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