Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Holy Week Holiness

Christian are immersed in a week we call holy, Holy Week in fact. It is our most important week of the church year. Why? Historically, as near as we can figure, this week before Easter is the time, near Jewish Passover (yesterday,) when Jesus entered Jerusalem to confront the powers with the gospel of new life and love. The biblical story details the process which ends tragically with the execution by the state (Rome) of an innocent man. Speaking truth to power is risky.

The Passion story is a powerful one. It may or may not have happened exactly as it is told but something happened, something important to be still telling the story. And there is evidence in extra-biblical sources of the man from Galilee who stirred up the poor and the restless and was crucified.

We call the whole week holy, not just Easter day. Why again? Because all our days, all our ups and down, all our births and deaths, all our joys and sorrow are in God, the God in whom we live, move and have being. All days and weeks are holy, infused with divine grace and easter new life whether we notice and celebrate it or not.

Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, says the Christian community is meant to be a “mutual hope society.” Hope in the Holy keeps us going.

Holy is a funny word, a word reserved for things religious, monks and nuns, clergy, holy places like sanctuaries, temples consecrated by God for divine purposes. But the word is derived from Dutch/German roots, heilig meaning whole. A little more generic, democratized.

Everyone has natural potential to be whole. To feel whole to me means that what I think, say, feel and do are one. They flow; they’re congruent with each other. For example: I think you are a fool and I say to you, you’re such a fine person, then feel disgust for you ( and myself) and follow that by doing something extra nice for you that you haven’t requested and I don’t have time for............

You get the picture. By the end of the day, who is the fool? I’m twisted up like a corkscrew and mad as a hatter, probably blaming you, the innocent recipient of my lack of integration, wholeness. The Holy in me is dimmed by such patterns of unholiness, and only the Holy breaks through them. Follow the expeerience.

In his book The Idea of the Holy Rudolph Otto defines the Holy as mysterium tremendum et fascinans (a huge near-terrifying and also fascinating mystery.) One of my seminary professors gave an example: “It’s like you’re on your way upstairs with an armload full of clean laundry and suddenly with no warning there’s a teenager draped across the third step as if from nowhere with a crucial question you must answer now! You nearly drop all the laundry and are tempted to run screaming into the night, dreading the encounter, and at the same time you’re fascinated at how this youthful presence, this body of energy suddenly appeared unable to be ignored.” Fits for me. I was a teen once and had some myself.

I had an experience of the Holy like that when I was trying to write a seminary paper about the Holy and felt stumped. An experience darted into my mind, one long buried and forgotten, an experience of having been sexually molested by an old man stranger in a New York City movie theater when I was eight. The old man had a long white beard and looked just as I thought God looked. The experience left me scared of the God I had loved so I’d stored it all away.

I grew up. I went to seminary, headed for priesthood and still was incomplete with God and myself. Up popped the old man memory thirty years later frightening me and drawing me to follow it.

So I wrote about what had happened and felt whole, holy. My missing piece was now on paper, no longer requiring any of my life energy just to keep the secret. What happened as I mulled over the paper was the Holy in action.

Holy Week is a time when many Christians want more than ever to skip over the reenactments of Jesus’ last three days, especially condemnation, scourging, torture and nails AND the commandment to love one another anyway. It’s just too much!

To meditate on crucifixion is terrifying. What if we could hear Jesus scream? What if all our own losses make us cry? Eeeuw and ow!

To meditate on God’s resurrecting Love can be equally terrifying.
Many interested but dutiful or distant followers appear in church on Easter Sunday only to disappear again till next year. What if it’s not true? Is it for me too? Hocus-pocus! To be loved totally is to surrender all pretense. True for non-believers as well as putative believers. It is unbelievable.

But to skip over any part, life, death or resurrection, is like my leaving the old man buried for so long.

The Holy compels us to face truth and to enter— fears, hopes and all— into Mystery.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Motherlode or Motherload? Third Wave Women's Movement?

On March 14, 2010 in the New York Times I read an article in Fashion and Style entitled “Honey, Don’t Bother Mommy. I’m Too Busy Building My Brand.”

The article is about mommy blogs that have blossomed from being needed outlets for creativity, stress relief, and isolation blues to practically an industry as well as a cultural phenomenon.

I am writing to celebrate the twenty-second anniversary of my ordination as a priest in the Episcopal Church. It took me a record eleven years back then, so I'm indulging in a record blog rant.

Some of my troubles getting ordained were because I was, let's say, an active mother. Things have improved but anyone who says the issue is all settled in the Church just because the law allows women's ordination is delusional.

Is there a third wave of the women’s movement for liberation? How many waves do we need? Silly question. Statistics in both government and the corporate world for women’s full participation are pitiful in the Unites States compared to other countries who have actually set quotas to assure the inclusion of women! (See Boston Globe March 23, 2010, Derrick Jackson op-ed.)

The Winter, 2009-10 issue of Lilith magazine reports similar statistics just about Jewish communal organizations in America, saying that to be attractive to postmodern American Jews more female leaders and their voices in leadership structures are a must in all organizations. Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, director of Rabbis Without Borders wrote an op-ed essay headlined: "Jewish community ignores female leaders at its peril."

The blogger article drew my attention because I remember, I'm an elder-blogger, and I feel the same branding pressure in publishing. Also because I saw a cow being branded once—more than a little sting!

The article by Jennifer Mendelsohn reports on the latest in conferencing called Bloggy Boot Camp in which corporate America shines. Attendees, mostly thirty-something women, were offered lectures on branding themselves, guidance on beefing up their blogs, selecting a brand name, how to market and sell their brand for the sake of a cause or maybe even to get a job for which you they may not even have a resumé, as one woman did.

A friend commented that sometimes it (life in this culture I assume) feels like the hall of mirrors at Versailles. I popped back with: Are the mirrors in this blog hall fun house mirrors?

Something felt distorted and I feared that once again it was something not respectful of women, their needs and their lives.

Are these mommy bloggers being exploited, their needs for relationship connections being used for commercial purposes? Some companies offer perks if the blogger touts their brand, as in brand for brand, a mutual admiration society. Win-win!
Or are they being empowered, finding voice, being counted?

Perhaps this is a good thing for women who long for community, an outlet for day to day frustrations, conversations with someone over four, conversations that are honest not structured but collegial.

It is a psychological truism now that women derive their well being and selfhood from mutually growth-fostering relationships. For turning around psychological assumptions about how women operate psychologically we owe thanks to the late Jean Baker Miller’s, Toward a New Psychology of Women.

The bloggy phenomenon might be called "motherlode" ( a fertile market for corporations) or “motherload” (an outlet for deep self-identity and creativity in the face of an overload of societal expectations for mothers and serious ongoing cultural ambivalence about motherhood.)

I can easily see that mothers are just as desperate as they were in my day, desperate for connection, for a sense of being professional or developing their own talents.

One of the speakers at this conference began her speech with “You’re here because you want to be seen as professional.”
Read, therefore we bring you a professional business conference just for you. But is that about the speaker or her audience? Women pay to go to these conferences.

I remember when I had all these same needs and longings as a young mother. I loved my children. I was lonely. I dreamed of a job. But I was internally and externally slammed with guilt about not being home when the kids got home. I worried and baked cookies and I’m sure my kids felt my preoccupations. They probably felt abandoned even though I was there. I wondered if the quality of my relationships with them might have improved if the quantity were less.

Would I wait till they all went off to college? By then I’d be too rusty, cranky and old. We had no computers and blogs. I wanted to be professional without becoming a man. I chose to follow my sense of call into the the ordination process in the Episcopal Church. The Church turned me down saying it would be a "dual vocation." They meant I couldn't be a mother and a priest.

I set out to prove otherwise and still live up to the expectations (heavy) of the day (1980's) for mothers. When I was in seminary I remember saying once to one of my children as I both thrived and chafed under the heavy but exhilarating reading of the Old Testament (very wordy) something like, "Shut up. I'm reading my Bible!" Not as nice as "Honey, don't bother Mommy. I'm too busy building my brand."

For how many of these young women bloggers is blogging meeting basic and deep spiritual needs: to be heard, taken seriously and listened to? Or is there an illusion of depth going on? I don’t know. I just know it’s hard. For me blogging is a way to keep writing, keep my voice in tune, while I wait to publish.

What happens post-mommying of the direct care kind?
Will mommies find a way through blogging to do something they really want to do and are good at that enhances their post-mommy lives? Or is it just a coping mechanism while staying at home with kids? Or will there be a new diagnosis called post-mommy traumatic stress disorder?

My solution was to get a job. I still felt guilty! I was lucky my mother lived near enough and had told me that being a mother was the most important thing a woman could do, so I didn't feel guilty about letting her try it again for my growing kids. I was grateful.

I remember my first little pay check, even contemplating framing it. I wrote for a small weekly paper and later as a hospital chaplain while I waited for the Church to ordain me which they eventually did thanks to my pit bull perseverance, lots of grace and time. I was fifty.

So part of me feels with all these women. They are trying to find something just for themselves and all the old familiar traps are still there. But for now they can be clever creative bloggers, have real life conversations without having to get a babysitter, and be a stay-at-home mother. They have found a way for now to have a “dual vocation," and to add professional polish to their thoughts.

It's better than addiction to Facebook
a kind of sharing which serves similar purposes I assume. I’d like to hope that the race to blogging is a symptom of sexism resistance. A lunge for pride of place in a patriarchal society in which women can get idealized and enslaved all at once. The blogger conference could be a product of this lunge for liberation.

The problem I suppose is still seated, most obstinately, in the rigidity of our American patriarchal system (not just about men) based as it still is for its functioning on the necessity of -isms. To sexism, genderism, ableism, heterosexism, racism and all the others add mother-ism the irrational gripping fear that your mother or someone else's might just take over the world. Yes, we've come a long way but not far enough.

Perhaps for me the fun house mirror distortion is my own mixed feelings. While I think women are very resourceful in getting their needs met through blogging re. stay-at-home mothering and self-realization, I wonder if this is being mocked as "just another woman thing." I wonder too if this blogging is an energy outlet that masks a deeper longing for full societal (and church) acceptance of women's ways and needs.

We don’t yet in Church or society help women, through policy, attitude or financing, know that mothering is truly valued, that their choices don’t have to be either/or, that they are not alone in their efforts to be both good mothers and fully contributing citizens in the world of work for pay.

I have read that when Rosie the Riveter and her ilk went back home to full time motherhood they got depressed. And it wasn’t because the kids were difficult!

All this leaves me sad as a woman and as a Christian and priest. The fact that we need a third wave women’s movement is a sign that spirituality is wounded, that distortions still exist of God’s image, Jesus’ compassion, the biblical prophets’ call for justice, and resurrection theology— not to mention human relations and relentless domestic violence.

So I’m blogging about it!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

St. Patrick not Irish?—But very Green.

St. Patrick didn't rant as we call it today when we are compelled to speak passionately about something but he was full of zeal. Nor was he "green" in the ecological way we use that color today, but he used green to teach spirituality. And he wasn't even Irish though he is that land's patron saint.

Patrick was born and grew up in Britain until at sixteen he was captured by Irish slave-raiders and taken to Ireland where he was forced to serve as a shepherd, a hard scrabble job, not romantic at all.

Patrick was a slave and treated roughly often enduring long hours alone in all sorts of weather to tend sheep. In dark loneliness he prayed, somehow, like the biblical Joseph, never losing faith in exile.

He wrote in his memoir Confessio: "I used to stay out in the forests and on the mountain and I would wake up before daylight to pray in the snow, in icy coldness, in rain, and I used to feel neither ill nor any slothfulness, because, as I now see, the Spirit was burning in me at that time." He said that he heard the voice of God telling him to escape from Ireland, and then to come back as a missionary.

At twenty-one Patrick escaped, returned to his native Britain, studied Christianity, became a bishop, and in time returned to Ireland inspired by the voice of God he had heard deep inside him in his moment of deepest need. He returned to the scene of the crime not for retribution but for healing. He spent thirty years in Ireland teaching Christian ways of love, justice and peace. He died there on March 17, 462.

It inspires me when I notice that in so many lives—saints ancient and modern, biblical ancestors, and plain folk like you and me— the voice of God is felt/heard from within in the darkest moments, moments that should give way to faithless despair but don't.

It is also evident that the realization of the action of Spirit is often catch-up ball. We realize later the full meaning and implications of what really happened long ago in the fields, on the street, in sleep, in a pew or in a kitchen.

I once felt the voice of God at a time in my life when I thought everything was just fine but was not letting myself in on my spiritual deadness. Everything was fine. I had followed life's prescriptions for a woman of my generation to the tee. My life was as it was supposed to be—marriage, nice house in suburbs, growing healthy kids I loved, husband working hard to support us well. But something was missing: me.

I wasn't even praying like Patrick. (I 'd given that up although I went to church and wished a lot.) I was instead in my kitchen baking chocolate chip cookies as I was supposed to do. That's when I heard the voice of God-in-me asking with candor but not scorn or annoyance: Why are you doing this?

That was all. Simply so. I had many confused feelings. I didn't know just what had happened only that something had shifted inside me that had to do with more than me. I began to use my new energy to make decisions and do thing differently. I followed. Eventually I would say like Patrick, the spirit, "as I now see" was simmering and sometimes boiling over in me. The question was resurrecting.

It took me the next twenty years to answer that question.

I use God's question to motivate me when I feel loose-ended, anxious or only half alive about what I'm doing or saying. "Why are you doing this?"

* * * *

I wonder if Patrick ever asked himself that question as he worked listening and teaching in Ireland. Why are you doing this?

Patrick, not Irish born, was declared its patron saint anyway. He is important today as we try to think and act green, because Patrick used a tiny and rare bit of green grass, the three-leaf clover, to illustrate the three-ways-in-one nature of God to those who worshiped nature.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

MassBible:Learn More About this Best Selling Book


Is that a Mass celebrating the Bible? Or maybe it means that masses of Bibles are available for distribution all over not just in hotels like Gideon Bibles. But it could mean that the Bible is a book in which masses of people can find their own experience and the inspiration and guidance of the divine spirit.

MassBible is the new name for the Massachusetts Bible Society (MBS), Christian ecumenical organization that just celebrated its 200th anniversary, an organization of which I have been a trustee for many years. Massachusetts Bible Society will remain the organization’s corporate identity name.

I’m a trustee because I love the Bible.
My ministry is to study it, preach from it, teach it, pray with it and lend my time and energy to MassBible, an organization whose mission is devoted to it.

The Bible keeps me sane and drives me nuts at once. It is full of inconsistencies, intricate weavings of many voices and traditions; in fact, it’s got everything but the kitchen sink in it. And that’s not an insult but a compliment. The Bible is a rich nutritious stew.

Biblical redactors made wise decisions centuries ago to leave all the interpretive voices in the canon so the overarching message of God’s loving, creating, saving, life-giving intentions toward all Creation could be available to anyone who seeks to enrich her or his faith by praying with and studying the Bible from generation to generation.

My own definition of the Bible is that it is a multi-authored, multi-genre collection (hymns, psalms, poems, teachings, sermons, parables, just plain story) compiled for the single purpose of revealing the divine/human relationship. The main character in the Bible is not God nor humanity but their relationship. That relationship takes center stage and the Bible is the story of its unfolding through thick and thin as the people endeavor to live faithfully with their God who calls them into community to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with their God. (Micah 6:8)

In spite of the lack of consistency in data in the Bible, there is a consistent pattern to the divine/human relationality: connection/disconnection/reconnection. This patterns repeats itself over and over and gives integrity and unity to the whole. Every time there is a disconnection either God or humanity reaches back for reconnection. Nothing, as St. Paul famously wrote to the Church in Rome, can separate us from the love of God. Not even ourselves.

MassBible is committed to the authority of Scripture as a source of wisdom and inspiration. We take the Bible seriously but not literally. It does contain facts but they are incidental to the overall spiritual vision it seeks to convey. It is a primarily a theological not an historical document. We recognize that no one voice or interpretation holds sole authority. We are committed to listening to each other’s understandings. We respect the need for multiple voices and know that the last word has not been spoken.

The mission of MassBible has evolved from the distribution of Bibles by horse drawn wagons to a sophisticated operation including the operation of a bookstore. Today’s focus is on the promotion of biblical literacy through live educational events as well as on line resources such as lectures by biblical scholars, a link to ask your questions of a professor, book reviews and recommendations, and updates on biblical topics, resources and newsworthy developments, even Bible games and a DVD series. MassBible has also established a media center in collaboration with Andover Newton Theological School and located on its campus where our offices are also located.

I invite you to join this centuries-long faith journey that God and humanity are on by learning more about the Bible and the work of MassBible at

You might like to be a trustee. Think about it.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Clergy Sexual Abuse in the Church: Wound of Forgiveness

Recently I read an essay on clergy sexual abuse in which the phrase “a desire to see the church community healed of its hidden wound” jumped off the page and into my heart. After I said ouch I asked what that wound might be. The first thing that came to mind was forgiveness.

The article,
“Spiritual Direction with Women after Sexual Abuse by Clergy” by Spiritual Director Trish McBride, appeared in the March 2010 issue of Presence: International Journal for Spiritual Direction. You can read it with the help of google, the new name for God. It is well informed and and clear that statistics in the U.S. and other countries indicate the problem to be “an occupational hazard that exists not just in the wilds of Africa.”

The article referenced two 2002 letters to the editor of a church newsletter. Both letters referred to a case in which sexual abuse survivors had made accusations to the Church against the pastor of the church, Father X.

First, the response letter, because the phrase that caught my attention appeared in that letter, the author of which on behalf of the Susanna group said that complainants to the Catholic Church about sexual assault/abuse by clergy and religious "usually act from a passion to stop the same thing happening to anyone else, and , if they care, from a desire to see the church community healed of its hidden wound."

Now, the letter to which the group responded. In it the writer raised objections to accusations of sexual abuse against Father X
suggesting that the accusers lacked proper maturity, integrity, wisdom and compassion especially since the abuse happened seventeen years ago. The letter writer cited the New Testament phrase from John 8 “let who is without sin cast the first stone.” It further implied that the wounded ones should forgive as they have been forgiven.

This letter made me furious. Christian? Maturity? Whose? The responding letter made me cry.

All this got me going on forgiveness. Forgiveness stands at the center of the Christian gospel. It regularly gets misused, its healing power abused. Let me count the abuses: overuse, superficial (sinful) application, judgmental use and globalizing as above, clichéd cover-ups like “forgive and forget,” hasty use without process, thoughtless sloganeering using biblical quotes out of context as above, and forgiveness used in the service of institutional protectionism to dismiss or cover up crimes committed against the powerless by those in power.

Forgiveness as cover up colludes with the conspiracy of silence about clergy sexual abuse. This abusive use of forgiveness wounds the already wounded. Thus we crucify Christ over and over. Thus we wound the Church itself and its faithful. Thus we wound Jesus and the gift of healing he proffers.

We in the Church are loose-lipped with the most gracious gift God has given to us and calls us to share. Perhaps the worst abusive use of forgiveness is the sin of spiritual arrogance—assuming we can do it ourselves without divine help. Thus we wound even the mercies of God.

How long can this go on? My head spins on its axis like Janus. One side angry the other sad. But it’s all my face, angry and sad at once.

I have chosen and continue to choose to serve and love this damn Christian Church for better or worse. I try to say it's just the Roman Catholic Church. I make excuses for my Episcopal Church because its politics are conciliar; it’s more progressive; and by grace and grit it manages to pull off amazingly inclusive actions of which I’m proud.

But excuses are just excuses. None matter because this kind of abuse goes on in all churches to say nothing of all secular institutions. No one is exempt. More often than not all is “forgiven,” hidden, passed along without consequence except for those who live with unhealed wounds. That, not clergy sexual abuse, is the true hidden wound of the Church.

Whatever happened to repentance another pretty strong Christian teaching? Ignored for some, demanded for others? Forgiveness misused itself becomes a stone, hurled without reflection.

I think of a woman who was sexually abused consistently and in the name of Love for years. She had no power to refuse the seduction from Father XYZ; she grew up never knowing who her biological father was; she prayed regularly to “our Father in heaven...” and then there was the priest called “father.” These three incarnations became scrambled in her mind while she longed for and waited for her real (biological) father to come, the father to whom she would have given her soul. Instead she gave her body. She gave it to an Episcopal priest for nothing and she has never gotten it back. Of course she has her own sins that beg forgiveness. But to name her wound and its perpetrator was not one of her sins.

Making God into a parent, an exclusively male parent, may not be such a good idea. Jesus may have used this term of affection for his God. But today, metaphors like Father are no longer useful.

The sorrowful side of my face weeps for this woman and for so many others. I also weep for priests who are trapped in a system that is impotent in its structures and is too afraid to help them with their own wounds, too fearful in fact to truly forgive them!

My heart also weeps for Jesus and the gift he didn’t just teach but acted out in his life, the gift of forgiveness without condemnation but with a call to faith, to re-grounding in God, in community and in the best of the human self.

How? He suggested prayer and compassion. He suggested that God is the only being with heart-capacity enough to forgive.

It is not ongoing clergy sexual abuse that is the Church’s hidden wound; it is the hidden and unacknowledged abuses against forgiveness. Justice is made a mockery, yes, but that pales next to the abusive uses of forgiveness.

My rant is done. If anyone dares to forgive me for it I have stones.
* * * *
P.S. The letter by the defender of Father X was awarded “letter of the week” by the parish’s editorial staff.
The letter sent in response was not published.

One can only hope that such editorial decisions have not escaped Sophia’s notice and transformation has taken place.