The vision to envision

On February 20th, the day the Episcopal Church remembers the prophetic witness of Frederick Douglass, I was with several of my colleagues at a gathering of clergy considered “new” to positions in the diocese, while our bishop and other colleagues were at the cathedral for the “Blessing of the Journalists.”  It was one of those times in which it was hard to focus on where you were and why, because so much of you longed to be in another place.  Being who we are, a few of us named this longing.

The colleague hosting our gathering named it beautifully in our shared prayer.  He read from Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” and invited us to share our thoughts.  Being people who regularly speak the things they think, i.e. a group of preachers, the conversation was full and rich with layers of shared understanding and unique experience.  As I listened, I was drawn deeper and deeper into one phrase from Douglass’ writing: ” I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July!” (pp. 4-5)

Perhaps because I was still being drawn deeper to that prayerful and reflective place in which my ponderings and wonderings reside, I was not yet ready to to speak to that which I was thinking, at least not in a fully formed kind of way.  And being someone who sometimes thinks out loud, and trusting my colleagues to hold that gently, I gave voice to the pull from Douglass’ words.  Although I don’t remember exactly what I said, I know it began being about the impact of experience on one’s perspective.  And it was then that I knew the musing was about vision and how to envision a shared dream or future.  As I sat looking at my friend and colleague, I heard myself saying,  “We can’t see the same things because when you look at me you see something different than I see when I look at you, and that limits us.  And I think it is more so the more focused we become because then we fail to see the people and things we know are around us.”

Now, this is not, as they say, rocket science.  It is not a groundbreaking insight.  Heck, it is not even something I was learning for the first time!  I know and have known for longer than I can remember that we are shaped by our experiences and that our experiences shape our perspectives.  Yet in that moment, sitting in a chapel, looking a friend and colleague in the eye as we engaged in faith-filled conversation about the grievous sin of slavery while reflecting upon the words of a former slave, something felt different.  It felt as if the holy and sacred work is in the reminder that to envision a future in which God’s dream is realized it is necessary that we stand side-by-side looking in the same direction, allowing our tears to wash away the barriers to understanding that what is behind us and past, as well as what is beside us and now, is not the same.

Middle bits of wilderness

I know I am not alone when I say that the Parkland school shooting feels different. It changed something in me.  Perhaps it is because I have finally had enough – though why the first or the second or the umpteenth school shooting was not enough is a question I take to God in prayer.

Perhaps it is because it occurred on the day of the Hallmark celebration of love and I heard one of the survivors say she initially thought the gunshots were Valentine’s Day balloons popping.  The innocence of that broke my already broken heart.

Perhaps it is because our youngest child and only daughter turned 18 on that day, and as I celebrated her burgeoning adulthood and increasing independence, I was wistful for the days that seem both like yesterday and so long ago when she was a perfectly formed and healthy 3 lb., 9 oz bundle of grace, who taught me for the third time that there are no bounds on love.

Perhaps it is because it was Ash Wednesday, the day Christians like myself enter into the season of solemn reflection and repentance by accepting a mark of our humility on our foreheads.  I know I have been stricken by my need to repent of my complicity in supporting a culture in which previously unspeakable violence is now commonplace. I know this more deeply as I listen to the despicable hubris of people who have the power and position to take meaningful action but who lack the moral authority and gumption to do so.

Perhaps it is for all of these reasons and maybe some I have not yet encountered in my consciousness. Whatever the reasons, the Parkland school shooting feels different and I am changed.

In my sermons this  past weekend, I preached about the Gospel (Mark 1:9-15):

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

This is a Gospel that at times has reassured me and at other times terrorized me.  (An aside: I took a class in seminary called “Preaching Texts of Terror” and this is the Gospel passage I chose.)

Whenever I hear the words, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” or the similar words found in other Gospel stories, I imagine God saying those words to me, and my heart sings.  One of my favorite things to do as priest and pastor, as chaplain, as neighbor and friend, is to remind people that God feels that way about them, too.  You can probably imagine my unfettered joy when an eight-year-old boy told me that God said those words to his four-year-old brother when we baptized the little guy in the late fall.

I almost always, to the extent that I probably could say “always” and have it be true enough to be truthful. hear the final sentence as comforting and an assurance of the hope I feel that God’s dream for God’s creation will come to be.

It is the middle verses, those about Jesus being driven out into the wilderness, that can bring comfort – “Of course I wrestle with temptation.  Even Jesus wrestled with temptation!”- or terror – “How can I ever even begin to think I can resist this temptation when even Jesus had to struggle?”  It is a Gospel passage I come back to time and time again when I am in the midst of a struggle and need to hear the beginning and the end so that I can get through the middle bits.

This week it has touched me in a way I am challenged to articulate clearly, though I felt, and continue to feel, compelled to talk about it.  There is something to be learned, something I need to learn, about the juxtaposition of love and the wilderness as I do the prayerful work of repentance and seek to understand the ways I am called to act. I find that my heart is all bound up in an almost consuming need to do something, anything, so that our young people, our children, never have to wrestle with the middle bits of a terrifying wilderness that is strictly of human making.

I have taken this to God in my prayer.  I have asked and continue to ask for the courage and wisdom to live my faith more boldly in the face of the evil that would place anything above the safety and well-being of children. I am learning that I am willing to venture into the wilderness that is corporate greed and a weapons-strengthened self-centered fear of anyone different, or that same fear of loss of power over another.

I enter this wilderness to repent of my complicity in conveying to my daughter, and to daughters and sons everywhere, that anything is more valuable, more important than their safety or their lives. I am willing to go into the wilderness that is eradicating gun violence to use the privilege I have as a white, middle-class, educated, professional woman to speak to another kind of power, the humble power that I see in Jesus’ example of unconditional love.  My heart is all bound up in a call to ensure that the only message our children hear from those who are responsible to nurture and protect them is “You are beloved. Believe in this good news.”

 

Amazing grace

Tonight, the parish I serve, the faithful and Spirit-filled Grace Church, Oxford, had a Shrove Tuesday pancake supper.  The kitchen was filled to overflowing with the fixings for the meal, which, in true Grace fashion, also included chocolate cake, apple pie, and yogurt and berry parfaits.  There were more griddles than I have ever seen in one place, each seemingly with a team of folks attending to the pouring and the flipping and the plating. We had Mardi Gras beads and beautiful placemats decorated by some of the children in Sunday School the other day.

We had a good crowd of diners, with some of the regulars, as well as some friends of the regulars, and a woman who visited us for the very first time because she was invited by an acquaintance in a yoga class.   We got the usual mix of photos, candid and posed, smiley and goofy.20180213_184612  It was a deliciously fun time.

Once or twice I found myself standing off to the side, just watching and listening, feeling myself smiling, and feeling the smile infuse my heart.  The sense of joy and friendship in the room was almost palpable.  There was lots of laughter  from “children” of all ages and the sounds of the young ones playing together. Young ones who met for the first time today shared the toys and negotiated the rules of games. The not-as-young shared easy conversation at the tables, while those in the smallish kitchen worked together with a rhythm and flow that seemed almost choreographed.

The kids and I blessed holy water. I am in awe of their innocence and reverence, which made the moment seem all the more sacred and holy.  I wish I had a picture of their fingers in the water, faces looking seriously up at me, syrupy breath, beads, and all, as I said the prayers. I know it would be a picture that would forever remind me of how truly blessed I am to be called to do the work that I do, work that almost never feels like work.

There is so much blessing in inviting and welcoming the sacred and holy into the midst of a simple meal, with an origin most people probably have forgotten.  It seems a splendid irony that we gathered to share this meal, made of those things that traditionally needed to be used up because they would spoil over the 40 days of Lent, and were fed with true fellowship, the kind that lives on in changed hearts and lives forever.  This truly is amazing grace.