"Faith is different from theology because theology is reasoned, systematic, and orderly, whereas faith is disorderly, intermittent, and full of surprises.... Faith is homesickness. Faith is a lump in the throat. Faith is less a position on than a movement toward, less a sure thing than a hunch. Faith is waiting."

Frederick Buechner

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Why not me? And other thoughts on crap, God, and faith....

I am almost sixty years old and in the course of my life I have been blessed and I have experienced profound suffering. When the challenges last too long or are too intense I begin to wonder about God and faith and to question what I believe. 

No doubt, sometimes suffering happens because of my own foolishness. Sometimes I cause my own problems or I make them worse by my attitude or behavior. But, for example, when I hear someone blaming an individual for their life circumstances without recognizing the large socio-economic issues at play, such as when someone will suggest that people are poor because they are lazy or addicts, I think we need to be careful about judging others and casting blame. Sometimes suffering just happens, undeserved, unwarranted by anything a person has done or not done. Often, all of us in developed countries, because of how we live and what we eat, influence the global economy and contribute to poverty, immigration, and other social concerns. Sometimes there is a corporate accountability that needs to be recognized for the suffering of the world.  Likewise blaming God for suffering conveys something false about the character of God. God does not cause suffering. But, that God allows for suffering to exist in the world is one of the great mysteries of life. Why? The book of Job wrestles with these ideas. 

The story begins by telling us that Job is an exemplary person of faith, very faithful to God, a man of tremendous success, peaceful, wise, a good man. And then the Satan makes a bet with God, and everything in Job’s life changes - he loses his house, his means of making a living, his children all die, he is rejected by his community, his wife scorns him, and his friends blame him for the catastrophes that have befallen him. In this story the Satan is a member of God’s counsel, an advisor to God. The Satan is a metaphor, highlighting how random suffering is, striking without cause. And God allows it to happen. But in the end the Satan loses the bet. Job remains faith to God, Job does not lose his faith. He does however ask God about justice, God’s justice, in light of the profound suffering. 

We can ask the same question, where is God in the suffering of the world, where is justice? Where is God’s justice in school shootings? In the destruction of homes and lives from wildfires or hurricanes or any other natural disaster? Where is God’s justice in war and violence and terrorism? Why does God allow horrible things to happen and people to suffer?

We might ask other questions as well, such as, is our faith based on a “commodity principle” of belief? Do I expect God will bless me and my life will be good because I have faith in God? I use to think that way, the more I “believed” -  the more I tried to live the rules of the church -  the more “protected” I would be from suffering. I use to think that “believing” would guarantee a life of peace, or maybe grant me some kind of eternal reward. I believed in a consumerism God who doled out blessing like the values we hold in our capitalistic society, work hard and I will live the American dream, I will have everything I need and more. Believe hard and God will protect me from suffering. 

Except bad things have happened to me, as they do to all people: an illness strikes, a job is lost, pension is stolen by corporate greed, the stock market fails and retirement savings are lost, a loved one dies, suffering happens. No matter how “good” I am, there is no way to avoid suffering.

Paradoxically,  I’ve come to believe that because my life has been filled with tremendous challenges, deep profound, life changing challenges, that I am a better person, more compassionate and self-aware. Through those challenges I have come to recognize that God has journeyed with me and helped me to grow wiser. Eventually, despite all obstacles, and usually in hindsight, I come to see the ways that God was with me all along, through the trials and tribulations. God did not give me challenges to make me believe more, nor to make me stronger, nor to make my faith deeper, nor to punish me, nor to make me wise and more compassionate. God did not give me challenges. Life just happens and life is filled with challenges and suffering. It just is. The real question ought to be, “Why not me?” Why shouldn’t I experience suffering and pain? Everyone else does, its life. That said, I assure you, I don’t like it. Not one bit.

How I live through suffering says a lot about my faith and why I believe. When life really sucks all I can do is trust that this too will pass and one day I will feel better and life will be better. And when life feels good, I give thanks and treasure it because I know it won’t last forever. I try to have some detachment to my feelings of despair and view them with some distance in order to not let them control my behavior. I try to not make others miserable just because I am. I continue to put one foot in front of the other. I keep going. I wait for the time to pass. I pray. I come to church. I stay in community and I work to stay in relationships, to have healthy relationships. I work on my self, to become more aware of my emotions and to tend to my physical health. I believe because I trust that God is with me and God will guide me through the crap, that ultimately God wants me, and you, to have a good, healthy, happy, peace-filled life, to whatever degree that is possible. 

The Gospel reading this morning takes us down a similar path albeit from a very different direction. The Pharisees continue to question and challenge Jesus, hoping to trip him up and catch him in some remark that they can use against him, to discredit him. Over and over, in response to these questions, Jesus replies with wisdom, seeing through their effort to have him convey a narrow sense of God. Over and over Jesus reveals the expansive wide open love of God. The teaching in Mark is less about the legality of divorce and more about justice, God’s sense of justice for all people, a radical hospitality and equality for the oppressed. Jesus gives examples of those most marginalized in society, women and children. 

When we accept God’s grace and have some experience of God’s love in our lives, then we are better able to see and love others as God loves, fully, equally. This expansive sense of God’s grace is intended to affirm our faith and sustain our trust when life is difficult. It is also intended to inform how we respond to the suffering of others - not as Job’s friends do, who blame him for his suffering - but by being compassionate and revealing to others God’s love in and through us. Jesus reminds us that our faith is intended to strengthen our reliance on God, sustain us with an attitude, a deep inner reality, that God is with us, even when there are no obvious signs of God’s presence. We do this by living community, feeling one another’s pain and suffering and, instead of blaming or judging, being wiling to be the face of Christ and the hands and heart of God, by loving one another as God loves us. 

Proper 22B: Job 1:1, 2:1-10; Mark 10:2-16

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Jesus asks, Who do YOU say I am?....

It’s never been easy, or simple, for me to answer the question that Jesus asks the disciples,
“Who do YOU say I am?”

I’ve often wondered, “Who is Jesus to me?”

Messiah. Savior. Redeemer. Jesus. 

These words are heavy baggage in my lexicon. 

As a child I was taught about “right” and “wrong” and that God was counting every infraction. What I heard was, being a person of faith was all about “following THE rules.” The rules were not necessarily the ten commandments, and I didn’t even hear about the greatest commandment to love God, love self, and love neighbor, until I was an adult. What I learned was God was counting my sins and holding every one of them against me. So I better follow the rules or else.

My response to the idea that God was counting my sins and keeping track of every one of them, even the one’s that stayed in my head and were never said out loud or acted upon, was to try and be absolutely perfect.

As if perfection is possible.

The effort to follow the rules in order to be perfect meant that I was unable to have a full understanding of myself. Life is much more nuanced and gray than black and white, and no matter how simple and small and risk free one tries to live there is no way to live without every making a mistake or a bad decision or treating other’s poorly for time to time. 

The church of my childhood taught me that Jesus was the perfect example of someone who lived by rules and never sinned. Jesus was perfect. 

It’s no wonder I had a complicated relationship with Jesus. I became my own worst critic, nitpicking and anxious over the slightest infraction, or denying that I ever did anything wrong -  because  I was trying to keep score, I was trying to get to Terri, 100% perfect, God, 100% pleased.

The end result is that I was keenly aware of, ashamed of, and disappointed in my self and my inability to be perfect. I was insecure and felt unworthy. Not that I could talk to anyone about this. It was easier, so I thought, to go on pretending. Ultimately this kind of thinking was not good for my faith life, nor was it good for my relationships. As I matured I began to realize that the stereotypical Christian messages popularized in the media, some of which I had learned as a child, did not mesh with the way I experienced God. As a child God felt very present to me. God felt loving and kind, accepting me in all of who I was good, bad, whole, broken. It was Jesus who was the problem, at least the Jesus I was taught about. Mr. Perfection himself. I kept my distance from him, from that Jesus. 

I was in my thirties when I began to hear the human side of Jesus coming through the Gospel texts. I was astonished. Maybe, just maybe I could follow that Jesus? 

In the reading from Mark today we hear this same struggle, the disciples, especially Peter, struggling to understand the human and the divine natures of Jesus. Peter thinks of Jesus as the Messiah, meaning, from the human perspective, Jesus is going to have power and authority, he’s going to over throw the Roman government with a grassroots movement that will change the world. Soon the disciples will all be wealthy government officials serving a wealthy emperor king named Jesus! 

But Jesus defines both his humanity and his divinity differently. Being human is not about perfection nor is about a narrow and rigid obedience of rules. Being human and living as Jesus teaches us is about love and compassion. It’s about understanding that suffering happens, we all suffer. Living from that place of love and compassion, we walk together into the abyss of despair. Jesus’ death is not about redeeming a sinful people because God is keeping score. Jesus death redeems sinful humanity because through Jesus God enters into our brokenness and suffers as we do. Jesus suffers with us. 

There are so many places in the world today where God is pleading with people, begging humanity to reveal God’s presence in the world through acts of love and compassion. At our worst we humans reject the broken people and a young refugee baby drowns, his photograph reminding people every where of the cost of selfishness. At our best, when we push Satan aside, push aside that which pulls us from God, and instead stand with signs and welcome refugees, the poor, and the marginalized, into our churches and communities, giving them clothing and shelter and food. When did I see you hungry, naked, and I gave you clothes and food? When did I see you, Jesus? 

Jesus reminds us that we are to follow him, take up our cross, deny ourselves. Taken literally these words have been used to justify suffering. Women in abusive relationships - it’s their cross to bear. People who are poor and suffering - it’s their cross to bear. Justified suffering minimizes what people have to do in response. We don’t have to wonder how our life style has contributed to the corporate greed that impacts the global economy, the world’s political state, or the environment. 

For those whose selves have already been denied by systems of oppression and violence, is “self-denial” really good news? 

What is the life that needs to be lost in order to be saved?
Consider what it would mean if people were no longer greedy or selfish and the impact that would have on the world.  Consider what it would mean if we none of us ever had to experience feelings of being unworthy and unloveable. 

Denying one’s self is not about accepting suffering. We are to deny that part of ourselves that we think is unloveable, that part of ourselves that world tells us deserves the suffering we are experiencing. 

Living as I was when I was trying to be perfect, when I could only see myself as good or bad, that too is a self that Jesus is asking us to deny. 

These are all false selves, built on artificial concepts and values that deny what it means to be a human being, so loved by God that God took on human flesh to be like us.

 Living a full life, one that embraces one’s whole self, means that we look at our failures and our successes, at what makes us good and the ways we are not good, and accept that together these make us whole. When we see ourselves fully, when we have compassion for ourselves, when we embrace the brokenness inside, we can begin to have compassion for others. To take up one’s cross, to suffer with another as Jesus suffered with humanity, is to put one’s self in another’s shoes, to walk their journey, and to feel their pain, and to help in anyway we can, because we acknowledge that we live this same broken life. This is life that Jesus is calling us too because he lived it too. Jesus knows us to our core. 

Who are you Jesus? 

You are me. You are you…and, you…and you…

(a reflection on Mark 8:27-38 for Proper 19B)

Saturday, September 05, 2015

The Syrophenician Woman: Pondering Racism and Reconciliation

This week our Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and our diocesan Bishop Wendell Gibbs invited all Episcopal Churches to participate in an ecumenical movement to work toward ending racism. We were asked to dedicate this day to pondering the sin of racism and how we can work for reconciliation.

Many years ago when I was in seminary the students and faculty had to participate in an anti-racism workshop. At the time anti-racism training was a new concept. One common refrain from a number of seminarians was, “I am not racist.” We all wanted to believe that and to believe that we really wanted equality and justice. The thing is, blatant racism is easily recognized and usually met with outrage, but more often racism appears in subtle ways, so systemic to our institutions, culture, faith, and politics that we fail to recognize it.

For example Christians often speak of the “dark night of the soul.” It’s meant to describe a desolate time when God feels distant and life feels particularly difficult. How we use the word “dark” has a way of reinforcing the idea that dark is bad, anything dark is bad and that influences how we perceive dark skinned people. Conversely it is also true that darkness is where life begins, darkness is where God often appears, darkness is transformative.

Here's another example. Years ago Dan and I were looking to buy a house. While house hunting I had the impression that one house, based on the lingering odor of cooking spices,  was owned by an Eastern Indian or Pakistani family. I remember having a visceral response, like the house was “dirty” and then thinking, that’s a racist response - I would not have had that response if the odor had been cinnamon and apples for example.

Have you ever thought about the messages we receive that perpetuate the subtle forms of racism? For example, have you ever noticed that the “bad guys” on television or in movies are almost always the person of color while the white people are heroes?

Now, all these years later I find myself pondering, again, the phrase, “I am not racist.” I don’t remember, but I think in seminary I was one of the people who raised my hand to this statement. Now I’d never say that, I’ve learned more about racism and the subtle ways it rears its head in me. 

The Bible offers us a few examples of God and of Jesus being changed by the human condition. Both Abraham and Moses argue with God and eventually change God’s mind. In our reading from Mark, Jesus encounters a Syrophenician woman, she is dark skinned, of a race that the Hebrew people of the day perceived to be outcasts and dirty. Jesus brushes her off and tries to ignore her plea. But she won’t be ignored, she speaks up, and ultimately changes Jesus’ heart and mind. The story of the deaf mute which follows shows us what happens when one is opened up, when we begin to see and hear, when we recognize how we are blind and deaf to the prejudice that lives within us. Most of us do not want to be racist, but we need to be open to the reality that we are, its part of the human condition, and we need to be willing to become aware, grow, change and move beyond our prejudices in all the ways they manifest. 

To that end Bishop Gibbs has invited us to participate in a task force on Race Relations and Diversity. In response we are hosting a meeting here at Christ Church on Saturday, Sept. 12 from 10am until noon.

Of this initiative Bishop Gibbs writes: “My hope for the Race Relations and Diversity Task Force is that it will lead the diocese in our corporate ministry to respond to the disease of hate that continues to infect our country through all the “isms” and “phobias” – racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc. and move us toward an ethic of respect and gratitude for the incredible beauty of God’s full and diverse creation…”

I hope all of you will make an effort to attend this event on Saturday and learn how you, how we, can take an active role in this diocese to help heal the brokenness in our world, and therefore how we can be the hands and heart of Christ in the world. 

Reflecting on the readings for Proper 18B

Saturday, August 08, 2015

If I Think I'm Not Racist...one lesson of white girl growing up in the 1970's

The first time I flew on an airplane was the summer of 1971. I was fourteen years old and we were moving to Ft. Worth, Texas. My mother dressed us in matching outfits - she and I wore blue dresses with white stripes, white sandals and floppy white straw hats. My dad and brothers wore blue and white striped shirts with white pants and white shoes. There’s a photograph of all of us at O’Hare airport in Chicago waiting to depart. I barely remember sitting for that photo and I have no memory of the flight. Memory is curious that way, leaving out huge details of one’s life while other aspects remain in sharp detail. 

That year I was in the ninth grade and attended Southwest High School in Ft. Worth. I played bass clarinet in the school band, took Spanish which I loved and algebra which I hated. The whole school would turn out for football games and the stadium vibrated when we sang the school song, “Dixie” while the Confederate flag flew above us. 

Before moving to Texas I had only lived in areas that were completely white, I had never met a person of color. I had only seen people on television, Martin Luther King, Jr., and footage of people rioting in the streets.

Now, here I was in a school that sang Dixie and flew the Confederate flag at the same time that it was preparing the student body and teachers to receive the first black students, a brother and a sister.  Desegregation was the law and this school was trying to comply.

I don’t remember anything about the process of preparing us, only that it happened. There was an electrical charge in the air, like famous celebrities were about to show up. Not long after the brother and sister arrived however, the atmosphere changed. Seething just below the surface  of polite behavior hummed the unreconciled racism of teachers and students. The band teacher started telling “jungle bunny” jokes in class. I didn’t understand them and turned to the black girl sitting next to me and asked her what they meant. She told me he was making fun of black people. I was mortified. That night I told my mother. Then I wrote a letter to the principal reporting the horrible behavior of the band teacher and how wrong it was of him to tell these jokes in class. A few days later I met with the principal, who in my memory was even-keeled. I followed up the letter and the meeting with the principal by quitting band, in protest of the teacher’s behavior.  

As an adult I am surprised that the timid 9th grader version of me took this action of protest. I stood up for something that was wrong and tried to right it. 

Lately, though, with the resurgence of racial tension and violence in this country I’ve been thinking again about my behavior in 9th grade. I think that if I had really wanted to take a stand against racism I would not have quit band. I would have reported the bad behavior and then returned to class and been present, holding me and others accountable to the racism in our midst.

Memory is funny that way. We can go a long time thinking one thing and then, with a sudden insight, our perspective can completely change.

Each one of us can tell a similar story as mine, of a failure to build relationship, of a time when prejudice and racism prevailed in subtle or not subtle ways. It is the reality of being a white person in the world. Racism resides deep within us even when we desire to not be racist.

What connections do you hear between my story, the reading from Ephesians, and the sin of racism? What connections do you hear about tearing apart communities or building up of community?
 (Leave time for people to respond). 

Today, the Vestry has designated the open plate offering, the loose cash and change, to the Rebuild initiative, an effort of churches in this diocese to raise funds to help the black churches, that were burned this summer, rebuild. There is a concert today at 4pm at Church of the Messiah on Grand Boulevard in Detroit with a donation of $20. Or you can submit a check, payable to Episcopal Diocese of MI with "Rebuilding the Churches" in the memo field, and leave it in the collection plate or send to the church office, we will forward them to the Diocese.

A reflection on racism and the reading from Ephesians for Proper 14B: Ephesians 4:25-5:2

Friday, July 31, 2015

Friday Five: Taking Stock....

3dogmom over at RevGals offers this Friday Five meme:
We’re midway through summer (for us northern gals and pals), a good time to pause for a moment to take a breath before the force of autumn’s gravity takes hold too fiercely, and pulls us into its grasp of programming and schedules and commitments. This might be the last chance we have to pause and check in with our inner divine compass, the soul, and reflect on our inner life.  Here are a few questions to consider as we do so.
What is one thing bringing you joy today? The weather is glorious - sunny and warm. We are actually having a real summer this year, and for that I am grateful!
What is a disappointment you are experiencing today? I feel like just resting and playing today, but I have too much work to do. This seems to be my norm - I so want to just play but I have stuff I have to do. I will have a vacation in August, a week with just my husband as we celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. I am very excited about that!!! Which is probably why it's so hard to work....the anticipation...
When you think about the past six months, when did your soul feel most awake? I have been doing a lot of work with Bowen Family Systems Theory and church conflict and self awareness, it's been terrific work. 
When did you experience a sorrow or regret? I wish I had been able to spend more time with family when I was in Utah in June....but I did the best I could. I did have a lot of fun with my aunt, my dad, and my son when we went to brunch on Father's Day and when she and I went to the art fair in SLC.
For what is your soul most longing? Rest. Deep rest, with some fun thrown in. No work. 
Bonus: is there a word or image that succinctly summarizes how you find your soul today? Please share it with us.

This photo was taken on July 2, by my son on our drive from Salt Lake City to Vernal, Utah. We were trying to squeeze in a little vacation time in the midst of a lot of work. That's how I feel today, like I really need a good vacation, time to really rest and renew my spirit after a year of hard work...and before the next year starts up....

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Compassion: a short meditation

Every time there is a natural disaster, a hurricane, tornado, wild-fire, or an earthquake, the news is filled with stories of loss and heart-rending stories of survival. We also hear many stories of how human beings have gone out of their way to help others. These acts of compassion become the heart and soul of life, restoring our sense of hope in humanity. 

Nearly every day we hear a story in the church office from the individuals and families who come to us looking for food and Kroger gift cards. The stories are tragic, but they are also stories of hope.  When people come to the food pantry our only restriction is that people don’t abuse it, that they’ll take what they need, and leave enough for others. And for the most part that is what happens - people take care of their needs and leave enough for others. 

We are a Community-Centered Church, feeding people in mind, body, and spirit. The food pantry, Blessings in a Backpack which feeds hungry kids during the school year, and working with Good Shepherd in Liberia to build a school, are just a couple of the ways we are living out the Good News that Jesus speaks about in the Gospel this morning, having compassion for our neighbors near and far; feeding people hungry for physical, spiritual, and intellectual nourishment. 

Karen Armstrong’s book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, which we read together in the summer of 2011, describes compassion as the root of all of the world religions. She writes that about three thousand years ago a phenomenon happened that moved across the globe and in and through every religion of the day. This phenomenon resulted in what is known as the Golden Rule - do to others what you would have done to you. From Christianity to Judaism to Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Zoarastorism, Confucianism, and Taoism, all of the main religions of the world adopted a primary belief and saying that grounds the faithful in compassionate living. 

Armstrong writes that compassion begins by one acquiring the ability to have compassion for one's self. There is, she writes, a disorder in western culture that stems from our inability to truly care for ourselves. It is grounded in an inability to recognize our feelings and to understand how our unconscious feelings guide our behavior. Developing the capacity to become self-aware, which includes an honest understanding of our strengths and our growing edges, is crucial to self-awareness. In addition, when we have the capacity to truly understand ourselves, and have some compassion for ourselves, we are able to take responsibility for our misdeeds and to make amends. 

For example, we have a tendency to dislike and even attack others who actually exhibit the very qualities that we struggle with in ourselves. I know that as soon as I start to feel anxious and critical of another person it is probably because that person is behaving just like me. When I develop the ability to understand what and why I am the way I am, when I develop the capacity to manage my anxiety because I understand it better, when I have compassion for myself, then I am able to develop the capacity to have compassion for others and their behavior. 

As we hear in our reading this morning from Mark (6:30-34. 53-56), Jesus feeds people. He feeds them with real food, bread and fish, bread and wine..... He feeds them with love and prayer. He feeds them with compassion and healing.  Jesus also feeds himself. He goes off alone to pray, feeding his spirit so he can then care for and feed others. This morning we are reminded to take the time to care for ourselves and to become as aware of our behaviors, thoughts, and attitudes, as we can be in order to not be driven by unconscious, and therefore often destructive energy. We are reminded to treat others as we would like to be treated, with compassion, loving God, self, and others as God loves us. 

Saturday, June 06, 2015

What is home?

Although I moved fifty years ago, this summer I will return to the city of my birth, where I will stay for three weeks. I’ve come back many times, but this will be the longest visit I’ve ever made.  No doubt the contrast of how I began my life and how I live it now will be prominent in my thoughts. True, I think about this every time I return to Salt Lake City. However this summer, when the Episcopal Church holds its triennial General Convention in Salt Lake City, the past and the present will merge in new ways. More specifically, on Sunday, June 28, when the Episcopal Women’s Caucus hosts its ever popular General Convention breakfast, I will celebrate my fifteenth anniversary of ordination to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. I’ve come a long way from the little Mormon girl I was when my family moved away in 1966.

My mother loved to tell the story of my birth. On February 14, 1957, she walked outside on a snowy night, hoping to induce labor, yearning for her baby, me, to be born on Valentine’s Day. I, however, in a rare act of self-definition, at least in terms of my early relationship with my mother, chose to wait until 6pm on February 15th to be born. Both of my parents come from a long line of bedrock Mormons, pioneers who travelled to Salt Lake City by wagon train in 1848 to form the community that became Salt Lake City. Then, family members who had converted to the Mormon faith, left homes in Missouri, Alabama, Massachusetts, and Manchester, England, to travel to Salt Lake City and join the new Latter Day Saints in their promised land. One great grandmother, Johanna, left her husband in England, travelled while pregnant, toting along two other children. One child died on the ship crossing the Atlantic. Johanna and her son walked from Missouri to Utah in her last trimester of pregnancy. A baby boy, my great grandfather, was born shortly after her arrival in Utah. A year later her husband joined her. A few years after that he took a second wife, and refusing to live in a pluralistic marriage, Johanna divorced her husband. She spent the rest of her life in poverty, marginalized from the Mormon community.

I come from a family of people who cut themselves off from their families of origin, moved west and formed new families with spouses and children and neighbors. It wasn’t the utopia they thought it would be. The brokenness in my family is generations old, manifesting in divorces and alcoholism and depression. I have spent my life trying to be healthy and to change the family pattern of disconnect and alcoholic dis-ease. 

All that is how I see my life, now, looking back. As a child however I loved my church and I loved Salt Lake City. I still love Salt Lake City. Being in Salt Lake City is for me a spiritual experience, my soul resonates with a certain kind of peace, it is “home.” Now I have a new church to love, one that has strong roots in Utah. As a child, however, I only knew the Mormon Church. My grandfather was a high priest in the church. My uncle baptized me in the famous immersion pool in the tabernacle at Temple Square. I was nine when he submerged me three times, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. I have fond memories of going to hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on Easter morning, wearing my finest frilly dress and gloves. 

The Mormon Church formed my faith, providing a foundation even as I grew up and moved away from that church. True, I had many questions, even as a child, about the teachings of the church. I could not wrap my head around a God who would send little babies to hell for all eternity simply because they were not baptized in the Mormon Church. I know now that one is not baptized into a denomination, rather one is baptized a Christian. Even as I child I could not imagine a God, who created this diverse and beautiful world and the people in it, requiring God’s people to practice a specific faith in order to be welcomed back into God’s loving arms. That’s one reason I love the Episcopal Church, its spirit of openness and its refusal to require members to adhere to narrow teachings of God and faith, but rather through  the baptismal covenant offers us clear teachings on what it means to live a Christian life founded on justice for all. 

Salt Lake City is beautiful. Nestled in a valley and surrounded by the Rocky Mountains, it holds breathtaking views within the city limits. The center of town heralds Temple Square, a gorgeous piece of property with the Mormon Temple and other buildings that are no longer used as they were when I was a child, but remain as museum pieces with daily tours offered. 

Walking the blocks that surround Temple Square one encounters a variety of people from all over the world. Some are more orthodox Mormons, women wearing long dresses and families with lots of children. Others are modern Mormons, indistinguishable in appearance from anyone else. Mormons are usually well educated, polite, and considerate people. They believe in clean living, that our bodies are temples for our souls, a gift from God which should be tended to with respect. As a result Mormons don’t consume caffeine or alcohol. There is no prohibition against consuming them as if doing so were a mortal sin. They just don’t because they are bad for our bodies. In contrast to this attitude, sugar is a beloved substance. Mormons love their sweets, especially jello, ice cream, cookies, and cake. 

When one is in Salt Lake City one will note that there are no bars. Nor can one purchase alcohol in a grocery store, although point beer (3.2 % by weight or 4% by volume) is available for purchase. At a restaurant one needs to order a meal if one intends to consume alcohol. To purchase a quality bottle of wine one needs to drive to a state owned liquor store, which looks something like a small prison. The appearance alone is enough to induce guilty feelings before one has even entered the doors. A google search will lead one to more in-depth information on Utah’s weird alcohol laws, if one is interested in knowing more. 

Not far from Salt Lake City one will find prime birdwatching sites along the Great Salt Lake. In the winter one can find nearby premiere ski resorts, which in the summer offer beautiful vistas of wildflowers and scenic views. If one is so inclined one can make the drive to southern Utah, a desert land of bluffs and cliffs, home to the Escalante Grand Staircase and Bryce Canyon, Moab, and other areas of rare beauty that rival the Grand Canyon.

The first time I attended the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, I felt like a total church geek. I loved the huge sign hanging over the convention center boldly stating that “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You!” I was impressed by the crowds, by being in the presence of thousands of Episcopalians from all over the world, who had come to do the work of the church, or, just to visit and feel the potency of such a gathering. This summer my life, past and present, will converge into one. The city of my birth, all my family members still living there, and my life now as an Episcopal priest working for justice promoting the dignity of every human being. My Mormon roots taught me to have faith in God, to believe that God loves me, and that God is very present in my life. God is present in all of life. Understanding that has always held me in good stead. It is perhaps the primary reason I became an Episcopalian in the first place. As an adult my response to my childhood faith was to find a church that would encourage me to know God more deeply, not by living with certitude and conforming to church teachings that portray a narrow God, but by finding one that would embrace my questions and help me weave together a new cloth from the many threads of faith that life had offered me. 

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Three in One, there's nothing wackadoodle about it...

Years ago one of my favorite articles in the NY Times Magazine was “On Language,” written by the late William Safire. One Sunday, back in 2008, Safire wrote an article on the word “Wackadoodle.” Have you ever used wackadoodle in a sentence? Well, Safire stated that it’s become quite a popular word. 

Safire quotes examples of a well known pastor being called a wackadoodle, a state legislator being labeled a wackadoodle for some of his beliefs and public statements, as well as Michael Jackson and Tom Cruise being called wackadoodles. 

Safire defines Wackadoodle, its an adjective and takes its first syllable from wacky – that is, ‘far-out, eccentric, off the wall’ possibly from ‘out of whack.’ The doodle ending means “simpleton” and has its roots in the term Yankee Doodle.

Today, Trinity Sunday, has reminded me of Safire’s article and the word wackadoodle. Perhaps my thought process makes sense to you? I mean the Christian understanding of God in three persons can seem a bit “far out,” “eccentric” or “off the wall” and trying to explain it can make the best of us feel like simpletons. 

In the fourth century a huge debate was held by various Church leaders from around the world at a church council meeting in Nicea. Just imagine all the rising stars in Christianity having a verbal slug-fest over the degree to which Christ was human and or divine. In trying to figure that out they also needed to articulate Christ’s relationship to God.  And further more they needed to define the Holy Spirit’s relationship to God and to Christ?

From this gathering a version of the Nicene Creed was written. However various church leaders argued over the creed and various other for another hundred years until a final statement was agreed upon. Now the Nicene Creed stands as the traditional understanding of the Trinity. Many people in the 21st century find its language and its teaching to be antiquated, they don’t like the male gendered language and they don’t like the paternalistic nature of it. But for now it is the church’s orthodox teaching on the relationship between God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. We pray it every Sunday as a reminder of the historic Christian understanding that God expresses God’s self as the creator, and as Jesus who is the Word of God made flesh, and as the Holy Spirit that remains active in the world inspiring creation to seek and follow God’s desire. God is a God of relationship. Historically this relationship manifests as God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. In action this relationship manifests as God the creator, God the redeemer, and God the sanctifier.

These are all big theological concepts  that may leave us more confused than not, much like Nicodemus in his conversation with Jesus. I remember being frustrated in seminary because I wanted one concise definition for words like redeemer, sanctifier, and salvation, but every book I read seemed to use these words in different ways. Today, every Christian tradition has its own variation, its own understanding of what these words mean and of what God is doing in the world. 

Twenty years after seminary this is what I’ve come to understand. We can imagine God as a creator, who inspires new life, new hope. How is it that Jesus redeems us? Some say that by his birth, the “Word made flesh” is what redeems us by giving us a living, human example of how we are to live and love as God loves us. Some say it is his death on the cross that redeems us, taking away the sin of the world in that one brutal act, the death of an innocent person. Others say it is in the resurrection that we are redeemed. The resurrection of Jesus by God is the supreme act of responding to the injustice of the death of an innocent person by bringing new life into the world. All is forgiven. Sanctifier is one who makes holy. The Holy Spirit sanctifies us and the whole world and makes it holy. Holy, because this is God’s creation, we are God’s created beings, we are holy. Salvation is the action of the Holy Spirit guiding us to live as God desires. Jesus teaches us that salvation happens in this world by the way we love as God loves. We are saved from living a life of despair when we anchor our lives in God, and, though prayer, living a life in community, and loving as God loves,  we acquire hope and this hope fills us with peace. This is God’s grace. 

Images of the Holy Spirit are present throughout the Bible, described most of the time as the breath of God, or as a woman, or as wisdom. Church councils in the fourth and fifth centuries had huge arguments over whether Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit or whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son. In the end the Nicene Creed says one thing, the Apostles Creed, which we say at morning prayer or evening prayer and at baptisms, says the other. 

From Isaiah we get the language for the Sanctus, which we sing or say in the Eucharistic prayer, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God…” an image that is Trinitarian in the three fold acknowledgment of God. 

In his letter to the Roman’s Paul is struggling with dualism, body versus spirit, in a good old Greek philosopher’s way, using the thinking of Plato to argue that the Spirit is better. Early Christian writers adopted Platonic thought and made further developments in arguing that the flesh, our bodies, are bad and only the spirit is whole and good. But the truth is we are both, body and spirit, and they can’t be divided, despite Plato’s philosophy. What we need to do is find a balance between the drives and desires of our earthly bodies, which are a gift from God, and our spiritual lives, which keep us connected to God. Seeking that balance is what brought me back to church. Maybe balance is one reason why you come, too?

The Gospel of John gives us the great story of Nicodemus. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night and leaves more confused than before. Nicodemus represents us and our struggle to understand God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. 

Throughout this Easter season we have reflected on the ways God calls us to be in relationship with God and others.We are to work for justice. We are to be working for equality of all people, respecting the dignity of every human being, loving others as God loves us. This love is action oriented, it’s healing the broken relationships we have with our family and our friends. We even called to heal our relationships with people we’ve never met, but for whom are actions impact their quality of life by the food we eat, the water we drink, the clothes we wear, the money we make. 

Trinity Sunday is a call to become aware of the impact our lives have on the world around us. We are called to be spirit led and transformational, bringing new life and hope into the world. And there is nothing wackadoodle about that.

A reflection on the readings for Trinity Sunday...

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Holy Spirit: glue in diversity, creative instigator, wildly playful

For a couple of years Dan and I lived in the desert southwest. It was an interesting place to live, especially if one loves wildlife. Our house sat on the foothills of a mountain range that housed a canyon known world wide for its variety of birds, especially hummingbirds. Walking our dogs around our neighborhood was a lesson in observance, particularly if we were walking in the early morning or evening, during the cool of the day. It was during the cooler times of day that the wildlife came out. Every day we had to navigate around the packs of coyotes in the arroyos, or the bobcat family that lived on the roof of the house across the street. One day we encountered a gila monster sunning itself in a driveway. Vultures flew over head and with their keen vision scoured the earth for animal remains from the night before. Occasionally we were blocked from walking part of a street because of an infestation of Africanized killer bees. Particularly striking were the tarantula wasps. These wasps were the size of my thumb, black with red wings, and a stinger the thickness of a darning needle. Tarantula wasps sting the tarantula, paralyzing it, and then lay its eggs inside the body of the tarantula, which then becomes food for the wasp larvae. The tarantula wasps were not really interested in humans, so they posed little danger to us, despite their daunting appearance. Then there was the pack of javelina that would make a nightly pass between our house and the neighbors. Javelina, also known as collared peccary, look a little a wild boar, or a squatty brown pig. They are incredibly smelly and travel in packs. Javelina are vegetarians, eating primarily prickly pear cactus. We were constantly aware of the potential for scorpions or rattle snakes, and every spider was gigantic and poisonous. 

Today’s Psalm and its mention of the Leviathan reminds me of living in an area where God’s wild creative energy is entertaining and dangerous. Giacomo Rossignolo, who lived in the sixteenth century, painted a fresco of the Leviathan, titled “The Last Judgement.”  It portrays an image of a huge water creature, its jaws wide open and humans inside its mouth. In the middle ages Satan looked distinctly like the human-eating Leviathan. Thomas Aquinas described the Leviathan as the demon of envy, sent to punish sinners. In our own times we hear occasionally of Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster, a Leviathan like creature who lives in the Loch Ness, the largest body of fresh water in Britain. Humans are entertained and entranced by the wild creatures of the earth. Even mythical creatures capture our imaginations. Clearly God must have a sense of humor to have created some of these creatures, just for the sport of it. The Psalm is a reminder that we are to have a sense of humor as we participate in the creativity of the world we live in. Being playful is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Today is Pentecost, the birthday of the church, when the Holy Spirit inspired the followers of Jesus to form themselves into a cohesive unit and spread the message of Jesus far and wide. The Holy Spirit is the glue that holds together all the wildly diverse aspects of creation. The Holy Spirit is the great equalizer, as we hear in the reading from Acts, where all people heard the voice of the Spirit, each in their native tongue. This wildly diverse crowd of people from across the region of the Roman Empire, slave and free, Jew and Greek, male and female, educated and peasant, soldier and tax collector, artisan and potter, baker and farmer, traveling merchant and who knows who else, all heard the Holy Spirit in a gust of fiery wind, breathing over them God’s words. From this the church was born and given its mission. The fruits of our good work, we hear, is love and wisdom. God offers us a clear model of how we are to live, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. God revealed God’s self in human flesh that we might know God’s nature more fully, and love as God loves us, which is a process of maturity and growing in wisdom. 

We hold this understanding of God, the Holy Spirit, the church and its mission, in tension with a world of people around us who have not or do not go to church. If one reads the news or follows news-feeds on Facebook, there are plenty of reasons to doubt or struggle with the institutional church: scandals are pervasive, abuse of children and women is secreted away, arguing over who belongs and who doesn’t, over race or human sexuality, problems in the church seem to be at epidemic proportions. I get it. I know something about the desire to walk away, to disconnect, to leave the institutional church behind, to go it on my own, to be spiritual but not religious. I lived that way for a third of my life. No doubt in some ways it was easier. I didn’t have to wrestle with relationships, I didn’t have to work to figure out how to be a good Christian and how to be a person of faith, how to live as Jesus asks of me. I could live anyway I wanted too. Sure, I could still have good values and still treat people fairly and work for justice. Learning to manage the tension of living in community, fostering a relationship with God, and navigating the complexity of diversity is what it means to be a faithful Christian, growing in compassion and maturity and wisdom and love. To be mature one needs to have resilience, the ability to withstand and rebound from life’s challenges. This cannot happen when one chooses to go off on one’s own. This happens when one chooses to live in community and wrestle with the challenges and joys of diversity anchored in relationship with a community of faith and with God. One of the key components of resilience and building healthy relationship is the ability to be playful and creative.

How are we, the people of Christ Church, seek to live as God calls us? How are we working to be in relationship with one another and the world around us? How are we resilient in facing challenges? How are we playful and creative? I can think of any number of answers to these questions. Among them, our long history is one sign of our ability to do these. Our mission as a Community-Centered church, with a very busy building filled with activities from groups that reside outside of the church as well as those who are members here, is another. Our church picnic, coming up in two weeks, is only one example of our playfulness as we dance, throw frisbees, toss baseballs, play soccer, blow bubbles, it’s a day of outdoor play that brings us together as a community having fun and celebrating life. Our new exterior plaza, the community garden, memorial garden, labyrinth, and pet memorial garden, in fact our church grounds, are a sign of our creativity - beautiful and welcoming to everyone. Many people walk our grounds, sit in prayer at the labyrinth, and soon, will find refreshment in the shade of the plaza and its water fountain. This summer we are launching an outdoor summer concert series, to be held on four Friday nights, two in July and two in August. This concert series is one way we are reaching out to the wider community, building relationships in creative and fun ways. 

Our readings this morning have one theme in common - the call to relationship. Surrounding the call to be in relationship is the idea of being playful and creative. We confuse church when we think it is limited to a building. We confuse the importance of relationship when we are too serious. Pentecost reminds us that church is a body of people working to be in relationship with one another, building a relationship with God, and manifesting God’s love in the world. Church is at its best when the people are diverse, creative, invigorated, prayerful, supportive of one another and a little wild and playful, just for the sport of it. 

a reflection on the readings for Pentecost, Acts 2:1-21 and Psalm 104

Saturday, May 09, 2015

The Holy Spirit, An Agitator for Justice

A reflection on the readings for Easter 6B

In 1914 President Woodrow Wilson declared the second Sunday of May as the national day of observance for Mother’s Day. However, the history of Mother’s Day is much longer than the legislation of a 101 years ago. The ancient culture of Greece and Rome, out of which our Christian faith grew, worshipped the female goddess Rhea, who was the mother of all the Gods. Christians have worshipped Mary, the mother of Jesus, and held her up as a model for womanhood and motherhood. In the 17th century England created Mothering Sunday designed to allow working people to have a day off in order to travel home and spend the day with family. Woodrow Wilson’s declaration was the result of the efforts of two women, Julia Ward Howe and Anna Jarvis. 

You might remember that Julia Ward Howe, following a visit to Civil War battlegrounds in 1861,  wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic. The hymn’s theology is based on the Book of Revelation. Then, in 1870, in response to the fractures left in this country by the death and violence of that war she wrote a Mother’s Day Proclamation. The proclamation asked for women to work for peace, to create a  time when no mother’s son went to war and no mother’s son killed another mother’s child. Howe used her own funds to support Mother’s Day observances which continued for about ten years after her death. In 1908 Anna Jarvis picked up the practice of Mother’s Day by petitioning the church where her mother had been the superintendent of Sunday School for twenty years, to observe her life and ministry. Thanks to her efforts, on May 10, 1908 two churches, one in West Virginia and one in Pennsylvania honored Mother’s Day. Six years later these observances led to the legislation that President Wilson signed. 

Clergy and worship leaders around the country are concerned about what to do with Mother’s Day now that it is viewed as primarily a secular Hallmark card holiday. Now that we are more sensitized to the hurt inflected on women and men who may have had abusive mothers or the pain that women feel when they can’t have a child - Mother’s Day is complicated. We have lost the connection of this day to its roots in the church and its hope for justice for all people.  That our readings this morning from scripture focus on love, justice, and equality, is perhaps, not a coincidence.

Every year, throughout the Easter season, our readings reveal the Holy Spirit as the active energy in the formation of the early church. First we have Peter and Paul in Jerusalem debating before the whole church whether or not circumcision should be required for membership. The argument was, if circumcision was a defining characteristic of a man’s identity as a Jewish Christian should it be necessary for the Gentiles? Could the community embrace members who were different in a basic aspect of their identity? In the end James settled the debate by determining that circumcision was not necessary and Jews and Gentiles, the circumcised and the uncircumcised, could be equal members in the Christian Church. The first great conflict was managed and the church opened its boundaries, coming to understand God, community, and human beings in a new, more expansive way. Other conflicts arose - last week Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch, breaking open the boundaries of race and gender, God’s church  is meant for everyone, equally. This week another action of the Holy Spirit, breaking open boundaries as Peter baptizes a Centurian, a Roman soldier.

Although the readings are essentially the same every Easter season, it seems to me that this year they are hitting a universal nerve that runs through the current of our society, as if the Holy 

Spirit is stimulating the electrical charge. From the public accounting of the deaths of black men and boys, shot by police officers; to the suicide of teenagers, many of whom are transgender, children who are taunted and bullied by their peers; to the baby in Florida whose baptism was initially denied because he has two fathers for parents; television and the internet are reporting on the many ways we are struggling to understand who we are to love. Social media is in an uproar as petitions for justice circulate. Clearly, this love, that the Holy Spirit calls forth in us, is not the sweet romantic love we tend to identify with. The love that the Holy Spirit calls forth is a verb, an action, trying to provoke us to be like James, Peter, and Philip, like Julia Ward Howe and Anna Jarvis, seeking to inspire us to love others as God loves us. It’s the Holy Spirit calling us to live the greatest commandment as Jesus taught it: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul, and with all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. 

No doubt there are many days when I wish Jesus had not laid down that commandment. I do not want to be challenged to love others in this way. I want someone to blame for the anxiety in our world, the anxiety in my life. But, Jesus reminds me to take the log from my own eye, learn to understand myself better, and respond to others with maturity and wisdom instead of anger and blame. This love that God commands is hard work. 

The good news is, we don’t have to do this by ourselves. Thank God, the Holy Spirit is present, guiding, sustaining, and supporting. When I consider all the things in the world today that make me anxious, whether it is health care or marriage, baptism or race, gender, violence, guns, our roads, our government, terrorism, the economy…..regardless of how I view these realties of the world, if I trust the movement of the Holy Spirit, I do not need to live my life being anxious. I do need to be proactive for what I believe in, working for justice as I understand it through the lens of my faith as a Christian.

The readings tell us that the Holy Spirit stirs things up, is an agitator for justice, inspiring humans to work to break down the barriers that other humans have imposed in the name of God and religion. We also hear that the Holy Spirit is the stabilizing energy in this force field of anxiety. She stirs things up and yet she stabilizes the energy by pulling us to Jesus.The Holy Spirit is the center of gravity that pulls all things toward God’s love, striving to bring balance and prevent us from going off course. 

Allowing the Holy Spirit to anchor me to Jesus and to God is an intentional act on my part. Through prayer, worship, and life in community, I learn, over and over, that God will push me to be the best version of myself that I can become, push me to love others with an open and expansive heart, push me to put this love into action, but God will also provide me with the wisdom and the stamina and the courage to do so. 

Again, the Battle Hymn of the Republic comes to mind, and I realize that whether I go or not, God’s truth is marching on. No anxiety on my part will stop the Holy Spirit from advancing God’s desire for love and justice. But, this does not really let me off the hook, it does not release me from the push and pull to do my part. 

Though my eyes are often closed if I but open them I will see the coming glory of God and if I but have a little courage I too can join the march. May I follow in the footsteps of Peter and 
Philip, Julia and Anna, being lead by the Holy Spirit, into the truth of God’s desire for all creation, that we love one another as God loves us. 

Glory, glory hallelujah!