Monday, September 22, 2014

The Best Source of Seminarian Pastoral Support? Other Seminarians

Throughout my journey of discernment over the past seven years, I have been blessed to have some amazing men and women - mentors, guides, and counselors - placed in my path. Some have taken just a few steps with me, others have walked many miles by my side. As  result, my life - my personal walk to Emmaus - has been richly blessed.

Now that I am well into my first semester as an Episcopal seminarian, I have been confronted with something new, a place my path has led me that is far from my comfort zone - vulnerability. For an admitted Type A who lives by lists, deadlines, and the certainty of those things in life of which I can be certain, the feeling of vulnerability, of being exposed and uncertain, is something for which I have no answers. And I would be lying if I said that it didn't scare the hell out of me.

The many hours of study, classwork, tests, exegesis papers, and translation are exciting, challenging, thrilling, and exhausting - and shared by all. Multiple daily opportunities for community worship are strengthening the bonds I'm building with the amazing men and women with whom I am sharing this experience. But despite all of this, of being in the same foxholes and trenches of formation with many other folks, talking about my vulnerability is something that I didn't initially want to do for fear of - you guessed it - making myself even more vulnerable.

My upcoming clinical pastoral education (CPE), a 12-week chaplaincy program next summer required of all seminarians, is something that had struck me particularly hard. My biggest fear grew out of the fact that, because I am such an emotional person, I would not be able to hold my emotions in check. Being in the moment with people when they most need prayers and support is something very important to me - but I'm worried that I will become too deeply involved in those moments of death and grief that many friends have experienced as part of their chaplaincy terms. Hearing stories of comforting husbands who have lost wives and parents who have lost young children moved me to tears - and made me wonder if I could be strong enough to do it.

And in the midst of this struggle, of wondering whether I would be able to keep it together for those who were in the midst of losing everything, I was embraced by my community. I was reminded of the good moments that are just as much a part of CPE as the sorrowful ones. I was reassured that emotion at a moment when others are emotional would be a blessing at those times when those in need are longing to be met in their moment. And I was reminded that I now have a new family that will be with me in my moments of need, of sorrow, of joy.

There have been days recently that have left me exhausted and feeling incomplete, a beaten traveler left on the side of the road to Jericho. It is at those moments that one Samaritan, then another, and still another, pass by and find me laying there - and without hesitation, they stop to bandage my wounds and get me back on my feet.

God knows what He is doing. When I wasn't sure it was me that He was calling to ordination, He knew what He was doing. In my moments of doubt, He knows what He was doing.

And in surrounding me with men and women who understand, who are walking the same three-year path of seminary, and who have been blessed with immeasurable pastoral gifts, He definitely knows what He is doing. My journey to Emmaus continues, carried aloft on the love, prayers, and support of my seminary family.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Shema Yisrael: A Story of Shabbat

For quite some time the statement "Shema Yisrael. Adoshem Elokeinu. Adoshem e'had." has been part of my email signature block. The phrase, which, loosely translated, means, "Hear, O Israel. God is our God. God is one and unique," embedded itself in me after reading Elie Wiesel's Open Heart a few years ago. Now, as an Episcopal seminarian studying Hebrew, the phrase is even more significant for me - the beginning marker of a highway on which I will learn to read the Old Testament not through modern translations and filters, but through the eyes of those for whom it was written thousands of years ago.

Five years ago, Amy and I attended a Shabbat service at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, an experience that I blogged about at that time. When I started at Virginia Theological Seminary last month, I was delighted to see another Jewish congregation, Beth El Hebrew Congregation, directly across the street from campus. My love of interfaith education and experiencing the religious customs of others once again kicked in, and a group of friends from VTS and I joyfully made the trek across the highway for last night's Soul Shabbat.

Shema Yisrael. Hear, O Israel. Hear the voice of God calling.

The word "soul" in the title of the service was no accident, because that's exactly where it hit me - and there were more than a few tears shed. There was something almost indescribable in the sudden,  jarring realization that I wasn't just attending a Jewish service - I and all of my friends sharing the experience with me were being pulled back through the centuries to the very roots of our Christianity. The history of the Jewish people - of repression, of tragedy, of exile - is our history, and yet despite all that they endured, Judaism remains a faith of hope, a faith of joy, a faith of celebration. And the Shabbat, to flip that last phrase, is a celebration of faith.

Shema Yisrael. Hear, O Israel. Hear the call of your past.

I so enjoyed watching the joy on the faces of my friends as they each experienced in their own way the wonder of what was happening. For one in particular, it was quite literally a transformative moment - an instance in which, as she said later, she suddenly felt reconnected to her own call after months of feeling separated from it.

Shema Yisrael. Hear, O Israel. Hear the call to return to your beginning.

And the music - mournful, reflective, joyful. It literally ran the gamut, and as a result so did my emotions. The cantor's singing of Stephen Richards' "R'tzei" (a video of another performance of the song is linked here) brought me to tears (and made me question, just for an instant, whether I am too emotional to be a priest, since I am moved to tears so easily). And a rendition of this poem, with music playing just below the voice of the speaker, was equally moving:

Ein Li Eretz Acheret (I Have No Other Country)

I have no other country
even if my land is aflame
Just a word in Hebrew
pierces my veins and my soul -
With a painful body, with a hungry heart,
Here is my home.


I will not stay silent
because my country changed her face


I will not give up reminding her
And sing in her ears
until she will open her eyes


I have no other country
even if my land is aflame
Just a word in Hebrew
pierces my veins and my soul -
With a painful body, with a hungry heart,
Here is my home.


I won't be silent because my country
has changed her face.
I will not give up reminding her
And sing in her ears
until she will open her eyes


I have no other country
until she will renew her glorious days
Until she will open her eyes


I have no other country
even if my land is aflame
Just a word in Hebrew
pierces my veins and my soul -
With a painful body, with a hungry heart,
Here is my home.


With a painful body, with a hungry heart,
Here is my home.


Shema Yisrael. Hear, O Israel. Hear the songs of your past, and your present, and your future.

It was a beautiful evening, with wonderful conversation after with the Rabbi. I left feeling renewed, relaxed, and centered, and with an urge to experience more of Judaism as a way of strengthening the foundation of my journey toward the priesthood.

It truly was Shabbat Shalom - a peaceful Sabbath.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Two Trains Running ... Right on Schedule

 

As much as I love drama, particularly those plays written by the masters of the 20th century, one of the great challenges for me (and, I assume, any other reader) has always been pulling the emotion and life of plays off the page. Reading "A Long Day's Journey Into Night" or "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" is a far more challenging task when trying to combine dialogue and stage direction in your mind to achieve a picture of the action. The saving grace is finding that one perfect production that forever lingers with you and gives you the emotion and life you're seeking and can carry over into future readings.

The Round House Theatre's current production of August Wilson's "Two Trains Running" is one that will most definitely linger with me for a long time to come. In advance of seeing a performance this past weekend, I obtained a copy of the play and read it. This was my introductory foray into Wilson's work, and I enjoyed it immensely. The one thing missing, however - as expected - was the humor, drama, sadness, and intensity contained within the story. My reading of "Two Trains" was gratifying, but I knew it would be reinforced by seeing it live, when I could live the play.

And was it ever reinforced.

I'll start with the staging and sound design. The diner owned by Memphis is set in an area of Pittsburgh slowly being abandoned by its residents and demolished to make way for the future. It's one of the final links to the past for a deeply-rooted community of residents, and you expect to see it run down. Scenic designer Tony Cisek successfully achieved that, but it had an even more powerful and personal impact on me - it was a glimpse into some forgotten part of my past, reminiscent of old buildings and diners I've visited in my life, places struggling to survive but still somehow managing to hang on, and hanging on in my memory. And sound designer Matthew Nielson did an outstanding job in selecting just the right music to accentuate the story and the scene transitions. There is a particularly effective use of Aretha Franklin's "Take a Look" that comes at a particularly poignant moment of the story.

In many plays I've seen over the years, there have typically been one or two exceptionally strong actors and a few other ones that are "okay" and provide the underlying support. Not so with "Two Trains;" every single actor delivered powerful performances, and like a great cathedral whose weight cannot be supported if one stone is removed from an arch or buttress, I cannot envision seeing Round House's production stand up if one of these actors was changed. After three hours, you leave feeling as if they are interlocked and are crucial to supporting each other.

Jefferson Russell (Memphis) does a wonderful job in coming across as a man cynical enough to think that things won't change, but hopeful enough to dream that one day they will.  KenYatta Rogers (Wolf) is absolutely hysterical as the local numbers runner and resident ladies man. Michael Anthony Williams (Holloway) gives a great performance as the wise and somewhat cynical voice of experience - almost the play's version of a Greek chorus. Frank Britton (Hambone) does a lot with very few lines, and makes his character come alive as an even more tragic figure when sitting silently at a table lost in his own world. Ricardo Frederick Evans (Sterling) gives a great reading as an outspoken ex-con looking for a way to make a quick buck, but who matures over the course of the play into a man whose thoughts and actions are with others in mind, rather than himself. And Doug Brown (West) does a wonderful job as a man who has seen it all and, even with a hint of exhaustion from life, keeps on going.

And then there's Shannon Dorsey (Risa). With every other character in the play, we are given just enough insight to know a bit about their backgrounds - Memphis came from Mississippi and is divorced; Sterling has just gotten out of prison after serving time for a bank robbery; Holloway makes a living occasionally painting houses; West was a gambler before opening a successful funeral home; Hambone is a tragic figure who becomes permanently scarred because of not receiving payment for a job he had performed; Wolf has seemingly always run numbers. 

But we don't have that same background about Risa; we know she has faced some tragic circumstances, but we don't know what. And for that, I have to single out Dorsey for her performance. With so little background to go on, Dorsey creates a character who is defiant and independent in one moment and scared, lonely, and withdrawn in the very next. Her facial expressions and reactions when she doesn't have any lines are just as funny or heart-tugging (and sometimes more so) as when she is speaking. 

My only regret is that the play ends May 4. In retrospect, I would have loved to have seen it earlier in the run to be able to take in another performance. If I'm lucky, I may still. But if you have a chance to catch "Two Trains Running" during this final week of its run, do so - just leave a seat for me.

And kudos to the Round House Theatre team and everyone involved with the production. It's performances like the one I attended that will keep people coming back to the theater for years to come.

Monday, April 28, 2014

What Would Jesus Do, Governor Palin? Certainly Not What You Did...

Dear Governor Palin:

Let me quickly share two passages from the Gospels to set the context for this post.

Mark 1:8. "I will baptize you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

Luke 22:61. "And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, 'Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.'"

I will quickly note here that I speak only for myself, an independent who is firmly rooted in his Episcopal faith. In my view, in your haste to corrupt the first passage above to suit your purposes before the National Rifle Association, you have cast yourself as a denier of Christ in the vein of Peter. Mind you, you are not on the same level as the first among the apostles, nor would I ever attempt to put you there. But by twisting one of the sacraments of the church purely for applause, you are belittling and denying the importance of that sacrament - and by denying that importance, you are denying Christ.

And that is disgraceful. You were raised in the Assemblies of God church, one ordinance of which is - according to the Website of one Assemblies congregation - a belief in a baptism of complete immersion in water, because that was the way Jesus was baptized. And while you profess now to be a non-denominational Christian, your very words are a corruption of the very faith in which you were raised.

Think a moment about what you said (perhaps a moment longer than you thought about it before you spoke these words): "Waterboarding is our way of baptizing terrorists." Waterboarding and baptizing. Drowning and blessing. Torture and rebirth.

Are these synonymous in your mind?

Do I worry about terrorism? Of course. Have I seen first-hand - as have millions of others across the U.S. and around the world - the devastating impacts of terrorism? Absolutely. Have I forgotten that Jesus lived in a time of persecution, murder, and horrible brutality at the hands of the Roman Empire and yet still managed in his own life to seek out and forgive his enemies? Absolutely not.

Just as I would pray for my family and friends, I pray for my enemies. And I pray for those for whom reconciliation and peace are difficult to find. Yes, Governor, for a moment of applause that has created sadness and anger among many, I will pray for you.

In his life, Jesus wept. He saw death, disease, violence, and oppression, and he wept. Shouldn't we strive for a higher standard and a higher goal as Christians - as members of the human race - to do things to make Jesus smile?

I would share with you this final prayer, a prayer of reconciliation written by Larry Reimer. Governor, it is my prayer for you today.

O God of peace and healing,
We come before you feeling powerless to stop the hatred that divides races and nations.

We come before you saddened and angered by the denial of human rights in our land.
We come before you with wounds deep in our hearts that we long to have healed.
We come before you with struggles in our personal lives that it seems will not go way.
And we pray Lord, How long?
How long to peace?

And we hear, "Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
How long for racial justice? "Not long, because no lie can live forever.”
How long for our wounded hearts? Not long, I call you by name, you are with me; you are mine.
How long for our struggles? Not long, for my grace is sufficient. I hold you in my everlasting arms beneath which you cannot fall.
How long for the healing of what is broken inside and all around us? Not long, for we shall overcome, together in partnership, human holy partnership, we shall overcome.
AMEN.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

The Choice of the Episcopal Church: Prosperity, or the Poor?

 
According to the Revised Common Lectionary, the Gospel appointed for today is Luke 12:13-21, which reads:
 
Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." But he said to him, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?" And he said to them, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." Then he told them a parable: "The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, `What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?' Then he said, `I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, `Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, `You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."
 
Knowing that, it was particularly disturbing to read in today’s New York Post that Trinity Wall Street’s rector, The Rev. James Cooper, and the parish vestry are moving forward with plans to construct 296,000 square feet of new church offices, meeting rooms, and residential space just behind the main sanctuary (presumably at the corner of Rector and Trinity Place, if my memory of that part of lower Manhattan is correct). Even more disconcerting was when I read that Rev. Cooper forced out members of the vestry opposed to his plan and replaced them with allies who are working with him to see the project through.
 
While musing about this, a friend pointed out an earlier article from the April 24, 2013 edition of the New York Times that covered the revelation that, after years of hiding certain financial data from the public, Trinity was forced - as a result of lawsuit filed against it by a parishioner - to reveal that they are sitting on assets totaling more than $2 billion. To put that in perspective, the value of their assets is somewhat on par with the 2013 state budgets of Wyoming ($3.4 billion) and Delaware ($3.7 billion).
 
Now of course I recognize the fact that assets are not the same as cash-on-hand, and it also doesn't take into account any liabilities. But out of curiosity, what is the church doing with the revenue generated by their assets? According to the Times,
 
It reported $158 million in real estate revenue for 2011, the majority of which went toward maintaining and supporting its real estate operations, the financial statement indicates. Of the $38 million left for the church’s operating budget, some $4 million was spent on communications, $3 million on philanthropic grant spending and $2.5 million on the church’s music program, church officials said. Nearly $6 million went to maintain Trinity’s historic properties, including the main church building, which was built in 1846; St. Paul’s Chapel; and several cemeteries, where luminaries including Alexander Hamilton and Edward I. Koch are buried. The remainder went into the church’s equity investment portfolio.
 
The statement also apparently shows that the rector makes a salary of $1.3 million.
 
Nowhere in the article do we read how much the congregation contributes in terms of tithes, so I can only base my comments on what is presented here. Regardless, I question: where is the spending for those in need? Where is the money to house the homeless? Funds for feeding the hungry? Support for employment programs?
 
Are these programs included in the "philanthropic grant spending"? If that's the case, why is spending on that $1 million less than what is spent on communications? And does an individual parish need to spend $4 million on communications - which seems particularly ludicrous in light of the fact that the total expenditure on communications in the FY 2013-5 budget of the entire national Episcopal Church is just under $9.1 million.
 
In a letter to the members of Congress from the Episcopal Church in 2011, regarding proposed cuts in the FY 2012 budget, the Church wrote, "The Episcopal Church urges you to find budget solutions that do not further burden poor and vulnerable populations in the United States, refugees and displaced populations, or impoverished communities around the world. Funding for programs that serve the poor and vulnerable sustains and saves millions of lives at home and around the world and, particularly in times of economic struggle, it must not be cut."
 
At the 2012 General Convention, a resolution was passed in the House of Deputies directing the sale of the Episcopal Church's headquarters in New York as a cost-saving measure; it was voted down in the House of Bishops. At the time, Los Angeles Bishop Suffragan Diane Jardine Bruce said, "It is fiscally irresponsible to demand immediate sell ofa building without knowing where you're going, knowing if the economic climate is right. (The Rev. Dan Webster posted a good rebuttal to this general sentiment at Episcopal Cafe.)
 
Should Trinity Church - or the national church, for that matter - take to heart the words in today's Gospel, or is the Gospel being forgotten in some quarters? Are we about the Gospel message - feeding, clothing, and sheltering the poor, eliminating the margins for the marginalized, and sharing the Good News of Christ - or are we about property, buildings, money, and assets?
 
Where are our priorities?

After mulling all of this over, I planned on posting right away - but thought better of it and sent it to a friend to read through for her thoughts.  The articles and my thoughts raised some other points in her mind, and (with her indulgence) I'll include them here as they merit strong discussion.  I certainly don't have the answers - but I wonder if many focused on property and investment growth would in the church would have these answers:

1) Trinity's position has the potential to allow them to do much good in the world - but also to corrupt the view of what is adequate and necessary.  Right now, based on these articles and their own comments, they seem lost in the "worldly muck" of budgets, balance sheets, and investment portfolios.

2) The reference to "philanthropic grant spending" shows the church has lost sight of the meaning, beauty, and reward of Christian language and replaced it with Wall Street-speak.

3) One of the parishioners has referred to the new construction as symbolically wrong.  Here, I'll directly quote my friend: "What does this say in action about our church?  And also, very importantly, what does it symbolize?  How do we teach the world through our actions that we are a church of a beautiful liturgy and gorgeous church buildings but that our life is not centered upon things but upon loving the poor, the outcast, and the downtrodden?"  (Emphasis is my own.)

4) Again quoting, "How do we prioritize lifting up others? How do we DO it?  How do we SHOW it to others?"

In my reaction to all of this, one area in which I failed was prayer - prayer for the rector and vestry that they will recognize the perception of what they have chosen to do. Prayer for those who were removed from the vestry, or chose to leave, rather than face this future that has been set for Trinity. Prayer for the congregation which, as I know from my own experience, can be torn apart by decisions such as these.  But most importantly, prayer for those in the community - those whom the church may be supporting already, and those who may not receive support because of other financial obligations.

Yes, prayer for all of these - and prayer for discernment: discernment of who we are as a church right now; discernment of who we are as God's chosen; and discernment of how we put worldly considerations aside and choose God and what God would have us do.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Musings on Gifts and Grace

Today's adult forum at church provided an opportunity for us to delve into the subject of grace and the receiving of gifts - how would one respond when given a gift?

Response number one: "Thank you."

Response number two:  Take the gift and pay it forward, "re-gifting" it to someone else.

The question that I didn't ask was to bring up a third option, from the perspective of a person who doesn't recognize that grace is given freely by God - "What did I do to deserve this?"

And there's the subject of the old saying, "There but for the grace of God go I."  Our rector said the simpler, more accurate thing to say is, "There go I."  In the first, there is a thread of judgmentalism - if I didn't have God's grace, look at the mistakes I'd be making, like that guy over there.  In the second, there is the recognition that we do make mistakes, just like that guy over there.

But isn't there a third way to look at this?  By changing two words, couldn't we completely change the direction of the comment?  "There, BECAUSE OF the grace of God, go I."  This would be an acknowledgment of the gift we've been given, and a sign to us that this grace is leading us in a new direction - giving us a new hope, a new purpose, a new sense of the immensity of God's gift to us and perhaps even the recognition that, instead of recognizing the grace we've been given and saying "I'm glad I'm not him," we take that grace and give it as a gift to someone else.

Someone who will say, "Thank you."

Someone who will take that gift and pass it along to someone else.

And yes, even someone who might even question, "What did I do to deserve this?"

Monday, December 17, 2012

Does an Evil Act Negate the Gift of Being God's Beloved?

Can someone born a beloved son or daughter of God lose that beloved-ness?  Or is it a gift that remains, regardless of how that person lives their life?

In a talk delivered many years ago at the Crystal Cathedral, Henri Nouwen addressed the beloved-ness that we all, as sons and daughters of God, share – and how our very nature and being reflects the four main parts of the Eucharist.  As with the bread, we, too, are taken, blessed, broken, and given.  It is something that links us all and brings us closer to the experience of God on earth as Jesus.  As Nouwen said, "Your spiritual life - your life as the beloved daughters and sons of God - is a life that is taken, that is blessed, that is broken, and given ... If you can live your life as the taken, the blessed, the broken, the given, the world will recognize Jesus in you.”

Over the past several days, I’ve been struggling with the question of whether a person who commits an evil act still retains the designation of “beloved”.  Their life has the same four elements of being taken, blessed, broken, and given – but to me, it seems the aspect of a beloved nature ends somewhere between blessed and broken.  Just as bread is broken apart during the Eucharist, just as the life of Christ was broken through his crucifixion, the life of a person who commits an act of evil is also broken – but not broken as a sacrifice.  It is broken through hatred, or confusion, or mental disability, or any of a number of other reasons.

Our parish rector, yesterday during a discussion of the events in Connecticut last week, made the point that God doesn’t select one person to receive something good while another receives misery and hardship.  As he put it, “It rains on farms owned by good people just as much as on farms owned by bad people.”

Using this, then, a beloved nature is something that is “rained” upon everyone.  We all receive it, the same as we all receive God’s grace.  But by turning our back on grace – on God’s gift to us – and rejecting our status as beloved children, do we lose it?  Despite weeping over the sins of man, does God still look at all as beloved?

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Many Missing the Mark on General Convention

Ah, if only it were so easy for all of us to wave our hands dismissively at nearly two million people as it apparently is for Jay Akasie, the ironically named David Virtue, and Rob Kirby. To read their reporting on the just concluded 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, you would think that everyone who stands steadfastly with that denomination - as I do - is going straight to hell.

How dare we consider restructuring the hierarchy to make it a more grassroots-driven denomination!

How dare we develop a budget that focuses on strengthening our capability for effective mission in the world!

How dare we pass a resolution authorizing the development of a provisional rite of blessing for same-sex unions!

How dare we ... LOVE?

Yes, Mr. Akasie, Mr. Virtue, and Mr. Kirby, the point you have missed throughout all of this is that we are a denomination of love. While you have gone in and selectively focused on the crozier carried by the Presiding Bishop, on whether to sell the church headquarters building in New York, and even on your continuing vitriolic (and horribly uninformed, Mr. Kirby) attacks on Bishop Gene Robinson, you have in your mad, blind rush missed the entire point.

Everything - EVERYTHING - accomplished by our deputies and bishops in Indianapolis has been done out of a sense of God's abiding love for everyone (yes, even you, Mr. Akasie, Mr. Virtue, and Mr. Kirby, your best efforts to display your true lack of understanding of who we are and what we stand for to the contrary).

Why pass a resolution authorizing this new rite? Because the Episcopal Church - as Mr. Akasie, a professed member of the denomination, should know very well - has a sign hanging by the door saying "All Are Welcome".  Why would the church not take an action to live into our advertising? For that matter, why do we allow women to serve as priests and bishops? (Thank God that we do!) Why did our church both walking with Dr. King and supporting the Civil Rights Movement?  (Mr. Akasie, Mr. VIrtue, and Mr. Kirby - any of you ever heard of Jonathan Myrick Daniels?)

Because we Episcopalians love - we accept - we welcome.

Christ's love is unconditional - he loved because he IS love - and it never misses the mark. The love of the Episcopal Church is unconditional, and it never misses the mark.

Sadly, the absence of love - even the word itself - in some of what we're reading is full of conditions and misses the mark completely.

So, Mr. Akasie, Mr. Virtue, Mr. Kirby, and others of your ilk - please stop reading everything with a hand over one eye. Stop finding what you want to see instead of looking for what's really there. And remember that, disagree with the Episcopal Church or not, disagree with our actions or not, you're missing the point.

It's not dollars and cents. It's not resolutions and budgets. It's not walkouts or sell-offs.

It's love.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Walk Through the Door, for the Episcopal Church Welcomes YOU!

Two events this week at the 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Indianapolis have made me reflect on the famous logo found hanging at every Episcopal parish in the United States.

I have always been proud of the fact that the sign proclaims boldly and clearly that the Episcopal Church welcomes YOU - no asterisks, no exceptions, no conditions.  What has been disconcerting to me is the fact that our denomination has not always fully lived into the message we post on the sign - "It says I'm welcome, but do they mean ME?"  "I'm a poor black woman; do they mean ME?"  "I'm a gay partnered man; can they really mean ME?"  For every class, ethnicity, lifestyle or income level, I'm sure that someone, somewhere has asked, "Does the Episcopal Church really want ME? Will they accept ME?  Will they allow ME to be part of their family and feel the love and compassion that I need?"

In short, yes, we will!

Yesterday and today, the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies - by wide margins - each approved a resolution allowing for the creation of a liturgy for blessing same-sax couples.  There are many things this is not: it is not a marriage ceremony; it is not mandatory; it is not something that every bishop will allow in their own dioceses, based on their own beliefs.  But it is a move farther along the path than the church has taken up until now.  And it is one more step down the road for the LGBT community who wants nothing more from their fellow Episcopal parishioners than the same love, acceptance and blessings they have already received from God.

This is a big switch for the Episcopal Church, and as such it makes me view the sign with a slightly different logo - The Episcopal Church Welcomes Change.  With this convention, it's not just change in liturgy; we are headed down the path for wholesale change in structure.  Earlier today, in a overwhelming and - according to friends of mine who are in attendance at the convention - emotional vote, the House of Deputies voted unanimously (that's a unanimous vote by more than 800 clergy and lay deputies!!) to approve Resolution C095.

What is Resolution C095?  According to the Episcopal News Service, "Resolution C095, Substitute, was adopted unanimously by the committee during its July 9 morning meeting. It grounds its action in the belief that 'the Holy Spirit is urging The Episcopal Church to reimagine itself.'  It creates a special task force of up to 24 people who will gather ideas in the next two years from all levels of the church about possible reforms to its structures, governance and administration."  Should the House of Bishops also approve the resolution, the report of recommendations will be completed this November and will be discussed and debated at the 78th General Convention in a few years.

What will these changes entail?  No one knows - the Spirit is just now beginning to move.  Over the past several days, I've read reports of requests for the church to sell the Episcopal Church headquarters building in New York and use the excess money for mission.  I've seen reports on a move to allow (require?) future presiding bishops to maintain their duties as diocesan bishops while leading the national church.

Whatever the future looks like - a changing hierarchy, an altered structure, a more grassroots level of leadership - the church will focus on mission, even more than it does today.  As the Presiding Bishop said in her opening sermon, "Re-forming and re-imagining ourselves for mission in a changed world is the most essential task we have before us.  We’re not going to fix the church or the world at this Convention, but we can do something to make the church a better tool and instrument for God’s mission if we can embrace that new wind, discover God creating new life among us, and listen and look for Jesus."

Listen and look for Jesus.  With all due respect to Bishop Katharine, I think that last phrase should have a bit of different emphasis.  Re-read it this way:  "Listen ... and look for Jesus."  With the events of the past several days, we're witnessing an Episcopal Church that is listening - listening to those who have been neglected or rejected or ignored and working to bring them through the front door.  And when you change the way you relate to others, change the way you see others, and change the way they see themselves, you open yourself to the face of Christ.

And it is that Christ who is standing in the door of the Episcopal Church, welcoming all, comforting all, refreshing all.  Yes - the Episcopal Church welcomes YOU!

Sunday, April 08, 2012

The Falls Church Episcopal: A Full Church Remembers the Empty Tomb

Walking through the doors of the Historic Falls Church this morning - our congregation's first day of worship on that property in more than five years - I had no idea what to expect.

Plans were in place for a large turnout, and we even had an option available if we were confronted by someone with a gripe against us and the Episcopal Church and who chose our service as the time to make a vocal statement of opposition. The signage was in place, the nursery was staffed and stocked with activities, and the police officer tasked with getting people safely across the street was stationed on East Fairfax Street.

Everything was ready, and yet I still didn't know what to expect. Truth be told, the whole situation felt a bit surreal. Amy, the girls and I were part of the nearly 80 percent of our congregation who joined TFCE after the 2007 split, and we were all returning "home" to a place we had never attended. Some I spoke with likened it to being tourists who had just been dropped off by our bus and were waiting to enter a historic site to take some pictures and enjoy a tour.

As I stood on the lawn of the church, snapping photos of fellow parishioners and enjoying the spirit of excitement, enthusiasm and joy flowing between and among those who were arriving, I kept hearkening back to some of what's happened in the past. The misconceptions and untruths being circulated about TFCE, from everything ranging from our financial viability to the size of our congregation. Comments from those like Mike McManus who, as recently as three days ago in Virtue Online, claimed that the Episcopal Church is prohibiting the Anglican congregation from the free exercise of religion and who opined, "Shortly after Easter, our 3,000 members must abandon the facility, valued at $10+ million, turn over vestments, prayer books and even our bank account to less than 100 people who remained loyal to TEC. We will have to worship in a high school. This is wrong."

I have been in the communications field long enough - and am enough of a history buff - to recognize and freely acknowledge that all media is slanted, all opinions are designed to favor one group over another, and that all history is written by the winners. As such, nothing that has been said surprises me, no matter how much it pains and disappoints me. And as surprising as this may be to some, I agree with Mr. McManus: this is wrong.

Yes, Mr. McManus, it is wrong - wrong that in the midst of a five-year legal battle, the rumors that continue to be perpetuated and the stories being spread have overshadowed why we are ALL here, are ALL Christians, and are ALL gathering this Easter Sunday: the empty tomb. Easter Sunday should be about the celebration of Christ's resurrection and about the event that makes us who we are as God's people, providing us with the salvation and redemption that God gives freely as the result of the death of His son. Easter Sunday should be about Jesus' triumph over death and the cross.

For me, this Easter Sunday WAS and IS about that, despite what others may say. Plenty of people are anxious - in the words of the Gospel writers - to tear down the Temple, but are reluctant to build it back up. If the last five years have led me to reflect on anything, it is John 11:35.

"Jesus wept."

Yes, the last five years have made Jesus weep. Not for the loss of property or finances or leaving one denomination and aligning with another. Jesus has wept because of the way his children have acted. Jesus has wept because of the hateful words that have been spoken. Jesus has wept because of the way people who were once friends have turned their backs on one another.

All of this was weighing on my mind before this morning's service. But if Jesus wept over the past five years, today He was smiling - and we at TFCE were smiling as nearly 400 people packed the pews ("filled to overflowing", as reported by the Falls Church News Press). Apprehension melted away as nearly 400 voices were raised in unison with the first notes of the processional hymn. Concern about what may happen was replaced by the joy of seeing so many smiling, joyful people. Fear faded as Holy Baptism was held for the newest member of the Christian family. And the tears of the past several years - the tears of hurt and frustration - were replaced by tears of joy as families and friends, young and old alike, were led into the church by 98-year-old Jessie Thackrey, our matriarch and a woman who, despite her frailty, was determined to walk - rather than take her wheelchair - up the front steps and through the narthex door.

And at the end of the day, the real meaning of Easter was as clear and evident as ever.

The tomb is empty.

Christ is Risen.

The Lord is Risen indeed.

Hallelujah!