Thursday, October 23, 2014

From Fear to Trust: Remembering Tom Shaw, SSJE

At my church we’re having a discussion series on church—a fitting place to talk about it—and my co-leader brought his from Marilyn Sandberg.

When They Revolutionize Cocktail Parties

 “Hello, what are you afraid of?”

“Me too.”

“When you hear a Mahler symphony?”
“No, when I wake up in the night.”

“Nice meeting you”
“Same here.”

The stark simplicity of the scene is riveting; how often do we hear something earth shattering and then sweep it under the rug with polite chatter? It would, for sure, be quite a revolutionary cocktail party if we were this honest with each other.

That question is quite a challenge for church. When is church more like a cocktail party than a revolution? Is that really what God wants for us in community?  In the Gospel passage for Sunday we got the classic “render unto Caesar” bit.  We are made in the image of God—we give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but we belong to God and are invited to live from that holy knowledge. This is something that our former bishop Tom Shaw, who died last week so exemplified.  His security in his identity as rooted in God made space for others to live from that reality as well.  His life was an example of holy living, but also holy dying; he never pretended that everything was “fine.” But even when it wasn’t “fine” in the usual sense, when he was dying and there were no more treatments, it was all still good. He lived in full view of the gift of his 69 years, often remarking how much better it had all turned out than he expected.  In his video meditation on the end of his life
Tom talks about his gratitude and, sure, his desire to live for another 25 years, but he talks about his trust in God.  One of the reflections left on the page of SSJE, Tom’s monastic community, used the expression of how we can allow fear to “melt into trust.”   When do you long for your fear to “melt into trust?” What is that moment like? 

On Tuesday I felt this so powerfully as we gathered for our Eucharist after our education. My kids don’t usually come, since with a 25 minute drive home it’s way past their bedtime once we’re finally done, but since it was a vestry night for their dad, they got to come along with me.  During the service Adah, just turned five, was totally losing it—no matter how many times I asked her to be still, she was crawling up the pulpit and down the stairs, making faces and laughing during our quiet reflection time. I love seeing other people’s  kids enjoying themselves (even, yes, sometimes in “inappropriate” ways in church) but when I have to lead a service, it’s much less endearing when it’s my own kids I want to have under control. So I was a bit distracted and cranky, trying to extend us all some compassion.  I am surely thankful for the grace extended us by the other 10 people gathered!

In any case, I had a “fear melting into trust” moment during the Eucharistic prayer. Finally understanding that it was truly not possible for Adah to control herself at 8:00 on a school night, I scooped her up and had her on my hip. I’m used to holding her, of course, but with two arms!   When the time in the prayer came for the elevation of the bread and wine, of course, I shifted her over—and I’m strong, but 40lbs is a lot of pounds on one arm. Holding her, though, and holding the bread on the other hand and saying those words “Take, eat, this is my body, given for you,” I had a knock-your-socks-off moment of realization—This. Is. True.  And I trusted it—trusted God, and that moment, and my parenting, and my kid and the marvelous and strange journey it is to be a parent and a priest, sometimes at the same time.  And, with Tom, I give thanks.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Box trolls and the co creatorship of the holy

Last Saturday, daughter A. (about to turn 5 in a few weeks) and I, finding ourselves alone and ready for a treat, went to see Boxtrolls, in the theater. It’s possible that this is the second movie she’s ever consented to staying for the whole thing. Maleficent was too scary, Winnie the Pooh too boring, and, of course, Frozen was the other winner.  A. did find this movie quite terrifying in parts, but I was able to convince her to stay, and thankfully, she missed her nap at pre-K today so she actually fell asleep tonight.

The movie is about a boy who is raised by trolls who live their lives in boxes, like hermit crabs. (note: if you’re interested in maintaining any narrative suspense to the movie, read this after you see it).  The movie takes for granted that this is not remarkable, so you don’t get any backstory about how they choose their boxes (the father figure troll is named “fish” because he wears a fish box; the boy is named “egg” because he wears a box that had once carried eggs, and so on). Whatever the circumstances that lead to their fantastical underground existence, a villain appears whose mission it is to exterminate the box trolls in exchange for the white hat of the powerful cheese eaters. The irony is that our villain is actually allergic to cheese, and his morally ambivalent henchmen (who turn good at the end) have to bleed him with leaches to bring him back to sanity him every time he eats cheese.

 Like all of us, he wants something that’s just not good for him. That it takes place in an island kingdom focused on cheese is one of the less strange parts of it.

In any case, drama ensues, and the boy finds out, with the help of a plucky young girl (daughter of the cheese obsessed white hat kingpin), that he’s not actually a troll, but a boy.  He can take his box off.

The climax of the movie comes when the boy discovers that the villain is about to crush his box family to death (we find out along the way that his father gave him to the trolls to save him—they are the only family he’s ever known). The boy—Eggs—has found their evil lair and is thrilled to discover they’re alive, but then is captured before he can get them out safely.  Watching from a cage hanging over them, he entreats them to leave their boxes and flee to safety. “You make you! You make you! You can leave! You can be safe!” He shouts at them but the villain crushes the boxes, insisting they’ll never change.

 It’s the perfect American story.
I’ve always had a problem with that glowing, individualist “you make you” insistence.  We made us, we insist on Columbus day, erasing violence and illness and theft against those who were America before it was America.  We made us, we insist on Thanksgiving, invoking happy helpful Native Americans who saved our lives.

 Sure you make you, sure, you “think therefore you are,” but so much of the “you,” for good as well as for ill, is made by your circumstances, the people you know and how you find yourself in the world. Circumstance makes who you are.  Circumstance makes how you think, it makes the very categories you have to see.  My white middle class ordained Episcopal priest heterosexually married mother of two perch in the world makes it impossible to see from anywhere else. I will always be that woman. I didn’t make that. I became that. I didn’t make my Swedish mother who taught me to be suspicious of jingoistic patriotism and I didn’t make my academic father who understands himself so much as a teacher that a month after retiring he told his university he’d come back and do it for free.  They helped to make me. My childhood friends, my college, my seminary—all of them, for good and ill, left their fingerprints, and bruises.  We’ve all been made, tossed out into the world and left to wander.  Certainly there is meaning and grace and manna in the wilderness; we don’t wander alone.  Sometimes it’s the things we weren’t taught by someone else that makes us all the more motivated to figure them out ourselves.  But you? You didn’t exactly make you.

The boxtroll boy Eggs didn’t make himself. The other boxtrolls made him who he is. His father, knowing where safe passage could be had in giving him to the trolls, made him who he is.

Except that attitude will also crush us.
Whether they are the scars of our childhoods, the pain of our own errors, or the cruelty of others, living bound to the path the past has set us on leaves us all sitting trolls bound for the furnace. 

As a Christian, I’m aware that forgiveness has a lot to do with this. Forgiveness of ourselves, forgiveness of others. The thing is, not only is it hard to do, it’s also hard to understand what forgiveness is in the first place. A parishioner who’s preaching for our service for domestic violence awareness month says “Forgiving myself for my mistakes was not the same thing as blaming myself for the abuse. It was just a step in the process toward healing.”  It may sound a little trite to say it’s hardest to forgive yourself first, but it really is.  This is where, to Christian spiritual/religious types, Jesus might come in. to know that in the life of Jesus it was possible to return peace in the face of violence, it makes it possible for us to do so as well. There is a transcendent power of love in the universe that makes freedom possible.  We are forgiven, but we can’t forgive others until we believe this ourselves. This is joint work with God; God’s not going to swoop in, a la Glenda the good witch, and wave a magic wand to fix things, but when we long to mend what is broken, God will always be with us.

So forgive. It’s your chance for making you.
Don’t get sent to the furnace.

note: lovely as it is that the trailer for the movie begins “Some kids have two moms, some kids have two dads, some kids are raised by trolls,” the villain’s drag queen alter ego is a little sketchy.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

We are here!...Wild Goose 2014

The Main Stage
We left the Wild Goose Festival  on Sunday, a three day festival of “justice, spirituality, and music,” to which I would add mud, tattoos, and progressive evangelicals.  I’m not sure how many hundreds of people were there, but it’s kind of a pop-up Christian community of campers, speakers, and musicians for a weekend. We went last year, too, when there were bigger names; Krista Tippett from NPR interviewed a bunch of the presenters, and it felt like there was a certain imperative to listen to people who had written Big Books—James Alison, Brian McLaren, Phyllis Tickle—on the big stage when I had the chance.  Vincent Hardingwho died in May, was there last year, too, and I do feel grateful to have heard him.  But the best talks we went to were the smaller-tent ones, where you actually had more of a conversation, and not someone far away giving a faster, less nuanced version of their latest book.  So I went in with that in mind, as well as with a considerably better frame of mind, given that our last foray into the mountains and wild woods of Western North Carolina left us with a long trip with a tow truck and some pretty scary driving (including the falling-off of our tent trailer in a lovely clearing at Wolf Creek Falls in the Cherokee National Forest).

The Big Top
So this time, I spent a lot of time in the “Carnival” tent. It was hosted by the Carnival de Resistance,  a crew of poets, dancers, artists, and activists. Also academics, but they had their prophetic hats on, so it was never abstract in the way that academic thought can be (abstraction I love, but still).  Jim Perkinson talked about American white supremacism and how living in inner city Detroit and learning from the African-American community there had saved his soul.  Ched Myers,   whose work I’ve long been interested in, talked about the Christian invitation to love our watershed, not just change our light bulbs because we ought to. Dee Dee Risher, former editor of  The Other Side Magazine   (and author of the article about Vincent Harding I linked above) not un-gently pointed out to my query about bringing liberative Bible Study back to my parish that I had to nurture my own education as well.

I remember reading in college about the post medieval French charivari in Natalie Zemon-Davis’ 

work, the intentional upside-down celebration where the poor became rich and the rich became poor, if only for a day. It served as an escape valve; if you let those on the bottom feel like they’re on top for just a day or two, how much easier it is to keep them on the bottom for the rest of the year (There is certainly some good economic analysis to be done here when it comes to contemporary American politics, too—but that is for another time).
This carnival was more in line with what has long attracted me about poetry, and what I was longing after in my writing sabbatical in 2012. Poetry isn’t for anything, in the same way that the guy wearing a fake nose and horns on his forehead and a skirt wasn’t dressed up in that way to accomplish anything.  Instead, carnival is about hope and imagination; to shock us out of the compulsion of the ordinary, even if just for a minute.

From their welcome sign (see below for full text):
We wish with our bodies to contradict claims that civilization has made about how necessary its gifts are to a life well lived and again to playfully produce, if not proof, some early evidence that a life of another stripe might be realistic, even necessary.

Life of another stripe might be realistic, even necessary.
So under the carnival tent were wonder- workers of knowledge and activism—working repentance and newness and thought in oppressed communities of inner city Detroit, First Nations people of Canada, and all over the globe, in and through our earth as it suffers as well.  The carnival space felt liturgical.  At the end of one session we wandered into, we were invited to greet each other with this: “We are here! We are here!” which would not have been out of place (maybe without the puppets and face paint) in my own parish community as we pass the peace on Sunday mornings.

We are here! This is the human interaction that says, “I see you, and yes, we are here. We have been created for more than buying and selling. We have been created to see each other.” We are here!  We see each other!  We remember!  We remember, not just each other, but everyone.  Poor people in Detroit whose water is getting shut off. New immigrants, whether or not they have the correct paperwork.  People you disagree with. Women who have lost their right to their full health care benefits (thanks, Hobby Lobby and Supremes). We are all here. God made me. God made you. Before we’re supposed to “witness” God’s love to each other, God invites us to witness the Other in the first place, see each other at all.  Jim Perkinson pointed out that the beginning of the Gospel—the beginning of the Gospel, that we so often remind ourselves is “good news”—is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. The cry is the beginning.

Carnival is unsettling in all the right ways—there are more questions than I can name. How am I living Christian values of giving up power—having economic power as part of the middle class, having white privilege in this bruised, bruising, and racist country, having the privilege of a position of, if not power, at least comfort in the (institutional) Episcopal Church. One of the Big Names of the weekend was Jim Wallis, talking about racism as America’s original sin—I did leave the carnival tent for that.

I love so much about my life, but my life is, objectively, not that hard.  I love parish ministry, I love sharing sacraments, I love being a parent.  But it’s also true that I’m a parish minister in a place with an endowment.  My kids always have enough to eat. There are certain comforts that make it easier for me to love what I do. What was great about the Carnival tent, though, was the shimmering, holy joy of finding a way to live differently: the bean bag toss game “Cleanse the Temple” to remind us of Jesus’ invitation to faith without commerce, the puppets, the parades, the anti-clock tower. As Ghandi used to say, “Renounce and enjoy!” 

I imagine—I hope!—I will spend some more time thinking about this.  One of the talks I went to was called “Slow Church,”   about how freaking long it takes to establish yourself in a community and to listen to what the community needs, to respond authentically to those who are there and where God might be leading. Heading into my tenth year as rector of Christ Church Waltham, I look forward to some slow reflection, and pray for the patience to sit still for it as well as in thanksgiving for the conversation partners traveling there.

...[more great Goose times were had learning music with Ana Hernandez, a rousing altar-call to social justice sermon by the Rev. William Barber, catching up with friends, and splashing in all the mud puddles (it rained all weekend)... but I have to stop writing at some point.]

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The tree in the church yard

The tree in the corner
of the church yard
looks like the stomach of a woman
who has given birth.

Round and slack
(but mostly)
Arms able to bear growth
as well as
to say goodbye.

My children’s names
are etched in ink in my skin
tracing, swirling lines,
as though I could forget them.
Merit badge for rebellion,
another soccer mom longing
for a nap.

The tree will outlast me.
Her round belly presiding
magisterially over weddings,
burials, easter vigils  and egg hunts
Years after our dust
returns to dust.
Years after the blue-black earth
claims me back, tattoos long faded
children long grown.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Equal marriage in Pennsylvania--rejoicing, again.

This week, I’m all aflutter about the decision in my home state of Pennsylvania to allow same sex marriage. Of course, it’s been the law in my chosen state for ten years (we moved here in 2004, too, the same year it came through), but this feels different. Pennsylvania is such a big state—the part I’m from is basically Ohio—and while it’s may not be such a paradigm shift for Philadelphia, for Erie, this changes a lot.   Admittedly there was something Onion-satire-like about the headline on the Erie Times-News: “Another same sex couple applies for marriage license.”

In Massachusetts, this is old news.  Still, there’s something about the place where I’m from recognizing the right to marriage for all people that feels healing. My right to marry my spouse was never questioned because my beloved happens to be male, but that is not the case for one of my high school best friends, who had three weddings with her wife—one commitment ceremony, one legal NH civil union (presided over by yours truly), and one party when that civil union became a legal marriage on January 1 2011. Phew. They had to buy a lot of champagne.   

Marriage is a sacrament, a gift, and a blessing. There’s an old image of the church that imagines us as “the bride of Christ”—this is not an image that I feel particularly drawn toward, but it reminds us that the covenant of marriage is holy—and the failure of the church or the state to extend equal benefits to all is just an injustice.  Of course I believe in separation of church and state, but I also want a wedding I officiate in church to be legal in the eyes of the state. I haven’t been to Pennsylvania in years, but I still feel so grateful for this. Judge John Jones, in the PA case wrote, “In the sixty years since Brown was decided, 'separate' has thankfully faded into history, and only 'equal' remains. Similarly, in future generations, the label 'same-sex marriage' will be abandoned, to be replaced simply by 'marriage.' We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history"   

This is the country we are becoming; we’re not there yet, but slowly, slowly.  This is what we say we’ll do in our baptismal covenant: to strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being.   With each state where marriage for all becomes a reality, we get just a little closer to making that possible.  Oregon went this week, too.  I’ve written this stuff in my parish newsletter before. I’ll write it again. It’s like that parable Jesus tells in Luke 15:

Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.

 Every time, every time there is a victory for peace and justice, we are called to rejoice. So today, I’m rejoicing for those two couples in my hometown who’ve gotten their marriage licenses.  Easter continues! 

PS--for the face of gay Erie, PA, I present Jessie and Ricardo, also known on facebook as "The gay guys who ride around Erie on a bicycle made for two," a fan page with almost 6000 followers."

Interview: Art in Tandem

Friday, May 16, 2014

Jesus in my Confidence Gap

I live on a fairly busy street, busy enough that the first major thing we did with the house after we bought it was to install a fence along the front lawn. We’re also across the street from a cemetery and a tiny patch of conservation land that borders it. In a densely populated area, this open space invites some rather unwholesome behavior. I’ve never found a hypodermic needle in front of my house, but there are countless cigarette butts all the time, and last year I found an aluminum can converted into a pipe not used for tobacco.  It’s the plastic bottles that are the worst, though—half of them are filled with snuff spit, a disgusting brown liquid I throw into the trash so fast I can’t even think about recycling them.  This makes me wonder—if you’re going to the trouble to be so sanitary that you need to spit in a plastic bottle, perhaps you might take the next step that if you don’t want it near you, I don’t want it near me, or my kid waiting for the bus.   

Last week, though, clearing out the junk as I always have to before I cut the grass, there was something else. Embedded into the grass closest to the fence was one wooden bead rosary.  My  mom is really into Anglican rosaries—she makes beautiful ones with agate and turquoise, almost too nice to pray with. Whether from the weather or from repeated handling, this one has been around for a while, and the crucifix that usually hangs at the front knot had fallen off. It’s also missing a whole set of beads on one side—Wikipedia tells me this is one “decade” to be used for the recitation of ten Hail Marys—this thing has been through a lot.  I tried to wash it but the thread started to disintegrate so it’s now hanging it on my rear view mirror.  It makes me feel very religious.

After finding it, I began to have all kinds of romantic thoughts about how symbolic it all is, so Christ like, so precious.  Jesus is looking for me all the time—all the time!—even in my suburban lawn. And isn’t it wonderful.  Sure, God is looking for all of us, but is God looking for me in the crappy part of the grass that always gets covered in trash? Really? With the Jesus torn off?  Is this a metaphor for me losing stuff in the grass, or is it about my own discomfort with the person of Jesus?   I could travel far on this. 

What I hadn’t done with the rosary was actually pray with it. Actual prayer has a way of cutting through the sentimental stuff—it’s easy to parrot the more attractive parts of the Christian story, but actually believing it can be another thing. So I prayed. And the trash on the lawn came into view, and it wasn’t what I thought it was.

Usually, the internal trash on the lawn—the really gross stuff that is left behind after someone has had a big party in the woods, the snuff bottles and the beer cans—usually I think of that stuff as falling into the big political categories. Income inequality. My too-big carbon footprint, inactivity in the face of the racist prison-industrial complex, the indulgence of buying Chilean strawberries in the dead of winter.   Blame, shame, and the intractability of injustice that, further stuck, leads me to get another beer from the fridge and watch some more TV.

Lately, though, and if I’m honest for the last number of years, something else has also been gnawing at me, which just feels lame and indulgent.  The other trash in the grass for me is just my tired, solipsistic self-doubt, verging on loathing occasionally, but mostly just a generalized insecurity.  It’s not just me, either—a  while ago I had a conversation with a few female colleagues about an Atlantic Monthly  article about the “Confidence Gap” between men and women—about the epidemic of doubt that many, many women struggle with, particularly in their professional lives.

This is backed up by data—how much less willing we are to apply for higher positions, about how anxious and uncertain we are about our gifts and skills. Men will apply for a position if they meet 60% of the qualifications—women won’t unless they’re sure they’re at 100%, and even then we apologize about our perceived shortcomings.  I heard a story on NPR the other day, too, about why women don’t run for office—both democrats and republicans, we just don’t think we’re ready.

I certainly have my own share of self-doubt—the degree of panic I feel at pressing “publish” on a blog that has had its readership peak at 340 (not exactly a global phenomenon, saraiwrites)—speaks to my deep sense of uncertainty, of wondering whether there is anything worth saying, and whether I have the words for it in the first place. It’s vulnerability, anxiety at being judged, of fearing to be “in the arena” as shame researcher Brene Brown puts it, quoting Theodore Roosevelt.

Here’s another example.
We have a pickup truck. I find myself needing to rationalize it to myself and others—it’s so we can easily go camping, as we have a tent trailer that is rather difficult for the station wagon (despite having hauled it for 10,000 miles on our 2013 trip—see “Santa Fe, Flat Tire”  for more info on that). So once in a while it falls to me to drive it, if I have something big to haul or if the snow is just too awful.   When I drive the truck, I become a timid first-time driver. I worry I’m taking up too much space. I clutch the steering wheel with both hands, as though my white knuckles will widen the road.  When my husband drives the truck—most every day, since his work is only two miles away and it’s a lot less gas than if I took it for my commute, it looks like it’s an expansive expression of power and traditional masculinity.   But my name is on the loan, too, so the truck is just as much mine. 

It’s not that he doesn’t worry about hitting other cars, it’s not that he doesn’t worry about his performance on any given task, but it’s that apprehension isn’t permitted to take center stage.  The apprehension is a feeling alongside other feelings. For me, unless I absolutely have to do it, the anxiety looms larger than life—larger than the skills I had to begin with.  

Which brings me back to the rosary in the grass. If God is really going to be looking for me everywhere, which is part of the whole Christian story, that work of loving and reconciling, the incarnation of God in Jesus.  And it’s in that very moment of doubt, of hearing the high pitched voice in my head that has nothing new to say, that makes me crawl back under the covers, which is exactly when stuff shows up in my path and says, “Here! look at this! Something interesting just happened. Put on your big girl pants.”

So much of this comes back to vulnerability. The 91 year old with a broken ankle who talked about how many of her friends have died.  My son, self-conscious and not wanting me to hug him in view of the school bus.  My bishop, diagnosed with brain cancer a year ago. There is something about the vulnerability of in all of these that just feels holy. Like standing near a fire, you have to pay attention, you want to come closer. I’m looking for the places that my vulnerability demands not just my anxiety, but also my respect—to be gentle with myself, not to fall into the harsh (and somehow easier) silencing judgment.


Saturday, May 3, 2014

On bringing all of yourself to church

I never take my children to church.  I’m a priest and my husband is a priest, so our babysitter comes to our house at 7am and takes the kids to church later. She’s the one to handle trips to the bathroom, dropped crayons, and demands for snacks in the middle of prayers and hymns.  I would be lying if I said there was no upside to this.  While I love to have my children in church, I don’t always love to be there with them.  When our second child was born my husband and I both had time bringing the kids to church when we were on parental leave, but mostly it’s the odd vacation Sunday here or there.  It’s hard work to be in church with kids, and I don’t have much practice.

As part of my letter of agreement with my parish I have the week after Easter off, so on the the Sunday after Easter, it fell to us to decide Where to Go to Church.  My husband and I celebrate the Eucharist one weekday a month for a tiny convent in the next town over, so I got up early and took our daughter to their 7:30 am Sunday service. The sisters are all in their 70’s and 80’s and love, love, love children.   When our son was born, it was the first place we brought him for church, at 10 days old. It was Easter, 2007, and I think after we walked in the door the sisters traded him back and forth for the whole morning.  The chapel is warm and cool at the same time, with stone and white and simple stained glass. Whenever I step behind the altar there, whatever I’m carrying with me goes away. It’s one of my happy places.  

It’s much harder for church to be your happy place when you’re trying to entertain a four year old. In a crowd of fifteen, the whispered request to draw a picture is not subtle.  I’m well aware of how the sound that seems like a thunderclap to a parent is barely a sneeze to everyone else, but you still assume everyone is staring.  Whatever your kid is doing seems incredibly louder than what everyone else might be doing. We made it through okay though—no breakdowns, no tears, no mad dash for the bathroom.  Having my kid in church was great! Wholeness, peace, integration, euphoria.   A holy time of actually parenting (as opposed to just being a parent) in church. Amen, Alleluia. 

the custom at the chapel is for everyone to gather up at the altar steps, so you’re all standing together in a row, close together. Adah and I ended up on the end, next to an older woman I didn’t recognize (I did know most of the people gathered, from somewhere or another).  We were pretty much fine—a few loud kisses, maybe—until Adah got down and put her face in the lilies—so delighted!—so darling!—and then started driving her car up and down the steps. No vroom vroom, but not exactly silent, either.

The woman next to me turned to me and whisper-demanded, “Can’t you stop it?”
By “it,” I assumed she meant the driving of the car. I whispered, “Is it bothering you?” and scooped up the girl and her truck and held her for a while.

And that was a downer, until I gave into my righteous indignation.  Doesn’t she know who I am?  Doesn’t she have any sense of respect for the f*king wonder of a child who is comfortable in a worship space?  I also admit I felt a bit smug about my passive aggressive response. 

So much for that sense of peace and wholeness.  Suddenly “my space” was not so much mine anymore.

I’ve been in my parish for almost nine years and in that time our level of kid noise has increased a lot—I’m militantly tolerant of it. This has not always gone down so smoothly with some members, but the growth in vitality (and, frankly, human bodies) has convinced the doubters that it might at least be a necessary evil.  I’ve had the conversations about how children “just need to learn to behave” and that church is “special,” and yes, absolutely.

Yes, absolutely, but liturgy works on us in so many more ways than we know—all of your distracted thoughts, all of your random word associations, all of it comes together in holy pieces only Jesus could try to figure out. For a four year old, that’s the markers and the plastic dinosaur.  At seven, it’s begging permission to play minecraft with seven other kids crowded around one tiny screen while scarfing down five cookies at coffee hour. For a thirteen year old, maybe it’s the sullen expression covering a secret (perhaps very uncool) joy at being able to help at the altar. At seventeen, it’s finding that something is the same: even when everything else is about to change you can still come and get fed.  In the sacraments we bring what we have—bread, wine, water—and it’s transformed. The same goes for our own contributions as adults, whatever they are.

Here’s the other thing—the stakes are just too high to be strict about this kind of thing. If you’re already in church, perhaps you are sure that God loves you. Maybe you have had some experience of grace and acceptance that makes you come back.  Maybe you actually are perfect.  But if you’re on the edges, or coming for the first time, and somebody doesn’t want you? Game over. Because let’s be clear—if you don’t want my kid, you probably don’t want me either. Sometimes I will forget to turn my phone off, and sometimes I’ll come late.   So let’s just agree that we all need “the Jesus bread” and go easy on each other, OK?

As for the unhappy lady, Adah and I were more respectful.  Hospitality goes both ways; those who are already in church can be welcoming by cutting some slack; those who are newer can be sensitive to their impact. So  Adah put her face back in the flowers, which was just as distracting but quieter, and also cuter.  Twenty years from now, she won’t remember this week. She’ll mostly remember her parents far away at an altar. But hopefully part of her will remember that sense of security, of comfort, where prayers are said and pictures are drawn, and all of it goes toward (maybe meanderingly, but toward) the glory of God.

[for fancified writing about liturgy and all of our different selves, a shorter version of my MDiv. thesis was published in Worship: The Religiophoneme: Liturgy and Some Uses of Deconstruction

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Poem For Marathon Day 2013

I wrote this poem last year the day of the Boston Marathon bombing. Having lived in New York City on September 11, 2001, so much of the experience of public tragedy felt familiar, but on a smaller scale. In New York we were a mile and a half from the site; this time, eight miles away in Medford. I still struggle with how the lives of those lost in that tragedy--because it seemed so random--are perceived to be more publicly grievable than others (I blogged about this for my parish--see that post here). "Urban violence" is seen as somehow expected, and therefore less worthy of the attention. This is, obviously total bullshit.  But that fact also doesn't make it less traumatic for a bomb to go off on a clear April day.

Marathon Day, or April 15, 2013

This is the day as it becomes
the date
4/15, 9/11, 7/7 the list
goes on

Our faces know this pinched expression
tightly turned in lips
lines deepening between tired yes

Our faces will stay this way
for some time.

Then we forget.

Not from apathy, but survival
or compassion for ourselves

(though some can never forget, the loss so great)

And what is forgetting, after all
we overestimate the moral weight of our own feelings

longing for substance, weight
but still, it is a luxury.

Our faces will stay this way for some time
we forget
it happens again

(it happens to so many, every day)

We reckon with this world
confronted by its suffering
always someone

whose face is lined with grief
broken by sorrow
healed by love

even as it happens

and our faces

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Making the right mistakes

 This year, again, my parish will participate in “Ashes to go,” a newish practice in the church in which we go to wherever the people are to share prayers (and dust)  for Ash Wednesday. I and a smallish team will be at the Waltham Massachusetts Commuter Rail Station, a few blocks from the parish.  Last year we were on our own—about seven people participated throughout the morning—but this year, we’re partnering with Chaplains on the Way, a mostly-homeless ministry. I appreciate this especialy because, in a way, the street is their church. I wonder about how many people, who, for whatever reason, don’t feel comfortable coming into a church, and how powerful a witness it is to leave our comfort zone of having people come to us.  Will someone have a more “deep” experience in coming to church? As a priest I’d probably hope so, but I also shouldn’t make assumptions about what happens between an individual and God, no matter where they’re standing. I heard a quote about meditation once that said that you could open the window, but you couldn’t make the breeze come in. That probably applies here—when fewer and fewer people having traditional church backgrounds, we need to throw open as many windows as we can.

It’s not an easy question, though—how far can you go from tradition before you’ve lost the center of what you’re committed to in the first place? What are we inviting people toward if we compromise too far?  How much do we ask of people who come to have a child baptized? Do they have to come for a few weeks, months, a year? Do they have to officially join the parish by making a financial pledge? What about receiving communion? It’s the practice in our diocese in many places, including Christ Church, to offer communion to everyone, whether or not they’re baptized. The prayer book and church canons say baptism should come first. Here, again, we are trying to open the windows.

Adherence to tradition is one of those places where we strive for faithfulness, not necessarily the 100% always-and-everywhere-iron-clad rule.  Faithfulness, it seems to me, is deciding which side you’re going to err on.   Will we be devoted to orthodoxy or openness? What’s at stake on both sides?  There are a lot of times when I defer to tradition—the Nicene Creed, for example—but here, I think there is actually something to say for asking what Jesus would do.  His first goal, most often, was to get people to the table.  Once you’re there, you can talk more, debate, pick sides.  As the parable in Luke 14  tells it, when the nice, qualified guests wouldn’t come for the feast, the host told his servant quite unequivocally: “Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.”  When he does that and there’s still space, he goes out to make everybody else come in.  Would it have been a better party if the well-educated and polite people had come? It’s completely possible. Would they have appreciated the expensive wine more? Maybe. But that’s not what God’s table is about.  (see my post from last year in which I had just been the parent helper in my kid’s Godly Play class in which we did the lesson on the Great Banquet when we were going out for ashes).  

I do appreciate, though, that it’s a discussion to be had. It’s not an uncontroversial stance, it’s not necessarily an “of course!” moment.  And once—if—this gets settled, there will be something else to struggle with. As we grow into the church we’re called to be, we are trying to follow a Jesus who’s always just a little ahead, taking us a little further than we thought we could go.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Fall Over (or, please don’t read this blog post)

  Can we please stop talking about Sheryl Sandberg and Lean In?
There have been so many excellent critiques of the book, from Susan Faludi on Baffler talking about feminism and capitalism to bell hooks talking about the white supremacist capitalist hetero patriarchy on the feminist wire. Please read them. I’m not going to add to their substantial and brilliant analysis of how having more women “at the top” won’t make things better for all women. It is worth it to repeat hooks’ point that if the media hadn’t anointed Sandberg the Voice of the Feminist Movement the book wouldn’t matter as much.  It would also be great if we could channel this energy for fury against war, greed, and inequality instead.

One of the things that’s galling about Sandberg is that she is not 100% wrong. As one of the women of privilege that she’s talking to-- well-educated, professional, etc--yes, I do lots of self-undermining.  Women are not taking our places at the table, both literally and metaphorically.   Sometimes I don’t because I’m too tired. Sometimes I want to be with my family instead. Sometimes I’m just afraid.  Sandberg is full of things I’d tell my six year old: Believe in yourself!  It’s OK to make mistakes. You can do it!  What’s wrong with that?

Here’s an example.
Just this week, the slate of bishop candidates for Maryland was announced. They are all women. Sounds great, right? But here’s the thing: it’s a suffragan position. Suffragan bishops have few choices in their role and limited power vis a vis the diocesan bishop (also: all the candidates are white). Our diocese has long had a woman suffragan bishop. Gayle Harris serves in that role now.  Before her, it was Barbara Harris, the first woman to be bishop anywhere in the Anglican Church (and African American, too).  Our next bishop election is in April, and there was one woman on the official slate of five. On facebook, ambivalence reigned about the Maryland group. Some shared enthusiastically: “All women!” and others shared with no comment.  Many women of my age, the younger Gen X or older Gen Y folks, were kind of baffled. 

I wouldn’t find it remarkable if a slate were all men, necessarily, so for parity’s sake maybe we ought not find it remarkable that a slate is all women. The candidates are strong. We need more women bishops, particularly since it’s a life appointment and, for church-wide governance purposes, a bishop is a bishop.  Still, I can’t shake the feeling that for Maryland, with a male bishop safely at the helm, it feels creative and cool to have a woman in second place when the stakes don’t seem as high.   

I want female bishops. I want us all to “lean in” and take our place at the table and not be ashamed to ask where the women’s bathroom is. The thing that the Maryland election reveals, though, is the impossible place that this patriarchal double bind has put us in.  Yes, we want women to be in these jobs.  But for every candidate in one election to be a woman, it just feels like gender is being elevated to the level of qualifying credential. And that’s where we can’t win.   That’s where having all women feels almost as bad as having no women. And that’s where it’s so clear what a broken system this is: when something that you 100% want to be the outcome (more women in senior positions) is sure to happen, but you just don’t want it to happen this way.

So here we are.
Here’s the other thing: I don’t want to just swallow the lie that human worth is measured in our salaried accomplishments and that speeding back to our smartphones after the kids are in bed is any way to live a life. I can’t imagine not checking my email after 6pm or on weekends. Can. Not. Imagine It.  My work as a priest is part of my life all the time.  But I also don’t want to buy into the narcissism that I have to—or can—fix everything, or that the sun rises and sets on the speed of my reply.   I want to be sure to regard my vocation as a whole person, priest, mother, spouse, all of it, as equally important. In helping me to find this path that God has presumably invested some energy in my doing all of it.  Not doing it all perfectly, but doing it.  I want to remember that I can fall over into the grace and compassion of God, that I don’t have to work so hard all the time to prove myself.

My feelings about an obscure ecclesiastical election in a place I don’t live are not the point here. The point is that for as long as we look at hierarchy and accomplishment as the metric by which we judge ourselves, we’re still going to be slogging forward, second place win by second place win. Wanting a female CEO to make 500 times what the average employee of her company makes is not progress for all women. We’re still going to argue over our small piece of the pie, envying the apparent “have it all” success of women like Sandberg at the same time as judging her as too capitalist and out of touch.  Closer to home, as long as our church operates on a hierarchical model where being a bishop is the crown of your career instead of a particular vocation to which people of any age or gender or shape of parish career might be called to, we’re going to fail to see the skills of women as well as men.

And with that, good night. I have some pointless PBS shows to watch whilst ignoring my professional potential.  

ps: thanks to Nicole Janelle and Sasha Killewald for reading the first draft!