Thursday, March 5, 2015

Lifted on the Cross: Ministry, Suffering, and Forgiveness

Dear People of Christ Church,

This week, I’ve been praying around sin—appropriate enough for Lent, of course—but in particular around criminal justice as well. The Tsarnaev trial, of course, is impossible to ignore, and on Tuesday I was also drawn into another case through a colleague in Georgia. Georgia was set to execute Kelly Gissendaner, prosecuted for her role in the murder of her husband. In her time in prison, her life was changed; she studied theology and began a correspondence with the theologian J├╝rgen Moltmann, ministered to her fellow prisoners and was, by all accounts, completely changed. Her story was a compelling one; Georgia hasn’t executed a woman in more than fifty years, and her story of conversion and compassion reminded me of everything we want to believe about human nature. We can change and we do change, even under difficult circumstances, even living through the consequences of the depth of our sin.

For our Tuesday night services, we’re using a Eucharistic prayer from the Church in Scotland which contains this line:
Lifted on the Cross, [Christ’s] suffering and forgiveness spanned the gulf our sins had made.
To which, of course, I would add—Christ’s ministry, and suffering, and forgiveness spanned the gulf of our sins. What I like so much about this phrasing is the visual metaphor—our sin separates us from God. We can sense that God is there, that there is hope and joy and forgiveness—but we can’t get there on our own. That gulf of sin is not intractable. God has already bridged it. But I need to acknowledge it as there, because without the awareness of sin, I slip into thinking that I’ve got everything figured out. Not because Jesus died as some blood sacrifice for my guilt, but because the crucifixion is a mirror of reality.
Twelve year old kids getting shot by police who are supposed to protect them, immediately seen as suspicious because of the color of their skin. Muslim women being harassed (and worse) for wearing headscarves. Synagogues defaced. The Charlie Hebdo massacre, girls kidnapped in Pakistan and Nigeria for going to school. The Marathon bombing. Human trafficking. The crucifixion happens every day.

When crucifixion happens, how does our society respond? Too often, we lash out with more violence. The death penalty is a prime example of this. The old Biblical injunction “an eye for an eye” gets quoted a lot, but in its initial context, that was intended to minimize punishment, not maximize (we might also recall that Jesus said some things that undid that logic). Kelly Gissendaner wasn’t executed, after all—after thousands of petitions and phone calls to the governor’s office, the prison said that the drugs for lethal injection looked “cloudy.” Maybe if all the petitions and phone calls hadn’t been made, she would have still been put to death; I don’t know. She’s alive, though, and for her, that is a blessing.

In Massachusetts, no one has been executed since 1947, though governors and legislatures have tried to bring back the death penalty a number of times. The Tsarnaev trial is a federal one, so even though our state doesn’t have the death penalty, federal prosecutors are asking for it and most of the defense, at this point, is around convincing jurors that mitigating circumstances make Tsernaev less culpable of his crime.

I’m not on the jury, so it doesn’t really matter whether I think Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is guilty, not guilty, or somewhere in between. I do, though, think it matters what all of us think and do about the death penalty itself. I signed the petition for Kelly Gissendaner because I was moved by her story. I’m glad to know about her and I’m glad she’s not been executed. But the death penalty isn’t about how good or how bad the defendant is. The death penalty is about what kind of society we create. And that’s about all of us. If we promise to respect the dignity of every human being every time we baptize someone, that includes the possibility—even the certainty!—that those human beings will fail. We are always bound by those vows, no matter how we think we can justify breaking them.


For an article about the Episcopal Church’s work on death penalty abolition see here and on the movement in general here.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Trying Again, Turning Around

Dear People of Christ Church,
This week we had our first meeting of our Lent program, following along with the brothers of SSJE in their series on time. In the introduction to it in the workbook, Brother Geoffrey Tristram talks about how concerned their founder was about how trains could move people around at the stunning speed of new train travel. How would we keep up? How could our humanity sustain such a change? I read it for the sermon time during the Eucharist and paused for drama before naming the speed—thirty five miles an hour! The lunacy!

I can imagine fifty years from now when our grandchildren will laugh at our current fixation with our smartphones. “Really, Grandma? You really checked your email on that thing in your pocket? All the time? Why?” I read a book a few years ago called Hamlet’s Blackberry in which the author talked about how nervous people got when you could make little notes to yourself on paper in your pocket, the stress of it all. The only sure thing is that people will continue to be nervous about things, concerned we’re doing it wrong somehow. But God sustained humanity then, and God will sustain humanity now, too.

My Lenten discipline over the last few years has been car silence; I succumb to temptation often enough, but in general I try to build in more quiet in my drive, which is around 25 minutes each way from home to church (sometimes less, sometimes more). Mulling over the monks’ meditations from SSJE, I thought about my own relationship to time. I get anxious about being late, I imagine everything will take less time than it does, I always accomplish just about one thing less than I thought I would in each work day. Time as Brother Geoffrey says, has long been an enemy to many of us, instead of the holy gift God intended.

Listening to my yammering mind in the silence, I had this ridiculous epiphany as I was driving—“If I figured this “time” thing out, it would really change my life!” After I had the thought I burst out laughing; of course I’m never going to “fix” my relationship to time. It’s not about fixing anything, it’s about acceptance: accepting that I have human limits and can only do so much. Accepting that God loves me no matter what I do in the first place. Accepting that if I’m late, I’ll ask for forgiveness (maybe even, too, receive it). Accepting that I have a jackalope monkey mind that swings from thought to thought and distracts itself from its distractions. Accepting that there is always silence beneath everything. And the hard one: accepting that I can change my behavior. I can decide to go to bed and get up earlier, I can decide to turn off the internet, I can decide to work differently. And I can forgive myself when I fail and start again. And again. And again.

Lent is the “try again” season; the word “Repentance” means to turn around. I can turn around now, and I can try again to turn around later.

Where are you trying to turn around? What’s your ridiculous insight of the day?


Thursday, February 19, 2015

Pure Grace and Earthiness

Dear People of Christ Church,
I’m writing early this week on Ash Wednesday, grateful for the opportunity the holiday—such as it is—offers to remember our creatureliness. When it comes down to it, Ash Wednesday isn’t a holiday—it doesn’t commemorate anything about our story of faith or any particular person we remember or any event in the life of Jesus. Ash Wednesday instead is a gift the Holy Spirit has come to offer the church through our practice. It has nothing to do with our virtue or our accomplishment. I’m pretty sure it’s not our own cleverness. It’s just pure grace.

“Wait a minute, Sara. I just got home from church and I listed my sins in excruciating detail—I sin against creation, against others, and against myself. What do you mean it’s pure grace? Shouldn’t grace feel good? Why can’t the church be logical for once? Isn’t this just another time the church says people are bad?”

Well, sure. There is that.
It doesn’t feel good like a massage or a nice curry or a walk at sunset. Still, there’s something almost exhilarating about the honesty that Ash Wednesday invites us into. We spend a lot of time in this life trying to look like we lead well-curated, well-organized lives in which our kids always say clever things and our spouses never get annoyed with us. Social media has not improved society in this way. In the US, at least, self-reliance is right up there with cleanliness and godliness. This month I’ve been reading Amanda Palmer’s book The Art of Asking, (based on her 2013 TED talk of the same name) which starts with her story about being paralyzed at letting her husband help her financially. He’s rich and famous (the writer Neil Gaiman), and she’s mortified about what accepting help from him will mean for their relationship and her identity as an artist. Under it all, she concedes, is her terror at vulnerability—we’re all afraid to be vulnerable. You don’t have to be a famous artist to be afraid of that (see also: anything Brene Brown has ever written).

Ash Wednesday just pulls the rug out from all of that. There’s no pretending. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. That’s it. We are beloved and wondrously gloriously blessed by God, but we are still dust. Ad’ham, made of the earth and to earth we will return. What a relief! I’m not perfect and I don’t have to pretend. Widening the view toward eternity puts life in more rightful perspective—both in terms of our frailty and in terms of our power. If we are dust and will return to dust, we can also take some risks once in a while. Longing to be perfect is a pretty heavy burden to bear. You don’t have to.

The other thing that’s great about Ash Wednesday and its focus on our earthy dirty selves is that it’s only one day. We take ONE day to look at all of this, and then we’re done. Boom, on to Lent, on to the actual repentance part. And repentance is great—we can always turn around, we can always go in a new direction, we can always try again. Lent is about all the ways we’re not stuck in our sin.

Jesus was waited on by angels in the wilderness.
Does God want less for you?


Friday, February 13, 2015

Places to Call Home

Dear People of Christ Church,
Thanks to everyone who came out Tuesday for our snow day fun day—we had games, music, delicious food and, for parents, some much-needed time away from the ever narrowing four walls of house and snow we’ve found ourselves in over the last number of weeks. This is what church is for. Church is a place of refuge and spiritual solace and strength outside ourselves, but it’s crucially also our home, hopefully with all the comfort and intimacy in the best sense of what that means.

I was struck most powerfully by the idea of church as “home” when I was back a few weeks ago visiting the town where I grew up (Erie, PA) and spent some time at the convent up the road. Mt St Benedict is the home community of Sister Joan Chittister, who has written some amazing books and been a great advocate for women in the Roman Catholic Church. It has great inclusive liturgy (but, still being Roman Catholic, still no women priests) and a phenomenal community. Hospitality is what they do best—they are pros. But it was also just my neighborhood monastery where I did volunteer work in the kitchen when I was a teenager and where I did an independent study project as a religion and gender studies undergrad on monastic life (literally half a lifetime ago). So, along with St Mary’s Episcopal Church, also in Erie, it’s one of my homes. Walking into the chapel for Thursday evening Mass I felt a crashing of love, comfort, and acceptance. Jesus was there and had been waiting for me! I was home, just like I feel at home at our altar here.

On Tuesday I was glad to see our snow day shared on facebook inviting non-church friends, too. Episcopal worship can be transcendent and glorious—but if you don’t know what’s going on, it can be a tough initiation to community. One of my longings for Christ Church is to reach further out into the city in all different ways, to invite people to get to know the community in other ways than just Sunday services. A lot of you have found your way here by “church shopping.” You’ve been part of a tradition in the past and find that you’re living in a new place or find that your previous spiritual practice didn’t quite fit, and you have some sense of what you’re looking for. Increasingly, though, many people who’ve never been part of a tradition don’t really know what church is for—it seems more like an archaic custom, not a place for real life. So I am grateful for each of you who invite others into this home, helping it to be a place of sustenance and comfort for everyone who walks in the door. It also helps a lot that you pay your pledges and that the heat stays on!

I wonder what it was like for the early Christians to explain what they were about. In preparing for “scout day” at Christ Church I have been thinking about how I explain the Christian faith from the ground up, and I think the most important thing is that it’s for everybody. Anybody can be baptized. Anybody can receive communion. And EVERYBODY is loved and treasured beyond measure by the God who created us and who sustains us all the days of our lives. “Home” as a concept can be pretty tricky, but that’s on us—the love of God is more unconditional than our minds can even fathom.

How about you? What’s home for you? Is church home? Why or why not? What would make you more likely to invite someone to join you here?

Continue the conversation on facebook in our new group page—anyone connected to the parish can join, but it’s closed so it won’t appear on the main page.


Friday, February 6, 2015

Jesus' Compassion, Our Fears

Dear People of Christ Church,
This week I am still mulling over this past Sunday’s children’s sermon experiment with The Jesus’ Love and Compassion Paper Shredder of Sadness and Fear (an idea I very gratefully pinched from a colleague). We talked a little about things we’re afraid of and drew pictures or wrote them down. Monsters and lions and bullies, failure and illness and grief. Inequality and homelessness and racism. We decided that Jesus could handle those things and would let us know how to help.

Our Gospel for the day was a healing story—Epiphany season is full of them, and there’s another this week. Last Sunday’s started off a bit differently, though—rather than being about illness, this one was about an “unclean” spirit. Not an easy subject—too often, categories of “clean” and “unclean” get attached to human beings and are used to judge and reject. Whether gender identity or social status or other categories, it seems like humans always are tempted to exclude each other.

In any case, there’s this fascinating bit in there about authority—the authority of Jesus. I asked the kids what that word means, and Eli said power—which is true. But the power and authority of Jesus comes from a different place than we’re used to. Often in our world, power is about domination: it’s the opposite of weakness. It’s a relative term. You can only have power if you have something another doesn’t have. The power we most often see is based in threats. Bigger bombs or bigger bank accounts. The authority of Jesus comes from a different place. The authority of Jesus is not a relationship of stronger vs weaker. The authority of Jesus is compassion—com-passion, literally suffering-along-with. The power of God in Jesus was compassion for those who are suffering. And in that compassion, he healed the person in the story.

Jesus can heal us, too—if we let him. That’s what was so important about the “authority” piece in the Gospel for last Sunday; Jesus was given authority over suffering, and that’s where healing came from. In our paper shredder experiment, we gave Jesus authority over our anxiety, too.

I don’t know what was “really” happening in the story—we can analyze back and label it epilepsy or mental illness or whatever, but what feels more important is to see that love cast out fear. As Jesus wasn’t afraid of the “unclean” person, he was able to be in community again.

This is a message I really need to take with me into the season of Lent. I need to remember that whatever sins I name on Ash Wednesday that, like that person with the demon, I can recognize the authority of Jesus to heal me from them. It’s not a passive healing, but an active participation in our salvation (though we aren’t the agents, for sure).

What do you need to hear as we enter Lent? What fear do you need Jesus to shred with love and compassion? What will help you to repent and be forgiven?


Thursday, January 29, 2015

Being the Church

Dear People of Christ Church,
Thanks to all who came out for the annual meeting!
In addition to the oh-so-exciting “prayer for a church meeting,” we offered prayers for those who died in 2014 and celebrated new members who signed our volume of the 1898 bylaws (You can get a more recent copy—just let me know). If you missed out and would still like to sign, please let me know and there will be a part two. As we have for the last number of years, we also gave appreciation pins to those whose service we were particularly grateful over the year—Jerome Fung, for sharing his musical gifts with us, Jessica Mailman, responsible for the overhaul of our website, Andrea Shirley, who concluded her term as vestry member and served (and continues to serve) as deanery representative, and Chris Jensen, who concluded his time as parish treasurer. Thank you, thank you, thank you Jerome, Jessica, Andrea, and Chris! We also welcomed on new leadership to vestry—Chris Leonardo and Anna Jones are each joining for regular terms of service, and Mike Hughes is coming on as treasurer. This parish is so blessed to have these thoughtful, faithful, creative leaders!

The bulk of the meeting centered in having conversations about the four themes that came out of informational interviews conducted by the vestry to discern where our energy is most needed at church: the building, the community, outreach, and ministries with children. In preparation, we gathered annual reports from all the different ministries we’ve engaged in over the year. At the meeting itself, our emphasis was more on preparing for 2015 than looking back at 2014, but please do read the report (here is the correct link!). Please also, if you were at the meeting, offer feedback to me and the vestry about your experience. Having so much emphasis on the new year was new for 2014, and we want to have a balance between looking forward and looking back.

Speaking of feedback, in the new year we continue to discern how best to pray our intercession list. This Sunday in response to parishioner input we’re including a short explanation of those for whom we pray in the bulletin, and we continue hearing the names from the congregation. So far input has been very positive, so please let us know how you experience it with our survey, either online or in church on Sunday (in the bulletin). Another survey is about our plans for Christian formation. What do you want to learn? What format works best for you? Do you want more focus on the Bible? More on getting to know each other? Would you be part of making it happen? Please let us know here.

Why all the information gathering? The BCP catechism says “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” That is the mission of the church. And if what we’re doing isn’t directed toward God, then we’re not living up to what God desires for us. Listening to each other is part of that work. At the same time, it’s also not just about accommodating the personal preferences of 100 different individuals; we are also called to hope for the best of the whole, not just own wants.

As I said in my sermon last Sunday, the church is the church as it is—we are the church. You are the church. It matters if you’re here on Sunday and it matters what you think. And I continue to be blessed to serve you and God in this place!


Friday, January 23, 2015

Annual Meeting Sunday

Dear People of Christ Church,
This week I’m passing along my annual report—please come to the annual meeting on Sunday! We look forward to voting in some excellent leaders (Chris Leonardo and Anna Jones to vestry, Mike Hughes to treasurer) and will hopefully have some fruitful conversation about our calling to ministry in the new year. This will be the first order of business, so even if you can’t stay for the whole meeting, please come for the conversation. Plans for a children’s activity are underway. Also remember it’s one service, at 9:30! Please also join me in offering prayers of gratitude for the service of Louise Wilkes, Andrea Shirley, and Chris Jensen, whose elected terms come to a close but whose ministries certainly continue.

Sitting down to write this report for you for the tenth time (the anniversary of our ten years of work together will be September 15), I’m always so grateful for all the ways in which you are so generous with each other and with this parish. Writing this year I am thrilled and excited that we have met our astonishingly ambitious 2015 pledge goal. St Francis of Assisi talked about being a fool for Christ. If any of us in 2012 had said we’d increase our stewardship giving by more than thirty percent in the space of two years, they would have been told in no uncertain terms they were just a fool. But here we are, and wow.
There were a lot of “wow” moments this year. Of course, the narthex, which literally brought tears to my eyes. We had the biggest ever participation in our Lenten small group educational series on the The Restoration Project. We listened to the movement of God in each others’ lives in those conversations, and came nearer to each other as well.
The vestry had its first ever “retreat retreat” for our annual time together, spending the day at Bethany House of Prayer, allowing us to reflect on how the Spirit had been weaving Her way through our conversations. A pivotal time I think for all of us on vestry was our conversations about the possibility of hiring a part time director of religious education. Though the search overall wasn’t successful, it was a grace-filled time of listening to each other, both in the vestry and in the team that did interviews and imagined together what the person might bring. I’m hopeful that the time might be right in 2015. Our Spring Arts Night was so much fun, and a great way to see God’s gifts in the lives of the performers. Kira Cohn’s pogo stick rendition of Happy was definitely a highlight of the year.
I’m grateful that our building has continued to offer home to so many different ministries and (ad)ventures. January of 2014 did begin on a sad note for our friends at St Peter’s, who experienced a split in their congregation, leading to half or so forming a new community in Belmont. I am grateful to the Diocese of Massachusetts for providing grant funds to enable St Peter’s to continue to meet the bulk of their financial responsibility to Christ Church. I was also glad that many members of St Peter’s joined us when we welcomed Bishop Shaw on his last visitation to the parish in March, and that many continue to join us for our Holy week Services.
I am so grateful for Victoria Sundgren and Sasha Killewald, wardens extraordinaire who keep me focused and attentive to so much. Our lay led compline series has been a great example of the vocation of the whole church to prayer, and the musical gifts of Jerome Fung are a constantly unfolding gift to the church. I’m also thrilled to have Christine Dutt working with our expanded older kids offerings and partnership with Good Shepherd Watertown and Erin Jensen continuing to lead our younger kids’ programs (as well as being a parent leader in the older kids’ organizing!). We would not have had a fraction of the growth we have seen over the last number of years without her steadiness and spirit. Meanwhile, I continue to be so thankful for the continual and kind presence of those who have kept things going all along, Sally and Cathy and all of the longtime members who “remember when.”
In 2015 I also began some new projects in my work as a priest in the wider world. I’ve now spent a whole year on the Commission on Ministry, the diocesan group tasked with working with those who are applying for and preparing for ordination. I’ve written pieces for the Waltham News Tribune on a more regular basis for holidays. I continue to serve on the Parmenter Housing board, which runs two affordable housing complexes for older women, and help here and there for the diocesan Life Together intern program.
I was sad to say goodbye to David Collins, but grateful for all the new things Cheryl is teaching us. And to say that I’m pleased to have Jaime Bonney in the office doesn’t come close to articulating how much I appreciate her! And, of course, I couldn’t close the report by mentioning my sadness at losing Jim Hewitt and Tom Shaw this year. In very different ways these two men shaped my priesthood and leadership, and I know that they dwell in light eternal with all the saints.