Setting Our Minds on Divine Things: Death, Grace, and Love

by The Rev. Ashley Freeman

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 16:25 NRSV

This week my family and I have dealt with an incredible loss. In the past few days, my grandmother, unexpectedly, became very ill and died. Her death has left me and my family grieving and hurting in ways we are not even aware of yet. Nonetheless, this is where I find myself as I begin to reflect upon Jesus’s words in this verse from Matthew’s gospel.

Jesus’ statement here is one of the most challenging in the gospel. How does one save one’s life by losing it? Does following Jesus require that we actually die in his service? Is Jesus speaking metaphorically? If so, how do we lose our life for his sake? These questions and many others have surfaced for me this week as I have thought about Jesus’ statement in light of my grandmother’s death. Chief among these questions has been, what steps must we take to die?

This week as I sat in the waiting room, surrounded by family members and friends, many of whom I have not seen in years, and others who I rarely see, a thought occurred to me. My grandmother was able to do something in her death that rarely occurred in her life. While laying weak in the ICU, unable to speak, and laboring to breath, she gathered us together. Many were physically in the waiting room, others present via mobile phone and social media as they offered their love and support from afar. The grace and love she shared with others in her life now drew them all together in her death.

The ability for the dying to gather the living is not unique to my grandmother. As a priest, a central part of my ministry is spending time with families as they await the death of loved ones. The experience is always different. However, almost always one’s death gathers together those whom they loved.

The last great work of love performed by the dying is the weaving together, like a fabric, of the lives of all those they are leaving behind. This weaving is powerful and profound. So much so that I have witnessed, on multiple occasions, people who have been angry and spiteful toward one another for years tearfully embracing one another as they gathered at the death of a loved one. Perhaps a few days after the death, these individuals returned to their spite and anger. However, the fact remains the love and grace they shared in life and death offered them reconciliation, even if only for a moment.

So how do these insights help us answer my question, “what steps must we take to die?”

In short, I do not know. It seems to me that often Christians, myself included, think of God’s love and grace as an exchange system, in which we hope our doing, asking, praying, or saying something in the proper way, persuades or convinces God to demonstrate love and grace. This is rarely the case, if ever. Rather, God’s grace and love is present in our lives at all times. When a death, like my grandmother’s, gathers people into community and intimately weaves their lives together, fostering the bonds of love, mutuality, or at times reconciliation, it becomes a moment that highlights God’s grace and love for us, even in the face of death.

At this moment, even though I do not know what steps I need to take in order to die, it seems to me that Jesus’s advice to Peter, to set our minds on divine things will be required. My hope is that my experience of God’s grace and love during my grandmother’s death will empower my family and empower others, too, to seek the divine in all aspects of our lives. Perhaps then, we can begin to die and start to find the life to which God is calling each of us.

The. Rev. Ashley Freeman, graduate of the Seminary of the Southwest (MDiv ’15), is the rector of St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Zachary, LA, where he resides with his wife, three children, and three dogs.

headshot-ashley-freeman_1

Why I’m Soul Sister to a Dog: The Canaanite Woman & Me

But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” Jesus answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Matthew 15:25-27 NRSV

I am a dog.

One of my closest soul sisters is my friend’s dog. We connect because I understand myself to be a dog in so many ways, in various connotations of the word. I want to claim both those negative and positive aspects, so that I can be whole, as the Canaanite woman is wholly herself, owning the name that Jesus throws at her, which she fetches right back and drops it at his feet.

As a freshman, “you dog!” was hurled at me across the school library, by boys who felt entitled to degrade me because I didn’t meet their standard of beauty. To be honest, I didn’t—straight-haired brunette. Thick eyebrows. Yes, facial hair. No make-up. No interest in fashion. Very much a Spock-loving, Elvish-speaking, poetry-writing nerd of a girl and mostly proud of it. To do any less than own it, to be the dog, felt fake, untrue. So I was ugly, not fit to date—I owned myself.

As a non-desired young woman, I came to identify, later in high school, with Helena, from my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This intensified during my marriage to an emotionally-abusive man who constantly cheated on me. Isn’t that the true place of a “saved” woman?  Fawning over her knight, whom she loved, content to be owned, to have the crumbs from the other women who he’s rescued. In Act 2, Scene 1, while she’s chasing him, Helena tells Demetrius, the man who could heal her: “What worser place can I beg in your love— / And yet a place of high respect with me— / Than to be usèd as you use your dog?”

I can own that I let myself play well into this role over the last twenty-some years. “I am your spaniel. And, Demetrius, / The more you beat me, I will fawn on you.” Yelps–“like me, like me, like me”–chorus in my background. “Bitch” is the pejorative metaphor I never wanted to hear from anyone’s lips.

Did the Canaanite woman expect to hear that insult from Jesus? To be called a “dog” or a “bitch”? Some commentators describe Jesus as smiling in his reply to the woman who dares to implore him for help (Women’s Bible Commentary, 474). He uses the word as a kindness, sort of like when one of my male co-workers greets me with a friendly “what’s up, dawg?” Meant in a friendly way, I know—one cool person to another. Not quite feeling that vibe in the exchange between our savior and the woman, though. Perhaps a little more tension between them—Jesus is focused on his mission. And that reading of a smiling Jesus makes him sound so patronizing. “Nice doggy, go lie down”—pat, pat, pat.

Yet, all along, there’s been another canine shadow pacing quietly alongside these cynical images. For as long as I can recall, when considering my wandering and wondering nature, especially in matters of faith and theology, I’ve described this journey as God letting me out on a very long lead. While exploring other ways of faith-ing, my fidelity has always been given to Christ, despite hackles bristling at rigid dogma or rabid fundamentalism.

Recently, a new friend gave more shape to this numinous form. He noticed that I didn’t just call myself a dog, but very specifically named myself “hound” without any forethought. A new consideration of myself—after all, I didn’t say any breed considered a toy or a lapdog. Hounds, Jeff observed, are independent and given to tracking by scent or sight their quarry. Leave out of your minds right now the masculine sexual connotations
–I definitely ain’t nothin’ like that hound dog!

Do I imagine myself the noble bloodhound, the elegant saluki, the swift greyhound? Maybe. I can claim certain of their aspects. In all honesty, though, I’m most like my Grandpa John’s basset hound, kindred spirit of my childhood—built low to the ground, chasing rabbits (going down rabbit holes), checking out fascinating scents, and generally going my own way around town. Lovingly indulged.

I’ve done with being the fawning spaniel (with all due respect to my soul sister), waiting to be spurned or beaten, or worse yet, beating myself. The Canaanite woman said “yes, that’s me” to Jesus (great improv!). Her “yes” woke him, reminding him that faith and salvation come in unexpected forms. Her “yes” rouses me, too.

Yes, I am a dog; a hound as faithful and true as the Canaanite woman. And very grateful that God has never once taken God’s hand from the lead.

In Our Addiction to Convenience, Have We Forgotten the Word’s Ancient Meaning?

Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. Genesis 3:7

Part of my daily ritual most mornings involves stopping at my local 7-Eleven convenience store. Freedom and spontaneity abound in my breakfast or lunch choices—planning a week’s worth of meals can be so inconvenient. Sometimes I stop at one on the way to my other job when I feel the guilt of a McDonald’s craving—exchanging one convenient corporation for another. Convenience stores have an abundance of those conveniently healthy food choices—individual packets of nuts, yogurt, power bars, and more. Convenience stores are also convenient oases for homeless persons, have you noticed?

I have a hate/love relationship with the words convenient and convenience. They have become such self-focused words—as consumers in a largely corporate economy, we measure the world in terms of our own “coffee spoon” comfort: how quickly and easily can we gratify our desires? No frustration must enter our lives, heaven forbid that we must wait in line at a grocery store, let alone interact with others who (might) thwart our ease of access. Convenience means little or no human interaction.

In seminary a few years ago, I became enamored of the now obsolete usage of the word, the original Latin conveniens, which means “fitting.” This usage forms the basis for many of Thomas Aquinas’s arguments in the Summa Theologiae. When I first read it, my eyes opened, not to a brave new world, per se, but to knowledge that there were others like me in the world–scholars, theologians, poets–using reason to understand God; faith was seeking understanding, to borrow St. Anselm’s phrase.

I had found my kindred spirits. Seemingly, the practical world has little use for mystics, though, let alone poets. And yet, I would say that even these head-in-the-cloud saints still had their hands and feet in the world.

***

Adam and Eve

God’s economy
begins in this convenient
car wash; by spurting spigot,
the man fills plastic water jugs
crafted by a nameless
corporation.
the woman produces eclectic plastic
ware–squares, saucers–from ubiquitous
black garbage bag carryall.
Synthetic black clothes her corpus, too,
leadenly animate in the chill.
Giving each dish a quick rinse under
the gushes, she then lays
them out on the grass.
No shame in either frame
as each performs their corporate chores.
Store’s red-shirted clerk ignores
their theft.

Gas pump clicks, banishing me
from this Eden, not them.
Conveniens? I whisper, a Thomist
ghost flitting ‘round
my reasoning heart.
Fitting, I murmur–
this is the wisdom of the world.

***

In my off-kilter, poet-theologian mind, I hate that we speak of, say, helping the homeless, in terms of inconvenience, as I’ve heard some priests preach, trying to wrestle with that word. Get out of your comfort zone (such a convenient cliche)! And I don’t disagree with the thought, but . . . if we are all children of God, all imago dei (made in God’s image), then should we not re-frame the wisdom of the world in terms of the fittingness of opening our eyes and truly seeing each other in that light? Inconveniencing ourselves may be the most convenient action we can take.


Image:  Välko Tuul – Art Museum of Estonia, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61409440

Advent Wilderness

“To put it another way: if you, as the owner of the house, know that the thief is coming but not the hour that the thief is to arrive, do you sit between now and that time, anxious, hyper vigilant, rigid in an armchair perhaps, smack dab in front of the door, hands tight on a shotgun, afraid to leave the chair? Are you then awake? How else might you prepare?” –from Advent Anxiety

The second Sunday of Advent and still Matthew’s gospel serves as a provocateur, pulling me up, wresting the shotgun out of my numb fingers, saying “armchairs are notoriously difficult to turn around in; how then can you repent?” Pulling me through zig-zagging narrow corridors in a rush, past vitriolic tweets and social media frenzies, past scores of emails per day from retailers reveling in their revealing of ever lower discounts and ever more perfect gifts. Until finally, I’m pushed–

out, crying aloud in wonder at the stark light of the sun and the radiant heat of the desert. At first, I mistake the absence of noise as total silence, but while marveling at the needed quietude, random buzzes (not the large drone of a hive), creep into my awareness. Stones, too, in some pattern I cannot discern, laid down long ago by flood and cataclysm, make themselves known to me. For a surreal second, I ponder whether stones can buzz, but then, camouflaged against the hard-packed sand, locusts move. Not enough for a plague, but plenty if you’re hungry. Watch out, I murmur softly, the prophet, the baptizer, might be about.

Of course, that’s exactly when the gospel nudges me forward. There’s a man, a ways from me; it’s hard to estimate distance in the desert. Is that what camel hair looks like? Hesitation on my part, only because I don’t want to disturb the stones. There’s no path, though the way is certainly straight. There’s no choice for me, really, and so I step forward.

When I reach him, he’s sitting, cross-legged at the edge of a shallow arroyo, a stream gurgling through it. “Child of Abraham,” he greets me, patting the ground next to him. We sit in silence for a bit; me, studying him surreptitiously and expectant of a prophetic rant about vipers; he, turning a stone over in his hands. The locusts sing. Finally, I ask, “Am I the wheat or the chaff, John?”

“Why is it always an ‘either/or’ question?” He looks at me, and I can’t help but notice the little smudge of honey in his beard. “When you ask it that way, you begin to ‘other,’ even yourself.” He shows me the stone in his hand–it’s vaguely heart-shaped. He tosses it into the flowing water. “It’s really difficult to baptize stone hearts–open yours and let the chaff therein float away.”

John reaches down and slips off my flip flops. Rising, unsure, I step into the stream, the cool water rushing over my dusty feet. I pivot back toward him. “Will you help me to open my heart?” I whisper.

The baptizer smiles. “Ah, that’s a better question.” I feel a tap on my shoulder.

“Turn around,” John says, “the one who comes with the Holy Spirit and fire is here for just that reason.”

Advent Anxiety

This Thanksgiving holiday, I, like many, many, many other people, flew to visit family. This Sunday, like many, many people, I sat in church, celebrating the first Sunday of Advent (Happy New Year to my fellow liturgical geek friends), and listening to part of the gospel of Matthew’s little apocalypse. Every three years, we are given this reading, this lesson, and yet every three years, this passage takes us aback, it seems. Isn’t Advent a season to pull away from the stress and anxiety produced by the constant revelation of newer and better gifts to buy for your children, grandchildren, parents, grandparents, husbands, wives, etc., etc? Aren’t we already awake enough through constant media bombardment, social or otherwise, secular or otherwise? Does this passage encourage us to ever more hyper vigilance for the Second Coming in an age that urges us to ever more uber awareness so that we can grab all that we can now, now, now, before the thief returns to the house? We can be taken or left at any moment. What awaits those taken? Those left? Who is taken; who is left?

As my outward bound flight taxied to the gate at the Charlotte airport, both a flight attendant and the captain made an announcement regarding those who had tight  connection times to their next flight. Most of those having the small increment of time were seated at the very back of the plane. Could those of us who had a longer time prior to the next stage of the journey or those who had reached our destination please stay seated so those families could disembark quickly and easily. We get parked at the gate, the seatbelt light blinks off, and what happens? Nearly everyone stands up and crowds into the aisle, grabbing for the overhead compartment latches, anxious–gotta off the plane first. A few of us stay seated, waiting as the families in the back rush (a difficult task in a narrow tube) past, with that harried, disheveled look folks traveling with young ones often have. We were thanked, both by those fellow passengers and by the captain.

How easy and how addictive that anxiety is! That zero-sum-driven angst that almost compels us to act impulsively on the “if I’m not first, I’ll miss something” fear; the “if I’m not first, I’m last” fear. As if being last is necessarily bad. I must admit to that temptation while waiting in the terminal–I arrived early both for the outward, visitation-bound travel and for the journey home; had time to buy refreshments, Dramamine, and a crossword puzzle book; found seats near the appropriate gate; and sat, trying to settle. Pulled out my pen and began a crossword, feeling relaxed, sipping my Coke. Looking up, watching the people going up and down the terminal. Fidgeting in my chair. What time is it? Oooh, the information screen behind the gate desk shows 20 minutes until boarding begins. I know the time. Relax again, puzzle over and answer a few more clues. Look up again, more folks gathering–lots of carry-ons. Great. Sigh. Remind myself not to get anxious; I’ve packed lightly: a duffle bag and a large purse that will both easily fit under the seat in front of me. Doesn’t matter which group I board with, even though my ticket reads “Group 2.”

More folks start to gather around the gate–why are they standing so close? Will they try to board before their group is called? I fidget more; I’ve put the crossword away and am trying to read my advance reading copy of Tad Williams’ latest fantasy novel. I give up in favor of watching to see how many people take advantage of the courtesy bag checking. I nearly get up to check mine. No, no need to be anxious–I prepared, packed lightly so I wouldn’t have to check a bag or worry about getting a bag into the overhead compartment. I’ll get on the plane, doesn’t matter if I’m first, last, or in the middle. Yes, there will be some discomfort as others get settled, get backpacks or cases stowed, before and after I do. All will be well. But the temptation to share in that anxiety–to get up and get closer to the gate, to stake my place, to glare at others who don’t line up properly, to make sure I’m with my boarding group, to be ahead of other boarding groups, to claim my space and get ready for the scary prospect of take off–is strong. I tuck my boarding pass into my book and I stand.

To put it another way: if you, as the owner of the house, know that the thief is coming but not the hour that the thief is to arrive, do you sit between now and that time, anxious, hyper vigilant, rigid in an armchair perhaps, smack dab in front of the door, hands tight on a shotgun, afraid to leave the chair? Are you then awake? How else might you prepare?

Stories Beget Stories

Audio from 9:00 am sermon

In the introduction to his new collection of assorted writings, A View from the Cheap Seats, one of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman, who’s written theologically-charged fantasy novels such as American Gods and Good Omens (with the late Terry Pratchett), names all the writers he’s read evangelists. Evangelists because reading one author, such as Tolkien, led Gaiman to yet another storyteller and from thence to yet another writer—a journey for him of good news through words and imagination. Stories beget stories, and the stories we tell bring tangibility to ideas and concepts that we can’t otherwise touch.

For example: How many of you watch 30 Rock? It’s one of my comfort shows; one of my favorite episodes is called “Leap Day”—it aired February 28, 2012. In it, Leap Day is a major holiday where people dress in yellow and blue (heaven forbid if you’re not wearing it), nothing that happens that day counts, and an old man named Leap Day William, who lives in the Mariana Trench, emerges every four years to exchange children’s (and adults’) tears for candy.

One of the storylines in the episode revolves around CEO Jack Donaghy—the stereotype of an ultra-Republican, ultra-conservative businessman, played by Alec Baldwin. Jack sees Leap Day as an opportunity for making extra profit for the company and even has a bet with his business school friends as to who will make the most money on Leap Day—the goal causes him to neglect his year-old daughter. During a rhubarb-induced slumber, he is visited by the Spirit of Leap Day Past, Present, and Future, and after seeing his grown daughter “experimenting with liberalism” (she’s participating in a Habitat for Humanity build) in the future, has a change of heart and goes home to spend time with her, after giving Kenneth the page money enough to buy the biggest rhubarb (the holiday food) in the shop down the street. “The one as big as me, sir?” Kenneth asks as all ends happily.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that the storyline was begotten from Charles Dickens’ well-known tale, A Christmas Carol. I know I’m getting to Christmas early, but then again, so are the stores. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his change of heart is a familiar story to most; if not the print version, then through movie or TV versions. Does the mention of the story conjure up certain images for you? Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s poor yet cheerful clerk. Or his son, Tiny Tim, who wears iron braces on his legs and uses a crutch, and whose words, “God bless us every one,” still moves me when I reach the end of the story.

And Scrooge. A name that’s even made it into our vernacular: “Don’t be a scrooge!” we say to those who seem in danger of being curmudgeonly and ungenerous. In the story, Dickens describes Scrooge as cold. He’s well-to-do and callous—he won’t keep Christmas, saying “humbug!” to all. He grudgingly gives Bob Cratchit a day off for the holiday; won’t accept an invitation to dinner from his laughing nephew, Fred; and when gentlemen knock on his door to ask for a donation for the poor, Scrooge asks “are there no prisons?” “are the workhouses no longer in operation?” Of course, he gives no money. He won’t keep Christmas at all. All who know him feel there is no hope for reversal. Scrooge rejects kindness and caring and turns his back on those in need. He may not feast every day—he generally dines on porridge at a tavern but neither will he share his wealth.

And yet, someone comes back from the dead to warn him that his dealings in life will affect him in the hereafter. While Scrooge dines on his soup in his cold rooms, he is visited by the ghost of his business partner, Jacob Marley. Marley—I’m sure you can envision it–weighted down by the chains he forged in life through his actions: a long, heavy chain with which he must spend eternity. He must wander the earth as well, no chance of happiness or peace. Yet Marley is given the chance to warn his friend Scrooge, to give him a chance to escape the same end.

And so probably the most familiar part of the tale—Scrooge is then visited by three Spirits; those of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. Scrooge sees what he was in his youth—a boy at school with a lively imagination, an apprentice clerk who enjoyed making merry with his boss and friends; he comes from a not very wealthy family. When he’s a young man, his fiancé breaks their engagement—Scrooge is becoming enamored with wealth, becoming hard-hearted and ambitious. It wouldn’t be right for him to marry a woman with no dowry, so she generously leaves. In all the scenes he’s shown, Scrooge easily reconnects with his old self, reliving eagerly the joyous ones, and feeling sorrow for how he’s behaved recently, wishing he’d acted differently.

In the end, we see a total reversal, repentance in Ebenezer. After the last visit, it’s Christmas morning; it’s not too late. Ebenezer opens his curtains, opens his window and shouts to a boy outside, asking if the big prize turkey is still in the window at the butcher’s. “The one that’s bigger than me?” the boy asks. “Yes!” Scrooge tosses an excess of coins to the boy. The turkey is to be a surprise for the Cratchit family, they’re going to feast; though earlier in the book, we see that they easily make a feast of what they have—that the feast is in being together, is in the love they have for each other.

Dickens and the Victorians loved the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus—it certainly helped to beget A Christmas Carol. Dickens does some reversals of his own—the biggest one is that the rich man does have someone to come back and “bear witness” to him. But I’m not here to read an English paper comparing the two stories. It’s enough for now to know that one is born from the other.

Which brings us to our gospel reading for today—the Rich Man and Lazarus.
Jesus tells this parable on the way to Jerusalem, on the way to his own crucifixion (part of me now pictures Jesus and the disciples sitting around a campfire). This is a story of rejection and reversals. The Pharisees, who have taken Jesus to task because of who he associates with—the tax collector and others—have rejected those same outcasts and rejected Jesus as well. We have a classic story of the reversal of fates of the rich man and Lazarus. Can you picture Lazarus? He’s a beggar, covered in sores, in pain and hungry. We could get graphic here imagining the pus and the blood running. And I’ll leave it to you to imagine whether the dogs who lick his sores are being compassionate in their doggy way or have a different end in mind.

Can you picture the rich man? He’s wearing purple robes—very exclusive ones as purple is meant only for members of the Roman royal family. And he feasts every day, disregarding the beggar at his gate. Imagine that—feasting everyday in the same way that the feast was given for the return of the prodigal son; Luke uses the same word in each story. And after he dies that he is in Hades, a dry, dusty, hot place, being tormented while Lazarus, who’s also died, is in the bosom of Abraham, at peace. The rich man calls, callously, for Lazarus to be sent to him to put a cooling drop of water on his tongue. We heard Abraham’s refusal as well as the refusal to send Lazarus to the five brothers. There is no hope for the rich man, it seems.

This parable is the only one in which a person is given a name—Lazarus. I find it interesting that medieval folks tried to give the rich man a name—mostly commonly Dives, which is a misreading of the Latin word for “rich man.” So basically, they were still calling him “rich man.”

And the chasm. Do you see a wide gulf, say, like the Grand Canyon—so wide that you can’t reach across it? Or do you see the gate that separated the two men?
So what stories does Rich Man and Lazarus beget for you? Did Jesus hope that his audience would go forward and retell this story to others? What resonates in this gospel for you?

What comes to mind for me is a quote from Scrooge’s nephew as he describes Christmas: “The only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on another journey.”

These words remind of an experience I had a couple of weeks ago. I went to Goodwill; I was buying something for a costume. Outside the store, sat a young man, a teenager really, homeless. He had a variant of the usual cardboard sign: “Anything helps. God Bless.” A couple of people passed him by as they entered the store. I looked at him, and said, “I’m sorry; I don’t have any cash on me.” He answered, “That’s ok; just thank you for saying something. That’s enough. God bless you.” I went into the store, and didn’t think until later that I could have offered to buy him a Coke and chips.

So I wonder: do we share things in common with the rich man in the story? I don’t mean that we feast every day, callously disregarding the beggars at our gate, or that we are are destined for the heat of Hades, like the rich man. But we live in a culture that tries to teach us to love material possessions, that tells us stories about them—that the newest iPhone, the newest Tesla, the latest iteration of Pepsi or Coke, will help fulfill us, these stories are all we need in life; these things will keep us safe, and safely, behind our gates.

Like Scrooge, though, we have someone who came back from the dead, someone who loves us immeasurably, someone who through stories and example, reminds us to not only see the outcasts, but to share what we have now with them—even if it’s a kind word, an acknowledgement, a hug. We do have the resurrected Christ who wove stories throughout his journey to the crucifix to teach us, to help all try to make reversals, as needed, in our own journeys when we find ourselves reveling solely in our material things and forgetting those who might be outcasts, or are simply in need of our help. We have the feast that we share together at least every Sunday.

I wonder what stories will you beget with your life. Where will this gospel lead you?

God bless us, every one. Amen

Poem written for McLean Baptist Church

This poem was commissioned by Rev. Megan Clapp, Youth Minister at McLean Baptist Church in McLean, VA. The first week of August 2016 was VBS time, and the children learning about creative praise. Megan and Katie, the other minister, wanted a poem that could be read at the Sunday worship time by a child, with a playful tone, and be about the church’s worship space.

The Most Important Part of My Church

Do I love my church home?
Yes!
Why?
I spy
beautiful jewels
emerald, sapphire, amethyst,
with ruby and gold at the heart—
the crown and cross
of Jesus Christ our King.
Can you guess?
Yes! Our stained-glass window,
With colors bright.

Do I love my church home?
Yes!
Why?
I spy
simple, strong structure,
space to grow in Christ.
Cradling us safely, yet
with windows clear, and doors
for all to enter and go forth.
Can you guess?
Yes! Our sanctuary walls,
a welcome sight.

Do I love my church home?
Yes!
Why?
I spy
cross and threefold shadows here,
hovering over waters deep,
promising eternal life in Christ.
Before and after I’m immersed,
Jesus’ teachings I’ll learn to keep.
Can you guess?
Yes! Our baptistery,
With its inner light.

Do I love my church home?
Yes!
Why?
I spy
the place that we gather
to be joined as a body,
the body of Christ. Together
in communion at the table,
where the Word of God often rests.
Can you guess?
Yes! Our altar, set for
the feast of life.

Do I love my church home?
Yes!
Why?
I spy
every time I’m here
the most important part
of our church—its soul and heart—
singing, laughing, crying,
praying, ministering, loving.
Can you guess?
Yes! We are the church,
in our pews together, all
snug and tight.

Do we love our church home?
Yes! We do! Amen!

Lord, Prepare Me

Safety.

The word that comes to mind with the word “sanctuary.” Life, light, love come to mind, too. In recent weeks, I’ve read two excellent reflections about gay bars as sanctuaries, (Broderick Greer, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/soloish/wp/2016/06/13/gay-nightclubs-and-black-churches-are-sanctuaries-heres-how-to-make-them-safer/; Hunter Ruffin, https://ajourneyinfaith.com/2016/06/17/unexpected-hope-a-small-town-gay-bar/)  and now I’ve just seen a video of a man dying outside a convenience store–shot in a quick burst of brutality–that part of me wishes I could un-see and part of me doesn’t. I want to add my voice to those trying to make sense and meaning.

My paternal grandfather owned a lovely stretch of rural land along the shores of the Iowa River, and spending time with him meant one of the best sanctuaries I knew in my young life. Catching crawdads, digging potatoes out of the huge garden, riding in the back of his Chevy pickup along the gravel roads between the two small towns each set of grandparents lived in–boy, summers couldn’t get any better. My grandpa spoiled my sister and me; he’s responsible in part for my love of cats and concern for animals. Folks around the area would bring him their strays and in his generosity, he kept trays of food and water in the big shed/garage; the cats wandered and lived in the vicinity. Everyone knew him; I loved him as a kind, generous man who loved food and his family. He passed away many years ago.

One vivid spot of memory is not so bright–at a pig roast somewhere in the 1970s, he showed me a large metal slingshot. He gave it a name: n— shooter. Being not even a teenager then, not even in middle school, if I remember correctly, I was too naive to understand all the implications, though I think I felt a bit uneasy. How could my grandfather be a man of violence; surely, he was joking about the name. I know now that this same man who spoiled me so easily also yelled at my parents when I was three or so because my mother bathed me in the same tub, at the same time, as the African-American little boy who was one of my playmates. And in doing research on which camps my grandfather trained prior to serving in WWII, I sometimes speculate about what kind of violence he might have been a party to while in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Kings and Queens, a LGBTQ bar downtown in a city in Iowa, served as a sanctuary for this middle-aged, straight-ish, white woman just a few years ago. Served as a place for me to come out–not out of the closet, but to live, to be myself, to continue healing from a damaging marriage. Not what one would expect from the dingy little space in a less-than-safe part of town. The brave, the exotic and beautiful drag queens and the one who was so damaged by sexual abuse as a boy talked to me and I listened, at home and welcome. Nothing really spectacular in this as I look back, but that ramshackle place lit mostly by brightly-colored stage lights held as much light and life as that idyllic place alongside the Iowa River. Despite the warnings about the glory holes in the bathrooms, the hookups going on in the back (I may still be naive, but not entirely so) and drugs, I could have stayed in that sanctuary forever just to be myself. Just to be a safe presence for others.

Dull anger comes over me when thinking of the violation of sanctuaries–the medieval notion of them as impregnable; outside forces shouldn’t interfere, whether place of worship, gay bar, or Iowa countryside, still holds. Sanctuaries, though, can be easily rent by violence, can be raped, as we’ve seen over and over. Alton Sterling’s sanctuary outside the convenience store; the Orlando nightclub, Pulse; movie theatres, schools, other places of light, life, love, safety.

To be honest, I’m not sure where these words (another favorite sanctuary of mine) are taking me, or where I hope they take those who read this. An image of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback, as portrayed in the 1990s’ film, The Pagemaster, runs through my head. He’s goofing–the fool, the other–crying “sanctuary, sanctuary.” My mind tries to slide into silliness, looking for poignancy. My grandfather, who offered safety and play to his granddaughter, but who offered violence to those he deemed less because of their skin color. This, and the release and fluidity I found at Kings and Queens, flow right along with the animated Hunchback.

An eagerness to destroy sanctuaries seems to plague humans when we should simply be sanctuaries to one another. Ring the bells loudly and invite each other in.

 

 

 

 

“Not All Who Wander are Lost,” or Apotossomai to All That

http://tinyurl.com/ChristinePentecost6A

By way of a prologue—

When does a journey begin? In stories, in poems, in epics, we, as the audience, know because the poet or the writer tells us. We have Chaucer’s “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,”we have the Beowulf poet’s “Listen!” But the characters don’t necessarily know the nature of the journey to which they’ve been called—no chance or thought to make preparations. Characters such as Perceval, the paramount knight of King Arthur’s court and the Grail quest, and Tolkien’s hobbit of Lord of the Rings fame, Bilbo Baggins, come to my mind.

I also think of my own journeys, and especially this week (the Tour de France is only a week away!) of one for which I was totally unprepared. When my priest, my mentor, at Trinity Episcopal in Waterloo, IA, asked if I was interested in being a support driver for a charity bike ride around Missouri, I didn’t think, I just said, “yeah, that sounds like fun!” Packed my bag and off I went! No inkling of what was to come—shepherding cyclists and yelling at motorists, writing about the Tour de France, going to seminary, learning about mission and community and connections. Helping to lift others up.

Today, Luke starts us on a journey; we take the first steps with Jesus and the disciples at the beginning of the road to Jerusalem, the road that will bring them to the cross. We have would-be disciples, including one who asks if he might say good bye to his mother and father, echoing Elisha’s question, asked of Elijah, his mentor. The Greek word apotossomai in Luke that means “say goodbye” is the verb form of the word “apostasy” that we use today as turning away from, a turning one’s back on, a withdrawing from, one’s principles, one’s religion, one’s cause.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with our (All Saints’ Episcopal, ATX) lectionary group, which meets between the services as an alternative to the Adult Christian Education forums; I invite you to join us sometime. Part of our discussion involves thinking of creative responses we might have to the Gospel. And so, that’s what I have for you today. The journey’s about to begin; I invite you to close your eyes and listen:

Do we set our faces toward Jerusalem?
Apostasy means never having to say goodbye again.

Perceval, the ultimate knight, the straight, the true, who
hopes to hold the Grail, doesn’t look back
following the angels in shining armor
he wants
to follow without question
the men who must serve God in their perfection

Never saying goodbye to the mother who
hid him, bore and raised him,
in the security and surety of the forest.
But he sets his face toward . . . what?
Glory, fame, to be the best, among the best,
To quest.

Apostate to his mother
she lies dead in the clearing
A hand outstretched, a heart broken
“Let the dead bury the dead”
though she taught him communion and to say Our Father
he never looked back, his hand on the plow
turned into a sword.

Perceval should have asked
“who does the Grail serve?”
but hand to the plow, eyes
and the body’s grace do not allow
him to look behind; mazed at the samite-clad
silent procession,
the single wafer
upon the platter.

What is the cost? “I’ll follow, I’ll follow. . .”
Fools rushing in where only an angel offered a place for his head
“where ever you go”
Even the cross? Can you let go?
Where is your face set?

A young Bilbo runs down the road
without a handkerchief to hold
Dwarves and dragon await.
Much, much later, apostate, withdrawn,
Bilbo, older now, slips on the Ring,
the one to Rule them all,
though it should go into an envelope.

The hand falters on the plow
but finally “the Road goes ever on and on”
face set toward Rivendell and elves.
The Precious left with his nephew,
precious, too, to follow the precarious Road,
to set his face,
to lose a finger,
hand on the plow,
but heart in the Shire.

The prophet cries out against Israel
His face set toward Jerusalem
but Elisha’s set his eyes on him.
He slaughtered the oxen with the very
yoke under which they served
straight and true (all twelve)
fed the people in farewell, his father
and mother and uncles and cousins
a feast of apostasy. “Turn in the rags
and giving the commodities a rain check.”

And Paul, free and Spirited slave, apostate to himself,
to Saul, on the road to Damascus, turns his face from Jerusalem
turns toward Christ. The writer writes, urging others to journey, to apostasy—say goodbye to the Law; lift up each other in love.

Where does your journey begin? Where do you set your face? Amen

It’s All Chicken But the Gravy

That includes chicken wings at Hooters on Mother’s Day. That was my treat to myself again this year; I looked forward to it eagerly. 2016 marks the fourth anniversary of this tradition for me–two of my closest friends included me in this family tradition of their own, inviting me the first year of seminary together in 2013. This married couple–Leroy and Lacey (not their real names; my friend chose his pseudonym)–have been celebrating Mother’s Day at Hooters for the last fifteen or so years, the happenstance of all the other restaurants in their Alabama hometown having been packed for the holiday one particular year. Needless to say, my friends have taken a lot of flack for frequenting “that restaurant, which degrades women,” especially on a day (a Sabbath, no less) set aside to honor mothers.

I’ve written in an earlier post (“Theo-proprioception“) about my perception of transcendence at a friend’s ordination to the priesthood. Leroy’s ordination took place few days after the one about which I’ve already written. That tangible sense of grace–where would it manifest this time?

Leroy’s wife, Lacey, and I are close friends–she’s one of my few close friends who is a woman. Both of us are what she calls “guy girls;” given our druthers, we’d choose to hang with the guys rather than with a group made up solely of women. We’re not “girly” or ultra-feminine. That’s just who we are. We also are not militant feminists, though we do support women’s rights. But we support men’s rights, LGBTQ rights, in short, a moderately liberal understanding of “love one’s neighbor as one’s self.”

I must admit, though, when Leroy invited me to join them the first time, I was taken aback a little. Hooters does have that reputation; I’d never set foot in one before, on principal, because of that reputation. Plus, I was unsure how I comfortable I’d feel around svelte, large-breasted women in skimpy outfits. When you’re a short, dumpy, nearly fifty-year-old woman coming to terms with her own sexuality, well, not necessarily where you envision a Mother’s Day meal.

However, the kindness of the offer, combined with the fact that this would be my first Mother’s Day without any of my own children, and that I loved being a part of my friends’ rambunctious family, prompted me to accept. Despite my reservations, I opened myself to the adventure.

Due to travel mishaps, my arrival time to Leroy’s ordination cut it close–I got there after the rehearsal had begun, and I was one of the readers (had the honor and pleasure of reading  Isaiah’s call story). Hot and grumpy, I felt unsettled and unready, though happy to be there, in a old Southern church that smelled old, musty, and loved. After helping myself to a drink of water from the kitchen, I found the sanctuary, where the sacramental party gathered–Leroy, Lacey, their three children, Lacey’s brother, some family, a couple of diaconate and priestly seminary classmates, assorted bishops, priests, church members. Not as large a party as that sounds. A hushed urgency filled the space.

Once seated (at one of those high tables Hooters has), Leroy proceeded to strike up conversations, first with our hostess–a blonde, if memory serves–and then with our waitress, a petite brunette. Without much preamble, my friend asked these young women how they felt about working at Hooter’s–did they feel objectified, did they feel less than human? How self-possessed and unashamed  these women appeared as they responded–both were university students doing this to support themselves. They were doing as they chose; they were aware of why men frequented the space, but they weren’t letting that define their lives. Leroy told the story of how he and Lacey came to have this tradition and he shared why he was interested in their stories–the agitation of friends who disapproved of the restaurant chain. His own agitation at being lumped in and objectified himself as a misogynist (well, at least that’s been shared with me). A matrix of human connections appeared amid the wings and the family chaos.

I joined the rehearsal; stepping up to the lectern to make sure the mic was set right, to make sure I was set right. And then out into the jumble of folks to line up and process and sit and read Isaiah and wait for the moment of the Holy Spirit. Leroy prostrated himself for the prayers as had my other friend had just an eon ago, just a few days before. No sparklies then did I see; no overwhelming presence, no desire to fall to my knees. Had I missed something?  Not when the bishop laid hands on him nor when Leroy was vested–beautiful moments in themselves, but. . .

“Peace be with you,” Leroy, as newest priest in the Episcopal Church, said to the congregation as strongly as Isaiah’s, “Here I am, Lord.” And there was the Spirit, the transcendent moment, as he reached out, a beatific look on his face, making the connections he so loves to make, and even better, encouraging others to make those connections.

It’s all chicken but the gravy.