booklet today. It acknowledges that allies are on their own journeys which aren't always moving at the same speed, and assures everyone that--in the words of Buckaroo Banzai--no matter where you go, there you are. And with each step, an ally can become a powerful and important advocate for their LGBT family and friends...and it doesn't require marching in a parade or waving a rainbow flag.

There are also short testimonies from allies and gay people of faith about the struggles they've been through and witnessed within their congregations. As I read some of these stories, I was reminded of the media attention given to the Westboro Baptist Church every time they show up to protest with their "God Hates Fags" signs. Fred Phelps and his band of followers have for some become the face of Christianity, whether we want them to be that or not. That "God Hates Fags" sign, and the many variations on that theme, are what many LGBT people have internalized as what all Christians think and believe about them. End result: gay people make assumptions about anyone wearing a religious symbol around their necks, and will avoid such people like the plague. Time for an ally intervention! There are many stories in the book about an ally...sometimes the minister or rabbi...doing something as simple as being kind to the LGBT person during the service or inviting him or her to take part in the Holy Eucharist, probably the deepest bond that can occur in the context of a Christian service. Such simple acts of kindness presents a much more loving, supportive, and friendly face of God to the stranger. And each of those stories in the booklet is punctuated with the gay person saying, "That made such a difference for me."

This all goes back to the gospel lesson that is in Mark where the disciples are eating with their unwashed hands causing a stir. As Jesus noted for the crowds,"There is nothing outside a person that going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile." A gay person in the church, in the pew or pulpit, or a lesbian couple getting married, does not and should not cause a problem. Yet there are some who will insist that while they don't hate individual LGBT people, they don't approve of our relationships. It's the whole 'Love the sinner, but not the sin' mentality which doesn't spare that LGBT person the pain of a rebuke of their personhood. For most LGBT people of faith, one of the biggest personal hurdles they can face is people telling them that if they have a relationship, they are committing a sin. What a terrible thing to turn love into a sin. And what could be happening in the heart of a person who says to another that the other person is committing a sin by falling in love? No doubt, allies and gay people alike, will run into this kind of thinking as they engage others in their faith communities about LGBT rights.

The key, as I see it, to dealing with this mentality is not to get into an argument. That will only harden both your hearts. The real key is to hear what that person is saying, and remember this lesson of Jesus' from Mark. Their demand that gay people be celibate in order to be acceptable does not reflect God's expansive love. It is more a reflection of their own discomfort with love and sexual intimacy. What can be done about that? Well, besides acknowledging what they've said, and refusing to agree with that position, the only other response is to say your own prayer for that person. Pray that God will be present with you and them in this place. Have compassion for whatever their fears are about relationships and sexual intimacy. And remember it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles and betrays the fears they are harboring in their heart.

We, however, do not need to be afraid. LGBT people of faith, and their allies within religious institutions, know the love and liberation that comes to us from God's grace. Now more than ever is the time for allies of LGBT people and LGBT people of faith to speak up and engage the rest of their religious communities in this dialogue about our equal place in the kingdom, and the importance of outreach to those who have been injured by religion. True religion is Love. It's time for our voices sounding that message to be heard.