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Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: The Episcopal Year in Review

Episcopal Core Beliefs
It's the eve of the new year of 2012.  Already, 2012 is distinguished by an optimism that is probably mostly due to the fact that it's not 2011.

As editors of magazines and newspapers are compiling lists of the "Top Ten" stories, I wondered what might be the stories in The Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion that have caught our attention.

I asked readers here and on FaceBook what those stories might be for them. What follows is a highly unscientific and patently unreliable poll of what we might remember from 2011. They are in no particular order of priority. I hope you'll chime in if you think something got left out.

1. "Papa don't preach": The Anglican Covenant.

Like it or not (and, I don't), this story dominated the news in our church and in the Anglican Communion for most of the year. I have no doubt - no doubt at all - that it will continue to have a prominence in our religious news in 2012.

According to the website maintained by "No Anglican Covenant: Anglicans for Comprehensive Unity", all thirty-eight provinces (national and regional churches) of the Anglican Communion have been asked to adopt an agreement, the Anglican Covenant (or Anglican Communion Covenant), which sets out reputedly common doctrine and describes a process for dispute resolution among Communion churches.

As of this writing only five provinces have "approved" or "accepted" the Anglican Covenant, The Province of South East Asia has "acceded" to it, The Church of Ireland "subscribed" to it, and six provinces are in various stages of debate and ratification or rejection.

In The Episcopal Church, the Covenant will be taken up at the 2012 General Convention. Various dioceses have passed resolutions both for and against the Covenant. Most notable, because of its detail is a resolution against adoption from the Diocese of California. The Executive Council will offer a resolution at General Convention gently rejecting the Covenant.

2. "Much ado about nothing":  The Rt. Rev'd V. Gene Robinson plans retirement in 2013.

I include this next not because it is earth-shattering news, although I hasten to point out that it was a story covered by the NY Times (as well as other major newspapers around the globe) but rather because his election (note to my British friends: not "appointment") and consecration were the very reasons for the Anglican Covenant in the first place.  I find it sublimely ironic. The point was not missed by The NY Times which noted:
Since 2003, the Communion’s leaders have labored to save it from outright schism, not just over homosexuality, but also over female bishops and priests.

The current strategy, pushed by the archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, is for each regional province to sign a “covenant” of common beliefs.

The covenant has been slowly making its way through laborious writing and approval processes, which could take years.

Late last month, an international coalition of liberal Anglicans started a campaign to reject the covenant, saying, “The covenant seeks to narrow the range of acceptable belief within Anglicanism.”

The group, Anglicans for Comprehensive Unity, said, “Rather than bringing peace to the Communion, we predict that the covenant text itself could become the cause of future bickering and that its centralized dispute-resolution mechanisms could beget interminable quarrels and resentments.”
Bishop Gene will retire in January of 2013, which gives this story real "legs' for 2012. It should be interesting to see how - if at all - it will affect process of "ratification" of The Anglican Covenant.

3. "It's mine. No, it's mine.":  The on-going Property Disputes

As the fallout over "The Great Episcopal Schism" works its way through the court system, time and time and time again, the legislative process has favored The Episcopal Church. I don't have the time or the inclination to track down every story (have at it, if you wish), but there are two notable incidents that caught my eye.

The first is that the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that Christ Church, Savannah, GA and its property (valued at nearly $3 million) belong to the national Episcopal Church, not the local congregation.
The court’s 6-1 ruling upheld earlier rulings by the state Court of Appeals and Chatham County Superior Court Judge Michael Karpf.

The 45-page majority opinion written by Justice David Nahmias found that the First Amendment’s guarantee to freedom of religion “allows the local congregation and its members to leave the Episcopal Church and worship as they please, like all other Americans, but it does not allow them to take with them property that has for generations been accumulated and held by a constituent church of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America.”
The second is that the governing board of Trinity Cathedral in downtown Pittsburgh has voted, 11-7, to affiliate with the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh more than three years after a majority of parishes left to form the more conservative Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh.
The Episcopal diocese has about 9,000 members in 29 parishes. The Anglicans have about 20,000 members in 74 congregations.

The governing board and the cathedral's congregation approved a resolution in October 2008 to let the cathedral continue to represent both groups, but congregation officials said the dual affiliation was making it difficult to grow.
I chose these two stories because I think they speak to the sadness and continued contentious nature of this schism. We are, alas, completely incompatible. And, it's costing us tons of money to discover what many of us already knew. I think it makes Jesus weep.

Meanwhile, it is important to note that an earthquake rocked the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, causing structural damage that will require millions to repair.

4. "Jesus meets the money changers. Again": Trinity Wall Street and Occupy Wall Street

At first, Trinity Wall Street and the movement known as Occupy Wall Street tried to work together, but after the "occupyers" of the OWS movement were evicted from Zuccotti Park,  OWS tried to get TWS to allow them to use a vacant lot owned by TWS known as Duarte Park. The church declined, calling the proposed encampment “wrong, unsafe, unhealthy and potentially injurious.”

Even Bishop Mark Sisk of the Diocese of New York and Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Shori wrote public letters of agreement. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was initially supportive, took a few steps back in his second statement - a fairly transparent piece of evidence that the folks at TWS and 815 had made a few overseas phone calls.

This all happened as the Christmas season was full upon us, bringing up interesting theological questions about the need to "occupy" time and place if transformation is going to happen.

I should also note that, across the Pond, the Dean and the Canon of St. Paul's Cathedral resigned over the decision of the Cathedral to deny access of the LSX (London Stock Exchange) "occupyers" to the Cathedral, which brought about a few reversals of the decision.  Well done! Good form!

5. "Arrested theology": Bishop George Packard arrested for civil disobedience

On December 17th, George Packard, retired Bishop Suffragan of the Armed Forces, along with several others, including two Episcopal priests, were arrested for trespassing as he climbed a ladder and scaled the fence the surrounded Duarte Park. There he was, in his purple cassock, going over the fence. And there he was, handcuffed and sitting on a bench with the rest of the demonstrators, surrounded by the NYPD Swat Team. Looking that those two pictures, I, personally, have never been more proud to be an Episcopalian.

Bishop Packard wrote on his blog:
I am still baffled that the Episcopal Church of which I have been a member all my life could not--through Trinity--find some way to embrace these thousands of young people in our very diminishing ranks. (Every year for the last five years we have lost 14,000 members.) Just as we pioneered an awareness of the full membership for the LBGT community what's happening here? How hard would it have been for Trinity to convene legal counsel and say, "Give us some options so that a charter could be granted over the winter months?"

I had proposed that to the Rector and I still think it was a solution. Occupy Wall Street gets a home over the winter (one that would offer food for the Homeless and a clinic--truly bring alive dead space) and Trinity would have the assurance that the lease would return to them safe and sound come Spring. Everybody wins.
Except, the way it turned out, The Episcopal Church in general and Trinity Wall Street in particular lost. What did we lose, exactly? Credibility. As Christians who are all about justice and transformation. Big Time. No wonder the fastest growing religion is "The Nones" - those who profess to be "spiritual but not religious" - and claim no religious affiliation. This story is far from over. Stay tuned.

6. "Restructuring for mission - er, dollars": The Sauls Plan

At the September 20th meeting of the House of Bishops, Stacy Sauls, former bishop of Lexington and the new COO of The Episcopal Church gave a power point presentation which used eight separate slides to list the church's 75 commissions, committees, agencies and boards -- those he could readily identify, he said -- and another five slides to list the 46 Episcopal Church Center departments and offices, all of which have multiple reporting structures.

He noted that, as it stands in the current budget process, governance is funded first and then asked, "What would happen if we reversed that priority, starting with mission?" Based on that, he continued, what if, in creating a hypothetical annual budget of $27 million, $19 million of that budget went toward mission and the remaining $8 million toward overhead? (The current budget is closer to $35 million, he said.)

Sounds good, on the surface, right? Except that the Sauls' proposal was made without any consultation with any of those 75 commissions, committees and boards or 46 Episcopal Church Center's departments and offices. Including the President of the House of Deputies, Bonnie Anderson.

Bishop Sauls offered the bishops a "model" resolution for each diocese to submit to the 77th General Convention in 2012 for consideration. The model resolution would call for a special commission to be charged with "presenting a plan to the church for reforming its structures, governance, administration, and staff to facilitate this church's faithful engagement in Christ's mission."

Excuse my left eyebrow, raised in suspicion, but I don't think any plan that does not begin with a full consultation with the affected members - much less the President of the House of Deputies - is at all about mission. Look for this to be a story that gains a sturdier set of legs as we move deeper into 2012 and closer to General Convention where the Very Big News will be the Budget.

7. "Be a blessing - give a blessing": SCLM proposes Rites of Blessing

The Episcopal Church Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music (SCLM) has released educational materials and other information surrounding its plan to ask General Convention to authorize a three-year trial use of its proposed rite for blessing same-gender unions.

During that same time period the church also would reflect on its understanding of marriage in light of changes in both societal norms and civil law if convention agrees to a related resolution the commission will propose, according to the Rev. Ruth Meyers, SCLM chair.

According to Meyers, the 18 month process included "a wide consultative process" with "input from a number of people" before being ready to present the final draft to the church of a three year trial use of proposed rite of blessings and more conversation about the civil and spiritual nature of marriage and blessings.

Dr. Meyers, might you speak with Bishop Sauls about "restructuring for "mission"? Oh, and while you've got cell phone in hand, why not call Lambeth Palace and speak with Archbishop Williams about a similar process for The Anglican Covenant?

8. "On the road again": The Travels of the Presiding Bishop

Katharine Jefferts Schori travels the Globe - England, Scotland, Canada, Africa, Asia - as a tireless ambassador for Christianity in general and The Episcopal Church in particular. She visits. She preaches. She presides. She inspires. She challenges. She charms. Well, most of the time, except in those places - like a certain Cathedral in England where the Archbishop of Canterbury allowed her to carry but not wear her mitre. And, of course, she was "disinvited" by the Archbishop of Sudan to visit his province because "it remains difficult for us to invite you when elements of your church continue to flagrantly disregard biblical teaching on human sexuality".

Well, there it is then. Which brings up a question in my mind about the whole nature of the office of Presiding Bishop. Is she a "presider" or an "ambassador" and how much of her time ought to be devoted to each? As long as her COO brought up the whole issue of "restructuring for mission", I think it's time to try and get our heads wrapped around the whole concept of a "presiding" bishop who spends so much time away from the office. That's not a criticism. That's an observation and a question.

I'd love to see a bit more of a breakdown of her schedule to see just how much time our Primate spends on matters Episcopal and domestic vs. matters Anglican and 'foreign' and how that distribution of time is understood, given our theological understanding of what it means to be a Primate and a Presiding Bishop - if we even have a theology of that office. That's not going to make headlines, but inquiring minds do want to know. I mean, as long as we're talking about 'mission' - which is really all we seem to do about mission. Talk about it. And, how we should be doing it. And how we can restructure for it. Anything but actually doing it.

9. "One strike and yer out?": The Case of Bede Parry

This is an ugly story about a former Roman Catholic monk who was received as an Episcopal priest even after he admitted to sexual misconduct with a minor. That's a bad enough story line but then it gets worse because the bishop who received Parry into our fold was none other than Katharine Jefferts Schori, now our Presiding Bishop, of course, when she was bishop of Nevada.
"I made the decision to receive him," Jefferts Schori said in a statement, "believing that he demonstrated repentance and amendment of life and that his current state did not represent a bar to his reception."
From all reports, Parry has lived up to that repentance and has amended his life. The problem arose, however, because Parry resigned from All Saints' Episcopal Church in Las Vegas when a civil lawsuit was filed alleging that he abused a minor in 1987. At the time of the alleged abuse, Parry was a monk and choir director at Conception Abbey in Conception, Mo.

Current Nevada Bishop Dan Edwards said Thursday that Parry has not been accused of wrongdoing since his Episcopal ordination. "His voluntary resignation was for the good of the church." Parry has not functioned as a priest since his June resignation and will not be permitted to return to ministry, Edwards said.

All sorts of questions have been asked about that process of reception and how much was known and by whom and when and how. It's all so awful that the temptation to minimize or 'duck and run' is great, but it does beg the questions: Do we believe what we preach and teach about 'repentance' and 'amendment of life' and where do we draw the line?

10. "I wanna be you": The ABC meets The Pope

Well, truth be told, this entry is here because it really is last.  Honestly? I couldn't find ten top stories in The Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion that were really newsworthy, so this one is really a filler. That being said, it occurs to me that it's a way to end this list the way it began: with a story about the increasing efforts to centralize power in the institutional church at all levels.

The Pope has been busy devising ways to 'steal Anglican sheep'. Indeed, just last month, Cardinal Donald Wuerl announced that Pope Benedict XVI will establish an ordinariate for American Anglicans who wish to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. Two Anglican communities--one in Texas, the other in Maryland--have entered into full communion in recent months and are expected to become part of the ordinariate. The Pontiff established the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham in England and Wales in January 2011

Meanwhile, Rowan seeks to be thoroughly Anglican and 'cordial' to El Papa.  In his ecumenical letter to the churches, Rowan wrote:
"Whatever stories we tell ourselves, whatever strategies we develop for keeping ourselves safe, the truth is always that being human is being subject to change and to the risk of suffering. Solidarity must now find expression in humility and generosity, and in the search for true justice for all."
All this whilst Rowan continues to work on establishing the Anglican Covenant as the enforceable law in the Communion. So much for "humility and generosity" in the "search for true justice for all".

Meanwhile, our Presiding Bishop exhibits all those characteristics and walks into a Cathedral in the Church of England with her "hat" literally in her hand, and the Pope eats our lunch in our own backyard. You know, you just can't make this stuff up!

So, there it is, kiddies: My perspective - and those of a few faithful readers of the blog and my FB page -  on The Episcopal Year in Review.

I'm delighted that the election and consecration of Mariann Budde as the first woman to be bishop of the Diocese of Washington, DE is not headline news. That's the best news, I think, of 2011.

As I consider it, 2012 has to be better. Overall, 2011 couldn't have been much worse.

Then again, 2012 will bring us General Convention AND the Church of England Synod which will consider both the "appointment" of women to the episcopacy and the ratification/approval/acceptance of The Anglican Covenant Contract.

Fasten your seat belts, dearies. Looks like may well be a bumpy ride after all.

Friday, December 30, 2011

All the (LGBT) news that's fit to print

This time of year, the media works over time to bring us the Top Ten "Whatevers" of the past year.

There are various retrospectives on a variety of topics. To my mind, it's sort of a back-handed thank you from the News Media to everyone who "made the news" for "making the news" - and sold their newspapers, magazines, air time and generally increased their market share.

Religion has its own Top Ten.

Time Magazine listed Mormonism as it's top religious story, in a list that included the Beatification of Pope J2P2 (John Paul II), the indictment of Kansas City Roman Catholic Bishop Robert Finn on misdemeanor charges for not telling the police of a likely case of abuse of minors, and the death of Sathya Sai Baba, the most famous guru in India.

The Religion Newswriters Association voted Osama bin Laden’s death (and the faith response to it) their number one story in a list that included Harold "Don't They Know It's The End of the World" Camping, Rob "Love Wins" Bell, and Mississippi’s Personhood initiative.

Interestingly enough, no one in the thirty year history of the RNA was named "Religion Newsmaker of the Year" because there was a virtual three-way tie between Harold Camping, Pope Benedict XVI and Texas Governor Rick Perry.

I mean, really! Could you pick a "winner" from that list?

Never mind. Don't answer that.

Religion Dispatches ran an interesting list of the "Top 2011 Religion Stories That Weren’t".

Author Peter Laarman, former senior minister of New York’s Judson Memorial (UCC) Church and present executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting, made a list of the stories that should have been more in the news, but weren’t.

Two of the ten stories were different sides of the same LGBT Christian coin. Here they are:
4. Identity Crisis Within a Queer-Positive Christian Denomination

The Metropolitan Community Church came into its own in the ’70s and ’80s when most other denominations were distinctly unwelcoming. Now that so many mainline churches are totally okay with gay people, the MCC is losing members in some locations and wondering about its raison d'etre. The 2007 defection of the huge Dallas-based Cathedral of Hope to the UCC may have been a sign of things to come: the 88% who voted to leave felt that the MCC’s gay-friendly platform was simply too narrow; they wanted to be a full-spectrum progressive congregation. As the MCC begins to wane in the U.S., however, it continues to grow rapidly overseas—in countries where established Christian groups remain consistently hostile to queer people.

5. Latino Catholics Distinctly More Gay-Friendly Than Latino Evangelicals

A too-little-noticed 2010 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that a majority of Latino Catholics in California (57%) said they would vote to allow gay and lesbian couple to marry, compared to just 22% of Latino Protestants. This same Catholic-Protestant divide within the Latino community was evident across a wide range of public policy issues related to gay and lesbian rights. The Latino Catholic latitudinariansm on marriage tracks another almost-unreported finding, to wit: that the single most gay-friendly religious body in the U.S., bar none, is the lay Catholic community. Bishops, are you listening?
Admittedly, Story #4 does not come as a huge surprise to many LGBT Activists. It never surprises me that, once LGBT people become more assimilated into congregations and communities, they turn the efforts of their activism to broader issues of justice, working to right the wrongs of economic, ecological and racial injustice.

Which is really where most of us would rather be, as a matter of fact. Indeed, it's where most of us started and learned how to organize and work for justice until we began to realize that no one was going to work for full equality for LGBT people if we didn't begin our own movement.

I don't think that's an "identity crisis". I think that's an affirmation of the fullness of our identity as religious human beings who love God and seek to serve the people of God through our faith and love in Christ Jesus.

The fact that MCC - and other LGBT Christian organizations like Integrity and Dignity - are growing in countries where there is open Christian hostility to LGBT people says a great deal about the nature and identity of faith-based communities that serve oppressed minorities.

Neither am I surprised - but I admit that I am fascinated, however - by Story #5.

The single most gay-friendly religious body in the U.S. - "BAR NONE" - is the lay Roman Catholic community?

Who knew?

Well, I suppose other non-ordained Roman Catholics - and, probably some ordained ones as well - who, no doubt, are the same ones who support (and exercise) reproductive rights (including being pro-choice on abortion), work for economic justice, advocate for the abolition of the death penalty as well as the abolition of mandatory clerical celibacy, and promote the ordination of women.

It's the other side of the "seamless garment ethic" of "support of all life".

It's a little messier and not all the threads are tied together but I suspect it's more solid and united (57% !!) as the side the RC priests and bishops present to the rest of the world.

That's because many priests and bishops aren't listening to their own people.

There are none so deaf as those who hear but refuse to listen.

All that having been said, my curiosity is also peaked by the term "Latino Protestants". I suspect that's too broad a term. I'm thinking the more accurate term would be "Latino Evangelicals / Pentecostals". That would be more consistent with my experience.

Which should provide activists for Marriage Equality with a plan and strategy for their efforts.

I think a little "face time" with some "Latino Protestants" is in order. I'm not talking about "in your face" face time. I'm talking about being more like a "Stealth Queer for Jesus".

Let's put some of that LGBT "full-spectrum progressive platform" into action in faith-based Latino service agencies. Let's invite some of our RC allies to work along side us so the Latino Evangelicals can see that "all things work together for the good for those who love God" (Romans 8:28).

Let's learn to become bilingual - I'm talking both Spanish and the love of Jesus in action - in these communities.

Let's let them know that we are Christians by our love of all God's people - even when "people may hate and revile you" in the name of Jesus.

That's not going guarantee that we will receive love in return. Neither is it going to sway votes in 2012 - but it may begin to have an affect by 2015.

We'll be the progressive tortoise to the evangelical hare.

Slow and steady wins the race.

With any luck - and some continued hard but strategic work - we may not take issues like Marriage Equality and the ordination of LGBT people completely out of the Religious News headlines, but I think we've got a good shot at making it "old news".

Here's a headline I'd love to see: "Homophobia: SooOOoo Yesterday's News". 

Now THAT would be news that would be fit to print!

P.S. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the "Top Ten Stories of 2011 from The Episcopal Church / Anglican Communion."  Send them on in the Comments Section and I'll post the Top Ten before December 31st.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Christmas Memories

Angelic Voices Past
One of the things I love about Christmas is using it as an excuse to be in touch with old friends and relatives.

Yesterday, I had a one hour conversation with my 85 year old aunt. The one who was a nun for - oh, I think it was - 12 or 18 years.

My aunt would want you to know that she did not leave the convent in order to get married. She would want me to be sure to tell you that she was out of the convent for three years before she married the man who would become my "Uncle Joe".

No, she left the convent because she had contracted tuberculosis and, as she tells it, "was on the verge of a nervous breakdown". She was a member of an order of religious women who could only be described as "spartan" in their lifestyle. She says they didn't eat regularly or well. They ran an "orphanage" in those days, and "all the food went to feed the kids first".

Over the years, as I have heard her repeat the story, I hear tinges of anger about her convent years. Oh, she's still a faithful Roman Catholic. That would never change. Being Portuguese and Roman Catholic is a bit like being a Jew. It's who you are and what you believe about God.

That's no so much true any more - about the Portuguese or the Jews - but for men and women of my parent's generation, that was The Truth, the Whole Truth, and nothing but The Truth.

She said that, once she got well, she tried to re-enter the convent but the Mother Superior said she'd have to start the process all over again. "I wasn't going to do THAT again," she said, the horror still evident in her voice all those many years later, so she left for good.

One can only wonder what doing "THAT all over again" was all about. 

Even so, in some ways, a piece of her heart will always be there, in that spartan convent filled with devout women of prayer, caring for "orphans" in the years during The Depression and after WWII.

She met her husband two years later and they were married. They bought a tenement house in the same town where they were both born, and had two children. It was not an easy life, but they were happy.

"Mostly happy" is what she says.

We talked about the struggles of family life and came back, as we always do, to my grandmother, who defined the term "struggles of family life".

Some of you have heard me say before that she had twenty pregnancies and twenty-two children, fifteen of whom lived to adulthood. By the time I was a child, there were nine left. As I write this now, there are four left - three girls and one boy.

"Oh, there was always laughter when your grandmother was around," said my aunt. I do remember lots of laughter in my grandmother's house. I didn't understand a lot of the humor but I knew some of it was stuff I wasn't supposed to hear.

"Ma," my mother or one of my aunts would exclaim, "the kids are around!"

My aunt told me one of those stories. So, it was at my aunt's bridal shower. One of her friends gave her a large envelope stuffed with $100 in $1 bills. They poured out onto her lap, along with some confetti and - oh, no! - a strip of condoms.

It was meant to "shock" and "embarrass" the former nun - which worked perfectly - but it only served to peak my grandmother's curiosity. She had honestly never seen a condom before and, more to the point, had no idea about their use.

Well, with twenty pregnancies and twenty-two children, that really shouldn't come as a surprise.

When my grandmother asked what they were, my aunt's embarrassment deepened - to the howls of delight from the rest of the women in the room.

"They're balloons," my aunt said, sheepishly.

My grandmother, of course, didn't believe her, so she tore one open and started to blow it up. Like a balloon. The women in the room howled even louder.

At this point, my grandfather and uncles became curious and walked into the room to find out what was going on. They took one look at my grandmother, laboring over the inflated condom, huffing and puffing, and the room exploded in laughter.

My grandfather, however, was not amused. "What do you think you're doing?" he bellowed. My grandmother tried to explain what her daughter had told her.

Disgusted, he shot a stinging look at my aunt and then explained to my grandmother what condoms were and how they were used.

My grandmother looked at my grandfather, looked at the condom, then looked back at my grandfather and said, "Now? After 22 babies? Now you tell me?"

My aunt laughed and laughed as if the event had happened yesterday. And, I joined her in that laughter, hearing the memory of my grandmother's laughter dancing all around me.

My aunt also told me that she was diagnosed with breast cancer a few months back. "At 85!" she says, "Imagine!" She thought about it and prayed about it and has decided not to have surgery or chemo.

"The way I figure it, at my age, cancer grows more slowly. I have about three or four good years left. If I had the surgery and the chemo, maybe I'd have four or five years left, but they wouldn't necessarily be good ones."

"So, she says, "I'm going to take my chances. I mean, I'm 85. Imagine!"

Actually, I can't imagine my aunt at age 85, much less with breast cancer. I remember clearly when she and my mother were my age and my grandmother was her age.

I thought they were "ancient of days" then.

And I? I was going to be young forever.  And, ever.

Don't we all? Indeed, I still am. And, intend to be. For as long as I can.

I look at my own children and my grandchildren and I wonder how they see me. I wonder what they will remember of these days of our lives.

I was sharing this story earlier in the day with a dear friend, talking about the food I had made in honor of my grandmother, and he said to me, "You know, you are slipping in the Portuguese into your family without them even knowing it." I laughed and had to admit that he was probably right.

"You really are becoming your grandmother," he said, which startled me at first.

Perhaps I am. I only hope that is true.

Christmas presents come and Christmas presents go, but the greatest Christmas present really is the way we remember each other and are present for and to each other, in whatever way we can.

Even if it's just a one hour phone call with an aged aunt, newly diagnosed with cancer.

But the greatest gift of these holidays is the memories we have and share with each other at Christmas.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

If God is male, then male is god

War on Women?

What War on Women?

We love women. Some of us hire them. Some of us even marry them.

But, ride on a public bus?

Whoa! Wait a minute. Now you're talking crazy.

Last Friday, Tanya Rosenblit boarded a bus in her hometown of Ashdod, just outside of Jerusalem, to travel to that most holy city for an appointment.

She knew that Egged, the bus company that owned the bus and Israel's largest bus firm, provided special segregated buses for its routes through Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.

That deal had been struck more than a decade ago.  Reportedly, about 50 bus lines currently have separate seating. Their routes run mainly through ultra-religious neighborhoods and skip over central bus stations to avoid catering to the general public.

On these bus routes, women are typically required to enter through the back doors and wear modest clothes that cover their arms and legs. Those who attempt to sit at the front are often subjected to assaults by male passengers, mostly verbal but sometimes physical.

Indeed, in 2006, an American-Israeli woman was slapped, kicked, punched and pushed by a gang of ultra-religious men when she refused to move to the back of a Jerusalem bus.

The gender-segregated buses remain despite the Supreme Court ruling last January for the first time that they were illegal. Nevertheless, the transportation ministry now requires buses to post stickers inside that say every passenger could choose his or her own seating.

That's because sometimes, even ultra-Orthodox men and women have to travel outside of their segregated neighborhoods to travel - on what remain as public buses - to places where men and women in the rest of society do not live segregated lives.

So, Tanya Rosenblit boarded the public bus which happens to travel a route through a neighborhood populated by the Haredim - a Hebrew term referring to their fear of God. They are a tight-knit community making up about 10 per cent of Israel's population of 7.7 million. They usually remain in their own neighborhoods or towns, where women who don't wear long dark dresses or cover their heads with hats, scarves or wigs frequently face quiet or open hostility.

Ms. Rosenblit dressed appropriately - modestly, out of respect for her fellow passengers - and, when she boarded the bus, took a seat behind the bus driver. In the front of the bus.  On a public bus. On her way to Jerusalem.

Rosa Parks
She didn't intend to become "Israel's Rosa Parks" and emerge from her bus ride as a symbol of the escalating tensions between Israel's secular Jews and the ultra-religious.

Then again, Rosa Parks didn't ever intend to become a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement in this country.  When asked later why she did what she did, she would say that her feet were tired and she sat down.

Ms. Rosenblit wrote about her experience and posted in on her FaceBook page. She also took lots of pictures. You can read her account and see some of the pictures here.

She begins her account with these words:
The driver looked at the station where I was standing and didn’t stop. I had to signal him by raising my hand for him to stop. When I entered the bus he looked surprised. He explained that the only ones who go on the bus are Orthodox Jews. I sat behind him in the first row and asked for him to tell me when we get to my station.
At the next stop, men from the Haridem began to board the bus. She was appalled when an ultra-Orthodox male passenger cursed her and demanded that she move to the back portion because he did not want to sit behind a woman.

Photo by Tanya Rosenblit
She refused.  Suddenly, that refusal began to draw a crowd of about 20 ultra-Orthodox men, all of them bearded and wearing their traditional black garb and broad hats, to gather in protest outside the bus's door.

To her surprise, a policeman summoned by the bus driver asked her to "respect" the men by shifting to a back row. 

Respect the men.

Shift to a back row.

Any of this sound familiar?

I know what you're thinking. This happened in Israel. With ultra-orthodox Jews. That's not how it is here. In America. Women are totally respected here. That would never happen here. In America.

Right. Here, we just throw women "under the bus" when political deals are made to cut services to women who live in poverty. Services like education. Health Care. Assistance to help feed their families. Employment opportunities with decent (but not necessarily equal) pay. Access to information about and services for Reproductive Rights.

I know what you're thinking. This was not about the color of her skin as it was for Rosa Parks. This is different. This is about religious tensions.

Right. I would argue that racism is its own form of religion. Indeed, Scripture - Hebrew and Christian - have been used throughout history to support the superiority of Caucasians and the inferiority of anyone whose skin is dark(er).

I know what you're thinking. This is about her gender and how some people - especially religious "fanatics" - see women as "The Weaker Sex". You know. Because of Eve and what happened in The Garden. Just give them time. They'll come to understand about the equality of the sexes. Eventually.

Right. I would argue that sexism, being the "original sin" recorded in Scripture, is the basis for racism, homophobia and heterosexism.  As long as there is sexism, there will be racism, homophobia and hetrosexism.

Need some evidence? A little bit of "proof"?

Credit: Reuters/Max Rossi
In his Christmas message to the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI stated that while the Church needs to “defend the earth, water, air, as gifts of the creation that belongs to all of us [... ], it must also protect the human being from his own “destruction.”

“It is necessary that there be something such as an ecology of man, understood in the proper manner,” he said.

“It is not outmoded metaphysics,” the Pontiff affirmed, “when Church speaks of the nature of the human being as man and woman, and demands that this order of creation be respected.”

"The rain forests certainly deserve our protection, but man as creature indeed deserves no less,” he said.

“What is often expressed and understood by the term ‘gender,’ is definitively resolved in the self-emancipation of the human being from creation and the Creator,” Benedict warned.

“Gender” as used in the pope’s address is broad enough to encompass anyone who doesn’t completely conform with their assigned sexual roles; including homosexuals, bisexuals, transgender and others.

Benedict XVI explained that great theologians have “qualified marriage, that is to say, the link for life between man and woman, as a sacrament of creation, instituted by the Creator.”

See? It's just the "natural order" of things. Just the way "God intended for us to be happy". We just need to obey the "natural order" of God who created men.....Oh, yes.... and THEN women.  Oh, and, remember how she messed that up in The Garden.

Why, see?  It's Eve's fault that the rainforests are in destruction.  Anyone who is like Adam can save the world. Anyone who is like Eve is potentially dangerous to all of human kind.

Saving humanity from homosexual or transsexual behavior is just as important as saving the rainforest from destruction.

Right. It's crazy talk, is what it is. Let me hasten to remind you that these words were spoken by The Pope - the undisputed leader of the vast majority of Christians throughout the world.

Crazy like a fox, is what I say.

Feminist theologian, Mary Daly, once posited that "If God is male, then male is god."

Tanya Rosenblit
I don't think you'll find more hard and fast evidence of that than what happened last Friday to Ms. Tanya Rosenblit on that bus to Jerusalem.

Ms. Rosenblit wrote:
I lived in Israel all my life. I was brought up in a free country and I was taught the value of freedom as a basic right that could never be undermined by anyone. All my life, during my teens, my military service, my university years and then after I always felt as equal among my peers. I was always proud to be a woman and never felt deprived or weakened by men, until today.
Today has come for women and men around the world to stand up for the Tanya Rosenblits of the world who want to take a seat on a public bus and travel, without harassment, to their destination.

Today has come for women and men around the world to live respectfully in the tensions of our vastly differing religious beliefs and values. 

Today has come for women and men in this country to take a stand for the equality and democracy which we say we cherish.

In a few short days, we will be ushering in the New Year of 2012. Before the end of that year we will be electing - or, please God, re-electing - a President of The United States. 

A great deal is on the line - including the status of women, especially women who live in poverty. I hope, when you think about stepping into that voting booth, you'll remember Tanya Rosenblit and help to vote someone in (or out of) office that will bring about an end to the War on Women.

Indeed, I hope you'll not forget the Christmas Season we now celebrate with the central message of "Emmanuel" - God with us.

I don't know if God is male or female. I personally chose to believe that Mary Daly is right and that God is beyond gender.

The Eye of God
I don't know if God is black, white, yellow or red. I personally chose to believe that Ruth McBride, the Jewish woman who chose to marry a Black man in the 1940's, is right when she taught her twelve children that God is "The Color of Water."

I also personally believe that you have the absolute right to believe whatever you chose to believe.

What I don't believe is that I have the right to impose those beliefs on you.

Neither do you have the right to impose your beliefs on me.

Not in terms of my value as a human being because of my gender or skin color or sexual orientation or educational background, or physical or intellectual or emotional ability, or class status, or who I chose to love and how I chose to fashion my life, which may not be in accordance with your values and beliefs but does no harm.

Neither do you have the right to determine where I chose to sit on a public bus.  

That, dear Pope Benedict, is part - a small part, but a central component - of the "sacramental nature of life, instituted by the Creator".

No one - not the church or any one individual - has the right to define or determine how it is that I chose the "outward and visible" signs of the "inward and spiritual" grace of my life.

Here's the "Ecology of Humankind" which we need to protect and defend:

If God is 'Emmanuel', then God is with us.

No matter who or where we are, or what or how we believe.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Arroz Doce on the Feast of Stephen

I was looking through my old (1970 version) of The Betty Crocker Cookbook that my mother bought for me as a wedding present. The one that is now all taped up with duct tape and stuffed with pieces of paper on which I've scribbled various recipes.

I was looking for the trusty, reliable chart that tells you how to cook various cuts of meat. I wanted to be certain that the Christmas Pork Loin - which had been marinating in garlic, rosemary and thyme - would be cooked to absolute perfection.

I lost my grasp of the book, and everything tumbled out onto the floor.  As I started to pick everything up - Lo! - what did my wondering eyes did I see, but my grandmother's recipe for Arroz Doce - Portuguese Sweet Rice.

It was like a little unexpected Christmas present.

Julie, Mia & Bob
For a deeply religious country like Portugal, there is no end to the opportunity to dabble in the sin of gluttony with the staggering volume of its sweets. One of them is Arroz Doce, made from Carolino rice from the alluvial plains of the Ribatejo - although, all I had was Arborio Rice. (I wouldn't use any other grain, however).

Suddenly, there was nothing to be done but to make a pot of it in honor of 'Minha avo"

I had forgotten how long one has to stand over the stove to cook it. The really wonderful thing was that I pulled up a chair as did one of our daughters and we talked and talked and talked while I stirred lazily with a wooden spoon - just as I had done when my grandmother made it.

For special occasions, she used to serve it warm, sandwiched between crackly layers of puff pastry, but I didn't have that either, so I just served it in small cups, dusted with fresh ground cinnamon and some whipped cream, sprinkled with red and green sugar.

Ms. Conroy sampled some of it - just as soon as it had cooled down to a pleasant warmth - but she mixed in some raisins. Ah, the Irish! Whatever is to be done?

It's really "Alimento dos anjo" ("Food of the Angels") when it is warm, but it can be made the day ahead and reheated on low in the microwave. Stir in a bit or milk or cream if it's too thick.

So, you'll need:
Some all-purpose flour, for dusting (optional)
One sheet (17 1/4 ounce pkg) Frozen puff pastry, thawed (optional)
3/4 cup Carnaroli or Arborio Rice
Zest of 1/2 lemon, removed in long strips with a vegetable peeler
pinch of Kosher salt
4 cups water
4 cups whole milk (keep another 1/2 cup in reserve, if needed)
2/3 cup granulated sugar
4 large egg yolks
Confectioner's sugar, for sprinkling
Ground cinnamon, for sprinkling
If you are going to serve this with puff pastry, crack up the oven to 400 F. line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

Lightly dust a work surface with flour and roll out the pastry to smooth it. Using a pizza cutter or sharp knife, trim the pastry into an 8x8 inch square. Cut the square crosswise and then vertically in half, so you have 4 squares. Cut each in half on the diagonal.

Space the 8 dough triangles evenly on the parchment, and bake until well risen and golden. 10-15 minutes. Transfer the triangles to a wire rack to cool.

Meanwhile, combine the rice, zest, salt and 4 cups of water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, lower the heat to medium, and cook, uncovered, until almost all the water has evaporated. About 30 minutes. Adjust the heat as needed so the rice doesn't scorch.

About 5 minutes before the rice is ready, heat the milk and granulated sugar in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until wisps of steam curl up and the sugar has dissolved. Turn down the heat to low and keep the milk at a gentle simmer. Beat the egg yolks in a small bowl.

Once the water in the pan of rice has almost evaporated, begin adding to hot milk mixture by ladleful, stirring lazily with a wooden spoon. Keep up this rhythm of adding milk, stirring, and cooking until the rice "slumps gently when mounded" (that's the translation from my grandmother's Portuguese - isn't it cool?) and all the milk is incorporated. Remove the pan from heat.

Spoon some of the thickened rice mixture into the beaten yolks and quickly stir to incorporate. Drizzle the egg mixture back into the pan, stirring constantly. Return the pan to low heat and cook for 3 minutes. The consistency should be "lava-like" (again, my grandmother's description). Remove the lemon zest. Let the pudding cool to warm, stirring occasionally. If the rice thickens too much, add more milk, warmed over low heat.

To serve, split open the pastry triangles. Place the bottom halves on plates, spoon the pudding on top and crown with their mates. Sprinkle with confectioner's sugar and cinnamon.

Or: spoon into a small serving bowl, dust with confectioner's sugar and cinnamon and crown with a heavy dollop of whipped cream.
Prepare to spend at least another 30 minutes in the gym the next day but it will be sooOOoo worth it.

If Good King Wenceslas comes by, on this Feast of Stephen, you'll have something wonderful to return the favor for his once having taken his page and gone out of his way to feed that poor peasant who lived "a good league hence / Underneath the mountain / Right against the forest fence / By Saint Agnes' fountain."

And, you can sing him the last verse of "Good King Wenceslas"
In his master's steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed
Therefore, Christian folk, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing
Merry Second Day of Christmas and Happy Feast of Stephen!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Joy!

Our home is full of wonderful people and pets, delicious odors from the kitchen, and great presents under the tree.

The Christmas Eve dinner was a grand success.

The Christmas Day dinner is in the oven.

On a whim, I made my grandmother's Arroz Doce (Sweet Rice) last night which was pronounced an unmitigated success by Ms. Conroy. It will serve as today's dessert.

Then again, it was served warm. And, she added raisins.  I'll top it off with real whipped cream.

Some are napping - a food induced coma, no doubt.

Others are figuring out how the new gadget works.

Did I mention that I got a Kindle Fire for Christmas? Oh. My. God. Is this thing fabulous or what?

One of the best parts is now trying to figure out to whom to give my "old" Kindle.

That and watching the faces of the people to whom I gave presents.

I also got a travel book to Thailand, which will come in Very Handy when I go there to visit my friend in March to celebrate his 70th Birthday.

Life is good. 

I hope yours is as well.

It's back into the kitchen for me. I've got some green beans to steam and then toss with some bacon, onions and garlic while the Pork Loin Roast finishes doing its thing.  The homemade rolls have risen and will go into the oven while the roast "rests" on the counter.

I'll get my "rest" after everyone leaves tonight, which is always way too soon.

I never want this day to end.

Merry Christmas everybody!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Be not afraid

The elusive sliver of light from a shadowed Earth is one of space tourist Guy Laliberte's most prized photos among those he took from the International Space Station in 2009.
A Sermon for the Eve of the Nativity of Our Lord
The Family Service - 4 PM
All Saint’s Church – Rehoboth Beach, DE
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

It’s always so wonderful to see the church filled with so many people! You all look so festive and happy. One might even say, merry and bright.

Well, most of you do. I know, I know. Some of you are here under duress. You’ve come under strict orders from Mom or Dad. Or, perhaps your appearance here is part of a deal you struck with someone in your family.

You know who you are.

I have a dear friend and colleague who is a priest in the Church of England who told me the following story which may strike a cord of resonance with you and bring you a smile.

A man in Scotland calls his son in London the day before Christmas Eve and says, "I hate to ruin your day but I have to tell you that your mother and I are divorcing; forty-five years of misery is enough".

"Dad, what are you talking about?'" the son screams.

"We can't stand the sight of each other any longer", the father says. "We're sick of each other and I'm sick of talking about this, so you call your sister in Leeds and tell her".

Frantically, the son calls his sister, who explodes on the phone, "They are NOT getting divorced", she shouts. "I'll take care of this".

She calls Scotland immediately and screams at her father, "You are NOT getting divorced. Don't do a single thing until I get there. I'm calling my brother back and we'll both be there tomorrow. Until then, don't do a thing, do you hear me?" and hangs up.

The old man hangs up his phone and turns to his wife and says, "Done! Not only are they coming for Christmas - but they're paying their own way too."

Do NOT try this at home. Your mileage may vary.

I don’t know if that’s what got you into church tonight, but I’m awfully glad you’re here.

Tonight is the night when we suspend all rational thought and – just for tonight – begin to think about the possibility of miracles. Not ‘the miracle of medical science’ or the ‘magic of television or technology’.

No, I’m talking about the miracle of God who took on human flesh and came to live among us to know our sorrows and our joys; our sufferings as well as our celebrations.

I don’t know how to explain that to you. It’s something that is beyond human understanding and comprehension. Perhaps this little story of a Christmas Eve from my childhood may help.

I am the oldest of four children. – three girls and one boy. We lived in a small, three- bedroom apartment above my grandparents. My two younger sisters and I shared one bedroom and my little brother – whom we called ‘The Little Prince’ – had his own room.

Which I hated. I mean, I was the oldest. I should have my own room, shouldn’t I?

I fussed and complained about it. A lot. Indeed, on my 9th Christmas, that’s what I asked for – the only request I made: my own bedroom. I never thought I’d get it, and I’d be happy with whatever I got, but I thought it was certainly worth a shot.

On the day before Christmas Eve, I came home from school and went directly to my bedroom to plop my stuff on my bed. Imagine my surprise when my bed was not there! I rushed out to find my parents having coffee at the kitchen table, smiling broadly.

“Where’s my bed?” I asked, confused, and almost afraid to ask.

“Come with us,” my parents said as they led me to the door I knew led to the attic. Up the steep stairs we went. When we got to the top, my father opened the door and what to my wondering eyes did I see but my very own bedroom.

Oh, it was still the attic – my father promised to fix it up a bit more over the year – but it was my very own room.. There was my twin bed (I would later get new sheets and pillow cases and blankets), and a rug on the floor, and my bedside table – but no lamp. No electrical outlet. There was a bare light in the middle of the ceiling with a long string that was not far from my bed. My mother had put some bows on it to make it more festive.

It was far from perfect but it was absolutely perfect. I was thrilled beyond the telling.

That night, I couldn’t wait to get to bed. I got myself all tucked into my bed and my parents came up to say goodnight. As they left the room and I snuggled under my comforter, my parents called out, “Sweet dreams,” as they pulled on the string and turned out the light and closed the door behind them.

All of a sudden, the room was dark. Pitch. Black. Dark. And, I was sore afraid. I hate the dark. Even today. But, as a kid with a vivid imagination, I was in hyper overdrive. Panic began to set it. I tried to whistle, but my mouth was so dry, I could hardly pucker.

As the minutes ticked on, I started to tremble with fear. I couldn’t even see my hands in front of me, but somehow, they found themselves clasped together and I did the only thing I knew how to do. I started to pray.

“Dear Jesus,” I prayed from the bottom of my wildly beating 9-year old heart, “Please, if you are the Light of the World, would you please, please, please shed a little of it on me right now? Even just a little light from your birthday candle would do. Just enough to keep the monsters I’m sure are living under my bed away from me? Please?”

And just then, I heard my mother at the bottom of those long, narrow steps that led to my new, suddenly not-so-perfect bedroom. “Elizabeth? Are you okay?”

I wanted to scream, “No, I’m not. Please come and get me out of here!” But before I could get the words out, I heard her say, “I’ll just leave a light on for you, in case you need to go to the bathroom. Merry Christmas!”

And then, suddenly – magically! – there was light!

Just a little light. A small sliver at the bottom of the door at the top of the attic stairs. But, it was enough. I instantly felt a wave of relief pour itself over my body. I felt a wonderful peace and comfort. And, I knew my prayers had been answered.

I’m all grown up now. An intelligent, independent woman, capable of rational thinking and reasoned responses.

I’m not as afraid of the dark anymore, but sometimes, I find myself in such pretty dark emotional places that I scare myself. I’m thinking some of you know of what I speak.

I don’t believe in monsters under my bed anymore, but I do know that evil exists in the world. I have seen it and I suspect you have, too.

It’s times like that when I need nights like this. I think there’s a little child in each of us that – whether we care to admit it or not – needs nights like tonight. Nights when we can suspend all rational thinking and believe, just for one night – just for tonight – that miracles can and do happen.

We need one night when, even though it makes no sense – no sense at all – to believe that God knows our fears and our sorrows as well as our joys and our delights because God once took on human flesh and walked among us.

Because, I’m telling you – even though I can’t prove it empirically – that God was once among us as Jesus.

And, I’m telling you – even though it defies all logic – that Jesus lives on in me and in you. There is a little spark of the Divine in each one of us.

That is the light that glows especially bright on this night we call Christmas Eve.

It glows in the faces of the Christ child in each one of us, who lays his head in the humble manger of our hearts every day of the year.

You can see it especially in an act of kindness – like making sure someone who is hungry gets something to eat.

Or, visiting someone who is in prison so that s/he will know that s/he has not been forgotten.

Or, working for justice to change the systems that keep wide the chasm between rich and poor.

And, I’m telling you that all it takes in this dark, hurting world is a little sliver of light to chase away the shadows of fear and mend the broken places in our hearts.

Perhaps you could be that little sliver of light for someone this night, or the next, or the one after that.

Because that’s really what Christmas is all about. It’s why we come to church, even when we really don’t want to. To draw near to the Light of Christ that we may come to know the Prince of Peace and to bring that peace to the rest of the world.

Be not afraid, the angels said to the shepherds watching their flock that night so long ago in a field near Bethlehem. And, the light of a star shone so brightly that it led them right to where the Infant Jesus lay.

May you find that little sliver of light that will bring you to Jesus.

May you find the light of Christ in your own heart that you may lead others to Jesus.

May you know the Prince of Peace that you may be a vehicle of peace in the world.

May you believe in the miracle of the Incarnation that you may begin to see the miracle that is life.

And, if you can’t, be not afraid!

Just for tonight, believe in my belief until someone comes into your life and turns the light on in your darkness so that you will be able to find your own belief and peace and comfort and joy.


Friday, December 23, 2011

Merry Chreeshmash!

As I've been scurrying around preparing for Christmas - shopping, decorating, wrapping, writing cards, cleaning, polishing, ironing, planning menus, marketing, marinating, baking - I wonder how my Portuguese grandmother did it.

I mean, she had all those kids of her own, plus their spouses and their children, plus various cousins, nieces, nephews, and neighbors.

There were always platters of cookies everywhere - and these amazing Portuguese custard tarts which would absolutely melt in your mouth.

The crust was more like a very flaky filo and the custard was as light as air with just a hint of a lemony aftertaste.

I remember her making them in small tin cans - she used cat food cans which she collected, washed and boiled to a fare thee well before using them for baking these angelic treats.

She would also make a huge Bolo Rei - a King Cake - which was sweet - like Massa Sovada (or Pao Doce) - but had all these wonderful dried fruit on top to represent the jewels in the crown of Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

No, it was not a fruit cake. It wasn't a dense, dry cake with dried fruit and nuts. This was much more a bread - a very sweet, yellowy, yummy bread - with the dried fruit on top like crowns.

It also doubled as a cake for Tres Reis - Three Kings - on the Feast of the Epiphany, except the Christmas version had a fava bean baked into it.

The kid who found the fava bean was first to open their Christmas present on Christmas Eve. After midnight mass.  Never before. Ever.

You could also count on a wonderful plate of Arroz Doce - Sweet Rice - somewhere on the table, which was sprinkled generously with nutmeg and cinnamon.

Very often, my grandmother would sprinkle on the cinnamon and nutmeg into a holiday message or decoration. Always written in Portuguese, which she would make certain one of us could read and translate before she allowed us to spoon some into our dish.

Children were encouraged to eat the Arroz Doce. In fact, even fussy eaters were allowed to pass up on the main course as long as they had a dish of Arroz Doce - which was made with eggs and cream and served in a bowl, swimming in heavy cream.

"Good, good," my grandmother would say in her broken English. "Is good for babies," she'd say, as my uncles eyed it from afar and she gave them "the look" to let the children eat it first.

My uncles and male cousins thought it was great stuff with which to line their stomachs before knocking back a few "boiler makers" (beer with a shot of whiskey in it) or a few rounds of "cachaca", a liquor made from fermented sugarcane juice.

My grandfather made his own beer, wine and cachaca in the cellar.  He kept huge wooden barrels of the stuff - off the room from the boiler and away from my grandmother's canned vegetables and big ceramic pottery vats of Portuguese sausages and other cured meats which they had made sometime at the end of October during The Annual Pig Killing.

While my grandfather and uncles would lug up boxes of bottles of booze, my grandmother, mother and aunts would bring up great strings of the linguicia or cherico -  spicy Portuguese sausages. My grandmother would then open up a few jars of stewed tomato and onion and fry them together with the fava beans she had grown in her own garden.

She would serve it on a great hunk of Portuguese bread - crusty on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside - slather the bread with butter, place the bread in the bottom of a bowl and then pour a huge ladle of the lunguicia and fava bean stew over the top.

You didn't need a spoon. We would eat the stuff with our fingers, then drink down the hot, spicy liquid at the end. If your throat and stomach were on fire with the spices, you would have to "neutralize" it with another tart or some of the sweet rice.

If my uncles got too close to the sweet rice, she would appear as if from out of nowhere, ladle in one hand, the other hand on her hip and say, "I breaka you face!" If they were already swaying from the cachaca, she would say, "I kicka you ass, you sombeech!"

I think those were really the only words she knew how to speak in English.

Oh, and she knew how to say, "Merry Chreeshmash". She greeted most people at the door - if she could. Most people just walked right in - the door was always open - and head directly to the kitchen to give her a kiss and your holiday greeting.

If you were smiling, she'd said, "Merry Chreeshmash. You hungry?".

If you were not smiling, she'd say, "Merry Chreeshmash! Wottsamatta? You hungry?"

Food, for my grandmother, was the universal language - sure to brighten your spirits (even if they were fine) and cure for whatever ailed you.

I'm probably forgetting half the things that were on my Grandmother's Christmas table - mostly because I didn't eat them.

Especially the Bacalhau which I didn't mind so much if it was fresco but at Christmas, she made it with the salted, dried cod that my grandfather and uncles had caught during the summer months of fishing off of East Cuttyhunk, a small island about 12 miles south of New Bedford and about 8 miles west of Gay Head, Martha's Vineyard.

It was Very Salty - enough to make your mouth pucker - and, of course, very spicy. Lots of hot peppers mixed with cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg and other spices that are commonly used in Portuguese Cooking.

Oh, and then there were the fried smelts. Now, those I ate like candy.

She would drag the small fish through corn meal, salt and pepper, fry them up in butter and olive oil, and bring out the big iron cast skillet and plop it right in the middle of the table.

We would then rip off hunks of the Portuguese bread, slather some butter on them, and pick one up right out of the pan and eat the thing whole - bones and all - which just absolutely melted in your mouth.

I think, when I die and go to heaven, my grandmother will be waiting for me with a whole pan of fried smelts all to myself which I can follow up with an entire platter of those little custard tarts.

When I think back on it all, it was an amazing amount of work which I don't think I really appreciated as a kid.

I don't remember getting a "Christmas present" from my grandmother. No toy, no piece of jewelry, no book, no money in a card. My Christmas present was her cooking - and, the memories I have of all that amazing food.

I don't know how she did it all, but I sure am glad she did.

My efforts pale in comparison, but I do try to put in as much thought and love into my meal planning and cooking as she did.

It's the memories, however, that I'll always cherish.

Check out this video to get an even better sense of what my childhood Christmases were like.

Boas Festas!

Merry (almost) Chreeshmash, everybody!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Arrested Discernment: Occupying Faith

Michael Sniffen after his diaconal ordination
It has been my great privilege and joy, over the past 25 years, to assist literally dozens people through a vocational discernment process - not all of them on the ordination path, but including more than a dozen or so young people through the process of ordination.

Michael Sniffen is one of them.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Michael is 31 years old, recently married, a doctoral student at Drew University, and is priest-in-charge of the Episcopal Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew in Brooklyn, New York. It is my continued great joy and delight to hear him introduce me as his mentor.

He was arrested for trespassing on December 17, 2011 - civil disobedience at Duarte Square in lower Manhattan - as part of the Occupy Wall Street Movement along with his clergy colleague, John Merz, Bishop George Packard, and several others. I'll come back to this in a minute.

One of the most important things I tell folks who come to me about discernment is that it is critical to remember that it is not about being "right" or being "wrong".

It's about making the best decision, given all that you know about yourself for as long as you have known yourself, along with the situation you find yourself in - right here, right now - and where you see God's hand in it all, leading you into an uncertain future.

It's about taking a risk and stepping forward in faith, piecing together the worn threads of what is in the past and the few, fragile strands of what is in front of you, and weaving them together with the threads of uncertainty about what lies ahead.

And, it's about being a grateful evangelist for all that God has done for you in your life, stopping, every now and again, to tell people you meet along the way about how God is working in your life.

Not so that you can be "right" or convince yourself or others about how correct you are. No. You do that to remind yourself that it is only by God's grace that you have been given the will to do these things and to inspire others to seek God's grace that is present and available to them in their own lives.

And, if you've done that and find yourself "wrong"? Well, I don't believe that God sees our decisions as failures.  Life is a wonderful laboratory in which we are asked to participate and experiment. There are no failures. There are simply lessons learned for the next part of the journey.

God knows, I have questioned my own discernment at various times since my initial sense of vocation in 1982. Really? I've asked, during those lonely, spiritually dry, confusing, anxious times.

Really? I've asked God. This - THIS - is what I'm supposed to be doing? You're kidding me, right? I could be making so much more money as a nurse and still doing an important work of ministry for you. Why don't I just hang up my collar right now?

That doesn't mean that I made the wrong decision back in 1982 when I decided to follow my "call" that led to the path towards ordination. It just means that discernment to vocation is a lifelong commitment.

Discernment is, in and of itself, a vocation.

You know, like marriage, which sometimes we learn - sometimes sooner, sometimes later - was a Very Bad decision. Not at the time. Maybe it was a Really Good decision at the time. The best we could make. Or, maybe we weren't so sure it was a Good Decision and it turned out to be the best thing we could have ever done.

It could also be a particular career path which we "found" ourselves on and then, later, learned that it was only meant to take us to a certain point - only prepared us to go only so far - so that we could begin to see the next path opening before us that we couldn't have seen any other way.

Sometimes, we make good choices. Sometimes we make make bad choices. Whether good or bad, as Archbishop Temple once said, God still reigns.

I believe, with all my heart, that, right or wrong, good or bad, "....for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to God's purpose" (Romans 8:28).

What's remarkable about the discernment process is that, sometimes, it is, in fact, a process. A gradually awakening. A gentle nudge. Sometimes, it comes in an instant. A huge PUSH wherein one's body begins to move before the mind can make sense of it.

But, there you are, your body on the path, your mind and heart scrambling to keep up.

We are going about the days of our lives, doing the mundane, common, ordinary things one does in the enterprise of being human, and then, out of the blue, we find ourselves in a situation where it all comes down to this one thing, this one decision.

Sometimes, you have to put your body where your mouth has been.

If you've ever experienced a situation like that, you can never read the story of Thomas - whose feast day we mark on the Calendar of Saints today - or The Annunciation of Mary without feeling some visceral effect - a knot in the pit of your stomach, or your pulse racing, or your respirations quickening.

Br. Morgan
You don't know if it's right or wrong. You just know that you are being called - yelled at, forcefully summoned, physically pushed - and that, right or wrong, you must act, even though others may judge you harshly for it and the consequences for your behavior may be some penalty you don't know how you will bear.

And, when you witness to what has happened to you, some will not believe you. Some will say you are doing it for your own gain. It's grandstanding. It's narcissistic.

Others - especially those who are also in discernment or are confused or anxious or frightened or (yes) envious - will attack your motives, and say all manner of evil against you. Still others will accuse you of passing judgment on those who disagree with you or who have not yet been able to take a stand.

And, that's just part of the price you will pay for acting on - and in - faith.

The thing of it is that I believe with all my heart that those who who attack your motives are also called to do just that. It's a form of refiner's fire - for both.

I say all this as a prelude linking you to a wonderful statement from Michael Sniffen. It was written at the request of his bishop, the Episcopal Bishop of Long Island, Larry Provenzano, and is now posted on the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island webpage.

It's called "Diary of An Arrested Priest", which takes us on his journey with him from the moments before and during and after his arrest at Duarte Square in lower Manhattan as part of the movement known as "Occupy Wall Street".

It's rather long but rather wonderful. I strongly urge you to read it. I love it as much for what it is as for what it is not. Here's why I think this to be so:

Jon Richardson, blessing me after his priestly ordination
First, it is thoroughly incarnational. It is Michael's story, told from Michel's perspective. It is how Michael understands himself to be living out the Gospel story and being faithful to what God is asking him to do and be in the world, and how he is responding to his perception of the presence of the Risen Lord in his midst.

It is thoroughly human. Michael articulately and eloquently expresses his doubts, his outrage, his passion, and his compassion, all laced with bits and pieces of Michael's own brand of humor.

It is not a rant against Trinity Wall Street in particular or The Episcopal Church in general. It is simply his eye-witness account of what he saw and what happened to him.  Indeed, there is neither guile nor judgment in any of it (unless you need to hear it in his questions).

Even though it is passionate and convincing and convicting, there is plenteous evidence of ongoing, prayerful discernment - every step of the way: At the fence. On the ladder. In the vacant lot. In the paddy wagon. In the jail cell. In his congregation, preaching and presiding, the next day. 

Megan, moi, and Jon
Jesus and Megan
I don't know if Michael made the right decision or the wrong decision on December 17, 2011, to move from being a witness for peaceful demonstration and pastoral presence to climbing the fence and doing civil disobedience.

I happen to think he made a courageous decision and I support him.  That does not make either of us right or wrong. It's simply where we have both discerned ourselves to be in this complicated, complex situation.

Sometimes, you have to break a few rules in order to change a few laws. And, hearts. And, minds.

You never know when that moment will arise. I chuckle when I recall that Bishop George Packard, himself a retired military man and the retired Bishop Suffragan of the Armed Forces, was first arrested at Zuccotti Park because he was bringing water to those encamped there.

Bp. Packard (Andrew Burton - Reuters)
He, himself, was neither demonstrating nor "occupying". He was just following the Gospel imperative to minister to the "least and the lost". Still, he was arrested.  "Hey, I'm not one of them. I'm a retired Army. Served in 'Nam. I'm military - just like you," he said to the NYPD officer who arrested him, but his words fell on deaf ears.

"But, I was only bringing them water," he protested to one of New York's finest as he was handcuffed.

And, in that moment, an "Occupied Bishop" was born - the one in the "Crayola Magenta" cassock, which had been given to him by Desmond Tutu, who was the first one up the ladder and over the fence at Duarte Square in an act of civil disobedience on December 17, 2011. 

I have my own share of stories of those kinds of "Thomas" or "Annunciation moments". I'm sure you do, as well.

Michael and the cake his 'friends' made him
I encourage you to read Michael's story.  Toward the end of his piece, he writes,
The Kingdom of God is inside us and all around us. The world is a mess and yet the beauty of community is springing up in the most unexpected places. In an empty lot. In a prison cell. God is building staircases into our hearts this Advent. Sacrificial love is rushing up those stairs. It is the most powerful force on earth and it cannot be stopped. “We are unstoppable,” says God. “Another world is possible.”

What happened on the 17th of December will be forgotten pretty soon. The media cycle will move on. People and institutions will move on. I’m out of jail now, but I am still arrested. God’s Holy Spirit has placed me under arrest. It’s troubling and comforting and overwhelming. I feel completely alive and scared and hopeful. I believe, Lord. Help my unbelief. Help me climb your staircase one step at a time and meet me on the other side. For you promised, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” Be with us all in this season of brokenness and mending.
I am not certain of much in my life, but I know this much to be true:

To be in discernment is to enter into the mystery of having been arrested by God and freed for service of sacrificial love to God's people.

Discernment is one of the greatest acts of faith I know.

As Fred Buechner once wrote:
"Faith is different from theology because theology is reasoned, systematic and orderly, whereas faith is disorderly, intermittent and full of surprises.....Faith is homesickness. Faith is a lump in the throat. Faith is less a position on than a movement toward, less a sure thing than a hunch. Faith is waiting".
Please read "Dairy of An Arrested Priest" to see what I mean.

In these last few days of Advent, I wish a Blessed St. Thomas Day to one and all!