Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Mary Magdalene. Favorite Calendar Girl

Today on most all church calendars this day is the day we are to honor the person, ministry and holiness of Mary of Magdala.

She is my favorite calendar girl.
I’m always disappointed this feast falls in mid-summer and that most parishes do not honor it on a Sunday. After all her day is designated a white day, an Easter day, a day when the church dresses up for hope. July 20 was suffragette and author of a women’s bible, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s, day; July 22 is Mary Magdalene’s day; August 15 is Mary the Mother of Jesus’ day. Everyone’s on vacation!

The Episcopal church calendar is a wondrous thing. It is the richest and most diverse of all church calendars currently in print. On it we designate days on which we remember holy women and men. Our saints are not appointed by fiat or according to how many miracles happen in their name. (The miracle criterion, in fact, seems unnecessary to me because today’s miracle may be tomorrow’s unquestioned accomplishment. What’s miraculous may simply be the capacity and willingness to live a good life full of flaws, forgiveness and renewed effort.)

The Episcopal calendar girls and boys are selected according to their holiness of life, miracle or no miracle. Someone nominates, a task force researches the life and work of the nominee and the General Convention , our legislative body, also elected, votes them into the calendar—or not.
I love our calendar because it honors many cultures and many professions and callings that manifest holiness, the goodness of the Divine recognized in human life and work.

Mary Magdalene is a biblical holy woman. She doesn’t have a clear story all her own though she is present at Jesus’ passion and on other important occasions. Although she doesn’t have her own narrative, many stories have accrued to her name. Mary Mag is famous for having had seven demons from whose power Jesus liberated her. Seven is a big number, also a symbolic number meaning generative.
How many people out there either did or do think that Mary was a prostitute, a sexual sinner or at least a penitent woman laden with sin and needing absolution as her healing? This is not in the bible but a later interpretation of her big seven. How easy it was, maybe is, to assume that her “demons” were sexual. It could have been metastatic cancer, or multiple personality disorder from trauma, or multiple birth defects. Ah!

What I love about Mary Magdalene is that she is in me spiritually:

-She is familiar with Jesus. They know each other. It’s mutual. Mary calls him my Lord, not the Lord. Recognition is an astonishing gift, a sign of intimacy, especially when you recognize the holy in another and in yourself.
-Her tears. She stays at the tomb after the other have gone. Lot’s wife in an earlier story is turned into a pillar of salt for looking back at Sodom and Gomorra, her former home. God had told the family to leave before it was burned because of sin. Mary turned back to the tomb to peer in, let herself grieve, sob, wonder, search, remember. It’s important not to hop too fast over and beyond your grief. Tears are a spiritual gift. Follow them. Magdalene was not punished but rewarded with a powerful vision.

-Mary was the only biblical woman to be commissioned as an apostle. In John’s gospel, written as late as 100 CE this story is remembered. Mary is told to go and tell the others what she has seen of resurrection life and hope. She told.
-Mary according to tradition started her own community of Christians and wrote her own gospel. Bits of it have been retrieved. Scholars pieced together her message about things Jesus told her that the others didn’t hear, chiefly that the working of God’s spirit are internal. Mary witnesses in her gospel to the immanence of God not just the transcendence. (In fact there is a humorous scene in her writing about a dispute with Peter who is angry at her insights and her uppity woman nerve telling what Jesus said to her that wasn’t what Peter heard. Peter was told to go feed the sheep. Mary was told to witness to the powerful inner working of divinity. Levy comes to Mary’s defense and Peter goes off to sulk.)

Both commissions are of equal importance for us today. Know and care for your inner religious/spiritual life and know how to take it forth to manifest goodness and compassion in whatever you say and do.

How is Mary Magdalene in you?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Sacred Ambivalence

I’ve had a lot of eccentric spiritual experience. Lots of people have. It’s not crazy just something that’s hard to talk about, hard to nail down and validate. God has spoken to me from within many times. God uses questions, short sentences and even one word comments.

Recently God interrupted my obsessive mental monologue: What if my memoir is just another achievement for my ego? And God-in-me said, So? One little word-question stopped me cold, silenced my fear and shame, and told me the truth: So what if it’s an achievement, can’t I also give it to you as a gift?

You might think that these kinds of “voices” have brought me clarity, a stronger religious faith, some surety.

But that is not the case.

Thank God, for if it were, what would there be for me to question, nag God about, write fierce words about, preach on, teach, fuss, obsess, lament and wrestle about for the rest of my days?

Oh, I have given and will keep giving answers to open-ended questions, because I love to do that; I just don’t have answers of the kind people long for, answers laced with certitude.

And I have told and will keep telling of resolutions to struggles, and try to nail peace down because I love happy endings that are true—and not.

I’m not disappointed by this ambiguity. Ambivalence seems to me to be the only sane stance in life, because when I move too far to one side (zealotry) or the other (atheism) of religious expression I end up not liking myself much, and I’m one of the wisest agnostics I know.

I call my ambivalence sacred, because it tempers my drive toward omniscience; it keeps me balanced; it helps me maintain a spirituality that is both intellectual and compassionate; and it reminds me of the one thing about which I’m not ambivalent: the first “eucharist” at which I was “ordained” to preside under the dining room table as a “priest” with Ritz crackers and a tiny invisible congregation who listened to my words and received the sacrament.

Under the table I found my vocation, my hopeful soul as a child, and enough power to keep me going until I could come out from under the table as a woman and priest.

Under the table I fell in love with a God who who wasn’t afraid of authority or cocktail hours, a God within me whose love never dies even when I betray it, a God who gave my my vision for the Church and maybe for all humanity.

To be both political and mystical as the Church in all its expressions should be we will find a table big enough for everyone to crawl under and sit, either to chat or be in silence.

As it is now we spend too much time on top of the small table fighting for position and power.

Will it happen? Probably not, but there’s nothing wrong with asking.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

What in the World is EfM?

I have been a mentor for the Education for Ministry (EfM) program since 1984, and I write to say that it is, in my un-humble opinion, the best program of Christian spiritual formation that the church has come up with since, well, whatever you think the best thing is.
EfM is my favorite way of being a priest. A mentor is not a teacher but more of a guide and accompanist to students in a small seminar group who study together, pray together and engage in a process of theological reflection on their lives over four years.
There is a small tuition ($340 a year with scholarship aid available upon request) for which a student gets all the reading materials, thirty-six lessons a year, and the mentor a tiny honorarium.
The curriculum comes out of the Episcopal seminary of the South, Sewanee, TN. It is sophisticated material but not inaccessible. A student signs up to be in the seminar one year at a time. Most students love EfM and stay to graduate in four years. The diplomas are handsome and frameable. It is quite an achievement to graduate and grow in grace.
The Bible turns out to have much relevance to your soul; church history astounds and enlightens; theology up to today teaches you it is a verb, something you do; your own spiritual desires, quests, gifts and questions are known and loved.

EfM is ecumenical and most groups have students from a variety of faith traditions. In our groups we have had Episcopalians, Methodists, Unitarians, Roman Catholics, a Quaker or two, United Church of Christ, and even an ordained pastor who wanted a small group of prayer, learning and community outside her own parish work.
The word ministry sometimes creates anxiety. People think about ordained ministry. The premise of EfM is that all Christians are ordained to ministry at baptism and further, that every encounter or happening presents an opportunity to enhance or impede the flow of divine Love.
Over the four years we discern our gifts, inclinations and passions together. Each student comes out with a sense of what her/his ministry is, often what they are already doing. Ministry after all is what you do, with whatever you have, as who you are, wherever you are—inspired by Love.
Sometimes a student will come to the truth that her or his ministry is to herself; sometimes a ministry is the skill and pleasure of encouraging others; sometimes one desires further study, even moving toward ordination; sometimes a ministry is taking a major step in a new direction altogether. Often a student decides to take the training to become a mentor him or herself and start a group.
A seminar group offers support but not judgment, advice or problem-solving. What happens in a weekly seminar? We begin with a brief worship (prayers, poems, music, silence, meditation) each student taking a turn. Occasionally there will be a Eucharist, sometimes even a group Eucharist. We share what has amused, attracted, stunned or confused, angered us in the week’s lesson. We take a break to EAT!!! People bring amazing food to go with our spiritual food. We engage in a process of theological reflection, often amazed to discover how rich our tradition, especially biblical, is and how it sheds light on our lives and gives us wise insights we’d never thought of.

The joy students often experience is knowing themselves more deeply, appreciating their ministries, and getting comfortable with questioning their religion. We eat, pray, laugh, love and learn together.

“It’s the most important thing I’ve ever done for myself my whole life.”
“Just to learn that there were actually three popes at one time freed me!”
“I never understood the Bible just from listening to little snippets in church.”
“Wow! Really eye-opening to get to know Jesus so well. Never understood that whole thing and now I consult Jesus like a friend.”
“I can pray out loud for a group and create a little worship service without clergy help.”
“I see my school teaching as ministry and my own students in the light of grace. It helps my patience.”
“I have learned to trust my relationship with myself.”
“I’m really awake in church because I recognize stuff.”
(And one I can't resist from a disgruntled teenage son who is now forty: "Mom! It's all over the calendar! EfM, EfM, EfM.......eternal (expletive deleted) meeting!"

As a mentor I find that congregational life is enlivened by an informed laity.

EfM is nationwide and international in scope with students all over the world participating. Check the website on how to find a group or call your local Episcopal clergy or diocesan office to inquire.