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Monday, June 12, 2017

This is Not a Drill - Sermon for EfM Graduation

Trinity Sunday

I delivered the following sermon at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Teaneck, N.J., on Trinity Sunday (June 11, 2017) for the 2017 graduation ceremony from the Education for Ministry program, a four-year distance learning seminar on bible literacy, church history and theology for which I am co-mentor.

Through the written word and the spoken word, may we come to know Your living word. Amen.

I had that dream again recently, the one where you realize the end of the semester is coming and there’s a class you haven’t attended since the first week. You’re not even sure where it meets or what you did with the book, but there you are trying to find the classroom, late, hoping to beg the professor for mercy.

Psychologists, at least the ones on Google, say this dream is common and can represent latent anxiety about seemingly unrelated concerns. Some people who experience it report being in their pajamas or even naked, or wandering hallways that change before their eyes like an M.C. Escher drawing. In my particular version, there’s the added wrinkle of a dorm room that I paid for but haven’t been using, and on this fateful day I discovered my roommate had left it a disaster for which I was being held responsible. I woke up uneasy and confused, and trying to remember if any of it really happened.

I haven’t been a formal student in over five years so I have no idea what may have triggered it to recur. However, I told Margaret, one of three graduates from the Education for Ministry program whom we honor today, that if she finds a multiple-choice quiz on the Council of Nicea in her service leaflet today, she’s not dreaming and this is not a drill.

For the uninitiated, Education for Ministry (or EfM) is a four-year distance learning program to help adults explore their faith. It was born at and is managed by the University of the South, an Episcopal college and seminary in Sewanee, Tennessee. EfM graduates are typically not ordained, but the program reinforces the fact that all of us, clergy and laity alike, are called to engage in ministry, and their studies help them better recognize and employ their gifts to the glory of God and in service of others.

Today, as at every Sunday Eucharist, we heard readings from the gamut of scripture, beginning in the beginning, with the first of two stories of human creation in the Book of Genesis. This poetic account of how the world began does not, of course, reconcile with the things we are taught in science class. I assume most if not all of us have long accepted that the value of these ancient stories lies not in their provability, but in the narrative--as old as time--of a people and their God, who wrestle literally and figuratively with one another, break each other’s hearts, and find forgiveness.

This is all well and good when the stories are about talking serpents and burning bushes and people who live 700 years, but what happens when we get to Jesus? I think our culture has grown comfortable treating the “red letter” quotes in the Gospels as things he said verbatim, but one of the first things our second-year students learn is that the earliest of the Gospels was likely written at least sixty years after the events described. In our instant-replay world, our most direct experience of Jesus is subject to two generations of memory and interpretation. Additionally, in the Gospels as in the Hebrew scripture there are events--the resurrection and ascension being the most obvious among many--which just do not jive with what we observe and understand about the world around us.

InsomniaThe more you study, the louder this dissonance becomes. In our third-year text, Diarmaid MacCollough’s Christianity, the First 3,000 Years (which could be nicknamed 3,000 Years of Christians Behaving Badly) the historic and political origins of many of the doctrines most rank-and-file Christians take for granted are explored in depth. Some major decisions we might assume were made by the early disciples are in fact a lot more recent and seem to have been driven by political or practical concerns rather than the will of God. There are frequent occasions, right into our present century, when the institutional church hardly comes across as a hero. I re-read much of that book this year and it may well explain my anxious-exam dream. To quote Aristotle, Einstein or the British pop band UB40, depending on whom you ask, “The more I learn, the less I know.”

What, then, does it mean when we say we believe? Are we forced to choose between donning intellectual blinders when we recite the creeds, or simply picking and choosing what we want to accept?

The Rev. Dr. Peter Savistano, who teaches religion and anthropology at Seton Hall, said in a sermon recently:
“In my own quest to understand the historical Jesus, the Bible, and the Jesus of theology, the scholars I have read repeatedly point out that we twenty-first century humans have lost the art of reading and interpreting scripture symbolically and allegorically. Influenced by scientism and rationalism, we prefer instead to read and interpret scripture as though it is a scientific text or a technical manual.

Conversely, in the world of the ancients and in the medieval world, scripture was interpreted allegorically and metaphorically, drawing on our human capacity for symbolic thinking, our intuitive faculties, and by the use of our creative imagination. To interpret a sacred story or a myth allegorically—and from an anthropological perspective the Bible is both —is to read and plumb its depths for truths and lessons that have universal import, truths that can only be revealed over time by the slow and painstaking process of meditation, prayer, and contemplation.
In other words, in our endless quest for data, we run the risk of turning off our brains’ ability to find value in that which cannot be proven. Is it still possible to not know in the temporal understanding of that word, but nonetheless believe?

All of this lack of concrete historical evidence should not make our God a stranger to us. The God we experience in our lives--in the community of the church, in our compassion for one another, or in the beauty of creation--is everywhere, known as intimately to us as our own internal organs, and the love of that God is--as Anglican historian and Dean for Religious Studies at Stanford University, the Very Rev. Dr. Jane Shaw puts it--the “glue” of our relationships to one another. Although EfM is not therapy, we have seen real evidence of that glue as we supported one another through the changes and chances of life. In a recent reflection, Peter Grace, who graduated from the program in San Francisco in 2014, wrote “For us Christians, God is anything but unknowable: is not outside of us, but truly alive at the very center of our being and ‘does not live in shrines made by human hands.’ God is not a question to be answered, but a mystery to be embraced.”

Speaking of mysteries, today we focus on the Holy Trinity, the true nature of which theologians have been arguing about for almost as long as Christianity has been a thing. But this too need not and should not be limited to some arcane, eye-crossing concept that we blindly accept or mostly ignore. We are charged with using our gifts of memory, reason, and skill to explore what wise women and men of faith continue to say about this and how we can interpret it in our own lives. For example, the modern Franciscan Catholic theologian and author, Fr. Richard Rohr asserts, “In the beginning was the Relationship.” and goes on to simply and elegantly describe the three entities of the Trinity as “the God who made the world and everything in it,” “Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God” and “the spirit of truth...who abides with you and will be in you.”

The EfM journey may at times awaken cynicism, disenfranchisement, and uncertainty, but we would hardly be the first to wrestle with that. As we heard in today’s Gospel, even the disciples who saw Jesus in person experienced doubt. But there is great joy and comfort in exploring them together, and newfound ownership of a faith which one has examined carefully from many sides in an environment where such questions are not just welcomed, but expected.

Barbara, Margaret and Terry, it is the prayer of your EfM family that you proceed to the next chapter in your ministry equipped with clear-eyed wisdom about your faith and its often flawed but nonetheless inspiring history, having read the scriptures alongside expert--if sometimes slightly arid--context. You studied and practiced how to make the theological become personal; prayed, laughed, and sometimes wept with us.

We commission you today to use all these insights and experiences to build and strengthen the gifts you bring to a changing church and hurting world, to be--in the words of Teresa of Avila--the hands, the feet, the very body of Christ.

Finally, my sisters, farewell, but not goodbye. Your classmates and fellow alumni will be near at hand to continue supporting your walk of faith and service. We pray that the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of* the Holy Spirit be with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Before Stonewall, there was Juliana: Historical Novel Explores LGBT Life During WW2


It is easy to think of LGBT culture in New York as beginning with the Stonewall Riots of 1969. It is particularly easy for me, since I was also born that summer. Less, however, is known about what life was like for folks prior to that, which may well be because much of it took place in secret for the participants’ own safety: in unmarked clubs, with coded language that allowed communication under the noses of a population which would betray them to family, employers or the police. Being gay, or even something as innocent as a woman wearing pants in public, could cost you your job, home, and friendships, or get you arrested, raped, or beat up.

Juliana cover.
Used with author's permission.
The first novel by playwright Vanda, Juliana gives us a look at this particular time and place by introducing her own characters to famous names of the day, many of whom risked their own careers, reputations, and marriages to indulge in “the love that dare not say its name” as the nation finds itself reluctantly drawn once again into war.

We see New York through the lens of a wide-eyed suburban Long Island girl “Al”, who moves to the city with her three childhood friends (Aggie, Danny, and Dickie).  Each has dreams of making it big in the arts world, which they quickly discover is populated by folks quite unlike the ones they knew in Huntington.  When big-talking producer Max Harlington III comes to their table, Aggie & Danny are entranced, while Al and Dickie remain skeptical. He takes them to clubs where cross-dressers, “bull daggers” and interracial couples all find sanctuary.

Taken in by the big promises of Max, the friends each set about fulfilling their dreams only to discover that, to quote Debbie Allen: ”Fame costs… and right here’s where you start payin’... in sweat.”  Running between auditions, lessons, soul-killing day jobs, and infested apartments, they struggle to keep their friendships alive.  It has always been assumed that the couples (Al and Danny, Aggie and Dickie) would marry someday, but as the book progresses, that dream becomes as elusive as the thought of your name up in lights.

For Al, the biggest distraction is Juliana, a talented vocal performer who seems perpetually on the brink of success. Juliana awakens feelings in Al she was unaware she possessed, then shocks her further by making it clear the interest is mutual. Although Al continues to harbor some disdain for Max, he proves useful in making this connection.  When things with Juliana go awry, however, Al flees back to Max’s place only to make a further unwelcome discovery that throws all her plans for the future into disarray.

Used with author's permission.
One of the prevailing themes for me is the degree to which LGBT people of this time period bought into the societal narrative that there was something wrong with them. Beyond entering into sham marriages and other means of protecting themselves, the characters continue to use words like “perversion” to talk about their own feelings.  It is not hard to accept this as realistic given what they were hearing from the culture at large.  Sadly this still occurs today despite all the “it gets better” cheerleading, positive role models and at least the patina of tolerance from official channels.

The declaration of war in 1941 sends the characters’ lives in different directions.  Max, Dickie, and Danny all end up overseas and Al contributes much of her time and energy to the Stage Door Canteen, a real-life place on 44th Street where military men were fed and entertained by Broadway personalities.  Here she mingles with greats like Katharine Hepburn, Ethel Merman, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, who performed or helped staff the club. Many of these stars had cameos in a film named for the club, which stood on the site of the former New York Times printing press.

Dickie, Max and Danny all make it home alive, but not unscarred. They describe the conditions gay men and women encountered during deployment… perhaps the roots of “don’t ask, don’t tell” where camp behavior was tolerated and even encouraged in some quarters, but one misplaced word of affection could erase years of dedicated service with the stroke of a pen.  Small wonder that a study 60 years later found almost 15% of closeted LGBT veterans attempt suicide: imagine the nightmarish memories of combat layered with the constant fear of being found out.

Meanwhile, Al--at a breaking point--confides in best friend Aggie, whom she has helped through some serious setbacks, only to discover that their bond is not stronger than the prejudices with which they were all raised. Betrayed, Al turns again to the unconventional people from whom she continues to try to distinguish herself. I found it interesting and even a little vexing that these individuals, apparently further along the road of self-acceptance, continue to tolerate this behavior almost without reproach. It is not always clear what she brings to the table of these friendships besides judginess and a need for a whole lot of hand-holding. But I suspect then, as now, there are those who see their younger selves in the newcomer and thus deal with such foibles gracefully.

Nevertheless they take her under their wing and we see such real-life scenes of early gay New York as Spivey’s Roof, a nightclub on the Upper East Side where gay men and women were allowed to congregate as long as they (mostly) behaved. A young Walter Liberace played here briefly before unwittingly crossing Madame Spivy, the club’s imperious owner, namesake, and star performer, a scene described in the book.

The first volume leaves off with relationships on hold and a lot of unanswered questions. Luckily, a sequel which picks up at around D-Day is due out this summer. Meantime, an ensemble cast periodically performs scenes from the book at the legendary Duplex nightclub on Christopher Street, just steps from the Stonewall Tavern.  You can learn about upcoming events on the Juliana Project Facebook page or by visiting vandawriter.com and subscribing to her free newsletter.

staged reading from the historical novel "Juliana"
The cast of a staged reading from Juliana at the Duplex.  My photo.

As we remember the sacrifices of those lost in our country’s wars, my mind goes particularly today to those who served and died for their country, likely leaving behind secret friends and partners who were not honored or comforted, and perhaps never even learned their fate.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Gratitude II: Blessed by Coincidence

All Souls’ Day

In our Education for Ministry seminar, we take turns preparing prayers to begin and end the session. The person whose turn it was today filled in a gap created by another student who is recovering from surgery (but--thanks to technology--able to participate via web conference!). However, she actually prepared them a few weeks ago for a session that ended up being cancelled.  Put that in your pocket for now.

Thomas Traherne Stained Glass WindowOne of the main activities of EfM are Theological Reflections, where the students pick an "object" (which can be anything from a scriptural passage, personal story, work of art, piece of music, opinion, dilemma, or an actual physical object) to examine from many perspectives, and then we see what insights and implications we can draw from the discussion.

This was our first TR for the year, and since we have three new students we picked an "old chestnut" for the experienced folks, the story of the prodigal son. One of the First Years, who has a background in theater, gave a wonderfully animated reading of it, skillfully inflecting the emotion of the various characters in the parable.

Because that was too big to focus on, we narrowed it down to the sentence "you are always with me, and everything I have is yours." Now divorcing ourselves (de-contextualizing it) from the rest of the story, we stared at that sentence and talked about what its "world" would look like through the "perspective questions" of creation, sin, judgment and redemption. I won't bore you further with the guts of the process, but sufficient to say we landed on a resolve to be more generous and grateful for all that we have.

Then we did the closing prayer service, which concluded with the following prayer. Now remember, this was prepared a month or more before, with no knowledge of what today's class would be about, let alone what conclusion the group discussion would organically reach:
“Is not sight a jewel? Is not hearing a treasure? Is not speech a glory? O my Lord, pardon my ingratitude and pity my dullness who am not sensible to these gifts. The freedom of your bounty had deceived me. These things were too near to be considered. You presented me with your blessings and I was not aware. But now, I give thanks and adore and praise you for your inestimable favors.”
- THOMAS TRAHERNE (1636-1674)

I was bowled over by that. I wasn't familiar with the author, I noted the brevity of his life even for the time period. But I loved the perspective, given the anxiety so many of us are feeling in the days running up to this election.  It's so easy to forget what we have, and if it takes a coincidence like this to bring the point home, so be it.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Gratitude I: Feeling Led to Standing Rock

Richard Hooker - Priest (1600)

The situation at Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota is heartbreaking. Much has been said about it, and I don't know enough to add anything useful to the conversation other than what it feels like to watch it from a safe and privileged distance. Knowing it was probably a hoax, I still participated in the "great check in" on Facebook of over a million people as an act of solidarity, and I was glad to hear it was appreciated by the tribe's leaders even if the real effect was negligible.

I have friends who visited the reservation this week, and heeded the call on Thursday from the Most Rev. Michael Bruce Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, to pray for the situation at noon local time.

This was my prayer:

”Spirit of God, be for us joy.

I ask your blessing upon the people on both sides of the Standing Rock dispute, that they summon the wisdom and courage to forge an equitable and just solution to the pipeline standoff, respecting the gifts of earth, fuel and water that you made.

Be with (redacted) and all your faithful who heeded the call to stand witness, listen, and comfort the people of Standing Rock, as well as with (redacted) and all who did so from their pulpits, desks, beds and computers.

Make us, I pray, mindful of the impacts of our habits and appetites on all living things now and in the future. Give us insight to discover solutions that are kinder to these fragile systems and beings.

Bestow your blessing upon the Sioux people and all of the first nations of this land, that they know your love through the challenges of these days, and the wounds of our indifference and neglect, for which I repent.

All this I ask in the name of your son, whose love transcends division, assuages pain, comforts grief and shelters joy. Amen.”
Despite my present "statelessness" in the church, I am tremendously grateful for Bishop Curry's leadership and the way the Gospel is being taken where it needs to go and be heard. I hope the Standing Rock Sioux took comfort from the visit this week of hundreds of people of faith. Because of how social media connects us, the story has led people from around the world to go there, including members of over 200 native American tribes. People with no obvious motive to participate are nonetheless feeling compelled to do so. It is not practical for all of us to go there, however. It may not be safe, and it may not even be wanted or helpful.

We are not helpless in this situation, though, even from this distance. The President has said that the Army Corps of Engineers is exploring an alternative route for this pipeline which would (hopefully) avoid land sacred to the Sioux people and honor the treaty with them when so many have been broken before. You can add your voice, as I did, to ask him to do everything in his power to make sure that happens. You can also donate to the tribe if you feel willing or able to do so.

Standing Rock (14421247914)

Sunday, July 24, 2016

God, Gays & Guns All Collide in a New Play

St. Mary Magdalene - First Witness to the Resurrection

My father's observation of Edward Albee's play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf was that the viewer squirms in hir seat, feeling as if s/he's witnessing a private conversation of which s/he should not be part. And that is precisely the point.  Two couples embark on a visit having no idea what intimate secrets are to be revealed, and leave the encounter permanently changed.

By contrast, the characters in Dewey Moss's new play The Crusade of Connor Stephens gather all knowing, by varying degrees, what to expect from one another.  Two families joined by the common tragedy of a child's murder are connected only by the parents, a same-gender couple in whose home the story unfolds. They come from different towns and vastly different world-views, a fact that becomes wrenchingly clear as each character in turn unpacks the baggage that the sudden loss of a little girl has forced into the light.  When the play was selected as part of the Midtown International Film Festival, the mass shooting at a gay bar in Orlando had not yet occurred, but that tragedy, coupled with the rhetoric coming from the presidential campaign, served only to make it more timely, and all performances of the limited run were sold out.

As the curtain rises, Jim Jr., broodingly portrayed by Ben Curtis (yes, the Dell spokesman... he's done quite a bit since then including starring opposite Richard Chamberlain in We Are the Hartmans), wants to drown his sorrows alone. His husband Kris (James Padric) is asleep, numbed physically and emotionally by medication; he was also struck by a bullet trying to save his daughter Tess. Kris's sister Kimmie (Julie Mitchell) fusses over preparations for any post-funeral callers.  Her husband Bobby (Jacques Mitchell) arrives with Jim's mother Marianne (Katherine Leask) and grandmother Vivi'n (Kathleen Huber) in tow; the latter in a wheelchair.  Marianne reveals news Jim wasn't hoping for: his father "Big Jim" (James Kiberd) also plans to come by.

Big Jim would be a caricature of the blowhard southern evangelical preacher you love to hate if it wasn't so rapidly clear how thin a veneer his confident persona really is. Before he even arrives, his wife--ignoring whatever needs her grieving son and his husband might have--wants special tea made for him.  When he finally does bluster in, he immediately tries to establish control of everybody, ordering his mother to return to her wheelchair for no other reason than because that's what he wants. Moss quickly establishes the familiar pattern of an abuser; Big Jim manages to put down everybody in the room and anchor himself as the superior man of God.

Focusing on the handsome and athletic Bobby, the preacher wants badly to impress this newcomer with his ever-expanding church campus and involve him in it somehow. In doing so, he reveals his disappointment in Jim Jr. right in front of him with no regard for his feelings, causing everybody else to wince, but we can tell by the weary near-lack of reaction that his son is quite aware of his father's disdain.

Kris emerges, wild-eyed and disoriented. Who are these people in my house?  Jim and Kimmy hurry to settle him and it becomes clear that his fragile state buys him no free pass from his husband's family.  As the the story unfolds we learn that both Big Jim and Marianne have long blamed Kris for their son's same-gender attraction.
Jim Jr. (BEN CURTIS) comforts his husband Chris (JAMES PADRIC)
PHOTO CREDIT: Dewey Moss.  Used with permission.

As they prepare to leave for the funeral, Dean, an associate from Big Jim's church, arrives visibly distraught and detains the pastor with some urgent news. He received a letter sent by the killer Connor Stephens, prior to the murder and his own death (at his own hand?). Connor was a member of the church, a troubled youth who had been "saved" along with his mother by the charity of the organization.  In the letter he makes his motive for the killing clear, and--as the first act ends--the preacher is left alone to contemplate his own role in his son's daughter's death.

During the intermission, my cynical mind went back to how Big Jim tried to court Bobby, and I thought of the countless stories of vulnerable young men taken in and exploited by those they should have been able to trust. Cynical me wondered if we were going to learn there was something unseemly going on between Connor and either Dean or Big Jim himself. As the action resumes after the funeral, the whole story is painfully revealed as each character engages in some soul-baring.  Deep-seated resentments come to light, and alliances shift at least somewhat... the grip Big Jim has on his his family may be weakened if not failing completely.  After Jim Jr. learns Connor's motive (sorry, no spoilers. I'm hoping this play "has legs" and you get a chance to see it!), his father, fearing he'll be ruined if the truth gets out, tries to enlist everybody in downplaying the matter in the hope the story will slip from public attention.  Kris and his family are incensed, and we hope that Big Jim is going to get the take-down he so desperately deserves. Bobby or Jim, Jr. could slug him, his wife or mother could verbally eviscerate him, but ultimately he's already done the worst damage to himself.
Big Jim (JAMES KIBERD) verbally spars with Bobby (JACQUES MITCHELL)
PHOTO CREDIT: Dewey Moss. Used with permission.

The real hero of the story ends up being Grandma Vivi'n.  Without raising her voice, she orchestrates conversations that need to happen to keep the painful revelations coming.  She challenges her daughter-in-law to stand up to her husband and finally be a mother to her son after failing him for so long. And--when the time is right--she shares a long-secret truth that nobody is prepared to hear.

Grandma Vivi'n (KATHLEEN HUBER)
PHOTO CREDIT: Dewey Moss. Used with permission.

The play was staged as the Workshop Theater, a tiny space.  It deserves more eyes, particularly as the topic could not be more relevant during this troubled summer.  However, being so close to the players, close enough to see them twitch at one another's words, brings that uncomfortable intimacy that might be lost in too large a house. Curtis's Jim Jr. in particular, speaks very little but says so much with grimace and gesture that--for me, anyway--I felt like I knew him intimately and understood his pain.

You wish you weren't so close at times, right in the room hearing the things these people have been carrying around for so long, but we need to be there. Lost behind the aggregate statistic and sensational headlines, every gun-related incident wounds many more victims than the ones the bullets actually hit. Every sweeping condemnation flung from a pulpit causes collateral damage to people who never graced the pews. The day we stop seeing those affected as people like us, worthy of our sympathetic tears, is the day all hope is lost.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Say Their Names / Digan Sus Nombres

I woke up to one of those emails you aren't really prepared for in the pre-caffeine haze; the "I'm going to need for you to act like a grown-up today" kind of request that always manages to come when you're feeling least equipped to do so.

My initial reaction was, "Oh no, I couldn't possibly." I had been on an emotional skating rink ever since we learned on Sunday that 49 revelers at Orlando's Pulse nightclub had been mercilessly gunned down.  The idea of getting up in front of a church full of strangers and honoring them by reading their names aloud without going completely to pieces felt far beyond me.  I replied, vaguely, to my friend and frequent spiritual guide, indicating my concern and looking for tips on how to hold it together.

She should know: in her role as priest and rector of a congregation as well as chaplain at a nearby university, she is called upon repeatedly to be strong; to put her own emotions carefully aside and be a steadying force for families grieving a loved one, communities facing adversity, and myriad other human challenges that pockmark the territory of pastoral care.

Part of me hoped she would share some trade secrets on how to partition your own feelings, at least long enough to get through the service. Part of me hoped she might reply, "Oh, it's okay; if you don't feel comfortable I'll ask someone else."

Instead, she said nothing. I knew she had plenty on her plate without coddling me right now.

Not knowing what else to do, I "vaguebooked" that I had been challenged to do something difficult but important, and asked for prayers. The response was overwhelming: Over the course of the day, over 1/10 of my fairly substantial "friends list" chimed in with encouragement and promises of supplication. People I hadn't heard from in ages, whom I was pretty sure had long since "unfollowed" my endless string of arcane cyber-babbling, cheered me on. An actual celebrity I follow, whom I wasn't even sure manages his own feed said "You got this."

I did tell a handful of folks what I had been asked to do, and my fears. A few gave me permission to go with whatever emotion I felt at the time, one saying "If you go to pieces, it will be an honorable and truthful tribute to them."  Another suggested "Let the Lord do the work with you tonight. It's not about performing, it's about witnessing. You can be a witness tonight."

At eleven a.m., the draft program was sent over. I scrolled to the list of names and studied it. Were I to do this, I wanted to be ready to pronounce each one respectfully. The vast majority of victims were Hispanic. How could I, in my raised-in-the-woods Euro-ness, possibly do right by them? I only sort of speak Spanish, and I didn't want to sound like Peggy Hill up there, so I got some guidance from native speakers and looked up some names I didn't know how to say, but I still felt inadequate.

To my disgust, in the research process I discovered there are already "truthers" making videos claiming the massacre was staged (as was, apparently, Newtown). Yes, because this is what we do: we fake mass murders, and get the cops, first responders, doctors and nurses to help us. I'm not sure how these people would explain where the victims are now, or where the dozens of corpses came from. In the wake of this attack, jetBlue gave away free tickets to family members needing to get to Orlando. I wonder if we should round up the "truthers" and bring them there, too, so they could explain themselves to the survivors.

Part of me wanted to spend more time on each person... connect their name to their picture and understand who they were. But I was afraid to: not yet. I knew getting to "know them" was not going to help me to remain intelligible thorough this; it would likely do the opposite. But I will do that now that the service is done.

Various friends suggested--with varying degrees of seriousness--herbal tea, a nap, a joint. I had work to do, so none of that was going to happen, and in the end I just stayed distracted until it was time.

The woman reading the other half of the names is a "P-FLAG Mom", a colleague from my activist days. (Oh, that's the other thing. I was listed as "an activist" in the leaflet. I've been shamefully inactive these past few years.)  We strategized briefly about how we would walk, where we would stand, and who would read what. Having her there was comforting: I know she was ready to jump in for me if I needed her to, and vice-versa.

The service was well-planned and well-attended. We heard from an imam, a rabbi and several Christian pastors. There were songs and prayers, and then it was time. Stepping into the aisle, I waited for my P-FLAG Mom and we walked to the front. Looking over the room from the pulpit, I took a deep breath, and started reading.

And it was fine. I was a little shaky for the first group of seven, but I thought about all my cyber-cheerleaders, and hunkered down. I said seven names, she said seven, a bell rang, and we kept going. It was over quickly, and we took our seats.

Writing this, I know I probably made a lot more of it than I should have. But it was incredibly important to me that I get it right; that my reaction not detract from what anybody else needed from the service. I knew that--at something like this--one person falling apart could trigger a chain reaction, which I guess would be okay if it was meant to happen. But I didn't want to be the one to cause it.

For the last part of the service, we gathered on the labyrinth in the back of the church, around a giant sculpture, a stylized swan. We were directed to use Post-It notes to share our feelings and reactions to the event.  Holding candles we joined in a few verses of Holly Near's "Fighting For Our Lives".

And then we went home.

Say their names:
Stanley Almodovar III, 23
Amanda Alvear, 25
Oscar A. Aracena-Montero, 26
Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, 33
Antonio Davon Brown, 29
Darryl Roman Burt II, 29
Angel L. Candelario-Padro, 28
Juan Chevez-Martinez, 25
Luis Daniel Conde, 39
Cory James Connell, 21
Tevin Eugene Crosby, 25
Deonka Deidra Drayton, 32
Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez, 31
Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25
Mercedez Marisol Flores, 26
Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, 22
Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22
Paul Terrell Henry, 41
Frank Hernandez, 27
Miguel Angel Honorato, 30
Javier Jorge-Reyes, 40
Jason Benjamin Josaphat, 19
Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, 30
Anthony Luis Laureano-Disla, 25
Christopher Andrew Leinonen, 32
Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21
Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, 49
Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez, 25
Kimberly Morris, 37
Akyra Monet Murray, 18
Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, 20
Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36
Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32
Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, 35
Enrique L. Rios, Jr., 25
Jean C. Nives Rodriguez, 27
Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, 24
Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado, 35
Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34
Yilmary Rodriguez Sulivan, 24
Shane Evan Tomlinson, 33
Martin Benitez Torres, 33
Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega, 24
Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez, 50
Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, 37
Luis S. Vielma, 22
Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, 37
Jerald Arthur Wright, 31

Monday, June 13, 2016

I've Learned to Live With a Very Flexibile Definition of 'Okay'

"Are you okay?"

I've been asked that a lot in the past 24 hours. I may have a bit of a reputation for emotional fragility, I'm afraid. I've been in a "thin place" for a very long time, and it doesn't take much to move me.

"Abrazo" by Hermán Marina
Neon, 2012
I'm not really sorry for that, though. We saw Steel Magnolias (yes, again!) recently and this production strangely omitted one of my favorite lines: "I have a strict policy that nobody cries alone in my presence." I subscribe to that philosophy without shame, because the alternative--being unable to respond to others' pain--sounds like prison. I know men in this culture are supposed to be stoic (the two acceptable expressions appear to be "winning" and "rage") but I've been told most of my life that I'm not a normal man and I've made my peace with that long ago.

So friends have been checking in, cautiously, like I might re-enact Sally Field's hysterical graveyard scene at the slightest provocation. The sweetest was the co-worker who offered to lend me her puppy.

"Are you okay?"

And the truth is, I don't know. I'm not even sure if I know what that is anymore.The world has been so crazy for so long that, as Sister Lily Tomlin's character on Grace and Frankie described it, "I've learned to live with a very flexible definition of okay."

"Okay" as in "Not in immediate danger to self or others?" Yes, I can go that far. I have a support system, I am not neglecting my basic needs. I eat and sleep (a lot). I made myself exercise and buy food. I know I am loved.

But isn't there more to "okay" than that? Aren't I entitled to feel safe? Shouldn't the people in charge be doing more to end the scourge of bloodshed than making hollow promises of "thoughts and prayers" (especially ironic when coming from some of the same public voices who keep reinforcing the notion that people like me are somehow "less than")?

So if you're queer in America in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand Sixteen in the Month of Pride, all the world is not at peace, and "okay" is relative. You're okay because you woke up this morning and found yourself alive, you have a job and a place to stay, and a family that accepts you. But you still have to second-guess any action that might draw attention to yourself, weighing whether some man (it's seemingly always a man, have you noticed?) will have a problem with it, and whether he might have a gun.

49 people were killed by one man with one gun, which he bought in a store despite multiple queries by the FBI into his behavior. 49 people. How many is too many? 100? 200? "It was just one small town"? Sadly I despair that the will even exists to make it stop. Horrible as it is, I agree with the person who tweeted that the gun debate ended at Newtown: If 'murica wasn't heartbroken enough by the deaths of toddlers, I doubt that the slaughter of LGBT folks will be the tipping point. There are already tweets out there saying they deserved what they got.

And that, my friends, is Not Okay.

Pulse Nightclub Victims Fund

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Community Stations of the Cross in Bloomfield & Glen Ridge


"These fourteen steps that you are about to walk you do not take alone. I am with you. We are truly one. And therefore my way of the Cross two thousand years ago and your own "way" now are also one. Yet there is a difference, my life was incomplete until I crowned it with my death. Your fourteen steps will not complete until you crown them with your life."

Today I had the privilege of accompanying folks from Christ Church in Bloomfield & Glen Ridge on their annual Community Stations of the Cross. This service is moving both emotionally and physically, as participants travel to 14 "stations" to remember milestones in the condemnation and death of Christ. The traditional locations of these events are marked in the old city of Jerusalem, concluding within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher at the site where it is believed Christ died and was buried

In a congregational setting, the service normally takes place around the perimeter of a church, but--in a tradition that began several years ago as a witness to gun violence--Christ Church transformed this into an outdoor experience. This year's quest was to visit places of sorrow as well as places of hope in the area surrounding the church, which includes the downtown areas of Bloomfield and Glen Ridge townships.

The service was created by Christ Church's Rector, the Rev. Diana Wilcox, with some elements from the Episcopal Book of Occasional Services and the Book of Common Prayer, and the text at each station is a blend of what she shared and my thoughts at the time.  At the conclusion of each station, we prayed together:

Holy God, Holy and Mighty,
Holy Immortal One,
Transform me
That I might transform the world.

We gathered in the church to prepare ourselves for the journey.  As part of the Maundy (Holy) Thursday service the night before, the altar is stripped of the trappings of liturgy: candles, fabric, books, etc., are removed, leaving wood and stone.

God you created me and call me to be in this world, part of your creative force. In Christ you teach me the way of salvation. Help me to be transformed, utterly and completely changed, that I may live radically to transform myself and this broken world. Send your Spirit upon me that I might be an instrument of your peace. Amen.

The First Station - Jesus is Condemned

Bloomfield & Park Avenues

As soon as it was morning, the chief priests, with the elders and scribes, and the whole council, held a consultation; and they bound Jesus and led him away and delivered him to Pilate. And they all condemned him and said, “He deserves to die.” When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called the Pavement, Hebrew, Gabbatha. Then he handed Jesus over to them to be crucified.

Christ Church sits at the busy corner of Park Ave & Bloomfield Ave on the Bloomfield-Glen Ridge border.  At that intersection, which is also a bus stop, pedestrians cross the street at their peril due to impatient and distracted drivers.  On Monday, a pedestrian was struck by a hit-and-run driver just feet from where we stood, and three others lost their lives in recent years.

Eternal One, open the minds and hearts of those who pass this way, that they may slow down and see their brother or sister who travels this same road, and stop as the Samaritan did, to offer help whenever it is needed. We pray for healing of the families of those who have died, and for the one still clinging to life. Amen.

The Second Station - Jesus Takes Up His Cross

Essex Animal Hospital  

Jesus went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called the place of a skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha. Like a lamb he was led to the slaughter; and like a sheep that before its shearers is mute, so he opened not his mouth. Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing.
Essex Animal Hospital has been serving the veterinary needs of Bloomfield and surrounding communities for more than 25 years. Every year, thousands of animals are abused or neglected. Animals bred to feed us are kept in harsh living conditions. This hospital served as a symbol of our need to care for all of God’s creation, especially those who cannot speak for themselves, and to respect the dignity of all life, including those animals we raise for food.
God our Creator, in giving us dominion over things on earth, you made us co-workers in your creation. Help us to love and nurture the animals, and care for their habitats, that in doing so, we may remember that it is all your handiwork. Amen.


We made our way, twelve of us or so, down Bloomfield Avenue, taking turns carrying the cross, helping each other. Drivers glanced over, perhaps confused by the sight. Several pedestrians unabashedly took pictures.

The Third Station - Jesus Falls the First Time

Vermeer Park

Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped; but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, and was born in human likeness. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him, and bestowed on him the name which is above every name. 
Our next stop was the small park at the corner of State Street.  Here we remembered the victims of violence, hatred and abuse. Although crime is reportedly down in Bloomfield, there is still so much work to be done.

Loving God, although we find ourselves in a broken world – a world in which hurting people hurt other people, it is no mystery that you are a God capable of healing us through justice and fairness. May we be empowered by your Spirit to reverse the conditions that produce young men and women who are driven to resort to violence and destructive behavior, that our towns and cities may one day be places of love and peace. Amen.

The Fourth Station - Jesus Meets His Mother

Farm Boy 

To what can I liken you, to what can I compare you, O daughter of Jerusalem? What likeness can I use to comfort you, O virgin daughter of Zion? For vast as the sea is your ruin. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be days of mourning shall be ended. 
 Empty shops are a sign of despair and loss. This storefront was one we stopped at last year because it was empty, then was restored as the Farm Boy produce market, and is now empty again, representing a sign of loss for the neighborhood. We hope for renewal in the neighborhood, and that our eyes need to be open to the new life that can grow out of death.

O God, whose love knows no bounds, help us to love one another as Christ commanded. Give strength and courage to those who face difficult circumstances, knowing that there is no darkness which Your light cannot overcome. Amen.

The Fifth Station - Simon of Cyrene Helps Jesus

Block 243 Luxury Rental Development

As they led Jesus away, they came upon a man of Cyrene, Simon by name, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross to carry it behind Jesus. “If anyone would come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
We stop here to remember embrace the diversity of life that is Bloomfield, and to bear witness to the importance of continuing to be a place where everyone is welcome – people of all cultures, races, languages, gender identities, faiths, and sexual orientations. It is this great diversity in all of creation that is God’s blessing to us all. In this most Holy Week, we look boldly at signs of death as well as new life. In this new building across the street, we are witness to the changing community. May it be that new life in this neighborhood is one that celebrates the diversity of this community, adding to the fabric of life here, and serving as a sign of the re-building of our neighborhoods as places of inclusion and peace.

As we walked, several people voiced concern that--with all the new high-end construction--the changed neighborhood would not become one where long-time residents, many of whom are economically vulnerable, are unable or unwelcome to remain.

Holy One, we move so quickly in life that we often rush past those who have been pushed aside by our own greed. Help us to not only see them in our midst, but seek them out on the margins, knowing that in the web of life, all of creation is connected, and what happens to the lost and the least of these is the concern of all of us. Amen.

The Sixth Station - A Woman Wipes the Face of Jesus

Presbyterian Church Bell

His appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance. He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.
A bell from one of Bloomfield's first churches is on display at the southern end of The Green, a long rectangular park where Revolutionary War troops once drilled. Originally meeting on Liberty Street in in 1858, Christ Church spawned four mission congregations in Montclair and Bloomfield, two of which have now folded back into the mother parish. The diverse and welcoming community has grown by a third in the past few years.

We remembered our own church ancestors and the other Christians who brought the Gospel to our area, and prayed for faith leaders and a healing to divisions among them, as well as all those whose belief calls them to work in the wider world.

Most gracious God, Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Creator of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify you; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Seventh Station - Jesus Falls the Second Time

Bloomfield Green

Surely he has borne our grief and carried our sorrows. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to their own way; and God has laid on Jesus the iniquity of us all. He wasoppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth. For the transgression of my people was he stricken.
Continuing north on Broad Street, we passed a bus stop where a man stood respectfully when he saw the cross approaching, and wished us a happy Easter. Further along the Green, we paused in the shade of budding trees. Birds chirped, there is a break in the traffic, and for a moment we could take in the beauty of the spring day.


O God, in the course of this busy life, give us times of refreshment and peace; and grant that we may so use our time to renew or minds, that our spirits may be opened to the goodness of your creation. Help us God to see your Spirit alive in all of the earth, forgive us our neglect of creation, and enliven in us the will to protect and care for all you have entrusted to us. Amen.

The Eighth Station - Jesus Meets the Women of Jerusalem

Bloomfield Presbyterian Church on the Green & Food Pantry

There followed after Jesus a great multitude of the people, and among them were women who bewailed and lamented him. But Jesus turning to them said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.”
Bloomfield Presbyterian Church on the Green, which gave the town its name is named, for Joseph Bloomfield, Revolutionary War officer, governor, lawyer, judge and abolitionist. The Food Pantry has been providing food on an emergency basis to families in Bloomfield and surrounding communities in Essex County. They currently serve an average of 40 families per month, which ranges between 75 and 165 individuals. Assisting the food pantry is also a primary ministry of outreach at Christ Church.

God, we remember before you all poor and neglected persons whom it is easy for us to forget: the homeless and the destitute, the old and the sick, and all who have none to care for them. Help us to heal those who are broken in body or spirit, and to love them as you loved us. Amen.

The Ninth Station - Jesus Falls the Third Time

Bloomfield High School

I am the one who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light. He has besieged me and enveloped me with bitterness and
tribulation; he has made me dwell in darkness like the dead of long ago. Though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer. He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower ashes. “Remember, O Lord, my affliction and bitterness, the wormwood and the gall!”
Crossing Broad Street, we paused again in front of the High School. Mother Diana told us that--two years ago, the American Psychological Association's Stress in America survey found that millennials, aged 18-33, were the country's most-stressed generation. Now, the title belongs to an even younger demographic: American teenagers. I thought of PARCC testing and SATs, bullying and the relentless pressure to be cool, college acceptance and student loans.

Eternal God, bless all the students, staff and faculty of all schools, colleges and universities, especially Bloomfield High School, Glen Ridge High School, Bloomfield College, and Montclair State University. May they be lively centers for sound learning, new discovery, and the pursuit of wisdom, where all students are free of fear of bullying, drugs, and violence. Grant also that those who teach and those learn may find You to be the source of all truth. Amen.

The Tenth Station - Jesus is Stripped

Bloomfield Cemetery

When they came to a place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull), they offered him wine to drink, mingled with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And they divided his garments among them by casting lots. This was to fulfill the scripture divided my garments among them; they cast lots for my clothing.”
Bloomfield Cemetery, once called the Old Bloomfield Burying Ground, is the resting place of 32 Revolutionary War soldiers, as well as William Batchelder Bradbury, who wrote the popular hymns "Jesus Loves Me, This I Know" and "Just As I Am".

Most gracious God, we pray to you for those we love, but see no longer: Grant them your peace and let light perpetual shine upon them. Grant also to all who are bereaved the spirit of faith and courage, that they may have strength to meet the days to come with steadfastness and patience; not sorrowing as those without hope, but in remembrance of your great goodness, and the joyful expectation of eternal life with those they love. Amen.

The Eleventh Station - Jesus is Crucified

Glen Ridge War Memorial (at Ridgewood Avenue School)

When they came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him; and with him they crucified two criminals, one on the right, the other on the left, and Jesus between them. And the scripture was fulfilled which says, “He was numbered with the transgressors.”
The Glen Ridge memorials to fallen veterans on either side of Ridgewood Avenue honor those who fought and died in WW I&II, Korea, and Vietnam. As a ship fan, I noticed the reference to the USS Leviathan, a German-built war prize that saw service as a troop carrier before becoming the flagship of the United States Lines.

Most Holy God, stand with those who bravely serve their country, protecting them from all harm, physical, emotional and spiritual, and granting them a sense of your abiding presence wherever they may be, including those whose whereabouts are no longer known to us. Guide those who lead them, and those who govern, that they may be wise in their decisions, and mindful of the lives that they hold in their hands. And we pray that you bring into your heavenly home all those lost to us. Let light perpetual shine upon them, and grant that we never forget their sacrifice, nor the pain and horror of war. Amen.

The Twelfth Station - Jesus Dies on the Cross

Glen Ridge Municipal Building

When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And when Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, “It is finished!” And then, crying with a loud voice, he said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” And he bowed his head, and handed over his spirit.

O God, send down upon those who hold office, or serve as first responders, in Glen Ridge and Bloomfield, the spirit of wisdom, charity, and justice; that with steadfast purpose they may faithfully serve in their roles to promote the well being of all people. And, teach us all to rely on your strength and to accept our own responsibility to our fellow citizens, that we may elect trustworthy leaders, and may step forward ourselves to serve our neighbors as you have taught us to do. Amen.

The Thirteenth Station - Mary Receives the Body of Jesus

Glen Ridge 9-11 Memorial (at Train Station)

All you who pass by, behold and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow. My eyes are spent with weeping; my soul is in tumult; my heart is poured out in grief because of the downfall of my people. “Do not call me Naomi (which means Pleasant), call me Mara (which means Bitter); for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.”
The men and women whose names adorn this marker likely began their day on September 11, 2001 by walking down the adjacent steps to the train station, thinking (or taking for granted) that they would return ten hours later via the ones across the bridge, weary perhaps, but safe.

We thought of our brothers and sisters in Bruxelles, Paris, the Cote D'Ivoire, Syria, Iraq, and everywhere that has been touched by terror and violence.

Most merciful God, let us hear the words of Jesus to love our enemies, to do good to those who hate us, to bless those who curse us, to pray for those who abuse us, expecting nothing in return. In a world torn apart by terror and violence, may we be merciful, just as You are merciful, that peace may be brought to a broken and hurting world. Amen.

The Fourteenth Station - Jesus is Buried

Nursery School at Christ Church

When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who also was a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. And Joseph took the body, and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud, and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock; and he rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb.
In 1967, when most people thought a mother’s place was in the home, Christ Church chose to be forward-looking, providing innovative half- and full-day nursery school programs. The Nursery School now serves the needs of over 100 children. April is Child Abuse Awareness Month, and the Nursery School displays pinwheels in remembrance of child abuse victims everywhere.

O God, in little children we are given a glimpse of what is possible – of innocence and joy, of love and light, most especially when we are in our darkest moments. Grant that we may look upon the children as Christ did – the ones closest to Your heart, and see in them the new life that awaits us when we open our hearts to you; and, work through us to protect, educate, nurture, and love them. Amen.


The service concluded in the church, with additional prayers, and the tolling of the bell, 33 times to mark the years of Jesus' life, and we departed in silence. I left profoundly moved and grateful for the experience to mark the death of Jesus in this very concrete way.

This is the altar in St. Mary's Chapel, where consecrated bread and wine were held in reserve for the evening's service. Good Friday is the only day of the church year when the Eucharist, the blessing of bread and wine, does not occur.


I told you at the start, My other self,
        My life was not complete
        Until I crowned it by My death.
        Your “way” is not complete
        Unless you crown it by your life.

        Accept each moment as it comes to you,
        With faith and trust
        That all that happens has My mark on it.
        A simple fiat, that is all it takes;
        A breathing in your heart,
        “I will it, Lord.”

        So seek Me not in far-off places.
        I am close at hand.
        Your workbench, office, kitchen,
        These are altars
        Where you offer love,
        And I am with you there.

        Go now!  Take up your cross
        And with your life
        Complete your way.