Monday, June 27, 2011

"Movin' on up! To.. the East Side!"

Friday afternoon the movers arrived at our new apartment with all our furniture and boxes. By Saturday evening I had unpacked box after box of crystal, champagne flutes, pilsner glasses, brandy snifters, bud vases, and port glasses, but had yet to find a single plate or utensil. Eating was a challenge, but we could have drunk ourselves silly and in style if only we had anything other than beer available.

There we were though, in a "de-luxe apartment in the sky" on the 16th floor of a massive building--a building so big it literally has its own zip code.   We're not the Jeffersons--but we're definitely living in a style that Linmans have not traditionally done. 

The Upper East Side is not what you think it is... or at least, not only what you think it is.  When I began working at Epiphany almost 8 years ago, I imagined that the congregation would be mainly people of privilege and wealth.  The reality is much different--or at least more complex.  The privilege and wealth are certainly there, and you can find real pockets of upper crust "Old New York" with its social clubs and exclusive enclaves, but in between the high rises on each block are the mid-block tenement apartments, full of seniors and people on fixed income and young people trying to make a go of it in the Big Apple.  There are families such as my own that would be considered incredibly wealthy anywhere else in the country or world (I pay more in rent than many of my clergy colleagues elsewhere earn in a year) but who live almost paycheck to paycheck with the costs for child care and a just-big-enough apartment that the two-working-parent family requires.  And there are neighborhood institutions--the family owned coffee shop, the local hardware/everything store where I can buy everything from a trash can to a greeting card to prescriptions, the historic German bakery where I imagine my grandmother and her sister bought cookies over 100 years ago when it was newly opened.

People on the Upper East Side are unafraid to complain and express their opinions; by 9:30am on Saturday morning, I had heard two people discussing the new marriage equality laws in the grocery store with disgust, had an interation with a man on the street who bemoaned the  number of dogs in NYC, and been yelled at by a woman across the courtyard of my building to get the apartment number of the unit above my own where there were children singing on the balcony (evidenly a punishable offense). 

We're finding that our building is the perfect apex of all these strands.  It is a luxury building--the entrance has a driveway, fountain, and white-gloved doormen.  But when you get inside, the decor in some of the public spaces reminded Jonathan and I of funeral homes.  Dark, substantial furniture, carpets and art, dimly lit to soften the harsh lines of age and decay.  Other areas remind us of hospitals--brightly lit, tiled, antiseptic corridors "behind the scenes" around the laundry rooms and management offices.  Other aspects are more like a cruise ship--there is a hair salon, dry cleaner, and grocery store inside the building so you don't need to go outdoors for your staples. 

There are rules about what elevator you can take for what activity--if you're doing your laundy, or have a grocery cart you're supposed to take the service elevator.  If you're dressed acceptably, you may use the regular elevators.  (Where is the tantruming todder elevator?)

Some of the residents have evidenly been living in the building for all of its 40 years--a real dash of dignity and zest and hard-boiled city people.  Others, like us, seem transitory--we're here for a year, maybe two, but need a safe place to land and are thrilled with the huge playroom and park down the street.  We are delighted with our good fortune, but don't imagine we'll grow old here like the people around us have. 

I love the Upper East Side--with all its character and characters. And I am thrilled to finally be living within my parish's boundaries. 

Monday, June 20, 2011

Fertility and Faith

The following is the introduction to some writing I have done about fertility and faith.  Maybe someday it will be a book, maybe it will just stay blog entries. But it's offered for comments, shared stories, and suggestions.    

As an Episcopal priest in my twenties, I was surprised how frequently the subject of infertility came up in pastoral conversations with people in my church.   How was it possible that so many people had so much trouble getting pregnant?  After all, I had spent my teens being drilled with the knowledge that you could get pregnant from having sex just once, and possibly even from sexual activity that didn’t include “full” intercourse.  I spent my twenties trying very hard not to get pregnant in a series of relationships.  By the time my husband and I started the exciting and—at first—hopeful process of trying conceive, it felt like a relief: finally my body was going to have the chance to do what it had been built to do.   Even the knowledge that my own parents had struggled to conceive (I am an only child born 14 years into their marriage) didn’t prepare me to expect trouble. 

As month after month went by, I realized that there was a real chance I would be joining the women I had counseled.   As we moved from “don’t worry—it’ll happen sometime” to “maybe we should go see a doctor” to “I’m ready to try in vitro fertilization” I felt like I didn’t have much of a model for how to approach this or pray about it as a progressive 21st Century Christian.  In scripture, there are lots of women who struggle with fertility, but they always get a baby in the end.  There is no story in the Bible in which a woman desires to have a child and remains childless.

It is also always set up as a test of faith: if you have faith, you will have a child.  This isn’t how my understanding of God works:  you can have as much faith as Hannah or laugh as much as Sarah, but whether or not you get pregnant depends upon an infinity of variables that are so far beyond being faithful.  I also start from a different perspective than the Bible regarding the value of a woman’s (or couple’s) life being tied up with her status as a mother.  I understand why societies placed a high value on a woman’s successful production of offspring in previous centuries; but since I don’t accept that valuation in my culture today, the stakes felt like they should be lower today.  Regardless of the lack of biblical models, it is possible to be a person of deep faith and be unable to conceive, and I didn’t want to be embittered if motherhood was not the path God was calling me toward. 

But I struggled with my prayers.  They often felt selfish, or like I was bargaining with God, “Please God, if you’ll just let me get pregnant, I’ll never ask you for anything again….” And I was full of anger.  Not specifically directed at God, but it often poured out towards friends who seemed to conceive at just steamy look from their husbands. 

I also noted the lack of moral and ethical guides beyond the strict teachings of the Roman Catholic and more fundamentalist Christian churches.  If your starting point is that having children is a good thing, and a way of better loving God and your neighbor, but it is not the only way of loving God and neighbor, a host of moral dilemmas come up along the way.  If I’m going to spend $15,000 (or more) on trying to have a baby, what else could that $15,000 do? In the midst of our fertility struggle, my husband and I traveled to rural Tanzania.  For $15,000 we could have funded half of the building of a residential high school for girls—or built wells for safe drinking water in several villages, liberating other women and girls from the daily labor of walking miles to get water. 

The comedian Lewis Black refers repeatedly to frozen embryos as “mini-pizzas” in a hilarious routine—but if you believe an embryo is something more than a mini-pizza, but something less than an actual person, how do you approach their creation and—possibly—destruction?  If I had a chance to create a bunch of embryos that would give me a better chance of conceiving at least one child, I wanted to create them.  I like having a backup plan—but how would I feel about backup embryos?

This writing is offered as a companion to women and couples who are struggling with fertility and faith.  My experience didn’t cover the totality of fertility treatments, nor are my religious issues the same as many other women’s, but it’s a starting place for women who are wondering how walk with God along this challenging road instead of walking alone or wrestling with God the entire way. 

Monday, June 13, 2011

Miracles of tongues and ears

Two weeks ago I was on the subway on my way to church one morning when I was treated to the spectacle of a woman speaking in tongues. She got on the train, and began to preach, at first in English, and then as she got more worked up she began to babble in ecstasy, and leap around, and slam her hands onto the walls and seats of the subway car. It was fascinating, but she got so violent that some other women on the train began to try to intervene, asking her to calm down, asking if they could ask her questions to better understand what she was preaching about. She couldn’t respond in the state she was in, and just kept going until I got off the train, and I have no idea how much longer she went on uptown on the 4 train.  

It got me thinking about how incredibly out of control the Spirit can be. Speaking in tongues is one of the gifts of the Spirit that is described in the Acts reading, and also listed in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. It’s a gift that, as I understand it, bears no relation at all to how nicely and orderly we read in different languages earlier today, and resembles much more what I saw on the subway. Paul is suspicious of the gift of speaking in tongues—he doesn’t say if you have that gift you shouldn’t do it, but he does emphasize that there always needs to be someone to interpret what the person who is speaking in tongues is saying, or it is not a worthwhile gift. If no one can understand what you’re saying, then God cannot speak through you. The woman on the train obviously lacked an interpreter—which is part of what made it scary to see someone so possessed. Glossolalia seems to be attested to enough throughout history that I didn’t just want to write it off immediately as mental illness—perhaps it was, but perhaps I was witnessing someone was genuinely under the control of the Spirit. I’m pretty sure that I’ve never been as open to the Spirit as this woman was, if indeed it was the Spirit who was speaking through her. And that’s the tough thing about the Holy Spirit—it’s hard to tell. Just like the people who witnessed the Pentecost moment in Acts assumed the disciples must be drunk at 9am. When someone appears to be driven, it is hard to discern whether they are driven by the Holy Spirit, or by something else. 

A few metaphors for the Holy Spirit are peaceful—the dove and the comforter come to mind. But all the rest run that line between danger and safety. The tongues of flame that descend upon the disciples signify that they are burning with the Spirit’s power—fire that is so ambiguous in its intent. Out of control forest fire (a la Arizona) or warming hearth fire? Then there is the sound of a rush of violent wind—the wind of a tornado or the cooling breeze that we wish we were feeling right now in this hot church? And water, the sign and symbol of baptism and the rebirth into the Spirit which we will bless and baptize with today is similarly ambiguous. Water is necessary for life—ask any of us who have lived in deserts—but is obviously also dangerous and frightening in its forms of floods and tsunamis and in its power to drown. 

So the Holy Spirit is a power that dwarfs our power. Which probably makes it the most suspicious of the three parts of the Trinity for Episcopalians. God the Father is easy to place up in heaven, Jesus is confined to a human body and has stories we can read and study intellectually, but the Holy Spirit is a total wild card.  

Being open to the Holy Spirit, though, doesn’t mean we will be speaking in tongues—at least not necessarily. It means we are open to the gifts of the Spirit that we have been given—which will be different from the gifts other people have. But whatever our gifts are, there’s an aspect of them where we allow ourselves to give over to the larger power of the Spirit—where we risk being out of control, at least a little, carried or driven by the Spirit to places, actions, and words that we weren’t planning on—something that comes from beyond ourselves. Inspiration happens—the Sprit breaths into ourselves and flows out again through our work and ministry—our vocations, our relationships, our artistic endeavors. 

Part of this is developing the obvious gifts we have—we’ll see some wonderful artwork during coffee hour if it doesn’t rain made by some people who have visual gifts that they made during the “How does your garden grow?” group on Tuesday. If you’re an artist, develop that gift as a way of developing your relationship to the Spirit. If you’re analytical, develop that gift—I don’t believe the Spirit only gives soft and fluffy gifts—the gifts of discernment and questioning and organizing can be gifts just as much as preaching or teaching.

Developing what you’re good at—what you seem to be tempermentally suited for-- much makes a lot of sense. But part of being open to the Spirit is being open to following the Spirit even when the spirit is calling us someplace that we don’t expect—somewhere that does not seem a natural fit given our particular set of gifts. For myself, I have gifts of speaking and writing. I can be clear, succinct and powerful, hold the attention of a crowd. Which is precisely why the Spirit is often challenging me to listen and to read. Those are harder for me. They’re gifts which I need to have, and which I do have, but they take work. And they’re good gifts for all of us to consider on the day of Pentecost. 

Eric Law is an Episcopal priest who is a native of Hong Kong who wrote a book called The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb about multicultural ministry in the church. He has a chapter about the Pentecost miracle, and he describes an epiphany he had when Walter Wink asked the question about the Acts story of Pentecost, “Is this a miracle of the tongue or a miracle of the ear?” Usually, the church has thought about Pentecost as a miracle of the tongue—the miracle is that the Spirit allowed a group of Jesus’ disciples to suddenly be able to speak in languages that they didn’t know. That’s certainly miraculous. But look at the second paragraph of the reading when the crowd says, “How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” And they continue to understand Peter as he preaches alone. 

The miracle isn’t just that the disciples can speak in other languages. It’s that Jews from all over the world could suddenly understand them. Not all can understand—some scoff and accuse the disciples of drunkenness. But some experience the miracle of the ear, and can hear.  

Eric points out that in this context, it is the disciples who are a marginal group who would be unlikely to be listened to by the cosmopolitan crowd. Think of the hymn that describes them as “those happy, simple fisher folk” and remember the attitude of the people who said of Jesus, “Can anything good come out of Galilee?” The disciples are not a group who would be allowed to speak to people in power. 

The crowd is made of powerful people—wealthy merchants who have travelled to Jerusalem for trade, study, and religious pilgrimage with the powers that be in the Temple. They are accustomed to having a platform to speak and be heard, to tell other people what to do. So the powerless group gets the glamorous gift of speaking in tongues; and the powerful group gets the miracle of the ear—the miracle of understanding.  

Eric’s point is that in multicultural ministry, it is usually the people who belong to the more powerful group who need to experience the miracle of the ear, who need to stop speaking and start listening. And it is those people who belong to a traditionally oppressed ethnic group who need to experience the miracle of the tongue so that they can speak up.  

So who are we? As a parish about to enter a period of discernment about where God is calling you as you eventually put together a parish profile to prepare for calling a new rector, it will be a good thing to remember the miracle of the ear and the miracle of the tongue, and to ensure that everyone is listening—particularly those naturally gifted with speech. Listening is not just about the ear, of course, it’s about listening with the heart to the whole person, hearing what is not said as well as what is said, hearing what is behind the words, listening to what the body of the speaker is saying as well as their voice. As individuals you will have to discern where you fall on the spectrum of speaking and listening—if you’re someone who usually is a speaker, who usually makes sure that your voice is heard and people know where you stand, I encourage you to develop your gifts of hearing. Which doesn’t mean you never get to speak, but it means to make sure that you have listened first. And for those of you who usually are quiet, who either choose not to speak or don’t feel confident enough to give voice to your thoughts, I encourage you to trust that the Spirit will guide your words and that they will be valued by others. As a community, we need both gifts, and the Spirit is present in each of them, and neither is greater than the other.  

Today Genevieve will be baptized, and receive the Holy Spirit. Who knows what gifts she will be given? We will mark her foreheard with oil of Chrism and say, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked as Christ’s own forever.” They do more chrismation in the Russian Orthodox church—there they would anoint his/her ears and say “May you hear with the ears of Christ” and anoint his/her lips and say “May you speak with the Words of Christ.” We won’t actually do that today, but that’s what the Chrismation means. We will be praying for her to have the gift of hearing with Christ’s ears, and speaking with Christ’s voice. And I hope that we will pray for ourselves as well, that we may hear with Christ's ears, and speak with Christ's voice. Amen.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

To Covenant or not to Covenant?

I'm punting this week, folks...  here's my article for Epiphany's Manifest as I struggle to get ready for vacation starting on Friday!  I'll be back with my Pentecost sermon on September 13.

I attended an Anglican Covenant study session at the offices of the Diocese of New York on May 24 led by the Rev. Dr. Kathy Grieb, an Episcopal priest and professor of New Testament at Virginia Theological Seminary who was a member of the Covenant Design Team. Bishop Cathy Roskam was
also present to give her thoughts as both a bishop and as the Episcopal representative to the Anglican Consultative Council, one of the “Instruments of Unity” identified by the Covenant.

The proposed Anglican Covenant will be on the agenda at General Convention in 2012, and the Episcopal Church will have the options of adopting the Covenant, rejecting the Covenant, or asking for more time to study the Covenant (and thereby gaining more time to see what other provinces in the Anglican Communion do with the Covenant before we make a commitment).

The session led me to ask myself, “What do I want members of the Church of the Epiphany to know about the proposed Anglican Covenant?” (It took some effort to resist the temptation to answer glibly, “Nothing.”) I do hope that we’ll be able to have someone who is more expert than I to go through the diverse issues surrounding the covenant this fall, because regardless of what else it represents, the Covenant is an opportunity to remind ourselves that the church is universal, with a scope far beyond our own nation, diocese, and parish, and it is worth considering how we should relate to our brother and sister Anglicans (and Christians) around the globe.

So here’s a brief synopsis of what I think would behelpful to know about the covenant. It’s also worth reading the proposed covenant at
www.anglicancommunion.org/commission/covenant/final/text.cfm.

First, know that the 39 different provinces in the Anglican Communion are extremely different in culture, structure, history, language and size. The thing I most enjoyed about Dr. Grieb’s presentation was her opening prayer in which she prayed for each province by name, which required her to read in English, French, Creole, Portuguese, Mandarin, Japanese, and Spanish. Dr. Grieb also made the point that in some provinces, the church is far more closely allied with the national government than is true in the United States, and so there is a common misperception in these provinces that the Episcopal Church is similarly synonymous with the actions of the United States government, for good and for ill.

The idea of a covenant was first seriously proposed as part of the Windsor Report, a 2004 document put together after the Episcopal Church in the USA consecrated Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, and the Anglican Church in Canada began to produce liturgies for blessing same-sex unions in 2003. There was a passionate belief among more traditional Anglicans—particularly those in some parts of Africa—that a covenant would allow the Anglican Communion to eject problematic provinces such as the United States and Canada.

As the covenant developed through its various drafts, Dr. Grieb believes that this purpose of the covenant has been replaced with a document that is designed to bind churches together—not to exclude certain ones.

The first three sections of the final covenant are focused on our faith, our life as Anglicans, and our common life in Christ. They are full of familiar phrases like “bonds of affection,” “mutual respect,” “interdependence,” and “autonomy”; and concepts like the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1886/88 which delineated the Holy Scriptures, the Creeds (Apostles and Nicene), Baptism and Eucharist, and the historic episcopate as the key elements in our ecclesial practice. There is nothing particularly new or controversial in these three sections.

The fourth and final section is where I found it harder to reconcile what Dr. Grieb was saying with the words on the page. She argued that there was no new level of bureaucracy created and that there is no mechanism for kicking a church out of the Anglican Communion in the covenant as it stands. Evidently the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion existed before 2010, but I had never heard of it. This is the body that under the covenant would make “recommendations” regarding the participation of member churches in the “Instruments of Unity”—the Anglican Consultative Council (a body of laypeople, priests, and bishops from around the communion which meets triennially), the Lambeth Conference (all the Anglican Bishops who meet at Lambeth once every ten years), and the Primates Meeting (the archbishops or presiding bishops of each province). Confusingly, these recommendations are only recommendations, and could either be accepted or rejected by the instruments themselves, and the member churches. It is unclear whether provinces who rejected the recommendations could commit some sort of ecclesiastical civil disobedience by sitting in at meetings to which they were disinvited.

I left Dr. Grieb’s presentation feeling more charitable towards the covenant than I had previously; but regardless of what the document actually says, it may be dead in the water. In late 2010, the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), a formalizing gathering of conservative Anglican archbishops, put out a statement saying they were no longer in favor of the covenant as proposed, and that their churches would not consider signing on to it. If the covenant which is designed to bring all Anglicans together has already failed to do so, than it might become yet one more tool by which the Christianity of developed nations divides itself from the Christianity of developing nations. Yet it would also be poor form were the Episcopal Church in the U.S. to be the first province to outright reject the covenant; so far it has been subscribed to by the Anglican Church in Mexico, Ireland, and South East Asia, and the province of New Zealand has said that it agrees in principle with the first three sections, but needs more time to study section four.
I remain confident that whatever happens to the covenant as proposed, our mission partners in Tanzania and elsewhere will continue to be mission partners, and that our bonds of affection and mutual regard are rooted in the covenant of the Gospel, and not dependent upon a new ecclesiastical covenant.