Sunday, March 25, 2018

2018.03.25 Why Wave Palms? Fake News?

We wave palms for the same reason we wave placards and posters and signs: to protest massive political and spiritual indifference to the needs of the smallest among us—our children.

In 1988, I was ordained priest, on March 25th. Thirty years ago my day as was the Feast of the Annunciation: Mary’s big day. She is remembered in biblical tradition and in the hearts of women of faith for her decision to listen to God’s request for help. Her assent destined her to a life of agonizing pain, heart-wrenching sorrow, and love.  She is often remembered with roses.  On my day roses adorned the sanctuary.
This year in 2018 her day and mine, March 25, is Jesus’s big day: Palm or Passion Sunday, often called The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. We wave palms—green, supple, fresh—and shout Hosannas. Like Mary’s day, this day was for Jesus his willingness to risk his life to confront  political and spiritual indifference to the needs of the least among us, especially children. His decision would mean spiritual betrayal, wrenching disappointment, and agonizing death.
On the surface, all three days were celebratory, triumphal. Great victories were cheered: Mary’s safe birthing and rearing of a Messiah; Jesus’s entering Jerusalem to confront the imperial powers with the need for justice and peace; my ordination after eleven years of rejections, in part because of my being a woman—in the wrong place at the wrong time. Each apparent victory was incomplete, shadowed by ambiguity at best—how monumentally paradoxical:  The less triumphal we act the more triumphant we are.  Or, the more triumphal we act the less triumphant we really are.

My ordination procession looked and sounded triumphal but . . .  I was scared witless and a bit numb—worried that the bishop, who strode behind me with his huge long crozier (ersatz shepherd’s crook), would reach out, crook my neck, and toss me out of the fold. My other worry was that the bishop might have to leave suddenly because he had a ghastly, sniffly cold. Would he sneeze in the middle of his crucial lines, without which I would not be a priest: “Therefore Father, through Jesus Christ, your Son, give your Holy Spirit to Lyn; fill her with grace and power, and make her a priest in your Church.”

I’d struggled through a long, hard, painful process to get to this day. The personal triumph was that I had not given up when I felt defeated. I had stayed the course against significant odds—my own flaws and the church’s prejudices.

I never blamed God. In fact I felt that God’s Spirit was present in the slow ongoing process of healing and reconciliation between my broken heart and the Church’s broken rules.

The less triumphal we act the more triumphant we are.

Did Jesus feel triumphal as he entered Jerusalem? He knew that his vision had stirred up crowds. He knew this was a life-threatening protest with a small number of believers. He knew this was a public political protest punishable by execution. Was it divinely ordained?  God does not desire the death of anyone. Jesus’s death was nothing to wax triumphal about. So where’s the triumph and when?

It would be an act of sheer Divinity that Mary’s motherhood would be remembered, lauded and written into holy scriptures as  a miracle to reverence. It would be an act of sheer Divinity, one that took many restless years to take root in the hearts of crestfallen followers, to turn Jesus’s actions into a triumph, a miracle of truth called Resurrection.

And my ordination? It made me a priest.
It also began a process of many restless years—discerning the fullness of my priesthood, with God’s help. The traditional track for priests, to be a parish rector, was not the way for me to be a priest. Rather, I was to be a non-stipendiary Sunday-only priest of Word and Sacrament in parishes. This sacramental ministry remained central.

But full triumph?  I continued to feel like a failed priest, as if my whole vocation was “fake news” until I saw that I was a priest at the altar and in my office. The three sacramental functions of a priest —bless, consecrate, absolve—transferred easily, sometimes formally, into people’s ordinary lives through my profession as a pastoral counselor, spiritual director, and writer. Occasionally, the traditional route for priests feels alluringly triumphal, but not the realized triumph.

May the triumphal massive March For Our Lives, led by teens all over the world, come to full triumph in unlocking the prideful partisan resistance of adults that we all may work together for life-saving change. Will this be an act of sheer humanity/divinity miracle?  I pray so.  Amen.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

2018.03.18 Pay Attention!

On International Women’s Day this year the former president of Ireland, Mary McAleese, delivered a keynote address, “Time Is Now for Change in the Catholic Church,” to a full house at the Jesuit Curia in Rome. The event, entitled “Why Women Matter” was sponsored by Voices of Faith, an international women’s organization. 

Now why would I, an Episcopal priest, care about the politics of Ireland and the Roman Catholic Church?
    -Because Catholicism is the largest religious faith in the world and what happens there matters to us all. It’s naive to think otherwise.
    -Because Ireland’s former president is a brave woman whose blatantly honest words are still relevant and have even prompted a civil exchange between an Irish bishop and herself.
    -Because for years I’ve harbored a strong antipathy toward Ireland, or at least the Irish Catholic Church.

I write in part to heal my own irrational anti-Ireland hatred. I’ve felt this ever since I saw the movie, “The Magdalene Sisters” in 2003. Oh yes, I know how beautiful green Ireland is, and I know it has changed over the years, and I know this is about the Irish Catholic Church not about the whole country, but . . . 

“The Magdalene Sisters” is set in Ireland in 1964. It’s a true story of four teenage girls who were committed, by their own families no less, against their will, to Magdalene Asylums (also known as Magdalene Laundries) an institution run by Roman Catholic orders from the 18th to late 20th centuries. It was an institution of confinement for “fallen” women. After a mass grave was discovered and media investigations occurred, a formal state apology was issued in 2013 and a compensation package was set up for survivors.

The Roman Catholic Church has to date refused to contribute to the fund. Some religious orders have contributed to a compensation fund, including the Religious Sisters of Mercy of which I am an Associate—and proud.

The film was made to publicize atrocities and to make money for compensatory practices. I tell you it’s the only movie I’ve ever seen that gave me nightmares— and still could if I allowed it. Maggie Smith played the sadistic Mother Superior who presided over this torture. I love Maggie Smith, but in this film I had a hard time remembering that she was an actor playing her role. Her embodiment of the Christian Gospel she vowed to serve was violently opposed to Christ’s kingdom of heaven on earth.

The “fallen” girls whose stories the movie focuses on were considered in need of redemption. One was raped; one was beautiful and normally flirtatious; one an unmarried mother; and one an intellectually disabled unmarried mother. These girls, innocent save for their gender and its natural expressions, endured unspeakable cruelty while imprisoned like slaves in forced labor camps. Some had spent their entire lives in this toxic squalor.

Humiliations, such as satisfying Father XXX’s need for penile stimulation, being paraded for regular breast-size contests, complete isolation from family, including their children and babies they were forced to give up, and the outside world, and harsh labor, not to mention constant verbal and physical abuse, were wrenching to watch. The girls coped by befriending each other and snatching late night times to engage in conversation, otherwise forbidden. Once they got even by placing poison ivy into the washer with Father’s linens, then watching him jump around frantic with itching.

The only way a girl could get out was if a relative of age, that is 21, came to get her and attest to her sanity. One girl of twelve had to wait until her little brother who had been seven when she was dragged off in the night by her father, got old enough (do the math) to come for her release. Release meant what was left of a lifetime suffering from torturous post-traumatic paranoid stress and terror of the Church, probably even of God.  “Redemption” for these Magdalenes consisted of hell on earth.

I was shocked by the institutionalized cruelty, horrified that no one had bothered to notice that history has redeemed Mary of Magdala who was falsely branded as a prostitute, and even more shocked when at the end of the film I learned that these laundries did not get disbanded until 1996. I’d fantasized that all this must have happened in a former century!

These women had been trapped in a culture whose dominant religion was so fouled by misogyny that in 2018 former Irish president McAleese would still call it “an empire of misogyny.”

McAleese met Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law in 1988. They had a verbal battle after he commented that he was “sorry for Catholic Ireland to have you as President.” 

McAleese was elected president in 1997 and served till 2011. She succeeded Ireland’s first woman president Mary Robinson and was the world’s first woman to succeed another as President.  She was also the first President from either Northern Ireland or Ulster. She worked as a barrister and a journalist and championed issues of justice and and social equality and inclusion. Imagine! As I read about McAleese my anti-Irish feelings softened. McAleese is also a practicing Roman Catholic who boldly and bravely critiques her religion. She has redeemed my hostility.
 McAleese’s words ring prophetic: “Back in this hall in 1995 the Jesuit Congregation asked God for the grace of conversion from a patriarchal Church to a Church of equals; a Church where women truly matter not on terms designed by men for a patriarchal Church but on terms which make Christ matter. Only such a Church of equals is worthy of Christ. Only such a Church can credibly make Christ matter. The time for that Church is now, Pope Francis. The time for change is now.” McAleese said in a BBC interview. “A Church that is homophobic and anti-abortion is not the Church of the future.”

It was time then, 22 years ago, and it is more urgently time now!  Do we have such credibility in any religion? 

Godde, help us credibly make Christ matter. Credibly!  Amen.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

2018.03.11 What Is Heroic?

What is Heroic, Really?

This Lent I fret once again over the Cross of Christ. Was Jesus a hero because he died in crushing agony? The symbol of the cross carries enormous sacred power. And every year I wonder why.

Theological explanations abound—atonement theory, martyrdom, God weeps and suffers with us, Jesus suffers in our stead, suffering is inherently sacred, one death puts an end to the need for sacrificial appeasements to get back right with God, and worst of all, unjust death is satisfactory “ransom” paid to redeem those kidnapped by sin for God’s sake. What?

A line in a movie we just saw leapt out at me: “So I’m a hero because I got my legs blown off?”

Would Jesus cry: “So I’m a hero because I was strapped to a cross and hoisted up to suffocate?”

The movie “Stronger” is about Jeff Bauman who at twenty-seven lost both of his legs to a the bomb explosion at the 2013 Boston Marathon. He was a spectator rooting for his fiancée Erin.  The details of the horrific aftermath were graphic as was the background drama about Bauman’s family struggle with alcohol and his own, his failure to sustain love, his agonizing time in the hospital and rehab, his nightmarish memories of the bomb trauma replayed like torture, his fierce determination to walk again, and finally, his prosthetic legs—awkward but upright.
Bauman became an instant hero, pushed and prodded into public appearances before huge crowds at a Bruins game and throwing the ceremonial first pitch at a Red Sox game, not to mention television interviews and the like. The crowds cheered as did his proud family. The elegiac felt unreal to him— like adding further pain. Bauman resisted the pressure and in the end gave in. Did he believe the naive surety of fans who insisted that the Sox won the Series that year because Bauman threw the first pitch? I don’t know. All I know is that he summoned enough energy to throw that pitch, a gesture he’d practiced. He threw small and hunched from his wheelchair on that field.

He asked: “So I’m a hero because I got my legs blown off?”

To Bauman’s question my answer is NO. There is nothing at all heroic about survival itself. Nor is he a hero for his suffering—inevitable consequence of an unforeseeable unpreventable crime. 

What IS, or was, heroic?
    -Bauman chose life, day after painful day against almighty odds—physical, emotional, mental and relational.     
     -Bauman’s place of employment, Costco, consistently provided for his well-being with visits, good insurance, and held open his job at the deli counter until he returned to work.
    -Bauman, alert enough to spot the bomber, insisted on an interview with the FBI to help them pursue criminal justice. Then he put his energy into his recovery.
    -Bauman sought out and was befriended by Carlos Arredondo, the man with the cowboy hat, who had run straight into the fiery scene, beat out the fire in Bauman’s shirt, and stayed with him until help came.
    -Bauman and his fiancée Erin weathered the trauma together, including the birth of a daughter, even when their relationship was already irreparably broken and ended in divorce in 2014.
    -Bauman  disliked and resisted the force of public pressure but also complied with their need for hope.
    -Bauman told his story and chose the title for his memoir and for the film. Stronger doesn’t mean being strong; it means growing into strength—becoming stronger and holding onto hope. That’s heroic.

Hope without measure is heroic wherever it is found.

And Jesus? His death was humiliating, cruel, torturous, unjust, the politics of fear and crowd control, and ignominious in body, mind and soul. I can find nothing heroic or noble in it—nothing. When I reverence the empty wooden cross on Good Friday, I reverence the courage of Jesus’s lifelong convictions and the come-lately efforts of his followers, back then and now, to keep his vision alive.

What  IS, or was, heroic?
    -Jesus chose life, day after grueling day, just to heal and sometimes to confront fear.
    -Jesus  ennobled the poor with hope, telling them that God’s  kingdom was alive and potent within them already.
    -Jesus rebuked the political and religious authorities of his day who abused their power and privilege for their own gain.
    -Jesus never called himself divine, or the Christ, or the Son of God—or a hero.
    -Jesus prayed, seeking to deepen his trust of a power greater than himself alone—and to beg for enough courage and strength to stay the deadly course he chose.
    -Jesus rebuked grandiose fantasies in his followers—all of whom, like us, made him a hero for the wrong reasons.
    -Jesus pointed to hope in God—over his dead body. Like sports heroes, Jesus wasn’t a hero or a winner because he got wounded, but because he ran the race.That’s enough.
    -Jesus never said a word from the Cross, regardless of later Gospel embellishments, except maybe a loud raging wail, and Mama.
    -Jesus spawned infinite hope.  So does Bauman.

Hope without measure is heroic wherever it is found.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

2018.03.04 Prophetic Hymn, Laurence Housman

Father eternal, ruler of creation,
Spirit of life, which moved ere form was made;
Through the thick darkness covering every nation,
Light to man’s blindness, O be thou our aid:
Thy kingdom come, O Lord Thy will be done.

Races and people, lo! we stand divided,
And sharing not our grief, no joy can share;
By wars and tumults love is mocked derided,
His conquering cross no kingdom wills to bear;
Thy kingdom come, O Lord, Thy will be done.

Envious of heart, blind-eyed, with tongues confounded,
Nation by nation still goes unforgiven;
In wrath and fear, by jealousies surrounded,
Building proud towers which shall no reach to heaven:
Thy kingdom come, O Lord, Thy will be done.

Lust of possessions worketh desolations;
There is no meekness in the sons of earth.
Led by no star the rulers of the nations
Still fail to bring us to the blissful birth.
Thy kingdom come, O Lord, Thy will be done.

How shall we love thee, holy, hidden Being,
If we love not the world which Thou hast made?
O give us brother love for better seeing
Thy word made flesh, and in a manger laid:
Thy kingdom come, O Lord, Thy will be done.

Mostly hymn texts, at least those chosen for congregational use, are consoling, offering hope and joy and moral wisdom, telling incidents from the life of Jesus the Christ, or biblical themes. This hymn text is a fierce forceful prayer. It does not predict but boldly diagnoses a treacherous state of affairs in all earth’s peoples and nations—a spiritual disease brought on by greed, war, wrath, fear, envy, starlessness, lovelessness.

The hymn refrain pleads with the holy hidden Being of many names to inspire us all to love more and hate less, to listen more and talk less, to share grief so joy can also be shared, to trust more, look more and blindfold ourselves less. This is the model of mutual respect and clear-eyed compassion offered by Jesus the Christ and all great spiritual leaders. The refrain prays for this kingdom, this state of affairs. What does it say to you?

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when we worried about threats posed by the Gulf War, I was a priest in a Connecticut parish. I made them sing this hymn every single week for weeks and weeks. People kept saying they got it. People warned me there were military people in the congregation. People told me it was enough. People complained that their children would be upset. People told me they were angry. I knew by their reactions that this hymn stirred people from passivity to passion.

I listened to all of their complaints fears and angers and kept on with the hymn while the war hung over our heads. Why? Because our nation had intervened in a war that would cost many lives and accomplish little. Finally, President George H. W. Bush withdrew our forces from the Gulf War, saying: “This is not a war we can win.” Since then, we have entered and re-entered many unwinnable wars, claiming to be fostering democratic ideals when we were simply trying to “fix” others. It is a strategy that fails over and over, personally and among nations. Anyone in a marriage or intimate relationship knows this.

Laurence Housman (1865-1959), younger brother of poet A.E. Housman, was an Englishman of many talents. He wrote and illustrated books, fiction and non-fiction, and wrote poetry, plays, and also some hymn texts. Politically, he was a pacifist and a socialist. Some of his plays depicted biblical characters on stage—such a scandal. He was also one of the founders of The Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage. Housman’s Christian faith and his politics influenced this hymn text.

I invite you in this Lenten season of reflection to pray with this hymn text, to take it seriously, to let its spirituality emerge alongside its religion. Trust the presence of God within you as you pray. Read this over more than once, almost as many times as I made those poor people sing it. Notice your own reactions. Jot down your own thoughts and feelings. Write a letter to God with your confessions, needs, fears, and all your feelings. Try not to allow your own politics to ambush you. You are seeking  deep inner spiritual truth in yourself. Let this process be a cleansing. What does it mean to you?