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.

Claustrophobia II

She’s not fool enough to actually stick her head all the way out the window, riding in the backseat of a friend’s SUV at the finish of a sacramental night, instead settling for an inward chuckle. For a brief space, she wears a dog’s mien as she gazes in rapt attention at the midnight Texas sky, unbounded by city lights.

The temptation to lean out into the night air is almost overpowering–just to feel more fully the cool autumn air rushing past; just to more fully take in all the stars, the Milky Way, to look for familiar constellations–long-lost friends kept at a distance by orange-sodium urban incandescence.

Head rush, soul rush–tranquility and tumult exist in the liminal space between one heartbeat and the next; the dog collar, invisible, yet felt, always binding her heart, just like the stars newly binding her wrist.

 

Holy Monday Sermon, Post-Brainstorm and Given

Holy Monday Sermon, Post-Brainstorm and Given audio

For some reason, the image from today’s Gospel reading—Mary wiping Jesus’ feet with the nard using her abundant hair—kept evoking the memory of a night when I was on duty as a volunteer night chaplain at a hospital in Waterloo, Iowa, about a year or so before I started seminary. Latent anger and helplessness still lingers whenever I recall that night, and I know it colors how I feel about my gay friends and it colors how I feel about violence. That particular night I’d done my usual rounds and returned to the chaplains’ room. At some point, my pager went off—a call to the ED for a trauma patient. Arriving in the suite reserved for trauma victims (this was my second time there, but my baptism by fire is a story for another time), I discovered that the victim was a young black man, nineteen years old, comatose, his head bloody because he’d been beaten with a baseball bat. This young man was beaten by members of his own community because he was gay.

His brain was swollen and pressure had built up (I forget the exact medical terminology, but that’s the gist of it); his mother and siblings were in the suite, awaiting the medical transport helicopter that would take him to Iowa City. The university hospital was much better suited to perform the pressure-relieving surgery; the doctors told us that they were confident the surgery would be successful. The helicopter arrived, and as we stood around the young man on the gurney before the medics came in to get him, his mother asked me to pray. She was trying to be strong and looked for hope, for assurance. What could I pray when I felt a very strong sense—I knew, don’t ask me how, but I knew—that the young man would not survive the violence done to him? How to pray out of an angry place—because besides the reality of this young man and his family, the what-ifs of my son, just a few years older, came into being; the what-ifs of my gay friends came into being; the realities of those who suffered violence because of who they were and who they loved angered and frightened me.

Was Mary at all angry as Jesus spoke to his disciples of what must befall him? John doesn’t say that she was weeping (I tend to cry when mad) while she anoints Jesus’ feet with the nard. Did she carry some residual grief because of Lazarus? He was alive again, but certainly not out of danger.

I know my experience in the ED is being brought forward by the questions I’m asking of the text; surely, if I’m angry about the beating of this young man, who until that moment was unknown to me, how can Mary not be at least a little so on behalf of her beloved “Rabbouni?” Perhaps anointing his feet with fragrant oil, using her hair, is Mary’s spontaneous prayer for a man she knew was going to suffer violence at the hands of others, even though it was of his own volition. Maybe Jesus needed hope; hope given profusely in Mary’s actions as she was present in those moments of care.

In the everlasting seconds that quickly passed as I stood there, the question I asked of God—how to pray out of a place of anger—was answered by the grace of the Holy Spirit, grace that transformed my abundance of anger into an abundance of love, enabling me to be a calm presence for the young man’s family as we prayed for his safe arrival to the hospital, we prayed for the doctors and nurses who would care for him, and we prayed for God to give strength and solace to his family at that time.

At his funeral a little over a week later, his mother and I embraced and a sense of understanding and love passed between us, as we both shed tears, an anointment of sorts.

If this were the fifth Sunday in Lent, I might have ended my sermon there, at the anointing. However, we are given more verses of John’s Gospel on this Monday in Holy Week, on every Monday in Holy Week, than we hear at the end of Lent. These ominous verses about the Pharisees’ intentions for Lazarus give us an intimation that we must endure more, with Mary, with Judas even, and of course with Jesus, as we are drawn forward to Maundy Thursday’s bittersweet agape meal and to the heart-wrenching betrayals and violence of Good Friday.
As we enter into the aletheia—the not-forgetting, the remembering—of Holy Week, are you frightened? Are you angry? Do you feel helpless as these events unroll, immediate and real? Do what-ifs spring to mind? What if Judas had waited three more days? What if it were my child on the cross? What if? We can’t change the events of Holy Week, though, no matter how many what-ifs.

So, then, how do you pray for and with Jesus, with Christ, in his suffering and death this week? How do you pray this week, and every week, for a world full of turmoil—terrorism unfolding around us, politicians you may not agree with; how do you pray for those in prison; for those in the injustice system, for those who are homeless,
for . . .? If we feel sad, helpless, or angry over what befalls Jesus—someone we love—this week, surely we feel the same about what’s happening in the world? How do we pray, as a church, and as individuals?

The good news is that while we know that Jesus dies on the cross, we also know that the tomb is empty on Easter morning. Perhaps we can pray from that place of hope, assurance, and love. Amen.

Brainstorming a Sermon

I’m working on a sermon for Holy Monday, my first sermon (as opposed to a few short meditations given during Evensong or Evening Prayer) at All Saints’ Episcopal. I’ve been re-reading all of the Gospel of John; I finished reading Christopher Moore’s excellent novel, Lamb, a story of Jesus’ life prior to, yet including, the Gospels; and I’ve listened to BBC 4 Radio’s show In Our Time, the recent episode on Mary Magdalene–I highly recommend it. All this time, I’m trying to intuit where the Spirit is talking to me, to where the energy is, as I wonder about the scripture readings for the day–the Gospel reading is John 12: 1-11. Many springs bubble up in my heart and my mind, feelings try to creep in, too.

Feelings–I pick apart all the little nuggets of information I’ve gleaned (yes, I’m mixing images–one gleans ears of wheat rather than stones) and that helps keep the feelings tamped down. Excited and nervous, of course, only natural. But last year’s Holy Monday sermon given at All Saints’ is still in my heart; it’s one of my favorites and I can still feel the Spirit in it, trying to call me out of myself. And I confess, I have to remind myself about non-competitive transcendence. I don’t want a better sermon, I just want to write my sermon. A thoughtful, feeling sermon. A sermon that calls  to others.

And what I’m feeling is a memory of a night when I was on duty as a volunteer night chaplain at a hospital in Waterloo, Iowa, that surfaced today while I was picturing Mary wiping Jesus’ feet with her long hair and the nard. Latent anger still lingers whenever I recall that night and I know it colors how I feel about my gay friends and it colors how I feel about violence. That particular night I’d done my rounds and returned to the chaplains’ room. At some point, my pager went off—a call to the ED for a trauma patient. Arriving in the suite reserved for trauma victims (this was my second time there, but my baptism by fire is a story for another time), I discovered that the victim was a young black man, nineteen years old, comatose, his fucking head bloody because he’d been beaten with a fucking baseball bat. This young man was beaten by members of his own community because he was gay.

His brain was swollen and pressure had built up (I forget the exact medical terminology, but that’s the gist of it); his mother and siblings were in the suite, awaiting the medical transport helicopter that would take him to Iowa City. The university hospital was much better suited to perform the pressure-relieving surgery; the doctors told us that they were confident the surgery would be successful. The helicopter arrived, and as we stood around the young man on the gurney before the medics came in to get him, his mother asked me to pray. She was trying to be strong and looked for hope, for assurance. What could I pray when I felt a very strong sense that the young man would not survive the violence done to him? How to pray out of an angry place—because besides the reality of this young man and his family, what-ifs of my son, just a few years older, came into being; what-ifs of my gay friends came into being; the realities of those who suffered violence because of who they were angered and frightened me.

Was Mary at all angry as Jesus spoke to his disciples of what must befall him? John doesn’t say that she was weeping (though I tend to cry when mad) while she anoints Jesus’ feet with the nard. I know my experience in the ED is being brought forward by the questions I’m asking of the text; surely, if I’m angry about the beating of this young man, who until that moment was unknown to me, how can Mary not be at least a little so on behalf of her beloved “Rabbouni?” Or perhaps this is the way she prayed for a man she knew was going to suffer violence at the hands of others, even though it was 0f his own volition. Maybe Jesus needed hope; hope given in abundance in Mary’s actions as she was present in those moments of care.

In the everlasting seconds that quickly passed as I stood there, those questions I asked of God were answered by the Holy Spirit’s presence, which transformed my abundance of anger into an abundance of love, enabling me to be a safe presence for the young man’s family as we prayed for his safe arrival to the hospital, for the doctors and nurses who would care for him, and for God to give strength and solace to his family at that time.

At his funeral, his mother and I embraced and a sense of understanding and love passed between us, as we both shed tears, an anointment of sorts.