Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Battle for New Orleans

There is a picture of a dead child on the front page of the Times-Picayune today. A little girl is lying in a pool of blood on her front porch as a man leans over her, holding her head. He looks at the camera with utter disbelief in his eyes.

Looking at this photograph, I can see a question in the man’s eyes: why? Why is a seven year old child gunned down at a birthday party? Why would anyone feel so angry that he or she would need to shoot a gun at a birthday party? Why doesn’t anyone do anything?

The picture is powerful and disturbing. I am sure someone will be going for a Pulitzer Prize with that photograph, but there is still a man crouched on his front porch over a dying child. I suppose I should thank the photographer for actually putting the image out so that we could see what we ignore every day at 5, 6, and 10 PM on the news.

My beloved city is under attack. New Orleans is in crisis. Children are being gunned down every day, and sometimes multiple children are being killed every day. In a place where life is celebrated, life is also cheap.

Our marvelously made human form, our intellect and creativity, our emotions are worth nothing. Our place in the community, our place in our families means nothing to a bullet. This beautiful little girl with pigtails is just another statistic.

New Orleans is under siege. We are besieged by indifference and hopelessness. We are going to lose our city if we do not fight for New Orleans. We might even lose our souls.

Unfortunately, our enemy is cunning, and its resolve might currently be greater than our own. The enemy for years has taught us that if crime/ bad government/ lousy schools are not in my neighborhood than it is not my problem. The enemy has taught us that I am not my brother’s keeper. The enemy has taught us not to ask who our neighbor is. The enemy tells us that this is just the way it is in New Orleans, that we cannot change anything. Why even try?

The battle seems impossible. We are fighting generations and generations of this indifference. We are fighting our very ethics that tell us we should value doing nothing. What could we possibly do? Where do we start?

Perhaps we start with actually looking at the picture of a dying child. She is not all that much older than my own child, the same age as my nephews. While the picture offends me, the picture also convicts me. How has our indifference, my own indifference, contributed to a culture that does not value life and the life of a seven year old girl? How might our indifference led to the assumption that life is cheap? What will I do to honor that girl’s life? What might I do to honor life and foster an ethic of life?

Perhaps one small step might be to support those on the front line of this battle for the soul of the City of New Orleans. At St. Anna’s Episcopal Church on Esplanade Avenue they list the names of the fallen on a board outside the church for all to see as they pass. They take flowers to the families. They also reach out to children with their many programs. They are not alone in the battle.

Many other groups are fighting as well, on multiple fronts. Some groups offer food. Some groups offer tutoring. Some groups offer mediation. All are good, but perhaps the most important aspect is our conversion. We need a conversion of our hearts. We need hope.
New Orleans is not alone in this need. The battle rages all across this country and our world, both figuratively and literally. We all need hope. That hope comes from faith. We need to believe in something.

So, I ask that you would pray with me for New Orleans. Pray that we have hope. Pray that we can believe in ourselves, believe that we have value.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

What We Did on Summer Vacation

A first look at the book.  We're still amazed that we're actually going to be published.  Now if we can just score some face-time on Hoda and Kathie Lee...


Friday, May 18, 2012

What Priests Want You to Know

A few posts have popped up this week on our radar about what pastors/priests/ministers and the like want their parishioners to know about what goes on between Sundays and, for that matter, what goes on during Sundays.  We figured this looked like a prime place for us to wade into the water, so here we go.

1.  Your minister has a personal life.  Just like your teachers in school and your doctor, ministers and priests have a life that existed long before they were ordained.  So, just like you, they have family issues and car trouble and dishes that sit in the sink far too long and children who were up sick all night before the Easter Day services.  Just like regular people, life can be joyous and overwhelming.  And we often are not able to share that with parishioners.  A quote I saw on a bumper sticker said, "Be kind, because everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."  Yes, indeed. 

2.  Sundays are long days for us.  We are on, and I mean Beyonce at a concert on, from the time we step into the church until the last person leaves.  We are responsible for the liturgy, the sermon, and the climate control (because no one in the church agrees on temperature).  People tell us things, from random comments about the football game to significant news about their lives.  We often are teaching a class, as well.  A retired priest I knew said every hour clergy work on Sundays is the equivalent of working 2.5 hours any other day. 

3.  Clergy have to flip switches in ways that are not good.  Every priest I know has many stories of going from a parishioner's hosptital room where the family has gathered to say goodbye to a finance committee meeting.  It is the nature of what we do.  Remember when your minister takes a morning off, s/he may be giving herself or himself time to reflect on all that has happened because that's the only time she has.

4.  We miss the parishioners we bury.  Just because we're preaching the sermon and celebrating the liturgy like we're totally together doesn't mean we aren't crying on the inside.  Clergy do not live day to day, week to week, month to month, and year to year with the people they serve and not grieve when those beloved people die.  Again, grief needs her space and time, so allow your minister to take that time (or remind them to take that time.)

5.  We are not particularly good at disappointment.     Perhaps it's a personality type, but most clergy I know will work until their fingers fall off for the community they love and serve.  Just a note - this is not good.  God jerked my attention to this fact a week before Palm Sunday, when I just hit a wall.  We cannot do everything we want to do.  We only have a certian amount of energy, which means we, like the rest of the humanity, have to make choices about where and how our energy can be shared.  This will always mean something that someone really, really wants to see done in the church will not be done.  And we hate that, but there you go.

6. Life happens at the church every day of the week.  A few things that happen when the flock is not at the church:  planning liturgies, writing sermons, taking phone calls, meeting with people who need to be heard, visiting those who are sick, working with community groups, dealing with the physical plant, reading emails, and rearranging schedules when the unexpected happens, as it often does.  Churches are busy, busy places every day of the week.  Which also means it's always better to make an appointment rather than just stop by if you really need to talk. 

7.  Many clergy only get one day off a week.  For many of us, things happen on Saturday, so our Saturdays are not always a day off.  And it's also a day for sermon-writing because often the week gets too busy for quiet time to write. 

8.  Church life is often feast or famine.  Just like regular life, life in the church either seems to run at 100 mph or quite slow.  There are weeks that 80 hours is not unusual for me, and I am quite thankful for the ones that require about 20.  And when the slow weeks come, having a parish that empowers their clergy to take that time and relax is a gift.  We really love what we do, but need down time to re-energize and reflect.

9.  We don't remember what you tell us on Sunday.  Please, email us or write it down.

10. We make mistakes.  Yes, indeed.  Forgive us when we do.  Love us anyway.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Dating Jesus

So, while we are working on the book, we're pulling out some early writing from our life before Dirty Sexy Ministry (I know, did we even have much of a life before this?). This is a piece I wrote many years ago, one of the first published.  Much still rings true...

What had I been thinking, to say yes to a date on Christmas Eve? Delightful, last-minute girl that I am, the day before Christmas is a celebration of chaos and resolve that I’ll start the whole Christmas delirium earlier next year so I won’t be massively overwhelmed. Or I won’t, and, like the last the decades, I’ll stare at the to-do list, made significantly more annoying with the cheerful holly berry motif dancing on the edges of the stationery. Numbers one through three included finalizing ever-changing travel plans, picking up dry cleaning, and packaging the gifts that sat on my dining room table, gleefully unwrapped. I couldn’t read number four, but the word “casserole” looked somewhat possible.

I had another to-do list for Christmas to encourage a petition for two more hours in this day. Theoretically, this one didn’t involve any of the other secular trappings of Christmas, although often, the church is just one more to-do Christmas item for people. After the gifts and parties and decor, we have to greet God incarnate, the reason for the season guilt that drives absent church goers into the pews on Christmas and Easter. Whatever our motivation, the holy space of the Church is open for those pilgrims who gather tonight, after all the insanity of the season, to quietly and solemnly greet God incarnate.

The Church, never escaping an opportunity to preen itself, gets trussed, bowed, and decorated. Candles must be lit; greenery draped from railings and pews; poinsettias placed around the altar, pulpit, and lectern; and still more greenery placed on anything that doesn’t move. People will gather this holy night when we commemorate and celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord, commonly known as Christmas Eve.

Luke’s Gospel is probably the most familiar Nativity story. Actually, it’s really the only one with adjectives. In Matthew, we get a painfully tedious list of Jesus’s ancestors and Joseph’s story, which is a bit ironic, considering Joseph had no real part in the actual conception and birth. He didn’t stone Mary for adultery, which is commendable. In Mark and John, the writers are much more concerned with the birth of John the Baptist, and Jesus appears on the scene fully grown, ready to be baptized and turn the world upside down.

Which leaves us with Luke, the patron saint of all Christmas card writers, film makers, and creche creators. We read about simple shepherds, who smelled like sheep and who liked sheep better than people; about glorious angels, who scared the hell out of those who saw them; and about God Incarnate born in a barn. Luke never gives us the gory details, like the facts that barns stink from animals and their dietary by-products, or that the afterbirth was somewhere in that place. Nope. The story is clean, pretty, and edited, so the Church decor must follow suit. No dirty or ugly for Christmas.

I begin to review the list. Service bulletins prepared and put out. Check. Mary, Joseph, and the Baby Jesus figurines in the creche. Check. Reminder phone calls to the participants in this evening’s services. Check. Sermon for the night. Well, no.  I was going to write it this afternoon, after we closed the office, but then I remembered the date.

On Christmas Eve.

Brilliant.

I glanced at my watch. He would pick me up a little before noon, my friend told me when she called to arrange the encounter. She and her husband would meet us at the restaurant. If my date and I found each other detestable, they could run interference. I always wonder what kind of man hears the phrase, “I’d like to introduce you to a woman. Oh, by the way, she’s a priest,” and thinks, “Yes! I’m going to go out with a servant of God! I can’t think of a better way to spend time than to have a date with someone bent on offering me eternal salvation.”  I glance at my watch again and wonder if it’s too late to cancel. It is, or at least in my fit of Christmas niceness, it is.  

I’m very willing, even antagonistically eager, to live the messiness of God. Quietly lit stable with well-groomed donkeys and camels who amazingly don’t smell be damned. Give me a Christmas card with terrified, anti-social shepherds and blazing angels scaring the hell out of people any day.  The messiness of human relationships scares the hell out of me. Because they are not controllable or even predicatable.

God, in Her elegant chaos, is perfect. Humans - not so much, and our relationships with each other are simply untidy at best and downright gross and disgusting at the worst. Whenever we enter into a relationship with another person, we experience the grind and polish of our differences. Because no human being is exactly like anyone else, neither are the relationships we form. We see in the mirror dimly as we test boundaries and discover the other and ourselves in community.

I confess this in sermons, in conversations about God and Jesus to betrothed couples, and to just about anyone else who wants to hear the party line on God and loving one another. However, when I look in the mirror dimly, I want to see clean and edited and predictable standing next to me. I want Luke to write the Gospel of my life, the way he wrote the Christmas story part, with all the untidy elements edited away. No relationship angst that involves my tears, no crashing into each others’s issues like paper wasps banging into a glass window, and no making room in my closet for his stuff, both literally and metaphorically.  God just laughs and keeps working in my life.

Relationships of all shapes and sizes ask us to jump into the chaos of love. At the great  moment of incarnation, when God became fully human and fully divine in the form of Jesus, God jumped into the midst of the uncomfortable, messy relationship with humanity.

Not exactly the sentiment on the annual Christmas card: God jumped. Merry Christmas.

Maybe we need pretty and tidy on Christmas Eve in the church because we know so much of our lives is anything but. Maybe I’d rather date Jesus.

Dating Jesus is malleable enough on the surface. I can imagine this funny, charming man with dark skin, dark hair, and dark eyes who always knows just the right thing to say at the right time. From the woman at the well to the woman who washed Jesus’s feet with exotic perfume and her hair, Jesus had some sexual energy.

Not that I fantasize about Jesus in that way. I had far too many years of Baptist indoctrination that I’ve yet to exorcize from my soul to include fully the sexuality of Jesus in the human aspect of God the Son. And I do think the parable habit of his would really get on my nerves after a while.  I do, however, often find myself in the web of me-ness in my relationship with Jesus. The whole personal relationship with Jesus Christ shtick smacks of me-ness. I love Jesus, and I know Jesus as my personal friend and savior, Christians around the church proclaim. Surely Jesus is a liberal who would glowingly approve of all the things I support and happily agree with  my justifications of personal grudges and self-righteous anger. God so loved the world and everyone in it, not just the people I happen to like. Jesus is not all about me, but all about us, particularly how we love each other and live together as the “us” of the world.  Like my relationships with friends, family, and significant others, my relationship with Jesus is not easy or effortless. Relationships demand that we become aware of the other person, that we honor their differences, we learn to speak their language which is never just like ours, and even change when the relationship calls us into that change. Being in relationship with Jesus, like being in any relationship, takes work, effort, conversion, and forgiveness.

Ultimately, the loving relationship that Christ calls us into will change us. As we strive to love others with the same merciful, inclusive, and forgiving love with which Jesus loves us, we begin to see others and ourselves less through filters of judgment and exclusion and more with the wide view of love. True relationships invite us to love both ourselves and others, even when we’re just not so sure about how exactly to do either.

And the cool thing about dating Jesus is that he stands with me, as he urges me toward the courage to jump into love. He might just start a parable marathon, and I’ll jump simply to get away from an endless stream of holy analogies.

I never know what unexpected relationship abides quietly closer to the edge, waiting for me on my journey. I change and grow with each encounter and relationship, however long or brief, even when it’s over lunch on Christmas Eve.