Important Disclaimer

Since I currently have several employers/supervisors/churches/etc., please know that none of the words on my blog represent them or their beliefs. This blog is my own creation.

It also does not represent my children's perspective, nor my mother's; they think I am funny, but misguided.
(Quick update: only my mother thinks I'm funny now.)

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The God Who Looks After

The Cat's Eye Nebula by Smithsonian
I'm posting the sermon I preached Sunday with some reservations.

First, I made a rookie mistake and selected two very long narrative passages to preach from: Hagar in the wilderness and the woman at the well. There are wonderful parallels and connections between the stories, and both stories are rich enough to preach on for days. Since I haven't been preaching as often, I got excited about both passages and couldn't let go. So that made for a bit of a muddle.

Second, the Hagar passage with its context of slavery has so many layers and complexities to it as we bring our own personal intersections of race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, class, etc to bear. I did not address slavery, or any of those intersections in this sermon and instead focused on the imagery of being seen by God. As I read back through the sermon, I find that to be a spectacular failure on my part, although the sermon did what it needed to do in the congregational context where I preached. 

So be it.

Sermon, Sunday, July 15, 2012
by Katie Mulligan
w/gratitude to the Rev. Elizabeth Vandegrift for the invitation

"The Perfect Gaze"
by Mary B. Campbell

Great care must be taken in looking
At the beloved. If you look
Too long, the spirit of the other
Will be forced into hiding
Or disappear from this world.
The gaze must be no longer
Than five glances; otherwise
It is fatal.

The gaze should be empty of design
Or content; it is like a question
Which is satisfied at every moment.
Even in sleep, the face of the other
Forestalls the need to know more.
If you ask out loud
You will waken a liar.

Ending the gaze is a rupture:
You look away, you abandon the beloved
You travel inwardly. This is freedom
And the hardest part. But love
Is the breaking of all spells,
Even its own.

Mary B. Campbell, 
The World, the Flesh and Angels: 
Barnard New Women's Poet Series, 
(Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1989).

First Scripture: Genesis 16:1-16

Years ago, I met with a spiritual director named Hugh Smith. He was a pastor in Trenton for some 30 years, and then became a spiritual director as “retirement.” He was a fascinating man, with a deep, gravelly voice. He could calm your soul with the briefest invitation to sit a while. He died last year, and I miss him terribly. He would be delighted to know that I am working with youth at his old church and at the church where he did much of his spiritual direction appointments. He would be delighted.

One day I said to Hugh, “I just need God to point in a direction. Go this way, or go that way, I just need a direction. And I need the sign to be clear. What does God want me to do?” Hugh laughed at me and said, “Katie, God is in both directions. Whatever you decide to do, God will be in it.”

I think this is what I am about today in this sermon, with these scriptures: God is in it, no matter what we do. We are seen, and known, and loved, despite our best efforts to hide. This is a god who looks after us.

During my last year of seminary, I preached weekly at a small church in south Jersey. It wasn’t a formal arrangement—I would show up on Sunday morning to preach, and the congregation would have a check for me. At the end of the service I would ask, “Do you need me next week?” Usually they said yes, and if it wasn’t next week, then it was the week after. We went on like this for a year before I became their pastor.

But since I wasn’t their pastor yet, and I only ever saw them on Sundays, we had occasional communication mishaps. One Sunday I decided to preach on this Hagar text. The little church was almost always an adult only church, with three children (including mine) who came occasionally. I planned to preach about Hagar and Sarah and Abraham and their complicated marriage and family arrangement. I planned to preach about the domestic violence that drove Hagar out into the wilderness. I planned to preach about slavery and owning other people’s bodies and what that does to a person. It was a sermon about bodies and scandalous behavior and pregnancy and childbirth.

I arrived at church a few minutes before the service. When I opened the front door, I discovered a long line of boy scouts getting ready to open our worship service with a flag ceremony for Boy Scout Sunday. Said boy scouts and their families then took a seat in the sanctuary to join us for worship. I set my sermon aside and quickly came up with a simple message about being prepared in the wilderness—like Hagar?!—and stumbled through the service, completely caught off guard.

After the service, one man came up to me and said, “So. You’re a lady preacher, eh? I belong to the PCA church up the street.” PCA churches do not ordain women. It was something of an awkward, vulnerable moment as I realized that many of the families present were conservative enough to believe I should not be in the pulpit. I think they were as surprised as I was that morning. What we saw in each other was something not entirely to our liking. The man’s wife took a hold of his arm and dragged him out before we got into it.

I wonder what do we see of ourselves when we look in each other’s eyes? Do we see one another as God sees us? Do we see truly what the other sees in us? Do we project our worst fears onto the eyes of the other? When we seek out God, do we project our worst fears onto the eyes of God?

In our text this morning Hagar interacts with God in the wilderness after running away from her mistress. She says, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?” But that is not the only translation—a more literal translation reads this way: “You are a God of seeing (You are El-Roi). Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.” What might it mean to be looked after by God? What would it mean to be truly seen by God?

The story goes like this. A long time ago, back in Genesis chapter 12, after the flood and Noah’s ark, and after the Tower of Babel, the Lord came to Abram and made a deal. The Lord said, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” And so Abram set out on his adventures with his wife. They were not a young couple, and as they traveled through the wilderness, they were not getting any younger. Sarai did not conceive any children as they traveled along, and it began to trouble Abram greatly that they had no children. After all, how would the Lord make a nation of him, if he didn’t have sons?

In chapter 15, Abram had another vision of the Lord. In that vision he received reassurance that the promise was intact. God covenanted with Abram that he would grant land and descendents. Yet, in that vision, no mention was made of Sarai. As the wife of Abram, you can imagine that she might have been somewhat anxious about her position in the household. She was getting older and still had not borne any children. Since her status in the household depended on her ability to bear children, Sarai came up with a plan. In those days, if a woman could not have children herself, she could give to her husband a female slave and claim the resulting children as her own. This is a difficult passage to read as a modern individual—none of us think slavery is acceptable these days. And even in those days, it seems that Hagar didn’t think slavery was acceptable either! But Sarai’s actions were not uncommon, and it’s possible that the two women could have formed a union of sorts to help each other out. In subsequent stories, Jacobs wives included Rachel and Leah, but also their slave women, Bilhah and Zilpah.

So after ten years of waiting, Sarai brought Hagar to Abram, and Hagar conceived a child. Sarai says, “Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” In the Hebrew text she actually says, “It may be that I may be built up by her.” So that there is the sense that Sarai is trying to establish herself in the household through the strength of Hagar’s womb. But what happens next? Hagar does indeed conceive, but she has no intention of allowing Sarai to use her in this way, slave woman or no. After she discovers that she has conceived, she “looks upon her mistress with contempt” or more literally, she “made her mistress to be slight or of no account.” In other words, the exact opposite results came about from Sarai’s plans. She had intended to be built up, but she was further diminished.

In her rage she went to Abram and demanded that he fix the problem. But Abram washed his hands of the whole situation and reminded Sarai that Hagar was her slave. “Do to her as you please,” he said. And so Sarai did. We have no description of the specific actions Sarai took against her slave; she treated her harshly, afflicting her. And it was bad enough, that the pregnant Hagar decided she would be better off running away into the wilderness than staying and suffering the abuse.

It was there the angel of the Lord found Hagar. A foreign woman. A slave woman. A woman outside of the promise who had run away from her rightful owner, “stealing” the child that her mistress had legal claim to. There the angel of the Lord found her and spoke to her. The God of the Old Testament is forever making deals, and so the angel said, “Return to your mistress and submit, and I will ensure your survival and your children’s survival—I will multiply your offspring so that they cannot be counted.” And then the angel went on to promise that the son would be wild and free. His hand would be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, living at odds with his kinsmen. This wasn’t a promise of easy life, but it was a promise of freedom from the slavery that Hagar had endured.

[Added after Sunday: I see in Hagar’s return a sort of deliverance—but I want to qualify this statement. I do not understand at all why an all powerful God could not deliver Hagar directly and immediately from her predicament. I do not understand the necessity for the continued enslavement of others. But if it was not possible to free Hagar in that moment, if the only option for her survival was to send her back to a cruel place that at least had food, then I see in Hagar’s return a sort of deliverance--in that oppressed peoples do what they must to survive to see freedom. I hope St. Pete brings his theological hat to the pearly gates, cuz I have questions.]

When I think about the perils a pregnant woman might face alone in the wilderness, I see a woman with very few options for survival. Her return to Sarai may have been the only option open to her and her baby. As repugnant as the situation was, at least in camp there was food and protection from outside dangers. I am not suggesting that it was an ideal situation, but I am suggesting that what God offered to her was a glimpse of a future promise. The angel of the Lord was telling her, I think, go back to where you can live. Get through this period of time, and there will come a moment when you will be free of this oppression. There are times in each of our lives when things seem unbearable, like we cannot go another moment. Recently a friend said to me, “It’s not that I wish to die, I just don’t want to live another day like this.” Hagar’s story is for those of us who find ourselves in those moments. She represents the woman or man stuck in an unbearable situation with few options for survival—and none of them are good. Abram had his promise of land and descendents. Hagar received her promise of survival for herself and her children and the promise of freedom from her unbearable situation.

Hagar says, “Truly I have seen him who looks after me.” Truly she met in the wilderness the one who knew both her immediate needs and her future desires. She returned to Sarai only to be driven out again, years later as her child grew to adulthood. But she was looked after by God, and the promise of wild freedom was fulfilled. She was seen.

Our second story comes from the gospel of John, and it too is a story of being seen. I invite you to close your eyes and listen to the story. Listen as one who sees God and a woman from Samaria. Remember that Samaritans and Jews did not mix socially. Remember that a woman with five husbands and a lover would be considered scandalous even today. Listen, and see the God who looks after us:

Second Scripture Reading: John 4:1-42

This story is often understood as a story that rebukes the Samaritan woman for her five husbands and the lover. “You have no husband,” Jesus says. And yet, as I read closely through the text, I find no words of condemnation. He does not shame her, he offers her hope. All I find in the text is the God who sees who this woman is, what she has done in her life, and where she is now. This God who sees into the depths of her soul does not offer her penance or rebuke or even challenge. He offers her living water and asks her to see him!

At our most intimate moments with God—and perhaps these are our most terrible moments in life sometimes—at those moments we are seen all the way through by God. When we face impossible decisions, God is present in whatever choice we make. Nothing we ever do or say or think separates us from the sight of God. If we are lucky we see God. And not only do we see God and live, but perhaps we might see God as the one who looks after us.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Power: Some Thoughts on #ga220

Beach tug of war at Southport, 1917
So I was going to try to write a sophisticated commentary on power in relationships, but I'm way way way tired tonight, and the next two months are packed. So what you get is whatever pours out in the next half hour as I drift closer to sleep. And you only get that if the weasels stay in bed.

Last week my church denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), in which I am ordained, held our biennial (every 2 years) business meeting, which we call General Assembly. The General Assembly is made up of delegates who are ordained as pastors and delegates who are not; delegates come from every presbytery (and presbyteries are groups of churches grouped geographically). GA is an exercise in representative democracy, with each delegate charged with keeping an open mind and voting as they are led by the Spirit.

The delegates are assigned to committees and consider overtures submitted to change the constitution and other such matters. Then the entire General Assembly gathers for two or three days to consider all the business at hand. This year they live streamed GA, so many of us could watch most of the plenary meetings. And a lot of us who watched it tweeted it too. You can find those tweets by searching #ga220.

This year on the docket there was an overture to alter our Book of Order so that the Directory for Worship would read that a marriage is between "two persons" instead of between "a man and a woman." This change would have allowed pastors to officiate same gender marriages, although it wouldn't have required them to do so. Although the amendment was recommended by committee, it did not pass the General Assembly. It was close, though, and we will likely see another amendment in 2014 at #ga221.

There was plenty of twitter snark to be found, although I doubt it was just on twitter. The delegates had a chance to debate the marriage amendment for several hours, and over the course of the afternoon we heard all our old favorites thrown out there: "I love you gay people so very very much, but because I love you I must affirm a traditional understanding of marriage." "If we affirm homosexuality, then how can we condemn bestiality, adultery, and inceest?" "If we allow same gender marriages, then our global partners will cut off ties with us and we will be forced to relocated missionaries and find different partnerships." One guy tweeted at me that if I didn't repent of my sin (of homosexuality) then I would burn in hell. I declined to continue our conversation. One person reminded us from the floor of GA that the penalty for sexual sin is death. That sort of collectively took our breath away.

A young woman took to the microphone and said she is a lesbian and a deacon and she didn't see what being a lesbian had to do with providing care for the families in her church. Another told the assembly that she has indeed performed same gender marriages and she will continue to do so, as a matter of pastoral care. There were other queer folk ready to out themselves at GA, but time was limited. I'm sure there were other conservative folk ready to bring their bestiality arguments to the microphone, but blessedly time was limited. 

We made progress: this year nobody said lgbtq folk cause HIV/AIDS. Nobody brought up the Nazis. And nobody from EITHER side quoted Bonhoeffer's work. Perhaps because we spent so much time discussing how to limit discussion (hours, no joke), there wasn't room for the full glory of our polarized positions to display.

Somewhere in the middle of all that, I saw a tweet that made me wince. It was harsh, and it came from a colleague on the conservative side of things. But this particular pastor I know from interacting elsewhere in social media. In another space and time, where we didn't have power or authority over each other, when the denomination's faithfulness was not at stake (to either of us), where we couldn't get each other fired or disciplined, in THAT space we had been able to listen to one another kindly and gently. In a space where there wasn't a power discrepancy we could afford to listen to one another and accept the other as is. I told him I missed the gentleness of that. My tweet made him pause a minute.

This reminded me of other conservative friends who have hosted me in their homes, broken bread with me, and prayed with me. Prayed *with* me, not at me, or for me, or to me. In times when there is no threat, laughter and love is possible even through disagreement.

Once, at a conference for pastors, I ate dinner with a colleague who disagreed with me about almost everything regarding sexuality and Christianity. I wasn't uncomfortable until he said that he thought I should resign as a pastor. He felt that I was being unethical by being an out queer pastor, and that it would be more honorable for me to seek charity for my family from other people rather than pastor a church. He even offered support. His passion for this idea was so strong it made me question whether he had the power to make this happen. It took me a bit to shake off my fear from that conversation. It took me a while to not feel threatened by that conversation. And our friendly connection suffered for that. 

I tweeted during GA: "Some of my best friends are conservatives. I promise not to out you :P" This was tongue in cheek, but there is truth in it. Recently I was interacting with a PCA pastor on twitter. He said he disagreed with me but respected me. I said he could disagree with me all he wants to as long as he doesn't get between me and my paycheck. He asked me to please not become a PCA pastor because then he might have to intervene. He has nothing to worry about. I can't imagine the PCA church that would hire me (divorced, queer, female, single mother). And I have no desire to leave my own denomination. But what interests me is that our friendship is possible because we do not have power or authority over each other. 

I think there's something there we need to listen to, and that in mutual forebearance there lies the possibility of a new way. I don't think there's much danger that a conservative church would hire me, nor that a liberal church would hire many of my conservative colleagues. We naturally sort ourselves out that way. Every now and then there's drama, but these mismatches don't last long.

This afternoon, Bruce Reyes-Chow tweeted "Power/momentum are shifting, so few will leave. No how libs use that power is Q." Translated, that sentence reads: "Power and momentum are shifting, so few liberal churches will leave the denomination. Now how they will use that power is the question." And I do think this is the question. Will we liberal pinko commie queer folk turn around and set hard rules for our conservative brothers and sisters? Or will there be space for them to think and speak their thoughts, even though we think they are misguided? Do we need to police their use of bestiality comparisons, or do we just move on with the ministries we are now able to participate in fully?

Two years ago I came out as a queer woman in a blogpost. I was very afraid--and that fear was a big part of why I came out. Fear gives other people power over you, and I resented that. Power can ruin relationships and friendships like nothing else. I was tired of being afraid for something I considered to be beautiful. I was tired of not being known. I was frustrated that it always took me three days to find the queer folk anywhere. So I came out and now they find me.

A year ago the PC(USA) passed amendment 10A, which modified our constitution in such a way that openly queer folk who are partnered can now be ordained. I'm not partnered, but it took my stress level down a notch or two. I posted a blog about that called "Joyful Submission." Over the last two years, dozens of queer folk have contacted me privately to make connections. Several conservative folk have too. And since there was no longer any legitimate way to bring me up on charges for being queer, those friendships have been easier and more fruitful. We laugh more. I can mock myself. I can mock their homophobia. They can argue they aren't homophobic. They can make jokes about marrying my cat or my toaster. I tell them they are ridiculous. I challenge their sexual ethics. We drink. We break bread. We pray.

Such friendships are not possible across theological, philosophical, and political lines when we have the ability to end each other's careers or dictate each other's lovers. I think this is something we need to think about: power. Power has become an idol, and we get drunk on it. That's not a conservative or a liberal thing, that's a human thing. I hope I remember that.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Habit of Silence

Last week while I was at the Wild Goose Festival there was a lot of talk about music and musicians and the music scene in Nashville and other places. It was all way over my head as I had no idea who any of the bands or musicians were or whether I liked them or their style. Someone asked me what kind of music I like, and I realized I truly dread that question.

I didn't grow up with music, really. It was pretty quiet in my house. My parents never collected records or 8 tracks. They had a few cassettes of things like John Denver and Neil Diamond, but we rarely played them. Our stereo was an old tuner my dad had been making work for a long time; it didn't have a top, so you could see inside all the circuits and wires. When he turned it on, he played classical music. But it was rare, and I'm not sure I ever listened to an entire piece all the way through. I never developed a sense of composers or styles, I just knew it didn't catch me.

I loved music though--I sang all day long if I could. One of my jobs was taking out the trash all around the house, and I dragged my trash bag from room to room, singing every camp song I ever learned. I hadn't finished my repertoire by the time I got the bag out to the curb, so I would stand there and finish, loudly.

I sang in choirs and learned to play the piano, saxophone, recorder and bassoon. I've been longing to learn to play guitar a long time--I even have one and know how to tune it. I discovered top 40 in jr. high and celebrated when Madonna's "Crazy for You" was the number one song locally for 30 days in a row. People talked fervently about Duran Duran, but I only ever heard "View to a Kill." My knowledge of popular music is as shallow and unformed as my knowledge of sports (I don't have favorite teams either--thought the Cleveland Browns was baseball until a month ago).

I sang in a church praise band for years--and that's actually what finally got me to Sunday worship regularly. I can sit and listen to someone play acoustic guitar until the world ends.

It isn't that I never developed any taste for music--I have music. It's just I don't know how to answer when someone asks me what kind of music I like--there's a whole identity wrapped up in that answer, and I don't really mean to claim the identity when I say I like the music. If I say, for instance that I like Indigo Girls, there's often an assumption or expectation that I know others in the genre, and honestly, I just don't. And beyond that, I don't know the stories behind the musicians and the bands and the songs and the tours. It doesn't catch me like that.

I love music, but often have to remind myself to listen to it. I'll put it on in the car sometimes, but I'm just as likely to listen to silence for three hours and not feel like I'm missing anything.

Sometimes when the children are gone, and I have no house guests, and the cats are sleeping, and it's late at night, and the fans and the heater and the A/C are all off, I sit and listen to the silence that rings in my ears, and it is so beautiful and peaceful I could listen to that until the world ends. 

But I felt at Wild Goose, and have felt in other places, that I'm missing a vital connection to other people in my utter lack of music cred. And then again, there are a lot of ways I've been feeling disconnected this last decade, and I'd like to step back into community. But I do love the silence when I can find it.

(Wild Goose west is in Oregon over labor day weekend. You should go if you can.)