Saturday, April 21, 2018

Going on the way...rejoicing

One of the main things I’ve written about in this space over the last year has been reflecting on my New Pennsylvania Life—not so new, now, having passed the year mark more than a month ago. In March of 2017 I left my parish where I’d served for 11 ½ years to move here, where my husband started as rector of St Paul’s Episcopal Church in Mt. Lebanon, just south of Pittsburgh. I’ve been surprised at what a homecoming it has been; more than 20 years ago when I left my hometown, Erie, 120 miles north of here, I never thought I’d be back. It turns out I really like Pennsylvania.

Part of the plan was to have some time to adjust before getting into a parish.  Maybe a month or two. It’s been 14.  But worth the wait:  I’m excited to share that I’m now the recommended candidate for St John Lutheran (ELCA) in Carnegie, PA (5 miles southwest of the city of Pittsburgh, 5 miles northwest of where I live).  This means that after I meet everyone and lead the service next week, the congregation will have a vote and decide whether to call me as their pastor.      

I was in college and not paying a ton of attention when the 1999-2000 “Agreement of Full Communion-A Call to Common Mission” was adopted.  For more than a hundred years, various configurations of Lutherans and Anglicans had been in conversation, trying to live out Jesus’ instruction “to be One, as I and the Father are One.”   The places we are One are many more than the places where we differ. Our liturgies are very similar, we already shared music, prayer, and theologies of the Eucharist.  The ELCA explains the meaning of full communion this way:

Full communion is when two denominations develop a relationship based on a common confessing of the Christian faith and a mutual recognition of Baptism and sharing of the Lord’s Supper. This does not mean the two denominations merge; rather, in reaching agreements, denominations also respect differences. These denominations worship together, may exchange clergy and also share a commitment to evangelism, witness and service in the world. Each entity agrees that even with differences, there is nothing that is church-dividing.  

The ELCA has full communion relationships with other denominations, as well: The Presbyterian Chruch (USA), United Church of Christ, The Episcopal Church, The Moravian Church, the United Methodist Church and, of course, member churches of the Lutheran World Federation.     The Episcopal Church, meanwhile, is in full communion with all the Provinces of the Anglican Communion, the Old Catholic Churches of Europe, the United churches of the Indian subcontinent, the Mar Thoma Church, the Moravian Church, and the Church of Sweden. The Episcopal Church is also currently in dialogue with the United Methodist Church. We all love: Jesus, the sacraments, the creeds, the Bible. 

I went to an Episcopal seminary that regularly used the Lutheran Book of Worship, and when I planned liturgy at my Episcopal Church I routinely pirated Lutheran Eucharistic prayers for our use.  I held open office hours along with a Lutheran pastor and a rabbi in my parish in Massachusetts.  I went to a Lutheran preaching Bible study for 10 years. My mom grew up Lutheran, in Sweden, and I cannot say how many ancient churches I visited growing up.  I even spent 2 months working at a Lutheran Church when their pastor broke his neck. When I met Donna, the parish secretary from St John, she remarked that the lines between denominations now are more like dotted lines than solid ones.  I have been fortunate to observe for a long time how right she is.

I’ve always explained the Episcopal Church as being about being “close to the ground.” It started over political conflict of King Henry VIII, and while his marital difficulties perhaps were not the first, best, most stellar reason to start a whole new branch of Christendom, the principle of local governance, worship in your own language, and celebrating the sacraments are a pretty good outcome. But those are not uniquely Anglican/Episcopal—Lutherans are right there, too.  

When I read the pieces I’ve written on here about what not being in a parish has taught me about parish ministry, the idea that most stands out is grace. Grace, grace, grace. Totally free, unearned, impossible to comprehend or plan for, grace.  Which, as it happens, is basically the central tenet of Lutheran spirituality. You cannot do anything, ever, at all, to earn God’s love.  There’s no point at which you’ll arrive as being the maximum quality Christian that then puts to shame your previous efforts and gives you the keys to the kingdom. It will never happen.  This is not contrary to anything in the Episcopal Church. But it is not the loudest note we play, either.   Martin Luther says “God doesn't love us because of our worth, we are of worth because God loves us.” That’s it; it’s just love.  Just grace.

The other thing that’s been powerful about this time is how aware I am of my call to parish ministry. It’s been great to have time to write for my town magazine and do a different kind of work. It’s really fun to invite kids over in the middle of the day when school is off to watch movies. (I am also very aware of what a privilege it is to have been able to spend a year unemployed and not have it be financially ruinous) But I’m not called to be a stay at home parent. I’m not called to be a magazine columnist (though I hope to keep doing projects once in a while).  I’m glad I got to do those things, and I’ve had the sense to have fun this year. I’m also not called to be a chaplain, or the director of a churchy organization. Baptizing, burying, and being-with. Preaching and teaching. And those are not confined by denominational lines, either.

So send out extra prayers the weekend of April 28—there will be time for the congregation to meet me and my family that Saturday, and Sunday I lead the service and preach. The passage from Acts is one of my favorites; a Ethiopian eunuch meets Philip on the road, reading Scripture.   Philip interprets Isaiah and teaches him about Jesus.  The eunuch says, “Look! Here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Nothing. "He went on his way rejoicing." What is to prevent us all from receiving God’s grace? Nothing. We go on our way rejoicing.

St John Evangelical Lutheran Church
 Carnegie, PA

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Nearing holidays and—hopefully—nearing the Holy.

As we get closer to Christmas, I admit it-I get hooked by all of the secular, of-the-world stuff. That *one* more thing that will complete the stocking. Trying to ensure exact, mathematical parity between my two children. 

Several years ago, I picked up a copy of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. In the unlikely event you haven’t heard of the 2014 best seller, the magical process of “tidying up” is to go through each of your belongings and hold them in your hands asking if they spark joy. [read more of this post at Grow Christians]

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Openness and Gratitude

I’ve wrestled a lot in this space about all the things that have shifted over the last period of time since leaving my parish of 11 ½ years and moving closer to home. It’s been a grace-filled time in so many ways. One way is how experiences I had in parish ministry have stayed with me—the conversation that seemed totally routine at the time, the random funeral for a community member—just more evidence of how we are shaped by our world as much as we shape it.  Coming closer to the holidays this year, my thanksgivings have been many.  I’ve been thinking… more of this piece at Grow Christians.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Raising Feminist Kids? Me too.

Or trying to.
In raising my kids, I’ve been surprised that I turned out to be the kind of parent who wants to shield their children from the world. I thought I’d be open and honest about sin, about brokenness and pain and suffering, about how much is wrong in the world.  On this, I am also led by my children.  When first being told that such a thing as war existed and there were wars being fought at that moment, my then three year old declared we had better get over there and explain that it should stop. The idea that women used not not be able to vote or wear pants and men didn’t cook is deeply shocking to my children.  But I’m realizing that on sexual violence, I am irrationally hoping that the dots I have set out will somehow get connected by my children. It’s not enough.

I wrote a piece over on Grow Christians on the topic—click over there to read more.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Making a Home in Scripture

 St Aidan's, Photo A.M.Clark.  Episcopal, Transgender, and Rainbow Flags Flying

A Sermon for the Installation of the Rev. Dr Cameron E. Partridge as Rector

St Aidan's Episcopal Church, San Francisco

September 9, 2017
Joshua 1:7-9;  Psalm 146; 2 Cor 5: 17-20; John 15: 9-16

I first want to say just how lovely it is to be here. Thank you Cameron and Kateri, to Bishop Andrus, and all of you for the great adventure of being in this church together. There is always a need for the church to celebrate, but there is something particularly striking about doing so at a time when there are so many people in this world who are struggling and fearful. With the entire state of Florida and the coastal south awaiting hurricane Irma, with whole islands in the Caribbean already destroyed and Houston still unsure of what it will take to rebuild, with the news this week about DACA, an earthquake in Mexico, brinksmanship over North Korea as well, it can feel almost out of sync to celebrate. So I just want to honor that the realities of the world are much on our minds and hearts, and that our celebration happens in this world, not out of it.

I recently re-read Jeanette Winterson’s Memoir,  Why be happy when you can be normal.  Cameron actually lent it to me when it came out five years ago—one of the tragedies of not living in the same place anymore is that I don’t have him around to lend me books. I’m the one who requests things from the library and end up getting new books nine months after they’re published. But it popped up on the “available now” list of kindle books from the library and I was excited to look at it again.

Winterson is a novelist. All of her books have the most wonderful magical realist sense about them, when people invoke the laws of physics to explain their feelings for each other but then go out and walk on water when they need to go home. Her imagination was hard won: she was adopted as an infant by a Christian Pentecostal family and emotionally and physically abused. She grew up in Northern England—not as far north as St Aidan and Lindisfarne, but far enough from London for it to seem like another country. There were only six books in the house, nearly all of which were either the Bible or Biblical commentary.
Photo A.M. Clark

Her mother talked about how it had been the devil who had led her to the crib to adopt Jeanette instead of another child. When Jeanette is caught in bed with a girlfriend at age 15 her mother arranges for the two of them to be unmasked in the congregation as abominations to the Lord. They are each put through a three day exorcism. Still, Jeanette has her own books and her own life. When her mother finds the books (hidden under her bed, she discovers about 72 of them make for one layer before starting another), she burns them all—there are advantages to sticking with the library—but by that point the damage was done. She had read the books, she had known love with her girlfriend. The genie was out of the bottle. Jeanette knew that the world was wider than the confines of her mother’s violence. And once her own books were gone, she decided she could write her own. Word by word, she quite literally wrote herself into a new story.

Jeanette Winterson does not, I am guessing, identify as a Christian these days, but her story is a resurrection story. The way she talks about stories as salvific and love as redeeming resonates deeply with how we are called to see Scripture and love one another in this world. As the book of Joshua invites us, this is how we figure out what it means to walk forward, not to stray to the right or the left, to keep God’s word in your mouth. This is what she writes:

The intensity of a story releases into a bigger space than the one it occupied in time and place. The story crosses the threshold from my world into yours. We meet each other on the steps of the story. Books, for me, are a home. Books don’t make a home –they are one, in the sense that just as you do with a door, you open a book, and you go inside. Inside there is a different kind of time and a different kind of space (60).

As Christians, we meet inside Scripture. It is our home. As we grow and our lives change, we understand the world anew and as we understand ourselves as part of it. In Scripture, we move into the world where Jesus turns water into wine and transforms suffering into wholeness. Where we sit with him on the way to Jerusalem, being called together as friends, eating at the table as one body and of one blood. Where St Paul calls reconciliation to us, telling us that Christ has entrusted this ministry to us. We enter Scripture and see where the young adult worried about her DACA status feels the power of community marching in the streets, bold and strong, as the people of Israel crossed the Red Sea. Her feet are dry.  Where those who rejected hear Jesus say, "Come! Come to the table and eat  your fill. There is enough for everyone." Where those who have nothing are given everything. Where our hands help to prepare the feast. All of this happens in Scripture, and we bring it back with us in and out of time.

In and out of time, each of us.
Most importantly, we don't do this work alone. It’s all fine and good to talk about The Church or The Body of Christ most generically, but the work of the Christian faith is done in the context of actual people in actual places in actual parishes. As God pitches a tent with humanity in the particular time and space of Jesus, so, too, St Aidan’s and Cameron are given to each other as you are camped together here in this time and place. You have been called uniquely together to answer a particular call, but you are part of a lineage of Christians who have done this work for hundreds of years, each in their own way.

The idea of lineage is important, as clergy and people, particularly in these days. White supremacy did not just appear. Xenophobia did not only just emerge as a good strategy for consolidating power and whipping up fear. The denial of climate change isn’t the latest technique for making more money in the short term and leaving the consequences for later. You know this, and this is work you were already doing. Cameron knows this, and it was work he was already doing. Where you sit today is to join your work together, in this particular time and in this particular place, to listen for where God is calling you to go together.

This is who you are: you will be people of peace and justice and witness. You will be a place of welcome and grace for those who perhaps have not had such an easy go of it in other places. And it will not be simple. You will each disappoint each other. But inside your love for each other and for God’s creation, the shimmering reality of God’s love, of friendship with Jesus and all God’s people, will be the beating heart under your feet.

I want to finish with Winterson’s words once more. She's talking here about happiness, but also the limits of it. There will be plenty of happiness. You will have moments of transcendent joy and absolute hilarity (which I hope for you, because Cameron’s laugh, as you have probably noticed, is possibly the most infectious laughI have ever heard). But it’s not just about happiness. It’s not just about getting the budget met, or the auction organized, or getting more kids in Sunday School to grow the congregation. Those are important, but they’re not the whole story.Here’s what Winterson says.

If the sun is shining, stand in it –yes, yes, yes. Happy times are great, but happy times pass–they have to –because time passes. The pursuit of happiness is more elusive; it is lifelong, and it is not goal-centred. What you are pursuing is meaning –a meaningful life... The pursuit isn’t all or nothing –it’s all AND nothing. Like all Quest Stories. When I was born I became the visible corner of a folded map. The map has more than one route. More than one destination. The map that is the unfolding self is not exactly leading anywhere. The arrow that says YOU ARE HERE is your first coordinate. There is a lot that you can’t change... But you can pack for the journey (24-25).
All blessings, all prayers, all hope, to you, Cameron and St Aidan’s on this journey. Amen.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Soft Animal of My Priesthood: Yet another thing that being out of a parish is teaching me about parish ministry

So, friends, now it’s going on five months out of parish ministry after having left my congregation of 11 1/2 years. Yes, there are possibilities, yes, ecclesiastical wheels turn, yes, there are churches that will need a priest and I'm a priest who needs a church. Having had this extra time, though, I’m continuing to interrogate what that means: how not “having a church” helps me understand what it is to have one, what it means to be ordained in the first place.

When I was in college, as part of my gender studies degree I read feminist psychology about the gendered nature of self-perception. Rather than as isolated individuals, women (I’m just leaving right on the floor here the fact that “woman” is a complicated category and acknowledging the work I’m remembering relies on some conventional stereotypes and antiquated assumptions) often perceive their identity and place in the world relationally.  Not as self-over-and-against the world, but as self understood through relationships with other people. This is presumed to be a good thing: the rugged individual who prioritizes (um) *him*self does not always tend to place care for others at the center of their lives.  But it also cuts the other way: it’s great to be connected to others.  If, though, someone is defined only through others to whom they are connected, the strength and self-differentiation of that individual perhaps does not make them the fiercest bear in the room.

As a priest, I experienced this relational understanding a lot—not so much in terms of how I understood myself as an individual, but how I understood myself as a priest. Being a priest was relational: identified with that particular parish.  This is not how the Episcopal/Anglican tradition views ordination: it’s seen as an “ontological change,” a change in who you are, period.  You can be home with your kids or working as a pastry chef or at a homeless shelter, but you’re still a priest. It’s not a role grounded in a permanent identity, not a temporary task. But what does it mean without a church? 

The church still has invested in me the power to, as the ordination rite says, “to preach, to declare God's forgiveness to penitent sinners, to pronounce God's blessing, [and] to share in the administration of Holy Baptism and in the celebration of the mysteries of Christ's Body and Blood.”  “I’m not a parish priest right now, with baptisms and communion to celebrate—that’s the only kind of priest I’d ever been. 

I was most powerfully struck by this recently at Wild Goose Festival, which my family has attended for the last five summers.   The festival is themed on music, art, spirituality, and justice, with speakers and readings and performances on assorted related themes. It attracts a variety of religious impulses but is generally progressive and Christian.    There’s a lot of mud (you camp) and feral children roam in packs demanding money for lemonade and ice cream. It's heavenly. 

Beer and Hymns, Wild Goose (just beer, and hymns. that's it.)
Every other time I’ve gone to Wild Goose I’ve done so on my church’s dime as “continuing education.” The parish funded the trip both in terms of time off from my usual work and money for gas and the ticket to get in.  As a result, my experience there was filtered through the lens of my perception of responsibility to my parish: looking for shiny things to bring home. Continuing education time is part of the standard clergy contract—you couldn’t use it to go shopping in Jamaica, but there are no set expectations for how robust a “payoff” it is to the congregation. Still, there’s some sense that you ought to carry away something useful, like ideas for children’s education or profound spiritual experience or social justice insight. 

Being at Wild Goose without a parish behind me, I realized I wasn’t constantly packaging my experience for the consumption of others.  I was just…there. And I was aware of how pleasant—holy, even!— it was just to be there. Ironically, I wrote a blog post about the holiness of thereness three years ago (here) and continue to learn my own lesson. This year at Wild Goose, I didn’t go looking for the next genius thing. I went to workshops led by my friends.  Hours spent on the state of public education or protest poetry could have been relevant enough to parish ministry, but not to have to ask the question in the first place made me realize how heavy a burden it had become to be manufacturing those tiny parcels of insight in the back of my mind.

Newsflash: I didn’t have to. I didn’t have to prove how clever or worthy I was. I didn’t have to spin straw into gold. My job as a priest was also in the other part in the ordination rite: “to love and serve the people among whom you work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor.”  Just love. To point to where we and God are connected. To be connected myself.   My understanding of priesthood evidently needed less relationality between me and the people and more relationality between all of us and God.  Being a priest isn’t about standing in front and saying smart things. When it feels like it is, it’s time to try being a priest in a different way.  This time away is inviting me into that other space.

My experience of being a priest at Wild Goose Festival without a congregation helped me to have a sense for how I was still a priest even without a congregation. This view of having been a priest having “my” people—I even did it in the last paragraph there without thinking—it too easily slips into carrying a ridiculous burden that deadens the clergy and infantilizes the congregation.  It’s like church architecture that puts the altar at the front of the church and the priest behind it; everyone’s looking at you.  You’re there, and you might as well pray from there so everyone can see. The older practice of having everyone face forward and the congregation see the back of the priest isn’t better, necessarily, but it’s crucial to remember that being in front isn’t the point. 

Crucially, too, I also realize how much I relied on that identity and that congregation to tell me who I was.  My priesthood is more than that particular context, and my personhood is more than as a working parish priest.  Having been more creaturely these last months (a la Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese poem,below,  allowing the soft animal of my body to love what it loves) I’m also aware that I’m more than the kid sleepovers and setting up house and landing in a new community and (having moved to a Trump state) political protests I’ve been part of.  More than the suburban lawn I have to go mow now, too. 

(And, because it is impossible to read it too many times, here’s Oliver's whole poem)

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

--Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese” in Dream Work, 1986,

 [Gratuitous photograph of children running hand in hand toward Lake Erie, August 2017]