Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Loving rainbows in the Body of Christ

Today's column in the Grand Haven Tribune, reprinted below. 
I was grateful to see the Rev. Justin Smith’s carefully thought-out response to my previous columns on homosexuality and same-sex relations.  I would like, however, like to respond to some of the points he raised.
 Most importantly, his essay raises the key distinction that exists among Christians today: Is every prohibition in the Bible (or even in the New Testament) true for all times and all places? Or, were some written for a culturally specific time and in culturally limited ways?

It is clear that the Rev. Smith is comfortable disregarding the dietary restrictions in the Levitical and Deuteronomic code, given Jesus statements in Mark 7. However, my guess would be that this is not the only part of the law he sets aside — unless he also trims the sides of his beard (Lev. 19:27) and believes that wearing a shirt that is a blend of fabrics is wrong (Lev 19:19).

He might say these are ritual, not sexual, questions; but then I would wonder if he also believes the portion of the law in Leviticus 19:20–22 where there is a lesser punishment for a man who has sex with a slave than with a free woman, also should still be applicable today. Surely this represents a cultural view of sexuality we would reject today as incompatible with the Gospel. Surely slave and free are equally valued by Christians.

If Christianity is going to prohibit something, if it is going to tell an entire class of people that their relationships are not welcome in the church, it must rest on stronger evidence than what has been provided thus far. Unjustly maintaining portions of the Old Testament ritual law while neglecting others is disingenuous.

All that remains is Romans 1 and I Corinthians 6, both cited by the Rev. Smith. The entire campaign of anti-gay prejudice in the church hangs on just these two passages. The key question is what we will do with them. Do Paul’s prohibitions in these texts apply to all times, places, and circumstances? Is he addressing all possible forms of same-sex activity or only specific forms that were known to him?

Paul had no conception — as we do today — that sexual orientation is not a choice people make. Paul knew of the activity, but always understood it as chosen. The prohibitions of Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6 come from a specific cultural and scientific understanding that cannot be maintained in light of modern science and the Spirit’s work to undo the prejudices that perpetually seem to bind God’s people.

“Ah, but the Bible is the inspired Word of God, and who are we to disagree with what God has said?” some might argue. But to affirm the inspiration of Scripture does not mean that all points are true for all times and all places. Otherwise, faithful Christians would also have to maintain that women may not speak in church (1 Timothy 2:12); modern-day slaves in Haiti, Pakistan, India and other countries are called by God to obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5 and Col 3:22); and if a woman is abused by her husband, she is not permitted to remarry after a divorce (Matthew 19).

No, simply to quote Scripture is not sufficient; particularly when there are questions of science, human knowledge and cultural prejudice that have changed since the times these texts were written. We value women and slaves differently than ancient times — that is at the heart of the Gospel message even if it was not reflected in some individual passages that addressed ancient situations. Careful exegesis, consideration of the culture the text came from and was written to, all placed within prayerful conversation among Christians who seek to discern God’s will — all of this is essential if we are to determine more clearly God’s Biblical call for us today.

The real and true question that remains unanswered in the Rev. Smith’s column is this: What is the call of the church to LGBTQ Christians? Does he agree with Paul that sexuality is chosen, that they should therefore change and be straight? Or does he believe LGBTQ Christians should live a life of celibacy — one to which few people are gifted and one that, when forced, often results in repression and unhealthy expressions of sexual behavior?

I don’t believe the Rev. Smith is being dishonest or twisting Scripture — two charges he has leveled very clearly against me. Rather, I believe we both disagree regarding what portions of Scripture are true for all times and places and which are culturally limited. Context is indeed essential.

Furthermore, churches like mine are not just telling people to do what feels good. Rather, we are maintaining that marriage is indeed the proper avenue for sexual expression — we simply disagree with him that this discipline (which is rarely easy!) should be limited only to opposite-sex couples. Same-sex marriage is disciplined choice.

Until the broader Christian church starts considering more carefully the context of these passages and, just as importantly, the pain of LGBTQ Christians who have suffered from being told their orientation is in need of transformation (a message that is behind countless tragic suicides in our country and ongoing murders in others), then the church will remain out of step with a God who seeks to undo our prejudices against each other and call all people into one united body, rainbows and all.

“For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.” (Eph. 2:14–16)

— By The Very Rev. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist who serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven and dean of the Lakeshore Deanery of the Diocese of Western Michigan.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Christian Marriage for Only Man and Woman?

My column in today's Grand Haven Tribune on whether or not marriage is a state that is proper both to opposite sex and same-sex couples. The print version was edited slightly (probably for length!), so I'm posting the full version I wrote here. 

In my last column, I wrote about “the notorious six,” the six passages of Scripture that deal explicitly with the question of homosexuality. I talked about how two are from a Levitical code that condemns many things we don’t believe are sinful for us today (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13). Two are stories of brutal rape (Genesis 19:1–29 and Judges 19:1–30). One is Paul’s condemnation of a system of male prostitution (1 Corinthians 6:9). The final one is Paul’s condemnation of those who give up what is natural for the purpose of sexual experimentation (Romans 1:18–29). I argued none of these even consider, much less reject, the reality of the covenanted sharing of life and sexual intimacy between two people of the same-sex.

So the question remains, however, whether marriage is indeed the proper state, the best call to gay Christians. This question raises up an oft-overlooked verse in the debate. Though Jesus never chose to address the question of same-sex activity in any form, he did address the question of marriage. He says in Matthew 19, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh.”

How does this text affect our understanding of same-sex relationships, particularly as they relate to the Christian teaching of marriage?

What Jesus is describing here is the primeval origin of marriage, what God had intended when he made the first two people back in Genesis 1–2. The original intent of marriage, at the beginning, was one man and one woman united for life. And the primary purpose of that relationship, as described in Genesis, was so a person would not be alone, but would have “a helper as his partner.”

You might be catching that when Jesus references this ancient text, he is actually not primarily concerned about same-sex relationships, but rather with the question of divorce. Indeed, for conservative Christians who have embraced a more generous understanding of divorce, one that allows for remarriage as an experience of grace after that tragedy—for those same Christians to use this text to reject same-sex relationships is one of the cheapest interpretive moves out there in contemporary Christianity.

Jesus’ disagreement in Matthew 19 is with a system of divorce that had grown from the Mosaic code, one in which women had no choice but could simply be dismissed at will. This increasingly led to poverty, to the discarding of someone after a man was done with her. Jesus rejects this, insisting that just because the code allowed for divorce in our fallen world does not mean that people can be discarded. He insisted that the allowance of divorce does not change the original intention of marriage—to wit, that it should be life-long, that it was focused on a self-giving care for the other.

Christians are people of grace, people who, following Jesus, do not use the law to wound, but use the law of love to heal. For that reason, many contemporary Christians find no trouble agreeing with Jesus that discarding people is wrong, but still would say that if a divorce does happen—always a tragedy—those divorced people are not precluded from the grace of remarriage in the future.

Similarly, one of the original creation intents of marriage was for the procreation of children. However, some couples are not able to do that. Some choose not to do that. We do not forbid them from marriage. The vast majority of Christians also would not forbid them from the experience of sex within that marriage. One of the biggest reasons is because the actual creation intent that comes from God’s own mouth is that marriage is so that a person is not alone, but that she or he can live a partnered life with another.

So, for people who, simply through the virtue of how they were created, are gay or lesbian… what is the graced response? When it comes to divorced people and those who cannot (or choose not to) bear children, two groups who may not experience the full original intent of marriage in creation, they are still invited to marriage because of the deeper grace of a covenanted life with a partner. Will the church also share that grace with those who, because they are gay or lesbian, clearly cannot be united for life in a sexual union with someone of the opposite-sex, not without entering into a relationship that will wound much more than it will heal?

Jesus is teaching us about the intent of marriage—not about the only possible way it can be experienced. For the church to be an avenue of grace in our world, it must offer the grace of marriage to GLBTQ people just the same as it does to those who are divorced, just the same as it does to those who are infertile or who choose not to have children.

Jesus also taught the legalists in his day that humans were not created for the law, but the law was created for humans (Mk 2:27). Jesus rejected those who took such a strict interpretation of the law that it wound up wounding those without power, tying burdens on people’s backs that were impossible to carry. He rejected religious leaders who would not try to lift those weights (Mt 23:4 and Lk 11:46). Jesus taught us that disciplined love is at the heart of who we are. And disciplined love does indeed call for all people in the church to have access to all of the sacraments—including that of Holy Matrimony.

The Very Rev. Jared C. Cramer serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven and as dean of the Lakeshore Deanery of the Diocese of Western Michigan. He will be offering a four-week series on the Christian Teaching of Marriage on Wednesday nights in August at St. John’s, from 5:30pm–6:30pm, after 5:15pm Evening Prayer. All are welcome.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

On Learning to Apologize, or, How the Body Welcomed Me Home

Have you ever walked around a city with a shirt saying, "I'm sorry"?

Let me tell you, it's a strange experience.

A few weeks ago, I got an invitation in my e-mail to participate in an "I'm Sorry" event at the West Michigan Pride festival in Grand Rapids. I get all kinds of strange invitations to things, so I took this one rather skeptically and did some digging.

I eventually came across this picture:

Photo Credit: Michelle at Maladjusted Media

I had a feeling that this event might actually be on to something.

I dug around a bit more and decided that this was the sort of thing I wanted to be a part of. To be honest, I didn't even know Grand Rapids had a Pride event at all (much to my chagrin). I e-mailed the organizer of the local "I'm Sorry" campaign and put out a sign-up sheet at my parish.

When I woke up this morning, I had no idea what to expect. The Rev. John Edwin Infante Pinzon, a deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Colombia is here staying with me and I asked if he wanted to join me. He was very enthusiastic. So we donned our clericals and headed to downtown Grand Rapids.

We met up with the handful of others who were there—including a Facebook friend who occasionally shows up at my parish with his husband—and were given our "I'm Sorry" t-shirts. I put it on over my clericals and settled in for the next few hours.

Let me tell you a bit of what grace looks like.

There is a couple of young women walking toward me. They see a group outside the gates of the Pride event holding signs and look at us rather sideways. They are as skeptical as I was. Then they read the first sign, "God is love." They read the second, "I'm sorry the church has hurt you." They see the one I am holding, in my clerical collar, t-shirt over top, "I'm sorry. Please forgive me."

The pace slows and the two women look at me. One of them has tears well up in her eyes as she mouths, "Thank you."

I smile and say, "I really am sorry. Thank you for who you are. I love you."

And then they move on.

This, beloved, is what grace looks like. Over and over again, people stopping, asking if they can take pictures. A few asked if we were serious. We said we were. That we really were sorry.

Then we often hugged.

And let me tell you, hugging someone after apologizing for the church having told them a false narrative of damnation their whole lives, hugging a person after that apology... that is one serious hug.

One of my friends on Facebook noted that I was not the sort of Christian who needed to apologize, that I had been affirming before he had even learned to affirm himself as a bisexual. I was reminded of one of my favorite lectures David Fleer would give in the Old Testament Survey class at Rochester College, a class for which I was the tutor for several years.

He would talk about what slavery actually looked like in America in the south. He would tell a story of a young woman who worked hard all day until her fingers bled, who had been sold and traded over and over again. And then he would talk about her master climbing into her bed and demanding the last scrap of humanity she had left.

Then he would say, "Tell me, don't you think someone needs to say, 'I'm sorry,' when it comes to horror like that? Don't you think we bear a responsibility to do something today in response to such monstrosity?"

And we, young evangelicals who had been told that reparations were a liberal fantasy, would gulp and say, "Yes. Absolutely."

He told this story to illustrate the story of Nehemiah, the prophet who helped the people rebuild Jerusalem but who led them first to confess the sins of their ancestors. He did this to make it clear why it might be a good idea to stand up and apologize for the wrongs of those who went before you.

At one point, someone sent me to go get something, and so I went on a short walk around Grand Rapids in my clerical collar with a white t-shirt over top saying, "I'm sorry." It felt like a scarlet letter. People looked and often seemed confused. One young woman asked what I was doing and I explained, "I'm part of a group who wants to say I'm sorry because the church has done tremendous harm to the GLBTQ community." She said, "Oh, wow. That's really cool."

I wore that shirt because I do believe the church needs to say I'm sorry. Don't get me wrong, there are lots of good things going on today. There were probably four or five booths inside the festival that were set up by churches who were there to proclaim welcome and acceptance.

But a lot of people have been really hurt by the church. And so, before they go into that festival, before they hear the words of welcome, I think they did need to hear some Christians say, "I'm sorry. I really am sorry."

And I wore that shirt for the times I have failed. I wore that shirt for the gay slurs I used when I was a foolish middle-school student, slurs I used against someone who wound up, a few years later, becoming one of my closest friends. I wore that shirt for an ex-girlfriend from my teenage years who I later met, for when she told me she was a lesbian and I questioned how she could say that and be a Christian. I wore that shirt because, despite my position today, I have screwed this thing up royally in the past.

I was sorry. I am sorry. I am so deeply and profoundly sorry.

Anytime someone said hello or thank you to our group, my friend Todd would respond, "I'm sorry." I tried to do it to, but it was hard. Our culture is horrible at apologizing, but eventually I got the hang of it. Three older people would walk by and one would say, "Thank you for this." I learned to respond, "You're welcome. I really am sorry. I truly am."

Over and over again, people would hear this, would read our signs, and would start tearing up.

Tears, beloved. Today was a day of tears.

I think I was almost in a dream today. I was in a place, like an orphanage, that was filled with children who had been rejected by God's family, children who had been rejected over and over and over again. And we stood up and acknowledged that. We acknowledged that there needed to be some repentance here, some actual declaration that the body of Christ had truly failed on this thing.

Because this community, this strange and diverse GLBTQ community had continued the Body of Christ after the larger Body had sought to cut it off. They created their own community, their own sense of pride and wonder in all of God's wonderfully fantastic and glorious creations. Some Christians thought this community was different, but we were wrong. It was a part of Christ's body that had been lopped off due to ignorance and prejudice.

Today we said I'm sorry.

Today we asked that other part of the Body if they would welcome us home.

Because they are the ones who now hold our salvation.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Longing for Reconciliation: A Reflection on Communion Regardless of Baptism

On Facebook yesterday, I posted an article by Bishop Matthew Gunter of the Diocese of Fond du Lac, entitled, "Baptized into Eucharist—The Problem with 'Open Communion,' Some Anecdotes." In it, Bishop Gunter shares some of his experiences with this question as a priest, experiences that I found refreshing because they so honestly depicted what this actually looks like on the ground in the average parish.

The idea that those who oppose Communion Regardless of Baptism (or CROB, my preferred term, particularly since "Open Communion" already has a defined ecumenical meaning and is something the Episcopal joyfully practices and that other traditions, particularly Roman Catholics, reject), the idea that we are somehow checking cards at the rail or even turning away from the rail someone we know to be unbaptized is not only untrue, it is disingenuous to the pastoral training and approach of most every cleric in our church. This is not a question that is answered at the rail—it is one answered in the pastoral relationships that flow from the rail.

So, I thought it was a good article.

In particular, I loved the quote from Bishop Rowan Williams, retired Archbishop of Canterbury,
It must be said, of course, that this complete sharing of baptismal and Eucharistic life does not happen rapidly or easily, and the problem remains of how the church is to show its openness without simply abandoning its explicit commitment to the one focal interpretive story of Jesus. To share Eucharistic communion with someone unbaptized, or committed to another story or system, is odd-not because the sacrament is 'profaned', or because grace cannot he be given to those outside the household, but because the symbolic integrity of the Eucharist depends upon its being celebrated by those who both commit themselves to the paradigm of Jesus' death and resurrection and acknowledge that their violence is violence offered to Jesus. All their betrayals are to be understood as betrayals of him; and through that understanding comes forgiveness and hope. Those who do not so understand themselves and their sin or their loss will not make the same identification of their victims with Jesus, nor will they necessarily understand their hope for their vocation in relation to him and his community. Their participation is thus anomalous: it is hard to see the meaning of what is being done.
–  Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel, p. 61
Now, I've written about the question of Communion regardless of Baptism before ("A Slight Rant on Current Arguments for CROB"). In that essay I not only expressed my frustration at the straw men advocates of CROB often trot out, but I argued that CROB was actually a diversionary tactic by a Christianity that has become too timid to proclaim a real welcome into our homes for meals.

Indeed, over and over again people argue that Jesus practiced radically open table fellowship, that this is the the fundamental point undergirding communing the unbaptized. However, strangely enough, those same people rarely make the argument that Jesus' table fellowship mean we should start inviting all people into our homes for meals (which would be the more natural conclusion).

Interestingly, I have even had advocates of CROB criticize me for two programs I lead in local bars, one a "Theology on Tap" and the other a "Whiskey School." They have criticized the presence of alcohol at events I host—though I am careful in both to be very clear that neither is an activity of our local Episcopal parish and are simply events I host on my own as a priest. To me, events like this are the actual outgrowth of Jesus' practices of table-fellowship (and why he was criticized for it as well). These events put me in touch with people I would likely never meet in another situation, they are opportunities for relationship to begin.

Radical table-fellowship, as Jesus practiced it, is about an invitation to relationship. That invitation should be broad and expansive, heading out into all sorts of places that might be seedy and questionable.  I believe in radical table-fellowship—I simply believe that CROB is a wimpy way out that still assumes the best way to reach out to the unbaptized is when they wander into one of our churches.

However, there is a deeper question that I want to explore right now, one that was raised on the Facebook post.

I think that one of the items I find unfortunate is that this question gets discussed in the question of "inclusion vs. exclusion" as though communion of the unbaptized is necessarily an exclusionary approach and welcoming the unbaptized to receive the sacrament is always an inclusionary approach. The church should be about including all people, the argument goes, so we should include all people in Holy Eucharist.

First off, I think that this position is in error because it places the question of inclusion at the center of what it means to be church. Of course, the idea that Christians should be inclusive is indeed central to much of the rhetoric in the Episcopal Church these days... but it seems to me that inclusion, in and of itself, is not a fundamental Gospel concept.

Instead, the primary question, for me, is "reconciliation." Reconciliation is the ministry of the church. In the words of the BCP, our mission is "to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ" (BCP 855). Or, as this is rather eloquently put in the Second Letter to the Corinthians (5:16–20):
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 
God has been bold and reckless, loving us when we were yet sinners and entrusting us, as the Body of Christ in the world, with the ministry of reconciliation, with restoring all the brokenness of this world—both the brokenness of our relationships with each other and creation and the brokenness of our relationships with the divine.

With reconciliation standing at the center of who we are as Christians, the conversation about the Eucharistic table becomes slightly different. The fundamental question becomes, which better enacts and effects the church's ministry of reconciliation, the inviting of the unbaptized to join in the Eucharistic act or the maintaining of baptism as what invites us into that Eucharistic act?

Honestly, to me, the welcome to receive a blessing and kneel alongside Christians, to me, is a reconciling act. We bless freely and with abandon at the Eucharistic table, declaring God's love over all people and all things. That is a profound statement of grace.

And by stating in our rubrics and our bulletins that all people are welcome to the altar—all people—either to receive a blessing or the sacrament, we are practicing profound welcome. Because by maintaining the distinction between blessing and the sacrament, we are saying that full reconciliation (our being made one with you) would involve something more. By acknowledging distinction we honor those who are not Christian and create space for reconciliation, if the person desires it.

That is, to welcome the unbaptized to receive communion seems, to me, to enact a community that is not authentic. By practicing an easy inclusion—one that comes at no real cost, other than making people like me grumpy—the deeper opportunities for reconciliation are brushed under the rug and avoided. As much as I love non-Christians and pagans, as much as I adore reading about Hinduism and Buddhism, as much respect as I have for the traditions of Judaism and Islam, I am not one with those religions. They are not one with me.

Don't get me wrong, it could be that in the end of all existence, when we are all caught up in divine love, we will all wind up united anyway and hell will be emptied by the thunderous love of God. Heck, that's actually what I hope will be the case. It's actually what I believe is the most likely end.

But I am called to live authentically today. And that means acknowledging difference where difference exists. That means honoring and loving those who do not practice the Christian faith—not inviting them to pretend they are Christians by joining in the sacramental act that is central to what it means to be a Christian.

Because Christians are those who have died to self and been united with Christ's body through the act of baptism. Holy Eucharist is our constant experience of uniting ourselves (through the symbols of our gifts of bread and wine) to Christ's sacrifice on the cross, a union that flows from our baptismal identification with Christ's death.

In Holy Eucharist, we receive the body and blood of Christ precisely because we are one body in Christ. As we say in the sending out of Eucharistic Visitors, "We who are many are one body because we share one bread and one cup." Or, as the ancient words of St. Augustine at communion, used at the invitation to communion by the Society of St. John the Evangelist, "Behold what you are.  May we become what we receive." For the unbaptized, this is not yet what they are. This is not the end to which they point.

Those who are not Christian are not a part of the Body of Christ. That does not mean they are not a part of God's activity in the world. Any theologian worth her or his salt will tell you that. It just means they are not incorporated into Christ, into this particular manifestation of God in the world that we, as Christians, have chosen to call true.

And this raises one final point—a liturgical point, but one that I believe is absolutely essential.

There is a slight idea present in CROB, I think, an idea that forgets that it is the assembled Body of Christ who, through invocation of the Spirit, effect the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist. It is not the priest. The priest is simply the presider for the people. It is the community that makes the sacrament "happen." We give ourselves to God once more and God turns our gifts of ourselves—through bread and wine—into the Christ we follow, inviting us to feed on Christ. We are all priests, a kingdom of priests, gathered around the altar.

The unbaptized may be bystanders in this experience. They may see it and be profoundly moved, deeply drawn to God becoming flesh once more through bread and wine, prayer and praise. But they are not yet a part of the kingdom of priests who make this happen, they are not incorporated into the body which calls God to be present.

When the priest offers the sacrament to the unbaptized, the priest not only robs the laity of their voice in the governance of the church (since the laity have a clear voice in determining, though General Convention and, from that, the canons and the Book of Common Prayer, who may or may not receive the Sacrament), but they also rob the unbaptized of the experience of actual incorporation into the kingdom of priests who are able to call upon Christ's presence to greet them at each act of Holy Communion.

By collapsing distinction, they remove the possibility for reconciliation and incorporation into the Body. By saying they are already a part of us, they rob the unbaptized of the experience of what it feels like to become a part of us.

We had this happen at my church. We had a young woman, a nursery care worker, who fell in love with the community here. She wound up resigning as a worker so she could be a worshipping member of the community in the Nave every Sunday. She took communion once or twice and rejoiced in her new journey. She then discovered she was not baptized and came to me. We talked. I told her not to worry, she had not committed sin or error, that she was now simply being invited by God to journey deeper. She entered the catechumenate in our church. For several months she did not receive the Sacrament, but a blessing instead. She journeyed through the catechumenate, building relationships with baptized members who were  preparing for the reaffirmation of their own baptismal vows.

And then, on the Great Vigil of Easter, she was plunged into a big feeding trough filled with cold water. She truly felt like she was dying, she later told me. She rose up from the water and the bishop rubbed scented oil on her head. The candidates for reaffirmation then came around her, wrapping her in clean white towels, welcoming her among them, welcoming her among us.

Then, gathered with the community, she now joined us in calling upon her Lord to be present. She now came to the altar, fully a part of Christ's body. She received bread and wine as a part of the body of Christ. She became reconciled and restored, a part of Christ's body in the world. She died to herself, laid herself on that altar, and then received back new life in bread and wine in a body and blood that was a part of her as a member of Christ's body.

And now her husband has started coming. Now he wants to know when the next catechumenate will open. Now he wants to be reconciled with Christ, to become part of Christ's body.

She hungered and then she was fed. He is hungry and he will be fed because the church welcomes all to these baptismal waters.

But if there is no opportunity for hunger, the feeding will never be as sweet.

And if we simply include everyone who comes then, I fear, the moment and opportunity for true and deep reconciliation will be lost.

I tried my hand at the Bible, tried my hand at prayer, but now nothing but the water is gonna bring my soul to bear. 

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Inherently Christian Choice of Free Love

My June 3, 2015, column for the Grand Haven Tribune, "The inherently Christian choice of free love,"
Earlier this month, in Garland, Texas, an activist named Pamela Gellar sponsored an event called “Jihad Watch Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest.”

She did this because she believes America is facing a dangerous “Islamization.” She believes Muslims are seeking to impose the practice of their religion on society. She believes we are facing a war and she uses violent language to describe her understanding of the situation.

Due to the vitriol and misrepresentation in her views, the Southern Poverty Law Center now lists her organization as a hate group...

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Thoughtfully Reflective Prayer Book Revision #TractSwarm Three

This post is an answer to the call of the SCP for a third #TractSwarm, this one on the subject of prayerbook revision. 

A couple of months ago, I was at the Province V Synod meeting in Chicago. After a conversation about what is coming at General Convention, as we were walking to dinner, I was talking with a few bishops. I mentioned how I believed that the time was right to start the process of prayer book revision.

All three looked at me and said, in one way or another, "Not again in my ministry."

Having lived through the experience of the 1979 prayer book revision, none of these bishops were not keen living through another one. I could imagine they probably wanted to pat my head, "Oh you lovely young priest, if only you knew what it is you're asking for."

One of the reasons the 1979 Book of Common Prayer was a controversial revision, I believe, is that it was trying to be a prescriptive revision. Not only was it a significant reorientation of the shape of our liturgical practice, but it was trying to do things that only existed in a few places at the time. It took the best of mid-twentieth century liturgical scholarship and produced one of the finest liturgical texts to come out of the Liturgical Renewal movement, embodying the ideals and vision of that movement, particularly in the areas of ecumenical consensus and a return to historic texts.

To wit, it was trying to shift—rather significantly—the way the average Episcopalian worshipped.

I am one of those who believe it is indeed time to begin the process of preparing for revision to the 1979 prayer book. However, I don't think what is called for today is a revision of our liturgies in light of new advances in liturgical scholarship and theology—at least not primarily. I think we need prayer book revision because so many parishes in our church already are doing some things remarkably differently than the current BCP prescribes. We don't need to make significant changes to the way the average Episcopalian worships—we need a prayer book that reflects, in a considered way, the way the average Episcopalian today worships.

What we need is descriptive or reflective prayer book revision. We need revision that engages the actual lived practice of our various congregations and then places that practice into conversation with the current movements and streams of liturgical theology, a revision that places current practices in conversation with the broader community and the best of today's scholarship. Following that work, a revised prayer book could then articulate what the bounds, limits, and shape of our worship at the beginning of the 21st century should be.

And I believe there are two fundamental and significant issues pushing us to undertake this work.

The first issue is the question of what we believe about marriage. Same-sex marriage is increasingly becoming the norm and I heartily commend the Task Force on Marriage for, what I believe, has been excellent work. I used the provisional liturgy for blessing same-sex relationships last year and found the experience to be holy and a profound honor.

However, the current BCP is very clear that "Christian marriage is a solemn and public covenant between a man and a woman in the presence of God" (BCP 422). This makes me uncomfortable. I am uncomfortable with this line being in a prayer book that is supposed to be common to all Episcolians.

Furthermore, I believe that we have, in some ways, gotten the cart before the horse by moving forward all over the place with affirming same-sex relationships without addressing what our prayerbook says. Now this is often, of course, how the Spirit works. When the Spirit fell on the Gentile believers in Acts 15, Peter did not say, "Wait, we must first change the rules and get them baptized!" However, he did baptize them. He did regularize and normalize what the Spirit was already doing and then, going forward, a new practice was used.

It very could be that we wouldn't be where we are today if it weren't for bold and prophetic choices in the past couple decades. Absolutely. However, I also resonate with those who say they struggle with the church consecrating a bishop, for example, who is in a relationship the church has not also declared can be blessed. It's great for that bishop to be affirmed... but what about the thousands of GLBTQ members who are looking for the church to acknowledge the holiness of their relationships, too?

Now is the time to begin the process of regularizing. The marriage liturgy should be updated and, most importantly, it should be clear that we, as Episcopalians, believe that "Christian marriage is a solemn and public covenant between two persons in the presence of God."

That doesn't force anyone to affirm same-sex unions, it just enlarges the breadth of our prayer book. Those who hold a conservative view are not in disagreement with the idea that marriage is a covenant between two persons, they just want to add to that claim. They can have a gender-neutral liturgy and continue to hold their views—the change just gives rooms for those of us to disagree to do so and still use the same book. This is the genius and goal of the Anglican approach to liturgy, after all—to find ways to use language in worship wherein those with different, even contradictory, views can still worship together.

Our prayer book should reflect who we are and what we believe about God and the church. The current separate but equal approach is not, to me, tenable any longer.

Gendered Language
The other question that I do think we need to pick up is the use of gendered pronouns in our corporate worship. It is now very common to be at an Episcopal Church and hear the Celebrant call out, "Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," and the People respond, "And blessed be God's kingdom, now and for ever, amen."

Which is not, of course, what the prayer book says. The prayer book says, "And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever, amen."

I want to be very clear, I strongly support the use of non-gendered pronouns to refer to God. I have no problem with the content of the substitution many people are making to the opening acclamation—however, I think this change needs to stop being a small (and minor) violation of the language of the prayer book and needs to be the actual authorized liturgy of this church.

The reason I don't use that language in my own worship is not only because of my personal beliefs about the importance of upholding the prayer book. It is also because if I do it, it is too easy for me to be content with what I am doing and forget that there are other places in the church where this change simply is not happening. There are other places in the church where little girls and boys grow up thinking God must be a "he."

So, I use our current authorized gendered-language because it makes me uncomfortable. It forces me to continue to ask why we haven't fixed this, why we haven't changed this yet.

Now, when it comes to actual gendered images of God—apart from pronouns—I am for more, not less. I believe in affirming the traditional image of the Trinity, while also holding up other orthodox images for God. Bob Hughes in his book Beloved Dust does this amplification of images in a way that is both lovely and orthodox. He describes the Father as the "Fount," leaning upon the tradition's understanding that the Father is the source of all things, including the eternally begotten Son and the for ever proceeding Spirit.

And though some would prefer us to move to entirely gender-neutral language, I don't think that's helpful either. Because the feminine images for the divine are also powerful and essential to the Christian tradition. Our liturgy should invite us to worship a God who is also mother. Other images in the tradition about Christ as the mother who nourishes us as pure milk (Anselm) or God as the woman who gave birth to a people (Hosea, among other prophets) are rich images to be claimed.

The problem with doing this in small pockets without engaging our authorized texts is that the theology and images get a little mixed up, at times. This is why we need the best contemporary liturgical scholars, Biblical scholars, theologians, poets, and writers to work together not only to cleanup unnecessary gendered pronouns in our liturgy but help us find good ways of amplifying and using the various images for God present in Scripture and tradition.

Other Important Questions
The questions of the marriage liturgy and gendered language are, to me, essential for consideration now because so much of the church is already operating in a way outside of the bounds of the prayer book. Revision is needed so that our official liturgy describes what our community actually thinks and believes about God and the world.

However, these are not the only questions that should be considered.

Multi-Cultural Realities
Attention should also be paid to the multi-cultural nature of our church. As I have begun moving among the Latino currents of the Episcopal Church, I have heard at times that Latino clergy and seminarians feel like the current book is more Anglo than it needs to be. No matter the language it is translated into, it still seems, to some, to reflect a specific culture that feels foreign. I am not qualified to make that assessment on my own, but careful attention should be paid to ensure that our authorized liturgy is one that is embracing of all cultures through more than mere translation of English idiom into Spanish. Liturgical scholars and clergy from other cultural realities need to be a part of leading this work.

Attention should be paid to the current confirmation liturgy. In one of the trial liturgies before the 1979 book, this was written as a simply liturgy for the Reaffirmation of Baptismal Vows. Bishops worried, however, that if that happened they wouldn't have anything to do. The current liturgy maintains a theology of reaffirmation (not completion) of baptism, but does so in a way that at times seems slightly confused about how important confirmation actually is or is not. Certainly, in the actual practice of parish and diocese, there is a good amount of confusion about how important confirmation actually is. (If you're interested in looking more closely at the practice of English Christianity on this question, I'd not so humbly commend the paper I wrote on the subject a couple of years ago as a part of my D.Min. work.)

Flowing from this, attention to be paid to our understandings of baptism. The 1979 prayer book was heavily influenced by the liturgical movement and the emerging ecumenical consensus on baptism. Thus, as many a confirmation class has heard, baptism is at the heart of our prayer book. The Book of Occasional Services took this one step further with the development of resources for the catechumenate. The current BCP encourages baptism to be limited to four baptismal days (and the occasion of the bishop's visit). That is, baptism is not seen as something easy to get into, but something that requires preparation of either the candidates or the sponsors of child candidates.

But there are streams starting to push against that. There are congregations of clergy and laity saying the rules have become too restrictive, asking, "Why wouldn't we baptize anyone who wanted to be baptized and let catechesis come after that?" And, of course, there are those who argue for reception of communion being at least allowed as an initiatory or converting ritual with baptism following later.

We need to (continue to) wrestle with these questions as a community. We need to decide if we hold up baptism as a moment of entry after a process of preparation, or if we hold it up as an entry point offered to anyone without regard to preparation–something to be offered freely and liberally, or if we hold baptism up as a proclamation of a reality that can come after one has already become a communicating part of the worshipping community.

The current confusion regarding baptismal practice is not helpful—particularly for newcomers who, thus, often feel as though they are at the whims of the proclivities of the clergy of the church they come into.

Concluding Thoughts
There are those who would prefer we move the direction of our sisters and brothers in the Church of England. Retain one authorized Book of Common Prayer but then authorize several supplemental liturgies that bring significant breadth of options to the church. That way everyone can kind of have what they want. And I suppose that is one approach.

But I know one thing that I have not enjoyed about my trips to England is never quite knowing what I will get in worship. If I go to a cathedral, I'll likely get the Anglican liturgy I largely know and with which I am familiar. However, the more one ventures into parishes across the country, the more diversity crops up. And I, at least, have not always found that diversity to be uplifting.

Don't get me wrong, I absolutely do believe that one of the riches of the Anglican tradition is our affirmation of diversity, of the idea that catholic and protestant, liberal and conservative, can all come together for worship. But that diversity is founded on the idea that we are, at the very least, united by our common prayer.

I don't think we are ready to finalize any of the issues I've raised. But I do believe it is time to begin, in earnest, talking about them not only as liturgical questions, but with a goal of reaching a point where we can come out with a revised prayer book that is indeed reflective of all the riches the Episcopal Church has to offer.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Perils of Failure to take Resurrection Seriously #Baltimore SCP #TractSwarm Two

I'm on a lovely and wonderful vacation right now, visiting my mom and stepdad in England. I've mostly adapted to the time change, sleeping through the night regularly now.

Except for last night.

Last night, I woke up in the middle of the night, wide awake for some reason. I did what my wife lovingly reminds me I shouldn't do if I want to go back to sleep... reached for my cell phone. I clicked open Facebook and  saw what was happening in Baltimore. I read through the posts beginning to appear as the violence was escalating, a city appearing to fall apart while I peacefully slept in my mom's house among the Yorkshire dales.

"Fifteen police injured in clashes with protestors in Baltimore" was the first headline I saw.

I clicked through more posts and saw police in full riot gear, hiding behind a tank.

I clicked more and came across my friend Broderick Greer, a seminarian in our church, tweeting his perspectives on what was happening. (One of his posts: "It's difficult to be injured or in grave condition when you're waging war on black bodies from a tank." Broderick captured the anger and outrage at the sheer sense of injustice felt by so many black Americans right now. He tweeted one particular post that really struck me. It said,
Christians: "Jesus, it's not nice to turn over those Temple tables."  
Jesus: "It's a sin to exploit the poor." 
Photo from the Baltimore Sun
As I read post after post, I got more and more unsettled by the anger in the streets, more and more unsettled by the violence of the state, and more and more unsettled by the inability of so many to understand what is going on, by my own inability truly to understand and appreciate the real situation of my black sisters and brothers in our country right now.

I was reminded once more that I, a straight white middle-class male, am not particularly qualified to speak to that anger and rage.

True, I longed for the protests to remain non-violent, for that powerful image of hands raised in front of the advance of a heavily militarized police force to hold the day... but the violence levied by the state only continues to grow, teasing violence out of an unheard group of people. I knew that I probably never had to worry about my life being in jeopardy from police, about being suffocating or having my spine injured so badly it killed me, simply because my color makes me easier to treat as other, as less than... simply because my color makes me appear dangerous to some.

When groups of black people step forward boldly in society they are immediately perceived as violent protestors. This is the problem. This is the disease. Indeed, that parts of this protest have become violent and turned to looting is undeniable. But the perception of violence in black protestors precedes any actual violence, as demonstrated by the police response in the beginning of each protest across our country. Black equals violent in the eyes of the police and in the eyes of the state. Thrown rocks disturb society more than a severed spine.

For Easter, a group that I am in, the Society of Catholic Priests in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, is doing a TractSwarm on the resurrection, on whether or not it matters. It's been interesting because our first #TractSwarm on the sacrament of confession got several diverse and powerful posts. The essays posted on the resurrection have been good... but they have not been nearly as numerous or quick to come.

I think that is probably because the resurrection, in the minds of most Christians, is more about belief than it is about practice. The sacrament of confession is tangible, something you can see and experience and this enables potent reflection. Resurrection, for many Christians, is a doctrine that is not embodied, ironically enough.

I don't know if I can prove the bodily resurrection of Christ to you, if I can find the eloquence and rhetoric to help you to believe in it. There are days I don't know if I can muster the belief in the resurrection, days when life seems too dark to imagine a dead body rising up again.

But I do know what faith in the resurrection forces me to believe, what the resurrection insists the church must believe. The resurrection forces us to take bodies seriously.

And so, as I read through what is happening in Baltimore, I thought of what sort of force it might take for the spine of a body to be severed. I thought of the terrified police officer, sweat dripping in his riot gear, hoping he makes it through tonight, too. I thought about the black protestor who feels the same, but who also feels the same obligation as the police officer to be out there, to be doing what is right. I thought of the protestors sense of moral duty to stand up for the black bodies killed.

The black bodies of protestors are seeking to be agents of resurrection, they are seeking to make Freddy Gray's body alive once more as they pour into the streets in witness to the passionate belief that this man's life cannot simply be snuffed out, his body cannot be eliminated. Protestors are seeking to embody the person whose body was robbed by a violent state, a violent state that has systemically wrought violence against the bodies of its citizens.

The problem is that the militarization of the police has turned black bodies into targets or violent forces to be quelled, it has sought to disembody our black citizens. Militarizaiton seeks to disembody people, whether it happens in a war across the world or in a battle on the streets an American city.

And militarization further disembodies that police officer, as well, by the way. It swaths his body in force and violence, it removes him from his true self and transforms him into an agent for a state that cannot see the bodies of all of its citizens. It robs him of his body.

Resurrection is needed for all.

As I began to pull away from the violence in Baltimore, to try to go back to sleep, I saw a post from my colleague Barabara Lee.  It was a protest sign from a college campus, one that dealt with sexual violence. The sign said, "While he raped me, I forgot how to return to my body."

Faith in the resurrection is meant to return each of us, you and I, to our bodies. Faith in the resurrection should heal that which had sought to disembody us. Faith in the resurrection is meant to return the oppressed and the wounded to their bodies. The state wants those bodies to become, in the words of an essay in the Atlantic, "compliant." The Church, in her fullness, wants those bodies to become alive once more, alive and free, vibrant and assertive in their pursuit of justice.

Bodily resurrection begins with bodily death. Indeed, the first resistance in the early church to the bodily resurrection was because people struggled with Christ's bodily death, with God dying on the cross. It is one thing to insist upon the bodily death of Christ, it is another to remember that his blood flowed because of ethnic and class-based violence. Remember when his own people abandoned him, claiming allegiance to peace and the state instead of to their own prophetic leader? ("We have no king but Caesar!") Christ's blood flowed (at least partly) because of ethnic and class-based violence from a society that had sought to disembody its citizens

There is blood in the streets of Baltimore today, blood that is the same color as that of Christ's, blood that comes from the same root sin, the same root death, the same supposed Powers. I wonder if the blood of protestors is mingling with the blood of police officers, both disembodied by their state, by the forces of evil in our time.

I believe Jesus chooses to make that blood on the streets of Baltimore his blood, too, just he did with wine so long ago, just like he does with wine at altars around the world. Sacraments are meant to be aids to belief in the resurrection, whether those sacraments come into being on altars or on streets.

Resurrection means Jesus is here. Resurrection means Jesus is in Baltimore.

And faith in the resurrection means we ignore Christ's bodily and ongoing presence at the peril of our souls, at the peril of the soul of our community and nation.

#BlackBodiesMatter #PoliceBodiesMatter #ChristisinBoth

Sunday, April 12, 2015

A Christian Call to Housing Justice

My April 12, 2015, column for the Grand Haven Tribune, "A Christian Call to Housing Justice,"
The discussion surrounding affordable housing in the Tri-Cities, particularly as it has occurred on the Tribune’s website, has been fascinating to watch.

What it has demonstrated to me is that there is a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of some in our community about what exactly many are seeking to address. Some apparently think that the issue is people who simply are getting houses or apartments that are beyond their budgets, but that if those people lived more carefully they could indeed find places to live that they could afford.

The problem is they cannot....

Friday, March 6, 2015

All should. Most don't. ~ SCP #TractSwarm One: The Sacrament of Confession

A group I've long been associated with, The Society of Catholic Priests in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, has called for it's first #TractSwarm — exploring the nature and role that the Sacrament of Reconciliation has in the church today.

Christ Church, Detroit, MI
Several years ago, at the SCP conference in Detroit, I had the honor of sitting in a pew in the Nave of Christ Church, Detroit. Someone had suggested that during the free-time those members with a charism for hearing confessions might be open to offering this to conference attendees. This is how I wound up sitting next to the former Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold, talking about my sins.

Now, I was raised talking about sin. As an evangelical, we heard sermons on sin, about the need to turn from it. Sin was a scary specter that lurked at the edges of our lives, it was the lion ready to pounce and devour our souls.

I was even raised with the idea that talking about sin with others was actually a pretty good idea. The words from James 5 were taken seriously, "Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective." When I was active in campus ministry, it was common to encourage people to have accountability partners, people with whom you would share your struggles. And if you sinned really bad, you were encouraged to go forward during the invitation and confess your sin to the community so people could pray for you.

But I was always deeply intrigued by what I perceived as the "Catholic" practice of Confession. I was fascinated by the idea that one could walk into a church and someone would be there to listen to you confess your struggles, to pray for you—that this quiet and secret place could be expected.

When I became an Episcopalian, I learned in my confirmation classes the aphorism, "All may, some should, none must." It made sense to me immediately. Of all things I learned about the Episcopal Church in those early days, the fact that in this church nobody had to do anything seemed to be top of the list of what Episcopalians believed in.

But as I grew and developed in the Episcopal Church, I grew slightly disillusioned with the actual practice of this sacrament. I discovered that many Episcopalians did not even know it existed in the prayer book. I found how difficult it is to find a confessor. I was taught early on that if you are going to hear confessions you should be making confessions regularly, this keeps your own spiritual life on a strong footing before you seek to offer spiritual counsel, advice, and suggestions for penance to others.

And yet, even if a priest will agree to hear confessions, there is a look all too often that comes in the eyes when you ask that priest when the last time was he made his confession.

That brings me to now, this current Lent 2015. For good or ill, the paucity of a robust practice of this sacrament has made it all too easy for me to put off making a regular confession. Indeed, not since that day in the pew with Bishop Griswold, when he quietly heard me talk about what burdened me and offered be gentle direction and a grace-filled act of penance, not since then have I sat down with God and one of God's ministers to talk about my sin.

Which is a shame.

It is a shame because it makes me less equipped for my priestly role, less able to hear confessions well. It is a shame because it has, ironically enough, slowly turned me into the sort of priest who has disappointed me—one who may be willing to hear confession but does not robustly practice this sacrament.

So, when someone in the Society suggested the topic of Confession for our first #TractSwarm, I knew that the time had come. I sent an e-mail to a colleague who I trust, one who I know practices a robust spiritual life and who, thus, can offer me wise counsel on my own. I suggested a particular time, asking if he might hear my confession then. And if he isn't able, I'll try again with someone else.

Because, though it embarrasses me a bit as a priest, I need to say...

I confess to you, my sisters and brothers, that I have not gone to God in the quiet of confession for far too long.

The aphorism, "All may, some should, none must," remains rather popular. But I think I'd like to retire it.

Because I believe that when we honestly examine our lives, as the Exhortation invites us, when we seek to make right that which we have done wrong... well, I don't think it is possible to do that on your own. I don't know who is holy enough that they would not benefit from talking through this a bit within earshot of a trusted priest.

I know I'm not holy enough that I can turn from sin on my own.

I'd wager that probably pretty much every Christian needs to avail herself of this sacrament at least once in life. I'd wager that most every Christian would be enriched if he practiced this sacrament regularly.

And I'll say something else even more strongly: I believe all priests—every single one—should be engaging regularly in the sacrament of reconciliation. If nothing else, that way when someone wanders into your office and asks, sheepishly, whether or not you might hear their confession, you will not have to say no. You will be prepared. Having been attentive to your own sin and salvation, you will be prepared to assist another Christian in that journey.

Because this space is important. Christians need to know that this safe space exists where they can talk to God about their sin, with someone trained is overhearing to offer guidance. People need to know that they are not left on their own, in the quiet of their reflections and prayers to God, that there is a place where they can get advice for how to turn from sin well. I really do think that when someone is at a point where the burden of guilt and shame has become too much,  someone can put hands on their head and remind them that their sin has been put away.

I need to know that my sin has been put away.

Because if I have not done the work of preparation that results in an actual change of life, if I, as a priest, have not been attentive to my sin, have not been receptive to spiritual counsel that I might turn from that sin... then I am at best a Christian dressing up and playing pretend with rather holy things.

All should. Most don't.

And this makes us weaker as a Church.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Lleva esta

So, the church in the Dominican is a bit more... conservative than the church in the US.

This is one of the difficulties of multicultural ministry—different cultures are at different places and have different perspectives on the question of the day. I remember when I was in seminary in the Churches of Christ in Texas. The University was seeking very hard to effect reconciliation with the segregation and racism of its past. (It was, after all, only desegregated when the federal government forced it to be.)

So, they were reaching out to historically black Churches of Christ, seeking to build relationships and bridges.

At the same time, they were moving forward with the question of women in ministry. Though ordination is not a part of the theology of the Churches of Christ, there are still questions about who an individual congregation will and will not receive as a pulpit minister. There were several women in my M.Div. program—many of them immensely more gifted than most of us men—but they knew that the odds of them getting a pulpit ministry job were remarkably slim.

But the historically black Churches of Christ were generally opposed to women in the pulpit, to the leadership of women in official positions. And they saw it as another example of "white privilege" that this university would ignore what the historically black churches believed to charge ahead with women in ministry.

What does one do in this situation? Which part of Christ's body do you cut off to save another?

There is no perfect answer—absolutely none to this question.

I spent the past weekend in Santiago. One of the seminarians, Domingo, took me there and I spent my time at La Anunciación. On Friday night, the vicar of the parish, Padre Tony, and his wife took me out to dinner.

They took me to this rather nice restaurant. I ordered a burrito and they said that was not enough. They cancelled my order and ordered me instead churrasco con arroz con pepinos (grilled skirt steak over rice with peppers).

It. Was. Heavenly.

We talked (entirely in Spanish since they didn't speak English) about our lives, about the church, about the Dominican Republic, about many things. At one point, they asked about my wife and I talked about how she is a therapist who has recently opened her own private practice. Padre Tony's wife said that she also is studying for her Master's degree in counseling and she started telling me about how much she is enjoying the work.

Now, when you are learning the language, your comprehension level in any conversation varies. In this conversation, I was at around probably 70%... until I heard one word: homosexualidad. At that point, I started comprehending more because I realized she was telling me about what she was learning when it comes to helping gay people change.

What does one do in this situation?

As I listened, I considered not saying anything, perhaps smiling and changing the subject. But then I thought, "No, this is a colleague and his wife. If I was in the states, and we were speaking English and they were white, I would have no problem charitably disagreeing and sharing my own perspectives."

And so I did.

After she talked for a while and Padre Tony talked for a while, she asked if I was understanding what they were saying.

"Si." I said, "Si, lo entiendo." Then I took a deep breath, "Pero para mí el problema es esto. No hay ni una sola asociación psicológica que cree alguien que es homosexual puede cambiar lo que son." But for me the problem is this: There is not a single psychological association that believes someone who is homosexual can change who they are.

What proceeded was a thirty or forty-five minute conversation—entirely in Spanish—about the question of sexuality, the bible, and Christian theology. We were all charitable toward each other... but we were all honest as well.

At one point, when Padre Tony's wife was gone, I told him how this year I celebrated a wedding for two men in my church, two men whom I deeply respect. I told him how I was honored to do it.

"Y esta es la pregunta. ¿Me puedes aceptar como un sacerdote cuando he hecho algo que tú crees que está mal?" And this is the question, can you accept me as a priest when I have done something that you believe is wrong?

He leaned back and closed his eyes. "Sí, esta es una pregunta muy difícil." Yes, this is a very difficult question.

The night ended and we went back to the church. The next day, I explored Santiago with Domingo, learning about the city, speaking only in Spanish the entire time. I was blessed to have lunch with his family at their home and spend several hours with his wife and son.

Saturday night, at the church, when I was around Padre Tony again, we wound up talking about Sunday. I told him I was happy to do whatever he wanted. I didn't have a small suitcase and so only brought a small change of clothes—no vestments. I was happy simply to sit with the congregation.

I didn't know, to be honest, if he would want me celebrating at the altar in the parish.

Then, this morning, I came down in my clericals and took a seat near the back. His wife saw me and immediately came up, inviting me to the sacristy. Padre Tony was just exiting, clearly ready to start the service, but he welcomed me in and said he had brought vestments for me. I said thank you, and went back with him. I put on the stole. I knotted my rope cincture and kissed the stole before draping it around my shoulders.

And then he took off the chasuble he was wearing and held it out for me, offering to help put it on me like the custom at a priestly ordination liturgy.

"¿Quieres que yo celebrar la misa?" "Do you want me to celebrate the mass?" I asked.

"Si, por favor." he responded, with solemnity.

The entrance hymn was new to me, "Alabaré a Mi Señor."
Alabaré. Alabaré. Alabaré. Alabaré.
Alabaré A mi Señor.
Alabaré. Alabaré. Alabaré. Alabaré.
Alabaré A mi Señor. 
Juan vio el numero de los redimidos
Y todos alababan al Señor
Unos cantaba, otros oraban,
Y todos alababan al Señor [Coro]
Todos unidos alegres cantamos
Glorias y alabanzas al Señor
Gloria al Padre, gloria al Hijo
Y gloria al Espiritu de amor [Coro]
The sexton played guitar (classical guitar at that, and rather beautifully) and the singing was full of life and vitality. I looked around at the crowd singing, knowing that I couldn't quite translate the words of the song on my own but aware that they were words of profound praise.

Then, all of the sudden, I felt the tears start rolling down my cheeks. I was, quite literally, overcome with emotion.

I had wondered—I truly had—whether I would be welcome at this altar, whether my more liberal exercise of priestly ministry would be too much. And this priest—who does indeed disagree with me—literally took the chasuble off his back and put it on mine.

Aquí. Lleva esta. Here. Wear this.

With all of these Goddamned (and I use that phrase intentionally) walls we build around each other, pretending that we are carving out a community that believes properly... and this community welcomed a priest who believed things they thought were probably wrong. They put the chasuble on me. They asked me to celebrate Eucharist with them.

Tears, my friends. All throughout the service tears of gratitude that these people saw me as theirs. Not someone other. Theirs.

And it wasn't because I kept quiet about my beliefs. I spent the better part of an hour arguing as forcefully as I could in my broken Spanish, insisting that the partnered clergy I knew were some of the best clergy in the church, that the church always needs to be testing our practices, asking if they truly are consistent with a God who is beyond our limited perception.

I was clear... and still, "Aquí. Lleva esta."

Later, with the help of my friend Luis, I looked up the translation to the song from this morning. It goes like this...
I will praise, I will praise, I will praise, I will praise,
I will praise my Lord.
I will praise, I will praise, I will praise, I will praise,
I will praise my Lord
John saw the number of those redeemed
And all of them were praising the Lord
Some were singing, some were praying
And all were praising the Lord 
All sang happy together
Glory and praise to the Lord
Glory to the Father, glory to the Son
And glory to the Spirit of love 
We will all, I imagine, arrive to heaven rather soiled and screwed up. Having tried our hardest, we will still inevitably get things wrong. But the number of those redeemed—they wear white robes that were given to them just as much as the white robe Padre Tony gave to me today.

None of us earn that robe through the orthodoxy of our beliefs or the perfection of our prophetic stances. No matter what, in the end, we are redeemed, we are purchased back from the powers, from all the things we thought would save us, that we thought would make the world right.

We are bought back from that.

And those Goddamned divisions are thrown into the lake of fire, while we all join together. Some sing songs that are a little strange to others. Some pray. Everyone is doing it differently, in different languages and styles, but somehow in the mystery of God I believe it rises like a perfect blend of sweet smelling incense.

Because there will indeed come a day when we will all be together, praising the Lord.

This morning, at church, I saw a glimpse of heaven.... and, like I imagine heaven is meant to do, it almost obliterated me.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Celebramos juntos.

You may have noticed that the rate at which I'm writing these essays has slowed some. That's primarily because when you spend almost all your waking hours either doing homework for class, sitting in class with a private language tutor, or studying more Spanish on Rosetta Stone... well, there's really not a whole lot to talk about.

Except, of course, when there is.

On Friday, I ended class feeling remarkably discouraged. We were working with verbs that require an indirect object, and at the same time, conjugating them in the past tense. "She gave it to me." "Ella me lo dio."

It basically requires several steps all at once: conjugate the verb properly (in the past tense), use the proper word for "it" (masculine or feminine), and discern the proper pronoun. And with the words all being so short, you can't cheat and think about what comes next while saying the current word.

And I kept getting it wrong.

I'd use the wrong pronoun, or mistakenly use a masculine object when it required the feminine, or I'd screw up the tense of the verb entirely.

I felt like I was never going to get it.

I was describing it to the TEC missioner who lives across the hall from me, "Es como que hay una pared y no puedo superarlo."

It is like there is a wall, and I cannot get past it.

The move from passable Spanish to fluent Spanish is not an easy move to make.

I was really upset, feeling very discouraged. She told me it was OK. She told me that she actually completely broke down on her fourth day of intensive Spanish, crying and telling the teacher she just couldn't do it. But she kept trying, and eventually it came to her.

Perhaps the best advice came from my friend, the cathedral Sexton, Victor, who said, "You need to stop trying to think of it in English. Just learn the Spanish."

I don't know if that makes sense to you, but it makes complete sense to me.

This morning, after my fruit, yogurt, and coffee, I went down the cathedral and vested for the English language Eucharist. I celebrated in English and preached in English. I felt very much at home, very reminded that as much as I'm struggling with some of the more difficult concepts (for me) in Spanish, there are some things I know how to do!

Then, I tried to prepare myself emotionally and spiritually for what would follow: my first time celebrating Eucharist in Spanish.

I finished my coffee in the sacristy with the other clergy and ministers and told the deacon, Alejandra, that I was going to go spend some time practicing with the missal. I went into the sanctuary, set the missal up on the altar, and started working my way through the service.
Bendito sea Dios: Padre, Hijo y Espíritu Santo... 
Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit...  
Dios omnipotente, para quien todos los corazones están manifiestos, todos los deseos son conocidos y ningún secreto se halla encubierto... 
Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all secrets known, and from whom no secrets are hid...
Before I knew it, Alejandra was standing at my right elbow, "Mmmhmm, bien."

This is, of course, the traditional place of the deacon during the Great Thanksgiving, at the right of the priest, assisting as needed in the liturgy.

And, just like her order called her to, she came up alongside me, and helped me work through the Spanish, correcting a pronunciation here and there, but most importantly telling me I was actually doing it well.

She was quickly joined by a lay person, Luis. Luis is from Cuba and was originally in seminary as a Roman Catholic, but left the church and here, in the Dominican, discovered the Episcopal Church. Well, first he discovered it through books, he told me (something I can relate to!), but then he discovered it in person here at the Cathedral.

Now both of them were at my side, a deacon and a lay person, both committed to God—and to helping me not stumble through these holy words.
En verdad es digno, justo y saludable, darte gracias, en todo tiempo y lugar, Padre omnipotente, Creador de cielo y tierra... 
It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and every- where to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth...
When I stumbled over a word, they waited and gave me a chance to try it again. When I asked how to say something properly, they said it a few times for me, getting me comfortable with the word or phrase.

After going through it all, before I knew it, I was vested and at the back of the church. Dean Ashton nodded to me, and I began the liturgy as is customary here at the Cathedral, with a preparatory prayer said from the back.
Oh Dios omnipotente, que derramas sobre todos los que lo desean, el espíritu de gracia y súplica: Líbranos, cuando nos acercamos a ti, de tibieza de corazón y divagaciones de la mente, para que, con firmes pensamientos y calurosos afectos, te adoremos en espíritu y en verdad; por Jesucristo nuestro Señor. Amén. 
O Almighty God, who pours out on all who desire it the spirit of grace and of supplication: Deliver us, when we draw near to you, from coldness of heart and wanderings of mind, that with steadfast thoughts and kindled affections we may worship you in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The organ began, and the procession, started. I fell into my place after the dean and from there... well, it just flowed.

Good liturgy is like a river, I think. One merely needs to step into the current and let it carry you. I was reminded, over and over again, I know this. I know how this works. When a word seemed about to get stuck in my mouth, I paused, took a breath, opened my mouth wider, and worked through it.

I'm sure there were a few mistakes—absolutely confident—but the people were kind. They were right there with me. Even if I stumbled in my line, they responded confidently with theirs—reminding me that we, the corporate body of Christ, are the celebrants of this feast. I am merely the presider—an honored position, no doubt, but not the place where the totality of God's work in the liturgy resides (thankfully).

At the announcements, Soila welcomed me once more, telling the people how this was my first time celebrating the Eucharist in Spanish (or something like that—Soila can talk very fast). The clapped, looking at me with such happy kind faces. I bowed, so grateful for the opportunity.

Es digno, justo y saludable, darte gracias, en todo tiempo y lugar, Padre omnipotente...

It is right, good, and a joyful think, at all times and in all places, to give thanks to you, Father Almighty...

I still feel like I have a wall in front of me, one that I must surmount. I still have to battle my way through these more difficult tenses and irregular verbs. Fluency seems, at times, like a far-off distant land that I've heard of... but can only imagine.

However, today I was reminded that as I run at that wall, I will not need to try to jump over it on my own.

The people of God are there, reaching out their hands, giving me a boost. When I fall, they encourage me to try again. When I succeed, their embraces as as full of God's grace as the hugs you wind up getting during the Peace in a Dominican Eucharist.

Celebramos juntos. Siempre juntos.

We celebrate together. Always together.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

¿Que es común?

Episcopalians like to say that what unites us is our worship. That is, while other Protestant and Reformation era groups were drawing up Confessions and Creeds, we were drawing up a prayer book.

And while some of this is probably better rhetoric than history (we did, after all create the 39 Articles, even if they never had the same pride of place as other confessions), it is pretty good rhetoric. It certainly describes a significant part of the heart of Anglican Christianity.

But rather than saying we are united by worship instead of confession, I think it is perhaps a bit more accurate to say we are united by agreeing to disagree about worship—and still worship together. This is why the Book of Common Prayer and the rubrics are so essential to the Anglican tradition, they articulate the boundaries that we, as a community, have agreed upon when it comes to our corporate worship. They do this so that our worship, no matter the style or flavor, can always be common, can always be shared. They do this so our worship can be común.

And yet, one of the tricky things about multicultural ministry—particularly multicultural worship—is that you realize other cultures see lines in different places than you do.

Tonight, I joined the seminarians for Evening Prayer, as I have most nights I've been here. We gathered in their small chapel (capilla), which is really a converted classroom. Someone lit the lights on the altar and the officiating seminarian handed out a trip-fold with the words to some Spanish-language psalms on it.

So far, this is pretty common. We actually have an official hymnal for Spanish-language worship. Trouble is, it's rather difficult to buy (see Amazon). If you try to search for it at Church Publishing or Cokesbury, it doesn't even list as existing. Instead, both direct you to a "words only" edition, without music.

This is not helpful.

At Nuevo Amanecer last year, we used an overhead projector. Most Spanish-language Episcopal services I've attended either simply list the words in the bulletin (no music) or they use one of the older (also words only) collections of Spanish-language praise and worship songs.

So, like I said, being handed a sheet of paper with Spanish words on it to sing is not new to me, even if it is frustrating as a musician. But, I'm used to it. It didn't phase me. I was still ready to say Evening Prayer with my new friends.

However, what we proceeded to do was then sing several songs, do a small portion of Evening Prayer (phos hilaron, psalm, Scripture readings, and canticles), sing several more songs, and then have an extended time—about 15 minutes—of extemporaneous prayer. We closed with the grace.

The singing was without instruments (because there were none there to be played). It was profound and heartfelt, a few hands up in the air, some swaying to the singing. The prayers were clearly from the heart. They were more like the evangelical prayers of my youth (full of reputation and short phrases, which actually made them easier to translate in my mind).

It just didn't feel... Episcopal. It felt like someone took Evening Prayer, chopped off a few pieces, and then put it in a blender with an entirely different praise & worship service, one that has a totally different aim and purpose than Evening Prayer.

In short, it didn't feel like we really did either Evening Prayer or an evangelical/pentecostal praise & worship service with ample time for free intercessions.

This raises, I think, one of the great questions every Episcopal church will have to face as we approach an increasing tide of Latino people in our communities and a worship that is very... English. It is one of the great questions we will have to wrestle with as heirs to a tradition that has rather strenuously insisted upon a certain form an structure to worship.

How do we worship as Episcopal Christians in a way that is authentic to the culture from which the worship comes?

This raises important questions. Is my desire that Evening Prayer follow the rubrics, that it contain an opening versicle and response, the Phos Hilaron, a psalm and canticles, followed by the creed and then the prayers, only then with an open time for "an office hymn" and other prayers... is that fussy English-ness? Or, is the structure of Evening Prayer inherent to Episcopal worship, no matter the culture in which it is practiced?

When I was at Nueveo Amanecer, I often felt like the services of Holy Eucharist paid little attention to the rubrics for how Eucharist is intended to be celebrated. Praise songs were thrown in liberally without attention to the fact that our BCP is actually very clear about when hymns may and may not be inserted. Is that because the rubrics are untranslatable to another culture?

Are more low-church, evangelical, and almost pentecostal approaches to worship inherent in Latino culture, are they the only way in which Episcopal liturgy can be celebrated and be authentic to the Latino community? Or, do these approaches instead reflect the great success that Pentecostalism has had in sinking into Latin American culture—including Roman Catholics?

¿Que es común?

What is common?

I suppose I couldn't expect every day here to be filled with deeply moving experiences of grace. I suppose there had to be days of wrestling as well, days of hard questions, days when I, as a priest, look myself hard in the mirror and ask what it truly means to be an Episcopal priest—who is also Anglo, who specifically and intentionally left evangelicalism—what it will mean for me to lead a community in Latino worship.

Not will I do this—I am firmly convicted that God has called me and my community to give this a shot. We can't just ignore the over $10,000 that UTO invested in this. We must try.

But what will that try look like?

What does it mean to be Episcopal AND Latino AND to be authentic to both, ser auténtico para ambos?

I don't know the answer. No sé la respuesta.

But at least now I think I know the question.

Pero al menos ahora sé la pregunta.