Saturday, February 13, 2016

Discernment and Deserts

Tomorrow is my birthday, and like the past two birthdays in a row, I will be spending it in a decidedly un-birthday fashion. Instead of coming home and having a party or lounging and having people lavish me with gifts, or peeling me grapes, or whatever, I will be going to my first meeting with my discernment committee in the continuing long, strange, trip that I've been on with God. 

My spouse and I were talking today about what I may or may not encounter when I talk to this group of mostly totally unknown people. I'm as foreign to them as they are to me. We're supposed to talk about Christian ministry, and what I, and they, understand that to be. I was describing the different types of Christian ministers (laity and ordained) as being a little like boxers and their coaches. The laity are the ones sent out into the ring to do battle with the world all week. The bell rings, and they go to their corner (the church building) where the coach (the priest) gives them water and towels them off and talks strategy for dealing with the next round, and then they are sent back out into the ring again. She kept staring at me.

"And how are you going to do ministry?" she asked.  Now I was staring at her.  "You haven't told me how you're going to do your ministry. I hear that question and I think in terms of whether you see yourself in a parish, or are you some kind of itinerant priest, or campus ministry, or prison chaplain."

"I don't know," I said, a bit exasperated. "I don't know where I'm going to be. I don't think it will be in a parish, but where it will be, I don't know." 

As irritated as I was that she couldn't understand my metaphor, I also was very grateful for the challenge. I may not know the people on this committee, but I have experienced people in the church and I am pretty sure I will have some people there who don't like metaphor and don't like boxing (I don't really care for it much either, but it's a great metaphor!) and just want me to get to the point. So, her challenge was a valid one. And I will have an 80-minute drive from Thomasville to Albany tomorrow to contemplate how I'd answer these questions in a more concrete way.

There just seems to be a perfect timing on all of this. It's the First Sunday in Lent, which this year is also my birthday, and the very sweet day of Valentine's. The Gospel lesson assigned for this Sunday is the events, as told by Luke, of what happens to Jesus upon his immersion in the waters of baptism. The story is that the Heaven's opened and the Holy Spirit descended like a dove with a voice saying, "This is my Son with whom I am well pleased." But before Jesus can embark on his ultimate mission which will lead to the cross on Good Friday, he must be refined and tested and faced with the very things that threaten all those whom he is attempting to reach with the saving grace of God. And so, after his baptism, he is driven out into the desert where he will contend with the temptations that the world has to offer: immediate gratification, possessions and power, and recklessness. Satan, who in the Jewish tradition is like a prosecutor, attempts to attract Jesus by laying out all that the world could offer to him if he'd use his God-given power working in him to a self-serving ministry.  "Make that rock into a loaf of bread" "How 'bout all these nations and kingdoms you could possess and rule?" "Go ahead and throw yourself from a tall height. You won't die." In Luke's telling of the story, Jesus withstands all this with seeming ease and self-confidence, and we in the Episcopal Church are reminded every week that Jesus was like us in every way, "but without sin." I believe that to be true. And I also want to believe that Jesus faced these temptations and withstood them, but did so not so easily. I want to believe that Jesus saw what this prosecutor was attempting to do; lay a snare to grab him at the ankle with an "A-ha! Gotcha!" I want to believe that Jesus, who is without sin, nonetheless could see and feel and understand the great temptations that we, who are so often sorely hindered by our sins, face as a regular challenge. Who doesn't want instant gratification, right? If we weren't susceptible to that, then there would be no need for Powerball! When I consider Jesus in this scene out in the desert, I picture him somewhat bedraggled and tired and thirsty and hungry. He is physically feeling the weakness of his human body. What better time for Satan to show up and offer him lots of bright, shiny objects, right? And what an opportune time for God to be the alchemist who uses these temptations as an opportunity to refine his Son to resist what we find so irresistable. 

Discernment for the priesthood, or at least mine up to this point, has felt like many trips out into the desert. It is a time to test and probe and see what is happening with me and God and a call on my life. I have attempted to avoid going forward with pursuing a call to become a priest. This wasn't something that I've "always wanted to do"; on the contrary, I left the church in 1991 and stayed away until late 2007, and didn't have particularly warm and fuzzy feelings toward clergy people during those years that I was in exile. I found most Episcopal priests to be awkward and incapable of being with people in their places of hurt and woundedness. I wanted no part of any of that. And then my father died, and God fired up a jukebox in my head of Episcopal hymns, and the rest--as they say--is history. The more I got involved, and the more I believed in the power of Christ working with me and in me, and through me, the more I was hearing from other people: "Are you a priest?" "Are you going to become a priest?" "VTS or Sewanee?" I am someone people continuously are coming to for counsel and support. And even those conversations are beginning to end with, "I think you'd be a great priest." The time for running away has stopped.

Pray for me as you might pray for all the people who, like Jesus  in the desert, are discerning and listening for God to guide them at this time when the temptations of the world are set in contrast to the call on their lives. Pray for us to listen. Pray for us to speak our truth. Pray that we may be one in the same way Jesus and God are one.  

Friday, February 12, 2016

Getting Connected Again

I don't think there's a season in the church year that has a more profound presence in my life than Lent. No matter what state of mind I might be in as the season approaches, no matter how late or how early it comes, there is something about this season, and how I enter it that always seems to be a little unexpected, and definitely chock full of what we called in massage school, "Learning Experiences." This time is no different.

In my previous entry, I put up the Trinity icon by Rublev. The word that comes to my mind when staring into that image is "connection." The more I contemplated that "connection" and the interconnectedness of the Trinitarian nature of our God as captured in that image, the more I began to think about the relationships I have with family, friends, clients, church members, well...everyone. I realized that, lately, I have felt at times walled off from having a connection to people, and I think that has caused me to suffer. 

I began to mitigate for this disconnect with Shrove Tuesday. I made the trip to my church in Thomasville, dealing with the frustrations of stop-and-go traffic for several miles up 319 to spend the time with my church family. When I got there, most of the tables were already filled, but there was still space at the one with a couple of adults and five very rambunctious children. Anyone who knows me is aware that my decision to not have children is intentional. It's not that I don't like kids; I just don't want the responsibility of trying to raise them. Children always seem generally afraid of me. I figure I must look ominous or strange to them because I am a very tall woman with very short hair and broad shoulders. Adults often times can't discern that I'm biologically a woman because I dress and appear more masculine, so kids being bewildered is something I have just come to expect and don't take personally. These children, with the exception of the baby, were up and down and all-around throughout the dinner, keeping their great-grandmother on the move as well. When it was time to go, great-grandmom discovered she'd locked herself out of her truck. Now what? The kids were squirming, and she had to wait for another family member to come to the rescue.

I may not be the best with kids, but I am an aunt, and I greatly enjoyed the years my niece and nephew were young children because I could invent all kinds of scenarios with them and basically do improv. I noticed the three boys of this quintet had toy trucks and cars. Their great grandmother had told them to stay in their seats, something I thought was never going to happen given all that I had seen happening. So, "crazy Aunt Sue" decided to make an appearance. I got one of the boys to give up a truck to me. 

"OK, guys, here's the game: I'm going to send this truck across the table, and you have to stop it before it goes off the table. And the rule is: You can't get outta your seat!" The boys grinned and nodded. 

"Vroom! Vroom!" I started with rolling the truck back and forth as if it was winding up to go into action. The boys focused intently on the truck, and as it rolled across the plastic table top, they took their respective vehicles and smashed it with much glee. Then they sent it back across, and I snagged it before it could leave the table. Their older sister decided she wanted in on this and announced that she and I were a team. And we played this way for about 15 to 20 minutes, allowing great grandmom the chance to keep her eyes out on the two youngest and their rescuer. By the end of the evening, I could tell that these kids who had always looked at me with a vague suspicion now were seeing me as "one of them." A barrier had come down to let the light of Christ shine between us.

Unfortunately, playing with the children meant that I had missed my EfM member who was waiting for me to deliver her books to her. I looked up her address, which wasn't far from the church, and drove over to knock on the door. She was delighted to have the personal service and asked if I wanted to stay a moment and have some tea. Normally, the introverted person that I am, I would have come up with a reason why I couldn't possibly stay. Given that Tallahassee is about a 50-minute drive to the south it wouldn't have been unreasonable for me to want to get home. But I thought I had no real rush to get back, and this was such a hospitable offer, that I could make the time. And so I did. We enjoyed some orange-spiced tea and conversation which ranged over shared stories of church experiences and our respective family lives. By the end of the evening visit, we remarked that while both of us had been together and sitting with each other in choir neither of us really knew the other very well. As I drove home, I considered how good and energized I was feeling from having had the time with a member of this church family that I'm part of in Georgia, and playing with children in the parish hall. And a little piece (or maybe a big piece) of my Lenten discipline came into focus. 

I needed to cut back on the time I spend on the social media time suck called Facebook. I had become programmed to tune into FB almost from the instant my eyes opened in the morning to when I put my head down at night. It's become the crutch for how I connect with people...without really connecting with them. No eye contact. No silences. And no way to discern body language, especially if the person's profile picture is of their dog. Hitting "like" on a post had replaced actually conversing about a topic. It's just so much easier to click a "like" than to actually go experience what the person is advertising or discuss it any further. 

Lately, with the presidential political season heating up, I have found myself not having conversations but arguments with people. (Are Americans memories so short? Do they really always believe the hype without looking for the substance?) Such encounters online were leaving me bitter. And my conversational skills were suffering. I attended Ash Wednesday, received the mark of the smudgy cross on my forehead, and, upon exiting the church, I removed the Facebook app from my iPhone and later my iPad. I can still get on FB from a laptop or through the web, but that takes more work and effort. I am not pledging not to go on and lurk and post, but I am curtailing my activity and the absence of ease of having the app is so far working. 

I hope this leads to improving my relationships. And to those who miss my many posts, I'll be back, but perhaps with a new appreciation for how much I prefer your personal connection rather than the virtual. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Icons and Idols

Children protesting against the League of the South's pro-Confederate flag demonstration in Tallahassee, Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend.

It's been awhile since I've posted here, and not because I haven't been thinking, pondering, praying, and wanting to post. I simply don't have a lot of time to sit and organize coherent thoughts into a blog. My prayer life lately has involved some deep and amazing dips into the pool of the vast waters of God. And perhaps that has kept me from writing as well. So here goes nothing as I attempt to explain this title of "Icons and Idols."

A few weeks ago, over the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend, the League of the South, some of them donning black shirts with white supremacist logos, were out in front of the Florida Capitol building waving their Stars and Bars flags. Apparently, there is legislation to ban the flag from being flown over public buildings. If you are from outside the United States, or simply have managed not to hear any of the history of this controversy, the so-called "Confederate Flag" has been held up as a symbol of Southern heritage; however this particular design of the flag really came into vogue when "Southern heritage" meant fighting against desegregation in the 1950s and 60s. This was not their battle flag used during the Civil War when the South rebelled against the United States from 1861-65. The people who seem to be the most attached to this flag also seem to be the most anti-government, anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti-black, anti-Jew...basically "anti" anything that isn't considered part of "white" culture. 

A young woman in Tallahassee got wind of their demonstration and in 48-hours gathered a bunch of us to be counter demonstrators. She had asked that we American flags to our rally. This was interesting because the people gathered in our group were not your typical "rah rah" America types. We took up a position on the opposite side of the busy intersection of Monroe and Apalachee Parkway, each side competing to see who would get the attention of drivers passing by. It was all pretty tame as protests go. Our group of 25 people couldn't get it together to sing any of the old standard Civil Rights songs to save our lives, but we smiled and waved and held our two fingers up in the peace sign. Then the guy from the League of the South dared to taunt us by calling out the presence of the American flag in our group.

"When I see that Yankee rag, I see prison bars!" he bellowed.

I couldn't believe what I'd just heard. "Yankee rag"? Seriously?! For the first time in my life, every patriotic mitochondria in my body started firing up as I shouted back across the road:


And our group of counter demonstrating social justice activists fell into the familiar grade school cadence of the pledge:


Had we really just said the pledge with that much gusto and true feeling? Do we really feel that much deep attachment to a flag? And what is up with the hanging on so tightly by so many to the Stars and Bars? The Civil War was over 150 years ago. How can anyone still be saying the United States is an occupier of the southeastern United States?

I know that the pledge rings hollow for those who still are feeling like the left behind and the disenfranchised in this country. That was me, too, not that long ago. When I was in junior high and we had to stand each morning to recite the pledge, I would respectfully stand, and say nothing. I didn't understand pledging allegiance to a flag. Shouldn't we pledge allegiance to something a little more than sewn fabric? Later, as I came out, I felt that pledge was like another broken promise. "Liberty and justice" was for some, but definitely wasn't available to all. 

But when faced with such hatred of the symbol of this flawed and imperfect union, even I was willing to rally in defense of what I believe this nation yearns to be: a place where people are able to gather on street corners in support and dissent of the country and have that freedom without the need to resort to bombing each other. I can hope the four bloody years of our ancestors killing each other during the Civil War might have taught us not to know war between each other that way again. And yet, there are some who press on as if we are still at war. Sigh.

Perhaps it was that experience of reciting the pledge with patriotic fervor that has also helped to take my prayer life in a further move toward God. Because even while I was shouting at the League of the South, my burning passion was for the words of the pledge and I was longing for them to lay down their sesquicentennial grudge, and realize that the war is over. 

In so many ways, I think, this is part of what our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is encouraging us to see in the words and actions of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus longed for his fellow Jews of his day to see that the way to eternal life was through loving more, paying attention to their neighbors more, putting God first more and not making idols of rituals that had become more important than the actual thing for which the ritual was intended to celebrate. 

And even Jesus seems to desire that we not get fixated on him, the human being, but to see through him the way to that Eternal which gives life. This is really the purpose of icons, such as The Trinity by Andrei Rublev. The Russian monk and iconographer designed this as a means by which people may gaze and see God through the art and enter into prayer, which is our line to the One. I happened on this image as I prepped for the 12:10 service at St. John's last Friday. As I looked into those heads all bent in each other's direction and their blue tunic connection, my mind went back to verse from John's gospel:

Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.--John 5:19

These words had been part of Morning Prayer the Wednesday before and as I heard them, I had a revelation of the "both/and" nature of this statement. When we hear the phrase "Son of Man" (or, in this case, it was "Son of God") this is both about Jesus and humanity. Humanity has the chance, especially through following in the footsteps of Jesus, to be at one with God, who is the source of life. This "life" goes beyond the day-to-day arguments over flags, and asks us to tap into our interconnectedness with all things and people. My own belief and placing my own life in the stream of this Great Consciousness is, I think, the reason that while I shouted the Pledge of Allegiance with conviction, it wasn't out of pure anger, but out of a place of sorrow and frustration for the breakdown that leads someone to cling desperately to a past that is no longer the future. That, to my mind, is the path toward death and not life. 

I don't hate those who hate me. My work with the Prayer for Our Enemies has been about teaching me to see the anger and rage that is within me and aimed at me, and deflect it without letting it become the thing that penetrates my heart. This is how I bend my head, and knee, to Jesus. This is how the power of God working in me can help me--like Jesus--do infinitely more than I can ask or imagine.