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"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

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Obvious Truth

The obvious truth (Luke 16:1-13)

September 21, 2013 – Proper 20 C RCL

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church – Georgetown, DE
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

Sometimes, the obvious truth is the easiest to avoid.

You have to know the whole story before you can understand one piece of it.  Or, in other words, context is as important as content.

This morning’s gospel is a good example. If you found this Parable of the Unjust Steward confusing, take heart! You’re not the only one. Many people throughout the ages have puzzled over how it is that an unfaithful steward, about to be relieved of his position, gains praise from his employer when he ends his career by stealing more from him?

This is especially confusing because it is Jesus who is telling the parable. Is he somehow condoning this deceit? Is he saying that it’s okay to cheat God, as long as we’re clever and creative and shrewd about it?

Well, before you can answer those questions, you have to know the whole story. You have to go back to the 15th Chapter of Luke when, “….all the tax collectors and sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes complained saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2).

It’s an old trick: If you can’t attack the person, attack him by ‘guilt through association’. If the man hangs out with sinners, he must also be one.   

So, Jesus responds by telling the Pharisees and scribes four Parables: The Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3-7), The Parable of the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10), the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) and then this one, The Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-3).

While we might be confused, keep in mind that, when Jesus says, “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light,” remember: Jesus was talking to the Pharisees and scribes.

Jesus goes on to say, “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” 

In this morning's first lesson, I hear the cry from the heart of Jeremiah (8:18-9:1) as the cry from my own heart about the status of the poor in this country. It's tempting to think that Jesus is talking to those politicians who voted to cut into the Food Stamp Program – the very governmental subsidy that is keeping 4.5 Million Americans from sinking below the poverty line. 

Or, perhaps we might imagine Jesus is speaking to the politicians who voted to shut the government down unless the Affordable Care Act is de-funded.

It’s important not to take the story out of context. Jesus was talking to the Pharisees and scribes of his day. Keep in mind that they knew that Jesus was talking about them. 

Indeed, in the very next verse we read, “Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, also heard all these things, and they derided Him.” (Luke 16:14).   

Let those who have ears, hear. 

It’s easy enough to take things out of context, to lose our focus, and to make mistakes. Take me, for example. Even though I am passionate about injustice wherever I see it, I’m far from perfect. Being zealous about injustice can also be blinding. 

Let me tell you a personal story.

Ordained less than five years, I found myself Vicar of a small, struggling congregation in the inner city of Newark where I was also Executive Director of the AIDS Resource Center. The church and their agency decided to pool resources and provide Thanksgiving Baskets to those in our neighborhood and those who were our clients. 

Actually, I was pretty shrewd, if I don't say so myself in convincing my brothers and sisters who were rectors of affluent congregations to contribute money and frozen turkeys and fixings for Thanksgiving Day. We got lots of both, which allowed us, in turn, to be generous.

By some small miracle of Loaves and Fishes we came to the Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving Day having distributed 250 baskets filled with frozen turkey, stuffing, fresh and canned vegetables and fruits, and even an apple pie for each basket. We were exhausted but thrilled, feeling we could go home to our families and truly give thanks for God’s bounty.

Until SHE came in. At exactly 3:55 PM.  Just five minutes before I was to head out the door, stop by the grocery store for a few last minute items, and then home to prepare for my own family. 

She was out of breath and waved a slip of paper in her hand as she announced, “Wait. Don’t leave. I’m here for my turkey basket.”

My heart sank. I had nothing. No turkey. No stuffing. Not even a can of string beans. I put my coat over the chair and said, “I’m so very sorry. We have given out our last turkey.”

She was enraged! “But, I’m homeless! I don’t have anything. I need that turkey. I have a slip from my social worker and everything. You’re a priest. You HAVE to find me a turkey.” I flushed with frustration and shame because I didn’t have anything to give her.

I took the slip of paper while she went on and on about her homeless plight, thinking of various alternatives, when she encouraged me to call her social worker to verify her claims. Hoping that he has already left for the day, I was surprised to find him still at his desk. When I told him the situation, he also started to berate me, “But, she’s homeless! What kind of priest are you, anyway? How can you be so heartless? It’s Thanksgiving! And she’s homeless.”

As I was deliberating whether or not to take my last $20 bill and give it to her, or to take her shopping and let her buy $20 worth of food in my sight, I suddenly heard something. Something obvious I had completely overlooked. 

Perhaps you’ve already figured it out and you are silently snickering at me in your pew. Go ahead. Twenty-five years later, I’m looking back on that well-intentioned, passionate young priest and snickering at my own naivety.

Homeless. “Homeless,” I said out loud. “Homeless,” I said, looking at her while talking into the phone. “Yes, “ her social worker said sarcastically, as if he were talking to a moron, “she’s homeless. As in SHE HAS NO HOME.” 

“Well,” said I, clearing my throat, “If she’s homeless, and I believe you when you tell me she is, she has no home. Right. That means she has no oven in which to cook the turkey; no stove on which to cook the vegetables, not even a table on which to serve this meal or the dessert. Is that right?”

There was stunned silence on the other end of the phone. The woman stood in front of me, slack-jawed. We had, all three of us, stumbled onto an inconvenient truth: The obvious truths are the easiest to avoid.

I don’t blame the woman. Hunger and poverty can make you crazy – or make you think there’s something wrong with you that you don’t have at least the very basics of what everyone else in America has on Thanksgiving Day.   

Her social worker and I were so focused on filling voids and solving problems that we had forgotten that before you can do that effectively, you have to sit and listen to a person’s story. Before whatever help you are offering can be effective, you have to understand the context.  

Context is as important as content. Sometimes, even more so.

So, I assured the social worker I was on it. I brought the woman into the parish hall kitchen and we talked while I fixed her a cup of tea. We sat and talked for a while. She told me her story. How she had lost her job and her apartment and was living in her car. How she was mortified and embarrassed. How she hadn’t told anyone in her family – especially not her kids. How she had promised to bring a turkey to her sister’s house where she would spend the night.

After we finished our tea, I took her in my car to the supermarket where I spoke with the store manager – the guy from whom I and my parishioners had bought all those turkeys with the money I had cajoled our sister suburban congregations to donate. He quickly put together another couple of bags of Thanksgiving stuff, including a 10 pound frozen turkey.

Was I, in my shrewd handling of suburban congregations and local markets, just as guilty, at least in principle, as the Pharisees and scribes? I’ll leave that for God to judge. 

What I do know is that I – and that social worker – were like the Pharisees and scribes. The true problem was that we were all too caught up in our current lives. We had lost the proper perspective.

I suppose the politicians who voted as they did to cut Food Stamps and to hold the economy hostage to their ideology about the Affordable Care Act have also lost proper perspective. Many of them claim to be Christian and often quote scripture but I wonder if they are aware of the hungry face behind their vote. The face of a man. Or, woman. Or, child. The face of Jesus.

It’s easy to lose sight of the spiritual goal and make a priority of living in the physical realm. Jesus says, “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to one and despise the other. You can not serve God and mammon.” (Luke 16:13).

Something must give. We all must make a choice regarding who we will serve – our own anxiety or the peace of God that passes all human understanding. You can’t make that decision without hearing the content of the whole story in its proper context.

And so, we must listen to each other; to hear each other into the ability to tell our stories. It’s not easy. It’s so much easier to live in a world of forms and criteria and check marks. 

Jesus did say to his disciples, “So be shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves.” We need to make the most out of the resources God has given us to our best advantage. 

That takes being clever and creative and yes, sometimes, shrewd.  If it is done for God’s glory and not our own, I believe God blesses it.

Sometimes, the obvious truth is the easiest to avoid. Amen.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Non tenere spiritum

Well, if you believe what you read, Francis is The. Best. Pope. Evah.

He's a "breath of fresh air" and is "leading the church in a new direction".

Well, there IS this:
"We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel," the pope said in the 12,000-word article . . . .
 . . . . . and, this . . . . .
"The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules," Francis said. "The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all."
And then, immediately following, there's this:
The comments contained no change in church teaching, and the pope said reform should not happen quickly. Still, it was the pope's clearest declaration yet of a break in tone and style from his immediate predecessors.
My Italian is not very good, but I think this translates:
I'm gonna change the content and my tone in the hope that those who have been disaffected will return, but I'm not changing anything else anytime soon.
I think, in Latin, he said "Non tenere spiritum."

Which translates: Don't hold your breath.

The man's not a dummy. Indeed, he's a Jesuit.

It's the Jesuits who always say, "We have to distinguish what's primary from what's secondary." And, of course, most of it is secondary. You can hear that ringing through in Francis' statements.

The very next day, the headline from NPR was: Pope Blasts Abortion After Decrying Focus on Rules.  Some of us were not at all surprised.

First things first, and all that Jesuit stuff.

It was, of course, an olive branch of sorts to the doctrine-minded, conservative wing of the Catholic Church, in which he denounced today's "throw-away culture" that justifies disposing of lives, and said doctors in particular had been forced into situations where they are called to "not respect life." 

He said: "Every child that isn't born, but is unjustly condemned to be aborted, has the face of Jesus Christ, has the face of the Lord," he said.

He urged the gynecologists to abide by their consciences and help bring lives into the world. "Things have a price and can be for sale, but people have a dignity that is priceless and worth far more than things," he said.

I get it. I'm no Jesuit but even I know that you can't turn an ocean liner around on a dime. You've got to go waaay off course before you can turn around and get back on the right course. It takes a Very Long time.  And, the Roman Catholic Church is a Very Big boat.

I get it. Change takes time.

Non tenere spiritum.

Oh, it's not that I'm not grateful for the change in tone. I am. It is a welcomed relief from all the harping that has been vaguely disguised as preaching that has been the case for RCs for the past 8-10 years or so.

You can rest assured, however, that the prelates of Holy Mother Church will still be backing politicians who are opposed to contraception (Really? In 2013? We're still having this conversation?), abortion, and, of course, marriage equality.

Some of the Princes of the Church will even threaten excommunication to those RC politicians who are supportive of reproductive justice and marriage equality.

And, no woman has a prayer of being ordained to the diaconate or the priesthood - not in my lifetime - while the harassing of Roman Catholic Religious Women (nuns) will continue unabated.

Change takes time.

As someone who left the RC Church of my youth because I was excluded on two counts - and "officially" prohibited from ordination in The Episcopal Church on one count (with lingering hostility because I was a woman in the first place) - I hear "change takes time" as the refrain of one who does not want change at all, and will do so very reluctantly and only on HIS terms.

In "A Priest Forever", Carter Heyward's book on her experience as one of the Philadelphia Eleven, there is a cartoon that someone sent to her prior to her priestly ordination. I don't have the book here in front of me, so I'm doing this from memory.

It's a picture of an elephant, sitting in a small pond, holding an umbrella, trying to cool off under the hot Indian sun. The elephant has taken up the entire pond.

A small mouse on the edge of the pond is saying, "Excuse me, good sir, but it's beastly hot, may I come in?"

The elephant turns to the mouse, looking down his long nose, and says, "Well, I say, I do so understand, you poor dear. Quite hot, yes. But, I'm not yet ready. You must learn to have patience. All in good time. All in good time."

This pope is playing a very dodgy game. It's classic Jesuit-Jedi-Knight mind trick. He's got everyone cheering so hard at the change in tone that not many have really paid attention to the fact that nothing of substance has changed. At. All.

I'm just the wee mouse at the edge of the pond saying, "Excuse me, good sir. I do so appreciate your pleasant tone, but, you know, it's still beastly hot and you won't let many of my friends into the wonderful, refreshing water of our baptismal pond."

Then again, it has ever been thus in terms of my role with the institutional church.

See, I'm smiling.

But, I'm not holding my breath.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

It only takes a spark . . .

Gather 'round the campfire, kids. 

We're going to hear a story and sing a song.

First, some context.

Ms. Conroy (AKA "Nurse Jane Fuzzy-Wuzzy, AKA "The Abbess of All Anamchara"), had a non-life threatening illness which required a trip to the Emergency Room for medication, hydration and diagnostic tests. 

All's well that ends well and this did. So, now we can tell the story and laugh.

Oh, I also need to tell you that Bill, our dear friend and brother, sure and true, took Ms. Conroy to the ER. And, that Bill, who is Irish and a member of God's Rainbow Tribe, as well as a life professed member of the Anamachara Fellowship, frequently wears kilts. 

Kilts. You know. Celtic skirts for men. Has 'em in all different colors and plaids. Wears 'em with working boots and a T-shirt. Wears 'em everywhere. (No, I have no idea what he wears under the kilt.)

He lives here in Lower, Slower Delaware. That would be Sussex County, DE. The only one of three counties to vote for Christine ("I'm-not-a-witch") O'Donnell.

You might say he's making a statement. 

So, here's the story:

Ms. Conroy is in the ER and the Admitting Nurse (ERAN) says to her

Nurse Jane Fuzzy-Wuzzy
ERAN: "Are you married?"
Ms. C: "Yes."

ERAN: "And, the name of your . . . (pause, first clue) . . . spouse?"
Ms. C: "Elizabeth Kaeton"

ERAN: (inhaling anxiety, exhaling) "Okaaay . . ." 
Translation: "No, it's not okay, but okay, I'm a professional. I can deal with this. Okay."

ERAN: "And, is . . . (slight pause) . . . she here?"
Ms. C: "No."

ERAN: "Did someone drive you here?"
Ms. C: "Yes. My brother, Bill."

ERAN: "And, is he still here?"
Ms. C: "Yes. He's right there. Around the corner. He's the guy in the skirt."

ERAN: Dissolves into laughter, pulls herself together quickly, says, "I'm sorry. (Giggle) I'm sorry. (Giggle) Ahem, I'm so sorry."
Ms. C: "Its okay. It's a brave new world."

ERAN: "Yes, it's a lot to get used to in such a short time."
Ms. C: "Yes, yes.... since June . . . But, just imagine OUR adjustment."

ERAN: (Looking perplexed) "I'm sorry . . .?"
Ms. C: "I mean, look at it from the other side of this issue. You know, my side."

ERAN: (Looking perplexed) "How do you mean?"
Ms. C: "Well, you know. Finally getting respect and decency after all these years. For us, it's almost 38 years of being together . . . with six kids . . . and, you know . . . . five grandchildren."

Anamchara Fellowship Gathering 2013
ERAN: "Oh, I see . . .Yes, I see . . ." 
Ms. Conroy: (Smiles) "Could I have that pain med soon?" 
ERNA: "Yes, yes, of course . . ."

Angels sing: "AH -le-lu-ya! AH -le -lu-ya! Ah-le-lu-ya! Alleluia! AH-le-lu-YA!"
Light dawns on Marble Head!

Okay, this is where we gather round the campfire, boys and girls, and together, let us sing . . . .
It only takes a spark, to get a fire going.
And soon all those around, can warm up to it's glowing.

That's how it is with God's love, once you've experienced it, it's fresh like spring, you want to sing, you want to pass it on.
Pass it on, friends. Pass it on. 

Step by step.

Spark by spark. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Mending the heart

Four men convicted of a brutal gang rape and murder were sentenced Friday to die by hanging, a decision met with satisfaction on the part of the victim’s parents and triumphant cheers from the crowd outside the courthouse, where some held up makeshift nooses and pictures of hanging bodies.

The four men — a fruit vendor, a bus attendant, a gym handyman and an unemployed man — were found guilty on Tuesday of raping a young woman on a moving bus last December, penetrating her with a metal rod and inflicting grave internal injuries, then dumping her on the roadside.

Defense arguments were drowned out by cries for execution — including from the victim herself, who before her death told a court official that her attackers “should be burned alive.” Protesters have congregated regularly outside the courthouse, chanting “Hang the rapists,” and on Friday they turned their wrath on the defense lawyers, forcing one to rush from the crowd.

“This is the beginning of freedom for Indian women today,” said Raman Deep Kaur, 38, a cosmetologist. “Today we are free, because these men are going to be killed.” 

I have strong emotions and zero tolerance for rape/sexual assault. I understand all too well the emotions in this case. 

I am confounded by the sentence. 

Will the death of these four men stop the rape of women in India? I fear not. Obviously, it will stop those four men from raping again. 

Is that enough? 

Are rapists able to reform in prison? Do prison sentences for rape act as a deterrent to rape? 

Statistics here do not bear out that hope. 

How much of what punishment is enough for rape?

On friend on FaceBook wrote: 
"Furthermore, how can death for these rapists achieve a reform of something deeply ingrained in Indian society (and, I should add, ours as well)? Could it carry enough symbolic weight to force their society (and ours) to face itself regarding its regard for and treatment of women? 

Women all over the world - India and Uganda and the United States and Mexico and Sri Lanka and South Africa and Russia - want deep and abiding change. How do we make that happen when a patriarchal court condemns four rapists to die to make examples out of them but does not fundamentally change in the ways that it sees women (here seen as the victim of male aggression)?"
As I wandered around in my thoughts, I suddenly remembered a story told by John Claypool in his book, Mending The Heart. 

Claypool offers three meditations which speak eloquently of the wounds all of us carry through life—the wounds of grievance, guilt, and grief—and how they can be healed. The wound of grievance comes from our suffering at the hands of others, we are pierced by guilt when we inflict pain in return, and we suffer grief when we are hurt by loss.

In his meditation "The Wound of Grievance," Claypool offers a powerful story about mending the heart of a man and the community in which he lived which was torn by greed and racism.
"Years ago, I saw an old movie entitled “Stars in My Crown” about the life of a nineteenth-century Methodist circuit rider on the American frontier. An elderly black man who lived in the little community that the circuit rider served was on of its most beloved members, for he had taught a whole generation of children to hunt and fish and enthralled them with his gift of storytelling.

It so happened that a valuable deposit of copper was found in that community and it ran straight under the little parcel of land on which the old man lived. When several local business leaders cane and offered to buy the black man’s property, however, he refused – it was the only home he had ever known and all he wanted to do was to  live our his life there in peace.

Naturally, his refusal threatened the whole mining enterprise, and when a great deal of money is at stake, dispositions have a way of growing surly. When the business leaders could not buy out the old man, they resorted to intimidation, posting a note on the door that if he was not off the property by sundown the next night, then members of the local Ku Klux Klan would com and hang him from the nearest tree.

The local minister got wind of what was happening, and the next night he was there at the house with the old man when the hooded figures arrived. He told them his friend knew full well that they had come to take his life, and had asked him to prepare a will to read to them before they hung him.

John Claypool
The old man willed the property to the businessmen who seemed to want it so badly, some of whom were standing right there in the lynching mob. He went on to leave his rifle to another person, his fishing rod to a third, and son on down the line, lovingly relinquishing everything he had to those who had come to take his life.

The impact of this act of goodness in response to evil was more than even those greedy hearts could stand. One by one, in shameful silence, they turned away and slipped into the darkness.
The minister’s grandson, at the time a twelve-year-old boy, had watched the whole drama from afar and when it was over he bounded up the porch and said to his grandfather wonderingly, “What kind of will was that?” The old minister answered softly, “The will of God, son, the will of God.”
I do not offer this as the answer - or even an answer - to the problem of rape, or what ought to be done to deter rape or change our cultures and subcultures (like the Armed Forces or Athletic Events) to have zero tolerance for rape.  

I do not offer this as an indication of what victims of rape ought to do in response to rape. I hear the dying words of the victim of this brutal rape - that her attackers "should be burned alive" - as the completely understandable, deeply human cry of anguish and pain and unmerited suffering which led to her death.

I offer this to underscore the fact that, when someone is raped, it's not just the body that suffers. It is the mind and the soul and the spirit and the heart.

I offer this to remind us that, when a someone is raped, it is not just the person's body, mind, soul,  spirit and heart that suffers - it is the heart of the entire community.

There seems to be no end in sight to the violence - sexual, physical, emotional, and spiritual - against women.

How will we find healing?

How will we mend the heart - that of those who have been raped as well as our own?

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Good girls and bad girls

There are still many questions and concerns swirling around in my head about the whole mess with 815 and the Executive Council and the Board of UTO (United Thank Offering).

I am deeply concerned that, in 2012, the Executive Council's Advisory Committee may have inadvertently and unknowingly set up the UTO by it's recommendations. The advice was to live into the "creative tension" between the "autonomous nature of mission" and the "increasingly regulatory nature" of the institutional church and find a way to the path that leads to good old Anglican both/and: autonomy and interdependence.

Any lawyer who works with contracts and bylaws would have a good laugh at that.

Laws are laws. They are pretty black and white. They are not marked by "creative tensions". It's a great idea - indeed, a noble idea - but these don't always find their way into the "Article I, Section 2" model of laws and bylaws.

I'm also struck by the irony that, while this conversation was going on, the COO of The Episcopal Church was talking about eliminating CCABs (Commissions, Committees, Agencies and Boards) so we could be more "nimble for mission". Indeed, at the 2012 GC, we voted to form our own Task Force to revision and restructure the church.

Mary, the BVM
And yet, what is being proposed by the institutional church is to have the UTO become a CCAB - instead of encouraging the UTO to incorporate as a 501 (c) (3) and have the same kind relationship the church has with, say, Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD - formally, Presiding Bishop's Fund). Or, for that matter, the way hospitals and clinics and educational institutions have with congregations and/or diocese.

As one wise woman once whispered to me at the end of a Very Long and Non-Productive diocesan meeting: "This is why God so loved the world that God sent an Only Child - and NOT a committee."

There will be more information revealed in days to come. This situation didn't happen overnight. Indeed, it's been going on at least since 2007 when the Presiding Bishop first called for a study to learn about CCABs and their relationship to the institutional church.

Here's my deepest concern: Women. Women and their ministry and sense of mission. Women and their autonomy and power and their relationship with the institutional church.

That is not going to be a surprise to anyone who knows me or reads this blog.  I am a self-avowed, unrepentant feminist. I am a feminist because I am a Christian. I am a feminist because I believe Jesus was a feminist in his own way and for his own time. I believe there are more than a few men in The Episcopal Church who are feminists.

So, if a feminist perspective isn't your thing, stop reading now. You'll only make yourself upset. 

The institutional church will do what the institutional church will do, and the institutional church still operates, for the most part, on the dominant male paradigm. Yes, we have a woman who is Presiding Bishop and the last two Presidents of the House of Deputies have been women. Yes, the ordination of women is not the Very Big Deal it once was.

That does not mean that there isn't misogyny and sexism in the church. That does not mean that we aren't still a hierarchical church, with all the attendant structures and canons.

Indeed, it does not mean that women have the same opportunities for advancement within the institutional church. We don't.  In fact, in terms of the election of women to the episcopacy as compared to the rate of women in the episcopacy who are retiring, we are actually losing ground.

It also doesn't mean that changing the faces at the top necessitates change within the system. There are still far too many women in the church who know how to play hardball with the big boys and "go along to get ahead".

Which may be one reason it's so hard to get women to stand for election as bishops.  Too many women don't want to play the game. They'd rather focus their energies on the work of the Gospel.

That's not to say that there haven't been women in leadership who have made systemic changes and have taken prophetic roles in the church. Barbara Harris, of course, springs immediately to mind, but there are others who - lay and ordained - in small, quiet but significant ways, are making changes.

Slowly, slowly, slowly.

It takes time, I know. Here's what else I know: Patience has never been my strong suit.

So, here's my concern: There were eight women on the UTO Board. Four resigned in protest.

Let me say that again: Four resigned IN PROTEST.

They did not simply resign. They did not whine or snivel. They resigned because it was the only way they knew to bring to light that which had been going on in secret.

Remember: the UTO board was required to sign a Statement of Confidentiality in which they pledged not to discuss their .... 'negotiations'.... outside of their group. 

Raise your suspicions much?

So, four resigned and four stayed on. Let me say this: It takes courage to do both.

It takes courage to blow the whistle and call attention to something going on that's wrong with the process. It takes courage to stay and hold a place so that the UTO might continue to have something of a Board of Directors.

The UTO now needs to elect eight more women, in accordance with the bylaws that were approved by their organization as well as General Convention in 2012. I hope everyone will keep them in the deepest part of their prayers.

The danger here is to see "good girls" and "bad girls".  The good girls stayed. The bad girls left.

That is NOT true and don't buy into that crap for one red hot New York second.

We've seen this dynamic many times in the church.  Here's one example.

The original plan for the "Philadelphia Eleven" was to have twelve women irregularly ordained to the priesthood at the Church of the Advocate. Elsa Phyllis Walberg - the first woman to be ordained to the diaconate in the Diocese of Massachusetts in 1972 - was supposed to have been among the twelve but, at the last minute, was persuaded to decline. She had the unanimous approval of the Standing Committee to be ordained to the priesthood.

What I remember (some of my books are still in storage) is that her bishop wrote a public letter, lauding her decision and calling her "one of the good deacons". Elsa was furious! She wrote back and said, in essence, "Do not ever again put me in a situation where I have to choose between my sisters and the church."

That's the real danger of this whole mess that keeps me up at night - that women will be pitted against each other in the name of the institutional church.

The "good girls" in scripture are those who were obedient: Sarah, Hannah, Deborah, Ruth, and the ultimate "be it done to me according to thy word," Mary, the Mother of Jesus.

The "bad girls" are those who were disobedient or selfish or "wanton": Eve, Hagar, Bathsheba,  Jezebel, Rehab, Delilah, Sapphira - to name just a few.

And then there are those who present ethical dilemmas - like Judith or Ester who committed murder in order to save their people.

Mary and Martha
Their stories - even the ones about the "good girls" - are only known to us through the perspective of men.

All of them - even the "bad girls" - have a role in the ongoing story of our redemption. 

I hope we don't get caught up in the male-constructed tension we see in the two sisters from Bethany. 

We are Martha.  We are Mary. 

We are Episcopal Church Women and Episcopal Women's Caucus  and the Daughters of the King and the National Altar Guild, and The Women's History Project and Girls Friendly Society and the Church Periodical Club and Anglican Women's Empowerment and the Commission on the Status of Women, and, and AND . . . the United Thank Offering.  

The words of Elsa Walberg continue to ring in my ears: "Do not ever again put me in a situation where I have to choose between my sisters and the church."

We women are beloved of God who seek to prosper the Gospel of Jesus, in and through the church. Each in our own way. Living in the "creative tension" of the autonomy necessary for mission and the regulatory nature of the institutional church .

And, don't let anyone tell you anything different.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Hell hath no fury

When I was received into The Episcopal Church, back in 1977, I was told about three organizations I should join. I was told that, by virtue of my gender and reception into The Episcopal Church, I was automatically a member of The Episcopal Church Women.

I was also encouraged to join Integrity and The Episcopal Women's Caucus. Which I did. But I was confused. Well, at least about ECW and EWC. I got why it was important to join Integrity. What was the difference between the Episcopal Church Women and the Episcopal Women's Caucus, I asked.

I was given a short history of the ECW - how they initially began as The Women's Auxiliary and was formally established by an act of General Convention in 1821. By 1882, The Episcopal Church - through the primary and generous financial help of the ECW - was supporting twenty-nine missionary bishops - seven foreign and twenty-two domestic.

In 1889, the ECW formally established the United Thank Offering (UTO).  The "Blue Box" ministry, based on the scripture story of The Widow's Mite, collects pennies, nickles, dimes and quarters which encourages a daily ministry of thanksgiving - ordinary, every day Eucharist.

All those coins dropped into the Blue Box in thanksgiving for something ordinary in someone life became manifested in acts of mercy and love and charity all over the globe.  Indeed, The Blue Box is commemorated in a stained glass window at St Matthew's Episcopal Church in Fairbanks. Bishop Gordon's airplane, known throughout Alaska as "The Blue Box" was bought with UTO funds.

It's a regular Gospel miracle. Just ask the people whose lives have been changed because of those little Blue Boxes.

You should also know that the ECW and UTO came into being because women were intentionally and deliberately excluded from ANY leadership in the church. Indeed, it wasn't until 1970 that women could be seated as deputies to General Convention. The ECW and the UTO were the means by which women could join with other women to promote the mission of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I didn't know about them, but I understood the power of "little blue boxes". I had been brought up Roman Catholic. We had "Pagan Babies". Those pennies, nickles,  dimes and quarters all added up. I think, by the time I left the 6th grade, I had "bought" at least a dozen Pagan Babies - all named after my favorite nun OR the one I needed to suck up to.

More importantly, those coins joined with the coins from other kids in my school and Parochial Schools all over the country which turned into millions of dollars to enable the work of mission and ministry in places desperate for food and water and clothing.

The first United Offering in 1889 yielded over $2 thousand, and grew to $107,207.83 by the turn of the twentieth century. Each year, the UTO collects millions of dollars which it distributes in grants, domestic and abroad.

The Episcopal Women's Caucus (ECW), I was told, was a political organization of Episcopal women whose work had brought about the ordination of women and a general improvement in the overall status of women in the church and in the world.

It was pretty clear.  I had to be a member of all three.  And, so it was. It has been ever thus.  Indeed, it was my privilege to serve for 10 years as the National Convener of The Episcopal Women's Caucus.

The "joke" about the two organizations was that, Episcopal Church Women wore white gloves and the members of the Episcopal Women's Caucus wore boxing gloves. 

Well, maybe once - back when there were such things as "Pagan Babies" (who, like women in pristine white gloves and proper pumps, pretty much existed in the imagination and preferential desire of the institutional church) -  but not so much anymore.

In case you haven't heard, there's yet another crisis afoot. I know. What? In The Episcopal Church? How can that be? We've always been ahead of the curve on Reproductive Justice. We have a woman as PB and aren't there lots of women who are clergy and bishops now, right? Oh, and by the way, isn't the President of the House of Deputies a woman? And, isn't the VP a Black man? Haven't we fought the good fight and are on the right side of history in terms of Marriage Equality?

What now?

Let's see: Women + Money + Autonomy = Trouble. Big Trouble. Trouble with a capitol "T" and that rhymes with "P" and that stands for Power.

Got it?

St. Matthew's, Fairbanks, Alaska

You can read a good summary of the development of "The Situation" in the General Convention 2012 "Blue Book" but it began back in 2007 when the Presiding Bishop called for a comprehensive study of all agencies of The Episcopal Church that fell under the auspices of The Executive Council as to their governance, fiscal and liability responsibilities.

An "accountability gap" was discovered in terms of the relationship between the UTO and TEC, which led to the formation of an Advisory Committee, appointed by the Presiding Bishop, in 2008.

In the words of the 2012 Blue Book Report: "Some of the recommendations of the preliminary report of the Advisory Council were not well received by the UTO Committee and so the Committee began to pursue other options."

Like, becoming an independent 501-C-3 organization. 

Whoa! Can't have that! So, a "Working Group" was appointed to further study the situation and to make recommendations to General Convention 2012.  You can also read those in the Blue Book.

Essentially, that working group proposed changes in the bylaws and the development of a Memorandum of Understanding between The Episcopal Church (AKA "Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (DFMS)".

These bylaws and MOU would embody the "creative tension" between the "increasing regulatory" function of DFMS and the "visionary, autonomous grassroots" function of UTO/ECW and be both/and: "autonomous but interdependent"? (INC-055 Ad-Hoc Committee on the Study of the United Thank Offering, GC 2012.

But, something got lost in the translation. When the bylaws and MOU were presented to eight members of the Board of the UTO, four members resigned in protest. 

You can read their letter of protest at Mark Harris' blog, Preludium here, with a follow up story here.

You can also read up on the matter at one of my favorite sources of information for all things Episcopal - The Lead at Episcopal Cafe. Go check out What's happening with the UTO?

Ann Fontaine has the bylaws up at her blog What the Tide Brings In. She notes:
While the proposal does offer some helpful ideas about policies and procedures, some things of concern that I see:
Overall it moves total control to the Chief Operating Officer of the Episcopal Church with a small advisory role for the "Board," where is the participation by UTO in the granting process? in communications? in any oversight of monies given to UTO?
It removes references to the main goal of heightening awareness of gratitude in our lives, it no longer has any relationship to the Episcopal Church Women (primary supporters of this ministry), 
It removes the UTO role in development of materials and training local UTO coordinators, though the report to General Convention encouraged a continuing autonomy for UTO with interdependence - this removes all autonomy.
Oh, and she also includes a letter from Charlie Sumner, the husband Robin, of one of the four women who resigned in protest. It is, to be blunt, eye-opening.

Finally,  here's a statement - hot off the presses - from the Presiding Bishop regarding UTO.

Over at the House of Bishops/Deputies Listserv, we are being gently admonished to either "take a breath" and/or "give the parties the time and space they need to work things out and resist
a public debate".

I should note that both writers are male.

You should note that neither Ann nor I are in compliance with those suggestions. Apparently, neither has the Presiding Bishop. Well, I'm breathing just fine, thank you. So's Ann. Neither of us had to bring out our fans or our embroidered handkerchief. Nope, not once. 

Here's another thing you should know:  The UTO 2012-2015 board was made up of twelve women, four of whom had a PhD. degree, four more had Masters degrees, several others had professional degrees. All had held important jobs in business, law, education, healthcare, and accounting. One was a former CEO of a corporation with over 400 employees and a budget over ten million dollars.

I think it is at least fair to say that they know about accountability.

Many questions remain, these two among them:

1. How does the Memorandum of Understanding between DFMS and EWC/UTO embody the "creative tension" between the "increasing regulatory" function of DFMS and the "visionary, autonomous grassroots" function of UTO/ECW and be both/and: "autonomous but interdependent"? (INC-055 Ad-Hoc Committee on the Study of the United Thank Offering, GC 2012. If you haven't read it, please do.)

2. What is contained in that Memorandum which caused 4 women - intelligent, educated women who are passionate about and dedicated to the mission of the Gospel - to resign because they believed that they needed to follow the high calling of being "whistle blowers"?

I agree that speculation holds with it the potential to be non-productive and dangerous. The primary danger, of course, is to those who benefit by not providing evidence.

I am still chilled by the knowledge that the conversations concerning the historic, autonomous, missionary leadership of women (UTO/ECW) becoming more a part of the "increasingly regulatory" body of DFMS had to be had with a group of 4 representatives from DFMS (3 of whom were men) under a signed agreement of confidentiality. And yet, the words "accountability" and "transparency" are being bandied about as somehow meaningful.

I understand. That may be "business as usual," but when you are talking about the historic autonomy of women (which came about because women were excluded from leadership in existing church structures), and removing direct decision making and control over the money they raise, well, it just doesn't bode well - especially in the church.

Speculation can also work for the good, becoming a force for revelation and transparency of evidence.  As speculation fuels controversy, more pressure is put on "the powers that be" for transparency.

That's messy, I know. Unseemly. Chaotic. Producing a crisis. It's also how I know the Spirit moves to bring about creation.

The four women from the UTO board who resigned in protest have been referred to as "whistle blowers". That is, in my perspective, an honorific title, worthy of the historic, prophetic ministry of the UTO. And, wasn't Jesus a whistle blower"?

Transparency is clearly what is called for.  Now. As in right now. Now, now.

The longer we wait for information, the more likely the courage of these four women will be dismissed as 'reactionary' and 'hysterical' and "typical" of women who 'can't abide / are threatened by change'.

The sooner we all see the proposed Memorandum of Understanding and compare that with the goals of the 2012 Ad Hoc Committee, the faster the speculation will subside.

Or, rise, depending on the information we receive.

Until then, I hope we will continue to discuss this issue - which is decidedly NOT about "old, crabby women who are resistant to change" (as one person, dismissing the situation as unimportant, said to me).

Yes, it is about women and power and the institution. Sexism and misogyny are still alive in the church, even though a woman is PB, just as racism is still alive in this country, even though there is a Black man in the White House.

This is also about the "creative tension"  between the "grassroots" - necessarily autonomous - efforts for mission and the "Increasingly regulatory function" of the institutional church.

There are many lessons to be learned that can be very helpful to those of us who are experiencing the same tensions in ministry at local and diocesan levels.

Indeed, the tensions between autonomy and interdependence and independence are central to being Episcopalian and Anglican.

My hope is for information. Sooner, rather than later.

Until then - and I may be in the minority and widely unpopular for saying this, but - let the conversation and speculation continue.

Because, you know what "they" say about women who feel scorned. 

Sunday, September 01, 2013

The Evolution of Fair and Equal

H/T to Jon Stewart

Whether we realize it or not, we are all part of the evolution toward full Marriage Equality.

That is not without its cost - human and financial.

Just the other day, I was thrilled - as I'm sure we all were - to learn that the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) announced a ruling that will ensure all legally-married same-sex couples, regardless of where they live, will be recognized for federal tax purposes.

Prior to the ruling, lawfully married same-sex couples were forced to declare themselves “unmarried” to file their federal income tax returns.  Furthermore, transfers of property, gifts and inheritances between same-sex spouses were taxed, unlike those between opposite-sex spouses – as was the case in Edie Windsor’s successful challenge to DOMA before the Supreme Court.  Even the health insurance benefits provided for a same-sex spouse were treated as taxable income, costing the average same-sex couple over $1,000 a year in additional taxes.

So, now you can live in Texas or Alamama or even New Jersey and get married in New York or Washington, DC or even Delaware and, at least in the eyes of the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the IRS, your marriage will be recognized. Well, for federal tax purposes.

I suppose I should have expected it, but I'm amazed by how many emails and phone calls I'm getting from couples who live in states where Marriage Equality is not yet a reality who want to come to Rehoboth Beach, DE and get married.

I'm having wonderful conversations with couples who have been together for 5, 10, 15, 20 years who are excited and thrilled to finally - FINALLY - be getting married.

Yes, they want the legal protection afforded by marriage, but they are not rushing to have a civil ceremony performed a Justice of the Peace. In addition to the legal aspects of marriage, they also want the covenant they make to be "blessed" by the church.

I'm hearing themes in these conversations that a marriage conducted by a "person of the cloth" - whether or not in an actual church - also becomes an act of forgiveness and absolution from them for so many years of the church fanning the flames of prejudice and bigotry by using scripture to construct systems of oppression. 

I get it. I totally get it. And, we do just fine until they ask the question, "What is your fee?"

What I want - what I really, really want - to say is: "Well, when you total all the expenses - the wedding attire, the flowers, the photographer, the videographer, the reception with the open bar, the limo, and the honeymoon, etc., - factor in a good, old fashioned biblical tithe of 10% of the total and that will be the church's fee."

I know. I know. Not gonna happen.

What I do say is, "Well, it depends on what you want. If you want the ceremony in a church with organ music and communion, that involves a whole list of fees over which I have no control. You should also know that the date of the ceremony will depend on the availability of the church. If you want to have your ceremony on the beach, the various towns on the beaches of Delmarva require a permit and there is a charge for that. And then, separate from that are my requirements and fees."

At this point, I can hear them starting to get nervous.

Here are my requirements: First up, just to get this out of the way, I don't do weddings in a bar. For anyone - lesbian, gay or straight.

I understand that you may have met there and have romantic attractions to that place. That's fine. Have your reception there. Not your wedding. Not with me officiating, anyway.

Call me old fashioned, but I just can't get my head wrapped around the appropriateness of the location of a bar for a wedding.

That's usually not a problem. 

Here's the thing: I don't just "do" weddings. My perspective of a marriage at which I officiate is that it is the blessing of a sacred covenant that flows out of a relationship marked by mutuality and respect and equality and fidelity.

I like to have something of a relationship with the people for whom I'm about to bless the covenant they make. That requires a little bit of time. Not much. Two hours, basically. At a minimum.

To that end, I require a minimum of two premarital counseling sessions (more, if we can) in which we talk about relationships and vocation and covenants and how that all gets expressed in the symbolism of ceremony and music and the words of the vows.

In addition, I am required to know if either of the couple has been legally and/or canonically married previous to this marriage and to simply see their divorce papers. I also need to know if there are any dependent children from that previous marriage and to inquire if those children are being cared for in accordance to any legal agreements made at the time of the divorce.

If I'm doing a very simple ceremony on the beach or in a garden or a back yard, my standard fee for all of that ranges from $150 - $250, depending on the ability of the couple to pay.  That includes the minimum two hours of counseling, the development of the liturgy, the ceremony - including the homily - and, of course, travel to and from the ceremony.

If I'm performing the service in a church which requires coordination with the rector, the music director, the office staff who will produce the bulletin I put together on my lap top, the altar guild and the sextant, the fee is $350 - $500, again, depending on the complexity of the service and the ability of the couple to pay.

I don't think that's outrageous. Indeed, it works out to about $12-$15 per hour. Last time I checked, $15 was considered a 'living wage' - even for someone working at MacDonald's.

What's amazing to me is the push-back I've gotten from some couples - I'm sad to say, all of them lesbian - and most of them formerly (or still) Roman Catholic.

"One hundred and fifty dollars!" yelled one into the telephone. "All we want you to do is to say the words on the beach and be done with it. That's going to take you, what?, 10 minutes?"

Once again, I gently and calmly explain my philosophy and theology and requirements. It's not hard to tell that they aren't listening to a word.

All she heard was $150 for 10 minutes = Rip Off.

I've learned to wait for the next response. It's become predictable, "And you - a priest (the word drips with sarcasm) of all people - should know that women - especially lesbians - don't make the same salaries as men. You should know better! This is an issue of justice and equality!"

I try, as best I can, to remind them that I, even I, am a woman. And, didn't Jesus say that the worker deserves 'his' wages? (Luke 10:7 - I've got it memorized. Not that it makes any difference. They aren't listening, anyway).

I have tried the strategy of reminding them of what they are spending on the wedding and that I'd be willing to bet that my minimum fee of $150 is far less than the cost of printing the invitations and postage to their friends. That only seems to infuriate them more. So, I stopped trying that technique.

Just yesterday, I had a conversation with a lesbian couple from Jersey - formerly (but still, really, in their heart of heats) Roman Catholic, been together for 12 years - who want to get married on the Feast of St. Francis.  In the church. With music. And communion. The whole enchilada.  Even though, she said, that neither of their parental units would come to the ceremony because their priest told them that they would be participating in sin. (Whatta guy, huh?)

And, they were very clear that they wanted a woman to officiate. Indeed, she insisted on calling me "Mother" even though I was - and am - pretty clear that, except in very formal situation, I skip all honorific titles and prefer my baptismal name.

She asked "the fee question". I did my spiel. She had a pretty explosive reaction. We talked - well, I talked. She yelled.  It ended like this:

She (yelling): "Well, okay, but it's $150 and Not. One. Penny. More."

Me (calmly): "You know what? I can't do this. Not even for $500. It's not really about the money. Relationships are very important to me - yours and the one I have with you both. How about if I give you the names of some people who are licensed to officiate at marriages and you can talk to them?"

She (yelling): "Listen, we want our wedding in a church. We want what everyone else wants and has and gets. Who are you to deny us what we've been waiting all these years to have?"

You see where this was coming from - and going. Rejection experienced from biological mothers and "Mother Church" and "Rev'd Mothers" (even if we don't call ourselves that) all get mixed up in one messy ball of transference and projection.

Truth is, I've waived my fee - or reduced it substantially - for couples - lesbian, gay and straight - that are really having a hard time, financially. Given what I heard about this wedding, however, money was not the issue. It was merely the presenting, symbolic issue for lots of other, deeper issues that involve injustice and justice and oppression and a sense of entitlement.

I ended the conversation by saying that I thought she might want to take some time to carefully consider our conversation and talk it over with her partner-soon-to-be-wife. And then, if she wanted, we could talk again.

I don't know if that's going to happen. I hope she finds a way to see beyond the hurt and disappointment anxiety that has turned her into a lesbian "Bridezilla". 

We live in sure and certain hope.

We're all evolving in this business of marriage equality.

We're not out of the woods, but we're on the path.

We're not exactly in the desert, but we've not yet arrived at The Promised Land.

There's a reason the Hebrews wandered in the desert for 40 years after they were released from bondage in Egypt. They needed that time - two generations - to forgive their captors and adjust to the idea of freedom and to formulate the standards and requirements - The Ten Commandments - of what it means to live together in community in covenant with God.

I suspect it will take God's Rainbow Tribe at least that long to forgive the church and understand what "fair and equal" means for everyone.

We live in sure and certain hope.