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

Friday, April 30, 2010

The Waiting Room

I've been spending a lot of time in waiting rooms of late.

It's that time of year - Annual Physical Exam, which includes blood work, EKG, pap smear, mammography, etc., etc., etc.

This morning, I'm in the waiting room of my Volkswagen Dealership. Lucy True Bug is having her 10,0000 mile check up and service.

As I looked around, I'm struck by the similarities of waiting room decor. Really, I can't tell if I'm in the waiting room for lab work, a doctor's exam or an imaging center.

Where do they get these damn gray-blue chairs?

Even the magazines are the same: Time, Newsweek, New Yorker . . .

Each waiting room also has a TV, but the medical facilities tend to have the station tuned to CNN. Here at the VW Dealership, I was surprised to find Regis & Kathy chatting away on the big screen TV.

Rachel Ray is, presently, teaching us how to prepared Ribs - going deep into the controversy between dry rub or wet BBQ sauce.

There are two guys here in the waiting room with me. What's fascinating is that they are absolutely engrossed in Rachel. Really. Engrossed.

I'm the one surrounded by the NY Times, the Baltimore Sun, and the Washington Post when I'm not working on my lap top.

I know. Go figure.

There are no other women here right now, but my experience has been that women would find a way to strike up a conversation. We'd start with an idle comment about something happening on the TV or something that we're reading and then, off we'd go, in no time flat.

The men? Not so much. In fact, these two guys are sitting at opposite ends of the room. They are watching the same TV program. Both nodding or otherwise individually reacting to the program - but not with each other.

It's like watching toddlers in parallel play.

The thing of it is, I'm really awful at waiting. For anything. Patience has never been my best suit. My grandmother always said I had "ants in my pants". I just couldn't ever sit still and do nothing.

Perhaps that's because it's genetic. I never saw my Grandmother sit still - except, of course, when she was reading her Bible. Even then, she was multitasking. She would be moving 'round her rosary beads while she was reading.

And, rocking in her rocking chair. And, sipping her tea. While keeping an eye on the stove or oven.

In my grandmother's house, the waiting room was the little 'nook' off the kitchen where there was a small table and two chairs and, of course, her rocking chair by the window.

Mostly, we would wait there while the food was simmering on the stove or baking in the oven. Or, after all our work was done and we were waiting to serve the meal.

It wasn't about being bored to tears by the banality of daytime television as we obviously are here in this waiting room. Or, being anxious about what invasive, uncomfortable thing might be about to happen in a medical facility.

The waiting room in my grandmother's house was about catching your breath, taking a break, reorienting yourself before you moved on to the next task. And that was always associated with prayer.

There's waiting and then there's waiting and they are very, very different. I'm much better at my grandmother's kind of waiting than at car dealerships or medical facilities - but, if I'm honest, not by much.

Patience may be a virtue, but it's also a skill and an art form. I'm very practiced at it, but not very proficient.

I've been practicing imagining these same waiting rooms - like the one I'm in now - as the little nook off my grandmother's kitchen.

I'm imagining that I'm here to reorient, refresh, renew before moving on to my next task.

Suddenly, waiting doesn't seem quite so monotonous or tedious. I don't have a case of 'ants in my pants'.

I've not exactly discovered the secret of how to acquire patience, but I have suddenly found a little room for waiting in my life.

It doesn't look at all like where I am right now.

In fact, it's quite lovely. Indeed, it's probably the most unique waiting room ever.

That's because it looks an awful lot like my grandmother's waiting room.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Season of Pain

This is not a sympathy post.

This is a very brief reflection on pain.

As of 10 AM this morning when I received my official diagnosis, I am a person with a 'frozen shoulder'. Left one. I fit the profile - a woman, age 40-60 with an endocrine disorder (Thyroiditis).

I'm very fortunate. The pain has already subsided and the prognosis is good for a complete recovery.

There are people who live with intractable pain who have to learn how to manage their pain in order to make it through the day.

God only knows how they make it through the night.

I'm not one of those people.

My range of motion is seriously inhibited by pain. Sharp, white-hot, stabbing pain that feels as if my shoulder is about to separate from my body when it doesn't feel as if my arm is going to melt and pour right out my fingers in molten lava.

I went to see a 'shoulder specialist' today. Mind you, he's an orthopedic surgeon for disorders of the shoulder, elbow and wrist. This is different from an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in disorders of hips, knees and ankles.

Such is life in this brave new world.

I think he is 12, if he is a day, my fancy orthopedic specialist. Handsome. Very handsome. Blond. Blue Eyes. Highly educated. Board certified. Very sincere. Compassionate.

"My wife says my fan club consists of females who are either eight or eighty."

And, cute. Very cute.

He said, "If you were alone on a deserted island, you would be completely healed in two years. With therapy, we can shorten that to 6-8 months."

"Six to eight months??" I said, trying not to raise my voice - or curse.

"Baseball players get sidelined for a season with this."

"Last time I checked, baseball players were not women aged 40-60 with an endocrine disorder."

My handsome young doctor chortled. Out loud. Right in front of me.

"We can manage the pain with a cortisone shot into the joint."

"No thank you," I said.

"It will help you do your PT more efficiently and effectively," said my handsome, 12 year old MD.

"No thank you," I said.

"Naproxin, then, twice a day, on a full stomach will work well," he said, "I'll call it into your pharmacy. Start on it tonight. You still won't be able to sleep on your left side, but you'll sleep better."

"Sounds doable," I said.

"You can always call the office and just set it up to come in for a shot."

"Not going to happen."

"It just feels like a bee sting. Then, your shoulder will curse at you a bit that night. Ice it and, after that, you'll be fine."

"And, that will last . . . how long?"

"Oh, sometimes two days, sometimes, two weeks, sometimes two months, sometimes, the pain never comes back."

"No thank you."

"Okay. Apply heat. As often as you can apply it."

"I will," I said. And, I do. It helps. A lot.

"You'll come back in two months and we'll evaluate the need for surgery."

"Oh, there won't be surgery," said I.

"Okay, then," he said, smiling, "I'll see you in two months."


I think what pains me most is the pain that comes from out of left field.

Like, when I go to reach for the cup of tea at my bedside and the pain is so excruciating I drop it. I've broken two mugs in the past two weeks in just this manner.

Like, when I make a sharp right turn and can't negotiate the wheel as I once did and for a few seconds, wonder if I'm going to cause an accident.

Like, when I try to elevate the elements at the Eucharist and can only get so far.

I'm trying not to be a baby about this. I know lots of people suffer this and much worse pain.

As I've begun to talk about it, I'm absolutely amazed at how many people have had this. How many manage to get through it "for a season".

I have no patience for this "season of pain".

I suspect that's why it has come. Because pain has much to teach me about patience. These are the lessons I need most to learn.

I suppose, stubborn and willful as I am, I couldn't these lessons bout patience any other way.

So, to distract myself, I've been watching some of my favorite old films. Tonight, I watched one of my all time favorites, "The Princess Bride."

My kids and I have seen this so many times we can actually do the different parts - like Rocky Horror Picture Show.

I had forgotten about this scene, which is, in an of itself, a whole brilliant meditation about the nature of pain.
Prince Humperdinck: First things first, to the death.

Westley: No. To the pain.

Prince Humperdinck: I don't think I'm quite familiar with that phrase.

Westley: I'll explain and I'll use small words so that you'll be sure to understand, you warthog faced buffoon.

Prince Humperdinck: That may be the first time in my life a man has dared insult me.

Westley: It won't be the last. To the pain means the first thing you will lose will be your feet below the ankles. Then your hands at the wrists. Next your nose.

Prince Humperdinck: And then my tongue I suppose, I killed you too quickly the last time. A mistake I don't mean to duplicate tonight.

Westley: I wasn't finished. The next thing you will lose will be your left eye followed by your right.

Prince Humperdinck: And then my ears, I understand let's get on with it.

Westley: WRONG. Your ears you keep and I'll tell you why. So that every shriek of every child at seeing your hideousness will be yours to cherish. Every babe that weeps at your approach, every woman who cries out, "Dear God! What is that thing," will echo in your perfect ears.

That is what to the pain means. It means I leave you in anguish, wallowing in freakish misery forever.

I'll take a frozen shoulder any day - and twice on Sundays.

Six times before breakfast.

I'll take that with a side order of patience, please.

Make that a double.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Dear Pope: Call Me

I know. I've given lots of air space of late to the Roman Catholic Church.

If I'm not taking a walk down Memory Lane with the Nuns of my youth, I'm lamenting the catholicity of the crisis of power and leadership that filters from the Vatican and around the globe.

Having said that, I want to reproduce here, on this blog, this open letter to The Pope from Marie Fortune the pioneer and undisputed expert in sexual & domestic violence - especially in faith-based settings.

In 1977, she founded something called The FaithTrust Institute which is a national, multifaith, multicultural training and education organization with global reach working to end sexual and domestic violence.

She's written several books and her institute provides training and seminars to help people make the connection between their faith tradition and the right of every human being to live without fear and threat of violence - especially from people they love and trust (like clergy).

The woman knows of what she speaks.

So, one would think that, when in a jam, a certain person in authority might call in a certain expert to help figure out how to get unstuck.

Like, say, the Pope might just call in someone oh . . .you know . . .someone like Marie Fortune, to . . . well. . . try to help him figure out how to handle the. . . um . . . "situation". . . in the Roman Catholic Church.

I know. But, hope does spring eternal.

So, just in case, Marie posted this on her blog. I'm reproducing it here not because I think the Pope or anyone of any importance or influence in the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy will ever read it, but because I think it's so brilliant it deserves as wide an audience as possible.

We all could learn a thing or two from this crisis. And, if we do, well, that's a wee small act of redemption.

She begins:
As the crisis erupts again in Europe and the U.S. with serious questions being raised about the Pope himself, one has to wonder if the men in charge have learned anything in the past 20 years. It would appear not. If the Vatican were to ask me for advice on how to handle this situation (which they will not), here are my ten steps to justice and healing.

Dear Pope: Call Me

In fairness to the Pope, there is probably nothing he could have said to the church in Ireland that would be sufficient to bring healing to the thousands of survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of pedophile priests.

Too little, too late.

I don’t think anyone ever imagined the numbers of victims, the numbers of abusive priests, and the material (not to mention the spiritual) cost facing the Roman Catholic Church. But as the crisis erupts again in Europe and the U.S. with serious questions being raised about the Pope himself, one has to wonder if the men in charge have learned anything in the past 20 years.

It would appear not.

If the Vatican were to ask me for advice on how to handle this situation (which they will not), here are my ten steps to justice and healing:

1. Words are important but actions are the real test. Anyone who knew and did nothing or knew and covered it up should no longer be in a position of authority in the church. Holding individual bishops and administrators accountable would speak volumes.

2. Stop expecting any sympathy from the flock; you don’t deserve it.

3. Stop being defensive and complaining that the media coverage is a “pretext for attacking the Church.” You created this problem by not responding to disclosures of abuse and by trying to hide them instead of dealing with them.

4. Stop empathizing with Bishops who hid the abuse of children because they wanted to protect the church’s reputation. They sacrificed thousands of children and set in motion an institutional failure that now threatens the future of the church.

5. Come clean and own up to the system’s failures and tell us what you are doing to fix it. Remember: repentance, according to Ezekiel, means to “get a new mind and a new heart.”

6. Don’t ever use the Gospel passage about the woman caught in adultery when Jesus said that anyone without sin should cast the first stone to discuss any of this. Instead check out Luke 17:1-2: “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come. It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown in the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” Jesus was serious about accountability; you should be too.

7. If you are serious, establish a commission to really investigate and recommend structural changes because this is a structural problem. Be sure to include non-bishops and non-Catholics who actually have expertise.

8. Stop pretending to “protect” the institutional church by hiding from victims and survivors. Your first job is pastoral and they are your flock. All they are seeking is justice and healing, and they have a right to expect both from their church. In fact, your defensive, lawyer-driven responses have placed the institutional church in great jeopardy. You have compromised the integrity of the church and caused many to question their faith.

9. Remember: they don’t expect us to be perfect, just to be faithful.

10. “Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.” (Hebrews 12:12)

So Pope Benedict, call me. Let’s chat.

Rev. Dr. Marie M. Fortune
FaithTrust Institute

Monday, April 26, 2010


It's been rainy and cold all day today. I'm not sure if we're in the middle of a high or low pressure system, or trapped somewhere in between the two.

All I know is that my sinuses feel heavy and a headache has been threatening all day.

To add injury to insult, I've been going for physical therapy on the rotator cuff of my left shoulder, three times a week for the past two weeks. The progress has been slow but steady.

On Friday, however, the doc got a little too aggressive and the manipulation hurt so bad it made me cry. It's been tender all weekend but last night, I went to pick up the cup of tea from my bedside table and, well, let's just say it wasn't pretty.

I had therapy again today, which has resulted in some improvement, but I had to come home and take some pain meds this afternoon which pretty much knocked me out of commission.

Not to worry. I'm gong to be fine. Really. These things just take a long time to heal. But, they do. Eventually.

I only told you all of that to tell you this:

As I was struggling to find a comfortable position this afternoon, I remembered an old meditative trick taught by the nuns of my youth.

When we went to the dentist or were going to have a medical procedure, we were advised to say the rosary. The praying of each decade is followed by a meditation on one of the 15 Mysteries of the Life of Christ.

The fifth decade, as I recall, was reserved for the Sorrowful Mysteries of Jesus. Meditate on this, the good sisters promised, and you would know pain relief. 

All we had to do was consider how Jesus suffered for us - The Agony in the Garden, The Scourging at the Pillar, The Crowning of Thorns, The Carrying of the Cross, and The Crucifixion - and whatever pain we were feeling was guaranteed to lessen.

Yeah. Right.

But, the heating pad hadn't yet cranked up to it's maximum effectiveness and the pain med hadn't kicked in and I was pretty desperate.

So, I grabbed my rosary beads and began. I closed my eyes and allowed myself to get into the rhythm of saying ten Hail Mary's, one Our Father, and one 'Glory Be'. It's like any other chanting meditation, except there are more words. Funny thing is that, after a while, you don't even think about the words any more. You just get into the rhythm and let it carry you.

When I got to the fifth decade, it was time to meditate on the Five Sorrowful Mysteries and, as I had been carefully taught, remembered that my petition of prayer was to ask for mercy.

I don't know why this happened. I'm sure it's a sign of my wickedness. Proof positive that I am, as the Psalmist writes, "a sinner from my mother's womb."

The first thing I remember is getting an image of The Divine Mercy of Jesus. It's the image on the top of this post.

The next thing I remember was giggling.

We used to call this picture, "The Drag Queen Jesus."

None of us knew what a Drag Queen was, exactly, except it was something more than "Uncle Milty" (Milton Berle) who used to be on TV on "Your Show of Shows" and occasionally dress like a woman but talk like a man while smoking a cigar.

That was guaranteed to make you instantly dissolve into giggles.

That's not to be confused with "The High School Graduation Jesus."

The one that's him in a semi-profile, every hair carefully combed into place, his beard carefully trimmed, his best white tunic, and perfect back lighting to add that certain 'divine glow'.

You know, the one his mother hung over the fireplace in their little hovel in Bethlehem.

Yeah, that's the one. Over to your left.

I started giggling even more as I remembered some of the lunch room conversations we kids used to have about this - and other images of Jesus.

The nuns always had pictures of Jesus with children around the classroom. I got up, adjusted my heating pad, and started searching the internet for one of my favorite pictures of Jesus and children.

I found it!  It's "Jesus with Children of Many Nations."

Isn't it special?

It always made us wish we had been one of the children to have been lucky enough to be in that picture with Jesus.

I remember Sr. Mary Bucky (I think it was really 'Bernadette' but we called her 'Bucky' - not in her presence of course - because she had wicked splayed and bucked teeth) telling us that, if we contributed enough to 'save' ten Pagan Babies, we just might find ourselves invited to have our picture taken with Jesus, one day.

I think I actually saved five Pagan Babies (you had to bring in a dime a week to fill one card with 10 slots. The money would go "Missions" so Father could baptize a baby - in Africa or somewhere in Asia) who wouldn't otherwise be saved by the blood of Jesus.

That was five whole dollars - a lot of money back then, especially since I got $1.00 a week allowance and was expected to give $.25 per week to the church. Add a dime ever week for a Pagan Baby and well, you begin to get a basic, rudimentary meaning of the word 'sacrifice'.

I also remember this Holman Hunt version of Jesus knocking at the door.

We had our own version of Sr. Wendy who would interpret religious art to us, for our spiritual edification.

The door, she said, is your heart. She had us notice that there was no handle on the door. That's because Jesus can't open the door to your heart unless you open your heart to Him.

Well, that, in my 7 year old estimation, was just flat out silly. If Jesus is all powerful and all knowing, he doesn't need a handle. He would be able to know how to open the door of your heart without even breaking a sweat. And, six times before breakfast!

Which, of course, only inspired classic Roman Catholic kid questions like, "Sister, if God is all powerful, would he ever create a rock He, Himself couldn't lift?"

Which would lead Sister to point out that the weeds in the portrait were symbolic of the clutter and accumulation of sloth in the human mind and the bat flying around in the darkness was symbolic of human ignorance.

Yup. That's what I remember hearing her say. And she thought I wasn't paying attention. I do remember her saying, once, "Young lady, if you roll your eyes once more I'm going to knock them back into your head so they never stop rolling."

I never worried about that. What I did worry about was the stories some of the nuns told us to get us to behave in church.

"There was once a little girl, just about your age, who once chewed into the host in her mouth rather than allow it to melt at the roof of your mouth. And do you know what happened to her?"

"No, what sister?"

"Jesus CRIED OUT in AGONY and BLOOD came flying from her mouth!"


"True story, children. Now, you don't want to have that happen to you, do you?"

"No, sister."

"Good! Then never EVER chew the host. Understand?"

"Yes, sister."

"Always . . . what, children?"

"Let it melt in your mouth, sister."

"That's right. Very good."

Besides, as comedian Kate Clinton points out, years of practice getting a melted host off the roof of your mouth with your tongue is excellent practice for other, future, adult 'divine joyful mysteries'.

As I explored all the many varied images of Jesus on the internet, what I began to realize was that I hadn't been paying attention the pain in my arm. Suddenly, it was much more bearable.

I'm thinking of writing a new meditation for former Roman Catholic kids using our childhood images of Jesus.

These would be "The New Joyful Mysteries of Jesus: Or, how I learned to relax and finally enjoy my RC childhood."

Or, maybe I'll just call it "Mercy!"

It's one of the best analgesics around, leading you to a place in the middle of a high or low pressure system, or trapped somewhere in between the two. .

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Good Shepard Sunday

Today's offering is a musical meditation on the Divine Feminine in the 23rd Psalm by Bobby McFerrin.

The first time I heard this performed was 10 or 12 years ago at Princeton Chapel where I had the great honor and privilege of preaching. The choir director had called me the week before to ask if I might be planning to refer to God, at any point in my sermon, with a feminine pronoun.

I thought that was a curious question so I asked him the reason for his question. "These kids are so conservative - in every way - they are really having a hard time with this piece. I just thought it would help if they heard someone else speaking of God in terms other than "He" and "Lord"."

I remember saying something to him about, "Well, after centuries of following the voice of an all-male priesthood, it's going to take more than just this one female voice, but I'm happy to be one part of the process."

Years ago, I listened to an interview with McFerrin, who, as a matter of fact, was brought up Anglican. At one point in his life, he was seriously discerning the path he would take for the rest of his life.

He felt a strong call to the Episcopal priesthood, but he felt an equally strong vocation as a musician.

He was asked, many years later, how he felt about his decision to pursue a career in music vs. the path of ordination in The Episcopal Church.

As I recall, he said something like, "Looking at the past through the lens of fame and fortune never provides an accurate picture."

So, I won't speculate about how The Episcopal Church might have been changed by McFerrin's ordination, but I can only imagine that the voice McFerrin followed was the one he needed to hear.

Our loss. The world's gain. To wit - this marvelous piece.
The Lord is my Shepard, I have all I need,
She makes me lie down in green meadows,
Beside the still waters, She will lead.

She restores my soul, She rights my wrongs,
She leads me in a path of good things,
And fills my heart with songs.

Even though I walk, through a dark and dreary land,
There is nothing that can shake me,
She has said She won't forsake me,
I'm in her hand.

She sets a table before me, in the presence of my foes,
She anoints my head with oil,
And my cup overflows.

Surely, surely goodness and kindness will follow me,
All the days of my life,
And I will live in her house,
Forever, forever and ever.

Glory be to our Mother, and Daughter,
And to the Holy of Holies,
As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be,
World, without end. Amen

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Sisters, Sisters . . .

In my travels the other day, I ran into a group of nuns I used to work with in The City, when I was Director of Pastoral Care for Hospice.

I was picking up a friend who was arriving at Newark Penn Station and they were waiting there to catch a train to D.C.

I hadn't realized how much I miss them and had forgotten just how much I enjoyed working with them.

You know how that happens, sometimes? Gosh, it was good to be with them again.

Ever since, I've had the lyrics to this song running around in my head.

Irving Berlin wrote it, of course, for the film "White Christmas". I sometimes wonder what he was really thinking when he penned the lyrics.
Sisters, sisters, there were never such devoted sisters
- Never had to have a chaperone, "No sir"
- I'm here to keep my eye on her

Caring, sharing ev'ry little thing that we are wearing
- When a certain gentleman arrived from Rome
- She wore the dress and I stayed home
There, now that that's out of my system, perhaps that song will leave me alone and go haunt someone else.

The Sisters and I chatted for oh, 15, maybe 20 minutes. They were heading out to a conference on the whole kerfuffle about Rome's "investigation" of their orders. They were, predictably, disgusted.

One of them said it felt like a one-two punch to the heart. Last December, the Vatican announced an "apostolic visitation of the 340 religious women's orders to see how well they are "living in fidelity" to the church's guidelines for religious life.

As if that weren't insulting enough, the second probe, initiated in February, moved from 'evaluation' to 'investigation'. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — which enforces theological purity — is investigating the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella group that represents about 90 percent of women's orders.

"This is about Vatican II," said one, "Absolutely."

"They want to reverse it - bring the church back into the 'traditional line'," said another, "And they know the best, most efficient way to do that is to try to rein in the women religious."

"Fat chance!" said another. "Look what we were able to do in helping to promote the Health Care Reform Bill. That," she sniffed proudly, "despite the displeasure of the Catholic Bishops. We may be shrinking in numbers but we are still mighty," she laughed as several of her Sisters joked about "The Incredible Shrinking Women."

As they all shared the silly joke, I felt myself instantly caught up in the music of their laughter.

It was the thing I loved about the nuns of my youth - the fact that they could wear those ridiculous habits that pinched at their face and neck and endure the oppressive of the RC institutional church and the patronizing, dismissive, often disrespectful treatment by the RC priests, and still be joyful.

It seemed to me the best revenge.

One of the nuns, realizing that our time was limited, quickly got 'round to the recent scandal, now reaching the highest levels of the Vatican - even to the Pope himself.

Each one, to a person, covered her eyes momentarily in shame at the mere mention of the issue. "Hey, wait, wait," I said, reaching out to them, "You don't have to do that with me. I get it. I know the same stories you do."

One of them flew right into my arms, giving me a grateful hug. When I looked up again, I realized that I was not the only woman with tears in her eyes.

"What is shameful," said one sister, "is that the institution is still blind to their complicity in the abuse. This is not about the 'rebellious American Church'. It's a worldwide scandal. And, it's not about celibacy. It's not about homosexuality. This is RAPE and RAPE is not about sexuality - it's about using sex as a vehicle of power. Corrupt power. The shame is on them. Not us."

There were silent nods and murmurs of agreement all around.

I asked what they thought of the Archbishops in Newark and New York.

"Oh, they are not going to help this. At. All," said one. "We know one clergy who has been very helpful with the victims. He's doing holy, blessed, sacred work, but he's being treated like a pariah by his brothers as well as his bishops. It's disgraceful. He comes to our house all the time, just for spiritual respite and replenishment."

"He's doing God's work, for God's sake!," said another, "And this is the way they treat him? Disgusting!"

"Oh, I'm sure we'll be 'investigated' for that!" said the first. And, they all giggled and snorted again and chimed in with their own jokes so quickly I could hardly keep up.

"Special space on the Official Vatican Report Card . . . ."

"Harbors priests who help victims? CHECK!"

"Still uses music from St. Louie Jesuits? CHECK"

"Uses Gregorian Chant? NOOOOOOOOO.. . ."

They were cracking themselves up with their own special brand of "nun humor".

"Oh," said my one of my absolute favorite nuns - intelligent, well educated, a heart of absolute, pure gold - "and if we have to endure one more patronizing 'God-bless-you, Sister-verbal-pat-on-the-head' I swear I'm going to say something!"

"No, you won't," said another. "We won't let you. That won't help anything."

"Well, then," she said defiantly but with a definite twinkle of mischief in her eye, "You'll just have to make sure to keep some tissues around. When 'Father' starts with that dismissive, patronizing 'God Bless you, Sister' stuff, it always makes me throw up in my mouth a little bit."

That set off peals of absolutely delightful laughter. I found myself riding the sound of it back to the memories of my youth. But this time, I was on the inside of the joke being told. It was a pretty heady experience.

All too soon their boarding time was announced and it was time to bid them adieu. We promised to meet for coffee soon. I'm already planning to take some time in June and spend an overnight retreat with them at the convent.

We'll have a chance to do some talking, catch up with each other, and maybe one of them will hear my confession. I'll pray the office with them and sing with them.

Some St. Louie Jesuit stuff, fer sure. "City of God" by Dan Schutte. John Foley's, "Come to the Water." And almost anything by Marty Haugen.

It will be like Dick Clark's American Bandstand Top 40 for former Roman Catholics.

Later, after dinner, I might even sing "Sisters, sisters" for them - especially the last line: "God help the mister who comes between me and my sister. And God help the sister, who comes between me and my man."

Of course, we'll all understand that 'man' as Jesus. I'll have made a 'nun joke' of my own. And, we'll all laugh and laugh and laugh.

Just like we used to.

And, need to.

More than we might know.

Friday, April 23, 2010


Even though I was very carefully brought up to be the Best Little Girl In the Whole World, and it's taken years of therapy to work that stuff out of my system, if there's one thing I can thank my now sainted mother for, it's the fact that she taught me manners.

I'm talking beyond please and thank you, yes sir, no ma'am.

Being taught 'the basics' by my mother was more like an education in 'Manners 3.0' for everyone else in the world.  For my mother, it was a religion and she was on a Manners and Politeness Jihad.

If you got a gift or had dinner or were otherwise entertained, in my mother's book, you had exactly 72 hours to write a thank you note.

After my wedding, my mother was much more concerned with whether or not I had gotten the thank you notes out than the actual state of my marriage.

In my mother's world, there was a proper way to answer the phone or greet someone at the door and you had better know it. (I still sometimes answer my home phone with "Good morning/afternoon/evening. . . This is Elizabeth. May I ask who's calling?")

I still remember the "trick" she taught us so we'd never embarrass her or ourselves when out to a "fancy dinner" - which would be any place other than our home.

You make a "b" with the thumb and pointer finger on your left hand and a "d" with the thumb and pointer finger on your right hand. The "b" stands for "bread" and indicates that the bread dish to your left is yours. The "d" stands for "drink"and indicates that the glass to your right is yours.

But you never EVER did that so others could see you. You placed your hands discretely under the table cloth while you make your determination.

Discretion was Lydia's signature technique - not surprising when the operative dynamic of your life is 'shame and blame' - which is very common in First Generation American families. Add to that the disease of alcoholism and you begin to understand.

When my mother got angry, she never raised her voice.  Indeed, her voice became very low and developed a certain chilling 'tone'.  If she called to you in a low voice AND used your first AND middle name, you knew that, whatever you did, your punishment began with being grounded for at least a week and went down from there.

She didn't hesitate to call you out on your 'sass'.  "Watch your tone young lady."  "Don't use that tone with me, young lady."

"Tone" and "Young lady" were like warning flags on my mother's playing field.  You knew that, if you continued, you were going to get a major foul and a stiff penalty.

She kept detailed records of Christmas Cards sent and received. Same with birthday, anniversary and Easter cards, as well as sympathy and get well cards.

Her records went back 10 years. That's how long you had to demonstrate consistently good manners. If you didn't, she would cross you off her list.

I asked her once why the decade of records.  Why not 'three strikes and you're out'?  She said that it was the standard Ms. Manners used, and if it was good enough for Ms. Manners, it was good enough for our household.

Indeed, one of her presents to me when I got married was a blue book of etiquette. I still have it on my shelf. Oh, and a notebook so I could keep my own records.  She would occasionally send me clippings, however, from Ms. Manner's newspaper column.  You know. So I could keep up.

So, you won't be surprised to hear me say that good manners naturally spill over into in my professional life. It has come in very handy as an Episcopalian.

For example, everyone who makes a contribution to the church gets a hand written thank you from me. Pledges. Memorial gifts. Whatever. Those of you who have contributed to fundraising efforts on this blog know that I am telling the truth.

Imagine my surprise, then, at the following conversation I had the other day.

I was headed into the Chatham Middle School on Tuesday to vote for a special statewide ballot on the school budget.

As I was walking from the parking lot into the school entrance, a fragile, elderly woman - pure white hair, impeccably dressed in pink and green, freshly manicured nails, Coach purse - called out to me and asked me about which entrance we were to use.

I slowed my pace and offered to walk with her to the correct entrance. She seemed relieved not to have to walk alone.

I presented my hand and said, "My name is Elizabeth. It's nice to meet you."

She shook my hand briskly, sniffed and said, "Oh, I know who you are. I'm 'Mrs. Smith'. We've met before."

"Of course. I'm sorry I didn't recognize you. My apologies."

"Oh, that's okay," she said, softening a bit, "I guess we're out of your usual element." We shared a polite laugh.

"You did a very fine job at the funerals of two of my friends. Very fine."

"Thank you, ma'am," I said. "That was more than two years ago for one and several long months ago for the other. How kind of you to remember."

She nodded and then added, "But . . ." A cold chill went down my spine as I instantly recognized 'the tone'. "I'm quite upset with you."

"I'm sorry," I said, "whatever did I do?"

"Well," she sniffed (she seemed to do that a lot), "I got a lovely handwritten note from you after I contributed to the memorial fund for each of my friends."

"BUT. . .," she said, her voice getting unmistakably angry, "my son also contributed and he NEVER got a thank you note."

"Really?" I said, "Isn't that odd?"

"No," she said, "It's rude! Oh, my son isn't upset but I am. I'm angrier than a wet hen. How dare you send a note to one and not to the other! That's just rude."

"Excuse me, ma'am," I said softly, "but you did say that two years ago, you got a handwritten note of thanks from me, is that right?"

"Yes, I said that. Of course I said that."

"And, after your other friend died this past fall, you did get another handwritten note of thanks from me as well, is that correct?"

"Yes," she said, deeply annoyed, "but I'm telling you that my son didn't get a thank you note from you and that makes me very angry."

"Yes, I understand and I'm sorry for that, Mrs. Smith," I said, "but might you not at least entertain the possibility that something might have happened to his note? That it might have somehow gotten lost in the mail?"

She actually stopped in her tracks, thought about this for a minute, then shook her head and said, "No. . . no. . . no. I trust the post office more than I trust clergy."

"Well, there it is, then," I said, trying not to laugh as I thought about what I knew about her local church and her denomination. I mean, I suppose there was some form of logic to her reasoning but twisting myself 'round to try and find it just hit my funny bone,

Besides, there was no sense getting upset with the old girl whose temperament was probably not the sweetest in her youth and had soured considerably with her advancing age. I could only imagine her story - the stories that had given shape and form to her life.

"Oh," she said, "don't get me wrong: I have great admiration for you and all that you've accomplished, but this sort of thing just should not be tolerated. Bad manners are inexcusable."

"Indeed they are," I agreed. "Unacceptable, in fact."

"Right you are," she said. "I'm glad we agree on this."

"Oh, I couldn't agree more," I said.

"I knew you would," said she as we arrived at the entrance to the polling place.

"Here you go, ma'am," I said, "delivered right to the door."

"Well, this has been most pleasant. Thank you, Reverend." (I confess that I giggled inwardly at this public fracture of the Rules of Grammar.)

"The pleasure has been all mine," I said as she smiled then called out to a friend of hers who was standing about half way in a very long line. She moved past everyone else, and I shook my head as I watched her rudely elbow her way to her friend. It soon became very clear that she had absolutely no intention of moving to the back of the line.

I overheard her say to her friend, "Oh that nice Reverend from St. Paul's walked me over here. What a lovely young woman, don't you think? Just lovely."

She said this, I should like to point out, after she rudely cut in line.

You know, insanity is not a qualification for this work, but it does help.

Good manners, however, are not optional.

Thanks, Mom.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Voice of Authority

Meet Helen-Ann Hartley, a thrity-six year old priest in the Church of England assigned to the parish of Littlemore, near Oxford, and featured in the April 26, 2010 issue of The New Yorker Magazine in an article entitled "A Canterbury Tale: The battle within the Church of England to allow women to be bishops" by Jane Kramer.

Like many women, Mother Hartley patches together several jobs just to keep non-Eucharistic bread on the table. In addition to preaching at the church in Littlemore (famous as the last church built for the conservative priest and theologian John Henry Newman before he converted to Rome, in 1845, and eventually became Cardinal Newman), she teaches at the the mainstream Anglican seminary Ripon College Cuddesdon, and often broadcasts from BBC Oxford.

She can also often be found at St. John's College Chapel Choir where her husband plays the organ, when she isn't studying for her doctorate in New Testament at Oxford.

Clearly this is a bright young woman who stands head and shoulders over most of her male clergy colleagues. Were she a thirty-six year old male with such talent and credentials and five years of ordained experience under her cincture, she'd be on the professional fast track to being Dean of a Cathedral so she might be positioned for an "appointment" (as they do in the C of E) as bishop.

So, I was not surprised but unprepared to read the following quote:
"I have had to learn to negotiate the voice of my authority," is how she describes her trip down the nave. "Everyone thinks I'm 'nice,' and I guess I am, but I really don't need that label."

She also learned to negotiate her presence. When she visits her Catholic counterparts in Littlemore - two priests who became Roman Catholics after the ordination of women, and with whom she is friendly - she wears a skirt and blouse or a pair of jeans, but in meetings with conservative Anglicans who are known to be dismissive or condescending to clergywomen, she wears her dog collar "to show I'm a priest."
I should be used to that by now. Indeed, it still describes most of the days of my professional life. But, reading those words again, just now, something still gets caught somewhere in my throat and causes me to gasp before my stomach begins to feel a bit queasy.

Some of you, like me, have been at this for some time. Some of the rest of you are new to the struggle. So new, perhaps, you aren't even aware that there is a struggle.

Let me assure you: There most assuredly is. And, it's not going away any time soon.

Kramer's article gives a very cogent summation of the legal, scriptural and societal arguments for and against the ordination of women in England:
. . . given the Church’s special status, priests are functionaries of the state, and, because of this, its claim to a “religious exemption” in regard to women in the episcopate violates both Britain’s and Europe’s anti-discrimination laws.

The Scriptural argument, in brief, is this: there is nothing in the Gospels that precludes women from priestly service; Christ called men and women “equal in my hands,” and when conservatives in the Church counter that if Christ had wanted women bishops he would not have made all his apostles men, the women ask them why, then, did Christ choose two women to witness and announce the Resurrection.

But the most obvious argument is that England has done quite well by women with power, whether real or symbolic. Elizabeth II, who will be eighty-four this month, has reigned for fifty-eight years and managed to preserve the creaky institution of the British monarchy, despite the indulgences of a family at least as heedless and exasperating as Geraldine’s (note: 'The Vicar of Dibly') sitcom parish. During those years, Britain elected its first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who broke the back of British unionism, rationalized the country’s economy, and — despite the attrition involved — was reëlected twice. Mrs. Thatcher took office fifteen years before women were ordained in the Church of England. Those women are demanding their own turn now.
I don't want to dwell on the arguments for or against the ordination of women. That time has, thankfully, past. I'm amazed, in fact, that it still gets any "air time" anywhere in the church.

I want to get back to this idea of 'negotiating your voice of authority'.

Kramer makes an interesting observation:
Rowan Williams, a theologian of huge distinction and, perhaps because of his almost paralytic reticence, has been trying to broker a peace between his warring priests while Pope Benedict XVI, in Rome, a theologian of less distinction but far steelier entitlement, has seized the chance to publicly invite Anglican clergymen, single and married, and their parishes into the sheltering misogyny of the magisterium.
I don't know about you, but I'm seeing a direct link between Hartley's negotiation of her voice of authority and Williams' 'almost paralytic reticence'.

I know. I know. The arc of history is long but it always bends toward justice. MLK, Jr. taught us that years ago, and it's an important lesson worth remembering in the midst of the struggle for justice.

I also know that I'm supposed to age gracefully, gaining in wisdom and patience.

Well, I'm not.

Rowan's paralytic reticence may well cost us the Anglican Communion - not women, not LGBT people, not apostacy, not disobedience from scripture, not rebellion from the 'faith first delivered to the saints.'

The Archbishop of Canterbury. +++Himself.

To wit - while Rowan is trying to broker peace among his clergy, Benedict is eating Rowan's lunch in the backyard of Lambeth Palace.

"Papal poaching" the British press called it. Indeed. And, it can only happen when the leadership concerns itself, not with the business of being leaders, but rather with being martyrs to the unrealistic belief in the power of reason to turn your enemies into allies.

Neville Chamberlain . . paging Neville Chamberlain to the white courtesy phone to teach us an important lesson in the history of negotiating with tyrants.
To be more philosophically accurate, it's Hegel. Rowan thinks that truth comes out of conflict, and sometimes, it does. Other times, as Giles Fraser, "our" canon at St. Paul's Cathedral, London, recently said, "You take the two poles and bring them together and the little guy gets crushed between them.”

Or, in this case, "the little woman."

When Rowan talks to women about restraint and patience - about the fullness of time and the "positive side to Anglican diffuseness and slowness of decision-making" and his own 'anguish' "trying to counsel patience to people who are suffering more than you are" he sounds less and less like the voice of Jesus and more and more like the voice of a most anxious man presiding over a communion whose inherent patriarchal model of power and authority is in the throes of death.

He doesn't understand that this is not a bad thing.

If Archbishop Rowan used the voice of his authority for Gospel justice, Mother Helen-Ann wouldn't have to negotiate hers.

The 'fullness of time' is a fine philosophical and theological idea, but God's time - and our time - is now.

"As the great prophet Moses wrote,
"The commandment that I lay on you this day is not too difficult for you, it is not too remote. It is not in heaven, that you should say, 'Who will go up to heaven for us to fetch it and tell it to us, so that we can keep it?" Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who will cross the sea for us to fetch it and tell it to us, so that we can keep it?" It is a thing very near to you, upon your lips and in your heart ready to be kept." (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)
These ancient words, among others, have always been in the fullness of time.  They have now entered the fullness of our time. The truth of God is very near to us.

It's time for us to stop worrying about being 'nice' or negotiating the authority we already have in Jesus. We have all the authority we need to take another step on the journey to bringing us closer to the Realm of God.


We are living in the now.

Would someone please tell Rowan?

Happy Earth Day

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

They say it's my birthday

But, you couldn't tell by me - or the day.

It's all good, but I haven't had time to scratch my nose much less blog!

So, here's the Band of My Heart - the Beatles - rockin' out my favorite birthday song.

Now, it's quick into the shower to get ready to go out to dinner with some dear friends. You did know that tomorrow is Ms. Conroy's birthday, right?

I mean, I've told you that our births were 2 1/2 hours apart, right?

Wait . . . but in the same City.

Wait. . . wait. . . wait . . . but in the same hospital.

Crazy talk, I know, but true nonetheless.

We are deeply blessed with a wonderful family, great friends, meaningful (if not often difficult) work, and lots and lots of love.

And, I am filled with a profound and abiding sense of gratitude.

It just doesn't get any better than that.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"You might be a Progressive Christian if . . . ."

Remember Jeff Foxworthy, "You might be a redneck if . . . ."?

Yesterday, I ended my post about Evangelicals with a little riff on Foxworthy's joke. It was a version of "You might be Evangelical if . . . ." which was written by Evangelicals as a little joke on themselves.

Turnabout is fair play.

I invited folk to post their own version of "You might be a Progressive Christian if . . ." on my FaceBook page. In less than 24 hours, I was amazed and delighted by the response.

I think there is plenty of evidence that Progressive Christians take our faith seriously, not ourselves.

With advanced apologies to Jeff Foxworthy and many Progressive Christians around the church, I offer some of their best.

If you can use the words 'liberation', 'justice' and 'hermeneutic of suspicion' in the same sentence. . . you might be a Progressive Christian.

If the one WC ("water closet") in the sacristry no longer is designated for "Men" (only). . . . you might be a Progressive Christian. (Kathy)

Note: If you know that a 'WC' is a toilet and what a sacristry is . . . you might be a Progressive ANGLICAN Christian.

If you carry your church's banner in the local AIDS walk (which your church started).. . . you might be a Progressive Christian. (Frank)

If 'Stewardship of Creation' is a way of life. . . you might be a Progressive Christian. (Sarah)

If there's an LGBT dinner at the Cathedral and a majority of the folks who show up are straight retired couples. . . you might be a Progressive Christian. (Paul)

If you would consider wearing this T-shirt . . . you might be a Progressive Christian.

If you buy a pink and white striped clergy shirt for the pride parade . . . you might be a Progressive Christian. (Carrol)

If you see Susan Russell on the TV news doing the "progressive Christian viewpoint" and tell everyone in the room, "Hey, she's my Facebook friend!" . . . you might be a Progressive Christian.(Maria)

If your parish has incense, sanctus bells...and rainbow flags. . . you might be a Progressive Christian. (Laurie)

Your 8 year old son asks if it's okay if boys can be priests and bishops one day, too. . . you might be a Progressive Christian.

If you think the following cartoon is wicked but funny . . . .
 . . . .. . . you might be a Progressive Christian.

If your church has a service in Spanish and is working on adding a service in Creole. . . . you might be a Progressive Christian.

If you seek actively--even forcefully--ecumenical and interfaith worship and ministries, all the while being secure in and anchored by your Episcopal/Anglican Christian faith . . . you might be a Progressive Christian. (Eddie)

If the local newspaper calls you whenever they need a comment on an LGBT issue. . . . you might be a Progressive Christian (Christianne)

If you know Jesus did not own a copy of the KJV of the Old/New Testament. . . . you might be a Progressive Christian (James).

You might be a progressive redneck Christian if you have a rainbow Episcopal Shield bumper sticker on your Ford F-150 pickup truck. (Maria)

If you think this should be the motto of the Progressive Christian Movement . . . . . .
. . . . . you might be a Progressive Christian.

If you have a parish float or marching unit in the local pride parade . . . you might be a Progressive Christian. (Elaine)

If you have at least 4 bishops and Marge Christie as FB friends . . . you might be a Progressive Christian (Elisabeth).

If you belong to a church family that really welcomes all . . . you might be a Progressive Christian. (Barbara)

If you see the importance of the "spirit of the law" instead of the "letter of the law" when it comes to TRADITION, WORSHIP, AND OTHER PRACTICES IN AND OF THE CHURCH. . . . you might be a Progressive Christian (Eddie).

If you have been to a U2carist . . . you might be a Progressive Christian (Jay)

If you think the following cartoon is funny and is not proof positive that you have a "one track mind". . . .
. . . . you might be a Progressive Christian.

When you're worried you might have to call a straight priest (as your next rector). . . you might be a Progressive Christian (Elisabeth).

If you know the difference between homoousios and homoioúsios and can actually explain it. . . you might be a Progressive Christian (Joy).

Sadly for some...if you move the candle stick 3 inches without the white might be a Progressive Christian (Lisa).

If you advocated to have your church listed on the Believe Out Loud website of welcoming churches and are straight. . . you might be a Progressive Christian (Lori).

If this cartoon makes sense to you . . .
. . . .you might be a Progressive Christian.

If your bookshelf includes a wide variety of authors, like C.S. Lewis, J.S. Spong, N.T. Wright, M. Daly, E.S. Fiorenza, R.R. Ruther, P. Tillich, T.D. Jakes and H.R. Niebuhr. . . you might be a Progressive Christian.

If the statement "Gene Robinson is the most dangerous man in the Anglican Communion" makes you laugh out loud . . . you might be a Progressive Christian.
"If the welcome message of your church says something like: "Wherever you are in your spiritual journey—whether a hesitant searcher or a longtime churchgoer— we invite you to visit and discover if this could be a possible spiritual home for you. As Episcopalians we strive to live by the message of Christ, in which there are no outcasts and all are welcome." . . . you might be a Progressive Christian (Elisabeth).

If you support Reproductive Rights because you are Pro-life - including the right to life of the pregnant woman . . . you might be a Progressive Christian.

If you actually follow what Jesus taught. . . . you might be a Progressive Christian (Avianca).

If you loved all these comments . . . you might be a Progressive Christian (Judith).
That's it. Well, so far. If you have additional entries, just leave them in the comment section or email them to me and I'll update this from time to time.

Thanks to all who have contributed.  You really made my day.

I don't know about you, but I'm feeling a whole lot better about being a Christian - and an Evangelist.

C'mon in!  The Baptismal Water is just fine!

Monday, April 19, 2010


A few posts ago, in the comment section, someone asked me what I meant when I used the term "Evangelical".

Which was an interesting question to ask someone like me - someone who takes evangelism seriously but would never EVER be welcomed among the ranks of 'Evangelicals' - but mostly because I don't think most Evangelicals themselves agree on what it means to be an Evangelical.

To my mind, it's a lot like being a member of a political party. For example, it's not enough, anymore, to call yourself a 'Republican'. The question becomes much more nuanced. Are you a 'conservative', 'moderate',  'Tea Party' ("Orthodox") or 'Tea Bagger' ("Right Wing Nut") Republican?

So, I'm going to go where not many Progressive Christians have dared to go and talk about what 'Evangelical' means to me.

I know there are lots of Evangelicals who read this blog. Sometimes, they can't stand it and send me really hateful comments. All signed "Anonymous". Of course. So, I suspect this will make its way round the Evangelical circles. I will try to post as many comments as I get. I won't, however, post gutter snipes and personal attacks.

You have been warned.

Okay - so a GREAT BIG disclaimer here, right off the bat - for all my Evangelical friends out there: I am not attempting to define or redefine what it means to be Evangelical. Only YOU can do that for yourselves. 

This is only one perspective - my perspective as a Progressive Christian. Okay - one who is grounded in Anglo-Catholic theology but with Evangelical and Charismatic. . . um . . . tendencies.

In case you're wondering, this means that I do not speak for ALL Progressive Christians. I am only speaking as ONE Progressive Christian who is writing, in this instance, of her perspective of Evangelicals which has been informed more by experience than what I've read and studied and learned about Evangelicals over the years.

It's not that I haven't read and studied and learned stuff about Evangelicals. I have. I'm just choosing not to talk about it from that angle in this post.

Which automatically gets me forgiven by my fellow Progressive Christians and simultaneously in trouble right from Jump Street with most who have identified themselves to me as Evangelicals.

It's the first of many ironies and paradoxes, in my view, of my experience of Evangelicals.

Can you hear me being Very Careful here not to 'generalize'? Good. 'Cuz I'm trying really hard not to piss any of you off. Which, of course, I will just by daring to talk about this subject and not being a bone fide Evangelical myself - even though I was asked. Sigh!

I'll also piss you off because I choose to talk about my personal experience of Evangelicals. Why? Because I refuse to get into a 'Quote-Unquote Pissing Contest'.

Hear me clearly: I'm not going to get into a "John Stott" vs. "John Shelby Spong" or "John Macquarrie" quote contest or who can quote your most popular theologian.

No "Dueling Theologians" here.

In my experience, the only thing Evangelicals love more than quoting Stott or N.T. Wright or R.C. Sproul is quoting Aristole, Augustine or long passages from "Lord of the Rings." (What's up with THAT, anyway?)

Here's the thing about that. I don't mean to be disrespectful but, well: YAWN!

To be perfectly honest, I'd much rather hear about your own story of conversion and how you live your life than to watch you perform scriptural or theological gymnastics or regurgitate what you've been taught or memorized.

Why? Well, because it begins to feel just a tad narcissistic after a while you know? Like what you really, really, really want me to know is just how much you know about the faith you profess, and what others have said about the faith you profess, rather than share the stories of your life of faith.

An "experience" of a living God is very, very important to me. It's that whole Jeremiah "fire in the bones", Paul of Tarsus being knocked off his high horse thing that is part of the 'witness' and 'testimony' part of being Evangelical that I love.

In fact, one of the jokes my Evangelical friends tell on themselves is this:
"If someone tells you that you are “on fire,” and your first thought is not to stop, drop, and might be an evangelical."
What's most annoying to me is that there seem to be certain "talking points" of the Evangelical faith which are memorized and repeated by rote and with a great sense of confidence and authority. I gotta tell ya, after a while, I become more and more convinced that the only person you are trying to convince is yourself.

So, for sake of discussion (I don't want to argue), let's start here: It seems to me that everyone has four "core doctrine" that are foundational to their faith. That does not mean that there aren't other doctrine that are essential. I'm talking about foundational - what everything else is built on and rests upon.

For me, as a Progressive Christian, they are Creation, Incarnation, Reconciliation and Grace.

For the Evangelical, what I see and hear leads me to believe they are, essentially: The Fall, Incarnation, Resurrection and Inerrancy of Scripture.

Part of the reason Progressives and Evangelical Christians talk past each other all the time is that we start from two very different perspectives and build on two very different foundations. Meanwhile, our assumptions are that we mean the same thing when we identify ourselves as "Christian". We don't.

I don't mind that you have a different perspective with very different foundational beliefs, but it seems to bother you a great deal. You always seem eager to argue with me and anxious to convert me.

I don't want to convert you. I just want you to leave me alone in my beliefs while I'll leave you alone to believe and worship God in the way that is most meaningful to you. See?

But, it gets a little more complicated than that. It seems to me that there are two basic types of Evangelicals, with nuanced members in each "camp".

There are Evangelicals who consider themselves "Born Again." What's really important to these Christians are two questions:
Have you confessed your sin?
Have you made a profession of faith in Christ Jesus?
Everything else is just detail.

It seems to me that it gets a little more detailed for the more "main stream" Evangelical who wants to know whether or not you believe
The Bible is the inerrant Word of God (emphasis on inerrant)
God is omnipotent (All. Power. Full.)
God is absolute perfection
God is active in the world today
Satan is a real spiritual being and is also active in the world today
Jesus is perfect, without blemish, incapable of sin
You will get to heaven only if you are justified by works, not just faith
All Christians have a responsibility to bring others to the Christian faith and life
"The Fall" in the Garden defines the human condition and human enterprise
Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary (AKA: virgin birth, which is Very Important if you believe that Jesus is perfect, without blemish and incapable of sin.)
Jesus died for our sins (Atonement for The Fall)
Jesus was fully resurrected, in the body
I think that pretty much sums up my experience of what I'm going to call 'The Evangelical Canon' as I have heard it over the years. I'm not claiming 100% inerrancy in my reporting of it and I am certainly willing to stand corrected.

This is just my perspective. Remember: you asked. Well, a few of you did.

If I sound like I'm bending over backwards not to misrepresent or distance or insult anyone who is Evangelical, it's because I am. I cherish my friendships with my Evangelical friends and we have worked very hard, over the years, to find a place where we can continue to be friends despite our serious theological and political differences.

Here, I think, are the main points of our disagreement - not all, by any means, but the main ones. Okay, just the three main ones. Otherwise, this could become a book. A tome, actually.

I'll try to be brief.

1. The Fall. My Evangelical friends are all over this. Big time. I'm not. It's not a "real" story for me. It's a myth - a way ancient people tried to understand how their world works and why people are the way they are. It's not a bad beginning. It's just not reflective of how I see the world working and why people are the way they are today.

It is, nevertheless, an important story - indeed, a sacred story - because it marks an important point in our communal spiritual history and development.

It's not that I don't see that humans are flawed and faulted. We are. I just don't think we are "wretched" and "sin-sick". I have a higher doctrine of humanity than most of my Evangelical friends. I believe when God said, "It is good," God meant it about ALL of creation - including humankind. And, I believe in Jesus who shows us The Way to our redemption and salvation. More on this later.

2. The Atonement. Again, this is Very Big for my Evangelical friends. I wish I had a nickel for the number of times I heard "Jesus died for your sins." The Atonement makes absolute sense if you buy the story of the Fall. Otherwise, it's a real intellectual problem. Which it is, obviously, for me.

That doesn't mean that I don't believe that there was a man named Jesus who was fully human and fully divine who died a brutal and senseless and shameful death on the cross. I'm just not convinced that the God I know and love and worship and adore would require that kind of cruelty and brutality from "his only begotten son" - or anyone else, for that matter.

That feels an awful lot like human projection to me - not the qualities of the loving God of abundance who blessed me with life.

Besides, what really doesn't make sense to me is that, "if Jesus died for our sins, once and for all" then why do Evangelicals continue to harp on the wretchedness of the human condition? If we're saved, we're saved. If we've been redeemed, we've been redeemed.

Rejoice a little, wouldja? It's positively miraculous what we can accomplish for God and God's world when we work from an impulse of gratitude rather than guilt.

I know all about 'temptation' and 'sin' and 'the Devil'. But, Jesus is alive and is risen. There is a balance in the world. It's gonna be okay. We're all going to go to heaven.

Oops. I crossed the line again, didn't I? Okay. Disregard that last remark (Not to worry. A good Evangelical already has).

Let me try it this way: Jesus is the Light of the World so it's okay to lighten up. You know?
3. The catholicity of the Evangelical doctrine. I know. Sounds like an oxymoron. Especially when I've already admitted there there is, in my experience, no monochrome Evangelical.

What I mean by this is that the most annoying part of having Evangelical friends is that they tend to speak with the kind of authority I knew in the RC church of my youth. We laughingly called this "truth by blatant assertion." What is true for them is Truth. Capital "T". Period, end of sentence.

Not only that, the Evangelicals I know an love tend not to question. Indeed, they don't even like questions, preferring answers, thank you very much - especially ones that have been provided for them by Very Important Theologians.

One of my Evangelical colleagues frequently reminds me that he is "praying for God to give me a word of truth" about my faith so I can be a "true believer" because he "just knows" that I have "the possibility".

Arrogance or conviction? Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.

Here's the thing about having a Very Low Doctrine of Humanity: it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some of the most mean-spirited, decidedly un-Christian comments I've ever heard or actions I've witnessed have come from people who profess to follow Jesus.

Say what you like about Progressive Christians - we're certainly far from perfect - but we tend to err on the side of inclusion and forgiveness - sometimes, to a fault.  We can be fools that way. And, sometimes, it would be hard not to be found guilty by a jury of our peers. 

Look, I'm quite sure that there are things about Progressive Christians that drive Evangelicals right round the bend. I'd love it if an Evangelical did a similar thing I've done here  - tried  to summarize the "Progressive Canon" as you understand it.

I'd love it even more if you let me know if I've fairly represented the "Evangelical Canon". If I haven't, I trust you'll correct me.

I'd also love it if you said, straight away, what drives you right 'round the bend about Progressive Christians.  I think it would be highly illuminating to see myself from your perspective.  I hope it has been helpful for Evangelicals who read this.

Tell me how you live what you believe and I'll tell you how I live what I believe.

I think conversations at this level will do more to move us along in our understanding of each other than a recitation of doctrine. 

Don't you? I'm sure you'll let me know.

And, if you aren't sure whether or not you are an Evangelical, here are a few more "You Might Be an Evangelical" jokes:

If you believe that hell is going to be populated by Catholics (except for Mel Gibson), the Clintons, Mormons (with a special dispensation for Glen Beck), the staff of New York Times (all of them), Rosie Odonnell, all of the people from the East coast and West coast (with a special hot spot for Hollywood), Brian McLaren, and all Liberals, you might be an Evangelical.

If you think homoousios is the emphatic bill for same-sex marriage, you might be an Evangelical.

If your three cardinal sins are fornication, homosexuality, and voting Democrat, you might be an Evangelical.

If you see a Gold’s Gym t-shirt and then think that a “God’s Gym” t-shirt would be really cool…you might be an evangelical.
If your personal library contains the Left Behind series, the Prayer of Jabez, the Purpose-Driven Life and Your Best Life Now….you might be an evangelical. 

If you think the best place to buy quality artwork for your living room is a Christian “bookstore”…you might be an evangelical.

If someone says “guitar,” and you automatically think “worship”… you might be an evangelical.

If you say the word “just” more frequently than the word “Jesus” when you pray…you might be an evangelical. 
Okay, now, I've got to go off and consider writing "You Might Be a Progressive". . . . just for fun. Because, if life isn't occasionally fun, I think we've missed the whole point of God's creation.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

“I'm going fishing.”

Nets and Boats - Yael Fine Art Studio

 Easter III - April 18, 2010 - John 21:1-19
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham, NJ
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor

So, do you think it was Tuesday or Wednesday after the Resurrection on Sunday when Peter – tired, weary, confused and perhaps even a bit bored – slapped his hand on the table in that upper room and said, “I’m going fishing”?

Like a periodic comet, this gospel passage from the 21st chapter of John orbits around only once every three years in the lectionary. It waits patiently until the third Sunday of Easter to appear, swiftly moving past all of the controversy that surrounds it.

Controversy? In the gospels? You bet. It wouldn’t be the gospel without it. Scholars have long debated whether or not the powerful scene in this gospel chapter is authentic; indeed, whether or not this 21st Chapter of John’s Gospel was appended at the end – written by another hand.

Whether or not that is true, what we know is that the Gospel of John has always included Chapter 21. In other words, while it may not have been part of the original Gospel, it is a crucial element of our Gospel – the Church’s Gospel – of John.

I am glad for it. It makes me move past my annoyance at the attempt to tidy up the images of Peter – who gets to counter the three times of betrayal of Jesus with three assertions of love for Jesus – and John himself, who gets to subtly and humbly boast that he is the “disciple whom Jesus loved.”

Scholars have also long debated when Peter says, “I’m going fishing,” whether or not he was saying, “To heck with it. My job as a disciple is over. I’m going back to my old life as a fisherman.”

Or, whether he is symbolically declaring his intention to perform ministry, going on a fishing venture for the Realm of God.

It hardly matters whether or not Peter is headed for the bait shop or the seminary. He is, as yet, unengaged by the power and possibility of the resurrection.

Peter, like so many of us, is so hungry that he is past the point of even knowing how hungry he is. He thinks he’s hungry for a return to normalcy – hungry for the simple things of life – a steady job, a nice home, a good family, food on the table and a roof over his head.

He wants a return to the status quo.

He has no idea how raw and naked he really is. His ears are deaf to the low, constant grumble in his soul – how empty and hollow one is left after eating the bread of anxiety. He has no idea how his heart longs to be fed by gospel food.

I think that sort of sums up the way some of us feel after Easter. By the third Sunday of Easter, the left over ham or lamb has all been consumed, the Easter baskets empty, the new Easter shoes scuffed.

Even the Madonna Easter lilies are brown and drooped.

Our Easter joy has circled back to normalcy – to the status quo – tucked neatly away for another year, even as we continue to hear the stories of the miracles of the early, ancient church.

And yet, we are hungry and our hunger makes us restless and uneasy and anxious. You can feel it when conversations get round to the vote on the school budget on April 20th. There’s an unmistakable edge to the discussions that threatens relationships and friendships.

The old “insider/outsider” dynamic that often marks little towns like this threatens to become the invisible fault line, causing a damaging earthquake in the landscape of relationships.

As I listen, both sides seem to agree on one point – but they would never concede that agreement to each other. That point is about scarcity of resources and a desire to return to the status quo.

Where sides differ is how to allocate those resources.

Both sides seem to have important points to make. It seems to me, as the ‘ultimate outsider’ in this community, that both sides seem to think they have – or at least are on – the ‘right side’.

Jesus said something interesting to the disciples about fishing from the ‘right side’. We often hear that passage as Jesus telling them to fish from the ‘right’ vs. the ‘left’ side of the boat. But, we don’t know if Jesus was talking from the bow or the stern – whether he meant port or starboard.

He said, ‘right’, which leads me to think what he was really saying was that they had been fishing from the ‘wrong’ side of the boat.

I think part of what fuels the temperature of the debate about the school budget, as I have heard it discussed, is an anxiety about who is right and what is wrong. What causes the heat to rise to an even greater level is the anxiety about scarcity of resources.

That’s not much different from the mood in that boat in the ancient Sea of Galilee, so many centuries ago. It’s not that there isn’t abundance. It’s that we need help to find it. The vote on the 20th will not end the debate or solve the problem. Not really.

The story is so much more than a vote – a win or a loss. Either way, the larger story of this community will circle back to find us, until we are able to find God’s abundance in the world and learn how to be creative, just and fair with it.

John 21 ends not with closure but with astonishing abundance. The author tells us that Jesus did so many things, were all of them to be recorded, “the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (21:25). This whole story – the entire of the 21st Chapter of John – is a narrative of abundance.

It is the story of an Easter Jesus who will not allow the narrative of God and of the world to come to an artificial, status quo ending.

This is a Jesus who keeps calling and feeding and loving and filling the world with wonder and grace – so much so that the world would run out of paper before it could all be written down.

This is a Jesus who is calling us past our comfort levels, and our need for nice, neat, tidy endings, who circles round again like a comet in orbit to move us out of our boredom or complacency or stasis or anxiety to more fully engage ourselves, our lives – our hearts, souls, minds and bodies – with the power and possibility of the resurrection.

So, I want to close by offering you an untidy story of Thomas, a Presbyterian colleague of mine, and the time in his life when his mother was dying in an inpatient Hospice.

Thomas and his family gathered daily at her bedside, caressing her tenderly, telling her over and over of their love. They cracked jokes and retold old family stories. They sang hymns, prayed and read psalms to her. She responded, he said, as best she could, smiling faintly at the stories and jokes, telling them she loved them too, speaking in a soft, hoarse whisper, which was all the voice she had left after a hospital breathing tube had wounded her vocal cords.

Almost every day, Thomas said, she would beckon one of her children close to her face and mouth with the words, “I’m hungry.”

She had a feeding tube and the nurses were giving her all of the broth and pureed food her frail and failing system could handle, and yet, she said, day after day, “I’m hungry.”

As you can imagine, this was quite upsetting to Thomas and his family, even though the hospice staff assured them that her body, which was gradually shutting down, could no longer feel ordinary physical hunger pangs.

One day, near the end of her life, Thomas came into her room and found her restless.

He asked, “What’s wrong? Are you hungry?”

“Very,” she whispered.

Thomas said he felt anxious and helpless, not knowing what to do. Had he been able to spend all of his money – indeed, his very last dollar – on her favorite foods he would have ordered them up right then and there to be brought to her room.

He tried to feed her some soft food. She took a few very small bites then shook her head. No more.

Suddenly, he said, it dawned on him. “I’m hungry” was her way of describing the totality of her circumstance. She was not asking for food.

She was saying that everything was slipping away, her personal history was closing down, coming to an end. Her days of breath and food and light and family and the touch of love were ebbing, and she was hungry, hungry for more, hungry for the life being taken away from her . . . very hungry.

Thomas says that a few weeks after his mother’s death, in the midst of trying to resume normalcy and return to status quo, this passage from John’s gospel circled back, found him and hit him – hard! – in the center of his soul which was hungry – starved! – for the power and the promise of the resurrection.

He said he saw the power and the promise of this story that undermines closure, this gospel of unceasing abundance that will not allow itself to be resolved by returning to the world that once was.

Here – in this story, as well as in the story of his mother’s death – was the reason the world could not hold the books telling of Jesus’ deeds – because Jesus keeps on doing them, doing them ceaselessly, doing them every day, doing them in our lives.

Thomas had stood besides his mother’s grave “in sure and certain hope of the resurrection,” but now he could see it more clearly, could see his mother plunging into the waters of death and coming up on that distant shore, where Jesus is waiting with a charcoal fire and fish and bread, waiting with the abundance of new life – Eternal Life.

“Are you hungry?” Thomas could hear Jesus asking his mother.

“Very,” his mother surely responded. “Very.”

I think we’re all very hungry for the power and the promise of the resurrection. Indeed, I think we’re all searching desperately for it – uncertain of what to do.

Very hungry.

Very uncertain.

Very anxious.

Me? I’m going fishing.