Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Monday, February 17, 2014

A Very Queer Golden Jubilee

My very dear friends, Sheri and Lois - I call them my "adopted mothers," because, well, they are - celebrated their 50th Anniversary this weekend in Boston. It was a grand party, filled with laughter and story-telling and gourmet food and a lovely wedding cake and, because they are lesbians with many Queer friends, more than just a slight touch of drama.
I'll get to the drama in a minute.

Sheri and Lois were the founders of the Boston Chapter of D.O.B.  - Daughters of Bilitis , - the first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the United States - which they led for more than 20 years before turning over the reigns to a new generation of lesbian women.

It is now defunct, as most DOB chapters are, but has pretty much morphed into the LGBT Aging Project which is making new roads of progress for Marriage Equality and access to health care in hospitals and nursing homes for LGBT Seniors.

It's far from perfect but much easier, now, to be open and honest about LGBT relationships, but, in a former time, it could be flat out dangerous.

Back in the day, gay couples and lesbian couples often traveled together as cover for each other, but there were gay bars and then there were lesbian bars - the only real way most gay and lesbian people could meet and socialize with each other - and no one frequented the other.

The bars were frequently raided by the police and then, the next morning, newspapers printed and published the names of those who had been arrested in the local paper.

Which is why many lesbians and gay men took other names. Indeed, Sheri isn't really Sheri; her name is Claire but she took the name Sheri just in case she ever got picked up and arrested.

During their time in leadership in DOB, their home phone was tapped by the FBI, and their "activities" were closely monitored by the police. Still, they persisted and persevered, providing education and information, legal advice and emotional support for women who were isolated and persecuted for the bigotry and prejudice that affected them in terms of housing and jobs and education and their ability to have custody of their own children. 

There is no doubt in my mind that the DOB in general and Lois and Sheri in particular saved lives. And, when they didn't save lives, they saved the sanity of many women.

I remember with painful clarity the first conversation I had with my father after I had come out. Well, I didn't really "come out". I had been forced out.

I'll spare you all the details for another time but, out of the blue, my father called one night to try and "talk some sense" into me. He started by telling me that, when he has been diagnosed with "a touch of emphysema", the doctor told him that he had to quit smoking.

My father said, "I loved cigarettes, but on the way home I threw that pack out the window and never went back. Now, if I can do that, you can throw that woman out of your life."

It went downhill from there.

His last attempt was to tell me about the time he was a young boy, living on his father's farm. He said, "I used to watch the cows and, every now and again, one cow with try to jump another cow. I would ask my father what they were doing and my father would say, 'they are just overheated'. "

Then, thoroughly disgusted and frustrated, he delivered his final salvo, "Elizabeth, get a hold of yourself! You are smarter and better than an overheated cow!"

I was devastated. Sobbing and inconsolable, I called Sheri in Boston. She listened carefully and patiently, trying to affirm my goodness and graciously explaining that my father's world view was simply too small to try to fit in this new understanding of how the world worked in general and the implications for my life in particular. 

It didn't matter. I was inconsolable. And, rapidly getting hysterical.

When I got the the story about the overheated cows, however, Sheri started to giggle. Her response was so incongruous to what I was experiencing in that moment, it had exactly the effect she wanted. It stopped me in my tracks long enough to think about the absurdity of my father's words and the reality of my situation.

"Mooooooo!" she said. It was a low, slow sound, working up to a full bellow.

"Overheated cows!" she laughed. "Oh please! Oh, please! Stop! You're killing me! Lois! Lois! You've got to hear this one. I've heard a lot of descriptions of lesbians over the years, but that one is a first and it takes the cake."

"Overheated cows!" she shrieked! "MoooooOOOooooo!"

Suddenly, a switch was flipped inside my psyche and I heard my father's words for what they were. Sheri's laughter was just the medicine I needed, allowing me to move past the absurdity and recognize his inability to move past his simple, uncomplicated view of the world and into an affirmation of the goodness of my love and my life.

Sheri found an old pastoral print of some cows, cooling themselves in a stream. She tastefully colored two of the cows a light lavender, framed the print professionally and gave it to us as a present the very next Christmas.

That picture has hung in every home we've ever lived in, a reminder that laughter in the face of blind prejudice and ignorance is not only the best response, it is also the best antidote to that kind of psychic and emotional poison.  

I have Sheri and Lois to thank for that - and so many, many other wonderful lessons about how to navigate my way through life complicated by the prejudice and bigotry that comes with a "love that dares not speak its name."

There were many "Lois and Sheri" stories that were shared at their celebratory party, each one a testimony to their generosity and love and deep commitment to each other and the newly emerging Queer community. 

Oh, I almost forgot the drama.

After we had feasted on an amazing gourmet meal expertly exercised by Penny, another dear, dear friend of more than 30 years, some of the guys got up to start cleaning up the dishes.

One of the guys, John, dropped something into the garbage disposal and stuck his hand in to it to fetch it. Except, his hand wouldn't come out.

As Sheri and Lois continued to hold court in the dining room, some of us quietly attempted to help John.

First, we tried pouring liquid soap. Nope.

Then, some cooking oil. His hand wouldn't budge.

Michael, one of the guys who was there, is a doctor, so I quietly called him aside and told him what was going on. We decided that some cold water to reduce the swelling and then to slather the hand with some petroleum jelly might just do the trick.


I even tried using a plastic spatula and delivering his hand like a forceps delivery of a baby's head.

No way, Jose.

Michael then suggested we check it out on Google.

Duh! Of course! Except, it wasn't much help.

I did find a story about a cat who had gotten her head stuck in the sink and the only way they finally got her out was to sedate her and then put some petroleum jelly all over her before they were able to slide her head out of the sink.

No one had any Valium. We considered whiskey but figured that was probably not a good option. A drunk with his hand stuck in a garbage disposal didn't make for a very pretty picture.

Michael and I decided that we had exhausted every option and now it was time to call 911.

Before we knew it, our festive party of 12 Queer people was expanded to include sixteen (16!!!!) of Boston's finest firefighters, police, paramedics, EMTs and assorted other first responders, all huddled into our host's kitchen, trying to figure out the best way to handle the situation.

It took a little over an hour and included a blow torch to cut out the garbage disposal and some oxygen for John and much backing and forthing and, of course, some picture taking to document the saga because, you know, being Queer people, we are going to be dining out on this story for YEARS to come and someone is bound to say, "Get outta town!" and then we'd have the pictures to prove it.

Indeed, "The Liberation from The Insinkerator" was dramatically announced by two of Boston's finest who came into the dining room, one tapping a spoon on a champagne glass while the other held up the garbage disposal.

"Your friend is free," announced the fire captain to wild applause, "and this," he added, "is going to hang on my office wall. I'll use it for future training purposes."

And, because we are part of God's Rainbow Tribe, we simply had to serenade Boston's finest in thanksgiving for their work in rescuing one of our own from the many dangers, toils and snares of the garbage disposal.

We broke out into a wonderful version of "YMCA" - complete with all the appropriate dance moves.

They loved it.

Of course, our host was left with a sink and dishwasher and kitchen counters filled with dirty dishes and pots and pans and utensils but she won't be able to clean anything until she can get a new garbage disposal and a plumber to come and hook everything back up.

But, hey, we're the Queer community. Someone at the table knew someone from our Tribe who is a plumber and, last I heard, he was coming out first thing in the morning to make things right again.

And, John did spend a few hours in the ER at the local hospital trauma center. I talked with him this morning and he's doing just fine. His hand is in a soft cast and he's a bit sore and more than a bit embarrassed, but, as he says, "What a story, huh?"

I know, I know. I'm an Episcopal priest. I should be able to wring at least one sermon or theologically reflective essay from the metaphor of an aging gay man who had his hand trapped in a garbage disposal, but just this once, I think I'll pass.

If someone had said to me, even twenty years ago, that I would one day be in Jamaica Plain, MA, celebrating the 50th Anniversary of two very dear friends in a room filled with Queer people and just a touch of drama, I would have said, "Shut the Front Door!"

But, there we were. Male and female. Lesbian and gay. Ages 50 to 80 something. Mostly married to the people we love. Celebrating 50 years of so much love and devotion and commitment that is so strong, it spilled over and helped a few generations of people.

If we are blessed to be a blessing to others, then there was ample evidence of the truth of that assertion.

May there be many more celebrations of Golden Jubilees in our Rainbow Tribe. 

Happy 50th Anniversary, Sheri and Lois.

May the light of your love continue to be a beacon of inspiration and hope to us all, and may it be a continued source of joy and consolation to you both.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Lena Dunham's Nudity

So, I'll start with a confession: I love GIRLS - the new series that HBO calls, "a comic look at the assorted humiliations and rare triumphs of a group of girls in their mid-twenties."

That said, it's clearly for adults and decidedly not for the faint of heart.

At the close of the last episode of the first year, the lead character, Hannah, concerned that she might have contracted a sexually transmitted disease, is being examined by a woman who is a gynecologist.

Her friend Jessa says, it's just "something that happens to all sexually adventurous women."

As Hannah rambles on and on about possibly having been infected and considers the possibility of being HIV positive (the minuses and - gasp! - the pluses), the doctor shakes her head and says something like, "I wouldn't want to be twenty again if you paid me."

My thought exactly. 

Watching Hannah and her friends Marnie, Jessa and Shoshonna try to navigate adult life is painful and embarrassing - sometimes because it calls up some of my own memories of being a twenty-something and other times because I would have never - EVER - gotten myself into those situations.

I was no saint and I'm hardly a prude, but this show is filled with explicit and, more often than not, unpleasant sexual encounters - often casual, other times obligatory and impersonal and sometimes even violent.

And then, there's the nudity.

Specifically, Lena Dunham's nudity.

Look, it's HBO. If you've watched any one of their series, you know there's going to be a lot of sex and a lot of nudity.

If you don't want to see a lot of sex and nudity, don't tune in. You have been warned.

If you watch HBO's Game of Thrones, you know that there's so much gratuitous nudity and sex, the comedy writers of SNL have spoofed that one of the major consultants to the series is an over-sexed 13-year old boy who writes in "boobs" and "sex scene" into the script at least every sixty seconds.

The women on Game of Thrones, however, meet the physical standards of Playboy and Hustler. They are impossibly anatomically perfect.

Lena Dunham is not.

Unlike many women in the media spotlight - especially TV - Dunham is short and pear-shaped. She is the writer, producer, director of and actor in the series, so she could make herself look gorgeous, or use the other actors to do the heavy lifting in the nudity scenes.

Instead, Dunham films herself nude, with her skin breaking out, her belly in folds, chin doubled, or flat on her back with her feet in a gynecologist’s stirrups. These scenes shouldn’t shock, but, surprisingly enough, they do.

So many women in Hollywood seem to be so obsessed with Botox and plastic surgery, that women and men who watch "life on film" begin to believe that "altered" is the norm.

The message is that those of us who don't look like that should feel ashamed and inferior. 

When a few people recently questioned  her nudity, saying that they didn't "get it," Dunham responded, "I totally get it. If you’re not into me, that’s your problem and you’re going to have to work that out with professionals.”

I get the very clear sense that Dunham's nudity - which is random and frequent and clearly not meant to be salacious and titillate people - is her big middle finger to any attempt by anyone, male or female, to define or control her or her body.

There seems to be a lot of that going around.

Take, for example, the "A Beautiful Body" project.

It's a women's media platform which features a collective of photographers who are "dedicated to therapeutic truthful photos" - including moms with pregnancy stretch marks.

There's also Taryn Brumfitt's The Body Image Movement which addresses women's honest acceptance of their post-pregnancy bodies for the sake of their mental health as well as the future healthy attitudes of their daughters.

I have to give mention to Beth Whaanga's controversial photographs of her cancer scars. Beth Whaanga, a mother of four from Brisbane, Australia, found out just how radical and provocative an honest image of a woman can be after posting images on Facebook of her body following surgery for breast cancer late last year.

Taken by Nadia Masot, the pictures are astonishingly direct, documenting Whaanga's ongoing hair loss, total bilateral mastectomy, navel reconstruction and hysterectomy scar. Whaanga lost more than 100 friends on Facebook after posting the pictures – and then they went viral. A registered nurse, she describes herself as a "breast cancer preventer", and hopes to make people more aware of the physical changes that might signal a problem.

Her nude pictures of her surgically ravaged body - what's "under the little red dress" - convey a stunning message about the ways in which women are taking control of their own body images.

And, they don't look at all like the cover of People Magazine with Christie Brinkley at 60 - looking more like she's a 30 year old in a swimsuit.

For the past 15 years, NOW (National Organization of Women) has hosted a Love Your Body Day in October, whose goal it is to "Wipe out narrow beauty standards, superficial gender stereotypes and the portrayal of women as a sexual commodity to help erode sexism in other areas and advance our goal of full equality for all."

Last year, NOW published the results of their Love Your Body Day survey.  I was especially interested in this question

What would you most like to see change in relation to images of women and girls?

The answers seemed to provide the inspiration, at least in part, for Lena Dunham's nudity: 
  • More different body types of women and girls in the media - 9%
  • More women of color in the media - 1%
  • More women of all ages in the media - 3%
  • More women who break the conventional mold of gender presentation - 4%
  • More women with disabilities in the media - 0.5%
  • No more images that exploit violence against women - 7%
  • All of the above! - 73%
  • Suggest your own - 2%
Well, with the exception of more women of color or with disabilities.

Ms. Dunham and her "girls" are decidedly white, middle class, affluent, privileged, and spoiled with a tendency to be self-destructive.

And, they don't apologize for any of it.

In one of early scenes of the debut episode of this series, Hannah is having an argument with her parents.

She simply doesn't understand why her parents are not on board with her request that they continue to support her for several more years so she can write a book.

"I don't want to freak you out," she said, "but I think I may be the voice of my generation."

Yes, it's self-absorbed. Yes, it's egocentric. And, as I recall, it's exactly what many 20-somethings of every generation think. It's part of the developmental process.

Oh, and it's funny. Very funny. 

But, the nudity is different. It's raw. No illusions to traditional male sexual fantasy. No back lighting or candles. No sexy lingerie. It's real. It's brutally honest. It's shocking.

I think it's intended to be, but not for the typical, traditional understanding of shock value. It's not just nudity. It's the "in-your-face-I'm-far-from-perfect-*^@%-you" kind of nudity which, I think, carries a strong message about the issue of control over a woman's body.

It's pretty clear that Lena Dunham's nudity is saying, "I'm in control here. Not you."

"I get to say what I do with my body, even if it does tend to be self-destructive. This is what most real women look like when they take off their clothes."

"If you have a problem with that, get some professional help."

It's tremendously liberating and incredibly terrifying, all at the same time.

If the Republicans have a War On Women, this is one heck of a defense.

And, offense.

As a "woman of a certain age" I am appreciative of this new Body Politic, as parts of my body are, shall we say, less "perky" and "firm" than they once were.

Oh, someone is shaking his or her head and tut-tutting about how this country is going to hell in a hand basket and what do you expect when abortion is legal and . . . . .

I'm really not exactly sure what is going on here, but I do think Lena Dunham's nudity and the efforts of other feminists are part of a whole and I don't think it's as bad as some think it is.

I think every generation that begins to emerge into adulthood seems Really Bad to the previous generations of adults. 

These are the next generation of women who were no doubt delivered by a woman obstetrician, cared for by a woman pediatrician, and saw women functioning as police, fire fighters, lawyers, judges, elementary and high school teachers, college professors, real estate professionals, priests, ministers, scientists, financial experts, talk show hosts, athletes, bus drivers, actors, poets, musicians, soldiers, veterans, disabled veterans, governors, representatives, senators, Secretary of State, and campaigning for President of the United States of America.

Oh, and wives and mothers.

Sometimes simultaneously.

That's something I did not grow up with and once thought I'd never see in my lifetime.

And, here we are.

All these women - but especially women in their 20s - have a very clear message about their bodies.

If the church is wise, it ought to sit up and pay attention.

What does the institutional church have to give to these young women, besides judgment and condemnation? Who will listen to them and walk with them as they make their way through the 'salad days' of their youth? Who will be there when they fall? Who will love them through to the other side of their experiments and mistakes and successes?

Who will help them make sense of it all?

If the church is not there for them when they fall - without saying, "See? I told you so," -  why should they trust the church when they get back up on their feet again?

I'm glad these 20-somethings are figuring it out. Publicly and honestly. Boldly and fearlessly. Naked or fully clothed. Making mistakes along the way.

That's how they'll learn. That's how we all learned.

And, you know, you couldn't pay me to be 20-something again.

Naked or fully clothed.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

The Episcopal Church: Abortion & Contraception

I was recently asked a simple enough question: Where does The Episcopal Church stand on Reproductive Justice issues such as contraception and abortion?

The answer is very simple and yet not easily expressed.

I think that's because our discussions on this issue have been emotionally charged and filled with hyperbole, exaggeration, inaccuracies and, well,  drama.

If one is "pro-life," one is, therefore, "anti-abortion" and, necessarily "bad" for limiting a woman's choice but "good" for "protecting the un-born or pre-born" but "bad" for not making provisions to care for the life of the child after it is born.

If one is "pro-choice" one is, therefore, "pro-abortion" and, necessarily "bad" for "murdering babies" but "good" for "respecting the sacred right of a woman to be her own moral agent" but "bad" for "not respecting the 'personhood' of the fetus". 

It's all black and white with no shades of gray and heavily sprinkled with double doses of drama.

That's a difficult position on a good day for The Episcopal Church, which is a faithful pilgrim on the 'via media' or 'middle road' of classic, traditional Anglicanism.

While it may sound like a batch of classical Anglican Fudge, if you read our official resolutions on the matter, it is fair to say that The Episcopal Church seeks to promote the sacredness of human life - all human life - including that of the woman and the children for whom she is responsible.

The bottom line is that The Episcopal Church has voted in strong opposition to any abridgment to a woman's access to a safe means of terminating pregnancy.

That means that The Episcopal Church wants the means of legal abortion to continue while working to address conditions - such as poverty, inadequate education, unemployment, etc., as well as access to information about human reproduction including effective, affordable contraception methods, devices and medicines - which would make abortions a less frequent occurrence.

Though the fact that The Episcopal Church is regularly identified as being pro-choice is accurate, it would be a misstatement to suggest that TEC is "in favor of abortions" or "promoting abortion."

Which means, we're not so different from most Americans.

A recent article in Atlantic magazine maintains that public opinion about abortion is remarkably stable. "Since the 1970s, we have seen considerable changes in attitudes towards gay marriage and marijuana legalization but not in opinions about abortion."

"Take a question that Gallup has asked more than 50 times since 1975: Should abortion be legal in certain circumstances? That year, 54 percent said yes. When CNN’s pollsters asked the same question in May 2013, 54 percent gave that response, with 20 to 25 percent at the extremes."

To my knowledge, no poll has ever been done specifically asking these question of those who are baptized members in good standing or are ordained to lead a congregation, much less simply sit in the pews of The Episcopal Church of a Sunday morning.

My sense, however, is that Episcopalians are like most Americans - we hold two differing opinions simultaneously in tension with each other, and our official position, as stated in resolutions passed by our General Convention, reflect that tension.

Two major pollsters that ask people whether they are pro-choice or pro-life show narrow divisions on the question. Gallup’s May 2013 poll showed that 45 percent called themselves pro-choice and 48 percent pro-life. In Fox News' April 2013 poll of registered voters, 49 percent called themselves pro-choice and 44 percent pro-life.

If you want to know what The Episcopal Church, in General Convention, has said about Reproductive Rights like contraception and abortion, you'd have to dig through the Archives of The Episcopal Church to discover that answer.

You can find resolutions which have been passed by General Convention here .

You will have to work a bit to "connect the dots" but, with some diligence you will discover that, as early as 1930, The Lambeth Conference (an international gathering of Anglican bishops at Lambeth Palace, the official residence of The Archbishop of Canterbury) "approved contraception for the purposes of family planning." (Resolution 15)

Of course, there is the curiously worded Resolution 115 by the 1958 Lambeth Conference which essentially reaffirmed Aquinas's appeal to conscience in terms of husband and wife's decision about the size of their family.

Neither were exactly ringing endorsements of contraception, and there's lots high church language, but the approval is clear.

The 1994 General Convention reaffirmed this position, which appeared under a primary concern "that rapid global population growth adversely affects the prospects for peace and justice by exacerbating poverty, deprivation and suffering, and depleting environmental resources . . ."

I don't have links to the following facts because the Episcopal Church didn't begin making resolutions available online until the early 90s. However, in looking through some old convention journals, I discovered that The Episcopal Church at its 1964 General Convention stated, "The Church continues (from a resolution in 1958) to condemn non-therapeutic abortions...." 

However, three years later, at the very next General Convention in 1967, we approved abortions where "the physical or mental health of the mother is threatened seriously," and in cases where the child would be born with disability or was conceived in rape. 

In 1976, the Episcopal General Convention reaffirmed this statement and went further.  It expressed "unequivocal opposition to any legislation on the part of the national or state governments which would abridge or deny the right of individuals to reach informed decisions in this matter and to act upon them." 

We did so again in 1982. 

In 1985, we passed resolution A085 which also reaffirmed our position and asked
That this 68th General Convention request the several dioceses to initiate studies to consider the pastoral, personal, sociological and theological implications of abortion. We suggest appointing appropriately representative diocesan commissions to oversee a process of study which includes those local congregations willing to be involved. We commend to all a study of the official position of this Church as expressed in the resolutions on abortion adopted by the General Conventions of 1976, 1979 and 1982. We suggest to all a study of the paper of the House of Bishops Committee on Theology: "Theological Reflection Paper on Abortion." Finally we direct the Standing Commission on Human Affairs and Health to receive all information arising from these diocesan studies.
I couldn't find either a study of the dioceses or the bishop's theological paper on abortion online (I'm sure someone has copies buried in their files somewhere), but at the1988 General Convention, we were condemning violence to abortion clinics and those persons who seek services there and issued a statement essentially reaffirming our previous position.

In 1991, we were opposed to the requirement for parental consent or notification of parents when minor women seek safe abortion, and we firmly rejected conception for the sole purpose of harvesting fetal tissue for medical research.

In 1997, we did not reject but rather expressed "grave concern" about third trimester abortions, except in "extreme circumstances".  

In 2000, we passed a resolution which, interestingly enough, commended the work done by a Commission on End of Life Issues and asked for a similar study be done on Beginning of Life issues, such as - and I quote - "babies born alive during induced abortions".

I have not found evidence of the existence of that study, much less that a commission was convened. I have serious doubt that either entity ever saw the light of day.

In 2000, we also acknowledged the existence, for men and women, of something called "post abortion stress" and asked for pastoral care for all who suffer from it. 

I think we've come to know that, while some are certainly stressed after the termination of a pregnancy, either through abortion or miscarriage, there is no official medical condition known as "post-abortion stress" and I do not know of any official action regarding this issue from The Episcopal Church.

Officially, we can hardly be described as "pro abortion". However, it can be said that we are unequivocally "pro choice" - in a very traditionally nuanced Anglican sort of way.

Let's take a closer look at our "official" position on Abortion which can be found most succinctly stated in Resolution 1994-A054.  Allow me to lift up some of the language to show you what I mean:
All human life is sacred from its inception until death.

As Christians we also affirm responsible family planning.

We regard all abortion as having a tragic dimension, calling for the concern and compassion of all the Christian community.

While we acknowledge that in this country it is the legal right of every woman to have a medically safe abortion, as Christians we believe strongly that if this right is exercised, it should be used only in extreme situations. We emphatically oppose abortion as a means of birth control, family planning, sex selection, or any reason of mere convenience.

In those cases where an abortion is being considered, members of this Church are urged to seek the dictates of their conscience in prayer, to seek the advice and counsel of members of the Christian community and where appropriate, the sacramental life of this Church.

Whenever members of this Church are consulted with regard to a problem pregnancy, they are to explore, with grave seriousness, with the person or persons seeking advice and counsel, as alternatives to abortion, other positive courses of action, including, but not limited to, the following possibilities: the parents raising the child; another family member raising the child; making the child available for adoption.

We believe that legislation concerning abortions will not address the root of the problem. We therefore express our deep conviction that any proposed legislation on the part of national or state governments regarding abortions must take special care to see that the individual conscience is respected, and that the responsibility of individuals to reach informed decisions in this matter is acknowledged and honored as the position of this Church;

Resolved, That this 71st General Convention of the Episcopal Church express its unequivocal opposition to any legislative, executive or judicial action on the part of local, state or national governments that abridges the right of a woman to reach an informed decision about the termination of pregnancy or that would limit the access of a woman to safe means of acting on her decision.
Now, I may quibble about the phrase about human life ". . . from inception . . .", and some have taken exception to "the tragic dimension" of abortion or that it should be utilized only in "extreme situations", but there's no arguing with the "unequivocal opposition" to anything that "abridges the right of a woman" or "limit(s) the access of a woman to a safe means of acting on HER decision.

We are pro-choice but that doesn't make us pro abortion.

You can not possibly make the claim that "The Episcopal Church promotes abortion" - unless, of course, your penchant or preference is to consistently utilize hyperbole or exaggeration or drama as your primary rhetorical device.  

Indeed, I think the position of  The Episcopal Church makes us decidedly pro-life in the sense that we hold ALL life sacred - including the lives of women - as well as those unwanted pregnancies which lead to the birth and the life of a child who has basic human rights to shelter, food, clothing, access to adequate medical care and, oh yes, love.

The issue of reproductive justice in general and abortion in particular will continue to be pushed into national conversation by special interest groups, most of which are religiously-based.

I predict that, ultimately, we will see the same result from this issue as we have with issues of marriage equality. All the hyperbole and drama and appeals to scripture as the only rationale for undermining abortion or reversing Roe v Wade will begin to fall, more and more, on deaf ears.

At the end of the day, I do believe that the position of The Episcopal Church is reflective of and articulates the position of the majority of Americans:

+ Keep abortion safe and legal, accessible and affordable while we continue to work on conditions that would make abortion a less frequent occurrence.

+ Contraception is an integral part of normal, preventative health care for women which should be affordable, accessible and covered under her health insurance plan. 

+ Respect for the sacredness of all life - from womb to tomb - including the life of a woman to be her own moral agent and make the decisions that are right for her and her family, as well as respect for every child to have the basic human rights of food, clothing, shelter and love.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Religious Freedom: A More Perfect Union

Note: This is a presentation I gave at the Coalition for Liberty and Justice Forum, held at George Washington University in Washington DC. The Coalition for Liberty and Justice is a broad alliance of faith-based, secular and other organizations that works to ensure that public policy protects the religious liberty of individuals of all faiths and no faith and to oppose public policies that impose one religious viewpoint on all. I was asked to present an Episcopal perspective as it pertains to religious liberty on a panel of speakers which included a Baptist minister from Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, a Roman Catholic lay woman from Catholics for Choice and a Rabbi from Concerned Clergy for Choice. They gave me 10-15 minutes. I asked several friends to define The Episcopal Church's perspective on Religious Freedom and most joked that we were for it. So, here's what I said:

I don’t know about you, but sometimes, as I listen to conversations about Religious Freedom, I am transported back to my 6th grade Civics class. I know I showed up for it every day. I wonder if some people – especially our legislators and political leaders – cut class or Civics class just wasn’t offered in their school system.

I went to Catholic schools, and the nuns of my youth didn’t play around with our education. We learned stuff. They made certain of that. As Tina Fey is quoted as saying,. “Those nuns (were) mean old clams and they sleep on cots and they’re allowed to hit you. And at the end of the school year you hated (them) but you knew the capital of Vermont.”

Besides memorizing prayers and our Catechism and all 50 Nifty United States and their capitals, we memorized poems by Longfellow and Wadsworth and the Bill of Rights and the Preamble to the Constitution. We just didn’t learn to memorize them, we studied them and learned about them and understood them.

I am deeply grateful for the education I received and believe I am the priest I am today because of their role model of leadership in community – religious and secular.

They taught us about Thomas Jefferson and his Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution that announced universal principals of liberty. 

We learned that Jefferson, alongside the Marquis de Lafayette, framed a French proclamation of The Rights of Man. 

We learned that, because of the brilliance of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, we have the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, and, without that, there would be no basis for the most precious clause of our most prized element of the Bill of Rights – the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,

All of this important history would become important to me as I later left the church of my youth and became a member of The Episcopal Church.  Years later, in 1986, I became part of the first wave of women to be ordained priest.

It’s probably apocryphal, but I love the story that those who wrote the formative documents of the newly emerging United States by day at Constitution Hall In Philadelphia walked down the street by night to Christ Church and began to write the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church, which was, itself, emerging from The Church of England and Anglican Communion.

If you look at the way The Episcopal Church operates, you will see a reflection of the same governance in our constitution and laws.  We, too, have a bicameral system of government. While bills must pass the House and the Senate before becoming law, our resolutions must pass both the House of Bishops and House of Deputies (clergy and laity) before they become canon law.

Our church meets every three years in General Convention where these resolutions are proposed and sent to legislative committees and discussed in hearings and finally come to the floor of both houses to be debated and voted upon – just as you might see in the House or the Senate. 

We do not elect representatives or delegates to General Convention. Instead, we elect deputies – four clergy and four laity from every diocese – who do not represent nor are they beholden to a particular constituency or church or diocese; rather, they are “deputized” to vote their conscience, having be led by thoughtful reflection, prayer, and their own sense of autonomy which is balanced by an understanding that we are part of the “one, holy, catholic (small c) and apostolic” church. (Yes, we too say the Nicene Creed. Every Sunday.)

The notion of Balance of Power can be seen reflected in our government. The final authority in our church rests not with a single person like the Presiding Bishop or Diocesan Bishop or even the Archbishop of Canterbury; rather, final authority church matters rests in legislation passed at General Convention – by deputies who are laity and clergy as well as bishops. 

What a radical idea for religious authority! 

Guess where that came from?

The idea of States Rights can also be seen reflected in the way we structure our dioceses.

No diocesan bishop can tell another how to run his or her diocese. Not even our Presiding Bishop has the authority to do that – not unless the good bishop is in violation of the doctrine, discipline or canon law of The Episcopal Church. And then, there is a lengthy, complicated process to deal with that.

Which is why, for example, some of you may have noticed that, while our General Convention authorized trial liturgical rites for the Blessing of the Covenants made by people of the same gender, not all bishops in all dioceses have authorized them for use in the local churches in their dioceses.

That’s because our canon law, presently, defines marriage as between one man and one woman.   

Some bishops feel caught at the intersection of church and state. How about that for a conundrum! Some dioceses are in some states where there is Marriage Equality, but some bishops feel bound by the definition of marriage in our canon laws. 

Other bishops in states where Marriage Equality is not yet a reality still feel compelled to authorize our priests to bless the covenants made between two people of the same gender, even though they can’t legally marry them, arguing that the state has no right to interfere with what the church deems is right to bless.

The argument goes: We don’t allow the state to tell us who to baptize or confirm. We don’t allow the state to tell us we can’t bless icons or prayer books or liturgical garments or new cars or boats before the sail or hounds before the hunt or motorcycles before the charity run.

Why should we allow the state to tell us we can’t bless the covenants made between two people of the same gender?

So, it follows that The Episcopal Church - or any religious denomination or organization - cannot dictate our theology (or ideology) to the state nor impose our doctrine on those citizens who may believe differently than we do.

You can be certain that, when The Episcopal Church gathers for our next General Convention in Salt Lake City, Utah in 2015, there will be more than a few resolutions which propose a change to the language and specificity of gender in our marriage canons.

Will that be messy? No doubt. Will that be painful for some? Absolutely. Will it be perfect? Positively not. 

Which leads me to finish my presentation by saying something about in the language of the Preamble to the United States Constitution, which, I think speaks to where The Episcopal Church is in terms of Religious Freedom. 

It is a term which President Barack Obama used to title his famous Race Speech.  

 The words are: “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union . . .”. 

The idea I want to focus on is “a more perfect union.”

I think the elements of “a more perfect union” summarize, for me, not only the ideal state of government but the characteristics of a religion which understands, protects and defends the religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment to The Constitution.

It is important, first, to note that we are not a "perfect" but a “more perfect” union. 

That means that we recognize that life together will be forged from our difference. 

E pluribus unum. Out of many, one. 

It means that we understand that uniformity does not guarantee unity. 

Indeed, uniformity is not a prerequisite for unity; it may, in fact, undermine unity.

I once was privileged to be invited to a Rabbinical group to study parts of the Torah. My Rabbi friend warned me that for every Rabbi, I would hear at least two opinions on the same issue. I laughed and said, “That’s okay. I’m an Episcopalian; we have at least two, if not three opinions on the same issue.”

Unity does not mean everyone walking along together in lockstep. Indeed, we may not even be on the same path. 

As Elie Wiesel once said, “There are many paths, but one way to God.” 

We may be united in the same destination, but some of us will take different ways to get there. Some may even create their own paths. 

As J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote in a poem in Lord of the Rings, “Not all those who wander are lost.” 

In order to be a more perfect union, I believe religious and secular people must have a tolerance for differences.

One of the marks of Anglicanism is tolerance. That can feel uncomfortable to some. As a woman who is ordained and has been in a committed relationship with another woman for 38 years – we were recently married this past August when Marriage Equality FINALLY came to Delaware (and they said it wouldn’t last) – I know how it feels to be “tolerated” in The Episcopal Church.

It’s not the best, but I can tell you one thing: it feels a far sight better than being excluded. 

As Anne Lamott once said, “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

Tolerance of differences is important but tolerance requires a spiritual and emotional maturity in order to tolerate ambiguity and paradox. Our world is diverse and complex and filled with pluriform truths and beliefs. There are many shades of black and white and, as we now know, at least fifty shades of gray.

Finding what is true for you will be very different from what I have found to be true. That does not make you right and me wrong.

In The Episcopal Church, we talk a great deal about the Three Legged Stool of Anglicanism: Scripture, Tradition and Reason. 

When we confront an issue or a problem, we look to scripture first, but then we read it again through the lens of the tradition of the church. Then, we take all the information we have gathered and we employ the gift God has given to us all: our intellect and ability to reason, which we understand is also shaped and formed by personal experience. 

There are Episcopalians among us who do not go beyond Scripture. Some do progress to read what is said in our church tradition but they take only that which supports their interpretation of what they find in Holy Writ. 

Indeed, some of those same Episcopalians chide those of us who add reason to our methodology and quest for truth, saying that we elevate reason and intellect over scripture and tradition, almost to the status of sin.   

In my estimation, that’s a huge improvement from the original sin of The Episcopal Church of a former, more glorious day: not being able to distinguish and properly use one’s salad or dinner fork from one’s dessert fork.

Nevertheless, tolerance of differences and ambiguity and paradox are requirements for the “more perfect union” of The Episcopal Church – and, indeed, any religious organization – if we are to have a more perfect union of these United States of America.

One of my favorite spiritual meditations embraces the paradox of the reality of my spiritual and emotional life. After I have centered myself, I inhale and say, “I am enough.” Then, I slowly exhale and say, “I can not do it alone.”

I am enough. I can not do it alone. 

There, in the midst of the paradox that is a breath – two opposite but equal truths: one must breathe in and then breathe out in order to take a breath – is the paradox that I am sufficient and I need others. As surely as I need air to breathe, I need others to help me achieve my goals. And, I am enough.

Sometimes, God sends me people I like to call “Divine Sandpaper”. They are the people who “rub me the wrong way”, but, in so doing, they also bring out my beautiful inner grain so that it can be seen and really shine.

When I allow “Divine Sandpaper” into my life – be it Sarah Palin or Paul Ryan or any one of the Teapublicans whose rants about Reproductive Justice or Food Stamps or Education or Marriage Equality regularly pull my last, poor, tired lesbian nerve – I eventually find that something they have said has helped to reexamine and clarify and perfect my thoughts toward a more perfect union of my beliefs with my faith and my citizenship in this more perfect union in which we live.

The Episcopal Church is far from perfect. The same can be said of this country. I think both can become “more perfect” if we let go of our ideas of what is "perfect" - or think our particular religion and/or religious expression is "perfect" - and practice tolerance.

We need to understand that our unity is not dependent upon uniformity. 

E pluribus unum. Out of many, one. 

Even with our differences. 

Especially with differences.

Freedom – all freedom, including the freedom of religious belief and expression is a precious gift and responsibility. You cannot pick and choose which freedom you are going to support and defend.

Neither does one freedom guarantee the right to suppress another freedom. 

As one of the nuns of my youth once said, “You have the right to swing your arms as wildly as you like, but that freedom stops at the end of my nose.”

My prayer for a more perfect union of church or state - and, perhaps, even church and state - is that we may all know that freedom and practice it with responsibility and generosity of spirit. 

Thank you.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

The Song Tracks of Our Lives

I suppose every generation has a song track that plays in the background whenever memories surface.

Or, sometimes, it's a song that brings back a memory.

You hear a song and suddenly remember where you were when you first heard it - or where you were and who you were with when it once played.

The music of my generation - the 60s and 70s - was, probably more so than any other modern generation, intimately intertwined with and reflective of what was going on in our contemporary world. It also helped to change our culture and our society.

There were the "folk singers" like Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul & Mary, Buffy St. Marie, Odetta, Judy Collins, The Weavers and The Staple Singers who were singing songs about love and peace and harmony and protesting the Vietnam War - or any war - and advocating civil rights and rejecting the status quo and being a non-conformist, while reflecting the absolute best of what was good about the "simple life" of living closer to the land and being kind to one another as generations before us had done.

So, when I hear Dylan sing "Blowin' In The Wind" or "Like a Rolling Stone", I can see myself in bell bottom flower print pants with a peasant shirt, my hair long and thick and out of control, and I can even smell the patchouli oil I used to use. I can also catch an occasional whiff of pot, which, of course, the patchouli oil was used to mask.

Oh, and for the record, yes, I smoked AND inhaled. Truth was, I didn't like it. Just made me . . . um . . . . ."excited" . . . . and hungry for Oreo cookies. I'd eat a whole bag and a quart of milk, which was really so I didn't act on my  . . . um . . . "excitement".  At least, not in public.

Even more clearly, I can see the confusion mixed with disgust and more than a modicum of concern on the faces of both my parents.

And then 'rock 'n roll' really began breaking sound barriers as well as marking clear barriers between  generations. The night that Elvis "The Pelvis" Presley appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show marked a schismatic shift in my family life.

I. LOVED. Elvis.

I couldn't really explain why. His music seemed dangerous. Raw. What was suggested by the words and music were made explicit by the movement of his body.

It was "Rock 'n Roll" and even I got the euphemism for what happened in bed.

I was absolutely transfixed.

My parents were absolutely horrified.

The combination made Elvis and his music absolutely irresistible.

About that same time, I became more and more aware of music that was known as "Motown".  Some of it sounded a lot like the music Elvis sang - coming from a deep, dangerous, raw place in the human psyche, a place my adolescent self was just becoming aware of and simultaneously wanting and fearful to explore.

The night that Diana Ross and the Supremes appeared on the Ed Sullivan show was also another huge watermark in my life and that of my family.

Here the truth of it: At that age, I had never personally seen an African American - male or female.

I lived a very isolated life, ensconced as I was in my neighborhood which was, in actuality, a little Portuguese village, where everyone spoke English and Portuguese and everyone knew everyone else and a neighbor was as likely to smack you upside the head if you did something wrong and then march you by your ear or the back of your neck to your parents where you were smacked again.

We were intentionally isolated. It was protective. We were the butt of jokes and object of scorn and prejudice among the lighter skinned previous immigrants from England and Ireland and Canada who were brought in to work the mills and the factories.  We looked different and smelled of different spices. We were the "greenhorns". The "dirty Portuguese".

Our parents kept us isolated to keep us from being ridiculed and hurt. It didn't work, of course, but that was really the impulse. I don't think it's much different from some immigrant groups today.

Oh, I had seen Africans, but only on the pages of National Geographic or the Encyclopedia Britannica. They were always naked from the waist up, sitting or standing in front of straw huts with thatched roofs.

But, beautiful black-skinned women? American women? In glamorous gowns? With beautifully coiffed hair? Singing, "Come See About ME."? Or, "Stop in the Name of Love"?

Well, they crooned more than sang. And moved their bodies slowly and gracefully and beautifully.

Everything about them sent strong messages about a woman's sexuality to my newly awakening adolescent hormonal level and sense of my own sexuality as one whose skin was darker than many in my high school class.

I. LOVED. Them. 

I was absolutely transfixed.

My parents were absolutely horrified.

I mean, what was the world coming to?

It was 1964. The war in Viet nam was still raging. The Civil Rights Movement had gained a powerful momentum.  The Women's Liberation Movement was in full swing. The whole world seemed chaotic. So were our personal lives.

It was one thing, huffed my father, that Nat King Cole had achieved stardom, but his talent was undeniable. My father could barely stand Johnny Matthus - he thought he was too "effeminate" (who knew my father had 'gaydar'?).

But this - THIS - was beyond the pale for my father.

"Colored people" (well, that's what he called them when he didn't use the "N-word") enjoying the same status as "White" people? Well, that just wasn't my father's understanding of the way the world worked - or, should work.

Pretty soon, he figured, they would start taking jobs away from White men, and you know that wasn't right. Not in my father's immigrant world which had fought for unionization of the factories because, well, they had previously been treated "like slaves". What right, asked my father, did former slaves have to come in and take away a job from a white union man? (Emphasis on the 'man'.)

Meanwhile, of course, the white rich folks who owned the factories and sweat shops still raked in the profit and laughed up their sleeves as they watched the immigrants and working class do their dirty work and fight with the African Americans.

It kept us right where they wanted us. Fighting over crumbs while they had the largest share of the pie.  It was ever thus. 

Before long - and just to keep the peace - I was going over to my friends' houses after school "to do homework" but, truth be told, we watched American Bandstand first and THEN we did our homework.

We watched - and danced - as Chubby Checker sang and did The Twist, and Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson and Otis Redding and James Brown sang in ways we never could and moved in ways we tried - we really, really tried - to emulate, but failed miserably.

Some of us even began to question why the kids who danced on American Bandstand were overwhelmingly Caucasian. Slowly, slowly, slowly, even that audience began to change.

Mary Wells sang "My Guy" while the Temptations sang, "My Girl". Aretha Franklin did me in every time she opened her mouth. "R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Find out what it means to me. R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Hey boy, TCB". Sock it to me. Sock it to me. Sock it to me"

The sexual innuendos were not lost on this budding adolescent.

Groups like the Marvelettes and Gladys Knight and the Pips and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and the Shirelles and the Four Tops, and Commodores, and the Jackson 5 were simply, absolutely, amazingly, undeniably talented.

The first time I heard Little Stevie Wonder play his harmonica and sing "Everybody say 'Yeah!"on his first major hit, "Fingertips," I knew I would be a fan for life. And, that hasn't changed.

So, when the Beatles began The British Invasion with their 1964 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, we were ready for them. When John Lennon sang, "Twist and Shout", we not only loved their music, we marveled that a White (and British at that) man could sing almost as well as a Black man.

That, in my estimation, really signaled that integration, despite the protestations and other evidence to the contrary, had begun. By the time The Stones sang their R&B and bluesy, sexy music, we knew that the deal was signed, sealed and delivered.

Well, at least musically.

Nevertheless, it was a powerful symbol which was not lost on the previous generation.

I recently saw "Motown The Musical" on Broadway, and all those memories came flooding back. It was different for the people of color with whom I attended the performance.

They knew the facts about the performers the way some people keep track of stats of their favorite sports teams.  One was highly critical of the performers, not because of their performance, but because the actors didn't resemble the originals closely enough.

The guy who played Stevie wasn't tall enough. The woman who played Diana wasn't thin enough.

And, hey, "everyone" knew that if you wanted to sing in a black male group at that time, you had to have all "Three T's": "Tall. Thin. Talented." The guys who played The Temptations on stage had only one of the three. They were talented, alright, but neither particularly tall nor thin.

What's up with THAT?

Of course, since Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records, wrote the play, the man who played his character all but wore a halo, and you know that ain't right. 

The symbolic importance of the integration of The Motown Sound into the fabric of the life of this country seemed not as important to her as it was to me.

Motown music, for her, was the triumph of equality for a people long oppressed that was, of course, important; so important that she wanted all the facts of the story to be right.

I've been thinking that 'integration' sounds on some ears the way 'inclusive' sounds on mine.  I can only be "included" in a congregation if the people think I'm not already. But, I am. By virtue of my baptism, I'm already included. How "white" of them to "include" me into "their" home!

I don't know for certain, but I suspect there may be a similar sentiment, at least among some people of color, that "integration" has a similar odious ring. They are citizens of these United States. They are part of "We the people". How "white" of us to include and "integrate" people of color into of the foundational rights of "liberty and justice FOR ALL."

What part of "All" don't we understand?

Music, I think, does understand that.

Which is why music remains so important to me and to so many of my generation.

It provides a song track to the events of our lives. It's one of the reasons I love the movies "Forest Gump" and "The Big Chill," and, more recently, "The Butler". 

In some places, music fills in the blanks of parts of the story when words fail. In other places, it provides the crucial conversation - the conversation just below polite social banter - where the real meaning is kept hidden.

I understand that Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start The Fire" is included in some high school history classes. Its lyrics include brief, rapid-fire allusions to more than 100 headline events between January 1949 (Joel was born on May 9 of that year) and 1989, when the song was released on his album Storm Front.

Every time I listen to it, I hear - and remember - something different. 

If you have Pandora Radio, listen for a while to the music of the various decades. The music of the 40s and 50s gives you a very different feel than the music of the 60s and 70s.  As far as I'm concerned, we could forget the music of the 80s and all be better for it, but those were the Regan years, weren't they? I'd like to forget those, thank you very much.

The emergence of Rap and Hip-Hop tell us some very important things about what was going on, culturally, at the time. Even those musical genres have undergone significant transformation.

Even with all the variations, tune into some of your local radio station sometime. I know many stations these days are "specialty stations" - Latino, Rap, Oldies, etc. Listen to a sampling of them all. Listen to the music people are listening to in your area. Listen to the commentary from the DJ.

You may just learn more about what's really going on in the world - in the lives of people - from the music you hear than any "fair and balanced" news broadcast can tell you.

Even in retrospect, Motown music has important history lessons to teach us.

If you've got the chance, go see Motown The Musical.

You'll leave 'dancing in the streets' - and gaining renewed respect for the history lessons music has to offer us. If we listen.