Thursday, May 22, 2008

Revelation

Doxy’s Note: Today is my Dear Friend’s birthday. I have given him a new putter that he hopes will improve his already stellar golf game. But I am a wordsmith, and this is the gift of my heart. I post this because I am rarely so happy with something I’ve written as I was with this...and because I feel I owe him a big debt and ought to acknowledge it publicly. You’ll see why if you actually make it all the way to the end of this VERY long entry...

(For those of you who are irony-challenged, my broadsides about men are done tongue-in-cheek. Well...sort of. Dear Friend “gets” me, so that’s all right, then.)

Happy Birthday, DB! May this year bring you all of the joy you give to me and to all those who love you.


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Feminists are often accused of hating men. As a card-carrying feminist, I can tell you—we aren’t fond of “men” as a group, but individual men have their uses, I suppose. It’s nice to have one around when you need something heavy moved, or you need help getting something from that shelf you can’t quite reach.

But, mostly, men just get in the way, create more work, or drain the will to live right out of you. They feign cluelessness when they think it will get them out of doing the laundry or taking care of the baby. They wait and let you make all the plans or make the decision—then quiz you endlessly about why you did it that way instead of reading their minds and doing it the “right” way in the first place. They always want to “fix” things, when you simply want someone to listen. And they tend to see any sign of emotion (other than elation or despair related to the win-loss record of their favorite athletic teams) as either alarming or manipulative.

It’s bad enough in a romantic or family relationship, but in the church, all those faults are magnified by the fact that these men have power over your very soul.

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I haven’t had very good luck with the men in my life—and the church has been no exception in that regard. I grew up in a church where women weren’t even allowed to pray in public, much less take on any leadership roles (at least outside of the kids’ Sunday School program or the kitchen).

And somehow, the gravest sins—the ones that got the most attention—were attributed to women. We were the ones who brought sin into the world. We were the temptresses. And we were weak and liable to err without a strong male presence to keep us in line.

I suspect that’s why God always seemed so incredibly threatening to me. He was the Ultimate Male. Controlling. Punitive. Misogynistic.

He frightened me to death.

One had to ask how Jesus—a peace-loving panty-waist if there ever was one—managed to carve a place for himself in Christianity?

I used to wonder if he was a terrible disappointment to his Heavenly Father. Oh sure, he mentioned Hell a time or two—and there was that unfortunate incident with tables and a whip in the Temple. But mostly he talked about love and sacrifice and submission—distinctly feminine values that didn’t mesh too well with a God who had ordered the Israelites to bash infants’ brains out as an act of war.

And Jesus went even further. He threw more than one bone to the women—arguing with them as if they were equals, and telling poor Martha that housework was not the be-all and end-all of existence. He actually admonished her to get out of the kitchen and learn something that would feed her soul, rather than waste her time trying to fill the stomachs of the 12 gadabouts who had followed him there and descended on her house like locusts.

Most of all, he was actually willing to admit he was wrong about something. When he refused to heal the little daughter of a Canaanite woman because she wasn’t a Jew, she called him on his prejudices—and the Son of God himself changed his mind. Because of a woman!

I can almost see the disciples looking at each other and shaking their heads in disgust...

I began to develop a sneaking suspicion that Jesus was gay—which would have explained a lot of the animosity aimed in his direction...

Yet somehow, in fairly short order, the church managed to turn him into Warrior Jesus. He was only allowed to be Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild at Christmas, when he could be a baby for a few weeks and no one minded too much that he was taking a vacation from separating the sheep from the goats and casting the latter into eternal damnation.

The rest of the time he ended up sitting at the right hand of God—who must have handed Jesus a pile of thunderbolts and warned His troublesome only child to get with the program. I can’t imagine what the consequences for refusal could have been, given that he’d already endured being tortured and nailed to a piece of wood, but he seemed to have decided to make Dad happy and take his place in the Family Business.

Michelangelo captured that Jesus—clearly pumped up on some heavenly steroids—on the wall of the Sistine Chapel.

He frightened me too.

With those images dominating my conception of divinity, it isn’t surprising that, by the time I was in college, I was pretty much done with Jesus, God, and the church.

There was just one problem. They apparently weren’t done with me.

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They were sneaky about it too, because they managed to get to me through the back door.

You see, I didn’t know too much about this thing called the Holy Spirit.

Yes, we talked about Him some—mostly in the context of reading the Book of Acts and making fun of the Pentecostals who seemed to think that the Holy Ghost (a moniker that had not yet become unfashionable) had decided to hang around with them for a while and give them the ability to speak in gibberish that no one—sometimes not even they—understood.

It was never quite clear to me what the purpose of that particular ability might be—unless the Holy Spirit just had a bully’s sense of humor and enjoyed humiliating people.

Of course, that would have seemed completely in character, given that He was tied up in some weird way with God and Jesus in that strange codependent relationship known as the Holy Trinity. God was mean and Jesus had fallen into line—why would you expect anything different from the other member of the family?

But the truth was that we didn’t think too much about the Holy Spirit—we said we believed in Him, but delving too deeply into the theology of the Spirit was outside the job description for Christians in our pews. The main requirement for that position was to believe what you were told and not ask too many inconvenient theological questions that our poorly educated clergy were unqualified to answer.

Their response to anything they couldn’t explain was to frighten you with dire warnings about doubting the “plain message of Scripture.” If it wasn’t “plain” to you, it meant you were trying to play God by interpreting things to suit yourself, and you might as well start shopping for asbestos underwear.

Fear is an excellent conversation-stopper.

So, by and large, the Holy Spirit wasn’t on my radar screen. And I wouldn’t have recognized it anyway, because I was sure it was a HE, since I’d been told all my life that there were no women in the Godhead—it was strictly an Old Boys’ Club.

And that’s how the Three-in-One got to me. Because She swooped in and called to me. And I answered, because the voice was gentle, loving, and hypnotic—and I wasn’t frightened at all.

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I don’t mean to suggest that I made it easy for Her. I didn’t. She had to wait until I was pregnant with my first child—and addled with enough hormones to allow myself to become that cliché of the Baby Boomer going back to religion “for the children”—before She was able to get Her hooks firmly into me and get me back into church.

A very progressive, inclusive, and welcoming church—but church nevertheless.

I would sneak in, sit in the very back row, and wonder how the hell I had been seduced into being there.

And even as I came somewhat sheepishly back into the fold, I drew a line in the sand. NO male ministers. Nonnegotiable. If I couldn’t take communion from a female priest every Sunday, I didn’t want any part of it.

And that’s where She laughed, and started planning my next lesson in faith.

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I had checked out the parish online before we moved to the new city. The rector looked good on paper—she was a leading light in the anti-death penalty movement, and the church had a commitment to ministry to the deaf. It looked like a good place for me to be.

But the first Sunday I walked in the place, who should get up to give the sermon but this tall, very attractive...man. Turned out the rector was on a trip to do HIV/AIDS work in Africa for the month, and the new deacon was running the place while she was away.

“Damn!” I thought to myself, “just my luck.”

But the moment he opened his mouth, I was forced to admit—grudgingly—that he was an excellent preacher. And then he talked about how he had been a Southern Baptist minister for 25 years before deciding to swim the Thames and become an Episcopal priest. He wasn’t even ordained yet—three decades of experience in the ministry and he was having to go through the same bureaucratic rigmarole that a wet-behind-the-ears novice had to endure.

I had to admire that. It bespoke a level of humility and commitment I wasn’t used to seeing in a male religious leader. He turned out to be a liberal too. And he quoted Emily Dickinson in his sermons! My interest was piqued, in spite of myself.

And my line in the sand began to erode.

Just when I had gotten used to experiencing the Holy Spirit as female, She decided to incarnate in this man with the piercing grey eyes. I was there the day he was ordained. And I took communion from his hands the first time he ever celebrated the Eucharist.

I was surprised to find that I felt every bit as blessed as I did when I received from a woman. Still got the same shivers down my spine. Still felt moved to tears by the mystery and the grace.

Over the years, he and I became friends. He started to tease me about becoming a priest myself, somehow talked me into teaching several Adult Education classes, and pushed me to consider what my call to serve really was. He was relentless—but in a cheerful way that made me feel valued and supported, rather than bullied.

And while he did all those things, he began to shatter everything I thought I knew about men in the church.

He prefaced everything he said with “This is what *I* think...” which was always followed by “But what do you think?”

He embraced feminism—he even called me on my frequent use of masculine pronouns for God! The irony of that was not lost on me...

He welcomed all—regardless of race, status, or orientation—in the name of Christ, radiated a passion for God and a joy in his faith that I had never witnessed before, and, miracle of miracles, was able to laugh at himself.

The line got fainter and fainter.

And then, on a Maundy Thursday, he did what no man who was charged with caring for my soul had ever done before—he knelt down in front of me and, with gentle hands, he humbly and tenderly washed my feet. In that moment, I felt the rush of the Holy Spirit flowing through his hands—Her energy, his touch—and I went back to my seat and wept for wonder at it.

He was a revelation, an epiphany, and a blessing all rolled up into one 6 ft. tall package.

The final wave of understanding hit the beach of my resistance—and the line in the sand disappeared completely.

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So now I write an open letter to my Dear Friend, and make my confession.

I was wrong.

Just as Jesus allowed himself to be jolted out of his prejudices by a person who confounded them, I have had to give up mine because of you. I am grateful that you have schooled me so gently and kindly.

You make me believe that Jesus may not have gone into the thunderbolt business after all. And that maybe God is more interested in creating poetry, music, art, and the stars in the heavens than He is in punishing and destroying the fragile creatures into whom He breathed the breath of life.

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I hear the Holy Spirit laughing again. It is a joyful laugh—gentle, loving, and hypnotic. She is not finished with me yet—there are lessons to be learned, paths to walk, and a call to live in to. But She has given me a friend—a man—with whom to learn and walk and laugh and love...

And I am not frightened at all.






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Because both Dear Friend and I are poetry freaks, I feel compelled to offer this wonderful poem to him and to the rest of you. Enjoy!

Revelation Must Be Terrible

Revelation must be
terrible with no time left
to say goodbye.

Imagine the moment
staring at the still waters
with only the brief tremor

of your body to say
you are leaving everything
and everyone you know behind.

Being far from home is hard, but you know,
at least, we are exiled together.
When you open your eyes to the world

you are on your own
for the first time. No one
is even interested in saving you now

and the world steps in
to test the calm fluidity of your body
from moment to moment

as if it believed you could join
its vibrant dance
of fire and calmness and final stillness.

As if you were meant to be exactly
where you are, as if
like the dark branch of a desert river

you could flow on without a speck
of guilt and everything
everywhere would still be just as it should be.

As if your place in the world mattered
and the world could
neither speak nor hear the fullness of

its own bitter and beautiful cry
without the deep well of your body resonating in the echo.

Knowing that it takes only
that one, terrible
word to make the circle complete,

revelation must be terrible
knowing you can
never hide your voice again.

---David Whyte