Tag Archives: Seminary

Losing my religion

Sometimes religious people do really ugly things. Because I am a religious person and a religious leader, working in a religious setting after being trained in a religious school and living in a religious community, I sometimes get to see ugliness in religion up close.

This week was one of those weeks. And this week’s ugliness went public.

For me, besides the heartache, anger, confusion and sadness that accompanies these times–the thing I struggle with the most is how to talk about ugliness and evil with my friends on the fringes of faith traditions. My non-practicing Jewish girlfriends whom I love dearly and who constantly give me perspective and insight. My friends who identify as “spiritual but not religious,” having tired of religious institutions, or my friends who are vehemently opposed to religious expressions of all kinds. And the dearest of them all, my self-proclaimed “recovering-Catholic” husband who vacillates between lovingly supporting my vocation with pride, and shaking his fists with mistrust.

This week was a fist-shaking kind of week. And trust is at an all-time-low.

Two years ago, my husband and I were living on The General Theological Seminary campus while I was in my second year of school there. Without getting into much detail, two members of the administration used various bully-tactics to skirt around their mismanagement of our money. Jay was wounded alongside me as he a) footed the bill, b) lived in the very community calling our character into question, and c) watched me gingerly navigate threats with little/no recourse. It was an exhausting time, and perhaps the first time the church really broke my heart. I was learning the hard lesson that church leaders are not exempt from arrogance and meanness. The two things that most sustained us were the support and wisdom of my bishop and rector back home, and most especially the love and support of the seminary faculty. In that sense, church saved me from the church.

This week those same faculty who held me up were fired by other administrative figures at the same seminary.

The faculty were “resigned” by the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees after communicating their serious concerns regarding the Dean and President of the seminary–concerns that in any other church or even business would require the person in question to be removed for the safety of others until an investigation into allegations was complete.  To the outside world, the message communicated is that The Episcopal Church protects those in power, even if that person has reportedly intimidated students and faculty with racist, sexist and homophobic remarks and decisions.  So again I find myself struggling to explain why religion isn’t a bad thing–why I feel called to this work of ministry–why I feel I can trust the church–why I turn to the church for healing–why I’m not only a person of faith, but also a person contributing to the overall framework of the institution of the church.

So let me say: The Episcopal Church–of which I am a member, a leader, and a representative–is a good and joyful community of people striving to “persevere in resisting evil…proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ…serve Christ in all persons…for justice and peace among all people, and respect[ing] the dignity of every human being.”  This is our baptismal covenant, as found in the Book of Common Prayer.  It’s what we promise, what we proclaim, what we are initiated into, and what we expect from ourselves and our church community.

That said, we suffer from the same unhealthy group dynamics everyone else does.  Part of my husband’s frustration stems from his belief that leaders of the church should be held to a higher standard–and to an extent, I agree with him.  Lots of people do.  But that part about “resisting evil” in the baptismal covenant?  It’s followed by, “and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.”  Not IF, but WHEN.  I think the higher standard many people think of is perfection, when in reality its a willingness to repent and say you’re sorry.  Of course the church does not have the corner on apologizing.  And note that the covenant I reference is one of baptism–not one of ordination.  It is so widely adhered to that we make a point of renewing our covenant in our liturgy at least quarterly.

This week’s ugliness has cracked open some long-time systemic problems.  Problems not unique to The General Theological Seminary.  My prayer is that the heartbreak we feel will allow for truth’s light to illuminate a way forward–one of repentance, reconciliation, redemption and resurrection.

It’s what we preach.  Heck, let’s be the sermon.

And so it is in the hope of Christ that I pray for humility–for myself, my peers, the vulnerable students and the bishops that support them, the faculty, the Dean, the Board–and for their spouses and families that did not “sign up for this” in the same way we did.


Tagged , , , ,

Teresa, Salt & Light

Preached at the Chapel of the Good Shepherd at the General Theological Seminary on the feast of St. Teresa of Avila

Romans 8:22-27, Matthew 5:13-16

Have you ever met someone who really loved his or her faith?  Someone with such a passion for their God and their worship that it almost struck you as a little odd, but also made you hope for a taste of a love so personal and profound?  I have encountered several such people. 

My middle school friend Aaron was the first person I knew to wear a kippah and tallit with tzitzit (or fringes) to school.  Growing up in the foothills of Virginia, in a town without a synagogue, Aaron’s Jewish faith already made him a bit of an anomaly.  But his attention to prayer and spiritual practice as a teenager is what made him stand out to me.  He showed me how to tie the tefillin on my head and my arm according to the Shema: Sh’ma Yisra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad… These were not just words or motions or traditions or cultural practices—Aaron exhibited genuine piety, joy and palpable faith that I found both curious and inspiring.

And then there was my roommate in Baltimore who was born and raised in a Catholic home and in Catholic schools.  Despite her liberated theology that might make some turn from the church in frustration—my friend’s immense love for the sacraments kept her grounded and hopeful.  She once described to me the intense intimacy she experienced during the Mass, blushing as she described the climax she felt when receiving the Body and Blood of Christ.  Her depiction was so beautiful and vulnerable and bizarre to me—it left me wanting more—wanting a love for God that would make me blush.

Teresa of Avila was one such Saint.  A Carmelite Nun, a Mystic, a Reformer, and one of only two women declared a “Doctor of the Church,” Teresa’s love of God was one of ecstasy and joy.  A love as curious as it was inspiring.  She received visions, she conversed with Christ, she levitated during prayer, and the story of her heart being pierced by an angel with a golden spear is so sensual, only Bernini could capture her ecstasy in sculpture.[1] 

Teresa describes the encounter thus:

In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire.  This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails.  When he pulled it out, I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God.  The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans.  The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one’s soul then content with anything but God… So gentle is this wooing which takes place between God and the soul that if anyone thinks I am lying, I pray God, in His goodness, to grant him some experience of it.[2]

All this talk of penetration, consummation, sweetness and wooing.  No wonder Teresa says, “When this pain of which I am now speaking begins, the Lord seems to transport the soul and throw it into an ecstasy.  So there is no opportunity for it to feel its pain or suffering, for the enjoyment comes immediately.”[3]

You can imagine that writings such as this raised quite a few eyebrows in the church.  Teresa’s unbridled passion for God meant she faced the inquisition and imprisonment, but it also led to the establishment of 17 convents of Reformed Carmelites.  She was a spirited troublemaker, a reformer and a true lover of God.  And I, for one, really like her. 

Teresa had what Matthew’s gospel describes as “salt” and “light.”  

Honestly, I can’t hear today’s gospel passage without breaking into song.  I often have a mental soundtrack for projects and papers and sermons I’m ruminating on.  Some of you have even seen me break into song over the refectory menu.  This week’s soundtrack has been a mixture of Godspell’s Broadway musical rendition of “Let your light so shine before men…” and the Spanish Taizé chant attributed to Teresa, “Nada te turbe, nada te espante…”

So lets start with the upbeat Broadway tune.  Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth.”  But he says if salt has lost its saltiness, it might as well be thrown out and trampled on.  Jesus is telling us: be salty!  Be that which adds flavor to life.  Spice it up.  It’s amazing what a pinch of salt can do.  Rather than being a flavor all it’s own, salt is known for enhancing the flavors it is mixed with.  That’s why you can add salt to just about anything—even chocolate chip cookies.  Teresa clearly exhibited salt.  Her life and her visions added flavor to the convents she reformed and to the people who continue to seek out her teaching and writings on prayer and contemplation.

Jesus also tells us, “You are the light of the world,” and he compares us to a city on a hill.  You can’t hide if you’re on a hill, and neither should you hide your light.  Jesus is telling us: get out there and shine!  Don’t “hide it under a bushel, NO!”  We can’t hide our light in these chapel walls.  We can’t hide our light on The Close.  We’ve got to get outside those gates and get shining.  I mean that!  I know most of you well enough to say you are lights in this community and in my life.  And that’s great.  But Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.”  The world!  Teresa took her light on the road, and so should we.

What does all this salt and light have to do with Teresa’s prayer sung at Taizé?  “Let nothing disturb you; nothing frighten you.”  Well being salty and letting your light shine takes courage.  And Teresa would know.  To really let the earth get a taste of who you are and to really let the world see your light shine, you’ve got to be willing to put yourself out there. 

Do you sometimes feel like you need an extra dose of courage just to be yourself?  Do you feel like you’re under the microscope as you journey along this path of discernment and vocation?  I feel that.  I need that courage.   The call to be salt and light is a call to boldness, because it is a call to vulnerability.  And Lord knows vulnerability isn’t for the weak.

A dear friend and colleague here gave me this prayer card of St. Teresa just last week—not because I’d be preaching on Teresa this week, but because Teresa’s prayer is one I need to contemplate daily as a senior. 

In a moment we’ll sing a version of this same text, so pay attention to the words.  Perhaps it can be your prayer too:

Let nothing disturb you; nothing frighten you.

All things are passing.

God alone never changes.

Patience obtains all things.

Nothing is wanting to him who possesses God.

God alone suffices.



Take courage.

And get shining!

[1] See The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa by Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), in the Cornaro Chapel, Rome.

[2] The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself, pg 210.

[3] The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself, pg 211.

Tagged , , , , ,

Preaching for peers–Know your peeps

This sermon marks my first time preaching in class.  Meaning it was the first time I preached in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, the first time I preached from an elevated pulpit, the first time I preached on tape, and the first time I preached with the understanding that my peers and professor would be evaluating what I proclaimed.

Proper 21 (September 30, 2012)–James 5:13-20 & Mark 9:38-50

Prayer—May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to you, oh God, my rock and my redeemer.  Amen.

As I compared various translations of the Gospel text for today, I was struck by the subject heading for the passage in Mark as the Common English Bible presents it.  I typically ignore such headings, but the words “Recognize Your Allies” jumped out.  Really?  Is that what this passage is about?  The disciples are clearly intent on setting themselves apart from this unknown person casting out demons, not joining up with him:  “Can you believe the nerve?  Casting out demons in Jesus’ name even though he doesn’t follow US??”

Wait a second—back up—do the disciples have the corner on the Jesus market?  Even though this man is casting out demons in Jesus’ name, the disciples are upset because the man is not following them.  Remember this exchange happens soon after their conversation wondering who of them would be considered the greatest.  Their pride is as stifling as it is familiar.  How often do we think we know the way?  Even as open-minded, welcoming Episcopalians—are we not all a bit like the disciples, a little arrogant and maybe disgruntled too that someone isn’t doing things the way we do?  Professor Malloy often reminds us that teaching liturgics at an Episcopal seminary is extremely difficult because everyone believes their way is the way.

And yet the Common English Bible suggests this is not about being exclusive, but about recognizing our allies.  Hmm.  Could it be that our allies don’t always look like us, worship like us, talk, study, eat and learn in the same place as us?  Could it be that Jesus’ vision extends far beyond—just—us?

Jesus turns the tables on the disciples.  He says stop being a tattletale and take a look at yourselves.  Here we are (seminarians) preparing for ministry, presumably up on some sort of perceived or real pedestal, what an enormous amount of responsibility!  Don’t waste your time checking others out, trying to see if they are in or out; we need to spend more time checking ourselves.  It’s pretty easy to be a stumbling block (or as the Greek says, a “scandal”) from the position we are in.

I think Jesus gives us a big clue as to what this stumbling block or scandal might be in the sentences that follow:

“If your hand causes you to “scandal,” cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell…If your foot causes you to “scandal,” cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown in hell.  And if your eye causes you to “scandal,” tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown in hell.”

It is better to enter life, to enter the kingdom of God maimed, lame, and one-eyed.  It is better for us to realize our shortcomings, to be self-aware and true, and to live, than it is for us to act like we’ve got it all together and miss out on life.  It is better for us to know our growing edges, to admit that we do not have all the answers, and to be closer to God—than to keep up appearances and be distant from the God we proclaim.

How do we do this.  How do we discern and allow ourselves to be shaped and formed, perhaps maimed, and thus closer to God?

Our reading from James suggests we pray.  And pray, and pray, and pray, and pray.  Pray when you’re happy, pray when you’re sick.  Pray for forgiveness, pray for the strength to help others.

I love this next part of James: “My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.”  While the passage lifts up the idea of saving a wandering soul, look at who that wanderer is?  You!  “If anyone among you wanders…”  Skimming over this passage it could easily sound empowering and self-righteous.  Let’s go save some sinners’ souls from death!  And yes, we should be looking out for one another, we should proclaim the truth in love, we should remind each other what path we are on lest we find ourselves in the brambles.  But we must do so humbly.  We must do so in the full knowledge that we too are prone to wander.  We must do so as our maimed, lame, one-eyed selves, who just want to be closer to God

There’s one more thing we need to talk about: salt.  Jesus says, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”  What does salt have to do with peace?  In Jesus’ time, salt had two very important functions: to flavor and to preserve.  When I lived in Benin, West Africa, I visited the home of my student, Alexis.  His home was one room.  And on the wall of his room was a huge poster of colorful fruits and vegetables.  Written across the top of the poster was the English phrase: “Variety is the spice of life.”  Alexis was so proud of his poster with its English words, he was so proud of himself for understanding what the words meant.  And he showed that he understood the meaning of the words when he befriended me, an awkward missionary who stuck out like a sore thumb.

Being who we are, in all of our glorious differences, worshiping God and proclaiming God in a myriad of words and practices—that is the spice of life.  And it is that same spice that preserves us.  To “have salt in us” is to season and to preserve.  And this salt is what Jesus equates to peace.  He says, “Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.”  Recognize that your allies may not look like you.  Know that peace is not built on conformity.  But when we are unique selves, and when we embrace the diversity that represents, and when we recognize an ally in the person who also points to God, even without following our way—ooooh, that is living!  That is what preserves, and that is what brings peace!


Tagged , , , ,