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!

Saturday, May 02, 2015

The Holy Spirit, an Equal Opportunity Lover of People

A reflection on the readings for Easter 5: Acts 8:26-40; 1 John 7:7-21; John 15:1-8

The other day I had a conversation with someone about their childhood and whether or not faith was an active part of it. This person shared stories of growing up in a church with a progressive priest who took the confirmation class to Detroit to participate in the civil rights marches in the 1960’s. It was the first time this person had been in a crowd of black people, and, as an adolescent, the experience made a life-long impression on her.  She was in Grant Park in Chicago during the Democratic Convention of 1968, another transformational experience. Racial and gender issues have defined her life.  Deeply invested in the causes for equality for all people, she said that living a life of privilege pushed her to become of aware of and re-evaluate her assumptions. As a person of privilege she had to unlearn assumptions about the economy and its impact on poverty, race, and gender. She has had to unlearn assumptions about education, employment, family, marriage, and even faith. 

I had another conversation with someone very different, a person who grew up without the assumptions of privilege that come from being part of the dominant culture of our society, who did not have the benefits of being white and upper middle class. The ancestors of this person walked the Trail of Tears from Mississippi to Oklahoma.This person grew up on a reservation but the stories he told were not stories of despair or poverty, which is my impression of life on a reservation. Rather he spoke of importance of family and community. He said that what Native people want today is not a return of their ancient land or other forms of material reconciliation. What Native people want is the opportunity to be who they are, to retain their identity and culture, their values and beliefs and spiritual traditions. This person comes from a long line of people who practiced Christianity and Native spirituality from which he learned to understand the value of unity in diversity; that justice for one segment of society deepens the potential for justice for all people.

Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles this morning highlights these themes of privilege, race and gender and the breaking down of our assumptions. The Eunuch is wealthy and educated, riding in the queen’s chariot and reading scripture. The Holy Spirit tells Philip to go to the Eunuch, and Philip does without hesitation. Which is really amazing - because the Ethiopian Eunuch, by virtue of his race and gender, breaks the purity laws of Moses and pushed every assumption Philip had about life. Based on what he learned as a person of faith, Philip should walk by this Eunuch, keeping a good distance between them. Instead, the Holy Spirit directs Philip to do something he would have found quite radical, and he did it. Not only did Philip speak to the Eunuch, but he baptized him, breaking old religious barriers into new paradigms of the community of faith. 

The Holy Spirit is an equal opportunity lover of souls who does not recognize divisions of class, race, or gender, imposed by humans in the name of God and religion. 

Over the last year Maryjane, the Vestry, and I have studied and discussed Murray Bowen’s Family Systems Theory. The theory focuses on understanding how the underlying emotional processes of an individual is connected to the way one’s family managed anxiety. Patterns of emotional process which become anxious result in a need to either pull people together and  find comfort in all being alike, or they pull people apart and  ease the anxiety by distancing or cutting individuals off from others. 

Unfortunately trying to ease anxiety by either too much togetherness or by distancing or cutting off, does not ultimately end the anxiety because it just rears its head in other ways and other relationships. Family Systems Theory strives to help people become aware of the emotional patterns learned from one’s family of origin and to work toward a more neutral emotional place regarding those emotional patterns. One may acquire a more neutral emotional stance by becoming clear about who one is; learning to manage one’s emotions and anxiety while staying in relationship with others. Managing one’s anxiety means that when somethings arouses a knee jerk reaction in me  I am able to be aware of it and maintain a more neutral emotional stance. So for example I am not managing my anxiety when my elderly senile old dog looses bladder control in the house and I impulsively yell at her and herd her outside. This tends to cause even more loss of bladder control and I end up feeling like a fool because I’ve yelled at my old dog who can’t help herself. Then, if I were really feeling anxious and reactive I would yell at my husband or son for not letting the dog out, as if it’s their fault she is old and senile and sometimes can’t recognize her own bladder sensations. Emotional reactivity and blaming others for my anxiety are key symptoms of family emotional processes. One could also blame others, withdraw, hold it all inside, distance or cut off from others. The solution, which in my better days I manage, is to let her outside frequently enough that we avoid accidents. And recognize that when it does happen it's because I have been too distracted by my own life to pay attention to the needs of my dog. I take responsibility for myself rather than blaming others. 

This is what we are hearing in the reading from the Gospel - pruning ourselves of all that keeps us from being in authentic relationship with God, with ourselves, and with others. In particular pruning ourselves of our reactivity to anxiety, which limits our ability to think creatively and respond with wisdom and maturity. Pruning in order to grow more mature as Christians and as human beings. Pruning out the assumptions we have learned and opening the way for new, deeper understandings of who we really are as beloved people made in God’s image. Each and every one of us, regardless of color, race, economic class, gender, or age, is equally beloved and made in God’s image. 

The point of this is to remind us that the primary value we are asked to live by is love. God is clear about what this love means. It is not an emotion or a feeling; rather God’s love is a verb, it’s an action. We manifest God’s love when love others as God loves us: when we take responsibility for our emotions and actions first instead of blaming others, when we consider our own anxiety and work to navigate it in mature ways, when we break down the walls of our own unseeing, when we work to unlearn our assumptions about life, self, and others. We love as God loves when we love ourselves and others authentically, for who they really are; another human being made in God’s image.

Our readings today remind us that the Holy Spirit is an equal opportunity lover of souls and the fruit we are called to bear is to do likewise, loving others as God loves us. 

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 ...