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

Monday, August 29, 2011

Goodnight, Irene

This is the worst of it.

A fallen gutter next to the air conditioning unit we had installed two years ago. The guys set it on a platform to meet with the FEMA flood codes.

Good thing, I'm thinking.

The sea grass came just above where it sits, in the center of the side yard.

This is where the sea grass landed on the back side of the house.

You can see the canal in front of you and judge for yourself how high the water came, Mama.

There are a few roof shingles here and there in the yard so we know we'll have to go up on the roof to replace them.

Thankfully, there was no interior damage.

Well, the water DID come into the Sun Room, but it always does. I left a blanket in front of the glass door and it is soaked. I have it in the washing machine now.

Here's another shot of the front yard, facing the marsh. You can see the fallen gutter peaking out the side corner of the house on your left.

And, you can see the line of the sea grass which means the water rose to just past that level.

Interestingly enough, none of the lights on the electric clocks are blinking, which means we never lost power.

I am absolutely amazed.

We always lose power. All. Ways.

Here's another amazing thing.

The deck furniture is right where I left it. Hadn't moved an inch.

I knew the pink carved stone umbrella holder would stay put. It's a heavy sucker. That baby wasn't going anywhere it really didn't want to go.

And . . . and . . . AND. . . my neighbor's boat and other neighbor's ski-doo are still in place, even though they were ordered to have them out of the water by no later than 5 PM on Saturday.

The head of the HOA (Home Owner's Association) says they will both be fined.

I'm not holding my breath.  Which is fine. Now that it's all over.

I arrived home at about 4 PM today and most of the neighborhood looks just like I left it.

No downed trees. Roof shingles scattered around the street. No broken windows. Every house still standing.

Looks like just another day at the end of summer, doesn't it? Like nothing happened At All while I was gone. Dogs are barking. Gulls are crying. Crickets are chirping. Cooper's Hawks are circling the marshes. White Egrets, Snowy White Egrets with silly yellow feet, White, and, Blue and Green Herons are stalking fish.

Just like normal.

If you hadn't already guessed, I was Really Worried.

Worried Sick, as they say. Really. Sick.

I guess it was the Red Cross Guy - a young, Very Blond, Very Earnest man in his 20s who appeared about 2 PM on Friday, just as I was leaving, to "help" us evacuate.  He just happened to mention that the FEMA folks were scheduled to come by on Wednesday to assess the damage.

I FLIPPED out.  "FEMA?" I roared, "Why don't they just stay down in NOLA and help get people out of trailers and into proper homes? I mean, it's been, what, five years?"

"Yes, ma'am," he said politely. "I guess, after Katrina, everyone is being extra cautious."

"Katrina didn't undo NOLA. That was the shoddy work of the Army Core of Engineers, directed by the racists government bureaucrats who don't give two figs about poor people or poor people of color."

"Yes, ma'am," he said politely, "Is there something I can help you take to your car?"

He was right, of course. I was totally out of line to say what I said at that time. Still, it made me Very Nervous to think "the government" - "Heck of a job, Brownie" FEMA folks - were on this.

So, the questions arise: Did we overreact? Was this good planning or panic? Did we HAVE to evacuate?

Well, I think, if you have to ask the question . . . .

And, you know what? I'm glad for it.

As much as I missed being away from our wee cottage here on Rehoboth Bay, I'm glad we were all out of harm's way - even if that meant some of us took sanctuary in the inland regions of NJ (God help us) where we lost electricity from 3 - 9 AM on Sunday and a few trees fell but, near as I can tell, no one in our neighborhood got hurt.

Meanwhile, there are still hundreds of thousands of people without electricity and it looks like VT - of all places - took the worst hit.

Some of us are saying "Goodnight, Irene," while others of us still live with the nightmare.

It really helped to have all your prayers. No, really. I felt anxious but no where near what I would have felt if I hadn't known that so many of you were keeping so many of us in prayer.

I promise to return the favor when it's your turn.

Mudslides, fires, earthquakes, tornadoes, killer bees - I'm your partner in prayer.

Fur sure.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Morning After

Red Cross Shelter at the Indian River High School in Dagsboro, DE
We're fine here in Ms. Conroy's tiny apartment in NJ. The pups are all fine. We lost electricity between 3 - 9 AM but everything is back on now along with the cable television and internet.

Our children all seem to be fine, including our daughter on the UES in NYC (between York and the River), even though there were reported 25 foot surges in the NY harbor during the worst of the hurricane.

The word from our neighbors and friends on Rehoboth Bay is not as hopeful. Long Neck, where we live, was under Severe Tornado Watch from 7 - 9 PM. I haven't heard anything about a tornado in Long Neck but my friends tell me that a tornado hit in Lewes - just the next town over - and leveled two houses and did serious damage to another couple of homes.

A tornado reportedly destroyed one airplane and seriously damaged a few others at Dover Air Force Base.

The Beaches and boardwalks at Rehoboth and Bethany apparently took a big hit. The satellite images look pretty bad. We'll be able to tell better over the next few days just how bad it is.

But, so far, no real word about Long Neck in general or my neighborhood in particular. I must admit that my imagination - often a blessing to my creative mind - has become my worst enemy.

I confess that I find myself suddenly teary-eyed shortly after a knot of anxiety grips my stomach and a wave of nausea causes me to sit down and take some deep breaths.

Makes. Ms. Conroy. Crazy.

She has decided to deal with it by taking a nap.

I submit that both responses are different sides of the same coin which is the currency of anxiety about the unknown.

Compounding the situation is the fact that we're not certain when we'll be able to get to our home to see how much of our home is left.

The Wayne before the Storm
The Garden State Parkway will be reopened at 1 PM today, but we have no idea when the flooding will recede and we'll be able to drive back into our neighborhood. We may have to stay in a hotel for a few more days, but the plan right now is to leave tomorrow for Rehoboth Bay.

The report is that there have been 11 deaths attributed to Hurricane Irene: one death reported in Connecticut, Maryland and Florida, five in North Carolina and three in Virginia, including two children.

That's a remarkably low death toll.

That's hardly a comfort to those 11 families. Let's keep them in our prayers.

I know how they feel.

This could have been much, much worse. I don't yet know if it hasn't been worse than what I currently know it to be. Problem is, I don't know what I don't know. You know?

So, in the morning after the hurricane, I'm trying not to eat the Bread of Anxiety. It's so hard to do. Lack of information tends to be the leven that make it rise.

Thank you for all your prayers and notes of support and love and concern. It really does help.

I'll keep you all posted. That's a promise.

UPDATE:  Got a call from one of our neighbors. Our we cottage is safe and sound. There is still some serious flooding - he recommended not getting out of the car without wearing Wellies - but we can return home. And, and, and . . . . we have a home to which to return. 

No, that's not another earthquake you feel. That would be me, doing a happy-happy-joy-joy dance.

Prayers, please, for the people in the State of Connecticut who are without electricity and the people of the State of Vermont who are enduring terrible flooding.

Even after we say, "Goodnight Irene" the destruction left in the path of this hurricane continues to be a nightmare for many hundreds of thousands of people.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Calm before the storm

It's a beautiful day in my neighborhood. The sun is shinning. The birds are flying. The water in front of my house is calm, the serene surface punctuated by an occasional fish jumping out and flopping back down into the deep.

It's hard to imagine that, within twenty four hours, dark clouds will descend, the waters will swell and completely flood the front of our yard and the winds will angrily swirl the air, lifting anything that isn't tied down and, even then, pulling shutters and siding off the side of the house.

We have been told to evacuate our housing complex by 5 PM today. I've done a load of laundry and am packed and ready to leave by 2 PM, heading north and west and inland to NJ to be with Ms. Conroy.

I have taken in most of the deck furniture and lashed what I couldn't move to the deck. I've moved the two huge trash barrels into the shed and secured the doors.  I've unplugged electric clocks, and the microwave and will unplug the television set before I leave.

I'll also turn off the water and the AC before I leave and make certain, one last time, that all the windows and doors are as secure as possible.

I've gathered up the few photo albums and pictures we have here (the rest are still in storage) - along with insurance policies and important papers and documents -  and placed them in the trunk of my car.

Oddly enough, I watered all the plants this morning. I always do on Friday morning. I found myself chuckling at the irony of my actions, talking to them and telling them that it is going to be okay.

I've helped a few of my neighbors who have come down for the morning to take their boats and "skidoo's"  out of the water and lashed their furniture to their decks. Some are going to stay in hotels on Route One in Lewes because most of the motels on Long Neck and in the Route One corridor of Rehoboth Beach will also be closed. My neighbors want to be nearby on Monday so they can come back and assess any damage and begin any necessary repairs.

There has been a steady stream of boats by the house as people take them to nearby marinas for safe harbor. Some are waving and smiling as as they go by - one last fun-filled bravado before the retreat to safety.

And now, we wait.

This is the "calm before the storm". 

Except, it's a rather strange calm. Certainly not the feeling one gets during or after meditation and prayer or a wonderful, relaxing full body massage.

Indeed, there is an odd odor in the air. Metallic. Electric. Acrid. Everyone is noticing it which just causes our brows to furrow a bit more deeply and look around more carefully for anything that needs to be lashed down or brought inside.

It's strange how things can change so quickly.

My 'Plan A' was to stay here and weather it out. 'Plan B' was to take a room for the night at the hotel up the street. I never intended 'Plan C' - to drive to NJ - but, bottom line is that houses can be repaired or replaced.  Life is too precious not to protect at all cost.

Even so, in the midst of this "calm" I find myself wandering from room to room in the house. I've made lists of things I want to make sure to pack as I leave the house and I've brought them to a central place in the living room so I won't forget them.  (Note to self: remember to pack your rain boots as you'll need them in NJ and may need them to get back into the house.)

As I wander about the house, I'm aware that I am touching things - the bed, the lamp, a favorite thingy - and I realize that I am saying a silent prayer over each thing, that these will all be here when I return - hopefully on Monday.

How odd to anticipate missing the collection of thingies I have around the house: The carved wooden purple tulips our friends John and Allen gave us as a house warming present 8 years ago. The carved wooden stool I brought back with me from Ghana 7 years ago. The table our daughter and son-in-law made for us with a tile top design of a Celtic tree. Ms. Manning's rocking chair.

I know that sounds a bit morose and not at all reflective of my normally upbeat, Ms. "Lemonade from Lemons" herself that I normally am.

And, you know, I will make lemonade from any lemons Hurricane Irene tosses at us. I would just rather not, thank you very much.

I think the anticipation of grief is sometimes worse than grief itself.

I must say that whatever "calm" there is comes from knowing that so many are holding us all in prayer - the way we have done for those deeply affected by tornadoes or earthquakes or hurricanes or mud slides or fires in other parts of the country.

It's not that I think God is wherever God hangs out saying, "Okay, okay. Got the prayers for Rehoboth Bay. Lay off that part of the eastern seaboard. And, please make sure no damage comes to Llangollen. There'll be hell to pay if that wee cottage is damaged."

It's the comfort that brings a sense of calm and peace that so much love and concern and prayer and  positive energy is being directed this way.

My image of that kind of energy comes from an image I have of the cosmos. I see us all standing together on our own thread of an intricate woven pattern. Without prayer, I feel alone in the darkness. With prayer comes a light that shines in the darkness and I can see others standing with me and can reach out to hold their hands.

That image fills me with a sense of interconnection that is, inexplicably, comforting and calming.

In the calm before the storm, it is this image of the relationships we have that bind us together in an invisible network of prayer which brings me peace and a sense of hope. I understand, in the midst of the light that shines in the midst of that darkness that, no matter what happens, it will be alright.

I'm sure that makes absolutely no sense.

It's not supposed to.

It's the calm before the storm.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Earthquakes and Hurricanes

I was at my local grocery store at 8 AM this morning, standing in front of four empty shelves where bottled water was usually stacked.

I kept thinking to myself, "Who would buy this much water? And, why?" And then I giggled as I thought, "Well, I'm sure the milk shelves are also empty."

It made me giggle because the same people who buy up all the water in anticipation of losing electricity are also buying milk and won't have the refrigeration to store it.

It. Makes. No. Sense.

Then again, people who eat the bread of anxiety as part of their daily diet tend not to bother much with logic or common sense.

Just as I was thinking that, since our wee cottage is right on the water, we'll probably have to evacuate anyway and my money would be better spent on making a motel reservation at the 'Sea Esta' for $45 a night (and, they take dogs), two of Lower Slower Delaware's finest came pushing their carts up the aisle.

They gasped as they looked at the unseemly sight of bare naked shelves. One woman, who was dressed in shorts and sporting a T-shirt that said, "Buzzy's Auto Repair and Hauling," slapped the handle of her grocery cart, turned to her friend and said, "See? Didn't I tell you? But, no, you had to finish that pot of coffee."

The other, her hair in the tight rollers - the kind that look like left overs from home permanent kits - said, "Oh, hush! They were probably out since last night. The boys in the stock room probably haven't stocked them yet this morning. We're not late. We're too early."

The lady in the tight hair rollers turned to me and said, "See, we're just too early, hon."

I said, "Well, it's always good to be prepared." Or, something innocuous like that as I tried to slip quietly away and get out to the Sea Esta to reserve a room.

I wasn't quite fast enough.

"You know what this is?" she said as she moved her cart in my path.

"Oh, Lord," I said silently to myself. It's eight o'clock in the morning. Spare me. But, my momma raised me up right so I smiled and said "Climate change?"

"Huh!" she said, "You believe that? Smart girl like you? That's just something the 'Lame Stream Media' wants us to believe."

"Oh, God," I thought to myself. "Here we go."

The Goldbergs
She shifted her ample frame and leaned on the handle of her shopping cart like Molly Goldberg used to lean over the window frame of her apartment on 1038 East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx to talk with her neighbors.

"God," she said, with great authority, "is always trying to tell us something through Mother Nature."

Her friend in the T-shirt nodded seriously as she winked at me to pay attention.

"In fact, I heard someone say - maybe it was Rush - you know, Rush Limbaugh. Do you listen to him? Oh, you should. The man is a prophet. Anyway, I think it was Rush - no, wait a minute, it was Pat Robertson - another prophet, God bless him! - who said that Nature is God's language."

The lady in the T-shirt closed her eyes and nodded as if to say, "Amen".

"That's an interesting thought," I said, as politely as I knew how, but secretly - and, admittedly, uncharitably - I was thinking, "These ladies put a capitol 'S' in the 'slower' part of LSD."

My outward politeness only seemed to encourage her. "Well," she said, "And, didn't we have an earthquake on Tuesday? First time in over 200 years. 5.9 they said. FIVE POINT NINE! My whole house just shook, didn't it?" she verified with her friend who again, solemnly nodded.

"You and your family okay, hon?" she asked with appropriate gravity and concern.

"Oh, me? Oh, yes, yes, yes. We're all fine," I said but I had been secretly counting how many six packs of flavored water one could stack on a grocery store shelf.

"FIVE POINT NINE!" she repeated as she shook her head in disbelief.

"Now, you think about that for a minute. Just think. This is what? August 25, right? What is going to happen a little over five months from now?"

"Um. . . . Christmas? No, that's four months away. Oh, my goodness. Really? Only four months?"

She shook her head sadly, glanced over to her friend, and smiled a sly little grin as if to say, "Oh, this one can't even do math."

"Look, August - that's one. September - that's two. October - that's three. November - that's four. December - that's five. And, what comes right after that?"

"Ummm . . . the New Year?"

"Good," she said as if talking to a very stupid six year old.

"And, what does the New Year bring?" she asked, her eyebrow raised in a crooked question mark.

My mind drew a blank. I had absolutely no clue where she was going with this, but something in the back of my mind kept screaming, "It's 'Teh Gay'! It's gotta have something to do with 'Teh Gay".

I didn't want to go there so I ventured a guess, "An election year?"

"Well, yes," she said, "I'll give you partial credit for that answer," she smiled at her friend. "But God wouldn't send an earthquake and now a hurricane about that. No, no, no ma'am".

She shifted her weight again, leaned over her cart and whispered loudly, "Civil Unions."

I almost broke out in a dance and sang, "I knew it. I knew it. I knew it WAS 'Teh Gay'!"

Almost, but not quite. Instead, I just worked very hard to keep from giggling.

"This... THIS... is God's warning," she pronounced with gravity and authority. FIVE POINT NINE followed by a hurricane on 8/26/11. EIGHT TWENTY-SIX ELEVEN.  Now, THAT's God talking."

"Umm . . . Okay, so I think I understand your meaning about the 5.9, but .... um.... I'm sorry, Ma'am, but.... I'm not getting the eight twenty-six eleven."

She rolled her eyes. Clearly, I was the dumbest person she had ever met. "That's when the hurricane is supposed to hit. See?"

"Ohhhhhh," I said. Right. I stood, nodding my head like I really understood what she was trying to say but I still didn't have a clue.

She seemed to sense this so, wanting to spare me any further embarrassment, she continued her lesson in Gawd-Talk: "So, do the math. 8+26+11 (stay with me now) +5 (That's the number of letters in Irene) = 50. Right?" she said to her friend in the T-shirt, who nodded in agreement.

"I was born in 1950 - the midpoint of the century - and everything changed in 1950, didn't it?"

"I suppose it did," I said, thinking of all the Molly Golberg and Father Knows Best and The Donna Reed Shows I used to watch on reruns on my parent's black and white Motorola television.

"Well," she said, "That's what I mean. It's all gone to hell in a hand basket since then. You just have to do the math that Nature gives you to know what's really going on."

At this point, I feel compelled to say this: "I am not making this up."

"But, what about the 5.9 earthquake?" I asked. "Doesn't that change the math a bit?" I was only trying to give her philosophy some credibility, which only revealed my real stupidity.

She stiffened her body and said, "You paying attention?" she said, angrily. "It's 5.9 months until the Civil Unions take effect in Delaware!"

"Right, right, right!" I said with enough seriousness in my voice as to convince her of her wisdom, realizing that I - only I - was embarrassed.

Apparently, it worked because she seemed quite satisfied with herself.

"Well," I cleared my voice and said, "Look at that! It's 8:26. Already! 8:26! Ha, ha, ha. Now that's something isn't it?"

"No coincidences," the lady in the T-shirt said, "Isn't that what you always say?"

"Yup," said she, "There are no coincidences. It's all according to God's plan."

I nodded and said, "I think I'm going to be okay with the half of case of water I have in my pantry. So, maybe I'll do some of my other chores and let you ladies get on with your day."

"Oh," she said, with noticeable disappointment, "Oh, right. We can't be sitting around waiting for those boys in the stock room. They're all so lazy, you know. 'That kind' always have been. Always will be."

At that point, I had reached the highest level of polite tolerance and, just as I felt my head about to explode -  lo and behold! - how good it was to see a few skinny white boys with stringy blond hair pushing a large dolly filled with packages of bottled water up the aisle.

"Ah," said the lady in the T-shirt, with a firm grasp on the obvious, "Here they are."

In the commotion that ensued, making room for the stock boys to do their work, I said my good-byes and thank yous and nice-meeting-yous and slipped around the corner to the next aisle, sped down it like a house-a-fire, then a quick trip up the next aisle  - praying earnestly with every step, "Help me, Jesus" - and then did a steady trot out the door into the parking lot.

Now, I am quick to add here that this is not the first time I've heard this kind of . . .um. . . theology. My mother and grandmother and aunts all talked this way. They were always looking for "signs and wonders" as a simple explanation for life's complexities.

If a baby was born with lots of hair, that became the reason the mother had such bad heartburn during pregnancy. If the baby was born with a birthmark on it's face or neck or hands, it must have been because the mother was scared by a spider. If my grandmother felt a sudden chill, she would always say, "Someone just walked over my grave," as she pulled her woolen shawl around her shoulders.

I get it. No, I don't actually, but I understand the impulse to see things happening in the environment and try to explain it as part of "God's plan" or as evidence of punishment for sin. Actually, there is evidence throughout Hebrew Scripture and the gospels to support such theology.

Even Jesus talked about the turning of the leaves of the fig tree as a sign of the beginning of summer, and yet, he said, "But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come." (Mark 13:32-34)

I've never been convinced of "God's plan for your life" - as if, all I or anyone had to do is to find the right drawer with your name on the right folder in that Great File Cabinet in the Sky, take it out, read it, and all will be right with your life.

I think God is way too busy for that and the angels are having so much fun teaching everyone how to dance that they don't have time for menial office tasks. Besides, I think God wants us to get on with the living of our lives and not get all tied up worrying about what may be in that non-existent file folder.

So, here's my philosophy: I think it's good to have a Plan B, but live Plan A for as long and with as much love and enthusiasm you can and then, when you can't switch to Plan B and do the same thing.

Or, in the words of my sainted grandmother: "Plan for the worst but pray for the best". That's my story and I'm stickin' to it.

If you are in Irene's path and want to rush out and buy toilet paper, bread, milk and water, then I say, have at it. Me? If we're evacuated, you can find me at the Sea Esta Hotel for the night. I'm packing my bathing suit because I understand that the pool water is great after a hurricane.

As they say in my neighborhood, just because you live on the water doesn't mean every day is a day at the beach.  So, I'm putting on my big girl panties, taking in the umbrellas and deck furniture, making sure all the house vents are closed, and living Plan A for as long as I can.

Life is like playing the NY Lottery. "Ya gotta play ta win." BUT, "Hey, ya nevah know."

Be safe everybody! And, if you get a message from Mother Nature, well, keep busy. Do some math. Just don't call me, okay? I think my allotment card for "encounters with a Loony Tune" is full at the moment.

Besides, haven't you heard? There's a hurricane coming.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Takin' the long way

There's a song by the Dixie Chicks that I've found myself singing lately. It's from their CD "Takin' the Long Way." The words to the title song go something like this:
My friends from high school
Married their high school boyfriends
Moved into houses in the same ZIP codes
Where their parents live

But I, I could never follow
No I, I could never follow
I've been working on the next chapter of my life and I realize that what I'm about to embark on is not really unlike the rest of my life thus far. 

I've never followed the crowd. I've always taken the long way.

That means I've never had a lot of money - probably never will - and, that's okay. I've always seem to have what I've needed and my needs are pretty simple.

I've never really wanted for the basics in life for myself and our family - food on the table, a warm roof over our heads, clothes on our backs, a good education.

Oh, I've had "jobs" that I didn't really love and others that weren't exactly satisfying and none of them paid very well, but I've always moved on to the next thing which was usually better than what I left - at least, initially.

I have been - and, am - very blessed.

I have no reason to believe that I won't continue to be blessed as I move forward out of a sabbatical year and into a future that is not exactly traditional.

Most of my clergy friends who begin collecting their pensions immediately embark on a series of interim ministries in congregations in transition.

I couldn't imagine it! I mean, in many ways, I loved many of the parts of parish ministry. I can't imagine being any place else on Sunday morning than in church. But, it's really wonderful not to be "the rector" and be ministered to in Word and Sacrament.

One of my colleagues said that he was "just an old race horse". He said, "I put my collar on and I'm off. Truth is," he said, "I really don't know what else to do."

And then, he sighed and said, "And, with my pension being what it is, I really need the extra money."

I'm sure he's good at what he does. I'm sure he still makes an important contribution to the congregations he serves in their transition. I think he even likes what he does, once he gets to church on Sunday morning.

Still, I couldn't help but feel the weight of the sadness in his voice. No passion. No enthusiasm. What was once a 'fire in the belly' is now a few smoldering embers.

I can't imagine it!

What I'm coming to love is working with Vestries on leadership development, facilitating conversations and mentoring them on what it means to be a Servant Leader. I'm really feeling called to this work and am amazed by the hunger most Vestry folk have to learn more about what it means to be in leadership in the Church.

I've facilitated a few "Mutual Ministry Review" processes and found it an excellent way to raise awareness and insights and provide information about the ministry and mission of the church. It helps to empower both the laity and clergy to discern what it is God is calling them to do and be in their lives of faith.  It helps to clarify roles and expectations and begins to level the playing field which has the potential to liberate everyone to do the work of the Gospel. When done well, it's a lot of work, but I think it's critically important to a healthy congregation and sound leadership.

I'm also loving even more being involved in Pastoral Counseling and Spiritual Direction, listening for The Holy in people's stories, holding up a mirror to let them see what I see, working with them to rekindle or bringing into clearer focus an awareness of the fullness and mystery of life.

And, leading retreats and educational programs in congregations about topics their rectors can't - or won't - because it would get him or her in hot water.

You know, doing the best parts of parish ministry without the headaches of being a rector.

Oh, and writing. Yes, I've heard some of you. I am going to "write that book" - although, for the life of me I don't understand why anyone would pay good money to read in a book what they've already read most of for free on my blog.  I also feel called - well, more "pushed and shoved" to do that.

So, I've spent the last few weeks looking at office space and deciding on a name for it (I guess I'm a lot like the ancient Hebrews. Every holy place has to have a name). I've designed a business card and selected a logo and a motto ("Awakening the fullness and mystery of life").

I'm working with a colleague to design a website with links that describes the various services I'll be offering (that's the hard part). I haven't yet determined the fee scale. Let's just say I'm going to need a whole lot of foot traffic to make this little enterprise lucrative. Good thing that's not my goal.

I've even selected a piece of scripture to put on my card and website. It's Sirach 26:10. Just the citation of scripture, is all. Folks can look it up if they want.

Go ahead. Look it up for yourself. Okay, okay, I'll tell you:
"Keep strict watch over a headstrong daughter
or else, when she finds liberty, she will use it.
I thought that was fair warning.

If you consider the fact that I've been humming a song from The Dixie Chicks, that I chose that piece of scripture won't come as much of a surprise. Here's how the song ends:
Well, I fought with a stranger and I met myself
I opened my mouth and I heard myself
It can get pretty lonely when you show yourself
Guess I could have made it easier on myself

But I, I could never follow
No I, I could never follow

Well, I never seem to do it like anybody else
Maybe someday, someday I'm gonna settle down
If you ever want to find me I can still be found

Taking the long way
Taking the long way around
Taking the long way
Taking the long way around
Oh, there's still a part of me that wishes I could fit into the whole 'corporate America' scheme of things and could have "moved with the shakers and kissed all the asses that they told me to." I could probably have made a ton of money. God knows, there are still places in the church where that can - and does - happen.

But I, I could never follow.

So, off I go then, on another adventure into the Great Unknown. I hear Jesus calling me and I can feel a gentle push from the Holy Spirit at my back. I've got some fire in my belly, a dream in my heart and a song in my head.

What more do I need?

Well, a few prayers from y'all wouldn't hurt. You know. Just a few "arrow prayers" shot this way every now and again. Whenever you have a few seconds.

Indeed, I think it's the only other thing I've ever really needed when I journey on the path that is the long way 'round.

It may be all any of us need whenever we seek to "awaken the fullness and mystery of life".

It's gotten me to where I am today, and, you know, I wouldn't take nothin' for my journey now.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Who is Jesus for you?

“But, who do you say that I am?” Matthew 16:13-20
Pentecost X – August 21, 2011
St. Martha’s Episcopal Church, Bethany Beach
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

Good Morning, Christians!

I have a question to ask of you this morning. It’s the same question we heard Jesus ask of his disciples. Here it is: Who do you say that Jesus is, for you? That’s the question that is central to this morning’s gospel. It’s a question Christians everywhere and throughout time have struggled to answer for themselves – and, sometimes, for others.

Being a Christian is very important to me and, even though I love the Church – especially the Episcopal Church – being a Christian is even more important than being an Episcopalian. That’s part of my problem with the church and the reason some of my friends call me a ‘Jesus freak’ – because talking so much about Jesus is seen as being very un-Episcopalian.

I mean – lots of Jesus-talk must mean you’re some kind of Baptist, right? Now, I’m not “one of those” Christians who put themselves in front of the TV camera or radio microphone and talk about Jesus but their language and actions are far from anything that looks or sounds like Jesus.

From my perspective, the real problem is that, in The Episcopal Church in general and in Christianity in particular, we’re smack-dab in the midst of a crisis of identity. We really don’t know who we are anymore.

That wasn’t always the case – especially in The Episcopal Church, which used to be known in some circles as “God’s frozen chosen”. In other circles, we were known as “The Country Club at prayer.”

One of my favorite commentaries on this came from a cartoon in the New Yorker back in the seventies. The image is one of the distinguished looking, dashingly handsome “Father What A. Waste” standing at the church steps in full liturgical regalia. Behind him is the Announcement Board with the sermon title: “Evangelism”. In front of him are two noble matrons of the Upper East Side, dripping diamonds and draped in fur, who are saying to him, “But, Father, everyone who needs to be an Episcopalian already is.”

Thankfully, we’re not that church any more. We’re certainly no longer a private club for the “landed gentry” and elite members only. It’s pretty clear that The Episcopal Church reads the radical inclusion of Jesus in Scripture and tries to emulate that in everything we do – even when inviting absolutely everyone into our church – and the councils and corridors of power in the church – is costly.

We know what we’re not. Which begs the question: Who are we? Even more specifically, who are we as a Body of Christ? How is what we do reflective of what we know about Jesus? Which brings us back to the question Jesus asked his disciples: “But, who do you say that I am?”

I don’t know about you, but those televangelists who froth and spew venom over the airways don’t represent Jesus for me. Neither do politicians who claim a “Christian agenda” to support their personal politics.

Jesus never kept anyone from coming to him. His disciples tried a few times – especially with women – but He made it His business to eat with sinners and prostitutes and tax collectors and heal those who were blind or possessed with demons or had leprosy. He didn’t keep the purity codes of his religion, was highly critical of the religious leaders of his day, and, although he raised a man from the dead, he broke the law because he did so on the Sabbath.

Personally, I take my cue in defining Jesus from our Baptismal Covenant. I seek out the Christ in me so that I may find the Christ in you.

Br. David Vryhoff put it this way:
The only way we can see Jesus in others, in the hunger and thirst and nakedness and estrangement and imprisonment of others, is to have known him ourselves and to have met him in those very places in our own lives. The only way we can touch Jesus in others is to have touched him in the broken places of our own lives, the very places where he has come to seek us out and to offer us salvation.
This is only my second time in this church. I don’t know your personal stories, but I’m willing to bet solid money that some of you have broken places in your lives. Some of you have lost your jobs or fear losing your jobs. Some of you have lost loved ones and are grieving. Someone may have someone they know and love who is struggling with depression or anxiety and may be treating themselves with addictive substances like alcohol or drugs, food or gambling.

We are all broken in some way. We’re all losers who have been found by some pretty amazing grace. Truth be told, that’s really why we come to church. Not to forget about our worries, but to bring them here, to this altar, to be healed and transformed in the broken bread and the wine poured out – and, maybe even give thanks and praise to God for that healing and salvation.

When you do that, when you bring your brokenness and “lostness” o Jesus, you will suddenly find yourself on the path of your own healing and salvation. But, not for your healing and salvation only. You are offered healing and salvation so that you might see the brokenness in others and, in those places, find Jesus waiting there.

I have a dear friend who, years ago, was going through a very difficult time which included bankruptcy. The meeting with her lawyer was running overtime and he was rushing to attend a special annual mass at the Roman Catholic Cathedral for lawyers.

They continued their conversation as he walked her out to the parking garage where they ran into a homeless man who was begging for spare change. The lawyer stiffened and sneered at the man as he walked by. My friend stopped and talked with the man for a few moments. Then, she reached into her purse and gave him what she had: three quarters.

As she caught up with the lawyer, he was clearly annoyed and said to her, “Why did you do that? He’s only going to spend it on booze.”

She looked at him and said, “You’re a Christian, right?”

“Of course,” he said, “I’m a Roman Catholic.”

“But,” she said, “You’re a Christian, right?”

“Yes,” he answered, getting more annoyed, “and I’m going to be late for mass.”

“Let me ask you something,” she continued. “You believe that Jesus is going to come again, right?”

“Sure,” he said, “What has that got to do with that drunk?”

“Well, she said, “Suppose that man was Jesus? Suppose he came back as a homeless man? Suppose he comes back as a homeless man to see whether or not you’ve been listening to him when he said, ‘And I, when I am lifted up, I will draw all to me’? All, he said. Not some. All.”

The lawyer grew quiet as she continued. “If that man was Jesus, how do you think you passed the test? Have you never been broken before? What is it that keeps your life from being completely shattered like his? What might make the difference in his life? I gave him a few minutes of my time, a few kind words and three quarters. Are you willing to risk your salvation – and, possibly his – for three pieces of silver?”

Now, that woman was not rich. Indeed, she was filing for bankruptcy. She was both broke and as broken as communion bread. She was not ordained. She was not a priest or a deacon or a member of a religious order.

He was a fairly successful lawyer. Fancy office downtown. A devoutly religious man who was rushing off to church. He was Roman Catholic. She happened to be an Episcopalian.

But, I ask you, which one was the better Christian?

I confess that, one day, when I grow up, I want to be that kind of Christian.

Here’s the thing – I think we need to claim our Christian identity right where we are. “Just as I am, without one plea.” Broken and imperfect as we are.

The problem is that we’ve allowed others to hijack the definition of what it means to be Christian. You are a Christian. Maybe not the best Christian. Maybe you’d not do what my friend did. But, you are broken, too. And, in need of healing which, whether you’re willing to admit it or not, brought you to church this morning.

And, in the sacred heart of Jesus, you are the best kind of Christian there is – one who brings their brokenness to Jesus. Now your job is to look for that brokenness in others and offer the healing and hope and salvation of Jesus.

I’m not suggesting that you stand out at the beach and hand out pamphlets that offer “The Way To Salvation”. You don’t have to stand on the street corners with a megaphone, much less appear on the radio or television. You just need to let the Light of Christ shine in you and let people know that you are what a Christian looks like – someone who is broken just like them who seeks the Christ in themselves and in others.

In the tradition of the ancient Rabbis there is a saying that, before every human being go a hundred thousand angels who sing, “Make way! Make way for an image of God.”

I’d like to start a Christian teaching that says that before every human being go a hundred thousand angels who sing, “Make way! Make way for an image of Jesus.”

How would the church be different if we believed that and acted accordingly? How would the world be a different place if we believed that and acted accordingly?

Want the Episcopal Church to be the best church in all of Western Christendom? Try being a better Christian.

Want St. Martha’s to be the best church in The Episcopal Church? Try spending some time imagining that Jesus is asking you the question, “But who do you say I am?”

Answer that question for yourself. Then, live in your lives what you profess with your lips.

If you want to know who Jesus is and answer his question for yourself, I have three suggestions:

First, be less concerned about how others define ‘Christian’ and more concerned about following Christ. Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest what you read in Scripture about Him and follow His teaching.

Second, just look in the mirror. Who do you see? Does that person live what s/he says they believe? Have you brought your broken places to Jesus to be mended and healed? Are you on the road to working out your own salvation?

If not, then repent – turn around – change. It’s not an impossible task. To repent doesn’t mean to put on a hair shirt and wail, “I’m an unworthy sinner”. It means “turn around”.

Don’t like the path you’re on? Get off it! Turn around! Take another direction. Ask Jesus for help. Remember: Christ lives in you.

Finally, look around this church. St. Paul reminds us that we are the Body of Christ. If you want to see Jesus, look around the church.

And, look outside the red doors of the church. Indeed, look around at the people in the world – even those who aren’t Christian. Seek out the Christ in you and the Christ in others in the broken and dark places of life. The thin ray of Light you see shinning there has a name. That Light is Jesus.

When you can do these things – find Jesus in Scripture and follow his teaching, see the Christ in your own brokenness and in the brokenness of others – you’ll not only have your own Christian identity, you’ll also be one heck of an Episcopalian.


Saturday, August 20, 2011


My friend, Larry Taber, died on Thursday. He was 81 years young.

I'm so going to miss him.

You could ask Larry a question - any question - about the history or politics of the place of his lifetime residence of Madison, NJ and you'd be certain to get an answer about 'Rose City'. Indeed, he was known as "Mr Madison" in some circles because he knew everyone - and their parents and grandparents and even great grandparents - and which houses they lived in and whether or not they were in the 'Blue Book' or Social Register.

I used to tease him unmercifully about being a bit of a snob in that way. It's not that he was obnoxious about it, but more that he was historically curious about America's own brand of 'royalty'. Indeed, he had a copy of the Social Register on his bookshelf, right next to the other historical books he kept and among the countless antiques he collected.

The very first time I met Larry, way back in 1991 when I first came to the Diocese of Newark, he asked me where I was from.

"Massachusetts," I said.

"Cabots or Lodges?" he asked, then took absolute delight in repeating that old rhyme about Boston snobbery:
"Boston, dear Boston, the land of the bean and the cod
Where the Cabots speak only to the Lodges,
and the Lodges speak only to God"
My family will never be in any Social Register anywhere, but that didn't prevent Larry from loving me. And, when Larry loved you, he loved you without condition or concern for your social lineage or status.

Larry was one of the hardest working, most dedicated people I know. He spent countless hours helping me sort out the books at St. Barnabas AIDS Resource Center, getting the financial reports ready to apply for IRS 501-C-3 tax-exempt status. Once he finished with that, he started working on the books for the church.

Mind you, that was in between the work he did for the Madison Tree Commission - he was passionate about not cutting down ANY tree unless it was so diseased it was beyond care and might become a danger. He was also past president of of the Board of Trustees of the Hartley Dodge Foundation and served for many years as Treasurer and in other various capacities and activities at Grace Episcopal Church. He made the best Deviled Eggs which was always his contribution to parish events.

He was also very active in the Diocese of Newark, serving as Assistant Treasurer as well as on the Building Committee of the Department of Missions and member of the Ward J. Herbert Board of Trustees.

"Mother Superior". That's what he called me. It was his way of lightly and humorously underscoring the difference between my catholic proclivities and his staunch protestantism as well as his respect and admiration and fondness for me.

"Mr. Curmudgeon". That's what I called him. It was my way of lightly and humorously underscoring the difference between his conservative Republican proclivities and my progressive Democratic perspective as well as my respect and admiration and fondness for him.

Just about once a month, he'd take me to lunch at the local Charlie Brown's Restaurant. He always made sure I'd have a glass of white wine and then we'd have the Salad Bar and occasionally, split a decadent dessert of ice cream with chocolate sauce with a crust of chocolate cookie crumbs.

We always had the same waiter, Henry, who loved to tease Larry almost as much as I did. 

Larry and I would catch up on things diocesan, share some memories, and then, Larry would tell stories about "the good old days" of the Gay Community of the 50s and 60s in Manhattan, complete with afternoon Tea Dances in posh hotels where the rich and famous but deeply closeted would mingle with their adoring fans who kept their identities secret.

He and his partner, Bill, were together through it all - "over 50 years of uninterrupted unmarital bliss" - as I would tease Larry. Bill died in August of 2007.  Because his funeral was over Labor Day weekend, I missed it. Larry completely understood. He was just more concerned about my making a contribution to Grace Church in Bill's name. That's just the way Larry was.

Larry worked for many years at Carbide. Bill worked for many years at Chase Manhattan Bank, taking the train in every day from Madison to Manhattan. Sometimes, in their younger years, Larry would take the train into see Bill after work and they would have dinner and catch a play together.

"You're a classic," I would say to Larry.

"You mean, I'm a relic," he would say.

"Okay, you're a classic relic," I'd say and we'd laugh and laugh and laugh and then he'd tell me another story.

This was my and Larry's favorite "Bill story" which I would often beg Larry to tell:

One of the women in the secretarial pool at The Chase celebrated her 50th birthday by taking a trip with several of her friends to Atlantic City. They planned to take in a few shows, play the slots, have a great dinner and walk the Boardwalk.

She played a few of the slots and suddenly, magically, hit the jack pot. It was reportedly a huge sum, so much so that she was a bit nervous getting on the elevator alone to return to her room and tell her friends of her amazing good fortune.

When the elevator door opened, she saw two Very Large Black men standing in front of one smaller Black man. She hesitated for a moment, considering whether or not to wait for the next elevator. Her excitement finally outweighed her anxiety and she got into the elevator.

She clutched her purse close to her chest as the elevators doors closed and waited for the cab to begin to move.  She could hear the men behind her, breathing heavy and shifting their weight impatiently.

The elevator didn't move.

Finally, from behind her, she heard one of the men say, in a very gruff, agitated voice, "Hit the floor."

With that, the woman fell right down on the floor of the elevator, face down, pocket book up, saying, "Here, take it all. Just don't hurt me. Take my money and let me go. Please don't hurt me."

The next thing she knew, she was being lifted up under her arms by four very strong hands who were saying, "No, no, lady. I meant, hit the button for the floor."

They all laughed nervously, she 'hit the floor', the elevator moved and she got off in front of her room.

She immediately called her friends to come into her hotel room, to tell them the story of her good fortune as well as the embarrassing scene in the elevator.

Just then, there came a knock on the door. One of the bellboys was delivering a dozen long-stemmed red roses to her room. As she looked at the bouquet, there was a $100 bill attached to every stem of every rose.

Stunned, she looked at the card which was signed, "Eddie Murphy" and had the phone number to his room with the note, "Please call me".

Turns out, it was, in fact, Eddie Murphy who was the smaller of the three Black men in that elevator - the other two being his body guards. He wanted to get the rights to that story so he could use it in one of his movies. Apparently, he was being very cautious after being sued for one of his films - "Coming To America", I think.

I never grew tired of Larry's telling of that story but, over the years, we didn't even have to tell the story.  "Hit the floor" became our code commentary on a situation where someone completely missed the point. We'd use it about bishops or clergy or laity whose anxiety kept them from seeing the whole picture and overreacting.

We'd laugh and laugh and laugh, just at the memory of how much we laughed at that story.

That's the sort of cement that keeps friendships together: Shared stories. Laughter. Meals. Memories. And a passion for whatever work it is that God calls us to do. All despite our differences.

I didn't get a chance to say a proper goodbye to my friend. I heard about the seriousness of his illness last Tuesday. I had just cleared my calendar to run up to NJ on Monday night, visit with him on Tuesday, and then come right back home Tuesday afternoon.

He died on Thursday. I will try my best to move my calendar around to be at his funeral over Labor Day weekend.

A 'classic relic curmudgeon historian' has just passed through our midst. A member of the "Silent Generation" who had to remain silent for many years about the fullness of his being and the nature of his love has just slipped silently into that Good Night.

I'm just now feeling the full weight of that loss.

Of your mercy and kindness, please keep the peaceful repose of Larry's soul in your prayers.  You might also give God praise and thanksgiving for the gift of his life and his dedication to the church and his community.

See you on the other side of Eden, Larry. I'll look for you at the Tea Dance and we'll have a glass of white wine and share decadent chocolate desserts and tell stories for hours.

Maybe even for the rest of eternity.

When that happens, I know I'll be in heaven.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

'The Help'

I rarely go to movies in the Theater.

First of all, they've gotten so expensive - even way down here in tax-free LSD - as to tarnish the experience before I even sit down in the theater. And, as Ms. Conroy doesn't like many films other than those from Disney (I had to DRAG her to "Slum Dog Millionaire" and "Avatar" which she reluctantly admitted to liking), if I go, I have to go alone.

I read the book, "The Help" last summer and loved it. I thought the writing was excellent and the story very powerful. As a Caucasian woman the racism and sexism of this story of several upper-class Southern white families in the early 1960s, from the amused and bemused perspective of their black housekeepers and cooks – as told to a perky white female journalist - made me squirm.

I couldn't imagine the film improving on the power of the book - which, I've discovered, is often the case and another reason I don't go to see many movies in the Theater.

Apparently, the power of the movie version of 'The Help' is mostly in the controversy it has stirred.

Now, why this movie has caused such a flap - and not, say, "The Secret Lives of Bees" or "The Blind Side", or "Mississippi Burning", or "Driving Miss Daisy" or "The Legend of Bagger Vance" or "The Color Purple" even Disney's "A Song of the South" and "The Princess and the Frog" - is a bit of a puzzle to me.

Maybe 'we who believe in freedom' are getting just a bit weary about the current level of racism in our present cultural and political reality.

Those of us who understand the politics of race see what's going on in this country and are outraged and sickened by the undercurrent of racism directed at all the political attacks which have been leveled at the first Black man to occupy the White House.

Perhaps the real flap is over the comments and "tweets" made by Melissa Harris-Perry, the former Princeton professor, now from Tulane, who appears regularly on Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O'Donnell on MSNBC.

She has become the "new Oprah" - smarter, better educated, articulate, more attractive - and many, many people listen to her. I confess to being a great admirer of hers and loved reading her blog, "Table Talk" when she was at Princeton and before she became famous.

Here are some of the things she "tweeted" from the theater as she watched the movie:
“Hard to tell whether it’s the representations of black women or of white women that’s most horrible”

“Thank God magical black women were available to teach white women how to raise their families and to write books!”

“The Help reduces sexism, systematic violent racism, and labor exploitation to a catfight that can be won by cunning and spunk.”
She also said on the Lawrence O'Donnell show that the movie was, to her, completing the work started by the Daughters of the American Confederacy when they “found money in the federal budget to erect a granite statue of Mammy in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial,” which happened while the same Senate contingency failed to pass the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. “It is the same notion that the fidelity of black women domestics is more important than the realities of the lives, the pain, the anguish, the rape that they experienced.”

“It’s ahistorical and deeply troubling,” she argued, to make the suffering of these laborers a backdrop for a happy story. But there was a silver lining to the film, and Harris Perry concluded on a good note: actress Viola Davis’s buzz was well-earned. “What kills me,” she concluded, “is that in 2011 Viola Davis is reduced to playing a maid.”

Look, I understand the outrage over 'white agency' and the anger at yet another movie from the 'White Liberal Guilt Theater', with the message that seems to say either, ""Aw, look at those poor Negroes, I just want to help them!" or "Well, there, I feel better knowing that there wouldn't be a Civil Rights Act much less a Black President without the help of White folk."

It's not exactly the same thing, of course, but I get the same way about the "male agency" that has some men claiming that women wouldn't have gained suffrage without the help of men.

Indeed, it was only just recently that, in a movie which featured a strong woman, there was always a scene where she twisted her ankle on her high heels and some man had to carry her over the finish line and off into a romantic sunset.

Or, the "straight agency" when some make the claim that Queer people wouldn't be brinked on the edge of full Marriage Equality without the help of straight people. Hell, I even yelled for months about the Tom Hank's movie "Philadelphia" concerning the early days of the AIDS crisis because there were no lesbians in the movie.

And, I'm here to tell you that gay men would not have made it through those early days without lesbian doctors, nurses and social workers doing a lot of the heavy lifting. Indeed, we were doing the hard work of pain and symptom and nutritional management, and keeping people comfortable in their own homes, and arguing with insurance companies for hours about covering the cost of health care and doing countless Adult Forums at churches and educational events at Community Centers.

No one is ever going to write a book or make a movie about that part of the story. Which is okay. No one I know did that work for any glory, much less thanks - although it would have been lovely to have earned a mention.

That's not the problem. The problem is, to some extent, there's some truth in all of those claims about the various forms of "agency".

The book and movie "The Help" are aptly named. It's all about 'help' and who helps who through the tangled mess and poisonous web of individual, corporate and cultural prejudices and various forms of oppression.

I wasn't going to write about this but something happened just yesterday morning that prompted me to say something.

I had dropped off my beloved pup, Theo, just up the street at 'The Wizard of Paws' to be groomed. I was then heading off to Lewes for a gathering of Episcopal Clergy sometimes referred to as "The Boys and Girls Club" because most of us are, shall we say, no longer boys and girls.

I was early for my meeting, so I stopped off at one of the convenience stores to get a cup of coffee and the newspaper. As I approached the counter to make my purchase, there was a young Black man - oh, early twenties, I would say - who had just purchased a cigar.

He was looking at his purchase with a confused look and said to the Very White woman at the register, "No... um... I'm sorry, ma'am, but.... this is not the one I pointed to."

The Very White woman glared at him, "Yes it is. You took it, you gave me $1.99, I rang it up. It's yours." Then she smiled sweetly at me and said, "I'll take that for you now, hon."

I looked over at the young man, his mouth open in utter astonishment and confusion. Two men - both White - appeared in line behind me with donuts and coffee.

I looked at her and said, "Well, before you take care of me, can I ask you a question?"

A flicker of nervousness flashed over her face and, through a crooked smile, she said, "Sure, hon."

At this point, the Black, older man who was sitting in the car I passed on my way into the store appeared at the door and looked in. I could feel the men behind me shifting their weight nervously.

I looked at the young man who was looking at the cigar and shaking his head, took a deep breath, looked at the Cashier and asked, "Does this store believe in good customer service?" (I swear to God, I had no idea I was going to say that and I had no idea where I was going with it.)

She smiled nervously and said, "Of course. Now, let me take your order."

At this point, the young man found his voice and said, "But, I don't understand. I pointed to that cigar right over there, but you gave me this one, and before I could say anything, you rang me up."

She glared at him and said, "That's the one you pointed to. Now, take it because I'll have to void the sale and it will mess up our inventory and I just don't have time for that. I've got other customers to wait on. Just take your cigar and be happy with it."

The older Black man who had been looking in through the glass door now made his way into the store and stood there, arms folded across his chest, listening.

I could feel the tension rising from the two White men behind me.

I looked at the Cashier and said, "Well, if there is good customer service in this store, then you know the saying that 'The Customer is always right'. Why don't you take back the cigar you just incorrectly sold him, void the sale, return his money, and let him purchase the cigar he wants?"

She shifted her weight as she held onto the cash register for balance and considered my words. "Sure," she smiled her crooked, nervous smile, "Let me take care of you and these two gentlemen and then I'll deal with him."

I smiled and said in my best cheery voice, "Oh, I don't mind. It won't take long, I'm sure." Then, turning to the young man I said, "Which cigar did you want?"

He allowed just a tinge of relief to flicker over his face as he pointed to the cigars and said, "That one."

The Cashier didn't move.

"That one?" I asked. "The one in the red wrapper?"

"Yessum," he said.

I looked at the Cashier and pointed to the cigar. "He'll have that one."

The Cashier tightened her grip on the cash register and glared at me and then at the young man. She didn't move. Indeed, I think she was holding her breath.

As she looked away to further consider what she might do, she turned her head and caught sight of the older Black man, standing silently at the door. Suddenly, she stood up straight and went directly to the cigar and started to ring it up.

"Wait," I said. "Let me see that cigar."

The Cashier handed it to me and I examined it, asking the young man, "Is this the one you wanted?"

"Yessum," he said.

Turning to the cashier I asked, "And, how much is this one?"

"Same price," she said through her crooked smile and clenched teeth.

"Ah, then it's an even exchange," I said. "You don't even have to ring it up or void the other sale. And, your inventory won't be messed up."

The young man silently handed the cigar over to her and I gave him the cigar he had wanted in the first place.

"Thank you, ma'am," he said quietly and politely to her.

"Thank you, ma'am," he said quietly and politely to me.

And then, just as quietly and politely, he and his older friend, who had said not a word, left the store. The older man did look at me and nodded his head, which I returned.

And that was that.

I will never understand what it's like to be Black but I do understand "micro-oppression", which are little incidences of prejudice that are like tiny paper cuts that build up on your soul.

At some point, they just make you want to holler.

Now, I don't think the story I just told you is about 'white agency'.

I didn't tell you that story to feel good about myself. Neither did I tell you that story to make you feel good about White people who help "poor Negroes" or bad about White people whose prejudices make them do stupid things.

I think that is a story about one human being - one Christian - helping another human being - perhaps another Christian - through the noxious web of prejudice and oppression.

And, you know, we all need help to do that, sometimes.

That's really what I took away from the book entitled "The Help". It's not just another white-girl-coming-of-age story. Neither is it really about oppression of "the help" of Black domestic women in the sharply segregated South.

Yes, it is all those things, but mainly it's about how the character, Skeeter, comes to understand how she has become the woman she is because of the help of The Help who were more mothers to her than her own mother.

As a college graduate who has returned home, she wants to help "The Help" by helping them tell their stories. In their own words.

Truth be told, if that story were written by former Black domestics, it would no doubt be relegated to the dusty shelves of Black Literature which no one would read, much less discuss.

Here's the thing: Because of this story, we are all 'helped' to discuss the soul-damaging subtleties of racism and sexism that existed and continued beyond the horror of the lynchings and the whippings and the tarrings and feathering that were also going on at the same time.

This may be a miscarriage of history for Melissa Harris-Perry and other Black Women and, you know, I understand. I do. Indeed, I think their outrage and anger are important contributions to the conversation.

Ultimately, for me, this is a story about the power of relationships which contain the ability to create the change in hearts and minds that change in laws can only hope to achieve, but don't.

Transformation begins in the human heart - and that's really the heart of the story of "The Help".

If you don't see the movie, I hope you at least read the book. And, I hope it makes you squirm.

More importantly, I hope it inspires you to have conversations with other people about important topics like social justice, racism, sexism, micro-oppression, cultural change, the power of relationships and transformation.

God knows, in terms of all those things, we need all the help we can get - even when it makes us squirm.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

"Good Morning Christians!"

When I was a seminarian at St. John the Evangelist, Bowdoin Street, Boston, there was something called, simply, "The Thursday Night Supper."

Every Thursday night, about 200 people who were hungry and/or homeless would come down the steps into the Parish Hall for a full meal - soup to nuts, as they say - prepared and served to them by members of one of several suburban churches in the area.

Jack Flaherty was the Coordinator of the Thursday Night Supper, as well as the Jubilee Senior Center on Monday and Wednesday mornings.

Jack is now numbered among the Saints of God, but when he presided over the Thursday Night Suppers, he did so as one-part Sacramental Presence and one-part High School Teacher - which he was before he retired.

Jack had a "way" about him that commanded respect. Most of the guests called him "Father". Now, Jack was a Roman Catholic who faithfully attended daily mass in his suburban home town but was always - always - in the pew at St. John's on Sunday morning.

Clearly, he was not ordained in any capacity by either the Roman Catholic or Episcopal Church, but he never disabused the guests of the status of his ordination. He just simply let them call him, "Father".

And, this is the way he would address them before leading (or asking one of us to lead) grace before the meal: "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen."

I once commented to him that it was really lovely to hear him treat the guests with respect.

"Well, yes," Jack said, in his breathy way, with just a whisper of an Irish brogue. "But, it's also my way of setting up expectations for behavior. If I call them 'ladies and gentlemen', it assumes that they will behave as such."

And, they did. Always. Well, in so far as most were able, given the "altered states of consciousness" of some of the guests.

That obviously made quite an impression on me, and I've never forgotten it.

I think of Jack when I hear Bishop Barbara Harris greet a congregation before she preaches with, "Good Morning, Church." For her, it's not just a quaint custom of the Black Church experience. It also sets up an expectation for behavior.

People in church need to behave like they ARE church. Because, they are.

Well, I think I'm coming to my own version of this.

As much we all need to be reminded that we ARE church, I think the need is far greater for every one of us to be reminded that we are Christians.

It's not just that being "church" comes with lots and lots of baggage, it's that we need to reclaim our status as Christians as our primary identity.

Yes, the word "Christian" is also loaded with lots and lots of baggage. In many ways, it has become a pejorative term. There are so many "Christians" who behave so badly, it makes Jesus weep.

Just look at that cartoon at the top of this post for an example.

Here's another one to your left.

Makes us all sound like we're all straight out of a 'Looney Tune' cartoon, doesn't it?

Well, based on the behavior of some Christians, it makes some of us wonder.

I say, let's take back the definition and image of what it means to be a Christian.

Let's do that by reminding ourselves that WE are Christians.

For the past 10 years or so, I've always opened the service, after the processional hymn, by saying, "Good Morning! This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it."

I think I'm going to begin to make a small alteration.

Instead of a simple, "Good Morning!" I'm going to say, "Good Morning, Christians!"

I'm not sure how that's going to go over. 

Since I won't be leading worship on a regular Sunday basis, it will be hard to determine the cumulative effect.

I know. I know. I'm probably just dropping tiny pebbles into a very large baptismal font.

You may say that I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one.

I'm preceded by my dear friend Jack and have a good example in Bishop Barbara.

So, next time you're in church with me, expect me to greet the congregation like this, "Good morning, Christians."

Just know that I'm talking to you - and, that I expect you to behave accordingly.

Monday, August 15, 2011


Years ago – just as “The Great Troubles” about the ordination of women and Queer people began – I heard a bishop of the Church, now numbered among the saints, talk about conflict in congregations.

He said that, in his experience, most conflict in the congregation can be directly related to the fact that, in many ways, The Episcopal Church is a reflection of “The Great Melting Pot” of American churches. Fewer and fewer people, he said, were actually “cradle Episcopalians,” and were now coming to us from the baptismal streams of the Roman Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran and Presbyterian Churches.

The problem with conflict in congregations, he said, is that “converts” to the Episcopal Church have not been properly catechized. He made what was - even then - a bad analogy of hegemony about needing an “Ellis Island” for “immigrants” from “foreign churches” to give them a time to “integrate” into the culture of The Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion.

The bishop laid the blame squarely at the feet of clergy who, he said (and included himself when he was previously a parish priest), had not required “New Member Classes” and insisted on attendance at courses leading to Confirmation or Reception of these new members.

He felt an urgency about this, he said, because, when conflict came to the congregation or the diocese, the different understandings of the ecclesiology of the church – how it works out issues of institutional power and authority – led to different expectations and assumptions about how to resolve the conflict.

The bishop urged all clergy to “Anglicize” all members of their congregations and to initiate New Member Classes which would lead to Confirmation or formal Reception into The Episcopal Church.

I have always found his assessment of the problem to have great resonance with my own experience. While I have a few problems with some of his analogies, and, until recently, agreed with his conclusions, I find that I have a new-found ambivalence and discomfort about his approach to a solution to the problem.

First of all, America may have - once, perhaps - been “The Great Melting Pot”, but we have long ago left that metaphor to describe life in these United States. We are, perhaps, better described as “The Great Tossed Salad” – with distinctly identifiable ingredients making up the whole.

We've never been more E Pluribus Unum (Out of many, one) than ever before.

So, too, I think, is the reality of The Episcopal Church - and, for that matter, the Anglican Communion. If the world has become a "global village" then the Anglican Communion has become a "global village church".

Another word for this is "hybridity" - the rise of an assimilation of the diversity, multi-culturalism and realities of pluraform truth of post-colonialism which is, in itself, a critique of imperialism.

Did I just write all those big word? Sounded impressive, didn't it?

Let me give you an image of hybridity as a way of explaining.

When I was in Hawai'i, I always insisted that my friends take me out of the city and into the countryside. In one of our trips, we stopped for lunch at a Surfer Shack - one of the many little roadside restaurants frequented by surfers who are so dedicated to (or obsessed by) the sport, they travel all over the world to "find the perfect wave".

As I looked at the menu, something caught my eye that made me burst out laughing.

There, listed on the menu was "Mahi-Mahi Burito".

As I pointed it out to my friend, he laughed and said, "Yeah, well check out the 'Mexican Bagel'- which features guacamole, salsa, sour cream and shredded cheese. It's right next to the 'Italian Bagel'- which features marinara sauce, peperoni and shredded cheese."

That, to me, are images of hybridity.

In many Episcopal churches today, you'll find copies of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" and "Voices Found" and "Wonder, Love and Praise" and/or "Enriching our Music" (1 and/or 2) sitting next to each other in the pew rack.

In other churches, you'll also find binders or print bound copies with a title that proclaims something like, "St. Swithen's Church Hymnal" which contains hymns from Episcopal Church Summer Camps, "Praise Music", original hymns composed by the Organist/Choir director, and/or those which can only be found in hymnals of other denominations.

More and more, Episcopal Churches hand out service bulletins that contain everything you need for your worship experience - and take great liberty with the liturgy and music.

For example, one of my friends sent me a collect used by the church he attends which was used for Sunday's Eucharistic Service.
“Unclean God, braving defilement, inviting offense, you share your bread with vermin and outsiders; you let the Gentile woman subvert your plans; give us the faith that comes from the heart and walks beyond our boundary posts that we might be surprised by outrageous grace; through Jesus Christ, son of David and light of the world. Amen.
I don't know the source, but I'm quite sure it isn't one of the "authorized" collects from the Book of Common Prayer.

My friend wasn't at all bothered by the address to an "unclean God". What jumped off the page and leaped into his heart was the phrase, "outrageous grace".

In a way, hybridty is a kind of "outrageous grace" that allows us to see God through the lens of different cultures and experiences of God.

It's sort of an 'Outrageous Propriety' that preserves the ancient and traditional shape of the liturgy but begins to push us to an assimilation of other experiences of God that leaves everyone changed and transformed.

So, while I agree that we need to do more New Member Classes and need to be much more intentional about incorporating people from different religious experiences into The Episcopal Church, perhaps we need to serve up the pedagogical equivalent of the Mahi Mahi Burrito or Mexican Bagel.

As part of that, perhaps we need some clarity about how it is that we deal with conflict when it appears at our doorstep or in our sanctuary or 'round our Vestry meeting tables.

You know - something that incorporates the principles of good old Anglican, "Big Tent" tolerance, but understands and acknowledges that power and authority ascribed to the institutional church will be experienced differently by different people, depending on their backgrounds and education and experiences.

I'm thinking, if we embraced the reality of hybridity, we just might find the strength and courage to "walk beyond our boundary posts" and be surprised by "outrageous grace".

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Uppity Women

Iranian women
I've been reading over and meditating on Sunday's Gospel lesson (Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28) about the Canaanite woman who was uppity enough to push through the prejudice and negativity of the disciples and persistent enough to challenge Jesus to heal her daughter.

I have lots to say about her and especially Joseph and his brothers in the Hebrew lesson (Genesis 45:1-15) for Sunday. That will have to come sometime tomorrow.

Thinking about both Joseph and the Canaanite woman - comparing and contrasting their stories - suddenly reminded me of Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals

Saul Alinsky wrote this entertaining classic on grassroots organizing in 1971. I still have my copy, sitting prominently on my bookshelf.

Those who prefer cooperative tactics describe the book as out-of-date. Nevertheless, I happen to think that it still provides some of the best advice on confrontational tactics ever written.

Alinsky begins this way:
What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.
His “rules” derive from many successful campaigns where he helped poor people fighting power and privilege

For Alinsky, organizing is the process of highlighting what is wrong and convincing people they can actually do something about it. The two are linked.

If people feel they don’t have the power to change a bad situation, they stop thinking about it.

According to Alinsky, the organizer — especially a paid organizer from outside — must first overcome suspicion and establish credibility.

Next the organizer must begin the task of agitating: rubbing resentments, fanning hostilities, and searching out controversy. This is necessary to get people to participate.

An organizer has to attack apathy and disturb the prevailing patterns of complacent community life where people have simply come to accept a bad situation.

Alinsky would say, “The first step in community organization is community disorganization.”

Through a process combining hope and resentment, the organizer tries to create a “mass army” that brings in as many recruits as possible from local organizations, churches, services groups, labor unions, corner gangs, and individuals.

Now, combining hope and resentment is an interesting mix, no? All of it sounds to me a bit like the Tea Party folks have taken a page right out of Alinsky's Rule Book.

Then again, so has anyone who wants to change the status quo and shift the paradigm of power. If you listen carefully to the Scripture lessons for this Sunday, you can hear pieces of this strategy at work.

Alinsky provides a collection of rules to guide the process. But he emphasizes these rules must be translated into real-life tactics that are fluid and responsive to the situation at hand.

So, here is Alinsky's 'Rules for Radicals'. Uppity women, please take note:
Rule 1: Power is not only what you have, but what an opponent thinks you have. If your organization is small, hide your numbers in the dark and raise a din that will make everyone think you have many more people than you do.

Rule 2: Never go outside the experience of your people. The result is confusion, fear, and retreat.

Rule 3: Whenever possible, go outside the experience of an opponent. Here you want to cause confusion, fear, and retreat.

Rule 4: Make opponents live up to their own book of rules. Alinsky wrote: “You can kill them with this, for they can no more obey their own rules than the Christian church can live up to Christianity.”

Rule 5: Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. It’s hard to counterattack ridicule, and it infuriates the opposition, which then reacts to your advantage.

Rule 6: A good tactic is one your people enjoy. Alinsky wrote: “If your people aren’t having a ball doing it, there is something very wrong with the tactic.”

Rule 7: A tactic that drags on for too long becomes a drag. Commitment may become ritualistic as people turn to other issues.

Rule 8: Keep the pressure on. Use different tactics and actions and use all events of the period for your purpose. “The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition. It is this that will cause the opposition to react to your advantage.”

Rule 9: The threat is more terrifying than the thing itself. When Alinsky leaked word that large numbers of poor people were going to tie up the washrooms of O’Hare Airport, Chicago city authorities quickly agreed to act on a longstanding commitment to a ghetto organization. They imagined the mayhem as thousands of passengers poured off airplanes to discover every washroom occupied. Then they imagined the international embarrassment and the damage to the city’s reputation.

Rule 10: The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative. Avoid being trapped by an opponent or an interviewer who says, “Okay, what would you do?”

Rule 11: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, polarize it. Don’t try to attack abstract corporations or bureaucracies. Identify a responsible individual. Ignore attempts to shift or spread the blame.

Rule 12: According to Alinsky, the main job of the organizer is to bait an opponent into reacting. “The enemy properly goaded and guided in his reaction will be your major strength.”
Any uppity women out there want to join me in sending a copy of this to the White House?

Jesus said: "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish."

I'm not a woman from Canaan, and she's centuries away, but I hear her talking.