Wednesday, November 12, 2014

It's complicated

I love the options you get on Facebook for setting your relationship status. Single, married, divorced, widowed, in a relationship, in a domestic partnership ... and then ... there's ...

"It's complicated"

Really?? In my world, that's not a relationship status as much as it is a page out of the Book of DUH! Of course it's complicated ... it's a relationship!

St. Paul said in his first letter to the Corinthians that "we see through a glass darkly but soon we shall see face to face." He's speaking to the truth that so much of our lives and selves are hidden from the sight of others - never from God, but definitely from others.

We all wear masks to show our best selves off to the rest of the world. Nowhere is that more evident than on Facebook where everyone pumps up their profiles with how cool and hip they are - even as their lives are falling apart behind that computer screen. What we put on social media rarely hints as the broken screwed up parts of ourselves - the parts we fear, the parts others will reject, the parts we hate, the ugliness within. No, we put on our masks and pontificate about our brilliant lives, our stellar ideas (especially when those ideas can be positioned as superior to someone else's), our fantastic careers, etc. And yet all the while we are inside knowing this isn't the whole truth.

It's complicated, isn't it? When the public persona doesn't match the private despair. When the face we show everyone else doesn't match the one we show to our spouses or loved ones. Some people have a high degree of transparency and what you see is pretty much what you get. Others have mastered the repressed dual life and hide behind a mask so well that they really don't know they are doing it anymore ... until they are under duress and the mask slips. It's complicated.

Christ died for the whole of us ... but most especially he died for those ugly repressed parts of ourselves that we really don't want to show others - the complicated stuff. "By his blood he reconciled us. By his wounds we are healed."

Thursday, October 30, 2014

No, you don't have to take it anymore

October is Domestic Violence (DV) Awareness month - sometimes called Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) to cover those relationships where the abused and abuser are not living together but are involved in an intimate relationship. It's a difficult topic and one the Church has a checkered history in addressing.

For too long the Church's leadership, dominated by men, often took the stance that violence in a marriage was because the woman was failing as a wife. She was often counseled to go back to her abuser and, in some way, be a "better" spouse. Of course that never worked. Deferring to the abuser just kept the cycle of abuse alive and well - no matter how deferential or demur the wife tried to be to please her husband.

Just in the past 30 years, with the rising number of ordained women in many denominations, the Church has begun to address this problem for what it is - an abuse of power by one spouse over the other. Yes, we also acknowledge that women can be abusers and men are much less likely to report due to culture norms about masculinity. We also know that DV/IPV can occur in same sex couples just as easily as in heterosexual ones.

Several of my Facebook postings this month have addressed abuse and violence. Too many people have misconceptions about how Christianity addresses DV/IPV. Admittedly, there are still corners where the pastor will uphold the position I previously described ... but this is not representative of all Christians! There are plenty of churches trying to address this issue and an excellent book on the subject is Breaking the Silence: The Church Responds to Domestic Violence by The Rev. Anne O. Weatherholt, Episcopal priest (and one of my mentors). She wrote the very first tract for Forward Publications on the issue of DV back in the early 1980's.

One area of serious confusion is over forgiveness and reconciliation when it comes to being abused. Often people think because Christ calls us to forgive those who abuse us (just as he did from the cross) and we are taught to follow St. Paul's instructions to "be reconciled with one another" it means that we must continue to remain in abusive relationships to be "good Christians." This is a misunderstanding and twisting of what forgiveness and reconciliation are about.

Forgiving your abuser is releasing the rancor, hurt and bitterness over what they have done. Ideally, you can do this face to face; however, this isn't always possible because of their abusive treatment of you. Forgiving doesn't require you to subject yourself to more violence. And forgiveness isn't really forgiveness when it comes with threats of more violence. When one is in an abusive relationship, the time to forgive is not while you are still involved with your abuser and still suffering attacks! True forgiveness can only come when the violence ends - whether due to your abuser getting help or you leaving the relationship.

In his book Forgive And Get Your Life Back, The Rev. Dennis Maynard explains that forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation or restoration - they are three distinct steps. Jesus taught us to forgive so we can let go of the anger, bitterness and resentment which hold us back. Reconciliation is the next step after forgiveness but due to our sinful nature it may never happen. Reconciliation can only happen when both parties turn away from the abusive cycle and seek to amend their lives and make the radical changes necessary to stop the abuse. For the abuser, this means counseling - deep therapeutic work to seek the self-understanding necessary to put a stop to their violent behavior. For the abused, it also involves deep therapeutic work to heal and to strengthen their sense of self-worth so that they do not seek out the same kind of abusive relationships again. If alcoholism or drug addiction are playing a role in the violence, seeking treatment for these conditions is also crucial as without it, the abuse will continue! Without substantive change on the part of both the abuser and the abused, there can be no meaningful reconciliation between them.

Reconciliation in the Church is a powerful sacrament which can be a means of grace to offer a way forward for one or both parties providing they are doing the necessary healing work to stop the abusive cycle. However, sacramental reconciliation does not promise that both parties will be reconciled to each other! It may be years after leaving an abusive relationship when one or both of the parties will seek the sacrament for healing and moving forward into the future. The sacrament isn't just about confession of sin and contrition over it. The sacrament calls us to change - to repentance and amendment of life because Christ calls us to be transformed people. Christ is always ready to meet us where we are but he is not content to leave us there!

Jesus suffered the abuse of the world when he died on the cross for you and me. He died on that cross at the hands of his abusers so that we would not have to. He came to bring us life. Abusive relationships are not life giving - they are death dealing. There is nothing in our Christian faith which condones abuse or violence at the hands of anyone.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Every ... single ... day



day ...

I serve God as a priest in Christ's, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Not a call I asked for, mind you, but one born of Christian obedience to the One who claimed me in baptism and shaped me to be a priest for the sake of the people God loves. And in spite of this ...




I hear from at least one person why I my call as a priest is not legitimate because I am a woman.

Every ... single ... day.

Yes, it is born of the culture of patriarchy in which I live that posits the superiority of men over women - to the great damage and detriment of men and women (and all gender expressions in between). The "great" legacy of western civilization is grounded on men having power over women and children. This same culture was inspired by God to write our sacred texts ... with just enough gender bias to make sure the status quo of power was maintained and enshrined within them to make God the "source" of male superiority ... even to the point of being described and spoken of as "He" and "Father" ... never "She" or "Mother."

Every ... single ... day

I am told I cannot be a priest in Christ's Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church because I am a woman.

The message isn't always directed at me personally ... but it is out there. Maybe it was an evangelical pastor of a mega church who claimed women were to be "houses" for a man's penis (oh yeah ... that's my single biggest aspiration in life), or a Facebook troll who excoriates me in a theological exchange in a discussion group and questions if I really am a priest, or the extended family member who quotes Ephesians 5 at me to tell me I am doing harm to my family by going to seminary, or the male clergy colleagues (even within my own tradition) who will trumpet from the mountain tops how supportive they are and blessed by the ministry of ordained women ... but who will, when the chips are down, act in grossly condescending passive aggressive ways which tell me their respect for my ministry and that of my sisters is only cheap talk.




And sometimes I even get a "two for one" special ... where I have to stand up more than once a day to claim the call of Christ face to face with people I do not know who feel the special need to tell me what the Bible "says." That was my day yesterday ... a two for one special.

The first came at an outreach event to the poor and struggling in our community. A former parishioner, an elderly woman, came over to our church's table and said, "I was a member there for 50 years." Wearing my clerics, I turned and introduced myself as the new priest and extended my hand to shake hers. She gave me a startled look and reluctantly gave me the "dead fish" handshake. She told me her name ... I knew of her and I knew she and her husband left the church over women's ordination. She was quick to tell me, "My son is a priest. He had a call from God." And I spent the next 5 minutes hearing all about her son and his call from God to be a priest before she wandered off.

The second came later that afternoon. I received a phone call that a parishioner had been rushed to the emergency room after having a seizure. I stopped to get a big cup of coffee (I needed it at this point) and fill up my car with gas. Again, I was wearing my collar and a younger man stopped me at the gas pump ...

"Um ... the thing around your neck ... are you a ... uh ... a ... minister?"

"Yes, I am an Episcopal priest."

"I have a question for you, if you don't mind."

"OK ... sure. What is it?"

"What do you make of 1 Timothy 2:12? How do you understand your role in light of that? I'm really curious and not trying to troll you." (Hint: when you have to tell me you are not trolling me ... you are)
For those of  you who don't know "chapter and verse" ... 1 Timothy 2:12 says: "I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent."
"Well ... my own Biblical hermeneutic begins with a historical/critical interpretation to view the Scriptures in light of the culture and place where they were written and the audience to whom they were written. I take the Scriptures to be inspired by God but written by people who understood their experience of the Holy through their own cultural lens. To say that everything from a 2,000 old book, no matter how holy it is, applies 100% to our time, place and culture is not appropriate."

"OK ... but how do you decide what you choose to believe and not believe? Really, I want to know, I'm not trolling here." (Hint: if you have to say that a second time ... you really are trolling here!)

"We don't interpret the Scriptures alone - it is always within the context of a community and grounded in prayer."

"I see your point because we don't apply the passages about slavery anymore. We can read those in a different way today and maybe apply them to employer/employee relationships. But it still doesn't explain how you can be a minister in light of 1 Timothy 2:12."

"This is a bit too complex to stand here and discuss at a gas pump. I am on my way to the hospital because one of our parishioners was rushed to the emergency room. I need to go ... now."

"Oh ... OK ... uh ..."

"God bless you sir."



day ...

One day we may come to a place where we regard these passages of female subservience and male domination the same way we do the ones about slavery - as a throwback to a time, place and culture which is no more.

But we are not there yet.

One day, I hope I can just be a priest in Christ's Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church ... without the word "woman" or "female" as an adjective tacked on like I'm some kind of misfit.

One day ... I pray that the gifts and graces of all God's children will be celebrated and allowed to blossom and flourish regardless of the bodily packaging this transitory life has dealt them.

But until then ... I will be questioned, grilled, condescended, ignored and rebuffed. It appears God has given me and my sisters this cross to bear




Thursday, September 11, 2014

... from thence he shall come

Thirteen years ago, our nation experienced an horrific act of violence when men who claimed to act on behalf of God hijacked planes and flew them into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The intersection of religious zealotry, politics, and the nihilism of a Middle Eastern underclass conspired to destroy and kill on 9/11/2001.

I was the mother of two young daughters that day. I watched the events unfold live on television in a surreal nightmare of waking time. Everything would change ... but what that meant was not clear. My immediate thoughts were how to explain the unexplainable to a three-year old and a seven-year old. Hell, I didn't even know how to explain this to myself! There are no words to make sense of senselessness. I grieved that two little girls were exposed to such a horror as this and dreaded what it would mean for the world they would know.

Thirteen years have passed. My little girls are not little anymore: one is in college and the other a junior in high school. They have only known of their country at war and yet a war largely ignored and hidden from their eyes. The body counts and images of Vietnam I grew up with on television are replaced by the denial of "reality TV." Pictures of the caskets of our war dead taken when they arrived at Dover AFB ... suppressed in the media. War is a unreal reality for them and they do not know its cost.

What have we learned in thirteen years? I still do not know exactly. We've learned to be more polarized - "us" versus "them." We do it in our politics and in how we view foreigners. We've learned that our soldiers and their families pay a horrible price for being sent to fight when we don't always have a clear understanding of who the enemy is. We've learned that many of the factions we once sided with are now against us. We've internalized more violence and seen it spill into how we treat each other as we watch professional athletes beat their intimate partners or shoot them in bathrooms as they cower in fear or see those charged to protect us shooting unarmed youth. We are an anxious, fearful nation - a collective raw nerve.

I have no answers ... only grief and lament. Not only for the dead on 9/11 and for all who have died on both sides of wars that seem not to end, but also for the death of the world I once knew.

I cannot shake the old wording of the Apostle's Creed that I learned as a small child. Concerning our belief in Jesus Christ, we said he was:
... conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven,
and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I doubt the existence of hell or heaven as places, per se. Rather, I believe they are states of existence in which we live - and it is much of our own making. We either live in the presence and awareness of God (heaven) or we reject and estrange ourselves from the presence of God (hell). But regardless of my own understanding ... I still pray that from the "heavenly thence" Christ will come to judge the quick and the dead and I long for the day when that which seems irreparably broken will be healed and set right.

Friday, August 15, 2014

When words fail

Dr. Wil Gafney just posted a blog entry on this Summer of Horror. It struck me because she's touched on something I have experienced - the magnitude of suffering and violence we are experiencing right now.

We have watched the Middle East explode in violence. ISIS in Iraq is slaughtering Christians. Our brother in Christ The Rev. Andrew White, the Anglican Vicar of Baghdad, is continuing to minister to the few Christians left and is desperately giving voice to the horror in his midst.

We have watched the violence erupt between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza. Given the support of the United States, Israel's ability to annihilate the Palestinians is very real. The relationships between Israel and the Palestinians is complicated, to be sure yet neither side is innocent. Just because Israel gives the Palestinians in Gaza 24 hour notice that their neighborhood will be bombed into oblivion doesn't mean they are somehow more "humane" than Hamas. The 29 disabled children and 9 elderly women being cared for at Holy Family Roman Catholic Church in Zeitun could not evacuate prior to the planned bombing. Regardless of whether the church was hit or not, this was an act of war and terror against the powerless and vulnerable. My government and tax dollars are complicit in this war.

This week, we have watched Ferguson Missouri explode in racial violence. Regardless of who started what, another unarmed black teen is dead. On the heels of this, police in riot gear escalating the protest into violence ... shooting rubber bullets at a female pastor praying - unarmed, hands up and invoking the name of Jesus.

There is horror and helplessness sitting side by side for me today. The problems bigger than anything I can do. I am outraged and pained to witness such suffering ... and standing without the power, influence or expertise to do anything but cry out to God. Lament is all there is left and we do not do this well in our culture.

Habakkuk, who prophesied to the Israelites before the Babylonian exile, opens his oracle with these words:
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you "Violence!" and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
How long, O Lord? Indeed ... how long ...

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Spirituality of Giving ... Or Not Giving

It's been said we are living in a "post-Christian" era - or at least one where the institutional church is losing its influence. Notice I haven't said the Gospel is losing its influence ... not at all. The Gospel is still powerful, life changing, crazy radical and is needed now more than ever! What's waning is the idea of church as a massive, institutional structure which is heavily invested in maintaining its influence, power and wealth. Don't get me wrong, there will be some kind of Church in the future, but I'm hopeful it will be one which finds the balance between necessary organizational structures and getting out and doing what Jesus told us to do. We kid ourselves if we think we need no organizational structure! If we ditch all structures, we won't be able to organize a "piss off in a pub." But a movement towards being a Church which is more nimble and responsive to the real needs in our communities would, I believe, bring glory to God and the Gospel.

That being said, even becoming a more nimble responsive Church will still require resources for mission and ministry. These resources fall into two categories: the time/talent of people and money. Now most of us in the Church would rather talk about time/talent than money. We're pretty squeamish on talking about money and it is the primary complaint you hear from non-church goers who say all we talk about is money. Well ... Jesus talked a lot about money too! There are more teachings about our healthy relationship with money and not being fearful about God's provision for us than any other kind of teaching in the New Testament. Seriously.

As soon as I was ordained, Beloved Husband and I took the leap to tithing our income and never looked back (for the non-churchy folks who might read this, the Biblical tithe is 10% of your income given to the work of God). Not that we weren't scared to do this (we were) but I figured if I talked about the tithe from the pulpit, I better back my words with action. You know, put up or shut up ... or "don't write a check with your mouth that your ass can't cash." I have taken the message of proportional giving and the tithe into every congregation I have served - it's part of being ordained. Where I serve, we have people who are on-board with proportional financial giving and working up to a tithe, several who tithe as some who give offerings over and above the tithe. These folks have had the conversion of heart to see that "our money" is not really ours - it is God's. We are stewards of our resources and by giving first to God's work in the Church, it sets the pattern for other resource decisions we make.

What I find disturbing is when people cut their time/talent and financial giving to the church abruptly with no apparent reason.

Make no mistake: there is always a reason. Generally, I've found they fall into one of two categories, both of which are spiritual issues. The first is a genuine financial crisis: catastrophic illness or the loss of a job or business. These things happen and sadly people are often too embarrassed to tell their priest about it. If anything, this is the time to let your priest or pastor know what is happening! We can often confidentially connect you with resources to help get you through as well as help you sort out where God is in the chaos. We may or may not be able to fix the situation, but your clergy cannot do anything if we don't know.

The other main reason people cut their giving to the church is because of conflict - they are mad about something. They don't agree with a church council vote, or they are mad at the national church about a position taken on a hot button topic, or they are mad at the clergy. I won't lie - I've done it myself when I was younger. You know, "I'll show you! I'll cut my pledge!" Well, now that I'm older and living on the other side of the collar, I want to share with you what I've learned about this approach ...

It doesn't work.

That's right ... it doesn't work ... and here's why:

Say you are mad at the national church for their position on a hot button topic and you decided to stop giving to your local church. Well, at the national level, the leadership really doesn't have a clue what you've done and really never will. The amount of your local financial support that reaches this level is ... well ... minuscule. It doesn't really even register on their financial Richter scale. Now, if you were to withhold say, $10 million from a major project ... you might get somebody's attention. Short of that, you probably won't.

But let's get local and say you are mad at your clergy and you decide to withhold your financial giving. I can speak for the Episcopal Church (since I serve there) and tell you once again it doesn't really work ... at least not in the way you think it does. They way our Constitution and Canons are written, paying the priest of the parish is the first obligation of the congregation. Everything and everyone else falls in line after that. So, if you withhold your money, you really end up hurting yourself and all the people sitting next to you in the pews. Why? Because for lack of money programs will be cut, staff positions will be cut and even the utility bills will go unpaid before the priest's pay is affected. Now technically it is true that the vestry can vote to cut the priest's pay. In the almost 40 years I've been in the Episcopal Church, I have never seen this happen ... not once. I'm sure it has somewhere, but I've personally never witnessed it. Suffice it to say, this is a rare outcome. While the polity is different in other denominations, it is likely the mechanisms still favor keeping the clergy in the local congregation in some way, shape or form.

So what are you to do if you find yourself unable to support your church with time/talent or money because you are upset with its position on an issue or you have a problem with your clergy? Rather than just cutting your giving, which likely won't resolve anything, allow me to suggest a Benedictine approach which is spiritually healthier for you and the Church.

First, pray about what is really bothering you. Prayer is one of the five practices of Benedictine spirituality (the others are work, study, hospitality and renewal). I suggest this is a good time to seek out a spiritual director or counselor who can help you get clarity on what the real issue is for you. Ask yourself a few key questions:

  • Is this something worth compromising the mission and ministry this congregation?
  • Would I want to see programs which spread the Gospel be cut over this?
  • How will cutting back my giving hurt the other members of this church family?
  • If I leave here to go to a church where my position is better supported, would that place cause me to compromise deeply held beliefs on other issues?

If in your spiritual work you find it is a personality issue between you and your clergy, it may do well to consider if Christ is calling you to step beyond your ego to do what is best for your congregation and community. I know, that's a tall order, but daily dying to our selfish egos is partly what Jesus meant when he told us to take up our cross and follow him. Maybe your irritation is a stirring of the Holy Spirit indicating a call to conversion of heart. Also remember your clergy will not be in your congregation forever. We are "plug and pray" and will at some point move on.
As a side note: I am not condoning putting up with clergy abuse and, sadly, this does at times happen. If you are truly being abused, and a good spiritual director or therapist can help you sort that out, get out and report the abusive clergy to the proper authorities!
Second, once you have some clarity about what is really going on, pray about how to approach this with your leadership ... and then do so in holy conversation. If you feel like you cannot speak directly with your clergy, talk to a trusted lay leader initially. Notice I said, "a trusted lay leader" - as in the singular. The worst thing you can do is try to rally a group together to confront the clergy or governing board about your issue. Secret meetings to unseat the clergy or governing board, rants on social media, and behind the back gossip are not healthy ways to deal with anything. The widespread damage which results does not bring one ounce of glory to God! It only reinforces for non-church goers why they hate church! What kind of witness for Christ are you if you do that? Not a very good one, I'm afraid.

Be an intentional holy listener during your conversations. Remember, conversation and conversion come from the same root word in Latin: conversio. When we have real conversation, we leave ourselves open to conversion - to change and growth. Conversion of heart is part of Benedict's rule. Another part of Benedict's Rule is obedience which comes from the Latin word obedire meaning "to listen." This isn't blind obedience, but the holy listening to the counsel of another. Really listen to the other's position and try to put yourself in their shoes rather than trying to come up with your next rebuttal to what they are saying. You may not agree with them but at least try to understand it. This may challenge some of your deeply held beliefs and it will likely be uncomfortable, but stick with the process.

Third, after talking the issue over with your clergy or with a trusted lay leader, pray some more. Ask for guidance about a way forward. Do not be surprised if a way forward comes which isn't something you had imagined. Be open to creativity here - that's the Holy Spirit at work.

Finally, if after exhausting these options you feel like you cannot support your congregation with your time/talent or money, it may be time to take a break from this worshiping community for a season and find another communityThis is the last resort! Why? Because we are human and will tend to take the same old kit bag of unresolved issues to our new congregation and act out in the same ways all over again - just with different players in the game. St. Benedict knew this and it is why he made stability of life and community part of his monastic Rule. He knew that only in the messiness of sticking with relationships and working out our differences in an intimate community setting could the Holy Spirit accomplish the conversion of heart to become more like Christ. However, if this is a call to conversion, you may need another community in which to nurture that conversion for a season before you return.

We are the Church - not an institution but a living, breathing community of faith commissioned to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are all broken souls in need of the redemptive healing of Christ. But as St. Paul reminds us, "God loves a cheerful giver" (2 Corinthians 9:7) and in giving of time/talent and money, we are given the means to grow in spiritual maturity and generosity. In doing that, we can follow St. Benedict's charge to welcome all as Christ himself.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Think on what things?? Friday after Last Epiphany (Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 / Philippians 4:1-9 / John 17:9-19)

"Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. ... and the God of peace will be with you."

Paul is challenging the Philippians on where they place their attention, exhorting them to find what is life giving and right in the world around them. No small task. In fact, these words could have been written right here and now for us.

I don't know about you, but it feels increasingly hard to think about these things which Paul commends. It's almost as if we are set in a world where "whatever is false, whatever is degrading, whatever is unjust, whatever is corrupt, whatever is ugly, whatever is rude, if there is any mediocrity, if there is anything worthy of debasing" it is those things upon which our minds are enticed to think.

When I was young, the news cycle was the 6 o'clock news on television and it lasted one hour. That was it. Yes, we saw violence and bloodshed (especially during the Vietnam War), but it lasted one hour and came to us only on a television set.

Now we live in a 24/7/365 news cycle where not only do we see it on television, we are bombarded with it on our smartphones, computers, Facebook pages, Twitter. Television has had to compete with these other data streams and now attempts to pass off opinion as fact (yes, Fox News, I'm talking about you) and the more crass, obnoxious, and partisan, the better.

And this is before we consider the content of what we are seeing. Syria, Southern Sudan, Ukraine and the Crimea are at war and violence is everywhere - and we see it 24/7/365. And we are getting numb to the whole thing. One can only absorb so much before you shut down.

In Lent, we are called to self-examination and self-denial. I confess I'm at a place in life where the "low hanging fruit" is to see what is wrong with our world than what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent and worthy of praise. Perhaps for me, it is time to fast from the constant barrage of violence and attend to what is life giving - to where the Creator is still creating.

This is not to deny evil but rather to pull back so the constant flow of images and words does not desensitize me into inaction and despair. A break to regain perspective and find love in the midst of the mess.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Repentance from Sin and Evil - the invitation to a Holy Lent

It's Shrove Tuesday: a day of feasting before the Lenten fast begins tomorrow. At Grace Episcopal Church in Brunswick, our youth will host our annual Pancake Supper to help raise funds for our Youth Mission Trip this summer.

I always feel like I'm standing on the brink on this day about to plunge into the abyss of Lent with its ashes and penitence. I once thought of Lent as depressing ... but I don't think that way anymore. As a cleric, it's a time of calm and reflection after the crazy, break-neck pace of the fall's activities, Advent and Christmas. Even more than Advent, it helps me slow down and focus intentionally on what needs healing and renewal in me and in the world.

I've been online today and looking at liturgical approaches to Lent from different corners of Christianity. I confess I like our Book of Common Prayer's Ash Wednesday liturgy and wouldn't trade it for all the tea in China. I did, however, run across a liturgy that looked pretty good and included Taize chant for the music. I was intrigued until I found the confession prayer which had the following phrase:
"We repent of our humanity."
Wait ... what? Repent means to "turn around" or to "change your mind." It comes from the Greek metanoia which means "turn around." Repent is what we do when we, by God's grace, acknowledge and turn away from Evil and Sin - the powers of Death which will kill not only the body but the soul.

But "repent of our humanity"?! As if being human is inherently evil or bad? As if being human is something to be rejected? And, if repent means to turn around, what is the alternative? To repent of your humanity and ... become a jellyfish? It just makes no sense. It is theologically and ontologically bankrupt. The Orthodox say that Christ became human that we might become divine. Our humanity is blessed, sanctified and honored by Christ's descent among us as one of us. This isn't something to repent of at all!

What we need to repent of is Sin. Admittedly, this is not a popular concept among some Christians who feel it sounds "too judgmental" or "too harsh" and so avoid using the "S-word" in their liturgy. Hence repenting of "our humanity" becomes some sort of cheap, sophomoric way of avoiding the real truth. Theology of the cross demands we not "call good evil and evil good" but name the thing for what it is. The thing we need to name is Sin and it is that from which we need to turn.

This reflection by Dr. Derek Olsen speaks this hard truth well. There is evil in the world. Jesus never wavered in naming it during his time on earth. We have a heavy darkness in each of us. The Church Catholic teaches that Sin comes from "the world, the flesh and the devil." Our fragile human nature falls into Sin all the time. But the good news is that the power of Sin to destroy us who are claimed by Christ in baptism has forever been broken - Sin does not claim us forever.

This does not mean, however, that Sin has ceased to be a presence in our world or in our lives. It is ever there and we are called to self-reflective vigilance as Christians to look at it clearly and unflinchingly - not just in Lent, but always. We are to acknowledge and confess the sin that has crept into the dark corners of our lives and release it to Christ who brings light and healing to us.

I invite you, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent this year. Not by repenting of the humanity you bear, but the Sin which clings closely and from which Christ longs to release you.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Home by another way

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, the traditional date when we celebrate the arrival of the wise ones who came to the Christ child with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Yes, there are plenty of jokes about these so-called "wise men" ... as in "How wise could they be to bring those kinds of baby gifts? Wise women would have brought diapers, onesies and casseroles."

But setting some snark aside (sorry ... can't get rid of all of it), these mysterious strangers come from a foreign land. They are "others" ... non-Jews ... outside the covenant of Abraham. I think it is fascinating this vignette comes from Matthew who scholars believe was writing for a Jewish audience and doing his best to convince them that Jesus was the promised Jewish Messiah. It is Matthew who includes the story of outsiders coming to worship and bring their gifts to the Christ child. Outsiders become the insiders and Herod, the consummate "insider" of his kingdom, becomes the one outside of grace ... and who will go on to command his soldiers to kill all of the baby boys in Bethlehem just to make sure there are no threats to his throne.

We still have our "Herods" with us. Turn on the news and watch what is happening in Syria and in the Sudan. It happened in Kurdistan and Srebrenica and Rwanda and Bosnia and ... a threat to power is still met with overwhelming force and brutality ... and children die.

So this is the world God decided to come into as a helpless baby? In terms of realpolitik, it seems like God might have come up with a better plan - one where some awesome show of power would lay a can of whoopass onto the Herods of our world. But maybe that's just it ... there is no other plan ... and no way out but death.

St. Augustine once said, "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you." Our restlessness only ceases in death ... death to ourselves and our way of living. Death to the power we try to extort from God and others. Death to manipulations and lies and exploitation. Death to our attachments and idolatrous addictions. And ... finally ... Death of the body itself.

But we hate the idea of death and we try to avoid it at all costs. We'd rather put our trust in ourselves than follow the path to death and beyond to find our real home. And when we do, we become tyrants. Perhaps not as obvious as Herod as most of us don't have soldiers at our disposal to send out to do our dirty work. Truth be told, we're pretty good at doing our dirty work ourselves. We keep trying to find our home in God ... but only by the paths we want to take ... and it's not working.

The Magi were warned in a dream not to return to a tyrant ... so they went home by another way.

Maybe this year it is time to give up returning to our tyrant selves and embrace death ... and go home by another Way.