Wednesday, February 25, 2009

ashes, ashes

I hit the wall about three hours ago: holy exhaustion.

Yesterday was Fat Tuesday: four hours at my paying job followed by a long day cooking our church Mardi Gras meal then partying with the motley crew that calls Holy Trinity home. There we were together--the homeless and the sheltered, the unemployed and the overworked, the hungry and the overfed--trading beads, eating gumbo, answering seasonal trivia questions (what's the only time of year Baptists have more fun than Episcopalians?) and dancing to zydeco. One young man, working out his life on the edges of survival, walked the ten cold blocks to his apartment and back just to invite his downstairs neighbor. On his way he told a woman coming in: In there is a little bit of paradise.

Today, I stood with a Lutheran pastor, offering ashes to bewildered bystanders in the STA Plaza--a part of our public "ashing" which began with a liturgy of repentance in front of Riverpark Square. Not too many takers in the bus plaza. Our fellow ashers had better luck in the skywalks and outside the mall. Life is scary for a lot of folks who frequent the bus plaza--two women (one in a collar) with sooty crosses on their foreheads are just another uncertainty best avoided.

Tonight, at Holy Trinity, we served our weekly meal to our neighbors: an oddball mix of homeless folks, single moms, street-roving kids, and elders. Too often our guests are lonely, hurting, broken-hearted. Before dinner, we did a brief liturgy of ashes with an explanation of the Ash Wednesday tradition, then offered our guests a smudged cross on forehead or hand. Paul, our priest, spoke of sin as broken relationship. Ashes, he said, are first a recognition that we are not God. And they remind us that we are all made of the same dust by the same merciful One. Lent is a time to connect with God, to repent and restore our broken relationships with God and with people. These marks, he said, are a sign to each other that says we are in this together. Together we sang: Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.

The thumb makes the mark--two strokes of Christ's suffering. The voice speaks these hard words: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Some received their mark with their eyes closed, some with eyes upcast beyond me. Some met my eyes intently with a look that I can only describe as recognition. And then we gathered at table, a memory of those agape feasts of the early church, a meal where all were fed. And on the face of the other, the cross--a common mark reminding us not just of sin and redemption, but that we are the "other."

So yes, I'm exhausted. Because how can I fathom my own sinfulness? I turn toward God and even in the turning find myself facing away again. What should be Love is too often love. What should be for the Other convolutes into Self. How can I embrace the solidarity required of this faith: we are all--God and people--in this together? But what really wears me out with a beautiful, blessed kind of exhaustion is how--in spite of us, in spite of me--Love washes over it, over us all.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Pucker up, baby!

As a deacon in the Church, you are to study the Holy Scriptures, to seek nourishment form them, and to model your life upon them.

I spent Monday and a good chunk of Tuesday in an anti-racism training that is mandatory nationwide for leaders in the Episcopal Church. Great intention, but in my opinion the training had a lot of problems from the logistical (cold room, weak coffee, hard seats) to the conceptual (rule #1: know your audience). In addition to being hopelessly lodged in "boomer-think"--(I just made that up. It means to think like a baby boomer ignoring the experiences of Generations X and Y)--the training was strangely un-theological. We prayed, we did a brief Bible study, and we had communion, but most of the time was spent with socio-historical materials that many of us had encountered (over and over) in high school and/or college. I came away feeling like I'd just experienced a secular training with liturgical window dressing. Nice aquarium, poet Li-Young Lee would say, but where are the fish?

At one point, I commented to my small group--perhaps with a bit too much sarcasm--that if we really want to talk about racism and the church we might want to start with the genocides in the Old Testament. I meant this very seriously: how do Christians get honest about our role in racism if we don't acknowledge the conflicting messages in our own faith about how we treat the "other"? Do we slaughter them? Or do we listen to Deuteronomy 24:18: "Do not deprive the alien . . ." remembering "that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there." Is Paul talking out of both sides of his mouth when he tells slaves to obey their masters then abolishes all distinctions between man and woman, slave and free?

I raise these questions not with any hopes of answering them, but to point out that they need to be asked. The examination for ordination to the diaconate includes the words quoted above "to seek nourishment" from the Scriptures. There is a lot in the Bible that we'd like to avoid. Frankly, it's distasteful. But if we really want to be nourished as Christians and as the Body of Christ, we can't afford to be picky eaters.

Even as a tiny baby, my son had a taste for the sour and bitter. In restraunts he would eat the lemons from our tea, screwing up is little face as if he was about to implode. But he kept right on eating them. I proposing something a little less radical. We don't have to like everything we eat in Scripture. We don't even have to accept it at face value. (Seriously, do we really want those who strike their parents to be put to death?!) But we have to acknowledge the darker moments of our faith story and ways our faith has gone horribly wrong for others.

During an online class in Old Testament, one student tried to make sense of the violence in the Old Testament by arguing that we have a better understanding of God now (all puppy dogs and sunshine, apparently) than "they" did back then. To me, it's more like photography--same reality, different angles. We have to be willing to wrestle with conflicting images of God and Christ. Islam has a list of 99 names for God which is recited in a prayer ritual similar to our rosary. God the Destroyer sidles up next to God the Comforter--and folks, however you feel about Islam, there is nothing "unbiblical" there. God's is not a flat, simple character, as soothing as that might be. We don't get Jesus the good shepherd without Jesus the temple trasher. (A golden retriever? Are you kidding me?)

When is the Kingdom of God coming? When we get real about all the ways we have, and will continue to, screw it up--avoiding cognitive dissonance by picking and choosing from Scripture like it's an all-you-can-eat buffet, ignoring the cultural and historical contexts of Scripture, or failing to leave our own agenda at the door using God's word to justify the institutionalized oppression (blacks) or attempted anihilation (Natives) of God's own creation.

My close friends know that I'm no literalist when it comes to Scripture, but I do believe that Scripture is sacred, and that even contradictions in Scripture help us wonder about God. I think God wants us to wrestle with these things and to take some responsibility for what happens when we fail to engage. And so I invite you to a no-thank-you helping of Deuteronomy, just one little bite of Genesis 34. There, now, that wasn't so bad.

When it comes to dismantling the systemic injustices of this broken world, of course we can learn from historians and sociologists. But if we really want to be God's instruments of change, we'll favor His wisdom over ours. We'll gather, we'll pray, we'll listen for the Spirit. And we'll feast on Scripture until it's running down our chins.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

More Anglican Humor

Stalling for time while I incubate my next real entry. Also, promised never to blog when angry.

So here's a joke instead:

Jesus said to the Episcopalians, "Who do you say that I am?"

They replied, "You are the eschatological manifestation of the ground of our being, the kerygma of which we find the ultimate meaning in our interpersonal relationships."

And Jesus said, "What?"

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Friday, February 13, 2009


In the name of Jesus Christ, you are to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely.

I broke my own rule today. I gave forty bucks knowing that at least some of it will probably go for booze and cigarettes for Shawn and his wife. Most of it will go for food. They are crashed in the apartment of a pot smoker who eats all their groceries in the night, but it’s that or a panel van under the bridge. Not much of a choice with nighttime lows heading for the teens. Meanwhile, they wait for the outcome of the low-income housing lottery.

Yes, we live in a country, state, and city where having a roof over one’s head is a game of chance.

I’ve always been partial to the margins—those spaces that frame the story, a whiteness that begs to be marked with argument and response or, as in ancient Bibles, the extravagance of precious pigments, silver and gold leaf. Illuminated texts, they are called: shot through with color and light.

And now I find myself in a new kind of margin, skirting the edges of the crowd. Where I’m traveling, the drunk on the sacristy steps interrogates this story titled “America in the 21st Century” or maybe just “Humanity.” Two young boys running the streets after dark duck into the bright light of the parish hall, all tough and bluster, for their only meal of the day. These margins are filled with question marks, broken windows, expired tokens. But also written here are love and mercy and worship. Everywhere: the fingerprints of God.

Alongside the story of the deaf homeless woman—her baby due in February—a jotted memory: the liquid green of light through leaves, lush hum of wings from the dogwood tree. There is nothing so merciful as a swarm of bees. Throbbing with life, singular of mind, they endure the cold. All winter, the innermost bees migrate outward toward the cold, making room for those on the edges to migrate in. It’s a perpetual dance, an unwritten contract, a blurring of margins that defies even January.

Never give cash. Except when the need is real and deep. And who’s to say what’s real, how deep the wound , how burdened the flesh.

Two crisp twenties. A brown paper bag of sanitary napkins—“womanly things”—his wife needs.

“Meet me here tomorrow, 12:30. You can store your food in the church refrigerator until your housing gets sorted out.” I waved goodbye from the doorway.

Hunched against late winter, he kept to the broken sidewalk that borders the city street.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


My sister, every Christian is called to follow Jesus Christ, serving God the Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit. God now calls you to a special ministry of servanthood directly under your bishop. --Book of Common Prayer (BCP), 543.

When I was a teenager, it was my job to cook dinner for my family once a week. My mom said that she was preparing me to be an adult. Of course, it also gave her a night off. One night, with a friend from school alongside me, I was making a salad for part of the meal. That meant I had to also slice tomatoes and put a slab of lettuce on a separate little plate for my father. He didn't like salad. I was in a generally peevish mood that night--probably because I had a friend over and still had to cook the weekly dinner, and probably because I was, well, a teenager. With my friend as the perfect, attentive audience, I went off on a rant about how silly it was to make something different for my dad--it was still lettuce and tomato after all--and when I got married, I was never going to cowtow to my husband's every demand. A while later, my mother came into the kitchen and said simply, "Your father has overheard every word you said." Then she added: "I make a separate plate for your father because I love him."


Mom always had a way of getting directly to the point.

Unlike a priest--who is called to be pastor, priest and teacher--a deacon is called to be a servant. And in the upside down world of the Gospels, this is exactly what Christ recommends. You want to be great? He asks. (Here I imagine him thoroughly exasperated with his disciples' never-ending pissing contest to be His number one.) He gathers the disciples around him and says: "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." (Mark 10:42b-45, NRSV).

But once we reach the epilogue--the Acts of the Apostles--the tone seems to change a bit. Irritated by squabbling between the Hellenists and the Hebrews over the distribution of food among the widows, the apostles proclaim: "It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables" (Acts 6:2b). So they chose seven men "of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom" to handle the details of caring for the marginalized. The apostles prayed and laid hands on these men--a precursor to our ordination liturgy.

These references to service in Mark and Acts both relate the word diakonia--service. Christ uses the same word (in verb form) to characterize himself, both in the passage from Mark and in Luke 22:27: ". . . I am among you as one who serves." And it's from diakonia that we get the term "deacon."

So just what does this service look like? For a long time, the servant role had negative connotations, especially for women who were trying to break free of gender expectations. Then, in the 1970s, the idea of "servant leadership" developed into a contemporary catchphrase--so much so that it is bandied about without much thought of its Christian origins. At its best servant leadership has the potential to do what Christ did when He washed His disciples feet: upset an entire worldview concerning leaders and the led. At its worst, servant leadership provides a kind of "good guy/gal" screen for leaders still operating under the old rules. Something like: "If I make it look like I'm doing this for your benefit, if I act like I give a damn about you, I can get away with some really oppressive leadership decisions."

Or maybe that's my cynical side talking. But I think we do well to remember that we are all prone to entanglement in the corruption of a broken world. So how can we reclaim the term "servant" from popular culture? How do we know when we are truly serving as Christ served, not merely playing a role? I would suggest there are three key signs of true servanthood.

1) The servanthood of the deacon has less to do with doing the roles typically identified as diaconal (such as charity, pastoral care, and social justice work) and more to do with a certain stance of the heart. All of the "doings" of deacons can be accomplished without a servant's heart--admittedly with varying degrees of success. And activites normally associated with the other orders--congregational leadership, preaching, teaching, administration, and so on--can be performed from a place of servanthood. This has something to do with love--as my mother's love for my father made her willing to spend an extra few minutes to provide for his particular desires--and it also involves emptying the heart of self-service and attachments, and actively rejecting the human lean toward heirarchy and disparities of power. Servanthood isn't about doing; it's about being.

2) The servanthood of the deacon may be evidenced in service to others--especially the ones on the margins--but the deacon is ultimately serving God. Charity is not servanthood. Labor is not servanthood. Fighting injustice is not servanthood. Servanthood happens when the deacon is oriented toward her true north. The deacon listens in the world for what wrecks God's heart, and seeks to bring healing and reconciliation in service to Him.

3) Just as Jesus washing the feet of His disciples caused some serious consternation, the true servanthood of the diaconate should--and will--upset the familiar order. If a deacon isn't causing at least a little scandal, a little anxiety in her community, she's probably not leaning into her servanthood quite hard enough. Diaconal servanthood requires the recognition of imbalanced relationship and seeks to restore balance--often by defying expectations.

The servant ministry of the deacon is to be a sign for others of "Jesus as servant"--that particular expression of God-among-us.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

An Ordered Life

In the weeks after my mom died, I bought my first mop. Understand, I'd been cleaning my floors all along. But my mother believed that a floor was not well and truly mopped unless one performed the chore on her hands and knees. Mom's rule--but I'd made it so completely mine that it never really occurred to me that there was any other way. At least, not until two weeks or so after her death. In the midst of a flurry of compulsive cleaning--a most physical manifestation of grief--it occurred to me: I could buy a mop.

And yes, I can see the thin line of not-quite-clean against the baseboards. Every so often during a so-called "spring cleaning"--which doesn't happen every spring--I deal with those edges. But mostly I've replaced Mom's rule with my dad's: "If you can't see it from the highway . . ."

I remembered this kitchen floor epiphany yesterday while wielding a sponge mop over linoleum that hadn't seen said mop in a very long time. (Let's just say, Mom would have been horrified.) I thought about how easily and unconsciously we adopt the rules set forth by those we love.

Except when it comes to God. God's rules--love God, love others--are fewer and far simpler than my mother's "purity laws" yet so much more challenging. And maybe this is why religious orders spell it all out in a "rule of life" their members must follow--a detailed explication of what those two simple rules actually look like when lived out.

For my friends who wonder what a rule of life looks like, check out a bit of Benedict's rule. The length and scope of The Rule of Benedict suggest he was something of a micromanager. But he's not alone. The Order of Julian of Norwich features a rule of life, or customary, that spans 50+ pages. So much for simple. In many communities, those entering the order are ceremoniously presented with a copy of the order's Rule which now trumps any rules they've made for themselves.

The word order and the word ordained come from the same Latin root which relates to "arranging" or "putting in order." Some people think ordination implies specialness and heirarchy--and there is some hint of that in the word root which also has to do with "ranking." But more accurately, ordination marks one's entry into an Order of ministry. (In the Episcopal Church ordained ministers include bishops, priests, or deacons; all baptized lay persons are also considered ministers responsible for living out the baptismal covenant.) An ordained person is said to have entered an "ordered life."

Over the next few blog entries, I'll reflect on some of the rules of the diaconate--as revealed in the diaconal ordination vows--and I'll speculate on how they might "order" a life.

As for the kitchen floor, I'm rather favoring the robot.

Friday, February 6, 2009

What do you ask?

On November 8, 2008, I became a postulant for the diaconate in the Episcopal Church, a next step toward ordination as a deacon. After almost 18 months of personal and corporate discernment, it was a quiet transformation marked only by the silent appearance in my inbox of a letter from the Bishop. Quite a contrast to the postulancy ceremonies still observed in some religious communities where the aspirant knocks three times on the door of the convent. The superior answers the door saying, "What do you ask?" The aspirant answers, "The mercy of God and of the order" and is welcomed over the threshold. Over the next months or years, she'll test her vocation in the context of community. Does she truly "belong"?

What do you ask? The word "postulant" is from the Latin "postulare"--to ask or demand. The same Latin root gives us the verb "postulate" which means "to make claim for" and "to assume or assert the truth." This suggests not a timid request, but a confident declaration of what I believe to be true of myself and my call. At the same time, postulancy is a time of discernment. It is, as the Benedictine's advise, a time for me and my community to listen with the ear of the heart. No wonder we ask for mercy.