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Saturday, June 10, 2017

I'm a fan of Bill Maher

I am a fan of Bill Maher. 

Yes, he's crass and vulgar but he's also politically astute and fearless in exposing hypocrisy in all its many and varied forms - political, religious, governmental, financial, personal, etc.  - and on all sides of the political spectrum - Republicans, Democrats and Independents.

I also appreciate the fact that it is dangerous to stand at the intersection of political commentary and humor. But, Maher doesn't just stand there. He dances - "like a special kind of monkey" - as he describes comedians. He pushes the boundaries of the intersections. 

He's got "ovaries". Or, as my favorite friends in New Jersey would say, "cojones". He makes me think, opening places in my mind with humor that I wouldn't be able to access otherwise.

I was a fan before he said the "n" word last week. 
I am even more a fan after last night's show.

He invited three African Americans to "school him behind the woodshed" on race: Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson, actor-rapper Ice Cube, and Symone Sanders, a Democratic strategist and former press secretary for Sen. Bernie Sanders.

That was after his sincere apology. He also apologized again - and again - and again, to each of the three guests as well as his viewing audience in general and African-Americans in particular. That took enormous courage and integrity. I admire him for that because that set up an opportunity for everyone in his audience to learn along with him.

Yes, what Maher said was racist but he, himself, is not a "racist".  It is important to understand the subtle, often unseen influence of white privilege - especially as more and more of us have deeper, more intimate relationships and friendships with people of color.

No matter how hard we try, there are some experiences we simply do not share - and there are some words that hold those experiences that we can not understand and must never use.

I recently spent some time with two white men - one older, one younger - who are strong allies in the movement for reproductive health, rights, choice and justice. 
They insisted that we should clear the slate and all get on board working for "reproductive justice". 
How white and male of them, right?

Some of us took it upon ourselves to "school" them about the unique movement for reproductive justice which was begun by Black women as the framework from which they work for reproductive freedom. (Google "Sister Song" for a history of this movement and the framework from which it works for reproductive freedom).

It's easy enough to do. We're part of the movement for reproductive freedom. We're working for justice in sme form. So, it's easier to say, "reproductive justice", right? 

And, it certainly doesn't prohibit white women and men and women and men of other races and cultures to work with and for organizations like Sister Song.
Some of us are working on different frames for that freedom.  It's important to honor and respect our differences. It's what helps us work better together. 

Some of us come at it from the issue of health, emphasizing the particular health needs of women and our bodies. Others come to the issue from the perspective of rights, working the legal implications of the moral autonomy of women. 
Still others - mostly white women who stand on their societal perspective of privilege as white women - insist that the issue is that of choice. 
Women of color, who have to struggle for bodily sovereignty and moral autonomy in concert with the struggle against the formidable foes of racism and sexism and all other forms of oppression, have their own framework.

We must honor and include all these four frames and the places where they intersect. We are stronger when we do that. We can not - must not, should not - appropriate language that belongs to others - especially people of color.

In listening to last night's program, it became clear to me that Maher's "accidental racism" came not from a place of bad or evil intent but of the assumption of privilege. 
"What made you think you could use that word?" asked Ice Cube. 
"I used it without thinking," said Maher. 

"Some people get too familiar and they cross the line," said Ice Cube. "That's our word and you can't have it back."

I can't imagine a clearer depiction of white male privilege than that. 

(You can watch segments of the program here, )

When the news hit the fan last week, there were good, white, liberal folk who called for Maher's immediate firing. 
The apology was not enough for them. They conflated their disdain for Maher's brand of humor with their disdain for racism and called for his dismissal, thereby killing two birds with one stone. 
I get that. I disagree - I don't think it's right - but I get it.

It's the "holier-than-thou" components of the liberal spectrum which concern me the most. In my estimation, they are no different from the extreme other end of the spectrum on the right. 

In their chants all over social media, from "Bill Maher is a Racist" to "Fire Bill Maher" I distinctly heard echos of "Lock her up."
There is absolutely NO conversation with these folk - on the Right or on the Left. It's hard, you know, when you're sitting on your high horse to allow yourself to come down and talk with folk who hold different perspectives.

What really distresses me is that these righteous Liberals hide behind their good intentions and Christianity to defend and define themselves against those on the radical right. 
It doesn't work. Not with me. It's too important to them to be seen as a politically correct uber-Christian with zero tolerance for prejudice. 

It's interesting to me that people of color are willing to demand accountablility while simultaneously offering forgiveness and seizing the opportunity to use a "teachable moment" - which Maher was obviously not only willing to experience in full public view but requested and used all of his resources to achieve.

We could learn alot by keeping our mouths shut and listening more and learning from people of color and people who are otherwise oppressed. As my blessed grandmother would say, "There's a reason you have two ears and only one mouth."

First thing: Stop appropriating language. And cultural or religious expressions. And, dress. And, land.
Anyone who actually watched Bill Maher's show last night knows that he did not get a "pass". 
It is clear that racism is still with us - will probably always be with us - and that racism is enhanced at the intersection of all the other prejudices, especially white privilege. 
If you were watching and paying attention last night, you might have learned something about Maher's integrity -  as well as your own. 

There were hard lessons to be learned in last night's program, some of which made me embarrassed at my own "benign ignorance" and others which made me laugh - right out loud - at myself and the human condition.

Which is why I'm still a fan of Bill Maher.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Pentecost: New ears, new heart, new spirit

Steve Wickham

A Sermon for Pentecost  - June 4, 2017
St. Philip's Episcopal Church, Laurel, Delaware
(the Rev'd Dr. Elizabeth Kaeton)

What can I say about Pentecost that you haven’t heard before? Maybe 10 times before?

That it’s the birthday of the church? Well, that has always struck me as a little too Hallmark-card sentimental by a half. When we listen to the story of Pentecost in the Book of Acts, I don’t see anything there that even remotely looks like the church today.

People talking in different languages and yet everyone understands?

Nope. Not in any Episcopal church I’ve ever attended.

Are there Medes handing out bulletins in the back of the church, while the Parthians prepare for the coffee hour and the Cretans and Arabs warm up in the choir? Are there Elamites, Cappadocians and Asians puting on their cassocks and light their torches?

Um, I don’t think so.

It’s also said that this is the day when God’s people received the gift of the Holy Spirit. St. Paul wrote to the ancient church in Corinth that, No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.”

But, that was back in the day when saying “Jesus is Lord” meant that you were denying the sovereignty of Caesar – a very dangerous thing to do. Seriously dangerous. It could get you killed. So, only by the grace of the Holy Spirit would you even dare to say such a thing. There are still places in the world where saying “Jesus is Lord” can get you killed or tortured or jailed.

But, not here. Not in the United States of America, despite what some people might want to tell you about “religious freedom” by which they mean having the liberty to discriminate against certain people because they claim “the Bible tells them so”.

It’s also a day when preachers like to riff on the themes of peace and forgiveness which we heard in John’s gospel this morning. We also like to sing songs about the Holy Spirit which have lyrics that invite the Holy Spirit with “the murmur of the dove’s song,” and talk about the Third Person of the Trinity as a “Sweet, spirit, sweet heavenly dove.”

Which is not untrue.

The Holy Spirit can be like a dove bringing peace and love and forgiveness and gentleness and sweetness. It’s been my experience, however, that those are the gifts of the spirit. 

We heard some of them in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: 

wisdom, understanding, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, talking in and understanding spiritual tongues – spiritual expressions that seem foreign to us.

In my experience, gifts of the spirit come after the ground is broken open and rocks and old roots are removed and the seed is planted deep in rich, fertilized soil where the seed has to break itself open before new growth can spring forth.

Then, that new growth has to push its way through the hard, dark soil where it must be warmed by the sun and watered by storms that may also bring thunder and lightening and high winds that swirl all around it and above it. And yet, still it pushes its way toward another breakthrough and poke its head above the ground and into a strange new world.

But, that’s not the whole journey. It is still far from bearing fruit. For some plants, it must further transform itself from that small, safe contained seed that put forth a new, green shoot only to go through another yet transformation into a plant. 

That plant must continue to grow and mature, still reliant upon the soil and the sun and the rain to even further dependence upon other creatures like bees to pollinate its flowers. That calls for yet another transformation from flower to fruit or vegetable. 

Sometimes, the fruit or vegetable grows differently. It doesn’t look like the others. Still, it is the same inside. It just looks different. And, it has more work to do, still.

That fruit or vegetable then has to ripen on the vine or tree before it can finally be picked so that it may provide nourishment and sustenance – not for the seed which gave it birth, or the vine which brought it to maturity or the tree on which it ripened.

No, the fruits are to be picked by others and given to others so they might grow and be nourished and sustained. 

Doesn’t seem quite fair, does it? That provides, perhaps, one of the first and most important lessons in life: Life is not fair. That’s not “nice” or “gentle” or “sweet”, but it’s what I know to be true. And, somewhere inside you, in your place of knowing, you know it, too.

So it is with the gifts or fruits of the Spirit. They don’t often just fall into your lap, gently descending like manna from heaven. Oh, they may seem to arrive that way, but that’s the seed of the gift. In order to open and use the gift, you’ve got some hard work ahead of you.

It’s more like what the disciples experienced on Pentecost – something like the combination of the strong winds of a tornado mixed in with the teeth-chattering, bone-shaking effect of an earthquake. It can leave you so thoroughly disoriented that you may appear inebriated and intoxicated. Or, at least, you may find that some will seriously question your sanity.

I’m about ¾ of the way through reading “Always Kristen,” a book by one of your former rectors, Rita Beauchamp Nelson. It’s her story of the journey she made with her transgender daughter as she traveled from, in her words, “It’s a boy!” to “Mom, I’m a girl!”

Now, I don't know about you, but I can't even begin to imagine such an event in my life. I would hope that I would act with as much honesty and authenticity, courage and compassion, love and grace as Rita has. 

There’s one moment in the book that strikes me as “Pentecostal” – well, there are a few (life is like that) but I want to talk about the first time her son Christopher came to dinner as Kristen (at the time she called herself Wendy) – dressed as a woman – because that’s how she understood herself to be. A woman.

Everyone at the table tried very hard to keep it light and not too deep but finally, Kristen blurted out, “Mom, I’m a girl.” There followed some very difficult moments with hard-to-ask questions and harder-to-hear answers. And then, Rita writes:

“Finally, we rain out of questions and answers, and the uncomfortable silence around the table was our signal that it was time for us to say goodbye. We walked down the walkway to the elevator and I hugged Christopher especially long and tight as we said our goodbyes and I love you’s this strange night. I desperately wanted this beautiful boy to know that I loved him and that this turn of events would never change that. I wanted him to know that he would be accepted, always. But loving him and accepting him as a girl still had to be sorted out in my heart. I guess I am still sorting it out, because, to this day, I sometimes question if I have accepted his being a girl or am simply resigned to it.

The elevator doors opened, and I watched Christopher walk in and the doors close. Then William and I fell into each other’s arms and, in the solitude of the empty walkway with only the stars to watch, I quietly broke down and cried as he comforted me. It no longer mattered to me whether anyone was watching. I had started out years before with a concern Christopher might be gay, then a cross dresser, both of which were mild compared to what I had learned this evening. Where, I wondered, would we go from here? Where would Christopher go from here? Even now, when I least expect it, a tear will silently slip down my cheek for the son I lost and the son I wish I still had but never will again.”

I know. That’s probably not the Pentecost story you were expecting to hear this morning. It’s probably not a Pentecost story you’ve ever heard before - or, will hear again.

I stand before you to say that this story, for me, is evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit. If you take some time to look back over your life with this new lens, you may discover that the Holy Spirit has often appeared in moments that, at the time, neither felt holy or sacred.

But, in that moment, something happened. Something that left you with no more questions to ask - no more answers to give. 

Something that broke your heart, but broke it open so that there was more room than you could have ever asked for or imagined. 

Something that stretched your mind past self-imposed and formerly sacred boundaries. 

Something so strange you didn’t have the words or even a language to express it. 

Something that made you sound crazy or inebriated or intoxicated to others.

Love can do that to you. Love can change you and transform your life. Love is a gift of the Holy Spirit that you don’t always seek much less choose but it, rather it seeks and finds you.

And though you may still have some question – some doubt – about what really happened and why it happened, there is no question that it happened and that your life has been forever changed by it.

That’s not the question. The question is, “What will you choose to do about this moment? With this moment?” 

Will you allow yourself to surrender to the process so that you might continue to grow and be transformed by it so that it might bear fruit? Or, will you let it die?

I will leave you to consider these things and offer a prayer that came to me from a friend. She meant it to celebrate the Feast of the Visitation which, this year, was May 31st

I think it’s an especially appropriate – if not a wee bit unorthodox – prayer for Pentecost. I think it echoes the prayer of Jesus who appeared in that upper room and said to his disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Here’s my Pentecost prayer for you. May you hear it with new ears, a new heart, a new spirit.

“May you never be subservient. May you never fall prey to fitting in. May you always swirl in all the directions the sacred winds want to take you. May you never hush your laughter nor your tears. May you breathe without restriction. May you show up every single day to the calling that is you and may you always know the courage of your own heart.”