Sunday, August 31, 2014

Who is welcome?

Last week our Bishop sent me to North Carolina to attend a conference that happens every two years in the Episcopal Church, a gathering of clergy and lay people from all over the country who are engaged in Latino ministry, or who want to be.   A fair number of the participants are first-generation Americans, with limited English, so a lot of the sermons and addresses and workshops, and almost all the songs, were in Spanish.  There was simultaneous translation available, but I chose not to use it.  There were two reasons for this.  The first was that I saw an opportunity to practice my Spanish.  There were some speakers, who, when they really got wound up, left me hopelessly in the dust, and a lot of jokes I didn’t get, but I was pleased with how much I was able to participate in Spanish, and I got better at it as the conference went on.

The second reason why I decided not to use the translation equipment was that I wanted to have an experience that is an everyday reality for many people, but almost never happens to me.  What with my sex, and the color of my eyes and skin, and my native language, socio-economic status, and level of education, and my degree of physical and mental ability, I have the privilege of access almost everywhere I go.  I feel like I belong.  And that is nowhere more true than in the church.  “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” is a slogan that I know, without question, applies to me.  But sitting in the auditorium at that conference, where I was in the minority ethnic group, trying to sing a song I didn’t know, or get the gist of a speech in a language I didn’t completely understand, gave me just a little taste of what it is like to be a cultural outsider, an “other.”  

At the celebration of the Holy Eucharist on Wednesday afternoon I somehow ended up in the front row of the auditorium.  After the sermon it was announced that there would be laying on of hands and prayer for those with particular needs or concerns.  And sure enough, eight or so of the Latino and Latina priests in albs and stoles took positions up on the stage or in the space right in front of the first row of seats, and the people started lining up.  My immediate thought was that I didn’t have anything going on in my life that was serious enough to require special prayer.  I thought of the other people in that audience, and I imagined what they must deal with in terms of poverty, or separation from their families, doubtful immigration status, or serious disease, and I thought that they surely needed prayer more than I did. 

So I decided to sit and pray quietly to myself.  And I prayed for peace in the places in the world where there are wars and political turmoil.  And I prayed for people in this congregation and others that I know who are suffering or struggling in different ways.  But I also had a front row seat for the action that was going on around me, and my eyes kept straying upward to watch the people with their heads bowed, and the priests holding them in their hands and leaning in with their eyes closed, whispering their prayers, and I saw the hugs that sometimes followed after the prayers were said, and the tears.  After a few minutes I noticed that that, if there was some kind of expectation that you had to have really serious problems in order to go up for a prayer, people were either ignoring that requirement or else this was a group that was really hurting because the lines down the middle of the auditorium and in the side aisles were getting longer, not shorter.

 Well, I began to wonder whether maybe I should reconsider my decision not to join them, but I also started to worry about the time.  This Eucharist was supposed to end at 4:15 and I’d made plans to go for a run and a swim in the lake before dinner at 6:00 and some of these priests were really taking a long time with their prayers, and if I got into line, then everybody might as well do it and we’d never get out of there on time.  So I straightened up in my seat and closed my eyes and returned to my private prayer, and after a while I began to pray for members of my own family, for my crazy old uncle living by himself way up on the North Coast, and another uncle with cancer, and then I thought of my brother.  I started to pray for my brother who has a drug problem, and is unemployed, and has never really done much with his exceptional talents, but is just kind of stuck in a perpetual adolescence, and of all the shame and self-hatred I know he carries, and the sorrow and worry it causes my parents and I started to feel really, really sad, and I recognized that I did have something I needed prayer for.

But by then there were just a few people left in line, and the others had gone back to their seats, and the priests had started to turn and lay hands on each other, and I wasn’t sure which one to go to, and I didn’t want to be stupid and rude, like “hey, I know we’re almost finished, but I changed my mind.”  And I wasn’t sure that I wouldn’t start crying if I started talking to a priest  about my brother right then, and then I would have to walk back to my seat with everybody in the auditorium watching me.  And the thing was, that room was filled with a spirit of kindness and compassion in that moment and I’m sure that whatever I did no one was going to judge me, and it would have been okay. 

But I never did go up for a prayer, because I was afraid to be vulnerable.  I was so attached to the idea of being better off than those people that I couldn’t see my own need for healing, or that those “others” were offering it to me.  “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You,” is a slogan I can get behind as long as I’m the one doing the welcoming; but let me be the stranger in need of welcome, and I hesitate and am afraid, standing outside wondering if it’s safe to go in.

In today’s gospel reading Peter and Jesus have a fight, because Peter thinks that whatever it means that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, it doesn’t involve being vulnerable.  But Jesus sees it differently.  He knows that the world that human beings have made is one where people quite easily and almost without thinking assume that some were meant to rule and others to be ruled, some to possess and other to be dispossessed, some to enjoy the blessings of prosperity and peace, and others to live and die in misery and violence, as if all of this were quite natural, even willed by God.  But Jesus sees God taking a place in this world with the poor, with those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for justice, who suffer persecution for the cause of peace and for the truth.  So the Messiah will make the journey the holy city of Jerusalem as a vulnerable stranger, an outsider, one whose right to be there is in doubt, whose fate is in his enemies’ hands.

It wasn’t hard to predict what would happen to him there.  He would suffer and be killed, as prophets and martyrs have suffered and been killed again and again before Jesus and ever since.  What happened was business as usual, entirely ordinary except for one thing—on the third day Jesus rose from the dead, and his disciples were witnesses of it.  And that one thing is what makes all the difference.  It is what makes the cross not a place where God’s voice in the world is silenced once again, but where God’s truth speaks most clearly.  It is where we see the world as God sees it—where God dispels the illusions of human privilege and power, and drags hypocritical religion and rationalized barbarity out of the shadows.  The cross is where God lights up the whole of human life, even at its most treacherous and cruel, its most abused and degraded, with the eternal glory of the Son of Man—his compassion, his forgiveness, his wisdom and love. 

The cross is where we learn to follow Christ on a journey of healing and being healed, welcoming and being welcomed, that reaches across every barrier of culture, class, language, sex and sexual orientation, race and religion, to touch God in the hand of the other, and where we learn to say “ hermano”, “hermana”-- “brother”, “sister”.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Let it be done

I began last week with a nasty cold that kept me on the couch most of Monday and Tuesday.  Now, when I get sick I always find myself wondering what I did or didn’t do to make myself vulnerable.  I suppose there really are nasty bugs that cruise through the population around me from time to time.  My daughter got sick a couple of days before me.  But my wife never did, and that’s enough to make me wonder whether there’s more to it than a random encounter with a microbe. 

A couple of months ago, I came down with the flu on the first day of summer vacation. So why did it happen that day and not the day or the week before?  Did my immune system hold on and hold on until I finally made it to vacation, and only when I could afford to, allow me to collapse?  Maybe this week was like that.  Maybe my body was looking at the calendar and thinking about how intense the schedule will be from Labor Day until Christmas and decided that now was the time to get in a couple more days on the couch before the end of summer.

Wednesday morning I was still coughing and blowing my nose, but I decided to go back to work.  Now, I know without a shadow of a doubt that I am in the right place, doing work for which I am perfectly suited, and you can’t ask for more than that.  I love my job, but it can feel from time to time that there’s just too much to do, especially when physically I’m less than 100%.  So anyway, I arrived at my office and was somewhat dejectedly looking at the mountain of work on my desk and trying to decide where to start digging, when I opened an email from one of our members.  And attached to the email was a little excerpt from an article by Katherine Woodward Thomas, writing in the latest issue of Parabola magazine, and I’d like to quote it for you:

I find that the moments when we most need to be connected to a force and field of life greater than ourselves, are the very ones when we are apt to shut down and withhold prayer. As we often forget to breathe in a time of disappointment and despair, so too do we forget to pray, as if to say to God, “If you are not going to play on my terms, then I am just going to take all of my marbles and go home.”
The holiest moments of our lives are when we make the choice to turn towards life, rather than away… To say a prayer that aligns us with all that is good, loving, beautiful and true in the midst of the rubble and the despair, and rather than ask God to make this better for us, to declare instead who we will be in the face of it.
It is in this sacred instant that we awaken to ourselves as the generators of life and love, and begin to understand prayer as the holy act of co-creation.
I read this and it prompted me to stop and close the laptop and to pray.  And maybe it was because we are in this season of discernment, and one of the things on my to-do list is to spend some time pondering my own vocation as a priest and possible Rector of this congregation; but in any case I found myself remembering a time over four years ago when I was considering whether to come here to Petaluma in the first place.  I was beginning to sense that it was the right thing, but I was also scared about being in charge of a congregation for the first time, and about the risks and challenges of this particular situation.  On a warm spring afternoon I took a long walk to discharge some of the stress, and I was just kind of laying it all out before God as honestly as I could, and got to the place where I was ready to say yes--but under one condition. 

I said, “God, I’ll do this, as long as we both know that I can’t do it.  If we both understand that this is beyond what I can do, and it’s going to be up to you to make it work, then I can say yes.”  Last Wednesday morning I remembered that moment and it occurred to me that one reason I got run down and got sick was that I had forgotten that I can’t do this job.  There is simply no way a single human being could visit every person, read every book, pray every prayer, attend every meeting, follow up on every email, accept every invitation, and pursue every opportunity for ministry that he or she would need to in order to do this job perfectly.  But there are times I forget that renewing this congregation is Christ’s job, and all I’m really supposed to do is be the person in the room who trusts that he’s doing it, and it’s going to be alright.  I forget and think it is up to me, and the responsibility starts to feel like a burden instead of a privilege, and I begin to worry that things are slipping through the cracks and that the whole thing might spin out of control, and I forget to pray. 

In the gospel lesson today Jesus meets a woman who is out of his control.  He’s left Galilee for a while and gone out to the coast, to Gentile territory.  He’s there to get out of sight of the authorities, and lay low for a while, so he’s none too pleased when one of the locals starts following him, shouting “have mercy on me; heal my daughter.”  His mission isn’t supposed to include these people, and if she keeps this up, she’ll draw a crowd and pretty soon they’ll all be following him, asking him to heal this person, and cast demons out of that one.  And when she calls him “Lord, Son of David,” it’s an unpleasant reminder of what he came there to get away from, what is becoming more apparent by the day—that the movement that he started back home, to renew the spirit of his people, and restore their faith in the loving-kindness of their God, isn’t just religious, it’s political.

So he ignores her in hopes that she’ll shut up and go away.  But she persists in following and shouting, and when Jesus and his disciples stop to try to figure out what to do she catches up, and comes and kneels at his feet.  He tries to explain that his mandate does not extend to people like her, and as he so often does, he uses a metaphor related to eating, “It is not fair,” he says, “to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But if she is offended because Jesus prefers his own people, or if she is insulted at being compared to a dog, she doesn’t give any sign of it.  In fact, she accepts it, and yet declares who she is in the face of it.  She takes what Jesus gives her and makes her own play on his words— “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” 

And in that moment Jesus snaps out of seeing her in terms of her nationality.  He stops seeing her as a problem it is not his job to solve.  Suddenly he sees a person who believes God, in his God, the same God who can feed five thousand men (and their women and children) with seven loaves of bread.  Surely such abundant goodness and miraculous love can spare a few crumbs for this little dog at his feet, and her afflicted daughter.  It seems that in that moment Jesus remembered who was really in charge of his mission, and however unorthodox, or risky, or inconvenient it might be, it wasn’t his place to stand in the way of this woman’s prayer.  “Let it be done for you as you wish,” he says, and again he stretches a little more, opens a little wider, to accept the pleas of another suffering child of God. 

“Let it be done,” because being a generator of life and love doesn’t stop at the border.  “Let it be done” doesn’t concede anything to fear or hate.  It doesn’t involve strain, or worry about whether it’s working.  It’s no more and no less than a prayer— “Let it be done.”

Thursday, August 14, 2014

To the other side

It’s not easy to see why Jesus would send his disciples away at nightfall to start rowing across a lake, but there might be a clue in the larger order of events in the gospel.  You see, the story the feeding of the multitude comes right after the sordid episode where Herod, the ruler of Galilee, has John the Baptist beheaded at a dinner party.  Word then comes to Herod about this new fellow, Jesus of Nazareth, and he declares that this must be John, come back from the dead.  News of this comes to Jesus, and that is the point at which he leaves town and heads out into the bush.  A great crowd goes after him—with John dead, Jesus is the only prophet they have left, the only one who can challenge the violence and corruption of their rulers in the name of God’s justice and truth. 
It’s not clear whether Jesus set out to have the great world-changing career that he did.  It seems to me that a lot of what he did was spontaneous and personal.  He had a profound personal experience of God’s love for everyone, and he related to everyone he met on that basis.  But because of his historical circumstances, every little thing he said and did to relieve people’s suffering, to satisfy their basic needs, to lift their spirits and bring them together, had revolutionary impact, and this is the point in the gospel story where that starts to be clear.  Jesus had to know that news of miraculously feeding a multitude would travel fast, and that the reaction might be swift and brutal.  Maybe he sent his disciples out in the boat that night because he feared for their lives, and decided they should slip away under cover of darkness. 
From the evidence we can piece together, Matthew’s gospel came out of a community that was crossing over from their ancestral home in the world of Judaism to the strange new reality called the Church.  It was a journey that put them in a boat with other people they would never have given the time of day before, and now they were all depending on each other for their very lives.  They were running into unaccountable hostility from their fellow Jews, who rejected and denounced and even persecuted them for preaching and praying and gathering in the name of Jesus. 
Yet it was a community that had experienced the fulfillment of what it means to be human.  In their gatherings they had received gifts of the Holy Spirit in baptism and the Eucharist.  They had died with Christ and been reborn in his resurrection to a new life of imperishable glory.  They had tasted the heavenly banquet of God’s justice and love, where all pain and grief are at an end and evil and suffering are no more.  But somehow they still found themselves on this side of things, in the world where children die of hunger and nations are laid waste in war.  Or more precisely, they found themselves in a small boat in the dark, rowing against the wind and against the waves, trying to cross over to the other side.  
The image of Jesus coming to the disciples over the sea, calming the storm, and their fears along with it, must have been a great comfort to these people.  Less comforting is the little story that Matthew works in at this point about Peter.  The troubling part is where Jesus says to Peter, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?"  It has always struck me as an accusation that if Peter really had faith, he should be able to do like Jesus.  But that just doesn’t seem fair, to Peter, or, for that matter, to us.  If walking on water is the minimum standard of faith, we’re all in trouble. 
But reading the story this time around, I realized that walking on water isn’t the only thing Peter has doubts about.   Before that even happens, Jesus calls out to the terrified disciples, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid." But Peter doesn’t calm down and wait in the boat for Jesus to come and rescue them.  He doubts that it is really Jesus, and he demands proof.  He wants Jesus’ power, for himself and nobody else, so he can take matters in his own hands.  “Go ahead, knock yourself out,” says Jesus, and Peter leaves his brothers behind and steps out of the boat. 
I don’t imagine Jesus was surprised when Peter started sinking.  Peter’s faith wasn’t big enough to believe that Jesus was a living man, and not a ghost.  It wasn’t big enough to just sit tight in the boat with everybody else.  So it sure as anything wasn’t big enough to walk on water.   Now just a little faith is enough, as long as it is faith in Jesus and solidarity with the others in the boat.  But it seems like there were some in the early Christian community who weren’t content with that.  They began to doubt that faith was sufficient to their historical situation. They wanted some kind of supernatural escape plan, to leave the whole soggy mess behind and walk away over the waves.
In May I was with a bunch of priests and deacons from our diocese, when Sally Hubbell, from St. Paul’s church in Healdsburg, asked the group if we knew anyone who might be able to do a service in Spanish.  St. Paul’s has a small but lively Spanish-language congregation and one of the girls from the was going to celebrate her quinceañera on August 9.  Sally would be away on vacation and neither of the priests who usually substitute for her on such occasions were going to be able to do it either.  With a certain amount of trepidation I raised my hand and said, “I can.” 
For the past six years all the time and money that I get allotted for Continuing Education has gone to learning Spanish.  I have a weekly lesson via an internet video call with a man in Guatemala, and I spend three or four hours of my free time every week doing written exercises.  Progress has been painfully slow at times, but I’ve stuck with it.  So yesterday I preached in Spanish for the first time.  The same goes for celebrating the Eucharist.   For that matter, it was the first quinceañera I’d ever been to.  When I first agreed to do it, I was excited about the chance to show off my skills.  But by the time it came around it was all I could do to get through it. 
Friday night I hardly slept a wink, and I got up yesterday morning feeling like death warmed over.  It didn’t help that I was coming down with a cold.  I made it through okay, though, with a lot of help.  I used my Spanish lesson on Thursday to go over my homily with my teacher, and he helped me polish up my grammar and use more popular idioms.  I got a lot of help from a lady named Gretta, who is a kind of bridge person between St. Paul’s Anglo and Latino congregations.  Her Spanish is way better than mine, and she was the emcee for the event.  The family had hired a fabulous trio of musicians who had a huge repertoire of Mexican folk music.  Whenever I decided I needed a little music, I’d just give them a nod, and away they’d go. 
But the biggest help of all was having someone there who was, if anything, even more scared than I was.  I mean, of course, fifteen year old Jessica Castañeda.  She was sitting in her tiara and purple dress and high heeled shoes, in the center aisle right in front of the altar, so we were physically close and looking at each other throughout the service.   We traded off being the center of attention, and had to take a lot of cues from each other.  And I think the fact that both of us were coming out in public, in different ways, at the same time, that both of us were thrilled to be there and at the same time just getting by on a wing and prayer, enabled us to help each other, to keep rowing against the wind and waves.
One year-old Ave Marie Boazman is having a coming-out part of her own this morning, at her baptism.  We can’t know how historical circumstances are going to shape her life.  I’d like to be able to say it’s will be smooth sailing, but a quick glance at the headlines, or even the weather report, suggests otherwise.  Lucky for Ava she has parents who recognize that she’s not going to get very far walking across the water.  She needs a boat, and a Lord who can still the wind and the waves.  She needs people who will stay in the boat with her, no matter what happens.  And so do we, so we are glad to welcome Ava aboard.

About Me

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Petaluma, California, United States
I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, and have been (among other things) an organic farmer and gardener, and a Zen monk. I have a lifelong interest in social and spiritual renewal on the basis of contemplative discipline, creative nonviolence, and ecological practice. In recent years my work has focused intensely on the responsibility of pastoral ministry in the humanistic, evangelical, and catholic branch of Christianity known as Anglicanism. I'm married with a daughter, and have three brothers and two parents.