Sunday, September 28, 2014

On striking and (not) communicating

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. —Matthew 18.15-17

On Thursday morning I was reminded that it was the last Thursday of September, Matriculation Day at General Seminary. As the tradition has developed, I changed my profile picture on Facebook to an instant from the last Thursday of September in 2009, when I matriculated to the General Theological Seminary.

Yesterday morning as I got ready for work, a classmate with whom I matriculated and graduated, messaged me and asked if I'd heard about our seminary. I asked if I'd heard what. There has been much to hear since September 2009: a financial crisis, a dean's resignation, separating the offices of dean and president, selling property, rebuilding the endowment, ending debt, appointing a new dean. I  had not heard the latest, which was this email sent to students
Dear students,
We have a serious conflict which we are seeking to resolve and are taking to the Board of Trustees. Until they respond we will not be teaching, attending meetings, or attending common worship. Please be assured that we have not taken these steps hastily or lightly. Trust that we have acted in what we believe to be the best interests of your formation, our common life and the future of General Seminary. We hold you in the highest regard. Please pray for us, the Board, and the Dean and President.
The email was signed by almost all of the faculty, many of whom I know from my time as a student. I thought it odd and that the conflict must be serious: if these professors who I cherish deeply and greatly respect as lay and ordained Christians were willing to boycott chapel, it must be extremely serious. I hoped for more information throughout the day.

In Spring 2010, as I ended my first year and prepared to be a chaplain at a hospital, the seminary community learned the depth of the seminary's financial challenges not from a  meeting with the dean or faculty, not from an email from the administration, but from The Episcopal Cafe and Episcopal News Service. A press release had been sent to the press — but not to the students. Students and alumni/ae learned of the challenges (partially) from the news, even as some were living in Chelsea Square.

After I learned of the faculty strike from my friend's Facebook message pasting the email to me, I heard nothing from the seminary as an alumnus. As of this writing I still have heard nothing at all from the seminary, which has access to alumni/ae mailing lists, even as the faculty have said more and as speculation simply swirls. Yesterday evening The Episcopal Cafe had another letter to students which referenced some sort of issues the faculty finds with the current dean and president of the seminary and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail.

I come at this current situation as an alumnus of the seminary wondering what the hell is going on and as a diocesan communications officer — a role for which the seminary did not directly prepare me, but encouraged me to explore my interests which led to my being ready for such a position. It's disheartening to see that the seminary has not said anything at all via email, not even to acknowledge the situation or release an official statement.

The faculty who have elected to strike seem to be communicating with the students as the principal stakeholders, but they aren't the only ones. They seem to have attempted to raise their concerns with the dean and president, and that hasn't worked. It seems they've done it as a group and as individuals, and that hasn't worked. Now through initiating a direct action they're bringing the whole church into it.

Jesus tells us in Matthew to point out the fault at each of the phases. The communications that have been received from the faculty — secondhand — are vague about what the faults are. The longer letter from the faculty references the Letter from Birmingham Jail, but there is a sharp difference. While the faculty note that they hope to negotiate — but not what about. King and civil rights workers engaging in direct action had a clear goal (in Birmingham specifically it was the removal of Bull Conner).

I trust the faculty who have chosen to participate in a strike and hope that negotiations begin soon under the direction of the board of trustees...however in making semi-public half-statements they have introduced anxiety for their concerns, yet not enumerated those concerns. This half speech leaves rumors to build and gain traction or people to simply be dumbfounded and not know what's going on.

I appreciate the value of direct action — but have witnessed it being more effective when there are clear expectations and requests that are set out publicly beforehand. I live in California where everyone strikes, from nurses to transit operators to produce workers. These strikes are powerful by effecting others and raising awareness of the concerns. They annoy people who have to take buses, but those riding the buses learn about drivers' lives...but those striking don't say "We've got some problems, and we want to tell you we have problems, but we don't want to tell you what they are," which is how the letters from the faculty read — perhaps in an attempt to save embarrassment for students or to avoid discomfort...but they aren't clear communication.

At the end of the days, I am praying for the seminary because that's all I can do — and ask others to do. However I think that yet again what's happening at General Seminary can teach the church what its missing about communication. Everything gets out. Quickly. We as a church need to be prepared for that, and know what we want to say to avoid the wonderings and the stresses. Ignoring events doesn't make them not happen, it makes us look like we're out of the loop, even as the loop is growing bigger.

What helped the anxiety at General in 2010-2011 was how blunt and honest the administration was about the financial challenges the seminary faced. When we knew the truth we were set free. I pray that much sooner than later we will know much more about the challenges the seminary is facing now so that we can be set free of this anxiety and continue about our mission of restoring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Please stop hugging me

I am a touchy person. I enjoy touching others and touching things. One of the reasons I became an Episcopalian is that in our belief in the Incarnation — that God became human and walked on two feet and touched and felt with two hands — we live with substances we can touch, feel, taste, and smell in water, wine, oil, incense.

I greatly value touch to convey relationship. As I get close to friends my arm is regularly around shoulders, or around my husband's waist if we're out and about. When I was in the 7th grade I was oblivious about my privilege and my experience of randomly putting my cold hands on others' faces or necks — even after they'd asked me not to. I was "just playing." The thought of it makes me shriek now.

Different kind of touches — romantic, friendly, ritual, etc. — all convey different levels of intimacy. As a general rule the first time I meet someone in a social or professional setting I shake their hand. If we become friends in time we may come to hug one another or offer each other a kiss of greeting. Unless we've met electronically and developed a certain kind of relationship, however, we never start with a hug. I suspect this is true for most people in their lives. Lately I've been more conscious as my touches grow beyond a simple greeting hug to ask, "Is it okay if I put my arm around your shoulders?"

Hugs convey a certain level of intimacy. The first thing I did upon seeing my mother after my wedding was hug her. My best friend and I greet each other with a lasting embrace when we're reunited across the continental US. I briefly hug my brothers and friends as we greet or part, sometimes but not always both.

I've found myself wondering lately, largely as I have become less and less comfortable with it, why people insist on hugging me when passing the peace — regardless of if I'm vested or not. In Celebrating the Eucharist, Patrick Malloy writes, "The Peace is a ritual act of reconciliation, just as the Eucharist is a ritual meal. It need not be protracted to be genuine, nor does every person have to greet every other person." (p. 127, emphasis in the original).

Part of what's made me increasingly uncomfortable is not that people want to give hugs inasmuch as they don't care if I do or not, whether they know me or not. This has been apparent when people have ignored my extended hand to put their arms around me or say, "We just hug everyone here!" Malloy wonders, "What sort of formation can help the entire assembly to recognize the Peace as a ritual action in which they all participate, not a recess in the ritual?" I have attended churches that not exactly that in the bulletin...

However Elizabeth Drescher noted, "Might be helpful to add what is not obvious to many: a handshake, a hug if you're more familiar with the person, or a friendly wave constitute the 'passing' gesture or 'greeting.' I've had students tell me that they thought some object was going to be passed around." Why are people so comfortable ignoring a social norm — to the point of ignoring someone's non-verbal communication — and hugging strangers? What does it say to visitors when their preferences about their bodies are ignored? How might survivors of assault, sexual and otherwise, respond to being violated?

Earlier today I read a New York Times opinion called "Losing our touch." In it the author wonders how much digital communication — replacing touch with touch screens and such — contributes to excarnation. As Christians we value the Incarnation, the messy earthliness of being human. I wonder if we lose our touch by not having appropriate boundaries about it, where it doesn't mean anything to hug a new person.

Our rituals offer places for safe touch: administering bread, passing peace, anointing with oil, smearing ashes. We chew and we drink, noticing texture and burning. What happens when the space isn't safe, though, when the level of touch is unwanted and unsolicited?

What is your experience? Are you comfortable with hugging strangers — or being hugged by them? How do you communicate your preference? Those in leadership, what training do you do about the Peace as a ritual action and what level of touch is appropriate for it?

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Cheering from the sidelines

In the last few weeks the question for me has shifted from, "What do I think about the words 'tranny' and 'she-mail/male'?" to "What do members of the trans* community think and feel about those words?" As a self-avowed, practicing homosexual I'm okay self-identifying as a faggot from time to time — but I know some people are not comfortable with that word and I don't use it around them. I also know that when someone calls me that to create a dynamic of inequity because they're straight or see themselves as more masculine I shut it down.

I recently read an article that pointed out the sharp different between Justices Kennedy's and Scalia's approaches to gay people. Scalia consistently uses language that suggests there is no such thing as gay, just people doing gay things. When gay people say things like "Someone just putting on a wig," to describe trans* life, we're doing the same thing that was done to those whose shoulders we stand on  — ignoring the existence of trans* identity. To Justice Scalia we get gay married but not real married.

Telling trans* people to not be so sensitive is the same as principals and teachers telling the 15 year old gay boy — who may not be out to anyone, including himself — to not be so sensitive and just deal with the harassment. So quick and so right to denounce bullying of gay and lesbian teens, we then turn and ignore a group that says, "Hey, this is harmful to us."

On Facebook I've seen discussion from one particular friend who seems like he's beating a dead horse but may actually be changing minds, and I've seen others spout off in opposition to trans* people. I haven't said anything because I feel like I don't have a voice; I'm not trans*, so my opinion on the words doesn't really matter any more than the straight bully's to the gay kid in rural Florida.

I love the Castro, I love Hell's Kitchen, the West Village, and on occasion Gay Chelsea. I can love those gayborhoods because when majority voices told gays to get over themselves and buck up, to ignore the violence against them, to just toughen up they did — by challenging the problem and making their voices heard.

Are we going to unplug our ears or keep ignoring our past?

Friday, April 18, 2014

Andrew Sullivan, Good Friday, and "The Passion of the Christ"

When I read Andrew Sullivan's The Conservative Soul in the fall, many sections popped out at me. This is just one of them that I've been saving for Passion week. Sullivan is discussing the necessity of ambiguity and how fundamentalism doesn't leave room for it. In particular he discusses the film The Passion of the Christ and how the depictions of violence go far beyond what any of the evangelistic schools record — and the writers of the gospels include details when they want: the naked boy running away and the names of random people who are never heard from again, for starters. That they were not so detailed about the Passion itself was, I believe, intentional.

Here's Sullivan:
[W]hat was striking about the film as an art form was its abandonment of art. In such matters, what was important was veracity and precision, not interpretation and mystery. And so the movie was a masterwork of explicit, fanatical precision. It emphasized not Jesus’s message of love and compassion and the necessity to live faith through good works. It focused with astonishing zeal on Christ’s suffering as atonement for all human beings for all eternity. Its goal was to insist upon the centrality of Jesus’s self-sacrifice as the only thing necessary for human salvation. Or as one fundamentalist critic explained at the time, “The gulf we place between ourselves and God through sin is bridged only by that intense physical agony Gibson depicts and is taken to task for depicting.  
For a fundamentalist, this requires obsessing with almost macabre detail on the suffering Jesus experienced. While the Gospels often skip over the details of the Passion, Gibson homes in on it with sometimes fanatical zeal. The centerpiece of the movie is a scene of explicit, unrelenting sadism. It shows Jesus being flayed alive—slowly, methodically, and with increasing savagery. We first of all witness the use of sticks, then whips, then multiple whips with barbed glass or metal. We see flesh being torn out of a man’s body. We see pieces of skin flying through the air. We see Jesus come back for more. We see blood spattering on the torturers’ faces. We see muscled thugs exhausted from shredding every inch of this man’s body. And then they turn him over and do it all again. It goes on for an unrelenting ten minutes. And then we see his mother wiping up masses and masses of blood. What’s noteworthy here is that Gibson goes beyond anything even remotely in the Gospels. And he does so because he is concerned above all to be faithful to the doctrine of the atonement. To allow for Jesus to be merely brutalized, and to see his decision to give himself up as the culmination of a doctrine of nonviolence and love, would not be sufficient for a true fundamentalist. He has to show a level of savagery against Jesus compatible with the fathomless depth of human sin. And he has to do so as literally as he possibly can.  
Great art allows the viewer space to interpret, to ponder, and to think. Its meaning is often elusive, and designed to be so. Fundamentalist art views an elusive meaning as an invitation to error and sin; and so the movie had to remove any autonomy from its viewers. Gibson achieved this by relentless, stunning, unstoppable, graphic violence. It gave the viewer the same artistic leeway as a pornographic movie. Toward the end, unsatisfied with showing a man flayed alive, nailed gruesomely to a cross, one eye shut from being smashed in, blood covering his entire body, Gibson had a large crow perch on the neighboring cross and peck another man’s eyes out. Why? Because the viewer has to be broken down into submission; there can be no doubt about the violence of Satan—who is, of course, depicted literally in the movie. And so all the richness and subtlety and grace of centuries of Christian art is literally hammered into an inarguable, uncontestable demand that the viewer be emotionally brutalized into the sublime self-surrender of fundamentalist faith.
—Sullivan, Andrew (2009-10-13). The Conservative Soul: The Politics of Human Difference (pp. 35-37). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. Emphasis added.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Will you stay silent?

Anyone who reads this blog likely knows that a Pennsylvania United Methodist elder in full connection has been suspended for 30 days. He was convicted on Monday for officiating at a same sex union. His son was one of the people whose union was celebrated. The jury found that he did, in fact, violate the Book of Discipline, the United Methodist Church's law book. I think the verdict is insane because rather than revoke his credentials, they have given him 30 days to discern and then expect him to voluntarily surrender them if he won't uphold the discipline in its entirety. I hope he doesn't.

Jeremy Smith has shared a list of ways that many United Methodists don't uphold the Book of Discipline in its entirety yet aren't having charges filed or facing trials for them. He's also written about some of the shady background of the charges being filed — which local secular press covered as well. I spent four years as what I now call a transitional United Methodist.

My time with the UMC was mostly outstanding — I was welcomed whole heartedly into a new youth group as a high school junior and participated in the Wesley Foundation through all four years of college; I worked for it for two of them even as an Episcopalian. I served on the Steering Committee for the United Methodist Student Movement for a year. I started my discernment for ordination process with the United Methodist Church.

While liturgical tastes/expectations/practices and the candidacy for ordination process (not set up for undergraduates who go to college outside of their district or annual conference) were much higher on the list of reason I left the United Methodist Church, my sexuality was number three. Ten years after Gene Robinson was elected, consented to, and consecrated bishop in The Episcopal Church the United Methodist Church is removing a man for marrying his son. I happily entertain discussion about covenant, rules, civil disobedience and biblical obedience; unjust laws being no law and all and juries having to follow laws rather than ignore the ones they don't like.

I understand that. I worked for a pastor who didn't baptize infants and rebaptized adults, too. The annual conference where my campus ministry was has an elder in full connection who performed a Skype "baptism" years ago and the video has been on YouTube since then, with vows omitted, thanksgiving over the water omitted, etc. And how many bishops, when they instruct ordinands to wear black robes, ignore the paragraph of the Discipline that mandates following the ordinal — which is really clear that ordinands should wear an alb?

I don't think that any of them would have been put on trial if I'd filed a complaint — but then again, I don't think that trials are the way to settle disagreements in the church, particularly if punitive justice rather than restorative is what is being sought, especially if the sentence lets the jury not feel like the punishment is on them.

What I don't understand, though, is those who are staying in the United Methodist Church and waiting for it to change around them. I am not the only who to have made the comparison between individuals' relationship with the institution as one of an abusive relationship. I have watched dear friends be subject to processes of unofficial investigation with due process violated as they hoped a trial wouldn't emerge who love the institution. I have seen friends fight to hide their sexuality at all costs. No, not even hide their sexuality, but hide anything that might give suspicion that they might be LGBT and always looking over their shoulder, concerned who saw what and who is or is not "safe."

I particularly don't understand it when they stay they want to stay in the institution to work for change, but don't work for change. More than LGBT people saying that (which they do) I don't understand so-called allies that will say nice things in small groups about their support for LGBT people but won't speak against anti-gay resolutions as their annual, jurisdictional, or regional conferences. One of the reasons I like Jeremy Smith and his blog so much is that as a straight ally he doesn't hide his support for LGBT inclusion.

As many have pointed out, and with whom I agree, not everyone is called to surrender credentials in solidarity, to come out and have them revoked, or to officiate at blessing same-sex unions. But if someone is saying that those aren't their calls, what are their calls? I don't believe that God calls any of us to have secret safe groups as the only places where we express our support, approval, or beliefs that are different.

After learning his sentence Frank Shaefer said, "I feel I have to be an advocate, an outspoken advocate for all lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual people...I will never be silent again." For following his call, he's facing losing his credentials. If you are a United Methodist, what is your call in this? You can't be defrocked for publicly, vocally, advocating for changing the way things are. Your abstentions are just as hurtful as a no vote to the person you've just told you support completely.

If you are just way more Methodist than I am and staying with the institution to change it, how are you working for that change? Working, not just hoping. Are you organizing groups? Drawing attention to difference? Or hoping that someone with a little less to lose — or maybe even a little more — will do that?

This is probably a little heavy-handed, but I'm hurting. I'm hurting for my friends all over the church who love the church that keeps slapping them in the face and punching them in the gut. I'm hurting because I worry that staying in the system has turned into joining the system and that fear is beating love. I'm hurting, largely, because I'm wondering and worried when it will be someone I know who despite their best efforts at covering anything that hinted at queerness are found out and dragged through a trial. How are you working on this?

Friday, August 30, 2013

Congregational, transformational change

Two weeks ago I started a series I expected to write over the next week, and that didn't happen. It just didn't. I haven't lost it, though. Two weeks ago I wrote about expecting personal change, inviting people to tell their stories of it, and sharing one of my own. I said there would be three, and here is part two — about the congregation.

My work as a diocesan staff person is not limited to working in the diocesan office, and I wouldn't let it be. I love being in the field, meeting with clergy and lay people of churches from around the Diocese of California. I hate to say it, but the people with whom I've met (although it's been at their choice and that may say something) have had a lot less anxiety about the kinds of changes I suggest and propose than leaders from congregations with whom I met in Provinces I and II while I was in seminary.

In my specific context and ministry I'm often advocating for a greater social media presence by congregations and encouraging them (enabling?) them to see that as part of their ministry to their flock and to those beyond the congregation. I can't count the number of times someone has said, "Well, no one in our church is on Facebook or Twitter." That is possible, if unlikely, but there are countless untold numbers who are on Facebook and Twitter and not in your church...and that's how I reply to that.

I met with a rector and a new staff member of his today, and the rector had a senior warden who used to say "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you always got." Talking about how churches need to change is nothing new and it's something that something of an echo chamber online right now, but I've often seen it in a context of desperation and fear of dying or death — rather than changing the world, and being changed ourselves.

A few months ago at a conference of lay and clergy leaders a priest ask where the requirement to be a baptized, confirmed member to serve on some governing body (I think her vestry) came from — if it was canon or tradition. She said, "Because I have great people who want to serve, but none of them is confirmed. How do we change the canon?" Yes, changing the canon would be a change, that's certain, but why can't we ask the people involved in leadership to be confirmed? If they want to be a part of governance do we not want them more invested and committed — and given additional grace and strength of the Holy Spirit to perform that ministry?

The Gerasene demoniac was bursting with the Good News of what Jesus had just done for him. I asked two weeks ago how we are doing that and how we're enabling individuals to do that. Now, though, I am curious how we're encountering a Christ who is changing our congregations, a Christ who sets us free from always doing what we've always done (and thus getting what we've always gotten). Rather than assuming things will never change, where do we look for change to happen and trust God that it will?

In April I attended the Episcopal Communicators conference, where the keynote speeches were on social media. Communicators at various levels of church leadership spoke from their experience and some spoke of the difficulty they've had with churches that struggle and refuse to embrace newer media (which I think also speaks to a refusal to embrace or welcome new people and voices, let alone look for or recruit them). Someone at one of my tables said something that I latched on to and loved — let the dead bury the dead.

There are tools available for trying something new. There are tools available for asking how we might be church differently, how we might learn to burst with Good News as a community of what Christ has done for us. I think that suggesting that the dead bury the dead is actually one place where we can be expecting change; rather than coddling let there be a call to change and know it will happen. If it doesn't, ask why — starting with if the people there knew the Risen Christ in their daily lives.

When we as congregations are bursting with this Good News, we have to tell (and in turn change) our communities, too. As I read new-atheist rants about how bad religion is, I note that most of them have never studied theology nor have they cared to look much into the past of religion, certainly the past of Christianity. There have been awful things done in the name of Christ, certainly, but hospitality as a Christian virtue — welcoming the stranger, even if she is sick — led to the beginnings of hospitals.

Romans thought that Christians' giving food to whoever came to their houses was dumb, that people were scamming them going from house to house getting as much as they can. Maybe they were...but maybe someone needed help to get going again. The Good News of Christ changes lives and it changes communities. How are our churches changing themselves into new contexts and how are they changing the world around them? What would be missing in a neighborhood if a church ceased to exist there?

In my work with priests and lay leaders, talking about communication and communication strategy I get to reference two outstanding resources that the Diocese of California has produced. One is on welcome, and the other on new member incorporation...though it deals with changing communities and changing the world. They are both available here in the be::community library. They are series totally about two hours each. The ones I most highly recommend (in this context) are those by Bishop Marc Andrus and by Cn. Chuck Robertson.

The congregation with which I met today does outreach to inmates on death row and to teen mothers. They support a food pantry, too. They are changing their community if bit by bit. Today we worked on how to share that and broaden the laborers of the harvest. How is your congregation laboring, changing itself (with God's help) and changing the world around it?

Monday, August 19, 2013

Every long run needs a water element

I am running the New York City Marathon in November. I haven't written about that here because I haven't been writing here enough. I'm running with Colin Chapman (and at his suggestion/intervention). We're running together with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which works to fight childhood obesity. This is immediately where my mind went yesterday when I heard the end of the epistle reading (to the Hebrews), "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us..."

An old friend of mine took up triathlons in college and referenced this passage on his blog. Yesterday it hit me for the first time how much better this imagery works now that I'm actually training for a big race that requites perseverance. It also works because I use the images of people who've donated to my fundraising goals to get me out of bed, off the couch, and keep putting one foot in front of the next. I have a cloud of witnesses that helps me run with perseverance the distance that has been set before me. I also rely on the strengths of people who taught me to run and were patient with me in the early days.

On my 8 mile run yesterday I had some other realizations. I ran through Golden Gate Park yesterday and realized as I passed the Prayer Book Cross and the waterfall behind it that my long runs need a water element. In baptism classes at Trinity, Wall Street I talk about how it's no accident that the church uses water, food, and drink as its primary tangibles. I regularly made mention of remembering my baptism as I ran along the Hudson.

I got to the Prayer Book Cross (waterfall, and creek) as my run was starting to get to me because I was doing a bigger distance. (I only realized later that it started to go downhill at that point which helped), and that's when I got the new mantra (which our running coach encourages) of "run with perseverance the distance that has been set before me." I just kept saying it to myself, too. All my long runs, really, have had a water element to them: the Seinne, the Liffey, the Hudson, the Golden Gate Straight, and now this little creek.

About this time, though I started to get to an area of the park that was foggy. Earlier in the day (in Oakland) I'd been anxious about the heat and humidity of my run. Running through the park was delightful, especially as I got to the fog. It was cool and made me feel cooler. It was also a nice visual for running into the cloud (literally) of witnesses who were supporting me — financially and emotionally, giving money to the goal and giving encouragement when I am discouraged, and harassing me to go for my run.

Later today I'm going to be messaging people who've supported me financially and ask them what they'd like me to listen to on my runs and race, a way of carrying them with me on my race, remembering who requested what song and thinking about them on my run, how they'd helped me and were continuing to help me run the race that had been set before me...and 26 miles is definitely going to need some perseverance.

If you'd like to join the cloud of witnesses helping me on my run — and helping to fight childhood obesity — you can donate here.