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"

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Reflection for Proper 8

A Cup of Cold Water

A Reflection for Proper 8A, Matthew 10:40-42, by Laura Grimes

Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.

I began this reflection last night somewhere I never expected to be: on a computer in the lobby of a Best Western a short walk from my home, waiting for my husband of nineteen years to pick me up for a Friday night date. The bottle of cold water I took from the small hotel fridge was a source of comfort--physical and emotional alike--after a warm and busy day and in preparation for an exciting and also nervous making evening. It was especially treasured because I recently decided to treat my post-traumatic stress syndrome, long managed with therapy and spiritual resources, with anxiety medication for the first time. The medication is calming, slightly dizzy-making, and can also lead to serious dry mouth, which makes me newly grateful for the unlimited clean, cold, water which was a luxury in the time of Jesus and remains so now for so many people--especially women and children--in this tragically unjust world.

I am in this hotel with one of my most treasured sister disciples--my best friend from college, who babysat the kids during our date. She drove down from Oregon to help us move to a new apartment--just a month or two after a previous move to a place that we thought was perfect but turned out to be so small that, in combination with other stressors, it led to a grave family crisis. My husband is staying in the old place with the kids, and she and I are spending this weekend setting up the new place with skeleton items so we can move in tomorrow after church and manage a gradual move over the course of a couple of weeks. This will also pave the way for my own continued inner work, my husband's tentative but committed beginning of his own, and a renewal and discernment of how our marriage and family will look in this next phase of our life.

Before the hotel, I spent the better part of a week in another place I never expected to be, except as a chaplain: an inpatient psychiatric ward. In the past couple of months, my PTSD was triggered more severely than it has ever been by a combination of factors. The due date of my fourth child, whom I miscarried in the fall, came just a few weeks before the anniversary of the death of my first child, killed in a car accident as a nursing toddler. Both coincided closely with Mother's Day and the anniversary of the death of my grandmother, and in the midst of it all our family moved to a tiny place near the beach that we all felt hopeful about and initially nourished our spirits, but revealed some deep family conflict patterns that need healing and transformation. I had always avoided medication for a variety of reasons: to stay healthy and keep my babies healthy during pregnancy and lactation, to keep my mind clear for my labors as a theologian and clergywoman as well as a mother, and to avoid the deep patterns of addiction in my family of origin. But as the stress mounted at home and the severe anniversary reaction with Julian's due date set in, I realized it was time to seek out an excellent psychiatrist and add medication to the list of healing tools from God that can be appropriately as well as inappropriately used. When that took longer than expected, I made an appointment with my family doctor to begin medication, but had such a severe reaction when I reached the safety of her office that she recommended a brief and immediate phase of inpatient treatment in order to rapidly stabilize me on the right medication.

The days at the hospital were challenging but grace-filled, with a routine that alternately resembled preschool, prison, and a monastery that makes the Trappists look like creampuffs. Spirituality was a major coping technique for many of the patients, many of them in far more acute distress than I; tragically, this was generally seen as further evidence of dysfunction rather than a source of hope and healing. My own explanation that I was a clergywoman with a doctorate in theology was initially disbelieved, and my repeated requests to see a chaplain were disregarded. Fortunately, I was able to find spiritual support through phone calls and eventually a visit for healing prayer and anointing from a local priest acquaintance. I also found strength in weaving remembered bits of the liturgy of the hours throughout my last few days, and reading the bible I gave my son for his first confession during Holy Week, which he entrusted to me when my husband brought him for a brief visit at the beginning of my stay.

I also found tremendous support from the community of little ones in the hospital, the other patients, as well as from some staff members who were able to provide good shepherding within a far-from-ideal system. I had always shared the common stigmatization of mental illness in our culture, and deep fear of people with such disabilities--a living reminder of my own deepest fear: that I would be completely alone and unlovable if and when the brilliant mind I over-identify my self with ever betrayed me. I was amazed to find camaraderie and humor and bravery in the women I shared a room with and the men I shot hoops with in the smoke filled yard on our brief patio breaks. And I marveled at the endurance and courage of people for whom periodic visits to the psych ward are the only vacation and the only retreat they will ever know. Sharing the week with them was a source of deeper conversion, deeper commitment to my own codependence recovery and the transformation of my marriage, and deeper courage to speak the truth of my own struggles with a trauma-induced mental injury that is endemic in our violence-filled world. It also brought about a deep and unexpected hope that that my next CPE unit will, if at all possible, include exploring the daunting but promising world of mental health chaplaincy.

So in this brief snapshot of a place of terror, healing, and resilience, who is the prophet? The disciple? The little one? The righteous person? The giver and the receiver of life-giving water? We all are, of course, in different ways and at different times, and that is the miracle of grace. If any of us were only or always one of the roles we would be tempted to idolatry or despair: to forgetfulness of our beauty and fragility, of our creation in the image of the mothering God who is our loving source, our incarnate redeemer, and our every breath. All glory to her, in the church and in Christ Jesus, for ever and ever. Amen.

Friday, June 20, 2008

A Reflection for Proper 7A

A Reflection on Matthew 10:24-39

When reading this passage from Matthew I am reminded of the song ‘Let’s face the music and dance’. As you probably all know it begins ‘There may be trouble ahead…’ and this is basically the message Jesus has for his disciples. Their mission will not be easy, they will be hated and persecuted for following Jesus and they will need a lot of stamina to keep going. In order to show true discipleship the disciple must be like the teacher, but there is a cost involved. In following Jesus the disciples must deny themselves and take up their own cross and we as disciples must do the same. The final portion of this passage from Matthew is perhaps the most difficult of all, it is concerned with loyalty and commitment but also shows us that not all will be ready to follow Jesus. In turning towards God, we may risk turning away from even our closest family and friends. One can only wonder what sacrifices the earliest disciples must have made in leaving their families and jobs to follow Jesus, one can only wonder what a real risk it was. Ultimately life is about risk, and the choices we make, but even today experience shows that one family member can be turned against another because of their decision to follow Jesus. In reading this passage anew I was reminded of my own long journey towards ordination. I grew up in an environment where there was much opposition to the ordination of women to the priesthood. Indeed when I first began to consider my vocation that route would not have been possible. My time in theological college has taught me that many have fought for their vocations against opposition from others. Whether that opposition be from a family member who is opposed to the ordination of women or a partner who has no faith of their own. There may also be struggles within families who have been uprooted for the sake of those who wish to train for ministry. Perhaps in theological college these struggles are intensified, all those who have vocation wrestle with it, but for those who face opposition from within their families the struggle is even more intense. Whatever the struggles of the earliest disciples were, it seems that even today, in a modern society where pretty much anything goes disciples still have to take up their cross to follow Jesus.

But, it is not all doom and gloom, alongside the challenges of discipleship this passage from Matthew also contains words of encouragement and comfort. The words ‘do not be afraid’ recur, bringing reassurance along with the reasons for keeping fear at bay. We must trust in God’s love. One of the Old Testament passages that may be read alongside this Gospel is Genesis 21. 8-21 and in it the redeeming love of God is revealed. At the beginning of the passage woman is set against woman, wife against mistress, and in the process a family is torn apart in much the same way as Jesus predicts for his disciples. Sarah is distressed to see Hagar’s son playing with Isaac and wants her and her son to leave. Abraham is caught in the middle and turns to God for some fatherly advice…the advice God gives him is to listen to his wife! Hagar and her son wander in the desert until the water runs out, Hagar puts Ishmael under a bush as she cannot bear to look on as he dies. It is here that Gods redeeming love is revealed. The family unit of Abraham, Sarah and Isaac may be paramount, Abraham after all is the forefather of the people Israel. But God does not forget the rejected ones, Hagar and Ishmael. It seems to me that here we can see God as mother rather than father, truly understanding the bond between mother and child and saving them both.

What the Gospel passage and the reading from Genesis teach us is that although ‘there may be trouble ahead’, if we are to be true disciples we must trust in the love of God and whatever the trials and tribulations of discipleship ‘face the music and dance’.

Dr Sarah A. Rogers
Ordinand of the Church in Wales.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

A Reflection on the Propers for 6A

Pentecost 5; Proper 6 - June 15, 2008, By Jacqueline Schmitt

"The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest."

Women have always answered this call. When I wrote a history of Episcopal campus ministry, I learned that from the 1920s to the 1950s, the number of women doing campus ministry, as professional church workers, paid by the Episcopal Church Women, equaled the number of men, priests usually, paid from the Religious Education budget, which came from the assessments of parishes and dioceses, of the Episcopal Church. I’m not sure of the exact numbers – I wrote this a few years ago – but I do know that the women and men were peers, equals, in this domestic mission field. This was not remarkable; it was effective. The young adult years are the most fertile time for people seeking to understand their faith and their place in the world, and many, many people found their callings fulfilled in the Episcopal Church during their young adult years.

The 1950s and ‘60s were a different story in American society, and in the leadership of the church. Women got married, stayed home, and men were the priests. Although professional training schools for women church workers were established and thriving, graduates were less and less likely to spend a full career in the ministry. By the late 1960s, the vocation of professional women church worker crashed and burned – due to sweeping changes in social and sex roles, due to the General Convention Special Program which completely rearranged the budget of the Episcopal Church away from funding domestic mission and toward direct grants to people in need, and due, of course, to the ordination of women to the priesthood.

Those two paragraphs were a wild gallop with the broadest brush strokes imaginable, through the history of women’s vocations in the Episcopal Church. Much has been left out, but the point is: the harvest has always been plentiful, the laborers always few, and among those few have always been women.

I just came back from CREDO, which was fabulous. The Church Pension Fund DOES know how to take care of us. A group of 27 priests, one-third of whom were women, met for over a week of rest, vocational retooling, spiritual refreshment and wholistic revitalization. If you’ve been, you know what I mean; if you’ve not been yet, be sure to reply to your invitation right away. The Pension Fund, as we all know, is loaded; they can afford to treat us well, one or two weeks out of our ordained lives. (I heard last week that there is a CREDO 2 on our horizon; I’m already looking forward to it.)

There was a time when the Pension Fund was not the friend of ordained women. It took a few General Conventions for us to get equal treatment in all ways, but now we do. The benefits bring me, who can retire in about five years, after 30 years of credited service, a sense of security for which I and my family are very grateful. Am I at risk of writing a p.r. puff piece for the Pension Fund? Yup. Am I similarly championing the track record of the Episcopal Church and its bishops in the deployment and support of ordained women? Not on your tintype.

Episcopal leadership has, and I think continues to treat, ordained women rather shabbily. Oh, yes, we can be cardinal rectors and bishops etc etc, but when I sat down with the financial consultant at CREDO to go over my estimated pension, she remarked that I am one of the few women who can take advantage of the 30-year option. That was a disturbing fact. I thought, oh, not all that many women have been ordained that long … but then I heard the story of a woman ordained in 1981 (I was ordained in 1980), who has only seven years of credited service. She’ll never be able to take advantage of most of the benefits of the Pension Fund. What made the matter worse is that her first years after ordination, when she was in the employ of the Episcopal Church, her diocese or her bishop or some priest or some combination of the above, advised her NOT to enroll in the Pension Fund. Someone must have assumed that her work in the Episcopal Church would never amount to anything, and so now, in her 50s, it’s probably too late.

"The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest."

Perhaps the line to quote here is another one from the lessons for Proper 6, June 15: “Sarah laughed.”

Women have answered God’s call, even when it was laughably improbable. The rewards of service, vocation, ministry, scholarship, prayer, community are of course far greater than money. Our lives are enriched beyond the wildest dreams we had when we heard those first faint twinges of something calling us. If we only knew what it meant to be as wise as serpents in doing this worthy work. Maybe then we would still be as innocent as doves, or at least able to look forward, in our old age, to shake the dust from our feet.

A postscript:
If any woman reading this is underemployed, paid so little for her work or in such debt that she cannot feel she can take a vacation, I urge her to look into Adelynrood. This retreat center of the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross was founded early in the 20th century to give working women a place to go for summer vacation. The earliest visitors were factory girls, but as the Society grew, Companions, too, were working women – church workers, social workers, settlement house workers, office workers, teachers, professors, researchers. Adelynrood became a quiet, hospitable place where all kinds of women found welcome. Today, there is ample scholarship money to underwrite your stay. There is even money to help you get there. Go and find some rest, in this place prepared for us by women for over 100 years. It is a worthy house, a house of prayer, refreshment and peace.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Proper 5A

A re-telling of Matthew 9:9-13 and 18-26: by Imogen Nay

Jesus was walking in Bishopsgate*, City of London, he saw an investment banker and said ‘come and follow me’. The investment banker got up and followed him. Jesus went and sat with bankers dining in a City restaurant, eating rich and expensive food and wine, with other mega-rich business people. Others said ‘why does he eat with bankers and sinners?’ He replied, ‘those who are well do not need a physician, but those who are sick’. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice. For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’

Then a Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral came and knelt before him saying ‘My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hands on her and she will be made well’. Jesus got up and followed him and walked through the City to St. Paul’s. On his way a woman who was suffering from HIV saw him and thought to herself ‘if I could only reach him and touch him I will be made well’. Jesus turned, and seeing her he said ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well’. And instantly the woman was made well. When Jesus came to the Canon’s home and entered and saw all the people gathered, despairing, he said ‘Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping’. They all laughed at him, but when they had been put outside, he went into her room and took her by the hand, and the girl got up. And the report of this spread throughout the City.

*Heart of the financial district, London, UK.

What kinds of responses does such a re-setting draw from you? Does it make you feel that it’s wrong to label the rich and investment bankers, sinners? Does it make you wonder about the nature of miracles and what it might mean to proclaim that Jesus physically heals someone suffering from HIV? Does it emphasise the extraordinary nature of Jesus’ actions: bringing a daughter back to life? I don’t know what your reactions to this re-telling are, positive or negative. But the actual text of Matthew brings out for me challenging and rich questions. Who should the Gospel be preached to? What does healing mean in the Gospels? Is the gender of the two people healed in this passage significant?

The passage indicates some dualisms: faith and law, mercy and sacrifice, sinners and the righteous, disease and healing, death and life. It presents Jesus as physically challenging the boundaries of his culture. He is in the midst of the world, touching, speaking, eating and walking. He calls a tax collect, he eats with sinners, he touches a woman who is ill, and he heals the daughter of a leader of the synagogue. Jesus doesn’t just side with the poor and needy, but calls all sinners, asks for mercy, cures the sick and brings the dead to life. In the context of the other passages set for today (Genesis 12:1-9 and Romans 4:13-25) the theme of faith is at the forefront: Abraham’s faith that led him to believe in the God who promised him a new land and to be the Father of a great nation; a faith that Paul establishes to be the inheritance of all people, in Christ. In the Gospel passage Jesus says to the woman suffering from a haemorrhage: ‘Take heart daughter; your faith has made you well’.

The Genesis and Romans passages set for today tell the traditional patriarchal story of fathers as the founders of nations and from whom we inherit the faith. Jesus altogether expands the vista however, bringing into the picture a broader array of people. In the inclusion of a ‘daughter’ as one who has faith, it can be argued that it is therefore accredited to her also as righteousness, as Paul argues it was for Abraham. Paul’s inclusive vision of Jewish faith that in Christ invites Gentiles to its altar is one that this Gospel tells us establishes women as equal inheritors of that faith too. It is not only the gender divide that is trampled by Jesus however; he also tramples on the divide between the rich and poor, the ill and the well, the dead and the alive. In him the suggestion is that all who have faith, no matter who or what they are, no matter how society views and typecasts them, they too are inheritors of the faith and the faith brings healing and eternal life.

Liberation and feminist theologies respond to real and urgent need for certain people in society who are suffering, oppressed, forgotten and abused. These theologies also need however to be constantly renewed and re-challenged by the Gospel, to keep thinking, ‘yes, but who are we still excluding?’ Jesus didn’t come just for the poor, just for the Jews, just for men, just for anyone. He came proclaiming forgiveness of sins for all people. This, for me, is the theological foundation for ‘inclusiveness’ - a word that is used often today in Britain in relation to describing generally liberal Churches and theologies. Inclusiveness in this context however often becomes exclusiveness: ‘you are included here, if you believe this and this not that and that’. It is extraordinarily challenging to hold together the needs of the marginalised and to prioritise them and to proclaim the Gospel to all. It is hard too to proclaim a Gospel of forgiveness to all, for that means pointing out what my sins are and helping others to see theirs. And the difficulty with this is that ethics is complicated and there is huge debate in the Church regarding what is really sinful. There is no consensus about sex, marriage, what are right relationships what are wrong ones, and the relevant status of women and men. In the Church of England and in the worldwide Anglican communion what causes argument and debate is gay priests and women bishops.

There isn’t an easy message to take from the New Testament to solve these dilemmas. The sexual ethic and gender relations of Jesus’ time are fundamentally different from our own in the West. Those who are against women priests wouldn’t necessarily refute my reading, ‘of course women are inheritors of the faith, but that doesn’t mean they should be priests’, they may argue. The trauma of modernity has meant trauma to established ideas about how men and women relate to one another, particularly in terms of sexual relations, but also in terms of gender roles in society.

What can this Gospel passage tell us that can help with these issues? I think that the specific values we can take are that: Christ brings mercy, a new ethic that challenges the old, a reformed religion that challenges the old, a new understanding of Tradition and a new relationship with God based on old but re-interpreted and forgotten understandings. Christ challenges the boundaries and established norms of a culture and he always brings healing and new life. He is not afraid to mix with anyone. He re-defines righteousness and sin and ultimately redefines God. If we are to meet the ethical and theological challenges of our day we need to try together to do some of these things to be faithful to the Gospel we proclaim.

Imogen Nay

I am currently training to be a priest in the Church of England. Prior to entering ordination training I worked in the voluntary sector. My last job was developing and running services for disadvantaged women for Providence Row Charity, London. I ran drop-in groups, advice and support sessions and developed outreach services for women involved in prostitution and women sleeping rough. I was also involved in campaigning for a change in the way women involved in prostitution are treated in the legal system. I studied English Literature at Univeristy, followed by an MA in Renaissance Studies.
I am now completing a degree in Theology and Religious Studies at Cambridge University. I have a particular interest in feminist liberation theologies.