jeudi, juillet 14, 2022

Love, interrupted




Come down, O Love divine,
seek thou this soul of mine,
and visit it with thine own ardor glowing;
O Comforter, draw near,
within my heart appear,
and kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.

There are so many people at the gym.  Older folks, married couples, kids, teenagers crowding near the weight racks, chatting by the circuit machines, stretching and planking and doing box jumps on one foot.

I'm not used to hanging out at the Y on a Sunday morning.  For decades, ever since I was in college, Sunday mornings were all about worship. That's what clergy do, isn't it? And I am. Clergy, that is. Mostly a journalist, but also a pastor, when called on.

“I love Jesus, but can’t stand the church,” I told a priest friend months ago, well before all hell broke loose. “You and every other millennial,” he said teasingly.  

Interestingly, it’s millennials who are heading for the doors, leading the shift away from organized religion.

I grew up in a much more devout time.  But now this very geriatric millennial isn’t sure she can tolerate sitting in a pew, let alone standing in the pulpit or behind the altar.  

What a long, strange trip it’s been.

While a student at an upstate New York college, I had fallen hard and fast in love with the Anglican tradition.  Introduced to the 17th-century poet-divines in a class on Renaissance poetry, I found in John Donne’s spiritual struggles, his frank delight in human carnality, and embrace of the science of his time a way of unifying experience that seemed genuine and reasonable.

Back then, I believed that churches were as advertised: places where believing got you a bit of an edge in living a more authentic, God-centered life.

It wasn’t long before I, a Jewish young adult from Brooklyn, was baptized in the village Episcopal Church, going on retreats at a local convent, a regular at the campus student fellowship.

Was I enamored more of faith or of poetry and mystery and tradition?  I never thought to ask myself that question then.  

Now I’m asking some fundamental questions.

More than 20 years ago, I’d lost my temper on a parish trip I’d organized to West Virginia.  To be honest, I’d forgotten much about that traumatic time, but apparently there was more, according to a lay leader I consulted who had been in the room where the rector asked me to leave.  It included arguments with people on our mission committee, a tense staff relationship, and a subpar report on my sabbatical leave. (Incidentally, this man and I long ago forgave one another, and have remained friends).

After graduating from Princeton Theological Seminary a number of years before that, I’d been bi-vocational, both a pastor and a religion beat journalist.  Amid the turmoil that was my life when I was dismissed, writing about other people’s suffering became, in some ways, another way of remaining faithful to my call to be a voice for those without them.

As my kids grew older, and the former rector departed, I returned to worship in this congregation. I still loved the quirky, against the grain blend of young and old, moderate and conservative, praise-band and traditional.  There are some remarkable people in those pews on Sunday morning. I’d conducted baptisms and funerals alongside them, listened to them share their faith in sermon and in song, dined in their homes and taught classes in their classrooms. Some of the most profound spiritual experiences of my life had taken place while giving out communion at the altar rail.

 O let it freely burn,
till earthly passions turn
to dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
and let thy glorious light
shine ever on my sight,
and clothe me round, the while my path illuming.

 I had little desire to return to full-time parish work. But as time went on, however, and a new rector took the helm, I started assisting him now and then.

In leaving parish ministry to focus on writing, I’d learned a lot about myself.  I’d also grown in two decades, curbing my temper and serving other churches in ways that were truly unremarkable.

When his former associate retired, and it wasn’t clear one was on the horizon, I asked the priest heading the parish if he needed temporary help.

It was this same priest who, on a chilly December day, asked me to come into his office. He told me apologetically that the vestry advised him not to hire me, even for a few months.  Stunned, the tears cascaded down my cheeks.

He (and I) didn’t realize that there was a group of people at one service, who hadn’t forgiven, hadn’t forgotten, and hadn’t moved on.

This past January, I met with one of the lay leaders of the congregation, to “process the vestry decision” as he said in his email.

What if, I asked him, trying to manage the tremor in my voice – what if we just went back to the way things had been before the vestry told me I wasn’t wanted?

I would merely help administer communion, conduct the seven-thirty Eucharist now and then, occasionally take an Ash Wednesday service and lend a hand during the holidays, I offered – just as I’d been doing for years. All without, so far as I was aware, a whisper of controversy.

I still believed that forgiveness and reconciliation were more than pretty Bible words honored more in the breach than the observance.  After all, I had interviewed Amish parents who had forgiven their children’s killers (though in oppressed or minority communities, the topic of forgiveness can be complicated and controversial. It is still often practiced).

The cold outside the local YMCA where we had met up was beginning to numb my gloved hands.  His answer? Negative.

 He advised me not to have the rector bring such a recommendation to him and other vestry members. “It would only cause you more pain, Elizabeth.”

Then he asked: “Can I pray for you”?

Like so many women before me, I stood there, mute.  When the tall man strode away, I staggered to the car and leaned against it, starting blindly at the athletic fields in front of me.

Wait.  He told me a group of people in leadership positions in the church thought I was unworthy to serve as a priest in his parish – and then he asked to pray for me?

Was this year where years of training, of obedience, of bedsides tended, joys shared, teaching and sermons and worship had brought me?

There’s nothing to keep me from serving as an interim or a supply priest in another congregation.  I’ve done many such stints. Maybe, someday, a congregation will need me enough to lure me back. Bruised and broken – but at least damn it, honest about it – and willing to offer others in similar situations empathy, courage, and yes, faith in a God who knows what suffering means.

As churchgoers flee congregations, or do the classic American church-hopping routine, maybe leaders should pay more attention to a woman known only as Mandie in this analysis of why millennials are leaving the faith. “She told us she’s not convinced a religious upbringing is what she’ll choose for her one-year-old child. “My own upbringing was religious, but I’ve come to believe you can get important moral teachings outside religion,” she said. “And in some ways, I think many religious organizations are not good models for those teachings.”

It's always striking to me how pragmatic clergy and lay leaders are about church politics.  It’s almost like placating parishioners is the cost of doing business.

“Can I pray for you”?  asked this man, a person I knew mostly a model of evangelical rectitude. Perhaps it was the best he could do.  Perhaps it was the only thing he knew how to do -because forgiveness, and reconciliation, and the real work of making people whole, was one bridge way too far.

And so the yearning strong,
with which the soul will long,
shall far outpass the power of human telling;
for none can guess its grace,
till Love create a place
wherein the Holy Spirit makes a dwelling.

(Hymn: Come down oh love divine Hymn Tune:  Down Ampney)

I hung my head, stared at the pavement in the parking lot, and waited for him to finish. All I wanted was for it to be over.




samedi, mars 05, 2022

What I never asked my grandma


There's a storage box in my living room. Most of the time, I forget it's there.

Inside the box, normally used for photos and documents you think might be important some day, are affidavits. They were put together by my grandmother in the 1930's as she tried to get Jews out of Austria to the safety of the United States. I don't know if they made it out of Austria, to be frank. 

It's a reminder that the past is never really totally past.  As is the photo of distant cousins with a note that says they were killed in the Holocaust.

It's also a reminder that the questions we don't think, don't even know to ask can echo through a future we  couldn't imagine.  Who would have thought "war in Europe" would be a phrase we learned to use again?

Who could have imagined another huge flood of refugees, scenes of smoldering buildings, features on the cold-blooded murder of the elderly, kids, young couples, fighters on both sides?

Who can take in the total senselessness of this conflict? We sit aghast in front of our televisions, thousands of miles away,  our senses barraged by the horrors unfolding in front of us - and helpless to do anything to stop them.

Today I heard a story on NPR about rabbis trying to care for Kyiv residents as the bombs fall on their beautiful city.  The history of Jews in places like Poland and Ukraine is complex and often tragic. Many of them were killed in waves of anti-Semitism.  Many of them died in the Holocaust. 

Now Ukraine appears to be one of the least anti-Semitic countries  in Eastern Europe.  

What would my grandma have thought? Did she imagine, after helping refugees to get out,  the devastation that would overwhelm Europe, and the murder of millions? 

What did she and other Americans do, aside from working in factories, on behalf of refugees during World War Two?  

How on earth did she not surrender to hopelessness? 

How did she make sense of  America's own equivocal stance towards refugees?  After all, Roosevelt sent Jews on a ship away before the war, and they weren't the only ones who didn't find a safe haven here. 

Could she ever wonder if it would happen again? Did she ever wonder, whether she said it or not, if hate would win?

Of course,  she depended on radio broadcasts and newspapers for information about what was going on in Europe and the Pacific.  For those of us who are glued to news notifications, it's hard to escape - and it's a valid question to ask whether we should want to, when the people of Ukraine cannot. 

The woman I knew as a child and young adult, was long past her work on behalf of refugees from Germany. She never stopped advocating for justice, but she didn't seem haunted by the ghosts of the past, either. 

Maybe doing the next right thing, whether it was organizing merchant seaman or campaigning against nuclear weapons, was balm for her soul.  Maybe she knew that there is always a new fight, another cause, evil that needs to be addressed.

It's possible that she, and my parent's generation, was stamped indelibly by the evil they witnessed, even second-hand.

I'm ashamed to say - I never thought to ask.

What do you do when the next right thing, the donating and the praying and the renouncing, is in no way equal to the magnitude of the depravity we are watching innocents suffer?

There's no answer on the horizon - but at least we can honor the dead of Ukraine by living with the question - and doing what we can. Now. 

dimanche, janvier 30, 2022

Si tu revenais


There were so many people at the gym this morning.  Older folks, married couples, kids, teenagers crowding near the weight racks  chatting by the circuit machines, stretching and planking and doing box jumps on one foot.

I'm not used to being in the gym on Sunday mornings.  For decades, ever since I was in college, Sunday mornings were all about worship. That's what clergy do, isn't it? And I am. Clergy, that is. Mostly a journalist, but also a pastor, when called on.

That is, until church itself becomes an unsafe place. 

I'm not attending right now, either online or in person. I assume I'll go back at some point. I could go into the reasons now, but I'm not willing to lay it all out there at the moment.  Besides, there's too much up in the air. 

The pain, though, is rather constant. 

But in the heat of a workout I don't need to think. Thinking is costly. I save that for the middle of the night when I awake and cannot go back to sleep for hours, unsure of whether I'm having revelations or an anxiety attack.

At the moment, I'm caught up in the crowd that spends their Sunday mornings lifting and sweating and catching up with their friends. It feels, if not wrong, very peculiar. Am I taking a step towards something? Or away from it?

It's not a lack of faith in the character and words of Jesus that keeps me from the pews. Oh no. I just don't see much evidence of his work in the institution right now.  "I love Jesus, but I can't stand the church," I said to a friend a few months ago.  "You and every other millennial," he said with a chuckle (meet the MOST geriatric millennial). 

At the moment, it's personal. Very personal. 

For now  I'm slipping in and out of the Wellness Center like a shadow, hoping to be unnoticed.  After a quick word of greeting to the attendant, I put on my headphones.  There's relief in being anonymous.

I'm  not totally unnoticed. Now and then, a man (probably thinking of what he's going to have for breakfast) will glance at me.  A few women will try to engage me in conversation. Most of the people I knew well haven't returned to the gym yet (or ever). I recognize almost no one here today.

Walking over to the treadmills, I jump on and turn my back on the crowd. No one will talk to me here.

The room is full, but it still has room for ghosts.  I see them lingering by the AMT, hanging out by the filing cabinet, chatting in the shelter of the office door.  Time to jack up the pace here.

French pop music floods my headphones. For a few moments, the room fades away, and it's just me and the movement and the music.

On a Sunday morning, when I should be with my "tribe" in a consecrated space, I am just another woman exercising hard, and at peace, for a moment, with being alone - even with my memories. Sometimes that will have to suffice. '

Mais si jamais
Si tu revenais
Dis rien, laisse à l'entrée les mots
On sait jamais
Si tu revenais
C'est comme si l'on ouvrait tous mes volets
Le soleil aussi reviendrait

Here's an informal translation of this refrain from the gorgeous song by French pop singer Patrick Fiori:
But if you come back, don't say a word, leave the words behind
If you come back, it's like all the shutters were flung open
The sun will return.

Take a listen. 

Even if you don't understand all the words, you will catch the spirit. 

lundi, octobre 14, 2019

The knife-edge of normal: ordinary life in a climate emergency

 On my way back from the hair salon, I stopped off to see the foxes in the enclosure.  One looks like a white-muzzled senior, the other slightly younger, stands near the front of the cage. Here, the animals live behind barricades, on display for curious toddlers or parents who want to show their kids a goat or a chicken.

Are we living the end of the world as we know it? I blurted out to a friend last week. No, I'm not talking about Jesus returning, though it would be nice to speculate.

 I can't even remember what I learned about the more esoteric aspects of millennial theology. Whatever it was, it probably wouldn't be reassuring right now (I do remember Christians can't agree on how it all will end).

I wonder, instead, how long we can maintain any semblance of normalcy in a world where so many are beginning to experience something else entirely.

Am I an alarmist? I would love to be wrong.

The fox looks back at me with an inscrutable gaze. Then they turn away, ambling towards one of the black plastic tubes place in their cage.  To protect them from the heat? For a change from the monotony of being cooped up behind metal barriers for the rest of their days?

How have we come to live in a world where many animals need to live in zoos or sanctuaries because there are so few of their kind left?

I am haunted by the words of Carol Devine, an activist pastor I interviewed.  She told me that we're currently feeling the effects of our behavior from 50 years ago. She lives with that grief every day.

Take that in for a minute.

We know that the melting of the ironically named "permafrost" is releasing more and more carbon into our atmosphere.   I heard a member of an indigenous community living in the Arctic Circle say that he would try to explain to his eighteen month old daughter when his family and neighbors had to start to live differently because of the warming conditions. Pushing caribou to migrate elsewhere. Bringing hungry wolves closer to town.  In Alaska sea ice is melting, as this story notes, at a rate 2-3 times faster than it is elsewhere in the world.

Immigrants are leaving Central America in part because they can no longer earn a living as farmers.  Hurricanes devastate Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, and our own Southeast coast on the regular.

In  Brazil, 500 million bees have seemingly died in the past three months.

We commend heroines like Katherine Hayhoe, a scientist married to an evangelical pastor, in part because she is so very rare among conservative Christians. Sadly, many seem to be climate change deniers. Sure, they are entitled to their own opinion - but their recalcitrance is directly affecting our well-being.

How can people of  faith have a positive impact?  Aim for carbon neutrality in your churches. Become less dependent on disposables at home.  Hound your members of Congress. Vote. Encourage your clergy to create programs that may change minds. And perhaps, perhaps, join the civil disobedience movement that is beginning to find its voice here and in Europe.  We need to find ways to speak for those people who have no financial or political clout right now, from indigenous tribes to poor farmers.

Keep hope alive - even when you don't feel hopeful. Jesus came to a people ground under the heel of an authoritarian empire and illuminated the darkness of violence and humiliation with the light of nonviolent resistance and prophetic integrity. He asks the same of us.

I watch the fox until they settle down under the tree inside the bars. Then I walk down to the Schuylkill to catch the glimmer of light on the water, the rowers, and the leaves floating on the current, as they have done before humans touched this landscape. For today, it is enough.

jeudi, juillet 18, 2019

Undaunted, organized and taking the long view, Catholic sisters grapple with an uncertain future

In the world of American Catholic sisters, there are challenges aplenty, including coping with diminishing numbers, disposing of homes that are now way too big for them, and in some cases, finding others to carry on their mission(s).

But when it comes to creative solutions, the nuns, as they have for centuries, are bringing it.

dimanche, mars 24, 2019

The American way of gun violence

Yes, I thought grimly as I drove home.


If I/we could, let's be honest, we could come for your guns.

I'd like to regulate the sale and possession of handguns, so that parents don't come home and find

their child bleeding from a head wound in their bedroom.

I'd like to regulate the sale of semi-automatic weapons, (or assault weapons) like the ones used in

New Zealand, which they banned within less than a week,  so that it's harder for a madman to go into

a school and kill six-year-olds.

I'd regulate how you can store your lethal weapon.  I'd regulate sales at gun shows.

When I read about the second allegedly gun-related suicide of a Parkland student this week, I was

standing outside the doors of our church after a pleasant lunch with parishioners.

Seeing the notification, an involuntary "oh my God" escaped my lips.  Quickly I walked away from

the lovely couple emerging from the church doors behind me.

Because I couldn't. I really couldn't.

Let's talk about suicide.  It's on the rise in America for a number of reasons.  A lot of them are drug-


But we know that tighter gun laws have a beneficial effect on suicide rates.  A Vox article

from late last year notes:

"Experts say suicide is largely preventable. Research has shown, for instance, that states with higher rates of gun ownership also have higher rates of suicide, suggesting that tighter gun laws could lower the rate of suicide. The CDC also suggested that an emphasis on housing and financial policies and “promoting social connectedness” could prevent suicide."

If one were a cynic, one might conclude, from the howls of rage that go up whenever new gun rules

are suggested,  that many Americans would rather own guns than protect children.

Their warped interpretation of the Second Amendment is more a fig-leaf than a reasonable choice.

When gun control is proposed,  answer on the pro-gun-rights side so often seems to be: well, THAT

wouldn't work (whatever that happens to be,whether it's gun safety measures or restrictions on who

can own an assault weapon).

With the exception of banning gun stocks (and how many of us own gun stocks) the gun lobby and

members of Congress who are paid off by them fight restrictions tooth and nail - even when data

suggests that they save lives.

Suicide is a messy business, to say the least. I know that from family experience - but I wasn't the one

who had take a trip out to California to identify my brother's body. I wasn't the one who had to

dispose of his things.  I wasn't the one to live with the memory of a beloved child, now gone forever.

And still I have suffered enough to have some dim idea of what the Parkland parents are going

through right now.

But I can't imagine going through a massacre with my child and then losing them.

Three out of ten Americans own guns, according to the Pew Research Center. Right now,  they and

their supporters make choices for the rest of us.

How many more innocents will have to die before that changes?