Sunday, November 25, 2018

2018.11.25 Christ in Majesty. Us In High Hilarity

Here we are sitting on a wall under a huge tree at a monastery. Now how romantic is that? Not very—however, we are laughing.  Other than bad jokes or good jokes or church jokes, laughing for us is a way we make love and keep love alive. It's not derisive, just boldly out of line or unexpected. 

And we both know what is funny even when others don't see it. Jesus had a knack for that, which is probably why it is nowhere written that Jesus laughed. Once when reading the gospel portion in John, when the disciple were going nuts wondering how anyone could be born again, I inserted: Jesus laughed. Then he went on to elaborate a teaching. No one in the congregation laughed. Do people listen I wonder?

This photo was taken in the autumn of 1991. We were at Holy Cross Monastery on retreat. We were invited by the monastery p.r. monk to pose for this photo which was taken by a professional photographer.  They used it on the cover of a promotional brochure. We are laughing about suddenly being catapulted into fame as cover-couple contemplatives. I wish I could enlarge this cover more, but I guess you can discern that I am clearly making some big point to Dick who clearly appreciates my every word. This only happens on silent retreats.

Happy 32nd anniversary, my beloved marriage partner. We were married in 1986 on this Sunday when Christ is praised for rising triumphant above it all—sin, death, hate, politics. Together we have risen above lots of adversity and weathered lots of scorn, including a near-crucifixion for being "church criminals." (Seriously one man called us that when we got divorces and married, but he had a diagnosis.)  

I love your laughter, our laughter, and the humor we find in the most seriously righteous befuddlement. 

Thursday, November 22, 2018

2018.11.22 Thanksgiving—a Short List

Today is Thanksgiving Day. In the face of so much to decry in this world and church, I am grateful for love, prayer, beauty, and children. Such things keep me alive and well. I am also grateful for hate and ugliness, because such things keep me humble.

     For love, because it is as basic to the viability and vigor of my soul as food and water are to my body. When I am not well enough fed I cannot feed others.

     For prayer, because it is what consistently connects me to my inner self and the truth of my  own feelings, desires and needs. This is my baseline. I address my prayers to God, say AMEN, then go on with my life to the best of my ability and grit. Self-knowing and God-knowing are correlative. I don't know what God does, but prayer keeps me alive and alert to signs and wonders all around me.

     For beauty, because it is all around us if we would but expect it, then notice it, then praise it. It's in human faces, tears, laughter, frown, fret, puzzlement, terror, anger, awe, and wonder—also spoof and surprise. It's in Nature—animals and plants, in every form and shape.

     For children, because I grew up with my own four beloved children, now adults, yes, but also because all young children exhibit uncontrollable impulses toward play, toward joining, delightedly and without prejudice, with other children in the romp of play, the best play being the disorganized  spontaneous play for its own sake. They make it happen together—in conversations with stuffed playmates, at tea parties, and on play grounds with lively playmates.

"One afternoon your mother and I took you to visit a preschool. Our host took us down to a large gym filled with a bubbling ethnic stew of New York children, The children were running, jumping, and tumbling. You took one look at them, tore away from us, and ran right into the scrum.      .  .  .  I watched you leap and laugh with these children you barely knew, and the wall rose in me and I felt I should grab you by the arm, pull you back and say, 'We don't know these folks! Be cool!' I did not do this. I was growing, and if I could not name my anguish precisely I still knew there was nothing noble in it. But now I understand the gravity of what I was proposing—that a four-year-old child be watchful, prudent, and shrewd, that I curtail your happiness, that you submit to a loss of time. And now when I measure this fear against the boldness that the masters of the galaxy imparted to their own children I m ashamed."

This passage is from a memoir, Between The World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the form of a letter to his son. Coates has described the terror many black people feel for the precious children they love as much as white people love theirs. These parents love their children with such ferocity that they have to train them into fear rather than confidence, teach them how to protect their black bodies, to be "watchful prudent and shrewd" always, just because their skin is not white. The contrast with what white parents teach their children about how to walk in the world—confidence and boldness according to the respect they expect to get—is tragically stark. 

In this scene above, however, the high value of child's play for the spiritual well-being of a child supersedes racial profiling and all the lessons that go with it. Coates's son, he acknowledges, is naturally extroverted and uninhibited, but play is shaped by its toddler participants according to their personalities—not the color of their skins. When I read the anguish of this father who for a moment dropped his own fears to let his son play freely, my heart broke open.  I believe God's does too.

My God, my God, what have we done?  My God, my God what are we doing?

Scriptures tell us that a little child will lead us. Will we follow?


Sunday, November 18, 2018

2018.11.18 There Is a Time For Everything—Everything

One of my favorite books of the Bible is Ecclesiastes. That’s odd because it is many people’s least loved book. It’s in the Christian Old Testament and, according to apocryphal story, became the subject of great controversy and was nearly dropped from the Canon of Scripture.

When I was in seminary back in the 1980s, a humorous audiotape circulated among us about Ecclesiastes’s author, Qoheleth, the wise preacher. Many male voices argued vociferously, over-shouting one another, about its qualifications. Was it genuine? Was it holy enough to qualify for holiness? Did a book so cynical, even fatalistic in its approach, belong in a collection of authoritative sacred works? The din of their fervor made us all laugh, and also proved, to me at least, that this earthen wisdom was indeed sacred.

Wisdom and righteousness are elusively mysterious, yet both are essential for the embodied soul. There is a time to struggle against the way things are and a time to let go. Everything belongs. This message was so depressing that scriptural scribal editors added a very small Epilogue, almost apologizing for this nutty sage, assuring us that in the end God will make it all okay. Such dilution! Such lopsided heresy.

Here are Qoheleth’s well known biblical lines: dated between 450-350BCE—perhaps. There is no scholarly consensus about dating, possibly a sign of this book’s ultimate worth.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace. (Ecclus 3: 1-8)

You will also recognize Qoheleth’s ancient voice in the popular song written by Pete Seeger in the 1950s: “Turn, Turn Turn.”  Seeger wrote it as a plea for peace, adding a line at the end, “. . . a time for peace, I swear it’s not too late.”

Members of an  an EfM seminar group recently listened to a reading from Ecclesiastes and pondered their own responses. As I listened I thought the struggle to have things be one way or the other way, in a kind of binary mentality, was very true to lived experience and a particularly tempting attitude just now. Many scary, even violent things are happening—massacres, bombs sent to political figures, abnormal weather events, and more. There is a time to hate, and a time to love; a time to fear and a time to trust. 

NOTE: Qoheleth does not say either/or; he says both/and. One woman wondered aloud: "How long does a “time” last? " Will this era pass soon?  What about the confusion of trying to land on righteousness—from whose point of view?

I don’t know.

Then I remembered one of Jesus’s parables, a favorite of mine: the parable of the wheat and the weeds growing together in a field. (Matt. 13:24-30) The slaves (slaves no less!) come nattering and nagging about how these weeds got into a pure wheat field. Should they rush in and rip out all the nasty weeds? An enemy is blamed; assumptions are made that the kingdom of heaven must be pure; and self-righteousness takes hold. Final answer to slaves?  No, let them grow together until the final harvest. A warning is issued that in pulling out weeds any human action might pull out wheat as well. Let go and let God.
There is a time for wheat and a time for weeds. Obviously, the parable tells us that we are NOT qualified to identify and separate good from evil individuals. This is not ours to do, not ours to judge, not ours to execute. This parable is only in Matthew, and Matthew has a heavy moral agenda, appropriate for his time, but perhaps not forever and ever amen.

This is a time in our nation when we are living with wheat and weeds and fighting about who is which, making assumptions about the true nature of each.

It is a time to let things grow together, because they will anyway. After all, both wheat and weed do grow and flourish in the same fertile field. God have mercy, this is hard wisdom!

Sunday, November 11, 2018

2018.11.11 Risky Grace: An Amazing Story of True-Grit Grace, Part II

The W.A.S.P. pedigree in the 1950s had served as almost a degree, or decree, of admittance into elite white Protestant society. It also became a required credential by which debutantes and their proposed escorts would be, in Scarsdale and many other cities and towns, screened for The Holly Ball for debutantes, inaugurated in 1953, the year George Kempsell was installed as rector of St. James the Less.

As I write this I remember with a shiver how my mother practically forced me to be a debutante. It was the worst kind of social snobbism imaginable. I was deeply embarrassed at eighteen and remain so. Nevertheless I was announced and escorted on my father’s arm—coming out into what? Society, but whose society? 

George Kempsell had ignited a simmering cauldron of wealth, white privilege, fear, and the age old habit of taking righteous shelter in privatism: the autonomy of a private club to make its own rules. Kempsell’s appeal to a higher authority held little sway against the  dominant social class ideology. Although some supported his position, a position about which he and the parish, ironically, received much public attention, even nationally, forces combined to create a “perfect storm” anyway: Kempsell had the power and the duty to excommunicate those who did not repent in response to his charge of bigotry, and they had the power to withdraw their money and leave the parish. The impasse was unresolvable, and the damage was done. The stigma of bigotry and prejudice associated with Scarsdale left scars, perhaps not entirely deserved, and Kempsell was forced out. The stormy scandal only stayed hot for a time, but it made its mark. Some few in the club today still harbor bitterness about the Kempsell scandal.

Kempsell went from giving celebrity-like speeches, sent by the Episcopal Diocese, to receiving death threats, being removed from his home by the FBI, and being silenced. He bought a guard dog. He was a broken man, though not defeated. He tendered his resignation in January, 1963, the month and year my oldest daughter was born and I received a Masters degree, both of which, slaked my thirst for pursuing a church career path of my own—for now.

The Scarsdale parish raised money to facilitate the Kempsell family’s move to Dallas, Texas, to a parish that proved inhospitable to his progressive ideas for different reasons. Finally, Kempsell went to a small rural church in Arvada, Colorado, where he stayed true to his prophetic ideals, provided pastoral care, and was beloved by many. I found no repentance stats for the accused. Here is the only small photo I found of Kempsell—baptizing an infant, I think in the Scarsdale parish.

Would I have repented? Probably not. I was a grudging grouchy debutante, yes, but I was surely glad no fiery preacher had blasted my parents’ country club and held my feet to the fire.  Risky grace would require too much of me—right now.

Dick Simeone also did not think women’s ordination as priests was right. Many male Episcopal priests feared the loss of their clerical collegiality and authority, or more precisely, the sharing of such a long-held patriarchal privilege. He valued his patriarchal status, even though he felt some discomfort. Things happen when one faces formative influences that don’t sync with one’s true character.  

Dick first met me when he interviewed for the position of rector at my home parish.  I was on the parish search committee, and was also a female aspirant to the priesthood. I asked him directly about his position on the matter. He gave a long, complicated, homiletic answer, amply justifying the theological and ecclesial rationale for women priests, then grinned: “I’m in favor of women priests.”  Good thing. I, by now more ready for risky grace, would have fiercely protested his election as our rector.  

Kempsell, possibly under the influence of Ruth, his beloved wife of over thirty years, had also admitted: “I was wrong about women's ordination.” Although thin and frail, he traveled to New York and stood for his niece at her ordination.

Kempsell died on August 31, 1980, on the thirteenth birthday of my oldest son, just one year and five months after the death of my youngest sister, two and a half weeks after my own forty-second birthday, in the midst of the painful time of separation before inevitable divorce, and eight months after Dick assumed the rectorship of my home parish. I’d clung feverishly to my desire to be a priest, even after I’d been turned down twice. Would I risk it again? When Dick came he brought his powerful confidence in me with him and told me Kempsell’s story. I knew, without knowing, that I would risk trying it again. If Kempsell could risk fighting for his vision in Scarsdale, I could risk fighting for mine in Connecticut.

Kempsell’s memorial service at the Episcopal Cathedral in Denver was packed, so full that people were standing in the aisles—testimony to this small dynamic man’s courage, his insistence that everyone be treated equally, regardless of race, creed, color, or gender. 

I was ordained priest in 1988 at the parish church where Dick was rector, my husband of two years, and the preacher for the day. The small church was full and adorned with roses—scents of a woman. The ordaining bishop had a serious head cold. Both roses and sneezes were fitting tributes to lots of determination and challenge on my part and the somewhat grudging willingness of an institution to comply. I pronounced the final blessing in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit—imbalanced gendered language, but for that day, okay.
                                                        * * * * * *
The Kempsell story happened in the 1960s when civil rights was heating up and racial fears steaming. Lurking beneath racism in America, even then, was classism, waiting in the wings to assert its dominance. Now, over fifty years after Scarsdale and the Civil Rights movement, classism is virulent enough to make sure that the elimination of other -isms, such as racism and sexism, remains unattainable. The election and ascendancy of our current president is not the cause but rather the result of this lingering prejudice—a move away from the values of our democracy, not to mention the values of Jesus the Christ or George Kempsell.

We, in Church and State, need more George Kempsells—people with courage or grit enough to stand up to excesses of populism, aka mob power, traditionalism, another -ism grown rigid, and recalcitrant defining classism.

Kempsell stood for equality. He was fond of saying, “There’s no such thing as a second-class Christian.”  True, and thank you, George Kempsell.

(Much of the detail for this post I got from a blog post by Thomas Quirk who grew up in Scarsdale from 1953-1961 and is now a high school teacher in Lexington, Massachusetts. I am grateful for his research and his caring.)

Sunday, November 4, 2018

2018.11.04 Risky Grace: An Amazing Story of True-Grit Grace, Part I

We in 2018 live in a precarious time—a time of moral failure and moral awakening together. We feel vulnerable and confused, yet such feelings always precede radical change for the good.

The threat of climate change is real, scientifically validated, and, uninterrupted, as implacable as persistent and increasing social injustice—collapse of the social fabric of human interaction. In biblical language, we face the end of the world—apocalypse. It’s ironic that so many Americans reverence science as if it were God, while at the same time ignoring the easily verifiable wisdom of Science itself AND rejecting the idea of God whose grace enhances human gifts. Confusing times are times when risking one’s life, spiritual or biological, and the lives of many others is more urgent than ever. The Civil Rights Era was one such time. So is now.
                                                *  *  *  *  *

That’s a long preface to a very old story, a story of costly grace, a story my husband Dick told me years ago that stuck with me, because it was so wildly out of sync with expected behavior in the church, and beyond. The story reminds me once again that radical change happens, but never without risk, risk greater than a few risky comments or pushing the envelope occasionally. True-grit risk is: Do something unheard of in the name of God, with God’s help. 

On Friday, January 13, 1961, on the front page of the New York Times, just below the fold, appeared a black-and-white photo of The Rev. George F. Kempsell, Jr., rector of the Episcopal Church of St. James the Less, Scarsdale, New York, with the caption: “Scarsdale Parish Rector Limits Communion Due to Anti-Semitism.” The headline stated: “Youth Who Is Convert From Judaism Barred as Escort to Country Club Dance.”  The context was elitist and privileged. Kempsell’s action transcended the context—just like crucifixion being contextually run-of-the-mill in Jesus’s day, resurrection not so.

Kempsell had been upset that nineteen-year old Michael Cunningham Hernstadt, a young man whom he had baptized two years earlier, had been rejected as an unsuitable escort to the annual debutante Holly Ball at the Scarsdale Golf Club. On Sunday, January 8, Kempsell preached about the incident, explaining that a young woman in the parish withdrew from the Holly Ball when the dance’s subcommittee rejected her escort due to his “Jewish parentage.” Kempsell then asked his congregation to “face facts boldly,” to understand this: “If our Lord Jesus Christ had come back to earth in Scarsdale in time for the Holly Ball, he would not have been allowed to escort a young lady of this parish to that dance.” Then Kempsell rendered his judgment: “This is a sin against God and against a member of this congregation, and no one dares to come to the altar to receive the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ unless he repents himself of this sin, and is in love and charity with his neighbor, and intends to lead a new life, following the commandments of God and walking before him in his holy ways.”

So far the risk was in words. People could get fussed and curse their rector, maybe even leave the parish, grumbling as far as the parking lot—unless Kempsell followed through. Kempsell had publicly shamed many members of his congregation in an effort to call attention to a serious problem in the community: racial and religious bigotry. Would he excommunicate parishioners who were members of the Country Club where rules banned Jews? Would they repent? 

As Dick told me this story I hung on his every word. “Did he do it?  Did he actually excommunicate all those parishioners?”  (See the disciplinary rubrics regarding Excommunication in the Book of Common Prayer, p.409. It’s scary stuff, never taken lightly!)

“Damn right he did!” said Dick. “But not of course before he let his Bishop in on it.” Horace W.D. Donegan, Bishop of New York for ten years and himself a civil rights activist, had called for the church to recognize its “sins of segregation.” He supported Kempsell. A group of parishioners paid the bishop a visit requesting that he “call off” Kempsell. Donegan refused.

“When I was at General Seminary in New York,” Dick told me, “we were all given this story as a model of Christian behavior, and hoped to hell we’d never have to do such a thing.”

But I thought Dick was so lucky to have church heroes with true voice and courage—grit.

Kempsell was no fool. He knew the dangers. He knew the hell that this action could unloose. He knew that Scarsdale was one of the wealthiest towns in the world’s wealthiest nation. He knew that previous rectors had turned down the Scarsdale Golf Club’s honorary membership, because it was an open secret that the club discriminated against non-Protestants. He knew that he had himself enjoyed dinners at the club. He knew he might have to leave this parish that he and his family loved and where he’d been the rector since 1953.  He also knew his choices could alienate parishioners at a time when record levels of growth in church membership strengthened both vitality and viability of parishes. However, the choice to remain silent and ignore social injustices was an option Kempsell found intolerable.

George French Kempsell, Jr. grew up in Glen Cove, New York. He was a dynamic person who spoke several languages, played tennis, and was an accomplished musician on his way to becoming a concert pianist when he received his vocational calling in the Episcopal Church. His father was the son of English house servants and may very well have worn a “robin’s egg blue” chauffeur’s uniform, like the one Fitzgerald described in The Great Gatsby. His mother headed up the household staff for the French family. Mrs French admired the Kempsells so much she built a cottage for them, and Mrs. Kempsell gave her son George a middle name of French.  George paid his way through Hamilton College and New York Theological Seminary by playing the organ at local churches. He married a piano teacher Ruth Archibald in 1946. They had six children: five sons, including a set of twins, and one daughter, during the 1950s.

I was growing up in Darien, Connecticut in the 1950s and still remember the jokes about railroad conductors who lowered their voices in mock deference when calling out the sacred stop of Scarsdale, saying: Sc-aaahz-dale. Darien itself, along with other shore towns, got a reputation for being one of the towns in which realtors, by “gentlemen’s agreement” tacitly refused to show homes to Jews. And the broadway show, “Auntie Mame,” had a reference in one of its songs, written by Jewish lyricist, Jerry Herman, about the “Aryan from Darien.” Even as a teen I’d shrink, and that was before I found out my mother’s father was Jewish. No wonder she didn’t tell us. 

Kempsell had failed to convert the son of Irving Moscovitz, board member of the Westchester Orchestral Society, but he did better with Michael Hernstadt. Kempsell perhaps had a slight overdose of Christian zeal, but it was the fifties after all. Hernstadt, nevertheless, had never been Jewish in the sense that he did not practice his religion. His father was Jewish and his mother Roman Catholic. They told Michael to choose his own religion. He became an Episcopalian and at seventeen was baptized by Kempsell. 

Apparently, according to Scarsdale’s Holly Ball Committee, Hernstadt’s Jewish pedigree had more weight than his W.A.S.P. pedigree—or his Episcopal one. I’d nominate Kempsell for sainthood, but then I have no voice in such matters. I can, however, remember Kempsell’s saintly grit nearly sixty years later, declare him a Saint on my soul’s calendar, and blog about him on All Saints Sunday.

Would privilege and power win the day against the Christian prophetic action of George Kempsell—and if so, what would happen to Kempsell?  See Part II of this story in next week’s blog post:11/11/2018.

(I am indebted for some of this research to Thomas Quirk, who grew up in Scarsdale in 1953-1961, and now is a teacher of high school English in Lexington, Massachusetts.)