Monday, March 27, 2017

Holy Space

Where is that space in you?

Some call it the God-shaped hole or a God-shaped space. I simply know it to be the space. The space sitting in the deep part of our souls. The space that cannot be filled by outside things or relationships, although we try.

We desperately try. 

We think if we have the right partner/spouse, the job advancement, or live in the perfect neighborhood, the space will be filled. We hope if we keep ourselves busy with tasks, with buying more stuff, or with intellectual arguments, the space will disappear. We ignore it with a passion, and when it cannot be ignored anymore, we seek to numb it with our various addictions - alcohol and drugs are popular, but so are addictions to perfection and to accomplishments.

The space, as best I can understand, is that part of our souls where grief, loss, and fear reside. They are the fertile soil for compassion, mercy, and holy love, although we are convinced the space is nothing but deep emptiness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth and nothing else.

It the space where Job fell prostrate in ashes and sackcloth. The space welcomed Jeremiah in lament and silenced creation to listen to the tears Rachel. It is the valley of the shadow of death. Its boundaries enclosed Mary as she held the body of her son. The space held the dead Jesus until God resurrected him to New Life.

That space.

The space is the holiest of holies within our soul. We don’t casually stroll up to it, high-five it, and carry on. When we approach it, when we enter it, we do so with crushing humility. My experience is we almost never enter this space willingly. We avoid it and ignore it. We seek to fill it with all sorts of things in our lives. We blame others for its existence, and lash out in anger because they didn’t fix it. We harbor anger and refuse to forgive, because contrition, transformative forgiveness, and reconciliation will almost always involve us spending time in this space. 

We feel ashamed because this Holy Space, this Emmanuel God with Us space lives within us. Surely, we think, if we had right belief and right faith, this space would be filled with light and happiness.

Through the ages, Job, Jeremiah, Rachel, Mary, saints and angels remind us, “No.”  They share with us that space is holy space. It is the beginning of creation within our selves and souls and the ending verdict of love in the great judgment. 

As a priest, I’ve become less surprised by this space, my holy space. Don’t get me wrong, I, too, find myself alarmed when it takes up more of my soul than expected, when the grief and heartache that is life in ministry edges outward and re-exposes trauma and loss I was quite certain I’d processed. 

God reminds me love never ends, and our learning about love is never finished. So we sit in this space. 

Or God sits. I usually lie face down, quite certain I'll never arise. 

But I do, after weeping and gnashing of teeth (usually mine) and much profanity, I am transformed, surprised by the newness of love in Christ I've discovered. I have come to realize it is one of the few things that belongs wholly to me and God. That space does not get shared with others because others cannot fill it. This space is not the responsibility of others, because others did not create it. And others are not invited into this space. This space is the Holy of Holies where God and I meet in a profoundly transformative way, when I have the courage to enter this space…or I’ve wandered far enough to circle back to this space or fallen into it because I'm too tired to wander anymore. 

In this space I’ve covered myself in ashes and sackcloth. I’ve lamented with Rachel and held the brokenness of life. I’ve died and been resurrected. In this space, with God, I’ve experienced the transforming love of God.

Others can walk with us to the edge of the space, reminding us it exists, helping us put our hands and heart forward to feel its edges, but only God walks with us across the boundary. 

What if we have the desperate courage to enter this space where many, if not all, of the emotions and experiences of our lives and souls we want to orphan, ignore, and deny reside? 

What if we stop making others responsible for fixing this space in us?

What if, as we journey through the final weeks of Lent and enter the space of Holy Week, we acknowledged this space within us? What if we allow God to take our hand and guide us into this space or (more likely) push us into this space?

What if we wait in the silence of this space as God engages in resurrection?

Monday, March 20, 2017

Self-examination in Lent

Clergy are constantly covered in glue.

Maybe that should be part of our ordination vows.

“Will you be covered in glue or another sticky substance so to allow those with whom your encounter to affix their projections onto you?”

Humans project emotional sludge onto each other. It’s a part of our spiritual make-up. Clergy, however, experience projections at a higher rate than others, I think. Probably at the same level as therapists, but without the 50-minute hour sessions boundary therapists have.

Psychological projection is basically a way we humans cope with qualities and emotions in ourselves we can’t or don’t want to deal with by attributing them to others. Essentially we off-load the emotional baggage we don’t want to acknowledge onto others, which often gives us permission to behave in ways that are unhelpful. Projection allows us to make everyone else responsible for our misery, gives us a way to continue self-shame by shaming others, and gives legitimacy for our behavior.

All humans do this, so psychological projection isn’t a matter of character strength or weakness. It’s a way our souls have developed to cope with emotions with which we might not be ready to address.

Add God into the mix, and a relationship that is often an hour on Sunday, and you begin to understand why clergy are perfect targets for projection. A few of the projections that stick onto clergy: if my pastor loves me, then God loves me or if I do things for my pastor, I’m really doing things for God (and God will love me). We take the place of adult children with whom parents have broken relationships, spouses and partners who aren’t “perfect,” and any number of human relationships. Too often, because clergy get all this positive gunk projected onto us, we are not fully engaged with our negative selves and souls…but that’s another post.

Reading the Gospels with an eye to projection and we see it’s everywhere. Jesus is constantly a target of projection. The Pharisees project their own insecurity about faith onto the tax collectors and sinners. The tax collectors and sinners project their stuff onto each other. Projection allows us to read all the women of the Bible as sexually suspect, when textually that’s not supported (and says a great deal about how the church has projected its fear of human sexuality onto women). Projection allows us to see Jesus as a super-nice guy who never offended anyone (he wasn't) and the Pharisees and Sadducees as the evil villains (they weren't). Projection often does that - paint people in broad strokes of the most awesome person ever or s/he who must not be named. Spiritual projection rarely allows for nuanced awareness. 

Jesus, however, doesn’t let people’s projections stick to him. He remembers the key rule about projection - it’s not about you. He sometimes gently, sometimes with a holy toughness, holds up that proverbial mirror to those he encounters and to us to invite us to see the aspects of ourselves for which we’d rather not take responsibility. He tells them parables. He confronts them, and at the end of it all, reminds us that we and all our off-loaded baggage are loved by God.

Lent is a time of self-examination, a time to gather the baggage we’ve off-loaded onto others and unpack it for ourselves. Some questions to explore with God’s help to reclaim our orphaned emotions and parts of ourselves include:

  • What might we be seeing in others that we don’t see in ourselves? Is there a person/group of people that are the subjects of sentences like, “She hates me,” or similar? What might happen if we acknowledged our dislike of another person? What qualities does that person seem to embody that challenge us the most?
  • Are you blaming others of behaviors for which there might not evidence? Projection is the vehicle by which someone who repeatedly lies can accuse another of lying with little clear evidence to support the claim. What of your behaviors are you seeking "evidence" to legitimize?
  • Which of your sentences start with You? A spiritual director once suggested that when I start emotionally charged sentences with you, it was a good indicator I was projecting. Reflect on the times we've all said, "You always (fill in the blank with a certain behavior)!" Then what happens if we take some time and reflect on how we engage in that certain behavior. 
  • What qualities do we readily see in others that we need to see in ourselves? Projection plays out broadly in negative qualities about others we don’t want to accept in ourselves - think about the number of male elected officials who espoused anti-gay policies who themselves were gay, but it can also be a reveal to the positive qualities we are unwilling to acknowledge in ourselves. For example, we can see a person and marvel at his spiritual qualities while ignoring those same qualities in ourselves. What are these qualities? What might happen if we realized God loves us fully with these qualities? 
  • What emotions are we fearful of confronting? Fear of feeling the weight of grief is the main projection I experience in others and in myself. Sadness and loss are the great wisdom-keepers of emotion, but claiming them in our lives is formidable. So projection is an easy out. Sadness and grief often allow us to act in ways that distance ourselves from people, then blame them for abandoning us. Projection is masterful at creating self-fulfilling prophecies to continue abandonment, loss, and grief.

Projections are all too often a way we form walls between others that allow us to continue to not love ourselves or our neighbors. Working with a spiritual director, therapist, or in a small group setting are excellent ways to become aware of our projections, and make no mistake, its hard work. God trusts us with hard work. 

Lent is a time to, with God’s help, to engage in the hard work of disintegrate these walls. Forty days of prayer and fasting, of self-examination and of study. Forty days to know ourselves and God better.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Dating a Priest...revised

I have the nifty ability to see which posts are getting high traffic on the blog statistics site. Most of the  posts with high traffic don't surprise me, but I am a bit surprised on the constant traffic that the post about dating a priest who is a woman gets. I'm impressed there are that many men and women who apparently are interested in asking out a woman of the cloth. 

I also wonder if there are people who have a fair amount of time on their hands and will read anything to make the time pass.

One reader asked me if I'd change some things since I wrote the essay in 2009. Yes and no, which is not surprising. So here they are, my revised guidelines if you're interested in asking a priest who is a woman on a date.

1. Talk with us like we were a normal date. Obviously we are clergy, and we are all too aware of the awkwardness being a clergy person and a woman can bring into the room. Talk with us like you'd talk with any date. We all have favorite foods, music we like (and not exclusively hymnody; I'm a big fan of Kendrick Lamar, for example), and guilty pleasure television viewing (I can't tell you how many clergy women watch The Bachelor and live tweet about it). Your conversation can mention church, but we're also fine if you avoid detailed and ongoing references to Jesus, God, the Holy Spirit, your current view on church issues, which liturgy you prefer, or other theological and/or spiritual talking points. Really. We don't want to spend the evening doing what we do every day and twice on Sundays. 

2. Get over the collar. For those of us in certain traditions, we wear clergy collars. It's essentially a uniform. Nothing more, nothing less. The clergy collar does not make us priests - the Holy Spirit, our ordinations, and our vows do. If you ask a priest who's a woman for coffee during our work week, there's a likelihood she'll be wearing a collar. And people may stare. YOU may stare. We're used to the staring, sort of. But remember, it's essentially a uniform. Be more attentive to the person instead of the clothing and you'll be fine. 

3. Don't talk about the Bible to impress us. Or your thoughts on the filioque in the Nicene Creed or the debate over infant vs adult baptism. Tell us about yourself. We can have these theological debates with any number of people, including congregants. We can't go on dates with them. 

4. We are clergy, not free therapists. I've had a few experiences with men who got our coffee date confused with a therapy session. If you want to talk about pastoral issues, make an appointment and meet me at the church. If you want to engage my company as a woman, ask me to coffee. The two do not blend. 

5. "So what's it like being a woman priest?" is not an original question. You can ask, "What does your job entail" or any other question you'd ask of a male priest.

6. Our schedules are a bit unpredictable. Don't ask us out for a late Saturday night date. Unlike a large percentage of the population, we work on Sundays. We have holy days like Christmas and Easter that demand our time and attention, and we are often not as available for holiday parties and events. And we do have pastoral emergencies from time to time, so if you're on a date with a clergy woman and she takes a call and has to leave, there's a high chance it's not a "hey I'm calling if you need to ditch the date" call and a legit pastoral emergency. 

7. Don't ask us out because YOU are interested in being a priest or because you have issues with the Church and you want to yell at us. Dating a priest and being a priest are not the same thing.  And again, arguing with us is not the same as arguing with God. Take that up with Her. 

8. Yes, clergy women kiss. 

9. If you ask a priest out for lunch and/or dinner, we don't all pray before a meal. Some do. Others don't. You'll just have to figure this one out, awkward as it may be. 

10. Most clergy women I know date women and men outside their faith tradition and even those without a faith tradition. We recognize that God is bigger than anyone can imagine. And love has its reason of which reason knows nothing. Will it be a point of conversation and discussion if the relationship progresses? Probably, but don't get that proverbial cart before the horse just yet. 

11. If you're a member of her congregation, that may be an issue. I do not date members of my congregation. Period. It's a boundary I don't cross. Not all clergy have that same boundary, and it can vary with clergy in charge and those who are assistants. We are priests, pastors, and clergy to our congregations first and foremost. That is the relationship, and any other relationship that could damage that covenantal one must be considered very carefully. If you ask a clergy woman out and you've been attending her congregation, she may explain she can't date members of her congregation. Believe her. It's a very real thing. 

12. If you're not a member of her congregation, don't be surprised if she doesn't want you to attend right away. Here's another point that can result in wounded feelings. Our congregations are precious, holy communities, and we realize the moment we introduce a significant person in our lives to them, many people get excited and attached. Almost every clergy woman I know has waited a significant amount of time before inviting the woman or man she's dating to attend and meet people.  This doesn't mean we don't want people to know you or meet you; it means we recognize the ever-present and often challenging boundary that exists between the personal and public life of clergy.

13. We have the right to say no. I'm working on an upcoming post about the subtle presence of rape culture in the church and how some male parishioners and clergy don't allow women, clergy and laity, the right to say no to personal boundary violations. If you ask her out, she has the right to say no and you have the responsibility to hear her. No is a complete sentence. She doesn't have to give you a reason, although she may. That's her right, too. We don't have to go out on a date with a man or woman who doesn't interest us simply because we are clergy. That's neither honest nor kind nor in our ordination vows. Sisters of the cloth, a reminder: You have the right to say no. Always. 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Experience Lent

Writing a book reminds me of how taxing writing actually is. Imagine intense therapy sessions every day...with the end being everyone gets to read what you're writing. So now, after a time away from writing, Lent seems a good begin-again point, with some suggestions about disciplines for Lent.

I think Lenten disciplines are important. They remind us we are in a particular season that asks something different of us. Lent is a season of shifts, of digging deeper, and of change. We become witnesses to Christ. Witnesses first see and encounter something. Lent invites us to encounter God in our deepest selves, especially those parts of our selves and souls we'd rather not admit were there...say, the parts of us that act a certain way to get accolades and attention, for example, that Jesus speaks to in Matthew. Witnesses allow what they've seen to impact them, change them, and move them. Then, after that has happened, and only then, do we proclaim.

Lent is a time for inner work, for preparing ourselves to proclaim the victory of love and the power of Resurrection at Easter. Yet we can't fully proclaim either of those until we ourselves have allowed God to transform our interior lives. We must do the work of becoming witnesses.

This list of Lenten disciplines centers around interior transformation. Pick one or a few. Share in the comments through Lent how they are shifting you. Allow yourself to be a witness to love of neighbor.

1. Experience voices unlike yours.  Too often, we are part of the choir to which people with whom we agree are preaching. What might happen to our interior assumptions and expectations if we listened to voices NOT like ours? If we're white, spend the Lenten season reading books by people of color or watching movies that focus on their experience. I commend Thirteenth and I Am Not Your Negro for starters. If you're straight, read and watch art and narratives by LGBTQ people. If you're male, read works by women and listen to their experiences. Allow yourself to be bothered, to be challenged. Explore your own prejudices. What assumptions did you have before you listened, and how have they changed?

2. Experience the reality of those who live in poverty. Far too many of our sisters and brothers in this country and world live in poverty, unable to afford healthy food, safe housing, or basic healthcare. Live on a food budget spending only what a person or family receives in food assistance. For maximum allotments, you can click here.  Use public transportation in your city or town for Lent or certain day/s and witness the challenge many in our communities experience because of a lack adequate public transportation. For forty days, live on minimum wage. At the end of your experience, share - witness - what you've learned. Meet with city officials about public transportation issues. Use the money you didn't spend on food to support local food banks and lobby for the continuation of adequate food assistance from our government. I also realize for some reading this blog, these experiences are daily life. Please share your story and challenge your faith communities to act for the benefit of the poor.

3.  Experience healing. We humans seem far too focused on reconciliation, which is, in some ways, one of the final aspects of the forgiveness process. To get there, we must admit we have wronged someone or been wronged, and the wrong has wounded and hurt. Where is your hurt, your wound? My experience is we focus on the person who did the wrong or inflicted the pain rather than the hurt, and we cannot change another. Focusing on the other rather than the wound leaves us stuck. I have a forthcoming post about this in more detail, but asking questions like what expectations did I have from this relationship, were these expectations reasonable to both me and the other person, and when my expectations weren't met, how did I respond are ways to shift us from the person to the hurt. When we can name the hurt, we we can offer our wounds to God, then we can begin to experience reconciliation with the person who touched or further opened our wound.

4. Experience another faith tradition.  The religious literacy of most people in this country is limited. Lent is a wonderful time to experience and learn about other faith traditions. Visit a synagogue or mosque. Attend another Christian denomination. Read the holy writings of other faith traditions. For a great primer on this, explore Stephen Prothero's Religious Literacy. Further, offer yourself to experience other faith traditions not to feel superior about our own traditions, but to see the truth in their expression of God.

5. Experience silence.  Most of us live in a noisy world. The television is always on. We can always check social media. The latest podcast accompanies our exercise. What happens if we disconnect and turn off, if we have substantial moments of time in our day when there is only the background noise of the wind or the neighbor's children playing. What if we're really daring and we spent an entire day, where we aren't infiltrated by outside noises? Eradicate the noise pollution in your day. Ride in the car without the radio on. Make friends with silence. If you'd like to spend that time in prayer...great! If you'd rather walk around your neighborhood, clean the house, or read a book, that works, as well. Give your ears time to listen to your own self and soul.

6.  Experience yourself. The introvert readers of this post will be very excited about this one, but what would a regular time alone be like as a Lenten discipline? Take yourself to lunch by yourself once a week. Go to the movies alone during Lent. Explore a museum alone. Let God be with you. Explore your feelings of being alone. Often, we fear being alone because in being alone, we create space for the feelings with which we're uncomfortable to surface. What feelings might we be trying to avoid by populating our time with others? Take a journal during your alone time and write or draw your thoughts and feelings.

7.  Experience generosity. How many of us have stuff we could share, including our own talents? Use Lent to part with clothing in good condition, especially coats, that you really are never going to wear again. Donate books to your local library book sale. Pare down your kitchen and donate items to organizations that resettles refugees. Keep bags of non-perishable food in your car to give to homeless people you encounter (socks are also a good addition). Donate supplies to local schools. Be excessively generous with a monetary donation to a local food bank, homeless shelter, refugee and immigrant agency, or any number of organizations helping those in need. Volunteer your own time and talents to one of those agencies for an hour or so a week. Walk through your neighborhood and pick up trash. Be generous with your time and yourself during Lent.