Thursday, November 10, 2016

Release to the captives and freedom for the oppresssed

November 10, in response to the Trump election

This morning I’m writing in gratitude for the community we share, and in hope for our God who works wonders. Last night we gathered for Eucharist in the choir, about twenty of us, praying for the vulnerable and the afraid, reminding ourselves of God’s great providence and grace. The gospel text I chose for the day was of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry as told in the Gospel of Luke:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Jesus announces that that prophecy is fulfilled in him, that as the people gather there they are seeing the good news brought to the poor and release proclaimed to captives.The oppressed are free and the blind are given sight. Jesus goes on to do those things—healing, saving, transforming. The love of God in his life was so strong, so brave, that nothing could stop it, not even death.

Hearing those words, we remembered together that the mission of the church is that same mission. Like Jesus, we occupy the place between the truth of God’s power and love and the truth of our broken and fragile world. In God’s dream of transcendent peace, Muslim women aren’t afraid to wear their veils while walking down the street. Immigrant kids don’t worry that their parents will get deported. LGBTQ people don’t worry their marriages will be dissolved. White supremacists don’t get air time next to legitimate political actors. We rest in that dream, at the same time as we live in a world where all of those things happen. One particular heartbreak and inspiration yesterday was reading the letter superintendent Echelson sent to faculty and staff of Waltham schools. Immigrant students are wondering if they should drop out of school, he said, to start making much money as they can, worried they’ll get deported. Arabic speakers are afraid for their safety. Echelson wrote, “Our students, particularly those students who might not feel safe right now because of their immigration status, perceived religion or any other variable, need us to show up for them.”

This is the transcendent, im/possible place: the place of the cross before the resurrection. The love of God is already showing up on the cross. The love of God is with the gay kid getting beat up and the woman being sexually assaulted. The love of God is incarnate in the mosque on Moody Street, at Temple Beth Israel, at St Mary’s and Sacred Heart. The love of God is showing up in Chaplains on the Way, at AA, at the Community Day Center. The love of God has always been there and will continue to be there. There are places where it hasn’t yet been born, but it is there. Our task as people of faith is to be midwives, to stand in support and accompany God’s love into the world.

We can do this: to bring that love to the desolate places, to have the courage to speak love to the dark abyss. To show up. That is our mission no matter who is president, no matter what prejudice seems to become acceptable. That is our mission, too, to those who disagree, to whom we are still bound in faith and love, who no less need the gift of God’s love.


(P.S. My sermon from last night is on soundcloud.)

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Making feminist church

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus –Galatians 3:28

What does a feminist church look like?
This past week I was at a conference with young (ish) clergy in the church and was surprised to find myself asking that question.  I write about gender in this space all the time, it’s one of my own primary categories of thought. I spend my life in “the church” and have been at my parish for almost 11 years. Still, I don’t think I had ever phrased the question in quite that way.  A church is just a church. It can be inclusive or exclusive at any given time, receiving the ministries of all of God’s people with beauty and grace or not.  But what makes a feminist church?

My peers and I grew up in a church where women’s ordination was taken for granted. I’m 37. It’s been forty two years since the first women in Philadelphia and Washington DC were ordained “irregularly.” 40 years since the wider church voted officially to ordain women as priests. We’ve had a female presiding bishop—the head of the whole Episcopal Church.  We are reckoning with human sexuality, recognizing the gifts of the ministries of transgender people who help the church to understand how gender is neither binary nor biologically determined. We are making some progress! Still, from California to Cuba, women are still paid less, still occupy fewer senior roles, and still have difficulty advancing in their careers. (See my post about Leaning In/Falling Over in this space for all of my questions about what it means to “advance.”) For women of color and LGBTQ folks the journey is even more difficult.

At the conference I attended many of the women present met on our own.  We went around the room to share our stories. Woman after woman shared their own experiences: ministries dismissed, sexual harassment experiences swept under the rug, belittling by colleagues.  Everyone had a story.  It felt like a fault line of pain and trauma had cracked open. It settled over all of us and it had to go somewhere.  The wider group took up the conversation and the Holy Spirit whirled among us. Voices were heard.

One of our members has observed about how our official polity channels are where “change goes to die.” We have commissioned reports about parity in compensation, and there’s some data:  at the level of solo clergy, women make 90% of men. The problem? Only 34% of solo clergy are women.  The number goes way down for senior female clergy on multi staff parishes. There is something to think through, though, in how we actually create churches where change can happen.   Sexual harassment and discrimination are common to women in every institution. The church isn’t different there. I’m also curious about how parish clergy create cultures in our own places where that happens for our congregations.  I also think it’s important to recognize that feminism is not a female project. My heart belongs to Hillary, but I make no assumptions that having women in power will make things better for all women.  Having more women priests or more women bishops won’t immediately help.

The Rev. Gay Jennings , President of the House of Deputies, just shared her remarks in 40 Years On: Thoughts on Gender Equality in the Episcopal Church at Executive Council. She says it better than I:

Too often I hear us measuring gender equality in the church by counting how many educated,     privileged women sit in positions of hierarchical authority. I fear that we may believe that the best the church can do for women is to be sure that more of us are bishops, deans, and cardinal rectors.

Patriarchal authority deforms everyone—even those who can make it at the top, men or women.  We can do better than just being successful in the institution! From the ground, in our parishes and schools and chaplaincies, men and women are equally able to make church feminist.  And make feminist church. This Sunday we’ll hear a story of Jesus upholding the ministry of the “wrong” kind of woman.  She’s out of bounds and has a terrible reputation, and he loves her. That’s the Gospel we’re called to.

Otherwise, I don’t have any clear answers, but here are the questions I’m thinking about asking… My own parish is also on its own journey. I make no claims about being the success story!

1. Are there unspoken expectations about the “kind of person” who is drawn into different ministries? Are men asked to join altar guild? Do they teach Sunday School?

2. If and when single gender communities develop by chance, is that phenomenon named?

2. How are intentionally single gendered communities nurtured? Are there places where people can find refuge for themselves to heal? To talk honestly?  Can people affiliate with those spaces according to their own gender identification and wishes for community?

3. How is gender-expansive language used for God?  Are inclusive language resources like the ELLC Nicene Creed and prayer books of other communions or Enriching Our Worship and the St Helena Psalter used?

4. How are “safe church” policies implemented and discussed? Is preventing abuse of children and other vulnerable populations discussed and respected?

5. How are staff hired and leadership selected? Is there an effort to seriously consider the gifts of those who are women, people of color, and LGBTQ persons? How do ministry teams reflect on and explore their own implicit bias?

6. How are families of leaders and staff respected? Is there an equal policy in place for men as well as women to take parental leave?   Are employees judged for taking advantage of these benefits or are their personal commitments honored?

That’s my list so far, friends…add your own!

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.