Monday, September 26, 2016

The gift of a rabbit

Saturday, in the midst of sermon writing and Sunday morning preparations, a parishioner showed up at my door. I live in the Rectory which is on church property, but it is unusual for parishioners to come to the door without being invited. I was on my way out to walk my dogs, so I met the parishioner outside. She told me that we have a rabbit in the community garden. This might not seem unusual, a rabbit in a garden. However, a couple of years ago we installed a high fence including a rabbit guard and we haven't had many critters in the garden since. We wondered if the rabbit had somehow snuck in when someone left the gate open? We decided to open the gate and let the rabbit out. Later, after my walk, I saw the rabbit outside the garden, nibbling on grass. I presumed it would find its way home. However, Sunday morning the rabbit was in front of the church, eating grass. That was when I was certain that this rabbit was not wild, but a pet that someone had abandoned in the garden. With the help of my husband and a few other people, we caught the rabbit and put him in one of our cat carriers. We gave him a soft towel to nestle in and a bowl of water.

All morning we checked in on the rabbit, petting him (it is a boy) and giving him love and affection. We even found a home for him and made announcements that if anyone heard of a lost rabbit to let us know. He went home, snuggled in the arms of a young woman who was already in love with him. I am fairly certain that we will never know who this rabbit belonged too. I imagine he was intentionally abandoned in the church community garden by someone who wanted the rabbit to have food and perhaps be found and cared for.

Still, how sad to just leave him there. Was he terrified to be left? Was he afraid being outside all night? What if the hawk had come around, as it does from time to time? Or the stray cat that roams the property, or the coyotes? Not wanting to contain a wild rabbit we left a vulnerable domestic rabbit outside all day and night. It's amazing he survived.

As the rabbit left for his new home, in the loving arms of his new caretaker, I the Vestry meeting to order. I prayed as I always do in thanksgiving for all the blessings of this parish and for the care and wisdom of the Vestry members in their stewardship of this church and its members. The meeting continued with a discussion on the book, "The New Jim Crow," by Michelle Alexander. Its been my practice to begin Vestry meetings with something - a meditation or a Bible Study - that sets the tone for our meetings, reminding us that our work has a spiritual dimension and is not just a methodical process of doing the business of the church.

Racism is alive and well in this parish despite the heart-felt notion that we welcome everyone. People will acknowledge that racism is in us but getting us to talk about it and look at it and wrestle with it and begin to reconcile it is whole other matter. So, we're reading the book, my hope being that it leads to some deeper insight. The discussion was decent for our first go at it.

Three hours later, after haggling over Bylaw revisions, budget deficit, organ refurbishments, our 150th anniversary year plans, and other items, we were about to conclude the meeting. It had been a long, tiresome day, and like most Sundays with Vestry meetings, I had a headache and was worn thin. It was then that a Vestry member went back to our book discussion and wondered why, with all that we had to do, and considering that our meeting had run an hour over time, we were using time to discuss this book? Not that the book was a bad book for discussion, but perhaps the time used for that discussion could be better spent? How was this book discussion informing us in our mission, in our budget deficit? Some of the members of the Vestry spoke up saying that the book and the discussion were important to them, that it was feeding them spiritually.

I should have left it at that.

But I did not.

A nerve was struck in me. No. A nerve had been sliced open in me and words tumbled out with a passion and vehemence that I rarely show in leadership.

I spoke about the need for us, the Vestry, to engage in spiritual work, that meetings cannot be all about business. We need to be doing work that invites us into a deeper level of transformation. I said that I am doing this kind of work all the time, including in the sermons I preach. I don't want to do this work by myself. I am inviting us to look at the racism and prejudice within us, at the ways we live narrow lives and contain the Good News of the Gospel rather than taking risks. Instead of following Jesus to the table, to the mountain, to the garden, to the cross, we prefer to talk about "business." As if that is the real work we are supposed to be about. I said if this is what the Vestry wants to do, all it wants to do, then they can do it, but I will do not want to come to that kind of a Vestry meeting. They can do it with out me.

Yes, I think I lost it.

Like the rabbit.

It was one thing when he was snug and safe in the garden, at least there he was contained and had a rich garden to feed him. But put outside the fence and left to fend for himself throughout the night, put him at great risk. As these words poured out of me, unbound, I felt myself cut open, the nerve severed. Vulnerable. On the cross.

I aim to be a voice of reason. I strive to listen carefully and speak clearly and concisely and logically. I hate it when I lose it and words pour out of me like they did yesterday. I don't like being that out of control, that impassioned, speaking without thinking first about the words I was saying.

I worry that someone, because I was so emotive, will take offense at what I said or how I said it. I worry because that's what has happened in the past. People get mad at me, even leave the church over things like this.

Women cannot lose it. We are supposed to be nice, thoughtful, smile,  take it lying down, stay confined with the fence of what is socially appropriate.

You know how it is, as a woman, to speak this way? It gets distorted and all kinds of other unrelated emotions get attached to what was said and how it was said.

By the time I got home the headache included my jaw and my neck. I ached all over from words said and words left unspoken. I took two ibuprofen, walked my dogs, did some yoga and meditated.

I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening reading, drinking tea, or knitting. I worked to soothe my soul. But I also thought about why I was feeling, still hours after the meeting, as if I were sliced open and raw, with tears welling behind my eyes, but never spent.

And this is why. Transformation is hard work. It requires deconstructing everything we know about ourselves and then having the courage to build again, anew. With new insight and information and trust. Transformation is not always reasonable or thought through. It certainly isn't cautious. Its perilous.

I do hope that the work I am about as a parish priest is transformational, that the people I serve grow in faith and maturity as Christians, that their lives are changed for the better.

I also know that this transformation begins with me.

Raw, vulnerable, real, and outside the gate of security.


Saturday, September 17, 2016

Detecting God in the mystery of life

Most days you’ll find me spending an hour on the treadmill or the exercise bike reading a novel. Reading while exercising is for me accomplishing two goals simultaneously - both good for my health - exercise and reading. I also aim to spend a little time in the late afternoon with a cup of tea and whatever novel I am reading. Usually I am reading a murder mystery. Currently I am making my way through Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series, which take place in Quebec, usually in a fictional town called Three Pines. Previously I read the entire Maise Dobbs series, written by Jacqueline Winspear, which takes place in London. Both series’s have a lead character, the detective, who is complicated, thoughtful, insightful. In particular, if one starts with the first novel in the Maise Dobbs series and moves through them in order one experiences the development of Maisies’ character as she grows through life’s challenges that include the death of her mother, her survival as field nurse during WWI, the loss of her fiancĂ©, her effort to gain an education and the wise people who mentor her and help her develop her strengths, wisdom, and insight. Whenever she is working a case she listens carefully, observes closely, sets aside all judgment of people and their motivations until all the pieces of the mystery are revealed and she solves the case. Ultimately, her primary motivation is not about punishment, but in bringing forth reconciliation between characters in the story who have hurt one another. This motivation toward reconciliation creates a more complex story and shows a depth of character in Maisie Dobbs, as she learns from her own life experiences. 

I remember when I was in my mid-twenties becoming aware that I had no insight into myself. Lacking self-awareness is fairly common. Unraveling my family system dynamic and developing an authentic sense of my self that allowed for me to claim my values, beliefs, and perspectives and have those be a conscious source of motivation in my thoughts, words, and actions, took decades of work. This work on myself is intentional and ongoing, for one is never fully complete, fully developed, a finished product. Life is forever giving us challenges that, if one engages them with the intent to learn about one’s self and others, will provoke deeper growth and new insight. 

Our readings this morning from Jeremiah and from Luke are a challenge to understand. Luke, in particular, is confusing. Jesus tells a story about a man who looks out for his own interests, makes deals to save his own skin, his own position and job, and Jesus approves. What’s up with that? 

Jeremiah makes a little more sense as he continues his lament about the faithlessness of God’s people who have become self-focused and greedy. They have forgotten all about God and God’s desire for them. Jeremiah warns the people of impending doom if they continue to be so thoughtless and self-centered, they will self-destruct from their own actions. Be aware, he says, consider your motivations and what provokes you to do what you do and say what you say. Aim to have the foundation of who you are focused on God’s desire; that you love God, love self, and love others - this is the warning from Jeremiah. His frustration is that people ignore his warnings and instead ridicule him as if he is the problem.

And, what’s the deal with this parable in Luke? What might we take away from this reading that could offer up some food for thought? How might this reading inspire one to focus on God when the story is focused on the self serving actions of one person to save his own behind? 

It’s going to take a little detective work to reveal some meaning in this text. 

Although fictional detectives both Maisie Dobbs and Inspector Ganache’s characters listen closely and observe people carefully in order to discern deeper emotions and unconscious motivations. This parable provokes one to consider a similar process of character development. The unjust steward gets caught in his laziness and greed and resolves the problem by making deals with other people, which provides them with some relief, satisfies the needs of the steward’s boss and gains the steward accolades for his business dealings, unscrupulous though they are. The steward comes off looking like a savvy deal maker and Jesus says, well done. What the heck?!?

From this one might deduce two things: God loves us just exactly as we are, in all of our imperfections. And, Jesus, who is God’s love revealed in human flesh, tells the story with the hope of inspiring people to grow in maturity and wisdom, and become better human beings. Its intended to be provocative. 

So, this parable is like me when I was in my twenties, getting by with responses learned from my childhood that helped me get along in my family. Those learned responses were challenged when I realized that what had worked in my family were unsatisfying as an adult out in the world. People in the world are not trained to respond as one’s family does, and so the veneer of that old behavior cracks until one wonders what the problem is. When that crack in my self-awareness finally broke open I began to look deeper and wondered how I might live a more whole and satisfying life. What might I do to be happier and healthier? 

The parable commends the person for where they are in life, getting by on old survival mechanisms, but its intent is to provoke one to go deeper. This parable is provocative. It offers a sharp contrast to what is known about Jesus and God. It spins on its head the values, beliefs, and perspectives that Christians have been taught to hold dear.

Dig deeper. Listen closely. Observe. Ponder. Consider all the variables of what one might do in the same situation as this steward. 

Is it ever, really satisfying to protect one’s self at the expense of one’s integrity, and at the cost of the dignity and respect of others? 

How much more satisfying might it be to do the right thing, the God thing?

How much more fulfilling would it be to become motivated by God’s desire, even though it could be difficult, instead of the same old self-centered protection? 

a reflection on the readings from Proper 20C: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Luke 16:1-13









Saturday, September 10, 2016

Clumsy Knitting: lessons in faith, spirituality, integrity

I never thought I’d have grandkids and so I am very excited that my first grand-daughter is due in February. Now, I am knitting up a storm - all kinds of cute baby patterns. But with these new patterns I am also learning new stitches. Every time I have to learn a new pattern and a new stitch I get frustrated. I make mistakes and have to pull out my knitting and start over at least three times. Eventually, if I stick with it, I began to understand the pattern and my hands develop the coordination to knit the stitch. I internalize the pattern and it becomes much more natural to knit. It takes effort but in the end, if I can manage my frustration through the clumsy phase, I end up with a sense of satisfaction and something new has been learned. 

Jeremiah is calling people to a similar process in their faith lives, of being open to learning something new even though it means tearing down something old first. The people are stuck in a view of the world that is focused on greed and fear and anxiety instead of focusing on God. Jeremiah calls them to look at their lives, review their lives, change their lives and refocus on God - but not in the ways they use to focus on God, not by following the rules and going through the motions. No, this new way is about changing them selves at a deep core level so that God resides inside and God works from the inside out.

This is less about mechanically following rules and more about seeking to internalize the love of God so that that love is what informs who one is and what one does and how one thinks and feels. This love is not that warm and fuzzy love of romance. But it is a love that is freely given, God loves us just exactly as we are right now, no questions asked.  God’s love is a love of justice, compassion, and its focus is on making sure that all people are treated with dignity and respect - its focus is on each one of us to become more self aware of the true depth of God’s love - and other aware, of the potency of God’s love for everyone, and of the challenge for us to love likewise.

Take for example the recent Commander in Chief forum that was held this week on NBC. Matt Lauer was the moderator who interviewed first Hillary Clinton and then Donald Trump. During the forum and in the days following a huge furor erupted on Facebook and Twitter over the way Lauer conducted the interviews, particularly how different he was with each candidate. The accusations claim that he was rude to Clinton and passive with Trump and over all exhibited poor journalistic integrity. Regardless of what any one of us might think about that forum, the point is that we live in a society that is increasing aware of the subtle forms of racism and sexism that manifest in public and political arenas and social media won’t let anyone off the hook. Social media may be a little like the Jeremiah of today - calling people to be more aware of the unconscious ways that each of us promote the ills of our society, the institutional and systemic forms of oppression that work to lift up one segment of society at the demise of another: men over women; whites over people of color; straights over gays…to name just a few. 

Some suggest that when history looks back at this year what will be remembered is that journalism was forced to grow, to become more aware and acquire a greater sense of integrity. Only time will tell if this actually happens. 

As harsh as the words of our reading from Jeremiah seem, they speak right into the world we are living in, calling each person to examine their thoughts and actions in the context of what God desires for all people: loving God, self, and others as acts of integrity, respect, and dignity. In Jeremiah’s day, and perhaps our own, this means tearing down what was and building a new paradigm that reveals these core values at our deepest sense of self. 

Jesus is saying this, too, in the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. In these parables we are the lost ones and, God as shepherd and, God as woman, searches for us. In these parables, “to be lost” is a metaphor, a commentary on the core nature of one’s life - lost spiritually, lost because one’s values and perspectives have drifted from God, lost, for example, in the “breaking-news fear-mongering" pulls and tugs of the world as television portrays it. 

The parables are a reminder that when I am lost, God seeks me out. What might I do to prepare myself, to convey a desire, a hope, a willingness to be found? Well, that can happen in any number of ways: coming to church, taking time to pray, examining my thoughts and actions with the intention of learning, growing, changing, and becoming more self aware and other aware, listening to others as they tell their stories of abuse, oppression, hope -  and allowing those stories to shape me into a wiser person. 

It means ripping out the pattern of unconscious racism and sexism that reside in me. Patterns of how I view myself and others, and ripping them out time and time again, until I understand that the patterns are broken. Then, having the courage to replace them with creative, solid patterns of justice and love, patterns that hold together with integrity. Doing this, ripping and starting over and learning a new pattern, until this pattern becomes natural and authentic, until I truly get that God is doing something new, knitting together a better world for all of us. 





a reflection on the readings for Proper 19C: Jeremiah  4:11-12, 22-28  and Luke 15:1-10 



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