Saturday, October 26, 2013

Saints Still Speaking

I've had a lot to ponder lately, but not a lot of time to share any of it on this blog.  A major 45-minute presentation at St. John's featuring three interviews of their former clergy, and the assembly of the powerpoint that went with that, took all of my spare time in this past week and a half.

But in between writing, editing, and picture-gathering, I've been continuing my prayer life, particularly Morning Prayer and regular participation in the Eucharist on Fridays at noon at St. John's.  And that's how I've encountered several readings that continue to challenge and push me along the path toward wherever I'm going.  I've had so many conversations with priests and bishops lately that I am tired of talking.  Everybody has an opinion.  Everybody has wisdom.  Everybody needs to understand that, at this point, I'm asking, "Where are you, God?  Why did you think this was such a good idea for me?"

Paying attention, the answers I've seemed to be getting are coming to me in the Scriptures.   I've been reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting over the past few days many words that feel as though they were written to address where my mind has been.   It started with St. Luke's Day on October 18th, with an epistle lesson that should look strangely familiar to anyone planning a sermon for this Sunday:
As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of 
an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully. As for me, I am already 
being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. 
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 
From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the 
Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me 
but also to all who have longed for his appearing. 

And then, Morning Prayer on Wednesday, which happened to be St. James Day, we had this passage from Matthew:

See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.

That brings us yesterday's Eucharistic reading from Luke:

He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens.  And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

I've been asking for God to direct and guide me, and this collection of readings feels as though I'm not only getting direction, but I'm also being reminded that this path is not the easy one, or even the nicest one.  In fact, it's lonely and fraught with many moments of mind-boggling frustration.  It probably doesn't help that Mercury is moving backward right now, which in astronomy lore means communication is made difficult at best.  And perhaps that's why I'm preferring to enter into a period of silence on all matters of my call right now. 

I feel as though I have poured myself out, and it's time for me to depart.  I need the wisdom of a serpent because this all definitely feels as though I'm being sent as a sheep into the middle of wolves.  When I'm asked to define my call, there's a real part of me that's stumped.  This wasn't my idea, y'know!  It was only six years ago, I was happily ignoring the church; now, I feel God asking me to make the church real and accessible to the people like the old me who are happily ignoring the church.  That's no small feat!  As I look at the present time, what I hear from those around me is that they see the church as a quaint institution for the dying instead of a force for bringing the kingdom of Heaven closer to earth through real outreach to those who are the undesirables, the left-behinds, the untouchables.   We keep telling people how welcome they are to join us; what are we doing to invite them in?

I don't have any great answers here, but I think this is part of God's purpose for me to wrestle with that as I continue to pour myself out.  And I know there is nothing I, Susan, can do on my own .  God help me, and give me the strength and courage, not to mention the words, to keep dancing with you. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

I Am Not A Noisy Gong: Reflection on 1 Corinthian 13

We have done a terrible thing, I think, in the Episcopal Church when it comes to the service for blessing a marriage, aka "weddings."  

Before anyone gets their hackles up, I'm not talking about the ceremony, or whether what's in the Book of Common Prayer vs. the new rite adopted for same-sex couples is "better" than what's in the BCP.  No, this post has nothing to do with politics.  It has everything to do with the available, oft-chosen, reading from Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians from Chapter 13.   Most recognize it because it has a list of what love is ("patient" and "kind" and "bears all things" as opposed to being "boastful", "arrogant" or "rude").   In the context of a wedding, it sounds like sage wisdom from the saint being bestowed upon the happy couple, so as to answer the question posed by the pop song from the 1980's, "I Want to Know What Love Is."  

But... and this is a huge but... this passage is NOT about the romantic love shared between consenting partners in a relationship.  Paul wasn't too keen on marriage, really, and exalted the vocation of celibacy which, again, makes this choice of scripture for Holy Matriomony somewhat comical.  This "love" that Paul is talking about is a synonym for God.  I have given the instruction before in our EfM group to read that passage of Paul and substitute the word "God" for every time the word "Love" is written.  And when you read this passage OUTSIDE the context of a wedding, it has a different feel altogther and one that really highlights the beauty of Paul's statement about the nature of God, Christ and Holy Spirit.   Especially, if you move up a few verses to where the chapter begins....

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.--1Cor.13:1-3

I read this and reflected upon my faith journey and my way of speaking about Christ to others.  If I did not have a sense of Jesus Christ as the one who has redeemed me, and given me freedom from oppression, then I would be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  But it is because I have had experiences of Christ, of God, of Holy Spirit, acting powerfully on me, through me, and in me, that I am able to speak with this "love."  Hopefully, I speak in ways in which those listening are able to hear something other than the condemnation that quite often seems to come at them from the mouths of "christians." 

I believe I have achieved this in some arenas.  When I made the video clip, "Queer vs. Christian" and showed that in the context of a Mickee Faust cabaret, the response to it was extremely positive.  And this is NOT the church-going, or even Christ-loving crowd!  There were those who loudly cheered at the punch line, and several of the Faustkateers thought it needed to go on YouTube.  Well, it did.  And it is the most watched video on the Mickee Faust Club's YouTube channel.  It also opened me to vilification.  Amazingly negative comments, many thumbs down, really vicious stuff.  A lot of people condemned it's pro-Christian message; and then there were the homophobes thrown in for good measure.  When the atheists and the homophobes are ganging up on you, you know that you've touched a nerve.  Admittedly, it has made me a bit leery of pressing forward with a one-woman show on my journey to be in relationship with God.  But more and more, I am thinking that I need to overcome the fear of rejection, and press on toward getting the thing written.  If I have love, what I say will be heard... if only by a few.

I really wish we wouldn't use that portion of 1 Corinthians at weddings.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Who Is Jesus Christ? National Coming Out Day, 2013

I have been somewhat oblique on this blog about what has been happening with me and my bizarre journey with God.  I haven't wanted to say anything or put anything out there that might put into writing what has been spinning around and spiraling up and down from head to my heart.   But here it is:  I believe I am called to be ordained as a priest.  There. I've put it in writing.  I have "come out" as being called.

I have had multiple experiences with Scripture, with Eucharist, with leading various groups, with public speaking engagements that have all been coalescing into this call.  An example: when I was asked to be the token "lay gay" on a panel this spring on matters of marriage equality and religion, I could sense what was happening with some folks in the room. There were those who had made up their minds that I was of Satan. Nothing I could do about that.  But there were many more individuals, including members of the panel, who had been unsure of where they stood on LGBT people being in the church, let alone permitted to marry.  The more I allowed the spirit that is within me to express itself, the more the audience was overwhelmed and in awe of hearing a lesbian speak with passion about being gay and in the church.  I was coming from the place of  a prophet to those religious authorities who refused to see the divinity of a same-sex relationship, and challenging folks to see us as brothers and sisters, not "those people."   I have more and more folks increasingly coming to me with matters of the Spirit and asking me for guidance.  I prevented a man from being arrested for unorthodox prayer practices on Maundy Thursday.   And then there's this blog, my place for working it all out.  Some of you have written to me, or spoken to me, and shared how I have reached you. I'm glad to be providing support to you in your journey.  We all need each other as we make our way through life.

As many times as a person has come to me and asked, "Are you considering the priesthood?" I have hemmed and hawed and privately prayed that, "Now, this time, God: send in the big fish that will swallow me whole!"  I have not received my whale.  Not only that, my spiritual director has told me that my wardrobe is already covered in whale puke, so it's time to get on to Nineveh.  So, getting to the place of telling my rector I have a call (which he and several other local clergy have recognized) was big.  He called our bishop, and shared this news with him.  He also told him that I am a partnered lesbian, a big no-no in our diocese for clergy, but would he still consider me.

The answer: No.

Fast-forward almost a year.  My spiritual director invited me to attend the diocesan convention in Georgia. At the opening Eucharist, Bishop Benhase preached a message aimed at the delegates to challenge them to consider laying down at the foot of the cross whatever prejudices or strongly-held convictions they had that would prevent their diocese from accomplishing God's mission, and went so far as to say that they must do this before they received the Eucharist.  As I knelt before that enormous Christ staring out from the cross at St. Anne's in Tifton, the question before me was, "Will I lay down Florida in order to follow Christ?"  It was unnerving.  The next day, the diocese took up a resolution which eliminated discriminatory language in their canons aimed at keeping out LGBT people from the ordination process.  Suddenly, a path was opened before me.  All I had to do was step forward.  

Or hide and hope that I wouldn't be found.  That didn't work.  More people approached me about a call.  More people asked me for spiritual advice.  More people, the very ones who reject the church, were telling me that I am the only Christian they can stand (I guess that counts for something!)

Finally, tired of fighting and wrestling, I met with my rector again.  This time with tears in my eyes and I told him, "I'm sorry, but God isn't quitting the pursuit and I have to leave."   My rector, acknowledging the difficulty of my position was ready to let me go and then...

Wait! Give the bishop one more chance.

That chance came this past Monday.  My rector and I made the long, thunkity-thunk trip along I-10 to Jacksonville to meet with the bishop.  We started with a prayer (I had already prayed with my rector, and prayed silently to myself as we walked down the hall: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable in your sight, O God, my strength and my redeemer.) The bishop cut right to the chase, asking me to talk about my call.  I asked if this was the moment I could call in the body double. 

"No," he said.  "You have to do this."

"With God's help!" I quickly added, in a last desperate plea to God. "Bishop, what's your favorite hymn?"  He said it usually is the last one he hears on Sunday, which having done the traditional blessing of the animals was, "All Things Wise and Wonderful."

"What's yours?" he asked.   So I told him it was "God is working his purpose out."  And he hummed a few bars.  I launched into a much abbreviated version of my spiritual autobiography, talking about how I had the proverbial Hymnfest in my head when my father died.   I talked about those final days with my dad, how I'd had an experience of God when I let my father know that he could die, and it would all be OK.  I admitted that I had had very little interest in the church during that time, and, in fact, had blown it off.  But shortly after that day in October, I heard "St. Patrick's Breastplate" over and over.  Then it was, "For All the Saints" and "Crown Him with Many Crowns" and "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing." But more than any it was  "God is Working His Purpose Out."  I talked about the command to "Show up" and then hearing in all of the liturgy, "You are loved.  You always have been loved.  You always will be loved."  This led to meeting with Mtr. Lee Shafer, which then led to EfM, which then led to me becoming a co-mentor in EfM. 

"You've had many spiritual experiences, what about your call?"

I mentioned serving as a Eucharistic Minister and what it is like to serve the chalice to someone and have that one-on-one connection at the rail. And I shared about my experiences of more people coming to me with spiritual issues, the blog....

My rector, who had been pretty quiet, jumped in to talk about the Circle of Hope, a ministry that I started to assist the spirits of those who were going to be laid off or affected by massive state government lay-offs.  My rector said it was my initiative and perception of need that made him realize that I was a priest in the making.   That seemed to make an impression on the bishop. 

Then the bishop posed a question to me:

"Who is Jesus Christ?"

In my head, I thought, "Did he just ask me this?"  But I couldn't help smiling as I said what was true in my heart.

"Jesus Christ is the greatest liberator from oppression ever!"  I talked about him as part of the Trinity, how he is the part that knows me and what I've been through the best because he is the one who knows me through and through.

As a lesbian and an Episcopalian, this was the best answer I could give.  Because it is the truest answer to my experience of Christ: he is a liberator.  He is the one who went to the cross, died and rose again for the purposes of setting me free from all sins.  In my life, the sin he destroys routinely is the sin of homophobia and heterosexism.  And because he has set me free, I can not be destroyed by the evil others want to do unto me with their anti-gay twisting of the Bible or the lies they have told about God to my community to make them feel as they are the unwanted and unloved abandoned sheep.  Not true!  It is because of the lies that have scattered the LGBT sheep that I believe God is tapping me so hard on the head to get out there as a visible representative of the grace bestowed upon me, the least and the lost, and make God "real" for those who are like me. 

It has already been happening.  After that forum in March, I had a person contact me who wanted to meet and talk some more about how in the world I could be Christian and queer.   This was a person who won't be pinned down into any one spiritual path.  She sees the misogyny quite clearly in the Bible, especially in Paul's writings in the New Testament.  How, she wondered, could I square my lesbian self with all of that?   I smiled, and talked about the Gospel.  And then I added that part that I say makes me so unpopular with feminists: I don't hate Paul.  I used to hate Paul.  But then I read the story of his conversion, and found it to be the most beautiful demonstration of how two sides who hate each other so much are thrown together by God, and they have to work it out.  A follower of the Way must restore Paul (Saul's) sight; Paul drops to his knees in awe and wonder of the power of Christ.  It's one of the best stories in the Book of Acts.  By the time this conversation ended, this woman had a new appreciation of how one can view Christ through queer eyes.  Would she come to church?  I didn't know.  But now she knew there was a church, the Episcopal Church, which would welcome her.

And my coming out as one who is called took another step forward. 

The bishop asked me other questions of theology from the catechism.  He wanted to know about my prayer life.  But in the end, he remained unmoved on ordaining openly LGBT people who are in relationships.  What he did offer was that he would talk to me again, after I'd met with my rector and studied the catechism.  Then, he would be an advocate for me to go to another diocese.  It was what I had expected, and the best I could possibly ask for in this diocese.

Apparently, from what my rector said, my answer of who Jesus Christ is was good.  If I had said, Jesus Christ is My Lord and Savior; that would have been excellent. 

If only these folks were gay, they would have known that calling Jesus, "the greatest liberator from oppression ever," is saying that very sentiment.


Sunday, October 6, 2013

A Spirit of Power and Love, Not Cowardice

 It's always a crapshoot, really, what is going to reach out and grab me on any given Sunday in our Episcopal liturgy.  Sometimes it's the hymns.  Sometimes a line in the psalm.  Often, the Gospel has something to say to me.  But today, it was the Epistle reading, the beginning of the Second Letter to Timothy, that was tapping into the deepest recesses of my heart and saying, "Hello?!  Do you hear this?! Do ya?! DO YA?!"
As a lesbian, I am pretty much a failure in that I don't hate Paul.  Most women, especially lesbians, really don't like the saint and his letters which contain most of the "clobber" passages used against the LGBT community, and lots of misognystic language that some scholars say are not Paul's words, but stuff that got added in later.  I used to rail against Paul.  Then I started learning, studying, reading, marking and inwardly digesting and realized that the things I didn't like about Paul had little to do with him or what he expressed, and everything to do with how others have used his words in ways that have been damaging, and abusive.  I think many of the very early Christians would be appalled to think that their words were being used to put up barriers between people and God!

There was definitely no barrier with the Epistle lesson and me today.  I held back tears as I listened to this letter which contained words for me, as much as it was ever meant for someone named "Timothy":

I am grateful to God--whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did--when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. 

Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel,relying on the power of God,  who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher, and for this reason I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him. Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us. --2 Tim 1:3-14

Listening to this felt as if I was sitting with any number of spiritual advisors I've had over the years.  These are essentially the same words, although transformed into a more 21st century language, that they've been saying to me all along, not only about my queerness converging with my Christianity, but with my sense of call and what I must do to follow where God is taking me.  Most importantly, it is the reminder that this "holy calling" isn't so much about me; it's about God, and what God needs to have happen in the world.  And, apparently, God desires to be seen and known through a crew-cut, leather-jacket-wearing lesbian.  If this were my script, I would never have cast me in this role.  But then, that would be the script in which I'm God, and I get to have the final say on what goes on.  And I learned about six years ago that I am not going to be allowed to write this play, but I am going to have to accept the role of lead in it, and the words will be given to me.

Hopefully, that will be the case tomorrow.  I am due to have a conversation about my call that will give me the next scene in this unfolding drama called, "My Life."  I have been wondering if it's too late to call in a body double.  Something tells me, yes--it is too late.  And--no--there will be no big fish to swallow me whole, either.  And, as terrified as I am, I hear Paul's letter reminding me that I have been given "a spirit of power and love" not cowardice.  That, along with Luke's mention today of the faith the size of a mustard seed, is what I need to take into the conversation I'm going to have.

Prayers are welcomed, too.


Friday, October 4, 2013

Happy St. Francis of Assisi Day!

“Blessed are you, Lord God, maker of all living creatures. You called forth fish in the sea, birds in the air and animals on the land. You inspired St. Francis to call all of them his brothers and sisters. We ask you to bless this pet. By the power of your love, enable it to live according to your plan. May we always praise you for all your beauty in creation. Blessed are you, Lord our God, in all your creatures! Amen.”

There are a lot of saints in the Roman and Anglican calendars, but probably one of the most popular is St. Francis, who shunned his heritage as the son of a wealthy garment maker to live a life in poverty.  A short-life, at that; Francis died at age 44.  In his time, he was seen as an oddball; he kissed and treated the sores of lepers, refused money, and saw everything, including animals, as being part of the universal creation of God.  He preached the Gospel everywhere he went... "using words, when necessary."   Francis lived during a time of upheaval, conflict and corruption.  There was about to be a 5th Crusade, and Francis went to talk to a sultan who was a Muslim.  And while the two men apparently talked, they could not get past the issue of "I'm a Muslim; I'm a Christian."  Thankfully, that crusade didn't occur, either.

But the reason I love St. Francis is because he really lived a life at one with all that was around him, including animals.  He apparently would preach to animals because at least they would listen to him.  In some ways, that's how it is today for people with pets.  The beauty of having a four-legged, two-legged, and finned friends is that there is unconditional love in abundance from a pet to its owner.  For folks who are living alone, for the elderly, and even for youngsters, few things can bring a smile quicker to the face than to see your pet wiggle and jump with excitement to see you.

In a lot of ways, this is what I believe God is like at the sight of any of us, but especially those who, for whatever reason, have been away from God.  The discovery of the lost one brings enormous joy and happiness, and no questions asked: just delight that another lost one is found.

Although Francis died in poverty, the story passed down to us makes us realize that he wasn't "poor." His ability to be so at one with all that was around him, including animals and all of creation, and not be consumed with the need for money meant that his head and his heart could be set on Love.  I strive to get to this place of allowing Love to be so much the center of my life that I am not consumed by other "things."

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Wednesday Morning Reflection

Perhaps it isn't particularly reverent to tune out during Morning Prayer, but I just couldn't help it.  The first lesson from 2 Kings was chock full of unpronouncable names, so it was easier for me to fix my gaze upon the Jerusalem Window behind the altar.  During the early morning hour, the light not quite streaming in through the stained glass, made the rivets holding the different panels in place stand out.  And, at 7:25am, they were gleaming, like small lights dotting the landscape of the scene in the window...all on the other side of the closed doors to the city.  

The more I looked at them, the more I thought of those lights as being representative of the many people who routinely get left standing at the gate.  The most obvious would be all the people currently affected by the shutdown of the federal government: children in Head Start programs; those who depend upon the services provided through Women, Infants and Children or WIC funds; Native Americans on the Indian Reservations; those who work in a "non-essential" federal job.  The list can go on and on.  

But my mind took me even further than this obvious crisis to thinking about those who see the doors to the church closed to them for whatever reason.  Not accepted because of their gender identity or their sexual orientation or their status as divorced or any number of other reasons that the people of God have invented for deciding who is allowed in and who must be kept out.  Even the poor, the very group that Christians should be the most conscience of and concerned with building up, will be pushed along sometimes so as not to disturb the decorum of the church.  How many times have we left behind Lazarus to be licked by the dogs?   

How many bright lights will gather outside the closed doors to Jerusalem?  How much brighter will their collective light shine outside the city that remains dark within?