Could the world be about to turn? Advent 4 2017

This morning I told the story of the annunciation and the visitation.  Luke 1:26-56.  For the Magnificat we sang the Canticle of the Turning.

Rory Cooney wrote some reflections on this rendition of the Magnificat here (link).

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When the Church is Dangerous

Reflecting on predators in the Church

This week was the third time. 

The other day I was talking with local clergy colleagues about how society has made safety into an idol.  We discussed how the Gospel calls us to make sacrifices and take risks.  That our lives, even apart from the Gospel, can never be made completely safe.  To live is to risk.  To live should not be to be harmed or abused.  Jesus calls us to take risks and not to harm one another.  We too often fail at both.  The risks Jesus calls us to are to be made willingly, knowing what is being risked or sacrificed and knowing that nothing can separate us from the love of God.

This week was the third time in 20 years of Church leadership (I’m both not that young now and was that young when I started), a cleric I know stands formally accused of sexual misconduct.*  Sexual misconduct by any one is an affront to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Abuse of all kinds, and especially sexual abuse or misconduct, is the stripping of another person’s privacy, bodily autonomy, and leaves lasting harm to a person’s ability to form loving and trusting relationships.  Instances where a cleric is the offender  are also a horrendous abuse of the trust invested in clergy.  I am grieved at this news and feel horrible that my colleague (from another diocese and country and still my brother in Christ) has added to others’ challenge in finding what I have in my Church, a place where it is easier to see Jesus.

Three times in 20 years is a little more than once every seven years.  The cognitive dissonance between knowing perpetrators are usually someone you would not suspect and that someone having a name, a face, and fond memories does not get easier.  I did not know or suspect and was shocked to learn the truth.  There is a temptation to call them monsters but I will resist it.  Portraying sexual predators as monsters is part of how we make it easier to fail to notice and prevent the lasting harm of the actions of people we usually would not suspect.  Even more, they too are beloved children of God,  though they have committed horrible sins and need to face the full consequences, legal and ecclesiastical, of their actions. 

I want to close with a promise that we can make at least the Church free from this kind of sin.  I want the Eucharist and the sacraments to be able to draw us close enough to God that we are all transformed into people who do not harm others.  Barring that, I want policies like those in The Episcopal Church’s Safeguarding God’s Children to be sufficient protection.

I can’t make that promise. 

We can make ourselves and our spaces safer.  RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) has information about staying as safe as possible, noticing warning signs, and consent here (link).  This is my favourite article on how teaching consent (link).  Please ask your Church leadership what they are doing to prevent sexual misconduct.  

I pray for the victims.  I do not know their names but, from other survivors of sexual abuse who have courageously shared their journeys, I am aware that healing is a long and seemingly endless journey. 

I assure you that the God who made us, who has always loved us, allows nothing to be beyond God’s love—even when we cannot fathom the possibility of such love. 

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There is a balm in Galilee

There is a balm in Galilee. 

Or at least that’s what I’m looking and hoping for, a balm in Galilee. 

The better known Balm of Gilead is only mentioned a few times in scripture and always as something with extraordinary healing properties, rare, and valuable.  The idea was later adopted and incorporated into an African American Spiritual.  “There is a balm in Gilead/to heal the sin sick soul.”

I’d take the balm of Gilead.  I’ve a chronic condition, or few, that it’d be nice to treat for the last time.  But the balm I’m looking and hoping for in Galilee, especially in Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s metaphorical Galilee, is not the mythical or magical balm of Gilead.   

I want the balm that will help the church, my well loved church, see me as a priest with chronic health issues, not as a problem to be fixed with doctors notes or only spoken of in hushed tones among trusted confidantes or endlessly suspect (“she says she has migraines, but who really knows” or worse “how can she pretend to do this demanding job if she’s in as much pain as she says”). 

It’s only been in the last year that I’ve found the courage to risk telling people I didn’t already trust about my chronic health issues.  My suspicion was well learned.  My health issues preceded my ordination and it was mentors and leaders I’d both trusted and been required to trust with my still new realities that advised me in my first job search not to mention the brain surgeries or the migraines, or suggested a doctors note certifying that I could work, and (in the same conversation) assured me that any congregation which rejected me for these reasons wasn’t worth working for.

That was a long time, several jobs, and many blogs posts ago.  And the church hasn’t changed.  I know I’ve lost jobs for alluding to my health conditions and I prefer not to think about those who may have seen the same sentences and just never responded.  I’ve received various advice from colleagues and congregants about my migraines, little of which my doctor agreed with.  And I’ve learned that I’m not alone.   

Along with friends who also live with chronic health conditions, more and less formal collegial groups who live with chronic health conditions, and friends who know how to listen, I’ve done my research and reading. 50% North Americans live with a chronic health condition, many of which we cannot see and society and the church prefer we not talk about.  Half of us. I am so far from alone.

The balm I want Galilee to hold is not a cure for me.  It is a road to Damascus falling away of the scales for my Church.  Stop pretending I’m not here.  Stop talking as though only old people were sick or in pain.  See me, hear me.  Find a way to hold both my gifts and my pain.  More concretely

  • Unlearn cliches.  (Some examples here)
  • See people not diagnoses.
  • Don’t offer treatment advice unless asked.  Not even that thing that was a miracle for your aunt/cousin/self.
  • Respect their language choices.  Some people use disability, some chronic illness.  I’ve opted for chronic health condition here.
  • Make one change every year to make your church more accessible.  Here are 50 ideas. 
  • Stop preaching in Jesus’ healing as psychological or community wholeness.  It was, but scripture says people were healed.  Some of us would love to have our pain relieved and it hasn’t happened even after, in many cases, sincere faith and years of prayer.
  • Get serious about the health benefits you provide your employees.  Copays for doctor visits, medications, limited sick days, plans that only cover the ER if you are admitted to the hospital are some of the barriers to people taking care of themselves. 
  • Stock some Empathy Cards and send those.
  • Chronic illness is long term and one day at a time.  There are good, bad, and in between days.  Trust people to judge their ability that day.
  • Educate your parishioners.  That can be serious or silly. 

Most of us live with, care for, or love someone with a chronic health condition.  May Galilee be a place where the Church can be healed of it’s blindness and ableism; a place where all of God’s children are encouraged to participate in the ways that best suit them.

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One of the nights I worked this past week was because of an event held by our local ecumenical  group.  The Westmount Christian Council formed several decades ago when lay people in St Peter’s neighbourhood decided the Churches should cooperate better.  On Sunday evening they hosted a service and fellowship time.  I have find it to be one of the times we get this Church thing right–when we understand that the God we have in common is much greater than the things we disagree over.

I had a great time. It was a beautiful service and a gracious group. We prayed, “Gracious God, so often our churches choose the logic of competition and dispute by desiring to be the best.  We are weary of this race to excel.  Allow us to rest at the well.  Refresh us with the water of unity drawn from our common prayer.  May your Spirit who hovered over the waters of chaos bring unity from our diversity. Amen”

And I must confess: I noticed the pauses and the glances, the sense of uncertainty, the unfamiliarity that leads to imperfect projection.  It was tempting, in the seconds of noticing to judge, to condemn, to keep myself apart.   To wonder why they didn’t cover that before the service, to judge their lack of practiced communication.  Even knowing how challenging it is to balance all of that, it can be hard to participate and appreciate.

I remember sitting at one of my internship parishes, two seminarians and a 25 year priest talking about how ordination and the call to lead worship changes our participation.  The mental gymnastics leading worship asks for are convoluted. Being aware of what we are doing, how people are or aren’t participating, knowing what comes next and seeing of the leaders for that are present, having the current and future page number and place and words, listening for my own voice to check the microphone and my own projection, remaining centred in the prayer and worship of God, trying to hear the still small voice these acts are trying to amplify.  It’s exhausting and there is a gift in being the one who sits in the pew, who is called first to praying.  Even still it takes a few minutes for my to let go of how I would to things so that I can participate fully in the now and the doing of worship I am not leading.  

After the service, while we were enjoying tea and snacks, someone commented on the presence the pastors had at the front while we were offering the sending blessing.  I knew what was meant.  It’s the little things.  Knowing how to project, speaking at the right pace, trusting that we will catch each other’s pauses and cues.  And it was hard to hear.  While I appreciate the generosity of the Council sharing the leadership with us ordained types, I’m so in awe of the witness they offer to us. And I know that what was commented on is in many ways a skill.

I know because I spent years learning these skills.  Because in High School I was the definition of painfully shy: soft and rarely spoken, public speaking turned me into a blushing shaking mess. Because this fear, this inability, my own uncertainty and nerves, was one of my top reasons God could not be asking me to seek ordination.  

I listen and watch my colleagues whose backgrounds involved more public speaking or performance than reading history books and I still marvel at their presence, their ability to hold a moment, to invite others into their moment.

And I remember the Sundays when the awkward moments stretch as we all wonder who is suppose to read, the first Sunday in Lent when I picked a hymn with 41 Alleluias (that was this year😕), the times I misspeak, the Sundays when I am disappointed in my sermon.

Sitting there on Sunday night, was a beautiful reminder that God loves an amateur.  Because none of us manage the worship of God perfectly.  We are standing in front of the altar of God doing mental gymnastics, desperately hoping someone will catch our cues, praying we don’t screw it up and knowing we do.

All that we do, hopefully in Church, ideally in our lives, is done for the love of God.  And we are all amateurs at it.  Jesus is the one human who got it right, and he was God-with-us.  For the rest of us, we are amateurs struggling to love God as we are loved.  

Thankfully God loves an amateur.


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Why The Episcopal Church?

I drove to and from my vestry meeting last night listening to episodes of The Collect Call.  If you don’t listen to Brendan and Holli, I heartily recommend this.  I enjoy it because they are church-y but they are also just plain delightful and entertaining.  Holli and Brendan offer The Collect Call as part of The Acts 8 Moment, a group working to proclaim resurrection in The Episcopal Church.

In the last few weeks you may have seen some of the posts responding to a trio of Acts 8 BLOGFORCE questions: Why the Church?, Why Anglicanism?, Why The Episcopal Church?

I haven’t said anything.  In part because of a busy schedule; in part because I feel like I’ve already commented on these ideas.

There is wisdom in the Church and in this Anglican Tradition.

I stayed in The Episcopal Church (now the Anglican Communion) because this is where I best see Jesus.

It’s been interesting to read people’s thoughts on why The Episcopal Church. In good Anglican fashion, I’ve agreed with some opinions more than others. It is always good to know that we share the cause of love, if not the details.  But then I was listening to Brendan, in the Proper 19 episode.  He made a comment about love being about more than the sum of the reasons we could list.

We can, and have, and will continue to make lists, to have reasons why we participate in and love this Episcopal Church of ours.  We’ll talk about polity and liturgy.

But there’s something more.  Our love for the Church is greater than the sum of our lists, even all our lists.  Our love for the Church has to do with seeing Jesus here, being transformed, and then trying to reason out what and how and why.

We have Church words for this: sacrament and miracle.  The Episcopal Church is a means by which we receive God’s Grace (sacrament) and something that only God can do (miracle). But those words only make sense, and often little enough even then, inside of the Church.

But perhaps we can say that The Episcopal Church is more than the sum of her parts and we’re in love.

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Unschedulable Spirit

It started at lunch. We were a church-y group at a church-y gathering. I don’t remember how we wound our way to this topic, but we started wondering why our schedule, replete with initial meetings of all of The Episcopal Church’s Councils, Commissions, and Boards (CCABs), didn’t include Eucharist. Being nerdy Church nerds, we understandingly agreed it would’ve been a scheduling headache.
First you need a room and a time, and then you have to arrange for a …. and …. and…. The ecclesial version of giving a mouse a cookie except it ends with someone feeling hurt.
Then we looked around the table. Someone said, “we have a priest.” We looked at the table, “we have bread.” We remembered sitting around a different table in the bar last night, “we can get wine.”
“We could have an underground eucharist. Just take over one of the rooms and make eucharist!”

And lunch was over and we went back to our separate meetings. In mine, focused on Lifelong Christian Formation, eucharist came up again.
We may have been separated into separate meetings, wide spread rooms, but we were connected by twitter. So I tweeted:

Planning started. We’d been right at that lunch. Priest, bread, wine, room.

We learned that the hashtag name plus the social media usage to plan it had a few people wondering if we were being exclusive. So we used an older form of social media to communicate: a chair for a raised podium and a lunch time announcement the afternoon of the #undergroundeucharist.

And one of my co-planners was right:

One of our committees volunteered their space to be rearranged. So we made a large circle and added more chairs as people arrived.

We had volunteered to serve our Church on a national level; we had arrived for meetings. We came with agendas and hopes and goals. Committed to fixing, improving, changing our Church. More important than any of that, to all of us whether attending that Eucharist or worshipping at home, is the faith that keeps drawing us together.

The people came. Bread-which-is-body and wine-which-is-blood were shared. And together we celebrated the Holy Spirit among us.  The unschedulable, unstoppable Spirit.

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We Make Our Song

I sat at the deathbeds of three Churches. That was the ministry I was called to. It was not the ministry I expected. It was not, in the way that death never is, the ministry I wanted.

I could see all the ways the story ended differently. More money, more people, more energy. Some of my fictional endings might have worked. Some of them rested on three years of sleeplessness. The story might have ended differently, but my real ministry was to help it end well.

After three deathbeds I stayed in my Church, in my priestly orders, and was terrified. Becoming a “Church Closer” is not the long term ministry I want, in no small part because I fear it would drive me out of the Church. A Church closing, your Church closing breaks your heart and eventually it would be too much.  Eventually I feared I would break.

When I moved for a new call, a new chapter of ministry in a new Church located in a new Diocese and country, I was asked the question we are always asked, “Who are you? Where are you from? What have you done?”

I am from Montana, from the United States, from the Episcopal Church. My family, my life, my friends. This stories are easy to tell.

I closed three Churches.
This is not the story you want to tell. Not in a Church that has told and believed a story of fear and scarcity. Not in a world where success is valued and death is failure.

An insightful colleague asked what those deathbeds taught me.

A deep understanding of resurrection.

I sat at the deathbeds of three Churches. I lived the story that did happen, not the one we all may have wished and dreamed and hoped for.

Three deathbeds. A Church that is scared the story it tells about it’s demise is more than a rumour.
I refute the idea that the church is dying. I look forward long and active years in priestly ministry.

A deep understanding of resurrection.

We talk about a theology of abundance as if discussion of what our people and money and energy can do is enough. As if abundance will drive out the fear which even perceived scarcity brings.

Christianity, Jesus, is never about enough. Or more than enough.

Jesus is about driving out fear, not to replace it with the paltry offering of ‘enough,’ but to offer the reverent fear, the awe, of and holiness. Jesus is about the extra mile, finding lost sheep, and celebrating. Jesus is about the impossible.
Jesus is the Christ who is Risen.

I believe, my lived theology tells me, that abundance is not about the reality of enough when we think we have too little. Abundance is Resurrection.easter flower

Because enough runs out. Sometimes we have too little. Sometimes we sit at deathbeds.

And then we remind ourselves that even at the grave we make our song:
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

A theology of abundance is weak.

Resurrection is strong. Resurrection is impossible. Resurrection is abundant.
Resurrection is Divine.

The Lord is Risen Indeed!
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

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I Choose to Stay

A recent post by Tony Jones on Theoblogy called for a schism over the question of women’s ordination.** This has kicked off some response.

I, as a woman ordained in a liberal branch of Christ’s Church, don’t agree.
You might think that I’d appreciate the solidarity for women’s ordination. After all I get quizzical looks and questions about being a nun when I’m in my collar.

I love my Church. I delight in my priesthood.
And I too choose to stay.

I stay after my weight, my marital status, my age, my health are all topics I’ve been asked about in job interviews,* and by mentors. I stay after hearing the leader of my parish label my desire to be acknowledged as a member of the parish as an inappropriate need to feel important. I stay after mentors, cornerstones of the Church made inappropriate jokes about my apparel. I stay after conversation after conversation where I have to repeat that “I’m the priest.” I stay after numerous people assume that my honesty, lauded as vulnerability in older men, is weakness. I stay after my questions are dismissed because they relate to women, pregnancy, and work. I stay after conversations where largely male colleagues left me to make the point that sexism and inequality still exist. I stay knowing I have colleagues who believe my person, my theology, and my resulting actions are an affront to the Gospel we both believe in. I stay even though my therapists ask me why I stay.
I choose to stay.

Not because I believe that unity should be stronger than our differences. Not because I know that every group of people will not perfectly agree on any issue. Not because Church isn’t suppose to be easy. Not because they let me. Not because they ordained me. Not because I fear leaving.

I’ve thought about leaving.
I have sat in the pews of Churches that make different, arguably less horrible, mistakes than mine. I learned that those Churches were not my Church.
So I stay in this Church I love, this Church which isn’t always sure it wants me, this Church which has hurt me so deeply, this Church which is frequently unsure what to do with me, this Church which still gets so much wrong.
I choose to stay.

Church should be about where people encounter Jesus.
This is where I best see Jesus.
I choose to stay.

*Questions on these subjects are illegal.

**Mr Jones has elaborated on what he was saying.  It is worth reading.  I am not trying to argue or dispute either of his posts.  I believe that some honesty about the imperfect nature of the Church and the ongoing decision we all make, in some way, to stay is worth holding up alongside reasons people leave.

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Whatever is Excellent

I’ve just started my new position as rector of St Peter’s in Edmonton. (Six weeks in, so everyone still thinks I’m new. A year from now, church members will still understand that I’m new.)

As with most new clergy, I’m frequently asked one question. “How are you going to save the Church?”

People don’t actually say that. I hear it underneath the questions they voice: “How old is your congregation?…What can you do to bring in young people?” “Are you worried about the budget?” “Churches, well mainline Protestant Churches, are shrinking, why do you think that is?” “Do you think the Church is still relevant to people today?”
“How are you going to save the Church?”

I don’t think they like my answer.

There is the snarky, true, answer. I am not going to save the Church. As with the rest of the world, Jesus Christ has, is, will save the Church. (Often from the Church.)

I believe that. I don’t say that.
I don’t say that these questions, especially about young people, often have me imagining a white panel van, ‘Church’ emblazoned on the side, waiting for the correct candy.

I point out that the fears about the downfall of the Church and the Gospel are unfounded. Both have survived and flourished through far more.
I assure them that I don’t have a three or five or seven point plan.
People hang on with me through those.

I go on to say that we need to learn what we believe and articulate it excellently. We need to discern what the mission of this parish is and engage excellently in it.
This is where, I suspect, I lose people. No one has told me I am crazy, my idea doomed, and left abruptly. I think they are too polite. This is where I get the sense that they understand that my not-a-plan would really benefit from a plan.

After all, isn’t this what the Church does? Seek out new members? Because we need more people and more money, (two phrases for the same problem). Or at least new Christians (who will tithe!)?

If I were worried about saving the Church, and the young people, and the money, I’m relatively sure that’s still the wrong approach.

Jesus Christ, through his ministry and his resurrection, has, is, will save the Church.
Jesus Christ, through his ministry and his resurrection, has, is, will save the World.

In the midst of Jesus’s work, we are to think and do whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise. (Philippians 4:8)

This is not finding young people, growing the Church, or fixing the budget. The Church’s mission is not youth and money. The Church’s mission is the living and the proclamation of the Gospel (two phrases for the same thing).

We as people and we as the Church occasionally manage to do whatever is excellent.

More often I find that we get distracted. The budget needs fixing, someone dies, our community is fighting, we have doubts, we have debts, the music program has fallen apart, we are old, we are tired. We are no longer being excellent. We are hoping for a three point plan to save the Church.

I want to work on whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, that’s what I want to be about.

And then tell people about it.

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Praying My Future

I started seminary the fall after I graduated college.  I moved across the country and, as it happened, away from a Church situation that was…unhealthy…for me.  It had been difficult for more than a year before I left.  I felt I had little community at my Church; I was not being fed spiritually. I even thought about switching denominations.  I couldn’t.  I wanted and needed a better community.  And I was about to move 2,000 miles away from the support I did have.

With no way to fix the situation I was in and no control over what would come, I prayed.  I started with no idea which seminary I would attend and no information about my future classmates.  Knowing that another unhealthy community would nearly kill my life in this Church I loved and wanted to serve, I prayed.  For my classmates, for how our community would be, for who we would be and become together.  For eighteen months,  I prayed my future, in blind faith that it might be true.

There was a moment where I knew.  Knew that seminary, along with all of its challenges, would be better, would feed me.  I kept praying–to remind God and myself.

One of the most frequent questions I hear (and I suspect most priests hear) is about the purpose and efficacy of prayer.  Do we pray to a God who listens?  A God who answers?  Why are there fewer miracles?  Why are so many prayers unanswered? Our  answers are tepid at best.  Of course God listens, wants to answer.  Miracles were likely natural cures in a time without scientific understanding.  ‘No’ is an answer.  We have to trust that God knows what we need better than we do.  Prayer is a meditative exercise meant to change us.  Worst of all: Miracles are knowledge of the presence of God.

I don’t know.  My prayers are often unanswered.  I have not witnessed a miracle, God’s intervening action in the world.  It often seems that I am praying into a void or as some sort of meditative exercise not communication with the God who calls me beloved.

But I also know that my seminary class was a healthy community where I was nurtured and healed.

For the past eighteen months I have been again been praying my future, from long the first moment I knew my time there was coming to an end.  I prayed for my Churches as I always had.  I also prayed for the Church that was calling me as their priest.  Long before I started searching, long before I had any idea where I would be looking, I prayed.

I prayed for their discernment, for my discernment, for the palpable movement of the Holy Spirit.  As I discerned with different Churches, I added prayers for them specifically.    As I kept looking, as the months stretched out, as I heard “not you,” as friends started to delightedly announce new positions and I had nothing to announce.  I prayed.

Now, after so many prayers:

I am delighted to announce that I have been called as the next rector of St Peter’s Anglican Church in Edmonton.

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