Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Leap Day

Today, of course, is Wednesday, the 29th of February.

AKA: Leap Day. It's the way the architects who have constructed our sense of time balance their calculations. They simply thrown in an extra day every four years and call it even.

I think it makes God giggle.

The Writer's Almanac explains it this way:
Today is Leap Day. Once every four years, we tack on an extra day at the end of February to calibrate our human-made calendar to the natural world — the Earth does not orbit the sun in an even 365 days, but rather in 365 days, five hours, 48 minutes, and 45 seconds.

This extra day has given rise to several traditions and superstitions over the years, especially in the Middle Ages. In many European countries, women were allowed to propose to men on Leap Day. In Greece, it's bad luck to marry in a Leap Year at all, let alone on Leap Day itself. In Scotland, it's considered unlucky to be born on Leap Day, and it was once believed that Leap Day babies, or "leaplings," as they were called, were sickly and hard to raise. If you are born on February 29, you're eligible to join the Honor Society of Leap Year Day Babies.
Every four years, I find myself vaguely amused about this whole Leap Year thing and the thoroughly human construct of time. Right now, I'm too preoccupied with the first part of my journey to Thailand where my sense of time will get bent backwards and then, in three weeks, forward again.

It's already tomorrow in that part of the world. So, when I leave tomorrow, on Thursday, I will arrive the same day I left. Or, something. Maybe I've got that wrong. Perhaps I'll be able to pick up the "lost day" on my way back home.

I can never figure it out. I just sort of 'go with the flow'. It's better that way, I've discovered. I never argue with time. It's too formidable an adversary.

Which leads to the entertaining thought that if the Apocalypse is scheduled for today, I suppose I'm headed in the right direction so I'll have a chance to beat the clock. Then again, if the Rapture is scheduled instead, well, I haven't heard from Harold Camping lately so I guess I won't know when it is, exactly, I'm to raise my hands to heaven and fly into the arms of Jesus.

Maybe I'll get myself ready, just in case, when I'm somewhere over the Atlantic.

Ms. Conroy reminded me this morning that we are supposed to wear blue and yellow today. I guess I missed the memo on that. Maybe it will arrive tomorrow.

Messing with people's sense of time makes lots of people squirrely (to wit: this kookie episode last week on 30 Rock). Take away that carefully constructed sense of past-present-future and we mere mortals lose all sense of hope that we are going to live forever - despite what was whispered to us by the angels since before we were born.

Some of us believe that we have "all the time in the world" and, in one sense, we do. We tend to "make the most of the time we have" when we realize that our time here on Planet Earth is limited.

We are finite. Mortal. And yet, we believe that, because of our Baptism, we are all bound on this Early Pilgrimage to return "home" to Life Eternal with Jesus.

I'm beginning to think, this Leap Day 2012, that perhaps Eternal Life is merely life without the clocks and calendars and seasons and schedules we have here in this life.

Who knows how much time "eternity" is, really? Maybe it's "eternal" because no one bothers to mark it or restrict it. Maybe God doesn't have a watch. Or a calendar. Or, even an appointment book.

Maybe, in terms of time (as well as lots of other things) we are our own worst enemy.

From my vantage point, gravity is a blessing and a curse. It's not so much time that wrinkles my face and causes my thighs and butt to drop. It's gravity. Keeps my feet on the ground even as it begins to reclaim my body.

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. 

Well, that's about as deep as I want to go on that thought this morning. I'm beginning to "run out of time". I have to take my leave soon or I'm going to run the risk of running smack-dab into "rush hour traffic" around the Beltway.

'Rush hour'. We even name the time when time seems to go faster. But, of course, it doesn't. In fact, 'rush hour' means that traffic will move more slowly than usual.

Do we have a name for the time when time moves more slowly? Ah, yes. We call that 'vacation'. Which, of course, always ends much too soon.

And so, off I go, into the weird timelessness of travel, to mark the 70th year of life of a dear friend because, hey, you never know where he will be if he is able to celebrate his 80th year of life.

I may just have to be content with the fact that this may be the last time I see him on this side of The Great Time Clock.

And then, we'll only have eternity to be with each other.

I think I just heard God giggling.

Monday, February 27, 2012

My Lenten Exile Home

Llangollen, our wee cottage on the marshes of Rehoboth Bay, is getting a face lift.

It's been a long time coming. We've dreamed of - and planned, and scrimped and saved for - this moment for about 10 years. Ever since we first bought the house as a summer place and eventual home, we've wanted to make it "our own".

So, new roof, windows, doors, siding (aspen white), trim (cedar green), gutters, and downspouts. The former sun room - an addition that was never really properly constructed - is going today. That's a picture of it above. It will be replaced by a Very Large deck.

Next year, new kitchen. The year after that, the bathrooms get an update.

Slowly, slowly, slowly it goes. We're trying to be gentle to our budget.

"The Crew" arrived today for the first phase. The crew chief is a Very Large man named "Mr. Big Bunny". Well, his Christian name is "William" but his Momma named him "Bunny" and that's what everyone calls him.

Well, his crew calls him "Big Bunny" - I suppose it's a bit more, um...'masculine' well as being more descriptive.

The man has to weigh in excess of 400 pounds if he weighs an ounce. I think his heart might be just as big. I can't believe he's charged me so little to do this work.

Nice man. Not a lot of schoolin', but clearly knows what he's doing. And, he knows how to run a crew.

That's them in the picture above. James is on the ladder. Marvin is near the trash bin on the roof along with Andre and Willie. I'll let you figure out which one is Big Bunny. Hint: He's not on the roof.  (Note: Thanks be to God).

Because my grandmother's motto was, "Hey, ya gotta eat," I just made them some pumpkin bread and a big pot of coffee and took it out to them for their break. They were so grateful it made my heart sing.  I love to cook and bake but, you know, cooking and baking for an appreciative audience has to be something close to heaven.

And, because we do not live by pumpkin bread alone, I told them that I was going back inside the house to pray for them. I asked Big Bunny if there were any special petitions he wanted me to make.

He said, ""I just pray every morning when I get outta bed that the work is done well, there ain't no property damage and my boys don't get hurt". I told him I would ask y'all to join me in that prayer. He said, "Much obliged, Rev."

I think we got us a little church right here at Llangollen.

My friend Ann commented on FaceBook that I was, "becoming an exile while living in one's own home - just right for Lent."

You know, she's right. And, she isn't.

This Thursday, March 1, I leave for Thailand. I'll be there for three weeks. Well, I'm leaving here on February 29th and traveling to a hotel about six miles outside of Dulles Airport so I can catch the plane at my leisure the next day.

I'm going to visit one of my dearest friends who turns 70 on the 20th of March. He was the Chair of the Commission on Ministry when I went through the ordination process.

He was, initially, opposed to the ordination of women. He became an enthusiastic supporter of my process and has become committed to the full inclusion of all the baptized in all the sacraments.

He is one of my dearest friends.

No matter where he's lived, we've always been together on a birthday of his that ends in a "0".

When he turned 40, we were in Maine. We celebrated his 50th when he was in Vermont. At 60, he was in Hawai'i. And now, in his 70th year, he's retired and living in Thailand.

So, what's to be done? I have to go, right? I mean, what are friends for?

So, Phase I of the work is that the sun room comes down today. In two weeks, our dear friend Bill comes to put the railing and the finishing touches on the new deck.

Phase II - the new roof - begins when I return at the end of March. That way, Ms. Conroy and our pups and I won't have to go through any of it alone.

Phase III is the instillation of the new windows and doors. That should be done by Palm Sunday.

Holy Week is the tentative schedule for Phase IV: the new siding, gutters, downspouts, etc. 

After Easter, we'll begin Phase V: The yard work.  New stones for the yard. Down comes the 'fish cleaning' station at the dock and up goes a outside shower by the back door to the laundry room. We'll put up some planter boxes by the north side of the house and, I'm hoping a trellis at the walkway as you come into the living room entrance.

Bill has already put up a solar powered, motion-detection light on the shed by the car port. He'll be installing a new yard lamp post, too.

All that will be after I come home from Thailand. While I'm there, I plan to spend my mornings and early afternoons visiting lots and lots of Buddhist temples and, as my friend Dasch likes to hear me say, "chanting anything that isn't nailed down".

My afternoons and early evenings will be spent poolside at my friend's apartment complex where he has rented me a place for the month. Not to worry. I'll be taking lots of pictures for FaceBook and blogging from there.

My nights are promised to my friend and his band of merry men who have plans for lots of frolic and fun, including visits to more 'girly-man' shows than is absolutely necessary.

The contrasts promise to hold the most interesting - if not flat-out exotic - Lent I think I've ever spent.

We do plan to take a few trips to Bangkok and trek to Cambodia and Viet Nam. You know, because as long as we're there, we might as well. I suspect we'll have lots of very interesting conversations about the economy and human trafficking and things most tourists to that area don't talk about.

There's lots of beauty in Thailand, but there's a whole lotta ugly, too.

It promises to be quite an adventure.

I'm going to take the puppies out for a walk soon. Mr. Theo, Mr. Lenny and The Divine Ms. CoCo have been in the master bedroom all morning. They are not pleased with all the noise. They have no vote in the matter, but lots of voice, which they have been exercising liberally all morning.

They will love it when the work is done and they have a big old deck to run around on and sun themselves to their heart's content. Mr. Theo is already the "harbor master" and checks out the boats as they go by. Ms. CoCo, of course, barks and sasses them while Mr. Lenny - who, poor dear, 'takes the short bus to school' - usually watches quietly when he's not flat-out bewildered.

A few of my neighbors are getting their boats ready to go back in the water. The deck should be all finished by the time they start rolling by. The pups will thank me, then. Or, not. Either way, it will be alright. Llangollen will really begin to look like "ours".

As I write this, the sun room/new deck project is just about half done.

They have removed the roof, the door and all the windows and will begin to take down the frame.

Then, the carpet comes up and they will sand the deck and clean everything up before they leave.

If you're on FaceBook, I'll have the finished pictures up by dinner time, I'm sure.  I can't wait to see Ms. Conory's face when she walks through the door tonight.

An exile in my own home, preceded by an exile in another country, and then home again, home again, jiggidy jig to finish up the rest of Lent.

Just in time for the Resurrection, without which I think, the Ashes don't mean much at all. It's the good news I'm after. The life after death. Eternal life. It's worth the price of the Wilderness.

I heard the preacher on Sunday say that the thing about the wilderness of Lent is that we don't choose it; the wilderness chooses you.

I'd say this particular wilderness will be a bit of both for me. 

It's okay. Either way, as an exile in the wilderness of my own home or of a far away country, I know I'm right where I need to be.

Home is not so much a place as it is a place in the heart.

As Robert Frost once said, "“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

Saturday, February 25, 2012

In Good Conscience

Having conversations with your friends, neighbors and fellow parishioners about contraception and politics?

Need some foundational principles, core values, guidelines, and language to talk about this (because, yes, it's 2012 and yes, apparently, we still have to talk about this)?

Been searching all over the internet for some answers?

Well, folks, search no more. You're in luck.

Please click on this link to a page from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) website.

If you scroll to the bottom of that page and click on the link In Good Conscience: Guidelines for the Ethical Provision of Health Care in a Pluralistic Society, you will find a model document which was designed to assist health care institutions to develop policies regarding access to health care in general and reproductive health care in particular.

It was developed by ethicists, theologians, and health care and religious professionals in a project facilitated by the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

The document articulates core values, guidelines and language which is of invaluable assistance for people of faith who find themselves in the midst of dueling wars - "The War on Women" vs. "The War on Religion" - ironically declared by politicians seeking to be "The Leader of the Free World" who are, of course, the only "real Christians".

For example, here are the Core Values which inform the Guidelines:
1. Universal Access to Quality Care

Every person regardless of age or condition must be afforded access to quality health care. In America’s increasingly profit-driven system, it is particularly urgent to ensure that economically disadvantaged persons enjoy equal access to quality care.

2. Health of the Whole Community

The health of the whole community must not be undermined by the forces of health care privatization and sectarianism.

3. Respect for the Human Being as Moral Agent

People should be free to exercise their moral agency and religious freedom when receiving health care.

4. Respect for the Principle of Informed Consent

The bond of trust between patients and health care providers is built on shared decision-making.Patients or their surrogates must be provided with complete information in order to participate fully in their own medical care.

5. Respect for Evidence-based Medicine
The scientific model on which the theory and practice of modern medicine is based must be respected.
6. Respect for Medical Ethics
The philosophical principles on which the theory and practice of biomedical ethics and professional medical ethics are based must be respected.

7. Respect for the Conscience of All Parties in Health Care Decisions
No one person may compel another to act against their own conscience. Therefore, as a matter of practice, no one individual’s conscience may take precedence over the conscience of another.
8. Respect for Separation of Religion and State
The separation of religion and state makes possible the civic setting in which the ethical provision of health care can coexist with authentic religious pluralism. For this reason the separation must be protected.
9. Respect for Constitutional Law
In keeping with respect for religion–state separation, the constitutional guarantee of both freedom for religion and freedom from religion must be maintained.
10. Respect for Community Stakeholders
In light of our diverse and pluralistic society, the interests of all community stakeholders must be respected in the policies, governance, and provision of health care. People of all economic means must be afforded the opportunity to access quality health care, and community resources must be allocated in such a way that no one is shut out, even if it means some sacrifice by others. Cultural and religious pluralism strengthens our society as a whole as we bring to each encounter a rich background of values, beliefs, and practices. Health care institutions should honor their patients, employees, and communities by creating an environment in which difference is respected.
Good stuff, this. You won't be disappointed.

One quick tip of the biretta to one of the members of the working group who developed this document: the Rev'd Geoff Curtiss, rector of All Saints in Hoboken, NJ who also serves as VP of the Board of Christ Hospital in Jersey City, NJ.

At one point in its recent history, Christ Hospital removed itself from an attempted partnership with Bon Secours’ Health System, in part, because of a conflict in these issues. Geoff has also served as a deputy to General Convention.

In Good Conscience:

Friday, February 24, 2012

Divine Creativity

I have long been fascinated by the intersection of the creative process and the Divine.

Yes, I'm a "blogger" - whatever that means - but I blog what I write. Sometimes, that's about controversial subjects like reproductive rights, politics, and, of course, the Anglican Communion in general and The Episcopal Church in particular.

Other times, it's just my musings about a conversation or an incident, or something that has happened to me in my life on which I reflect and presume to share with whomever happens to be wandering and wondering around cyberspace and finds me.

I think there is a deep, inexplicable longing in each heart and soul that not only seeks to find the expression of the questions of the realities of our lives - the good, the bad, and the ugly - but also desires to communicate with other souls who may or may not have been asking similar questions or concerns.

Child Art - Age 4.5 years
Art has a language all its own, in different forms and dialects. Poetry, prose, sculpture, pottery, music, painting, photography, stained glass, textile, fashion, knitting, cooking, sewing, architecture, and landscaping are but some of the major forms of artistic expression with all sort and manner of components and subdivisions within each category.

It starts with an idea - sometimes with great clarity - which seeks to find shape and form.

Other times, it starts with a question and, once the artist has surrendered to the creative process, ends up somewhere completely different than where s/he originally began.

Vincent Van Gogh once said, "If you hear a voice within you say “you cannot paint,” then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced."

Until, of course, the voice speaks again, daring to be silenced. Van Gogh was certainly tormented by that inner voice which he tried to silence his whole life, leaving us gasping at the inexplicable beauty of his art.

I'm still fascinated by this talk given by Elizabeth Gilbert (author of "Eat, Pray, Love") on Nurturing Creativity. Do check it out, when you have 18 minutes or so to spare.

She muses on the impossible things we expect from artists and geniuses, and shares the radical idea that, instead of the rare person "being" a genius, all of us "have" a genius.

What a fascinating idea, right?!? I guess it's the same idea which captured the imagination of my childhood notions of a "genie" in a bottle who has to be "rubbed" into reality, and we only have three wishes - any three wishes - that will be granted and come true.

In Christian circles, we talk about "being inspired by the Holy Spirit". Is this the church's version of a 'genie' - the 'third person' of a Holy Trinity bottled up inside of us? What do we have to 'rub' - or what 'rubs' us - that will release that Spirit we 'have' that sometimes produces 'genius' we often call 'creativity'?

Anais Nin once said, "If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it."

I remember - long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away - listening to Martin Smith who was then head of the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, who said something that has never left me.

In his marvelous, clipped British accent, he said, "Whenever you get to a place where you find yourself asking, 'Hmmm... what am I to make of this?', that place is a place of a call into creativity with the Creator. It is a vocational call to 'make' something of 'this'- whatever it is - with God."

Oscar Wilde once said, "No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist."

Kid Art
Children are much better at this than adults. Unless they have already been otherwise carefully taught, they don't have the cultural filters many adults have and are not incapacitated by a sense of failure or paralyzed by a sense of shame.

Many have not yet discovered the terrorism of 'perfection', so they splash paint on paper or canvas or scrawl letters on wrinkled paper or instinctively color outside the lines or draw figures or images that bear only vague resemblance to what we know in reality.

They somehow know that it's the emotion that is evoked from the art form that is far more important than someone else's sense of "right" or "wrong" or "perfection".

Pablo Picasso once said, "Some painters transform the sun into a yellow spot, others transform a yellow spot into the sun." I think the child in each of us intuitively knows how to do this.

Check out the program at St. Peter's here.
I'm very keen on a project that has been started by a friend of mine, Sharon Sheridan, at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Morristown, NJ. It's called a "Children's Day of Art" which seeks to offer children from ages 6-13 with an opportunity to express their creativity.

There will be workshops led by regional artists in cartooning, drama, poetry, pottery, eco-sculpture and music. During lunch, they'll also have a chance to dabble in and enjoy some "edible art" with a local chef.

One of the things I love about this project is that, to raise some start up money for the event - to pay for supplies and food and to provide some of the local artists who will be offering the workshops - Sharon has engaged a wonderfully creative fundraising idea.

It's called "Kickstarter" - a website that will allow people to contribute online and provide funds that will, well, 'kickstart' the program. I think it's brilliant. If you have a moment, go over to the web page and check it out. And, if you are of a mind and are able, please make a contribution.

I think the communal, societal need for art and artistic expression is ageless and timeless, but in uncertain times like these where boundaries are obscured and life feels especially fragile, I think there is an even greater need for creativity and imagination.

Indeed, I really believe that the decline in churches is a direct fault of lack of religious imagination. We seem so wed - no, actually, addicted is a better word - to our organizational structures we seem not to know what else to do or how to do it.

Scribbled by a one-year old
So, we just keep our noses to the bureaucratic grindstone, trying to fit our ecclesiastic pegs, made smooth and round by years of polished tradition, into cultural holes that are now made square or rectangle or triangular by post-modern concepts and ideas and realities.

Over the past ten years or so, I have come to think of my priesthood as art. Despite my years of education and training and experience, I often venture forth into the world of human relationships and community with nothing more than a thought or idea and have absolutely no idea where I will land or what the final outcome will be.

Oh, I THINK I know where its going, but, more often than not, if I open my mind and my heart and my soul to be fully present with another, I'm the one who is changed and transformed. I'm the one who is led to a new understanding, a new perspective, a new idea I never thought myself capable of seeing or thinking all on my own.

Which is, of course, because I'm not. Alone.

One story by way of explanation from that galaxy far, far away.

When I was a Chaplain at Lowell University in MA, a young woman appeared at my office door one day. She had recently discovered that she had been adopted as an infant and, though she adored her parents, she was consumed with the idea that she had a birth mother she had never known.

She was not only intensely curious about this woman and the story of what had led her to give her daughter up for adoption, she felt that being disconnected from that story was part of the indescribable pain and longing she felt, despite her happy childhood and present life and wonderful, loving parents.

So, we set off on a year long journey together, to check into birth records and research her branch of the roots of her family tree. She did all the hard work, really. I served in the role of part guide, part cheerleader, part prayer partner, part reality check as she followed her quest for identity and meaning.

I'll never forget the day we discovered that her birth mother had died. We found the death certificate which lead us to her birth certificate which led us to her maternal grandparents.

Eventually, and after long, often difficult conversations, I went with her to visit them. They had not known about their granddaughter's existence. They knew their daughter had died, but they didn't even know where she had been buried. They thought they knew which cemetery - in point of fact, they knew the cemetery which was less than 10 miles from where they lived - but the painful circumstances of their daughter's life and death prevented them from knowing anything more.

After long discussions, we decided to go together - the four of us: parents, daughter and priest - to find the grave site and, perhaps, find some solace and peace for years of painful memories.

We searched and searched but could not find a grave marker with her name on it. I offered to go to the cemetery office to see if there were any unmarked or "pauper's" graves and, perhaps, find her there.

My hunch proved to be correct. There was a section of the cemetery that was no longer used for that purpose - the practice of cremation has changed all that - but which had once been set aside as a mass burial ground for those who could not afford a place of rest of rest for their own moral bodies.

There we stood - a pair of brokenhearted parents and their young, hopeful granddaughter - each carrying a small bouquet of flowers. The parents held daisies - the flower they remembered as their daughter's childhood favorite. Their granddaughter carried white roses because she remembered from her church that white roses were given to mothers on Mother's Day who had lost their mothers.

The Luck Pine - Rafael Messa, age 9
We stood in silence over this unmarked plot of graves - I with a vial of Holy Water in one hand and an unopened Prayer Book in the other, dressed in my cassock, surplice and stole - which contained the bodies of who-knows-how-many other mother's children, once born to great hope and expectation, given a special and unique name - now inscribed in an old cemetery register, tucked away on a dusty shelf -  who were buried deep in the hard, cold ground, anonymous and unknown to all but God.

The dead silence in that spot was suddenly broken open by my student who turned to me and asked, her voice chocking with emotion, "Please pray for her."

I have no memory of what I said. My words are as lost to me now as the woman's life was then to her parents and daughter. I remember blessing the grave with Holy Water. I remember praying for her soul and the love that was once lost but now, by some amazing grace, had been found buried beneath the cold, hard ground.

I remember tears and weeping and sobbing. I remember the four of us holding each other in a tight circle around the grave. I remember grandmother and daughter placing flowers on the grave.

I remember the grandparents saying, "We forgive you. We hope you can forgive us."

I remember the daughter saying, "I forgive you. I don't understand, but I forgive you. I thank you for giving me such wonderful, loving adoptive parents and leaving me with these wonderful, loving grandparents. Even though I never knew you, I hope you know how much I will always love you for the act of unselfish love which led to such happiness in my adoptive family. I hope you are at peace."

As we stood there for a few more silent moments, I remember thinking, "Ah, and this is the essence of being a priest: Standing at an unmarked grave, saying prayers for someone I never knew, helping people I don't really know to find peace and solace in the knowledge of the Communion of Saints and the unconditional, abundant, lavish, wasteful, amazingly beautiful love of God."

It is the work of an artist to make something of beauty, something that communicates that which words alone can not carry. Something that takes us beyond our present reality and points us to something bigger, something better, something greater than ourselves.

Something that the world might consider foolish and wasteful and lavish. A luxury that we discover to be an absolute necessity to the continued beat of the human heart and the soaring of the human spirit.

I did not know I could do that. I only showed up at my office faithfully each day which one day called me to make a journey in faith with a confused, brokenhearted young woman on a quest. I traveled with her to wherever her path led, even to strangers who became her relatives. It ended as we stood together at the door of death and, together, found new life waiting for us both.

I am a priest. This is what I do. It's an amazing vocation and I am deeply, richly blessed.

I don't think this is solely the work of a priest.

Tree of Life
I think it is the work of divine creativity which is buried deep within the soul of the enterprise of being human. Sometimes, it finds expression in what the nuns of my youth called "corporal works of mercy". Sometimes, it finds expression in other, less pragmatic, more artistic forms.

This work awaits being uncovered or discovered or recovered by risking and daring and dreaming that, together with the God of Creation, we might call order out of chaos and life out of death.

William Faulkner once said, "The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life."

As I begin this season of Lent, I find these words calling me on, leading me to the resurrection I know awaits after forty days and forty nights in the wilderness.

Lent, I am discovering, is the ultimate, artistic journey into Divine Creativity. 

I pray that the Divine Creativity, by whatever name she is known - genie, muse, genius, the Holy Spirit, Shekinah - will find us where we are and help us to see that the ancient tombs of our lives are not empty.

They are filled with imagination.

And, love.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Contraception Tango

You could almost hear the Obama administration humming "I won't dance, don't ask me."

The last Republican debate featured, as Rachel Maddow pointed out, "Four White, Wealthy Men Talk(ing) About Contraception".

Actually, they were stepping all over each other, trying to get the radical right-wing nut vote - and, money - so one of them could be, ironically enough, 'Leader of the Free World'.

They did this for over fifteen minutes. In a nationally-televised debate. About access to birth control. In the year 2012. From four rich white guys who are also opposed to abortion.

You can't make this stuff up.

Rick Santorum wanted to talk about "the increasing number of children being born out of wedlock in America" and "children being raised by children."

Ron Paul spent some time explaining his belief that "immorality creates the problem" of Americans wanting access to birth control.

Newt Gingrich, saying that he prefers to discuss Obama's support for 'infanticide,' sometimes served as a referee between the other three candidates. "If we're going to debate about who is the extremist on this issues," Gingrich said, "it is President Obama, who, as a state senator, voted to protect doctors who killed babies."

Mitt Romney then did a daring arabesque and, putting his foot right in his mouth (again) said, "I don't think we've seen in the history of this country the kind of attack on religious conscience, religious freedom, religious tolerance that we've seen under Barack Obama."

Which is rich, when you think about it for one red-hot second.

Here are the facts on the ground: As part of a plan for preventative health care, the Obama administration is including contraception coverage. This is a decision a clear majority of the country heartily supports - including the majority of Roman Catholic women who use some form of birth control.

Statistics from the CDC and Planned Parenthood report that 98% of women of child-bearing age in this country have used some form of contraceptive method at some point in their lives. One would assume (since no actual figures are available, this being a 'privacy issue') that, since the RC Church likes to tell us that they are the largest Christian denomination in the world, a significant percentage of that 98% are Roman Catholic women.

This would also include women who are part of the movement among conservative Evangelicals known as "Quiverfull" which promotes procreation, and sees children as a blessing from God, eschewing all forms of birth control, including natural family planning and sterilization.

The administration is exempting churches and other houses of worship, and has crafted a compromise so that religiously-affiliated employers will not have to pay for contraception coverage directly. Instead, insurance companies will have to pick up the bill. If - and that is a big IF - the woman is fortunate enough to actually HAVE a job that actually provides health insurance.

So, this is the biggest "attack" on religious freedom in the history of the United States?"

Reality check, Mr Romney. This is why you're losing your bid for the Republican nomination for the Presidency.

Paul, Santorum, Romney & Gingrich
During the debate, Romney added that Obama is "requiring the Catholic Church to provide for its employees and its various enterprises health care insurance that would include birth control, sterilization and the morning-after pill. Unbelievable."

It's unbelievable, sir, because it's not true.

Perhaps you were sitting too close to Mr. Santorum, who, by your own admission, "has a history of making statements that aren't grounded in the truth."

So, let's tell the truth here, shall we? The issue isn't about contraception. Neither is it about a so-called "attack on religious freedom".

It's about votes and money. It's about power and control. It's about selling your soul - or, your mother, or your youngest child, or your dog, or whatever you need to do - to regain the crumbling foothold on the rapidly dwindling dominant social paradigm of "man on top".

What we're witnessing, folks, is the awkward dance between religion and politics which has animated this country since our inception. It's in our DNA.

We've also seen the Feminist Fandango, the Racism Rag, the Abortion Fuge and the LGBT Cha Cha.

It's always performed with a bible in one hand and a fist full of Super-PAC money in the other, all dancing furiously toward the ballot box.

This particular presidential race provides us with our very own version of "Dancing with the Stars".

Actually, it reminds me more of a scene from the movie, "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?"

As Maureen Dowd recently put it, “Every election has the same narrative: Can the strong father protect the house from invaders? That question is burning now that intelligence sources are warning that Iranians might be coming to strike on U.S. soil. And, this time, we’re also asking: Can the strong father save the house itself from going into foreclosure?”

The message of this political-religious dance step is that leader who cannot or will not protect religion appears too weak to protect us from the dangers of the unknown in this age of uncertainty and blurred boundaries.

We want "God the Father" to protect and defend us. We also want "God the Mother" to nurture and tend to us. What we're getting is testosterone on steroids.

These guys are bound and determine to prove that they can protect us from ourselves - which seems to mean protecting us from the full and equal rights of women.

It's embarrassing, really, to see grown men - intelligent, white, well-educated, wealthy, heterosexual men - behave in such desperate ways. You can smell the desperation in every encounter and in every political speech. It smells like the inside of an old running shoe.

At the end of the debate, the candidates were asked how they would describe themselves in one word, the candidates replied with the following:
Paul: 'Consistent.'
Santorum: 'Courageous.'
Romney: 'Resolute.'
Gingrich: 'Cheerful.'
Cheerful? Cheerful? Well, I suppose he had to say something that didn't make him sound too desperate.  I guess he proves the old saying that, "Ignorance is bliss."

Places, everybody. Lace up your dancing shoes. The bad news is that the dance is far from over. In fact, it's really only just begun.

The good news is that, if you pour yourself a stiff bourbon or open a bottle of wine, you might even enjoy parts of the show.

Meanwhile, you can find the President and his administration, over there. On the sidelines. They would be the ones looking cool, calm and collected.

And the women? Well, there will always be the over-enthusiastic cheerleaders with their pom-poms and pony-tails, urging their boys to "Go team! Go!".

The others - the smart ones, anyway - are sitting on the other side of the room, waiting to be asked to dance by the cool guys in the room when the slow dance begins.

Some of the really smart ones have already started a graceful, elegant dance with each other. 

And, a five, six, seven, eight.....

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ashes to stay

Ashes to Go.

All the cool kids are doing it.

At least, that's the way it feels. And, I think the truth of it is that this is the presenting issue of my discomforts with it.

However, it goes much, much deeper than that.

I mean, look, I get it. People live very busy, often frenetic lives. Places of employment do not allow people time to go to church on Ash Wednesday the way they once did - not without negotiating some time taken from the employee's "time bank" (vs. specified vacation and sick days, and designated holidays in the past).

Why not go to where people are, it is argued, and provide the church's service "on the go"?

And, I get the argument about how people have drifted away from the church ("I'm spiritual, not religious") because the church has not been willing to meet people where they are.

"Ashes to go," it is argued, brings the church to the world. And, isn't that what Jesus would have us do? It will make the church more relevant in people's lives. If we're willing to meet them at the train station and bus stops, hopefully people will "get" that we are willing to meet them wherever they are - no matter where they are on their spiritual journey.  See?

And, hey, what a great opportunity for  "evangelism", right? On this one day, anyway, The Episcopal Church is certainly getting our "market share" of the news and for once, it's not "controversial".

Look, Ma, The Episcopal Church is doing something "good" and it's not about ordaining women or LGBT people and it's not about (gasp!) abortion or reproductive rights.

I get it, I get it, I get it.

I'm not going to argue against those arguments. (Well, I don't really know if it's "evangelism" or "publicity", but I'm not even going to go there right now.)

None of this dispels my greater concerns.

Part of what concerns me is that I fear this is a short term solution with dubious efficacy to a long term problem. Imposing ashes on someone's forehead who is not at all interested in church seems to me to be the ecclesiastical equivalent of putting a band aid on a large, gaping wound.

By taking the imposition of ashes out of the church and its liturgical context and onto the streets, aren't we, in fact, doing something that's more "spiritual" than "religious"?  Is that bad? Is that good? I don't know. You tell me.

I'm asking a question.

I know, I know. Grace can't be contained or controlled. It's a gift from God, given freely and undeservedly.  We are but the vehicles of God's grace. Who knows how the imposition of ashes will affect or impact the recipient? 

I know this, but here's the thing: While Grace is a mystery, it's not magic. I think this concerns me most. Not that clergy aren't clear that they're not involved in a magic show at the train station; rather, I'm afraid that the "spiritual but not religious" folks don't know that.  How would they? Who's going to tell them? How are we going to tell them?

I'm asking a question.

Maybe it's the name. "Ashes to go". I don't know.  The title is clever and all but it makes it sound like we're offering "McChurch". Spiritual 'fast food' for important people with important jobs and important lives. But, are we offering 'good spiritual nutrition'?

I don't know. I'm not sure.
Which brings me to another concern. It's the power of a liturgical symbol - especially when it is taken out of its liturgical context.

We 'break bread' with friends - some of them spiritual friends - over a 'table' but does that make it Eucharist?  We can impose ashes on each other's foreheads, and even say the words from Genesis, "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return," but if that's said and done apart from "the story" of our faith, does it convey the same meaning?

I'm asking a question.

I guess that's what really concerns me - separating sacred symbol from sacred story. Further, it removes the clergy from an engagement with the sacred stories of people's lives. I think that impoverishes everyone involved.

Well, maybe not 'impoverish' - that may be too strong a word - but it's certainly not as enriching and fulfilling as understanding the story of our mortal lives within the greater story of the hope and resurrection we know in Christ Jesus.

Ashes and Lent, for me, anyway, mean nothing apart from the whole, on-going story of God's action in the world. It's just one part of the Salvation Story. Ashes are but one symbol of that story. Baptismal water is another. Bread and Wine are two significant other symbols.

Reminding people of their mortality through the symbol of ashes is not really spreading hope. The Gospel is all about hope. It's the "Good News". Where is the "Good News" in the symbol of ashes apart from the other symbols of our faith?

I'm asking a question.

I guess, for me, I would be very happy doing an abbreviated Ash Wednesday service and taking it to the lobby of an office building, or inside a commuter rail station building, or even on the platform of the train station or bus stop or a homeless shelter or the outside porch of a home near a bus stop or train station or wherever.

But, just the ashes? All by themselves? I just don't know.
Truth is, I can't articulate - yet - what concerns me about that, but I know it has something to do with the power of symbol and liturgy and story within the context of a community of faith.

It's all very pragmatic and convenient and I guess, from my own personal experience, that's what bothers me the most.

Religion - like faith - is neither pragmatic nor convenient.  It's messy and demanding and confusing and compelling.

Like, for example, love.

Jesus is God's love made incarnate. That's what we teach and preach. How does the imposition of ashes on the forehead of someone standing at the platform of a commuter rail station or bus stop fully communicate the love of God incarnate in Christ Jesus?

I'm asking a question.

All that being said, it's what all the cool kids are doing, and - at least on the surface - it doesn't seem to hurt anything or anyone.

So, why not, right? If all the cool kids are doing it, it must be, well, cool, right?

I guess I'm just going to have to let the 'cool kids' be cool and sit this one out again this year. I'm going this evening to the Ash Wednesday Service at the church where I'm a member.

I'm going to listen to the story of our faith and reflect on it within the context of the story of my own life. I'm going to be with some people who know me and I know them and some others I may never see again, after tonight.

I'm going to smell the mixture of the sacred oil and ashes and sing some of the old, old songs of the church and hear the prayers which call me to a Holy Lent.

I going to take full advantage of the luxury of one hour to get away from the usual and customary and comfortable places of my life and sit with my discomfort about the world and the church and my faith and pray that I may be a vehicle of grace - in the church and of the church and through the church and into the world.

I'm not getting my ashes to go.

I'm getting my ashes to stay.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The hate that hate produced

I was in high school when Malcolm X was assassinated.

I've been trying to remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news.

I can tell you exactly where I was and what I was doing the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I can even tell you what I was wearing.

I remember the voice of the Principal over the intercom, telling us in somber tones, his voice filled with emotion, that "President Kennedy has been shot. The President is dead. School will be dismissed early. Please form orderly lines as you wait for your buses in front of the school. And, God Bless America."

I even remember how my teacher, Mrs. Lowenstein put her head on the desk, cried out, and heaved big sobs of sadness as the grief waved over her body and seemed to shake the entire classroom.

Interestingly enough, I don't seem to remember anything about the day, forty-seven years ago today, when Malcolm X was shot and killed.

I do remember being afraid. JFK had been shot in November of 1963. This was less than two years later. It felt as if the world were going mad. Assassinations seemed to be a virus in the air.  Martin Luther King, Jr. would be shot and killed three years later in April of 1968. Robert Kennedy would be shot and killed in June of that same year.

Mostly, I remember being angry. My anger was mostly around what I remembered Malcolm X said when President Kennedy was shot. “[Kennedy] never foresaw that the chickens would come home to roost so soon,” said Malcolm.

I remember thinking, "Well, I guess those same chickens found another place to roost, didn't they?"

It would be years later that I learned that Malcolm X had been "silenced" by Elijah Muhammad for 90 days - reportedly, for making that statement.

In March 1964 Malcolm terminated his relationship with the NOI. Unable to look past what he discovered as Muhammad’s deception in his personal life, Malcolm decided to found his own religious organization, the Muslim Mosque, Inc.

Shortly after that, Malcolm went on a Hajj - a spiritual pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia - which marked a deep, life altering transformation in the man. For the first time, Malcolm shared his thoughts and beliefs with different cultures, and found the response to be overwhelmingly positive. When he returned, Malcolm said he had met “blonde-haired, blued-eyed men I could call my brothers.”

He returned to the United States with a new outlook on integration and a new hope for the future. This time when Malcolm spoke, instead of just preaching to African-Americans, he had a message for all races.

His voice was cut short, however. On February 14, 1965 the home where Malcolm, Betty and their four daughters lived in East Elmhurst, New York was firebombed. Luckily, the family escaped physical injury.

A week later, during a speaking engagement in the Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965 three gunmen rushed Malcolm onstage. They shot him 15 times at close range. The 39-year-old was pronounced dead on arrival at New York’s Columbia Presbyterian Hospital.

For whatever else Malcolm X stands for to various people of various races, he stands for me as a reminder of the power of racism to destroy the minds and souls of people of all colors.

Racism is a socially-transmitted disease that affects both white and black - and every shade in between - blinding us to the fullness of each other's humanity.

It's still difficult to read some of Malcolm's early speeches and the anger and hate that were seething just under the surface of his words.

It is, as both Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm preached, "The Hate that Hate Produced."

In a 1959 television program by the same title, journalist Mike Wallace interviewed Malcolm X and asked if all white people were evil. Malcolm explained that white people collectively were evil, saying, "History is best qualified to reward all research, and we don't have any historic example where we have found that they have, collectively, as a people, done good."

When he was asked about the NOI schools, such as the University of Islam, Malcolm denied that they taught black children to hate. He said they were being taught the same things white students were taught, "minus the little Black Sambo story and things that were taught to you and me when we were coming up, to breed that inferiority complex in us."

America couldn't hear those words in the late 50s and 60s without having a violent, angry reaction. We had a difficult enough time hearing the words of non-violent protest of Martin Luther King, Jr. We have a hard time hearing them now.

It doesn't make them any less true.

I know my American History classes in high school never revealed anything about the horrors of slavery. Oh, we studied the Civil War and learned that it was all about slavery which we knew, philosophically, was wrong. Then again, I lived in the North. Our hands were clean, we were told. It was those awful, ignorant people from the South. It was all their fault. See?

Eventually, the truth comes out. Eventually, we learned the awful, horrible truth about our complicity in racism. How it enslaves us all. How it damages the soul of the one enslaved and the one who enslaves.

No one's hands are clean. 'Sweet Honey in the Rock' sings of the complexity of this reality in their song, "Are My Hands Clean?" (You can read the lyrics here.)

We learn, if our hearts and minds and souls can bear to hear the truth, how racism continues to be perpetuated in organizations and systems like education, health care, employment, our government, and yes, even religion.

Things have improved - some - but the sad fact remains that the most segregated hour in this country continues to be during Sunday morning worship.

I don't mean to sound pessimistic or negative, but based on what I know about the Church, I don't expect that to change anytime soon.

In his Autobiography, Malcolm harks back to his time in middle school, when he was one of the top students in his school and made the mistake of telling his teacher he wanted to be a lawyer. “That’s no realistic goal for a nigger,” Malcolm’s teacher told him.

Thinking back on that, Malcolm says, "My greatest lack has been, I believe, that I don’t have the kind of academic education I wish I had been able to get. . . I do believe that I might have made a good lawyer."

What gave rise to Malcolm’s rage and "the hate that hate produced" - was that for all his intellect, and all his ability, and all his reinventions, as a black man in America, he found his ambitions ultimately capped.

Today, the President of the United states is a black man who came up out of a single-parent home and illicit drug use, became a lawyer, and created himself as president.

I don't think it is either solicitous or untrue to say that the fact that Barack Hussein Obama is President of the United States of America stands today - and will for all time - as the greatest legacy of Malcolm X.

Oh, the work is far from done. Racism is still a virulent and persistent socially transmitted disease that infects too many hearts and minds.

In a 1962 rally, Malcolm said: "Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the color of your skin? Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips? Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet? Who taught you to hate your own kind?"

Since then, we have done much to re-image our ideas of beauty, but hatred has a persistent ugliness which continues to distort the images of every child of God of every race, creed, and age.

Ossie Davis famously eulogized Malcolm X as “our own black shining prince.”

I think, today, forty-seven years later, more and more Americans - indeed, people all around the world - are willing to embrace that statement as our reality.

So, let me just say, thank you, Malcolm. Thank you for your rage and your anger. I understand it now as a gift. I didn't once. I apologize for that. Truly.

Somehow, because you grew past "the hate that produced hate", I think you'll understand and accept - and yes, even love - those of us who have grown past "the ignorance and prejudice that produced ignorance and prejudice".

May we continue to learn from your life and your legacy.

May "As-Salamu Alaykum" be, one day, more than a greeting.

May it be our commitment to the way we live our lives.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Smelling out death

Can you believe it? Ash Wednesday is this very week. Only two days away.

I'll spare you the Winter riff on the seasonal lament, "Where does the time go?"

As I have been preparing myself for the beginning of Lent, wandering through what the church has to say about the Doctrines of Human Nature and Sin and Death and Resurrection, I came across this quote from Rowan Williams in Christian Century:
"Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, says doctrine is needed in order to help Christians know how God acts in creation and in transformation. We must have doctrine in order to know what it is that we are to be attuned to. "But if doctrine doesn't make possible poetry and contemplation, then doctrine is a waste of time," he says. This "is where the poetic and contemplative touch the prophetic, because the prophetic is all about the diagnosis of dead words and false acts. The prophetic task is to smell out death in a situation. (Williams, A Silent Action)
Oh, Rowan, Rowan, Rowan!

There you go again. Setting up false dichotomies. This time, between the poetic and the prophetic and twisting it 'round in order to defend the need for church doctrine.

Okay, so this quote is taken out of context and I admit to not having read A Silent Action: Engagements with Thomas Merton.

Maybe he didn't mean exactly what he wrote here.  To be fair, perhaps in context he meant something else entirely.

You know, like the way Rowan once wrote about homosexuality when he was Bishop in Wales and then did something else entirely when he was Archbishop of Canterbury.

Don't even get me started about the treatment of women in the episcopacy in the Church of England.

And, you don't want to go anywhere near the Anglican Covenant.

Quite frankly, I am weary of 'engagements' with Rowan. More often than not, he makes my head hurt when he's not causing my heart to ache, so I'm not going to even go there with him in terms of whether or not "We must have doctrine in order to know what it is that we are to be attuned to," because I think, mostly, doctrine is a waste of time precisely because it doesn't "make possible poetry and contemplation".

Well, doctrine often gives rise to serious theological contemplation, perhaps, but poetry? Well, perhaps John Donne and Gerard Manly Hopkins, but honestly, when was the last time doctrine gave rise to poetry? Not anything I've read that was written in the last 200 years, at least. Not directly.

Because of the flaws genetically inherent in all doctrine, it naturally gives rise to the prophetic.

In many ways, doctrine is dead on arrival, having been thoroughly masticated and regurgitated by hundreds of men for hundreds of centuries before it gets written down and some other, dried up old man dressed in heavy brocade and silk and lace dribbles some wax and impresses his seal of approval on it.

But, I said I didn't want to engage Rowan.

I do want to engage this idea about the poetic and the prophetic, and what Rowan says, "The prophetic task is to smell out death in a situation".

The problem, for me, is that so much of church doctrine is not only dead, it can easily be used as an instrument of death - or, at least a cudgel to beat the life out of the life-blood of the church.

The very idea that we need doctrine "in order to help Christians know how God acts in creation and in transformation" is not only false, in my estimation, it is killing us not-so-softly but silently with words.

But, I said I didn't want to engage Rowan.

In preparation for Ash Wednesday's herald of the Season of Lent, I've come across some poetry which makes the case that we need both the poetry of the prophetic and the sometimes prophetic nature of poetry to help people of faith know how God acts in creation and transformation.

Take this one, for example, by Sarah Rossiter. It's called "Stripped" which is about Death and Resurrection and one of the best images I know for Lent.
This is the season, trees stripped
clean and what was hidden now
is seen, the path that leads into
the woods, the littered leaves,
the crooked walls that once marked
fields where grass grew tall,
remnants of a time long past,
reminding me that nothing lasts.

Will death be like this, do you think,
the day the breath does not return,
will our true nature be revealed when
stripped of memory, heart, bone,
sight, will we, too, open to the sky,
and, like the forest, fill with light?
See what I mean? If this poem doesn't 'smell out the death' in the church's doctrine of Sin and Human Nature, I don't know what else does.

To my mind, no one dances on the line between the prophetic and the poetic like Mary Oliver. No, not dances. She often performs an elegant ballet, with breathtaking pirouettes and daring arabesques across deep theological thoughts and images from Creation.

I think her poem Wild Geese challenges the death in the doctrines of Human Nature and Sin to resurrect itself and take her on, leading us to a new idea of Lent.
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 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.
I know. I know. No mention of God. Not even a whisper of Jesus. And yet, those who have ears can hear the Divine calling clearly over the words on the page to radical acts of faith and love.

A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I took a few amazing courses in seminary with Womanist Ethicist Katie Geneva Canon.

She said lots of things in those course that I carry with me to this very day. One of them is this:  That the prophetic task of the pastor and the preacher was three-fold:
Name the pain.
Touch where it hurts.
Offer hope.
That, I think, is the challenge of 'smelling out the death' in doctrines which gives rise to the poetic and the prophetic.

I confess that it is the prophetic poetry of Judy Chicago's work "And Then" which offers hope as I sift through the ashes of my life in my Lenten Discipline:
And then all that has divided us will merge
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind
And then both men and women will be gentle
And then both women and men will be strong
And then no person will be subject to another's will
And then all will be rich and free and varied
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many
And then all will share equally in the Earth's abundance
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old
And then all will nourish the young
And then will cherish life's creatures
And then all will live in harmony with one another and the Earth
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.
Oh, that I might hear this sort of prophetic poetry from the pulpits in some churches! Oh, that I might even have the courage to move past dry, dusty, ashen doctrine to proclaim an image of the Realm of God which does not smell of death but is alive with the intoxicating aromas of the presence of a Living God in the midst of the death and decay of life.

No, I'll not be taking any of the church's doctrine into Lent with me this year. I will not be contemplating the dead words of dead men to lead me through the ashes of my human nature and into the fullness of a life of Christ who lives in my soul.

Instead, I'll be packing some bits and scraps of prophetic poetry from some of the women in my life as nourishment and inspiration along the way.

I may even try my hand at writing some of my own poetry. I confess, I really suck at poetry. I'm too embarrassed to reprint any of it here.

It is poetry, however, that, more often than not, leads me to the path toward my own salvation. I don't know how else to better express the power and magnificence of my experience of God. Even then, it falls woefully short. But, it is alive, filled with passionate questions and certain doubts which I think are at the center of an experience of the Living God.

It is not doctrine, put prophetic poetry which helps me "to know how God acts in creation and transformation". I must have prophetic poetry "in order to know what it is that we are to be attuned to".

But, I said I wasn't going to engage Rowan.

Instead, I'll leave you with one of my favorite of my many favorites of Mary Oliver's poetry.

May it guide your steps through Lent as it has mine.

It's called, simply, "The Journey"
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.
Well, Rowan got this much right: "If doctrine doesn't make possible poetry and contemplation, then doctrine is a waste of time."

In two short days, we shall hear it said, over and over again, "Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return (Genesis 3:19)."

Now, there's a doctrine that is both poetic and prophetic. 

Smelling out the death in a situation is not only poetic and prophetic.

I believe it is the on-going work of being Christian.

Lent prepares us to begin that work, and so, makes us better, more alive Christians for the task of ushering in the Realm of God for Christ's sake.

Not to enshrine our beliefs in doctrine, but to be better able to live our faith with honesty and integrity and the kind of transparency that leads to transformation.

Because, as Mary Oliver says, the world will continue to spin and God's grace and salvation will continue to be available, "whether or not you have ever dared to be happy / whether or not you have ever dared to pray".

Sunday, February 19, 2012


She was just a kid from Newark, NJ.

But she took up permanent residents in our hearts.

We'll have to wait a few more weeks before the toxicology reports come in to know what killed her.

My guess? She pushed the metaphorical needle too far.

I don't need a toxicology report to know that this was a woman who didn't mean to die. Didn't want to die. Loved her daughter. Loved her mother. Loved Jesus. Loved her glamorous life. Still, in some ways, loved her bad boy former husband.

But, for some reason, she didn't - couldn't, apparently - love herself.

She sang about it. Beautifully.
The greatest love of all
Is easy to achieve
Learning to love yourself
It is the greatest love of all
Unfortunately, it wasn't so easy to achieve for herself.

And, it's just my hunch at this point, but I think it ultimately killed her.

I watched her funeral this afternoon. I was, at first, fascinated by the fact the the CNN crew was there. In Newark, NJ - which is where I once worked and ministered and lived and moved and had my being. And that the telecast was being hosted by none other than Soledad O'Brien and Piers Morgan.

Piers Morgan. In Newark, NJ. Covering Whitney Houston's funeral. At the New Hope Baptist Church. On CNN. I couldn't imagine it

And yet, there they were - Soledad and Piers and the camera crew - set up about a block away from the church, amidst the abandoned buildings and littered, chain-linked parking lots I knew so well from my years in Newark, interviewing Mayor Corey Booker and Rev'd Jessie Jackson and Rev'd Buster Soaries and Pastor Joe Carter.

It was almost surreal. I had to watch.

Indeed, I watched the whole thing, from start to finish.

On a Saturday afternoon.

I never do that.

Part of what was so mesmerizing was that it wasn't just a news event. It was church.

No, I mean C.H.U.R.C.H.

Oh, yes, the place was flush with celebrities and the performances by Alicia Keys and Stevie Wonder and BeBe and CeCe Winans  were amazing. (You can find the program here.)

But, it was, after all, church. Black. Baptist. Church. Almost four hours worth, in fact.

I had forgotten how deeply satisfying that experience is to the soul.

It was Kevin Costner's eulogy, however, that gave us a window into Whitney's soul. He talked about her insecurities which he discovered when they worked together on the film The Body Guard.
‘Whitney was nervous and scared that she wasn’t good enough for the role. But I told her I would be with her every step of the way.

‘I wanted to tell her that the fame was rigged. That I didn’t care how the test went, that she could fall down and start speaking in tongues. That somehow it was a kind of acting method.

‘The Whitney I knew despite her worldwide fame, always worried. Am I good enough? Am I pretty enough? Will they like me?’ 

‘The part that made her great was also the part that made her stumble.’
The part that made her great was also the part that made her stumble.

All that talent. All that beauty. All that love. All that wonderful family.  All that money.  All those homes. All that fame. All those awards. All that deep spirituality from a good church family.

None of it was enough. 

Costner said:
‘People didn’t just like you Whitney. They loved you.'

‘I was your pretend bodyguard once. And now you’re gone too soon.'
I don't know that anyone can protect us from ourselves. Especially not from our own insecurities.

No one can make us be 'enough' or have 'enough'.

That's one of life's hardest lessons.

To know we are good enough.

That we have enough.

That we are, in fact, enough.

Here's how Costner ended his eulogy:
‘What you did was the rarest of achievements. You set the bar so high that your colleagues don’t even sing that little country song. What’s the point?’

‘I think Whitney would tell you, all little girls wanting to become singers. Guard your bodies and guard the precious miracle you have.

‘Off you go Whitney, off you go. Escorted by an army of angels to your heavenly father.'

‘When you sing before Him (God), don’t you worry. You will be good enough.’
It's too bad she didn't know that on this side of Paradise. Or, maybe she just didn't believe it.

Maybe there's time for others to learn it and believe it before they enter Eternity.

Perhaps that is the greatest lesson in Whitney's short life.

In Costner's words: "Guard your bodies and guard the precious miracle you have."

Or, in the words which Whitney, that little girl who came from Newark but lived in all our hearts, sang with conviction but apparently never really believed herself:
And if, by chance, that special place
That you've been dreaming of
Leads you to a lonely place
Find your strength in love
Let the church say, "Amen."

Friday, February 17, 2012

Youngbloods and Old Farts

I was away for Clergy Day in the Diocese of Newark on Wednesday. It was a fairly intense but highly productive day which was made enjoyable by the fact that it is always good to see dear friends and colleagues and meet and make new ones.

It's fascinating for me to see the Youngbloods coming up the ranks. They are, by and large, bright, well educated people in their mid-30's and 40's who are passionate about the Gospel of Jesus Christ and eager to make their own mark on the church.

You know. The way I was - and, perhaps, you were, once - more than two decades ago.

It's not that we old farts are any less educated or passionate, but what we learned in seminary has been tempered by experience. We've picked up a few skill sets over the years which makes us even more passionate about the Gospel. And, while we've either made our mark on the church or missed it despite our best efforts (however it is one measures leaving a 'mark' on the church), we still feel we have something to contribute to the work of mission and ministry.

There were two young, white males who stood up to speak who gave me pause. I've been considering their words carefully over the past few days, and find myself becoming more and more deeply disturbed.

The first was a young, white, heterosexual male, married and the father of two, who framed his remarks within the context of the "generation gap".

Have I mentioned how much I hate that? It is sooOOoo annoying to hear a thinly-veiled reference to the fact that what I am and what I have stood for and all the years of ministry I've done in the church are not only passe and irrelevant, but, in fact, I've had it All.Wrong.

Have you noticed that it's mostly Gen-Xers who do this? When its a white, straight male Gen-Xer, who has benefited from all the work of all the previous generations, well, there's something about that kind of arrogance and privilege that just sets my teeth on edge.

Yes, yes, I know. All generations do that. There's something, however, about hiding behind the quasi-social science language of "Baby Boomers", "Gen-X", "Gen-Y" and "Millennials" (Shades of "What's your sign, baby? You look like a Arius with a moon in Uranus.") to take your ageist pot shot that is especially annoying.

I mean, let us not forget that it was MY generation that said, "Never trust anyone over (the age of) 35". There's something clean and honest about that kind of prejudice, you know?

Anyway, he said that "Baby Boomers" care too much about The Institution and that Gen-Xers don't.

I have no idea where he got this information, but apparently, I've been wrong all these years about myself and many of my colleagues.  We've been fighting The Institution for as long as I can remember.  We've changed lots of things about The Institution in all of its many incarnations that it's no longer recognizable to our parents.

Well, he said, he doesn't give too hoots about The Institution. He said it with just a modicum of humility - which I suppose he wanted to convey lest he sound - oh, I don't know - too arrogant, even to his own ears.

He didn't care, he said, about the institutional church. He just wanted to be a priest and serve God and the people of God and had no interest What.So.Ever. in talking about anything pertaining to the institutional church.

How noble, right? Pure. Untainted. And, poor soul, woefully naive.

Indeed, the only consolation I got from his arrogance was the image of him, a few short years from now, landing smack-dab against the hard, cold floor of reality.

Happens to the best of us.

The one who really pulled my chain, however, was the other Youngblood who stood up to speak. White. No, actually, he was Very White. And, young. Looked like he was twelve. 

He actually said that - wait, let me get my notes so I can tell you what I wrote down - here it is: "The Diocese of Newark has been known for Social Justice. Maybe it's time to be known for something else. I mean, social justice was then. The question is: What's ahead for us now?"

Mind you, he said this with a straight face and in very reasonable, confident tones.

My friends had to hold me down so I wouldn't get up from my seat, walk across the room, and slap some sense into him with my bare hands.

Social justice, you see, is"yesterday". It's all about doing something 'new' so we can be 'known' for that. It's all about 'brand' and 'marketing'.

God help us.

I know. I know. God will. God always does. Because the Gospel of Social Justice is God's "brand" not ours. It's timeless and ageless and doesn't need to be "marketed". It needs to be done.

What this poor, earnest young man doesn't understand is that justice isn't something you work for, achieve, and then go onto something else. It requires constant vigilance and persistence. It's a life-long struggle.

Case in point: Have you seen the picture of the religious people who were invited to testify before Congress about birth control and religious freedom?

Actually, the correct title of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is, "Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State: Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?"

Here's the picture which I nicked from Associated Press.

So, what's wrong with this picture?

Anybody? Beuler? Anybody?

Remember: the topic was birth control and religious freedom.

You may have, perchance, noticed that there are no women in the group. Not. One. Especially, not one who was either ordained or of childbearing age.

Republican Chairman Darrell Issa had refused to let the Democrats call any witnesses. All of Issa's witnesses are opposed to the contraception coverage requirement and are testifying about Issa's framing of the hearing: that it's about religious freedom, not health care.

Democratic Representatives Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia and Carolyn Maloney of New York walked out in protest.

Maloney, before she left the hearing, took on Issa in her statement: "What I want to know is, where are the women? I look at this panel, and I don't see one single individual representing the tens of millions of women across the country who want and need insurance coverage for basic preventive health care services, including family planning. Where are the women?"

Atta girl.

Gee, now that Marriage Equality is becoming less and less debatable and is becoming, more and more, the law of more and more of the land, do you think there's any connection between that and the fact that - in 2012, for God's sake!! - we are talking about birth control?

Actually, we are talking about control - and power. Or, the sense of loss thereof. And, it's no coincidence that the people invited to testify about reproductive rights and religious freedom are all "men of the cloth".

See also: The Gospel of Social Justice and the need for constant, continual vigilance and persistence.

The first time I went to Lambeth in 1998, I took an afternoon off to spend some time with Bishop Derek Rawcliffe, a marvelous little imp of a man from Wales who served as Anglican Bishop of the New Hebrides and Episcopal Bishop of Glasgow and Galloway, and was, for a time, honorary bishop in Ripon and Leeds Diocese.

He was the first bishop in the Church of England to be honest about his sexuality.

Actually, he came out on television in 1995. He was dismissed the following year for conducting blessings of same-sex couples

Bishop Derek died last February. He was 89 years old.

When we were together in 1998, Derek took me on a special tour of Canterbury Cathedral. We went way, way down in the Undercroft (that's fancy-schmancy Anglican talk for basement) where there was a room filled with about 10 or 12 different stone altars - all side-by-each.

Seems that, in the ancient, medieval church, priests were under orders to preside at Eucharist daily. Sometimes, there would be several masses going on simultaneously.

It was all about them, you see. The clergy. The (of course) all male order of clergy. Didn't really matter whether or not people actually came to receive the Body of Christ. It just mattered that priests "performed their duties". As if they had all the power to make Christ truly present - whether or not the rest of the people were there.

Anyway, Bishop Derick took me behind the altars where "kids' had carved graffiti into the back of the stone columns and altars. Except, this graffiti was in Latin.

There were carvings that read "Claudius et Sylvia" in a heart.

Bishop Derick pointed out about six or seven of these before he pointed to his favorite. There, in a heart was "Marcus et Romulus".

"See?" he said, "People really don't change. People have always fallen in love. People have always wanted to proclaim their love publicly. And, the church has always tried to deny them blessing. But, we will not be denied by the institutional church what God has given us by bringing us together in the first place."

He scratched his head and rubbed his chin as he became quiet and pensive. Then, he said, "It's always amazed me that an institution like the church, which gathers itself around the incarnation of God's love should be so miserly in showing it."

That's because institutional memory is so short and the human craving for personal power and authority is so strong. Using cute little gimmicks like the quasi-social science of studying the difference in generations is about as helpful as Astrological signs.

Oh, it's sort of fun in its own way, and some of it actually has a ring of truth to it, but there are so many variables as to render it to the realm of parlor games - and, certainly not serious discussions about the church and politics.

As for the gospel of social justice, well, if you don't understand that as central to the mission of Jesus - along with repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, healing, compassion and service - you just haven't been reading the Gospels. You simply don't get it.

What you've got, actually, is ego. Your own. In blindingly, consuming, copious ways.

It was ever thus with Youngbloods.

The good news is that Youngbloods grow up - eventually and inevitably - and all-too-soon become old farts like me.

When I begin yelling at them to "Get off my damn lawn," I'll know it's time to take my leave.

The other bit of good news is that you also learn to have patience. Well, some of us learn that better than others. I'm not exactly flunking but, in all honesty, I'd have to give myself a solid 'D'.

I have to remember that it takes maturity to finally 'get' that if you want 'peace' you have to work for 'justice'. And, and, AND....if you want justice, you have to work for peace.

The Youngbloods will get that. Eventually. Just like I did. And, perhaps, some of you, too.

Some of them already have.

We need both - justice and peace.

Just like we need Youngbloods and Old Farts.

God help us, every one.