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, March 28, 2009

Lent 5B

A poetic reflection on the readings for Lent 5B by The Rev. Crystal Karr

She called it building character.
I call it pain. I call it death.
He said it would redeem me
but I wasn’t so sure, it felt like a lot to ask.

To die in order to live,
what kind of joke is that?
How am I supposed to die?
By whose hands?
Will it hurt? How long will the pain last?

Why must the important ones
always be so damned hard to learn?
Why not like a simple math problem
like 1+1=2?
Life lesions just seem to suck.
Immersed in pain
and yet it seems that
some of us feel more pain than others.

When grandpa died
she began to live.
Is that what you mean?
His anger, his berating mouth
all gone.
So she lives? Her life becomes
lively once more, friends begin to call
she buys a new car, red.
Fire engine red. Red.
She became free perhaps
for the very first time.

Or is it deciding that I’m willing to live
rather than die for my kids.
Or is it taking the death
that he forced upon me
and finding strength to rise;
not just go on but to
fly and find those who have also faced death and lived, helping them to fly.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Lent 4B

A reflection on Numbers 21:4-9 by The Rev. Terri C. Pilarski

Some years ago in my seminary training I had to find a church in which to serve an “internship” in preparation for ordination. This required me to attend a number of churches and discern if I thought they would offer me the opportunities for formation that I needed. One church stands out for me in part because of the sermon preached that morning. The preacher, a fine priest and one I had great respect for, offered a sermon on pride. He spoke vigorously about the sin of pride, of the need to examine our consciences to see the various prideful ways we live, of our need to be humble and the virtues of humility. It was a fine sermon. The problem though, it seemed to me, was the context in which this sermon was offered – given to a congregation of aging white haired people, mostly women, for whom the sin of pride was probably not their biggest sin. An examination of their consciences would probably reveal that their greatest sin was too much self-denial and self-abasement. I think often of that sermon as I ponder the context in which I offer Sunday morning reflections, to whom am I preaching?

Around that same time in my formation for ordination I became interested in St. Ignatius of Loyola. Born in Spain he lived in the 1500’s and is credited with authoring the spiritual discipline called the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises.

The Spiritual Exercises that Ignatius created were designed for use by the ordinary person as well as by persons entering into a vowed religious order. The exercises are lead by a Spiritual Director who guides the directee through them over a period of four weeks, or longer. Essentially the Exercises assume that God and Satan are active players in the world and in the human psyche. The main aim of the Exercises is to assist the individual in his or her ability to discern between the good and evil aspects of life through a process of prayer, self examination, and discernment. There is a basic understanding in Ignatian spirituality that the human soul is continually drawn in two directions: both drawn towards Godliness, and at the same time drawn away from God by distractions that cause broken relationships in the world. A principle aspect of the Spiritual Exercises is the examination of conscience. This examination becomes a part of daily living, a method for one to prayerfully review what one has said and done over the course of a day. It is a process for us to consider the ways we have been selfish, angry, hurtful, judgmental, prejudiced, and then the exercises help us make decisions about where to make amends and how to live the next day in a manner that serves our higher purposes and God’s desire for us.

Our scripture reading this week from Numbers points us in this same direction, an examination of conscience. The Israelites have been wandering in the wilderness for some time now. They are tired and complain bitterly of the plain old manna, the food God has provided to satiate their hunger. They want real food, with seasonings and spices like they had in Egypt.

All of Lent we have been hearing stories from the Old Testament about the covenant God makes with God’s people – a covenant of faithfulness, land, and children with Abraham and Sarah, a covenant with Noah to never destroy the people again with devastation, a covenant with Moses of how to be in relationship, God with God’s people through the 10 Commandments. But today we hear a story that strains those covenants that God has made. Despite the covenants God has grown weary of these complaining angry people who fail to see their blessings and only see what, in their estimation, is lacking. God reacts with anger and a poisonous snake. The people are forced to take some time to stop and think about how they have behaved, how they have been thankless and bitter. In essence they are forced to do an examination of conscience. As a result they want to change their ways, to focus more on gratitude and a sense of being thankful for what they have. God responds in a curious way. God asks Moses to make a bronze serpent which God blesses. The bronze serpent, inspired by God, is a human made construct, made by human hands and then blessed by God. As such it becomes a source of healing for the people.

Lent is a season in which the Church offers us human made constructs that are both inspired by and blessed by God with the intention of growing us in our relationship with God, with ourselves, and with one another. The Ash Wednesday service invites us to observe a Holy Lent by doing a number of things: prayer, fasting, reading scripture, and examining our lives.

Lent points us to spend time examining our consciences, to ponder the ways we are contributing to the brokenness in our lives and in our world and then taking the time to make amends. Sometimes as women the primary place we need to make amends is with ourselves. The treacherous serpent that poisons us may be of our own doing, a failure to honor who we are. The great commandment, which we pray in Lent, reminds us that we are to love self in the same way we are to love God and others.

Women are culturally raised to be self sacrificing, giving to others as we nurture children, spouses, friends, congregations. We pour ourselves out in many ways, often forgetting to take care of ourselves and nurture our inner most being. As women our greatest sin may be a broken relationship with self, and therefore a broken relationship with God. Examining our consciences, building our covenant with God, accepting our humility and our humanity may mean honoring the gifts God has given us, the ways in which we are strong and smart and beautiful. Truly loving ourselves and honoring our God given gifts will ultimately enable us to love God more fully, to love others more deeply. In this the same serpent that may poison us can become the very serpent that heals us.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Lent 3B

A Reflection on the readings for Lent 3B: Exodus 20:1-17, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 and John 2:13-22 By Janine Goodwin

For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”

In the great interweaving of relationships that is the communion of saints, I’ve always felt a particular closeness to St. Paul. Even when I needed to argue with him, with the help of many wise women scholars, over his first-century blind spots about the role of women, it’s been a family fight. We are both deeply verbal and fond of long, rolling sentences with many clauses that build slowly to a thundering point (one of my hopes for heaven is that I will be able to listen in on a conversation between him and Henry James, another master of the dependent clause, then hear Jane Austen cut through it all with an aphorism). For awhile in my youth, I shared with him a confidence approaching arrogance in the sheer power of using words well. I’ve projected on him my own assurance that saying things convincingly meant I was right, and have only lately begun to notice the deep humility that runs beneath his confidence.

This passage, for me, is Paul at his most authentic, humble, lovable, and prophetic. It reminds me of the passage in Philippians in which he lists his reasons to boast, his credentials, and then says they are nothing in comparison to knowing Christ Jesus. In this passage, I see a man who is powerful both in his world and in his soul, a man who turns from his position of privilege to empower others. He tells those who have not had his advantages that God chooses them and calls them to offer God’s good news to those in power. This is a passage that I find easy to reconcile with feminism, which has been brilliantly described by Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler as “the radical notion that women are people.” Paul is proclaiming truths that must have been profoundly difficult for him to learn and understand; he is deliberately setting aside his own claims to power and prestige and placing himself in the company of those who are called foolish, weak, low, and despised. This is someone giving up power-over and seeking power-with. This is what it looks like for someone to put aside privilege. It’s not something we see often. It is a beautiful and frightening thing to witness: beautiful because it is what God called him to do and gave him the strength to do, and frightening because even those of us who have seen ourselves been foolish, weak, low, and despised probably have someone else we’ve seen as foolish, weak, low, and despised and need to recognize as our equals.

Being a first-world Christian feminist is a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, I know what I have suffered from sexism, as well as from class prejudice and ableism; on the other, I know that racism, classism, and many other injustices have injured others while privileging me. Even in an economic downturn that leaves me wondering how my spouse and I will keep and maintain our house, we are more physically comfortable, better fed, and better housed than most people in the world will ever be.

I feel a conflict within me as I read Paul’s words: I can’t help noticing that he is speaking to those who do not have his reasons to boast, but he is speaking from his experience of privilege. He says “not many of you,” not, “not many of us.” Recognizing that, I can see myself both as one with those to whom he gives those rather unflattering labels, and as one who needs to show more respect to those whom my society gives those labels. I have to grow into my stature as a child of God, and I have to admit I have claimed superiority over my sisters and brothers in an unjust way. The first task is sometimes difficult to imagine, but far easier to embrace: I look at the second and mutter to myself, “Yep, it’s Lent, all right.” The roots of the word “Lent” are in spring and growth, and growth is not an easy thing. I need to sit with Paul and hear him accept me as an equal in the work of spreading the gospel not because of my degree in theology or even my experience as a woman in a sexist world, but because I am his sister and we are all called. I need to value my experience and my education, but never to use them as a reason to put myself in a superior position to another person who is also called to be a co-creator with God. I need to admit that the latter task will involve painful discoveries and confessions I don’t want to make.Here I find that this passage resonates with my Lenten discipline, which came to me a little after the beginning of the season. I’d been noticing over the past few years that my Lenten discipline had been undergoing a mid-course correction: I’d think it was going to be one thing and the thing I chose would quietly and steadily lead somewhere else. This time, I decided to just wait for it to show itself, though I did so somewhat nervously and with the fear of laziness nagging in the upper left-hand corner of my mind. The pattern appeared almost immediately, though I did not recognize it until late last week. Like other disciplines that came clearly from within, it will be with me when this Lent and many more have gone by. It is the daily practice of a saying beloved of recovery groups: “If you spot it, you got it.” (I present it in the ungrammatical form in which I learned it, though it pains my editor’s soul to do so.) When I see a fault in someone else, I need to realize that I share that fault.

I hear the echo of “if you spot it, you got it” in Paul’s implicit recognition of the way his own experience has been transmuted by the gospel. He was a seeker after signs and a defender of worldly wisdom, too. In my own life, I am beginning to see how God uses that simple recovery sentence to set aside the ways I’ve defended myself against the knowledge of my own humanity by setting up false oppositions between my own actions and those of others. God has chosen my real, human weakness, of which I have no reason to be ashamed, to challenge my perception of strength as a false sense of superiority and to lead me into the real strength of love, faith, compassion, and acceptance. God is pointing out to me exactly how judgmental I am, and how ridiculous that judgment is. Whenever I feel the quick flame of open anger or the flash and fading of an ember of resentment against another, I see the quality or the behavior that angers me in my own soul, with an example ready to hand. This does not negate the perception that others have acted badly, or that I have been hurt, but I can no longer claim to be a spotless victim or a superior being. If I spot it, I got it. When I see Paul’s arrogance, I see its reflection in my assumption that I’m better than he is because I’m a twenty-first-century feminist who understands things he didn’t. Yes, I have insights that he didn’t, as he has things to say that I have not yet learned: no, that doesn’t mean I have therefore won some kind of point in some obscure competition. As the sons of Zebedee once learned, there is no way to one-up each other in the kingdom of God. I’m in the middle of a difficult life, muddling along with everyone else. I am, simultaneously, a radiantly gifted being with great potential, a miserable yet forgivable sinner, and a frequently embarrassed learner. A customer at the store where I work preached the gospel to me recently in the words, “It’s a good thing crow tastes just like chicken.” The laughter of recognition overtook me at that moment.

I need to say here that I do not believe in forgiveness as some kind of universal solvent that makes the consequences of our sins disappear. Forgiveness is the work of healing, not of excusing or of glossing over. Healing is slow and may remain incomplete in this life. We are all responsible for all our actions: that is the dignity of free will. Part of the pain of “you spot it, you got it” is realizing that I have inflicted many of the very hurts that have hampered me, and that I have confessions and amends to make, as others have made (or not made) them to me.
I’ve begun to see that what I called wisdom was frequently my own defense against the call to know that weakness, an attempt to use knowledge and talent for status rather than for service. Real wisdom seems to be a humility that is not self-abasement, but the quiet assessment of my own real gifts and the beginning of the hope that I can use them authentically and wisely in the service of God and others while living a healthy life, rather than presenting them as reasons to think myself special in order to cover my deep griefs and insecurities or offering them indiscriminately to my own hurt and neglect. The call of God turns out to be a call out of codependence and into an entirely different way of understanding relationship, and I find myself a beginner as I approach my fiftieth year.

That good news is not always a warm and fuzzy thing; today’s gospel reminds us both that Jesus is not always kind and patient, and that the gospels of the coming weeks will show us the downward spiral of fear, envy, hostility, and insecurity in response to the Jesus that will lead to his death. The good news is the gospel of life, a life that comes back in a new and glorious way even after three days in the tomb. It is that good and difficult news that Paul proclaims as he finds God calling him out of familiarity and putting him in fellowship with the foolish, weak, low, and despised. Thanks be to God.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Lent 2B

A Reflection on Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 and Romans 4:13-25 by The Rev. Margaret Rose

Dear Friends,

This reflection has offered some time to do a modified African Bible Study. That is, to listen for the words or phrases that seem relevant for this moment. I’ve taken the opportunity to live into the texts without “checking the facts,” doing the critical exegesis, and allowing the stories to emerge as they will.

The Genesis passage— if we extend it throughout the chapter tells the story of Abraham and Sarah bearing a child in old age. I had forgotten that both Sarah and Abraham laughed when they heard the news—Abraham being 99 and Sarah at about 90. There had been quite of lot of living in those years, and some unhappy times, not least in Sarah’s sadness and the treatment of Hagar and her son Ishmael. But in the midst of it all Sarah did indeed bear a son. And the Hebrew Scripture carries that imprint. What seemed impossible became possible. And that is the good news of this Sunday’s Old Testament and Epistle lessons.

I remember a Bible Study group which met when I was the new rector of a parish. While I was not the “leader” of the group, I was expected to be present and to have the answers to biblical questions. Not surprisingly, I often did not. There was a dreary atmosphere to the regular gathering and I dreaded going. The passage would be read and only slight and surface discussion in a rather pious tone followed. After months, we were only on Chapter 17 of Genesis. Each session felt interminable. I quietly resolved this would be one of the groups to be reshaped once I had been there long enough. And then came today’s passage. We read the whole chapter quietly and diligently and with great seriousness. Until we came to the part about Abram. The passages left out of Sunday’s readings tell in graphic detail what is required of Abram and all men to keep the covenant. “You must circumcise the flesh of your foreskin!” And then comes the promise that Abraham and Sarah will have a child. Abraham laughs and says to himself, “ can a son be born to a man ho is a hundred years old? Can Sarah bear a child at ninety? And upon hearing the news Sarah herself laughs.

Suddenly out of no where the quietest and the oldest man in the Bible study group began to laugh. Loud. It was as if he got it! “A child at 90! What do you think of that, Betty?” he asked his wife. His wife, a smile already on her lips, replied, “Circumcised at 99!! What do you think of that, Phil?” And every one began to laugh. Before we could stop, there were guffaws and tears of laughter. A new community had somehow been built and the Bible had come alive. Not only were we able to talk about the text itself, but our own lives, our desire for children, our pain at their birth or upbringing, the joys of their successes, the fear involved as our bodies got older and no longer quite functioned as we wanted or even as they use to. The laugh changed everything and we were able to do a new thing.
Something was brought into being that did not exist before.

It is unlikely that the writer to the Romans from our Epistle text was thinking of transforming Bible study or of the physical aspects of circumcision or childbirth when writing of Abraham’s faith.

Yet in a larger sense, reflecting on that faith so many centuries later, believers are reminded that we have ancient witnesses who attest to new possibilities of life when none seemed possible. “In the presence of God in whom he believed, who gives his life to the dead and calls into existence the things that did not exist.” This is the witness of the faith of Abraham and Sarah, be it in a parish, a family, a community or the whole world. And sometimes it is laughter which makes makes us know it is real.

Last week I participated in the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the consecration of The Right Barbara Harris, the first woman bishop in the Anglican Communion. Many of us, in the Diocese of Massachusetts, as part of the Episcopal Women’s Caucus and the Union of Black Episcopalians had worked long and hard to lay the groundwork for this possibility. We longed fervently for the day a woman would be elected. We prayed without ceasing. And many of us did not really believe it would happen, at least not for many years. And so, September 24, 1988 when on the 7th ballot, Barbara was elected, there was a hush in the room as the holy Spirit seemed to rush over us. Spontaneously, at least it seemed to me, we began to sing, There’s a Sweet Sweet Spirit in This Place. Astonished, we could hardly believe what had happened. Like Abraham and Sarah—there may have been some laughter—of disbelief, of joy, of dawning realization that God had indeed brought something into being that did not exist before-- ( at least in material history.)
That feeling of incredulity was also in the room when it was announced that Katharine Jefferts Schori had been elected Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. Silence, incredulity, joy and a laughter which was the emotional response to it all.

And then there was November 4, 2009, when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. Democrats and Republicans alike, not to mention many from around the world, were astonished, hopeful, incredulous and aware that something had shifted in our public psyche. Something came into being that had not existed before. We cried and laughed and knew that God had done anew thing.
Laughter of course can be many things: derisive, ironic, nervous, a sign of disbelief, a response to something really funny. Abram’s and Sarai’s laughter was probably a combination of it all. My own as well was filled with joy and the excitement of the three elections as well as some trepidation. How can we ensure success? How can we support these women and this new President? Will there be a backlash?

But most of all, behind the laugh, there was a sense that God had brought something into being that had not until then existed. And because of a moment and those momentous events, nothing would ever be the same again.

Abraham hoped against hope, the scripture says. And so must we—in all things.
That hope and promise is not just about making women priests or bishops or presiding bishops, or even that an African American can be elected President. But rather the promise that things can be made new always and in all things. There is a chance the peace will happen—as in the story of the Women’s Peace Initiative in Liberia which ultimately resulted in real peace talks and a woman who is now President there.

We are not doomed to relive the past. The wounds of grief can be healed. The depths of depression can be ameliorated. New jobs are possible. And it is not just that God somehow exerts some miraculous zap into the world and things change. But rather, that God’s power “working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” That is our hope –in our lives, in our communities, in churches, in the world. And it is a message we may receive with some laughter as well as deep joy, even in these times.