Saturday, September 28, 2013

Do You Hear What I Hear?

If I were a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and an Episcopalian, I might want to sleep in tomorrow.   If I were the CEO of a bank or an insurance company, and an Episcopalian,  tomorrow's lectionary would likely make me feel  itchy all over.  If you are someone who faces mounting debt, or are watching in dismay as a small cabal in Congress threatens to shut down the federal government, then put down that donut and coffee, and get yourself into the pew of your nearest Episcopal Church because you are gonna like this lesson from the Gospel of Luke!

I'm not going to give it away: seriously, you must go!  All I'll say is that the rich man should have been paying attention to people and not his own purse.  But since he didn't, well--crackle! Crackle! Crackle!

Depending on which Episcopal Church you attend, the readings may vary slightly in the beginning.  But everybody will hear the Luke Gospel.  And, with the looming crisis of shutting down the federal government in an effort to delay the President's plan to extend some level of health insurance to people like me (self-employed and poor who currently have no coverage), it's hard not to consider how the obstructionists in Congress are acting very much like the rich man.  And their position is being bolstered by other "rich men" who are both male and female.  CEO's of major restaurant chains who are intentionally cutting hours of their low-level employees to get around having to provide insurance coverage, and other people who constitute the "haves" in this country and are resentful of the idea that those of us who don't have might want the opportunity to get a little help.  It's not that the working poor haven't "earned" our share of the health insurance pie;  it's that even the basic apple pie, without any special toppings, is too expensive for us to pay the monthly premium.  Congress gets a health benefits package, and will not be deemed among the non-essential federal employees facing unpaid leave in the event of a shut down.  And yet, these are the people who scornfully dismiss the working poor as not having "earned" the right to affordable health care.  

Do you hear what I hear?  Crackle! Crackle! Crackle!

In a strange way, I feel pity for this group of grumps in Congress, and anyone else who derides and disses the Affordable Health Care Act.  If we follow the story of what happens to the rich man, he ends up in the bowels of hell, and begs his ancestor, Abraham, to please let him rise from the dead to warn his brothers about the fate that awaits them if they don't change their ways.  And Abraham says, "Nope!  They have Moses and the Prophets.  And if they won't heed multiple warnings that have been put out there by the prophets, then a dead man rising won't make a difference to them either." 

We've had that risen dead man.  Seems he didn't reach those who were too rich in this life to listen.


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Odd Encounters

I am on my third trip this year to New Hampshire to see my mom, the once-frequent commentator on this blog known as "Anonymous Peggins" (mom never quite got the hang of how to create an ID, but she was always good to sign her nickname.)   She is looking good, and definitely has all of her personality there, even if her speech has been reduced to a few repetitive words.

The first leg of my flight from Jacksonville to Baltimore was packed with people.  In some cases, it was folks who had missed their earlier flight due to an accident on one of the major highways.  As I listened to these women relating the details of their stressful travel from their home to the airport, and encountering this pile-up which turned I-95 into a parking lot, I reflected on how lucky I had been.   The problem was rain, very heavy rain, that had been pouring that morning in Jacksonville.  Most of my drive had been fine until that point.  And even I was getting a bit white-knuckled on I-295 (The Beltway, as they call it in Jacksonville)  as I followed behind a truck carrying a shipment of cars.  I kept breathing, slowly, and remembering that I was OK and the important thing was to get home safely.

On the airplane, I sat in the back next to a couple of young men from the Air Force.  There seemed to be a whole unit of these guys in their fatigues.  I asked my seat mate where they were headed.


He then shared that he had two more flights to catch before he'd be home.  Been there.  Done that.  Those are very long days.   For the most part, this young man was content listening to his music on his iPhone.  And that's fine with me, the massive introvert.   I had reading to do for next week's seminar of EfM.  I'd brought on board the book the Fourth Year group is reading called, "Theology for A Troubled Believer," by Diogenes Allen.  Having gone through this program with the red binders, and having served as a mentor for a couple of years, I am extremely grateful that the folks in the office at Sewanee have seen fit to chuck out the binders in favor of books such as this one.  I'm enjoying the Allen book, if not always agreeing with everything, because it takes what had been presented as a "philosopher of the week" style from the red binder, and actually looks at Christian faith through Scripture, and the reason brought to it by the philosophers, to examine and study God.  It's a much more cohesive approach to the material, and it prods the reader into thinking instead of sleeping.

I was into the chapter I was reading, when my seat mate got my attention.

"Excuse me," he said, "Do you mind if I ask you what you're reading?"  Apparently, between moments of conversation with his fellow airman and whatever was on his iPhone, he'd been glancing at my book, chalk full of references to "God."  In my part of this country, "God" is a big deal.  "God" isn't just for Sundays; "God" comes out on Wednesday nights... and especially weekends for the football games.  

But, given my flattop and that I was wearing a Mickee Faust Club sweatshirt, and I don't look like the typical "God" type, as seen in the South.  I showed him the cover, and did a quick explanation that I help lead a seminar group, and this is one of the books they're reading.

"It's a really good book," I said.  "It helps people of faith because they live in a world where having faith is called into question all the time, and where they have doubts, too."

From the look on his face, there seemed to be two things going on: 1. He was processing what I was saying and 2. he was processing that I was the one saying it.   

"That does sound like a good book," he said.  And then went back to his iPhone.  

This is one of the peculiar parts to me in my journey, this encountering other people and sharing just a sliver of my Christian self with them.  Because of my appearance, it seems to totally blow their minds.  Yes, if I were to have an iPhone, people might suspect me of jamming to The Ramones or The Sex Pistols.  And I would be.  But I also would have Ella Fitzgerald, Joni Mitchell and Sweet Honey in the Rock.  I am the perfect example of why you should never judge a person based on appearances.  And just because I am a lesbian and a member of Mickee Faust doesn't mean I don't have a deep and abiding faith in God and much love for Jesus Christ.

Last week, when the Eucharistic Minister failed to appear for the noon day service, the priest asked if I would kindly join her at the altar to help administer the chalice.   I was in my street clothes, which today included my Mickee Faust 25th anniversary shirt.  As I tipped the chalice toward the first communicant, I couldn't help but notice the reflection coming back at me of the Faust logo--a skull and crossbones of a mouse head with a chunk bitten out of the ear--as I was saying, "The Blood of Christ; the cup of Salvation."  It was priceless, and a reminder that all of me is known, loved and valued by God.  

I don't know what my brief encounter with this young airman might have done or not done.  I have no idea where he was on his own faith journey.  If nothing else, he knows the title of a book that might help him along his way.



Saturday, September 21, 2013

St. Matthew and Imperfection

I can't say that I was all that taken with the lessons this morning for St. Matthew the Evangelist Day.  For some reason, they just didn't grab me.  That could be because I read them at about 5:30am.  For some reason, I woke up after only five hours of sleep... and then stayed awake for about 90 minutes when I finally was able to close my eyes again, and get some more much needed rest.

When I woke up, and thought again about St. Matthew, what was calling to me was the passage in Chapter 9 of the Gospel that bears his name.  Jesus, upon seeing Matthew, entreats him to quit the tax collecting business and come follow, which Matthew does.   Remembering that tax collectors were the low-lifes of Jesus' day, this is another moment of Jesus seeking out the least likely to join his team.  And, as a Jewish tax collector, Matthew was definitely among the least likely... and the least liked... in his society.   The scene after Matthew accepts the call has Jesus at dinner and not only eating presumably with his new follower Matthew, but many tax collectors and sinners of all kinds.   The Pharisees, who are always depicted as rule-bound grumps in the Gospels, are again kvetching that Jesus is breaking bread with all the icky people.  Jesus hears their complaint and answers:

"Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners." --Matt 9:12b-13

As I lay in bed thinking about this statement, I thought about those things which seem to hold me back from moving forward with my own call to follow Christ.  Being gay is not a problem, certainly not a problem for me following Christ.  And now, we even have the Roman Catholic Pope Francis I saying that he doesn't think being gay prevents someone from being in relationship with God (I'm waiting to see how long this pope can keep up the enlightened statements before somebody puts a muzzle on him).  But I told my spiritual director at my last visit that I have felt the pressure from other corners in the church that demand that if I am to continue following the path I believe I am called to follow in living more fully into the stature of Christ, then I must not only be spotless in my character; I need to be hermetically-sealed perfection.  I know that I am not.  I have done and left undone things in my life that have hurt others.  When I was at Sewanee standing in front of that Corpus Christi at the Chapel of the Apostles, I was giving all of that and then some to this representation of Christ.  And that's when I saw the Christ on that cross let out a deep sigh as if to say, "Let it go!"  And there was a question: if I am able to say a mantra, 'I am in Christ, and Christ is in me,' then am I able to see the Christ in me?   

How I interpret that question is to look at how I am treating myself.  Am I so focused on my short-comings that I am unable to see how even those short-comings can be turned to good with the Christ that is in me... if I'll just shut up, relax, and let Christ lead?   God... through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ... has not sought out me or you or anyone who was so damn perfect that they have no dents or dings in their character.  The ones who are so above reproach are the ones who are "well" and have no need of a physician.  They are the ones so convinced of their own righteousness, and can look around and pick out the ones who are unrighteous.  Good for them because they simply are directing Christ where he must venture deeper to find the ones who need to hear the liberating love of God.

Matthew, like all of us who are odd, off-beat, and unlikely seekers, probably rejoiced in his heart that somebody, a fellow Jew in particular, didn't spit at him, but invited him to follow.  That invitation is still extended to this day to all of us misfits.  Follow, and accept the grace that is given freely to you. 


Sunday, September 15, 2013

No One Will Be Lost

It's always a good thing when what one is reading for Education for Ministry not only validates an opinon one has had, but it also flows so nicely with the Sunday lectionary!

EfM has changed its curriculum (Thanks Be to God!!) and now has the people enrolled in the program reading books by contemporary theologians instead of texts written-by-a-committee of Sewanee faculty.  One of the books for the Year Four members is called, "Theology for a Troubled Believer" by Diogenes Allen.  While the print is microscopic, the information is interesting and wonderful, particularly the point that Allen makes about Chapter 15 of Luke, the "lost and found parables" as I call them, which ends with the prodigal son story.  He notes that Jesus was the first to tell us that the nature of God is so loving, so completely desiring of each and every individual that it is God who will go on a search-and-find mission to seek out that one sheep, that one coin, that drifter son who squandered all until he comes to his senses and realizes he must come back to his father.  Up to that point, Allen says, that was not the God that had been described to the Hebrew people: a God with such an investment in each person.

As a lesbian Christian, I certainly have believed in this idea that God is determined and will find everyone, and will keep looking and searching and calling and inviting everyone to come back to the banquet of Love.  This is why I have never thought it to be out of character for gay people to be in the church.  Why wouldn't we be there?   And why wouldn't we be there in our full gay selves and not hiding our identities?  The banquet of Love is God's party, and God keeps adding leaves onto the table to bring in more and more people.  All we have to do is accept the invite.   And yet, for so many, that's the most difficult thing.

And I do understand why it's been hard for gay, lesbian, bi and transgender people to realize that they, too, get to sit at the table with everybody else.  God is inviting, but there have been others who have stood in the doorway and demanded we deny a core part of our being in order to be allowed in.  God has asked us to dance, but the people of God have said we can only dance once we've completed the proper lessons in how to dance to their beat, as if the beat they're hearing is the only one God is playing at this party.  When you get that enough in your lifetime from the church, you begin to make the tragic mistake of believing that the church is God.

What the "lost and found parables" tell us is what Allen expresses: God will not lose anyone. Ever. Period.   God will keep looking until that lost one is brought home.  What an enormously hopeful, and wonderful expression of Love!   What an important essential to carry with us into a week which may pose questions from the outside about our self-worth.  Are we worthy of such lavish Love that says we are beloved by God?  

As they say in court: asked and answered, your Honor.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

9/11: The 12th Anniversary

 There was something uncomfortable for me last night as I contemplated that our President was going to make a case for "surgical strikes" against Syria, on the eve of us remembering the "surgical strikes" on the United States from 12 years ago.  Of course, what happened on September 11, 2001, were not characterized as "surgical strikes."  And yet--they were.  They had the intended effect of terrorizing the nation, and in a matter of minutes, they killed brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, moms, dads, lovers, friends.  None of us who were alive to witness this horror and the images of smoking heaps of rubble in New York and Washington, DC, and a field in Pennsylvania, will ever forget the uneasiness, confusion, anger and fear that gripped us all that day.

Which brings me to the comment about Syria.  All the polls, and the words from members of Congress, indicate that we are weary of war.  Yes, the use of chemical weapons and the killing of thousands of women and children is offensive to the core for anyone who has an ounce of compassion for humanity in their bodies.  The attacks inside Syria should never have happened.   The civil unrest in Syria is something that worries me.  

But how does one really accomplish a "surgical strike" that does NOT result in more destruction?  More hardship for the citizens?  More needless bloodshed?   

Last week, at Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Jack Romberg of Temple Israel preached a powerful and personal sermon about what happened to members of his extended family at the end of World War II.   Some had managed to survive the Nazi era, largely because of those who dared to risk their own lives and safety to protect their fellow citizens from persecution.  But survival of the war brought its own devastation.  In one instance, the family went had to travel by foot several hundred miles back to Essen.  After much hardship in getting home, they discovered that they had no home--literally.  The allied forces had bombed the city so thoroughly that there was nothing left of what had once been their residence.  The allies were victorious.  There were celebrations back at home.  Meanwhile, those who were not soldiers and had had nothing to do with the fighting and were just simply trying to live were left with a pile of stones and concrete.  The Rabbi's point was that, after spending hours this summer interviewing these relatives and listening to their stories, he could no longer agree with the concept of a 'Just War.'  And to consider the loss of life of civilians not engaged in the conflict as "collateral damage" is a way of removing the truth of the matter: we're killing people because they happen to be in the way.

My own father once told me of his years serving in the United States Navy during WWII that it's customary for those who are involved in war to believe that they are fighting on the side of "righteousness."  It's easy to feel that way, he said, because you don't see the people being hurt by the bombs you're dropping from an airplane.  In his 80s, my father seemed to be coming to his own place of thinking that, perhaps, war is not the only answer.

The president seems willing, for now, to hold off on launching missiles at Syria as the dialogue and negotiations involving our old Cold War enemy, Russia, continue to unfold.  But there is an uneasiness in this situation, and I don't know what the outcome is going to be.  And certainly, the Russian leadership has about as much integrity, in my opinion, as a snake.  

The Episcopal Church offered a special collect today for remembering the victims and the violence of September 11th.  But I think it is just as appropriate to reflect upon the Prayer for Our Enemies as we remember 9/11/2001... and look at our world of 9/11/2013:

  O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love
our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth:
deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in
your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Spiritual Autobiography: What Are You Waiting For?

It was 3am, and I was sitting at the laptop with a simple prayer:

O God, please get me through another one of these spiritual autobiographies.

It is that time of year, at the start of Education for Ministry seminar groups, when we share with our fellow members the course our lives have taken and where we feel God's presence and absence as we muddle our way along in the world.  I don't know why it is that I never, in the many times that I have done this exercise, I never seem to be able to get myself to sit still long enough to pull my presentation together.  I have to let the assignment "cook" inside me before I can focus enough, settle down, and write. 

But 3am... six hours before I'm to gather with everyone?

It didn't help that I had had another bout of heat exhaustion, brought on by being out in the Florida sun and humidity.  Who knew that drinking iced tea on the deck of a coffee shop and running errands to banks was so strenuous that my body rebelled in a migraine headache and upset stomach.  Or maybe this was part of the plot to stymie my plan to work on the autobiography in the late afternoon, allowing me a chance to get plenty of rest before meeting with everyone.  Whatever it was, it definitely worked to put me in a place of vulnerability.  And I think that is one of the keys to working on a spiritual autobiography.

This exercise is one of the most important things an EfM group does together.  It is through sharing our stories of our lives and our experiences of the Spirit manifesting in our lives that we discover how much we are alike and how amazing the work of God can be in someone else.  It isn't too dissimilar, I think, to how we can sometimes see ourselves and the ones around us as being like some of the characters we run across in the stories in Scripture.  Because, again, while the Bible isn't an "autobiography", it ultimately does tell the story of us, humanity, as we relate to God and each other.  Even the Gospels, to me, seem to be like the experience of the spiritual autobiography; the central story stays the same, but the perspective differs from Gospel writer to Gospel writer, in the same way that our own autobiographies change from one year to the next as we take a look at the journey again.

For me, this year, it was important to not get lost in the details of my early many starts and stops in my journey with God (for those interested in some of those, I direct you HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE).  I decided to focus, instead, on the period following my dad's death in 2007, which was the beginning of this latest, and longest leg of the journey. 

Following dad's death, I was haunted by hymns.  Lots, and lots, and lots of hymns.  The one that consistently kept coming back around in my head was "God is working his purpose out."  It got to a point where I said to my beloved, "I think I'm supposed to go back to 'that' church (meaning St. John's)."  The next morning, Sunday, November 11th, I woke up with a booming voice in my head that told me to "Show up!" 

I got dressed.  I went to 'that church'.  And, for the first time in my whole life as an Episcopalian, I heard all the words in the service, every hymn, every piece of Scripture, and the overwhelming message was: You are loved and always have been loved and I will never NOT love you.

It was mind-blowingly amazing!

The assistant priest, Mtr. Lee Shafer, saw me at the door.

"You came back," she said, "And you dressed up."

I hung my head, sheepishly, and acknowledged that I, who could have given a crap about the church, had returned.  "Can I come see you?"

"Sure!" and then, miraculously, she rattled off the days that she knew she was available.  I didn't even know my schedule that well.  I emailed her, and we set a date for me to come to her office.  I didn't know what exactly I was going to say, but I knew I needed to tell her what I had experienced, and that I had this jukebox of the Episcopal Hymnal playing constantly in my head.  After I had rambled on and on for probably an hour, she said, "What do you need from me?"

"Need?" I said, incredulously, "I don't need anything."   Then, I thought about what she'd asked.

"Y'know that part of Prayers of the People Form II where they say, 'I ask your prayers for those who seek God or a deeper knowledge of him.  Pray that they may find and be found by him.'  I think that's what I need."

As I told this part to my EfM group, I acknowledged that I did not know at the time what it was that I had just asked for, and what was going to come of this petition.  But gradually, steadily, I became cognizant that I was no longer being allowed to drive my own boat.  It seemed that a power greater than myself, God, had decided that it was time to take over the wheel because I wasn't steering this boat well enough and continuously drove it into the weeds.  I was pretty much relegated to passenger status.  Maybe I'd be allowed to put my hands on the wheel, but I was NOT going to drive the boat, and, no--we were not going to slow down, so I could jump out and swim to shore and run away to hide in the forest. 

God is working God's purpose out.  And as year succeeds to year, that purpose became clearer and clearer that I had been given much; hence much more would be expected of me.  I became a Eucharistic Minister.  I took over the job of recording the Sunday services (a task in which I was able to recruit some people to help).   I not only signed up for EfM; by my third year in the program, I became a co-mentor of the group.  And I have been made a verger.  But, in my heart and in my bones, I have felt there was still something more that was being expected of me.  And it terrified me.

I said to Mtr. Lee, as I felt myself in a constant never-ending theological loop with God that led me to write her voluminous emails dissecting every prayer in the Book of Common Prayer, "I think, maybe, I'm supposed to be a priest."

It was then that she told me the prayer I had said is often one that is used for those seeking ordination. I'm surprised I didn't pass out.  This led to much denial, and refusal, and stubborn digging in of heels.  Finally, I thought I'd talk to the one person I thought I could trust on this matter: Bishop Gene Robinson.

I went to NH with my partner, and we drove directly from Manchester to Concord.  I ended up waiting for about an hour because +Gene had been called to the state Capitol building.  When he came back, he was somewhat disappointed because he had thought the state legislature was going to pass the marriage equality bill; however, typical of New Hampshire, somebody got his nose bent out of shape over another matter and so was clogging the wheels of forward motion on the bill until they could patch things up.  +Gene had hoped it would pass, so that Isabelle and I could have joined him over there.  That would have been sweet.  But that wasn't the reason for my visit.   I told him what was happening, some of my story, and that I was living in a diocese that doesn't ordain gay people.  He was forthright in telling me that if I were to seek ordination in New Hampshire, I would have to move home and be part of a parish for at least two years.  This wasn't possible.  So, he offered to call Bishop Howard to talk to him.  And he advised me to get a spiritual director.

I don't know if anything ever happened with the phone call.  I do know that I ignored the advice on the spiritual director for about a year.   And then, I was serving at the noon day service with Fr. Lee Graham.  The Gospel lesson was from the end 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."

I felt as if I was being pinned against the wall of the chapel.  The overwhelming message I was receiving from this was about being called.  Many think of that passage as about getting old and having people put a gait belt around you in a nursing home.  But that's not at all what I hear in that exchange between Jesus and Peter.  I hear Jesus telling Peter that he is a grown up now, and it is on his shoulders to "feed my sheep." And I heard the same thing being said to me.  To get better resolution, I went to the labyrinth at Florida School of Massage.  After my walk, I came out of the maze with a strong sense that now was the time to contact a spiritual director.

Mtr. Lee had given me the name of a priest in Thomasville, GA.  I wrote this priest an email, and figured she'd ignore me. 

On the contrary, she responded within a day, and we set up an appointment.  She worked with me until her health forced her to retire and leave Georgia, and she passed me off to another spiritual director in Valdosta.  And I have been meeting with Mtr. Galen Mirate for about 18 months. 

In February, Mtr. Galen invited me to attend the Diocesan Convention in Georgia.  Among the list of things on the agenda was a resolution to change the language in the diocesan canon concerning who could or could not seek ordination.  What was there was written as a response to the consecration of +Gene as a bishop because, in Georgia, they weren't gonna have no gay Yankees in the ranks of their priests.   The new proposal was a pretzel-like paragraph, intended to remove the blanket prohibition.  But even that proposal was causing angst among the faithful.  Then, after being allowed to sleep on making a decision, the assembled body heard a new proposal: why not simply follow the canons of the national Episcopal Church?   That achieved the end of the prohibition without having to come up with more words to replace the other words.  That passed overwhelmingly.

And it left my spiritual director with one question for me: "What are you waiting for?"

She asked questions and discovered that if I moved my membership to a church in Georgia, I could enter the process.

"What are you waiting for?"

She looked up the canon that says that, having been licensed in the Diocese of Florida to be a Eucharistic Minister, I am eligible, at the discretion of the local priest, to serve as a Eucharistic Minister elsewhere.

"What are you waiting for?"

Many tears shed over the loss of my St. John's community.  Acknowledgement of that hurt, gentle words of comfort, and a box of tissues provided.  But still...

"What are you waiting for?"

The fact is, I'm running out of room to keep running away.  I have pleaded to my patron prophet Jonah to please send a big fish to swallow me whole so I could avoid this.  But Jonah must be off sulking somewhere.  There is no cave where I can hide in hopes that the strong winds will pass by.  Every priest I have spoken to (and I have quizzed many at this point) have told me that if this is God's intent, I will not be able to avoid being taken where I do not wish to go.

I finished my autobiography by noting that after my last visit with my Mtr. Galen, I saw a huge rainbow in a field over South Georgia.  The song on the CD player was one by Sweet Honey in the Rock which sounded to me like a prayer.  I opened my hand on top of the steering wheel, and took in the words,

I be your shelter
I be your land
I be your everything
I be your friend
I be your water
when you're thirsty and dry...

As I entered Florida, I looked over to where the rainbow had been.  It was gone. 

And the question recurs..

"What are you waiting for?"


Thursday, September 5, 2013


L'shanah tovah! A happy and sweet New Year to my beloved and all my Jewish friends.  The challah, made round instead of braided, is baked with honey and raisins.  The shofar has been sounded, Tekia! Shevarim Teruah! Tekia Gedolah!  There will be much singing.  Today, the name of the day is to embrace the joy of a new year.
And now begins the Days of Awe that lead to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  
For Jews, this is the time of examination and self-reflection.  How have their practices, both in work, community and family life, contributed to an ethic that chooses life and builds community?  Have they been doing that, or have they been living and serving the work of their own hands and the greed that gives one short-term temporal gains at the expense of those things eternal?  "Happy New Year" gives way to "How Have I Been Living Year" and, for some, that can be disquieting.
Part of the tradition on Rosh Hashanah is to hear the telling of the tale of Abraham and Isaac.  As I considered this moment of Abraham silently, and obediently, putting his son upon a pile of wood to sacrifice him, I thought about the command in Deuteronomy to "Choose life."  God is constantly beckoning God's people to put aside those things that lead to death and instead, "choose life."  So, then, how can we get to a place where God would want to have Abraham kill his beloved son? 
The dastardly deed never happens because an angel of God intervenes and stops Abraham from carrying through with plunging the knife into his son.  Instead, his eyes are turned in the direction of a ram caught in the thicket, and he makes a sacrifice of the animal.  And the angel goes on to praise Abraham for having contemplated giving up his son, and tells him, "I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sand that is on the seashore." (Genesis 22:17a)  
Funny thing, though: this same promise was made to Abraham before his famous name change to show that he was, indeed, one who belonged to God.  You might remember that Abram was pleading to God because he was childless.  And God told Abram to, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count shall your descendants be."(Genesis 15:5)  And this was reckoned to Abram as righteousness.   So, did God forget this promise between chapters 15 and 22?
In my reading of the Hebrew Scriptures and, for that matter, most of the Bible,  I find it to be a book that not only talks about the relationship between humankind and God as understood by those of us who came through the line of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Leah; I see it as a study in human nature and our constant dance with God in which we turn towards Love, and then move away from it.  We want to be in right relationship with God.  But then the mechanics of doing that can get messy.  Or we perceive the demands of God to be too much.  Or we simply do not want to cede the power of direction to God when those directives get in the way of our own wills and desires. 
There are often gaps in the stories in the Scriptures that leave one wondering, "Well, wait a minute? What happened to get us to this point?!"  I see this, somewhat, in the story of Abram/Abraham's life of being righteous.  Why in the world would he need to contemplate sacrificing Isaac when he's already been told he will be the father of more descendants than the stars in the sky?
Perhaps, Abraham, like so many of us today, while being a righteous man, still was holding back some of who he is from God.  Perhaps, he, like me and maybe you, believed that he could get by with just giving God a percentage of his commitment to follow.  The old "ten percent" tithe or something. And this is where the sacrifice of Isaac comes in.  Perhaps, Abraham's heart was starting to wander, and the Isaac episode was meant to tether him back to life, to God.  Maybe, then, it's not that God had forgotten anything, but Abraham had.  And, when faced with the choice of death or life for his son, his willingness to give up something as important and special to him as Isaac, leads not only to the choice of preserving Isaac, but it renews the promise made to Abraham that his offspring will be more numerous than the stars.
To follow God, completely, is a tough and demanding choice. You may have to stand and face something you hold precious and be willing to let it go.  And you may find that Love, so seeing your willingness to let go of your golden object, will intervene to lead you along a gentler course.  This is faith.  This is Love.  This is "Choosing Life."

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Humility and True Religion

The start of September always brings around that "Collect of the Day" in the church calendar with the peculiar phrase:

"Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works..."

The grafting, nourishing and bringing forth bits I get.  But "increase in us 'true religion' "?   For anyone who has ever felt the sting of a church so convinced of its own righteousness that it has let you know how "untrue" you are... well, that phrase is a little frightening.  The origins of that phrase may have come from a tumultous period in Anglican Church history.  According to Marion Hatchett's "Commentary on the American Prayer Book," the insertion of the word "true" before religion was done by Thomas Cranmer, and may have been a reflection of controversies occuring within the church in the16th century.  Perhaps there's a reason some of us who have been seen as the "unclean" might do a quick intake of breath at that phrase!

But as I listened to that collect this morning, and heard it in the context of our Sunday lectionary which focused on a theme of welcoming strangers and waiting for the invitation to have a seat at the banquet table, I had a new take on what "true religion" might mean in our context today.  It came as I listened to Jesus' parable in Luke about waiting for the host of a wedding banquet to beckon you to a seat of greater prominence rather than just plopping yourself down in the chair closest to the head of the table.

 "But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, "Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." --Luke 14:10-11 

All who exalt themselves will be humbled.  Those who humble themselves will be exalted.   

I heard those words and I felt a wave of emotion run through my body.  I am in a point in my journey with God where I feel very vulnerable.  I have been haunted by another piece of Scripture, from John's Gospel, in which Jesus informs Peter out on the beach, "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."  This particular verse came up last week when I was on the campus of the School of Theology at Sewanee for my re-certification as an EfM mentor.  It was this verse, when read aloud by Rev. Lee Graham one Friday in the St. John's chapel, that figuratively pinned me against the wall, and sent me on a trek down to the labyrinth at the Florida School of Massage.  Coming out of that meditative walk, I reached the inescapable conclusion that I had to contact a spiritual director.  I did, thinking that the woman would certainly ignore me.   Instead, she set up an appointment to meet her in Thomasville.   To have this same Scripture come up again, at this point of vulnerability and in that place of Sewanee, rattled my cage so hard that I was speechless.  Like so many times in this journey, all I wanted to do was run away, find a big fish that would swallow me whole, duck inside a cave and wait for the strong winds to pass.  Name your biblical metaphor for people saying "Please, God: not me!" and that's the mantra of me all over.  

Before I left Sewanee, I went to the Chapel of the Apostles.   There is a Corpus Christi in the chapel that I approached somewhat cautiously, unsure of just how close one was supposed to get to it.  I decided to stay at the altar and stare at it, softening my gaze, the same way I have done many times with my two statues at the opening to the labyrinth in Gainesville.  Silently, I recited to this Christ all my fears, all my inadequacies, my failures, anything that I believed should surely cast me into the outer darkness.  Instead, what I saw--strange as this is--was the Christ on the cross gave out a heavy sigh as if to say, "Just let it go!"  

All my fighting, digging my heels in, stiff-arming: just let it go.  
Every doubt, all the focus on my every fault: just let it go.
My excuses, my fears, my "but what if's": just let it go.

Accept grace.  And quit resisting.

I believe this, like other experiences and encounters I have had this year, are part of the process of humbling me to the point of realizing that the host, aka God, is ready for me to move a few chairs up the table.  All I have to do is move.   And this is where the 'true religion' phrase comes into play.  Because, in this time, in September 2013, I believe that 'true' religion is about taking that scary step of abandoning the ego's desire to "know" and "be sure" about what is to come in this journey with God, and instead accept that God has always sought and found the weirdest, the biggest screw-ups, the least likely... and exalted them.  All they had to do was say, "Yes, Lord."  And trust that God wasn't pulling a fast one with the promise to be with us always to the end of the age.

So, here I am.   And, as they said on Star Trek: Next Generation: "Resistance is futile."

Yes, Lord.