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, November 30, 2020

Celtic Advent - Day XVI - November 30


Celtic Advent - Day XVI - November 30 

"Hail [Mary} full of grace, the Lord is with you . . . 
Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 
And, behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son 
and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, 
and will be called the Son of the Most High; 
and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 
and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; 
and of his kingdom there will be no end . . . 
The Holy Spirit will come upon you, 
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; 
therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. 
And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth 
in her old age has also conceived a son; 
and this is the sixth month with her was called barren. 
For with God nothing will be impossible." 
(St. Gabriel the Archangel; Luke 1:28, 30, 35-37

Can we talk about Gabriel? 

I've been fascinated by him since I was a child and heard the story of the Annunciation as told by my grandmother. I have no idea where she got her ideas about him but she talked about him as if he were a member of the family. 

Perhaps she learned about him from her mother or her aunts. Perhaps it was from the nuns of her youth in the village. Perhaps it was her own imagination. But, she told the story as if it were taken straight out of her little black bible which was in her apron pocket when it was not on her nightstand. 

She said that Gabriel was among seven of the highly favored angels - which she called an 'archangel' - of God. Each of these angels had their own day: Michael (Sunday), Gabriel (Monday), Uriel (Tuesday), Raphael (Wednesday) Camael (Thursday), Jophiel (Friday) and Zadkiel (Saturday). 

Angels were very real to my grandmother. She talked to them all the time, depending on the day and what was going on in her life. Sometimes, she would wait until Wednesday to talk with Raphael about healing.  

There was an order to all things in heaven and earth and she meant to keep it. 

But, if a novena to a particular saint was not being answered in the way she had requested or thought it should, she would call upon Gabriel any day of the week because, she said, he was God's messenger. 

Gabriel, she said, would take messages TO God as well as give you messages FROM God. 

"Yes," she would say, "Gabriel came to Mary, just as he did to Zechariah to tell him that Elizabeth would conceive a son and name him John, and just as he did centuries before and delivered a message from God to Daniel. But, with Mary, Gabriel also took Mary's answer to God. Mary said, "yes," and Gabriel took that answer back to God."

My grandmother had a deep devotion to Mary. I think the circumstances of her young life gave her a special affinity to the young girl from Bethlehem.  

My grandmother came to this country when she was 13 years old. It was the summer after her mother died and she came to Boston where some of her mother's relatives were living and working as domestics to the wealthy families on Beacon Hill. 

She was the youngest and the only girl of seven. After her mother died, she looked around and, she said, "saw my future - taking care of my father and my brothers."

She wept when she considered what lay before her and spent her nights on her knees, praying to Mary to help her find a way out of her dilemma. 

One night in her room, she saw a great light and, says, she knew immediately who it was. It was the Angel Gabriel, sent to her with a message from the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The path to her salvation was to convince her father that she was grieving - really, really grieving - for her mother, which wouldn't be hard, and that the best medicine for her was to spend some time with her mother's sisters and cousins in Boston. 

Just for the summer. That was the plan. And then, she would return. 

But, she never would. 

It was Gabriel, she said, who had brought her that dream. Of course it was, she said. She could never have imagined that herself, a young girl of 14 who had never even been outside her village. It was Mary who had heard her prayer and Gabriel who brought her the dream, just as he had done for Mary when she was but a young girl. 

She was convinced that an uncertain future in America was better than the one that certainly waited for her if she stayed in her village. And, with Mary and Gabriel on her side, she knew she could not fail. 

So, she told Gabriel to tell Mary 'yes'. Yes, she would do it. She would write to her aunts in Boston and ask them if  they would ask her father to let her stay with them. Just for the summer. She could even help them with their work as domestics. 

It would sound like the idea came from them. It was perfect. 

As I remember her story, my grandmother came over on a large cargo boat with a small bag of clothes which contained a change of clothes, her bible, and some pictures. She slug her beloved Portuguese guitarra over her back and she was off to her great adventure. 

My grandmother said that she spent most of her trip crossing the wild Atlantic ocean in her very small cabin way below deck with her bible and in constant communication with the angels and archangels who were sent by Mary to protect her. 

She said it was Gabriel who kept her company and sang with her as she played the songs of her youth on her guitarra. She said she never felt alone, never once felt afraid. "I had the best company heaven. Gabriel stayed with me the whole entire trip."

She kept Gabriel's words to Mary as her own: "For with God, nothing is impossible."

I have always been enchanted by my grandmother's story, her inspiration from Blessed Mary, and her relationship with Gabriel. 

I have always found Jan Richardson's poem about Gabriel equally compelling because it aligns so well with my grandmother's relationship with the Messenger Angel. 

Both women certainly present different images of Gabriel than what we've been taught in Sunday School or in sermons from the pulpit.

I offer Jan Richardson's poem to you for your meditation this evening. You might find this song, "Gabriel and Mary," by Garrison Doles, inspired by this poem, equally compelling. 

 Gabriel’s Annunciation

For a moment
I hesitated
on the threshold.
For the space
of a breath
I paused,
unwilling to disturb
her last ordinary moment,
knowing that the next step
would cleave her life:
that this day
would slice her story
in two,
dividing all the days before
from all the ones
to come.

The artists would later
depict the scene:
Mary dazzled
by the archangel,
her head bowed
in humble assent,
awed by the messenger
who condescended
to leave paradise
to bestow such an honor
upon a woman, and mortal.

Yet I tell you
it was I who was dazzled,
I who found myself agape
when I came upon her—
reading, at the loom, in the kitchen,
I cannot now recall;
only that the woman before me—
blessed and full of grace
long before I called her so—
shimmered with how completely
she inhabited herself,
inhabited the space around her,
inhabited the moment
that hung between us.

I wanted to save her
from what I had been sent
to say.

Yet when the time came,
when I had stammered
the invitation
(history would not record
the sweat on my brow,
the pounding of my heart;
would not note
that I said
Do not be afraid
to myself as much as
to her)
it was she
who saved me—
her first deliverance—
her Let it be
not just declaration
to the Divine
but a word of solace,
of soothing,
of benediction

for the angel
in the doorway
who would hesitate
one last time—
just for the space
of a breath
torn from his chest—
before wrenching himself away
from her radiant consent,
her beautiful and
awful yes.

—Jan Richardson

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Celtic Advent - Day XV - November 29


Celtic Advent - Day XV - November 29

Today is the first day of Advent on the Church's liturgical calendar. At tables in many homes - Christian and not - the first candle of the Advent wreath will be lit at sunset or at the beginning of the evening meal. Perhaps some prayers will be said which includes something about the significance of that particular candle.

Someone somewhere decided sometime ago that each of the four candles stood for something: hope, love, joy and peace and the fifth one in the middle is the Christ candle. 

When I was a child, my grandmother said that each candle stood for those who prepared us for the Messiah: The Patriarchs, the Prophets, The Virgin Mary, John the Baptist and, of course, the Christ candle.

A few years ago, I started an Advent Wreath to remember the women identified in the genealogy of Matthew's gospel:  Tamar of Judah, Rahab the Canaanite of Jericho, Ruth of Moab, Bathsheba the Righteous, and, of course, the candle for the Theotokos, Mary. (Yes, if you click on each of those links, it will take you to the meditation for each of those women.)

The real controversy - and, of course, there would be a controversy about an Advent wreath as there is about everything else liturgical in the church - is which color candle to use. 

Tradition has it that there are three purple, one pink and one white. But, since the church has been more recently celebrating Advent as a season with its own intent and merits, the penitent purple has been switched for sarum blue. 

The important thing is to have a special "Mary" candle on the third Sunday in Advent. The color of that candle is traditionally pink. +Catherine Waynick was one of the first women to be bishop diocesan in The Episcopal Church. 

I remember clearly her first Advent letter to the diocese in which she added a PS: "People ask me why the third candle of the Advent Wreath is pink. And now, I will tell you: The third candle of the Advent Wreath is pink because Mary really, really, really wanted a girl."

The problem, of course, is finding purple or blue candles. Many supermarkets have a whole section of candles but the color selection for dinner table candles is usually limited to white or red and sometimes green but rarely purple or blue. 

Necessity being the mother of invention - and people being creatures of forgetfulness until it's too late to order them online - you will find some Advent wreathes with four red, one green and one white candle. Or, depending on the stock in the store, four green, one red and one white. 

Or, sometimes, especially for those who really don't know anything about the Advent wreath except it's a Christmas "decoration" and it looks lovely, all five candles will be white. Or, blue. Or, purple. 

And, sometimes there will be four candles and no fifth for Jesus (pun quite intended). 

This - especially this last one of no Jesus Candle - the drives the purists absolutely right 'round the bend and back again.  I have seen some people loose their stuff in a guest's home about their Advent wreath. Which, I think, makes Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus and all the shepherds and angel howl with distress. 

Perfection is absolutely the least thing important about Advent, much less the candles on the Advent wreath.  

In the first place, perfection is not the reason Jesus came into the world. Had we all been perfect, there would have been no need for the incarnation and even less need for redemption. 

It's also absolutely contrary to the significance of the four candles - hope, love, joy and peace. 

So, no arguing over the candles, please.  Let's look, instead, at the intent and celebrate that.

I don't know what is done for Celtic Advent. When I google Celtic Advent Candles or Wreaths, I usually get lovely ceramic or metal wreaths with Celtic triquetra designs and, you guessed it, four candles. 

Which, I suppose, is just fine. I've supplemented mine with tea candles. Just don't send the Celtic Liturgy Police to my home and no one will get hurt.

In two days - December 1st - the commercial Advent calendar begins. The tradition in lots of countries is to create a calendar for the kiddos - usually of a material like felt - with 25 small pockets, each numbered for the 25 days of Christmas in December. 

A small, sweet treat is placed into each pocket and, every day, the children are rewarded for their patient waiting by being allowed a treat at the end of the day. 

In homes not so lucky, the Advent Calendar will be made of paper and the "window" on each number will be opened to reveal a character in the Nativity Story and one of the parents will tell that character's story. 

In very lucky adult homes, the Advent Calendar will come from Aldi and you will have your choice of 24 amazing different cheeses and/or 24 small bottles of wine or beer. I kid you not. 

If you have never been generously gifted with an Aldi calendar or bought one for yourself, 2020 may just be the perfect year to indulge. Run right out tomorrow and get one while there's still time. (They also have bath soap and moisturizers for those who do not imbibe.) It may be one way to cope with the last few remaining weeks of this annus horribillis. 

Advent wreaths are - or, at least, can be - a little daily meditation on the journey toward the Incarnation. It is a journey which begins, of necessity, in the dark as an embryo deep in the womb, but it moves and grows always, to the Light. 

As we light each candle, the amount of light increases, which is wonderfully symbolic of Jesus, the light of the world, coming into our dark and broken world to illuminate the path to healing and wholeness, redemption and salvation, and hope, love, joy and peace. 

Whether you observe a Celtic or Traditional or Cultural Advent, take some time to consider those times when hope, love, peace and joy came into your life. Did it come as a gift or a surprise or was it something you intentionally sought? 

Perhaps you'll want to spend some time thinking about the virtue of patience and whether or not it is in your possession; and, if not whether it might be a good spiritual discipline to cultivate through a spiritual exercise this Advent.

I will leave you with this Blessing for Advent I by Jan Richardson

A Blessing for Traveling in the Dark

Go slow
if you can.
More slowly still.
Friendly dark
or fearsome,
this is no place
to break your neck
by rushing,
by running,
by crashing into
what you cannot see.

Then again,
it is true:
different darks
have different tasks,
and if you
have arrived here unawares,
if you have come
in peril
or in pain,
this might be no place
you should dawdle.

I do not know
what these shadows
ask of you,
what they might hold
that means you good
or ill.
It is not for me
to reckon
whether you should linger
or you should leave.

But this is what
I can ask for you:

That in the darkness
there be a blessing.
That in the shadows
there be a welcome.
That in the night
you be encompassed
by the Love that knows
your name.

Keep Awake!

Keep awake! 
A Sermon on Facebook Live Broadcast Sirach 
26:10 The Headstrong Daughter 
 Advent I - Year B - November 29, 2020 

 It’s Advent I. Already. How did this happen so quickly? Weren’t we just grinching about the unthinkable – that we wouldn’t be able to celebrate Easter in our beautiful church buildings? 

And now, in the midst of a surge or spike in the number of cases of COVID, and while dire warnings swirl around regarding how our Thanksgiving gatherings might become a super-spreader event, many of us are trying to prepare for what our beloved and treasured Christmas services will look like outside of our church buildings. 

Or – gasp! – on Zoom or a Facebook Live broadcast! This time last year, many of us didn't even know that there was even a thing called Zoom. 

I’ve been having a reoccurring dream. I am standing at my dining room table which has been beautifully set with my good china and silver and stemware and a lovely floral arrangement in the center. Someone appears – I can’t tell who it is but I somehow know that it’s a magician. 

I hear a voice say, “And now, for my next trick” as I see white gloved hands grip the end of the tablecloth. “I’ve been practicing a lot lately and I think this time it will work.” 

There is a weighted, heavy, momentary pause and the next thing I know, the tablecloth is being pulled down and with it, all of my silver and china and stemware clinking and crashing and breaking into pieces on each other and then onto the floor. 

I am horrified. All my best stuff is on that table and this amateur has ruined everything for the promise of a cheap dazzling parlor trick. 

The dream ends there, there’s a bit of a pause, and just like a scene from Groundhog Day, the dream repeats itself. Over and over again. Until I wake up yelling, “Stop”. 

Anything in my dream seem familiar to you? Does this past year feel to you like it does to me? Does it feel like we’ve been caught in one continual pull-the-table-cloth-off-the-table trick that’s being held in a beginner’s class for new magicians? 

I don’t think I have to rehearse a litany of the horror show that has been the year 2020. Let’s just say that I agree with a friend of mine who said that this year, for the first time in years, she’s going to stay up to watch the ball drop in Times Square on New Years Eve, not so much to welcome in 2021, but to make sure 2020 is really gone. 

And here we are, ready to get a head start on the New Year with the new liturgical year in the church. I don’t know about you but I’m ready for a clean start, leaving the doom and gloom of Matthew for the immediacy of the year of Mark. 

Except, we seem to have caught Mark at a bad time. The image of God in this 13th Chapter of Mark is one of anger and vengeance. Added to the doom and gloom is an unhealthy serving of anxiety, and we are told to “keep watch” and “keep awake”. 

So, before I go any further, please give me just a minute to put Mark’s gospel into context for you. Mark was writing his gospel in the late 60s of the first century – about 40 years after the crucifixion and resurrection. At that time, the city of Jerusalem was under constant siege by the Romans and the early church that had been forming there was a target for persecution by Romans and Jews. 

If you recall, Rome burned in the year 64, taking with it the Temple. The two founders of the early Christian church, Peter and Paul, had long since died and Christians were feeling a sense of urgency to tell their stories about Jesus – to have a record of them for future generations. 

It fell to Mark, then, to build on the teachings of Peter and Paul to spread the good news to the early church which was suffering oppression and persecution and loss. It’s no surprise, that suffering is the focus of his gospel. Some scholars say that Mark may even have witnessed the suffering of Jesus during his trial and crucifixion - which must have been very traumatic. 

So, it's no surprise that, for Mark, everything – everything, even the resurrection and the second coming – stands in the shadow of the crucifixion. 

I hope that by knowing the context in which Mark was writing will help to put this particular gospel into clearer perspective over the next liturgical year. 

That said, it seems a heck of a way to start the season of Advent hearing about a violent, angry God. Haven’t we had enough, thank you very much? These days, it seems that whoever it is who is tormenting us by causing us to wait for another shoe to drop must be a centipede. 

 If we had our druthers, right now would be a good time to talk about “sweet baby Jesus meek and mild,” wouldn’t it? What’s wrong with just a little Hallmark Holiday schlock? Don’t we all ‘need a little Christmas, right this very minute’? I know I do. 

Except . . . . . . .  I’m remembering a young man I knew, way back when I was a College Chaplain at the University of Lowell in Lowell, MA. I was a brand new priest. This was my first call. I think I remember his name was David. He was referred to me by one of his professors because 

David seemed to be having a hard time controlling his temper. His professor thought that maybe talking with me would help David sort out the jumble of thoughts in his head so he could find a way to focus on his studies. 

When I first met him, David seemed very uncomfortable in my office so I suggested we walk while we talk. That developed into a pattern for our conversations. We’d walk for, oh, maybe a mile to what became “our bench” near the waterfall that ran through that old mill town of Lowell. And there, we’d sit and talk for maybe 20 minutes or so before we talked more on our way back to my office. 

David was very bright but his childhood was marred by alcoholic parents who were very abusive. A string of foster care homes provided the basic necessities of life but not much else. How he stayed motivated to excel in school and earn a full scholarship to college - especially on of the caliber of ULowell with a focus on engineering - was nothing short of a miracle. 

There were scars, however. Deep, painful scars which had not healed completely. I was young and newly ordained. Like a lot of young people in their 30s, I really thought that what the world had been waiting for to fix all of its problems was me! 

My default position was to try to talk to him about the unconditional love and boundless compassion of God. Worked for me, so of course I knew that it would work for others. 

Except that, with David, it didn’t. “Oh yeah,” I remember him saying to me one cold November afternoon on that park bench by the waterfall, “well if God is love and God is so powerful, why did all that bad stuff happen? Why would a loving God do that?” 

Good question, actually. We walked back to my office in silence. David’s question forced me to realize that I had been going about it all wrong, that I had been presenting a one-dimensional, cardboard image of God to him, and that, just as love was complex and complicated, so was God. Complex and complicated, both. 

This has lead the wise to proclaim that God is a mystery.  

The next time we met I told David that I had been thinking about his question and confessed that I hadn’t told him the whole truth. Yes, I said, I believe that God is a God of love and because of that- yes, because of that love - I believe God does get angry. 

In fact, I said I believe God had been pretty steamed about what had happened to David. I told him that I believed that God gets really angry at injustice and violence. 

And, I told David that I believe that Martin Luther King, Jr. was right when he said that “unmerited suffering is redemptive.” 

In fact, I think unmerited suffering is sacramental in that it opens us to the kind of grace that allowed David to find a pathway out of his suffering through education and advancement. 

“You didn’t deserve the abuse you got, David,” I said. “And, I think it made God angry enough that God provided you a pathway out. And, the best part of the story is that you took it. You said ‘yes’.” 

David sat for a moment on the bench as we listened to the water rush over the waterfall. “So,” he smiled and said, “that full scholarship I got really did fall from heaven?” 

“Maybe so,” I said, “but you still earned it.” And then, David reached over took my gloved hand in his and held it for another silent moment.

 “So, when I get angry at things that happened to me, it’s not wrong?” 

 “Absolutely not,” I said. 

“You have every right to your anger. I’m thinking that maybe your parents did, too. The difference is in the choices you made about what to do with your anger. Taking it out on others is never a good choice. Harnessing it and using it for some good, some right, something just and important – which is what you are doing – is a much better choice.” 

Martin Luther King said that the greatest tragedy of his day wasn’t that bad people did terrible things. It was that good people did nothing in the face of grave injustices. 

I told David that God does not sit back and do nothing in the face of evil. God opposes all who harm other human beings or creation. God grows angry when children suffer, when people live in mansions while others are homeless, when corporations pollute God’s beautiful world. God’s anger at injustice inspires compassion in others who open themselves to be God’s vehicles of justice. 

When that happens we call that passion and passion is another name for sacrificial love and sacrificial love is another name for justice and justice, as Cornell West says, is the public face of love. 

David and I walked back to the office in silence again, but the air felt much lighter, more hopeful than the last time. David had come to know something about God and how his story – even the violent and angry parts – was part of the unfolding story of God’s love. 

And I had come to know something of how I might be a better priest and pastor by being unafraid to talk about the intricacies and complexities of God’s love and justice. 

All the way back to my office, David never stopped holding my hand. And, I never stopped holding his hand. After that, he would stop by my office from time to time – especially as he worked through the finer points of his story and his relationship with God. 

I don’t know if he ever realized how much more he helped me than I helped him. 

We are all going to come to those times in life which feels like an endless ground hog day of someone pulling the tablecloth and breaking all the dishes. It can make a body pretty angry. That’s not the point. The point is what we do with that anger. Do we turn it inward and let it depress us? Or, do we channel it for something good, something right, something just and allow ourselves to be passionate people of God? 

Advent is a time to focus on quiet contemplation, to prepare, to “keep watch” for the coming of Christ who will come to us in surprising and unexpected ways. The ancient people of Israel certainly did not expect their redemption to come wrapped in swaddling clothes, a wee babe asleep in a manger. What makes us think we won’t be in for a similar surprise? 

Perhaps God will come to you as God came to me as a young man struggling with anger at his past. Or, as a coworker or neighbor who displays every quality you detested in one of your siblings for which you’ve never forgiven them. 

Or a news story about a person in a place not anywhere near you who suffered a grave injustice that makes your blood do a slow boil and you find yourself wondering what you might be able to do about that. 

 Perhaps you’ll be able to see in those stories a surprising manifestation of a loving, caring God. 

 Or, perhaps God will come to you in a reoccurring dream about someone who pulls the tablecloth and shatters all your good stuff and you realize that you have to do something to change your life to channel your anxieties and frustration and anger into something positive so that you, yourself, don’t become that amateur magician – for yourself or someone else. 

Or, so, at the very least, you’ll get an uninterrupted night’s sleep. 

Advent is not the time to fall asleep in a winter’s hibernation. Mark tells us to keep watch. Keep awake! 

It's Advent. Something really important is about to happen. Can you feel it? 

Keep awake, then. You aren't going to want to miss it. 


Saturday, November 28, 2020

Celtic Advent - Day XIV - November 28


Celtic Advent - Day XIV - November 28

"People want blank-and-white answers, 
but Scripture is a rainbow arch across a 
stormy sky. 
Our sacred book is not an indexed 
answer book or life manual; 
it is also a grand story, mystery, invitation, 
truth and wisdom, 
and passionate love letter."
~ Sarah Bessey, Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible's View of Women

I want to hit pause for just a moment in our consideration of the Annunciation and Incarnation and they ways they are manifested in our lives today to consider, just for a moment, something of the humanity of Mary after these Big Events in her young life.

What happened after the angel Gabriel left Mary? I mean, after she reportedly burst into a poem or a song - what we now call the Canticle of Mary or the Magnificat? 

I'm not sure that happened while Gabriel was there or right after he left. I have a feeling Mary "pondered these things in her heart" for some time before getting right up and running up country to spend some time with her cousin Elizabeth. 

Somewhere along the way, she might have realized that what was happening to her had some striking similarities to what happened to an ancestor of hers.

If you read the Song of Hannah, in I Samuel 2:1-11, you'll see a remarkable semblance, right from the very first words, with the Song of Mary. Or, rather, that the Song of Mary bears a strong resemblance to the Song of Hannah.

Here's the beginning of Hannah's song:

My heart exults in the Lord;
     my strength is exalted in my God
My mouth derides my enemies,
     because I rejoice in my victory.'

Now, Hannah reportedly sang this song as a prayer to God to give thanks for the birth of her son, Samuel. It is very similar to Psalm 113, a prayer of praise and thanksgiving which is traditionally said on the first day of the Hebrew month and on Jewish holidays. 

I imagine that women of antiquity hummed the psalms as they did their tasks, so the format of singing praise to God was not entirely unknown to them, even though it was the men who chanted them in the Temple. 

Or, it could be that the women didn't sing at all, but that the men who told the story of these women wrote the words to these songs years, perhaps decades, after the actual event. 

As a woman who knows what it is both to discover that one is pregnant when that pregnancy was not planned as well as what it is like to have just delivered of a child, I can tell you that bursting into song is not the first order of business - especially with words that are precisely order and perfectly metered.  

All that having been said, the point for me has never been accuracy. The point is the humanity of the characters on the biblical stage. And, the humanity of these two women - Hannah and Mary -  is remarkable in more ways than the songs they are reported to have sung.

Hannah was the "primary and best loved" wife of Elkanah, but she seemed unable to conceive a male child which, in that culture and in addition to her relationship with a man, was a measure of her worth.  Indeed, she was even ridiculed by her rival wife, Peninnah. 

Instead of dissolving in tears, Hannah took matters into her own hands. Now, in that culture, women were not supposed to pray on their own. They had to have permission from their husbands and their priests to petition God. (Imagine!). 

But, Hannah took up the matter directly with God, praying her silent prayer to God so fervently that her husband thought she was drunk. God answered her prayer - an amazing thing in and of itself - but Hannah also named her child, a task and an honor reserved for the man of the house or the priest of the Temple. 

Hannah's fierce religious agency must have inspired generations of women who marveled at her determination and independence. I suspect that Mary must have had thoughts of her ancestor Hannah in her mind before she said 'Yes' to Gabriel. 

So it is no surprise, really, that her song begins much like Hannah's

My soul magnifies the Lord,
     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. 

The thing of it is that women and men have been inspired by the lives of Hannah and Mary. At certain times in history, that is not without enormous significance. 

I think we are in one of those times. No, it's not just about the achievements or advancements of women, important as those are. 

It's about the authenticity of their humanity, the trueness of their sacrifice, the triumph of their spirit despite the enormity of their cultural oppression. 

So, who are the women who have inspired you? The women who have triumphed over enormous challenges and against the odds? The women who were scorned or taunted for not living up to cultural standards and expectations? The women who have been beaten down and yet kept getting up and making sure the children are fed? The women who were told they couldn't and did, anyway? 

Here are a few resources for your meditation.  

Womanist version of the Lord's Prayer, from Beyonce Mass.
written by Rev. Yolanda Norton 

Our Mother,
who is in heaven and within us,
We call upon your names.
Your wisdom come.
Your will be done,
In all the spaces in which You dwell.
Give us each day
Sustenance and perseverance.
Remind us of our limits as
we give grace to the limits of others.
Separate us from the temptation of empire,
But deliver us into community.
For you are the dwelling place within us
for the empowerment around us
and the celebration among us now and forever. Amen.

"Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender." Alice Walker.

"Patriarchy is not God's dream for humanity". Sarah Bessey

"When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid." ~ Audre Lorde

"There is no agony greater than bearing an untold story inside you." Maya Angelou

"Religion without humanity is a poor human stuff." Sojourner Truth

Friday, November 27, 2020

Celtic Advent - Day XIII- November 27


Celtic Advent - Day XIII - November 27

"But what we all can do, as flawed as we are, 
is still see God in other people 
and do our best to help them find their own grace. 
That's what I strive to do, that's what I pray to do every day."
~ Barack Obama

Where do you find evidence of the incarnation? 

Where do you see the 'enfleshment' of God?

To me, those two questions lead me deeper into the mystery of the incarnation of God-in-Christ. It's important to ask those questions and follow them to their answers, even though, more often than not, the answers lead to more questions. 

Harder-to-ask questions. Impossible-to-answer questions. 

Where the person of Jesus is concerned, we are asked to believe that "God took on human flesh and dwelt among us". It is near impossible for the modern, human mind to grasp that concept. It makes absolutely no sense. It defies logic. It is a thing surpassing the limits of human understanding. 

The only way the incarnation makes any sense for me is when I see a spark of the Divine in others. If it's possible for that to happen in ordinary human beings, it's possible that a man named Jesus from Nazareth carried within him more than just a spark but was, like the burning bush that was not consumed that Moses saw, a Divine flame. 

Today is the first anniversary of the death of someone who carried that spark of the Divine that leads me to believe not only in the possibility but the probability of the Incarnation. 

Louie Crew Clay was the inspiration for the founding of IntegrityUSA, an independent organization of, initially, lesbian and gay and then expanded to include, bisexual, transgender, intersex and other queer Episcopalians. 

Louie was born Ermine Louie Clay in Anniston, Alabama, or as he liked to swish, "Quean Lutibelle of the House of the Alabama Belles". After he earned his doctorate, he taught in preparatory schools in the United States, Hong Kong and China and was a tenured professor of English for years at Rutgers University in Newark, NJ. 

He married the love of his life, Ernest Clay, in 1974 although the marriage was not legal until 2013 when marriage equality became the law of the land. 

It was a long, difficult, often painful road from "do-it-yourself" marriages and finally being able to claim the civil right that had always been yours. In that time, Louie worked tirelessly, going wherever he was asked and showing up in places where he wasn't wanted, always using his Southern charm to magnify the strength of his abilities as an evangelist.

There was this one moment which stood out for me. Of all the "Louie stories" in my Louie bucket, this one is no doubt my favorite.

It was around the year 2000. We were somewhere in the midwest. I want to say South Bend, Indiana, in an effort Louie started with conservative evangelical priest Brian Cox, which was called The New Commandment Task Force. 

The goal of this effort was to bring conservative, evangelical, moderate, liberal and progressive Episcopalians together to sit down and talk and find common ground. 

The hope was to avoid schism when the inevitable lesbian woman or gay man was elected bishop in The Episcopal Church and/or marriage equality in the land required sacramental rites in the church. 

One evening we had dinner - eight to ten of us at a round table - with folks from the community. Louie was holding court, as he often did, with me on one side and a lovely elderly woman who was physically frail but had a very strong, very conservative, very traditional conviction about the world and the church and God and people and how it all worked together for the good for those who love the Lord. 

The woman was relentless but she found her match in Louie whose enthusiasm and joy to meet her every question and challenge was irrepressible and infectious. 

It is true that all good things do come to an end, however. Around about 10 PM the two were showing signs of fatigue but no sign of stopping this polite, gentile but very fierce tete-a-tete. 

Louie looked distressed, as did his companion, but then suddenly, inexplicably, Louie's face brightened. Clearly, he got an inspiration and seemed excited to share it.

He pulled up his then ample frame and turned toward her, a bright smile on his face. 

"Suppose . .  . ." he said, "just suppose I were able to go to a physician and change my sexual orientation."

"Oh," said his dinner companion, "Oh, wouldn't that be wonderful? And," she hastened to add,"it can you know. I have heard tell of doctors, good doctors, who can work wonders to help people change their sexual orientation."

"Would you do that?" she asked, half-surprised, have serious. 

"Welllll . . . .," said Louie, "let's suppose I could. Tell me," he continued, "If I could . . . if I could suddenly become heterosexual . . . tell  me . . .. would you allow me to marry your daughter?"

"Why NO!" said the woman, the words spoken so forcefully they pulled her fragile frame up off he chair. "Of course not!"

"Well, why not?" asked Louie.

"Well . . . she sputtered, "... because you couldn't be trusted!"

"Ah, I see," said Louie as he began to push himself away from the table to make his way back to his room for a well-deserved night's sleep, adding "And, I think you do, too."

The woman suddenly realized what had just happened, what she had just conceded to - that a person's sexual orientation is something one is born with and can't be changed. 

As the realization washed over her face, she watched Louie stand up as anger rose in her. 

"You," she said, pointing her finger at Louie, "YOU are ruining my church, the church I love, the church my parents and grandparents held as sacred for me and I have held as sacred for my children but you, YOU are ruining for my grandchildren."

Louie smiled at her graciously and said, "Ah yes, but even if I could change, which I can't, but even if I could, it would still not be enough to change anything, would it?" 

And then gave a polite bow, turned and walked toward his room, leaving her to consider his question.

Louie was best known for his signature saying, "Joy, anyway!" This is one but of the ways he made that saying authentic.

That was one of the times I knew the truth of the promise of our baptism that we are "marked and sealed as Christ's own forever." 

It was one of those moments when I saw the Divine light fully operative in one person - not to stifle the light in another but not at the expense of his own light, either. 

And, it is in such times and moments that my belief in the incarnation is strengthened. 

I invite you to think about those moments in your life - perhaps your own experience, perhaps an experience you had watching the exchange between other people - when you understood that God was present in that person, in that exchange. 

What are the stories in your life when, to rephrase Anne Lamott, "God-with-skin-on" shows up and you understand something more, something deeper, something inexplicable but true about the incarnation? 

Here's a quote to help with tonight's meditation:

"How can you seek God if (he's) already here? It's like standing in the ocean and crying out, 'I want to get wet.' You want to get over the line to God. It turns out (he) was always there." Francisco's eyes began to gleam. "Grace comes to those who stop struggling. When it really sinks in that there's nothing you can do to find God, (he) suddenly appears. That's the deepest mystery, the only one that counts."
~ Deepak Chopra, "Why is God Laughing? The Path to Joy and Spiritual Optimism 

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Celtic Advent - Day XII - November 26


Celtic Advent - Day XII - November 26

"If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you,
it will be enough." Meister Eckhart.

As I write this, we have just finished eating Thanksgiving dinner. I hope the tryptophan stupor doesn't hit as I'm writing this and I can communicate my thoughts on the incarnation in complete sentences that express coherent thoughts. 

The incarnation has proven to be a difficult subject to discuss, even when one is not over loaded with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy - not to mention all the amazing desserts that spread out across our dining room table. 

Thanksgiving 2020 has proven very difficult because we are in the midst of a pandemic. Actually, the COVID virus is "surging" or "spiking" at this time so we can't have the same kind of Thanksgivings we've enjoyed in years past - or, even last year - with lots of family and friends. 

We can't meet "in person". Even those of us who have created safe "pods" of people with whom we feel "safe" being in contact with, it's still a time to be on guard and keep a safe distance - no hugging or physically close contact - washing hands often. 

It's quite the opposite of the Incarnation. 

The holidays are a difficult time to keep your balance - especially for those who struggle with addiction to food or alcohol, or come from a dysfunctional family where holidays turn up the dial to eleven -  but the next four weeks are going to be like Grad School. 

I'm remembering a story told by Anne Lamott about her first sober Thanksgiving. She was very anxious about getting together with her family, which brought new definition to the understanding of "dysfunctional".

As I remember the story, the night before Thanksgiving, a sober gay man with AIDS took her aside after the AA meeting and said, "Listen, Annie. Do you know what the other name for Thanksgiving is?" 

"No," she said, a bit confused. 

"Thursday," he said. "It's Thursday. So, just don't drink tomorrow. Just for tomorrow. Just for Thursday. Just for one day." 

And then, he sprinkled her with purple glitter and said, "I've just anointed you with fairy dust."

She said that exchange with that man changed her life. Just Thursday? What a concept! He said all she had to do was show up and, no matter what, don't drink. 

That's it. Left foot, right foot, left foot, breathe.

And then she said something I'll never forget. She described that sober gay man who sprinkled her with glitter and got her through her first sober Thanksgiving - sober. 

She said, "He was God with skin for me that day."

She said, "So I did what he said, because the only hope we ever have to stay sober and get through a holiday like Thanksgiving is to give up our own agenda." 

She showed up to her mother's house which was filled with all her relatives and her mother took one look at the purple glitter in her hair and said, in that tone mothers use when they are not amused, "Oh for Pete's sake, Annie!"

So Anne shook her head and sprinkled purple glitter all over her mother and they both laughed and laughed.

When her aunties asked if she'd like some wine she said, "No thank you," and that was it. No goading or prodding or that dynamic that is dominant in dysfunctional families - shaming. 

Question asked and answered. Done. 

Then the Really Big Test came straight from the center of the cosmos: Her grandmother spilled some red wine on the sleeve of her white blouse and the fumes of alcohol went straight up her nostrils and she did not freak out. 

More importantly, she didn't drink. Indeed, she said the stain on her blouse was like "The Red Badge of Courage."

All because God with skin on - a sober gay man with AIDS - showed up when she needed it most and gave her the one tool she needed in order to remember that the other name for Thanksgiving is Thursday.  

God with skin on. Sounds an awful lot like the incarnation, eh? 

In my experience, when you have an encounter like that, the overwhelming feeling is one of gratitude. Which makes that a perfect story to combine the incarnation and Thanksgiving. 

I'll leave you with these thoughts on gratitude and give thanks that I seem to have gotten through this meditation before the tryptophan kicked in. No small feat. And, I am grateful.

This is me, sprinkling you with purple glitter. 

"I thank you God for most this amazing day, for the leaping greenly spirits of trees, and for the blue dream of sky and for everything with is natural, which is infinite, which is yes."  ~ e.e. cummings.

"When we learn to read the story of Jesus and see it as the story of the love of God, doing for us what we could not do for ourselves - that insight produces, again and again, a sense of astonished gratitude which is very near the heart of authentic Christian experience." ~ N.T. Wright.

"To be grateful is to recognize the love of God in everything" 
~ Thomas Merton

"Eucharisteo - thanksgiving - always precedes the miracle." Ann Voskamp

"Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer. And let faith be the bridge you build to overcome evil and welcome good. ~ Maya Angelou

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Celtic Advent - Day XI - November 25


Celtic Advent - Day XI - November 25

No wind at the window.
no lock on the door,
no light from the lamp stand,
no foot on the floor;
no dream born of tiredness,
no ghost raised by fear;
just an angel and a woman
and a voice in her ear.

Of all the songs in Advent, I think this one is right at the tipity-top of my list. You can hear the first verse of this song sung here

The tune is 'Columcille' (Gaelic for St. Columba) but it's not the tune we're used to hearing in in the Episcopal Hymnal. (The meter is 6565 D) 

It's from the Wild Goose Community at Iona. The powerful words of this poem and the picture it paints, were written, of course, by John Bell and Graham Maule and can be found in their book, "Known Unknowns: 100 Contemporary Texts to Common Tunes". 

This is the Annunciation - that sacred moment when Gabriel came to Mary to tell her that God had chosen her for a special task and to ask her to respond to his request. 

Here's the second verse: 

Oh Mary, oh Mary
don't hide from my face.
Be glad that you're favored
and filled with God's grace.
The time for redeeming
the world has begun;
and you are requested
to mother God's son. 

I love how the poem gives Mary agency. Not a lot of hymns or the way the story is told or preached do that. In John Bell's version of this sacred moment, it is not assumed that "Lady Mary" would simply, humbly, quietly, like a bleating lamb to the slaughter,  say 'yes'. 

The words Gabriel says to Mary have a different connotation than the interpretations of Luke's gospel (Luke 1:26-38). In the translation of Luke's ancient words, the action is in the future (" . . . and now you will conceive in your womb"), but interpreters have assumed that it "will" happen, no matter what Mary thinks of the plan. 

Luke seems more keen to tell what "will" happen rather than to communicate Mary's will in the matter of what will happen to her body and her life. 

John Bell's poem/hymn conveys that Mary had an option to say no. The words of his poem are: " . . . and you are requested to mother God's son." 

God 'requested' of Mary. What a lovely idea, so in keeping with what we've come to know of God through the revelations of the teachings and the life of Jesus . 

One of the real joys of being a priest is hearing other people's stories of an Annunciation - a call to a vocation, most often to ordained ministry. I have never heard anyone's story including an actual angel, much less one with a name, but I'm sure those stories also exist.

The "angels" in the stories I've heard have to do with receiving a sense of enlightenment while listening to a sermon, or a piece of music, or, in one case, while talking to a homeless person. 

My favorite story is about a woman who struggled for years with a sense of vocation, but because she had also struggled with learning, she thought she was, in her words, "a moron, too dumb to be a priest." 

She saw her skills in the kitchen as her vocation, so she became a caterer, to the raving and appreciative cheers of her clients and customers. "Jesus said, 'feed my sheep'," she said. "I guess that's what I'm doing."

But, the "call" wouldn't go away, so she came to me to do some spiritual discernment. It took me some time of gentle persuasion, but I finally got her to confront her presenting "problem".

I was convinced that she was not "dumb" but probably had some learning disabilities that had been undiagnosed.  I didn't say that to her, of course, but little did I know how close to the truth I had come. 

We finally found a psychologist who would administer an IQ test. 

She had her appointment and, a week later, went in for the results. That afternoon, we had a scheduled appointment. She was noticeably pale and seemed stunned. She sat down in the rocking chair and rocked for about 5 minutes before she finally found the words to speak.

She started by saying that the first thing the examiner asked her was about her son, which she thought quite peculiar. She asked his age and how he was doing in school. 

She said, well, he had had a difficult start but once he had been diagnosed with learning disabilities, he got the help he needed and was actually excelling.

The examiner asked if anyone had ever asked her if she had learning disabilities. She said her heart sank. "No," she answered, "I've just never been very good at school." 

"Did anyone ever tell you that your son's learning disabilities were probably a familial thing - that it probably ran in her family?"
"No," she said. "No, I just thought my son, well, had learning disabilities, as I had been told." 

"Well," said the examiner, "so do you. Which is why your IQ score can't be accurately measured."

She said her heart sank. She just knew that this was where the hammer dropped. She was so stupid, her IQ so low, it didn't even register.

She took a deep breath and asked, So, just how low is my IQ?" 

"Low?" The examiner put her head back and laughed. "My dear," she said, "your IQ is so high we don't have the tools to measure it here." She added, "You are at the level of genius."

As the words of the examiner washed over her, she closed her eyes and, when she opened them, she realized she had gone from a moron to a genius.  Just like that. 

And, just like that, right there in the examiner's room, right in front of the examiner, she heard a voice in her ear say, "I have called you to be one of my priests."

She looked at the examiner and said, "Yes," right out loud, as tears streamed down her face.  She told me that was the first time she had dared say 'yes' out loud but, she said, "I know I had been saying 'yes' in my heart for years."

She said the examiner looked a little confused but understood that something else - something more, something deep, something important, something spiritual - was happening in that room. 

To this day, I refer to that as her own Annunciation. I love how her son was an unknowing vehicle of the discernment of her vocation. 

God speaks to us in various ways - sometimes right into our ear - but first God speaks through other people, other things. We just have to listen to the varieties of ways God sends messages and messengers. 

And, when we do, God does respect our agency, our ability to choose how it is we want to respond. When we do respond, our lives, like Mary's life, are changed and transformed and will never again be the same.

Take some time to consider some of the stories of your own life. Look at the patterns that emerge. Look back at the road you traveled to have made the decisions you made to be where you are now. Is there wind at your window? Or, is there a voice speaking to you through your stillness or surprise or tears? 

I will leave you with the last two verses of Bell's poem/hymn as this evening meditation:

This child must be born
that the kingdom may come -
salvation for many
destruction for some:
both end and beginning,
both message and sign,
both victor and victim,
both yours and divine.

No payment was promised,
no promises made,
no wedding was dated,
no blueprint displayed.
Yet Mary's consenting
to what none could guess,
replied with conviction,
'Tell God I said, 'yes.'