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, March 25, 2011

Lent 3A

Reflection on John 4:5-42 by Rev. Dr. Kate Hennessy-Keimig

We humans are by and large social creatures who do not take well to being isolated. Cultural and religious groups who use shunning, or separation from the group, as a consequence of negative behavior understand this well and use its impact to good effect. In our own criminal justice system, a person already being punished for a crime can be further penalized by being “put in solitary” for a period of time.

Other than when Harry Potter dons his cloak of invisibility, there is rarely a time when we don’t want to be visible to others, to be known and appreciated as unique individuals beyond stereotypes of gender, age, race ability or orientation. We have deep needs to speak and be heard, to make connections, to be linked to one another. So vital is this bond that infants who do not have the opportunity to make healthy human attachments in their early lives can fail to develop, fail to thrive and can even die.

It really is all about the relationship, the connection. Jesus got it. It’s all over the Gospels. It’s there in his encounter with the Samaritan woman. This woman who came to the well alone in the heat of the day for some reason… an outcast even among outcasts perhaps? We don’t know. In the Gospel story, Jesus says she has had five husbands, and the “one she had now” was not her husband, but we can only speculate on what that might mean. We might impose meanings; we think we might know her story. Was she simply a user of men? Or had she been the one used? Picked up and thrown away by them for whatever reason. Perhaps it was because she could not bear children, which in that time was a shameful failing on a woman’s part and could indeed get her summarily divorced, perhaps even repeatedly.

But in the end it really doesn’t matter, because at the well that day, there was simply a woman …and Jesus saw her. He saw her and he knew her for more than her isolated self, and more than her shame. He saw beyond whatever role she had been cast in, or even imposed on herself in self-protection. He told her “everything she had ever done” not to judge or shame her but simply because he saw the whole of her just as she was. And being seen, she entered into relationship with him and saw who he truly was as well, God with her there in that moment. Transformed by that moment of connection, she finds herself running toward the community to share her story, no longer shameful, invisible and isolated.

We too encounter and are encountered by the living God. In those encounters our authentic selves are laid bare….our souls in all their glory in the image of God as we were created, but also in our weakness and our sinfulness. And all of this is the Good News. Jesus answers the question asked by the people in Exodus, “Is the Lord among us or not?” He is not only among us, but becomes us, so he can sit with a woman at a well in the heat of the noonday sun and tells her, as he tells us all we have ever done, who he is and who we can be.

I believe that by virtue of our baptismal covenant, we too are called to truly see one another. Those we bump up against every day who are invisible, cloaked and hiding. Some are coming to the well at noonday by choice to avoid the shaming of the crowd; some have had their isolation foist upon them. Some are still hopeful that one day they will belong again; others have given up all hope that their thirst for community will ever be slaked. What would happen if we really saw them? Would they be transformed? Would they too know that they too are seen, known and beloved of God? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to find out?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Lent 2A

A reflection on the readings for Lent 2a by The Rev. Jacqueline Schmitt

The startling thing about the lessons for this Sunday is that the first three – the story from Genesis about God’s promise to Abram; the beloved and familiar Psalm 121, which also promises God’s unfailing stability and protection; and Paul’s re-cap of the Abram story emphasizing faith in the God whose promises are to be believed – contrast so much with the news of the world around us. How do we navigate this radical disconnect, between what people what people will hear in church on Sunday with what they read in the morning news or heard on their car radios as they drove to church: stories of displacement, instability, fear, shaking ground and monstrous seas and deadliness in the very air they breathe. That’s only Japan and the Pacific Rim. If we turn to news from the other side of the world, the very ground on which Abram, Paul and the psalmist actually walked, we hear of leaders brutally oppressing the people in their charge and violently repelling all who dissent.

I suppose there was a time when we could view such developments from the relative safety, comfort and stability of our North American communities. Dare I say that the “suburban captivity of the church” was one of the factors that insulated us from the cries and whispers of the world? Yes, but back in that (perhaps fictionally) bucolic day, communication in word, image and sound was far less immediate. We could deal with these tragedies in bits and pieces, could respond when we had the capacity to understand what was going on. What a luxury that seems by today’s frantic, frenetic standards, where all the information we get from all sides completely contradicts the message in those three scriptural snippets.

The collect, which Verna Dozier in her bible studies based on the lectionary said set the theme of the day, makes me a bit uncomfortable in this context. I have heard too many Christians jump far too quickly and facilely from “all who have gone astray from your ways” to penitent hearts, steadfast faith and the unchangeable truth of your Word. I’ve had too many people’s absolute convictions of too many truths thrown in my face too many times to find them helpful, much less convincing.

But then we have Nicodemus. Nicodemus lives, like we do, in the terrible world of disconnects, between the reality he lives and sees around him, and the promises of God, which as a faithful Jew, he knows very well. Many Christians can no doubt – and without doubt – jump right to the end of this passage, to those words of absolute assurance, salvation and confidence, words so well known that flashing “John 3:16” on billboards communicates all these people think we need to know.

In these mid-March days, I find I can hardly get beyond something Jesus says earlier in the conversation with Nicodemus: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” The Spirit, Jesus implies, is one who destabilizes, shakes up, confuses. It rumbles from underground without warning, blows in from far away without notice. Does this mean that life in the Spirit, the born-again life, is a life where you do not know what will happen next? Where you do not know where God will lead you? That eternal life is not about something perishable, or, well, predictable, like death and taxes, but about something as unpredictable and wild as the wind?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Lent 1

A reflection on the readings for First Sunday of Lent:Genesis 2:15 - 3:21; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-21; Matthew 4:1-11 by Janine Goodwin, M.S. Ed., M.A.

All people and all places matter, and yet there are some that are closer to our hearts because our lives are entwined with them. I am a native of the Pacific Rim, an Oregonian by birth and by choice, and I have been watching the coverage of natural disasters around the Ring of Fire with a sense of wordless prayer since the Christchurch earthquake of February 22. The earthquake and tsunami in Japan have intensified that prayer and that sense that the ground can always shift beneath us; no place is safe, no possession is secure.

This frightens me less than it used to. I don’t know whether that is spiritual growth or just general fatigue combined with the increasing realization of mortality. I do know that the pictures and the stories of present disaster, the evacuations of places I know, and the view of the fault-block mountains near my home all seem to ask the question:

What matters most?

It is a very Lenten question.

What matters most to almost all the people in the disaster zone is not just their survival, but the survival of those they love. A woman carries a child through rubble. A man wades through floodwater holding on to his child with one hand and a cat carrier with the other. In the cruelest of ironies, a woman is killed because she ran back into a building to get her cell phone so that she can call her family and find out whether they are safe. People call across oceans to say they are trapped and dying and to say goodbye, to hear a beloved voice one more time. Strangers risk their lives to help others without even asking what is important to them. Rescuers converge from around the world to hunt through rubble until the survivors are found, and dedicated workers sift ashes looking for the remains of those who could not be saved. A few lost souls who think material things matter most, despite the evidence all around them, loot ruined stores.

Improbable escapes are called miraculous, and perhaps they are, but I cannot ask why one person is saved when another dies or believe God is choosing to “take” those who die. I believe in a God who is with us whether we live or die, whether we believe or not, whether we took the step that led to death or life with divine guidance or by simple chance, whether we have a chance at all. I believe in a God whose love transcends death and a God who weeps with us as Jesus did, not a puppet-master God, not a cosmic child building and destroying and choosing which toys will die.

I see that theme everywhere these days, so it is understandable that I see it in these scriptures. Relationship with God matters more than total freedom to eat any fruit (though I do wish for a version of the myth in which the first humans ask God why it is so important to obey the prohibition). Paul speaks of a God who wants to be in relationship with us no matter what we’ve done, and chooses to become one of us. And Jesus, in the Gospel, rejects every attempt to turn him aside from the most important thing, his relationship with God and the task he is called to do.

I want to know what matters most and base my life on it now. It won’t save me from anything; life is not safe and faith is not about guarantees of anything but God's presence no matter what. If I know what matters to me, if I spend this Lent listening for the stern yet joyful grace that refuses all distractions, I will have lived, no matter how I die.

What matters most to you? What would you care about if no property, no job, no home were left to you? What will you do, this Lent, to make sure you put first what matters most?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Facets of Transformation

A Reflection on the readings for Last Epiphany/Transfiguration, Matthew 17:1-9, by The Rev. Teri C. Pilarski

The auditorium at the Salvation Army on 14th Street in New York City was filled to capacity. Women from around the world, young and old, from many countries, colors, religions, ethnicities and cultures, gathered for the 55th United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW) NGO orientation. A variety of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) and their representatives were present. Some NGO’s made presentations at the orientation and most NGO’s offered flyers advertising the workshops they were sponsoring for the two week UNCSW.

The keynote speaker for the orientation was Michelle Bachelet, former President of Chile, and current Under-Secretary General at the United Nations and the Executive Director of the newly formed UN Women. You can read about her and her speeches here. Ms. Bachelet is an inspiring woman with great intelligence and keen insight. She holds a privileged position at the UN, one which will enable her to advocate for issues that concern women and girls, keeping them at the forefront of all UN discussions.

Later that afternoon, in a break-out session on the topic of women, girls, and education, I found myself in discussion with two women from Morocco. Dressed in headscarves the two women shared stories about the trials little girls face in an effort to acquire an education in rural Morocco. These include the risk of being attacked on the way to school by wild dogs, and or raped and kidnapped by groups of men, or being forced into household labor for wealthy urban families. Their greatest concern was the illegality of the headscarf in the classroom. Wearing the religious headscarf is illegal in some school systems. Therefore girls who wish to practice their faith and wear the scarf are prevented from acquiring and education. These women from Morocco wanted to understand the UN system of advocacy, how to make their concerns known and how to get some action for the well-being of the girl-child in Morocco.

A day earlier I attended the Ecumenical Women’s Orientation at the United Nations Church Center. At this orientation I heard a panel of speakers discuss the role of advocacy at the UNCSW. One woman named Marta said this: Go to a caucus, learn who your UN Representative is. Watch for that person to leave, perhaps go to the bathroom. Follow the person and when you catch up to them be prepared to 1. Share a short story that conveys your concern and 2. Give the representative one or two key points you want them to take back with them to UN discussions.

I shared this with the women from Morocco and gave them two flyers I had on caucuses for the education of girls. I encouraged them to go and find their representative and share their story and concerns. I told the women that I will hold them in my prayers and every time I think of Morocco I will think of them. Their story is now part of me.

When I shared this story with my Bishop one of his observations was that, I, a privileged white woman from the United States, had access to knowledge that these women from Morocco did not. He makes a valid point.

However, what I really think is that these women are smart, savvy, survivors, and they would have found the answer sooner or later. I just happened to be there. And honestly, I don’t know if the information I gave them is what they really needed or used. What I do know is that they probably figured it out. And, because of their efforts, there will be some movement toward the improvement in the quality of life for little girls in rural Morocco.

I spent a week in New York City attending the UNCSW and the parallel NGO events. Because I am currently under-employed and have had to piece together an income for the last 20 months I had no resources to pay for my trip to this event. Thankfully, and gratefully, I was sponsored by Anglican Women’s Empowerment (AWE). In the course of my life, rising up from a working class family, acquiring two Master’s degrees (and the student loan debt), and working in fields that are male-dominated, I have faced many challenges and struggles as a girl and as a woman. And even still I remain a privileged white woman. Nonetheless this privileged status is not without significant life lessons. Frankly, not all white privilege is the same. Being white can mask the ways in which I have been subjected to misogynistic prejudice, stereotypes, classism, and systems of dysfunction.

A few days ago a friend of mine was ordained. I have known her since 1995 when we were both in seminary together. For a variety of reasons her ordination process was stopped and she was subjected to some painful scrutiny. She graduated from seminary and proceeded on to a career as a hospital chaplain. Then, a few years ago, the call to ordination began to percolate in her again, culminating in her ordination some fifteen years after the process was stopped. Her ordination reminds me that the Holy Spirit is tenacious and always gets her way. Sooner or later, regardless of how humans try to divert her, the Holy Spirit ends up moving us. Her job, like the mountain top experience of the disciples who witness Jesus’ transfiguration, is to lead us into and through transformative experiences of grace. Her job is to enliven the work of God in and through us. The Holy Spirit walks us through the challenges life throws our way and sustains us with the love of Christ. The Holy Spirit is alive in us, transforming our challenges into compassion and love for ourselves and for others. The Holy Spirit enables us to turns life’s challenges into privileges of insight, self-awareness, and other-awareness. My theology professor believed in the power of the Holy Spirit to continue her work even into the after-life. By this he meant that human beings are unable to wake up to the privileges of the Spirit until we are broken open and transformed, and for some that means death comes first.

My life experiences have left me with a heightened sensitivity to the issues of women and children, increasing my capacity for compassion. I suspect that my experiences at the UNCSW, the stories I heard, the experience of being in the presence of 8500 women from around the world, and, the facts I learned, will become epiphanic, life changing experiences. I will be transformed, over and over again, as I reflect on this time. I have been made acutely aware, in new ways, that privilege has many facets. Sometimes privilege leads to abuse and oppression, and becomes life-depleting. I certainly learned a lot about that manifestation of privilege at the NGO workshops. But there are other expressions of privilege that can be life-giving.

I am privileged to have met these women and to have heard their stories. I am privileged to have worn my “collar” of ordination as a witness to the role of women clergy activists for social justice. As ordained women our role is not “better” than others. My role as an ordained woman is distinctive and particular, and comes with a privileged potential to open doors and hearts. Wearing my collar gets me into hospitals and ICU’s and people’s lives. Peter, filled with awe at the realization of who Jesus is, wanted to give Jesus a place of privilege. But Peter’s understanding of privilege would have contained Jesus, contained God’s love, to the mountain top. Jesus tells Peter, and us, the love of God is for everyone. We are all privileged in God’s eyes. The love of God exists within the beauty of our diversity. We are not intended to contain our differences nor does God intend for us to all be the same. Whether through a clergy collar or a headscarf or a prayer shawl or any other expression of faith God’s love expresses itself in the rich diversity of all humanity.