Wednesday, April 28, 2010

True Love is Always Steadfast and Chooses Life

Just recently my marriage partner, aka husband (I can hardly keep up with gender role diversity!) said something beautiful and true.

We were engaging in a regular practice at our Education for Ministry (EfM) group. We call it spoking in. Doing spokes is a metaphor for checking in or getting on board together after we have prayed and before we begin the theological reflection for the day.

Spoking-in is a metaphor. It brings to mind the image of a wheel with a sturdy rim and center and many spokes to connect center to outer edges. For us the center is Christ, the rim is the huge embrace of Godde keeping it all safe and moving, and our lives with all their many complexities are the spokes.

Often we mentors offer a suggestion or question to focus the group’s spokes. This week the question came from a scriptural invitation. It contains promise and consequence in the mouth of God (Deuteronomy 30:19) who tells the faithful: “See, I have set before you life and death, good and evil, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live . . .”

We asked the group to share a time, recent or distant, when they had made a conscious decision to choose life. (It’s an easy question—and not, if you dare to think about it.) Responses ranged from taking a pass and time to reflect, to recalling major life choices, to sharing choices still beset with uncertainty.

My husband, co-mentor and brother priest responded with care saying something like: “Over the years I have chosen life many times as a father. I have chosen life by choosing to let my children have their own lives, that they may live. I have chosen to be steadfast in love and keep connection rather than to try to intervene or control.”

I felt tears as I listened to this fatherly love.

I have watched this style of his and seen his frustrations too, and my own. Why didn’t you say something? How come you didn’t ask?

I also felt some envy since I can be a mother whose love blurts and blats my own thoughts or anxieties. Maybe it’s my chatty gender. Many times I am quite wise in spite of it all.

There’s a place for all style and kinds of love of course, and all kinds are held in the mystery of divine love which supports us from within in the courage to speak out as well as the serenity to accept and wait.

All true love is steadfast; all true love chooses life.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Church Abused: Passive Aggression

Last week I posted about the abuses of the Church which are legion over the centuries in all denominations and in all religious institutions.

The Church is also the most abused institution I know. I admit it’s the one I know best but.......

It is accused of power and control issues, but there are many ways in which the “faithful” visit their own power and control issues on the church. Aggressive use of power, real or imagined, is met with passive aggression: the art of doing something that will disrupt, a little or a lot, someone else’s life—and look innocent. Believe me, it’s aggression hidden and requiring far more cunning.

Which comes first aggression or passive aggression isn’t knowable and doesn’t matter. I often ask couples how they each exercise control over the other and then how they get even. The innocent one looks stunned and the one who thinks him or herself to be guilty looks relieved.
Their relationship is stuck in aggression, outright and hidden. The innocent are not so innocent.

Let me count the ways:

Always there for me for ever and ever amen: There is an assumption that the church should be or is at your service without consideration that the church and its clergy and staff also have lives, schedules, calendars and limits. For example, calling a month before your entire wedding is set in cement to tell the parish church that you wish the ceremony to take place on this time, date. Get angry if the answer is no. Someone else says yes of course hoping to gain a new member (carrott #1) and your parish is the bad “guy.”

Lying: Promising to attend church so the child you insist must be baptized can grow up and into the Christian faith and then forgetting the commitment you probably never intended to keep anyway. It’s insulting. The church gets used.

Godlike expectations for human beings: The church is expected to be like God—all loving all the time, forgetting that God is divine and has a more expansive heart than human beings.

Financial or emotional blackmail: The church suffers blows to budget and ego from blackmail, reducing or eliminating financial support because things aren’t going to your liking and indicating support will return when the place conforms. Or threatening abandonment, "I'll leave if......"

Annihilation by narcissism: Arriving late every Sunday and parading grandly all the way to the front row preferably during the sermon.

Wink, wink: Smile mightily as if happy with it all, then grumble behind closed doors or in parking lots.

Blaming: Authority and leadership are automatic enemies, scapegoated for anything. Here authority is confused with control and is demonized irrationally.

Hiding: refusal to respond to invitations to come talk about things because, you argue, you won’t get what you want so what’s the point. There is a point to reconciling conversation that is mutual and open and builds community whether any unfamiliar hymns are used or not.

Reactivity: One “bad” sermon, one “awful” hymn, even a significant loss of members in reaction to some change brings swift, silent, cowardly revenge: the evil eye, the rumor monger, the hit and run, the ample sigh, the sweet lie—anything but connection.

Chronic sourpuss: no explanation necessary.

This all is trivial and not abusive until you it becomes a way of life. Then it is like a constantly dripping faucet that makes rust, an ongoing corrosion that eats away at the system. Most church communities survive and get stronger but it still hurts and some communities become defensive, reactive, aggressive, a close inner group fortress full of fear. Abuses happen in closed systems.

The first three behaviors noted in the Bible are passive aggressive: lying, hiding and blaming. Adam and Eve are persuaded that Yahweh God has been deceptively restrictive on the advice of a snake, so they eat the forbidden fruit. When God comes to see how they’re doing they hide and cover their nakedness; then they lie about what has happened followed by passing blame around like a hot potato, the buck around ending it up on the snake’s slithery back for all time.
The Bible gets it.

God was innocent of aggressive tactics but the church is not. God, however, offers the one healing solution for both sides of the tug of war: love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself. It's a great commandment. Helps you get a grip on who's in charge.

* * * *
I am grateful that most parishes I know well in the Episcopal church do not make this a way of life. I'm also grateful that I have learned not to take it personally, most of the time. And most of all I am grateful to know this truth: that there is nothing like a community of prayer and compassion, a community defined by this identity and ethic, that is in fact there for me at all times. It's called Church.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Church: Wholehearted for Godde's Sake

The Church is one of the most reactive institutions I know.

Something comes up in the culture, a trend, a fad or a deep movement toward secularization ( currently in vogue) and the Church leaps in to organize programs that are relevant, hang new signs that are attractive and LARGE, create kicky ads and slogans, beef up its church school, etc.

These strategic quick fixes may bear some short term fruit but usually they are hasty and don’t take root or ripen because these efforts are anxiety-driven. This is abusive all round.

Anxiety kills Spirit.

Clergy get exhausted and churchgoers and seekers are absent, apathetic or overworked. Over-reactivity for short term gain is sinful according to one Kabbalist (ancient Jewish mystical tradition) definition of sin as superficiality.

The worst abuse however is self-abuse, self-forgetting. The Church forgets to love the God who calls it into being and instead serves the almighty market to sell itself.

The only healing for this compulsive pattern is whole-heartedness. Know who you are, what you have to give and what you can do. What the Church does that is unique to its vocation is teach about Holy Scriptures, create liturgies that give meaning and ritual shape to people’s lives, build a welcoming community of prayer and sacrament, and provide pastoral care and compassion in times of need.

I do not include social justice because this is the work of all decent citizens and because there are many agencies involved with this work. It is not the Church’s job or her gift to be one more such organization. It is the Church’s job to encourage its members to devote a portion of their time to such work outside the Church.

To be wholehearted isn’t always obvious or easy. Poet David Whyte tells a story on himself. He was working in a social service agency, racing from thing to thing, task to task, desperately engaged in the work of helping others. One day he raced into a conference room in which he thought there might be a meeting he was supposed to attend and said to those assembled, “Has anyone seen David?” After laughter they sent the exhausted David himself home for the rest of the day.

Once home Whyte spent the evening with his friend and monastic brother David Steindl-Rast who listened to Whyte’s tale of overwork, reactivity and fatigue. Steindl-Rast told Whyte that the antidote to exhaustion was not rest. Astonished, Whyte looked at his friend and said, “What is it then?” Brother David said, “Wholeheartedness.”

Their talk led Whyte to consult his heart, find there his true gift and passion for poetry and to risk quitting his job and becoming a poet. Since then he has written many beautiful volumes of fine poetry and also used his poetry to help people in both church and corporate settings find their own hearts.

David Whyte wrote in his poem "Sweet Darkness": Sometimes it takes darkness/and the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn/that anything or anyone that does not/bring you alive is too small for you.

Perhaps the Church could in this, its time of darkness and dangerous reactivity, re-enlist its own tired heart, not to self-serve but to dare to be wholehearted—for Godde's sake.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Holy Week Holy Postscripts

Debriefing is often the most fun part of any celebration on which everyone has worked hard. In a parish church everyone—clergy, staff, musicians, preachers, lectors, dramatists, flower arrangers, acolytes, worship assistants, and congregational participants—works hard. They all bring creativity, energy, imagination, practice and love to making this a beautiful and moving offering to the God of Jesus Christ.

All this energy in one tent of worship is a petri dish for wonders—holy ones.

It is a tradition at St. John’s Episcopal in Gloucester, MA. to have special services on significant holy days just for children.

On Maundy Thursday all the children got bare foot and sat on the floor in a circle—giggling and not resisting the tickling temptation. We explained that in Jesus’s day the roads were dirt and feet got dirty. To wash your feet happened more than at your weekly bath. It was also a gesture of hospitality to wash tired dirty feet, not just to make sure your floor didn’t get dirty. The children were invited to have their feet washed by clergy or to do it for each other. Most chose clergy. The small group got quieter as we prepared the ritual. Feet are vulnerable. Suddenly as we were about to begin one small boy spoke up, “What if someone has no feet?” Quiet changed to silence. No one tried to answer but you knew they got it. The Holy had entered the space.

On Good Friday we had a quiet, mostly non-verbal service with music, silence and a few poems. The mood wasn’t black just somber. A large wooden cross stood against the empty altar and people were invited to come forward if they wished to reverence the cross in any way that moved them. It’s amazing who comes and how they come. A couple in their sixties with joint pains, heaviness of body and spirit and cancer survival came forward together. He touched the cross with his hands and stood almost leaning into it, a heavy man leaning into the hope of the Holy with all his bulk. His wife stood next to him and when he stepped back she came forward and bowed her head deeply. Each took a communion wafer from the reserved sacrament on the altar, then turned and arm in arm returned to their seats. The Holy had entered the space.

At the Great Vigil of Easter there was a dramatic enactment of the biblical story of the women who came at dawn on Easter morning with their oils and spices, hushed voices, their lanterns lit to anoint the body of the man who had changed their lives. The women and this year a couple of kids and one tagalong man came into a darkened church, advanced toward the front, worried about the guards and the huge stone that had been placed at the entrance to the tomb. As they got closer a child ran ahead and screamed “The stone is gone. It’s gone. Look!”

They all rushed to see, held up their lanterns and cautiously entered the tomb area ( at the foot of the high altar) where there was nothing but a white shroud (tablecloth.) They were women. They would have talked, right?

As they gathered round the shroud, they picked it up and passed it around and each one shared her or his own story of faith. There was not script. We rehearsed the staging and the sequence but it was improvised. As they shared stories the light slowly came up. Here are a few highlights:

“When I was a child I was hurt every day by my mother. Then I saw Jesus and the children in a stained glass window and I instantly became one of his children. I felt he protected me and loved me. I can feel him now”

“God has done a wonderful thing!”
“Like when I got healed in only four days when the surgeon said a week.” (ten year old boy)
“My brother died suddenly but he left Jesus with us. We believed in his love and Jesus’ love too.”
“But what does all this mean?” (young girl fifteen)
A woman sings a song she learned in her native Sierra Leone, “Jesus is Lord.......”
“I’m always on the outside just like now. Ever since my Dad left us when I was small I’ve been outside. No more. No more.” (a man who had been standing outside the tomb area rushes in to join the women in the tomb.)
“Well Jesus didn’t heal me after my stroke! I asked him and he said nothing just looked at me with love. I was angry but I believed the love. Now I have my family’s love to help me.”
“My dog died. I loved him. He was my best friend, one of our family. The rest are still here. But I still miss Teddy.” (eleven year old girl)
“But Jesus taught us how to dance.” (9 year old girl does a little pirouhette)
“ Dawn is almost breaking. We better go. Tell the others.”

The teenage girl returns to the tomb area alone, picks up the shroud and carefully folds it then places it back down. As she rises to leave she stops twice, turns to the congregation and asks twice again, “What does this all mean?”

The Mass continued with the telling of the Exodus story, lighting of the paschal candle, baptisms and the first Eucharist of Easter complete with Alleluias and bells of all kinds brought from homes.

After all had been done to honor this Jesus in story and sacrament we all went to the parish hall and feasted on the First Dessert of Easter!

The Holy had entered this space that night.