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, February 28, 2009

Lent 1B

A reflection on Mark 1: 9-15 by Imogen Nay

Sara Maitland writes in A Book of Silence about her own journey into silence as a modern day, somewhat alternative hermit. In one particular chapter Sara describes some time she spent in the Sinai Desert and this leads her into some specific insights. In an engaging paragraph she writes:

I started to think that perhaps silence is God. Perhaps God is silence – the shining, spinning ring of ‘pure endless light’. Perhaps God speaking is a ‘verb’, an act, but God in perfect self-communication in love with the Trinity, is silence and therefore is silence. God is silence, a silence that is positive, alive, actual and of its ‘nature’ unbreakable.*

It is the first Sunday of Lent and a time when the Church year invites us to enter into the desert with Jesus and to face Satan, our demons and temptation. Through fasting, discipline and prayer we are encouraged to have faith in the power of God to overcome our weakness and also to accept forgiveness: it is a period of repentance, of self-discovery and sacrifice. As the Book of Common Prayer collect puts it:

O Lord, who for our sake didst fast forty days and forty nights; Give us grace to use such abstinence, that, our flesh being subdued to the Spirit, we may ever obey thy godly motions in righteousness and true holiness, to thy Godly honour and glory, who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end.

Sara’s reflection on silence in the desert made me wonder about the relationship between the desert and God’s creative silence. It’s true that we spend a lot of time in the Church reflecting upon the Word – the act of the Father in Christ the Son. But if what lies behind that act is God’s silence, what is the implication for our devotional practice, for our seeking of wisdom in the Holy Mystery of Divinity?

In Powers and Submissions, Sarah Coakley addresses the charge of whether ascetic practices have been used to encourage women’s submission, disassociated introversion, apolitical anaesthesia and ultimately the silencing of women**. She argues that contemplative practice should be at the centre of feminist theologies, as being that which leads to a proper disciplining of self as well as assisting freedom from all that binds and manipulates. She writes: ‘the means of peace, and indeed of the final gender equity that must attend it, are patient practices of transparency to God, by whose light political strategies must ultimately also be illuminated.’***

Such a feminist theology of contemplative practice as a philosophy of religion fits neatly into the Lenten themes of fasting and prayer. If the ‘Church’ and religious tradition have been guilty of subjecting women to various limiting stereotypes and models, freedom from religious misuse of power and subjection comes for Coakley through the patient practice of silence.

It is perhaps no coincidence that two very different but similarly engaged contemporary (feminist) writers on religion should be drawn to silence and contemplation as a means of liberation. It is perhaps only from the deep creative silence of God that a proper religious renewal can emerge, one that re-generates religious language and practice.

The question of the language we use to speak of God and to God is at the heart of course of the practice of religious belief and doctrine. In my own Church (the Church of England) the work of organisations, like ‘Inclusive Church’ seek to employ language as a means of expressing the inclusive love of God. In their commitment to diversity, play, creativity, freedom and novelty in liturgy, prayer, poetry and theology they hope to translate a theology of inclusion into a practice of inclusion.

If communities find that language is a barrier to communion perhaps sitting in silence together (for a time) is a strategy for renewal. At a recent Inclusive Language conference I was very moved and challenged by the idea of a silent Eucharist which one woman told me she had been involved in. I imagined being part of such a service, where the actions of Christ are brought into silent focus, as we keep silent and remember the story through mime. What possibilities of renewal of liturgical language might come through such a discipline?

I hope this Lent to pursue contemplative silence as a waiting on God in the desert – a place, yes, of possible temptation, but also one of possible renewal. Christ comes out of his forty days in the desert not a broken an exhausted man, after all, but one ready to boldly start his ministry, to proclaim the Good News. He comes out of the desert ready to speak – not to remain silent: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1: 15)

*Sara Maitland, A Book of Silence, (Great Britain: Granta 2008), p.221
** Sarah Coakely, Powers and Submissions, (London: Blackwell 2007), Prologue xviii
***Ibid., Prologue xx

Friday, February 20, 2009

Last Epiphany, Transfiguration, Ash Wed.

A reflection on the readings for
Transfiguration B/Last Epiphany2 Kings 2:1-2Psalm 50:1-62 Corinthians 4:3-6Mark 9: 2-9
Ash WednesdayJoel 2:1-2, 12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12Psalm 51:1-172 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
By Janine Goodwin.

One of the things I love best about the lectionary and the liturgical year is that they are always bringing unexpected things together. Every week, the lectionary readings bring together different voices from different times to tell us in different ways what God is like and what God wants to share with us. Their words and our listening combine to make something new. The year itself is not a straight line through time: it begins with Advent, but it does not end with Easter. Throughout its cycle, it weaves threads of holy history together, making a rich and varied fabric.

This week, Sunday brings us the Transfiguration, in which the disciples see Jesus with Moses and Elijah and hear the voice of God speak from a cloud. Wednesday brings us the reminder that we are dust and the admonition of Jesus to pray simply and privately. These two sets of scriptures may seem different or even contradictory; they are not. Reality is both transcendent and ordinary. The view from my window includes broken-down cars and a snowcapped mountain. I work at a small-town store where the owners know, in a quiet and practical way, that their work is both business and ministry. The same day can bring in people who are making the sorrowful decision to put a parent in a nursing home and a child rejoicing in the freedom of learning to walk, or involve me in wrapping a birthday gift at one moment and looking for fittings for someone facing a plumbing disaster the next. The newly-engaged and the long-married meet at the cash register and talk about love, life, and the new water filtration plant.

If we oppose Transfiguration and Ash Wednesday, we lose the understanding of the ways in which glory and ashes are woven together in our lives. I remember a sermon I heard in my teens, in which the preacher explained that the Transfiguration is all very well, but we have to come down off the mountain and live our daily lives, and we shouldn't over-emphasize the transcendence. At the time, I bristled in the pew. I now suspect that the preacher's issue was not with the transcendent experience itself, but with what we sometimes make of those experiences. As a teenager, I thought Peter had the right idea. I wanted to dwell in the glory of God without having to do anything on the ground. When I worshipped the feelings I had about the vision of glory, I missed what the voice said from the cloud. I missed it in a different direction on the days when I was glumly convinced that transcendence was a figment of my imagination.

I have come to believe that the point of the Transfiguration is not to suggest that real life is lived either on or off the mountaintop. The vision of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah is glorious, but we miss what we need to know if we fail to hear the voice of God saying: "This is my beloved Son. Listen to him." The Transfiguration is not even about God's glory, but God's call to us to be in relationship, to listen. That listening can be done in any state of mind or heart, in any situation. We are called to practice it in every time and place, whatever our mood or our circumstances. I strongly suspect that God is not interested in opposing the transcendent and the ordinary. It is we who make that distinction. In another story that our gospel is meant to parallel, Moses was called to go up to the mountain and meet God in a cloud of glory, yet Moses did not go to the mountain to get instructions on how to make one's face glow with an unearthly light. He went to the mountain to get some plainspoken and difficult commandments on how to live with one another every single ordinary and unspeakably holy day of our lives. We know those commandments, we revere them, we try to weasel out of them or we just break them outright. We are a faithless people and a people of faith. We are part of the story of a world that is both good and wounded, and we are the tellers of that story as well.

I no longer want to place the Transfiguration against the work of Lent, but to see them together. I have crocheted with two different yarns held together and seen how the act of combining them creates new kinds of texture, color, and warmth; I want to see how the impossibly bright garment of the transfigured Lord and the plain homespun of prayer in secret on an ordinary day look when they are wound together. The disciples saw Moses and Elijah beside their daily companions; can we see them in our neighbors and co-workers? Can we see the fallible person in the prophet, and hear the prophecy that can only be spoken by those who live and work beside us?

The original word for the Transfiguration is "metamorphosis." Jesus is changed on the mountaintop, where the disciples get a glimpse of eternal glory. He does not morph into someone else, though: what differs is not who he is, but how we see him and who we say he is. When the voice from heaven tells us to listen to him, we are being told to listen to what he says on the mountaintop, in the place of worship, at a meal in a friend's house, on a dusty road, sitting on the stones of a well. He will tell us stories about bread, about money, about children, about our enemies, stories that open into new meanings at every turn: he will give us simple tasks that are terribly hard to do. The Jesus of the mountaintop is the one who will be tempted, who will weep, who will die. He will come back from the dead, still bearing his wounds, and ask whether we have anything to eat.

For a long time, I did not want to listen to Jesus, because I had been taught that he would give me strict orders and make me live a life of unquestioning obedience. When I began to pray with a listening heart and read the Scriptures without fear, I discovered a Jesus who asked me questions, who loved inquiring mind and who could take a challenge. I began to believe that God was calling me to participate in creation not as someone who had to play a certain part, but as an artist with choices to make and freedom to use or waste. There was more responsibility and less blame. I could not spoil God's plan for me. We were not reading a piece of music that had been written centuries before, lovely though such music is, but improvising on many different themes, old and new.

We all have trouble listening to Jesus, whatever our reasons may be. We even have trouble remembering we have been told to listen. How many of us remember, when the Transfiguration comes around, what the voice says from the cloud? Even when we listen, we all misunderstand his words. Often, we explain each other's misunderstandings to them and to ourselves without admitting our own. We do not necessarily do a terribly good job of living out what we do understand or claim to understand. We build huts to hold the blazing glory of a visionary moment, and lose the vision. We head down the mountain on the wrong path and find ourselves turning God's glory into our own self-importance. We walk right by burning bushes while reviewing our To Do lists. We argue among ourselves like the disciples, trying to pull rank and get a better place at the table. At different times we may run away from our faith in moments of fear, as Peter did, or keep a lonely watch beneath a cross. We will, if we practice faithfully, begin to hear the subtle tones of vanity and judgment in our most private and honest and penitent prayers.

The God who loves and forgives, who calls to account and offers us gifts and the power to use them, is with us. We see glory. We remember we are dust. We are called to listen to the voice of Jesus in every moment of our lives. This is the good news.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Epiphany 6B

Reflection on 2 Kings 5:1-19. by Sarah Rogers

No-one is more confused about which readings we are supposed to be using this week than I am. My lectionary says one thing and another. I think the confusion arises because Easter is relatively early and depending on which bit of the lectionary you look at you find different readings. So my apologies if you are not using this passage on Sunday, but the passage from 2 Kings listed by grabbed my attention. They list 2 Kings 5:1-14 as the Old Testament reading, but I have extended it slightly to round off the story.

This is the story of how Elisha cured Naaman of his leprosy; it grabbed my attention because of the key role played by two un-named women, Naaman’s wife and her maid servant. The maid servant is a captive, an Israelite, and all that we know about her is contained in just a few words. It is these characters in the bible that really capture the imagination: Who was she? What had she suffered when she was captured? Was she valued in the house of Naaman? We know next to nothing about her, but we learn a lot about Naaman. And yet, it is this un-named maidservant that has such a key role in getting him cured of his leprosy.

So, what do we know about her? She was a slave in Assyria, ‘brought away captive out of the land of Israel’. Presumably she was captured during an attack by Assyria. We don’t know what happened to her family; presumably they were killed or captured as well. She ended up in the slave market where she was bought into the service of Naaman. So this girl was torn from her family and taken into another country. She may not have known whether her family were alive or dead, she must have been terrified. And despite the terror she must have gone through she held on to her faith in Yahweh, her faith was her last hope.

She was perhaps lucky to be chosen by Naaman to serve his wife; she could have ended up working in the fields. It seems she admired Naaman, ‘a mighty man of valour’, and it seems likely that her mistress confided in her, they talked. It is clear that her mistress must have had some respect for her faith, otherwise she would not have considered telling Naaman about the prophet, and so is likely that the maid servant felt able to talk about her faith to her mistress. Whatever their relationship, the maid servant knew about Naaman’s skin condition and her faith made her name the prophet that might cure him. She had a deep faith in her God, and knew that if Naaman turned to her God he would be cured. Despite all that has happened to her through her captivity she has remained faithful to God and this faith has an impact on Naaman’s wife, how else would Naaman be convinced that he should seek out Elisha for a cure?

In the end, Naaman took the advice of his wife’s maid servant and went to the king, and Elisha was sought out. Naaman seeks out Elisha in great pomp, rolling up to the door with his horses and chariots. He is disappointed to be met by a messenger from Elisha, telling him what he must do to be cured, that is no way to treat such a great man. Elisha’s instructions are not impressive either, he has to go and bath in the dirty river Jordan. As far as Naaman is concerned Elisha is in control of his God, he is only a local deity. But, eventually he does what Elisha has told him to do and is cured, and that is enough to convince him of the supremacy of the God of Israel. So, he takes soil back to his own country and worships the God of Israel, although acknowledging that there will be times when he will be required to worship other gods.

How would the maid servant have felt about this? She was responsible for sending Naaman to Elisha and as a result her master was now worshipping her God and has brought back soil from her own country in order to have a little bit of Israel in Assyria. Naaman has acknowledged what the people of Israel already knew, that their God was the God of the whole world and Naaman had only achieved greatness because he had been favoured by the God of Israel.

This is a fascinating story, ultimately it is the faith of the maid servant that holds this story together, whatever trials she has been through in her capture she remains faithful to God and passes on his message to Naaman’s wife, her faith is pure and is fulfilled as she brings her master to worship her God. She reminds us that however insignificant we may be, however isolated we are, we just need to keep doing what little we can. Through faith in God we can achieve change greater than we could possibly imagine.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Epiphany 5

A reflection on Psalm 147 and Mark 1:29-39 by the Rev. Terri C. Pilarski

Two and half years ago I suffered a serious illness. From a fractured tooth came an abscess, from the abscess came an infection that ran 2-1/2 inches through my jaw bone. The infection followed the nerve in my jaw, leaving me unable to feel most of my bottom lip, chin, and teeth. The infection then travelled up the side of my face. All of this developed over the course of one week, taking me from a dentist who thought I had TMJ to a hospital room and a team of doctors including a surgeon, an internist, and infectious disease specialist. At first the hospital attempted to cure me with IV antibiotics, and after about 24 hours it seemed like it might work. But by 36 hours it was apparent that it was not. By 48 hours I was prepped and waiting for surgery.

I remember waiting for the surgery; it was about 5:00 in the evening. I was taken down to the surgical unit and left in this holding area. Alone. Well alone except for some guy in surgical attire who was tinkering on some piece of equipment. I have no idea who he was or what he was doing – and in a pain-killer induced stupor I had this sense that I had been parked in a mechanics garage – the hospital equivalent of a Jiffy Lube stall. At one point I became cognizant of this guy’s presence and felt awful that they had just parked me in his space and left me, so I apologized for my disruptive pain filled moans. He must of have thought I was nuts. I waited there for nearly 90 minutes, a big old clock hung on the wall, showing me just how slow time can pass. In spite of my pain killer induced hallucinations I remember feeling as if I was waiting for God in the stillness of that slow moving clock.

As we hear in our Gospel this morning, Peter’s mother in law is sick with fever. Jesus, coming straight from the synagogue where he has healed a man possessed by demons, walks into the home and into her room, and heals her. Upon which she immediately rose from the bed and began serving her guests. It is an awesome story of healing and the transformation that God offers us; of the new life we find when we are healed.

But that does not mean that the transformation comes easily. Part of this is because God’s healing does not always happen the way we want – it may not include being cured of our illness. Sometimes we find a healing of spirit takes place within the context of an incurable illness. Some of us here are struggling with an illness of such magnitude that it alters our entire self perception – some of us may say to ourselves, “because of this illness I am no longer the person I was.” That is certainly true for me. In the course of the illness I lost teeth and I acquired what seems to be a permanent paralysis of lower lip and jaw on the right side. You can tell because I sometimes garble my words even when I aim to enunciate carefully. In a similar way some of you are permanently changed from some illness in your life. God’s healing does not necessarily mean a cure, but it does transform us.

Others are struggling with a loss of identity, asking, "Who am I now?"

I remember when my daughter was first born and I quit my job at the interior design firm to stay home with her. One day calling the pediatrician to make an appointment they asked me what I did for a living, and for a moment I had no response. Just a week before I was waking up at 5am, dressing in my professional maternity business suits, and heading into the office. On that day, it was 4:00 in the afternoon, I had not showered, was still in my pajama’s - consumed all day with the activities of tending to a new born - diaper changes and feedings. With a moment of free time because the baby was napping, I had to squeeze in phone calls and a shower and begin supper. Who was I, the person asked? Finally I managed to say, I’m a stay at home mom. A very different sense of identity than the interior designer working for a high powered firm.

Women lose their sense of identity to their role in the family and as the primary caregiver to children, spouse, or parents. Men tend to lose their sense of identity in a job loss. Some of us lose our identity in time of great loss, the death of a child or a spouse or a parent.

Each of us has, or is, or one day will struggle with a loss of identity as we move from independent lives into assisted living, or memory centers, losing our sense of self along the way.

Perhaps you’ve never had a life changing illness, and perhaps you’ve been thankfully unaffected by this or any other financial crisis. Perhaps though suddenly one day you realize that the world around you has changed – and now you, who were once riding the high tide of this American life, are feeling lost and left behind.

There was a woman in my former diocese who would stand up at Diocesan Convention every year to speak against some resolution for change, and as she began to speak she would say, “I know I’m a dinosaur, but….” I imagine that after a number of years she realized, even as she rose to speak, that what she longed for, the world as she knew it, was gone…with only her words to mark the passing of time and a lost hope for what had been her comfortable world.

We are broken people – and I mean not just an individual church or the Episcopal Church or our various states, or this country – but of our entire world. Each of us in our own way. We are broken. We each carry deep pain and loss and sorrow and grief, or at the very least scars from such. Some of us have healed and, though scarred, are working our way into a new life. Some of us are looking for healing and have a glimpse of hope. Some of us may be finding a new sense of identity in the brokenness itself, an identity grounded in depression or anger - we all know someone like that, right? Someone who is always complaining or morose, or angry about something, and working hard to make others feel the same way?
Yes, we are broken. So, what are we to do?

Let’s hear again the words of Psalm 147

“The LORD builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel. He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds..."

What God offers us may not be what we want. It may not be some magic cure for our illness, it may not be some fantastic solution to our finances, it may not be some new sense of power. But what God offers will bind up our wounds and heal our brokenness, if we allow God too. Which reminds me of a story, perhaps you’ve heard it:

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, "My son, the battle is between 2 "wolves" inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, insecurity, superiority, and ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith." The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: "Which wolf wins?" The old Cherokee simply replied, "The one you feed."

In the words of our post communion prayer, from the feast at the table, through the love of God, our brokenness can be healed. Here we are fed on God’s love and renewed in God’s grace. From here God sends us out from this table to love and serve Christ in the broken places of our world. We are broken, but within that brokenness we have choices. Which wolf will we feed?