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Tears Streaming Down His Face

I got an e-mail today, at a time when I was feeling really low. A man in Ohio found something that I wrote helpful as he reconnects with God.

It’s on my website dailyoffice.org, called On the Gay Issue: Pray.

I wrote it two and a half years ago, in January 2007, and as you can imagine I really haven’t looked at it since.

Every now and then I’ll get an e-mail about it; most people like it, but occasionally I’ll hear from a conservative who thinks I’m sposedta repent and all that. Sometimes I can’t tell that they’ve actually read it, they just have a knee-jerk reaction.

So today I got this fellow’s e-mail, and I was reluctant to open it at first, in case it was more bad news. But it wasn’t, it was very good news.

He explained that he’s only recently returned to church a couple of years ago (about the time I wrote my essay), and was fairly oblivious to the ecclesiastical politics concerning LGBTs, being much more concerned (and properly so) with his own salvation; that is, returning to his relationship with God. That’s what consumed him, not all the internet yammering in the Episcopal Church, the schisms and resolutions and votes. He came back to church because he needed to.

But over those couple of years, as he got a little more acclimated, he began to be aware of the Big Controversy, and to wonder about it. The people he was in touch with, the friends he met, were pretty torn up about “losing their church” to the godless heretic queers. He grew troubled and confused; the church where he felt safe wasn’t feeling safe to his friends.

You can imagine, he was in a vulnerable spot. “The truth” was moving on him, not staying in the same reliable place. That’s scary.

Was it not truth at all? Is there a new truth now? What’s going on?

See, here was a man who was not inclined to pay attention to Gay stuff, but his friends and touchstones were in distress. How could he help them, when he was still a spiritual babe in arms?

Then, something happened, to bring him back to his childhood parish in Pennsylvania. A family member had commissioned an icon, which was going to be dedicated to his mother’s memory, and to the women’s choir she was a part of. Thus he went back home.

It’s quite a beautiful icon; imagine having this dedicated to your mother and her friends in the women’s choir. (My mom sang in the choir too for many years.)

St._Cecilia_2008

While he was there, he wanted to ask his nephew the priest about all this Gay stuff; though with its being such a family occasion, he knew not to spoil the party. He would ask his question later, once he got back to Ohio.

But then it happened that the nephew-priest answered his questions, by preaching on the Gospel of the Day: Year B, Proper 14.

Should Gay people be excluded from the Church? Or, more practically, given the presence of Gay people in the Church, should Bible-believing, faithful people leave the Episcopal Church because of them?

Keep in mind how vulnerable this guy was, as the nephew-priest read the following in the Gospel procession:

John 6:37-51 (NRSV)

Jesus said, “Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”

Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Then the young nephew preached on this Word, and my correspondent knew what he should do; that he should include, not exclude.

You can imagine, this changed the man’s life. There he was, in his old childhood home, with an icon to his mother, the choir singing, an ordained nephew full of faith and inside the Episcopal Church; he went through a conversion experience—and I don’t care how much you despise Pat Robertson, a conversion is something to respect, even cherish on this man’s behalf.

What he was converted to was the Gospel of love in Jesus Christ.

Anyone who comes to me I will never drive away.

In fact it was Jesus’s mission to hold tight to every soul God gave him; to not lose even one.

Well: this all happened two weeks ago, and it left my correspondent in a still-vulnerable place, but surer than he had been before. He still had his friends back in Ohio wailing and gnashing their teeth (I exaggerate probably) over the Gay people. Try and put yourself in their place; they sincerely believe that faith in Jesus requires excluding the Gay people. They do not pray about this (“God, what if I’m wrong?”) as I recommend, they take it as a given; it’s what they’ve always believed, what they’ve been taught, etc. They are trying to be as faithful to God as they know how, just like the deposed Bishop of Pittsburgh I addressed in my open letter. Notice, these faithful folks never ask God if they could be wrong; they assume they’re right, which is how human prejudice sometimes gets blessed as righteousness. Or: the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

My correspondent went back to Ohio and had to face these people—without the backup of his nephew-priest. Our guy was on his own.

It happens, he wrote me, that he’s often used dailyoffice.org to help him pray when he’s traveling; and somehow he turned to the site again today, where he found my little letter. Mind you, it’s been posted online for two and a half years, but he never saw it before, until the time he needed it.

He wrote to thank me for it with tears streaming down his face, in utter shock at how God always supplies what he needs, when he needs it.

In the same way that he wanted guidance from his nephew-priest, but it wasn’t the time to ask, he got the guidance anyway.

When he needed to remember his two-week-old learning, “include, not exclude,” he got it from something I wrote, without even a clue that he’d someday need this.

I’m a great one for managing to forget my small revelations from God; most of us are, I suspect. They end up overwhelming us with love and beauty, and being mortals we can’t really stand that; so we forget, and go back to the same lousy habits we had before. The same thing is frequently described in the Old Testament; when a person suddenly encounters God they find they can’t even look at him. They prostrate themselves, and not just for worship but to hide somehow. We can’t bear to look at God, so we shut our eyes, even though God isn’t so scary, and doesn’t mind being seen. Isn’t that why he came?

So I can understand my correspondent forgetting what he knew; I do the same thing. What’s miraculous is that God knows all about our reluctance to face him, and puts us in the way of finding what we need, when we need it, without having to confront the full Divinity head-on. A little essay, been there all along, but now the Ohioan found it.

(Take a deep breath here for the conclusion.)

I wasn’t feeling so good when this e-mail arrived; worthless, I said. But I’m not, am I? Not by a long shot.

And God has told me this many times before but I just can’t pay attention.

If it seems strange to you that Correspondent and I are getting messages from God, it shouldn’t; God does this all the time. God is profligate in his loving, promiscuous almost; goes around touching souls constantly. A hundred thousand times a day, a million; who can count? You’d have to be God to count ’em all.

It is somehow in the nature of God to reveal himself/herself in a million little touches every day. All we have to do is pay attention and be open; God loves to talk to us, no matter what shape we’re in. God’s the biggest yakker there ever was, if we won’t turn away and hide.

But it isn’t just talk, either, it’s touching, like Correspondent was touched, and like I was because of him.

Y’know, sometimes I ponder atheists, who have such a problem “believing in God” because they’ve decided not to. I wonder why they don’t perceive what to me is the most obvious thing in the world. I mean, God’s so everywhere I’m constantly tripping over him. So why don’t they?

Well, God doesn’t go where she’s not wanted. This leaves her more time to trip me up just for fun.

The God I know, that I perceive and try to attend to, is gentle and loving to the Nth degree. Never angry, not judgmental, forgiving 70 times 7; not even greatly disappointed when we prove our mortality once again. That’s what she expects of us, and we never let her down.

Always hopeful, always inviting; ready to catch us should we fall.

Why I get to perceive God and someone else does not is one of those mysteries that will never be explained in this life; Calvin couldn’t explain it and in fact got it all wrong. It’s about grace, honey; amazing grace.

When Correspondent wrote me through his tears, I just felt happy for him, to be given such a gift, because he was open enough to receive it. God loves giving presents!

Considering that my words were somehow the means of Correspondent’s grace, I can barely handle it. Of course I’m proud, but God knows what a wreck I am and let me be the means anyway!

That’s what God is like. She doesn’t care what kind of a wreck you are, free hugs anyway.

I wanted to tell Correspondent about some new music on the site; “new” meaning J.S. Bach, “Sheep May Safely Graze.” It’s a wonderful little ditty, the perfect ending to this post, so have a listen yourself; what I’m saying here in words, Johann got the gift to write in notes a lot better than I can.

God knows exactly where you’ve been, and loves you dearly anyway.++

Bach-hausmann

Mob Kills Pakistani Christians

PakistaniChristians.600

A Pakistani Christian couple in the ruins outside their home. (Reuters)

The New York Times has original reporting today about an attack Saturday on a small enclave of Christians in Pakistan. A mob of 20,000 Muslims killed 8 people in one family, who happened to live in the first house they came to. The story is both grotesque and fascinating, and though it’s written with the usual Times understatement, the headline is strikingly honest: Hate Engulfs Christians in Pakistan.

It got me thinking about two examples of this kind of violence closer to home: the recent murder of Dr. George Tiller, in church no less; and the incredible (and sometimes threatening) invective on a hate website which seeks to destroy the Episcopal Church, called Stand Firm.

In Pakistan, the mob was incited by an outlawed group of Muslim terrorists, who then got enraged by a phony rumor that some Christians at a small wedding had burned the Koran. That was all they needed to spring into action. Besides the murders, 100 homes were looted and destroyed.

But it wasn’t just the terrorist group or even the mob itself that was responsible. The Times reports:

“We were afraid because the clerics had been railing against us in the mosques,” said Riaz Masih, a Christian and retired math teacher whose house was gutted. “They said, ‘Let’s teach them a lesson.’ ”

The clerics had been railing against us in the mosques. This is just like the Fox News rabble-rouser Bill O’Reilly, who gets ratings (and gets rich) by inciting hatred (“Tiller the Baby Killer” on 29 shows), and like the hate website, whose main reason for existing is to incite anti-Gay prejudice.

I’m happy to say that the Episcopal Church, with the recent departure of four anti-Gay bishops (and their dioceses, half their parishes and millions of dollars in property), has mostly put this crowd behind us. The recent church convention consistently voted 2-1 or even 3-1 for Gay, Lesbian and Transgender inclusion. (Bisexual folks really don’t make it onto the Church radar screen because, face it, we’re into committed relationships and monogamy.) Transgender advocates (that is, church members who are Trans) were shocked and thrilled by the votes; the Lesbian and Gay crowd mostly expected to win, I think, but still, we batted 1.000. That’s never happened before.

In recent days three openly-Gay people, two women and a man, have become finalists for elevation to bishop. Two of them are friends of mine. Bonnie Perry of Chicago is a rousingly successful priest who has “bishop” written all over her; I’ve been to her parish, which is kind of a fallen-down wreck, yet she’s made it vital and alive. John Kirkley is the rector of a parish in the Mission district in San Francisco, and if you know the city, that neighborhood’s not exactly posh either. He leads a lively congregation that’s plainly on a quest for God in their midst.

So how does Stand Firm, the online bigot convention, react to their possible elevation?

• A joke bishop for a joke church.

• It is not God that Kirkey worships.

• so-called priests in an insane church

• here is a man whose only relationships with other men are purely sexual in nature.

• Of course, he’s a pervert, so I suppose I should be more surprised

And that’s just five random comments on one blog post; they do a dozen posts a day, a fairly large and well-funded operation for a blog.

This is how the mob grows to 20,000: “We were afraid because the clerics had been railing against us…”

Gene Robinson, another friend who’s Gay, had to have a security detail and wear a bulletproof vest when he was consecrated bishop of New Hampshire in 2003—a fact the hate-site loves to mock.

Demonize people long enough (which is all the hate-site does) and sooner or later, someone will take matters into their own hands.

Dr. Tiller was ushering at a Lutheran church in Wichita when an Operation Rescue contributor (allegedly) showed up with a gun and shot him to death in the vestibule.

It was so important to “stop the killing” that the gunman did some killing himself. The anti-abortion industry has a long history of this kind of violence, from Eric Rudolph to Jon Brockhoeft. Brockhoeft was the most menacing guy I ever saw; he used to haunt the Cincinnati City Council (even though he didn’t live there) to damn everyone to hell if an LGBT rights bill passed. He had this long hair and beard (so he’d look like Moses, I suppose) and you could tell by one look in his eyes he was crazed with anger.

In Pakistan, Christians occupy the lowest rung in society, according to The Times. Half the mob stormed their village not just to kill and burn, but to loot their possessions. The criminal motive is clear; and the mullahs started it.

The Anglican archbishop of Nigeria does the same thing to Gay people, demonizing in order to hold onto power. Breakaway Episcopalians in Virginia (including Bush/Cheney neocons who gave us the Iraq war) are now publicly aligned with this man Peter Akinola, who claims it’s Christian to persecute and imprison Gay people.

The archbishop of Canterbury goes along with this in a convoluted appeasement strategy—but the Episcopal Church does not. That’s why our convention voted 2-1 to welcome us in the door, even up to the altar as chief pastor, and a special committee will now start compiling same-sex marriage rites for formal examination at the next convention.

Some “religious” people are scary, and they’ll kill ya. But what do you do if you still believe in God? What if you will always believe in the Greatest Story Ever Told, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ?

You turn into Bonnie Perry, John Kirkley and Gene Robinson; you do your best to fight hate with love, as Jesus did. It’s all we can do, but it’s enough.++

GreatestStoryEver

The Central Liturgy of Life

Blue Cheese.DavidFankhauserUCClermont

Dr. David Fankhauser, University of Cincinnati Clermont College.

The New York Times has a fantastic article today by Michael Pollan about the decline of cooking—fantastic in its wide range and the memories it conjures up. It’s called “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch,” and discusses Julia Child, the current movie “Julia and Julie,” the rise of the Food Network and the decline of the American diet. I do a lot of scratch cooking, and the article makes me aware of the peculiarities of my personal history, current lifestyle (counter cultural)—and of something he doesn’t mention but all Episcopalians know, the rise in importance since 1979 of the Holy Eucharist, the shared Christian meal, as the central act of worship. Read the article here.

Pollan’s observations help me know what to do with my writing; namely to incorporate more recipes in my fiction and my blogs.

Some of you know that I have struggled for years to produce a sequel to “Murder at Willow Slough.” Novel-writing is usually hard work (though my “University” series came to me in a nine-month ecstasy). In “Slough” I created two men who groove on each other; it ends when they finally get together. But what next?

They fuck, they work, they eat and they sleep. Just like your life, though not necessarily in that order.

The point of the next book is to describe the making of a Gay Christian marriage. One character is secretly in love with God but seldom goes to church, while the other character goes every Sunday but doesn’t have a clue.

What they have in common is The Meal, at home and in the sanctuary.

Do The Meal often enough, and it comes to occupy a central place in your life. As Kent might say, “Ain’t nothin’ better than a good supper.”

Christianity astonishes me in its perfection. Jesus was the smartest guy ever.

“Take, eat, do this in remembrance of me.”

I miss having friends on my porch this summer as I grill out. For the past few years, two of them came every few days; we’d cook and eat and have a great time. But last winter they broke up and we’re all suffering as a result. They are such good guys, but they couldn’t get along, so the breakup was right, but I sure do miss them.

A year or so ago at their house—they’re also good cooks—Scott made a blue cheese spread for our steaks. It was delicious, and I wrote down his recipe. Three nights ago I made my own version of it for a ribeye I cooked all alone. It tasted great but I missed my guys.

In fiction, Jamie can make this for Kent:

Blue Cheese Spread

3 T cream cheese
1 scallion, minced
1 1/2 T blue cheese
1 t lemon juice
1 t Worcestershire sauce
1 garlic clove, minced

Mix all but the blue cheese in a small bowl with a fork. Then add the cheese and stir with a spoon, incorporating but not mashing the blue crumbles. Spread on a medium-rare steak and Enjoy!

In the fictional version Kent’s so sexy that Jamie lets him do whatever he wants. But Kent is smart enough to realize that outside the bedroom, Jamie’s the one who knows how to live. They come up with a very nice way to balance their power, so that no one is diminished and each of them serves the other. That’s how they make their marriage.

Or, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Jamie’s so good in the kitchen that Kent will follow him anywhere, do anything, for any reason.

A cop and a blondboy, a match made in heaven. But pray I can finally pull it off.++

Heartbeat

Episcopalians to End 40-Year Campout in Homophobic Wilderness?

Gene.closeup

The General Convention of The Episcopal Church is now in session in Anaheim, California, and the big issues are all Gay: Gay marriage; Gay bishops like Gene Robinson, above; Gay baptism—and one question that’s mostly Straight: can we finally talk to young people again about Jesus without the damning baggage of homophobia?

Forty years we’ve been wandering this wilderness; forty years later we’re still torn between those who want to go slowly into freedom, and won’t take a step forward unless everyone else comes too; and those who want to set foot in the Promised Land where God loves everyone in our own lifetimes.

Preliminary readings, based on nothing more reliable than how many folks showed up to argue each side in debate, indicate that we’re about to take a big step forward—though being Episcopalians, it will doubtless come with all kinds of ifs, buts, whereases, double-checking and backwards somersaults.

The stakes are not small. The fate of the worldwide Anglican Communion may hang in the balance, along with lots of ecumenical partnerships. Since the last convention three years ago, four U.S. dioceses have defected to join the anti-Gay forces in Argentina and Nigeria by way of Pittsburgh. (Don’t ask.) We’ve had to sue to get our churches back and it’s been ugly.

Several things are striking about the current scene.

• All over the world, GLBT Christians hurt massively about being in limbo all this time. I do too, and I don’t have nearly as much to lose as Gay Anglicans in Africa, China, Japan, India (which recently saw its first Gay-positive court ruling), much less Iran, where they publicly hang the queers to cheering crowds.

• Most of the really vicious anti-Gay Americans have already taken a hike to Buenos Aires or Lagos, and are likely to be marginalized for years to come. You’ve never seen vitriol like these people speak it; they make Fred Phelps look like a piker.

• Most of the remaining, go-slow Episcopalians are not Gay-haters. I disagree with them profoundly, but they don’t want TEC to get too far out front and break the valuable ties we have to Third World Anglican churches, most of whom embrace 19th century British colonialism, with its evangelical zeal and particular abhorrence over (male) homosexuality, which just happen to fit perfectly with native prejudices and male domination.

• But it’s important to listen to the anguish of these non-Gay-hating Americans. Some are parents of LGBTs. Most realize change is coming, like it or not. It’s not wrong for them to value relationships with the Old Guard in Britain, Central Africa and Australia; what’s wrong is that they elevate those relationships above those with their own GLBT parishioners—and generations of young Americans who judge Christianity as an immoral religion.

It must have been hell for Moses to talk the Israelites into setting out for the Promised Land. They procrastinated so long he never got to set foot there himself.

• A post yesterday on Episcopal Café by Otis Gaddis III, a young Washington lawyer and candidate for ordination, crystallized the moral argument better than I’ve ever seen it, and better than I’ve ever made it. (After a lifetime of Gay advocacy, I don’t give such praise lightly.)

There can be no evangelism, he writes, among young Americans or anyone else, if The Episcopal Church is simply one more Gay-bashing, hypocritical conglomerate.

He cites a recent Banta poll which found that two-thirds of young U.S. adults favor Gay marriage equality. He says it’s become a litmus test among young people deciding whether to trust a faith community with their own spiritual concerns. If a church isn’t safe for their Gay friends, it isn’t safe for them either. They don’t identify with an “immoral religion,” he says, and 90% of them believe Christianity is anti-Gay.

This is exactly where The Episcopal Church finds itself in crisis and opportunity—not in worrying about ancient relationships with England and Nigeria, which we will doubtless maintain no matter what.

Do we have anything to say to our own children?

If the “Church of the Presidents” (TEC) strikes a definitive blow for Gay rights in Anaheim, that will make news—and open up countless spiritual conversations among friends. “Jesus is not a bigot. Jesus is a radical lover.”

If we don’t—if we keep wandering this barren desert till every last communicant with an anxiety attack finally gets over it—we will miss the greatest opportunity for Good News-spreading in my lifetime.

“Mission” and “evangelism” are really nothing more than one friend telling another, “I’ve found this way to live that really helps me. Is there any chance it could help you too?”

If the Episcopal Church is safe for Gay people, it’s probably safe for anyone. Come, see what Jesus has to say, and how his followers lived once upon a time, and still try to.

No, you don’t have to sign on the bottom line. Just bring an open mind and open heart; “come and see.”

Questions allowed; opinions encouraged. Doubts expected; faith inspired.

“No greater love is this, but that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

(H/t Fr. Mychal Judge)

I have hopes for the current General Convention, but hopes tempered by skepticism. People always opt for the wilderness they know instead of the Promised Land they don’t. (How Moses endured is beyond me.)

Even our best foot forward will inevitably involve two steps back. One of those back-steps comes from gentle concern for the fearful, and one will be caused by the machinations of hateful schismatics.

At some point TEC has to choose. This may be the year. Six states have same-sex marriage now, and bishops in those states are asking why they can’t solemnize Gay weddings with the same ineffable joy as they do Straight weddings. The parishioners wonder too.

However, the Bishops and Deputies (as priests and lay delegates are called) are overwhelmingly middle-aged to elderly, mostly retired, able to afford two weeks in high-priced SoCal. It takes cash and lots of time to represent a diocese at General Convention; I admire the dedication of those who can manage it. Latino, Black, Asian, White (we’ve got them all), the dominant hair color is gray. Young adults are built-in and subsidized, I hope, but still, most voters have spent all their lives in the wilderness. Do they have the courage to set out for the Land of Promise? Or is Moses going to die before we finally get there?

Will I die before we finally get there, where we can credibly present Jesus Christ as the ultimate role model for how to live for this generation?

Breaking News: “Gray Ones Join Youth on Uncertain Trek.”

I think the gray-haired bunch steps off the fastest. The kids will race to catch up, then everyone will dance on the way to the new stomp grounds, where there will be singing and feasting and yes, real mourning for those left behind.

Church politicians may groan and fret, but a little child will lead them, and Grandma’s right on her heels, “Let’s race!”

O God, make it so, that my People, these extraordinary givers so dear to your heart, may feast in your agapé at last. Come Holy Spirit, incline our hearts to keep your law.

As Fr. Ben said, Sunday after Sunday for forty years:

“Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith.

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it; Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

Love thy neighbor, even if she’s Gay.++

Triumph of the “Ritualists”

RoodScreen.Saint-Etienne-du-Mont.800

Rood screen and balcony at St. Etienne du Mont, France. The English Reformation destroyed all such ornaments, but now the tide has turned.

The Episcopal Church has changed so much in my lifetime it’s really hard to fathom. We all know about women priests and bishops, the gradual integration of LGBT people into parish life and leadership, the increasing racial and ethnic diversity; as dramatic and necessary as these developments are, they’re not the biggest changes we’ve seen. We’ve become a Catholic church, with Mass every Sunday.

We still have some Protestant attitudes, which I’m glad for (I do protest the pope); but in these past 30 years our transformation is fairly complete. In 1979 the General Convention gave final approval to a new version of the
Book of Common Prayer, which emphasizes the Holy Eucharist, not a prayer service, as the supreme act of Christian worship on Sundays and other feast days.

That changed everything. Yet it wasn’t a revolutionary act but an evolutionary one.

I wish my mentor Howard Galley were here to see what he wrought, as general editor of the “new” BCP. No doubt he knew exactly what he was getting us into, but I wish he were here now to witness how these developments have spread and the joy that’s resulted.

Our church is smaller now; we’ve gone from being the church of George Washington and the Queen of England, lawyers and bankers and capitalists, to being the church of the upper middle class on down, all the way to the homeless. That’s a tremendous achievement, though it’s come at quite a cost in numbers, money and prestige. Still, Jesus wasn’t a prestigious fellow, just the son of a workingman, and that’s a sign that we’re more closely following The Way.

Two years ago I toured Episcopal churches from east to west and north to south, stopping in big cities, suburbs and rural areas. Mass is the principal Sunday service in every one of those churches, and no one complains about it; the dissenters have left or died off. The faithful look forward to Mass every Sunday. Increasingly, “Mass” is what they call it; one syllable vs. the three-syllable Greek jawbreaker “Eucharist.” Parents tell their kids, “Wake up, baby, it’s time to go to Mass.”

And the liturgy itself has become incredibly rich. Some would say it still has a ways to go, but I’m speaking in general terms now, what I saw two years ago in all those varied parishes.

We are perhaps more devoted to the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer in its dailyness than we ever were before 1979, when half our churches were still “Morning Prayer parishes.” My own parish was one of them; we had Holy Communion at 8 a.m. for a small congregation, then Morning Prayer or Communion at 10:30 for a large congregation. In the olden days Communion was held once a month at 10:30, then that changed to every other week, and now for many years it’s what we always do at both services.

I operate a website called dailyoffice.org, which gets about 250 visitors a day for Morning and Evening Prayer. These are people who pray once or twice a day (or more, I also offer Noonday and Latenight services) because they find it spiritually helpful to center themselves, sanctify the passage of time and to dedicate it to God. A similar website gets several times more daily visitors, and untold thousands pray the Daily Office at home or in small groups. Praying the Office every day is one of the best things a person can do to get closer to God. As I put the website together each day, I visit parish sites all over the country to see what other people are doing. In my 4 1/2 years of posting the daily services, I’ve run into exactly one holdout “Morning Prayer parish” in upstate New York. The takeover of the Catholic religion is complete. We are all Catholics now, and we love it.

We’re still not papists, which makes me laugh with satisfaction.

But it is one thing to substitute (actually, restore) the sacrament instead of the prayer service, and another to learn/relearn to liturgize and ritualize our lives, which we’re also doing. The sacrament has its own objective value, including the power to convert our souls to God; but the physical acting out of human needs and truths, universal or personal, also has great power. This acting out is what I mean by liturgy and ritual.

To the post-modern mind “ritual” is some sort of archaic throwback, a mindless repetition of mumbo-jumbo, not at all desirable or even respectable. But oh, we do fool ourselves. Try having a birthday; if no one sends you a card or gives you a cake or sings you a song, you go to your room and pout, “No one cares.” Try going to a football game; if the band never plays the School Song, you’ll go home in a rage.

Rituals are very much the stuff of life, but the term’s taken on suspicious connotations now—except when it’s the 4th of July and you don’t get your picnic and fireworks. Why, the injustice of it all! You’re entitled to burnt weenies and deviled eggs!

Episcopalians are ritualizing like never before, and I’m glad. In fact I could use more of it.

My parish had several baptisms last Easter Eve, new initiates from toddler age to very young adults. It was a joyous occasion, but I found myself wishing that our clergy knew about the post-baptismal ritual of the priest who baptized me. I was too young to remember it, but my mother often spoke about it; she loved what the priest did. When the ceremony was done, he would carry a baby all around the church, saying, “Look at your new brother or sister in Christ.” Everyone got a chance to coo at the little one, or feel sympathy if she cried, and the parents were always so proud at having their baby shown off for all the world to see. My brothers and I were baptized at ages 2, 5 and 7, three stairstep boys; I was the little one. Fr. Ferguson held my hand and walked us all up and down the aisles as the congregation applauded.

On Easter Eve I kept waiting for the applause, and it didn’t happen. So the baptism didn’t feel complete to me, because the People didn’t get a chance to respond, to say Welcome.

Another ritual which I’ve often written about: Fr. Ben was the rector of my home parish when I came of age and fell in love with the 1928 Book of Common Prayer and the Hymnal 1940. Ben was many things, and in later years a bit of a drag on parish life, but he was also the best at priestcraft I’ve ever seen. No one, in the 40 parishes I visited in 2007, could hold a candle to him, he was that good. “Priestcraft” refers to the ritual, the liturgizing of the priest’s and church’s actions—the physical acting out, illustrating and making of sacrament, which the whole Body of Christ (the People) participate in. (And this was with his back to us in those days.)

Here’s what Ben would do during the Words of Administration, the actual delivering of the Bread and Wine to the communicants. I’ve never seen anyone else do this. The words are (Rite I):

The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith, with thanksgiving.

Communicants knelt at the altar rail, maybe said a silent prayer before he came to us, and we held our hands, one cupped in the other, up and out towards him to receive. He placed the Host, a wafer in those days, into our palm. Then he covered our hands with his, which made this action entirely personal; an exchange between him and me, God and me. He pronounced the words, “The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee…”

Or “in remembrance that Christ died for thee…”

It was earth-shaking, the most shatteringly beautiful thing that’s ever happened to me. Sunday after Sunday I’d come down from that rail grinning from ear to ear. For me! Christ died for me!

Parishioners got in the habit of watching me every Sunday come back from the altar with that look on my face. It pleased them and reinforced their own joy.

So something was lost and something gained in Prayer Book revision; Rite I is seldom used in the church anymore, we can do without the thee’s and thou’s. They’re bad for mission and un-Anglican, with our tradition of using language people actually speak and understand. But I wouldn’t give you 2¢ for the words the ’79 Book substitutes:

The Gifts of God for the People of God.

Doesn’t mean the same thing at all. Generic gifts for everybody, not “the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for you.”

Fr. Ben had it right, and Howard Galley was wrong. (I intend to tell him all about it as soon as I see him in heaven.)

All this brings me round to a guy I’ve studied a bit lately, the 19th century English priest and saint John Mason Neale. He was the leading “ritualist” of his day. He’s principally remembered today as a hymnodist, but as great a gift as his hymns were to the Church, even more important was his great insight into the theology of aesthetics. He knew (as the leaders of the Oxford Movement did not) the power of beautiful worship to convert the soul.

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Thus he sparked the final and decisive chapter in the longstanding “vestment wars” of the Church of England, which had been going on for 300 years of Reformation. It’s shocking now to realize, but people used to riot if a priest wore a surplice over his cassock, much less a cope or chasuble, things we now take entirely for granted. Candles on the altar? How dare you? “He’s a papist—kill him!”

My my my, and look at us now with finery everywhere for a reason: fancy stuff helps the People think and feel.

In their zeal to reform the medieval Catholic church, English and Continental reformers tried to get rid of everything that reminded them of Rome that didn’t have explicit mention in the New Testament. Their theory was that the earliest practice of the Church was the only acceptable practice, and no mention was made of what clothes the priest wore. (This was part of what we now know as Bibliolotry, worship of the Bible rather than Jesus Christ.)

Mind you, these are the same people who basically threw out the Mass most of the year, when it’s plain in the NT that the Church’s earliest practice was the most frequent Breaking of the Bread. Quite a contradiction there, but the Mass was too Popish! (It’s the same reason you see Baptist churches today with steeples and no cross on top; idiotic, to my mind. Lift that Cross up high so everyone can see it.)

Neale understood that distinctive, beautiful clothes for the clergy, along with candles on the altar and other decorations, marked the Service of the Church as special, and thus inspired the People’s reverence.

These trappings don’t detract from one of the great insights of the Reform, that priesthood is shared by all believers. The clergy are simply those men and women we set apart to lead us; as Howard Galley often said, “Together we make Eucharist.”

(This is also why, in the English Church unlike the Roman, a priest can’t celebrate Mass by himself. If there are no People present, it doesn’t happen. I believe that’s absolutely right; the sacrament doesn’t exist for the priest’s private benefit, but grows out of the “two or three gathered together.”)

Today in my home parish and diocese, the church buildings are too plain. This is a legacy of our former Low Church/Broad Church tradition. Our current rector has beautified the worship space somewhat, but it still looks too Presbyterian to me. We do not employ all the teaching tools at our disposal. I suppose there might still be parishioners who would object to using more Catholic symbols, but I doubt such persons are in the majority. The symbols help us reach for God—which is the principal selling point for any Christian church; does this place, this congregation, help you get closer to God, or not? We know that if we reach for God, God reaches back twice as far for us and embraces us. So why are we not using every teaching tool available?

Fr. Ed, the current rector, has done a magnificent job of building upon our local tradition of excellence in music, with the help of talented music directors. We can’t do Christmas Eve without our string quartet, it’s just not good enough anymore. God deserves the best we can give, and so do the People. Music has conversion power; music can make a doubter believe again, because we somehow grasp that all true art comes from God and is creative in a human, mortal way, like God is creative in an immortal, cosmic way.

I hope a future rector will introduce incense into the celebration of Mass. We don’t have to use it every week, and there are ways to manage the smoke without causing coughing fits, but:

Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense, *
the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.

(Ps. 141:2)

We need to see the crucifix, the cross with the body on it. I can’t stress enough the importance of this, though it’s a symbol Protestants don’t understand or accept. I remember my Protestant Grandmother saying once about the plain vs. the adorned cross, “We believe that Christ rose from the dead.” To which the rejoinder is, “So do we! But how is it exactly that Jesus took away the sins of the world, if not his crucifixion?”

It is wrong to deprive us of this powerful symbol. Indeed it is the principal symbol we should look at.

“The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee…”

Beyond the atonement, if such it was, and the reconciliation of God and humankind the crucifixion achieved, there is another huge lesson in the symbol of the Body on the Cross. In this one image, we can see all of Christ’s counsel for how we should live our lives.

Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

(John 15:12-13 NRSV)

No, we’re not supposed to get crucified; none of us ’cause Jesus already did that, a once-for-all thing. But loving self-sacrifice is indeed the heart of Christ’s Gospel.

We see it on the battlefield; we see it in policing and firefighting, teaching and nursing, all manner of public service. We see it in the sacrifices parents make for children, and children make for parents, and lovers make for each other.

This is love acted out.

So it’s not my fault or John Mason Neale’s if you don’t like the sound of “ritual.” Try going without a turkey next Thanksgiving and see how well you like it. Don’t put up a Christmas tree or give any presents; tell the kids the Easter Bunny didn’t bring any jelly beans or chocolate, see how popular that makes you.

We need physical ways to express our love, because words alone don’t cut it. The Book of Common Prayer since Cranmer’s original in 1549 has been the supreme expression of English Christianity because it’s so well-written. But it’s only words, appealing mostly to the mind, when we also have bodies that have to move. So we sing hymns, we have parades, we applaud little babies after we pour water on their heads; we not only break bread in full view of the People now, we show them all what we’ve done. We lift up a fine chalice of the Blood of Christ to make sure everyone can see. On Palm Sunday we walk around the block waving greenery and singing, even if that startles a pothead smoking his morning joint on the front porch. On Easter Eve we light a bonfire, on Easter morn we gather in the mountains. On Low Sunday we huddle together and pass the Peace, shaking hands and hugging. We ritualize everything now, and we’re better off because of it.

The Episcopal Church has grown in faith by leaps and bounds in my lifetime, which is why we now have women of color up front and LGBTs as healing ministers, a food pantry in the parish hall, addicts in the Bishop’s Parlor, ex-cons at Craine House, refugees in scattered apartments, liturgical dance practice in the nave and podcasts of Julian of Norwich. Bankers are still welcome, but if they don’t come we’re too busy to miss ’em.

Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying,

“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord
and of his Messiah,
and he will reign forever and ever.”

Then the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God, singing,

“We give you thanks, Lord God Almighty,
who are and who were,
for you have taken your great power
and begun to reign.
The nations raged,
but your wrath has come,
and the time for judging the dead,
for rewarding your servants, the prophets
and saints and all who fear your name,
both small and great,
and for destroying those who destroy the earth.”

Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.

(Rev. 11:15-19 NRSV)

And here you thought you were a drama queen! God’s got you beat.++

Yanking Out the Vines

Ivy

Ivy’s no friend of my house.

Today is my birthday, and I’m going to spend the afternoon gardening. Then I’ll get cleaned up and give myself a good meal, salmon ponzu with citrus-soy reduction, a baked potato with sour cream and fresh chives.

I’m behind schedule in the garden thanks to several days of rain. I got three new perennials last week but have only one of them in the ground. Here it’s only mid-May and I’ve been consistently active for a month, but several of the flowerbeds have already been overrun by vines. I’ve found myself in a remake of Christ’s Parable of the Seeds (Matthew 13): “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up… Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.”

The last two days I put in some very physical labor. A previous owner planted four yuccas, which have to be cleaned and trimmed every spring, like the palm trees that are bankrupting Los Angeles and San Diego. First I finished my herb garden on the south side with one tomato plant, next to which was a yucca. So I stopped planting to clean it out, then did the other three while I was at it. Two big garbage bags later, I was pretty tired. The yuccas have lots of babies, and for the first time in the five years I’ve lived here, I was able to remove some of the dying parents. I now know more about the sex lives of yuccas than I ever wanted to know.

The east side of my house is done; the side porch looks better than ever with its hanging baskets and planters. Peter from Amsterdam is visiting in two weeks and we’ll hang out there a lot. So I moved on to the north side and found that the English ivy Previous Owner planted had overrun my hostas and irises. I ought to have a dozen irises but only four puny ones have come up! I liked the ivy’s groundcover aspect, but not its aggressiveness—it climbs the walls, eats the mortar from the bricks, curls around the old wood pillars and wants to take over the porch—so it was time to yank it all out. I really had to put my back into the effort, pull with both hands, crawl under bushes, and three hours later I was exhausted.

I got one of the new plants in (I’ve already forgotten the name of it, a gift from my spiritual director’s yard) and that was it. The one good thing was that the azaleas are finally in bloom, ones I planted in memory of my brother Steve, whose birthday was yesterday. I learned that azalea blossoms are much bigger than I thought, about two inches across, not the little bitty things I used to see. So the azaleas are in bloom for Steve, right on time.

On the west side of the house is a different vine, a kudzu type that no one planted, and I’m going to have to do more yanking. That will make space for the other two plants I bought at the daylily farm. And none of this work gets my vegetable garden going or the gladiolus in. The deck isn’t finished, the house needs cleaning and Peter’s started his countdown to America!

(He just called and sang Happy Birthday to my voicemail, his Marilyn Monroe act.)

In Jesus’s parable, the seeds are the word of God, from which great miracles of beauty and food develop. The rocky soil some seeds find (like where my vegetable garden’s supposed to be) is the superficial approach we often take to the gift of God’s seed; the plants pop up but the roots stay shallow. Invasive vines, Jesus says, are our worries and the seductions of this world, which crowd into our lives and choke out all other ideas. We have to uproot those vines if our seeds are to produce anything—and yes, uprooting is work; get sober and turn off the TV, ’cause addictions are killers.

But some fraction of the seeds find their way to good soil, where they invariably thrive. But even then we’ve got to wait; there are few instant rewards in this world.

A wise gardener learns to be patient and enjoy the growth, because one day, sooner than we realize but longer than we hope, the feast will come.

Meanwhile put in your day’s work, and look forward to that salmon ponzu. Fresh chives!++

Postscript:

Now the work is done; the kudzu is gone, though I know it will come back. What’s so frustrating about it is that the roots break off so easily; there’s never a point at which you can find the taproot and dig it out. But it has no leaves above ground now to nurture its rapid growth; if I keep after it all summer I can prevent it from taking over.

What feels best is that now I have only two projects left, three days’ worth of weeding and a lot of shoveling, then my vegetable garden can go in. There may be a bit of rain this week, but temps will rise into the 70s and 80s, and with luck I can get this done before Peter gets on the jet for Chicago. He’s to spend a week there meeting friends and seeing the sights, before getting on a train and coming to my neck of the woods.

The other lesson today relates to those flowering plants I bought at the daylily farm. It’s 15 miles north and 15 miles east of here, but the soil is completely different, much sandier. Here we have rich black loam from ancient river flooding. It might sound hard to believe, but being 15 miles further away means that we don’t get sand from Lake Michigan blowing south. Those same winds created the world-famous Indiana Dunes, and similar ones in Michigan east of the lake. They’re pretty to look at, a great place to swim and picnic and vacation, but you can’t grow flowers or vegetables in sand, as any tour of the Miller section of Gary reveals. The houses don’t have yards there, they’ve got sand and rocks and potted plants; in the winter, the lake-effect snows are horrendous, like Buffalo, New York. The people in Miller have their lake, while I’ve got a little plot of the richest soil on the planet. They wouldn’t trade, but neither would I, so happy birthday to me—Mister President, happy birthday to me.++

Maine Catholics Lobby Against Gay Marriage

UPDATE: The legislature in Maine passed the Gay marriage bill May 6 and Gov. John Baldacci signed it. Whaddaya know, Democrats who act like Democrats. Hooray for Maine!

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Richard Malone, Bishop of Portland, Maine.

I guess it’s no surprise, the Catholic Church hates Gay people, and calls us such charming phrases as “intrinsically disordered.”

In your being, you’re no good.

No surprise, Gay people hate the Catholic Church right back.

The state legislature in Maine is about to pass a Gay marriage bill, recommended forthrightly by the Episcopal Diocese. (Thank you, Bishop Lane.)

The official Catholic position is against the bill, and the bishop is paying lobbyists to fight it. No rights for queers!

Sure is good news, huh? Some kind of Gospel. Let’s all follow Jesus, that well-known Gay hater who never said a word about it.

Down is up and wrong is right. God is love but Jesus hates. Priests can never have sex, but meanwhile they’re abusing every child in sight.

How did the Church go so wrong? What can be done about it?

What does God really think about sex? Any kind of sex, not just my kind; whuzzup, God?

How can we tell people that Jesus is the incarnation of love when your alleged followers are so full of hate that they want to deny human rights to non-conformists? It doesn’t work. They don’t believe us.

To save their own skins they’re running as fast and as far away from the Catholic church as they can get.

How can we sing a new song in a foreign land?

St. Peter was married, but his alleged successor in Rome, who calls himself Pope, is the world’s leading crusader against sex.

Priests must never have sex. Of course they do it all the time like everyone else, but only in the closet.

It’s what my pal Leonardo calls the Land of Let’s Pretend.

What does God have to say? Everybody gather round, listen hard, keep still; maybe we’ll hear God’s little whisper.

Or maybe God’s shout; if I were the King of the Universe I’d be shouting about now.

What does God say?

“I love you just the way you are,” in your maleness, your femaleness, your queerness, your Straightness, doesn’t matter. “I love you just the way you are.”

“I love you.” Get used to it.

I am very, very proud of the Episcopal Bishop of Maine. He’s doing what he can to spread good news, and I love him for it.

I am equally ashamed of the Catholic Bishop of Portland, using church dollars in a hate campaign.

Here’s what’s going to happen, I think. The Maine Legislature will pass the bill. The governor may or may not sign it; he’s no friend of Gay people and he doesn’t know what to do. In fact he’s a minor player because even if the bill becomes law without his signature, the Catholics in Maine, along with all the other haters, will gather names on petitions to try to get a “people’s veto” to nullify the law.

Every dollar of that campaign is a dollar that doesn’t feed the hungry, but Catholics won’t care. They’ll tell themselves the Virgin Mary made ’em starve people to death to prevent same-sex marriage.

Every Gay person in Maine will run screaming out of their churches, Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Anglican, it won’t matter—ALL churches will be suspected.

Jesus will wonder what happened to his congregation. But then he’ll know, and he won’t be pleased.

The atheists will be; they love to poke fun at the comic-book God. And who can blame them, when the Catholic Church itself promotes a comic-book God?

This is the same church that has ruined its reputation in Europe, and it’s fast approaching here. No one goes to church in Europe anymore. All those cathedrals? Empty. Tourist attractions. “Remember when.”

Only when the Catholic Church is faced with imminent collapse—financially, nothing else will get their attention—will it decide, “Maybe priests can have sex after all. Maybe, in limited circumstances, with permission from the bureaucracy, at certain times, experimentally, every other Tuesday, maybe.”

Whereupon every priest in the world will petition the bureaucracy to get married, for it is better to marry than to burn, and better to have sex in the bedroom than the closet.

God made your gonads, and gave you raging hormones for a reason: sex is a little taste of heaven.

Humans are constantly misusing sex, but the impulse itself is divine.

God is love, and humans get to make love. See how this works?

God wants us to make love.

As Norman Pittenger said, there is sex that is good, better and best, and God wants us to do it the best way; but sex is good.

Which is why priestly celibacy is so destructive, stifling, even murderous. The Catholic Church is exactly wrong on every sexual issue. Completely, totally, dead wrong.

Gay marriage, like Straight marriage, is a holy, wonderful thing, a blessing, an act of God.

What is the distinguishing mark of holy matrimony? Two people stand up, in public, and promise to love each other. They say all this where everyone else can hear.

There is no other act like that. Promises made, given and received, in public, “I will love you forever.”

Wow.

Let me end now with a personal note. I am finally working through, after five decades, my understanding of Gay love, sex and God. I have finally been given some integration of personality, spirituality and physicality. I am very grateful for this one-ing.

The universal Church teaches that God should be at the center of every marriage. But I didn’t know how that could happen; if I have lust for my husband (and I do, believe me), how can I love God more than Mr. Right? Does God demand that he get between us? What kind of God would do that?

But no, my thinking’s been all wrong. God is at the center of the one I love. I may or may not perceive God there, but in my loving, God’s right there.

The one I love is the one God loves. What I love about my man is what God loves about him too—so much, that God lives inside his body.

When I love my man’s body I’m doing just what God intends, for both of us. God so loves Derrick that God wants him made love to; and God so loves me that he gives me Derrick to love.

Thus if we are open to God at all, we cannot help but have a holy marriage. And this prefigures the bliss of heaven itself.

When we die our soul will be one’d with God. In the meantime, my body is one’d with Derrick’s. We use our bodies to one with each other in heart and mind and soul.

There is nothing greater than standing up in public and saying, in front of God ‘n’ everybody, “I will love you forever.”

And yes, maybe I lust after your body and yes, maybe I don’t; but regardless, “I will love you forever, because I see God in you.”

A public promise; a vow, a sacred thing.

Jesus loves it when people get married. He hopes and prays for the best, that everything works out; he knows it doesn’t always happen, but he prays and blesses our vowing.

He knows they’re going to go home and screw like rabbits, but that’s how God made ’em and it’s private, so let ’em go at it.

God made them to worship each other’s bodies, because that’s the closest we’ll ever come to knowing what real worship is.

Derrick isn’t God, but he’s real, real close. God loves it when people love each other.

By giving me Derrick, God develops my capacity to love. Marriage is the training ground for heaven.

Stupid Catholics; Episcopalians have more fun.

As for all the screaming people fleeing, look up; you’re running right past an Episcopal church, and the people inside are learning at last to be students of loving. A few of them, like Stephen Lane, are getting pretty good at it.

From Episcopal Life Online:

Lane said that the church “long ago, concluded and publicly proclaimed through its own legislative body that gay and lesbian persons are children of God and, by baptism, full members of the church.

“We have also concluded that sexual orientation, in and of itself, is no bar to holding any office or ministry in the church, as long as the particular requirements of that office or ministry are met,” he added. “And we have repeatedly affirmed our support for the human and civil rights of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered persons. In many of our congregations, both here in Maine and around the country, faithful same sex couples and their families are participating in the life of the church and sharing in the work of ministry and service to their communities.”

That’s the Jesus I know, and proclaim, and defend, and love, because he first loved me.++

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