Thea, your son, on the night before he died, sealed a new covenant in bread and wine, his body and blood. Teach us to remember his covenant with you in the breaking of bread and the sharing of wine. Amen.
Sunday is the day of the week when my daughters and I celebrate Eucharist together. We've been doing our own house-church liturgy for about two months now, and each week I tweak the ordo, trying to get it just right for us. Somehow, in all these weeks, I've forgotten to include intercessory prayers between the homily and the Eucharistic prayer, so I added a place for them today. I didn't write them out ahead of time; I wanted to see who my older daughter would want to pray for. I let her take the lead during liturgy.
"Miriam," she said first. I asked her who else.
"Daddy and Mommy," she said next. I added Anastasia's name to the mix, and a few more names came up.
Then she said, "I want to pray for everybody--for all the people."
I nodded and grinned a wide grin. If I ever want proof that I'm doing this mommy gig right, all I need is a dose of Anastasia's thealogical insight. Every single Sunday, when we gather for liturgy, she'll say something that makes me think to myself, "If only adults got religion like you did!"
Her intuitions about God and the way we relate to God are right on the mark. During our shared homily today, she talked about Thea as the mother hen, and she said that Thea loves all her little chicks, and she said she and Miriam were Thea's little chicks. "Yes, you are," I said, "and she's very proud of you, just like I am." It was Anastasia's turn to grin then, and I gave her a big hug before continuing on.
This past Sunday was the fourth Sunday of Lent, Laetare Sunday--the day when Lent takes a turn toward joyous hope. The liturgical color is rose, just as it is on Gaudete Sunday (the third Sunday of Advent). "Laetare" is a Latin command to rejoice, and in this Laetare week, I am gathering up my joys:
~spending time with my husband ~teaching and playing with and reading to my daughters ~writing (prayers, stories, poems, blog posts, letters) ~playing softball (both at practice and on game nights) ~singing with my daughters ~celebrating Eucharist each Sunday at home ~gardening ~walking ~dancing with my daughters ~playing the keyboard ~painting ~praying ~talking with people I love
My life spills over with joy this Lent. Am I doing Lent wrong? Probably, according to someone's definition. But not according to mine. This Lent I am aware of the brevity of life and the utter preciousness of each moment. I'm learning to let go of all that does not give life and to embrace all that does.
We came as we were to the table of the Lord wrapped in warm pajamas, I with an alb and stole on top. We blessed your name, singing as we worked readying the table for our little liturgy. Candle, books, cloth, bread, wine: pieces of your presence among us. We crossed ourselves as I greeted all: May the grace and peace of Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. And then we prayed, and we read, and we sang, and we shouted Halle Halle Halle-lujah! We broke open your word together and before we broke bread we offered one another a kiss of peace. Miriam jostled for access to everything, soaking in a baptism of symbol while Anastasia grinned and mouthed her part, awe expressed loud in silence. I had a flash of hope and wonder at the thought of the day when my children will offer me your child's precious body and blood with their own precious bodies. And I marveled at Anastasia's nod when I asked her if she wanted me to baptize her someday. You have done great things for us, Thea, and holy indeed is your name. Amen.
Many weeks ago I was invited by the vicar of St. Augustine's Church to give a homily at both Sunday liturgies for the third Sunday of Lent. Yesterday was the third Sunday of Lent, and these are the words that I shared with my fellow parishioners. Lent III Lessons: Genesis 44:1-17, Psalm 95, Romans 8:1-10, John 5:25-29 "From the wilderness the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as God commanded. And they camped, but there was no water for the people to drink." This is what we hear from the book of Exodus. God's people had been journeying for a long time. They were hopeful and excited about their newfound freedom from slavery in Egypt. But in the midst of their journey, tired and weary from walking, they found themselves in a place that had no water to quench their thirst. When they got upset about it, Moses got upset at them for being upset. And then God finally relented and gave the people a spring of water. The scripture writer notes throughout the story that God's people persisted in doubt.
There's something strange about this. Why would God bring God's beloved people out of slavery and then leave them out to dry, literally? They're in the wilderness, a place unknown to them, and they're thirsting. Thirst is no insignificant thing. Thirst, if left unquenched long enough, could lead to death. Thirst is such a fearful experience that there are psalms dedicated to it: in Psalm 42 we pray, "As the deer that pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for God," and in Psalm 63 we pray "My soul is thirsting for you, O God, like a dry, weary land without water."
For the people of Israel, a dry land was an unfruitful land. A dry people was a dying people.
And here we are, on the third Sunday of Lent, not quite halfway through our journey in the Lenten wilderness, and we find ourselves parched. My guess is that you, like I, have given up something for Lent (in my case, being the overachiever that I am, I gave up four things). If you're like me, your Lenten fasting leaves you yearning, sometimes bitterly, sometimes desperately, for the familiar comforts you gave up on Ash Wednesday.
This Sunday's lessons are all about water and thirst, and they may be the most important ones we hear during Lent. We think of Lent as a time to honor Jesus' ultimate sacrifice on the cross by making sacrifices of our own, and Lent is that, but Lent also has something far more difficult to teach us.
The harder lesson of Lent is difficult to perceive when our fasting is overshadowed by our certainty that relief is coming. Unlike our voluntary Lenten fasting, for the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, there was no timeline or guarantee of reaching an oasis. Their journey out of slavery in Egypt meant leaving behind all their known sources of refreshment, period. It meant taking the extraordinary risk that they might involuntarily and without warning have to abstain from water--an abstinence that, if prolonged, even for a few days, would have the power to claim their lives.
By leaving Egypt, they weren't just taking their lives out of the hands of Pharaoh; by seeking freedom, they were submitting their lives to the mercy of their God, their sole protector from the dangers of the wilderness. As they found themselves stopping to camp in a place with no water, they were terrified. They were so sick with parched mouths and deep thirst that they were no longer sure that the God in whom they had put all their trust would be willing or able to save them from death. They had already journeyed too far from Egypt to go back. Their lives hung by a thread, and they could no longer save themselves. Only God could. And that scared them.
Centuries later, when Jesus offered living water to the Samaritan woman, he was offering her God's new covenant: the promise that as long as she sought this new living water, rather than seeking water from the source she had always turned to, she would never have to fear dying from thirst the way the Israelites had feared dying from thirst in the wilderness.
The lesson from John's gospel isn't merely a story about the Samaritan woman. It's a story about us. We have been offered this same living water by God in our baptism, and yet what do we do? We build up storehouses of comfort around ourselves in order to make sure that we never have to rely on anyone but ourselves. Our lives get so cluttered by the comforts we take for granted that when we tear away some of those comforts during Lent, we feel a deep, uncomfortable emptiness. We taste a morsel of the same bitter fear that haunted God's people in the wilderness, and we can't wait to get back to the way things were. In the end, we would rather drink from the well that we've always known than trust in some guy who doesn't even know to bring his own bucket. We might give up what we cling to for a few weeks, but who among us is willing to let our comforts go indefinitely? If I let my sources of comfort die, I risk dying, too.
I'd like to suggest that we ask ourselves what we left behind in order to enter this Lenten wilderness, and whether we're willing to leave behind all the rest. Do we dare to empty ourselves of everything we cling to until all we have left is our aching thirst for God and the trust that God won't let us die? Perhaps, as we enter the second half of Lent, we can risk losing it all--every thing we think we need to be happy, all our enslaving attachments, every shackle of our obsessions--and move forward to the unknown, unguaranteed future. And maybe then, as we go forward bearing nothing but our thirst and radical trust in the face of terrifying dryness, God will lift up for us a spring of living water, and we'll be able to rise from our knees to unfettered, quenching, resurrected freedom.
A dozen or more holy bodies gather in an oval, looking at and past the sacred, central flame to behold the divine spark in one another. Thursday night invites something a little different at St. Augustine's Episcopal Church. The community that gathers then has many names. St. Brigid's. ECMASU. Young People and Families. The Thursday Night Community. There are nearly as many children as adults in the community. The adults are powerful, each in their own way: well-educated, thoughtful, driven, accomplished. They are students, parents, doctors, teachers, professors, and even brain guys. For countless reasons, these people come together to share words, silence, and nourishment with one another. It may be those three things--words, silence, and nourishment--that best characterize this community's fellowship. ~~~ I was asked by the pastor--without advance warning--to be a minister of the holy bread during the eucharist last Thursday. Surprising things like that happen. A moment of need arrives, and suddenly someone finds herself being called on to serve. Not because she's uniquely qualified to do so, but because she has offered her presence in that community, and her presence is enough. Anyone who shows up can serve, if they are willing. Anyone who shows up can serve, if they are willing. Anyone who shows up can serve, if they are willing. The Thursday Night Community is a gathering of folks who, more importantly than anything else, choose to show up. If they're called, and if they're willing, they serve. Their presence is Christ's presence. Their willingness is Christ's willingness. Their service is Christ's service. The Thursday night gathering is a rehearsal of the reign of God. ~~~ Time slowed when I stood up to serve the community last Thursday. I strained my ears to hear the words that I would speak to the others: Body of Christ, Bread of Heaven. As I moved around the oval, I looked at each person's face, and a few raised their eyes to meet mine. What a shock of communion it is to meet eyes and hold another's gaze from mere inches away, while offering a precious morsel of food! It is as intimate as dancing. (My best friend, Betsy, would get that.) I don't know what it all meant to me, or what it may have meant to the others there, but I can say confidently that last Thursday was game-changing. Perhaps it was initiation--a sort of baptism by fire. I just know I won't ever be the same.
My daughter danced my parish into Christ's birth last night. That memory will remain with me for the rest of my days. ~~~ As part of my Benedictine prayer practice, I read the lections of the day according to the Book of Common Prayer. A portion of the first letter of John was today's second reading. This line pealed out like holy bells: "[A]s long as we love one another, God remains in us, and God's love comes to its perfection in us." Sounds a little bit like the preaching of the new bishop of Rome, no? Sounds even more like the nudgings of Jesus. Where two are three are gathered in love, there is God. There was God last night. There was God around our Christmas tree this morning. There is God now as we prepare our Christmas feast. There will God be as we lovingly greet familiar friends and strangers throughout Christmastide. May these twelve days to Epiphany be filled with blessings and your own ongoing, Spirit-ed expressions of sacred love.
And with that, Advent is over. God is with us--Emmanuel--alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! I love Christmas. I love the radicality of the Christmas message that says God isn't so transcendent that God can't be flesh. I love the intimacy of this God who is both divine and human at once, and who teaches us--like the good rebbe he is--to be the same. I am so grateful this night for hope fulfilled in the midst of so much doubt and despair. Light does pierce shadows, dispelling them. Goodness is stronger than evil, breaking it down with the power of gentleness. A godly child does make a worldly ruler tremble, displacing cunning selfishness with its own absolute reliance on the sacred other for survival. The message of the incarnation is that we desperately, utterly need each other. Humanity and divinity meet in community and communion, not in isolation. God can't do this gig without us, and we can't sustain God's divine flame within ourselves without the companionship of others. That's my daughter to the left. She is about take flight, one of God's own angeloi, standing before the holy altar at the feet of the infant Christ. She's just carried in a sheep, practicing for her future role as shepherdess. Later, she danced during the offering of the holy gifts, and I had the presence of mind not to stop her. I look at her and see an icon of the Christ, bearing glad tidings and preaching good news through her very body. She did tonight what you and I do for each other every day. Merry Christmas to you, o holy bearers and birthers of God.
My daughter received her first communion yesterday evening. The thing is, she's three years old. And she's not baptized. A Roman Catholic child must be baptized and receive the sacrament of penance, usually around age eight, in order to receive first communion. I remember being six or seven years old when I visited my Godmother's church, and when I went up in the communion line behind her, my Godmother told the priest that I "wasn't old enough" yet to receive, even though I desperately wanted to. Right around that time in my life, my parents distributed communion wafers to the sick, and I remember sneaking into their room, opening the sacred case, and eating many of those wafers long before I received my "first" communion. (Sorry, Mom and Dad!) At my new parish, my toddler's age and catechetical development are a moot point when it comes to receiving communion. It is enough that she has seen me receive bread and wine during liturgy and said explicitly, without any prompting, "Can I have some of that?" That's what she said to me last Sunday after she had received a blessing from the deaconess and she saw me and others receive the bread and wine. And as I carried her back to our pew, I whispered to her, "Yes, honey--next week you can have some of that." Last night we took part in an evening liturgy with the St. Brigid community, a gathering of young families that meets for Eucharist and dinner afterward at St. Augustine's. The dozen of us present there sat in a circle on mismatched sofas. A couple of people chose to sit on pillows on the rug-laden floor. My daughter started out cuddling close to me on the sofa and gradually worked her way down to a pillow of her own. Readings were proclaimed by almost everyone in the circle, and as I read, my daughter sat in my lap and repeated after me. We sang a chant together after each reading, and she sang along with us after I read. When it came time to share of the bread, I received first, and then she did. The bread was soft, recently baked, and tasted of honey. I drank from the cup of wine and then helped my daughter dip a piece of bread in the cup. She tasted the soaked bread tentatively. I kept my hand at the ready in case she spit it out--she has pretty particular tastes. By the time the liturgy had concluded, her morsel was gone. I want to shout to the world that my daughter's first communion took place on November 14, 2013 in the presence of a few marvelously warm companions (literally, bread-sharers). She didn't have to jump through sacramental or catechetical hoops first. She didn't have to dress up as a miniature bride or have posed pictures taken afterward. Eating of the bread of life and drinking of the cup of salvation were for her the most commonplace thing in the world--and in the ordinary-ness, divine encounter took place. My baby met God in those people, that bread, and that community's stance of radical hospitality. When she was a couple of months old, I asked for my daughter to be enrolled in the child catechumenate at my Roman Catholic parish. She became a catechumen, which meant that I was promising, along with my hubby and our church community, to prepare her for the opportunity to be baptized later in life, when she would be old enough to remember her baptism. Her journey into the Christian life has continued ever since. I don't mean that I've taught her piety (I'm pretty sure that's a long way off) or "how to be a good Catholic." If anything, I've taught her that to be religious is to learn rituals that teach her how to live in the world. What I want her to learn, and what I think she will know in her bones by the time she's ready to choose baptism, is that she doesn't have to wait or accomplish something in order to be fed. Jesus the Christ fed everyone who hungered, period. If she learns what I hope she learns about the Golden Rule, then perhaps she will also decide that to be Christian, to act as Christ acted, is what she wants for her life. At St. Augustine's, receiving the sacred bread and wine is allowed to be one's path toward baptism, rather than baptism being a necessary prerequisite for communion. I have rarely witnessed such a tangible expression of God's abundant, overflowing grace as I did last night, when my daughter was welcomed at the table, just as she was. Whether she chooses baptism later in life or not, I hope that that lesson of radical hospitality always remains with her. If it does, baptized or not, she will be a living icon of Christ's love.
Last night a friend of mine from one of the social networks posed the following:
So here's a question - as a non-religious person, it's hard for me to understand the pull of this particular church. If you are not supportive of the Catholic Church's bad practices that go against the teachings of Jesus (as I would describe them, and as I suspect you might), then why is it important to be in that denomination? Is it a hope to make change from within? How is your staying in the Catholic faith good for you, and good for those oppressed by the bad practices of the Catholic hierarchy?
I offer the following in hopes of clarifying for her, for others, and for myself, just why it is that I choose not to relinquish my catholic identity.
A couple of months ago, I had a life-changing experience in an Islamic gathering place filled mostly with Jews, a symposium hosted by the local Unitarian Seminary. I realized in that place that G-d was indeed calling me, and calling me to much more than I'd ever realized. "Multi-religious identity" is the phrase that stuck with me, and I scampered off to my local Unitarian Church to experience multi-religious identity in action. I seriously considered enrolling in the local U.U. seminary, knowing that such a radically welcoming religious tradition would fit my heart's call perfectly.
Of course, I make plans, and then G-d thwarts them. I found out I was pregnant in mid-October, and all ideas of seminary, of finally fulfilling my 11-year call to ministry, went out the window again. (My family comes first, and that's the way I prefer it.)
When I realized I wasn't going to pursue seminary right away, or perhaps ever, I took a look at what I was missing when I went to the UU church. I missed two things: the ritual and the story. I don't miss the rampant bigotry or bullying, but the liturgy and scripture have shaped my life for the last thirty years. I've also been to half a handful of catholic churches in which the gospel--the good news--is truly proclaimed. Radical inclusion, in these two or three places, is the rule, not the exception. They operate as the rest of the Catholic Church should. They are what make catholicism resonate so strongly for me.
I also look at the people who most inspire me--Jewish and Muslim leaders--and I see that they have not ceased to be Jewish or Muslim simply because of the evil of some people in their respective traditions. They live their traditions rightly and beautifully, and they set an example for not only people in their traditions, but everyone around them.
That is the sort of catholic I am--not someone who kowtows to the pope (because the pope and the hierarchy are completely dispensable, as far as I'm concerned), but someone who cleaves to catholic story and ritual and sees her fellow creatures in richer, brighter hues as a result.
I am catholic with a small c--"universal" is what the word means--rather than Catholic with a big C (which is what I was when I was quietly obsessed, like so many Catholics are, with avoiding the punishments of speaking too loudly about what one really thinks). I embrace all people, whether they are religious or anti-religious or somewhere in between. I see wisdom in all ways that embrace deep and abiding love, which is the great gift the UU church has given me.
I am catholic, not because of the hierarchy's permission or lack thereof, but because I have been called by Christ, that sacred, wonderful manifestation of G-d. This is where I feel most at home--not because of the bullies, but because of the lovers. And I will remain catholic until, somehow, the stories cease to speak to me, and the holy practice of radical table fellowship and of washing the feet of others ceases to touch me.
I won't leave just because the leadership structure and many of its members are corrupt. I am no cave-dweller. I will stay as long as I find my deepest hope in the catholic (again, small c) way of being religious. And, thanks to the UU's and my Jewish and Muslim inspirations, I will be a catholic who harbors no fear. G-d will never detest me for prophetically crying out against injustice. Quite the opposite. I, unlike the vast majority of my Catholic friends, am in a place in which speaking out costs me nothing that I would regret losing. So I find myself in the position of a prophet. It's not what I expected, but I am happy to be able to plow the way for holy change in the RCC and other Christian denominations.
Bottom line? Merely being Catholic would not satisfy my heart's yearnings, but being catholic does.
I had a particularly fruitful meeting with my spiritual direction mentor, Hana Matt, this evening. When one intentionally cultivates a deep spiritual life, it's important to tend to the desires of one's heart. One of my personal desires is for community--not just church, but intimate gatherings, the sort that Jesus often hosted or attended. I'm thinking less multiplication of loaves and fishes and more dinner with friends.
And that's what I'm aiming for. Well, two things, actually.
First: I would like to invite folks local to the San Francisco Bay Area to join together for prayer and a meal once every other month. Nothing extravagant, but something important and weighty; not merely Christian, but not without eucharistic (i.e. thanksgiving) tones. Intentional, inclusive time spent--for where the many and the diverse are gathered, there is the divine outpouring.
Second: I invite anyone (from anywhere in the world) to gather (also every other month) for a book group. Our readings would include works by anyone from Augustine to Flannery O'Connor to Thomas Merton to Hildegard of Bingen to Henri Nouwen to Julian of Norwich to lesser known, contemporary spiritual fiction writers who grapple with issues of justice, self-deception, and unexpected holiness.
If you're interested, please let me know by commenting below, e-mailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or contacting me in some other way between now and September 1, 2012.