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

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Warning: Christian Stewardship Is Radically Dangerous

The Stewardship Hand
Soon and very soon - if not already - churches will launch their Stewardship Season.

In many churches, this becomes something akin to an NPR membership drive. It's "all commercials all the time" with actual programming intermittently dispersed among the pleading and prodding to become members (meaning, contribute to the cost of programming - "If you like this music/program/news, please make your pledge today.").

Then, after the pledges are received and the goals have or have not been met, it all goes away.

Until next year.

Lots of people in church circles are talking about how Stewardship Season needs to be more than just once a year. And, that we need to talk more about Stewardship in terms of more than money. It's a return to the old "time, talent AND treasure" that has been the consistent message of the church. Well, at least, The Episcopal Church.

The current trend is to claim that "Stewardship is, essentially, story-telling." Indeed, story-telling is an important vehicle to make Stewardship incarnational, but I think we have put the stewardship cart before the ecclesiastical horse, as it were.

Here's my claim: Stewardship, authentic Christian Stewardship, is radically dangerous. It has the potential to transform us and the church.

I would submit that, whatever failings we have experienced in our own "Christian pledge drives" stem from the fact that we do not grasp this concept. Or, maybe we do, which is why our Stewardship Season looks more like NPR Pledge Drives.

There are two major flaws in our process.

The first is that the message of 10% "strive to tithe" model is falling on deaf ears because our parishioners know that this is based on the assumption that the church is the major social outreach/service/justice organization in the community.

There was a time when this was once true. It is no longer.

This came clear to me when a former parishioner came up to me and said, "Rev'd Elizabeth, I hear about striving to tithe, and I want to do that, and I've discovered that I am."

"Here, look. This is my family income. This is what I give to the church. And, this is what I give to support various community organizations that I think are doing the REAL work of the gospel - shelters for domestic violence, disaster relief efforts, community food banks, unemployment counseling and the provision of interviewing skills, resume development and clothing for interviews."

"When I add all that up, I'm actually tithing 12%.  When you add what I give to the church in terms of fundraisers and supplies for coffee hour and various parish events, it's even higher."

And then he said, "When the church starts doing all this work, I'm happy to shift my funding from those organizations to the work of the church. But," he added, "maybe it isn't the job of the church in today's world to do all that. Maybe the church needs to be the church - providing spiritual nourishment and foundation for our work as Christians in the world - and we, as the Church need to support the work of the church in the world."

"Maybe," he said,  "the church needs to re-think it's message about 'strive to tithe' and support the work of the church in the world, too."

See what I mean?  I don't think he's the only one who has figured that out.

Indeed, it is not an over-statement to say that many of our churches are liturgical museums, some of which feature excellent liturgy, music and preaching but it is disconnected to any clarity or focus about how the church - THAT church - puts its faith into action.

Oh, some congregations are like "social justice candy stores" - there are soup kitchens, and food pantries and environmental justice projects, but mostly, these are "pet projects" of individuals which are claimed by the church. There is no direct connection between these individual acts of charity and "good works" with the focus and mission of the church.

The result is that what people hear, beyond the "message" and despite our best efforts, is that their money is going to support the organizational structure of the church - to pay for administrative costs, salaries, etc. 

That may or may not be true but that's what they hear because we have not "connected the dots" - either for ourselves or others.

At least NPR Pledge Drives - and some churches - are more honest about this in the message they give during Stewardship Season.

And then we wonder why folks revert to a corporate business model and apply that to the business of the church.

The business of the church is not being the church. 

The business of the church is doing the mission of God.

Everything - Every. Thing. - is in support of that.

If we aren't absolutely clear and consistent about that, then we have no one to blame but ourselves when people in the pews can't hear the theology of Stewardship.

We are talking in a language that is foreign to them.

If we don't live our theology, our talk sounds to folk like the clanging bell of an NPR campaign. In their heads, they just change stations, momentarily, until the program resumes.

As the hand drawing above explains, we need to be consistently "on point" and "on message" about the theology of Stewardship. This is but one neat, concise theological foundation which is grounded in scripture. It may not be YOUR theology, exactly, but it's a good start. Take a look:
Leviticus 26:12

God desires a close relationship with us. God loved us before we loved God. Our relationship with God is not one of equals since God is the Owner and we are the stewards of God's possessions.

Psalm 24:1
God is the owner of everything and God has transferred dominion over creation to us (Genesis 1:26). As faithful stewards, we understand that we have been assigned the management or stewardship of God’s possession. We are responsible to the Owner for the manner in which we conduct our stewardship responsibilities.

Proverbs 3:9-10
Because God loves us, God has blessed us with many possessions, such as time, talent, and treasure. The way we use our possessions demonstrates our love to God. As faithful stewards, we must use our possessions for God's glory, to benefit others, and not for personal gain.

Romans 12:1
The Hebrew word used in the Old Testament for sacrifice is “korban”, and it means to come close to God. Sin separated us from God, but Christ’s death on the cross, as the sacrifice for our sins, provided a way for us to come close to God. As a Christian, living for Christ is our sacrifice to God. When we use our possessions (time, talents, and treasures) to God's glory and to benefit others, we signal to God, and to the world, our desire to have a close relationship with God.

John 15:9
God is love. Stewardship that is based on God’s love allows us to look beyond the faults of others while using our possessions to supply their needs (John 13:34,35). The thumb is the only finger that can touch all of the other fingers, so our love for God and for others must permeate all aspects of our stewardship experience. Stewardship is God's love in action.
I'm not offering this as "the" theology of stewardship or "the" scriptural basis for it. It's one way to think about it. Develop your own. Do it with members of your congregation. Make it clear, simple and concise.

Here's the key, however: Do not teach this if you can not illustrate how the church - YOUR church - is living out the scripture and making that theology real.  Tell stories about THAT and watch your pledged amount increase.

Have your clergy and parishioners tell stories about how they live out their theology in the context of their lives outside the church walls and how the church supports them in their everyday lives of faith and you've got something that will not only improve your Stewardship Pledge Drive but enrich the faith life of your congregation.

Of course, you actually have to support people in their every day lives of faith beyond the walls of the church in order to have any integrity with and validity to your claims.

There's another consideration, however. Something that has to happen as the foundational, operational principle to any theology or work of Stewardship. Something that makes sense of why the incarnational aspects of story-telling are so essential to Stewardship.

If there is any real flaw to our understanding of Stewardship - besides consistency of teaching and congruence with our mission - it is that we have failed, miserably, in terms of Catechesis.

I am using the word Catechesis quite intentionally.  I believe that good Catechesis combines Christian formation with Christian education as well as the education and formation we receive during the liturgy of Word and Sacrament.

I think this is the most important piece of our Stewardship.

Churches are filled with good people, well-intentioned people, even deeply spiritual people - many of whom have no idea what it means to be Christian.  Oh, they claim to be Christian and earnestly desire to live good Christian lives, but they really have no idea what that means beyond some schlocky sentimentality that reads more like a Hallmark Card than anything that has to do with scripture or theology.

That's not their fault.

I think we - clergy and laity and, yes, bishops - have forgotten that Jesus was a Rabbi. Besides healing and advocacy (social justice), teaching was the primary function of his ministry and preaching. 

Unfortunately, the church has evolved into the same religious organization which Jesus preached against. We've become administrators, modeling the business of the church on corporate business models in almost every aspect of our common lives of faith.

That needs to change.

The model of the church in the Third Millennium needs to return to looking more like the church of the First Millennium. That's a much longer process but I would submit to you that this transformation is already happening.

Look around. You'll see evidence of that everywhere. Mostly, though, it's being cited as evidence of the failure of our Stewardship. I think it looks different in God's eyes.

In order for Christianity to be "successful", we need to get "back to the future" and become less an organization and more of a movement.

Yes, I know what that means for the "success" of the church. When we begin to get serious about what Stewardship really means, I think our understanding of a "successful church" will begin to change radically. It would look much more pre-Constantinian. And, I think that radical change would gladden the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

This is why I say that Christian Stewardship is radically dangerous.

I know. I know. I've not given you any "quick fixes". No slick Stewardship Programs in a three-ring binder with a catchy slogan and an informative DVD that you can use this year - once a year - and then forget about it until next Fall.

I have a few of those programs which I adapted from the stellar work of Terry Parsons who used to head up the Stewardship and Evangelism desk at the Episcopal Church Center. They are good beginnings - programs, bible studies, adult forums. You can still find some of them online at the Episcopal Church web page.

Human incarnation takes nine months.

Institutional incarnation takes even longer.

We need to work on the DNA and genetics of Christian Stewardship - getting back to and rediscovering and reclaiming  the scripture and theology of what it means to be a Christian.

That's more than a Stewardship Program.

Christian Stewardship is radically dangerous.  It is a gradual process which leads to transformation of individual souls as well as the corporate soul of the church.

That's not something you'll hear in an NPR Pledge Drive.

Consider yourself warned.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Reality of Resolutions

Suppose General Convention decided at its gathering in Indianapolis in 2012 that mission was a high priority in the church. And, knowing that "all mission is local", it mandated, by canon, that, within the next Trienium (before the next General Convention in 2015) 25% of every congregational budget be designated for mission.

That would be an amazing commitment, right? Imagine what we could do to further God's mission in the world. The Episcopal Church would begin to come alive with possibilities.

People would give long speeches about how this was long overdue and how this resolution was a manifestation - A 'showing'. An epiphany! Indeed, the very incarnation! - of the justice of God.

Others would express concern about mandating ANYTHING at the congregational level by the UES (Upper East Side - aka "the elite") folks at 815 Second Ave in NYC and would raise questions - important questions - about monitoring and accountability.

Still, we would all agree - in principal - with the resolution and canonical change and then take it to the local level to work out the details.

Ah, and we all know that the Devil is in the details, right?

So, how do we define mission? How is that different from 'outreach'? Or, 'inreach'? Or, for that matter, how is mission different from 'evangelism'? Or even 'stewardship'? If we can't define mission except in the broad brush strokes of the Cathechism of the Church, is there at least a list of criteria which gives us some context and, perhaps, a few parameters so we can all be in compliance with canon law?

Some congregations would simply ignore the resolution - aided and abetted by diocesan staff who are already stretched too thin to monitor or police congregational compliance levels. Except, of course, when parochial reports are turned in and someone at the national level begins to do a random diocesan study and - oops! - someone calls "the suits". Who would, no doubt, tsk, tsk, and tut-tut but nothing would really change. As an institution, we just aren't built that way.

As difficult and frustrating as that would be, it really wouldn't be any different from many of the resolutions passed by General Convention. Even those that create canonical change - including the canons that prohibit discrimination in the ordination and deployment processes.

There are ways to get around the resolutions and canons. We've seen of late in the Diocese of South Carolina, which recently amended their diocesan canons to say they won't be in compliance with national canon if said canon is against their diocesan theology.

There are also ways to make resolutions do what you couldn't otherwise accomplish in the diocese - which may or may not be what the canonical change intended.

Take, for example, General Convention Resolution A138 which established the Lay Employee Pension System as well as A177. This resolution addressed social justice issues around adequate benefits for the Church's lay employees by canonical requirement that each diocese establish a "cost-sharing policy" and that it be "the same for clergy and lay employees who are scheduled for at least 1,500 hours of compensated work per year".

The deal was that, in those diocese which did not subscribe to the CPG (Church Pension Group) "Medical Trust", at least some of the "cost-sharing" would be seen in the diocesan subscription to the options in the Medical Trust through "lower annual premium increases".

Stay with me now. I know how I get when folks start talking finances and insurance policies and diocesan budgets. It can cause a severe case of MEGO (My Eyes Glaze Over). This is really about as detailed as I'm going to get.

You can read the stuff for yourself at the Church Pension Group FAQ site concerning these two resolutions/canonical changes.

The canon is effective January 1, 2013.

I'm curious to know how other dioceses are handling the implementation of these two resolutions.

At the Clergy Day in the Diocese of Newark, where I'm still canonically resident (but licensed in the Diocese of Delaware), it got pretty hot. And, I'm not just talking about the weather.

So, just to give you some background information, turns out, the Diocese of Newark has been - like everyone else - struggling with the justice issues involved in parity and cost-saving.

After our Clergy Day gathering, I went and checked the minutes from the October, 2010 budget hearing. Here's part of what I found:
"The diocese has a defined benefit pension plan for lay staff at Episcopal House. While it is now closed to newly hired employees, it is still in place for a number of staff. It has not been funded through the budget for too many years -- this preliminary includes the annual cost in the salary/benefits lines. The Lay Pension Fund Contribution line shows an amount to begin to fund the previous underfunding of this plan."
A second slide showing what was "out of balance" that Diocesan Council would need to address in finalizing the budget indicated $100,000 as "lay pension plan current year and partial back funding."

It looks to me that the diocese decided, very sensibly, to put a freeze on offering a defined benefit pension plan for any newly hired employees so that it might begin to address the serious arrears in pension payments for lay staff who are already in place. I assume this means that the diocese would not offer positions that involved more than 1500 hours per year, so as to avoid the canonical requirements.

However, this was not the recommended course of action given by the Bishop's Advisory Commission on Human Resources (BACHR), which took a very interesting turn.

After a careful study of the impact of Resolution A177, the BACHR determined that there were approximately 17 congregations in the Diocese who would experience an adverse financial effect from having to provide pensions for their lay employees who work more than 1500 hours per year.

Their idea of "cost sharing" and "parity" (read: "justice") is to treat all employees of the church - lay and ordained - the same. So, the resolution being proposed by the BACHR for diocesan convention in January is that the new recommended diocesan standards for all newly hired clergy and laity (after January 1, 2013) who work 1500 hours per year (approximately 30 hours per week) be required to pay 10% of all health insurance costs.

Some of you are yawning now, scratching your head over your coffee or tea and asking, "Yeah, what's the big deal? It's happening all over the place. Been happening for a while. This is the real world. More evidence of the rapidly shrinking middle class. Suck it up and get used to it."

I understand. However, I have a few observations.

First of all, as I read it, this is NOT the spirit of the resolution of A177. Rather, I think, what the diocese has done, in its own house, is. Stop what you're doing until you can pay what you owe and then, going forward, stay in compliance with the canons.

Very sensible.

Or, as I've taught my Vestry and all of my seminarians, "If you can't afford to pay for a lay employee, you can't afford a lay employee." That means that, if the church determines that this program or mission is a priority, the clergy and folk in the pew need to roll up their sleeves to get 'er done.

That's cost-sharing the cost of discipleship.

This proposed diocesan resolution is being draped in the mantle of "justice". Well, as Fanny Lou Hammer observed, justice is not about "just us". It's about God's justice. It's not a selective thing which is done for the convenience of the institution. It's a corporate thing which is done for the Realm of God.

What does this resolution mean, pragmatically, for clergy and clergy families? Well, some of the folks from the Newark Episcopal Clergy Association (NECA) have done a little analysis of the situation and found that, depending on whether there is a single or family plan, as well as the type of insurance plan selected, this could range from $0 to $21,547 per year.

Not to worry, we were told. This would come right out of your pay check in easy monthly or bimonthly payments and - hey, here's an added benefit - actually LOWER the amount of taxes you have to pay. What a deal, right? You can be righteous AND save money while getting less money in your paycheck!

Don't ask us to explain it. It's just one of the mysteries of God's work in the church.

So what, right? Things are tough all over. Get used to it. This is the cost of the justice of parity and cost-sharing in our post (or pre or actual) recession/depression lives. It's the ecclesiastical manifestation of the amazing shrinking middle class.

Well, let's look at that for a moment.

On one level, a very basic, one-dimensional level, the obvious is that clergy and lay employees are both . . well . . .employees. I would submit to you, however, that everything after that is like comparing apples and spaghetti.

First of all, clergy have to meet certain very rigorous educational requirements which, unlike other professions, do not immediately guarantee employment. In almost all dioceses, aspirants and postulants and candidates for Holy Orders must attend and graduate from a three year, master's level seminary.

In some dioceses, like the Diocese of Newark, if the candidate has not graduated from an Episcopal seminary, an additional year of "Anglican studies" is required (referred to with no small amount of sarcasm as "Anglican finishing school").

Mind you, none of these requirements are subsidized by the diocese. Well, not the Diocese of Newark, anyway.

Indeed, according to statistics compiled by the Pew Research Center, the average seminarian leaves seminary with over $100,000 in debt in the anticipation of an average annual clergy salary of $36,000. (In the diocese of Newark, the average annual salary for full time employment is $42,000. The medium - the middle of the lowest of low and highest of high - being $64,000).

Lay employees have no similar educational or canonical requirements for employment.

You do the math. Is this justice?

Besides which, more and more seminarians are graduating and being ordained only to discover that full time positions are drying up and only part time positions are available. The old (sick) joke among clergy is that there is no part time work, just part time pay. That's a very accurate statement in my experience. No matter how many hours you actually work, you are - officially or unofficially - "on call" 24/7/365.

So, what is the effect in the Diocese of Newark? I mean, what is the actual impact on how many clergy and laity?

Well, according to a diocesan spokesperson, there are 105 clergy in 107 churches, 66 being full time and 39 being part time. Twenty-nine of the sixty-six full time clergy are paid at or near the minimum diocesan standard.

Let that last fact sink in for just a moment. Twenty-nine of the sixty-six full time clergy are paid at or near the minimum diocesan standard.

There are approximately 161 lay employees in the diocese, 85% of whom work less than 30 hours per week. This means that that there are 25 full time lay employees in 13 churches. We were told that there are, approximately 17 churches in the Diocese of Newark with lay employees who need to come into compliance with the canonical requirements.

To my ears, this is a congregational issue which can be addressed in a similar fashion as the diocesan plan: Freeze hiring of any further employees. Pay what you own. Figure out how you are going to move forward to do the programmatic, administrative and missional work of the church in the midst of a recession/depression.

When I asked a diocesan representative how it is a manifestation of justice to balance congregational budgets on the backs of clergy, the answer I was given was given in the form of a question: "Well, what about those 17 congregations?"

Look, I believe what I say - without crossing my fingers - in the Nicene Creed every Sunday, that we are "one, holy, catholic and apostolic church". Not only do I believe in the catholicity of the church, I have seen it.

I also believe that my call to serve God through the church means that I am called to live a life of sacrifice. I went into the ordination process with my eyes wide open. I knew I was never going to get rich at being a priest.

But, my momma didn't raise no fool, either. I'm a priest. Not a doormat. Besides, my grandmother always taught, "If it's not yours, don't pick it up." In Friedman's system theory, this is defined as "the self-diferentiated self" - something that bishops love to quote when they want clergy to figure out the solutions to their own congregational problems.

Looks to me like this is a congregational issue which the diocese ought to be helping congregations figure out how to do. That's going to take a lot more creativity and imagination than taking red pencils to the easy target of clergy compensation packages.

I believe in God's justice. With my whole heart. I am yet to figure out how this proposed plan of "cost-sharing" is evidence of that justice.

How is it justice that we pay for lay pensions by compromising clergy health care benefits? Really. That's a serious question. I'd love an answer.

What is our concern for clergy families and the children in those families? Do we compromise health care insurance for them? Is that justice?

Everybody is seeing their benefit package dwindle these days. Clergy are no exception. Except we say that the church operates on a different, higher standard than the rest of the world. We love to say that, especially during the Season of Stewardship.  But we seem to forget that when it comes to clergy compensation packages. Is that justice? 

How are we going to attract the best clergy to positions in the Diocese of Newark when our salaries are lower than other dioceses in Province II and will be, effectively, even lower if this new resolution is accepted? Is that justice?

I must say that I was most disturbed by the attitude displayed by the diocesan spokesperson for this proposed resolution.

Two comments struck me. Hard. "Well," this person said, "we've been trying to get you (clergy) to pay attention to this and it looks like we've finally gotten your attention, which is a good thing."

Oh, clergy have been paying attention. This "cost-sharing" scheme is not new. Indeed, it surfaced long before the 2003 resolution which established the lay pension system and the 2006 resolution which called for parity and cost-sharing. By which - please pay attention - they meant subscription to the Medical Trust plan.

We clergy just haven't said anything because we didn't agree and wanted to be polite. Politeness is an occupational hazard of ordained leadership. Sometimes, it's a form of institutional suicide.

The other comment was, "Well, if you (clergy) have to start paying at least a small part of your health care costs, maybe now you'll start paying attention to the particular plan you choose and begin to contain costs."

Like we're all narcissistic, mindless idiots who just select the most expensive health care plan without any regard for the impact this will have on the congregational budget.

I fear these two comments have more to do with the sense of the "justice" of this proposed diocesan resolution than any real sense of God's justice. But, maybe, after 25 years of ordained service in the institutional church, I've just become the jaded cynic I always said I wouldn't be.

The battle is on in the Diocese of Newark. The conversation was heated and, already, some clergy were being identified as "good clergy" and "team players" who "understand the catholicity of the church" and "the principles of justice".

It's the old triangulation routine. Sigh. We've seen this before. In the battle over the ordination of women, there were the "good deacons" who waited patiently for the church to "regularize" the ordination of women. No one said it, of course (we are polite, after all), but this meant, of course that the 11 deacons ordained in Philadelphia and the 4 in Washington were not. "Good". "Team players". Who "understand the catholicity of the church".

I don't know where this will lead. I trust it will lead, eventually, to God's justice. It usually does in the Diocese of Newark. Which is why I love it so and remain canonically resident there. It's also why I think this is a battle worth fighting - even from afar.

I was told by one clergy person to "Chill". He said, "Hey, look, this doesn't affect you or me. I'm fine and you have health insurance coverage and collect a pension. Just let them do what they are going to do - because they'll do it anyway - and let those new people figure how to negotiate their own compensation packages."

Except, I'm haunted by that little parable about God's justice which Jesus told about the workers in the vineyard. Seems to me that Jesus said that whether you show up for work at 8 AM or 12 Noon or a few hours before the whistle blows, you still get the same wages.

That's not fair. That's God's justice.

I'm not sure what scriptural basis the BACHR is using for their "justice" position. I didn't ask. Perhaps someone ought to. Maybe that's my next question.

So, I'd love to know what YOUR diocese is doing about the canonical change requirements. How is your diocese handling "cost-sharing" and "parity"?

See, I really do believe in the catholicity of the church. I think we can learn from each other about how to really share the cost of discipleship. We're so much stronger when we share our creativity and imagination about living into and out of the principles of the Realm of God than when we march, lock step, to the same institutional rules.

That's my resolution, and I'm sticking with it.

I hope to hear from you.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Divine Authority

Agnus Day
The lectionary readings for today - especially the Gospel - are all about authority and power and what's fair and what is justice.

According to Mark's Gospel (Matthew 21: 23-32), tax collectors and prostitutes are going into heaven before the chief priests and the elders of the people.

Not fair, right? Blasphemy, is what it is.

By what authority does Jesus say these things?

It's a trick question, of course.

The answer is equally tricky.

Jesus says that His is the same authority given to John the Baptist. It's not about the power of institutional authority.

It's about the power of the authority of God.

Which is tricky, isn't it?

I mean, anybody can claim they are on a "mission from God". Jake and Elwood - The Blues Brothers - did it. And, who's to say they weren't?

I mean, they were trying to save the orphanage where they grew up. Isn't that a righteous cause? Didn't that involve sacrifice on their part? Didn't they place themselves in danger - or, at least, go against the grain? What more evidence do you need that this was a mission from God?

The answer is that sometimes the answer isn't clear until long after the event has past - or, perhaps after person who claims they are on a mission from God has died.

The thing about institutional authority is that it is designed to prevent abuse of power.  It's not perfect, of course, but it does keep the number of zanies and crazies to a manageable level.

Except that many people who are, in fact, on a mission from God look very much like zanies and crazies. I mean, look at John the Baptist.  Or, for that matter, Jesus.

Look at those who stood up to the corrupt power of the institution and unjust laws. 

Oscar Romero.

Martin Luther King, Jr.


Mother Theresa.

Nelson Mandela.

Then again, people like Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann claim to be fighting the good political fight to overthrow what they perceive as a corrupt presidential administration because they feel called by God to do so.

Or, more accurately, Jesus.

See what I mean?

Tricky, right?

That's because the whole business of faith is tricky.  Feeling "called" to do something can't be proven, but it can be perceived. Often, it makes no sense. It's irrational and illogical.

I felt "called" to priesthood. Still do. With faith in that belief, we sold our home and our car in order to afford to take our six children with us to seminary. We still went into debt which took us ten years to pay off.  My first 'call' - a full time position - paid $12,000 per year. I had to work a second part time position just to make ends meet.

Crazy? Probably. I didn't do it for the institutional authority. I did it because I felt called to serve God and the people of God through the church.  And, God help me, I love the work I'm called to do.

Which doesn't give me much authority in most parts of the world. Indeed, as a priest, I am often met with suspicion and skepticism by people who have been injured and betrayed by people with institutional power and authority.

Some even deny the authenticity of my ordination status because I'm a woman. Impossible, they say. Jesus never gave authority to women to be his disciples. Historically and traditionally, the church has never given authority to women.

Therefore, women have no authority, even if the institutional church says we do.

Are you following this?

No?  Good! Because, it makes no sense - absolutely no sense at all.

Unless, of course, you understand that the ways of God are not necessarily the ways of the institutional church. Oh, we try to follow the ways of God in the institutional church, but more often than not, we fall short of the mark. Way short. Way, way, way short.

Some people are doing the will and the work of God without belief in Jesus. Indeed, I know some folk who are not part of any organized religion - Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, etc. - who live far more righteous lives than I do or most people would even consider doing.

Are they going to heaven? Before those who have institutional authority?

Here's the thing for Christians: You don't need anyone's authorization to claim the authority to do the ministry of Jesus Christ.  All you need is your baptismal certificate. Paul says we are baptized into the "priesthood of all believers".

Jesus wasn't "ordained" a Rabbi. He was baptized.

People just called him Rabbi because that's what he was. 

So, if you feel God is calling you to a work of ministry, don't look to the church to give you the authority to do that work. You have been given it in baptism. Just like Jesus.

Is that fair? Probably not by the world's standards. But, Jesus says that in the economy of God, it's not about fairness. It's about God's justice - which sometimes doesn't look to the world like it's very fair.

Jesus tells the parable of the two sons who were asked by their father to go work in the vineyard. One said no but then changed his mind and went to work. The other said yes but didn't do the work. Jesus asks, "Which of the two did the work of his father?"

Some of us are doing the work of the institutional church, but not necessarily the work of God, even though we believe it is.  Others of us are doing what we believe is the work of God but it's not anything that is authorized by the institutional church.

Which of the two is more righteous?  Which one has the authority to do the work of God? Which one finds favor with God?

Who will get to heaven first, one of the two or the tax collectors and prostitutes?

Is that a fair question? Probably not.

Is it just?

What do you think?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Strudel Spirituality

I've been on retreat with some of the Delaware Clergy - deacons and priests - with Margaret Gunther, who was simply marvelous.

She gave four "talks" followed by conversation. They were: "Where are We: Looking at Our Troubled Time." "Life Under Special Vows." "We're all in the Same Boat". And, finally, this morning, "Speaking Truth in Love."

After reading her books and listening to her for a day and a half, I have no doubt: this woman knows her way around a metaphor. You know. Like Jesus.

Take a minute or so to look at what she does with "Snake Skins".

See what I mean?

One of the metaphors she gave last night was "Strudel Spirituality".

She was talking about how those of us in Christian ministry sometimes take on too much. We stretch ourselves too thin.

Now, Margret claimed never to have made a Strudel but understood that the key to success was stretching the crust very, very thin. It's a very delicate thing to do. Sometimes, you have to roll and then re-roll and stretch and re-stretch the crust several times because in stretching, it tears.

Some of us, she said, practice "Strudel Spirituality".

We stretch ourselves too thin and find tears in our spirituality.

I have made Strudel. Several times, in fact. I've made an apple raisin strudel, a few chocolate raspberry strudels and one glorious ham and cheese strudel in a light cream sauce with just a sprinkling of fresh baby peas. It made an elegant lunch.

What I learned in my adventures in strudel making is that Margaret is absolutely right. The key is to roll out the crust as thin as you can. Then you put it on a kitchen towel and stretch it.... stretch it.... a little more.... just a little more... and then, sometimes - at least in the beginning - OOPS! It tears.

So, you start over again. Sometimes, several times, until you get to "feel" the tension in the crust and stop just before it tears.  Of course, you can use store-bought puff pastry, but where's the fun and adventure in that?

Besides the stretching of the crust, there's another part of the tension.

You have to adjust the thinness of the crust to accommodate the weight of the filling. Apples are much heavier than, say, ham and cheese - especially if the ham is shaved into very, very thin pieces and the cream sauce is a particular balance of being hearty enough to hold everything together yet light enough not to overpower the rest of the ingredients.

Otherwise, you'll find that, even though your crust is perfectly thin, it still tears when you try to roll the whole thing up. And then, you've got a Real Mess on your hands.

So is our sense of spirituality a balancing act. Sometimes, in Christian service, our work does stretch us thin. Too thin, in fact, and we find that our spirit has a few tears in it.

Other times, our spirituality is just fine - close to perfection - but what we fill ourselves up with is too much to be encased in it. Again, we develop a few tears in the spirit and the contents begin to leak out, making a mess of everything.

Here's the thing I've learned: It's much easier to repair a tear in the crust before you start filling it than to fill it and have to spoon everything out and start all over again.

I am deeply grateful to Margaret Gunther and the blessing of this delightful weekend retreat. Not only did I get to meet some wonderful priests and totally rockin' deacons, but I find that the crust of my own "Spiritual Strudel" has been stretched just enough to take on some new filling.

I think I hear some chocolate and raspberries calling my name.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Think on these things

I feel most blessed to be able to spend a weekend retreat with some clergy from the Diocese of Delaware, led by Margaret Gunther, author of "Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction". 

I'm leaving you with this very short clip of Elizabeth Warren, an American attorney who provided oversight to the development of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In the wake of the 2008-2011 financial crisis, she became the chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel created to oversee the U.S. banking bailout.

She's currently running for US Senator from my home state of Massachusetts.

Here's part of what she says,
“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody.”
Paul Krugman also has a top rate editorial in today's NY Times entitled, "The Social Contract". Do read it, if you haven't already.

More importantly, please listen to this two minute clip from Elizabeth Warren. This is the narrative that needs to get out there. This is the understanding of the interdependence in which we participate as citizens of this country which needs to be underscored.

One of the things Margaret Gunther teaches is to listen for "the holy" in the common, everyday language of our lives and in the words someone says to you.

I'll be doing that this weekend. I hope you'll take a few moments to listen to Elizabeth Warren.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Doing Dishes

My grandmother had a saying: "Wishes don't wash dishes" - by which she meant that, if you really wanted something, better roll up your sleeves and get your hands into some hot water.

Were she alive today, I might alter that saying just a bit: "Washing dishes can bring wishes" - by which I mean that there is something about washing dishes that is meditative which can inspire wishes.

I'm not just talking about the wish that all the dishes would be done sooner - that some wonderful Sabrina witch person would come in, twinkle her nose and finish the job magically.

Although, there is that.

I'm talking about the magic that happens in the midst of washing dishes where you suddenly find yourself in the midst of a memory, or a thought or new idea, or a song, or a prayer.

I especially love the magic that happens while washing great mounds of dishes after a holiday or birthday or special family event.

It's all about women in the kitchen, one with her hands in hot, soapy water, another with a dish towel in her hand, someone else scraping and organizing plates, glasses and utensils, and, perhaps, yet another woman putting everything away in their right place.

This past weekend, I traveled up to Boston for a surprise birthday party for my dear friend Lois who turned 80 last month. I think Lois was as surprised as anyone that she is now 80 years old. She certainly doesn't look it.

I asked her how it feels to be 80 - a question dear friends of long standing can ask each other without sounding like being in the midst of an interview with Katie Couric.

Lois thought for a moment - as is her way - and said, "Really, except for a few more aches and pains in the morning, I feel no different than when I was 60."

Eighty is the new sixty.

Gives me hope.

Her beloved spouse Sheri was also surprised by the party which delighted me because no one usually gets anything past Sheri.

Not no one. Not no how. Not ever.

Except this time. Ha!

That was because our dear friend and host for the celebration dinner, Penny, and I were positively scrupulous about our planning. Neither one of us dared call either Sheri or Lois that week for fear that we'd say something - in a certain way, with a certain tone - and Sheri would pick up on it.

It's not that we couldn't trust Sheri with our little secret. We most certainly could. It's that we really wanted to surprise Sheri, too.

Actually, there was a surprise within a surprise. The first was the party itself, which included more mutual friends, Michael and David and John.

They were the first to greet and surprise Lois and Sheri. And then, after a few moments, I came down the back stairs into the kitchen.

For as long as I live, I will never forget the mouth-open, momentary confused look on both their faces as I entered the room.

It. Was. Absolutely. Priceless.

It made the whole 8 hour trip - from DE to NJ by car and NJ to Boston by train and back again in a 72 hour period of time - worth it.

Oh, and then there was the food. O.M.G.!!! The food!

You have to understand. Penny is Greek. That's a lot like being Italian or Portuguese but the food is even more exquisite and abundant - if you can imagine. If you can't then you should stop reading right now.

I don't think there is a word in the Mediterranean for "enough". If there is, it probably translates to "more". Or, maybe, "abundance".

There were two of everything: Two appetizers (as if we needed it with the glorious fragrance in her kitchen) - a cheesy bread thingy sliced into small, individual rounds, and water chestnuts wrapped in bacon and covered with a sweet sauce that was baked in the oven for 45 minutes.

There were two home made "bunt breads" which we tore off in great pieces and devoured. Good lord, it was so tasty! You didn't even need butter, but of course, I slathered my piece(s) with the creamy-sweet stuff. See also: Mediterranean for "enough".

There were two veggies: An amazing carrot puree and a huge pan of potatoes and cauliflower which were baked with a creamy-cheesy sauce.

Oh, and an equally huge pan of noodles that were also baked with a a creamy-cheesy sauce.

And, of course, two main courses: A shrimp dish with lots of garlic, wine, fresh tomato and feta cheese, and four - count 'em four - pork rolls cooked in a plum sauce. (Mind you, there were only seven of us at the table.)

Dessert? Of course. There was a home made raspberry birthday cake, along with some home made very light, lacy cookies with almonds. While we were scoffing that down with our coffee or tea, Penny also opened two boxes of chocolates - a Whitman Sampler and a box of Truffles.

You know. Lest we should all starve and waste away.

The dinner party was scheduled for 3 PM. We ate around 5 PM. Everyone left around 8 or so.  And then, it was time to do the dishes.

Penny and I worked in the kitchen until 10:45 PM. Mind you, that was under constant complaint from Penny who kept insisting that I go to bed - or "go write something" - and leave her with the clean up.

No. Way. In. Hell.

I must say that we had a delightful time. I can't tell you what we talked about, exactly. Oh, I remember a conversation about church - Penny frets over her Greek Orthodox Church which "only" has about 150 people in the pews of a Sunday. That's less than a third of her memories of the church of her childhood.

"What can we do to bring people back to church?" That was the question underneath our conversations about church. That seems to be a question being asked across all of Western Christendom, so it was not an unfamiliar conversation.

As we alternately talked and listened to each other, my mind would occasionally drift back to my grandmother's kitchen which looked an awful lot like Penny's. Not as modern, of course. No garbage disposal. No dishwasher. But, she, too, had two ovens. And, a HUGE sink.

It was in that kitchen that I learned a great deal about what it meant to be a woman. Not the role that society foists upon us. I'm talking about the inner stuff of relationships and love and family and a way to view the world and God and Jesus and faith and prayer and hymns and justice and peace and service.

My grandmother would often sing as she washed dishes - she had a beautiful voice - and so I learned some of the songs from Portugal and some of the hymns she sang as a child which we continued to sing in our small immigrant neighborhood church.

She would also tell stories from her childhood, her arms elbow-deep in hot, soapy water, while we listened as we waited like midwives to be passed a plate or a pot to wipe dry and pass on to another person who was waiting to put them away.

It was magical and mysterious to me how a great mound of plates and piles of glasses and utensils and pots would slowly disappear. I suspect that's because we weren't really watching them. The eyes of our minds and hearts would be looking at the picture she was drawing with her words. The ears of our souls were being carried away on the sound of her beautiful voice singing the songs of her youth and her faith and her country.

It occurred to me, as I was standing in Penny's kitchen, that I think my sexual orientation - along with my perspective on how the world works - became shaped and formed in my grandmother's kitchen.

Some may "blame" sexual orientation on "nature". Others, on "nurture".

I think it was the dishes. (Wouldn't you just love to see what the folks from Exodus will do with that one!)

I don't hate men. I'm quite fond of many men and am blessed to have a few very, very dear male friends who will forever have a piece of my heart. And yes, many of them are, in fact, heterosexual.

Friends without benefits.

If given my druthers, I prefer the company of women. I love the sound of a woman's laughter. I love the way women think. Relationally. Communally. In circles that complete themselves if you are patient. I love the way we tell stories - and the stories we have to tell.

I don't know if men have an analogous situation or circumstance of "bonding". I remember my grandfather, father, uncles and cousins sitting on the porch after dinner, smoking cigars and cigarettes and drinking my grandfather's homemade brandy.

Maybe it was the same for them. I don't know. I hope so. We were never allowed on the porch when the men were out there, after dinner. I never felt jealous. I didn't want to be with them. Truth be told, they were never allowed in my grandmother's kitchen while we were doing dishes.

I couldn't imagine a better place to be.

I love all my sisters in the Spirit of being a woman - lesbian, bi or straight - but the ones who are lasting friends are the ones with whom I've done dishes.

One of my friends gave me a little sign I have in my kitchen, attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt.

"A woman is like a tea bag. You can't tell how strong she is until she gets herself in hot water."

Washing dishes may well be one of the rituals by which women prepare themselves for that eventuality. And, I suspect, we're never stronger than when we ask for help. Thankfully, we know how.

Therein lies the truth of the old saying that "A woman's work is never done."

We're always practicing. Always listening. Always learning - about the world and God and Jesus and each other and being a woman - and mother and daughter and sister - and singing in the face of the drudgery of life and how to share the load so the work gets done.

And always, it seems, while doing dishes.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Seed of the Jack Pine

The Jack Pine
Well, here we go again.

I don't like writing about church stuff - I generally leave that up to Mark Harris over at Preludium, who does it well because (God knows why) he seems to have a real passion for it - but this particular subject has pulled my poor, last, tired nerve.

According to ENS (Episcopal News Service), Bishop Stacey Sauls, the former bishop of Lexington and the new COO (Chief Operations Officer) of The Episcopal Church, presented a "model resolution" to the House of Bishops, meeting this week in Quito, Ecuador, for each diocese to submit to the 77th General Convention in 2012 for consideration.
Sauls asked the House of Bishops to engage the laity and clergy in their dioceses in conversation in support of a potential structural reform that he said could shift the church's focus toward mission.

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…."

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson would appoint members to the special commission. The resolution would also call for a special meeting of General Convention before the 78th General Convention in 2015.

The resolution, Sauls said, could be distributed at upcoming diocesan conventions or in committees to start the conversation.
You can read the whole ENS article here.

Or, engage in a far more erudite conversation with Mark about it here.

Or, not.

Personally, I got an acute attack of what my kids call MEGO (My Eyes Glaze Over) while reading the ENS article.

I, for one, would find the Sauls resolution more attractive if there were also a parallel resolution for the HOB that begins to look at ways in which that House could also get itself in order and restructure the ways in which it conducts its own business.

You know: Lead by example.

I'm going to say something that some may find unnecessarily provocative but here goes: It seems to me that this resolution works very hard to return The Episcopal Church to it's former identity as "The Republican Party at prayer".

I grow weary of the call for "smaller government" and to "cut spending" while those who raise their voices in this cry do absolutely nothing to restructure themselves or take pay cuts or reduce their substantial benefit packages.

I understand: we are in a serious financial crisis. We need to do "something". Some would say "anything". Others would say, "Who cares where the idea comes from or where the conversations start?"

I would submit to you, once again, that we need to be clear about our identity and mission before we restructure ourselves and cut spending to fund the "idea" of mission.

We say we are "The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society". Whatever does that mean? How do we live into - and out of - that identity? How do our structures support that identity? What might we need to change in order to better support our identity? And, if that's not our identity, then, what is?

"The Episcopal Church Welcomes You". Is THAT our mission? If so, who is 'you'? And, what do we do after we say, "Hello" and "Welcome"? Nicely. Politely. With a fresh, hot cup of coffee.

The Anglican Communion has identified "Five Marks of Mission"
To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
To respond to human need by loving service
To seek to transform unjust structures of society
To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth
Has The Episcopal Church adopted these as our own? If not, why not? If we bear these five marks of mission, how might we restructure ourselves so that we might be able to carry them out in the church and the world?

The business of the church is not being the church. The business of the church is doing the mission of God. Jesus made it abundantly clear that God's mission is already going on in the world. Our job, as His Body, is to try to catch up with that mission and do our part, in our own unique way, to further it.

Yes, yes, I know, I know. We need a "business plan". The Sauls resolution is just a way to begin the conversation. I'm saying that I lament that there is no clear "mission plan" around which we ought to build our business plan.

Just saying that if we restructure we would have more money to do mission without a clear articulation of that mission only lays the foundation to pave the road that leads to the final destination of all good intentions.

Or, as my grandmother would say, "Wishes don't wash dishes."

I'll leave you with a powerful meditation from Howard Thurman, one of the great preachers of the twentieth century; a spiritual adviser to such prophetic leaders as MLK, Jr., James Farmer, and our own Pauli Murray; the first black dean at a white university; and one many regard as a visionary and a modern mystic.

I offer it as meditation and modern parable for The Episcopal Church

The Seed of the Jack Pine
From “Meditations of the Heart”
by Howard Thurman

In response to a letter of inquiry addressed to a Canadian forester concerning the jack pine which abounds in British Columbia, the following statement was received:
“Essentially, you are correct when you say that jack pine cones require artificial heat to release the seed from the cone. The cones often remain closed for years, the seeds retaining their viability. In the interior of the province, the cones which have dropped to the ground will open at least partly with the help of the sun’s reflected heat. However, the establishment of the majority of our jack pine stands has undoubtedly been established following forest fires. Seldom do the cones release their seed while on the tree.”
The seed of the jack pine will not be given up by the cone unless the cone itself is subjected to sustained and concentrated heat. The forest fire sweeps all before it and there remain but the charred reminders of a former growth and a former beauty.

It is then in the midst of the ashes that the secret of the cone is exposed. The tender seed finds the stirring of life deep within itself – and what is deepest in the seed reaches out to what is deepest in life – the result? A tender shoot, gentle roots, until, at last, there stands straight against the sky the majestic glory of the jack pine.

It is not too far afield to suggest that there are things deep within the human spirit that are firmly imbedded, dormant, latent and inactive. These things are always positive, even though they may be destructive rather than creative.

But there they remain until our lives are swept by the forest fire: It may be some mindless tragedy, some violent disclosure of human depravity or some moment of agony in which the whole country or nation may be involved. The experience releases something that has been locked up within all through the years.

If it be something that calls to the deepest things in life, we may, like the jack pine, grow tall and straight against the sky.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


Although her married name had a distinct Germanic sound, you could tell she was Irish by the twinkle in her eye.

Annie was a former parishioner of mine - a sweet soul with an unfailingly pleasant disposition who actually loved golf so much she watched it on TV which, to me, is an activity akin to watching paint dry. She was also an avid tennis fan and loved to play and attend tournament games. And yes, watch it on TV which was a bit more understandable. At least, to me.

She was a decided 8 o'clocker.  It was just her way. She didn't like anything fancy, just the readings, a good sermon, a small community and our own small coffee hour and conversation after the service.

She especially enjoyed coffee and conversations after church. We'd sit at one of the round tables in the parish hall - anywhere from five to ten of us - talking about whatever was going on in the world.

I remember one conversation when the tragedies of the life of Tiger Woods were unraveling on the world stage. She was distressed but hopeful. "He's a champion," she said, "and champions have 'high blood' that sometimes makes them rebel against the bit. He'll come back. You just wait and see. He's a champion."

That was Annie. Always a positive attitude, never a bad word for anyone, and always full of hope even in the darkest of situations.

When I asked her if she would consider being a lector and Eucharistic minister at the altar, she was a bit hesitant at first. After her first successful try at it, she said, "My great, great uncle was an Episcopal minister. Maybe it's genetic."

"Or," I offered, "maybe it's just the Holy Spirit."

She considered the possibility for a moment and said, "I think the Holy Spirit has probably got a lot more things to do than to help me with reading the scriptures and distributing communion wine. No," she said again, "it's definitely genetic."

That being decided, she went out and got herself a black cassock and white surplice. She loved wearing it and took special care to make sure it was always crisply ironed. I loved how she took care not to wear lipstick until after she vested for service. When Annie put on her lipstick and there was a twinkle in her eye, you knew she was ready to face the world.

She did have a way with fracturing some words. She could never say, 'diocesan'. I always came out 'die-o-SEE-an'. I just let it go. It was the 8 o'clock service. We were all understanding friends there.

Finally, one Sunday, during the Prayers of the People when she prayed, "In the die-o-SEE-an cycle of prayer, we pray for . . . ." my two young seminarians couldn't contain themselves any longer and both got a bad case of the giggles. I decided that I had better have a little talk with Annie.

I waited until after she took off her robes and combed her hair. "Annie," I said, showing her the Prayers of the People, "I wanted to talk with you about this word. It's actually pronounced, "die-OS-is-an."

She looked at the word and then at me then back at the word on the page. "Oh," she said, "Okay. 'Die-o-SEE-an'."

"Actually,", I said, "it's "die-OS-is-an. Die-OS-is-an."

"Oh, okay," she said pleasantly, "I get it. Die-o-SEE-an".

I just smiled as she looked at me and said, "Thank you. I'm glad we had this little chat." And off she went to coffee hour. She had brought a cheese danish ring fresh from the bakery and wanted to make sure everyone had a piece.

There are priorities, you know.

I didn't know Annie had been sick. That was her way, too. About 10 years ago, she had had surgery for breast cancer and, after the obligatory "cut, poison and burn" course of "surgery, chemo and radiation" had been declared a "survivor".

Apparently, the cancer in her body was just in a dormant phase then and suddenly reawakened to attack her liver. By the time she got herself to the doctor, it had metastasized throughout her body. She never mentioned a word - not even to her three grown sons - until it became obvious that something was terribly wrong.

A few weeks ago, she was unable to make the steps out of her apartment. It was at that point that she allowed Hospice to be called and consented to round the clock care.

On Wednesday of last week, she was prompted by her sons to begin calling some of the people in her wide circle of friends. She assigned some calls to her sons who knew that her time on this earth was growing shorter by the minute.

On Saturday, just as I was getting into my car to make the trip to NJ on my way to Boston to celebrate the 80th birthday of one of my dearest friends, I got a call from one of her sons. He told me that Annie was very ill - "only a matter of a few days or a week at the longest, the doctor says" - and asked if I might be able to give her a phone call or, at least, keep her in my prayers.

I told him that I would be arriving in NJ around 6 PM that very evening and wondered if it would be okay if, after having a bite to eat, that I might swing by around 7 or 7:30. He seemed glad for my offer and said his brothers and he would have already left for the evening but that he would tell his mom and her attendant to expect me.

I asked him to please explain to his mom that I would not be in my clerical collar and probably in my jeans and I hoped that would be okay. "Oh," he said, "Mom won't mind." "Oh," I said, "yes she would mind, but she'll understand."

I arrived around 7:15 PM on Saturday evening to discover that she had just taken her last peaceful breath, surrounded by her three sons and her daughter-in-law.  Her son said that she was very peaceful at the end.

She was 80 years old.

I was sad not to have been able to see her or talk with her one last time, but her son said that, after he told her that I was on my way, she smiled and her eyes twinkled and she seemed to relax. "I think she knew you would take care of us," he said, "so it was okay for her to go home."

Indeed, I did tend to them, but first I had to take care of my own heart. I crawled into bed with her, held her frail body in my arms and gently kissed her head and held her still warm and soft hand in mine as I talked to her, thanking her for her life and bidding her rest eternal with Jesus.

The family gathered 'round her bed and we shared some fond memories and laughter for a while. It was then that her daughter-in-law said that she and her husband, Annie's oldest, were members of the Roman Catholic church in town - "And we'll never forget your sermon for our Fr. Ed".

Fr. Ed Hinds was the priest who was murdered in his kitchen in October of 2009, allegedly by the sexton. The trial, as I understand it, is still pending.

I had written a remembrance of Fr. Ed on this blog which the Monsignor, who actually delivered the eulogy, had included as part of his remarks.

"We were all so touched by that," she said, "You were such a good friend to Fr. Ed and your words continue to help us in our grief. Never forget the good works you have done here," she said. "No one here will ever forget you and all you accomplished and all you tried to do."

What an 'odd and wondrous calling' is this life of a priest. It's an 'impossible vocation' to live into or out of - or even understand, really.

Here I thought I was simply on my way to Boston to celebrate the birthday of a dear friend. Little did I know that I would be called to help the children of a dear former parishioner in their immediate grief. Little did I know that my heart would be simultaneously touched by grief and consoled by one who was also grieving.

Fearing that I might begin to weep and become more of a burden to the family, I got up from Annie's bed and bid them help me to pray and sing her into heaven.

It wasn't a proper service out of the BCP. I didn't have one with me and doubted if her children really cared about that formality. I had no clerical garb - just my jeans and a blouse. No sacred oils. No communion kit. I did the best I could, remembering some of the words from some of the prayers, sprinkled in with some personal petitions for Annie and her boys.

At the end, we prayed the Lord's Prayer and then I said, "Okay, we have to sing her to heaven. What hymn or song shall we use?" We all sort of looked at each other in expectation that certainly, some one among us would remember a favorite hymn or song. It was her daughter-in-law who came to the rescue.

"When Irish eyes are smiling, sure, 'tis like the morn in Spring," she sang out.

"In the lilt of Irish laughter, you can hear the angels sing," we joined her in singing the song. Well, I did. The boys were overcome with grief and croaked along.
When Irish hearts are happy,
All the world seems bright and gay.
And when Irish eyes are smiling,
Sure, they steal your heart away.
It wasn't a proper service by a properly dressed clergy person, but I think the Holy Spirit was present to help us through. Or, maybe, as Annie would say, it was genetic.

Something happens to your DNA, I think, when you commit to serving God through the people of God in your baptismal vows.

After we talked a bit about burial arrangements and how Annie "didn't want a fuss - just a graveside service" - the call came that the Hospice nurse was there and having difficulty finding a parking space. I said I would leave so she could park in my place.

One of the boys and Annie's ex-husband, with whom she had kept a good relationship (even dragging him to church at Christmas and Easter), walked me back to my car in the crisp evening darkness.

I got into my car and as the boys made their way around the corner of her apartment building and out of sight, I finally allowed grief to flood my heart. In the midst of my weeping, I heard the voice of angels singing the words to the beginning of the song.
There's a tear in your eye,
And I'm wondering why,
For it never should be there at all.
With such pow'r in your smile,
Sure a stone you'd beguile,
So there's never a teardrop should fall.
When your sweet lilting laughter's
Like some fairy song,
And your eyes twinkle bright as can be;
You should laugh all the while
And all other times smile,
And now, smile a smile for me.
I have no doubt that Annie is smiling in heaven as she is greeted and surrounded by her mother and father, her brothers and cousins, and even her uncle the Episcopal minister. I'm sure it was even more a joyous Irish reunion as the ones known here on earth.

In the season after I left my last parish, Annie would call me on Christmas and Easter Day just to bid me the season's joy and add, "The service just wasn't the same without you."

Life won't be the same without you either, Annie.

But, I'll remember your sweet and always pleasant ways, and your smile and your laughter will come to me like a balm to soothe my aching heart. And when the night sky is dark, I'll look for your star which will twinkle even brighter because of your Irish eyes.

Rest in peace, thou good and faithful servant, and rise in glory.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Women at the Altar

Philadelphia, 1974
If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, does it still make a sound?

If an historic, revolutionary event takes place and you didn't know about it until after the fact, is it any less historic or revolutionary?

Blessed Louie Crew reminded us that yesterday, the 16th of September, marked the 35th Anniversary of the of the day that the General Convention of the Episcopal Church voted to end discrimination against the ordination of women with a resolution that read:
Resolved, the House of Deputies concurring, That a new Section 1 of
Title III, Canon 9 be adopted, with renumbering of the present Section 1
and following, the said Section 1 to read as follows: Section 1. The
provisions of these canons for the admission of Candidates, and for the
Ordination to the three Orders: Bishops, Priests and Deacons shall be
equally applicable to men and women.
This was, of course, preceded by the historic revolutionary events of the ordination to the priesthood of eleven deacons in Philadelphia in 1974 as well as the ordination of four deacons in Washington, DC, in 1975.

I was a non-practicing Roman Catholic in 1974 - a dutiful young wife with two young children, miserably unhappy with life in general and the church in particular. I loved my babies but I knew my marriage was a sham, although I didn't yet know why, exactly. Yet. That would happen in 1976.

I was received into the Episcopal Church at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke in Portland, ME in 1977. That had nothing to do with sensing a call to ordination and everything to do with feeling fully accepted, welcomed and included in the church.

I would not confront my vocation to the priesthood until September 5, 1982 when I saw the front cover of The New York Times Magazine.

It was the first time I had ever seen a woman in a clerical collar.

There she was, the Rev'd Martha Blacklock, sitting on the front steps of St. Clement's Church, an experimental church-theater on Manhattan's West 46th Street, in her jeans, leather sandals, clergy shirt and collar. Her little dog was at her feet.

I could barely read the story by Mary Knox Barthelme which declared that, at that time, "more than 500 women ordained as Episcopal priests are redefining the church's mission - and their own".

Five hundred? As in 5.0.0? Five.... Hundred? How could that be?

If five hundred women are ordained and one woman doesn't know it, are they still ordained?

I looked at the picture for a long, long time and could feel waves of .... I don't know .... Relief? Acknowledgment? Joy?....sweep over my heart, filling my eyes with tears and spinning my mind out of control with possibilities.

Just then, Ms. Conroy walked into the living room of our home in Portland, ME. I remember it clearly. We had just returned home from church with our eleven children (six of our own - mine, hers and ours - and five foster kids). We had just fed the kids their lunch, I had put a roast in the oven for dinner, and Ms. Conroy had organized the children into afternoon activities.

She had our youngest,who was then about four months old, on her hip. She saw the tears in my eyes, looked at the cover of the magazine, looked back at me and said, "I wondered how long it was going to take you to figure this out."

If a vocation is denied for years, does it mean it didn't exist?

In 1982, I was blissfully unaware of the details and the enormity of the struggle to ordain women in The Episcopal Church.  I soon learned.

When I finally got up the courage to speak with my rector about my sense of vocation ("I think I am....what I mean is I believe.... I mean to say that I'm feeling.... called.... to.... the..... pppppp... I mean (ahem)... ppprrrriesthood"), he began to tell me the story.

From his perspective, it was an awful-wonderful thing. While he was fully supportive, many of his dear friends - male and female, lay and ordained - were not. Still.

Indeed, even the diocesan bishop at the time, one Frederick Barton Wolf, had voted against it in 1976, making an impassioned speech on the floor of the House of Bishops which included the statement, "Just imagine a half-naked woman on a cross. It's obscene!"

I once asked him about that. He shook his head and said, "I was a drunk who was deeply closeted about my alcoholism and sexuality. That's not an excuse. That's just where I was at the time."

I think the church was drunk on patriarchy at the time. We've been sobering up ever since. We're not yet in full recovery, but we'll get there. One day at a time.

Meanwhile, 35 years later, women - and men -  are being ordained, blissfully unaware of the struggles involved in something they now take for granted.

Meanwhile, 35 years later, the vocational path of women to the councils and corridors of power are certainly better but clearly no where near equal to that of men.

If you forget history, are you doomed to repeat it?

In one of Monica Furlong's books, she says that writers and priests are always failures. They're almost supposed to be: 'They are justified only by their powers of being and of seeing.'

If we refuse to acknowledge the equal status of ordained women, does it mean they do not deserve equality?

I had that issue of the NY Times Magazine which contained the cover story about Martha Blacklock framed. It has hung in every church office I've ever occupied ever since. I was delighted to find that article online - complete with pictures - and was even more delighted to read it again.

The Rev. Martha Blacklock meditates in a small chapel at St. Clement's
Here's the same snippet that caught my eye then and catches my heart again today:
(After tending to some scheduling difficulties between the theater group that used St. Clement's Church)"...Miss Blacklock leaned forward and said: "I'm interested in something that enables a person to get a taste of what is traditionally called the communion of God, that conveys the fact that reality is something upon which you can base hope. I'm trying to suggest the existence of the possibility of redemption. This is what liturgy is about, and could be what theater's about. The word 'gospel' means good news and it's the church's job to go out and spread the news. We don't have to be God's Spirit , we just have to be the body that makes sure the church is here. Through it, God will act or reveal Himself.”
That's as true as it was in the early church as it is for us in today's church.

If no one is the body that makes sure the church is here, will it continue to exist?

If no one spreads the Good News in new and different ways, will it continue to be heard?

If no one marks anniversaries of revolutionary, historic events, will they be remembered?

If no one continues the revolution, will the evolution of the Gospel and the revelation of God continue?

I don't know, you tell me.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Projection: It's not just for PowerPoint

Author and UCC pastor Lillian Daniel tells a story about a sermon one of her associates once preached.

He used a common sermonic device: repeating a refrain throughout the sermon which was, "We all belong to God. We are all God's."

In the reception line after the first service, he was greeted with the responses some of us are used to hearing. Some smiled pleasantly and said, "Good morning." Still others brush right past the pleasantries to give the latest information on themselves or others, "Got the interview. Tuesday. Pray for me." Or, "Mable is in the hospital. I'm sure she'd like a visit."

These were occasionally punctuated by, ""Nice message, Pastor," which is about as good as it usually gets.

Except for one woman who was a "New-Age-y" type who was positively effusive. "Finally!" she said. "Finally, I heard a sermon from this pulpit that speaks what is in my heart. 'We are all gods'. I've always believed that. I just didn't know you did. Thank you!"

At the next service, the sermonic refrain became, "We all belong to God."

People hear what they want to hear and see what they want to see. If Jesus is the ultimate Rorschach test - not only the one who bears all our sins, but all of our assumptions and expectations and preconceived notions as well - then those who follow in His leadership way eventually come to expect that what we say will be interpreted by those who hear us and see us through their own lens.

It can sometimes be humorous - like the scene from Monthy Python's Life of Brian of The Sermon on the Mount when Jesus says, 'Blessed are the peacemakers' but some hear, 'Blessed are the Cheese makers'.

Or, it can have adverse theological consequences - like Daniel's story.

One of the first times I preached as a seminarian was at Christ Church, Hyde Park, where I was engaged in my first Field Education placement. I remember it clearly. I was really glad that the pulpit had a microphone because my knees were knocking so badly I was certain no one would be able to hear me over the noise.

At the end of the sermon, in the reception line, the good folk of Christ Church tried to give me some encouragement sprinkled in with some good advice. "Good message - you did fine - no really - but slow down, honey, so we can hear you better."

They were very kind.

What was confusing to me, however, was the number of people who said, "Powerful feminine images."


When did I use feminine images in that sermon? It was straight-up gospel. Pretty standard fare for a newbie. I told them all the things I had learned so far in my few months of seminary. Pretty boring, actually. More a lecture than a sermon, but well, it wasn't so bad as a first effort.

After the service, I took a copy of it - straightaway - to Suzanne Hiat, now blessed among the saints - and said, "When you get a minute, could you read this, please? It's not that long, but I want you to tell me where you find the 'feminine images'."

Suzanne smiled. "Is that the critique you got on your sermon?"

"Yes," I said, "and I'll be darned if I know what the heck they are talking about."

"Are you the first woman to preach in that pulpit?" she asked.

"Well, I may not have been the first, but clearly, I'm one of the firsts."

"Right," she said as she handed my sermon back to me. "I don't need to read this to see the feminine images. It's standing right in front of me."

I didn't get it at first so as I stood there with my mouth open, Suzanne asked, "And, let me guess, they asked you for copies of your sermon."

"Why, yes, that's right," I stammered, "they did."

Suzanne laughed and said, "That's because they weren't able to hear a word you said. They were so busy looking at the 'feminine image' in front of them, that they couldn't actually hear what you were saying. Now, they want to know."

Then she said something I have never forgotten: "When you find yourself hit by a tidal wave and you aren't standing anywhere near water, that's called 'projection'."

That little mantra has served me very well over the years.

I've been thinking about these two stories because, several weeks ago, I was greeted by a proper British woman in the reception line after the 8 o'clock service who was fairly effusive - especially for a Brit - about my sermon.

"That," she pronounced with great authority, "was the BEST sermon I've heard. At least, it's in the top of the Top 5 Best Sermons."

"Why, thank you very much," I said.

"Oh, I'm the one who is thankful," she continued, "You are one of the best preachers I've EVER heard."

Well, I'll tell you what. I've learned over the years that I am neither hero nor villain, so when I'm either highly praised or falsely accused, I've learned that something else is going on.

As these wheels were spinning in my head, and I was smiling my best professional "you-can't-see-the-real-me-or-you-wouldn't-be-saying-that" smile, she continued.

"You preached that sermon with the full. Authority. Of. Christ," she said as a sob caught her throat.

I looked into her eyes and although I wasn't sure what I was seeing, whatever it was touched my heart and I could feel my own eyes beginning to well with tears.

"Tell me," I said, "are you visiting or have you moved here?"

"Oh," she said dabbing her eyes, "I am visiting friends here. I live in northern England, off in the country."

"So, have you ever heard a woman preach or preside before today?" I asked, grateful that the reception line had thinned out and people were getting coffee or tea.

"Well," she said, still clearly emotional, "I've heard a few women preach and once or twice a woman celebrate at the altar, but, I must say, nothing was quite as emotional for me as this."

"What made the difference, do you think?" I asked, pleased that the reception line had shifted and morphed into the line for coffee and tea.

"I don't know," she said, "although you do put me in mind of my niece, Annabelle." She paused and said, "She always wanted to be ordained - since she was a wee little one - but, well, she's encountered lots of difficulty along the way. There's still resistance. Old habits die hard, as they say."

"And you?" I asked, carefully, "Did you ever consider ordination?"

"Me?" she gasped as she took two steps back,"Why... no... I mean.... well.... it was impossible in my day, so..... it would have been utterly foolish of me.... to even consider....."

I hugged her and she sort of melted into my arms for a moment and then, proper British lady that she was, immediately stiffed and pushed herself back, dabbed her tears and said, "Well, I must return to my hosts. We're going out to brunch. They'll be waiting for me."

That sort of thing happens more frequency than we care to admit. Some of us are acutely aware of it. Some of us can even see the Tidal Wave starting to gather on the horizon. Others of us are not and we allow ourselves to get swept up and carried away by it, actually believing the good and the perfectly awful things said about us.

One of the best pieces of advice I got on ordination was, "You'll know you're in trouble when you start believing the press releases about you."

Despite my best efforts over the years, it sometimes happened anyway - often with disastrous effects.

I'll never forget the time I went to a James Taylor concert in Holmdel, NJ. James and his band were tuning up for the second set when someone yelled out, "I love you, James."

James stopped what he was doing, looked out over the crowd, came forward to the microphone as he said, "That's because you don't know me."

I've tried to remember that when someone tells me how absolutely wonderful I am, but it's even more important to remember when someone tells me - or others - what a perfectly horrible person I am.

The key phrase is, "And, imagine! A priest!"

People often use that to talk about clergy when we behave in a manner that can't be confused with a doormat.

That's when I know I've suddenly turned into someone's Rorschach test and do my best to run from the Tidal wave that's about to descend.

I'm not saying that I didn't do a good job on that sermon. In fact, I think I did. It's just that I've learned that I really can't take all the credit. The Holy Spirit is often the one at the wheel. I'm just the vehicle.

And sometimes, I think I've hit one right out of the park and it isn't until later, in the reception line, that I learn that the sermon fell far short of my expectations.

Other times, I think, "Well, wish it had been better, but that's the best I could do." And, of course, that's exactly when a few people in the reception line - or, later in the week, during a phone call or email - I'll learn that I touched someone's heart.

And, I'm convinced that it isn't exactly what I said but how I said it that goes into the whole sermonic event. It's all the things I bring into the pulpit with me. A sermon makes absolutely no sense - no sense whatsoever - unless it is connected to and comes out of a lived experience in community.

In that way, it's sacramental. We break open the Word so that people can feast on it just as they do the Bread and the Wine.

So is the ordained life sacramental. We are people who have been broken and made whole and strong enough to be broken open again - and again, and again - by the enormous privilege of being invited into the broken places of people's lives where we strive to be fully present to the pain.

It's enormously, deeply satisfying work, but it is also fraught with all the dangers that projection can bring. For me? It's worth the cost. Besides, I'm called to it. I can't imagine doing anything else, despite all the challenges and even though it can get frustrating and, well, annoying.

Besides, sometimes, we're our own worst enemies.

Daniel tells the story about the time she was preaching about the different strains of Judaism in ancient Israel Israel. And, she said, "In those days, they had lots of sects just like we have lots of sects today."

Blessed are the Peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.