Growing pains

They say you can do anything
you set your mind to; then they ask you
what you want to be when you grow up.
When you answer them,
the thorns begin to show.

I told them I would be a priest;
they said I wasn’t man enough.
I told them teacher, journalist;
they said my skin was way too thin,
that I could not hold the attention of…

I grew into my too-thin skin
while they were looking the other way.
I told them I would be a priest;
my weaknesses became the tender spots
where who I am bleeds through to what I do.

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Year B Easter 3: joy and disbelieving

Did you ever feel as though you came in halfway through the story? I mean, that’s not always a bad thing: in film school, they teach this technique called in media res for opening sequences, meaning start in the middle of the action; grab the audience’s attention, let them become curious about how we got here, what’s this guy’s deal?*

That’s kind of what happens in this morning’s reading from Acts, which opens with Peter telling the temple crowd, “What’s so surprising about what I just did?” without actually explaining what Peter, in fact, just did. So let’s back up a little bit and fill in the prequel.

One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, ‘Look at us.’ And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, ‘I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth,* stand up and walk.’ And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. All the people saw him walking and praising God, and they recognized him as the one who used to sit and ask for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.

While he clung to Peter and John, all the people ran together to them in the portico called Solomon’s Portico, utterly astonished. When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, ‘You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk?

Which is where we came in: “Why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk?”

Then we flashback to that moment in the gospel where the disciples are in their joy still disbelieving and wondering, and Jesus has to choke down some broiled fish to convince them that he is not a ghost.

The disciples are in the same state, when Jesus comes to them after Easter, as these temple-goers are today, as Peter addresses their astonishment and wonder at the raising up of the man unable to stand up for himself. They know the power of God – each of them knows the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob and all of their ancestors. They know the stories of God’s power, but they are astonished and wonder if they are imagining things when they see it manifested before them.

But that is exactly what happened in the person of Jesus, Peter tells them. God’s glory was made manifest in him, in his life, his death, his resurrection; and yes, he might add, we were just as surprised as you are, and just as doubtful and disbelieving, even as we rejoiced. But he was, he is, the real deal. He proved it to us, as he is proving it now to you.

Because, Peter goes on to say, it is not by our own power or piety that we lifted this man up, who was previously unable to stand up for himself, but by the power in the name of Jesus of Nazareth.

Peter knows that left to his own devices, despite his best intentions, he was overwhelmed by fear, circumstance, and status into denying Jesus when he was at death’s door. He knows that had Jesus not returned to him, speaking words of peace, and reassurance, that he would have remained hidden behind locked doors for as long as it took for time to run out on him, for life to run out.

Peter knows that it is only by the power of the new life that Jesus brought along with his resurrected body – the breath of the Holy Spirit, the renewal of the power of prophesy and the knowledge of the love of God – only by this power, and not by his own piety, does Peter have the wherewithal to lift up the man unable to stand by himself.

And he offers his fellow Israelites, the chosen people of God, the same power; even those who out of jealousy, shame, and sin went even further than he did in denying the life of God in Jesus, when Jesus was at death’s door. Peter, who has heard the word of peace offered by the risen Christ, known his forgiveness and healing reconciliation, offers the same to the rest of the people of God, inviting them to join in the deeds of power made possible by the Holy Spirit.

Likewise we are not to be restricted by our own sense of shame, inadequacy, failure or betrayal, even when we doubt the difference we can make; because it is not by our own power and piety that we are invited to reach out our right hands to lift up those hindered from standing up for themselves, but by the power of the anointing of the Holy Spirit, given to us at baptism; by the power of the resurrection, lifting up life over death; by the power of God, whose glory has been revealed to us in the Risen Christ, and once seen, can never be forgotten; is seen even in the scriptures that preceded him; which has been known to us since the beginning of time, if only we had eyes to see and ears to hear.

Peter does three things, when he meets this man at the Beautiful Gate. He looks him in the eye, intently, seeing in him the divine image, the spark of the Holy Spirit deep within his body and soul. He takes him by the right hand, holding him like a brother. He offers him the name in which our healing is given: healing from sin, from sorrow, from shame and exile.

Do not be astonished at what can be accomplished by the Spirit of God, working in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, through the everyday encounters of those we meet along the way. Only wonder when that power will manifest itself in one whose eyes you meet, and greet the divine image in another; one whose hand you reach for, to lift up those hindered from standing up for themselves; and when you see it, give thanks to the living God, leaping and praising God for all to see and wonder.

In the name of Jesus, the Risen Christ. Amen.

* I’ve never been to film school, but someone told me this was true.

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There’s a Woman in the Pulpit

Disclosure: I have a horse in this race, aka a bug in this bed. My own contribution, “Blessed Bedbugs,” infests the of the book entitled, “They Don’t Teach That in Seminary.” Yep. True story.

“She said she wanted the whole family to take Communion together before she dies,” said Dad. “She must have been rambling.”

She wasn’t rambling. I remembered how she wept when I served her the wine for the first time. My mother died that summer, while I was deciding to apply for ordination in the Episcopal Church, across the ocean from my parental home. So of course, when I read Patricia J. Raube’s essay, “Couldn’t You Wait Until I’m Dead?” about her own journey to ordination and her own mother, I wept.

One of the remarkable things about this collection of essays, stories, poetry and prayers, curated and edited by Martha Spong, is the way that it reaches out into eternity and telescopes it down into the splash from the keel of a newly-launched ship hitting the Clyde; the waters of baptism, sufficient whether all-encompassing or delivered from a pipette onto a newborn baby’s brow; the grain of salt left in the corner of an eye after the unspilt tears dry out.

Then out again into the blue, via the plains, the mountains, the oceans.

If Raube reminded me of my mother, then Sharon M. Temple’s story of picking girls up off the church steps and driving them to get their first tattoos reminded me of my own daughters. Elizabeth Evans Hagan and her “Moses Basket” reminded me of the child I never met. Robin Craig, “Preaching Ahead of [Her]self” reminded me of myself, and the struggle to preach a gospel which has not always manifested itself without dirt or ambiguity in my own life; preaching the hope anyway, because what else are we called to do?

There is much hope in this book. There is so much to relate to and to remember. This is a book for women who are pastors, who are mothers, who are sisters, who are daughters, who are human. Of course, it is not only for women. It is for anyone who finds glimpses of God in stories shared of faith, struggle, our love, our lives.

I would recommend it as a gift, but don’t keep it till her ordination. Give it to her before she sets foot inside the seminary. Give it to her the first time she says, “I’ve been thinking…”

I am blessed to be a part of this RevGalBlogPals circle. I am blessed to find myself in such humbling and holy company as in this book. I am blessed to be a woman in a pulpit.

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Damien and Marianne of Molokai (and Robert Louis Stevenson of Scotland)

One of the things I love about preaching Evensong at Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland is that I always learn something from the saints we celebrate from our book of occasional commemorations, Holy Women, Holy Men. But Damien and Marianne of Molokai came with an extra treat: an open letter by Robert Louis Stevenson, whom I have loved since childhood, and who wrote my homily for me. You can read his whole letter here.

Very briefly, a background. Molokai is an island of Hawaii with a peninsula surrounded on three sides by sea, and on the other separated from the bulk of the island by steep cliffs. In the second half of the nineteenth century, it seemed the perfect place to isolate those suffering from leprosy, since the disease was running riot and quarantine seemed the only solution to stop its progress. After seven years of pitiful conditions, the colonists received assistance and comfort in the person of one young Belgian priest, Damien, come to do what he could to lift their spirits, bind up their broken hearts, bandage their wounds, and build them a church. Later, Marianne and other Sisters of St Francis came, and added their care and labour to the colony, paying special attention to the children orphaned or isolated by the illness. Damien died of leprosy after sixteen years, with Marianne at his bedside; she survived disease-free, dying in peace at the age of 80.

One of the problems of plague is how society determines who is deserving and who undeserving of its punishment. We have seen it time and again, since the earliest accounts (with which we are familiar); the Egyptians are decimated while the chosen people of God escape unharmed across the Red Sea. There is a narrative of judgement and redemption that runs through our relationship with illness and disease: watch the movie Philapdelphia; remember last year’s uncomfortable treatment of Ebola volunteers and sufferers coming home.

There is a narrative of judgement that frames our fear of disease, and especially of those contracted between persons, passed between lovers, mother and child, strangers seated together in a sealed metal tube flying through the night; the ones that tell the story of where we have been, what we have done, whom we have embraced.

So it is decided that Marianne, that brave and selfless lover of souls, was preserved from contracting leprosy, or Hansen’s disease as we have come to know it, because of her virtue and God’s grace. But then what of the islanders she served? Were they all less virtuous than she? Or less useful, or less favoured by God? And what about Damien, the priest she came to help and relieve of his duties as he succumbed himself to the dread disease?

Perhaps the letter of Charles McEwen Hyde would have disappeared into the oblivion of history, had he not received an acerbic rebuttal from none other than Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of such bestselling books as Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and, yes, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. (I checked the dates. Stevenson had written Jekyll and Hyde before he ever set foot in Hawaii; his character’s name was a happy coincidence, nothing more.)

But Stevenson quotes Hyde’s letter in his own:

… About Father Damien, I can only reply that we who knew the man are surprised at the extravagant newspaper laudations, as if he was a most saintly philanthropist. The simple truth is, he was a coarse, dirty man, headstrong and bigoted. He was not sent to Molokai, but went there without orders; did not stay at the leper settlement (before he became one himself), but circulated freely over the whole island … He had no hand in the reforms and improvements inaugurated, which were the works of our Board of Health, as occasion required and means were provided. He was not a pure man in his relations with women, and the leprosy of which he died should be attributed to his vices and carelessness. Others have done much for the lepers, our own ministers, the government physicians, and so forth, but never with the Catholic idea of meriting eternal life. – Yours, etc., ‘C. M. HYDE

Stevenson had himself spent an 8-day week spent at the leper colony, where he must have met Marianne; he quotes others who knew Damien with all of his faults, and has no quarrel with the description of a coarse, dirty, headstrong and bigoted man. He doesn’t describe a shining saint but a man with “slovenly ways and false ideas of hygiene.” He called Damien,

“a man of the peasant class, certainly of the peasant type: shrewd, ignorant and bigoted, yet with an open mind…; superbly generous in the least thing as well as in the greatest, and as ready to give his last shirt (although not without human grumbling) as he had been to sacrifice his life; essentially indiscreet and officious, which made him a troublesome colleague; domineering … but yet destitute of real authority, so that his boys laughed at him and he must carry out his wishes by the means of bribes.”

At last, Stevenson addressed the accusation that Damien was impure in his relations with the women of the settlement. He had not heard it even as gossip on the island itself, but he admitted,

This scandal, when I read it in your letter, was not new to me. I had heard it once before; and I must tell you how. There came to Samoa a man from Honolulu; he, in a public-house on the beach, volunteered the statement that Damien had ‘contracted the disease from having connection with the female lepers’; and I find a joy in telling you how the report was welcomed in a public-house. A man sprang to his feet; I am not at liberty to give his name, but from what I heard I doubt if you would care to have him to dinner in Beretania Street. ‘You miserable little – ‘(here is a word I dare not print, it would so shock your ears) – ‘You miserable little -,’ he cried, ‘if the story were a thousand times true, can’t you see you are a million times a lower – for daring to repeat it?

Stevenson argued with Hyde in an open letter not because he needed a clean and sanitized picture of Damien the saint to be published; surely it was not his grace and virtue that polished his halo, unlike the unblemished Marianne. Rather, it was the character of those who would sit in judgement of one who gave his life for the love of the God he served and the people God had made that made Stevenson mad. It was the blissful criticism of one who lived a life of privilege and power, the healthy and wealthy who had never seen the houses of the lepers, sat with their families, set foot the inside of the church they had built for themselves. It was the willful projection of the sins of inequality, of oppression, on to the souls of the oppressed that stuck in Stevenson’s craw.

We all do it. The real miracle of Damien’ and Marianne’s service (and of R L Stevenson’s) was that they were able to resist that temptation to divide our brothers and sisters into the deserving and the undeserving, to use the sin of others as our justification. Marianne, Damien, and Robert were rare precisely in their ability to embrace the lepers as their equals in health, grace, and humanity, without spiritual, mental, or physical reservation.

“When John heard what the Messiah was doing, he sent word and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see:”

that the blind see beauty, the lame leap for joy, the deaf are sung lullabies, the lepers are loved, a dead faith finds new life and poor souls have good news brought to them.

“’And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’”

Or, since I feel as though Robert Louis really is preaching for me tonight,

“The man who tried to do what Damien did, is my father, and the father of the man in the [Apia] bar, and the father of all who love goodness; and he was your father too, if God had given you grace to see it.”

Blessed is anyone who takes no offence at the expansive and indiscriminate embrace of God’s grace. Amen.

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Survivor guilt

It occurred to me this morning, while vacuuming my daughter’s room – mostly rat bedding, cat fur, and the occasional leftover yard-long hair, dyed black, from before she shaved her head – that my mother and I do not often talk anymore. It is as though, since she died, our worlds have diverged, and the longer each of us walks on our new paths – she wasn’t here when I was ordained, when the children grew up and left home, when my husband was diagnosed with cancer, when, when, when; and God only knows what she’s been doing – the further apart we drift, so that no amount of calling out can bring us back within conversational distance, let alone the whispering closeness of family secrets, intimations of mortality.

I know that when we go over this summer, my father will expect me to visit her with him. He will be talking to her in that fake jolly voice, but the corners of his eyes will be bent towards me, watching for my reaction. My teenaged self will come back to haunt me with its Sphinx-like resolve not to give him the satisfaction, although really, he isn’t asking for much. A nod, a tight smile, maybe a tear or so.

Perhaps I’ll persuade him that I would be better going alone, although he will still expect a report on my return. “Did you talk to her?” he’ll say, and how can I tell him that I didn’t find her there, that she left me behind long ago?

Once he is gone, I don’t suppose I’ll be back. That is why she didn’t want a grave, a marker that could become a mark of neglect, over time. He needed it, though, and I assured him that in his time of grief she would let him have whatever he wanted. I wonder, sometimes, if I did the right thing.

She hated to walk in graveyards overgrown and overcome with the abandonment of the dead, the unfeeling coldness of the living. It was her greatness ambition to be beloved.

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Year B Easter 2: that our joy may be complete

That which we have  heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life– this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us– we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

I have spent every day since Eater Sunday immersed in our Spring Break Vacation Bible School, and it was a good week.

On Monday, we reviewed child safety policies and boundaries (not the most pleasant part of the project, but necessary and sound), and distributed lesson materials amongst the leaders, checked our schedules, prayed for the week to come. On Tuesday, the children arrived. In a whirlwind. We spent six hours of each day together till Friday, then yesterday morning the children brought their families to show them what we had done together, what we had heard and seen with our eyes, what we had looked at and touched with our hands concerning the word of life, not to mention playdough, jump-rope, painted t-shirts and soft toys.

One of the daily features of the week was our God-sightings project; bunting created out of paint and old t-shirts, and pictures of God.

The God sightings were, of course, a variation on the theme that we introduced last year with the simple question: Where have you seen God?

At first, when we introduced the question, the children were doubtful. We had just learned a song which calls God “invincible,” which led to a small investigation of the difference in meaning between “invincible” and “invisible;” but when it came to seeing God, it was God’s invisibility that raised doubts and caution in the children’s minds. How could they hear God with their own ears; see God with their own eyes; touch God with their own two hands?

It is Thomas’s dilemma, and it is the human condition, to wonder how to trust the evidence of our sense when they are working beyond the realm of the visible, audible, smellable, touchable world in which we live and move and have our being. The world, I might add, that God gave us.

The other disciples tried to persuade Thomas of what they had seen and heard, but he was doubtful, at least at first. By the end of the week, though, when Jesus returned once more, Thomas was ready, and his only recorded words at that meeting are not of doubt but of joyful worship: “My Lord and my God!”

Had his brother persuaded him? Or at least sown the seeds of doubt in his mind at his own stubbornness, the resistance of his senses?

We do influence one another, in the way that we see or don’t see God; in the way that we look upon the world that God has made. Choosing to look for God’s actions within it helps us to know where we are called to act in union with God’s will; to know where it is that Jesus is beckoning us to hold his hands, touch his side, follow him.

There is a strong theme of thunder in the t-shirts hanging downstairs. The children found God’s voice in the thunder; they recognized God’s power in the storm; and they saw the light split open the darkness. By Wednesday or Thursday morning, when the thunder rolled in before dawn, before my alarm went off, I found myself rolling over and rumbling back, ”Good morning, God.” The children at our VBS had influenced where I found God, heard God’s voice, calling me to rise to another day.

This morning, I awoke to the sound of a flock of geese. The ancient Celts thought that these were a sign of the Spirit; how else, they wondered, could they know how to fly in a perfect V formation, except by divine inspiration. In the half-light this morning, I imagined the V of the geese flying the line between the light and the dark in the sky, bringing the light to life: Good morning, God.

These fifty days of Easter are a strange and troubling time, when the risen Christ walks abroad, taking his disciples by surprise on the road, by the water, behind closed doors, murmuring of Peace. They are days when the signs of God are all around us, the signs of resurrection, calling us into the good news that the kingdom of God has drawn near. But as the disciples trembled to recognize Jesus – Mary in the garden, the couple on the road to Emmaus; Thomas, hearing the news second-hand – so it is easy for us to dismiss and even willfully ignore the signs of Christ’s presence, unless we choose otherwise; unless we choose to walk in the light, with our eyes open.

It is easy; it is too easy to see the dark side. It is never hard to find; it never was, from the rise of Rome to its falling; history turning in its grave. It is our vocation to find the new life of the light of Christ, whether in a historic handshake or the embrace of brothers; and it is our vocation to share the good news of the risen Christ at work in the world; to tell the story of God’s love for the world, of Jesus who returns with a greeting of Peace; because we have influence in the way that the world lives and moves and has its being, when we choose to share what we have heard and seen and touched concerning the word of life.

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life … we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us… so that our joy may be complete.

We have seen the Lord.

Amen.

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Easter 2015: on not winning

Our Sunday School children know the rule about running at church – the one that says, “Please don’t run in the church.” This morning, the rule was suspended for five minutes – set on a timer – so that the story might be told.

Mary Magdalene comes and tells Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple about her discovery of the empty tomb. SP and the BD run to the tomb – somewhere along the way it seems to turn into a bit of a race. The BD gets there first. He looks inside, but doesn’t go in. Although he arrives second (and maybe more short of breath), SP has no such hesitation, and dives headlong into the empty tomb.

[During the reenactment of the race, two by two up the centre aisle, I had not expected my first SP to be quite so shy; I had not, in other words, expected to have to dive through the empty tomb, aka packing box, myself, to lead the way. Fortunately, I made it through to the other side, though there were some worrying moments.]

So who, technically, won the race? Who got to the tomb first?

The BD, who arrived first at the door? Simon Peter, who was the first to enter? What about Mary Mags, who had already been there and back before the boys were even awake?

What about Jesus?

In a way, it doesn’t matter who got there first, because Jesus isn’t there. Instead, he comes back for them, calling Mary by name, walking on the beach with Peter, watching over the BD, even returning twice to the same place for Thomas, trying again.

Jesus is not a prize we win. He comes freely to each of us, to call us by name. We don’t always recognize him. But he comes back for us, not only when we’re winning, but especially when we’re sad, or lonely, or lost.

But when he does come back for Mary, lost and lonely in the garden, he won’t let her hold onto him; when he does come to her, and call her name, he tells her to share the good news.

Jesus is not a prize we hold onto, but the good news that we share.

*

This is not a religion for winners. I saw a billboard once, for a church, that said, “Where Winners Worship, And God is Praised,” and my first thought was, well, that’s nice.

But what about the rest of us? Where do the losers go to worship. And is God praised when they do, or do you have to win for it to count?

Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with winning. A number of basketball players and fans are counting on that this weekend. The fast, the strong, the agile and the able, the smart and quick-witted, each have their place at the table. But it is the best news to some of us that this is not necessarily the religion of winners.

Jesus ended up losing his life on a cross, for all his winning ways. And even after the resurrection, there were no winners amongst his disciples; Jesus was not a prize for the fastest, the boldest, the bravest. We would love to win the right to decide whom God loves, but that’s just not how the gospel works.

No one gets to hold onto God’s love and dole it out like candy prizes, rationing the deserving and the undeserving.

It can get quite uncomfortable, sharing God’s love with those we find it impossible to love. But even from the cross, Jesus invoked God’s forgiveness on his own murderers. There are those we find it inconceivable to love; but for God all things are possible, and God made each of us, all of us, for the love of God.

This is not a clear-cut Christian story. The Gospel is rather a messy, unfair, unkempt story of failure and death, angel encounters, winnerless races, empty grave clothes, and the destruction of evil, the undoing of death, the reversal of the Resurrection of Jesus, who comes back for each of his disciples, to call them by name and assure them of his love for each last one of them, even if they mistake him for the gardener; even if he has to come back to the same place twice.

We love the idea of winning. But isn’t it even better to know that we do not need to win God’s love? That God has loved us all along. And Jesus is the living proof of that love.

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