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, May 29, 2009


A reflection on the readings for Pentecost Year B
Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Romans 8:22-27
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

By: Janine Goodwin, M.S. Ed., M.A.

Pentecost is often called “the birthday of the church.” The meaning of birthdays has changed for me since the giddy early days when a birthday meant the presence of loved ones, cake, brightly wrapped gifts, and an increase in my allowance and responsibilities. As my fifth decade draws to a close, the love, cake, and gifts are still a delight, but along with them comes a sense of time passing and some disquieting questions: How am I growing toward spiritual maturity? How will I afford to retire? Am I using my gifts in God’s service? Will I still have a job on my next birthday? Am I ever going to get started on that novel?

My response to the birthday of the church has changed, too. As a child and a teenager, I listened to the story of Pentecost with awe and wonder, and believed firmly that the Spirit would indeed lead us into all truth, which meant that the problems of the church and the world would be solved within my lifetime. I was a child of the 1960s, when even adults said such things, and it seemed reasonable to me to expect that with God’s help we could eliminate such problems as war, hunger, pollution and prejudice in a matter of a few years. Why, I could see some of the solutions as a bright child! Never mind that the nations were busy waging conventional war and preparing for nuclear war, that quite a large portion of humanity didn’t see their prejudices as anything they needed to change, and that many people could only see accepting more pollution as the necessary tradeoff for survival. In the church, I saw signs of unity and hope everywhere. All kinds of Christians were in closer communication than ever before, Vatican II had opened new dialogues between Catholics and Protestants, dialogue between religions was opening up as well—I couldn’t understand why the wary, cynical adults around me didn’t respond to my bright predictions with immediate enthusiasm.

Now I do. A few decades later, with war, prejudice, hunger, and pollution still noticeably present in the world, I look at the Christian churches and see that they are having increasing trouble communicating with each other, and that old conflicts between religions are being expressed in familiar, ugly ways. I see churches plagued by conflict, schism and scandal—indeed, I can’t think of any that aren’t. People aren’t going to churches as much as they used to, and the churches I’ve loved and been a part of are shrinking even as the population increases. There are dioceses stuck in interminable arguments between factions, parishes caught in dysfunctional patterns they don’t want to examine. I’ve spent time away from churches at some points in my life, looking for the healing that will allow me to function as a healthy member and neither add to the church’s problems nor be hurt beyond endurance by difficulties within the church.

Trying to ignore doubts and disappointments doesn’t work. Experience has taught me that the attempt to be positive without facing the negative leads straight into denial, which leads me away from God. Shall I dismiss my early hopes, as I felt dismissed by the adults around me, or examine my assumptions to see what errors I may have made and what change I may make in my responses? Dismissing my hopes would allow me to be cynical, to avoid further risk, to quit trying, but it would also make the future a dead end. Examining my assumptions can be disorienting, scary, and sometimes painful, but it leaves room for hope—and, come to think of it, for a certain wise wariness.

My early hopes were based on my limited experience of time. I had, then, no sense of how long it can take to work out one’s own problems, let alone work with others to make changes in institutions that are many centuries old. As an adolescent influenced by those who that predicted the end of the world in our time, I lacked not just a sense of the past, but a sense of the future as well. I could not see how brief my own life was in the scale of history. Now, I can look at the tragedies and the achievements of salvation history, and face the fact that both are partial; growth has come out of the tragedies, and the achievements are still unfinished.

I also lacked humility and discernment, and worked from an unexamined perfectionism. Because I saw possible solutions, I failed to see the efforts others had made and the difficulties they had faced. I did not always respect the people to whom I was speaking, nor consider what their experience taught them or what ideas their temperament might favor. I was long on ideas, short on empathy; ready to explain, but not to listen. Time alone does not change such shortcomings: they must be realized before we can change them, and change takes work. Perfectionism must give way to the desire to do as well as we can and the knowledge that the best we can do may, and probably will, fall short of perfection.

Groups of people can also have difficulties with time, humility, and discernment which affect their ability to understand what God is saying and doing in their lives. In studying John’s Gospel, I become aware of characteristics within it that correspond to things I need to watch in myself: the need to be right and the related need to have others be wrong, the sense of being a resentful outsider, the idea that I have a secret intimacy with God that others do not share. John’s poetry and spiritual exaltation of this gospel come with harsh words toward a “world” that opposes Jesus and toward a people that has cast the writer’s community out—“the Jews.” Early Christians were often excluded from the communities where they were raised and sometimes persecuted by those communities. The misreading of the texts that resulted has led to centuries of anti-Semitism from Christians, an evil Jesus does not prophesy about in John’s gospel. If we feel in any way embattled, persecuted, or misunderstood—and it is always possible for us to do so, no matter how much power we actually have and use or misuse—we may fall into the tragic error of using John’s insider/outsider language not as a record of old griefs but as a shield against our own insecurities and as a weapon against those we feel have hurt us, instead of as a guide into a wider truth. John is one of four gospels included in the conversation we know as Scripture, and must be read alongside the others for the sake of balance. Its high poetry needs to be set beside the bluntness of Mark, its exclusions must be tempered by the inclusiveness of Luke/Acts.

It is far too easy to condemn “the world” and mean by it whatever we do not like in our time and place, while fostering the illusion that we do not participate in the injustices practiced by the organizations we support, the corporations to which we give our money, the nation where we vote. It can be very painful to see the ways in which we are part of a corrupt and wasteful world, the ways in which we mirror that world in our own lives. We are seldom as separate as we would like to believe from the things we dislike about our church or secular culture. Dismissing “the world” and exalting a small group which will be led into all truth can lead to smugness and insularity, the failure to recognize our own shortcomings. Rereading the gospel passage, I begin to see what Jesus does not say. He does not say, “The Spirit will lead ONLY you into all truth IMMEDIATELY and INFALLIBLY and NOT lead those other people with whom you may disagree.” This leaves me free to appreciate the ways in which we are all still working to hear the Spirit, all still failing at times to hear what the Spirit is saying.

When I read this passage alongside Paul’s words about patience and discernment, I begin to understand that my hope for specific changes in the way and time that I want them can slip easily into an attempt to control others and God. I must work for what I believe in, but understand that my hope goes beyond what I can see and understand. All of us must leave room for God to work in ways we cannot yet guess at, without invoking the Spirit as an excuse for failing to do the work we dare not face. It is a delicate balance, and one that shifts constantly. It is work whose first requirement is to practice the prayer of listening before we speak, and whose second is to speak humbly and prayerfully, even when we speak passionately.

Having acknowledged doubt and disappointment, conflict and sin, and the limits of our vision, we can still rejoice in the birthday of the Church. The Spirit falls upon the disciples, Jesus’ promise is kept, and the church is born. Peter’s preaching in Acts is clearly inspired by the Holy Spirit, even though he will later become part of a movement to try and make new Gentile Christians adopt practices appropriate only to Judaism, and will be voted down by a council whose words begin, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” In later centuries, churches will learn, slowly, to repudiate slavery, to begin the long conversation on sexism. The passage Peter quotes from Joel clearly envisions equality between men and women, yet centuries passed between the last women priests of the early church and the first ones of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; still, the leadership of many Spirit-filled women, recorded or forgotten, has made the prophecy come true in various circumstances. The Spirit does lead the church into truth. It’s not quick, easy, or certain, and it depends on our willingness to listen and to let the Spirit of God speak with in us in ways we may not yet fully understand. Paul’s “sighs too deep for words” can be very hard to breathe. God may not be on our side in every detail of every argument, yet God is working in the depths of our souls, in ways we can’t understand. Churches are inspired and fallible, broken and healing. Sometimes we are drunk on the sound of our own voices; sometimes we are speaking as the Spirit gives utterance. We are never going to be immune to error or difficulty.

In the reading from Romans, the image of creation groaning in labor mirrors a passage a few verses beyond our Gospel reading: in John 16:21-22, Jesus gives the disciples a vivid image that gives hope and meaning to the difficulties of history and of our time.

When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.

This image gives me a comfort that is entirely different than the uneasy smugness of denial. It acknowledges the pain of the past and our present griefs and losses, but assures us that our pain is indeed the necessary and fruitful pain of labor, that something good will be born of it, and that, in the end, we will rejoice. On the birthday of the church, we understand that the pain of the church will help to bring forth the wholeness and joy for which we long. Happy birthday, church: labor well.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Easter 7B/Ascension

A reflection on the lectionary readings for Easter 7B/Ascension by The Rev. Jacqueline Schmitt

Lately I have felt trapped by the Episcopal Church. It’s probably not just the Episcopal Church’s fault; I think any kind of parish ministry demands the “jack of all trades/master of none” kind of busy-work that precludes sustained thought, reflection and prayer. There is hardly any time to answer that old Marvin Gaye question, “What’s going on?”

Just before I woke up this morning I had a dream about the Episcopal Church. The radio comes on at 6 a.m., and in that nether land of quasi-consciousness, my dreams are often laced with news reports. Maybe this one was. I saw (in my dream) a picture of the Presiding Bishop, in those lovely blue-green vestments; I think it was some kind of communion service, some big service, and a tall, blond woman in an alb was coming toward the congregation with a chalice. The news report (in my dream) said that the Presiding Bishop had started her tenure with such promise of productivity, activity, good things, and now, ironically, because of unforeseen conditions (calamities unstated but known to everyone hearing the report), this early promise would be unrealized. Aha, my dream-self said to myself, how true, how true. Now it makes sense.

Well, as dreams go, it didn’t make any sense at all, and here and now I’m not about to delve into all the analysis the dream offers. It does, though, have something to say about what made me eager to write this entry about Ascentiontide and its sister observance, Rogation.

I think we women were promised something by the church, as our employer, that it has not always delivered on. Jesus gets us into this business, alluring us with the power of prophecy, of justice, of mercy. The kingdom of God is among you, Jesus would say to us; join up! So we do; well, we hang our hat on the institutional church, which nearly always disappoints us, nearly always falls short of that prophecy we first heard Jesus shout from the rooftops or whisper in our ears.

Yet in this season of Ascension, we remember that Jesus has delivered on those early promises. Human institutions may sin and fall short of the glory of God, but Jesus knows that. Jesus walked these streets with us, and now where has that gotten us? Into heaven, with God.

The Ascension is the taking of our human nature into the territory where we were never allowed to go. Our created nature -- our kind of people -- were cast out of paradise, and God posted cherubim at the gates to keep us out. Now, with Christ, our status is raised higher than the angels.

Celebrating Ascensiontide was important to early Christians, celebrating this new reality of not only God with us, but us with God. In the 5th century, times were tough: plagues, pestilence, economic uncertainty – sound familiar? A devastating earthquake struck Vienna. The Bishop got active. On Ascension Day in 470, he sent the clergy and people out into the streets, into the fields, to offer prayers for God’s grace, for relief from these bad events, for abundant crops and a return to prosperity. As the years went by, this custom of processing around the town and countryside became very popular – by the 8th century it was the practice in England, and the association of the ascension of Jesus with springtime prayers (rogations) for deliverance from pestilence and abundance in the fields was set. In England, the Ascension procession became known as the beating of the bounds – the people of the community would walk the boundaries of the parish, and boys would be bumped, or beaten, at markers along the way so they would into their old age remember the boundaries of the common lands. At the end of the procession, there would be a community party, with lots to eat and drink, to make sure everyone, poor and not-so-poor alike, would remember the occasion as one of community spirit and abundance.

These sorts of community events are sort of archaic – this one has these old, English roots, kind of quaint and kind of quirky. When I was reading up on them, several of them would end with the disclaimer, “This kind of thing isn’t needed any more. It comes from the days when people could not read, when maps were not accurate, when boundaries would be frequently in dispute.”

But I think “beating the bounds” is a very important custom for a community, today, especially a community like the one which surrounds my church – a poor, not very well developed community, a community whose landowners neglect their property, who provide poor housing for their tenants and who allow trash and blight to collect. Communities like ours forget where our boundaries lie at our peril.

I went to college in Washington, DC, where massive sections of the city were devastated by riot and fire after the assassination of Martin Luther King. For decades those neighborhoods, and others, were left to languish, and decay. Middle class people moved out; poor people moved in. The other day on the radio I heard people talking, not too happily, about “the Plan” for redevelopment of parts of the District of Columbia. “Things happen without our even knowing about them,” one woman said. She named several elementary schools. “They closed them for renovation, they told us, but then they were opened up as expensive condos. Of course there are no children left. They moved us out, and moved in rich people. That’s the Plan.” A neighborhood loses its memories of its boundaries, of its heart and soul, at its peril.

The Presiding Bishop recently released a report about an Episcopal campaign to combat domestic poverty. The Episcopal Church IS IN poor neighborhoods, she said, in and among and of them, by virtue of the buildings that were built there years ago. Can the church deliver on that promise? Can the Episcopal Church be with us in our neighborhood? Can the Episcopal Church make a difference? Can the Episcopal Church remember that the boundaries of our parish include the poor, the poorly housed, the homeless, the forgotten, the not-so-worthy needy, the crazy, the abuser, the criminal, the liar, the lonely, the lost and the unloved? Who do we have to beat to get them to remember THOSE boundaries?

During this Ascensiontide, we remember that not only is God among us, in the person of Jesus, but through the ascension of Jesus into heaven, WE are now among God. Jesus, who has walked these very neighborhood streets – Pleasant Street and Green Street, Warren Avenue and Main Street – has now taken all of this reality of our neighborhood, and neighborhoods like it, with him. Through Jesus, this is now God’s reality, too. God KNOWS PleasantGreen, just as God knows you, and me.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Easter 6B

A reflection on John 15:9-17 by The Rev. Karla Miller

Abide in my love.
Love one another as I have loved you.
You are my friends.
I chose you.
Bear fruit.
Love one another.
Abide in my love.

There is a sculpture in a garden in Arizona that depicts God’s hand. It looks like God’s hand is coming out of the ground, palm up and cupped, with a child, feet on the ground just resting her body in the hollow of God’s hand. It looks like she is hugging God’s hand, while God is supporting you. I love how the sculpture is grounded in the earth, and yet a depiction of the love of God. I don’t know the title of the sculpture, but if I were to give it a title, it would be, “Abide in My Love.”

The gospel text for this week is all about abiding, living in the love of Christ. Jesus tells his followers, love one another, as I have loved you. I now call you friends—and I chose you. Bear fruit. Abide.

It’s a beautiful passage, layered in meaning and intent. When Jesus calls the disciples his friends, he is giving a high social value to his relationship with them. In antiquity, the “friends” of the governor shared in the power of the ruler, vicariously. It gave them clout, influence, status—because of who they knew. Jesus is saying, yes, you are my friends, and you share the influence I have had on you—to love deeply, counter-culturally, and recklessly—to the point of self-giving, in spite of what it costs. That’s the love you will abide in, as my friends.

Reckless, counter-cultural love is not something often experienced, is it? Have you ever been on the receiving end of such fierce love?

Over twenty years ago, just out of college and living in a state where I had no close relatives nearby, I suffered from profound clinical depression. I was in therapy, and doing some really important work, but the well was cavernous, and I was at the bottom. Fortunately, I was in a “Women In Ministry” group that was comprised of six women either in professional ministry, or volunteering in youth ministry. We all were about the same age, and an older woman was our leader and mentor and sage. We were sister friends. One evening, after our group meeting, I was bone tired and emotionally exhausted, and tearful. My sister friends took charge. First, they called my boss to tell him that I wouldn’t be at work the next day. Then, they put me to bed, and everyone piled on top of me and held me through the night as I cried tears that came from subterranean places within me that I didn’t know existed. I will never forget that feeling of a web of love surrounding me in my deepest pain, like a protective shell of a turtle. Their boundless love expressed, was healing.

I understood that evening truly what the commandment to love one another mean. Certainly, my neediness was not convenient—my sister friends had their own careers, it was in the middle of the week, a couple of them were married with spouses at home waiting—but because they understood the love of Christian community, because they knew how small and frightened and desperately desolate I was, they were able to give of themselves, in order that I might experience the fruit of new life--

--A new life where I knew that I was chosen by God, to be friend, follower and reckless lover of all creation.

Abide in my love, Jesus says. Love one another.
May God’s love abide in you this week, as you abide in God.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Easter 5B

A poetic reflection on 1 John 4:7-21 and John 15:1-8 by The Rev. Crystal Karr...she says that it based on a true story.


Once a man called his pastor
angry and confused.
There were some folks in the church
who needed to be straightened out.
It seems that they had did him wrong
and when the pastor asked about grace,
the poor angry man
screamed, hollered, & ranted.
“Grace, grace was the problem!
Too much talk about grace and love
that’s what’s wrong with the church today!”

The pastor sat in awe and shock,
not sure what to do or say next.
She reached out her hand to touch his
and said, “I’ll pray for you, for grace and love is what this church is all about.”
She thought about the young girl
who’d gotten pregnant at 16
and the family who took her in—
the grace they had given
was returned with more love
than they had ever imagined.
The grandson they could never have,
was now in their arms.
The young mother and now, toddler, son
share a new family,
one without violence that shatters one’s sleep.
Grace and love, that’s what this church is all about.

Grace and love, is what we’re about.
The girl’s father both angered and sad,
her mother still frightened and mad
began to speak their pain, their sorrow
in this place, in this church.
The girl’s heart began to break once more.
But her broken heart filled with grace,
the grace she had received spread to
those parents who’d thrown her out,
sent her to the street with new life
sprouting in her belly.
The parents’ who kept her awake with screams,
breaking glass, and bright lights in her window,
received her love, her grace and began to feel something new.
Something they had missed all these years.
Grace and love is what this church is all about.

“I’ll pray for you my friend, because grace and love is what The Church is all about.”

Some say we’ve gone soft, we’ve become lost
but love and grace take courage, take strength.
It turns your world upside down.
There are those who have died for it.
The One we worship
died to show us, to give us love and grace.
Grace and love is what this church is all about.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Easter 4B

A Reflection on John 10:11-18 by the Rev. Dr. Kate Hennessy

Jesus said, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away-- and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father."

Last week I had the pleasure and privilege to gather in Arizona with sixteen of the RevGals for the second annual Big Event (BE 2.0). Our speaker was the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney, who presented on the women prophets. Wil had us do a Bible study exercise that many of us found particularly enlightening and interesting. We were asked to take a Scripture passage and remove everything but the pronouns and the verbs, leaving us with the “she-verbs” to ponder. We did a group exercise on this and shared it and we “heard in action” Martha and Mary, Abigail, Esther and other unnamed women whose voices are not always heard or presence noted. We found when we read them aloud to each other that they sounded like poetry and often packed quite a soul punch.

One of the other things Wil said that stuck in my mind is simply using the word “God” for God does not assure inclusivity, as people are just as likely to fall back into male images, and sometimes saying “she” really is the only way to assure that the feminine image of God is held up.

I thought about some of my experiences at the BE as I read the very familiar John passage that is the appointed reading for this Sunday. The first thing I wondered is if there were also “good shepherdesses.” One would assume so. And certainly those attributes of God referred to in the passage in Jesus have no gender beyond that which we impose. So I decided to do the exercise on the passage, taking some license and substituting feminine pronouns….

The good shepherd:
lays down her life
knows her own.
lays down her life
has other sheep
brings them also
lays down her life.
lays it down
has power
has power
has received

Indeed! And amen.