Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Easter is an altogether different kind of fact.

We’re pushing 5 weeks of Easter now, almost to the end. We’ve gotten through the empty tomb, “side wound Sunday” with Thomas, and eating fish on the beach.  This past Sunday, the raising of Tabitha in Acts for this Sunday and Jesus talking about his sheep hearing his voice.  All kinds of encounter with Jesus trampling down death.  All kinds of truths, all kinds of people trying to figure it out for themselves.

In my vacation week after Easter, I visited the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art, where an exhibition of the artist Walid Raad who, the ICA tells us, “informed by his upbringing in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war (1975–1990), has spent the past 25 years exploring the ways we represent, remember, and make sense of history.”  The exhibit is full of things that are “true” in different ways—in a conventionally factual sense maybe or maybe not, but still true. It also holds a not un-pointed critique of American naiveté, which the Boston Globe’s art critic Sebastian Smee grapples with brilliantly in this review.

In all of my preaching this Holy Week I felt confronted by the wideness of the view of our new stations of the cross, as I wrote here in March. The Raad exhibit asks a similar question. How much are we willing to see? What lives, in the words of writer Judith Butler, in her book Precarious Life, are actually “grievable?” The crucifixion of Jesus only, or also that of the criminals on either side? We can have all kinds of lovely ideas about Jesus and compassion and justice, but if we don’t see those put to death next to him, that’s a pretty thin participation in God’s love.   Any metric of our faith depends more on those criminals and on those in our world now than on Jesus himself.   Too often, we don’t see them, and the American tendency toward tidy narratives and easy answers is literally fatal to those who fall in the cross hairs of our foreign policy.  One of the series of photographs is of shell casings Raad found as a child growing up during the civil war in Lebanon. My kids find Easter eggs; the world that he grew up in is plainly un-imaginable to them. 

In the middle of the Raad exhibit there’s a wall of images where visitors can leave their own categorizations of facts as tending toward one of three categories—emotional, aesthetic, or historical. Easter, it occurred to me, is a different kind of fact altogether.  Factually, the tomb was empty. We can offer explanations about what happened, conjecture about resuscitation or body theft or, even, true resurrection. But the empty tomb is only understood in confrontation with that space of death, at the same time confronting how it becomes a space of life. That transformation, though, doesn’t happen in our heads: the tomb can be empty or not empty, the body stolen by grave robbers or raised by the almighty power of the living God.  The transformation happens in our lives, in our own lives and that of our communities.

I’m not persuaded intellectually that “Christ is raised from the dead and that death no longer has dominion” (Rom 6:9). I have come to believe, day by day and week by week, in what I have experienced and seen of the risen Christ. I don’t believe because I’m afraid of the alternative, of heaven vs hell or joy vs some cartoon of eternal punishment, I believe because I have tasted it and heard it and walked with the truth of the resurrection and I know that that dead don’t always stay dead.   (My sermon about Tabitha is here). It’s not a historical fact or an aesthetic fact or an emotional one. It melts the categories and then knits a scarf out of them.

Just as, or even more powerful than any belief in resurrection, though, is the invitation toward resurrection. I am doing the Mother’s Day Walk for Peace through Dorchester to stand with victims of violence and to go, bodily, in my part of the risen body of Christ to be one with the risen body of Christ of the city.  I am writing Governor Charlie Baker to advocate for full inclusion of transgendered people because the risen body of Christ is a female body and a male body, and a neither, both, between body. All of these encounters with the world are encounters, also of the peculiar kind of truth that Easter is.

So there it is, again—more questions than answers, more labyrinthine steps than journeys  completed. Thanks for reading.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Way of the Cross, Life, and Peace

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, Amen. [For Fridays, BCP 99]

The cross as way of life and peace is not self-evident.
I’m a pacifist.  The version of Christianity that hoists Jesus up as a conquering king and sacrificed lamb is not my native land. It’s a huge part of the broader tradition, and a part that I am willing own as a facet of the landscape.  At the same time, I recently instructed my parish director of music to “find something less bloody-Jesusy.”  I’ve done that more than once. My fear is that in glorifying the suffering of Jesus, we risk setting that above the ministry of Jesus.  And glorifying the suffering leads too easily to a place of quietism when we come to actual suffering in the world. And the idea of a God who desires the sacrifice of “his” child to satisfy some ghoulish debt? Not my religion.

Still, the cross is at the center of Christianity.   The center: it’s the hinge point that brings us from God’s incarnation to the risen Christ we know in the sacraments. Instead of spending a lot of time at the cross, I tend to look at the love that brought Jesus there in the first place: love that refused to answer evil to evil.  Rather than some cosmic imbalance that requires blood for blood, the crucifixion is about non-violence overturning the violence of the world. This is what Jesus always did in his ministry (see: Rene Girard). It’s easy, though, in that comparatively sunny interpretation, to forget that the way to the cross was a long way that Jesus actually walked. Not a metaphor. Not a myth that takes the many varieties of human experience and creates something new out of them. But an actual person taking actual steps.  

When the vestry at my parish decided to adopt the Stations of the Cross from St John’s, Bowdoin St, when it was closing, I was delighted.  (Pictures from the move and installation here). I loved St John’s, and the idea of having a little piece of that holy barn, now being turned into an office space, was lovely.  St John’s was the first church that was just mine, not just the St Mary’s in Erie, PA, where I grew up.  In deciding whether to adopt them, the we published pictures of the images in the newsletter, announced it at church, and offered field trips to go and see them.  Things were different when they turned up in the back pews waiting to be hung. This being a parish of actual human beings, there were—and probably still are—some mixed feelings about them.  They are, in fact, very, very large. They are moonlike and bright compared to the somber and dark colors of the rest of the church.  In talking to my spiritual director, a priest I see regularly to talk about my work and my prayer, he asked mildly, “Well, have you asked God what they’re doing there?”

Indeed I had not.
The mixed feelings are appropriate. As one person on the vestry leadership board pointed out, they’re not supposed to be attractive.  They are images of a dead man walking. I’ve seen stations of the cross with images of the AIDS crisis, homelessness, gun violence, climate change, and, now, the refugee crisis in Europe. Episcopal Relief and Development created a rite for the Millennium Development Goals.  This willingness to see suffering is half the heart of Christianity.  The other half is the faith that such evil and suffering doesn’t have the last word. But we have to look and see the pain to receive the gift.  I had not asked why the Stations of the Cross were there, possibly because I didn’t quite want to know.

I have written a fair amount in these pages about suffering and privilege. I have a lot of privilege, I know that.  Being present to the suffering of Jesus—step by step, moment by moment, makes it harder to close my eyes to the suffering in the world. The first time I did the prayer service for them, my kids were along. It’s one thing to hear abstractly the words to Mary: “A sword will pierce your own soul, too.” It’s another to hear those words while your own children are right next to you, blissfully unaware and climbing through the pews. Death and suffering are real. They will face them. I can't protect them any more than Mary could.

In this time of truly awful political rhetoric, when entire peoples and religions are demonized, we need this broken savior. He didn’t win. He didn’t get everyone to love him. He didn’t succeed. That’s where God was 2000 years ago, and that’s where God is now.  We have to look.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Welcoming Home the Stations of the Cross

When I was first in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, I worked at St John's Bowdoin St with the congregation and the ministries with those who were homeless and poor in the neighborhood...I started in September 2000. It was grace-filled and incredible and also, in parts, liturgically terrifying.  St John's was part of an  Anglo-Catholic tradition of "high" Episcopal worship that took all the senses seriously. From chanting to incense to more vestments than you can imagine. It was the first church that was my church--not my parents'. It was the first place I swung a thurible (somewhat shamefully, on Easter Sunday, when I didn't use enough incense and  weak trickle of smoke leaked out pathetically), the first place I taught an adult ed class, the first time I went to a vestry meeting...I'm sad to see it go. But 15 years after I left, the stations of the cross from St John's came to Waltham when St John's merged with the Cathedral Congregation. (More from me about the Stations of the Cross here).

Cathedral Facilities Manager Jim Woodworth incredibly helpful! See the blank places in the wall where they were before?

Front reredos and pews removed

Made in 1888, they're ten years older than Christ Church

There was a lot of waiting in the back pew while we figured out our next steps.

Jesus falls a second time. With cracks was broken while being taken down, and two in transit. A great metaphor--an inconvenient thing to try to repair.

Jesus takes up his cross

The frames are delivered!

And we have hooks!

Betsy helps David while Chloe looks on, clearly enthralled.

And here they all are!

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Anglicans And Us: Primates Meeting 2016

 There have been times when my kids have not gotten invited to their friends’ birthday parties.  Either I hear about it from another parent or they find out about the missed event from someone else, and there is sadness and pain.  As a parent I wonder if I should do more to smooth the way for them, initiate more play dates or encourage them more as they build friendships. Then the insult passes, and then they hit each other with foam swords or talk about their minecraft creations and the world is restored again, just a little less stable than it was, but restored nonetheless.

Since Bishop Gene Robinson was elected bishop of New Hampshire in 2003, there have been a lot of foam swords swung around in the global church (There were, to be sure, lots swung before that, mostly around women’s ordination). Last summer’s national church vote to amend the marriage canon to include same gender marriage was hope and joy and wonder.   We have plenty of distance to travel for ending discrimination, but we have decided, collectively, that we are finished arguing about equal marriage in the life of the Episcopal Church based in the US.  Finis.

So now, the international meeting of heads of Anglican Churches—primates—have voted to suspend us for three years for having done so.  Honestly, the thought occurred to me to be surprised at the fact that it hadn’t happened earlier.  We have had times of “fasting” and not making more publicly LGBTQ bishops, in attempting to please the self-appointed orthodox (whether those were conformed to because of accident or intention is another question).  Throughout the last 13 years, the global church has continually gone neither as far as the far right would prefer nor as far as the far left would prefer.  It’s been very Anglican. Via media, etc. Even this time, Bishop Ntagali of Uganda left the Primates meeting early because he was angry that the Episcopal Church wasn’t being kicked out completely.

Here’s the thing.
The Anglican Communion, as an institutional body, has more in common with the structure of parents mediating birthday parties than, for example, Congress and the President.  Many of the primates are not democratically elected by their whole church. The primates themselves represent their individual churches, but as “first among equals,” not as enforcers who can make anyone do anything. Obviously how that’s lived out in different places varies.  The word “Episcopal” means that our church is overseen by bishops. Who oversees the bishops? Well, they’re all sitting next to each other at a table. The Archbishop of Canterbury is at the head of the table, but he’s still just one person sitting at the table.   Unlike the President and Congress, he doesn’t have veto power over what the bishops might want to do individually.  Bishop Gates can tell me how I can function as a priest, but Bishop Curry, Presiding  Bishop/ Primate of the Episcopal Church can’t dictate how Bishop Gates functions as a bishop.  Bishop Gates sits at Presiding Bishop Curry’s table and he sits at the Archbishop of Canterbury’s table. 

 Still, it’s sad. Almost 8 years ago, St Peter’s Anglican Church of Uganda came to worship at my parish, Christ Church. While I have never felt like we are singlehandedly holding the Anglican Communion together, it has been important to me that we are sure that we are one Body of Christ, even if there are things we might disagree about.  Five years after they came, I traveled to Uganda and Tanzania with Bishop Shaw (that’s when I started this blog).  I was actually in Kampala, Uganda on the day the Archbishop of Uganda was consecrated, along with Tom Shaw, himself a gay bishop (however celibate, being a monk and all).  We were wrapping up our visit with the Bishop Masereka Christian Foundation, where we learned about their work in Kasese, with AIDS prevention, maternal health, and children’s education. There were more important things on the table than human sexuality. 

What binds us together?  The communion of saints. The Prayer Book. Shared history.  Kind of like minecraft and foam swords.   We are in relationship with each other because we are in relationship with each other. Neither the primates’ gatherings nor the Archbishop of Canterbury were ever constructed as dogmatic doctrine-creating bodies. That’s not what they’re for.  They’re built for relationship. That’s it. And there are a lot of ways to be in relationship. My time in Uganda was amazing and transcendent, I’m embarrassed that I haven’t kept the connections made on that trip more strongly.   I do think that on Sunday I might stay late at Church to pray with St Peter’s, for whom debates like this are closer to home.

Being suspended is sad, but not tragic.   Gay teenagers getting kicked out of their homes by their parents? That’s tragic.  The murder of transpeople because of their gender expression? That’s tragic. Respecting the dignity of every human being, as we say in the baptismal covenant, to me means honoring LGBTQ persons at every level of the church. The humanity of all God’s people is not up for debate. It’s just not, and clearly, it’s “worth” whatever institutional penalty could be imposed.  Can we actually be kicked out of the Anglican Communion? Maybe, maybe not. If the bishops who voted the suspension think that we’re going to amend our gay-loving lifestyles in three years, they are clearly wrong. And if that means that we can’t go to the meetings, okay. But I am still part of a global family of churches that draw our lineage to the English Reformation, and I will still have a strange loyalty to the Book of Common Prayer, even though we print everything in a single leaflet at my church and almost never open the book itself.

This Sunday, I’ll preach the wedding at Cana: abundance and transformation and celebration and miracle.  I may even preach about weddings: the joining of two persons (of any gender) in love and faithfulness.  I’ll preach, too, about hope, that Jesus Christ who brought us into his body is strong enough to manage when we are struggling, and always gives us more than we dared ask for. 

Friday, December 25, 2015

Grace in the gaps between us: Christmas 2015

 Grace in the gaps between us

One of the best known stories from the Christian scriptures is, of course, the story of Christmas. Whether rendered in plastic or clay or straw or glass, you can buy a nativity scene almost anywhere. You don’t have to be a Christian to recognize this old, old story, and have your imagination caught by its meaning: even in these dark days of winter, hope endures, born in the form of a tiny child. Jesus brings together heaven and earth in tiny newborn hands.  I love that we in the cold Northeast receive this gift at this hard time of year.

Looking more closely, though, we also have the opportunity to invite a closer look at the Christmas story, the part that you can’t see in those manger scenes.  Like everything, it’s more complicated than it looks. Here’s the trouble: the Bible doesn’t say just one thing. There are four different accounts of Jesus’ life, and each one says something different about where he came from and why his life was important.

The shepherds only show up at the manger when the author of the Gospel of Luke tells the story. The magi, wise ones from the East, visit Jesus after his miraculous birth takes place in a house (in the book of Matthew). The Gospel of Mark mentions not one word about Mary as visited by the Holy Spirit or Jesus’ birth—he just starts off right away with Jesus’ ministry as an adult. The Gospel of John offers a fourth account, talking about Jesus not as miraculously given to Mary, but the one through whom the whole world came to be, the Word of God. No manger or house, in that one, no Holy Spirit and a young girl, or her profound declaration of “yes” to God.

So what gives? Why couldn’t the church have gotten its stories straight? With something as important as the birth of the one we call our savior, shouldn’t we at least have one answer about where he came from? We can try to harmonize the accounts like we do in our greeting cards, but I think we miss something when we impose an order that’s not there. Those shepherds are important, but not the whole story.  They symbolize the birth of God at the margins, in the outcast—the pregnant homeless teenager. Those wise ones, coming from the East, symbolize the universal nature of God, the fact that sometimes truth is recognized by those outside your own kin.   We need shepherds and kings, cosmic Christ and Jesus just appearing out of nowhere.

I don’t know how these many different stories sounded to the earliest Christians, but I believe in our world now the message of these different ways of believing couldn’t be more timely. In a world rife with religious strife, what we all need most is some humility.  We need, crucially, to remember that it could be otherwise—there could be many truths, many different ways to understand.  God speaks many languages and tells many stories to God’s people.

As an Episcopalian, with my planned-out worship in a big stone church, I need to remember that the storefront Pentecostals also know Jesus. As a Christian, I need to remember that my Muslim brothers and sisters also know One God, Creator of heaven and earth.  I need to remember that in my human mind, I can’t know how all the stories come together: not the stories of my own faith, and not where those stories touch the sacred stories of others.   I need to remember the mystery of love, and the grace of God that fills in the gaps between us.
Printed in the Waltham News Tribune Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2015.

More Christmas is here--listen in on my sermon from our service at Christ Church on Dec. 24!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Inky Love

Baby Isaiah and my old tattoo
Two ½  years ago, I had a rather large tattoo on my right arm done by Holly Azzara at Always and Forever in Watertown, Massachusetts.  It’s a mommy tattoo—my kids’ names, flowers, happy swallows.  Like children, it took up more room than I expected—neither population has any sense of moderation.  I had initially planned for it to incorporate the female symbol I had tattooed on my arm when I was 19, but Holly was unimpressed, and advised me to start over on the other arm or cover it up.

But I didn’t want to cover it up.
I wrote in this space then about why—the sentimental value of seeing the same image on my arm at my wedding, nursing my newborn children, graduating from college —that tattoo is in all of those pictures. It’s become lopsided and faded, but it’s me. It’s possible that I am also becoming a little lopsided. 

Until, until. I started to plan my next tattoo.  My first plan was to get a great blue heron. They symbolize a connection to place and wilderness that’s hard to come by so close to the city.  I’ve written tons of poems about the heron in the pond by the cemetery across the street from my house, and in the summer they fly over from daytime feeding grounds at the tiny lake to the west.  They’re beautiful and shadowy, motion and stillness at the same time. Grey, black, muted blue.   

At the end of the day, though, a bird is a bird. And while I may still get the heron done,  there was another image I couldn’t get out of my mind.

There is a woman (at least I see her as a woman) looking out with clear eyes and calm gaze. The green beneath her feet suggests the round earth under her. She is love. Just love. She has kind of a square face and looks like she’s seen a lot. But the way she looks out is just clear compassion. Total and complete love.

I sat opposite her window when I was on sabbatical in 2012 at Grace Medford, where my husband is t  So just over two weeks ago (10 months after the original decision was made), after 6 ½ hours of needle time, here she is.
he rector, which was when I was planning the mommy tattoo. And she just wouldn’t let me go.

And you can still see my old tattoo, shadowy in the background.  I have an appointment for January to go over and fill in any spots that didn’t heal properly, and maybe hide that a bit more. But I kind of love it.

The line in the original window from 1 Corinthians—“The greatest of these is charity”— you’ve heard at every wedding—is in the background, but I went for the Latin “Caritas” just on the top instead of all the words.  I have mixed feelings about Latin—you know, there’s that whole central tenant of Anglicanism that talks about worship in your own language—but I am setting those aside in favor of the wider Christian history of it. 

Getting ready to preach recently, I found another place in Scripture where this image resonates.

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'" He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth." Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

It’s an astonishing and tragic moment: he comes up to Jesus and bows down, offering deference and respect. “We can imagine that maybe he’s expecting to be told he’s doing well; he says he has kept all the commandments. But something unanticipated happens—Jesus looks at him, and loves him.  In that loving glance, Jesus sees him and knows him, and tells him what he’s missing. The man was looking for approval, not grace. Certainly not this kind of love that will change his life.  So he leaves.  For his security, and a deeper grief than he’s ever known.

This, it seems to me, is as clear a picture of hell as we ever see in the New Testament. Never mind all that stuff about the eternal fire where the worm never dies. This is the real thing.  All of the promises of God’s eternity so close he could touch it, and instead he turns his back.  Giving in to his fear, he can’t listen to his sorrow.  He walks away.  Even Job knew he was talking to God in the depths of despair, but the rich man has nothing.  Just his money. And he will find out that that’s not enough.

Jesus looks at him and loves him.  That’s what this woman is doing— this look in her eyes is so astonishingly clear, so generous, you can see her looking at you and loving you for who you are. And all of your anxiety, all of your perceived need to prove yourself or justify your status—it just melts. And you imagine that this is what love is.  With all the transcendent hope in the world, I want to say yes to it.

What about all the other stuff? the lilies and stems are Christ Church Waltham. The anchor is just cool, but we have one of those, too)