the things she carried — a streamer

In the Easter Sunday procession I carried a streamer. The worship space at Ascension is prefect for a streamer: high roof, beautiful warm wood ceiling, lots of light, a long center aisle and plenty of room in front of the altar. original

The streamer is an expression of the Spirit’s presence and joy — not my joy but the church’s joy. I carry it for the community, the whole community. Joy is an existential reality in the Christian life. It is a gift of the Spirit. Sometimes joy bubbles up and becomes a present experience. Sometimes it is quiet, hidden beneath the sadness that life can bring.

With a streamer in hand it is my task to express that joy, regardless of whether or not I feel it, regardless of if anyone else feels it. The day of resurrection call forth the joy that is present in the Christian reality.

Still I sometimes wonder about what I’m doing on Easter Day. My own fears and questions are present: Will my playfulness be misread as shallowness? Will my delight be seen as naivety? Will my sense of fun cause folk not to take me seriously as a priest? Will people be offended because I’m too demonstrative? Will my intellect be dismissed because I give expression to my emotions? Will my maturity be questioned because my work with the streamer is seen as childlike play?

And yet, I hear the music and I hear the people of God sing, “Alleluia!” My heart fills with delight and I want to lift God’s people higher and bring them closer to the One who shares our humanity and knows what it’s like to laugh and dance and sing. Could the risen Christ not have a crazy grin on his face this day? He has just had the last laugh on death. Can anything hold back holy mirth? Not on this day.

And so I carry a streamer. As David danced with all his might before the Lord, so I wave this streamer with all I have. I spend my strength so that God’s people might smile.

the things she carried — the paschal candle

20160327_071536The new fire roared to life as we stood in the columbarium courtyard. A palm cross was perched on the wood. The prayers of Good Friday burned in that fire also, going up to heaven as the smoke rose skyward. As the fire crackled and grew, we stood in that quiet, expectant way that humans have stood around fire since the day when we mastered it.

From that fire a young girl lit the Paschal Candle. I lifted it high and intoned the words the church has given me: “The light of Christ.” Three times the assembly answers, using the same words it spoke the night before As the cross was carried in: “Thanks be to God.”

In the gathering darkness I carry the candle into the church where it’s light spreads from person to person as each one takes and shares the light. The Paschal Candle leads the community throughout the great Vigil of Easter. It leads us into the building to tell and hear the stories of God’s redemptive hand in human history. It leads us to the font where we renew the vows of our baptism. It leads us into the nave to sing alleluia and to celebrate the first Eucharist of Easter.

This flame at the top of this candle burns true and bright. From time to time that flame produces a little wax that flows down and runs across my hands. It’s hot and shocks me into the awareness of my own body. Again I’m reminded that there is not only a pleasure but a price for holding holy things. The things I carry effect me. I wonder sometimes. Am I carrying the symbols or are they carrying me?

After the holding the Paschal Candle for a while I become aware of its weight. It is heavy. This sign has heft and presence. It is an apt sign for what it symbolizes, the light of Christ that shine through death, a beacon of hope and a reminder of resurrection.

As we move through this liturgy, I can’t help but think of God leading the Israelites with the cloud and the pillar of fire. Indeed the story of that very deliverance is mandated as one to be read that night. Thus to this day God leads God’s people. And we follow the light of Christ into resurrection.

the things she carried — a wooden cross

20160327_073220In the Good Friday liturgy I carried a large wooden cross into the nave. I did not carry it alone because it is not mine. I did not speak my own words because the church has prescribed what i must say.

The cross I carried is rough. A reminder that the way of the cross is not a smooth road. The cross I carried is hard. A reminder that the way of the cross is not easy.

The words that the church has put in my mouth are the ones I call out: “Behold! The wood of the cross.” The community must look to it, look at it. The cross is not pretty. The wood of the cross reminds us of the cost of love. The wood of the cross Is the stark reminder that death is real and that Christ willingly went into it.

As the community beholds the wood of the cross, it sees what God’s love in which God takes on our human falleness. The crucifixion is ugly. It is not a feel good story. And yet as the community looks at it, the community responds, “Thanks be to God.” For the cross marks the turning point. The intersection where Life and death meet. For death cannot be swallowed up in victory without some tasting its poison.

“Thanks be to God,” is the community’s thrice spoken response to the call to behold the cross. It is the also the community’s commitment to carry the cross. We carry the cross in identification with with human suffering and death and as the sign of God’s victory through the risen Christ.

I carried a wooden cross into the nave. However all followers of Christ carry his cross out into the world.

the thing she carried — wet towels

As part of the Maundy Thursday liturgy, the worshipers are invited to wash each other’s feet. This unique liturgical action recalls an act of Jesus at the last Seder he celebrated with his followers.

He was in the role of pater familias and was leading the Passover Haggadah, when he did something surprising. He got up from the table, tied a towel around his waist, poured water into a basin and proceeded to wash the feet of his disciples. This action was one that was done traditionally by the lowest servant in a household as a sign of hospitality. In doing this Jesus left an example of how his followers should treat each other. Humble service is the way to go. The openness to mutual serving is a hallmark of Christian love. Thus Christians wash each other’s feet on that night.

We did so at Ascension and I participated with those who came forward. Afterwards we cleared the front of the altar for the next part of the liturgy. I gathered up a armful of wet towels and carried them off.

towelThere is nothing so ordinary as wet towels. They are not held high like a Gospel book in a procession. They have not been prayed over as are the ordinary elements of the church’s great sacraments — bread, wine, water. They are plain and yet they are needed for foot washing to happen.

God is present in the ordinary, in the things that are overlooked and seem unspecial. Jesus himself said that the routine task of giving a cup of water would not be forgotten by God. And in the parable of the sheep and goats Jesus portrays the righteous as being unaware of the good they have done because they seemed so routine, so matter of fact, so ordinary. But it is in the ordinary that love is revealed and seen and shared. It is in the ordinary where the Gospel of Christ has its feet on the ground.

I sometimes think that I have learned this lesson and then I see how easily I yearn for the flashy, the exciting, and the extraordinary in my life. I reach for the act that stands out. Perhaps I can yet learn this lesson in my current life situation. I have an ordinary job now and I do ordinary things all day long. My flashy spiritual gift is not on display. My greatest skills are not out there to be seen. I am basically unnoticed in my work. I do ordinary things. I carry wet towels and try to learn the way of Jesus.

gettin’ real about work

keep-calm-it-s-just-a-job-4Last Tuesday when I was near the end of my ER experience, the registration clerk came into my exam room to complete the registration process. She asked me if I was employed and I said yes. Then she said, “What do you do?”

I usually have no trouble answering that question but this time the question stopped me in my tracks. I found myself asking myself, “Just what is it that I DO? What is it that I think I do? How do I talk about what I do?”

Let’s look at where my time is spent. 40 plus hours out of each week is spent working for Providence Health and Services. When I tell people who know I’m ordained that I work for Providence they almost always say, “Oh, are you a chaplain?”

I have to answer no. I’m not a chaplain. I don’t work in the Spiritual Care department of a medical center. I don’t work in Providence’s ecumenical liaison office. My full time work calls on none of my theological training, has nothing to do with my theological education and is totally unrelated to my vocational activity.

I am a print specialist (funny, I never feel special). What does that mean? It means that I spend 8.5 hours a day in a print center where I run, maintain and from time to time repair large machines that print all kinds of stuff. I lift and carry boxes from between 10 to 50 pounds every day. I often find myself kneeling, stooping or flat on the floor. I reach into and pull on huge metal objects. My hands are constantly getting cut and torn and bruised. I come home with all kinds of colors all over my clothes and skin. I have muscle aches and pulls and strains all over my body. Rare is the day when I finish my work and am not in pain in some part of my body. I go through band-aids and ibuprofen like nobody’s business. I come to the end of each day feeling worn out.

Ask me if I love my job and I will say no. I don’t get up each day eager to go to this job. I don’t find the work personally fulfilling. I certainly don’t look upon it as my life’s work or my niche in the universe. It hardly feels like the place where my greatest gifts meet the world deepest needs.

At the same time I don’t hate my job either. I recognize it for what it is: a way to make a living. I don’t poo-poo that at all. I am thankful to God for the income and the benefits. I feel that the income is fair compensation for my daily work. I’m painfully aware that many people whose work is much more physically demanding than mine are not compensated fairly. That is unjust.

Also my daily work provides me with something very important. It provides me with a context for living my faith on a daily basis. Without that all of my wonderful theological reflections, religious training, clerical insights and spiritual flights of fancy mean nothing. This job has become the place where the rubber meets the road. It is a place where prayer and action meet. Here my individual life as a follower of Jesus is tested.

In the end my work is what it is. How did I answer the woman when she asked, “What do you do?”

I smiled and said, “I work. I just work.”

the things she carried: the book of the gospels

lecternThis Holy Week I’m paying attention to the things I carry liturgically. The things I carry in liturgy are things I carry for others. I don’t carry any of these items for myself. None of the things I carry belong to me. I carry them for the community. They have their meaning in community. They speak to the community about our common experience with God.

On Palm Sunday I carried the book of the Gospels. It has been a long time since I carried this book in procession. This was the first time I carried it at Ascension. And it happened almost by accident.

I had read the Palm Sunday Gospel while outside. The closing words of the Gospel almost brought me to tears: “If these were silent the stones themselves would cry out.” Why was it so emotional? Because the community was standing in the courtyard of the columbarium at the time. I became very aware of the presence of the saints who’ve gone before us.

I wanted to offer a midrash on those words of Jesus. I wanted to say, “Sister and brothers, if we somehow should fail to praise God for ‘those mighty acts, whereby God have given us life and immortality’ then the stones of this holy ground and those whose remains rest in these very stone would cry out. Let us thank God for this day in which we stand with them and shout, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord.'”

I should also add that there is a personal reason why those closing words of Jesus just about caused me to cry. The community was standing in the columbarium courtyard. I was aware of the saints who have gone before. The words of Jesus sharpened that awareness. And then there was the personal moment.

The last time my mother was in church before she died was on Palm Sunday. This story was one of the last readings of the Scriptures that she would have heard. In this book of the Gospels is the very last reading of Scripture she would have heard in church: The Passion of our Lord.

So it was that I found myself holding the book of the Gospels as the Palm Sunday procession formed and moved into the nave. I carried to book high for all to see. These stories and saying of Jesus have come down to us over the centuries. They have nurtured the faith and changed the lives of millions. And now these stories and sayings are in our hands. On Palm Sunday I carried them. However the real question is not just how shall I carry them, but how shall WE carry them? For the book of the Gospels is part of the things we carry.

a trans woman in medical-land

woman-experiencing-chest-painI stepped into the ER of my local hospital with the usual fear and trembling that any mortal would have when they are having chest pain. But of course my fear and trembling includes all the stuff that a trans woman has when encountering the wonderful world of medicine.

At some point I was asked about my “medical history.” I’m 57 years old so I have a lot of medical history. Suddenly I was at one of those decision moments. Is this the time when I reveal my trans status or not? Knowing a bit about cardiac care and why I was there, I made a choice.

I decided not to reveal my status at a trans woman. I knew what the course of diagnosis and treatment would be. I knew that unless I showed actual signs of a cardiac episode that there would be no reason for the staff to know that I was a pre-op transsexual. I only knew this because I have worked in a cardiac clinic and I knew what the medical folk would do, and the tests they would take. I knew that there was no reason for them to see me below the waist. I only knew this because of my job experience working in cardiac care.

So when the intake person asked me about medical history I gave her what was reverent to cardiac history. I told her I didn’t have high blood pressure. I had no history of cardiac issues. I answered the questions she asked about smoking and drugs and alcohol. I was honest and up front about family history. I was forthcoming about the medicines I was taking but I didn’t explain why I’m taking any of them. I didn’t have to say more because I knew that they had nothing to do with cardiac issues. I knew what they needed because I know cardiology and because I’m an old woman who has a few years of experience under her belt.

Still even I had to walk carefully. I wonder how some of my younger and less experienced peers in the trans community might have fared. Would they have known what to do, what to reveal and what to keep to themselves? The staff was stressed. I knew it. I saw it. I understood how to react. In that moment I drew on my experience and it was my salvation. It was the difference between me having an ordinary encounter with the medical world and me having a bad experience with the medical world.

Let me say clearly that the medical world should treat all people with dignity and respect, no matter who they are. However I know the truth about the medical industry. They are human like the rest of us. They have their biases and their prejudices, like the rest of us. I know that and so I acted accordingly.

My hope is that the day will come when a trans woman who doesn’t have my knowledge and experience will be treated the same way that I was treated, regardless of how she presents or what she knows about the medical field.