Sunday, July 30, 2017

Breaking Barriers

Why climb a mountain? Because it's there! - George Mallory

We live in a world of challenges. Whether it's getting to work on time when the freeway is backed up 20 miles, there's too much month at the end of the money, or physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual challenges that keep us from feeling safe, secure, and on track. The world is full of barriers that we must deal with in some way or form, either by ignoring them and moving in another direction or figuring out a way to get over the barrier and continue the journey in a relatively straight line. Sometimes circumstances dictate the course of action when challenged by a barrier, but sometimes it is pure choice as to how to handle the challenge.

On July 29, 1974, a crowd gathered in a church in Philadelphia to watch a barrier being broken, a challenge being taken, and a calling being answered. On that day, 11 women faced the barrier of church tradition and ruling and accepted the challenge of God's call to them to be ordained priests in the Episcopal Church. It had been a long struggle, fighting the tradition of a male-only clergy by seeking ordination to the priesthood.

It's incredible that in the Episcopal Church, it wasn't until 1970 that women were allowed to be delegates to the General Convention. One of the goals of the women at that convention was to change the canon in order to do away with the order of Deaconess, an order that allowed women to function in the practical aspects of the diaconate (caring for the poor and needy) but not allowing them to perform the liturgical duties of a male deacon. Needless to say, the attempt failed but did have support from the House of Deputies. Three years later, it again failed to pass in General Convention, but it failed narrowly.

We come to 1974. Eleven women who had been trying desperately to fulfill the commitment they felt God had called them processed down the nave of the Church of the Advocate and stood before the altar of God, facing three brave, retired bishops who consecrated them to God's service as priests. There was an immediate reaction from many Episcopalians who felt that tradition had been thrown out in favor of a radical new thing they really hadn't expected or even wanted, truth be told. The House of Bishops immediately labeled them as "irregular" and inhibited their practice of priestly functions. It didn't stop the momentum, however; about two months later, 4 more women were ordained in Washington, D.C. The issued stood until General Convention in 1976 when women were accepted into the priesthood as of January 1, 1977.

I remember talking to one of the 100 or so first "regularly" ordained priests (those ordained in 1977) who remembered walking the halls of GC, wondering if they would be allowed to be ordained and able to practice priestly duties and praying that God would make it happen. She remembered being overwhelmed with joy when the vote came through.

We all face challenges in all kinds of ways every day. Some of them are small but still annoying or slowing us down, but others are huge and can halt us in our tracks or even cripple us in major ways. Usually we fight, sometimes exhausting ourselves, in order to scramble over the barrier that holds us back, but then sometimes we, like George Mallory, accept the challenge and climb the mountain simply because it is there in front of us. The Philadelphia Eleven, like Moses, climbed the mountain, not just because it was there, but because it was what they felt they had to do to answer God's call to the very utmost of their ability.

Perhaps when I face challenges and barriers that feel like mountains (even if they really are molehills), I need to remember the pilgrim's progress of the Philadelphia Eleven and all those who came after them. They did not get an immediate victory, but each skirmish made them stronger and gained them support that eventually helped them gain the mountaintop. Not being one who sees mountains as things to be climbed simply because they're there, I need to start looking at them that way. There may be a way around the mountain, but it would be miles and miles off track. I might as well just start the hike up -- one foot in front of the other, stopping now and again to look out at not just the top of the mountain but also at the view around me.

Who knows? Maybe I'll find that with patience, fortitude, and a driving sense of purpose, I can answer the call to the top. When I do, I need to remember Merrill Bittner, Alla Bozarth-Campbell, Alison Cheek, Emily Hewitt, Carter Heyward, Suzanne Hiatt, Marie Moorefield, Jeannette Piccard, Betty Schiess, Katrina Swanson, and Nancy Witting. Perhaps too I should remember the three retired bishops who followed their hearts and prayerful consciences and performed the ordinations: Daniel Corrigan, Robert L. Dewitt, and Edward R. Welles.

For these women and men and all who follow them, may God's richest blessings be upon them and for those who have gone to greater glory, may God's light perpetually shine upon them. They followed the call and overcame the barriers.

Originally published on Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 29, 2017.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

What's In a Name?

What's the name? A name is something by which a person, place, thing, animal, rock, planet, tree, or anything else is known to the world, or at least in whatever language is spoken in the area. The name is an important thing. In some cultures knowing the real name of a person or a demon gives power over that entity. Children are given a second name that is their public name while their original birth name is held close and not disclosed. A name can describe a person place or thing like the York River, the Shenandoah Valley, willow tree,  clock, kitten, or the Jefferson Memorial. A name is an important thing as it identifies and that identification allows the object to be known among the people.

Today we celebrate the commemoration of Mary Magdalene, called the "apostle to the apostles." Mary Magdalene, or Mary of Magdala, the town from which she alleged came, was a follower of Jesus, one of the supporters of his ministry and his followers,. She was also known as a notorious sinner, but where that actually came from no one really knows. We know for certain that she was the first one at the tomb, the weeping woman, to whom Jesus appeared on the morning of the resurrection. She is mentioned in the book of Luke is having had seven demons cast out, but these demons were not identified specifically as sins. She was present at the resurrection, but she was also present at the crucifixion, at the base of the cross with Jesus's mother and others, while the male disciples huddled in fear. To me, that indicates great love, great dedication, and great courage.

It is Gregory the Great who is credited, if that is the proper word for it,  with having first referred to Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. Down through the centuries, the title stuck, and Mary Magdalene has been presented as a woman of very dubious virtue and sins of promiscuity. Somehow it's not even surprising that such a charge would be made. After all, sin came into the world through Eve, as some theologies will tell it, and has been passed down from woman to woman throughout the ages. But Mary, even with no real finger of accusation pointing at her in the Bible, lost her good name and spent centuries being known as a very sinful woman whom Jesus forgave and who loved Jesus in gratitude for his forgiveness.

It is a terrible thing to lose one's good name. For millennia, a person's name was their bond, their word, and on that name one's reputation and even one's family's reputation was based. To have someone in the family labeled a prostitute immediately cast aspersions on the whole family. If a man were known as a thief or a murderer, it reflected badly on the family, but if a young woman were found to be pregnant or caught even gazing at a male to whom she was not related, there would be the first stone to be cast at her for her lack of virtue. In a way, it's a wonder that another Mary escaped such talk and such judgment when she mysteriously became pregnant under rather mysterious circumstances. At any rate, Mary Magdalene, on even less proof, lost her good name about possibly in the 5th century, it wasn't until 1969 that the Western church ceased describing her as a prostitute and restored her name to one who had been forgiven and one who loved much.

These days, it doesn't seem to take much for someone to lose their good name, or at least to be charged as such. Often rumors are believed far more readily than facts, and gender of the accused is unequal in its exploitation. It very hard to read and watch those who have done many good things being plastered with unfavorable or even insulting terms while those who skulk in the shadows and dark corners of the industry and government and other business are presented as model citizens, their names held in esteem while behind their backs their hands are busy doing evil acts. They complain that people throw stones at them for things like adultery, theft, manipulation and other sins of "me first-ism," yet many will still follow those people because they simply do not believe that any such charges could be true. For them, the appearance of a good name is more important as actually earning one.

Jesus told us that we should be kind, we should work for the common good and not just our own devices and desires. We are to be part of the kingdom, not the king. We are to have a good name as it were because we follow God and try to do God's will and not our own. Another way of putting it is we are to be righteous in the halls of heaven based on our lives here on earth. Not just in the eyes of friends, supporters, and constituents, but in the eyes of God.

I think this week I'm going to be looking at times in my life when my good name has been besmirched by someone with an agenda and not because of something I have done. My big job is to forgive the people who did the injury, whether they were aware of it or not. I shouldn't do it just so I can feel virtuous, it's what I'm expected to do to be a part of God's kingdom. I also have to look times when I have perhaps led to others losing their good names and what I should do to make amends for that, if amends are at all possible. It's going to be a very intense week because these are not easy things to do. But in order to reclaim my own good name, I must allow others the restoration of theirs. God expects it, Jesus commands it, and Mary Magdalene encourages it.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 21, 2017.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Lessons and Applying Them

Acts 11:1-18

I'm undoubtedly not the only person who ever sat in a high school or college class and thought, "What am I doing here? I'll never use this stuff when I get out of school." I know I had that thought in algebra, geography, civics, and more than a few college classes which were allegedly supposed to round out my education. Oddly enough, on occasion, I have had to use algebra, or had to use geography in some manner, not to mention having the knowledge I got in civics to understand at least some of what is going on in the world. It's funny, sometimes you learn something that you figure you'll never need only to find out that's exactly what you need at some point later on.

Peter the pious, disciple of the resurrected Jesus, found that out as he was doing his prayers on the roof of the house. In a vision, he saw a sheet full of animals, reptiles, and birds of all kinds being lowered from heaven. Not just sheep and cows and goats, but all kinds of things, most of which had never passed the lips of Peter or any observant Jew. The voice from heaven spoke to Peter and said, "Get up, kill and eat." Peter was astounded. His response was that he had never eaten anything that was unclean and the response that God sent back rocked him more than just a bit. The words of God, in essence, were  "Do not call anything unclean that I have called clean," It probably shocked Peter to the very core of his being. He was used to following the rules, and Judaism definitely had rules about what was clean and what was not clean, what could be eaten and what could not. This vision repeated itself three times, using a holy number to emphasize the point.  This was important, and God was letting Peter know that importance.

Sometimes when you learn something, a reason to apply that knowledge comes quickly to serve as a reinforcement of the value of that particular lesson. Peter got six visitors from Caesarea who wanted him to come with them. The people were Gentiles, seen by Jews as unclean and therefore not people with whom Peter and others would normally mingle.  A voice told Peter not to make distinctions between himself and the Gentiles, much as the voice from heaven with the sheet had said about the contents of the sheet.  Peter remembered the lesson and went.

In 12-step programs there's a saying, "Insanity is repeating the same action and expecting different results." That has come up in my life over and over again. Lessons appears in front of me, and I'm supposed to learn it. Then I'm supposed to apply it to my daily life. It sounds very simple, but sometimes it can be a real pain. I seem to be one of those people who has trouble learning lessons, especially those dealing in the practical realm. In a way I'm a Peter, a person who hears the same lesson they get it, and then suddenly finds out they haven't learned a darned thing. They still make the same mistake over and over again.  Peter heard Jesus give the same lesson over and over in the course of his ministry but, like most of the disciples, Peter didn't get it until he came face-to-face with something that made the lessons click.

The same thing goes with some of the church lessons that I've been exposed to over my life. I've been exposed to "Love your neighbor," but I still find it difficult to love the people behind me who let their water run onto my yard and in a place where I have to mow the result of their watering. When it's over hundred degrees, it's a big deal. It's hard to love people who hurt animals, or people, or maybe not even see the people at all which is probably the worst. It's hard to love the people that are in a "I've got mine, too bad about you" way of thinking, or people who only see their point of view as valid. It's not really all that different than it was 100, 500, or a millennium or more ago.

Too often it ends up with us judging who we believe to be clean and who is definitely not. We go back in American history less than 100 years ago where white men were 100%  human while women and those slaves brought from Africa were considered to be 3/5 of a human being. They didn't measure up. White privilege carried the day. Look around now and see examples of Confederate history being removed from church windows, city centers, and eliminated as memorials or even names of places. We do this in order to avoid offending others, yet in many parts of the United States has not really changed very much. The value of one's life for an African Americans life or Native American life or Hispanic life or Oriental life is less valued than that of Caucasian males. White on black or male on female crime usually ends up being judged in favor of the privileged rather than who was truly in the right and who wasn't.

We try to rub out history that points out the cause and result of a particular lesson we should have learned, but we reenact parts of that history every day without need for symbols like flags or statues or markers. We even have names for it -- racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, and a hundred other names for lessons we haven't learned yet. We want to wipe out the history so we can feel better about it, like it wasn't our fault. Maybe it wasn't; an awful lot of things happened long before any of us were born, but we should have learned the lesson by now that simply saying something didn't happen isn't enough. It revises history but leaves a gaping wound behind, and the judgement of "clean" and "unclean" continues, just with different words.

Peter learned the lesson of the value of even those people and animals that many would deem unclean or worthless or even disgusting are part of God's world, put here by God for a reason, and for us to learn to love and care for. No history revision, simply taking lessons to heart and acting sincerely on them.

It's time to learn the lesson and get on with applying it. It isn't easy; we are all born with prejudices, but we are also given the strength, wisdom, and grace to overcome them. We have the lessons of Jesus to guide us, and the Spirit to urge us on. We also have the vision of God's kingdom on earth to hold high. We've heard the lessons, now let's apply them.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 15, 2017.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Going the wrong way

Except for the heat, it would be hard to realize that we are already in July. The year is half over already, and I'm wondering where did the time go? Unfortunately, the news usually reminds me what's been happening over the last six months or so, and, quite often, the news isn't as rosy  as it could be.

One thing that strikes me, so it seems,  is the increasing number of automobile accidents locally caused by people going the wrong way on the freeway and on some regular roads as well. The most recent official number I could find was that in 2015 there were 15 accidents caused by wrong way drivers, both with and without fatalities. Looking at a local map for this year, just in the Phoenix area, there appeared to have been 17 accidents in 2017 already, and I'm wondering if that counts the latest one on the Fourth of July where one car caused six accidents, a number of injuries, and one fatality. \

It's almost a weekly event, it seems. It's not exactly something that brings the feeling of safety for anyone driving on the highway or freeway.

Most of the wrong way accidents are caused by alcohol, drowsiness, or other mental anomaly. I realize that sometimes getting on and off the freeway can be a confusing event. I go on one area freeway about once a year, and it takes me a few minutes to remember that I have to turn before the stoplight and not on the far side of it to change from a side street to the on ramp. I have an absolute horror of finding myself driving in the wrong direction and causing an accident, or turning right onto an off ramp because I missed the entrance to the on ramp. I'm sure I'm not alone in this fear, no matter impossible it seems.

A lot of people in the Bible seem to have made the wrong way turns and ended up going in a direction counter to what they should have been taking. Look at Jonah. He didn't want to go where God told him to go, so he took off and found passage on a boat headed in another direction. We know the story: storm comes up, the crew gets scared, throws Jonah overboard where he is swallowed by a very large fish and taken for a three-day journey. Evidently Jonah was a pain in the belly as well as a pain in the neck. The fish regurgitated Jonah onto a beach and apparently Jonah learned his lesson.

Look also at Abraham. He was told to go and sacrifice his son, and he did exactly as he was told. Many think he should have refused to even consider such an act, but God told Abraham to do it and Abraham did — at least up to a point. God provided a ram instead, and Isaac was saved. Did Abraham take a wrong turn? It probably seemed so at first.

Looking back on my life, I see a number wrong turns that I have made, and wrong choices that I  made that I had considered to be what I was supposed to do, just like Abraham. There have been so many I can hardly count them but there were far more than wrong way accidents in the Phoenix area in the first half of this year. Most of them I learned from, something I'm hoping those drivers who chose to go the wrong way learned from their mistake. Sometimes I had to repeat the lesson more than once, and it was never easy. Still, when you come to an intersection, you either have to go straight ahead or make a turn, and if you do make a turn, it had better be in the correct lane or an accident may be inevitable.

The Bible also gave us a number of rules, signposts, and street signs that give us clues as to how to avoid making a wrong turn. I'm sure all Christians are aware of these, things like the Beatitudes, the 10 Commandments, the wisdom of the prophets, and the teachings of Jesus and those who continued his message down through the ages. It never was about giving clues that might send people down the wrong way, even though many, many times people have misconstrued what they have heard and read and have taken the wrong path due to their misunderstanding of what they had been told or what they have read for themselves. Because of these misunderstood rules, millions have been injured, slandered, tortured, ostracized, and killed because otherwise "good" people took a wrong turn. It seems to be happening more and more frequently and with worse and worse consequences.

So what can we do to prevent going the wrong way and hurting or, God forbid, killing an innocent person who is just living their life the best they could? Sticking with one of the overarching themes of the Bible, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Few people ever really enjoy hurting themselves; most of them are trying to replace one kind of pain for another. If all of us love one another as we love ourselves, think what an idyllic world this could become: no bullying, no fear, no preferential treatment for specific groups, classes, cultures, races, or any other kind of self-defined people. That  would be a pretty good start I would think.

We've had a number of examples of people who have followed that instruction, and we can see the benefits of that versus the "Me first!" way of living. I have a feeling that if God didn't really want us to do that, God wouldn't have said it in the first place, and Jesus wouldn't have made it such a focal point of his ministry. It seems to me that's a pretty good signpost.

This week I have to look to see where I maybe traveling in the wrong direction and endangering others in some way. I have to carefully weigh my choices, consider the consequences, examine the possibilities, and most of all, investigate who would be helped or hurt by the choices I make. Going to be a busy week.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 8, 2017.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Start the Fire, Keep It Burning

Today's commemorations feature two women who are listed individually but who seem to have a connection that brings them together. Today we celebrate a writer and a prophetic witness, and also a lawyer, civil rights activist, and priest. One was Caucasian, the other African-American. One write a book and supported efforts of fleeing slaves to reach freedom. The other was arrested for sitting in the wrong part of a bus in Virginia and who in turn worked in various organizations and as a civil rights attorney for some years before being ordained among the first women priests in the Episcopal Church.  The commonalities I think probably greater than their differences because both sought to draw attention to great wrongs that were taking place and to help address those wrongs. They're both fascinating women.  

Harriet Beecher Stowe lived from 1811 to 1896. She was raised in a very religious household and her brothers were clergymen Henry Ward Beecher, Charles Beecher, and Edward Beecher. Her sister Catherine  was also an educator and author. Harriet is most famously known as the author of a fictional novel called Uncle Tom's Cabin, the initial installment appearing in print in 1851. The book, now a classic, was a story of how slavery impacted, affected, and formed both the character of Tom but also the culture of the slave owners and other slaves. It was a book with a definite Christian moral where the slave humbly accepted his fate in life and did his best to live a Christian life within a e system that was definitely anything but Christian despite all claims to the contrary. The book was an immediate hit in the North because in 1850 Congress had passed the Fugitive Slave Law that prohibited people from trying to assist fugitive slaves in a climate where many were willing to risk everything to provide for those escaping. It was the match that lit the fire that smoldered for a while before bursting into flames with firing of the first cannon at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. The Civil War broke out,  and, in a way is still being fought, despite Lee's surrender to Grant in 1865.

Anna Pauline Murray, also known as Pauli, was born in 1910 and died in 1985. She was born in Baltimore but raised in North Carolina which gave her perspective on life in the southern post-Civil War and civil rights eras. In 1940, she and a friend were on a Virginia bus, sitting in a whites-only section of the bus. They were arrested for violating the strict segregation laws, and that struck a spark in her soul that led her into involvement with both the socialist and the civil rights movement. Her achievement as the first African-American woman to receive a Doctor of Juridical Science from Yale, and practiced both civil rights and women's rights law. Her writings contributed significantly to the work of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), served on the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women in 1961, and a co-founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW). After leaving the practice of law and teaching in 1973,  she was ordained into the Episcopal priesthood in 1977.

Both women believed that human rights included those whom most of society seemed to want to subjugate and enslave. The first African-American slaves had come to the United States in 1619 to the Jamestown colony in order to help raising crops and tobacco which was the main cash crop. From that time until the mid 19th century, the country endured a somewhat uneasy relationship between the industrial North and the agricultural South. There were slaves in the north, although not nearly as many as the South. The publication of Stowe's book was a kind of tinder for the fire and a spark to ignite it. It called attention to the concept of what was "Christian" and what was not. Those slaveholders used the Bible to bolster their claim of Christianity, yet their treatment of slaves under their charge was anything but Christian. In the end, a long and bloody civil war resulted.

I had heard the name Harriet Beecher Stowe and had read her book in school (a hard thing for some of us to read),  but never Pauli Murray until a few years ago. I had grown up in a segregated South, I remember the unease and, although we had no real violence or protest marches when we did finally integrate, it was an uneasy peace and, for that matter, it appears to still be an uneasy peace in many places. What Pauli Murray did was to fight on the side of those who civil rights were not as well protected as the majority wouldn't have it. In a way, that fight still continues for people of color, immigrants, and women, regardless of their skin color or ethnicity. It may be a stretch to say that the slavery of women. while not as dramatic and often not as visible as that of slaves in chains or picking cotton or being profiled as troublemakers simply because of the their skin color. but it does affect the lives of billions. Harriet Beecher Stowe called attention to those African-Americans who were enslaved in the South while Murray called attention to those enslaved all over the country because of their gender as well as their race.

Both women were utterly Christian. They were born and raised in the church or in various churches, and took the Christianity very seriously. The point of Stowe's book was to point out that the concept and application of slavery was immoral and also very unchristian. Murray kept that tradition of pointing out the Christian way of living, not in a fictional work but in real life.

It may be a day dedicated to two separate women, but they're always going to be linked in my mind, and I will be grateful for the stands that they have made and the work that they have done. May they both rest in peace as they will assuredly rise in glory. May their dreams of freedom, justice and equality for all come true and quickly.

God bless.

Originally published in Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, July 1, 2017.