Ambassadors of Healing

Ambassadors of Healing

Photo credit: Steelbeach Productions

From seven states and the District of Columbia, mostly Episcopalians, joined by Lutheran, Mennonite, Baptist, Methodist, and “Nones,” the seasoned and the young, differently abled, black and white, clergy and lay, all told, fifty-two pilgrims converged on Birmingham, Alabama, to travel the Civil Rights Trail and visit the Equal Justice Initiative’s Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum May 20-25.  

We traveled from Birmingham to Montgomery, and then to Selma. We were regaled by the foot soldiers – children at the time – who told their stories of being at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday; of having to ask their parents’ permission to miss school to participate in the Children’s March. We were reduced to tears at the Legacy Museum as holographs of the enslaved told their stories of abuse, estrangement and a desire for freedom. We learned that Lehman Brothers, a major financial powerhouse that went bankrupt in 2008, began as a purveyor of human flesh. We learned that in 1857, there were more auction blocks in Montgomery than there were hotels and churches. We learned that the black residents of Selma, Alabama, are little better off economically today than they were in 1965. 

Then, on the final night, reminiscent of the mass meetings of the 1960s, we gathered together for one last time to strategize – what would we do; how was God calling us? First, we will stay together; we came together, many of us as strangers and became our version of the beloved community. Across denominational and diocesan boundaries, we came together. We will share what we learned; we will challenge our congregations; and we will commit ourselves to breaking down barriers that keep God’s children from being all they are called to be. As one young adult offered, “I’ve read about these places and what happened and I knew they still existed; but to see them for myself, to see the people who are still alive to tell the stories, this isn’t history, this is today.”

The Rev. Gayle Fisher-Stewart, Ph.D.
Priest-in-Charge, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, D.C. 

Photo credit: Steelbeach Productions

In-Between Time

Jesus said to them, “Stay here in the city until you have been clothed from power from on high.”
Luke 24:49

One of my favorite poems is called “Imperatives,” by Kathleen Norris. Norris read the gospels in search of Jesus’ imperatives, or commands, sprinkled throughout his teachings. These are the things that Jesus told us to do, such as: Look at the birds; consider the lilies; stretch out your hand; enter by the narrow gate; do not be anxious; rise; love; forgive.

To that list of imperatives, the Feast of the Ascension adds another: stay here until you have been clothed with power from on high. That is, stay where you are until you receive the clarity, direction, and power that you need to move forward. You don’t have that clarity, direction and power yet. Until you do, stay put.

The context for this command is the luminous time shortly after the resurrection when Jesus had a way of appearing or showing up with and among his disciples. They were in an upper room, or on the road to Emmaus, or on the shores of Lake Galilee, and suddenly there he was. He was present, assuring them, against all evidence to the contrary, that God was in charge and all was well.

But then the time came for this phase of their relationship to end and for another to begin. “You will receive power from the Holy Spirit, and you will be my witnesses to the end of the earth,” he told them. “But stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

At its simplest level, the command is to wait. But it’s not like waiting for a movie to begin. This is waiting for the things beyond our reach, those things that exceed our capacity to make happen and are far from inevitable. It is waiting for what we cannot as yet see. To make it even harder, we’re waiting for this new thing while at the same time something familiar and even precious to us is ending. There we are—in the in-between time. It can be unsettling, as we feel the past slipping away while the future remains unclear.

The waiting can take many forms. Maybe we’re wrestling with an urgent question that’s really bothering us inside or causing conflict with others, but it isn’t one that we can easily resolve. Answers to urgent questions rarely come easily or quickly, no matter how hard we seek them. Thus we have no choice but to live with difficult questions for however long it takes for clarity to emerge.

We may find ourselves waiting because there is a task before us that requires skills or capacities we don’t have. Harder still, the work may require a real inner change in us, a change in attitude more costly than we’re prepared to make. Working for this kind of change involves a lot of internal waiting, as we bump up against the limits of our current repertoire of skills and attitudes and fail in our efforts to try harder with what no longer works.

Perhaps we’re waiting because we can’t see. Or because someone else holds part of our destiny in their hands. Not being able to see what’s up ahead is unnerving, particularly when other people keep asking us about our future plans. This is helpful to keep in mind when making conversation with high school or college graduates. Some may not know what’s ahead for them, and we don’t make it easier for them when we bring up the subject.  

How, then, to live gracefully in a time of waiting?

The great temptation of a waiting time is to assume that we must either move full steam ahead, even when we’re not ready and don’t know where we’re going, or give up entirely, to become passive and do nothing. The dangers of either extreme are clear enough. I have learned the hard way to be suspicious of urgency, when I feel or others say that a decision must be made now. While there are times when we must take action, often, in anxiety, we rush ahead too soon. And if we can’t act, we’re tempted to throw up our hands and give up completely, a position that strips from us all moral agency and courage.

As an antidote to the temptations of a waiting time, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams suggests that we cultivate what he calls, “passionate patience.” Such patience allows us to live grounded in where we are right now, and ready to move toward the future when it beckons. “Poised readiness,” is another way to describe this approach to life. Animals in the wild give us the most compelling image of being completely still, yet poised to move when the time is right.  

There’s something wonderfully freeing about practicing passionate patience or poised readiness. In talking with a group of confirmands from St. Columba’s Church, I realized that poised readiness describes what it feels like for me to follow Jesus each day as my Savior and Lord.

I told them that each day when I rise, as soon as I remember, I pause to acknowledge Jesus as being in charge of my life. While the day almost always has a long list of responsibilities and tasks waiting for me, a part of me is waiting for guidance from Him. When the word from Jesus is “stay here,” I go about about my life, internally waiting for the power and the clarity he promised would come to guide my next steps. It helps me resist the tendency to push too hard or move too fast, and to trust that Jesus is Lord, not in the abstract, but in a way my life depends daily.

May it be so for you in your in-between times.

Starting with the Compassion of Jesus: Abortion and Women’s Reproductive Health

Now there was a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years; and though she had spent all she had on physicians, no one could cure her. She came up behind Jesus and touched the fringe of his clothes, and immediately her haemorrhage stopped… Jesus said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.’
Luke 8:41-48

With the news of legislation passed in several states greatly restricting a woman’s access to abortion with the expressed intention of setting the stage for the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, I commend to you a Summary of the Episcopal Church statements on Abortion and Women’s Reproductive Health.

It begins in the context of pastoral care:   

Clergy throughout The Episcopal Church counsel women, men, and families who must make decisions relating to pregnancy and childbirth, adoption, family planning, and who face infertility. Our ordained and lay leaders walk alongside Episcopalians and others who struggle with this intimate and challenging aspect of human life. Over the past several decades, the General Convention has addressed the topic of abortion from a position informed by this ministry and personal lived experience of clergy and laity within their own families. As a result, the General Convention of The Episcopal Church recognizes the moral, legal, personal, and societal complexity of the issue. The diversity of views within the Church represents our common struggle to understand and discern this issue.

My colleague, Bishop Jennifer Reddall of Arizona, wrote a thoughtful piece on this issue, Call the Midwife Meets 2019. With gratitude, and her permission, I share it with you here: 

Call the Midwife has been one of my favorite TV shows since its premiere. It is set in 1960s London, and the main characters are midwives and nuns living in Nonnatus House, an Anglican convent dedicated to women’s health. The personal and professional dramas are often reflected upon in prayer and meals around the community table. Any TV show that includes women’s voices singing Vespers is a show I am inclined to love.

The narrative arc of the current season has been threaded with storylines about abortion, along with the issues that accompany abortion: maternal health, poverty, social stigma of unmarried mothers, mental illness, inaccessibility of birth control, and domestic violence. Abortion in the show’s context is illegal–but not inaccessible–and extremely risky.

I’ve been intrigued by the intersection between this fictionalized, historic narrative, and the present-day national conversation around the recent, highly restrictive laws controlling access to abortion services, and women’s health more generally.

In Call the Midwife, characters are consistently presented with situations that do not fit into their ideal moral view. Mothers face hard choices; the midwives are caught between caring for their patients and fulfilling their legal obligations. The midwives–both lay and religious–are not of one mind about whether abortion should be permissible. But to a person, they always respond to their patients with compassion and empathy–and they allow themselves to be changed by the stories they encounter.

Jesus taught using stories. When we hear about characters who struggle with issues we struggle with, it can open our minds and hearts to the Love of God, and reminds us how Jesus interacts with the people around him. The Gospel consistently recounts that Jesus ‘had compassion’ on people and crowds, and his compassion leads him to action to relieve their suffering and hunger. I see the face of Jesus in the characters in Call the Midwife: they love, they weep, they care, they heal, they pray, and they stand by their patients through joy and grief.

I wish I heard more compassion and more love towards women in our national and legal debates–and not just when they have an unwanted or unviable pregnancy. The lifetime of stories I have heard and shared with the women I know have moved my own thoughts and opinions about abortion into a place that is roughly equivalent to what The Episcopal Church has stated in our General Convention resolutions.

One in four women in the United States has had an abortion by the age of 45–which means that every one of us knows many people who have those stories; but our culture doesn’t make them easy to share. Maybe it’s easier to turn to fictionalized stories like Call the Midwife to inspire our compassion.

But I pray that our congregations will always be places where people can find the compassionate face of Jesus, no matter what story they have to tell. And those other issues–maternal health, poverty, social stigma of unmarried mothers, mental illness, inaccessibility of birth control, and domestic violence–these are where we, regardless of our beliefs about the legality and accessibility of abortion services, must find ways to draw closer to the love of God and concretely demonstrate our love of God’s beloved children.

Why Christian; Why the Episcopal Church, continued

Always be ready to make your defense . . . for the hope that is within you.  
1 Peter 3:15

Last week I invited readers of my weekly reflections to send me their response to the questions, Why Christian? Why the Episcopal Church? The responses I’ve received thus far (more are welcome) are indeed testimony Rachel Held Evans’ assertion: “There remains no greater apologetic for the Christian life than a life caught up in the story of Jesus.”

Here are but a few excerpts (with personal details omitted);

— My husband retired from the ministry and we moved to Southern Maryland after 40 years serving in an evangelical denomination. Toward the end of our ministry I was feeling some internal struggles and not really understanding what I was feeling. It was when I visited a small Episcopal church in St Mary’s City, with my son, ( a millennial, and now an Episcopalian priest,) that I felt a sense of awakening and renewal… I felt like I had come home.

— The Way of the Cross — the story of Jesus’ suffering, dying and rising — tells me that we are never alone, never abandoned, even when it feels that way, in the hardest moments of loss and pain, of sinfulness and brokenness. . .  Resurrection tells me that love ultimately triumphs, and has taught me to live in hope, even when hope might seem absurd as it often does.

— I am an Episcopalian Christian because this church’s emphasis on the sacraments and its observations of different seasons encourages me to live and honor the life of the body and nourishes my spirit at the same time, AND connects me to a much bigger community — those gathered for worship and also the whole body of people who are at prayer at any one time, on this side of the grave and beyond.

— One can never underestimate the formative impact of having been raised in a particular faith tradition. Christianity feels woven into the very fabric of my identity as a person. I had a very powerful, intimate, and personal experience with Christ as my savior in college (I literally fell in love with Jesus), and have “known” ever since that I belong to him. Jesus is my prophet. His outlook on life, and his vision for the world’s restoration — and how we can get there — resonates with me above any other approach or theory.  

— I am a Christian because I cannot shake it off — and I have tried. I grew up in a Southern Baptist Church, wondering whether my name, George, had one, two, or even three syllables. Because I was a child, all of my early religious instruction was from women. Allow me to pause for a moment to lift Ruth, June, Buddy, and many other women for taking time from their busy lives to make sure that a few little boys and girls like me knew that Jesus loved us.

— I am a Christian because I so deeply believe that our human hearts are broken, that our human institutions and governments are hopelessly flawed, that God loves to perform miracles, and that those miracles are accomplished one human heart at a time.

— I was drawn to the Episcopal Church because there I felt a seriousness of purpose — I believed that people would fall down and worship Jesus if he appeared.

— I am a Christian because it was the faith of my parents and grandparents. I am still a Christian because my heart and mind have led me into the deeper mysteries of our faith. The mysteries of prayer, of community, of Resurrection, of Incarnation, of saints, of Word, of sacrament of Spirit, these nourish my soul. This is the living water, of which Jesus spoke to the women at the well. I am a Christian because I thirst.

— One of my early childhood memories is standing in the front of our “United Protestant” church with the children’s choir. The sunlight was streaming in through high clerestory windows, the dust mites were catching the light like little stars, and we were singing “Jesus Loves Me.” I was maybe 4 or 5 years old, and realized in that moment that Jesus loved ME. It was a lovely thought, caught up in the beauty of the star dust, and I have been a believer ever since. Looking back, I consider that to be one of God’s miracles, because my family of origin was not a loving environment.

— I am a Christian because Jesus Christ changed my life and continues to change my life. It took my breath away the first time someone said “if you had been the only person that ever lived, Jesus still would have come and died and rose again, just for you. He loves you that much.” I believe that and I repeat it as often as possible.

— For me the question why Christian is really, why Jesus? My answer starts with, because Jesus saved me, though I don’t mean that in an atoning sacrifice for sin kind of way. What I mean is that Jesus, and my faith in him, saved me from being the worst version of myself, what I could have been — bitter, cynical, judgmental. I still have those darker parts of myself to pay attention to, but because of Jesus I am a kinder, more compassionate person. . . Jesus’ way of death and resurrection, new life out of great pain, wholeness out of sharp brokenness has been the defining pattern of my life, and his journey has given mine language, and a framework, and a hope I wouldn’t otherwise have. In the worst times of my life, Jesus has been that voice in my ear reminding me that eventually, even when I can’t see it, the Good Friday I find myself in will give way to Easter, and there will be a way forward. When I am unable to trust that bigger picture, Jesus reminds me that all I have to do is trust in him, and keep going. For that, for him, for his presence in my life, I am profoundly grateful.

— I am a new Christian, baptized in 2017. I had long been a spiritual seeker, but I never seriously considered mainline Christianity because I thought it was homophobic. (I’m straight but a strong believer in equality.) But after Trump’s victory in 2016, I was so demoralized that I asked a friend if I could go to church with her. I was impressed because the day after Election Day, her church had held an emergency Eucharist. I don’t think I knew what Eucharist meant, but I appreciated the recognition that people needed something.

— For me, Christianity is experiencing everything being made new. . .

These are the stories we need to share with one another, and with others who might wonder why we follow Jesus and what difference it makes. As summer approaches, consider gathering with those you see in church every week or work alongside in service to others, and ask the question, “Why are you Christian?”

At the end of my sermon for the Confirmation service at Washington National Cathedral, I told part of my faith story that you can read here.  

Finding Our Home in God

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want . . .
Psalm 23

My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. 
John 10:27

 When I was in my early 20s, navigating the complicated and confusing terrain of young adult relationships, my priest at the time offered a word of counsel that I have never forgotten: seek out relationships, she suggested, with people who bring out the best in you. Pay attention to those relationships that you can feel at home in, free to be your true self and inspired to become your best.

Around that same time, I came across a similar definition of vocation as work that makes us more of who we are, the things we can do and offer that not only make a positive contribution, but help us realize something important in ourselves. The poet David Whyte speaks of setting out boldly in our work, making a pilgrimage of our labors, understanding that the consummation of work lies not only in what we have done, but who we have become while accomplishing the task. (David Whyte, Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity (New York: Riverhead Books, 2001), 15.)

Finally, in this same theme, consider the following passage from Marcus Borg’s book The Heart of Christianity about finding a faith community that resonates with your soul: “In my judgment,” he writes, “the single most important spiritual practice is to be part of a congregation that nourishes you even as it stretches you…If you are not involved in any church or are part of one that leaves you hungry and unsatisfied, find one that nurtures and deepens your Christian journey. Find one that makes your heart glad.” (Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity: How We Can Be Passionate Believers Today (HarperSanFrancisco, 1989), 194-5.)

What I’m trying to describe through these three examples is the experience of finding oneself at home—in relationships, through our work, and in community—free to be who we are, and also called forth to become our best selves through our engagements and endeavors. It isn’t always smooth sailing in those places where we are at home; challenge, struggle, and doubt are part of the experience as well. And I’m certainly not suggesting that we are never called outside our comfort zones, for, of course, we are. But it’s one thing to face challenges and reach beyond our comfort in the context of a fundamental at-homeness in the world, as opposed to when we feel perennially like a fish out of water. Indeed, we’re less likely to reach out beyond ourselves if we’ve never found comfort in our own skin.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

The 23rd psalm is quite possibly the most-well known and memorized text in all Bible, It speaks of our true home in God, the one who cares for us and looks out for us as the most devoted shepherd would care for his sheep.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus often speaks of himself in the imagery of a shepherd, as we heard read today: “My sheep hear my voice”, he says. “I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. In another place he says even more plainly, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” (John 10:1-18)

This is a classic expression of the kind of intimacy we can experience in relationship with Christ. At its essence, the Christian isn’t about following a set of religious rules or ascribing to set beliefs, but rather about finding oneself at home in God and God at home in us.

What is that experience like? The hunger for it is universal enough, but where do we go to know God in a way that moves us beyond rules to follow, and beliefs to accept?

We may not have to work as hard at experiencing God in this way as we think. In the introduction to her book, Altar in the World, the Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor sets up the now-familiar distinction in our culture between religion and spirituality.

“If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say, ‘I’m spiritual but not religious,’”, she writes, “I may not be any wiser about what that means, but I would be rich.” “I think I know what they mean by religious,” she writes, “the creeds, confessions, rituals, and religious wars, large or small, that are part of any so-called organized faith system. It’s the spiritual part that’s harder to grasp.” She then goes on to describe what she thinks people mean when they speak of spirituality: that longing for more—more meaning, more feeling, more connection, more life. Even religious people, she says, those of us who tend to show up and be part of a church community, are filled with this longing. We all have this sense, deep down, that there’s more to life than what we experience. “Where is the hidden secret?” we wonder. “Who has the key to the treasure box of more?”

The last place we think to look for the treasure of more life is right where we are, in our own skin, in our own lives and everyday routines. Yet this great gift of the spiritual life—being at home in ourselves, in our work, in the world, and in God—begins right where we’re standing. “All we lack,” Taylor suggests, “is the willingness to imagine that we already have everything we need. The only thing missing is our consent to be where we are.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), xiii-xv.)Once we consent, we can begin to practice; practice, as each chapter in Taylor’s book, “waking up to the presence of God,” practice “paying attention,” practice “walking the earth,” practice “feeling pain,” practice “living with purpose.”

Years ago, when as a teenager I was first introduced to the concept of having a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, the minister of the church I had stumbled into asked me if I was ready to invite Jesus into my heart. I didn’t know what he meant, but my heart was a lonely place at the time and so I said yes. The earth didn’t move under my feet, and the pain inside me didn’t disappear, but something in me shifted with that ‘yes,’ through that small step of consciously opening myself to the presence and love of God. Looking back, I would say that Christ was already inside me, but because the presence of Christ never forces itself upon us, my consent was an important part of the spiritual equation for me, as is for all of us. That consent takes us deeper into God’s presence, both in and around us, and gives us a place to call home in God, no matter where we wind up, no matter how many times we fail, or make mistakes, or hurt another, or are hurt ourselves.

It’s Mother’s Day. Because I’m lucky enough to still have a mom, and be a mom, and as of four weeks ago to be a grandmother, I’ve both given and received flowers today, which is a nice thing. But the mother on my mind is a woman I knew when she was a teenager, as a member of the parish I served in Toledo, Ohio nearly 30 years ago. Her mother had died when she was 12. Her father did his best to raise her well despite their great loss, and he succeeded. I met her when she was 15, and she was, like her dad, a joyful, thoughtful, compassionate person. I asked her once about her mother. She told me some things about her, and that she missed her every day. She told me that her mother’s death had taught her, at a tender age, that life is precious.

The daughter grew up, went to college, then to graduate school, and eventually she married a man who took a teaching position at University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire. Her father moved to Eau Claire to be close to them, and by that time I had moved on to serve a congregation in Minneapolis. I would hear from them from time to time, and on their occasional cultural outings to the Twin Cities, they stopped by our house. Once I was with them when the young woman was pregnant with their first child. A few months later, she and her husband became parents of a sweet baby boy.   

About a year after that, I received an email from the young woman’s father. I need to warn you that the story is about to take a very sad turn. For he wrote with tragic news: the baby had taken a fall, sustained severe injuries, and was flown to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where he died. I called later that evening and he told me that his daughter had been carrying her child down the stairs when she missed a step and fell with her baby in her arms.

You and I know that such tragedies occur every day. We all carry intimate knowledge of deep loss and routinely hear of such sorrow to the point we are desensitized to it until it touches us personally. I think it’s a miracle that we, as a species, have survived, given the pain we must endure. When I thought of this young woman who knew the loss of her own mother, now required to bear loss again as a mother, it was more than my heart could imagine at the time, and could imagine still.

My prayer in those years was simply for God to be with her, to walk with her through the valley of the shadow of death, to make a home in her grief and sustain her through the long process of mourning that lay before her, until she comes at last to a place of peace. I’m pleased to report to you that now, over 10 years later, that she and her husband are, indeed, in a better place. One way they channeled their grief was to establish a foundation in honor of their son. They eventually had another child. There was no shortcut through the valley of the shadow of death for them, but the grace of God, and the love of her family and friends, and the resilience of the human spirit, they made it through.  

Life is precious, she told me years ago, and it is. It is precious, and vulnerable, and we hold it in our hands.

If you have the opportunity to shower someone you love with affection today, do it. If you have the capacity to forgive someone who has hurt you and be reconciled today, do it. If you have the chance to walk in a park filled with spring flowers, do it. If you have the strength to reach out and make the world a better place, to be a voice for justice and a force for good, do it. And if you ever hear the voice of Jesus speak to you, with an invitation to trust in his love, to find your home in his heart and trust that he dwells in yours, say yes. Say yes, and know yourself as you are: a beloved, cherished child of God.