In our daily prayers God was every manner of image and metaphor and meaning, and always, "God the Father." We never ever prayed to "God our Mother." What were women in the economy of God? The answer was only too painful: We were invisible. I had given my life to a God who did not see me, did not include me, did not touch my nature with God's own....Joan Chittister, "Called to Question"

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Advent 4 Reflection

A Reflection on Matthew 1:18-25 by the Rev. Kate Hennessy

In the world of psychology, where I spend a fair amount of time, therapists and clients seeking a new paradigm for the healing relationship other than that offered by the medical model, can find richness in Narrative Therapy.

Narrative therapy holds as its most basic tenet, that as humans we are creatures of story. Our stories are our basic units of experience. Told and retold, they shape people's perspectives of their lives, histories, and futures. For the narrative therapist, it is important to listen for the dominant story that informs and constructs the individual’s view of her or his own reality. Sometimes that dominant story is laden with constructs that keep the individual from living out his or her fullest potential. And, sitting squarely within the story, the client her or himself has no idea that his or her construction of reality might be limiting in some way. The task before us then is to deconstruct the story, not in order to disprove the construction, or to say that this particular construction is wrong and ought to be replaced by another one which is right or correct. Rather, deconstruction is done in order to be able to notice the effects of the construction on the person's identity so that sufficient space will open up for the person to be able to decide if he or she prefers that construction or not.

Hand in hand with deconstruction is the reengagement of history, which is not merely re-framing or reinterpreting historical events, but includes things like remembering events of history that may not have been considered important, and re-engaging with those events in an active way, so that the details are known and the connections between those details and various aspects such as motives, hopes and principles of those involved might be made. It is, as the term implies, a relational engagement with history. Particularly if there is interest in bringing forward alternate stories from the one that has been the dominant one, examples that are consistent with the emergent theme or themes must be remembered from the past and sought after in the future. This thickens the new stories and opens the narrative space to possibilities that were not there previously.

Narrative therapy comes from postmodernism, the same roots that brought us feminism. The same roots that tell us that since we can never have the complete picture, the objective truth, if indeed there is one, because we are at all times being busily steeped in the tea of our own perspective, our task is to become aware, to notice, to, open the spaces that new stories might emerge, alternative stories might be raised up, new voices might find a hearing, provocative new perspectives might engage us as we engage our story.

The story of the birth of Jesus the Messiah….”Mary, engaged to Joseph, found to be with child”….and suddenly….scandal ensues. This same Mary who in Luke has such a sense of herself as the God-bearer, here is the object. A different story ensuing. And Joseph, “being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” Joseph was of course doing the honorable thing, the right thing, perhaps the only thing he could even imagine doing in his time and place. Because the deal was that in that time and place if you announced to the world that the woman to whom you were betrothed was bearing someone else’s child you were condemning her (and the father if known) to death. So Joseph was going to do his best to do this quietly, not call attention to Mary, see if he could get her out of this alive, and still avoid claiming a child that did not belong to him, because after all, that simply was NOT done.

All in all in a paternalistic honor-shame system, maybe disempowering someone to protect them is not the worst thing you could do. It is compassionate in making the best of the worst. It was likely in the interest of saving her life. In this construction of the story this may have been another one of those examples of doing the well-intentioned thing, operating on the information at hand and making the best choice. But we know that this is Mary Theotokos, voiceless and disempowered, Mary who in another story has said an unqualified yes to changing history. Mary in whom God is doing a new thing, writing another story.

One thing that this has triggered for me is thinking about how often we are guilty of doing what Joseph was forced into in this story, disempowering others in the name of protecting them. It is of course what feminism would call a classic paternalistic stance. But make no mistake, we are all culpable. I think I can be fairly confident in saying that anyone who is reading this is sitting in a place of some privilege. Warm, dry, in front of a computer, literate and educated. That alone separates us in some rather significant ways from many people with whom we might have contact, and gives us a perspective about the stories that make up our lives that may differ from theirs in ways that we may be more or less aware of at any given time.

As Christians most of us take the call to live out the Gospel message seriously. And for many of us a good part of that that message has some component of a call to “do for” others whom we consider to be somehow in need. Whether it is the call to fill the box for the food shelf, or to decide what the MDG project is going to be, or to decide if we are going to staff the food shelf or contribute time to the homeless shelter, we face these decisions almost daily. We are people of good-will and we want to do what is good and right….but in whose story? I think back to the missionaries who took the Native children away from their families and culture and put them in boarding schools. Cutting their hair and taking their language and all vestiges of anything that connected them to who they were seems barbarous to us. But in the missionaries’ construct of the story, they were protecting them from dying as heathens, and if some sacrifice was required for that, it seemed a small price to pay. Obviously, we are doing nothing as egregious as stealing people from their families. Our sins tend to be much more subtle as we presume our privilege or simply operate blindly from the constructs of our ignorance, presuming we always “know what is best” simply because we are the ones doing the protecting, the providing or the doing for.

As we make choices about how we will go about “doing good for others” it is often so much easier to engage in the work of charity instead of the work of justice. In doing charity we can remain powerful, comfortable in our constructed reality, unchallenged by the faces and voices of the suffering. Justice calls us to another place. It calls us to engage. It calls to deconstruct our own assumptions and move from our comfort zones. It calls us to listen to the nameless faceless voiceless ones as they call us to account for and repent of our own acts of paternalism, racism, classism and other injustices.

Just as Joseph was able to step outside the construct of his time, and with God’s help, do a new thing, and support Mary in being the God-bearer, perhaps we can support each other in deconstructing the old stories and telling new stories of empowerment, of voices raised together in songs of hope for the kingdom of justice and righteousness for which God Incarnated Godself in Jesus.

I serve as one of three priests (all women) on a Total Ministry Team in a small congregation in a medium sized town in rural Minnesota, where I am also a clinical psychologist at the community mental health center. I live with my partner of eleven years, my faithful contemplative canine Maggie the Peke, and an ever-changing number of special-needs rescue cats. In a meme on my personal blog I once defined myself as a “liberal, evangelical, feminist, mystical, mindful, slightly Anglo-Catholic, Episcopalian-by-grace.”

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Advent 3 Reflection

Advent 3 reflections on Matthew 11:2-11
By Jacqueline Schmitt

I spent Sunday afternoon watching The Matrix, the 1999 movie with Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne. In case you forgot the plot, or were too old to see it when it came out (do you remember book critic Phyllis Tickle lauding it at the Trinity Institute that year, spurring scores of middle-aged or older Episcopalians in the telecast audience to run to their nearest Blockbuster?), the film depicts the world as we know it as nothing but a computer program. Humans seem to be alive but in reality are batteries, hooked up to power a global network of machines. Breaking through this malevolent matrix is the vocation of a small multicultural band, a remnant underground of resistance and hope. The hidden human community, fiercely protected by these techno-geeks skilled in gravity-defying martial arts, lives in the underground city of Zion, awaiting the One who will restore the planet to justice and human habitation. On Sunday afternoon, I should have been writing this meditation for the blog, but instead, I watched this movie.

What an Advent movie it is, with the Advent allusions to hope, longing, waiting, darkness, restoration and retribution. It is NOT a Christian movie, but it just may be a John the Baptist movie.

With two weeks of John the Baptist readings, we get a picture of this prophet as ferocious and uncompromising. On Advent 2 we read of vipers, wrath, an ax-wielding clear-cutter of rotten trees. The One John proclaims is one who ruthlessly winnows and burns the worthless with an unquenchable fire. In Advent 3, we find this same John in prison. Is not Herod’s prison one of torture and deprivation, the first century equivalent of Abu Ghraib, both examples of the institutionalized violence of occupation and empire?

Neo, Keanu Reeves’ character in The Matrix, is a modern millennial equivalent of the One proclaimed by John. In the scene where Trinity and Neo suit up in tight leather and flowing coats – severe and stylish in black – they arm themselves with more machine guns than one would think the entire US Army possesses. They are going in to rescue the imprisoned and tortured Morpheus, their leader, and in so doing execute a battalion of soldiers, while executing a terror-filled but beautiful ballet of bullets and destruction.

On that Sunday afternoon of Advent 2, we witnessed another horror on the news, as a young man with guns killed missionaries and church-goers in Colorado. We mourned the deaths of Christmas shoppers in Nebraska. Seeing The Matrix on such a Sunday afternoon, I could not help but see the parallels: the long black coats, the blazing machine guns, the righteous anger, the hopelessness – or was it hope, fueled by a conviction for retribution and restoration? Where did the imagination for these rampages come from? From movies like The Matrix? Or from some place deeper in the human past, from some place that drove John the Baptist to the wilderness? From an imposed militarism and institutionalized violence that has dominated human society for thousands of years? How different was the life of John the Baptist, on the fringes of the Roman Empire, from that of young men today, desperate and violent, with weapons almost as readily at hand as those of Neo and Trinity?

Advent hymns reflect that rawness, that hope tinged with violence. The Boston Camerata’s collection, An American Christmas, contains this 1809 hymn in, sung by men’s voices:

Who is this that comes from far,
with his garments dipped in blood?
Strong, triumphant traveler;
is he man or is he God?
I that reign in righteous ness,
Son of God and Man I am.
Mighty to redeem your race,
Jesus is your savior’s name.

Hark the trumpets awful voice;
sounds abroad through sea or land.
Let his people now rejoice.
Their redemption is at hand.
I that reign in righteous ness,
Son of God and Man I am.
Mighty to redeem your race,
Jesus is your savior’s name.

See the lord appears in view,
heaven and earth before him fly.
Rise ye saints he comes for you,
rise to meet him in the sky
I that reign in righteous ness,
Son of God and Man I am.
Mighty to redeem your race,
Jesus is your savior’s name.

The Advent 3 gospel records Jesus’ answer to John’s question:

‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

Jesus stands with the least. Jesus brings healing, wholeness, grace. For Jesus, the reign of God comes in power and non-violence. To be saved by Jesus, we are made whole, not hacked to pieces. In the Isaiah passage for the day, we read,

Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!’ Here is your God.

The passage goes on:

He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.
I can read these texts only as myself: a middle-aged Episcopal priest, a woman, a mother of sons and daughters the age of those young imitators of Neo. My stance can be only that of hope: hope that what we Christians read, hear and preach in these texts is that God’s holy vengeance brings salvation: healing, wholeness, grace.
With this image in my mind of John the Baptist as Neo, as a teen-age shooter desperate to get his message across, I read Jesus’ final words about John differently than I ever did before. The passage describes Jesus walking away from the conversation with John’s disciples, and implies some controversy about John, or his tactics, or perhaps highlights the contrast with Jesus. What Jesus then says seems full of compassion for the hot-headed one, whose strident and counter-cultural ways got him thrown into prison. What did you go out to see, Jesus asks those who may be critical of John. Look, Jesus says, John sees what is wrong with this society; he has a point. He is a prophet, after all. For Jesus, this John who is so different from him is the messenger of change, the one who knows what needs to be done. But when the reign of God comes, it is those Jesus mentioned first – the blind who now see, the lame who now run, the sick who are whole, the deaf who can hear, the dead brought back to life, and even the poor who will share in the abundance of God’s creation – these are the citizens of Holy Zion, the least now great in the arms of God.

The Matrix may not be a Christian movie, but it it tells a story of people pushed to their limits, desperate people seeking hope, a story John the Baptist would have understood.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Reflection on Advent 2

The Voice of One Crying Out in the Wilderness: Prepare the Way of the Lord

Elaine Wainwright begins her commentary on the Gospel of Matthew in Searching the Scriptures: A Feminist Commentary with this: “A scribe trained for the implementation of the inclusive basileia vision of Jesus draws out of a treasure of past and present, the new and the old toward a rereading of the Jesus story for a particular historical situation.” She interprets this from Matthew 13:52: “And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old..”

A feminist blog, in part, offers us an opportunity to look back with fresh eyes, to reflect on both the tradition of the text and a new way of understanding it. And, as a blog, it also provides us with the means to have a conversation about it through the “comments” section at the bottom of each reflection. I hope that, regardless of our response to the word “feminist” we can consider this a blog for women and men, black, brown, white, gay or straight; a place where people of faith can wrestle with the text and the realities of our lives. I hope we can struggle together to understand what it means to believe in a living God; a God who is active in our lives and the world. At least for me, that is a starting place for what a feminist blog can be about.

A Reflection on Matthew 3:1-12 by The Very Rev. Terri C. Pilarski

When I started seminary in 1995 my daughter was eight years old. We sold our home and moved “on the block” where my daughter met new kids. Most of her friends were not the kids at the seminary. Her friends were Jewish, or Methodist, or Christian Scientist, and one, an Episcopalian. And their parents were artists or professors or entrepreneurs.

Being in seminary and raising children was not particularly easy. One day, in the midst of a difficult time, Jessi asked me, “Mom? Why can’t you be a Mom like all the other Mom’s?” I found this humorous, although I didn’t laugh. You see for most of my daughter’s life I had been a massage therapist. I thought, “not exactly the kind of work the average mother does,” especially not then. And, well, it was also funny because the mother of Jessi’s best friend, Deanna, was a Jewish woman, who practiced Hinduism, and taught meditation for a living. Not your average mother either.

For many years my daughter and I forged a common bond around this Jewish friend. I too had a Jewish friend, Lisa, a rabbi in a suburb north of the seminary. One year Lisa created a women’s Seder and invited my daughter and me. We invited Deanna and her mother. The whole point of the women’s Seder was to tell the story from a woman’s perspective and celebrate the story intergenerationally, mother and daughter. The Seder was festive, filled with great food and lively song, games for the kids, and stories. I loved hearing the story of the Exodus told through the eyes of Miriam. I thought, surely she had a story to tell!

In some regard that Seder was my first venture into telling the story of our faith, using the historical texts, and re-visioning them from a woman’s perspective. I wondered what Mary, the mother of Jesus would say, if she could tell her story? Or Mary Magdalene? Or the wife of Peter? With a few exceptions the voices of women are lost in the written text. I hope the stories of our faith find a life in us as we ponder how we live as a people of faith.

It’s true, I often feel like I am a voice crying in the wilderness. Have you ever had that feeling? I struggle with the reality that we do not really hear women’s voices. Or if we do they are often judged in light of the male voices heard with them. Think of a job search. How many women have been one of two finalists, the other a man. And how often was the woman chosen? Sometimes, but not often. We hear, “She was good, but…” but what I wonder? I hear this all the time, in my own life, and the lives of other women.

How good do we need to be to live into our baptismal covenant? How good do we need to be to be heard above the other voices, to be judged worthy?

Even as we consider who we will elect as our next President of the United States I hear smart women colleagues say, “Well, I just don’t trust her…” And I wonder, do we really trust the male candidates? Have we ever thought about that? What does it mean to “trust” our politicians? Sure, I think they should be trustworthy. But, I think all politicians have mixed agenda’s. None of them are fully “trustworthy” by all the standards we each hold. Should we hold her to a different standard?

Last night, after I wrote the opening portion of this reflection, I read the local Sunday paper. In it I found an article about a woman who has created a new card game to counter the game, “Old Maid.” The article says, “Twenty-five years ago when Mary Grace Crowley-Koch was playing ‘Old Maid’ with her daughter, it dawned on her what a terrible message the popular game sent to young girls everywhere.”

“If you don’t get married, you become an Old Maid and are negated by society. That’s the message the game sends,’ Crowley asserted.” So. She created her own game, and after a long while managed to get the artwork done, the packaging done, and now is working on marketing the product. It’s called, “Me for President.” The game is played with the same rules as “Old Maid” where the players match and pair off their cards until they have none. However, unlike Old Maid, where the player who retains the Old Maid card loses, in this game the player who retains the card, “Me for President” wins.

The card game portrays women of all colors and cultures doing all kinds of jobs from Minister to Pilot to Ambassador, and of course, President. I think things like this are the beginning steps for shifting a culture with embedded presumptions that speak to us unconsciously. We are a culture that needs to remember John’s words, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.” We need to change the very root of our presumptions, the ones that live silently in us, the ones we are blind too, and yet speak so loudly through our actions.

I don’t mean to diminish the fine male voices we have in our world. I merely want women to be given an equal shot at being really heard. I think the root of this bias is so deeply rooted, lives so unconsciously in our beings, that we are incapable of recognizing it. And, it’s not just sexism or racism, it’s also sexual orientationism, or weightism. We live in a world full of “isms;” our own brood of vipers. But if we hear the call of John, we are pointed in a new direction, toward Jesus. This pointing asks us to be very conscious of what is going on in us and around us. Don’t presume we know the one who is coming. We’ve been baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire! God has come to do a new thing.

PS: Crowley is marketing this game with the hope that people will use it as a fundraiser, like Girl Scout troops, schools, and non-profits. Crowley is a hospice chaplain and her company is the first to use this game as a fundraiser. I think I am going to order some decks of cards and offer them for sale on our table of gift ideas that include Bishops Blend Coffee and Heifer International. You can contact her by email at be-a-blessingatsbcglobaldotnet. (the phonic spelling is designed to ward of spammers who find ways to infiltrate blogs….)