Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Real War on Christmas

Across the United States, parking lots at department stores, malls and shopping plazas, were full of cars and retail outlets were teeming with people in search of bargains and big sales on Black Friday.  In fact, this year, the excitement surrounding the traditional day after Thanksgiving shop-a-thon was SO huge, some of the major retail outlets announced they'd be opening ON Thanksgiving Day, so that professional shoppers could hit the stores early and get the best deals on great big flat screen TVs and such.  We also have small business Saturday, and Cyber Monday for online shoppers.

And so, this is Christmas.

I'm always irritated when I hear self-righteous blowhards on Fox News carrying on about the so-called "War on Christmas."  Sanctimonious talking heads will bemoan the use of the phrase, "Happy Holidays" as an attempt to oppress Christians and not recognize that "Jesus is the Reason for the Season." (Forget the historical facts that indicate Jesus wasn't born close to the pagan holiday around the Winter Solstice where they are celebrating the return of the sun.)  They blame the atheists.  They blame the pagans.  They blame the Jews.  All the non-believers are involved in some pluralistic conspiracy to deny Christ, and destroy Christmas.

Now, let's go to that good Christian retailer Wal-Mart and buy some cheap stuff to put under that very Christian symbol of the Christmas tree.

If anyone has waged a war on Christmas, it's Christians who have put their faith in the God of More Stuff, and gave up offerings of their first fruits by being in line at Best Buy when the store opened for Black Friday. 

Those of us who are Episcopalians are familiar with a season that precedes Christmas.  It's called Advent, as in marking the time of the arrival of a major event, thing or person.  In the case of the Christian mythology, the arrival of Jesus, who is Emmanuel or "God with us," qualifies as a pretty significant event.  That is the season that we're entering into right now as we wait in anticipation for the day of Christmas, the birth of Christ.  We'll be lighting candles every week, adding a new one each Sunday, as we hear the stories and sing the hymns that remind us that we are welcoming into our world an amazing force that is both fully human and fully divine.  And, if we dare to draw near to this force, we may find ourselves changed in unexpected and wonderful ways as our own inner light burns brighter with having been in contact with this newborn king.

This is the awe and wonder of the season of Advent.  And so, as Episcopalians, I would expect us to have a little more give on the whole worldly noise about whether saying "Happy Holidays" denigrates Christ.  It really doesn't.  In fact, the time is a happy time as we wait for what this king may have in store for us and our lives.  It can be an uncomfortable time, too, for that very same reason!  As Episcopalians, I would expect us also to be the ones who recognize that even as the world turns on a dollar and a dime hawking all the things we don't really need, we would simply see it for what it is: the God of More Stuff, and not fall into that pit.

Most of all, I would hope that those of us marking Advent would pay attention to the words in our Sunday lectionary that call on us to stay awake, and be ready because we don't know the hour when the Son of Man is coming.  I take that as the charge to all of those worried about Christmas to ask the reflexive question: What am I doing to prepare for the arrival of Christ into the world?

Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Prayer of Thanks for Those Who Help

A Prayer for Episcopal Relief and Development... a charity you can trust.

Almighty God, give to Episcopal Relief & Development the vision of Jesus whose compassion failed not, that following His example we may bring healing to this hurting world.
Grant that we may know who we must be as the arms and legs of Christ in the world today, so that we shall do what we are called to do in responding and making available resources of money, skills, and persons to alleviate poverty, famine, and disaster.
We thank you for the many generous souls who give of their abundance and pray that many others may join them in responding to the needs, hopes, and concerns of the world through Episcopal Relief & Development.
Set us at tasks to risk the Gospel in all places where you lead us, through Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.
— The Rt. Rev. Robert Gould Tharp, Former Chairman of the Board

Thank you, ERD.  Your efforts at home and around the world is much appreciated!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

"You Will Be With Me in Paradise": Christ the King 2013

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.  Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." And they cast lots to divide his clothing.  And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!" The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine,  and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!" There was also an inscription over him, "This is the King of the Jews." 
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise." 

It is a bit strange to encounter the crucifixion on the last Sunday before we enter the season of preparing for the birth of the One we're killing today. Next weekend, we'll start hearing stories of preparing the way for the One who will come on clouds descending. THAT sounds like a king, doesn't it?  Certainly more than this stuff about public execution and mocking and scorning.

And there you have it: the kingdom of Christ is anything but the expected.  As I've said before on this blog, Christ the King is a non-conformist, a rebel, a genderqueer, a weirdo.  He knows what the rules are, and how they came into being, and he knows that those rules more often than not have served to tie everybody all up into knots with lots of "No" "Not at this time" and "That's the way we've always done it."

It is an interesting juxtaposition to have the readings for this Christ the King Sunday coming at a time when the "church news" headlines have been filled with the story of the 30-day suspension of Rev. Frank Schaefer of the United Methodist Church.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, Rev. Schaefer had the audacity to preside at his gay son's wedding in Massachusetts back in 2007.  Now, in 2013, the United Methodist Church, which still holds fast to the idea that homosexuality falls outside the teachings of Christianity, has suspended Rev. Schaefer and is giving him 30 days to "reflect" and presumably repent of his action which violated the laws and canons of the denomination.  Given that Rev. Schaefer has other gay children, and he pulled out a stole colored in rainbows, I somehow doubt that he plans to take them up on that offer.   Rev. Schaefer knew the rules, and he knew what he was doing was going to get him into trouble with the denomination. And he doesn't need thirty days to consider a different way.  At his trial, he said: "I cannot go back to being a silent supporter.  I must continue to be in ministry with all people and speak for LGBTQ people.  Members of the jury, before you decide my penalty, you need to know that I wear this rainbow stole as a visible sign that this is who I am called to be." (closing statement, #MinistryOnTrial)

It is refreshing for those of us who are LGBTQ and among the "lost and scattered" sheep that the prophet Jeremiah speaks about to listen to the words of a Methodist minister who understands the meaning of laying down one's life for one's friends.  Rev. Schaefer did not physically die, but he is risking a kind of death in not being allowed to function within the Methodist church as a pastor.  As one who has been through that difficulty of giving up a career that had become enmeshed in my sense of self-identity this type of situation definitely qualifies as a kind of death.  But, just as with the robber who hung along side Jesus, I feel Rev. Schaefer will be with Christ in Paradise.  That Paradise, for the time being, will be in the company of the many lost and scattered sheep of the LGBTQI community, and our friends and families,  who will look to him as the real shepherd who will bring them safely home, and closer to the banquet hall with Christ, a king like no other.

In the very likely event that Rev. Schaefer finds himself no longer a United Methodist, I imagine another denomination, such as the Episcopal Church, would prove to be a welcoming place for him.  We seem to be the home for those who cannot find rest in any other place.  Come, taste and see that God is good. 


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Guilty for Doing Good

I'm sure I will have more to say on the case of United Methodist pastor Rev. Frank Schaefer of Lebanon, PA, as we approach the weekend.   For those who haven't heard, Rev. Schaefer found himself in hot water with his denomination because he officiated at the wedding of his gay son in Massachusetts in 2007.   And everybody knows in the United Methodist Church, gay people are to be seen and appreciated for their financial pledges, but they are not allowed to be ordained, and certainly not married.  Oh, and they'd rather not have you in a relationship at all because that would be "contrary to Christian teaching" on homosexuality.  Rev. Schaefer, because he went to Massachusetts and presided at his son's wedding, broke two rules: he celebrated a "homosexual union" and he did so in direct contradiction to the denomination's laws and canons.  A 13-member jury of his Methodist minister peers found him guilty on both counts.

Guilty of what?  Of celebrating the joyful union of his son to his beloved.  What a sin.   And Rev. Schaefer says, he'd do it again.

And he should.  It takes brave people who will allow the Holy Spirit to carry them where they must go in order for the church to either follow or  get out of the way of the incredible force that is Love.  Bravo, Rev. Schaefer!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Lessons Being Learned

It is the 26th Sunday after Pentecost, and that brings us what I have come to call, "The Lee Graham Collect":

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for
our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn,
and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever
hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have
given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with
you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Father Lee would use this collect before his homilies on Fridays at our 12:10 Eucharist.  It is so fitting that, as we approach his Yahrzeit, that this is what will be said in Episcopal Churches across the country.  And the holy Scripture lessons for this particular Sunday give rise for some reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting as Isaiah talks of the promises of a new creation, and then Paul's Second letter to the Thessolonians has warnings about idleness, and finally we reach Luke's Gospel message in which Jesus tells us that we will encounter false prophets, and strife and hardship, but he will give the words we need in all situations.  

As I reflect upon those scriptures, that particular collect, and the man who brought that collect alive for me, I hear hints of some of the Scriptures that were used at Fr. Lee's funeral last year.   He, too, choose a passage from Isaiah that reminds us that "the Spirit of The Lord God is upon me" to bring Good News, free the oppressed, bind up the broken-hearted.  The other lesson was from 1 Corinthians which, again, sounds so similar to what is in our readings.  The last line of the passage, which the selection was about the mortal body becoming immortal, says, "Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immoveable, always excelling in the work of The Lord because you know that in The Lord your labor is not in vain."   I hear in these passages, as well as the ones assigned for the 26th Sunday After Pentecost in Year C, a two-fold encouragement to allow our selves to become the vessels of change in the world, doing the mission work of God to love in an active way all the people, plants, and animals around us who need loving... and to be prepared for this to be an uphill mission as we will meet all kinds of resistance to Love.  

Now, according to the Borg on Star Trek: Resistance is futile.  And that applies to the case of Love, too.  Much as any society or culture has attempted to move away from God, and declare itself independent of a force of Love greater than our understanding, it really hasn't worked.  I think if it had worked, then there wouldn't be the zeal for knowing God that I saw exhibited in the film "Jerusalem."  The 45-minute documentary isn't on God, per se, but it is on the historic city that sits at the center of a crossroads of Europe, Africa, and Asia, with three Abrahamic communities, Jewish, Muslim and Christian, each finding something dear and sacred about their city.  If Love were driven out, then I don't think we'd still have people laboring for the rights of the oppressed and the needy, for the civil rights and liberties of LGBT people and immigrants, racial minorities and women.  

Some may point to the recent typhoon in the Phillipines and say, "Well, where is God in that horror?  How could a 'loving' God allow that to happen?"  I saw a meme on Facebook that I think answered that question quite well.  A man is sitting on a log in a forest with Jesus.  Most of the picture is dimly colored, except Christ, who is brighter in appearance than the man.  The man is posing that kind of question about "bad things happening to good people" to Jesus in that accusatory, "How can you let these things happen?"  Jesus responds: "Funny, I was going to ask you that same question."   A typhoon of such magnitude is a weather phenomenon; hence something from nature and beyond us.  We can not control or redirect the winds.  HOWEVER, the strength and intensity of these storms do have a tie-in to our own human-made destruction with the release of more carbon gases and other pollutants that are contributing to global warming.   At this point, there are almost no scientists willing to argue that climate change isn't a real concern for us all.  The warming of the planet is likely contributing to the ferocity of these storms.  But there is still push back from those who don't want to have to change the way we've been treating the Earth because it might cost more, or, more accurately, it would cut into their profit margins.  What is it that Jesus said in the Gospel lesson?

"When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately." Then he said to them, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. 

I interpret that statement as "Bad things will happen.  People will scorn and resist other people. But this isn't proof of no God and no Love.  It's how things are in the world you live in."   The promise of Christ is that he will give what is needed to endure whatever comes, and He knows how much the current situtation--be it the ruins left from a typhoon, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job--hurts like hell.  Christ is God as the human who understands the hole of grief in our hearts.  In turn, we, as the new incarnation of Christ in our current times, can offer that same sense of sitting with the pain of others, and then doing those things that we can do to help.  When it comes to something as seemingly beyond our control as global warming, we can start with how we handle our own waste and become more conscious of our personal habits of what we throw away, how often we drive when we could walk.  In the case of a catastrophe such as the Philippines, we can contribute to a reputable agency such as the Episcopal Relief and Development fund, so that the majority of our money gets to the people in need.  These are the ways I see that we can be Love in the world.

As St. Paul says in his second letter to the Thessolonians, "Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right."  This is what is meant by the Spirit of The Lord being upon us, and remaining steadfast, immovable and always excelling in the works of The Lord. This is what it means to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the Scripture and let it power our actions and responses to the world around us.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Through the Looking Glass of Long-Term "Care"

This is a day in which God needed to be at my side, and equipping me with the same fire in the belly for justice and righteousness that made Jesus kick over tables and accuse the moneychangers of being hypocrites.

This was the day of my family's third long-term care meeting with the administration of her nursing home facility.  To give you the quickest update: those of you who read regularly may have noticed that I am no longer receiving comments from the Anonymous Peggins.  That's because she had a stroke the Wednesday of Holy Week.  Anonymous, who also goes by the moniker, "Hurricane Peg," started out at one facility, was moved to another with more of a nursing home component, and finally was transferred to the one she's currently in called The Laurel Center.   At first, it seemed like a good fit.  But...

To give myself a break, I'll simply cut-and-paste the entry from her CaringBridge site:

1. Mom was cut off from skilled therapy on September 26th.  I had been with her for two-and-a-half hours, but nobody came by to say anything about it to me.  Instead, they called my brother, Tom, her guardian, and informed him.  He told them to go talk to me, that I was there, etc. etc.   As I said, nobody did.

2. The next day, I was told she would be in "Restorative Therapy" with basically low-paid nursing staff massaging and moving her right arm and hand.  I had my brother, Edward, with me and we forced an impromptu care meeting with the head of the PT department, the speech therapist, and the bureaucratic social worker who is in charge of the facility.  At that time, we were promised that mom would be doing "some" therapy, including bilateral movement of her legs.  However, there would be no more speech therapy because the speech therapist believed that she had plateaued, and it would be "good enough for the staff to stop by her room and say, 'hi.'"  The ST then gave us a lecture on the brain that would have been impressive had you never studied anything about the brain, or read books on strokes.  Unfortunately for her, I have done both, and her presentation simply confirmed things I already knew, thank you very much.

3. My brothers and I had observed that mom had been often too drowsy to have a conversation much less any kind of visit.  When we were in the impromptu care meeting of September 27, I inquired about her medications and what she was taking and how much of it.  I noted for all present that I had pointed out, back at our first care meeting on August 22nd, that I realized it was a tricky balance to medicate a person who had brain damage such as a massive stroke.  I wondered where we were on the pharmacological front, and how the medications might be affecting her ability to perform in skilled therapy sessions.   There was some hemming and hawing, and making excuses that the nurse was out sick and therefore they would be unable to answer those questions. (I would later learn from a friend familiar with PT in these kinds of facilities that it was outrageous that my mother's care team couldn't tell us about the drugs.)

That was the "September surprise."   Enter October.

I received several phone calls from my brother, Edward, irate because the facility was calling him and asking him to be at their door within 90 minutes to accompany my mom to a hospital for an MRI.  We don't know who'd ordered it, or why, or why they didn't bother to let my brother, Tom, her legal guardian, know that there was a test being ordered.  And then the ambulance that was to transport mom didn't show up, and they missed the appointment.

About two weeks later, another irate call from Edward.  It was the night of Game 2 of the American League Championship Series.  He'd called to check on mom.  The nurse claimed that mom was "talking to them and telling them about their body types."  This didn't sound right to me... or to him.  They put mom on the phone, and, of course, she wasn't "talking"; she was crying, and the nurses were laughing.  He told her to give the phone back to the nurse at which point he gave the woman what-for.  And I called the nurses station, and inquired as to what had happened with my mother that evening.

"Well, she was upset because she wanted to go to bed, and we still needed to put the trays away from dinner."

They claimed mom had tripped one of the nurses.  I scoffed at that suggestion, and made sure that my mom was safely in bed at this time.

"Yes, she is."

"Well, I'm glad to hear that!"

 Another week goes by, and another phone call from Edward.  Turns out that the "restorative therapy" mom was supposed to be receiving was ordered stopped on October 5th, which incidentally is the anniversary of my dad's death.   October 5th was ONE week after she'd been moved into the restorative therapy group.  We were just being informed of this change in her status at about October 25th.  So, for almost three weeks, my m the Hurricane was stalled in the waters of a bureaucratic hell.

Meanwhile, the drugs, Ativan, Seroquel, and Depakote, had stayed at the same dosage level since the day she arrived despite the promises that they were going to scale back the anti-psychotic medications once they'd found the right level. End result: the Hurricane was being downgraded to a tropical depression.  It wasn't for lack of her effort; it was because she was being overmedicated.

All of this was confirmed for us last week when mom went to see Dr. Kent Logan, the neurologist in Exeter who had first evaluated her when she'd had her stroke.  In advance of that meeting, I sent along videos that I had made of mom when she was at the other facility in Fremont.  The contrast was stunning.  And Dr. Logan immediately recognized the problem.   Mom then saw her orthopedist this week.  Same result: a realization that mom was on too many drugs.

Mom was just happy to get out of the Laurel Center.  According to Tom, she dozed off for a moment on the drive to see Dr. Logan, but then woke up to realize that she was on Route 101, and--hey--"why isn't the van driver taking the exits to get me back home?!"  There is NOTHING, repeat, NOTHING wrong with her cognition!

But there is something very wrong at the Laurel Center.  That became clear again today with our care meeting.  This time, however, our family had an advocate in the room with us: the state's long-term care ombudsman representative.  This man has been a hero for Tom in his effort to stay on top of what's happening with our mother.

As you might expect, the facility's administrator was on the defensive.  In fact, she was on the OFFENSIVE, or being offensive, questioning my brothers and me on our knowledge of drug interactions, dismissing Tom as "an attorney"; hence he has no medical background, and the rest of us could look things up on the internet, but we weren't "the experts" on these anti-psychotics, normally given to people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.   I had promised Tom that I would behave, but I was well-past my tolerance for this kind of dismissal.

"Well, where IS the psych nurse and the doctor then?  I have in front of me the notes from August 22nd where we were told you'd be scaling back some of these drugs.  Clearly, that hasn't happened.  Why hasn't it?!"

Now begins the Alice in Wonderland-like experience of a conversation with a long-term care facility like The Laurel Center.   First, there was the lie that they had actually started correcting the dosages BEFORE we had mom see Dr. Logan.  In fact, the only drug they moderated was the Ativan, and only because that's the one Tom mentioned in an email.  Because Tom is "an attorney" and not "an expert," he didn't know to look at Seroquel as another culprit in mom's drowsiness.  Heck, they'd been giving her Seroquel, as Edward noted, as if it were an after-meal mint!

And then the real shocker.  The ombudsman alerted me to the fact that a piece of paper had just been passed across the table which shows that not only has the Hurricane been doped up, she's lost 10 pounds since she entered the place.  Given that she hasn't been working out in a therapeutic setting, and just laying in bed or sitting in her chair, this was alarming.   Again, the excuses.  Again, the assurances that they work as a team with the dietitian and the psych nurse and all these other people who were not present in the room to monitor and adjust for the patient's needs.

"With all due respect," (and that was the most Southern I was going to use in this conversation with people in Bedford, NH) "If you've been talking to one another and working together and monitoring, then why is it that nothing has been done to address this issue and we're now learning about this weight loss?!"  

I could hear the agitation in Edward's voice as he noted that he calls regularly and inquires about her eating and her weight, and no one had ever said anything about her loss in weight.  Tom wanted to know if this, too, was a result of her being overmedicated and that she's just too worn out to finish her meals.   Again, the MSW administrator attempted to dress him down as being "an attorney."

That's when our new friend, Michael Lucio of the long-term care ombudsman's office, stepped in to correct her.

"He's an attorney, and he's her son."  You see, we, her children, might actually know our mother better than these folks do, or even care to try to know her.

And that's what's most disturbing.  They'd rather keep her sedated than nurse and rehab her back to some level of independence.  This will not do for Hurricane Peg.  Or us.

Hurricane season isn't over yet.  And with your prayers and support, we are aiming to get her back over warm waters to gather strength and get away from the Mad Hatter's Tea Party that is The Laurel Center.

Please pray.  For all of us.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Matters of Marriage

Marriage has been on my mind lately.  I woke up to the news Saturday morning that the Hawaii House of Representatives has given the Aloha State the title of "Sweet 16" in the march toward marriage equality in the nation.  I served as a verger and crucifer at a wedding at St. John's.  My partner and I are mulling over our own plans for how and when we might marry which comes with a peculiar complication of my call, and what the church will ask us to do as an interfaith couple, to have our union blessed. And I have friends posting to Facebook about the fees a church is charging for the time of the staff and use of the facility. 

And then along comes the gospel lesson from Luke with the Sadducees quizzing Jesus on the hypothetical woman whose husband dies and leaves her childless, and then all of his brothers, one by one, marry her and die before having children.  They want to know from Jesus, when this woman finally dies, to whom is she married?  Jesus basically answers, "Nobody because marriage is about what happens on earth, and in heaven, she's nobody's wife because she's alive with God."  We don't know how the Sadducees take this answer, but given their unbelief in the resurrection, one might think they thought Jesus was nuts.  And the point of Jesus' teaching isn't about marriage, but it is interesting to me that this is the issue that the Sadducees decide to raise in this interrogation of Jesus.  And I thought it was interesting what Jesus said:

"Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive." --Luke 20:34-38

I don't think Jesus is arguing for people not to get married; indeed, I think the point he's making to his questioners goes way beyond their original scenario to answer the question in the their hearts about the resurrection.  The life we have after death takes us beyond all the mundane trappings of this life and brings us to a new stage of living, one that is beyond our ability to understand, comprehend, or explain.  Some who have had near death experiences speak about what happened to them in ways that I think indicate that they have possibly been on the other side of the veil between the living and the dead, but not far enough to give us a real understanding of the life to come.  And that is how it should be.  When we're ready for the experience, it will come, and not a moment before then.

But getting back to things mundane: marriage.  I find that this topic ranks right up next to money as one of the leading causes of high-blood pressure and extreme stress.  Something that is supposed to be a joyous occasion gets mired in messiness and mayhem. It doesn't seem to bring out the best behavior in people.  One of my friends used to be a wedding photographer, which meant that she would spend many a Saturday afternoon bearing witness to "the show" that so many weddings have become.  And the actors in these plays would have many moments of bitchiness, with brides getting angry and bride's mothers fussing and wedding planners bossing her around and the sexism and heterosexism of the language in the service, and people getting drunk.  She'd often come back from these affairs complaining about, "God damn straight people and their God damn straight weddings!"  Sometimes, the affairs would be pleasant, but those were usually the ones where the couple getting married had already been down this path once in their lives, and knew better.

I suppose, then, it was only appropriate for Christ to take a question about "whose bride is she anyways" and turn it into a teaching on the most-life giving relationship about becoming even more one with God.  The marriage rite for straight people in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer makes much of Adam and Eve and the second creation story in Genesis as the basis for saying that marriage is "of God." But then if that's the case, look what happened to the loving couple!  And then their children!  If the two that had become one flesh had stayed in relationship with God, and done as they had been told, then they'd have stayed in the Garden of Eden and Abel might have lived to a ripe old age and Cain might never have succumbed to jealousy.  It also would have meant we wouldn't have had a good story to explain why people always impose their will over God's will; hence why we sin and fall down. 

As lovely as marriage may be as a sacrament, I still am not convinced that it is a necessary function of the church to be involved in any way beyond blessing and pledging to love and support the couple, and encouraging their mutual love and affection for each other.  The church should preach that the couple's love be a reflection of their individual love and affection for God.  The legal function of marrying people should be done by an officer of the state, not the church.  Let the state take care of the paperwork ahead of time; then let the church join in the celebration of a new union of two people.  And remind that couple that while this union is brought together on earth, their relationship remains by, with and in God.


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Odd Balls Are Cool

As a bit of a carry-over from All Saints' Day, I was talking with someone on the steps of St. John's the other night about one of my favorites of the recently departed, Fr. Lee Graham.  We were both remembering separate instances in which Father Lee reflected upon the sad reality of being an Episcopalian.

We aren't going to be popular.  We aren't going to out pace everyone else's denomination in church membership.  We are, for a lack of a better way of putting it, odd balls.  And that's OK.

In fact, it's more than OK.  It is what makes us followers of Christ.  Christ never said that following a path which demands letting go of selfish desires in favor of loving those around you, including people you'd really rather not be with ever, was going to be easy.  Love may be patient and kind, but it isn't easy and requires some sacrifice of our selves.  Now, honestly, who would want to sign up for that?  Answer: the odd balls.

Certainly, Episcopalians, such as the late Fr. Lee Graham, fall into that category.   Fr. Lee and his wife, Betty, always seemed to be on the look out for the other odd balls and misfits, and were always including them and opening the doors to the church wider.  It would sometimes result in people leaving, which Fr. Lee didn't seem to fret over.  

"I don't remember a time when someone wasn't leaving the Episcopal Church for one reason or another!" he laughed during an interview in February, 2012.

And then he and I shared our common belief: that what makes the Episcopal Church strong is the ability to disagree with each other and still continue to come to the Lord's table and be shoulder to shoulder at the rail.  It's when people take their marbles... or attempt to take church property... and storm off that we cease to be Episcopalian or any kind of Anglican for that matter.  That's certainly something many parishes in this area have had to deal with in the past decade.  And the hurt from those splits was enormous.  Still, those who stayed have grown stronger, and have attracted new odd balls or old odd balls that had rolled away to come back in.  

But the secret to the success of Christ in the world today is for those who have come back in to then go back out.  We aren't supposed to be about staying put inside the safety of our churches; we are to go out and love and serve "The Lord" in our homes and our work places.  Does this mean proselytizing on street corners or at the water cooler?  No.  That isn't the Episcopal way.  Ours is more like what Canon Frank Logue of the Diocese of Georgia once depicted in a video: we're ninjas.  We go about living out our faith in the actions of how we treat others we encounter.  We listen to people and care about what's happening in their lives.  And we don't use them as a means to an end that benefits or gratifies some desire of our own.  Living this way requires one to be a bit of an odd ball because there is no reward for it beyond the satisfaction of knowing that Love is a powerful force in the world, and its ready for all of us to tap into it.

Being an Episcopalian doesn't make you a "favorite" or earn you a bunch of "Likes" on Facebook.  To be an Episcopalian means to spread the favor of Love to others, with no expectations or attachments for your self.  

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Cloud of Witnesses: All Saints' Sunday

All Saints' Day was actually on Friday, but in most Episcopal Churches, the celebration will occur tomorrow morning.  Lucky for me, I served on Friday at our 12:10 service at St. John's, and so I was given the gift of reading the lesson from Ephesians assigned for the day.  And it was an amazing experience; it was electric!  Really, it felt as if there was a current moving through me as I shared the lesson aloud with our tiny and committed congregation:
In him (Christ) you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit;

I recently discussed with my rector that I went through a phase of trying on different religious paths, but all of them kept leading me back to the question of "But where's Jesus in this?"  It was evident to me after awhile that having been marked and sealed as Christ's own forever really did mean something to me.  I couldn't shake free of Christianity; and, as I would later discover, there was no reason for me to want to run away from the basic precepts of the religion.  Many others have struggled with their faith, but, in the end, remained as a follower of Christ.  I had a sense of all those who have gone before me, as I continued reading Paul's letter...

I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.

I could feel my breath going deeper into my body as I read this.  And, as I said, it felt like there was a crackling of electricity within me as I had a sense of all the saints joining with me in this reading.  I thought about the lives of those who are now gone from this world, but have shown me and others the  way to bringing earth closer to heaven through their example.  Jonathan Myrick Daniels, the martyred seminarian, who saved a young African-American girl's life by taking a bullet for her.  He was a native of New Hampshire who came to the south to march from Selma to Montgomery, and stayed on to keep working in the civil rights movement in Alabama.  The experience transformed him and moved him beyond any messianic Yankeeism to a place of knowing that all people and things were part of Christ and part of One.  I thought of Bayard Rustin, the gay African-American crusader for justice through non-violence, who had been a close advisor to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and was the spirit and organizer behind the famous 1963 March on Washington.  
It was especially fitting that November 1st was a Friday.  That was traditionally my day of the week to serve with one in that "cloud of witnesses," Fr. Lee Graham.  Throughout this year, I have found myself at different moments reflecting on the gift I received in having known Fr. Lee.  He, too, had to fight the battles of southern racism including overcoming his own acceptance of "the way things are."  Dr. King helped to change Fr. Lee by sending him the letter from the Birmingham jail.  If you read the letter, you'll understand that to be a recipient of that letter was a bit like being King David getting confronted by the prophet Nathan.  Fr. Lee would share stories of his experiences in Alabama in his homilies and, as one fighting what sometimes feels like a very lonely struggle against heterosexism in society and especially in the diocese of Florida, I would take comfort in knowing that my pain is one that has been borne by others... especially Jesus Christ. 
The gospel assigned for this day is Luke's version of the Beatitudes or "The Sermon on the Plain" as opposed to on a mountain.  I love that this message of "Blessed be" and "Woe to Those" was articulated to the people on the plain because it gives a sense of everyone being on the same level including Jesus.  He was not holding himself above everyone as he taught that it is the ones who are the "have nots" who are on the path toward God.  To be weighed down with the baggage of the "haves" slows down the journey.  Kind of like dragging a heavy suitcase through airport security.  That's a lot of what I have gained from the lives of those saints whose life and witness have touched my heart.  They'd left their ego-filled luggage at the curbside check-in as they followed Christ on a path of true equality, true Oneness.  
I pray that I may be like them, too.