for my children, on mothers’ day

My beloved son and daughter,

Today is Mothers’ Day, and so I ask you to indulge me for a few moments. You are both grown now, both embarking on your adult lives. There is so much ahead of you, so much to look forward to. I am proud and excited to watch you as you find your passions, as you pursue your dreams, as you take charge of your lives.

Continue reading “for my children, on mothers’ day”

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on children and church

I gained a new twitter follower this morning, @larry2_0, the Rev. Lawrence T. Richardson, who wrote this beautiful reflection on the blog for the United Church of Christ.  It’s a short one, so if you want to pop over and read it, I can wait for you.

I was quite taken by his story of being a child who hung out with the elders of the church, and this it in particular caught my eye:

They were also impressed with my ability to be deeply engaged in content that was for adults when there was adequate children’s programming available. I became a lover of wisdom because of all the stories and information they shared.

See, here’s the thing.  Children are not some strange alien creature.  Children are humans.  Children are also sponges, and they soak up everything that happens around them.  Children are perfectly capable of being deeply engaged in the sharing of authentic stories of faithful Christians who are working through their struggles, perfectly capable of being deeply engaged in free conversation about the overwhelming, scandalous love of God for us, perfectly capable of being deeply engaged in the wisdom of grandparents.

The other thing is that children are also not miniature adults.  While they are perfectly capable of this deep engagement, they also have different limits than most adults.  Or, to be perfectly honest, they may have the same threshold we have for boredom, but less self-control… so that when a child’s engagement has waned, they are not content to sit still and doodle in the margins of the handouts from some church council session.  So yeah, we do make some accommodation for their unique needs, in exactly the way we would make accommodation for our siblings in Christ who are unable to walk or to hear or to see.

Children's Chapel - National Cathedral - DC, by Tim Evanson
Children’s Chapel – National Cathedral – DC, by Tim Evanson

One of the great gifts I have learned in training as a catechist for Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is that children have a life of faith every bit as deep as any adult.  Children are capable of relationship with God — and with other humans — every bit as deep as any adult.  Children are capable of understanding liturgy every bit as deep as any adult.  And yes, I mean little bitty children – there are four-year-olds at my parish who are often more deeply immersed in the Eucharistic prayer than anyone else in the church.

In church, however, we tend to segregate our children.  We say they don’t know how to behave in church, but how will they learn if we don’t bring them into church and teach them?  We say they don’t understand what’s happening in worship, but how will they learn if we don’t show them worship and allow them to explore it? We say that the work of church councils is too dull for children – or that children are not smart enough for it – but how do we know if we don’t give them the opportunity to engage in it?

Some years ago, I had stewardship of a group of fourth- and fifth-graders for the Christian formation hour on Sunday mornings.  I kicked off our group discussions without a curriculum, starting with a saint’s feast day or a bible reading or something appropriate to the liturgical season.  Their favorite Sunday of the year?  It was the week after I returned from the annual council of our diocese, and I spread out all the papers I’d accumulated during that weekend, and we talked about running the church.  They looked at budgets and resolutions and canons and committee reports, and they were completely fascinated.  No, they didn’t understand everything. Guess what: neither did I.  But they were deeply engaged in this content for adults, when we could have been making a craft or doing a puzzle about the lectionary readings for the day.

Want to know something really sad?  I went to flickr to search for an image to go with this blog post.  I searched on the keywords children and church, limiting the results to Creative Commons licensed images only.  I did not see a single child in the first forty-one photos.  Most were of empty worship spaces, church exteriors, or sacred art. Only image number 42 showed children, and they were singing a song into microphones on church steps, wearing Santa hats.  It was only the 74th image where I actually saw some children inside a church, at worship.  How sad is that!

People like to say that children are the future of the church.

They are wrong.

Children are the now of the church.

Children are the now of the church every bit as much as you are or I am or Pope Francis is.  Children have an important place in the life of the church.  Children have ministries.  Children are capable of far more than we offer them in most churches.  So why do we offer them insipid coloring books with white, Anglo Jesuses and blonde Marys and all the dirt and blood and truth removed?  Why do we separate them, “until they’re old enough to understand”?  Why don’t we include them in the life of God’s people?

Why don’t we allow them to become lovers of wisdom – lovers of Christ – because of all that we can share?

in today’s installment of crap…

… came yet one more post from my father on facebook, being a jerk to transgender people. As I am married to a trans woman, it comes as a personal insult.  So I said it straight out: if you are going to keep saying these things in public, then you will lose a daughter.  I doubt it will change anything, unless he decides to filter me out of people who see his posts, and that is just sad.

Dad hates on anything left of center

Jesus tells us to love and pray for our enemies, so I will continue to love and pray for my father. I just wish he would consider that his public online behavior might have negative effects on people he loves.

an open letter on the sixth anniversary of my marriage

an open letter on the sixth anniversary of my marriage

My dearest beloved,

Happy anniversary! I know that neither the traditional nor the “modern” gifts are words, but I expect that love is appropriate for any wedding anniversary.

We first “met” online, more than 17 years ago, in a community of Anglicans and Episcopalians from around the world.  In that online community we both found a place of safety, support, and encouragement.  Because we were surrounded by Christ’s love, shining through so many, we were able to become vulnerable, to reveal our brokenness.  We prayed for each other and supported each other during the darkest times of our lives.  Your prayers, with those of many others, sustained me through depression after depression, through 27 months of getting the meds right, through an abusive marriage, through pain and joy and everything in between.

When I started my first blog, you were there, reading and leaving encouraging comments for me.  You took part in our silly blog of horrible haiku.  You called me super-cool when you learned I love Pearls Before Swine.  I followed your work, as you played organ in one church and then another.  When you posted the music you’d written on your website, I was proud for you and wished I could hear them sung.

Even from 700 miles away, I knew you as stalwart, loyal, funny, sweet, faithful, anxious, supportive, compassionate.  You remain all of these today, rich of character and deep in spirit.  Your faith inspires and challenges me. Your love makes me want to be more and better than I am.  I struggle to imagine life without you, who have been my friend, my husband, my wife.

And so I say to you again those perilous words: I love you.  As I said years ago, I love your creativity, your compositions, your sensitivity and compassion.  I love your willingness to be vulnerable.  I love it when you get odd little references I make.  I love your spirit, your determination, your patience.  I love that you listen to me.  I love that you understand me a lot better than anyone else in my life.

Thank you for everything you are and everything you do.  And happy anniversary, beloved.  May the God who entrusted us to each other’s care bless us with many, many more.

With all my heart,
Your Heather

weeping and gnashing of teeth

I’m just home from spending the weekend with my son at his university.  He is in exactly the place he should be, and that is a great blessing.   We saw a wonderful movie together, hit a couple of art galleries, and stopped in the university bookstore for the required sticker for the car.  I bought him a couple meals, and took him shopping for gloves.  He got a scarf, too, one that he thought would look good with his favorite argyle sweater.  It does look sharp.  I’m so proud of him!

But now that I’m at home, in the quiet evening, I find that the scar tissue has been ripped from an emotional wound.  Continue reading “weeping and gnashing of teeth”

receive the kingdom of god as a little child (Proper 22, Year B)

More than ten years ago, the night before Thanksgiving, I had the most wonderful, most blessed, holiest communion in my life. My son Bear and my daughter Wolf and I were sitting at the dining room table eating roast beast and mashed potatoes and fresh bread. Suddenly three-year-old Wolf held up her bread and said, “Take, eat. This is my new covenant.” Then she broke off a piece, put it in my hand, and said “The body of Christ, the bread of Heaven.” I ate the bread and felt a tugging on my other sleeve. Four-year-old Bear had broken off a piece of his bread, and he put it into my hand saying “The body of Christ, the bread of Heaven.”

Roast beef dinner by anthony hopkins! foto!
Roast beef dinner by anthony hopkins! foto!

I smiled at them and kissed them and said thank you. But Wolf wasn’t done. She picked up her cup of milk, held it up to my lips, and said, “The blood of Christ, the milk of salvation.” I took a sip, feeling more then a little awed at the very real presence of God in the room with us. Bear picked up his milk and offered me the cup the same way, and I solemnly sipped it.

And I thought, there may not have been a priest there. The table was covered not with pristine white linen but with a blue vinyl tablecloth with fishies swimming all over it. There were no gleaming paten and chalice, but bright plastic plates and cups with hearts and cowboys on them. But God was there, and I experienced the body of Christ in a way I never had before.

What happened next was no less awesome. Bear and Wolf turned their Eucharist into a game, offering each other the roast beef of Christ and the mashed potatoes of salvation, and then laughing in sheer delight at their childish cleverness. I let them continue for a time because they were not being irreverent or blasphemous, just little children. Eventually I stopped their game because I was afraid they would choke on their dinner for laughing so hard.

In the gospel for this coming Sunday, Jesus tells us,

Let the little children come to me;
do not stop them;
for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.
Truly I tell you,
whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child
will never enter it.

Christ with the Children, by Smiles are Free
Christ with the Children, by Smiles are Free

And then Jesus takes up the children — the children his disciples had just tried to shoo away — and he embraces them and he blesses them.  This is the sweet, gentle, loving Jesus we like to see, not the wrathful Jesus who overturns the tables in the Temple nor the obscure and scary Jesus who says such difficult things to us.  He is hugging the little children, laying his hands on them and blessing them.  We like this Jesus — he is easy to respect and to love.  But even as he hugs and blesses these children, he tells us something obscure and difficult:

Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.

So how do we receive the kingdom of God as a little child?  What could that mean for us?  Why does Jesus always give us such impossible challenges?

I know I can’t be the only one who sometimes catches a glimpse of myself in the mirror and am surprised by what I see.  For some reason, I expect my reflection to look like my 16- or 18-year-old self, and I find myself stunned when instead I see what I actually look like now.  I’ve put on weight, my shape has changed, and my skin has more lines in it.  My hands are no longer smooth, but look like the hands of a middle-aged woman.  Some places droop instead of being youthful and firm.  There is grey appearing in my hair, which once shone like golden honey.  And when I see all of this — really see it, and understand what it might mean — the younger me inside me shouts out, What happened?  What do you do?  I’m not going to get old and die, am I?

There are several little children living within me — four-year-old me, who saw the strangely lit Indiana sky that heralded a thunderstorm and was convinced that a monster was coming; seven-year-old me, who played war in the woods with the boys; ten-year-old me, who was sad to find herself a loner without a best friend; thirteen-year-old me, inspired by a summer studying music at the new arts school; sixteen-year-old me, testing the wings of the new freedom that a driver’s license brings; eighteen-year-old me, lit on fire by the joy of being young and the exciting work of college.

Ethiopia: Innocent Prayers of a Young Child, by babasteve
Ethiopia: Innocent Prayers of a Young Child, by babasteve

These children didn’t know much about receiving the kingdom of God; they weren’t very concerned about matters of death and resurrection and eternal life.  Children generally aren’t worried about these things.  This is part of what Jesus means here: we do not need to fear.  We have his promise that we will not be alone, that he is waiting for us when this life ends, that our new life in God’s kingdom will be wonderful and joyful.  But we do fear.  We get to be middle-aged, and we start eating oatmeal because we don’t want to have high cholesterol.  We go to the gym, not so much for the delight of using our bodies, but because we are avoiding heart attack and stroke.  We embrace a low-carb diet or we count our fat grams, and in this work we lose the joy that can come from nourishing our bodies.  We fear pain and dying.   This is natural, of course.  Pain doesn’t feel good, and dying has to feel even worse.  Why wouldn’t we fear these?

The truth is, fear is the opposite of faith.  Doubt or unbelief or disbelief is not the opposite of faith.  Fear is.  Fear rejects faith.  Fear says, I know you promised all of this, but I’m not sure I trust you to follow through.  Children tend to be people of great faith.  They trust in their parents to take care of them, to satisfy their needs for food and shelter and love.  They may not be able to answer the question — Do you have a ‘high’ or a ‘low’ Christology? — and they may not be able to even begin to put their faith into words, but children are very faithful people.  When Jesus tells us that we must receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he tells us that we must be faithful rather than fearful, trusting in God’s promises.  We have to try to learn how to trust again, blindly and innocently as a child, rather than fearing and trying to hold everything together on our own.  Jesus assures us that God will always take care of us, will always see to our needs.  Our journey as adults requires us to re-learn our childlike skills, to reclaim our faith and trust.

Freeze Tag, by elstudio
Freeze Tag, by elstudio

Those children within me, they also knew how to play.  They knew how to take a moment and imbue it with delight and magic and joy.  This may be by a daydream, a flight of fancy; it may be through a game of Freeze Tag with friends; it may be by sitting outside under a crisp autumn sky, singing a goofy song about the falling leaves just because it annoys Mom.  (Not that I ever did that, of course!)  These children knew how to make everything a game: when I mowed the lawn, I was always competing in the International Lawnmowing Olympics, being scored for how deftly I maneuvered around trees and for how quickly I finished the lawn.  It was silly.  It was goofy.  And it was fun.

How do we play now?  What value do we put on silly, goofy fun?  Do we embrace joy and delight just because they feel so good?  Do we schedule our play in, so that it’s just one more item to check off of the to-do list?  Or do we just ignore it, moving from work to chores to sleep every day?

In that story about Bear and Wolf, dinner had become something more than simply nourishing our bodies.  It had also become a game of pretend, play-acting the Last Supper and each Sunday’s Eucharist.  It gave us all delight and joy.  We laughed together, reveling in the fun.  We shared the roast beef of Christ and the mashed potatoes of salvation.  Didn’t that make you smile, even just a little?  I mean, how silly is it to have the mashed potatoes of salvation?  My two little ones trusted that God is present in even roast beef and mashed potatoes, just as God is present in Sunday’s bread and wine.  They may not have said this in these words; they probably would have used words like fun or silly or play.  And God wants us to play.  God wants us to delight in God’s Creation.  The account in Genesis tells us that at every stage in creating all that is, God saw that it was good.  Indeed, it is very good.

Blowing Bubbles, by .craig
Blowing Bubbles, by .craig

To receive God’s kingdom as little children, we must also learn again how to play, how to find joy and delight in anything we do, how to be silly and goofy, how to have fun.  It may be that we can only feel free enough to play when we approach that perfect childlike trust that our needs will all be met.  It may be that we can find a child’s faith when we allow ourselves to play.  Or the two may form a virtuous cycle that brings us into God’s kingdom, even in the midst of this life here on earth.  How it happens doesn’t matter nearly as much as helping it to happen.

Jesus calls us to trust, to relax into his arms, knowing that he will take care of us and satisfy all of our needs.  Jesus calls us to play, to find joy and delight in ourselves and in all of God’s creation.  And when we find these, we receive the kingdom of God.

So today, take some old bread or cereal and go feed some ducks.  Blow bubbles on your front porch.  Gather a bouquet of dandelions and weeds.  Join the children on the playground.  Ride your bicycle, and delight in the rush of wind against your face.  When you have lunch, feast on the Five-Cheese Ziti Marinara of Christ and the BLT of Salvation.  Be a little child, and receive God’s kingdom.

Clothed in Strength and Dignity

My initial reaction to our readings for Sunday was one of bemusement and amusement.

autumn dogwood leaf, with sun shining through, by Martin LaBar
autumn dogwood leaf, with sun shining through, by Martin LaBar

First, I thought the Collect to be particularly well-suited to this time of year, when, in the Northern hemisphere the summer is ending and we’re starting to see leaves change and harvest come to an end. On the Celtic Wheel of the Year, the Fall Equinox is celebrated as Mabon; this is the end of the harvest season, the last celebration before Samhain marks the beginning of winter and of the new year.  As Christians, our tradition has separated us somewhat from observing the turn of the seasons, though this is part of our Jewish heritage.  But the Collect appointed for Sunday is a beautiful observation, though it does not directly address the harvest time and the coming of winter:

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things,
but to love things heavenly;
and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away,
to hold fast to those that shall endure;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
Amen.

I noticed that we have Psalm 1 appointed, the opening of the great prayer book of the bible.  The Psalter is at the heart of the monastic life, prayed in each observance of the Hours (sort of a Wheel of the Day).  More than one Benedictine has observed that the very first word of the Psalter is Happy.  I generally prefer to use Joyful, when the word happy occurs in the bible, feeling that joy expresses the love we share with God more effectively than happiness does.  But still: we are called to be Happy, to be Joyful.  And this links in well with the Collect, too.  It is too easy to become unhappy when we pay too much attention to earthly things, which always pass away.  But when we’re able to fix our attention on the things of God, the things of heaven, that are eternal and real, we can find this happiness, this joy.  (By the way, in case you’re wondering, the very last word of the Psalter?  It’s Hallelujah!)

The reading from Proverbs is a lovely poem about the value of a woman who has strength, integrity, and dignity.  This poem sings the praises of such a woman, observing that anyone who has her in their life — especially her husband and children — will find her an inspiration and a blessing.   In the gospel lesson from Mark, Jesus teaches us that it is our job to be servants.  Then he picks up a child, holds the child on his lap, and says that when we welcome little children, we welcome Jesus himself, and through Jesus, all three persons of the Trinity.  And in the epistle lesson from James, James chides the early Christians for their arguments and divisions, sounding frustrated when he snaps out with Who is wise and understanding among you?

So the amusement?  When I read the passage from James, I actually started giggling.  After all, doesn’t the reading from Proverbs answer his opening question?  Who is wise and understanding? The WOMEN!  😀  Why are they arguing?  Because they’re all MEN!  😀  And in response to Jesus, who will always welcome a child into their lap?  A WOMAN!  See, all the answers are right there in front of you, you silly menfolk!  😀  Okay, so I said that was only my first impression.  It was fun and frivolous and funny, and maybe that was just what I needed this morning.

I do notice a thread that weaves through these readings, though.  Jesus tells us, as he does several times in the gospels, that we must be servants of all, and James elaborates on this.  James advises us to resist temptation, by eschewing envy, ambition, boastfulness, and lies; he advises us to draw nearer to God, by embracing peace and gentleness, by being willing to yield to others, by allowing God to fill us with mercy and purity.  This is advice for all of us, not just women, and not just men.  We may not normally think of peace or gentleness or mercy or purity as particularly manly or strong traits.  And yet, the very strength of any person lies in his or her willingness and ability to be something less than the Number One, to be in second place, to set aside one’s selfishness, to grant mercy to others.

women at work, by peevee@ds
women at work, by peevee@ds

The wife in the reading from Proverbs is a shining example of these traits.  She wakes early to begin the tasks of serving her household, to make sure everyone is fed, to make sure everyone has work to do so that nobody has to be idle.  She is merciful to the poor and the needy, and she works to make sure not only everyone in the household is suitably clothed but so that there are extra thread or cloth or garments to supplement the family’s income.  She is prepared for what may come in the future, and she does not over-indulge in idleness.  Certainly, this is a perfect woman, isn’t it?  In fact, this sounds like a perfect person — woman or man!  Nobody has ever been this perfect, except for Jesus himself.

Dearly Beloved, by drinksmachine
Dearly Beloved, by drinksmachine

We have a long and beautiful tradition of being wedded to God, beginning particularly in the poetry and prophetic books of the Old Testament.  Into the New Testament, the Church is described as the Bride and Jesus as the Bridegroom. But in this week’s Old Testament reading, the perfect person — the person who has strength and dignity [as] her clothing, who opens her mouth with wisdom, whose children rise up and call her happy while her husband praises her — this person is not the bridegroom, but the bride.  So I’m going to ask you to indulge me for a moment in something a little strange, maybe even a little scandalous.

I invite you to take a deep breath and then close your eyes.  Bring up an image of God and God’s Church, at their wedding day.  You might visualize God as any one person of the Trinity, or as all the three in their eternal dance.  Pay attention to what God is wearing for this wedding.  Smell the flowers and maybe the incense at the altar.  See the light streaming through windows: does it dance and sparkle?  does it pour through stained glass and pool in bright colors on the floor?  Or does the wedding take place in an outdoor chapel, perhaps in the mountains or on the shore of the ocean?  See the beautiful decorations, and hear the music that is playing.  Bring yourself into this place.  Will you be the Church itself, or will you be sitting in the pew to witness this union?

Now, pay attention to how you have visualized God and the Church; notice which is the bride in this wedding and which is the groom.  And if you have, in our long and beautiful tradition, imaged God as the groom and God’s Church as the bride, I ask you to switch them.  I do not mean this to say that our tradition is wrong, but just to try something out.  Be playful for a moment.

Now God is the bride, clothed with strength and dignity, filled with purity and mercy, peaceful and gentle, yielding to us even though we are God’s creation.  Maybe one day there will be children from this union, and God will welcome them on God’s lap, embracing them and playing with them, and caring for their every need.  God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — is the perfect wife we heard so much about in the poetry from the book of Proverbs.  God is the wise and understanding person James describes.  God is the servant to all, who welcomes even little children, that Jesus teaches us to be.

And now the Church is dressed as a man on his wedding day.  But the Church, alas, is made up of humans and not of perfect people.  From time to time, we all indulge in things of the earth, and we all let our focus stray from the things of heaven.  Sometimes each of us is envious or boastful; we can be ambitious or deceitful; we get into arguments and conflicts with each other; and we grow to be rather fond of our earthly pleasures.  And yet, today, here in this glorious wedding, today we of the Church will pledge ourselves to God.  As the Church, we unite ourselves with this perfect bride, this perfect wife.  God promises us that God will love and honor and cherish us, will meet our needs whether we are rich or poor, will take care of us whether we are sick or well.  God makes sure we are fed, just like when God fed the Israelites in the desert, just like when Jesus offered himself as Living Bread.  God makes sure we are clothed, are sheltered.  God prepares us for the snowstorms and blizzards to come.  God vows to do us good, and never to harm us.  These promises come from God, who is far more precious than jewels, the pearl of great price.

What an amazing wedding!  How could we possibly choose a bride more capable, more trustworthy, more wise than God?  We know our own flaws, both as individuals and as the Church.  We know well that we are not worthy of this union, yet, this bride — God! — chooses us to love and care for.  And these marriage vows do not end with death; no, God vows to care for us, to love us, to be with us absolutely forever.  When our life on this world ends, we join an even deeper union with our perfect bride.  And in this union, as James tells us, we will find the harvest of righteousness.

It doesn’t matter whether you are man or woman, young or old, heterosexual or homosexual, sick or well, rich or poor.  These lessons for Sunday give us some very practical advice for living the lives God wants for us.  Let go of idleness, boastfulness, lying, jealousy, argument, ambition, hypocrisy.  Unclench your tight hands, and let the things of this world be released.  Embrace peace, mercy, gentleness, love, hospitality, trustworthiness, honesty, strength, dignity, kindness, praise, and joy.  Attend to the things of heaven, of God.  And this brings the Happy that opens the Psalter.  When we sow these things, then in time, we will harvest righteousness.

harvest time, by matze_ott
harvest time, by matze_ott

It’s September now.  The harvest is ending, and winter is coming.  The wonderful things about spring and summer are passing away for a time, but there are real and timeless things for us to attend to and embrace.  Let’s pray that Collect one more time, now that we’ve explored this week’s readings.  Let’s follow those shining threads that show us how God wants us to live, the threads that take us through our sowing of good things and into the harvest God promises us.

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things,
but to love things heavenly;
and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away,
to hold fast to those that shall endure;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Amen.