Monday, December 30, 2013

Endings and Beginnings at Christmas

Traditionally, I take this time in the middle of the Christmas season and the end of the calendar year to reflect on all the news events that have occurred over the past 12 months.  But that's really not where my head is at these days.  I don't really feel like glancing backward on this sixth day of Christmas.  I'm not entirely sure why that is, but I am much more eager to note that while some things are ending, there are also many beginnings in my life.

For the past week or so, I have been in the process of saying "Good-bye" to my life at St. John's Episcopal Church in the diocese of Florida as I transition to being a member of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in the diocese of Georgia.  I've been in email correspondence, had lunches, chatted via Facebook.  I have had to repeat the same mantra, "No, nothing is wrong.  I am not angry with St. John's, the clergy, staff or parish. I am attempting to respond to where God is calling me to go."  For some people, this works.  For others, there is more discussion necessary.  For many, there is sadness at what is really a sad state of affairs:  if you are an LGBTQI person, and you feel called to ordained ministry, you must answer your call somewhere other than Florida.  Period.  The weird thing is that this has been akin to the time when I was a child and I skipped fourth grade.  I was still in the same school, but I was now with a whole different group of kids.  I haven't physically moved away from Tallahassee, and, in fact, I am staying on to do weekday services as a Eucharistic Minister at St. John's.  So, I'll be around.  Just not actively involved in the major services.   I have already shed buckets of tears over this.  Now, I am seeing the door cracking open in my new parish.

OK, some want to give it a swift kick and pull me upstairs to rehearse with the choir right now!  My voice, apparently, is quite noticeable in the congregation and choir members are ready and eager to get me to join in with them.  Nice to be so wanted, so quickly!

St. Thomas is in a period of transition.  Their rector, who has been serving as an interim these past few months, is retiring and a new one, Fr. Dwayne Varas is coming on board.  And so, in some ways, I feel as though I'm starting my new church life north of the border in conjunction with this new rector.  It'll be interesting to see how we journey together.

So one life ends, another begins.  I don't know what will happen next, but I am trusting that it will all be alright.

From Morning Prayer today, Psalm 20:

1May the LORD answer you in the day of trouble, *
    the Name of the God of Jacob defend you;
2Send you help from his holy place *
    and strengthen you out of Zion;
3Remember all your offerings *
    and accept your burnt sacrifice;
4Grant you your heart's desire *
    and prosper all your plans.
5We will shout for joy at your victory
and triumph in the Name of our God; *
    may the L
ORD grant all your requests.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Darkness Did Not Overcome the Light

One of my favorite times of the day, I've come to discover, is the early morning.  And during the weeks of Advent, there was a beauty to the quiet and dim light as it began streaming in through the stained glass windows in the nave.   As I looked at this light, I couldn't help but think about the symbolism of light illuminate various saints, Mary, and Christ...even represented as the Lamb.  The light coming through these images helped to provide the natural light that shone on the pews and began to brighten the otherwise darkened nave. 

It is very much like this, I think, when the "Sun of Righteousness, the heavenly-born Prince of Peace" begins to light up our hearts, minds and souls.  And, much like those stained glass windows,  the more we allow the light of Christ to come through us, the more we illumine the spaces around us and bring those beautiful colored beams into the lives of those around us, some of whom could use some light in their lives.  

For the First Sunday after Christmas, the evangelist John's opening lines of his Gospel included a statement I had never caught before:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Besides the "Word" taking on an earthly, fleshy appearance in John's prologue, the Word was also life and the life is the light, and that light is in everyone.  What an incredibly hopeful statement!  And it affirms, for me, that sense that I, too, have the potential to be life, to be light, to be Christ in this world where cynicism and anxiety abounds.  How can I do this?  Am I suggesting that I am on par with God?  No, because even Christ never equated himself to God during this time when he was made "a little lower than the angels."  But what Christ gives us an example that anyone... even those who are not specifically following Christ... can and sometimes do:  "Bind up the brokenhearted," "Liberate the captives," "Release the captives," "Comfort those who mourn."   Just as Jesus quoted these words of Isaiah and proclaimed them fulfilled in the hearing, we, too, especially if we call ourselves Christian, if we believe ourselves to be the adopted children of God, have a charge to do these same things for our fellow travelers on this planet.  So, in the words of Nike, "Just Do It."

Christ for the world we sing,
The world to Christ we bring, with loving zeal,
The poor and them that mourn, the faint and overborne,
Sin sick and sorrow worn, whom Christ doth heal.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Holy Innocents, Then and Now


We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, 
into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and 
establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and 
the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

On this fourth day of Christmas, the Church is reminded that not everything is happy-happy joy-joy in the world, at the time of Jesus' birth and otherwise.  For today, we remember Herod's rage against a "newborn king," his fury at the wise men for having let their wisdom lead them on a different route home, and his answer to kill and destroy all the youngest children in Bethlehem in order to avert having a rival.  It was brutal, state-sanctioned murder of innocents that left dead bodies and families mourning with unspeakable grief.  This is the world into which Christ was born: a place and a time when tyrants preyed upon the weak because they had the power to do so.

And this is the time and the place where we are today.  Not much has really changed from Herod's time.  Perhaps the means of a tyrant exercising the power has shifted slightly.  Maybe they aren't wearing Roman helmets and spearing babies to death.  But there is still brutality and attacks on the innocents happening all over the world.  And plenty of people sitting by and being like Saul at Stephen's death: silently complicit, and maybe, in some cases, secretly approving of the violence being wrought upon others.

I cannot come to this day in the calendar and not be bothered to my core about yesterday's news that Uganda has finally passed its hate-filled legislation to imprison people based on their same-sex sexual orientation...with the blessing of the Anglican Church of Uganda.  I cannot come to this day in the calendar knowing that the world audience will have their eyes on the Stochi Olympics in Russia while President Vladimir Putin persecutes gays and lesbians, and bans the distribution of life-affirming literature to LGBTQI kids in Russia.  I cannot come to this day in the calendar and not see the face of Eric Ohena Lembembe of Cameroon, murdered in his home for being gay.  
Lembembe, a former journalist turned gay rights and AIDS activist, was supposed to show up for a meeting that he had called.  He never appeared, and he wasn't answering his phone for two days.  Finally, friends went to his house, which was still padlocked.  But through the window of his bedroom they saw his limp and lifeless body.  He'd had his neck and feet broken, and his body had been burned with an iron.  Cameroonian officials have done nothing about this.  After all, it is a crime, punishable for up to five years in prison, to be lesbian or gay in Cameroon.  Same thing for Nigeria.  And Kenya.  And Senegal.  Gay and lesbian Africans are at risk every day.  And when a major world power, such as Russia, amps up the volume on homophobia and western world mega-church leaders in this country funnel money and support to prop up the anti-gay policies in these nations, we become a party to the destruction of today's Holy Innocents.

I also think about the kids in the Gay-Straight Alliance at Leon High School.  I am deeply saddened and angered when I hear that parents, who have the sole responsibility of loving their children, can be so hostile to their kids by calling them names and demanding that they be someone who they are not.  Such rejection is the path toward death, not life.  And too often, it's those children who become part of that statistic of 40-percent of the homeless teenage population, or the next child who we are burying because she took her own life out of the desperation to escape from being hated.  

On this day, we remember how a bully slaughtered the innocent and defenseless.  The reading from Matthew assigned for this morning was Christ using a child as an example of how to approach God and the kingdom of heaven.  Woe to those who place a stumbling block before one of these, he warns.  Such an ominous message is still needed for the tyrants of today.  You who will allow for killing, imprisonment, torture, degradation, and oppression of anyone may feel that you are the all-powerful now.  But your day is coming.   

Friday, December 27, 2013

St. John the Mystic

Happy St. John the Evangelist Day!

I've noted before on this blog that I think St. John is a lover.  I'm not talking about a Cassanova (although, who knows?  Maybe he was!)  But what I mean by that is how his Gospel is always emphasizing Jesus as the embodiment of Love.  He is not only the "Word made flesh," but he is Love made manifest in human form.  As I've said, you can go back to past December 27th writings on this blog and read my words about John and Love.  This time around, I am thinking more about John's mystical qualities.  

Unlike the other evangelists, John writes in a way that is far more contemplative than the accounts we get from Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Yes, all of them, including John, have an agenda that they're advancing in an effort of showing Jesus to be the Messiah.   Mark, the first one to have put together a Gospel, is rushing to get this account down before more people are killed.  His Jesus has no time to suffer fools.  Matthew, the flawed tax collector, is always drawing the parallels for his Jewish audience between those things they've learned from Torah, and what they should see in Jesus.  Luke, the orderly Greek physician, depicts the Jesus who will lift up the lowly and show how inclusive the Love is for all people: women, Samaritans, prodigal sons, etc.  John's Jesus is the deeply spiritual contemplative.  His account of the life of Christ reveals that Jesus has achieved a Oneness with God that is beyond anything anyone had ever experienced on earth because, for John, Jesus is "The Word made flesh."  This summer, as I read a modern mystic, Andrew Harvey's book, "Son of Man," I was awakened to how John's writing on Jesus reveals him to be a deeply centered, spiritual man in all his conversations with the various people he encounters from Nicodemus to the Samaritan Woman at the well to his final moments with the disciples.  I definitely see it in this portion of the Gospel passage that is chosen for St. John's Feast Day:

 ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’

If you have a hankering to do this, I'd recommend reading those chapters in John where Jesus is giving his final testament to his friends, the disciples (start at Chapter 14 and read to the end of Chapter 17.)  Let the poetry of the language sink in and recognize how completely at one with all things Jesus has become, knowing that he is being betrayed and will be handed over to the Roman authorities.  I think these chapters are the revelation of his Lordship which, even in these moments, the disciples still can only see dimly.  Even today, those of us who follow Christ don't always understand or see the Divine in all that is in and around us.  The things that tear down God's creation can knock us off our centering on the good.  John encourages us to always strive toward the goal of being at One with Divinity:
 For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should 
love one another. We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one 
and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own 
deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. Do not be astonished, brothers 
and sisters, that the world hates you. We know that we have passed from 
death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides 
in death. All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know 
that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. We know love 
by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our 
lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has 
the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.
On this third day of Christmas, let us go forth into the world to Love and serve the One who is Love.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

St. Stephen and Speaking Up

You might have heard of St. Stephen through the traditional Christmas carol:

Good King Wencelas looked out on the feast of Stephen...

The "Feast of Stephen" would be today, the day after Christmas.  The saint, for whom this day gets its name, was among the first seven chosen by the apostles in the early church to assist in caring for the poor, particularly the Greek widows, as the spreading of The Way began to reach into new populations.   The harvest was plenty, but the laborers were few... as it says in the gospel, and the apostles needed some extra hands.  And so, Stephen, along with six others, became the first deacons of the church (even though they weren't called that at the time.)  Stephen, apparently, was a bold speaker.   And it was that boldness, and unflinching willingness to speak truth to power, that made him a threat.  Those who didn't like his challenging practices within the Temple trumped up charges of blasphemy and such to put him on trial.  According to the account given in the Acts of the Apostles, putting Stephen on the witness stand only gave him a forum to tell them what he really thought:
‘You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are for ever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.’

Well, this didn't sit well with his persecutors.  They dragged Stephen out into public and began stoning him.  They got themselves so worked up into a froth that they were hurling off their coats, which landed at the feet of a witness to this mayhem, a young man named Saul of Tarsus.  Saul liked what he was seeing here, and would go on to search for other followers of The Way and have them killed...until, of course, he heads to Damascus and a funny thing happens to him along the way.  As Stephen is dying, he lets out a remarkable cry of compassion for his executioners: 

‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’

Not the cheeriest of stories to hear the day after we've been singing songs of welcoming the birth of Jesus.  But it is the reminder of what is to come for this "newborn king."  His presence, and his teachings, are going to rub some people the wrong way.  Stephen's strong words for his accusers are very similar to the words Jesus used to dress down the religious leaders who had turned the Temple into a trading post rather than a place of prayer.  And, as we know, Jesus gets killed for standing for Love by a world that didn't want to change.

I know that for many of us who have worked for justice and mercy for any number of minority groups, the resistance of those in the status quo can feel very similar to what I think Stephen must have encountered as he challenged the Temple authorities.  Most of the time, when a minority challenges how those in the majority are doing something, the result is more resistance... and even retaliation.  We've seen it with the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.  The suffragettes went through hell to get women the right to vote in the 1920s.  LGBTQI activists know very well the suffering of a Stephen, sometimes to the same literal end.

What always strikes me as remarkable in the story of Stephen's martyrdom is his ability to seek to see past any of his own anger and pray for forgiveness for his persecutors.  I have adopted the practice of praying for my enemies, especially at times of great conflict.  The prayer helped to transform my heart and how I responded to the the hateful, and ignorant, things people were saying against the queer population.  Where it became clear to me how truly effective it had been was when I saw a clip of me from an interview with one of the TV stations and the video of one of the opponents to this proposal to extend civil rights protections to LGBTQI people.  I was amazed that my face was relaxed and I spoke clearly and calmly.  The person who was my counterpoint was clearly full of rage.  I credit the prayer for keeping me centered in the face of such palpable hostility.  The lasting legacy of the late South African prisoner-turned-president Nelson Mandela was his ability to come out of an experience of being in jail for almost three decades and emerge as a man able to forgive his jailer.  I'm sure that Mandela realized that to hold onto anger would do nothing to give him back the lost years of his life, and, in fact, would simply make him a freed man still living like a prisoner in his mind. 

Part of learning to live in Love, for me, has been the constant shedding of layers of anger and hurt. I have a long way to go before I can claim to have the perfection exhibited by Stephen.  But both Stephen and I have the same Source that reminds us to love our enemies.  This doesn't mean we have to accept or agree with them; but we must still love them.  Love is the road to freedom from our prisons in our heads and hearts. 

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas 2013

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. --Luke 2:15-20

And thus begins the story of how we of the Christian faith come to find our hope in an infant born not in a hospital, or on a bed of rose petals, but in a manger among barn animals.  In listening to this Gospel lesson--for the third time in a 24-hour period--I had a couple of things strike me.  One was the idea that God's first appearance as "the Word made flesh" is with the animals and in the environs of those without a home. The first guests at this birth were sheep and goats and cows.  (OK, my manger scene now includes a lion, wolf, and fox... but that's in recognition of what will happen later in this child's life).  The next to come on the scene are the shepherds.  Not the religious leaders.  Not the politicians.  Shepherds, who were not among the elites of First Century Palestine.  And so, this divine presence is revealed first to the least... a theme that is going to follow this child as he grows into the man we will call the Messiah.

The next thing that I heard repeatedly were the words about how Mary, the young woman tapped for this extraordinary birth, listened to what the shepherds were saying about why they'd come to Bethlehem:

"It was amazing," they were telling everyone.  "There were angels and they were singing and they were making such a beautiful song about this child!  They said 'Glory to God in the highest heaven and peace on earth among those whom he favors!  And so, here we are!!"

And there's Mary, taking in all this news, treasuring every word and pondering it in her heart.  She's already sung her own song of awe and wonder, the Magnificat, which echoes that of her Jewish ancestor Hannah about God raising up the lowly.  So I can only imagine what it must have been like for her to get the news of how the shepherds had heard about this birth.  I can visualize this young woman, exhausted and drained from having had a baby, lying on the hay as she is surrounded by barn animals as her nurse maids, pondering all these things.  "What in the world is going to become of this baby boy?  What have I become a party to in all of this?"  Luke doesn't tell us about Joseph's response, but I can guess that he, too, must be scratching his head and wondering, "Is this for real?  Or is this another dream?"  The evangelist Matthew is the one who lets us in on Joseph's dreaming, an important means of God communicating with this carpenter, to tell him, "Don't worry.  Follow my lead and all will be well."  It's his own way of pondering things.

Certainly, I have had much to ponder in this past month.  And as I embark on my new life of following God's lead, I am a mix of emotions.  I started to tear up this morning as I stared back up the aisle of St. John's, all bedecked in Christmas fare, and treasured my memories of the many times I have served as a Eucharistic Minister and a Verger.  At the same time, I have been praying for and holding close in my heart my new church home, St. Thomas in Thomasville, GA.  I found myself last Sunday missing the opportunity to be with them in their equally as beautiful sanctuary.  Faces that have become familiar to me there (even if I'm still struggling with the names) flooded my mind and made me realize, "I really miss them." 

Whatever crossroads, highways, train tracks you find yourself at in your life, my hope for you is that on this day, when we are marking the start of a new and radical way of loving, you keep your heart and mind open to the opportunity to let change happen within you.  If it comes with tears, so let it be.  Tears are the shedding of the old and the watering of something new.  If it comes with joy, let that happiness within "go viral" as they say!  If you're neither here nor there the place where you are is a starting point.  Allow your dreams to guide you.

Merry Christmas, dear ponderer.  Trust.  Love.  Amen. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The People Who Have Walked in Darkness

The people who walked in darkness
   have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
   on them light has shined. 

These are the words that open the Isaiah we hear at Christmas, and they are words that speak to me and maybe some others at this time of year.  This has been a year of difficulty for me with my mom's massive stroke during Holy Week, the unplanned trips to New Hampshire, the wondering and worrying as I received messages from my brothers about her care (or lack thereof) at The Laurel Center in Bedford.  My mom, the Anonymous Peggins also known to friends as "Hurricane Peg," is back in the hospital, this time with an infected and swollen salivary gland.  Not the best Christmas gift in the world, but at least she's not at the Laurel Center.

Amidst that family drama has come my own personal struggles and realization that I must respond to where I feel God calling me to go.  The question that was so loudly ringing in my ears in February in Tifton, GA--"Am I willing to lay down Florida to follow Christ?"--coupled with another moment in front of the Christ on the cross at Sewanee in August, heavily-sighing with weariness from listening to my fears, doubts, pleas, and trashing of my self and finally putting into my head the imperative to, "Let. It. Go!" were the none-too-gentle shoves in the back to get me going.   So, as I ponder these words of the prophet, I know that I am one who has been walking in darkness, and today, I can say that, "Yes, I have seen a great light."   

These weeks of Advent that have led up to this day have been preparing me for what is about to come: a new birth of Christ in me.  The term "born again" has such horrible and negative associations with it, especially for LGBTQI people,  that I don't use it.  And I don't know that I am a totally different person because I don't feel totally different than before.  But I have had to look at myself, and have been called out for some of those things that I "ought to have done" as well as those deeds I "ought not to have done."  I'm grateful for the hard lessons of life because I think it is through those trials and tribulations that we become wiser and stronger.  The wisdom and strength gained can translate into a feeling of rebirth.  That is how I have been feeling today and that sense of having arrived at a new place in my life's journey.  Thus, it was easy today to smile at total strangers in the Publix supermarket and feel a sense of joy springing up within me.  It is like having the heart of stone removed from my chest and replacing it with a heart of flesh, a new heart beating with happiness.

My hope for all the people who have been experiencing some level of darkness is that on this night, which for those of us who are Christians is one of the holiest nights of the year, the light that is still shining on the inside becomes like a glowing beacon to touch others.  Know that this is the light of truth planted in each of us at the start of our days.  No matter how bright or dim this light may seem, it is still--really and truly--a great light...linked to the Northern star that leads us on a path toward Love, mercy, justice and kindness.  On this holy night, let this light be the focus.  Treat it with kindness and tenderness.  This is the light of Christ that lives on in you and me.  This is the hope for us and for a hurting and cynical world.  Shine on! Shine on! Shine on!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Advent 4 and None Too Soon

There has been a war waging inside the rotunda of the Florida state capitol building.  It began when a group calling themselves, "The Florida Nativity Scene Committee" put up a creche.  This raised the ire of atheists of all stripes.  So, then we had a placard from the American Atheists Association placed next to the creche, declaring that such things as "hot chocolate and lights" are "the reason for Xmas."  (Please don't tell them that Xmas is still a Christian Christmas greeting.) Then there was the Freedom from Religion group which sponsored a festivus pole of 16 Pabst Blue Ribbon beer cans.  This was followed by the Pastafarians wanting a display of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and so a plate of spaghetti and meatballs is on display.  The state Department of Management Services finally reached the end of its rope when the Satanists asked to put up a depiction of Satan being cast down from Heaven.  Their request was denied as "offensive to the holiday season."  Please get your seats now for the sure-to-come lawsuit.

Facebook, and other social media, has been all a-flutter over the racist and homophobic remarks of a cast member from the reality TV show, "Duck Dynasty."  As with what happened during the last presidential campaign, LGBTQI people have been horrified to read comments from our supposed friends, defending the right of this man to make demeaning comments which he defends by quoting a Bible verse that suits his needs and from a translation that backs his bigotry.  Again, there are those who maintain that his "Christian values" are under attack because the A&E Network has suspended him, and they accuse his detractors of being "whiny homosexuals."   Of course, the "whiny homosexuals" probably irritated those same alleged friends when they posted that two more states--New Mexico and Utah--joined the roll call of places where marriage equality is legal.

Last night, hundreds of communities marked the winter solstice with a "Longest Night Celebration" where there were remembrances of those who died homeless in a country of plenty.

So, here we are at the Fourth Sunday in Advent, to hear the evangelist Matthew tell us: "Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way."  We listen to the story, the difficult dilemma of Joseph and his now pregnant girlfriend, and how it was through a dream that he was told this was all the fulfillment of the words from the Isaiah passage also read on this day: Therefore The Lord himself will give you a sign.  Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel, which we learn means "God is with us."  And so this is the world, the situtation, the circumstances into which our God and Savior now draws near.  

I imagine that as we listen to these readings, and take in the story of Jesus' birth, it is easy for us to hear it as an ancient tale and one that is completely remote and removed from our 21st century lives.  It is, after all, a birth that will happen in a stable amongst farm animals, and there are shepherds tending flocks of sheep and wise men traversing from somewhere in Asia to find this baby boy.  There are kings, and Roman governors, and people eating locusts and wild honey.  This is First century Palestine; a pre-internet, pre-automobile, and before the invention of agri-business.  And it is very easy for us to listen to all of this as if it was a by-gone era.  But is it really?  As we move closer and closer to that moment on Christmas Eve when we burst into song that "Joy to the world! The Lord is come! Let Earth receive her king!", we might consider that "the world" in which Christ entered back in the First century was as rife with division and hurt as our current world is today.  Different types of division, but still a world where Jews wouldn't associate with Samaritans and Romans had the authority and lorded their power over everyone.  Think of how that plays out in today's world with factions claiming space around the Great Seal in the state capitol rotunda in a way that hardly models a spirit of Love, and the have-nots of our society walk in the shadows of buildings where the haves are amassing more millions for themselves.  If there is ever a time when we could stand to have Christ come crashing into our world, now seems a pretty good time.

OK, but how does Christ come into the world?  Do I literally think that Jesus Christ gets born again?  No, obviously, that's not how I see it.  The coming of Christ's return is not a literal birth of a baby; it is however the literal change of our own hearts and our own direction and approach to the world.  In essence, we become like Mary in that we give birth to a new way of how we will deal with people and our planet, and like Joseph, we follow the direction of the spirit and cultivate this change in ourselves.  This new outlook will get challenged because as much as we might change, those things that attempt to tear us down and split us apart aren't going away either.  There will still be reality TV stars who say hurtful and nasty things to gain publicity.  Homelessness isn't going to go away and neither will the natterings about wars on Christmas.  But how we respond to all of that can and will be different if we parent and nurture the Christ within us, the God who is with us.

The psalmist's refrain of "Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we will be saved," takes on a special meaning as we commence with lighting that fourth Advent candle.  This light is the light of Christ's return into our hearts to restore, refresh, and renew how we engage each other and our world.   O come let us adore... and adopt... this new way of being in our lives.    

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Transferring Thomas

So much for planning ahead!  Following Morning Prayer, I dutifully put post-it notes in the Bible marking the readings for the 12:10pm service, so that I would be ready.  However, the rector decided to pull the old saintly switch-a-roo, and moved St. Thomas' saint day to this Friday.  New readings, very little time to prepare, but I'm now a seasoned veteran of the noon day service, so I rolled with it.  

My portion was doing the reading from the letter to the Hebrews, in which the author encourages the listeners not to shrink back from faith and reminds them "faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."  The gospel, naturally, was the story of Thomas doubting the reports that Jesus had risen from the dead.  Upon seeing Christ, Thomas responds, "My Lord and my God!"  To which Jesus reminds Thomas, and all of us, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

As we enter into this last stretch of Advent, those words seem to pack a potent punch.  The rector mentioned in his homily that "doubt is not the opposite of faith."  And that's very true; the opposite of faith, I would argue, is fear.  Doubt, on the other hand, is the invitation to enter the ring with God, and have a struggle with God.  Doubt is often the avenue that leads one toward the destination of increased faith.  It can also be the road that takes one down the cul-de-sac of fear.  I was having a conversation with a friend about this recently, and saying how I have heard that there are some priests who have doubts about the language of the Nicene Creed, specifically whether or not they could 'buy into' what the creed says.  For me, I'm OK with priests questioning and pushing back at God, and I believe in a God who is OK with that, too.  But as my friend was noting, prevalent teaching in many churches is that if you question, or doubt, what is in Scripture or in the creed, this means you aren't faithful or you aren't "believing hard enough" or something.  Not true!  It means you're still engaged in dialogue with God which means you are still in relationship with God, and, ultimately, that's the thing God desires: to be in relationship with all of God's creation, including us.  Doubts are meant to trouble us and keep us awake, which, if we listen closely to the readings of this season, are a key element to Advent.

This season is so full of stories about doubt.  Just this past Sunday in the gospel lesson, John the Baptist is sitting in jail wondering aloud if Jesus really is the One, the ultimate, the man whose sandals John was unworthy of untying.  When Jesus learns of John's doubts and questions, he doesn't give a straight up answer, but instead points to what is now happening in the world (blind see, deaf hear, etc.)  That's what John needs to hear to settle any doubts he was having as he waited for what would be his beheading.  The gospel during this week has highlighted the behavior of those in parables who didn't wisely invest their talents or get enough oil for their lamps and found themselves on the short end of the stick.  These are all reminiscent of how I have behaved before, and I'm sure many others have as well.  My own foolishness of believing that what I have is mine and I must keep it lest it not be mine anymore, or living into my fears that Love is finite and if I don't "feel loved" then there must not be any Love.  Maybe if I'd open my eyes, I'd find Love is still all-around me.  

This has been one of the many important lessons for me this Advent, particularly as I begin the process of my transference from one diocese to another, one church to another.  The move is a necessity because of my call.  My sexual orientation, and my unwillingness to be anything but out, proud and partnered as a lesbian, has posed a stumbling block for the diocese in which I reside; hence if I am to respond and follow where I believe God is leading me, I must move away.  There is much sadness and grief associated with this decision because I love my St. John's community, and there is hope and trust, too, that I will see the infinite reaches of Love in moving to a new parish.  That's the larger theme, and the bass notes of this decision.  But, as with any good piece of music, there is more than just the bass line.  You need the mid-range and the high notes to get the full effect.  I see that in the way this new parish--ironically named for St. Thomas--has shown me hospitality.  I have done my "feral cat thing" of watching, and observing, with an air of wariness, to see what this community is like.  What I have witnessed  is how they interact and support each other in times of personal crisis, and lavish love upon people at times of joy and triumph in their lives.  Nobody has questioned my sexual orientation and those who are aware of my partnership have wanted to include my partner in social gatherings.  There is an openness to this community of believers that, I believe, is there to teach me and feed me as I integrate and become a part of who they are.  Is everyone there like this?  Well, probably not.  But the ones who have reached out to me and welcomed me have shown kindness and warmth toward a stranger.  A lesson that I, the extremely introverted, am happy to learn again and again until it becomes second nature for me. 

I marked St. Thomas' Feast Day in my morning daily office practice.   The reading from the First Letter of Peter spoke to many of the feelings I've had in this transitional time:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

May it be so.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Advent Antiphon

O come, thou Wisdom from on high,
who orderest all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go. 
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

We're in that period of "O" in Advent as in the beginning of using the verses from "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" as antiphons.  This is the period of Sapientia, meaning wisdom or discernment.  Fitting at this time as our Collect of the Day (which becomes a Collect of the Week) is calling on God to stir up God's power and with great might come among us.  I'll just say, "Be careful what you ask for!"  Certainly, if we are going to ask for such a thing, we must also do so with a willingness to be ready to get knocked around on our way to more wisdom as our foolishness gets brought to light.

We're also in a period of rejoicing.  In many parts of the Episcopal Church, there's been a trend toward lighting a rose or pink-colored candle on the Advent wreath for the third Sunday in the season.  This marks a break in these days of awe for Christians as we've been getting the message from John the Baptist to "Repent!!!" and being reminded that we are to keep awake because nobody knows the hour that the Son of Man is coming.  The Advent readings are edgy and provocative.  They certainly have been leaving me with a lot to think about and consider and--yes--even repent.  Nothing like having Jesus getting all up-in-your-face with his "Woe to you!" tirade to realize that I am just as much a hypocrite at times as those who he was dressing down in that moment many centuries ago.  Time to wash the inside of the cup, and not just the outside.

So, as I've said, I am happy to get a bit of break with the Advent antiphons for Morning Prayer.  I'm especially pleased to welcome in the wisdom, and the discernment, as I prepare my own way for the re-entry of Christ into the midst of the world.  He is a game-changer, and I better be ready to play.  

Monday, December 9, 2013

Sideline Stupidity and Nothing More

Dear Seminole fans: enough with the castigating of ESPN's Heather Cox.  I am not joining your Facebook page calling on the sports network to fire their sideline reporter.  I am not still stewing over her line of questioning of quarterback Jameis Winston.  Time to do as your quarterback did: move on.

Ms. Cox has earned the ire of FSU football fans for her post-game interview of the freshman football star.  The team had just shoved Duke all over the field to continue its quest for a National Championship title.  Winston had performed pretty well, although not nearly as sharp as he'd been during the rest of the season.   And this is not surprising, given that the young man had been through a very public, daily examination of an event that happened on December 7, 2012, in which Winston had allegedly sexually assaulted a woman. After three long weeks of having the state attorney's office look into the case (which only became public when a reporter from Tampa made an inquiry), the determination was that there would be no charges filed.  This took the proverbial monkey off Winston's back, and now sportswriters, who suddenly had concern for the 'moral character' of athletes, could feel OK about voting for Winston for the Heisman Trophy.  Meanwhile, from what I have heard in the news reports, the young woman, whom the Tallahassee police supposedly advised not to file charges in this 'football town', is no longer at FSU.

You would think this would be a "case closed" situation.  And it pretty much is.  Except that Ms. Cox brought it to the fore in the post-game interview with Winston.  After asking one question about the game, every subsequent question was about "the investigation." Winston kept attempting to move the narrative back to the game, but Ms. Cox kept pressing him.  She asked him what he learned from the whole episode, and he told her he had learned he needed to grow up and "have some maturity."  Fair enough, but Cox wanted to know more about why he'd stayed silent during "the investigation."  It was at this point that Jameis Winston decided to exhibit his new-found maturity: he turned and walked away, with Ms. Cox yelling after him a "Congratulations!"

As a former broadcast journalist, my own take on that interview was that once she got him to say the bit about his maturity, she needed to wrap things up with some talk about their next steps to a National Championship and be done with it.  Sideline interviews are not 60-Minutes; they're about 60-90 seconds.  She was absolutely within reason to bring up the events that had been surrounding him because that is part of the Jameis Winston story, sad as that is.  And I would have thrown the penalty flag for her not knowing when it's time to keep the interview going forward and not going back over an already dead subject.  In football speak, this was "Roughing the passer."

But 'Noles fans are demanding that this not just be an ejection from the sidelines for Ms. Cox; they're calling for her to be fired.

And the message to reporters becomes this: we love our athletes, and you need to leave them alone!  What about your President? Congressional representatives?  Your governor?  Your state legislators?  The private business owner who won't serve blacks or gays?  Are reporters supposed to look past their flaws, their foibles, their troubles?  The public has an insatiable appetite for every drunken, drugged up stupid thing any actor or actress in Hollywood does, no matter their age or maturity.  Why should a college athlete be treated any differently?

I feel for Heather Cox.  If there had been a Facebook during the days that I was reporting for Florida Public Radio, there might have been a "String up Susan Gage" page started for any number of times that I asked a person in a position of authority and power an uncomfortable question that their fan base didn't like.   I was aware of the phone calls made to the local public radio station, complaining about me being everything from a "gay agenda pushing bitch" to a woman with a "personal vendetta" against Publix (that one always floored me since I shop at Publix.)  The Development Director in 1996 was horrified that I had done a reporter's commentary on witnessing an execution and that WFSU-FM was playing it during the morning rush hour when he was in the middle of a pledge drive.  He didn't demand my resignation, but he was apparently having a fit and fretting that my not-so-happy news report was going to silence the phones, and there was a level of "How dare you?!" in his tone.   Even the press staff of Democratic Governor Lawton Chiles went after me because I asked a question about a bill that would have revolutionized how Florida dealt with the AIDS crisis.  The House and Senate versions of the bill contradicted each other in a major way; Chiles' staff had put out a release indicating he supported both measures.  The Governor kept waffling in his answers to questions about all of this until I finally said, "Governor, you don't seem comfortable with this bill?"  Chiles responded, "I think you're right, you're absolutely right."  That began a barrage of phone calls from Chiles' press office to my boss, calling into question whether I really had understood the Governor's answer, and whether I could accurately report the story.  It was relentless and disturbing.  Thanks be to God that there was no social media to add to my misery.

I understand 'Noles fans being upset.  But Ms. Cox is paid to ask questions, and sometimes the subject matter isn't always nice, and that is no reason to call for her head.  Jameis Winston did exactly what he should have done and has every right to do: he walked away without another word.  There is no law that says he must answer any journalist's questions ever.  He showed the maturity he talked about.  He has moved on to thinking about Pasadena.  So should we.

Lions, Lambs, and Camel's Hair Clothing

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to
preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation:
Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins,
that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our
Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy
Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

I can now decorate the house for Advent and Christmas!  Hanukkah is over, and the menorrahs and dreidls are put away for another year.  I have hung the Texas-themed Christmas wreath on the house, and pulled out the crates of Christmas lights.  I'm ready, and excited.  

One of my favorite decorations is the creche that my godmother gave me.  Each year, she'd send me a new figurine to put in the set.  I've added to that over time, and it is one of my favorite things to do is to position the characters... and then wait until Christmas Eve to place the Christ child in the manger, and gradually move the three wise men closer and closer.

As I was setting it up Saturday night, I kept thinking about the lesson from the prophet Isaiah:

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, 

and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 

The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, 

the spirit of wisdom and understanding, 

the spirit of counsel and might, 

the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. 

His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. 

He shall not judge by what his eyes see, 

or decide by what his ears hear; 

but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, 

and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; 

he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, 

and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 

Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, 

and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 

The wolf shall live with the lamb, 

the leopard shall lie down with the kid, 

the calf and the lion and the fatling together, 

and a little child shall lead them. 

The cow and the bear shall graze, 

their young shall lie down together; 

and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, 

and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den. 

They will not hurt or destroy 

on all my holy mountain; 

for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD 

as the waters cover the sea. 

On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; 

the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious

I don't have a wolf, leopard or lion for my manger, but perhaps I should go look for those, too, as a reminder of what I hear the prophet telling the people.  There will be a time when anger, hatred, and strife will not be the all-consuming way of the world.  And that time is coming, but is not here yet.  For those of us who connect to God through Jesus Christ, the prophet would seem to be talking about the arrival of the Christ child.  Of course, Isaiah knew nothing of Christ, but knew quite a bit about the divisions that had occured within the House of Jacob, aka Israel, with the splitting of the northern and southern kingdoms.  Isaiah also had no knowledge of John the Baptizer, the wild-eyed character wandering in the wilderness and screaming at people to "Repent!" or, as I prefer to think of that term, "turn yourself around."  But what the prophet was seeing is that amidst the brokenness and despair of a people divided and conquered and dispersed, there would be a new shoot that would spring up, and new life would begin.  

In a similar vein, John the Baptizer, in his wandering in from the wilderness wearing camel's hair clothing and eating locusts and honey, tells everyone to prepare the way because there is someone coming who will be even crazier than him.  OK, he doesn't say "crazier than him," but our story of Christianity is a little bit nuts when you consider that God is going to be arriving in the midst of us as a human baby.  And then the baby is going to grow up into a man who, after his own time in the wilderness, is popping up in towns and villages with bands of followers and not following proper eating etiquette or showing good manners.  Instead, this Jesus Christ is more interested in getting everyone to stop looking so hard at the black-and-white letter of "the law" and begin practicing the intent behind that "law."  It's as if he's saying, "You can't see the forest for the trees!" so let's start doing some pruning.

John promises that the one who is coming will bring a baptism of fire.  In our current season, I see that as the flame of one candle becomes two on our Advent wreath.  As my light grows brighter, what things are getting burned up that are no longer necessary for me?  What can I give up as I turn myself around?  And am I ready to usher in a time when lambs and wolves can lie down with one another basking in one Love?

If by Advent it's meant that there will be new beginnings, my preparation needs to be to remain open to what are the new possibilities for life. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Troubled Spirit and Advent Respite

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ And they argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” But if we say, “Of human origin”, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.’ So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
 ‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.--Matt 21:23-32

The "grabbing by the Gospel" continues in my world as I put one 
foot in front of the other this Advent, journeying toward that moment 
of Christ's arrival into the world.   It seems last year, I was having 
the most difficult time getting into the season at all.  This year, I'm 
feeling immersed in this sense of great uncertainty.  A good garden 
in which to plant and grow Advent awareness.  For the record, I am 
a lousy gardener, so all the more reason for me to have a sense of 

The quoted passage from Matthew was our Gospel text from yesterday's
Morning Prayer.  I wasn't leading, so I was able to sit in quiet, and 
listen to our presider wend his way through this portion of the story as
Jesus is becoming more and more confrontational in Jerusalem.  I closed 
my eyes and let the words fall like rain upon the garden in my head.  
I am familiar enough with this moment when Jesus' actions are rattling
the cages of the comfortable and religious authorities.  Those cages 
have served them well, and to step beyond their doors would, in their
minds, be their undoing.  They demand to know "by what authority"
he's flipping over tables and releasing doves in the Temple.  "Authority" 
is a big deal to these caged people.  It often is.  Of course, Jesus
puts them inside another cage by the question he puts to them about 
John the Baptizer's baptism.  In fact, they are so locked in that they admit
that they can't answer the question.  

And then comes the part that made me sit up and take notice.  Jesus tells 
the story of the two sons; the one who says he's not going to go
to work, but does anyway, and the one who says he will, and then 
never shows up.  Who's done the better part?  Well, naturally, it's the
first one, his antagonists say.  Then, here it comes:

‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are 
going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came 
to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, 
but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and 
even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and 
believe him. 

My eyes popped open.  I have probably heard this passage a few dozen times
or more in my recent experience, but this time, what came to me was a
phrase from Psalm 51:

The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit;
A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

The most despised people, outside of maybe the Samaritans, were 
those who collected taxes for the Roman Emperor.  Many of them were
Jews, which made them even more horrible.  Prostitutes, too, were "others"
in that society.  So, here you have the ridiculed and the ostracized, the
perpetual losers in the eyes of the very righteous... and Jesus is basically
saying, "They may be the dregs, but they know they're broken, and they
believed.  But you, my religious friends, are still seeing only the 'authority' 
that prevents you from getting to God."

I have been feeling like one with a troubled spirit.  The other day, I finally 
was able to get through on the government's website.
I have been highly skeptical about what type of coverage I'd be able to get
under the Affordable Care Act.  After so many fill-in-this, choose-this, 
answer this, computer screens, I reached the place where I could see 
the plans and what they would cost.

I could not believe my eyes!  With a tax credit courtesy of the Obama 
administration, there were a number of plans available at less than $80/month.
 That's unheard of, normally!

But no sooner had I finished wiping away tears of joy from the thought that I 
could finally afford insurance, my partner informed me that if we go through 
with a plan to get married next year, our incomes would be combined, and I 
would, therefore, no longer qualify for the tax credit; hence, I'd be denied 
health insurance again because, on paper, I would have too much money.  

Her conclusion?  Don't get married. 

Tears of joy gave way to wailing--and I mean a deep-throated wailing--over 
the continued signs of discrimination in our society.  If we were straight, 
this wouldn't be an issue because she works for the state, and I'd likely
have been on her plan from the beginning and would have no need
for Obamacare.  And, because we live in a state that hates its LGBTQI 
population, there is no way that a state employee, married to their 
spouse of the same gender, can tap into this benefit for their
beloved.  And thus is the life of a queer in the southeastern United

And so, this is the troubled spirit that is meeting the Gospel readings
from Matthew in the morning.  I come with this broken and contrite heart,
filled with bitterness toward a state and a nation...and even a church...
that demands I fit into their "marriage norm" at a huge cost to myself.  
And here Christ meets me in this place and says, "Yeah.  I get it!  Stick with me!"  
This Christ feels my anguish, and reminds me, the "other," that I am part
of a legacy of "others" who have been despised by those of "the norm" 
and yet we are closer to the source of Love.  Does it change the here
and now?  Not in a literal sense, no.  Does it change my reaction to my
here and now so it doesn't dominate me?  Yes, it has the potential to do that.
Does that free my from getting trapped in a cage with those who only want
to know "by whose authority"?  Absolutely!

There is only one light on the Advent wreath, but more candles will be added as a symbol of the growing enlightenment that can happen with Christ's entry into the 
world and into our lives.  May it be so is the eternal hope.