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?

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!

“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.

 

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.

Theo-proprioception

“Why did you prostrate yourself during the prayers?” I ask my friend after his ordination into the priesthood a couple of Saturdays ago, as we’re walking to a pub for a celebratory beer (we are Episcopalians, after all). My voice is level (I think) as I ask.

“It’s an ancient practice,” he responds, “and besides, I could just lie there and listen to the prayers.”

“Oh. I know of prostration at other times, but haven’t seen anyone do it at an ordination before.” I can’t remember if I told him that it was my favorite part of the service and said that it had made me a bit teary-eyed, trying to be nonchalant, unwilling to show him exactly how much that moment meant, or if I did in fact tell him it was the most profound and intense moment of the service for me.

I’ve seen a number of friends ordained into the transitional and vocational diaconate, and prior to July 11, one ordination into the priesthood. At that particular ordination, I saw a visible transformation as the bishop laid hands on that other friend as he was clothed in priestly garb. An outward sign of inward grace, perhaps the Holy Spirit descending, the ontological change joked about at seminary—I don’t know, except that the sensation was wholly unexpected. That transition was transcendent in a sparkly, numinous way. And having experienced it once, I earnestly (and naively) awaited witnessing the same for this friend at that point during his ordination.

So the service begins after the procession, and my friend is in his alb, looking pretty much as he did when last I saw him at graduation in May. The Presentation goes quickly, and next is the Litany of Ordination–the prayers on behalf of the candidate. I fiddle with the Order of Service, crumpling the sheets slightly while looking for the right page, intending to follow along, all the while anticipating the big moment coming up later in the service. I could go on liturgical autopilot for a few minutes.

And then . . . as we stand and as the bishop begins, my friend is not standing, is not on his knees, but prostrate, his head resting on his crossed arms, and suddenly now is the transcendent moment, for me anyway, sans sparkles. I have no voice to join in with the rest of the body as they respond to the bishop’s petitions with “Lord, hear our prayer” or maybe it was “Lord, have mercy,” because tears have started down my cheeks. My heart was on its knees. . .

Frankly, for the longest time, I could not see how the posture of my body could affect my ability to feel the presence of the Holy Spirit or to discern God’s will for me. I knew my heart was pretty open as it was. On Maundy Thursday, after having been “banished” from my home parish during Lent (so that I could experience the wider Church as part of my discernment), and after having visited the Seminary of the Southwest’s campus, I stretched myself out before the cross, after the agape meal (a story in itself) at St. Luke’s in Cedar Falls. I tried to lay open my heart.

Those who know me know my weakness for the Fool, especially Nick Bottom, the ass-headed (figuratively and literally) rude mechanical of my favorite Shakespeare play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the literary character whom I most love and with whom I most identify. (My love of Puck, the Trickster, is another story). In Act 4, Scene 1, Bottom’s otherwordly, I mean otherworldly, vulnerability brings tears every time to my eyes. His fumbling, earnest, unashamed attempt to articulate his participation within the body of fairies as he seeks to describe his experience with Titania, Queen of the Fairies, has wound itself around my heart: “The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was.”

In seminary, I could often be found stretched out in the breezeway, on the ledge of a brick wall, on the library floor, or even on the floor during class (I was roasted for my “planking” habit at Last Gathering the year I graduated). Reading assignments or research for my thesis, a notepad, pens, pencils, spread out around me when on the breezeway or in the library (scaled back slightly if in class). An arm served as a prop for my head, hand tucked under my chin—my favored learning posture. I eagerly read biblical scholarship, scripture, or best of all, theology.

Bottom mangles a quote from older scripture that Paul, that fool of fools, uses in his letter to the Corinthian house churches (1 Cor 2:9). Paul, who opened his heart again and again, to Christ and for Christ, writing of the body of Christ for the body of Christ. Did a part of him always remain prostrate on the road to Damascus?

. . . and so, there is my friend, lying prone, heart open, as he is prayed for by the rest of the body of Christ present that day in that place, in a human gesture of surrender and obedience as he becomes a priest. My own body stands, but my heart is aware of God’s presence, grateful for fools who are translated by, and who translate God’s love.