Sunday, December 11, 2016

Delving into the Story

The other day I found myself at a reception for an ordination in the church basement. And I gravitated, as I often do towards the clergy. The bishop and his wife joined us. During the conversation, his wife, a talented actress and dancer, asked me about my discernment. I shared a bit about my team and my mix of joy and frustration about taking a long time to process my call and my journey towards who knows what kind of ministry (my discernment team members know my frustration and joy well, and I consider it to be a holy mix, ripe for the Spirit). And after I had given my little bit, she said, "What I meant was that I'm the only one at this table who is not clergy minded." And I agreed and there was an all together too brief conversation before I left. 

Today, I am going to go see her in her element, as a theater minded individual, someone who finds her spot comfortably on the stage, and I've been thinking about this interaction between theater and the Church, especially because she is not the only amazingly talented performer married to a bishop that I know. And it is the interaction between performer and cleric that interests me. I think there is something deep there. At the heart of it, they are both individuals invested in sharing stories. They both have a desire, a passion for delving into stories, for becoming part of the story. The actress literally takes on her character, leaving herself behind as she embodies a key part of the play. The clergy person delves into the story of Christ, and embodies to the best of their ability the character of Christ.  The actress uplifts people by helping people become engrossed in a tale that can shape their perspective. The clergy person tries to do the same, helping people embody Christ in their lives. 

To try to probe too deep into the similarities between acting and clergy work would cheapen both, but their investment in stories is something to hold onto and ponder. Because ultimately, our God's nature is shared to us in story. We learn who we were created to be through a story of God calling creation good. We learn about what lengths God is willing to go for us through the story of the Moses leading the people out of Israel and in the crucifixion of Christ. We find new life through resurrection tales, through manna in the wilderness and Mary Magdalene discovering that the man who she thought was the gardener was actually the risen Lord.  We find the pull towards newness of life, towards a life that truly is life, through the repentance of David and the scales falling off Paul's eyes. We learn Christ through sharing in the story, through being enveloped in the story.

And this season, we ponder the biggest story. The story of Christmas is not any more about Jesus' birthday than it is about Santa Claus. It's about incarnation, about God choosing to be among us, to be with us in a new and radical way. In a human way. And that humanity came to the earth in the deepest of poverty. He was not a rich prince, not a middle class white American. He was someone who had no control over his government, who ultimately killed him when he threatened their authority. He was born to a couple who couldn't even find a room at a hotel for him to be born. He was born to parents who had to flee to another country, become refugees, to keep him safe so he could grow up. And his mother's song at the proclamation of his upcoming birth shares God's deepest desires for humanity. God looks on us with favor and calls us blessed. God shows mercy and justice, and casts down those who are too powerful, not through military intervention, but through a way that always holds those whom the powerful oppress in their view, calling them to do better. God fills the hungry and helps them, through a multiplicity of ways that all require us. God remembers the promise made to us, that we would be God's and God would be with us. Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of this promise and hope. And if we, as Christians, little Christs, start living into this story, taking it on, acting it out, we find our world changed. We find that Christ comes again and again, not as one particular human, but as God among us. That is the Christmas story. It is not about a baby, it is about God coming among us in a new and radical way. 

May we become like the actress, embodying this key incarnated character. May we become like the clergy person, not just taking Christ on for a time, but working every day to try to live into this character in our own unique ways, sharing our particular gifts. May we ever be in awe of this story, this sacred scripture, written not to share facts but to give our lives a story that is truer than truth. Amen.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Dear United Methodist Siblings: A Letter as You Head to General Conference

Dear United Methodist Siblings,

It feels strange for me to write to you, because I am not one of you anymore, but I have come to the conclusion that I will always be connected to you. Through my family, my work, and my history, we will always be linked. I will always find myself talking with someone about your politics, your structures, and your struggles. We are still siblings.

And as you move into this time, you are starting to talk a lot about a deep part of me, my queer identity, part of what made it hard for me to be one of you, part of why I found myself walking away. But I am not writing to tell you to change your policies. I agree that would be fantastic, but more than that, I am writing asking you to not draw battle lines. I remember observing annual conferences and being a part of them, and I liked it until the sexuality battle lines were drawn, because you have been talking about this since before I can remember. One person stands up and asks for inclusion, another stands up and angrily quotes Bible verses, and it gets heated from there. People walk away certain that they were right and stood up for their beliefs and nothing changes. The trenches just get dug a little deeper for the next year when  you will have the conversation all over again, and the next year, and the next year.

United Methodist friends, I have felt for a long time like you just keep digging your trenches, drawing your battle lines, firm in your rightness. And I do have a side, I do have a strongly held belief about this too. But I'm convinced that Jesus did not draw battle lines. He got into heated conversations, but he still shared meals with everyone, Pharisee, Samaritan, whomever. He was able to hold his deep beliefs and reach out and share life with those whom he did not agree with. He didn't build trenches. And it's hard when someone else has a battle line and you want to cross it in love. There's a lot of uncertainty in how to do that. But more than anything, that's what I want General Conference to be for you. That's what I pray you experience. And some will walk away with their trenches dug. No matter what happens, your denomination will lose members after this Conference. It's inevitable. But my prayer is for you that if you attend, you are able to find someone you disagree with readily and build a relationship with them. I pray that you may truly relish in the diversity of beliefs and opinions within your denomination, the wide diversity of people and practices. And as you share in the body and blood of our Lord, may the Holy Spirit envelop your gathering and lead you into a new life together. Amen.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

"Do You Want to Be Made Well?" A Reflection by the Pool of Beth-Zatha

Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church, Iowa City on May 1, 2016

Gospel text: John 5:1-9

When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?

               Take a moment to imagine the turmoil of this man at the pool of Beth-zatha. Everyday this man crawls toward the pool that has the power to heal him, only to be blocked, day after day, week after week, year after year. For 38 years this man crawled toward the pool, only to be pushed aside before he could touch the water that promised new life, living in torment. Every day, he hoped and believed that something would happen, that he would make it. That he would be healed.  
            Then Jesus enters the scene and asks, “Do you want to be made well?” The man vents to Jesus. Of course he wants to be made well. His whole life has been consumed by this one task. Each day he works his way toward new life, and each day he is thwarted. There appears to be no release, no end to this suffering. But Jesus sets him free. Jesus allows him to move on. No longer condemned to this endless loop of crawling toward this pool, of being pushed aside and having to start all over again, this man is free to start a new life. He can walk away from where he had been and begin life again. His life was transformed by the power of Christ.
            Many of us fall into the trap of thinking that this man’s burden, this man’s struggle was being unable to walk. He couldn’t do it before Jesus came on the scene and he could after Jesus talked with him. I think it is a very able bodied way of thinking, one that assumes that there is a correct type of body and an incorrect one. And I’m not convinced that there is a right or wrong type of body, but there are certainly societal expectations and condemnations attached to each type. This man appears to be condemned by his society for inhabiting his body. He either doesn’t have any family or friends, or he isn’t connected to them. Because he doesn’t have anyone to help him, he has been living this life, crawling toward a pool that he believes contains everything he needs, only to be pushed aside by those who are connected, those who have resources, those who have people who accept them. If he can reach it, he gains resources, not least of which is the ability to walk and gain better means of supporting himself. Without the use of his legs, he will continue to be pushed aside, with the use of his legs, he has a means to support and take care of himself. He has a better place in this world.
            His world is much like our own. We think of some bodies as inherently better than others. We give them deference and honor. White able bodied cis men are given the most deference and honor. They have the “right” body, the archetypical body that all others are compared to. But is there a right body, or are there just more societally acceptable bodies? Does Jesus heal his legs to give him the right body, or does Jesus heal his legs to help him leave a place of torment and find new and better ways of interacting with the world? I believe this is the way that Jesus truly sets him free.
            Jesus finds this man, in a sea of people trying to reach this pool, a large crowd that has the ability to constantly push this man back to his starting point, Jesus sees him. Jesus calls out to him. Jesus sets him free. His societal condemnation, his disconnectedness, his isolation was recognized, and Jesus brings him a new hope and a new sense of connection. Feelings of condemnation are turned into joy and suddenly there is someone who actually sees and cares about him. He has been given a new life.
            Friends, every day our society puts people into situations similar to this man. Those who hit hard times, but have connections tend to do okay. Those without resources feel condemned to live lives of relative isolation and condemnation. A person moves to a city trying to build better life and instead finds themselves alone and homeless. Another finds that illness has stripped them of their connections as healthcare both depletes them of time and money. Someone comes out to their family and friends, only to find themselves losing them all.
            And we are called to notice. We are called to care. But in doing so, we need to ask ourselves what our definition of wellness is. What does it mean to be made whole? What does resurrection look like in the face of crucifixion? These are the questions that keep me engaged with the Gospel. This is the challenge of the Christian life.
            Within the challenge, we aren’t called to get it all right. I don’t know what wellness or wholeness looks like in every situation. I’m not always sure what resurrection means. But I know when I have felt resurrection power. I have felt resurrection power learning more about my beautifully diverse trans community, fighting alongside others for things that many take for granted, like being able to go to the bathroom when you need to, and being able to find a job. It’s in community gatherings and Facebook communities where people can ask questions and support each other throughout their journeys, coming together to help people pay for surgeries, answering questions about shots and pills, and it’s also in accepting that some people need gender affirming medical help and others don’t. We come together as community and we share with each other and we allow ourselves to grow, asking each other, “How can I help you feel well and whole? What does wellness look like for you?”
            I find resurrection power in being able to help people grow into allies, supporting each other and learning from one another. One of my favorite people who is still learning how to be an ally is my friend Jerry. Jerry is a navy veteran, and went to get his Master of Theology degree after retirement. For the first two years of my Master’s program, Jerry was a consistent presence in my life. After hearing that I was transgender, he told me that he supported me and was always curious about how things were going in my life. I had come out as transgender my last semester of undergrad and went directly to seminary, so it was an interesting journey for all of us. He was curious about my experiences as I began taking testosterone after my first semester and he paid more attention to news about people in the Trans community.  Our usual conversations went something like this: Jerry would come up to me while I was studying or after chapel and would say, “I have been thinking about you recently” and then ask a question that was either off the wall or slightly inappropriate. One time he very seriously told me about a story he had heard about a man who had become a woman in his 70’s. (His words, not mine), and asked, “Why would he do that? Couldn’t he just be him?” And I had to tell Jerry, “Maybe for the first time, she was just being herself.” And I thought of the torment, the anxiety, the fear, that comes with trying to live day after day, month after month, year after year, as someone you aren’t comfortable being. Of hearing the wrong pronouns, of dreaming of wearing certain clothing, but feeling too afraid. And this woman broke free from the fear and embraced herself after over 70 years. I can see Jesus walking up to her as she inched toward that pool of wholeness every day only to be pushed back by others or herself, and finally she hears the question, “Do you want to be made well?”  And she is granted permission to be herself, to strip off the mask of manhood and embrace the person inside. She found herself transformed into her truest self.
 Friends, Christ has the power to transform us all. We can all become whole people, living examples of resurrection power. Christ transformed my life by allowing me to come out as a transgender person, finding wholeness through this life changing journey. Christ transformed Jerry through his curiosity and willingness to learn about different ways of being human in this world.  Christ transformed the man at the well’s life by allowing him to step away from his daily struggle, from the all-consuming journey toward a pool he could not get to, releasing him from his burden.  How is Christ transforming you? What resurrection stories do you have to tell to the world? How is Christ using resurrection power through this community, bringing transformation to the world?
Let us pray: Christ, you have called us to not only be a community that follows you, but to be people who take your body into our body, to become wholly yours, people who are made well and transformed by your resurrection power. Lord, help us to see where resurrection needs to happen in our lives and in the world. Call us into the places of crucifixion.  And give us your strength to step through those burdens and struggles, those fears and real persecutions that hold us back from wholeness into new life. Amen. 

Friday, March 25, 2016

An Invitation to Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday is the odd child of Holy Week. We have washed feet, retold the story of the institution of the Eucharist, followed Jesus into the Garden of Gethsemane, heard the cries of "Crucify Him!" and marked with silence his death on the cross. And then we walk away, with Jesus in the tomb.

We don't really know what to do with this day, this in-between time after Good Friday and before we celebrate the resurrection. Many of us fill the gap day by jumping the gun on Easter, having egg hunts and parties. At the parish, the building is alive in the scurry of preparation. Everything is cleaned and polished, and what feels like millions of lilies descend upon the place in great anticipation of what is to come. Nobody tries to think about a dead body in a borrowed tomb, because we know the rest of the story.

Holy Saturday mimics the day after a funeral, when everybody is still in town, but nobody knows quite what to do with themselves. The pain of death is still fresh, and the air of loss permeates all that you do. There is an empty space, both in the heart, and in the physical space. Their chair is empty, their favorite mug goes unused. You want to do something and you want to do nothing at the same time. There is no established routine to help you through it.  It's hard to let it be.

But I think that discomfort, that sense of emptiness and loss is an important part of Holy Week. Year after year we are reminded of that disconnect, that gap when Jesus was in a tomb and the world had crucified the greatest gift it had ever been given. It is a time to grieve for the world, who is in so much pain and turmoil. It is a time to feel the loss of lives to violence and apathy. It is hard to sit with it. You want to do something and nothing at the same time. There appears to be nothing to help you through it and it's hard to just let it be, to let yourself actually feel it. You'd rather skip to the resurrection, to celebrating life, but I think there is power in being able to sit with death. It cannot harm you, it has been conquered, but it can change you.

Maybe sitting with Christ's death, you will find a new focus for your life. Maybe you will discover your apathy melting away and a call to new ministry and new life in Christ, ready to battle those things which cause so much death in the world. I invite you to take your time, to not rush through the tomb to get to the resurrection. Let it be. Invite it to shape you.

A blessed Holy Saturday to you and yours.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Ashes at the Pizza Place: Breaking Bread

Breaking Bread is a ministry that always surprises me. It began as a conversation about how my friend does beer & hymns and the possibilities of doing church in a bar. The image I had of my friend's ministry somehow being morphed into a ministry of The Episcopal Diocese of Iowa never happened. Our first location didn't allow music and I don't think we will ever have a set up like my friend has in Atlanta. She has a praise team and a bar that regularly hosts local bands. We have a small group of people who want to experience community and communion outside of church walls.

In our first gathering, we found that the reason we were there had nothing to do with trying to be edgy or provocative. We were there because there were people who needed to connect, both with each other, and with Jesus. We provided that space, that place for community in a location that didn't have a steeple and pews. Most of those who gather for Breaking Bread have a church home, some don't. All are looking for Jesus to be revealed in new ways, and sometimes a location change helps.

And last night we gathered in a cramped room at a small pizza place. A place of significance, as Chef D has his own feeding ministry, feeding those who are homeless and in need, inspired by his own faith in Christ. Twenty-two people contemplating that they are dust. There were a couple of older people, a small band of college students, and a larger group of adults with young children. Looking for connection. Seeking Christ in new ways. Interspersed in the Ash Wednesday liturgy was talking and eating, taking care of little ones and getting drink refills.  It wasn't a quiet service, but it was a holy service. When some staff came to receive ashes, I knew why we were there. When a young child handed communion bread to her friend as they played on the floor, I knew why we were there. We were there to find the sacred in the everyday, the extraordinary in the mundane. And as we asked Christ to open our eyes, I saw glimpses of the kingdom. It came simply in the breaking of the bread and the prayers.