Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Why Context Matters

Last Tuesday night one of the eucharistic readings was from Tobit. That link will take you to the exact passage. All I had to say was, “What the flock?” I couldn't even put a manuscript together because it was so weird. Here's the sermon I preached to an EFM group on this text and the beginning of Hebrews 2. You can download an MP3 file by clicking here.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Letter to Lauderdale County Superintendent and Board of Education

I mailed the following on 6 or 7 February and wanted to give it time to arrive before I shared it. Some, but very little has changed since I sent mailed it. This was written in response to this news story. When I posted that on Facebook I said that I would post it to my blog. Here it is....

6 February 2013

The Superintendent and Board of Education
Lauderdale County Schools
PO Box 278
Florence, AL 35631

Dear Ms. Gray,

I meant to write over the weekend, but did not find the time. I was happy to see that Coach Grisham has been suspended for ten days but disappointed he will be returning to the classroom (though not teaching psychology). I was not happy to see his suspension from a place of revenge or retribution but that the board took some action in response to his recent remarks concerning First Lady Obama and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT), remarks that hurt LGBT teens, Americans especially if they are yet out.

Although in high school (Central High School, Phenix City, ’05) I never had the misfortune of hearing a teacher speak like this, my teachers tolerated classmates referring disparagingly, including the use of slurs such as “queers” and “faggots”, about LGBT people. These statements from peers, let alone teachers, are what lead LGBT high schoolers to take their own lives.

While I was in college at Troy (BA History, ‘09), then-Governor Riley said that it was important for Alabama’s top students and achievers to stay in Alabama and work to improve the state. Having attended HOBY, Alabama Governor’s School, and won on the state level in the Future Problem Solving Program and National History Day in Alabama, as well as being on a tuition, room, and board scholarship at Troy, I likely fell into this category.

I thought that perhaps I could return to Alabama and serve as a priest after my master’s work in New York, but any return I now make to Alabama will be to visit my family in Abbeville or explore the rich Civil Rights history with my future children. Although he couldn’t go in, Moses looked from the mountaintop and saw the Promised Land. Joshua led the Hebrew people to a place where they could live as God had called them to live.

I lived in New York City for three years and will marry my fiancĂ© (another man) there in May. I live now in little fear that I will be physically assaulted or verbally harassed for my sexuality and expressing it publically the same way my heterosexual peers do (something as small as holding hands). While the legal landscape in California is not perfect, my safety is not at stake. I have been able to build a diverse community of people who, whether they are gay or not, are willing to be in relationship with me and work for a better world with me. We don’t have to be just like one another to get along. This is difficult in a culture where vilifying difference is accepted, though.

Your welcome to the school system’s website says, “Our schools are committed to excellence as we educate Alabama's future leaders and workers.” An environment where statements like Coach Grisham’s don’t go unpunished, but can be still said at all, sends the message to LGBT students that they are not welcome. Coach Grisham’s saying that they are an abomination in class says that they are less than people. Hoping for them to stay in Alabama as future leaders is like asking Moses and the Hebrews to stay in bondage to Pharaoh.

Everyone is welcome to his or her own religious beliefs, though not everyone has been trained in sharing those publicly. Teachers are trained and hired to teach from approved textbooks, not the sacred texts of any religious tradition, in areas of which they have been trained. A classroom and lectern are not a church building and pulpit from which teachers can share their religious convictions. When this happens, there is usually only one side presented and no invitation for a different voice, even if that voice has no professional training in religion. This sharing is inappropriate not just for sexual minorities to hear, but also religious minorities whether they are less common Christian denominations (such as Episcopalian and Roman Catholic) or non-Christians at all (Jews, Jains, etc.).

Saying that someone is wrong simply because you say they are is not educated or educating. For a psychology teacher to say this in a classroom when the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual forty years ago — even if removed from that class after the fact — does not show a commitment to excellence.

Not everyone must have the same convictions for work to be done and relationships to be maintained; my mother and I do not have the same understanding of the morality of my relationship, but she will be at my wedding and has come to visit my fiancé and I in California. We vote and write our congresspeople in very different ways but listen to and ask questions of one another rather than insisting that the other is wrong.

Coach Grisham said that he was speaking in a debate context, but his prefacing his statements about LGBT people by saying he didn’t care if people told the superintendent suggests this was not a debate context based around critical thinking and educated argumentation. Furthermore, the privileged position of the teacher, both in a classroom setting and a cultural setting of deferring to those in authority, may inhibit students’ comfort dissenting even if they do. I know I would not have felt comfortable responding to Coach Grisham as a gay student.

I am thankful that the board has responded to Coach Grisham’s statements and that he will be required to attend what seems to be intensive sensitivity training. I hope that it is effective and helpful, but I worry for students of Coach Grisham or other teachers who make these kinds of remarks. Having been a closeted gay student in an Alabama high school, I know the difficulties that come without teachers reinforcing the negative thoughts I had about myself.

I had a safe place in my high school, and I continue to be thankful for that. The board’s action demonstrates to some extent that it is committed to providing a safe place for all its students. While some have suggested that this incident has been blown out of proportion, the high number of suicides of LGBT teens in the last three years suggests that this is not the case. Words matter, and teachers’ using their positions of authority to tear students down is especially damaging. Continuing to give them a space to do that suggests that students may not have top priority.

Your website welcome invites comments and suggestions to provide the highest quality education for the children in Lauderdale County, and I have one. Lauderdale County schools have made national news over Coach Grisham’s statements. Providing the highest quality education would include inviting someone to speak about being gay and Christian or gay and a person of any faith — a dissenting view from what has been heard and reheard around the country. Offering this in a volunteer setting, or coordinating with an out-of-house group (such as Equality Alabama) would prevent religious objections. It may not be popular, but it would offer a diversity of opinion with which Alabama’s future leaders and workers need a familiarity.

Coach Grisham said that the country is going in the wrong direction, and in many ways I agree with that like the students did. Rather than saying that one side or another has all the answers, though, I think listening to others’ stories should be encouraged. Having a gay Christian speaker offer his or her stories of hurt, healing, death, and resurrection may bring new light of experience — with no intention of changing anyone’s mind. Coach Grisham is right that change needs to happen, but it’s one of more listening with open hearts and ears and less talking from platforms of certainty, dealing with people and not vague ideas.

Along those lines, thank you for your time reading my letter. It got to be more than twice as long as I’d originally planned. I look forward to hearing from you, as well, hearing with an open heart and ears about how you think these situations can be prevented in Lauderdale County Schools and in all of Alabama and how you received what I’ve said.

In peace,

(The Rev.) Joseph P. Mathews
Priest, Episcopal Diocese of California

CC: Dr. Thomas R. Bice, State Superintendent of Education

Friday, February 8, 2013

Ritual, Religion, and Relationship

Last week I posted a link on Facebook to the article “The Truth About Salvation”.  I excerpted the end:
“Shouldn’t it alarm us that such simplistic pathways to Christianity are nowhere to be found in God’s Word? Shouldn’t we who follow Christ be concerned that the Scriptures contain no references to people asking Jesus into their hearts or reciting a prayer of salvation?...It’s a lie. With good intentions and a sincere desire to reach as many people as possible for Christ, we’ve subtly and deceptively minimized the magnitude of what it means to follow Jesus.” 
I concluded by saying that sounded like Mainline talk (or talk that I’ve heard from Mainliners) from an Evangelical. Someone commented on my post and said, “It's a horrible lie...that one only need to walk an aisle and quietly repeat a prayer. And it is a horrible lie that the rituals of any religion will bring salvation, too. Relationship not ritual!”

I think it would be a horrible lie that the rituals of any religion will bring salvation if I had ever heard someone say that; I just haven’t. Growing up I heard similar things about more liturgical traditions, “They think that if they just go to Mass they’ll get to heaven.” Not quite. It’s a lot more nuanced than that because the approach is different. Rather than being about praying a prayer, there is an understanding that grace is conveyed not through rituals, but through materials. Grace and salvation don’t come from what we do (receiving communion, being baptized), but what God does in the bread and wine, in the washing water, in the healing oil So much are these actions about God and not us, that the Church long ago decided that the state of grace of the person doesn’t matter for them to be efficacious. (For those who say otherwise, see donatism).

I whole-heartedly reject the notion that relationship is not ritual. Ritual is an invitation to or expectation of relationship as the Body of Christ does something as one. Baptism gives people with five senses a way to engage their senses as they make promises to Christ and are brought into a community. When asked, “Will you do these things that we’re all trying to do?” the baptizand replies, “I will, with God’s help.” In that moment we have a relationship with Christ. Like all other relationships it takes work, but we are marked as Christ’s own forever. When we come to the table of grace we are continually joined to Christ as Christ continues to take up residence in us. The practice of it may be different than some others’, but God is active, even if we don’t always understand how.

These moments of relationship bring us to salvation. For a long, long time the Church (for the most part) has believed that grace is conveyed in these acts. The Nicene Creed explicitly says, “We believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” That statement is inherently relational because it’s what we believe. It was put into the Nicene Creed in A.D. 381. Rather than being “just a symbol,” the Church believes that something happens. Because something happens from God and not from us, we only have to do it once at that.

There are a lot of things that seem like equating relationship and ritual, but those are often from a place of a very narrow definition of what a ritual is. Disciples are also rituals, from keeping a prayer journal to having a daily quiet time. Doing it over and over again is a ritual that is used to build relationship. I have been critical of the “Praying that prayer” model because although there is an expectation of relationship, there isn’t necessary follow-up — and often the statement that it’s okay. You prayed that prayer and that’s all you’ve got to do.

For this very reason I’m critical of drive through baptisms, where the parents have no intention of bringing their child back and are not in relationship with the community. The difference in my mind, though, is that God is active either way. When done well both models have safeguards built in, but the one I prefer is one that is about God’s action and then the community promising to be a part of the ongoing life of the newly baptized. Because it’s the Spirit present in the water, though, it sticks.

“Asking Jesus into one’s heart” is arguable a ritual in and of itself, and that’s not a bad thing. Letting that be the stopping point (which Platt is arguing against in his work) is what bothers me — but that’s not the ideal. What also bothers me, though is an outright rejection of ritual based on one’s preference (which, in my experience, often comes from lack of exposure over time, so hard to understand) rather than wondering how someone else’s practices may be formative for them.

How might we wonder with others about their practices? Through asking questions rather than making assumptions based on our outsiders’ perceptions. Through asking ourselves how our practices are formative for us and inviting others into them with us. How else?

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

So do you have a job yet?

This morning I celebrated reading a post on Facebook made by an electronic acquaintance who is in seminary at a school other than my alma mater. I am excited that he has been called to serve the Church in a local parish and that he knows so early in the calendar year. From my thoughts of him my mind wandered to wondering how a dear friend of mine’s job hunt is going. I know that she is extremely capable, but I know she is looking for some particular things geographically and in ministry. She and I are in touch somewhat regularly. She has not mentioned her most recent job prospects in a few weeks, though she will make an excellent priest.

I will not be asking her how it’s going.

She is one of my dearest friends, and I at least tell myself that it’s mutual. She will be reading in my wedding, but I remember all too well the anxiety of last February, March, April, May, June, and July as I had not yet been called to serve somewhere. One of the things that made those months so difficult was that not only am I pretty highly-functioning, but others know it. Because of this far too often people asked, “So do you have a job yet?”

Dear reader (all three of you), this was not helpful. While it may have meant to be encouraging it was received with the expectation that I should already have a job, and yet I did not.

Those closest to me knew all the stress I was feeling and facing, the tears being shed, the sleep being interrupted, the flare-ups and outbursts of anger or sadness, and the anxiety every time my bishop called. Those from whom I needed (and wanted) the most support were well-aware of the situation and updated regularly on group emails about my prospects and texts about let downs.

The GOE has been taken. Candidacy papers are starting to be due, I’m sure. Graduation looms in mid-May for not just seminarians but those in many fields. What I enjoyed much more than a regular barrage of “So do you have a job yet?” was when I could announce good news — making a cut on a process, getting an interview — and people celebrating with me. Alternatively, I appreciated those who mourned with me when I made disappointments public.

In the next few months, whether you’re through the a discernment and education process or finishing up one yourself, don’t ask if people have gotten jobs yet. If you have not been getting updates from them regularly, it does not come across as concern (at least didn’t to me) inasmuch as additional pressure. There’s probably a reason you're having to ask.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep, and trust people to share their good news for rejoicing and their bad news for weeping on their timeline.