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"

Friday, February 29, 2008

Lent 4 Reflection

John 9:1-41
Mud in our Eyes Sometimes Helps us See! By The Rev. Margaret Rose

For the scholars among us, it is likely that a reflection on the healing of the blind man in John 9 might more readily emphasize a study of sin and sickness and the relationship—or lack thereof--between the two. For me, however it sparked a reflection on seeing and its seeming opposite, blindness.

I can’t see the way I use to be able to. This morning, I attempted to thread a needle—hurriedly of course, to hem what I needed for work today, After repeated failures, I went in search of glasses. At my age, I can’t see as well to read the small print, in the bookstore or on the bus or subway. I am not happy about that, but console myself with the idea that I am offered the opportunity to look wider—to open my eyes to what is going on around me rather than bury my eyes in a book or newspaper. At first this new “blindness” was frustrating and I was angry that my age was showing in such a concrete way. More recently however, as my gaze moves outward, I am aware as never before of richness in the relationships around me. I notice things I hadn’t before. And such noticing has become a spiritual exercize. What do I really see on my way to work? Sometimes it is a preponderance of UGG shoes, another day it seems I pass an inordinate number of short people. ( That is always comforting to me, a short person.) Or people in wheelchairs—they are the brave ones in my view. Or the homeless woman bundled against the cold, mumbling to herself, refusing offered help. Or just this week, the incredible event of two Chinese tourists who boarded my bus. Dressed in twin L.L. Bean jackets, they struggled at length to communicate with the bus driver who struggled similarly to understand, but didn’t. In minutes however, a quiet voice came up to them to help, speaking not only Chinese, but it turns out, their own dialect. I watched the gratitude spread over their faces. And the amazed looks of others on the bus. Near this couple, was a man with two children. He, clearly Caucasian, they most likely Chinese. As I began to speculate on this relationship and the rich diversity of this United Nations like gathering, the man and the children began speaking French together! And who knows how many other languages were represented on that bus. No longer able to see as I had before, I was hearing new things, aware of the caring if fleeting relationships going on around me and the richer for being engaged, even peripherally in these encounters. It was almost as if my aged eyes were the mud that Jesus put on that of the blind man and I was opened to a new world around me.

At a deeper level, my experience with the needle or on the bus invites me to ask where I am blind in other places. What are the ways I need to see? If Jesus were to spit on the ground and cover my eyes with healing mud, what new truths would emerge?

This week in New York is the annual gathering of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. And for the 5th year we ( the Office of Women’s Ministries and the United Nations Observer’s Office) have hosted women from around the Anglican Communion to participate as a Non Governmental Organization in the UN meetings. I have already spoken of the incredible unity of Anglican the Communion who refuse to join the polarizing dynamics of those holding more institutional power in our church. And of the resolution for gender equity they have gotten through many conventions votes.

This week 100 Anglican women from six continents gather with other NGOs to discuss this year’s theme: Gender Budgeting and Financing for Empowerment and to search for solutions to the problems of violence, poverty, AIDS around the world. I am grateful for the acute vision they have offered to me. Not always in the predictable ways either. This week not only was I more aware than ever of the forgivable, yet unwitting domination of the American desire to help, of our desire to fix the problem quickly, of how hard it is to listen, of our subtle yet nevertheless patronizing ways. Yet I was also aware of the cultural competitions going on among those who are not American. And of the demand that somehow the “problems” could be fixed if only those in charge or with more financial power could do the right thing. I am aware of how hard it is not to fall into the dichotomizing ways which polarize and divide the church, the world, civil societies and families. As the week of our gathering has progressed, we are working hard to call one another to account on all these levels. What does real mutuality and solidarity mean. How do we claim authority without patronizing or authoritarian behavior. How do we refuse to act in this way even when it is asked for?

New ways of seeing—not only the solutions but also the problems__ invite us to travel new ground which seeks unity and truth but not sameness, conformity or even necessarily agreement in all things.

In John’s Gospel, when the Pharisees seem not to accept Jesus’ explanation that the purpose of this healing was to reveal God’s grace and so the question the man’s parents. The parents tell their joyful story but more importantly, they respond, “Go ask him yourself. He is of age.” These are empowering words from parents. Even though he may have been blind, he can still speak for himself. Too often in our desire to help, we forget that. People tell their own stories best—if they are able or allowed to do so. And new ways of seeing, hearing and interacting among people of many cultures will I hope help us to listen and act in new ways as well.

Often of course this is easier said than done. Frank Griswold, preaching in London, in September of 2006, only months after the election of Katharine Jefferts Schori, in another sermon on healing of a blind man, said, “How easy it is for us, personally, ecclesially and nationally, to live with blinded sight. Unquestioningly and uncritically we accept prevailing attitudes, opinions and biases as self-evident, as true. The dullness of the familiar can so easily keep us from seeing the inequities, the untruths, the injustices that surround us. Yet seeing, or rather, “to be delivered from blinded sight involves a cost.” In the text today, the man was ridiculed. And the healing itself was fodder for those who wanted to discredit Jesus.

“Unawareness is the root of all evil.” Said one of the Desert fathers of the fourth century. Bishop Griswold continues, “ How true this can be. The tactic of the evil one whose nature, Jesus tells us, is to lie, to keep us from the truth, invites us not to notice certain things, or, if we do take notice of them, to deny their reality or not to give them room in our consciousness.”

As I claim the truth of the healing of the man born blind, I also ask for the courage to see God’s world as it truly is. And from that place to count on the Holy Spirit to work in us that which we cannot yet imagine. I am grateful this week for women who have had the imagination and the courage to call blindness to account and who refuse to be unaware.

Margaret Rose 2/29/08

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Reflection for Lent 3

A Reflection on John 4: 5-42 by Rev. Dr. Katherine Godby
Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well

Years ago it occurred to me why I love Jesus. Jesus sees me.

I was at a meeting of the elders of my church—this was probably 15 years ago—and someone was leading a short devotional about Jesus. I don’t remember what the exact scripture was, but it hit me like a ton of bricks: all the stories of Jesus that felt especially important to me were stories of Jesus seeing people. Seeing past the pain that motivated their sin. Seeing past the fear that led them down wrong pathways. Jesus looked at people of all types and varieties and saw their essence, saw the image of God still sparkling within them, saw the grace and beauty beneath layers of life’s grime.

And Jesus’ seeing carries within it healing. That is the power, the force, the energy behind his ability to heal.

In his amazing book, Beauty: Rediscovering the True Sources of Compassion, Serenity, and Hope, John O’Donohue writes: “It is heart-rending to see people who have no respect for themselves and are unaware of any light or beauty in their lives….Sadly, many people do not even suspect that behind the veils of anxiety, emptiness, and labour, there dwells a beauty of essence….Tragically, it does seem possible for a person to utterly destroy their sense of inner beauty. Sometimes this is the result of being badly hurt….At some deep unconscious level these people become blind servants of a certain pattern of inner destructiveness. Gradually they lose sight of beauty and light.”

I know that was true for me. Throughout my twenties and into my thirties it was quite normal for me to “beat myself up” with thoughts arising from self-rejection. A “pattern of inner destructiveness,” as O’Donohue puts it, did indeed lead to a blindness of my own beauty and light. In my early thirties I happened to encounter several people who, incarnating the Spirit of Jesus, took the time to see me, and when they did, I began to heal. They saw the beauty of who I really am, and I slowly began to trust that their seeing of me was more reliable than my own sight, blurred as it had been through the years by tightly-bound dysfunctional family dynamics enacted from within a culture of sexism.

Jesus seeing breaks through those boundaries. Family dynamics, cultural prohibitions, habits, customs, laws, social conventions are no obstacles for Jesus’ way of seeing.

In our Lenten story of “the woman at the well,” Jesus encounters a foreigner, an unnamed Samaritan woman. He should have despised her for her foreignness—Samaritans were considered ‘dirty’—and for her gender. But instead of turning from her, Jesus speaks to her, engages her. He sees her, knows her, knows the source of her pain, engages her intellectual acumen by discussing with her as he would with a man the most important topic of concern between Jews and Samaritans (the correct location of the cultic place of worship), and then compliments the spirit he must see in her by revealing to her that he is the Messiah she seeks.

Darryl Trimiew has noted the sub-rosa morality so prevalent among otherwise progressive individuals. Sub-rosa morality obfuscates our ability to make sound moral decisions because its inherent self-deception keeps us from asking incisive, perhaps painful, questions of ourselves. Sub-rosists are invested in the notion that their moral position is entirely justifiable; they think of themselves as standing with the oppressed. Sub-rosists experience both vague unease and moral vindication simultaneously . . . On a conscious level they believe that their position is morally defensible even as they sense vaguely that something has gone wrong in their moral reasoning. Yet, on a conscious level, they steadfastly refrain from ferreting out the source of their conflict.

I mention sub-rosa morality because it plays such a large role in our inability to see as Jesus sees. The disciples thought they were on the right track, following Jesus. But in their encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, did they ask themselves the uncomfortable questions that might have helped them see past the social convention, the law, the custom that viewed her as ‘dirty’? Sexism, racism, heterosexism, age-ism, classism—all of the ‘isms’ that place such tight boundaries around The Other—thrive in a patriarchal system because people, even liberals like many of us who try to be open and welcoming, do not pause and do the sometimes very uncomfortable work of allowing themselves/ourselves to see as Jesus sees.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Reflection for Lent 2

A Reflection on John 3:1-17 by Laura M. Grimes

For God so loved the world…

….that she gave her only-born Son to show us that love, and her Holy Spirit to birth us into fullness of life.

Not quite what you were expecting from that lead, was it? John 3:16 is so often quoted by exponents of a spiritually abusive theology of substitutionary atonement that it can almost impossible to read it with fresh eyes. You know the drill:

God is a loving Father who places his children in an earthly paradise and tests their obedience with one pointless rule. They break it with good motives, and, unlike the parallel story in the Qur’an, this loving Father does not forgive their mistake. Not only are they cast out to a life of misery, they and billions of their descendants, including children who die before they can commit one personal sin, are rightfully doomed to an eternity of torment. Until, that is, the same loving Father sends his innocent Son to suffer cruel torture and an unjust public execution, spilling his blood in a necessary sacrifice for the salvation of the human race—though it doesn’t work for most of them. So you’d better jump through the right hoops to get in that small group, and get as many other people as you can with the program too. Then you can all spend eternity enjoying the presence of your loving Father-- and the horrific and well-deserved agony of those who didn’t listen to you.

With loving Fathers like this, who needs demons?

This is a caricature, to be sure. It is not often preached in such a bald version in mainline churches, and I doubt it would be espoused by many on this listserv or who read this blog. However, the basic theology goes deep in western Christianity and the cultures formed by it, and the fierce commitment to evangelism by those who believe it puts those of us with a more life-giving version of the Gospel to shame. This means that it is perceived as the basic Christian message by countless people—those who reject faith and those who embrace it alike, including many in your pews. And--as they say in all kinds of social justice movements—if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. That is, those of us who have an alternate explanation of God’s love, the cross, and redemption had better proclaim it explicitly, and carefully differentiate it from this misconception, every chance we get. And we’d better be very intentional about what we endorse implicitly, in everything from choices about inclusive language in scripture, preaching, and liturgy to casual statements about Christ dying for us on the cross as proof of God’s love or part of God’s plan.

This week’s Gospel passage from the third chapter of John provides an excellent opportunity to re-vision God’s saving love as we continue our celebration of Lent, preparing to baptize new Christians and to renew our own baptismal vows at Easter. It is a clear and moving picture of God’s fierce and tender mother-love, which has been too often overlooked by theologians, exegetes, and preachers. Listen again to the exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus:

Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, "You must be born from above.' The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."

In these few lines, the word born appears eight times; in five of them, Jesus speaks of birth specifically as the saving work of God. To enter the reign of God is to be born from above, born of water and the Spirit. God, the Holy Spirit who gives us both physical life and spiritual rebirth, is clearly described here as a mother—surprising, mysterious, invisible, and as unmistakable in her effects on our lives as the wind rushing through the trees. This connection is highlighted by Nicodemus’ reference to the mother’s womb: the vessel of sacred waters in which all life begins, just as all life on the planet comes from the vast, beautiful, sometimes terrifying ocean. It would be made clearer still if translators rendered the Greek phrase monogenes huios in verse 16 as God’s “only-born son” rather than “only-begotten son.” This is a legitimate option since gennao is appropriately translated as “born” or “begotten” depending on context—especially since, unlike the Prologue’s reference to Christ as God’s only child, the frequent Johannine term “Father” is here notable by its absence.

To meditate on God as life-giving maternal water gives new meaning to baptism, a major preoccupation of the early chapters of John’s gospel as well as a major theme of Lent. To be baptized is indeed to enter the womb of the Mother and be reborn of her Spirit, and also to enter the tomb of Jesus and be raised to new life with him. This is death not as a propitiatory sacrifice but as the courageous risk--and the inevitable and worthwhile consequence--of birth. I treasure the memory of my best friend’s baptism in college, which wrapped together the intimately linked experiences of life and death and new life. It was done at night, in a swimming pool in which candles and flowers floated. We wrapped her in a white sheet and entrusted her, trembling slightly as she could not swim, to be submerged at the hands of one of our theology professors who was also a Baptist pastor. The assembly remained gathered at the pool’s edge while they got dried and dressed and rejoined us. Then we crowded round to lay on our hands on her in confirmation and celebrated a simple Eucharist, her face beaming as she handed each of us the sacred cup. It was a life-changing moment for her and for each of us who took part in it, leading me to insist on baptism by immersion for each of my children. It also led me to rejoice in the powerful experience of seeing adult baptisms by immersion at the Easter Vigil, and to mourn every time the key moment of someone’s Christian life—and the renewal of the key moment of everyone’s Christian life--is reduced to a couple of drops from a birdbath.

For the word baptize has also suffered an unfortunate fate at the hands of translators—and at the hands of recent liturgical practice in the west. The baptisms performed by John, and by Jesus and his disciples (unique to the Fourth Gospel) were rooted in the Jewish practice of ritual immersion, with added overtones of pagan mystery rites as the practice moved into the Gentile context after Pentecost. Liturgical churches which baptize by pouring or sprinkling have forgotten that the word literally means to immerse, to dunk, to dip—as cloth is steeped in a vat of dye or a newly forged sword is tempered by being plunged into cold water. Except for emergencies, Christians from the early church through the Middle Ages baptized by immersion: either in a large pool or, even better, a natural outdoor water source like that used by Philip to baptize the Ethiopian eunuch. This made vividly clear that baptism was a total transformation, a death to an old way of life and a birth into a new one from the womb of God. Of course God’s Spirit can give us new life through a couple of drops of water, just as Christ can become truly present in a dry, tasteless host (the Jesuit liturgists who trained me used to quip that it took more faith to believe it was bread before the Eucharistic prayer than the body of Christ afterwards). But both are a tragic impoverishment of the ritual experience and the nature of sacraments as life-giving signs, and the Christian people deserve better.

It takes some careful catechesis to help people understand and become accustomed to this, and some thought and planning to baptize by immersion in a church which has not been designed or redesigned for the practice. But it is far from impossible, especially in the case of infants, who can keep a diaper on if it makes people more comfortable, and whose heads do not need to be immersed (and shouldn’t be unless you have been taught how to do so safely, perhaps by a friendly Orthodox clergyperson). My Rachel was baptized in an ornamental steel planter; Nicholas in a blue and white Chinese porcelain vase; and Katie in a shallow custom made pottery bowl gifted by the Lutheran parish which hosted our liturgy to each newly baptized child. (It was not big enough to immerse her, as that was not their custom, so we sat her little naked body in it and my friend Rebecca poured water generously over her from a pitcher). One Easter Sunday I did the music for the baptism of a friend’s child I had helped birth a few months before; it took place in a college chapel, in a large plastic salad bowl from food services. The baby was long and the priest nervous, so he quickly dipped him in and back out to the towel in his mother’s waiting arms, and it was mostly his behind that got wet. The godfather leaned over to me, standing ready with my guitar to start the hymn we would sing while the baby was dried and clothed in his white garment, and murmured “Usually they baptize the other end….”

I have seen adults baptized in Jacuzzi tubs, and even in children’s wading pools, in which at least they can kneel and be thoroughly doused with water. There might be some splashing on the floor—have someone deputed to mop it up for safety--and it might add a few minutes to the liturgy. But the depth of the experience for the whole assembly is well worth the investment. If you haven’t seen this done well, you might find inspiration in the Liturgy Training Publication videos “This is the Night” and “Easter Vigil” (itself the third in a wonderful trio of videos on the Triduum). It isn’t just for Baptists anymore!

Monday, February 4, 2008

Reflection for Lent 1

Reflection on Matthew 4:1-11 by the Rev. Dr. Kate Hennessy

After Jesus was baptized, he was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." But he answered, "It is written,’ one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.' "Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.' Jesus said to him, "Again it is written, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan! For it is written,’ Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'" Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

One of the ongoing themes that has been weaving its way through several of our reflections has been that of identity. Who we are and how it is we come to know that. Or to put it another way our stories of self and who tells them. The trainers from the Kennedy School for Public Policy with whom I have recently been privileged to spend two weekends learning the art and craft of community organizing in order to carry out a very exciting Diocesan project related to the Millennium Development Goals tell us often, “If you don’t tell your own public story, someone else will tell it for you.”

For some reason that came to mind when I read this Gospel. Like so many of the characters that Jesus encounters in the narratives of the Gospels, here we have the devil telling Jesus some things about who he might be. If Jesus didn’t tell his story, someone else was going to tell it for him in this narrative! And Jesus is at a crucial point here. Newly baptized, newly initiated, he must determine for himself who he is going to be. There was a lot of expectation. There was a lot of story already told about the one who was to come. A public narrative of a mighty one who would baptize with the holy spirit and fire, who would bring the kingdom of heaven, who would fulfill all those wild visions and dreams of the Old Testament Prophets. A ready made, slip-on narrative. The metaphor presented by the three temptations is a universal and powerful one. Jesus is offered temptations toward three things: First, to be the great provider/caretaker of the world’s material needs, second, to be the holder of great and wonderful power, magical power, power even to control God, and third, to be mighty as a king over all nations. He is offered the chance to decide. Will he take that defined story and wear it? Or will he tell his own story, a new story, a story that has never, ever in all of time been told? One that will be so radical it will first get him killed and then in turn separate all of history into before and after.

This is such an apt reading for the beginning of Lent, a time when we are encouraged to slow the pace down, reflect, take stock. Maybe it’s a good time to review who is telling the story in our own lives these days. Yes, like many of us it’s been awhile since Baptism, but it sure has not been any distance since the last time I’ve been presented with the great temptation to….acquiesce and let someone else tell my story for me.

Who defines us, who says who we are? Who tells the story? I’m writing this on February 2nd, the day before the Superbowl. I heard on MPR last night that Americans will spend fifty million dollars on snacks for the game. At the same time people are starving. OK, so we don’t live by bread alone, but I’m sure even bread would be welcomed by some. The dominant story in the culture is that it’s better to have more….that you are better if you have more. That there is something wrong with you if you are not ambitious in that way, seeking striving to better yourself financially, to prosper….there are even churches who preach a Gospel based on this “prosperity-thinking” narrative. Our story? My story? How do I tell it? How do I stand in the face of it? How am I willing to talk back to the devil in my narrative?

And then there is this power to control God. Well of course if Jesus throws himself off the temple God’s not going to let him get hurt! And we can pray that Aunt Mabel’s cancer will be cured….and if it is not, well, the story must be that it was our lack of faith, or “God wanted her with Him in heaven now” or….some other version of the underlying God-in-the-box narrative that we really are in control of this thing called Life. Nope. God is. Really. And that is OK. Jesus got that. It was the point of the Incarnation. Another interesting place to bump up against those dominant stories….mine, ours, theirs. To make radical trust in the Incarnate Jesus that says “God-with-us no matter what” the truly dominant identity story would be transformative.

Of course then there is that last one. OK, it can be about imperialism. But I haven’t wanted to conquer any nations lately. I have had struggles with power though. My own. Other peoples’. The right uses of it. Who is getting served in the choices I make about how I hold it, share it. There are a whole lot of stories about that playing themselves out in my life on a daily basis. And Temptation regarding power is often a main character. Mostly to abdicate it! And in my conversations with other women, I find I am not alone in this. So perhaps one for us is about claiming in the retelling. Not in power over but in power with. Aligning ourselves in right relationship with those Jesus focused on, those of the margins, those of the least, the powerless ones might help me figure out a way to hold it with dignity, use it with grace, and narrate a different chapter on power and its uses in my story.

At the end of the forty days, after the three temptations, the devil, apparently getting the point that he is not going to get Jesus to fall over into temptation, to tell his story of Jesus’ life, gives up. Jesus emerges from the desert and begins the work of his ministry. The familiar narrative about his public life emerges. We are heading into the home stretch on that story again. Hard as that is to believe. As Lent begins I want to think about those three temptations. How they play out in my own narrative…. How much I buy into some of those culturally-based, steeped-in viewpoints about giving and having, who’s in control, power, just a few of life’s little questions…just a small Lenten reflection.