Thursday, November 12, 2015

Onward to Galilee: The Mission Field Within Us

My biggest struggle with the Episcopal Church’s newfound focus on evangelism is that is starts from an assumption that we have the answers. As we grow ever bolder in telling each other to “go forth” and “be the Jesus movement” I wonder why we assume Jesus is starting in our churches. Perhaps my unique situation has left me doing evangelism backwards, but at this moment I’m learning the Gospel in the world, and weeping as cries of Jesus in my friends go unheard in the church.
                It is in my work, listening to survivors of intimate partner violence take steps to reach safety, often fighting stigma, isolation and their faith communities along the way, that I see resurrection being lived. At the boisterous table of a local college, full of people who’ve found themselves rejected by the local churches (including the Episcopal Church); I join in a sacramental meal with others who are hungry for a life that transcends the limits of this world. Instead of a home, my community is a scattered group of friends, of many different beliefs and unbelief. It is they who hold me as I cry under the weight of discrimination. It is these people, many of whom have left organized religion years ago who tell me that God didn’t make a mistake in me. And it is in those moments that I can feel the Gospel come to life. For it is in these places of the world, the “mission fields” that church is gearing up to save, that I’m actually at home.
                It is hard to admit this, especially in a church that values the appearance of being well put together. When we speak of the challenges of going into the world, I don’t ever see conversations about people like me who are more comfortable eating at soup kitchens than the hotels we schedule our conventions.  Indeed, the more I learn about oppression and bias in the world, the less welcome I am on Sunday morning. The more comfortable I get in naming my discomfort when we blame mass shootings on “the crazies” instead of engaging in our own role in perpetuating a culture of violence, the more I’ve been told to be quiet. As I get more forceful in demanding that I be treated as the person God made me, the more I am told to tolerate erasure for the sake of relationship. When I bring up an aspect of oppression that we engage in, by active participation or silently complicity, I am asked to not be disruptive. I watch in pain as the marginalized people I keep lifting up, my dying friends, are so often reduced to a ‘controversial new issue’ that we aren’t ready to engage with.
I’ve fallen silent online because I don’t know how to blog about faith when I’m desperately hungry for a sacramental vitality that feel so distant. For example, as I sat with the pain of General Convention and my rising alienation from my home parish, I needed to change my rule of life. On those pages I had written “I will attend the Eucharist at least weekly” because I was inspired by the richness of life I experienced when daily Mass was a part of my routine.  After this summer that statement became restricting. After much painful discernment I’ve found it to be sinful to expect myself to endure dehumanizing otherness simply to participate in the rites of the church. That line has since been expanded to read in full:
The sacraments, those set rituals and spaces where heaven and earth are joined with the full communion of saints bearing witness, are for me also the epicenter of invitation and exclusion. Caught between the eternal invitation of Love and the time-bound exclusion of language, those moments of life can also thrust me back into the shadows. Thus in the this next phase of my Christian growth I commit to participation in the sacraments when doing so will not cut me off from Christ’s loving presence. In times when I am unable to worship with my siblings I will allocate time for intercessory prayer, that we all may be one as You and the Father are one.
Throughout this transition, from star Episcopal young adult on the ordination fast-track, to one fed by the presence of Jesus in the world while ministering to a church that denies him daily, I’ve never lost my love of ritual and liturgy. Each time I come to a service where I can dare to hope that it will be inclusive, tears burst forth, as I drink in the worship as a starving person might water in the desert. In the absence of those places, I’ve spent so many nights crying myself to sleep longing for a church home that sees me, and loves me for all that I am. I’m desperate for a faith community that takes my awareness of inequality along my comfort in the forbidden places as the gifts that they are, instead of as a threat to stability. Indeed, I’m dying for lack of a place where I can enter the celebration of the Eucharist without being told that my name is unimportant, and my pronouns are too complicated.  All of this is happening while I am still an active member of a church that shapes its advertisements around ‘welcome’ and constantly tells me how good I have it here.
                Because of this pain, when this prompt first came out, I was going to skip it. How could I go to Galilee, when I can barely bring myself to endure the dehumanization and separation that is so often asked of me within our Episcopal Church? How could I write about evangelism, when I’m currently learning more about the Gospel from the people who’ve left, then the ones who expect me to stay?
                It was in these questions that I began to see how it is that I can be growing into my ministry and away from the body that first sent me to it in the same moment. My Galilee is not the mission fields of the world, but the Episcopal Church. Instead of the childhood salvation plan I once forced on to others, I am called to bring the Gospel back into my own worshiping community by testifying to the places where fear and pride are keeping us from the death that could, through the power of Jesus, bring us back to life. I feel like an alien on Sunday morning, because I’ve met the living God in the faces of the oppressed and broken.
So as we speak of going forth, I offer this reflection. When we think about evangelism are we doing our own work to be sure we are ready for them. When we issue the invitation, are we asking ourselves the hard questions? When we go into the world do we expect those we meet to conform to our expectations? Or do we dare to offer the unthinkable Gospel of mutual transformation in the name of Jesus Christ?
Blog Force Participant

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Healing Waters: Resurrection at General Convention

                Resurrection is such a joyous word. It calls forth life where there once was death and is traditionally greeted with resounding alleluias. This direct link between resurrection and glee has made it difficult for me to wade into the waves of resurrection I had the opportunity to experience at the 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church. I’ve been off-line for the past couple of weeks as the “look at all the cool stuff we did” posts grated at my raw spirit while I struggled to find meaning in the intensity of an event that simultaneously took major steps to proclaim the gospel while still revealing how many gaps there are in living that gospel out within our walls.
                Long before I boarded my flight to Salt Lake City, I had already recognized that much of my ministry would be rooted in presence. As someone who hears that people like them* don’t exist on a daily basis (avg. 15-19 times a day at #GC78) I understood that a large part of my work would involve simply being there as myself. I knew this work would be challenging, but was entirely unprepared for what happened.
                I was present at every worship service offered by General Convention. Yet even as I was in awe at how many different cultures were celebrated and named within that space, I struggled to stay. From the opening worship service to the closing there was not a single official Eucharist that didn’t imply that people like me* don’t exist. Added to this, before that first service I had been told by two armed security guards and an official from the church that the direct action for justice I had learned in the Episcopal Service Corps and campus ministry would lead to me being exiled from the convention if I dared to try anything like it again.
I'm not a son or a daughter but I am, still, now and always A Child of God                Hands shaking, I cried out for something, anything to help me stay present. I stumbled across a piece of paper and a pen. Weeping I struggled to find words that would help me stay. In the music video for the Canticle of the Turning, which is a paraphrase of the Magnificat, there is a picture of a building which has the phrase “Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes” spray painted on its side. So, trembling,  I told the truth and created a sign that read “I am not a son or a daughter but I am still, now and always, A Child of God, beloved, made worthy and a part of the everlasting heritage”**.  Adapting a carabineer clip to serve as a pin I fastened it to my back. As I did so I trusted that the God who called me to serve in such a painful place could turn that flimsy piece of paper into a mighty shield through faith in the same God that made those words true.
                Barely a few moments after I had taken up my paper shield of faith, I was approached by an older woman who asked to read it. When she had finished she reached for it, to take it from me, saying “I don’t believe that’s appropriate”. I had to grab her hand, and tears poured down my face as I said “no, I need this”. This was an unfortunate adaptation, for what was in my heart was “no, WE need this”.
Prophetic witness means honoring tears stemming from silence and death, even when the church is on #Prayers Of #Life #GC78
                I wrote that tweet as struggled with the congratulatory nature of Presiding Bishop Katherine’s sermon on prophetic voices that centered on the amazing prophetic work the Episcopal Church is doing, and yet was silent on the need for prophets to call us out on the injustices within our institution.
                In that moment and at many others throughout the week I was brought face to face with the years of shame I had internalized about crying. From the myth “boys don’t cry” to being exiled from my IEP meetings for tears I have spent my entire life hearing that to cry is to be weak, an inconvenience or at the very least unprofessional. But at convention that shame was broken down as I learned that my presence, tears and all, could be transformed into a powerful witness. 
Tears are rivers of living water calling the world to come, drink & find life in the God who also shed them. #GC78 #JesusWept
               Those people who simply stayed with me, holding my grief as though it was their own helped me reach a place where I could remember the truth I stated above. Even as I wept I knew that no immediate action could change the hurt I felt. I was not, am not, looking for a quick fix. What I sought, and what I found in many different ways were people who were brave enough to stay present even without having the answers. Simply knowing that I wasn’t expected to carry all of this alone made it possible keep going. 
                This is resurrection. We didn’t solve all of the gender discrimination issues within our church, but I was thanked by a young trans man who could see himself in my testimony on C037. We certainly didn’t fix racism, but in faith we heard the voices of six young people from widely different places who boldly shared their experiences of race in the Episcopal Church. While we still might be surrounded by a “decline narrative” we took huge steps in reshaping how we view and fund evangelism.
               When I think about the resurrection I found at convention it feels very different from that which is portrayed as “normative”. I’m not giddy with joy, or running out to tell people how I had an amazing time. Instead I’ve found myself in stillness and prayer, reflecting on the gritty work of resurrection. To be resurrected and to proclaim resurrection in that space I cried a lot. I wept and shouted, I hid and returned. The resurrection I experienced at General Convention didn’t come all at once, and certainly wasn’t a pleasant experience.
               Despite the pain and hurt, and the rawness that lingers, it was worthwhile. For I’ve found that what defines resurrection isn’t comfort but transformation.  Resurrection isn’t just Easter day, but it is the oblation, the holy offering of oneself, to God’s purpose each and every day. To live a resurrected life means staying present when common sense has long sense been reduced to folly and reason is completely unreasonable. Resurrection was at General Convention, in tears and laughter, joy and pain. I left a different person that I arrived, transformed by the people I met and able to trust that my presence led to transformation in others.
                This is resurrection, and while I’m not yet ready to say I’m looking forward to it, I’ll certainly be there to do this all over again in 2018.

*People whose genders are both, neither, a blend of, or without reference to masculinity and femininity
**”part of the everlasting heritage” was a direct reference to Eucharistic prayer B which was the form for that morning and includes the exclusive phrase “everlasting heritage of your sons and daughters” (BCP pg. 369)