Ceremony….it’s a good thing

The other day, the seminarian intern who has been at our church for the past year handed over her keys to our new summer intern. We tried to determine whether she was doing this ceremonially or ceremoniously. Our quandary turned into a good learning experience for all involved. Turns out they mean almost the same thing. Ceremonially pertains to a particular ceremony, for example, my son’s graduation from eighth grade. Ceremoniously pertains to the quality of pomp and circumstance attached to any event, for example, to a graduation ceremony where people dress up, line up, and listen to special processional music. (Especially but not limited to music titled “Pomp & Circumstance.”)

There was lots of conversation this week, among forty- and fifty-somethings, about eighth grade graduation, as most of us reflected on the contrast between the elaborate rite of passage this is for our children, and the non-event it was for us as eighth-graders becoming ninth-graders thirty or forty years ago.

But what’s wrong with a little ceremony? Nothing, especially if it is a rite of passage. Being a person of ritual myself (“got ritual?”) I wonder if perhaps most of us don’t have enough ritual and ceremony in our lives, and if perhaps the hoopla that eighth-grade graduation has evolved into (complete with processions, testimonials, ties, formal dresses, tickets, and dinner at a fancy restaurant) reflects the longing we all have to mark important moments, and to mark them in the communities that matter to us.

Perhaps every day is a rite of passage and deserves its ceremony. It’s a good thing.

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Edge Species: between “Already” and “Not Yet”

Lord, is this the time you when you will restore the kingdom? 

I recently had the chance to hear to environmental activist and teacher Starhawk speak to a standing-room-only crowd at St. David of Wales Episcopal Church in Portland. Her topic was “visions of hope in times of chaos.” As I listened to her I wondered: when have we not lived in times of chaos? When are we not in need of visions of hope?

Around Ascension, the first disciples might have been experiencing some chaos of their own.  As they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. There is a prolific tradition of Renaissance paintings of Jesus being lifted up in the air and the disciples all looking up.

The disciples lived, as we live, in an already-not yet time in history. God has already raised Jesus from the dead as a sign of the power of love over death, the power of community over separation, the power of hope over despair. And yet, the world has not yet been transformed into the Kingdom of God that Jesus kept talking about. People are still hungry, we’re still building prisons, young children are still being kidnapped and enslaved all over the world, and people everywhere who are sick and poor are pushed to the margins. Jesus has already proclaimed the Kingdom of God, told us to go ahead and preach the Good News, and yet it looks like the Kingdom is not yet here. Chaos.

Starhawk introduced us to the concept of “edge species.” These are plants or animals that evolve where two different ecosystems meet, for example, the sea and the shore, or the forest and the meadow. Ecosystems on these borderlands are often the most interesting, creative, and diverse ecosystems, and the edge species that thrive there are ones that thrive in chaos.

I would like to suggest that we who are engaged in the work of transformation think of ourselves as edge species.

This is true if we are transforming neighborhoods from sterile blocks of individuals into places where people gather and build community. If our calling is to transform the lives of people whom others have neglected or cast out, we are edge species.  If our work is transforming hearts and minds of a consumerist, throw-away nation into communities of people caring for the earth both now and in the future, we are edge species.

We live in a world where most people, even if they believe in God, don’t go to church, because the church of their childhood either betrayed them or bored them, or because their whole understanding of church is shaped by a small, unrepresentative sample of loud voices. Churches faithful to the calling to be ecclesiagatherings of the people of God for holy food and drink, for healing and transformation, have one foot in thealready of ancient, sacred tradition, and one foot in the not yet of a world transformed by love. Edge species.

The theme for this year’s Village Building Convergence is urban alchemy: transforming spaces into places. A quick google of “Urban Alchemy” yields a treasure trove of transformation.

Urban Alchemy is the name of a psychic healer and tarot card reader in lower Manhattan with the tag line: “Transformation from the inside out.” Urban Alchemy was the title of a 2010 show by an architect-turned-artist and social activist based in St. Louis who uses pieces of abandoned buildings as vehicles for light and transformation. Urban Alchemist is a design collective for local artists in Brooklyn, creating outrageously beautiful mixed media housewares and clothing. Urban Alchemy is a series of work by artist Kuros Zahedi, who lives in Bellingham, Washington, where he gathers communities to clean up neglected urban spaces and then turns collected garbage into art, transforming ugliness into beauty. Urban Alchemy was a 2006 exhibit of work by twenty-eight Detroit artists using found objects to create life-giving expressions of how they understood their city.

The work of transformation is the work of edge species that live on the edge between space, and place, between the past and the future, between looking inward and looking outward, between anxiety and hope, between already and not yet. Join us on the edge.

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What’s so holy about Holy Week?

What’s so holy about Holy Week?

All kinds of things. Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday and ends a week later with the Great Vigil of Easter Saturday night. At least that’s how I’ve always defined Holy Week. Some may beg to differ, but that’s what makes the world go round.

  • Holy Week is holy because in it we mark, over and over again, the last days and hours of Jesus’ life. Anyone who has ever sat with someone at the end of life knows what a holy time that is.
  • Holy Week is holy is holy because it is full of holes, porthole windows into places that most of us otherwise never get to go, connections between our story and the great story, between the ordinary things we live with (bread, wine, towels, water, words, candles) and the extraordinary.
  • Holy Week is holy because it is “set apart.” Even if I weren’t a fan of all things liturgical, I’d probably celebrate Holy Week because time to step out of the ordinary into the extraordinary is such a precious gift.
  • Finally, Holy Week is holy because it makes Easter Easter. As a colleague writes: “Our experience of the joy of Easter…is so much more full when we have joined the Church in making the pilgrimage through the preceding days of Holy Week.”

Where I come from, we talk a lot about Holy Week as a journey. In keeping with the travel metaphor, imagine you’re calling up Rick Steves on NPR. Your question: I only have time to go to one service this week. Which one should I go to? Only one? If you can only go to one service, it needs to be the Easter Vigil on Saturday night. At my church it starts at 8 pm at 2800 SE Harrison Street in Portland, Oregon.  There you get the Whole Story, from Genesis to Resurrection. (And after a generous helping of the Bread of Life, we’ll even make you an omelet and pour you a glass of something bubbly.)

Let’s say your query is this: I want the whole thing. The whole thing. I don’t want to smell the incense and the lilies until I’ve sat with Jesus in the garden, and meditated at the foot of the cross. Find an all-night vigil somewhere on Thursday. Find a place to listen to the Seven Last Words on Good Friday afternoon. If you’re into things ancient and simple, find a Good Friday Proper Liturgy. (Funny name, serious service.) Some churches have those at 7 am or noon on Good Friday. The one at my church is at 7 pm. Dark and solemn as a tomb.

Be present. Enjoy every minute of it. Keep it holy. Report back.

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Seeing and being seen

In the summer of 2003, I was overcome beyond my own understanding with a vision of creating some kind of outreach ministry for sex workers on the streets of Portland. I had just returned from seminary, where during a summer internship in London I experienced a street ministry to prostituted women which changed me. It changed my understanding of sex work and it changed my understanding of coming alongside people on the margins as a follower of Jesus.

When I got back to Portland I looked around to learn what kind of ministry was already being offered to women who made their living on the street. The answer at that time was: not much. I made a connection with another recent seminary graduate who was at that time assigned to Sts. Peter & Paul Episcopal Church on 82nd Avenue. She had a similar vision. Together we dreamed up something we first called a “midnight mass for working women.” Our dream began to take shape into something else, something that eventually became Rahab’s Sisters, a ministry of presence and hospitality to women on the margins.

In the process of developing this ministry, I met a man who ran the only other drop-in center for women in prostitution. In my mind and in my writing I always call him Jeremiah–that’s not his name but he’s a Jeremiah kind of guy: relentlessly honest, critical, and faithful to his cause. Jeremiah had started a program similar to what I wanted to start, but it was difficult to talk with him because he was so incredibly mistrustful of anyone who was part of a church or wanted to do outreach through a church. He had been emotionally damaged by the church as a child and many of the women he worked with had suffered emotional and physical abuse in the name of organized religion. I finally got him to talk with me, and I and my co-conspirators visited with him several times.

In our last meeting with Jeremiah before we opened our doors, he gave us a final piece of advice and a final benediction. The advice was to buy ourselves a giant golf umbrella so that if it was raining we could still stop and offer shelter and conversation to women we met as we walked up and down 82nd Avenue. The benediction was this: When you see the women the way that Jesus saw, they’ll know it, and that is how you’ll take part in their healing. When you see the women the way that Jesus saw, they’ll know it.

The volunteers who staffed Rahab’s Sisters began each Friday night gathering with prayer. Our prayer was always for God to open our eyes, that we might see the women who needed to be seen by us. We meant this in at least two ways: it is easy to walk down 82nd and not see any vulnerable women. They are invisible the same way that outcasts are always invisible. But they are there. Like bird-watching, seeing them takes vision, and love, and practice.

The other kind of seeing we prayed for was to see them as the full, complete, complicated, multifaceted, beloved human beings they are. We prayed to be able to see as Jesus saw.

* * *

Jesus, help us to ever look outward to the edges where you live, and give us grace to see with your eyes, that we might be healed of our blindness, and enter your kingdom.

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Anglican or Episcopalian?

I became a practicing Christian in the 1980s when hardly any of the Christians I knew would dare call themselves by that name. The commonly received wisdom in the circles where I traveled was “the fundamentalists are giving Christians a bad name.” What this meant to me what that people who identified themselves as Christians talked a lot about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as their savior, but rarely talked about what that meant in terms of how they lived their lives. People I knew who identified themselves as Christians talked a lot about other people’s immoral behavior, but didn’t say much about any behavior or actions to which their Christian faith bound them.

I try to use the C-word as much as possible, because I don’t want to cede that word to people whose Christianity doesn’t necessarily reflect my understanding of what it means to follow Jesus.

A few days ago someone asked me: “is your church Episcopal? Your website talks a lot about worship in the Anglican tradition, and I just want to make sure that you’re the sort of Anglican that is affiliated with the Episcopal Church.”  The question made me realize that “Anglican” has become code word for a set of beliefs that don’t necessarily reflect my understanding of Anglicanism any more than certain “Christian” beliefs line up with my understanding of discipleship.

For me, being an Anglican means being descended from Lancelot Andrewes, William Law, F.D. Maurice, William Temple, Vida Dutton Scudder and Kenneth Leech. Being Anglican means being steeped in a tradition that is incarnational—we pray with our bodies and our senses and we live grounded in the world God made, the world where Jesus lived and died. Being Anglican means being steeped in worship that is invitational—all are welcome around our table. Being Anglican means being Trinitarian and embracing the complexity and mystery of God. God as Trinity reveals to us that God not only blesses relationship, God is relationship.

Last time I checked, our Episcopal Church still claimed all of these threads as part of the fabric of our worship and our ministry. Just as I have always been loath to cede the C-word to “those Christians” whose faith is often more associated with hate speech than with building the Kingdom Jesus preached about, so I refuse to give over the A-word to Anglicans whose language is more about division and judgment than about mystery and relationship. This is what being an Anglican means to me.

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How do you get MORE God?

This morning I was re-reading bits of Barbara Brown Taylor‘s An Altar in the World, and came across this:

We need the practice of incarnation, by which God saves the lives of those whose intellectual assent has turned as dry as dust, who have run frighteningly low on the bread of life, who are dying to know more God in their bodies. Not more about God. More God.

It’s hard for me to stop thinking about God and just think God. (I bet it’s the thinking part.) So how do we know more God in our bodies? How do we get more God? Here’s my partial list:

  • Get as close to the raging ocean as I can without being washed out to sea
  • Eat lots of messy meals with unlikely combinations of people: atheists and heretics and Buddhists and environmental activists who talk about Mother Earth the way I talk about Jesus
  • Sing
  • Do yoga
  • Knit with really beautiful yarn
  • Hang out with people who have lived in other worlds (like on the street or in jail)

How do you know more God?

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“God loves you, so stop being a jerk”

I recently had a conversation with someone about the word “wretch,” and how some people are uncomfortable using that word to describe themselves. As in, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” Don’t you ever feel like a wretch?  I have days like that, days when I forget important tasks, or yell at my kid, or make bad choices around things like food or caffeine or time.

If we are uncomfortable with our own wretchedness, the discomfort sucks emotional and spiritual energy away from where it could actually do some good in the world. Instead, we are caught up in defending ourselves against the knowledge of our own wretchedness. Which is too bad, because it is in coming face-to-face with our inner wretch that God intervenes.

This is why the bible is full of stories about tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, and a host of others who are despised and rejected, experiencing the grace of God.

There is a wonderful song from the Church of the Beloved in Seattle, called “Given”; part of the refrain is “our gift is not what we can do but who we are.”

We do not become a gift to God and to the world after we get our act together—we are a gift now. That is why we get so many gospel stories where someone is transformed by God’s grace for no apparent reason other than the nature of God’s love.

So, what do we do with all this grace? What does it have to do with being agents of God’s mission of healing and reconciliation and transformation in the world?

I like to think of church as a training ground for God’s agents. Our training starts around the table. There we share in broken bread as a sign of Christ’s broken body and our own brokenness, and as God’s promise of the redemption of the whole world. How will we love the wretches like us?

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