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Saturday, June 04, 2016

Dust in the Wind


I think the words in the Book of Common Prayer that have had the most profound spiritual effect on me are these from the Ash Wednesday liturgy. 
Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
They are both sobering and terrifying, providing a sense of fleeting finiteness as well as being an integral part of something that is infinite and enduring.

I was never more aware of this than during the five years (1996-2001) I worked for Jack Spong, bishop of the Diocese of Newark, as Canon Missioner to The Oasis, the ministry with and to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, their families and friends.

He was not the easiest boss I've ever worked for, but that doesn't necessarily mean what you think it means. Yes, I worked hard and traveled far, spending more time living out of my suitcase in hotels and inns than I care to remember.

In my position as Canon Missioner, I faced more hostility than I had ever previously encountered in my life, and I thought that had been quite a lot. I really didn't think enduring a court custody battle for your children could have been more violent - except for the violence of the "ordination process" in The Episcopal Church, during which the integrity of my faith and authenticity of my family were continually questioned because of the orientation of my sexuality and identification of my gender.

Turns out, those life experiences had only served to prepare me for the blunt force trauma of misogyny and homophobia that were - and still are, in fact - part of the church and the world.

As difficult as that was, I was astounded by how much hostility I took on which was actually directed at Jack Spong and his audacity, as a bishop in the church, to expose the ignorance which shapes and forms the prejudice and bigotry and oppression women and other "minorities" experience in the world and, yes, in the church.

I'm not going to lie. It was difficult to be the target of all that hostility and hatred.

Lambeth 1998 was the absolute worst. It is no dramatic exaggeration to say that there were times when I actually feared for my life - or, at least, that some physical harm would be done to me. And, all in the name of Jesus, of course. And, to "save the church" from the evils of Jack Spong and "his minions".

It was, in a word, traumatic. 

All that having been said, it is also true that it was under Jack's leadership that I was challenged to think - very carefully and with great clarity - about what I really believe, what I value, and the philosophical, spiritual and religious principals that shape and form my life and my work.

I had to ask myself - frequently - why am I doing this? Is all of this hostility worth it? Does it make sense to continue to try to put out small brush fires of prejudice when the forest is burning with bigotry? To provide small drops of water to those who thirst for justice in the midst of the killing drought of oppression?

There were times when my work as Canon Missioner was all-consuming. Times when I was away from my family. Times when, even when I was with my family, I was so preoccupied with my work that I couldn't really be fully present at one of our children's basketball game or dance recital, much less at the dinner table.

Participating in and presiding at Eucharist became a source of strength as well as a force for my transformation on an even deeper spiritual level.

It became startlingly, crystal clear to me the need Jesus had to be remembered. To leave something behind that would make the sacrifice worth it. 

To justify the pain.

It wasn't so much as being about a legacy - it's not about illusions, or delusions of grandeur - but something that turned the sacrifice into a contribution to something greater than the "I am that am" which contributes to the desire to continue the work.

I found the need to satisfy that impulse for anamnesis in the words of the Ash Wednesday liturgy. I heard the words about being dust and returning to dust making deeper sense to me.

Looking back, I see, now, that my little specks of dust were caught up in the swirl of many particles of human dust in the justice movements of that time - to further the civil rights of people of color and women and to insure the civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Jack Spong's ministry as bishop served as a vector, a carrier. A vector is what is needed to move a thought or an object from point A to point B.

That is not a ministry unique to Jack Spong. It is what bishops do.

Or, at least, what they're supposed to do. When they are actually being leaders in the church. Which means that they have to kick up some dust and stir stuff up.

Which is also why the episcopacy is called "pontifical".  It doesn't just apply to the Bishop of Rome.

It may be folk etymology but the word pontiff derives from the Latin root words pons (bridge) + facere (to do, to make), and so to have the literal meaning of "bridge-builder".

Jack's legacy is that he was a vector of justice for women and LGBT people, building bridges across parched deserts of prejudice and bigotry into wellsprings of liberation and justice.

I have come to see that my human dust was a small part of that turbulent wind storm of justice.  I have come to believe that the small specks of the dust of my work and ministry helped to contribute to disturbing the peace.

That's what justice does. It disturbs the peace of the self-satisfied and those in power.

I learned that justice is, as Cornell West is quoted as saying, "the public face of love".

And thus, I am a few small dust particles of the windstorm that was - and is - Jack Spong.

It helps me to make sense of all that horrific prejudice and bigotry and hopefully, contributes to an understanding of what has been and what still needs desperately to continue. 

That's good enough for me.

Tomorrow at 3 PM at St. Peter's Church in Morristown, NJ, I will take part in the 40th Anniversary Celebration of the consecration of John Shelby Spong as 8th Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark (NJ). 

Jack honored me by asking me to write the Prayers of the People for the occasion. I will be printing them here after the service.

Until then, I am both heartened and humbled to know that I am Dust in the Wind of the ancient song of justice. It helps to think that my ministry provided a few new notes to an old gospel hymn, and perhaps, a bit of understanding as to why the work needs to continue. 

As Jack would say, "The only way you can worship God is to is by daring to be all that you can be and not bound by the fears of yesterday."

To that end, I have and will continue to worship God with my whole heart and my whole soul and with my whole mind and with all my strength (Mark 12:30).

I am the priest I am today, in part, because of the experience of Jack's episcopacy.

I know that the work of - the struggle for - justice continues.

I am dust, and to dust I shall return.

And, even at the grave, my song will be Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

3 comments:

James Bradley McCallum said...

May the Lord continue to richly bless the ministry of JS Spong....

George Waite said...

An irrelevant man in an irrelevant institution.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

If he's so irrelevant, why bother to comment?