Sunday, June 30, 2013

Jesus Has No Home But Us

There is a theme that runs through our reading today from 2 Kings and the Gospel of Luke which is, are we able to see God’s action in the world around us? And if so, are we willing and able to be participants in God’s action?

In the 2 Kings text this idea plays out through the famous story of Elijah and Elisha. Elijah’s time on earth has come to an end. Elisha wants to take over, take the mantle from Elijah, and continue with the prophets ministry of pointing the people to see God in the world. Elijah tells Elisha that in order for him to do this he must first prove that he can in fact see God action as witnessed by the amazing ascent of Elijah into heaven on a chariot with rivers of fire all around him. Elisha is able to see the ascension of Elijah and so picks up Elijah’s mantle, his cloak, and carry on the prophet’s ministry with the Hebrew people. 

The problem for us in this day and age is we seldom recognize God’s action in the world around us as actually coming from God. When people respond to disaster and tragedy with love and compassion, with both financial and hand on assistance, we think that is people acting on their own volition. It is however equally possible that God is acting in and through us, using us as willing participants in God’s ongoing creation and recreation of this world. 

Our reading from Luke offers a similar idea. Jesus has come to the time in his earthly ministry on this Gospel when the foundation has been laid and now it is time to turn toward Jerusalem. This is a somber turning point for Jerusalem leads to the crucifixion. Jerusalem is the place where people fail to see that God’s love is being fully manifested in the world in and through the life of Jesus. Jerusalem leads to the complete and total rejection of God’s love and action in the world when people turn on Jesus and crucify him.

But first, before heading to Jerusalem Jesus sends the disciples out to tend to the Samaritans, a people who live in conflict with the Hebrews. Like any other conflict between groups of people in our world, whether it is people on differing sides of women’s health care, abortion, marriage equality, or affirmative action – issues that have been so prominent in the news this week – or between different religious groups or different ethnicities – Jesus sends the disciples out into the world to remind everyone that God is a God who embraces diversity. God created this world, in all of its complexity and diversity, and God loves it this way. Jesus going into the heart of the conflict of his day and time, into the land of the Samaritans, reveals this to us today. We are to do likewise – go into the land of the Samaritans of our day and time and embrace one another with love and compassion – even if we do not nor will not see eye to eye on certain matters, we can see eye to eye in the notion that God loves us as we are, diverse. We do not need to try and make everyone be exactly the same as the other. 

The only way for God to convey this message and reveal this reality in the world today is for us, people of faith, to live as God desires. This means we love God, love self, and love others. For Christians in particular it means that we live as Christ’s hands and feet and heart in the world. 

One way I’d like us to do this, live as Christ’s hands and feet and heart in the world, is to participate in the Flat Jesus  project. Based on the internet app, “Flat Stanely” and developed by a clergy colleague, the idea is, we take Jesus with us where ever we go.

 The Jesus we take is an image like this (show options).

You can find your own if you don’t like one of these. Take Jesus with you into your home, sit Jesus at the kitchen table or dining table. Take Jesus with you to work. Take Jesus with you to the park or on a walk or to yoga class. And then take pictures of Jesus in the various places you have taken him. Email me the pictures and I’ll put them on our Facebook page. It’s a little silly – but sometimes God calls us to be silly. Let’s be silly with Jesus and have some fun. But let’s also remember that in reality Jesus can only go where we go, for we are Jesus’ hands, feet, and heart in the world today.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Rules of the Game, more on Soelle Summer and the "Tradition of Obedience"

Our retreat with Jane Redmont “SoelleSummer” is now in its second week. We are reading and learning much about the complex reality that formed and informed Dorothee Soelle (pronounced ZUH-lah with “u” pronounced as in “duh”).

Soelle, paraphrased from her book, “Creative Disobedience”:

A theological lexicon of the 1950s speaks of obedience as the "central point and key thought of the entire Christian message." Of course the meaning here is theological, that is, obedience in relationship to God. For centuries the notion of what a good Christian ought to be was shaped by this virtue. But it has its sociological and psychological consequences. What does it mean when obedience is given the central position? What are the social implications of such a theology?

Jane summarizes the characteristics Soelle offers regarding the “Tradition of obedience”:

Blind obedience in which people surrender their reason and conscience to someone else is not limited to specific nations; neither is collective shame for the deeds of one's nation. There is even an international solidarity among those who feel ashamed about what their governments have done in their name, and this solidarity of shame deserves the adjective "revolutionary." (to which I add: Women, expectations of women, people of color, expectations of people of color, LGBT people, marriage equality, Vietnam, Guantanamo, etc)

The second tradition of obedience to which this book speaks is the religious tradition, with its strong emphasis on paternal authority and children's obedience. There are three structural elements of religious obedience:
- acceptance of a superior power that controls our destiny and excludes self-determination
- subjection to the rule of this power that needs no moral legitimation in love or justice
- a deep-rooted pessimism about humans, seen as powerless and meaningless beings incapable of truth and love.

I found this thought from Soelle to be particularly potent in my reflection:

It is painful to discover that one obeyed the rules of a game without a clear personal understanding of where these rules would lead.

I think of the times when I have refused to play the rules of the game. In that disastrous call of 2008-2009, when I ended up leaving a church position I had barely begun, I both tried to play by the rules and, for reasons of my own integrity could not play by the rules. 

The call was doomed either way, and as painful as it was in the process and the aftermath, I was intentional about maintaining my integrity as a person and as a priest. I was accused of being "authoritarian."  This accusation reveals the shadow side of that part of me that was formed by being the oldest child and only girl in an alcoholic family system. The accusation was also a projection onto me of what others were actually doing, as if it were me. Inherent in the behavior of others making this accusation was the denial of my voice, what I had to say was systematically not heard.  From my years of therapeutic work to unwend myself from that learned  childhood of “controlling” behavior, which is not my natural response in the first place, but a defensive one, I was doing an exhaustive amount of interior work. The primary experience of this time was that I was supposed to be obedient: obedient to the domineering members of the congregation who wanted to control the church through me and who thought, because I was a woman, that I would be obedient; and obedient to the Bishop who, instead of listening to me and taking into account my perspective on the situation, insisted on telling me what to do. Most of the time I did what he said, but in my heart I knew it would probably make things worse. And it did. But as a priest it is part of our ordination vows that we will “obey” our Bishop. (From the Presentation of the ordinand in the liturgy, the Bishop asks “…and will you, in accordance with the canons of this Church, obey our bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work?”).

Maybe you can see the predicament I was in….obeying and playing by the rules of the game came with a heavy price. The tax it took on me to be unable to us my own voice, to be devalued by the Bishop who rejected my perspective as a partner in this process, unable to have others in the midst of the conflict recognize that I had an understanding of the situation, which was based on living it day to day, was heavy. I spent hours in reflection with an outside consultant and worked with a spiritual director. I relied on my many years of therapy to further help my understand my inner landscape and how to be a healthy presence in conflict. The tension within me of trying to navigate these opposing poles of being denied a voice and working for deep understanding and awareness of myself and the situation, was taking a heavy toll on my health. I gained weight, I had constant headaches and acidic stomach, my adrenal gland all but stopped working from overwork, I had to have a hysterectomy, and I have developed a chronic habit of clenching my teeth.

One of my yoga instructors once said that tightness in the jaw is a sign of unspoken words. Yes, I had many unspoken words as I tried to find a way to play by the rules of the game without also losing my integrity.

Soelle writes:

In no area has the ossification of traditions had more serious consequences than in the area of conscience. Under the dictatorship of established norms and behavioral patterns, the sensitivity of the conscience wilts like a plant without moisture. Even the desert cactus is unable to endure such treatment over an extended period. The concept which was responsible for this ossification in both Catholic and Protestant thought was obedience.

…For Scripture to become "the Word of God," that is an enlightening, active, world-transforming event, there must be a reflection on and an understanding of one's own situation. ... It is not enough to ask what obedience is "essentially"; we must know what the results of such an obedience are in order to recognize what it is capable of becoming.

Playing the rules of the game, being "obedient" were not healthy choices for me in this situation. 

I am grateful for Soelle's description of "Creative Disobedience" for I think that is an apt term for the work I was doing then and the interior work I continue to do as I heal from that situation. 

I rejected Christianity for about sixteen years of my life in large part because I rejected the traditional notion of obedience to a "Father-God" who was small, narrow, and demanding. I returned to Christianity when I found a tradition that opened me up to a God is Father-Mother-Creator-Divine-Holy One. A God who is not about power but about love and justice, who offers "rules of the game" that I can live by.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

It Begins with Wonder

Another beautiful day. I was with a group of new clergy colleagues whom I am slowly coming to know. The sun spackled trees and lawn revealed birds and flowers, soaking up every little bit of warmth they could.

When spring first arrived, and the trees were filled with their floral bouquets, I hoped for a pleasant summer of just enough sun and warmth. 

Not like last summer, when the relentless heat and rainless days burned through the crops in my little garden. The early spring hinted of this possibility. It was a long, lingering spring for this region, over a month the trees and flowers held their blossoms. Then, they submitted to a late season frost, three nights in a row, followed by days and days of heavy rain.

Summer has now arrived, the solstice less than a week ago. And with summer, a sudden thrust of intense heat and humidity. With this heat come a string of heavy rain storms, popping up unexpectedly, the risk of tornadoes is a constant threat.

But on that day, the weather was perfect. We gathered at a colleagues home in the country of SE Michigan for a final lunch, ending our year of meetings. We sat in the sun and breathed the fresh air, we watched birds as they roamed from branch to branch in search of the perfect place for a noonday respite.

One colleague mentioned a study on poverty, the depressing reality that poverty no longer looks like it did. Poverty is everywhere. In my small town of beautiful homes, not big or ostentatious, but homes that reveal a people who clearly love beauty, some 60% of the people live below the poverty line. Something like 75% of the kids in the public school system qualify for the free lunch program.

For the first time in my two years with these colleagues I spoke up and shared a little of the hardship I endured following the end of a call, a parish church job gone awry. The details of what led to this horrible time are not particularly relevant, some say every clergy person encounters this at least once in their vocational lives – the unhealthy, conflict ridden church. For me, like many others, the only healthy thing to do was to leave. Tragically I moved my family across the country for this call, and now was stuck in a barren land.

Leaving that job came with heavy consequences. Finding a new call could take years. I applied for and interviewed for many positions. My husband and I moved ourselves across the county again, back to our home base where we had family and friends. We lived on one small, part-time income, about $250.00 a week. We lived in the tiny empty parts of a church rectory, sharing space with the office personnel who used a couple of rooms on the first floor for church business. We used all of our savings. We applied for and received public aide. We qualified for food stamps, $200 a month, for the first couple of months, until our son turned 18, then we were cut off.  Imagine, a family of three trying to survive on $250 a week. True, we were lucky enough to live rent free and had no utilities to pay for, thanks to this shared rectory house. But we still had to pay our bills and pay for gas and food. We lived a very frugal life. I saved every bit of leftover food and turned it into another meal. Finally, eighteen months after I left that job I was hired for a new one. Life has been very, very good ever since.

In the time I was unemployed I struggled deeply. I struggled with grief and guilt over a job gone wrong and the chaos I had caused my family by taking that job in the first place. I struggled with despair and fear that I would never find another job. I am highly educated, but apparently not employable in positions outside the church.  I wondered about the value of my life and sometimes thought my family would be better off without me. Even that thought proved wrong when we had to cancel our life insurance policies and I realized that even in death I had nothing to offer the ones I loved. This was a profoundly bleak time.

The Uses of Sorrow  (Mary Oliver, Thirst)
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.

And yet I worked hard to make the most of it. I found ways to make a tiny income now and then doing church supply work. I also worked on a project for the Church Center in New York and found a way to be employed as a consultant, earning a small stipend and the opportunity for some travel. I prayed a lot. And somehow I also felt peace and joy, a grace that could only come from God. As if God were reminding me that God was with me and somehow all would be okay. In fact all is now better than okay, all is really good!

This summer I am taking part in a retreat led by Jane Redmont focusing on the life and writings of Dorothee Soelle. Soelle was born in Germany in 1929, lived through the holocaust and World War 2. She became a theologian and poet, a writer of spiritual books on God and suffering. She was a political activist for peace. She was a woman of faith. She was a woman who, despite the suffering in her life, and the suffering she witnessed, wrote passionately about joy.

Soelle implies in her essay, “A Spirituality of Creation,” [i] that we need to be educated for joy.

A person without the capacity to find joy is  person has been socialized in a culture that threatens all the capacities of human beings to take in creation in wonder and awe, in self-renewal, and in appreciation of beauty, in joy and in expressions of gratefulness and praise. We are born for joy, something we come to feel and have an awareness of, paradoxically,  when we struggle through life’s challenges. This is most profound when we struggle together, in community for then our connectedness enhances our capacity for joy. 

Religionless cultures fail to provide any education on joy (according to Soelle). Religion, not so much the structure of institutional religion with dogma and doctrine, but rather nurturing a faith life centered on creation and the mysteries of God in creation, enables people to embrace a deep reasonless joy. This is in large part because we embrace the notion that there is a Creator who loves all of creation. A Creator who journeys with us through all of life, including being present in our suffering. Not causing the suffering but being with us in it, with us to sustain us and tend to us, until new life is found.  Without the opportunity to nurture our faith our capacity to enjoy life is diminished for we have no language, no understanding of the mystery of life, and instead think that all of life is a human construct, that there is no Creator. If all of life is a human construct then in the midst of my deepest sorrow, when I am helpless, then I have no hope. But trusting that God cares for me and journeys with me, gives me hope. And hope leads to joy.

"Joy is not derived from special events or the presents we receive; it involves the mere delight in being alive and gratefulness for the gift of life. ... It takes time to learn how to praise the beauty of creation. On the way, we rekindle our gratitude and shed the self who took creation for granted. We recover the sense of awe before life; we recover the lost reverence and passion for the living.(p . 89)

In our retreat, Jane asks:

 “What, for Soelle, characterizes people ‘who have never learned to wonder, to be amazed, to renew themselves, and to rejoice"?   

Soelle describes such people as being broken, unable to relate to other people, unable to engage in relationships with others, unable to express feelings, their perception of the world is reduced, the person’s actions do not make use of capacities, they have  no trust in creation and no trust in one’s own createdness, and no possibility for empowerment. There is a tendency for people in this state of being to trivialize and live with a “dryness of heart”… “understanding the gift of life does not make sense because the “giver” is not known…” thus life is just an accident of nature, a casual event, an unforeseen occurrence…not a gift.[ii]

Like Soelle, I believe that our ability to move through our broken states into a new place begins with wonder. Wondering leads to delight, delight leads to amazement, amazement leads to joy, joy helps us recognize that life is forever being made new again. The capacity to wonder is most fruitful when one has invested one’s life in learning about faith and the mysteries of the Creator. In her book To Work and To Love, Soelle displaces a God who commands and replaces that one with a God who calls us to collaborate with God. Relatedness, communion, connectedness are not only what characterize the divine but what God (in Soelle's view) wants from us humans. Growing a relationship with the Divine Creator enables us to deepen our relationships with all creation, becoming partners with God in the ongoing re-creation of the world.

Soelle believed that artists and children have the greatest capacity for engaging in the on-going creation and recreation of the world, and of opening others to this possibility. I like to think that people of faith are artists too, that we have the capacity to open others to the potential for new life through the practices of faith – through prayer and song and a gathered community worshiping together.  This is perhaps most true when the community is truly focused on embracing the joy of life rather than emphasizing rules determining who belongs, who is good enough. We all belong, we are all good enough, we are all made in the imagination of a creative God who loves abundant diversity as a creative expression of God’s self.  

Again, Mary Oliver says it well:

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
    equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
    keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
    and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
    to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.

[i] Oliver, Dianne L. “Dorothee Soelle Essential Writings:” Orbis Books; Maryknoll, New York, 2006
[ii] Ibid pages 86-92, A Spirituality of Creation

Saturday, June 15, 2013

One thing I know....

This morning dawned bright and sunny, a welcome relief from the seemingly endless rain that is defining this late spring and early summer season in SE Michigan. I do love cloudy, rainy days and take them as an invitation to read, reflect, and do interior work both within me and within my home or the church. However I have a vested interest right now in balancing this rain with sun and warmth: walking to yoga and nurturing my baby vegetable garden.

Walking to yoga is one of my CREDO II "Rule of Life" practices. Five times a week, sometimes more, I rise early and walk to an early morning yoga class. Sometimes the first class is at 7am but on Saturday it is 8am and on Monday, my day off, I usually take the 9:30 class. The walk is only fifteen minutes each way, not far. It is a lovely walk through quiet tree-lined neighborhoods.

Walking is an intentional decision.

 I could ride my bike or drive the car. I do love to ride my bike and on hot summer mornings it is one of my favorite things to do - enjoy some fresh air and vigorous exercise before it is too hot to move. Driving my car the distance of a fifteen minute walk just seems wasteful, so I avoid the car and walk as often as possible.

Walking is meditative for me, peaceful and reflective. Walking accentuates my yoga practice. One day while walking over the bridge that crosses the river I saw a blue heron sitting deep in the woods along the shore of the river. I was close enough that I could see the markings on its beak. It felt secure enough tucked in the woods off the street that I posed no threat. I watched it for a long while. Other birds fly around and past me, hop on the grass and pull up worms and grass seed for breakfast.

Walking invites me to pay attention.

My dog Roxie is over fifteen years old. I use to take her for long walks. Oh, she was in heaven on those walks. But now she has lost most of her ability to stand, walk, and support herself. Her hind legs splay out to the side, curl under themselves, or collapse. Once in awhile she has full use of them and will walk around the house. She still enjoys looking out the window and raising a woof at the dogs that walk by. Mostly, though, she lays under the kitchen table and sleeps.

Last night, after dinner, Dan and I walked out to our vegetable garden. We wanted to see how it was doing and inspect any damage from the heavy rain the night before. I decided to take Roxie and Ruby with us.

This photo of Roxie, on the left,  and Ruby was taken in 2008.

First I had to help Roxie down the stairs and then as she slowly made her way across the lawn to Dan I went back into the house and got Ruby. I let Ruby run off-lead. She is old enough and obedient enough to stay with us. She ran circles around us, delighting in the ability to run, one of her favorite activities. With Roxie's compromised walking gait it took us a while to get to the garden, which is on the other side of the five acres of property. Roxie stumbled and stopped, walked, and dragged her legs, got her footing and managed. Ruby ran and ran. The garden, when we got to it, appeared to be fine. A few leaves on the cucumbers were looking white so I plucked them off. Mostly it all seems to be thriving, although growing slowly. At least it is growing.

After awhile, the sun low in the sky, the air crisp and clear after the rain, the dogs in a kind of doggy heaven from time outdoors, we made our way back home. Memories of many dog walks, years and years with these two dogs, the delight they have been in our lives, flooded me with love and joy. They are both old now, near or past the typical life span of their breeds. I know each day is a gift and a blessing. I remind myself of that when Roxie has bouts of incontinence and is befuddled. And, when she stands and pants and pants and won't lay down.  Despite pain and anti-inflammatory meds I know she must be uncomfortable from arthritis in her back hips and the degenerative disease that is taking away her ability to know what her back end is doing.

I remind myself that one day I too will be old and have a hard time walking.

So yes, I have a vested interest in balancing the rain with some warmer sunny weather.

 It feels good to go for a walk and keep myself in the best shape I can. It's good for the vegetables and the dogs and the humans to get some sun and fresh air.

I hope to be walking for a long while, and I hope maintaining a yoga practice will keep me strong and flexible for years to come.

One thing I do know. Life is unpredictable, who knows what the future holds. So I'll do my best to enjoy each day as it comes along, walking when ever and where ever I can.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Oh Dear, I've Been Thinking...

I've been thinking.

That may sound like an odd phrase. One is always thinking. At the end of yoga class we are invited to lay quietly in "relaxation" and then to sit quietly in "meditation." All the while as I am relaxing or meditating my brain is racing with thoughts, random tidbits of life dribble through. I have meditated long enough that I do not follow these thoughts, they filter through like the background noise of television in another room. Then there is intentional thinking. Like when one is trying to formulate a response to some situation. Or, when one is writing a paper on an important topic. As a priest with a Masters in Social Work and as a person whose life experience has encouraged a lot of professional psychological therapy sessions I am always thinking about what I say and how I behave. I like to think I am a Reflective Practitioner.

image from here

All these years of work through therapy and seminary and the graduate school of social work never lead me to the phrase "Critical Thinking." I first came upon it while helping my son do research for a "Critical Thinking Skills" paper for his psychology 101 class. There is an entire school of thought built from principles that formulate Critical Thinking. Go ahead, Google it, you'll see. (Or maybe you already know this? Certainly if you went to college in the 90's and later you probably had to write a critical thinking paper...but that did not filter into my dance major curriculum of the 1970's).

Here's the thing. I have no idea how to effective maneuver through those experiences where I encounter some kind of injustice or critique and I want to speak out against it. My efforts to formulate a sound response are always muddled. I realize that I am someone who processes data slowly and need to go away and think about it for a time before I can respond. But that need is so unhelpful when one is sitting in a workshop and the facilitator has just said something that I find either injustice or hypocritical. For example I recently attended a workshop with a well known clergy-person. This person laid out an entire "method" of leadership based on finding the positive and the strengths in every situation. And then proceeded to give examples using women in real life and in scripture that always showed the women to be incompetent and the man (either this person or Jesus) to be the person who prevailed in a positive light by pushing the woman to a new level of behavior. One of my colleagues spoke and suggested that, for example, the woman at the well and the Syrophenician woman were both tenacious fighters for their rights, that they showed inherent strengths. But this person refused to see that. I am grateful my colleague spoke up and articulated what I could not - could not because I was angry and in my anger unable to formulate a response.

If I could effectively develop critical thinking skills I might be able to formulate a response to situations like this.

 "Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action" (Google it, you'll find the online source). 

A Critical thinker:
  1. Raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely
  2. Gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards
  3. thinks open-mindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as need be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences
  4. Communicates effectively with others while figuring out solutions to complex problems
  My experience at the workshop: I was unable to listen to the speaker for a good long while because I was angry at the injustice in how women were consisted presented as examples of weakness and men as the ones who rescued them. I was also angry at the complete failure of the speaker, who should have known better, to have insight into his own hypocrisy. This experience has caused me to ponder how I might manage such experiences in the future. Eventually I just got over my anger, but I never said anything. (For the most part I really liked and appreciated what the speaker had to say). I am tired of being a wallflower saying nothing for fear of being  inarticulate. Often when I do speak I find that I am unable to find the words and formulate my feelings into a rational thought. I want to hone my thinking skills, my ability to think through with some sense of self-differentiation - not let my emotions rule the thought process, but serve as a guide through the injustice.

This is a little like meditation or laying in relaxation pose. Critical Thinking, it seems to me, is the ability to set aside my reactive emotions and just sit quietly as if looking at them from a distance. Then, from this "distance" I can examine what I am reacting too, how it makes me feel, and what a just response would be.

I'm fifty-six years old. I really think I should have honed this skill years ago. Sigh. Oh well. Here I go.

Homily for the Festive Eucharist at the closing of the Episcopal Women's Caucus

The readings that we chose for the service tonight were all picked specifically for this service because they lift up the role of women ...